Saturday, October 31, 2009

Fox News Guarding the Henhouse

The dissembling of so many conservatives, high- and low-profile, withers me. I’m constantly amazed by how often conservative perspectives on certain issues are founded on things that just aren’t true. The war in Iraq is a classic example. I distinctly remember George W. Bush saying that we needed to invade Iraq when we did and the way we did because Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction that he was going to use against us at any moment — a very creative interpretation of the intelligence at the time. If the Bush administration thought that invading Iraq was such a good idea, couldn’t it have come up with a better reason for doing so, a reason supported by maybe ... I don’t know ... reality! And the conservative dissembling continued when no stockpiles of weapons were found in Iraq. I vividly remember Bush and his advisors before the invasion hyping fears about the certain devastation that Hussein was about to launch onto the world with his weapons. But rather than admit that they were wrong about Hussein’s weapons, conservative Bush apologists began saying that “weapons of mass destruction” wasn’t the primary reason we went to war. What kind of denial do you need to be in to say something so false with a straight face?

Looking at so many conservative beliefs based on things that aren’t true, I have to wonder, why do conservatives think that these beliefs are good ones to hold?

This thought came to me again today after reading a letter in the Los Angeles Times in response to an op-ed about the Obama White House regarding Fox News as an opponent rather than a trustworthy source for reporting news in an unbiased way — and, incidentally, I think that the Obama administration is correct to regard the mendacious Fox News as such. I haven’t heard anything about the Obama White House trying to shut down Fox News or to get the pseudo-news cable channel to change in any way; as far as I know the administration is just giving it the cold shoulder. And — wouldn’t you know it? — Fox News and its adherents trumpet the story as Obama’s neo-Nixonian “war” on the plucky little channel.

I didn’t read the op-ed that the letter was responding to, but the letter itself read:

How about a little something called the 1st Amendment as a compelling reason for the Obama administration to stop its Nixonian war on Fox News, not to mention the likes of Limbaugh and “right-wing” bloggers?

Yes, Barack Obama won an election. No, that did not mean the country agreed to repeal the Constitution or end political debate.

When an administration wages war on such a fundamental and well-established right as the 1st Amendment, that alone should raise a giant red flag to all Americans — regardless of the supposed characterization of the speech or how many people are supposedly listening to it.


What should really raise a fed flag to all Americans is an argument based on assertions that aren’t true. Notice how the letter writer changes the story from what it really is — the Obama administration denying Fox News recognition as a news outlet — to something that it isn’t — an effort by Obama to deny Fox News its First Amendment rights. I haven’t heard anything about the White House prohibiting Fox from doing its dubious business — I haven’t even heard anything about the White House denying Fox reporters access to press conferences — but the station and its apologists are twisting this story into the government nefariously clamping down on free speech itself. So, the letter writer’s characterization of the White House infringing on the First Amendment and repealing the Constitution is just plain wrong.

Now, there may very well be reasons why logical people would disagree with the White House’s stance towards Fox News and the administrations dealings (or lack thereof) with the station. I would probably disagree with such reasons, but I can imagine a rational person making this kind of an argument. However, when you need to misrepresent the story — to twist it into something that it isn’t — to make your point, is such a point worth making? When you need to distort what is real in order for your perspective to prevail, maybe you should start re-examining your perspective. What principles are you upholding when one of them isn’t the truth?

Friday, October 30, 2009

So-Called Political Correctness

“‘[P]olitical correctness’ isn’t a real thing. Rather, the term is a sort of catch-all charge that’s used against people who ask for more sensitivity to a particular cause than we're willing to give — a way to dismiss issues as frivolous in order to justify ignoring them. It’s a way to say that their concerns don't deserve to be voiced, much less addressed.”   —Amanda Taub, Vox.com


I wanted to post something before the month was through, so I thought that I would reprint another letter of mine that was published in the Los Angeles City Beat, this one on June 2, 2007:


Thanks to Thomas M. Sipos for his informative letter on so-called “political correctness” [Re: Letters, May 26]. However, I don’t think that the letter dealt fully with the use of the phrase by the political right.

The right’s negative use of the term “political correctness” may have begun as an objection to ill-advised campus speech codes, as Mr. Sipos says, but it didn’t stay there. The term eventually came to be used against many kinds of liberal thought on the presumption that voicing conservative opposition to those thoughts was a daring thing to do. Before long, conservatives were using the phrase … well … liberally to characterize virtually all left-of-center opinions — however well-reasoned and well-argued — as inherently unthinking and doctrinaire.

Today, “political correctness” in the right’s imagination has taken on the dimensions of a pervasive, oppressive ideology that dwarfs conservatism. As a result, even though conservatives control both the White House and Congress (and the Supreme Court as well), and even though conservative organizations are much better financed than liberal ones, the right can still play the underdog courageously standing up to a monstrous behemoth. In other words, the idea of “political correctness” allows Goliath to masquerade as David.

The phrase “political correctness” wouldn’t be as problematic if it were popularly applied to conservative dogma in the way that it’s applied to more liberal ideas. But when George W. Bush refuses to consider further government funding of promising stem-cell research for ideological reasons, or when a conservative commentator instantly dismisses a substantive opposing argument as “liberal whining,” such right-wing inflexibility isn’t usually characterized as “political correctness.”

Update, August 7, 2015: I have added the quote from Vox.com’s Amanda Taub at the top of the post.  

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The A Word

I wanted to post something here before the end of the month, but my enthusiasm for writing is apparently waning. So, I thought that I would dig up another one of my replies to Phil Dillon on his blog “Another Man’s Meat.” On October 6, 2006, he wrote a post titled “There’s More to It Than Choice,” explaining his opposition to abortion, his discontent with the status quo of the abortion debate in this country, and his desire for a “dialogue” between the pro-choice and pro-life sides. I posted my response to his article shortly afterwards:

Another factor in perpetuating the status quo is misleading, politically driven language and policies.

An example of such language is “abortion on demand.” This politically inspired term glosses over the agonizing that a pregnant woman usually goes through before deciding on an abortion.

Another example is the phrase “partial-birth abortion.” The anti-choice movement came up with this name in order to taint a procedure that doctors usually call a “dialation and extraction” or D&X. Some medical authorities say that a D&X may be the safest abortion procedure to protect a woman’s health. However, the Republican-led Congress ignored these medical authorities when it inserted language into its “partial-birth abortion” ban, saying that the procedure was never medically necessary.

A member of my extended family had a D&X. Into her third trimester, this family member learned that the fetus she was carrying had developed an abnormality: its brain was developing outside its skull. Doctors told her that, if delivered, the baby would probably die before its first birthday. Moreover, because my family member’s husband was not in the income bracket affected by the estate tax, caring for the deformed baby until its imminent death would have been an expensive proposition. She had the D&X. A year later, she gave birth to a healthy baby girl. This happened during the 1990s. I shudder to think what my family member would have had to do if this had happened after Congress’ ban on the procedure.

If Phil wants to have an honest, open dialogue about abortion with those on the pro-choice side, he will need to get past such emotionally charged, politically driven language as “abortion on demand” and “partial-birth abortion.”

Also, if so many women have abortions for “socio-economic” reasons, perhaps those who push for fewer abortions should also push for economic policies where more women could afford an unexpected pregnancy. For example, they could start by supporting an increase in the federal minimum wage. Instead, many self-proclaimed pro-life politicians have pushed for Bush’s regressive tax cuts and economic policies.

“...The pro-life movement in America is pretty much dormant”? Maybe as far as marching in the street is concerned. But this would only be because many of its adherents are now in positions of power. South Dakota’s state legislature this year [2006] passed a sweeping anti-abortion law that bans every procedure short of needing to save the pregnant woman’s life, even in cases of rape and incest. It’s no secret that many South Dakotan legislators hope that their law will ultimately overturn Roe vs. Wade. [The law was repealed by voter referendum on November 7, 2006.]

On its website, NARAL Pro-Choice Washington lists ten restrictions on abortion that Bush has supported since taking office. These range from reinstaing the gag rule on international family-planning agencies receiving government funds to support for a “consciousness clause” protecting pharmacists who refuse to fill contraceptive prescriptions.

Speaking of contraceptives, maybe one reason why some of the women in the abortion survey didn’t use any is because of Bush’s “abstinence only” policy on sex education. If their schools want to receive federal dollars, public-schoolchildren can only be taught how contraceptives can fail, not how they can work. New surveys say that pregnancy rates among high-school-age girls are on the rise [I’ve since read that this information isn’t true].

Personally, I think that if you have sex before you graduate from high school, you’re doing something incredibly stupid. But there are apparently some who disagree with me. As much as I wish it were otherwise, there are more than a handful of high-school-age kids out there eager to explore their sexuality, and they’re not going to be swayed by an adult’s admonitions — mine or their parents’. But they’re also not being given all the facts about contraception.

Gag orders on family-planning providers, consciousness clauses, abstinance-only sex “education,” criminalizing abortion in South Dakota — none of this sounds very “dormant” to me.

Many opponents of abortion describe themselves as “pro-life.” But too many of them do not recognize the life of the pregnant woman. It’s no small task to take nine months out of one’s life to bring another into the world. Not every woman can afford it. Should she have had sex in the first place? Maybe not. But an honest effort to use birth control may not have been successful. And even if she had been unwise enough not to have used contraception, forcing her to endure an unwanted pregnancy for nine months would be excessive punishment, I think. Adoption sounds like a good idea, but some pregnant women who agree to adoption change their minds upon having the baby, and thus put themselves in the position of having to raise a child they might not be able to afford. There are vagaries that women face when they become pregnant, and the law of the land must recognize these. It would help if the “pro-life” movement recognized them too.

Maybe some forms of abortion should indeed be made illegal, but if so, such procedures should be criminalized on their merits. However, if arguments for their criminalization rest on misleading, emotionally charged language like “abortion on demand” or “partial-birth abortion,” that is not a discussion held in good faith.

Friday, October 9, 2009

A Return to the Present

Well, below are some political opinions that I wrote during the dark days of the George W. Bush administration. Sadly, quite a few of the problems that Bush left us with don’t seem to be going gently into that good night. Closing the off-shore prisons in Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, looks like it won’t make Barack Obama’s January 22, 2010, deadline. Also, Bush’s “faith-based” initiative — in other words, Bush’s funneling of government money to religious institutions, effectively a government subsidy of sectarian religion — isn’t going to meet its maker any time soon. But I never expected Obama to undo all of Bush’s catastrophes in one fell swoop.

The conservative political forces that Obama is up against were made clearer to me by Neal Gabler’s October 2 op-ed in the Los Angeles Times. Titled “Politics as Religion in America,”Gabler’s point was that political conservatism has reached a kind of absolutist mind-set that ignores evidence of its own shortcomings and refuses to question its own questionable political beliefs out of blind faith:

Perhaps the single most profound change in our political culture over the last 30 years has been the transformation of conservatism from a political movement, with all the limitations, hedges and forbearances of politics, into a kind of fundamentalist religious movement, with the absolute certainty of religious belief.

I don’t mean ”religious belief” literally. This transformation is less a function of the alliance between Protestant evangelicals, their fellow travelers and the right (though that alliance has had its effect) than it is a function of a belief in one’s own rightness so unshakable that it is not subject to political caveats. In short, what we have in America today is a political fundamentalism, with all the characteristics of religious fundamentalism and very few of the characteristics of politics.

...

Rationality won’t work [when arguing with conservatives] because their arguments are faith-based rather than evidence-based.


That explains a lot. One thing it explains is why so many are uncritical that Bush inherited a peaceful, prosperous nation with a surplus in its treasury, and proceeded to drive the country into a ditch, leaving a warring, economically troubled nation with a record deficit — and many conservatives think that he was a better president that his predecessor, Bill Clinton.

Of course, Gabler’s article drew some dissenting opinions. One that caught my eye was a letter, published October 8, by Anne Kaufman of Los Angeles:

I abhor behavior such as [Rep. Joe Wilson (R-S.C.)] shouting out “you lie” at the president during his [September 9 health-care] speech, but people on the left are hardly in a position to criticize after the ugly and uncivil behavior they engaged in toward George W. Bush.


But since Ms. Kaufman didn’t cite any examples, I’m left to ask, What “ugly and uncivil behavior” is she talking about? I’m sure that there were some nasty screeds about Bush from the fringe of the political left, but the ugly and uncivil behavior that is currently directed against President Obama is coming from mainstream Republicans, like Rep. Wilson, and high-profile conservatives, like Rush Limbaugh — the two aren’t equivalent. So, what is the “ugly and uncivil behavior” towards Bush of which Ms. Kaufman speaks?

Is it the unanimous way that the Senate in 2000 confirmed Bush’s presidency, after he lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College under dubious circumstances, without letting any Democratic congressional representatives voice any objection? Is it the way that CBS fired Dan Rather after documents about a story on Bush’s National Guard service turned out to be bogus? (Limbaugh accused Clinton of murder and other despicable crimes, but he still has his job.) Is it the way that the new Democratic majority in Congress in 2006 took impeachment of Bush off the table in their investigation of the build-up to the Iraq War, after their Republican predecessors rushed to impeach Clinton on a far more trivial matter? Is it the way that liberal audience members shouted vulgar things at Bush during his speeches? Wait a minute — most of Bush’s speeches were in front of pre-screened conservative audiences, so there were hardly any catcalls.

I’m stumped. I would certainly like a better idea of what Ms. Kaufman considers “ugly and uncivil behavior” by liberals against Bush. And by that, I mean disrespectful behavior by the Democratic establishment which would be comparable to the clearly ugly and uncivil behavior now directed against Obama by the conservative and Republican establishments.

Monday, October 5, 2009

September 7, 2006

Sometimes, I think that liberals and conservatives are living on two different planets. Increasingly, it seems that the two groups can’t agree on a common history — much less a common standard for dealing with important tasks ahead.

It appears to me that virtually everything that George W. Bush has done to wage the “war on terror” has been deliberately to help the Republican Party and to hurt the Democratic Party. I think that a truly great U.S. president after 9/11 would have put partisanship aside and established a genuine dialogue among experts of all political pursuasions to determine how to fight Islamic jihadism effectively, while still adhering to the Bill of Rights as closely as possible. Instead, because “national security” has been an issue working in the Republicans’ favor, they constantly use it as a hammer to beat the Democrats. In effect, Bush would rather be President of the Republican Party than President of the United States of America. It didn’t have to be this way.

Now that Bush’s standing has plummeted in the polls, conservative commentators are scolding the American people that they are being too hard on Bush. And I can’t imagine these pundits using the language they do if they were discussing a Democratic president. Here is an example of such a tactic, from conservative commentator Jonah Goldberg, and my replies:

GIVE BUSH A BREAK

The president’s most stubborn critics won't stop beating the Iraq and Katrina drums despite much success elsewhere

by Jonah Goldberg

August 31, 2006



Lord knows I have my problems with President Bush. He taps the federal coffers like a monkey smacking the bar for another cocaine pellet in an addiction study. Some of his sentences give me the same sensation as falling backward in one of those “trust” exercises, in which you just have to hope things work out. Yes, the Iraq invasion has gone badly, and to deny this is to suggest that Bush meant for things to turn out this way, which is even crueler than saying he failed to get it right.

But you know what? It’s time to cut the guy some slack.


I think that voters have “cut [Bush] some slack” ever since the 2000 election. I can’t imagine them turning a blind eye to a Democrat with Bush’s poor powers of communication.

Of course, I will get hippo-choking amounts of e-mail from Bush-haters telling me that all I ever do is cut Bush slack. But these folks grade on the curve. By their standards, anything short of demanding that a live, half-starved badger be sewn into his belly flunks.


Maybe lines like “half-starved badger” are primarily meant to be funny, but they are a symptom of a common tendency among conservative commentators: to use extreme language to caricature — and thereby dismiss — people of opposing political tendencies. In other words, Goldberg is setting up a straw man to knock down. [I also think that Goldberg’s use of hyperbolic language serves to mask how serious Bush’s blundering and over-reaching have been. If you use such excessive imagery as sewing half-starved badgers into human skin, it makes more realistic human excesses — such as starting a war on false pretenses — seem more mundane and, therefore, no big deal.]

No, we liberals are not demanding that feral animals be sewn to Bush’s belly. All we are asking for is Bush to be held accountable for what he’s done. And it’s hard to have an accountable president when the Republican-controled Congress sees itself primarily as an extension of the Bush White House, rather than a seperate branch of government. In fact, if it weren’t for moderate Republicans like Sens. John McCain and Arlen Specter, I daresay that there wouldn’t be any oversight of Bush at all.

Also, note Goldberg’s use of the word “haters,” which makes our criticisms of Bush sound irrational and unreasonable. What makes these criticisms “hate”? Bush has done virtually nothing to reach out across the aisle. After losing the popular vote in 2000, and winning the presidency only on a technicality, he proceded to govern as if he won in a landslide. When some Democrats compromised in good faith with Bush on some of his pet projects, he would then turn around and campaign against them. After winning the 2004 vote by the narrowest of margins for a sitting president, he proceeded to crow that he had a “mandate” and “political capital.” He continues to use issues to advantage the Republicans and disadvantage the Democrats. He doesn’t consider himself answerable to the 49% of the American voters who voted against him. I wouldn’t call my feelings for Bush “hatred,” but I am very frustrated by his behavior and his unwillingness to compromise. Should I love a guy like this instead?

Besides, the Bush-bashers have lost credibility. The most delicious example came this week when it was finally revealed that Colin Powell’s oak-necked major-domo Richard Armitage — and not some star chamber neocon — “outed” Valerie Plame, the spousal prop of Washington’s biggest ham, Joe Wilson. Now it turns out that instead of “Bush blows CIA agent’s cover to silence a brave dissenter” — as Wilson practices saying into the mirror every morning — the story is, “One Bush enemy inadvertently taken out by another’s friendly fire.”


Even though Plame was outed inadvertently by Armitage, it seems to me that the Executive Branch was more concerned with concocting an excuse to overthrow Saddam Hussein than it was with the accuracy of Bush’s 2003 State of the Union address. (This was the speech where Bush asserted that Hussein had tried to buy uranium from Africa in order to make nuclear bombs, an assertion subsequently challenged by Plame’s husband, former amassador Joseph C. Wilson IV, who had investigated this charge earlier for the CIA. Conservatives wondered if Plame, an undercover CIA agent specializing in weapons-of-mass-destruction issues, had nominated her husband for the investigation out of nepotism. If so, conservatives contended, Wilson’s conclusions were at least debatable.)

And then there’s Hurricane Katrina. Yes, the federal government could have responded better. And of course there were real tragedies involved in that disaster. But you know what? Bad stuff happens during disasters, which is why we don't call them tickle-parties.

The anti-Bush chorus, including enormous segments of the mainstream media, see Katrina as nothing more than a good stick for beating on piñata Bush’s “competence.” The hypocrisy is astounding because the media did such an abysmal job covering the reality of New Orleans (contrary to their reports, there were no bands of rapists, no disproportionate deaths of poor blacks, nothing close to 10,000 dead, etc.). It seems indisputable that Katrina highlighted the tragedy of New Orleans rather than create it. Long before Katrina, New Orleans was a dysfunctional city in a state with famously corrupt and incompetent leadership, many of whose residents think that it is the job of the federal government to make everyone whole.

The Mississippi coast was hit harder by Katrina than New Orleans was. And although New Orleans’ levee failure was a unique problem — one the local leadership ignored for decades — the devastation in Mississippi was in many respects more severe. And you know what? Mississippi has the same federal government as Louisiana, and reconstruction there is going gangbusters while, after more than $120 billion in federal spending, New Orleans remains a basket case. Here's a wacky idea: Maybe it's not all Bush's fault.


Note that Goldberg says nothing about the video of Bush being briefed on Katrina before the hurricane struck, a video that showed an intellectually disengaged president. Also, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), which had worked so well under Clinton, became a dumping ground for cronies under Bush, thereby undermining its effectiveness. No, it’s not all Bush’s fault, but I think that a more engaged president wouldn’t have let his response to the disaster get so out of hand.

Then, of course, there’s the war on terror. Democrats love to note that Bush hasn’t caught Osama bin Laden yet, as if this is the most vital metric for success. Yes, it’d be nice to catch Bin Laden — no doubt Ramsey Clark, the top legal gun for both LBJ and Saddam Hussein, will be looking for a new client soon. [Note Goldberg’s unnecessary dig at a Democratic operative.] But even nicer than catching Bin Laden is not having thousands of dead Americans in New York, Washington and L.A. Contrary to all expert predictions, there hasn’t been a successful attack on the homeland since 9/11.

Indeed, the current issue of the Atlantic Monthly contains a (typically) long, exhaustively reported cover story by James Fallows about how the U.S. is in fact winning the war on terror, thanks largely to Bush’s policies (though Fallows works hard not to credit Bush).


I can’t imagine conservative commentators holding a Democratic president to this low a standard: no Bin Laden, but no new attacks either. This seems especially bewildering when so many conservative pundits are blaming Clinton for not capturing or killing Bin Laden when he was president, such as Rich Lowery’s book Losing Bin Laden. More important to me is that — after the 9/11 attacks, when Bin Laden had actually done something that made his capture imperative — Bush passed up a chance to get the terrorist mastermind in Afghanistan, in order to redeploy U.S. troops for the overthrow of Hussein in Iraq.

Political dissatisfaction with the president rests entirely on Iraq and overall Bush fatigue. The rest amounts to little more than Iraq-motivated brickbats gussied up to look like free-standing complaints. That's how hate works: It looks for more excuses to hate in the same way that fire looks for more stuff to burn.


Again, what makes our criticisms of Bush’s behavior “hate”? I find it very ironic that some conservatives — even lawmakers in Congress! — considered it acceptable political discourse to accuse Clinton of rape and murder when he was president. But even the most sober, fact-based, constructive criticism of Bush’s policies is considered “hate.” To call this a double standard is an understatement.

That’s why Bush's Democratic critics flit about like bilious butterflies, exploiting each superficial or transient problem just long enough to score some points in the polls and then moving on. Bush’s Medicare plan was an egregious corporate giveaway, they cried, until seniors overwhelmingly reported that they like it. And the Patriot Act? Can anyone even remember what the Democrats were whining about? I think it had something to do with libraries that were never searched.

Look, things could obviously be a lot better. But they could be a lot worse too. John Kerry could be president.


How would a John Kerry presidency be worse?

In the end, Goldberg still hasn’t convinced me that the war in Iraq, the erosion of our constitutional rights, and FEMA’s disastrous response to Katrina are all “superficial or transient problems.” Just the fact that someone is making so far-fetched an argument — in order to tell us that the naked emperor is wearing a wonderful suit of clothes — nauseates the hell out of me.