Monday, 31 December 2012

Films of 2012

One of the marvels of New York is the remarkable access it provides to great films from all over the world and from the hundreds of independent directors toiling outside the narrow confines of the industry. There are a half dozen film clubs that one can join for $75 or so per year, constant premieres, and frequent colloquies with the directors themselves.

This year I’ve seen Chilean Patricio Guzman present his film on the search for the disappeared, Werner Herzog describe his interviews with death row inmates, and Sara and Ken Burns introduce the Central Park 5 after an emotional screening of their film on that police/media crucifixion. I probably averaged at least one movie a week and often took in more when the banquet table was just too heavily laden. But I also managed to see quite a few of the commercial favs, too, and thus have my own opinions about what were the high- and low-lights of the year, which you, faithful Reader, should you so choose, will now learn.

As this cannot be a complete list given the many offerings I missed, I will merely comment on the year-end ratings compiled by the critics in the periodicals I read, endorsing or contradicting their considered and yet fallible opinions.

A. Stick a fork in it: the overblown, over-hyped and overrated

(1) The Master. This Paul Thomas Anderson film loosely based on the origins of Scientology lumbered heavily into view and was duly praised by the experts for its unusual scope. Some called it the year’s best picture. Yes, it was ambitious in an Icarus sort of way—it soared, then landed with a thud. More a vehicle for stars to show off their chops than a credible portrayal of the cult phenomenon, The Master promised insights that did not materialize and provided only a static relationship between the two main characters that, in the end, made little sense. The 180: Joaquin Phoenix was terrific.

(2) Zero Dark Thirty. Sorry, po-mo aesthetes, it just won’t do to divorce this moral outrage from its impact on our lives. While apparently an excellent piece of filmmaking, ZDT justifies torture and will someday be watched in horror like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or her beautiful shots of the Nuremberg rallies. Placing it on the top-ten list without comment shows the depths of our culture’s blindness to its ongoing crimes. (Thought experiment: what if someone had made a great movie about the brilliant attack on the Twin Towers in 2001? Would it be ‘just a film’?)

(3) Lincoln. There were certainly things to enjoy about this fascinating account of the dificulties in getting even a Union-dominated Congress to abolish slavery, and I’m all for history lessons. But the portrayal of Honest Abe had serious holes, and the politics sucked. Slaves had zero agency as mere choristers trotted out to harmonize about the wondrous gift of Emancipation, and abolitionists, as usual, were painted as unreasonable extremists. Day Lewis captured Lincoln’s whimsy, but the attempt to recreate his historic oratory bombed.

(4) Keep the Lights On. A gay partnership struggling through addiction issues—hey, I’m certainly sympathetic. But this shipwreck of insipid dialogue gave off the air of unresolved confessional, the fallacy that because we lived through something, it has to be interesting to others.

B. Yes, these were terrific.

(1) Elena. Russian noir makes other noir look scarcely a pale gray. And this wasn’t even the grimmest from that frozen continent.

(2) The Kid with a Bike. Lovely Belgian tale of average people drawn toward decency.

(3) This is Not a Film. Understated (and courageous) docu-drama of thought control in totalitarian Iran.

C. Missed, but to be Netflixed

A few films keep popping up on the Best lists and seem worthy of a look: Magic Mike, Bernie, The Imposter, Not Fade Away.

D. Documentary excellence

Detropia, The Central Park Five, The Flat, Hitler’s Children, How To Survive a Plague, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, On Death Row, Nostalgia for the Light

Will be adding to this as memory is refreshed.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The expendable Ms. Rice

John Heilemann, an astute political columnist for New York magazine, shot himself in the foot this week in a revealing way, providing yet another illustration of how much more our errors teach us than our triumphs. He wrote a full-length opinion piece about how Susan Rice WAS in fact going to be nominated and confirmed as Hillary Clinton’s replacement. As it turned out, not so much.

Heilemann’s reasoning was based on five embarrassingly well elaborated points: that Obama wanted Rice for the job, that she was qualified for it, that the dust-up over the fatal attack on the Benghazi consulate was a non-issue, that John McCain making a big deal out of it showed that McCain was a jackass (and that Obama was sick of him), and that Obama by standing firm would obtain a solid victory because the GOP would fold in a real fight over the nomination.

The ink—if they still use ink—was barely dry on that run of the magazine when Rice threw in the towel, and Kerry was brought in next. How could such a prescient and careful political observer make such a goof? I think it reveals the lengths to which many in our midst are determined to drink the Obama Kool-Aid.

Heilemann must have forgotten that Obama is a pussy. That is, when faced with Republican opposition to pretty much anything, his default position is to find a way to cut a deal and compromise halfway. When that fails, as it inevitably does since for the Repubs he’s a Kenyan socialist gangster, Obama cedes more ground. But when the situation is binary, as in Congress does/does not confirm person X to a job, Obama has nowhere to go. So he buckles.

There are exceptions that prove the rule, notably the lengthy fight over Obamacare, which partially obscured his tendency to start out by giving the Republicans far more than they deserved and then backtracking from there. In fact, the pattern was established firmly in the healthcare fight itself after which Obama got nothing despite providing constant sweeteners for nearly a year. It continued through the stimulus package, financial services reform and other budget issues. We can anticipate another bout of here-have-the-farm on the bullshit ‘fiscal cliff’ scam, which is likely to be sealed at five minutes to midnight Monday.

There is, however, one place where Obama consistently stands firm: sticking it to his liberal base. That’s where the president displays his pair of steely cojones, whether it’s the recently renewed snooping on U.S. citizens, flaunting his godlike assassin’s powers, not closing down the Guantánamo dungeons, deporting Mexicans by the tens of thousands, or enforcing archaic federal marijuana laws.

Obama’s record suggests that his chronic apparent weakness in the face of Republican opposition is nothing of the sort, but rather a convenient way to pretend to be forced into doing what he is more or less inclined to do anyway. Putting up a good show of conflict keeps us all agog and rooting for him to finally get ‘tough’ and use his power to do good as he supposedly wants to but, for some inexplicable reason, can’t or won’t.

It’s painful to think that his real program is the one we are getting: constant concessions to the financial elites and the security state, a gradual chipping away at the New Deal legacy, continued redistribution of wealth upwards accompanied by further concentration of power at the top. But the evidence shows that that is the Obama program, not some warmed over nouveau Great Society liberalism.

So it’s wonderful that Heilemann pissed all over himself in this dramatic fashion, not because he’s a rotten sort but because he’s a perfectly decent guy. When our opinion leaders finally wake up and observe the reality about the Obama White House, rather than the fantasy image they’ve been sucking on for years, we’ll be ready to have a real debate about where the country is. Probably far too late to do any good, but whatever.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A zero from Kathryn Bigelow

Apparently, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a bad movie. On the contrary, the critics say it’s a very good movie.

Which makes it a very bad movie.

Glenn Greenwald opened the fireworks with a scathing non-review of the Kathryn Bigelow film in The Guardian over a week ago in which he said that the film provides a morally repugnant justification for torture. He was immediately twitted (and Twittered) for ‘reviewing’ a film he hadn’t seen, despite his explicit, upfront framing of the commentary as a criticism of the politics of the movie, not its aesthetic qualities.

As everyone will soon know, the film treats the search for and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden and includes harrowing and lengthy scenes of torture performed on detainees by Americans and/or their agents. The torture is shoehorned into the film narrative as a necessary and useful procedure by which the U.S. obtained intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts and could finally kill him.

It is a key issue in the ensuing debate that this is completely false and that, in fact, no one argues as a point of historical fact that torturing bound and shackled detainees provided any useful intelligence in tracking down bin Laden, as even crusty old John McCain, to his credit, recently reiterated in a criticism of the film. Bigelow and her screenwriters have argued that, oh well hey, we needed a little narrative arc there, and it’s Just a Film after all! Not a documentary.

So now everyone and his transgendered brother has weighed in, and from what I can gather, the non-Greenwaldian responses fall into two camps:

-those who say it’s a great film, the ‘politics’ doesn’t matter, and you can’t judge a fictionalized treatment with the strict criteria of reportage (Not A Documentary); and

-those who say we can and should address the politics but given that the gruesomely detailed torture scenes show America in a bad light, the film forces us to recognize the ugliness of what we did; ergo, even though the history is falsified, we watch the film, rub our faces in our baseness and concede that as a nation we committed heinous and immoral acts. Which is good for us.

These two responses roughly correspond to the Republican-red and the Democrat-blue views of our recent history, which is exactly why Zero is such a morally bankrupt affair. No matter who got your vote last November, this film provides a vehicle for you to give the official torture regime a pass, either as a straight-up great idea or else as a necessary—albeit terrible—one.

That’s why the argument that the torture scenes are chilling and awful and thus provide a corrective to our recent sorry history is exactly backwards because they do the exact opposite: we can experience the horror and then absolve ourselves collectively by seeing the denouement in the punishment of the Evil One. Despite or rather because of our cathartic discomfort, we end up reviving our idea of ourselves as morally intact through the vehicle of suffer through the terrible (but necessary!) actions taken to restore our security.

Militarists and crude racists can and no doubt will simply cheer at the punishment meted out to the Islamic prisoners, but Bigelow provides a far more insidious and dangerous absolution for nervous liberals uneasy at the techniques applied. No wonder the Obama White House was so eager to cooperate with her team. The set-up makes Dick Cheney and by extension Obama look like realists and the Amnesty/ACLU/Human Rights Watch types a bunch of well-meaning naifs: the Dark Side is surely a frightening and terrible place, we conclude, but our protectors must travel there, like Orpheus descending into hell to rescue endangered Eurydice. Otherwise, they cannot protect us.

I must add that I am not in the least surprised given Bigelow’s last and equally reprehensible award-winning effort, The Hurt Locker. I may be one of the few viewers who walked out of it halfway. It contains perhaps the most despicable single scene produced in film since the U.S. invaded and destroyed Iraq under false pretenses and left the country in shambles.

Bigelow sets up her bomb-squad guys in that movie in an atmosphere of menace and danger. The Iraqis are portrayed to be not thrilled with their American conquerors though they are given no reasons for such attitudes. Then in early scenes an Iraqi child is introduced whose innocent ball-playing provides a moment of relief in the midst of constant death, threat and horror. But the kid is promptly blown up in a bomb factory, and the heroic G.I. protagonist gets to carry his lifeless body out through the wreckage.

Given the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis as a direct result of the U.S. takeover of their country, a filmmaker who head was not completely buried in the rectal compartments of the U.S. military might permit an actual citizen of that country to express the grief corresponding to one of their own children’s death. But Bigelow doesn’t give a shit about Iraqis or any damn foreigners—they’re just chum to be tossed in to provide dramatic background. Her films reveal the profound racism at the heart of the American imperial enterprise, which has changed little if at all since the Vietnam debacle of our youth, and we should expect nothing less than revisionist torture porn from her.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Pakistani vaccine workers murdered

Anyone surprised by the attacks on nurses?

Recall that the collection of intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden involved a fake vaccination campaign in which Pakistani health workers collected bodily fluid samples (to check DNA, apparently) from a lot of people in the Abbottabad neighborhoods. The genius who thought this up undoubtedly chuckled in glee at the clever use of people’s credulous faith in medical personnel to zero in on the enemy.

Perhaps no one gave much thought—or if they did, couldn’t give a shit—about the impact of using white-coated tricksters on the long-term health of the Pakistani population. Once the residents of that city and in fact the entire country realized that these benign-looking caregivers really could be foreign spies, it was just a matter of time before they became war targets.

In fact, locals predicted attacks on vaccine workers that would severely crimp the U.S. funded campaign against polio in Pakistan, one of only four countries in the world where the disease remains endemic. Kidnappings and death threats against these field workers already had occurred—now they are pretty sure to worsen.

So the Pakistanis have yet another profession burdened as a provocative red flag waved at the local fundamentalist gunmen—and of course all females will be immediately suspect anyway for not hiding in the kitchen.

It’s ironic that in the U.S. suspicious fundamentalists stymie vaccination campaigns as government-sponsored attempts to compel compliance, fueled by unsubstantiated and demagogic fears of vaccine-induced autism. Yet the Obama Administration thought nothing of confirming foreigners’ worst fears by turning a vaccine program into a CIA plot. Who is now responsible for the damage to the public’s health in Pakistan?

In the public health field, by which I am currently employed, we are required to produce reams of documents proving that we are taking all due steps to avoid harming people, all under the rubric of ethical treatment of human research subjects. Who in the government charged with overseeing the ethics of vaccination campaigns carried out with U.S. money in foreign lands has had anything to say about this outrageous ethical violation? I am going to spend some time trying to find out.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Enough pious bullshit

Jay Carney’s notorious comment Friday that ‘today is not that day’ for discussing gun regulation reflects everything that is wrong about the Obama team and Obama personally. It reflects the ball-less political calculations of phony leaders waiting for the winds to shift enough to give them the right cover for action. Real statesmen would create the winds—for god’s sake, what kind of ‘right’ day are we waiting for while the entire country is imagining the carnage of 20 white grade-schoolers riddled with bullets?

Weepy Democrats will react to that harsh opinion as if they’d just been given an enema of crushed jalapeños. They’d rather join candlelight prayer circles at the Unitarian church and wait patiently for their liberal leaders—who said jack shit about gun craziness during the endless 2012 campaign—to do something in their own sweet time, which means never.

The ‘right day’ for unpopular or politically controversial action, from the politician’s point of view, is always tomorrow or next year, a lesson completely obfuscated by the film Lincoln, which teaches us that because Abe was a Great Man, he knew how to cleverly balance all the extremist forces around him and end slavery. This success was obtained, the film asserts, because Lincoln managed to cool off the radical hotheads like Thaddeus Stevens and navigate the passage of the 13th Amendment through a reactionary Congress.

The abolitionist movement gets no credit, and of course slaves themselves are just passive lumps awaiting liberation from above, upon which they break into gospel hymns in the House galleries. In fact, but unknown to viewers of Lincoln, slaves were taking things into their own hands and deserting their masters as soon as Union troops got close. Today turned out to be ‘right’ for ending their slave status, not some later moment on the leadership’s magic calendar.

Back when Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was lying in a coma from a gunshot to the head from another deranged gunman, Obama’s previous press rep, Robert Gibbs, made this statement: ‘I wouldn’t rule out that at some point the president talks about the issues surrounding gun violence’. Wow, isn’t that a ringing commitment to bold action? I guess O just never got around to that mission afterward—probably got buried under some papers.

Carney probably assumed that the latest massacre would fade from memory in due course as well, and so the president wouldn’t have to sacrifice any political capital on a divisive fight, given that fighting and divisiveness with our Republican friends is to be avoided at all costs.

But it seems that maybe, just maybe, it won’t be so easy this time. Our mayor is among the few public figures making sense on the Connecticut shooting. Bloomberg called Obama out for limiting himself to pious sentiments when the country needs proposals for action, not just hand-wringing and televised funerals.

In the end it won’t be the pols of any stripe that will move states and the feds to action—it will be people up in arms, pardon the expression. The first order of business is to insist that the conversation, long censored by the NRA bullies, HAS to take place. The details of what policies should be adopted can be worked out along the way.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Endangering the social media geese with the golden huevos

I sometimes send small donations to this or that worthy cause and consider it an adult responsibility to do so. But I have no illusions that this in any way substitutes for more concrete forms of civic or political action—it’s a check or a tick on a Web form, nothing more.

That’s why I am eager to warn the myriad groups now milking social media for their livelihood not to squeeze the ample teats of Twitter, Facebook and the more traditional email campaigns too tightly lest they dry up the juice entirely. Here’s an example:

I was walking home a few hours ago and received a cell call from a number in the Bronx that I did not recognize. It was Working Families, a New York-based alternative party whose organizing and campaigns I have found admirable and well considered. They sometimes run candidates but more often engage in direct action and public education while not above backing a local progressive Democrat against some awful creep. Currently the main force behind the anti-fracking drive, a topic close to our hearts (and noses) here in New York State, they’re clever, strategic and capable of nuance. I like them and allowed them to have my number via one of their many online petition drives.

The lad who was working their phones asked me if I knew who they were, reminded me of their good works and promptly laid into The Pitch. I interrupted him to say that I would gladly make a donation but was much more interested in what he was asking me to DO, rather than how much money I was going to GIVE. I repeated that I promised to send something but insisted that he tell me what was on their agenda of organizing and agitation.

He couldn’t. Instead, the poor kid slipped back into his prepared text and started to give me the payment options, the suggested monthly amounts, and the ease with which I could express my solidarity with humanity if I would Just Say Yes. Nothing about trying to speak with my state senator, who happens to live on the next block, no request to take the anti-fracking petition door to door in my apartment building, no alert about the next demonstration or upcoming educational seminar, absolutely nada—except to reach into my pocket and fork over what I find there.

Hey, I understand. These groups need cash, and the Internet is a magic money mountain. You tap into it, and the bucks flow out in satisfyingly predictable amounts. So it’s tempting to turn to it again and again. But we know from direct mail campaigns how quickly these tactics burn themselves out and sink into decadence. Groups still make money on them, but what does steady cash for the Sierra Club or Amnesty International have to do with social movements? They’re largely divorced from each other, and these inert mailings (and now Facebook hustles) are part of the over-oiled machinery of the do-gooder nonprofits.

I say all this as a frequent contributor and an inveterate do-gooder myself, so it’s not a question of going broke out of ideological purity. But I wish all these entities would remember that every time they approach their potential allies with their hands held out is one less opportunity to engage with us about the actual work they are doing and how to join up with it.

It’s all well and good to dip their nets into the pond in hopes of bringing up a few lumps of needed gold. But please, pitchmen, beggars and donation scroungers all, put the actual WORK that we all can do up on top. If your labors are essential and we’re actually a meaningful part of them, we won’t mind being reminded that someone has to pay for them, too. On the other hand, if you only love me for my bank account, let me tell you something: I already know how it feels to be treated like a john.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Get ready for the Obama sell-out

The shape of the new bipartisan sell-out of working Americans is now becoming clear, so buckle your seat belts. It will be led by the Great and Powerful Defender of the 99% Barack Obama with sour-faced, grumpy Republicans pretending to be dragged kicking and screaming into the briar patch of their choice. The result will be the further impoverishment of the middle classes (no one cares about the poor at all, so fuck them).

The online NY Times had a big, neon warning sign in a weekend article that started like this:

“A small but growing group of Republicans say the party should perhaps accede to President Obama‘s demand for higher tax rates for top earners so that the attention can shift to making serious cuts in benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid, a top Republican senator said on Sunday.”
The article then goes on to mention the Obama-Boehner meetings and the continued Republican insistence on “deep, long-term reductions” in Medicaid and “other social programs” to obtain their cooperation. Well, I guess that makes sense given the Republicans’ stunning triumphs in the recently concluded elections.

Oh, wait a minute! I thought the guys in favor of shoveling yet more of the national income upwards were soundly defeated. Huh? Did I miss something?

No, actually, I didn’t. But a whole lot of frantically canvassing and snottily superior Obamanoids did—while they were swooning over their guy’s solid victory, he was telling anyone who cared to listen that the first order of business upon re-election was to chip away at the New Deal social safety net that has kept our grandparents away from the cat food for 50 years. He said it, but the self-righteous Democrats who were telling me I should shed my skepticism and swallow the Kool-Aid NOW refused to hear it.

Note also that although the immediate focus of attention is cuts to Medicaid—which is an easier target since it serves low-income people rather than the powerful elderly (Medicare) or the so-far sacrosanct Social Security—that weasel phrase “other social programs” is a hint about where things will head once the principle of “deep, long-term reductions” is established. After all, if the problem is “entitlements,” those things the government gives away to undeserving mooches like you and me, rather than unfunded wars, de-industrialization by off-shoring, Pentagon bloat or massive value extraction by Wall Street, then well, I guess we’ll just have to man up and start knocking down those big, bad, expensive things like government retirement plans and socialized health care.

A really progressive administration would campaign for the opposite: to expand the more efficient state-run health insurance schemes like Medicare and Medicaid, thereby reining in our ridiculous healthcare costs. It would also stomp out all the talk about Social Security’s alleged demographic problems and the lies about its imminent insolvency. Earth to base: these tales are FALSE and tendentious, i.e., designed to rob you while you slumber. Given the full house Obama is holding with the automatic expiration of the Bush tax giveaways, there is no reason at all to bargain away our legacy from the Roosevelt years.

In short, we are about to witness a new Nixon-in-China moment: Barack Goes to Wall Street. The old anticommunist hellcat sucking up to Mao Zedong marked the end of a Cold War era, and Obama’s success in opening up the New Deal safety net to plutocratic plunder is its mirror image—only a liberalish-looking Democrat could pull it off. It is the culmination of Obama’s faithful toadying to the interests of finance over the productive economy and the citizens, and the result will be an historic shift in the assumptions about what our government should provide.

True, Romney & friends, the purported losers last month, may end up paying a little more to the IRS although let’s not count on that given all the ways the moneybags have to shelter their income and get around the system. But the really significant prize—access to even more wealth once the safety net is further shredded—will now be open to them. And since we’ve been lulled into a political coma by the electoral spectacle, we won’t feel a thing.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Egyptian revolution still smoking

It’s doesn’t take expertise in Arab politics to see that the Egyptian upheaval of 2011 has not run out of steam by a long shot. Given the trauma, repression (including nearly 1000 deaths), and economic damage that occurred during the revolution against Hosni I’s pharaonic rule, Egyptians reasonably could be expected to want a break from street demonstrations and further disruption of their lives and livelihoods.

But clearly the promise of living in a real democracy where people have a fighting chance for a decent existence remains a palpable dream for millions of people in that country who are now watching aghast as the Islamist faction tries to hijack the revolution and turn itself into the new, single-party state. President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has shown a perverse determination to collect all meaningful powers into his own person and stiff the other factions and interest groups completely, both in the writing of the new constitution and the control of the main levers of state power. While the country has had a long tradition of autocratic rule, to say the least, it looks as though the populace is impressively unwilling to sit by and let this happen.

If the MB were to consolidate its power and hold all the reins, Egyptians probably could kiss goodbye any chance of enjoying a functioning democracy and economic opportunity for another half-century while the bearded poo-bahs sit around debating how long women’s hijabs should be. You’d think that after the successful uprising against Mubarak and the multiplicity of social actors involved in it, from secular liberals, union members, women, rank-and-file soldiers, and yes, Islamic organizations, that whoever ended up in charge would have realized he needed to build a coalition and preserve the revolutionary unity as long as possible. Trying to build a new society under such conditions and with so many competing interests is not a job for the fainthearted. But it’s been done often enough and well enough in human history that one could learn from those lessons. Morsi didn’t.

Instead, he quickly decapitated the armed forces, for better or for worse, and then thought he could stifle and crush anyone else in the way of his singular authority. It remains to be seen whether the nationwide suspension of judicial review, the packing of the constitutional convention with Islamist hard-liners AND the final straw of the rushed plebiscite to ratify it will succeed or backfire. So far, it looks like a severe overreach. With mass demonstrations growing in number and violent clashes breaking out, Morsi now needs the security forces to line up behind him. Let’s see if they do. It can’t be reassuring for him to have to flee from the presidential palace with a few hundred thousand of his own citizens baying for his beard out front.

Morsi also seems to have inherited Mubarak’s ideas on how to respond to mass discontent. His address to the nation last night was provocative and insulting, offering zero concessions, insisting on the bogus plebiscite, and trashing his critics as criminals and foreign agents. This is not merely boneheaded and gratuitous, it also suggests that Morsi and his group wallow in a sectarian view, consistent with their neurotic religious prejudices, that they themselves are the only true Egyptians.

While there are clearly dangers ahead, the vigorous popular reaction is, once again, inspiring. Morsi is losing key allies daily, and the longer the massive repudiation lasts, the weaker his position becomes. If Morsi is forced to back down on the constitutional vote, the Egyptian revolution will be looking healthier and stronger than ever.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

“The Cliff” is So-o-o-o-o Much B.S.

Today’s breathless debate about whether Obama’s proposals or the GOP’s replies will help us avoid the ‘fiscal cliff’ is the modern equivalent of the ancient slugfest over the Nestorian Heresy. That was an urgent debate about whether Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, a divine being, or a goddish entity somewhere in between. Isn’t it just marvelous to see that the biped race can still engage in these sorts of arcane battles 17 centuries later? I’ve no doubt that given half a chance and appropriate weaponry, the Reds and the Blues would sally forth with gusto and beat each other senseless, just like they did in 423 C.E.

Why is there a ‘cliff’, and why do we have to rush ourselves into a bipartisan deal to avoid rushing ourselves over it? Simple answer: it’s not there. Yes, some tax measures will expire on January 1—so what? Neither side wants to take the blame for payroll taxes on the average worker to be restored to their prior levels, but the Bush-era tax cuts favoring the wealthy expire, too.

Dean Baker, who twits that tendentious GOP propagandist and willful ignoramus David Brooks at Beat the Press, points out that Obama holds all the necessary cards—if he should choose to use them:

If nothing happens right now, the top tax rate goes to 39.6 percent on January 1, 2013. There is nothing that John Boehner and the Republicans can do to stop this. Furthermore, President Obama has a mandate to raise the top tax rate. Brooks probably missed this, but we just had a lengthy election campaign where taxes on the rich were the central issue. President Obama won.
The ‘fiscal cliff’ that we’re supposed to be all skeered of is an overstuffed, papier-maché wolf that our leaders say they can hear howling somewhere in the snowy wastes beyond the Beltway. But there is absolutely no evidence that current deficit spending is leading us into perdition or that a real economic recovery would not restore historic tendencies in the federal budget and at least partially resolve the deficit issue.

But the ‘fiscal cliff’—which should always be placed in quotation marks to distinguish it from something real—is an excellent opportunity for the Repubs and, sadly, the president as well to do what they both salivate over: plunge daggers into the ribcage of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. This is also known as the “Grand Bargain” or more accurately the “Catfood Campaign” aimed at encouraging our seniors to go back to the good old days when varieties of Friskies were the dinner options starting at about the 20th of every month. Although neither of these issues is directly involved in the expiring tax rate business, Obama has been saying for years that he is willing to chip away at these New Deal legacies in exchange for higher taxes on the rich.

The pity is that Obama probably will get what he is demanding and that it will be meaningless in the long run. Boosting the tax rate on high earners can and will be subverted in other ways, but the very dangerous precedent of a Democratic president ceding ground on the big social insurance programs of the 1930s and 1960s will open up a floodgate of demands to go further and deeper. In fact, we are rarely reminded that the tax break given two years ago was itself based on a very unwise precedent, that of allowing workers to forego the very payroll taxes that assured them they were buying retirement insurance from the federal government and have the right to then receive it. How much easier to beat the drums about the alleged (and false) ‘bankruptcy’ of the Social Security trust when legislators themselves are undermining its income by pandering to the universal desire of people to pay less!

It is particularly ironic and annoying that the Obama campaign is using its recently compiled lists of supporters to pump up this campaign—something his people studiously refused to do when Obamacare, financial regulation, or other truly important issues were at stake. But they don’t hesitate to corral people into this entirely bogus World Wide Wrestling match complete with deadly ‘blows’ and ‘throws’ over the ‘fiscal cliff’. I’ll stick to real controversies, like whether the Virgin Mary’s nether parts remained intact throughout her subsequent childbirths or just during you-know-who’s.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Election III -- The Ugly

Elizabeth Drew writes with uncharacteristic indignation in the New York Review of Books that Obama’s re-election occurred despite a scheme ‘concocted by small-minded men to subvert the natural workings of our most solemn and exhilarating exercise as a self-governing nation’. Republicans failed to suppress enough votes among the Democratic base to win, but the attempt, Drew cautions, was a grave assault on our democracy nonetheless.

The details are worth a look at the full article and include both well-known and obscure tactics: requiring special voter IDs and making them hard to obtain; restricting early and absentee voting; setting up inadequate polling places without enough poll workers to ensure lengthy waits (up to eight hours in Florida); even, in one case, forcing voters to fill out their own provisional ballot forms, thereby sharply raising the chance of errors and the loss of the vote. The outcome was that thousands of people met enormous obstacles in their exercise of their most basic right as citizens.

Drew also notes the bank of lawyers the Romney campaign had standing by to put on a repeat of the 2000 Florida challenge that put Bush II in power. We can gloat that because their guy was trounced so thoroughly, not one state hung in the balance, and they had nothing to do after all. But that’s slight reassurance, and the parallel with 2000 is particularly disturbing because it reminds us that the GOP paid such a negligible political price for ripping off a presidential election 12 years ago that it felt emboldened to try it again.

We’ve been treated over the last four years to the spectacle of a die-hard opposition in Congress saying ‘Nicht’ to anything coming from the Obama White House, just ‘because’. But let’s fantasize: what if the Democrats had adopted a similar posture after seeing the election of 2000 snatched by judicial coup and had based their intransigence on the perfectly serviceable theory that the incoming Bush Administration was illegitimate? True, this is like asking my aunt to have cojones, but it does illustrate how Romney’s team could have seen no reason not to try for a repeat.

Drew writes that the plan backfired because the people targeted for disenfranchisement—blacks, students, the elderly, workers—were outraged and streamed to the polls in greater numbers than ever, assisted by the Obama campaign’s meticulous planning to get them there. But she also notes how Obama tossed off a casual reference to the mess in his post-midnight victory speech while people in Florida were still waiting in line to vote. ‘By the way, we have to fix that’, he said, as if the breakdown of the cornerstone of democratic rule were a technical glitch rather than intentional voter suppression. He obviously knows better and chose not to make an issue of it. This is wrong and dangerous.

ACORN, the voter registration nonprofit entrapped and pilloried eventually to death over a handful of errors, is no longer around. But Karl Rove’s super-PAC is, and while his team is suffering for its lousy performance and its waste of ridiculous piles of money, no one is on the spot for its concerted attempts to undermine the act of voting itself. They goofed this time in a host of ways, especially by being so bloody obvious. But they’ll be back, and since voter suppressors need fear no retribution, their tactics will be more sophisticated next time around.