Saturday, January 30, 2010

Prime Minister's Questions in America

This was brilliant, unprecedented in American politics and great when does he do the same thing for the Progressive Caucus, or netroots?

I fail to see how giving TV exposure to the genuine left, and the opportunity for the beginning of a response to what are surly some legitimate questions, could do anything but *help* Obama's cause. How else to prove his policies are indeed as centrist as he himself admits, after all?

Anyway if he's serious about inspiring the sort of little-d democracy we saw on the campaign trail (and not much since), there's one obvious way to start, by ceasing the complete censorship of voices from the left. Who knows, if given half the chance their ideas may even sound more eloquent, accurate, practical and courageous than Obama's.

I doubt it will happen, but it should. Until then we'll just keep giving all the ideological "middle ground" to the likes of professional fuckstick David Brooks.

Well Robert Kuttner is less kind still:
Some of my friends think the Baltimore exercise was masterful. About the only thing I cared for was the juxtaposition of the words "Republican" and "Retreat." Obama did a fine job of defending his record and sounding high minded and presidential, but again the plea was for sweet reasonableness.

They sent us to Washington to work together, to get things done, and to solve the problems that they're grappling with every single day.

Obama ticked off area after area where he agreed with Republican policies. Can you imagine Ronald Reagan giving that to the Democrats? At one point, insisting that he was open to good ideas from any quarter, Obama declared:

I am not an ideologue. I'm not.

You're not? Then why bother? Ideology is not some arbitrary penchant for clinging to stale ideas. It is a principled set of beliefs about how the economy and society work, and should work.

To be a conservative Republican is to believe that markets work just fine, people mostly get what they deserve, and government typically screws things up. To be a liberal Democrat is to believe that market forces are often cruel and inefficient; that the powerful take advantage of the powerless; and that there are whole areas of economic life, from health care to regulation of finance, where affirmative government is the only way to deliver defensible outcomes for regular people.

That's an ideology, one that progressives are proud to embrace. So why does Obama think it virtuous to disclaim ideology in general? The problem afflicting America is not "ideology." It's the hegemony of rightwing ideology. And given presidential leadership, most working Americans -- most voters -- identify with the progressive view of how the world works, especially in an era where conservative ideology has produced financial collapse.

Obama's latest refinements on the politics of common ground make for a pretty pose, but they are too clever by half.

Now, if we are very sanguine, we can read efforts like these as prologue to a stiffening of Obama's spine. This is all a grand design -- he's playing chess, we're playing checkers. Along about March, he will pivot and finally deliver a tough speech declaring that he bent over backwards to accommodate the Republicans. But now, no more Mr. Nice Guy.

But I am increasingly skeptical that he will ever get there. It's just not who he is. So the obstructionism will likely continue, except in cases where Obama makes all the concessions.

Obama may think he is modeling a higher form of leadership. He isn't. If he wants to be loved by voters, it's time for some toughlove directed at Republicans.

UpdateII: Obama takes part of my advice, though the questions remain centrist and uncritical to a fault (at least those on camera) and Fox "news" doesn't even cover it (doing their patriotic best to keep Republicans forever in the dark). Etc. Obviously the damage O'Reilly & Co. continue to inflict on the intelligence of our national dialogue needs to be taken far more seriously (as opposed to simply scoffed at) and better combated.

Sign the petition demanding more regular question time here.

Friday, January 29, 2010

brief foray into dog psychology, cont.

This article (from a friend's facebook page, where all this blogging, er, started), "If Not Dominance...How do we Explain the Development of Social Behaviour?" adds significantly to the discussion below, I think.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Cesar Millan is a Hack?

I'm still educating myself about this debate (more here), the convictions and emotions surrounding which (not to mention cultural and gender predispositions) seem as strong as in any discussion of raising children.

But I will say the contrast between the two methods employed in these two particular videos is pretty striking (Update: An executive producer of the show weighs in (see comments to this post) as to why this may be. For the record I agree with her about common courtesy of at least taking these things in context.):

Howard Zinn

Watching today's DemocracyNow show dedicated to Howard Zinn...I will always remember his "People's History" (recently televised) read like a novel in high school. He was a true intellectual and activist, constantly opening the future by relentlessly exposing and dignifying a more full and contentious truth than the romantic "Great Men" version of history could ever comprise...his latest short piece on Obama printed in The Nation arrived only yesterday:

Update: NPR continues the despicable tradition of hostile and right-wing-framed obituaries for left-leaning intellectuals,uses David Horowitz of all people...what the fuck, Robert Siegel?

Siegel must still have a thing against Chomsky, and it's not healthy. Let NPR hear about it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010


Watching Amy Goodman walk through Léogâne last week, at that point the only reporter to step foot in an area deemed a "security risk" by the UN and so no aid whatsoever has arrived, although over 90% of the homes have been destroyed and people are still digging out their dead by hand...reminded me again how important it is to support organizations other than the mass bureaucracy of the Red Cross, organizations like Partners in Health who are there for the long term, with infrastructure already in place and extensive community outreach and organization. Christian Missions dropping pieces of bread from helicopters onto the rubble just doesn't cut it somehow.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Wednesday, January 20, 2010


We told you so.
There is a significant problem for the left in relating to this anger, however, and the problem is Obama. Obama has presided over the continuation and extension of inequality, escalated the Afghanistan war, forced concessions in the car industry and given way to the private insurance companies over healthcare. The weight of the crisis is being felt particularly sharply by those—especially poor, working class and black voters—at the core of Obama’s electoral support and his support, though still real, is eroding as disappointment sinks in. The impressive movement that the Obama campaign mobilised to deliver the election a year ago has not been marshalled to fight for a public option in healthcare, to fight for jobs or for the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) which would make it easier for workers to organise and join unions, and is opposed by much of US business, including Citigroup which was bailed out to the tune of $50 billion.

In the absence of a strong movement for reform from the left or pressure from a resistant working class, the louder voices are once more those of a minority of conservative politicians and radio presenters opposed to “big government”. The weakness of the Obama government in the face of deepening economic gloom is stoking that opposition, encapsulating as it does a degree of class anger among “ordinary” Americans which has no other obvious outlet.21

As a result, the Republicans made gains in the recent elections for state governor in Virginia—a state won by the Democrats for the first time since 1964 in the Obama election—and New Jersey. The results suggest, in addition to local factors, that those—mainly white—workers who came late to the Obama campaign have found little in the government’s priorities to alleviate their economic predicament.

The re-emergence of visible manifestations of conservative populism, however, are indicative of the weakness of the Republican Party as a political force; instead the likes of Sarah Palin and “shock-jock” Rush Limbaugh are increasingly vocal and are backing conservative candidates against those chosen by the party machine. The mobilisations of the right, such as those in opposition to healthcare reform, have been small but nonetheless illustrate the potential for anger over economic pain to be channelled by conservative forces if progressive forces sit on their hands.

Gary Younge makes this point about the healthcare protests: “The problem is not that the right were organised but that—with a few exceptions—the left has not been. At the very moment when he needed the ‘movement’ that got him elected most, it appears to have largely stopped moving”.22 It has stopped moving largely because Obama has refused to mobilise it and there is not sufficient confidence and pressure for independent action on a mass scale. It is not a surprise that the US president prefers not to revive a movement that may escape the control of the Democratic Party apparatus. But his equivocation risks alienating his own constituency and those who were pulled into his orbit by the tremendous power of his campaign for change, as well as reigniting cynicism of the “liberal” Democratic establishment that could well benefit the right.

The lesson from the Great Depression of the 1930s in the US is that reform and resistance to the effects of the crisis will ultimately depend on a significant movement from below pushing for them. At the moment that movement is absent. There are, however, other social and political processes taking place that suggest possibilities.

Naomi Klein

The Bush administration's determination to mimic the hollow corporations it admired extended to its handling of the anger its actions inspired around the world. Rather than actually changing or even adjusting its policies, it launched a series of ill-fated campaigns to "rebrand America" for an increasingly hostile world. Watching these cringeful attempts, I was convinced that Price Floyd, former director of media relations at the State Department, had it right. After resigning in frustration, he said that the United States was facing mounting anger not because of the failure of its messaging but because of the failure of its policies. "I'd be in meetings with other public-affairs officials at State and the White House," Floyd told Slate magazine. "They'd say: 'We need to get our people out there on more media.' I'd say: 'It's not so much the packaging, it's the substance that's giving us trouble.'" A powerful, imperialist country is not like a hamburger or a running shoe. America didn't have a branding problem; it had a product problem.

I used to think that, but I may have been wrong.
When Obama was sworn in as president, the American brand could scarcely have been more battered – Bush was to his country what New Coke was to Coca-Cola, what cyanide in the bottles had been to Tylenol. Yet Obama, in what was perhaps the most successful rebranding campaign of all time, managed to turn things around. Kevin Roberts, global CEO of Saatchi & Saatchi, set out to depict visually what the new president represented. In a full-page graphic commissioned by the stylish Paper Magazine, he showed the Statue of Liberty with her legs spread, giving birth to Barack Obama. America, reborn.

So, it seemed that the United States government could solve its reputation problems with branding – it's just that it needed a branding campaign and product spokesperson sufficiently hip, young and exciting to compete in today's tough market. The nation found that in Obama, a man who clearly has a natural feel for branding and who has surrounded himself with a team of top-flight marketers. His social networking guru, for instance, is Chris Hughes, one of the young founders of Facebook. His social secretary is Desirée Rogers, a glamorous Harvard MBA and former marketing executive. And David Axelrod, Obama's top adviser, was formerly a partner in ASK Public Strategies, a PR firm which, according to Business Week, "has quarterbacked campaigns" for everyone from Cable­vision to AT&T. Together, the team has marshalled every tool in the modem marketing arsenal to create and sustain the Obama brand: the perfectly calibrated logo (sunrise over stars and stripes); expert viral marketing (Obama ringtones); product placement (Obama ads in sports video games); a 30-minute infomercial (which could have been cheesy but was universally heralded as "authentic"); and the choice of strategic brand alliances (Oprah for maximum reach, the Kennedy family for gravitas, and no end of hip-hop stars for street cred).

The first time I saw the "Yes We Can" video, the one produced by Black Eyed Peas front man, featuring celebrities speaking and singing over a Martin Luther Kingesque Obama speech, I thought: finally, a politician with ads as cool as Nike. The ad industry agreed. A few weeks before he won the presidential elections, Obama beat Nike, Apple, Coors and Zappos to win the Association of National Advertisers' top annual award – Marketer of the Year. It was certainly a shift. In the 1990s, brands upstaged politics completely. Now corporate brands were rushing to piggyback on Obama's caché (Pepsi's "Choose Change" campaign, Ikea's "Embrace Change '09" and Southwest Airlines' offer of "Yes You Can" tickets).

Indeed everything Obama and his family touches turns to branding gold. J Crew saw its stock price increase 200% in the first six months of Obama's presidency, thanks in part to Michelle's well known fondness for the brand. Obama's much-discussed attachment to his BlackBerry has been similarly good news for Research In Motion. The surest way to sell magazines and newspapers in these difficult times is to have an Obama on the cover, and you only need to call three ounces of vodka and some fruit juice an Obamapolitan or a Barackatini and you can get $15 for it, easy. In February 2009, Portfolio magazine put the size of "the Obama economy" – the tourism he generates and the swag he inspires - at $2.5bn. Not at all bad in an economic crisis. Rogers got into trouble with some of her colleagues when she spoke too frankly with The Wall Street Journal. "We have the best brand on earth: the Obama brand," she said. "Our possibilities are endless."

The exploration of those possibilities did not end, or even slow, with the election victory. Bush had used his ranch in Crawford, Texas, as a backdrop to perform his best impersonation of the Marlboro man, forever clearing brush, having cookouts and wearing cowboy boots. Obama has gone much further, turning the White House into a kind of never-ending reality show starring the lovable Obama clan. This too can be traced to the mid-90s branding craze, when marketers grew tired of the limitations of traditional advertising and began creating three-dimensional "experiences" – branded temples where shoppers could crawl inside the personality of their favourite brands. The problem is not that Obama is using the same tricks and tools as the superbrands; anyone wanting to move the culture these days pretty much has to do that. The problem is that, as with so many other lifestyle brands before him, his actions do not come close to living up to the hopes he has raised.

Though it's too soon to issue a verdict on the Obama presidency, we do know this: he favours the grand symbolic gesture over deep structural change every time. So he will make a dramatic announcement about closing the notorious Guantánamo Bay prison – while going ahead with an expansion of the lower profile but frighteningly lawless Bagram prison in Afghanistan, and opposing accountability for Bush officials who authorised torture. He will boldly appoint the first Latina to the Supreme Court, while intensifying Bush-era enforcement measures in a new immigration crackdown. He will make investments in green energy, while championing the fantasy of "clean coal" and refusing to tax emissions, the only sure way to substantially reduce the burning of fossil fuels. Most importantly, he will claim to be ending the war in Iraq, and will retire the ugly "war on terror" phrase – even as the conflicts guided by that fatal logic escalate in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

This preference for symbols over substance, and this unwillingness to stick to a morally clear if unpopular course, is where Obama decisively parts ways with the transformative political movements from which he has borrowed so much (the pop-art posters from Che, his cadence from King, his "Yes We Can!" slogan from the migrant farmworkers – si se puede). These movements made unequivocal demands of existing power structures: for land distribution, higher wages, ambitious social programmes. Because of those high-cost demands, these movements had not only committed followers but serious enemies. Obama, in sharp contrast not just to social movements but to transformative presidents such as FDR, follows the logic of marketing: create an appealing canvas on which all are invited to project their deepest desires but stay vague enough not to lose anyone but the committed wing nuts (which, granted, constitute a not inconsequential demographic in the United States). Advertising Age had it right when it gushed that the Obama brand is "big enough to be anything to anyone yet had an intimate enough feel to inspire advocacy". And then their highest compliment: "Mr Obama somehow managed to be both Coke and Honest Tea, both the megabrand with the global awareness and distribution network and the dark-horse, upstart niche player."

Another way of putting it is that Obama played the anti-war, anti-Wall Street party crasher to his grassroots base, which imagined itself leading an insurgency against the two-party ­monopoly through dogged organisation and donations gathered from lemonade stands and loose change found in the crevices of the couch. Meanwhile, he took more money from Wall Street than any other presidential candidate, swallowed the Democratic party establishment in one gulp after defeating Hillary Clinton, then pursued "bipartisanship" with crazed Republicans once in the White House.
(read more)

Obama, as is his nature I think, tried to take the fork in the road all year, making nice to his base while actually delivering to his money people, not realizing the two were perpetually in conflict. His failure to make a clear choice, or rather to make the right choice, is what has doomed him everywhere politically.

It will be interesting to see what comes next, whether this is just for show or not.

Friday, January 15, 2010

predictably odd

Half-baked contrarian Alexander Cockburn still in denial about global warming, pretends to be scientist in the pages of The Nation. There ought to be a name for this sort of stubborn irrationalist tick/dogmatist contrarianism festering in otherwise highly functioning (if profoundly vain) men, like Tom Cruise's or John Travolta's "scientology." And then Zizek could write a book about it (ZCWAB).

Friday, January 08, 2010

This film (download) should be showing everywhere. Smart reporting, too.

Monday, January 04, 2010


Move your money to local banks. Do it now. They're the only ones still loaning (to anyone besides each other), not on the take and not jacking up fees, after all. And their interest rates are often better. Go figure.