Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Thomas Frank in the New York Times

I'm very distressed by my lack of time today. From 7:30 a.m. until 9 p.m., all I do is cook oatmeal and feed it to the baby, monitor the 7-year-old's screen time, tote them to playgrounds or libraries, prepare and serve their lunches, put the baby for a nap, try to keep steering the 7-year-old from reading to drawing to building Legos, and away from literally climbing up the walls or running into them at full speed - in between it all answering his myriad questions and fending off his myriad ideas for complicated, resource-intense, messy things to do. Then I make dinner, do some dishes, and put them to bed.

Sometimes I get a shower, and if I'm really organized, I manage to brush my hair before twisting it back up out of my face; last week I went almost three days before I managed a hair-brushing. The Paxil makes it much easier to do these things without going completely crazy; it's like that part of my brain really has been checked into a mental hospital, so the rest of me can continue the mind-numbing and unpaid and utterly invisible labor of things-that-must-be-done.

Meanwhile, I ponder my leadership potential, the wisdom I have to offer for policy-setting in these wild times, and wonder if it's all being wasted on poopy diapers and random second grader curiosities, or if all those human acts of dailiness, combined with the snatches of reading and writing, could possibly be enough of a contribution to the work of healing this ravaged planet and her despairing inhabitants...

I read Thomas Frank's "What's the Matter with Kansas" last year; one of my sisters used to live in the wealthy Kansas City suburb that grew up around Sprint, where her husband worked at the time. Maybe sometime I'll be able to put together a coherent thought about Frank's ideas...not tonight.

Defunders of Liberty


Before he became K Street's most enterprising racketeer, Jack Abramoff was best known as a sort of young Robespierre of the Reagan Revolution. In 1983, as chairman of the College Republicans, he declared that he and his minions did not "seek peaceful coexistence with the left. Our job is to remove them from power permanently."

By all accounts, Abramoff carried out this mission with a Ramboesque single-mindedness. A ferocious latter-day red-baiter, he seems to have encountered Communists everywhere he went in early-80's America, fighting them (literally, with his fists) on campus, detecting their influence in the nuclear freeze movement, scheming to checkmate students worried about El Salvador by calling attention to the crimes of "their beloved Soviet Union." As a reward he got his handsome mug on the cover of the John Birch Society's Review of the News.

Abramoff's remark about liquidating the left was not just the intemperate raving of a hot-blooded youth. It also expressed the essence of the emerging conservative project: You don't just argue with liberals, you damage them. You use the power of the state to afflict their social movements, to wreck their proudest government agencies, and to divert their funding streams. "Defund the left" was a rallying cry all across the New Right in those heady days; Richard Viguerie even devoted a special issue of Conservative Digest to the subject in 1983.

Abramoff and his clean-cut campus radicals pushed their own "defund the left" campaign with characteristic elan, declaring war on Ralph Nader's Public Interest Research Groups, or PIRG, environmental and consumer activist outfits that were funded by student activity fees on some campuses. The young conservatives were always careful to cast the issue as a matter of "student rights" versus political coercion, but Abramoff clearly saw it as an avenue to ideological victory. "When we win this one," he boasted in 1983, "we'll have done more to neutralize Ralph Nader than anyone else, ever."

What the young conservatives of those days understood was that slogans are cheap, but institutions are not. Once broken or bankrupted, they do not snap back to fight another day. Cut off PIRG's supply lines and the groups must dedicate their resources to justifying their existence, making it that much harder for them to agitate against nuclear power. It's the political equivalent of strategic bombing, in which you systematically blast the rail junctions and ball-bearing factories of the other side.

Examples of such B-52 politics are all around us today. There are "paycheck protection" and school voucher campaigns, which are sold as rights issues but which are actually megaton devices to vaporize the flow of funds from labor unions to Democratic candidates. Social Security privatization, promoted as a way to make our retirements cushier, will also divert billions of dollars away from the welfare state and into the coffers of the G.O.P.'s allies on Wall Street.

Then there is the K Street Project. Almost as soon as they took control of Congress in 1995, Republican leaders began leveraging their newfound power to transform the corporate lobbying industry into a patronage fiefdom of the G.O.P. Lobbying firms were urged to hire true-believing Republicans or lose their "access"; once the personnel were Republican, the money followed. The result for the other side was also predictable: less money flowing to Democrats and a severe devaluation of a career in progressive politics. If Democrats have no place in Washington's private sector, then the attractiveness of being a liberal is diminished by just that much more.

What is most ingenious about all this is not so much its destructiveness but the way it appeals to mainstream notions of fairness. Consider another of Jack Abramoff's remarks from back in the days when he raged against PIRG. The groups, he said, should "compete in the free marketplace of ideas" just like the College Republicans did, where attracting private funding was what proved an idea to be "truly good and truly worthwhile."

In Washington today, where each bad idea to rattle through the nation's billionaire class seems to have a dedicated think tank to push it along, we are living out Abramoff's dictum: that an idea is not worth hearing unless a large amount of somebody's money is behind it.


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