Monday, September 22, 2008

Bucket Brigade

Today Washington is in a frenzy to pass a bill to bail out Wall Street banks.

About the Bush Administration’s initial proposal, I can’t argue with Paul Campos’s take at Lawyers Guns & Money. L’etat, c’est moi is about right. Bush’s friends in high places never suffer the sting of failure, not when average taxpayers can be made to suffer it for them.

John Cassidy comments at the New Yorker site. He closes with a reference to the New Deal. My mind is wandering back to some public school classroom and some American History lesson, probably from 10th or 11th grade. I don’t think my teacher in the Morris County, New Jersey public schools was a raving Bolshevik. But he did take on faith that the New Deal reforms, especially stuff like the Glass-Steagall Act, were a good thing, a sensible response to the excesses of the 1920s, and above all an irrevocable thing, like the polio vaccine. Nobody would roll back the clock to un-invent these safeguards. Sometimes I wish America was really like my teachers said it was.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Culture War Round-Up

Tim Burke has been reading Rick Perlstein’s Nixonland and shares some thoughts about the origins of the culture wars that Nixon fueled and that are with us to this day. This is a great post, with great comments attached to it.

Part of his point is that the culture wars are not entirely trumped-up, that there are some real grievances underlying them. Burke cites Jane Jacobs as the “good Nixon,” a liberal anti-technocrat – a provocative assertion, maybe an arguable one – is urban renewal best characterized as impartial technocracy, or the work of sophisticated special interest groups?

The post touches on what might be called the “What’s The Matter with Kansas” dilemma: that liberals and conservatives both claim to be fighting elitism, but the liberals define elitism primarily in economic terms, and conservatives in cultural terms. Burke short-circuits this dilemma in a way. It’s important to see that culture war is not one of great massed armies, Rich versus Poor or City versus Small Town. It’s close-in guerilla fighting between people who are demographically similar, between the Jesus decals and the Darwin decals in the same parking lot.

Burke’s conclusion is that conservative anti-intellectual reaction can get out of control, refuse to stay in its box.

Rotwang writes that American anti-intellectualism leaves an exemption for the neurosurgeon, the engineer, the indispensible expert. If there’s historically evident danger to culture war, it is that it is hard to keep it nothing more than a Punch-and-Judy pantomine, hard to keep it confined to a narrowly intramural struggle within specific professional or social hierarchies. There are pathways out of Nixonland that go into very dark, dangerous places that no one wants to traverse.

I’ve written elsewhere that creationism (a branch office of American anti-intellectualism) is incompatible with modern technology, and that conservatives are hypocritical or (more likely) oblivious to the contradiction. Nobody wants to go to a neurosurgeon who is the product of home schools and Patrick Henry College. Burke writes that’s a de facto exemption that we grant, but one that might not always hold up under duress.


McCain has an ad out now that attacks Obama for supporting sex education for kindergarteners. Turns out the ad is a lie – so McCain will be taking off the air very soon, right?

Here, Slate’s The Big Sort blog comments on the McCain ad, and refers to a sex ed controversy in Charleston, WV (Kanawha County) in 1974. I vaguely remember this controversy; my family had moved away from Charleston just a few years before this, and the part about somebody shooting at a school bus rings familiar.

Somebody did a graduate thesis in which he interviewed pro- and anti-sex-ed Kanawha County residents. Their stand on this issue was a powerful sorting variable: it predicted people’s occupation, what kind of church they went to, what part of the county they lived in. A telling factoid about the interface of cultural versus economic classism: UMW miners went on strike, crippling the coal industry in the state, to protest their children receiving sex ed in school.


George Saunders in the New Yorker has what ought to be the final word on Sarah Palin.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Tippecanoe and Palin Too

William Henry Harrison was the Whig candidate for President in 1840. Harrison's fame was as a hero of the Indian wars: he commanded the victorious U.S. forces at the Battle of Tippecanoe. John Tyler was his running mate: a cynical choice, recruited from the Democratic Party to the Whigs expressly so he could be placed on this fusion ticket. The campaign is remembered for the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler too!" Harrison was the oldest man ever to run as a major party nominee for President prior to Ronald Reagan; now, of course, John McCain holds that distinction. Harrison was a wealthy landowner, but his campaign portrayed him as a humble frontiersman.

Tippecanoe won, and upholding his rugged frontier image, he gave his inaugural address without his topcoat on a frigid winter day. He caught a chill which developed into pneumonia, and he died just a few weeks into his tenure. Tyler ascended to the Presidency, in this then-unprecedented circumstance in our history. The legitimacy of Tyler's administration was questioned, and not surprisingly he turned out to be a weak President who failed to pass any of Harrison's agenda and whose tenure helped bring on the demise of the Whig Party.

My point? To show off my haphazard knowledge of XIXc history, mostly. I don't wish McCain any corporeal harm, in fact if he wins I will pray without ceasing for his health, and lend him my topcoat if needed. I was just struck by some curious parallels here.

Riding A Tiger

Today we learn that the word lipstick is a registered trademark of the Republican Party. I’m grinding my molars to a nub over here.

I’d like to keep this short; I’ve been working on a post for days, and every 12 hours or so my opinions change. I’ll say this for Sarah Palin, she has shaken things up, made them interesting. I can’t think of a similar instance of someone going from “Who?” to Most Talked About Politician in America practically overnight. This time a week ago, just hours before she gave her speech in St. Paul, everybody right down to Peggy Noonan and all points leftward was sure that Palin was a disastrous choice and might have to pull a Thomas Eagleton. Now she bestrides our poor land like a Colossus in three-inch heels. Oops, sorry, was that last part sexist of me?!?

Here’s what I want to write on the wall today: There are many twists to come in the Sarah Palin story, and no one can predict or control where the story goes. You can’t tell me this is playing out the way the McCain team expected. I saw Steve Schmidt on TV eight days ago, and there was panic in his eyes. You think they knew about the pregnant teenage daughter? Hell, do you think McCain deliberately would choose a running mate who would overshadow him like Palin has? Not on your life. Sarah Palin unleashed a tornado that swept away all the norms of logic and civilized discourse. It’s like Lord of the Flies in politics right now, and the GOP has an unquestionable advantage when it’s like that. They have the superior instincts for raw survival and fighting dirty.

The other day I mentioned the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, how the Senators on that committee (including Joe Biden) fought so hard and gracelessly to keep up with unfolding events. Thomas had been insufficiently vetted. Nobody had anticipated the appearance of Anita Hill. Hill’s testimony thrust sexual harassment and workplace equality onto center stage, unleashing angers and resentments across America that the Villagers had little idea about. It was a maelstrom that left no opportunity for crafting a response, by anybody of any party, in Congress or the White House or the media. Washington was riding a tiger.

For a few giddy days, we compared the Palin gambit to Tom Eagleton, sometimes to Dan Quayle. The best comparison is to the Clarence Thomas gambit. While mollifying the right wing base of the GOP, Thomas was a choice calculated to confound the Democrats, to be hard to respond to, by virtue of his race. Substitute gender for race, and the same is true of Palin. Palin also was insufficiently vetted, and so issues of gender and family have emerged unexpectedly. They conjure raw emotions and a highly volatile story line.

I take a little comfort in that: the story still holds some surprises. The Thomas analogy isn’t comforting, since the conservative status quo won out in the Thomas nomination battle. He seemed like damaged goods in the immediate aftermath, but 16 years later you’d hardly know it. But maybe the Obama campaign’s Post-Rapid-Response M.O. will flip the script. Maybe Biden learned some lesson from the Thomas fight that will come in handy in the Palin fight. Fingers crossed. In the end, I figure America will get the President we deserve.

Wednesday, September 03, 2008

Sarah Sixpack

This blog has a new tagline, "grounded in a recognizable American lifestyle," courtesy of this article about Sarah Palin in Politico. Because it's equally true of your humble blogger, who humbly submits his name for consideration for the GOP presidential ticket in 2012.

(I never realized Politico was quite such a cyber-birdcage liner.)

For a generation now, Republicans have pounded home the message that government is the problem, because it's full of pointy-headed elites who think they know what Joe Sixpack needs better than Joe himself. Well, bushwah! Better to have Joe Sixpack himself lead the government, guided by good old-fashioned American common sense, plus how his bunions are feeling on a given morning. Or for a shot of variety, let's nominate sexy Sarah Sixpack, who will dominate China and Russia but submit to her husband, who will bring home the tax cuts and fry them up in a pan.

It seems to me this is where Republican political logic points us. The last thing we want are people in high office who are smart or conscientious or the least bit finicky. Let's elect leaders who are average at best: recognizable and relatable to us. Semi-competence and lack of vision are just what this country needs in a candidate. An umimpressive resume` is an essential qualification.

Republican political logic, sadly, has jumped the shark. Sure we recognize the Palin family, just like we recognize (and maybe try to avoid) a ne'er-do-well relative who borrows money and never repays it. There's always a market for practical common-sense leadership, but the GOP brand name used to connote stability and respectability. The soap-opera-fication of the party has not gone over well. Too many scenes out of an episode of Montel Williams. Too many Congressional page scandals, too many shotgun accidents, too many wide stances.

I feel like I've been posting here a lot lately, but I guess I haven't posted since it came out that Sarah Palin is about to become a grandmother. I don't want to roast the Governor for that, I think very few people on the left or right want to vilify her or her daughter. But I think many of us could really do without the alternately petty and prurient melodrama. The daughter is pregnant. Her boyfriend talks like an ass on his MySpace page. The family is conducting a vendetta against the sister's ex-husband. Sarah is spiteful toward all her political foes. It's soap opera stuff. Americans love it in many contexts but we're tired of it in our politics. If McCain couldn't give us Accomplished or Experienced, he could have done a better job of giving us Stable and Wholesome.