Wednesday, December 29, 2010

New Year's 2011... singing in Grover Norquist's bathtub

Singing in the bathtub
Happy once again
Watching all my troubles
Go swinging down the drain

Singing through the soap suds
Life is full of hope
You can sing with feeling
While feeling for the soap.
"Singing in the Bathtub"

David Seaton's News Links
It's New Year's; this is when we are supposed to look over the past and think about the future. With the USA the situation is pretty simple: a large percentage of Americans are batshit crazy and the state itself is in tatters.

Simple concept, but how it might play out could get complicated

Many observers in America, and around the world, are asking themselves "Why are so many Americans so crazy?" and "Why is nothing done about it?". The answer to the first question is that living in a cloud of misinformation, they are being driven insane.
Over half of surveyed Republicans said they believe that the president is a socialist Muslim who wants to take away gun rights and turn over U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. What’s deeper, though, is the vitriol of those beliefs, with a substantial number of Republicans believing that Obama resents America's heritage (47 percent), is the "domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitution speaks of" (45 percent), wants to use an economic or terrorist event as an excuse to take dictatorial powers (41 percent), is doing some of the same stuff that Hitler did (38 percent), and may, in fact, be the Anti-Christ (24 percent). Daily Beast    
There is always the temptation to see certain people as reasonable when they aren't. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Isaiah 1:18", was the favorite bible passage of Lyndon Baines Johnson and it describes the basic attitude of all successful negotiators. The lesson learned from the epic battle to pass a more than tame and mediocre health bill is that it is impossible to negotiate with whipped up insanity.

Before going further it is essential to understand that a racism as ingrained as America's is about much more than the color of a person's skin. It is a traditional element of social control and is much more about controlling the white people than about controlling the black people.

All of this insanity, from tea party to Antichrist is about using racism to distract people from seeing clearly what is right in front of their faces: the American Dream has run out of road. The ideal of upward social mobility for anyone willing to work hard is only a memory.

The idea is very simple, classic really. The system is in crisis, social inequality is widening and hardening, so stimulating paranoia and racism is a simple and effective way of keeping people from thinking about things like taxing the rich in order to get good public schools, affordable health care and other such Bolshevik twaddle.

Essentially what we have is Rupert Murdoch in the role of Joseph Goebbels,  with Beck and company playing post-modern George Wallace, nightly on Fox.

To understand this craziness we have to turn it inside out. The first thing about it that catches my attention in the Harris and similar polls is that a significant portion of the American population is totally paranoid and extremely suggestible. If we discount genetics and/or some hallucinogen that has been added to the water, we would have to look at objective factors to account for this vulnerability.

To begin with America's cult of competition, of dividing people from childhood into "winners" and "losers", has created an entire nation within the nation of losers: an enormous mass of people who feel terrible about themselves.

The American Dream is based on social mobility, but a great many Americans have not "moved" up since they arrived, even many who arrived during colonial times. At this moment many are on an express elevator moving down.

Since colonial times the subjugation and humiliation of African-Americans has provided a valuable tool in defusing social tensions in the rest of the population.

It all goes back that far.

Probably the most valuable service to domestic peace that slaves provided even, or especially, for those who didn't own them, was the role of being someone even the most miserable white person could feel superior to.

The most grievous problem encased in American racism is not the racism in itself, the problem is a society or a culture that divides human beings into "winners" and "losers" and punishes the losers so mercilessly. These unfortunates simply cannot survive psychologically without their "whipping boy". Racism is a tool of social control. The classic "divide and rule".

That is the dirty little family secret of American capitalism: keeping the races at each others throats prevents the social democracy that exists in practically every other country of similar economic development.

God knows that America is full of desperately miserable white people. Not all of them are poor, not by long shot. The Tea Party is living proof of that.

For losing and feeling miserable in America is not just economic, a study of marketing messages will give you an idea of the infinite ways that an American can be a "loser".

The entire American consumer economy, which is 70% of the total, is based on making people feel bad about themselves, making them feel poor, ugly, sick, helpless, stupid, inadequate and then offering to sell them something to relieve the pain of rejection and failure. A person of color might blame all the frustrations of life on race prejudice and he or she would probably be right in most cases. The white loser, and they are legion, hasn't ever had even that safety valve.

Those whites who fear they might be "losers" themselves, and if we look at the economic and psychological facts of life in today's American, that might include most American whites, desperately need someone to look down upon as a psychological safety valve and of course, since time immemorial African-Americans, even the lightest skinned among them, have served that purpose. Their status as loser was even pleasing to the abolitionists that wanted to "uplift" them.

For literally hundreds of years, besides this role as the official ultimate-loser, no other role beyond entertaining or lifting heavy loads was permitted them.

In 1952 an African-American author, Ralph Ellison published a ground breaking novel, “The Invisible Man”, whose title many critics feel defined the experience of people of African descent in America: that of being invisible and voiceless. In the years that followed, the people of color in the United States raised their voices and became visible, to the great and continuing discomfort of many whites. The white people of the US south who once voted solidly Democratic have punished that party’s leadership of the civil rights movement by voting solidly Republican ever since… the key to the victories of Nixon, Reagan and Bush. The “Conservative Revolution”, that only favors the rich, is based on the resentment of poor whites and gives the wealthy the necessary numbers to win elections. It was discovered that the poor whites of the American south (and not just the south), in desperate need of good public schools and socialized medicine hated black people more than they loved their own children or themselves. Talk about tragic.

With Barack Obama much of this resentment is coming to head.

Up till now, American "identity" politics was always played with surrogates: WASP or "waspable" white men wearing masks.

Thus Bill Clinton was "America's first black president". The whatever WASP whose turn it was to woo Latinos, would eat tacos and say "juntos podemos" with an atrocious accent etc, etc. Candidates would attempt to show that they were "sensitive" to the feminist agenda and so on. Absolutely de rigueur for all white, male and protestant presidentiables was a photo at Yad Vashem sporting a yomulka. This all came with the turf like kissing babies. It was all a game.

The problems start when the Democrats decided to use "originals" instead of the traditional, "ballo in maschera". The whole charade begins to fall apart without the WASP surrogates.

All of this resentful white anger has been directed heretofore against surrogates: the Jimmy Carters, the Ted Kennedys, the Walter Mondales, the Dukakises, the Gores and the Kerrys; and all the racism was disguised in euphemisms like "state's rights" or "liberal" or "elitist" or "un-American".

Now for the first time the American white ultra-right have got the chance to actually organize and march against a real black man who incarnates all the euphemisms, instead of a surrogate.

Even a "JFK meets Sydney Poitier" figure like president Barack Obama, or especially like Obama, is an unbearable provocation -- a lifetime membership card in the "loser" club -- for millions of American white people.

Here is about the shortest and sweetest description possible of how tragic that is
The deeper point--the ones the tea partiers haven’t courage nor the brains to see--is that our technological age has laid bare a core fact of American life: that our corporatist state uses white men and women just like it uses black, brown and yellow ones--as cannon fodder. There is little “upward mobility.” Your children probably won’t live as well as you, much less better. Your 2nd and 3rd mortgages made them billions and then they bankrupted you. They stole your future itself. Leonce Gaiter
The ideas expressed by Leonce Gaiter here are not very complicated, they would be practically self-evident if so much time and media effort plus financial fiction had not been expended in clouding all these realities. Gaiter makes clear that many people are finally finding themselves to be much less "middle class" then their advertising created fantasies led them to believe. Their treasured self-image is well tarnished and they are discovering that, as Gaiter says, "our corporatist state uses white men and women just like it uses black, brown and yellow ones--as cannon fodder." So in this crisis any person who lives from his salary and whose only patrimony is/was the house he lives/lived in, is, in the words of Marx and Engels, "at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind".  Alas, few are equipped either by temperament or by training to face with "sober senses" either the "real conditions" of their lives or the "relations with their kind". This lack makes them easy prey for movements like the Tea Party that fill the paths to truth with the traditional red herrings of American racism disguised as libertarianism. This nauseating and supremely effective tactic is being trotted out once again. The day when Americans in similar economic straits cease to see skin color and see clearly and soberly what they all have in common, in the same way  that the wealthy and powerful minority always have: on that day will the battle for social justice in the United States be more than half won. Keeping them from doing so has always been a growth industry.

Perhaps the joker in the right's deck, the spanner in the works, is the growing Hispanic vote. This is a vote that is in many ways socially conservative: family values etc, but very offended by racism directed toward them. A party of angry "white" people has very little attraction for this otherwise quite heterogeneous (Dominicans are very different from Mexicans) group. I certainly think it would be nearly impossible for a Tea Partied Republican Party to take and hold this, America's fastest growing, demographic niche.

Supposing we ever got racism licked, then we get to the really hard part.

If somehow this intrumentalized racism were neutralized, if white, brown and black could see their common needs and pull together to get what they need... what would be the instrument to use?

The term, "Welfare State" might give you the idea that the "state" is place to start... and the directing force of the state is the "government".  The desire to "fare" or "go" well using the "state" as the instrument.

What, then, is the "state of the government" or "state of the state" at this moment?

"Reagan’s view of government as the problem is increasingly at odds with a nation whose system of health care relies on large for-profit entities designed to make money rather than improve health; whose economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America; and much of whose fuel comes from unstable and dangerous areas of the world. Under these conditions, government is the only entity that can look out for our interests." Robert Reich

The shortest and anything but the sweetest description of the philosophy of government that has dominated American thinking since the 80s, is the following famous quote:
"I don't want to abolish government. I simply want to reduce it to the size where I can drag it into the bathroom and drown it in the bathtub."  - Grover Norquist
Norquist doesn't really need a bathtub anymore, a simple washbasin might get it... government was already sending up bubbles in the floods of Katrina. You might say that today's politicians are rubber ducks in Norquist's bathtub.

For me this is the most disquieting thought of all... that even if the American people desired a welfare state, as many well may do, there might no longer be an instrument capable of executing that desire.

Here is a small sample of some of the nuts and bolts of this Norquist-bathtub government:
More than 100 American cities could go bust next year as the debt crisis that has taken down banks and countries threatens next to spark a municipal meltdown, a leading analyst has warned.(...)  US states have spent nearly half a trillion dollars more than they have collected in taxes, and face a $1tn hole in their pension funds, said the CBS programme, apocalyptically titled The Day of Reckoning. Detroit is cutting police, lighting, road repairs and cleaning services affecting as much as 20% of the population. The city, which has been on the skids for almost two decades with the decline of the US auto industry, does not generate enough wealth to maintain services for its 900,000 inhabitants. The nearby state of Illinois has spent twice as much money as it has collected and is about six months behind on creditor payments. The University of Illinois alone is owed $400m, the CBS programme said. The state has a 21% chances of default, more than any other, according to CMA Datavision, a derivatives information provider. California has raised state university tuition fees by 32%. Arizona has sold its state capitol and supreme court buildings to investors, and leases them back. - Guardian
Our friend Norquist is cool with states going bathtub, er, bankrupt:
Some critics allege that a state bankruptcy code would be used as a tool to “smash unions.” On the contrary, government employee unions and their dogged defense of the status quo are, in fact, smashing budgets and credit ratings in California, Illinois, New York and other states where they are dominant and have outsized influence in the state capitol.  Though it is true that the bond market might not be happy with a state filing for bankruptcy, as Skeel noted, the market is already beginning to take the possibility of default in certain states into account. California, for example, put $10 billion in revenue anticipation notes on the market in November — yet was only able to sell $6 billion worth. Advocacy for permitting state bankruptcy should not be confused with a desire for states to go bankrupt. In fact, simply having bankruptcy as a tool at states’ disposal is likely to be a boon to lawmakers trying to rectify their unsustainable financial plight.  The mere “threat of bankruptcy,” as Michael Barone recently noted in National Review Online, “would put a powerful weapon in the hands of governors and legislatures: They can tell their unions that they have to accept cuts now or face a much more dire fate in bankruptcy court.” - Grover Norquist
This is getting to be painfully obvious:
Congressional Republicans appear to be quietly but methodically executing a plan that would a) avoid a federal bailout of spendthrift states and b) cripple public employee unions by pushing cash-strapped states such as California and Illinois to declare bankruptcy. This may be the biggest political battle in Washington, my Capitol Hill sources tell me, of 2011. That’s why the most intriguing aspect of President Barack Obama’s tax deal with Republicans is what the compromise fails to include — a provision to continue the Build America Bonds program.  BABs now account for more than 20 percent of new debt sold by states and local governments thanks to a federal rebate equal to 35 percent of interest costs on the bonds. The subsidy program ends on Dec. 31.  And my Reuters colleagues report that a GOP congressional aide said Republicans “have a very firm line on BABS — we are not going to allow them to be included.” James Pethokoukis - Reuters
There seems to be no arrow left in the systems quiver to stop this, certainly not in Barack Obama's quiver.

When Robert Reich speaks of health care saying that America's "economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America", he is underlining one of the principal facts of our world today, i.e. non-state actors, like multinational corporations, effectively controlled by a few individuals, a small percentage of the share holders and/or a management elite, are often more powerful than elected governments. This means, as Reich points out, that empowering government, which we elect, is the only defense we have against these unelected, non-state actors, who are indifferent to our welfare, whose only motive is profit.

Lets compare for a moment  the competence and seriousness of Robert Reich's corporate America to Norquist's "bathtub ready" US government. Try to imagine for a moment the  secret formula for Coca Cola in the hands of someone like  Pfc Bradley Manning... Impossible, isn't it... The management at Coca Cola are serious  folks. But the US Army allows an enormous mass of extraordinarily sensitive cables that could adversely affect US foreign policy in unimaginable ways in such hands as those of 23 year old "Bradass".

After a bout of intense introspection and self-criticism, I think that my strong desire to see the Wikileaks data-dump as the work of a foreign espionage network is in great part a reaction of denial from another, simpler but much more disturbing conclusion. One that literally fills me with horror. Remember that when politicians and thinktankers talk about cutting expenses, they are always talking about things like teacher's salaries or pensions and other "entitlements", never about "defense" spending. America's armed forces have always had preference of place at the trough. We might therefore assume that they of all American institutions would be immune from the "heck of a job-ism" of the rest of the stone broke and sorry-assed res publica.
Well, no, it seems the Army is just as incompetent as the rest of the system. If the secrets entrusted to the US Army are as vulnerable as Enron's emails... then the last one out, please turn off the lights.

In my opinion, it is no exageration to say that there is less difference between libertarians of the left, such as Assange, and those of the right, such as Norquist, than between either of them and those like myself that believe in big, well-funded government that is able to provide its citizens with good infrastucture, good regulations, good education and good health services and that has the power and the legitimacy to collect the necessary taxes to pay for those things. Make no mistake, the Assanges and the Norquists are executing a pincer movement.
When people riff about the impact of Wikileaks, you typically hear how it’s forever changed diplomacy or intelligence-gathering. The more ambitious accounts will mention the implications for journalism, too. All of that’s true and vaguely relevant. But it also misses the deeper point. The Wikileaks revolution isn’t only about airing secrets and transacting information. It’s about dismantling large organizations—from corporations to government bureaucracies. It may well lead to their extinction.(...) All of a sudden, the very same things that made it more efficient to work with your colleagues—the fact that everyone had a detailed understanding of the mission and methodology—become enormous liabilities. In a Wikileaks world, the greater the number of people who intimately understand your organization, the more candidates there are for revealing that information to millions of voyeurs. Wikileaks is, in effect, a huge tax on internal coordination. And, as any economist will tell you, the way to get less of something is to tax it. As a practical matter, that means the days of bureaucracies in the tens of thousands of employees are probably numbered. In a decade or two, we may not only see USAID spun off from the State Department. We may see dozens of mini-State Departments servicing separate regions of the world. Or hundreds of micro-State Departments—one for every country on the planet. Don’t like the stranglehold that a handful of megabanks have on the financial sector? Don’t worry! Twenty years from now there won’t be such a thing as megabanks, because the cost of employing 100,000 potential leakers will be prohibitive.(...) I’d guess that most organizations a generation from now will be pretty small by contemporary standards, with highly convoluted cell-like structures. Large numbers of people within the organization may not even know one another’s name, much less what colleagues spend their days doing, or the information they see on a regular basis. There will be redundant layers of security and activity, so that the loss of any one node can’t disable the whole network. Which is to say, thanks to Wikileaks, the organizations of the future will look a lot like …  Wikileaks. -  Noam Scheiber - The New Republic
I am almost sure that Mr. Assange and Mr. Norquist would be horrified to know that they are brothers in arms in the war to destroy the state, but in fact they are... at the very least their efforts are overlapping and complimentary: Assange  by facilitating such endless kibitzing, as to make the cooperation by a large number of state employees in any great project, even those beneficial to society, well nigh impossible and Norquist by depriving those state employees of the funds with which to act, supposing they could.

Both Assange and Norquist would surely justify their words and actions as a defense of freedom.

I think it might be in order then to examine the practical meaning of the word "freedom".

A very workmanlike definition might be FDR's "Four Freedoms", they are as follows:
  1. Freedom of speech and expression
  2. Freedom of worship
  3. Freedom from want
  4. Freedom from fear
I for one, am in complete agreement with the contents of this list, however I think that for them to be realistically applicable to all of humanity, without exception, their order should be reversed.

It seems to me that a person who is hungry or/and afraid and without access to adequate medical care for herself and her children, has little time or even need for the other freedoms and that a person without an opportunity for decent schooling will have trouble expressing his needs, no matter how much freedom to express them that he is given. It might also be useful to note that many regimes that skimp on freedoms one, three and four, often encourage their subjects to worship; as fear and want are often great stimulants to prayer.

It would seem to me that both Messrs Assange and Norquist, each in his way, are having success in dragging the state into the bathroom and drowning it in the name of point one, the freedom of speech and expression.

At this moment millions of Americans are losing their homes, millions of American don't get enough to eat, American life expectancy is going down, millions of American children go to substandard schools, millions of Americans don't have access to good health care, America's infant mortality rate is simply obscene and wealth distribution in America is even more unequal than in India. Freedom? Adding insult to injury more like it.

My affirmation is that without a strong state serving its people, freedoms three and four, will only be enjoyed by the wealthy and that to ensure that such a strong state exists and that it defends the welfare of its people, those who call themselves progressives should use freedom one vigorously and then with the aid of freedom two and a long-handled spoon, go and drain Mr. Norquists bathtub. DS


Anonymous said...

While white rage explains much of the anti-government hysteria on the right, I think there's also another explanation. It is the need to lock in certain advantages that people have or think they have. So, we have the bizarre spectacle of Republican candidates promising to protect Medicare against any cuts (!!!) along with protecting the obscenely lucrative for-profit health care system. Throw in the military/industrial complex, and you have the three legs of the GOP stool. Above all, take care of your constituencies since they might not appreciate privation even if it's for their own Randian good.

The points about racism as an instrumentality of political control is profound and depressing. For better or - likely - worse, we are tribal beings who see skin color and ethnicity as more primary identifiers than nationality. The harsh xenophobia we see in places like Arizona is a reminder that any stress is likely to expose these raw nerve endings.

There's an ironic coupling in the right's authoritarianism and libertarianism. Obviously, one strain will have to triumph over the other and I'm pretty sure it will be authoritarianism. Grover Norquist might want to drown government in a bathtub but that government is keeping Fox News' principal demographic in tall cotton. It keeps military personnel happy along with their corporate lobbyists. And it's indispensable for other rightwing interests like Big Oil, Big Ag, and the private prison industry. There has to be a government to tax us to keep these players content.

What Norquist really wants isn't some quasi-anarchic utopia but a state interwoven with corporate interests so the undeserving no longer afflict our collective conscience. We're about halfway there and the mind-fuck of anti-government rhetoric ensures that we'll keep advancing down that road. But that rhetoric is just a fig leaf for the grubby process entailed in taking care of "real Americans". If this sounds like another description of civil war, it is. And we earnest liberals have lost the most crucial battle: the basic premise of the social compact underlying our dying American experiment.

PALGOLAK said...



StringonaStick said...

The average, only barely politically-aware American is blind to the well-constructed argument you've presented precisely because most of them can buy whatever pseudo-luxury good they wanted this past holiday season. Of course, only because credit cards are once again fairly easy to get, but they've still got their consumerist crap in hand so it's all good, right?

I recall reading recently (can't remember where; sorry) that the current middle and lower classes have a vague idea that even if things aren't so good right now, they are better for someone of their class than they were in the 1930's or 1950's so it can't be that bad. Add in that peculiar American myth that anyone can get rich if they work hard enough and you see huge numbers of people who will never be affected by the estate tax highly opposed to it, because what if they are the lucky mythic winner someday? No matter that the data show that upward mobility is stagnant and has been for quite some time. Of course there is a whole winger media structure devoted to the proper use of propagandistic syntax: estate tax = DEATH tax, etc.

The only real solution to all your essay describes is (1) overturning the Citizens United decision, and (2) heavy, hard, and effective campaign finance reform. Corporate capture of our politics was extensive before Citizens United, but that is the epoxy designed to guarantee that we never get that lock open again, ever.

stunted said...

Americans don't want a strong state. They are like addicts who have abused themselves for so long that permanent brain damage has set in and logic and reason are no longer within their grasp. They literally can no longer hold a train of thought long enough to think things through. Had Wikileaks never dumped documents, it would be no different. How Americans' preference for weak, hands-off government is Assange's doing is still unclear to me. I can't see what Mr. Schreiber's crystal ball speculations about how future organizations will function are at all relevant to a situation where the best-funded war machine in the world was incapable, for whatever reason (heck-of-a-jobism, hubris), of securing its internal communications.

Our government is indifferent to our welfare; we don't need to ferret-out non-state actors to pin the tail on that donkey. Our government is concerned about the profit of the wealthiest and no one else's. They don't need Assange's help on that one. Americans are so hostile to the idea of a welfare state that they, as you point out, will now be clamoring for the destruction of the benefits of public employees who aren't suffering enough, apparently, and need to be punished for their career choice because the American dream didn't pan out for some who chose the private sector. Damn that Australian libertine.