Strange “Facts” in Conservative World

Josh MarshallI used to be the head of IT at moderate sized investment company. I loved the job but hated the company. It was owned by a couple of old millionaires and every day I had to walk past their pictures with Ronald Reagan, Bush the Elder, and eventually Bush the Younger. And as is usually the case in such places, the big wheeler-dealer types were mostly very conservative. In fact, they were reflexively conservative. They didn’t have to think about it and that was good, because they were not great thinkers.

Much of what I think about the “job creator” brigade comes from this period of my life. I don’t use that term just to be cute. All these agents were employees. In fact, there was a big issue when I was there that the owner, who was showing clear signs of dementia, wanted all these “independent contractors” to be at their phones from nine to five. Neither the fact that they were only paid on commission nor them being required to work set hours (which made them unqualified to be independent contractors) mattered in the least. In their minds they were “job creators,” even if the term wasn’t in widespread use. I’m sure their six-figure salaries made them think they were. I mean, the economy would come to a standstill without them constantly lubricating it!

During the 2004 campaign, John Kerry’s heroism during the Vietnam War came up just in passing. One of the agents said, “What did he do? Get shot in the ass was all!” I wasn’t as involved in politics as I am now, so I let it rest. But even I knew that what Kerry had done was amazing. And the guy who said that had never been in the military. But like most Republicans, he was for a belligerent foreign policy. I lost a great deal of respect for conservatives at that time. Until then, I had always thought that at least they had respect for the military. But when it came down to partisan politics, they were eager to dishonor an American war hero just to elect a man who at best finessed his way out of the war and at worst was a deserter.

I bring this up because of an article this morning by Josh Marshall, Into the Truther Jungle. It is his reflection after running right into the conservative movement’s inability to look at facts. He sent out a tweet about how the resignation of HHS Secretary Kathleen Sebelius showed that the Obamacare rollout had been a success. That’s a no-brainer. She had been waiting for victory before she resigned. That should be obvious to anyone. But apparently it isn’t. He received replies like this:

The point isn’t the disagreement. As Marshall wrote, “What is notable is the total shock that there’s not total unanimity that the program is failing.” The entire conservative movement keeps itself so walled up from inconvenient truths, that they just can’t manage when those truths fall on their heads. That’s where we got “John Kerry just got a medal because he was shot in the butt”—a still common belief on the right. And that’s where we got Unskewed Polls—now morphed into “ACORN stole the election,” even though it didn’t exist in 2012. And that’s where we now get “Obamacare is a failure and the government is just lying about it.”

The only thing that changes from here is that the explanations for why Obamacare really is failing will become more extreme. Or at least they will until conservatives just stop talking about it. That’s how they give up. And in 20 years, a new crop of conservatives will protest outside the White House with signs that read, “Government hands off my Obamacare!” And sadly, that will be a major improvement.

Mona Caron Outdoes Magritte

Mona CaronI was introduced to an artist this morning, Mono Caron. She is a San Francisco artist who specializes in murals. And her work is beautiful. It is expansive and varied even though it maintains a single style. It also combines nature and city life in a way that this very much in keeping with San Francisco. According to her website, “Much of Mona’s public art deals with social history and utopian possibility, and chronicles the street life of its surroundings in the past, present, and imaginary future.” So in addition to everything else, she is politically exciting too. You can see all of this and more on her website. Go check it out!

But there is one aspect of her work that I’m especially interested in: her surrealism. You don’t see this in the painting as a whole, but rather in small bits of it. For example, in one mural, a flower’s stigma becomes a fairy riding a bicycle. In another, cities are embedded inside a streamer covering vegetables—a common motif for her. Another example is her Murale Clownesco, where an acrobat holds up a miniature elephant whose trunk becomes a streamer with two scenes embedded. I’ve avoided the word up until now, but there is no escaping it: magical.

For me, the most exciting of her works is Manifestation Station. It is an addition to an enormous mural, Duboce Bikeway Mural, celebrating the bicycle path that leads riders from the east side of San Francisco (the bay) to the west side (the ocean). And for an added bit of life-art interaction that only murals can provide, the bike path runs along the mural. But that isn’t the greatest part. She was commissioned by the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency (SFMTA) to paint one of their electrical boxes. She did it so that from a specific angle, the image replaced what you are looking it, just like Magritte did in The Human Condition:

Manifestation Station - Mona CaronCourtesy Mono Caron

But this is so much better than Magritte! He focused on the object recreating exactly what it obscured. Caron creates a utopian future. Instead of the Safeway that was and still is there, she’s destroyed it in this alternate universe. All that remains is the one wall that her mural is on. (No utopia without that!) And in place of our corporate oligarchs’ market, there is a farmers’ market. And there is grass and plants and water. This is the highest form of art.

Sadly, what the SFMTA giveth, the SFMTA taketh away. Caron completed the box in the Fall of 2012. But within a year, the agency decided they needed a new box there and so Caron’s masterpiece was moved—destroying much of its contextual beauty. We still have the photograph, of course. And art is no less great because it is ephemeral. (In fact, it might be greater.) But I am so sad that I will never have the experience of standing on the northwest corner of Church and Duboce and seeing the future.

What’s Good and Bad About Us All

Lyndon JohnsonJonathan Bernstein wrote a typically insightful article on Friday, The Good, the Bad and the LBJ. His main purpose is to push back against the inevitable calls for Obama to be more Johnson. The idea, I guess, is that if only Obama held conversations while sitting on the toilet, everyone would fall in line behind him. Admittedly, such admonitions are normally phrased in terms of charm or arm twisting. But it’s all the same.

The truth is that there is a sliver of truth to all this business. Early on in his presidency, Obama was a horrible negotiator. Instead of taking a strong stand, he rushed to the conservative side. Like an idiot, he thought that such behavior would show how reasonable he was. But the conservatives just saw it as soft and took advantage of it. Gladly, those days are gone. Obama is a much better negotiator. Now all we have to worry about is his mushy middle ideology.

But it certainly is the case that LBJ’s skills in arm twisting are greatly exaggerated. And such as they were, they were effective then in a way that they would never be today. Now with super-PACs and generally so much money in politics, what leverage does the party have? It doesn’t even have earmarks anymore. I just watched Lincoln again last night. Getting the Thirteenth Amendment passed was all about patronage. If a president did that today, he’d be impeached. (New Jersey governors apparently can still get away with it.)

Bernstein did allow that Johnson had some skills. But he made a really important point:

There’s a tendency among Johnson supporters to see the war as separate from the good parts of his presidency. At its worst, that thinking comes close to a claim that Vietnam was something that happened to Johnson, while historic legislation is something that he made happen. But even if Johnson is assigned proper blame for the war, it’s still separated out. That probably is wrong; the traits that helped Johnson do well in some contexts were poisonous in others, and it’s not clear that one could have the good without the bad.

This isn’t just true in politics; it’s true of everyone in every situation. This is what’s so frustrating about how we treat the rich as though they are oracles. Being rich may or may not indicate that a person understands their own business. But there is no more reason to think that the rich know more about the macro-economy or education or anything else than any man on the street. In my experience, being good at business is about two things: self-promotion and lack of empathy. These “skills” are terrible in many other areas, including life in a general sense.

In a different time, LBJ might have been a great president. Or he might have been a terrible president. As it is, he’s a mixed bag. But what determined his legacy was primarily luck. And that, in all things, can’t be stressed enough. I wrote about this in, Unstable Weirdos and Business Success. People always want others to be everything to everyone. But humans don’t work that way. We already have an LBJ-like politician who might become president. And you will likely be able to vote for him come 2016. But I’m not willing to support a “get things done” candidate at the expense of the rule of law. And with Chris Christie, the things he gets done are, almost without exception, bad things.

Let’s Send Mike Huckabee to North Korea

Mike HuckabeeConservatives are delusional. Really. The things I hear them say remind me of things one used to only hear from people in the militia movement or among the most extreme libertarians.

Today’s example comes from Mike Huckabee at the New Hampshire Freedom Summit. But before we get to that, just consider that name “freedom summit.” Who isn’t in favor of freedom? Listening to conservatives, you would think that freedom is something that they alone believe in. But just like everyone, conservatives have their own definition of freedom. The truth is that the word is a dog whistle. It means the freedom of large scale farmers to graze their cattle on public land without paying. It does not mean the freedom for minority group individuals to walk down the street without being searched by the police.

And that brings us to Huckabee’s comments. He said, “My gosh, I’m beginning to think that there’s more freedom in North Korea sometimes than there is in the United States.” And what made the United States less free than North Korea? Airport screening. And not just that! He’s very unhappy that people have to show identification to get on an airplane. Oh, the horror! I can see what he means, though. As an ordinary person in North Korea, you would never even get to fly in a plane, so you would never have to deal with airport security. That’s freedom! Never mind the starvation and work camps. In the United States, you have to show ID to get on a plane!

While that line is the one that will get all the news, the broader point that Huckabee was making was even more troubling. He went on:

When I go to the airport, I have to get in the surrender position, people put hands all over me, and I have to provide photo ID and a couple of different forms and prove that I really am not going to terrorize the airplane—but if I want to go vote I don’t need a thing.

Since Huckabee doesn’t seem to understand why this is, I will provide a little history for him. At one time, people didn’t get searched when they got on airplanes. But then people started hijacking airplanes and so it was decided that the intrusions of searches were acceptable given that no one wanted to be hijacked and potentially murdered. As for voting, well, we’ve never had to have identification and no one had thought to change that because there was no upside. There is no voter identification fraud to speak of. People like Huckabee are interested in making ID required as a way of suppressing the vote of people who don’t agree with them. But that’s another thing altogether.

There is a very big issue here. Nowhere in the Constitution does it say, “Congress shall make no law respecting security at airports.” But voting is a Constitutional right. So it isn’t really the same thing. Note also the classism here. Poor people don’t fly on planes all the much. But the rich do. So I’m sure that for Huckabee, those airport screenings seem like a major infringement on his liberty. And they are! But that’s just an indication of how great his life is. Other than a TSA pat-down, he can do whatever he wants. But like vile conservatives everywhere, he wants to make the very limited rights of the poor even more so.

This is why I say that conservatives are delusional.

Beckett Great and Not

Samuel BeckettLast year on this day, I celebrated the birth of Samuel Beckett. I do love his work. Although I have come to think that to some extent he’s overrated. Or rather that people appreciate him in the wrong way. For example, much of Waiting for Godot is pure silliness. That’s true of Happy Days and Endgame as well. Act Without Words I is cruel silliness. I’ve read that he was a big admirer of Charlie Chaplin. I don’t doubt that. Look at the business with the hats in Godot. That’s straight out of Vaudeville or silent comedy.

When Beckett is serious, he has a strong tendency toward the sentimental. But he was quite aware of this and so explicitly pushed against it. Look at Ohio Impromptu. It is extremely sentimental, which he manages to avoid focusing on too much with the use of repetition and the knocking. Much the same can be said of Krapp’s Last Tape or even Not I and Footfalls. They are still all brilliant, though.

In the end, I’m not sure what I get out of many of them. Certainly I get a great deal out of Godot and Krapp because I am very interested in those subjects. But a lot of his work is too involved with what can be done in the theater. Too much of it is intellectual more than truly affecting. There is far too much Come and Go, which like everything, I admire. But I don’t think there is too much of a point to his lesser work.

At the same time, I never tire of Waiting for Godot. I never tire Krapp’s Last Tape. But it simply isn’t true that he was always great. And this is despite the fact that he didn’t write that much. And of the few plays he wrote, most were short. Godot is about the only true full length play. Happy Days and Endgame are kind of like theater novellas . Krapp can be too, but it is only 20 short pages long in published form. So it shouldn’t shock us too much that every word was so well chosen given that there weren’t all that many of them.

Still, I do love his work. Here is Rick Cluchey in Krapp’s Last Tape in a production meant to mimic the way that Beckett felt it should be performed. The Beckett on Film version is not so reverential and it works better as a result. But I’m sick of embedding videos from that series because they always end up getting taken down.

Happy birthday Samuel Beckett!