Wednesday, 25 June 2014

Rangel thrashes Espaillat

If my state senator, Adriano Espaillat, had raised any policy issues, such as Rangel’s historic closeness with the finance sector, or his ethical collapse of a few years ago (when he was found to be occupying four rent-controlled apartments among other crass behavior), he might have won the coveted Harlem congressional seat and safely occupied it for the usual three to five decades.

Instead, Espaillat relied on his Dominican ethnicity to attract a majority in the area’s shifting demographic base, and that just wasn’t enough to unseat a supremely connected politician who racked up endorsements from Bill Clinton, Governor Cuomo and a raft of other dubious but influential types. Espaillat never laid a glove on Rangel while Rangel blasted him as a closet conservative.

So it’s back to business as usual for two more years, not that anything important will change. Perhaps someone with more interest in educating my district’s residents about what is wrong and what needs to change will come along in two years and turn this into a race about politics rather than genes.

Saturday, 21 June 2014

Democratic primary an ethnic showdown, not a political one

My congressional district is, like most, not in play in terms of Dems v/s Repubs, but there is a lively primary battle afoot between an ancient artifact, Charles Rangel, 83, [above left] and his returning challenger, Adriano Espaillat, 59, [above right] who aims at being the first Dominican-born member of Congress.

Rangel has had a safe seat in Harlem for 50 years, but two things happened to put it in jeopardy: he got slammed a few years ago for repeated ethical violations, all of a monetary nature. Those stories were damaging and almost career-ending, but memories are short. I doubt if most local voters today have more than a vague notion of what those accusations were about.

Espaillat has chosen not to remind people about the corruption charges and Rangel’s censure, probably assuming that people will prefer him to take the high road. I think it’s a mistake if he wants to win because people say they hate negative campaigns but then vote according to who has thrown the most mud and made it stick. And it’s not as if Espaillat would have to make anything up.

The consensus last time was that Rangel wanted one last term so that he could depart with his head held high, and then he would leave graciously. But obviously that was a ploy to get past the bad press. Now he’s back and ready for term #26.

Rangel, on the other hand, hasn’t been shy at all. A mailing that appeared in my box last week showed Espaillat being manipulated like a marionette by upstate Republicans, based on some campaign donations he allegedly had received. I don’t know the validity of the charge and couldn’t care less given Rangel’s decades-long coziness with the rich and powerful, but I suspect the tactic might have shaken some potential Espaillat voters loose.

The second factor is demographic: the district is shifting to much less uniformly black, and the Hispanic population is growing very quickly. There’s also a substantial percentage of whites in Harlem itself as well as in some of the sectors added to Rangel’s district after the last census led to a new round of gerrymandering by Albany. Espaillat is probably counting on his ethnicity to garner him enough votes to oust Rangel and so is presenting himself in very traditional terms, kissing the requisite number of babies and displaying all his worthy civic activities.

As far as I can tell, Espaillat is a routine, journeyman politician who doesn’t offer anything special except that he’s not Rangel and hasn’t been caught in appalling ethical lapses like Rangel has. That’s enough for me, but I suspect it won’t be enough to beat the old coot next Tuesday.

However, a wild card is the presence in the race of a third, spoiler candidate, local preacher Michael A. Walrond, 42, [above center] who might drain off some of Rangel’s African-American support.

It would be nice to think that this primary reflects in some way an ideological battle parallel to the Tea Party-GOP wars attracting so much attention after the Eric Cantor defeat. But I fear that there is less politics in this race and a lot more old-fashioned ethnic identification. If anyone has raised a policy issue on which they can point to a major disagreement among the candidates, I haven't heard about it.

Incidentally, I joined a group of campaigners for the Robin Hood Tax a few weeks ago to pay a call on Rangel and had the distinction of being the only member of the delegation who was actually a constituent of his. I found the old guy an obnoxious blowhard, which reaffirmed my decision to vote for his retirement.

Thursday, 12 June 2014

The pull of ultra-right populism

David Dayan in Naked Capitalism calls the shock ousting of Eric Cantor an expression of right-wing populism with a lengthy tradition in U.S. politics. He notes that William Jennings Bryan had a lot of great ideas and was also an anti-evolutionist blockhead. So the Tea Party uprising includes anger at Wall Street along with its more unsavory tendencies.

One certainly can sympathize with jobless and struggling Virginians correctly noting that their livelihoods have been undermined while Wall Street banks get the gravy. They blame Washington politicians for that, starting with Obama, whom they hate anyway, and then added Cantor. Dave Brat, the oddball college professor who crushed Cantor with 1/20 of his money, linked the Republican leadership with Obama on coziness with the banker elites, and he was dead right.

Brat’s nativist posture has got a lot of attention, and there’s certainly no shortage of anti-Mexican racism to tap into in rural Virginia, especially when you can associate, fairly or not, the heavy inflows of cheap foreign labor to the steady deterioration of the job market wrecked by globalization. In fact, the Virginia primary carries an eerie echo of the results of the just concluded European Parliament elections in which right-wing parties triumphed by offering a convincing, xenophobic dissent against the lunacy of German-led austerity. It’s perversely brilliant that the Eurozone elite’s has so manipulated the European project to protect its banker and political class, i.e. itself, that the only visible enemy blamed by much of the European populace for its sufferings is foreigners.

While Brat is not Marine Le Pen, and the Tea Party is not Golden Dawn, the possibility of a credible ultra-right revolt emerging against the failed economics of the Beltway is entirely real. That’s where Obama’s role is so key and so nefarious: he continues to co-opt the leftish side of the spectrum by pretending to take action against state capture by the Dimon/Blankfein set while making sure that his gestures are largely ineffective. This prevents the formation of a challenge to the Democrats’ from the left and leaves the field to the befuddled and the Bible thumpers eager to blame their very real economic ills on lazy blacks, aliens, fancy homos and downtown city slickers.

It won’t end until those with a lingering faith in Obama accept that the Democrats’ protests are window-dressing for the ongoing consolidation of the interests of their corporate-looter overlords. Otherwise, the inevitable backlash to the steady destruction of the well-being of the majority will have nowhere to go but right.

Monday, 9 June 2014

PreP, Kramer, marriage and S-E-X

My little corner of the world has been a lively place lately as the debate about how to stop people from getting HIV has heated up. Here are some highlights:

- Pre-exposure prophylaxsis (“PreP”) has become the subject of a somewhat manufactured controversy as the multi-million-dollar AIDS business, the American Healthcare Foundation (AHF), stages a one-CEO operation against the idea that people should take a daily pill to avoid the AIDS-causing virus because it will discourage condom use. This campaign by AHF chief Michael Weinstein (e.g,, the full-page “Why worry?” condom ad in the latest issue of Gay City News) presumes that people need some sort of incentive to drop rubbers from their sex lives. I can confidently attest that this is NOT TRUE.

- Larry Kramer, whose AIDS-era play, The Normal Heart, was just restaged for HBO, sided with Weinstein with a typical nastygram of his own, calling people who use PreP “cowards” in a recent interview. Kramer is beatified frequently as the founder of ACT UP (to which I belong in its current avatar), but his intemperate positions are a double-edged sword: they are frequently ad hominem and polarizing. Polemics can be healthy, but as a lifestyle they’re problematic.

- Same-sex marriage is sweeping the nation. So Kramer’s “normal” hearts are being welcomed into the fold in quite a remarkable way. Gays and lesbians can form marital units and have their sexual lives recognized publicly, and it’s a pretty radical shift for our society.

So why is HIV still an out-of-control epidemic that continues to sweep gay populations nationwide? Why have we resigned ourselves to another 50,000 new infections every year to add to the million-plus Americans already dealing with it? Why can half of all young gay men look forward to acquiring HIV in the course of their lifetimes, especially if they are black or Hispanic?

Kramer and Weinstein would say that it’s because those horny homos just won’t get the message and do what they say, which is faithfully use condoms instead of running around having sex like crazy with every Tom, Dick & Harry. I am being unfair, but this characterization is very much in the spirit of Kramer’s historic critique of gay sexual mores dating from the pre-AIDS era, and it’s portrayed in The Normal Heart itself. Kramer has a puritanical streak a mile wide, and he’s not alone—lots of people are turned off by the more outré aspects of homo culture and are more comfortable with the idea of couples settling down to a recognizably mainstream existence in stable units. As Ted Olson, the lawyer who engineered Bush’s 2000 Supreme Court coup to snatch the presidency from Gore, says, “Marriage is a conservative institution”—which is why he joined the fight for it.

People who see same-sex couples lining up at the courthouse as the ultimate goal may be forgiven for wondering why anybody would need a preventive tool that anticipates multiple sex partners and ongoing risk. Maybe that’s because not everyone is the same. Or here’s an even more radical thought: maybe homosexual men really aren’t just like their straight counterparts. Who said we have to be?

The burgeoning acceptance of same-sex couples who want to form partnerships that look like traditional marriage does not automatically translate into comfort with the sexual practices that those smiling newlyweds are carrying on, not to mention those occurring outside the matrimonial suite. But those practices are alive and well, and younger guys, who don’t really focus on the risks of HIV, are engaging in them plenty. (Older ones, too.) Condom use was never universal even in the bad old days of pre-treatment AIDS, and risk levels among gay men are found to be pretty consistent in studies done all over modern gay communities around the world.

Peter Staley, another famous face from the AIDS wars of the 1980s, had a much more nuanced and sensible position about the advent of PreP:

The goal is not condoms on dicks. The goal is fewer HIV infections. So how do we get there? What’s the quickest path? What’s the path that takes human nature where it is today? . . . If somebody from my generation, the safe sex generation, can show me the cultural and advocacy path to getting gay men to return to the condom code that was developed in the ’80s, I’m all ears. But none of them have spelled that out. All they do is preach. None of them have a plan, a feasible plan, that leads us back to those norms.

It’s foolish to think that we can program people to resist the impulse for sexual satisfaction, which has proven itself pretty repression-resistant over the biped millenia. We can lament that fact, or we can see what to do about it so that people have a variety of tools with which to keep themselves healthy. Attacking those of us trying to do just that isn’t healthy debate nor does it “raise an important issue,” like New York magazine argued this week approving of Kramer’s outburst. No, it doesn’t. It is not serious. It is not helpful. It is not just. And it won’t work.

Thursday, 5 June 2014

The un-strange case of Bowe Bergdahl

The absurd sniping at Obama over the Taliban-for-POW deal just concluded obscures, a bit too conveniently, the larger narrative of what our armies have wrought in their far-flung post-9/11 adventures. It’s no accident that while nothing much is said about the wars themselves we get a sterile but impassioned back-and-forth over the deal Obama cut to get back Sgt. Bergdahl takes the place of a substantive debate. As Jon Stewart aptly noted, the argument can be boiled down to two clichés: “We don’t negotiate with terrorists” and “We never leave a man behind.” These are shouted, playground-style, as loudly as possible, a taste of what we can expect during the electoral campaign season approaching this fall.

Pollsters say Americans now tune out foreign policy discussions entirely and don’t want to hear about the wars, certainly not at election time when the hot topics are domestic and economic. That’s not just a pity but a profound shame given that we collectively endorsed the decision to invade both Afghanistan and Iraq 13 years ago and are thus morally responsible for the outcomes. But aside from “Thank you for your service,” there is little taste for contemplating the unglorious recent performance of our armed representatives overseas.

Frank Rich offers a timely and discomfiting recollection in the latest New York magazine about the Iraq debacle, which comes at an appropriate moment—when the monthly death toll in Iraq has reached nearly 1,000 souls yet again, in bombings and attacks of various sorts. He reminds us that ten years ago (an anniversary largely unremarked) Americans went along with what Bush, Cheney, Rice and the other warmakers said we needed to do to keep ourselves safe. That included something like $2 trillion in costs, any tens of thousands of deaths, and a legacy of mentally and physically wrecked veterans that we will be caring (or not caring) for over the next 30 or 40 years.

But Rich’s subtext in “Iraq Everlasting” is that it was not just the Bushites who brought us the Iraq debacle. The rush to war and the beating drums along the Potomac hypnotized and seduced most of the Serious People in both parties. He writes:

What tends to be swept under history’s rug is the leading role that the liberal Establishment played in this calamity. A majority of Senate Democrats voted to authorize the war, including the presidential aspirants Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, John Kerry and John Edwards. Most of the liberal pundits and public intellectuals who might have challenged the rationale for the invasion enlisted in the stampede instead, giving the politicians cover.

Rich argues that the Iraq blunder “remains the nation’s inescapable existential burden two and a half years after our last troops departed.” But is a burden inescapable if one refuses to think about it?

There are very few immediately obvious signs of a burden resulting from the failure of these two wars of the 21 st century, aside from the readiness of elite-targeted magazines like New York to describe them as such. The people responsible for pumping up the phony justification for the Iraq conquest (e.g., Rice’s “mushroom cloud”) suffered minimally, and many of them continue to make themselves heard about foreign policy issues today. Modern imperial warmaking apparently means never having to say you’re sorry, even when you lose. Rice herself almost gave the commencement address at Rutgers a few days ago until students objected to sitting politely to hear a war criminal.

Have our national leaders been burdened by a loss of their credibility, a destruction of the citizens’ faith that they know what they’re doing? Certainly yes, but specifically, what about? Have we become more skeptical about what the security establishment tells us? Do we reject their narrative about how to protect the nation, say, in the realm of spying and surveillance? Is there a reawakened appreciation for dissent over decisions to go to war? Is there more questioning of the wisdom of generals and admirals? Are there stronger demands to spend wisely on the military apparatus?

Sgt. Bergdahl’s story is a nice metaphor for how we understand these questions. According to a revealing and just re-published 2012 report by none other than the late Rolling Stone reporter Michael Hastings (whose death last year in a fiery automobile crash remains unexplained), Bergdahl believed the whole official story about America’s benign, nation-building role in its overseas military campaigns. He quickly became disillusioned and thought he could simply wander off to try things his own way. One can marvel at his naiveté, but it is hardly more than what the average American has been taught to understand about what our military forces do and why. Perhaps the “inescapable burden” is that our defense establishment still believes it, too.