Thursday, January 29, 2015

Get Ready For The Terrific 10th Post About St. Hofstadter

It would seem that this blog cannot get enough of St. Hostadter. Copy/paste "Hostadter" (without the quotes) in the search window to the left and get links to 9 posts (beginning in 2003) that point to the work of one of the greatest historians of the 20th century. Today's essay revolves around one of St. Hofstadter's most prescient themes: the paranoid style of our politics. If this is (fair & balanced) psychohistory, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Somebody's Watching Us
By Roger Lowenstein

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About fifty years ago [November 1964], the Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Richard Hofstadter exposed a dark recess of the American psyche with an essay in Harper’s magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter was writing about the peculiar tendency of the political right to indulge in paranoid theories, but he was careful to stipulate that the left could just as easily be infected. “American politics has often been an arena for angry minds,” he wrote.

What paranoid movements had in common, he believed, was a sense of dispossession; they were composed of people who felt excluded from the mainstream. “I call it the paranoid style,” Hofstadter explained, “simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”

In today’s fractious, high-decibel discourse, these qualities seem to have become political reflexes. Consider that journalists devoted millions of words to critiquing the government response to a virus that, to date, has resulted in the death of a single American. Or that among the alarms of Governor Rick Perry of Texas, a plausible candidate for president, is that ISIS militants may have crept into the country across the southern border.

Xenophobia has been a staple of paranoids since the birth of the Republic. In his essay, Hofstadter cited Jedidiah Morse, a Massachusetts preacher who in 1798 warned of a plot by French Jacobins, as well as 19th-century populists who blamed America’s recurring financial crises on ­"international bankers.”

Hofstadter was himself a child of an immigrant furrier, born in Buffalo in 1916. Scarred by the Depression, he joined the Communist Party in 1938; four months later, disgusted by the Moscow show trials, he quit. Although his family pressured him to attend law school, he became a historian. In the words of David S. Brown, his biographer, “for nearly 30 years, the legend goes, he wrote the best books for the best publisher, won the best prizes and taught in the best city.”

It was The Age of Reform (1960) that signaled Hofstadter’s growing unease with mass movements. Historians like Frederick Jackson Turner were sympathetic to the populist uprisings of the 1880s and ’90s as democratic in spirit. Hofstadter saw something darker, an anti-intellectual crusade. He wrote “The Paranoid Style” in 1964, when the memory of McCarthyism — which he saw as a modern populism — was painfully fresh.

Hofstadter did not propose a theory for why Americans are prone to conspiracy theories. Arguably, democracy imbued us with an expectation of fairness; when disappointed, we look for villains. What he does explore is the paranoid style as a mode of expression. His subjects, he said with irony, were steeped in “factuality.” Their method was to doggedly gather “evidence.” Causality was where they went off the rails.

According to Hofstadter, a typical believer was torn between righteousness and persecution. The “paranoid spokesman” is unable to compromise because he always sees fate hanging in the balance. He is “always manning the barricades of civilization,” as though doomsday lurks around the corner. Such phrases today evoke the Tea Party, 9/11 conspiracy theorists or moon-landing debunkers.

Hofstadter’s essay made an immediate splash. He was a stickler for precision; he celebrated nuance and aimed his words like guided darts.

Critics said Hofstadter, who taught at Columbia University, had an urban, elitist bias. They had a point. With his rumpled hair, glasses and bow tie, Hofstadter was, as Brown observed in his excellent 2006 biography, the very picture of the East Coast intellectual. He dwelled in a scholarly cocoon on the Upper West Side. He mistrusted popular heroes such as Barry Goldwater because they appealed to people on an emotional level. Decades after Hofstadter died in 1970, at age 54, George F. Will described him as a liberal intellectual who “dismissed conservatives as victims of character flaws and psychological disorders.” This overlooked Hofstadter’s migration toward the political center and his belief that class conflicts could also engender paranoid energies — strong words for a one-time Communist. Today, Hofstadter might target not just right-wing radio hosts but also the aggrieved left. If he disavowed “rural egalitarianism,” so would he shudder at Occupy Wall Street.

According to Brown, Hofstadter never abandoned his liberal views. But his fear of the mob qualified him as a conservative by temperament. In 1967, he visited the University of California at Berkeley, epicenter of the student protests, and reminded faculty members and students that instruction, not social reform, was the primary purpose of education. The next year, protesters seized his beloved Columbia. Hofstadter calmly conducted a graduate oral exam while shouts of rage could be heard outside.

Nearly a half-century after his death, “paranoid style” is an established part of the political lexicon, employed often by those who want to suggest that the other side is fringe or paranoid or just plain daft. One wonders if Hofstadter would approve. Americans are warier of government than ever, and filled to the brim with conspiracy theories. And they are still shouting. Ω

[Roger Lowenstein is a financial journalist and writer who reported for the Wall Street Journal for more than a decade, including two years writing its Heard on the Street column (1989 to 1991). Lowenstein received a BA from Cornell University. Among is five books, the most prominent are Buffett (1995) and When Genius Failed (2000).]

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Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Bending The Arc Of The Moral Universe Toward History On The Big Screen

The right to vote is actually a canard: voting has not ushered in a golden age where African Americans live in harmony and equality with white folks. To guarantee the inefficacy of the golden key, the Roberts Court gutted key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 in Shelby County v. Holder (2013). The critics of "Selma" who rage that the film did not pay homage to the passage of the Voting Rights Act would better save their vitriol for the Roberts Court (Roberts, Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, and Alito) who ought to wear white hoods instead of their black robes. In the swirl of the controversy, Amy Davidson speaks truth to white privilege and the sanctification of Lyndon Baines Johnson. If this is (fair & balanced) film criticism, so be it.


[x New Yorker]
Why "Selma" Is More Than Fair To LBJ
By Amy Davidson

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There is a scene in “To Kill a Mockingbird,” an otherwise outstanding film, that has not aged as well as it might have. It comes just after Atticus Finch, played by Gregory Peck, has seen his client, a black sharecropper named Tom Robinson, unjustly convicted of rape, despite Finch’s impassioned defense, and he is left to pack up his papers. The main, whites-only section of the courtroom has emptied out, but the people in the “colored balcony” are still seated, all in a posture of weary resignation. Little Jean Louise Finch, or Scout, has snuck up there, too, to watch. Then, as her father turns to go, the black spectators slowly rise. An older man, Reverend Sykes, played by William Walker, nudges Scout:

Miss Jean Louise? Miss Jean Louise, stand up! Your father’s passing.

The reverend says it without anger; his expression, on which the camera lingers, is one of sadness redeemed by awe at Atticus Finch’s courage. Peck later said that, when Walker delivered the “your father’s passing” line, “he wrapped up the Academy Award for me.” (Peck won for Best Actor; Walker was not listed in the film’s credits.) For Scout, it is a moment of revelation. She glimpses what the scene suggests is the essential transaction of the civil-rights struggle: black Americans’ bestowal of loving gratitude on sympathetic white Americans who are willing to recognize their rights.

There is no scene like that one in “Selma,” the new film about a voting-rights campaign in Alabama in early 1965, during which three protesters were murdered, dozens more were badly beaten, and Martin Luther King, Jr., and other black leaders were imprisoned. Perhaps that cinematic absence helps to explain why, in certain circles, “Selma” has been greeted with outrage. The complaint is that the film is unfair to Lyndon B. Johnson—that it is a scandal, an insult, a lie. Joseph Califano, a former Johnson aide, in a particularly furious attack in the Washington Post, asked if the film’s director, Ava DuVernay, and her colleagues felt “free to fill the screen with falsehoods, immune from any responsibility to the dead.” Califano wrote that “The movie should be ruled out this Christmas and during the ensuing awards season.” And, despite nominations for Best Picture and Best Song, neither DuVernay nor David Oyelowo, whose performance as King is an act of utter alchemy, are up for an Academy Award. (My colleague Richard Brody wrote that he had considered a nomination for Oyelowo “a well-deserved lock.”)

Califano’s charge, in short, is that the film

falsely portrays President Lyndon B. Johnson as being at odds with Martin Luther King Jr. and even using the FBI to discredit him, as only reluctantly behind the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and as opposed to the Selma march itself.

In fact, Selma was LBJ’s idea, he considered the Voting Rights Act his greatest legislative achievement, he viewed King as an essential partner in getting it enacted—and he didn’t use the FBI to disparage him.

Califano, though, misrepresents “Selma” the movie and Selma the history. The movie does not, for example, portray L.B.J. as “only reluctantly behind” the Voting Rights Act, which would indeed be a gross distortion. (See Robert Caro’s work for the best analysis of Johnson’s stealthy passion for the cause of equality.) It does portray him as disagreeing with King about the timing of the bill—which, to be fair, he did. On other points, though, Califano is simply rewriting history.

How, one might ask, was the Selma campaign, whose origins within the civil-rights movement are well documented, “LBJ’s idea”? Exhibit A, for Califano, is the transcript of a phone call between L.B.J. and King on January 15, 1965. The conversation, Califano claims, shows that it was Johnson who revealed the importance of voting rights to King (“There’s not going to be anything though, Doctor, as effective as all of them voting”); “articulated the strategy” for him; explained that it would be helpful to “find the worst condition that you run into in Alabama, Mississippi or Louisiana or South Carolina”; and then “seal[ed] the deal” with a final exhortation about how much they could accomplish. King, in Califano’s telling, then hurried off to fulfill this brief, and returned, like a dutiful messenger, with Selma.

There are problems with this account, both textual and contextual. The transcript does not match the story Califano tells—not unless one is deaf, as he and his former boss may well have been, to what King was actually saying. Did it embarrass Califano at all, when he played the recording, to notice how often Johnson interrupted King, or talked over and past him? For that matter, did it occur to either of them that King, in 1965, two years after his “I Have a Dream” speech—where he shared the stage with the widow of Herbert Lee, who had been murdered for his efforts to register voters—might have been well aware of the importance of voting rights, and might have been able to “articulate a strategy” for Johnson? It would be hard to find a purer example of what might be called POTUS-splaining.

And then there is the context. In At Canaan’s Edge: America in the King Years (2006), Taylor Branch writes about the same phone call, and where it fits in the relationship between King and Johnson. “Johnson in the White House was intensely personal but unpredictable—treating King variously to a Texas bear hug of shared dreams or a towering, wounded snit.” In an earlier call, just after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, L.B.J. had told King “how worthy I’m going to try to be of all your hopes.” But then, Branch writes,

Johnson had turned suddenly coy and insecure. Having consciously alienated the century-old segregationist base of his Democratic Party, he refused to see King, pretended he had nothing to do with his own nominating convention, and lashed out privately at both King’s Negroes and white Southerners.

“Just as suddenly,” according to Branch, came the January 15th phone call, in which “Johnson had rushed past King’s congratulations to confide a crowning ambition to win the right for Negroes to vote…. King, on his heels, had mumbled approval. He did not mention that he was headed to Selma for that very purpose—knowing that Johnson would not welcome his tactics of street protest.” In other words, at the time of the conversation in which Johnson, in Califano’s telling, came up with the “idea” for Selma, King was already on his way to the city; other organizers were already there. Soon afterward, Branch writes, “Johnson’s mood had turned prickly again,” and, in a subsequent meeting, “he insisted on his prerogative to choose the content and moment for any voting rights bill.” (Karen Tumulty, citing Branch in a piece on the controversy in the Post, writes that he “has his own film project in the works,” and had declined to comment.) As Louis Menand wrote in The New Yorker last year, “He asked King to wait.”

Other critics of “Selma” have been offended by the idea that Johnson wanted King, and a voting-rights bill, to wait in line behind the President’s other legislative priorities. But that’s exactly what the historical record shows, including the January 15th transcript. In it, Johnson tells King that he wants his “people” to lobby “those committee members that come from urban areas that are friendly to you” in support of Medicare and Johnson’s education and poverty bills. Those were the priorities; they needed to get through without any filibuster. After those bills are passed, Johnson says, “then we’ve got to come up with the qualification of voters.” It was the protesters’ attempts to cross the Edmund Pettus bridge that changed Johnson’s timetable. Their first attempt ended with a brutal assault by local law enforcement—Bloody Sunday. The White House sent John Doar, an official in the Justice Department (who had earned the protesters’ trust), to try to talk King out of making the second attempt, urging him to abide by a federal injunction blocking the march. (This is the legal mess behind the exquisitely filmed moment in “Selma” when Oyelowo, as King, leads protesters to the middle of the bridge, only to turn them back.) It is ahistorical to insist that a film show how civil-rights leaders ought to have experienced Johnson, given his fine intentions, and not how they did. There is no question that Johnson was deeply, viscerally committed to civil rights—no question historically, and, again, no question in “Selma.” It is also the case that the White House waited several days after Bloody Sunday before making an official statement about the violence, and that it did not, in that interim, respond to urgent requests for federal protection, including sit-ins at Administration offices. Sending in federal marshals or troops, at that point, might have been politically risky; it might have played into the hands of segregationists. One way or another, by the time either of those things happened, another man, a minister from Boston, was dead, and Johnson had set his staff scrambling to write a draft of a speech, and to assemble a voting-rights bill that he’d send to Congress sooner than he had planned.

The next source of offense is the film’s suggestion that Johnson at least abetted J. Edgar Hoover, the director of the F.B.I., in his vicious campaign against King. Perhaps it is fair to give Johnson a pass when it comes to Hoover’s dealings; Hoover may have technically worked for him, but he was Hoover. At the same time, a recording of another phone call between Johnson and Nicholas Katzenbach, his attorney general, makes it clear that Johnson knew that Hoover was tapping King—“that must be where the evidence comes from … with some of the women, and that kind of stuff.” Katzenbach tells the President that the King wiretap was one that his predecessor, Robert Kennedy, had authorized, and “which I’ve been ambivalent about taking off.” DuVernay artificially, and somewhat clumsily, crams a decade’s worth of murkiness into the narrow time frame of the Selma campaign. The character most compromised, though, is not Johnson but King. The film is fairly merciless when it comes to his infidelities, which harmed both his family and his work. “Selma” is neither a demonization nor a hagiography of either man.

Reading Branch’s account of that period, it is revealing how distracted Johnson was by Vietnam. In the days when the scenes of violence in Alabama should have been his focus, he was in endless meetings with Robert McNamara about a secret order to begin a bombing campaign. “It was this crisis that had shortened his patience for King’s visit from Selma,” Branch writes. There is not much mention of Vietnam in “Selma”; in this, the filmmakers did Johnson a kindness.

Indeed, after hearing all of the pro-L.B.J. complaints about the movie, it can be disorienting to watch scenes like the one in which Johnson tells off George Wallace, the Governor of Alabama, saying that he isn’t willing to go down in history paired with “the likes of you.” The climax of the film is Johnson’s address to Congress, in which he stunned the chamber with the ambition of his legislative plan, his invocation of America’s soul and its destiny, and his use of what had been seen as a slogan of the streets: “We shall overcome.” In DuVernay’s staging, there is no doubt that Johnson means it, and that what he has just done is epochal. Her film is fair to Johnson; the portrayal is multifaceted and respectful, and fully cognizant of his essential commitment to civil rights. What “Selma” is not, though, is cartoonish or deferential. Is that, again, the problem?

Maureen Dowd, in the Times, wrote about seeing the movie “in a theater full of black teenagers,” and worriedly noted that, in the scenes with L.B.J. and M.L.K., the young people “bristled at the power dynamic between the two men.” They would now see Johnson “through DuVernay’s lens. And that’s a shame.” None of the teen-agers would want to stand up as L.B.J. passed. Indeed, there is no moment in “Selma” where King really thanks Johnson or, Hollywood-style, puts his hand on his shoulder and tells him, “You’re a good man.” If that’s what the “Selma” critics crave, there are plenty of movies that offer it. (There is almost such a scene in “Selma”—it takes place between two black characters, King and John Lewis, played by the excellent Stephan James).

At the time of Selma, Johnson was fifty-six years old. King was thirty-six; he was thirty-nine when he was murdered. Taylor Branch, describing the night of Johnson’s “We Shall Overcome” speech, describes the frantic, late revisions—“the pale aides who raced between typewriters … a motorcade waiting to transport him to the Capitol.” In the limousine, on the ride over, Johnson read over some late changes to the text, which included “words of disapproval” for protesters who, among other things, “block public thoroughfares to traffic,” Branch writes. “Changing his mind, Johnson struck the latter paragraph to avoid the misimpression that marginal annoyance reflected his true feeling.” A few minutes later, speaking to Congress and a national television audience, a Southern President said, “The real hero of this struggle is the American Negro. Ω

[Amy Davidson is a senior editor at The New Yorker, having joined the magazine in 1995. She focuses on politics and international affairs. She edits profiles and features. Davidson attended Harvard University, graduating magna cum laude (Social Studies). After graduation she worked for about 18 months in Germany. Her editing contributions to The New Yorker have won the National Magazine Award and the George Polk Award. Davidson is a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.]

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Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Today, This Blog Goes Balls Deep

The world of jock talk media is abuzz about the video of the New England dressing room area prior to the game with the Colts. The Patriot equipment man with responsibility for the game balls was shown with a bag containing the game balls following the inspection of the balls by game officials. The equipment man stopped at a restroom on the way to the field, took the ball bag inside with him, and remained behind a closed door for 90 seconds. Aha, not since the 18½ minute-gap on the (June 20, 1972) White House tape has there been such controversy over electronic media (audio then, video now). Dave Zirin takes us on a tour of political scandals and the present-day NFL scandal du jour. If this is a (fair & balanced) consideration of balls (in sport and politics), so be it.

[x The Nation]
Patriots, Balls, And Christopher Hitchens
By Dave Zirin

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The seeming utter inanity of our national obsession over whether the New England Patriots were deflating their footballs and if NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell would do something about it, reached a fever pitch this week. While wondering whether this was just a “weapon of mass distraction” or actually worth giving a damn about, Christopher Hitchens came to mind. This is not usually a pleasurable experience.

The last time I agreed with Mr. Hitchens, who passed away four years ago, was in 1998. Before Hitchens “found his purpose” verbosely lusting for war with the Islamic world—think Bill Maher with a thesaurus—he was a merciless critic of those in power, regardless of political party. This included President Bill Clinton. When the Monica Lewinsky affair was revealed in 1998, Hitchens was deeply frustrated with others on the Democratic party left who defended Clinton on the basis of standing up to what Alan Dershowitz has recently deemed “Sexual McCarthyism.” He was also angered by those on the radical left who said that Clinton’s lying about an affair was meaningless and that if the president were going to be impeached, it should be for “his real crimes.” In other words, impeach Clinton for the deadly sanctions leveled against the Iraqi people, or for his cold-hearted welfare policies, or for the unprecedented build-up of the prison-industrial complex under his watch.

Hitchens’s response to this was to say that Clinton’s perjury and these profoundly more serious issues were intertwined. Both spoke to how he believed that rules simply didn’t apply to him. Clinton’s libertine sex ilfe was also monstrously hypocritical, given how his welfare reform policies policed the sexual lives of poor women.

As the months wore on, Hitchens took his argument—in my view—to an indefensible place, a place that presaged his political future as someone who tied his skill with the written word to the needs of the American state. Hitchens voluntarily swore out an affidavit to inform on his friend and Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal for alleged plots to discredit Ms. Lewinsky. This earned Hitchens the nickname he carried in many circles until his death, ““Hitch the Snitch.”

This entire scenario echoes in the drama that surrounds the New England Patriots, Roger Goodell and their deflated balls. I am hearing many people I respect say that if we are going to roast Goodell and the National Football League, please have it be for his “real crimes” as opposed to this sideshow. In other words, the serial covering up of violence against women, the lack of regard for player safety, and his hostility towards the NFL Players Association should be what brings him down. Yes, it is difficult, if not absurd, to discuss “cheating” in a sport where every team is looking for an edge, many players take whatever pills will keep them either bulked up or upright for the opening kickoff, and the purpose of play is to mash the frontal lobe of your opponent into a fine paste. But among the "Saturday Night Live" sketches and snarky columns, there lurks something important about the culture of corruption and cronyism in this commissioner’s office, particularly in Goodell’s relationship with Patriots owner Robert Kraft. Seattle Seahawk Richard Sherman was absolutely correct when he was asked earlier this week about whether the Patriots would be punished and he said, “Probably not. Not as long Robert Kraft and Roger Goodell are still taking pictures at their respective homes. He [Goodell] was just at Kraft’s house last week before the AFC Championship. Talk about conflict of interest. As long as that happens, it won’t affect them at all.”

This conflict of interest is very real. As GQ’s Gabriel Sherman wrote in a damning long read that dropped this week about Goodell, Kraft is apparently known among NFL execs as “the assistant commissioner.” Even this description is charitable. It’s less the relationship between an assistant and a commissioner as much as it is one between a hand and the bottom aperture of a puppet. Bob Kraft, in addition to being just a “friend of Goodell,” has been the great defender of Goodell’s stunning $44 million salary. He was Goodell’s first defender during the release of information that showed that the NFL cared very little about domestic violence until tape went public of Ray Rice striking his wife Janay. He also, according to GQ, orchestrated Goodell’s disastrous defense of the NFL’s domestic violence policies, in conjunction with CBS network who was about to start airing its lucrative Thursday night NFL telecasts. Kraft ordered Goodell to speak to CBS and grant an interview to, in Kraft’s insistence “a woman,” who ended up being Norah O’Donnell. Goodell complied.

Drew Magary wrote, in analyzing the league’s deep concern with the optics of this, “[Y]ou can see that NFL higher-ups were far more concerned with LOOKING like they were handling domestic violence appropriately than actually doing so (cut to Eli Manning in a No More ad looking like you just told him that we’ve run out of cupcakes).

This relationship with Bob Kraft and the mere appearance of impropriety that marks how Goodell handles every issue that crosses his desk, tells its own story about why he must go. A reckless incompetence now defines everything he touches, whether it is his enforcing of the rules, the health and safety of players, or his dealings with the union. Instead of acting—like his predecessor Paul Tagliabue—as even the mildest of checks on the grasping of the bosses, he is their id unleashed. Instead of listening to players, Goodell is so comically distanced from the reality of his own ineptitude that he has become the sports version of Yertle the Turtle.

It is understandable why people do not care about the Patriots ball-maintenance or whether public officials lie about their sex lives. But we should care about people in power who hector us about our own morality as an exercise in spin. We should care about executives who punish workers by saying “ignorance is no excuse” while proudly being an ignoramus. If deflated balls are the small string that rips the sweater off of Roger Goodell, then we should grab it like we’re trying to tackle Marshawn Lynch, and hold on for dear life. Ω

[Dave Zirin is The Nation's sports editor. He is the author of Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports (2007), A People's History of Sports in the United States (2009), The John Carlos Story: The Sports Moment That Changed the World (2011), and Game Over: How Politics Has Turned the Sports World Upside Down (2013). His writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Sports Illustrated.com and The Progressive. He also was named one of the "50 Visionaries Who Are Changing Our World" by Utne Magazine. Zirin graduated from Macalester College.]

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Monday, January 26, 2015

When It Comes To Science, The Dumbos Earn Their Name

Today's 'toon from Tom Tomorrow shows Dumbo scientific "knowledge" in all its glory. Anything that threatens rapacious capitalism is based upon falsehood. As a result, when it comes to scientific truth, the Dumbos speak and remove all doubt that they are S.T.U.P.I.D. if this is (fair & balanced) truth to fatuity, so be it.

[x This Moden World]
Science Stuff
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)


Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Daily Kos. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly. Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002. When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001. More recently, Dan Perkins, pen name Tom Tomorrow, was named the winner of the 2013 Herblock Prize for editorial cartooning.]

Copyright © 2015 Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)



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Sunday, January 25, 2015

Roll Over New England, There's Only One Team With Under-Inflated Balls — The Dumbos In Congress

The current media frenzy over under-inflated footballs in the recent playoff game between the New England Patriots and the Indianapolis Colts reminds Eags of the Congressional Dumbo frenzy over the attack on the U.S. consulate in Benghazi, Libya that resulted in the deaths of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens and U.S. Foreign Service Information Management Officer Sean Smith. A second attack on a different Benghazi compound, several hours later, resulted in the deaths of two CIA contractors, Tyrone S. Woods and Glen Doherty. A total of four U.S. casualties and the Congressional Dumbos tried to inflate Benghzi to the level of Pearl Harbor. So there is linkage between the conspiracy to conceal the truth about Benghazi and the conspiracy to let air out of eleven footballs on the New England sideline that enabled the Patriots to steal the game by a score of 45-7 from the Colts. So, Eags referred to the football frenzy as Ballghazi. While he was on a football kick, Eags compared the improbable Seattle victory over Green Bay in the other playoff for a berth in Super Bowl XLIX on February 1st to the performance of the POTUS 44 after the SOTU address. If this is the (fair & balanced) fusion of professional football and politics, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
It's How You Finish
By Timothy Egan

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As the world contemplates the deflated football scandal in Boston — ballghazi — please allow me one last moment of undiluted sports delirium. I live in Seattle, where this week the sky is always blue, trees are blossoming early, all children are not only above average but get into the college of their choice, free. We are a city transfixed, rhapsodically floating, after the most are-you-kidding-me experience my hometown has ever been through.

To recap: With a little more than three minutes to go in last Sunday’s N.F.C. championship game, the Seattle Seahawks were trailing Green Bay 19 to 7. At that point, according to the odds crunchers, the team had a 1 percent chance of winning — 1 percent! The Seahawks promptly scored two touchdowns in 44 seconds. They recovered an onside kick, converted a two-point Hail Mary, won the coin toss to get the ball first in overtime, and scored to put them in the Super Bowl.

Sports metaphors crowd the language of politics, usually for the worse. John McCain’s pick of an uninformed demagogue, Sarah Palin, was supposed to be a “game changer.” Desperate campaigns look for a “knockout punch,” or make a “swing for the fences.” My favorite is President Obama’s description of Joe Biden’s endorsement of gay marriage ahead of his boss — he “got out a little bit over his skis.”

But back to the miracle finish last Sunday, and the lesson beyond pro football: It’s not about the miracle, it’s about the finish. Obama has been sleepwalking through the middle part of his presidency. The brutal midterm electoral crushing, with Republicans gaining their largest House majority since Herbert Hoover, slapped him from his stupor.

No longer does he care about pleasing the insiders, or playing nice with the opposition, or conforming to the expectations of a lame duck. He said it’s the fourth quarter of his presidency, “and I’m going to play offense.” He’s decided to be Russell Wilson after throwing four interceptions.

Many have written him off. The reliably dyspeptic Charles Krauthammer said the epitaph of the Obama presidency would be: “He couldn’t govern, but he sure knew how to campaign.” And yes, little of what Obama proposed in his State of the Union address will find its way out of the dead zone of Congress. Just 5 percent of his 2013 proposals became law — and that was before Republicans gained the Senate.

The president’s proposals “are so out of touch you have to ask if there’s any point to the speech,” said Reince Priebus, chairman of the Republican National Committee.

But if you look beyond capital gasbags, and consider the big ideas in Obama’s speech, you can see the inevitability of his philosophy. His proposals — raising the minimum wage, paid maternity leave, making college more affordable and the tax system more fair — are popular across the political divide. They’re mainstream anywhere but the fund-raisers that Reince Priebus presides over.

Obama has already changed health care in a country that lags far behind the rest of the world in access. He’s overseen an economic recovery that defied all the apocalyptic predictions of his enemies, and would be the envy of any European country — let alone one governed by Mitt Romney, who’d be taking a victory lap with the kind of numbers Obama has generated on his watch.

Consider Idaho, arguably the reddest state in the union, where Republicans control everything but a handful of latte stands. After much bluster and protest, Idaho politicians caved and set up a state health care exchange under Obamacare. To the surprise of the experts, Idahoans have embraced the private coverage available under the Affordable Care Act — “one of the most successful enrollments of any state,” as Kaiser Health News reported.

Obama was in Boise on Wednesday, speaking to a crowd of more than 6,000 people at an event where all tickets were gone within an hour. “Now there are 10 black people in Idaho,” was one of the tweets from Boise. The president was fully energized, jocular, primed for a strong finish. A handful of protesters held up the usual hate posters, one comparing him to Hitler. But it did not escape notice that his motorcade passed a Shell station selling regular gasoline for $1.77 a gallon.

To the west, in the Eastern Washington district of Representative Cathy McMorris Rodgers, people represented by this robotically doctrinaire leader of the Republican House have signed up for Obamacare coverage at a rate far beyond the national average.

To the east, Gov. John Kasich of Ohio told a group of Montana Republicans this week that they would be crazy not to embrace the president’s program of health coverage for the poor. “I gotta tell you, turning down your money back to Montana on an ideological basis, when people can lose their lives because they get no help, doesn’t make a lot of sense to me,” he said, in remarks reported by the Great Falls Tribune.

Nearly every proposal in the State of the Union address polls with majority approval, nationwide. The great issue of the early 21st century is how to elevate a stagnant middle class. When 80 people hold the same amount of wealth as 3.6 billion of the world’s poorest, that equation of inequality can catch the attention of even the most heartless.

So, to the end game, in Idaho, Kansas and beyond. “It’s amazing what you can bounce back from when you have to,” Obama said on Tuesday. He was quoting from a Minneapolis woman, invited to the speech, but it sounded like a motto for his last two years in office.

The president is playing for a legacy. He won’t get much of it this year, or even next. But eventually, if Obama’s finish matches the flourish of the last two months, the United States will resemble the country he envisioned on Tuesday night. Long odds make for better endings. Ω

[Timothy Egan writes "Outposts," a column at the NY Fishwrap online. Egan — winner of both a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 as a member of a team of reporters who wrote the series "How Race Is Lived in America" and a National Book Award (The Worst Hard Time in 2006) — graduated from the University of Washington with a degree in journalism, and was awarded an honorary doctorate of humane letters by Whitman College in 2000 for his environmental writings. Egan's most recent book is The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America (2009).]

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Saturday, January 24, 2015

Voters Seldom Cast Ballots For Dumbasses Who Wear Glasses

Goodhair (But No Brains) must have played hooky at Paint Rock Elementary on the day that its students learned to count to three. No doubt he stayed home to be with his favorite ewe; the sheep bleated and Goodhair did a 180 from the path to the school bus stop. The poor sumbitch was 12th (among 12 contenders) in the most recent poll of Iowa Dumbo voters. He's so far behind that he thinks he's in 1st place for 2016. Black frames worked for Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison, on Goodhair — not so much. If this is a (fair & balanced) eyewear and memory assessment, so be it.

[x The Nation]
Magic Eyewear
By The Deadline Poet (Calvin Trillin)

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Rick Perry now wears thoughtful glasses,
With which, advisers think, he passes
As someone worthy of reprises—
A man whose brain now never freezes. Ω

[Calvin Trillin began his career as a writer for Time magazine. Since July 2, 1990, as a columnist at The Nation, Trillin has written his weekly "Deadline Poet" column: humorous poems about current events. Trillin has written considerably more pieces for The Nation than any other single person. A native of Kansas City, MO, Trillin received his BA from Yale College in 1957. He served in the army, and then joined Time.]

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Friday, January 23, 2015

Et Tu, Cobra?

A young Rutgers professor provides insight into the soft bigotry of Maureen ("The Cobra") Dowd as well as the huge contribution of "Selma" difrector Ava DuVernay to our understanding of the role of African American women in the Civil Rights struggle. Dowd and her white fellow travelers would elevate LBJ to a sainthood that rivals that of St. Dutch. And this blogger has no trouble with the assertion that LBJ colluded with J. Edgar Hoover to send the audiotapes (provided by FBI electronic surveillance) of MLK as a philanderer. LBJ wanted a calmer atmosphere in his machinations toward the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and it is very plausible that LBJ took the low road in the leak of the FBI recordings to Coretta King. White privilege has prevailed in Hollywood in the denial of a Best Director nomination of Ava DuVernay. The march from Selma to Montgomery succeeded, but the long road past racism is still before us. If this is (fair & balanced) truth to racial injustice, so be it.

[x Salon]
Maureen Dowd’s Clueless White Gaze: What’s Really Behind The “Selma” Backlash
By Brittney Cooper

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New York Times critic Maureen Dowd saw “Selma” last week “in a theater of full of black teenagers.” Her ethnographic impressions of the “stunned” emotional responses that these D.C. teenagers had to seeing four little girls blown up in an Alabama church basement and watching civil rights leaders viciously clubbed during a march in Selma reek of the kind of voyeuristic and clueless white gaze often used to devalue and pathologize urban youth. They become fascinating objects of study to those who don’t get to spend a lot of time with them.

And it is precisely these kinds of impressions from white people, the inability to make sense of genuine black emotion, the inability to recognize what filmic representations that respect the interior lives of black people actually might look like, that have contributed to the disingenuous backlash against... "Selma."

This magnificent and powerful film has, at this point, been endlessly derided by white and black critics alike who say it fails to get the story just right. Among white critics, its cardinal sin is failure to pay proper homage to Lyndon B. Johnson for being a champion of black voting rights. He’s represented in the film as a reluctant ally in the civil rights struggle, as one whose racial views evolve over time.

Dowd rips what she calls Ava’s DuVernay’s “artful falsehood,” for having the potentially and apparently regrettable result of making the “young moviegoers [now] see L.B.J.’s role in civil rights through DuVernay’s lens.”

“Artful falsehood,” Dowd tells us, “is more dangerous than artless falsehood, because fewer people see through it.”

But the truth is, a new racial lens is exactly what America needs. In “Selma,” we learn what films look like when directors and cinematographers who love and respect black people turn their gaze on us. “Selma” artfully displaces a white gaze, and it is this unnamed and unsettling anxiety that sits at the heart of so many of the critiques of the film.

This white racial anxiety of not being at the center feels to me far more dangerous to black youth than seeing a film that tells them a story about themselves and their history. Having taught in D.C. public schools, I know DC youth aren’t checking for any kind of saviors, white or black. Like most adolescents, they are looking to find their path and make their mark.

And they have far too few representations of what that might look like.

Among black teenagers who have acutely felt the pain of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Jordan Davis and Michael Brown, this film offers a long history and genealogy for black pain and black resistance. The film moves us beyond the mere spectacle of black death. For instance, we don’t just see the killing of Jimmie Lee Jackson; we are forced to watch and reckon with his grieving grandfather identifying his body at the morgue. The shot of Jimmie’s mother’s grief-stricken face at her son’s funeral could be superimposed with the face of Mamie Till Mobley, or Coretta Scott King or Sybrina Fulton or Lesley McSpadden, mothers and wives of boys and men gone too soon. As the final Selma march commences, the film cuts to a shot of Jimmie’s grieving mother rocking, crying.

That kind of storytelling is haunting and deliberate. Long after you walk away, it clings to you.

“Selma” achieves both narrative breadth and affective depth. DuVernay added 27 new characters to a screenplay heavily focused on LBJ and MLK, most of them women. That sense of elasticity in the storytelling stretches us, demanding of us a more inclusive, less-sexist vision of the black freedom struggle. Beyond that, the movie asks us to understand the spiritual weight, the indignity, the brutality, the visceral pain of racial injustice and the vision, perseverance and digging deep required every day to stand up, fight back and keep moving.

Many white people missed this, because they need the civil rights movement to be fewer dirges and more redemption songs. Just as there has been a failure of white people to truly grasp the singularity of the racial atrocities committed against black people (and indigenous people) in the name of white supremacy, there remains a studied indifference to the ways that we are, 50 years later, feeling these pains of democracy aborted all over again.

Mothers cry out and grandfathers weep that our nation’s past sins are revisited upon another undeserving generation of black people vulnerable to injustice by a system and a people that forget their capacity for brutality far too quickly.

Blood spilling from out stretched palms, the perpetrators demand absolution. Without confession. Or repentance. Or restitution.

“LBJ was good to you,” they tell us. They expect us to be solicitous in our gratitude. Gratuitous. That one wrong among many was righted, even from a man known for his gratuitous use of the N-word, deserves our scopic memorialization. White folks forget that even the abolitionists did not necessarily think black people were equal human beings. Granting our rights, as if rights are the property of white people, has never been a guarantor of white respect for black humanity.

Black youth sense these indignities even when they lack a full language of articulation. They live them daily. Especially in a massively failing public school district like DC. Especially in a moment, when despite desegregation being the center piece of the civil rights movement, we have been reminded that more than half of all public school children live below the poverty line. That those children are disproportionately black is no accident.

Perhaps Dowd is hypersensitive about the alleged “artful falsehood” in “Selma” because racial politics in this country are a frequent and unrelenting exercise in “artful falsehoods.” That electing a black president signaled the end of racism is an artful falsehood. That police really care to protect and serve black and brown communities is artful falsehood. That racial progress is linear is an artful falsehood. These are the pretty little lies we tell ourselves to make the fictive narrative of America—the land of life, liberty and justice for all—cohere.

As I have listened in my blackademic circles to the various critiques of the ways that “Selma” did not get the story right, I am reminded that for those who are caretakers and guardians of black history, artistic license feels too risky. The real stories have yet to be fully told. How dare we subject them to the tools of representation, which often seem to be more hammer than chisel when it comes to carving out the beauty of our lives? Couldn’t we just have more Diane Nash and more Amelia Boynton? In a world where black lives and black histories mattered, they’d have their own films, alongside Ida B. Wells, and SNCC, and Fannie Lou Hamer.

But how will we ever have any of those stories if we can’t trust a black woman to tell this story? We don’t trust black women to be our philosophers and theorists, our political strategists, or our film directors. Directing, like quarterbacking, we are told to believe is the province of white men. This is why the Oscar nomination “Selma” received for best picture feels hollow—the academy clearly does not respect DuVernay’s directorial vision. Save Steve McQueen, black folks, men included, are rarely deemed fitting of recognition in any kind of academy, except music. White women are not respected as directors either. It is precisely that intersection, that double jeopardy, of blackness and womanhood that gives so many black women the exceptional ability to artfully render black life, to see it in all its fullness, to move beyond the perspectival limits of whiteness and maleness. That same intersection often becomes a liability in the quest for institutional recognition of black female genius.

Ava DuVernay surely knows that. So she made the film she wanted to make. One that features Amelia Boynton and Coretta Scott King having a conversation about what it means to be prepared, as we hear Coretta talking about her desire for a more active role in the strategy and organizing side of the movement. One in which Diane Nash reassures the men, on their car ride into Selma, that this is the next big place for movement building. One in which Annie Lee Cooper slaps the policeman who manhandles her.

In this film, we see black women resisting, organizing, strategizing and cajoling. That we want to see even more of this tells us that “Selma” is akin to being gifted a few acres of our own after too many years gleaning cotton in fields that have not belonged to us.

A black woman has gifted this to us. Ava DuVernay ushers us in “Selma” into the interior and affective lives of black people. In her directorial approach, I hear echoes of Anna Julia Cooper’s famous statement, “when and where I enter in the undisputed dignity of my womanhood, without violence, suing, or special patronage, then and there the whole race enters with me.”

Black men don’t tell race stories like this. This kind of film is the unique result of what black feminist scholars call the “visionary pragmatism” of black women filmmakers.

And this is what feels so false and condescending and egregious about Maureen Dowd admonishing Ava DuVernay, that “On matters of race—America’s original sin—there is an even higher responsibility to be accurate.” She didn’t levy such a critique of “Lincoln’s” failure to include Frederick Douglass, a trusted adviser of the president. But more than that, there is this.

Being more accurate does not mean one has told more truth. Read any Toni Morrison novel, and you’ll learn that novels often tell far more truth than autobiography. DuVernay tells us many truths in this film about the affective and emotive dimensions of black politics, about the intimacy of black struggle, about the spirit of people intimately acquainted with daily assaults on their humanity. The recent tragic killings of unarmed youth have surely taught us that if we don’t work from a presumption of black humanity, facts don’t mean very much in our interpretation of events.

More than that, those in power choose the “facts” that matter.

What I hope those DC high school students and every high school student that will get to see this film learn is that ours is a beautiful struggle. I hope they learn that despite our defeats, we’ve had our triumphs, too. I hope they see how integral women were to this struggle. I hope they have a clearer picture of what revolutionary leadership looks like —that these people ate and slept, loved and fought, shaved and got help putting on neckties, struggled with the right words to say and sometimes made mistakes. They rose to meet the challenges of their times. And we can, too. Ω

[Brittney Cooper is a contributing writer at Salon. Cooper is an Assistant Professor of Women's and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University–New Brunswick. She received a BA (English and political science) from Howard University, and both an MA and PhD (American Studies) from Emory University. She is completing her first book — Race Women: Gender and the Making of a Black Public Intellectual Tradition, 1892-Present (forthcoming).]

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