Tuesday, September 6, 2011

Republican hopefuls wage class warfare on poor

If you had any doubt that the Republican Party is the party of the wealthy, the recent spate of suggested "federal spending cuts" from the presidential front-runners ought to dispel that for you. In an attempt to out-crazy each other, GOP presidential hopefuls have suggested de-funding NPR and PBS (two of the smallest expenditures Uncle Sam makes these days), de-funding the First Lady's activities, making the President fly commercial, and a host of other silly mumblings. None of these are really serious, of course, and the ones aimed personally at the Obamas are plain old white racism disguised as right wingnut bombast.

The fact is, there is a huge segment of conservative America that is just flat pissed off that there's a nigger in the White House, and he ain't serving dinner. Most egregious is the tea-baggers' characterization of Michelle Obama's trip to Africa as a "vacation." Clearly, the First Lady was on a policy mission on behalf of her husband, a tradition of Democratic First Ladies going back to Eleanor Roosevelt, who traveled over 40,000 miles in one three-month period in 1934 while her husband wrestled with dire domestic and international economic problems (sound familiar?) Nobody ever made a peep when Jackie Kennedy, Pat Nixon, or Hillary Clinton made similar trips. Clearly, there is nothing more than racism behind the attacks.

Even worse than the racist attacks on the Obamas, however, are the foaming-at-the-mouth attacks on the poor for not paying any income taxes. I first heard of this newest Republican knee-slapper on "The Daily Show" and so dismissed it as another one of Jon Stewart's send-ups of "See how mean the Republicans are?" There is a bruise on the bottom of my chin from my jaw hitting the top of my desk when I Googled the issue and found out that more than one Republican presidential candidate, goaded on by GOP sideliners and just plain conservative goofballs, actually suggested thet poor people pay more taxes. John Huntsman, Rick Perry, and Michelle Bachmann all have made numerous claims to the effect that if the federal government leaned on the people who are excused from paying taxes because they're unemployed or otherwise poverty-stricken, we wouldn't have to take Warren Buffet up on his clearly empty claim that he wishes he could pay more income tax. (Hey, Warren, have your accountants decline some of those huge tax breaks you're getting -- really, you can do that!) Slate.com's David Weigel had the most comprehensive report on it so far.

This "new Republican orthodoxy," as Weigel calls it, originates with the house organ of the ultra-rich, the Wall Street Journal. As a lifelong journalist, I'll be the first to praise the WSJ for its standards in writing and editing, which it has for generations emphasized at the expense of a decent focus-and-brace layout. The Journal stresses close vetting of what facts it chooses to print. But the Journal doesn't exist and has never existed in the reality of the working man and woman. The Wall Street Journal has always reported from the gilt-edged world of ... well, Wall Street, where America's money is gambled, won, and lost. Weigel even attributes the phrase "new Republican orthodoxy" to to the WSJ and points out that the Journal first sniffed at the tax-exempt poor as "luckie duckies" in 2002 and 2003. I'm especially tickled by Weigel's characterization of the Journal's "outrage" at taxation: "Tax cuts for the rich—tax cuts for anyone, really, but the Journal has always been concerned about tax cuts for the rich—require a broad base of outrage."

Of course, the Wall Street Journal can't be blamed for carrying water for the handful of Americans who hold and trade in the vast majority of America's wealth. I was one journalist who shrugged at Rupert Murdoch's purchase of Dow Jones and, thus, the WSJ. The only difference between the pre-Murdoch Journal and Fox News was that, as I've mentioned already, the Journal tended to research its facts, while Fox News wouldn't know a fact if it waltzed into the studio and plunked its inconvenient ass on the news desk. But just because the WSJ vets the facts it chooses to print doesn't mean it is in any way balanced. It has never been balanced, it has always been avidly pro-wealthy (it was founded by Dow Jones in 1874, for heaven's sake!) and the editorials nearly a decade ago grumping about the "lucky duckies" were probably nothing more than the airing of a rich man's gripe via the editorial board, a flight of fancy that edit boards occasionally allow their members, to be consumed by high-dollar investors and then forgotten. I don't read the Journal daily, but I keep up on the industry, and to my knowledge the Wall Street Journal has never actually waged a class war on the poor.

The current crop of Republican presidential candidates, however, seem to have no qualms about doing just that. Their stump speeches about the priveleged poor put the number of Americans who don't pay any taxes at somewhere between 47 percent and 51 percent. Surely, they crow in high conservative dudgeon, everybody in America can afford to pay one dollar or even ten dollars a year for federal services! Well, for the truth (and I flinch at using that word because I was so routinely flogged in graduate school for using it) one turns to the Christian Science Monitor. While I differ philosophically with CSM on matters of human spirituality, the newspaper is a pillar of rectitude when it comes to balancing its reportage. And the Monitor's July 28 blog, by tax expert Donald Marron, puts into perspective the reality of why so many American families pay no income taxes. That reality is a truly inconvenient truth for the rich man's Republican Party: Half of Americans pay no income tax because they're too poor. That's right, too poor. When the necessities of life are subtracted from their incomes (as they are from mine) they are left with not enough money to pay taxes. I'm proud to say my household (the lovely but fiscally conservative Mrs. Rice, Cocoa the Shi Tsu, Daisy the big yeller dawg, Ebony the cat, and I) paid a fistful of dollars to the federal government last year after all of our deductions were taken into account. The last time I got a tax refund, I paid nearly $14,000 in tuition and fees to further my education in hopes of dramatically increasing my income so I could pay my income taxes without dunning savings. So far the increased income hasn't happened, but we hit the savings account to pay income tax back in April, and I'm not complaining. (Daisy's miffed, but she never really understood about taxes.)

My father, however, struggles to live a life worth living on Social Security, a shamefully inadequate pension, and a modest inheritance left behind by my late mother. And when I say "modest," I mean somewhere south of the $5,000 range. Should this man pay income tax? Well, let me tote up the balance sheet: He wrestled drunks, braved tornadoes, faced guns wielded by desperate people, and otherwise risked his life for the security of people in my town for more than 25 years. In thanks for that, We The People have awarded him a pension that doesn't even pay his mortgage. Social Security buys the groceries and pays the utility bills. The rest he must earn by writing a local newspaper column, occasionally picking up a substitute teaching gig, and whatever he can make selling the pieces of art he's created over the years. Oh, and he's 82 years old and in constantly ill health. His decision to serve and protect the citizens of this ultra-conservative town have left him with two artificial hips, steel rods in his back, low-grade hepatitis, and chronic shoulder problems. Michelle Bachmann thinks he should pay income taxes. Pardon me if I politely disagree.

The irony of my father's situation is that he's a lifelong Republican. He's always hated the patronage that seems to attach to federal service, and being the dreamer he is, he's always believed that keeping government small was the best way to encourage business investment. So the "class warfare" being perpetrated by the current crop of GOP presidential wannabes is more than just a disappointment to him. It's a betrayal. If they have their way, the Republicans would turn Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty into a war on the poor.

Actually, according to the Wall Street Journal, they've already done it.

Monday, July 4, 2011

Wiener shouldn't have been so sorry

 Anthony Wiener has resigned from Congress because of the "scandal" about him flashing his male member in a tweet. Correct me if I'm wrong, but this scandal went something like this:

Respected member of Congress used his cell phone to take pictures of himself, including at least one of his possibly erect penis, then sent the pictures through some sort of cell phone-based technology to more than one woman, none of whom were his wife. It's a juvenile thing to do, something more than one junior high kid has done (I have a nephew who, when he was twelve, faked a gigantic erection in his boxers and posted the photos on Facebook. I thought it was hilarious. I was alone in that thinking; his poor mother clutched her pearls so tightly she nearly strangled herself.)

As usual, of course, the resignation isn't over the original act but over the lying that came afterward. When confronted by somebody with less work to do than their salary justifies (I think it was a member of the media, most of whom should be boxing groceries in supermarkets in Michigan, to be honest with you) Wiener did what every kid does. He denied it. "Nope, that wasn't me. Must'a been some other guy."

Even at that point, he's still not on very thin ice. I mean, who among us, caught with our pants around our ankles, hasn't assumed the mask of innocence and denied the offense? It is the nature of the human animal: "Oops, you think that's wrong ... why no, I didn't do that. Or, at least, I wish I hadn't done it." But, of course, as grownups we quickly realize that a child's response is the fastest way to lose credibility, friends, spouses, summer homes, and everything else that makes life worth living, so in a trice we sheepishly admit, "Yeah, I did that, I'm sorry, it won't happen again, or if it does I'll make damn sure I don't get caught."

And that's exactly what Anthony Wiener should have done. Instead of making up some wild-ass story about hackers and how he was the victim, yadda, yadda, yadda, he should have just said, "Dick? What dick? Oh, that dick! Well, yeah, it was a private joke that got away from me, I'm sorry, it won't happen again. Say, how 'bout those Republicans running for president, huh? Will the craziness ever end?"

At that point, it doesn't matter how much he gets hammered by the press, all he has to do is glare at the offending reporter and ask belligerently, "Do you really want to talk about my dick? Do you?" Man or woman, I guarandamntee you, nobody really wants to talk about the congressman's dick. A man with Wiener's build and physique is going to be able to shame very guy in the room. And women just don't want to talk about that, end of discussion. It's bad enough that he waved it around in the digital world, but nobody wants him to whip it out during a press conference, and that is surely the image that would go through everyone's mind if he challenged the media on the point.

But Wiener didn't do that. Instead of taking the Alpha Male route, which even in the 21st century will back down everybody but Chuck Norris and Rachel Maddow, he made up some cock-and-bull (snerk! I said "cock") story about somebody else hacking his account and pretending to be him. Yeah, he was probably embarrassed about it, and he should have been, but there is no reason for him to be so ashamed of his boyish streak that he denies it altogether. Nobody should be that ashamed over a harmless twitterprank.

In fact, all of this shame over being human really needs to stop. Let the little old ladies in society (of both sexes) cackle and tut-tut all they want about "inappropriate" actions; they are in a very small but vocal minority and don't matter to anyone but the media, who also don't matter any more. I'd like to suggest that members of Congress adopt a WWLBJD (What would LBJ do?) default when confronted by an indignant public. Suppose cell phone technology and Twitter and all that other social networking crapola existed in 1968, what would LBJ have done if he'd been caught sending tweets of the presidential pecker to Washington women? What, you don't think Johnson would have snapped a photo and sent it to, say, Eunice Shriver? ("I don't know about Massafuckinchusetts, but this is how big we grow 'em in Texas!") Would LBJ have apologized abjectly for his "indiscretion" and walked away from office? Aw, hell no! Johnson never even apologized for Vietnam, the mistake that actually did drive him out of office. And he didn't quit because he thought he was wrong, he quit because he thought he couldn't be re-elected.

No, LBJ was a man to pull up his shirt and show his gall bladder surgery scar to photographers. He was a man who freely discussed his genitals with his tailor on an Oval Office telephone that was being recorded. Lyndon Johnson was a man with power and he didn't give a good goddamn what people thought, as long as they voted the way he wanted when the roll was called. So, at the risk of sounding apologetic, let me just say, "I'm sorry." No, not about that. I'm sorry Anthony Wiener resigned. He should have manned up at the first hint of scandal and dared anyone to talk about it. The only thing he should have been sorry about was that he didn't include Barbara Walters in the tweet.

Monday, February 14, 2011

Sherrod sues Breitbart: I told you so!

Oh, ye of little faith!

Some of you Doubting Thomases out there scoffed (scoffed, I say!) when I suggested last August that Shirley Sherrod had a bona fide libel case against Andrew Breitbart. Well, scoff no more, you doubters! Last week, Sherrod filed a defamation lawsuit against Breitbart, and damned if she didn't have the claws to have him served right in the middle of the ultra-right's mental mass-turbation frenzy, aka the Conservative Political Action Conference in WashDC.

For those who don't remember, or choose to forget, Breitbart is the frat boy punk who deliberately re-spliced a videotape of Sherrod addressing an NAACP conference in March 2010 in which Sherrod told a story on herself as a cautionary tale about how anyone can be susceptible to bigotry. The purpose of her comments was to reaffirm her dedication to equal rights of all Americans, regardless of color, and to admonish her audience that reverse discrimination is as bad as the original bigotry that it seeks to avenge. Being the calculating character assassin he is, Breitbart deliberately edited the video to make it appear that Sherrod was boasting that she'd denied a white tobacco farmer assistance from the federal agency she represented -- just the opposite of Sherrod's real message. I opined at the time that Sherrod had a great case for libel, and now it appears that she's going to file that case.

Of course, Sherrod has no easy task ahead of her. It would take the extensive labors of some very sharp defamation lawyers to make Sherrod's claim stick. It makes sense that, six months having passed since the original slander, Sherrod and her lawyers have been busy pouring foundations for their case. They're no doubt prepared for the dirtiest of legal tricks Breitbart's lawyers can pull -- and with a client like Breitbart, dirty tricks is about all they have. I hope Sherrod's counsel has rented a warehouse for the trainloads of documents they're going to be given during the discovery process.

Sherrod's task, while monumental, is not hopeless. Salon.com's Teresa Cotsirilos interviewed none other than Floyd Abrams, perhaps the foremost First Amendment lawyer in the country. Now, bear in mind that Abrams earns his meat and potatoes by representing the top media outlets in the country in their quest to hang onto their First Amendment rights. He represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case, and that alone places him prominently in the pantheon of free press gods. In the Salon interview Abrams affirmed, as I wrote back in August, that if Sherrod can prove "actual malice," she may have a proveable case. "She has to demonstrate not just that he did it, but that he knew what he was doing was false [or] would leave a false impression about what she had said," Abrams said. "If ... she can show that for his political reasons, his ideological reasons, his desire to make a name for himself, or whatever, that he purposely distorted what she said in a way that damaged her, then she might have a serious claim." Abrram's comment begs the question: How could Breitbart possibly edit the video the way he did and not know it was wrong? Of course he knew it. To plead otherwise is to admit that he lacks the critical thinking skills of a sixth-grader.

Breitbart did what he did because he thought he was "bullet-proof" and that he could do whatever he wanted to do in the name of right-wingnut ideology and get away with it. He was trying to out-Beck Glen Beck and, like an irresponsible frat boy tyring to make a name for himself, he ended up actually hurting an innocent person. He deserves the lawsuit Sherrod has filed.

Of course, it's a long way from filing an action against Breitbart and getting anything remotely resembling justice for Shirley Sherrod. Probably the best Sherrod can hope for is that a jury will find in her favor with a pentalty so onerous that Breitbart's media keepers will turn him out, cutting him off from any traditional print forum. But that probably won't happen. What will probably happen is that Breitbart's lawyers will talk him into settling a monetary claim while admitting no wrongdoing, Sherrod will contribute the funds to some dot-org she thinks will work to make bloggers more responsible for what they post (good luck with that!) and the whole episode will fade away.

Whatever happens, don't expect any punditry from the mainstream media. Although they should be publicly and forcefully proclaiming their disdain for and abhorrence of Breitbart, those who rely on the First Amendment for their profits aren't about to damn him for what he's done. This is Shirley Sherrod's fight, and hers alone. I am just grateful that she has more courage than all of my erstwhile colleagues put together.

Update: Andrew Breitbart had the poor taste to die March 1, 2012, thus nullifying Sherrod's lawsuit. I'm sure his family mourns his loss. I do not.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Our words matter to those who hear them

The Christian Science Monitor reported Wednesday that, as more becomes known about Jared Loughner, the desire to blame “vitriol” for Loughner’s actions has lessened. I’m disappointed in that.

The CSM says it’s too easy to blame the shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords on angry, violent language and imagery in the political arena. One concludes from reading the article that Loughner was determined to kill somebody that day and Giffords’ shopping center town meeting offered lots of targets of opportunity. Giffords was targeted, all right, but Loughner was driven to kill by the demons in his head, not by half-witted right-wing bombast (the notion put forth by some right wingnuts that the “left owns Loughner” is pure bullshit, and I won’t say any more about it.)

We don’t know what drove Loughner to hate as he does, and we probably never will. But to pooh-pooh the idea that the violent rhetoric of radio crackpots influenced his willingness to point a gun at a congresswoman’s head and pull the trigger is too easy, too. Those who know more than I about human behavior have long ago determined that haters don’t start out hating, they’re taught to hate. Yes, Loughner probably suffers from some mental unbalance, but no one can say for sure the he wasn’t influenced by the internet and broadcast haters. Words, read or spoken, have power, they are the signs we use to communicate ideas and emotions.

As a lifelong student of language, I learned long ago that words matter. I teach my composition and news writing students that words have connotations that are often more important than their denotations. Saying that a political party was "targeting" a congressperson is different from saying the party was "concentrating" on a particular race. A target is something that is shot at, whether by bow, gun, or spitwad. The verb "to target" means to take aim prior to shooting; that's the root and foundation of all other connotations of the word. People use the word "target" as a verb because they want to sound aggressive, they want to sound like they mean business. There is an emotional reaction to the word, and that is why it is used.

If someone strongly opposes a piece of legislation, they can say, "I will work very hard to defeat that legislation" or they can say "I will fight tooth and nail to kill the bill." Too often, politicians have been reaching for the more aggressive phrase as they try to convey their (supposed) emotional investment in getting done whatever it is they want to get done. They know emotional words evoke emotional responses in their constituents and in each other, and that is why they use them. Unfortunately, it also escalates the anger in people who actually would like to physically clobber some thick-headed liberal or kidney-punch a loudmouth tea-bagger.

Fighting actions do come from fighting words. No one is more passionate about the innate human right to express one's self than am I, but I believe it would be a wonderfully responsible thing for our elected representatives in Washington to spend the next several months deliberately toning down their warrior-talk and speaking more like the statesmen and stateswomen they were elected to be. Unfortunately, that won’t happen, and the CSM article makes it clear that politicos are already using evidence of Loughner’s mental illness as an excuse to exonerate themselves and return to their emotion-grabbing vitriol.

Violent talk by public officials has made it somehow more acceptable for ordinary folks to unleash their rage on the public. Facebook, Twitter, MySpace, emails, text messages, and the hundreds of thousands of personal blogs that are released for public consumption every day are peppered with outbursts in which people express a desire that someone else die. How to deal with North Korea? Call for assassination of the country’s leaders. How to cope with a liberal black man in the White House? Express the hope that he suffers a fatal affliction. Someone breaks into your house or steals your car? Suggest that they improve the world by committing suicide.

Posters of such drivel almost always cover themselves by trying to mask the comments as humor: “It was just a joke, I didn’t mean it.” That is as nonsensical as when politicians excuse their “targeting” imagery by saying, “It’s not personal, it’s just rhetoric.” It isn’t “just” rhetoric. Words matter. Words convey ideas. It is one thing to have a private thought about someone – to imagine a human being’s head with a red dot on it, for instance – but quite another to express that thought in public. Such expressions do not advance the cause of civilization, they are not satirical, and they are not fit for public discourse in any arena.

It is time to advance beyond the use of violent speech and writing in the civic discourse of the day. If we are to survive as a civilization and not just as a country, we need to learn how to express ourselves clearly and peacefully to our fellow humans. We must take responsibility for what we write and what we say in public, and that means learning how to be a little introspective.

I don’t expect it to happen any time soon.