Sunday, October 30, 2011

MSNBC and the trouble with Pat Buchanan

Over many months MSNBC has been about its business quietly transforming its identity as a newsgathering organization, increasing both its impact and its viewership in a crowded, competitive television landscape. Its integration with NBC News, its partner and one of its literal parents, has improved; and the network has made big strides in the demographics of its newsreaders and program hosts, hiring on-air talent that more reflects the diversity of America.

All of which makes MSNBC’s retention of Patrick Joseph Buchanan such a big problem for a network that prides itself, with some justification, on Leaning Forward (consistent with the cornerstone tagline of MSNBC’s promotional campaign). As a grassroots organization takes aim at Buchanan (the same way this org trained its sights on Glenn Beck when he ruled the roost at Fox), what’s at stake is MSNBC’s rising stature as a news franchise for which racial and ethnic diversity is apparently becoming more than a lip-service issue.

The network faces a thorny short-term dilemma — one of its commentators is an enemy of that kind of inclusion; taking him off the air undercuts that inclusion — but a longer-term reality: Buchanan’s presence compromises MSNBC’s new evolving public identity.

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A long and tireless exponent of conservative ideology and the primacy of white Christian tradition, and for years an MSNBC political commentator, Buchanan has become the target for Color of Change, a 501(c)(4) nonprofit organization involved in lobbying, public education and grassroots political action on behalf of black and minority Americans.

Buchanan (a syndicated columnist and the author of 11 books) has just published “Suicide of a Superpower: Will America Survive to 2025?” The book, among other things, posits the idea that racial, ethnic and cultural diversity have corrupted what is, in his view, now and always essentially a white Christian nation. Diversity, he suggests, has polluted the American ideal; inclusion of a wider range of people and perspectives in the national life has damaged the country.

In an October interview with Thom Hartmann of “The Thom Hartmann Program,” Buchanan resisted any disavowal of the idea that nonwhites have inferior genes:

But this is nothing new. As far back as the mid-80’s, Buchanan flirted with anti-Semitic positions, ultimately drawing fire from William F. Buckley Jr., when the patron saint of modern conservatism wrote about Buchanan’s columns on the gulf war. In an exhaustive 1991 National Review essay on anti-Semitism, Buckley said “I find it impossible to defend Pat Buchanan against the charge that what he did and said during the period under examination amounted to anti-Semitism ...”

The Boston Globe reported in 1992 that during his time as a White House aide and speechwriter, Buchanan “suggested in a memo to President Nixon that efforts to integrate the U.S. might only result in 'perpetual friction' because blacks and the poor may be genetically inferior to middle-class whites.”

Media Matters, writing about the “Suicide” book this month, observed that: “Buchanan eulogized [white supremacist Sam] Francis in a May 2005 column, writing, ‘When God created him, He endowed Sam with a great gift — one of the finest minds of his generation. Sam did not waste it.’ In Buchanan's book ‘State Of Emergency’ … Buchanan lamented that Francis was fired after he suggested that only whites have the appropriate ‘genetic endowments’ to keep America from collapsing.”

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Jillian Rayfield, at TPM Muckraker, culled a dozen other curious quotes from Buchanan’s latest book. Here’s three of them:

On the group UNITY: Journalists of Color, which advocates for more racial and ethnic diversity in journalism:

“Half a century after Martin Luther King envisioned a day when his children would be judged ‘not by the color of their skin, but the content of their character,’ journalists of color are demanding the hiring and promotion of journalists based on the color of their skin. Jim Crow is back. Only the color of the beneficiaries and the color of the victims have been reversed.”

On the changing national demographic:

“Our intellectual, cultural, and political elites are today engaged in one of the most audacious and ambitious experiments in history. They are trying to transform a Western Christian republic into an egalitarian democracy made up of all the tribes, races, creeds, and cultures of planet Earth. They have dethroned our God, purged our cradle faith from public life, and repudiated the Judeo-Christian moral code by which previous generations sought to live.”

On the Jim Crow era:

“Perhaps some of us misremember the past. But the racial, religious, cultural, social, political, and economic divides today seem greater than they seemed even in the segregation cities some of us grew up in.

“Back then, black and white lived apart, went to different schools and churches, played on different playgrounds, and went to different restaurants, bars, theaters, and soda fountains. But we shared a country and a culture. We were one nation. We were Americans.”

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Small wonder, then, that Color of Change (which played a big role in soliciting advertisers to boycott Glenn Beck’s program on Fox News) mounted the charge. In an Oct. 25 e-mail to supporters, calling for MSNBC to fire Buchanan, Color of Change said:

“In general, Buchanan is pushing a vision of America that portrays white people and ‘white culture’ as genuinely American, and diversity and multiculturalism as a threat to America. Buchanan tries to blame the country's economic problems on programs like affirmative action, welfare, and food stamps — programs which help vulnerable and disadvantaged Americans of every race, but which Buchanan and others on the far right have portrayed as only helping lazy and undeserving minorities. He takes every opportunity to stoke the racial anxiety and fear that exists among some white people. In short, Buchanan wants to pit white people against people of color. He believes in it, he thinks it's good political strategy, and in his new book he encourages the GOP to become "the white party."

“If Buchanan didn't have a powerful media platform, he'd be just another person with outdated, extremist ideas. But it's irresponsible and dangerous for MSNBC to promote his hateful views to an audience of millions.”

The CoC e-mail includes an open petition letter sent to MSNBC President Phil Griffin and NBC News President Steve Capus; CoC supporters are invited to attach their names to the letter, which reads:

“I'm writing to demand that you fire Pat Buchanan immediately. Buchanan has a long and consistent history of peddling white supremacist ideology as legitimate political commentary, on your network and elsewhere. He recently went on a white supremacist radio show to promote his new book -- which argues that increasing racial diversity is a threat to this country and will mean the “End of White America.”

Friday, October 28, 2011

Herman Cain and the art of levitation

Herman Cain can claim a number of impressive accomplishments in his professional life: former Federal Reserve Bank Chairman in Kansas City, United States Navy ballistics analyst, author, musician, gospel singer, former CEO of a major fast-food chain, syndicated talk-radio host.

To that list he can add another laurel: Resulting from his current bid for the U.S. presidency, Cain is clearly the recipient of a bachelor’s degree in political levitation. There’s not much else to explain his head-scratchingly lofty showings in recent opinion polls of likely voters.

These polls reflect, like nothing else could, just how unsettled the Republican field for the nomination remains, and just how hungry the Republican party is for a unifying force, any unifying force, to emotionally and philosophically galvanize the masses and wed them to the GOP banner in 2012 — a task that right now has the same degree of difficulty as herding feral cats.

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There’s still a deep reservoir of reservation about Herman Cain, much chin-pulling among analysts, the mainstream media and party leaders. They’re polite enough but still prone to look at him sideways; his unique trajectory into the political conversation is something they can’t get their heads around. Cain didn’t get in this thing the usual way.

So maybe it makes sense that he’s not getting the usual results — that a big slice of the American electorate, Republicans ready for a break with their party’s ugly reflexive combativeness and the usual cast of characters, gives him the benefit of the doubt. Not once but again and again and again.

In the CBS News/New York Times poll released Oct. 25, the top five preferences among Republican primary voters were Cain with 25 percent, former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, 21 percent; former House Speaker and presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex Newt Gingrich, 10 percent; libertarian darling Texas Rep. Ron Paul, 8 percent; and the floundering Texas Gov. Rick Perry, whose commanding lock on third place has given way to something less — trailing Paul, with 6 percent.

A Qunnipiac University poll released on Oct. 26 seems to confirm that the same few names are gaining the early traction in Ohio voters’ minds: Cain placed first with 28 percent, followed by Romney with 23 percent, Paul with 8 percent, Gingrich with 7 percent and Perry with 4 percent. That handsome lead for Cain has a little extra mustard on it, given the poll’s margin of error of 2.7 percent.

"There is a zero-sum relationship between how well Cain and Perry do. A large chunk of the new Cain support is coming from former supporters of the Texas governor," said Peter Brown, assistant director of the Quinnipiac University Polling Institute.

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There’s another metric of Cain’s current blazing success; YouTube hits tell part of the story. According to a count reported by CNN on Friday, Cain’s current campaign ad (more about which later) got 946,736 viewers as of that night, compared to 118,095 viewers of the Romney campaign ad, and 105,690 views for the video for the Perry campaign.

And this comes after similarly strong showings in recent straw polls.

But for all this, for all the furious velocity he’s had into the popular imagination, there’s cracks already turning up. A Washington Post/ABC News poll from Oct. 26 finds that 56 percent of Americans disapprove of the 9-9-9 economic recovery plan that’s become Cain’s trademark. Fifty percent of Republicans felt the same way.

That, right there, is the problem with such levitation as Cain’s. Much of what sustains this kind of loft into the political culture is experience and achievable ideas; without them, the zero-gravity candidate comes back to earth, eventually and fast.

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One aspect of getting serious is all about the message, and it’s here that Cain the political iconoclast reveals himself. What lit up the blogosphere this week, what got the punditburo’s knickers twisted was the release of the latest Cain campaign viral video. In the ad, already widely parodied on YouTube, Cain campaign manager Mark Block, a smoker, stands outside, looks into the camera and extols the virtues of Cain and his campaign and how it resonates with America. While smoking a cigarette. Not cupping one in his hand sub rosa but taking a drag with visible relish.

“We have run a campaign like no one has ever seen,” Block says. “But then, America has never seen a candidate like Herman Cain. We need you to get involved, because together we can do this — we can take this country back.”

Gets weirder still. With the music swelling (“I am America”), the video dissolves to a still image of Cain’s face. At least it looks like a still photograph. But over the course of about nine seconds, Cain’s face morphs from impassive to smiling, the candidate sporting a slow-motion Cheshire-cat grin.

WTF was that? The ad, seen by millions on YouTube and on the Cain campaign Web site, amounts to a non-message message. A campaign jefe speaks in broad strokes and bromides about the boss, who flashes his pearly whites, but what’s delivered says more about the ad and its style than it says about the person behind the ad, and his vision for leading the country. It’s too bizarre by half, but the ad performs another, maybe primary function: like a two-by-four to the head, it gets your attention. So what will the Cain campaign do now that everyone’s looking? When does Cain 2012 cross that Rubicon from style to substance?

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Another part of getting serious is all about the money. On Friday, Smoking Man Block told CNN that the Cain campaign has raised “over $3 million” since the start of October, that to go with the estimated $5 million raised by the campaign through the end of September.

Thanks to that war chest, the Cain campaign has operations “in all 50 states,” Smoking Man told CNN. If that’s true, it’s an astonishingly effective deployment of campaign funds. Think of it: people on the ground in every state in the nation, plus production of campaign ads, airtime, travel, salaries and all the rest, done for somewhere between $5 million and $8 million? What are they paying those campaign workers “in all 50 states” with — all the pizza they can eat?

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Home for the holidays:
Barack Obama ends the Iraq war

It was, as MSNBC’s Al Sharpton said, “a promise made … a promise kept,” one that was 1,004 days in the keeping. On Friday, in a news conference at the White House, President Obama fulfilled a campaign promise and a national objective by formally announcing what’s been in the works for months: the end of the presence of the United States military in the Republic of Iraq, effective Dec. 31, 2011 — two years and nine months and a day after taking office.

This was no declaration of a bugout, like the relative chaos that accompanied our exit from the Vietnam War. From before his presidency, Obama had called a “responsible” end to the U.S. role in Iraq — “responsible” being, among other things, a code word to the hawks and conservatives, the rhetorical dog whistle that meant leaving in anything even resembling disgrace would be unacceptable.

And practically speaking, the word “responsible” wasn’t even necessary. U.S. military forces are leaving consistent with the Status of Force Agreement established and signed during the Bush administration. But regardless of the fact that this was essentially a moment pre-ordained, it will be a vast relief to thousands of American families, and is already a signal moment for the Obama administration, which can use a win right about now.

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"After nearly nine years, America's war in Iraq will be over," Obama said. "The coming months will be a season of homecomings. Our troops in Iraq will definitely be home for the holidays."

“After a decade of war, the nation that we need to build — and the nation that we will build — is our own.”

A U.S. official told CNN that of the 39,000 troops in Iraq, only a residual force of about 150, would remain to assist in arms sales. The rest will be out by the end of this year.

"I'll join the American people in paying tribute to the more than 1 million Americans who have served in Iraq," he said. "We'll honor our many wounded warriors and the nearly 4,500 American patriots and their Iraqi and coalition partners who gave their lives to this effort."

"The last American soldier will cross the border out of Iraq with their head held high, proud of their success and knowing that the American people stand united in our support for our troops," Obama said.

It’s an exit that has cost us too much. At this writing, more than 4,400 American military forces died in Iraq, with about 32,000 wounded. The financial cost has been equally staggering; one estimate placed the war’s cost at $712 billion.

But CNN cited a report from the non-partisan Congressional Research Service that determined the Defense Department spent about $757 billion for military operations in Iraq over the past decade, “$50 billion higher than the estimate released by the Pentagon.”

“Another $41 billion for Iraq was spent on State Department and USAID initiatives, plus $6 billion for troops' health expenses,” said CNN, quoting the CRS report.

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No sooner had Obama made the announcement then the hawks started circling. It was of course a given that we’d hear from the king of the hawks, Arizona Sen. John McCain, who called it "a serious mistake" on ABC’s “This Week.” But other voices weighed in, those of people whose scholarly inclinations and a presumably wider, less reflexive view of history would suggest they’d know better.

Frederick Kagan, a military historian at the American Enterprise Institute, told USA Today that plans for an exit from Iraq were a prima facie disaster, and would be “to abandon America's interests in Iraq and damage our position in the Middle East."

"This retreat will have great costs for the United States," Kagan said. "How can we claim to be taking a firm line against Iran while giving Tehran the single most important demand it has pursued for years — the complete withdrawal of U.S. military forces from Iraq?"

The National Review Online joined in on Tuesday: “To continue to maintain troops in Iraq after the expiration of the current deal for our presence at the end of the year, we needed the Iraqis to agree to give our troops immunity. This is obviously always a sensitive issue. And negotiations with the Iraqis over almost anything tend to drag out to the breaking point. None of this should have necessarily deep-sixed a deal, given how many top Iraqi leaders say privately that they want to keep American forces in the country. The Obama administration foolishly insisted that the Iraqi Council of Representatives endorse an immunity deal, a political impossibility. But it’s hard to believe that if the administration truly wanted to make a deal happen it couldn’t have worked something out with enough patience and ingenuity.”

And former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt (Morph) Romney, didn’t miss the opportunity to weigh in with the conservative opposition. In a statement, Romney said: "President Obama's astonishing failure to secure an orderly transition in Iraq has unnecessarily put at risk the victories that were won through the blood and sacrifice of thousands of American men and women. The unavoidable question is whether this decision is the result of a naked political calculation or simply sheer ineptitude in negotiations with the Iraqi government. The American people deserve to hear the recommendations that were made by our military commanders in Iraq."

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All this frothing at the mouth, this howling to the mob tidily overlooks nothing less than history itself (Mr. Kagan take note). Rather than conducting a freelance exercise of his powers as commander-in-chief, President Obama was only following through on a commitment made by his predecessor — the commitment of the Status of Force Agreement, the pact put in force in November 2008, when the Iraqi Cabinet approved and the Iraqi Parliament ratified, by mutual consent of the United States and Iraq, the plan to end the U.S. military presence in Iraq by Dec. 31, 2011.

Saturday, October 22, 2011

Gaddafi: The end

I will die as a martyr at the end.
--Muammar Gaddafi, February 2011

It was just a matter of time. Mad dogs and flamboyant despots with a taste for blood run free for only just so long. The law of averages, fortified by the events of the Arab Spring, caught up with Brotherly Leader Muammar Gaddafi, the north African tyrant who ruled Libya with fists of iron and ham for 42 years.

The world leader pretend; the man who parlayed his nation’s vast oil reserves into a country that was ultimately a monument to himself; the brutal tinpot cartoon whose wardrobe borrowed equally from Bedouin tradition, Liberace and Chuck Jones died on Thursday, killed by rebel forces in or near Misrata, in circumstances as mysterious as his whereabouts for the last two months, after being pulled from a storm drain under a street in Sirte, his hometown.

Videos from the scene of his capture show Gaddafi still alive but clearly not long for this world, bruised and bloody after being dragged from a drainpipe while begging for his life, the former maximum leader beaten and stomped by forces of the National Transitional Council, the seed of the next Libyan government. The so-called King of Kings now rests wrapped in plastic in a meat locker at a shopping center in Misrata.

“By last week, the empire of the self-proclaimed "emperor of Africa" had shrunk to the size of a drainpipe,” writes Andrew Gilligan of The Telegraph (UK). “Gaddafi's demise was as box-office as his 42-year rule.”

"We could not even say his name without fear," said Ali Barzani, a car dealer, to The telegraph. "Now we are watching his body on television. This is a great day."

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Gilligan observed that “[u]nlike Egypt or Tunisia, where the leader went but the system stayed, Gaddafi's great bequest is that he was the system. Gaddafi's end leaves Libya with a cleaner sheet than any other Arab country.”

But that clean slate that is Libya has a definite downside as well. Since Gaddafi was the system, his exit from the scene makes Libya subject to a vacuum of leadership, effectively means the oil-rich country is yet to become an oil-rich nation. With its gathering of competing autonomous militias, some of them already chafing at the contours of government defined by the NTC, the potential exists for more of the same fighting, or a variation of it, that has dominated Libyan life since Gaddafi’s decline began.

Elections are to be held in eight months, more than enough time for those warring factions to deepen their own regional and tribal animosities. Gilligan reports that “[m]ost of the militias, despite appeals, have refused to leave Tripoli, where each controls its little area of the city.” The celebration of Gaddafi’s death may already be leading to the kind of fractious urban partitioning that subdivided Berlin in 1945.

There’s some reason for hope. Libyan oil production is set to start climbing again. Now about 390,000 barrels a day, it’s expected to return to pre-war levels — about 1.6 million barrels a day — sometime next year. Analysts say that could mean lower prices at the pump, due to the increase in supply.

And the relentless bombing of Libya by NATO forces, aided by drones and missile launches from the United States, has left Libyan cities and towns in ruins. The way’s open, or soon will be, for construction and infrastructure repair on a mass scale, presumably with the blessings of the next (and presumably) democratic government, and the participation of global businesses set to exploit a potential market of almost 6.5 million people.

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That hope for hope is a regional thing. On Sunday, Tunisia holds its elections, the first since the dawn of Arab Spring. In the election of a new assembly, perhaps as many as 7.5 million voters will take the first steps towards establishing a new government with a new constitution, rebuilding the country ruled for 23 years by Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali, who was ousted in January.

Egyptian elections are dead ahead. The country’s military rulers announced that the first phase of parliamentary elections would start on Nov. 28, CNN reported. “The results will be announced on January 10. Then the writing of the constitution will begin immediately,” Major Alaa Al Iraqi, a military spokesman told CNN. “Parliament's first session should be in March. Then the presidential elections will come next.”

Friday, October 21, 2011

Pre-Occupying the FDIC

The mainstream media took forever to discover the Occupy Wall Street movement; now it’s in the honor roll of the top half-dozen stories on the news every night. The OWS phenomenon has achieved that critical-mass level of informational saturation: it’s on the verge of becoming part of the background noise, some of the fiber of the current media diet.

But almost in spite of itself and its stubbornness about articulating an agenda — at least the bullet-point boilerplate beloved by newspaper reporters and TV news graphics editors — the OWS movement may have gained one of its informal objectives, one with serious implications for the Big Entities the movement opposes.

They can thank President Obama and Sen. Mitch McConnell for that. Go figure.

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Late on Thursday, Obama submitted to the Senate the name of Thomas Hoenig, a former president of the Kansas City Federal Reserve Bank, to be the next vice chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, the agency most responsible for the integrity and soundness of the nation’s banking industry.

Hoenig resigned from the K.C. Fed on Oct. 1 after 20 years at the top, after reaching the mandatory retirement age of 65. He’s previously come out in support of the dismantling of the nation’s biggest banks, and has expressed his opposition to the Dodd-Frank Act, the law that has essentially, if unwittingly, enshrined in the culture the meme of some banks and lending institutions being “too big to fail.”

If confirmed by the Senate, the Occupy movement will have set the groundwork for change at one of the highest levels of the financial arm of the government, at least partially reaching one of its deeply-held populist goals: finding an advocate for breaking up the banks, someone in a position to do exactly that.

President Obama stands to pick up a win, too: With Hoenig’s nomination, Obama both sends a message of tacit support for the Occupy movement, and all but dares his Republican opposition in Washington to oppose that nomination. Since Hoenig’s disdain for Dodd-Frank is the same shared by the GOP (Mitt Romney, Michele Bachmann and Newt Gingrich have made its repeal a big part of their campaign platforms), Republican opposition to Hoenig’s appointment will be problematic.

What’s even more problematic for the Republicans? The fact, according to Bloomberg Business News, that Hoenig’s name was submitted to Obama by Sen. Mitch McConnell, Republican of Kentucky.

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Hoenig has spoken out on the big-banks issue loudly and often. On June 26, at a conference sponsored by the Pew Financial Reform Project and New York University Stern School of Business, Hoeing took dead aim at Big Banking when he said that “[W]e have to end the artificial complexities that come with these very large, systemically important institutions if we are … to restore a more stable financial system.”

These institutions, he said, were “fundamentally inconsistent with capitalism. They are inherently destabilizing to global markets and detrimental to world growth. So long as the concept of a [bank too big to fail] exists, and there are institutions so powerful and considered so important that they require special support and different rules, the future of capitalism is at risk and our market economy is in peril.”

Hoenig further articulated where he’s coming from in a December 2010 op-ed in The New York Times:

“Last summer, Congress passed [Dodd-Frank] to reform our financial system. It offers the promise that in the future there will be no taxpayer-financed bailouts of investors or creditors. However, after this round of bailouts, the five largest financial institutions are 20 percent larger than they were before the crisis. They control $8.6 trillion in financial assets — the equivalent of nearly 60 percent of gross domestic product. Like it or not, these firms remain too big to fail.

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“How is it possible that post-crisis legislation leaves large financial institutions still in control of our country’s economic destiny? One answer is that they have even greater political influence than they had before the crisis. During the past decade, the four largest financial firms spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying. ...

“What can be done to remedy the situation? After the Great Depression and the passage of Glass-Steagall, the largest banks had to spin off certain risky activities, and this created smaller, safer banks. Taking similar actions today to reduce the scope and size of banks, combined with legislatively mandated debt-to-equity requirements, would restore the integrity of the financial system and enhance equity of access to credit for consumers and businesses. ...

“These firms reached their present size through the subsidies they received because they were too big to fail. Therefore, diminishing their size and scope, thereby reducing or removing this subsidy and the competitive advantage it provides, would restore competitive balance to our economic system. ...

“Those who control the largest banks will argue that such action would undermine financial firms’ ability to compete globally.

I am not persuaded by this argument.”

With such full-throated and consistent opposition to the too-big-to-fail argument, he made it clear: on this point, at least, Thomas Hoenig is a father of the Occupy movement, his call to break up the banks starting well before the movement ever coalesced 30-odd days ago in Zuccotti Park.

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Early reaction from the Republicans suggest that there’s some chin-pulling going on — a willingness to consider Hoenig coupled with an attempt to buy time while conjuring a way to keep Hoenig’s likely nomination from being characterized as a victory for Obama.

The Wall Street Journal reported that Jonathan Graffeo, a spokesman for Alabama GOP Sen. Richard Shelby, the top Republican on the Senate Banking Committee, termed Hoenig “highly qualified” and said the senator “looks forward to fully vetting his record.”

But given Hoenig’s 20-year track record at the K.C. Fed, that shouldn’t be hard to do, or take very long. That’s no doubt one reason why Democrats hope to fast-track the nomination through the committee and into the full Senate, according to The Journal.

However long it takes Republicans to fully vet his record, the outcome from their perspective wouldn’t seem to be in doubt. The political optics of Republicans rejecting Hoenig wouldn’t look good at all. Put simply, they can’t diss Hoenig’s nomination by the president without dissing McConnell, the Senate Minority Leader, who submitted his name in the first place.

We’ll see how this plays out over the next days or weeks, but for now, Obama’s appointment of Hoenig to the second-highest position at the FDIC elevates the visibility of one of Occupy’s central tenets, and complicates the GOP’s stop-Obama-at-all-costs mission.

The Senate is a busy place, its members constantly preoccupied with the people’s business. Let’s see how fast they get pre-Occupied with this.

Image credits: Hoenig: Tami Chappell/Reuters. McConnell: Senate photograph (public domain). Sen. Carter Glass and Rep. Henry B. Steagall: Public domain (Wikipedia) Shelby: via

Monday, October 17, 2011

Brother Courage:
Shamar Thomas’ truth to power

Former Marine Sgt. Shamar Thomas stood tall in a prominent American place on Oct. 15 and called out a symbol of American authority on the way it was behaving towards ordinary American people. There are pictures and videos. The images of Thomas’ stand on principle won’t have the long-term global power and resonance of other such images, like the one of the lone brave figure who galvanized the world by standing in front of a tank at Tiananmen Square. But Thomas’ actions on Saturday, like those in his previous place of employment, went above and beyond the call of duty.

Supporters of the Occupy Wall Street movement were rallying on Saturday in Times Square, an historically target-rich environment for those seeking to publicize products, passions and policies. A phalanx of New York City police officers had been dispatched to the scene to disperse the protesters, and the meeting of those protesters and the police had the potential to become a flashpoint not unlike that of Zuccotti Park, the lower Manhattan location where Occupy protesters were beaten and pepper-sprayed a few weeks back, before the eyes of the world.

At one point on Saturday, after Thomas observes Occupy protesters being accosted by a group of cops that had encircled them, the ex-Marine who served two tours with the Corps’ 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion in Iraq, hit some personal wall. What happened next was absolutely riveting:



Thomas — a veteran of 50 combat missions in Iraq, including action in the crucible of Fallujah — made his passionate actions equally plain in an interview with Keith Olbermann on Current’s “Countdown,” and in this statement on Thomas’ YouTube channel:

“I was involved in a RIOT in Rutbah, Iraq 2004 and we did NOT treat the Iraqi citizens like they are treating the unarmed civilians in our OWN Country. No one was brutalized because our mission was to 'WIN the hearts and minds.' Why should I expect anything less in my OWN Country.”

Thomas’ righteous outburst is even more compelling in the face of the NYPD’s history for terminally dispatching unarmed black men for transgressions real and imagined. Lucky S7even, commenting in HuffPost, got this right away: “I am [pleasantly] surprised that the NYPD didn't shoot him 41 times.”

That wasn’t going to happen on Saturday. You could see it in the eyes of the officers standing around him, some of whom had almost certainly been in the simultaneous sucks of war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The NYPD, whose foundational code of conduct has much in common with the military, was essentially faced with the prospect of beating down one of its own, and that was a line they wouldn’t cross. The NYPD blinked in the face of populist courage, and it won’t be forgotten.

In the life of a protest movement — if the movement’s to have any resonance with the public it hopes to reach — there are clarifying moments that cut through all polemics and bullshit, distilling what’s really at stake for all concerned. There’s an instant when the narrow avenue of protest inescapably intersects with the broad power of true populism. When it's clear that “all concerned” means “everyone.”

Shamar Thomas just brought us one of them.

Image credits: Shamar Thomas in Times Square: From SgtShamarThomasUSMC's YouTube channel.

Friday, October 14, 2011

Welcome to the Occupation

Hang your collar up inside
Hang your freedom higher
— R.E.M.

… The future seems to arrive unexpectedly.
— Tom Hayden

On Friday morning at 7 a.m., the 28th day of the Occupy Wall Street movement, officers of the New York City Police Department were set to converge on encampments at Zuccotti Park in lower Manhattan to begin the dismantling of the movement's geographic ground zero. War was widely expected as the cops arrived to execute what may well have been the latest foreclosure for many of the people in the space.

But it didn’t turn out like that. Mayor Michael Bloomberg called off the planned eviction less than four hours before it was set to begin. In the end, the city blinked. That concession made to the OWS movement by the government and machinery of the nation’s biggest city is bigger than a New York City event. It just underscores the power of Occupy, a movement that a month into its existence has defined protest for a new century.

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Occupy’s scope and passion have been seriously underestimated. The mainstream media took two weeks to decide that, yes, there was some real news going on down there in Zuccotti Park after all. Now it leads national news broadcasts and the local news. It’s inescapable. Since Tuesday, and well beyond the epicenter in New York, Occupy protesters were arrested in San Diego, Denver, Portland (Ore.), Los Angeles and other cities. Occupy Seattle protesters were arrested on consecutive nights after occupying a heavily-visited space downtown; some of their number turned up at a fundraiser for Mitt Romney’s campaign.

Occupy's reach beyond its obvious base was also unexpected. According to some news reports, Tea Party stalwarts have made appearances at Occupy events — not as counter-protesters or agitators but as kindred spirits in the idea of ending the crony capitalism that Wall Street symbolizes. In this respect, there’s been a willingness to stifle at least some of the partisan political reflexes that animate our daily interactions.

Strange as it seems, there’s a symmetry, politically improbable but operationally inescapable, between the Occupy movement and the Tea Party loyalists: Both have hit the streets to call for an end to Big Government — either the Big Government in Washington or the Big Government on Wall Street.

Beyond that, there’s no philosophical connection between the two. But for power brokers in Washington, the prospect of another source of unruly citizens willing to step outside Business As Usual — a group that won’t respond to their attempt to control it — is unsettling. That's why Eric Cantor's scared. The House Majority Leader made with the outrage at the Values Voters Summit last week. “I for one am increasingly concerned about the growing mobs occupying Wall Street and the other cities across the country,” he said on Friday.

Then as events unfolded and the breadth of this beast started to emerge, and news arrived of Tea Parties making appearances in some solidarity with Occupy … Cantor dialed that back, and fast. On Tuesday he issued a statement on the Occupy wave: “People are upset, and they're justifiably frustrated. They're out of work. The economy is now moving … People are afraid and I get it.”

Occupy spank, Eric.

◊ ◊ ◊

It makes common sense that the Occupy movement appeared to have had its origins in New York City. The city of 8.1 million people bears some of the highest housing costs in the nation, a sadly logical consequences of New York's status as nerve center of the world economy. And the city has always been the pre-eminent urban example of the division between haves and have-nots, a farrago born of conflicts over race, ethnicity, class and place of birth popularly explored in the culture in Tom Wolfe’s “Bonfire of the Vanities,” Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” and Martin Scorsese’s “Gangs of New York.”

But what gives this thing such resonance, even now, is the way it’s taking hold around the nation and the world. There’s power in the simplicity of its civic branding. The Occupy Your Location Here concept is one that immediately regionalizes and localizes the movement at the same time, deflating any hierarchical notions. Occupy Des Moines has the same gravitas, the same weight in the movement as Occupy Tucson.

If Occupy was strictly a NYC thing, with no applications or pertinence anywhere else, it would scarcely have taken hold of the national imagination the way it has. Instead, OWS has tapped into a discontent with the ruling classes of business and government, a discontent that is borderless. You don’t have to look back that far — to the Arab Spring — to see how a similar grassroots spirit went viral in north Africa and the Middle East.

We’ve been privately, nationalistically secure — almost smug — in our confidence that that kind of chaos couldn’t happen here. But given the energies and actions unleashed in the United States by its ruling class against its middle class (or what’s left of it), the question comes up: how could that kind of chaos, or a variation of it, possibly be avoided?

◊ ◊ ◊

Comparisons between the events of the Arab Spring and those of the American Autumn only go so far, of course. The violence in the streets of Cairo and Tripoli has no counterpart here, and the prospect for that happening is pretty slim. When OWS protesters shout “The whole world’s watching!” (reviving the populist cry of anti-war demonstrators in Chicago in 1968), it’s implicit that they hope to be on as close to their best behavior as possible.

But a lot remains unclear about where Occupy goes from here. Two polls from Wednesday bear that out.

A Reuters/IPSOS poll found that, of the 82 percent of respondents who heard about OWS, 38 percent viewed the movement favorably, while 24 percent viewed it unfavorably. Thirty-five percent were undecided.

In a Time magazine/Abt SRBI poll, 54 percent of those who responded viewed the movement favorably, while 23 percent looked at it unfavorably. Twenty-three percent said they don’t know enough to be moved either way.

While Occupy enjoys solid majority votes in both polls, what’s unsettling isn’t the percentages who oppose the movement; it’s the ones sitting on the fence. It’s the vast Undecided around the country, the sizable numbers who Don’t Know Enough that could solidify the Occupy phenomenon, cement it in the national life as nothing less than a seismic reordering of domestic national priorities.

Tom Hayden, California lawmaker, activist and a drum major for justice if there ever was one, understands what hangs in the balance. He went on “Countdown” on Tuesday and broke it all down with a clarity that explained what this all means, or what it could mean.

“This movement needs breathing room,” he told Keith Olbermann. “It’s just materializing and it could go in any direction. The sit-ins started in February 1960 and spread to a hundred cities, 70,000 arrests. The Free Speech movement started over an incident about literature on a table at Sproul Hall [at the University of California-Berkeley] … The future seems to arrive unexpectedly. There’s a danger of trying to over-interpret what’s about to happen, but something is definitely happening.”

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All due props to Hayden, whose social-justice credentials were in order when you were a toddler, but the temptation to over-interpret the Occupy phenomenon is inevitable in the face of a vacuum, in the absence of Occupy’s willingness or ability to interpret itself of the wider public. If you don’t explain or define yourself, someone else will happily do it for you.

That’s where Occupy is right now. The movement has taken to the American streets with passion and banners — like the subject at the end of the R.E.M. song “Welcome to the Occupation,” imploring everyone around him: Listen to me. Listen to me. Listen to me.

An Occupy Day of Action is set to take place around the world on Saturday in an estimated 700 municipalities. Occupy Seattle is planning a march, one intended to dovetail with events planned for Vancouver, Sydney, Melbourne and Seoul. And a Saturday protest is planned for London, with demonstrators set to take their cases to the London Stock Exchange — Wall Street Europe.

Clearly, the whole world’s listening now. There’s a lot’s riding on what’s about to be said.

Image credits: Occupy protest march (top), construction worker: Getty Images. Occupy protest sign: Flickr/WarmSleepy. Tear Down This Wall St. sign: Emmanuel Dunand/AFP/Getty Images.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

'Not exactly Lincoln-Douglas'

That's how The Huffington Post sarcastically described the three-ring circus that masqueraded as a GOP presidential debate on the economy last night at Dartmouth College. That much was painfully, laughably obvious. The elegant simplicity of the seminal 1858 debates between two champion American orators was a far cry from the latest knucklehead convention of eight presidential hopefuls, all of them speaking fiction to power, one more artfully than others.

In the end, what happened in Hanover, N.H., was less of the same we've come to expect from the current GOP field. A lot less.

◊ ◊ ◊

Herman Cain, the radio talk-show host, author and pizza Godfather, pledged to have a balanced budget his first year in office, and doubled down again on his 9-9-9 tax reform plan, but didn't offer any more specifics about his throng of financial advisers and "economists," only one of which he bothered to name.

Michele Bachmann, the toweringly loony congresswoman from Minnesota, revived the old "death panels" figment, alleging that under "Obamacare," there would be 15 bureaucrats to make health-care decisions for 300 million Americans, despite the fact that no such shadowy, black-helicoptered force will ever exist under the health-care law.

Newt Gingrich, intellectual light of the right, disgraced former House Speaker and Tiffany's 10-K line item, called for the imprisonment of a former member of Congress (former Sen. Chris Dodd) and a current one (Rep. Barney Frank) for the financial reform law that bears their name.

And oh yeah, Texas Gov. Rick Perry showed up at this economics-focused debate without a semblance of an economic plan.

Some have said the Bloomberg/Washington Post-sponsored debate didn't move the needle appreciably in terms of giving voters new perceptions of the candidates. For some of those candidates — former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman, Texas Rep. Ron Paul, former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum — that was true. But looking at them collectively, including all the others, we learned something: Until last night we never knew just how much of a live-action cartoon cavalcade the field of Republican presidential contenders really is.

What also emerged was the basis for the growing sense that former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney may be solidifying his unspoken but increasingly obvious presumptive claim to the Republican nomination, months before the primaries begin — and doing it not by winning hearts and minds among rank-and-file Republicans, not by winning in the debates, but by not losing. Which is not exactly the same thing.

◊ ◊ ◊

Romney, in his second run for the presidency, was clearly comfortable last night, jousting almost amiably with his challengers, deflecting their criticism, rhetorically intensifying his focus on President Obama as a prospective opponent, and generally floating above the fray of the debate while the other, less experienced candidates flamed out. He made no big gaffes; there won't be much from last night with Romney's name on it to be part of a debate blooper reel.

By virtue of his temperament and his campaign strategy, Mitt Romney is quietly positioning himself to be characterized as the adult in the room. The business and government bona fides he brings to the table, and his previous time on the presidential campaign trail in 2008, combine to make him the definite presumed frontrunner, something of an elder statesman among presidential aspirants this year.

But let's face it, with a field this comically thin, it's not that hard to be the adult in the room. Romney understands this, knows that the rhetorical and intellectual shortage within the current field of candidates plays to his advantage. Or at least it does on paper. Some papers, anyway.

◊ ◊ ◊

Other papers aren't so accommodating. If Mitt Romney has been privately savoring the idea of being the presumptive nominee, if there was any hope of finalizing clarity from last night's debate, that went out the window preemptively with Monday's release of the latest NBC News/Marist poll.

In that sampling of Iowa Tea Party Republicans' preference, Herman Cain placed first with 31 percent, followed by frontrunner Mitt Romney, with 15 percent. Perry maintained his lock on third place; Bachmann surges from the back of the pack with 11 percent.

And a few hours ago, a new NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll canvassing Republican voters nationally after the debate found similar results: Cain in first place with 27 percent, Romney in second with 23 percent, Perry the Third, 16 percent, and Ron Paul with 11 percent. The rest of the field? Statistical crickets.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Fresh cracks in the elephant’s hide

In June 1858, during his unsuccessful campaign for the United States Senate, that revered legacy Republican Abraham Lincoln noted that “a house divided against itself cannot stand.” Lincoln was speaking about the United States grappling with divisions over slavery.

But that’s advice the 21st-century successor members of his party have failed to follow in their hunt for a nominee to face down President Obama in the 2012 campaign.

With little time left in the year, with the need for a unified Republican front growing every week, and with a diverse group of challengers that’s shown no sign of shrinking any time soon, it’s clear there are big fissures in the unified hide of the GOP.

◊ ◊ ◊

On Monday, Marin Cogan and Jake Sherman of Politico reported on a “civil war” taking shape within and around the Republican Study Committee — essentially the party’s Philosophical Police Department, the congressional lawmakers who decide how conservative “conservative” is.

Politico reports that former members of the RSC have spoken out about heavy-handed tactics of the group's chairman, Jim Jordan of Ohio. Others have condemned the purity tests necessary for acceptance by the RSC's ideological hall monitors.

Politico reported:

“In the past few months, at least three lawmakers have quit the group, an unusual number of defections, according to longtime RSC members and GOP aides. Several others are considering leaving and are speaking openly about their discontent with [Jordan’s] handling of the organization, which has constantly challenged GOP leaders on spending issues. And members say Jordan and the RSC staff unilaterally set broad policy positions without consulting the membership.

“The internal battle within this group of 170 lawmakers reflects a larger debate in the GOP over how far right the party can push before its unity cracks. The RSC fight is also a dispute about tactics — one camp believes the group’s leaders have pushed too far for ideological purity, aiming its fire inward at the expense of team unity. On the other side are those who think the organization has become too bloated with moderates to really work without dissension.”

It all prompted Florida Rep Allen West, one of the attack dogs of the far right, to lament “an ├╝berconservative environment that’s going on” in the GOP camp, and its descent into what he called a “circular firing squad,” a phrase more commonly (and historically) used to describe the Democrats.

◊ ◊ ◊

If that weren't proof enough of disunity within the GOP's ranks, there's new polling that suggests the Republican field of presidential candidates is in the same turmoil it's been in from the beginning, despite the wise decision of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie not to get in the race, and the decision by political personality Sarah Palin to reject a 2012 bid — finally walking away from a race we knew she never intended to get into in the first place.

Herman Cain, the conservative Georgia talk-radio host, author and former Godfather's Pizza CEO, has clambered to the top of the polls, or near there, more or less consistently over the last two weeks. The sole African American Republican pursuing his party’s nomination has the Beltway pundits scratching their heads, as he's emerged from the status of media afterthought to frontrunner in waiting.

In fact, depending on which poll you consult, he's not waiting to be a frontrunner. First, Cain stunned everyone when he won the Florida straw poll on Sept. 24, besting presumptive poll topper Texas Gov. Rick Perry by fat double digits. Former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney came in third.

◊ ◊ ◊

The media tried to ignore that one, blithely writing it off as “unscientific,” a “beauty contest,” and a “snapshot” that didn't carry a lot of weight. Then on Oct. 2, we got the straw poll by the National Federation of Republican Women, a survey that found Cain (with 48.9 percent) trouncing Perry (14.1 percent) and Romney (13.3 percent).

More scientific polls still showed Cain climbing strongly. A CBS News poll released on Oct. 4 had Cain tied with Romney (17 percent) atop that poll's leader board. A survey released today by the Harvard Institute of Politics and the New Hampshire Institute of Politics gives Cain a second-place finish with 20 percent of the vote, behind Romney, in first place with 38 percent. Ron Paul placed a distant third. Some candidate named Don’t Know garnered 11 percentage points.

The latest Gallup poll sampling Republican preferences put Romney in first place with 20 percent and Cain in a close second with 18 percent — the difference between their totals within the margin of error.

And in the Bloomberg/Washington Post poll released today, poll respondents asked their preference for the GOP nominee picked Romney first, with 24 percent, followed by … Herman Cain with 16 percent, then Perry with 13 percent. The 6-point margin of error makes the results at least slightly suspect, but clearly the throughline of this poll and the others show rank-and-file Republicans and those leaning Republican wrestling with their own ideas of candidate electability.

◊ ◊ ◊

The intrigues within the RSC and Cain’s startling surge in the polls all point to a Republican party exhibiting signs of multiple personality disorder at or near the time when the party needs to start clarifying its identity for the American voter.

The next step in that process presumably happens on Tuesday, with the next in an interminable series of Republican candidates' debates set to take place at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire.

It’s effectively mid-October, and everyone on the stage on Tuesday night will already know this hunt for self-identity can’t go on forever. Perry needs a big showing, so does Paul. And the others — Rep. Michele Bachmann, former Utah Gov. Jon Huntsman and former House Speaker Newt Gingrich among them — need to justify taking up space on the stage.

Something’s got to give. When a herd of elephants runs rampant over the landscape, trashing the environment while noisily fighting among themselves ... it’s time to thin the herd.

Image credits: Politico logo: © 2011 Politico LLC. Jordan: Associated Press. Cain: Evan Vucci/Associated Press. Romney: NBC News.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

The look & feel of the modern world:
Steve Jobs (1955-2011)

On Tuesday at an Apple Store near Seattle, I bought an iMac computer with 21.5-inch backlit display, 2.5GHz quad-core Intel Core i5 processor, 4GB of SDRAM, built-in Bluetooth and a 500GB hard drive. This was no random impulse buy; it was necessary to replace Malcolm OS X, my aging Macintosh iMac from 2005, exhausted after a logic board replacement and two power supply changeovers, the computer the victim of literally a thousand late nights and, just as literally, keystrokes equal to more than a million words.

But it wasn't just a replacement of a piece of high-falutin’ technology, a swap of a dinosaur for the latest thing for its own sake. I was trading one tool for another, one avenue of expression for a newer, better one, a fresher device with which to articulate my world, to make sense and order of the wider world beyond.

More than any other company, Apple Inc. has offered the world a software license to dream. The breadth of the appeal of that idea is evident everywhere around you every day and every night. Pedestrians walk down the streets staring into sleek, glowing lozenges of light and sound; in Starbucks stores around the world, people race their fingers down the faces of small black slabs of aluminum and glass, summoning or imparting information; in gyms and health clubs across the planet, people exercise to music, vast libraries of songs delivered by a device no bigger than a deck of cards.

We live in a world shaped and crafted by the bold, buccaneer, visionary esthetic of that company, and of its guiding light, its lightning rod, its avatar. That spirit, Steven Paul Jobs, the co-founder and chief executive officer of Apple, died today, after a long and courageous battle against the ravages of pancreatic cancer, at the heartbreakingly young age of 56.

◊ ◊ ◊

In his time at Apple, Jobs guided the company from a wild dream concocted in his family's garage in California to become what it is today: not so much a company as an ecosystem, agent of a design for living, and a wildly profitable venture whose assets (about $345 billion) rival those of the United States Treasury, a concern whose 4,000 percent stock appreciation over the past ten years has made it, according to market capitalization, the second-largest corporation in the world.

The vision that Jobs brought to Apple and its products — computers as life tools, as functional furniture, as a means to a creative end — has permeated every aspect of our lives. Like Henry Ford and Thomas Edison before him, Steve Jobs reordered our reality, altering our sense of what is possible from technology, our idea of what to expect from business, from ourselves.

Jobs relished his role as Apple's evangelist in chief; his product presentations in San Francisco were as eagerly awaited as a visit from any head of state, and a lot more fun. His talent for showmanship was that much more obvious when compared with other CEOs introducing other products.

Case in point: On Sept. 28 at a Manhattan news conference, Amazon founder and CEO Jeff Bezos introduced the new and much-anticipated Kindle Fire, the latest and enhanced iteration of the company’s popular e-reader, and thought to be Amazon’s first salvo in the tablet wars.

Bezos walked out onstage holding the new Amazon device aloft in his left hand. “It’s called Kindle Fire,” Bezos said.

Crickets. Not a mumblin’ word from anyone in the room.

Contrast that with the reception Jobs received in San Francisco when he rolled out the iPod, the iPhone and the iPad — from colleagues, the media and the public,  a reliably raucous welcome to the newest device in iWorld, the latest thing people didn't know they needed or wanted until Steve Jobs & Co. brought it to life.

◊ ◊ ◊

Jobs' carefully cultivated reputation as showman, as maverick, as industrial shaman and prickly businessman, ultimately couldn't conceal what he really was: a visionary with a heart. This was obvious in June 2005 when Jobs, then recovering from an operation to arrest the cancer that would eventually kill him, gave the commencement address at Stanford University and dared the graduates that day to make their lives an unmitigated leap of faith.

“You have to trust in something: your gut, destiny, life, karma, whatever. Because believing that the dots will connect somewhere down the road will give you the confidence to follow your heart, even when it leads you off the well-worn path. And that will make all the difference.”

That address made it obvious. Jobs didn't just dare us to think; any reasonably passionate, dedicated professor can do that. Only some of them can do more; only some of them can do what Steve Jobs did. He dared us to dream, and he brilliantly put technology at the service of those dreams.

The devices that Jobs shepherded into reality, the things that Apple makes — the iMac, the iPod, iTunes and iPad — are all too easily described in literal terms: they're storage machines, retrieval machines, communications devices, delivery services, tools.

What they (and the actual packaging of those products) really are is evidence of a spare, minimalist elegance, an organic sensibility announced in curves and contours, an absence of right angles that mirrors our own. What these devices really are, what Jobs designed them to be, is what we make of them. They are tabula rasa: the empty slate, the blank canvas onto which we, the customers, the early adopters, the newcomers, the eager acolytes, the people of this world, paint our masterpieces, offer our expressions, establish our identities, announce our quirks, our desires. Our dreams.

◊ ◊ ◊

And the phrase that became Apple's corporate mantra — Think Different — has become a deeply internalized rallying cry, a call to push back against convention and stasis however they manifest themselves, from the hopelessness of a bad marriage to the unsatisfying career, from the intractable policies of dictators in north Africa and the Middle East to the equally intractable culture of the titans of Wall Street.

In his command of computer science, his knack for marketing and a pitch-perfect sense of the power of design, Steve Jobs showed us the magic of technology. In his embrace of human aspiration and the possibilities of the human spirit, he revealed the magic in all of us.

Steve Jobs died today surrounded by his family. The tributes are coming thick and fast, and they'll keep coming for days and weeks to come. Leave it to President Obama to put things in perspective:

“Steve was fond of saying that he lived every day like it was his last. Because he did, he transformed our lives, redefined entire industries, and achieved one of the rarest feats in human history: he changed the way each of us sees the world. The world has lost a visionary. And there may be no greater tribute to Steve’s success than the fact that much of the world learned of his passing on a device he invented.”

Steve Jobs transformed nothing less than the look and feel of the modern world. And nothing in that world will ever look or feel quite the same again.


Image credits: Jobs top and bottom: via The Huffington Post. Apple 20-year stock chart: The Wall Street Journal. Apple logo and iMac photo: Apple Inc.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

Chris Christie, man of his word

The current Republican field of nightmares for candidates, and the lackluster response from the rank and file about those candidates, has created what nature and the Republican leadership abhor: a vacuum. Nature resolves its encounters with vacuum very well, thanks much. How well Republicans handle such matters remains to be seen.

The GOP has hung out the Savior Wanted sign for months, The party’s leadership and its enablers had been deeply hoping for a knight from Jersey to come to the rescue as its latest presidential contender. But when push really came to shove, Christopher James Christie was a man of his word. The word is No.

The name of the streetwise, refreshingly plain-spoken Republican governor of New Jersey has been floated with more and more desperation in recent months as a candidate in the 2012 derby. But Christie spoke his own truth to power today, when he went before the media and repeated what he'd been saying all along, to anyone who'd listen, which is to say to anyone who was really paying attention. “In the end, what I've always felt was the right decision remains the right decision today: now is not my time. I have a commitment to New Jersey that I simply will not abandon," Christie said in a news conference in Trenton.

“For months, I've been adamant about the fact that I would not run for president,” he said. “For me, the answer was never anything but ‘no.’ ...”

“So, New Jersey, whether you like it or not, you're stuck with me.”

◊ ◊ ◊

The punditburo hard by the Beltway tried to find an underlying motive: Christie was really laying in the cut for a shot at the vice presidency, or a Cabinet-level post in the next Republican administration. But given Christie’s plain-spoken style, and the repeated denials about interest in the Oval Office going back to 2010, it’s becoming clear to the GOP power brokers (who want an end to drama) and the media (which wants no end to drama) that Christie’s apparent self-awareness was no fluke. He’s dancing with the one what brung him to the party.

Some in the GOP have accepted it, however reluctantly. “You can wiggle around a lot of things, but that kind of ‘I’m not up for it’ statement, that’s a killer, especially when that's the main attack on Obama,” a GOP operative told the New York Daily News.

And at least one prominent political analyst observed that Christie would have had his work cut out for him convincing the more adamantine members of the GOP that he could be trusted to keep the faith despite a reputation as a moderate willing to negotiate with the other side.

“Few Republicans outside New Jersey recognize that he has compromised often with the Democrats in the legislature, has moderate positions on gun control and climate change,” said University of Virginia political guru Larry Sabato, to the Daily News.

◊ ◊ ◊

Quiet as kept, one of the real but unspoken reasons Christie’s bowed out has less to do with him than it has to do with the accidental perceptual ammunition he would have provided the Democrats, even if he thought he was ready. Unspoken today was Christie’s clear understanding of the optics of the situation.

Christie has been New Jersey’s governor since Jan. 19, 2010, less than two years ago. For him to bail out of his job in Trenton now and run for the presidency would be all but begging the media and his political opponents to compare him to Sarah Palin, who resigned her gig as governor of Alaska after two years and seven months, only to eventually seek the vice presidency with John McCain in 2008.

There’s enough difference between their two scenarios to rebut a head-to-head comparison, of course, but the Two Years & Gone meme would have stuck to Christie — and the Republican Party that sang his praises.

Another reason was more personal. Gov. Christie is, charitably speaking, not a small man. Certainly tipping the scales at more than 250 pounds (The New Republic’s Timothy Noah recently crowd-sourced his weight at 334 pounds), the governor had already started to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous comments in the media. One report said a Christie campaign would “cannonball” the current field — an unfortunate reference to the thing that the larger kids do at swimming pools everywhere, jumping into the water in such a forceful, big-displacement way as to drench everyone and everything around them.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Occupying America

For about two weeks now, it’s been one of those events that hides in plain sight, but through no fault of its own. Occupy Wall Street, the seemingly ad hoc group of activists whose protests against the plutocratic plundering of the national economy began on Sept. 17, has aroused the traditionally physical ire of the New York City Police Department, and created victims of that NYPD heavy-handedness.

What it hasn’t attracted, until very recently, is the attention of the mainstream media. That’s subject to change, and fast.

What’s it all about? A YouTube video from Anonymous called for 20,000 people to flood the Wall Street area in a mass protest of American oligarchy, a gathering of citizens made powerful by “using the revolutionary Arab Spring tactic of mass occupation to restore democracy in America.” No matter what other codifying statements surface to explain the events that have roiled lower Manhattan since Sept. 17, a comment from Russ Winter of Hawaii, writing in the City Room blog of The New York Times, seems to put it in perspective:

“As Americans we may bang our head on other matters, but on this we surely agree. In a democracy: progressives; unions; conservatives; tea party; and unaffiliated Americans can govern and work things out. In a kleptocracy, controlled by the banksters, we cannot. We must stop their influence, their motives, and their tricks, from continuing to destroy our democratic republic, and together we can do it. ...

We demand that the resources of our nation no longer be used to coddle and benefit banksters and their minions. We demand that the US Government diligently reign in the parasitic destruction wreaked by Wall Street. We demand that our nation no longer be held hostage to ‘too big to fail’ banks. We demand that solutions be found that stop the Federal Reserve from stealing our future.”

◊ ◊ ◊

Martin’s comment has the virtue of being both literate and concise — everything you need for a credo. But the movement itself has already been typified by an unwillingness to say what they stand for, what their objectives really are. “There is definitely a lot of internal pressure that they’re feeling to articulate their list of demands,” said WNYC reporter Arun Venugopal, on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann” on Tuesday.

Venugopal went on to describe how some in the movement are resisting a top-down, hierarchical organization structure with one person or a group of people seen as being “in charge” of communicating a manifesto or a statement of objectives. For them, it seems, the very amorphous structure of the movement, its pushback against easy soundbite definition, is one of its foundational powers.

Like it or not, folks, that sounds a lot like an organic, progressive version of the Tea Party (without the Astroturf origins, of course). But that’s the only thing they remotely have in common.

Unlike the Tea Party, the Occupy movement presents itself as a truly bottom-up organization existentially elastic enough to defy being called an “organization,” something that didn’t begin in the suites of Fox News and political action committees and the offices of conservative think tanks.

Unlike the Tea Party, the Occupy movement (to go by its population in New York as documented in news video and YouTube clips) is demographically broad enough — blacks, whites, browns, seniors, everyday people of every description — to represent the broad cross-section of America, and potentially make an impact on the economic policy debate in Washington now, and on the 2012 presidential race that’s already underway.

Timing is everything, and so is momentum. If Occupy takes hold of both, it could be a left-leaning/moderate Tea Party on steroids, one with real grassroots origins, and as such a persuasive populist counterweight to the intrusions of the actual Tea Party on the far right.

◊ ◊ ◊

The relatively unknown panorama of the Occupy movement’s intentions could be a challenge in the short term. The news videos over the past few days have shown activists carrying signs protesting Wall Street as an institution — a pretty big target to take down even for the most ambitious and disciplined grassroots protest org.

The Occupiers have a sense of at least reaching for more than they can grasp. Their rhetorical targets are the hedge fund jefes, brokerage mandarins and Gekko wannabes that make Wall Street what it is.

But we’re not talking about rolling the buses up to the estates in Connecticut or the commuter train suburbs on the Metro North line, and shouting bad language at the people inside. This is bigger than that. From all indications, the Occupy movement is a shot at both the mindset and the system that make that walls-and-moats exclusivity, that separation from mainstream pain, possible in the first place.

◊ ◊ ◊

The movement may be coalescing around a provocative strategy for getting the public’s attention despite a relative absence of coverage by the mainstream media.

Friday night on “Countdown,” Kevin Zeese, a veteran protest organizer developing an Occupy Washington event on Oct. 6 at Freedom Plaza, put a fresh and frankly brilliant spin on the movement’s intentions, one that grasps the importance of shaping the debate in a 24/7 media age: take on the attributes of the 24/7 media.

“You have six corporate companies that control the news media, and they don’t want to understand, the problem is concentrated corporate wealth. It’s not surprising they don’t get that that’s the problem because they’re a part of the problem.

“One thing we’re doing at our event is we’re advocating for a democratized media,” Zeese said. “We’re telling everybody who comes [that] they are the media. ... ‘Come with your cameras, come with your cell phones and take pictures, be ready to get the word out. We are the media ...”

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Once upon a time in the analog world, Zeese’s claim that “we are the media” would have been seen as a wild dream or a bad joke. But today, and despite the tight concentration of media power in the United States, Zeese’s call has serious teeth.

The power of Facebook and Twitter, Foursquare and other media outlets; the verifying impact of cell phone cameras, tablet cameras and Flip HD cameras; and the relentless populist immediacy of YouTube have leveled the playing field.

Zeese fully comprehends what media professors and analysts have wrangled with for years: the didactic, one-directional relationship between media producer and media consumer is finished. It’s not your father’s media anymore, he seems to say. It’s not even your brother’s media anymore. It’s everyone’s media.

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Zeese never said as much on Friday, but the democratization of media he proposes to bring front and center in Freedom Plaza has already been shown to work. It worked in the streets of Cairo. It worked in the streets of Tripoli and Benghazi and elsewhere in the rapidly morphing Maghreb. Whether Occupy can capably engage the wide-open frontiers of 21st century media in a populist battle to transform the relentlessly acquisitive culture and psyche of Wall Street (and that culture’s practitioners in Washington) is an open question.

But on Friday, Zeese offered what could be the rallying cry for this young movement, steeped as much in history as in current events, as much a cri de guerre as a cri de coeur:

“In the Middle Ages, 20 percent of the people owned 90 percent of the wealth. We’re in a situation where one percent owns 95 percent of the wealth. We’re worse than the Middle Ages. We are serfs. It’s time for the serfs to revolt.”

Image credits: Occupy Wall Street sign: Robert Stolarik for The New York Times. Pepper-sprayed protesters: From YouTube video. Kevin Zeese: Current TV.
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