Wednesday, November 10, 2010

The story of my political formation

The fact that I came of age during the Clinton years had an important effect on my political outlook. The first presidential election I paid any attention to was 1992, when I was 15, and although I naturally rooted for Clinton because my liberal parents did, my observations were mostly superficial. I actually don't remember the 1994 Republican takeover. It just wasn't on my radar at the time. But a year later, as I was beginning college, the government shutdown had an immediate impact on my family. My father was a federal employee, as was our next-door neighbor, a single black woman with a teenage son. It didn't help things that one of my brothers had recently passed away.

For the first time, I got a very direct glimpse of the effect that politics could have on everyday lives. It was no longer just a funny game I saw on TV, featuring colorful personalities in fancy suits. I also began to have my first informed judgment on a political figure, in this case a Congressional leader by the name of Newt Gingrich, who provided me with my first taste of what it was like to deeply loathe a politician.

I also was beginning to discover the phenomenon of Rush Limbaugh, as well as Christian Coalition figures such as Falwell, Robertson, and Reed. I personally encountered people who insisted with a straight face that the president was a rapist, a murderer, and a drug addict. These people, who included a few of my parents' friends, typically spoke of liberals as if describing a distinct species of insect. Arguing with them was usually an exercise in futility, for they had a barrage of "facts" they had picked up from talk radio, which they listened to far more often than I had time to listen to anything.

These experiences left a powerful impression on me, because I couldn't help noticing that the contemporary American right was apparently run by complete lunatics and charlatans. The maligned liberals, on the other hand, were mostly represented for me by thoughtful milquetoasts like Michael Kinsley. Maybe it wasn't fair that I got such a terrible first impression of conservatives, who I know include many reasonable individuals. I was well aware that the left had its share of clowns, such as Al Sharpton, but they didn't seem to matter a whole lot. There was a notable imbalance in the political spectrum that belied the cliche evenhandedness so many pundits found seductive.

I sometimes got the sense that even the conservative intelligentsia were simply playing the good cop to Limbaugh's bad cop, saying the same stuff in gentler language. A 1995 article I read by William F. Buckley took Clinton to task for his attacks on Limbaugh. Buckley conceded that Limbaugh "induces hatred" and that "if I were a liberal, I would hate him," but he went on to suggest that FDR and Truman did the same sort of thing to the other side. Not a word about Limbaugh's lies or conspiracy theories. This from the 20th century's greatest conservative intellectual.

I made these observations long before I gave any serious thought to budgets, taxes, health care, trade, and so on. While certain causes like environmentalism and gay rights were no-brainers to me from the start, I was initially tempted in a more rightward direction on such issues as abortion, affirmative action, and school vouchers. But the disintegration of any sane right-wing establishment was formative for me, and I would watch the problem grow ever worse as the years passed.

Everything that's happening now looks to me like the logical end result of what was happening in the '90s. A very moderate Democratic president presiding over an economic boom is clobbered by conservatives as some kind of left-wing hippie and nearly hounded from office for sexual lapses of no consequence to anyone but his own family. A Republican enters the White House under highly questionable circumstances and in the course of eight years leaves the country in two hapless wars one of which he started for no good reason, unprecedented debt, and the worst recession since the Great Depression. The disaster of the Bush years is so breathtaking I almost distrust my own judgment on the matter. Maybe I'm falling prey to the same kind of partisan hatred that characterized Clinton's adversaries. But no matter how I look at it, I can't escape the conclusion that Bush truly is one of the worst presidents in history. And it's amazing to watch the conservative establishment today attempt to make us all forget that just a few short years ago they practically worshiped the man.

When it comes to the right, the most visible difference between the 1990s and today is the rise of Fox News. Yes, it did begin in 1996, but it didn't become a force to be reckoned with until the Bush years. The first sign came with the election itself, when a reporter who just happened to be Bush's first cousin called the election for Bush, and all the other news networks--the legitimate ones, that is--followed suit. This set the tone for the Florida post-election fiasco that would follow.

Fox has grown steadily worse. Before, it was a right-leaning network that pretended to be fair and balanced. Now it's just a TV version of talk radio, a calculated, large-scale attempt to brainwash its viewers through the use of misleading propaganda, outright lies, and conspiracy-mongering, nonstop 24-hours-a-day, 7-days-a-week. It is nothing more than the right's Pravda. And it still has an astonishing influence on the mainstream networks, the ones we're supposed to believe are "liberal-biased."

So it was all set when the godfather of this mode of politics, Rush Limbaugh, said he hopes Obama fails, and not a single Republican in power had the strength to distance himself from Limbaugh, not without quickly reversing himself and groveling at Limbaugh's feet for forgiveness. This is what's truly new about the right wing: there is now no separation at all between the propagandists of right-wing media and the Republicans holding public office.

And somehow, the things said against Obama and other Democrats are worse than during the Clinton years. Back then, the attacks were merely nasty. Now, it is absolutely no exaggeration to say that Republican politicians and commentators are stoking insurrection. The tone of conservative hatred today isn't just hysterical, but contains not-very-subtle appeals to violence: talks of Second Amendment remedies, drawing crosshairs on Congressional maps with the slogan "Don't retreat--reload," explicitly defending violent overthrow of the government. The rhetoric is increasingly apocalyptic, and the very name of the opposition movement--"Tea Party"--deliberately alludes to the events leading up to the American Revolution. What's scariest about all this is that the Clinton years gave us Timothy McVeigh; who knows what's coming up now. And something will, make no mistake, because the tea-partiers will invariably be disappointed when the officials they have elected fail to stop Obama's agenda. And they don't strike me as the sorts of people to take disappointment by packing their bags and walking home.

That's why there's a lot more to the current political situation than rooting for teams. I don't mean to suggest that the past was one long Golden Age–I know my parents' generation alone went through Vietnam and Watergate–but I feel in my bones that there's something uniquely disturbing about what's happening now, even under the first president in my life I've had any enthusiasm for.
This post is based on a comment I wrote on Emily Hauser's blog last week. She suggested that I post it to my blog. I expanded on a few sections and edited the wording here and there, but it's more or less the same.
Cross-posted to Daily Kos.

Monday, November 01, 2010

With friends like these

cross-posted at DovBear's blog

It appears that John Boehner is planning to campaign for Rich Iott, the Nazi-impersonating congressional candidate.

It's important to understand how offensive this is: the problem is not that Iott participated in historical reenactments, which are perfectly legitimate, or even that he dressed as a bad guy. The problem is that the whole reenactment is invested with significant historical revisionism that views these SS officers admiringly and makes only the vaguest references to the crimes they committed. The website contains a disclaimer disavowing support for either neo-Nazis or the original Nazis and condemning "the atrocities which made them infamous." What it does not do is make any mention of the Holocaust, Jews, or even genocide.

This approach to the war is Holocaust minimization, a soft form of denial that doesn't engage in any outright conspiracy-mongering about a Holocaust "hoax," but nonetheless describes World War II in a way that greatly downplays the crimes of the Nazis in an effort to make the two sides seem somehow equivalent. In an interview with Anderson Cooper, Iott argued that we shouldn't judge these officers because they were doing what they thought was right, that the SS unit he was reenacting had never been charged with war crimes (in fact, one member was recently charged with the murder of 58 Jews), and that "Horrible things...happened on both sides." If you think Iott makes a single mention of the Holocaust during this interview (other than a bare statement that he doesn't deny it), I've got a tea-bag to sell you.

After the refreshing disavowal of Iott by Eric Cantor, who is Jewish, I find Boehner's decision to stick by this guy pretty sickening. It brings to mind another story recently about the Emergency Committee for Israel, a lobbying organization that is supposedly devoted to getting pro-Israel candidates elected ("pro-Israel" in the most hawkish, right-wing sense) but in practice seems more interested simply in getting Republicans elected:
If ECI genuinely cared about electing pro-Israel members of Congress, it would launch big money campaigns against Tea Party candidates, such as Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), the source said.

Toomey, for instance, has twice voted against foreign aid packages, which are widely viewed as principal pro-Israel litmus tests, as they include large amounts of financial assistance for the Jewish state. (According to the Philadelphia Jewish Exponent, Toomey said that he "feels Israel no longer needs economic aid, and should simply receive military assistance.")

Pollak, however, defended Toomey, noting that he voted against foreign aid not out of hostility toward Israel, but "as a matter of larger fiscal principles. He has never shown a particular animosity toward Israel -- far from it."
In short, vote Republican because the Republicans are better for Israel, but vote Republican even when they aren't better for Israel. If that confuses you, don't worry about it, just vote Republican.

What we need to understand is that a lot of the Israel talk by Republicans is not done for the sake of Jews. It is for the consumption of Christian Zionists who vastly outnumber their Jewish counterparts and who aren't necessarily even "pro-Jewish," as can be seen from Pat Robertson's bizarre views.

Or, to paraphrase James Baker, we don't vote for Republicans anyway, so we might as well go be fruitful and multiply.