Archive for September, 2010

Why we need the hippies

This month’s issue of the Cal alumni magazine has a rather silly piece of hippie-bashing by one Brendan Buhler. Buhler comes off as more annoying than funny and unfortunately, is more interested in just repeating his central thesis – that our personal choices of what we eat, drive, buy, etc. are not inevitably tinged with polittics – over and over again rather than actually arguing successfully for it. Thus he achieved the opposite of his goal with this reader: if this crap is the best defense of living ignorantly as far as the effects of one’s choices goes, then probably, living without a conscience/consciousness isn’t the best idea.

I did think  one paragraph was good enough to call attention to, though:

But another way of looking at all of this activism and agitation is that it’s a useful corrective to the national debate. For years, the Rush Limbaugh end of the political spectrum has steadily moved the goal posts further and further until it’s a regular feature of political life in this country to hear arguments in favor of torture and apologies to an oil company responsible for the greatest environmental catastrophe in American history. Fairly or not, this dragged the center of debate further to the right until Barack Obama is a socialist intent on destroying American liberty with a healthcare system similar to one proposed by Richard Nixon. A group like Code Pink is moving the goal posts on the other end of the field and trying to drag the center back to the left.

With apologies to Ambrose Bierce

Jamelle Bouie:

John Cole is angry at the Blue Dogs:

Is there ANYTHING that centrists and moderates will not do to hurt themselves? Anything? The public is livid about jobs, centrists oppose job creation efforts. The public wants the middle class tax cuts extended while the taxes on the rich ended, the centrists oppose that. And on and on and on.

I’ve wondered this myself; at nearly every turn, Blue Dogs have opposed or altered (usually for the worse) everything proposed by the administration, even when it benefited them politically.

After party realignment, the rise of the DLC in the Democratic Party, and Clintonian triangulation, words no longer mean what they used to mean. (See also.) It’s time to update the political glossary; fortunately, things have gotten much simpler and easier to define:

Conservative: someone who has lots of unpopular ideas, but realizes this is a liability and is smart enough to lie about them.

Centrist: someone who has lots of unpopular ideas, but thinks this is an asset and is stupid enough to brag about them.

Music Monday

The sixteenth note:

The left hand:

Sometimes we grow down

Nearly 20 years ago, I participated in an event called Unity Day held in downtown Miami. As an 8-year-old in December 1990, I was too young to really understand the context, which was an attempt to promote racial reconciliation in the wake of the Wynwood race riot earlier that month. Miami back then was at the height of acquiring its cartoonish reputation; as much as I roll my eyes about the antics that still go on there today, the craziness between 1980 and 1990 will probably never be matched. It’s fitting that the decade ended with rioting…because it started with rioting, too. Between the Mariel boatlift and the constant drug warfare that started with a Tarantino-esque massacre a mile from my house in broad daylight, the 1980s were, um, a special period even by South Florida standards. Oh, did I mention that Nelson Mandela was snubbed in 1989 by city leaders because he had publicly praised Fidel Castro’s stand against apartheid? I didn’t even remember that until I read it on wikipedia just now. Compared to all the other insanity happening around that time, an incident involving one of the defining figures of the decade was a forgettable sideshow.

Anyway, Unity Day.

I only really remember two things about Unity Day. One, I was one of four or five winners of a citywide essay contest, and I got to stand at a little lectern on the courthouse steps and read a few silly paragraphs about racial harmony. Maybe the ongoing series of public embarrassments that followed can all be traced back to that December day.

Two, Luther Campbell was there. This was a year after As Nasty As They Wanna Be dropped. Most of the local news coverage of 2 Live Crew was outraged, outraged at the filth of the city’s most famous rap act. So my 8-year-old brain kind of figured that Campbell must be a wacked-out monster, and I couldn’t understand why he was showing up at an event that also featured the mayor, the chief of police, a bunch of Miami Dolphins, etc. etc.

But Luke turned out to be super cool. I think I remember all of us (in the group of essay readers) getting to meet him for a few seconds and shake his hand. And that always kind of stayed with me, how this guy who had just been vilified by “respectable” adults turned out to be, by all appearances, a perfectly normal human being.

So for most everyone else who watched Colbert tonight, Luke was just a clown, an attention-craving has-been who happened to write a dumb op-ed in our local alt-weekly condemning the Cordoba House project without even making any novel points about it. But I just had to shake my head a little. Because I was there, twenty years ago, on those courthouse steps looking down on Flagler Street, at a ceremony specifically devoted to tolerance after a terrible, racially charged event. And so was he.

Unsupported speculation on Islamophobia

There’s been a bunch of talk recently from surprised liberals who are caught off guard by the recent tidal wave of Muslim-hating. These folks are taking the relative lack of public anti-Muslim outcry immediately after 9/11/01 and extrapolating from it that America must have somehow got more anti-Muslim at some point in the intervening years. Some figure that the bad economy is just generally “inflaming people’s passions,” and Muslims just happen to be the scapegoat du jour (with Sarah Palin and Pam Geller just channeling this general anger in a way they find useful). Others point to George W. Bush’s immediate post-9/11 speech as if it succeeded at cooling down people’s hatred of Islam in general.

Most of these explanations strain credulity. I sure don’t seem to remember any softening of your average person’s attitude toward Islam, and it’s even harder to believe that George W. Bush managed to convince the average uninformed doink of just about anything using reason and logic in a public statement. I don’t buy it. I have a certain sympathy for the structuralist notion that high unemployment tends to sour the public mood about all kinds of things, but even that doesn’t seem sufficient to explain the lunacy we’ve been seeing.

What I think is that the premise is wrong: contrary to what shocked bloggers think, the level of Muslim-hatred in the US in 2010 is actually roughly what it’s always been. The people who are hardcore opponents of the Cordoba House complex are the same idiots we’ve had wanting to exterminate the brutes for the last 9 years, and those in the squishy middle are about as anti-Islam as they were before. To be sure, a lot of what we’re seeing has to do with the fact that a black guy they didn’t vote for is now running the country. But there’s more nuance than that to the situation’s underlying cause and it deserves to be unpacked a little.

I realize that I’m trying to understand the psychology of these people at the level of their irrational lizard brains. So take this for what it’s worth. But my best guess for explaining the suddenness of the outcry is that the same people who are flipping out now only did not do so in 2001-2008 because they trusted George W. Bush to enact the vengeance they demanded on their behalf for 9/11, and they subsequently got it with the invasions of Afghanistan and later, Iraq. A big factor behind the unprecedented policy insanity that was the runup to Iraq was that actually, popular support for the war was overdetermined. Ironically, Bush didn’t reallyneed a big lying marketing campaign to convince people that we should invade Iraq. After 9/11, many people were already more than thirsting for this kind of action somewhere in the land of the swarthy, and Iraq made as much sense as anywhere else. Arguably, to this blinkered view of the world, even more sense than going into Afghanistan, a place where we’d never fought before and without a readily identifiable, familiar villain (most hadn’t heard of bin Laden before 9/11, and anyway, he wasn’t the leader of the country).

Well, what about Muslims in the US? A lot of these people likely never meaningfully interacted with any American Muslims or even knew what they looked like. So for them, a speech appealing to people to be tolerant was completely meaningless. If anything, I think that it might have been counterproductive, because it’s the nature of these speeches to err toward generic boilerplate, presenting “Muslims” as depersonalized, invisible abstractions rather than illustrate how they were flesh-and-blood human beings no different from the rest of America. The message that was sent was that you should be tolerant of “Muslims”, but if these people had the temerity tobe Muslim and do Muslim things, well, that was another story entirely. It springs from the same well as the tendency among this crowd to celebrate a bowdlerized bourgeois version of Martin Luther King one minute and then the next go into a panic about hip-hop and teens who sag their pants. There’s nothing wrong with being “black,” they take pains to proclaim. It’s just the seeing real-life black people that sends them into a tizzy.

Certainly we shouldn’t let the demagogues off the hook. They know exactly what they’re doing, and they’re making things a lot worse. But ultimately we’re going to be better off if we can understand the hatred of the masses rather than just taking the easy way out and blaming elites for provoking them.

UPDATE: Here’s Bush’s speech on 9/17/01. It’s a bit stronger than I expected and does specifically call out headscarves as something that should be tolerated. But I still think that this kind of thing was mostly a band-aid that didn’t have the lasting effect that a real campaign to educate Americans about Islam would have had.

In today’s edition of “Just Read Krugman”

Just read Krugman.

A double helping.

The banana republic-ization of America (long)

Warning: this post is long – almost 1400 words – and fairly rambling, so I may edit it later (suggestions welcome!). I’ve placed most of it after the jump. Also, sorry if it’s dreadfully boring.

One of the defining elements of Venezuelan and Peruvian politics in the last 20 years or so has been the collapse of political parties, moving two-partyish political systems to what’s been dubbed “no-party” systems. I’m oversimplifying things a bit, but the process went something like this:

  1. Hyperinflation or another economic crisis deeply discredited a ruling party or coalition. In Venezuela this was the broad coalition that had a seemingly permanent lock on Venezuela after the Punto Fijo Pact; in Peru things more or less fell apart after Alan Garcia’s ruling APRA party became politically radioactive.
  2. People like Hugo Chavez, Alberto Fujimori, and Alejandro Toledo started running for President, but away from parties. Rather than align themselves with an existing party, these politicians positioned themselves as outsiders. They’d sometimes form new parties, but the parties were just their own personal, disposable campaign vehicles rather than genuine, lasting, ideologically-driven mass movements (not entirely unlike the US Reform Party and Ross Perot).
  3. Desperate for radical change amid widespread economic misery, the public elects the new candidates. In Peru and Venezuela, though, political institutions are such that the new President often behaves more like an elected dictator than someone who’s bound to work with other branches of government to get stuff done.
  4. The results have not been particularly encouraging if you care about the stability of democracy. When you’re lucky, you end up with a technocrat like Toledo who provides reasonably competent leadership for a few years but then has no underlying political force to show for it when his term is up. Good governance shouldn’t expire with the President’s term. And when you’re not so lucky…you get guys like this playing outsized roles in your politics.

While I don’t think it’s certain to happen, there are certain troubling trends in US politics that make me wonder if we’re moving in this direction. Specifically, I wouldn’t be terribly surprised to see the Republican party fragment in the next 10 years and reactionary politicians forming their own “parties” en masse rather than running under the banner of the GOP.

Why do I think this bizarre-sounding scenario is a real possibility?

Keep reading for more nerdery