Saturday, March 27, 2010

An Intellectual and Social History of "Whiteness"

(Photo by Robin Holland)


I just bought Dr. Painter's new book this past thursday and I CAN'T WAIT TO READ IT. I've been a longtime fan of all of Painter's exemplary work as a historian over the past three decades so it was with great pleasure and equally great anticipation that I eagerly plunked down the necessary coins to purchase this text. I think that a serious, nuanced, rigorous and fastidious scholarly investigation and excavation of the myriad intellectual, mythological, and delusional sources of the historically sinister and ultimately tragic notion of "whiteness"-- especially over the past 500 years-- is one of the most important, crucial, and vitally necessary projects that any major historian, sociologist, natural scientist, literary artist, philosopher, social activist, political theorist, cultural critic, linguist, anthropologist, or economist could possibly involve themselves with or undertake in all of world scholarship today. So I am thrilled by the fact that Painter continues in the hallowed intellectual and social traditions of such major and profound African American thinkers, activists, and scholars as W.E.B. DuBois, C.L.R. James, Carter G. Woodson, James Baldwin, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, Harold Cruse, Ishmael Reed, Ida B. Wells, Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, David Walker, Malcolm X, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Aime Cesaire, Chester Himes, Walter Rodney, Henry Dumas, Toni Morrison, Angela Davis, Robin Kelley, Rayford Logan, Toni Cade Bambara, Frantz Fanon, Paul Robeson, E. Franklin Frazier, John A. Williams, and Ella Baker among many, many others who have always investigated precisely in their scholarship, art, criticism, activism, and life what the nefarious doctrine, identity, and philosophy of "whiteness" actually meant and means in the world as we presently "know and understand" it.


Who’s White?

March 25, 2010
New York Times Book Review

Nell Irvin Painter’s title, “The History of White People,” is a provocation in several ways: it’s monumental in sweep, and its absurd grandiosity should call to mind the fact that writing a “History of Black People” might seem perfectly reasonable to white people. But the title is literally accurate, because the book traces characterizations of the lighter-skinned people we call white today, starting with the ancient Scythians. For those who have not yet registered how much these characterizations have changed, let me assure you that sensory observation was not the basis of racial nomenclature.

THE HISTORY OF WHITE PEOPLE By Nell Irvin Painter Illustrated. 496 pp. W. W. Norton & Company. $27.95

Nell Irvin Painter’s Web Site:

Some ancient descriptions did note color, as when the ancient Greeks recognized that their “barbaric” northern neighbors, Scythians and Celts, had lighter skin than Greeks considered normal. Most ancient peoples defined population differences culturally, not physically, and often regarded lighter people as less civilized. Centuries later, European travel writers regarded the light-skinned Circassians, a k a Caucasians, as people best fit only for slavery, yet at the same time labeled Circassian slave women the epitome of beauty. Exoticizing and sexualizing women of allegedly inferior “races” has a long and continuous history in racial thought; it’s just that today they are usually darker-skinned women.

“Whiteness studies” have so proliferated in the last two decades that historians might be forgiven a yawn in response to being told that racial divisions are fundamentally arbitrary, and that deciding who is white has been not only fluid but also heavily influenced by class and culture. In some Latin American countries, for example, the term blanquearse, to bleach oneself, is used to mean moving upward in class status. But this concept — the social and cultural construction of race over time — remains harder for many people to understand than, say, the notion that gender is a social and cultural construction, unlike sex. As recently as 10 years ago, some of my undergraduate students at the University of Wisconsin heard my explanations of critical race theory as a denial of observable physical differences.

I wish I had had this book to offer them. Painter, a renowned historian recently retired from Princeton, has written an unusual study: an intellectual history, with occasional excursions to examine vernacular usage, for popular audiences. It has much to teach everyone, including whiteness experts, but it is accessible and breezy, its coverage broad and therefore necessarily superficial.

The modern intellectual history of whiteness began among the 18th-century German scholars who invented racial “science.” Johann Joachim Winckelmann made the ancient Greeks his models of beauty by imagining them white-skinned; he may even have suppressed his own (correct) suspicion that their statues, though copied by the Romans in white marble, had originally been painted. The Dutchman Petrus Camper calculated the proportions and angles of the ideal face and skull, and produced a scale that awarded a perfect rating to the head of a Greek god and ranked Europeans as the runners-up, earning 80 out of 100. The Englishman Charles White collected skulls that he arranged from lowest to highest degree of perfection. He did not think he was seeing the gradual improvement of the human species, but assumed rather the polygenesis theory: the different races arose from separate divine creations and were designed with a range of quality.

The modern concept of a Caucasian race, which students my age were taught in school, came from Johann Friedrich Blumenbach of Göttingen, the most influential of this generation of race scholars. Switching from skulls to skin, he divided humans into five races by color — white, yellow, copper, tawny, and tawny-black to jet-black — but he ascribed these differences to climate. Still convinced that people of the Caucasus were the paragons of beauty, he placed residents of North Africa and India in the Caucasian category, sliding into a linguistic analysis based on the common derivation of Indo-European languages. That category, Painter notes, soon slipped free of any geographic or linguistic moorings and became a quasi- scientific term for a race known as “white.”

Some great American heroes, notably Thomas Jefferson and Ralph Waldo Emerson, absorbed Blumenbach’s influence but relabeled the categories of white superiority. They adopted the Saxons as their ideal, imagining Americans as direct and unalloyed descendants of the English, later including the Germans. In general, Western labels for racial superiority moved thus: Caucasian → Saxon → Teutonic → Nordic → Aryan → white/Anglo.

The spread of evolutionary theory required a series of theoretical shifts, to cope with changing understandings of what is heritable. When hereditary thought produced eugenics, the effort to breed superior human beings, it relied mostly on inaccurate genetics. Nevertheless, eugenic “science” became authoritative from the late 19th century through the 1930s. Eugenics gave rise to laws in at least 30 states authorizing forced sterilization of the ostensibly feeble-minded and the hereditarily criminal. Painter cites an estimate of 65,000 sterilized against their will by 1968, after which a combined feminist and civil rights campaign succeeded in radically restricting forced sterilization. While blacks and American Indians were disproportionately victimized, intelligence testing added many immigrants and others of “inferior stock,” predominantly Appalachian whites, to the rolls of the surgically sterilized.

In the long run, the project of measuring “intelligence” probably did more than eugenics to stigmatize and hold back the nonwhite. Researchers gave I.Q. tests to 1,750,000 recruits in World War I and found that the average mental age, for those 18 and over, was 13.08 years. That experiment in mass testing failed owing to the Army’s insistence that even the lowest ranked usually became model soldiers. But I.Q. testing achieved success in driving the anti-immigration movement. The tests allowed calibrated rankings of Americans of different ancestries — the English at the top, Poles on the bottom. Returning to head measurements, other researchers computed with new categories the proportion of different “blood” in people of different races: Belgians were 60 percent Nordic (the superior European race) and 40 percent Alpine, while the Irish were 30 percent Nordic and 70 percent Mediterranean (the inferior European race). Sometimes politics produced immediate changes in these supposedly objective findings: World War I caused the downgrading of Germans from heavily Nordic to heavily Alpine.

Painter points out, but without adequate discussion, that the adoration of whiteness became particularly problematic for women, as pale blue-eyed blondes became, like so many unattainable desires, a reminder of what was second-class about the rest of us. Among the painfully comic absurdities that racial science produced was the “beauty map” constructed by Francis Galton around the turn of the 20th century: he classified people as good, medium or bad; he categorized those he saw by using pushpins and thus demonstrated that London ranked highest and Aberdeen lowest in average beauty.

Rankings of intelligence and beauty supported escalating anti-Catholicism and anti-Semitism in early-20th-century America. Both prejudices racialized non-Protestant groups. But Painter ­misses some crucial regional differences. While Jews and Italians were nonwhite in the East, they had long been white in San Francisco, where the racial “inferiors” were the Chinese. Although the United States census categorized Mexican-Americans as white through 1930, census enumerators in the Southwest, working from a different racial under standing, ignored those instructions and marked them “M” for Mexican.

In the same period, anarchist or socialist beliefs became a sign of racial inferiority, a premise strengthened by the presence of many immigrants and Jews among early-20th-century radicals. Whiteness thus became a method of stigmatizing dissenting ideas, a marker of ideological respectability; Painter should have investigated this phenomenon further. Also missing from the book is an analysis of the all-important question: Who benefits and how from the imprimatur of whiteness? Political elites and employers of low-wage labor, to choose just two groups, actively policed the boundaries of whiteness.

But I cannot fault Nell Painter’s choices — omissions to keep a book widely readable. Often, scholarly interpretation is transmitted through textbooks that oversimplify and even bore their readers with vague generalities. Far better for a large audience to learn about whiteness from a distinguished scholar in an insightful and lively exposition.

Linda Gordon is a professor of history at New York University and the author, most recently, of “Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits.”

Nell Irvin Painter, a leading historian of the United States, is the Edwards Professor of American History, Emerita, Princeton University. In addition to her earned doctorate in history from Harvard University, she has received honorary doctorates from Wesleyan, Dartmouth, SUNY-New Paltz, and Yale.

A Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, Nell Painter has also held fellowships from the Guggenheim Foundation, the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, and the American Antiquarian Society. She has served as president of the Organization of American Historians and the Southern Historical Association. Those presidential addresses have been published in the Journal of American History (“Ralph Waldo Emerson's Saxons” in March 2009) and the Journal of Southern History (“Was Marie White?” February 2008). The City of Boston declared Thursday, 4 October 2007 Nell Irvin Painter Day in honor of her Outstanding Book Award from the Gustavus Myers Center in 2006.

A prolific and award-winning scholar, her most recent books are Creating Black Americans. (Oxford University Press, 2006) and Southern History Across the Color Line (University of North Carolina Press, 2002). A second edition of Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877-1919 and a Korean translation of Sojourner Truth, A Life, A Symbol appeared in 2008. Her four other books are also still in print. The History of White People (W. W. Norton) will be published in March 2010. For a complete list of her book and article publications and other honors and activities, please consult the CV on this website.

As a public intellectual, Professor Painter is frequently called upon for lectures and interviews on television and film. In January 2008 she appeared live for a three-hour “In Depth” program on C-SPAN Book TV. To see the program on the internet, go to the web page for “In Depth.” She has also appeared on Bill Moyers’s “Progressive America.” New Jersey Network’s “State of the Arts” documented her work as both a scholar and an art student.

Her agent at Greater Talent Network is Edna Schenkel: or 877-662-9200

The Intellectual and Political Clarity and Integrity of Paul Krugman vs. the Petulant and Violent Demagoguery of the Republican Right


The always lucid, principled, progressive, honest, reliable and trustworthy Paul Krugman who tells the unvarnished truth about American politics--and economics-- every time he speaks...


March 26, 2010


Going to Extreme

New York Times

I admit it: I had fun watching right-wingers go wild as health reform finally became law. But a few days later, it doesn’t seem quite as entertaining — and not just because of the wave of vandalism and threats aimed at Democratic lawmakers. For if you care about America’s future, you can’t be happy as extremists take full control of one of our two great political parties.

To be sure, it was enjoyable watching Representative Devin Nunes, a Republican of California, warn that by passing health reform, Democrats “will finally lay the cornerstone of their socialist utopia on the backs of the American people.” Gosh, that sounds uncomfortable. And it’s been a hoot watching Mitt Romney squirm as he tries to distance himself from a plan that, as he knows full well, is nearly identical to the reform he himself pushed through as governor of Massachusetts. His best shot was declaring that enacting reform was an “unconscionable abuse of power,” a “historic usurpation of the legislative process” — presumably because the legislative process isn’t supposed to include things like “votes” in which the majority prevails.

A side observation: one Republican talking point has been that Democrats had no right to pass a bill facing overwhelming public disapproval. As it happens, the Constitution says nothing about opinion polls trumping the right and duty of elected officials to make decisions based on what they perceive as the merits. But in any case, the message from the polls is much more ambiguous than opponents of reform claim: While many Americans disapprove of Obamacare, a significant number do so because they feel that it doesn’t go far enough. And a Gallup poll taken after health reform’s enactment showed the public, by a modest but significant margin, seeming pleased that it passed.

But back to the main theme. What has been really striking has been the eliminationist rhetoric of the G.O.P., coming not from some radical fringe but from the party’s leaders. John Boehner, the House minority leader, declared that the passage of health reform was “Armageddon.” The Republican National Committee put out a fund-raising appeal that included a picture of Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House, surrounded by flames, while the committee’s chairman declared that it was time to put Ms. Pelosi on “the firing line.” And Sarah Palin put out a map literally putting Democratic lawmakers in the cross hairs of a rifle sight.

All of this goes far beyond politics as usual. Democrats had a lot of harsh things to say about former President George W. Bush — but you’ll search in vain for anything comparably menacing, anything that even hinted at an appeal to violence, from members of Congress, let alone senior party officials.

No, to find anything like what we’re seeing now you have to go back to the last time a Democrat was president. Like President Obama, Bill Clinton faced a G.O.P. that denied his legitimacy — Dick Armey, the second-ranking House Republican (and now a Tea Party leader) referred to him as “your president.” Threats were common: President Clinton, declared Senator Jesse Helms of North Carolina, “better watch out if he comes down here. He’d better have a bodyguard.” (Helms later expressed regrets over the remark — but only after a media firestorm.) And once they controlled Congress, Republicans tried to govern as if they held the White House, too, eventually shutting down the federal government in an attempt to bully Mr. Clinton into submission.

Mr. Obama seems to have sincerely believed that he would face a different reception. And he made a real try at bipartisanship, nearly losing his chance at health reform by frittering away months in a vain attempt to get a few Republicans on board. At this point, however, it’s clear that any Democratic president will face total opposition from a Republican Party that is completely dominated by right-wing extremists.

For today’s G.O.P. is, fully and finally, the party of Ronald Reagan — not Reagan the pragmatic politician, who could and did strike deals with Democrats, but Reagan the antigovernment fanatic, who warned that Medicare would destroy American freedom. It’s a party that sees modest efforts to improve Americans’ economic and health security not merely as unwise, but as monstrous. It’s a party in which paranoid fantasies about the other side — Obama is a socialist, Democrats have totalitarian ambitions — are mainstream. And, as a result, it’s a party that fundamentally doesn’t accept anyone else’s right to govern.

In the short run, Republican extremism may be good for Democrats, to the extent that it prompts a voter backlash. But in the long run, it’s a very bad thing for America. We need to have two reasonable, rational parties in this country. And right now we don’t.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Henry A. Giroux On Public Intellectuals, Language, Public Education, and The State


Another penetrating and insightful analysis of modern civil society and the parallel complexities and critical challenges of public education and socially based intellectual activity in the United States today by educator, cultural critic, social theorist, activist, and major public intellectual, Henry A. Giroux...


On Pop Clarity: Public Intellectuals and the Crisis of Language
24 March 2010
by Henry A. Giroux

t r u t h o u t | Op-ed

It is nearly impossible to become an educated person in a country so distrustful of the independent mind.
- James Baldwin

The presupposition that academics no longer function as critical public intellectuals willing to connect their knowledge and expertise to larger public issues is now pervasive. Many factors have contributed to this alleged withdrawal from speaking to public issues, ranging from the demands of academic professionalism and the suppression of dissent to a simple lack of time to address such work. What is indisputable is that the voices of progressive academics have become increasingly irrelevant when it comes to assuming the role of engaged intellectuals interested in sharing their ideas, research and policy recommendations with a broader public. All the better for those neoliberal and conservative critics, who insist that academics must remain neutral, apolitical and professional, disavowing that politics has a place in the classroom or in the pursuit of research that speaks to broader public concerns. Sadly, the most pronounced voices critical of academics as public intellectuals come from the general public (who may or may not agree with right-wing portrayals of the university as a hotbed of left totalitarianism), who unite in their dismissal of ivory tower elites for speaking and writing in a discourse that is as arcane as it is irrelevant.

In what follows, I support three increasingly unpopular positions. First, I argue that academics should assume the role of critical public intellectuals. Second, we must repudiate the popular assumption that clarity is the ultimate litmus test to gauge whether a writer has successfully engaged a general educated audience. In this regard, I insist that the appeal to clarity has become an ideological smokescreen for a notion of common sense and "simplicity" that have become excuses for abusing language as a marker of the educated mind. Third, I argue that public intellectuals need to take matters of accessibility seriously in order to combine theoretical rigor with their efforts to communicate forcefully and intelligibly to a larger public about the most pressing matters of the day. In short, I want to scramble the opposition between the work of public intellectuals and the alleged simplicity of clarity. The issue is not one or the other - a choice between a firewall of convoluted discourse or a frictionless discourse purged of complexity - but rather the challenge for public intellectuals to address important social issues by writing in a language that is accessible without sacrificing theoretical rigor. Underlying this challenge is a larger political project in which public intellectuals have a responsibility to share a commitment to language as a site of experimentation, power, struggle and hope in the interests of building larger democratically inspired social movements.

During the last 30 years, a rising generation of intellectuals within higher education unsettled the status quo, even by staid academic standards, by writing in a theoretical style that was at odds with the traditional convention of writing in a language that was clear, jargon-free and generalist. With the turn to high theory, close textual reading and a commitment to the instability and multiplicity of meaning in the university, proponents of post-structuralism, deconstruction, literary theory and postmodernism wrote in a language that was indeed specialized, theoretically dense and highly opaque. Yet, this diverse body of scholarship was an attempt to expand the possibilities of theory and politics within new and more complex registers of meaning, writing and criticism that undercut the totalizing, often authoritarian logics, of modernism. It was also a discourse that clashed head on with the long tradition of anti-intellectualism in the United States that worked to devalue important theoretical and social issues.[1]

As the new theoretical discourses took hold in academia, a resurgence of anti-intellectualism took place outside of its walls and inundated the country with fresh energy as Ronald Reagan assumed the presidency in 1980. Anxiously insistent triumphalism was in - coupled with a growing mood of conformity. The new orthodoxy wrapped itself in the cult of individualism and personal responsibility - freeing its advocates from any sense of social obligation and engagement with larger social forces that animated the political movements of the 1960s. As Noam Chomsky pointed out, at the heart of Reagan's uplifting call to remake America was a market-driven ideology designed "to ensure that isolated individuals face concentrated state and private power alone, without the support of an organizational structure that can assist them in thinking for themselves or entering into meaningful political action and with few avenues for public expression of fact or analysis that might challenge approved doctrine."[2] Participating in the heady optimism that suffused Reaganite rhetoric came at considerable intellectual cost. Only "adherence to doctrinal truth," as Chomsky concluded, "confers substantial reward: not only acceptance within the system of power and a ready path to privilege, but also the inestimable advantage of freedom from the onerous demands of thought, inquiry and argument."[3] Against Reagan's carefully crafted persona of strong masculinity, decisiveness and middle brow wit culled from his early Hollywood days, intellectuals were cast in the role of radical, if not communist, subversives, or dithering eggheads incapable of effective action. The notion that important social problems required a more complex language or careful analytic accounting in order to render them with precision and accessibility was dismissed as a plunge into unintelligibility.

Questioning authority was now a symptom, a bad hangover from the alleged anti-Americanism of the 1960s, and the long period of dissent and opposition that had marked the period was viewed by many politicians and conservatives as a disease eating away at the body politic. As the state was increasingly hollowed out and militarized, critical public spheres were commercialized or made to disappear altogether. Equally onerous, the mainstream media increasingly became an echo chamber for corporate values and a harsh form of economic neo-Darwinism. Under the growing influence of a corporate-dominated cultural apparatus producing right-wing public pedagogies, civil discourse degenerated into cheap advertising copy, promulgated by an expanding celebrity culture and its consumerist dream world. Or, it became a nonstop avalanche of vicious soundbite for the new class of conservative talking heads that dominated the mainstream media aimed at denigrating all things public. Attempting to break through this citadel of linguistic conformity, many progressive academics hoped to raise the intellectual bar in order to engage complex ideas that challenged the attack on critical thought and democratic political culture that was sweeping across the country - finding its ultimate resting place in the administration of George W. Bush.

The turn toward critical cultural analysis and other forms of theory in the academy was inspired by the recognition that new ideas often require different terms and that such writing, while difficult, was necessary to expose the appeal to common sense and totalizing authoritarian narratives that the Reaganites valued. The deepening complexity of that theoretical turn produced opposition both within and outside of the academy as a strange coalition of conservatives, liberals and some Marxists found common ground in arguing that clarity was the paramount issue in privileging writing as a form of political and cultural expression. Some charges wee not entirely without merit. Writers such as Russell Jacoby warned, "social critics against the danger of yielding to a new Latin, a new scholasticism insulated from the larger public."[4] Benn Agger suggested that theory itself should be dismissed when "it courts incomprehensibility" and, like much academic writing, "fails to invite dialogue, instead reporting itself as an objective account purged of authorial intentionality, perspective, passion."[5] But by the beginning of the 21st century, the critique of difficult and complex language degenerated into a full-court effort at eradication, similar to what one would expect when governments mobilize to tackle the spread of a deadly virus. The journal Philosophy and Literature initiated an annual Bad Writing Contest, offering "prizes" to some of the country's top scholars. One Internet site shocked its horrified readership with examples of a "post-modern" essay, "replete with bloated jargon and incomprehensible sentence structure, every time someone log[ged] onto it."[6]

In one particularly instructive case, the highly regarded philosopher Judith Butler was the target of a widely read piece of rhetorical overkill by Martha Nussbaum, who insisted that Butler's dense specialized language not only revealed a deeply disturbing disengagement from a nonacademic public but also "a loss of a sense of public commitment."[7] According to Nussbaum, Butler was a prime example of a trend that found many academics turning away from practical politics by hiding behind a firewall of jargon that offered little hope of addressing oppressive structures of power while simultaneously producing "a dangerous quietism."[8] Symptomatically dismissive of Butler's radicalism, Nussbaum's call for intellectuals not to mistake symbolic gestures for political change was not unreasonable. But the real value of her statement lies not in its generalized attack on abstract theories or complex language, but in her call for intellectuals to take the issue of public commitment seriously (provided, for her, that it stay within the limits of liberal discourse) and to recognize that the issue of accessibility should be valued by academics in reaching wider audiences.

Butler, for her part, has responded to this dismissal by arguing that scholarship that strives to be clear often "serves to shut down thought" and that part of being an intellectual demands "working hard on difficult texts." She also insisted, "learning how to deal with difficult language is essential for developing a critical attitude towards the world."[9] For Butler, there is no such thing as a transparent language that can ignore various contexts, audiences and modes of intervention. More significantly, she suggested that what is often at stake in the attack on complex language as merely "jargon" is both the assumption that criticism is destructive and the fear of "opening up the possibility of questioning what our assumptions are and [the risk of living] in the anxiety of that questioning without closing it down too quickly."[10] Perhaps, not wanting to side step this important insight, Butler did not mention what Nussbaum willfully ignores, the fact that Butler does write for multiple audiences and that her prose is often oriented to fit the uniqueness of specific groups of readers. Butler has written in both public prose and academic discourse and she always addresses important public issues.[11] Hence, the attack on Butler appears both overstated and a misrepresentation of the important work that she does.

Russell Jacoby expanded the debate about the use of arcane language by tying it to the loss of the very conditions for public intellectuals to flourish in the United States. In his book "The Last Intellectuals," Jacoby recalled fondly the writers associated with The Partisan Review as well as writers such as C. Wright Mills, Murray Bookchin and Edmund Wilson, among other incisive theorists of an earlier era. According to Jacoby, these writers achieved the status of public intellectuals, who wrote not only for academic journals, but also for broader public audiences. He admired their writing for refusing arcane language or a kind of quaint scholasticism. Such work did not sacrifice intellectual rigor in order to reach a general and educated reader. Public prose mattered for them, but not at the expense of theory, critical analysis and sometimes difficult language. Rather than lower the bar of intelligent communication in the name of clarity, they elevated it by offering complex thoughts in an accessible public discourse. To be sure, this generation of public intellectuals lived at a different time and worked under different conditions. Many of them drew from a highly heterogeneous and more questioning culture, were not dependent on jobs located in the academy, made a decent salary from their publications alone and engaged a polity that was not seduced by the new media, the imposition of multitasking in a time-deprived world or the solipsistic gratification that too often comes with blogging.

I think it is fair to say that a different notion of reading and literacy, along with the institutions that supported it, dominated the first half of the 20th century. The notion of the public intellectual was not marginalized, and such writers engaged in ongoing public conversations about political and cultural issues that were of great social importance. These intellectuals spoke to more than one type of audience and were able to comment critically and broadly on a number of issues. To be a public intellectual, you had to be a particularly attentive student of society and the problems it faced and you had to take risks by intervening in ongoing public conversations that disrupted the powerful interests that shape common sense in efforts to change the nature of the debate. Such intellectuals exemplified a mode of writing and political literacy that refused the instinctive knee-jerk reflex of privileging plain speak over complexity. Clarity today too often legitimates not only simplistic writing, but an absence of rigorous analytic thought. Clarity, with its appeal to simplicity and common sense has become an excuse for abusing language as a marker of the educated mind. Public intellectuals in the past achieved complexity and accessibility in their writing for nonacademic audiences - crafting a language that was intelligible, but did not sacrifice its theoretical rigor - while insisting on the value of providing readers with the opportunities to struggle with matters of language and meaning rather than imposing a slick authoritarian style in the name of "unadorned truth." As we move into the 21st century, Twitter-like clarity has replaced accessibility and has grown more pernicious as it aligns itself with an array of new corporate and military institutions, a dumbed-down cultural apparatus, school systems that miseducate and a growing network of films, talk radio and television shows in which language is emptied of content and thought only creates obstacles to the desire for thrill-seeking entertainment. In an age in which the acceleration of time is perfectly suited to the eradication of thoughtfulness, pop clarity and its notion of frictionless, spontaneous truth now governs the conditions for all modes of intelligibility.

The lack of critical literacy fed by populist appeals to common sense and the high pleasure of mass mediated reality, increasingly secured by the speed and endless spectacle of video game culture, induces a moral and political indifference that cannot even be bothered to engage intellectually on a public level at all. But more fundamentally, the appeal to common sense and plain language has become a rhetorical maneuver that masks a grab for power (especially by conservatives and corporate media) based on an illusion of legitimate authority and truth that denies the very existence of power embedded in linguistic constructs. Language in this dubious scenario is neither shaped by nor deploys power, nor is it worth struggling over.

Public discourse has taken a bad hit with the rise of the new media, with its economy of overabundance and its dizzying array of platforms. But there is more at stake here than an overabundant economy of information; there is a new kind of society of the spectacle producing a new kind of thoughtlessness. Print culture, which slows time down because it demands a more sustained focus, is no longer the primary source of information and entertainment for a generation of young people hooked on the immediacy and high interactivity of an audio and visual culture and the various media outlets that supply it. Or as the French theorist Stéphane Baillargeon put it, "I would dare to say that audiovisual media, radio and television, have imposed their cognitive model everywhere ... Now the model demands that reality be echoed, that the movement be followed by the minute, without seeking perspective and comprehension."[12] The corporate domination of the new media is producing a dangerous form of depoliticization and moral indifference - a kind of collective descent into an obsessive compulsive disorder existence - not allowing people to focus, take their time, develop a sense of compassion and social responsibility, or create the conditions for thoughtful reading and writing. This is not to deny that the new media also produces new and useful modes of interaction and exchange, but that is only part of the story and one under the threat of erasure. The underside of this narrative is a social order mobilized and shaped by new technologies and forms of audio and screen culture that blend all too seamlessly with the anti-intellectual tendencies of the dominant society which is wedded to the spectacle of celebrity culture and mass advertising and resistant to almost any notion of critique and rhetorical complexity. What has come out of this unprecedented historical emergence of technological spectacles is more than a culture of distraction; we are witnessing a withdrawal from complexity - even social reality - and a devaluation of the cultural apparatuses now overwhelmed by an infusion of endless soundbites, celebrity babbling, hate talk, consumer mania and endless pornographic representations of violence. All too often justified with the appeal to clarity, entertainment and record-breaking profits.

Although there are still a number of academics such as Noam Chomsky, Angela Davis, Stanley Aronowitz, Slavoj Zisek, Russell Jacoby and Lewis Gordon, who function as public intellectuals, they are often shut out of the mainstream media or characterized as marginal, even subversive, figures. At the same time, many academics find themselves laboring under horrendous working conditions that either don't allow for them to write in an accessible manner for the public because they do not have time - given the often almost slave-like labor demanded of part-time academics and increasingly of full-time academics as well - or they retreat into a highly specialized, professional language that few people can understand in order to meet the institutional standards of academic excellence. In this instance, potentially significant theoretical rigor detaches itself both from any viable notion of accessibility and from the possibility of reaching a larger audience outside of their academic disciplines. Consequently, such intellectuals now exist in hermetic academic bubbles cut off from both the larger public and the important issues that impact society. To no small degree, they have been complicit in the transformation of the university into an adjunct of corporate and military power. Such academics have become incapable of defending higher education as a vital public sphere and unwilling to challenge those spheres of induced mass cultural illiteracy that doom critically engaged thought, complex ideas and serious writing for the public to extinction. Without their intervention as public intellectuals, the reign of clarity gains new force and cancels out any attempt to give the political necessity of experimental language accessibility and rigorous writing a public hearing.

Before his untimely death, Edward Said, himself an exemplary public intellectual, urged his colleagues in the academy to develop a sense of intellectual rather than professional vocation. He insisted that the central issue for intellectuals is to directly confront, in efforts to alleviate, those forms of social suffering that disfigure contemporary society and pose a serious threat to the promise of democracy. He believed that such a task could be addressed by creating the pedagogical conditions and formative cultures that promote critical awareness, thought and dialogue - the primary ingredients of a literate culture necessary for any aspiring democracy. According to Said:

"One of the things that I therefore see as an extraordinarily useful job is to make people sensitive to the uses of language, not as a kind of arcane classification of languages in let's say the jargon of mechanical engineering versus the jargon of political science, but rather the way in which language carries forward values, does work. It does actually work, it performs services of one sort or another and above all, how language can change perceptions and indeed in the end change the world in which we live. And unless we have a sense of the way in which language can in fact change reality, instead of the other way around, which we always assume, then I think we're committed to a use of language that is dead and passive. And one of the things I feel as a student and as a teacher and as an intellectual, which I'm trying to teach my own students, is a sense of the creative powers of language, no matter in which field it's used. And the best use of language for me is the use of language that is committed to the self-reflectiveness, the self-consciousness, of a student, of a user of language, rather than the student or the person who uses language simply as a passive receptacle. Therefore, for me, my antagonist is the person who passively watches CNN all day long and says that's the world. My ideal is the person who looks at CNN and says, no, that's not the world, that's a version of the world and my duty as a mind in society is to understand what alternative versions there are in order for me to make my choice and to go out and to change the world.[13]

For public intellectuals such as Said, Chomsky, Pierre Bourdieu, Angela Davis, and others, intellectuals have a responsibility to unsettle power, trouble consensus and challenge common sense. The very notion of being an engaged public intellectual is neither foreign to nor a violation of what it means to be an academic scholar, but central to its very definition. According to Said, academics have a responsibility to enter into the public sphere unafraid to take positions and generate controversy, functioning as moral witnesses, raising political awareness, making connections to those elements of power and politics often hidden from public view and reminding "the audience of the moral questions that may be hidden in the clamor and din of the public debate."[14] At the same time, Said criticized those academics who retreated into a new dogmatism of the disinterested specialist that separates them "not only from the public sphere but from other professionals who don't use the same jargon."[15] This was especially unsettling to him at a time when complex language and critical thought remain under assault in the larger society by all manner of anti-democratic forces.

Whether in the dominant media or in other institutions shaped by militarism or market-driven or other reactionary values, society is incessantly offered up prepackaged dribble for faux analysis, fast food discourse as a substitute for sustained thought, instant commentaries instead of substantive critique and a range of spectacles that continually work to awe and infantilize the larger public. Under such circumstances, Said insisted that the academy with its commitment, however idealized, to critical thought, self-reflection, engaged research and reason is one of the few spheres left where engaged and critical agents could be educated. And while he railed against the cult of professionalism and expertise in the university with its world of "hermetic, jargon-ridden, unthreatening combativeness,"[16] he rightly argued that the university is still a viable site of struggle, and urged academics to connect their intellectual work with interventions into public life. He also argued that, even as the university became more hostile to engaged criticism, mimicking the values of the larger corporate-controlled media, academics have a responsibility to take advantage of the widening circles of educational exchanges. As he put it, "Think of the impressive range of opportunities offered by the lecture platform, the pamphlet, radio, alternative journals, occasional papers, the interview, the rally, the church pulpit and the Internet, to name only a few," as places where academics could assert their role as public intellectuals.[17] Rather than endorsing a notion of clarity as simplicity (or too often infantilism) that eschews any vestige of critical thought, theory, or willingness to struggle with language, Said argued for a notion of accessibility in which complexity and rigor were translated for a general public. In his analysis, the distinction between complexity and clarity is viewed as a disabling binarism and is rejected in favor of an approach to writing that addresses what it means to make language accessible without emptying its content of any viable meaning or insulting the public by not challenging it to assume some responsibility for its engagement with the text.

Tragically, intellectuals who write for a broader audience have not disappeared either from the academy or from other institutions such as corporate-sponsored foundations; they have simply changed sides, no longer writing for the public as much as they write against it, and always in the language of clarity. These individuals are what George Scialabba calls the anti-public intellectuals. As he put it, the function of the anti-public intellectual "is not criticism, not defense of the public against private or state power, but the opposite."[18] These are intellectuals who offer their talents and skills to the goals of the state and corporate elite. They attack the semi-welfare state and any viable notion of social protection. In doing so, they actively work to pathologize all things public such as schools, health care, public transportation and other important social services. They rail against big government playing an important role in providing social protections and improving citizens' lives, but have no trouble supporting an expansion of government power in regulating morality, investing in a permanent war economy, supporting the coercive powers of the state, expanding the surveillance state and advocating government power to free corporations of any form of regulation. Examples abound and are evident in the misguided, often racist rumblings of Dinesh D'Souza, the anti-public school rhetoric of privatization advocated by Chester Finn and the anti-social state discourse of Charles Murray, among others. The basic ideological elements that shape the discourse of the anti-public intellectuals is also hard wired into consolidating the far right wing of the Republican Party. Their cruder counterparts can be found in the anti-public intellectuals, who dominate the radio and television talk-show circuits, including Glenn Beck, Bill O'Reilly, and that ilk. These are what the late French sociologist Pierre Bourdieu called "'fast thinkers,' specialists in throw-away thinking."[19] These are the recycled anti-public, public relations intellectuals who do nothing more than offer "cultural fast food - predigested and prethought culture,"[20] who trade in soundbites and write with a clarity that debases complex issues, insults its readers and simplifies important subjects to the point of draining them of any real critical complexity and substance.

As the late Pierre Bourdieu put it, such intellectuals justify "a policy of demagogic simplification (which is absolutely and utterly contrary to the democratic goal of informing or educating people by interesting them)."[21] Instead of uncovering the unseen workings of power, they cast a linguistic fog around it, banishing wherever possible public capacity for thoughtfulness and engaged debate, always pitting their discourse - wrapped up in the right-wing populist appeal to common sense and deeply at odds with any notion of social and economic justice - against the vocabularies of the media elites, academics and other members of the "liberal establishment," who don't subscribe to their uniform and anti-intellectual notion of clarity. The reactionary politics conveniently hidden beneath the appeal to plain speech and common sense becomes startlingly clear, for instance, when conservative broadcaster Glenn Beck on his March 2, 2010, radio show stated, "I beg you, look for the words 'social justice' or 'economic justice' on your church Web site. If you find it, run as fast as you can. Social justice and economic justice, they are code words."[22] And as The New York Times pointed out, Beck "was saying they were code words for Communism and Nazism."[23]

The anti-democratic tendencies of fast food thought and discourse are also readily available in the "fast thinkers," who usually ramp up their embrace of banal and commonsense language with a dash of the sensational and the spectacular. This type of spectacle is on full display in the McCarthy-like ramblings of Dick Cheney's daughter Liz Cheney and the inevitable Bill Kristol, the neoconservative editor of the Weekly Standard, both of whom have recently inundated the media with the accusation that government lawyers who provide pro bono defense for Guantanamo Bay detainees are un-American, if not traitorous. Not only did they produce a shameful video branding "these government lawyers as 'the Al Qaeda Seven,'" they also "juxtaposed their supposed un-American activities with a photo of Osama bin Laden."[24] At its most elemental, such demagoguery draped in the language of clear speech and sensationalism, while eliminating any pretense to thoughtful argumentation, undercuts the ability of the American public to function as critically informed citizens.

With the rise of the disengaged academic and the anti-public intellectual, public commitment is sacrificed to professionally sanctioned discourse on the one hand, and the authoritarian appeal to clarity and common sense on the other. Both positions pose a serious problem for civic engagement and democratic practices, each contributing in their own way to undoing the possibility for critical agency and informed modes of communication. But these forces do not exist on an equal footing or inspire equal effect. As Richard Hofstadter wrote in his monumental "Anti-Intellectualism in American Life" and Susan Jacoby updated in her book, "The Age of American Unreason," anti-intellectualism has a long history in the United States and at the present moment it appears to have reached unprecedented heights "thanks to the converging influences of junk science, fundamentalism, celebrity-obsessed media ... declining academic standards ... political pandering and the weakening of investigative journalism, among other factors."[25] How else can one explain the lack of outrage over the Texas Board of Education producing a social studies curriculum for thousands of school children that rewrites history so as to consolidate the values of religious fundamentalists, celebrate right-wing social movements such as the National Rifle Association, justify McCarthyism and eliminate Thomas Jefferson "from a list of figures whose writings inspired revolutions in the late 18th and 19th centuries" because he endorsed the term "separation between church and state."[26] Clearly, what all of these examples suggest is that critical literacy, or reading the world and the word critically, cannot be separated from the ability to deal with difficult language and complex argumentation to piece the lies, misrepresentations and omissions that comfortably wrap themselves in Sarah Palin folksiness and belligerent common sense a la Glenn Beck.

And while I have focus on the role of academics and intellectuals in this debate over language, I think it is fair to say that the need to write in a discourse that has vigor and passion and can be read by the general public is both essential and problematic. It is essential in that language has to be accessible to reach broad and diverse audiences - even as what constitutes "accessibility" is inevitably a matter of trial and error. The shift toward greater accessibility should not be compromised by a populist commonsense appeal to clarity that cancels out any necessity to struggle with language and meaning, tragically undermining what might be the critical public function of accessible prose. Against accessibility, clarity condemns any notion of difficult reading, complex language and sustained focus and thoughtfulness. Its advocates often ignore entire arguments, even intellectual traditions, by dismissing them as unclear, just as they reduce the importance of all meaning to the yardstick of clarity, by which they really mean simple, transparent, entertaining and in keeping with a pet ideological agenda. The invoking of clarity as a tool to promote anti-intellectualism is not so far removed from a species of dogmatism that refuses to give opposing points of view a fair hearing. It is also close minded to any language that is unfamiliar and often substitutes emotion and opinion for sustained argument and careful analysis.

The fashionable use of clarity to delegitimize any struggle over meaning and language distinguishes among forms of writing based on a facile opposition between what is deemed complex and what is deemed clear - denying altogether the political motivation that drives it. This binarism presupposes that the simple invocation to clear language can by itself confer sense, if not a certain type of spontaneous and immediately recognized truth and legitimacy. This position also suggests that readers should be able to engage ideas effortlessly, thereby placing no burden of responsibility on the reader for critical analysis and reflective thought. The imperative to write in clear language redefines the relationship between language and power in largely strategic terms. That is, when structured around the binary opposition of clarity versus complexity, this particular focus on language not only ignores how multiple audiences read differently, but also subverts the very problem it claims to be addressing. It restricts the possibility for expanding a culture of questioning and dialogue by refusing to address the importance of developing multiple literacies that allow people to speak across and within different maps of meaning. Clarity in this case seems to me to do more to fuel intolerance than advance receptivity to different discourses, meanings, values and modes of translation and exchange.

Moreover, the claim that some writers, academics and journalists write in a language that is arcane and inaccessible runs the risk of reifying the issue of clarity by presupposing rather than demonstrating a universal standard for measuring it. For example, do critics who invoke the litmus test of clarity have a specific standard in mind when they pass judgment on the literacy levels of the various audiences that read sources as diverse as Truthout and Dissent? Is it the equivalent of a reading level embodied in Reader's Digest? What is definitive about their assessment that grants them the authority to judge for all readers what is accessible and what is not? Unfortunately, the discourse of clarity appears to rest on a universal standard of literacy that presumably need not be questioned as well as a self-righteous and deeply anti-democratic suggestion that most people are just too dumb or indifferent to struggle with language and meaning. This approach to language suppresses questions of context - who reads what under what conditions? More importantly, it presumes that language is a transparent medium for the seamless transmission of existing facts that need only be laid out in an agreed-upon fashion. Such a position runs the risk of fleeing the politics of culture by situating language outside of history, power and struggle. While such an anti-theoretical stance may be comforting to some, it provides no help in understanding the complex relationship among power, critical thought and the inevitable struggle over language. Moreover, the appeal to clarity often ignores the challenges of language use incurred by writers whose aim is make the familiar strange - retooling certain commonsense assumptions by putting them in different contexts, revealing their hidden order of politics or placing them in new modes of language.

To be sure, this is not an elaborate excuse for unintelligible language or "bad writing" - were such a category ever agreed upon - as much as it is an attempt to discern between a notion of clarity that shuts down thought and a notion of accessibility that enables public intellectuals to get "their ideas across to more than one type of audience [while also being] able to comment broadly on society, culture and politics."[27] If the greatest obstacle to critical thinking and social agency is the enforced insistence on a kind of general ignorance in the name of clarity, it is time for both academics and the general public to think more carefully about what it means to be not only responsible writers, but also responsible readers.

At the very least, one must question what makes these warriors for clarity capable of reading certain texts critically while simultaneously suggesting that the general public is not intelligent enough to understand them. There is more at work here than an elitism of the grassroots; there is also the ungenerous presupposition that most people are too "dumb" to read a text or engage a language that is critical, theoretical and oppositional. Accordingly, this position suggests that activism and intellectual labor are mutually antithetical - and, more revealing, best left to a coterie of visionary leaders. In addition, it suggests that there is no room for academics to translate theory or specialized work so as to make that "knowledge available to wider social forces," to connect such work to readers and public spheres outside of the boundaries of the university.[28] Stripped-down notions of clarity build a wall between academia and the larger public and in doing so reinforce the worst intellectual tendencies in both. On the one hand, the notion allows academics to retreat into their disciplinary specialisms and arcane jargon, often allowing them to become complicit with dominant modes of power and authority. On the other hand, the celebration of stripped-down clarity invites members of the broader public to deskill and depoliticize themselves by diminishing their capacity for reading the word and world critically, simultaneously placing themselves in positions of subordination by undercutting their own sense of agency.

In an age in which a ruthless market-driven culture reduces literacy to being a savvy consumer of commodities and an ongoing participant in brainless celebrity culture, language, literacy and meaning must become crucial terrains of contestation and struggle. Making the appeal to clarity problematic should not be mistaken for a clever exercise intent in merely reversing the relevance of the categories so that abstract language is prioritized over the language of common sense and folksiness - or that the appeal to clarity is always on the side of a willful mystification. At issue here is the need to both question and reject the reductionism and exclusions that characterize the binary oppositions between clarity and complexity, intellectual labor and simplified prose. The problem is not "bad" writing, as if writing that is difficult to grapple with has nothing important to say. Rather, the most important issue to be addressed by readers is not clarity, but whether such writing offers a vision and practice for deepening the possible relations between cultural discourses (including academic discourses) and the imperatives of a substantive, pluralized democracy. Hence, the defining principle for theoretical practice belongs to a "renewed interest in democracy and ... how a democratic culture might be fashioned."[29] It has become too easy to miss the role that the language of clarity plays in a dominant culture that cleverly and powerfully uses clear and simplistic language to systematically undermine and prevent those conditions necessary for a general public to engage in at least rudimentary forms of critical thinking. In effect, what is missed in this analysis is that the dreadful homogenization and standardization of language in the mass media, schools, and other cultural sites point to how language and power often combine to offer the general public and others knowledge and ideologies cleansed of complex thought or oppositional insight.

What many academics, intellectuals and other individuals too often forget is that the importance of language and communication as theoretical practice is derived, in large part, from their critical and subversive possibilities. Hence, judging an article or text by the simple yardstick of clarity and plain speak does not offer a serious enough challenge to modes of writing and speaking that become complicit with either anti-intellectualism or elitism, both of which undermine the ability of a general public to think in critical and oppositional terms. The question of "what is language good for?" becomes relevant when it situates the issue of clarity and accessibility within a larger discourse about the role of public intellectuals, the dynamics of power and agency and the formative educational culture necessary for democracy to function.

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[1]. Richard Hofstadter, "Anti-intellectualism in American Life" (New York: Vantage Books, 1963).

[2]. Noam Chomsky, "The Culture of Terrorism" (Boston: South End Press, 1988), p. 21.

[3]. Ibid.

[4]. Russell Jacoby, "The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe" (New York: Basic Books, 1987), p. 236.

[5]. Ben Agger, "The Decline of Discourse" (New York: Palmer Press, 1990), pp. 35, 37.

[6]. Denita Smith, "When Ideas Get Lost in Bad Writing," New York Times (February 7, 1999). Online:

[7]. Martha Nussbaum, "The Professor of Parody," The New Republic (November 2, 2000). Online:

[8]. Nussbaum, "The Professor of Parody."

[9]. Judith Butler, cited in Gary A. Olson and Lynn Worsham, "Changing the Subject: Judith Butler's Politics of Radical Resignification," JAC 20:4 (2000), p. 727.

[10]. Olson and Worsham, "Changing the Subject," p. 738.

[11]. One can see examples of both of these discourses in her recent books. See Judith Butler, "Precarious Life: The Powers of Mourning and Violence" (London: Verso Press, 2004) and Judith Butler, "Frames of War: When Is Life Grievable?" (Brooklyn, New York.: Verso, 2009).

[12]. Stéphane Baillargeon, "Emerging from the Media Fog," (January 11, 2010). Online at:

[13]. Edward Said, "What Is the Role of the Intellectual in Public and Political Life Today?" Interview by Michael Phillips on Social Thought, February 1991. Online:

[14]. Edward Said, "On Defiance and Taking Positions, Reflections on Exile and Other Essays" (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2001), p. 504.

[15]. Edward Said, "Humanism and Democratic Criticism" (New York: Columbia University Press, 2004), p. 70.

[16]. Edward Said, "Humanism and Democratic Criticism," p. 126.

[17]. Edward Said, "Humanism and Democratic Criticism," p. 132.

[18]. George Scialabba, "What Are Intellectuals Good For?" (Boston: Pressed Wafer, 2009), p. 7.

[19]. Pierre Bourdieu, "On Television" (New York: The New Press, 1996), p. 35.

[20]. Pierre Bourdieu, "On Television," p. 29.

[21]. Pierre Bourdieu, "On Television," p. 3.

[22]. Laurie Goodstein, "Outraged by Glenn Beck's Salvo, Christians Fire Back," New York Times (March 11, 2010), p. A14.

[23]. Laurie Goodstein, "Outraged by Glenn Beck's Salvo, Christians Fire Back."

[24]. Frank Rich, "The New Rove-Cheney Assault on Reality," New York Times (March 14, 2010), p. WK8.

[25]. Thomas Benton, "On Stupidity," Chronicle of Higher Education (August 2008). Online:

[26]. James C. McKinley Jr., "Texas Conservatives Win Curriculum Change," New York Times (March 12, 2010), p. A10.

[27]. Ellen Willis, "Who Will Support the Intellectual's Work," The Minnesota Review 50 - 51 (October 1999), p. 189.

[28]. Stuart Hall, cited in Greig de Peuter, "Universities, Intellectuals and Multitudes: An Interview with Stuart Hall," ed. Mark Cote, Richard J. F. Day and Greig de Peuter, "Utopian Pedagogy: Radical Experiments against Neoliberal Globalization" (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2007), p. 115.

[29]. Gregory Jay, "The End of 'American' Literature: Toward a Multicultural Practice," College English 53 (1991), p. 266.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Keith Olbermann Commentary On Healthcare Reform and Rightwing Hatred, Hypocrisy, and Hysteria in the United States


Once again the courageous intellectual and political clarity, honesty, eloquence, depth, compassion, and profound moral authority of Keith Olbermann--one of the finest and most important political journalists of our time-- brilliantly cuts through ALL the bullshit, bigotry, and endless lies that pathetically passes for public discourse in American politics and society today. This commentary like all the many other tireless and incisive commentaries and relentless investigative journalistic work Olbermann has produced and delivered over the past decade shows us what a real major journalist performing at the very height of his/her analytical and critical power can do to actually educate, motivate, and LEAD in the ongoing struggle to get all Americans to honestly face and confront the truth of our lives and social/economic/cultural institutions. Thanks as always Keith for your inspiring contributions...


Transcript of Keith Olbermann's commentary --March 22, 2010

Finally as promised, a Special Comment in the wake of the passage of Health Care Reform and it’s a first step, there’s a lot wrong with it, but the penalty for not paying the fine for not buying the mandatory insurance has been reduced to nothing.

So, blessings nonetheless on those who took this first step, pat yourselves on the back, and, tomorrow morning, get back to work fixing what is still wrong with our American Health Care system. These remarks are about our political climate in the wake of the bill’s passage.

Eight days ago, a 16-year old kid picked up a courtesy phone at a store in Washington Township, New Jersey, and announced over the public address system, quote “Attention, WalMart customers: All black people leave the store now.” The boy has been arrested and charged with harassment and bias intimidation.

Two days ago, a Tea Party protestor shouted the “n” word at Congressman John Lewis of Georgia, one of the heroes of 20th Century America, and Congressman Andre Carson of Indiana and another shouted anti-gay slurs at Congressman Barney Frank of Massachusetts.

Capitol Hill Police confirm no arrests were made and there were no serious efforts to identify the vermin involved. Television, print, and radio news organizations will not be asked to turn over their tapes and images of the event, nor subpoenaed if necessary. This is not to dismiss what the 16-year old did in New Jersey.

But it would seem that what was shouted at the Congressmen merits at least as much investigation and hopefully as much prosecution. After all, it did occur inside the halls of Congress, a place at least as crowded as, and as sanctified as a WalMart.

In a backwards, sick-to-my-stomach way, I would like to thank whoever shouted at Mr. Lewis and Mr. Carson for proving my previous point. If racism is not the whole of the Tea Party, it is in its heart, along with blind hatred, a total disinterest in the welfare of others, and a full-flowered, self-rationalizing refusal to accept the outcomes of elections, or the reality of Democracy, or of the narrowness of their minds and the equal narrowness of their public support.

On Saturday, that support came from evolutionary regressives as Michele Bachmann and Jon Voight. On a daily basis that support comes from the racists and homophobes of radio and television: the Michael Savages and the Rush Limbaughs. Shockingly, that support even came, on a specific basis, from another Congressman, Republican Devin Nunes of the California 21st.

“When you use totalitarian tactics, people, you know, begin to act crazy,” he said on C-SPAN. “And I think, you know, there’s people that have every right to say what they want. If they want to smear someone, they can do it.”

Congressman Nunes? You should resign. You have no business opening a door for a man like John Lewis, let alone serving alongside him. And if you shouldn’t resign for your endorsement, your encouragement, of the most vile, the most reprehensible, and the most outdated spewings of the lizard-brain of this country, you should resign because of your total disconnect from reality.

There have been no “totalitarian tactics,” Congressman. People, these few, sad, people, have begun to act crazy, because it has been the dedicated purpose, the sole method and sole function, of the Republican party, to entice them to act crazy.

Those shouts against the Congressmen, Mr. Nunes, were inspired not by what people like John Lewis have done in their lives. They have been inspired by what people like you have done in the last year.

And so the far right escalates the rhetoric and the level of threat, just a little more. And worse still, it escalates the level of delusion. The election of a Democratic president is socialism. The election of a black president is an international conspiracy. The enactment of any health care reform is an apocalypse. And the willful denial of reality by the leader of the minority party in Congress is the only truth.

A willful denial, incidentally, that includes the leader of the minority party in Congress ignoring the fact that his is the minority party, and that he represents the minority, and that despite having broken all the rules of decorum in place in this nation since the end of the Civil Warthat despite having played every trick — mean and low, despite having the limitless financial backing of one of the biggest cartels in the world, he and his cronies and the manufactured outrage of the Tea Party failed to derail Health Care Reform.

Failed Mr. Boehner. You lost. You blew it. “Shame on each and every one of you who substitutes your will and your desires above those of your fellow countrymen,” you said last night just before the vote. The will and desire of your countrymen, Mr. Boehner?

If you’re one of the leaders of a party that in four years, coughed up the Senate Majority, coughed up the House Majority, coughed up the White House, coughed up Health Care Reform, and along the way ignored every poll, and every election result, I would think the “will and desires of your fellow countrymen” should be pretty damn clear by now: Your countrymen think your policies are of the past, and your tactics are of the gutter.

But Boehner’s teary “shame on you” over the tyranny of the vast majority taking a scrap back from the elite clueless minority — that’s just an isolated incident. Just as Congressman Neugebauer shouting “Baby-Killer” at, or ” It’s a Baby-Killer” during, Congressman Stupak’s laudable speech last night was just an isolated incident.

Just as the shouting of “n” words at Congressmen Lewis and Carson was just an isolated incident. Just as the spitting on Congressman Cleaver was just an isolated incident . Just as the abuse of Congressman Frank was just an isolated incident. Just as the ethnic slurs shouted at Congressman Rodriguez of Texas was just an isolated incident. Just as the oinking by Congressman Wilson during the President’s address was just an isolated incident.

Just as whatever’s next will be just an isolated incident. You know what they call it when you have a once-a-week series of isolated incidents? They call it two things. They call it a “pattern” and in the United States of 2010 they call it “The Republican Party.”

American political parties have disappeared before. They are never forced out by their rivals. They die by their own hands, because they did not know that the hatred or the myopia or the monomania they thought was still okay wasn’t okay, any more. And so I offer this olive branch to the defeated Republicans and Tea Partiers.

It is a cold olive branch, and scarred, and there aren’t many olives on it, but it still counts.You are rapidly moving from “The Party of No,” past “The Party Of No Conscience,” towards “The Party of No Relevancy.” You are behind the wheel of a political Toyota. And before the mid-terms, you will have been reduced to only being this generation’s home for the nuts.

You will be the Flat-Earthers, the Isolationists, the Segregationists, the John Birchers. Stop.

Certainly you must recognize the future is with the humane, the inclusive, the diverse— it is with America. Not the America of 1910, but the America of 2010. Discard this dangerous, separatist, elitist, backward-looking rhetoric, and you will be welcomed back into the political discourse of this nation. Continue with it, and you will destroy yourselves and whatever righteous causes you actually believe in, and on the way you will damage this country in ways and manners untold.

But even that damage will not be permanent. Faubus, and the MacNamara Brothers, and Bull Connor, and Lindbergh, and Joe McCarthy damaged this nation. We survived and they were swept away by history. You cannot destroy this country, no matter how hard you seem to be trying to nor can you destroy this country’s inexorable march towards the light.

The Belgian Nobel Prize winner Maurice Maeterlinck once wrote that, quote, “at every cross-roads on the path that leads to the future, tradition has placed 10-thousand men to guard the past.” Last night those 10,000 men fell.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Paul Krugman On National Helthcare Reform and the Vicious Demagoguery of the Republican Right

March 22, 2010


Fear Strikes Out

New York Times

NYT Editors' Note Appended

The day before Sunday’s health care vote, President Obama gave an unscripted talk to House Democrats. Near the end, he spoke about why his party should pass reform: “Every once in a while a moment comes where you have a chance to vindicate all those best hopes that you had about yourself, about this country, where you have a chance to make good on those promises that you made ... And this is the time to make true on that promise. We are not bound to win, but we are bound to be true. We are not bound to succeed, but we are bound to let whatever light we have shine.”

And on the other side, here’s what Newt Gingrich, the Republican former speaker of the House — a man celebrated by many in his party as an intellectual leader — had to say: If Democrats pass health reform, “They will have destroyed their party much as Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years” by passing civil rights legislation.

I’d argue that Mr. Gingrich is wrong about that: proposals to guarantee health insurance are often controversial before they go into effect — Ronald Reagan famously argued that Medicare would mean the end of American freedom — but always popular once enacted.

But that’s not the point I want to make today. Instead, I want you to consider the contrast: on one side, the closing argument was an appeal to our better angels, urging politicians to do what is right, even if it hurts their careers; on the other side, callous cynicism. Think about what it means to condemn health reform by comparing it to the Civil Rights Act. Who in modern America would say that L.B.J. did the wrong thing by pushing for racial equality? (Actually, we know who: the people at the Tea Party protest who hurled racial epithets at Democratic members of Congress on the eve of the vote.)

And that cynicism has been the hallmark of the whole campaign against reform.

Yes, a few conservative policy intellectuals, after making a show of thinking hard about the issues, claimed to be disturbed by reform’s fiscal implications (but were strangely unmoved by the clean bill of fiscal health from the Congressional Budget Office) or to want stronger action on costs (even though this reform does more to tackle health care costs than any previous legislation). For the most part, however, opponents of reform didn’t even pretend to engage with the reality either of the existing health care system or of the moderate, centrist plan — very close in outline to the reform Mitt Romney introduced in Massachusetts — that Democrats were proposing.

Instead, the emotional core of opposition to reform was blatant fear-mongering, unconstrained either by the facts or by any sense of decency.

It wasn’t just the death panel smear. It was racial hate-mongering, like a piece in Investor’s Business Daily declaring that health reform is “affirmative action on steroids, deciding everything from who becomes a doctor to who gets treatment on the basis of skin color.” It was wild claims about abortion funding. It was the insistence that there is something tyrannical about giving young working Americans the assurance that health care will be available when they need it, an assurance that older Americans have enjoyed ever since Lyndon Johnson — whom Mr. Gingrich considers a failed president — pushed Medicare through over the howls of conservatives.

And let’s be clear: the campaign of fear hasn’t been carried out by a radical fringe, unconnected to the Republican establishment. On the contrary, that establishment has been involved and approving all the way. Politicians like Sarah Palin — who was, let us remember, the G.O.P.’s vice-presidential candidate — eagerly spread the death panel lie, and supposedly reasonable, moderate politicians like Senator Chuck Grassley refused to say that it was untrue. On the eve of the big vote, Republican members of Congress warned that “freedom dies a little bit today” and accused Democrats of “totalitarian tactics,” which I believe means the process known as “voting.”

Without question, the campaign of fear was effective: health reform went from being highly popular to wide disapproval, although the numbers have been improving lately. But the question was, would it actually be enough to block reform?

And the answer is no. The Democrats have done it. The House has passed the Senate version of health reform, and an improved version will be achieved through reconciliation.

This is, of course, a political victory for President Obama, and a triumph for Nancy Pelosi, the House speaker. But it is also a victory for America’s soul. In the end, a vicious, unprincipled fear offensive failed to block reform. This time, fear struck out.

New York Times Editors' Note: March 23, 2010

The Paul Krugman column on Monday, about the health care bill, quoted Newt Gingrich as saying that “Lyndon Johnson shattered the Democratic Party for 40 years” by passing civil rights legislation. The quotation originally appeared in The Washington Post, which reported after the column went to press that Mr. Gingrich said it referred to Johnson’s Great Society policies, not to the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Copyright 2010 The New York Times Company

March 23, 2010

Michael Moore and I Emphatically Agree: The National Healthcare Bill Sponsored by the President and the Democratic Party is NOT Genuine Reform!



As I and many other people have been saying over and over again for the past 8 months now the National Healthcare "Reform" bill sponsored by a heavily compromised President Obama and the hapless, incompetent, and utterly gutless Democratic Party is not merely bad/weak/pathetic legislation, it's a COMPLETE SHAM AND DISGRACE.

Needless to say I agree 100% with Michael Moore's comments below. There's absolutely no way to make this bill-- which is finally up for a final vote this weekend--sound or look even remotely defensible as genuine reform.

But the Obama administration and the Dems have painted themselves into such a corrupt and self destructive corner that the vicious lies and endless rightwing demagoguery of the thoroughly reactionary Republican Party opposition is now just a bizarro funhouse mirror reflection of the political and moral cowardice and abject opportunism of their legislative counterparts in neoliberal land...Tragedy and Farce in equal measure. Meanwhile: Guess who will continue to suffer at the monopolistic hands of the rapacious insurance and pharmaceutical companies even if this bill passes?...


The Pure Greed of Obama's Phony Health-Care Reform
by Michael Moore
March 17, 2010
The Daily Beast

Five more Democrats announced they will be voting against health care on Tuesday—leaving House opponents just 11 votes shy of the majority needed to kill the bill—but there’s one former “no” whom President Obama can now count on to say “yes”: Dennis Kucinich, who had previously opposed the bill from the left.

As House Democrats try to pass health-care reform, filmmaker Michael Moore calls their proposal a joke that is more about Wall Street profits than helping people.

It was amazing. Every story on the front page of Monday’s New York Times told the story of the Age of Greed during which a system known as capitalism is slowly, but surely, killing us:
Insurance company greed: "Millions Spent to Sway Democrats on Health Care"
War profiteers: "Contractors Tied to Effort to Track and Kill Militants"
There's no profit in repairing our infrastructure: "Repair Costs Daunting as Water Lines Crumble"
China, the bank: "China Uses Rules on Global Trade to Its Advantage"
You mean NAFTA didn't improve life in Mexico: "Two Drug Slayings in Mexico Rock US Consulate"
What happens when Big Food profits from hurting kids: "Forget Goofing Around: Recess Has New Boss

I wish the president and the Democratic leadership would just stand up and say, “We're sorry, America. We didn't get the job done you sent us here to do.”

There's now a daily parade of news like this—well, not really "news," more like the media division of large corporations shoving your face into the dirt that is your life. You already know the schools are a disaster and the war is a boon for the Halliburtons and a bust for you. You don't need a newspaper to tell you the roads and electrical lines and the local sewage plant is in miserable disrepair.

And by now you've figured out that you don't really have any say in this, that what we call the "democratic process" is mostly a sham, pretty words that get repeated in the hopes we will all still fall for it. But the fix is in and we don't fall for it anymore. Admit it: Wall Street owns "our" Congress lock, stock, and big barrel o' campaign cash. You want a say in this? Well, I don't see you on the Forbes 400, so shut the f@*& up and go fetch me another bottle of bubbly.

Within days, the House of Representatives will vote to pass the Senate health-care "reform" bill. This bill is a joke. It has NOTHING to do with "health-care reform." It has EVERYTHING to do with lining the pockets of the health insurance industry. It forces, by law, every American who isn't old or destitute to buy health insurance if their boss doesn't provide it. What company wouldn't love the government forcing the public to buy that company's product?! Imagine a bill that ordered every citizen to buy the extended warranty on all their appliances? Imagine a law that made it illegal not to own an iPhone? Or how 'bout I get a law passed that makes it compulsory for every American to go see my next movie? Woo-hoo! Who wouldn't love a sweet set-up like this windfall?

Well, the insurance companies—get this—don't like the Democrats' bill! That alone should be reason enough to vote for it.

Now, you would think these thieves would love this bill—but they are actually fighting it. Why? Because it doesn't give them ONE HUNDRED PERCENT of what they want. It only gives them... 90%! YOU SEE, pure greed demands all or nothing.

The insurance industry hates this bill because it puts a few minor restrictions on them. Six months after its passage they won't be able to deny children coverage if they have a pre-existing condition. How awful! Government interference! SOCIALISM!

But, hey, they'll still be able to deny these children's parents coverage until 2014! So if a parent gets sick and dies in the next four years, I'm sure someone will step in and raise these already-insured orphans.

And how big will the fines be if the insurance companies do deny someone coverage for having a pre-existing condition? Are you sitting down? A hundred dollars a day! That's it! So if you're the insurance company, and Judy is a customer of yours, and Judy needs an operation that will cost $100,000, what do you do? You take the fine! Let's say Judy lives another year after you've sentenced her to death, your $100-a-day fine will only cost you $36,500! That's a savings of $63,500! And trust me, my friends, that's EXACTLY what's going to happen.

There are some good things in this bill. Parents will be able to keep their children on their policy until the kids turn 26. A few things like that. So, yes, pass that.

But don't insult me and 300 million Americans by calling this "health-care reform." At least you've stopped calling it "universal health care." We will not have universal health care or anything close to it. I wish the president and the Democratic leadership would just stand up and say, "We're sorry, America. We didn't get the job done you sent us here to do. We're weak and scared and unable to communicate the simplest of messages to the American people. Therefore, our bill will guarantee that 12 million of you will still have NO health insurance. And that's because we have decided to leave the greedy, private insurance industry in charge of our system. Forgive us for this and for continuing to allow profit to be the determining factor as to whether a patient gets the help she or he needs." Please, Democrats—just say that—then pass this poor excuse of a bill.

Pass it because, if President Obama takes a fall on this one, I don't know if he'll be able to get back up. And then NOTHING will get done. We can't have that. (And thank you Dennis Kucinich for hanging in there right up to the end and being the only one out of the 435 members to speak the awful truth.)

On the front page of Tuesday’s New York Times, the dateline was, sadly, once again, "Flint, Michigan." The story was about how doctors are no longer accepting Medicaid patients. Which means tens of thousands of poor can no longer go to the doctor. Last year, the State of Michigan also prohibited doctors from accepting Medicaid patients who had anything wrong with their vision, their hearing, their feet or their teeth. In a 16-county area northwest of Flint, there will soon be not one single hospital that will allow you to give birth there if you're on Medicaid. The official unemployment rate in Flint is 27 percent (unofficially, closer to 40 percent).

This is an American tragedy. And, as I've warned you for years, this tsunami is heading your way—if it's not there already.

I've just turned on my new iPhone and it informs me that it has "apps" it would like to suggest I buy. One is called "Scanner." It will allow me to listen in on police scanners anywhere across the country. I buy the app. I see that the Flint police scanner is part of this. I turn it on out of curiosity. And this is what I hear, at one in the morning: A woman is being beaten by her husband... A home invasion is taking place ("16-year-old black male, wearing a white skull cap")... A child has been missing since noon today... Another woman is being beaten by her boyfriend... A diabetic, obese man is having trouble breathing and needs to be rushed to the hospital (there will be three more of these obese diabetics in the hours to come; the entire town is ill)... One more woman calling, screaming for help, "officers urged to use caution..."

...And on and on and on. This is what I have listened to before going to bed. I am filled with despair and helplessness as I hear my former neighbors crying out for help. I hate it. I have to turn it off. I start to cry. Thank you, iPhone. Thank you, Democrats. I'll sleep better knowing that you're looking out for all of us.

Michael Moore is an Academy Award-winning filmmaker and author. He directed and produced Roger & Me, Bowling for Columbine, Fahrenheit 9/11, and, Capitalism: A Love Story, and Sicko. He has also written seven books, most recently, Mike’s Election Guide 2008.