Reaching Maximum Dysfunction

It was a sad day here in Hollywood. Well, perhaps every day is a sad day in Hollywood, where whatever isn’t tacky is shabby, and bewildered tourists wander around wondering where the stars live. The stars live in Beverly Hills or Malibu, or they live in Manhattan or London and fly in to make movies now and then. Hollywood is for rubes – but this is the place that generates cultural icons. Hollywood gave the world the ultimate woman, Marilyn Monroe, and the man’s man, John Wayne – or maybe that was Humphrey Bogart. James Dean will always be the troubled rebel, trying to do his best in a world full of fools, and Steve McQueen will always be too cool for words. Each of these folks may be dead, but they live on as icons – and now Spock is dead. That’s the sad part.

Leonard Nimoy was a fine fellow – but he was Spock, and Spock lives on. Nimoy finally made peace with that – his first autobiography was “I Am Not Spock” and his second was “I Am Spock” – because he came to like the character everyone assumed he was, and others did too.

Adam Vary is one of those and says Spock was our ultimate nerd hero:

The half-Vulcan’s brilliant mind was guided by a razor-sharp perception of the laws of logic that was not just enviable to nerds, it was aspirational. He could cut through the emotions that seemed to clutter up cogent thought, finding the objective reason tucked inside most any problem or scenario. Spock’s counterpart, William Shatner’s Capt. James T. Kirk, was a different kind of aspirational figure: the virile, impassioned leader who was sexual catnip to anyone he wanted to seduce. In order words, he wasn’t a nerd. We wanted to believe we could be Kirk, but we definitely knew we could be Spock.

Though his dispassion at times deliberately read as cold, Nimoy was too adept an actor to make the character an icy, uncaring robot, no matter how often Dr. Leonard McCoy (DeForest Kelley) accused him of being one. Because, in a masterstroke by Roddenberry, Spock was more than just half-human – his veneer of Vulcan logic also masked a well of explosive emotions the Vulcan people had spent centuries striving to overcome.

That’s always a problem, unless you’re Italian, and Vary adds this:

Spock has helped expand the very idea of what it means to be a nerd, making his struggle between emotion and logic feel universal, part of the greater human endeavor to strive for something better. And in doing so, he helped to greatly improve nerdom’s cultural currency. The biggest comedy on network TV today, The Big Bang Theory, is literally about nerds who worshipped Spock as kids – and still do as adults. And President Barack Obama said in a statement on Friday marking Nimoy’s passing, “Long before being nerdy was cool, there was Leonard Nimoy.” The president even flatly stated, “I loved Spock.”

Of course he did. Spock was fiercely loyal and totally honorable, and he didn’t indulge in high drama and ultimatums and whatnot. No-Drama Obama is like that too. He seems to sense that emotions screw things up, while using logic and careful thinking can fix things. People will bitch about your lack of passion, but you can be the one who shows how to fix things, or the one who actually fixes things.

This is not a new observation. Back in 2009, Jeff Greenwald, seeing that everyone was comparing Obama to Spock – most notably the New York Times’ Maureen Dowd – tried to explain the connection:

For those of us who watched the show in the 1960s (or during the countless reruns since), Nimoy’s alter ego was the harbinger of a future in which logic would reign over emotion, and rational thought triumph over blind faith. He was a digital being in an analog world; the Pied Piper who led our generation into the Silicon Age.

Anyone who followed the early “Star Trek” with regularity knows how charismatic Spock was. If there were two characters I wanted to be as a young man, they were Spock – and James Bond. Both displayed total self-confidence, and amazing problem-solving skills. Both traveled to exotic destinations, and were irresistible to women. And both shared a quality that my generation lacked completely: composure.

While Bond had his weaknesses (anything in a bikini), Spock was virtually unflappable. The most startling marvels in the cosmos were “fascinating.” Disasters were “unfortunate,” perhaps even “tragic.” The raised eyebrow, the lifted chin, the vaguely sarcastic mien – these were coins of the realm to my pubescent friends. How did we weather the terrors of grade school, and survive the irrational outbursts of parents and teachers? By invoking Spock – who served as our logical, enlightened counterpoint to the madness of the late 1960s? Who else but Spock?

America had to elect this guy:

Like Spock, part of what makes Obama so appealing is the fact that although he’s an outsider – “proudly alien,” as Leonard Nimoy once put it – he uses that distance to cultivate a sense of perspective. And while we’re drawn to Spock’s exotic traits – the pointy ears, green blood and weird mating rituals – we take comfort in his soothing baritone, prominent nose and ordinary teeth.

Spock’s appeal, according to the actor who portrayed him, came from cultivating this dichotomy.

But there was something more:

“Star Trek” fans who bonded with Spock already understood what those of us who followed Obama learned early on: that witnessing a powerful intellect can be deeply satisfying on an emotional level. We got a similar hit from Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedys, of course, and from Bill Clinton. But while Clinton’s administration was smart, Obama’s seems futuristic.

“Bill Clinton promised a Cabinet that looked like America,” Henry Jenkins said in a recent conversation. “Obama gave us one that looks like the Enterprise crew. In a matter-of-fact way, he’s embraced diversity at every level. No Klingons yet – but the administration is new.”

Now Obama’s administration in not new, but it is diverse, much like the bridge of the Enterprise – and Loretta Lynch will be the new Lieutenant Uhura – the black woman in a role where one might expect a wise old white man. And of course Americans are still appalled by his dispassionate logic, his methodical careful thinking. Impassioned Democratic activists think he need to be fiery about income inequality and all sorts of things, and Republicans are appalled that he wants to use diplomacy to stop Iran’s nuclear program, not bomb them back to the Stone Age – the Captain Kirk thing. Obama also doesn’t use the right fired-up words to talk about the ISIS folks – he won’t call them Islamic terrorists.

Greenwald had something to say about that:

The problem with smart, thoughtful people is that you have to pay attention. Even with “Star Trek,” some viewers complained that the stories were too complicated, requiring too much focus for the average TV viewer. Nimoy sympathized. “‘Star Trek,'” he reflected, “was a language show. A lot of the ideas were expressed verbally. It has been said – and I think it’s true – that if you didn’t listen to ‘Star Trek’ you couldn’t follow the stories.”

The same could be said of today’s White House: It’s a language show. “Issues are never simple,” Obama has said. “Very rarely will you hear me simplify the issues.” The stakes are high, the narrative is complex, and no one’s talking down to us.

That’s the problem. You have to listen carefully. With immigration reform, for example, Obama isn’t offering anyone amnesty. We have roughly eleven million people here who have no permission to be here, and Congress has done nothing to address that, but it would be impossible to deport them all next week, and if we did the economy would take a big hit. Most of them are doing work that keeps things running – and we don’t have the resources to deport them all immediately anyway. Obama, charged with administering existing immigration law, has thus issued a series if directives that the resources we do have be used to deport criminals and gang members and jerks, for now. The others can register themselves and stay, for now – and continue contributing to the economy, and know we’re not coming for them. Their status will be resolved down the road. For now, they’ll know they’re safe here, and this will keep their families together, which is kind of the decent thing to do. And this is no big deal – presidents have to figure out how best to carry out the law, given the resources they have. They must enforce the law, but presidents have to have what everyone now talks about, prosecutorial discretion.

How a president enforces the law is the issue now. Obama reviewed his constitutional authority here – he used to teach constitutional law – and applied logic to the situation and came up with this. That federal circuit court judge in Texas disagrees with him, but Obama will win that case on appeal – and he has told Congress that if they have a better idea they could pass some sort of immigration reform legislation. He has said that if they do that he’ll tear up his directives – they’d no longer be necessary – but of course Congress, now in Republican hands, as decided that Obama is breaking the law and violating the constitution and granting amnesty to awful folks, and he must be stopped. Obama, however, was just being Spock. Spock is the guy who infuriated everyone each week by being so damned logical about things. Spock was also the guy who saved everyone’s butt each week.

That’s what made the original Star Trek series so much fun to watch – watching third-tier Hollywood actors let it rip and chew the scenery, playing impassioned outraged characters losing it while Nimoy’s Spock raised one eyebrow, and then did the right thing, the only logical thing. In real life it’s not so pretty:

The House of Representatives finally agreed to pay for the US Department of Homeland Security (DHS) on Friday night, just two hours before a lapse in funding that would have forced thousands of key government workers to go without pay.

But an increasingly bitter divide among Republicans forced congressional leaders to settle for just a one-week extension of the existing budget arrangement, buying them only a few short days next week to reach a longer term deal.

The dispute, which began over Barack Obama’s decision to circumvent a gridlocked Congress and introduce immigration reforms by presidential order, has reopened deep divisions among House Republicans, many of whom believe more should be done to block what they see as executive overreach.

Perhaps more should be done, but the Republicans can’t get anything done:

Earlier in the evening more than 50 of them voted with Democrats against an attempt by the House Speaker, John Boehner, to pass a three-week extension of DHS funding, angry at what they saw as capitulation toward the White House.

The shock defeat was a huge embarrassment for Boehner, whose advisers had been expressing confidence in its passage just hours earlier and left Democrats holding out instead for the House to agree to the same one-year deal passed by the Senate.

Yet with the clock ticking toward another government shutdown that was likely to be blamed largely on Republicans, the White House upped the pressure by issuing emergency instructions on what to do when the money ran out.

That wasn’t very nice, but it was logical. The Senate had passed a clean bill to fund the DHS – but the House refused to take it up – but the House wanted to fund the DHS – not doing so would look bad. John Boehner had no logical option here, so he arranged a vote on a three-week delay in doing anything one way or another. He knew he had the votes for that in his own party, if a few Democrats played along – but they decided they wouldn’t play along. Fund the DHS or don’t. What was going to change in three weeks?

John Boehner had to settle for one week:

The Senate majority leader, Mitch McConnell, began the final, if temporary, resolution to the crisis around 9 pm, passing the seven-day continuing resolution by voice vote in the Senate.

This was then followed by another vote in the House of Representatives, this time supported by the leadership of both parties that passed 357-60, but left a bitter taste on both sides of the aisle.

“This is no way to govern the nation and the American people deserve better,” said Hal Rogers, the Republican chairman of the appropriations committee as he announced the vote.

And nothing is resolved:

Before the vote, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) wrote a letter to Democrats urging them to support the [one-week delay] legislation.

“Your vote tonight will assure that we will vote for full funding next week,” she wrote.

Boehner spokesman Michael Steel told reporters that the Speaker hadn’t committed to bringing up a full DHS funding bill next week. In response a Democratic congressional aide disputed that characterization, saying Boehner had “100 percent, absolutely” committed to bring up a “clean” DHS bill through September next week.

Well, Obama signed the one-week funding bill, such as it was, and the New York Times covers the fallout:

The strong Republican vote for the Senate bill also highlighted the deep rift between House and Senate Republicans, who have struggled to agree on a pragmatic path forward to both keep the agency running and express their displeasure with Mr. Obama’s recent immigration actions.

“We should have never fought this battle,” said Senator Mark S. Kirk, Republican of Illinois. “In my view, in the long run, if you are blessed with the majority, you are blessed with the power to govern. If you’re going to govern, you have to act responsibly.”

Just two months into the new Congress, Republicans were sounding a grim note, far removed from their triumphant election victories in November. Senator Lindsey Graham, Republican of South Carolina, said Friday that “2015 is about us.”

“There’s nobody to blame but us now when it comes to the appropriations process,” Mr. Graham said. “If we can run the place more traditional, like a business, so to speak, I think we flourish. If we self-inflict on the budget, and the appropriations process – and we can’t get the government managed well – then I think we’re in trouble.”

In the aftermath of the failed vote, the Republican leadership team met for hours Friday night to come up with a new approach, but their options were limited given the deep rebellion by their more conservative members against supporting anything that does not halt the president’s immigration policies. As the legislation stalled, Mr. Boehner walked wordlessly from the chamber, his head down.

And one must mention the obvious:

The Office of Management and Budget has said that a vote to increase the nation’s debt limit will be necessary by mid- to late summer, and lawmakers were also hoping to take up trade policy, as well as at least a modest overhaul of the nation’s tax code – undertakings that now look increasingly imperiled.

Mr. Obama has already vetoed the Republicans’ main legislative achievement this year – a bill to start construction on the Keystone XL oil pipeline.

The fight over the homeland security funding – coupled with a separate revolt by House conservatives – also upended Republican plans to overhaul No Child Left Behind, the 2001 education law that was a signature domestic achievement of President George W. Bush.

Republican leadership had expected to pass a new bill on Friday to reduce the federal government’s role in public education; Mr. Obama has threatened a veto. But the vote was put off after Heritage Action, the conservative advocacy group, waged a campaign against the measure, saying it does not do enough to limit federal authority.

There will be more of this, and Gail Collins looks at the players:

There was absolutely no agreement on what will happen next. We look back with nostalgia on the era when congressional leaders would get together in secret and make deals to pass big, mushy pieces of legislation that were littered with secret appropriations for unnecessary highways and a stuffed-owl museum in some swing vote’s district. We complained a lot at the time, but that was because we didn’t realize it was the golden age.

Do you think it’s a little worrisome that the powerful right flank of the House is made up of people who believe a good way to show their opposition to Obama’s liberal immigration policy is to cut off the border patrol’s paychecks? That the critical role of speaker of the House is held by a guy who doesn’t seem to be able to control his membership? Or even count votes?

“If ands and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas,” said Boehner when reporters pressed him about his plans earlier in the week.

That used to be a saying he kept for special occasions, but now it seems to be cropping up a lot. I take that to be a bad sign.

The man is in trouble:

If the Democrats don’t bail him out, Boehner can only afford to lose about 27 Republican votes on any issue. And he’s got a new group called the House Freedom Caucus that was organized to mobilize about 30 Republicans who feel the regular conservative caucus is too mainstream [conservative] …

The writing is on the wall:

This take-no-prisoners right wing is a large part of the reason the Republicans can’t come up with their own policies on anything. It’s embarrassing. They hate Obama’s immigration initiative, but they’ve never passed an immigration bill of their own. They’ve voted to repeal Obamacare at least 56 times, but they’ve never come up with a replacement. Last term, the guy who chaired the committee that writes tax bills produced a tax reform plan, and it went absolutely nowhere.

The list goes on and on, but we have a one-week reprieve, and Steve Benen notes the problem now:

The obvious flaw is that this wouldn’t solve the underlying problem so much as it delays the inevitable for no apparent reason. The less-obvious flaw is that the Speaker’s office is effectively abandoning the whole idea of leverage.

From the outset of this mind-numbing fight, the Speaker felt he had the upper hand: he’d hold Homeland Security funding hostage, threatening Democrats with a shutdown unless Congress were permitted to destroy the White House immigration policy. Under the ham-handed plan, Dems wouldn’t want a shutdown; they would be convinced that the GOP isn’t bluffing, and they’d give in to Republican demands.

Except it was all a sham. Boehner is making it abundantly clear he doesn’t want to cut off Homeland Security funding, which means, of course, that Democrats have no incentive to pay the ransom and free the hostage.

Perhaps one shouldn’t mess with Spock:

The Speaker set the rules for this game, but he’s not playing it well. Boehner is simultaneously telling the political world, “Give us what we want or Homeland Security is in deep trouble,” and “Don’t worry, we don’t actually intend to hurt Homeland Security.”

Benen suggests the guy should look up words like “blackmail” and “leverage” – as Star Trek was a language show, after all. Someone on the bridge of the Enterprise has to make sense, or terrible things will happen.

Leonard Nimoy may be dead now, but Spock lives on.

Posted in Obama as Spock, Republicans in Disarray | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Next New Common

The day was not only the birthday of Victor Hugo (1802) and Buffalo Bill Cody (1846) and Jackie Gleason (1916) and Fats Domino (1928) and Johnny Cash (1932) – celebrate who you will – but on Friday, February 26, 1919, President Woodrow Wilson signed a measure establishing Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona, and on February 26, 1929, President Calvin Coolidge signed a measure establishing Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. February 26 is a good day – no one had a problem with those new national parks. No one took to the streets in protest. No one claimed this was the end of America as we know it. In each case it seemed like a good idea at the time – and a good idea in general. This was setting aside the best and most amazing places for everyone to enjoy, and protecting those places from being exploited for profit, keeping them pretty much as they were, except for modest roads in, some parking at the edges, and the unobtrusive hiking trails and a few restrooms.

Of course this wasn’t a free-market private-sector solution to preserving a bit of natural wonder. Everyone shares these places and no one owns them, and no one is making any money. The government administers what few operations are necessary – upkeep of access and the few facilities – and that’s that. The modest amount of tax money that takes bothers no one. These are common facilities, and that might be communism, but these are our Commons.

Everyone is comfortable with that concept, an old one. Before there was America there was the Boston Common – although there was some problem with that concept and wasn’t until 1830 that matters were settled and everyone agreed that, no, this was a place for everyone, as it is today. Americans, unfortunately, do tend to argue over what constitutes The Commons – resources that are collectively owned, and thus owned by no one. People have always argued about that. The process by which the commons are transformed into private property is called enclosure, a conflict in many an eighteenth or nineteenth century British novel. The idea is that forests, fisheries or grazing land are something we all share – so when the Sheriff of Nottingham tells Robin Hood he’s poaching, Robin Hood laughs in his face and we all smile, and out here the problem is surfing in Malibu. The good waves are owned by no one, but the rich Hollywood folks own access to the waves, the expensive beachfront property, with amazing fifty-million-dollar homes. That’s private property. As they say, you can’t get there from here. And the lawsuits never seem to end.

It shouldn’t be that complicated. The commons generally includes public goods – public space (even if sometimes not the access to it), public education, and the infrastructure that allows what we have going on here to function, like roads and electricity and water delivery and sewage systems. The commons includes public utilities. This is a simple concept, there’s always a countertrend. Some hold that many of these shared-for-the-common-good things should be commoditized – the idea is that things would be better if, for example, all the public schools were closed and education were entirely for-profit, so there’d be competition. Good schools would make a ton of money and bad schools would go under, as they should. Sure, the remaining schools might end up massively exclusionary, to increase profits, but they’d be damned good – but really, if our schools had to make money to survive, they’d all be better. They’d have to be.

The same argument has been made about other public services. Out here, for a time, Enron provided much of the state’s electric power, trading and swapping energy contracts and making big money – because this really didn’t have to be public and regulated. The market is always more efficient than the government. Of course that didn’t work out well – the brownouts and blackouts brought the state to a halt, and the cost of electricity doubled and doubled again until it was twenty times higher than it ever was, because Enron could do what they wanted, and did. In July 2001, the feds had to intervene. And once again electric service out here is considered part of the commons, a public utility again, tightly regulated, for everyone’s good.

We should have known better, but it seems we need to keep thinking about these things, as explained in an article by Garrett Hardin first published in the journal Science in 1968, where he discusses The Tragedy of the Commons:

The article describes a situation in which multiple individuals, acting independently and solely and rationally consulting their own self-interest, will ultimately deplete a shared limited resource even when it is clear that it is not in anyone’s long-term interest for this to happen. Central to Hardin’s article is an example (first sketched in an 1833 pamphlet by William Forster Lloyd), of a hypothetical and simplified situation based on medieval land tenure in Europe, of herders sharing a common parcel of land, on which they are each entitled to let their cows graze. In Hardin’s example, it is in each herder’s interest to put the next (and succeeding) cows he acquires onto the land, even if the carrying capacity of the common is exceeded and it is temporarily or permanently damaged for all as a result. The herder receives all of the benefits from an additional cow, while the damage to the common is shared by the entire group. If all herders make this individually rational economic decision, the common will be depleted or even destroyed to the detriment of all.

That’s the problem. With shared resources, an individual, making a rational economic decision, exercises his right to the common resource and receives all the benefits of it, but the irreversible damage to the common is shared by the entire group – everyone pays for that one guy’s goodies, so to speak, while everything is ruined. That’s the tragedy of the commons. People do want to make money, to make things better for themselves and their family, and with what is shared by all, what is shared by all is eventually destroyed.

That’s what has always been at the core of the current bitter disagreements about healthcare reform – whether basic healthcare services are, like roads and sewage systems, part of the commons. Those who still want to repeal Obamacare have always argued that our basic healthcare services had been rightly commoditized – they were something you paid for, if you wish, or if you could, where large insurance companies, hospital chains and giant pharmaceutical make big money, and provide amazing services and products, that people are willing to pay for. Things had been fine. The Affordable Care Act ruined everything – but things hadn’t been fine. We paid more for less than any other advanced country in the world, while a select few made a ton of money. Obamacare addressed that. Everyone had to buy health insurance, one way or another, or pay a fine, and all of it will be tightly regulated, with strict standards, so no one is selling crappy policies, to make big bucks. Those who can’t afford the common basic insurance will get subsidies, so the pool of those insured will be a close to universal as possible, assuring the system can absorb the cost of those who get really sick. Everyone had to be all in, or it doesn’t work – and this was, in essence, creating a new commons. Republicans are still screaming holy hell about this, but this was a definitional change in how we see healthcare. Massive definitional changes are hard to accept. It’s one thing to carve out a national park or two and say it’s now part of the national commons. It’s another thing to carve out something that was in the realm of private for-profit winner-take-all capitalism and suddenly say that THAT is now part of the national commons too. Where will this end? Republicans ask that question a lot.

They’re asking it again. On February 26, 1919, Woodrow Wilson carved out the Grand Canyon National Park. On February 26, 1929, Calvin Coolidge carved out the Grand Tetons. On February 26, 2015, the FCC carved out the internet:

The Federal Communications Commission for the first time classified Internet providers as public utilities Thursday, a landmark vote that officials said will prevent cable and telecommunications companies from controlling what people see on the Web.

The move, approved 3 to 2 along party lines, was part of a sweeping set of new “net neutrality” rules aimed at banning providers of high-speed Internet access such as Verizon and Time Warner Cable from blocking Web sites they don’t like or auctioning off faster traffic speeds to the highest bidders.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler argued that the agency needed to take a dramatic step to preserve a “fast, fair and open Internet.” Broadband Internet providers will now face some of the same heavy regulations that the federal government imposes on telephone companies.

“The Internet has replaced the functions of the telephone,” Wheeler said during the commission vote. “The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules.”

The internet is now the commons too, but there was pushback:

Cable and telecommunications companies, as well as GOP lawmakers, quickly condemned the move as an overreach of government intervention into their businesses, and lawsuits are expected to follow.

They have argued that online companies whose services hog a lot of the Web traffic flowing to homes, such as the streaming videos of Netflix or YouTube, should share in the cost of expanding and maintaining the pipes that deliver Internet content to consumers. Without their help, the cable and telecom industry may be reluctant to upgrade and expand their networks across the country. Cable and telecommunications companies, as well as GOP lawmakers, quickly condemned the move as an overreach of government intervention into their businesses, and lawsuits are expected to follow.

They have argued that online companies whose services hog a lot of the Web traffic flowing to homes, such as the streaming videos of Netflix or YouTube, should share in the cost of expanding and maintaining the pipes that deliver Internet content to consumers. Without their help, the cable and telecom industry may be reluctant to upgrade and expand their networks across the country.

It’s too late for that:

The rules ban Internet providers from several specific activities: They can’t block or stop Web services such as Netflix. They can’t slow down or “throttle” content from particular Web sites. And they can’t speed up a Web site’s traffic, particularly in exchange for money.

The rules also apply to wireless carriers such as Verizon Wireless, Sprint and T-Mobile, which provide Internet service to tens of millions of smartphones and tablets.

Consumers should not see any immediate changes to what they see on the Internet — in some ways, Wheeler said, that was the whole point of the effort. He added that there would be no new federal taxes or fees put on Internet service providers.

“This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech,” Wheeler said.

In short, play fair with everyone, or don’t play. Those of us who have websites, like this one, are relieved. We won’t have to pay big bucks to avoid being throttled-back, even if the big boys like Amazon can easily cover that cost, and folks knew what was going on:

Through the debate, the wonky issue of net neutrality went mainstream, prompting 4 million people to file comments to the FCC, which caused its Web site to temporarily shut down. Late-night comedian John Oliver drew millions of Web users to his satirical breakdown of Wheeler’s earlier, weaker approach. A handful of protesters even sat in the driveway of Wheeler’s home to block him from getting to work and to pressure him to pass tougher rules.

“It would be hard to overstate how big of a deal this is for consumers and the future of the Internet,” said Ellen Bloom, senior director of federal policy for Consumers Union. “We’re not out of the woods yet. We’re into the woods, really. We expect opponents to look for every angle they can to stop these rules, whether in court or in Congress.”

No, we’re not out the woods:

Despite tens of millions of corporate dollars in last-minute lobbying, the Federal Communications Commission passed new rules Thursday reclassifying the Internet as a public utility and preventing Internet service providers from artificially slowing down the web.

Now Comcast is calling “inevitable” lawsuits to nullify the rules a “certainty,” and the company says it will pressure legislators to draft a law that will override the FCC’s decision.

“After today, the only ‘certainty’ in the Open Internet space is that we all face inevitable litigation and years of regulatory uncertainty challenging an Order that puts in place rules that most of us agree with,” David L. Cohen, executive vice president of Comcast, said in a statement. “We believe that the best way to avoid this would be for Congress to act.”

Comcast, Cohen said, has “no issue with the principles of transparency and the no blocking, no throttling, and no fast lanes rules incorporated in today’s FCC Order.”

Yeah, sure:

Comcast’s history of actively blocking, throttling, and creating “fast lanes” is the very reason it is the only company in America required to abide by those rules.

In 2008, the FCC punished Comcast for slowing all traffic coming to and from BitTorrent – everything from downloaded movies to a King James Bible – without telling its customers. Three years later, Comcast agreed that it would never again artificially slow traffic to content, as part of a concession to the FCC that would allow it to merge with NBCUniversal.

But now that all Internet service is classified as a Title II utility, those sanctions are set to become truly enforceable – and not only applied when providers are caught red-handed. So the telecoms are fighting back. …

Comcast, by the way, was not alone in its willingness to block or slow traffic from specific websites. In 2013, Verizon attorney Helgi Walker stated under oath that “we should be able to [block competitors’ websites]. In the world I’m positing, you would be able to,” she added, citing a “First Amendment right” to “edit” content.

And where would that end? But then Ted Cruz offered this:

In short, net neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet. It would put the government in charge of determining Internet pricing, terms of service and what types of products and services can be delivered, leading to fewer choices, fewer opportunities and higher prices.

The two had to be connected eventually. Republicans hate the idea of the commons in general, on principle, but he got hammered by his followers on his Facebook page:

Ed Piper: As a Republican who works in the tech industry I can say that this statement shows you either have no idea what you are talking about or you are bought and paid for by the American Cable monopoly. This is amazingly a stupid statement and is disheartening.

Keith French: Ted, I am as conservative as they come… I want government out of just about everything… and I hate to say it, really hate to say it, but Obama is right on this one. I do not want my access and internet speed controlled by my ISP. … The internet has been an open forum with little to no restrictions, that will change and not for the better. Bottom line – do not go against freedom of the net just because Obama is for it. Even an old blind squirrel finds a nut once in a while.

A Jinnie McManus: Goddammit, stop making my party look like morons and look up net neutrality. It doesn’t mean what you and your speechwriters think it means.

Marvin England: Ted Cruz, as a tech and fiscal conservative in Texas who generally votes Republican, I am incredibly disappointed by your completely inaccurate statement. Please read up on what Net Neutrality actually is and fire any staff you have who are advising you on technical matters.

David Vogelpohl: Texas employer here… This is really the wrong issue for you. Drop this quickly and move on to something else before it’s too late. You’re starting to look like a Tea Party whacko growling for his corporate masters. Move on before you embarrass the Republicans out of the next presidency. Net neutrality is about ensuring a free market. America loves a free market. But hey, be against free markets and America. It’s cool. I’m sure no one will think of you when their Netflix slows down who wouldn’t have before.

Jimmy Lee: Wow. I am embarrassed that I supported you Ted. Face palm. I think it’s time that I “unlike” your FB page.

That’s just a sample, but these guys don’t watch David Asman on Fox News:

Of all the government interventions by the Obama administration, the plan released Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet is the worst.

Yes, ObamaCare is massive and is clogging one-sixth of the economy. But even before ObamaCare, government had a huge imprint on the health care industry with Medicaid and Medicare. Also, regulations on pharmaceutical and insurance industries led to their energies being focused as much on pleasing government bureaucracies as curing illnesses.

But the Internet is young, fresh, alive and untainted. The FCC’s plan to muddy the pure waters of the Internet pollutes the one free flow of information on the planet. …

Republicans have been very vocal and have voted regularly for the Keystone pipeline. But they have been largely silent about the administration’s plan to regulate our information pipeline, which is far more vital to national concerns about liberty, freedom of speech and commerce.

Make no mistake. The greatest tool for freedom of expression to come along in our lifetime is in danger. One cannot have genuine freedom of expression with a government monitor, an overseer, a censor prepared to immediately shut down any “threats” to the state. This is Orwellian, even if even opponents are reluctant to say it. But they must remember that the greatest miscalculations in history are those that underrate the determination of the power hungry to grab even more power.

What free flow of information is this fellow talking about? Internet service providers have a history of throttling back sites they don’t like, the ones they think say the wrong things, or sites that do things they find irritating, the ones that cut into their profits – unless those sites pony up some big bucks. That’s restricting the free flow of information, isn’t it? But if money is free speech, as the Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United – a ruling they loved – perhaps this makes sense. Pay or shut up. The internet is their private property. You’re lucky they let you use it at all. And that means that freedom of speech is the ability to pay a lot of cash to say what you want – but Asman is wrong. Here the government is not censoring anything. They simply opened this new particular Common, to everyone. It was February 26, the day for that sort of thing.

Posted in Net Neutrality | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

No Return from Exile

Sometimes there’s no coming back. Napoleon invaded Russia in 1812 and that didn’t end well, and then in 1813, Prussia and Russia joined forces to deal with him, and the Austrians then joined that Sixth Coalition. In October 1813, they defeated Napoleon at the Battle of Leipzig, and the next year they invaded France and captured Paris, forcing Napoleon to abdicate in April 1814 – and he was exiled to the island of Elba. That should have been that, but the Bourbons were restored to power and screwed everything up, royally, as it were.

Cool. This was an opportunity. Napoleon escaped from Elba in February 1815 and returned to lead the French government once again. This was meant to be. This was a glorious return from exile, but a new coalition, with the Brits joining in this time, took care of him at the Battle of Waterloo that June. Napoleon then tried to slip away, quietly, but he eventually surrendered to British custody and spent the last six years of his life stuck on the island of Saint Helena, in the middle of nowhere. He died there 1821. There was no recovery from that initial boneheaded decision to invade Russia, made so many years before – but bold wholly elective wars to transform a whole region of the world, wars that no one says can be won, never go well. You end up in exile, and there’s really no return. Sure, you can return to power, for a time – those who ran things while you were in exile will inevitably do foolish things – but that won’t last. Everyone now knows that you’re a dangerous jerk.

It’s a sad story – but Napoleon’s story may be the story of our Republicans now. Their bold wholly elective war in Iraq – against all good advice – led to their exile from power. That, as much as anything else, led to them losing control of both the House and the Senate in the 2006 midterms, and to John McCain losing to Barack Obama in 2008, and to Mitt Romney losing to Obama in 2012. Sure, that was Bush’s war, but his party couldn’t shake the legacy of that one initial boneheaded decision. All their talk about how the Democrats were wimps, who would get us all killed, while they were the guys who would take the fight to the bad guys, and defeat them, decisively, no matter what the cost, fell flat. They seemed like dangerous jerks, and they went into a sort of exile, even if not on Elba. They were set off to the side. Out here in California the Republican Party has all but disappeared.

But Napoleon did return from Elba, and in the 2010 midterms the Republicans did retake the House – or the Tea Party did – and in the 2014 midterms they retook the Senate. They also control all of government in more than half the states now, doing the Republican thing, cutting taxes for the rich and sticking it to everyone else, and making abortions almost impossible, in spite of federal law, and making sure it is now very hard for minorities and students and the poor and the poorer of the elderly to ever vote again, and cutting funding for schools and social services to next to nothing. None of them at any level will talk about Iraq.

They change the subject. They want their country back. The wrong sort of people are getting subsidized health insurance, with strict national standards – and the whole notion of the government subsidizing anything for whining losers is appalling. Gays being allowed to marry each other is appalling too, as is teaching about evolution, which no one has proven to be true, or talking about climate change, which is a hoax. We need to get back to Jesus – fifty-seven percent of Republicans now support making Christianity the official national religion – and also do something about those eleven million Mexicans, or whatever, working here for years, and living here, without permission. They should be deported, right now. Iraq? Who mentioned Iraq? No one mentioned Iraq.

Ah, but there is ISIS. President Obama – that black man from Kenya who wants to grant amnesty of all the wetbacks – had to “do something” to fight ISIS, right now, and Paul Waldman points out what the Republican base wants to hear:

Four months ago, 57 percent of Republicans thought we should use ground troops to fight ISIS in Iraq and Syria; that number has now gone up to 67 percent. Among the conservative Republicans who will dominate the primary contests, it’s even higher, at 71 percent. When Pew asked respondents to choose between “using overwhelming military force is the best way to defeat terrorism around the world” and “relying too much on military force to defeat terrorism creates hatred that leads to more terrorism,” last October 57 percent of Republicans chose the overwhelming military force option; that number is now 74 percent.

The French no doubt also thought that Napoleon should invade Russia, but Kevin Drum points out the problem here:

I don’t suppose that most voters have really thought this through in much detail, but I wonder just how far they really want to go. The ISIS stronghold of Mosul, for example, is about five times the size of Fallujah, and probably has about 3-4 times as many ISIS defenders as Fallujah had Sunni insurgents back in 2004. And Fallujah was a huge battle. It took more than a year to retake the city; required something like 15,000 coalition troops in all; and resulted in more than a hundred coalition deaths.

At a first guess, a full-scale assault on Mosul would likely require at least 2-3 times as many troops and result in several hundred American deaths. And Mosul is only a fraction of the territory ISIS controls. It’s a big fraction, but still a fraction.

So this is what I want to hear from Republican critics of Obama’s ISIS strategy. I agree with them that training Iraqi troops and relying on them to fight ISIS isn’t all that promising. But the alternative is likely to be something like 30-50,000 troops committed to a battle that will result in hundreds of American casualties. Are Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio and Ted Cruz willing to own up to that? If they are, then good for them, and we’ll let the American public decide who’s got the better strategy. But if they’re not, then it’s all just a con job for the rubes. The GOP candidates are screaming for “more,” but not willing to acknowledge what “more” really means.

Put up or shut up:

When you say “more,” what do you really have in mind? Candidates for president shouldn’t be allowed to get away with nothing more than vague grumbles and hazy bellicosity any longer. Let’s hear the plan.

Okay – in a Fox News Op-Ed it seems that Bobby Jindal objects to the Authorization for Use of Military Force proposed by the White House, arguing that Congress should remove the restrictions Obama suggested, restrictions on his own ability to fight the bad guys:

The president’s prohibition on ground troops is not a military strategy, it is a political strategy designed to appease the left in this country, which also happens to populate his entire administration. The prohibition is designed by the left to be a check on the next president.

The mission for our military should be clear – defeat the terrorists. Instead, the president is forecasting our playbook to ISIS.

Salon’s Simon Maloy wonders about that:

“Defeat the terrorists” is not an especially clear strategy either. It’s actually deliberately vague, but it also sounds very commander-in-chief-ish, so it accomplishes precisely what Jindal decries about Obama’s strategy: it appeals to his party’s hawkish conservative base. Personally, I’d be very interested to hear a few specifics from Jindal as to what “defeat the terrorists” entails, given that we’ve been pursuing some variant of that strategy for almost 14 years now and at great cost, only to see terrorism stubbornly undefeated. But Jindal doesn’t do specifics. His plan is to just turn things over to the military and let them call the shots: “The military must be given the mission, and they should then propose the specific tactics. If that includes some use of ground troops, then that’s what has to be done.”

The other political aspect to “defeat the terrorists” is its implication that President Obama is not, in fact, enthusiastic about defeating terrorists. And Jindal, like pretty much everyone else in conservative politics, argues that Obama won’t ever be able to truly conquer terrorism because he doesn’t say “radical Islam” enough. In fact, Jindal seems to believe that a hesitancy to sandwich the words “radical” and “Islam” together should preclude Obama from actually being president…

So Jindal is criticizing the president for not taking the steps necessary to fight terrorism, but he won’t actually lay out what the correct steps are. The only specific policy he endorses is that the president say “radical Islam” as many times as is necessary to bring about the conditions for total victory. In one breath he says Obama is “disqualified” to be commander-in-chief, and in the next he demands that Congress authorize Obama to do basically whatever he wants as commander-in-chief.

Maybe these folks should stick with worrying about those Mexicans among us, the kind of people who really should not be here. They want their country back, and but that longing may not return them from exile:

The American electorate is more diverse than ever, which means Republicans will have to attract a record percentage of minorities to win the presidency in 2016, a GOP pollster said Tuesday.

About 70 percent of the Americans eligible to vote are white, a decline of 15 percentage points since 1980, according to a new report co-sponsored by the Center for American Progress, the American Enterprise Institute, and the Brookings Institution. The report estimates that white eligible voters will become a minority in the next 45 years.

“The fundamental challenge for my side is the seemingly inexorable change in the composition of presidential electorates,” Republican pollster Whit Ayres, whose clients include Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), said during a panel discussing the report. “And there’s no reason to believe that that’s going to stop magically.”

Maybe it would be better to talk about ISIS:

In 2004, Republicans’ most recent presidential victory, George W. Bush won 58 percent of the white vote, and 26 percent of the non-white vote – numbers that would lose him the White House today, Ayres said.

“That’s the stunning part for me in running these numbers – to realize that the last Republican to win a presidential election, who reached out very aggressively to minorities, and did better than any Republican nominee before or since among minorities, still didn’t achieve enough of both of those groups in order to put together a winning percentage” for 2016, Ayres said.

Their triumphant return from exile might be as short-lived as Napoleon’s return from Elba. There’s that famous palindrome – “Able was I ere I saw Elba.” That’s more than a bit of clever wordplay. Sometimes there’s no recovery, because, as Politico reports, once in exile you lose your ability to control what you want to control:

A tense debate broke out during a closed-door meeting of Senate Republicans on Tuesday, a sign of the serious hurdles GOP leaders face ahead of a critical funding deadline for the nation’s chief domestic anti-terrorism agency.

According to four senators at the lunch session, a frustrated Sen. Jeff Sessions angrily dismissed Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s plan, arguing that his party should be prepared for an all-out battle with Democrats to ratchet up public pressure and force President Barack Obama to drop his immigration policies. But Sen. Kelly Ayotte, a New Hampshire Republican who could face a tough reelection next year, sharply countered that McConnell’s plan was the only option to not hamper law enforcement agencies that rely on money from the Department of Homeland Security.

The dispute between the vulnerable Republican and the Alabama conservative highlights the larger challenges facing McConnell and House Speaker John Boehner. The two are staring at a Friday deadline to avoid a shutdown of DHS but are struggling to balance the demands of immigration hard-liners with Republicans who fear political and practical fallout from DHS shutting down.

McConnell has been quiet for weeks about his next steps. But his new proposal on Tuesday – to extend DHS funding through September while advancing a separate plan to block a portion of Obama’s immigration proposal – signaled that he’s nervous a shutdown could damage his party politically. Twenty-four GOP senators are up for reelection next year.

Once back in power things can go sour fast and there may be no recovery:

Boehner is in an even tighter jam: Any sense that he is caving to the White House could further erode confidence in his leadership among the far right, which is furious at Obama’s immigration push. Boehner has not directly addressed whether he’d put a stand-alone funding bill on the floor, and several Republican leadership sources say they favor several short-term measures to try to keep the heat on the White House.

It gets even worse:

Senate Democrats are refusing to sign on to McConnell’s proposal without a commitment from the speaker to move a “clean” DHS funding bill. But several House Republicans and their top aides have privately told POLITICO that a misstep by Boehner in this legislative skirmish could imperil his speakership. One said that Republicans would weigh trying to remove him from the position if he relents on his promise to fight the president’s unilateral action on immigration “tooth and nail.”

“Speaker Boehner has my sympathy in that he has a somewhat divided conference – he has to try to balance all the different influences within his conference,” said Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). “He has my sympathies, very tough work.”

In a sign of how difficult the path in the House is, one senior House Republican, who is close to party leaders and spoke anonymously to discuss strategy, said the Senate’s plan to send two bills to the House is “a joke.” Several top House Republicans believe the only way a clean funding bill can pass their chamber is if the DHS shuts down and pressure builds for a resolution.

For weeks, McConnell and Boehner have been on opposite pages on their strategies to break the immigration-DHS impasse – a sign of how the two men will have to continually reconcile conflicting agendas between the two chambers despite having total control of Congress for the first time in nearly a decade.

Their Waterloo comes next, but they set it up themselves:

Last month, the House GOP moved forward with a $39.7 billion package for DHS. But it stood little chance of passing the Senate, where Republicans have 54 seats, six shy of the 60 votes needed to break a filibuster. The House plan would block not only the 2014 executive action but also the 2012 plan that Obama enacted administratively to shield young illegal immigrants from deportation. House Republican leaders made it clear to their Senate GOP counterparts that they needed to hold multiple votes on their plan, to show the upper chamber was putting up a fight.

After Senate Democrats repeatedly blocked the bill from even reaching a debate, McConnell said earlier this month that the next step was “up to” the House. But Boehner pushed back, saying it was in the Senate’s hands, feeding the perception in the Capitol that the two leaders failed to conceive of a plan out of the logjam from the onset.

“It seems like McConnell and Boehner aren’t even talking to each other,” one veteran GOP senator said. “It is mind-boggling.”

After Senate Democrats blocked the House’s DHS bill on Monday for a fourth time, McConnell proposed a new strategy. He offered a stand-alone bill – not tied to DHS funding – targeting the 2014 executive actions, something that might attract enough Democrats to clear a filibuster but would likely lack enough support to override a veto.

And the House, filled with Tea Party folks that John Boehner cannot control, will have none of that, and there’s that other pressure:

President Obama called on congressional Republicans on Wednesday to renew financing for the Department of Homeland Security and promised to veto any measure that tried to gut his executive actions on immigration.

“Instead of trying to hold hostage funding for the Department of Homeland Security, which is so important for our national security, fund that, and let’s get on with actually passing comprehensive immigration reform,” Mr. Obama told about 270 people at a town-hall-style meeting at Florida International University…

If Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the majority leader, and the House speaker, John A. Boehner of Ohio, “want to have a vote on whether what I’m doing is legal or not, they can have that vote,” Mr. Obama said. “I will veto that vote.”

Obama also hinted at the demographics of all this:

He said voters must keep up the pressure on Congress and the Republicans who run for president in 2016 to back a more permanent measure that would give undocumented immigrants a pathway to legal status.

“When they start asking for votes, the first question should be, ‘Do you really intend to deport 11 million people? … And if not, what is your plan to make sure that they have the ability to have a legal status, stay with their families and, ultimately, contribute to the United States of America?”

Mr. Obama said his administration was aggressively defending his executive actions in court. In the meantime, he said, immigrants who would qualify for deportation reprieves and work permits under those actions – including people brought to the United States as young children, and the parents of American citizens – should be confident that they will not be deported. He said he had ordered immigration and border officials to focus on criminals and recent immigrants in carrying out any deportations.

Will the Republicans argue with that? They have and they will, but Mitch McConnell got his way:

The stalemate over funding for the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) was broken Wednesday as the Senate voted 98-2 to proceed to legislation that would prevent a partial government shutdown.

Democrats agreed to support the DHS bill after Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) stripped out provisions inserted by the House that would reverse President Obama’s executive actions on immigration.

The only votes against proceeding to the bill came from Sens. James Inhofe (R-Okla.) and Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

“Democrats will support getting on the House Homeland Security funding bill. In exchange, the leader will provide the only amendment, [it] will be a clean Homeland Security funding substitute,” Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) said.

Democrats had blocked the bill four times before. With a shutdown of DHS set to begin on Saturday, McConnell on Tuesday agreed to split the funding and immigration fights, as Democrats have long demanded.

Reid said earlier Wednesday that the Senate could take a final vote on the DHS bill Thursday.

“We look forward to working with our Republican colleagues in the next 24 hours to get this done. All eyes now shift to the House of Representatives,” Reid said.

It will die there, and the Atlantic’s Russell Berman sums things up nicely:

The whole episode reeks of the one thing McConnell promised to fix when Republicans assumed the majority: dysfunction. “There’s trouble in paradise,” remarked Dick Durbin, the second-ranking Senate Democrat, when he was asked about the lack of communication between Boehner and McConnell. Most Republicans have realized for weeks that the party would eventually have to fold, or at least punt, on the DHS funding fight. McConnell simply decided to move first, and end the standoff. As a token to conservatives, he announced the Senate would also advance a separate bill reversing President Obama’s immigration actions. Split off from the DHS measure, though, that vote would be largely symbolic. Some Republicans had hoped that a Texas federal judge’s ruling to block the president’s policy would resolve the impasse in Congress, but conservatives say it merely emboldens them to stand their ground.

That puts John Boehner in a tight spot:

Does he risk the wrath of conservatives by bringing up a spending bill that does nothing to stop Obama? Or does he try to fashion a stopgap measure that keeps the department fully functioning and buys Republicans a few more weeks? “If they send back a clean DHS bill, I don’t see us passing it,” Representative John Fleming, a Louisiana conservative, told me on Wednesday. “Our base wants us to fight.”

Fleming predicted Boehner would pay a “huge political price” if he buckled to Democrats after vowing the House would fight Obama’s immigration move “tooth and nail.” Yet party leaders are well aware of polls showing that the public would blame the GOP if DHS shut down, just as voters faulted Republicans when the entire federal government shuttered in 2013. It’s a reminder conservatives like Fleming are tired of hearing. “Republicans are blamed for anything that makes people unhappy,” he said.

Napoleon probably felt the same way when he returned from Elba. After too many years in exile, nothing goes right, and then there’s your Waterloo. And it’s your own damned fault.

Posted in DHS Shutdown, Republicans in Disarray | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

From the Front Lines

The reporting was all wrong. Emma Watson (Hermione Grainger from the Harry Potter movies) is not dating Prince Harry – the Australian tabloid item got it all wrong. That tabloid has been sued before of course, but Watson was a good sport about it – because “marrying a Prince not a prerequisite for being a Princess” after all.

Emma Watson shrugged, gracefully. She’s didn’t bother to sue these people – no real harm was done – and this was Australia after all. That’s how they do things down there. That’s where the young Rupert Murdock got his start:

Following his father’s death, when he was 21, Murdoch returned from Oxford to take charge of the family business News Limited, which had been established in 1923. Rupert Murdoch turned its newspaper, Adelaide News, its main asset, into a major success. He began to direct his attention to acquisition and expansion, buying the troubled Sunday Times in Perth, Western Australia (1956) and over the next few years acquiring suburban and provincial newspapers in New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria and the Northern Territory, including the Sydney afternoon tabloid, The Daily Mirror (1960). The Economist describes Murdoch as “inventing the modern tabloid” as he developed a pattern for his newspapers, increasing sports and scandal coverage and adopting eye-catching headlines.

And then Rupert Murdock moved on. Here, now an American citizen, he created Fox News. In February 1996, Roger Ailes left America’s Talking (now MSNBC) to start the Fox News Channel for Rupert Murdoch, the folks who say that they alone are “Fair and Balanced” – a counterweight to CNN and certainly MSNBC, and to the three broadcast networks, and to the New York Times and Washington Post and all the rest of the liberal mainstream media that persists in questioning the wisdom of angry rich conservatives. That may be why Roger Ailes hires all those pretty and leggy and young blond women to sit around with the angry old white men – for every Bill O’Reilly a Megyn Kelly. The angry old white men get the hot chicks, and there’s a whiff of “tabloid” about the operation. Everything is always a shocking scandal, including that War on Christmas they breathlessly report on each year. No one knows what the hell they’re talking about, but they don’t seem to mind. They’re out to shock you. People are forced to say Happy Holidays, not Merry Christmas! That’s a tabloid headline. There’s nothing there, but Fox News is still surprisingly Australian. Rupert Murdock knows how to move product.

That’s why he hired Roger Ailes – the media consultant for Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush, and for Rudy Giuliani’s first mayoral campaign – to run Fox News. Given that experience, Ailes would figure out how to shock conservative Americans in a tabloid sort of way – and Ailes in turn hired Bill O’Reilly in October 1996 to do the on-air shocking. O’Reilly is perpetually shocked about something liberals are doing and reliably rants about it. Murdock finally had his video political-tabloid, and it did wonderfully. O’Reilly is worth every penny of the eighteen million dollars they pay him each year.

That investment may have finally soured, as Paul Waldman explains:

Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly, host of the highest-rated show in cable news, is under fire for reasons that are drawing comparisons to Brian Williams’ recent troubles. In case you haven’t had the time or inclination to sort through all the back-and-forth, here’s a simple guide to this affair.

It all started with this article by David Corn and Daniel Schulman published in Mother Jones on Thursday, in which they detailed how on many occasions over the years, O’Reilly has characterized himself as a veteran of war reporting. Among the quotes they cited are times when O’Reilly said things like “I’ve reported on the ground in active war zones from El Salvador to the Falklands,” and “having survived a combat situation in Argentina during the Falklands war, I know that life-and-death decisions are made in a flash,” and “I was in a situation one time, in a war zone in Argentina, in the Falklands…” That O’Reilly said these things is not in question. But in fact, O’Reilly was never in the Falklands, and he never reported from any “combat situation.”

The defense:

O’Reilly insists that everything he has said is true, because when he was working for CBS News he reported on a violent protest in Buenos Aires around the time of the Falklands war, and that constitutes a “combat situation” in a “war zone.”

The problem:

That part of the claim is absurd on its face; if covering a protest over a thousand miles away from where a war is being fought constitutes being in a “combat zone,” then that would mean that any reporter who covered an anti-war protest in Washington during the Iraq War was doing combat reporting.

Then there’s the matter of the protest itself. O’Reilly asserts that Argentine soldiers were “gunning people down in the streets” as evidence of how combat-esque the scene was; he wrote in one of his books that “many were killed.” But neither the story that CBS ran that evening nor any contemporaneous reporting mentions anyone being killed. The Post’s Erik Wemple has tried to substantiate O’Reilly’s claim, and been unable to do so. Former CBS reporters who were O’Reilly’s colleagues at the time have also disputed his description of the protest, which was certainly violent, but as far as we know, not actually deadly. But even if everything O’Reilly said about that protest was true, it wouldn’t mean that he had seen combat.

And Emma Watson isn’t dating Prince Harry, but tabloid folks are strange people:

To the surprise of no one who is familiar with his modus operandi, O’Reilly has responded to the evidence against him with a stream of invective against anyone who contradicts him. He called David Corn a “guttersnipe liar,” and called CNN’s Brian Stelter, a media reporter whose sin was merely discussing this story, a “far-left zealot.” When a reporter from the New York Times called to get his comments on the story, he told her that if the article she wrote didn’t meet with his approval, he would retaliate against her. “I am coming after you with everything I have,” he said. “You can take it as a threat.”

Follow all of Waldman’s links and you’ll see how truly strange this is, but it comes down to this:

So why not just say, “I may have mischaracterized things a few times” and move on? To understand why that’s impossible, you have to understand O’Reilly’s persona and the function he serves for his viewers. The central theme of The O’Reilly Factor is that the true America, represented by the elderly whites who make up his audience (the median age of his viewers is 72) is in an unending war with the forces of liberalism, secularism, and any number of other isms. Bill O’Reilly is a four-star general in that war, and the only way to win is to fight.

The allegedly liberal media are one of the key enemies in that war. You don’t negotiate with your enemies, you fight them. And so when O’Reilly is being criticized by the media, to admit that they might have a point would be to betray everything he stands for and that he has told his viewers night after night for the better part of two decades.

It seems we have a special case here:

Brian Williams got suspended from NBC News because his bosses feared that his tall tales had cost him credibility with his audience, which could lead that audience to go elsewhere for their news. O’Reilly and his boss, Fox News chief Roger Ailes, are not worried about damage to Bill O’Reilly’s credibility, or about his viewers deserting him. Their loyalty to him isn’t based on a spotless record of factual accuracy; it’s based on the fact that O’Reilly is a medium for their anger and resentments.

Night after night, he yells about the “pinheads” and other liberals who are destroying this great country, saying the things his viewers wish they could say and sticking it to the people they hate. If anything, this episode proves that the media are out to get him, and he has to stay strong and keep standing up to them.

And that leads back to the original sin:

Fox built its brand not just by convincing conservatives that it was a great place for them to get their news, but by telling them that the rest of the media can’t be trusted, so you almost have to get your news from Fox. In the last couple of years, however, what seemed like a great success of institution-building (including Fox and other media outlets) has begun to look less like a strength of the conservative movement and more like a liability. This was vividly illustrated in November 2012, when Republicans up to and including Mitt Romney convinced themselves that it was just impossible that the American electorate would grant Barack Obama a second term. Within that bubble, Obama was a failed president all right-thinking Americans rejected, and so he would of course lose badly on Election Day; they were genuinely shocked when the election turned out the way it did.

I haven’t yet seen any conservatives arguing that Bill O’Reilly is right, and that covering a violent protest 1,200 miles from a place where a war just ended is in fact seeing combat in a war zone (although I haven’t been watching Fox today, so maybe they have). But the farther they move from reality, the less able they are to make wise strategic decisions and find ways to persuade people who don’t already agree with them. And the more surprised they’ll be the next time they lose an election.

Time’s James Poniewozik sees the same sort of thing, but this way:

Like Brian Williams, O’Reilly told stories about his reporting exploits that seemed to imply they were more dangerous than they were. There were differences in the particulars and the aftermath, though. Williams apologized for saying he was traveling in a helicopter that was hit by an RPG in Iraq when it was not. O’Reilly doubled down on his statements. In his telling, it became a matter of whether you think having reported “in the Falklands” is naturally assumed as meaning “in Buenos Aires at the time of the Falkland Islands war” and whether a violent protest equals a “combat situation.”

And that kind of argument – a debate over interpretation, spin – the motives of his critics – is the friendliest of grounds for O’Reilly to argue in front of his audience. Hell, it’s precisely what you watch O’Reilly for: not for news headlines but for a worldview, not for what happened but what it means – and what it means that your ideological adversaries see it as something else.

It’s no accident that O’Reilly was a chief inspiration for Stephen Colbert’s character on The Colbert Report, for whom he invented the concept of “truthiness”: that what your gut tells you is more important than what the literal facts say – that how the news feels is more important than what the news is.

That means there are no problems here:

The liberal media claims Bill lied about being in a war zone? Well, what is a “war zone” anyway? Look at the footage he showed of demonstrators in the streets! That’s combat enough for me! Case closed.

It’s almost magic.

This is a perfect example, really, of the difference between a news host whose reputation is based on objectivity and one whose reputation is based on subjectivity. You can argue what Williams or O’Reilly deserves, but in the end NBC and Fox both operate first out of practicality and self-preservation. And where it was devastating for Williams to have his veracity challenged in public, for O’Reilly to have this battle is branding.

That would explain O’Reilly once saying this:

But again, look, I mean all of us who are reporters – and I was a reporter for 24 years, even, you know – and I was in El Salvador, and in the Falkland War in Argentina, and in Northern Ireland, and in the Middle East. And I did some pretty risky things. I was single and nobody cared, but you know – a couple of girlfriends would have been – “oh, no more free dinners from Bill.”

But I did. I put myself, you know, in positions that perhaps I should not have, but I got good stories. And that’s what people do. That’s what journalists do. But I volunteered. Nobody sent me. Nobody forced me, I went it. And that’s what these guys did. And these guys were in much more danger than I was ever in, although it got a little hairy in the Falklands, that’s for sure.

Hey, he’s a daredevil hero-reporter. He put his life on line for us! That’s his story and he’s sticking to it.

Or else he’s a bully, as Salon’s Joan Wash explains:

O’Reilly went around the bend on Monday by threatening New York Times reporter Emily Steel, telling her in a phone interview that if he didn’t find her story fair, “I am coming after you with everything I have.” In case she was confused about his meaning, he added: “You can take it as a threat.”

Liberal social media went wild over O’Reilly’s threat, as though he’d crossed some obvious line of human decency or journalistic integrity and there might even be repercussions. But why? Most of us know this is O’Reilly’s MO. Normally he sends his “producer” Jesse Watters out to menace reporters who’ve displeased him; Amanda Terkel tells her 2009 story of being stalked, harassed and ambushed by Watters here; there are many others.

When I criticized O’Reilly for his violent imagery in reporting on Dr. George Tiller before his murder, he invited me on his show promising to have a reasonable debate. Instead he told me to “stop talking” and berated me for having “blood on your hands” – and over the next week, sliced and diced the interview in unflattering and unfair ways and replayed clips with a variety of flunkies (thanks, Juan Williams) agreeing about my perfidy.

But not only does O’Reilly regularly come after critics “with everything I have,” so does his boss, Roger Ailes. I don’t see how O’Reilly’s fabrications, or his threats to reporters, will get him in trouble, when that’s exactly how Ailes runs his Fox News empire. His efforts to intimidate unauthorized-biographer Gabriel Sherman are legendary. When he couldn’t frighten Sherman or his publisher, he turned his bullying on his staffers, making clear they’d pay with their jobs and reputations if they talked to Sherman.

As one Fox employee told Ailes enforcer Brian Lewis, “Look, I know you can kill me. I don’t wanna wake up tomorrow to read I’m gay and fucking sheep.” Ironically, when Ailes began to suspect Lewis himself was a Sherman source, he followed his longtime P.R. guy and tried to ruin his reputation with unproven allegations of “financial irregularities.” (Sherman recounts all of this in his excellent The Loudest Voice in the Room and Media Matters catalogs it here.)

He is a loud voice, as is Bill O’Reilly, but there’s this too:

Fox News host Bill O’Reilly has repeatedly lied about being present at the suicide of Lee Harvey Oswald associate George S. de Mohrenschildt, the left-leaning watchdog group Media Matters alleged in a new report on Tuesday.

In his book “Killing Kennedy” and in several other appearances, O’Reilly has said that as a reporter for the Dallas-based station WFAA-TV he was on the porch of de Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s house in Palm Beach, Florida, when he heard de Mohrenschildt shoot himself with a shotgun in March of 1977.

“At the time, de Mohrenschildt had been called to testify before a congressional committee looking into the events of November 1963. As the reporter knocked on the door of de Mohrenschildt’s daughter’s home, he heard the shotgun blast that marked the suicide of the Russian, assuring that his relationship with Lee Harvey Oswald would never be fully understood. By the way, that reporter’s name is Bill O’Reilly,” O’Reilly wrote in the 2012 book.

Two former colleagues of O’Reilly’s at WFAA-TV, Byron Harris and Tracy Rowlett, told Media Matters O’Reilly was in Dallas at the time of de Mohrenschildt’s suicide.

Media Matters also points to the autobiography of Gaeton Fonzi, an investigator on the House Select Committee on Assassinations, who wrote that O’Reilly called him to ask about the assassination.

Oops. And there was this:

ESPN host Keith Olbermann was only too happy to name Fox’s Bill O’Reilly his “World’s Worst Person in Sports” on Wednesday, as he dissected O’Reilly’s portrayal of himself as a former star athlete.

“This is fun,” Olbermann – who regularly blasted O’Reilly during his tenure at MSNBC – said. “This brings back memories. I’ll stick to his stories about sports and how great he was and how all his teams in high school and college were virtually undefeated.”

O’Reilly brought up his athletic prowess during a radio interview with Olbermann’s colleague Dan Le Batard on Monday, saying he played on the varsity football team at Marist College.

“We were undefeated our senior year,” O’Reilly said. “That was a pretty good deal.”

Unfortunately for O’Reilly, Le Batard pointed out that, as Olbermann reported in 2005, Marist did not field a varsity football team until 1978 – seven years after he graduated.

Oops again, but Paul Farhi, the Washington Post’s media reporter, notes the effect of the latest oops:

O’Reilly’s aggressive statements have kept the Mother Jones story in the news for several days, which may have fueled a mini-bump in his ratings. The O’Reilly-hosted “O’Reilly Factor” attracted 3.33 million viewers on Monday night after several days of headlines, a 10 percent increase over his average for the month.

It pays to do things backwards:

O’Reilly has reversed the usual crisis-management strategy, which is first to recite the facts clearly and simply and then get out of the way, said Lanny Davis, the veteran Washington crisis manager who advised President Bill Clinton during the Monica Lewinsky scandal and Redskins owner Daniel Snyder on the team’s controversial name, among a string of high-profile cases.

“I would have advised Bill to get out all the facts about what happened first before attacking,” said Davis, who has appeared many times on O’Reilly’s show and considers him a friend. “You can’t avoid the facts, so get them out there. And if you made a mistake, admit it quickly.”

Davis also advises his clients against attacking an accuser’s motives. “Even if you’re right, it looks like you’re changing the subject or avoiding the merits of the case,” he said.

Forget that:

Fox has given no indication that it intends to investigate O’Reilly’s Falklands’ statements, let alone discipline him for them. The network issued a one-sentence statement over the weekend: “Fox News chairman and CEO Roger Ailes and all senior management are in full support of Bill O’Reilly.”

That suggests O’Reilly and Ailes may even view the controversy surrounding their star not as a crisis, but as a brand-building opportunity, said a New York communications specialist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he works with several TV networks. The executive said O’Reilly’s attack strategy is in keeping with his pugilistic image and with Fox News’ self-promotion as the “fair and balanced” alternative to the liberal media. By making the avowedly liberal Corn and Mother Jones the issue, “Fox News has turned this into another partisan shouting match,” he said.

Fox insiders say neither O’Reilly nor Fox intended to prolong the story by making his threatening comment to New York Times reporter Emily Steel on Monday. But they said O’Reilly had no plans to apologize, either.

The tabloid folks never apologize. They run the headlines:

Elvis Is Alive and Running for President!

Computer Virus Spreads to Humans!

Alien Bible Found! They Worship Oprah!

Abraham Lincoln Was A Woman!

Those actually appeared on the rack in the checkout line at supermarkets. Bill O’Reilly was a daredevil hero-reporter! Why not? No one takes these things seriously. And then there are those who watch Fox News.

Posted in Bill O'Reilly, Fox News, Roger Ailes, Rupert Murdoch, Tabloid Journalism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Obama’s Faith

There are those of us who wouldn’t mind having an enlightened Buddhist president – there’d be no God Talk. Those folks don’t talk about any god – they just talk about the elimination of ignorance and of our incessant craving for this and that, the stuff that really doesn’t matter. Mindfulness is what matters. Who created what, and why, just doesn’t matter. Pay attention to the world around you, and respect what you see there, and see if you can get in sync with the flow of the wonderful world we have in the here and now – which of course makes Buddhism more of an ethic than a religion. But there’s nothing wrong with living life well and doing as little damage as possible. Of course that’s too passive for Americans. We all love the Dalai Lama – but we wouldn’t want a guy like that in the White House. He couldn’t be nasty with the bad guys. He’d want to understand them, and work things out. Hell, we’d never have another war. Or maybe we would. There is a history of Buddhist war here and there – as a last resort. They have had their problems with Muslims in Myanmar – not that anyone over here noticed. Still, a Buddhist president would be cool.

An atheist president would be even cooler. Not a militant atheist like Richard Dawkins – slapping the believers upside the head with a lot of verified science – or a brilliant polemicist like the late Christopher Hitchens – hammering them with the sorry history of the death and misery religion has caused in this world for thousands of years. No, just an atheist who lets people believe what they want, as long as they don’t make trouble, and goes about running the country using careful thought and the best advice he can get, without wondering if God approves. No one knows if God exists, they just believe He does, and no one seems to agree on just what God approves of, or doesn’t. Who’s to say? Muslims don’t agree with Christians on that – they never have – and half of all Christians disagree with the other half, and no one knows what to make of the Mormons. What does God want the United States to do? Opinions vary. Why not table the issue and just apply, say… rationality? An atheist president could do that. Leave the God stuff for when He descends from the heavens and says only the Lutherans in rural Minnesota ever got things right, or the Ku Klux Klan, or the Unitarians. An atheist president would offer to hold things together and keep the country running until that day, if it ever comes. It would be a public service, rendered by an impartial party, one who simply won’t take sides in wholly speculative disputes. Those disputes, while lively, have nothing to do with tax rates and foreign policy and repairing roads and bridges and all the rest.

That’s not so far from what the Founding Fathers had in mind, as they were, for the most part, Enlightenment Deists – the folks who held that reason and observation of the natural world are sufficient to determine the existence of a single creator of the universe – but who figured that single creator of the universe had moved on to other things, leaving us here to figure out how to live all on our own. We do have God-given inalienable rights, but God has moved on, so we’d better figure out how to get along, working that out among ourselves, without anyone screaming that God said to do this or to do that. A government of the people would be just that. Our new government would not establish a state religion, or even favor one religion over another. They put that in the Constitution. They weren’t atheists at all – they just saw government as our business, not God’s. He had left that to us.

That’s why Thomas Jefferson was always saying stuff like this:

“The legitimate powers of government extend to such acts only as are injurious to others. But it does me no injury for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no god. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg” ~ Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

And there was this to the Virginia Baptists in 1808:

Because religious belief, or non-belief, is such an important part of every person’s life, freedom of religion affects every individual. Religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights. Moreover, state support of an established religion tends to make the clergy unresponsive to their own people, and leads to corruption within religion itself. Erecting the “wall of separation between church and state,” therefore, is absolutely essential in a free society.

And it goes on and on:

“Religion is a subject on which I have ever been most scrupulously reserved. I have considered it as a matter between every man and his Maker in which no other, and far less the public, had a right to intermeddle.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, to Richard Rush, 1813

“If a sect arises whose tenets would subvert morals, good sense has fair play, and reasons and laughs it out of doors, without suffering the State to be troubled with it.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, Notes on the State of Virginia, 1781-82

“Nothing but free argument, raillery and even ridicule will preserve the purity of religion.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to Dr. Benjamin Rush. 21 April 1803

“On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to Archibald Carey, 1816

The day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the Supreme Being as his father, in the womb of a virgin, will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter.” ~ Thomas Jefferson, letter to John Adams, April 11, 1823

That last one might be a bit harsh, but like his cohorts, he was an Enlightenment rationalist, with no tolerance for silliness. He did produce that famous Jefferson Bible – the New Testament with all the miracles removed. It was “The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth” – only that. No one walks on water. No one needs to. Jesus was saying good stuff, and living it. Wasn’t that enough?

That was never enough. We elect Christian presidents now, not Deist presidents, so we get stuff like this:

“Everything” President Obama does is “against what Christians stand for,” former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (R) said in an interview Monday.

“Everything he does is against what Christians stand for, and he’s against the Jews in Israel,” Huckabee, who is considering a 2016 presidential run, said on Fox News’s “Fox & Friends.” “The one group of people that can know they have his undying, unfailing support would be the Muslim community.”

The conservative former governor was commenting on Obama’s speech at the National Prayer Breakfast last week, where Obama noted while discussing Islamic extremism that Christianity has been used to justify violence in the past.

“Lest we get on our high horse and think this is unique to some other place, remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ,” he said. “In our home country, slavery and Jim Crow all too often was justified in the name of Christ.”

That was, however, pretty much what Jefferson wrote to Archibald Carey in that 1816 letter, not that it mattered:

Conservatives have long said that Obama isn’t engaging aggressively enough with the issue of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, which burned a Jordanian fighter pilot alive last week.

“He said our greatest threat was climate change,” Huckabee said of Obama. “I assure you that a beheading is much worse than a sunburn” – repeating a line he used a few weeks ago at the Iowa Freedom Summit.

Erick Erickson, one of the most influential voices on the right, then followed suit:

Barack Obama is not, in any meaningful way, a Christian and I am not sure he needs to continue the charade. With no more elections for him, he might as well come out as the atheist/agnostic that he is. He took his first step in doing so yesterday in a speech reeking with contempt for faith in general and Christianity in particular.

Obama needs to read his Bible:

Christ said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through Me.” (John 14:6) Christ himself is truth. When we possess Christ, we possess truth. The President is a moral relativist. It was clear in his whole speech. He cannot condemn and attack ISIS as he should because in his mind, what is truth? Truth is a nebulous concept with our post-modern President. With truth a nebulous concept, right and wrong are too.

We know God cares about everyone. We know Christ came to die for sinners. But Christians know Christ is truth itself. To have truth, we must have Christ. To suggest that everyone can have some version of God and some version of truth, is worldly babbling, not Christianity.

Then there’s the warning:

And as for doubts on whether I’m right, “the starting point of faith is some doubt” in my ability to save myself, NOT in whether I’m right. I know I’m a sinner. I know I cannot save myself. I have no doubt that Christ is the ONLY way. It’s not that I’m right, but that CHRIST IS RIGHT. So, Mr. President, get off your own high horse.

These guys have their knives out, so this was inevitable:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) said on Saturday he isn’t sure if President Barack Obama is a Christian.

“I don’t know,” Walker said when asked about it by The Washington Post at a DC hotel where the National Governors Association was holding a meeting.

Walker’s comment came a day after he gave a similar answer to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about whether he believes Obama loves America. Both questions stem from a reception for the governor that was held on Wednesday night in Manhattan, an event in which former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) told the crowd he doubts Obama loves America.

The Post reminded Walker that Obama has frequently discussed his Christian faith in light of fringe claims that he’s a secret Muslim.

“I’ve never actually talked about it or I haven’t read about that,” Walker said, according to the paper. “I’ve never asked him that.”

Then Walker walked that back:

Walker said questions like this were why Americans despise the news media. …

After the interview with the Post, Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster called the newspaper to say the governor was not trying to cast doubt about Obama’s religion. Rather, he was trying to make a point about the press.

This was a bit embarrassing, but Byron York, in the Washington Examiner, tries to cut Walker some slack:

When it comes to confusion, or wrong information, about Obama’s religion, Scott Walker is far from alone. Polls have long shown many Americans know little about the president’s faith.

In June, 2012, Gallup asked, “Do you happen to know the religious faith of Barack Obama?” Forty-four percent said they did not know, while 36 percent said he is a Christian, 11 percent said he is a Muslim, and eight percent said he has no religion. …

In August, 2010, a Pew poll made news when it found that 18 percent of those surveyed believed Obama is a Muslim. But just as notably, 43 percent of respondents in that survey told Pew they didn’t know Obama’s religion. …

One notable suggestion in the Pew survey was that in Obama’s first couple of years in office – as Americans became more familiar with him as president – they became less sure of his religious faith. In March 2009, shortly after Obama entered the White House, 34 percent said they did not know his religion, while 48 percent identified him as a Christian. By August 2010, the number of Americans who said they did not know Obama’s religion had grown to 43 percent, while the number who identified him as Christian fell to 34 percent. …

In June 2012, Pew asked the question again and found that 36 percent – still more than one-third of Americans – did not know Obama’s faith, while 45 percent identified him as a Christian. (The poll, taken during the 2012 presidential campaign, found that more people – 51 percent – correctly identified Mitt Romney as a Mormon than the 45 percent who said Obama is a Christian.)

This is to be expected:

For one thing, few people see Obama openly practicing any religious faith. After the president did not attend church on Christmas 2013, the New York Times, citing unofficial White House historian Mark Knoller, noted that Obama had attended church 18 times in nearly five years in the White House, while George W. Bush attended 120 times in eight years. Yes, there are a variety of reasons some presidents don’t go to church very often, but in Obama’s case, absence does nothing to change existing public perceptions of him.

And one thing leads to another:

For example, it would not be a stretch to guess that those Americans who told Gallup and Pew that they did not know the president’s faith would remain unsure after hearing reports that at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, Obama explained Islamic State violence by urging listeners to “remember that during the Crusades and the Inquisition, people committed terrible deeds in the name of Christ.” Again, many people don’t pay close attention to the news, and snippets of reports on Obama’s faith, like his remarks at the Prayer Breakfast, could yield a confused picture.

York is saying that Scott Walker is just like the rest of us – confused – but Jefferson would confuse him too, as would the Constitution. Maybe that confuses us all, but UCLA’s Mark Kleiman tries to straighten things out:

Does Obama love America? Is Obama a Christian? Both are reflections of the same analytically absurd but politically potent winger theme song: “Obama doesn’t hate Muslims enough; he won’t say ‘Islamic terrorism.'”

That’s it, all of it:

Really, this gets much easier to understand if you recall that a President’s words are strategic choices rather than contributions to a seminar series. Strategically, it’s obvious that if you want some Muslims to help you fight other Muslims, then of course the last thing you want to do is define the common enemy as “Islamic.”

The man was being practical, and this was never a religious question, because it couldn’t be:

Even as a matter of pure analysis, there’s simply no true or false answer to the question: “Is ISIS an Islamic movement?” That question could mean either “Is ISIS an aspect of Islam?” to which the answer is obviously “Yes” – or “Is the version of Islam adopted by ISIS the best or authentic version?” in which case the answer is equally obviously a matter of opinion or controversy rather than of ascertainable fact.

Consider the same analysis as applied to Christianity. Was burning heretics at the stake “Christian”? Well, of course it was, if by “Christian” you mean “Done by many Christians out of what they thought was loyalty to Christianity, and approved by many other Christians.” And of course it wasn’t, if you mean “Consistent with the views attributed to Jesus of Nazareth in the Gospels.” (See the Grand Inquisitor scene from the Brothers Karamazov.)

So the answer I ought to give to that question would depend on the context, the audience, and my purpose.

If I wanted to convince a Christian audience that persecution was wrong, then of course I would try to argue that burning at the stake was “un-Christian.” Since it’s certainly un-Christ like, I’d have a very solid basis for that argument. On the other hand, if I wanted to convince an audience of Buddhists or atheists that Christianity was evil, I’d want to argue that burning heretics at the stake, having been an uncontroversial part of actual Christian practice for something like a millennium, was mainstream Christianity, and that therefore the whole religion was manifestly the work of the Devil. Again, I’d have lots of evidence on my side.

The point is that “Christianity” names both an ideal of conduct (whose content is controversial) and an historical phenomenon with many strands, some of them mutually contradictory, and of course something that was an important part of the history could nonetheless violate some versions of the ideal.

One could put that this way – “On the dogmas of religion, as distinguished from moral principles, all mankind, from the beginning of the world to this day, have been quarreling, fighting, burning and torturing one another, for abstractions unintelligible to themselves and to all others, and absolutely beyond the comprehension of the human mind.”

Jefferson put that this way and Kleiman offers this variant:

Neither “Christianity” nor “Americanism” has an empirically ascertainable “essence” – and because, in each case, the practice might differ substantially with from the ideal, and the ideal itself will certainly be a matter of controversy within the tradition. I can prove from the Gospels that pious cruelty is evil, and from the Declaration of Independence that slavery is evil; but I can’t deny that St. Dominic and John Calvin loved pious cruelty, or that the God of the Hebrew Bible explicitly commands it [Deut. 13:6-18], nor can I deny that the Constitution protected slavery.

As an interpretive historian or cultural critic, I might try to say something serious about the central tendencies of Christianity or of the American tradition, but those arguments aren’t likely to be conclusive; if someone makes them as part of a political debate, he is practicing rhetoric rather than dialectic: trying to persuade, not merely to elucidate.

What’s absolutely certain is that if I want Christians or Americans to behave well, I shouldn’t criticize the bad behavior of some Christians or some Americans as typically – or even “extremely” – Christian or American; instead I should point out how inconsistent that behavior is with the best parts of those traditions.

This seems obvious. So why should “Islam” be different?

That’s a good question, but we’re easily confused:

ISIS is recognizably “Islamic” in the sense that its leaders claim the mantle of Islam and its followers think they are good Muslims. Moreover, there is support in some Islamic texts – including the Koran – and traditions for some of ISIS’s bad actions. If I were an ISIS recruiter, of course I’d want to stress those links. And of course I’d do the same if I wanted to incite hatred against Islam or stir up a “holy war” between Christians and Muslims, or merely incite hatred against an American President with a Muslim name.

If, on the other hand, I wanted to convince an Islamic audience to join with me in fighting against ISIS, the last thing I’d do is describe that group as “Islamic extremists.”

Kleiman seems a bit frustrated:

Last time I checked Barack Obama wasn’t elected to a chair of cultural criticism or comparative religion; his profession is statesmanship, of which rhetoric is a fundamental tool. When he denounces ISIS as “a perversion of Islam,” he’s not making a claim for scholars to debate; he’s making a rhetorical move and offering a call to arms.

Everything else is beside the point. Obama’s profession is no more than statesmanship. That’s the job, and that’s why we need an atheist president, who won’t get sidetracked by this religious stuff. Obama did compartmentalize it, or at least pointed out that those who feel this and that about the will of God, and feel it so very deeply, seem to mess up statesmanship. The point is to keep the country safe. Jefferson would understand. The whole idea was to leave the God stuff to others and just make sure we’re safe. Obama actually is a Christian – but that is beside the point, as it should be.

Posted in ISIS, Religion and Morality, Religion and Politics, Religion in America, Separation of Church and State | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Selling Another War

Timing is everything, especially when it comes to war:

White House officials said today that the administration was following a meticulously planned strategy to persuade the public, the Congress and the allies of the need to confront the threat from Saddam Hussein.

The rollout of the strategy this week, they said, was planned long before President Bush’s vacation in Texas last month. It was not hastily concocted, they insisted, after some prominent Republicans began to raise doubts about moving against Mr. Hussein and administration officials made contradictory statements about the need for weapons inspectors in Iraq.

The White House decided, they said, that even with the appearance of disarray, it was still more advantageous to wait until after Labor Day to kick off their plan.

”From a marketing point of view,” said Andrew H. Card Jr., the White House chief of staff who is coordinating the effort, ”you don’t introduce new products in August.”

That was the summer of 2002 – when the Bush crew knew no one wanted to hear about Saddam building nuclear weapons, or amassing a fleet of those small drones filled with anthrax, or something or other, that would soon be flying over Miami, spraying death. Americans were at the beach. The product they wanted to sell – fear and panic, and anger – wouldn’t sell in the sunny summer. Everyone would be going back to work in September, which would make them sullen and resentful, and you could work with that, with a new product that would offer relief, of sorts. Bomb the bad guy and get rid of him. That would be satisfying. Everyone’s grumpy in September.

Andrew Card caught a lot of crap for that – what he said was crass and cynical – but he was right about marketing war. Choose the right moment. Catch people – that is the right verb – when they’re not relaxed and distracted. It’s hard to induce fear and panic and anger when folks are having fun. The summer won’t do. Neither will Oscar weekend, when who wore what on the red carpet is all anyone wants to talk about, but no one told the current bad guys:

A video purported to be by Somalia’s al-Qaida-linked rebel group al-Shabaab urged Muslims to attack shopping malls in the U.S., Canada, Britain and other Western countries.

U.S. authorities said there was “no credible” evidence suggesting a U.S. mall attack was in the works.

The threat by the al-Qaida affiliate came in the final minutes of a more than hour-long video released Saturday in which the extremists also warned Kenya of more attacks like the September 2013 assault on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi in which 67 people were killed.

They caught the news cycle all wrong, but even if they were specific, this seemed an idle threat:

The masked narrator concluded by calling on Muslims to attack shopping malls, specifically naming the Mall of America in the Minneapolis suburb of Bloomington, as well as the West Edmonton Mall in Canada and the Westfield mall in Stratford, England. The authenticity of the video could not be immediately verified by The Associated Press.

The FBI and Department of Homeland Security provided local law enforcement agencies and private sector partners with “relevant information regarding the recent al-Shabab propaganda video,” DHS press secretary Marsha Catron said in a statement.

“However, we are not aware of any specific, credible plot against the Mall of America or any other domestic commercial shopping center,” Catron said.

This sounded like bullshit, which the Bush folks knew was a hard product to sell, at least at the wrong moment, and Peter Bergen, the CNN National Security Analyst, was quick to tamp this down:

The reality is that Al-Shabaab has shown scant abilities to conduct operations outside of Somalia or neighboring countries such as Kenya. Indeed, the only operation anyone associated with the group has attempted in the West is when a Somali man armed with an ax in 2010 forced himself into the home of Kurt Westergaard – a Danish cartoonist who had depicted the Prophet Mohammed with a bomb in his turban – and tried unsuccessfully to break into the fortified safe room where Westergaard was hiding.

Danish intelligence officials said the suspect had links with Al-Shabaab.

That said, the group has succeeded in recruiting a number of Americans to fight in Somalia, most of who are from Minnesota.

That may be the problem:

In 2003, a British citizen had conducted a suicide bombing at a jazz club frequented by Americans in Tel Aviv, Israel. This turned out to be something of a curtain-raiser for future terrorist attacks in the United Kingdom. Two years after the terrorist attack in Israel, four British citizens committed suicide in bombings on London’s transportation system on July 7, 2005. It was the most deadly terrorist attack ever on British soil, claiming 52 lives.

Alarmed by Al-Shabaab’s campaign of suicide attacks across Somalia and its recruitment of Americans, the State Department designated the group as a foreign terrorist organization in March 2008, making it illegal for a person in the United States to knowingly provide Al-Shabaab with money, communications equipment, weapons or explosives or to join the group.

By 2008, the Somali-Americans traveling to their homeland to join the al Qaeda aligned Al-Shabaab seemed like a particularly threatening cohort. Codenamed Operation Rhino, the FBI started a serious effort to crack down on anyone traveling to Somalia to support Al-Shabaab.

Adding to the alarm at the FBI, in early June 2011, the agency announced that Farah Mohamed Beledi, from Minneapolis, had detonated a bomb, becoming one of two suicide attackers responsible for killing two African Union soldiers in Somalia.

The third American to conduct a suicide attack was Abdisalan Hussein Ali, a 22-year-old from Minneapolis who took part in a strike on African Union troops in Mogadishu on October 29, 2011.

But that was over there, not here, and these guys who go there don’t seem to come back here:

Despite these developments, for the Americans who traveled to Somalia to fight for Al-Shabaab, it has typically been a one-way ticket. More than a dozen Americans have died while fighting for Al-Shabaab, according to a U.S. House Committee on Homeland Security report, while none of the Americans recruited by Al-Shabaab is known to have subsequently planned or conducted a terrorist attack inside the United States, according to a survey of more than 250 jihadist terrorism cases since the 9/11 attacks conducted by New America.

The possibility remains, of course, that Al-Shabaab’s calls for attack on malls in the West might inspire a lone wolf attack. But there is no sign so far that Al-Shabaab’s recruits have actually plotted to launch an attack in the United States.

For now, at least, the group has also not shown that it is capable of carrying out attacks in the West.

This news did not preempt the Oscars, but it did give Republicans something to talk about the morning before the big show here in Hollywood:

“There is no doubt in my mind militarily that we cannot succeed in our endeavors to degrade and destroy ISIL without having an American component,” Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-South Carolina, said Sunday in an interview with ABC, referring to an alternate acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. “The regional forces in the Mideast do not have the capacity, in my view, to do the job without some American help.”

Lindsey Graham was selling another war, but others knew this was not the time:

The hardline military position is in line with the former Air Force officer’s hawkish conservative credentials. But it’s not clear that the Republican Party is ready to unify behind Graham’s war drums. In fact, it may already be splintering along military lines.

“We have to be engaged. And that doesn’t necessarily mean boots on the ground in every occurrence,” former Florida Governor Jeb Bush recently said in Detroit.

Though Bush promises to be his “own man” on foreign policy, his newly amassed team of advisers might prove to be his undoing. Among them are veteran policy-makers that featured prominently in the administrations of both his brother and father.

That is a problem. He’s asked Paul Wolfowitz to advise him on such matters – the guy who said the Iraq War would be short and would pay for itself, because there was a lot of oil over there, and there were those weapons of mass destruction, after all. Jeb may not want any boots on the ground, but Paul Wolfowitz will be whispering in his ear – and he was on CNN on Oscar morning calling Obama foolish. Jeb may have a change of heart, as the tide is turning:

“One thing we’re going to have to embrace as Republicans, it’s not just enough to criticize President Obama. What would we do differently?” Graham asked.

“I want the Republican Party to talk openly about the hard things,” Graham said. “Like having boots on the ground in Syria and Iraq, American boots on the ground, as part of an international regional force.”

Others in the conservative wing have also expressed the need for more military force.

“At some point it will require boots on the ground from the world to be able to deal with this problem,” Ohio Gov. John Kasich said Sunday in an interview with CNN.

Another prominent Republican, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, reiterated a similar stance.

“The commander in chief ought to be articulating a robust strategy for not only retaking the territory of Iraq, but also driving this ISIL army out of existence,” Pence said Sunday in an interview on Fox News.

The Republican Party will return to being the interventionist party:

Graham said the threat should represent a stronger call to action. “I’ve never seen more terrorist organizations with more safe havens, with more money, with more capability to strike the homeland than I do today. And that’s a direct result of a failed foreign policy by President Obama,” Graham said.

Maybe so, but consider Kevin Drum’s scorecard for American military interventions since 2000:

Afghanistan: A disaster. It’s arguable that Afghanistan is no worse off than it was in 2001, but after losing thousands of American lives and spending a trillion American dollars, it’s no better off either.

Iraq: An even bigger disaster. Saddam Hussein was a uniquely vicious dictator, but even at that there’s not much question that Iraq is worse off than it was in 2003. We got rid of Saddam, but got a dysfunctional sectarian government and ISIS in return.

Libya: Another disaster. We got rid of Muammar Qaddafi, but got a Somalia-level failed state in return.

Yemen: Yet another disaster. After years of drone warfare, Houthi rebels have taken over the government. This appears to be simultaneously a win for Iran, which backs the rebels, and al-Qaeda, which may benefit from the resulting chaos. That’s quite a twofer.

Drum is not impressed:

Blame all this on whoever you want. George Bush for starting two wars with no real plan to prosecute either one properly. Or Barack Obama for withdrawing from Iraq too soon and failing to have any kind of postwar plan for Libya. Whatever. The question for hawks at this point is: what makes you think American military force has even the slightest chance of improving things in the Middle East? It’s been nothing but disasters since 9/11, and there’s no reason at all to think we’ve learned how to do things better in the intervening years. Bush started big wars, and Obama has started small ones, but the result has been the same.

Now is not the time to intervene, if there ever was a time:

If you’re a liberal, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know. If you’re a conservative, I’m being dangerously simplistic. But tell me: From the viewpoint of military action in the Middle East, what have we gotten better at over the past 14 years? What reason is there to believe that ever more military action will work out any better than it has before? In the past 50 years, has there been any case of the U.S. successfully training local troops to prosecute a war against insurgents?

Salon’s Robert Hennelly sees the same thing:

All the Beltway reporting about the prospects of new war powers for the president focus on the parlor politics of whether he can get it through Congress, not on the efficacy of his strategy. Funny, how we insist on results-based assessments on everything else but lose all reason when we hear the battle bugles blare.

Are we living in a safer world with a more peaceful and prosperous Iraq, Afghanistan or Libya? Isn’t there, as some experts have posited, a possible causal link between the way we prosecuted the war on terror so far, and the proliferation of violence so much of the world is still living with today? Did the U.S.’s last 13 years of our “shoot-‘em-up” unilateralism with fuzzy justifications, because we were afraid, make it easier for Putin to flex his muscles because he’s feeling insecure?

So just what did several thousand dead Americans, and at least tens of thousands of civilian casualties, plus a couple of trillion dollars get us?

Not much:

Even as the president says we are heading “home” from Iraq and Afghanistan records are being set for the numbers of killed and wounded civilians caught in these seething pits of sectarian violence we’ve left behind. The U.N. reported last month that for 2014 in Iraq more than 12,000 civilians were killed in the deadliest year for noncombatants since 2008. In Afghanistan the U.N. Assistance Mission there said close to 3,200 civilians were killed and more than 6,400 wounded, the deadliest year since the conflict started.

In the president’s 29-page National Security Strategy there is no mention of the fact that after thousands of lost American and Iraqi lives, and hundreds of billions of U.S. taxpayer dollars, the Iraqi state we stood up came close to collapsing after a near-death experience at the hands of ISIL, a threat the U.S. did not see coming. Now, ever so quietly, the Obama administration is sending U.S. troops back in to Iraq.

That should upset folks, but the odd thing is that the Republicans might be onto something:

Amid more executions by the militant group ISIS, Americans increasingly see the group as a threat to the U.S. Now, 65 percent of Americans view ISIS as a major threat – up from 58 percent in October – while another 18 percent view it as a minor threat. Majorities of Republicans (86 percent), Democrats (61 percent) and independents (57 percent) view ISIS as a major threat.

With concern about ISIS growing, support for the use of U.S. ground troops in the fight against ISIS has risen. For the first time, a majority of Americans (57 percent) favor the U.S. sending ground troops into Iraq and Syria to fight ISIS. In October, Americans were divided (47 percent favored and 46 percent opposed), and in September these numbers were reversed (39 percent favored and 55 percent opposed).

This is also not partisan:

Support for sending U.S. ground troops to fight ISIS has risen among all partisans, but particularly among Democrats and independents. Back in October, 56 percent of Democrats and 49 percent of independents disapproved of using ground troops – now 50 percent of Democrats approve and 53 percent of independents favor using ground troops.

Additionally, there is public consensus for passing the military authorization bill President Obama has requested from Congress, which would allow the U.S. to use ground troops for limited operations for three years without any geographical limitations, but would preclude the use of ground troops for long term offensive operations.

Kevin Drum says that may change:

We’re only a few public beheadings away from two-thirds approval margins among all groups, which is something of a magic number. If we reach that point, President Obama and congressional Democrats might decide – reluctantly or otherwise – that they have to change course and send in a substantial ground force.

This would probably be a disaster.

Or it might work for the first time in history. One never knows, and these guys are going to blow up the Mall of America any day now. After everyone gets over the Oscars they might realize that. Only the timing was wrong, but then there’s what everyone was talking about before the Oscars, Graeme Wood’s ten-thousand-word article in the Atlantic on the origins and true beliefs of ISIS:

Its rise to power is less like the triumph of the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt (a group whose leaders the Islamic State considers apostates) than like the realization of a dystopian alternate reality in which David Koresh or Jim Jones survived to wield absolute power over not just a few hundred people, but some 8 million.

And these folks are just as strange:

Much of what the group does looks nonsensical except in light of a sincere, carefully considered commitment to returning civilization to a seventh-century legal environment, and ultimately to bringing about the apocalypse… They refer derisively to “moderns.” In conversation, they insist that they will not – cannot – waver from governing precepts that were embedded in Islam by the Prophet Muhammad and his earliest followers. They often speak in codes and allusions that sound odd or old-fashioned to non-Muslims, but refer to specific traditions and texts of early Islam.

Drum summarizes the rest:

Wood says that we benefit in two ways from ISIS holding such sincerely medieval and millenarian views. The first is obvious: it severely limits their potential audience for converts. The second benefit is more recondite: one of those medieval views is that the Koran demands the establishment of a new caliphate. And this is not some wimpy, aspirational caliphate that exists only in the indefinite future. That’s for milksops like Al-Qaeda. This is a right-here-and-now caliphate. But it turns out that a caliphate requires control over actual physical territory.

Wood says that’s harder than it seems:

Al Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding.

Drum:

This means, for starters, that ISIS is not a big threat to the United States. Unlike Al-Qaeda, it has no particular interest in attacking the West. Its goal – in fact, its religious duty – is to establish control over territory in the Middle East. And that also represents a major weakness.

Wood:

Given everything we know about the Islamic State, continuing to slowly bleed it – through air strikes and proxy warfare – appears the best of bad military options. Neither the Kurds nor the Shia will ever subdue and control the whole Sunni heartland of Syria and Iraq – they are hated there, and have no appetite for such an adventure anyway. But they can keep the Islamic State from fulfilling its duty to expand. And with every month that it fails to expand, it resembles less the conquering state of the Prophet Muhammad than yet another Middle Eastern government failing to bring prosperity to its people.

That would mean no one is going to blow up the Mall of America any day now, and the Republican Party, once again the interventionist party, will have to find some other way to drum up fear and panic and anger, so this sort of thing was inevitable:

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) said on Saturday he isn’t sure if President Barack Obama is a Christian.

“I don’t know,” Walker said when asked about it by The Washington Post at a DC hotel where the National Governors Association was holding a meeting.

Walker’s comment came a day after he gave a similar answer to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel about whether he believes Obama loves America. Both questions stem from a reception for the governor that was held on Wednesday night in Manhattan, an event in which former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani (R) told the crowd he doubts Obama loves America.

The Post reminded Walker that Obama has frequently discussed his Christian faith in light of fringe claims that he’s a secret Muslim.

“I’ve never actually talked about it or I haven’t read about that,” Walker said, according to the paper. “I’ve never asked him that.”

We could make this a holy war, but Walker walked that back:

Walker said questions like this were why Americans despise the news media. …

After the interview with the Post, Walker spokeswoman Jocelyn Webster called the newspaper to say the governor was not trying to cast doubt about Obama’s religion. Rather, he was trying to make a point about the press.

But out here there was this:

Rep. Darrell Issa (R-CA) on Sunday defended former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s (R) comments questioning President Obama’s patriotism.

“The reality is that Rudy has taken our debate – and I think we should thank him for this part of it – back to national security, to the key element that the president should be focusing on,” Issa said on CNN’s State of the Union. “He needs to call it Islamic terrorism. He can’t be looking at everything through the vision that somehow that if you treat people better or more democratic, you’re not going to have terrorism.”

At least the other guy was more subtle:

Potential Republican presidential candidate Sen. Lindsey Graham has “no doubt” that President Obama loves his country, refuting comments made by former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani earlier this week.

“Well, I love Rudy, but I don’t want to go there. The nation’s very divided. President Obama has divided us more than he’s brought us together and I don’t want to add to that division,” Graham initially said on ABC’s This Week today, before adding, “I have no doubt that he loves his country. I have no doubt that he’s a patriot. But his primary job as president of the United States is to defend this country and he’s failing miserably.”

But what if the threat to the United States is bullshit? Back in 2002 these guys wanted to introduce a new product, a new war, but back then they knew how to time these things. That’s trickier now – and the Sunday morning news shows on Oscar weekend really are the wrong time to insist we go to war. Maybe Andrew Card was right. Wait until September, when everyone is grumpy.

Posted in Al-Shabaab, ISIS, New War in the Middle East | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Making It Personal

Oscar week here in Hollywood is a pain. Down the street on Hollywood Boulevard they’re assembling the set in front of the Dolby Theater – the red carpet comes next, along with the giant fiberglass Oscars on every corner. They’re still spraying those with gold paint in the parking lot behind the El Capitan, but Hollywood Boulevard is closed, as are half the streets in the neighborhood. No one can get anywhere and the whole thing is silly. No one takes movies seriously anymore. Hollywood peaked in 1939 with Scarlett O’Hara mixing it up with Rhett Butler in the Old South, and Dorothy and Toto visiting Oz. It’s been downhill ever since. This year it’s Birdman in Manhattan – but all the movies that actually made money seemed to be sequels to previous movies based on comic books from the forties.

This is not a serious place. Manhattan is serious, and after almost thirty-five years out here anyone would daydream about getting back to New York. That’s the center of the world, or something. Wall Street is there, and the real art and music worlds are there too – but the jazz station out of Long Beach offers those of us in exile out here some comfort. Someone is always singing about that New York state of mind, or autumn in New York, or Frank Sinatra is shedding his little-town blues in the city that never sleeps – and once a day George Benson is down and out on Broadway – and Charlie Parker isn’t dead. He’s still blowing hard bop on 52nd Street. That’s the place to be.

That was the place to be this week, at 21 West 52nd Street, at the 21 Club – which started out as a basement speakeasy down in the Village in the twenties. Now it’s uptown, or midtown actually, and upscale – a place that has held the private wine collections of John Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford, and of Joan Crawford and Elizabeth Taylor and Ernest Hemingway, and of Frank Sinatra, Al Jolson, Gloria Vanderbilt, Sophia Loren, Mae West, Aristotle Onassis, Gene Kelly, Gloria Swanson, Judy Garland, and of course Marilyn Monroe. That’s pretty cool, and every President since FDR has dined at 21 regularly. George W. Bush didn’t, but before he became president he was having dinner there when he was discreetly informed by a waiter that his father had just been chosen as Ronald Reagan’s running mate. It’s that kind of place.

This isn’t Hollywood. This is a serious place and this where Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker just attended a private dinner hosted by the gurus of supply-side economics, the economists Larry Kudlow, Arthur Laffer, and Stephen Moore – and there’s a backstory to that. When competing with Reagan for the Republican Party presidential nomination in the 1980 election cycle, George H. W. Bush had sneered at Ronald Reagan’s amazing new supply-side policies, calling them “voodoo economics” – but Bush gave in. Reagan rewarded him for that by making him his vice president, as his son learned from that waiter.

His father had no choice. Everyone in the party sided with Reagan on these matters. The math was questionable, but Bush later fully embraced the voodoo to win the Republican nomination in 1988, because folks love crazy ideas that just might work. Bush became our president that year – and Laffer and Kudlow were pleased. Laffer had come up with the idea that an across-the-board reduction in income tax rates and an even larger reduction in capital gains tax rates – benefiting the wealthy – would goose the economy and we’d all be fat and happy. The money that would have been in government hands, to do government things, would be in people’s hands, and unlike the government, they’d do something useful with it – and the government would be well-funded anyway, because when the private sector boomed, so many more people would now be paying even those meager taxes that the aggregate tax revenues would soar – and the rich, having nothing to do with all that money they’d now not have to pay in taxes, would create lots of jobs with their spare cash, trying out all sorts of new business ideas, to accumulate even more money. What could go wrong?

The Laffer-Kudlow voodoo failed spectacularly – but that voodoo is Republican orthodoxy now, and the youngest of this trio, Stephen Moore, is the current champion of this view of how things really work, or should work, or might work, one day. These three, and their wealthy friends, want this to work, and they thought that Scott Walker might be their man in 2016. If he embraces the voodoo they’ll make sure he gets the Republican nomination, and if that goes well, they’ll make sure he’s our next president.

They didn’t have much convincing to do. Scott Walker worships Reagan and was there already. Laffer and Kudlow and Moore just needed to confirm that, but then the unexpected happened:

He showed up unannounced and was initially not even invited, but he was prepared all the same.

Rudolph W. Giuliani, the former mayor of New York and one-time Republican presidential hopeful, stepped to the microphone at the “21” Club in Manhattan on Wednesday, for an event ostensibly spotlighting Gov. Scott Walker of Wisconsin. But by suggesting that President Obama did not love his country, Mr. Giuliani became the story.

And it was quite a story:

The former New York mayor, speaking in front of the 2016 Republican presidential contender and about 60 right-leaning business executives and conservative media types, directly challenged Obama’s patriotism, discussing what he called weak foreign policy decisions and questionable public remarks when confronting terrorists.

“I do not believe, and I know this is a horrible thing to say, but I do not believe that the president loves America,” Giuliani said during the dinner at the 21 Club, a former Prohibition-era speakeasy in midtown Manhattan. “He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me. He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up through love of this country.”

With Walker sitting just a few seats away, Giuliani continued by saying that “with all our flaws we’re the most exceptional country in the world. I’m looking for a presidential candidate who can express that, do that and carry it out.”

“And if it’s you Scott, I’ll endorse you,” he added. “And if it’s somebody else, I’ll support somebody else.”

Giuliani crashed the party and laid down the gauntlet – agree with me that Obama doesn’t love America or lose my support, and the support of all Republicans. Kudlow and Laffer and Moore were blindsided, but the guy was adamant:

“What country has left so many young men and women dead abroad to save other countries without taking land? This is not the colonial empire that somehow he has in his hand. I’ve never felt that from him. I felt that from [George] W. [Bush]. I felt that from [Bill] Clinton. I felt that from every American president, including ones I disagreed with, including [Jimmy] Carter. I don’t feel that from President Obama.”

Jimmy Carter was a good guy? Giuliani was on a roll:

No more than an hour or two before Mr. Giuliani appeared at Mr. Walker’s event, he vented his frustration at Mr. Obama at another fund-raising event in Manhattan. There, Mr. Giuliani took particular issue with the president’s recent comments likening Islamic extremist terrorism to the religious warfare of the medieval Crusades.

Only the previous week, Mr. Giuliani veered off topic at a realtors’ conference in Las Vegas to assail the president’s irresolute stance toward President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, attendees said. And on Feb. 13, he told an Iranian-American group in Arizona that Mr. Obama was not “a man who loves his people.” (In an online video of the event, Mr. Giuliani is shown shouting: “Mr. President, wake up. Come off the golf course.”)…

After his initial comments caused uproar, Mr. Giuliani did little to tamp down the controversy in an interview with The New York Times on Thursday, and again on Friday night.

“I said exactly what I wanted to say,” he said. “I conveyed exactly the message I wanted to convey.”

Fine, but his party didn’t follow him down that road:

Senator Marco Rubio of Florida, who has criticized Mr. Obama for seeking to “make America more like the rest of the world,” told a Florida news outlet that he believes that the president nevertheless loves his country. Kristy Campbell, a spokeswoman for Jeb Bush, said the former Florida governor did not “question President Obama’s motives,” but rather his “disastrous policies.”

Mr. Walker declined to either endorse or denounce Mr. Giuliani’s remarks. Aides to Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey did not respond to emails seeking comment. (Mr. Giuliani described himself in an interview as Mr. Christie’s “mentor.”)

Earlier in the day, the White House press secretary, Josh Earnest, responded to Mr. Giuliani’s comments with a trace of pity.

“I can tell you that it’s sad to see when somebody who has attained a certain level of public stature and even admiration tarnishes that legacy so thoroughly,” Mr. Earnest said. “And the truth is I don’t take any joy or vindication or satisfaction from that. I think, really, the only thing that I feel is I feel sorry for Rudy Giuliani today.”

After Mr. Earnest had spoken, Mr. Giuliani once again declined to back off, further criticizing Mr. Obama for his approach on a number of Middle East conflicts, and the issues that he chooses to highlight.

This was odd, but there was nothing new here:

In 2007, Mr. Obama’s love for his country came into question when people noticed that he was not wearing a flag pin while campaigning in Iowa. Asked about the fashion omission, Mr. Obama said at the time that such pins had become a substitute for real patriotism.

“I decided I won’t wear that pin on my chest,” Mr. Obama, then a senator from Illinois, said at the time. “Instead I’m gonna’ try to tell the American people what I believe what will make this country great and hopefully that will be a testimony to my patriotism.”

In 2008, Michelle Obama was forced to reaffirm that she has always loved America after Republicans seized on comments she had made at a campaign event. “For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country,” she had said.

The controversy over comments by the Rev. Jeremiah A. Wright, Mr. Obama’s former pastor, who once said “God damn America,” nearly derailed Mr. Obama’s 2008 campaign as opponents suggested that he shared those beliefs. Mr. Giuliani brought up Mr. Wright in a Fox interview on Thursday night, but Mr. Obama was also criticized at the time by Hillary Rodham Clinton for not leaving the church when the reverend made those remarks.

The issue of American “exceptionalism” has also been a popular proxy for questioning Mr. Obama’s patriotism, and in 2012 Mitt Romney wielded it against him.

“Our president doesn’t have the same feelings about American exceptionalism that we do,” Mr. Romney said at a campaign event. “And I think over the last three or four years, some people around the world have begun to question that.”

The president’s patriotism has been on Mr. Giuliani’s mind lately. The week before his remarks about the president, Mr. Giuliani referred to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel as a man who fights for his people, “unlike our president.”

That’s American politics. Policy is hard, and boring. The personal is easy, and exciting. Make it personal, but Steve Benen sees this:

Rudy Giuliani is “not questioning” President Obama’s patriotism. He simply said to a Republican audience last night, “I do not believe that the president loves America. He doesn’t love you. And he doesn’t love me.” The clownish former mayor made the comments at an NYC event for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker (R) – who was right there near Giuliani while he spouted this garbage.

And at that moment, Walker was presented with a test of sorts. Would the governor do the decent thing and distance himself from Giuliani’s little tantrum, or would he do the partisan thing and stay silent?

Walker said nothing during the event or after it, but he had another chance this morning.

And he blew it:

“The mayor can speak for himself,” Walker said on [CNBC’s] “Squawk Box.” “I’m not going to comment on what the President thinks or not. He can speak for himself as well.”

“I’ll tell you, I love America,” he continued.

Benen:

Co-host Andrew Ross Sorkin pressed further, asking, “But did you agree with those comments? Were you offended? What was your reaction when you heard them?”

Walker replied, “I’m in New York. I’m used to people saying things that are aggressive out there.” He would go no further.

The truth is, had Walker shown just a little more guts, this could have been an opportunity to demonstrate the kind of leadership he should be capable of. It’s not like Rudy Giuliani is a party boss with a massive constituency; the former mayor hasn’t even won an election in 18 years. Walker could have said something like, “I disagree with the president on nearly everything, but I’m sure he loves his country.” He would have looked like a mature, responsible contender for the most powerful office in the world.

But Walker just couldn’t muster the courage to take this simple step. A week after “punting” on whether he believes in evolutionary biology, the Wisconsin Republican is left to punt once again.

What kind of leader would Scott Walker be?

That’s a good question, but at least he’s not the other guy:

I’m starting to feel a little sorry for Gov. Bobby Jindal (R). Racially tinged dog whistles are Jindal’s thing. This has been his major point of differentiation against fellow Republicans. He can’t just sit there and let Walker bask alone in the reflected glory of Giuliani’s smear.

So Jindal released a statement to the media that he would not condemn Giuliani’s statement.

Note, no one actually cared whether the Louisiana governor agreed with Giuliani or not, but Jindal nevertheless issued a statement to the media, letting everyone know he was horning in on the story – and he’s perfectly comfortable with Giuliani attacking the president’s patriotism.

He shouldn’t be, as Jonathan Chait notes:

When Rudy Giuliani accused President Obama of not loving America, was he expressing a form of racism? If not, what was Giuliani saying?

Here’s the reasoning:

It is important to grapple with ideas on their own terms before merely analyzing their motivations. American conservatism is historically intertwined with white racism in such a way that nearly any conservative idea could plausibly be understood as an appeal to racism, but most of those ideas can be expressed and justified in non-racial terms, and they deserve to be taken at face value. The trouble with Giuliani’s comments is that they lack the coherence necessary to be analyzed as an idea. Brush away the bilious rage he has emitted, and nothing solid remains behind.

The original basis for Giuliani’s comments was Obama’s allegedly unusual upbringing. “He wasn’t brought up the way you were brought up and I was brought up, through love of this country,” alleged the former mayor. As Wayne Barrett points out, Giuliani’s father was a mob enforcer, and he and his five brothers all avoided military service during World War II. What about this upbringing in any way suggests it conveyed some deeper patriotism than Obama’s?

Giuliani subsequently clarified his original remarks, though not in the way he intended, by asserting that Obama’s alleged anti-Americanism amounted to “socialism or possibly anti-colonialism.” Here Giuliani is reprising the theories of Dinesh D’Souza, who has described Obama as fundamentally influenced by Kenyan anti-colonialism. Unfortunately for Giuliani, D’Souza’s racism is so transparent not even many conservatives care to defend it any longer.

To be fair, Chait cites the National Review’s Kevin Williamson saying that this is just the normal left-versus-right debate about American goodness:

For the progressive, there is very little to love about the United States. Washington, Jefferson, Madison? A bunch of rotten slaveholders, hypocrites, and cowards even when their hearts were in the right places. The Declaration of Independence? A manifesto for the propertied classes. The Constitution? An artifact of sexism and white supremacy. The sacrifices in the great wars of the 20th century? Feeding the poor and the disenfranchised into the meat-grinder of imperialism. The gifts of Carnegie, Rockefeller, Vanderbilt, Morgan, Astor? Blood money from self-aggrandizing robber barons.

Chait isn’t buying it:

It is certainly true that there is a strain of left-wing thought that implicitly or explicitly rejects patriotism, and which deems the United States no better than, or perhaps even worse than, other countries. The trouble is that Obama has explicitly and repeatedly rejected this thinking. Even Obama’s endlessly criticized 2009 press conference, in which he gave an answer on American exceptionalism that conservatives deemed insufficiently flag-wavey, ended on an affirmation of American exceptionalism (“I think that we have a core set of values that are enshrined in our Constitution, in our body of law, in our democratic practices, in our belief in free speech and equality, that, though imperfect, are exceptional”).

The liberal conception of American exceptionalism espoused by Obama, while different than the left-wing conception with which Williamson conflates it, is also different than the conservative version. The left rejects American exceptionalism. The right treats it as something inherent in the American character, rather than, as liberals see it, an ideal that must be struggled toward and has often been failed. Obama’s treatment of the issue lies firmly in liberalism, rather than the left.

And of course the key element of Giuliani’s charge is that Obama has broken completely from the liberal tradition. He does not accuse Obama of being a weak-spined liberal like Jimmy Carter. He calls Obama worse than Carter.

Obama isn’t worse than Carter:

In fact, previous Democratic presidents have also acknowledged American historical failures, in language every bit as frank as Obama’s. In a famous 1977 speech, Carter conceded, “For too many years, we’ve been willing to adopt the flawed and erroneous principles and tactics of our adversaries, sometimes abandoning our own values for theirs.” Clinton mournfully acknowledged American slavery and support for military dictatorships in Guatemala and Greece. Obama has kept fully within the liberal tradition of conceding America’s inconsistent history of upholding its ideals without abandoning the ideals themselves.

Any attempt to salvage an idea from Giuliani’s gaseous smear invariably fails. His dark insinuation that this liberal Democratic president hates America in a way unlike other Democratic presidents is under-girded by nothing but a generalized suspicion neither he nor his supporters can define.

Paul Krugman goes even wider:

There have always been American patriots who could acknowledge flaws in the country they loved. For example, there’s the guy who described one of our foreign wars as “the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation.” That was Ulysses S. Grant – who long-time readers know is one of my heroes – writing about the Mexican-American War.

But now we (finally) have a president who is willing to say such things while in the White House. Why?

Krugman can only offer this:

The Greatest Generation is fading away, and the most recent war in our memories is Iraq – a war waged on false pretenses, whose enduring images are not of brave men storming Omaha Beach but of prisoners being tortured in Abu Ghraib. My sense is that Iraq has left a lasting shadow on our self-image; many people now realize that we, too, can do evil.

Maybe it’s just that we are becoming, despite everything, a more sophisticated country, a place where many people do understand that you can be a patriot without always shouting “USA! USA!” Maybe even a country where people are starting to realize that the shouters are often less patriotic than the people they’re trying to shout down.

If so, then things get tricky:

All of this doesn’t change the fact that we really are an exceptional country – a country that has played a special role in the world, a country that despite its flaws has always stood for some of humanity’s highest ideals. We are not, in other words, just about tribalism – which is what makes all the shouting about American exceptionalism so ironic, because it is, in fact, an attempt to tribalize our self-image.

Rudy Giuliani went tribal, and he went personal. He doesn’t live in that more sophisticated country that Krugman imagines, even if every Republican except Bobby Jindal does. Giuliani’s attack played well with the Rush Limbaugh crowd, not a sophisticated lot, but that was about it. And out here in Hollywood Birdman or the Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance will probably win Best Picture this weekend – and that’s all about a useless has-been trying recapture his glory days as a superhero, or move beyond those days, in the middle of Manhattan – kind of like Rudy Giuliani. That’s as close as we’ll come to relevance out here in this silly place. It will have to do.

Posted in American Exceptionalism, Rudy Giuliani | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment