Friday, July 30, 2010

The sociopathy of Right-Wing guru Ayn Rand

There's something deeply unsettling about living in a country where millions of people froth at the mouth at the idea of giving health care to the tens of millions of Americans who don't have it, or who take pleasure at the thought of privatizing and slashing bedrock social programs like Social Security or Medicare. It might not be as hard to stomach if other Western countries also had a large, vocal chunk of the population who thought like this, but the US is seemingly the only place where right-wing elites can openly share their distaste for the working poor. Where do they find their philosophical justification for this kind of attitude?

It turns out, you can trace much of this thinking back to Ayn Rand, a popular cult-philosopher who exerts a huge influence over much of the right-wing and libertarian crowd, but whose influence is only starting to spread out of the US.

One reason why most countries don't find the time to embrace her thinking is that Ayn Rand is a textbook sociopath. Literally a sociopath: Ayn Rand, in her notebooks, worshiped a notorious serial murderer-dismemberer, and used this killer as an early model for the type of "ideal man" that Rand promoted in her more famous books -- ideas which were later picked up on and put into play by major right-wing figures of the past half decade, including the key architects of America's most recent economic catastrophe -- former Fed Chair Alan Greenspan and SEC Commissioner Chris Cox -- along with other notable right-wing Republicans such as Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas, Rush Limbaugh, and South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford.

The loudest of all the Republicans, right-wing attack-dog pundits and the Teabagger mobs fighting to kill health care reform and eviscerate "entitlement programs" increasingly hold up Ayn Rand as their guru. Sales of her books have soared in the past couple of years; one poll ranked "Atlas Shrugged" as the second most influential book of the 20th century, after The Bible.

So what, and who, was Ayn Rand for and against? The best way to get to the bottom of it is to take a look at how she developed the superhero of her novel, Atlas Shrugged, John Galt. Back in the late 1920s, as Ayn Rand was working out her philosophy, she became enthralled by a real-life American serial killer, William Edward Hickman, whose gruesome, sadistic dismemberment of 12-year-old girl named Marion Parker in 1927 shocked the nation. Rand filled her early notebooks with worshipful praise of Hickman. According to biographer Jennifer Burns, author of Goddess of the Market, Rand was so smitten by Hickman that she modeled her first literary creation -- Danny Renahan, the protagonist of her unfinished first novel, The Little Street -- on him.

What did Rand admire so much about Hickman? His sociopathic qualities: "Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should," she wrote, gushing that Hickman had "no regard whatsoever for all that society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. He has the true, innate psychology of a Superman. He can never realize and feel 'other people.'"

This echoes almost word for word Rand's later description of her character Howard Roark, the hero of her novel The Fountainhead: "He was born without the ability to consider others."

The Fountainhead is Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's favorite book -- he even requires his clerks to read it.

I'll get to where Rand picked up her silly Superman blather from later -- but first, let's meet William Hickman, the "genuinely beautiful soul" and inspiration to Ayn Rand. What you will read below -- the real story, details included, of what made Hickman a "Superman" in Ayn Rand's eyes -- is extremely gory and upsetting, even if you're well acquainted with true crime stories -- so prepare yourself. But it's necessary to read this to understand Rand, and to repeat this over and over until all of America understands what made her mind tick, because Rand's influence over the very people leading the fight to kill social programs, and her ideological influence on so many powerful bankers, regulators and businessmen who brought the financial markets crashing down, means her ideas are affecting all of our lives in the worst way imaginable.

Rand fell for William Edward Hickman in the late 1920s, as the shocking story of Hickman's crime started to grip the nation. His crime, trial and case was a non-stop headline grabber for months; the OJ Simpson of his day:
Hickman, who was only 19 when he was arrested for murder, was the son of a paranoid-schizophrenic mother and grandmother. His schoolmates said that as a kid Hickman liked to strangle cats and snap the necks of chickens for fun -- most of the kids thought he was a budding manic, though the adults gave him good marks for behavior, a typical sign of sociopathic cunning. He enrolled in college but quickly dropped out, and quickly turned to violent crime largely driven by the thrill and arrogance typical of sociopaths: in a brief and wild crime spree that grew increasingly violent, Hickman knocked over dozens of gas stations and drug stores across the Midwest and west to California. Along the way it's believed he strangled a girl in Milwaukee, and killed his crime partner's grandfather in Pasadena, tossing his body over a bridge after taking his money. Hickman's partner later told police that Hickman told him how much he'd like to kill and dismember a victim someday -- and that day did come for Hickman.

One afternoon, Hickman drove up to Mount Vernon Junior High school in Los Angeles, and told administrators that he'd come to pick up "the Parker girl" -- her father, Perry Parker, was a prominent banker. Hickman didn't know the girl's first name, so when he was asked which of the two Parker twins -- Hickman answered, "the younger daughter." And then he corrected himself: "The smaller one." The school administrator fetched young Marion, and brought her out to Hickman. No one suspected his motive; Marion obediently followed Hickman to his car as she was told, where he promptly kidnapped her. He wrote a ransom note to Marian's father, demanding $1,500 for her return, promising that the girl would be left unharmed. Marian was terrified into passivity -- she even waited in the car for Hickman when he went to mail his letter to her father. Hickman's extreme narcissism comes through in his ransom letters, as he refers to himself as a "master mind [sic]" and "not a common crook." Hickman signed his letters "The Fox" because he admired his own cunning: "Fox is my name, very sly you know." And then he threatened: "Get this straight. Your daughter's life hangs by a thread."

Hickman and the girl's father exchanged letters over the next few days as they arranged the terms of the ransom, while Marion obediently followed her captor's demands. She never tried to escape the hotel where he kept her; Hickman even took her to a movie, and she never screamed for help. She remained quiet and still as told when Hickman tied her to the chair -- he didn't even bother gagging her because there was no need to, right up to the gruesome end.

Hickman's last ransom note to Marion's father is where this story reaches its  disturbing: Hickman fills the letter with hurt anger over her father's suggestion that Hickman might deceive him, and "ask you for your $1500 for a lifeless mass of flesh I am base and low but won't stoop to that depth " What Hickman didn't say was that as he wrote the letter, Marion was already several chopped-up lifeless masses of flesh. Why taunt the father? Why feign outrage? This sort of bizarre taunting was all part of the serial killer's thrill, maximizing the sadistic pleasure he got from knowing that he was deceiving the father before the father even knew what happened to his daughter. But this was nothing compared to the thrill Hickman got from murdering the helpless 12-year-old Marion Parker. Here is an old newspaper description of the murder, taken from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on December 27, 1927:
"It was while I was fixing the blindfold that the urge to murder came upon me," he continued, "and I just couldn't help myself. I got a towel and stepped up behind Marian. Then before she could move, I put it around her neck and twisted it tightly. I held on and she made no outcry except to gurgle. I held on for about two minutes, I guess, and then I let go. "When I cut loose the fastenings, she fell to the floor. "I knew she was dead. "Well, after she was dead I carried her body into the bathroom and undressed her, all but the underwear, and cut a hole in her throat with a pocket knife to let the blood out."
Another newspaper account dryly explained what Hickman did next:
Then he took a pocket knife and cut a hole in her throat. Then he cut off each arm to the elbow. Then he cut her legs off at the knees. He put the limbs in a cabinet. He cut up the body in his room at the Bellevue Arms Apartments. Then he removed the clothing and cut the body through at the waist. He put it on a shelf in the dressing room. He placed a towel in the body to drain the blood. He wrapped up the exposed ends of the arms and waist with paper. He combed back her hair, powdered her face and then with a needle fixed her eyelids. He did this because he realized that he would lose the reward if he did not have the body to produce to her father.
Hickman packed her body, limbs and entrails into a car, and drove to the drop-off point to pick up his ransom; along his way he tossed out wrapped-up limbs and innards scattering them around Los Angeles. When he arrived at the meeting point, Hickman pulled Miriam's head and torso out of a suitcase and propped her up, her torso wrapped tightly, to look like she was alive--he sewed wires into her eyelids to keep them open, so that she'd appear to be awake and alive. When Miriam's father arrived, Hickman pointed a sawed-off shotgun at him, showed Miriam's head with the eyes sewn open (it would have been hard to see for certain that she was dead), and then took the ransom money and sped away. As he sped away, he threw Miriam's head and torso out of the car, and that's when the father ran up and saw his daughter--and screamed.
This is the "amazing picture" Ayn Rand -- guru to the Republican/Tea Party right-wing -- admired when she wrote in her notebook that Hickman represented "the amazing picture of a man with no regard whatsoever for all that a society holds sacred, and with a consciousness all his own. A man who really stands alone, in action and in soul. Other people do not exist for him, and he does not see why they should."

Other people don't exist for Ayn, either. Part of her ideas are nothing more than a ditzy dilettante's bastardized Nietzsche -- but even this was plagiarized from the same pulp newspaper accounts of the time. According to an LA Times article in late December 1927, headlined "Behavioralism Gets The Blame," a pastor and others close to the Hickman case denounce the cheap trendy Nietzschean ideas that Hickman and others latch onto as a defense:
"Behavioristic philosophic teachings of eminent philosophers such as Nietzsche and Schopenhauer have built the foundation for William Edward Hickman's original rebellion against society," the article begins.

The fear that some felt at the time was that these philosophers' dangerous, yet nuanced ideas would fall into the hands of lesser minds, who would bastardize Nietzsche and Schopenhauer and poison the rest of us. Which aptly fits the description of Ayn Rand, whose philosophy developed out of her admiration for "Supermen" like Hickman. Rand's philosophy can be summed up by the title of one of her best-known books: The Virtue of Selfishness. She argues that all selfishness is a moral good, and all altruism is a moral evil, even "moral cannibalism" to use her words. To her, those who aren't like-minded sociopaths are "parasites" and "lice" and "looters."

But with Rand, there's something more pathological at work. She's out to make the world more sociopath-friendly so that people like Ayn and her hero William Hickman can reach their full potential, not held back by the morality of the "weak," whom Rand despised.

That's what makes it so creepy how Rand and her followers clearly get off on hating and bashing those they perceived as weak--Rand and her followers have a kind of fetish for classifying weaker, poorer people as "parasites" and "lice" who need to swept away. This is exactly the sort of sadism, bashing the helpless for kicks, that Rand's hero Hickman would have appreciated. What's really unsettling is that even former Central Bank chief Alan Greenspan, whose relationship with Rand dated back to the 1950s, did some parasite-bashing of his own. In response to a 1958 New York Times book review slamming Atlas Shrugged, Greenspan, defending his mentor, published a letter to the editor that ends: "Parasites who persistently avoid either purpose or reason perish as they should. Alan Greenspan."

As much as Ayn Rand detested human "parasites," there is one thing she strongly believed in: creating conditions that increase the productivity of her Supermen - the William Hickmans who rule her idealized America: "If [people] place such things as friendship and family ties above their own productive work, yes, then they are immoral. Friendship, family life and human relationships are not primary in a man's life. A man who places others first, above his own creative work, is an emotional parasite."

And yet Republican faithful like GOP Congressman Paul Ryan read Ayn Rand and make declare, with pride, "Rand makes the best case for the morality of democratic capitalism." Indeed. Except that Ayn Rand also despised democracy, as she declared: "Democracy, in short, is a form of collectivism, which denies individual rights: the majority can do whatever it wants with no restrictions. In principle, the democratic government is all-powerful. Democracy is a totalitarian manifestation; it is not a form of freedom."

"Collectivism" is another one of those Randian epithets popular among her followers. Here for example is another Republican member of Congress, the one with the freaky thousand-yard-stare, Michelle Bachman, parroting the Ayn Rand ideological line, rto explain her reasoning for wanting to kill social programs:
"As much as the collectivist says to each according to his ability to each according to his need, that's not how mankind is wired. They want to make the best possible deal for themselves."

Whenever you hear politicians or Tea Baggers dividing up the world between "producers" and "collectivism," just know that those ideas and words more likely than not are derived from the deranged mind of a serial-killer groupie. When you hear them threaten to "Go John Galt," hide your daughters and tell them not to talk to any strangers -- or Tea Party Republicans. And when you see them taking their razor blades to the last remaining programs protecting the middle class from total abject destitution -- Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid -- and brag about their plans to slash them for "moral" reasons, just remember Ayn's morality and who inspired her.

Too many critics of Ayn Rand-- until I was one of them -- would rather dismiss her books and ideas as laughable, childish, hackneyed. But it can't be dismissed because Rand is the name that keeps bubbling up from the Teabagger crowd and the elite conservative circuit in Washington as The Big Inspiration. The only way to protect ourselves from this thinking is the way you protect yourself from serial killers: smoke the Rand followers out, make them answer for following the crazed ideology of a serial-killer-groupie, and run them the hell out of town and out of our hemisphere.
About author
Mark Ames was founder and editor of The eXile, the notorious Moscow-based, English-language newspaper shuttered last year after a raid by Russian authorities. He is the author of two books: The eXile: Sex, Drugs and Libel in the New Russia (together with Matt Taibbi), and Going Postal: Rage, Murder and Rebellion: From Reagan’s Workplaces to Clinton’s Columbine and Beyond.

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Media fooled by right-wing propaganda -- again

Reporters and editors are too scared of the "liberal media" label to fact-check the right.

This time, the right-wing media juggernaut went too far too fast. Sleazy tactics similar to those employed by online provocateur Andrew Breitbart against former USDA official Shirley Sherrod have been driving the national political conversation and intimidating the so-called mainstream media for the better part of a generation now.

The assault on Sherrod, however, was so mean-spirited, crass and dishonest -- not to mention so astonishingly stupid -- that even Fox News provocateurs like Bill O'Reilly and Glenn Beck (after initially falling for the hoax) were pretty much forced to apologize. I expect O'Reilly actually meant it.

By inadvertently giving us a simple, compelling drama with an admirable protagonist unfairly maligned, it's even possible that Brietbart has awakened sleepwalking Washington journalists to their responsibilities to something besides their own careers. But don't hold your breath.

As for Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and whatever craven and anonymous White House political operatives pressured Sherrod to resign even before the right worked itself into an operatic fury of phony indignation, if anybody in the Obama administration should be shown the exit, it's them.

Hardheaded political realism is one thing. Had Sherrod actually bragged about discriminating against white farmers, of course, she'd have to go ASAP. But wrecking an admirable public servant's career for fear of losing a single 24-hour news cycle looked more like softheaded cowardice masquerading as toughness. Why would President Obama keep advisors like that around?

Never mind Fox News' perennially credulous audience. Even if they knew nothing of Brietbart's history -- he'd previously promoted the infamous ACORN "pimp" scam -- how naive would a White House political advisor have to be to take this latest doctored video at face value? A lifelong civil rights advocate bragging to the NAACP about discriminating against white farmers, a message 180 degrees from that organization's historic mission? How likely was that to be true?

Never mind, too, that the NAACP was itself tricked into a knee-jerk reaction that sounded like a parody written by the Onion. "We are appalled by [Sherrod's] actions," NAACP president Ben Jealous announced, "just as we are with abuses of power against farmers of color and female farmers." What, no lesbian, gay and transgendered farmers? No undocumented or disabled farmers? No farmers of incompetence, like me?

All it took to exonerate Sherrod was a little journalism 101, as performed by CNN and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. Pick up the phone. Ask her for a comment. Find the white farmer. Uh-oh.

For once, let me agree with the Wall Street Journal's Peggy Noonan: Shirley Sherrod's moving speech about grace, redemption and transcending racial resentment should be "required viewing in the nation's high schools." It's gritty, bedrock Americanism. Only Dr. King himself ever said it better.

But back to Brietbart and the right-wing media juggernaut. See, I go back a long way on these politicized hoaxes. Courtesy of the Clinton administration, Arkansas journalists got an early introduction into the creepy methods of conservative political operatives and their ability to hoodwink the national press. The local version of the Shirley Sherrod story was an equally admirable public servant named Beverly Bassett Schaffer.

As long ago as 1992, Schaffer found herself implicitly accused of "Whitewater" corruption in the New York Times. Although she'd provided the reporter with documented evidence that she'd done everything in her power as Arkansas savings-and-loan regulator to close Jim McDougal's Madison Guaranty S&L years before federal regulators got around to it, once the Times committed its prestige to a bogus narrative there was no turning back. Schaffer soon found herself hounded through the streets of Fayetteville by "mainstream" TV crews with GOP oppo researchers openly riding shotgun.

Most surprising to me then was the national media's pack behavior. Even incontestable, dispositive facts could be ignored for years if it meant keeping the longest political shaggy-dog story in recent American history going. It wasn't that reporters were stupid, mainly cowardly and career-driven. Indeed, they always understood precisely which facts couldn't be admitted into the narrative if they wanted to keep feeding out of Kenneth Starr's hand. By the time Schaffer's vindication came, they'd lost interest in her.

Back then, moreover, there was no Fox News Channel, no YouTube, no Andrew Brietbart, and fewer right-wing provocateurs generally. So it's heartening to see a polite liberal columnist like the Washington Post's E.J. Dionne finally catching on. The lesson of the Sherrod episode, he writes, is that "the mainstream media and the Obama administration must stop cowering before a right wing that has persistently forced its own propaganda to be accepted as news." He chides his colleagues for being "so petrified of being called 'liberal' that they are prepared to allow the Breitbarts of the world to become their assignment editors."

Some of us have been saying things like that for years. It will be interesting to see if anything changes.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Court Under Roberts Is Most Conservative in Decades


WASHINGTON — When Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and his colleagues on the Supreme Court left for their summer break at the end of June, they marked a milestone: the Roberts court had just completed its fifth term.

In those five years, the court not only moved to the right but also became the most conservative one in living memory, based on an analysis of four sets of political science data.

And for all the public debate about the confirmation of Elena Kagan or the addition last year of Justice Sonia Sotomayor, there is no reason to think they will make a difference in the court’s ideological balance. Indeed, the data show that only one recent replacement altered its direction, that of Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. for Justice Sandra Day O’Connor in 2006, pulling the court to the right.

There is no similar switch on the horizon. That means that Chief Justice Roberts, 55, is settling in for what is likely to be a very long tenure at the head of a court that seems to be entering a period of stability.

If the Roberts court continues on the course suggested by its first five years, it is likely to allow a greater role for religion in public life, to permit more participation by unions and corporations in elections and to elaborate further on the scope of the Second Amendment’s right to bear arms. Abortion rights are likely to be curtailed, as are affirmative action and protections for people accused of crimes.

The recent shift to the right is modest. And the court’s decisions have hardly been uniformly conservative. The justices have, for instance, limited the use of the death penalty and rejected broad claims of executive power in the government’s efforts to combat terrorism.

But scholars who look at overall trends rather than individual decisions say that widely accepted political science data tell an unmistakable story about a notably conservative court.

Almost all judicial decisions, they say, can be assigned an ideological value. Those favoring, say, prosecutors and employers are said to be conservative, while those favoring criminal defendants and people claiming discrimination are said to be liberal.

Analyses of databases coding Supreme Court decisions and justices’ votes along these lines, one going back to 1953 and another to 1937, show that the Roberts court has staked out territory to the right of the two conservative courts that immediately preceded it by four distinct measures:

In its first five years, the Roberts court issued conservative decisions 58 percent of the time. And in the term ending a year ago, the rate rose to 65 percent, the highest number in any year since at least 1953.

The courts led by Chief Justices Warren E. Burger, from 1969 to 1986, and William H. Rehnquist, from 1986 to 2005, issued conservative decisions at an almost indistinguishable rate — 55 percent of the time.

That was a sharp break from the court led by Chief Justice Earl Warren, from 1953 to 1969, in what liberals consider the Supreme Court’s golden age and conservatives portray as the height of inappropriate judicial meddling. That court issued conservative decisions 34 percent of the time.

Four of the six most conservative justices of the 44 who have sat on the court since 1937 are serving now: Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Alito, Antonin Scalia and, most conservative of all, Clarence Thomas. (The other two were Chief Justices Burger and Rehnquist.) Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, the swing justice on the current court, is in the top 10.

The Roberts court is finding laws unconstitutional and reversing precedent — two measures of activism — no more often than earlier courts. But the ideological direction of the court’s activism has undergone a marked change toward conservative results.

Until she retired in 2006, Justice O’Connor was very often the court’s swing vote, and in her later years she had drifted to the center-left. These days, Justice Kennedy has assumed that crucial role at the court’s center, moving the court to the right.

Justice John Paul Stevens, who retired in June, had his own way of tallying the court’s direction. In an interview in his chambers in April, he said that every one of the 11 justices who had joined the court since 1975, including himself, was more conservative than his or her predecessor, with the possible exceptions of Justices Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.

The numbers largely bear this out, though Chief Justice Roberts is slightly more liberal than his predecessor, Chief Justice Rehnquist, at least if all of Chief Justice Rehnquist’s 33 years on the court, 14 of them as an associate justice, are considered. (In later years, some of his views softened.)

But Justice Stevens did not consider the question difficult. Asked if the replacement of Chief Justice Rehnquist by Chief Justice Roberts had moved the court to the right, he did not hesitate.

“Oh, yes,” Justice Stevens said.

The Most Significant Change

“Gosh,” Justice Sandra Day O’Connor said at a law school forum in January a few days after the Supreme Court undid one of her major achievements by reversing a decision on campaign spending limits. “I step away for a couple of years and there’s no telling what’s going to happen.”

When Justice O’Connor announced her retirement in 2005, the membership of the Rehnquist court had been stable for 11 years, the second-longest stretch without a new justice in American history.

Since then, the pace of change has been dizzying, and several justices have said they found it disorienting. But in an analysis of the court’s direction, some changes matter much more than others. Chief Justice Rehnquist died soon after Justice O’Connor announced that she was stepping down. He was replaced by Chief Justice Roberts, his former law clerk. Justice David H. Souter retired in 2009 and was succeeded by Justice Sotomayor. Justice Stevens followed Justice Souter this year, and he is likely to be succeeded by Elena Kagan.

But not one of those three replacements seems likely to affect the fundamental ideological alignment of the court. Chief Justice Rehnquist, a conservative, was replaced by a conservative. Justices Souter and Stevens, both liberals, have been or are likely to be succeeded by liberals.

Justices’ views can shift over time. Even if they do not, a justice’s place in the court’s ideological spectrum can move as new justices arrive. And chief justices may be able to affect the overall direction of the court, notably by using the power to determine who writes the opinion for the court when they are in the majority. Chief Justice Roberts is certainly widely viewed as a canny tactician.

But only one change — Justice Alito’s replacement of Justice O’Connor — really mattered. That move defines the Roberts court. “That’s a real switch in terms of ideology and a switch in terms of outlook,” said Lee Epstein, who teaches law and political science at Northwestern University and is a leading curator and analyst of empirical data about the Supreme Court.

The point is not that Justice Alito has turned out to be exceptionally conservative, though he has: he is the third-most conservative justice to serve on the court since 1937, behind only Justice Thomas and Chief Justice Rehnquist. It is that he replaced the more liberal justice who was at the ideological center of the court.
Though Chief Justice Roberts gets all the attention, Justice Alito may thus be the lasting triumph of the administration of President George W. Bush. He thrust Justice Kennedy to the court’s center and has reshaped the future of American law.

It is easy to forget that Justice Alito was Mr. Bush’s second choice. Had his first nominee, the apparently less conservative Harriet E. Miers, not withdrawn after a rebellion from Mr. Bush’s conservative base, the nature of the Roberts court might have been entirely different.

By the end of her almost quarter-century on the court, Justice O’Connor was without question the justice who controlled the result in ideologically divided cases.

“On virtually all conceptual and empirical definitions, O’Connor is the court’s center — the median, the key, the critical and the swing justice,” Andrew D. Martin and two colleagues wrote in a study published in 2005 in The North Carolina Law Review shortly before Justice O’Connor’s retirement.

With Justice Alito joining the court’s more conservative wing, Justice Kennedy has now unambiguously taken on the role of the justice at the center of the court, and the ideological daylight between him and Justice O’Connor is a measure of the Roberts court’s shift to the right.

Justice O’Connor, for her part, does not name names but has expressed misgivings about the direction of the court.

“If you think you’ve been helpful, and then it’s dismantled, you think, ‘Oh, dear,’ ” she said at William & Mary Law School in October in her usual crisp and no-nonsense fashion. “But life goes on. It’s not always positive.”

Justice O’Connor was one of the authors of McConnell v. Federal Election Commission, a 2003 decision that, among other things, upheld restrictions on campaign spending by businesses and unions. It was reversed on that point in the Citizens United decision.

Asked at the law school forum in January how she felt about the later decision, she responded obliquely. But there was no mistaking her meaning.

“If you want my legal opinion” about Citizens United, Justice O’Connor said, “you can go read” McConnell.

The Court Without O’Connor

The shift resulting from Justice O’Connor’s departure was more than ideological. She brought with her qualities that are no longer represented on the court. She was raised and educated in the West, and she served in all three branches of Arizona’s government, including as a government lawyer, majority leader of the State Senate, an elected trial judge and an appeals court judge.

Those experiences informed Justice O’Connor’s sensitivity to states’ rights and her frequent deference to political judgments. Her rulings were often pragmatic and narrow, and her critics said she engaged in split-the-difference jurisprudence.

Justice Alito’s background is more limited than Justice O’Connor’s — he worked in the Justice Department and then as a federal appeals court judge — and his rulings are often more muscular.

Since they never sat on the court together, trying to say how Justice O’Connor would have voted in the cases heard by Justice Alito generally involves extrapolation and speculation. In some, though, it seems plain that she would have voted differently from him.

Just weeks before she left the court, for instance, Justice O’Connor heard arguments in Hudson v. Michigan, a case about whether evidence should be suppressed because it was found after Detroit police officers stormed a home without announcing themselves.

“Is there no policy protecting the homeowner a little bit and the sanctity of the home from this immediate entry?” Justice O’Connor asked a government lawyer. David A. Moran, a lawyer for the defendant, Booker T. Hudson, said the questioning left him confident that he had Justice O’Connor’s crucial vote.

Three months later, the court called for reargument, signaling a 4-to-4 deadlock after Justice O’Connor’s departure. When the 5-to-4 decision was announced in June, the court not only ruled that violations of the knock-and-announce rule do not require the suppression of evidence, but also called into question the exclusionary rule itself.

The shift had taken place. Justice Alito was in the majority.

“My 5-4 loss in Hudson v. Michigan,” Mr. Moran wrote in 2006 in Cato Supreme Court Review, “signals the end of the Fourth Amendment” — protecting against unreasonable searches — “as we know it.”

The departure of Justice O’Connor very likely affected the outcomes in two other contentious areas: abortion and race.

In 2000, the court struck down a Nebraska law banning an abortion procedure by a vote of 5 to 4, with Justice O’Connor in the majority. Seven years later, the court upheld a similar federal law, the Partial-Birth Abortion Act, by the same vote.

“The key to the case was not in the difference in wording between the federal law and the Nebraska act,” Erwin Chemerinsky wrote in 2007 in The Green Bag, a law journal. “It was Justice Alito having replaced Justice O’Connor.”

In 2003, Justice O’Connor wrote the majority opinion in a 5-to-4 decision allowing public universities to take account of race in admissions decisions. And a month before her retirement in 2006, the court refused to hear a case challenging the use of race to achieve integration in public schools.

Almost as soon as she left, the court reversed course. A 2007 decision limited the use of race for such a purpose, also on a 5-to-4 vote.

There were, to be sure, issues on which Justice Kennedy was to the left of Justice O’Connor. In a 5-to-4 decision in 2005 overturning the juvenile death penalty, Justice Kennedy was in the majority and Justice O’Connor was not.

But changing swing justices in 2006 had an unmistakable effect across a broad range of cases. “O’Connor at the end was quite a bit more liberal than Kennedy is now,” Professor Epstein said.

The numbers bear this out.

The Rehnquist court had trended left in its later years, issuing conservative rulings less than half the time in its last two years in divided cases, a phenomenon not seen since 1981. The first term of the Roberts court was a sharp jolt to the right. It issued conservative rulings in 71 percent of divided cases, the highest rate in any year since the beginning of the Warren court in 1953.

Judging by the Numbers

Chief Justice Roberts has not served nearly as long as his three most recent predecessors. The court he leads has been in flux. But five years of data are now available, and they point almost uniformly in one direction: to the right.
Scholars quarrel about some of the methodological choices made by political scientists who assign a conservative or liberal label to Supreme Court decisions and the votes of individual justices. But most of those arguments are at the margins, and the measures are generally accepted in the political science literature.

The leading database, created by Harold J. Spaeth with the support of the National Science Foundation about 20 years ago, has served as the basis for a great deal of empirical research on the contemporary Supreme Court and its members. In the database, votes favoring criminal defendants, unions, people claiming discrimination or violation of their civil rights are, for instance, said to be liberal. Decisions striking down economic regulations and favoring prosecutors, employers and the government are said to be conservative.

About 1 percent of cases have no ideological valence, as in a boundary dispute between two states. And some concern multiple issues or contain ideological cross-currents.

But while it is easy to identify the occasional case for which ideological coding makes no sense, the vast majority fit pretty well. They also tend to align with the votes of the justices usually said to be liberal or conservative.

Still, such coding is a blunt instrument. It does not take account of the precedential and other constraints that are in play or how much a decision moves the law in a conservative or liberal direction. The mix of cases has changed over time. And the database treats every decision, monumental or trivial, as a single unit.

“It’s crazy to count each case as one,” said Frank B. Cross, a law and business professor at the University of Texas. “But the problem of counting each case as one is reduced by the fact that the less-important ones tend to be unanimous.”

Some judges find the entire enterprise offensive.

“Supreme Court justices do not acknowledge that any of their decisions are influenced by ideology rather than by neutral legal analysis,” William M. Landes, an economist at the University of Chicago, and Richard A. Posner, a federal appeals court judge, wrote last year in The Journal of Legal Analysis. But if that were true, they continued, knowing the political party of the president who appointed a given justice would tell you nothing about how the justice was likely to vote in ideologically charged cases.

In fact, the correlation between the political party of appointing presidents and the ideological direction of the rulings of the judges they appoint is quite strong.

Here, too, there are exceptions. Justices Stevens and Souter were appointed by Republican presidents and ended up voting with the court’s liberal wing. But they are gone. If Ms. Kagan wins Senate confirmation, all of the justices on the court may be expected to align themselves across the ideological spectrum in sync with the party of the president who appointed them.

The proposition that the Roberts court is to the right of even the quite conservative courts that preceded it thus seems fairly well established. But it is subject to qualifications.

First, the rightward shift is modest.

Second, the data do not take popular attitudes into account. While the court is quite conservative by historical standards, it is less so by contemporary ones. Public opinion polls suggest that about 30 percent of Americans think the current court is too liberal, and almost half think it is about right.

On given legal issues, too, the court’s decisions are often closely aligned with or more liberal than public opinion, according to studies collected in 2008 in “Public Opinion and Constitutional Controversy” (Oxford University Press).

The public is largely in sync with the court, for instance, in its attitude toward abortion — in favor of a right to abortion but sympathetic to many restrictions on that right.

“Solid majorities want the court to uphold Roe v. Wade and are in favor of abortion rights in the abstract,” one of the studies concluded. “However, equally substantial majorities favor procedural and other restrictions, including waiting periods, parental consent, spousal notification and bans on ‘partial birth’ abortion.”

Similarly, the public is roughly aligned with the court in questioning affirmative action plans that use numerical standards or preferences while approving those that allow race to be considered in less definitive ways.

The Roberts court has not yet decided a major religion case, but the public has not always approved of earlier rulings in this area. For instance, another study in the 2008 book found that “public opinion has remained solidly against the court’s landmark decisions declaring school prayer unconstitutional.”

In some ways, the Roberts court is more cautious than earlier ones. The Rehnquist court struck down about 120 laws, or about six a year, according to an analysis by Professor Epstein. The Roberts court, which on average hears fewer cases than the Rehnquist court did, has struck down fewer laws — 15 in its first five years, or three a year.

It is the ideological direction of the decisions that has changed. When the Rehnquist court struck down laws, it reached a liberal result more than 70 percent of the time. The Roberts court has tilted strongly in the opposite direction, reaching a conservative result 60 percent of the time.

The Rehnquist court overruled 45 precedents over 19 years. Sixty percent of those decisions reached a conservative result. The Roberts court overruled eight precedents in its first five years, a slightly lower annual rate. All but one reached a conservative result.

Saturday, July 24, 2010

American Psychosis

What happens to a society that cannot distinguish between reality and illusion?

The United States, locked in the kind of twilight disconnect that grips dying empires, is a country entranced by illusions. It spends its emotional and intellectual energy on the trivial and the absurd. It is captivated by the hollow stagecraft of celebrity culture as the walls crumble. This celebrity culture giddily licenses a dark voyeurism into other people’s humiliation, pain, weakness and betrayal. Day after day, one lurid saga after another, whether it is Michael Jackson, Britney Spears or John Edwards, enthralls the country … despite bank collapses, wars, mounting poverty or the criminality of its financial class.

The virtues that sustain a nation-state and build community, from honesty to self-sacrifice to transparency to sharing, are ridiculed each night on television as rubes stupid enough to cling to this antiquated behavior are voted off reality shows. Fellow competitors for prize money and a chance for fleeting fame, cheered on by millions of viewers, elect to “disappear” the unwanted. In the final credits of the reality show America’s Next Top Model, a picture of the woman expelled during the episode vanishes from the group portrait on the screen. Those cast aside become, at least to the television audience, nonpersons. Celebrities that can no longer generate publicity, good or bad, vanish. Life, these shows persistently teach, is a brutal world of unadulterated competition and a constant quest for notoriety and attention.

Our culture of flagrant self-exaltation, hardwired in the American character, permits the humiliation of all those who oppose us. We believe, after all, that because we have the capacity to wage war we have a right to wage war. Those who lose deserve to be erased. Those who fail, those who are deemed ugly, ignorant or poor, should be belittled and mocked. Human beings are used and discarded like Styrofoam boxes that held junk food. And the numbers of superfluous human beings are swelling the unemployment offices, the prisons and the soup kitchens.

It is the cult of self that is killing the United States. This cult has within it the classic traits of psychopaths: superficial charm, grandiosity and self-importance; a need for constant stimulation; a penchant for lying, deception and manipulation; and the incapacity for remorse or guilt. Michael Jackson, from his phony marriages to the portraits of himself dressed as royalty to his insatiable hunger for new toys to his questionable relationships with young boys, had all these qualities. And this is also the ethic promoted by corporations. It is the ethic of unfettered capitalism. It is the misguided belief that personal style and personal advancement, mistaken for individualism, are the same as democratic equality. It is the nationwide celebration of image over substance, of illusion over truth. And it is why investment bankers blink in confusion when questioned about the morality of the billions in profits they made by selling worthless toxic assets to investors.

We have a right, in the cult of the self, to get whatever we desire. We can do anything, even belittle and destroy those around us, including our friends, to make money, to be happy and to become famous. Once fame and wealth are achieved, they become their own justification, their own morality. How one gets there is irrelevant. It is this perverted ethic that gave us investment houses like Goldman Sachs … that willfully trashed the global economy and stole money from tens of millions of small shareholders who had bought stock in these corporations for retirement or college. The heads of these corporations, like the winners on a reality television program who lied and manipulated others to succeed, walked away with hundreds of millions of dollars in bonuses and compensation. The ethic of Wall Street is the ethic of celebrity. It is fused into one bizarre, perverted belief system and it has banished the possibility of the country returning to a reality-based world or avoiding internal collapse. A society that cannot distinguish reality from illusion dies.

The tantalizing illusions offered by our consumer culture, however, are vanishing for most citizens as we head toward collapse. The ability of the corporate state to pacify the country by extending credit and providing cheap manufactured goods to the masses is gone. The jobs we are shedding are not coming back, as the White House economist Lawrence Summers tacitly acknowledges when he talks of a “jobless recovery.” The belief that democracy lies in the choice between competing brands and the accumulation of vast sums of personal wealth at the expense of others is exposed as a fraud. Freedom can no longer be conflated with the free market. The travails of the poor are rapidly becoming the travails of the middle class, especially as unemployment insurance runs out. And class warfare, once buried under the happy illusion that we were all going to enter an age of prosperity with unfettered capitalism, is returning with a vengeance.

America is sinking under trillions in debt it can never repay and stays afloat by frantically selling about $2 billion in Treasury bonds a day to the Chinese. It saw 2.8 million people lose their homes in 2009 to foreclosure or bank repossessions – nearly 8,000 people a day – and stands idle as they are joined by another 2.4 million people this year. It refuses to prosecute the Bush administration for obvious war crimes, including the use of torture, and sees no reason to dismantle Bush’s secrecy laws or restore habeas corpus. Its infrastructure is crumbling. Deficits are pushing individual states to bankruptcy and forcing the closure of everything from schools to parks. The wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, which have squandered trillions of dollars, appear endless. There are 50 million Americans in real poverty and tens of millions of Americans in a category called “near poverty.” One in eight Americans – and one in four children – depend on food stamps to eat. And yet, in the midst of it all, we continue to be a country consumed by happy talk and happy thoughts. We continue to embrace the illusion of inevitable progress, personal success and rising prosperity. Reality is not considered an impediment to desire.

When a culture lives within an illusion it perpetuates a state of permanent infantilism or childishness. As the gap widens between the illusion and reality, as we suddenly grasp that it is our home being foreclosed or our job that is not coming back, we react like children. We scream and yell for a savior, someone who promises us revenge, moral renewal and new glory. It is not a new story. A furious and sustained backlash by a betrayed and angry populace, one unprepared intellectually, emotionally and psychologically for collapse, will sweep aside the Democrats and most of the Republicans and will usher America into a new dark age. It was the economic collapse in Yugoslavia that gave us Slobodan Milosevic. It was the Weimar Republic that vomited up Adolf Hitler. And it was the breakdown in Tsarist Russia that opened the door for Lenin and the Bolsheviks. A cabal of proto-fascist misfits, from Christian demagogues to loudmouth talk show hosts, whom we naïvely dismiss as buffoons, will find a following with promises of revenge and moral renewal. And as in all totalitarian societies, those who do not pay fealty to the illusions imposed by the state become the outcasts, the persecuted.

The decline of American empire began long before the current economic meltdown or the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. It began before the first Gulf War or Ronald Reagan. It began when we shifted, in the words of Harvard historian Charles Maier, from an “empire of production” to an “empire of consumption.” By the end of the Vietnam War, when the costs of the war ate away at Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society and domestic oil production began its steady, inexorable decline, we saw our country transformed from one that primarily produced to one that primarily consumed. We started borrowing to maintain a level of consumption as well as an empire we could no longer afford. We began to use force, especially in the Middle East, to feed our insatiable thirst for cheap oil. We substituted the illusion of growth and prosperity for real growth and prosperity. The bill is now due. America’s most dangerous enemies are not Islamic radicals but those who sold us the perverted ideology of free-market capitalism and globalization. They have dynamited the very foundations of our society. In the 17th century these speculators would have been hung. Today they run the government and consume billions in taxpayer subsidies.

As the pressure mounts, as the despair and desperation reach into larger and larger segments of the populace, the mechanisms of corporate and government control are being bolstered to prevent civil unrest and instability. The emergence of the corporate state always means the emergence of the security state. This is why the Bush White House pushed through the Patriot Act (and its renewal), the suspension of habeas corpus, the practice of “extraordinary rendition,” warrantless wiretapping on American citizens and the refusal to ensure free and fair elections with verifiable ballot-counting. The motive behind these measures is not to fight terrorism or to bolster national security. It is to seize and maintain internal control. It is about controlling us.

And yet, even in the face of catastrophe, mass culture continues to assure us that if we close our eyes, if we visualize what we want, if we have faith in ourselves, if we tell God that we believe in miracles, if we tap into our inner strength, if we grasp that we are truly exceptional, if we focus on happiness, our lives will be harmonious and complete. This cultural retreat into illusion, whether peddled by positive psychologists, by Hollywood or by Christian preachers, is magical thinking. It turns worthless mortgages and debt into wealth. It turns the destruction of our manufacturing base into an opportunity for growth. It turns alienation and anxiety into a cheerful conformity. It turns a nation that wages illegal wars and administers offshore penal colonies where it openly practices torture into the greatest democracy on earth. And it keeps us from fighting back.

Resistance movements will have to look now at the long night of slavery, the decades of oppression in the Soviet Union and the curse of fascism for models. The goal will no longer be the possibility of reforming the system but of protecting truth, civility and culture from mass contamination. It will require the kind of schizophrenic lifestyle that characterizes all totalitarian societies. Our private and public demeanors will often have to stand in stark contrast. Acts of defiance will often be subtle and nuanced. They will be carried out not for short term gain but the assertion of our integrity. Rebellion will have an ultimate if not easily definable purpose. The more we retreat from the culture at large the more room we will have to carve out lives of meaning, the more we will be able to wall off the flood of illusions disseminated by mass culture and the more we will retain sanity in an insane world. The goal will become the ability to endure.

Chris Hedges, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for the New York Times, is the author of several books including the best sellers War Is a Force That Gives Us Meaning and Empire of Illusion: The End of Literacy and the Triumph of Spectacle.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Just when you thought they couldn't get any dumber

Front side of a t-shirt being sold at Lexington's July 4th Festival

By William Rivers Pitt

It is tempting to begin a sentence about today's Republican Party with the words, "Just when you thought they couldn't get any dumber," but then you realize you're talking about a group that actively thwarts benefits for the unemployed while pimping tax cuts for rich people, a group that champions a political base which by and large doesn't believe dinosaurs existed because they're not in the Bible but can't stand the thought of stem cell research making people whole again, who attack the ideas and policies of the majority with vehemence but absolutely refuse to offer any of their own, and you come to the realization that you can't begin a sentence with those words, because there really is no bottom to this particular barrel. This particular breed of dumb is a lot like the oil in the Gulf of Mexico; it broadens and spreads and grows by the day, and will continue to do so until someone finally goes in and cleans it up once and for all.

This week's barrage of dumb started early - on Saturday morning, in fact - and hit the ground running. The Washington Post reported that congressional Republicans and their advisors are attempting to devise a game plan for the remaining four months before the midterm elections. Their efforts thus far have been spent making the economy worse for as many people as possible - hence the filibustering of unemployment benefits - so as to stoke popular anger that they hope will sweep them back into power, so long as nobody notices they are the ones creating the misery they look to capitalize on, of course. The election plan? Simplicity itself:
Some of the party's most influential political consultants are quietly counseling their clients to stay on the offensive for the November midterm elections and steer clear of taking stands on substance that might give Democratic opponents material for a counterattack.
"The smart political approach would be to make the election about the Democrats," said Neil Newhouse of the powerhouse Republican polling firm Public Opinion Strategies, which is advising more than 50 House and Senate candidates. "In terms of our individual campaigns, I don't think it does a great deal of good" to engage in a debate over the Republicans' own agenda.
It's not that Boehner (Ohio) is arguing for a cease-fire. The debate among Republicans comes down to this: The speaker-in-waiting, for all his love of political combat, thinks that voters will not trust GOP candidates if their attacks don't also provide at least some substance. The consultants argue that public anger, if properly stoked, alone can carry the party over the finish line. In their view, getting bogged down in the issues is a distraction and even a potential liability.
So instead of any sort of high-minded debate on the signal issues of the day - Afghanistan, Iraq, energy policy, the Gulf, the economy, the banks, the mortgage crisis, the environment - we will be subjected to four stupid months of name-calling, obstructionism and general nonsense, again. The American people have historically been suckers for this kind of game, but with everything going on these days, one has to wonder if four months of goop from the GOP might wind up backfiring tremendously with the populace.

As for the dumb, it only got stronger as the weekend came to an end. The Tea Party, which was recently exposed by Gallup as having a different name ("the GOP base"), began eating itself with large, healthy chomps. Sarah Palin, the once and future queen of the 'Baggers, invented a new word - "refudiate" - and then proceeded to compare herself to Shakespeare, proving once and for all that intelligence has no bearing on becoming famous. At about the same time, the Tea Party Federation threw out founder Mark Williams and his Tea Party Express for blogging about how spiffy slavery was for Black people in America. I suppose you have to give credit to the Tea Party for finally drawing a line in the sand about how much racism is too much, but with "Yup, I'm A Racist" t-shirts still being sold at Tea Party rallies, claims that the Tea Party isn't fundamentally racist because they dumped Williams are still going to be a hard sell.

The self-immolation didn't stop there. It seems a number of prominent Republicans are now vocally criticizing and ridiculing the Tea Party for being disorganized neophytes who do more harm than good to the GOP. Names like Trent Lott, Bob Bennett, Lindsey Graham and Bob Inglis are on the list of people who think this particular political phenomenon is a lot of noise with no substance. Graham was particularly venomous with his comments, stating in the New York Times that, "The problem with the Tea Party, I think it's just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out." Ouch...and yes, the Tea Party in whole and in part rose up righteous to attack Graham, Lott and the rest of their critics, further scrambling the GOP's political eggs on the eve of the midterm push.
But wait, it gets better.

A lot better.


Because there's a lot of high-level conversation in the GOP ranks about championing the presidency of George W. Bush as a reason to vote Republican in November.
No, really, it's true. Again from the Post:
The chairmen of the two Republican campaign committees defended the presidency of George W. Bush in television appearances over the weekend, a preview of the GOP's planned pushback against expected Democratic attacks on the last president.
John Cornyn, chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, told C-SPAN's "Newsmakers" program that "Bush's stock has gone up a lot since he left office," adding: "I think a lot of people are looking back with more fondness on President Bush's administration, and I think history will treat him well."
The rhetoric from Cornyn and Sessions reflects a gamble by Republicans that Bush, who left office in 2008 deeply unpopular with broad swaths of the American public, will, as almost every president does, rebound in terms of his public image as time passes.
To date, that softening in public opinion has yet to occur. In April, a CBS/New York Times poll showed just over one-quarter of the public (27 percent) saw Bush in a favorable light while 58 percent viewed him unfavorably. In a June NBC/Wall Street Journal survey, 50 percent said they felt negatively about Bush while 29 percent had positive views. (The percentage of people feeling "very" negative -- 31 percent outstripped all of those feeling positive.)
And, polling suggests that Bush is still broadly blamed for the current state of the economy, which almost certainly will be the top-of-the-mind voting issue this fall. Fifty nine percent of respondents from a Post/ABC News poll in April said Bush was more to blame for the current state of the economy while 25 percent put the blame on President Obama.
What to say of this particular gambit?
Oh yeah, I remember.
Bring it on.
William Rivers Pitt  is a New York Times and internationally bestselling author of two books: War on Iraq: What Team Bush Doesn't Want You to Know and The Greatest Sedition Is Silence. His newest book, House of Ill Repute: Reflections on War, Lies, and America's Ravaged Reputation, will be available this winter from PoliPointPress.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

The shame of right-wing "journalism"

Andrew Breitbart and Tucker Carlson distort facts to smear liberals, and it works. What liberals should learn

By Joan Walsh

It pains me to pay attention to the work of the Daily Caller, Tucker Carlson's vanity project, as Carlson vies to compete with Andrew Breitbart on the right-wing "investigative journalism" frontier. What Carlson's "journalism" has in common with Breitbart's (besides being ethics-free) is blowing up stories that purport to "expose" the left with what are supposed to be the left's own words — except that later, it will turn out that "the left's own words" will have been hyped, manipulated and selectively edited, and that the story was baloney.

Today a big Breitbart "scoop" blew up in his angry face, when it was shown that the Big Journalism proprietor selectively edited a clip of an African-American USDA official seeming to admit she treated a white farmer poorly out of her own racial bias. It turns out that Shirley Sherrod was actually telling the story to show how the issue of race often obscures the issue of class, and the fact that poor black farmers and poor white farmers had a lot in common (eventually, she helped and became close to the white farmer and his family) — but Breitbart left all of that out of the video (just as he selectively and unfairly edited his cartoonish ACORN tapes).

Unbelievably, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack fired Sherrod based on Breitbart's creative editing, which left out Sherrod's real point (and in fact, accused her of making the opposite point) and also made it seem as though she was talking about something she did while working for the USDA, when the experience in question took place 24 years ago, when she worked for a nonprofit. If Vilsack doesn't hire Sherrod back, I will personally contribute to her legal fund.

Sorry, that's a long but important digression before addressing the story at hand: Carlson's similar dishonesty, in selectively releasing e-mails from the now-notorious Journolist for a story breathlessly headlined: "Documents show media plotting to kill stories about Rev. Jeremiah Wright." Alex Pareene got the basics right, in a War Room post: "Journolist Scandal: Liberals Planned Open Letter."

That's really all that happened. Or try this, if you want a little more detail: A handful of liberal opinion writers for openly liberal publications used the so-called Journolist to draft an open letter to ABC News, complaining about its moderation of an April 2008 debate between Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama (questions about Wright were only one issue raised in the open letter, which ran in the Nation, but I'll go back to that). Later on that same list, the Daily Caller "reveals," after Wright ran amok at the National Press Club and an NAACP event (and Obama had to denounce him), some of the same liberals argued that liberal media outlets should ignore the controversy and attack conservatives who raised it. Other liberals disagreed with them. End of story.

Or it should be, except the fact-challenged Sarah Palin has picked up her bullhorn to blast the Caller's "scoop" on Twitter: "Media Bias? What Media Bias? BOMBSHELL!" and to claim that it validated her complaints about the "lamestream media" on Facebook. (So far, she hasn't asked any specific media outlet to refudiate the story.) I anticipate coverage from big MSM outlets any minute now, given that the Washington Post's Andy Alexander and the New York Times' Bill Keller are already on record flagellating their news organizations for ignoring earlier right-wing scalp-taking stories about ACORN, Van Jones and New Black Panther Party.

Andy, Bill, other possibly cowed-by-the-right mainstream journalists? Save your resources for real stories, and let me break down the Caller scoop for you.

1) Although the Caller claims that "employees of news organizations including Time, Politico, the Huffington Post, the Baltimore Sun, the Guardian, Salon and the New Republic participated in outpourings of anger over how Obama had been treated in the media, and in some cases plotted to fix the damage" (emphasis mine), it only quotes a handful of people, and none of them are employed at anything other than liberal publications. (Thomas Schaller, credited with the idea for the open letter, is an author, a University of Maryland professor and an Op-Ed writer at the Baltimore Sun who periodically contributes to Salon, and more recently, The two people who come off as the most combative Obama zealots are Chris Hayes, who works at the Nation, and Spencer Ackerman, employed by the Washington Independent, both progressive publications. I assume if there had been any evidence that a mainstream media news reporter had colluded in the Journolist "plot" to defend Obama, he or she would have been outed immediately by the Caller. My sources say there weren't any.

2) In fact, the Journolist should have been named "the liberal economists, academics, foundation execs, PR folks, think tankers, pundits and other pals of Ezra Klein" list (the American Prospect blogger, now Washington Post blogger, convened Journolist). Although I was never on the list (more about that later) by all accounts of it I've heard, liberal opinion makers from the worlds of think tanks, academia and progressive punditry outnumbered mainstream media news reporters by dozens to one.

3) The Caller also falsely claims that later, when Wright showed himself to be not merely a guy who made some nasty anti-America and anti-white people comments, but a kook and a narcissist, and Obama denounced him, the Journolist plotted to "kill stories" about it and also to malign conservatives like Fred Barnes and Karl Rove who were trying to make Wright an issue as "racists" — and no one challenged those ideas, except on tactical grounds. In fact, if you read the story, you'll see that several people are quoted strongly disagreeing with the feverish suggestions of Hayes and Ackerman, on grounds that were moral and factual, not merely tactical. Hayes himself told the Caller, correctly: "I can say ‘hey I don’t think you guys should cover this,’ but no one listened to me."

4) Beyond the bounds of the Journolist, the Caller strives mightily to make the case that there was a generalized liberal media conspiracy to ignore the Wright issue — but I can tell you from personal experience, there was none. Just check the archives of Salon. It's true that there were a lot of Obama supporters who tried to argue the Wright story was less important than Obama's stance on Iraq and other issues. There were plenty of us who thought it was our job to pay attention to the Wright mess. (Read Joe Conason's take, here.) I raised questions about the anti-ABC letter at the time it was published. There was, and is, no party line among progressives.

Despite the hysterical headline, the Caller story has nothing to tell us about the "media." It does, however, have a little bit to remind us about the American progressive movement in 2008. I'd argue it might give the left some important rearview-mirror insight. I admit it: Reading the Caller story, and the way some individuals revered Obama, brought back a little bit of my PTSD as someone who defended Hillary Clinton from progressive attacks and questioned the reflexive anointing of Obama as the candidate of the left. The same Chris Hayes who the Caller says "castigated his fellow liberals for criticizing Wright" ("All this hand wringing about just how awful and odious Rev. Wright remarks are just keeps the hustle going. Our country disappears people. It tortures people. It has the blood of as many as one million Iraqi civilians — men, women, children, the infirmed — on its hands. You’ll forgive me if I just can’t quite dredge up the requisite amount of outrage over Barack Obama’s pastor,” Hayes wrote) now regularly castigates the predictably centrist Obama, including last night on MSNBC's "Countdown."

The Obama-worship of progressives like Hayes and many others on the Journolist, as commemorated by the Caller, set them up for a big fall, so that now they're often unrealistically critical of the president (I now get attacked for defending Obama too much. Let me also say: I like Hayes, and he's not the worst offender here.) It also contributed to Obama and his team feeling confident that they can neglect, even occasionally kick, his progressive base with impunity. Unfortunately, they never had to fight for it.

And while I don't think anyone on the Journolist directly took Hayes' or Ackerman's suggestion that they call people who raised the Wright issue "racist" — that happened all on its own — the way many on the left used the "racist" slur during the 2008 campaign was a mistake. As someone who confessed to being disturbed by Wright's worldview as it unfolded like a slow-motion train wreck in the spring of 2008, I was called "racist" so often the word lost its sting. I honestly believe that the wanton use of that terrible term to defend Obama is part of why today, when there is genuine racism against the president from the right and within the Tea Party, it's sometimes hard to get anyone to pay attention.

Ultimately, discussing racism brings us back to Andrew Breitbart's lies about Shirley Sherrod. It's a disgraceful story with no heroes — except Sherrod and the white farmers who came forward to support her, Roger and Eloise Spooner. Caught off-guard by the right-wing frenzy over its resolution asking Tea Partiers to condemn the racists in their midst, the NAACP overreacted, took Breitbart's word about Sherrod, and denounced her. (Ben Jealous has now, rightly, apologized.) Tom Vilsack fired her. The White House insists it didn't tell Vilsack to let Sherrod go — but it won't tell him to take her back, either.

So to wrap up: Idiotic and false charges of "racism" ultimately backfire to hurt a black woman and, perhaps, our black president, who really can't win here: If Obama is seen to be intervening to help a black woman get her job back, race baiters will have a field day (how fast will Rush Limbaugh say he responded to Sherrod's plight faster than the Gulf's). If he doesn't, he won't sleep well tonight. Watch this interview with the Spooners, below, and tell me who's the racist (hint: It's Andrew Breitbart).

Shirley Sherrod is right: A lot of people are spending a lot of energy to get folks like the Spooners and Sherrod to think they should be enemies, when the real issue is class. The left should remember that lesson, because the right is invested in making sure no one learns it.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

The Washington Post joins the Tea Party

Apparently, one of the nation's top newspapers feels no obligation to conduct basic fact-checking

Only a devout Jeffersonian romantic could imagine that human beings govern themselves according to the dictates of evidence and reason. Even so, I've always adhered to the quaint view that journalists should avoid disseminating false information, particularly on the opinion pages. An argument that can't be won without cheating should properly be lost.

Contemporary political journalism, alas, has very little to do with such antediluvian values. Even among Sarah Palin’s so-called lamestream media, the surrender to unreason and partisan tribalism appears to be all but complete. Consider, for example, the Washington Post’s recent publication of an Op-Ed column by Alabama Tea Party congressional candidate Rick Barber.

Barber, who was defeated in a GOP runoff on Tuesday night, nevertheless attracted attention due to a couple of very odd TV and Web commercials in which the ex-Marine is depicted talking to actors portraying George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, among others.

The first ad begins with Barber talking about impeaching President Obama, and maundering on about the "tyranny" of federal taxes while images of men's hands caressing gunstocks are shown, and concludes with an actor playing George Washington saying, "gather your armies" -- a clear incitement to rebellion.

Apparently Barber, who boasts of his devotion to the Constitution, is unaware that President Washington dispatched militia precisely to enforce the payment of federal excise taxes during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

Barber's second commercial features an imaginary conversation with Abraham Lincoln, interspersed with melodramatic images of slaves and Nazi concentration camps. "Hey, Abe, if someone is forced to work for months to pay taxes so that a total stranger can get a free meal, medical procedure or a bailout, what's that called?"

"Slavery," Honest Abe replies. The ad concludes with a phalanx of gun-toting patriots assembling behind Barber.

Again, never mind the dubious political wisdom of invoking President Lincoln, never a favorite in the state billing itself the "Heart of Dixie." In 1861, Lincoln signed the nation's first federal income tax into law to finance the Civil War. Barber clearly knows almost nothing about American history.

Washington Post political columnist Ruth Marcus appropriately described the ads as both "unhinged" and "sacrilegious" regarding the Holocaust. "Decency," she wrote, "demands that some comparisons be off limits."

Not to mention elementary common sense. For reasons known only to them, the newspaper's editors decided Barber deserved a column of his own. As one might have expected, he endorsed what he called "the politics of fear," and doubled down on the crackpot rhetoric.

"Over the past 18 months," Barber wrote "the federal government has sought to seize or has seized control of the health-care industry, the financial industry, the mortgage industry, the automobile industry, student loans, broadband Internet and the energy sector through cap-and-trade legislation. With never a crisis going to waste, each new seizure is rationalized by some new emergency."

"Totalitarianism," he added, "doesn't come all at once."

Alas, we've all grown accustomed to hearing such superheated humbug from right-wing talk radio and Fox News' resident Chicken Little, Glenn Beck. There’s always been a large audience in the U.S. for apocalyptic melodrama. Many of the same people who spent the last decade engrossed in Tim LaHaye's dreadful "Left Behind" novels have turned in their confusion to persecution narratives of the crudest sort.

As the alternative would be to recognize how badly the Republicans failed under President Bush, and how poor a fit GOP policies -- particularly in the realm of taxation and economics -- make with the visible world, many have simply withdrawn from reality. Having lost an election, they complain of tyranny. Hard times evoke tribalized fear. Versions of Barber's mad list appear in letters columns from sea to shining sea.

But a newspaper like the Washington Post used to be owes its readers more than that. Every item in Barber's list of "totalitarian" outrages is sheer make-believe. As Washington Monthly blogger Steve Benen pointed out, "these aren't subjective questions, judgment calls, or matters of opinion -- the observations he states as fact are demonstrably false."

Specifically, the Bush administration bailed out Wall Street banks by lending them money they're obliged to repay -- no government takeover. The Obama administration passed a landmark private health insurance reform. Like it or not, "Obamacare's" less "socialist" than Medicare.

There's been no "nationalization" of the mortgage industry. The auto industry wasn't "seized." The government bought stock in Chrysler and General Motors to save them from collapse; as the market recovers, those shares will be sold. G.M. has already begun repaying its loans. The Internet and "energy sector" are no closer to government ownership than under President Bush.

No doubt most Washington Post readers know all that. Even so, there's no excuse, none, for such downright delusional views to appear seemingly unedited and unrebutted in so prominent a place.

No, reasoned argument can't easily conquer such irrational fears. Surrender, however, is intellectual cowardice.

© 2010, Gene Lyons. Distributed by United Feature Syndicate, Inc.
Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at More Gene Lyons

Thursday, July 8, 2010

Climategate burned by reality

The review group looking into the "Climategate" scandal at the University of East Anglia's Climatic Research Unit.

Climatologists exonerated, by all except the conservative media, that is

By Gene Lyons
You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right. ... But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind, and nowhere else. Not in the individual mind, which can make mistakes, only in the mind of the Party. ... Whatever the Party holds to be truth is truth. -- George Orwell, 1984
What with the Northeast sweating out a triple-digit heat wave, naive observers might expect a spate of global-warming stories in the media. You know, retreating Arctic sea ice, vanishing glaciers, etc. After all, last winter's record Washington, D.C., snowstorms triggered a veritable avalanche (sorry) of pundits and TV talking heads prating about the "elitist" idea that rising world temperatures constitute a grave threat to humanity and the natural world as we know it. No less an authority than Fox News' Sean Hannity announced that "climate change is a hoax."

Supposedly, see, there's this global cabal of scientists conspiring to bring about socialist one-world government. But what really got the ball rolling wasn't the weather, but a manufactured, media-driven scandal. The orchestrated release of more than 1,000 e-mails hacked from computers at the U.K.'s University of East Anglia's climate research center quickly became a cause célèbre.

Cherry-picked and quoted out of context, almost 20 years of informal, occasionally bitchy communications among scientists were cited as evidence of fraud. Nor were Hannity and Fox News the only ones pushing the alleged wrongdoing. CNN, NBC, CBS and ABC News, everybody joined the party. "NBC Nightly News" host Brian Williams was typical:

"Climategate they're calling it," he reported on Dec. 4, 2009. "A new scandal over global warming and it's burning up the Internet. Have the books been cooked on climate change?"

Pundits spoke glibly of "fudging the numbers," "massaging the data," and like phrases making climate researchers look as crooked as Wall Street accountants. Even that well-known philosopher of science Sarah Palin contributed a Washington Post column charging that the "e-mails reveal that leading climate 'experts' deliberately destroyed records, manipulated data to 'hide the decline' in global temperatures, and tried to silence their critics by preventing them from publishing in peer-reviewed journals."

If anything, the British press was even more censorious. But were any of these allegations true? Concerning the most widely cited example, a 1999 e-mail from professor Phil Jones to his American colleague Michael Mann of Penn State, charges of wrongdoing appeared nonsensical on their face.

"I've just completed Mike's Nature trick of adding in the real temps to each series for the last 20 years," Jones had written, "to hide the decline." But what decline? By all measures, 1998 was the warmest year in recorded history. Indeed, global-warming deniers sometimes argue erroneously that the Earth's been cooling ever since. In climatological terms, this is like saying that if April 7 is warmer than April 15, there will be no summer. In any event, 2009 now stands as the second-warmest year, and 2000 through 2009 as the warmest decade.

Writing in the Sunday Times of London, professor Andrew Watson explained: "Jones is talking about a line on a graph for the cover of a World Meteorological Organization report, published in 2000, which shows the results of different attempts to reconstruct temperature over the past 1,000 years."

Because inferential data derived from studying tree rings has diverged from thermometer temperatures since about 1960 (for reasons widely debated in scientific literature), adding "real temps" gives a more accurate picture. Nobody was being fooled. Even so, professor Jones resigned as director of East Anglia University's Climatic Research Unit pending an investigation. Last April, an official British government inquiry cleared him and his colleagues.

According to Lord Ernest Oxburgh, who led the investigation, the probe uncovered "absolutely no evidence of any impropriety whatsoever." He added that "whatever was said in the e-mails, the basic science seems to have been done fairly and properly." Then last week, a blue ribbon panel of science faculty at Penn State University unanimously exonerated professor Michael Mann himself. Investigators found "no substance" to charges made against the climatologist by his media detractors. Exactly as the embattled climatologist had said, his e-mail communications had been "misrepresented ... (and) completely twisted to imply the opposite of what was actually being said."

To date, none of the pundits or anchor-creatures who made such a fuss last winter has been heard from. One Myron Ebell, flak for the Competitive Enterprise Institute, a Washington propaganda shop funded by tobacco, oil and coal interests, denounced the result as a "whitewash." Who could have expected anything else? To an operative like Ebell, whose scientific credentials are as nonexistent as those of Hannity, Palin and Brian Williams, intellectual integrity doesn't exist.

Facts are infinitely malleable in service of ideology. People who call this "conservatism" are mistaken. It's an updated version of what Orwell feared: a dogma-driven, obscurantist attack upon reason.

Arkansas Democrat-Gazette columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can e-mail Lyons at

Monday, July 5, 2010

The BP/Government police state

Last week, I interviewed Mother Jones' Mac McClelland, who has been covering the BP oil spill in the Gulf since the first day it happened.  She detailed how local police and federal officials work with BP to harass, impede, interrogate and even detain journalists who are covering the impact of the spill and the clean-up efforts.  She documented one incident which was particularly chilling of an activist who -- after being told by a local police officer to stop filming a BP facility because "BP didn't want him filming" -- was then pulled over after he left by that officer so he could be interrogated by a BP security official.  McClelland also described how BP has virtually bought entire Police Departments which now do its bidding:  "One parish has 57 extra shifts per week that they are devoting entirely to, basically, BP security detail, and BP is paying the sheriff's office."

Today, an article that is a joint collaboration between PBS' Frontline and ProPublica reported that a BP refinery in Texas "spewed tens of thousands of pounds of toxic chemicals into the skies" two weeks before the company's rig in the Gulf collapsed.   Accompanying that article was this sidebar report:

A photographer taking pictures for these articles, was detained Friday while shooting pictures in Texas City, Texas.
The photographer, Lance Rosenfield, said that shortly after arriving in town, he was confronted by a BP security officer, local police and a man who identified himself as an agent of the Department of Homeland Security. He was released after the police reviewed the pictures he had taken on Friday and recorded his date of birth, Social Security number and other personal information.
The police officer then turned that information over to the BP security guard under what he said was standard procedure, according to Rosenfield.
No charges were filed.
Rosenfield, an experienced freelance photographer, said he was detained shortly after shooting a photograph of a Texas City sign on a public roadway. Rosenfield said he was followed by a BP employee in a truck after taking the picture and blocked by two police cars when he pulled into a gas station.
According to Rosenfield, the officers said they had a right to look at photos taken near secured areas of the refinery, even if they were shot from public property. Rosenfield said he was told he would be "taken in" if he declined to comply.
ProPublica's Paul Steiger said that the reporting team told law enforcement agents that they were working on a deadline for this story about that facility, and that even if DHS agents believed they had a legitimate reason to scrutinize the actions and photographs of this photographer, there was no reason that "should have included sharing them with a representative of a private company."

These are true police state tactics, and it's now clear that it is part of a pattern.  It's been documented for months now that BP and government officials have been acting in unison to block media coverage of the area; Newsweek reported this in late May:

As BP makes its latest attempt to plug its gushing oil well, news photographers are complaining that their efforts to document the slow-motion disaster in the Gulf of Mexico are being thwarted by local and federal officials -- working with BP -- who are blocking access to the sites where the effects of the spill are most visible. More than a month into the disaster, a host of anecdotal evidence is emerging from reporters, photographers, and TV crews in which BP and Coast Guard officials explicitly target members of the media, restricting and denying them access to oil-covered beaches, staging areas for clean-up efforts, and even flyovers.
The very idea that government officials are acting as agents of BP (of all companies) in what clearly seem to be unconstitutional acts to intimidate and impede the media is infuriating.  Obviously, the U.S. Government and BP share the same interest -- preventing the public from knowing the magnitude of the spill and the inadequacy of the clean-up efforts -- but this creepy police state behavior is intolerable.  In this latest case, the journalists were not even focused on the spill itself, but on BP's other potentially reckless behavior with other refineries, and yet there are DHS agents and local police officials acting as BP's personal muscle to detain, interrogate, and threaten a photographer.  BP's destructive conduct, and the government's complicity, have slowly faded from public attention, and there clearly seem to be multiple levels of law enforcement devoted to keeping it that way, no matter how plainly illegal their tactics are.

UPDATE:  More evidence here (h/t bamage):

Journalists who come too close to oil spill clean-up efforts without permission could find themselves facing a $40,000 fine and even one to five years in prison under a new rule instituted by the Coast Guard late last week.
It's a move that outraged observers have decried as an attack on First Amendment rights. And CNN's Anderson Cooper describes the new rules as making it "very easy to hide incompetence or failure". . . .
[S]ince "oil spill response operations" apparently covers much of the clean-up effort on the beaches, CNN's Anderson Cooper describes the rule as banning reporters from "anywhere we need to be" . . . .
A "willful" violation of the new rule could result in Class D felony charges, which carry a penalty of one to five years in prison under federal law.
The new rule appears to contradict the promises made by Adm. Thad Allen, the official leading the Coast Guard's response to the oil spill.
"Media will have uninhibited access anywhere we're doing operations, except for two things, if it's a security or safety problem," Allen told ABC News in June. . . .
"[T]o create a blanket rule that everyone has to stay 65 feet away from boom and boats, that doesn't sound like transparency," [said Cooper].
The rule has come under severe criticism not only from journalists but from observers and activists involved in the Gulf Coast clean-up.
"With this, the Gulf Coast cleanup operation has now entered a weird Orwellian reality where the news is shaped, censored and controlled by the government in order to prevent the public from learning the truth about what's really happening," writes Mike Adams at NaturalNews. . . .
Reporters have been complaining for weeks about BP, the Department of Homeland Security and the Coast Guard working to keep reporters away from wrenching images of oil-covered birds and oil-soaked beaches.
We've frequently heard excuses that the Federal Government has little power to do anything to BP, but they certainly seem to have ample power to do a great deal for them.  Public indifference about such things is the by-product of those who walk around like drones repeating the mantra that political officials know what's best about what must be kept secret, and that the Threat of Terrorism (which is what is exploited to justify such acts) means we must meekly acquiesce to such powers in the name of Staying Safe.

UPDATE II:  On May 1 of last year year, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton celebrated Press Freedom Day by saying:

Freedom of the press is protected by the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is a hallmark of every free society. Wherever media freedom is in jeopardy, all other human rights are also under threat. A free media is essential to democracy and it fosters transparency and accountability, both of which are prerequisites for sustained economic development.
Those who seek to abuse power and spread corruption view media freedom as a threat. Instead of supporting an open press, they attempt to control or silence independent voices.
Compare that to this 5-minute explanation from CNN's Anderson Cooper, last night, from the Gulf, regarding the Federal Government's censorship efforts to impede media coverage and how it prevents vital press access: