Monday, February 25, 2008

Fear Strikes Out

Test the average man by asking him to listen to a simple sentence which contains one word with associations to excite his prejudices, fears or passions -- he will fail to understand what you have said and reply by expressing his emotional reaction to the critical word. -- Aleister Crowley

The Weekly Sift is now it's own blog. (Which should be obvious if that's where you're reading these words.) I bill it as "a political blog for people who don't have time to follow political blogs." My occasional longer political pieces will still be on Open Source Journalism and my philosophical/religious stuff on Free and Responsible Search.

Fear-mongering, Week II
We're still not dead.

This week President Bush and the Republicans did their best to convince us that our continuing survival (in the wake of the expiration of the Protect America Act a week ago Saturday) is just some kind of happy accident that we shouldn't count on. As President Bush put it in his weekly radio address:
Congress' failure to pass this legislation was irresponsible. It will leave our Nation increasingly vulnerable to attack. And Congress must fix this damage to our national security immediately. ... Somewhere in the world, at this very moment, terrorists are planning the next attack on America.
Here's the audio link. It fascinates me that even on the radio, where all he has worry about is his voice, President Bush still sounds like he's reading a text he doesn't understand. Frank Caliendo still does a better Bush impression than Bush does.

At the start of a 9-minute polemic (that I didn't watch all the way to the end either), MSNBC host Keith Olbermann summarized the issue concisely: "President Bush has put protecting the telecom giants from the law above protecting you from the terrorists." The House has already passed an extension of the Protect America Act that doesn't include immunity for the telecoms. President Bush has promised to veto it, and Congressional Republicans have boycotted a bipartisan meeting to work out the differences between the two PAA-extension bills. That's how urgent they think this really is. If ordinary Americans get their day in court, the terrorists win.

The issue fundamentally comes down to a difference between two visions of how the power to spy on American citizens should be controlled. In the Republican vision, the President's people go to the telecom companies informally and get their cooperation with no oversight from anyone outside the executive branch. (What could possibly go wrong with that?) In the Democratic vision, we follow the Fourth Amendment and require that some neutral party issue a warrant -- in this case, a FISA court specially designed to be quick and secure; if time is critical, the warrant can even be issued retroactively. The often-repeated claim that the FISA oversight structure is inadequate has never been supported by any evidence whatsoever. Whenever challenged, the Republicans always skip over evidence and go straight to fear-mongering.

In the most over-the-top element of the fear campaign, the House Republican Conference sponsored an Internet video made in the style of 24. (Somebody needs to tell them that 24 isn't a documentary.) It's got red-LED countdowns and weapon-waving jihadists and music that seems to be building towards some ultimate doom. The Republican video almost parodies itself, but that didn't stop another two parodies from appearing almost instantly. The first uses all the same visual elements, but turns the narration around to tell the story of the heroic House Democrats standing up for the Constitution. The second goes straight for yucks and is absolutely hilarious. It ends with: "This message paid for by Republicans trying to get you to crap your pants so that you forget how we screwed everything up."

The fascinating thing about this video back-and-forth is that the Democratic Party had nothing to do with it. In the Internet Age, the capacity to make compelling video is widely distributed, so the battle plays out like Microsoft vs. Linux. On the one hand you have the minions of our corporate overlords, and on the other you have the voluntary creativity of the people.

The Revelations about St. John
It all started Thursday, when the New York Times published an article about John McCain and a much younger female lobbyist. Back in 1999, the NYT claimed, McCain staffers were worried that their boss was having an affair that might threaten his campaign. If you read carefully, the story was about appearances and McCain's lack of judgment, not about sex per se. But that's not what caught everybody's attention.

By almost all accounts, the article was a bad piece of journalism. Here's what the Times' own public editor said Sunday:
The article was notable for what it did not say: It did not say what convinced the advisers that there was a romance. It did not make clear what McCain was admitting when he acknowledged behaving inappropriately — an affair or just an association with a lobbyist that could look bad. And it did not say whether Weaver, the only on-the-record source, believed there was a romance. The Times did not offer independent proof ... A newspaper cannot begin a story about the all-but-certain Republican presidential nominee with the suggestion of an extramarital affair with an attractive lobbyist 31 years his junior and expect readers to focus on anything other than what most of them did. And if a newspaper is going to suggest an improper sexual affair, whether editors think that is the central point or not, it owes readers more proof than The Times was able to provide.
But after the article appeared, two interesting things happened. The first, which I think is noteworthy because it points up an essential difference between liberals and conservatives, is that the liberals blogs handled the story in a partisan-but-responsible way: From the get-go, most of them played down the poorly supported sex angle and instead focused on the legitimate connections-to-lobbyists angle. (Maybe we remember how easily stories about "appearances" turn into smears, like the Washington Post's article about the rumors that Obama is a Muslim.) OpenLeft's first article on the brewing scandal was ambivalent: "I wish the focus of the story had been more on the corruption angle than the sex angle." Kevin Drum wrote: "If McCain didn't have an affair, there's no story. If he did, then let's hear the evidence." Jane Hamsher: "the part of the story they're obsessing about (alleged sex) isn't really the story at all." Matthew Yglesias sums up: "In a nation of 300 million people, I'm sure some people on the left have jumped at the opportunity to skewer McCain, but just about every liberal I read has taken the time to note that the Times' sexual innuendos were a pretty inappropriate way to frame a news story."

The second interesting thing was this: On the lobbying and corruption side of the story, McCain's denials didn't add up, and in some respects were simply false. The lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, was working for Paxson Communications (and according to the Washington Post "extolling her connections to McCain ... she would regularly volunteer ... to be the point person for the telecom industry in dealing with McCain's office."). McCain, then the chair of the Senate Commerce Committee, wrote two letters (described by the FCC chairman as "highly unusual") pressuring the FCC to approve Paxson's purchase of a Pittsburgh TV station. According to the Post article: "At the time he sent the first letter, McCain had flown on Paxson's corporate jet four times to appear at campaign events and had received $20,000 in campaign donations from Paxson and its law firm." Iseman was on the jet with him at least once.

The McCain campaign responded that McCain had never spoken to anyone at Paxson about the issue. But it turned out that he had. And he had testified to it himself in a 2002 deposition discovered by Newsweek: "I was contacted by Mr. [Lowell] Paxson on this issue." The McCain campaign tried to weasel out of the contradiction by saying that McCain was using "shorthand" for the fact that Paxson's staff had talked to McCain's staff. But that turned out not to be true either: The Washington Post talked to Paxson, who verified that he met McCain face-to-face in his office.

Now, as I said last week, McCain is a politician. And the Paxson exchange-of-favors is garden-variety corruption in Washington today. If you threw out everybody who did something like this, Congress might be empty. (One chapter of Obama's The Audacity of Hope consists of his thoughts while riding on a private jet and wondering how this easy luxury might corrupt him.) But this is news because it unravels the whole "straight talk" image. If you ask John McCain an embarrassing question, he just might lie to you. Color me shocked. Horrified.

Why Words Matter
One way to tick off a writer is to say that something is "just words." It's like telling a cancer researcher that his new drug is just a molecule. So I feel a professional obligation to point out the significance of Barack Obama's ability to inspire people with words.

It comes down to this: By the time the public sees an issue, powerful behind-the-scenes processes have already shaped the possibilities. That's why President Bush can't be impeached, despite the ample grounds. Any discussion is immediately written off as pointless; it's impossible. That's why we can't have single-payer health care, and why we can't pull our troops out of Iraq. As soon as you open your mouth, people start rolling their eyes. Why even talk about something that's impossible?

Bill Clinton's biggest failing as a president wasn't that he couldn't keep his pants zipped, it was that he couldn't change the possibilities. He inherited a trail map of the Possible from the Reagan/Bush years. And though he tried to walk down the most humane and sensible paths, he never changed the map. When he left office, we were still talking about deregulation, Saddam, balancing the budget, global free trade, welfare reform -- Reagan/Bush issues. That's why Bush Jr. could restart the rightward push so easily: Clinton never really stopped it.

If we're ever going to change the possibilities, we need a president who can go over the heads of the possibility-defining establishment and talk directly to the people. Obama can do that. Bill Clinton couldn't and Hillary Clinton can't either. That matters.

Here's the video of Obama's speech in Houston after winning the Wisconsin primary. (You can skip the first 6:30, which is a wildly cheering crowd followed by some Texas-specific stuff.) I found it jaw-droppingly effective. My wife wanted to go to bed, but couldn't pull herself away from the TV. I don't remember ever having that reaction while watching either Bill or Hillary.

Previews of the Fall Campaign
Two developments strike me as previews of the Republican plans for an anti-Obama fall campaign. The first is the use of trivia to suggest that Obama is unpatriotic. He doesn't wear a flag pin. Apparently there's some photo of him not holding his hand over his heart during the national anthem. This seems modeled on the pledge-of-allegiance "issue" that Bush Sr. exploited against Dukakis in 1988. (Let's not even get into National Review's implication that Obama's parents must have been Communists.)

The second is to jump on any Obama story that sounds implausible to Republicans and charge that Obama must have made it up. We saw it happen this week with Obama's story about an officer in Afghanistan who didn't have his full platoon because some soldiers had been sent to Iraq. (The story checks out.) They did the same thing with John Edwards' claims about homeless veterans earlier in the campaign. Expect the Right to manufacture a bunch of these incidents and then turn them into an Obama-makes-things-up theme, as they did to Al Gore in 2000.

After writing the above, I discovered the Kevin Drum was having similar thoughts.

The YouTube Election, Part II
I already talked about videos in the fear-mongering section, but the creative political audio and video just keeps coming.

My favorite is a message to Ralph Nader from an anonymous supporter of his 2000 campaign, asking him not to run again. The gag is that all of the Nader-2000 people have to be anonymous now, so Phil Donahue and Michael Moore appear with black rectangles over their eyes. (Too bad Ralph ignored it. Obama's response to the Nader announcement: "He thought that there was no difference between Al Gore and George Bush, and eight years later I think people realize that Ralph did not know what he was talking about.")

Second best is The Art of Speech, which is made in the style of a 1950s instructional video. It contrasts the bad example of a lifeless speaker named John ("Old Stone Face") with the good example of an animated speaker who happens to be Obama.

One of my heroes, Stanford law professor Lawrence Lessig, has started a Change Congress campaign and is deciding whether to run for Congress himself. He explains it in this video. (I consulted a California progressive activist on Lessig's chances in the CA-12 district, and though he also admires Lessig, he was pessimistic.)

You can watch sock puppets explain the new economy and neoliberalism. This rock song by Max and the Marginalized protests Clinton's attempt to count the rule-breaking Michigan and Florida primaries. A Spanish folk music video (with English subtitles) brings the Obama message to Hispanics. Jon Stewart had a very political Oscar monologue, which you can see here.

Short Notes
A lot of the Internet video I watched this week wasn't political. I recommend the darkly funny and engaging series You Suck at Photoshop. Ostensibly, these are 5-6 minute instructional videos made by some Photoshop geek named Donnie who you never see. (They all start: "Hi, my name is Donnie, and you suck at Photoshop.") But stories emerge as you watch Donnie alter his pictures, and you come to understand that what really sucks in Donnie's life has nothing to do with you or with Photoshop.

Bookmark this: Donnie's creator Big Fat Brain is a member of My Damn Channel, a consortium of Internet video artists. Another good way to find new videos is through the Did You See This? blog at Slate V.

Everybody's going to be talking about the Atlantic article Marry Him by Lori Gottlieb. Gottlieb recommends that women not hold out for Mr. Right, but should marry Mr. Good-Enough while they're still young and attractive enough to have the opportunity. This article is sure to generate the kind of reactions described by the Crowley quote above. (The "critical word" is settle.) Just for clarity: Mr. Good-Enough isn't the boyfriend who mistreated you or lacked basic life skills; he's the guy you never considered as boyfriend material because he was too short or dressed funny or had an irritating laugh.

In the long run, the biggest story of the week was probably that Musharraf's party got soundly beaten in Pakistan's parliamentary elections. If the new parliament can get its act together, we may find out how you impeach a president for violating the Constitution.

This week's challenge: Can anybody (without using Google) recognize where I got the "Fear Strike Out" title?


Ellen said...

You've seen the original "Anonymous" anti-Scientology video that the Nader one is spoofing, right?

Doug Muder said...

Uhh ... I have now.