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    Tuesday
    May122015

    What is a “Real” Republican, Anyway?

    There’s no dispute (at least in my mind) that when it comes to defining a “real” Republican, the inmates are running the asylum. Thanks to the highly visible and highly concentrated minority best represented by habitual viewers of FOX News, listeners to Rush Limbaugh, and subscribers of The Blaze, the party has found itself sunk in dangerous ground, rather like an ostrich that has not only buried its head, but done so in a nest of ground wasps.

    Nevertheless, not all Republicans—even traditionally conservative Republicans—are alike. Though you may personally disagree with their approaches, many have sane and rational goals: better education, a capable military, energy independence, responsible immigration policies, and parental rights, for example. Others, however, are far more interested in promoting so-called “facts” and “logic,” used invariably to prove that Obama plans to invade Texas while John Kerry sucks up to the Iranians.

    We’ve always known this, of course, and yet too often the concept of “Republican” is collapsed so that thoughtful men we happen to disagree with are conjoined with the latter category, the far-right extremists.

    Just yesterday two discrete yet coincidental events served to remind me of this fact.

    I was sitting in a hotel room in Hartford, Connecticut where I had journeyed for an early-morning meeting. On my way in I’d grabbed a copy of USA Today, that sort-of newspaper that now seems resigned to existing mostly as a traveler’s freebie. I grab it mostly for the puzzles in the “Life” section, but generally skim through the whole thing. It’s there, after all.

    The article that caught my eye was a profile of freshman representative Rod Blum, an Iowa Republican whose approach to his new job is decidedly quixotic. “I think people are really, really tired of what they perceive to be the ruling class,” he said.

    You’d be forgiven for assuming he was talking about Obama and/or Hillary Clinton, but he wasn’t. He was talking about himself and his peers. So in addition to a number of traditional GOP issues (which you can review here), he has introduced or co-sponsored some decidedly unpopular legislation, including:

    • An end to lawmakers’ access to first-class travel and luxury car leases.
    • An end to congressional pensions.
    • A lifetime ban on becoming a lobbyist.
    • Balanced budgets, via the “Penny Plan.”
    • Term limits.

    These are actions many might expect from, say, Bernie Sanders, but not from a conservative Iowan, one who also supports repealing the ACA, wants to lower tax rates, and voted for a very conservative version of the federal budget. Still, I think most people would be hard-pressed to call him crazy, even if you don’t like all that he stands for.

    For true “crazy,” allow me to share the day’s second event. As I was driving north on Route 84 from Connecticut back into Massachusetts, I passed a car with a large sign attached to it. It referenced someone called “The Rabid Republican,” and offered anyone traveling alongside the opinion that Benghazi was planned and executed by Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton, who then lied about it.  (Note that the sign didn’t accuse anyone of ineptitude, mind you, but the exact opposite: a conspiracy planned and executed.)

    I repeated the words—rabidrepublicanrabidrepublicanrabidrepublican—several times in order to make sure the phrase passed from short-term into long-term memory, and when I got home I went searching for it, quickly finding the Rabid Republican Blog. (Note: I’m not providing a link, as I don’t want to do anything to boost or support the site’s SEO standing.) The first thing that struck me when the page painted was the drawing of a large and rather angry-looking eagle perched atop a stylized star-and-shield banner, an apparent de facto requirement for any so-called patriot’s site.

    A quick look at the “about” section offered this information:

    Since early 2009 we've been exposing, bashing and mocking traitors, Democrats, and Socialists. We're unabashedly pro-life, pro-2A [2nd Amendment], pro-Constitution, pro-TEA Party, anti-Common Core, and anti-Obama; – because we understand the price that was paid, – both by heroes and by common folk in time, sweat, blood, and tears to give us a free country.

    The site is primarily a series of brief yet wacked-out pieces based on the news of the day. We find out, for example, that Obama is responsible for an “inept retreat from Iraq,” the “courting of Iran,” and the “total bumbling of al Qaeda, ISIS, and Boko Haram.” The authors also suggest that Bruce Jenner might be planning to donate his gonads to Obama (since Obama doesn’t have any and Jenner doesn’t want ‘em anymore—seriously… I’m not making this up), and that we should fully expect that the left wing will blame the Nepal earthquakes on fracking.

    All of that pales, though, next to this truly repulsive headline:

    Texas 2, Muslims 0.  Good Shooting. Guys!

    The purveyors of this political porn also consider themselves “real” Republicans. I can’t imagine all but the very few and the very extreme agreeing. I certainly can’t imagine Representative Rod Blum doing so.

    The bottom line is this (notwithstanding any No True Scotsman argument): Real Republicans want a lot of the same things everyone wants, they just differ (though strongly) with how best to get there. That doesn’t make them “nutjobs” or “wingnuts,” or even worse. People like Rod Blum help to prove that point. On the other hand, there are true crazies out there (potentially dangerous crazies), and they hurt us all. When we collapse “Republican” into one group, when we paint all with a single brush, we fail to isolate those who would truly cause us harm. In fact, we likely give them strength by offering them the credibility that goes with the shelter of a big tent.

     

    Author’s note: For those curious as to the makeup of the GOP, I recommend this article. Approximately 20% of the GOP is comprised of highly conservative/evangelical people, much lower than most would think based on their relative degree of activism. Of this 20%, I would expect that only a subset would find themselves regular readers of the Rabid Republican. In addition, this 2013 survey found that the majority of Republican (and Republican-leaning) people disapproved of the direction in which the party was headed.

    Wednesday
    May062015

    More on the Sanders/Cruz Comparison (Fiasco Version)

    I generally don’t go out of my way to justify my essays, but sometimes I do such a poor job of making my point that I feel compelled to be more direct.

    The “poor job” in question was this post in which I compared Ted Cruz to Bernie Sanders with respect to one (just one!) quality, one I didn’t like.

    The backlash was horrid, but at least (to paraphrase an old joke) there was a lot of it. What became clear in reading the comments (and in trying to clarify my thoughts through my responses) was that I hadn’t done a good job of arguing the case. The particular combination of sarcasm, humor, and Cassandra-like whimpering thudded heavily to the ground.

    Okay. My apologies. As I writer I’m supposed to be better than that. You certainly don’t have to agree with what I write, but it’s my responsibility to make sure it’s at least understandable.

    So I’m taking another shot at it.

    In my mind, when someone judges an action taken by someone else, they fall into one of two camps (which I admittedly oversimplify):

    Those in the first camp subscribe to a philosophy called “consequentialism.” Consequentialism argues that the ends (generally) justify the means, and that the ethics of any particular behavior should be judged within an overriding concept of a “greater good.”

    Those in the second camp subscribe to a philosophy called “deontology”. Deontology argues that individual behaviors are independently ethical or unethical regardless of any real or perceived “greater good,” and that the ends (generally) do not justify the means.

    I fall into the second camp (but you’ve likely figured that out already, based on any number of previous posts, including this one about Oprah Winfrey.) I believe that there are ethical and unethical behaviors that strike to a moral center, and I believe such things are generally universal. The “greater good,” however, seems to me highly relativistic, and easily justified, and so I avoid the consequentialist approach. (The most famous proponent of consequentialist philosophy, by the way, was Machiavelli, who lays out the approach very neatly in The Prince.)

    One FB conversation I had regarding my Sanders/Cruz post dug rather deeply into the topic, and I offered this example. Ted Cruz believes, with all sincerity, that there should be a theological component to the way our country is governed. Most of my readers would vehemently disagree with him—as would I. (Ignore for the moment that his position is also unconstitutional!) Nevertheless, he believes it. He’s not disingenuous about it, and he firmly believes that having such a theological component in government is a “greater good.” Many millions of people agree with him. So what means should he and his supporters use to accomplish their greater good? What if a PAC raises money based on this desire for a limited theocracy? Is that ethical behavior? What if the money is “dark money,” provided by the Koch brothers? Should that be okay in service of their sincerely desired “greater good?”  Remember that we’re not talking about deception or insincerity. We know Cruz’s beliefs on this topic, and he is quite sincere about it. So how is his “greater good,” better or worse than yours?

    But the dark money is unethical by deontological principles, as is accepting money from the Koch brothers, who expect their donations to provide a certain type of candidate. We justifiably push back on those behaviors.

    But that’s just the tip of the problem. What I routinely see in responses to posts is that people are consequentialists when the consequence is one they support, and deontologists when the consequence is one they abhor.

    It’s just so easy to fall into that mental crevasse. People who agree with what Bernie Sanders is trying to do tend to respond as consequentialists—the means justify the ends. These same people disagree with what Ted Cruz is trying to do, and so respond to him as deontologists, dissecting and attacking each individual behavior of Cruz’s as unethical.

    What I believe we all need to admit is how we so easily play these mental games with ourselves. As many of you pointed out in your comments, Bernie Sanders did exactly that—he admitted that he was declaring as a Democrat because it was the only way he could have an impact. That statement alone tells me that he understands he’s bent his own ethics, just a tiny bit, and if the world were perfect (or at least parliamentarian!) he wouldn’t have to run as a Democrat—he could keep his time-worn (I).

    The only comparison I made between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders was to say that they were both taking a path that represented a consequentialist view. In Cruz’s mind it’s okay to run as a Republican because if the Tea Party broke off it would splinter the votes. Bernie has come to the same conclusion with respect to the Democrat’s voting bloc. As someone who views things deontologically, I find the ethics questionable.

    Hope that explains my point. But just in case, let me add this afternote:

    I DO NOT like Ted Cruz; he represents everything I rail against, and he’s one of the key players in the unrelenting push to supplant the mainstream GOP with extremists. Cruz is not a conservative, and he’s not a Republican by any definition I want to use.

    On the other hand, I DO rather like Bernie Sanders (though not a lot of his positions), and I find him to be generally honest and clear-spoken. Having said that, I would have liked to have seen him attempt a third-party bid. Someone has to start a serious effort sometime soon if anything systemic is ever going to change….

     

    Sunday
    May032015

    Why Bernie Sanders is a lot like Ted Cruz

    This appeared in the Boston Herald over the weekend:

    Bay State U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren welcomed fellow liberal from the north, Vermont U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders, into the presidential sweepstakes yesterday, even as she continues to resist efforts to draft her into the race.

    Being the cynical beast that I am, I can’t help but imagine a private conversation recently taking place, one that perhaps went something like this:

    “Bernie. Hey, thanks for taking a few minutes. Listen. I’ve been thinking. Someone’s got to run against Hillary.”

    “I’ve been thinking the same thing, Liz. You can already see how’s she’s being pulled more and more toward the bland center. Pretty soon she won’t stand for anything.”

    “Or stand up to anyone. Not the banks, not big money in politics, nothing.

    “Sure seems likely.”

    “So we’re agreed, Bernie?  One of us should run?”

     “I think so, Liz. Probably it should be you. You’ve got much more of a national profile. You could actually pull off an upset.”

    “Yeah….hmmmm….I’m not so sure….I think Hillary’s probably going to end up with the nomination anyway.  I’m thinking it might be better if it were you, Bernie.”

    “Why me? I’m not set up to go national at all. Hell, most of the people in my own neighboring states think I’m a bit of a left-wingnut, thanks to that ‘socialist’ comment I made a while back.”

    “Right. That’s the reason, actually. You see, Bernie, somewhere in the not-too-far future—let’s say, I don’t know, maybe eight years from now—I could actually win.  While you…well… let’s be honest….”

    “So you’re saying I should be a sacrificial lamb, Liz? Don’t know if I like that so much.”

    “It’s probably our best move if we want to have any influence on the issues at all.”

    [Pause]

     “Jeez… OK… Sure…. Why not…”

    And so Bernie’s in the race.

    But even if he is something of an extremist, something of a sacrificial lamb, does that make him like Ted Cruz?  Of course not. But this does:

    Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders is NOT a Democrat.

    Check it out for yourself if you don’t believe me. He’s an (I), and has been since 1979. He caucuses with the Democrats, of course, and certainly leans more leftward than anyone else currently holding national office, having declared, in 1990, “I am a socialist and everyone knows that.”

    That statement—that one statement—makes him quite a bit like Ted Cruz.

    Stay with me for a minute while I ask you to remember the key thrust of nearly all my political commentary: Hypocrisy, dishonesty, and political hijackery is completely and totally unacceptable, even when viewed as the means to an otherwise desired result.

    Ever. Period.

    In the same way that Ted Cruz isn’t a real Republican, Bernie Sanders isn’t a real Democrat. Both of them are using the major parties as cover for extremist views, ones that, if implemented, would create radical changes in the fabric of our society. In both cases these men lack the courage, the willingness, to come out and run as they truly are. Ted, you’re not a Republican. You’re a Tea. Bernie, you’re not a Democrat. You’re a Socialist.

    I’m particularly disappointed in you, Senator Sanders, since you have, until this time, proudly declared yourself an Independent—and won while doing so. But now, regardless of your reasons (and how noble they might appear to your supporters), you apparently believe the only way to make an impact is to disavow one of your core beliefs, something that makes you who you are.

    I simply can’t respect that. In the same way that Ted Cruz blithely lies about being a genuine Republican, you think it’s okay to pretend you’re a genuine Democrat.

    We deserve honesty from our politicians. We won’t get it, though. Too many are perfectly happy seeing our process hijacked by dishonesty, as long as it serves a purpose they happen to deem somehow “higher.”

    But remember not just who you’re voting for, but what. A vote for Sanders (or for Cruz) is a vote for deception, a vote for the two-party system, a vote for corruption.

    Because lying to get what you want—even if it’s just to make a point—is corrupt.

     

    Photo Copyright: / 123RF Stock Photo

    Wednesday
    Apr222015

    Shifting Stories: Is Marco Rubio a Centrist?

    I have a pretty regular morning routine. Once I’m settled in front of my computer, I open a browser and work my way through a few obligatory (some would say “anal retentive”) behaviors. First I check Facebook, mostly because there might be something clever or interesting that deserves reposting (thereby creating an aura of personal pseudo-creativeness, as if I should get some sort of credit just for noticing whatever it was that caught my eye), then I check my email (wondering why I don’t take the time to unsubscribe from the virtual reams of crap that clutter my inbox), after which I check the sports scores before heading over to MarketWatch for a quick glance at the world’s latest financial events. And this I do every morning. Weekends, too, all of which only further cements the all-too-common opinion that I’m more than just a “creature of habit.” Not quite Sheldon Cooper, but getting close.

    I don’t usually read many of the articles over at MarketWatch; they lack the depth of, say, The New York Times or Bloomberg. MW’s facile offerings instead bridge an annoying gap between CNBC-style editorial and BuzzFeed quizzes. There’s always a lot of stuff on the best places to retire, or hidden secrets of your 401(k), or which expert is predicting the next financial boom or crisis or stasis. (This last one frequently sits adjacent to a photo of a befuddled Warren Buffett. I don’t know why.)

    Despite my general disdain for MW’s journalistic qualities, once in a while an article will catch my eye. Like today, for instance, which offered this headline:

    “Rubio leaps into top tier of Republican candidates.”

    Now that’s interesting…. Marco Rubio…. He of the dry-mouthed SOTU response. One of the earliest declarers. Top tier. Already? How could I not stop and read the whole thing?

    It turns out the article, an admitted opinion piece by Darrell Delamaide, is largely filled with the usual speculation one finds eight months before New Hampshire’s FITN primary. (That’s “first in the nation,” by the way, an uncomfortable non-acronym likely only moments away from absorbing its own hashtag….) Breaking down the current and likely GOP players, Delamaide separates them into top tier-ers and the rest-ers, with Rubio, Bush, and Walker out in front. Bush’s presence on the list seems pretty straightforward, while Walker’s elevation comes from strong rumors that he’s recently started sniffing significant amounts of Koch. But Rubio? Well, according to the article,

    “In this top tier, Rubio looks like the centrist.”

    Huh?

    A centrist?   How the f#&k did that happen?

    Let’s take a look at a few of Senator Rubio’s positions, shall we? According to the Live Free or Die Alliance (I do live in New Hampshire, after all), Rubio is strongly pro-life, opposes federal intervention in health care, supports a prohibition on stem cell research funding, supports a flat tax, supports lowering corporate income taxes, opposes stimulus spending when times are rough, and opposes cap-and-trade programs. He also co-sponsored the Keystone XL Pipeline bill.

    VoteSmart adds that he’s against a pathway to citizenship for illegal immigrants, he does not support any restrictions on the purchase or possession of guns, and he believes marriage should only be between one man and one woman. The National Right to Life Committee gives him a 100% rating, as do the Liberty Guard and Americans for Prosperity. The NRA gives him a lifetime score of A+.

    Now you may or may not agree with these positions. But one thing I think we can safely say is that they are not centrist.

    Stories are funny things. When oft repeated they become, true or not, “conventional wisdom” or “common knowledge,” things easily accepted because, well, it seems like everyone else accepts them, too. We find ourselves herded along with others, buffaloed, forgetting that someone creates narrative (FOX News, anyone?) and does so with methods so craftily constructed that most of us don’t even notice.

    Now emerges a new story. It uses words like “Rubio” and “centrist” in the same sentence. It shows up on a respectable website. We can expect it to grow, since it so suitably serves an agenda. Rubio. Centrist. Rubio. Centrist.

    But Rubio is anything but a centrist. Chris Christie, maybe. Jeb Bush, maybe. The furthest left in the GOP might be considered a centrist in our political sphere, but whatever else he is, Marco Rubio isn’t that candidate

    I’m not saying he’s a bad guy, or that he isn’t presidential material. (That topic waits for another essay, and one much closer to any actual elections.) But what I am saying is that there is already an obvious attempt to rebrand an extremely conservative man as a centrist.

    That’s a story I just can’t swallow. And neither should you.

    Tuesday
    Apr142015

    Racism, Unchanged

    This morning, cup of coffee in hand and enjoying an open window’s breeze for the first time since last fall, I finished up the last few chapters of The Store, T.S. Stribling’s 1933 Pulitzer Prize-winning novel. The book (the second in a trilogy) takes place in Alabama two decades after the Civil War, and centers on a middle-aged protagonist named Miltiades Vaiden. Vaiden is a man out of time; prior to the war he was a respected and wealthy plantation owner. Known as a fair man, he treated his slaves well.

    He treated his slaves well.

    Vaiden isn’t a particularly good man, come reconstruction, though not a particularly bad one, either. He has a certain insular honor and suffers from his many losses; post-conflict he finds himself relatively poor, married to a woman he doesn’t really love or admire, and generally wistful about the past. He misses the approbation he used to have, back in the days when he led the local chapter of the Klan.

    When he led the local chapter of the Klan.

    The plot of the novel revolves largely around Vaiden’s attempts to recover an old debt, to rekindle an old romance, and to adjust to a world changing under reconstruction—particularly with regard to the ways in which the white population suffers the reality of a negro population just beginning to comprehend its own freedom. The Alabama whites answer in their time-worn way.

    Suffers the reality of a negro population.

    ***

    Across the scores of Pulitzer winners there are many that touch upon war, and quite a few of those address the Civil War and post-Civil War eras. Andersonville, Gone with the Wind, and The Killer Angels are three of the most widely read, and all include—as they must—accurate renderings of the time’s racial attitudes. But there has always seemed a clear delineation between the depiction of racism as presented by the author in service of a story, and the sense that the author himself (or herself) was comfortably racist. Stribling strikes me as residing in the latter class, as when he casually has Vaiden remark how he intends to “jew down” the price of some goods he wishes to buy or, as in this example taken from near the novel’s end, when an octoroon (described in the book as a “white negro”) presses a legal point against Vaiden, something never before attempted:

    A drunken cry floated through the open window.

    “Lemme git to that black bastard, I’ll show him!” More controlled voices interposed, “Let him alone! Let him in! Time enough when he comes out again!”

    There was laughter from below. It was on the whole a fairly good-natured crowd.

    The crowd gets him eventually, and in the end he hangs from a tree. That fairly good-natured crowd.

    ***

    The novel made me decidedly uncomfortable, and not only for the obvious reasons.

    It’s easy to argue that such books and their authors are merely of their times. Stribling, after all, was born in 1881 and grew up in Alabama (later moving to Tennessee). His own family could have been the Vaidens, and there are certainly characters (including the young lawyer, Sandusky, who stirs up much of the plot’s conflicts) modeled on people Stribling knew. Nevertheless, reading the words results in a certain distaste.

    It’s that “distaste” that bothers me today, that sense that we are somehow better, that we’ve grown beyond the world that Stribling unfortunately limns so well.

    We’re not better. Racism remains essentially unchanged.

    ***

    Just a little more than a week ago an African-American man, Walter Scott, was shot to death while running away from a North Charleston police officer named Michael Slager. Video clearly shows the salient points; Scott was in no way a threat to Slager, who shot the fleeing man in the back. Slager, justifiably, has been charged with murder.

    The story had legs—as do all the numerous other stories of white officers killing African-Americans that seem today in constant eruption. Among the many stories cast across the 24-hour news cycle, one in particular caught my attention, this one just a couple of days ago on Good Morning America. The brief piece included the particulars of the incident (what we used to call the “facts”), but then went on to speculation, the modern media drug of choice.

    We found out, for example, that Scott was well behind in his child support payments and may have been running to avoid arrest and jail. We also heard the news reporter’s expressed curiosity at the passenger in Scott’s vehicle, providing us with just the smallest of intonational hints that something unknown could very well mean something suspicious. No conclusions were reached, of course; like a faulty boomerang the ideas were just thrown out there, never to return.

    And then the piece ended, leaving us not with final thoughts about the shooting, but final thoughts about what might have precipitated Scott’s flight, a different story altogether, and one implying that, perhaps, if he hadn’t run, he would still be alive. That it might be, just a little bit, his fault.

    As if anything might justify an armed police officer shooting someone in the back.

    The story should have ended with the facts. Shot in the back. No excuse. End of report.

    But it didn’t.

    It was at that moment when I realized there is essentially no difference between the post-Civil War racism depicted in The Store, and the post-modern racism depicted on Good Morning America. In both cases the stories go on a beat too long, a beat designed to remind us that when an African-American—or a black, or a negro, or a nigger—does something whites don’t like, then somehow he shares responsibility for his own downfall. His own assassination. His own lynching.

    Racism remains, in very fundamental ways, unchanged from Stribling’s time. We just pretend more these days.

    [Note: This essay is cross-posted from The Pulitzer Praises, a project about reading all the books that won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.]