BOOK REVIEW - "Pity the Billionaire" by Thomas Frank
Thomas Frank has written an informative and interesting book with keen insight into the unlikely and unexpected comeback of the Right after the election of Barack Obama. I wanted to share some of my thoughts with you about the book, "Pity the Billionaire: The Hard Times Swindle and the Unlikely Comeback of the Right." In many ways, the book has helped me, after asking myself again and again, "How could this have happened to us?", to understand exactly how this could have happened (and did happen) to us.
Our promised bridge to the 21st century was detoured by eight years of George W. Bush who, with his rubber-stamping GOP, brought our country to its economic knees. 2008 brought us a new Democratic president and here came the Right to block our bridge yet again. This time the old forces of the Right worked together diligently to bring us the Tea Party - their next stage of evolution. (Don’t tell them I 've mentioned the word "evolution” !)
As I look back on the days following the 2008 Presidential election, I thought I was paying pretty close attention - and in many ways, I was paying attention. The question I ask myself is: Should I have been paying closer attention to those who have likely never seen eye-to-eye with me - and should I have been more vigilant about the information being fed to them by the usual Right-wing suspects? I've been a participant in public political forums for well over a decade, mostly internet-based. In the beginning, I debated citizens from across the political spectrum. Eventually, I realized I was talking to a major brick wall that they'd built for self-defense against any plea for common sense. This time, the Tea Party hasn't shown me that they are any different. They've only drawn around themselves more narrow borders with their insistence upon a purity in politics that could only exist in a fantasy world. I have faith that most citizens today, even those who associate themselves with Conservatism, are beginning to realize that sticking out a fantasy will never be productive for the good of our country and maybe that's why we see such a major decline of the party's influence today with Republican primary voters flocking to a moderate candidate.
A quote I recently read by 20th century liberal activist Dudley Field Malone, who'd joined with Clarence Darrow to defend John T. Scopes in the famous "Monkey Trial" in 1925, goes like this: “ I have never in my life learned anything from any man who agreed with me.” Mr. Malone surely learned about human nature from those who failed to agree with him in his time! Once more, as in Malone’s day, we seem to be dealing with powerful forces of no reason; all bloviation; all reaction. We haven't related to one another in a culture where only ideological purity is acceptable and minds are closed to anyone who'd wish to inject individual conscience into public discussion. Going off-script is verboten. I'm afraid, as historians look back upon the current period of time in America, that they will clearly see that we'd learned nothing from one another and that a larger group of citizens who cared about their country's direction were ignored; silenced by an extremely loud echo-chamber amplified by moneyed voices championing empty values and one-sided, narrow-minded utopian goals. The internet has been a blessing, but it's had its dark side, too. Today's internet, Thomas Frank says, "provides a huge playground for self-segregation" where "those who don't follow the rules are 'trolls'. He calls the condition where these separate worlds, each with only like-minded people meeting and discussing the issues of the day "the culture of closure ". This culture has given rise to non-factual conventional wisdom such as the notion of "the Liberal media", creating a space in the market for a Conservative media that is almost able to get away with boldly boasting about their "fairness and balance" (with Media Matters and other fact-checkers keeping it real for those who still care about journalistic integrity).
We see our Congress failing to work and their public poll ratings lower than ever due to traditional expectations (that they actually might work together) colliding with new realities (that they likely never will unless "the culture of closure" is changed somehow). We don't listen to one another anymore, from the average citizen to the screaming, dueling pundits to the leaders in Congress. Worse, since January of 2010 with the U.S. Supreme Court's "Citizens United" decision, the People suddenly are not all actually people, but by law are also corporations, whose shadow-funders can afford a lot more money (otherwise known as "speech") to influence politics - and cynically so - than any one human being ever could. For the future of the health and integrity of democracy, I can only think of two words: "Epic fail."
Thomas Frank, author
Despite the vision of a nation and government that President Abraham Lincoln told us was of the People and for the People and by the People, it seemed that an altogether new and rather twisted principle and process for finding public consensus about our common democratic values was taking root in 2009. It was under such a misguiding star that Fox News, Glenn Beck, the Koch brothers, Richard A. Viguerie (sometimes referred to as "the funding father of Conservative strategy), Dick Armey, and others gave birth to what I see as one of the most nonsensical (while incredibly successful) political movements in U.S. history. I remember watching the news while on vacation in Florida in March of 2009 and seeing my first news story about a Tea Party rally held in Orlando, Florida. I have to admit that I rolled my eyes when I heard their bullhorn protests and saw their sea of older white faces, their silly signs and I thought to myself, "Nah. This won't be taken seriously." (Note: Mr. Frank focuses on economic arguments in his book, but the element of race is something that I keep revisiting in my mind when I remember the first days of the Tea Party.) Swiftly crafting a hard-times populist theme based, amazingly, on many examples Mr. Frank gives in one chapter of ideas and tactics used by purveyors of Communist thought in past decades, the Right was able to beat the Occupy Wall Street movement to the populist punch by many months; perhaps too many months for the damage done by the newest Right to be mitigated.
I've often felt that the only reason the movement was able to catch on and find success is due to the fact that the Right was bruised by years of Bush-bashing (deserved or not). I believe that the public had become so opinion-segregated by media culture, both mainstream and alternative media, and leaders so swayed by dirty money in politics, that there was no room left for any differences in ideas and little chance that the differences, if presented, would ever have a chance to live themselves out and be developed in a media culture that only seems to acknowledge the all-too-convenient simplicity of Left and Right. There are fewer people today who honestly believe there are more than two sides to a political argument. Why would they think otherwise, when all they see and hear is made partisan, not for their benefit, but for the purpose of controversy that is attention-grabbing enough to generate some really great corporate profits?
Thomas Frank points out that, while people like me undoubtedly believed that the Crash of '08 should naturally have kick-started the hard-times scenario of Depression-era populism and that President Obama should surely have been seen as the ideal leader for the moment, forces out there like oil baron Charles Koch were working hard (and paying plenty) to ensure there would be a public voice against making "the same mistakes" that were made our ancestors (“mistakes” such as installing new regulations, creating public works programs and new government agencies). Thomas Frank said, in a recent interview, that he believes what he calls "'the AIG moment' (when the bailed-out insurance behemoth used taxpayer relief to dole out huge bonuses to its executives) was in some ways the high point of the crisis, when (the politics) could have gone either way." Angry with Obama’s style of bail-outs, citizens who had the tendency to lean right were convinced by clever political manipulators, to rail against what many of us would see as reason. They believed that Capitalism was under siege; Liberty was disappearing; Prosperity was shrinking. The new Tea Party's stubborn world/nation views and purist politics were anything but new. They only found a new twist at an opportune time. It didn't help the cause of those who associated themselves with Progressives that the message promoted by those on the Right who sought to fan the flames of discontent after the big bailouts was that the lords of Wall Street owned the government. The news of post-bailout bonuses by Wall Street to their employees only added fuel to the Tea Party fire and disappointed and stymied the Left. The perception of President Obama's acceptance of cronyism a la Hoover in the bailout process was not helpful to raising any voice of support from the left, either. Yet, in a political atmosphere where citizens are not given a lot of credit for their attention span, some Democratic leaders may have bet wrong when they thought "this, too, shall pass." For most citizens, the ire over all of this had died down after a while, but not so with the Tea Party and their leaders. They held on to this anti-government sentiment and took a direction that, when considered by a rational human being considering traditional common American values, made little sense. How on earth did they become a movement that, in Mr. Frank's words, "was an uprising against government and taxes and federal directives - in others words it was now a movement in favor of the very conditions that has allowed Wall Street to loot the world. In fact, nearly every aspect of the culture responsible for the collapse -- from deregulation to Ayn Rand's novels -- quickly became the subject of roaring enthusiasm."
In a chapter devoted to the surrounding the unlikely resurgence in popularity of Rand's novel "Atlas Shrugged", Mr. Frank asks, "What kind of misapprehension permits the newest Right to brush off truths that everyone else can see so plainly? What backfiring form of cognition convinces them that Ayn Rand is the hero rather than the villain of the present disaster?" A great question. It's been downright strange for me to have heard the Tea Party leaders decrying national laws and protections that historically had supported our civic virtues and universally-held human values. Here we were, our nation experiencing a legitimacy crisis with markets disintegrating, layoffs mounting, and foreclosures destabilizing Main Street. We expected, based on all we've come to know as traditionally American based on the calling of good conscience, to see wrongdoers punished, the weak to be rescued, and measures put in place to try to avoid a repeat of the economic breakdown. So what happened?
Read Thomas Frank's book and you'll find out. From his history of the 1930s economic catastrophe contrasted with the very different citizen-backlash of the Tea Party to the source of the philosophical guidance from Conservative leaders who claimed to speak for a recession-battered people while the Obama administration was slow to put themselves at the forefront of populist anger against Wall Street, I think you'll better understand how this could have happened to us.
"Truth has a way of asserting itself despite all attempts to obscure it." ~ Senator Robert C. Byrd
Senator Robert C. Byrd was one of my heroes in the dark days of post 9/11 Bush-led America. I chronicled his words as I blogged from day to day at Iddybud. I'm sad to hear he has passed away and wanted to share some of the lines of his that I heard clearly when so many of my leaders seemed to be speaking in vague, cowed whispers. Senator Byrd gave us far more than whispers. Thank you, Senator Byrd. May you rest in peace.
"..To contemplate war is to think about the most horrible of human experiences. On this February day, as this nation stands at the brink of battle, every American on some level must be contemplating the horrors of war. Yet, this Chamber is, for the most part, silent -- ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war..."
"...war must always be a last resort, not a first choice. I truly must question the judgment of any President who can say that a massive unprovoked military attack on a nation which is over 50% children is "in the highest moral traditions of our country"..."
"'Truth, crushed to earth, shall rise again, - - The eternal years of God are hers; But Error, wounded, writhes in pain, And dies among his worshippers.'
"...Was the American public deliberately misled? Was the world?"
"...Democracy and Freedom cannot be force fed at the point of an occupier's gun. To think otherwise is folly. One has to stop and ponder. How could we have been so impossibly naive?"
"..I contend that, through it all, the people know. The American people unfortunately are used to political shading, spin, and the usual chicanery they hear from public officials. They patiently tolerate it up to a point. But there is a line. It may seem to be drawn in invisible ink for a time, but eventually it will appear in dark colors, tinged with anger. When it comes to shedding American blood - - when it comes to wreaking havoc on civilians, on innocent men, women, and children, callous dissembling is not acceptable. Nothing is worth that kind of lie - - not oil, not revenge, not reelection, not somebody's grand pipedream of a democratic domino theory.
And mark my words, the calculated intimidation which we see so often of late by the "powers that be" will only keep the loyal opposition quiet for just so long. Because eventually, like it always does, the truth will emerge. And when it does, this house of cards, built of deceit, will fall."
My Note - Senator Byrd had a way with words. I loved the use of the word "massaged" in this part of Senator Byrd's speech. It was quite colorful. [Iddybud blog]
"..Whether or not intelligence reports were bent, stretched, or massaged to make Iraq look like an imminent threat to the United States, it is clear that the Administration's rhetoric played upon the well-founded fear of the American public about future acts of terrorism. But, upon close examination, many of these statements have nothing to do with intelligence, because they are at root just sound bites based on conjecture. They are designed to prey on public fear."
"...I was quite surprised recently to hear some Senators take the position that this body is wasting its time in drafting and passing legislation which the president threatens to veto. Let me remind all who listen that the Congress legislates for the people, and has a Constitutional obligation to act independently from the White House. As Senators already know, there are three separate but equal branches of government.
The Constitution's Framers never considered a president to be the final arbiter of the public good. Whether the question relates to military, foreign, or domestic affairs a presidential veto threat is not the last word in what should become the law of our land. Those decisions are left to the representatives of the people, along with the power over the purse and other Constitutionally enumerated congressional powers.."
"Let the President issue his veto threats, but also let the Congress dutifully represent the will of the people."
"Members of Congress are elected to make laws based on sound public policy, not to capitulate to presidential threats. The Senate must never become a rubberstamp for any president."
"...members of Congress and officials of the Executive Branch have a duty to try to find common ground, especially when the issue is a violent and controversial war, with our troops in harms way every day. I shall hope for a more reasonable and more realistic tone from our President in the coming days. More light and less heat on this matter would truly be in the best interests of our troops and of our sorely divided country."
"...A hallmark of true leadership is the ability to admit when one is wrong and to learn from errors. Candidate George W. Bush spoke about the need for humility from a great and powerful nation. He said, "Let us reject the blinders of isolationism, just as we refuse the crown of empire. Let us not dominate others with our power -- or betray them with our indifference. And let us have an American foreign policy that reflects American character. The modesty of true strength. The humility of real greatness." It is time for the Bush administration to swallow its false pride and return to that philosophy of humility before it is too late."
In 2004, I can't tell you how frustrated I became - more and more by the day - by Senator Kerry's slowness to tap into the pulse of the people. My blog was filled with advice to Senator Kerry to speak out on the Iraq war with force and convincing reason - and to defend himself against the Swift Boat political operatives.
This time, I'm afraid it doesn't matter what his intent was in making that lame joke. He can try to defend it 'til the cows come home and the stupid (but unstoppable) media machinery gears will keep on rolling right over him until he offers a heartfelt apology.
Listening to his rationalizing about his unfortunate choice of words, refusing to apologize, I could imagine many people out there seeing him as
- still angry having lost the election with the knowledge that he lost, in good part, because he would not speak out strongly and early enough on the Bush-made miserable mess that was (and still is) the Iraq war. Politically, I think that it's too late for him to grouse about it now.
- just as stubborn as Bush when he's wrong.
- for many who could not afford college for themselves or their kids, his arrogance probably made them see him as an elite bumbler who wouldn't know a poor, struggling person if he stepped on one.
- for military families, sadness to see the 2004 Democratic candidate make a joke against Bush at their families' expense. I'm sure they never expected someone like Kerry [for whom many say they voted in 2004 Dem primaries because of his "gravitas"] to do something like that.
He needs to apologize and clarify. My hope is that, if he can create a speech that includes an apology - and then if he can proceed to focus on the real issue at hand, which is underhanded and institutionalized methods of military recruitment of our youth at a time when a Bush-administration-generated abuse of the military may cause the military to be weakened a la "shake and bake" [aka conscription, which is fatal to military performance and unsettling to politics], then perhaps we can really get somewhere. Kerry is an expert, unfortunately, at being in a seemingly endless war where the enemy is invisible and the goals are not clearly delineated and the military is demoralized. He could turn this media hype around to America's advantage - and I hope he can and will do so.
By the way, there could not have been a sicker or a more disrespectful joke made at the expense of our troops and their families than Bush making a JOKE of the absence of WMD in Iraq. I'm sure you remember his disgusting attempt at humor - a video of him groping around the oval office and under his desk looking for WMD. He never paid politically for that, and I wonder why Kerry would have to politically pay for something far less insulting?
Bill O'Reilly (from the woefully unbalanced Fox News network) has actually made a comment with which I agree:
"I don't believe John Kerry meant to demean any American military member. I just don't. I think that fair-minded people know that that would be political suicide for the senator. He wouldn't do it" ("O'Reilly Factor," 10/31). [source: National Journal]
You've got to love James Carville's snappy wit:
"It is much easier to say, I botched a joke, than to say, I botched a war."
Ask a Democratic politician seeking office on November 7th who's been to the Iraq war. Tammy Duckworth, a major in the Illinois Army National Guard who lost her legs in the Iraq war and is now the Democratic candidate for the open 6th District seat in Illinois, said had this to say:
“Nobody needs to tell me the quality of the men and women I served with in Iraq. I know....What our troops need isn’t more political rhetoric and either party playing games with this. What our troops need is a plan for how to get them out of Iraq safely, responsibly, while providing the Iraqis with the security forces that they need. If you really want to support the troops then let’s come up with a measurable plan for how to get out troops out of Iraq.”