NYT Book Review prints another false stereotype that supports an ideological assumption

Lately it appears that the New York Times Book Review is trading in stereotypes that support the basic ideological assumptions of American life. Or maybe, I’m just starting to notice it.

About two months ago, OpEdge analyzed a book review that used the not-really-a-super-genius biographical subject of the book under critique as proof that super geniuses are also madmen, a common stereotype that supports the ideological assumption that it’s bad to be smart and that smart people have social adjustment problems and are unhappier than the average person.  The stereotype is false and the ideological assumption—big-banged into us constantly by mass media and entertainment—is not only also false, but serves as a false model for our youth.

The NYT Book Review is at it again this week, publishing a review of a new biography of Karl Marx in which the reviewer presents another false stereotype as gospel: that political radicals are dirty, flighty, loud-mouthed moochers.

Let’s allow the reviewer, Jonathan Freedland, an editorial page columnist for The Guardian of London, to hang himself with his own words:

“The Karl Marx depicted in Jonathan Sperber’s absorbing, meticulously researched biography will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics. Here is a man never more passionate than when attacking his own side, saddled with perennial money problems and still reliant on his parents for cash, constantly plotting new, world-changing ventures yet having trouble with both deadlines and personal hygiene, living in rooms that some might call bohemian, others plain ‘slummy’…”

The key words come at the beginning: The Karl Marx depicted…will be unnervingly familiar to anyone who has had even the most fleeting acquaintance with radical politics. That sets the scene for Freedland’s description of the hippy of hippies who, worst of all, is living off his folks.

Of course, Freedland is right that most radical political groups have some loud ne’er-do-wells who could bathe more often. In fact, I’ve seen them at every political demonstration that I have ever attended. They have certainly been part of the Occupy protests.

But I’ve also seen smelly wide-eyed hippies at adult chess tournaments.

I’ve seen them at churches and synagogues.

I’ve seen them on every college campus I have ever visited. I used to see one or two slip out of the offices of the Young Republicans when I was in college.

I’ve seen them at public meetings, ball games and parades.

But these other places, institutions and organizations where humans of all sorts collect and interact don’t get tarred with the label of producing people who are ”are saddled with perennial money problems and still reliant on his parents for cash, constantly plotting new, world-changing ventures yet having trouble with both deadlines and personal hygiene…” (well maybe chess, an intellectual game to which weirdness is also unfairly attached.)

The most subtle aspect of Freedland’s cheap shot at the left is that the smelly hippy in question is Karl Marx.  First of all, placing the stereotype in the context of discussing the life of the leading theoretician of communism limits the definition of “radical” to the left. Freedland expresses a coy shock at learning that Marx fits what he calls a “recognizable pattern.” By applying the pattern narrowly to left-wing radicals, Freedland tries to make the left less palatable, just as all the images of intellectuals as socially inept make cracking a book and learning something less palatable.

Freedland wraps a neat bow on his ideological package by declaring additional shock at learning that Marx is not some revolutionary icon, but a “genuine human being,” to use his words. Yes, I’m confident that Marx is presented as more human than symbol in the book under review, Karl Marx, a Nineteenth-Century Life by Jonathan Sperber.

But in Freedland’s review, Marx comes off as an unsavory but buffoonish cartoon character.

Of course, that’s the image that the mass media wants us to have of the left.


Right-wingers turn gay marriage into sideshow keeping public from real problems

Gay marriage should be a no-brainer. We live in a secular society in which people of diverse backgrounds and beliefs interact in the public realm according to rules that apply to all and then go home and do as they please.

Our laws constrain behavior that can hurt others, such as killing people, taking what isn’t yours, adulterating food, poisoning water or refusing to hire or serve someone because of their skin color or religion.

But when two private citizens marry, it hurts no one.

Now “hurt” and “offend” are two different things. I understand that many people are offended by homosexuality—typically for religious reasons—and worry that seeing married gays might hurt them and their children. To these good if benighted people I answer with Lenny Bruce’s old sarcasm about not wanting to allow Christians to teach in public school because he was afraid his kids would come home with St. Christopher medals stuck in their palms. Those who feel uncomfortable around married gays should remember that there may be something about themselves that will offend other people, such as wearing a cross, quoting from the Bible or saying “Have a Merry Christmas.”

While our society has always been open and based on tolerance for all full citizens, unfortunately at the beginning only white males were considered full citizens. Thank goodness the suffrage, civil rights and other liberation movements have given full citizenship to just about everyone.

Marriage is clearly not about having children the natural way (i.e., man and woman engage in sex and nine months later a baby pops out). Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan nailed it when she said that if the purpose of marriage were procreation, a state could deny marriage licenses to a heterosexual couple in which both spouses were more than 55 years old.

But what about the children? Studies have exploded all the myths about gay marriage. The children of married gays behave no differently from the children of straights. The insertion of gays into social groups does not lead to an outbreak of crime, disease or a higher incidence of drinking, drug use, gambling problems or any other social problem.

In short there is no overriding public interest that would require or allow the state to outlaw the marriage of two people of the same sex.

If gay marriage were legal throughout the country, it would not prevent any religion or religious leader from refusing to marry gays or accept them in the flock. But it would end the obnoxious hypocrisy of having our secular society imposing the religious views of many on the rest of us.

But the controversy over gay marriage serves a purpose for our politicians. It’s a sideshow that keeps our minds off the real problems, such as global warming, energy and other resource scarcity and the increasing inequitable distribution of wealth.  Moreover, elected officials and candidates opposed to gay marriage bundle it with a bunch of issues that hurt most Americans—like low taxes on the wealthy, privatization of basic government functions, union-busting policies and a low minimum wage.  The “social issues” of the right-wing trick the good people of the religious right into supporting its only-the-rich-matter stands on economic issues.

I have no idea what the Supreme Court will do.  But I do know that those who think Justice Kennedy is the swing vote on this issue have it wrong. The swing vote is Roberts, and here’s why.  Roberts has always voted the way that large corporations want him to vote. That’s why after years of votes that take rights from individuals and give them to corporations, he figured out a way to vote to uphold the constitutionality of the Affordable Care Act (AKA healthcare reform). Large corporations liked the new healthcare law because it will save them money, and once again, Roberts was their boy.

And large corporations for the most part have swung in favor of gay marriage, or at least no longer oppose it. My guess it that the court will favor gay marriage if Roberts can apply some twisted reason that enables him to affirm the overturning of the California anti-gay marriage law without offending his basic conservative principles and the consistency of his past votes. Otherwise, he’ll cut a deal with the four centrist members of the court to refuse to hear the appeal.

The same goes for the federal Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).  If Roberts can construct an argument that tracks with his “principles” but still allows gay marriage, DOMA dies.

Whatever happens, even more millions of dollars will be spent on both sides over the coming years, money that could be put to better use arguing about real issues or actually doing something to help the country.

Could putting religion in public schools to quell violence be like pouring gas on a fire?

A new Mississippi law requires public schools to develop policies to allow students to pray over school intercoms and at assemblies and sporting events. The law permits students to pray publicly with a disclaimer from school administration. I imagine the disclaimer will be read at super warp speed as at the end of commercials for financial planners and prescription drugs.

In supporting the new law, the New York Times reports that Mississippi Governor Phil Bryant said: “We are about making sure that we protect the religious freedoms of all students and adults whenever we can.”

What Bryant means to protect is not the freedom to practice one’s own religion, but the freedom to practice it in public. He forgets that much like tobacco smoking, overtly public religious expressions create a kind of second-hand smoke that bother others, especially when those praying use AV systems and especially in public schools.

Mississippi is just the latest of the southern states to try to get around the basic constitutional separation of religion and state. The Times notes that last year Florida approved a bill to allow students to read inspirational messages at assemblies and sporting events. Also last year, Missouri voters approved a constitutional amendment that gives residents the right to “pray and acknowledge God voluntarily in their schools,” and a similar amendment was introduced in Virginia this year.  South Carolina legislators introduced a bill last year that would allow for prayer during a mandatory minute of silence at the start of the school day, provided that students who do not want to hear the prayer can leave the classroom.

For more than 30 years, we have seen a concerted encroachment on public spaces. The first wave—starting with Reagan and continuing today—consisted of reducing funding for public spaces, facilities and institutions, be it parks, schools, public universities, libraries or mass transit. In trying to assert the right of religious expression in a public place, proponents of bringing prayer into schools represent a second wave, in which conservatives seek to put public space to private use.

Most frightening to me is the rationale that former Arkansas Governor and religious right-wing nut Mike Huckabee gives for prayer in schools: “We ask why there is violence in our schools, but we have systematically removed God from our schools. Should we be surprised that schools would become places of carnage?”

When Huckabee says that putting religion in schools will make schools less prone to violence, he is ignoring the violent histories of many religions, including Christianity, Islam, Judaism and Hinduism. He forgets the countless religious wars and the countless other wars in which religion was a thin veil for an economic, dynastic or national struggle.  In fact for most of recorded history, rulers and generals have firmly stated that “god is on our side in our war against the unbeliever.” They’ve done it in Europe and in Asia, they’ve done it in the United States and Russia. Even the defenders of the foul institution of slavery in the Confederate States of America claimed that god was on their side.

I would assert that bringing more religion into schools might actually increase violence. It’s not the fact that religion so often advocates violence that concerns me. It’s the permission that religion gives people to engage in violent acts. Those who believe in a life after death must by definition be more prone to engage in violence because they think they will survive into another life and therefore are more willing to take the risks associated with violent behavior. No atheist believes in a life after death. Only those who believe in a personal god believe that a conscious part of us survives this life Instead of risking life, believers in life after death think they are risking only this life. Thus believing in a religion makes one more likely to be ready to commit a violent act. That religion also gives people a motive—god wants me to kill the enemy—also feeds the psychology of violence.

Now inciting people to violence is appropriate in certain contexts—the military for example.  So it’s not surprising that soldiers tend to be more religious than the general public.  For example, the most recent Pew Foundation study on religious affiliation found that 39.2% of all Americans are either atheist, agnostic or have no affiliation. By contrast, the most recent poll of military personnel by The Military Times finds that only 28.68% of our fighting men and women are atheist, agnostic or have no affiliation.

But a public school is not the military. It’s only half-facetiously that I write that putting religion is public schools could be the equivalent of pouring gasoline on a fire.

Yet even if religion decreased violence, that would still be no reason to bring it into public schools.  In the United States, religion is supposed to be a private matter. Those wishing to turn our public spaces into celebrations of their own religious beliefs are about as un-American as one could possibly be.

The six major outcomes of Iraq War should make us wary of future wars

As we approach the 10 year anniversary of the invasion of Iraq by U.S. forces we hear some calling for pursuing a war against Iran over its ostensible development of nuclear weapons.

Before we pull the trigger on another military action anywhere for any reason, we should consider what resulted from the Bush II’s Administration decision to ignore the evidence and invade Iraq under the false pretenses that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was aiding Al Qaida.  I count six major outcomes of the Iraq War, all bad:

1. The enormous loss of life

Estimates of casualties range from 100,000 to more than 600,000 deaths. Many people are starting to use the Brown University figures for deaths:

  • 4,488 U.S. soldiers
  • 3,400 U.S. mercenaries (AKA military contractors)
  • 319 soldiers from allied countries
  • 56,000 Iraqi military and security personnel
  • 134,000 Iraqi civilians

These numbers refer to deaths alone and do not include the number of people wounded.

2. The destruction of Iraqi society and economy

Iraq has devolved from a totalitarian-authoritarian state to a fragmented and fractionalized mess that is impossible to govern. The economy is still in shambles. One estimate sets at over a million the number of displaced Iraqis. Displaced means they can’t live where they used to live anymore because of the destruction.

3. The cost of the war, now trillions of dollars and still rising

Along with its twin folly in Afghanistan, the Bush II invasion of Iraq has bankrupted the United States. To the degree that the United States has a real deficit problem, it has not been caused by social spending or the bill for Baby Boomer Social Security. No, it’s the Iraq-Afghanistan war spending combined with the enormous tax cut given to the wealthy during the Bush II years.  If you wonder why there are fewer cops on the beat, why your brother-in-law was kicked out of a job training program, why there are more kids in your daughter’s fourth grade class or why you’re waiting at the airport longer, remember that you’re paying so that we could invade Iraq while the rich squirrel away the extra cash they have from lower taxes.

4. The creation of the American torture gulag

The Iraq War served as the main staging ground for the Bush II Administration’s illegal, ineffective and immoral torture program.

5. America’s loss of respect

The U.S. reputation and credibility plummeted around the world.  The world saw us lie, run a war incompetently, resort to torture and then lie some more. By invading Iraq we surrendered whatever sympathy we had gathered in the Arab world and elsewhere following 9/11.

6. The tainting of our political process

By all rights, Bush, Cheney and their henchmen should have all been prosecuted for lying to the country about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and illegally establishing a world-wide program of torture.  Richard Nixon resigned before he could be impeached for one instance of domestic espionage against the opposing party. Bill Clinton was impeached for telling one lie about an affair. And yet not only has Congress not brought Bush II and Cheney to justice, the Obama Administration has sought to bury their crimes under the guise of “looking forward.”

Contemplating the ways that the Iraq War destroyed Iraq while harming Americans in so many direct and indirect ways, I am reminded of a Pete Seeger song about war in general that was made famous 50 years ago during another stupid war.  The song is “Where Have All the Flowers Gone?”  Thinking of Iraq and the possibilities of an invasion of Iran, I close my eyes and I can almost hear the sweetly plaintive voices of Peter Yarrow, Paul Stockey and Mary Travers knit together harmoniously for the last line of each verse, “Oh, when will they ever learn, when will they ever learn?”

When will we ever learn?

Privatization of government services is nothing but a boondoggle for political cronies

I was pleased to read that 6 residents of Cincinnati are challenging the City Council’s plan to privatize parking. They want to put the plan on the ballot and let voters decide.

The City Council is giving the typical reason for outsourcing control of what amounts to about 11% of the parking spots in Cincinnati: they say they need the pre-payment of $92 million to close a budget gap and save 344 jobs.   That’s obviously a load of hooey. What will the city do next time it needs to balance a budget? Instead of keeping a steady stream of income from a community asset, the City Council is taking a one-time payment (plus an additional paltry $3 million a year for 30 years). It’s very short-term thinking.

The Port of Greater Cincinnati Development Authority is paying the money and will then contract with private operators.  The Authority and the private operators would not be involved if they couldn’t make a profit. Why can’t the city continue to operate the parking lots and spaces and make the profit itself? It won’t solve Cincinnati’s fiscal dilemma, but nor will selling off money-making assets.

Cincinnati faces the typical problems of most cities: People work there, but live and pay most of their taxes to the surrounding suburbs. Because Cincinnati is the center of the metropolitan area, it has virtually all of the public institutions such as universities and hospitals, all non-profits exempt from paying property taxes. In short, the tax base is too narrow and unfairly made narrower by the unwillingness of suburbanites to contribute to the municipalities that provide them with jobs, entertainment, tertiary health care and institutions of higher learning. Fixing the basic tax inequities would provide a permanent solution. Instead, the City Council wants to give away the store—probably to political cronies.

The idea of privatizing standard and long-time government functions such as parking, prisons, highways and schools is nothing more than an elaborate scheme to transfer wealth from the many to the few.  Just consider the money flow and you’ll see that I’m right:

  • Instead of the government making the profit, the owners of the privatized companies do. The few take the profit from the many.
  • The typical company providing privatized services is non-unionized with most employees making far less money than the government workers who previously did the jobs.  Executives in government services typically make far less than their counterparts on the outside. Again, the few take the profit from the many.

One of the most repeated myths in the marketplace of ideas is that the private sector always does it better than the public sector. All evidence indicates that it certainly isn’t true when it comes to prisons, the privatization of which has led to many scandals.

If we compare like populations, we see that privatization of schools hasn’t worked either.  Comparing private schools to public schools proves nothing, since the population of private schools is so much wealthier and well-connected. We have to compare public schools to their replacement in public school areas—the charter school.   Virtually all studies show that the charter school movement has yielded disappointing results in student performance in school and on standardized tests (which don’t test all skills, but do test a lot of skills such as reading and math that are needed to get through life and hold down a job).  But right-wing politicians like charter schools, because charter school teachers typically don’t have to belong to the union.  The teachers make less (and thereby put downward pressure on the pay of other teachers and job-holders) and the charter school operators make more.

What’s funny is that the way to fix the flaws that critics find in public institutions such as schools and prisons is more money. More money for more teachers, better books, labs and computers. More money for more guards and more education programs for prisoners. But the profit reaped by the owners of companies that run outsourced government services results in society having less money to throw at the problems.

What the 20th century should have taught us is that mixed economies work best. There are lots of societal functions for which private businesses are in a position to deliver the best mix of price and benefits. But the services that government has run for ever, or at least since the 18th and 19th centuries, seem to have worked pretty well. At least they did until the
Reaganites and their even more conservative political descendents decided to starve government by lowering taxes.



Parade list hides fact that corporate CEOs make so much money

Parade Magazine just came out with this year’s edition of “What People Earn,” which catalogues the jobs and earnings of about 80 people across the country.

Surveying a mere 80 people doesn’t provide statistical certainty that the results reflect realty. In fact, the 80 people could be said to people an imaginary Parade universe, which we can otherwise call the alternative world of work that Parade wants us to see it. Some readers think I cover Parade too much, but it is the most well-read magazine in the country by virtue of it being included as part of the Sunday issue of virtually all daily newspapers. In its quiet way, Parade is one of the most influential arbiters of values and mores in the mass media.

So how does Parade’s survey do when it comes to reflecting the real world?

Not well.

For example, about 60% of the people surveyed by Parade make under $75,000 a year, whereas in the real world about 88% of people earn $75,000 or less according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

In Parade’s world, the most common way to earn $75,000-$125,000 a year is to work for the government in some specialist or managerial capacity. I couldn’t find easy statistics on what percentage of people earning from $75,000-$125,000 work for local, state or federal government, but I can’t imagine that it’s anywhere near the 55% of all employees in this salary segment that we see in Parade’s alternative world of work. Could the subliminal effect of seeing all these well-paid government workers be to make the lower wage earners think that government workers are unfairly paid? Now wouldn’t that play right into the right-wing program to foster resentment against unionized government workers.

Surely the less moneyed readers couldn’t resent any of the nine people in the survey who make more than one million dollars a year. None of the million-dollar earners, by the way, earn less than $8.0 million.

Why no resentment? Because they are all celebrities—athletes or entertainers.  Typically, we admire celebrities and only resent what they earn in comparative terms—(as is: LeBron James doesn’t deserve to make more than Tom Brady, for example).

Among the million-dollar earners on Parade’s list there is not a single CEO of a big company, nor any professional investor or investment banker, nor any very successful physician or attorney.   By contrast, the Parade survey lists only owners and executives of businesses as earning between $125,000 and $1.0 million, and all of these earn considerably less than $500,000.  It seems to me that the message here is that business owners and executives don’t make outsized amounts of money—they only make a little bit more than the average Jane and Joe.

Parade’s alternative world of work, then, is a meritocracy in which to reach the top you have to have a lot of talent in some very specific areas—athletics, singing, dancing, performing.  While Parade’s world is primarily rich and poor/lower middle class, there is actually a higher number of people in the middle and upper ends of middle class income levels in Parade’ s world than in actual life. The Parade world also seems somewhat fairer than the real world because there are no bosses making millions and tens of millions of dollars a year while their employees work for almost nothing. There are no investment bankers manipulating the finances of companies to skim off profit while workers lose ground to inflation. The only business owners we see are close to being regular and hard-working guys and gals.

All we have at the top of Parade’s alternative world of work are the mythical gods and goddesses who the mass media erect as role models showing us how we should live our lives, the alpha and omega of our value system—the celebrity.

Who will buy things when only a few have money?

Was anyone shocked to learn today’s news that while corporate profits have made a recovery, jobs and incomes have not? Shouldn’t we be used to these jobless recoveries by now?

The last two recoveries before this tepid one did not see large increases in jobs.  It could be that economic bubbles hide excess labor that flourishing companies start to carry, so when the bubble bursts, millions of jobs go away permanently.

At each recession, businesses have learned how to make do with fewer workers. And as each year passes, the inequality-creating policies of low taxes on the wealthy, privatization of government services, union-busting and a low minimum wage have continued to erode the incomes and buying power of all but the top one or five percent of incomes.

This elixir of policies allows wealth to accumulate at the top and enables the owners of productive means to grab everyone’s share of a growing economy.

It used to be that when the economic pie grew, everyone’s slice got a little bigger. Now only the portion allotted by owners to themselves is growing.

The sequester is one small step in the squeezing of everyone else for the benefit of the rich. Congress and the President have decided that they no longer want to borrow money to pay for jobs and services that taxes used to finance before the Bush II tax cuts for the wealthy. Rather than raise taxes to pre-Bush levels  to pay for these jobs and services, we are cutting them out. Meanwhile, the rich continue to count their tax savings.

The current trend can only go so far, however. Who will buy things if only the rich have money? Either enough businesses will realize that they need middle class customers to survive or we’ll have a 30’s-like depression and social protest movements will reach a level that scares the ruling elite into economic policies that produce a flatter income and wealth chart.

In the mean time, however, millions of people are going to suffer. And by suffer, I don’t mean not being able to buy the latest generation of smartphones or having to go to junior college for two years. I mean not having enough to eat or having a text book in  high school classes and not having a library opened nearby. I’m talking about not being able to afford a doctor or medicine.  I’m talking about homelessness and living on the edge and off the Internet grid.

Meanwhile the wealthy will eat cake—flourless chocolate, judging from the dessert trends in expensive restaurants nowadays.