We don’t watch Fox News at our house because we understand it was founded to be a Republican “news” outlet, which is to say it’s a propaganda vehicle.  So I am ignorant of what they say and am often surprised to hear what is stated on that news source.  And of course Rush Limbaugh is so notoriously biased that it is hard to understand why anyone takes him seriously.  Even so, we know folks, good folks, who listen to these sources and seem to take them for granted, as if they were reliable sources. Politicians are different:  we expect them to overdraw an issue

But in truth I have been dumbfounded to hear what some of these people in the Republican propaganda network have been saying.  [From Bill Moyers today]

SENATOR STEVE KING: If Obamacare is ever implemented and enforced, we will never recover from it. It is an unconstitutional takings of God-given American liberty.

AINSLEY EARHARDT on Fox and Friends: Thanks to Obamacare, doctors will be forced to ask patients about their sex life, even if it has nothing to do with the medical treatment that they are seeking at the time.

MICHELLE MALKIN on Fox and Friends: That healthcare plan puts a discount on the lives of elderly people and would result in the redistribution of health away from the elderly and the infirm to other special favored interests and patients.

RUSH LIMBAUGH: What we now have is the biggest tax increase in the history of the world. Obamacare is just a massive tax increase, that all it is.

SARAH PALIN on Cashin’ In: Of course there are death panels in there, but the important thing to remember is that’s just one aspect of this atrocious, unaffordable, cumbersome, burdensome, evil policy of Obama’s and that is Obamacare.

These are not inadvertent misstatements; they are outright lies. Everyone who formulated these statements knew better.  So why are they making such outrageous claims?  What are they lying to accomplish?  Bill Moyers today quoted from the right-wing blog, RedState.com:

“Congressmen, this is about shutting down Obamacare. Democrats keep talking about our refusal to compromise. They don’t realize our compromise is defunding Obamacare. We actually want to repeal it. This is it. Our endgame is to leave the whole thing shut down until the President defunds Obamacare. And if he does not defund Obamacare, we leave the whole thing shut down.”

It is crucial that we recognize lies to be what they are. Whatever are their purposes they are social poison.  They weaken the fabric of trust that enables a social contract to work.

The American people have been lied to many times:  Just go to the Lincoln National Historic Site in Springfield, IL, and look at all the cartoons about him; he was treated with disdain and scorn my many in his time. Some lies erode the fabric that makes society possible.  

In fact Lincoln and his times are quite a relevant analogue to our times.  How could the American people have been brought to kill each other in the Civil War?  Only by years of bitterness and slander.  By the time the country came to war both sides believed that the other incarnated evil.  Are we on a similar path?

Lies — slanderous innuendo and outright calumny — can bring down a country.  They are the foundation for the distrust that erodes the unite of a society and they are the ground on which the abuse of other human beings is based.  Consider these cases of civil abuse:
• The Nazis were able to put into motion their Jewish death camps only after years of slanderous tales about the Jews.
• When Yugoslavia splintered into several pieces, the terrible abuses of “ethnic cleansing” were made to seem right by the slanders that were promoted by Slobodan Milosevic (on behalf of the Serbs) and Franco Tudjman (for the Croats).
• The Rwandan genocide was made possible by the persistent propaganda of a government under the control of Hutu Power, which spouted poisonous propaganda on the radio about Tutsi “cockroaches”.

Calumnious propaganda – that’s how you create the climate for civil war.  And that’s what’s being spouted out in our own radio and TV stations.  The effect is growing bitterness, scorn, and distrust on all sides.  Is it not necessary that we expose the lies for what they are? This is why I appreciate Bill Moyers.  Whatever you think about his work, he is at least trying to set the truth straight.  In today’s broadcast he concludes a critical review of what the dangerous slanderers have been saying with the following:

Like the die-hards of the racist South a century and a half ago, who would destroy the Union before giving up their slaves, so would these people burn the place down, sink the ship of state, and sow economic chaos to get their way. This says it all, they even shuttered the Statue of Liberty.
Watching all this from London, the noted commentator Martin Wolf, of the capitalist friendly Financial Times, says “America flirts with self-destruction.”
This man [picture of Newt Gingrich] is the biggest flirt of all, Newt Gingrich. It was Newt Gingrich who twenty years ago spearheaded the right-wing’s virulent crusade against the norms of democratic government. As Speaker of the House he twice brought about shutdowns of the federal government once, believe it or not, because he felt snubbed after riding on Air Force One with President Clinton and had to leave by the backdoor.
It was also Newt Gingrich, speaker Gingrich, who was caught lying to congressional investigators looking into charges of his ethical wrongdoing. His colleagues voted overwhelmingly, 395 to 28, to reprimand him. Pressure from his own party then prompted him to resign.
Yet even after his flame out, even after his recent bizarre race for the presidency bankrolled with money from admiring oligarchs, even after new allegations about his secret fundraising for right-wing candidates, Gingrich remains the darling of a fawning amnesic media. …
On CNN.com the other day he issued a call to arms to his fellow bomb-throwers, “…don’t cave on shutdown.”
At least let’s name this for what it is, sabotage of the democratic process. Secession by another means. And let’s be clear about where such reckless ambition leads. As surely as night must follow day, the alternative to democracy is worse.”


For those of us who are mystified by the behavior of the Republicans in Congress two recent articles have been useful.  They reveal that a cabal set this confusing project – to overturn The Affordable Care Act, which they have derisively called Obamacare – in the face of all odds, as if they could force the Senate to support their proposals and the President to sign them into law.  From here it seems like a fools errand, tilting at windmills.  But the NYT article about the secret meetings immediately after the last presidential election seeking a strategy to at all costs derail the Affordable Care Act help me to get it.

All this is interesting and helpful to me, but merely a revelation of what I had supposed all along.What has helped me especially understand it is an article by Joshua Holland [“To Understand the Shutdown You Have to Grasp the Mindset of the GOP Base,” October 5, 2013, by Joshua Holland] who has summarized a survey of Republican groups by the Democracy Corp.  This is what they say about the voting base that supports these Republicans:

The base consists of three kinds of groups. Even though they differ in certain ways, they agree on their fear of a changing society.  For all of them The battle over Obamacare, “goes to the heart of Republican base thinking about the essential political battle.” They think [the …] Democratic Party … is intent on expanding government to increase dependency and therefore electoral support.” So, food stamps for the poor, unemployment benefits, legalizing the illegal immigrants, insuring the uninsured – these policies create dependency.  So they oppose support for the poor, the unemployed, the immigrants, the uninsured.  “They believe this is an electoral strategy — not just a political ideology or economic philosophy. If Obamacare happens, the Republican Party may be lost, in their view,” says Holland.  What especially struck me was the comment that this group is fully aware of how white they are “in a country with growing minorities.” So there indeed is an implicit racist worry in this movement.

They all see Obama as a usurper, a liar, a Marxist, even (as some believe) a Muslim, but they differ in certain ways.
The Evangelicals are primarily alarmed about the gay rights movement.
The libertarians hardly believe in government and are strongly pro-business.
The moderates on the other hand disdain the Tea Party elements of the party and scorn Fox News – surely the main source of the notions that Obama is a liar, a Marxist, a Muslim, etc. – but they are concerned about how marginal they are becoming to the GOP. In fact, they see the party as pathetically out of date.

So here we are, a country in the grip of a terrified, paranoid minority who have the wealth and leverage to shut down the whole country.  That the rank and file are animated by fears created by a small cabal makes the scene all the more scary.

Affordable Care Act: Issues worth noting in the search for truth

The debate about the Affordable Care Act, the health care bill enacted under Obama’s leadership, has been so fierce that the actual provisions of the law have been veiled.  Also, it turns out, some of the language used to characterize it are deliberately crafted to obfuscate it.  
In an article entitled “Obama and Health Care:  The Straight Story” in the NYRB [June 21,
2012 p45-47] Jeff Madrick reviews several recent books on the Affordable Care
Act.” The books he reviews are Remedy and Reaction by Paul Starr;  Inside National Health Reform by John E McDonough, and  Fighting for our Health by Richard Kirsch.
The whole article is useful but I note here some details I thought worth giving prominence to:
Some statistics on the current level of care in America:

“Except for the US, no rich nation in the world fails
to provide comprehensive health care that is free or inexpensive to its entire
populations.  Yet roughly 50 million
Americans, 16 percent of the population have no health insurance at all…” 

“A Harvard
Medical School
study found that some 45,000 deaths a year are associated with lack of health

“Americans pay more than 17 percent of the Gross Domestic
Product for their health care, more than any other rich nation by far.” 

“The US
ranks forty-eighth in infant mortality among all nations, and its rank has been

Some provisions in the Affordable Care Act:

“half of the newly
insured would be covered by significantly expanded Medicaid, …  The other half would be subject to an
individual mandate, requiring them to sign up for at least a minimal insurance
plan or pay a penalty.” [This latter provision is being reviewed by the Supreme

“the bill would also prevent health insurance companies from
turning down applicants with preexisting health conditions or limiting annual
benefits for those who get sick.” 

Some historical notes on who have supported such an act in the past:

“Conservatives resent the individual mandate that all Americans buy insurance, even though mandates had been a staple of Republican
health care proposals since the 1970s.”  

“FDR favored universal health care … but hesitated to
develop a specific plan.” 

“Harry Truman favored a national health care plan…” 

“In the 1970s Richard Nixon favored a universal health care
system for all…” 

“Charles Grassley, the Republican senator from Iowa, had favored a public option during the Clinton health care
debates in 1993…”

Republican strategy on how to characterize the health care bill

Emphasize that health care reform would “deny” care to

Talk about “a government takeover”,  “Takeovers are like coups… They both lead to dictators and a loss of

When money and political posturing clash with science.

The debate about global warming – now called climate change – is driven by conflicting interests.  On the one hand there are climate scientists who are concerned that their projections suggest frightening changes coming upon the earth; on the other are the corporate interests that cannot bear for this to be known because it’s bad for business.  So the moneyed interests have turned the issue into a political flash point. 

Actually the issue is not new among those who have been looking at such things.  As far back as twenty-five years ago one of my colleagues showed me a graph of the amounts of CO2 levels at various times over the last several thousand years, based on ice cores taken from the Greenland icecap.  What struck me then was the noticeable rise in CO2 about 10,000 years ago, which we speculated could have been caused by the invention of slash-burn (or swidden) agriculture.  Neither of us was surprised at the far more dramatic rise in CO2 levels beginning in the twentieth century, the time when the automobile was coming into vogue; the amounts have been rising ever since, and dramatically so recently.  At the time, I had no idea what those rising levels might mean for the planet we live on. 
The consensus of the climate scientists is that the earth is warming at an ever faster pace.  The voices contesting this come from outside the community of scholars specializing in global climate.  Naomi Oreskes and Erik M. Conway call those nay-sayers Merchants of Doubt (Bloomsbury Press, 2010).  Philip Kitcher summarizes their point in his review of “The Climate Change Debates” in Science(vol 328, p. 1230-34, June 4, 2010):  “Opposition to scientifically well-supported claims about  the dangers of cigarette smoking, the difficulties of the Strategic Defense Initiative (“Star Wars”), the effects of acid rain, the existence of the ozone hole, the problems caused by secondhand smoke, and — ultimately – the existence of anthropogenic climate change was used in ‘the service of political goals and commercial interests’ to obstruct the transmission to the American public of important information.  Amazingly, the same small cadre of obfuscators figure in all these episodes.”  Oreskes and Conway discovered that scientists tied to particular industries, with strong political connections, have played a disproportionate role in debates about contested issues.  Even though they obtained their stature in fields with little pertinence to the issues in question they have posed as experts, many of them paid by “think tanks” devoted to contesting claims that threaten the interests of powerful corporations and political interests.  The attempt has been to shape the way the public thinks about the natural processes that threaten the world.  In fact, it seems certain that any attempt to deny the processes of nature cannot prevail, at least in the long run.  The world operates according to its own mechanisms, whatever we might think about it.  We cannot create a “reality” by mere rhetoric or ostrich-like denial.  
The task of science of course is to faithfully seek an understanding of the world as it is.  Obviously, if the climate experts are right the earth is facing critical developments that will not go away. 
What most climate scientists foresee is indeed worrisome.  If we consider how the dangerous trends in the world can be turned around, to turn back the trend of CO2 production that is causing climate change, we find reasons to consider the situation dire.  That is, there are natural processes and there are social processes.  Anthony Giddens, the sociologist who has joined the debate (The Politics of Climate Change, 2009), puts it this way:  “It will be a colossal task to turn around a society whose whole way of life is constructed around mobility and a ‘natural right’ to consume energy in a profligate way.”  A colossal task, yes.  Turning around a civilization that is hell-bent on carrying on as it always has, driven by institutional conventions that are ensconced and opulently funded will indeed be a Herculean task.  That the system in place will seek to deny scientific findings that threaten it is to be expected.  So why does Giddens add to the above eminently formulated assertion the following codicil: “Yet it isn’t as hopeless an endeavor as it looks”? He provides no evidence to support this claim.  We wonder: Did Giddens reach for a straw to avoid admitting how unlikely such a turn-around is?  It seems obvious enough that what is actually required for the world to transform itself is a huge effort.  So, really, how likely is it?  Minimal.  Is the reality too hideous for Giddens to put it into words? 

Nancy Lindesfarne [Anthropology Today 26(4):1,2 2010] describes the collapse of the UN climate talks in Copenhagen, December, 2009:  “No one  … imagined what shape the Copenhagen Accord would actually take. … Alone, the heads of five states brazenly decided, in a last minute, back-room fix, to do nothing at all to prevent catastrophic climate change.   These five states are among the world’s largest coal consumers.  … they are all states that would have to change most to address climate change.  In the midst of the global financial crisis, they decided it would just cost too much. …”  In response to the failure of the Copenhagen talks Evo Morales Ayma, President of Bolivia, called for a World’s Peoples Conference on Climate Change and affirmed, “We have two paths: to save capitalism, or to save Mother Earth.” 

Capitalism or global collapse:  That’s an option our world leaders must never have to face.

Dangers of the Reactionary Mind

Mark Lilla’s review of Corey Robin, The Reactionary Mind [NewYork Review, Jan 12, 2012] provides an insightful discussion of the meanings of the terms “conservative” and “liberal,” as they have changed over time; it also reveals an alarming agenda among at least some folks on the political right.  
Lilla situates the current “conservative” and “liberal” distinctions in their respective historical contexts.  He reminds us that “Like all polemical terms their meaning and usage shifted around in partisan debate, …”  In the early debates [eighteenth century] the contrast in views was about “human nature.”  The conservative view was represented by Edmund Burke [he could have also referred to Herder and Hamann].  “Burke believed that, since human beings are born into a functioning world populated by others, society is … metaphysically prior to the individuals in it. The unit of political life is society, not individuals, who need to be seen as instances of the societies they inhabit.”  On this we can appreciate Burke:  in fact, even now there is a tendency to ignore the powerful significance of the intersubjective world we call society as necessary to our survival, irreducible to the individuals within it.  But what Burke and those who followed him made of this view was somewhat different from my own view:  “Conservatives have always seen society as a kind of inheritance we receive and are responsible for; we have obligations toward those who came before and to those who will come after, and these obligations take priority over our rights.”  The implication, then, is that social conventions should be protected, as if change was dangerous; the conventions of ordinary life should be protected from disruptions of outside influences or innovative ways of behaving.
The term “liberal” as a political perspective had a different origin.  “[T]he term ‘liberal’ was not used as a partisan label until the Spanish constitutionalists took it over in the early nineteenth century … Classical liberals like John Stuart Mill, in contrast to conservatives, give individuals priority over society, on anthropological as well as moral grounds. They assume that societies are genuinely constructs of human freedom, that whatever we inherit from them, they can always be unmade or remade through free human action.”  Society and social conventions are thus malleable according to the decisions of individual actors.  Malleable, yes, but sometimes less malleable than some would like:  Consider how much effort had to go into removing the Jim Crow laws.  Changing social orders is not easy.
This kind of difference in viewpoint, conservative versus liberal, was about the question of how to think about culture and individual agency.  This question has vexed anthropologists for generations.  
But this is not the contrast in viewpoints that Corey Robin presents, for he argues that the key issue is over whether the “elite” should govern or whether the “subalterns” should be allowed to govern the country.  
Conservatism is the theoretical voice of this animus against the agency of the subordinate classes. It provides the most consistent and profound argument as to why the lower orders should not be allowed to exercise their independent will, why they should not be allowed to govern themselves or the polity. Submission is their first duty, agency, the prerogative of the elite.
This is view of the conservatives now vying for control of the Republic Party?  These folks are “against the agency of the subordinate classes?”  Do they really hold that the “lower orders” should be restrained from governing themselves?  Who believes that the first duty of the subaltern classes is submission?  And that governing should be done by the “elite” classes? 
In fact, from here, it looks pretty much as if those views already prevail in our country, for both parties seem unable to avoid catering to the “elite classes”.  If Robin is correct, how the party of Lincoln has changed!
The debate between “liberals” and “conservatives” in earlier times was over how to understand the relation of individuals to the collective, a much more intellectually challenging question.  But now – if Robin correctly represents the Republican right – the difference is over whether this country should have a real democracy; whether the country should be governed by the “elite” on behalf of the whole or whether the ordinary citizenry can have a real place in the governing process.  As Lilla says, in partisan debate meanings and usages of key categories can be radically changed.