Just Jake

Jake Highton is a journalism professor at the Reynolds School of Journalism, University of Nevada, Reno. He teaches media law, history of journalism and advanced reporting. Highton is the author of numerous books, including "Nevada Newspaper Days." He writes a weekly column for the Daily Sparks Tribune.

Location: United States

Monday, September 28, 2009

Thunder from the Left

G.W. Bush did get a third term after all. The sellouts of President Obama have been monumental.
His presidency was supposed to be transformational, a “breath of fresh air.” That air is now fetid. The rancid Bush policies continue.
• Terrorist suspects at Guantánamo (Cuba) and Bagram (Afghanistan) are still being imprisoned indefinitely: no trials, no charges and no chance to prove their innocence.
• The Bush policy of “extraordinary rendition” is still in place.
• Obama continues to swell the largest military budget in the world. Capitalistic militarism still reigns supreme.
• Obama is still fighting 2 1/2 wars, one in Iraq, one in Afghanistan and one-half of one in Pakistan.
• “Enhanced interrogation techniques” still is policy. (The moon-baying Dick Cheney can be heard nightly on Fox boasting of torture.) Obama’s CIA director says it would “gravely damage national security” to release torture documents. (National security is the lame excuse for “covering your ass.”)
• Blackwater goes by a new name but it still gets fat government contracts for its dirty work.
• Promised transparency? A CIA report is heavily censored and four pages of its recommendations blacked out. (Defense Secretary Gates, odious Bush holdover, is furious that the AP filed a photo of a Marine killed in Afghanistan. Nearly all newspapers did not publish it, including the gutless New York Times. The sooner Establishment newspapers begin to show war’s grim realities the sooner the war will end.
• Immigration reform? Embarrassing Obama silence.
• Campaigning, Obama opposed don’t ask, don’t tell. Today the military fires a winner of nine air medals for valor because he is gay. The Obama silence is deafening.
• Obama, the apostle of gay marriage, has grown chary, murky and cowardly on the issue.
• Obama, the proponent of medical pot, is silent on the issue.
• He is silent on union card-signing except when uttering applause lines at labor gatherings.
• The House passes a vastly watered down bill on climate change. Not a peep from him.
• Obama issues signing statements, ignoring Congress just as Bush did.
• The president’s pay czar won’t reveal details of corporation compensation because it might make the Fat Cats “targets of populist anger.” Obama should study FDR. Roosevelt would have said to hell with what the rich bastards think. He would welcome their hatred instead of cowering like Obama.
Universal health? Every industrial nation has it except America. Obama says the public option is only a sliver of the solution. No, it’s the whole solution. No public option, no solution. His bipartisan approach is wasted on such cretins as Iowa Sen. Charles Grassley and the Blue Dog Democrats.

America may have the world’s best medical system but it is two and one-half times more costly than elsewhere.
Some things Obama can do nothing about. Universal health care is a lost cause in reactionary America. Vested interests are spending $1.4 million daily to bribe Congress to halt any meaningful legislation. Congress always follows the money. Re-election depends on it.
Government can’t negotiate the horrendous prices of drugs. That was Obama’s gift to Big Pharma for its support.
We have also seen the recrudescence of what Richard Hofstadter called “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: “heated exaggerations,” “distorted judgment” and “leaps into fantasy.”
Obama is falsely labeled a socialist, an antichrist. He is called downright evil. His health plan means death panels that designate grandma to die.
John White, professor of political science at Catholic University, offers a reason for such madness: the old order has changed. The country that older people grew up with no longer exists. Where America was 87 percent white in 1970, today it is 70 percent. It now has 50 million Latinos and 40 million blacks.
The “apostles of the absurd,” as columnist Bob Herbert calls them, are angry that America has a black president, an alien with no right to be president.
The racist South will never acknowledge the legitimacy of a black president. It persists in fighting the Civil War.
Nevertheless, Obama has failed to use the White House as the bully pulpit it is. He should forcefully promote his agenda instead of deferring to the negative GOP.
He should denounce the 60-vote filibuster in the Senate and call for its abolition. The filibuster is what The Nation calls it: “that undemocratic holdover from the days of slavery and segregation.”
The darkness at noon that fell under Bush has barely been lifted by Obama.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Chappaquiddick stains Kennedy legacy

President Obama called Sen. Ted Kennedy “the soul of the Democratic Party.” But the Democratic Party hasn’t had a soul since the halcyon days of President Johnson’s domestic policies.

Kennedy himself sometimes lacked Democratic soul. He sided with corporate America in its passion for deregulation, acquiesced in tax cuts for the rich, urged globalization and pushed so-called “fair trade” accords that killed union jobs.

Kennedy even yielded on the self-proclaimed cause of his life: government-run universal national health. In 1971 he introduced a bill to do just that. Later he abandoned it. Up to his recent death he was willing to accept just some private role in health insurance rather than the all-public role it should be.

But it was more than policy differences that left this political observer with queasy feelings about Kennedy. It is Chappaquiddick.

His legacy will forever be tarnished by his irresponsibility and cowardice in that 1969 tragedy. A drunken Kennedy drove into the pond and swam to safety. He left a young woman in the car to drown.

Then, for nearly 10 hours he failed to report the accident to police. And: he dispatched a family lawyer to the woman’s family before the press got word. A “small shot” might have spent time in jail for doing less.

The womanizing by President John Kennedy can be overlooked. But what is unforgivable is that he was a scurvy politician, not a leader. He said he would consider pulling troops out of Vietnam--but not until he was reelected in 1964.

The vaulting opportunism of Bobby Kennedy can be forgiven. Yet he did not seek the presidency in 1968 until Gene McCarthy showed that President Johnson was vulnerable on Vietnam. Bobby realized that his antiwar message would play even in Peoria.

But it is difficult to forgive Ted Kennedy for leaving Mary Jo Kopechne to die. Indeed, he felt so guilty he never forgave himself. His conscience haunted him the rest of his life.

The tragedy also left unanswered questions. The New York Times obituary writer asked: “Why was the car on an isolated road? What sort of relationship did he and Kopechne have? Could she have been saved if he had sought help immediately? Why did he tell his political advisers about the accident before reporting it to police?”

Questions aside, Kennedy made a horrendous political error out of hubris: challenging President Carter for the Democratic nomination in 1980. He mistakenly thought that all he needed was the Kennedy mystique.

Nevertheless, Ted Kennedy had some laudable traits.

Dennis Myers, a Reno columnist, notes the incredible thoughtfulness of Ted Kennedy. He contacted all 177 families from Massachusetts connected with 9/11.

“Kennedy kept calling family members year after year,” Myers writes. “One woman told a reporter last year, ‘I can’t imagine getting through the last seven years without him.’ ”

After he abandoned playboyism. boozing and rakism, the Kennedy political record was mostly good. As Jack Newfield, no bleeding-heart liberal, wrote in The Nation in 2002:

“Kennedy has drafted and shaped more landmark legislation than liberal giants like Robert Wagner, Hubert Humphrey, Estes Kefauver and Herbert Lehmann. He looks like the best and most effective senator of the past hundred years.”

Kennedy was a proud liberal even after the right-wing made liberal a dirty word.

He voted against authorizing the Iraq War, calling it the best vote he ever cast. It was. He championed civil rights and women’s sports rights under Title IX. He supported the Immigration Act of 1965 which did away with the favoritism to those of northern European decent.

He backed sanctions against South Africa for trying to maintain its abominable apartheid. He sponsored the disabilities act banning discrimination against the handicapped. He fought to ban the reprehensible poll tax.

He supported federal funding to combat AIDS. He backed an increase in the minimum wage. He fought for a program of low-cost health insurance for kids of working class parents. He won a $50 million appropriation for 30 community health centers, since expanded to 1,200.

Kennedy led the fight to save Social Security from the rapacious and retrograde privatization of President Bush. He led the successful fight to thwart the effort by President Reagan to weaken the Voting Rights Act.

Fair Housing law. Occupational Safety and Health Administration. Meals on wheels. Insurance that can be carried from job to job. Medicare drug benefits. All Kennedy platforms.

Of his more than 15,000 votes in the Senate, many were in favor of racial minorities, gays and lesbians, the elderly and the poor.

America’s debt to Kennedy is large. As Matthew 25:21 says: “Well done, thou good and faithful servant.”

Saturday, September 19, 2009

Obama’s march of folly

Woodenheadness is the refusal to benefit from experience.
--Barbara Tuchman

Empires are blind and cannot see the follies that they themselves commit, to paraphrase Shakespeare. America is one of the blindest empires in history.

That’s why President Obama should read an important book written by Barbara Tuchman 25 years ago, “The March of Folly.” She characterized folly as “a perverse persistence in a policy demonstrably unworkable.”

Her specific target of folly was Vietnam, an unspeakable disaster. Death toll: 58,000 U.S. soldiers and 3 million Vietnamese. Moral toll: terrible erosion of America’s prestige and supposed superior values.

The Vietnam folly, directed by “the best and the brightest,” lasted 13 years.

Yet Obama has learned nothing from that sordid history. America is still bogged down in Iraq after seven years. It has cost the lives of 4,200 U.S. soldiers and untold thousands of Iraqis. It has cost taxpayers $750 billion, a frightful waste of money.

Obama promises an Iraqi pullout but with an ever vaguer deadline. The war is unwinnable. Bombings rock Iraq daily, killing people and demolishing businesses. Still America persists in its woodenheadedness.

America is also mired in Afghanistan, where empires go to die. Yet Obama launches a Bushian surge, pouring 20,000 more troops into the folly. Still unsatisfied, the Pentagon is urging a surge on a surge.

The history of Afghanistan and how it has dealt with invaders for centuries makes it clear that U.S. intervention is still another folly, another lost cause.

Obama argues that the war in Afghanistan is a necessity, that “those who attacked America on 9/11 are plotting to do so again…This is not only a war worth fighting, this is fundamental to the defense of our people.”

This sounds like the hysterical rantings of Dick Cheney and George Bush.

Death toll of U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan: 800. War duration: eight years and a folly that could last another 42.
Now America is unleashing drones over Pakistan, bombing and killing innocent citizens. The march of folly never stops.
No wonder Ansar Abbasi, a Pakistani journalist, told Judith McHale, U.S. undersecretary of state: “You should know that we hate all Americans. From the bottom of our souls we hate you.”

I too would hate all Americans if were an Iraqi, Afghan or Pakistani. Even as an American, I am infuriated by the mere sight of newspaper pictures showing U.S. soldiers in those countries where they don’t belong.

Obama has proved himself to be just another shabby politician, dissipating the hope he generated during the presidential campaign. He has endorsed a warfare state: perpetual war, permanent war.

America has an empire of 800 bases throughout the globe. Is is now negotiating with Colombia to give it a 10-year lease on bases there.

Why, for God’s sake? It is hardly cynical to suggest an answer: a springboard to overthrow Venezuela’s Chávez, an “extremely dangerous leftist,” as was the U.S-engineered overthrow of socialist Allende in Chile.

The problem in Latin America is not Chavez and other leftist leaders. The problem is poverty, hunger and huge disparities between the Haves and Have Nots, something capitalistic America cannot understand.
But that capitalistic empire is a hungry maw. It is fostered by the irresistible military-industrial-political complex.

Suing book blurbers
“Human Smoke: The Beginnings of World War II, the End of Civilization,” by Nicholson Baker, Simon & Schuster, 2008, 474 pp.

Book-blurbing makes used-car salesmen look credible.

Here are some blurbs for the Baker book: “riveting and fascinating”… “impossible to put down”…“an extraordinary new book”… “a bombshell”… “engrossing”… “it may be one of the most important books you will ever read.”

All lies. The book is dull and full of longueurs. It is three times longer than necessary and overflows with trivia.

We get some good quotations and anecdotes by and about Churchill and Roosevelt, Hitler and Stalin, Oswald Mosley and Chamberlain, Gandhi and Nehru. But even those are seldom illuminating.

The book starts well with the effective refrain line about each incident: “It was Sept. 24, 1933”… “It was May 24, 1934.” But after a while the device gets wearisome. We learn more about World War II nonentities than we care to know.

Yes, there are a few gems like propaganda minister Goebbels admitting that he admired "Crystalizing Public Opinion,” a book by Edward Bernays, the P.T. Barnum of American PR. Or, the reactionary Churchill calling the great revolutionary Trotsky “a mere Jew.”

But the Baker opus overall is so tedious that the book blurbers should be sued for misrepresentation.

Friday, September 04, 2009

Serious fare for serious readers

The strongest man in the world is he who stands most alone.

--Dr. Stockmann in Ibsen’s “An Enemy of the People”

Summer reading is a euphemistic phrase meaning trash.
The New Statesman, a British weekly magazine, sought to combat this problem recently by offering a list of 50 books that would enlighten readers instead of lulling them.
Among them: Ibsen’s 1882 classic of the man who declares that “the stupid people are in an absolutely overwhelming majority all the world over.” He knows “the minority is always right.”
Also: “The Second Sex” (1949) by Simone de Beauvoir, an educational feminist work before the word was in widespread usage.
Others: “The Communist Manifesto” (1848) by Marx and Engels depicting the economic injustice suffered by 95 percent of the people of the world at the expense of 5 percent of the owners of wealth;
“The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) by Frantz Fanon, a savage indictment of colonialism; “Germinal” (1885) by Zola, a compassionate view of French coal miners suffering the exploitation of capitalism;
“The Grapes of Wrath” (1939) by Steinbeck portraying the injustices suffered by migrant workers; “The Other America” (1962), Michael Harrington’s depiction of poverty in America;
“Catch-22” (1961) by Joseph Heller, wonderful satire of the stupidity and butchery of war; and a 1949 essay by Einstein, “Why Socialism?” He urged us not to be so enamoured of science that we forget human problems.

Adelle Davis, nutritionist, organic foodist and food fadist, popularized the saying “You are what you eat.” I disagree. You are what you read, as Deidre Pike, dear teaching friend once noted in a column.

Here are more literary thoughts:

Hamlet is the greatest play ever written. It’s so cerebral with more great lines than any other play.

Next greatest is Lear. It is more powerful, more emotional than Hamlet. It contains one of the gloomiest lines in all literature: “As flies to wanton boys are we to the gods. They kill us for their sport.”

Sensitive souls are moved to tears by the absolute integrity of Cordelia. Her foolish father divides his kingdom among his three daughters on the basis of their professions of love for him.

Cordelia’s sisters, Goneril and Regan, lather the king with insincerities. When Lear asks Cordelia how much she loves him, she replies: “I cannot heave my heart into my mouth.”

Lear recoils, declaring, “So young and so untender.” Cordelia counters: “So young, my lord, and true.”

I took “The Golden Bowl” by Henry James on a three-week vacation to England. It was a terrible mistake as I had learned long ago but had forgotten.

James, considered by some critics the greatest American novelist, is unreadable. His novels are discursive, overwritten, wordy, repetitive and dense.

My opinion was corroborated by Alec Guinness in his book, “A Positively Final Appearance.” A few pages of “The Wings of the Dove” left him “dizzy and breathless with the length of his sentences.”

Elsewhere Guinness remarks that noise distresses him more and more. D’accord! In this Noise Age you can’t escape noise pollution in even the better bars and restaurants playing the caterwauling of rap, reggae and rock.

And how about the guy in the SUV idling next to you at a red light with the raucous notes from his boombox pounding in your ear? It makes you close the window even on the hottest summer days.

Even after decades of admiration for Oscar Wilde, I am still surprised to discover new facets of his genius. Namely, his little known “The Happy Prince and Other Stories.”

These fanciful tales are about love, wisdom and worldwide justice. It requires a stone heart to avoid shedding tears at the end of “The Happy Prince.”

Otherwise, the Wilde story is well known. He reached the heights with his play, “The Importance of Being Earnest.” He plunged to the depths in Reading jail. But that horrible experience produced two masterpieces, the poem “The Ballad of Reading Gaol” and his prison letters, “De Profundis.”

Another work that declares Wilde’s genius is “The Soul of Man Under Socialism.” In it he writes:

“The true perfection of man lies, not in what he has, but in what man is”…
“democracy means bludgeoning of the people by the people for the people”…
“One is sickened, not by the crimes the wicked have commited, but by the punishments that the good have inflicted”…
“A map of the world that does not include Utopia is not worth glancing at…
“that monstrous and ignorant thing called public opinion”…
“the public has an insatiable curiosity to know everything except what is worth knowing.”