Wrapped in the Flag

Wrapped in the FlagShortly after Obama became President of the United States, I noticed something interesting. Some people in the Tea Party movement started to talk about Fluoride. They claimed that it was a toxin and that people shouldn’t ingest it because it was — insert dramatic music here — a government conspiracy. This may not mean much to you, but to me it meant everything: the John Birch Society rides again!

It was founded in 1958, following the death of Joseph McCarthy from hepatitis. Or was it? Certainly those who started the John Birch Society didn’t think it was. They thought he was murdered because he knew too much. And who was he murdered by? Why all the communists inside the government! The founder, Robert Welch, even thought that President Eisenhower was a “conscious, dedicated agent of the Communist Conspiracy.” I know it sounds loony, but for many years, the group was part of the mainstream conservative movement. And, in fact, even in 1964, the group was hugely important in getting Goldwater the Republican nomination for president.

So the rise of the Tea Party did not surprise me. There is always about 20% of the population who gobble up this kind of extremism. The Tea Party was just another manifestation of it. And early on, there were John Birch Society booths at Tea Party events. Despite its terrible reputation, in 2010, CPAC finally allowed the group to sponsor the event. The only thing that had changed in the previous fifty years was the rhetoric. And how could it not? With the fall of the Soviet Union, it was impossible to continue to claim that the commies were coming. But calling the president an illegitimate socialist is pretty much the same thing.

Another person who was not surprised by the rise of the Tea Party was Claire Conner. She was a child in the late 1950s and early 1960s and her parents were some of the founding and lifelong members of the John Birch Society. She chronicles all of this in her book, Wrapped in the Flag. It provides an amazing look inside the cult of conservative extremism. And make no mistake: it is a cult.

In fact, the book works more as a memoir of a family tragedy than it does anything else. I think most people will learn a lot about conservatives from the book, but I already knew most of it. What kept me reading was watching how people let their political obsessions bankrupt every part of their lives. If Conner’s parents feared communism, they also created their own kind of authoritarianism. Their entire lives circled around their political activities. And this was enforced onto the children. Conner was forced to write her “letters” each day: to newspapers, to politicians, to whomever.

This is hardly surprising: the communists and the fascists always hated each other, even though they were effectively the same thing. And the John Birch Society and the Tea Party are, at base, theocratic fascist groups. They are against “socialism” — the word. They don’t seem to know exactly what “socialism” the concept is. This is why the Tea Party talks about “freedom” but all they same to stand for are restrictions on reproductive rights and same sex marriage. The John Birch Society slogan was, “Less government, more responsibility, and — with God’s help — a better word.” That’s the Tea Party rhetoric.

At the start of the book, Conner’s father has a very successful business. But over time, his work with the John Birch Society takes its toll. In addition to everything else, he becomes a very public figure — notorious to many people. And this has a negative effect on his business. Eventually, his partners force him out and into a less promising part of the company. But the most telling part of the book comes when Conner is in college. Her parents have not helped her at all with college — she had to do it herself with work and scholarships. But even as they won’t help her with anything, her father is flying off to expensive John Birch Society conferences. A man’s got to have his priorities!

The take away from the book is that for both her parents, the political struggle was more important than she was. They were so blinded by ideology and fear of nonexistent threats that they lost sight of what was genuine and important in their lives. There is a similar disease on the left — the parents of the so called red diaper babies. But this was an extremely small group that simply doesn’t exist today. People on the left have turned in their ideologies for a pragmatic approach to politics. I think they’ve gone too far in this regard. But at least no one on the left sees their children as nothing but future warriors in the battle between Good and Evil.

If you want to understand the modern conservative movement, you really need to read Wrapped in the Flag. It explains a lot about how we got to where we are. And it explains why conservatives are so resistant to logical thought. But it is also chilling. Because 20% of the population that is crazy and fearful enough really can transform a nation if they are well organized. And they are.

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Lumière Brothers

Lumière BrothersForgive me the slowdown in posting. I am reading the first draft of a friend’s novel. And there is relatively little traffic here on weekends anyway. And I badly need a break from doing this anyway. I’m not terribly clear what I do it for. Sometimes it seems like housekeeping — just because. Except, of course, that I don’t actually do housekeeping, and I actually do publish about 4,000 words per day here. But not yesterday and probably not today.

On this day in 1862, Auguste Lumière was born. But we celebrate it with his brother Louis Lumière, who was born exactly two weeks later, but in 1864. They are collectively known as the Lumière brothers — cinema inventors and pioneers. You know how motion pictures work, right? An image is displayed on the screen for a fraction of a second; the screen goes dark while the next image is put into place; the next image is displayed on the screen for a fraction of a second. Done over and over, this appears to create action. Well, the Lumière brothers invented the perforations on the side of film that allow it to be moved quickly and accurately through the projector.

In addition to this, the two made almost 200 films together. They are notable in this regard because their films show great care in terms of the framing of shots. Unlike Edison, they were actually interested in photography. So even though their films are all very short (generally less than a minute), they look good. Consider, for example, their most famous film, Arrival of a Train at La Ciotat:

Yes, not a lot of drama. But it was made in 1895. The first film was not shown publicly in the United States until 1896. In France, of course, they were already displaying their films publicly. It actually shows the artistic potential of motion pictures and makes the work done by Edison at that time look pathetic. Here is another Lumière film from the same year, The Sprinkler Sprinkled. It is arguably the first comedy ever shot:

Happy birthday Auguste and Louis Lumière!

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Why MSNBC Continues to Suck

Keith OlbermannDR Tucker over at Political Animal wrote an interesting article, Forward Thinking. It’s about MSNBC’s supposed problem with breaking through in the ratings game. He makes the provocative suggestion that the network give Naomi Klein a show. But this, I think, just highlights the problem with having a liberal network. And it highlights the problem with MSNBC generally.

MSNBC is not going to give a show to someone who is an outspoken proponent of economic liberalism. It’s too dangerous to the rich people who own the network and its too unappealing to the people who advertise on the network. Remember: television is not about ratings; it is about advertising. While it is true that people want to advertise to the 25-54 demographic, they don’t want to do it when the show so aggressively attacks the major advertisers.

I am surprised that most people don’t remember what happens in the movie Network. Everyone remembers Howard Beale getting “mad as hell.” And maybe they remember that the ratings go way up for the show he’s on. But the head of the network, Arthur Jensen, doesn’t like it. So he has a little talk with Beale, who thinks he is speaking to God. (He might as well be!) So Beale abandons his populism for a message about how we are all meaningless cogs in the machinery of multinational capitalism. Ratings plummet so the producers of the show have Beale assassinated.

Martin BashirThat’s the story of Network. And anyone who thinks that the people who own MSNBC are any different than those who own Fox News are deluded. None of them care about same sex marriage or abortion or even foreign wars. But they all care very much about having a political system that is rigged against the majority and for all the rich folks like themselves.

But there are other things. MSNBC (sort of like the modern Democratic Party) has shown it to be a amazingly disloyal outfit. Martin Bashir got fired over a minor thing. Ed Schultz was taken from prime time to the weekends and finally early evenings. And then, of course, there was Keith Olbermann, who was badly treated long before he finally got canned. All of these men are very passionate and that is something that MSNBC apparently doesn’t accept. (Well, it accepts it for Al Sharpton because he’s a legend and, what the hell, he’s not in prime time either.) It’s much better to have Chris Hayes and Rachel Maddow, who are both really good, but not especially passionate.

It’s a well worn stereotype that liberals aren’t passionate. And to prove this, people point to Mark Shields. It’s true that the liberals that the mainstream media put on television tend not to be passionate. But that’s just because they’ve decided that passionate liberals aren’t suitable for television. Why? Because liberals on television aren’t passionate! Cenk Uygur has talked about this. MSNBC originally hired him because of his fiery liberal rhetoric. But once he was there, they complained about his fiery liberal rhetoric.

Ed SchultzIn addition to this, I just don’t see a liberal network ever being as successful as a conservative network. It isn’t because liberals aren’t as into politics as conservatives. Rather, the reason that people tune into conservative media is for the dopamine rush they get from the constant diet of fear and outrage. Liberals just don’t have the same resources on the fear issue. When it comes to outrage, there is a lot; but it is an outrage over systemic issues. You don’t feed it with constant small stories.

There is one thing that would greatly help MSNBC ratings: another Republican White House. That will greatly increase viewership as liberals reach out for any shelter in the storm for another four or eight years of everyone’s favorite game show, “Let’s Give More Money to the Rich and Claim it is for Freedom!” And I’m sure the owners of MSNBC would love that: more advertising revue and lower estate taxes. Liberalism rocks!

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Chuck Berry B Goode

Chuck BerryThe rock and roll legend Chuck Berry is 88 years old today. When I a kid, I thought of him as just a great guitarist — certainly the most recognizable and most copied lead guitar player ever. And he is certainly that. But I tend to downplay it now. Sad as it is to say, he is the only lead guitar player who I can play like — basically, I’ve never gotten past the surfer bands of the 1960s, and they didn’t know a thing they didn’t learn from listening to Chuck Berry.

It was only later that I realized that he is one of the greatest songwriters of the 20th century. And I’m not just talking about rock and roll. He is as good as Rodgers and Hart, for example. And I can’t really say anything more about a songwriter. There is lots to say about Berry’s life, but I prefer to let the music speak for itself. So let’s listen to a few of his hits.

First there is the classic, and possibly the greatest rock and roll song ever (but not my favorite), “Johnny B Goode”:

Second is one of my favorites, “You Never Can Tell”:

And finally, I could really get into the national anthem if only we would change it to “Back in the USA.” It is the most patriotic song ever written and without a hint of jingoism:

Happy birthday Chuck Berry!


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Firefly Is Not a Libertarian TV Show

FireflyI saw over at Reason Magazine that they published one of those dreadful articles, “The Five Best Libertarian Television Series.” I’m not going to look it up, because it is nonsense and frankly, I don’t feel that the racist and elitist Reason deserves a link. The list included things like House of Cards, which really isn’t a libertarian show. Ditto for The Wire. Apparently, any series that shows the government in a negative light is libertarian. It also contained South Park, which really isn’t libertarian so much as iconoclastic. But given that the creators seem to be libertarian with a much bigger ax to grind against liberals than conservatives, I figure Reason thought that was enough.

The last show I had heard of was Penn & Teller: Bullshit! That’s an interesting choice. I only saw one episode of it and it was definitely what passes for libertarianism in this country: it was a total whitewash and apologia for a huge multinational corporation. They took on the very important issue of whether Walmart was really providing minimum wage jobs. And what a surprise: Walmart pays more than minimum wage on average! Of course, unless even the CEO was paid minimum wage, the average wage would have to be higher. It was an amazing example of straw man argumentation. But the show was more than that. It also showed a whole lot of great things that Walmart was doing for their employees. That’s the great thing about libertarians: corporations don’t even have to pay them to create PR material.

But what most struck me was that many Reason readers were upset that Firefly was not on the list. The only libertarian thing about the show is Mal who talks a lot like a libertarian. But he’s not a libertarian of the kind that reads Reason. He isn’t an idealist. He just wants to be left alone. And he doesn’t live in the United States or Sweden. He lives under an authoritarian government — one far more invasive than even that in North Korea. What I’m saying is that Mal isn’t a libertarian idiot who claims that paying taxes is equivalent to slavery. And he certainly isn’t an Objectivist who who doesn’t believe in altruism, given that Mal is one of the most altruistic characters in the whole show.

The main thing that makes a libertarian a libertarian is their resistance to paying taxes. I wrote about this just yesterday, Why Do Libertarians Tend to Be Republican? I mention this because I know there are libertarians who would claim that the show is libertarian because Mal is self-sufficient. Indeed he is. But I don’t know where libertarians got the idea that they are especially self-sufficient. After all, as Ha-Joon Chang discussed in, 23 Things They Don’t Tell You About Capitalism, people in poor countries are more entrepreneurial. Libertarianism doesn’t appeal to these people; it appeals to a bunch of privileged idiots who are just convinced that “they did build that” or at least they would have if only the government had gotten out of the way.

Mal in Firefly has actually headed out on his own. It would be equivalent to disappearing into federal land or taking to the high seas. The libertarian plan is to whine and complain that the government is oppressing them at the same time that they take advantage of every government program available. And more! They actually distort the political system to push more of that sweet, sweet tax money to themselves. Show me a libertarian and I’ll show you piles of government subsidies from student loans to government contracts.

The thing about Firefly is that it is about a group of people who all care for each other. Trust me, I know the libertarian counter to that: those people choose to be part of that group. Well, so do we. There really are places that libertarians could disappear to if they really wanted to. That probably wouldn’t be the case in their libertarian utopias, because literally every square inch of land and sea would be owned by someone — or perhaps just “one.” But of course libertarians don’t run away from it all because they like the things that our mixed economy provides. Well, I’m being unfair. Some people do this, but it usually ends in incest and other less than utopian outcomes.

So please libertarians, keep your ideology off Firefly. I see why you think it is “libertarian.” I’ve long seen it. But there is a very big difference between “This government is authoritarian!” and what you believe, “All government is authoritarian!” Remember, George Orwell was a socialist and Aldous Huxley was a liberal. Huxley was also a mystic, so sorry atheist libertarians. Of course, Joss Whedon is a humanist. Most of us aren’t that fond of government; we just think it is a hell of a lot better than living in Walmart World.


I will provide an exception for drug users. There are libertarians who just want to be allowed their drugs and are tired of paying so much for them and being thrown in jail. I understand such libertarians. But such libertarians would never even consider voting for the Republican Party given that they are responsible for the original War on Drugs and then for really ramping it up under Reagan and then Bush. I am assuming here that drug libertarians are not as clueless as the rest of them.


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One Big Problem With the Marshmallow Challenge

Alfie KohnThe inclination to wait depends on one’s experiences. “For a child accustomed to stolen possessions and broken promises, the only guaranteed treats are the ones you have already swallowed,” remarked a group of social scientists at the University of Rochester. Last year they conducted an experiment in which children were encouraged to wait for “a brand-new set of exciting art supplies” rather than using the well-worn crayons and dinky little stickers that were already available. After a few minutes, the adult returned. Half the kids received the promised, far superior materials. But the other half got only an apology: “I’m sorry, but I made a mistake. We don’t have any other art supplies after all.”

Then it was time for the marshmallow challenge. And how long did the children wait for two to appear before they gave up and ate the one sitting in front of them? Well, it depended on what had happened earlier. Those for whom the adult had proved unreliable (by failing to deliver the promised art supplies) waited only about three minutes. But those who had learned that good things do come to those who wait were willing to hold off, on average, for a remarkable twelve minutes.

—Alfie Kohn
S’More Misrepresentation of Research
From The Myth of the Spoiled Child

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Joni Ernst and the Wonderful Food Pantries

Joni ErnstJoni Ernst is the woman likely to become the next US Senator from Iowa because she castrated hogs as a child. This is supposedly some kind of clever implication that she will go to Washington and “cut pork.” No one seems to be willing to say the obvious: it’s a terrible analogy. It makes no sense. And personally, I think it is a lie. I had a very good friend in grammar school who lived on a farm and I remember being there when they were castrating sheep. The children were not involved. But who knows? Bottom line: it’s only a metaphor and a very bad one at that. The main thing is that Joni Ernst is a conservative freak.

Radio Iowa uncovered a recording of the candidate, Ernst Carries Concealed Weapon “90 Percent of the Time.” Because, you know, freedom. But Jonathan Chait brought my attention to one little section of the wide ranging discussion that also included ending federal involvement in education and even more cuts to food stamps, even while she continues to support price floors on foods that make food more expensive. Again, you know, freedom.

The point of all this freedom is that the private sector can do everything better:

We have lost a reliance on not only our own families, but so much of what our churches and private organizations used to do. They used to have wonderful food pantries. They used to provide clothing for those that really needed it, but we have gotten away from that.

Actually, no. Conservatives have this very strange idea that the government got into the poverty elimination business because it hates, you know, freedom. That’s not actually true. The government got into the anti-poverty business because the private sector was not dealing with it. The public sector never deals with this nor should it. Did the private sector get rid of child labor? No. Will it get rid of poverty? No. It isn’t what the private sector does and people like Joni Ernst are delusional.

Ernst claimed that private organizations “used to have wonderful food pantries.” I don’t actually know what she means. Earlier this week, I was doing some work at a church that has a food pantry. It isn’t wonderful in the sense of overflowing with food. This isn’t because a great deal of food doesn’t come through it. An enormous amount of food is given to the poor by the church. This is despite the food stamp program that Ernst wants to cut even more.

But what would Ernst know about the these “good ol’ days” when the government didn’t help poor people so that churches and private organizations could have wonderful food pantries? Joni Ernst was born years after the War on Poverty started. If she saw “wonderful pantries” it was probably because they weren’t needed as much as they are now because of government anti-poverty programs that conservatives have repeated cut funding to over the past three-plus decades.

I remember Bill Maher saying that it was okay to vote for a Republican because sometimes what you need is an angry old white guy to manage your money. I more or less agree with this although the last forty years have shown that Republicans are useless in this regard too. But what I can’t tolerate are people like Ernst who claim that they really care about the poor and that’s why they want to stop the government from doing anything for them. Joni Ernst has lived a sheltered life where her ideas about the deserving and undeserving poor come from television. It’s outrageous that she’s even competitive in a statewide race anywhere. That she is clearly leading in Iowa almost makes me give up all hope for democracy and the future of this country.

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Conservative and Liberal First Names

Most Conservative and Liberal Names in America

This image is via BuzzFeed, Here Are The Most Conservative And Liberal Names In America. These are first names. It comes from data about political donors. Anyone who has made more than two campaign contributions since 1980 is on the list. Then names that showed up less than a thousand times were eliminated. So that’s the data.

What is interesting here is that all the most conservative names belong to men and all the most liberal names belong to women. That isn’t shocking. It is well established that women are more liberal than men. But I just wasn’t expecting it to be so overwhelming. CrowdPac, the group that provided the data, has a tool where you can check various names. It’s fun.

But here’s the thing. I tried every name I could think of. I couldn’t find a single female name that wasn’t liberal nor a single male name that wasn’t conservative. I’ve said it before, but it is worth repeating: women really are the better sex.


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Poet George Mackay Brown

George Mackay BrownOn this day in 1921, the Scottish writer George Mackay Brown was born. He is known mostly for his poetry and since that is all that I’ve ever read, I will stick to that.

He was actually from the Orkney Islands — an archipelago just north of Scotland. And he spent pretty much his entire life there. He was born into a very poor family and was himself greatly limited because he suffered from tuberculosis from a young age. But at least he could write. In fact, in his early 20s, he began to do some writing for the local paper.

His hometown was Stromness, which even today has only a population of about two thousand people. Since before Brown was born, it had be “dry” — not allowing any alcohol. But in 1947, the town lifted the ban. So at the age of 25, Brown had his first taste of alcohol. He liked it. He later wrote, “[T]hey flushed my veins with happiness; they washed away all cares and shyness and worries. I remember thinking to myself ‘If I could have two pints of beer every afternoon, life would be a great happiness.’” Apparently, many people thought he drank too much for the rest of his life, but I don’t especially see evidence of that.

His first book of poetry, The Storm, was published in 1954. It sold quite well. But it wasn’t until the mid-1960s that he was able to support himself. Until then, his mother had supported him. I find his work charming and direct. But not easy. Here is “Taxman” from The Collected Poems of George Mackay Brown. I don’t fully understand it. But I like the slice-of-life quality to it: the harvest done, the celebration starts, the taxman comes?

Seven scythes leaned at the wall.
Beard upon golden beard
The last barley load
Swayed through the yard.
The girls uncorked the ale.
Fiddle and feet moved together.
Then between stubble and heather
A horseman rode.

And here is a wonderful spiritual poem, “Beachcomber.” I won’t try to interpret it even though it begs for a thorough discussion. Just enjoy:

Monday I found a boot –
Rust and salt leather.
I gave it back to the sea, to dance in.

Tuesday a spar of timber worth thirty bob.
Next winter
It will be a chair, a coffin, a bed.

Wednesday a half can of Swedish spirits.
I tilted my head.
The shore was cold with mermaids and angels.

Thursday I got nothing, seaweed,
A whale bone,
Wet feet and a loud cough.

Friday I held a seaman’s skull,
Sand spilling from it
The way time is told on kirkyard stones.

Saturday a barrel of sodden oranges.
A Spanish ship
Was wrecked last month at The Kame.

Sunday, for fear of the elders,
I sit on my bum.
What’s heaven? A sea chest with a thousand gold coins.

Happy birthday George Mackay Brown!


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Why Do Libertarians Tend to Be Republican?

Libertarian Party: Just Kidding, We're Republicans!You may remember last year, there was quite a bit of coverage of Jonathan Haidt and his theory of political differences, Moral Foundations Theory. What he did was look at five moral foundations that correlated strongly with liberals and conservatives in different ways. They are: harm, fairness, ingroup, authority, and purity. Liberals score very high on harm and fairness. Conservatives score high on everything. But conservatives score substantially lower than liberals on harm and fairness, substantially higher on ingroup and authority, overwhelmingly higher on purity.

I just came upon an article I’m pretty sure I read last year, The Science of Tea Party Wrath. I’m not really interested in getting into that subject today. I think we all understand that liberals and conservatives are fundamentally different kinds of people. I think it mostly comes down to empathy. That’s not to say that conservatives can’t care about the weak and unfortunate, but when they do so, I think they do so in a more paternal way. Of course, mostly they don’t care about the weak and unfortunate — at least that’s true of the extremist Tea Party Republicans.

What struck me in the article was the following graph because it included libertarians as well as liberals and conservatives:

Moral Foundations

Forget about the last two bars: “economic liberty” and “lifestyle liberty.” The whole “liberty” idea was just a “good candidate” for a moral foundation. Personally, I think it is a term that is too vague and ideologically charged.

The most obvious thing to notice here is that libertarians do score about as you would expect. They agree with liberals about ingroup, authority, and purity; they agree with conservatives about harm and fairness. But there is something that I think it more interesting: the general pattern for libertarians is the same as for liberals. Conservatives have more or less the same scores on all of the foundations. But libertarians have the same pattern as liberals: high for harm and fairness; medium for ingroup and authority; and low for purity. That’s very odd!

Based upon this, you would think that libertarians would tend more toward the Democratic Party than the the Republican Party. Indeed, I have argued this. Other than the issue of taxes, the Democratic Party is far more libertarian than the Republican Party. Yet libertarians tend toward the authoritarian party. I don’t just say this because Rand and Ron Paul are Republicans. They aren’t what drives this; they are a symptom of it.

My long history with the libertarian movement — and one of the main reasons I left it — was that it was easily made up of 90% disaffected Republicans. In fact, the Libertarian Party was founded by Republicans who were unhappy with Nixon. But they weren’t unhappy with Nixon because of Watergate. They were like everyone on the far right of the Republican Party: they just didn’t like Nixon, although they all had their different reasons for it. But let’s face it: on domestic issues, he was pretty liberal.

Jonathan HaidtWhat I find notable in the graph is that libertarians are even less concerned about “harm” than conservatives are. Based upon what I know about libertarians, I can’t really explain this other than to note that they tend to not care about practical outcomes. But I would be concerned if I were a libertarian. The foundation is defined thusly, “This foundation is related to our long evolution as mammals with attachment systems and an ability to feel (and dislike) the pain of others. It underlies virtues of kindness, gentleness, and nurturance.” It is the foundation that is most associated with empathy.

I think this may have something to do with the great impact of Ayn Rand on libertarians. Her big message, above all others, was the virtue of selfishness. She argued not that altruism was bad but that it didn’t even exist. And so I think that libertarians tend to end up with a philosophy that says, “It is virtuous to only look out for myself.” And that goes along with their lower score on fairness.

But overall, I think this graph should make libertarians take a serious look at themselves. In a general sense, they believe the same way that liberals believe. But they vote the way that conservatives vote. You would either have to conclude that libertarians don’t understand what their actual interests are. This goes along with my often noted observation that immigrants often become Republicans because of the rhetoric of the party, rather than its actual policies. So are libertarians just clueless? If not, you have to conclude that libertarians value lowering taxes on the rich more than anything else. And given that overall taxes in the United States are fairly flat already, the focus of the Republican Party’s tax “reform” ideas is to make the system less fair. If they ever got what they actually wanted — a flat income tax — overall taxes in America would be regressive. Is that what libertarians want?

My guess is that libertarians actually are completely clueless. That would also explain why they are libertarians at all.


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