Why Media Has Responsibility to Cover RNC Racism”

Published: PolicyMic (August 29, 2012)

If you want to refute the widely-disseminated myth of the media having an anti-Republican bias in this election, one need not look any further than this recent incident at the Republican National Convention:

The controversy should have been over the type of partisan parliamentary maneuvers that normally define such major political gatherings, as Ron Paul supporters were in the process of contesting the decision of the Romney-run Republican National Committee not to seat several of the delegates that the quixotic libertarian had won during the Maine caucuses. Yet attention was quickly taken away from that matter when Zoraida Fonalledas, a Puerto Rican delegate and chairwoman of the Committee on Permanent Organization, took the stage. As soon as the crowd heard her begin to speak in accented English, some of the delegates began to shout her down by chanting, “USA! USA! USA!”

This went on for nearly a minute, although it has been recorded for eternity on YouTube. By the time it was finally stopped by RNC chairman Reince Priebus, the damage had already been done. A large sub-section of the GOP delegates had just exposed their racism to the world.

The media, meanwhile, decided that this wasn’t headline news.

That isn’t because the story itself isn’t newsworthy. Even if one ignores the long-standing rumors of racist streaks within the conservative movement, there is still plenty of objective evidence that such a story is relevant, from the racial bias of Arizona’s anti-immigration laws to studies like one conducted a couple of years ago by the University of Washington which found Tea Partiers were far more likely to hold bigoted views against blacks, Hispanics, and homosexuals. All of this information is readily accessible to anyone who seeks to find it — but while journalists report it, their editors and corporate bosses decide to tuck those stories away and focus on other matters.

A similar decision was made last week, after Mitt Romney quipped at a campaign rally in Michigan that “no one’s ever asked to see my birth certificate. They know this is the place where I was born and raised.” This was an obvious appeal to birtherism, the popular right-wing conspiracy theory that insists that President Barack Obama wasn’t actually born in Hawaii. This canard has long since been proven groundless. Even before Obama received special permission from the Hawaiian government to show his birth certificate last year, there were already the birth notices that had been printed at the time in both the “Honolulu Advertiser” and the “Star Bulletin,” eyewitnesses who could attested to having seen the president shortly after his birth, and the sheer impracticality of the notion that his parents would have made a 21,458 mile round-trip flight from Hawaii to Kenya just so their son (who they intended to raise in America anyway) could be born in his father’s native country.

Yet the myth has persisted precisely because it appeals to what experts in racist psychology refer to as “Othering,” or the marginalizing of members of a minority by finding ways of highlighting their perceived “differentness” in the eyes of others. It is hardly coincidental that the first black president is, to many of his more zealous critics, somehow so much of an “Other” that the only conclusion they can draw is that he wasn’t even born here in the first place. Not only would this validate their sense that any non-white president is fundamentally un-American (unless he happens to adhere to a right-wing self-denigrating philosophy), but it would also delegitimize his entire administration on a very real legal basis. While their theory may lack any kind of sound factual or logical foundation, such niceties are hardly necessary when racial animus serves as such a potent fuel.

And when Romney decided to use this fuel to help move forward his sputtering campaign, the media paid the story only scant attention.

There are several theories as to why the media is pushing these stories aside. One speculation is that they’re overcompensating against allegations of left-wing bias by not reporting harsher realities about modern conservatives that could get them into hot water among their critics; others argue that the media (wrongly) believes Americans are as racist as the more vehement right-wingers who claim to represent them, and as such steer clear of avoiding those sensibilities. Either way, the insufficient attention paid to this issue is nothing short of shameful, as the American people have the right to know about such bigoted tendencies among any group it intends to potentially elevate to a position of national power.

 

The author would like to thank fellow PolicyMic contributor Cady McClain for the link including the RNC footage referenced in this article.

The Digitization of a Historic New Orleans Newspaper

Published: PolicyMic (August 29, 2012)
(co-authored with Cady McClain)

Editor’s Note: This article is written by Matthew Rozsa and Cady McClain

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans seven years ago, 80% of the Crescent City was buried under water, spanning an area approximately eight times the size of Manhattan. Katrina caused “the largest diaspora in the history of the United States,” driving over 1,000,000 citizens from their homes, many of them for good. Yet as thousands fled for safety, the legendary New Orleans newspaper, the Times-Picayunestayed put.

As the Times-Picayune Editor-in-Chief Jim Amoss later spoke about reporter James O’Byrne, who found himself on a railroad bridge overlooking his flooded neighborhood, “He stood frozen on the bridge for several minutes as it dawned on him that his house was drowning, that there would be no coming home when this was over. Then he shook himself back into reporter mode, grabbed his pad and continued writing.”

There can be no arguing that during Hurricane Katrina, the Times-Picayune became essential to the community in a way no paper has ever been before or since. Throughout the disaster, New Orleanians found consistent and passionate reporting in both the paper itself and its attendant website, NOLA.com.  Residents stuck at the Convention Center latched onto copies of the Times-Picayune like it was their only link to civilization, which in a very real sense it was. Those who had evacuated were able to use NOLA.com as a way to search for lost loved ones and discover the latest information about their homes. An emotional connection was forged between the readers and the Times-Picayune. Indeed, the journalists and reporters who stayed behind from both the Biloxi, Mississippi, Sun-Herald and the Times-Picayune were locals themselves, experiencing the same grief and horror as their readers, often pushing their code of objectivity to the limit.

As a result of what has been described as the “heroic circumstances” of its staff, the privately owned Times-Picayune wound up sharing a Pulitzer Prize with the Biloxi Sun-Herald in 2006 for Public Service, as well as winning another for Breaking News. One would assume that the memories of such laudable actions would linger for years. Instead, the events of the past few months have caused the Times-Picayune to be on the receiving end of some shockingly bitter vitriol.

It all started on May 23rd, when the New York Times reported the Times-Picayune was going to “enact large staff cuts and may cut back its daily print publishing schedule.” Soon it emerged that the Newhouses (the family that owns the Times-Picayune) had brought in a pinch hitter in the form of Ricky Matthews. He was to act as president of the newly created NOLA Media Group to represent the merging of the Times-Picayune and its website NOLA.com. Indeed, the paper was only going to produce three printed copies a week instead of the usual seven while moving more of its content onto to its digital affiliate. The backlash was surprising in its intensity.

“It’s New Orleans’ bad luck that our city has become the latest laboratory for the Newhouse family’s ongoing experiment in digital-age publishing,” wrote the editorial staff at Gambit Magazinea local publication that could very well reap some of the benefits of any anti-Times-Picayune controversy.  Three weeks later various luminaries calling themselves “The Times-Picayune Citizen’s Group” signed a public letter backed by the consortium Greater New Orleans Inc. Their members included James Carville, Mary Matalin, Wynton Marsalis, Cokie Roberts, the presidents of Tulane, Xavier, and Loyola Universities, and Archie Manning (the quarterback and father of Peyton and Eli Manning). The letter urged the Newhouses, “If you have ever valued the friendship you have shared with our city and your loyal readers, we ask that you sell the Times-Picayune” to a group that would continue printing daily editions.

Other responses have been less respectfully worded. Take the comment on the “Save the PicayuneFacebook page insisting that “New Orleanians will wrestle this gator to the ground even if they get bitten.”

Or the incident in which a website called “RickyGoHome.com” created a faux “wanted” poster to denounce and threaten Ricky Matthews.

The website Nolanarcha.com has perhaps been the most alarming. “Unlike the Fifth-Avenue Newhouse’s, Ricky is here. Though he hasn’t had the nuts to show himself in the newsroom, he’s here in town, living it up on the blood money the Newhouse’s have paid him to swing axe. They outbid BP for his services — here he is quaffing drinks at our bars, eating at our restaurants, maybe even walking our streets. Let’s find opportunities to give Ricky Mathews the welcome he deserves.”

One detail many of the critics seem to ignore is that the Times-Picayune is reacting to global trends beyond its control. As Jeff Jarvis, a journalism professor and blogger at BuzzMachine.com explained during an online debate with John Griffin, the president of the National Geographic Society’s magazine group, “Media defines themselves by the pipes that feed them but the public does not; we want what we want when, where, and how we want it. The wise media company will be there with us; the stubborn ones will die.” This mentality has been abundantly reinforced by the events of the past few years, in which major metropolitan newspapers from the Baltimore Examiner to the Honolulu Advertiser  to the Rocky Mountain News have been closing down. Indeed, entire websites like NewspaperDeathWatch.com have been created for the sole objective of chronicling this phenomenon.

Another point overlooked by the Times-Picayune‘s detractors is that, even as they vaunt their disdain about the pecuniary motives of the Newhouse family, they are playing right into the hands of other businesses who are attempting to capitalize on the Times-Picayune’s plight. On July 23, barely two months after the TP announcement, the Baton Rouge Advocate announced that it would be more aggressively entering the New Orleans market. “We are looking at the day that they (the Times-Picayune) cease to be a seven-day newspaper and I think that’s around the first of October,” said Richard Manship, president and CEO of Capital City Press. Meanwhile, four local online newsrooms –– The Lens, My Spilt Milk, NOLA Defender, and Uptown Messenger –– have united to form the New Orleans Digital News Alliance, which plans on availing themselves of the same cyberspace advantages as the Times-Picayune. Finally, on July 27th, 2012, the Wall Street Journal released the story that “National Public Radio, the University of New Orleans, and a group of business and community leaders” are creating a “nonprofit newsroom to compete against the city’s for-profit newspaper, the Times-Picayune” called NewOrleansReporter.org.  In a strange twist, Greater New Orleans Inc., a consortium that is supposed to help instead of hinder innovation, backed both the public letter requesting the Times-Picayune sell its paper and the NPR-backed digital news site. All of these digital news sites are moving forward without the stigma or intense criticism now being attached to the Times-Picayune’s decision and without a print product to burden the bottom line.

It is important to note that seven years after Katrina, despite the tremendous economic recovery of New Orleans, the emotional recovery continues. Stories about the devastation wrought upon homes and lives continue to be a part of daily conversation. It seems fair to consider that some of the stronger reactions to the Times-Picayune controversy might be driven by these disturbing memories.  According to the American Psychological Association (APA), certain responses can be a natural reaction to extraordinary events, in essence a byproduct of trauma. “Events that last longer and pose a greater threat, and where loss of life or substantial loss of property is involved, often take longer to resolve. Longer term reactions include unpredictable emotions, flashbacks, strained relationships and even physical symptoms like headaches or nausea.”

What also must be considered when analyzing the backlash against the Times-Picayune is the deep attachment and commitment to tradition particular to New Orleans. The city has a deep dedication to its pastimes: its culture of street parades, local sports, local music, and Southern cuisine are steeped in a rich appreciation for its unique history and culture –– a jambalaya (if you will) that draws millions of visitors a year. Theirs is not a dead tradition or some kind of pitch for the tourist to “come back and visit us y’all,” but a genuine way of life, one that the seven-days-a-week Times-Picayune has been a part for over 175 years. In response to the Times-Picayune’s announcement, local writer Jim Gabour expressed succinctly the feelings of many locals by observing, “We are an analogue planet in a digital universe.”

Despite Gabour’s sentiment, the technological revolution has been moving to his neighborhood for a while. In 2000, a company called Idea Village began a mission to “identify, support and retain entrepreneurial talent in New Orleans.” Although not all entrepreneurs work in tech, because of Katrina, hundreds of students who came to help with the recovery effort saw the benefits of starting a tech-based company in the Crescent City and brought their Silicon Valley connections with them. “This whole thing has been very grass roots,” says Tim Williamson, the CEO of Idea Village. “We had MBAs from Stanford, and then those kids went to work for Salesforce.com and Google and now their companies are involved.” By April 2011, Inc. Magazine was calling New Orleans “The Coolest Start Up City in America,” and as recently as June 2012, the Wall Street Journal announced that New Orleans is in the middle of a mini-tech boom. “A metric of technology jobs generated by Moody’s Analytics — a broad category that includes everything from pharmaceutical manufacturers to software publishers — shows New Orleans’s stock of tech jobs grew 19% from October 2005 to April 2012, compared with 3% nationwide.”

The Newhouses’ company, Advance Publications, feels strongly that the future is digital, although they insist they are not planning on getting rid of print. As Randy Siegel (president of local digital strategy at Advance) stated in the American Journalism Review, “We knew that standing still was not an option for us. Not evolving was not going to be a winning strategy. And we’ve watched very closely in all our markets how our readers and advertisers are using digital products and services to get their news and information. For us, this is not about print versus digital. It’s about print and digital, and there’s a huge difference.”

Ricky Matthews picked up where Siegel left off in a June 17th editorial when he explained:

“The number of people who pay for their copy of the Times-Picayune continues to fall while readers have moved in dramatic numbers to the Web for news and information. Our visitors to NOLA.com more than doubled between 2009 and today, going from 2 million visitors to more than 4 million visitors a month. Newspaper advertising revenue continues to decline year after year, as advertisers reduce advertising budgets in response to the challenges of a tough economy, while shifting more and more dollars to a few high-value print days and into digital advertising.”

It isn’t that the Newhouse family has been free from error. Steven Newhouse himself admitted that “some of the criticism was well founded. We could have communicated our decisions more openly and sensitively to our employees, our readers and our communities.”

Indeed, one might question whether it was even necessary at all for the Newshouses to fire 201 of their workers (nearly one-third of their total staff), especially at a time when corporations across the country are being criticized for maintaining the lofty incomes of their own higher-ups while laying off employees and increasing the workloads of those left behind, often at lower salaries. In a city as challenged as New Orleans, these jobs were considered sacrosanct, the journalists almost like priests who during times of crisis had given Holy Communion to a congregation hanging on by a thread.

At the same time, the Times-Picayune’s business interest is ultimately the same as the best interest of the paper itself ­­–– it can’t survive, after all, if it doesn’t make a viable profit –– and there was no way it could make enough money printing seven days a week if its customers continued to turn away from print and toward digital alternatives. It seems fair to surmise that if New Orleanians had been extremely determined to keep the daily print editions alive, they would have bucked national trends and purchased subscriptions at a higher level. Barring that, Newhouse rightly observed that “ignoring the existing trends and insisting on the status quo would have been a recipe for failure, and that only taking small, incremental steps in the face of massive change was also a losing proposition. By taking transformational actions now, painful as some of them are, we have a chance to continue doing what we do best, as publishers, journalists, business partners and community leaders, for decades to come.”

Business, as they say, is business. In any business, the rule is the same: move forward or die.  Hopefully, locals will come to accept their city paper is doing what most newspapers across America are being forced to do –– adjust with the times to stay relevant in a changing world –– and be there for the journalistic force that in the worst of times, was there for them. They might also do well to remember those few original reporters that remain at the Times-Picayune may also be feeling the strain of change as they watch long time friends and colleagues lose their jobs. How can they complain if they have mouths to feed and a mortgage to pay, especially in these tough economic times? It seems the best response to critics has come from long time Times-Picayune reporter O’Byrne, now editor-in-chief for NOLA.com. When cornered in his local bar, forced to listen to more outrage from a local about a situation over which he had no control, he had three words that seemed to sum up the whole problem: “Did you subscribe?”

A Feminist Interpretation of Catwoman

Published: PolicyMic (August 28, 2012)
(co-authored with Cady McClain)

When news began to leak that an actress who once played Catwoman had criticized The Dark Knight Rises, which includes the latest incarnation of that character, the blogosphere was naturally all aflutter. Fortunately, Julie Newmar – whose turn with the whip came during the 1960s TV series – quickly corrected those misapprehensions in a letter to The Huffington Post. “Every girl is a Catwoman,” she wrote. “Like Bizet’s Carmen there will always be Catwoman. Catwoman is forever.”

While it is certainly true that the Catwoman character has endured for several generations, the manner in which she has manifested herself in our popular cultural consciousness has often varied dramatically. What have these different depictions revealed about ourselves? What do they tell us about the mythologies our society adopts as its own, in particular through the superhero genre? How are they able to integrate this iconic character into not only the narratives they wish to present to their audiences, but also the larger social and political messages they inject into those stories? Perhaps most importantly, what do they tell us about how we perceive women?

Catwoman has historically been a highly sexualized character representing an overt rebellion to tradition while still paying homage to it. She is the classic female anti-hero, the “bad girl” thumbing her kitten nose at her polar opposite – the “good girl” or “girl next door” – the one who shies from overt displays of either emotion or sex. Throughout the years both men and women have been drawn to this representation of the female id as the seductress, villain, destructive temptress, and seeker of revenge – and to her very specific costume. Her tight black suit, black gloves, leather whip and stiletto boots bring to mind images of a dominatrix (generally considered an “outsider” profession), while her long hair and nails emphasize traditional feminine “wiles.” Non-threatening, pert kitten ears parlay a coquettish (albeit animalistic) charm – an important part of her deception.

Variations of the costume have helped audiences draw different conclusions of each version of the character. In comparison to Catwomen to come, Julie Newmar’s sparkly black suit was the most tame (re-enacted almost exactly by Lee Meriwether in the 1966 film Batman) yet the most “kitten-ish.”  Even her eyebrows were brushed straight up to give her a more feline appeal. Newmar has made it clear the gold belt that looped her corset-modified hips was her addition, not the costumers (as if the iconic character would not be the same without this radical fashion statement.) During the third season of the TV series, Eartha Kitt donned almost the same outfit when taking over for Newmar, but pulled the necklace higher to create the effect of a tribal breastplate, perhaps to emphasize the power of her dark goddess’s “sauvage” fashion instincts or perhaps as a nod to the radical movements the season was beginning to draw upon for material. Twenty-four years later in the film Batman Returns, Michelle Pfeiffer’s costume became far and away the most disquieting rendition. Pieces of PVC roughly sewn, sometimes stapled together supported the idea that now Catwoman was a fragile, damaged person who had barely managed to stitch together her own psyche. A mere 10 years on, Halle Berry was equally unforgettable (perhaps regrettably so) in the only film titled, Catwoman. Even though the character was the film’s lead, hers was yet another “broken woman,” born again by releasing the aggressive side of her sexuality via a change of costume ­­– replete with push up bra, bare torso, leather gloves and whips. Throughout the years, each one of these “Catwomen” dealt with embracing their power through a breakdown that lead to a very specific fashion choice. How they looked was as much of a statement as what they did or said, if not more so. How different are women today?

The past 30 years have been full of suggestions, from psychological “experts” and fashionistas alike, telling women they can assert and better themselves by donning a “new look.”  The “strong, independent woman” began as a feminist’s outcry and somehow ended up at Century 21. To be fair, clothing has always played a part in women’s politics. From the corset free, knee length dresses of 20’s flappers to the bra-less protesters of the 1960’s, women have been rebelling against the constraints of fashion’s latest trend in order to be identified as individuals – free from the domination of society’s latest expectations, free to define themselves as equals. From this perspective, any woman’s fashion choice, whether it embraces or rejects a current or past convention, could be seen as political as much as personal.

Why any Catwoman would want to put on tight pants and high heels after being ripped apart emotionally is an interesting and important part of her character. It is possible that the catsuit is a type of “power suit,” akin to the various ensembles worn by Hillary Clinton during her bid for the presidency and as Secretary of State. However Catwoman, like many female anti-heroes, rather than donning what is traditionally male garb, instead embraces the “female as sexual object” principal and twists it in order to claim power for herself. The message is repeated in movie after movie: Women are indistinguishable from their image, whether they are disempowered or empowered. How they look is how they are defined, and worse, how they define themselves.

This is what made Anne Hathaway’s recent Catwoman so refreshing. The clothes Hathaway’s Catwoman wore supported a certain amount of liberation from the slavery to fashion that other versions of Catwoman have endured. Her tight black costume somehow reminded us less of Betty Page in a gimp suit and more of To Catch a Thief.  In The Dark Knight Rises, Bruce Wayne points out the similarity to Cary Grant’s black garb, with some obvious differences. “That’s a brazen costume for a cat burglar,” he states as she drops down from the house in her all black outfit. In effect, Christopher Nolan has created a Catwoman where her clothes are a functional means to an end, not an end in themselves. In another example, when the villain Stryver asks her if her heels make it difficult to walk, she responds with a swift kick and the query, “I don’t know.  Do they?” It’s even possible to imagine her cat suit is meant to be worn like the gear traditionally reserved for the male superhero characters – it is what she dons for stealth, fighting, and function far more than it is a fashion statement meant to provoke members of the opposite sex or as a means for her to express her emotional issues.

There is also a great deal to be learned about how the Catwoman character has been integrated into the larger social messages of the various films in which she has appeared. While the 1966 Batman film was openly light-hearted and insubstantial, touching only slightly on the social strife of its time, the other three movies that featured her all took more definitive stabs at some level of social commentary and used her character as an integral and active agent in those aspects of the narrative which advanced the story’s larger message. In Batman Returns Tim Burton boldly decided to make a much darker and more tragic version than its predecessors, focusing on the futility of man’s fight against evil. Although she spends much of the movie perpetrating random acts of civic terrorism or vigilante justice, Michelle Pfeiffer’s Catwoman has a larger goal – to murder the man who destroyed her life before he can cripple Gotham City. Her anger towards her sexist and demeaning boss (played to unctuous perfection by Christopher Walken), a man who regularly dismissed her ideas and humiliated her in front of his colleagues before “killing” her, provokes a personal desire to exact revenge that overtakes any social or political goal she might have had to save the city. Ultimately, true to Burton fashion, Kyle’s vendetta turns out to be a self-destructive one.

In Catwoman, Halle Berry’s Patience Phillips is likewise driven by a desire to avenge her own death at the hands of her employers. This time, however, the primary villain is another woman (played by Sharon Stone), and the central social theme isn’t interoffice gender dynamics, but the burdens placed upon women to remain beautiful. The sinister plot involves an immoral major corporation trying to pass off a beauty cream that deforms the faces of those who use it unless they continue to do so for the rest of their lives (essentially using the aesthetic expectations placed on women to make them addicted to the company’s product). Stone’s character as the head of the corporation is driven by her anger at having been “thrown away” by the beauty industry once she turned forty (a subplot that Stone herself insisted be included during talks with the film’s producer, in light of her own experiences with ageist prejudice.) In the end, Barry’s fresh-faced young Catwoman enacts her revenge against her tortured older boss by damaging her skin.   Unfortunately this version of Catwoman was based on the misconception that generational hatred exists among women where it might not except for the provocation of a few misogynistic males.

Both Batman Returns and Catwoman insist on using their major female characters to make social points that are specifically linked to gender, be it inequality in the workplace or societal aesthetic expectations, along with the parallels in the origin stories they provide for the Catwoman characters. In both films Catwoman reacts to issues she shares with other members of her gender – that of having been exploited by callous men and the beauty and fashion industries. It is true that Batman Returns does this less insultingly than Catwoman, in part due to the former film having a superior script and in part because the latter obnoxiously painted all women as obsessively vain and male-dependent (as well as absurdly assumed the audience would believe the age of Sharon Stone’s character actually detracted from her stunning looks). Nevertheless, both movies still define their Catwoman characters by their sexuality first and foremost, even when using them to present broader commentary.

In The Dark Knight Rises, however, Selina Kyle (who is never actually referred to as “Catwoman” during the film) is an ideologue who advocates a thinly-veiled left-wing agenda as she steals from the wealthy and attempts to create a more economically egalitarian society. Much of this is summarized in her now-famous line, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne … you and your friends better batten down the hatches. Cause when it hits, you’re all gonna wonder how you ever thought you could live so large and leave so little for the rest of us.” Just as significantly, however, is her remorse later in the film, when she quietly comments to a rabble that has invaded a large mansion, “This used to be somebody’s home” (prompting the eerily collectivist reply, “Now it’s everyone’s!”). Instead of using this moment to mark an about-face in the character’s ideals, The Dark Knight Rises wisely uses it to add a nuance to them. The film’s overall message, as New York Times columnist Ross Douthat astutely pointed out, is to “simultaneously acknowledge the injustices of the existing regime while suggesting that both the revolutionary and anarchic alternatives would be much, much worse.” This is indicated by its use of a quote at the end from A Tale of Two Cities, the Charles Dickens novel that skewered both the conservative and liberal elements during the French Revolution.

“I see a beautiful city and a brilliant people rising from this abyss. I see the lives for which I lay down my life, peaceful, useful, prosperous and happy. I see that I hold a sanctuary in their hearts, and in the hearts of their descendants, generations hence. It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done; it is a far, far better rest that I go to than I have ever known.”

Anne Hathaway’s Selina Kyle, more than any other character in the film, is used to convey that argument, and as a result emerges as the first cinematic Catwoman whose relevance to her movie’s social message can be decoupled from her gender and costume. No matter how she may appear, it is her intelligence and message that is the most captivating.

If there is truth in Julie Newmar’s quote, “We are all Catwoman. Catwoman is forever,” it is clear she is ever evolving, reflecting a side of women that is only just beginning to be seen free from the constraints of traditionalism. She loves, but is no man’s object to own, she fights side by side for her own purposes and ideals, she is allowed her opinions without fear of retribution from men. Hopefully Hathaway’s Catwoman will represent not only a glimpse of what women’s power and individualism can bring about in film, but also give us hope for a future where women can peruse their goals without the snark and condescension so typically found when a woman stands up for herself, with or without high heels.

 

Why Tom Head and Todd Akin Contribute to the Dumbing of America

Published: PolicyMic (August 24, 2012)

It is true that a nation which practices censorship cannot remain free. To this axiom, though, I would add that a society which doesn’t respond to inflammatory stupidity with universal contempt cannot remain safe for reasoned discussion, as recent political discussion clearly demonstrates.

Over the last week, the Republican Party has provided us with two test cases for that principle. First, there was Senate nominee Todd Akin of Missouri, who claimed that in instances of “legitimate rape” a woman’s body would not allow her to become pregnant. While common sense should be enough to undermine this assertion, those in doubt can always turn to the American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology, which reports that a single act of rape has a 5% chance of resulting in pregnancy among victims aged 12 to 45 who aren’t on birth control. This number increases to 30% if the assault occurs one or two days prior to ovulation.

That said, although Akin was quickly denounced by GOP luminaries – from party chairmen and congressmen to the presidential and vice presidential candidates themselves – amongst the people of his state, he still has a slight lead over his opponent, Senator Claire McCaskill While a majority of those voters have made it clear that they don’t agree with his comments, as of the moment they would still prefer putting him in power over casting their ballot for a Democrat. (It is a sign of the degree to which we have become psychologically entrenched in the two-party system that the prospect of finding a viable third-party alternative, which has happened before in Senate races, isn’t even being seriously considered.)

Now we have an elected county judge in Texas, Tom Head, who in a recent radio broadcast predicted that violence would break out if President Barack Obama is re-elected:

“In this political climate and financial climate, what is the very worst thing that could happen right now? Obama gets back in the White House. No. God forbid,” he began. “He is going to make the United States Congress and he’s going to make the Constitution irrelevant. He’s got his czars in place that don’t answer to anybody.”

After that, Head declared that Obama would “try to give the sovereignty of the United States away to the United Nations,” leading to more than just “riots here and there. I’m talking Lexington, Concord, take up arms, get rid of the dictator.”

It should go without saying that such incendiary rhetoric is morally abhorrent. Indeed, given the tempestuousness of our current political climate (to say nothing of last year’s shooting of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords), there is less excuse than ever for suggesting that such violence is acceptable. Unfortunately, while the vast majority of conservatives are capable of vehemently disagreeing with Obama’s policies without resorting to hysterics and zealotry, the extreme right-wing is afflicted with such severe ideological myopia that they find it impossible to perceive Obama’s presidency in anything but the most irrationally hysterical terms.

And make no mistake about it, reason is not on their side. Head’s fear of Obama’s “czars” was long ago disproved by FactCheck.org, which pointed out not only that the term “czar” is a media appellation rather than an official designation, but that George W. Bush had far more “czars” than his Democratic successor.

The same is true of his argument that Obama wishes to subvert the Constitution, one based on a timeworn demagogical canard debunked in books like Frank Bourgin’s classic The Great Challenge and my own PolicyMic editorial on the subject.

The remainder of Head’s assertions, meanwhile, can be disregarded using the basic source-checking skills one is taught as a college undergraduate – after all, his claims that Obama will make Congress “irrelevant” and turn us over to the “United Nations” are entirely based on “executive orders” and other alleged administration documents that Head is conveniently unable to produce.

One of my favorite historians, Richard Hofstadter, made perhaps the most prescient observation about this paranoid style of American politics in his acclaimed 1964 essay on the subject:

“The paranoid spokesman, sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization… he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention.”

The only hopeful signs in all of this are that (a) despite their violent rhetoric, the extremists are usually like most other bullies in that they’re all bluster and no bite, and (b) established thinkers on both the left and right still overwhelmingly denounce their ideas.

The bad news, though, is that the contempt with which the extremists are being greeted has been far from universal. Millions of Missourians are still willing to cast their ballots for Todd Akin, while countless right-wingers are flocking to message boards and newspaper “Letters to the Editor” sections to support Tom Head. What we must remember is that it only takes a handful of such nuts, or even just one of them, to suddenly make American politics a frightening and dangerous place.

In the meantime, they will continue making our political debate a whole lot dumber.

Mitt Romney Selection of Paul Ryan Declaration of War Against Middle Class

Published: PolicyMic (August 11, 2012)

Early this morning, The Huffington Post broke the story that Mitt Romney had selected Paul Ryan to be his vice presidential running mate. In his article, Jon Ward commented that “Ryan is a bold pick who will energize the Republican Party, but putting him on the ticket is fraught with risk and instantly puts Ryan’s budget plan front and center in the 2012 campaign.”

That’s quite the understatement. In the end, history may remember Romney’s choice of Ryan as the moment when he became too transparent in his declaration of war against the working class.

Let us remember that Romney has already proposed a tax plan which the non-partisan Tax Policy Center points out will support tax cuts for the rich by increasing taxes on all Americans who make less than $250,000. By choosing Ryan, however, Romney presumably adds to his economic package a plan that would massively cut Medicare as well. As the Congressional Budget Office noted in its report, possible consequences of the Ryan plan include “reduced access to health care; diminished quality of care; increased efficiency of health care delivery; less investment in new, high-cost technologies; or some combination of those outcomes. In addition, beneficiaries might face higher costs, which could in turn reinforce some of the other effects.

The same is true of Medicaid and CHIP:

“Even with significant efficiency gains, the magnitude of the reduction in spending relative to such spending in the other scenarios means that states would need to increase their spending on these programs, make considerable cutbacks in them, or both. Cutbacks might involve reduced eligibility for Medicaid and CHIP,  coverage of fewer services, lower payments to providers, or increased costsharing by beneficiaries—all of which would reduce access to care.”

The Ryan plan would even repeal aspects of Obama’s major health care bills (viz., the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, the Health Care and Education Reconciliation Act, and the Community Living Assistance Services and Support Act) that help mostly working class Americans. These include the establishment of health insurance exchanges, the offering of subsidies to low income families to help them purchase care, tax credits for small employers that offer health insurance, and the creation of an Independent Payment Advisory Board to make sure reductions in the growth of Medicare don’t negatively impact coverage or quality.

Most important of all, however, is the fact that Ryan’s budget plan, like Romney’s tax plan, expects the working class to make sacrifices while not asking the same of the wealthy. As James Fallows of The Atlantic pointed out, it will grant “big tax reductions to the highest-income Americans.” Indeed, “at a time when their tax rates are very low by historic standards and and their share of the national income is extremely high, and when middle-class job creation is our main economic challenge, is neither brave nor serious.”

Regardless of whether one agrees with the theoretical implications of reducing taxes on the rich at any cost, the reality is that even working class voters who support supply-side economic theories are unlikely to believe they should be implemented at their literal expense. With data streaming out from unbiased groups like the Tax Policy Center and the Congressional Budget Office about the blatant favoritism being shown to the affluent by both Romney and Ryan, it will be impossible for the Republican national ticket to characterize its policies as even fair, much less concerned with the welfare of ordinary Americans. The only chance it will have is if Obama decides not to focus on their economic proposals. Given that his campaign has already created an online calculator that uses the Tax Policy Center’s findings to help voters calculate the tax increases they’ll endure under a Romney administration, that doesn’t seem likely to happen.

I am reminded of a quote from one of my political heroes, former Tennessee senator Estes Kefauver, during the 1956 presidential campaign. When describing the mentality of Republican politicians at that time, he observed that “the Democraitc attitude has always been to consider the need as the paramount thing and then find means of meeting that need. The Republican attitude is that need is a thing to be relieved only if important private enterprises can do it at a profit.” Now the GOP hopes to elect politicians who propose to worsen the hardships of the needy in the name of putting money in the pockets of their wealthy backers.

What Voters Should Know About Romney’s Middle-Class Tax Hikes

According to the non-partisan Tax Policy Center, Mitt Romney’s proposed tax cuts for the affluent will require him to increase taxes on middle-class families by $2,000 a year.

Just in case you missed that the first time: If you are a wage-earner for a middle-class family, Romney would raise your taxes by $2,000. In fact, if you are among the 95% of Americans whose annual income is less than $250,000, your taxes will go up under Romney’s plan.

It should go without saying that President Obama needs to focus on this issue. At a time when the economy is the top priority for most Americans, polls show that Obama’s main advantage over Romney is the perception that he is more understanding of voters’ problems and more interested in the well-being of the middle class. Romney, on the other hand, benefits from the belief that he is better able to accomplish what he wants and is more likely to actually fix the economy and create jobs. Given that Americans tend to blame Bush’s policies, rather than Obama’s, for our current economic problems (a figure that also holds up when “Bush” is lumped with “Republicans” and “Obama” with “Democrats”), it stands to reason that Romney’s strength here is the result of not what he stands for, but rather the notion that he’ll “get things done.” Naturally, the best way to counteract this is to emphasize to voters that what Romney hopes to get done would in fact work against their best interest. Focusing on Romney’s working-class tax hike would achieve that goal, while simultaneously playing to Obama’s preexisting assets.

Indeed, the talking points for this issue practically write themselves. Even if one favors cutting taxes on our highest earners, it is hard to morally justify forcing the rest of America to pick up the tab. What’s more, considering how the affluent already pay a lower percentage of their total taxable income than the working class, it is ridiculous to assume that our economic problems will be solved by shifting the tax burden even more heavily toward the 95%. Obama should also prominently advertise resources that voters can use to calculate how much more they’d pay under the Romney tax plan, such as this one from his own website. Finally, he should undermine Romney’s credibility by highlighting for ridicule the extraordinarily feeble defense he has used so far – i.e., that the Tax Policy Center report is biased because an ex-Obama aide worked on it (despite an ex-Bush aide also serving as a co-author), and that its conclusions are null because a Romney election will ipso facto result in a massive economic boom.

The best part is that no mention needs to be made of Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns. So long as Romney’s working class tax hikes are in the foreground, awareness of his own murky tax record will linger on its own in the public consciousness, allowing Americans to draw their own conclusions as to why the Republican nominee won’t fill in the blanks.

That said, Obama has a daunting task ahead. While the facts may be on his side, it isn’t enough to simply have a persuasive argument. History is littered with the losing campaigns of presidential candidates who had stronger cases than the men who defeated them. In order to win, he must not only develop the right message, but make damn sure that message defines the overall narrative of the election.

The president has been struggling in this area for two reasons:

1. He has not been able to come up with a single message. Unlike Romney, whose campaign has maintained a steady focus on its issue of choice (i.e., blaming Obama for the economic conditions he inherited), the president has criticized Romney on a multitude of fronts. Most of the points he has raised have been valid, such as Romney’s refusal to release his tax returns, his poor economic record as Governor of Massachusetts, his dishonesty in depicting his career at Bain Capital, and Bain Capital’s role in laying off American workers and shipping jobs overseas. Nevertheless, it’s an axiom of public relations that no message is effective if the average person can’t summarize it in a single sentence. Individual talking points, like the proposed ones I listed earlier, should be logical extensions of that single sentence, not new arguments altogether. Right now Obama has asked voters to memorize a multi-point paragraph.

2. He has not figured out how to make his message dominate the news. While it is obviously necessary to present his case through speeches, press releases, and campaign commercials (indeed, his reelection team has already produced a new commercial on Romney’s tax hikes), these things rarely wind up having a long-term impact on the narrative of an election. After all, voters are so bombarded with the countless ads and speeches coming from both sides that the impression left by run-of-the-mill commercials is significantly diluted. At best, these ads briefly shave a few points off one candidate’s total within a key demographic or state; at worst, they fade into the background as irrelevant election year static. Likewise, the media is so accustomed to chronicling each campaign’s latest salvo that only a few charges wind up becoming headline news items, with even those gradually turning into background noise after a couple weeks. This has repeatedly happened with Obama’s different messages about Romney up to this point.

Since it is clear that Romney’s proposed working class tax hikes give Obama an ideal rallying point for his campaign (thus solving his first problem), the president’s main challenge will be to make sure this issue remains at the center of this election’s narrative, and as such, in the minds of every voter who is asked to think about the stakes of this campaign.

One way he could do this is by an airing an unusually memorable campaign commercial. Even though by-the-numbers TV spots don’t have much of a long-term effect on voters, history has shown that especially powerful ones can significantly alter how they perceive an election. In 1964, President Lyndon Johnson evoked fears about the militant foreign policies of his opponent, Senator Barry Goldwater, by airing “The Daisy Ad,” which interrupted footage of a little girl picking petals off a daisy with an ominous mechanical voice that dissolved into a mushroom cloud. Nearly a quarter-century later, a political action committee affiliated with Vice President George H. W. Bush’s campaign played upon racial tensions by criticizing the prison furlough system supported by his opponent, Governor Michael Dukakis, with a commercial that prominently featured the face of an African-American rapist named Willie Horton, who had escaped under that program. Although neither ad stayed on the air for very long, both became indelibly linked to the public image of the men they targeted and contributed to their defeat.

Obama could also try to find a strikingly newsworthy way of focusing the nation’s attention on the Romney working-class tax hikes. When President Andrew Jackson was up for re-election in 1832, he used his sharply-worded veto of the rechartering bill for the Second Bank of the United States as a manifesto for his ultimately victorious campaign. More than a generation later, President Grover Cleveland turned the 1888 presidential election into a referendum on tariff reform by devoting his entire 1887 State of the Union message to that subject (as my Masters Dissertation explains, Cleveland’s message galvanized the party behind him and helped him win the popular vote, although Benjamin Harrison won in the Electoral College due to voter fraud). Sixty years after that, President Harry Truman used his acceptance speech at the 1948 Democratic National Convention to call for a special session of Congress so that the Republican-dominated body could either pass necessary economic legislation or be held accountable to the public for their obstructionism. When they did the latter, Truman used that to his political advantage, linking the “Do-Nothing Congress” to Republican candidate Thomas Dewey and finishing the election with a triumphant upset.

Of course, it doesn’t ultimately matter how Obama makes the Romney working class tax hikes front-and-center in this campaign. What’s important is that the 2012 election becomes, insofar as the average voter is concerned, a choice between a president who fights for all Americans and a candidate who wants to force the working class to pay thousands more in taxes to benefit the affluent. Obama must frame this election as a $2,000 question so that he can defend not only his presidency, but the people he has sworn to serve.

Sarah Palin’s Flawed Condemnation of Pro-Gay Rights Chick-Fil-A Boycotters

Did you know that Colonel Sanders, the iconic fast food magnate who founded Kentucky Fried Chicken, helped bankroll the third-party presidential campaign of notorious segregationist George Wallace?

Of course, this was hardly well-known during the 1968 election, when it mattered most. Sure, a trio of British reporters later chronicled Sanders’s contributions in their classic book “An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968.” He was listed there among the “few rich men who contributed to the Wallace campaign on a generous scale,” one who appeared on the Alabama governor’s vice presidential short list and was even “suspected by dyspeptic reporters of having supplied the interminable fried chicken on Wallace campaign planes.” Nevertheless, because the media never made a point of disseminating this information to the general public, the KFC brand name remained – and remains – unsullied by its owner’s reactionary predilections.

As the Chick-Fil-A controversy makes clear, things have changed quite a bit over the past 44years. After President Dan Cathy commented that he runs his company according to the “biblical definition of the family unit” and opposes legalizing gay marriage because it “invit[es] God’s judgment on our nation,” an outcry erupted from liberals, gay rights groups, and other humanitarians that would have been unimaginable during the 60s. This, naturally, has provoked a backlash from right-wingers who sympathize with Cathy’s views. Most recent among them were Sarah Palin’s recent comments during a Fox News interview after she was asked about the growing Chick-Fil-A boycott:

“That calling for the boycott is a real — has a chilling effect on our 1st Amendment rights. And the owner of the Chick-Fil-A business had merely voiced his personal opinion about supporting traditional definition of marriage, one boy, one girl, falling in love, getting married.”

While sussing out the fallacies in a Palin argument is a bit too easy – one could even argue that it violates the old adage about not engaging in a battle of wits with an unarmed person – the erstwhile vice presidential candidate does have a knack for channeling the thoughts and moods of the hard-line right-wingers, among whom she continues to have considerable influence. As such, it is important to make sure that even positions as logically and morally flawed as those espoused by Palin do not go unaddressed. Hence, here are the top three problems with Sarah Palin’s opposition to the Chick-Fil-A Boycott:

1. Palin misunderstands what the First Amendment says about freedom of speech.

Here, in its entirety, is the First Amendment of the United States Constitution:

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

While the First Amendment rightly prohibits Congress (and by extension the federal government) from “abridging the freedom of speech,” it says nothing about how regular individuals choose to react to political and social views they find objectionable. Just as Dan Cathy is constitutionally protected in his right to oppose gay marriage, so too are his fellow citizens constitutionally protected in their right to express disagreement with his position by circulating petitions, penning editorials (like this one), and refusing to purchase his product en masse. When Palin protests these things, she is betraying not so much a love of the Constitution, as a bitterness toward people who don’t share Cathy’s views on gay rights. That isn’t patriotic, it’s whiny.

2. Palin misunderstands what the First Amendment says about freedom of religion.

As those who read Cathy’s controversial statement may have noticed, it placed a considerable emphasis on religious arguments when explaining why gay marriage should be legally impermissible (a viewpoint with which Palin clearly sympathizes). This, ironically, does violate the spirit of the First Amendment. As Thomas Jefferson once put it, “religious institutions that use government power in support of themselves and force their views on persons of other faiths, or of no faith, undermine all our civil rights.” While it is perfectly appropriate for public figures to be open about how they’ve been personally inspired by their faith, it is dangerous for religious opinion to be used as the basis for shaping actual government policies. Not only does this engender discrimination against anyone unlucky enough to have been targeted by a given religious group’s prejudices (in this case homosexuals), but it implicitly elevates the religious views being cited to a status of legal superiority over the perspectives of “persons of other faiths, or of no faith.” Again, the right of individuals to base their own personal systems of morality on their religious faiths is not being questioned. The line must be drawn, however, when they attempt to use the law as a means of imposing the teachings of those faiths on those who don’t share them.

3. Palin’s view is anti-capitalist.

One of the greatest things about capitalism is that it provides consumers with a vital economic liberty – i.e., the ability to choose their own products and services instead of having the state make those choices for them. While politicians like Palin may not agree with the consumers who refuse to patronize a fast food chain because of its views on gay rights, there is no denying that that decision – whether made on an individual level or as part of a concerted boycott – is entirely consistent with the liberties to which they are entitled as participants in a free market economic system. Should Palin and those like her decide to boycott businesses that support gay marriage (such as the Jim Henson Company, which has severed all ties between the Muppets and Chick-Fil-A over this issue), this would also be their right. That said, when they simply caterwaul that a company which has expressed a controversial view is being punished by a consumer demographic for their opinion, they reveal themselves as poor disciples of capitalist philosophy.

In the end, the most important parallel between Colonel Sanders and Dan Cathy is that both men found themselves on the wrong side of history. Just as the segregationist views preached by George Wallace have long since been relegated to the ashtray of acceptable political ideas (where they belong), so too will the homophobia promulgated by the likes of Cathy one day be viewed as a relic of a less tolerant time. Until that happens, however, consumers who object to anti-gay bigotry are entirely within their rights to speak out against and boycott Chick-Fil-A products. Indeed, it is the most quintessentially American thing they can do.