Monday, October 20, 2008

McCain's John Lewis Problem

When someone you admire, a civil rights leader whom you yourself call "an American hero," compares you to George Wallace and calls on you to change your campaign tactics in the name of public safety:

1) You can take umbrage, and try to make an issue of how terribly unfair it is to compare you to a vicious segregationist like George Wallace, and while you're on the topic try to make your political opponent into the villain for not "repudiating" the Wallace comparison.


2) You can stop acting like George Wallace.

McCain's response to Lewis is revealing, not simply for the dishonesty and political opportunism that McCain now reveals on a daily basis, but for what it reveals about McCain's value system. He takes offense, or purports to, at being compared to a racist. He utterly ignores the point of Lewis's comparison, which is that his rhetoric, like Wallace's, is stirring up passions that may end in civil violence or even bloodshed. The slur against his character stings McCain. The call to civic duty, and the warning of public danger, does not even register. McCain is deaf to it.

This is the essence of John McCain: a confusion of private virtue, or "character," with public virtue. It is more important to him to establish that he is not, personally, a racist, than it is to protect the common good. McCain's candidacy, and his political career, is premised on the idea that a politician's sense of individual honor will benefit the nation at large. The conduct of his campaign puts the lie to that idea.

McCain's campaign tactics haven't been terribly consonant with personal honor, either, but personal failings can always be rationalized or repented. Once a politician does public harm, the consequences are out of his control. No repentance will help the victims if McCain's reckless and inflammatory tactics bring his fellow Americans to harm. John McCain will have to look at himself in the mirror after this campaign, but I couldn't care less what he finds there. He will only have to live with himself; the rest of us will have to live with what he's wrought.

Friday, October 17, 2008

ACORN has to deal with threats and vandalism

So, the Republicans' ugly stories are beginning to bear predictably ugly fruit.
According to Greg Gordon at McClatchy:

An ACORN community organizer received a death threat and the liberal activist group's Boston and Seattle offices were vandalized Thursday, reflecting mounting tensions over its role in registering 1.3 million mostly poor and minority Americans to vote next month.

Attorneys for ACORN — short for the Association of Community Organizers for Reform Now — were notifying the FBI and the Justice Department's Civil Rights Division of the incidents, said Brian Kettenring, a Florida-based spokesman for the group.

Republicans, including presidential candidate John McCain, have attacked the group repeatedly in recent days, alleging a widespread vote-fraud scheme, although they have provided little proof. It was disclosed Thursday that the FBI is examining whether thousands of fraudulent voter registration applications submitted by some ACORN workers were part of a systematic effort or were merely isolated incidents.

Kettenring said that a senior ACORN staffer in Cleveland, after appearing on television this week, got an email stating that she "is going to have her life ended."

A woman staffer in Providence, R.I., also got a threatening call from someone who said words to the effect that "we know you get off work at nine," and then made racial epithets, he said.

McClatchy is withholding both of the women's names because of the threats.

Separately, vandals broke into the group's Boston and Seattle offices and stole the group's computers, Kettenring said.

The incidents came the day after McCain warned in the final presidential debate that ACORN's voter registration drive "may be perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history" and may be "destroying the fabric of democracy."

Senator McCain is not responsible for the crimes of every lunatic. But he owes a responsibility to public safety. If he persists in this dangerous scapegoating, he will establish himself unfit for public office: not simply for the Presidency, but public trust of any kind.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Poem for a Friday in October

The Seven Sorrows
by Ted Hughes

The first sorrow of autumn
Is the slow goodbye
Of the garden who stands so long in the evening -
A brown poppy head,
The stalk of a lily,
And still cannot go.

The second sorrow
Is the empty feet
Of a pheasant who hangs from a hook with his brothers.
The woodland of gold
Is folded in feathers
With its head in a bag.

And the third sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the sun who has gathered the birds and who gathers
The minutes of evening,
The golden and holy
Ground of the picture.

The fourth sorrow
Is the pond gone black
Ruined and sunken the city of water -
The beetle's palace,
The catacombs
Of the dragonfly.

And the fifth sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the woodland that quietly breaks up its camp.
One day it's gone.
It has left only litter -
Firewood, tentpoles.

And the sixth sorrow
Is the fox's sorrow
The joy of the huntsman, the joy of the hounds,
The hooves that pound
Till earth closes her ear
To the fox's prayer.

And the seventh sorrow
Is the slow goodbye
Of the face with its wrinkles that looks through the window
As the year packs up
Like a tatty fairground
That came for the children.

Season Songs, 1975

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

Anything but Substance

"It has been striking to me this year that the public seems far more serious about this election--far less tolerant of diversions--than some of my colleagues in the media." - Joe Klein, Swampland, 10/15/08

Meanwhile, the Times is running a surprised poll analysis that personal attacks haven't worked with the voters. Who knew, that in an election with this much at stake, voters would want to hear about actual policy.

But nonetheless, the Politico home page fronts a large picture of Reverend Jeremiah Wright, who has been mentioned by no one lately, with Mike Allen's lead story about why the McCain campaign isn't running attacks on Wright.

Yes, that is correct. A lead story about why something irrelevant isn't being brought up. This is what the political media has come to: covering the sideshows that never came to town.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Preview of November 5

It's good, as far as it goes, that John McCain is attempting to contain some of the paranoid ugliness that he's been responsible for. I'm happy to live in a country where politicians' self-interest restrains them from fomenting civil unrest.

But what matters is not the kind of man John McCain is or isn't. What matters is the kind of country we live in.

McCain will be a rapidly-receding footnote to history by Thanksgiving, taking his place among the Bob Doles and James Blaines and Charles Pickerings. He still has the power to make this campaign very dangerous for a lot of innocent Americans, but on November 5th he won't be able to get the matches near the gunpowder any more.

What worries me are the people who are stocking up their own gunpowder for Guy Fawkes Day. It's bad enough that hateful, paranoid lies are being spread in an attempt to defeat Obama. What's much, much worse is that defeating Obama is no longer the hatemongers' goal

The shape of the narrative is already forming, in preparation for a McCain loss. The right-wing media is laying the groundwork to claim voter fraud, perpetrated by ACORN, as the primary cause of McCain's defeat, even if November 4 is a landslide. In fact, a landslide will make the hard-liners' cognitive dissonance greater, because they won't be able to process how badly they have lost mainstream America, and lead them toward paranoid explanations.

The plan is to deny the legitimacy of Obama's election, and to continue portraying him as a dangerous outsider. No claim is too outlandish. We will hear how Obama personally engineered the financial crisis and how he is in league with various foreign bogeymen.

This is extremely dangerous. It gives the most dangerous people on the right an excuse for violence, because Obama is not "really" President and because he's "dangerous." So violence can be rationalized as necessary, for the greater good. And it builds in an excuse for ignoring the rule of law, since government itself is "illegitimate."

That isn't about one election. That's about the kind of country we live it, about whether we keep civil peace and respect the rule of law.

Starting November 5, we need to push back, hard, on media outlets that peddle dangerous fantasies.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Before Anyone Gets Hurt

McCain and Palin have turned a dark corner in their election rhetoric, and as many others have said, they are creating real danger.

They are actively encouraging the notion that Barack Obama may secretly be a danger to America, a friend to terrorists, a terrorist himself. This goes beyond political slurs. It is the language that the violent use to justify their violence. Obama is being presented as someone who poses a danger, someone whom the violent need to harm in "self-defense." And it only takes a few weak minds to accept the paranoid fantasy and act on it.

McCain has already gone beyond the acceptable bounds of American political discourse. And he has done it at a moment of national unrest, as the economic crisis creates fear and anxiety. A historical moment like this would be dangerous enough without McCain. The risk of mob violence would be with us now even if McCain were not actively increasing it. During times of uncertainty, mobs look for scapegoats to turn on. McCain has chosen to offer the public identifiable scapegoats.

I am afraid, not only for Obama but for his Secret Service detail, for Obama's volunteers in the field, for the staff at ACORN (who are being demonized every day), for Senator Dodd and Congressman Frank, whom McCain has now explicitly accused of crimes (as "willing co-conspirators" in the failure of our banking sector). I hope no harm comes to anyone. But I dread what may happen if some angry hooligans pass an Obama field office twenty minutes after Palin has told them that Obama wants to destroy the country.

If the fire McCain that is playing with actually catches, if people are burned, there will be enormous grief and enormous rage. And if something terrible happens, few of us will be able to think clearly about those responsible. So it's time to think the worst-case scenario through now.

If McCain's campaign actually incites the violence it is so close to inciting, his political career needs to end. That day. Not simply his lost campaign, but his Senate career, his speaking engagements, his public life. He needs to resign in disgrace, and he needs to be made to see that necessity.

There cannot be violent retribution for the merchants of violence, if we want to keep our America America. And laws regulating campaign speech will go horribly wrong. But the political retribution must be swift, complete and unrelenting.

No politician who undermines public safety for personal gain has any place in our national life. Every politician should fear an outbreak of civil violence against his or her fellow Americans; who can speak of loving our country but not dread that? If mere patriotism, mere responsibility, mere human decency are not enough, politicians must fear for themselves and their careers. Every American politician should live in holy dread of inciting a mob, and every politician should know that raising a mob and losing control of it means exile from American politics forever.

God forbid that any of my fears come to pass. I hope McCain will think better of what he is doing, and stop. I hope that we will get through the coming month in peace. But if the worst happens, McCain must leave public office, Palin must leave public office, and Steve Schmidt, their campaign strategist, must never be employed in politics or government again. And steps need to be taken, calmly and rationally, to ensure those outcomes: a new public organization, including a political action committee and a fund-raising arm, aimed at removing those malefactors from office, and at deterring any future politician from taking such depraved risks with the public safety.

Words have consequences, and John McCain has a public trust. A politician who becomes an enemy of the civil peace needs to be punished, not by more violence and not by the law, but by the patriotism of his fellow Americans.