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Friday, September 24, 2010

THE POLITICS OF ENTERTAINMENT AND THE ENTERTAINMENT OF POLITICS

Democratic political systems work best when the citizens are at least partially informed about the issues which stimulate public policy. For decades this duty fell to newspapers and then to television network news. Long gone are Huntley-Brinkley, Cronkite, and Severeid, serious and respected journalists all. The job of informing the public is now being taken over by 24/7 cable news. This has the advantage of instant access but the disadvantage of often being info/entertainment as chatty news couples laugh, play and emote as they read teleprompters. The 24 hr. requirements ensure that most of what they report is of little consequence i.e. the daily Los Angeles police car chase; crime in Oshkosh and the latest legal problems of celebrities. More seriously, cable news channels are becoming more and more ideological commentary/advocacy outlets as the programming of Fox News and MSNBC make obvious. “News” is still available on these and other cable channels but commentary shows dominate the coverage and distort the information process with ideologically based bias and distortion from both the Left and the Right.

With the ascension of the internet, sources of issue important news are essentially infinite and at the same time flawed as the proliferation of anonymous and fraudulent “send this to everyone you know” e-mails indicates. The underlying factor making such “sources” effective is simply the enormous reach which cable and the internet provide. Tens of millions of individuals can be reached instantly ensuring that hundreds of thousands if not additional millions will accept whatever the message without much thought to the contrary. This mass marketing factor is being further exploited by celebrities who feel that their status, wealth and the absurd devotion of their fans must mean that they are capable and thoughtful public policy analysts whose personal opinions provide the real answers.

Political activism by celebrities is nothing new. Hollywood stars on the Left and Right, but mostly on the Left, have used their popularity as actors to try to influence the public at large on issues unrelated to their profession, and in most cases to any perceived special knowledge or expertise on their parts. From Jane Fonda’s controversial trip to North Vietnam in 1972 to Rosie O’Donnell’s persistent inanity, “stars” have attempted to generate support and give credibility to public policy issues.

Up in Portland, Maine we had the recent spectacle of an even more absurd celebrity seeking to influence a debate in the U.S. Senate based on nothing more than the childlike hysteria afforded to pop music stars. Lady Gaga, for whom most sane people stimulates the “gaga reflex” and for whom every day is Halloween, held forth at yet another “rally”. Gaga’s “talent” is best described, and perhaps limited to, outrageously nutty costumes, make-up, and hair styles; she recently wore a dress made of raw meat to the MTV Awards. While a hit with the area’s stray dogs, there still hasn’t been a run on local butcher shops by fad crazed teenagers but who knows. Gaga nonetheless has a devoted following among the young and perpetually adolescent. Mistakenly believing that her millions of swooning Face book “friends” must mean that her public policy pronouncements are important, she went to Portland to rally opponents of the Clinton era semi-prohibition against homosexuals serving in the military. Why Portland? Because it is believed that the two lady Republican Senators from Maine are wobbly about supporting the mostly Republican ban which on Tuesday, Sept. 21 came up for a vote by virtue of being attached to the annual Defense Authorization Bill by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. Alas, Gaga, who is herself gay, and Reid, fell short on this particular vote as the Senate failed to come up with a filibuster proof sixty vote majority. The two Maine Senators will probably vote for repeal of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” in the final analysis but the continuing trend of public policy being integrated with the entertainment industry which Gaga and O’Donnell represent should be troubling to anyone concerned with what actually comes out of the Congress and is imposed as law on the American public.

Unfortunately, politicians reinforce this tendency, feeling perhaps that they need to show their everyday “just one of you” side. President Obama, who holds few formal press conferences found time to appear on the daytime female chatter fest billed as the “View”, as did probable 2012 Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney. John McCain thought it important to take time off from campaigning in 2008 to appear on the comedy show Saturday Night Live and unfortunately, a graduate of Saturday Night Live, comedy writer turned far Left failed radio talk show host, Al Franken turned his name identification into a U.S. Senate seat in 2008.

Now we have John Stewart of Comedy Central’s Daily Show morphing into a “serious” political analyst in the minds of some. Stewart is a genuinely funny person but there is nothing in his background that indicates political or public policy expertise. Still, important politicians visit his show and polls show that large numbers of young (18-35) citizens get their news from it (a 2007 Pew Research Center poll put Stewart in fourth place, along with Brian Williams, Tom Brokaw, Dan Rather, and Anderson Cooper as “the journalist that Americans most trust.”). Stewart masks his obvious liberal views on a wide variety of important issues by making fun of the “other side”. To his credit he also mocks the more extreme positions of liberal politicians and pundits and he has penetrated the contemporary political debate so far that unfunny political columnists like the N.Y. Times’ Frank Rich, are quoting him as a source.

Now Stewart and his comrade in satire, Steven Colbert of the “Colbert Report” have announced plans for two “rallies” in the nation’s capital, ostensibly to mock the “extremism” of earlier rallies, specifically the Glen Beck “Restoring America” and “Promoting Beck” tent revival and Al Sharpton’s “We’re Still victims and Don‘t You Forget It” celebration of Martin Luther King’s historic “I Have a Dream” speech and civil rights rally of 1963.

No one knows as yet who, if any, the guest speakers will be or if indeed the rallies will actually be a comical celebration of “moderation”. One has to wonder if a “rally” of tens of thousands with their signs, banners and mob psychology, is the best venue to promote moderation. What will their signs say; “I sort of like health care reform but. . .”; “Occasional rights for some illegal immigrants”? However, if these rallies do emphasize the absurdity of demagoguery and extremism and do it in a light hearted way then they will be a refreshing change from the current style of political debate. If however, they are simply a mask, like the Daily Show and Colbert Report themselves, for a particular ideological viewpoint, then they will be a continuation of the unfortunate penetration of serious political debate by less than informed celebrities hawking their personal viewpoints.

Stephen Colbert apparently can’t wait for his “mock” rally to afford him a direct entry into politics. He recently testified before the House Judiciary Sub-committee on Immigration, Citizenship, Refugees, Border Security and International Law on immigration issues. Why? No one knows except that the was invited by Subcommittee Chairwoman Zoe Lofgren (D-CA) who apparently thinks illegal immigration is always good for a laugh. Not many individual citizens gain such a privilege; Colbert’s history of expertise on immigration issues? He spent a day working on a corn and vegetable farm in New York State accompanied by immigration advocates. It didn’t go well. Committee members sat in silence as Colbert read a really dumb satirical monologue after being asked to leave by one of the committee’s other Democrats.

And so it goes. Stay tuned for a debate on global warming by Kermit the Frog and Cookie Monster on Sesame Street.

Monday, September 20, 2010

MAMA GRIZZLIES VS. COMMON SENSE

It’s hard to imagine, but Sarah Palin seems to have discovered, endorsed and overseen the primary victory of a “mama grizzly” who is even less equipped to serve in high public office than she is. Well, maybe not. Anyway, Palin travels the country energizing the Tea Party faithful with speeches filled with the all the serious content of her bumper sticker collection and her and the Tea Party’s latest manifestation of the aptly named female “ursus arctos horribilis” a.k.a grizzlies, has left heads shaking in Republican Party organizations across the country. The latest cause of all this consternation is the nomination of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware. Seen by many as a fatal blow to Republican chances of winning a majority in the U.S. Senate, the cliché about “circular firing squads” seems to fit. O’Donnell can most kindly be described as quixotic. Her resume’ contains a number of typically fatal campaign attributes such as numerous financial problems. She was denied a college diploma for years for non-payment of tuition; had a residence go into foreclosure; had an IRS tax lien imposed on her for non-payment of taxes and has been accused in a formal complaint of diverting campaign contributions for personal use.

When it comes to political advocacy she seems to be suffering from a case of terminal flakiness. She has had to “modify her positions” on some, but much is still a matter of record. She “used to” think masturbation was an important social issue which she opposed, along with standard religious right positions on abortion and stem cell research. Despite recent assertions that she would place the Constitution above her “personal beliefs” she has said she wants to “apply Biblical principals” to public policy as in teaching Creationism in public schools. This apparently makes sense to her since in a previous campaign for office in 2006, she claims to have heard the “audible voice of God” although she has not shared with the public exactly what the Deity told her. Perhaps it was her commitment to “never vote to increase taxes”, a box no politician should climb into given the enormous deficits and national debt which are beyond significantly reducing with spending cuts alone.

Essentially, O’Donnell comes across as an unfocused and previously unsuccessful, religiously conservative gadfly and the Tea Party decision makers have given away the moderate constituency in Delaware in their commitment to make some kind of political statement to mainstream Republicans. South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint, a major player in the Tea Party, has said he would rather lose a seat to the Democrats than compromise the unity of the new far right movement. He’s going to get his wish. O’Donnell currently is eleven points behind the Democrat candidate.

The O’Donnell candidacy is no anomaly however. In a similar exercise in political eccentricity, Palin and company endorsed Sharron Angle for the Republican Senate nomination in Nevada over the less strident establishment candidate and in doing so breathed new life into the campaign of embattled Democrat Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, who now narrowly leads. Angle, who the New York Times reports, is just your typical grandmother who “has a fondness for weight lifting and her 44 magnum”.

While Angle at least has some local political experience she holds some political views that can only be described as “off the wall“. She has advocated “phasing out Social Security” although now is having to “rethink” that non-starter. But she still wants to eliminate the Department of Energy whose responsibilities include the nation's nuclear weapons program, nuclear reactor production for the United States Navy, energy conservation, energy-related research, radioactive waste disposal, and domestic energy production.

Also on her hit list is the Environmental Protection Agency, established during the Nixon Administration and the Department of Education which she somehow believes is “unconstitutional”. She has denounced energy giant BP’s compensation fund for Gulf of Mexico economic victims of the recent oil spill; wants to withdraw from the United Nations, privatize Medicare, eliminate the Internal Revenue Service, denies global warming evidence and must have been on a conference call with Christine O’Donnell when she talked to the Almighty since she believes her candidacy is a “mission for God”.

The dire economic straits of Nevada and especially Las Vegas may still defeat Reid who is desperately playing the “immigration card” to attract the votes of Nevada’s large number of Mexicans who work in the hotel, casino and restaurant industry. And of course, if the “mission of God” doesn’t work out Angle has a back up, the endorsement of Joe the Plumber of 2008 election fame.

The only upside of Palin’s and the Tea Party’s campaign against moderation and for incumbentcide is that there may be a few gaps in the firing squad circle. In Alaska, the anti-incumbent effort produced a credible candidate in Joe Miller. Miller narrowly defeated sitting Republican Senator Lisa Murkowski who now may hand the weak Democrat candidate a slim victory by running a “write-in“ candidacy which might split the Republican vote. Nonetheless, Miller is a social and fiscal conservative, and unlike O’Donnell and Angle, has an actual history of intellectual achievement and service. He is graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, a decorated combat veteran in the First Gulf War, a Yale Law School graduate, and has served as a U.S. Magistrate in Alaska. He might actually be an improvement over Murkowski who essentially inherited her seat from her father.

In Kentucky, libertarian and Duke University educated physician Rand Paul has softened some of his stranger rhetoric and leads in the polls. If elected, and since he is clearly an intelligent person, the reality check of Senatorial politics may move him from the “far right” to the “less far right” and give him a chance to be effective. Also, he doesn’t hear voices.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

THE FALSE CHARGE OF ISLAMOPHOBIA

The debate over the proposed Islamic “cultural center”/ “mosque” close to 9/11 “ground zero” won’t go away. Unfortunately what should be a discussion or negotiation between the project’s developers and an organization representing the families of the World Trade Center victims has been taken over by self serving politicians, platitude addicted bishops, rabbis, columnists and story enhancing media commentators. The controversy over a specific site for one of thousands of American Islamic mosques has thus morphed into a media made super story entitled “Islamophobia in America”. To support this allegation, the media points to polls and has enabled an insignificant and eccentric southern preacher with a tiny congregation to become an internationally recognized false face of American attitudes towards Islam with his absurd threat to stage a “Burn a Koran Day”.

Sadly, the parameters of this new and larger controversy have been constructed around false choices. First, the term “Islamophobia” implies an irrational, unjustified and discriminatory fear. Clearly Americans feel many levels of concern, distrust and even anger which do not fit this description. Second, do the most strident voices opposed to the New York City mosque including the southern preacher, represent attitudes across America? Most certainly not. Third, the nature of world wide Islam is presented as a simple dichotomy between a “tiny minority” of radical jihadists and the vast majority of 1.5 billion “peace loving moderates” which supposedly includes the several million Muslims residing in America. But the American people, who admittedly know little about the theology of Islam and rely on events and public pronouncements of Islamic spokesmen here and abroad, may be forgiven if their perception of the nature, goals and threats of the religion does not fit with the benign nature of “moderate” Islam offered by advocates of tolerance. We are all familiar with the activities of the terrorists; their acts and attempts across the globe going back over twenty years are too numerous to mention. But the proposition that the remaining “vast majority” are all peace loving moderates who pose no threat to Western secular values and political doctrines does not withstand simple scrutiny. The jihadists and the peaceful “moderates” represent the two poles of the Islamic spectrum. There is a vast middle encompassing a variety of interpretations and attitudes. Clearly, every Muslim who is not a terrorist is not a moderate and the concerns of significant numbers of Americans about this group do not constitute and irrational phobia.

The evidence to support these concerns is abundant. In 1988 Salman Rushdie, a highly esteemed British author of Indian heritage, wrote a novel entitled “The Satanic Verses”. Although a work of fiction, it was attacked by Muslims across the world as blasphemous to Islam and banned by the governments of Muslim nations. Fearing violence, the governments of South Africa, Thailand and Venezuela also banned the book. In the U.S. there were many threats to book stores who offered the book for sale. A bookstore in Berkeley, CA was bombed. In New York City, the office of the Riverdale Press was firebombed for simply publicly defending the right of bookstores to sell the book. Numerous British book stores were bombed. Iranian religious leader, Ayatollah Khomeini issued a “fatwa” calling for the assassination of Rushdie. Several British Muslim leaders endorsed the fatwa and the Union of Islamic Student Associations in Europe, offered it’s “services” to Khomeini in his effort to bring about the death of Rushdie. In the U.S., George Sabbath, the Director of Near East Studies at UCLA said that Khomeini was “completely within his rights” to call for Rushdie’s death. These individuals and groups residing in Britain and the U.S. were not part of the international terrorist network but their positions on fundamental Western beliefs such as freedom of speech and press and murder are just as threatening.

Americans were more recently exposed to the spectacle of worldwide Muslim violence in response to the publication of a few political cartoons depicting the Prophet Mohammed. In September, 2005, the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten printed the cartoons and over the next few months the cartoons were reprinted across the globe. The reaction by Muslims in various countries can only be described as hysterical and unfathomable to Western observers. European embassies in Islamic countries were stormed and burned. Million dollar rewards were offered by Muslim clerics for the murder of the Danish cartoonists. Again, the reaction to the cartoons was not inspired by any terrorist network. The foreign ministers of seventeen Muslim nations demanded that the government of Denmark “punish” the cartoonists. In London, Muslim citizens and residents marched with signs declaring “Slay, Massacre and Behead” those who insult Islam. Others carried signs that said “Free Speech Go to Hell” and “Europe You Will Pay; Your 9/11 is on its way.”
These violent demonstrations from Manila in the Philippines, to Jakarta in Indonesia, to the capitals of Western Europe, involved tens of thousands of ordinary citizens not a “tiny minority hiding in caves.

Maybe most American Muslims are genuinely different in there level of cultural assimilation and their attitudes towards secular government and individual rights. Substantial evidence for this exists. But the voices of extremism still can be found in some Islamic communities in the U.S. and there are recent cases of Muslim individuals who are citizens who have been religiously radicalized. The “Times Square bomber” Faisal Shahzad, is a U.S. citizen whose failed attempt to detonate a car bomb in one of the busiest places in America, says he was inspired by another U.S. born citizen, Anwar al-Awlaki who spent years preaching in American mosques before fleeing to Yemen. This is the same individual who “inspired” Ft. Hood killer, American citizen and U.S. Army officer, Nidal Malik Hasan.

It is obvious that most of the large Muslim-American population does not share the attitudes of, and are no way connected with, nor responsible for, the actions of these individuals or the more radicalized beliefs of thousands of Muslims in Western Europe or the rest of the world. It is however, unrealistic and unfair to expect non-Muslim Americans to ignore these facts and simply make the leap of faith necessary to separate the two. Of course the issues will be demagogued by some irresponsible individuals but the continuous condemnation of average Americans by morally superior columnists and commentators who claim to be the “real Americans” while others are “nativists”, “racists” and “Islamaphobes” is an egregious, ideologically inspired insult.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

OBAMA'S "HAIL MARY"

The score is 207 to 193 and it’s late in the fourth quarter. That’s the predicted Republican advantage to date in the House of Representatives with 35 seats labeled “toss-ups” but with Republicans only needing to win eleven of those 35 for a 218 majority after the November elections. After much media and Democrat criticism in the face of an electoral tsunami, President Obama has finally entered the game and thrown his best shot way down the field in an effort to respond to the number one election issue, jobs. The response from the “crowd” on both the red and blue sidelines has been underwhelming and the cheer leaders have all taken a hot dog break.

In an uninspiring address in Ohio, Obama outlined his plan to create jobs.
The centerpiece, if there is one, is the promise of $180 billion in new “infrastructure spending. That’s the perennial “roads, bridges, runways, rail” solution which comes up in every economic downturn and harkens back to Roosevelt’s Civil Conservation Corp of the 1930s. Although Obama isn’t proposing a federal agency that will directly employ construction workers, the money will go to states in the form of grants. Since the construction trades are only part of the unemployment problem the plan relies on the filter down multiplier effect of funds filtering through the economy to stimulate demand for consumer products and thus business expansion and hiring. This is not a short term phenomenon and it remains unsaid how much of that increased demand will result in larger imports of foreign consumer products which might provide a slight employment boost in China, Japan or Mexico. But in terms of the election, now just weeks away, it offers nothing but an attempt to repair the Democrat Party’s image as a jobs producer. The election will not be decided on image however, even if this proposal had the power to enhance that part of the Democrat’s problem.

Then of course comes the really exciting part of Obama’s proposal, sure to grasp the attention of struggling voters: new tax write offs for corporate research and new investment. While aspects of this proposal are already part of the tax code, and while encouraging research and investment is always a smart move in terms of stimulating economic growth, this isn’t exactly a headline grabber or an idea that will cause a wave of relief to spread across the electorate. Closely following “jobs” as the number one election issue is the concern over the 1.4 trillion dollar federal deficit and the 13.4 trillion dollar federal debt. Adding another $180 billion sounds to many voters, like another “stimulus”, a word currently in disfavor even among some Democrats. Thus concern over how to pay for these proposals enters the picture both in terms of the election and in the post election legislative process. Obama would recover the costs of the new initiatives by raising taxes on the same corporations to which he granted the tax incentives; specifically large corporations with an international framework and oil and gas companies.

The fact that little or none of this program is likely to find smooth sailing in the Congress after the election is of secondary importance to the primary purpose which was political. It neither stirred up much excitement as a significant contribution to the jobs problem, nor did it satisfy desperate Democrats faced with early retirement in November.

Hail Mary or no, the game is essentially over and Obama and the Dems are just running out the clock.