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Report from the Front

Art criticism, sometimes with context, occasional politics. Published in hard copy 2-4 times a year. New shows: "events;" hard copy rates & how to support the online edition: "works."



FMD is primarily about art, but every once in a long while I have something to say about politics. At the moment, the midterm elections in November 2014 occupy my mind—not every minute, but often enough so that I sometimes have trouble sleeping. In part, that’s because I read or at least browse the NY Times regularly. Although I also regularly disagree with its art critics, I find its political stance more sympathetic than, I fear, some of my readers do.

The Times is mildly liberal (though naturally some conservatives would consider it way over there on the left). I too am mildly liberal (with a certain amount of right-wing ballast derived from my years on Time in an era when that magazine still directed its coverage toward what I learned to call “the heartland” --though some coastal types, so I hear, refer heartlessly to it as “flyover country”).

Anyway, reading the Times – or, for that matter, following almost any other news outlet whose outlook you share on a regular basis – tends to make the observer anxious. You’ve all heard the old saying, no news is good news. That, in a nutshell, is standard journalist practice: bad news is what supposedly attracts more readers and sponsors, so we all get a steady diet of what’s bad news to our particular news source. I’m sure this is just as true of Fox News as it is of the Times, except that what’s bad news to the Times is probably good news to Fox, and vice versa.


I am concerned about this upcoming election because, as a loyal Democrat, I am afraid that the Republicans will make gains. They already have such a huge majority in the House of Representatives that the Democrats have no hope of unseating them, so I am worried instead about the U.S. Senate, where at present the Democrats are only the majority party by the slenderest of margins. One third of those Senators are up for re-election, and, although both Democrats and Republicans have a lot of money to spend on campaigning, the Republicans have more.

The Republicans are also in a position, in more states, to whittle away at the number of Democrats who vote. This they are attempting to do by getting state legislatures to pass laws making it more difficult for people in general to vote—either by curtailing the number of hours that the polls are open, or by requiring government-issued photo ID to vote, or both. The justification for the photo ID is to prevent “fraud,” although studies have shown that the amount of fraudulent voting is minuscule, and mostly accidental.

Open-minded people can see that curtailing the number of hours a poll is open makes it more difficult was the mass of citizens to vote, but many of these same open-minded people also think that requiring photo ID is perfectly OK. They don’t realize that the people who are more likely in America today to have government-issued photo ID are the people who have cars, and therefore driver’s licenses.

Not everybody in this country has a car. According to CNBC, nearly one in ten Americans don’t have cars, and this proportion is increasing, not decreasing. People who live in center cities with public transport are more likely to use public transport and not have cars, and people who live in center cities are more likely to be the working classes and/or minority voters who are also more likely to vote Democratic.

What bothers me particularly is that many, perhaps too many, of these potentially Democratic voters are also among the people less likely to vote at all. An online article by Frank Newport for the Gallup Poll, dated May 8 of this year, reports that over the past four years, Republican support for the Tea Party is down drastically. This sounds good, but Newport then goes on to report that Republican Tea Party supporters are more focused on the midterm elections than other Republicans, and much more focused than all non-Republicans.

To be specific, 43 percent of Republican Tea Party supporters have given quite a lot of thought to the midterm elections, as opposed to only 26 percent of all other Republicans, and only 19 percent of the non-Republicans.

Fifty-two percent of the Republican Tea Party supporters are more enthusiastic about voting this year, as opposed to 35 percent of all other Republicans, and only 29 percent of all non-Republicans. Finally, only 39 percent of Republican Tea Party supporters are less enthusiastic about voting this year, while 60 percent of all other Republicans fall into this dread category, and so do 58 percent of all non-Republicans.

Previous studies have shown that Tea Partiers are somewhat (though not excessively) more likely to be white, male, older, wealthier and better educated than other voters. As a rule, they care far more about economic issues than social ones—intent on slashing government spending, especially on programs that primarily benefit the lower-income groups orders, and cutting taxes for themselves (with their higher-than-average incomes).


If you think these policies are shortsighted, consider the libertarians, who are getting an lot of publicity these days, even in the NY Times (and I would imagine twice as much on Fox). Most, but far from all, of the Times’s coverage of libertarianism deals with Rand Paul, a Republican Senator from Kentucky and former ophthalmologist who is making the rounds among wealthy potential campaign donors and influential journalists, apparently testing the waters for a run for the White House in 2016.

According to an April 25 story in the NY Times by Nicholas Confessore, Paul considers libertarianism only one of several influences on his thought. That’s enough to make me worry. If you take a look at what libertarians care about, on the economic front, they make Tea Partiers look like socialists by comparison.

According to the Libertarian Party website, they “advocate freedom in economic matters, so we’re in favor of lowering taxes, slashing bureaucratic regulation of business, and charitable – rather than government – welfare.” So – bye, bye Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps, etc.

Further illumination is provided by “The Libertarianism FAQ,” an essay by Eric S. Raymond, posted at his website on October 22, 2010. In answer to the question, “Do libertarians want to abolish the government?” Raymond replies that three-quarters of them “favor stripping government of most of its accumulated power to meddle, leaving only the police and courts for law enforcement and a sharply reduced military for national defense” (as well perhaps as authorities for environmental control). Bye, bye, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Securities and Exchange Commission (among other regulatory agencies that stand between big business & the hapless consumer).

The remaining one-quarter of libertarians, including Raymond himself, are “out-and-out anarchists who believe that…the free market can provide better law, order and security than any government monopoly.” He adds that libertarians running for office realize that with a government as big as ours is, it has to be taken apart carefully. For example, they may favor open borders, but to open ours right away would only invite “a huge mass of welfare clients,” so before these libertarians opened our borders, they’d first abolish all welfare programs.

Libertarians also don’t want “tax-funded education,” but for the present will go along with vouchers and “parental choice” legislation as steps “in the right direction.” Whatever would happen to our public schools if these people took over the government?

What makes the libertarian approach truly frightening is that, in its social agenda, it sounds quite liberal. “Libertarians are also socially tolerant,” promises the party website. “We won’t demand laws or restrictions on other people whom we may not agree [with] because of personal actions or lifestyles.”

Thus Rand Paul is all in favor of legalizing marijuana. He also had enough wit, as reported by Jeremy Peters in the NY Times for May 10, to distance himself from his party’s attempts to crack down on election “fraud.” He said these attempts were “offending people” and alienating African-Americans.


Finally, he was among those prominent Republicans and conservative commentators to condemn the racist rants of Cliven Bundy. Bundy, a Nevada rancher, had become a local celebrity and a hero to Fox News for the way he’d resisted the U.S. Government. He and a group of his supporters had chased away federal rangers who, acting upon a court order, had been trying to confiscate 500 cattle that Mr. Bundy had been illegally grazing on public land since 1993.

As reported by Adam Nagourney in the Times for April 24, Bundy had then rambled on to some of his admirers for 55 minutes, in the course of which he suggested that African Americans sat around doing nothing and living off government subsidies. He added that he’d often wondered if they hadn’t been “better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things…”

It’s kind of a pity that within three days, another example of egregious racism raised his ugly head, and wound up getting far more publicity for his sins than Bundy. Donald Sterling, owner of the Los Angeles Clippers basketball team, made Page One of the NY Times on April 27. The story by Scott Cacciola & Billy Witz told how an audio recording on the gossip website TMZ.com had Sterling haranguing a female friend for being seen publicly with African Americans.

In this case, retribution was swift and sure. Three-quarters of the National Basketball League players are African Americans, and far more Americans feel passionately about basketball than do about elderly Nevada ranchers. Thus the chorus of outrage was deafening, and within days NBA Commissioner Adam Silver had banned Sterling from basketball for life and fined him $2.5 million. Silver also wants to force Sterling to sell the Clippers, and Sterling has has a very handsome offer for them, but as his wife (from whom he is now separated) owns 50 percent of the team, the situation seems to have gotten bogged down in intramarital haggling....

Anyway, Sterling’s racism thrust that of Bundy onto a back burner, which in a way is a pity but is also useful for illustrating the wide range of situations in which racism isn’t altogether eradicated from our society. On the contrary, far from it.

I don’t always agree with Paul Krugman (on the Op-Ed page of the NY Times). He thinks an inflation rate of 5 percent or better would be highly desirable. Not me. I’m not getting any richer and have already helped to subsidize the recovery – through the income from interest on my savings in CDs that I’m NOT getting because the Federal Reserve is deliberately keeping interest rates virtually non-existent in order to stimulate the economy….Still, occasionally Krugman hits the nail on the head, and he did it with regard to Cliven Bundy.

In his column for April 28, Krugman pointed out (acidly) that by using public land to graze his herd upon, and not paying the government for it, he and others who similarly profit from implicit taxpayer subsidies were “welfare queens of the purple sage.” Quite so.

Next, he analyzed the reasons for Bundy’s appeal to conservative commentators like Sean Hannity of Fox News. Part of it, he thought, was the “general demonization of government,” which made a hero of anyone who defied Washington. Another part, and the most important one (for Krugman) was “the dumbing down that seems ever more central to the way America’s right operates.”

But it was the third part that made the most sense to me. I wish it didn’t, but it does. “Partly, one suspects, it was also about race,” Krugman wrote, “not Mr. Bundy’s blatant racism, but the general notion that government takes money from hard-working Americans and gives it to Those People.”

Looking back, I think this is the root cause of all the storm and strife we have been witnessing in Washington ever since 2009. I hate to say it, but I think the idea that one of “Those People” being president has been the animating force behind the rise of the Tea Party and the subsequent wrangles that have afflicted Congress ever since. But I think Krugman's flippant way of referring to African Americans as "Those People" understates the importance of the situation, by failing to look beyond its most immediate cause.

When I was in college, I had a marvelous course in European government taught by a charming old fossil named Thomas Peardon. Peardon was a particular fan of a Victorian journalist named Walter Bagehot, who in 1865-67 published a book called "The English Constitution," which came up with a nifty explanation for the efficiency of the English government.

Bagehot said that the English system was divided into two parts, the "dignified" and the "effective" ones. The monarchy, with all its ceremonial trappings, was the "dignified" part, while the cabinet was the "effective" part. The population could lavish all its emotional feelings upon the monarch, while the cabinet was left to get on with the business of government, and didn't have to worry about satisfying the population's emotional needs.

Peardon also pointed out that in the U.S., the President had to be both the "dignified" and the "effective" leader, and that this didn't work nearly as well. After all, this was still the 1950s, when a moderate but rather dull Eisenhower was still president and his good wife Mamie was as dowdy & dull as they come.

After I got out of college, the 1960s came along, and JFK understood all about the "dignified" side of leadership. With the aid of Jacqueline & her haute couture dresses & the redecoration of the White House & its French chef, we got ceremonial trappings galore. I think a lot of the grief occasioned by JFK's assassination & the affection with which he's still remembered by so many (if not all) people reflected the emotional bonds that he'd managed to forge with the public during his few short years in office.

When I was growing up, it used to be said that every little American boy wanted to grow up to be president--but what has happened to that dream with a Black Man in office? What kind of identification can the child of a lily-white Southerner or heartlander expect to have with Barack Obama? And the same question applies to the grownups that such children have grown up to. It must have been a really hard blow to that kind of "dignified" linkage when Obama was elected.

And no matter how hard Michelle tries to show off her taste in clothing, and to promote worthy causes like exercise & a healthy diet, and no matter how hard Obama tries to say the right things about sports or other non-political subjects, his personal persona still has to deal with an awkward and unbridgeable situation -- or so at least it must appear to the Tea Partiers, judging from the venom with which they've treated every economic issue since 2009, the year that Obama took office.

I know that the wrangles haven’t officially been about race. Rather, they’ve been about government expenditures, but the fervent desire among the Republicans has been to cut back on bailouts of foreclosures, food stamps, education, health care, and in fact any kind of benefit that might make life easier for the lower-income groups.

It has been said that Obama hasn't tried to compromise, that Bill Clinton stole the Republican demands for budget cutting by balancing the budget himself, but that was on a more dynamic economy and even more importantly, with a bigger tax base than Obama has to work with (remember, almost all of those Bush-era tax cuts are still in force, hamstringing the job that the IRS are trying to do).

With that bigger tax base and stronger economy, Clinton could afford to "compromise" and still keep spending for government programs at the same general level (with the exception of his "welfare reform," which --among other things--was a coded attack on minorities). He also had the advantage of Republicans in Congress who were more willing to meet him halfway & compromise themselves than the current lot.

Nobody can get away from the fact that President Obama is an African American, and, in the eyes of too many white people, this guarantees that their hard-earned dollars are being taken away from them, in order to turn them over to Those People.

The result has been a succession of acrimonious fiscal crises, from the battle supposedly resolved by “sequestration” in 2011 to the struggle to render the Bush-era tax cuts permanent in 2012 to the final dreadful business of the government shutdown in the fall of 2013.

True, the Republican leadership in the House and the Democratic majority in the Senate surprisingly agreed on a budget this January which will last until September—a budget that moreover restored many of the cuts rendered under sequestration. But will the voters have the wit to realize that this sort of meekness and generosity is like the sheepskins worn by wolves in the Gospel of Matthew?

A great many Senators and Representatives (on both sides of the aisle) have become disenchanted by the toxic atmosphere in the 113th Congress – where little if indeed anything has gotten done since January. This atmosphere, indeed, is so toxic that a lot of these Congresspeople have decided not to run for re-election. Where will the next generation of leaders come from, one wonders?


All one can hope to do is pay close attention to the alternative candidates offered, and make a decision as to which is the best (or anyway, the least pernicious). Then, for God’s sake, get out REGISTER (if you haven't already) and VOTE!

Vote, and try not to become too alienated from Obama's party because of the highly questionable way in which he seems to be handling the situation in Iraq--the story which has leaped to the forefront of the news in the past week or so.

I don't know about you, but I am made very nervous by all these "advisors" being sent in to help the government in Baghdad--I am all too aware that Vietnam started out with just "advisors," and look where that got us.

I think the situation in Iraq is a sectarian war, and that we should stay out and let everybody else (if necessary) kill each other off--before eventually they will come to some sort of a truce. It is none of our business (unless we assume that anything going on anywhere in the world is our business, which I don't--or unless you're in the oil & gas industry, which swings a lot more weight with Republicans than it does with Democrats).

I'm not saying that we shouldn't do as much as we can to end the fighting-- on the diplomatic front, that is. But it would be a mistake to become too firmly committed to one side or the other--even the "legal" government in Baghdad has discredited itself by shutting out too many Sunnis and giving too much power to Shiites. And nobody loves a loser.

Nor should we forget that the people who today are calling for more escalation are the same Republicans who led the way into Iraq in the first place. They claim that if we don't go in, terrorism will escalate. I say just the opposite: that the surest way for terrorists to come after us is if we meddle in their business. Then they will be able to claim they are merely retaliating -- and they would be right.
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