Friday, October 31, 2008

RIP Studs Terkel

He died today at the ripe young age of 96. I still love this line at the beginning of the article:
The author-radio host-actor-activist and Chicago symbol has died. "My epitaph? My epitaph will be 'Curiosity did not kill this cat,'" he once said.
As I mentioned last winter:
In what seems another lifetime, when I was a teen in the early 1980s, my mom loaned me her copy of American Dreams Lost and Found, which was at that time going through its initial print run. It's safe to say that the book left a lasting impression on me - certainly in terms of how I try to focus on my fellow human beings (the regular working stiff tends to be far more impressive to me than the famous orator, for example). The US may not have many genuine lefties; Terkel is the real deal.
That was riffing on something Lawrence Velvel had up around the same time. I'm reproducing that essay in full because it, like Terkel's writings, deserves to be savored.
The Great Louis Terkel. (You know him as Studs.)

Dear Colleagues:

I recently read a memoir by Studs Terkel, who is now 94 years old, I believe. Though I grew up in his city, Chicago, in the 1940s and 1950s, when he already was pretty well known there, I can’t remember having known much about him then. That is a reflection of the ignorance of a kid, plus the milieu in which I grew up. But I learned a good deal about him reading his memoir, Touch And Go, and some of what I read was particularly interesting to me.

One has read upon occasion that there is a Chicago style of writing. It is said to consist of an erudite use of language coupled with street talk or obscenity. This coupling, minus true erudition, often marks my own speech and writing. Some relations and friends, who are not used to the Chicago style, do not like it at all. My response is unprintable (unless you’re from Chicago).

Terkel’s memoir is of this genre. There is high flown language, sophisticated thoughts, and cursewords. Terkel says of James T. Farrell, author of the Studs Lonigan trilogy, that he “was among the first to have captured the argot of Chicago streets, South Side Irish. He caught the language, the idiom, that Chicagoesque quality.” Terkel likewise has captured “that Chicagoesque quality.”

Some of Terkel’s Chicagoesque is excruciatingly funny. I actually got tears in my eyes laughing at one episode. To tell of it, and of how Terkel sets the stage for it, I shall simply quote him, since it is impossible to do justice by mere descriptive paraphrase. I hope I violate no copyright by quoting two pages worth of Terkel - - all that can happen, really, is that readers of this post are more likely to buy his book.

Terkel went through a period when he was regularly watched and investigated by the FBI because he was a man of the left, which in those days meant you would be closely watched by Jedgar Hoover’s boys, as a possible dangerous commie. The Eff Bee Eye would come to Terkel’s house, call him up, and so on. He sets the stage by describing visits to his house:

I myself was hospitable at all times. I seated them. I offered them choices of Scotch or bourbon. I had triple shots in mind. Invariably, they refused. Once, I suggested vodka, making it quite clear it was domestic. I thought I was quite amusing. At no time did our visitors laugh. Nor did my wife. I felt bad. I did so want to make them feel at home. I never succeeded.

They had questions in mind. They frequently consulted small notebooks. They hardly had the chance to ask any of their questions. It wasn’t that I was rude. On the contrary; I simply felt what I had to tell them was far more interesting than what they had to ask me.

I read Thoreau to them; his sermon on John Brown. Passages out of Walden. Paine. I told them these are times that try men’s souls. And so on. We hold these truths, I even tried out on them. Nothing doing. Their attention wandered. They were like small restless boys in the classroom, wiggling in their seats. At times, I showed them where the bathroom was and asked if they wanted any reading matter. No, they didn’t. I have done some of my most exploratory reading there, I told them. No response.

After several such visits, with a notable lack of response on their part, my patience, I must admit, did wear thin. On one occasion, a visitor took out his notebook and studied it. Our son, five years old at the time, peered over his shoulder. The guest abruptly shut the book. The boy was startled.

“Why did you do that?” I asked.

“He was peeking in my book.”

“He’s five years old.”

“This is government information.”

“Is it pornographic?”

“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Isn’t it fit for a child to see?

“This is serious.”

“Does it have dirty words or dirty pictures.”


“Does it? Come on, be a sport, lemme see. I won’t show it to the kid.”

With the determined step of an FBI man, he stalked toward the door. He had trouble with the lock. I opened it. “One for the road?” I was determinedly hospitable. He walked out without so much as a thank-you. His colleague followed suit, step by step.

Terkel then describes the last time he heard from the FBI, in a phone call from one Martin Shea, who, in a very funny scene, underwent a form of telephonic meltdown during the call due to Terkel’s responses.

The last time I heard from the FBI was a good twenty-five years ago. It was a telephone call. I was not in the best of moods. In sorting through my records, preparing for my disc jockey program, I had dropped a 78 rpm. It smashed into a million pieces. It was a collector’s item: “Joe Louis Blues.” Lyrics by Richard Wright. Vocal by Paul Robeson. Accompaniment, Count Basie and his band. I was furious as I answered the phone.

“Are you Louis Terkel, known as Studs?”

“Yeah!” Damn my clumsiness.

“This is Martin Shea, FBI.” It was a rich, stentorian bass. Strong, firmly American.

“Cut the shit. Who is it? Eddie?” I was in no mood for badinage.

“Shea of the FBI.” A note of uncertainty. An octave higher than before. A baritone.

“Fer Chrissake, don’t fuck around! Jimmy, ya sonofabitch!”

“I’m Shea of the FBI.” An intimation of tremolo. A tenor.

“Look, you cocksucker! I’m not in the mood. I just broke a valuable record. Understand?”

“I’m Shea of the FBI!” Another octave up. A mezzo-soprano. I was quite certain it was he. My fury, though, was uncontrollable. All the more so because it was he.

“Look, fucko. Keep this up and I’ll kick the shit out of ya!”

Really! I’m so flabby I can’t swat a mosquito.

The voice was higher now. It was a countertenor. No, it was a despairing falsetto. A castrato, that was it.

“I’m Shea of the FBI!”

“You prick . . .”

A click. He had hung up. From Feodor Chaliapin to Alfred Deller. It was a remarkable piece of virtuosity, surpassing even Yma Sumac. That was the last I heard from the FBI. Oh well.

This phone scene is, to me, classic Chicagoesque: sixty four dollar words and names like stentorian, badinage, tremolo, countertenor, castrato, Feodor Chaliapin and Yma Sumac mixed with words like sonofabitch, fucko, cocksucker, shit and prick. How wonderfully Chicagoesque. How I do miss hearing on a regular basis that kind of mixed speech, the speech of part of my long ago youth.

A related linguistic point arises from Terkel’s book. There were, in the old days, common forms of expression whose use has languished, almost died out, though they are wonderfully descriptive. Very occasionally, with a shock of recognition, one still hears them used, invariably by guys who are nearing their 70s or are even older. One of my favorites has always been a phrase used to describe someone who is thoroughly dishonest: he is said to lie, cheat and steal. Another favorite was used by Terkel. It is a phrase that means something can or will or has happened in a whole variety of different ways or, sometimes, just to mean that something has or will happen a lot: It happens “eight ways from Sunday” is the phrase. Terkel uses it to describe a triple revolution in the United States in the 1960s, one of the three revolutions being “the advancing ability to wipe out the planet eight ways from Sunday.” Just so. Mankind does have the ability to wipe out everything and everyone eight ways from Sunday, and we seem to be advancing down at least a couple of those eight avenues. The old phrase Terkel used is wonderful and apt.

There are also the interrelated questions of income, self regard, and collective action in a capitalist society whose 24-7 emphasis on money, fostered by Milton Friedman and Ronald Reagan, causes a person of low or no income to be regarded as, and, even worse, to regard himself as, someone of little worth -- causes him to question his own ability and/or his own worth as a person. This is a terrible, terrible thing, but is a phenomenon that widely exists and can destroy a human being. Terkel writes of it.

In the late 1940s and early ’50s Terkel had a TV program, “Stud’s Place,” which was doing well and was broadcast nationally from Chicago. His program was suddenly cancelled because he was a man of the left and had picketed a petroleum company. Here is what he says of the self doubt created by the experience:

During the blacklist, you’re not working for a time, you start thinking maybe you ain’t got something you thought you had. I knew my work troubles were for political reasons, but the situation seemed somewhat hopeless. There’s something that’s interesting psychologically, moments when you feel self-doubt: that is, was your talent there to begin with? Maybe you’re not that good.

Later in the book he writes of what “ My friend Virginia Durr said about the Depression:”

People started to blame themselves. The preacher was saying, “You shouldn’t have bought that second radio. You shouldn’t have bought that secondhand car.” People started thinking, “this is America; if I were good, I’d be behind that mahogany desk. I’m not smart enough, I’m not tough enough, I’m not strong enough, I’m not energetic enough. Therefore, I hold my hat in my hand with my head slightly bowed.”

Which feeds the belief that you don’t count. (Emphases in original.)

In connection with regarding oneself badly, Terkel speaks of people feeling they don’t count and of overcoming the feeling of helplessness by joining with others. “When people feel they don’t count,” he says, “they are lost. What’s left? Get as much as you can for yourself and forget the rest.” In short, let personal greed rule and to hell with others. On the other hand, in collective action -- collective action which can make one count -- there can be protection from this descent into purely selfish, wholly narcissistic greed. Terkel quotes Nicholas Von Hoffman on this and then extends the point:

The journalist Nick Von Hoffman worked with Saul Alinsky for a while and said: “Once a person joins a group, a demonstration or a union, they’re a different person.” That particular fight may have succeeded or failed, but you realize there’s someone who thinks as you do, and so you become stronger as a result, no matter what the outcome. You count!

There is extensive wisdom and great current pertinence in all this. We live in a time when millions upon millions of us think we don’t count. Only the big money on Wall Street and in big business counts: Only the people who lie, cheat and steal unbelievable sums from scores of millions of small fry count. They, and only they, get what they want. The politicians are only bums who are bought off by these people. One after another we have economic disasters (and educational shortcomings) in which the small fry are raped, while a war wanted by only a few accurses the nation and the whole of its mood. So many millions upon millions of people have lost jobs in the last two or two and a half decades, have found themselves on the street and have lost their pride. Collective action to remedy any or all of this? -- Don’t make me laugh. Union membership has gone through the floor. In politics the history is that, to use a phrase made famous by George Wallace, “it don’t make a dime’s worth of difference” what pol you vote for or maybe even work for. Lots of people hope that Obama might make a difference, but history counsels skepticism, only the more so because so far he mainly talks about “change,” not substance. People have now learned we don’t count, and that all that really counts is to have the hundreds of millions or billions needed to buy anyone and everyone you need to buy.

Due to the internet, a person knows, regardless of his or her persuasion, that lots of others think the same way he or she does. But, at least for those on the decent liberal side of the equation, it so far has rarely if ever made a difference in actual action, as evidenced by the fact that Pelosi and Reid are nigh on to useless despite the Democratic sweep in 2006.

That the vast preponderance of us don’t count these days brings up another question Terkel deals with: whether or not common people have the intelligence to understand things. Since about 1763 or 1776 it has been an essential assumption of this country that they do. Our system is based on this, and depends on it, even though the pols and the mainstream media now act on a wholly different basis and may destroy the country accordingly. Terkel discusses the average bloke’s comprehension in a vignette about Buckminster Fuller, a vignette he says is “the one that, to me, represents what my books are all about,” a vignette that “was a key one in my life in underscoring a belief. It is a simple one: that people can understand what is necessary for their well-being if it’s explained to them. Honestly.” (Emphasis in original.) Again I am going to quote Terkel extensively, because I cannot paraphrase the matter as well as he said it:

I mentioned to [Fuller] that later that afternoon there would be a gathering at a local church. No heat. No electricity. All would be cold and dim. The church was holding a gathering of protestors against evictions. Cha-Cha Jimenez, the leader of the Young Lords, who rode with us that day, told us that his family had been kicked out and forced to move six times in one month; that they felt like checkers on a checkerboard. It was then that Bucky suggested the unthinkable: “Let me talk to these people.”

I thought to myself: “Oh, my God. What crazy thing have I suggested? If professors have a tough time understanding him, how will it be with working people who’ve gone no further than fifth grade?” Nonetheless, he insisted.

This moment, this event, was a key one in my life in underscoring a belief. It is a simple one: that people can understand what is necessary for their well-being if it’s explained to them. Honestly.

Consider this most incongruous of occasions. The cold church, filled with men, women, and children bundled up in coats and blankets. There on the stage paces this old man with his crew-cut white hair, no hat, an old overcoat with two buttons missing, a tiny lapel mike pinned against the warm wool. Imagine Bucky Fuller’s arcane speech and the chilled, downcast assemblage of Puerto Rican working people and their families. My head was spinning at the burlesque aspect of the situation.

What was the reaction? I closed my eyes fearing the worst. I opened my eyes and I saw something wondrous. These people, of such limited academic training, listened intently to Buck take off on the nature of housing. He spoke of gentrification and urban renewal and of the devastation it caused the have-nots and have-somewhats. He spoke of a world in which, thanks to technology, or as he called it, “technology-for life” (rather than against it), there would be enough to go around.

I speak about an utterly new world, a world in which it is assumed there’s plenty for all; a world in which you don’t have to have a job to prove your right to live. Where the first thing you’re going to think of is not “How am I going to earn a living?” but “What needs to be done? What am I interested in? Where might I make a contribution?” What an extraordinary new preoccupation of man! Work will be the most privileged word we have. The right to work will be not with the muscle, but the right to work with your brain, with your mind. You are born with that, but just getting accredited by the other man to be allowed to use that tool, and getting credit enough so he helps you, and cooperates with you, and you make a breakthrough on behalf of your fellow men, is the next thing. That’s the work. Work will be the most beautiful thing we can do.

The funny thing is, after he spoke, they asked him all the right questions. They had understood everything he said and exactly what he meant.

Bucky Fuller has been dismissed in some quarters as a hopeless utopian. But others have found out that his ideas are a thinking man’s ideas, and that some of his notions are right on the button. This revelatory afternoon proved for me that the intellectual and the Hand (an old-fashioned term for a workingman) can understand one another, provided there are mutual self-esteem and mutual respect. As Tom Paine put it, we must be not just men but thinking men. (Emphases original.)

I have often thought that, when experts and academics claim that something is allegedly too complicated for the average guy to understand no matter how clearly explained, this reflects only that the academic or expert lacks sufficient power of expression and, even worse, does not wish for such power lest the matters he deals in be exposed as simple and he himself consequently be exposed as something of a charlatan instead of the great genius he fancies himself to be. Very little aside from advanced nuclear physics or higher mathematics is truly incomprehensible to the average guy, one thinks. The event which Terkel says was “key . . . in underscoring a belief,” which “represents what [his] books are all about,” represents truth. It only underscores, one might add, the intellectual vapidness of a presidential campaign, in a time of enormous consequence, in which the candidates decline to discuss substance.

Related to the question of comprehension is the question of knowledge, in this case knowledge of history. Terkel has lived a long life, has read and absorbed a lot, and knows a lot of history. It shows in his memoir. Now and again he mentions names, events or books so obscure to the average reader, even the average semi-knowledgeable reader, that he drops a footnote at the bottom of the page to tell you who the person was or what the event or book was about, as when he tells you who Franz Boas or Giuseppe Mazzini were. You can learn a lot by reading Terkel, the more so because of our lack of knowledge of history, a lack which, I think, has contributed heavily to so many of the fixes we are in -- they are, after all, largely reprises in one way or another of fixes that we were in before.

There are also two interrelated, historical episodes regarding the presidency on which Terkel takes a revisionist tack. These are the dumping of Vice President Henry Wallace at the 1944 Democratic Convention in favor of Harry Truman (a dumping which Terkel says even involved physical thuggery), and Wallace’s 1948 run for the Presidency on the Progressive Party ticket, a campaign Terkel was involved in. In what little reading I have done about Wallace, anti-Wallacism has often been evident, and there has been a nagging feeling that perhaps Wallace is being jobbed. That Wallace was jobbed by conservatives in the 1940s, that he and his followers were unfairly tarred as Reds by the reactionaries of the country and even by Truman, is plainly Terkel’s view. And it is probable that the doing down of Henry Wallace had a major impact on this country, the more so because Truman became an ardent cold warrior type. It has always been thought that Truman was right to become so, nor has the fact that in Korea he launched what has become the disastrous tradition of Presidential war detracted (as conceivably it should) from the reputation of what many of us think was a great man. And yet, and yet . . . . there is the nagging feeling that, although Stalin was perhaps even worse than Hitler, still it is possible that various American actions may have made the Cold War even worse and more dangerous than it had to be -- just as today, in a reprise, the actions of Bush and Cheney may have made the world a lot more dangerous than it had to be. The American actions of the late ’40s and early ’50s would likely have been quite different than under Truman had either of the two alternatives to Truman, Wallace or William O. Douglas, been nominated for Vice President in 1944 and succeeded to the Presidency upon Roosevelt’s death (just as American actions likely would have been different in the early 2000s under someone other than Georgedick Bushcheney). Terkel puts the matter eloquently and poignantly at the end of his discussion of Wallace’s 1948 run for the presidency, and once again one cannot do better than to quote the literate Chicagoan himself:

Truman had been attacking Wallace as a Communist sympathizer, an agent of Russia. Wallace wanted peace in the world, and there couldn’t be peace unless there was peace between the two superpowers. Stalin was a butcher and a bastard. You can’t defend that, of course.

But had Wallace won, there might have been no Cold War, might have been no McCarthyism. It would have been a different world, a whole change in temperament - - things like universal health care, labor rights to organize. Perhaps even peace in the world. Perhaps. My hope was factor to my mad prophecy -- the dream of a Wallace presidency.

Terkel’s dream, his “mad prophecy,” was not to be, of course. Yet, regardless of whether he was right or wrong about what would have happened under a President Henry Wallace, one can only sympathize with Terkel’s dream of a better land, and with the bitterness of his dashed hopes. This is only the truer when one considers that, more latterly, the same kind of dashed hopes for a better country have been the consequence of the fact that Georgedick Bushcheney won the elections of 2000 and 2004. History is reprise. In lots of ways.
Curiosity isn't going to kill this cat either. Peace.

Speaking of urban legends - Halloween edition

Here's a friendly reminder. What follows is nothing especially new to me, but given that Halloween is today, bears repeating:
More evidence that Americans increasingly live in a climate of fear of their own making.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the tradition of Halloween trick-or-treating came under attack. Rumors circulated about Halloween sadists who put razor blades in apples and booby-trapped pieces of candy. The rumors affected the Halloween tradition nationwide. Parents carefully examined their children's candy bags. Schools opened their doors at night so that kids could trick-or-treat in a safe environment. Hospitals volunteered to X-ray candy bags.

In 1985, an ABC News poll showed that 60 percent of parents worried that their children might be victimized. To this day, many parents warn their children not to eat any snacks that aren't prepackaged. This is a sad story: a family holiday sullied by bad people who, inexplicably, wish to harm children. But in 1985 the story took a strange twist. Researchers discovered something shocking about the candy-tampering epidemic: It was a myth.

The researchers, sociologists Joel Best and Gerald Horiuchi, studied every reported Halloween incident since 1958. They found no instances where strangers caused children life-threatening harm on Halloween by tampering with their candy.

Two children did die on Halloween, but their deaths weren't caused by strangers. A five-year-old boy found his uncle's heroin stash and overdosed. His relatives initially tried to cover their tracks by sprinkling heroin on his candy. In another case, a father, hoping to collect on an insurance settlement, caused the death of his own son by contaminating his candy with cyanide.

In other words, the best social science evidence reveals that taking candy from strangers is perfectly okay. It's your family you should worry about.
--From pp. 13-14 of Chip Heath & Dan Heath's Made to Stick: Why Some Ideas Survive and Others Die.
One reason for the continued popularity of that myth is the availability heuristic. In a nutshell, the more easily we can recall examples of an event (real or imagined), the more likely that we will overestimate or exaggerate the probability of that event's occurrence. Vivid stories about kids being poisoned by candy or harmed by razor apples collected during the course of Trick-or-Treating are ones that will stick in memory and will be easily recalled later. There's also an element of a sleeper effect going on as well. Even though the urban legend surrounding Halloween candy tampering was debunked about 22 years ago, belief in the legend continues to persist. My guess is that folks remember the basic gist of the stories that have been passed down over the last few decades without necessarily recalling that the sources of those stories were long ago demonstrated false.

This is one of those occasions where I can safely say, "don't worry; be happy." As for ourselves, we'll just keep celebrating Halloween like we do every year, and just make sure that the kiddos don't overdo it on the candy.

Apparently 23% of Texans are hoodwinked by an urban legend

Poll finds 23% of Texans think Obama is Muslim (h/t BLCKDGRD). Let's just use this opportunity to remind our readers of, which happens, lo and behold, to have already debunked that particular myth. As I've mentioned before, has a fairly extensive dossier on the various myths being spread about Obama, including, of course, information about each myth's veridicality. I would also recommend replying to mass emails spreading urban myths about Obama (or any of the other candidates) with the appropriate link to the truth. Although most of the recipients are among the willfully ignorant who will not appreciate being pointed at actual facts, some may be conscientious enough to check things out.

Wednesday, October 29, 2008


Frantz Fanon, from the book Black Skin, White Masks (found here, h/t Adrienne Carey Hurley). Let's just call them words to live by.

Say Hello To

Margaret and Helen. It's never too late to start blogging, and these ladies have some spirit.

Take it from an expert: Obama is no socialist

Top of Socialist Party ticket says Obama's not a believer (h/t Green Left Infoasis):
SPRING HILL — Brian Moore said Barack Obama is not a socialist.

And Moore should know. He's the Socialist Party USA candidate for president.

"It's misleading for Republicans to say that," the local peace activist and perennial candidate said Wednesday from his Spring Hill home. "They know (Obama's) not a socialist."

Now, more than ever, Moore and his party are getting attention thanks to the $700-billion financial bailout and the rhetoric from the Republican presidential ticket. John McCain and Sarah Palin have repeatedly labeled Obama as a socialist in recent days.

"Now is not the time to experiment with socialism," Palin said at a rally Monday.

"I think his plans are redistribution of the wealth," McCain said in a television interview Sunday. "That's one of the tenets of socialism."

The Republicans are capitalizing on their Democratic rival's recent conversation with Joe "the Plumber" Wurzelbacher, in which Obama told the Ohio man that "when you spread the wealth around, it's good for everybody."

Obama was discussing his plan to raise taxes on those making more than $250,000.

Moore said McCain and Palin are abusing the "socialist" label. Likewise, he said Obama's programs wouldn't create a true wealth redistribution.

"It seems like both major party candidates are trying to use socialism to their advantage, in a negative and in a positive way," he said.

Moore and his vice presidential candidate Stewart Alexander are competing in 18 states, including Florida, which carry more than the 270 electoral votes needed to win.

(His name actually appears on the ballot in just eight states but he's a qualified write-in candidate in the other 10.)

If elected, Moore would push for the "full government takeover of all American corporations."

This position also earned him some face time on cable news shows as Congress debated the financial rescue plan.

Moore wants to nationalize the entire banking system and establish an independent banking authority, composed of consumers, workers and economists.

"Go all the way," he said during one of his two recent Fox News appearances. "Take them over lock, stock and barrel."

All this socialist talk gives candidacy some legitimacy. Moore said, "Everyone I run into now says, "Hey, you're not so crazy.'"
Let's just say that I know real socialists, and Mr. Obama - you're no socialist. Now if one were to contend Obama were a socialite, I wouldn't put up much of an argument. But socialist? Give me a fricken break. The dude didn't fall very far from the DLC apple tree, given his right-wing foreign policy rhetoric, and given his choice of economic advisors - one of the Chicago Boyz:
You know, the purveyors of Friedmanesque orthodoxy that has had genocidal consequences wherever it has been applied. Chile during the Pinochet regime's rule would be one of the more notoriously brutal exemplars - those first years of the regime (1973-1976) merit its inclusion in Genocide Watch's list of genocides since 1945 to the present. That said, the more insidious genocidal features of neoliberalism have largely been organizational and structural in nature: violent in their effects, but not as salient in public discourse as massacres. Subcomandante Marcos referred to NAFTA in a 1994 interview as a "death sentence" for the campesinos in his nation1. In fact, Marcos went on to say,
"NAFTA sets up competition among farmers, but how can our campesinos - who are mostly illiterate - compete with US and Canadian farmers? And look at this rocky land we have here. How can we compete with the land in California, or in Canada? So the people of Chiapas, as well as the people of Oaxaca, Veracruz, Quintana Roo, Guerrero, and Sonora were the sacrificial lambs of NAFTA."
Indeed, the subsequent 14 years have borne out his concerns, as imported produce flooded the markets, forcing campesinos to abandon their plots and become among the mass numbers of displaced people (many of whom then risk life and limb attempting to cross the border into the US). Similarly, as I've noted, manufacturing laborers also took a severe hit as jobs were outsourced to China. Although the effects of neoliberal orthodoxy have been far less visible in the US, we can note its effects here in the land of milk and honey as well - increased poverty, homelessness, decreased quality of life for all but a relative few multimillionaires and billionaires. Although Obama talks a good game when it comes to "change" - given his choices in Congress and on the current campaign trail, it's just talk. He's certainly not about to change nearly three decades of neoliberal orthodoxy that has governed the US in its domestic programs and international relations. Rather, expect more of the same, merely with a happier facade.

1. Benjamin, Medea (1995). Interview: Subcomandante Marcos. In E. Katzenberger (Ed.), First World, Ha Ha Ha! The Zapatista Challenge. San Francisco: City Lights.
Let's just say that Friedman and Buffett are Obama's heroes. Marx and Chavez? Not so much. Only in America can someone who's arguably to the right of England's Tories be described as a "socialist."

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

On the current reading list

Since finances are a bit tight, I'm quite thrilled with whatever on-line access I have to reading material. Currently, I'm reading Upton Sinclair's The Brass Check (h/t Jonathan Schwarz of A Tiny Revolution). I'm several chapters into the book, and it appears that with regard to the corporate "news" media, the more things change, the more they stay the same - each newspaper and news channel is chock full of pro-corporate elite propaganda. Those who've followed this blog from its beginnings will probably rightly comment that this is not exactly a stunning revelation. Sometimes mere confirmations will suffice.

Richard Hofstadter would have a field day

Some of you I would hope would remember Hofstadter for his essay on the paranoid style in American politics. I would consider this essay a must-read at any time, but especially as Silly Season reaches its crescendo. Although much of the topical material is dated, the basic underlying principles are quite sound and very applicable to today's political scene. Here's just a portion of what Hofstadter wrote back in the early 1960s:
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millenialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)

As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy.* Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons—later, Negroes and Jews—have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex. Very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments.
Now let's look at some of the contemporary exemplars. Sarah Posner captures some of the phenomenon quite aptly:

With polls showing Barack Obama pulling ahead of John McCain in the US presidential race, the Republican party's hard-right evangelical allies are starting to panic. As the political elites in the movement freak out, they're sowing the seeds of grassroots anxiety that God will punish America for electing Obama.

Theodicy lies at the heart of the evangelical right's political strategy: Christians must perpetually engage in spiritual warfare with Satan, and take dominion over governmental and legal institutions. God will be pleased then; but if these Christian soldiers fail to vanquish Satan, God won't be happy at all. Chaos ensues: socialism, Bible burning, abortions in public schools, boy scouts forced into homosexuality!

Religious-right honchos are girding the troops for political apocalypse. Townhall magazine, owned by Salem Communications, one of the largest Christian broadcasters in the country, ran a September feature, "Obamageddon: Could We Survive a Barack Presidency?" This month evangelical publishing giant Stephen Strang, whose magazine Charisma endorsed McCain, predicted that "life as we know it will end if Obama is elected." Last week, the political arm of James Dobson's Focus on the Family sent out a "Letter from 2012 in Obama's America", a 16-page (pdf) parade of horribles, and talk radio show host Janet Porter imagined that Christians will be imprisoned with Obama in the Oval Office.

Christian right activist and McCain supporter Gary Bauer openly worried to televangelist Rod Parsley that an Obama presidency could mean that "God could take his hand of protection off of America." Further economic woes? A national security or military crisis? Don't blame the morally bankrupt party that the religious right has enabled for the past three decades. Blame Obamageddon.

Fundamentalist Christians are perpetually eager for The End, with daily contemplations on television, radio, blogs and other media about whether the legalization of gay marriage, the financial meltdown, or the possibility of an Antichrist president are "signs of the times" – clues that the cultural chaos that will precede Christ's showdown with Satan at Armageddon is finally at hand.

Yet how could you get the foot soldiers marching on election day if they would happily stay home waiting for the Rapture? That's why the leadership is promising God's punishment for failing to resist Satan's temptations. God won't be happy if America doesn't elect his "chosen" candidate, Sarah Palin, whose supporters believe is a modern-day Queen Esther. God will punish the country who reversed course on his carefully laid-out plan and elects the Muslim-socialist-terrorist instead.

If McCain somehow pulls it off in the end the religious right will no doubt claim that its support – and God's hand – were indispensable for a come-from-behind victory. But if the polls are right and Obama wins, the fundamentalists are already poised to pounce on any new crisis, be it on economic, national security, or another front, as the latest divine cause célèbre.

Victoria Jackson (yes, the former SNL star) also springs to mind:

Well, she apparently thinks that Obama may literally be the devil.

And no, it’s not a joke

I don’t want a political label, but Obama bears traits that resemble the anti- Christ and I’m scared to death that un- educated people will ignorantly vote him into office.

You see, what bothers me most, besides being a Communist, and a racist (Obama writes in his book, From Dreams of My Father, “I found a solace in nursing a pervasive sense of grievance and and animosity against my (white) mother’s race.”) (Obama’s “religion” of the last 20 years is Black Liberation Theology. What is that? “It is simply Marxism dressed up in Christian rhetoric. But unlike traditional Marxism, Black Liberation Theology emphasizes race rather than class. It’s leading theorist is James Cone who says Jesus was black, African-Americans are the chosen people, and whites are the devil. Cone says, “What we need is the destruction of whiteness, which is the source of human misery in the world.” The McAlvany Intelligence Advisor), is that he is a LIAR. He pretends to be a Christian and he incriminates himself everytime he speaks about Christianity. To lie about being a believer in Christ is very dangerous. Lightning could strike him at any minute! But seriously, he doesn’t have a clue what the Bible says and yet he pretends to be a church- going Christian to win votes. That is sooooo evil.

Some of the leaders of various Protestant denominations have taken their paranoia into their sermons. James Dobson of Focus on the Family notoriety has been having a field day. After earlier dissing McCain as unworthy of the evangelical vote, he's had a very dramatic change of heart.

They tried branding Obama the anti-Christ. They tried linking him with Islamic terrorists. They've implied that unknown powers bought his allegiance by financing his education at Ivy League universities. They've used their pulpits to endorse McCain, hoping to spur a fight with the I.R.S. that would rouse their troops.

None of these tactics has brought their errant minions under control.

So using God like a hired gun to terrorize the town's people, the evangelical Christian mullahs are declaring that Obamageddon is at hand, using that very word and asking as the Religious Right/Republican Townhall magazine did in a September headline, "Could We Survive a Barack Presidency?"

Evangelical publisher James Strang answers the survival question by warning his readers that people who hate Christianity will take over the country once Obama is elected.

In fact, "life as we know it will end," Strang writes.

Last week Focus on the Family's James Dobson added his own doomsday predictions with a 16-page rant about evils that will befall the United States by 2012 if Obama is elected. A British commentator dubbed Dobson's list of a parade of horrors.

As a warm up Dobson blames misguided young evangelicals for putting Obama in office. It's them he's hoping to scare most.


Now Dobson sees McCain as God's man. It's Obama who's the devil. And under God's direction, as he always is, Dobson is speaking out again. But this time he is no longer dealing in truth.

As he notes in the letter's preface, Dobson is now imagining things, things that could happen if Christians don't unite behind McCain and give that adulterous, profane, violent, scandal-tainted, bought-out-by-the-homsexuals drinker and gambler the most powerful elective office in the world.

In the letter Dobson imagines Boy Scouts disbanding rather than allowing gay scout leaders the complete license they will get if Obama is elected. He imagines the Pledge of Allegiance being banned in schools. He imagines Communism gaining new power. He imagines doctors killing children just minutes before birth. He imagines Americans forbidden to own guns. He imagines television and radio stations forbidden to preach the Bible. He imagines ministers, lawyers, doctors, social workers all being punished for following their consciences.

Dobson may have gotten his letter idea from Christian radio's Janet Porter who wrote an imaginary "Letter from a Future Prisoner" last year. She was fear mongering over the idea the Hillary might be elected. If that happened "thought crimes" would be instituted. Christian books would be banned. Christian speech would be called hate speech.

Porter, an even bigger drama queen than Dobson, imagined herself in prison doing hard labor merely for defending her faith. And who does she imagine in the cell next to her?

No, no. Not Jesus. Don't be ridiculous.

It's a home-schooling mother weeping inconsolably because her innocent children have been put in foster care.

All because they loved Jesus.

All because that adulterous, profane, violent, scandal-tainted, bought-out-by-the-homosexuals drinker and gambler didn't win the presidential election.

Now whatever happened to that commandment against bearing false witness? Apparently, there are some "exceptions" that apply whenever one's partisan politician of choice is involved. Not to worry, even Joe the Plumber - who continues to milk his Fifteen Minutes - gets in on the act, and even the Great McCain himself seems to be caught up in paranoia fever. Apparently, the sheer lunacy is enough to disturb even a Faux News anchor. That, as my dad would say, takes talent.

In all fairness, Hofstadter does admonish that the paranoid style is not a uniquely right-wing phenomenon. However, it does seem that those on the far right are most susceptible to it. One could speculate as to why that is, although I suspect that Bob Altemeyer's analysis of right-wing authoritarianism would get us a reasonably close approximation of the truth - in particular the traits of conventionalism and authoritarian obedience (dutiful followers or in the case of those with a high social dominance orientation, strict rulers) would seem to implicated. There is also a rigid cognitive style that characterizes right-wing authoritarians - one that might be best characterized as Manichean. Being prone to obedience, conformism, and holding a Manichean outlook in which one is part of a grand battle between good and evil, one can easily imagine the leaps of faith taken with regard to those perceived to be "different." Those of us who are "different" end up being viewed with a fair amount of suspicion or outright terror. We've certainly seen quite a bit of that come to the fore in the current electoral cycle - perhaps to a greater degree than I've experienced in my lifetime.

Monday, October 27, 2008

Like a broken clock, Hitchens occasionally gets it about right

At least he provides a description of some of the more egregious exemplars of anti-intellectualism in US political life. If only he hadn't been such a big fan of Junior Caligula back in the day - now there is a ruler whose lack of basic intellectual curiosity is legendary, and if only he weren't merely cheerleading for Empire's other would-be ruler. Of course it's difficult to entirely gauge how much of Palin's apparent ignorance is genuinely willful and how much of it is just a pose to play up to the much-ballyhooed "Base" (of which many examples of willful ignorance abound thanks to the miracle of the Internet tubes).


“It's fascinating because regardless of the party, so much of politics is mindlessly following.”
Dan Burrello, founder of the Asheville Zombie Walk. (h/t, Avedon Carol)

Sunday, October 26, 2008

Interesting article

Muslims begin to copy the megachurch multi-site model (h/t Party of 1).

I don't mean to say I told you so, but

I told you so. The Great American Swindle is turning to be quite the boondoggle. If the goal was to simply waste $700 billion with no benefit to anyone (save perhaps a few CEOs), one could think of better ways to do so - such as simply burning it.

Science for Sunday

How about a nice cold one?

A team of researchers at Rice University in Houston is working to create a beer that could fight cancer and heart disease. Taylor Stevenson, a member of the six-student research team and a junior at Rice, said the team is using genetic engineering to create a beer that includes resveratrol, the disease-fighting chemical that's been found in red wine.
Check out the rest - before you know it, the slogan "Guinness for Strength" (or Bud, or Sam Adams) might actually have some merit. Slainte.