Monthly Archives: March 2010

Your Favorite Wilco Album?

I’m sitting here resting in my room in Amsterdam after a nice day exploring the canals, museums, bars, shops, and coffeeshops. As is often the case, I find myself listening to Wilco. Whenever I listen to Wilco for more than a song or two, I find myself cycling through their stuff an album at a time rather than shuffling it all together. There’s so much good stuff there, it’s hard to make a single choice as to favorite album. Lately, I’ve been starting with one particular album, and I could limit this down to a choice between 2 (maybe 3), but left them all in, including the Mermaid Avenue collaborations with Billy Bragg. What say the readers of EMP? I’m holding my vote until I get through some more music.


Cowboy up, Chicago!

Really? Kevin Millar was on some very good Boston Red Sox teams, yes, but today’s NY Times article presenting the possible contribution (he has yet to make the team, he’s 38 years old, and he’s a right-handed hitter, which the Cubs do not need) of Millar for the Cubs this season as some kind of second-coming for World Series weary ballclubs seems a bit much. He was good on the red Sox, but not great.  He might make a better bench coach these days than a player, frankly. While he certainly didn’t have as much to work with in Baltimore as he would in Chicago, he didn’t spin out any miracles there of any sort. Oh well, time will tell I guess. Perhaps Peashoot’s other reader, who is far better versed in the mire of the Cubs, will weigh in on this.

Stuck in the Middle With You

I apologize in advance for the length of this post.

Earlier this week, Peashoot posted an interesting article by Vijay Prashad entitled “Tea Party and Taxes”.  Prashad, using Richard Hofstadter’s influential “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” as a launching pad, asserts the Tea Party Movement represents a modern day equivalent – in origin and style – of the rise of Goldwater conservatism in the early 1960’s.  Prashad endorses Hofstadter’s indictment of  Goldwater conservatism as the germination of  paranoid seeds of anti-communism, racism and a generalized aversion to government/taxes sowed by the likes of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society.  He sees Sarah Palin and the Tea Party replacing Goldwater and the Birchers in the paranoid garden and presumably, though not directly stated, terrorism replacing communism.  The dementias of anti-statism and racism retain their status in his analysis.

Hofstadter’s Theory on Goldwater

Hofstadter’s apriorism of a “paranoid style” is a valid conclusion.  However, it is neither uniquely American nor solely a phenomenon of the right.  In fairness, Hofstadter made no such claims, he merely sought to document the style in Goldwater’s rise to prominence.  Being the President or a candidate for that office, regardless of political affiliation, inherently invites some percentage of the fringe viewing him (or her – someday) as a villian of cartoonish proportions; the old Snidely Whiplash cartoons wherein he nefariously twirls his moustache whilst devising villainous plots is a constant meme in American politics.  The larger question at play with the paranoid sects is the amount of traction and credibility they gain with the electorate.

Hofstadter opines Goldwater’s nomination reflected the ascendancy of one of these sects into dominance of a major party; himself a self-professed communist, he may have been more sensitive to such a rise.  Following closely on the heels of both McCarthy and the genesis of the John Birch Society, he concludes these hysterical anti-communist movements were the powers behind the throne of Goldwater conservatism.  He was wrong both generally and factually.

The post-war era, fueled by fears of nuclear warfare, created rabid anti-communist sentiment throughout the country and in both political parties.  The era’s politicians were united in their belief of an international communist menace.  What distinguished Goldwater from his contemporaries was a greater willingness to confront the challenge, though everyone agreed it must be at least contained within its current borders.  JFK famously moved to Nixon’s right in the 1960 campaign, first by proclaiming a “missle gap” existed between the US and USSR, which he promised to eliminate (the charge proved false).  Kennedy further prodded Nixon’s flank by criticizing the administration’s failure to bolster and support the expatriated Cubans in their opposition to Castro.  Nixon, unable to respond due to the secrecy of the planning, dismissed the idea publicly and tarnished his anti-communist credibility.  The enterprise became the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion.

The debacle at the Bay of Pigs only furthered the Kennedy adminstration’s anti-communist zeal.  RFK, at his brother’s behest, spearheaded Operation Mongoose which authorized CIA assassinations, sabotage and generalized subterfuge.  The extent of these deeds shocked Lyndon Johnson when he assumed office after JFK’s death and he remarked to an aide, “we were running a damn Murder Incorporated, in the Carribean.”  (Source for quote:  Beschloss, Taking Charge). The Kennedy brothers also feared home-grown communists and authorized the FBI to wiretap Martin Luther King, Jr., whom they feared was either a communist or susceptible to Soviet influence.   These facts go overlooked today, lost in the chimera of “Camelot”.

While McCarthy’s tactics had long been discredited by the 1960’s, the general fear of communism had not been allayed in the public.  RFK worked on McCarthy’s committee and JFK was the only Democrat who did not vote to censure him and instead abstained.  Anti-communist fervor reached an absurd peak with the Birchers who saw Soviet plotters everywhere, including in heros such as Gen. George Marshall, architect of the Marshall plan that saved Western Europe, and Dwight D. Eisenhower, Supreme Allied Commander in World War II and former President.

The John Birch Society’s certifiably lunatic views justifiably concerned Goldwater who feared being tagged a member, if not leader, of their sect.  In 1962, two years before the publication of Hoftstadter’s essay, Goldwater convened a secret meeting in Palm Beach with other members of the conservative intelligentsia to brainstorm about methods for discrediting the Society.  William F. Buckley, Jr., present at the meeting and responsible for their ultimate plan, recounted the meeting in an essay published in Commentary magazine.  http://www.commentarymagazine.com/viewpdf.cfm?article_id=11248 The group implemented the strategy in mid-1962 with Goldwater publicly castigating the group, insisting “[w]e cannot allow the emblem of irresponsibility to attach to the conservative banner.”  Hofstedter is guilty of either poor research or willful blindness to this fact which damages his thesis regarding Goldwater, though not the general contention of a “paranoid style”.

The charges of Goldwater as racist or willing to capatilize on the disharmony of the times are equally disingenuous.  These charges stem solely from his no vote on the 1964 Civil Rights Act, but ignore the broader history.  He desegregated the Arizona National Guard two years before Truman desegregated the US armed forces, was a member of the Phoenix NAACP and Urban League since the 1950’s and participated in the desegregation of Phoenix lunch counters.  As a statesman, he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and 1960.  His opposition to the 1964 Act stemmed from his belief that two provisions in it were unconstitutional and thereby voided the entire Act, which he otherwise supported.  (He later confessed regretting this vote).  His colleague, Senator Robert Byrd – a former KKK Grand Cyclops and co-author of the “reconciliation” process so much in the news today – unsuccessfully tried to filibuster the bill.  Johnson, with epic duplicity, ran ads in the north highlighting his opponent’s vote on the Civil Rights Act and ads in the south emphasizing Goldwater’s desegregation credentials.  In spite of this evidence, Goldwater’s alleged racism continues to be asserted and Byrd’s actual racism deemed irrelevant.

Prashad and the Paranoid Sect of the Tea Party

Prashad concedes the “main base” of the Tea Party movement coalesce around economic issues.  Included within their ranks, however, he points out “birthers”, the radical religious right and racists.  The “birthers” – an odious conspiratorial sect – remains statistically insignificant and the movement never gained any of the respectibility or numbers associated with the early version of the John Birch Society.   They are also not exclusively right-wing.   The “Original Birther” is Phillip Berg, a former deputy attorney general of Pennsylvania who filed suit in Federal Court seeking an injunction preventing Mr. Obama’s nomination as the Democratic candidate based on this nonsense.  Berg, a Hillary supporter (though not endorsed by her) previously filed a RICO suit against President Bush alleging he orchestrated the 9/11 attacks and in 2000 actively sought the disbarment of the 5 Supreme Court Justices who ruled in in Mr. Bush’s favor regarding the contested election.

Prashad similarly links the “Obama as Muslim” with the Tea Party, but rumors persist the Clinton campaign first circulated the false story of the President receiving his early education in a madrassa during the heated primaries.  Not having followed the Tea Party Convention, I confess that I learned of the presence of birthers from Prashad’s essay.  What he left out, however, was that it wasn’t necessarily well received by the attendees (http://washingtonindependent.com/75949/birther-speaker-takes-heat-at-tea-party-convention ).  That elements within the Tea Party, or anywhere else for that matter, continue to push these demonstrably false “issues” matters less than the fact that they gain no absorption into the public consciousness.  Palin allegedly “hit the right notes” when she spoke and “pondered” whether “Obama is really an American.”  If Palin embraced birtherism in her address (which I did not watch or read), the New York Times failed to report it.  http://www.nytimes.com/2010/02/07/us/politics/08palin.html

Prashad spills less ink on Judge Roy Moore, the jurist who gained fame by putting a Ten Commandments Statue in his courtroom.  While I remember that controversy, I did not remember his name until Prashad pointed him out.  Again, since I do not closely follow the Tea Party movement, I must express surprise that this guy received an invitation to address a movement focused on issues of taxation, bailouts and entitlement programs.  I’ll concede this point to Prashad and suggest he might be surprised to learn his ally in this arena is none other than Sen. Goldwater who once said (quoting from memory) that it was the duty of all good Christians to kick Jerry Falwell in the ass.

As usual, the charges of racism are the most incendiary aspect of the piece.  Citing no direct evidence of racism at the convention, Prashad’s case is wholly circumstantial.  He begins by alluding to the “strong antipathy to having a black man be President” amongst Republicans, yet cites no evidence, circumstantial or otherwise, to substantiate the claim.  Overlooked is the GOP’s desperate groveling to Colin Powell to run against Clinton in 1996 (and again in 2000) and the dramatic drop in the President’s support among the independents who voted for him.  He subsequently depicts “extreme Right” opposition to welfare programs which force “white Americans” to “pay for services of non-whites” as certification of his view that opposition to Health Care, Cap and Trade, bailouts and the stimulus derive from the same racial animus.  This ignores the fact that most people on welfare are white.

Moreover, the argument is neither provable nor disprovable because it assumes the stated reason for voting against a social justice agenda is not the real reason.  And since no one would publicly state a racial motivation, one cannot discern the merit of Prashad’s contention.  Elements of the right use their own variant of this argument when they accuse Democrats of intending the creation of a socialist state, which they deny.  As with Prashad’s charge, no Democrat would publicly admit such a basis for their proposals.  Arguing in this style betrays a core a refusal to accept the other party is acting in good faith; it also allows the hurler of such a charge to walk away from the debate without having to deconstruct the other side’s case.

The first call for a “tea party” eminated not from any social entitlements but in opposition to corporate bailouts.  Ironically, Prashad shares their disdain for corporate welfare. He then takes a bit of a snarky swipe at the very name “Tea Party” given that the original one in colonial Boston concerned taxation without representation not simply taxation.  The Whiskey Rebellion, which concerned only taxation, might be more appropriate, though not as recognizable to the general public.  But Prashad misses the fact that the “teabaggers” — as they are oft referred — feel unrepresented because legislators are simply ignoring the wishes of the electorate.  Public support for the health care legislation has gradually eroded and this time the insurance and pharmaceutical companies can’t be wholly blamed since they largely endorse the bill they helped author.  The buyout of recalcitrant legislators — the “Louisiana Purchase”, the “Cornhusker kickback” — along with specially tailored deals in exchange for support like the tax exemption for unions on the so-called Cadillac health care plans fuel a general distrust in the electorate.  To be sure, the movement has attracted its fair share of kooks, but it remains, from what I see, a primarily economic movement opposed to corporate welfare and the expansion of entitlements it deems unsustainable – Friedrich Hayek on a more common-man scale.

Blast from the Past

Hofstadter, in a different discourse, once likened third parties in America to bees: they sting once and die.   I hesitatingly use the word “platform” when describing the Tea Party’s tenets, but inasmuch as it has one it bears a striking resemblence to Ross Perot’s schtick in the 1992 Presidential campaign.  The historical parallels are somewhat preternatural: recession grips the country, massive bailouts of financial institutions (the Savings & Loan industry in 1992), the controversial NAFTA proposal and the promises of then candidate Clinton to overhaul the nation’s health care system.

Perot sent shock waves through the political establishment of both parties.  Shrewdly appearing on Larry King and advising America he’d run if people organized and got his name on the ballot in all 50 states, he set off a firestorm of grass roots activity which met his precondition for candidacy.  He not only ran but actually led the race for a short time!  He finished with a record percentage of the votes for a third party and arguably cost Pappy Bush the election.  The Tea Party movement, to this observer, looks like the second sting of Ross Perot’s Reform Party.  It also explains why the GOP is doing everything it can to bring it into the fold.

Prashad’s Advice for the President

The essay urges President Obama to ignore his detractors and resist the temptation of Clintonian triangulation.  Prashad’s Wikipedia biography describes him as a Marxist, so presumably he sees a certain “social justice” element in the President’s agenda.  The Goldwater quote he uses in his article (“Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice”) is actually only half of what Goldwater said at the convention.  The complete quote is, “Extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice and moderation in the pursuit of justice is no virtue.”  Prashad’s article champions the latter part of the quote as a template for the President’s strategy for dealing with his opponents.

Conclusion

Hofstadter’s essay is not solely applicable to politcs and can be used to analyze varying aspects of the human condition.  The “paranoid style” is inherent to humanity, but only becomes dangerous when those in power discard rationality.  The old cliche — just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you — seems true in the case of Soviet influence in American politics.  Though certainly not on the scale that the Birchers or McCarthy imagined, recently disclosed documents since the fall of the Iron Curtain demonstrated greater infiltration into the US government than was previously believed.  Finally, I noted in Prashad’s biography he identifies himself as an anti-Zionist; I’d suggest if he’s interested in documenting the “paranoid style” there could be no better place than to start with that group, of which he is a member.

The assinity of the “paranoid style” in both the left and right is something to be ferreted out and, quite frankly, destroyed.  Whether it requires a coordinated, high-level campaign of destruction such as Goldwater convened to deal with the Birchers is something that must be decided on a case by case basis.  Until then, centrists will simply have to stroll along singing the old Stealer’s Wheel tune:

Trying to make some sense of it all

But I can see that it makes no sense at all

Is it cool to go to sleep on the floor

‘Cause I don’t think I can take any more

Clowns to the left of me, Jokers to the right

Here I am, stuck in the middle with you

Education, Comic Book Style

When it comes to learning and pedagogy, creativity and entertainment are critical qualities. Formal academic writing has its place and is necessary, of course, to carefully present and parse through challenging ethical issues, historical processes, theoretical and methodological models, and a whole host of numeric/physical/biochemical/etc matters that I can hardly dream up.  But not everybody has the interest or the time to wade through the technical mumbo jumbo of numerous university disciplines, or even one in any great depth. But in my experience, many people enjoy knowing (and often aspire to know) something about many different things, whether they are historical, philosophical, biochemical, literary, or what have you. This is not just a leisurely pursuit for all people, though it certainly can be for an entire lifetime. For those fortunate folks who get to attend college, especially in a Liberal Arts tradition, there’s a demand placed on them to know a wide variety of things, across the disciplines, and while not with the greatest depth in the disciplines outside of one’s major, precision and synthesis are expected with whatever they learn. It’s in times like these, as well as in times throughout one’s long lifetime when interests are casually pursued hither and thither, that I find the factors of creativity and entertainment particularly sine qua non to learning and pedagogy. Without uniqueness and pleasure bona fide learning, especially in an area outside of one’s workaday life, is tough to enroot. Perhaps one of Peashoot’s (three) readers will recall that Claude Lévi-Strauss, renown Belgian-born-French anthropologist and father of Structuralism, passed away last year at the grand old age of 100 years. If you are like me, the death of Lévi-Strauss brought back waves of memories of being in graduate school, curiously racing through Tristes Tropiques, Structural Anthropology (I & II), The Raw and the Cooked, The Jealous Potter, and an assortment of essays in an effort to get a handle on the system of thought known as “Structuralism” and how it might be useful to read and analyze mythologies. Well, even though the nuances of structuralism might have never left your brain, and whether or not you’ve been pleased for years that Post-Structuralism, Deconstructionism, Xism, Yism, and Zism have moved us beyond Lévi-Strauss for all intents and purposes, the Financial Times published a tremendously creative and entertaining comic about Claude Lévi-Strauss and Structuralism last week that I want to share with you. It’s a really terrific way to learn, especially if one is not interested in wading through many publications but wants to get a clear and accurate take on the basics of this influential thinker’s ideas. This is heads and tails above anything Cliff Notes (or Spark Notes, which is what I’ve come to learn is the youngsters’ crutch these days) puts out.

Whence the Tea Party Movement?

In his latest monthly Frontline column, “Letter from America,” social critic and professor of South Asian History and International Studies at Trinity College (CT) Vijay Prashad weighs in on the origins and motivations of the Tea Party Movement.  Among others things, Prashad considers the Tea Party’s apparent aspirations and perceptions of the American political scene in light of McCarthyism and the conservative rhetoric of Barry Goldwater.  Of course, the Tea Party-ers also see themselves as heirs of the cause of the Boston Tea Party of 1773.  About this, Prashad remarks:

The main base for the “tea party” comes from another old strain in American populism, an antipathy to taxation. The movement’s leaders used the word “tea” to signal “Taxed Enough Already”. They draw inspiration from the Boston Tea Party of 1773. However, that movement was not a tax revolt. Its slogan “No Taxation Without Representation” was about political representation. The American Revolution was against the tyranny of George III, not taxation.

Prashad naturally spills some ink on Sarah Palin, too:

Sarah Palin is playing the role of Goldwater to this century’s version of the extreme Right. She hit all the right notes, pondering in her folksy way if Obama is really an American, if he is more a professor of law than a commander in chief, offering her sarcastic populism to loud applause. She took home $100,000 for the speech, which was broadcast remarkably on all the national television networks (the Tea Party followers had to pay $500 each to hear her in person). Conservatives remain enthralled by her and are buoyed by the “tea party”, which helped the Republican Party win a Senate seat in liberal Massachusetts.

By the bye, Prashad’s assessment of Obama and his administration doesn’t appear terribly hopeful, especially if you were one of the many folks who invested energy in, and got swept up by, the zeitgeist of radical change, reform, and uplifting that accompanied the run-up to Obama’s election.  Even still, while Prashad’s portrayal of Obama as a lackluster, Clinton-esque middling president might be a disappointment for many, it at least has some grounding in historical evidence and reason, unlike the seemingly surrealist, nearly incomprehensible, Manchurian Candidate-depiction of Obama that appears in Alex Jones’s documentary The Obama Deception.  I’ve not yet seen it.  Have you?