Monday, October 27, 2008

TV Wasteland

My blogging has been less frequent than usual because I’ve been recovering from carpal tunnel surgeries. Regrettably, I’ve been spending a lot of time watching the cable news networks. Hey, I already knew that TV news was a joke, but I never realized the full extent of the imbecility before.

For the most part, the news shows display a phony concern for “balance,” a stance which has become meaningless because it has been drained of content. What you get is a supposed conservative squaring off against a supposed liberal, both spouting talking points instead of imparting information, and both confined within the most narrow and superficial “centrist” mindset.

The presidential election is covered almost exclusively in the aspect of who’s winning, who’s behind, what the candidate that is behind will or must do to catch up, what the one that is ahead will or must do to stay ahead, what the latest speeches say about the campaign strategies, and endless variations on the “horse race” theme. Pity the viewer seeking insight into the actual problems and issues facing us, because the coverage only provides the most rudimentary information on that, mixed up with huge wads of “spin” that bear no relevance to any of the aforesaid actual problems and issues.

This is emphasized in the presidential race—but in fact, all the political coverage follows the same model. In addition, we have the usual tornadoes and hurricanes, along with lurid crimes and celebrity show biz stories. Last year, as you may recall, the death of a former Playboy bunny took up more air time than all the political news from Europe, Africa, and Asia combined. Somehow the purveyors of this rubbish can look themselves in the mirror and think that they represent a legitimate source of news.

One of the excuses we hear is that with 24 hours to fill up, the cable news networks have to rely on junk. But the truth is that they’re lazy, greedy, and dishonest.

To illustrate my point, take a look at Democracy Now, Amy Goodman’s daily news show that is broadcast on community radio and public access TV. Let me say first of all that I don’t idolize Amy Goodman. She has her blind spots, like any journalist. Nevertheless, Democracy Now is the most important non-corporate news program in the country.

Every day, on a shoestring budget, the show covers a wide range of issues, and features interviews and guests that you almost never see anywhere else. Goodman provides a voice for many authors, representatives of organizations, political figures, activists, and ordinary people. During the Democratic convention, for example, she would interview delegates and give them a good ten or fifteen minutes to talk, and you would learn more from these interviews about the feel of the convention than you would from an entire day of CNN. Her guests have the time to go into detail about events, issues, and problems, in a way that facilitates greater understanding.

Her approach, admittedly, is left-wing alternative, although occasionally someone from the right will agree to be on the show and be given the opportunity to explain his or her positions and debate others with different views. If the networks were to follow her methods, they might justifiably include many more establishment figures, as well as conservative, centrist, and liberal guests, etc. But the point is that there are a lot of people out there who could and should be allowed to speak and be heard.

What the networks give us instead are the same people over and over again, ad nauseam. The same political consultants and operatives, the same pundits, the same columnists, are repeatedly interviewed. In addition, CNN has a “team” of commentators who sit, inexplicably, at little computer screens, and offer up the same pablum week after week. On MSNBC, they have a resident right-wing crank, Pat Buchanan. On almost every show, the host will eventually say, “Now we’ll have a discussion with so-and-so and Pat Buchanan” and out trots the right-wing crank for the millionth time. On ABC’s Sunday show This Week we are privy to discussions between Cokie Roberts, George Will, and Sam Donaldson, all desiccated Beltway insiders who haven’t said anything new or insightful in twenty years or more.

I won’t even bother to describe Rupert Murdoch’s Jim Crow channel, which is a nothing but a wingnut propaganda organ that no one with self-respect should ever agree to appear on.

MSNBC’s Keith Olbermann, it should be noted, is more informative than most cable network hosts, yet there is still a reliance on a small group of repeat guests. Rachel Maddow’s show demonstrates some progress in the right direction, but I think there are corporate restraints at work even in her case. I really didn’t encounter, for example, a strong, principled dissenting view on the bailout from watching Maddow’s show.

The excuse that there’s not enough funding for real reporting won’t cut it. Goodman’s show does real reporting every day, on a microscopic fragment of the networks’ budgets. I think the networks could easily fill 24 hours with a huge variety of voices and viewpoints, along with important news from around the world.

They don’t want to. And one doesn’t need to resort to notions of an overt conspiracy in order to understand the reason. Corporate news is set up to make money for advertisers, and to do that one simply needs to “entertain” the audience and stay within a certain narrow framework of information and opinion. The news that is conveyed on Democracy Now doesn’t fit within that framework because it reveals the darker aspects of governments and corporations. Someone working at CNN or MSNBC doesn’t need to be told not to go there—if you’ve climbed the career ladder high enough to get on these networks, you already know how to toe the line without it being explicitly drawn.

As far as PBS and NPR are concerned, they aim at a more educated audience, but their range is still circumscribed, and the right regularly threatens to cut off their funding when they don’t behave. The honorable exception: Bill Moyers, who was not so subtly squeezed off the air during the Bushevik heyday, and finally made a comeback when public opinion started to catch up with him. This brings up another important insight—the TV talking heads only come around when it’s perceived to be “safe” to do so. When Bush’s poll numbers went into the toilet, people like Chris Matthews finally started to voice skepticism. Even so, a comprehensive, critical understanding of the real damage done by the Bush regime is still lacking on network TV. It’s always framed in terms of popularity—Bush is unpopular now; the war is unpopular; etc. The alarming extent of the corruption and degradation of the country and the world is skimmed over. We now go on to the next distraction as if it had no connection to what went on before.

Can you think of an instance in which TV news has broken a national story within the last forty years? 60 Minutes might have done it once or twice—the rest is smoke and mirrors. Then there was the Dan Rather story on Bush’s desertion from the Texas National Guard—which turned out to be a Rovian trap, even though the facts were there. TV news doesn’t break stories. It doesn’t really practice journalism in the true sense. It just receives information from official sources and then chatters over it incessantly.

The newspapers are still the only news sources that actually “break” stories in the classic fashion, but that’s also become rare. Most of the revelations nowadays come from whistle blowers and other people and organizations outside of the media, such as Amnesty International, who courageously bring things to public attention that would otherwise be ignored by the press. We should be grateful for these truth tellers, but most of the time they are attacked and demonized.

There is one more saving grace I must mention—the internet. Oh, it’s not all that the starry-eyed proponents of online community would have us believe, but it’s made a difference. Before the web, the corporate media completely monopolized the political narrative. It was almost impossible for regular citizens to have their views heard in any meaningful way. The internet showed progressives that they were not alone, and that the dominant narrative was far to the right of where most people in the country really were. I’m sure the right-wing establishment hates the internet and wish it could be suppressed and controlled. The corporatists are still trying, and they mustn’t succeed. There’s a sense in which the Fourth Estate—the real one, not the faux press you see on TV—has taken refuge in the blogosphere.

We will need a free press in the struggles ahead. In the meantime, don’t watch too much television. It warps your mind.

Friday, October 17, 2008

A Chance

I wish the White House weren’t so powerful. This imperial presidency, as Arthur Schlesinger called it, is a huge obstacle to any progress. But the reality today is that this power exists. I see the vote in the presidential race, therefore, in purely practical terms. What candidate gives us, gives the people, a chance at achieving progressive goals, a chance to make gains in the areas of peace, human rights, and equality?

The amount of public attention devoted to this campaign has been obscenely exaggerated. It’s been going on for close to two years. The media treats it like a game show, like a huge perverse form of mass entertainment. And this one’s been stupider than ever—the nomination of that idiotic "hockey mom" being only the most obvious example. Meanwhile, the most important things happen at the grassroots. Progressives need to continue organizing at the local level. We need a sustainable movement that doesn’t just protest what the corporations are doing, but actually wrests economic and political influence from them. This slow, often frustrating work is more important than the presidential election.

Nevertheless, it needs to be said: this is not a game show. It does matter who is in the White House, not because electing someone new will overthrow the empire—of course it won’t. That’s obvious just from seeing Obama kowtow to the Israel lobby and talk tough about Afghanistan. No, it’s important because—we need a chance to influence things. That’s all. Just a chance.

There is very little chance for progress as long as the Republicans run the White House. We dare not forget the horrors of the last eight years. Obama and the Democrats tiptoe around this by talking about “failed policies.” The Bush years don’t just represent failure, they represent criminality of the most dangerous kind. These people used terror to try to destroy the last vestiges of freedom in this country. They’ve murdered hundreds of thousands of human beings and displaced many more, while mouthing lies about “democracy.” Their rich allies and military contractor buddies have shamelessly looted our wealth. They’ve made torture and kangaroo courts our official policy. They’ve illegally spied on us, and when they were caught, expanded their spying powers. They’ve rigged elections by voter suppression and fraud, while using the Justice Dept. to cover their tracks. They’ve poisoned our discourse with their sneering, attacking style and their hate radio, labeling anyone with disagrees with them a traitor or terrorist. They constantly sought to divide us with race and ethnicity and gender, demonizing African Americans and immigrants, women and gays. They have opposed women’s rights every step of the way. They let over a thousand people die in New Orleans without lifting a finger to help, and then they blamed the victims. They stacked the government with crazy religious fanatics who want us to go back to the Middle Ages. Their Supreme Court appointees supported the powerful against the weak, marching in lockstep with the right-wing agenda. They lied about everything and sought to conceal all their works from any public scrutiny.

And there’s more. They’ve committed so many outrages, lies, insults, deceptions, betrayals, cynical ploys, and disgusting actions that it would take hours to catalog them all. This is fascism. If fascism wins in this country, there’s no chance for us.

In the last debate, John McCain told Obama that he wasn’t running against President Bush, and that if he wanted to run against President Bush he should have run four years ago. The shithead pundits actually thought that was McCain's best moment. It’s typical of the sort of superficial, amnesiac, twisted thinking that dominates our elections. We’re supposed to think that this is just about personalities. President Bush is a different personality from John McCain, so we’re told not to compare them. But it’s not about personalities. These people represent political and economic forces, powers that hold sway in our government. By himself, Bush is just an empty suit. His power comes from his backers. And the Republicans, with few exceptions, backed him all the way. To pretend now that the last years were all because of Bush, and that they weren’t crucially enabled by all the Republican leaders, including McCain, is to play us as fools. But of course that’s the only way they know how to play us.

With an Obama victory, there will still be a corporate establishment running the country. There will still be a war machine in the Pentagon. The nature of our predicament is such that we do not have truly progressive alternatives at the national level yet. But one thing we would have with an Obama victory is—a chance. A chance to push back against fascism. A chance for progressives and liberals to have some breathing room, and maybe even some influence, if we can flex our muscles. A chance to work for peace, human rights, equality, or at least, some sanity.

I voted for Nader twice, in 1996 and 2000. I was tired of the centrist Democrats taking my vote for granted. Clinton did not offer a meaningful alternative for me in the long term. Gore hadn’t found any courage yet. We forget how much he tried to sound like Bush in 2000—picking Joey the Rat as his running mate, for fuck’s sake.

But I believe the stakes are too high now. I did not foresee the push towards totalitarian rule. I did not foresee 9/11, which became the excuse for an assault on our Constitution. I voted for Kerry in ’04, even though he has the appeal of a soggy piece of driftwood, because I wanted to push back at the fascists. Obama, for all his faults, is a hell of a lot smarter and better than Kerry.

I don’t understand the notion of principled non-voting. When I hear some people say they won’t vote, I just don’t get it. Voting is just a practical thing. You aim at the closest you can get to a practically desirable result. How hard can it be just to get your ass to a voting booth, or to send in a ballot? I do understand the despair and the apathy, but I don’t understand not voting out of supposed principle. That seems phony to me. Of course I’d rather have a real progressive in charge like Nader or Cynthia McKinney. But in practical terms, I want us to have a chance.

If the Republicans win again, it will justify every sick, slimy thing they’ve done to stay in power for the last eight years. They have to be hurt. They have to be beaten down without mercy. That’s another reason I’m voting for Obama. Those fuckers need to be taught a lesson, and nothing hurts them quite as much as losing.

And during an Obama administration, we need to continue to organize and fight and speak truth to power. We need to fight the Democrats’ allegiance to big money and empire, even while we continue to fight the fascist right. Because of course they’ll still be around, whining and throwing tantrums as always.

But in order to do that we need—a chance.

Vote for Obama.

Sunday, October 05, 2008

The Man Behind the Curtain

As heartless as it may seem to say so, in the midst of financial crisis, I believe that there is a sense in which we are experiencing a privileged moment. There are very few times in which the official narrative of our politics, the story of capitalism presented day after day as the only truth, falls away to reveal, if only for an instant, the reality behind the fa├žade.

This is that moment, if you will, when Toto pulls the curtain back and we can all see the con man pulling the levers and yelling into the mike.

Recall, if you have not succumbed to the peculiar strain of amnesia prevalent in America, decades of political blather concerning the “free market.” The corporatists railed incessantly against regulation, saying that if only the restraints were taken off our fine economic system, prosperity would come. Conservative or “centrist” (liberal was now a dirty word), Democrat or Republican, all agreed that greed was good. And when the wingnuts came to power, first in Congress under Clinton (who co-opted their message instead of fighting them) and then in the White House under the current torturer, stealer of elections, and all-around useful idiot, they went whole hog—or whatever porcine metaphor you prefer.

The rich got a lot richer. You and I were forced to endure downsizing, outsourcing, and other forms of economic rape—with the result that both members of a household now work full-time, and often have to take second jobs to pay the bills. And the debt piled up.

Meanwhile, the official narrative was that poor people were the problem. Welfare queens and other shiftless minorities needed to be weaned from the welfare tit. Social programs were a waste of our hard-earned tax dollars—money that could be better used for war toys like the Star Wars missile defense boondoggle.

There aren't enough funds for all these liberal programs. Where are you going to get the money for all that? Just tighten your belt, salute the flag, and watch Survivor on TV.

Politicians became our elected school marms and moral instructors—wagging their fingers at us as they bleated about personal responsibility. Don’t have children out of wedlock, people! Stop looking for handouts and get a job—like the decent hard working people who vote for us. We’re sick of hearing about sexism and racism from people who basically hate American values. Instead of protesting war and poverty, look at the true moral issues facing us today—women getting abortions and those filthy queers flaunting their depravity in public. Don’t forget flag burning. And those creepy artists getting funded by the NEA. This is important stuff, people. And while we’re at it, let’s impeach the President for having sex with an intern.

Your problems are the fault of the others. Not with us. Blame the immigrants. Declare holy war on Islam. And behind all of it, the crazy, wacky, moonbat left. Obama, Osama. Coincidence?

And the hockey mom joe six-packs said Amen.

But now, when the thieves and pirates who’ve been getting filthy rich while the rest of us languish in socioeconomic limbo—when these captains of industry who think nothing of moving their companies overseas while screaming “Country first!”—finally bring the whole stinking edifice down around our ears, what do you think happens?

Suddenly there is $700 billion available from the public treasury to save their asses. There wasn’t enough money for those liberal social programs, but when Wall Street needs a bailout, well lookee! We just happen to have $700 billion handy.

But the voters didn’t buy it. Even the American electorate, capable of voting en masse for an empty Texas suit for President (twice!)—wasn’t fooled. The public was overwhelmingly against this bailout, and they let the Congress know it.

If you’ve been watching the news channels during this time—the regular networks, the cable networks, PBS, NPR, whatever—you couldn’t fail to notice that the corporate media was in favor of this bill. Barely a whisper of an alternative ever made it to the airwaves. We were bombarded with fear—if the bill didn’t pass, disaster would ensue. Your jobs were threatened. Your way of life was threatened. The survival of America was at stake. And this was not confined to Fox or right-wing commentators—all of them toed the line, even the supposedly liberal ones.

And yet—the public still opposed the bill!

After the first try failed, and the Dow plunged, the politicos went into panic mode. The people just don’t understand economics. They don’t realize how crucial this is. Something has to be done—now.

Obama supported the bill. What the hell did you expect? He’s heavily funded by Wall Street. McCain stumbled around like the clueless senile bastard he is, not knowing which way to go, because the extreme right of the party was afraid of getting blamed and voted No. What isn’t talked about much are the Democrats that voted No—they were on the left-end of the spectrum, like Kucinich. No one mentioned their arguments on the news channels. That might call into question the whole system, which is based on greed, exploitation and class war.

The amazing thing is, none of this con-job worked. The public still hated the bill.

So here comes the moment when Toto pulled open the curtain. A month before Congressional elections, with the voters angry as hell, the House ended up passing the bill.

I can’t imagine how the actual structure of power in this country could have been more clearly or obviously revealed. The government doesn’t run the country. Wall Street does. All that Wall Street had to do was kick and whine and declare emergency, and then take a big dive when it didn’t get its way at first, and eventually the Congress bailed them out.

Hey, joe six-pack hockey mom—try to learn a lesson here, if you’re not brain-dead already. The people who own the country don’t give a shit about you or your family. When they use race and sex and homophobia to sway your mind, they’re not looking out for anything but their own bottom line. When they talk about cutting government spending, they mean for you, not for themselves. Hell, no. Government is there to cater to them. They tell it what to do, and it will do what they say even if every single one of you calls your Congressperson to complain.

The man behind the curtain is the wizard of Wall Street. That’s the truth. All this talk about freedom and democracy and the American dream—it’s a sham, and it has been for many years. This is one of those moments when that truth is naked for all to see. Imprint it on your mind and don’t forget it.

There will be no change until we refuse to believe the lies.