Sunday, August 23, 2009

Picking And Choosing Villains

To those of us who have never written anything longer than a short story in high school or an undergraduate thesis, it's easy to assume that someone who has written an impressive-sounding book, like, oh, Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, is not only informed but also logical.

That conclusion would be wrong. I'm not sure what Leonard Zeskind, who wrote that book, or Devin Burghart, who together wrote this post at Talking Point Memo's TPM Cafe, meant when their argument at TPM concluded in a morass of, well, a morass:

Nevertheless, there is another element of this worldview that needs to be understood. Consider, in this regard, the woman who stood up in a Delaware town hall last month and claimed that Obama was a citizen of Kenya. "I want my country back," she told the crowd. Her anger is aimed at restoring a country that no longer exists. In fact, that country never did exist.

If a person believes, like Pat Buchanan has argued, that white people built this country alone, and as whites, it is not a long next step to think that President Barack Obama is not a genuine bona-fide natural born American. Nor is it very far to reach the conclusion that brown-skinned, Spanish speaking immigrants are an enemy force that needs repelling. The psychological, social and political space between conspiracy minded whizbangs outside the beltway, and the anti-immigrant congressmen supporting the Birther Bill then shrinks to invisibility. They are distinct without a difference that matters. The nuttiness of the conspiracy mongers becomes less salient then their search for a brighter, whiter tomorrow.

As easy as has been for some to conclude that dissidents at town-hall meetings hosted by Democratic Congress members are motivated by racism ("their search for a brighter, whiter tomorrow"), it is no more difficult to note that Zeskind and Burkhart have no idea whether the Delawarean (let's call her Pamela, only because it makes things easier and "Pamela" is a fairly traditional, and good, American name) was prompted only by President Obama's race (video below). It seems too easy to point out that other things about the President or his policies also may have played a role.

But really: given the fact that Barack Obama (whom she opposes) was born in Honolulu, island of Oahu, state of Hawaii, U.S.A., do we know Pamela actually connects Barack Obama with the anti-immigrant sentiment they decry? And could she really believe that Obama is characteristic of "brown-skinned, Spanish-speaking immigrants (who) are an enemy force that needs repelling?" (This may be a little confusing, but so is the argument, unsupported, that people who believe whites alone built this country would inevitably doubt Obama's citizenship, causing them to block comprehensive immigration reform.) Admittedly, it's hard to tell what Pamela meant when she said, apparently without explanation, "I want my country back," inasmuch as her country has gone nowhere from which it would need (or not) to return. That, unfortunately, didn't stop Zeskind and Burkhardt from concluding that she longs for a country which "no longer exists" or "never did exist."

This would simply be my potshot against two fellows demonstrating reprehensible elitism were the sentiments not reflective of others expressed by some on the left (though, as I've suggested before, elitism is not the sole, or even primary, province of the left). On August, 21, the Daily Howler's Bob Somersby, hitting on one of his favorite themes, describes (stay with it; it's much more interesting than my discourse) an article written by Kevin Sack of The New York Times:

You see, Sack has found a gang of tea-baggers, holed up in a Florida seniors community. Their names are cited, along with their ages. Let’s skip lifelong Democrat Shirley Scrop, 76. Instead, let’s go straight to Hal Goldman:

SACK (8/21/09): Hal Goldman, 79, who retired 22 years ago from Sears, Roebuck & Company, echoed that sentiment.

“What they’re trying to do—Obama is—is take from the senior citizens and give to the poor and the illegal immigrants,” Mr. Goldman said. “It’s hurting the senior citizens who worked all their lives. Because of their age, like in Canada, you’ll have to wait six months for an M.R.I.”

In fact, the health care bills circulating in Congress would not extend coverage to illegal immigrants...

Sack quotes many tea-baggers saying such things, including lifelong Democrat Scrop. Surely, our leaders will want to get on a plane, go to Florida, and tell these wing-nuts they’re “crazy.” We’ll want them to know that “the crazy tree blooms” in each of their tea-bagging statements. It would be a case of soft bigotry if we declined to do that!

Sorry! In our view, that’s what Goofus would probably do! Gallant looks for ways to correct their misapprehensions without calling them long strings of names. Because guess what? This is exactly what people are like! This country is full of voters who have inaccurate beliefs. Except among their “elitist liberal betters,” this is known as the human condition.

Goofus wants to name-call Goldman, thereby “kicking down.” By way of contrast, Gallant wants to name-call Robert Pear today, for his deeply unfortunate companion piece to Sack’s front-page report.

Pear has been a major scribe at the Times for quite a long time. He’s a major, big-deal, much-admired reporter. But today’s report is truly appalling. Here’s the headline and opening paragraph:

PEAR (8/21/09): A Basis Is Seen for Some Health Plan Fears Among the Elderly

WASHINGTON—White House officials and Democrats in Congress say the fears of older Americans about possible rationing of health care are based on myths and falsehoods. But Medicare beneficiaries and insurance counselors say the concerns are not entirely irrational.

Huh! According to that opening paragraph, “insurance counselors” (whoever they are) say that fears about possible rationing of health care “are not entirely irrational.” Read literally, that’s an extremely narrow claim—but in the current environment, the claim packs quite a wallop. But uh-oh! In his entire report, Pear quotes lots of average-Joe “Medicare beneficiaries” voicing lots of fears—but he seems to cite only one person with professional expertise! That lonely figure appears in paragraph 22 of his 26-graf report:

PEAR: Medicare officials recently proposed changes that could increase payments for some primary care services but reduce payments to many specialists. Cardiologists would be especially hard hit, with cuts of more than 20 percent in payments for electrocardiograms and 12 percent for heart stent procedures.

“Cuts of this magnitude could cripple cardiology practices and threaten access to services for millions of patients,” said Dr. John C. Lewin, chief executive of the American College of Cardiology.

Is Lewin right? He certainly could be. (Lewin donated to Obama last year, to Kerry in 2004. Not part of the Lewin Group.) But Pear’s headline and opening claim are amazingly poorly supported. Under that headline, he lists many fears of average-Joe seniors—and only one statement from an expert. Apparently, when Pear referred to “insurance counselors,” he meant people like this:

PEAR: Carol H. Carter, a spokeswoman for LIFE Senior Services in Tulsa, Okla., a nonprofit group, said she and her colleagues had been deluged with questions from Medicare beneficiaries.

Much of the concern results from “fear of the unknown,” Ms. Carter said, adding: “Getting specific information about the proposals and what they mean is really hard. Seniors don’t trust the government to carry it off.”

Is that the logic of this piece? These seniors’ fears “are not entirely irrational” because “getting specific information about the proposals is really hard?”

Pear’s report is shockingly lazy. This is extremely bad work.

Back to our choices. Gallant might kick up, at Pear. Goofus might choose to kick down, at those seniors. After all, Goofus may have his career to consider. When leaders kick up at people like Pear, their viability in the system can dissipate.

"Kick up" rather than "kick down." This is presumably what individuals- usually on the left"- mean when they impress themselves with invocation of the phrase "talk truth to power." That is too infrequently practiced, as Zeskind and Burghart demonstrate. They refer to the House Immigration Reform Caucus, which would represent "power" if the political party to which most of the members belonged actually held the power in Washington- and then only if that party were more than a mouthpiece for corporate interests. (Sure, that's a generalization, but not by much.) But they reserve most of their contempt, even most of their venom, for "conspiracy minded whizbangs outside the beltway."

It doesn't help, of course, that the "kicking down" has a demographic component, most commonly targeting people of one race, notwithstanding that pigmentation is no barrier to ignorance; but also individuals of a particular age cohort. NBC Political Director Chuck Todd, in an appearance I otherwise excoriated, bravely noted what others in the mainstream media and blogosphere have completely ignored (emphasis mine):

Well, no, and we worded it—we did not use the word “death panel” because I think “death panel” is a charged term, at this point. We said that the government—the way we worded it to voters, that the government would make the ultimate decision of when to stop giving medical care to the elderly. So we did not use a charged political term. Forty-five percent believe this. This was among—and for what it‘s worth, by the way, seniors actually believed it less than the overall public. So this—you know, there has been this idea that somehow this was a scare tactic with seniors...

Could this be one of the reasons Pamela imagines that her country has been taken from her? That many people, including some on the left, are implying that the non-wealthy, white, and elderly, are by nature ignorant and the barrier to progress? I can't tell for sure, but neither can Zeskind, Burkhart, or others who claim psychic abilities.

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