Thursday, January 29, 2009

Dr. No(hio)

In 2004 the state of Ohio disgraced itself by voting for Bush, thus giving Bush the election. In November, 2008 Ohio voters redeemed themselves, and I didn't have to field angry phone calls from all my friends who blamed me for the results like I did in '04.

But this week we were all reminded that the Axis of Republican Evil still runs straight through the Buckeye State - more specifically through its 8th Congressional district. This week we got to see John Boehner in full.

Boehner certainly looks the part of the polyester politician - I'm not sure I could tell him apart from Mitt Romney or Mike Huckabee. But he demonstrated this week that his well and truly the ringmaster of the Republican House circus and that he will have those clowns goosestepping in unison in a way that would make John Cleese proud.

As an Ohio voter, I decided to call the Congressman's office before the vote on the stimulus package. I spoke to a very polite young man, who was clearly weary of fielding calls like mine but whose politeness never wavered. I wanted to know what Congressional Republicans, with Boehner at their head, were offering as an alternative to the stimulus package. I wanted to know just exactly how yet more tax cuts would pay for the estimated $2.2 trillion necessary to rebuild our failing infrastructure.

Young Staffer had no answers for me but assured me that they were all there at Boehner's website. That's when my day brightened.

The first giggle came when I discovered that Boehner's website is called "Republican Leader." Just made me laugh that this puffed up buffoon now calls himself "Republican Leader." Try saying it a deep, James Earl Jones voice and looking at his picture. Then I cracked up when I saw the ominous banner "Economists Agree: We Can't Borrow and Spend Our Way Out of Recession." Boehner should know - after all, he was one of those Republican Leaders (deep voice) who borrowed and spent our way into this recession.

I must admit to disappointment after that. Young Staffer led me to believe I would find Republican solutions to our economic mess. Like public prayer for more jobs. Or intelligently designed public works spending. But no, all Republican Leader has to offer is: tax cuts.

But I encourage all of you to call the office - the staff really are friendly. 202-225-6205.


Whatever utility the rhetoric of bipartisanship had for Barack Obama during the campaign, it's now time for the president and the Democratic leadership to let it go. As political historian Allen Lichtman argued at TPM last week, the most effective presidents "don't move to the middle; they move the middle to them."

The GOP unequivocally rejected bipartisanship, when yesterday not a single House Republican voted for the economic stimulus package. And this was a package that the Democrats weakened considerably--by incorporating tax giveaways in capitulation to GOP demands. Republicans have chiseled away at other elements of the stimulus package such as Medicaid funding for family planning. All but the most conservative economists concur that the economic benefits of tax cuts will be minor compared to the jolt of increased spending on public works, unemployment benefits, health care, and public transit. But for Republicans, the efficacy of tax cuts--just like the evil and wastefulness of family planning--are a matter of faith.

Some argue that Obama's bipartisanship gives him the moral high ground: he looks statesmanlike, while the GOP appears truculent and uncompromising. Maybe, but does impression management matter in this moment of grave economic crisis? Why concede to the Republicans on what will arguably be the most important legislation of the Obama years? And why continue to give life to the failed Republican tax policies that have contributed mightily to the current crisis?

Others contend that bipartisanship will help Obama and the Democratic leadership shepherd the stimulus package through the Senate. It is true that to have a filibuster-proof majority, Obama needs to win a few moderate Republicans to his side, but squandering one third of the stimulus to appease the right seems a very high price to pay to win over Olympia Snowe and a few others.

The stimulus package, even in its weakened form, is a step in the right direction. But it may well prove to be too small. If it fails to turn the economic tides, pandering to the GOP in the name of a bipartisanship will be a large part of the reason.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

One Size Fits All Economics

Remember when people called the Republican Party "the party of ideas"?! It never was, really, (list 5 important "ideas" the Republicans have generated in since 1995 when Newt Gingrich, the "big thinker" took over - go ahead, I dare you) but through much of the last 10 or 15 years it was a great marketing slogan. Branding, I think they call it.

Still, it is stunning that in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression that the Congressional Republicans have only one thing to say. Like that weird section of the Beatles' "Revolution #9" which just keeps repeating "#9," Republicans keep whining: tax cuts, tax cuts, tax cuts.

This isn't only a measure of the complete poverty of ideas that the Republican Bund suffers, though it certainly is that. Instead, it is an honest reminder of what economic policy means for Republicans. Most of us, I suspect, think of economic policy as a way to pursue the common good - we might debate what that means and how best to achieve it, but we probably agree that economic policy should be shaped to foster those goals.

The goal for Republicans since 1981 has been single-minded: transfer money from the middle class to the rich. Contrary to what you hear from the Cato Institute and other right-wing assisted living centers, Republicans aren't interested in small government, or even free markets. Not when big government and manipulated markets have proven so much more effective at shifting wealth to the top.

And the fastest, easiest, most politically successful way to do that is through tax cuts of the sort that Reagan and Bush II enacted. (That so many Joe-the-Plumbers, who would have done better personally under Democratic tax plans, went along for the ride measures poverty of a different sort).

Go back to those bygone days of 2000. Remember the balanced budget? Remember the budget surplus? As a candidate, Bush sold his big "soak the middle class" tax cuts as a moral imperative: the government shouldn't keep a budget surplus - we had to give it back! As president, when the dot com bubble burst and the nation slipped into the first Bush recession, he announced that those very same tax cuts were the only thing that would stimulate the economy.

So no matter what the economic climate, no matter what the social problem, tax cuts are the solution to everything. Don't have health care? How about a tax cut! Schools are failing - cut taxes! Got male-pattern baldness - you need a tax cut!

In fairness, Republican tax cuts have been successful at making the rich richer. But speaking about the Great Depression - which resulted from Republican economic policies that look awfully familiar - Roosevelt was right in 1936 when he called Republicans "economic royalists." The only question worth asking, as Bob Herbert did in his Times column yesterday, is: why should we bother listening to Republicans who can only say #9, #9, #9, #9. . .

Tuesday, January 27, 2009


Three years ago, the Onion ran a perversely funny story, "Detroit Sold for Scrap." Now farce has become tragedy.

Last year, I visited the site of Detroit's long-abandoned and much picked over Packard Plant with a film crew from Britain. A half block away was a roving maintenance crew from Detroit Edison, replacing a hundred feet of power lines that had been stolen the night before by scavengers.

It's a sign of the times that scrap metal theft (even through metal prices have fallen in recent months) has become a boom business in inner cities. For a time here in Philadelphia, enterprising recyclers began stealing manhole covers--hundreds of them in a few months. Detroit, once the Motor City, is quickly becoming the Scrap Metal City. Everything is ripe for the plundering in a place with a record number of abandoned houses, skyrocketing unemployment, widespread poverty, and a thriving drug trade.

The metal theft business is not simply an urban problem. Like so many other social problems, it's rapidly suburbanizing. In 2008 alone, there were 145,000 foreclosures in Michigan, many in Detroit's suburbs. Thousands more houses are vacant, unsold in the bleak real estate market. Leftover suburban houses are a treasure chest of steel, copper, and aluminum. Air conditioners, gutters, doors, wiring, and plumbing fixtures are disappearing.

Chris McCarus, a Lansing-based journalist, recently ran an excellent three-part series on copper theft on his radio program Michigan Now. The epidemic of copper theft is a vivid example of the everyday devastation wrought by the current economic crisis.

Monday, January 26, 2009


I'm worried about the economic stimulus package. For one, it may well be too small to provide the necessary jolt to our struggling economy. For another, it's short shrifting public transit. Over the last few years, across the country, public transit use has skyrocketed. On the heavily-traveled East Coast corridor, ridership is up on regional rail and on Amtrak, despite the fact that both have struggled to survive on a starvation diet. High gas prices have led commuters are seeking alternatives to high gas prices and to the hassle of air travel. In our sprawling metros, buses are a crucial link between people and jobs. In many smaller cities, where airlines have axed service, buses and sometimes trains are the only alternative to long-distance driving.

Our public transportation infrastructure is often dreadful. Train stations are decrepit, many of our buses aren't deploying new smart technologies and could be greener, and service is spotty, even in high demand areas. Two weeks ago, I had a speaking gig in Charlottesville, Virginia. Flying from Philadelphia via US Air was exorbitantly expensive, but Amtrak, which only runs a few trains to Charlottesville per day, was completely sold out. I had to drive, adding to the East Coast congestion, spewing exhaust into the atmosphere, and relying on fossil fuel. My regional rail in Philadelphia is more crowded than ever--on peak trains, I often can't find a seat. But SEPTA (southeast PA's regional transportation authority) has not modified its schedules to meet increased demand. It can't afford to. Bus transit is even worse. On a bitterly cold day last week, I stood on a shelter-less corner, waiting forever for a local bus. For the tens of thousands of working people who don't own cars, a bus ticket is a ticket to jobs and economic security.

Public transportation creates jobs. It sustains the economy. It's good for the environment. And it's woefully underfunded. Democrats (and a few GOP allies): expand transit funding in the stimulus package.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Bourne Supremacy

Of all the reportorial puffery that accompanied the inauguration, I enjoyed the lengthy piece in the Times on Obama's extended family the most. Extended and how! It includes relatives from Kenya to Indonesia, a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law (related to a Canadian??!! Wow!) and an African American convert to judaism who is now a rabbi. His experience of family resonates in a small way with my own, which includes a French Jewish uncle in his 70s who literally ran across the border into Switzerland to escape the Nazis and a 7 year old nephew whose parents are Korean and Columbian.

We have often asked for a government that "looks like America," and now we have a family that truly does. I confess, I teared up a bit.

Obama's candidacy and now his election have occasioned a great deal of discussion - ranging from the exuberant to the suspicious - about the state of American race relations. I doubt I have anything new or different to add to that except to say that Obama's election certainly confounds many of the easy truisms we have in this country about race and tolerance and the fluid, contingent nature of those things. Much of our discussion about race, like so many other things, got locked into stale frameworks left over from 1968. At the very least, the Obama phenomenon does not fit easily into those, and so we will have to develop new ones.

In the midst of all this, I have found myself thinking about Randolph Bourne. Bourne has been dead for 90 years now, but in 1916 he wrote an essay for the Atlantic which was just about the first, and still just about the best, expression of what we call diversity and multi-culturalism, long before those words were in wide use. (And there is no better critique of Bush's Iraq Folly than Bourne's 1918 essay "War is the Health of the State.")

Bourne wrote his celebration of "Trans-National America" against a rising tide of anti-immigrant xenophobia, and in the midst of World War I. He was unequivocal in his hope that a multi-ethnic America could save the world from the kind of butchery in which the nations of Europe - great civilizations all! - were engaged.

The so-called "melting pot" has happily failed, Bourne wrote, and he called the "English-American conservatism" which would demand it the "chief obstacle to social advance." Without the cultural variety brought by immigrants, Bourne insisted, America was doomed to stagnation.
So let me offer some bits of that essay as my reflection on Obama and the meaning of race in America:

Bourne's rejection of the "melting pot": "What we emphatically do not want is that these distinctive qualities [of immigrants] should be washed out into a tasteless, colorless fluid of uniformity. Already we have far too much of this insipidity. . . .The failure of the melting-pot, far from closing the great American democratic experiment, means that it has only just begun. Whatever American nationalism turns out to be, we see already that it will have a color richer and more exciting than our ideal has hitherto encompassed. In a world which has dreamed of internationalism, we find that we have all unawares been building up the first international nation. "

On the meaning of American nationalism: "America is a unique sociological fabric, and it bespeaks poverty of imagination not to be thrilled at the incalculable potentialities of so novel a union of men. To seek no other goal than the weary old nationalism,—belligerent, exclusive, inbreeding, the poison of which we are witnessing now in Europe,—is to make patriotism a hollow sham, and to declare that, in spite of our boastings, America must ever be a follower and not a leader of nations."

On "trans-national" America: "Only America, by reason of the unique liberty of opportunity and traditional isolation for which she seems to stand, can lead in this cosmopolitan enterprise. Only the American—and in this category I include the migratory alien who has lived with us and caught the pioneer spirit and a sense of new social vistas—has the chance to become that citizen of the world. America is coming to be, not a nationality but a trans-nationality, a weaving back and forth, with the other lands, of many threads of all sizes and colors. Any movement which attempts to thwart this weaving, or to dye the fabric any one color, or disentangle the threads of the strands, is false to this cosmopolitan vision. "

In some ways, that "cosmopolitan vision" just moved into the White House, and I suspect that looking down from philosopher heaven, Randolph Bourne is smiling.

Friday, January 23, 2009

A Boy Doing a Man's Job?

72 hours into the Obama Administration and two things are already clear:

1) The remaining Congressional Republicans really are the true-believing, kool-aid drinking partisan zealots we thought they were. Their actions in this short legislative week suggest that they would burn the village rather than save it. Holding up cabinet nominees, rattling sabers about legislation that hasn't even arrived yet. These are ugly people who plan to play even uglier.

2) In the Senate, where because of byzantine rules the few can hold up the will of the many, Harry Reid is not up to the task of leading Obama's agenda past Mitch McConnell and the drooling dogs in his party.

I have never been particularly impressed with Reid. He deserves some credit for taking over the Democratic Senatorial leadership at a low-water mark. But since becoming Majority leader in 2007 he has struck me as not having much of a vision, nor the political skills to turn that vision into successful legislation. Even with a majority, Reid couldn't stop most of Bush's agenda, though at that point there was nothing to be gained in cooperating with the president.

Shortly after the November election, I thought I heard a rumor that someone else might run against him for Majority leader. Either that rumor was simply blogosphere vapor, or Democrats decided that a fight over Reid was not worth having. Whatever the case, the future of Obama's agenda now rests in the hands of Harry Reid.

Unless I'm missing something here, this does not fill me with confidence. Obama will have a long honeymoon period with the public and the press I suspect, but it is clear that all his bipartisan gesturing will amount to very little with Congressional Republicans for whom "bipartisanship" is even more anathema than "gay marriage" or "Darwinian evolution."

Which makes it even more urgent that those of us who helped put Obama in the White House now turn our energy to lobbying those Republicans who stand in the way of making this a better country.

Reid is no Lyndon Johnson, who bent the Senate to his will with astonishing effectiveness. But unless he can begin to channel his inner LBJ, this brand new day we all felt on Tuesday may cloud over very quickly.


The economic crisis is hitting home, even at rich universities like mine. My department is replacing three full-time, tenure line positions in modern American history with one non-tenure line two-year lectureship. Harvard's School of Arts and Sciences has announced, in classic Harvard fashion, a "hiring pause." (The usual and customary phrase "hiring freeze" is, I guess, too cold, given that even after a devastating hit by the market, Harvard still has a $27 billion dollar endowment). Many universities have canceled searches altogether. By the best estimate, in my primary field, history, fifteen percent of faculty searches this year were canceled nationwide. Grim indeed.

In today's Philadelphia Inquirer, education historian and op-ed writer par excellence, Jon Zimmerman makes a persuasive case that the economic stimulus package should include doctorates. He looks to the New Deal's creation of jobs for newly minted Ph.Ds and underemployed professors in the arts, historical preservation and research, archiving, and national parks. The whole piece is worth a read.

When asked why the government should sponsor artists and writers, New Deal official Harry Hopkins responded, "Hell, they've got to eat like other people." Hopkins' quip reminds me of a sign that a job seeker carried at a recent conference of historians: "Will Teach 20th Century U.S. For Food."

But he probably won't - at least not at the university level. That's why we need to design other jobs, to put his skills to good use.

After all, our society has already invested untold sums in educating young scholars. And "investment" is the mantra of the day. As Obama keeps reminding us, his goal is not simply to put people to work. It's to invest in a better future, by making improvements in infrastructure, renewable energy and, yes, education.

For our underemployed academics, of course, the investment has already happened. The only question is whether we will save it, or squander it, and how.

One point to add to Zimmerman's argument. The economic engine of dying rustbelt cities for the last forty years has been "meds and eds"--that is hospitals and higher education. As those sectors contract, the economic effects go well beyond a few underemployed Ph.D.s to the whole metropolitan economy. Stimulate education!

Thursday, January 22, 2009


I've been blogging away this week over at Talking Points Memo, part of a discussion on "Obama's America." Orlando Patterson, Olati Johnson, Rick Kahlenberg, Jim Sleeper, Scott Winship, Jedediah Purdy, and I have had a lively exchange on race, integration, and equality. I have to commend the editors of Democracy Journal for pulling together a heterogeneous mix, and for bringing me aboard--for I'm not part of the cast of usual suspects. Also at TPM this week is a discussion that I wish I could join, on Tony Badger's new book on FDR's first one hundred days.

Although I have had differences with Kahlenberg and Sleeper in particular, we also find some common ground (more with Kahlenberg, who thoughtfully reflects on integration, less with Sleeper, who is still fighting the battles of the late 80s and early 90s against media-created black militants). Check it out--and jump in on the comments section if you are moved.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Inaugural Thoughts

It's cold out here on the edge of the prairie today - much colder than it is in Washington. But at the Emporium in Yellow Springs, Ohio, the coffee shop cum wine bar cum village meeting place dozens of my neighbors gathered to watch the inauguration and it was warm indeed. Joy, applause, cheers, tears, disbelief, relief, happiness. (The free wine Kurt provided certainly didn't hurt!)

So a few quick observations: Obama's speech was very good overall but I noticed several things in particular. First, while the campaign turned out to be largely a referendum on the economy, some of Obama's sharpest and most damning words were about the conduct of American foreign policy. This is certainly exciting - joined with Eric Holder's unequivocal rejection of torture during his confirmation hearings, and other statements coming from the new administration. At one point, in the middle of Obama's remarks about foreign policy, the camera panned to Bush, who looked even smaller, more dyspeptic and more trivial than usual.

Second, the line unuttered but hanging in the air was Kennedy's: the torch really has been passed to a new generation. As I watched Dick Cheney being wheeled off in his wheel chair (he pulled a back muscle moving boxes??!! Really??!!) I can begin to believe that we may finally have left 1968 behind us.

Third, I was personally touched to be included in the litany of American diversity - Obama talked about us a nation of Christians and Muslims, Jews and Hindus. And non-believers. Whoohooo! A hearty thanks from all us secular humanists and happy heathens who grow weary of the relentless religiousity of this country.

And speaking of that, I had my fingers stuck in my ears during the Rick Warren invocation so perhaps I missed something important. What struck me, however, was how singularly unimpressive he was - dull, predictable, uninspiring. I've never been to a big-box mega-church, but apparently it doesn't take all that much talent to become the head of one.

Finally, watching all this pomp and circumstance, I couldn't help but wonder whether we were a bit precipitous back in 1776. If we don't want a monarch, exactly, we surely love a coronation. That's the function inaugurations obviously serve for us, complete with honor guards, artillery firing, and endless comment on how the important women are dressed. Compare this to the transition from one leader to another in any European country and it is clear that whatever may divide us, Americans do love a parade.

Monday, January 19, 2009


While I am mostly skeptical about the hype about a new post-racial America, we are definitely entering post-Bush America. Moments like this give me hope.

Follow up 1/20: a new version of this recording is up and running.

Sunday, January 18, 2009


I'm taking the liberty of reprinting one of my earliest posts, from April 4, 2008, the fortieth anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination. It seems just as timely today. I will also be blogging this week at TPM Cafe at Talking Points Memo on Obama's America. May you spend MLK day--and the next year--engaged in King's still unfinished struggles for justice.


Every year, in January and April, we commemorate the extraordinary career of the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. There is probably no figure in recent American history whose memory is more distorted, whose message more bowdlerized, whose powerful words are more drained of content than King.

Last week, in preparation for a public lecture on 1968, I re-read the most important book on King and his politics to come out in the last decade: Thomas F. Jackson’s From Civil Rights to Human Rights: Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Struggle for Economic Justice. Jackson, a former researcher with the King Papers project at Stanford, has read King’s every last sermon, speech, book, article, and letter. What Jackson finds is that from the beginning of his ministry, King was far more radical, especially on matters of labor, poverty, and economic justice than we remember. In media accounts, King was quickly labeled the “Apostle of Non-Violence,” and, by the mid-1960s, portrayed as the antithesis to Malcolm X. While King adhered to nonviolence for his entire career, the single-minded focus of the media on the horse race between Malcolm and Martin led reporters to ignore King’s more radical pronouncements. They simply didn’t fit into the developing story line. Black power advocates also distorted King, focusing on his ministerial style and arrogance (members of SNCC called him “de Lawd”). They branded King as hopelessly bourgeois, a detriment rather than a positive force in the black freedom struggle. White liberals, fearful of black unrest, embraced King as a voice of moderation, hoping that he could stem the rising tide of black discontent that exploded in the long hot summers of the mid- sixties. The representation of King as mainstream left observers unable to make sense out of King’s opposition to the Vietnam War, his call for an interracial Poor People’s Movement, and his increasingly vocal denuciations of class inequality in America. King, they contended, had been radicalized or, perhaps, was more calculating in his leftward move, changing his rhetoric to remain a legitimate leader in the eyes of younger, angrier blacks. But as Jackson shows, King was anything but a milquetoast racial liberal or a radical-come-lately. Through a close reading of King’s work, Jackson finds deep currents of anti-imperialism running through King’s thought, going all the way back to his days as a student. He finds a consistent thread of anticapitalism in King’s speeches. And he finds that King was building alliances with the left-wing of the labor movement and allying himself with activists who called for structural change in the economy. King, in other words, was a radical well before he offered his prophetic denunciation of the Vietnam War in 1967 or joined the Memphis sanitation workers on strike in 1968.

King’s radicalism is lost to the obfuscating fog of memory. In American culture today, we have several Martin Luther King, Jrs: the Commemorative King, the Therapeutic King, the Conservative King, and the Commodified King. Each of these Kings competes for our attention, but each of them represents a vision of King that he himself would not have recognized.

First is the commemorative King. Only fifteen years after his death, King won an extraordinary recognition---he became the only individual (unless you count Presidents Washington and Lincoln, whose birthdays have been unceremoniously consolidated into President's Day) with his own national holiday. That a man who was berated as un-American, hounded by the FBI, arrested and jailed numerous times, was recognized by a national holiday is nothing short of amazing. To be sure, the King holiday met with significant opposition, particularly from southerners like Jesse Helms, who contended that King was a tool of the Communist Party, and from John McCain, Evan Mecham, and other conservative Arizonans. But the King Holiday legislation was signed into law after overwhelming congressional approval by none other than President Ronald Reagan, who began his political career as an opponent of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and who repeated his act by launching his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia Mississippi, a tiny place whose only claim to fame was that three young civil rights activists had been murdered there twenty years earlier. But if there was anything at all subversive in King's life, it is lost in the feel good celebrations of King Day, which has become a day for picking up litter and painting school classrooms. Not that community service is a bad thing, but it's a long, long way from King's vision for social change.

The Therapeutic King: In American iconography, King is the great healer, the man who called America to be true to its “creed” of equality and opportunity. King’s message, bereft of its hard-hitting political content, is so anoydyne that we can all support it, Republican and Democrat alike. The feel good, inspirational message of King’s life has moved front and center in our memories of King. A popular school curriculum intended to build student self-esteem, for example, calls for children to express their dreams. King's message is to hold hands and join our voices together, ebony and ivory, in perfect harmony.

The conservative King: Devoid of the political content that drove his message, King has also become an icon of racial conservatism. Today's most unlikely King acolytes are critics of civil rights policies such as affirmative action. King is the prophet of meritocratic individualism. The most articulate proponent of this version of King (and there are many) is Ward Connerly, the leader of nationwide anti-affirmative action campaign who drew from King's own words to call for a dismantling of race-sensitive admissions. Only one King speech—King’s address to the 1963 March on Washington, matters to Connerly-type conservatives. And only one line in that speech matters: “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.” King speeches should be judged by their content. And there’s a lot in the “I Have a Dream” speech that would make McCain and Connerly squirm. King celebrated the “the marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community.” And, speaking of the “fierce urgency of Now,” he encouraged the 250,000 strong gathered on the Mall to take more aggressive action. “This is no time to engage in the luxury of cooling off or to take the tranquilizing drug of gradualism.” At a moment when conservatives (and many liberals) were denouncing the movement for going “too far, too fast,” King sent a clear message. Go further, faster. King went on to support aggressive enfocement of civil rights laws including affirmative action itself. And more than that, he demanded the fundamental reordering of the American economy.

Finally, in perhaps the most American of twists, we have the commodified King---efforts in the last decade, largely spearheaded by the King family itself--to market the words and image of the Reverend King. In classic American fashion, Martin Luther King, Jr. has become a consumer good. King's family has engaged in an aggressive effort to market the image of the Reverend King, including a multi-million dollar deal with Time Warner for the rights to King's speeches, writings, and recordings. The King family sued to prevent companies from using King's image on refrigerator magnets, switchblades, and on "I have a Dream" ice cream cones. But they quickly turned to their own business in King kitsch. In the mid-90s, the Reverend King's son Dexter King, who administered the King estate, took a pilgrimage to visit the shrine of another King, “THE KING,” Elvis at Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee to pick up some marketing lessons. Since the mid-1990s, King's estate has authorized, among other things, commemorative pins for the Atlanta Summer Olympics with the likeness of Martin Luther King Jr., porcelain statuettes of King, and, my favorite, checkbooks bearing King's likeness.

Whether commodity or conservative icon, suffice it to say that each of these visions of King is flawed. The commemorative King, celebrates heroism and courage, but risks the creation of a one-dimensional character that glosses over King's subversive, challenging, and upsetting messages. The therapeutic King stands in sharp contrast to a political strategy that demanded the overthrow of American apartheid and demanded great sacrifices from blacks and whites alike. The conservative King is based on a very selective appropriation of King's words--largely from a single speech--in service of a cause that King found abhorrent. And the commodified King creates comforting images that are wholly drained of their ability to provoke and challenge---and, moreover, stand in sharp juxtaposition to King's penetrating critique of American capitalism and his deep-rooted anti-materialism. Above all, King's contribution was to unsettle power, to challenge the status quo, something that a porcelain statuette or an Olympic pin or an anti-affirmative action law will never do.

Friday, January 16, 2009

We the People. . .were right

Way back in 2000, George Bush told reporters that he wasn't much interested in studying history, didn't care much about the past, didn't read any history books. Oh! how 8 disastrous years, and truly "historic" poll numbers will change a man.

There is no question that the orgy of exit interviews W has been giving over his last few weeks - equal parts self-congratulation and self-pity - are an appeal to Clio, that fickle muse of history. He wants history to remember him well, even if the rest of us who have lived through this nightmare are nothing but callow ingrates.

Nor is there any question that he needn't bother with all this. He already is, and will be for the rest of my natural days, the worst president in American history (not to mention a despicable human being). I can say this with a certain confidence. "History," after all, doesn't make judgments - historians do. And I am one of those who spends my time analyzing the past for a living. We professional historians - most of us anyway - need no further evidence, nor any more time to deliberate: worst ever.

But what strikes me about W's hail-mary pass to posterity is that he, and the press at whom he has been shoveling this manure, take as a given that the Bush presidency started on September 11, 2001. So, for example: He has kept us safe for 7 years, goes the official line, oblivious to the specious logic of that claim and to the fact that, therefore, he didn't keep us safe for those first 9 months of his presidency.

This post-dated Bush presidency has also made it easier to see his worst instincts and practices as somehow a response to the crisis of 9/11. In fact, there was plenty of evidence by September 10 that Bush would govern as a far right, bitterly partisan president who treated the Congress and the Constitution with contempt, and for whom ideological purity trumped all other considerations. Exhibit A: the appointment of John Ashcroft to be Attorney General. 'Nuf said. Exhibit B: Senator Jim Jeffords of Vermont. In 2000, Jeffords was a Republican, but a dangerously moderate one. Bush staffers treated him so badly in those first days of 2001 that he left the party to become an independent. Exhibit C: a small trickle of senior military staff leaving the Pentagon because of their unhappiness with Donald Rumsfeld. That trickle would grow as Rumsfeld ran roughshod over the armed forces. Exhibit D: by August, 2001, Bush's poll numbers were already tanking. And on I could go.

These things are important to remember as we evaluate the full 8 years of Bush's presidency, but perhaps they don't rise to the level of major importance. What does, however, is the election of 2000 itself, which gets conveniently ignored by all those who pretend Bush moved into the White House on September 11.

As this administration comes at last to its end, let us never forget the foundational and fundamental facts of the Bush presidency:

He didn't win the election in 2000.

He was installed by what would be described if it had happened in any other country as a coup d'etat.

The will of the American people was deliberately subverted by partisans on the Supreme Court.

A majority of Americans voted for Al Gore; a majority of Floridians woke up on election day intending to vote for Al Gore, though we may never now exactly how many had their votes stolen or suppressed.

George W Bush was a squatter in the White House.

In this sense, 9/11 was the best thing that happened to George W. Bush, politically speaking, and Bush's White House never spoke any other language. Without 9/11 I have no doubt that Bush would have been a one-term squatter.

We need to say these things because they remind us that our system can be subverted by a carefully coordinated, well-funded cabal. The election of 2000 reminds us that our democracy really is fragile. And - perhaps because I am feeling good and expansive now that my Bush countdown clock really is approaching zero - I believe that we need to remind ourselves that in 2000, the American people were right.

Wednesday, January 7, 2009

All Pennsylvanians Calling

I can date precisely the moment when I became disgusted with Pennsylvania Arlen Specter. April, 20, 1985. On that day, I was in DC as part of a national student lobby effort for nuclear disarmament. About 50 of us Pennsylvanians had scheduled an appointment to discuss things like MX and Cruise missiles with Specter. Specter thought the office was too crowded and invited us outside for the meeting.

Except that he had no intention of meeting with us. Once out on the Capitol steps, he tried to arrange us all in a group for a photo (the photographer was waiting for us outside). We didn't cooperate, insisting instead that we talk about the issues. He tried several times to herd us into his photo op and each time we refused. Finally, he walked away, leaving us to talk with an aide. (By way of contrast, I should add, the late Senator John Heinz did meet with us and was thoroughly honest and forthright, though we disagreed over nearly everything).

It has proved to be typical of a man who has carefully crafted a public persona as an "independent" and "moderate" Republican, while voting far more often than not to hold the Republican party line.

Which brings us to today's Times. On the first day of the new legislative session (and still 2.5 weeks from the inauguration) Specter launched an aggressive, saber-rattling rant about Obama's nomination of Eric Holder to be Attorney General. Shady things must be thoroughly investigated, Specter intoned. Full and frank disclosure, said the Senator. This would only be so much Senatorial hot air were it not for the fact that Specter is the ranking Republican on the Judiciary Committee and is thus in a position to block, stall or otherwise bollocks the nomination.

But what is even more galling about Specter's comments today is his recent record on the Judiciary Committee. He expressed all sorts of grave concerns about the nomination of Alberto Gonzalez - and then promptly greased the wheels to get his nomination approved. As far as I am concerned, Specter wrote his own obituary when he gave a spirited defense of habeus corpus rights on the floor of the Senate, and then voted against them under pressure from the Bush Administration.

(For those of you with longer memories, you will recall the central role Specter played in getting Clarence Thomas approved to the Supreme Court by leading the scurrilous campaign against Anita Hill. More recently, Specter has expressed "grave concerns" over some of Thomas' rulings).

Specter won't damage Holder's nomination, I suspect. To listen to him, Specter has a great many convictions. To look at his voting record, he has the courage of few of them, and he won't risk the wrath of Philadelphia-area voters by sticking his neck out over Holder. Still, I'd like to invite all you Pennsylvanians reading this to call Specter's office and let him know that his craven capitulation to the Bush Administration and his duplicitous record in the Senate have not gone unnoticed. For those of you who don't already have it on speed-dial, the Capitol switchboard can be reached at: 202-224-3121.

Thursday, January 1, 2009


My New Year's resolution: to dissent, when necessary, from the politics of the new administration. Steve's "New Year's Resolution" post paints dissent and protest with too broad a brush. I agree that leftist protest is often ineffective and sometimes tragically so. I have long been a skeptic of the perfectionism that animates many leftist activists. Politics entails compromise. What we need this new year--and this new administration--is an effective left that uses its clout, like it did during the New Deal and the Johnson administration, to shape the direction of public policy. We need a courageous left that stands up to the administration and demand that it be better (it's unrealistic to expect "best" all the time). That means wiping the stars from our eyes, getting over the celebratory evocations of change, and putting pressure on Washington. The selection of Rick Warren as the nation's pastor is one such moment. There is little to gain by courting Warren. The Billy Graham comparison is most apt: what did Graham ever do for the Democrats anyhow? Warren's fellow travelers aren't suddenly going to turn Democratic because he's on the stage with Obama. But the peddlers of homophobia will be able to celebrate with a high-level endorsement. That we should fight.