Flowers for Algernon at Majority Report

Majority ReportOn the show Majority Report there is a common caller named Doug. I think he is from Texas and he calls himself a “constitutional conservative.” It’s always hard to say that is going on at Majority Report — Doug could be a plant. But I don’t think so. And although the producers openly laugh at him, it’s pretty clear that they like him. He’s kind of like a mascot — albeit in an ironic sense.

I’ve always found Doug to be annoying. He’s never said anything I haven’t been hearing from people on the edges of the libertarian movement for decades. And he is allowed far too much air time. But there was one moment in which I totally lost all respect for Doug and for his use on Majority Report. Sam Seder and Doug were discussing something regarding business and Sam asked Doug what he did for a living. Doug said it was none of Sam’s business.

Note: Seder has only ever been really nice to Doug. He even defends him against attacks from other listeners. It was at that point that I got a full picture of Doug. We know that he was once in the military and that’s about it. So I figure that Doug is on Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). And I’ll bet that Doug left the military because mentally he has problems and that he’s on SSDI for mental reasons, even if the stated reason is something like a bad back. If Doug can show that he isn’t on the government dole, I’ll pay him a hundred bucks.

None of this is to say that Doug is stupid. He’s what I refer to as a subgenius: smart but not that smart. When I say he has mental problems, I just mean that he has the kinds of problems that stop him from having a job. It is usually some form of social retardation. And his creepy comments toward the one female producer on Majority Report bear that out.

Doug clearly thinks that he is right to be spouting his nonsense. But then Charlie thought he was right to proudly show off his toilet cleaning skills.

But more to the point, his simplistic (and really: anti-humanist) “constitutional conservatism” is also an indication of this. This is always the case with people who make a fetish of the Constitution as though it were divinely inspired. As such, allowing Doug on Majority Report every couple of days has begun to make me think that it is a form of abuse. I’ve begun to see him as Charlie in Flowers for Algernon.

For those of you who don’t know it, Flowers for Algernon tells the story of a mentally retarded man who gets a medical treatment that turns him into a genius. But it is only temporary and he regresses back to where he was at the start. However, he has lost his naivete and cannot have the relative happy life he had before. I haven’t read it since I was in high school, but the one thing that most stands out to me is a scene early on where his coworkers have Charlie show them how he cleans the toilet. Charlie does so with great pride and they all laugh at him without his understanding.

Later, this is humiliating to Charlie and it is the one scene that best sums up the book. (Or the short story — I don’t remember.) I’m not suggesting that the people on Majority Report are cruel like Charlie’s coworkers. Nor, again, am I suggesting that Doug is stupid. But it is certainly true that Doug is clueless and rarely realizes that he’s being laughed at. Doug clearly thinks that he is right to be spouting his nonsense. But then Charlie thought he was right to proudly show off his toilet cleaning skills. (Actually: I’m with Charlie; cleaning toilets is important work that needs to be done well. Being a faux intellectual and Constitutional scholar is just a joke.)

I really don’t know what to think of the situation with Doug and Majority Report. I suppose Doug has the right to embarrass himself in front of thousands of people. God knows I’ve done it on an even larger stage myself. But Doug isn’t like the libertarians who call in and are just young, silly, or foolish. I think there’s something wrong with Doug and maybe we should take pity on him.

Why Doesn’t the US Have a Populist Party?

Jonathan ChaitJonathan Chait wrote a great article recently, Donald Trump Is Getting Serious About Populism. I don’t want to get into his whole argument about Trump; go read the article. But I was thrilled to see what he had to say on the issue of populism. Because this has been the argument that I’ve been making for a very long time. “One of the important underlying facts of American politics is that rich people tend to have more socially liberal and economically conservative beliefs than the country as a whole.” This is exactly the opposite of populism.

So Trump is getting more populist by attacking what Teddy Roosevelt might have called “the interests”: big banks, defense contractors, big oil. And Byron York, maven of conservative thinking, wrote, As Vote Nears, a More Radical Trump Emerges. As Chait noted, “The new version of Trump is less radical, not more.” The problem is that we’ve gotten so used to a government by, for, and of the rich that it seems “radical” when a politician tries to appeal to the people.

Note that when Trump was just talking about Mexican rapists, the issue that conservatives had was not on substance, but on style. In their own ways, they wanted to “build a wall.” The Republican Party has had a “secure the boarder” mantra ever since Obama got into office, despite the fact of record deportations, and, More Mexicans Leaving Than Coming to the US. So Trump wasn’t a radical on that issue — just coarse and low. It’s only when he starts attacking the rich that he gets the label of “radical.”

And note: the conservative movement can’t get enough of attacks on the poor. And there is a whole industry of conservative pundits like Robert Samuelson who spend most of their time attacking middle class retired people. But that’s not radical because “radical” is defined relative to what the rich as a group think.

Populism Is Popular

I’m very sympathetic to populism. There are problems with it, of course. I greatly value diversity — for its own sake, but also because it is good biologically and sociologically. In general, it is also good economically. Immigrants enrich us — or they would so long as there is a fair economic system where the fruits of the nation are shared. (And they would be with populist economic policy.) And I’m not a social conservative. Most important of all, I consider reproductive rights, in addition to other things, an economic issue. But overall, I respect populism, and would give up a fair amount in order to get its economic policies.

But what really defines populism is that it is popular. If I had no knowledge of modern American politics, I would have thought that our country would have two parties that are on either side of populism. There would be one party that was a little more economically liberal and socially conservative, and there would be another that was a little more economically conservative and socially liberal. But we don’t have that at all. We have two parties that are distinctly to the right on economic issues. And on social issues, they are all over the map.

There are many reasons for why this is. Certainly, I think a big part of it is segregation and racism. But my interest here is not in explaining the why of the matter. The fact of the matter is that we clearly don’t live in a democracy, except in a nominal sense. This is bad for us and has been so for a long time. But you can depend upon not just conservatives but the mainstream media itself claiming that any move towards a more fair economic system is “radical.”

Moring Music: Rednecks by Randy Newman

Good Old Boys - RednecksWhen I started this week of offensive Randy Newman songs, I knew I had a lot to choose from. But I had one song in particular in mind: “Rednecks” off his Good Old Boys album. The narrator is a redneck and he shows himself to be bigoted in the most offensive way. It starts talking about how the segregationist Lester Maddox was on television with “some smart-ass New York Jew.” As he’s discussing his own people, he notes that men go to LSU, “Went in dumb — come out dumb too.” And then there is the refrain, “We are keeping the niggers down.”

Now this is presented in the context of it being the way that northerners think of southerners. But he isn’t saying it’s wrong. He isn’t saying that the south isn’t like that. He’s saying that the north is hypocritical. The bridge is devastating. He says that the north has “set the nigger free.” And he provides a long list of how the African American is free, “Yes he’s free to be put in a cage in Harlem in New York City.” And it goes on that way. The song could be a rallying cry for the Black Lives Matter movement, if the song weren’t such a muddle with every offensive word that was handy.

The Problem Isn’t the Rednecks

“Rednecks” was released in 1974. Since that time, the kind of overt, impolite, racism of the singer exhibits has mostly become a thing of the past. It is so much a thing of the past that even Sean Hannity finds it unacceptable. At the same time, mass incarceration of African Americans has become a far bigger issue. Words do matter. But they only go so far. We’ve created a society that is largely polite to African Americans. But not one that offers them opportunity.

We should have spent less time worrying about the rednecks and more time worrying about the system of racism our society is built upon.

Anniversary Post: Bloody Sunday 1900

Explosion at Battle of Paardeberg - Bloody SundayOn this day in 1900, there was Bloody Sunday. I know what you’re thinking, “Aren’t there about five hundred ‘Bloody Sundays’?” Yeah, pretty much. This one had to do with the Second Boer War. It was the first day of the Battle of Paardeberg. And the British were destroyed. The South African Republic completely dominated that day. But the battle lasted over a week, and the British ended up winning decisively — capturing over 4,000 soldiers on the other side.

I love the Boer Wars! They are such great examples of the futility of war. In one of my all time favorite films, Dean Spanley, the elder Fisk asks, “Did we win the Boer War?” And Fisk the younger replies, “I believe we lost more slowly than the other side.” In that particular case, the slowly losing included the Fisks’ son and brother.

The British did win the war. Not that it really matters. In the end, it really all comes down to who is going to collect the taxes. There isn’t much more than that. Of course, to the British people, imperialism was a great burden that they did for the good of the world. It’s very much like I discussed in the Morning Music post about “Political Science.” The people of countries always think their governments go about the world doing great deeds, but it’s all propaganda to get the people to continue to support the war machine so the power elite can continue to expand their power and wealth.

Bloody Sunday: We Never Learn

But what Bloody Sunday really reminds me of is this:

Don’t declare victory too soon. One day. A couple of weeks. Even a couple of years. These don’t mean all that much. Bloody Sunday didn’t. Things change. And they especially change when you have done precious little planning. The British lost the First Boer War, although admittedly, it wasn’t much of a war. When people talk of the Boer War, they mean the second one. Less than a hundred men died in the first one. Roughly 30,000 died in the second one. But young Fisk was wrong. The British had a huge advantage in terms of troops and lost twice as many. But the war was devastating on the civilian population — both white and black.

War is hell. That really is true. But a lot of people have a hard time believing it.