Monday, February 14, 2011

Extremism in Defense of Fantasy

Barry Goldwater famously said, “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.”  Maybe so, but extremism in the defense of fantasy is a tougher sell.

-- Dave Hawkins, NRDC Director of Climate Programs

In this week's Sift:

  • Hate Addiction and the Republican Future. Anti-Hispanic and anti-gay rhetoric is like crystal meth: It raises a lot of short-term energy, but there's no future in it. Some Republicans understand this, while others just want to keep cranking.
  • Private Sector Covert Ops. It's not just bad fiction any more: Once you privatize CIA-type spooks, their specialized services become available to Bank of America and the Chamber of Commerce, in case they want to target Think Progress or Glenn Greenwald.
  • Then They Came for the Trade Unionists. New Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker doesn't just want to cut state workers' benefits, he wants to take away their rights.
  • Lies and Opinions. Non-journalists have trouble understanding why Anderson Cooper took so much criticism for accurately identifying the Mubarak regime's false statements as "lies". A model from Jay Rosen and Daniel Hallin explains the unwritten code he violated.
  • Short Notes. A career devoted to helping the uptrodden. Mitt rewrites his autobiography. A crime-ridden city lays off half its police. Cairo makes Bob Herbert wonder about democracy in America. And more.

Hate Addiction and the Republican Future

Simple demographics tells you that in the long run an American political movement doesn't want to be anti-Hispanic or anti-gay.

The Hispanic segment of the population is 15.8% and growing, and is already a major force in Southwestern and Southern states that a Republican presidential candidate needs to carry. Bush in 2004 won and McCain in 2008 lost the 46 electoral votes of Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico, and Florida, largely due to the Hispanic vote, which simultaneously grew and shifted Democratic. In 2012, those states will have 49 votes. Texas (38 more electoral votes and growing) is securely Republican for now, but is projected to have a Hispanic majority by 2040.

Opposition to gay rights is concentrated among the elderly and getting moreso every year. If only people under 30 could vote, same-sex marriage would pass in 38 states, including places like Nebraska and West Virginia. On the other hand, even in liberal Massachusetts and Vermont, no more than 1/3 of those over 65 support it. Year-in, year-out, a lot of elderly Americans die and a lot of teen-agers register to vote. If anti-gay is not already a losing position, it soon will be.

For the Republican Party, nativism and homophobia are like crystal meth: They produce fabulous short-term boosts to the Party's metabolism, but wiser heads -- it's scary when George W. Bush and Dick Cheney are your wiser heads -- look down the road and say, "We've got to get off of this stuff."

But kicking the habit is easier said than done.

Nativism. Enlarged GOP majorities in 15 legislatures are pushing Arizona-style immigration laws -- sometimes to the dismay of their demographically aware Republican governors. California Republican strategist Adam Mendelsohn points out the ominous implication of one of the few Republican failures of 2010:

I really think that California serves as a very important case study in what happens when Republicans alienate Latinos with aggressive rhetoric. We lost every statewide election because we lost Latino voters.

According to the same article from the San Diego Immigrant Rights Consortium:

Conservative Hispanic Christian leaders said talking about illegal-immigrant children as if they’re criminals turns off their conservative congregations, driving them away from what should be a natural alliance with the GOP on other social issues such as opposition to abortion and same-sex marriage.

Homophobia. This week's Conservative Political Action Committee (CPAC) conference was an early salvo in what I expect to be a long-term struggle.

GOProud is a conservative pro-gay-rights organization that participated in CPAC. A boycott led by folks like Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council failed to get them thrown out, probably because GOProud's board includes conservative heavyweights like Andrew Breitbart and Grover Norquist.

So far the results are a draw: The new chair of the American Conservative Union, which organizes CPAC, says "it's going to be difficult to continue the relationship" with GOProud. But in a straw poll of CPAC attendees, 62% supported the decision to include them. (An asterisk there: To the extent that the boycott had any effect, which is questionable given that attendance was up, it would have skewed the straw poll.)

Rather than tip-toe in and thank everyone for their tolerance, GOProud co-founder Christopher Barron whacked the hornets' nest like this:

What we're doing is separating the people who don't agree with the left-wing agenda from the real bigots. You can be against ENDA and hate crimes and federal safe schools legislation and not be a bigot. [But] if you're Tony Perkins, you're a bigot. You're against all of that stuff not because of any federalist reasons, but actually because you're just a nasty, anti-gay bigot.

Barron's "attack against long time solid conservatives" set off founder (and CNN commentator) Erick Erickson, who roundly denounced GOProud. The 200+ comments on his post mostly agree with him, but there are some interesting threads that demonstrate how this discussion plays out on the Right. Ender asks, "how does being for gay marriage preclude someone from being a firm free-market capitalist, supporting limited government, lower taxes and strong national defense?" And jpmulhern replies:

As a society’s morality is less and less capable of holding it together, political power will fill the void. Any efforts to maintain a limited government will be futile once the moral foundation that makes such government possible disappears. … You have joined the side that wants to see the West fall, which is not where any conservative should find himself.

It will be interesting to see how similar discussions progress over time, because jpmulhern's just-so-story logic, devoid of any examples or data -- Massachusetts and Canada have had same-sex marriage for years without any apparent effect on social order -- is widespread on the Right. People who have to fight against it may come to question the whole right-wing agenda.

In another conflict, Bill Kristol's criticism of Glenn Beck's grand Egyptian conspiracy theory has sparked an old-fashioned bar fight among conservatives. Media Matters provides a scorecard, with links to the major bottle-smashers and chair-swingers. Even Beck's Fox News colleague Bill O'Reilly isn't buying it. Find a safe place with a good view and pass the popcorn.

Private Sector Covert Ops

I still haven't wrapped my mind about this, so I'll probably come back to it next week. But I'm pretty sure it's the most important story sailing under the radar: Private security firms that have extensive government contacts and contracts have been pitching proposals to Bank of America, the Chamber of Commerce, and God knows who else to run "information operations" against their enemies. Not rival corporations: unions and liberal blogs.

It gets complicated because there are conflicts of interest in the reporting path: We know all this by way of WikiLeaks and a related group of hackers called Anonymous. But WikiLeaks is itself one of the targeted enemies. And here, ThinkProgress covers a Chamber of Commerce plan to attack (among others) ThinkProgress:

ThinkProgress has learned that a law firm representing the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the big business trade association representing ExxonMobil, AIG, and other major international corporations, is working with set of “private security” companies and lobbying firms to undermine their political opponents, including ThinkProgress, with a surreptitious sabotage campaign.

Assuming this is accurate, we're not talking about normal public-relations stuff. The plans call for discrediting liberal organizations by doing things like creating fake documents that can be leaked to them and then exposed as fakes after the organization runs the story. (Doesn't that sound like what happened to Dan Rather?)

Plans also target journalists who support WikiLeaks (most notably Glenn Greenwald of Salon), saying "these are established professionals that have a liberal bent, but ultimately most of them if pushed will choose professional preservation over cause." The Tech Herald interviewed Glenn, who called the report "creepy and disturbing". In his own column, Greenwald wrote:

My initial reaction to all of this was to scoff at its absurdity. … But after learning a lot more over the last couple of days, I now take this more seriously -- not in terms of my involvement but the broader implications this story highlights.  For one thing, it turns out that the firms involved here are large, legitimate and serious, and do substantial amounts of work for both the U.S. Government and the nation's largest private corporations

I'm still fuzzy on lots of this, like how they planned to make Glenn "choose career preservation". Also:  Is this is a case of private-sector spooks trying to scare up business, or corporate bigwigs soliciting proposals for covert ops? Maybe by next week I'll have a clearer picture.

I'd also like to know who thought up the smear campaign against Planned Parenthood.

Then They Came For the Trade Unionists

Governor Scott Walker's plan to balance Wisconsin's budget is to get rid of public-employee unions. He doesn't propose outlawing the unions altogether, but under his plan they lose their right to negotiate over anything but base pay, or to demand base-pay increases higher than inflation. So basically the unions can exist, but it's illegal for them to do anything meaningful.

If workers get tired of belonging to do-nothing unions, they can just stop paying their dues, and Walker's proposal mandates annual elections to dis-establish the union.

And by the way, state workers will have to pay more for their pensions and healthcare.

The newly-elected Walker has not negotiated with the unions about any of this, and is prepared to call out the National Guard if they strike. reports:

"If you're going to negotiate and you're going to do it in good faith, you're going to have to have something to offer,” Walker said. “The state's broke. Local governments are broke. They don't have anything to offer."

It's one thing to drive a hard bargain. A lot of states have seen revenue drop and expenses increase in the recession, so you would expect them to take a hard line in contract negotiations. But this is something else. This isn't just money, it's taking workers' rights away. And not just until the economy gets better. Permanently.

Who voted for that? What candidate said, "Vote for me. I'll take your collective-bargaining rights away."?

And speaking of revenue drops, Walker has already signed tax cuts that increase the Wisconsin deficit by $117 million over the next two years. Budget-balancing spending cuts in education and Medicaid are expected when Walker's complete budget comes out -- because it makes so much sense to take money from kids and sick people so that you can give it back to corporations.

The title of this section comes from the famous reflection of German Pastor Martin Niemöller on his experience under the Nazis. Glenn Beck has been misquoting this, and popular culture is in danger of losing the original version. Beck says, "First they came for the Jews, …"

But that's not it at all. It really goes: "First they came for the communists … then they came for the trade unionists". Then they come for the Jews and eventually Niemöller himself.

But Beck can't quote it the way it's written, because he's right at the end of an attack on -- you guessed it! -- union leader Andy Stern, "communist" Van Jones, and "Marxist" Jim Wallis. Naturally, it wasn't long before he started going after Jews like George Soros.

Here's a somewhat larger exposition of the pattern Niemöller was pointing to: First they demonize somebody, then they take those people's rights away, and then they demonize somebody else. Over the last few years a lot of effort has gone into demonizing government workers and their unions, to the extent that even private-sector union members may not identify with the "bureaucrats" and "paper-pushers" any more. But once government workers' rights are gone, the demonization machine can move on to focus on somebody else.

(But not you, of course. You could never be demonized.)

There's a lesson here, and it's a very old lesson: People who work for a living need to stick together. When the corporate media tries to raise your envy at some other group of workers who "make too much money", stop and think it through. It's really the corporations and financiers who make too much money. They love it when working people forget about them and squabble with each other instead.

So when you hear that such-and-such workers get some amazing pension, the right question isn't "Who do they think they are?" it's "Why can't I have a pension like that?" There's probably no reason, other than fat cats maneuvering to keep the money for themselves.

Lies and Opinions

The LA Times' Big Picture blog seemed taken aback that CNN's Anderson Cooper repeatedly used the words "lie" and "lying" to describe what the Mubarak regime was doing in its final days. Big Picture noted "Cooper's pronounced shift toward more opinion-making" and theorized that Cooper "may be trying to adopt the more commentary-heavy approach of [his] higher-rated competitors, Fox and MSNBC."

Here's what's strange about the LA Times' view, which seems widespread in the mainstream media village: If a newsmaker says something provably and obviously false, then "lie" is an accurate and objective report, not "commentary" or "opinion". And indeed, Big Picture seems to realize this at some level, admitting uneasily that "It's hard to find fault with what Cooper had to say" even though it had just spent an entire column finding fault.

Salon's Glenn Greenwald quotes CNN media critic Howard Kurtz similarly asking "should an anchor and correspondent be taking sides on this kind of story?" And then Glenn points out what ought to be obvious:

"Objectivity" is breached not when a journalist calls a lie a "lie," but when they refuse to do so, when they treat lies told by powerful political officials as though they're viable, reasonable interpretations of subjective questions. The very idea that a journalist is engaged in "opinion-making" or is "taking sides" by calling a lie a "lie" is ludicrous; the only "side" such a journalist is taking is with facts, with the truth.

So what's going on here? This isn't a glitch, it's how the media works. But how is that exactly?

Jay Rosen is one of the sharpest observers of journalism around. A couple years ago, he brought back Daniel Hallin's Vietnam War model of media coverage. There are, Hallin/Rosen say, three spheres of coverage. At the core is the Sphere of Consensus, the stuff you can either assume without mentioning it or present without any opposing view. Next is the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy, "of issues recognized as such by the major established actors of the American political process". Finally, there is the Sphere of Deviance, in which the press “plays the role of exposing, condemning, or excluding from the public agenda” the deviant views.

What issues belong where is not something that can be determined objectively. Things move from one sphere to the other through some unconscious cultural process among journalists that the journalists themselves don't really understand.

It's an intrinsic part of what [journalists] do, but not a natural part of how they think or talk about their job. Which means they often do it badly. Their “sphere placement” decisions can be arbitrary, automatic, inflected with fear, or excessively narrow-minded. Worse than that, these decisions are often invisible to the people making them, and so we cannot argue with those people. It’s like trying to complain to your kid’s teacher about the values the child is learning in school when the teacher insists that the school does not teach values.
Deciding what does and does not legitimately belong within the national debate is—no way around it—a political act. And yet a pervasive belief within the press is that journalists do not engage in such action, for to do so would be against their principles. As Len Downie, former editor of the Washington Post once said about why things make the front page, “We think it’s important informationally. We are not allowing ourselves to think politically.” I think he’s right. The press does not permit itself to think politically. But it does engage in political acts. Ergo, it is an unthinking actor, which is not good. When it is criticized for this it will reject the criticism out of hand, which is also not good.

So what Anderson Cooper did "wrong", then, was to decide that what he saw with own eyes was not debatable. He reported the Mubarak lies as if their falsehood was in the Sphere of Consensus. Other journalists were placing them in the Sphere of Legitimate Controversy. But since the sphere-placement decisions are unconscious, the other journalists couldn't put their finger on Cooper's misdeed. So they said he was expressing his opinion.

Their criticism didn't make any sense, but it was all they could think of. People do stuff like that when their unconscious processes get interrupted.

Another Rosen observation: "Powerful and visible people can start questioning a consensus belief and move it form the 'everyone agrees' category." Grist's David Roberts points out how this makes the press manipulable by propagandists.

The right has been masterful in manipulating these spheres over the last few decades, dragging things that were once in consensus out into legitimate debate (torture is unacceptable), dragging things that were once legitimate debate into consensus (raising taxes is bad), and -- perhaps most importantly -- preventing things from entering consensus (cigarettes are harmful; climate change is happening). What conservatives have realized is that you shift things between spheres not with clever arguments but with social pressure. They repeat simple messages, loudly and through multiple media, and lean hard on those who question them ("working the refs"). If they need to get a lie pushed into the sphere of legitimate debate, they relentlessly repeat the lie and accuse anyone who identifies it as such as "biased."

Short Notes

The Onion reports that Senator John Cornyn of Texas "was honored for his 20 years of work with the overprivileged Sunday." The article quotes billionaire T. Boone Pickens: "John has dedicated his life and career to helping the uptrodden."

The past doesn't change, but Mitt Romney's autobiography does. It's called No Apology, and the new paperback version demonstrates that there's no need to apologize if you can keep re-spinning.

The slogans always talk about cutting government "waste", but somehow it always comes down to stuff like this: Camden, New Jersey -- which the FBI ranks second to St. Louis in crime -- just laid off half its police force.

Florida Governor Rick Scott's budget cuts per-pupil state education spending by 10% and cuts $3 billion from Medicaid. He also calls for $1 billion in corporate tax cuts and $1.4 billion in property tax cuts. It can't get any clearer: more for corporations and owners of big estates, less for kids and sick people.

The NYT's Bob Herbert responds to the celebrating in Cairo:

John Kerry said that the Egyptian people “have made clear they will settle for nothing less than greater democracy and more economic opportunities.” Americans are being asked to swallow exactly the opposite. In the mad rush to privatization over the past few decades, democracy itself was put up for sale, and the rich were the only ones who could afford it.

And that's pretty much what George Carlin said a few years ago.

Sometimes you have to take a step back to realize just how far things have gone. Paul Krugman points out that Milton Friedman "was a leftist by the standards of today's GOP". Cenk Uygur goes even further, outlining all the ways that Ronald Reagan was more liberal than today's mainstream Democrats.

The Weekly Sift appears every Monday afternoon. If you would like to receive it by email, write to WeeklySift at Or keep track of the Sift by following the Sift's Facebook page.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

thanks for the pointer to George Carlin, he was a genius. I really enjoy your blog, it is the only blog I read.