James O’Keefe’s Tired Cons

James O'KeefeI have a visceral hatred of James O’Keefe. You should know him as the con man who managed to get ACORN defunded by pretending to be an ethical investigator. His work has never shown what he has claimed, and the press could never be bothered to check out his claims before reporting them. My hatred is not primarily about the effects of his work. It is rather that as partisan as I may be, I still have a commitment to the truth. It bothers me when people try to finesse an argument. But when they knowing lie — in a way where it absolutely goes past any question of self-delusion — I go crazy. It doesn’t help that O’Keefe has been shown to be a fraud time and again, yet mainstream news still treat him as though he had something to offer. You don’t need any other information to conclude that such news sources are primarily interested entertainment.

These days, James O’Keefe is more known for sting operations that get revealed. For example, there was his creepy attempt to make some kind of a secret sex video of his attempted seduction of CNN reporter Abbie Boudreau. But most recently, he’s been sniffing around Colorado where he’s been trying to entrap the Democratic Party with his typically obvious stunts. Here is Andy Kroll at Mother Jones, Colorado Dems: We Caught James O’Keefe and His Friends Trying to Bait Us Into Approving Voter Fraud:

Last Tuesday, a man who appeared to be in his 20s showed up at a Democratic field office in Boulder wanting to volunteer to help elect Udall and Rep Jared Polis (D-Colo.), according to a Democratic staffer who met with him and asked not to be identified. The man introduced himself as “Nick Davis,” and he said he was a University of Colorado-Boulder student and LGBT activist involved with a student group called Rocky Mountain Vote Pride. Davis mentioned polls showing the race between Udall and Gardner was tight, and he asked the staffer if he should fill out and mail in ballots for other college students who had moved away but still received mail on campus. The Democratic staffer says he told Davis that doing this would be voter fraud and that he should not do it.

On Friday, Udall campaigned with Sen Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) on the University of Colorado-Boulder campus. After the event, a woman calling herself “Bonnie” approached a different staffer and, according to this staffer’s boss, asked whether she could fill out and submit blank ballots found in a garbage can. The staffer, according to her boss, said that she told her no.

That same day, the guy identifying himself as “Nick Davis” returned to the Democratic office in Boulder. He was accompanied by a man wearing heavy makeup and a mustache, according to the Democratic staffer who had met Davis three days earlier. Davis introduced his friend as a “civics professor” at the University of Colorado-Boulder and the faculty adviser to Rocky Mountain Vote Pride. Davis and the professor, who said his name was “John Miller,” picked up Udall campaign literature and canvassing information.

Rocky Mountain Vote Pride is pretty clearly a fake group. Their URL is held through a privacy company — not something that a grassroots group would do, but very much what an astroturf group would. It was created only on 10 July of this year and as the article noted, there is no contact information on the site. And I’ll add this: it looks exactly like just about every other astroturf website I’ve ever seen.

The “civics professor” wearing heavy makeup was James O’Keefe as shown in the photo above. O’Keefe tweeted it out himself, probably because his attempt to apparently plant incriminating evidence at the nonprofit group New Era Colorado was foiled. The tweet claimed, “I went in Disguised as 45yo, this time people may lose their jobs.” This time?! Like thousands of people didn’t lose their jobs as a result of his ACORN con?

Regardless of all this, what I think is interesting is just how unsubtle O’Keefe is. I think this is because as a Republican, he just assumes that the other side must be as unethical as they are. Consider voter fraud. Republicans are the only ones pushing it as a big deal. Yet the only major cases of it recently have been perpetrated by Republicans. So I don’t doubt that Republicans think voter fraud is a big deal; they know they’re okay with it. And O’Keefe thinks that Democrats must be just chomping at the bit — waiting for a college student to come in and suggest that they ought to vote for people who have moved away.

This is the state of Republican thought. The truth is that O’Keefe’s exploits are an embarrassment. They are very much akin to the John Birch Society and Robert Welch’s The Politician. But that caused the Republican establishment — National Review most especially — to turn on the group. But the Republican Party and the conservative movement more generally has lost all grip of what a republic is all about. This is why I call them proto-fascists: all that matters is power. And as long as the mainstream media are gullible enough to believe James O’Keefe’s newest scam, he will be embraced as a hero. Because he helps the Republican Party gain power. To hell with the truth.

Afterword

O’Keefe claims that big things are coming in the next week. And what are we likely to see: a heavily edited video with comments taken out of context. It will ultimately be the same thing it always is: nothing. But that doesn’t mean that it won’t get a lot of coverage.

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Are Magic Secrets Always Ugly?

The PiddingtonsRadio Lab recently produced an episode called Black Box. As always, it is great. I think Radio Lab is the best thing on the radio. And this episode is about black boxes: situations where you know what comes in and you know what goes out, but you don’t know what happens inside to make the change. The second segment is about “The Piddingtons” — a husband and wife mentalism act from Australia that was huge on BBC Radio in the 1950s. The story is told from the perspective of their grandson and his search for how they did their act.

The act was pretty much the same every time — just like every other mentalism act. Mr Piddington was on stage with an audience. He got some random bit of information from the audience. For example, an audience member picked a passage from a book. And then Mrs Piddington, who was some place far away (in one case in an airplane), read her husband’s thoughts and revealed the passage. This sort of act can be done with a code — and codes can be remarkably subtle. But in one of the examples, Mr Piddington hardly speaks — certainly not enough to transmit the the amount of information that Mrs Piddington reveals.

Supposedly, the grandson could not find anyone who could tell him how the trick was done. Well, that’s a magic thing. Magicians have this thing about revealing secrets. But it’s nonsense. The most sensible thing I’ve ever read was Teller writing on an old internet newsgroup. He said that he doesn’t tell people how the tricks are done because they don’t want to know. If they did want to know, all they had to do was go to the library and get a book of magic tricks. That is very true. The Tarbell Course in Magic was published in 1928. In terms of the technique of magic, nothing has changed since that time. There is nothing you will see David Blaine or Criss Angel do that isn’t explained in those books.

The Radio Lab crew went to Teller’s partner, the generally very annoying Penn Jillette. (He’s actually kind of charming here.) They wanted answers. That was probably a smart move. The one really good thing about Penn and Teller is that they aren’t pretentious about magic. Jillette said something interesting about magic secrets: they are always ugly. He said that the reason tricks are hard to figure out is that people are looking for an “Aha!” moment when they should be looking for an “Ugh!” moment. While that is generally true, it isn’t always true. There are quite beautiful tricks like the Elevator Cards that would indeed give a spectator an “Aha!” moment.

I have a better rule of thumb that is totally true of The Piddingtons’ act: the trick is over before the audience knows it started. This is especially true with slight of hand. Once the audience is engaged with the trick, there is too much “heat” on your hands. Despite what you may have heard, the hand is not quicker than the eye. One of my favor tricks to perform for an audience was always Daryl’s Twisted Aces. It was a refinement of an older effect, Twisting the Aces, where the magician works with a packet of four aces. One at the time, the aces are “magically” turned face up. Daryl’s innovation was to cause the final ace to disappear completely from the packet and land face up in the middle of the deck that had been set aside. It blew people’s minds. Needless to say, that ace was stolen out of the packet long before the audience really understood what was happening.

So how did The Piddingtons do the trick? If you want to know, Radio Lab provided an extra bit of audio explaining it, The Ugly Truth — Don’t Click This. Of course, it isn’t news. There is a 1989 Columbo episode that explains one permutation of it in some depth, “Columbo Goes to the Guillotine.” Is it really ugly? I don’t think so. I think that the Radio Lab people are just following from Jillette’s lead. If you want a single word explanation, the trick is a “force.” If you want a whole sentence, “Mrs Piddington is told the phrase ahead of time, and Mr Piddington forces the audience to pick that phrase.” And if you want even more, click on the link, although you really ought to listen to the episode first.

One thing that wasn’t discussed is that because mentalism acts (and to a slightly lesser degree all magic) is incredibly repetitive, performers tend to mix things up. For example, a performer might do a trick using a code early on in the act. That might even heighten the effect of later tricks that don’t use a code. In the end, magic acts are exactly the same as any other kind of performance: the performer must be interesting. Every performer has his own techniques for holding the audience’s attention. Magic is actually very bad in this regard and that’s why so many successful magicians are little more than comedians or storytellers. But The Piddingtons weren’t, nor are David Blaine or Criss Angel — which is why I have no use for the lot of them.

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Two Decades of Gary Webb Attacks Continue

Gary WebbLast month, I wrote about the then upcoming Gary Webb bio-pic Kill the Messenger. It is about how Webb’s reporting on CIA-affiliated smuggling of cocaine into the United States in the 1980s was attacked by the major press outlets. This eventually led to Webb killing himself. But I noted, “I’m sure… the press will push it as a story of one of their own, even though the primary reason that Webb seems to have taken his life is that no one would hire him.” Well, I was wrong. What I forgot is that a lot of the people who attacked Webb are not only still alive, but still working. So of course they aren’t going to laud them as the best that journalism is. Webb is long dead, but they still feel the need to attack him.

Recently, there was much coverage of the the Watergate break-in because of the fortieth anniversary. I discussed the coverage, Bob Schieffer Believes in Journalism That Happened 40 Years Ago. (Schieffer, of course, being the man who thinks that Edward Snowden should be thrown in jail — and maybe Glenn Greenwald as well.) In that article, I mentioned that if there had not been the incriminating tapes, Nixon would never have been forced to resign; Republicans would to this day be claiming that it was a small scandal; and most of all, journalists would not celebrate Woodward and Bernstein. And notice: the tapes are nothing that they uncovered; the tapes simply proved them right.

On Friday, Jeff Leen at the Washington Post wrote, Gary Webb Was No Journalism Hero, Despite What “Kill the Messenger” Says. And who is Jeff Leen? Well, at the time of Webb’s reporting, he was a reporter at the Miami Herald, doing work on the drug trade. And part of that work was to counter Webb’s work. It is almost twenty years later, and he’s still working that assignment.

Robert Parry wrote a great response to Leen at Consortium News, WPost’s Slimy Assault on Gary Webb. In 1985, Parry and Brian Barger broke the story in the Associated Press that the Contras — the rebels we supported who were fighting against the Nicaraguan government — were shipping cocaine into the United States. Webb’s work followed up on that, showing that CIA contractors were involved and that the CIA was complicit. So Parry knows what he’s talking about.

I highly recommend reading the whole thing because he takes Leen apart. Of course, it won’t matter to Leen, who is a typical career journalist whose biggest asset to a paper is that he will never file anything that would upset anyone powerful. But what stood out to me in the article is the way that people like Leen can continue to nitpick away at Webb, even while later events have shown him to be right.

That made me wonder what would have happened if Nixon’s tapes had existed, but didn’t get released for a decade after Watergate. Based upon the treatment of Webb, it must be that much of the media establishment would never have forgiven Woodward and Bernstein, much less lionized them. Here is Parry on an interesting comparison:

Instead of diving into the reeds of the CIA and DOJ reports, Leen does what he and his mainstream colleagues have done for the past three decades, try to minimize the seriousness of the Reagan administration tolerating cocaine trafficking by its Contra clients and even obstructing official investigations that threatened to expose this crime of state.

Instead, to Leen, the only important issue is whether Gary Webb’s story was perfect. But no journalistic product is perfect. There are always more details that a reporter would like to have, not to mention compromises with editors over how a story is presented. And, on a complex story, there are always some nuances that could have been explained better. That is simply the reality of journalism, the so-called first draft of history.

But Leen pretends that it is the righteous thing to destroy a reporter who is not perfect in his execution of a difficult story — and that Gary Webb thus deserved to be banished from his profession for life, a cruel punishment that impoverished Webb and ultimately drove him to suicide in 2004.

But if Leen is correct — that a reporter who takes on a very tough story and doesn’t get every detail precisely correct should be ruined and disgraced — what does he tell his Washington Post colleague Bob Woodward, whose heroic Watergate reporting included an error about whether a claim regarding who controlled the White House slush fund was made before a grand jury?

While Woodward and his colleague Carl Bernstein were right about the substance, they were wrong about its presentation to a grand jury. Does Leen really believe that Woodward and Bernstein should have been drummed out of journalism for that mistake? Instead, they were lionized as heroes of investigative journalism despite the error — as they should have been.

Yet, when Webb exposed what was arguably an even worse crime of state — the Reagan administration turning a blind eye to the importation of tons of cocaine into the United States — Leen thinks any abuse of Webb is justified because his story wasn’t perfect.

Those two divergent judgments — on how Woodward’s mistake was understandably excused and how Webb’s imperfections were never forgiven — speak volumes about what has happened to the modern profession of journalism at least in the mainstream US media. In reality, Leen’s insistence on perfection and “extraordinary proof” is just a dodge to rationalize letting well-connected criminals and their powerful accomplices off the hook.

In the old days, the journalistic goal was to “comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable,” but the new rule appears to be: “any standard of proof works when condemning the weak or the despised but you need unachievable ‘extraordinary proof’ if you’re writing about the strong and the politically popular.”

In another scathing attack on Leen’s article, Al Giordano and Bill Conroy at Narco News wrote, The Washington Post Needs a Bus — and to Throw Jeff Leen Under It. It makes the argument that the big three newspapers didn’t destroy the story because of its subject matter, but because Webb’s story was the first big news story on the internet. They were trying to kill electronic media and Webb was just a casualty of that. Here is Webb discussing the impact of the internet:

But what’s especially great about the article is that they interviewed Nick Schou, who wrote the book, Kill the Messenger. Leen took some quotes from his book to prove his case that “Gary Webb Was No Journalism Hero.” Well, Schou read Leen’s article and was not pleased:

I’m glad this guy wrote what he did because it reveals exactly why the movie gets the story so right. The writer of this worthless and whiny op-ed perfectly captures the craven mentality of cowardice of most of Webb’s critics at the three major papers. And he totally takes my statement out of context. I do believe that Dark Alliance contained major flaws of hyperbole, but they were mostly the story’s logo and a few unnecessary phrases that overstated the evidence Webb had at the time. What I’ve always argued is that had Webb been allowed to keep writing, and had the other papers including the Post actually done their job, the true extent of the story would have been revealed. The fact remains that Webb’s story nonetheless forced the CIA to admit that the true flaw of Dark Alliance was hardly one of hyperbole but the exact opposite – the story radically understated the scandal.

The article also contains a bit of text from Webb’s book, Dark Alliance where he calls out the work of Jeff Leen. I’ve transcribed it:

A handful of researchers, James Inciardi for example, maintain that the crack market in Miami developed simultaneously with that in LA, but the historical record to support this is much thinner. One of the journalistic advocates of this scenario is Jeff Leen, a self-styled cocaine expert formally with the Miami Herald. If Leen is correct, however, it means he missed the story by about four years. His first article on crack (which he erroneously referred to as “free-base” throughout) didn’t appear until December 30, 1985, a month after the New York Times announced its presence on the Eastern seaboard.

Giordano and Conroy added, “Leen thought he could publish Friday’s essay without disclosing that it was none other than Gary Webb who exposed Leen’s early cocaine journalism in that passage of his book.” But the sad truth of the matter is that Leen will get away with the article. It’s been several days and I’ve only found a smattering of articles about it — only two of which were in Google News. And Leen will finish out his unremarkable and cowardly career and have a nice retirement. I’d like to believe that Giordano and Conroy are right and that Leen will be thrown under the bus. But it doesn’t work that way. People like Gary Webb who speak truth to power are thrown under the bus. People like Jeff Leen who kiss up to the establishment are cherished.

Update (21 October 2014 11:23 am)

The Rancid Honeytrap has posted an article about some other attacks and resources about the work that Webb and the work he did, Misremembering Gary Webb. It is very good.

Update (21 October 2014 1:46 pm)

Joseph Palermo at Huffington Post wrote a good overview of the history of the whole thing, The Gary Webb Story: Still Killing the Messenger. Also: Kenneth V Smith wrote, Yet Another Mainstream Media Attack on the Ghost of Journalist Gary Webb. After listing three article about Webb, he wrote, “The above are left-of-center websites, with which I normally disagree. I would like to find a right-of-center or libertarian article that is critical of The Washington Post’s attack on Gary Webb, but so far, nothing.” Funny that! Well, I have a clue. For the conservatives, well, they don’t want to hear anything that will shed a negative light on Reagan. There is a reason that liberals often refer to him as Saint Reagan: their love of him is faith based and facts will not get in the way. As for libertarians, well, as I’ve noted before, they aren’t much more than embarrassed Republicans. If the conservative movement had any substance to it, you would think they would love this story that paints a very bad picture of the government. And I expect that Reason will have something to say on the issue. But no conservative can get really excited about denigrating the Reagan years when they accomplished the one thing all conservatives believe it: Tax Cuts for Rich, Tax Hikes for the Rest.

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To Be or Not to Bop With Dizzy Gillespie

Dizzy GillespieOn this day in 1917, the great jazz trumpet player Dizzy Gillespie was born. Actually, that kind of under-sells him. He was a whole lot more than that. He was probably the most important person in the development of bebop. And if you think of jazz, you probably think of bebop unless you are just really boring. The great thing about bebop is that it killed swing. I’m not saying that there is anything wrong with swing, but it was played out and yes, it was boring.

Bebop was distinct from swing in two primary ways. The first is obvious, even to modern (but careless) ears: it is highly syncopated. I especially like this. I’ve always had a great fascination with what I call “jagged” melodies. This has not endeared my music to others, but I love it. The second distinction is something that I’ve never been very creative about but which I admire as a listener: harmonic complexity. Swing stayed pretty much to standard chords like a 9th: C-E-G-Bb-D. But bebop composers and improvisers — led by Gillespie and Charlie Parker — played with this in a big way. They especially liked to flatten the 5th and 9th. And augment them. So you end up with things that sound quite dissonant and start to lose all standard harmonic structure. For example: C-E-Gb-Bb-Db, which is really just a Gb7 chord with a flatted 5th thrown in on the bass. The theory confuses me, but it sounds great.

Here is “Woody ‘n’ You,” which Gillespie wrote while working with Coleman Hawkins. It is the very dawn of bebop. It still sounds very swing-y. But it is more syncopated and it is introducing more harmonic complexity. But it isn’t making a full break with the past, and indeed, it is an homage to swing band leader Woody Herman.

But let’s jump ahead. Gillespie was also very important in the development of Afro-Cuban jazz. A great, early example of this is “Manteca” — originally recording in 1947, I don’t think any version was released until Afro in 1954. Anyway, here is a great live version from 1970. You also get to see some of his playing:

I’ve had a hard time finding video of Gillespie really letting fly as a performer. There are videos, but they are generally in hour long sets. So you will just have to make due with this performance of “One Note Samba” from a performance in Paris in 1965. It is just amazingly wonderful. But it doesn’t especially highlight Gillespie. Still, listen:

Happy birthday Dizzy Gillespie!

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Dictionary Sagacious But Not Bonhomous

Child ReadingI have a good vocabulary, but I am constantly looking up words. For one thing, even when you know words, the definitions are usually fuzzy. People often ask me what a particular words means, and I start babbling. If I don’t know what it means, it is fine. “I don’t know” is one of my all time favorite sentences. But when I do know, oh boy: watch out! And the more basic the word, the harder it is to define. For example: if you try to define “creation” you will almost certainly use the word “create” in the first sentence. “It means something that you create. I mean…”

But if you are the writer of a dictionary, you may very easily define the word: something that is created. This is a very annoying aspect of dictionaries that most of us found exasperating when we were young. It has even created (Ha!) a kind of folklore where the entry on “creation” sends you to the entry on “create.” And there you find, “Create: the process of creation.” I do not know of this ever actually occurring. The writers of dictionaries may be annoying, but they aren’t sadistic.

When I was a kid, I always wondered why dictionaries didn’t just insert the definition of “create” into the definition of “creation.” Suppose that create is defined as “bring into existence.” Rather than define “creation” as “something that has been created,” define it as “something that has been brought into existence.” I think there are two reasons that this is not done. One is that dictionaries are already long enough. It isn’t that big a deal to make the reader look at another entry, which after all, is probably on the same page.

The second reason is more important: words often have a number of different definitions. Which one ought to be chosen? Well, in the case of “create,” all of them. Thus, it is better to send the reader to the entry on “create” and leave it there.

As you can see from this, I’m sympathetic to the creators of dictionaries. But online, the first excuse for this kind of “research project” definition doesn’t make sense. We are not constrained by book size. But the second reason remains — at least with regard to many words like “create.” But it isn’t always true, and it tends not to be true for the more obscure words that people are likely to look up. Take for example, my run in with Google earlier today.

I entered “sagacity define” into Google. And it dutifully spit back: “the quality of being sagacious.” This greatly annoyed me. You see, I already knew pretty much what both “sagacity” and “sagacious” meant. And I knew they didn’t have lots of different meanings like “create” and “creation.” For the record “sagacious” means “of keen and farsighted penetration and judgment.” So Google could have provided a better definition of “sagacity.” Perhaps: “having keen and farsighted penetration and judgment”?

If you go to Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, you get the definition, “the quality of being sagacious.” Yes, I know; it is the same. Well, almost. Because at least it makes that would “sagacious” a link to their definition of sagacious. And that is really what you would think is the least they could do. But as we know from Google, at the very least, they could do even less.

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Amazon-Hachette Is Not About the Little Guy

Paul KrugmanPaul Krugman wrote an interesting column today, Amazon’s Monopsony Is Not OK. I don’t disagree with his overall conclusion: Amazon has way too much power. But when it comes to the specific issue of eBook prices, the situation is far from clear. Yes, Amazon is abusing its power. But the publishers are also abusing the public and their writers.

When CDs replaced albums, the music industry used the change to make a whole lot more money. At that time, vinyl records cost more to make and distribute than CDs. But vinyl records had cost about $10 at that time and the industry charged $15 or more for CDs. Whatever the market will bear, right? CDs were the new whizbang technology and even though the sound quality was worse than vinyl, CDs never wore out — at least in theory. So even though on the supply side, there was no reason for the record companies to make this extra money, consumers were getting something they thought was better.

Pretty much the same thing has happened with eBooks. When they first came out, publishers wanted to sell them for $15 a piece. But it turns out that publishers would be making the same amount for a $10 eBook as they made for a $26 physical book. So why exactly should the publishers get a huge boost in profits for doing less? Note also that publishers generally give a smaller royalty to writers. This is because the publisher get a higher percentage of the retail price. So the publishers think the new technology should enrich them, but not their writers. Nice!

But this all might be okay if consumers were getting something more from eBooks than they get from printed books. As a user of both, I think they pretty much are. For research purposes, eBooks are better. But for simple reading, it is at best a wash. I still prefer to read printed books. But I’ll admit that I am (1) more tactile than most people and (2) old. But there are ways that printed books are better. To start, I can sell them. They can theoretically last for thousands of years. And perhaps most important: I don’t need a device to read them. With records, one needed a record player already, so needing to own a CD player wasn’t a big deal. Someone entering the market had to buy a device just like always. That isn’t true of books.

Which brings us back to Amazon. It really is a problem. Right now, Amazon is behaving itself reasonably well. And its pricing policies really have done a favor for readers. But the whole dispute between Amazon and publishers just highlights the fact that capitalism only works well when real limits are placed on it. For over two decades, neither of the two major American political parties is at all interested policing the excesses of capitalism. And that, to me, is the bigger problem.

The fact that Amazon is abusing a huge publishing conglomerate like Hachette isn’t really on my radar of Really Important Things. But this whole issue has gotten a lot of play exactly because Hachette is a big company with lots of power. I was appalled recently when the company went whining onto The Colbert Report. And then, instead of being honest, they were allowed to present it as a great threat to writers as if publishing companies themselves hadn’t long been the greatest threat to writers.

A much more important issue is that Amazon pays its employees really badly. They pay their associates really badly. They totally ripoff sellers. But these are not likely to get the high profile treatment in The New York Times because, you know, they’re the little people. Of course, Krugman’s focus is on the ultimate effects on the little people. But that isn’t why anyone is paying attention to the Amazon-Hachette battle.

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Flag Decals, Yellow Ribbons, and Pink Bracelets

Pink RibbonI’ve loved John Prine’s first album since I was a kid. One of the (many) standout songs on the album is, “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You Into Heaven Anymore.” It’s an anti-war song for the Vietnam era. The line following the refrain is, “They’re already overcrowded from your dirty little war.” But I don’t have much a visceral connection to the Vietnam War. So what has always spoken to me is the use of signifiers to represent which “side” you are on in complicated issues that really do not lend themselves to simple binary positions.

The best example of this is the yellow ribbon. These usually go along with the jingoistic slogan, “Support the troops!” I’ve given this a lot of thought and the reasoning behind this slogan goes something as follows, “The troops have to do whatever the government tells them. Therefore, supporting the troops means supporting whatever the government tells them to do. Therefore, support the war you commie bastards!” The yellow ribbon, just like the flag decal before it, is meant to shutdown debate.

The other side of it is that the yellow ribbons allow people to feel good about “supporting the troops” in a theoretical sense but to not do so in a practical sense. We have a long history of lavishing money on defense contractors while low-level military personnel live in near poverty. We go into war with high tech, whizbang devices (that made some rich guy even more rich) but without basic body and transport armor because, “As you know, you go to war with the army you have, not the army you might want or wish to have at a later time.” And, of course, after the wars, the military personnel are largely forgotten. The conservatives who were so keen on “supporting the troops” tend to forget about the former troops and their needs.

This issue of the meaninglessness of such signifiers is discuss today by Danielle Kurtzleben at Vox, Pink Breast Cancer Awareness Ribbons Sell Because They Don’t Really Say Anything. It discussed how the pink ribbons mean something different to everyone. But as I have already indicated, they don’t actually say anything about the person or entity sporting one:

“Ribbon-wearing requires very little commitment to a cause. Indeed, wearing a ribbon does not mean that one is an active or staunch supporter of a given charity,” writes Sarah EH Moore in her 2009 book Ribbon Culture. And though she’s talking about [the] person wearing a ribbon, her comment can easily transfer to a yogurt or a football league — the pink ribboned advertisement can often signify very little in the way of how much money that company is giving to fighting cancer, as “pinkwashing” opponents often warn. There are several instances of companies saying they will give “a portion” of a product’s proceeds to cancer research, without specifying exactly what the amount will be.

The article goes on to discuss how most businesses just see the pink ribbon as good PR. It’s just fondness by association. But this is nothing new. I’m more bothered with it on a personal level. What exactly would it say if I wore a pink ribbon? That I’m against breast cancer? That seems like a non-statement, like, “I’m against things that are bad!” Or perhaps it says that I’m in favor of finding a cure? Ditto. Or maybe it says that we should put more resources toward finding a cure for breast cancer? Well, there I have to break ranks. Sure, I’m for more research. But in our current “pay as you go” environment where we absolutely positively cannot raise taxes (and people are constrained in their giving), more money for breast cancer research is less money for something else. It would depend upon what that something else was.

Of course, pink ribbons don’t express jingoism. But otherwise, they are the same as the yellow ribbons. They either say something so vague that they are meaningless. Or they say something contentious, so they divide us. Kurtzleben briefly discussed this issue in her article. Recently, Susan G Komen has twice gotten into trouble by being something other than the anemic, “We’re taking a bold stand to be against breast cancer!” The first was the Planned Parenthood fiasco and then the pink fracking drill-bits.

I would never give Komen a cent, because their real intentions are too clear. No one is too dirty for them to partner with. If a rich neo-Nazi wanted to give them billions for the cause, they would take it. All that matters is that they get the cash for their one cause. Of course, it doesn’t even take billions (it probably would for a neo-Nazi); Baker Hughes only had to donate $100,000 to equate fracking with breast cancer awareness. What’s more, the Planned Parenthood case showed that Komen doesn’t even care about women generally. So unless you believe that nothing matters as much as breast cancer, I can’t see why you would support Komen.

That gets to the very heart of the flag decals, yellow ribbons, and pink bracelets: they don’t actually mean anything to the people sporting them. But they mean a great deal to the people pushing them. And what they mean is at best complicated and at worst downright evil.

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Obama Was Always a Milquetoast

Thomas FrankEven if I didn’t agree with him almost all the time, I would read Thomas Frank because he is a great writer. But the truth is that I very rarely disagree with him. We are both liberal populists who think that there is a very big problem with the Democratic Party: it has turned conservative on the issues that most matter to people — economic issues. And that means we both get attacks — from fellow Democrats — who think that we just don’t get it. They think that if the DLC hadn’t taken over the Democratic Party we wouldn’t have had a Democratic president since Carter. They are wrong, of course. Political science tells us they are wrong, but they are as resistant to evidence as conservatives are. That may be because they too are conservatives and want to hide under a cover of being slightly reasonable about abortion and same sex marriage.

But yesterday, Thomas Frank wrote an article that bothered me, Paul Krugman’s Sloppy, Wet Kiss. It is a response to Krugman’s Rolling Stone article, In Defense of Obama. I had read it when it first came out and my reaction to it was more or less the same as Frank’s: Krugman is putting the too positive a face the Obama presidency. And Frank did it using an important idea from economics: opportunity cost.

Let me put the Obama years into context like this: What the times called for was a second New Deal, for a wholesale makeover of the economic system. What Obama chose to deliver instead was a second round of ’90s-style bipartisanship. As I have written before, the president looked out over a nation laid low by epic white-collar misbehavior and decided that what we needed was for politicians in Washington to get along with one another…

So the crisis went to waste and our smart young president let an era of possibility slip through his fingers. The cost of missing this opportunity is impossible to measure.

I am completely with Frank on this. And I’m with him when he criticizes the fecklessness of the Obama administration in believing that the Republicans would want to work with him. Where I disagree with Frank is in thinking that Obama “seemed like exactly the right man for the job.” No! He never seemed like the right man for the job. During the 2008 primary, I wondered if Clinton mightn’t be the better president. For one thing, she had something to prove: that she wasn’t her husband. And she might be strong in standing up to the Republicans. There was never any doubt that Obama was a milquetoast politician and that once in power, he was going to yield to the same old power elite as ever.

Obama NopeIt seems kind of obvious now. Only Nixon could go to China because he was such a rabid anti-communist. Only Clinton could destroy welfare because he was labeled a liberal (and even a socialist). And only rich boy FDR could really take on the power elite. The last person for the job was a black man so nonthreatening that the Harvard Law Review allowed him to be president of it.

None of this is to say that Obama is bad. I admire him. I think he has been about as good a president as we are ever likely to have. I can say that because I am a pessimist. But no one who tells you he is going to bring “change” is actually going to bring change. People who bring change tell you what they are going to do. And that’s why any liberal bringing actual change would be cut to pieces. Our “liberal” media would never allow it. We’ve seen conservatives bringing change and they’ve delivered. Oh, how they’ve delivered! And we never learn. But all you have to do in this country is shout “Socialism!” and everyone cowers under our bridges that are falling down because of lack of infrastructure spending.

So I understand why Obama is the president he is. What I don’t understand is why someone as smart and insightful as Thomas Frank would ever have been fooled. Obama is an establishment man through and through. And he always was. He never meant “change” to be anything that would threaten (Even just a little!) the power elite.


See also: Obama’s Hope Is There’ll Be No Change

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Education Reform and John Dewey

John DeweyI feel I let my readers down this last weekend with the minor publishing schedule. But I do have an excuse. It isn’t just that I was reading my friend Kristen’s novel. It was also that it is about a once promising artist whose life is crumbling to bits — very much by her own doing. And that reminds me very much of myself as I sit here writing this with my bank account recently liquidated by the State of California. But I am determined to be on my regular schedule today. Or at least, I am determined to get five articles out today — I’m not sure exactly when they will come. Onward!

Today is a great day for birthdays. In particular, there are two 17th century painters who I absolutely love: Aelbert Cuyp and Nicolas de Largilliere. There are also two actors I love: Bela Lugosi and Margaret Dumont. There are also French film director Jean-Pierre Melville and stride pianist Jelly Roll Morton. But I just couldn’t go with them. Not with my ever increasing interest in the American educational system and all the education “reform” fakers.

On this day in 1859, the great John Dewey was born. He was an education reformer — a real one, not just one who wanted to diminish teachers and create good little workers for the factories of the rich. In fact, he believed in liberal education. This is something that has largely been abandoned in the modern debate about education. Now it is all about how we can create more STEM graduates, as if all we need is better technology and the rest of our culture can just rot.

I’m reminded of a quote by Jonathan Kozol:

The best reason to give a child a good school… is so that child will have a happy childhood, and not so that it will help IBM in competing with Sony… There is something ethically embarrassing about resting a national agenda on the basis of sheer greed.

Dewey would very much agree with that sentiment.

One thing that Dewey did not do is invent the Dewey Decimal system. That was done by Melvil Dewey, who lived at the same time and place as John Dewey. But Melvil was a librarian. They are not related in any direct way, so far as I know. I admire both men.

Here is a short video discussion about John Dewey and his work. It also discusses his beliefs about diversity in education:

Happy birthday John Dewey!

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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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