2010 - %3, August

Who You Calling Racist?

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 2:19 PM EDT

Is the Tea Party movement fundamentally bigoted? Ditto for modern Republicanism, which increasingly takes its cues from the tea partiers. Bob Somerby has been unhappy with sweeping liberal charges of racism against the entire movement for some time, and today, responding to a Digby post about Glenn Beck's rally this weekend, he says so again:

Obviously, it wasn’t an all-white audience, but it felt good to say so (or something). Most people weren’t in lawn chairs, but that conveys an image....That said, we were most struck by Digby’s focus on skin color, a mocking focus which then extended into her readers’ comments. (Along with mocking comments about the age and clothing of the people who attended Beck’s event, including some first-hand observations.)....The people at the event were pink skinned; they are also “dumb as dirt,” we were told in an earlier post. Sorry, but this is the type of language adopted by haters worldwide, language which will be aimed at hundreds of thousands or millions of folk at a time.

Calling broad swathes of the electorate dumb and bigoted is probably not a great vote-getting strategy. But is it true? Here is Christopher Hitchens for the defense:

One crucial element of the American subconscious is about to become salient and explicit and highly volatile. It is the realization that white America is within thinkable distance of a moment when it will no longer be the majority.

....This summer [] has been the perfect register of the new anxiety, beginning with the fracas over Arizona's immigration law, gaining in intensity with the proposal by some Republicans to amend the 14th Amendment so as to de-naturalize "anchor babies," cresting with the continuing row over the so-called "Ground Zero" mosque, and culminating, at least symbolically, with a quasi-educated Mormon broadcaster calling for a Christian religious revival from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

What is the right way to talk about this? I think Bob has a point: calling people stupid racists just isn't very bright. For the most part it probably isn't true, and even to the extent it is, it's bad electoral politics to harp on it. Calling an individual person racist for some particular action is fine if it's justified. Ditto for specific groups with overtly racist agendas. But entire movements? Probably not.

On the other hand, can we talk? You'd have to literally be blind not to notice that the Fox/Rush/Drudge axis has been pushing racial hot buttons with abandon all summer. There's all the stuff Hitchens mentions, and you can add to that the Shirley Sherrod affair, the continuing salience of the birther conspiracy theories, the New Black Panthers, and Beck's obsession with Barack Obama's supposed sympathy with "liberation theology." Are we supposed to simply pretend that it's just a coincidence that virtually every week brings another new faux controversy that just happens to appeal to the widespread, inchoate fear of a non-white country that Hitchens writes about?

For what it's worth, I think this is a genuinely hard question. I don't feel like putting my head in the sand and pretending that the leaders of the conservative movement don't know exactly what they're doing. On the other hand, like Bob, I'm not really on board with dismissing half the country as bozos and racists either.

So how do you thread this needle? How do you talk honestly about all the racially charged paranoia oozing out from conservative leaders without also implicating half the country as willing racists? I'm not sure.

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Facebook and "The Social Network"

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 1:50 PM EDT

 You've probably seen this trailer for "The Social Network," a fictionalized account of the founding of Facebook:

It's hard to take the film entirely seriously. But the New York Times reports that Facebook is worried:

After fretting for months over how to respond, the company appears to have decided that its best bet is to largely ignore the movie and hope that audiences do the same — that "The Social Network" will be another failed attempt to bottle a generation, like "Less Than Zero," and not culturally defining, as it aspires to be, in the way of "Wall Street" or "The Big Chill."

Behind the scenes, however, Mr. Zuckerberg and his colleagues have been locked in a tense standoff with the filmmakers, who portray Facebook as founded on a series of betrayals, then fueled by the unappeasable craving of almost everyone for "friends" — the Facebook term for those who connect on its online pages — that they will never really have.

Mr. Zuckerberg, at 26 a billionaire, and his associates are wary of damage from a picture whose story begins with the intimacy of a date night at Harvard seven years ago and depicts the birth of a Web phenomenon in his dorm room.

By his account, and that of many others, much in the film is simply not true. It is based on a fictionalized book once described by its publicist not as "reportage" but as "big juicy fun."

If "The Social Network" is a stinker and bombs at the box office, Facebook's strategy might work. But it's going to be a lot harder to ignore the film if it is critically—or even just commercially—successful. David Fincher (the director) and Aaron Sorkin (the screenwriter) have certainly made good movies before, and the film is being "rushed into awards contention," the Times reports. The world has changed a lot since the advent of the Internet, but Hollywood still wields vast cultural authority. A well-reviewed, blockbuster movie about Facebook will affect how people see the company, whether it's fictionalized or not. Facebook should be considering that possibility and deciding what to do if "The Social Network" clicks with people. If that happens, the company will have a clear choice: embrace the film or push back—hard. 

One factor that will certainly affect Facebook's decision-making is the film's depiction of its central character, company founder Zuckerberg. I'm curious to see how audiences will respond to fresh-faced Zuckerberg doppelganger Jesse Eisenberg in the lead role. It's hard to know where Sorkin will go with the character. Will Eisenberg's Zuckerberg ultimately prove flawed yet sympathetic? Even if Zuckerberg ends up a through-and-through villain, it's going to be hard to feel too sorry for him. Zuckerberg is a public figure, and the price of fame (and billions of dollars) is steep.

In the end, it's hard to blame Hollywood for being Hollywood. It shouldn't be a surprise that they're making a movie about one of the most interesting companies in the world. And attacking "The Social Network" for being fictionalized is missing the point. "The West Wing" was fiction, too—but it rang true. If Aaron Sorkin can give us a mini "West Wing" in Cambridge, set to the tune of the Internet revolution, it'll be worth the price of Zuckerberg's hurt feelings.

A Liberal Version of Social Security Private Accounts

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 1:21 PM EDT

Andrew Biggs, a conservative who served on George W. Bush's Social Security commission, has gotten some attention for writing a piece in National Review today explaining that privatization is no cure-all for Social Security's problems:

Personal accounts are a valid choice, and one I’ve supported in the past and continue to support. But accounts aren’t exclusive to tax increases or benefit cuts; they don’t, as I’ll explain, reduce the need for these other choices. One problem for the Bush administration’s reform drive in 2005 was that many congressional Republicans had bought into the idea that accounts reduce or eliminate the need for tax increases or benefit cuts. Finding out they don’t may have taken some wind out of their sails. Because of this, combined with some pretty shameless demagoguery from the left, Bush’s reform ideas didn’t even come up for a vote.

Shameless demagoguery? Hold on a second. The left was indeed opposed to Bush's plan, but a lot of the opposition was based on the fact that it was sold as a costless panacea, exactly the problem that Biggs himself identifies. My own position was (and is) that Social Security should simply be left alone for the time being, but that there are also some legitimate reasons to bite the bullet and shore up its financial position now — and if we do, "there's nothing wrong with private accounts in theory as long as they're properly accounted for, tightly regulated, and honestly funded."

Don't believe it? Click the link and my proposal for Social Security reform with private accounts is right there. Would liberals accept this if it were presented honestly? I don't know, because no one has ever tried it that way. But they might. The problem is that "honestly" almost unavoidably includes some tax increases, and that kind of honesty just isn't acceptable to current Republican dogma. So we're stuck. There's the dishonest approach, which Democrats won't accept because it's dishonest, and there's the honest approach, which Republicans won't accept because it's honest. It's hard to see the middle ground here.

Did US Bungle Viktor Bout Extradition?

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:54 PM EDT

The US government would very much like to bring Viktor Bout, the alleged arms dealer who inspired the 2005 Nicolas Cage flick Lord of War, to America for trial. A Thai appeals court ordered Bout's extradition earlier this month, but the US, anticipating a different ruling, sent new charges to Thailand shortly before the decision came down. The new charges meant that if the court had ruled in Bout's favor, Thailand would still have had to hold on to him while they considered the new charges. But the US seems to have bungled the situation. If they hadn't sent the new charges, the road to extradition would be mostly clear in the wake of the appeals court's ruling. Now the US will have to wait until a court hears the new charges. (Even if the US hadn't made that miscalculation, Bout still might have been able to avoid extradition: On Monday, his lawyer filed a final appeal to the Thai prime minister in a last-ditch effort to stop Bout from being sent to America.)

Mother Jones has been following Bout's story for years. In 2007, Laura Rozen related the real-life story of the former Soviet military officer who made millions selling weapons to anyone and everyone who could afford them. In March 2008, after the first reports of Bout's arrest in Thailand, Bruce Falconer reminded readers that the "Merchant of Death" had been among the first to bring supplies into Baghdad after the city fell to invading American armies in 2003. Later that month, Falconer told the full story of the DEA-led sting that captured Bout and brought us to where we are now. That piece was called "Viktor Bout's Last Deal." The next few weeks may determine if it really was.

Buzzfeed: Not Aware of All Internet Traditions

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:31 PM EDT

Earlier this month, Forbes published a list of the 20 richest rappers. Last week, Buzzfeed's Tanner Ringerud used that list to highlight those rappers' most ridiculous lyrics. Then Andrew Sullivan underblogger Zoe Pollock linked to the post, and it went viral on Facebook and Twitter and stuff. It was definitely clever of Ringerud to combine the Forbes list with ridiculous rap lyrics. But he should have noted (and brought to Pollock and Sullivan's attention) the grandaddy of ridiculous rap lyric sites: Chris Macho and Chris D'Elia's "Snacks and Shit."

Since February 2009 (an eon in Internet time), Macho and D'Elia have exhaustively catalogued and sorted 503 of the most silly, stupid, and inane rap lyrics ever spat. How could you pick Ludacris' "read your whore-oscope and eat your whore-d'oeuvres" over "Let me give you swimming lessons on the penis"? And Jay-Z's "If you shoot my dog, I'ma kill your cat" is good, but it doesn't hold a candle to the original: "No room service just snacks and shit." (Macho and D'Elia: "Honestly, this sounds more like something my dad would say. 'Remember, no ordering room service. It's too expensive. Plus, I brought snacks.'") Anyway, point being: if you liked Ringerud's post, you'll love "Snacks and Shit." Check it out

Meg's Millions

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:27 PM EDT

Ed Kilgore writes that eBay zillionaire Meg Whitman, currently running for governor of California, can present herself to voters as a moderate without suffering the wrath of the state's famously rabid Republican right wing:

Whitman has an advantage over most Republicans in choosing her general election strategy in this year of conservative vengeance against moderation: her virtually limitless money, which will bankroll not only her own campaign, but the get-out-the-vote efforts crucial to the entire GOP ticket. This has put something of a damper on right-wing demands on the former eBay exec at the Republican confab.

....Uniquely in the Republican politics of 2010, Meg Whitman has the freedom to swing towards the center if she wishes, so long as she keeps her checkbook open and meets the easy test of being more orthodox than Arnold Schwarzenegger. Conservatives may grouse and pine for a mighty warrior to smite the anchor babies and the tree-huggers and the abortionists of the Golden State, but they are signed on to eMeg’s wild money-fueled ride, wherever her cold-blooded pollsters take them.

That's true. But Meg has another advantage too: the virtual invisibility so far of her Democratic opponent. Here's longtime state watcher George Skelton:

There was a blond sitting at a Lake Tahoe waterfront bar recently who had Jerry Brown's problem nailed. "Millions of Democrats are waiting for a reason to vote for Jerry Brown and he isn't giving them one," she said, interrupting the tortured analyses spewing from me and some other political junkies.

The woman didn't want to be identified by name. But, OK, she's my wife. And she's usually right about these things, largely because she has a normal life outside politics and punditry.

I'd amend her assessment to include not only Democrats but also independents and moderate Republicans. They're all waiting for the Democratic candidate to get a move on and finally tell them why he'd be a better governor than Republican political novice Meg Whitman.

This is the damnedest campaign I've seen in a long time. Granted, Labor Day isn't until next week, and Brown simply doesn't have the kind of money that Whitman does. But so far I've barely heard a peep out of him, and the peeps I have heard have been nothing more than the most soporific kinds of generalities. It's almost as if he's decided he's too tired to bother campaigning at all, and that's really not the image a 72-year-old career politician wants to send out. I sure hope there's some kind of deep strategy here that I'm not privy to. Whitman is a deeply cynical campaigner, but she has enough money to keep most of the public from seeing that. If Brown doesn't start beating her up soon, it's going to be too late.

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Enviros Target ex-Rep. Steve Pearce

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:11 PM EDT

Election season is upon us, and with it we find green groups going after some of the worst offenders in Congress. Among the first candidates to be targeted is Rep. Steve Pearce (R-NM), the subject of a new ad from Defenders of Wildlife Action Fund.

Pearce has been a perrenial environmental foe, known for his investments in the oil and gas industry and his abysmal environmental voting record. The League of Conservation Voters gave him a 1 percent lifetime score over his first six years in office. Pearce, who represented New Mexico's 2nd district from 2003 to 2009, resigned his seat to run for Senate in 2008. He lost to Democrat Tom Udall, and is now running to reclaim his old seat.

Here's the Defenders ad:

Pelosi's Challenger Asks Me for Money

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:07 PM EDT

This past weekend I received on my home line a call from John Dennis, the Republican long-shot candidate challenging House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. It was a recorded message in which he blamed her for "no jobs" and out-of-control debt. He warned that she "wants to raise your taxes." But after the rant, a live voice came on, a woman named Susan, who asked if I would now participate in a survey. There was but one question: "Would America be better off without Nancy Pelosi?"

Sure, I said to Susan. But first I had a question for her: who did she work for? Her first response: John Dennis for Congress. Nah, I said. You're not in his campaign office, you're obviously working for a firm he's hired. Which one? Infocision Management Corporation, she said. (The firms's website boasts it is "THE highest quality call center company in the world.") And what list are you using? I asked Susan. A series of lists, she said. Which one had my name and number, I enquired politely. "We have your name because you've supported conservative causes and campaigns," she said.

"I don't think so," I replied. Without missing a beat, she said, "You may have done more than you realize."

Perhaps. But probably not.

In any event, this call from the Dennis campaign caused me to wonder if he's wasting lots of money using lousy lists with names of unlikely potential donors across the country.

After courteously answering my questions, Susan asked if we could return to the survey question. Sure, I said. She put it to me again, and I said that I doubted America would be better off without Pelosi. In a flash, she thanked me and hung up.

Another Shot for Amateur Bin Laden Hunter?

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:06 PM EDT

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the "War on Terror" is that, almost a decade after September 11, the most powerful nation in the world still hasn't captured or killed the men behind the attack, Osama bin Laden and his No. 2, Ayman al-Zawahiri.

Colorado native Gary Brooks Faulkner is trying to change all that. Faulkner, like bin Laden, is on a kidney dialysis regimen. But that didn't stop him from traveling deep into Pakistan earlier this year, armed with a samurai sword and a pistol, to try to do what the US military and CIA haven't been able to: kill bin Laden. Pakistani security officials arrested him in the remote district of Chitral and returned him to the US. Faulkner says that God ordered him to kill the terrorist leader—but whether it was religious inspiration or his own know-how, some experts suspect he may have been close. The New York Times' Dexter Filkins explains

Whatever else we might conclude about Gary Faulkner, our arrested American bounty hunter, we should give him this: He was looking in the right place.

Or at least the place where many intelligence analysts think he is: the mountainous high-altitude district of Chitral. For me, the mere mention of the place evokes the image of the Saudi terrorist.

Last December, early on a Sunday morning, I sat at a long table in the basement of the Pentagon talking with an American military officer about the situation in Afghanistan. As the meeting ended, another man approached, wearing plain clothes and a plainer face.

"Chitral," he said, half-smiling. "If you’re looking for Osama, you might try Chitral."

He muttered something else, then walked away. The man didn’t identify himself, but he didn’t have to. He was almost certainly an intelligence analyst. If I had to guess, I’d say, given our location, that he worked for the Defense Intelligence Agency.

Why Chitral? Well, for one thing, it’s remote. Chitral is a mountainous district of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province, in the far end of the country, abutting an Afghan region called Wakhan, notable because it’s shaped like a panhandle. In other words, it’s a long way from the Federal Administered Tribal Areas, or FATA, where many other intelligence analysts believe Mr. bin Laden is probably hiding.

There is one other reason. As he walked away, my plain-faced Pentagon acquaintance said one other thing: "We have a hard time putting Predators up there." Apparently, the drones cannot stay up long, because their bases are so far away. In a funny kind of way, he was asking for help.

Faulkner recently told the Denver Post that he hopes for another shot at bin Laden. (He claims to have already made eight trips.) Next time, he'll try to use a balloon or a glider to access Chitral, he told the newspaper—a move that he presumably hopes will allow him to elude Pakistani authorities. Good luck with that, dude. Don't get yourself killed.

If you want to know more about Faulkner and his quest, there's a profile of him in the latest GQ. The article isn't online yet. 

Financial Journalism

| Mon Aug. 30, 2010 12:05 PM EDT

Ryan Avent on the role of financial journalists:

There is a growing sense of despair among some economic writers that policymakers will not do much more to bolster the flagging global recovery. And critics who note the limits of policy intervention have a bit of a point—not all of the shortfall in demand and employment can be fixed by government intervention. But much of it can be and should be. And if it isn't, that's not because we lack the ability to conceive of helpful policies. It's because policymakers are unwilling to do what they should be doing.

It's not the job of the economics journalist to take that as a given and declare that America will have to muddle through. It's their job to correctly identify the problem, and name the names of those causing it.

By "economic writers," I assume Ryan is talking mostly about columnists and pundits here. And he's right that it does, in fact, look as though political realities will prevent any serious additional government intervention to stimulate the economy. Those political realities include White House advisors who seem unsure what to do, a president who's unwilling to speak up forthrightly about the mess we're in, and a Republican Party that's either deep in the ditch of 19th century economic principles or else figures its best chance to regain power is to make sure the economy stays in the tank. Or both. It's hard to say without being able to read minds.

But while columnists certainly have a responsibility to explain political realities to their readers, they have an even stronger responsibility to explain the economic realities as they see them. If they legitimately think there's nothing more that can be done, fine. But if they don't, they shouldn't use politics as a cover for throwing up their hands. The federal government can't wave a magic wand and make everything OK, but there are still plenty of things left in its armory. We don't have to accept 8-10% unemployment for the next four years if we don't want to.