Comedian Patton Oswalt’s reaction to the Boston Marathon bombings has been paraded around all corners of the Internet in the last two days, covered by ABC News, Yahoo, the Daily Mail, and many, many others. He posted this on Facebook:
This is a giant planet and we’re lucky to live on it but there are prices and penalties incurred for the daily miracle of existence. One of them is, every once in a while, the wiring of a tiny sliver of the species gets snarled and they’re pointed towards darkness. But the vast majority stands against that darkness and, like white blood cells attacking a virus, they dilute and weaken and eventually wash away the evildoers and, more importantly, the damage they wreak. This is beyond religion or creed or nation. We would not be here if humanity were inherently evil. We’d have eaten ourselves alive long ago.
So when you spot violence, or bigotry, or intolerance or fear or just garden-variety misogyny, hatred or ignorance, just look it in the eye and think, “The good outnumber you, and we always will.”
A variation on the same theme is this Deadspin post by someone staying in the hotel above the bombing that concludes “the people or person who did this to Boston are in the minority, and as long as that’s true, we will be OK.”
Look, I don’t intend to mock the way people grieve, but why does this qualify as an inspiring message? It’s vapid nonsense.
That we should be comforted by the fact that a majority hasn’t yet become terrorists is a weird non-sequitur. If the post-9/11 paradigm has enshrined anything, it’s the idea that a small number of people is capable of wreaking immense harm. Good people have consented to an awful lot of evil out of fear of just that.
“Evildoers” aren’t eliminated “like white blood cells attacking a virus,” as if we could have destroyed Al-Qaeda by sending a horde of Rotarians into Tora Bora with vaccines and pancakes.
Oswalt’s statement is an invitation to bundle all of one’s ideas of what’s good and bad into a judgement about “good” and “bad” people; an excuse to conflate bombers with bigots. It’s more about self-affirmation than grief, which, to be a bit cynical, probably explains its online virality.
It doesn’t seem that long ago that John Cassidy (a former Murdoch empire business editor) penned an essay from the New Yorker predicting that Marx the thinker, the analyst of capitalism, would come into vogue once more. In fact it was nearly 16 years ago, before Monica Lewinsky, before 9/11, before the Iraq and Afghan wars—two large market crashes ago. When I first read it, it struck a tiny chord—yes, he may be right—and if I reread it, (which I will when my New Yorker subscription kicks in) I suspect it will resonate a bit more.
Linked to Marx’s appeal as an analyst of capitalism is the fate of societies which ruled in his name—that is, the largely failed and now defunct communist world. As I recall, Cassidy separates Marx from those failures, though not completely successfully. There is, of course, a related nostalgia for the USSR in contemporary Russia, and even for Stalin. It could be rather obviously understood as a longing for order and a fondness for Soviet great power status. But I wonder if there aren’t more subtle sentiments involved in such stirrings as well.
Over the weekend I saw “Barbara” the Christan Petzold film about an East German dissident physician in her thirties who, for unspecified political reasons, is exiled from Berlin to a provincial hospital. She has a well-off boyfriend in the West, and is plotting her escape. The tension in the film revolves around her growth of a sense of duty and attachment to her patients, despite continuous surveillance and harassment from the Stasi, and the quite realistic prospect of much easier, safer, materially richer life on the other side of the wall. Read More…
The Southern Poverty Law Center is out with a brand new report on “the year in hate and extremism” and an accompanying letter to Attorney General Eric Holder and Department of Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano asking them to reevaluate the nation’s ability to respond to the “growing threat of non-Islamic domestic terrorism.”
The warning is somewhat ironic because earlier this year the SPLC’s own work had the effect of painting a target for a domestic terrorist.
But Jesse Walker, of the Reason Foundation and author of an upcoming book, “The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory,” said counting groups isn’t a good way to measure the threat. “I’m dubious to assume growth in numbers is related to violence.”
Also, the center’s definition of hate groups has changed in the past year, kicking up a controversy. Critics accused the group of unfairly bundling together organizations with vastly different points of view — and painting them all as potentially violent.
For example a North Carolina-based group calling itself “Granny Warriors” appears on the SPLC list of active “patriots.”
It’s well known that the SPLC employs a pretty broad definition for what constitutes a hate group or domestic threat. Objectionable as the Family Research Council can be, especially now that they’ve brought on frothing Islamophobic hawk Jerry Boykin as a VP, few would consider them worthy of DHS’s attention. Even the Washington Post‘s Dana Milbank condemned the FRC’s “hate group” designation after it nearly led to a mass shooting.
The SPLC’s listing of “patriot groups” is even more broad and pointless: if you look at the 2011 list, every state chapter of the Constitution Party and the John Birch Society is counted separately. The Tenth Amendment Center is listed along with Nullify NOW!, even though the latter is a campaign put on by the former. The numbers are inflated to the point of meaninglessness, and though I can’t find a link to the organizations included on this year’s list, one wonders if the number of patriot groups really has had “explosive growth” or whether the dragnet has just gotten wider.
Ken Silverstein’s 2000 profile of the organization is worth a re-read:
who could object to the Southern Poverty Law Center, the Montgomery, Alabama-based group that recently sent out this heartwarming yet mildly terrifying appeal to raise money for its “Teaching Tolerance” program, which prepares educational kits for schoolteachers? Cofounded in 1971 by civil rights lawyer cum direct-marketing millionaire Morris Dees, a leading critic of “hate groups” and a man so beatific that he was the subject of a made-for-TV movie, the SPLC spent much of its early years defending prisoners who faced the death penalty and suing to desegregate all-white institutions like Alabama’s highway patrol. That was then.
Today, the SPLC spends most of its time—and money—on a relentless fund-raising campaign, peddling memberships in the church of tolerance with all the zeal of a circuit rider passing the collection plate. “He’s the Jim and Tammy Faye Bakker of the civil rights movement,” renowned anti- death-penalty lawyer Millard Farmer says of Dees, his former associate, “though I don!t mean to malign Jim and Tammy Faye.” The Center earned $44 million last year alone—$27 million from fund-raising and $17 million from stocks and other investments—but spent only $13 million on civil rights program, making it one of the most profitable charities in the country.
I’m willing to believe that the niche the SPLC fills ought to exist, that it ought to be someone’s job to keep tabs on neo-Nazis and the KKK. But the way the SPLC goes about it—and it seems like they’ve only gotten worse since Silverstein took them to task—it’s pretty hard to take them seriously.
Al Jazeera, the Qatar goverment-funded news channel, has purchased Al Gore’s Current TV cable channel, which means it will soon be available to 40 million more American viewers than at present. This is excellent news –not that Al Jazeera is so good–though it sometimes is–but because much of American TV coverage of the Mideast is so bad. I’ve been on this case before: two years ago, when much of the world was riveted by Al Jazeera’s coverage of the Egyptian revolution, I was stunned to discover that the overwhelming majority of American cable viewers, with hundreds of channels to choose from, couldn’t access the one station providing hour after hour of live coverage from Egypt. Comcast, my provider, has room for about two dozen channels devoted to various kinds of porn–but a spokesman said the station had “limited bandwidth to devote to new channels…especially if it’s perceived as a ‘niche’ service.”
The rap against Al Jazeera is that it is “anti-American”–indeed it was explicitly called that by some in the Bush administration: this was apparently sufficient to persuade America’s cable operators to shield the easily offended or easily duped psyches of American patriots from the channel.
A few small points. First there is no reason why any sort of national loyalty oath should be required of television stations. The idea is simply Soviet.
Secondly, yes, important neoconservatives did try to smear opponents of the Iraq war as anti-American, but it now seems pretty clear that the war’s proponents had a far less solid sense of this country’s interests than the anti-war opposition. Indeed, one could argue that there is nothing more “anti-American” than ongoing neoconservative efforts to push the United States into expending more of its blood and treasure in launching aggressive wars against various Mideast countries–and yet war-mongering neocons are all over the TV news. We ought to have learned enough from the last go-round not to conflate “pro-American” with war-mongering jingoism.
Finally, Al Jazeera can be quite good. I don’t watch it often. But, for instance this show – a talky analysis of media coverage of Israel’s recent war on Gaza–was considerably better than anything I could find on the same subject on True Red White and Blue American TV. (I was writing about the issue, so had to do a fairly thorough search.) We have learned, or ought to have, from bitter experience that what passes as an “American” perspective, particularly in the Middle East, can be so narrow as to be simply false.
Al Gore and his partners were motivated first of all by profit–they will walk off with a tidy sum from the sale. But they have, probably inadvertently, stumbled into an act of genuine public service by giving millions of Americans access to more viewpoints and information about the world than they now receive. When one third of Americans are reported to still believe that Saddam Hussein was “personally” involved in the World Trade Center attacks, that can’t be anything but a good thing.
With no access to Nate Silver, it’s too soon for me to discern the prospects for Chuck Hagel to be nominated and confirmed as Secretary of Defense. But I note that thus far, the neoconservative campaign against him (which includes fabricated quotes and smears of anti-Semitism) seems narrow in scope, and has not grown beyond a claque which counts for much inside the Beltway but is small in the country at large.
One indicator is Jennifer Rubin, one of the Washington Post‘s resident neoconservatives, who has been campaigning against Hagel for weeks now. Last night she produced a post, ”Democrats Speak Out Against Hagel as Flournoy’s Star Rises”–seeking to give the impression of a burgeoning anti-Hagel revolt in Obama’s own party. But who were the Democrats? Shelley Berkley, a congresswoman from Las Vegas, who released a statement lambasting Hagel’s “tarnished record” on the Mideast. The tarnishment is that he is reluctant to go to war against Iran. Berkley is known as one of the Israel lobby’s staunchest backers and really for not much else. Members of the House, last I checked, aren’t going to vote on Hagel’s confirmation. And then Rubin cites Senator Joe Lieberman, a one-time Democrat rejected by own party because of his hawkish and militaristic views. Actually, no, she quotes Lieberman’s communications director who says that his boss is more enthusiastic about sanctions than is Hagel. That’s it. Somehow Shelley Berkley and the retiring Senator Lieberman’s communication director don’t add up to the anti-Hagel bandwagon one might have expected two weeks into the smear campaign.
Rubin then switches gears: wouldn’t it be great to have a woman heading the Pentagon? There is one, Michelle Flournoy, a DOD technocrat no doubt seen by neocons as likely to be less robust than Hagel in resisting their plans for a third Mideast war. The “ladywashing” (as Open Zion’s Emily Hauser felicitously labeled it) would not be necessary if there were a more solid line of attack against Hagel.
Then there is the Washington Post editorial page, its liberal reputation a residue of its Katherine Graham anti-Nixon days, thoroughly neoconservative in its present incarnation. In an editorial, the Post opposes Hagel’s nomination, asserting his positions are “well to the left” of those expressed by Obama in his first term. It attacks Hagel for his readiness to pare down the “bloated” Pentagon budget and his support for negotiations over sanctions. The Hagel positions are stated more or less accurately, but Obama may not heed the advice. The Washington Post edit page was one of the largest and most influential media cheerleaders for the Iraq war, producing one bellicose editorial after another in early 2003. Several times it echoed the false claims of Iraqi WMDs that the administration used to justify the war, warned Bush to be wary of the UN, and to cap it off did a victory dance around Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” speech on the aircraft carrier. The “real gripe with Mr. Bush is that he looked great,” claimed the Post, contrasting the president with Michael Dukakis in a tank.
I assume the president considers the source of this tender concern for the ideological tenor of his cabinet. Obama didn’t take his political cues from the Washington Post editorial page in 2002-2003. Nor for that matter, did he follow the lead of Bill Kristol and the Weekly Standard. I hope he won’t hitch his administration to that wagon now.
Curious op-ed piece in the Times today by Adam Lankford, an assistant professor from Alabama who claims that his examination of ”interviews, case studies and suicide notes” indicates that “rampage shooters” like Adam Lanza are “remarkably similar to aberrant mass killers–including suicide terrorists–in other countries.” He concludes that Lanza and the Virginia Tech and Columbine shooters–had they been born in Gaza and the West Bank and “shaped by terrorist organizations’ hateful propaganda”–would have become suicide bombers.
Really who knows. Lankford’s speculations contradict the far more systematic and detailed suicide terrorism study conducted by Robert Pape of the University of Chicago, which examined the case histories of 2200 instances of suicide terrorism and concluded that the overwhelming majority are in response to foreign military occupation. Pape and his co-author James Feldman demonstrated that suicide bombings were not particularly a Muslim phenomenon. Mental illness did not come up as an important causal factor.
One rampage shooting Adam Lankford failed to mention in his Times piece was that of Dr. Baruch Goldstein, the American born physician who perpetrated the Cave of the Patriarchs massacre in Hebron in 1994, killing 29 Muslim worshippers and wouding 125. Goldstein’s massacre shattered the optimism surrounding the Oslo peace process and preceded by several years the wave of anti-Israeli suicide bombings orchestrated by Hamas. Israeli settlers in Jerusalem still sing songs eulogizing Dr. Goldstein.
One might have thought that since Goldstein was protected by the Israeli occupation forces and not subject to a foreign military occupation, he might be a good candidate for a theory linking mental illness and rampage shootings. But of course the Goldstein case wouldn’t fit easily into a narrative linking Adam Lanza to the “hateful propaganda” in Gaza and the West Bank.
Incoming Washington Post executive editor Martin Baron, formerly of the Boston Globe, intends to revive the flagging D.C. paper by focusing on hard-hitting restaurant exposes, or so Paul Starobin suggests, writing in the New Republic:
foreign coverage is very expensive and the Post has no particular comparative advantage in delivering foreign news over competitors like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal. The marginal editorial dollar is arguably better spent on, say, DNA testing of fish served by local restaurants to make sure diners are getting what they ordered—an investigative project undertaken in the Boston region by Baron’s Globe, to avid reader interest.
That’s much more interesting, I suppose, than a two-year investigation into the classified national-security state. Baron certainly knows how to think small: “At the budget-crunched Globe, he shuttered all foreign bureaus to devote greater focus and energy to the ‘central’ mission of covering Greater Boston.”
Now, the best piece I’ve read in the Washington Post over the past year was Cheryl Thompson’s report on how casually the D.C. police department will close a homicide case (“police closed at least 189 cases without an arrest — 15 percent of the 1,288 total closures”), and serious local reporting should be as important to the Washington Post as it is to the New York Times. But if Starobin gauges Baron’s intentions correctly, what he has in mind sounds more like the editorial plan of an alt-weekly or cultural monthly than a newspaper that was once a national institution: “Baron is certainly no rube. He upheld the Globe’s longstanding tradition of fanatical sports coverage while at the same time devoting more attention to the local arts and culture scene.”
Starobin does note that there’s a unique sort of “local” news to be covered on Capitol Hill, but is the Bostonian Baron — whose appointment as executive editor of the Post rankled longtime Washingtonians on the paper’s staff — the man to expose how D.C.’s principal industry really works? Then again, a paper that plays host to Marc Thiessen and Jennifer Rubin may not have much appetite for that sort of thing. Better to stick to the fish.
On the day after Mother Jones magazine released the secretly-recorded Mitt Romney “47 percent” video, the slavish Washington Post Romney-booster Jennifer Rubin wrote the following:
The Romney-Ryan campaign is going all in with its critique of President Obama’s dependency society. … The Romney-Ryan campaign quite correctly, I think, has seen that while there were certainly problems with how Romney spoke to his donors about the 47 percent, the terrain on which he now finds himself is exceptionally favorable: Are you better off with Obama’s government-centric approach or will you do better under an opportunity society?
Conservatives should be pleased that Romney has finally figured out where to focus his campaign. It has the benefit of turning the race back to Obama’s record. And it is squarely based on mainstream conservative philosophy that government must give space for individuals and free markets to prosper.
Yet on the day when Romney’s postmortem “gifts” remarks surfaced, Rubin was aghast:
Frankly there have been whispers at the Republican National Committee and elsewhere that Romney has used even more grotesque language, suggesting that the loss is due to Hispanic voters who have become enamored with Obamacare. …
The “voters are slobs” or “voters are hopeless” attitude is noxious, and it is good other Republicans have stepped forward to denounce it. But neither should they tolerate these other tactics, which also hold the party back from reviving itself and innovating.
You know what might help improve conservative “messaging” problems in future campaigns? A more honest class of professional pundits.
Take it away, Conor Friedersdorf.
Exit polls indicate that Obama beat Romney 56 percent to 33 percent among voters who considered foreign policy their top issue. Little surprise to TAC readers of course, but it is interesting to see how Republican foreign policy types are explaining this. Max Boot (one of the uberhawks who surrounded Romney during the campaign) offers this:
But, whatever the polls say, future Republican presidential candidates would be well advised to undertake a real effort to explain their foreign policy positions to the country and to reestablish foreign policy credibility which, to some extent, has been frittered away by George W. Bush’s early mistakes in Iraq. It may be unfair to hold an entire party responsible for one president’s mistakes—and not to give Bush proper credit for rescuing the situation in Iraq with the surge—but Republicans will have to recognize that that’s the way it is.
I see: the “entire party’s” poor reputation in foreign affairs rests upon “George W. Bush’s early mistakes in Iraq.” Oh, those “early mistakes.” Nothing to do with the group of intellectuals and publicists who had been pushing for an Iraq war for a decade before the 2003 invasion, filled their publications and much of the mainstream media with lies about Saddam’s nuclear weapons, — this mostly as an apertif to to get the juices flowing for a war against Iran, their (and Israel’s) principal target. Nothing whatsoever to do with Cheney, or Rumsfeld, or Paul Wolfowitz, or the Project for a New American Century, or Commentary, or the author’s own bellicose imperialist tub-thumping in the Weekly Standard. Just George W. Bush and those oh so regrettable “early mistakes.”
Between all the “we really don’t know anything” and “turnout will be key” blather, CNN’s election panel last night seemed to agree on this: the result of the presidential election will be close enough to deny either side a clear mandate.
One can hope!
The idea of an electoral mandate is simple yet nebulous. (I’ve threaded the needle on this topic before, and looking back I have to say, the wish-thinking reads like … wish-thinking.) “The mandate notion assumes that the larger the president’s margin of victory, the greater proportion of the public has signed on to his policy agenda,” as Paul Waldman defines it. But how large is large? President Obama was elected in 2008 by what seemed like a healthy margin, relative to the 1992, 1996, 2000, and 2004 elections, but his tumultuous first term would seem to indicate that, all things equal, a “mandate” isn’t worth having. You can blame congressional Republicans for stymieing Obama’s agenda, but recall that the first wave of the anti-Obama backlash occurred in 2009 with the capture of two Democratic gubernatorial offices, in New Jersey and Virginia. Then came the “cymbal-crash” of 2010.
Don’t get me wrong: Obama’s first term has compelling champions in Jonathan Chait, Zack Beauchamp, and others, but there’s a compelling case to be made that one of Mitt Romney’s most effective cudgels is his riff on how Obama ignored the economy and job-creation in favor of initiatives like Obamacare and green energy — in other words, the very things that Obama believed he had a mandate to pursue.
George W. Bush’s relationship with mandates offers a cautionary tale as well. Without having earned even the bare minimum of an electoral mandate — he lost the popular vote — Bush boldly and quickly managed to push through tax cuts with Democratic support, but then saw his presidency swallowed whole by terrorism and war. In 2004, he got cocky; he won a narrow majority of the popular vote and immediately began claiming he had “the will of the people at my back.” Bush’s reading of his mandate translated into an attempt to partially privatize Social Security. It flopped badly. Then Hurricane Katrina and a couple thousand more dead soldiers in Iraq put paid to that not-so-mighty wind.
There’s a view of Obama’s second term that says his chief aim will be to safeguard and consolidate the accomplishments of his first term: Oversee the phasing-in of Obamacare. Let tax rates on the wealthy rise with the expiration of the Bush tax cuts. Watch fuel-efficiency standards quietly transform the automobile industry and reap the benefits of the coming North American energy boom. Maybe strike a “grand bargain” with Republicans on Medicare and Medicaid — but largely on the terms negotiated in 2011. Others, like E.J. Dionne, see the potential of Obama going big on immigration reform and climate change. I wouldn’t rule out either scenario, or some admixture of the two.
The more interesting, which is to say unknowable, question is how Romney would deal with the mandate question. Would he, in the fashion of Bush in his pre-9/11 tax-cutting phase, simply choose to ignore his slim margin of victory and govern like he wants to? Meaning: will he and Paul Ryan go hard after Medicare premium support, and possibly wind up in the same shoals as Bush did with Social Security? Or, conversely, will Romney relentlessly focus on job creation and bipartisan dealmaking on tax reform, as he has promised on the campaign trail?
Turning away from the cloudy crystal ball: are mandates permission slips for presidents to realize their “vision thing”? Or are they monkeys on the back? The experience of the last two presidents suggests the answer is, both.
If the prognosticators of this election cycle turn out to be right that voters will not indicate a definitive ideological preference, I say that would be a good start.