Roundup: Historian's Take
This is where we place excerpts by historians writing about the news. On occasion this page also includes political scientists, economists, and law professors who write about history. We may from time to time even include English profs.
SOURCE: TPM Cafe (8-29-08)
Many people are unfamiliar with Feminists for Life and wonder what the choice of Sarah Palin, who is against abortion rights, signals to the electorate.
Well, let me tell you something about Feminists for Life. In 2003, I decided to investigate this group and its energetic leader, Serrin Foster.
What did it mean, I wondered, to be a feminist and actively fight against the right to choose when or whether to have a child?
So I went to a church in sprawling, suburban, wealthy Danville, California to hear Serrin Foster, president of Feminists for Life, speak on "The Feminist Case Against Abortion"
to a huge crowd of mainly high-school students.
Founded in 1972, one year before the U.S. Supreme Court handed down the historic Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal in the United States, Feminists for Life now focuses exclusively on practical alternatives to abortion for college-age women.
No woman, argues Foster, should ever have to choose between having a child and a career. "Abortion is a reflection that society has failed women," she tells high school and college students as she tours the country.
"Women deserve better choices," she says and points to practical alternatives and resources available to a young woman who has an unwanted pregnancy. She can choose single parenthood and use food stamps or temporary assistance to needy families. She can choose adoption. Or, college-age women can pressure school campuses to offer child care and family housing so that they never, ever, have to choose between a pregnancy and an education.
Feminism is all about having choices, Foster told me, after her talk. I couldn't agree more. Young women, she says, should have the right to bear a child and have access to high-quality, affordable child care. Again, I heartily agreed.
But Foster is cleverly disingenuous. When I asked what she does to promote child care, her answers were vague and evasive. When I read the organization's brochures aimed at campus physicians and psychologists, I found nothing about campaigning for child care. The real goal is to convince professionals to persuade young women to "choose" to bear a baby.
Despite its protestations, Feminists for Life is not really about choice. You can see this on its Web site, where the slogan "refuse to choose" appeared repeatedly. Nor does the organization challenge the real difficulties working mothers face. Instead, it cleverly appropriates the words "feminist" and "choice" to convince young women that abortion is always an unacceptable choice.
Part of the problem is that Foster either does not know her history or purposefully distorts the past. She spoke that night as though she had invented the idea of child care and described pioneer feminists of the 1960s and 1970s as selfish, diabolical creatures who never wanted women to have the choice to bear a child.
But she's wrong. The three demands made at the first national march in New York City in 1970 included child care, equal pay for equal work and the legal right to "choose" an abortion. Many feminists, moreover, spent years trying to persuade the institutions where they worked that real equality for women required family-friendly policies, including child care.
Foster also accused Planned Parenthood and NARAL Pro-Choice America of supporting abortion in order to stay in business. But I had to wonder about her own financial goals when I saw, in the organization's magazine, that I could buy a "stunning new logo pin" in either sterling silver or 24-carat gold for $75.
In the end, I decided that Feminists for Life is neither about feminism nor about choice. It is a cunning attempt to convince young women that choice means giving up the right to "choose."
Sarah Pahlin is the inexperienced woman Sen. John McCain has chosen as his running mate, hoping that she will attract the vital female vote.. It's the worst kind of affirmative action, choosing a person he barely knows, who is completely unprepared to assume any national office. It's like nominating Clarence Thomas for the Supreme Court. It's all about ideology and not about competence.
To put it bluntly, Sarah Pahlin is no Hillary Clinton. Nor does she have the vision and brilliance of Barack Obama. This is an incredible insult to most American women. Just how stupid does he think we are?
Posted on: Friday, August 29, 2008 - 17:49
SOURCE: Tacoma News Tribune (9-1-08)
Michael Honey is Haley Professor of the Humanities at the University of Washington, Tacoma, and a former holder of the Harry Bridges labor studies chair at the University of Washington. His recent book, "Going Down Jericho Road: The Memphis Strike, Martin Luther King’s Last Campaign," recently won the Robert F. Kennedy Book Award. He is president of the national Labor and Working-Class History Association.
Labor Day 2008 marks a moment of crisis for middle and working-class Americans. Housing, health care, transportation, education and job needs are growing acute in an economy that has been run into a ditch. If you have been paying any attention at all for the last eight years, you know what I’m talking about. Yet 2008 also may be a time of significant change. People are fed up and many are demanding a new direction.
However, really changing the American economy is a long-term project and it revolves around improving the conditions of American workers. Furthermore, whether things get better and incomes go up in the months to come depends a great deal on whether workers are able to organize unions. In a recent opinion survey by Peter D. Hart Associates, 65 percent supported unions while only 25 percent did not. That is no surprise: by one research estimate, unionized workers earn 30% higher wages, are 59% more likely to have employer-provided health insurance, and are 400% more likely to have pensions than their non-union counterparts. Unionized workers have more rights than those without unions, and a union still remains the best anti-poverty program for a wage earner, as Martin Luther King once said.
In Washington State, New York and a few other places, nearly 20 percent of workers belong to unions. But nationally, less than 12 percent do and in the South and parts of the west the percentages are much lower. If statistics show that workers want unions and that unions improve their conditions, why do so many not have them?
In many work places, employees simply do not have the freedom to choose. Employers blatantly disregard their First Amendment rights to speak, associate, and organize. The National Labor Relations Board, stacked against unions by the Bush administration, admits that at least a fifth of those who try to join a union get fired instead. The actual percentage is much higher. Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch designate the land of the brave and the home of the free as one of the greatest violators of workers rights. American workers are not free.
This summer, federal agents in Smithfield, North Carolina, slowed a campaign to organize a union of African-American, Anglo and Latino packinghouse workers with deportation raids. Across the land, deportations turned into felony proceedings, imprisoning workers and smashing union organizing in the process.
Many of us have seen the full-page ads employer groups place in newspapers falsely blaming unions for America’s huge job losses (half a million in the last six months). They even mail anti-union literature into the homes of workers when they try to organize, while employers curse and run union representatives off job sites. Employers systematically break federal labor laws to put unions out of business.
This summer, Wal-Mart held captive audience meetings warning its employees against voting for Democrats. They said Democrats will support the Employee Free Choice Act (which they will), and claimed EFCA will force them to join a union (which it will not). This is blatantly illegal and underlines the simple fact that we need to strengthen labor laws and their enforcement to stop corporate bullying of employees.
Last year, EFCA passed in the House of Representatives but Republicans prevented a vote in the Senate. It allows workers to form unions through majority sign-up rather than through elections procedures that take years and have become a travesty as employers hold captive audience meetings to pressure workers into voting against unions. EFCA shields workers from such practices. It increases penalties for illegal employer actions, and creates mechanisms for binding arbitration for first collective bargaining contracts when employers refuse to bargain in good faith or the parties can’t reach an agreement.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has made defeat of EFCA in the next Congress a top legislative priority. In contrast, union supporters are signing millions of post cards and circulating a national petition to support EFCA in the next Congress. It is no surprise that unions want to elect Senator Barack Obama, who co-sponsored EFCA, and defeat Senator John McCain, who voted against. As they battle it out for President, employee freedom of choice hangs in the balance.
Employee free choice and union growth offer the most direct path to reduce the monstrous economic disparities between the great majority of wage and salary earners and the top 1 percent of the population, which owns more wealth than 90 percent of Americans combined. Unions are also important if we are to rejuvenate progressive politics in America. As Stewart Acuff and Sheldon Friedman recently wrote in the Huffington Post, “Social security, civil rights, women’s rights, progressive taxation, high-quality public education and health care for all are but a small sample of the national policies that cannot be defended or implemented without a strong labor movement.”
This Labor Day 2008 is a critical time that holds the possibility for sweeping political and economic change. Vote like the future of working-class and middle-class America depends upon it, because it does.
Posted on: Thursday, August 28, 2008 - 15:39
SOURCE: Rolling Stone (9-4-08)
The failure of the administration of George W. Bush — and the accompanying crisis of the Republican Party — has caused a political meltdown of historic proportions. In the aftermath of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, Bush enjoyed the greatest popularity ever recorded for a modern American president. Republicans on Capitol Hill, under the iron rule of House Majority Leader Tom DeLay, fattened their coffers through a fearsome operation overseen by corporate lobbyists and GOP henchmen that functioned more like an empire than an old-fashioned political machine. "Republican hegemony," the prominent conservative commentator Fred Barnes rejoiced in 2004, "is now expected to last for years, maybe decades."
Now, only four years later, Bush is leaving office with the longest sustained period of public disapproval ever recorded. No president, at least in modern times — and certainly no two-term president — has risen so high only to fall so low. Indeed, Bush's standings in the polls describe one of the most spectacular flameouts in the history of the American presidency — second only, perhaps, to that of Richard Nixon, the only president ever forced to resign from office. And in Congress, the indictment and downfall of DeLay and a host of associated scandals involving, among others, the Republican superlobbyist Jack Abramoff, have badly damaged the party's image. The supremacy of the GOP, once envisioned by party operatives as a "permanent majority," may be gone for a very long time to come.
At first glance, the collapse of the Republican Party seems rapid and unexpected. When viewed within the larger context of American history, however, the party's breakdown looks familiar, even predictable. As in earlier party crackups — 1854, 1932, 1968 — the demise has involved not a single, sudden explosion but a gradual unraveling followed by a sharp and rapid deterioration amid major national calamities. If Bush and the Republican majority in Congress accelerated the demise of Ronald Reagan's political era with their assault on traditional American values and institutions — including the rule of law itself — it is a decline that began two decades ago.
Posted on: Thursday, August 28, 2008 - 13:29
SOURCE: Special to HNN (8-28-08)
American voters are bracing themselves for the most overhyped event of the political calendar – the party conventions. These expensive events, paid for partly by public funds, are portrayed as critical points in the electoral process. But, despite an avalanche of coverage, the most important story is missed: While once critical to our political system, the quadrennial conventions are a useless, pointless bore. In fact, they are now the multimillion-dollar vestigial tail of American presidential politics.
There is little acknowledgment of this mixture of boredom and fear in the news coverage of the convention. Instead, politicians, reporters and pundits spin tales of important moments from the conventions that will supposedly shape our nation's future. However, as the paltry TV ratings show, viewers and voters are not fooled. Though the parties will do their best to make it look like they are presenting their take on the big issues, the conventions are actually run to make sure absolutely nothing of interest will happen.
It didn't used to be this way. Political conventions once were excitement personified, a place where "one lives a gorgeous year in an hour," according to acerbic commentator H.L. Mencken. The dreams of presidential hopefuls rose and fell in a moment's notice. But those days are long gone.
The last time a convention even went past the first ballot was in 1952. Instead, the convention is now used for political theater. While there is a grand tradition of memorable moments in American history, from William Jennings Bryan's Cross of Gold speech in 1896 to Hubert Humphrey's 1948 call for the Democrats to "walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights," and while the convention can help introduce the nation to up and comers, like Barack Obama in 2004, that is not what organizers are focused on. Rather they are looking to avoid the one overriding convention moment that sticks in people’s minds today: the Chicago riot in 1968. Therefore, conventions are now run with the prayer that nothing will go wrong on national television, a focus that removes all points of interest from the proceedings. Witness the wrangling of whether to allow Hillary Clinton's name to be put into the nomination process. The Obama campaign, which was resistant to the move, appeared to be completely afraid of letting any negative spin be placed on his nomination.
The major networks, or at least the masters of scheduling, have noticed the convention's lack of importance. There used to be gavel-to-gavel coverage of the events; now, except for the cable news networks, they have at best a few hours each night for viewers to search their cable listing for something interesting to watch. Even the ostensible political benefit cited by pollsters, the "convention bounce," is just a momentary uptick in the polls that dissipates within days.
At this point, with the triumph of the primary system, there remain only two reasons, outside of having the candidate receive a “prom king” coronation, to have a convention. One is if no candidate gains a majority. The other is if the presumptive nominee must be replaced due to death, disability or scandal. Neither of these is a particularly compelling reason for a convention.
Thanks to a tight Democratic race, we got to see just how much the political parties feared the first possibility -- that the nominee will be selected at the convention. Political leaders practically demanded that the Democratic Superdelegates rally around a candidate even before the end of the primaries, partly to ensure that the convention would not be used to select a nominee. The hurt feelings from the losing candidate’s supporters, tied in with the possibility of claims of bribery, vote buying and the all-encompassing "corrupt bargain," a serious problem in the heyday of the convention era, would today fatally weaken the candidate in the public's eyes.
As for the replacement issue, the convention is a simple, arbitrary date used for selecting the candidate. There is as much chance of a candidate's removal before a convention as afterward. In fact, there was one candidate who had to be replaced after a convention: George McGovern's original vice presidential selection, Thomas Eagleton. In that instance, the Democratic National Committee held an emergency meeting and ratified the new running mate, Sargent Shriver. Presumably the same mechanism, while not ideal, would be used for a presidential replacement.
There's no inherent problem in conventions being boring, self-congratulatory affairs. But let's not make them out to be something they're not. They're not a kickoff for a campaign, nor are they a method for choosing a candidate. They're just a big waste of money, some of it provided by the public. It's time we recognized that they have as much use in our current political system as picking lots. Hopefully, one day this vestigial tail will simply drop off.
Posted on: Thursday, August 28, 2008 - 12:21
SOURCE: NYT (8-28-08)
AS I watch Barack Obama’s speech to the Democratic convention tonight, I will be remembering another speech: the one that made Martin Luther King cry. And I will be thinking: Mr. Obama’s speech — and in a way his whole candidacy — might not have been possible had that other speech not been given.
That speech was President Lyndon Johnson’s address to Congress in 1965 announcing that he was about to introduce a voting rights act, and in some respects Mr. Obama’s candidacy is the climax — at least thus far — of a movement based not only on the sacrifices and heroism of the Rev. Dr. King and generations of black fighters for civil rights but also on the political genius of Lyndon Baines Johnson, who as it happens was born 100 years ago yesterday.
When, on the night of March 15, 1965, the long motorcade drove away from the White House, heading for Capitol Hill, where President Johnson would give his speech to a joint session of Congress, pickets were standing outside the gates, as they had been for weeks, and as the presidential limousine passed, they were singing the same song that was being sung that week in Selma, Ala.: “We Shall Overcome.” They were singing it in defiance of Johnson, because they didn’t trust him.
They had reasons not to trust him....
When Johnson stepped to the lectern on Capitol Hill that night, he adopted the great anthem of the civil rights movement as his own.
“Even if we pass this bill,” he said, “the battle will not be over. What happened in Selma is part of a far larger movement which reaches into every section and state of America. It is the effort of American Negroes to secure for themselves the full blessings of American life.”
And, Lyndon Johnson said, “Their cause must be our cause, too. Because it is not just Negroes, but really it is all of us, who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.”
He paused, and then he said, “And we shall overcome.”
Martin Luther King was watching the speech at the home of a family in Selma with some of his aides, none of whom had ever, during all the hard years, seen Dr. King cry. But Lyndon Johnson said, “We shall overcome” — and they saw him cry then.
And there was another indication of the power of that speech. When the motorcade returned to the White House, the protesters were gone....
Posted on: Thursday, August 28, 2008 - 08:55
SOURCE: Newsweek (8-23-08)
... [H]ow has the presumptive Democratic nominee, Barack Obama, proposed to revivify Democratic liberalism? There is a quotation that ought to give Democrats, and not just Democrats, pause:"This year will not be a year of politics as usual. It can be a year of inspiration and hope, and it will be a year of concern, of quiet and sober reassessment of our nation's character and purpose. It has already been a year when voters have confounded the experts. And I guarantee you that it will be the year when we give the government of this country back to the people of this country. There is a new mood in America. We have been shaken by a tragic war abroad and by scandals and broken promises at home. Our people are searching for new voices and new ideas and new leaders."
Delivered in Obama's exhortatory cadences, the words are uplifting. The trouble is, though they seem to fit, the passage is from Carter's acceptance speech at the Democratic convention in 1976.
The convergence is revealing. As Republican strategists have begun to notice with delight, Obama's liberal alternative to the post-Bush GOP to date has much in common with Carter's post-Watergate liberalism. Rejecting"politics as usual," attacking"Washington" as the problem, promising to heal the breaches and hurts caused by partisan political polarization, pledging to break the grip that lobbyists and special interests hold over the national government, wearing his Christian faith on his sleeve as a key to his mind, heart and soul—in all of these ways, Obama resembles Jimmy Carter more than he does any other Democratic president in living memory.
In other ways, Obama's liberal vision appears clouded, uncertain and even contradictory. During his four years in Washington, he has compiled one of the most predictably liberal voting records in the Senate—yet he presents himself as an advocate of bipartisanship and ideological flexibility. He has offered himself as the tribune of sweeping change—yet he also proclaims national unity, as if transformation can come without struggle. He has emerged as the champion of a new, post-racial politics, even though he has only grudgingly separated himself from his pastor of 20 years, who every week preached a gospel of"black liberation theology" that has everything to do with racial politics.
The most obvious change to liberal politics Obama has to offer is the color of his skin. Some of his supporters have, whether wittingly or not, been candid enough to say, as Sen. John Kerry did last March, that Obama's blackness is the rationale for making him president. But it is difficult to square such claims with Obama's appeal to a liberalism that transcends race. And when Obama himself subtly and not so subtly draws attention to his color, and charges that the John McCain Republicans will try to scare voters by saying he"doesn't look like all those presidents on the dollar bills," he turns voting for him into an intrinsically virtuous act, proof that one has resisted base appeals to racism (which, in fact, the McCain campaign has not made).
Much of Obama's appeal to the left stems from what might be called the romance of the community organizer. Although his organizing career on Chicago's South Side was brief and, by his own admission, unremarkable, it distinguishes him as another first of his kind in presidential politics, a candidate who looks at politics from the bottom up. For the left, community organizing trumps party politics and experience in government. Some even imagine that Obama is a secret radical, and they see his emergence as an unparalleled opportunity for advancing their frustrated agendas about issues ranging from the redistribution of wealth to curtailing U.S. power abroad.
Obama still has a long way to go to describe the kind of liberalism he stands for, how it meets the enormous challenges of the present—and how it will meet as-yet-unanticipated challenges after the election. Nowhere is this more crucial than in the harsh and volatile realm of foreign policy. Last winter, when his candidacy gained traction, Obama's foreign-policy credentials consisted almost entirely of a speech he gave before a left-wing rally in Chicago in 2002, denouncing the impending invasion of Iraq as"a dumb war." That speech, made by a state senator representing a liberal district that included the University of Chicago, and that went unreported in the Chicago Tribune's lengthy article on the rally, was enough to convince many of his supporters that he is blessed with superior acumen and good instincts about foreign affairs. Later comments, such as his promise, later softened, to meet directly and"without preconditions" with the leaders of Iran and other supporters of terrorism, pleased left-wing Democrats and young antiwar voters as a sign of boldness—even as they left experienced diplomats in wonder at such half-baked formulations.
Then, suddenly this summer, Russia attacked Georgia—and Obama's immediate reaction was to call for reasonableness and good intentions and urge both sides to show restraint and enter into direct talks. Unfortunately his appeal sounded almost like a caricature of liberal wishful thinking. It was left to his opponent, John McCain—whose own past judgments on foreign policy demand scrutiny—to declare right away the sort of thing that might have come naturally to previous generations of liberal Democrats (let alone to a conservative Republican): that"Russia should immediately and unconditionally cease its military operations and withdraw all forces from sovereign Georgian territory." Beyond the matter of experience, beyond how thoroughly the two candidates had thought through the situation, the difference highlighted how Obama still lacks a comprehensive vision of international politics....
Posted on: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - 15:21
SOURCE: Mary L. Dudziak at Legal History Blog (8-27-08)
In spite of various sorts of whiningaccompanying this year’s Democratic National Convention, it is an historic moment in more than one way. It was not so long ago that an African American woman, Fannie Lou Hamer, captured the nation’s attention not with a convention floor speech but with testimony before the 1964 Credentials Committee of the DNC.
On August 22, 1964 in Atlantic City, Fannie Lou Hamer gave this testimony:
Mr. Chairman, and to the Credentials Committee, my name is Mrs. Fannie Lou Hamer, and I live at 626 East Lafayette Street, Ruleville, Mississippi, Sunflower County, the home of Senator James O. Eastland, and Senator Stennis.A link to an audio of Hamer’s testimony is here. An on-line documentary is here.
It was the 31st of August in 1962 that eighteen of us traveled twenty-six miles to the county courthouse in Indianola to try to register to become first-class citizens.
We was met in Indianola by policemen, Highway Patrolmen, and they only allowed two of us in to take the literacy test at the time. After we had taken this test and started back to Ruleville, we was held up by the City Police and the State Highway Patrolmen and carried back to Indianola where the bus driver was charged that day with driving a bus the wrong color.
After we paid the fine among us, we continued on to Ruleville, and Reverend Jeff Sunny carried me four miles in the rural area where I had worked as a timekeeper and sharecropper for eighteen years. I was met there by my children, who told me that the plantation owner was angry because I had gone down to try to register.
After they told me, my husband came, and said the plantation owner was raising Cain because I had tried to register. Before he quit talking the plantation owner came and said,"Fannie Lou, do you know - did Pap tell you what I said?"
And I said,"Yes, sir."
He said,"Well I mean that." He said,"If you don't go down and withdraw your registration, you will have to leave." Said,"Then if you go down and withdraw," said,"you still might have to go because we are not ready for that in Mississippi."
And I addressed him and told him and said,"I didn't try to register for you. I tried to register for myself."
I had to leave that same night.
On the 10th of September 1962, sixteen bullets was fired into the home of Mr. and Mrs. Robert Tucker for me. That same night two girls were shot in Ruleville, Mississippi. Also Mr. Joe McDonald's house was shot in.
And June the 9th, 1963, I had attended a voter registration workshop; was returning back to Mississippi. Ten of us was traveling by the Continental Trailway bus. When we got to Winona, Mississippi, which is Montgomery County, four of the people got off to use the washroom, and two of the people - to use the restaurant - two of the people wanted to use the washroom.
The four people that had gone in to use the restaurant was ordered out. During this time I was on the bus. But when I looked through the window and saw they had rushed out I got off of the bus to see what had happened. And one of the ladies said,"It was a State Highway Patrolman and a Chief of Police ordered us out."...
I was carried to the county jail and put in the booking room. They left some of the people in the booking room and began to place us in cells. I was placed in a cell with a young woman called Miss Ivesta Simpson. After I was placed in the cell I began to hear sounds of licks and screams, I could hear the sounds of licks and horrible screams. And I could hear somebody say,"Can you say, 'yes, sir,' nigger? Can you say 'yes, sir'?"
And they would say other horrible names.
She would say,"Yes, I can say 'yes, sir.'"
"So, well, say it."
She said,"I don't know you well enough."
They beat her, I don't know how long. And after a while she began to pray, and asked God to have mercy on those people.
And it wasn't too long before three white men came to my cell. One of these men was a State Highway Patrolman and he asked me where I was from. I told him Ruleville and he said,"We are going to check this."
They left my cell and it wasn't too long before they came back. He said,"You are from Ruleville all right," and he used a curse word. And he said,"We are going to make you wish you was dead."
I was carried out of that cell into another cell where they had two Negro prisoners. The State Highway Patrolmen ordered the first Negro to take the blackjack.
The first Negro prisoner ordered me, by orders from the State Highway Patrolman, for me to lay down on a bunk bed on my face.
I laid on my face and the first Negro began to beat. I was beat by the first Negro until he was exhausted. I was holding my hands behind me at that time on my left side, because I suffered from polio when I was six years old.
After the first Negro had beat until he was exhausted, the State Highway Patrolman ordered the second Negro to take the blackjack.
The second Negro began to beat and I began to work my feet, and the State Highway Patrolman ordered the first Negro who had beat me to sit on my feet - to keep me from working my feet. I began to scream and one white man got up and began to beat me in my head and tell me to hush.
One white man - my dress had worked up high - he walked over and pulled my dress - I pulled my dress down and he pulled my dress back up.
I was in jail when Medgar Evers was murdered.
All of this is on account of we want to register, to become first-class citizens. And if the Freedom Democratic Party is not seated now, I question America. Is this America, the land of the free and the home of the brave, where we have to sleep with our telephones off the hooks because our lives be threatened daily, because we want to live as decent human beings, in America?
Hamer’s words continue to echo across generations, and are a reminder that a speech can have an impact. As much as the Obama campaign might wish to put race aside to appeal to an electorate that is more comfortable ignoring it, his speech tomorrow night and his nomination will be an enduring episode in American racial politics. Not a sign that a post-racial politics have been achieved, but a milestone nevertheless, in a history that transforms American politics even though it does not progress inevitably toward justice.
Posted on: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - 14:49
SOURCE: Huffington Post (8-27-08)
When Barack Obama speaks to the Democratic Convention tomorrow night, many Democrats will be wondering about a question that has been raised repeatedly during the primaries and at the start of the general campaign: will Senator Barack Obama, if elected president, be another Jimmy Carter?
This has been a criticism leveled against Senator Obama by supporters of Senator Hillary Clinton, as well as by Republican John McCain. The critics argue that Obama will be incompetent as a leader and unable to govern in Washington. McCain told NBC's Brian Williams, "Obama says that I'm running for a Bush's third terms. It seems to me he's running for Jimmy Carter's second."
To be sure, there are striking similarities between the Democratic presidential campaigns of 1976 and 2008. Both candidates ran against the Washington establishment and called for a new style of politics. Both candidates used the caucus system and the media masterfully to outflank party leaders. Both candidates refused to adopt the prevailing arguments of the Democratic Party and tried to weave together positions that ended up creating confusion about their core principles. Both candidates were accused of privileging style over substance. Both candidates lacked a significant amount of experience in Washington.
But these similarities overlook two key differences that suggest a better outcome should Obama be elected. The most important is that Obama and congressional Democrats are relatively united on the major domestic issues. When Carter inhabited the White House, congressional Democrats were deeply divided over economics, energy, health care, urban renewal, and more. The Democratic Party consisted of multiple, well-defined factions: southern Democrats, northern urban liberals, and western suburbanites who didn't see eye to eye on most issues.
Moreover, Carter and congressional Democrats didn't get along personally. Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill later wrote, "Carter rode into town like a knight on a white horse. But while the gentleman leading the charge was capable, too many of the troops he brought with them were amateurs. They didn't know much about Washington, but that didn't prevent them from being arrogant."
Obama faces a better situation. He and the Democratic congressional leaders are relatively united on most domestic issues. As I wrote with Michael Kazin in the Washington Post, Democrats have focused on a series of social policies that address the insecurity that middle class Americans now face, from higher education subsidies to health care reform.
Equally important, as Carter himself would be the first to say, Obama has a good rapport with Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who informally supported his candidacy over Hillary Clinton. Having Senator Joseph Biden in the administration, who is a favorite veteran on Capitol Hill, would only help him in this pursuit.
The second reason that Obama would be in better shape than Carter has to do with the opposition. When Carter became president in 1977, the conservative movement was gaining full steam and starting to take control of the Republican Party. The 1978 midterm elections brought in an aggressive group of young conservatives, such as Georgia's Newt Gingrich, who were unwilling to compromise with Democrats and determined to shake up Capitol Hill. These conservatives had developed an elaborate grass-roots movement as well as a strong organizational network of interest groups, think tanks, and non-profit organizations.
As Carter tackled difficult issues like a SALT II treaty with the Soviet Union, he found that he was outflanked by conservatives who were better prepared organizationally than his administration. They were much more successful at tapping into voter sentiment than was the administration. Carter's defeats were not just a reflection of his weaknesses, but also a result of the strength of his opponents.
Obama does not face this problem either. The Republican Party is badly divided, far more than any tension that the Clinton-Obama rivalry can cause Democrats. As a result of the policies of President George W. Bush, the various factions of the conservative movement have entered into open warfare. Libertarians lament big government conservatism. Fiscal conservatives are at odds with administration's sizable budgets. Neoconservatives are in conflict with foreign policy realists in the GOP, who reject their ambitions for nation-building.
Nor are conservatives really excited about John McCain. They will vote for him, they will stand by him, but they are not enthusiastic about him. In stark contrast, building on Howard Dean's vision, Democrats have been able to construct a powerful national movement, connected from the netroots that fill the blogosphere every day to the grass roots activists who brought out voters in the caucuses, to supporters in the mainstream media. As president of the U.S., Obama would be able to tap into this network as conservatives struggle to regroup.
Finally, there is the role of President Bush. When Jimmy Carter came into office, the country was deeply distrustful of all politicians. Richard Nixon had resigned in 1974, replaced by Gerald Ford who seemed in over his head, and though he may have angered many by his pardon of Nixon, he was not nearly as polarizing a figure as Bush. Democrats were still reeling over divisions of the 1960s and they had not developed a clear sense of their party's core beliefs.
Today, Bush has provided Democrats with a potent rallying cry. As Paul Begala recently wrote in the Huffington Post, "No matter what minor difference Hillary and Barack had, they pale in comparison to the corruption, incompetence, dishonesty and criminality of the Bush-McCain Republicans."
The deep resentment and distrust of President Bush will offer Democrats a certain amount of momentum in 2009 and 2010 to work together and define their party.
Neither of these differences guarantees that a President Obama would not be another President Carter, but they should give Democrats some hope. Politicians with similar styles or messages can encounter very different outcomes at different moments in time.
Posted on: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - 14:01
SOURCE: Poynter Online/Jim Romenesko (8-26-08)
As I contemplate the downsizing of the Chicago Tribune -- some 80 editional positions eliminated thus far this month -- it brings to mind how my grandfather – Herman Metsky – introduced me to newspapers. What I vividly recall is that repeatedly, circa 1950, he sought to instruct me on the wiles of Colonel McCormick, the iconic publisher of the Tribune who anointed it as "The World’s Greatest Newspaper." My grandfather always invoked a comparable epithet to tarnish him: " . . . the most dangerous man in America." I cannot recall anything more about my grandfather’s political sensibilities. What I do recollect is that we regularly dissected the unfolding of baseball seasons, much of our fodder furnished by newspaper sportswriters and columnists. But as I came to understand more about Robert R. McCormick, I now surmise that Herman Metsky aligned himself with the likes of Franklin Delano Ro osevelt and Harry S Truman. Colonel McCormick vilified them both and they returned the sentiment. Remember the image of Truman – beaming – as he held aloft a Tribune bearing the premature banner headline "Dewey Defeats Truman."
Yet Herman Metsky and Colonel McCormick each shared a passion for virtues of the daily, big-city newspaper. Both devoted their entire working lives to the industry. While the Colonel presided over the Chicago Tribune, Herman Metsky sold newspapers one-by-one on the streets of Newark, New Jersey. I think his career began – age ten or so -- at the moment he immigrated to the United States from Czarist Russia in 1905. Pulling himself up one or two rungs on the ladder of American mobility, he began as a street vendor of newspapers and never left his calling. Later he rented a green shed at a busy retail corner and ultimately he operated a modest shop in an aspiring middle-class neighborhood. Every time I encountered my grandfather at that shop he plied me with two or three different newspapers. I found myself enthralled, at a rather tender age, reading them avidly. And I never abandoned the daily habit.
Neither Colonel McCormick nor Herman Metsky, one an industrialist and the other a street-level retail vendor, would find even an iota of comfort in what is about to happen to the Chicago Tribune. Having lived more than half of my life in the place labeled Chicagoland by Colonel McCormick, I have grown to esteem the newspaper upon which he lavished so much passion. While routinely I do not concur with its editorials, here and there I discover momentary convergence with a specific opinion. Rather it is the acuity of the reporting and criticism that I relish most of all as a reader of the Tribune. Day after day I contemplate the distinctive journalistic voices of its reporters, columnists, and critics whom I have learned to value for their keen insights on any number of topics I rue the impending fate of the Chicago Tribune. The analytic side of me comprehends the plight of the Tribune Company. It is burdened by diminished revenues, caused by sharply descending trend lines in circulation as well as advertising plus rising production expenses. Nor can the new ownership dilute its investment -- itself encumbered by a cash-starved financial package -- in the face of the twenty-first century realities of a vastly transformed mass-media industry. But emotionally I recognize that all of the rhetoric about transforming newspapers will yield a gloomy scenario for loyal, longtime readers. Despite assertions from the new owner, corporate executives, and editors, a reduction in physical scale and staff will not magically evolve into an improved twenty-first century daily newspaper.
The community of Chicago Tribune readers is experiencing the ebb tide of the illustrious print era in American journalism. The origins of this occurred just prior to 1900, a consequence of technological innovations in the production of daily editions. Readers first became aware of such advances during the Spanish-American War in the spring of 1898. Its hallmarks included: flashes of late-breaking dispatches with occasional extras; the introduction of discrete news sections (e.g., business, sports); higher standards of reporting; and more and more reliance upon action photographs. Alas, at the beginning of the twenty-first century readers find themselves amid the dimming -- if not extinction -- of this luminous journalistic heritage.
Herman Metsky and Robert R. McCormick, each a dedicated twentieth-century newspaper man who thought he understood something about the cultural authority of the press, surely would be dismayed to behold what now seems unstoppable. Understandably the root causes – notably the skyrocketing ascent of the World Wide Web – would seem entirely incomprehensible if viewed thru their eyes. But I suspect that my grandfather no less than the Colonel would comprehend why many, many readers of the Chicago Tribune soon will find a reason to grieve
Posted on: Wednesday, August 27, 2008 - 13:43
SOURCE: Nation (8-26-08)
In June, I wrote (with George Zornick) in Loving John McCain about the media's maddening blindness towards the extremism and/or crass political expediency of Senator John McCain:
On issue after issue, and from every side of the journalistic political spectrum, a campaign of deception and distortion has helped to ensure that McCain's extreme positions and politically inspired flip-flops remain far from the consciousness of the average voter. Just as the media-promoted notion that George W. Bush was the kind of guy with whom one might enjoy a few beers managed to obscure the predictable catastrophes that lay in store for this nation once he became President, so too can the deep-seated media denial of McCain's extremist policies and addiction to political expediency mask the fact that his victory in November would result in a continuation--and even, in some instances, an expansion--of the very policies that have brought the nation to the brink of irreversible disaster.
I hope that, 7,000 words later, we proved our case. A few months later, we've seen many more examples of the media's transgressions in this regard--although perhaps none better than what Tom Brokaw offered up yesterday in Denver. (Halperin was a close second, also yesterday.
The Joan Shorenstein Center on Press, Politics, and Public Policy held a talk, moderated by Judy Woodruff, between the Sunday show honchos-- Brokaw, Bob Schieffer, and George Stephanopoulos. Discussing McCain's success in the Republican primaries, Brokaw attributed it to the candidate's"indomitable will," and opined that McCain won by simply being"the most authentic...he wasn't trying to reinvent himself."
This is not only wrong, but diametrically, screamingly wrong. It's not a difficult point--McCain won the primaries specifically by reversing himself on taxes, immigration, the religious right, and virtually every other issue important to the hard right. These policies were not only blazingly visible--Mitt Romney and others called him on it loudly during the Republican debates--but obviously destructive, as the last eight years have proven.
And yet, here is Brokaw saying of the candidate who by far has done the most to change his positions that McCain was"the most authentic...he wasn't trying to reinvent himself." Remember, this isn't old, retired, mildly irrelevant Tom Brokaw. This is the new (for now) host of Meet the Press, and certainly someone who will be a prominent figure in the coverage of the allegedly most-liberal cable network during the elections.
Now, that's not to say that all the reporting has been bad... the New York Times had a probing story this weekend about the McCain family's path to wealth. It's long, but in it, we learn the following:
The wealth is almost all Cindy's--but she ain't an industrious success story. She inherited a beer distributorship from her father, for which she does little, if any, actual work:"She crisscrosses the country on the company jet, keeps an accountant on the company payroll to mind her personal finances, drives a company Lexus with 'MS BUD' plates and says she oversees the company's"strategic planning and corporate vision." Yet she almost never shows up in the office, is deemed an absentee owner by Anheuser-Busch and has left scarcely a mark on the company, present and former executives say."
The company does wield a lot of clout in Arizona politics, but usually to suspect ends."Her business ... recently found itself at odds with advocates for pediatric hospital beds in Arizona's neediest communities and for a statewide childhood education program. When the advocates proposed initiatives that would raise liquor taxes, Hensley opposed them." Also,"At the national level, the company's priorities, fought for by the National Beer Wholesalers' Association, include rolling back the national excise tax of about 5 cents a beer, last raised in 1991, and fighting efforts by hard-liquor distillers to require labels showing the amount of alcohol in a standard serving. The beer lobby also successfully opposed a bill to pay for television advertisements combating under-age drinking."
Read it and weep in your beer.... (haha, I know we're only wine drinkers here at The Nation....)
Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.
Posted on: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 - 14:11
SOURCE: Slate (8-25-08)
Teachers and scholars consider the unattributed use of someone else's words and ideas to be a very serious offense, but the public doesn't seem to mind much, at least when it comes to politics. The incidents of plagiarism and fabrication that forced Joe Biden to quit the 1988 presidential race have drawn little comment since his selection as Barack Obama's vice presidential running mate—just as revelations of plagiarism by Stephen Ambrose and Doris Kearns Goodwin scarcely hurt their book sales. In 1987, before Biden quit the race, he called the incidents "a tempest in a teapot." Although most reporters disagreed then, at least enough to pursue the story, they seem now—perhaps jaded by two decades of scandal-mongering—to have come around to Biden's view.
But Biden's exit from the 1988 race is worth recalling in detail, because his transgressions far exceeded Obama's own relatively innocent lifting of rhetorical set pieces from his friend Deval Patrick, which occasioned a brief flap last February. Biden's misdeeds encompassed numerous self-aggrandizing thefts, misstatements, and exaggerations that seemed to point to a serious character defect. In some ways, the 1988 campaign—in which scandal forced not just Biden but also Gary Hart from the race—marked a watershed in the absurd gotcha politics that have since marred our politics and punditry. But unlike Hart's plight, Biden's can't be blamed on an overly intrusive or hectoring press corps. The press was right to dig into this one.
In the 1988 race, Biden began as a long shot. But after Hart dropped out in May 1987 over the exposure of his affair with Donna Rice, none of the remaining "seven dwarves" in the Democratic field pulled away from the pack. Biden's youth and vitality—as well as his tutelage by Patrick Caddell, the pollster-consultant considered a veritable magician by insiders—made him a decent bet to reach the front of the pack. Over the summer, the rival campaigns of Michael Dukakis and Dick Gephardt became concerned as Biden ticked upward in the polls.
Biden's downfall began when his aides alerted him to a videotape of the British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock, who had run unsuccessfully against Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. The tape showed Kinnock delivering a powerful speech about his rise from humble roots. Taken by the performance, Biden adapted it for his own stump speech. Biden, after all, was the son of a car salesman, a working-class kid made good. Kinnock's material fit with the story he was trying to sell.
At first Biden would credit Kinnock when he quoted him. But at some point he failed to offer the attribution. Biden maintained that he lapsed only once—at a debate at the Iowa State Fair, on Aug. 23, when cameras recorded it—but Maureen Dowd of the New York Times reported two incidents of nonattribution, and no one kept track exactly of every time Biden used the Kinnock bit. (Click here for examples of Biden's lifting.) What is certain is that Biden didn't simply borrow the sort of boilerplate that counts as common currency in political discourse—phrases like "fighting for working families." What he borrowed was Kinnock's life.
Biden lifted Kinnock's precise turns of phrase and his sequences of ideas—a degree of plagiarism that would qualify any student for failure, if not expulsion from school. But the even greater sin was to borrow biographical facts from Kinnock that, although true about Kinnock, didn't apply to Biden. Unlike Kinnock, Biden wasn't the first person in his family history to attend college, as he asserted; nor were his ancestors coal miners, as he claimed when he used Kinnock's words. Once exposed, Biden's campaign team managed to come up with a great-grandfather who had been a mining engineer, but he hardly fit the candidate's description of one who "would come up [from the mines] after 12 hours and play football." At any rate, Biden had delivered his offending remarks with an introduction that clearly implied he had come up with them himself and that they pertained to his own life.
Most American political reporters were not so attuned to Britain's politics that they recognized Kinnock's words. But Michael Dukakis' adviser John Sasso had seen the Kinnock tape. Without his boss's knowledge or consent, he prepared a video juxtaposing the two men's speeches and got it into the hands of Dowd at the Times, David Yepsen of the Des Moines Register, and NBC News. When the story broke on Sept. 12, Biden was gearing up to chair the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Robert Bork, Ronald Reagan's far-right nominee. Biden angrily denied having done anything wrong and urged the press to chase after the political rival who had sent out what came to be called the "attack video."
Unfortunately for Biden, more revelations of plagiarism followed, distracting him from the Bork hearings. Over the next days, it emerged that Biden had lifted significant portions of speeches from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey. From Kennedy, he took four long sentences in one case and two memorable sentences in another. (In one account, Biden said that Pat Caddell had inserted them in his speech without Biden's knowledge; in another account, the failure to credit RFK was chalked up to the hasty cutting and pasting that went into the speech.) From Humphrey, the hot passage was a particularly affecting appeal for government to help the neediest. Yet another uncited borrowing came from John F. Kennedy.
If that wasn't bad enough, Biden admitted the next day that while in law school he had received an F for a course because he had plagiarized five pages from a published article in a term paper that he submitted. He admitted as well that he had falsely stated that British Labor official Denis Healey had given him the Kinnock tape. (Healey had denied the claim.) And Biden conceded that he had exaggerated in another matter by stating in a speech some years earlier that he had joined sit-ins to desegregate restaurants and movie theaters, and was thus actively involved in the civil rights movement. He protested, his press secretary clarified, "to desegregate one restaurant and one movie theater." The latter two of these fibs were small potatoes by any reckoning, but in the context of other acts of dishonesty, they helped to form a bigger picture.
For all these disclosures, Biden remained unbowed. "I'm in the race to stay, I'm in the race to win, and here I come," he declared. That meant, of course, that his days were numbered. Newsweek soon reported on a C-SPAN videotape from the previous April that showed Biden berating a heckler at a campaign stop. While lashing out at the audience member, Biden defended his academic credentials by inflating them, in a fashion that was notably unbecoming and petty for a presidential candidate.
"I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect," Biden sniped at the voter. "I went to law school on a full academic scholarship." That claim was false, as was another claim, made in the same rant, that he graduated in the top half of his law-school class. Biden wrongly stated, too, that he had earned three undergraduate degrees, when in fact he had earned one—a double major in history and political science. Another round of press inquiries followed, and Biden finally withdrew from the race on Sept. 23.
The sheer number and extent of Biden's fibs, distortions, and plagiarisms struck many observers at the time as worrisome, to say the least. While a media feeding frenzy (a term popularized in the 1988 campaign) always creates an unseemly air of hysteria, Biden deserved the scrutiny he received. Quitting the race was the right thing to do.
Twenty-one years on, how much should Biden's past behavior matter? In and of itself, the plagiarism episode shouldn't automatically disqualify Biden from regaining favor and credibility, especially if in the intervening two decades he's not done more of the same, as seems to be the case. But no one has looked into it. The press should give his record since 1988 a thorough vetting. It's worth knowing whether the odds-on favorite to be our next vice president has truly reformed himself of behavior that can often be the mark of a deeply troubled soul.
Posted on: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 - 11:43
SOURCE: Huffington Post (8-22-08)
China and America, according to much U.S. Olympic commentary, currently offer a study in contrasts. Not surprisingly, we've been hearing repeated references of late to the stark differences between our young land and their old one when it comes to religious freedom and press censorship. And we've seen some novel variations on the familiar U.S.-China contrasts theme, like an August 18 Los Angeles Times piece by Mary McNamar that focused on style. Our every-day-can-be-casual-Friday approach, she claimed, clearly differentiated the look of "laid-back," gum-chewing U.S. competitors, a sockless Matt Lauer, and a shirt-sleeved George W. in sports fan mode from the look of their Chinese counterparts.
There definitely are many basic U.S.-China differences, including not just how our presidents dress and act (it's tough to imagine the buttoned-down Hu Jintao hanging out with beach volleyball players), but more importantly how they're chosen. Still, Americans should realize that, to international audiences, recent events could be read as revealing how much, not little, China and the U.S. have in common.
For this is a year when we keep showing up side-by-side in global rankings. Medal counts prove we're in a league of our own as Olympic sports powers. We're also neck and neck at the top of the pack in percentage of global manufacturing output (U.S. 17%, China 16%). And we share the top (or bottom) greenhouse gas emissions spot: they're ahead overall, but on a per capita basis, we're leading.
Returning to the Games, the Opening inspired many only-in-a-country-like-China comments. These stressed the number of performers (China's so big), the synchronized movements (China's so conformist), the echoes of Berlin 1936 (China's so authoritarian), and the fakery (China's people accept being lied to).
The PRC is likely the only country that could and would spend so much money on this kind of state-run extravaganza just now, and while there were some disturbingly authoritarian aspects to it. But the spectacle sometimes brought to mind Hollywood -- the place where the phrase "and a cast of thousands" was coined. The choreography was sometimes more Busby Berkeley than Leni Riefenstahl. And a friend told me seeing those 2008 drummers made him think of a 2002 Hollywood production, "Drumline," which also featured young men furiously keeping the beat.
It is true that revelations of White children pretending to be Native American ones would have caused more of a flap here than revelations that Han children pretended to be Tibetan and Uighurs on 08/08/08 did there. But a country whose past includes minstrel shows and Charlie Chan movies without ethnically Chinese leads shouldn't be too smug. When it comes to the lip synching scandal, as McNamar notes in her piece, Chinese efforts to ensure that a song that sounded just so seemed to come out of the mouth of a girl who looked just right resonate disturbingly with our fetish for simulated physical perfection via plastic surgery.
Posted on: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 - 10:40
SOURCE: Truthout.org (8-25-08)
The central bankers of the world gathered last weekend for their annual meeting at Jackson Hole, Wyoming. This was an opportunity to talk about the major issues confronting the world economy, as well as an opportunity to spend some time in a very beautiful vacation spot.
When they met in Jackson Hole in 2005, the meetings were devoted to an Alan Greenspan retrospective, honoring his 18-year tenure as Federal Reserve Board chairman, which was due to end the following January. A number of papers were presented analyzing his record at the Fed, including one that raised the question of whether Mr. Greenspan was the greatest central banker of all time.
The elite Jackson Hole crew did not debate whether Greenspan was the greatest central banker of all time this year. The world is now facing the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression. At least, that is the assessment of Alan Greenspan. With house prices plunging, unemployment and inflation rates rising and banks failures mounting, Greenspan has a pretty good argument.
How did we get here? The centerpiece in this story is the United States allowed an $8 trillion housing bubble to grow unchecked. Between 1996 and 2006, house prices rose by more than 70 percent, after adjusting for inflation. In the previous century, from 1896 to 1996, house prices had just kept even with the overall rate of inflation.
When there is suddenly a sharp divergence from a long-term trend like this, it is reasonable to look for an explanation. Was there some fundamental factor on either the supply or demand side that was suddenly causing house prices to skyrocket?
A quick investigation revealed no obvious suspects. On the supply side, there were no major new constraints that were impeding construction. In fact, housing starts were at near record levels over the years 2002 to 2006, so there was no reason to believe any developments on the supply side could explain skyrocketing house prices.
The demand side also didn't feature any obvious culprits. The rate of population growth and household formation had slowed sharply. If demographics could explain a sharp rise in house prices, then we should have seen the surge in the 70s and 80s. That was when the huge baby boom cohort was first forming their own households. In the current decade, the baby boomers are preparing for retirement.
There also was no plausible income story. Income grew at a healthy but not extraordinary rate in the years from 1996 to 2000, but income growth has been very weak throughout the current decade.
Finally, if the run-up in house prices could be explained by the fundamentals of the housing market, then we should expect to see a comparable increase in rents. But there was no unusual run-up in rents. They did slightly outpace inflation in the late 90s, but they actually were falling behind inflation by the early years of this decade.
If the run-up in house prices could not be explained by the fundamentals, then it was a bubble, which would burst. This was easy to see for anyone who cared to look, but Greenspan and his sycophants could not be bothered. Greenspan insisted everything was fine - there was no housing bubble - and virtually the whole economics profession, including his fellow central bankers, acted an enablers touting Mr. Greenspan's wisdom.
While the exact timing and path of the housing market's collapse and the resulting turmoil in financial markets could not be predicted, the basic course of this tsunami was entirely foreseeable. The collapse of the bubble will destroy in the neighborhood of $8 trillion of housing wealth. Most of these losses will be absorbed by homeowners ($8 trillion comes to $110,000 per homeowner), but if just ten percent of the loss ends up on bank financial sheets, the losses will be $800 billion.
That is enough to put many banks under. Losses of this magnitude were virtually certain to sink Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the two huge government-sponsored enterprises that created the secondary mortgage market in the United States. The current financial crisis was, therefore, an inevitable follow-on to the collapse of the housing bubble and will almost certainly amplify its negative impact on the US economy.
This all seemed painfully obvious from even a quick look at the housing data back in 2005 when the central bankers were honoring Alan Greenspan. In fact, it should have been obvious at least three years sooner.
But the Jackson Hole economists were convinced everything was just fine. Now, they are all saying no one could have foreseen the current crisis. And they say no one, at least among the Jackson Hole crowd, saw any problems coming.
The really tragic part of this story is there are no consequences. The same group of economists that led the economy into this catastrophe still has its hands on the wheel. Holding them accountable for their disastrous performance is simply not on the agenda.
Central bankers are not like dishwashers and custodians. They don't get fired when they mess up on the job. They don't even get a pay cut.
So, lets all hope the Jackson Hole crew had a good time at their summer retreat. We've paid a big price for it.
Posted on: Tuesday, August 26, 2008 - 02:39
SOURCE: Special to HNN (8-25-08)
The Obama Presidential campaign is off to a terrible start. The cerebral, thoughtful persona that Obama projects in his campaign advertisements, while it plays well with younger, educated voters, and leaders of foreign nations, has fallen flat with the main constituency Obama needs to win over to become
President- working class and middle class Americans battered by stagnant wages, rising gas prices, falling home values, and escalating credit card debt
Cool doesn't work with these voters.These people are frightened, angry and insecure and are looking for a sign that the next President understands their concerns. John McCain, despite his great personal wealth and support for tax breaks for corporate interests, has been much more effective than Barack Obama in making working class and middle class Americans the main audience from his message. Some of this is due to McCain's combative temperment; some of it due to his record of sacrifice for his country, but some of it is due to a campaign message that paints Barack Obama as an" international celebrity" and John McCain as a fighter for the common man.. When you couple this with the "race" factor which makes voting for a black man problematic for many whites, it is clear that Barack Obama and his handlers have dug deep hole that they need to get out of-- and fast
But the damage here is not irreversible. If the Obama campaign radically changes course, and paints their candidate as fighter for working class Americans who will spend every waking hour trying to improve their lives- Obama may be able to win over enough of these swing voters to carry states like Pennslyvania,Ohio, Michigan, Indiana and Wisconsin, and maybe Florida and North Carolina too,that he needs to be elected
Barack Obama's greatest advantage over John McCain is youth and stamina and he needs to use these to the fullest between now and November 3. Like Harry Truman did is his come from behind presidential victory in 1948, he has to outwork his opponent. If McCain stages five campaign stops a day, Obama must do ten. Wherever working class and middle class Americans congregate, Barack Obama must be there. He has to be at picnics and parades, union meetings and minor league baseball games, Four H Club fairs and rodeos. He has to kiss hundreds of babies, shake tens of thousands of hands, and make scores of impromptu speeches. People not only need to see him on television, they also need to see him face to face.
And they need to see him sweat! Here Barack Obama needs to take a page out of the book of the greatest entertainer in the history of American popular music , James Brown. Long before he became famous. James Brown built a following among working class black people by driving himself to exhaustion everywhere he performed, 250 nights a year, whether it was in major theaters or juke joints in small southern towns. Billing himself as the "hardest working man in show business" James Brown made every person who saw him feel that no matter how poor they were, no matter how hard their lives were, he cared enough about them to put every ounce of energy into his show
Barack Obama must create a similar persona on the campaign trail. He needs to be everywhere! Working class and middle class Americans need to see him face to face in hundres of campaign stops- tired, overwhelmed, sacrificing his sleep, even his health, to meet them, listen to them, and share with them his vision of how to make their lives better. To overcome John McCain's natural advantages as a white man and a former prisoner of war, he has to become "The Hardest Working Man in Politics" someone who, as President, will never stop working for the interests of America's common people.
Barack Obama has many traits that would make him a great President, but he won't have that opportunity unless he makes an heroic effort to get working class voters to trust him. And the only way to do that is to outwork his opponent on the campaign trail.
Posted on: Monday, August 25, 2008 - 15:44
SOURCE: Frontpagemag.com (8-25-08)
How do Muslims see Barack Hussein Obama? They have three choices: either as he presents himself – someone who has"never been a Muslim" and has"always been a Christian"; or as a fellow Muslim; or as an apostate from Islam.
Reports suggests that while Americans generally view the Democratic candidate having had no religion before converting at Reverend Jeremiah Wrights's hands at age 27, Muslims the world over rarely see him as Christian but usually as either Muslim or ex-Muslim.
Lee Smith of the Hudson Institute explains why:"Barack Obama's father was Muslim and therefore, according to Islamic law, so is the candidate. In spite of the Quranic verses explaining that there is no compulsion in religion, a Muslim child takes the religion of his or her father. … for Muslims around the world, non-American Muslims at any rate, they can only ever see Barack Hussein Obama as a Muslim." In addition, his school record from Indonesia lists him as a Muslim
Thus, an Egyptian newspaper, Al-Masri al-Youm, refers to his"Muslim origins." Libyan ruler Mu‘ammar al-Qaddafi referred to Obama as"a Muslim" and a person with an"African and Islamic identity." One Al-Jazeera analysis calls him a"non-Christian man," a second refers to his"Muslim Kenyan" father, and a third, by Naseem Jamali, notes that"Obama may not want to be counted as a Muslim but Muslims are eager to count him as one of their own."
A conversation in Beirut, quoted in the Christian Science Monitor, captures the puzzlement."He has to be good for Arabs because he is a Muslim," observed a grocer."He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian," replied a customer. Retorted the grocer:"He can't be a Christian. His middle name is Hussein." Arabic discussions of Obama sometimes mention his middle name as a code, with no further comment needed.
"The symbolism of a major American presidential candidate with the middle name of Hussein, who went to elementary school in Indonesia," reports Tamara Cofman Wittes of the Brookings Institution from a U.S.-Muslim conference in Qatar,"that certainly speaks to Muslims abroad." Thomas L. Friedman of the New York Times found that Egyptians"don't really understand Obama's family tree, but what they do know is that if America — despite being attacked by Muslim militants on 9/11 — were to elect as its president some guy with the middle name ‘Hussein,' it would mark a sea change in America-Muslim world relations."
Some American Muslim leaders also perceive Obama as Muslim. The president of the Islamic Society of North America, Sayyid M. Syeed, told Muslims at a conference in Houston that whether Obama wins or loses, his candidacy will reinforce that Muslim children can"become the presidents of this country." The Nation of Islam's Louis Farrakhan called Obama"the hope of the entire world" and compared him to his religion's founder, Fard Muhammad.
But this excitement also has a dark side – suspicions that Obama is a traitor to his birth religion, an apostate (murtadd) from Islam. Al-Qaeda has prominently featured Obama's stating"I am not a Muslim" and one analyst, Shireen K. Burki of the University of Mary Washington, sees Obama as"bin Laden's dream candidate." Should he become U.S. commander in chief, she believes, Al-Qaeda would likely"exploit his background to argue that an apostate is leading the global war on terror … to galvanize sympathizers into action."
Mainstream Muslims tend to tiptoe around this topic. An Egyptian supporter of Obama, Yasser Khalil, reports that many Muslims react"with bewilderment and curiosity" when Obama is described as a Muslim apostate; Josie Delap and Robert Lane Greene of the Economist even claim that the Obama-as-apostate theme"has been notably absent" among Arabic-language columnists and editorialists.
That latter claim is inaccurate, for the topic is indeed discussed. At least one Arabic-language newspaper published Burki's article. Kuwait's Al-Watan referred to Obama as"a born Muslim, an apostate, a convert to Christianity." Writing in the Arab Times, Syrian liberal Nidal Na‘isa repeatedly called Obama an"apostate Muslim."
In sum, Muslims puzzle over Obama's present religious status. They resist his self-identification as a Christian while they assume a baby born to a Muslim father and named"Hussein" began life a Muslim. Should Obama become president, differences in Muslim and American views of religious affiliation will create problems.
Posted on: Monday, August 25, 2008 - 10:31
SOURCE: Washington Times / Frontpagemag.com (8-25-08)
Apparently the Russian prime minister knew exactly what he was doing but assumed no one in the West did. And he was right.
Our pundits and politicians are all over the map as Mr. Putin is variously portrayed as villain, victim, patriot, tyrant - and more still.
The neoconservatives: We must make Russia pay a terrible price for subverting a democracy. Our policy of promoting liberal governments among the former Soviet republics, with integration into Europe and relations with NATO, was sound, and it cannot be allowed to be aborted by Mr. Putin.
Bottom line: Form a ring of democracies around Russia until it sees the light and likewise evolves into a constitutional state.
The paleoconservatives: Mr. Putin is only protecting his rightful national interests in his own backyard, which don't really conflict with ours. You have to admire the old brute for taking care of business. Neocons - and no doubt Israelis in the background - provoked that Georgian loudmouthed dandy Mikhail Saakashvili to stick his head in a noose, so he deserved the hanging he got.
Bottom line: We should cut a deal with our natural ally Vladimir Putin to keep out of each other's proper sphere of influence - and let each deal as it wishes with these miserable little third-party troublemakers.
The realists: Don't poke sticks at the Bear. We should define our strategic interests in the region. Maybe we can protect Eastern Europe, the Baltic States and Ukraine - but only if we accept that Georgia just isn't part of the equation. We need to back out of the saloon with drawn pistols, and save as much face as we can.
This is a reminder that we forgot the role of honor and fear in international relations when we encouraged weak former Soviet republics merrily to join the West and gratuitously humiliate Russia.
Bottom line: Don't get caught again issuing promises that we can't keep!
The left wing: Mr. Putin's unilateral pre-emption was just like our own in Iraq. His recognition of South Ossetia's independence was no different from our own in breakaway Kosovo. So America is just as bad. Russia's attack is the moral equivalent of America arbitrarily removing the tyrant Saddam Hussein. It's all about Big Oil and pipelines anyway - along with George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Halliburton et al.
Bottom line: Another long overdue comeuppance for the American Empire.
The liberal mainstream: Both sides are at fault. We understand Georgia's plight, but also Russia's dilemma. We should consult the United Nations, involve the European Union and encourage European diplomacy. We can learn from the multilateral NATO teamwork in Afghanistan.
Bottom line: Make sure that international institutions don't confuse an empathetic America with cowboy George Bush.
The Europeans: Prioritize! (1) Don't jeopardize gas supplies from, and trade with, Russia; (2) avoid any confrontation in any form; (3) make sure Mr. Bush does not do something stupid to draw us too far in, but at least does something to avoid leaving us too far out.
Bottom line: Luckily, Tbilisi is still a long way from Berlin and Paris!
The rest of America: My lord, Mr. Putin is acting just like Leonid Brezhnev! But they told us he just wanted to democratize and reform Russia, integrate with NATO and the European Union, and help fight radical Islam! So why did he get angry with Georgia when it just wanted to do the same things he was supposed to be doing? That backstabber wasn't honest with us!
Bottom line: Now what?
The more Russia promises to leave Georgia, the more it seems to stay put. One reason may be that Mr. Putin keeps counting on us either to be confused, contradictory or angrier at ourselves than at Russia over his latest aggression. And given our inability to speak with one voice, he seems to be absolutely right.
Posted on: Monday, August 25, 2008 - 05:34
SOURCE: Britannica Blog (8-23-08)
[Little] attention has been paid to [John] McCain’s reiterations, and expansions, upon his claim that he will provide unprecedented access to both Congress and the media to ask questions of him when/if he is President. Over at least the last thirty years, we have been watching a trend towards less and less unfettered public or congressional access to the President, and McCain would be following one of the most secretive administrations in history. In terms of the fraying relationships between the two leading branches of our government, these claims – and he is getting more insistent about them all the time – really deserve to be considered carefully. In fact, the most sweeping change that he insisted upon in his Politico interview could be nothing less than a constitutional revolution. I am referring to his promise to have “Question Time” (a la the House of Commons grilling the Prime Minister on Wednesdays) “once every couple of weeks.”
This is not to say that such a practice would be inconsistent with our constitutional design, but it would mark a very different interpretation of it than the one that has prevailed for much of our history.
Consider Article II, Section 3 of the Constitution: [The President] “shall from time to time give to Congress information of the State of the Union, and recommend to their consideration such measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient.”
The language of the Constitution does not, in any strict sense, dictate our common practice of limiting the president’s appearances before Congress to an “Annual Message” (what Franklin Roosevelt coined as “The State of the Union”) nor does it preclude the type of event that McCain now proposes. How the “information” is to be delivered is entirely open-ended, and “from time to time” could mean once a year but it could also mean “every couple of weeks.” We have long held that the President “recommends measures for consideration” by having congressional surrogates introduce bills for congressional consideration, but the constitution does not say that he can’t deliver them in person.
The practice of presenting the President’s “information” as a formal speech to Congress near the opening of each new session is never specified in our constitution, and even though it seems a time-honored ritual, this practice itself has undergone many changes during our history. Washington and Adams delivered such addresses in person. Jefferson thought such speeches too monarchical – suggesting an unseemly subordination of the people’s representatives to an executive command – and inaugurated the practice of limiting formal communications with Congress to written messages delivered by the clerk of the House.
After over 100 years in abeyance, Woodrow Wilson reinstituted the practice of the President delivering a message to Congress in person and also began the now common practice of using the statement as an opportunity to present an “administration agenda” to the legislature. While Jefferson had feared that the President speaking of constitutional verities to Congress looked too much like a monarch establishing the terms of patriotic citizenship to subjects in the trappings of a “Speech from the Throne,” Wilson had in mind a presentation of the President as a “head of government” rather than as a “head of state.” His intention, pre-figured by his seminal essays on “Cabinet Government,” was to move the President more in the direction of being a Prime Minister.
Ironically, John McCain (a proud devotee of Wilson’s bitter rival Teddy Roosevelt) appears interested in taking us farther in this direction. Although the precise contours of a “Presidential Question Time” would have to be worked out, it is inconceivable that it would preserve the high state formalities that characterize our annual State of the Union addresses today. The ritual pounding of the door, announcement of the Sergeant at Arms, hand-pumping strolls, and periodic standing ovations would not be repeated (or covered by all major networks) every two weeks. It seems inevitable that a regular Question Time would become a much more workaday affair.
Would the President carry a giant briefing book and flip through it before answering? Would he suffer the jeers and boos of the opposition (and sometimes his own) backbenchers when he answered poorly or made reference to a member of his cabinet who is out of favor with the legislators? Would he dare to reply to questioners who appeared to be infringing on purely executive matters that “it is none of your damned business”? And how would that play when the American people saw the President reacting that way to members of the House on CNN?
These last two questions, in particular, should be carefully considered before we buy McCain’s “open presidency.” Gordon Brown is the first minister of Parliament and his business is Parliament’s business. They can remove him if they don’t like his answers, but the American President is not hired by Congress and is answerable to them only in cases of impeachment for “high crimes and misdemeanors.” What does that leave Congress to do with a President who provides poor answers or refuses to answer important questions at all? In time, would failure to answer congressional queries come to be treated as an impeachable dereliction of a constitutional duty to “give to Congress information on the State of the Union”? Would this subordinate the executive’s power to the “confidence” of Congress?
McCain’s “Question Time” promise raises far more questions than I can enumerate here, but if he wants to make the claim, he should have to explain how this will work and how it will transform – for good or ill – the relationship between the branches of our government.
Let’s hope that during the presidential debates, McCain is not asked how many houses he owns but rather about how he proposes to conduct himself if he, as President, goes to visit the houses of Congress.
Posted on: Saturday, August 23, 2008 - 11:39
SOURCE: http://www.historiae.org (8-23-08)
In many ways, Barack Obama’s approach to Iraq is strikingly similar to that of the Bush administration and John McCain. In theory, the addition of Joe Biden to Obama’s ticket could change this, but over the last weeks and months there have been interesting moves by Biden to remove most traces of his “Iraq plans” from the public domain.
With regard to Iraq, the real context of the upcoming Democratic convention is that “the surge” in Iraq is not working at all. Despite measurable successes in bringing the levels of violence down, the American-sponsored political system in Iraq is actually more dysfunctional than ever, and incapable of delivering the results that both Iraqis and Americans are looking for. Perhaps the best evidence is the fact that it is now Washington’s own darlings in Iraq and their pet projects that stand in the way of progress, as seen in the vice-presidential vetoes this year against the provincial powers law and the provincial elections law. There is in fact a cross-sectarian majority in the Iraqi parliament that wants to have early elections and power-sharing in Kirkuk, but Washington’s allies among the Kurds and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) keep blocking progress towards national reconciliation and a more sustainable political system. The salient cleavages in Iraqi politics are increasingly of a non-sectarian nature – the alliance that challenged the Maliki government through its demand for early elections and power-sharing in Kirkuk had an eminently cross-sectarian composition, and no matter how the media likes to spin it, the recent sacking of the police commander in Diyala did pit some powerful Shiite players against each other – but American policy fails to respond to this reality.
Thankfully, there is growing attention to these cross-sectarian trends at least among some US analysts. There has been some debate as to the usefulness or otherwise of a new nomenclature introduced by USIP’s Sam Parker that employs the terms “The Powers That Be” and “The Powers That Aren’t” to describe the real battlefronts in Iraqi politics, with some critics finding the dichotomy pretentious and nothing more than a new name for “government and opposition”. However, that overlooks the way in which Parker’s concepts clearly augment our understanding of Iraq: they define the glue that holds the government together, and provide a very good point of departure for discussing those ideological pressures that threaten the survival of Maliki and which should be taken into account in any serious discussion of future US policy.(1)
Barack Obama, though, has yet to discover the usefulness of these concepts. During his recent trip to the Middle East, he revealed an extremely dated way of thinking about Iraq, more or less reiterating the Iraq cosmology of those Bush administration officials that have been in charge since 2003. During a press conference in Amman on 22 July following a visit to Anbar where meetings with “Sunni tribal leaders” were high on the agenda, this tendency could be seen very clearly, with Obama consistently portraying the principal dynamic of Iraqi politics as a struggle between Shiites and Sunnis. For example, Obama opined: “I think resolving the big issues like the hydrocarbons law in a way that gives Sunnis the impression that their voice is heard, that’s going to be important.” In fact, the real problem with regard to the hydrocarbons law is that two Kurdish parties insist on the right of federal regions to sign contracts with foreign compaines, whereas almost all the other parties – in this case Sunnis and Shiites alike, and including some of those Shiites that normally are quite pro-Kurdish – favour a more centralised system. Most Iraqis are confident that a purely demographic distribution system based on governorates (not sects!) will be adopted, and see the American quest for a “Sunni quota” as out of touch with Iraqi traditions of centralised government. Again, Obama: “Now, the willingness of Sunni cabinet members who have resigned to now return, to have those cabinet seats filled, and a sense that the Sunnis are going to participate aggressively in the upcoming elections, that, again, is I think a sign of progress.” Once more, very few analysts that have done work on Iraq before 2003 think the return to the government of the tiny Iraqi Islamic Party (IIP) would be of any consequence whatsoever. With or without the IIP in their ranks, Maliki and his team will still fail to bring significant change to Iraq and a less sectarian political system of the kind that a majority of parliamentarians are calling for.
Arguably, the addition of Joe Biden to the Obama ticket might aggravate these tendencies, because in the past Biden has been a leading American voice in promoting an interpretation of Iraq as a country of three mutually hostile and internally stable population blocks. His various “plans for Iraq”, while frequently misunderstood, in different ways reinforce the view that the main problem in Iraq has to do with a centralised state structure and coexistence issues. Like many others in American politics, Biden has failed to acknowledge the emerging non-sectarian trends in Iraq, seeking instead to push ideas about “Sunni federalism” during his visit to the Anbar governorate. Remarkably, however, it seems that Biden may have cleaned up his Iraq rhetoric as part of his VP bid. At least, it is quite conspicuous how every trace of his “plan for Iraq” now appears to have been erased from his website at joebiden.com, where he now instead supports Barrack Obama’s more general argument about shifting the focus to Afghanistan. Also, at some point between April 2008 and today, Biden’s website specifically devoted to his soft partition schemes, www.planforiraq.com, was quietly shut down – at this site, Biden’s rhetoric had consistently focused on a tripartite Iraq to the very end. Only on his Senate website traces of his Iraq policy remain, but even there a more toned-down version appears, with the emphasis on a general push for federalisation. This is still in contravention of the Iraqi constitution (which specifically rejects any kind of elite-driven federalisation process) but it could perhaps mean that Biden increasingly realises that his plans were unsustainable and that trends in Iraq militate against them.
Still, for Iraq this seems to be a stark choice. On the one hand, there is McCain, who looks set to persevere with the Bush policy of handling Iraq primarily through military power instead of working for a more truly inclusive political system. With its systematic promotion to top positions in the new Iraq of some of the most sectarian, pro-Iranian and unprofessional cliques among Iraq’s 18 million (and mostly Iraqi nationalist) Shiites, this contradictive policy seems so obviously antithetical to long-term American interests that it is really hard to make perfect sense of (except if one does what should be the unthinkable and puts it in the frightening context of a grander plan to eventually force regime change in Iran as well). Democrats appear to be equally ignorant about the survival of Iraqi nationalist sentiment, but they express this in a different policy: acceptance of Iranian influence in Iraq as something natural. This was even written into Obama’s “New Strategy for a New World”, released in mid-July. Commenting on Iraq, Obama writes, “Iraq is not going to be a perfect place…we are not going to … eliminate every trace of Iranian influence”. He seems unaware that this particular statement may be seen as deeply offensive by many Iraqi Shiites who are proud of their Iraqi identity but fearful of Iran and the pro-Iranian elites that have been empowered by the Bush administration. Their fear is that a new Democratic administration will accord Iran exaggerated influence in Iraq as part of a grand, Dayton-style regional settlement designed as an antidote to the Bush administration’s unilateralist policies.
Of course, Obama’s stance flows from a multi-lateralist attitude which in itself is laudable. In general, it makes sense for the United States to rely more on national and regional equilibriums than to seek to micro-manage in the name of democracy. But in the specific case of Iraq, there is a responsibility for correcting past mistakes as part of a viable exit strategy. Democrats cannot simply close their eyes and imagine that the Iraq of 2008 in any way represents a natural state of affairs, and that a quick withdrawal automatically will prompt some kind of Hobbesian reset whereby the country will find back to its true self. Real change in Iraq would mean that Obama realised that for five years straight the United States has promoted and consolidated an artificial sectarian system in the country, and that disengagement from Iraq should also aim at reversing this trend. The real challenge is not to reconcile Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds but to bring Powers That Aren’t into the system. The instrument to do this is not some kind of federalism magic or a complex oil distribution formula, but to move away from the sectarian quota system more generally and towards a traditional state model with autonomy for the Kurds and more modest decentralisation in the rest of the country. And Biden should remember that the only thing that is artificial about today’s Iraq is the particular selection of sectarian leaders that the Bush administration has anointed to lead the country, and the exaggerated Iranian influence that comes with some of them.
(1) Sam Parker explains the PTB/PTA dichotomy as follows: The PTB/PTA dynamic is different from "government" and "opposition" in two important ways. First, PTA includes the Awakenings, Sadris, emerging nationalist groups, tribal leaders, etc. who either aren't represented in governing institutions at all or, in the case of the Sadris, for whom there is a tenuous relationship between the militant street movement and the guys in the COR. Moreover, many of these groups, first the Sadris and now the Awakenings (and whoever gets rolled up with these two groups along the way), are facing active, military persecution by the PTB. There is an intense effort to keep them shut out of all governing institutions. This portion of the PTA cannot accurately be described as "opposition" in any sense. They are too disenfranchised to be the opposition, and they're surely not in parliament.
Second, it is true that the PTA also does include the parliamentary opposition. But even here, opposition/government doesn't adequately convey the dynamics. In a normal parliamentary political system, there is an assumption that the government can be voted out and replaced, that this transition of power will occur peacefully as a result of everyone following the rules. But what if you have a ruling coalition that never intends to share power if it can get away with it, openly flouts parliamentary procedure, owns the "state" security services in a way that is very unlikely to be transferrable, all within a set of governing institutions that has not once experienced a peaceful transition of power? The PTB are trying to lock up and shut down the political system, whatever rudiments of democratic institutions may be formally in place. Opposition/government does not convey any of this dynamic. However, it is exactly this dynamic of being "shut out" that the "street" PTA and the parliamentary PTA share, and what I think is captured by the PTA/PTB dichotomy.
Posted on: Saturday, August 23, 2008 - 10:50
SOURCE: New Republic (8-21-08)
The campaign's response to the controversy shows that it recognizes the damage it could do to Obama's ambitions: Instead of defending the vote, Obama and his surrogates have sought to excuse it. First they insisted he would have supported the Illinois bill had its language resembled the federal version. Then, when it came to light that the language of the two bills was virtually identical, they claimed that the candidate opposed the bill because it had no "neutrality clause"--a statement ensuring that it wouldn't curtail existing abortion rights. And yet it appears that the final version of the bill contained precisely such language--a fact that apparently did nothing to change Obama's mind about its merits. If conservatives get their way, these crumbling excuses, along with Obama's refusal to answer a question about when a baby acquires human rights at Rick Warren's recent Saddleback church event, will transform Obama in the eyes of evangelicals from an electoral temptation into a morally and politically radioactive "Senator Infanticide." (That's what the National Review called him on its website's homepage yesterday.)
Democrats have every reason to lament this turn of events, but they should not consider it a matter of simple bad luck. On the contrary, Obama, in failing to "support" children "born alive," has fallen into a trap meticulously constructed and laid by the theoconservative intellectuals who have exercised so much influence over the religious right these past several decades....
Posted on: Friday, August 22, 2008 - 16:31
SOURCE: Nation (8-22-08)
China specialists make a parlor game of imagining what Mao Tse-Tung would make of the People's Republic of China today, with its capitalist-friendly Communists and young people more familiar with the theme song from Titanic than The East is Red.
In China's Brave New World, for example, I ruminate on a revivified Mao's likely response to my favorite Nanjing bookstore, where the philosophy section has nary a copy of his Little Red Book, but does contain Bertrand Russell's History of Western Philosophy and studies of abstruse French theory, like the optimistically titled Understanding Foucault. Some of my colleagues have taken this motif a step further, bringing into the mix the Chairman's arch-rival, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-shek who died in exile on a Nationalist Party-run Taiwan that was both capitalist and authoritarian. In Modern China: A Very Short Introduction, for instance, Oxford historian Rana Mitter writes:"One can imagine Chiang Kaishek's ghost wandering around China today nodding in approval, while Mao's ghost follows behind him, moaning at the destruction of his vision."
If the Olympics mark a turning point in the history of the PRC, isn't it time to play this game with the Games? What would Chairman Mao and Generalissimo Chiang make of the Beijing that has played host to athletes, journalists, fans and political leaders? How would the opening ceremonies have struck them? What about the media coverage and sporting events that followed?
Let's start with the ghosts of two competitors arriving in a pre-Games Beijing. Much about the look of the city would shock them, since neither had governed a metropolis with skyscrapers and mega-malls. News that the metropolis was gearing up to host the Olympics would surely be a welcome surprise. Both Mao and Chiang had long lamented the fact that China of the early 1900s was derided as the"sick man of Asia," a play on earlier Western references to the Ottoman Empire in Europe--each a once-proud place that now could be bullied. Both leaders stressed the importance of exercise, insisting that China's lack of a strong tradition of vigorous sports had contributed to it being laid low by Western and then Japanese imperialism. The dream of China hosting the Games dates back to the early 1900s, so each leader would be pleased this longtime wish had been granted.
Once the ghosts got their bearings, their reactions to Beijing would begin to diverge. Mao would be delighted to see his face on most currency, but maybe a bit put off by the fact that some new banknotes feature the Bird's Nest Stadium instead. And he'd be pleased to see that a giant portrait of his face still looks down on Tiananmen Square. These same things would infuriate the Generalissimo.
As a Christian who had made the birthday of Confucius an official holiday during the Nationalist period (1927-1949), the religious situation would be somewhat gratifying to the Generalissimo and annoying to the Chairman. It is true that the only Christian churches offering services now are carefully selected officially sanctioned ones, like that recently visited by"Xiao Bushi" (Little Bush, as George W. is sometimes called to distinguish him from his father). The unofficial but increasingly popular"house churches" remain illegal. Still, the situation is quite different than it was on the mainland late in Mao's life, when all manifestations of Christian belief were driven underground.
As for Confucius, reviled by Mao as a feudal thinker, temples devoted to the Sage that were destroyed by Red Guards have been refurbished and new statues honoring him have been installed. Seeing such objects erected in the kinds of places where statues of Mao himself once stood (though there are still plenty of those around, too) would be hard for the Chairman's ghost to take.
The prominence of Confucius in the Olympics opening ceremonies is also relevant. He was invoked early on in the show, via a famous quotation of the Sage's about the pleasure of having"friends come from afar" and a contingent of performers dressed as his disciples. This would have been a source of comfort to the Generalissimo's ghost, an outrage to Mao's. If any ancient figure deserved to be celebrated, according to the Chairman, it was the First Emperor of the Qin, known for, among other things, his disdain for Confucian scholars and their books.
Neither ghost would have minded seeing those segments of the ceremonies that Western commentators have criticized as evocative of Nazi or North Korean rituals. The Generalissimo fought the Axis powers during World War II, but he was drawn at times to fascism; the Chairman and North Korea's leaders often had similar approaches to spectacle. Moreover, both Mao and Chiang presided over National Day parades on their respective sides of the Taiwan straits that involved large numbers of people moving together in lock-step.
What would have disturbed both was the quick march through China's history, in which director Zhang Yimou skipped straight from the Ming Dynasty, represented by the giant ships of explorer Zheng He, to the late 1970s. This made it seem as if the anti-dynastic 1911 Revolution of Sun Yat-sen, the Japanese invasions of the 1930s (that both Mao and Chiang resisted), the Long March (that saved the Communist Party from extinction at the hands of the Nationalists), and the that period from 1949 to the mid-1970s that Mao ruled the mainland and Chiang ruled Taiwain) had never happened. The events of the 20th century were of epic importance for China; to see most of it airbrushed out of the Olympic gala would disturb not only to the ghosts, but all who understand the dangers of a selective telling of history.
Moving forward to the sporting events, there are four things worth noting, especially relating to Mao's ghost:
He would've likeD seeing China besting America in the gathering in of a valuable kind of mineral. The disastrous Great Leap Forward he launched, which contributed to a famine with a staggeringly high death toll, after all, was aimed at catching up with and ultimately surpassing Western countries in steel production.
We should remember that Mao touted the importance of female equality, via slogans such as"women hold up half the sky" and the introduction of a new, much fairer Marriage Law in 1950. As such, surely his ghost would have taken pleasure in success of China's female athletes.
As someone famed for his swims in the Yangzi River, Mao might have been delighted by the aquatic stadium and swimming and diving events. But he did value a governing party's ability to control the news and give it a nationalistic spin--something that Chiang, also no slouch as a proponent of censorship, prized as well. And so, Mao's ghost would have understood why the exploits of domestic athletes got more attention than did those of Michael Phelps on Chinese television.
Most significantly, Mao's ghost would surely have been pleased to learn that, while athletes based on Taiwan can still compete as their own team, they cannot use their national flag or have their national anthem played during the Games. This is just one of many aspects of Beijing in 2008 that shows the degree to which it is the Communist Party's spin on the"one China" theme, not the Nationalist Party's one, that remains dominant.
In the end, then, Mao would be the one most satisfied by the Games. Geremie Barme, an Australian Sinologist who is a leading authority on both Mao and Chinese film, argues that there were subtle ways that the opening ceremonies invoked the Chairman. He notes that director Zhang Yimou took one of the Chairman's watchwords ("using the past to serve the present and the foreign to serve China") as his guide throughout.
This is doubtless true, but there is nothing subtle about some aspects of the Games that would have pleased The Chairman, including the makeup of the crowd. After being humiliated on 1950s trips to Moscow, forced to play supplicating"little brother" to patronizing Soviet leaders, Mao was eager to see a day when foreign heads of great powers would come to Beijing on Beijing's own terms. So Mao's ghost would surely have liked the sight of Putin and Bush sitting in a Chinese stadium awash with red PRC flags, watching a spectacle that most foreigners found impressive, even if at times also a bit disturbing. And as Barme reminds us, though there were allusions to Confucius in the show, many of the choreographers and performers responsible for it were from an organization that was always very dear to Mao: the People's Liberation Army, which he had once led into battle and ultimately led to victory over the forces of Chiang's Nationalist Party.
Reprinted with permission from the Nation. For subscription information call 1-800-333-8536. Portions of each week's Nation magazine can be accessed at http://www.thenation.com.
Posted on: Friday, August 22, 2008 - 15:05