TASTELESS, GODLESS, ETC.

Amidst heaping scorn on the American people for neither being persuaded by right-wing prescriptions for keeping us safe nor willing to follow them on faith, Jim Geraghty chooses a strange example

Think about it – the Taliban tried to assassinate Cheney yesterday. Could you imagine if that had occurred in 2002? The snarky too-bad-they-missed comments on Huffington Post would be considered too tasteless for public comment.

Funny thing is, they are considered too tasteless for public comment. That’s why our right-wing friends trolling about for examples of lefties wishing death on Dick were stuck settling for anonymous comments on the HuffingtonPost.

Truth is, wishing death on Dick Cheney isn’t the kind of thing you can do and still be praised by people running for president. Not all Republicans are so lucky – just ask John Paul Stevens.

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BROKEBACK BACKLASH?

Last week’s Oscar ceremonies brought a crescendo – at least for now – to the animus heaped upon Brokeback Mountain, and upon Hollywood, by the right. Judging by watching Tucker Carlson tonight, professionally outraged conservative cultural critics have moved on to V for Vendetta.

But it’s worth reflecting on the clever packaging of that supposed backlash by the main organs of the conservative movement. Tucker Carlson offered an emblematic shtick: He hasn’t seen the movie, he has nothing against gay people, but “at some point, Hollywood should give up its mission as a kind of, you know, evangelist for a political persuasion and just shut up and make the movie.” Such an argument ignores the ways in which politics shape and are shaped by any art that engages with power, identity, morality, desire – that is, pretty much any art out there (this is a position that’s gotten me in trouble before). But more importantly, it’s fundamentally mendacious, as Bryan Collingsworth noted for people who refuse to see a movie because of content they oppose (or, as some would protest too much, they simply “aren’t that interested in”) to claim that their objection is to the politicization of film. Conservative critics who boast that they won’t patronize a “gay movie” suggest the logical implication that they go to other movies because they’re heterosexual movies. In a context of sexual inequality, there’s nothing apolitical about that. Just a political position that dare not speak its name.

What we get instead is a perfunctory faux backlash whose dimensions are effectively presaged by Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter With Kansas? One is the sight of blue-state urban media elites rising to defend the ostensible sensibilities of imagined heartland Americans. Needless to say, Bill O’Reilly and company aren’t doing them any favors by projecting their antipathy towards their imagined “gay cowboy movie” onto the imagined faceless cornfield-dwelling masses. But speaking for an imagined heartland, like speaking against an imagined “political correctness” regime (for extra credit, do both at once), provides conservatives an excuse to fulminate against unpopular minorities while touting their own tolerance. It’s not that their intolerant, it’s just that they take offense at the hated liberals’ supposed intolerance of other people’s supposed intolerance.

Such targeting, too, is laid out well in Frank’s book: The enemy isn’t people who are gay. It’s the liberal elites who think they know better than everyone else. Such anti-elite animus has a much broader constituency than naked anti-gay animus (even gay conservatives can – and do – sign on). The people who made Brokeback Mountain are the same ones, Coulter and company insist, who want to reach down and take away all the guns, who want to reach up and pull down the Ten Commandments, and who make an annual tradition of warring against Christmas. Despite its own contradictions (as Frank ably argues, the elite theory requires suspending the media from the principles of the free market in which good conservatives believe so fervently), the anti-elite animus serves to tap into the real class resentment of working Americans while giving those in the real elite a way to decry what the hated liberals produce without admitting to actual prejudice. It’s a colossal cop-out. But it’s also a brilliant way to broaden the supposed backlash and deepen its political cache.

So what do we do about it? Broaden the class depictions of gay men and women in politics and popular media. And build a progressive movement that can push the Democratic party to offer an agenda that speaks to this country’s real class divisions as compellingly as the Republican party speaks to imagined class aesthetics. For a start.

DEMOCRACY IN LATIN AMERICA

The cover story in the January/ February edition of Foreign Policy is an article by Amherst Professor Javier Corrales arguing that Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez is perfecting the art of dictatorship for the 21st century. He offers a list of Chavez’s crimes against democracy which (like an ADL report on antisemitism which conflates incidents like the Iranian President’s diatribes against Jews and some professor’s criticism of the separation wall) combines clear offenses, deft but legal manipulation of the law, and economic policy Professor Corrales doesn’t like.

Some of the abuses Corrales describes are indeed direct assaults on the democratic freedoms of Venezuelan citizens, like keeping public databases on citizens’ votes and outlawing demonstrations of “disrespect” towards government officials. Observers on the left should indeed condemn such human rights abuses, when they are clearly demonstrated, as quickly when perpetrated by leaders on the left as when perpetrated by leaders on the right. Hugo Chavez’s claims to a democratic mandate are indeed weakened by his failure to uphold some principles of democracy, and Corrales is right to call attention to these. Some ostensible abuses Corrales describes amount to effective manipulation of the parliamentary system to reduce the power of minority parties and increase what can be accomplished legislatively by a bare majority (you may know this as “the nuclear option”). I’d agree that such maneuvers are often effectively undemocratic, as long as democracy is understood as a spectrum (as a theorist like Dahl would advise) rather than a dichotomy (as a theorist like Schumpeter would). Certainly, many political structures and policies – the electoral college and the Senate come to mind – reduce the control of individual citizens over the political process. Corrales’ argument that using a majority in parliament to increase his majority on the Supreme Court itself makes Chavez a dictator makes one wonder how he views some other national leaders. Given that Corrales’ qualifications for dictatorship include intentionally polarizing the electorate so that more moderates will break to your side, it’s hard to imagine who doesn’t qualify.

Some of those leaders are distinguished from Chavez when it comes to economic policy, the area into which a third set of Corrales’ critiques of democracy in Venezuela fall. Corrales makes some of the same seemingly contradictory charges levelled against Chavez’s economic policy by a series of neoliberals and conservatives: the problem with Hugo Chavez is that he bribes the poor to like him with economic resources and that he doesn’t really provide them with economic resources and that he doesn’t really make the poor like him. Corrales’ claims of bribery of the poor in Venezuela are echoed by Ann Coulter’s complaints that Americans who benefit from government programs are allowed to vote for the perpetuation of those programs. Corrales’ grievance that Chavez distributes economic benefits as a means of reward and punishment is an important one. His attacks on Chavez for spending large sums of money to help the poor at all are less persuasive though. And his description of Chavez’s investments in alleviating poverty as a demonstration that he is a dictator will be compelling only if one believes that democratization and the right-wing economics of privatization, government-shrinking, and deregulation perversely called “economic liberalization” are one and the same. This postulate – that the “structural adjustment programs” of the IMF and the democratic reforms pursued by human rights groups are two sides of the same coin – are accepted uncritically by too many ostensibly liberal theorists in international relations and economics (not to mention the Wall Street Journal). It’s on full display in Corrales’ article, which faults Chavez as a dictator because “Rather than promoting stable property rights to boost investment and employment, he expands state employment.”

I don’t fault Corrales for seeing economics and democracy as interrelated. I’d say progressive economics that provide more people with economic resources and opportunities also empower them to exercise real voice over the choices which determine the conditions of their lives. Unfortunately, the economic regime Corrales and company favor too often has the opposite effect, plunging more people into conditions of abject poverty in which ever-greater portions of their lives slip from their control. When structural adjustment programs drive down wages, dirty water, and turn a blind eye to violent economic coercion, they erode democracy. And, as David Held argues, the means by which these programs are enacted are corrosive to a robust conception of democracy as well: they remove critical decisions about countries’ economic futures from the province of democratic oversight by citizens to the authority of distant technocrats. So it shouldn’t be surprising that the past decade has seen one Latin American country after another throw neoliberal and conservative leaders out and replace them with populists who run on opposition to the undemocratic “Washington Consensus (including Bolivia this weekend; Mexico looks likely to be next).” It’s unfortunate that some of those populists have democratic deficiencies of their own.

So I’d say Corrales gets the correlation between democracy and neoliberalism backwards, and that his opposition to Chavez’s economics drives him to put some shaky examples along with the solid ones on his list of grievances about democracy in Venezuela. Unfortunately, too many on both the left and the right go beyond arguing that economic policies increase or decrease democracy to instead reducing democracy to the favorability of a country’s economic policy. Too many let bona fide dictators like Pinochet or Castro off easy because of the economic policies they implement. People who live under such leaders deserve better.

The past few weeks have seen a good deal of sarcasm and indignation from various pundits, print and virtual, in response to criticism of the very real lack of women among the ranks of high-profile opinion journalists. As usual, we’ve seen conservatives and a fair number of self-identified liberals advocating blindness to inequality amongst groups as a sign of respect for individuals. And claims that if different women can have different opinions, then there can’t be any particular problem with having most of the opinions voiced prominently be those of men. And that really valuing individual women writers means not seeing them as women at all. Thing is, while different women and different men will of course each have different perspectives, when a medium overwhelmingly represents the voices of men it represents only the voices of a spectrum of people much more narrow than its audience. And if one really believes in the equality of two groups, then inequality of results cannot but suggest the absence of full equality of opportunity. As Katha Pollitt writes:

It may be true that more men than women like to bloviate and “bat things out”–socialization does count for something. So do social rewards: I have seen men advance professionally on levels of aggression, self-promotion and hostility that would have a woman carted off to a loony bin–unless, of course, she happens to be Ann Coulter. But feminine psychology doesn’t explain why all five of USA Today’s political columnists are male, or why Time’s eleven columnists are male–down to the four in Arts and Entertainment–or why at Newsweek it’s one out of six in print and two out of thirteen on the Web…The tiny universe of political-opinion writers includes plenty of women who hold their own with men, who do not wilt at the prospect of an angry e-mail, who have written cover stories and bestsellers and won prizes–and whose phone numbers are likely already in the Rolodexes of the editors who wonder where the women are. How hard could it be to “find” Barbara Ehrenreich, who filled in for Thomas Friedman for one month last summer and wrote nine of the best columns the Times has seen in a decade?

…That opinion writing is a kind of testosterone-powered food fight is a popular idea in the blogosphere. Male bloggers are always wondering where the women are and why women can’t/don’t/won’t throw bananas…There are actually lots of women political bloggers out there–spend half an hour reading them and you will never again say women aren’t as argumentative as men! But what makes a blog visible is links, and male bloggers tend not to link to women…Perhaps they sense it might interfere with the circle jerk in cyberspace–the endless mutual self-infatuation that is one of the less attractive aspects of the blogging phenom. Or maybe, like so many op-ed editors, they just don’t see women, even when the women are right in front of them.

Is this a new low for Ann Coulter?

But you’d have to put liberals in Abu Ghraib to get them to tell the truth about what people were saying before the war – and then the problem would be that most liberals would enjoy those activities.

Well, hard to know how to compare it to her other lows. But disgusting nonetheless.

Ann Coulter, in a characteristically absurd, offensive, and unconvincing screed on Wednesday, carried water for the White House by impugning the patriotism and service of Vietnam vet and triple-amputee Max Cleeland:

Cleland could have dropped a grenade on his foot as a National Guardsman –- or what Cleland sneeringly calls “weekend warriors.” Luckily for Cleland’s political career and current pomposity about Bush, he happened to do it while in Vietnam.

Nothing new here. The Center for American Progress sent out an advisory today reviewing the factual inaccuracy of Coulter’s claims, and the elevated platform within the conservative community from which she makes them, and calling for her condemnation:

Facing more questions about the President’s National Guard duty, conservative allies of the White House did the only thing they could do: disparage triple amputee Vietnam war hero Max Cleland, a man who only a year and a half ago the White House and its allies likened to Osama bin Laden and Saddam Hussein in television ads. In a column posted on the conservative Heritage Foundation’s Web site, Fox News contributor and White House ally Ann Coulter unleashed an attack on Cleland’s service to his country, claiming that the triple amputee/decorated war hero displayed “no bravery” in Vietnam. The politically motivated assault came after Cleland appeared at events critical of the Administration, once again showing the conservatives pattern of impugning the patriotism of those who question their policy.

The really interesting part? This e-mail I just got from the Center for American Progress:

After publishing the Progress Report this morning, Fox News called to protest our description of Ann Coulter as a “Fox News contributor.” Fox News said Ann Coulter “is not a contributor to this network” and “has not been a contributor the last couple of years.” Though Fox News’ Sean Hannity described Ms. Coulter in December of 2002 as “a Fox News contributor,” and despite Coulter appearing 50 times on Fox News since 2002, we regret any confusion this may have caused.

Maybe Coulter could condemn Fox News in turn?

I’ve got to say – the more I read like this, the more sympathetic the guy becomes:

Kerry is like some character in a Balzac novel, an adventurer twirling the end of his mustache and preying on rich women. This low-born poseur with his threadbare pseudo-Brahmin family bought a political career with one rich woman’s money, dumped her, and made off with another heiress to enable him to run for president. If Democrats want to talk about middle-class tax cuts, couldn’t they nominate someone who hasn’t been a poodle to rich women for past 33 years?

Read: Manly men don’t need help from women. And rich women should know better than to marry beneath their class. At least Ann never claimed to be a “compassionate conservative.”