Saturday, March 26, 2011

Beth’s Books

Great DerangementI don’t intend to turn this into a book blog—you all know I’ve got more interests than just that—but I’ve read a couple of good ones recently and wanted to write about them. They both have to do with politics, so that’s in keeping with one of my favorite subjects!

First is The Great Derangement by Matt Taibbi. I first became familiar with Taibbi as a columnist for Rolling Stone, when my friend Darren recommended his writing to me; one of Taibbi’s most memorable articles there dealt with the tea partiers. Taibbi’s style is irreverent and, to borrow a word most often used with another RS writer, gonzo. The subject of this book is twofold. He writes about our broken political system, in which our politicians follow the money and influence. Public airing of legislative procedures on C-SPAN is usually limited to important things like renaming post office branches; the big-ticket stuff goes on behind the scenes, in late-night meetings, with little public discussion. Taibbi is obviously left-leaning, but he shares equal contempt for the politicians of both sides.

I try to stay engaged and informed when it comes to politics, but it’s disturbing to think that my participation matters very little in the process. I’m not going to relinquish my right to vote, and I’m not going to become overly cynical about politics in general. It’s easy to do that, and the truth of the matter would probably lead any halfway intelligent person to that conclusion. But simply opting out is not a viable alternative to me. It’s still discouraging to think about just how much corruption is taking place, though.

The other subject matter I found even more fascinating. The heathen Taibbi decided to check out the fundamentalist evangelical faction by going undercover and joining Pastor John Hagee’s church in San Antonio. You might remember Hagee as the guy who said that Hurricane Katrina was God’s punishment on a New Orleans that embraces and celebrates homosexuality. Yeah, that guy. I found Taibbi’s experience to be fascinating. I wasn’t really surprised at any of the dogma expressed by those in the church; I’ve heard plenty of similar things throughout my life. I suppose I found it fascinating because I’ve heard it all before. It’s the party line.

Taibbi participates in a weekend getaway with the church. He progresses far enough up the ladder to be invited to a workshop about how to witness to people, and joins two other church members in a rather embarrassing visit to a mall to evangelize. One exchange that I found particularly amusing is when Matt role-plays with the group leader in learning about how to talk to people about the good word. When the group leader asks him if he feels that God would judge him according to the ten commandments, Matt says it’s an irrelevant question because he doesn’t believe in God. When the group leader protests that it’s written in the Bible, Matt says he doesn’t care, because he doesn’t believe in the Bible. This throws the group leader for quite a loop. Matt says, “I’m just repeating what non-believers might say. That’s all.”

In a previous life, I recall having discussions with someone who just kept quoting scripture. I said something to the effect of, “Can you please just talk to me and tell me what YOU think, rather than quoting scripture at me?” He couldn’t do it. He was so far up the ass of the church he’d joined that he just couldn’t stop the conditioned response and rote regurgitation of what what being fed to him. I found Taibbi’s conversation so fascinating because it’s interesting to see how people respond to someone telling them that not only do they not believe that the Bible is the literal word of God, they don’t even believe in God. It seems to really perplex it is just so far outside their realm of possibility that they just can’t wrap their minds around it.

The book ended on a rather sad note. After heading back to New York, he eventually came back to San Antonio to have lunch with one of the women that he’d become friends with in the church. She was having a hard time, because she was wasn’t fitting in at the church...she didn’t know how to play the political games there (and just like any place that involves a large number of people, there ARE political games), and she wasn’t feeling accepted. (I’ll have more to write on this topic soon.) Anyway, Taibbi is an excellent writer, and this is an excellent book. Highly recommended!

Game ChangeNext was Game Change by John Heilemann and Mark Halperin. This was an account of the presidential primaries for the 2008 election, and the election itself. Like many of you, I followed that election very closely, and I remember so much of what is discussed in this book. Sometimes verbatim. The title of the book comes from how seemingly small things loomed large in this particular race, and ended up being game changers. A phrase, a look, an indiscretion, a misspoken word, a wrong note struck. A vice-presidential pick that came as a complete surprise, and after initially firing up the base, went horribly awry.

This book is worth a read just for the chapter that deals with McCain’s choice of Palin as his running mate, and his campaign’s attempts to...dare I say it? Yes, I dare. His campaign’s attempts to put lipstick on a pig. Inadequate vetting and a candidate unwilling and perhaps unable to learn the basics of what she needed to know were a recipe for disaster. I don’t take this book as the full truth, but based on everything I’ve read and what I’ve seen of Palin, I know that this woman doesn’t belong anywhere near the White House. When McCain chose her, I felt that he was pandering to the conservative base and attempting to garner female voters, and I condemned him for making a purely cynical choice; I still feel that way, and I still feel that he traded what little honor he had left in order to make a last-ditch attempt to get votes. If he truly thought that she was capable of being the leader of the free world if something happened to him, it shows what a doddering old fool he is, and that he put his victory in November above his country. I’ll just say it outright: if you think Sarah Palin is capable of running this country, you don’t have its best interests at heart. Neither did McCain.

Halperin and Heilemann aren’t lapdogs for the Democrats. They speak of Obama’s sometimes overwhelming arrogance; they speak of Clinton’s poorly managed campaign and the harm that President Clinton inflicted upon it; John Edwards’ all-too-human failings are examined, and Elizabeth Edwards’ irrational behavior is addressed.

I suppose that much of the book was political gossip, but I read enough during that campaign to know that it wasn’t far off the mark. It was a fun and interesting read, and an enjoyable reminder of what was truly a historic and game-changing election. I think it had a happy ending, too!

Friday, March 25, 2011

Tell ‘em how it’s done, Ted

KoppelThursday evening, I was very pleased to attend a lecture given by journalist Ted Koppel. He’s well-known for his amazing hair, and I was delighted to find out that he’s much more than a pretty ‘do.

He began by talking about how he wanted to conduct his lecture and subsequent question and answer session in a way that we seem to have lost lately...he wanted to have a civil discourse. He bemoaned the lack of civility in the current atmosphere of discord and hatred, and he seemed to transcend party politics, showing that it IS possible to be a voice of reason in an unreasonable world.

He spoke at length about the state of journalism today. When he started out, news divisions were not moneymakers for the three networks. It was a given that they would lose money. They operated under the credo of reporting what people needed to know. Matters of importance to the national interest, things that they deemed worth knowing. They felt they were providing a certain level of public service, and reported accordingly. With the advent of “60 Minutes,” the networks realized that news could make money, and that’s when things changed. Instead of giving the people what they needed, they made the shift to giving people what they wanted. After all, ratings meant money, and if people wanted lighter news and entertainment stories, they drove the ratings. He gave the obvious example of the news cycle last week: Libya, our budget crisis, the devastation in Japan...and what was the number one news story? Charlie Sheen, of course. He seemed saddened by this, and so am I.

This was a fairly conservative crowd, but Koppel pandered to no one. He said that FoxNews is obviously biased and partisan...but so is MSNBC. He said that talk radio is most definitely not journalism, said that NPR is great journalism (with a full disclosure that he does occasional work for NPR) and we must continue to fund this national treasure, and that the New York Times is the best newspaper in the world (while admitting that there would be some there who disagree and think the NYT is far too liberal). He talked about the travesty of not raising taxes in a time of war, saying that it was negligent to go to war without funding it by raising taxes, and that it has never been done in our country until now.

He spoke at length of what is going on in Libya, and had some thought-provoking questions. If our goal in Libya is a humanitarian one, why didn’t we intervene in Sudan? The Congo? Ivory Coast? Millions are being slaughtered in these places, so why did we not stop those regimes from killing their own citizens? His point was that there is always more to the story, and there are always national interests that might not be expressed overtly. He illustrated this with a story about a supposed conversation between Charles DeGaulle and David Ben Gurion. Some argument or incident occurred, and Ben Gurion told DeGaulle, “I thought you were my friend.” DeGaulle replied, “Men have friends; nations have interests.”

Ted Koppel2Someone asked him a question and said that it seems that Israel is our only friend in the middle east. After the questioner rambled on a bit longer, Koppel began his response by saying, “I’m going to have to disagree with your basic premise there, about Israel being our only friend in the middle east.” He went on to say that we may not like everything that certain nations do, but when it comes to diplomacy, friendship is a relative term. After all, the Shah of Iran was our good buddy for quite some time, despite his oppressive regime; when the people finally gave him the boot, we ended up with the Ayatollah Khomeini. He brought up the point that although we may get rid of Mubarak in Egypt, or Qaddafi in Libya, we have no way of knowing who or what will replace those regimes. Will they be friendly to us? We don’t know that yet. He said that we seem to think that democracy just somehow magically happens, but it is actually a long, drawn-out, and often bloody process.

I thought he struck a very realistic note about international diplomacy. It’s not always black and white, and we walk a fine line between helping people and intervening in their affairs. (I’m reminded of the Star Trek Prime Directive.) In our current situation, it’s very easy for anyone not in the President’s shoes to be talking about what they would or wouldn’t do. I suspect that any of us in that situation would struggle with the decisions that need to be made, and not make any of them lightly.

One thing that Koppel mentioned several times was that we “need to be informed.” It’s a complex world out there, with complex problems, and as citizens, we need to pay attention to what is going on out there. Although he didn’t say this, I’ll continue the thought. There is nothing wrong with being entertained. I think we all need that if we want to keep our sanity in an increasingly insane world. I enjoy my books, my music, movies, TV shows...but balance that with knowing what is happening in your community, your state, your country, and your world. It belongs to all of us, and we owe it a little more attention than we do some drug-addled pseudo-celebrity’s latest shoplifting spree or coke-fueled Vegas party

I enjoyed his lecture immensely. Ted Koppel is a class act, and we are all better informed because of him. He worked hard to do his job for many years, and he inspired me to continue to work hard at being informed.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

What have I become?

Palin empty headNo, I haven’t become Sarah Palin. [shudder] When I got up yesterday and started checking some of my feeds, I saw on one that Sarah Palin’s speech in India was going to be livestreamed. I was still waking up, not ready to go out and workout at the moment, so I thought what the hell? It was starting right then, so I popped on over to the site to watch a few minutes of it. I figured I wouldn’t be able to last more than about ten minutes, but I ended up watching the whole stupid thing! Why, and how, and what is wrong with me?!

The why and how is because there were a few like-minded individuals there, and we started having a pretty good time laughing at Palin. (I even made a new Facebook friend out of it!) Now, the live chat consisted mostly of Palinbots who think she’s beautiful and smart and the next President of the United States, and they obviously didn’t care much for me and my wisecracking new pals. They started calling us trolls, and I’d be lying if I said that didn’t give me pause. I thought about it: Am I a troll? Am I one of those mouth-breathing, window-licking obsessives who love nothing more than to stir up trouble and hurt others?

I really didn’t have to think about it for long. The answer is no. I went there with the intention of listening to Palin’s speech and perhaps finding some blog fodder (which I did!). This was not any sort of conservative site dedicated to praising Palin (like Palin's own Facebook page is). This was a site from India that was livestreaming the speech, and I had every right to be there. I also had every right to criticize Palin and her speech, and I did that. I didn’t make my attacks all that personal, and probably the worst thing I said is a line that I used on Facebook some time ago, saying that her jacket looked like the lining of a whore’s coffin. (I cracked myself up on that one!) I made several comments about things she said in her speech…many of the things she said were just generally stupid and outrageous. Her speech was typically tortuous and twisted, full of run-on sentences that, when she stops speaking, make you go, “What the fuck did she just say?” In short, nothing new. Except for one thing that I’ll get to in a moment.

I wasn’t there to attack any of the Palinbots, and I did not do so. I attacked Palin, yes. This was not a Palin site, this was a site that was open to all, and to all opinions. I didn’t just get called a troll, though. When the guy introducing Palin said that a poll showed that she was the frontrunner in the Republican primaries, I wondered what poll, because none that I’ve read recently show her as the frontrunner at all. Quite the opposite. She’s tanking. Even plenty of Republicans don’t want her to run. One of the Palinbots wrote this: “Beth shove a poll up your a$$, then you’ll know what poll.” Haha! I was like, “Really? Shove a pole up my ass? No thanks, it’s not even noon here yet.” The person had a snappy comeback: “Better a poll than your fist.” What does that even mean?

Another person apparently looked up my profile on Facebook, because he asked, “Beth, what did you think of the most pro-abortion president in history speaking at ND?” I didn’t take the “pro-abortion” bait. I mean, really, who is “pro-abortion?” I’m not. I’m pro-choice. I don’t think our President or anyone else is wanting more women to have abortions. (Of course, if the Republicans get their way and strip funding from Planned Parenthood, that’s exactly what they’ll get. But that’s a topic for another day.) I merely said that I thought it was a great speech and it was an honor to have the President in my town. I didn’t mind the question, because it wasn’t asked in a nasty way, so I answered it honestly and respectfully. There were comments about President Obama “vacationing” in Brazil, and there were really lovely comments about Michelle being a “fat skank.” I think some comment was made about their daughters having abortions, but I don’t recall exactly what it was.

Palin shut upI insulted no one there except for Palin, and I really wasn’t that nasty with her. I honestly despise the woman and I think she’s an idiot, and I was laughing at the stupid shit that she said. I don’t think that makes me a troll. Just someone who thinks Palin is an idiot. There are actually quite a few of us who feel that way, Palinbots, and if your “gal” decides to run, you’ll encounter a lot more of this, and much worse than what I gave you yesterday. I found it astounding to see the vitriol directed against the President and his family (there was also some directed against Palin and her family, but that wasn’t coming from me), especially his “taxpayer-funded vacation to Brazil.” Somewhere along the line, it seems that diplomatic trips by the President of the United States became a deplorable thing, and I get the impression from these people that they think it’s a matter of the welfare family in the bad part of town—and oh yeah, they’re black people, doncha know—sucking the country dry in order to have their fun gallivanting around the world and eating like pigs. And they wonder why we think they’re racist. Has anyone ever seen a bunch of people so pissed off about any other President taking trips overseas, meeting with foreign heads of state, and attending or giving state dinners? Yeah, me neither. There’s a reason for that, and it’s quite obvious to me.
Back to Palin’s speech. What is probably getting the most attention from the media is something she said in response to a post-speech question about China.

I personally have huge military concerns about what is going on in China. What's with the build-up? You don't see a tangible outside threat … to that country. Is that just for a defensive posture? How can that be? Stockpiling ballistic missiles, submarines, new-age ultramodern fighter aircraft. It certainly means America needs to be vigilant looking at what China is doing.

Gee, what other country has no tangible outside threat, but stockpiles weapons and spends more than any other country does on their defense budget? What country is currently in the midst of TWO WARS, and now possibly beginning a third? Which country might that be, Sarah? Holy fuck, what a goddamn idiot. (I couldn’t help but laugh at the “new-age fighter aircraft” remark. Are new-age fighters powered by crystals? If they THINK of the missiles as fired, do they fire?)

Kanwal Sibal, former foreign secretary and columnist in India, said this about her statements concerning China:

I am surprised at her openness when speaking about the Chinese threat, especially when she is on Indian soil. China will not fail to notice this.

So thanks a lot, Palin. You have no official capacity as an American agent; your “job” is as a ClusterFox commentator, you give rambling speeches that make little sense, and you and your ghostwriter Mansour have sold some books. You travel to another country and make careless remarks about a country with whom we walk a fine line when it comes to debt and humanitarian concerns. Let the diplomats deal with such matters. Let those who were duly elected work on these things. Write your little Facebook notes—excuse me, post the little Facebook notes that Mansour writes for you—and for the sake of the world, shut the fuck up.

And oh yes...please run in 2012!