A Joker for Our Times: Eat the Rich, and F*ck Batman.

by Russell Dobular

**This post contains some minor plot spoilers for the film Joker.**

Lets face it, Batman has always been a superman. Not in the red cape, allergic-to-kryptonite sense, but in the Nietzschean, ubermensch sense. Nietzsche believed that certain exceptional men (being of his time, women were presumably excluded from his philosophy) were beyond conventional notions of morality and thus were exempted from society’s rules. Laws and social mores are for the sheep, while the ‘ubermensch’ (literally, “superman”), due to his exceptional nature, is not bound by any such notions. He believed that these rare, gifted men were the true driving force in historical processes, and the natural leaders of the masses.

The core premise of the superhero genre is itself Nietzschean, with its protagonists using their powers to impose justice, independent of government sanction or official recognition. Frank Miller in his influential The Dark Knight Returns, takes on this subtext directly, coming down decidedly on Nietzsche’s side of the argument. In his telling, everyone who raises constitutional questions about Batman’s right to beat the living shit out of people is either a limousine liberal or a foppish bureaucrat. To drive the point home, he has the now retired Commissioner Gordon mansplain to his female successor the futility of lesser beings such as themselves evaluating the morality of Batman’s actions.

It’s entirely appropriate that Miller specifically picked Batman around whom to build his case, because nowhere in the superhero mythology is there another character that so fully embodies the notion that it’s up to one exceptional being to protect society from chaos. The fact that he’s a trust fund baby whose sainted parents used their wealth to try to save Gotham in more traditional ways, before being murdered by one of those people who represent the forces of chaos that are Batman’s thematic nemeses, adds a class dimension to the story that’s hard to miss. In Batman’s world, billionaires are an idealized aristocracy who know best how to fix society’s ills, and the poor are either salt of the Earth types who look to Batman and/or the Wayne family for salvation, or criminals who threaten the social order and are therefore to be dealt with severely by a rich kid in a bat suit.

In the end, Batman’s mission is to defend the status quo. Like Elizabeth Warren, he is a capitalist to his bones who doesn’t see any problems with the social order that can’t be fixed by a generous donation from the Wayne Foundation, or, failing that, a good beat down. He never asks why Gotham is a crime-ridden hellhole full of dangerous psychopaths; he only knows that it’s up to his own very exceptional self to keep the forces of anarchy at bay. If the Nazi regime had survived long enough to create superheroes, what they came up with probably would have looked a lot like Batman, with his enemies being Jews, communists, and subversives. Take the Jews out of the equation and that’s pretty much what he is now. In a time when wealth inequality is at levels not seen since the Gilded Age, and entire regions of the country are collapsing into third world conditions, it was inevitable that someone would reevaluate the mythos of the character – which brings us to Todd Phillips’ Joker.

Joker isn’t the first foray into the Batverse that touches on some of the class tensions inherent in the story. A debate still rages about whether Heath Ledger’s Joker was actually the hero of 2008’s The Dark Knight, partly because a lot of his observations make good sense. In one famous scene, he tells Harvey Dent, ““You know what I noticed? Nobody panics when things go ‘according to plan.’ Even if the plan is horrifying. If tomorrow I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot or a truckload of soldiers will be blowing up, nobody panics because it’s all part of the plan. But when I say that one little old mayor will die…well, then everyone loses their minds!” Hard to argue with that. And its sequel, The Dark Knight Rises, goes even further, having Catwoman set the tone by telling Bruce Wayne at an opulent soiree, “There’s a storm coming, Mr. Wayne. You and your friends better batten down the hatches, because 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.” From there, Bane goes on to take over Gotham, with director Christopher Nolan’s vision of what that would look like taken directly from the worst excesses of the French Revolution.

The obvious difference with Joker is that there is no Batman to make the counter-argument, and reassure its audience that he has the right of it. This film is about what Gotham looks like to all those people at the bottom who don’t need a Dark Knight so much as they need a functioning social safety net and an equitable distribution of wealth. The city has been brought to the precipice of anarchy not by “super-villains” like Raz Al Ghoul or a guy with a weird riddle fetish, but by a system that lavishly rewards the rich and throws everyone else to the dogs. Thus, Thomas Wayne isn’t portrayed as a benign philanthropist, but an arrogant asshole who ultimately gets his comeuppance not from a mugger, but from a rioting citizen making a political statement by taking out Gotham’s wealthiest man.

And this is really why the film is making some people feel queasy. It isn’t simply a Batman movie without Batman. It’s a movie that relentlessly and consciously repudiates everything that the franchise has always been about. Joker isn’t quite a hero in the film, but he isn’t quite a villain either. He’s a victim of circumstance and a society that doesn’t care enough to help. And because there are millions like him, when he snaps by killing three stockbrokers, who also happen to be Wayne Enterprises employees, it triggers a movement. In other words, this is the kind of nightmare Jeff Bezos probably wakes up from in a cold sweat at 2 AM; a violent popular uprising aimed at tearing down the entire system and whose violence is directed specifically at the wealthy and the powerful. Its striking a chord at this moment because we’re closer to that place than we’ve been since shotgun wielding Okies descended on California en masse during the Great Depression. Joker’s creators have put a bony finger right on the pulse of the very sick patient that is 2019 America, and forced the audience to look at its ills head on. It isn’t a pretty picture.

Many of the film’s detractors claim that they fear Incels will take it as inspiration for further acts of violence, as if someone who’s going to be set off by a movie about a killer clown with Tourettes really needs an excuse. And the Identitarians miss the point like they do, by asking why we need another sympathetic portrait of an angry white man, seemingly in the hope that angry white men will go away if we just stop talking about them, in spite of the fact that white men, angry or not, will remain the largest single voting block for a good, long time. But these complaints are all dancing around what it is about Joker that’s so uniquely subversive for a big budget Hollywood movie. It presents us with a society in which institutions are collapsing, and the public has lost faith in them and those who lead them. And it shows us how combustible that can be, by allowing Gotham to combust in the film’s final sequence. In doing so, it goes a longer way to explaining how we got to a Trump Presidency than all the many thousands of hours wasted over the past three years by the corporate media on the two R’s (Russia and Racists), combined. And it gives us an all too plausible window into what comes next if nothing changes. Well, maybe not the clown masks. That would just be goofy.

On the Potemkin scale of revolutionary cinema, I give this one 5 out of 5 stars.

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From “But Her Emails” to “But His Son” – Democrats’ Gaslighting Tactics Won’t Work This Time Either.

by Russell Dobular

Kamala Harris this week, in her ongoing quest to find just the right parade to jump out in front of, suddenly reversed her position on impeachment by coming out in favor of it, and, for good measure, defended Joe Biden, saying, “Leave Joe alone,” when asked about the propriety of the Vice President’s son serving on the board of a foreign energy company. Still casting about for some way to win the hearts of Democratic voters, she then tweeted out a defense of Hillary Clinton’s e-mail clusterfuck, saying, “Hillary Clinton served our country with distinction and always put our country first — something Trump knows nothing about.” HRC herself responded to Harris’ fawning with the kind of finger-on-the-pulse instincts that made her such an effective campaigner. “But my e-mails,” she replied winsomely.  Staff sources at Third Way claim that Neera Tanden literally busted a nut in the middle of a thus far unnamed fine dining establishment upon reading the exchange.

But it isn’t only undiagnosed-sociopath Harris who’s being careful to avoid suggesting there might be something wrong with the VP’s son getting $50K a month from a foreign entity whose country falls within his daddy’s purview. Elizabeth Warren, in an episode reminiscent of her reversal on the question of whether or not the DNC primaries were rigged (she answered with an unequivocal “yes,” in an MSNBC interview, before changing her mind the next day, presumably after party leadership sat her down and gave her a good talking to), first claimed, when asked, that her anti-corruption plan would not allow a little ne’er do well shit like Hunter Biden to take a cushy gig with a foreign company. Then she quickly did the math on superdelegates who might be miffed at that answer and backed off to, “I don’t know. I mean I’d have to go back and look at the details.”

Aside from cowardly and opportunistic politicians, the corporate media has been doing Cirque Du Soleil-level acrobatics to convince the public that black is white, up is down, and there’s nothing untoward about a recent drug rehab alum landing a lucrative gig for which he had no apparent qualifications in a country where his dad just happened to be making decisions regarding US policy. What could possibly be wrong with that? Just look at all the job fairs they hold on the lawn at Betty Ford. Any ex-addict can tell you what a hot commodity employees who might be doing bumps in the bathroom between strategy sessions are in the current labor market.

Regardless of what Trump did, it’s all very reminiscent of the way Democrats tried to sell the public on the idea that there was nothing weird about setting up a private server in a basement, or deleting 30,000 e-mails that were under subpoena at the time they were destroyed. There’s a word for that. The word is illegal. Don’t believe me? Go set up your own private server, run classified information through it, then start deleting e-mails when the man catches on. Tell me how that works out for you.

Or how about the interference Dems ran for the pay-to-play scam that was the Clinton Foundation? If there’s a reasonable explanation for how a major donor ended up on the International Security Advisory Board, without having any expertise in the area, I’d love to hear what it is. Or why it was that countries that gave big donations, many of which were autocratic regimes with horrific records of human rights abuses, got huge increases in their arms shipments during HRC’s tenure as Secretary of State.  If these facts belonged to any Republican, Democrats would connect the dots pretty easily. It belonging to the Clintons, they wrote it all off as a conspiracy theory. They still do, even with the smoking gun in the form of a total collapse in donations after the 2016 election. If it was all about charity and not about buying access, why did the donations dry up once there was no longer a Clinton lined up for the Presidency? Donations to the Salvation Army don’t rise and fall with election outcomes. Why would the Clinton Foundation have that unusual distinction, if not for the fact that it was always an elaborate bribery scheme?

What Democrats seem to forget in these situations is that most people aren’t hyper-partisan party loyalists. Only 14% of those polled have a “great deal” of confidence in the media that pedals these narratives, and the Congress that’s handling the impeachment inquiries has a 20% approval rating.  Beyond that, only around 29% of voters identify as Democrats. If we had to venture a guess, we could safely say that about half of those are extremely partisan, like, Nancy-Pelosi-is-doing-a-heck-of-a-job, and nothing-wrong-with- the-Secretary-of-State-having-a-home-brew server, kind of partisan. The rest are probably like most Americans: deeply skeptical of the whole bloody system and all its players. So, what you really have are a fringe minority representing about 14% of the public who think a VP’s kid cashing in on his father’s influence is A-OK, as long as his father is a Democrat. For everyone outside the partisan bubble, that assertion is batshit. Just like the assertion that because Donald Trump is a lying scumbag, Hillary Clinton did nothing wrong. One has nothing to do with the other, and anytime your argument becomes, “My candidate is less of a scumbag than your candidate,” a la, #butheremails, you’ve already lost.

The most dangerous part of all this, just as was the case with HRC, is the way that denying the reality of the Biden family’s long history of corrupt behavior and practices now, is going to set the Democrats up for a rude awakening later, should he become the nominee. In this sense, as in most others, they are being ill-served by their preferred media sources. The Ukraine is truly the least of it. At best, Biden repeatedly turned a blind eye to his brother James and son Hunter repeatedly and blatantly cashing in on his political position. At worst, he tailored policy to aid them in their ventures. The only question really is whether Biden’s behavior represents the kind of corruption that we still have laws against, or the kind of corruption that’s so rampant in our new Gilded Age that it’s all perfectly legal. Either way, the more the average voter hears about it, the less they’re going to like it.

None of this is to say Democrats shouldn’t be pursuing impeachment on the grounds that Trump pressured a foreign country to investigate a political rival. But if they continue to try to have it both ways, its going to blow up in their faces. If they make a corruption case against Trump, while at the same time denying that Biden’s behavior was itself corrupt, they’re opening up a contradiction wide enough to drive a Trump re-election through. The masterstroke would be to impeach Trump and repudiate Biden at the same time. That would go a long way to refuting any suggestion of partisanship, and would stand in sharp contrast to the way the GOP is ultimately going to rush to Trump’s defense for fear of his rabid base. It would also give the Democrats something they haven’t had in a long time, even among their own voters, many of whom are more reluctant and resigned than enthusiastic about the party: credibility. Admitting wrongdoing by one of their own most prominent establishment figures would be so completely out of character, it would make a lot of people who have given up on the Democrats take a second look.

But of course, the odds of the Dems throwing Biden under the bus where he belongs, are somewhere up there with Chuck Schumer forswearing corporate contributions; slim to none. So get ready for that same, “I must be taking crazy pills,” feeling that you had in ’16 every time a “liberal” told you that nominating a historically unpopular candidate in the middle of an FBI investigation wasn’t going to cause any particular problems. And once the But His Son tweets start (in about 3, 2, 1), there’s no turning back. The Democrats will once again be putting themselves in a position where they have to defend the indefensible, largely by screaming “whataboutism” at anyone who points out the obvious fact that Biden is just as corrupt as the early 20th Century Irish ward heelers from whom he gets so much of his political style. A less hapless leadership would see the writing on the wall and be running away from Biden as fast as their septuagenarian legs can carry them. Instead, just as Democrats have embraced every slimy person and institution that Trump has ever had a beef with, from the media, to the intelligence services, to John Brennan, they’re likely to double down on Biden as he increasingly comes under fire from Trump and his surrogates. Given that, this is the best thing that could have happened to Biden’s primary campaign. And consequently, it’s also the best thing that could have happened to Trump’s re-election prospects. Donald Trump has been given many blessings in life, but nowhere more so than in the quality of his enemies.

 

 

Are We Really Going To Do This Again?

by Russell Dobular

Being a Democrat, even a nominal one like myself, is a lot like being a Mets fan. While there are plenty of teams in baseball with a losing record, the Mets are unique in their preferred style of losing: from ahead. Being a Mets fan means walking the dog in the 8th inning, feeling secure that a 12-run lead can’t possibly be overcome, and then returning home to find that lead has evaporated in the past twenty minutes and now you’re into extra innings. I found that constant disappointment so painful and frustrating that it turned me off to all sports by the time I was ten. Unfortunately, I remain a Democrat for lack of better options in our system, and that means having a similar experience once every four years.

Much like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden is leading in all of the polls among Democrats. And much like Hillary Clinton, he easily wins in theoretical matchups against his likely general election opponent, more than a year before the voting starts. And again, just like Hillary, he really doesn’t give a fuck what you think about his high-dollar fundraisers, where he offers the 1% solace and the reassurance that “nothing would fundamentally change” under his administration. Now there’s a campaign slogan. And in one more eerie similarity to the doomed Clinton campaign, the lack of genuine enthusiasm for his candidacy is such that he draws smaller crowds to his events than you’d get for an REO Speedwagon reunion tour, in spite of his huge polling lead.

There are a lot of differences between Democratic and Republican primary voters, but none are more important to electoral outcomes than the way they choose their candidates. Republicans pick nominees that they feel passionate about. Democrats pick nominees that they think other people will feel passionate about, or at the very least, find tolerable enough to vote for them. As we’ve seen time and time again, trying to imagine what non-Democrats are going to find appealing is a fool’s errand, and Democrats, on the whole, aren’t very good at it. This is partly because of the basic premise that they start from: ‘who’s the best person we can field that will appeal to inland-dwelling deplorables?’ When you’re trying to find a candidate who can win over who you think of as shitty people, your solution is probably gong to be to pick a shitty candidate. That’s pretty condescending and likely to play to the voters you’re trying to persuade not as a genuine attempt to speak to their interests, but as a reflection of how little you think of them. Nominating a doddering old Mad Men-era benign racist to take on Trump would be telling the electorate in no uncertain terms, “This is how we see you.” And it is.

When you ask Democrats what the rationale for Biden is, they don’t talk about policy or integrity. What they’ll invariably tell you is that Biden is the best we can do in a country full of troglodytes. Sadly, according to Joy Reid, that goes double for the older black voters who underlie his polling lead. In a recent interview with Time magazine editor-at-large, Anand Giridharadas, addressing Biden’s horrific answer in the 3rd debate regarding how best to address the legacy of slavery, Reid claimed that among black voters over 40 that she’s spoken to, support for Biden isn’t predicated on the premise that he’s not a racist, but entirely on the assumption that America is so racist that he’s the least racist candidate who can win. We can safely assume that was also the reason black voters got behind someone in 2016 who ran an inarguably racist primary campaign against the first black President. How to explain Obama’s two terms then? According to Reid, it was an “aberration,” in the view of her community. So how did Hillary fare with black voters in the general election under the same set of assumptions? Low black turnout ended up being one of the key factors in her loss.

Turns out a lot of African Americans, especially the younger voters who have cut their political teeth on the Black Lives Matter movement, weren’t all that eager to vote for someone who straight out called herself the candidate of “hard working Americans, white Americans,” just a few years earlier. And yet, here we go again. There are videos of Biden floor speeches that make Hillary’s “deplorables” fundraiser look like a James Brown concert. And you can be assured the Trump team has all of them locked and loaded and ready to drop the second he clinches the nomination.

What’s really mind-boggling about Biden’s seemingly unassailable lead is the way that Democrats are once again unerringly honing in like a Tomahawk cruise missile specifically designed to find the least electable person in the field, on one of the few people who could actually lose in 2020. Its kind of uncanny.

As a progressive, I’d love to say that only a progressive can win, but Donald Trump is so fucking awful, I can’t honestly say that. Pretty much everyone in the top to mid-tier would likely beat Trump, with one exception; Joe Biden, and for a lot of the same reasons that Hillary was uniquely positioned to lose to Trump. Biden represents the status quo at a time when the country is desperate for change. He has a checkered enough past on racial issues for Trump to muddy the waters on the question of who’s more racist, probably fighting that issue to a draw. I know, Charlottesville. But Biden helped craft mass incarceration, while Trump signed the first major bill aimed at dismantling it. If I’m working on the Trump campaign, I’m all over that framing. And just like Hillary couldn’t do anything with the corruption angle, in light of the Clinton Foundation’s fairly transparent pay-to-play structure and her $500K speeches to banks, when Biden goes after Trump on that score, Trump will go after his family. And don’t kid yourself, there’s a lot for him to work with there. 

Even if you somehow manage to get past all of that, there’s the simple and obvious fact that Joe Biden is clearly in the throes of cognitive decline. I know some in the press are trying to counter that early by making the same claims about Trump, but that’s just wishful thinking. Trump sounds like the same crazy bastard he’s always been. Biden, on the other hand, is not the same Joe Biden. Sure, he was always a gaffe machine, and I’m hearing a lot of Democrats reassuring themselves, with a big assist from the corporate media, that that’s all it is. But that isn’t all it is. “Poor kids are just as smart as white kids” is Biden being who he’s always been; a benign racist who forgets sometimes that what might have made him the “liberal’ in the room when addressing a union hall circa 1975 doesn’t fly anymore. This is different. The Biden we’re seeing today is not the Biden who took on Paul Ryan. This is a man that no responsible parent would trust to watch their kids for fear he might accidentally burn the house down trying to make toast. Senility is one of the few traits that are so definitionally disqualifying that there’s just no getting past it, no matter who the opponent is. So naturally the Democrats think it’s about as good an idea as running a candidate who’s in the middle of an FBI investigation. What could possibly go wrong?

As a result of his early-stage dementia, Biden has fallen apart at various points on stage in every debate thus far and regularly does so even at his own pre-planned, scripted events. What do we think is going to happen when his mind starts to wander in the middle of a debate with the Master of Disaster, Donald J. Trump? Give the devil his due; the man has a nose for weakness and a talent for manipulating the press into adopting his framing. You can already hear Trump’s response to a crazy Biden ramble-fest: “Does anyone understand what he just said? No really, can anyone make any sense out of any of that? What the hell is he talking about? You sound like my dad after he got Alzheimer’s, which is a terrible disease by the way. Its nap time Joe, go home and take a nap, this is too much exertion for you. No really, I’m concerned for you. This is why your buddy Barack told you not to do this Joe. He knew you weren’t up to the strain. And so on. A Biden nomination means an election cycle in which you’re bound to wake up to the headline, “Is Biden Going Senile?” And because he very obviously is going senile, it’s going to stick.

All this to say, he’s very likely to be the nominee. Because these are the Democrats we’re talking about. The New York Mets of politics. If there are ten ways to win and one way to lose, they’ll always find the one way. It’s who they are, as woven into their DNA as choking in the clutch is for my hometown team. As a betting man I can tell you I’ve lost money every time I assumed that the Democrats wouldn’t do the absolute worst thing they could possibly do in any given situation. I’ve never lost money betting against them. The same clueless dumbasses who slapped a “Dated Dean, Married Kerry,” bumper sticker on their cars in ’04, supremely confident in their political acumen and maturity, are going to proudly march into the voting booths this time around and nominate a man who’s about three years away from needing ’round-the-clock care. So, if you have any money laying around, put it all on Biden for the primaries and Trump for the general. By the time the Donald gets done wrecking what’s left of the country, you’re probably gonna need the cash.

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How I Kicked My Corporate Media Habit, and Why You Can’t Kick Yours.

by Russell Dobular

“We’ve all been raised on television to believe that one day we’d all be millionaires, movie gods, and rock stars. But we won’t. And we’re slowly learning that fact. And we’re very, very pissed off.” – Fight Club

My habit started innocently enough, as it does for so many, with the Nightly News. Growing up, my family watched the 6:00-6:30 local reports over dinner and then adjourned to the couch for the 6:30-7:00 World News Report. ABC was our preferred station, so whitey, whitey, white boy, Peter Jennings, gave me my first impressions of the world outside of then crime-ridden, post-apocalyptic New York (at least if you were to believe the endless accounts of murder, rape, robbery, and just pure madness that the aptly named Roger Grimsby would deliver in a straight monotone night after night).

By high school I had started to dip my toe into The New York Times, and This Week with David Brinkley, feeling very grown-up carrying around the “newspaper of record” in my Daily News-saturated section of Queens, and already developing a deep affection for the uber-WASPy Brinkley. Man, was he fucking suave.

By the time I got out of college, my addiction had progressed to that ultimate expression of bourgeois respectability; the Sunday Times spread out on the coffee table, with by then, Tim Russert on television, explaining the world over breakfast.

And once MSNBC went on air it got completely out of control. I’d get my fix from 6-11 every night, raptly shooting up the whole nightmare, from Chris Matthews straight through to Lawrence O’Donnell. I even read Newsweek on the regular. I guess you could say I hit rock bottom around then.

If you asked me at the time what my political opinions were, you would have had the kind of experience that I now often have when I speak to someone who still considers Chuck Todd a newsman. Which is to say, all the years thinking that staying informed consisted of watching an ancient reptile like Cokie Roberts reminisce about the fabulous Washington parties her family once threw had left me with some very warped perceptions about the world, mainly:

  1. ‘America has its problems, but its still the greatest country on earth, bar none. Anyone who tells you otherwise is a cuckoo radical nutjob.’
  2. ‘The Democrats want to give you health care and higher wages and all the rest of it, but…Republicans! Donors have nothing to do with it. And even if they do, that’s smart politics. You can’t bring a knife to a gunfight and all.’
  3. ‘The middle is where the votes are. Twenty years after Rove and Bush (and two years after Trump) proved that theory completely wrong, that’s still the story we’re going to stick with, all statistical evidence to the contrary be damned.’
  4. ‘There’s no such thing as an economically liberal and culturally conservative, voter. The same people who are against abortion rights are also against a $15 per hour minimum wage. Therefore, you can never win those people over with economic populism. Again, all evidence to the contrary be damned.’
  5. ‘Change happens through slow, bi-partisan compromise, not through mass movements, protests, social unrest and activism. “And next up, tune into our hour-long special on the Civil Rights movement.”’ They never really address that contradiction and most people seem not to notice. I sure didn’t, until I did.
  6. ‘Corporations aren’t evil. They’re our partners in building a better world. Just look at all their programs in Africa. And besides that, all the reasonable people know that if you lean on them too hard, they’ll just fire everybody and move to Mexico and then where will we be? Also: Communism.’
  7. ‘It’s a dangerous world full of dictators and theocrats beyond our borders. We don’t want to bomb the shit out of countries that pose no obvious threat to us, but think of the children. Not the ones we’re bombing, the ones we’re saving from despots by bombing them. Supporting mass murder doesn’t make you a monster, it makes you informed and pragmatic. Y’know, like us.’
  8. And this is the big one, without which none of the others could exist: ‘The media has no agenda. It only reports the news. People who criticize their coverage are themselves biased and therefore their opinions don’t matter. And even more insidiously: Since the opinions the media offers are the “smart, fact-based” opinions, if you don’t share those opinions, you must be stupid, or at the very least, uninformed.’

The increasingly difficult-to-ignore elephant stomping around the spin room these days is the undeniable reality that the corporate media has been catastrophically wrong about every major event in American life for the past twenty years, from WMD’s to the election of Donald Trump, to the Mueller report. This would be fatal in any other industry. If a car company repeatedly made cars that blew up in the driveway as soon as you put the key in the ignition, that company would go bankrupt very quickly. At the very least, some heads would roll with the people responsible being disgraced and driven from their professions. And yet the corporate media keeps on chugging along, with no accountability for its constant industrywide failures, and with no one losing their jobs. The cast of characters that assured you that Donald Trump would never be the President, while at the same time gifting him billions of dollars in free advertising, are the same people offering their “hot takes” now on everything from Syria to the electability of Joe Biden. But alas, these same institutions, that, through their relentless coverage of Trump’s campaign were the single biggest factor in his election (their own fevered attempts to re-focus public attention on Russia aside), have since seen an explosion in viewership and subscriptions, which is kind of like turning to the person who broke your kneecaps for comfort and perspective on your debilitating injury.

So, what shattered my own illusion that what I was receiving from my “most trusted” news sources was actually news? As for many, many people who experienced a similar epiphany around the same time, it was the relentlessly hostile coverage of Bernie Sanders in the 2016 primaries. Without getting into too much detail (that’s a subject that’s been well-covered by some great journalists, most notably Thomas Frank), it was impossible for a Sanders supporter to come out of that experience without feeling like Roddy Piper in the sci-fi classic, They Live, having donned a special pair of glasses and suddenly seeing that everything you ever believed was total bullshit. Of course, for people on the Clinton side in those primaries, nothing much changed. After all, it’s not bias if you agree with it; its just the smart take. But if you disagreed, it was kind of breathtaking in its scope. Sixteen negative articles from the Washington Post in 16 hours; The New York Times retroactively altering positive stories about Sanders; Chris Matthews screaming about socialism so hard his show looked like a FOX News audition tape; even Maddow, our beloved Rachel Maddow, repeating the lie that Sanders supporters had thrown chairs at the Nevada state convention, going so far as to use a clip of chairs being thrown at a wrestling match in lieu of actual footage of the fabricated event. And if the smartest, smarty-pants purveyor of smart takes ever, Rachal frikkin’ Maddow, was lying to us, what did that say about the rest of them? On the upside, this revelation did allow me to avoid wasting two years on Maddow’s charts, diagrams, and “it was Don Jr. in the pantry with an oligarch” coverage of Russiagate. Those are untold hours of many millions of people’s lives that they’re never getting back.

I was honestly depressed for about a month after I realized that I had spent literally decades offering opinions that were not truly my own, and believing things that very obviously made no sense if you just took five seconds to think it over. When you’ve always thought of yourself as an informed, intelligent person, that’s a hard day. But once the stages of grief had passed, I had only one question: why hadn’t I realized this before? Its not like you have to go on some kind of Indiana Jones quest through the jungles of the dark web to figure it out. All you have to do is look at who the advertisers are. For the Sunday morning talk shows in particular, its a virtual comic-book line-up of the world’s most evil corporations, from Boeing, to Monsanto, to BP. All that’s missing is Luthercorp. Its all very obvious, no fevered conspiracy theories required.

I gave a lot of thought as to why so many otherwise intelligent people continue to consume such a blatantly defective product. Why would they trust journalists who had repeatedly fed them disinformation that later blew up in their faces, most recently by promising both implicitly and at times explicitly that the Mueller report would end with Donald Trump in handcuffs? Or that an obvious dufus like Beto O’Rourke was gonna be a thing? I mean seriously, it’s trivial now, but did anyone actually watch him do his messianic table-jumping, arm flailing thing, before anointing him the Great White Hope?

It’s not like the old days, when you had to go to a street corner in Union Square to find alternative media. Reputable alternative sources like The Intercept, Common Dreams, Truth-Dig, and a host of others are available to anyone with an internet connection. Under those circumstances, why would anyone read The New York Times or watch CNN for any purpose other than to keep an eye on them? Who does all of this appeal to at this point? This is what I came up with:

Aside from the elderly, and actual elites, for whom the whole tone and viewpoint of the corporate media, particularly its political coverage, must feel like something akin to reading the hometown paper, right down to the names of people you went to school with being featured prominently in the bylines, the bulk of the audience for corporate media are members of the middle class who have a deep emotional need to see themselves as part of a club that they will never actually be invited to join. Where their European forebears filled their homes with cheaper versions of the kinds of decorations and tchotchkes that might have been found in the palaces of the aristocrats, today it’s regular trips to museums where they pretend to like art produced by an industry that abandoned any sense of accessibility and public utility a hundred years ago, and a house full of fair-trade products made by third world craftsmen. The New York Times and regular viewings of Meet the Press, seen in that context, are a way of checking in on elite tastes and opinions, by way of convincing yourself that you’re one of them, just with a little less money.

In the end, that’s why no matter how many times they get it wrong, and no matter how obvious their biases are, there will always be an audience for what they’re peddling, and for most of their customers, it isn’t news. Corporate media is a lifestyle brand, no different from Goop, or Lululemon. The point of consuming it isn’t to become informed about the world, any more than agreeing to stick a jade egg up your hoo-hah and paying good money for the privilege has anything to do with improving your health.  If it was about becoming informed, there would be a steeper price to pay in viewership and subscriptions for getting it mostly wrong, most of the time. Carrying around The New York Times under your arm and cultivating opinions that align with the its dominant narratives, is a way of telling everyone around you, “I’m in the club.” It’s aspirational. And if you aren’t quite like those twee couples in the investment bank ads, who seem to spend all their time strolling along fabulous beaches in remote areas and hanging out at their rustic cabin, well, with just a little more money in the 401K, you will be. You already have all the right opinions, so it’s just a matter of time.

Along the way you end up absorbing and championing viewpoints that are not only completely contradicted by the facts, but that run counter to your own interests. Health care is a good example. Even with health insurance, a lot of middle class people are only one serious illness away from bankruptcy. And yet many of those same people advocate for slow, incremental change. Why? Because they’ve been told that’s what they’re supposed to think by a media that takes millions of dollars in advertising from drug and insurance companies. A cursory examination of American history will tell you that the core premise behind this argument is a lie: from the union movement, to civil rights, to gay rights, real, structural change has only ever come through mass movements and activism, and never from moderation and slow, patient, incremental reform. But there’s no incentive to question these narratives if your purpose isn’t to hold objectively true opinions, but to hold the “right” opinions.

The good news is, the next generation isn’t buying it, for the most part. For people starting out in life facing grotesque wealth inequality and imminent eco-catastrophe, the soothing tones of Doris Kearns Goodwin and company waxing poetic about the glorious bi-partisanship of the Lincoln White House are about as culturally relevant as Pat Boone. In light of that, it’s hard to imagine that, in twenty years, the corporate media as we know it will continue to exist. But they’re going to do a lot of damage on the way out the door. And no one is going to be less prepared for the consequences than the people who thought they were members of the club, not realizing they were only invited in to do the catering. In the meantime, when you encounter these folks on social media or IRL, and they start calling you a Putin puppet for not sharing their point of view, seemingly oblivious to the ugly history in this country of that kind of thing, go easy on them. As any drug counselor will tell you, everyone’s rock bottom is different. Mine came in ’16. For some, its going to take the evaporation of their retirement savings and the ocean in their front yard before they bottom out.

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How “The First Jewish President” became “Another Old White Man.”

by Russell Dobular

Bernie Sanders is the Jewish descendent of Polish immigrants who came to America to escape oppression and discrimination at home. The members of his family who stayed behind were wiped out in the Holocaust. And yet, his identity as a Jew and the barrier-breaking significance of his standing in the polls is rarely discussed.

The only other Jew who has taken a serious run at the presidency is Joe Lieberman, and I use the term “serious” loosely. Lieberman never won a single primary or caucus and dropped out of the 2004 race after being crushed in the first five states to vote. Sanders, much to the chagrin of the Clinton campaign and the DNC, made it through every single primary in ’16, garnering 43% of the vote, even in the face of almost universal hostility to his campaign from the Democratic Party establishment and the corporate media. So far in the 2020 race he’s consistently polling at #2 in most national surveys, behind Joe Biden.

Whether he wins the nomination or not, that’s a historic accomplishment for a Jewish candidate. So, why isn’t that a part of the narrative? No one would think of discussing Corey Booker or Kamala Harris without considering their African American identities. Nor would anyone talk about Julian Castro while ignoring his Latino heritage. This is particularly strange in a party that tends to fixate on identity politics to the exclusion of all other ideas that fall to the left side on the ideological spectrum.

So why is Mayor Pete a gay candidate, and Harris a black female candidate, while Sanders’ enemies feel comfortable writing him off as an “old white man?” Part of it is convenience. If you hate Bernie Sanders, as most of the media and party establishment do pretty openly, with one MSNBC commentator recently opining that Sanders, “makes my skin crawl,” although she quickly admitted that she didn’t actually know why that is (hint: check your bank balance), the “old white man” charge is a convenient explanation that conforms nicely to the establishment zeitgeist, which is that progress lies not in enacting the policies that would dismantle oligarchy, but in diversifying the identities of those who manage it.

If Sanders represents a minority, that takes away a line of attack that requires no policy discussion, and that’s their favorite kind. Once you have to start defending American exceptionalism while at the same time trying to explain why Americans can’t have the health care that every other industrialized nation on earth provides to its citizens, things can go sideways on the debate stage pretty fast. “Old white man,” isn’t an invitation to a discussion; it’s a slur. And like all slurs, its designed to go around the brain and right to the worst instincts and prejudices of its target audience.

But there’s another reason that Sanders doesn’t get to be Jewish, and it’s the same reason that people of Irish and Italian descent usually won’t be described as Irish Americans or Italian Americans when they’re running for political office.

While many groups migrated to the United States en masse from the 1840’s to the 1920’s, no others came in nearly the numbers that the Irish, Italians and Jews did. First came the Irish in the mid-19th Century, escaping the potato famine. Then Italians in the 1870’s, largely because of mass poverty at home. And finally, the Jews in the 1880’s, fleeing the pogroms that the Tsar had launched against them in Russia and Eastern Europe. None of these groups were considered “white people” by those who had come before them. Even the Irish, who were closest to being considered “white” in the racial economy of the time, were subject to grotesque cartoon caricatures printed in respectable publications in which they were portrayed as monkeys and apes. At best, these new arrivals were “ethnic white,” a catch-all category for every European who wasn’t a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant.

The journey from “ethnic white” to white white began for many at Ellis Island, with the changing of the family name to something more Anglo-sounding. This occurred on both sides of my own family. On my father’s side, Wolinsky became Wolin, and on my mother’s, Dobular was, as far as I’ve been able to ascertain, made up out of whole cloth. If you meet a Dobular who isn’t related to me, let me know.

Later, some Jews and Italians would take Irish names, rather than Anglo ones, knowing that with their lower class urban accents and mannerisms, they were never going to be able to pass themselves off as WASP’s, but they might feasibly be mistaken for being Irish, which was marginally better than being a Jew or a Southern European. Hence, Emanuel Goldberg became movie gangster, Edward G. Robinson, and Anthony Benedetto became singer Tony Bennett, among countless other examples.

But it wasn’t enough to want to be white. In order to truly become full-fledged white people, American society would have to accept them as such. That acceptance didn’t come until after World War II. Having just fought a war against a Nazi regime that took the idea of racial inferiority to its logical conclusion in the mass genocide of Jews, Gypsies, Slavs, and other “out” groups in German society, racism, at least against the “ethnic whites” who had been the principal victims of the Nazi campaign of mass murder, fell out of fashion in mainstream American culture. Just how out of fashion? The answer to that can be seen in some of the cultural products of the time, including the remarkable 1948 film, The Boy With the Green Hair, which features a very young Dean Stockwell as a war orphan who is unjustly discriminated against for his hair color. With the resistance to allowing ethnic whites to move into certain neighborhoods thereby suspended, the large-scale development of suburban tract housing well underway, and the GI Bill providing the necessary down payments for houses, the children and grandchildren of Ellis Island began to empty out of their urban enclaves and assimilate with a vengeance.

For the Jews, this need to assimilate was perhaps particularly acute. With the Nazi atrocities having only recently wiped out two-thirds of the European Jewish population, the potentially horrific results of being considered the “other” had never been made more clear. They not only moved out of the ghettos, but out of the blue-collar occupations of their parents and grandparents, to become middle-managers, professionals, CEO’s and media figures. As a result of this history, today 94% of Jews self-identify as white, and, outside of white supremacist circles, most of society agrees. But self-identification aside, there’s always a cloud hanging over Jews and their relationship to whiteness. There’s a common saying in the community that well sums up the sneaking feeling that it can all be taken away at any time: “I didn’t know I was Jewish, until Hitler told me I was.” This warning to never forget how easily the fate of the highly assimilated pre-war German Jews can befall any Jews, anywhere, perfectly encapsulates the complicated psychological relationship of Jews to their “whiteness,” a whiteness that is always experienced as provisional and of dubious applicability outside the major cities.

Ironically, should Sanders win the nomination, it will be at a moment when the status of Jews as whites is being seriously debated for the first time in several decades. This is partly being driven from the right by the Trump presidency and the way it has emboldened anti-Semites, but also from the left’s abandonment of multi-culturalism, in favor of racial and cultural balkanization.

The Jews present a knotty problem for the latter. In a schema where there are white people who are by definition the beneficiaries of white privilege, and then there are the victims of white privilege (everyone else), where to place a group that doesn’t get followed around by store detectives, but is also on the receiving end of the majority of hate crimes, according to FBI statistics? Are they the oppressor? The oppressed? Some of both? Does this way of looking at the world allow for a group to be both? It gets complicated, most especially for Jews themselves, who suddenly find their hard-won whiteness, increasingly thrown back at them in the form of the neo-slur, “white Jews.”

Right now, this is a conversation mostly taking place among the hard-core Identitarians, and on the pages of online Jewish publications, but should Sanders be the nominee, it’s going to force a debate on these questions the likes of which we haven’t seen since the 1950’s. We know what the right is going to do: burn a swastika and such. Whether the left will accord Sanders the celebratory mood with which they would surely greet the nomination of a member of any other historically marginalized group, or whether they’ll simply update “white man” to “white Jew,” in grudging acknowledgement of some shade of difference, is currently an open question.

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A Modest Proposal For Centrist Democrats: Join the Republican Party.

by Russell Dobular

We once had a president who proposed a health care plan that was far more generous than Obamacare. It never came to pass because members of Congress opposed it. This same president also seriously considered a Guaranteed Basic Income and created an entirely new government agency focused on the environment. That agency was the EPA, and that president was Richard Nixon.

The Congressional leaders who opposed his health care plan were led by Ted Kennedy, who felt it didn’t go far enough. So, was Nixon considered a liberal in his own time? Hell no. He was the arch-conservative of his day. At that time though, the opposition party was so much further left that they wouldn’t accept an approach to health care that kept the private insurance industry intact. What does this tell us? We’ve gone so far to the right in the years since the Nixon presidency that in many ways Nixon was to the left of the current leftmost outpost of mainstream American politics, Bernie Sanders. Even Sanders hasn’t proposed a GBI, nor is he contemplating the creation of whole new government agencies. How we got to a place where the average Democrat is well to the right of yesterday’s conservative Republican, and today’s conservative Republican is well to the right of the Taliban, is a complex tale of woe, but I’ll sum it up as best I can before getting to my proposal.

A realignment of voters’ allegiances began in the 1960’s, first around the issue of Civil Rights. Since the Civil War, the Democrats through their Dixiecrat wing had been the natural home for racists and segregationists. The GOP, being the party of Lincoln, maintained the allegiance of some African American voters, and in turn had no interest in cultivating overt racism within their party. That all changed with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, under Lyndon Johnson. Upon signing it, Johnson, one of the keenest political minds of his time, famously made the observation, “We’ve just lost the South for a generation.” Turned out it was more than a generation. It was forever, or at least down to the present day. So, where did all those Dixiecrats go? They fled to the Republicans, largely with the encouragement of the aforementioned Richard Nixon, who laid the groundwork for today’s GOP with his “Southern Strategy,” an overt dog whistle appeal to disaffected racists under the guise of restoring “law and order.”

In spite of their gradual hemorrhaging of southern white voters, for a while the Democrats were able to maintain the hold on both Houses of Congress that had been in place almost continuously since FDR. This was because they still had the unions, and those unions continued to be a powerful force in society. Unionized workers were the Democrats’ foot soldiers and primary fundraisers. They were what allowed the party to compete with the GOP, who regularly out-raised the Democrats 20 to 1 in election cycles. The Republicans had the money, but for a long time, the Democrats continued to have the people.

Then came Bill Clinton and the Democratic Leadership Council. The DLC was a group of Democrats who wanted to move the party to the right in order to win back all those Reagan Democrats. They also had a barely-hidden contempt for the party’s traditional working class constituency, on the basis that they were retrograde on social issues (the genesis of Hillary’s “deplorables” comment). In many ways they were the “New Left” of the 60’s, all grown up and ready to kick Archie Bunker out of the party in favor of the well-educated and white-collar Meathead. The theory was that they’d retain the unions anyway, because they wouldn’t have anywhere else to go, and at the same time make inroads with a portion of the GOP’s professional class voters. The latter worked out like gangbusters, with huge numbers of what had been known at the time as “Rockefeller Republicans,” defecting to the Democratic Party with the election of Bill Clinton, whose vision of free trade and welfare reform, combined with his ability to hang with African Americans at a fish fry without looking too out of place, aligned nicely with their socially liberal, economically conservative views (if you’ve ever described your politics that way, now you know where your politics came from. And it wasn’t the Democrats).

With those voters came their donations and the kind of influence on policy that those donations bought. That’s why today the legislative preferences of the upper 20% of income earners become law 60% of the time, while those of the bottom 80% effect legislation about 1% of the time. At the same time, the unions were decimated by Clinton’s passage of NAFTA, which turned out to be the proverbial slaughter of the electoral golden goose. Until NAFTA, the Dems had held both houses of Congress almost continuously from FDR to 1994. Right after its passage, they lost Congress in the midterms and have hardly ever held both houses since. Turns out those union workers did have someplace else to go. Some went to the GOP, and a lot simply stopped voting altogether.

Because of the Nixon/Reagan and Clinton realignments in their respective parties, we’ve gone a generation with two parties fighting for the interests of their wealthy donors and no one fighting for the working and middle class. Our current grotesque levels of income inequality are the end result.

Now, to my proposal. There’s a war going on right now inside the Democratic Party between those who want to give it back to the poor and working class voters it was stolen from a generation ago, and the center-right professional class voters and politicians who stole it from them. History and demographics will tell you that’s a fight the progressives are bound to win eventually. All the Pelosis and Bidens of the party are doing is holding back the inevitable, and with it, they’re holding back progress and delaying the restoration of a system that, at least relative to what we have now, more or less worked. A country where Biden represents the right-wing and Bernie Sanders the left, would be a pretty good country. We know that because from 1945 until around 1980, that was the country we had. So how do we get back there? It isn’t enough to reform the Democratic Party. That’s only addressing one half of the problem. We also have a fascist right wing party that needs to be brought back to the sane center-right space it once occupied. And who better to do that than its former base voters? I know it’s a big ask, but in order to bring our politics back into alignment, you, dear centrist Democrat, need to consider joining the GOP.

I know, I know, you’re a Democrat through and through and you’d never break bread with those theocratic nutballs. But they’re only theocratic nutballs because you folks moved out of their neighborhood and gentrified the other party. Instead of fighting a rearguard action against progress within the one, you are uniquely equipped to foster progress within the other. That’s where you can do the most good.

Bonus: you get to rant about AOC all you want, without any pushback from members of your own caucus. See? It’s a win-win.

Now, I can already hear your next argument: how will the Democrats win without us? The answer is, much more easily. There are a lot more pissed off poor people, many of whom were once proud members of the middle class out there, than there are wealthy, professional class voters. You people, with your obvious contempt for rural and working class voters, and your discomfort with class politics, are like a giant electoral scarecrow, driving them into the cornfields. We know how to talk to them. I don’t want to be unkind here, but honestly, you make them want to puke. Really, you do. As someone from a blue collar background, I can tell you, I’ve seen the puking. You’ll just have to take my word for it.

So that’s my proposal.

I know right now you’re saying you’d never even consider it, but I suspect as progressives continue to take over the party, you’re not only going to consider it, most of you are going to do it with bells on. ‘Cause let’s face it, you’re never coming out to vote for people who want to radically overhaul a system that’s made you pretty well off. Once Sanders-style politicians come to define the Dems, you’re going to run for the hills, at which point most of you will end up in the GOP anyway. So why not start today? Your country needs you. In the other party. And besides, aren’t you tired of getting out-lefted all the time? Deep down don’t ya kind of feel like a dick regurgitating Third Way Democrat talking points in the face of Medicare For All? Over there in Trumpland you’re never going to get out-lefted again. Standing next to those screwballs, you’ll be Che fucking Guevara. How cool will that be? Listen, I know it sounds radical now, but just sit with it for a couple of days. This country isn’t going to save itself. We have work to do. Together. But in a separate kind of a way.

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