Thursday, July 29, 2010

Why Sherrod matters ...

I have still been mulling over the Shirley Sherrod incident in the back of my mind, and in doing so have come to a new theory of how Obama wants to be remembered as President. To get there, I have to repeat a story I have related here at least once before (I believe during the campaign) and probably other places as well.

When Obama was Prez of the Harvard Law Review, at least one conservative professor relates the story that when he submitted an article to the Law Review, Obama gave him not only grammatical edits (as Law Review Prez's are supposed to do) but also suggestions on how to strengthen his conservative arguments. I have come to believe that Obama did that because, as the first African American President of the Harvard Law Review, Obama decided he did *not* want to make waves, rather Obama wanted to be remembered as a competent but conventional LR Prez. After all, if Obama made radical changes as LR Prez, the next African American candidate would be viewed not as just any other candidate, but as a candidate that might make radical changes.

So, back to the present, I was confused when the Obama administration fired Shirley Sherrod so quickly. I wondered why they didn't seem to consider the source of the video, but that's not important to the rest of my argument. Did the administration think that by firing her so fast (and asking so quickly for the resignation of Van Jones last fall) they would score points with conservatives? Perhaps (although they didn't), but I now think the idea that was uppermost in Obama's mind is that he wants to be seen as so even handed that if he finds an African American employee who is racist towards whites (or holds political views outside the mainstream) then Obama will ask immediately for the resignation of that employee. That is so the the next time an African American runs for President, if people say "Do we want another Barack Obama?" it will be a positive question, not a negative one. I think the passage of a health care reform bill shows Obama wants to stand out (in history), but the passage of the most conservative HCR model possible shows that Obama does not want to stand out (in history) as particularly radical.

What does this mean for our future? Well, I think we will see Obama trying conventional approaches to most problems before trying anything more radical. So for example, I don't know if Obama will pull many troops out of Afghanistan next summer, or if he will leave Afghanistan altogether by 2012. I think, though, that we can expect to see Obama to work hard but follow the advice of his generals in Afghanistan, so that if we do just walk away, no one will be able to say we didn't try (even if they do ask why we bothered).

In fact, I want to say something about Afghanistan as our *new Vietnam*, but I leave that for my next post.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Kelly says Obama makes mistakes!!! Stop the presses!!!

Following my usual tradition, I wanted to comment on Jack Kelly's column today. He wants to emphasize how the administration raced to judgment, and he repeats a story championed by far right blogs that Think Progress edited a video, cropping out the African American wife of a Tea Partier. Now, Kelly did acknowledge that Obama and Vilsack (the Agriculture Secretary), and that Breitbart has not (Kelly didn't bother to mention that Fox News has not). Past that, I have only obliquely heard about the Think Progress video; the only thing I could find online (besides a score or more of right wing blogs screeds) was a video that included maybe a dozen self declared racists and the one guy with his wife. I don't know if it was changed from what was originally released.

But I don't know if that should matter. Should we play into the game of one or two people prove that an organization is racist? Suppose Shirley Sherrod had been racist? So what, this is one person (and by the way, Obama would still be blamed). If she was racist, would that "prove" the NAACP was a racist organization? Well, nothing, but defending her would tend to discredit the defender, whether the NAACP or the administration. I think that the right figured that out when they took Van Jones down in a similar fashion last September.

So how should we look at whether a group is racist or not, or can groups even be racist (well, the KKK certainly was/is)? When I googled about, I found a poll of the Tea Party we may remember from April. The NYTimes focused on the results that said Tea Partiers were both a bit older and more educated than maybe the stereotypes. I notice that the poll finds Tea Party members maybe 10% to 15% more racist than Americans in general. That includes questions like 16% say whites have more opportunities versus 31% US general population, 25% say Obama administration favors blacks over whites versus 11% US population.

Even that poll I would say only shows that some Tea Party members lean towards being racist. But what bothers me is that apparently almost two thirds of the Tea Party members polled think that taxes have already been raised (despite the fact that actually most Americans have received tax cuts in the last few years). As far as I or anyone can determine, the Tea Party, in favoring small government, wants to cancel any or all of the few remaining programs that assist African Americans as well as other poorer people. That is the place where I might say that the Tea Party might reasonably come in for criticism. These are sort of subtle criticisms, of policy in a time of recession, rather than of outright insult based on race. But that is the way racism has evolved in the United States. It is no longer acceptable to have separate water fountains, but people are worried about where tax dollars go. Should a poor black teenager who dropped out get training dollars, or an out of work white steelworker with a family? Or maybe neither?

One person, Breitbart or Sherrod is the dramatic example of racist or no. But their personal beliefs will not affect the income of thousands or millions. Yes, Breitbart's propaganda might affect the beliefs of thousands or millions, but a lot of those people were predisposed to believe one way or the other anyway. What I think matters at the end of the day is what Congress votes, which of course will be affected be how much money and threats lobbyists spread around, and what voters seem to believe and care about. So what policies the Tea Party agitates for matters.

Thursday, July 22, 2010

What's in an -ism?

As I glanced through the NYTimes this morning before work, I noticed an essay by James McWhorter titled "The Dreaded P-Word". It is referring to the term progressive, which some Democrats/liberals back away from and some Republicans/conservative embrace. In fact, McWhorter says, labels like liberal, conservative, radical and reactionary have changed or mutated over the years. I definitely agree. It's a shame when (political) fashion dictates what terms mean, and labels like racist and bleeding heart are perhaps the most precise.

McWhorter describes him self as a "black conservative", which he further defines as "a lack of interest in stressing racism as an obstacle to success" (I'm not sure why he omits the "black" part, maybe he thinks it is self evident). McWhorter (confusingly) notes that Louis Farrakhan advocates "black self reliance" and "propounds traditional codes of behavior", but since Farrakhan also says white people are racists, he couldn't be a black conservative. Hunh?

Which is why (partly) I was interested in what McWhorter says a liberal might be. Apparently the defining characteristic is an "espousal" of big government and "of possibly envelope-pushing social values". Which pisses me off, but to explain why I need to step back in the explanation.

Conservatives and particularly that branch of conservatism that calls itself libertarians (I see them as a subset, they may see themselves as distinct) want minimal government control over their lives and minimal government taxation. Because they don't want the government to spend much, it naturally follows that they want a smaller government. Fair enough.

But I don't think it follows that liberals, being somewhat in opposition to conservatives/libertarians, actually necessarily advocate big government. I think a liberal, such as myself, can look at politics through a different lens than the libertarian. I use economic theory to say that there are issues the free market does not handle well, and need some form of government intervention. The traditional example is pollution, which the free market does not handle well because no one owns the air (or the water, perhaps from the ocean) but we all use it. Government intervention can be as extensive as mandating a particular technology (say, electrostatic air scrubbers) or as (relatively) limited as a tax on pollution, where the polluting companies show their technology works and their tax is reduced accordingly (and perhaps they can buy and sell "pollution" credits from other more or less efficient companies).

The point is, I have goals, such as less racist behavior in society or less pollution, but I don't think the delivery method for achieving those goals is written in stone. In a way, I prefer small government methods of achieving my goals because the small government method uses fewer resources and this is more efficient.

What's in the definition of a label like liberal? A whole agenda, hiding in plain sight.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Update on Sherrod and Breitbart

So I have looked a little further into this whole Shirley Sherrod issue. Andrew Breitbart claims the edited videos were delivered to him in their edited form (or so I have read). Assuming that is true (which I have trouble with), should he have investigated further? The videos made their way to Fox News (and I guess from there to CNN), should either one of those organizations have investigated the video further? Actually, apparently the NAACP at first agreed Ms Sherrod was a racist, then later released the full tape that showed that she was not (not their finest moment).

But I want to step back and look at how this whole thing was presented in the first place. Andrew Breitbart says that he posted the Sherrod videos in response to the NAACP's assertion that the Tea Party has racist elements (as proof there is racism on the other side).

Now when you think about racism in America. you realize it did not start 18 months ago, or even 50 years ago. In fact it is fair to say that racism in the United States predates the United States as a nation (since there were slaves in colonial America). Then there is the question of who might be best equipped to judge what is racism, the NAACP or Andrew Breitbart? I mean, to be fair the NAACP got it wrong on Shirely Sherrod for a time (as did the mainstream media, the White House and the Secretary of Agriculture). But my sense is, in regard to the charges the NAACP leveled at the Tea Party, the NAACP may have more experience in looking at these things than Breitbart. At this point, we don't know exactly what the NAACP has in mind. For my part, I would look that the policies the Tea Party advocates, but there is some indication the NAACP may look at the appearance of Tea Party crowds at rallies.

Breitbart, for his part, besides the business with Sherood, has two responses to the NAACP that I know of. First, there was the incident during the health care reform (HCR) debate where three black congressmen, walking through a crowd of ralliers at the Capitol, claim to have heard the "N" word 15 times. Breitbart has posted 4 videos (actually combined into one) where he says you do not hear the "N" word. Could the congressmen have said that just to (as Mr Breitbart claimed on an ABC morning news show) distract from the problems HCR was having. Of course. On the other hand, this is Andrew Breitbart, who has now released two edited video collections (the one of Sherrod and the one of the ACORN sting) where the raw footage significantly changed the message from what you saw in the edited videos. Could someone on Breitbart's staff have edited or simply replaced the audio of the these videos taken from the Capitol's steps? You tell me.

Breitbart's other response is that the pictures of people in crowds at Tea Party rallies carrying racist signs are obviously progressive plants to discredit the Tea Party. His proof thus far is to make such pictures available (I assume we are to believe they were taken from other "progressive" websites) and simply say this person does not look like a Tea Partier, he (or she) looks like a progressive (perhaps a hippie). I don't know if anyone has considered locating the people themselves, or perhaps looking on a Tea Party website.

I don't want to go much further with this,, except to say that Breitbart is taking two or three instances and saying that they prove that the Tea Party is not racist, or that blacks are as or more racist. That is a little like saying if one woman in Gary, Indiana and one man in Memphis Tennesse are cheating the welfare system, then all welfare should be cut off. Yes, there is that old adage that where there is smoke there is fire (and that if you see one or two cockroaches, you have a thousand). But in this case, disputes over a few anecdotes are being held up as proof that at best a handful of individuals out of five hundred thousand Tea Party members might be thinking bad thoughts.

I swear I read or heard somewhere that Donna Brazille, the long time Democratic strategist, stated that she thought the Tea Party did not have any larger of a percentage of racists than the Republican party, or the public at large. I'm not sure, but I wonder if that is not still pretty damning. She went on to say that Obama should be worrying about jobs. Well, there's no arguing that.

conservative = liar?

I think that whenever a new President comes into office, political partisans on both sides and particularly on the extremes tie themselves into knots. Think about the reactions to the second Bush, Bill Clinton, Ronald Reagan, Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, Lyndon Johnson and JFK. People were practically calling their respective Presidencies either the solution to all our problems and the end of history or the coming of the apocalypse (then). I think Gerry Ford and the first Bush were greeted with more muted reactions, the former because the country wanted to get away from Nixon-esgue drama, the later because he just wasn't that exciting (until the first gulf war).

So I am not going to say the current drama in DC is unprecedented or the worst things have ever been (although you could argue that short of the drama of the civil war or the depression, we are up there). But things are weird, and in many ways bad.

I will say I was never one to suggest Obama was some sort of messiah, or that he would solve all our problems (and I defy anyone to find a place where I did say such a thing). I was (and am) impressed with his intelligence and I certainly said I thought he was a better choice. But for those people who really build him up in their minds, and because the Republicans have been so bad in Congress and in general, there is now a problem; how to hold Obama accountable for what he does get wrong. It seems wrong to complain about a messiah, to suggest he is continuing the policies of the previous fallen angel, especially when the opposition party seems to be acting more and more like Satan.

All this is important because of a current conservative journalist misdeed. If you haven't heard of Shirley Sherrod by now, you must be living under a rock (or at least don't read online news sources). A low to mid level USDA official responsible for farm programs in Georgia, she was recently fired for being a racist. At which point we need to back up a little in the story.

What happened was that at some point (I don't know when, but recently), Sherrod gave a speech at a NAACP function (I think it was). She told the story of how, 25 or so years ago she was working at a non-profit organization set up to help poor African-American farmers. A poor white farmer on the verge of losing his farm came to her seeking her help. She thought to herself, this guy doesn't understand the point of our organization, and although she did give him the name of a (white) lawyer, she declined to help the farmer any more than that. All this had been filmed, it was obtained and edited by Andrew Breitbart, the conservative journalist and released by him. Tom Vilsack, the Secretary of Agriculture, heard about it, and put pressure on Ms Sherrod to resign, which she did (zero tolerance for racists).

Except that, unsurprisingly, the story is much more complicated than that. Sherrod's speech was about how any racism, white toward black or black toward white, is misguided. Sherrod recounts how she soon after felt bad about her treatment, sought him out, offered to and successfully helped him, and they became and remain to this day, friends. Breitbart edited out this part of the speech.

Of course, the question becomes, how do we get Vilsack to admit he made a mistake, and also, why did he trust Breitbart so completely? Which brings us back to my earlier question of how do we hold Obama accountable when not so long ago a lot of us were suggested he was a messiah of sorts.

I will say that the next time some posts a video or whatever from Breitbart, I will immediately talk about how Breitbart is a known distorter of fact.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Subcultures in black and white ...

Ross Douthat, the New York Times hardcore conservative columnist (as opposed to the softcore David Brooks) had an interesting column yesterday. He was talking about why rural white America mistrusts urban America. Douthat pointed out that elite and in particular ivy league Universities and colleges admit a moderate number of poor blacks and latinos, but essentially no poor, rural white students. It's as if being in the 4H, the Future Farmers of America or high school ROTC disqualified you for admission to Harvard.

On my own, I thought that a poor white student could clean up his or her diction, get clothes from Brooks Brothers and a good haircut, and pass for a successful business person, but a black person will always be black (ask Henry Lewis Gates). Then I read some of the comments written about Douthat's column (I read the first 25 and the highlighted comments). They pointed out that a lot of rural white America does not, in fact, trust ivy league type schools. Especially among the home school set, they would rather send their children to a close by school affiliated with the religion of their choice. This is combined with the fact that (according to one commenter) only some 10% of high school students take the SAT's in Alabama, versus some 80% in Massachusetts (I wonder if some Alabama students still take the ACT).

This got me to thinking. I am sure we have heard that one explanation for the problems African Americans have with integrating into mainstream America is that they feel mainstream America has been racist for as long as America has existed (and before), and to act and dress and speak like the white man is to admit that the white man's culture is superior, and to be African American is somehow to be inferior. I think you will understand what I mean instantly if I say those two somewhat offensive words "Uncle Tom".

Now obviously this is a complicated issue, and speaking for myself I happen to think white culture is dandy, but I certainly can understand the point being made by (some) African Americans here. Here's the thing, though. I wonder if a parallel concept is being created in poor white rural America. If a high school student from 50 miles outside Boise or Bismark is accepted to Harvard or Stanford, will they have to drop their accent or change their manner of speech, to be accepted by their fellow students or reassure their professors that they know what they are talking about? If the student from the farm does not acquiesce and assimilate, will they survive at whatever prestigious school? If they do adopt the urban, educated manner of speech, if they learn literary criticism or medieval french tapestry making, will they have learned something of value to take back to the farm? Will they be greeted by their family and friends as a highly educated and valuable resource for their community, or a traitor?

Obviously I am over simplifying here, and a young person who goes off to Harvard or Stanford or UPenn or even Iowa State and comes back a doctor or a veterinarian will obviously be a valuable resource for their community. And that community will expect its doctors or veterinarians to speak the language of science, to do their job the best that they can. But my basic thought is whether yet another subculture has been created, the "real" American subculture of poor rural white America, where Darwin and James Hansen are not welcome. Can we afford that?

Sunday, July 18, 2010

Kelly gives us a chance to look at racism

Are liberals sometimes as ham-fisted and narrow-minded as their conservative counterparts? Well, yeah. The reason I am happy to call myself a liberal is because of chosen intentions: liberals generally think the country is wealthy enough to help the poor, and additionally generally think the country (and world) is wealthy and smart enough to find solutions for climate change.

But that doesn’t mean I approve of all actions all liberals take, or of what all liberals say. And besides verbal gaffes and other tactical mistakes, I would be the first to admit that a) declaring a desire to “help” the poor carries an extreme danger of paternalism and b) the poor will tell us that what we have done and are doing has only worked somewhat, and there are still lots of poor. In particular, African Americans started out in this country as slaves, then became discriminated against poor people, with some number in virtual slavery, and now are just most discriminated against poor people, with illegal aliens taking up the role of virtual slaves. So while the lot of African Americans in America has improved somewhat as a whole and in particular for some individuals and communities, it has not gotten better and in some ways gone backward for many, almost certainly most African Americans (the state of the Hill and East Liberty as shopping areas is an indication of that).

Now, when there is a recession, such as now, this is when we see the calls to cut back on government spending. Except that when conservatives call for government to behave more wisely in a fiscal respect, they don’t mean cutting in defense spending or raising taxes. Conservatives mean cutting (whatever remains of) spending on the poor.

Now, if you think maybe two seconds, you can probably come up with a particular group that has spoken out strongly against “big” government and for smaller government..Jack Kelly noticed that NAACP connected the dots, and adopted a resolution “condemning the tea party as "a threat to the pursuit of human rights, justice and equality for all" because of "the racist elements" within it (according to an early draft; the final text won't be released until October)”.

Now Kelly starts this column talking about how Democrats like to have and play the race card when they are “losing an argument”. Now, no one would say that the NAACP and the Democratic party are *not* close, but I think the NAACP would strongly disagree that they are part of or controlled by the Democratic party, especially when you consider history (the party of Lincoln versus Dixiecrats). But Kelly thinks his readers have a simplistic view of the world and politics, so he thinks he can get away with a rather racist insinuation that the NAACP can be treated as part of the Democrats.

The issue of whether or how racist the Tea Party is, is actually a complicated issue. In a realistic and rational view of the world I think it is safe to say that a group that wants to cut spending is not stressing helping poor people. Also when you have images from Tea Party rallies and meetings with very few or no people of color, and with signs that indicate no strong desire for spending for unemployment benefits or welfare, it is hard to believe that none of these people have some negative views about race (or at least few or no positive views about race).

Of course, the real question is whether the Tea Party advocates racist policies, or perhaps is even institutionally a racist organization. Evidently (according to Kelly himself) the NAACP is making the former, rather more limited argument, although Kelly seems to want to be saying that the NAACP/Democratic monolith is making the later argument (and references what is probably an entirely different conflict among African Americans with respect to the NAACP).

Among pundits, on Sunday morning talk fests, there is back and forth about whether the Tea Party is in fact racist, or just has some amount of racist elements. Kelly himself wants to argue that the Tea Party is innocent of any racism, offering anecdotes of blacks speaking at Tea Party meetings and dismissing anecdotes of racism by Tea Party types. But between Jack Kelly or the NAACP, I think that many of us might choose the African American as more able to identify racism than Jack Kelly.

Racism has always been complicated in the US. Slavery was antithetical to our announced goals when the country was created. We fought a civil war at least in part to address the issue, yet to our great shame we allowed racism to continue after the civil war all around the country (think the selling of black prisoners to private corporations in the South from 1870 to the ‘20’s all the way to white Boston’s reaction to busing). It has become less fashionable to be overtly racist, but I do not think it has disappeared, just become more subtle and if anything, more complicated. Questions of where to apply tax incentives and where in education to spend money (inner city schools versus school vouchers versus charter schools) are government actions that directly affect the lot of the poor, and what the Tea Party might say on them bears on whether they actually do end up confirming the racist label.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The criticism you want ...

Back on June 8th, I posted on Obama being criticized by Glenn Greenwald. Greenwald is still at it, although he does also cover the more outrageous behavior of the right (as does the rest of Salon) and Congress, and the media, etc etc. I want to throw John Stewart into the criticizing Obama from a liberal perspective category too. Somebody had a piece (maybe Slate, I dunno) about how Stewart is showing that 'I believed in you and you have let me down' sort of vibe. And fair enough, I can understand Obama on health care reform, letting Congress do the heavy lifting but also taking the most moderate approach imaginable. I can understand Obama on Afghanistan, trying to leave the country with a stable democracy by ramping up before we leave (I pretty much disagree with that, btw, though all the options have lots of downsides). But I can't understand Obama continuing Bush era policies regarding wiretapping, and I can't understand the administration aggressively prosecuting the soldier involved in the Wikileaks-helicopter gunship attack in Iraq video.

I mean, I am willing to say that in the real world, we need to look at what Obama has had to deal with, versus what has gotten done. In the real world, the stimulus probably got as much done as it could, considering the limitations loaded into at the start by Obama and the Congress. And healthcare reform sapped maybe as much as a year of the political narrative, making it difficult to do anything in that time. But if wire tapping or whistle blowing come up, don't move to the right.

Now, a bad Obama is still much better than Bush nine times out of ten. Doesn't mean Obama shouldn't be criticized. I can complain and still vote for the man (and I will try to praise him when he does something I approve of). I might vote for someone else in a primary, but if Obama is the democratic candidate, I will likely vote for him. I suspect Jon Stewart and Glenn Greenwald might voice similar opinions.

Sunday, July 04, 2010

Silly commentary

So Michael Steele described Afghanistan as a war of Obama's choosing, and Jack Kelly quoted a CMU professor who said that Obama is using different tactics to fight a recession than Reagan used to fight stagflation. The Republicans are probably not happy that silly comments are flying around.

On Steele, well, the only thing I will say is that so many conservative blog commenters have picked up the Republicans whine that Democrats/liberals should stop blaming the nations problems on Bush. Steele has taken that to an absurd degree, obviously. Those same commenters held Steele up in the past as proof that the Republicans had people of color in the upper levels of power in the party.

As for Kelly's column today, first Kelly takes shots at Obama's worldwide popularity among other world leaders, and Kelly has some new obsession with Obama playing golf. I am not going to try to research this silliness, but I will say it is transparent. Kelly wants Obama to be as unpopular as Bush was, wants Obama to be seen as un-serious as Bush was.

Looking at (CMU's) Alan Meltzer's comments that Kelly quotes, first, if you don't know the difference between stagflation and a straightforward recession, you need to go back and read history. And Meltzer spins the Reagan legacy much the way Republicans have ever since. "Reagan reduced marginal and corporate tax rates and slowed the growth of nondefense spending". And yet Reagan set new records in spending and debt. The reason, that little qualifier, "nondenfense". Actually there was spending in the Reagan administration (perhaps more than Obama), in the are of defense, even as the Federal Reserve tightened up on the economy to rein in inflation. By the way, bringing up Reagan undermines the rest of Kelly's column, since Reagan totally ignored deficits and debt.

Friday, July 02, 2010

The market will regulate itself.

It seems to me we used to hear, from conservatives/Republicans, that the free market did not need pollution regulation, because the market can regulate itself. I guess now, to the extent that we hear anything about pollution, it is how climate change/global warming is a hoax, or that a cap and trade or carbon tax program will bankrupt the country or give our trade competitors an unfair advantage, yada yada.

But something occurred to me about the old argument that the free market could regulate itself vis a vis pollution. We now know that a de facto state of self regulation existed/perhaps still exists for oil and gas drilling on public lands in the US, including deep water drilling, from at least the turn of the century until now. The Minerals Management Service did little to enforce regulations for drilling, apparently in some cases allowing their own statements of their plans for regulations, and rubber stamping them.

So how did industry do in regulating itself? Never mind, too easy.

Apart for the Gulf of Mexico, this business of drilling in shale for natural gas, apparently it is also not regulated by the federal government, only by states. Obviously the MMS would not be a model to follow, but there are strong indications that drilling in shale carries risks (the movie "Gasland"). And Pittsburgh is in the middle of this Marcellus shale thingie. I don't know about you, but I would like to be able to drink water from the tap, and take showers and perhaps baths.

We actually seem to be going backwards on pollution regulation.