November 2009


Attaturk asks

So tell us, this day of all days, those things you are not thankful for.”

I’ve never seen what the problem is with cursing the darkness, so this is right down my alley. Fuck you, darkness!

He goes on to say

I’m not very thankful that several major news organizations are run by a gaggle of wankers, who will lie, smear, and deceive many people, including some of the ones I’ll be stuck with today”.

This cues one of my stock sermons: the word “wankers” is not strong enough and misses an important point. People like Dowd and Stephanopolous and Mika and Matthews and Cokie are just doing their jobs. They were hired to wank.  Ashleigh Banfield, for example, was completely mainstream and had all the skills of a TV journalist, but she was a Canadian unfamiliar with American wank culture, and because of a single commonsensical true statement  that she made on the air about Fox News, her career came to a screeching halt. This example could be multiplied indefinitely; even Dan Rather was not wanky enough for American TV, and that’s saying something.

By contrast, Hannity, Dobb, Limbaugh, Beck, and O’Reilly are not wankers.  They’re deliberate malefactors. They are actively malevolent and have devoted themselves to the dissemination of disinformation and viciousness.

I’ve been saying this all along and have convinced nobody, but the problem is at the upper levels and seems unlikely to go away. Everybody agrees that Murdoch, Scaife, and Rev. Moon are evil forces, but none of the other owners are significantly better. The network and cable bosses get less flak than Murdoch et. al. because they’re faceless, but they are also actively sabotaging American democracy.  And Graham at the Post and Sulzburger at the Times have also bought into the center-right agenda: they want low taxes (especially inheritance taxes), a permanent state of war, and the weakening or dismantling of the welfare state, and in the end they will be happy to get these with the help of an authoritarian, anti-popular government.

These are the real issues of our time; many feel otherwise, but many are wrong.

Bill Moyer and three people at MSNBC are almost the only strong liberals in the major broadcast media, if you call PBS major, but Moyers is only on once a week. The Times and Post have a few good people, but most of their supposed liberals, except for Krugman, are feeble. Krugman writes strongly, but he’s not left; he belongs to the right, NAFTA wing of the Democratic Party.

The center-right / right domination of the big media isn’t absolute, but it’s overwhelming. Krugman and Olbermann were probably hiring mistakes (Olberman is an ex-sportswriter, and Krugman was a NAFTA cheerleader and Nader-hater) and Moyer is an eminent relic of better days who they’d really like to squeeze out. Before 2003 when Olbermann came on there was literally nothing to watch on major TV or cable, and Olbermann himself is only very mildly center left. The leftmost 20-30% or so of the political spectrum is still pretty much unrepresented (maybe Ed Schultz counts), whereas the rightmost 20% gets at least its share of air time.

The ambient politics of America — the politics you pick up if you’re not paying attention — is far right. Without rightwing media saturation the Bush-Rove-Gingrich-Delay team could never have controlled American politics the way they did 1994-2006.

What to do? A lot of progressive media criticism reminds me of Russian peasants trying to get past the Czar’s evil ministers. “If only our little father czar knew of our troubles, then he could help us”. It doesn’t work that way. Under present management, things will never improve much. At the moment, the media seem to be favoring Obama over Palin, though just barely. But that’s a tiny victory, and it only happened because Obama has proven to be their kind of guy, and not ours.

To my knowledge no radical, dissident, or reform movement has ever had any success while relying on the already-existing media. The blogosphere has been a beginning, but my guess is that it doesn’t reach more than 20% of the electorate.  As long as the majority of people get their news from the present radio, TV, and cable sources (and the major newspapers we have today), we will continue to lose.

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I don’t usually do topical stuff but this one is too good to pass up.

Minnesota’s current big scandal is the Tom Petters pyramid scam. A major player in the scandal was an ex-con, professional criminal, and evangelical preacher named Frank Vennes:

Janet Leck, 79, said she and her late husband met another Petters investor, Frank Vennes Jr., in the mid-1980s when they helped arrange religious retreats in prisons through a nonprofit entity called Charis Ministries. Vennes was in the Sandstone Federal Correctional Institution on money-laundering, drug and firearm charges at the time.

Vennes became an evangelist in prison and after he got out, steered unwitting investors to the Wayzata businessman. On his advice, investors, including faith-based organizations, put $1.2 billion into the hands of Petters and the company he controlled, Petters Co. Inc. For his work, Vennes, 52, allegedly collected commissions totaling $28 million, according to government documents.

Vennes traces his redemption to an interview with a Christian prison visitor who taught him gratitude:

That was more than a dozen years ago, and now Vennes’ story resembles that of Joseph, who was brought out of prison and placed in a position of influence. He now manages his own multi-million dollar company, financing accounts receivable. As the business prospered, he and his wife sought direction from God on where they should place the money He had entrusted to them. Faith Studies International was one of the answers. “I could put it in human terms,” says Vennes. “It’s an extremely effective ministry with verifiable results. They use the money wisely and efficiently. But what it really comes down to is following God’s leading—and He pointed us to Faith Studies.”

If you should care to support Frank Vennes’s work, Faith Studies International can be found here.

Watchdog report on Faith Studies International: Five Stars

Michelle Bachmann and Frank Vennes

Norm Coleman too (remember him?)

      Senator King (1933):
      “I suggest to the Senator from Minnesota, in the form of a question, if he is not becoming heterodox?”
      .
      Senator Shipstead:
      “I have seen the dire results of orthodox policies pursued here. We have pursued policies here for the past fifteen years which have been guaranteed to be orthodox, and we see the results, the dire results. Within the past two years we have been called upon to vote for orthodox policies to stop the depression. I have voted against every one of them, because I did not consider that they would have any effect on the depression at all except to increase its intensity and postpone the final day of reckoning. So, I have no apology to make. One is almost forced to the conclusion that to be economically sound, a man has to be an idiot.”

So the orthodox-heterodox split is at least 76 years old, even though the orthodoxy and the heterodoxy have both changed. What is constant is the recognition of the essentially theological nature of the field.

P.S. Shipstead was a New Dealer from the radical Minnesota Farmer Labor Party. The proposals he’d been opposing were Hoover’s.

Imagine this: by next spring, an intellectual consensus will have emerged that the concentration in the banking sector that developed from the 1980s until the crash of ‘08 was misguided. Voices as disparate as Former Fed Chair Paul Volcker, Bank of England Governor Mervyn King, meta- investor George Soros, and the Wall Street Journal editorial page will be in agreement on this point.

A few brave souls on the Right — recognizing that the Republican Party has been bereft of ideas in its attacks on President Obama — will then try to re-define a populist, conservative attack by asserting that the White House has been captured by Wall Street. Real populism and change, they will argue, will come from the Republican, not the Democratic, party…..

So the simple question remains: why aren’t we focusing on the problem that got us here in the first instance — the scope, range, and size of the mega-institutions whose risk taking has so far inflicted only enormous harm on our economy? If the Republicans pick up this issue before we do, the elections of 2010 could be even worse than we are now fearing.

Other Democrats say that if we shut our eyes and think happy thoughts, everything will turn out beautifully. Above all, they say, “we cannot allow ourselves to become like them. If the Republicans decide to behave despicably, we should let them hang themselves with their own rope. The American people know that populists are nothing but demagogues and charlatans.”

Who is right and who is wrong? It’s too early to be sure, and the truth is probably somewhere between the two extremes.

If populism is defined as “building mass-support for meaningful policies”, then why would anyone be against it?

I don’t think that anyone has defined it that way. I think the populist idea is that good political ideas can come from below, from unsanctioned, unofficial, uncredentialed oppositional groups. The Democratic Party leadership does not believe this.

Populism involves some degree of breaking down the barriers between citizens and government. The Constitution was designed to suppress direct democracy in favor of representative democracy via checks and balances, the separation of powers, federalism, and the other stuff you learned about in eighth grade civics. The two-party system puts another intermediary in there, the party, and usually the parties and the candidates work through still another layer of vote-contracting intermediaries, the organized interest groups and the mass media. Populists want to get rid of some of those layers. (Populists are sometimes portrayed as Jeffersonian constitutionalists, but they generally advocated more simplified procedures and spent a lot of time fighting the Supreme Court, and that interpretation is incomplete at best.).

When elitist liberals or socialists get upset upon finding that their representatives are lying and unresponsive, they’re populists whether they know it or not. Elitism is institutional, not intellectual. To a political player, a Nobelist is one vote, the way a HS dropout is one vote, and a famous Nobelist is an opinion-leader, on a par with a comparably famous stoner celebrity (and far outranked by a really serious opinion-leader like Bill Kristol.)

The difference is that when they’re lied to, populists know what’s happening and get mad, whereas left intellectuals are baffled and mostly just whine. My mission in this world is to convince liberal intellectuals that they are People too, salt-of-the-earth folk scorned by the powers that be. But most intellectuals find this offensive — they think of themselves as unappreciated elite units, like princes switched in the cradle and raised by peasants. They’re sure that some day they will be recognized and restored to their rightful status.

Our political elite is well-educated but tough-minded. The Democratic Party’s pious renunciation of ideology, populism, and demagoguery has been accompanied by a rehabilitation of graft, corruption, and subservience to big money. (The post-WWII pluralists and consensus theorists were fairly open about this). What we have now is a spiffy, modern, Ivy-educated Tweed Ring*. And Boss Tweed and the others, when the chips were down, were reactionary servants of big money (“Bourbon Democrats“.) They used part of the graft to help out their voters, but they supported policies which hurt these same voters), and they made sure that whatever help the voters got was controlled by vote-contractors and received only by reliable supporters.

The suffering PhD masses have nothing to lose but their chains, but they’re mired in the toils of servility and ancient prejudice. An unpromising lot indeed, but be they ever so humble, we cannot afford to write off even the least of our brethren.

* The Moonies have Ivy-educated leadership now. The Mafia and the drug cartels send their kids to the best schools. Ahmed Chalibi, Ted Kaczynski, Jerome Corsi, Bill Kristol — all PhDs from the best schools. We humble folk just don’t know what to think.

The zombie “fiscal conservatism” slogan will never die, even though the ones who use it most (Reagan, Dubya) always blatantly cheat when the chips are down. It’s true that if your personal income goes down you should make cuts in your household budget, but that isn’t a national fiscal plan.

FDR campaigned as a fiscal conservative and had to be bullied into mild Keynesianism, and he almost destroyed his Presidency by returning to fiscal conservativism in 1937. Conservatives say that the New Deal didn’t end the depression, WWII did, and they’re right; but when they say that they’re conceding Keynesian economics. Roosevelt only went really Keynesian after the war started.

Unfortunately, Obama started off deep in the hole, since Dubya had already deliberately ballooned the national debt with non-Keynesian spending. The Republicans are authoritarians rather than anarchists, but their governing philosophy is sabotage. They don’t want a stateless society, they want a crippled state. Look at California.

(A response to this post)

“Populism” isn’t really a term of art or science. At best it means any popular movement or opinion that conflicts with the center-left consensus. More often it’s used just to label any bit of ignorant demagoguery whatsoever. (The fact that the word “populism” is mostly just a smear word doesn’t prevent it from being used in the vast netherworld of social science literature, of course.) Until at least the 80s dictionaries did not include the generic term “populist”, but defined the term to mean either an American Populist or a Russian Narodnik.

The generalized use of the word as a throwaway insult seems to be an function of the transformation of the left-center into an administrative elite after WWII. Richard Hofstadter’s books, among others, provided an intellectual rationale for the smear, and they are still heavily used in indoctrinating young American wonks, but his portrait of the Populists and Progressives is polemical, not based on primary research, and presentist (he thought Joe McCarthy was a populist). A case could be made that the American Populists were not populist in the current sense of the term, even though the term traces back specifically to them.

A neutral definition of populism allowing for both benevolent and malign forms might be OK, but I don’t see anyone using it that way. Historically, both in the US and in Europe a lot of the energy behind progressive movements was populist (e.g. “obrerismo” in leftist labor movements), but the administrative left today seems to be committed to an anti-populist , gradually-retreating defensive holding action preserving their positions of influence, with The People serving as the enemy.

Anti-popular politics in the Democratic goes back a long way; the era of popular politics only lasted from about 1890 to 1941, with dwindling aftershocks up until 1968, and even during that era there was fierce internal resistance. After WWII anti-populist ideology got big boosts from the Straussians, from Adorno and the critical theorists, and from the neoliberals (on whom see Mirowski’s “Road From Mont Pelerin”.) Hofstadter was watered-down pop-Freudian Adorno.

The root anti-populist argument is simple: Hitler was a populist, and look what happened. Another reading of the same data might argue that Germany in 1918 was so hierarchical and authoritarian that it couldn’t make the transition to democracy or even liberalism. (Adorno seems to have been crushed by German labor’s refusal to obey its wise Communist leaders). Mayer’s “They Thought They Were Free” describes Germans who had at least passively accepted Naziism: for them the Nazis were like urban political bosses in the US, who helped out people who needed help when none of the established authorities were willing or able to do anything. During the 20s and early 30s the German churches, vanguard left parties, and conservative parties, as well as the Austrian economists, the Straussians, and the Schmittians were all firm in their belief that The People should be seen and not heard and that The People existed to serve the State, the Church, the Party, or the Market, and not the other way around.

Hitler of course was no better, but he successfully exploited a weak spot in the existing authoritarian establishments in order to replace the lot of them with a single new authoritarian establishment.

(A response to this Crooked Timber post, which casually uses the term “populism” as a smear word.