Race: Danger or Distraction? Bomb or Bomb Scare? [UPDATED AGAIN]

September 11, 2009 at 12:54 am (By Amba) (, , , , , , )

Tonight on MSNBC I heard a parade of Democrats, including Ron Reagan, saying solemnly that they thought Joe Wilson’s “outburst” last night was about race, that such incivility would not have been directed at a white President.  (Bush II was booed in the same chamber.)  I had to turn it off.  I blew my stack on Twitter, because it seemed to me they had all received their talking points and were setting up a story line in which opposition to Obama’s health care plan could only be motivated by racism.  Makes me nuts.

(UPDATE II, Sunday the 13th:  James Pinkerton nails Maureen Dowd doing her duty for the cause:  “Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.” Pinkerton comments:

The cultural elites can’t have it both ways: They can’t simultaneously trash the middle class–labeling reasonable skepticism of Obamacare as “racism”–and then expect that same middle class to simply take the elites’ word for it that Obamacare is a good idea.

And I agree with Pinkerton’s terse prognosis:  “bad politics. It’s not going to work.”)

This led to a fascinating conversation with my brother David (True Ancestor), that I’m reproducing here, starting with Twitter.  (Still can’t bring myself to say “my tweets.”  I’d prefer a George Carlinesque “brain farts.”)

Sometimes I wonder if Obama was elected largely because his race is such a convenient way of ending an argument and silencing debate.

Tremendous barrage of “it’s race, it’s race” on the Left’s pet channel MSNBC today. A concerted campaign–this is how they plan to pass HC??

To get back to the subject of liberal Dems browbeating on “race” theme–I am disgusted beyond measure. This is exact flip side of Birtherism

My own bro falls for & perpetuates the “it’s race” meme re: Joe Wilson http://tinyurl.com/ljsvnt I bet a very liberal white prez wd get same

Here my bro’s so right tho: “I see signs all around me that people are pissed off and paranoid, self-righteous and self-absorbed.”

Please pause here and read David’s post.  It’s a very good and very thoughtful expression of the alarm that is the theme that has sincerely gripped many liberals (and David, as you can see, is no ultraliberal), just as alarm at loss of freedom to an overweening State is the theme that has sincerely gripped many conservatives.

I would have been astonished no matter who called the President a liar, and no matter who the president happened to be. But because Barack Obama is an African American man, in a room populated mostly by white men, it seemed to me that a little bit of mob mentality spilled over the decorous bounds inside of which presidential speeches have always been safely held. The fact that Joe Wilson hails from South Carolina added to the chill in my blood.

I don’t consider rough politics out of bounds. I don’t consider Barack Obama beyond reproach. I don’t consider all Republicans bad people (I vote for them sometimes). But moments like this disturb me deeply. It makes me wonder anew whether the animus against Barack Obama is heightened because many cannot stomach the thought of a black man being president.

I commented:

On the other hand, Obama’s race is very convenient for Democrats. No one can criticize his policies without being suspected/accused of racism. (I’m not suggesting that Joe Wilson’s incivility was legitimate criticism. I doubt it was a spontaneous outburst either. More likely it was a bid to be on the 2012 ticket.) That’s THE big theme on MSNBC today (as much a propaganda organ of the L as Fox is of the R). That so sucks — it’s one of the tactics that makes people feel like something’s being put over on them by trickery, thus aggravating the paranoia.

A lot of conservs on Twitter, and NOT crazies, are saying Wilson shouldn’t have apologized (in their wishful fantasies at least), because they believe the president WAS “lying” (illegal immigrants WILL be covered de facto because there’s no test) and somebody had to say it. These people are in a sincere (if well-fanned) panic about “statism,” and I think THAT has zero to do with Obama’s race.

David responded:

First of all, saying that Obama’s race is convenient for Democrats takes nothing away from the very real peril of racism, and the very real possibility that it may be playing a role in the way Obama is confronted, and the way he was confronted last night.

Furthermore, all leadership, in all eras, in all countries throughout time, have sought to take advantage of the convenient. That this is no different doesn’t make it less real or any less ominous. To merely view it cynically is to deny that racism occludes sensible judgment of Obama — judgment that could help mount a more effective opposition, that could lead to better legislation, and that could do less damage to the perception and the effectiveness of leadership in Washington. Racism is a flame that can be fanned. Last night, I felt the heat. Like a fever, it was a heat that chilled.

My concern was not aroused by any talking head on any network with an ulterior motive or an agenda; it arose as I watched the event unfold in real time, unadorned by commentary. Not only that, in what little commentary I watched afterwards (a bunch of talking heads on CNN, followed by Larry King’s interview of John McCain), the issue of race was never brought up.

Second, the non-crazy conservatives to whom you refer believe the president was lying; I believe they are wrong. There are reasonable interpretations on both sides, pointing to the fact that weaknesses in the legislation could allow illegal immigrants to be insured. Most of the CNN panelists I saw, and stuff I’ve read today, said they felt that could and likely would be addressed in upcoming negotiations. Whether or not Obama was lying does not make what Wilson did OK, any more than yelling invective at Bush, Bush II or Reagan at a similar (or any) occasion would have been OK.

If “somebody had to say it,” that somebody could have done much more good for their cause by saying so in a more intelligent way at a more propitious time. I don’t mind that somebody had to say it; I strenuously disagree that that was the forum and the moment in which to do so, and there seem to be many — including about $300,000 worth of South Carolina Democrats, and virtually every leader on both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate — who agree with me.

I answered (warning:  I get a little vulgar):

To merely view it cynically is to deny that racism occludes sensible judgment of Obama — judgment that could help mount a more effective opposition, that could lead to better legislation

It’s not a matter of viewing it “cynically.”  Of course there is racism out there.  What’s frustrating is that no one can criticize Obama without being accused of it!!  That makes him, in a weird way, bulletproof (I know how ironic it is to use that metaphor, and I’m still worried about assassination attempts myself).  And he and Democrats are willing to take full advantage of it.  It means that his being black is, after all, an obstacle to his being an effective president, because of variants of race-ism on both sides.

I believe that while one edge of the hysteria about Obama is racist, much more of it is ideological, and that part would be much the same directed at a white liberal.  Christ, look at the insane attempts to destroy Clinton, who wasn’t even that much of a liberal.  Just a Democrat.

Which leads to the insight that Republicans are just as willing to fan fringe racism to get power back as Democrats are to fling accusations of it [to hold on to power].

In this climate, those who are, in fact, trying to mount a sane and civil opposition (Gingrich, Pawlenty, some of the others with counterproposals to the public option) can hardly even get heard.  Everyone’s walking around with a (metaphorical) hard-on, with adrenalin in full flood.  It’s very scary.  But Democrats are fanning the flames in their own way, because it will let them off the hook if Obama fails.  You must consider how creepy it is to have legitimate policy disagreement blamed on racism.  Wouldn’t that make you paranoid if the roles were reversed?  It would look like a diabolically clever way of silencing debate and ramming through an agenda.  Even if you believe in that agenda, getting it done that way will have too high a cost.

I’m scared sick too, I just think there’s blame to go around.  Dangerous times.


If “somebody had to say it,” that somebody could have done much more good for their cause by saying so in a more intelligent way at a more propitious time. I don’t mind that somebody had to say it; I strenuously disagree that that was the forum and the moment in which to do so, and there seem to be many — including about $300,000 worth of South Carolina Democrats, and virtually every leader on both sides of the aisle in both the House and Senate — who agree with me.

Jeez, I’M not arguing that “somebody had to say it,” or that the president was lying!  I’m trying to tell you why Wilson might have been angling to be on the 2012 ticket!  Some people were saying he was a hero (until he apologized), and that’s not about race at all!  The hysteria about immigration and “statism” was in full cry on the Right before Obama was a gleam in the Democratic party’s eye.  The point I’m trying to make is that the Democrats are so fixated on getting the public option (and I’m not sure Obama is, but he’s captive of the base) that they are going about this in a way that feeds into it and aggravates it, as extremes so often do incite each other.

David replied, in response to my first just above:

Yeah, you hit on it. It’s the whole hard-on for battle that’s got me a little on edge. It seems there’s almost a bloodlust. How can you can negotiate when you just want to murder the person across the table.

Do you really feel that “no one can criticize Obama without being accused of” racism? I feel like he’s been roundly, and in large part justifiably, criticized for his handling of this issue, among others. His approval ratings haven’t been bulletproof, nor should they have been. I don’t read as much as you do, but I simply haven’t seen any “legitimate policy disagreement based on racism.” In either direction. (Remember when Clarence Thomas referred to his confirmation hearing as a “high-tech lynching,” and the opposition just withered on the spot? That, to me, was a classic example of what you’re referring to.

I’m still naive enough to believe that if you have real debate, you will not be able to stymie it with fear. But you don’t have to look too far back in history, or too far afield, to see how naive that belief might be.

And in response to my second:

I see your point. And I’ll predict this right now: he’ll [Joe Wilson] narrowly lose his reelection bid; he’ll claim to have been bullied by Emanuel into making his apology; he’ll become a champion of the victimized right; and he’ll wind up on the 2012 ticket. It may all have been choreographed, soon after Obama became that gleam in the eye you mentioned.

So I said:

Wilson’s already claiming that his own party’s leadership made him apologize, that it wasn’t from the heart!  “Grassroots” Republicans are as mad at their own party’s elite as they are at Democrats.  People like Peggy Noonan who disdained Sarah Palin are toast, with them!

No, I don’t mean that no one legitimately criticizes Obama without being accused of racism, but if you listen to MSNBC (the left’s Fox), today they paraded one person after another pushing that line — including Ron Reagan.  It’s as if they got their talking points/marching orders, just like on the R when everyone starts parroting whatever Rush said that day.  Wherever it’s coming from, it’s a stupid ploy, because it makes reasonable people feel like they’re being had.  It’s a huge diversion/distraction from the question of what kind of healthcare policy we should have, and what better kind we can manage to get to given our disagreements.


Remember when Clarence Thomas referred to his confirmation hearing as a “high-tech lynching,” and the opposition just withered on the spot? That, to me, was a classic example of what you’re referring to.

Oh, definitely!  Definitely.  Nothing was more cynical than his appointment.

There are people who are doggedly (blue doggedly?) trying to have a real debate; they’re just being drowned out.  Too many people don’t have a taste or a hunger for substance any more, only for emotion.  To continue the hard-on metaphor, lots of people are looking to be jerked off.

And David (thankfully changing the metaphor) said:

That’s what happens on the eve of a conflagration. The tinder is dry. A few sprinkles here and there are no match for the lightning.

UPDATE: The plot thickens: David sends “more on Joe Wilson” (presented as evidence for the prosecution?):

Allegedly member of a far-right group called Sons of Confederate Veterans, and one of only 7 SC Republicans who went against his own party and voted to keep the Confederate flag flying over the Statehouse.

(If you follow the link, you’ll see that the SCV is actually split into two warring factions, one that is innocuous and one that is virulent.  No word on which one Joe Wilson is or was a member of.)

Does that change the equation?  It does change the 2012 equation, I think.

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At Ground Zero, Coffee and Jokes. [UPDATED AGAIN]

August 19, 2009 at 8:46 am (By Amba) (, , )

I wake up from vague political nightmares and turn on Twitter and find everyone cheerful, as if nothing happened.

Actually, I guess the Obama admin’s reversal and threat to ram through public-option health care with 51 votes (by the tactic called “reconciliation”) makes a lot of people happy.  It merely confirms alarmism on the right about O’s and dems’ “tyrant” instincts — that inflammatory argument will no longer have to be rammed through, it’ll slide right in — while it has immensely cheered up the moping warriors of the left, who’ve wanted him to seize this opportunity to do just that all along.

Here I was stupid enough to think things were actually working as they should and that the minority had managed to slow the majority juggernaut almost to a standstill, forcing everyone to think and talk and work out a compromise that incorporated the best of a range of views.  It looks to me as if the administration is reacting with wounded pride — urged on by its “base” — rather than trusting its own second thoughts or its flimsy (as it turns out) reconciler fantasies.

Didn’t they learn anything from the Hillarycare fiasco?  They have handled this SO badly.  Inconsistent, incoherent, chaotic, driven, it seems, by vanity and petulance rather than chastened sobriety and eagerness to learn.  Nothing new will be allowed to emerge.

The Democrats may have a political majority, but that can’t paper over the deep crack almost right down the middle of the body politic.  To force a solution on the country that close to half of it doesn’t want will give a fatal blow to the splitting wedge.  We’re going to be a crippled country.  When it’s all over we’ll be remembered for being so spoiled by success that we squandered our strength on the luxury of fighting each other, turning our birthright into the spoils of a political Super Bowl.

I’ll admit my own myopia.  When you have a hammer everything looks like a nail, and when you’re a centrist partisanship, not “socialism” or “wingnuts,” looks like the force destroying the country.  It goes back to the Republicans trying to destroy Bill Clinton (who, after the stumbles of his first year, is looking better and better, though rogue’s luck played a part) for no better reason than that he was a successful Democrat who’d “stolen” some of their ideas about fiscal prudence and welfare reform.  (Granted that Bill put the weapon in their hands — and it was in his own pants — but it was wanton and self-indulgent of the Republicans to grab it.)  It goes back before that to Democrats, including myself at the time, despising Ronald Reagan because he was a hawk and not an environmentalist, failing to appreciate how much the freedom we ourselves enjoyed depended on living in a strong country.

I think we’re in terrible trouble, and I’m really scared for the first time.  I must have been naïve:  hardly anyone seems concerned or even surprised this morning.  It’s just another day for you and me in paradise.

UPDATE: From the other side, Philip A. Klein agrees with Maxwell that using reconciliation to pass healthcare reform is an empty threat — and little more than a bluff.

UPDATE II: Randy finds the best links!  If I’d seen this by Clive Crook in the Atlantic sooner, I’d have just quoted it instead of trying to write about the issue myself.

This struck me as a non-story if I ever saw one.

Given hardening Republican opposition to Congressional health care proposals, Democrats now say they see little chance of the minority’s co-operation in approving any overhaul, and are increasingly focused on drawing support for a final plan from within their own ranks.

Oh please. It isn’t Republican support they lack, it’s public support. And this is not the way to go about getting it. Democrats are technically right that they can get a bill through the senate even with one or two defections on their own side, using a special procedure to prevent a Republican filibuster. But with public opinion, previously well-disposed to reform, now leaning against the Democrats’ proposals–a result of the White House’s dismal failure of leadership on the issue–it would be political recklessness of a high order to pass reform by means of a ruse. Not least because the purpose would be to disempower dissenting Democratic senators, not just Republicans. What would centrist voters make of that? The go-it-alone threat surfaces every few weeks. Though complaints about Republican obstructionism are justified, the idea looks less credible now than before.

It goes on.  Key passage, in my view:

The administration should drop the public option. Politically, the disappointment of the Democrats’ hard-liners would be a plus for the administration, not a minus: their protests would reassure moderate opinion. Substantively, it would subtract little or nothing from the considerable virtues of the other aspects of the reform proposals, around which a broad popular consensus can still be built.

And from the Financial Times editorial Crook links to:

The sooner he ditches [the public option], the better. …  In signalling that he might be ready to do so, Mr Obama has said that comprehensive reform is still possible without it. He is right. A broad consensus supports new rules that would stop insurers from denying coverage because of pre-existing conditions, cap out-of-pocket expenses (so that illness would no longer mean bankruptcy), and make affordable insurance (with public subsidy where necessary) available to all. Those changes are transformative in themselves. Dropping the public option in order to get that done would be a triumph by any sensible standard, not a defeat.

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ABC’s Obamacare “Infomercial”

June 16, 2009 at 2:17 pm (By Amba) (, )

I’m an independent, not a conservative.  I’ve been scoffing at the hysterical hyperbole of those on the right who throw around the word “tyrant” (wannabe) in regard to President Obama.  This, however, really scares me.

I know.  It’s Drudge.  Find me a source that disputes the essential facts of the matter, or that presents a plausible argument in favor of a major broadcast network setting up in the White House, giving the administration lavish air time to pitch a legislative initiative that will profoundly affect all Americans, without opposition voices other than those preselected by the network.  In consultation with the administration?  That would be an assumption, but a fair one.

It’s as if the major media are voluntarily nationalizing themselves.  It makes me feel disoriented.  Someone will say “Just go watch Fox News!”  Well, I suppose I could, and then try to split the difference.  The point is, everyone has an agenda.  No one can be trusted to tell it like it is.  Or:  how you tell it is how it is.  (This reminds me of an article I linked a couple of years ago on AmbivaBlog about how the right, too, now acts on the principle that there’s no “reality” outside of how you spin it.  And here it is!  Biased, so read it with irony.)  Has it always been that way?  Is it just some sort of geezer nostalgia to think that a David Brinkley stood loftily above the fray?  [added] And far worse than just having left media and right media (which is bad enough), a supposedly independent arm of the press is now coupling itself to the power of the state.

Let’s say you fully support President Obama’s vision of health care reform.  You’d even be glad if it was speeding us along the path to a single-payer system.  You believe health care is a basic human right that should be made available to all, not a commercial good to be traded for profit.  You are convinced that a public option is at least a step in the right direction.

Does that justify ramming it down the throats of your countrymen without a full public debate?

Do you like seeing the media divided into the propaganda arm of the party in power and the propaganda arm of the opposition?  Should I be grateful that at least there are still two voices?

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The Cooperative Option

June 14, 2009 at 12:11 pm (By Amba) (, , )

Senator Kent Conrad of North Dakota may just have headed off a looming congressional health-care stalemate by proposing a “third way” solution — private cooperatives. Ezra Klein lets Sen. Conrad speak for himself:

The G-11 group, which is the members of the Senate, Republicans and Democrats, chairmen and ranking members of the key committees, who’ve been given the overall responsibility to coordinate health care reform in the Senate, asked me 10 days ago to come up with something to bridge the divide […]

The co-op structure came to mind because it seems to fulfill at least some of the desires of both sides. In terms of those who want a public option because they hope to have a competitive delivery model able to take on the private insurance companies, a co-op model has attraction.

And for those against a public option because they fear government control, the co-op structure has some appeal because its not government control. It’s membership control, and membership ownership.

Also the co-op model has proven very effective across many different models. Ocean Spray in the cranberry business, and Land of Lakes in the dairy business, and Puget Sound in the health care business.

Read the whole thing for a lucid brief explanation of how health coops would work and the various options for organizing them so that their pools would be big enough to be viable and competitive.

Where did this idea come from? I’ve done a fair amount of health care reporting, and this is the first I’ve heard of it.

I guess it came out of conversations in my office after we were asked to see if we couldn’t come up with some way of bridging this chasm. Part of it is that we’re so used to cooperative structures in my state. They were begun by progressives, they came out of the progressive era. And they’re so successful in our state. So I can’t really say we came up with some brand new idea. We just thought about our own experience.

I hope Maxwell, who ran a cooperative for years, will come in on this post and take it from here.

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Good God Almighty, I’m Free and Vast!

June 10, 2009 at 5:27 pm (By Amba) (, , )

The proposed, or threatened, preventive-health initiatives “almost certain” to be part of Obama health reform — “nutrition counseling, obesity screenings […] wellness programs at workplaces and community centers […] more time in the school day for physical fitness, more nutritious school lunches […] more bike paths, walking paths and grocery stores in underserved areas” — are striking some as a nanny-state intrusion on their freedom.

More time in the school day for physical fitness? I’m shocked!  Isn’t that what, back in the red-blooded all-American ’50s, used to be S.O.P. under the names of “recess” and “physical education”?  Isn’t that the lack whereof is particularly harmful to boys??

As for the rest of it, any attack on the costs of health care has to include, at the very least, incentives for healthy behavior (“though the exact savings are debatable”).  As you’ll see in the upcoming post I’m slowly stitching together out of my doctor sister’s e-mails, the current diseases of the American lifestyle are a huge part of what every physician sees.

I am well aware that fitness, slimness, not smoking, and eating organic food are elite luxuries (I myself can’t afford the latter).  And I don’t mean to put irony or snark into that.  Obama’s finger-shaking-scold quality annoys me when it crops up.  (His own lapses are more endearing.)  I suppose freedom includes the freedom to behave badly and destroy yourself, or it isn’t freedom.  It’s your own damn business, unless you’re forcing secondhand smoke down nonsmokers’ lungs or drunk-driving into a carful of middle-school soccer players.

But Newt recently quoted John Adams as saying only religious people could be trusted with a democratic government.  Conservatives, or classical liberals, often quote Edmund Burke’s magnificent words:

Men are qualified for civil liberty in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites…in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist, unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere; and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

How do you practically reconcile the freedom to behave badly with the expectation that bank-breaking medical care should then fix you up?  (It’s plenty complicated, because — here comes an understatement — not everyone who’s sick brought it on themselves, nor does abstemiousness guarantee health.  Fitness guru James Fixx dropped dead while running, and the founder of Rodale Press croaked right on the Cavett show while bragging about his healthy lifestyle.  However, we do know that smoking, inactivity, and diet-triggered diabetes are killers.)  I mean practically — not just saying that we ought to have more weight-loss prayer groups.  Just because you don’t like Obama, it doesn’t mean he’s wrong about . . . recess.

~ amba

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