Posts Tagged ‘Frank Rich’

Why I Despise Sarah Palin

Tuesday, July 14th, 2009

One of my friends asked me this question. Actually, he accused me of despising her (which I admit to) and postulated that feminists and liberals hate her so much because she stands for “a sort of  ‘reincarnation’ of the traditional post-war female that scares the bejesus out of liberals for a variety of reasons.”

I can’t speak for every liberal, or every progressive, or every feminist – but I can speak for myself – and I tell you, it is not Palin’s  status as a reincarnation of the traditional post-war female (a description which I incidentally don’t find that fitting) that leads me to despise her. It is that she found herself to be a very capable demagogue. Frank Rich in The New York Times explained it well this Sunday:

The essence of Palinism is emotional, not ideological… The real wave she’s riding is a loud, resonant surge of resentment and victimization that’s larger than issues like abortion and gay civil rights.

Palin constantly positions herself as a victim of the conspiracies of the elite. As interviewers lob her softball after softball, she points out the few outliers and claims she is a victim of a giant conspiracy. As a local blogger files a frivolous ethics complaint, Palin claims she is being targeted for persecution by Rahm Emanuel and Barack Obama. A similar logic of collective victomhood makes its way into every speech she gives; she constantly sets up a dynamic of “us” against “them” – the “Joe Sixpacks” versus “the Hollywood/NY elite” and the “real Americans” against those “who [see] America…as being so imperfect…that [they are] palling around with terrorists [who]…target their own country.” What this accomplishes is what Cass Sunstein in the Spectator describes as the dyanmic of self-reinforcing moral outrage:

Political extremism is often a product of group polarisation and social segregation is a useful tool for producing polarisation. In fact, a good way to create an extremist group, or a cult of any kind, is to separate members from the rest of society. The separation can occur physically or psychologically, by creating a sense of suspicion about non-members. With such separation, the information and views of those outside the group can be discredited, and hence nothing will disturb the process of polarisation as group members continue to talk.

Sunstein does not link this to Palin – but it is clear that she is playing with this exact dynamic. This stands in stark contrast to John McCain who, to his credit, realized how dangerous this dynamic was and tried to calm his crowds down; and it stands in contrast to Barack Obama who has deliberately taken an approach that minimizes this dynamic of escalating moral outrage – challenging his audiences when they seem to be dehumanizing the other side. Palin though escalated her rhetoric. Her crowds became more extreme – in the way that like-minded groups do, especially when united against a nefarious and dehumanized “them.”

Why do I despise Sarah Palin? Because she is a demagogue, and more important, because she is an effective one.

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The People’s Rage At A System That Had Failed Them

Monday, July 6th, 2009

Frank Rich uses the new film Public Enemies and the saga of Bernie Madoff to try to get at the momentous forces rippling through our society as this financial crisis reveals the rifts and trade-offs and makes explicit the social bargain that is submerged during prosperity:

“Dillinger did not rob poor people,” wrote one correspondent to The Indianapolis Star. “He robbed those who became rich by robbing the poor.”

Gorn writes that the current economic crisis helped him understand better why Americans could root for a homicidal bank robber: “As our own day’s story of stupid policies and lax regulations, of greedy moneymen, free-market hucksters, white-collar thieves, and self-serving politicians unfolds, and as banks foreclose on millions of families’ homes, workers lose their jobs, and life savings disappear, it becomes clear why Dillinger’s wild ride so fascinated America during the 1930s.” An outlaw could channel a people’s “sense of rage at the system that had failed them.”

As Gorn reminds us, Americans who felt betrayed didn’t just take to cheering Dillinger; some turned to the populism of Huey Long, or to right-wing and anti-Semitic demagogues like Father Coughlin, or to the Communist Party. The passions unleashed by economic inequities are explosive because those inequities violate the fundamental capitalist faith. It’s the bedrock American dream that virtues like hard work and playing by the rules are rewarded with prosperity.

In 2009, too many who worked hard and played by the rules are still suffering, while too many who bent or broke the rules with little or no accountability are back reaping a disproportionate share of what scant prosperity there is.

Obama Hasn’t Betrayed The Gay Rights Movement (Yet)

Monday, June 29th, 2009

Or, In Quasi-Defense of Waiting

From The Colbert Report:

JIM FOURATT: I’m very troubled by Barack Obama because I think most gay and lesbian people in this country voted for Barack Obama and expected him to talk about our issues and he’s playing a classic liberal role. It’s always about just, “Wait, wait, wait…” We’re waiting and waiting and waiting and I’m quite frankly, as most people are, sick and tired of it. We expected Barack Obama to step up to the plate and do what is principled, to do what is right.

STEPHEN COLBERT: Why don’t you do the smart thing: If you’re tired of liberals saying one thing and then saying, “Wait, wait, wait,” when they get into office – why don’t you come over to the conservatives because we’re honest. We say, “No, no, no,” from the very beginning. Isn’t there something to be said for honesty?

JIM FOURATT: Actually, there is something to be said for that because [then] we know who our enemies are…It’s deeply troubling and I asked Cornell West about this…

STEPHEN COLBERT [Interrupting]: Brother West, he’s a friend of the show.

JIM FOURATT: He said that, “Barack Obama is wrong but he will come along.” I don’t know if Martin Luther King, what he would have said if someone said to him, “We’ll come along on your rights.” I don’t know about Rosa Parks, if she would have got off the bus and not sat down.

Frank Rich approvingly cites a gay activist who met with Obama in the White House this past week:

Chrisler seized the moment to appeal to the president on behalf of her boys. “The worst thing you can experience as parents is to feel your children are discriminated against,” she told him. “Imagine if you have to explain every day who your parents are and that they’re as real as every family is.” Chrisler said that she and her children “want a president who will make that go away,” adding, “I believe in his heart he wants that to happen, his political mistakes notwithstanding.” [my emphasis]

Jennifer Chrisler and Jim Fouratt clearly express the growing feeling of anger and even betrayal directed at Barack Obama from the LGBT community. They remember that Bill Clinton led them on, took their money and votes, and then created the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy and passed the Defense of Marriage act which Obama’s Justice Department is now defending. Similarly, many opponents of the War on Drugs have become angry and disappointed that Obama has barely advanced their issues. Civil libertarians have been likewise disappointed by Obama’s use of the State Secrets Privilege, withholding of documents and photographs related to Bush administration torture, and other defenses and continuations of Bush-era executive aggrandizement.

I count myself as a supporter of the goals of all three groups. But I see the feelings of anger and betrayal directed against Barack Obama as nothing less than the result of naivete. As if electing Barack Obama president would solve any of these problems! As if a president is morally responsible for all things status quo! As if history and change were passed down from above – rather than bubbling up from below.

These feelings of betrayal are based on profound misunderstandings of the presidency and how change happens.

The President of the United States is not The Leader. He is merely a leader. George Will has quoted Calvin Coolidge on this general theme a few times recently:

It is a great advantage to a president, and a major source of safety to the country, for him to know that he is not a great man.

Even Franklin D. Roosevelt, who many did consider a great man, had his own way of telling his constituencies the same message:

I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it.

The “cult of the presidency” is a source of moral rot in this nation. If you belive in an issue, fight for it! Don’t whine about being betrayed. There are better uses of your energy. More important, it reflects a misunderstanding of what the role of the president is.

As to citing figures from the Civil Rights era: Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King did wait – and wait, and wait for a president to act. And as they waited, they fought for what they believed in – without undue anger or inappropriate feelings to betrayal. They put pressure on Congress, on the White House, on state legislatures, on governors, on courts. And in each of these skirmishes they gained something. Until eventually their movement had achieved a momentum that led to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The fact is, the role of the activist and the role of the president are very different. To confuse the two as Fouratt does, and as many other activists do, doesn’t help anybody. The president, in having so much power, must have on goal above all – to protect the status quo. He or she can push reforms and changes and improvements – but their dreams must be constrained. The activist can dream of a new world – in which all things are vastly improved – and fight for it and demand it – and be right in doing so. But the president can say no, and be just as justified. For these are their roles. The goal of the activist must be to make the president do what he or she wants – to force them to make a decision which, taking into account political factors, is still an easy one. Abraham Lincoln was a great example of this – as abolitionists pressed for him to emancipate the slaves and go to war with the South but he firmly took an incrementalist position, only making such decisions as he was forced to.

There is a natural tension between the activist and the president because of their roles – but this tension can be productive if both sides understand how change happens. The presidency is an essentially reactive job, with the best presidents reacting with an eye towards achieving larger goals. The activist must provoke these reactions – and create favorable circumstances to shape all political actors’ responses to these actions. And while a president can force an issue or two through given the powers he or she exercises, this “forcing” creates problems and backlash. No president can make prejudice “go away” as Chrisler seems to be counting on. But the president can be expected to make a decision when it is thrust upon him or her. This is why it is important to have a president sympathetic to your aims.

As Matt Yglesias smartly observed:

Repealing Don’t Ask Don’t Tell has become a majoritarian position, but the Obama administration would still prefer to avoid the headaches involved in working to repeal it. At the same time, if a court case were toorder the administration to end this policy, it’s abundantly clear that there would be no critical mass of political support for trying to put it back in place.

In other words, for the activist, it never makes sense to wait; for the president, it almost always does. And both sides – even if they share the same goals – will conflict on strategy. That’s the way things are – and it is by understanding this dynamic that successful movements are built.

The gay rights movement does seem to understand this – Ted Olsen’s and David Boies’s lawsuit notwithstanding. This has been the source of it’s outstanding success – from a time within living memory when psychologists would diagnose “homosexuality” as a disease to today as six states recognize gay marriage. (David Sedaris was especially moving as he spoke of the progress in the past forty years on The Leonard Lopate Show.)  This is no time to abandon a successful strategy.

Torture Works…For Some Things…

Monday, April 27th, 2009

Throughout history, the main purpose of torture – from the the castration of William ‘Braveheart’ Wallace to the water boarding of heretics before councils of the Inquisition to the various stress techniques used by the Soviet Union to break dissidents – has been to extract politically necessary confessions to justify the policies of the state (or church). In this, history has shown that torture has been extraordinarily successful.

Frank Rich in the New York Times suggests a similar motive for American torture in his latest column:

Maj. Paul Burney, a United States Army psychiatrist assigned to interrogations in Guantánamo Bay that summer of 2002…: “A large part of the time we were focused on trying to establish a link between Al Qaeda and Iraq and we were not being successful.” As higher-ups got more “frustrated” at the inability to prove this connection, the major said, “there was more and more pressure to resort to measures” that might produce that intelligence.

In other words, the ticking time bomb was not another potential Qaeda attack on America but the Bush administration’s ticking timetable for selling a war in Iraq; it wanted to pressure Congress to pass a war resolution before the 2002 midterm elections. Bybee’s memo was written the week after the then-secret (and subsequently leaked) “Downing Street memo,” in which the head of British intelligence informed Tony Blair that the Bush White House was so determined to go to war in Iraq that “the intelligence and facts were being fixed around the policy.” A month after Bybee’s memo, on Sept. 8, 2002, Cheney would make his infamous appearance on “Meet the Press,” hyping both Saddam’s W.M.D.s and the “number of contacts over the years” between Al Qaeda and Iraq. If only 9/11 could somehow be pinned on Iraq, the case for war would be a slamdunk.

But there were no links between 9/11 and Iraq, and the White House knew it. Torture may have been the last hope for coercing such bogus “intelligence” from detainees who would be tempted to say anything to stop the waterboarding.

Rich suggests a level of malintent which I do not think is necessary to understand the White House decision to torture. But the connection he makes is a valid one. It was largely the confessions extracted by torture that made the case for Iraq seem urgent – beyond the various circumstantial evidence presented. It is known, for example, that Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi and Abu Zubaydah, each of whom provided key information linking Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein, were tortured in order to extract this information. We now know the information they provided was false.

In other words – torture works – it can break someone’s will – and force them to tell you what you want to hear. But history has not demonstrated it can force someone to tell the truth. In action movies it always works – in real life, apparently not.

Reclaiming America

Friday, November 14th, 2008

Frank Rich:

[T]he North Carolina county where Palin expressed her delight at being in the “real America” went for Obama by more than 18 percentage points.

The actual real America is everywhere. It is the America that has been in shell shock since the aftermath of 9/11, when our government wielded a brutal attack by terrorists as a club to ratchet up our fears, betray our deepest constitutional values and turn Americans against one another in the name of “patriotism.” What we started to remember the morning after Election Day was what we had forgotten over the past eight years, as our abusive relationship with the Bush administration and its press enablers dragged on: That’s not who we are.

So even as we celebrated our first black president, we looked around and rediscovered the nation that had elected him. “We are the ones we’ve been waiting for,” Obama said in February, and indeed millions of such Americans were here all along, waiting for a leader. This was the week that they reclaimed their country.

Aside from the schlocky sentence, “The actual real America is everyone,” an excellent column.

Change Before It’s Too Late

Monday, August 25th, 2008

Frank Rich in yesterday’s Times coins a new slogan for Obama’s campaign:

…[T]he unsettling subtext of the Olympics has been as resonant for Americans as the Phelps triumph. You couldn’t watch NBC’s weeks of coverage without feeling bombarded by an ascendant China whose superior cache of gold medals and dazzling management of the Games became a proxy for its spectacular commercial and cultural prowess in the new century. Even before the Olympics began, a July CNN poll found that 70 percent of Americans fear China’s economic might — about as many as find America on the wrong track. Americans watching the Olympics could not escape the reality that China in particular and Asia in general will continue to outpace our country in growth while we remain mired in stagnancy and debt (much of it held by China).

How we dig out of this quagmire is the American story that Obama must tell…Americans must band together for change before the new century leaves us completely behind. The Obama campaign actually has plans, however imperfect or provisional, to set us on that path; the McCain campaign offers only disposable Band-Aids typified by the “drill now” mantra that even McCain says will only have a “psychological” effect on gas prices…

Is a man who is just discovering the Internet qualified to lead a restoration of America’s economic and educational infrastructures? Is the leader of a virtually all-white political party America’s best salesman and moral avatar in the age of globalization? Does a bellicose Vietnam veteran who rushed to hitch his star to the self-immolating overreaches of Ahmad Chalabi, Pervez Musharraf and Mikheil Saakashvili have the judgment to keep America safe?

R.I.P., “Change We Can Believe In.” The fierce urgency of the 21st century demands Change Before It’s Too Late.

The moment Obama did not create

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

Frank Rich:

Mr. Obama hardly created this moment, with its potent brew of Bush loathing and sweeping generational change. He simply had the vision to tap into it. Running in 2008 rather than waiting four more years was the single smartest political decision he’s made (and, yes, he’s made dumb ones too). The second smartest was to understand and emphasize that subterranean, nearly universal anticipation of change rather than settle for the narrower band of partisan, dyspeptic Bush-bashing. We don’t know yet if he’s the man who can make the moment — and won’t know unless he gets to the White House — but there’s no question that the moment has helped make the man.

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