Noise as Censorship

Inventing the EnemyNoise becomes a cover. I would say that the ideology of the censorship through noise can be expressed, with apologies to Wittgenstein, by saying, “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must talk a great deal.” The flagship TG1 news program on Italian state television, for example, is a master of this technique, full of news items about calves born with two heads and bags snatched by petty thieves—in other words, the sort of minor stories papers used to put low on an inside page—which now serve to fill up three-quarters of an hour of information, to ensure we don’t notice other news stories they ought to have covered have not been covered. Several months ago, the press controlled by Berlusconi, in order to undermine the authority of a magistrate who criticized the premier, followed him for days, reporting that he sat smoking on a bench, went to the barber, and wore turquoise socks. To make a noise, you don’t have to invent stories. All you have to do is report a story that is real but irrelevant, yet creates a hint of suspicion by the simple fact that it has been reported. It is true and irrelevant that the magistrate wears turquoise socks, but the fact it has been reported creates a suggestion of something not quite confessed, leaving a mark, an impression. Nothing is more difficult to dispose of than an irrelevant but true story.

—Umberto Eco
“Censorship and Silence” in Inventing the Enemy

The Critic and the Songwriter

Roger EbertOn this day in 1511, the Italian sculptor and architect Bartolomeo Ammannati was born. I think his sculptures are beautiful but they aren’t held in high regard because he so much copied Michelangelo. But if you are going to copy someone, copy the best. Anyway, I really like Michelangelo, so it makes sense that I would like Ammannati. It doesn’t much matter that he wasn’t innovative. He was considered a far better architect during his life.

The Baroque opera composer Antonio de Literes was born in 1673. One doesn’t much hear Baroque opera these days, but I don’t much understand it. It is wonderfully varied. The following video is a good example of his work. It is from a lyric-drama, Acis y Galatea. The song is “Confiado Jilguerillo”:

French neoclassical painter Joseph-Marie Vien was born 1716. I’m very fond of his work. Illustrator James Montgomery Flagg, famous for the Uncle Sam recruiting poster, was born in 1877. The great lyricist Sammy Cahn was born in 1913. Actor E.G. Marshall was born in 1914. And our president’s father, Barack Obama, Sr was born in 1936.

Perhaps the greatest songwriter of the 20th century, Paul McCartney is 71. I don’t much like him as a performer and I am quite tired of his work. But he is a towering figure in songwriting. I rather like John Lennon, but he wasn’t half the songwriter McCartney was. Let me just mention a couple of truly great tunes: “Yesterday” (very likely the greatest pop song ever written), “Penny Lane,” and “Lady Madonna.” But I really could go on and on and on. He also wrote by far the best John Lennon tribute song:

Two childhood crushes Carol Kane and Isabella Rossellini are both 61. And singer Misia is 57.

The day, however, belongs to movie critic Roger Ebert who was born on this day in 1942 (the same day as McCartney). As everyone knows, I am not keen on movie critics. And there is much to complain about with Ebert. But he did know film and he loved it. And when you get right down to it, the biggest problem with critics is that they don’t love the art form. In a better time, Ebert might have been really great. If he had had time to spend with the films and not do all those horrible “one off” reviews. Still, his reviews were always interesting to read. His knowledge of film history helped. But even more important: he was a really good writer. He is missed.

Happy birthday Roger Ebert!

A Great Loss: Michael Hastings

Michael HastingsAs you have probably heard, Michael Hastings died this morning in a car crash. Rolling Stone has a good obituary for him that you ought to read. I noticed that last November I wrote what could have stood as it’s own obituary in an article, Michael Hastings Ruining Journalism… Again. “I really like Michael Hastings. Like most people, I learned about him when he published his explosive The Runaway General in Rolling Stone. I didn’t give the article itself that much thought. A reporter had a good scoop. It was the reaction to the article that made me take notice of him. It seemed you couldn’t turn the page of a magazine without being confronted with another journalist explaining why Hastings’ article was a bad thing. Never again would the disgraced Stanley McChrystal trust him.”

Of course, that wasn’t what I most liked about him. I continued, “My opinion of Hastings went even higher when he appeared on Up with Chris Hayes in August and dismantled Josh Barro’s fascist argument against Julian Assange. Even more than Jeremy Scahill, Hastings seems determined to get at the truth regardless (or perhaps because) of powerful interests.”

Here he is in that exchange saying what ought to be understood by all journalists, “My job is not to help the US government fulfill their diplomatic objectives.”

And here he is on CNN with the evil idiot Piers Morgan:

Hastings’ death is a great loss to journalism. It shouldn’t be. He should have been typical. He was anything but. And now he’s not even around as an example of how the job should be done.

Welfare Reform Kills the Poor

Bill ClintonYou should know by now that the welfare reform was a crock. Clinton was right that we were ending welfare as we know it, although it would have been more accurate to say simply “ending welfare.” It is often claimed (especially by Clinton himself) that the 1996 welfare reform law lifted many people out of poverty. That’s just not true. The booming economy lifted many people out of poverty. The 2001 recession pushed them back down into poverty. But because of welfare “reform” there was far less help available.

Paul Rosenberg provided a great graph of what was really going on. The poverty rate in the United States had little if anything to do with the 1996 welfare reform law. As the unemployment rate fell throughout the 1990s, so did poverty. Just as one would predict. What’s more, the poverty rate went down for three full years before the law was passed, much less implemented.

US Poverty Rate 19988-2004

Rosenberg’s article is part of a series. It is well worth reading because it shows in a great detail that welfare reform did not work in absolute and relative terms in just about every way imaginable. There are some positive trends like lower teen pregnancy rates that advocates of the 1996 law use to justify it. But they all predate the law. There really is nothing good in the data. What’s more, it hasn’t even saved the government much money.

What it has done is make the social safety net far worse. As Bryce Covert in The Nation pointed out, “In fact, nearly 70 percent of poor families with children received cash assistance in 1996; in 2009, less than 30 percent did. And the families who are able to access benefits aren’t getting much. Their purchasing power is below 1996 levels, adjusting for inflation, in every state but two. They fall below 50 percent of the poverty line in every state.” It is hard to conclude anything but that conservatives got exactly what they wanted from welfare reform while liberals did not. Conservatives wanted to limit the amount of money that goes to the poor. Done! Liberals wanted to lift people out of poverty. Not even close!

But today, Dylan Matthews reported on new research that shows that welfare reform is also killing the poor. The research is not on the 1996 law. It is on an earlier Florida law where poor people were randomly placed in either traditional welfare or “welfare to work” programs. The result: people aged 30 to 70 were 16% more likely to die over a 6 year period. Like everything about our supposed efforts to reform welfare, this should not come as a surprise.

We know that the Republican Party doesn’t give a crap about the poor. And in general, they’re up front about it: they don’t often claim otherwise. But New Democrats claim to care about the poor. But their policies indicate otherwise. They brought us an end to welfare as we know it. And the welfare we now know doesn’t help the poor, it hurts them. It even kills them.

Rush Limbaugh’s Good Immigration Question

Rush LimbaughRush Limbaugh asked a very good question: if immigration reform is so great for Republicans, why are Democrats in favor of it. And Jonathan Chait provided an answer: because Democrats will still get more credit for it than Republicans. And if it fails, Democrats have to be in the position to say that it wasn’t their fault. Chait is correct, but I think there is a more important point: Democrats agree with the policy.

This is the fundamental problem with the Republican Party. It has become nothing but an opposition party. Its ideology basically comes down to: whatever the Democrats are against. The Democratic Party still maintains a traditional approach to policy: they would be thrilled if the Republicans agreed with them on anything. In fact, just look at Obamacare. That was a big push by the Democrats to create a bill that would appeal to the Republicans. The Democrats want to find common ground because there are actual things they want to do. The whole Republican position is that there will be no common ground. The few things they seem to believe in are placed so far outside normal debate as to be safe. Somehow, I feel that if the Democrats decided that the Estate Tax should be repealed, the Republicans would say that we needed to provide a tax credit to rich people when they die.

Let’s think about immigration. Most of the people who are living in America illegally sacrificed a great deal to come here. Many of them risked their lives. In fact, a great many people have died trying to get to this country. Who in their right mind thinks they do this so they can get on welfare? If conservatives were honest, they would admit that the kind of people who come here illegally are exactly the kind of people we want in this country. These are people who really value what this country stands for and what it has to offer. I understand that we don’t want to incentivize people coming here illegally. But that isn’t the argument that conservatives make against providing a pathway to citizenship for the 11 million people who are here illegally. Instead, the argument is: they broke the law! Yeah, they broke the law because they love this country. Isn’t that worth something?

So why are Republicans against immigration reform? Part of it is just bigotry. The base and to a lesser extent the elite of the party don’t like immigrants—and that includes legal immigrants. This is all part of the narrative that America was founded by white Christians. Somehow, the less white and less Christian we become, the less authentic we are. This is the basis of the hatred of diversity. You’ll note that there is no complaint about Canadian immigration, even though at many times in the past there were much greater economic opportunities in America. But they are all white and they all speak English. Well, almost all.

But there is another important aspect to resistance to immigration reform—although admittedly, not nearly as important as bigotry. Republicans have often been more than willing to ignore their base if the business community wanted something enough. And they surely do want immigration reform—especially this bill that has all kinds of goodies for them. None of that can really trump the imperative that they are against anything the Democrats are for.

Rush Limbaugh is right to ask what immigration reform gets the Republicans. As I’ve argued a lot, Latinos hate the Republican Party for far more than their stand on immigration. In fact, that isn’t even the primary issue. Immigration is the least that Republicans can do for the Latino community and at best they will do it only grudgingly. People aren’t stupid; they know when you hate them; and they don’t like that. So what does immigration reform get Republicans given they are unwilling to do anything else? Damned little.

Hope Is Not an Environmental Plan

Angry Honey BeeHope is not a good environmental plan. For years I hoped that James Lovelock was right and that the earth is its own kind of super-organism that wouldn’t allow itself to be perturbed by a little radiative forcing this way or that. But that hope came to nothing as the earth most clearly got hotter and hotter. The conservative approach to environmental problems is always the same: technology will save us. That isn’t completely loony. Technology usually does help. But just letting the free market take care of the environment is a recipe for disaster. Conservatives seem blind to the fact that the biggest part of past solutions to environmental problems has been governmental regulations. The truth is that the conservative plan for the future is hope: the hope that it will all work itself out.

Other than a few apiologist, the plan for the great drop in bee populations has been hope. And we really need a better plan. Whole Foods has put out the following image comparing our produce offerings today with what they would look like if bees went extinct. But even it underestimates the problem. It only shows first order effects. And that’s frightening enough:

Produce with and without bees

The only thing that could make this worse is if we learned that colony collapse disorder is caused by something that the rich make a lot of money from. Because if that’s the case, we are doomed.