Friday, August 12, 2011


I watch a lot of news and public affairs television. I mean a lot, probably more than I should. I watch Rachel Maddow, Lawrence O'Donnell and Ed Schultz on MSNBC, and Keith Olbermann on Current. It will come as a surprise to no one that I have the Fox News Channel blocked from my TV, and CNN has become a ridiculous travesty, with shrill harpies like Nancy Grace all over it. The only reason I watch the three over-the-air networks (ABC, CBS and NBC) is for the nightly news programs. Anything else on these networks is pure drivel. I mean, there is some idiotic program the name of which I can't remember where a bunch of people with helmets and foam rubber padding try to climb over and through a bunch of cartoonish contraptions that seem only geared to maim and cripple them. I don't know if that kind of juvenile nonsense goes over big in Nebraska, but it leaves me completely cold and decidedly un-entertained. After you get used to really interesting, intelligently-written, provocative programs like Battlestar Galactica, The Sopranos, Six Feet Under, True Blood, Nurse Jackie, Sons of Anarchy, and Real Time with Bill Maher, you just can't go back to the saccharine, dumbed-down crap the big networks serve up.

Back in the day when I was growing up, the big three networks, plus an educational channel, were all you had to work with. The only way you could get a television signal was through your rooftop antenna. There was no HBO, Showtime, AMC, or Syfy. Everything was in black-and-white, and HDTV was decades in the future. Prime time was 7pm to 11pm. Most first-run shows were telecast in the fall, winter and spring, and you could count on the summertime being nothing but repeats. I'm sure that young people probably can't understand this kind of restricted set-up, and put it in with other incomprehensible oddities like dial telephones or the absence of anything digital, from computers to Facebook to iPhones.

But, I digress. One thing these news shows seem to have in common is a really irritating vocal tic a lot of the talking heads exhibit. That is, whenever they are asked a question or state their opinion they always start it with "Look,.." As in:
Q: What do you think will happen with the budget deficit talks?
A: Look, this is something we've seen before..

Or "Look, there's going to be a legislative logjam no matter what...."

This habit of saying "Look,.." at the beginning of every sentence annoys the living crap out of me because it reeks of arrogance and condescension. It sounds like the way you would talk if you're getting really exasperated trying to talk sense into an idiot Tea Partier, or trying to converse with a really irritating child who keeps responding "Why?" to everything you say. It's the way someone talks when they're losing patience having to deal with someone of obviously inferior intelligence, or they are just too darned busy being important to waste time talking to you. It's a peculiarly Beltway phenomenon, and I bet it's something you hear about a million times a day if you work in any government office. It's the kind of thing that seeps into a culture and stands out like a red flag to anyone not familiar to it. While not as widespread or insidious as Valley Girl talk, it's nearly as annoying.

But, it's not enough to discourage me from my steady diet of news, views, opinions, breaking news, and the massive cavalcade of information that the information channels provide. I'll just cringe a little and squirm in my seat every time I hear that "Look..."

Thursday, August 11, 2011

American Exceptionalism

I've been hearing a lot about something called "American exceptionalism." Chris Matthews on MSNBC has a promo spot in which he relates how Barack Obama came from a relatively lowly background and ascended to the heights of American politics. He made the point that someone couldn't go over to China and become the President of China. Matthews attributed it to "American exceptionalism".

I wasn't sure what that meant, so I went to that Oracle of the Internet, Wikipedia. They said that is the belief that the United States is qualitatively different from, and by inference superior to, other nations. This supposedly came from the fact that America was born from a revolution, and developed it own ideas of egalitarianism, populism, laissez-faire capitalism, and individualism. It traces its roots to Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) who first referred to the United States as "exceptional."

This concept has also been linked to another concept, manifest destiny, which said that it was inevitable that early settlers of the United States would in time spread across the entire North American continent, from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It was their destiny, and it would happen in spite of the fact that Native Americans and untold billions of other mammals were there first.

There is something about American exceptionalism that kind of creeps me out. I think that while it's something that has a tinge of validity, it is also something that can be monstrously perverted to suit a particular agenda or justify a whole range of activities. Any idea that seeks to set up one group of people as somehow having better attributes and qualities than others for no discernible good reason other than it sort of sounds good and fits roughly in with historic events, seems a bit desperate to me. It's just one short step from claiming to be the divinely "chosen ones" and whenever you get the approval of some religious deity, then you assume you have carte blanche to do anything you damned well please, no matter how awful and hideous. History abounds with examples of this.

Now, "animal exceptionalism" is something I can totally get behind, because I believe that animals are far superior to human beings and have every reason to be considered exceptional. You never hear of animals calling each other racist names, or killing enormous numbers of each other in pointless, ill-conceived wars, or making themselves miserable by wallowing around in bottomless pools of regret or resentment. Animals don't really concern themselves with what happened yesterday or 50 years ago, and they don't spend their lives fretting about stuff that may or may not happen tomorrow or 50 years from now. They live wholly and completely in the present moment.

Humans, however, do not do the same. Is it this human understanding of time and history that separates them from the animals and makes them "exceptional?" Probably not, since as far as I know all humans understand the concept of past, present and future pretty much the same, so I can't see how that can be used to establish some kind of superiority of one group over the other.

I'm not sure Americans are all that exceptional. We have an exceptional country, blessed with enormous natural resources, but the same can be said for Russia and China. We have a system of government which at least in theory allows people the opportunity to succeed as much as they are able or want to succeed, but so do a lot of European countries and some Pacific Rim countries like Australia, Singapore and Japan. We have a culture that values egalitarianism and rugged individualism, but so does Canada, South Africa, Chile and Argentina. We have a legal system that, while corrupted with money, favoritism and biases of every kind, still argues the point that anyone is innocent until proven guilty. But much of our system of laws is based on British Common Law which has its origins in Teutonic Germany, so it isn't a uniquely American construct.

So what is it that makes America exceptional? Maybe it's the belief that we are a "shining city on a hill," as crotchety, Alzheimers-ridden buffoon Ronald Reagan said. Maybe it's our common belief that freedom is the cornerstone of our country, even though our freedoms get eroded more and more every day by politicians who constantly hide behind the shield of patriotism, while doing very unpatriotic things. And most of all, even though our country is reviled and criticized in many corners of the world, it's still the Promised Land for many people and an irresistible draw for the talented and ambitious. We have our flaws, but we are also the best the world has to offer.

Friday, August 5, 2011

An Intelligence Deficit

The past week or two we have been reluctant, unhappy witnesses to one of the worst displays of just how dysfunctional Congress is that I can ever remember. The whole garish, shameful scenario of extending the debt ceiling, something which happens fairly often and with hardly a whimper in the media, until now, was truly an extremely destructive and ultimately unnecessary abomination.

It's all the more galling because it was an artificial, completely manufactured crisis, instead of an actual crisis. And by "actual crisis" I mean things like the economic collapse of 2008, the bombing of Libya, or an earthquake or hurricane laying waste to a wide area. This "debt ceiling" is an man-made abstraction, a conceit of the pointy-headed economists of the nation and is about three degrees of separation away from anything most people can even understand, or care to understand.

As usual, the Republicans are at the bottom of this heinous, hell-spawned mess, and in particular this was the fault of the god-forsaken Tea Partiers in Congress. The gang of 85 representatives which presumably were elected through a wave of Tea Party support in the 2010 midterms, decided to take the entire country hostage and link the debt ceiling with lowering the deficit, something which has NEVER been done before and something which is completely invalid.

First of all, the debt ceiling represents money that has ALREADY been spent and debt which has ALREADY been incurred, not future debt. That's like saying, I'm not going to pay this month's electricity bill until I'm sure that next month's electricity bill will be lower. WTF is that supposed to mean? Sounds like idiotic crap, and it is. You're responsible for paying this month's electric bill NOW, for electricity you have already used, and it does NOT depend on what you do next month. But somehow, the pretzel logic of the Tea Baggers linked those two concepts and both political parties were powerless to change it. How on earth can it happen that a small minority of deadheaded legislators can pervert and twist around an economic concept like that?

As the clocked ticked down last week toward a credit default, which is what would have happened if the debt ceiling had not been raised and the U.S. had no available funds to repay its debts, the political theater and bickering was immense in its scale. The House of Representatives insisted on passing its own Tea Party-driven deficit reduction measure, which consisted mostly of shielding their wealthy sponsors from any kind of financial contribution to repaying this country's debt in the form of moderately increased taxes or tax loophole-closing, even though everybody and their uncle knew that such a measure would be dead-on-arrival at the Senate, but they had to waste time anyhow making a big "show" of it.

At the last minute a "compromise" bill was cobbled together which, according to orange-skinned Speaker of the House John Boner, I mean, Boehner, gave him "98% of everything" he wanted. Some f**king "compromise." Most people thought a "compromise" is when each side in an argument gives some concession to the other side in hopes of coming up with a mutually-agreeable solution. The only thing the Democrats and the Obama administration gave up is their integrity, and the confidence of their base supporters that they would stand their ground against the Republican onslaught. The Republicans railroaded and overran the Democrats, I have to give them credit for that, and the wealthy puppet-masters of the Republicans must be very proud of the investment they made in that party.

Once AGAIN, Obama caved to the demands of the other side. To try to deflect attention from him being Senate minority leader Mitch O'Connell's bottom bitch, Obama is now saying that since the debt ceiling problem is over, he's going to focus exclusively on jobs and putting America back to work. The problem with that is that the only way the government can put people back to work is by spending a bunch of money on badly-needed public works and infrastructure repair projects, but the Republicans have stated clearly that they would not support any such expenditures. So how is the administration supposed to create these new jobs which will bring sorely-needed tax revenues into the Treasury, without any money for these projects? Obama hasn't figured that out yet, but I'm sure he's thinking really hard about it. That, and $3, will buy you a grande house coffee at Starbucks, if you can afford it.

What's much more disturbing and dangerous is that the Republicans have learned that their hostage-taking style of negotiating works pretty well. They were ready to let the country go into default and risk a credit downgrade, which would have been catastrophic to the extreme to the national and the global economy, and they didn't give a crap how badly it hurt the country. This is what we're going to see from now on, this scorched-earth practice from the right wing, in which they will risk heaping much more pain and misery on the people of this country without any concern for the consequences. The ultra-wealthy are insulated and protected from such things, and that is all the Republicans care about. And that will surely have very dire results in both the short- and long-term.

Yesterday the stock market took a header into the shitter, dropping over 500 points in a single day. All the stock market gains for the year have been erased. Seven months and nothing to show for it. The market has dropped over 10% in the past two weeks. Many billions of dollars have been obliterated, and it will be difficult getting them back. And all for what? A manufactured crisis that didn't have to happen. After all, conservative idol Ronald Reagan raised the debt ceiling 18 times in his presidency, with nary a whisper of dissent from anyone. All of a sudden, now that we have a black man for President, raising the debt ceiling is a big deal. The Republicans in general and the Tea Party in particular have made it very clear that they will do anything and everything to destroy Obama's presidency. And apparently, if they destroy the economy of the country and the well-being of all its citizens in the process, well that is too damned bad.