Thursday, April 17, 2014

Post-Racial Blues




Do we live in a post-racial society?  Matt Bai seems to think so, writing a  long piece (at least by Yahoo! standards) on why the Democrats are making too much about race.  He tries to break the country down demographically, lumping Americans into three "cohorts," or generations, with the baby boomers being the most racially sensitive. Therefor, we can excuse Eric Holder, Nancy Pelosi and Steve Israel for speaking out on racism.

Matt falls into the Gen X group, which in his view remains "a minefield of racial tensions to be explored and negotiated."  A group that more or less rallied around Obama hoping that his election would usher in a post-racial society only to be left somewhat chagrined that things are more or less still the same.

The third group is Gen Y, or the Millennials as they have recently been dubbed, who according to Matt seem to think race is no big deal and have accepted things more or less as they are.

That's all well and good except that racism cuts across these generations and is not so easily categorized.   Steve Israel believes that much of the opposition to bills in Congress is racially motivated and largely directed at the President.  The ACA being a classic case in point.  It was a bill drawn up by the previously Democratic House (2006-2010) before Obama became President, but as the bill moved toward ratification in the Senate, after he assumed office, it became derogatorily identified with his presidency and harshly used against him ever since.

To Obama's credit, he has assiduously avoided bringing up race, knowing full well the repercussions.  This is a public which for the most part considers itself living in a post-racial society and doesn't want to be reminded of the Civil Rights struggle.  When Eric Holder questioned the motivations behind what he regards as unprecedented attacks against this administration, there were those who felt he was playing the "race card," a taboo in today's society.

Holder has long irked Republicans, who have gone after him tooth and nail from day one.  The most recent broadside is a bill put forward by Texas US Representative Blake Farenthold that would prohibit federal employees found in contempt of Congress from receiving paychecks. This bill is expressly aimed at Holder, who they personally hold accountable for the botched "Fast and Furious" gunwalking scandal, among other grievances.

Matt is quick to point out that such attacks are nothing new and that the Clinton administration faced similar scrutiny.  He seems to think the GOP has "profound and principled disagreements" with the Obama administration which are not in any way racially motivated.

Ms. Pelosi takes exception to this view point in regard to immigration. Past Republican administrations did pass immigration reform bills along similar lines, but for whatever reason the current Republican House refuses to budge on the issue, even though a bipartisan bill passed the Senate.  It seems that once again the so-called "amnesty bill" has become attached to Obama, who would find his paycheck being withheld if representatives like Blake had their way.

Farenthold is an interesting character, as he managed to edge out the former representative from District 27, Solomon Ortiz, in the pivotal 2010 midterms, after which the district was significantly redrawn to have much fewer Latino voters.  He easily won re-election in 2012.  Yet, we are to believe that the House Republicans' stance against immigration is not racially motivated.

It is because of all this gerrymandering that took place after 2010 that the House of Representatives appears to be rock solid Republican and a constant irritant to the White House.  Many of the new Representatives are Teabaggers, and have taken a hard line on every contentious issue from immigration to gay marriage, feeding on what Steve Israel feels is a Republican base "animated by racism."

New York Rep. Israel may be part of an older generation who is more sensitive to race, but Blake belongs to the same generation.  It seems that Blake learned nothing from the Civil Rights movement, as is the case with many of his Republican colleagues in the House.  They seem to be "Goldwaterites" (to use Jackie Robinson's term) who view civil rights legislation as an imposition and that everything was just fine before 1964.

If this is a post-racial society then we haven't moved very far forward.  We seem to be fighting many of the same battles.  Our communities are still racially subdivided for the most part, and as a result so are schools.  Kids grow up largely in racially defined communities with many of the same prejudices, fears and hatreds as did previous generations.  What they learn is largely through the Internet and what ever books their school districts deem appropriate.  The only difference is that the barriers are less visible than they were in the 60s.


Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Sagebrush Rebellion


Bundy's cattle
Nevada ranchers are proclaiming they "Won the West," after the Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service backed down in a malingering dispute with local ranchers over grazing rights on federal lands.

Back in 1989 the desert tortoise was put on the endangered species list, and in order to accommodate this indigenous animal of the region the BLM and NPS restricted grazing lands, which greatly reduced the amount of land Cliven Bundy  could graze his cattle on.  The tortoise is a symbol of Nevada and is protected by the state as well.

Since 1993, Cliven has brazenly refused to heed the new grazing restrictions and also refused to pay his monthly fees, approximately $1.35 per head of cattle per month.  As a result he now owes over $1 million in back fees, penalties, fines and interest.  It seems Cliven had no problem paying his fees before then, which is significantly cheaper than providing hay for his herd.

Snipers provided cover for protesters
The dispute was dragged into court in 1998, and after numerous legal battles and appeals Cliven was asked to pay up or lose his cattle.  This was two years ago.  The BLM and NPS apparently gave Bundy one last chance to pay up, but he still refused.  As a result officials began rounding up his cattle, resulting in a classic Western standoff where armed ranchers along with unarmed protesters from the Nevada branch of the Oath Keepers pitched up at the BLM stock pens to demand the Feds give Cliven's cattle back.

Conservatives being Conservatives have since manufactured all sorts of memes, spreading them on facebook and other social networks in a concerted effort to get poor Cliven's story out to the broader public.  This is how I came across this dispute.  However, it is not enough to have this be simply a case of the a poor rancher butting heads with the federal government.  Conspiracy theories have emerged, notably Harry Reid having a stake in some Chinese solar company which wanted to set up a solar farm on the disputed land.  This piece of claptrap first appeared in Alex Jones' infamous blog Infowars, and was spread by Fox News.

Morning Joe almost spit out his coffee over the incident, agreeing with Katty Kay that this is a case of anarchy, not libertarianism as Teabaggers claim, and cautioned Conservatives not to circle wagons with Cliven Bundy.  But, it's too late.  Right-wing gun nuts have seized on it as another example of why the second amendment is so important to them, even though the Founding Fathers never imagined an armed insurrection against their own government.

Pyrrhic victory?
Matt Ford better explains why this standoff is unconstitutional.  Bundy actually believes Nevada law trumps federal law in his case, even when Nevada law sides with the federal government.  He has also pleaded that his ancestral Mormon claim to the disputed land predates the creation of the Bureau of Land Management so therefor he is not subject to its jurisdiction.  This claim was thrown out of court.  Still, Cliven believes he is not subject to federal law, refusing to honor the federal court decisions.

This appears to be the case with many of those supporting his position.  We have seen drives in several states, most recently Missouri, to nullify federal gun laws, while at the same time holding up the second amendment of the U.S. Constitution in their defense of the right to bear arms, even against the federal government if necessary.

Yes, Joe Scarborough, this is anarchy and should not be condoned in any way, shape or form.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

The Party of Susan B. Anthony



The Republican Party isn't sexist.  It's the "Party of Susan B. Anthony" according to Marsha Blackburn, who noted that Anthony was the first woman to vote, and she was a Republican.  Try to vote, anyway, as she was subsequently indicted by an all-male grand jury and ultimately found guilty of the infraction and forced to pay a fine for illegally voting in the 1872 Presidential election, presumably casting her vote for U.S. Grant.

Ms. Blackburn doesn't mention any names.  She sufficiently blurs the edges of her references, like singling out that the first female member of Congress was a Republican, Jeanette Rankin, who actually served before universal women's suffrage, as Montana allowed women to vote and represent the state prior to 1919.  I guess for Marsha, it is only firsts that matter.

The Push for the 19th amendment
After the Nineteenth amendment was passed during Wilson's administration, which she conveniently doesn't reference, the first 8 out of 10 female governors were Democrats, as the Democratic Party had essentially adopted the progressive agenda after the Republican Party had turned its back on Progressivism.

In fact, the grass roots level of this ideology can be traced to William Jennings Bryan, who delivered his famous "Cross of Gold" speech at the 1896 Democratic Convention.  He strongly supported Women's Suffrage.  Bryan won the Democratic nomination only to lose to McKinley in the general election.

This was a theme Teddy Roosevelt ran with in his 1904 re-election bid, much to the chagrin of the Grand Old Party, which had become a Party of Plutocrats.  But, even TR couldn't deliver on universal suffrage.  In fact, he didn't fully endorse women's suffrage until 1912, when he made a second bid for the White House as a Progressive candidate, much to the chagrin of the GOP, who felt he split the Republican vote and gave the election to the Democrats.  Taft was their man.

Kennedy signing the Equal Pay Act, 1963
Ms. Blackburn doesn't expect her listeners to delve too deeply into any of this.  She just wants her listeners to note the R by the name of prominent early women's suffrage leaders, so that it is understood that Republicans long supported equal rights.  If that is the case then why is it so difficult for contemporary Republicans to embrace an Equal Pay Bill?  After all, they voted overwhelmingly for the Equal Pay Act of 1963.

Monday, April 14, 2014

Passing the hot potato



It's sad when the Republicans take Kathleen Sebelius' resignation as a "victory."  From what I understand the Secretary of Health and Human Services was ready to leave at the end of the first term but stayed for the launch of the insurance exchanges.  As a result, she became the prime target for the Republican "oversight committee," which held her personally accountable for the "failed" launch of the exchanges.  To Sebelius' credit, she gutted out the launch, but was given a less than heroic endorsement for her efforts to resolve the website debacle.  It seemed the Obama administration had already tendered her resignation behind closed doors.

"Obamacare" has been a work in progress from day one, withstanding blistering attacks from all sides.  The Republican House voted no less than 50 times to repeal the historic act, and has voted to defund it in all the budgets it has presented.  Four years later, there appears to be no sign the Republicans will relent in their assault.  They have chosen to make it the centerpiece of the midterm elections, as they did in 2010.  Only problem now is that Americans have come to accept the ACA to a much larger degree.

The Republicans have had to rethink their strategy given that the exchanges yielded over 7 million enrollees.  It wasn't the unmitigated disaster they had imagined.  The program reached its revised goal after the poor roll out.  Medicaid expansion further added to the final enrollment count, reducing the total number of uninsured Americans to its lowest level since 2009.  Now, the GOP'ers are busily trying to cobble together an alternative health insurance program, which they can present to voters.

Their front man appears to be Bobby Jindal, who unveiled his plan after the close of the exchanges.  It seems to build on that proposed earlier by Republican Congressmen, who more or less cherry-picked from the ACA, taking those parts which they regarded as the least offensive, and added a few sour cherries of their own.  The only problem is that the ACA has been held up in the Supreme Court and is the law of the land, so unless the Republicans can turn over the Senate there is not much chance they will be able to enact their new health care vision. It would take 60 votes in the Senate to overturn the Affordable Care Act, which would mean they would have to win virtually every seat, a Promethean task to say the least.

In the meantime, the Republicans will try to block the administration's nominee, Sylvia Matthews Burwell, to replace Sebelius as HHS Secretary.  I assume the "nuclear option" is still in effect and all the Democrats need is a straight up vote on her nomination.  But, I'm sure the Republicans will use the opportunity to vent their ire for voter consumption.


Thursday, April 10, 2014

The Black Eye of the Month Club



You would book banning was a thing of the past, but unfortunately there are an alarming number of books that are "challenged" each year.  The latest is Sherman Alexie's book, The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian.  Apparently, Alexie had the temerity to reference sex and masturbation in a book that chronicles the life of a 14-year old native American growing up on the Spokane reservation in eastern Washington and his subsequent transfer to a public school where he is the only Indian other than the mascot.  Alexie is a wonderful comic as witnessed in his book Smoke Signals, which was made into a movie in 1998.  But, it seems kids in Meridian Idaho school district will no longer have easy access to this particular book.

Students tried to appeal the decision by presenting a petition with 350 signatures but the school board voted 2-1 to hold up the decision after numerous parental complaints.  The book has since been in great demand in Meridian, undercutting the school board's attempt to banish it.  Downloads are pretty easy to get, which is probably a bit of a downer for Alexie, although I imagine he has done well off the book since its release in 2007.  Hopefully, this incident will call attention to his other works.

It's funny to see books like Brave New World and To Kill a Mockingbird still being challenged today.  You really have to wonder how myopic these school boards are, especially in a time when it is so easy to gain access to pretty much anything on the Internet.  It is like they still think they can screen kids from the perils of this world when books like Alexie's semi-autobiography probably do more to help kids make sense of their lives, much like Catcher in the Rye did for troubled teens since it was first published in 1951.  The title is still banned in many school libraries around the country.


Hank Aaron Speaks Out!



Hank Aaron certainly doesn't shy away from controversy, comparing the continued assault on Obama by Republicans to the KKK raiding parties.  The only difference in his mind is "now they have neckties and starched shirts."  Probably wore them under their capes as well.  The "true home run king" went onto say that he has kept the many ugly letters he received when he broke Babe Ruth's record 40 years ago, and that we have a long way to go to improve race relations in this country.

As an example, Jim DeMint apparently believes the federal government had little role in the emancipation of slaves.  He does credit Lincoln for playing a part in it, although holds up the "Great Emancipator" as the first Republican president, as if to say these are values the GOP stands by today.  He seems to forget that the amendments abolishing slavery and expanding voting rights were added after the Civil War, not before.  He also downplays Southern plantation owners who used the Bible to defend slavery, just as Northern abolitionists used the Bible to condemn this "peculiar institution."  Also, no allusion to the decades of Jim Crow laws, which were in direct defiance to the Constitution, keeping black baseball players out of Major League Baseball, resulting in a separate Negro League.

Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier back in 1947, when he was acquired by the Brooklyn Dodgers from the Kansas City Monarchs.  He appeared torn emotionally, as one can read in this excerpt from his autobiography, I Never Had It Made.  After retiring from the MLB in 1956, he actively campaigned for Nixon in the 1960 election.  Robinson came to regret that decision.  He supported Nelson Rockefeller in 1962, who promoted civil rights, but was overrun by "Golderwaterites" in his bid for President in 1964.  Robinson still believed in the Party of Lincoln, but became an LBJ supporter in the aftermath of the GOP convention.  Goldwater went on to be routed by Johnson in the election.

Like Robinson before him, Aaron started out in the Negro League.  He played for the Indianapolis Clowns before being picked up by the Milwaukee Braves for $10,000 and promoted to the MLB in 1954.  The Braves moved to Atlanta in 1966.

I'm glad to hear Aaron speak out, especially after the Atlanta Braves game honoring his historic milestone.   It is hard to equate the GOP today with the Party of Lincoln.  It seems more like the Party of Denial.

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

The Practice of the Wild

from Whispered Lineage
It was nice to read that Gary Snyder is still alive and well in American Smoke.  Ian Sinclair tracked him down at his 100-acre woods in Northern California, Kitkitdizze, which he originally bought with Alan Ginsberg and Dick Baker.  The name was derived from the Miwok word for bear clover, found in abundance in that part of the woods.  The retreat serves as a sanctuary for writers, poets, naturalists and other sympathetic souls who share Snyder's love for nature.

He never really considered himself one of the beats, even if Kerouac immortalized him as Japhy Ryder in The Dharma Bums.  Snyder considers this a piece of "fabulilsm" as the climb up the "Matterhorn" was real but Kerouac turned into something larger than it actually was.  It is probably my favorite of Kerouac's books, beginning in the foothills behind Berkley, where Snyder was teaching at the time, and extending inland to the higher peaks.



He was also great friends with Ginsberg but their poetry seemed to reach at opposite ends of the spectrum.  They purchased the property together back in the 60s, after Snyder had returned from Japan in the engine room of an oil tanker.  The wooded site became their sanctuary.

Sinclair mentions a documentary, Practice of the Wild, which was done in 2010.  Snyder is interviewed by Jim Harrison, also known for his rugged outdoor approach to life, personified in his books Sundog and Wolf.  Harrison is also known for his poetry.  The title comes from a collection of essays Snyder published that year.

Snyder received the Pulitzer prize for his collection of poems, Turtle Island, published in 1975, which begins with a piece on the Anasazi, or ancient ones, who inhabited the Four Corners Region of the Southwest.  He branches out from this starting point to take in a broad range of impressions.  I particularly like "The Bath," which he describes he and his wife giving their son Kai a bath in a sauna.

Really have been enjoying American Smoke as Ian Sinclair gives marvelous insights into a wide range of poets and writers who traversed the American continent, picking up their trails at various points.




Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Shakespeare in America



There was a time when Shakespeare was standard reading.  When I was clearing out my grandmother's storage bin a few years back I came across an 8-volume leather-bound edition of Shakespeare's complete plays for actors.  It dated from 1895.  Recently, I had the volumes restored, as a couple of the backs were broken.  An heirloom I can pass along if only my kids took as much interest in Shakespeare as I did.  Maybe in the future they will develop an appreciation for the bard.

Library of America has released its latest anthology, Shakespeare in America, which is loaded with anecdotes like Longstreet commenting on U.S. Grant's portrayal of Desdemona, while the troops were biding time during the Mexican War.  It seemed everyone was doing Shakespeare, as William Grimes notes in his NY Times review of the book.

Shakespeare had a profound influence on writers like Melville, who apparently rewrote Moby-Dick after reading Shakespeare for the first time, recasting his characters and giving it a much more fatalistic air.

Even in this day and age you can find Shakespeare reproductions on both the stage and movie screen, and the bard continues to be taught in schools, influencing a whole new generation whether they like it or not.  The language can be a bit daunting in this modern age, which is why you see so many adaptations that try to give this themes greater relevancy for today's youth by setting his plays in modern times.

Probably one of the most compelling adaptations I read as a kid was Frank Herbert's Dune, which reset MacBeth in the distant future on a dry desolate planet called Arrakis.  You might call it "Shakespeare in Space."

Monday, April 7, 2014

The GOP Nuclear Option



We saw the Senate "nuclear option" last year when Harry Reid wiped out Republicans' continued attempts to filibuster presidential nominations, which had held up an estimated 600 appointees over the last five years.  However, the GOP has long had its ace in the hole in Chief Justice Roberts, who joined his conservative justices in striking down the limit on campaign contributions, paving the way for money to once again flow freely in elections.

It's not like it really held back conservative campaign contributors.  Sheldon Adelson pumped an estimated $93 million into Republican campaigns in 2012, $30 million into Mitt Romney's campaign alone.  And, we all know about the tentacle reaches of the Koch Bros, who use PAC's like Americans for Prosperity to funnel money to a wide variety of campaigns, including their ongoing assault of "Obamacare."

The McCutcheon decision is particularly unsettling, as some states have had more stringent campaign finance rules in place, but now they have been null and voided.  The decision seems to go against all grass roots efforts, left and right.  It will also hurt the Tea Party, as the TP now finds itself outside the GOP loop, making it harder for it to run insurgency campaigns against establishment Republicans in the primaries, which they have been doing these past four years.

This all points to the bleak reality of Capital being consolidated in the hands of the few, at the expense of the many.  This is the subject of a new book by French economist Thomas Piketty, who sees this as the unfortunate consequence of a Democratic society that doesn't have the checks and balances in place to insure a relatively fair distribution of wealth.  He points to the period 1930-1975 as a time in which social-minded governments tried to manage capital.  However, since Reagan, Thatcher and Kohl in the 80s, we have seen a profound shift to the right, that has affected Europe as much as it has the United States.

At one time, prominent Republicans as well as Democrats recognized the need to control the amount of money flowing into political campaigns and issued sweeping campaign finance reforms, notably the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act of 2002.  There were loopholes, to be sure, as big money still managed to creep into state and national elections, ballooning to a staggering $2 billion raised on the Presidential election alone in 2012, with virtually all of it spent.

This was also Big Money's first serious attempt in many decades to put a Big Money candidate in the White House, as Romney himself was worth a quarter billion dollars, if not more.  Kennedy was the last President to come from an extremely wealthy background.


It seems voters generally tend to be repelled by such candidates, which is why Big Money often looks for a populist candidate to make its pitch.  Newt Gingrich was their man in the primaries in 2012, drawing big contributions from Sheldon Adelson, which briefly vaulted him to front runner status before his campaign imploded.  Not surprising that Newt supports this USSC decision.  He was a direct beneficiary of the 2010 Citizens United decision, which first opened the flood gates in 2012.  The amusing part is his claiming that it somehow "equalizes" the Middle Class and Rich.

I suppose this is because Obama effectively proved in both his 2008 and 2012 campaigns that you can amass a sizable "war chest" from small contributions if you can appeal to the people.  The Tea Party has also proven very effective in this regard.  It seems the GOP's only way to counteract these grass roots efforts is to remove the cap on campaign contributions, once again relying on the Supreme Court to bail them out.

Here is Justice Stephen Beyer's "blistering dissent" to the McCutcheon decision.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

The Unknown Known

It seems that George Bush has graduated from dogs to portraits of world leaders.  I have to admit his painting of Vladimir Putin is pretty good, but not sure whether he is quite ready to take his one-man show on the road.  You can view it at his Presidential Library in Dallas.

Meanwhile Donald Rumsfeld has been given the Errol Morris treatment, a full length documentary in which I assume Morris was hoping to get out of Rummy what he got out of McNamara some years back in Fog of War. Instead, it sounds like a very unapologetic Rumsfeld offering up his explanation of The Unknown Known.   You do get the sense that Rumsfeld has studied The Art of War and has a pretty good head for this sort of thing, but for him it is largely about tactics, and he sized up Morris pretty quickly and never let his interlocutor get the better of him.

If Rumsfeld wasn't comfortable with George Bush as President he never showed it.  By this stage in his political career he seemed to accept his role as one of the men behind the curtain, despite having once had presidential ambitions of his own.  He often provided the most engaging sound bites during the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, with Bush deferring to the elder statesman on the logistics of the two wars.

You get the sense that Bush's passion for painting started in the White House, as it seemed he all too often deferred to Rumsfeld and Cheney, and later Condoleeza Rice on pressing issues.  He gives no date in this WP blog other than to say he was inspired by Winston Churchill and hired an instructor to bring the "Rembrandt" out of him.


Whenever it started, it has kept Bush occupied, who purportedly spends up to four hours a day painting.  He has kept a surprisingly low profile these past five years, never once to my recollection criticizing Obama.  It seems Laura and Michelle have a genuinely friendly relationship.  While the two couples were touring Africa on separate itineraries, they met at a memorial service in Tanzania, which again implied a cordial relationship between the two couples.

This is in sharp contrast to Rumsfeld, who has been very critical of the President.  Most recently Rumsfeld questioned the President's leadership in foreign policy, saying a "trained ape" would have better management skills than Obama.  Beyond the obvious racist implications of such a statement is the bitter reminder that it is the Obama administration drawing down the two wars he orchestrated while Secretary of Defense under Bush.


If nothing else the documentary gives us a very lucid reminder of the pompous ass that Rumsfeld was during his years as Secretary of Defense, which ended in a rather ignominious resignation early into Bush's second term because of his mismanagement of the two wars.  I would think that Robert Gates would be a good subject for Morris' next documentary, as I'm sure Gates would have a few choice things to say about Rummy's competence.

Meanwhile, I'm waiting for Bush's Presidential Cabinet cycle to see how he paints Rummy.

Friday, April 4, 2014

The New Millennials



When you type in Millennial these days it is no longer a religious fundamentalist who believes the End Times are upon is, but also the generation born after 1980, who has essentially grown up in the new Millennium.  It seems they shed their previous moniker Generation Y.

This must be a demographic nightmare as so many of these religious fundamentalists identify themselves as Millennials or Millenialists.  The media picked up on the former term in reference to the Gen Y'ers, which "Obamacare" so desperately needed to support its health insurance exchanges.  I suppose you can be both, but according to statistics, the New Millennials don't identify themselves very strongly with religion.

It seems the only thing these two demographic groups have in common is a shared passion for The Walking Dead.  There are no end of interpretations for the meaning of the zombies in this highly popular television series that imagines a post-apocalyptic future in which human beings are forced to band together or be eaten.

Teenage wasteland
Unlike Gen X before it, Gen Y tends to lean left and be much more politically active.  This was clearly the target audience of Obama and healthcare.gov in the closing months of the health insurance exchanges, convincing these young adults that government-sponsored health insurance was in their best interest, a kind of Zombie Survival Guide if you like.

Of course, the religious Millennialists were having none of it, convinced that "Obamacare" is yet another sign of the End Times and that we all better hunker down in our doomsday bunkers with our prayer books and hope that the Lord takes us up to the Heavens in the Rapture.

This all seemed like harmless fun at one time.  Few took these doomsday sayers seriously, but now that we see Millennialists in government actively influencing decision making, a Zombie Apocalypse no longer seems like such a far-fetched idea.  At times, it appeared George W. Bush was actively promoting a Millennialist agenda during his tenure in office, which has been carried forward by the Tea Party.  I suppose these folks got tired of waiting for the Second Coming and are determined to make it happen by stirring up unrest in the Middle East, where they feel the apocalypse will erupt, as prophesied in Revelations.

The Coming Horsemen
Of course, it is little wonder that John of Patmos (aka John the Revelator) chose the Middle East, as that is where he lived at the time he wrote the final book of the New Testament.  Most scholars believe it was written about 60 years after the death of Jesus, making it around 95 AD.  I guess there were those who desperately longed for their savior's return and imagined all sorts of dark events surrounding it.  Scholars generally tend to view Revelations as allegorical of the imagined End Times of the Roman Empire, not the world as a whole, but John sure made it sound like the world would erupt in a conflagration of Biblical proportions.

This kind of apocalyptic thinking makes great fodder for Hollywood movies.  Somehow we managed to get past 2012, but that doesn't mean there aren't more ominous signs out there.  All one has to do is look around the Internet to find any number of websites and facebook pages devoted to the Apocalypse.  Even National Geographic has picked up on theme, offering a number of "scientific" hypotheses as to cataclysmic events that can lead to the end of the world.

It's almost like we are trying to will this to happen, not satisfied by the sedentary lives we find ourselves in.  These vicarious thrill rides serve as good coffee and cigarette break fodder at the office, but it doesn't look like like the young Millennials are having any part of it, preferring instead to see the world unfolding before them.

Thursday, April 3, 2014

King Barry has his day

After all the hemming and hawing we heard these past 6 months, "Obamacare" delivers on its goal of 7 million subscribers putting conservatives in their biggest tizzy fit since Obama was re-elected in 2012.  "How can that be?"  many ask, refusing to accept the numbers, or babbling that less than half of those who signed up will pay the premiums, even though initial reports show 85 per cent of subscribers meeting their initial payments.

The scariest thing for Republicans is that the federally sponsored health insurance program might actually work.  It has a sufficient "pool" to keep rates down.  Obama's big push to lure young Americans not covered on their parents' plan (the age was increased to 26) seems to have yielded a great number of new subscribers.  His appearance on Between Two Ferns with Zach Galifianakis was priceless.  His popularity among the youngest demographic of voters remains high, and this was the ideal medium to reach them, showing off his sense of humor.  Something Republicans seem to completely lack these days.

Still, many remain skeptical, and even the mainstream media continues to fidget, generating a faux scandal over the "dissing" of Kathleen Sebelius?  Congressional Republicans wanted her head back in October when the launch of healthcare.gov got off to such a rough start, but she more than held her own in the faux Congressional hearings that followed, and has been actively working behind the scenes ever since to keep this program moving forward.

So, what does this say about the midterms?  Polls show support of the Affordable Care Act is trending upward, reaching a high of 49 per cent this week.  The Republicans may want to rethink their strategy, as they will really be taking a fall if approval continues to grow in the wake of the success of the health insurance exchanges.  

I'm sure the good doctor will be making a great number of house calls to continue to denigrate "Obamacare."  But, he will look even more the lone wolf, as the AMA has long supported the ACA, offering advise on how to navigate the website and get the best coverage.

It seems the GOP still can't get over King Barry slipping this health care bill by them in Congress.  It's not like they didn't put up a big temper-tantrum, just as they did in 1992.  However, they didn't count on the Democrats sticking together on this one and pulling Arlen Specter from their ranks to get the 60th vote they needed to carry the Senate.  This was why they were so excited about Scott Brown winning the Massachusetts Senate special election in early 2010, chanting "41," only to be outflanked once again when Obama was able to get House Democrats to accept the revised Senate Bill in full, not having to submit the bill to a second vote in the Senate.  Ted Kennedy must have smiled in his grave.

Monday, March 31, 2014

Good for what ails you



The 2016 Republican nomination may come down to an ophthalmologist and a neurosurgeon.  We already know about the incredible rise of Randall Howard Paul, aka "Rand" Paul, from a Kentucky eye doctor to US Senator on the back of the Tea Party in 2010, but the Tea Party is currently punch drunk in love with Dr. Ben Carson, a noted neurosurgeon, who has been outspoken in his criticism of the Affordable Care Act, taking the President to task at a National Prayer Meeting in 2013, which made him an overnight celebrity.

The President and Vice-President sat politely as the good doctor referenced the Bible, the Founding Fathers,  Alexis de Toqueville, the War of 1812, and the Bald Eagle in his condemnation of "Obamacare."  Dr. Carson has been riding this hobby horse the past year, and has inspired a great number of Teabaggers who see him as their political savior.

Unlike Herman Cain, the only skeletons in the good doctor's closet have long been banished and there is virtually no likelihood of a woman to emerge to challenge his fidelity, unlike "Hermanator" in 2012, who loved to boast of his virility at the expense of Obama.  A "Ben Carson for President" spokesman calculated that all Uncle Ben has to do is get 17% of the "Black vote" and "Hillary loses every swing state in the country."  Pretty compelling numbers, assuming Carson can get through the ugly nomination process.  He doesn't seem to like to field questions.

Carson did place third in a recent CPAC Straw Poll, so one has to consider him a serious contender.  It seems Sheldon Adelson and the Koch Brothers are interested, but Carson is aiming at the religious heart of the rank and file of the Republican Party with his evangelical messages.

He found God toward the end of high school, pulled his inner-city life together and got into Yale Medical School where he excelled in pediatric neurosurgery, eventually being honored by George W. Bush.  You can see his life story in a made-for-TV-movie from 2009.

At a Heritage Foundation conference last year, Carson launched his harshest broadside yet at "Obamacare," claiming the ACA to be the "worst thing that has happened in this nation since slavery."  He seems to have forgotten all about Jim Crow, which he is old enough to remember.   No matter, his views are perfectly in sync with the Republican National Committee and political pundits at Fox News where he is often called in to offer his expert views on the subject.

Now that he is being considered as a presidential candidate, Ben has tried to expand his range of views, weighing in on everything from the Ukraine crisis to energy reserves in this op-ed piece for The Desert Sun, repeating the old Cold War maxims Republicans love to hear, but showing he is in tune with the current trends in renewable energy resources without stating any specific one that might get him in trouble.

Yep, Uncle Ben seems to be the man of the hour, the anti-politician who just might save America from the rampages of Socialism we have seen these two terms of Barack Obama, or so some Republicans would like to think.

The GOP Chorus Line


That's all well and good but show me your legs

Potential Republican presidential candidates were in Vegas auditioning for Sheldon Adelson and his conservative Jewish Coalition.  Adelson was apparently none too happy in 2012 when he tossed away $90 million of his hard-earned money on candidates like Moonbase Newt and Rombo, and vowed to scrutinize his candidates more closely this time around.

Unfortunately, good ol' Chris Christie stuck his foot in his mouth once again, referring to the "occupied territories" of the West Bank.  Of course, he meant it as a compliment to the Israeli security forces, but conservative Jews don't consider this occupied land, rather their own sovereign territory, so the guv was forced to apologize for "misspeaking."

Even George Bush recognized the West Bank as "occupied land" and pushed for a two-state solution during his two terms in office, but if you want the big bucks you have to cater to the likes of Adelson, who seems determined to buy this election.

I've got a lead this big!

One wonders if Christie knows at all what he is saying anymore.  After that faux inquiry into "bridgegate," clearing himself of all charges.  He seems to think he is a front runner again.  But, alas the GOP lead horse appears to be Rand Paul, who carried the CPAC straw poll recently, well ahead of Christie who finished a distant fourth behind Ted Cruz and the Republicans' favorite doctor, "Uncle Ben" Carson, who compares Obamacare with slavery.

The Jersey boss isn't going to let this one go without a fight, even if he has to show off his legs in front of the Vegas judges.  Quite frankly, none of the candidates look very appealing, which is why Sheldon may have to look beyond the front runners and see who else is lurking in the GOP chorus line.  But, is America ready for another Bush?

Thursday, March 27, 2014

In His Element



It seems the latest gambit by the Republicans is to show the President as having lost the respect of world leaders in the face of the Crimean crisis.  They point to figures that show the President's popularity abroad has waned since 2009, but fail to note that there is still a yawning gap between Obama and George W. Bush, who consistently ranked at the bottom of international approval ratings along with the former presidents of Iran and Pakistan.

With the mid-term elections coming up you can expect this kind of rhetoric, but one has to wonder what Mitt Romney's stake is in this, as he has been one of the most vocal in criticizing the President as of late, blaming Obama's "naivete" for not seeing Russia's move on Crimea.  I guess the only thing Rombo knows how to do is run for President, after having spent so many years on the campaign trail.  Obama had a terse response for Romney, when these accusations were thrown at him by an ABC reporter.

Of course, Vladimir Putin doesn't have to deal with such an adversarial press or national assembly, and his approval rating is sky high in Russia following the annexation of Crimea.  Yet, on the world stage, Obama is still the most popular leader, with a median popularity twice that of Putin.  I know that whatever doubts there were concerning Obama's leadership in Eastern Europe have been erased almost over night with his quick response to the Ukrainian crisis.  Even Polish leaders, who were notably miffed when Obama scrapped the missile defense system, have praised him in recent weeks for his assertiveness in boosting NATO presence all along the Eastern European borders.

This leads one to ask if Republicans even read world headlines?  It seems they live in some kind of echo chamber where they only hear what bounces back from their own mouths.  Of course, the conservative blogosphere only amplifies this sound, refusing to fact check any of these assertions.

Meanwhile, the President continues being the President, meeting with world leaders in the Hague and stopping by to visit the Pope in the Vatican, which is probably what rankles Republicans the most, especially Mitt Romney who obviously feels he is better suited for these responsibilities.  Even David Brooks had to admit Obama has handled the Crimean crisis quite well.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Where Waco Went Wrong



There were little more than a handful of survivors of the Branch Davidian sect that fateful day in 1993 when the US government laid siege to their Mount Carmel compound outside Waco, Texas.  For most Americans it is an ugly chapter long forgotten, but for Clive Doyle it is a set of very painful memories that needed exorcising in a book, A Journey to Waco.

Malcolm Gladwell summarized the book in his lengthy article for The New Yorker  , showing sympathy for Doyle and this branch of the Seventh-Day Adventists that Doyle became a part of.  It's probably more than most people want to read as it is hard to fathom the millennial nature of these Protestant Christians, who focus so heavily on the Book of Revelations, preferring to find support more in the Old than in the New Testament.

Seventh-Day Adventists appear to seek comfort more in the Book of Moses than the New Testament, and in this sense share a spiritual chord with the Mormons, which they believe set them apart from other Christians.  You may ask why they just don't become Orthodox Jews, especially since one of their beliefs is that one of the Lost Tribes of Israel ended up in America and that they are the spiritual descendants.  However,  the Seventh-Day Adventists are one of the many branches of Protestantism that flourished in America, particularly after the Second Great Awakening of the early 19th century, when William Miller founded Adventism and Joseph Smith Mormonism.

Gladwell notes that the particular branch of Adventism that David Koresh subscribed to grew out of the early 20th century, when a "prophet" named Victor Houteff tried to bring Adventism even more in line with Old Testament teachings, feeling the faith had lost its moral compass.  He founded Mt. Carmel in 1934.  He tried to bring his new found religion back to his native Bulgaria, but wasn't accepted into the national socialist movement.  This led him to wander far and wide, even to Australia, where a young Clive Doyle became mesmerized in his teachings, and eventually found his way to Waco.

The story reads like something out of a Stephen King novel with these "Millennials" seeking a spiritual home in waiting for the Apocalypse.  Koresh appears like one of the characters out of The Stand, able to draw the congregation to his unique interpretations of the Bible and proclaiming himself "The Lamb of God."  He convinced those around him that they were living in the "Fifth Seal of the Apocalypse."  Doyle firmly believed as did the others, and they gave themselves fully over to Koresh of their own "free will."

Gladwell spends much of the article on the siege and the inability of FBI negotiators to understand the depth of the Branch Davidians faith.  This is when James Tabor, a Biblical scholar, came in and tried to reach out to Koresh on his own terms rather than those set by the FBI and ATF, which had made a bloody mess of the situation.  As Gladwell noted, there had been ample opportunity to arrest Koresh away from the compound before the siege as he frequently came into Waco, and many of the Mt. Carmel congregation lived and worked in Waco.

Tabor was finally able to reach some kind of agreement with Koresh but the FBI was too impatient to wait another two weeks for the latter-day prophet to write his statement and rushed the compound.  The tragic result was the death of over 70 parishioners, including more than 20 children.  A totally senseless act that probably did more to embolden the "Millennial" movement in America than any other single event.  It served as the inspiration for Timothy McVeigh, who with the help of Terry Nichols bombed the Alfred P. Murrah Building in Oklahoma City two years later, killing 168 federal employees.  An eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth.

Monday, March 24, 2014

The President's End-Run



Apparently, Obama's decision to designate a 1600-acre nature preserve a national monument was the last straw for Utah representative Rob Bishop, who has sponsored a bill that would revoke much of the 1906 Antiquities Act and end all future executive decisions when it comes to designating federal lands.  It is hard to understand why this particular parcel is so contentious given that only last year the House voted unanimously to add Point Arena to the California Coastal National Monument but the measure has dragged in the Senate.

It's not likely that this "No More National Parks" bill will pass the Senate, but it isn't stopping House Republicans from fomenting on the runaway executive authority the President has been using of late, essentially "punking" the House.  If there is anything the majority Republican House can't stand it is the President doing an "end-run" on this hallowed hall of Congress, to use Rep. Bishop's nixed metaphors.

It's not like Obama has been declaring national parks each month.  The last time he did so was a year ago in honor of Harriet Tubman and Colonel Charles P. Young, both of which got support from prominent Republicans.  But, designating land is another story, especially when there are other interests involved, in this case hunting, fishing and off-road vehicle use, which most likely would be prohibited under a new management plan.  You simply can't have the federal government imposing its authority on good citizens.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Let me articulate this better



It would seem the Republicans want desperately to reach out to a broader audience, especially those Republicans considering a run for the White House in 2016, but it seems that at every turn they stick their proverbial feet in their mouths.  Case in point, Paul Ryan trying to address the issue of poverty:

 "We have got this tailspin of culture, in our inner cities in particular, of men not working and just generations of men not even thinking about working or learning to value the culture of work."

The Wisconsin Congressman seems to view poverty as a matter of choice, fostered by years of welfare subsidies,  an all too common GOP refrain.  Apparently in an effort to appeal to women, Ryan placed the onus on inner city men, which carries with it rather obvious racial repercussions.  But, in this case Ryan apparently felt he didn't articulate his point properly and that his personal views on the subject were misinterpreted by the mainstream press.

This isn't the first time a Republican has had a problem with articulation. It seems these good folks would like us to think their heart is in the right place, but after decades of sponsoring corporate subsidies, tax breaks and just about everything else to lure industry into their states, addressing poverty is proving a bit difficult, especially for a political party that never took the issue seriously to begin with.

Republicans seem to think there are plenty of jobs out there but that Americans are simply unwilling to work.  They don't take into account all the civil service jobs they cut, particularly in a state like Wisconsin where Governor Scott Walker ushered in draconian budget cuts, adding tens of thousands to the unemployment lines.  The much vaunted private sector simply doesn't have enough meaningful jobs for all those former civil servants.  Meanwhile, schools find themselves having to make do with depleted staffs as the number of kids in the classrooms haven't shrunk accordingly.

It seems Republicans are trying to steal a page from Bill Clinton and pitch the old mantra, "I feel your pain," as they try to reach out beyond the GOP rank and file, which has been ardently against social welfare programs, the entire government for that matter.


The odd thing is that food stamp use and other forms of social welfare are highest in "red states."  In fact, many red states, particularly those in the South, take more out than they pay into the federal government, essentially making them welfare states. Despite all the hue and cry about FEMA, when there is a natural disaster you don't see red states rejecting federal emergency relief assistance.  They only object to it when some other state is getting it.

It would seem that Republicans recognize government as a necessary evil and are even willing to pay some lip service to social welfare programs, but in the end they still think poverty is a matter of choice, as witnessed in the food stamp surfer, who purportedly turned down an 80K job (offered by Sean Hannity) to live the Life of Reilly at taxpayers' expense on California beaches.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

A Winter of Discontent


Doesn't seem like much to talk about
It would seem we are on the brink of a renewed Cold War as both the United States and Russia have issued travel bans against well-recognized politicians and businessmen.  Both sides have scoffed at the bans, notably John McCain, who wears his ban like a "red badge of courage" for having stood up against the Soviet Union, er I mean Russia, for so many years.  However, the latest move to suspend G-8 meetings until the political situation changes is a much bolder move.

There are talks of economic sanctions.  The US has few ties with Russia, but then the sudden sell-off of over $100 billion in government bonds by Russia and China did raise some concerns.  I suppose this was in response to the hit the ruble took these past few weeks as Russia made its move to annex Crimea.

Russia has a strong emotional stake in the Crimea, and you might even say a cultural stake in the peninsula.  It has long been a popular Russian tourist destination and over the last two centuries numerous Russians have settled in the Crimea, essentially taking over the peninsula.  So, it came as little surprise that over 95% of "Crimeans" voted to secede from the Ukraine and become part of the Russian federation.  However, the Crimean Tatar community, which has a much longer relation to the peninsula, sat out the vote.

What is surprising is the brazen way in which Vladimir Putin orchestrated this move, inspiring awe by some American politicians, former Mayor Giuliani, while scorn from others, our dear Senator McCain.  No sooner does the ash settle from the protests in Kiev than Putin sends in military forces to back the breakaway "republic" of Crimea, which had stormed the local parliament, and immediately put this "independence" referendum on the table.  The West didn't even have a week to relish its political victory in Kiev before all attention turned to Simferopol.

The Russian literary legacy is steeped in references to Crimea from Tolstoy's battle pieces from Sebastopol to Chekhov's classic novella A Lady With a Dog, but go beneath the surface of all these literary evocations and one sees that Russian presence in Crimea only dates back as far as the 1850s, the time of the Crimean War.  Sure, Russia had annexed the peninsula a few decades earlier, but it wasn't until after this famous war that Russians began to settle the peninsula in mass, driving out ethnic Greek and Tatar communities.

I suppose if you wanted an American equivalent it would be Texas, which we seized from Mexico about the same time, and has recently expressed secessionist thoughts of its own, although I doubt it wants to return to Mexico.  Crimea became as heavily Russified as Texas became "Americanized," although with a distinct southern pecan flavor.

Putin striking his best John Wayne pose
Putin's brashness is not much unlike that of Rick Perry, although Putin seems the more shrewd of the two, knowing better when to pick his fights.  They've both been in power about the same length of time, but Putin has no intention of stepping down.  There is talk of doing away with the consecutive two-term limit in Russia so that Putin won't have to use Medvedev as a filler, much like George Wallace used his wife, Lurleen, in Alabama to rule the state for two decades.

The Russian president continues to use the thin guise of democratic government to impose his autocratic control over the nation.  Given the emotional chord Crimea has with most Russians, he is able to get away with it.  Even the last Soviet premier Gorbacev praised the move, and he is normally a very sharp critic of Putin.  Fact of the matter is that most Russians see all of the Ukraine as an extension of themselves, which is similarly steeped in literary references, notably Gogol's Taras Bulba.  Gogol was born in the Ukraine, but like many Ukrainians had mixed blood and swore his allegiance to Russia.

If history has taught us anything, it is best to keep Russia at arm's length, at least politically.  We don't need to ratchet the current crisis into a full blown Cold War, but at the same time it is important to send Mr. Putin a message that the US will not sit idly by while he pushes at his boundaries, "protecting" the rights of Russian minorities in other countries, especially with other ethnic Russian enclaves now contemplating similar referendums like the one we saw in the Crimea.

It is also important to differentiate between the autocratic government in Moscow and the Russian people, who are being whipped into an emotional frenzy much like George Bush was successfully able to do with Americans in the wake of 911 and carry out unjust wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

President Obama has kept a cool head, unlike his Republican adversaries and is targeting sanctions rather than lowering a wall in relations with Russia.  However, I'm sure his patience will be sorely tested in the months ahead, as he stages the American withdrawal from Afghanistan, using Russian transport corridors, which had previously been negotiated.

Meanwhile, Mackie will have to plan his trip to Yalta for some other time.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Of Quarks and Man



One of the areas the US still excels in is theoretical physics, at least in terms of providing formidable research departments.  So, when a retired physicist learns that his theory on "cosmic inflation" is no longer just a theory, it is an immense reward for Andrei Linde.

Of course, this doesn't sit well for advocates of "intelligent design" who continue to discount the "Big Bang" theory and hold onto their belief that all things sprang from the hands of God in a divinely inspired moment.  Most of these ecclesiastical physicists (for lack of a better description) no longer hold to the straight creation story advocated by Ken Ham, but see the earth and the universe as stretching back millions if not billions of years.  In part, they do accept scientific findings, but prefer to fill in the gaps with divinely inspired notions.

This is particularly true of evolution.  These divine geneticists simply refuse to accept man evolved from apes, and were particularly upset with Neil deGrasse Tyson's recent episode of Cosmos where he delved into the theory of natural selection.

Tyson has been ruffling feathers for years and has taken it a step further by reviving Carl Sagan's Cosmos, on Fox television no less.  Seems Murdoch and friends don't mind adding fuel to the fire of the so-called "debate" by having the science side presented without the intrusion of "creationist" hecklers.

Tyson is charismatic and brash, not afraid to brawl with the deniers.  He also has the ability to reduce complex scientific theories to layman terms, manning the helm of his cosmic voyager like Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise as he takes viewers on a bold new voyage.


Like Sagan, Tyson also feels it is important to pitch the big ideas, seizing on young persons' imaginations.  I'm not sure if the simple cartoons work very well given the CGI movies kids watch these days.  The show should definitely beef up the graphics if it plans on holding teenagers' attention.  However, it was an excellent introduction using the artificial selection of dogs over the millenia since the Ice Age to illustrate how breeding is a form of evolution.

Most important Tyson appears to be making an impact, judging by the strong reactions to his show.  Nice to see "intelligent design" on the defensive for a change.  Here's Tyson pitching Cosmos on Colbert Reports.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Battle Pieces




For those who can't get enough of the Civil War, The Library of America now offers the complete set of chronicles (four volumes) compiled by Aaron Sheehan-Dean, Brooks D. Simpson, and Stephen W. Sears.  This ambition undertaking started in 2011 and now numbers over 3000 pages of letters, diary entries, speeches, articles, legal opinions, poems and songs from the tumultuous years 1860- 1865.  The Final Year, edited by Dean, is due out April 3.

Each volume takes in roughly a year of the war, starting with the eve of Lincoln's election in  November 1860 and ending with the proclamation of emancipation in Texas in June 1865.  Along the way, the reader is treated with such diverse participants as Lincoln, Jefferson Davis, George McClellan, Robert E. Lee, Emily Dickinson, Walt Whitman, George Templeton Strong, as well as numerous first person accounts by soldiers on both sides of the war.

It should make for a great reference, although you can probably find most of these accounts on line these days, as there are vast Civil War archives easily accessible on the Internet.  The photo above is of a Union private at Fort Benton, Missouri, and is from the Liljenquist Family Collection on display at the California African American Museum.

Monday, March 17, 2014

A very questionable bellwether



It would seem that the Republicans are placing a lot of weight on the recent Florida Congressional Special Election where their man, David Jolly, beat Alex Sink in a race that apparently was largely over "Obamacare."  It seems Democrats had high expectations, but prevailing conservative attitudes won out. Rep. Bill Young, a Republican who passed away last year, had represented the House district for decades.  However, Obama had carried the district in 2012, and so Republicans take this as an important victory.

Robert Gibbs, Obama's former press secretary, talked about another "wave election" like in 2010 that swept Democrats out of the House, which this time could wash away the Democratic control of the Senate.  There are some signs of worry for Democrats, but Scott Brown's much talked about bid for the New Hampshire senate seat seems a bit overblown, as Brown is viewed as little more than a "carpetbagger" in the Granite State, and I doubt could mount a serious challenge, but I guess once you've had a taste of the Senate, it is hard to go back to normal life.

Like much of this early election talk it is mostly speculation, and one House race is little to hang your hat on for a political party that has shot itself in the foot repeatedly since its sweeping electoral mandate in 2010.  It has lost a number of key elections, including the governor race in Virginia last year.

Then there is Kentucky, one of the states where the roll out of the Affordable Care Act has been successful, thanks largely to Gov. Beshear, who has actively promoted the ACA.  This doesn't bode well for Mitch McConnell, who finds himself in a very tight race with Allison Lundergan Grimes.

But, the Republicans scored the first significant win of 2014 and I guess that's what counts most in this election year.  For the record, Jolly edged out Sink by less than 2 percentage points, but close doesn't count except in horseshoes and hand grenades.

Saturday, March 15, 2014

Crazy like a fox


Ailes with Count Murdoch

According to a recent book, The Loudest Voice in the Room,  Roger Ailes parlayed his experience at NBC into Fox News, thanks to the deep wallet of Rupert Murdoch, who was willing to underwrite this venture in the formative years, 1996-2002.  Ailes had a dispute with the conservative NBC top brass over the newly launched MSNBC and pitched the idea of a 24/7 news channel to Murdoch, who didn't seem to need much convincing.  Murdoch put $200 million behind the network, essentially buying space on cable that gave Fox News an early advantage.  That was all Ailes needed to reach his intended audience -- a disgruntled, largely white elderly electorate who didn't feel they were getting the straight news from the existing broadcast news providers.

Gabriel Sherman meticulously charts Ailes' rise to power, and how the media news mogul has both helped and hurt the GOP, notably in his insistence to present highly contentious political figures that don't reach across the political spectrum.  For Ailes, it doesn't seem to matter as long as Fox remains King of the News Hill.  Sherman describes Ailes as having enter the King Lear phase of his life, himself 72 years old.

Much of Ailes' success has come from seeing news as entertainment, essentially co-opting the conservative radio format of volatile pundits and opinionated news anchors who are guaranteed to incite reactions.  He initially teamed up with Joseph Coors in a failed bid to launch a similar cable news network, but the timing wasn't right back in the 70s, and he seized his opportunity in 1996 when things went sour with NBC.

Looking a bit like Hitchcock with Baba O'Reilly

He has turned radio shock jocks into television celebrities like Bill O'Reilly, Sean Hannity and Glenn Beck (who oddly enough started out at CNN).  According to Sherman, Ailes set the tone, offering a distinctive format that was unheard of on television before 1996.  He even gave television news the "crawler" at the bottom of television screens.  It seems there wasn't a detail Ailes didn't overlook.

Alas, this highly volatile form of news that had stood Republicans in good stead for almost two decades, seemed to blow up in their faces in 2012 when they failed to unseat Obama after one term in office.  Ailes had literally made it his mission to defeat Obama by putting just about every would-be GOP presidential candidate on Fox's payroll between 2008-2012, starting with the feisty Ms. Palin.

Sherman says it was this media overload than killed the Republicans.  Their early hit in the 2010 midterms, when the Republicans were able to take back the House failed to materialize in a 2012 national victory, largely because their brand of news does not extend far beyond its narrow viewer base.  This led the RNC to ponder afterward if they should rethink their strategy, relying less on demagoguery and more on a softer message that might lure back some of the women, Hispanics and Asians they lost to Obama and the Democrats.

Rove and Bush: the early years

Unfortunately, the GOP is still letting the windbags call the shots, largely because they now have so much pull that even a master strategist like Karl Rove finds himself odd man out, despite having been the only man to engineer a successful Republican presidential victory in the last 22 years.

The book is probably more than most anyone can take, but the review by Steve Coll in the New York Review of Books gives you all the pertinent details.