Monday, October 15, 2007

This Week: Fall and Frost

In New Hampshire in mid-October, politics, the Patriots, and even the Red Sox end up taking a back seat to Fall. I saw this particular stand of trees in North Conway this weekend. Peak colors should make it as far south as my home in Nashua sometime this week.
Graeme Frost: Shooting the Messenger
A lot of the buzz on the blogs this week had to do with Graeme Frost, the 12-year-old who delivered the Democrats' radio address on September 29. Frost was in a car accident, has major medical bills, and is fortunate that his family was covered by Maryland's S-CHIP program, which provides health insurance to children whose families are not poor enough to qualify for Medicaid. Democrats in Congress passed a bill expanding S-CHIP to cover more children, and President Bush vetoed it. A veto-override vote is pending, but isn't expected to succeed.

Well, it should have surprised no one that the right-wing attack machine went into high gear to try to discredit Frost and his family. Led by Michelle Malkin, a right-wing blogger and frequent talking-head guest on Fox News, the machine tried to show that the Frosts were well-off people who (if not exactly defrauding the government) were squeezing through loop-holes to get help they neither need nor deserve. A lot of half-truths were trumpeted loudly, and liberal bloggers did a good job of exposing the exaggerations -- to the point that even The Wall Street Journal had to concede that the Frosts are "the sort of family that a modest Schip is supposed to help." In other words: They have medium-low income but aren't destitute, and thanks to S-CHIP they didn't have to lose their home and spend themselves into destitution before getting aid.

A lot of people have expressed amazement that the Right would attack a 12-year-old boy, but these are exactly the kind of situations that draw their most vicious fire: Recall Ann Coulter going after the Jersey Girls, four 9/11 widows who publicly protested the Bush administration's stonewalling of the 9/11 investigation.

There are two patterns at work here: First, when attacked the Right always counter-attacks rather than defending its policies. Remember all the nasty false things that were said about Terry Schiavo's husband, or the smears against the people trapped in the Superdome during Hurricane Katrina? The whole Valerie Plame mess happened because the administration wanted to attack Joe Wilson rather than answer his charge that they fear-mongered Saddam's alleged nuclear program after they knew better. In this case, if they can divert the public into debating the Frosts' finances rather than Bush's veto of a plan that takes care of sick and injured kids, they've succeeded.

But the more specific pattern is this: Right-wing mythology insists that government programs don't help anyone. So when conservatives cut taxes for the rich and benefits for everyone else, they don't see it as robbing the poor to give to the rich. They think of it as a win-win situation: The rich get more money and the rest of us aren't being screwed up by the government's attempts to help us. If you confront them with incontrovertible evidence that this myth isn't true, that government programs really do help people and that cutting those programs victimizes people, they go berserk, like most folks do when their denial is exposed. That's what happened here.

One more piece of the attack on the Frosts deserves attention: The point that the Frosts are better off than millions of Americans, so S-CHIP forces waitresses and grocery-baggers to pay for the health insurance of people richer than themselves. Isn't it amazing how the Right wrings its hands when the government transfers money from the working poor to the working slightly-less-poor, but not when money is transfered straight to the rich? When the subject is tax cuts, it's as if only the rich pay taxes. But when they talk about benefits, suddenly all the government's money is coming from the working poor.

The American people understand quite well what's going on with programs like S-CHIP: We pool our tax money so that people can get help when they have bad luck. Sometimes that means that the government helps people better off than we are. If some of the people who were rescued off rooftops in New Orleans are richer than me, I'm OK with that. I just want to know that the helicopters will be there for me too.

Naomi Klein's The Shock Doctrine
I won't do a full-scale book review of The Shock Doctrine because a number of people already have, including SusanG over on DailyKos. The important thing about this book is its scope: It ties together a long string of events over the last half-century, from Pinochet's CIA-supported coup in Chile in the Seventies to the current situations in Iraq and New Orleans. Too often the Left analyzes each new situation from scratch, while the Right has ready-made narratives it can plug the new details into. This book is an attempt to fix that problem.

The villain of the book is economist Milton Friedman and the free-market-worshiping movement he popularized. In Friedman's rhetoric (which you can still hear from President Bush) freedom, democracy, and unfettered capitalism are one indivisible whole. Klein's point is that the people of almost every country actually don't want unfettered capitalism, so Friedman economics has almost always wound up in a bundle with coups, dictatorships, death squads, and torture -- not freedom and democracy.

A second point is that the Friedmanians have been looking to remake society from a blank sheet of paper, and so have been callous about the destruction of what already exists. (Don Rumsfeld's nonchalance about the looting of Baghdad is just the most egregious manifestation of a more general attitude.) This has evolved into a complex Klein calls "disaster capitalism," in which any disaster -- whether a natural disaster like Katrina or the Asian tsunami or a manmade one like the invasion of Iraq -- is an opportunity for multinational corporations to come in and remake society from a blank sheet. The paradigm here is Sri Lanka, where the Asian tsunami was used to clear away fishing villages that can now be replaced by four-star beach hotels. Aid that American donors gave to help the tsunami victims has actually wound up financing their relocation to more-or-less permanent refugee camps.

A point I wish Klein had stressed more: The blank-sheet-of-paper fantasy was the grand illusion of the 20th century. Communism, Nazism, and the other major tragedies of the 20th century all revolved around the vision that you could build paradise if you could just bulldoze everything and start over. The only two groups that still have this illusion are the neo-conservatives and Al Qaeda.

Other Random Stuff
Comedian Andy Borowitz reports that the Supreme Court is awarding Al Gore's Nobel Prize to President Bush. And Paul Krugman discusses Gore Derangement Syndrome, that strange apoplexy that overtakes conservatives when they are forced to think about Al Gore.

Over at Talking Points Memo, Steve Benen explains why Mitt Romney will not have a "JFK moment" when he confronts head-on the doubts of those who wonder whether a Mormon should be president. It's simple: JFK defused the Catholic issue by embracing the separation of church and state. But the Republican base doesn't believe in the separation of church and state. So what's Mitt supposed to say to them?

If you haven't seen it already, Saturday Night Live's spoof of Fred Thompson is a hoot.

Here's the link I should have given you last week in my article about torture. It's from Balkinization, my favorite blog about the law. (The blog's founder Jack Balkin is a professor of constitutional law at Yale.) In this article, David Luban explains what is probably in the secret memos justifying torture. He does the common-sense thing: Looks at legal arguments the administration has already made in public and pieces them together into a justification of torture. His conclusion is that the memos define their terms in such a way that "nothing [the government] does to obtain terrorist information counts as cruel, inhuman, or degrading." In other words, there are no limits.

Over on Lawyers, Guns and Money, Robert Farley concludes that the recent Israeli attack on what was apparently a Syrian nuclear facility means that the Non-Proliferation Treaty is dead. Instead of an international system that attempts to control the spread of nuclear weapons while encouraging the peaceful development of nuclear energy, we now have "a de facto arrangement in which states that the US approves of are allowed to have nuclear power, while states we dislike get airstrikes."

A subject I haven't discussed nearly enough is the attempt to get Congress to immunize the telecom companies against lawsuits resulting from their conspiring with the Bush administration to tap Americans' phones illegally. Fortunately, Glenn Greenwald has this issue covered. The precedent here would be awful. When the president asks you to break the law, you should say no. It's that simple. Anything that undermines that principle is sending us down the road to being a banana republic.


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