Wednesday, February 26, 2014

February 26, 2014

Several of the local Starbucks shops have removed comfortable seating and substituted tables and hard chairs. Perhaps this is meant to cater to the business-meeting or laptop clientele, or maybe some people lingered too long. Whatever the reason, it has limited my options, as I’m an easy-chair type. My usual choice these days is a shop next to a Safeway, which leads to the following observations during a visit in December. For some reason I didn’t inflict them on the web at the time but, though stale, they still are relevant, if not especially important or original.
Perhaps because I tend to be a pessimist — although I prefer to attribute my attitude to being unusually perceptive — I harbor thoughts about cultural decline. (Actually, I find it puzzling that anyone over the age of forty could not be aware of that development, but never mind). There are so many significant indicia of that trend that the following examples will seem trivial, but here they are anyway:
The story begins at the gym (sorry: fitness center) I use twice weekly. It provides towels (small) for mopping the brow and semi-large — large by the standards of the underfunded organization — for showers. The drill is to toss them, when used, into bins provided for the purpose. Instead, a growing number of those frequenting the men’s locker room drop them on the floor, leave them on benches or in showers or stuff them into lockers, anything to avoid the ordeal of carrying them twenty feet (on the way out) to the bin near the door.
After my workout, I stopped at Starbucks. When I left there, I found several carts from the adjacent Safeway abandoned on the sidewalk, some distance away from the grocery store, which is in the opposite direction, and nowhere near any of the return areas. Proceeding toward my car, I spotted a parking slot covered with trash: cups, napkins and other bits of paper; someone had cleaned out his (messy) car and left the debris for someone else to clean up.
Back to the gym: while riding the stationary bike, I glanced at one of the tv monitors which, as usual, displayed Fox "News." Actually, it was Fox Business "News," but no matter. There was no sound, but a display at the bottom of the screen asked whether the wealth gap really is a problem. Those who can ask, and more so those who deny it, are of the same class as those who litter and abandon carts. The smug and comfortable and their admirers may not dump trash on the ground, but they are soul mates to those who do: both are of the I’m-more-important-than-my-fellow-man, let-the-little-people-cope sort.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

February 23, 2014

Some reports show that viewership of television news is declining. If NBC Nightly News is typical, that’s not surprising. Hard news makes up little of any broadcast, and commentary or context rarely appear, even when the story screams for it, as with climate change. 
NBC has taken another step down. It is broadcasting the evening news from Sochi, for no apparent reason other than to promote the network’s exclusive coverage of the Olympic Games. Also, the program devoted sections of two broadcasts last week to the advent of Jimmy Fallon as host of the Tonight Show, also an NBC program: news as corporate advertisement.
A clip from a Conan O’Brien show is circulating on the web which demonstrates the vapid, insubstantial, derivative nature of local television news. It shows twenty-four news "anchors" delivering the same "report’ about shopping for oneself at Christmas: "It’s OK, you can admit it, if you bought an item or two, or ten, for yourself."[18]1 The origin of the script isn’t revealed, but it is identical, a few fluffs and variations aside, on each broadcast. It’s amusing to watch the newsreaders emote in an attempt to convert a handout into something original, but it’s another indication of how badly we are served by news media.
Are voters uninformed? Considering that the alternative to right-wing propaganda on Fox is self-promotion or inanity on other channels, it is not surprising.

Sunday, February 16, 2014

February 16, 2014

I haven’t written anything for a while. It is not a limitation of material that poses the challenge. It is that one can say that the world is going to hell in only so many ways, and that saying so repeatedly, even with variations, even with new instances, convinces the reader that the writer is obsessive and therefore unreliable, to say nothing of boring. However, . . .
Last month I ran out of anything to read — actually, there were several books waiting to be read, but nothing I was in a mood for (shouldn’t end a phrase with a preposition) — so, for no specific reason, I took from the shelf The Collapse of the Third Republic, William L. Shirer’s account of the fall of France in the Second World War. It is in part a history of the defeat in 1940 but also of the weaknesses of French politics and society — back to 1871 — which led to that result. When I read it the first time, years ago, I probably thought that the French were a hopeless lot with an exceptionally dysfunctional culture and government. Now some of their problems seem uncomfortably like ours. Reading The Collapse led me to reread part of Tony Judt’s The Burden of Responsibility, which discusses three French thinkers, notably Léon Blum, Premier of France in the Thirties. It reenforced the impression that we are on a road traveled before.
Take, for example, the attitude toward business, wealth and taxes. In early Twentieth Century France, Shirer tells us, "the entrepreneurs convinced themselves to an extent that today seems highly amusing that they were operating a free market open equally to all and that they owed their success and their profits to the virtues of the ‘free-enterprise’ system, which rewarded those with imagination, initiative, and ‘know-how’ who were brave enough to take risks."[1]  That may have been amusing in 1969, when The Collapse was published, and when we seemingly had learned better, but now it simply describes us equally well.
In the Twenties, French governments, facing fiscal disaster, "declined to do anything at all, even to face their problems." France had just emerged from World War I. The parallel to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan hardly is perfect, but there are similarities in attitude and policy: "Instead of raising taxes the government raised loans, a habit it had acquired during the war, when taxes. . . were scarcely augmented despite the dire necessity." We went further, and cut taxes while waging war. "It seemed obvious that taxes would have to be raised and some financial sacrifices made by those best able to afford them. But this did not seem obvious to Parliament,"[2] nor has it to Congress.
Parliament, like Congress, did not operate in a vacuum; the attitude of the wealthy controlled. "The selfishness of the moneyed class in avoiding any financial sacrifice to help put the country back on its feet later struck many French historians as shocking. The possessors and the manipulators of most of the country's wealth simply contrived to escape shouldering a fair share of the burden of paying for the war and the reconstruction."[3]  Capital was stashed abroad. Rebuilding after the devastation of WWI was a greater challenge than our recession and our crumbling infrastructure, but attitudes are strikingly similar. Again, the surprise of historians was felt years ago.
We hear cries from many on the right that taxation is theft, that it’s their money, not the government’s, that they can use it so much more productively. That, too, is an echo. A member of the Chamber of Deputies pointed out a truism of taxation, "you have to take the money from where it is," to no avail. "The answer of the business and financial interests was given in the Chamber by one of their spokesmen . . . : ‘We are told you have to take the money from where it is. I maintain that first you have to leave it where it is.' And that is where it was left."[4]
In addition to the self-interest of the wealthy, a lack of understanding or acceptance of economic truths hampered efforts. "Ignorance of economics on both the Right and the Left played a role in compounding the mess. On the Right, bankers and businessmen were trying to apply classic nineteenth-century capitalist doctrines to the twentieth century, whose problems, were much more complex. On the Left most of the politicians . . . had little comprehension of the problems of financing a state . . . ."[5]  Our ignorance, or refusal, is the more reprehensible because the self-defeating theories we cling to have been disproved by experience.
The refusal to learn is more general, sometimes amounting a disdain for modernity, a rejection of science, of facts. Judt described France’s "nostalgic denial," the "propensity for preserving the past in the face of a threatening present."[6] Republican presidential candidates must proclaim that they disbelieve in evolution, and the right denounces climate change as a hoax.
There is a parallel also in the attitude of many toward the head of government. Léon Blum was the leader of the Socialist party, and Premier for a year during the critical Thirties. He was vilified, partly for his policies, but primarily because has was a Jew. "How, his enemies howled, could such a man represent French interests?" He was not a real Frenchman. The prospect of Blum’s actually becoming prime minister was too much. "Your arrival, Mr. Prime Minister, is without question a historic date," he was told in the Chamber of Deputies. "For the first time this ancient Gallo-Roman land is to be ruled by a Jew. . . ."[7]   We have copied this ploy: destroy a political enemy by making him the Other. Jews and blacks certainly have been the classic Others, and now Muslims have been added to the list, so Obama also is a Muslim. Blum was denounced for putting Jews in the Cabinet; Obama is "an avowed racist" for expressing sympathy for Trayvon Martin.
If merely categorizing by race or religion is not enough, add the claim that the Other is a foreigner. In one story, Blum was accused of being a Bulgarian, but that was too mild: "The prime minister, coming from a wandering race, dumped in the Ile-de-France by a chance that might as easily have deposited him in New York, Cairo, or Vilna, [is] the leader of a people foreign to his flesh."[8] Obama, of course, is a Kenyan. "How [Blum] hates us! He resents us for everything: for our blue sky and our soft air, for our peasants who walk in clogs across French soil and whose ancestors were not camel dealers, wandering in the Syrian desert with his Palestinian friends. . . ."[9]   Obama "has no idea how the American system functions, and we shouldn’t be surprised about that, because he spent his early years in Hawaii smoking something, spent the next set of years in Indonesia . . . ."[10]  In contrast to the Republican "course for the country," Obama’s "course is extraordinarily foreign."[11]
Nor only foreign, but sinister. "Between France and this cursed man, we must choose. He is the very incarnation of everything that sickens our flesh and our blood. He is evil. He is death."[12]  As with Blum so with Obama. According to a 2013 poll "20 percent of Republicans said they believed Obama is the Antichrist, while only [!] 6 percent of Democrats agree."[13]  On quieter days, he is merely (and simultaneously) a communist and a fascist.
Reactions become violent. A right-wing publisher declared of Blum, "Here is "a man to shoot down, but in the back . . . human detritus who should be treated as such."[14]  Obama is a "communist raised communist educated communist nurtured subhuman mongrel" and "gangster" and should be punished for treason.[15]  Or shot: a Christian American Patriots Militia leader announced in 2013, "We now have authority to shoot Obama, i.e., to kill him. His willful violations and alienation of our Constitution, . . . and corruption of all the three branches of government . . . reveal the dictator that he is."[16]  At a town hall meeting in February of this year, a Republican Congressman carried on a chat with a woman in the audience who had announced that Obama "should be executed as an enemy combatant." The Congressman either agreed with her or saw nothing unusual in her rant.[17]
The Third Republic had come into being more or less by accident in 1871, and those on the right — monarchists, the military, business and the clergy — never accepted it, and wanted to bring it down. That sentiment persisted until World War II, exacerbated by right-wing admiration for fascism. Nothing on that scale has developed here, but we see manifestations of a similarly destructive attitude. Republicans in Congress shut down the government and threaten to destroy its creditworthiness, partly to gain specific ends, partly because they dislike it and its president. The tone was set in January, 2009 by party leader Limbaugh — "I hope he fails" — and Republican have reflexively opposed nearly everything Obama has supported, even a conservative health care plan. Nullifiers and other states-righters want to weaken the federal government, allowing the states to be (more) reactionary. Many see tyranny in every attempt to improve life; some dream of replacing the government with a regime of their own. Gun nuts want to turn the country into an armed society, every nut his own posse. When something awful happens, such as 9-11, or the Boston Marathon bombing, or the Newtown shooting, conspiracy theorists claim it’s a "false flag" operation, something perpetrated by the government. These are not healthy trends.
Any parallel to France is, of course, ironic, as the American right is so disdainful of that land; how embarrassing to be like it.


The Collapse of the Third Republic, p. 78.2. All quotes in this paragraph Id., at 153
3. Id., at 154
4. Ibid
5. Id., at 160
6. The Burden of Responsibility, p. 8
7. Id., at 75-76
8. Id., at 76
9. Id., at 77
11. According to Mitt Romney. 12. The Burden of Responsibility, p. 77
14. The Burden of Responsibility, p. 76
15. So saith Ted Nugent (lack of punctuation in the original report).
16. The article cites other threats.
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