Plutocratic Paranoia

Paranoia strikes deep
Into your life it will creep
It starts when you’re always afraid
Step out of line, the man come and take you away

—Stephen Stills, “For What It’s Worth

In a God-fearing, if not God-ordered, world, one would think that when a billionaire, worried about “a rising tide of hatred of the successful one percent,” stupidly compared progressive critiques of wealth inequality in America to “fascist Nazi Germany,” that reputable institutions, say, like The Wall Street Journal, would have the sense to unequivocally condemn such outrageous nonsense.

Nope. Not only did the Journal publish this disgruntled plutocrat’s letter about a week ago, today we find that the paper’s editorial writers, always happy apologists for our emerging plutocracy, have now become defenders of plutocratic paranoia. Oh, there was the gentle admission that one ought to be more careful in one’s use of comparisons to Nazi Germany, but the real condemnation was saved for what the writers called “the politics of economic class warfare,” which is how the rich right views any criticism of the one-percenters gobbling up most of the bennies the economic recovery has handed out the past four years or so.

Paranoia is striking deep into the hearts of some of America’s wealthiest folks and the ideological defenders of an out-of-adjustment economic system. Perhaps they are starting to believe that liberal critiques of what has been happening for the last 35 years are beginning to resonate with the electorate. Why else would the WSJ editorialists end their defense of the disgruntled plutocrat by falsely saying that liberals are “promoting personal vilification and the abuse of government power to punish political opponents”?

In any case, back to reality. Paul Krugman published a piece a few days ago that addressed the billionaire’s comparison of progressivism to fascism, but he went much further:

Anyway, thinking about this sort of thing makes me realize that there’s a danger, especially for progressives, of confusing the proposition that Obama’s billionaire haters are stark raving mad — which is true — with the proposition that Obama has done nothing that hurts the plutocrats’ interests, which is false. Actually, Obama has been tougher on the one percent than most progressives give him credit for.

Oh, I know that some lefties don’t want to hear it, but Krugman, who has been somewhat critical of President Obama over the years, has some facts to back up what he is saying:

Start with taxes. The Bush tax cuts haven’t gone completely away, but at the very high end they have been pretty much reversed; plus there are additional high-end taxes associated with Obamacare. The result is that taxes on wealthy Americans have basically been rolled back to pre-Reagan levels:

Meanwhile, financial reform looks as if it will have significantly more teeth than expected.

So the one percent does have reason to be upset. No, Obama isn’t Hitler; but he is turning out to be a little bit of FDR, after all.

That chart (which was lifted from an excellent article written by the Atlantic’s Jordan Weissmann) along with Krugman’s remark about the unexpected “teeth” in financial reform (“Dodd-Frank“) may explain why some billionaires, who should have nothing in the world to complain about—what good is all that dough, if you are still afraid of the rabble?—would resort to Nazi references when talking about liberals criticizing them. They feel victimized. Yep. Victimized.

Matthew O’Brien, in a piece titled, “Why Do the Super-Rich Keep Comparing Obama to Hitler?” referenced an occasion during Obama’s first term in which some really wealthy folks, including some of those Obama had referred to late in 2009 as “a bunch of fat cat bankers on Wall Street,” leaned on Obama’s campaign manager, Jim Messina, for a little love from the President. Messina was in New York looking for campaign money—since Obama had done very well among Wall Streeters in 2008—and The New York Times described what happened:

For the next hour, the donors relayed to Messina what their friends had been saying. They felt unfairly demonized for being wealthy. They felt scapegoated for the recession. It was a few weeks into the Occupy Wall Street movement, with mass protests against the 1 percent springing up all around the country, and they blamed the president and his party for the public’s nasty mood. The administration, some suggested, had created a hostile environment for job creators.

Messina politely pushed back. It’s not the president’s fault that Americans are still upset with Wall Street, he told them, and given the public’s mood, the administration’s rhetoric had been notably restrained.

One of the guests raised his hand; he knew how to solve the problem. The president had won plaudits for his speech on race during the last campaign, the guest noted. It was a soaring address that acknowledged white resentment and urged national unity. What if Obama gave a similarly healing speech about class and inequality? What if he urged an end to attacks on the rich? Around the table, some people shook their heads in disbelief.

“Most people in the financial world,” a top Obama donor later told me, “do not understand how most of America feels about them.” But they think they understand how the president’s inner circle feels about them. “This administration has a more contemptuous view of big money and of Wall Street than any administration in 40 years,” the donor said. “And it shows.”

How a group of people with more money than Allah could feel victimized by Obama or any other slightly left-of-center Democrat is beyond me. Perhaps they are starting to hear too many comparisons they don’t like. Maybe they don’t like it when they hear, as it was recently reported, that “The 85 richest people in the world now have as much money as the 3.5 billion poorest put together.”  Or maybe they don’t like it when they hear Paul Krugman’s latest comparison, which he presented yesterday on NPR’s All Things Considered:

I just had my favorite statistic of this morning. The top 40 hedge fund managers in America earned as much as 300,000 schoolteachers in 2012. So that gives you an idea of how unequal a society we’ve become.

You can see where that might ring with a sting in the ears of those “top 40 hedge fund managers,” sort of like a Hitler comparison rings in the ears of a liberal.

But let’s be clear here. No one, at least no one that I know, is talking about “punishing” rich people. It’s not a bad thing that hard work and innovation is rewarded over sloth and foolishness. As Krugman said on NPR:

Nobody thinks that we should be a society without monetary incentives. No one thinks that we should have exact equality or even anything close to that. The point, however, is that our notion of what kind of society we should be, I think, is something like the kind of society we actually were 30, 40 years ago where we had a broad middle class, where the gap between people at the top and the average or the median American was not that large.

See? There’s no need for those hyper-sensitive, fraidy cat billionaires to go all Hitler on us.

Finally, even though there is a rather robust defense of plutocratic paranoia going on among some conservatives, there is some evidence that even Republicans are starting to get the message that the inequalities we see among us threaten our stability as a nation, or, more likely, they are starting to think that such inequalities threaten their electoral prospects as a national party. They are starting to talk about the issue, even though they largely blame it on Obama, and offer as solutions the same old tax-cutting, trickle-down, anti-regulatory nonsense.

But at least for now the issue is front and center and that’s not a bad thing.

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“Believe It”

Watching television this morning I found out that:

The New York Times pronounced last night’s speech a “Diminished State of the Union.”

The Washington Post called it “Obama’s Muted Call.”

Time magazine told us Obama was a “Man with a Modest Plan.”

MSNBC’s Chuck Todd thought the speech didn’t have a lot of “big ideas” in it.

And an ABC News blurb crawling across the screen this morning read:

President Obama offers modest agenda in state of the union address including raising the minimum wage, immigration reform and equal pay for women.

Hmm. “Modest agenda”? “Raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, and equal pay for women” is modest? I guess doing those things are modest if you are wealthy, white, and wiener-equipped. Otherwise, getting those things done this year would be anything but modest accomplishments.

The truth is that last night’s speech was pregnant with hope. And although most folks in the news business missed it, the heart and soul of the speech was a call to faith. No, not the kind of faith you rehearse on Sundays at church. Another kind of faith. The kind we should all rehearse as Americans. If you didn’t see the speech, you can read it for yourself and make up your own mind as to whether President Obama’s SOTU address was diminished, muted, or modest. But you really should watch the end for yourself and see that this speech was really about having faith in our experimental country’s ability to right itself, as we have done before.

Watch this short clip of what happened and then I’ll tell you more:

Now, I post below a complete transcript of the end of the speech. And if you read it you will notice that the clip above ended before the President made the connection between the struggles and tenacity of Cory Remsburg and the difficulties and possibilities of America. (I have highlighted the part not shown.) Every news outlet I could find that posted a clip of this particular part of Obama’s speech left out the end, left out the larger connection. Why is that? Because as hard as some journalists might try, sometimes they fail to see what is right before their eyes. And right before their eyes—our eyes, our American eyes—was a President calling us to a deeper faith in our collective selves:

Let me tell you about one of those families I’ve come to know.

I first met Cory Remsburg, a proud Army Ranger, at Omaha Beach on the 65th anniversary of D-Day. Along with some of his fellow Rangers, he walked me through the program, the ceremony. He was a strong, impressive young man, had an easy manner. He was sharp as a tack. And we joked around, and took pictures, and I told him to stay in touch.

A few months later, on his 10th deployment, Cory was nearly killed by a massive roadside bomb in Afghanistan. His comrades found him in a canal, face down, underwater, shrapnel in his brain.

For months, he lay in a coma. And the next time I met him, in the hospital, he couldn’t speak; he could barely move. Over the years, he’s endured dozens of surgeries and procedures, hours of grueling rehab every day.

Even now, Cory is still blind in one eye. He still struggles on his left side. But slowly, steadily, with the support of caregivers like his dad Craig, and the community around him, Cory has grown stronger. Day by day, he’s learned to speak again and stand again and walk again, and he’s working toward the day when he can serve his country again.

“My recovery has not been easy,” he says. “Nothing in life that’s worth anything is easy.”

Cory is here tonight. And like the Army he loves, like the America he serves, Sergeant First Class Cory Remsburg never gives up, and he does not quit.  

My fellow Americans — my fellow Americans, men and women like Cory remind us that America has never come easy. Our freedom, our democracy, has never been easy. Sometimes we stumble; we make mistakes; we get frustrated or discouraged.

But for more than two hundred years, we have put those things aside and placed our collective shoulder to the wheel of progress: to create and build and expand the possibilities of individual achievement; to free other nations from tyranny and fear; to promote justice and fairness and equality under the law, so that the words set to paper by our founders are made real for every citizen.

The America we want for our kids — a rising America where honest work is plentiful and communities are strong; where prosperity is widely shared and opportunity for all lets us go as far as our dreams and toil will take us — none of it is easy. But if we work together; if we summon what is best in us, the way Cory summoned what is best in him, with our feet planted firmly in today but our eyes cast towards tomorrow, I know it’s within our reach.

Believe it.

I believe.

How Long Will The Excluded Wait?

Robert Reich begins his latest column this way:

People ask me all the time why we don’t have a revolution in America, or at least a major wave of reform similar to that of the Progressive Era or the New Deal or the Great Society.

Middle incomes are sinking, the ranks of the poor are swelling, almost all the economic gains are going to the top, and big money is corrupting our democracy. So why isn’t there more of a ruckus?

Revolution? Ruckus? Well, why aren’t people making more election-changing noise? Reich gave three reasons, which I will list without most of his supporting material:

1) “…the working class is paralyzed with fear it will lose the jobs and wages it already has…No one has any job security. The last thing they want to do is make a fuss and risk losing the little they have.”

2) “In prior decades students were a major force for social change. But today’s students don’t want to make a ruckus. They’re laden with debt…record numbers are still living at home.”

3) “Third and finally, the American public has become so cynical about government that many no longer think reform is possible…It’s hard to get people worked up to change society or even to change a few laws when they don’t believe government can possibly work.”

That last reason for a reluctance to raise a ruckus can be documented by the most recent ABC News/Washington Post poll, which found:

confidence in washington

As you can see, Republicans have done a good job of poisoning the well of governance, with their obstructionist tactics and willingness to sabotage the economic recovery and their refusal to do anything to address the income and wealth gap in America. But such tactics, although successful in bringing Democrats down, have damaged the Republican Party’s image profoundly. The poll found that only 36% of Republicans have significant confidence in their own party. Think about that.

But think, too, about the fact that a large part of the reason that even Republicans don’t have much confidence in their own party or their party’s leadership is that extremist teapartiers think the GOP hasn’t gone far enough in its obstructionism. Many of those folks think that John Boehner has sold them out. For God’s sake, many think that Mitch McConnell is too liberal.

As crazy as that sounds, things are actually worse. Consider the right’s reaction to Pope Francis. When the boss man of a gazillion Catholics dared to criticize increasing income and wealth inequality, when he called out “trickle-down theories” for their failure to deliver “greater justice and inclusiveness in the world,” his words were branded as “pure Marxism” by Rush Limbaugh. Other right-wingers called him a socialist and FoxNews.com annointed him “the Catholic Church’s Obama.” Just a few days ago a News Editor for FoxNews.com, himself a Catholic, said that,

Pope Francis has declared war on those who aspire to provide a better life for themselves and their families, expressing the misguided snobbery of a man for whom money has never been an issue.

Such feelings run deep on the right. That FoxNews.com editor went on to say that, “the only charity the pope supports is forced redistribution.” Ahh. That’s the real offense the Pope committed. He thinks, and he thinks Jesus thinks, governments ought to be involved in seeing to it that there is a more equitable distribution of wealth. He can see with his presumably holy eyes that if the world’s poor and underserved are to utterly depend on the generosity of the rich to keep them afloat, they are a most miserable lot indeed. The Pope says trickle-down economics,

expresses a crude and naïve trust in the goodness of those wielding economic power and in the sacralized workings of the prevailing economic system. Meanwhile, the excluded are still waiting.

All of which leads me back to Robert Reich’s column. How long will the excluded wait? Reich listed three reasons why more people don’t make a bigger fuss about the breathtaking economic inequities we see here in America and the fact that “big money is corrupting our democracy.” But he should have included a fourth reason: the big money corruption itself. Rich people, particularly rich conservative people, are buying this republic and the politicians who manage it, as well as influencing low-information voters who fall for the slick and misleading advertising that big money buys.

If you have the stomach for it, I invite you to read one the most depressing articles I have read in a long time. The Mother Jones piece, titled “Meet the New Kochs: The DeVos Clan’s Plan to Defund the Left,” chronicles how a wealthy Michigan family, whose billions were acquired through the pyramid-like distributing company Amway, was able to purchase the votes necessary to pass union-crippling right-to-work legislation in a state that was once union friendly.

I will confess that after reading the article, my usual political optimism was shaken. I fear for our future if something isn’t done to restrain the flow of money into our politics. The 87-year-old Richard DeVos, who cofounded Amway, and his eldest son Dick DeVos should not be able to do what they did in Michigan. And what they did has effects beyond the obvious race to the bottom in terms of workers’ wages and working conditions:

Passing right-to-work in Michigan was more than a policy victory. It was a major score for Republicans who have long sought to weaken the Democratic Party by attacking its sources of funding and organizing muscle…So DeVos and his allies hit labor—and the Democratic Party—where it hurt: their bank accounts. By attacking their opponents’ revenue stream, they could help put Michigan into play for the GOP heading into the 2016 presidential race—as it was more than three decades earlier, when the state’s Reagan Democrats were key to winning the White House.

It’s pretty simple. Republicans believe that if they can weaken, if not destroy, labor unions, they can control the country’s politics:

the Michigan fight has given hope—and a road map—to conservatives across the country working to cripple organized labor and defund the left. Whereas party activists had for years viewed right-to-work as a pipe dream, a determined and very wealthy family, putting in place all the elements of a classic political campaign, was able to move the needle in a matter of months. “Michigan is Stalingrad, man,” one prominent conservative activist told me. “It’s where the battle will be won or lost.”

That Michigan fight is going on here in Missouri. The very first hearing this year in the Missouri House, which is dominated by right-wing Republicans, was used to promote anti-union legislation, in this case falsely titled the “Freedom To Work Act.” The only “freedom” written into this bill is freedom for workers who benefit from union representation on the job to opt out of having to pay any fee to the union for its collective bargaining services. In other words, this bill, and other so-called right-to-work legislation, establishes that there is, after all, such a thing as a free lunch.eric burlison

The idea, obviously, is to starve unions of needed resources, even though the Missouri bill’s sponsor, a Springfield Republican, claimed that the legislation “would make unions stronger.” Let me state the obvious here: If a right-winger tells you that a bill he is sponsoring will make unions stronger, he is lying through his gold teeth.

It’s equally obvious that if unions are starved of funds and can’t afford to defend the interests of working people, both on the job and during the election cycle, then rich Republicans will have their way. That is why rich Republicans pour so much money into these efforts, with 24 states now having such laws as the one being crafted here in Missouri. And if more states follow the trend and engage in a race to the bottom, the situation Robert Reich described—sinking middle incomes, growing poverty, and rich people realizing most of the economic gains—will get worse.

And if it gets bad enough, the ruckus, or the revolution, will come.

Do Businesses Have A Moral Obligation To Their Workers? A Missouri Businessman Says They Do

As the ObamaCare experiment continues, critics are still wishing for, or in some cases trying to engineer, its absolute failure.

Obviously, if you have been following politics closely since 2008, you know that right-wingers want to undermine the Affordable Care Act largely because they believe that doing so would destroy the Obama presidency, a goal they sketched out at the beginning of his first term. These folks did not—and still do not—want this president to be transformative, to go down in history as someone who mattered. And if the ACA turns out to be successful, if the experiment works, it will mean that its presidential champion, and the political party that supported him, will matter a great deal.

Peter Wehner, a very conservative columnist, used to work for George W. Bush. But in Ayn Randish, Tea Party circles, he is considered a “neo-liberal” and a “statist” and one who promotes “wealth distribution.” That’s how far right the right-wing has drifted. In the real world, the world of facts, Wehner is an anti-Obama right-winger who thinks the failure of healthcare reform will not only “indict” the Obama administration, but will “hurt liberalism,” too. Why? Because such a failure would mean that the attempt to achieve “universal health care coverage,” something that liberals “have been aiming for for half a century,” will be politically dead, along with the Obama legacy.

A few days ago, Wehner wrote a piece titled “A Scenario for the Repeal of ObamaCare,” in which he quotes fellow right-winger Avik Roy as saying that if Republicans take over the White’s House and Senate in 2017, and if the number of “newly insured could be dwarfed by the political constituency of those harmed by the law,” then “President Obama’s signature legislation may not be long for this world.” To which Wehner responds:

If so, it would sink the Obama presidency, both in real time and in the eyes of history. Which is precisely what ought to occur.

So, there you have it. They want Obama’s graying scalp, even if it means hurting millions upon millions of uninsured and otherwise uninsurable folks. This stuff is personal.

And speaking of personal, a column that appeared recently in the Joplin Globe was also personal. Except in a good way. A local businessman, who holds a degree in chemistry and physics, wrote a piece (“The impact of ACA isn’t really ‘devastating’ at all”) that blew me away (thanks to blogger Jim Wheeler for the tip).

Kelly Meares, who co-founded and operates a business in Webb City, Mo., was inspired by Senator Roy Blunt’s invitation “to share horror stories and devastation brought upon fellow Missourians by the implementation of Obamacare.” Well, I’m sure Ol’ Roy didn’t expect this ironic reply from someone here in Southwest Missouri:

Thanks for the invitation to share the devastating impacts of Obamacare on our family. If you don’t mind, I will refer to it as the ACA instead of a hate-based euphemism. Yes, Obama has adopted the term hoping to neutralize it, but the Affordable Care Act was created by Congress and built on a hodgepodge of Republican ideas in the hope of bipartisanship while still (regrettably) mollycoddling insurance companies.

Because of the ACA, our business is suffering through lower insurance costs for the first time ever. In spite of staff aging up, our provider has lowered our premium costs. We were accustomed to double-digit increases for most of the last decade. 

Wow! Good ACA news for a change. And from a businessman! Meares goes on to note that an often overlooked provision in the ACA—the requirement that insurance companies in the individual and small group market have to spend at least 80% of premiums (85% for the large group market) Kelly Meares, founderon actual health care or else refund the difference to policyholders—resulted in 588,000 Missourians getting checks from their insurance companies in 2012.

Meares also notes that thanks to the ACA his young adult daughter “has had the security of insurance as a dependent on our policy since leaving college” and “will be able to transition to a plan on the exchange regardless of pre-existing conditions.” That is really “devastating stuff,” he mockingly tells Senator Blunt.

But what is really devastating, in terms of countering enemies of the ACA like Roy Blunt, is the following sweet sarcasm:

I fear that the ACA will allow hospitals and medical practitioners to spend less time chasing debtors and foreclosing on the homes of the unfortunate people who happen to have some assets but insufficient or no insurance coverage for whatever reason. The medicos will be liberated to practice medicine and will have less deadbeat debt to pass on to the paying customers.

And now mom-and-pop businesses that make the sacrifice to provide insurance for their employees will have a more level playing field against those businesses that neglect their moral obligation to their workers. Consider this — if your business model depends on a paying a non-living wage and pushing your workers into the safety net (provided by others), then you are not an entrepreneur; you are an exploiter. To borrow a popular hate phrase: You are not a producer; you are a parasite.

Dang! How refreshing to see reflected on the local paper’s opinion page, a page usually filled with anti-Obama and anti-ACA nonsense, the point of view of a businessman who believes that businesses ought not “neglect their moral obligation to their workers.” Heck, who around these parts even knew that businesses actually have a moral obligation to their workers? Fantastic stuff.

Mr. Meares urged “the Missouri GOP controlled statehouse” to “do the right thing” by expanding Medicaid in the state, which would affect 193,000 Missourians. Then he candidly admitted that the ACA is not the perfect solution, that “single payer” would be preferable. “But the doomsayers shot that down,” he says. Yes, they did. From the start there was very little consideration of a single-payer system, which is why, as this principled businessman said earlier, that the ACA was constructed with “a hodgepodge of Republican ideas in the hope of bipartisanship while still (regrettably) mollycoddling insurance companies.”

Meares then looked Roy Blunt in the eyes and told him,

Enough of the mock outrage and straw man arguments, please.

And he finished his remarkable column with this:

Of course, it’s human nature not to like the ACA simply because nobody actually wants insurance. Nobody wants hospitals or doctors. Everybody wants to live a healthy, non-medically entwined existence. But unless the GOP can deliver the latter, then you must do more to support the former instead of making political capital on our denial and obstructing the flawed solution.

I request that you serve the people of Missouri and reject the politics of GOP obstruction at all costs.

Bravo!

______________________________

[photo from the website of Kelly Meares’ business]

President Obama: “Individual Freedom Is The Wellspring Of Human Progress”

There seems to be no appeasing some folks on the left—let’s not even talk about the Obama-hating libertarians on the right—when it comes to their criticism of President Obama, in terms of his perceived involvement in a vast bipartisan conspiracy to make the Fourth Amendment null and void. Protesters express their opposition to the new National Security Agency Utah Data Center.

There is no such conspiracy, of course. We must keep in mind that what most Americans are seemingly worried about is “metadata” collection by the NSA, which President Obama said today,

does not involve the NSA examining the phone records of ordinary Americans. Rather, it consolidates these records into a database that the government can query if it has a specific lead, a consolidation of phone records that the companies already retain for business purposes. The review group turned up no indication that this database has been intentionally abused, and I believe it is important that the capability that this program is designed to meet is preserved.

In other words, the government isn’t recording, or requiring companies to record, your personal phone calls and there has been no demonstrated “intentional abuse.”

Just after President Obama gave his important speech this morning on reforming the NSA (the specific reforms I will leave you to discover for yourself), I heard a guest on MSNBC, Michael Ratner, a prominent human rights lawyer and activist, complain about how the President began his speech by offering “a bouquet of roses to the surveillance community, starting with the history of surveillance since the Revolution.”  

Man, when your first criticism of the President’s speech begins with the speech’s structure, you are doing some Olympic-worthy straw-grasping.

The President did begin his speech with the history of “secret surveillance,” from Paul Revere to Union Army reconnaissance balloons to World War II codebreakers and communication interceptors to the Cold War-fighting National Security Agency, technically created by President Truman in 1952, but whose birth can be traced to the Signal Security Agency used to gather intelligence during WWII.

But even though he began with the positive history of our national intelligence gathering efforts, the President throughout the speech warned of the potential for abuse and “the risk of government overreach,” including spying on domestic “dissidents like Dr. King.” The President even said this:

I believe critics are right to point out that without proper safeguards, this type of program could be used to yield more information about our private lives and open the door to more intrusive bulk collection programs in the future. They’re also right to point out that although the telephone bulk collection program was subject to oversight by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and has been reauthorized repeatedly by Congress, it has never been subject to vigorous public debate.

So, yes, President Obama did begin his speech, which was essentially a rather vigorous defense of the NSA and intelligence gathering, with some history. But he also acknowledged the dangers involved, and he acknowledged the legitimacy of some of the criticism that has been offered since Edward Snowden leaked classified information to the world in June of 2013. More significantly, however, Mr. Obama ended the speech—and some people consider the ending the most important part of any speech—with the following, which I will excerpt in full because it will likely get lost in all the fog of anti-NSA or anti-Obama post-speech analysis:

When you cut through the noise, what’s really at stake is how we remain true to who we are in a world that is remaking itself at dizzying speed. Whether it’s the ability of individuals to communicate ideas, to access information that would have once filled every great library in every country in the world, or to forge bonds with people on the other side of the globe, technology is remaking what is possible for individuals and for institutions and for the international order. So while the reforms that I’ve announced will point us in a new direction, I am mindful that more work will be needed in the future. On thing I’m certain of, this debate will make us stronger. And I also know that in this time of change, the United States of America will have to lead.

It may seem sometimes that America is being held to a different standard. And I’ll admit the readiness of some to assume the worst motives by our government can be frustrating.

No one expects China to have an open debate about their surveillance programs or Russia to take privacy concerns of citizens in other places into account.

But let’s remember, we are held to a different standard precisely because we have been at the forefront of defending personal privacy and human dignity. As the nation that developed the Internet, the world expects us to ensure that the digital revolution works as a tool for individual empowerment, not government control. Having faced down the dangers of totalitarianism and fascism and communism, the world expects us to stand up for the principle that every person has the right to think and write and form relationships freely, because individual freedom is the wellspring of human progress.

Those values make us who we are. And because of the strength of our own democracy, we should not shy away from high expectations. For more than two centuries, our Constitution has weathered every type of change because we’ve been willing to defend it and because we’ve been willing to question the actions that have been taken in its defense. Today is no different. I believe we can meet high expectations. Together, let us chart a way forward that secures the life of our nation while preserving the liberties that make our nation worth fighting for.

I hope everyone, including human rights activists like Michael Ratner, will pay at least as much attention to the end of the speech as Mr. Ratner paid to its beginning.

Quiet Passion

“Anybody in this country who works hard should have a fair shot at success, period.”

—President Obama, January 9, 2104

A week ago today Chris Christie gave his famous press conference denying he knew anything about his aides deliberately clogging up traffic on New Jersey’s side of the busiest bridge in the world for some unknown reason. That presser has been the subject of much media attention, for obvious reasons.

Because of all that attention given to the Christie traffic scandal, what you probably missed a week ago today was a remarkable speech President Obama gave in the East Room of the White House, a few hours after Christie’s press conference that morning. Fortunately for me, MSNBC broadcast the entire speech, the first one in which I heard the President say,

This is going to be a year of action.

Part of the action involves the federal government establishing what the President called “Promise Zones.” He defined them this way:

They’re neighborhoods where we will help local efforts to meet one national goal — that a child’s course in life should be determined not by the zip code she’s born in, but by the strength of her work ethic and the scope of her dreams.

President Obama made clear that he wasn’t just talking about “poverty in our inner cities,” but also about “suburban neighborhoods that have been hammered by the housing crisis,” and “manufacturing towns that still haven’t recovered after the local plant shut down,” and “islands of rural America where jobs are scarce.” Those are diverse zip codes.

And he also talked about how helping these diverse communities wasn’t just the job of government, but should include “faith institutions and our businesses and the parents and the communities themselves.” The model of government partnering with non-government entities used in the speech was an organization called the Harlem Children’s Zone, which serves poor children and families in Harlem by providing parenting support (“Baby College”), pre-school programs (“to get kids learning at four years old”) and public charter schools (“that help students succeed all the way through high school”).

In the audience listening to the speech were none other than both senators from Kentucky, Mitch McConnell and Rand Paul. One of the initial five Promise Zones will be in southeastern Kentucky.

Having said all that, what I really found amazing about the speech you will see in the clip posted below. I watched both Chris Christie’s press conference and this speech by Obama on the same day and I must say the contrast was striking.

There was a young man standing behind the President named Roger Brown, who had attended Harlem Children’s Zone and who, you will hear the President say, “almost got himself expelled” for misbehaving. He is now a college sophomore. What you will also hear, in the President’s voice as he wanders off script, is the kind of quiet passion he almost never gets credit for. There are those who do things with a roar, like Chris Christie, and there are those who do things with much less noise but with as much or more passion.

Before you watch the five-minute clip below, read part of what President Obama said and think about how amazing it is that the United States of America, an experiment largely started by some brilliant and hypocritical white men, has become such a place that someone with a dark complexion and a strange name can today lead the country and say this:

If you want to know why I care about this stuff so much. It’s because I’m not that different from Roger.  There was a period of time in my life where I was goofing off.  I was raised by a single mom.  I didn’t know my dad.  The only difference between me and Roger was my environment was more forgiving than his.  That’s the only difference.  If I screwed up, the consequences weren’t quite as great…

I want more kids to have the chance that Roger got.  I want more kids to have the chance this country gave me.  We should all want every one of our kids and their families to have a shot at success.  If you are willing to dream big and work hard, you should grow up with the same opportunities in life as any other child living in any other place. 

The entire speech can be seen here. Transcript here.

At The Movies In America

So, you’re in a movie theater with your wife getting ready to watch an afternoon film, after having a nice “date” lunch, and you decide you need to get a message to your three-year-old daughter for some reason. She’s at daycare. You text. Maybe you just wanted your three-year-old daughter to know that mommy and daddy would be there in time to pick her up. Won’t be late because of the movie.

The next thing you know you’re dead.

You’re dead because another guy, sitting with his wife in the seats behind you, apparently had a major problem with you texting in the dimly lit place, just before the movie was to begin. And the guy in the theater with the major problem was carrying a gun. His manliness thus weaponized, he confronted you and told you to put your phone away. You tried to explain to him about your three-year-old daughter. He wouldn’t have it. He said he was going to get an usher or manager, but he came back alone. And even more irritated. Voices were raised. Soon, so was a gun. His gun. He shot you in your chest, your wife getting hit in the hand because she instinctively tried to shield your body.

And because you and the killer were in stand-your-ground Florida, the killer, a retired police captain, now claims that he feared for his life. His lawyer argues that it was your fault for being the “aggressor.” You apparently tossed a box of popcorn at the killer.

Which, like texting in a theater, can be an offense worthy of death in the National Rifle Association’s America.

Alas, let’s face it. These days, just going to a movie in the National Rifle Association’s America can be deadly.

[Facebook photo]

Big Boss Man Ain’t So Big

I’m gonna get me a boss man
One who’s gonna treat me right
I work hard in the day time
Rest easy at night
Big boss man, can’t you hear me when I call? Can’t you hear me when I call?
I said you ain’t so big, you’re just tall that’s all

—Luther Dixon and Jimmy Reed, 1960

foolishly, I predicted that Chris Christie would be the Republican nominee for president in 2016. Now, thanks to Christie’s traffic scandal in New Jersey, and thanks to his possibly illicit use of Hurricane Sandy relief money, the guv’nor has messed up my bold forecasting.

I apologize for grossly underestimating Republican corruption. Won’t happen again.

Perhaps because I had gone out on a limb to predict the 2016 Republican race’s end, I have followed very closely (beginning with Rachel Maddow’s coverage, long before other national journalists bothered to cover it) what has been happening in New Jersey regarding Rachel Maddow Christiethat famous bridge and that now-infamous traffic jam that followed from those increasingly-infamous orders given to make Democratic politicians in Fort Lee pay a price for thumbing their noses at the I-am-not-a-bully governor.

The problem is that it was ordinary folks who got hurt in all the mess. Ordinary folks on their way to work or to school or to doctor appointments. Or folks waiting on emergency responders to fight through traffic gridlock to get to them. I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, after years of Obama-hating Republicans hurting millions of ordinary folks by trying to sabotage the economic recovery, that making life miserable for motorists in a small town in New Jersey in order to exact political revenge was the weapon of choice for right-wing partisans.

I watched Governor Bully’s marathon presser last week, every single second of it, and I was impressed. I was impressed by his stunning lack of curiosity about why close aides would undertake a mission to disrupt traffic around such an iconic water-crosser like the George Washington Bridge. Revealing such an embarrassing lack of curiosity was, in this case, probably the only thing Christie could do, given that his only defense for what happened is that the hands-on, in-your-face “leader” didn’t have his hands on a thing, and his face was turned the other way.

About the only thing Christie got passionate about was his claim that he was the victim of the mess, that he had been lied to, that he had been “betrayed” by “stupid” people. It remains to be seen just how stupid those people will turn out to be. In the Age of Wikipedia, it remains to be seen if Christie will have the last word on the reputations of the people he attacked, particularly the reputation of his former Deputy Chief of Staff, Bridget Anne Kelly. How would you like your Wikipedia entry to forever reflect, without any input from you, that you are a colossal liar with a penchant for playing stupid and dangerous political tricks behind your Big Boss Man’s back?

And it remains to be seen whether all of this will kill Christie’s presidential ambitions, or whether he will, to borrow a phrase from the last election cycle, self-deport from the race. A lot of people are saying that he can come back, that it is so far away from the start of the 2016 campaign that he has plenty of time to rehabilitate himself, or, more accurately, for others to rehabilitate him. Amazingly, a lot of people are suggesting that all of this mess could actually help him by solidifying his image as a real leader who is not afraid to face the music.

Except that while this tune is being played, not many people are dancing with the bully. Most of those on the right who have bothered to say anything good about Christie have done so mostly in order to take a shot at President Obama, by claiming that the traffic scandal in New Jersey doesn’t compare with all those Obama scandals, which weren’t scandals at all, unless, of course, you are a Foxaholic. These days there are two kinds of scandals: real ones like the one Chris Christie is involved in right now and phony ones like you hear about on Fox “News” and in which President Obama is not and never has been involved.

The truth is that this very real scandal has erupted too early for Christie, in terms of his obvious desire to be president. There is little incentive for others to go out and defend him right now because no one on the national stage has anything invested in him yet. They can just wait and see what happens. If this were early 2016 instead of early 2014, things would be different. Donors who had buried him in money, as well as high-profile pols and pundits who had jumped on his bandwagon, would now be in hyper-defense mode. As it is, there is a wait-and-see attitude among the big players.

And the Tea Party conservatives, those who have an outsized say in who gets the GOP nomination, don’t really care what happens to him, after he exchanged political spit with President Obama toward the end of the 2012 campaign. Getting within cootie range of the Scary Negro is an unforgivable sin in the Teavangelical Church.

So, it doesn’t look good for Christie. And it doesn’t look good for my prediction. Which reminds me to again apologize for my underestimation of Republican corruption. As I said, it won’t happen again.

Fair And Balanced Gossip

Have you heard about the latest gossip found in a not-yet-released book?

No, I’m not talking about the gossip about President Obama and Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden that news outlets have culled—and twisted out of shape to some degree—from former secretary of defense Robert Gates’ too-early-to-tell-all book,”Duty: Memoirs of a Secretary at War.

I’m talking about a much funnier book called, “The Loudest Voice in the Room,” written by Gabriel Sherman, an advanced copy of which was reviewed by The New York Times.

In that book,  which is a 560-page biography of Fox’s master of misinformation, Roger Ailes, you will find Ailes admitting to his Fox lieutenants before the 2012 elections:

I want to elect the next president.

What a howler! A regular knee-slapper! What a revelation! Who could have guessed that Fox was trying to elect Mitt Romney president? How hilariously shocking.

And who could have guessed that the conservative kingmaker, the sultan of sophistry, is an authoritarian? And a crass sexist:

Former employees cited in the book talked of Mr. Ailes’s volatile temper and domineering behavior. In one anecdote, a television producer, Randi Harrison, told Mr. Sherman that while negotiating her salary with Mr. Ailes at NBC in the 1980s, he offered her an additional $100 each week “if you agree to have sex with me whenever I want.”

I wonder if Ailes offered Fox and Friends’ Brian Kilmeade, whom he sarcastically referred to as “a soccer coach from Long Island,” the same deal? More to the point, I wonder what Kilmeade’s answer might have been?

Perhaps most genuinely surprising of all is in what was revealed by “A Fox News spokeswoman” responding to the above incident that was chronicled in Gabriel Sherman’s book:

These charges are false. While we have not read the book, the only reality here is that Gabe was not provided any direct access to Roger Ailes and the book was never fact-checked with Fox News.

Who knew that Fox employed fact checkers? I wonder what they do all day?

The book also offers us one of the funniest descriptions of the insufferable Bill O’Reilly, a man who makes a lot of money for Fox and for himself by constantly advertising his “best-selling” books on his popular evening hour of spit-inducing spin, that you will ever read from someone who knows him better than we do. Ailes said O’Reilly was,

a book salesman with a TV show.

Now, leaving aside the fact that Roger Ailes owes a sincere apology to book salesmen everywhere—if there are any book salesmen left anywhere—you have to admit that reducing the self-bloated Fox host, who thinks he is some kind of intellectual giant kind enough to share his intellectual giantness with the rest of the world, down to a pedestrian book peddler is kind of funny.

No, it’s real funny. Even if what Fox “News” does all day every day is not that funny, considering what it, guided by Roger Ailes, is doing to pollute the minds of millions of our fellow Americans.

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