Government Dysfunction?

October 10, 2013

Divided (we stand) Government

There is endless prating about our dysfunctional government, our divided, dysfunctional congress, and so on.  The idea seems to be that our federal government is somehow “broken,” not working as it is supposed to.  Well, I beg to differ.  Here is an alternative view:  blame the Negroes!

In this view, the government is working just as the Founders wanted it to work.  It is divided, and the majority is unable to force its will on the fanatical and united majority.  And who were those fanatical folks present at the creation?  The slaveholders, of course.

Yes, I know, the idea of multi-chamber government was presented by the likes of Montesquieu, and there were many reasons that the Founders feared a despotic executive, but the most consistent motivation was the desire of the South to protect itself, and its “States Rights” from the anti-slavery North.  That was the reason for the great compromise that elevated/degraded the slaves to 3/5 of personhood.  (The South wanted slaves to count one-for-one in the census, to bulk up the slave states’ representation in Congress.  The anti-slavery contingent didn’t understand why people who were slaves, and certainly could not vote, should be counted at all just to enhance the power of their owners.)

Well, here we are 150 years after the Civil War, and most of Tea Party zealots are from the South and border states.  And they are still screaming, and still using divided government to their advantage.  Just according to plan…


Thaddeus, Then and Now…

October 10, 2013

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I was surprised to see that D. W. Griffith’s cinematic masterpiece, Birth of a Nation (1914) begins with a peek at Thaddeus Stevens, one of my American heroes.  He is called “Stoneman” in the film, and is something of a villain, until he is redeemed at the end by revealing his deep hypocrisy about race, to wit, when it comes down to it, he would never allow his daughter (played by Lillian Gish) marry a mulatto.

It’s interesting to note the difference that 100 years makes:  in Spielberg’s Lincoln (2012), Stevens is a hero, a foresighted champion of racial equality and justice.  Was Speilberg purposely making his Stevens look similar to Griffith’s Stoneman?  And yes, it is true, Stevens wore an outrageous wig, having lost all of his hair during an illness when he was young.

I knew that Birth of a Nation was racist propaganda for the Southern view of Reconstruction, but still, I was not prepared for just how vicious it is.  As one reviewer said, watching the film is “a torment,” similar to watching Nazi propaganda films, including the justly famous Triumph of the Will.  The southerners are gallant Christians, defending their women like chivalric knights of old, and everyone, north and south, despises the negroes.  The film is, despite itself, amazingly realistic at times, using African-Americans for bit roles and background extras, while white actors in blackface take the major “negro roles”:  realistic in its depiction of the culture of slavery and Jim Crow, and I don’t mean in a favorable way.  As Roger Ebert points out in his excellent review, this is only so because Griffith was so totally convinced of the rightness of his views – the gentle South, happy slaves, etc. – that it would never have occurred to him that his imagery implied their contradiction.

The print that I watched on Netflix includes a brief interview between Walter Huston and Griffith, both decked out in formal evening wear, in which Huston lobs softball questions to Griffith:

Was the Klan necessary at that time?”

“Yes, Walter, it was necessary, at that time.”

There you have it.  The freeing of the slaves, untutored and unready for civilization, unleashed upon the traumatized South a tyranny, egged on by unscrupulous Northern carpetbaggers who manipulated the negroes to their ends.  The Klan had to step in to restore civilization.  Thus, Reconstruction ended, and Jim Crow began.  In Griffith’s mythology, even Stevens sees the wisdom of it, returning to a policy that Griffith is convinced Lincoln would have favored.

There is a lot of high-toned stuff in this film too:  several anti-war pleas, including an image of Christ at the end, and a denunciation of artistic censorship.  Yes, if only the war had been averted.  Perhaps the South would still be carrying on with its slaves!  And yes, censorship is bad, The film was instantly immensely controversial, and the NAACP in some cities did call for censorship of the most racially offensive scenes.  I say, let it all hang out.  The NAACP has had the last laugh on D.W.

Did I say that the film is fantastic?  It is.  It is gripping, a wonder of cinema so great, I found it hard to believe it was from 1914 it seems so contemporary in many respects.  The battle scenes are stunning; the acting, though melodramatic, is nevertheless powerful.  Gish gushes beautifully.  It is one of the most innovative and influential films ever made, and the reasons why are obvious if you watch any other film from 1914.  Some scenes:

The very first sequence.  With the introduction of black slavery, the seeds of disunion were sown.  Only the Civil War produced a truly united nation.  True enough, but somehow it seems here that it is the fault of the Africans!  As Melville put it in Benito Cereno:

“You are saved, Don Benito,” cried Captain Delano, more and more astonished and pained;

“You are saved; what has cast such a shadow upon you?”

“The Negro.” There was silence, while the moody man sat, slowly and unconsciously gathering his mantle about him, as if it were a pall.

It’s all the curse of the negro…

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The first part of the film is about the run-up to the Civil War and the actual conflict.  The real story is Part II, Reconstruction.  Stoneman/Stevens has a mulatto mistress, his housekeeper, an historical fact.  She manipulates him (lust seems to be a big motivation) to take a hard and brutal policy position towards the defeated South, hoping to revenge her people.  Stoneman’s right-hand man, another mulatto, is going to be made puppet governor of South Carolina in order to better implement the destruction of the Old South.

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A black Union soldier chases a white woman who, fearing for her honor, leaps to her death from a precipice.  The Klan organizes to capture the man, otherwise protected by Stoneman’s puppet.  They give him a “trial.”

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The Birth of a Nation (1915)

The scene of the KKK dumping his body at the governor’s office is, I think, supposed to be taken as a brilliant example of justice delivered, but in one of those inadvertent truth-telling images, it is a brutal image of the Klan’s racial tyranny.

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To finish off the local white gentry, the savage negroes are let loose to pillage and rapine in the town.  The Klan rides in, just like the cavalry, to save the day.  Of course, the actual events were more like the reverse, i.e., sustained campaigns of racial cleansing by organized whites to rid entire regions of black farmers who owned land.

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The blacks are vicious and terrifying, without regard to sex, of the victim or the perpetrator.  Here is Lillian Gish being threatened by a former servant.

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One of the local gentry kills a black man in an altercation while he was being arrested for harboring Klan members.  He manages to escape with the assistance of his loyal former house-slaves, and flees with his daughter and some friends to a remote cabin where he wants to wait for things to call down.  The cabin is inhabited by two white former Union soldiers.  Racial solidarity prevails.  It would take a few more years for the word “Aryan” to fall into disrepute.

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In a climactic scene, the father grabs the hair of his daughter, preparing to shoot her, rather than have her be captured alive and be despoiled by the black troops attacking his cabin hideout.

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All’s well that ends well.  Hero and heroine reunited at last.

Gish KKK  images

Order is restored, and the next time there is an election, the Klan is on hand to make sure that the Negroes vote properly.  Yet another image that surely was not intended to seem as it now does to us.

Vote


Instinct and the Power-Elite

September 12, 2013


A news item in the NYTimes today quoted Joe Lhota, Republican candidate for mayor of New York:

Mr. Lhota said that Mr. de Blasio’s “knee-jerk response to any new program is to raise taxes,” an approach he said was “instinctively wrong.” Instead, Mr. Lhota said the mayor should look to find efficiencies in the city’s budget.

Ah…you can’t make this stuff up.  A “knee-jerk” response to increase revenue is bad, but cutting the budget is obviously good, especially since he and his friends will not even feel it.  But how does he know this for a fact?  Raising taxes is “instinctively wrong.”  Might we say that Mr. Lhota has a knee-jerk response to tax hikes on the wealthy?  Sure seems like it.  It’s just pure instinct.

Of course, Mr. Lhota’s response to increased taxes for the wealthy may be instinct only among his social circle, so it is probably a learned response, with no instinct involved at all, but it sure seems like a reflex!

The article also includes this:

He mounted a direct attack on Mr. de Blasio’s “tale of two cities” campaign theme, saying that Mr. de Blasio was trying to “separate classes” as a political strategy.

“Calling it a tale of two cities, that level of invective has no place in any campaign, at all,” Mr. Lhota said. “It divides people. What we really need to do is to work together and provide a solution, not separating people and then saying that the ends justify the means.”

I would like to know what level of invective is appropriate in a campaign according to Mr. Lhota?  Tale of two cities seems rather tame to me.   By all means, let’s work together to raise taxes on Mr. Lhota.


Welfare for the Wealthy?

June 6, 2013

Yesterday, I read a piece by Mark Bittman on the current state of The Farm Bill in Congress.  He notes that enormous sums are being directed to ‘support’ farmers (not all farmers) who are quite wealthy, and calls this “welfare for the wealthy.”  I agree with his analysis for the most part, only taking issue with his sarcastic references to “the food system,” and “industrial agriculture.”  Industrial ag, thanks to the Green Revolution, keeps a lot of the world’s population from starving to death, but that’s another discussion.  I am finding myself, however, very weary of the term “welfare for the wealthy”.

This term is used by liberal critics of government policies that favor the wealthy, those who clearly do not need our favoring.  It’s not just farmers:  the military-industrial complex is another target often tarred with this brush.  What bothers me so much about it these days is that it  sets up a false equivalency between the poor takers of welfare, and the rich takers of subsidies.  The point is, these policies must be bad:  they’re welfare!  But for the rich!!  We all know how bad welfare is.  That’s why we cheered when Bill Clinton ended it, at least as we knew it…

That’s all garbage.  Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC), aka Welfare, goes mostly to children.  Mostly to white children, a fact that is lost on those who rant with Saint Ronnie about welfare queens driving Cadillacs and feasting on food stamps.  It was never more than a tiny part of government expenditures, and it did, and still does, what’s left of it, tremendous good.  I don’t see much in common between a program that gets food and income support to struggling families with one that is fine tuned by highly paid lobbyists to direct rivers of cash from Congress towards their clients for…not growing stuff?  Growing stuff where they shouldn’t grow stuff?  To pay insurance to the farmers when their ill advised crops fail, the ones they were subsidized for growing?  And so on…

The term welfare for the wealthy implies that the problem is welfare.  Welfare directs money towards those with the least resources and power in our society.  The problem is that those with the most resources and power have been increasingly successful in turning our economy, a collective enterprise, into their cash cow.  That’s their idea of farming.


Boehner: Le roi fainéant

March 1, 2013

From the New York Times today:

Among those who placed him in his post and could conceivably remove him, the test of his leadership seems to be how little action he takes. In a closed-door meeting and subsequent news conference this week, Mr. Boehner said the House was done negotiating over spending cuts until the Senate “begins to do something.”

From Wikipedia:

Roi fainéant, literally “do-nothing king” and so presumptively “lazy king“, is a French term primarily used to refer to the later kings of the Merovingian dynasty, after they seemed to have lost their initial energy. They were considered and portrayed “useless” by Carolingian kings and even early modern historians, though current historical opinion is more nuanced.


Nattering Nabobs of Non Sequitur

January 28, 2013

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Is it just me, or am I right in thinking that the Republican Right has reached new heights, plumbed new depths of pure illogic and nonsense?  I am thinking of two statements from two articles in today’s NYTimes that were on the same page of the printed version. Firstwe have the whiz-kid Paul Ryan shouting about how Obama wants to effect the “political conquest” of the Republican Party.  Well, here’s hoping!  Anyway, the article  goes on to say this:

On Sunday, in a stinging rebuke to Mr. Obama, he said that had Hillary Rodham Clinton beat him to win the Democratic nomination in 2008 and gone on to win the presidency, “we would have fixed this fiscal mess by now.”

“I don’t think that the president thinks that we actually have a fiscal crisis,” he said. “He’s been reportedly saying to our leaders that we don’t have a spending problem, we have a health care problem. That just leads me to conclude that he actually thinks we just need more government-run health care.”

Is Ryan speaking well of the same Hillary Clinton who made government controlled health care, single-payer at that, her top priority during her hubby’s first term?  And who was demonized by the Republicans for it?  Does he think she doesn’t think we have a major health care problem?  Or is he convinced that she would have dealt with our financial crisis better because of what she learned at the side of her similarly vilified husband, who happens to have run the only budget surplus this country has seen in recent history.  And who was a Democrat.

Then we have the other piece focused on the other intellectual leading light of the Right, Eric Cantor.

After successfully engineering the latest debt ceiling vote last week, Mr. Cantor flew to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, where he road-tested those themes as the lone House Republican leader rubbing elbows with the international élite.

Citing a struggling single mother with a gifted child in a poor city neighborhood, he told Davos attendees, “We need to create some type of competitive mechanisms” to help her escape the bad schools she is stuck with.

I imagine that a lot of those intellectually élite representatives of countries such as France, Germany, Switzerland, Sweden, China, Japan, and so on, are going to be thinking, “Why don’t you Americans just improve your public education system?”  I’d love to hear about the “economically competitive mechanisms” that are going to bring entrepreneurs running to serve the needs of communities with lousy schools, especially the run-of-the-mill students there.  (After all, it’s only in Lake Woebegone that everyone is above average).  Maybe the same corporations that are doing so well serving our out-sized prison population.


Deficit Scare Tactics

January 24, 2013

Yeah, that Krug.  When he’s right, he’s right!

To say what should be obvious: Republicans don’t care about the deficit. They care about exploiting the deficit to pursue their goal of dismantling the social insurance system. They want a fiscal crisis; they need it; they’re enjoying it. I mean, how is “starve the beast” supposed to work? Precisely by creating a fiscal crisis, giving you an excuse to slash Social Security and Medicare.

The idea that they’re going to cheerfully accept a deal that will take the current deficit off the table as a scare story without doing major damage to the key social insurance programs, and then have a philosophical discussion about how we might change those programs over the longer term, is pure fantasy. That would amount to an admission of defeat on their part.


Brooks be humble…

January 8, 2013

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I hear David Brooks, the NYTimes conservative columnist, is teaching a course on humility at Yale.  There’s so much irony, I just won’t touch it.

I don’t read him these days unless something particular points me there, and I saw a reference to a column he wrote on his favorite topic these days, humility, mentioning Pauline Kael and how she didn’t “suffer fools gladly.”  Hah! I thought, who is she to suffer or not suffer fools?  (I don’t like her film reviews much.)  He dissects the meaning and use of the phrase, and I agree with him there. People who speak foolishly out of naivete, simple ignorance, and the like, should be treated with graciousness and respect.  We’ve all been in that situation, and will be again, but…

As with so much of Brook’s ‘deep’ commentary, I can’t help think that there’s something autobiographical here, some secret wound he’s nursing.  Heavens, did somebody not so nice maybe treat him shabbily, like a damn fool?  Maybe it was someone really smart, who knows a lot about something that Brooks was remarking on (and perhaps knew very little about.)  Maybe, could it be, somebody like Paul Krugman, or some other intellectual?

Let’s face it, people who treat badly the kind of fool I described here are not looked upon well by thoughtful people.  But there is also the other kind of fool, the kind who is ignorant, and prefers to remain so.  The kind who is quite arrogant in, even about his ignorance.  The kind who loves to hear him or herself talk, even when he or she knows nothing about the topic.  Yes, there’s that class, of which Brooks is a premier member, of the pundits, the pedants, and the talking-heads.  They often speak as fools, and you can hardly blame them; it’s their job to keep talking to fill up the air time.  Or to fill up those column inches.  And they do seem to get it into their heads after a while that they actually have powers of intellect which they consistently fail to display.

I’d put Brooks in this latter class of fool.  He’s also paid a huge amount for his chatter.  So if someone takes him down in print or on the air, I will not feel he’s been treated badly, despite his pleas for humility.  It just goes with the territory.


I Am Entitled

December 20, 2012

newwileyTime to revisit that “fiscal cliff” that everyone is blathering about.  Let’s get some clarity, and take a look at the data, the actual facts of income distribution in the USA.

The chart below, from the US Census Bureau, lays it all out.  It’s not a graph that you see much in the news, and certainly not one that politicians use:  I’m not sure which is the more significant reason for this – that they don’t want people to see the facts; that they are incapable of understanding data charts; or that they assume the public is incapable.  Well, here goes…

US income distribution 2010

click to enlarge

As you can see, the Median Household Income is about $49,500.  That’s household income, not individual income, and the average household is about four people.  You know, parents, children, the usual deal, more or less…

So half of all households in America make less than that amount, with quite a lot of people concentrated in the bottom 1/5th of the income scale.  Of course, not everyone lives in NYC where housing is extremely expensive, but most people do live in metropolitan areas, and would you want to live with your family on $49K a year, or less…assuming that you don’t live on that now?

Sooo, in the negotiations over the ‘cliff’, the Republicans are holding out to keep taxes low for people making up to $1,000,000.  Those millionaires can’t afford more annual taxes!  Obama, because he’s a sap in negotiations, or maybe for reasons even worse to contemplate, gave in, and has proposed to raise the limit from $250,000, on which he campaigned, to $400,000.  Everyone making up to $400,000 gets a tax break again.

Meanwhile, he’s caving in on entitlements, i.e. payments to people through programs they pay into under specified ‘agreements’ worked out in Congress.  No freeloaders here:  you join the system and you get a described benefit.  These payouts benefit everyone who works, but they are obviously vastly more important for the people in the bottom 3/5ths of the scale than for the other 40%.

So here’s the thing…The negotiations are about giving a benefit to the top 2%, that grey bar on the right that represents everyone making over $250K (the chart isn’t wide enough to show each increment, so they lump them together), and cutting back on benefits to everyone else And the vast majority of the people who need those benefits being cut, really need them, to…er…live, you know…