american society, politics, USA

Was Reagan A Racist?

One presidential candidate is lighting up the New York Times Opinion page with impassioned attacks and defenses. No, it’s not Barack Obama, Ron Paul, Hillary Clinton, Mike Huckabee, Jon Edwards, Rudy Giuliani, Dennis Kucinich, or Mitt Romney. It’s Ronald Reagan.

Ronald ReaganThe crucial question of the day, if you’re reading the New York Times Opinion pages at least, is whether or not Ronald Reagan was making a veiled appeal to the Southern white electorate in his 1980 campaign.

The claim, made many times by columnists Paul Krugman and Bob Herbert, is that Reagan, by speaking about “state’s rights” when he visited the Neshoba County Fair outside of Philadelphia, Mississippi in 1980, was sending a conscious message to white racists that he was on their side. Because Philadelphia was famously the location of the murder of three civil rights activists in 1964, the choice of location was both an intentional and powerful message by the Gipper that, like Nixon and Goldwater before him, he wanted the vote of Southern white supremacists.

To Krugman especially, this is absolute proof that the Republican party was racist and is thus worthy of little more than disdain. It’s one of his central, and oft-mentioned problems with Republicans. It was mentioned at least three times in his recent book, The Conscience of a Liberal.

So it was hard to ignore when David Brooks, a rather conservative columnist at the Times, took issue with the claim. In last Friday’s column, “History and Calumny,” Brooks made his opinion completely clear, even as he obfuscated about who was really to blame.

Today, I’m going to write about a slur. It’s a distortion that’s been around for a while, but has spread like a weed over the past few months. It was concocted for partisan reasons: to flatter the prejudices of one side, to demonize the other and to simplify a complicated reality into a political nursery tale.

The distortion concerns a speech Ronald Reagan gave during the 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Miss., which is where three civil rights workers had been murdered 16 years earlier. An increasing number of left-wing commentators assert that Reagan kicked off his 1980 presidential campaign with a states’ rights speech in Philadelphia to send a signal to white racists that he was on their side. The speech is taken as proof that the Republican majority was built on racism.

Brooks then goes on to explain–with no shortage of credible citations to emphasize his point–that the week after receiving the nomination, Mr. Reagan was actually trying to recruit black voters–mostly Democrats since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt–to join the Republican movement. As Brooks says, “Reagan delivered a major address at the Urban League, visited Vernon Jordan [a black lawyer, activist, and adviser to President Clinton] in the hospital where he was recovering from gunshot wounds, toured the South Bronx and traveled to Chicago to meet with the editorial boards of Ebony and Jet magazines.”

As Timothy Noah made clear on Slate that same day, Brooks column was clearly about Krugman, though it (intentionally) failed to mention him by name. After reading Noah’s piece I thought the matter was rather finished. That is until I read Tuesday’s page, in which Bob Herbert renewed the claim with full force: Reagan was aware of and happy with his racist provocation in Mississippi. In Mr. Herbert’s words:

The murders were among the most notorious in American history. They constituted Neshoba County’s primary claim to fame when Reagan won the Republican Party’s nomination for president in 1980. The case was still a festering sore at that time. Some of the conspirators were still being protected by the local community. And white supremacy was still the order of the day.

That was the atmosphere and that was the place that Reagan chose as the first stop in his general election campaign. The campaign debuted at the Neshoba County Fair in front of a white and, at times, raucous crowd of perhaps 10,000, chanting: “We want Reagan! We want Reagan!”

Reagan was the first presidential candidate ever to appear at the fair, and he knew exactly what he was doing when he told that crowd, “I believe in states’ rights.”

Reagan apologists have every right to be ashamed of that appearance by their hero, but they have no right to change the meaning of it, which was unmistakable. Commentators have been trying of late to put this appearance by Reagan into a racially benign context.

That won’t wash. Reagan may have been blessed with a Hollywood smile and an avuncular delivery, but he was elbow deep in the same old race-baiting Southern strategy of Goldwater and Nixon.

Mr. Herbert, like Mr. Brooks, doesn’t explain that the primary “Reagan apologist” he’s concerned with is a fellow Times columnist.

Comparing the two columns, its undeniable that Brooks makes a more persuasive case about Reagan’s goal during the first week of his campaign. Mr. Herbert’s rebuttal completely ignores the strong and credible argument made by Kevin Drum (and cited by Mr. Brooks) at the left-of-center Washington Monthly that though Reagan’s history on racial issues is embarrassing–notable for his opposition to the 1964 Civil Rights act, his ignorance of South African apartheid, and his attempts to roll back the 1965 Voting Rights Act–this story is overblown.

Perhaps Mr. Reagan was a racist and a race-baiter, but I’m not sure why it’s worth debating in a newspaper. The obvious interpretation, as is so often the case in questions of history, is that the past is serving as a proxy for the present. By highlighting this story Krugman and Herbert intend to raise questions about racism in the modern Republican party. Brooks defense is an attempt to claim that race is a non-issue to the party and its backers.

But I just wish the New York Times Opinion page would stop using the 1980 Philadelpha Speech as a stand-in for legitimate questions of modern politics. Let’s honestly address an interesting and non-emotional question, like if “law-and-order conservatives,” who oppose anything but wholesale deportation for illegal immigrants, are really just racists. I’m sure that’s an issue we can all talk about in a relaxed and detached manner…

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american society, personal, review

Review: Yesterday, Raking Leaves

Fall Maple LeafI’ve reviewed quite a few movies in the time I’ve been writing reviews here. I’ve also managed to talk about a few books, a few podcasts, a few web-only video projects. But all of that has been, to varying degrees, frustratingly pedestrian. So today, something truly unusual: a review of my time raking leaves yesterday afternoon.

For whatever reason, it seemed to be leaf day in the neighborhood yesterday. On arriving home from breakfast, the neighbors on both sides were using leaf blowers–a toy I neither have nor particularly want. While I was raking my leaves, someone two houses down got out his leaf vacuum and went to town with another toy I’m not sure I’d want.

There’s something elegant, not to mention green, about a rake. It’s not exactly the fastest way to move leaves or grass clippings, but it’s more peaceful. Something about using a motor to move leaves–either pushing or pulling them–feels wrong to me. And it makes the excercise a feel much more industrialized, something I’ve always thought yard work was supposed to be a buffer against.

Having said all that, I understand the appeal of powered lawn instruments. Using an unpowered lawnmower to cut tall grass is something few people would ever choose to do. It’s also something that–with riding mowers becoming common in even small yards–few people have ever done. And like that unpowered lawnmower, raking massive piles of leaves, and loading them into bags by the armful isn’t exactly easy work.

But even with the long work and the soreness in my out-of-shape body, I’m glad I used a rake. When the grayness of yesterday’s fall sky was broken by the sun, I noticed. I couldn’t not notice. And I noticed that the man with the leaf vacuum didn’t notice. Perhaps the difference was simply a matter of temperament, but I think it has at least a little something to do with that rake.

Were I without a yard, or a large quantity of leaves in need of removal, I’m not sure I’d much miss the act of raking. After all, the biggest advantage that it had when I was young–jumping into the large pile amassed–is hardly something I would think to do now. The number of leaves I would require for the task is certainly larger than the number the trees produce.

And I can’t avoid the constant nagging thought that raking leaves, like mowing grass, is an absolutely absurd thing to do. At least in this part of the country, we water and fertilize grass encouraging it to grow, and then chop off the part that has grown. So too do we rake up leaves, presumably for the health of the grass, when it’s rather likely that properly decomposed leaves would make rather good fertilizer for that grass.

Regardless, it is an experience I would certainly recommend for those with the time, energy, and desire. It’s not be the most fulfilling work in the world, but it may come close.

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american society, politics, USA

The State of the Unions

UAWBelieve it or not, there was a time and when the rich and greedy — let’s make them monocled as well — captains of industry had something grave to fear in these United States beyond the possibility that their indefensible tactics would be caught and stopped by government oversight. There was a time when the people, yes the people, could stand up to their employers and demand better working conditions, better pay, or better practices.

Before I go too far into a mythical and unrealistic vision of the unionized past, three key facts should be made explicit. First, this country was never well-unionized beyond a few enclaves–primarily the public sector and heavy industries. Second, to the extent that unions were ever powerful, they never reached high up the job ladder. And finally, unions never secured unlimited government support, tacit or explicit. Since the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt, no doubt the most supportive of all American presidents, laws have been making it ever more difficult to organize.

Overarching those facts is the most salient of all: ever fewer people belong to labor unions. Unions are small and getting smaller. The fracturing of that labor market, the departure of most heavy industry, and stricter organizing rules make the future look bleak.

The most powerful unions in this country are probably those least in need of organizing. The Writers Guild of America went on strike on Monday–but television and film writers are hardly the ideal of blue-collar workers that unions are usually associated with. Writers may not be the best paid workers in Hollywood, but they’re hardly scraping by month-to-month.

For blue-collar workers, the last time the once-powerful United Auto Worker’s struck, during negotiations with Chrysler, the strike lasted less than six hours. This isn’t because the privately-owned car company feared the losses that would come from a prolonged strike, but because it was absurd for them to have a strike while workers were asking for so little.

The causes of the weakness of organized labor in this country are both long-standing and new, international and extremely local. Perhaps most saliently in our history, unions struggle as “communistic” and thus immediately distasteful. They’re also no match for the growing and compartmentalized white-collar job market that seems to be this country’s future.

Further, few of the emerging industrial powerhouse–Brazil and China, but India, and perhaps Mexico as well–have well-organized labor movements. This allows costs there to be not only low for “first world” standards, but also low in comparison to what the workers would feel they deserve. The low cost of manufacturing elsewhere means that manufacturing unions, like the UAW, can’t ask for much because the workers they represent could be easily and cheaply replaced if they demand much.

All of this bodes poorly for labor unions in this country. And whether you fête or mourn the passing of organized labor, it’s hard to deny that it’s passing diminishes the say of average people in the economy. The primary way for people to make sure that a company doesn’t misbehave is increasingly being reduce to reliance on concerned “whistle-blowers”–who aren’t faring too well either–and government oversight. I, for one, am none too happy about that.

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american society, politics, USA

The Ron Paul Phenomenon

Ron PaulFor those who don’t know, Ron Paul is a Republican candidate for president. His “netroots” are bigger and stronger than any other Republican candidate, perhaps stronger than any other candidate. Any positive story about Ron Paul that makes it to Digg or Reddit is almost certain to make the front page.

All of this begs the questions: Who is Ron Paul? And why are people supporting him?

In the shortest form, Ron Paul is a conservative libertarian, a former obstetrician, and a Congressman from the state of Texas. He’s the only Republican running against the war in Iraq and he’s for the abolition of about as much government as people want him to kill.

All of that’s interesting, and certainly rare among Republicans. But how did Ron Paul raise over $4 million in a single day–more than anyone but Hillary Clinton? After all, most count him as unlikely to get the Republican nod, his support is well under 10% in both the early primary states and across the nation. This turns on its side the notion that a candidate only gets money for being electable.

In seeing all of this, I can’t avoid the feeling that Ron Paul’s supporters like him mostly for what he’s not. His supporters seem to thrive on news of every “mainstream” slight of their candidate–most recently Fox New’s Sean Hannity has been fueling their ire. They also love to rail against the fact that when he wins after-debate polls, they’re regularly dismissed as hacked. Though such stories would seem to validate the idea that Paul is a non-electable non-entity, they actually energize his “netroots” and help him to raise ever more money.

So let’s make a short list of the things Ron Paul isn’t: (1) he’s not a “neoconservative” hawk–in fact his foreign policy is probably the most isolationist of any candidate; (2) he’s not a mainstream candidate–validated by the repeated stories of scorn; (3) he’s not a traditional Republican–he’s unaffiliated with and unsupported by the “Religious Right,” and doesn’t seem troubled by that; (4) he’s against the IRS and most other government entities–whether or not he’s for the FairTax, people like that he hates parts of the government as much as they do.

I can’t avoid the feeling that this list of the things Mr. Paul is not does more to empower his support and fund raising than anything he is. Nowhere do we see reasoned defenses of his isolationist foreign policy, or validation for the idea that the federal government should be made as small as possible. And his supporters seem to thrive on that very fact, they never seem to find it odd, or uncomfortable.

Ron Paul’s support seems to be both diffuse and uninformed. As just one example, Daniel Meissler who calls himself “a serious Ron Paul supporter” came to a shocking realization in September: “Ron Paul is Seriously Flawed as a Candidate: We’re Just So in Love with Him that We’re Not Paying Attention.” Though I’m tempted to say that the headline alone points to the fact that few supporters know much of what he stands for, a quick list of some of Mr. Meissler’s grievances:

  1. He doesn’t believe in the separation of church and state
  2. He’s not for federally funded public education (federally subsidized college loans)
  3. He not for national health care
  4. He would abolish consumer protections
  5. He would abolish the EPA and other environmental safeguards
  6. He would overturn Roe vs. Wade

All of these “flaws” are things that one would legitimately expect from a libertarian Republican, but Mr. Meissler (and many who commented on his post) were unaware. Seduced by what he was not, they had–and Mr. Meissler still does–supported him regardless of his positions.

In a country satisfied with neither its president nor its legislature, Ron Paul allows people something to turn to and support that is clearly not of the tradition of those institutions. He’s been adopted by the disillusioned and the distracted, satisfied by what he’s not, untroubled by what he is. The successes of his campaign are, to me, the perfect illustration of the independent voter’s malaise with modern American politics. But that hardly means he’d make a good president.

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american society, ruminations

Technology and Trivia

It’s not unlike a mosquito constantly buzzing near your ear, this idea that we’re killing ourselves with technology. Everyday, it seems, we hear with disdain about people who don’t know their own phone number, don’t know their friend’s number, don’t know how to drive across town without GPS navigation. These things, we’re told, are proof that civilization and intelligence are in decline. That the younger you are the more likely you are to be helplessly inept and unwise.

David Brooks, a New York Times columnist, recently seemed to address this “outsourcing” of our brains, but I couldn’t tell if he liked the idea or not. He says:

Memory? I’ve externalized it. I am one of those baby boomers who are making this the “It’s on the Tip of My Tongue Decade.” But now I no longer need to have a memory, for I have Google, Yahoo and Wikipedia. Now if I need to know some fact about the world, I tap a few keys and reap the blessings of the external mind.

Personal information? I’ve externalized it. I’m no longer clear on where I end and my BlackBerry begins. When I want to look up my passwords or contact my friends I just hit a name on my directory. I read in a piece by Clive Thompson in Wired that a third of the people under 30 can’t remember their own phone number. Their smartphones are smart, so they don’t need to be. Today’s young people are forgoing memory before they even have a chance to lose it.

Now, you may wonder if in the process of outsourcing my thinking I am losing my individuality. Not so. My preferences are more narrow and individualistic than ever. It’s merely my autonomy that I’m losing.

Brooks seems to alternate between sincere love for this new state of affairs–and the female voice of his car’s GPS system–and cynical dislike for the lack of “autonomy”–whatever that means.

This “lost autonomy” is, like almost all conventional wisdom, a grave overstatement of the direction we’re moving. Technology has indeed outsourced some things, but they’re hardly important.

Before I begin sounding like someone advocating ignorance–which we know I would never do–let’s be clear. If a healthy person didn’t know how to breathe, eat, walk, or tie a shoe without technology, I would be gravely concerned. So too if they forgot where they lived, how to get there, or how to direct people to it. But these things–perhaps we can call them the essentials–are not being forgotten.

Telephone numbers and directions to that little restaurant on the other side of town (though I admit that the latter depends on the size of town) are trivia. Memorizing telephone numbers, like Social Security numbers, credit card numbers, passwords, lock combinations, and maybe even birth dates, is only something needed for those without easy access to that information. The digits in all of these things–again, maybe not birthdays–are essentially random and unimportant.

A telephone number is merely the proper combination of random numbers that gets you what you really want, talking to a familiar voice. So too are credit card numbers, Social Security numbers, and passwords only shorthand ways to secure the aspects of yourself that need safeguarding–money, identity, and data in these cases.

Were we to develop a secure and simple ways to use and access these things, the triviality of the strings of digits would become all the more clear. I’d rather like having my voice or fingerprint substituted for all the digits I now have to either remember or find on my (metaphorical) BlackBerry. If saying your name meant I could get you on the phone, there would be absolutely no need for my knowing your phone number.

Technology, Google, Wikipedia, and TiVo are not making us the helpless automatons that Brooks and others seem to believe. Certainly, if one chooses to submit to the Borg–pardon the Star Trek reference–they may, but technology hardly requires our submission to some universal mind. It’s hardly forcefully pressing us into giving up individual consciousness the way the Borg were known to.

Instead, it allows we privileged few–with access to the internet and the newest gadgets–to forget the trivia we never wanted to memorize in the first place. And I, for one, am glad for that.

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american society, OPW, poetry

OPW: “They’ll” by Cheryl Denise

On today’s “Other People’s Words,” a poem by Cheryl Denise about the feeling that society desires conformity above all else. And about maybe leaving it behind.

“They’ll”

take your soul
and put it in a suit,
fit you in boxes
under labels,
make you look like the Joneses.

They’ll tell you go a little blonder,
suggest sky-blue
tinted contact lenses,
conceal that birthmark
under your chin.

They’ll urge you to have babies
get fulfilled.
They’ll say marriage is easy,
flowers from Thornhills
are all you need
to keep it together.

They’ll push you to go ahead,
borrow a few more grand,
build a dream house.
Your boys need Nikes,
your girls cheerleading,
and all you need is your job
9 to 5 in the same place.

They’ll order you never to cry
in Southern States,
and never, ever dance
in the rain.

They’ll repeat all the things
your preschool teacher said
in that squeaky too tight voice.

And when you slowly
let them go,
crack your suit,
ooze your soul
in the sun,
when you run through
the woods with your dog,
read poems to swaying cornfields,
pray in tall red oaks,
they’ll whisper
and pretend you’re crazy.

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american society, politics, ruminations

Distinguishing Among the Ignorant

My recent piece entitled “Ignorance is Dangerous” was essentially an angry condemnation of ignorance and the ignorant. In that piece, however, I failed to adequately distinguish between many types of possible ignorance and levels of it, which is essentially my aim here.

The first distinction that must be made is one that is, at best, implicit in “Ignorance in Dangerous.” I think there are two distinct types of–which is to say causes of–ignorance. The essential distinction that must be made is between willful and necessary ignorance.

Willful ignorance is when someone actively chooses to be ignorant about a given topic. I am willfully ignorant of Star Trek, the details of Perez Hilton’s latest celebrity feuds, and the machinations of conspiracy theorists. Other may willfully choose to be ignorant about economics, politics, history, science, religion, or lemon cakes. Regardless of the topic, willful ignorances is a choice.

Necessary ignorance is quite different. One is necessarily ignorant about things which they have no ability to learn about. Necessary ignorance can take many forms. For one simple example, I’m necessarily ignorant of the realities of being a Turkish man living in Turkey, Germany, or Japan. Regardless of how hard I tried to be and know that, I never would understand it as it is lived. I could gain a superficial understanding through talking to Turkish men in those situations, but it would never be the same thing.

More relevantly, many people are kept in ignorance for lack of access. One example of lack of access is provide by China. In China, even if I were deeply interested in learning about the history of Tienanmen and democracy movements within the country, I would find it essentially impossible because the government makes every effort to assure that I cannot do so.

Cost can also be a border to access. Though libraries and relatively cheap access to the internet can nullify many cost obstacles, they still aren’t accessible for everyone in “the first world.” And that is to say nothing of people and places without even a hope of these amenities.

Another reason for necessary ignorance is lack of time. This can be a problem anywhere. If you’re a single mother with four children who has to work 40 hours or more a week just to make ends meet, there’s a good chance you’re completely unable to combat your ignorance about politics.

There is no hard-and-fast line between willful and necessary ignorance. There are certainly places where they blend together and it becomes hard to distinguish one from the other. Is a parent who works 40 hours a week and hardly finds any “alone time” after watching their children, doing the chores, and spending time with their spouse willfully ignorant of the situation in, say, Pakistan–after all, they could have spent less time with spouse and children to learn about it–or are they necessarily ignorant of it?

Regardless of the answer, we must also distinguish between various topics of ignorance. As I mentioned before, I’m relatively ignorant about Star Trek, but I know a fair amount more about world politics than your average Trek nerd. Though its easy to make value judgments about areas of ignorance, the point should be made that few people are universally ignorant. Chances are good that everyone has ignorances and areas of knowledge different from mine, this isn’t necessarily a problem.

In many ways, “Ignorance is Dangerous” was a result of my frustrations that my ignorances are different from those of others. Where I find ignorance of Paris Hilton perfectly excusable, others are deeply knowledgeable about her–either out of love or loathing.

Having said that, one could, and perhaps I did, argue that there are ignorances that are inherently more excusable than others. I consider knowledge of the human condition essential to living a good life, and public policy knowledge–at least of a rudimentary kind–similarly necessary. Knowledge of religions and the humanity of others are similarly important to me.

If I desire to promote those areas of knowledge, and make ignorance of them more difficult, there are number of ways forward. For one, efforts to end necessary ignorances are needed. These could take a number of forms: joining democracy movements to change closed societies and taking steps to eradicate poverty are just two examples.

In the area of willful ignorance, the path is less clear. For one, I think making clear to people that not all ignorance is necessary would help. Too often people think that they can’t learn something because they’ve never made an effort.

More noticeably, celebrities have immense power to make people interested in the things for which they’re passionate. Bono, Angelina Jolie, and Bill Gates are the first to spring to mind as examples of that, but I’ve heard that even Paris Hilton is trying to become involved in honorable charity work. And the passions of normal people can have a similar, if less widely noticeable, effect.

The fight against ignorance isn’t always easy, and the path isn’t always clear, but I’m pretty sure it’s a worthy effort.

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american society, big ideas, politics

Ignorance is Dangerous

I’m tired of it. Just plain tired. Ignorance is not now, nor has it ever been, bliss. Bliss–extreme happiness, perhaps spiritual in nature–is not caused by ignorance of the world around you.

If discovering the message of Jesus is bliss, than ignorance clearly is not. For it is only through knowledge–becoming aware that Jesus died for your sins–that one can enter into a state of joyfully heightened awareness.

Lest this get too biblical, we should be clear that this is true of many things other than religion. I don’t believe I’ve ever heard a person say, “I wish I knew less about that.” But though no one will overtly say this, they often tacitly imply it. I can’t even count the number of people I’ve met who say they dislike politics and so let someone else tell them how to vote. Some just don’t vote. I understand why people can be turned off by politics–it frequently looks like a playground game that’s neither fun nor useful–but I’m not sure that’s an excuse for willful ignorance.

And this isn’t just about politics. Ignorance of other peoples and countries can lead people to believe that Islam is a violent and repressive religion, that the Iranian people hate Americans and “freedom,” that the Israelis are the only good people in the Middle East, that the Burmese people are completely happy with their government, and that Russia is no longer run by autocrats.

Ignorance of Roman technology after 500 C.E. was the primary reason that Europe spent nearly a millennium in what a colloquially called the “Dark Ages.” Years in which the status quo persisted because no one had enough knowledge or understanding to recognize that a different way was possible.

Closer to home, ignorance allows people to believe that all black teenage boys want to grow up to be pot-smoking, crack-peddling “G”s. That Asian children like to study all the time, and have an innate talent that makes them exceptionally good at math. Ignorance teaches that all American Hispanics are Mexican, in the United States illegally, and working as janitors and field hands.

Ignorance allows people to condemn homosexuals as terrible and hedonic people who do nothing but sin their whole lives. To believe that allowing “these people” to get married would somehow be dangerous not only to church-sanctioned marriages, but also to American society as a whole. Ignorance allows people to believe that transsexuals are just over-the-top gay men or lesbian women who are mentally disturbed.

Worse still, politicians frequently foster ignorance. Ignorance of safe-sex practices is something many Republicans seem to believe is a good thing. This is due, in no small part, to their ignorant belief that if teenagers don’t know how to have sex safely, they won’t have it. So too does the party seem to support ignorance of non-Christian peoples and ideas. And they seem to desire that most Americans remain so ignorant of economic reality that they’ll believe Mr. Giuliani’s claim that lowering taxes will bring in greater tax revenue, something no serious analysis supports.

But we can’t leave the blame of ignorance solely to one side of the political spectrum. Most Democratic presidential candidates allow–sometimes encourage–voters to believe that free trade is the reason the American middle class is shrinking. Though this isn’t strictly untrue, no serious analyst believes that the Democrat’s solution–larger barriers to trade–is a good or productive solution to the problem.

Perhaps most troubling is George W. Bush’s abuse of the ignorance of the American people to promulgate whole books of rules that are, at best, dangerous and unconstitutional. Beyond signing statements, he and Dick Cheney have strengthened the executive branch to unprecedented levels, with little attention aroused by the changes. Most troublingly, he was able to start a war with Iraq by claiming that our ignorance of their possible nuclear weapons program merited grounds to strike as if they had one.

Better than any politician before him, Bush has shown the danger of embracing ignorance. He essentially won two elections by highlighting his ignorance, condemning his opponents as too uppity and egg-headed. And though I don’t think that all the failings of the Bush presidency have been a result of ignorance within the White House, the cumulative ignorance within the White House and without is almost certainly the reason this country is still involved in Iraq.

American’s ignorance quickly turned to fear after September 11, 2001 because a man they trusted, their president, told them that that was the right way forward. In their ignorance, they believed him. Ignorance allows people be manipulated in a way that knowledge can easily forestall against. If Bush does little else in his last year in office, I hope he convinces people to become more interested in their country and the world.

Ending ignorance seems a difficult, nigh impossible, task. The world still has many places without libraries, internet access, or good television broadcasts. But in a country where access to all three of these is the norm, we should be embarrassed when we willfully embrace ignorance.

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american society, politics, review

Review: American Blackout

I had an inkling that I was in for trouble when I saw the provocative title of this 2006 film. I decided to give it a look anyway. I was rather certain I wouldn’t like it when I saw that this documentary was made by an outfit which calls itself the Guerrilla News Network, which is a website littered with radical and unfounded conspiracies. Still, I watched the “documentary,” only to have my worst fears confirmed.

American Blackout could have been–and based on the title, I hoped it would be–an interesting and hard-hitting look at the very troubling possibility of systematic disenfranchisement of black Americans in the 2000 and 2004 presidential elections. I wanted to see a film that looked deeply at these claims and determined if they had any merit.

There were, in the early-going, hints at this. They mention the possibility that Florida’s electioneers had, in 2000, intentionally asked for a list of “criminals” that would create a number of false positives and thus unnecessarily disenfranchise many black voters. And that this may have been a strategic choice made by Katherine Harris’s office to disenfranchise constituencies that are typically Democratic.

Unfortunately, the director, Ian Inaba, does not look hard at such possible injustices. Instead, he settles for insinuations and claims that problems exist without addressing whether such claims have merit.

The film actually spends most of its time following, for rather opaque reasons, a Georgia congresswoman named Cynthia McKinney. A woman Inaba seems to venerate more than analyze. Though I mean no offense, I didn’t care about her–she’s a minor figure in and out of Congress. And though Inaba tries to make the election that removed her from office look illegal and unjust, it was neither–merely underhanded. Further, McKinney generally shows herself to be a controversial and self-righteous politician. And she’s only mildly related to the film about systemic disenfranchisement that I thought I was watching.

After a series of insinuations about Florida in 2000, and an introduction to McKinney, the film goes to Ohio in 2004. But it is treated just as Florida was treated, with insinuation and outrage and little else. I think that there is a serious and viable possibility that systematic efforts to disenfranchise certain voters occurred. I also know that no election is run perfectly, and there is a large difference between grave mismanagement and systematic disenfranchisement.

The film doesn’t ask what really occurred. It doesn’t probe why some inner-city precincts saw decreases in voting machines and increases in registration in 2004, it merely insinuates the point. It completely ignores the likely possibility that there were higher increases in registration in other areas.

Though I thought such a thing was nearly impossible, American Blackout has made me more (though not completely) certain that nothing truly troubling occurred. Its structure insinuates only two possible reasons for the film’s shallowness: (1) that Inaba honestly probed claims of voter disenfranchisement and came up empty, or (2) that he didn’t even try to investigate the claims, already convinced of their reality.

Both ideas make me dislike American Blackout and Inaba a great deal more than I would like. But beyond the shortcomings, the film does even stranger things. It willingly and repeatedly insinuates that 9/11 was an “inside job,” and that the Iraq War was unnecessary. I don’t have an explicit problem with such claims, but whatever do they have to do with the disenfranchisement of voters?

The majority of the “evidence” the film presents are elected officials denouncing injustice but lacking evidence that it occurred; average voters who are inconvenienced primarily by their ignorance of proper voting procedures; and video of immensely long voting lines. But long lines on voting day can be–probably are–a product of poor and potentially incompetent planning. Though Inaba doesn’t seem to know it, this is not proof of systematic disenfranchisement. Gross mismanagement, yes; true injustice, no.

I didn’t think it was possible, but American Blackout‘s misguided notions of what’s needed from an investigational documentary made me long for, of all people, Michael Moore. A man who, though I frequently agree with, find abhorrent in his methods. Having said that, I’m confident Michael Moore would have made a better American Blackout than Inaba did.

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american society, politics

Generation Q?

Increasingly, I hear something I never thought I would. People are lamenting–yes, lamenting–that this generation of Americans doesn’t engage in enough disorderly and disruptive protests. Something has leached into the cultural zeitgeist that has convinced some of the more liberal powers-that-be that people of my generation are too reserved and too quiet.

I first heard about this idea on The Colbert Report, on which Stephen Colbert (the character) chastised those present at the tasing of a Florida student for not acting during the event, instead going home and blogging outrage. It was rather laughable because the tased buffoon didn’t look like someone who in anyway deserved help.

On Tuesday, New York Times columnist Tom Friedman, perhaps channeling Mr. Colbert, decided to do his duty and say something at least a little controversial–despite what anyone tells you, that is the purpose of a newspaper’s Opinion page.

Essentially, Mr. Friedman said this:

I just spent the past week visiting several colleges — Auburn, the University of Mississippi, Lake Forest and Williams — and I can report that the more I am around this generation of college students, the more I am both baffled and impressed.

I am impressed because they are so much more optimistic and idealistic than they should be. I am baffled because they are so much less radical and politically engaged than they need to be. …

It’s for all these reasons that I’ve been calling them “Generation Q” — the Quiet Americans, in the best sense of that term, quietly pursuing their idealism, at home and abroad.

But Generation Q may be too quiet, too online, for its own good, and for the country’s own good. When I think of the huge budget deficit, Social Security deficit and ecological deficit that our generation is leaving this generation, if they are not spitting mad, well, then they’re just not paying attention. And we’ll just keep piling it on them. …

America needs a jolt of the idealism, activism and outrage (it must be in there) of Generation Q. That’s what twentysomethings are for — to light a fire under the country. But they can’t e-mail it in, and an online petition or a mouse click for carbon neutrality won’t cut it. They have to get organized in a way that will force politicians to pay attention rather than just patronize them.

He goes on to make a selective and mildly confounding comparison between the civil rights movement and the current state of activism. Ignoring the essential differences–different aims, different power structures to fight–I find Friedman’s idea at best hard to swallow.

I don’t disagree that people could do more to bring attention to and action on this countries problems. But I also don’t think the problems that Mr. Friedman sees are so easy to grasp or widely known that people can get as worked up as they could about civil rights or Vietnam.

Further, Friedman’s logic is completely opposed to what I said last week about the demanding idealism of most protesters of the 1960s and 1970s. Disruptive protest–the kind Mr. Friedman seems to want–is apt, if not guaranteed, to create a strong backlash. Nixon’s presidential victories in 1968 and 1972 were due, in no small part, to his cynical efforts to take advantage of the backlash in this country.

By creating a type of protest so disruptive as to be off-putting, the protesters of 1960s were essentially complicit in all the backwards steps taken by the Nixon administration. Certainly, the forward progress wouldn’t have occurred without them, but neither would the backward slide.

Whether Mr. Friedman forgot that confrontational protest often has a backlash that undoes much of its good is possible. But I’m not sure there’s something so wrong with this generation’s passive and optimistic idealism.

The other point I would make is more peripheral, but still clamoring for attention. Mr. Friedman seems to have missed the lower trust in government that has developed since Mr. Nixon’s years in the 1970s. Nixon’s incursions into Cambodia in 1970–though he ran on ending the war in 1968, the resulting deaths of four at Kent State, and the trauma of Watergate made Americans, including the young, more cynical.

No politician since has been able to decrease this cynicism. And Mr. Bush II has done a great deal to further foster it. The result is a generation that doubts the absolute power of government to undo the evils in this country and this world. They’re volunteering in record numbers to make change outside of government. They’re making personal sacrifices of time and energy because they think that’s more effective than protesting in the hope that those in power will listen and change.

Perhaps the new way forward looks different than the old way. But these are different times we live in, and ignoring that fact makes Friedman as disappointing as anyone he aims to critique.

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