Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Paul Ryan's Fiction-Filled SOTU Response: Will America Buy It?

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

Rep. Paul Ryan's Republican response to President Obama's State of the Union address was, in my humble opinion, a low moment for our democracy.

Ryan is not the first Republican to be less than honest about an issue (in this case President Obama's handling of the federal budget deficit) to push an ideologically based policy initiative that has no real positive effect for the American people. Republicans routinely seek to protect financial institutions, oil companies, health insurers and other corporate entities, as well as the richest two percent of Americans, at the expense of the rest of the country, by pretending that their policies are meant to help the average American, rather than the true beneficiaries, the country's most privileged (even as the income disparity in the U.S. skyrockets to pre-Great Depression levels). Like tax cuts for the wealthy.

What makes the Ryan response so disheartening is his out-and-out fear mongering, relayed by a politician who (if you listen to his party) is one of the reasonable and intelligent up-and-coming leaders of the GOP. In the Republican response, Ryan said:

"A few years ago, reducing spending was important. Today, it's imperative. Here's why.

We face a crushing burden of debt. The debt will soon eclipse our entire economy, and grow to catastrophic levels in the years ahead.

On this current path, when my three children - who are now 6, 7, and 8 years old - are raising their own children, the Federal government will double in size, and so will the taxes they pay.

No economy can sustain such high levels of debt and taxation. The next generation will inherit a stagnant economy and a diminished country.

Frankly, it's one of my greatest concerns as a parent - and I know many of you feel the same way."

"Catastrophic" debt! A "diminished" United States! Your children are screwed! This is nuclear-Armageddon-like rhetoric. Are you scared yet?

And then he makes two claims:

1) Everyone is to blame for the debt.
2) President Obama has made things way worse.

Thus, according to Ryan, the country is heading toward a financial disaster, his party didn't cause it, President Obama poured fuel on the fire, and it's now up to the good-guy Republicans to fix everything by cutting spending and restoring jobs.

Ryan's story would be awesome ... if it wasn't false on nearly every single count.

To start with, as the Political Correction project of Media Matters (in an extensive, data-supported, point-by-point analysis that is an absolute must-read) and Paul Krugman both demonstrated, Ryan's numbers on what President Obama has done since he took office are a work of fiction. Ryan was completely inaccurate and disingenuous on the results of the stimulus bill, job growth numbers, the deficit, the Democratic record on tax cuts, the reason for the need to increase the debt ceiling, what has happened in Europe, and the impact of health care reform on jobs, debt and taxes.

It is also voodoo economics to believe that you can balance the federal budget on spending cuts alone (and with tax cuts added in to boot). Ryan's claim in this regard is also complete fiction. You can care about deficits, or you can care about tax cuts, but right now, you can't have both.

Ryan also employs a really nifty (but totally dishonest) trick to pretend to be nonpartisan to hide the misdeeds of his own party (the group he says can save us from the impending catastrophe). On the surface, it might seem above-the-fray of him to declare:

"Our debt is the product of acts by many presidents and many Congresses over many years. No one person or party is responsible for it."

But, again, Ryan is playing fast and loose with the facts. In the three years before George W. Bush took office, the Clinton administration ran budget surpluses. But after eight years of ineptitude (including unpaid-for tax cuts for the wealthy and a debilitating, mishandled and unnecessary war in Iraq), Bush left the White House by handing a $482 billion deficit to President Obama. Sure, where we are now is a product of decisions made for the last several decades, but the contribution of Bush and the Republican Congress in driving up the deficit in the 2000s is unmatched in recent history.

Ryan saying "no one person or party is responsible" isn't magnanimous, it's deceitful. It's like a guy going to a party, getting drunk, smashing the host's expensive china, and then saying, "Let's not assess blame, let's just clean up the mess." And really, who is going to appoint that guy to head the clean-up committee?

So, to recap, the supposed intellectual and reasonable rising star of the GOP addressed a national television audience after the president's State of the Union address and unloaded a stream of false figures on the American public in an effort to scare them into addressing a problem that isn't as immediate or dire as he wants them to think it is, and isn't the fault of the person he's accusing, all in an effort to use the hard times facing the country to advance his ideological agenda.

That's not behavior any public official should be proud of.

As I tweeted shortly after the Republican response, with Ryan's apparent love of using fiction to scare people, he should write horror films. What really scares me is that there will be no repercussions for a political leader who goes on national television and conveys so much false information with bad intentions. Will the American people let Ryan get away with this kind of nonsense?

Sunday, January 23, 2011

A Tribute to Olbermann: Why He Is Different from the Pundits at Fox News

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

Black and white is easy; nuance is hard. Which is why it's much easier to just lump media outlets and personalities into simple boxes: left v. right, or partisan v. objective, for example.

So if you want to play that game, it's easy to dismiss Keith Olbermann, who broadcast his final episode of Countdown on MSNBC Friday. It's simple to dash off a hack piece (like this one in the Daily Beast, which revealed its simple-minded bona fides by invoking the right's favorite jab at Olbermann: he used to work in--gasp!--sports) that lumps Olbermann in with Glenn Beck and Sarah Palin, as if they all do the same thing just because they are all loud and aggressive.

I know nuance is less popular, but I feel compelled to try and give Olbermann his due.

An analysis of how MSNBC (which uses a traditional journalistic approach to report facts, but then, ditching objectivity, critically assesses how the facts compare with the progressive take on issues) differs from Fox News (essentially a right-wing propaganda operation pretending to practice journalism, with no allegiance to facts) is a book-length endeavor and beyond the scope of a blog piece. But Olbermann's approach reflects the difference between the two networks.

Anyone charging that Olbermann's show was equivalent to Beck's clearly hasn't watched either of them. Olbermann wasn't objective, but he was honest about it, not disingenuously claiming to be "fair and balanced." But his shows were well-researched and relied on facts to make his progressive points.

To be sure, Olbermann used inflammatory language, and he wasn't always as respectful as some thought he should be. But when he railed about something, he relied on quotes, polls, statistics and history (unlike the concocted charges offered by Beck as facts) to make his points. One (of many) examples was his 2008 response to statements made by President George W. Bush about terrorism and Iraq (with its much-discussed concluding line that Bush should "shut the hell up"). Does Olbermann use harsh language? Yes. Was he blunt and combative? Yes. But in doing so, did he use real evidence (facts) to refute the Bush statements that were getting heavy play in the news at the time? Yes. Consistently (including producing a photo of Bush playing golf months after the date he claimed to have given up the game as a symbolic sacrifice to support the troops).

To me, that was what made Olbermann such an essentially important commentator, especially during the Bush administration. Much focus is directed at how Olbermann made his points (his combative tone, his aggressive language, etc.), but it was the fact-based content that really mattered and separated him from his right-wing counterparts. The reason the founders accorded the press the protections of the First Amendment was under the belief that the press was, as Jeffery Smith described it, "a lash for government and a prod for the people." Under this point of view, government was rendered more stable by a free press, since it exposed problems (and allowed for reform), preserving the liberties of the people. What Olbermann did on his show, day in and day out, was to carry out that function, shining a light on elected officials (of both parties).

That's the difference between Olbermann and his Fox News counterparts. When Beck claims that radicals in the Obama administration want to kill 10 percent of the American population and overthrow the U.S. government, or Sean Hannity uses bogus footage to exaggerate attendance at a Tea Party event, or Fox News hosts give credibility to those claiming that the health care reform law included "death panels" or that the president wasn't born in the United States, they are not shining a light on anything. Instead, they are using the cloak of "the press" to lie, exaggerate and use innuendo as a way of promoting an agenda.

And one of the strengths of Olbermann's show was that he didn't only take on government officials, but he devoted part of nearly every program to fact-checking the lies being spewed by major right-wing media figures like Palin, Beck, Hannity, Rush Limbaugh and Bill O'Reilly. Again, Olbermann was consistently looking to shine a light on the facts.

With Olbermann's departure, commentators will be going for the easy story, lumping him in with other pundits who shared a combative tone, without going the next step to describe the very different content of their shows. These writers will simplistically decry "hyperpartisanship" (as the Daily Beast piece did), as if Olbermann and Beck (and the others) were interchangeable. I'm here to say they are not.

Instead, I will pay tribute to Olbermann for the important role he played over the last eight years.

Really, I want to use this space to say "thank you" to Olbermann.

Thank you for your humor and insight, which was consistently smart and observant.

Thank you for giving voice to the anger so many of us felt during the Bush presidency, when few on television would do so. People accuse you of being "over the top," but when bad things are happening in the government or media, and too many are ignoring them, I don't want political commentators to be subtle.

Thank you for talking about the lies and fake journalism at Fox News when so many of us knew it was going on, but few on television would talk about it.

Thank you for always backing up your charges with facts, at a time when so many television news personalities, especially at Fox News, don't care about facts.

Thank you for having the guts to share your experiences navigating the health care system with your dying father, despite the personal pain doing so must have caused, all so you could educate viewers about the real experiences of those interacting with the system.

And thank you for regularly standing up for what was right, regardless of the consequences. You may not carry the objective legacy of Edward R. Murrow (whose "Good night and good luck" you borrowed for your sign-off line) into the 21st century, but you certainly embody his commitment to journalists playing the role of shining a light on the workings of government to ensure the American people have the information they need to be informed citizens. You consistently labored to urge politicians to act for the betterment of the country, adhering to longstanding American values of justice, equality and fairness.

Thank you.

The cartoon version of Keith Olbermann as a Beck-like screaming partisan will get a lot of play in the coming days. Sure, from time to time, Olbermann might have gone too far, but that's going to happen when you push the barriers of your field. I urge anyone who buys the caricature of Olbermann to go back and watch some of his Special Comments (a bunch of them are collected here) and see past the bluster to the facts and logic at the heart of his words. The difference between Olbermann and his counterparts at Fox News will quickly become apparent.

The news media and our democracy will be much poorer without Olbermann's daily reports. I hope he surfaces back on the air sooner rather than later.

Friday, January 14, 2011

There Can Be No Gun Control Without Recognizing and Respecting the Different Gun Cultures in the U.S.

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

The tragic massacre in Arizona has pushed the issue of gun regulation, which had seemingly disappeared off the national radar, back into the spotlight.

There have been essentially two types of responses to the shooting. Many, like Rep. Peter King (R-N.Y.) and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, have seized on the shock and outrage of this instance of gun violence to call for stronger gun-control legislation. Others, like Rep. Trent Franks (R-Ariz.) and Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Tex.), viewed the shooting as a reaffirmation of the need for guns to be readily available, with Franks arguing that things would have gone better if "there had been one more gun there that day in the hands of a responsible person," and Gohmert readying legislation to allow members of congress to carry weapons in the Capitol.

Will this horrific tragedy move lawmakers to adopt new statutes to prevent such a shooting spree from happening again? It's unlikely, says a front-page article in Friday's New York Times. The piece quotes Paul Helmke, executive director of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, as saying: "I really do believe that this time it could be different." But the article goes on to note that politicians on both side of the aisle don't see it happening, as "lawmakers are less receptive than ever to new gun restrictions."

Why the disconnect? At first glance, gun control seems like any other issue in American politics: highly polarized, with little common ground to come to a mutually acceptable solution. But lawmakers sometimes manage to compromise (e.g. the recent deal to extend both the Bush tax cuts for the wealthy and benefits for the long-term unemployed), so why not on trying to keep guns (or at least certain kinds of weapons) out of the hands of madmen like Jared Loughner?

The simple answer is that the gun issue is unique. You can see it in the differing cast of characters, with party membership not playing the defining role in determining who is on which side of the issue. In the examples I gave above, all the figures cited were current or former Republicans. The difference was regional: The two New Yorkers are in favor of gun control, while the representatives from the Southwest oppose new limits.

That's the key. Guns mean completely different things to different people, depending on how (often dictated by where) they were raised. I grew up in the suburbs of New York City. Not only did my family not own a firearm, to the best of my knowledge most of my friends' parents were also unarmed. To me (and many of the people around me), guns were limited to three groups of people: the military, law enforcement, and criminals. I'm quite sure that when I graduated from college, I had never seen a handgun in person (except holstered ones on police officers' belts). And when, days after Hurricane Andrew, I had to show my lease to an armed soldier to get below Kendall Drive to get to my Miami apartment (and check out the damage; I was in an evacuation zone), I felt shaken after being scrutinized by a man with a loaded rifle inches from my head. It was a first-time experience for me.

In short, guns played no role in my life, and the only time I was aware of firearms, they were mentioned in news stories as being part of the commission of violent crimes.

At the same time, millions of Americans were raised under very different circumstances relative to guns. For these people, guns were part of the family structure. Parents taught their children to shoot, families went skeet shooting and/or hunting, and guns were passed down from generation to generation. Self-defense also played a role, with the long-held belief that individuals have a right to defend their property and loved ones from intruders. Such an approach makes more sense in less densely populated areas, where police and potential witnesses are not always a short distance away.

In this culture, the first associations with guns are family, rights and tradition, not criminals.

So it only makes sense that King and Bloomberg would have such different reactions to the Arizona tragedy than Franks and Gohmert.

I may find it a problem that someone like Loughner was able to obtain a semi-automatic handgun (with large-volume ammunition clips), but I think the New York Times is correct that it is unlikely that the massacre in Arizona will prompt any new regulation of firearms or ammunition.

The question, for me, is how we can get there. And the answer, I think, begins with acknowledging and respecting the differing roles that guns play in different communities of the country. While I admire and agree with the urgent messages offered by King, the Brady Campaign and others like Rep. Carolyn McCarthy (whose husband was murdered and son was severely injured by a gunman on the Long Island Railroad), their tactics will not succeed, because, almost literally, they are not speaking the language of the people they have to convince. And polls prove this point. A Gallup survey taken after the Arizona shootings found that only 20 percent of respondents thought stricter gun regulation would have prevented the rampage.

Put another way, to use an admittedly simplistic and more symbolic than all-encompassing example, a father of a seven-year-old starting school in Philadelphia has to understand that guns don't pose the same threat to the son of a farmer in rural Iowa that they do in his community, while the farmer needs to understand that guns threaten the Philadelphia man's son's life on a daily basis, in ways the Iowa man has never experienced. Few laws or policies would adequately address both of their daily experiences.

When you say "gun control," someone like McCarthy may picture disarming a killer like Loughner or her husband's assailant, but that's not what people like Franks and Gohmert think of. They see a threat to their values. And the sooner proponents of gun control account for this fact, the better.

The Times may be right that the Arizona tragedy will not lead to new gun control legislation, but I would urge those on both sides of the debate to seize the moment of mutual grieving to make an effort to better understand the other side's point of view. More than battles over taxes, health care, government spending, etc., there is real room for mutual understanding and respect on this issue. Those who oppose gun control can see that in certain communities--namely America's cities--gun violence is a real threat to citizens (with studies consistently showing that keeping a gun in the home, rather than decreasing the chances of being a victim of a firearm-related homicide, actually increases the risk).

At the same time, those in favor of gun control need to understand the emotional and philosophical importance guns play in many homes, not just to develop better strategies, but to understand how certain policy proposals would play out in these communities, where the threats and societal structure can be quite different.

In the end, I think that if an understanding and respect can be established regarding the differing experiences of individuals with different gun cultures, solutions can be arrived at that take into account both groups' concerns. I don't suggest this process would be easy, but it seems to me to be the only way forward. Talking across each other, with each side almost literally not understanding the other, will not accomplish anything.

(For purposes of this piece, I'm putting aside a third [thankfully smaller] group, those who arm themselves to defend against perceived future government aggression. With their paranoia and tentative relationship with reality, it is unlikely these individuals would be willing or able to understand other cultures' approach to guns, nor would they have much interest in reaching any accommodation. In fact, I would hope that every American, regardless of his or her view of gun control, would be in favor of keeping this lunatic fringe in check.)

I accept that the tragedy in Arizona will not directly result in new laws to make guns harder to come by in the United States. But I hope those on both sides of the gun control issue will take this opportunity to better understand the complicated and varied role guns play in American communities. If they do, we can make every community safer.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Right Wing Media Lies and the Arizona Tragedy

[This article also appears on Huffingtonpost.com. You can access it from my author page here.]

In the days since the massacre in Arizona, the mainstream political media (and much online discussion) have zeroed in on one question: Did the uncivil political discourse (with violent imagery) of the Glenn Becks, Rush Limbaughs and Sarah Palins of the world create an environment that encouraged or allowed an unhinged character to go on a shooting spree aimed at a Democratic congresswoman.

I would like to focus on a related question: Are the right wing pundits telling the truth?

The reason for my approach is that whether or not the toxic political environment influenced Jared Loughner, it is important to recognize that for the last two years, the right wing media has employed a concerted strategy to elicit in their listeners/viewers anger and a sense of delegitimization of the government (whether literally, in the form of the birthers, or ideologically, with false claims of socialism, or in practice, with false accusations of unconstitutionality and corruption that fly in the face of history and the record). And to do so largely by making baseless charges.

And when I listened and read as these right wing purveyors of venom rejected the claim that their incendiary rhetoric might have spurred an unstable individual to action, I was struck by how, once again, their approach to the issue was to make baseless charges rather than engage on the issue.

For example, Rush Limbaugh declared: "At no time has anybody ever called for violence. ... We've never subtly promoted it."

But it was just one year ago that Limbaugh said (in reference to the economy):

"This government is governing against its own citizens. This president and his party are governing against us. We are at war with our own president. We are at war with our own government."

Want a more recent example? On January 10, 2011, after the shooting, Limbaugh said this about claims that violent right-wing rhetoric might have influenced Loughner:

"Don't kid yourself. What this is all about is shutting down any and all political opposition and eventually criminalizing it. Criminalizing policy differences at least when they differ from the Democrat (sic) Party agenda."

So Limbaugh asserted last year that the government is at "war" with the American people, and he claimed days ago that the Democrats want to criminalize dissent. (Remember, Limbaugh is the guy who, in 1995, predicted a "second violent American revolution.") He urges his viewers to recognize that the president and his government aren't legitimate. That is not promoting violence?

And these are hardly isolated incidents. Rather, the use of this kind of baseless violent and anti-government language is part of the regular, day-in-day-out approach of these right-wing leaders. Some examples (there are tons of others):

- On June 10, 2010 Beck passionately warned his viewers that former radicals who want to "eliminate 10 percent of the population" (he makes it clear he means kill people) and "overthrow" the "United States government" are now working in the Obama administration so they can carry out their desires (charging that Obama is more corrupt than Nixon).

- If Palin's cross-hairs map and "reload" comment don't bother you, how about when she spoke at a Tea Party event in February 2010 and said: "America is ready for another revolution" (which, given the context, carries a specific connotation and certainly subtly condones violent reprisals against the government).

- Andrew Breitbart's blog (on March 10, 2010) wrote that the president was "the suicide-bomber-in-chief" who wants to "blow up the capitalist system from within."

- Sharron Angle, a candidate for a U.S. Senate seat, happily endorsed "Second Amendment remedies" and implied that an armed revolution may be necessary.

These examples represent a tiny drop in a much larger bucket.

My point is simply this: These leading right-wing figures regularly engage in rhetoric with the intention of rousing listeners to believe the government is illegitimate and dangerous. Sometimes the approach is to use threats of imminent government aggression (e.g. Beck's warning about mass murders and Limbaugh's prediction of government crackdowns on dissent), while other times they use language to promote the idea that the conflict is a violent one (e.g. Limbaugh's "war" comment). And they do so using baseless claims.

When Limbaugh says he (and Palin and others) does not incite listeners or encourage violence (overtly or subtly), he is engaging in pure fiction. When Palin lectures on how debate during elections is good and then people look for common ground after the election is over, she's right, but it's also hypocritical, since it's not how she practices politics (or, more accurately for her, media punditry).

So these leaders can't have it both ways. If Beck, Limbaugh and Palin want to say that Loughner was a mentally ill individual who acted based on his own demons, and the incendiary language of right-wing media figures had no role, I encourage them to make their cases forcefully in front of the American people. While I believe that constant warnings that the government is illegitimate and planning totalitarian actions (murders, media clampdowns) can have an effect, there is certainly merit to the argument that crazy people will do crazy things.

(Although any fair argument on the issue has to go beyond this one incident to include the string of violent acts and threats directed at Democrats since President Obama took office.)

But what these right-wing media figures can't honestly claim is that they are not engaging in violent and delegitimizing rhetoric. Actually, I find it especially cowardly that Limbaugh would spend a chunk of his show on Monday slinging blame everywhere for Loughner's actions (including heavy metal music, rap music, parents, etc.) and accusing Democrats of being happy about the massacre, but he didn't have the balls to stand up for what he does. If he really had any integrity, he would have defended his rhetorical style.

The implications of a right-wing media system that masquerades as journalism without any commitment to the truth is one of the biggest threats to our democracy. So in the aftermath of the Arizona tragedy, I couldn't help but zero in on the right wing lies rather than focus on the incivility.

I admired President Obama's speech yesterday in Tuscon, but rather than learning a lesson about civility from this tragedy, I hope we learn a lesson about truth. Debates on how we should conduct our political discourse are great. But these debates need to be on the facts, not on made-up fantasies and defensive lies.