Wednesday, January 30, 2008

The Reagan Myth

The CNN Republican Presidential Debate just concluded at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, California. In attendance, sitting in the front row, were California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and former First Lady Nancy Reagan. The evening was lit with a backdrop of Ronald Reagan's legacy and the broadcast is scheduled to be followed by a glowing look back at Ronald Reagan's years in office.

The GOP rallies around the Reagan years as the Golden Age of American politics, and a time that stood up America before the world as a beacon of prosperity, compassion, democracy, and freedom. In order to be a successful Republican politician in the modern age, one must attach his or her own record and philosophy to that of Reagan. Recently, Barack Obama pointed out the transformative presence of Reagan's ideas, holding that legacy up as a model for the Democratic Party and its challenge to tranform the current climate of doubt and bitterness into one of hope and unity. Of course, Hillary Clinton tried to spin that statement to work against Obama, painting him as a closet Reagan conservative. Patently absurd.

The point here, is that Reagan's greatest quality was his ability to lead as an icon. He represented the proud patriot son of America, born into freedom and willing to die for the ideals of our forefathers. It's both hard to attack that icon, and hold it up to the scrutiny of political opposition. Reagan was able to do so effortlessly, and hence his glowing image is burned into the collective consciousness of the American people alongside the Stars and Stripes, the bald eagle, and the dollar bill. Every society needs its icons, as they fulfill a particular mythology about our own national character. The myth is far more important than the man in every case. Reagan is no different, and we are fortunate enough to have lived in such close proximity to his legacy that we have a chance at remembering the truth behind the veil of mythology that surrounds him.

While the GOP like to hold this myth up as a symbol of the ideal form of government, and as a sort of infallible philosophy of governance, there is much to remember about the Reagan years that bring shame to us as a people. The fiscal conservatism that the GOP holds up as the model of economic genius during these years also saw a spending deficit in the trillions. Surely the Democratic Congress was equally responsible for that dilemma, but the trickle down economics of the Reagan era took that deficit and placed it firmly in the laps of the hardest working Americans. The trickle down theory of economics never stimulated the economy as long as it was the dominant form of fiscal management, and it perpetuated hardship on the poor and middle class, while filling the pockets of the richest 2%.

Likewise, Reagan sold out the religious Right at every turn by taking their support, promising to ban abortion and fill the Supreme Court with Christian soldiers. He did neither, stabbing them in the back and going against every promise he made while it was politically expedient to do so. He perpetuated a Cold War that escalated military spending, handing over the tax money of the hardest working Americans while cutting social programs designed to uplift them. The scare tactics that we see today in the so-called "War on Terror" were honed and sharpened during the Cold War era of propaganda, headed by the Reagan administration. In fact, most of the architects of the Bush "terror strategy" were former Reagan soldiers, including Cheney and Rumsfeld.

The foreign policy of the United States under Ronald Reagan is known primarily for the statement "peace through strength", which is a very convenient abstraction that culminated in some of the bloodiest state-sponsored terror that the world has ever seen. "Peace through Strength" is a sentiment convenient for politicians and the military-industrial-complex to work hand in hand at building a military economy supported by empire building around the world. Of course, no one would support such a policy if it were spelled out in its most specific terms, but the convenience of "Peace through Strength" is that it plays on the notion that we will protect the interests of the everyday American by holding a stiff national backbone in the face of threats from dark corners of the world. Sound familiar?

The facts on Reagan's foreign policy are bleak in many respects. Central and South America were battlefields for the CIA and its state-sponsored death squads. The historical records clearly show this to be the case, although it is politically expedient for people on both sides of the aisle to sweep it under the carpet. It's there in black and white and we should own up to our role in the deaths of millions of poor and oppressed people below our southern border. John Negroponte, the current Director of Homeland Security, was the architect of those death squads, not to mention the former ambassador to Iraq during the early part of our occupation.

All of this is simply to say that we have to be honest about all the bumps and warts of our presidents and representatives if we hope to go forward in an honest and positive way. If we don't live up to our own evils, our future is destined to repeat them over and over and over again. History bears this out. To be lost in the mythology of our past, despite the harsh glare of reality, is denial of the worst kind. We can never be a true beacon of freedom around the world if we systematically deny our own oppression. Slavery, WWII era internments, torture.....all swept under the carpet as someone else's reprehensible acts of history. Thomas Jefferson was a slave owner. FDR allowed American citizens to be rounded up and imprisoned simply for their DNA. Reagan sanctioned the murder of millions in South and Central America. Clinton bombed a baby milk factory in Sudan, creating a crisis of starvation from which the people of that nation have never recovered, and Bush has done any number of things for which we should all be ashamed.

Use your eyes, ears, and powers of critical thinking to see American history as it really is and don't blindly follow the mythology that makes us all feel good about ourselves, whatever the truth may be.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Hillary Wins!!!!! Uh....Sorta.

Interesting comment by Keith Olbermann at MSNBC as Hillary Clinton arrives at a faux victory rally for her triumph in voting in the disqualified Florida Democratic Primary. As the TV crew at that network remarked that the candidates had pledged not to campaign in Florida the visual presented a smiling Clinton on stage with Sen. Bob Nelson and some members of the Florida political elite. In the background and the extreme foreground 100s of cheering supporters waved Hillary '08 signs vigorously, shouting and dancing in the aisles.

Keith Olbermann immediately followed the reminder that candidates agreed not to campaign remarking, "I guess all those people had those signs at home."


Monday, January 28, 2008

State of the State of the Union

I don't really "get" the State of the Union. I know that my negative feelings towards our current president and his gang of hooligans may accentuate my distaste for the SotU address, but I believe my objection is much more general. The fact of the matter is, other nations don't feel the need to put on the Show that is the SotU and in fact revel in the opportunity to vigorously voice their disapproval of things they find dishonest, broken, or just plain off base. Take the following clip as Exhibit A:

Ah, Taiwan. Okay, I mean something a bit more reasonable than that, so here's a bit more to my liking:

That's more like it. Someone says something patently absurd, and the opposition gets to shout the prime minister down. Someone tells a bold-faced lie and the power of the collective voice of reason rains down. Instead, we put our president up in front of a group of the most privileged and distinguished citizens in public service and let him or her say anything they like no matter how false, destructive, insane, or offensive. In fact, despite the often high level of dishonest, self-serving propaganda spewed the worst a member of the audience can do is sit on their hands while the loyalist weasels shout "huzzah" and give 2 minute standing ovations. In my humble opinion, we should look to our British allies and get down to business. If we are the most direct, straight-talking, and in your face culture in the world, let's act like it when it counts most.

What happened tonight was disgusting and hurtful to our nation. Boooooo......

UPDATE: NPR's blog did a live fact-check on the State of the Union that you can access here. Make sure you are looking at the January 28th entries as I'm sure the blog is regularly updated.

Sunday, January 27, 2008


It occurs to me, as I watch Sen. John McCain at his latest campaign appearance in Florida, that Sen. Joe Lieberman is bucking for a second go round as the vice presidential nominee. Lieberman is standing shoulder to shoulder with McCain touting bi-partisanship and the ability of McCain to work with people on both sides of the aisle effectively. As a neoconservative, Lieberman continues to cling to whatever Democratic wake is drifting along behind him in his past. You might have to look very hard, as Lieberman hasn't been anything close to a Democrat for the better part of the last decade.

It's politically convenient for Lieberman to call himself a Democrat, as it affords him the ability to seem middle of the road. In fact, Lieberman is a conservative and in many ways a neocon. He belongs in the company of Bush, Cheney, and William Kristol. He's a closet member of the Project for the New American Century.

The interesting thing to me, at this point, is whether or not he is bucking for the VP nomination alongside "Maverick" McCain. Whatever chance McCain has at victory in the general election, should he move ahead to win the GOP nomination, would quickly evaporate with Lieberman as his running mate. Any appeal that McCain would have with independent voters would be compromised by Lieberman. Yes, Joe is technically an Independent (with a capital "I") and, yes, he might attract some support from conservative North Easterners, but think about it this way. Two white-haired Senators with no attachment to the South would be facing either the first female candidate or the first "African-American" candidate and the prospect of a pairing with a Southern democrat. Two white-haired cranks, symbolic of the Bush administration's failed war campaign, against a duo of Democrats, more youthful in appearance and promising a message of change.

As a Democrat, I welcome any McCain/Lieberman ticket. As an American, I pray that John McCain is smarter than that. I pray that he is smart enough to take the endorsement, make his appearance, and send Joe on his way. If this presidential campaign is going to be the most dynamic and spirited campaign in generations, it will require that each nominee choose their running mate very carefully. McCain needs a young, vibrant candidate with ties to the South. In the GOP that might mean finding a lesser known member of the party with the potential for a more inspirational image. Actually, as McCain is weak with the religious Right block, as well as the Southern block, he might be wise to take on Mike Huckabee as his running mate. Huckabee won Iowa and has the potential to do very well in the Southern primaries.

Whatever he does, Joe Lieberman would be a mistake. As an election strategy it would be a mistake, and as the right thing to do it would be a mistake.

Saturday, January 26, 2008

Barak Obama: African-American?

I like Sen. Barack Obama. For the record, I'm more of a John Edwards supporter, although I will vote for whichever Democrat wins the nomination. Each of the Dems has a flaw of one kind or another that leaves me generally apathetic about endorsing them at this point. Sen. Hillary Clinton is a "known evil," so to speak, with a long laundry list of flaws that leaves me lukewarm. She is tied to lobbyists and big money. She's a political animal with strong ties to the Washington process. Hardly a populist. Barack Obama is a lesser known evil, with a slimmer record and a far more vague profile by which to judge his suitability for the highest office. John Edwards suffers the fate of his populist platform. He has done nothing in the abstract sense to build his image as an icon of the largess required to lead us all. He seems too down to earth. He seems local.

In the end, I have no doubt that these three candidates are equally suited to building a new direction of some kind. Having Bush in office for 8 years will almost guarantee a new direction of some kind. His approval ratings will require the successor to do something radically different. I would even argue that Sen. John McCain, should he resist the current regime's established power core, can be a positive force for change. This post is not about the merits or pitfalls of choosing any of these candidates, however. The title of the post betrays the focus on its own.

Among these candidates we have certain symbolic associations that define the roles each fills in the national consciousness. Hillary is the woman. Edwards is the trial lawyer. Huckabee is the preacher. McCain is the P.O.W.. Giuliani is the 9/11 America's Mayor. Romney is the flip-flopping Mormon. And....Barack Obama is the African-American. We hear all the time that Obama is the first legitimate African-American presidential candidate to seek his party's nomination. The mass media rejoices in this characterization and Obama has played it up to his advantage from Day One.

In and of itself each of these characterizations are fairly harmless, generally dulling the senses of the consumer to the depth of the platform and character of each candidate. See my last post for more on this. The two candidates that are painted most broadly by this brush of abstraction are Gov. Mike Huckabee and Barack Obama. Huckabee made a speech in Florida, as his finances wane and his days with them, accusing the media of painting him as the Preacher-in-Chief candidate for his religious background. In fairness to Huckabee, taking into account the power of his religious associations, he stands for much more than Christ. He's been an effective governor for more than 10 years and has plenty of policy expertise that work to his advantage. He's no Pat Robertson. He isn't leaning on organizations like Focus on the Family or the Evangelical block to get himself elected. His campaign has had a religious overtone, but has been as secular in its approach to issues as his competitors. For him, however, it's over. It's over because he never got his message out to the public over the din of his portrayal as a theologian.

On the other side of the political spectrum we have Barack Obama. As the African-American candidate his image has been crafted for the voting public in such a way that it precedes his platform nearly 100% of the time. "Is America ready for an African-American president?" That's the question that continually pops up in the coverage of his campaign. You see this less with Hillary Clinton as the female candidate, perhaps indicating that subconsciously we are more ready for a woman to be Commander-in-Chief than we are a so-called ethnic minority. Nevertheless, it's worth examining the underlying meaning behind Obama's characterization in the media and the effect it has on his electability.

What does it mean to be African-American? Whatever the socio-scientific answer may be, it's clear that it means something particular at the highest levels of abstraction. Symbolically, the notion of African-Americanhood resides in the genetic material that one possesses that is brown, rather than white. Barack Obama, Halle Berry, Derek Jeter and many other well known figures are all Black (or African-American) by definition. There is never a single question about their identity. They are Black. Black, Black, Black. Nevermind that each of these individuals are of mixed-racial background. Nevermind that each of these individuals was socialized in some respect in a White setting during substantial parts of their formative life. Nope. They are Black. Barack Obama is Black.

This ignores an important aspect of identity only found at less abstract examinations of race. Laurence Fishburne is racially distinct from Suzanne Malveaux is racially distinct from Donna Brazile is racially distinct from Wesley Snipes, and so on. Yes, there is an American historical precedent for the classification of individuals along these racial lines. This precedent is as much a tool of the oppressed as it was a tool of the oppressor, but in the end it ignores the depth of experience. It is the very target of Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech when he hoped that one day we would judge a man by the content of his character regardless of the color of his skin. Race is a social construction by and large, and in this case robs the American public of deep consideration of the man.

Now, Barack Obama may be counting on the perception of race in his campaign. He may have a strategy for this abstract construct as a tool for building identity and a swell of popular support. It may or may not work. Whatever it does, in the end, it is a veil. It is a distraction. I see Obama using the language of Malcolm X in his speeches in South Carolina. Before a largely African-American audience, Obama used the terms "bamboozled", "hood-winked", and "okie-doke." These terms were made famous by Macolm X on the stump in his days with the Nation of Islam. Obama is attempting to conjure that connection with the South Carolina audience to clue them in to the Clintons' tactics. I guarantee he won't use that lingo in front of whiter audiences because it won't resonate the same way. In this particular example, I watched as a handful of individuals in the background, and two in particular, laughed and rolled their eyes as he invoked the words of Malcolm. They knew the deal.

The fact is, Barack Obama was largely raised by his White mother and her parents. He spent a good deal of time in Indonesia, and in pursuit of his father's African identity. He's a product of the Ivy League, which is virtually lily white. His entire campaign staff at the highest levels is White. None of this is to deny him his connection to the larger African-American community. Clearly his adult life has been spent in the African-American community. The church, the marriage, the work have all been enveloped by this demographic distinction. There is an African-American thread. He is brown in the same way that Derek Jeter is brown and Halle Berry is brown. He may have a hard time getting a cab and more than a few of our most ignorant brothers and sisters have probably used the "N" word to describe him. There is an undeniable mark on Barack Obama beyond his control.

The point of this post is the nonsensical distinction of racial identity in the Obama candidacy that ignores reality. Obama doesn't want to be limited as "the Black candidate" and rightly so. For practical purposes it makes sense to diffuse that distinction to broaden appeal. My intent here is not that. My intent is to point out how little one may determine about Obama when using that abstraction. I'm not concerned how politically inconvenient the label is for Obama. I'm concerned with how inconvenient it is for the rest of us left to make up our minds about a political candidate.

Of course, television deals in stereotypes and generalizations so we're never likely to overcome our artificial fixation about race and what it really means. As long as we absorb important information from television, we will leave our consciousness at the highest levels of abstraction, unable to make more accurate distinctions about our world. As I type this, I'm watching the analysis of the Obama victory in South Carolina on CNN. The main point of analysis regarding the outcome is the breakdown of Black men and women for each candidate, as well as the White men and women's breakdown. It's not their fault that this is the point of focus. There is some abstract level of reality to this breakdown. If we operate symbolically, the analysis will naturally follow this. The problem is not that the analysis is of the highly symbolic. The analysis is a product of the initial presentation of the campaign on symbolic grounds. Once the symbolic system has been formed and disseminated to the viewing public the rest falls in line.

I like Obama. I support his candidacy. I liken his impact on this campaign to Robert Kennedy's approach all those years ago, although he's probably no Robert Kennedy in the end. The abstraction of race doesn't enter the equation in my mind. He's no King and he's no X. He doesn't have to be, and he shouldn't try to be.

Mass Media Games

Although there might be much to discuss before jumping into topic-oriented posting here, there is no easy way to begin other than simply to do so with opinion regarding current events. At the time of this inaugural opinion piece, we are watching the waning hours of the Democratic Primary in the State of South Carolina. It has been a contentious few weeks of campaigning, mainly highlighted by Bill and Sen. Hillary Clinton's underhanded campaign tactics against front-running Sen. Barack Obama.

The Clintons have been accused by opponents of all persuasions of using misinformation to smear Obama, and many have even suggested that Bill Clinton is seeking to add a third term to his former presidency. As a Democratic supporter, I find the entire period of campaigning extremely distasteful and ultimately unproductive on a number of levels. The Clintons are far from squeaky clean, and are using their seasoned campaign tactics to damage a political opponent. Politicos everywhere will wag a finger at these tactics, but understand them as part of the process. The Clintons are far superior at these tactics than anyone involved in the race for the White House on either side. Those tactics, combined with a money machine unparalleled in modern politics, virtually assure Hillary Clinton of the nomination despite Obama's appeal among many voting blocks around the country.

All of that is neither here, nor there, however. The tactics that we see employed in this race and hardly new, and are hardly unfair in the climate of electoral business that has evolved over the centuries. Part of the game is understanding how to defuse and redirect the rhetoric and run an even more effective campaign. The entire process is about generating an iconic attachment with the voting public that transcends message and transcends policy. If you're paying attention to the speeches and "debates", it's probably obvious to you that nothing of substance is ever offered at any time. Policy is a simple wash of symbolic language and false platitudes. Television, as a medium of abstraction and entertainment, is best suited to building cognitive associations with characters based on their likability, poise, and the measure of perceived leadership quality emanating from the pixels forming the image on the screen. The cartoonish image of limited color and resolution that is the television screen makes this all happen before a mostly oblivious public.

The news organizations have shifted so far toward the abstract and so far toward the titillating and entertaining aspects of the electoral process, one will never glean enough valuable information to make a considered and accurate choice. Television is good at one thing, above all else, and that thing is sports. There is a contest set up with easily identified oppositions. There is only winning and losing, advantage and disadvantage. There is drama in sports, swirling around easy to understand characters, who depending on your perspective are either heroes or villains. Music, graphics, and the presence of experts add to the production value of the coverage of sports. The live aspect of the sporting competition leaves the outcome in doubt, but always gives the talking heads assigned to cover it plenty to speculate on and debate. This sporting formula is easily applied to election campaigns, by nature a competition.

CNN proudly advertises their election coverage during this pre-Super Bowl period as the Ballot Bowl '08. It's beyond veiled reference at this point. The language used to describe the campaign trail and all the drama of the electoral competition is straight out of the SportsCenter play book. The debates are a simple formulaic approach to the coaches' pre-game press conference. No one is going to give up their advantage by revealing their game plan. None of the players are going to risk showing their weak points by saying to much. The audience is thrilled by one-liners designed to score valuable image points with the audience and offer the pundits the opportunity to flap their gums about who's winning the PR battle before the big game.

We're all so used to it right now, no one questions the process. No one, or rather very few, demand more information. We are strung along by the mass media and the political characters until it's time to cast our ballot. By that time, we have suffered the paralysis of information overload, however this information is hardly the type of substantial information needed to make a true choice in the democratic sense. It is rather the false impression of information that leaves the process up to the abstraction made possible by televised politics as sports. If you don't believe me, consider the notion that voters questioned at the exit polls rarely understand the policy choices they've made by casting their vote for one candidate or another. Almost to a person these citizens repeat the campaign sound bites and talking points as their rationale for choosing candidate X or Y. If pressed on policy, most will never be able to describe the depth of their decision at all. This is the greatest evidence for the notion that we, as Americans, have given up our democratic selves in favor of a perceived democratic self that operates solely on symbolic associations and iconic abstractions.

Although his statements may simply boil down to campaign rhetoric aimed at spinning the mass media in a specific direction, Bill Clinton's recent spat with reporters was not only spot on correct in every way, but also should be heeded as a revolutionary stand against this particular aspect of our democracy. He said:

"They're feeding you this because this is what you want to cover; this is what you live for, but this hurts the people of South Carolina," he told a reporter. "What you care about is this and the Obama people know that, so they spin you up on this and you happily go along."

"The people don't care about this. They never ask about it," he said. "And you are determined to take this election away from them."

Again, this charge was leveled by the former president against a gaggle of reporters in South Carolina as a way to jockey for position with the Obama campaign regarding the perception of race as a campaign issue. There are plenty of ulterior motives here to consider, but the larger issue is the notion that the mass media outlets love to latch onto a "he said, she said" war of words regarding generally meaningless rhetoric rather than discuss policy differences and issues important to the real world lives of the electorate. Policy and issues require comprehensive coverage of complicated issues with multi-tiered roots. Marshall McLuhan famously said that thinking doesn't make for good television. Watching someone think is boring. Watching TMZ style celebrity expose in a gossip format is the modern form of televised coverage of virtually every story in the world. Who hates who? What did they say that might spark controversy? Boxers or briefs?

Whatever you think of the Clintons, Bill was right. Perhaps he's counting on this aspect of mass media coverage in his own strategy, but he's right. It hurts the people of the United States and it won't stop until we stand up and make them stop.

Habermas meets McLuhan

The term "Communicative Action" is a theory put forth by German philosopher Jurgen Habermas, described at Wikipedia as "agency in the form of communication, which under his understanding is restricted to deliberation, i.e the free exchange of beliefs and intentions under the absence of domination." The title of this blog owes much to Habermas' ideas, but is at the same time a critical look at the various media of communication which shape and drive our human environment. The work of Marshall McLuhan, and others in his great tradition, cover this aspect of my blog. The combination of these philosophies provides the intersection required to paint a picture of our culture and indeed the governance of our society.

When you visit this blog, you will find issues surrounding communication as a formative catalyst for culture. The analysis of symbolic forms and the measure of abstraction in our media environment are crucial issues in need of closer examination. When Habermas describes deliberation as the free exchange of beliefs and intentions under the absence of domination, he points in some way to the system of filtering that exists in mass media which reduces important issues to their highest levels of abstraction and twists the messages important to deliberation in the media of commercial and political spin.

Communicative Action will attempt to put the spotlight on these issues and boil them down to a deeper and more comprehensive examination, free of the fog which rolls in via mass media outlets. Much of the content here is opinion. I will always endeavor to present my opinion with supporting background information and arguments based as much in science as possible. In the end, however, these opinions are open to deliberation. Participation in this forum, and in the deliberation of opinions on the issues presented, is Communicative Action.

Away we go.