September 27, 2005

Brownie, You're Doing a Heck of a Job

Ex-FEMA Director Michael Brown has been testifying all day today before a special House Committee looking into the response to hurricane Katrina. Some things he has said are astounding, and provide much insight into the Bush Administration's philosophy of government:

--Brown is still on the federal payroll, as a "consultant" to FEMA. Which probably means he's making more money now, paid by you and me, than he was as head of FEMA. Weren't we told a couple of weeks ago that Brown has resigned from FEMA?

--The federal government should not be in the business of providing ice or gasoline to areas hit by disasters. Even though people died in the oppressive heat of Louisiana of dehydration and heat-related conditions after Katrina. Even though bodies were rotting in the streets and in morgues, because there was no electricity. Even though ice is needed to keep medicine from spoiling where there's no electricity and thus no refrigeration. Even though people were stuck in 100 mile traffic jams for 17 hours in Texas before hurricane Rita hit, when many cars ran out of gas and clogged the roadways as the gas stations all ran out of gas.

--The Department of Homeland Security, when it took over FEMA, eviscerated the emergency agency and did not give it the resources it needed. When FEMA submitted a budget request for newer and better communications equipment, DHS removed the request. And how many times did Brown state his concerns publicly? Zero.

Many people have said that Katrina exposed the wide racial and economic gulfs that exist in the U.S. today. That's true and a good thing, but Katrina has also exposed the huge gulf that separates Democrats and Republicans, over the very purpose of government. Republicans, especially those conservatives who have led the party since Ronald Reagan was elected president in 1980, believe in cutting spending for things like health, education and welfare. Things like levees and emergency communications equipment in New Orleans. Things like college tuition loans. Things like clean air and clean water and national parks. You know, the stuff that actually helps people and improves the quality of their lives. The GOP attitude is, I got mine, you get your own. Remember when Ronald Reagan's adminstration cut school lunch programs by decreeing that ketchup is a vegetable and counted toward the 2-vegetable requirement? Remember when George W. Bush sought to allow higher arsenic levels in drinking water? Grover Norquist, President of Americans for Tax Reform (which, surprise surprise, was started inside the Reagan White House) and conservative it-man of the moment, has stated “my goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Given the images of New Orleans underwater, this is a most unfortunate statement. But the idea of "starving the beast" by cutting programs for poor and middle class folks, while cutting federal revenues by cutting taxes for the wealthy, is quite popular among Republicans these days, as it was in the days of Ronald Reagan. Of course, Republcans are willing to make a wee exception for war spending. I'm sure it's just a coincidence that lucrative war spending contracts go to GOP cronies, friends and supporters such as, let's all say it together, Halliburton. And, Republicans make another wee exception for pet pork projects such as the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska that was part of the most recent pork-laden transportation bill.

The Democrats -- need it be said? -- have a different philosophy of government. Democrats believe government can and should help people, especially those on the lower half of the economic and societal ladder. Democrats believe that we're all in this together. They believe that when the least well-off do better, Americans all do better as a nation. And guess what? Under President Clinton, the rich did better financially as well. The New Deal. Social Security. Medicare. The Civil Rights Act. The Voting Rights Act. The Great Society. The Securities and Exchange Commission and other government agencies designed to police, and protect citizens from the effects of, bad behavior in the "free" market. Who envisioned and got this stuff enacted? The Democrats, of course, with, from time to time, some enlightened or embarrassed Repubicans in Congress. Who wants to dismantle these programs and oversight agencies? The Republicans, of course. When Republicans use the term "reform," as with Social Security, that's the red flag that means "destroy."

Meanwhile, ol' Brownie is collecting his consulting fees paid by the American taxpayers. I guess that's reason number 10,502 to be a Democrat.

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September 19, 2005

Reason # 10,501 to be a Democrat

Check out this first glance at a speech John Kerry is giving at Brown U. later today, where he calls the Bush Administration the "Katrina Administration" and explains how failed ideology + cronyism = incompetence.

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September 17, 2005

War of Words

Pro-choice. Pro-life. Death tax. Judicial activism. Legislate from the bench. Culture of life. Raising taxes. Quota. What do these terms mean to you? Probably a lot. They are hot-button phrases that politicians, often after careful test-marketing from political consultants (such as Frank Luntz, the architect of Newt Gingrich's Contract With America) repeat in order to create Pavlovian responses in our brains. Notice how these phrases, and I'm sure you can come up with others, are loaded with postive or negative value judgments. Notice also that, other than "pro-choice," most of the memorable phrases are used by Republicans. From President Bush on down to his White House staff, GOP senators and congressional representatives, and their proxies in the right-wing media, they seem to be speaking these advertising slogans in lockstep. You have to hand it to the GOP, they're just so damn good at this. They believe that the way an issue is framed goes a long way, sometimes even all the way, toward winning the hearts and minds of the people. It seems quite insulting, but given the time and money devoted to this, they must be onto something.

The July 17, 2005 Sunday New York Times Magazine contained an eye-opening article by Matt Bai, entitled "The Framing Wars," on this very subject. Subscribers to the New York Times online version can find the article by searching the magazine link on the web site. It's about how the GOP has been winning these wars for years, and how the Democrats, with the help of linguistics professor George Lakoff and his book "Don't Think of an Elephant!" may be catching up. The example Bai gives of recent Democratic success in this war of words is the disciplined and repeated use of the phrase "abuse of power" to describe, and help defeat, Bush's and Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist's attempt to outlaw the Senate's traditional use of the filibuster in cases of judicial nominations. If you can't locate the Times article, there are some excellent summaries available, with numerous excerpts from the article. I would recommend going to the Daily Kos blog and locating the July 18th post entitled "I Could Kiss the New York Times."

It is important to think about these phrases that are tossed around so regularly in the media. Is the GOP really "pro-life?" Do they really believe in a "culture of life?" If so, how could they be for the death penalty? How can they seek to pass laws to protect the gun industry from lawsuits, a protection that no other industry has, when kids are being mowed down by shooters weilding military assault weapons at Columbine and other schools? Likewise, when they say they favor judges who would not be "judicial activists," who would not "legislate from the bench," what does that mean? Judicial activism is usually defined as ruling counter to legislation passed by the majority in Congress or a state legislature. Does that mean that the GOP wants judges who would have supported slavery, voting rights only for men or property owners, and racial segregation, since those were policies enacted into law by Congress and state legislatures at one time? Similarly, when is the last time a Republican mentioned any affirmative action program and did not use the word "quota" to describe and thus discredit it? When is the last time they mentioned "Iraq" and did not include "war on terror" in the same sentence? Even the Proxy News Channel gets in on that act. Whenever they cover a story on Iraq, they run a giant "War on Terror" graphic across the lower portion of the screen, as if one had anything to do with the other. And on taxes, whenever a Democrat says we should not implement a new tax cut because we have no money to pay for the rebuilding of New Orleans and Iraq at the same time, Republicans say that's raising taxes and thus bad. Since when is not cutting something, and thus keeping it the same, an increase? Only in Washington and only in the Republican party.

The result of this framing is often an extreme policy, one designed to please a narrow special interest group of constituents, dressed up in a reasonable-sounding euphemistic name. Thus, the GOP doesn't oppose affirmative action, it only opposes quotas, and after all, who wants those? They don't want to outlaw abortion and force women into back alleys with coat hangars, they merely want to promote life, and after all, who's against life? They don't oppose judges who identify and protect civil rights in the constitution, or favor judges who find no rights (such as voting rights for women and blacks) other than those explicitly spelled out in the Constitution in 1789, they only oppose judicial activists who would legislate from the bench rather than following the Constitution, and who could argue with that?

It would be nice if voters and reporters saw through these slogans and thought critically about what the speaker really means and who he or she is trying to please. Matt Bai concludes in his article that it would be fruitless for the Democrats try to emulate the GOP in the use of such rhetoric, without the substance of already-popular policies and powerful arguments behind it. Given the gulf between the popularity and power of many GOP policies on the one hand, and the popularity of their catch phrases on the other, I wonder.

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September 16, 2005

Wrong War at the Wrong Time

Here's my letter on Iraq that was published by the Washington Post, in response to a recent op-ed piece:

Robert Kagan said that many people supported taking action against Saddam Hussein for years, but he ignored the critical problem behind President Bush's Iraq war: It was the wrong war at the wrong time.

After Sept. 11, 2001, when the president should have been devoting maximum resources to defeating the terrorist organization that attacked us, he instead used the specter of Sept. 11 to attack a country whose leader, while an evil tyrant, did not attack us on Sept. 11. Not only was this cynical and dishonest, it was and is dangerous.

The United States has devoted only a fraction of the troops and resources it has sent to Iraq to going after Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda in their likely nests in Afghanistan, the border areas of Pakistan and elsewhere. Osama bin Laden has not been caught; al Qaeda has not been defeated. Does any American feel safer?

We all agree that Saddam Hussein was evil and dangerous. As Mr. Kagan pointed out, many valid arguments were made for years that he should be removed from power, perhaps even by military force led by the United States. But the manner in which Mr. Bush used Sept. 11 to accomplish this item on his agenda, while leaving us vulnerable to those who led those terrorist attacks against us, is shameful. I hope that even those with short memories will not forget.

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September 13, 2005

Katrina Mantra

For 4 years, President Bush and his subordinates have used the sacred sorrow and anger we felt on 9/11 in the most cynical possible way, to push for actions and policies on their wish list, such as invading Iraq, weakening environmental rules, and limiting lawsuits, that had nothing to do with 9/11. I'm sure someone has done a search of how many times they have used "Iraq" and "September 11" in the same sentence. Apparently Bush and his loyalists wanted to create a "subliminable" (sic) association in our minds, and with many voters it worked. It's politics at its cynical worst, but nowadays that's just politics here in Washington.

Well, now it's the Democrats' turn. The Democrats should do the exact same thing with hurricane Katrina. Bush's EPA wants to weaken mercury pollution rules? Shouldn't do that, in the wake of Katrina's environmental devastation of the air and water. Cut back on education and health care programs? Shouldn't do that, considering the disproportionate impact Katrina has had on the poor. Blow a bigger hole in the deficit benefitting the rich by eliminating the estate tax and making other tax cuts permanent? It would be fiscally irresponsible and downright embarrassing to do that at a time when Katrina's victims need so much help from our treasury, and where the poverty rate has climbed over the past 4 years. On the contrary, the Democrats should argue, Katrina illustrates how we need to change our priorities to devote resources to improving the plight of the poor and middle class, and rebuilding our cities and our infrastructure. The Democrats should argue that we need to have a frank discussion about poverty and race. In other words, press the Democratic agenda.

It appears the Democrats have learned well from Bush, and are doing just that. The Democrats are conflating the issue of Katrina and their agenda in various forums, including before Judge Roberts at his confirmation hearing. Sen. Leahy: "Today, the devastation, despair facing millions of our fellow Americans in the Gulf region is a tragic reminder of why we have a federal government, why it's critical that our government be responsive." Sen. Kennedy: "The powerful winds and flood waters of Katrina tore away the mask that has hidden from public view the many Americans who are left out and left behind."

Are both of these cases of exploiting a tragedy to achieve items on one's political agenda? Well, yes, but not to do so and not having done so during the past 4 years of "September 11 has shown us that _____" is simply unilateral disarmament and a prescription for defeat. Also, note the difference: Bush's policies are designed to benefit a few, including the super wealthy who would benefit from the repeal of the estate tax, the folks who run oil companies and defense contractors and Halliburton and Bechtel. Most everyone else is hurt, and in the case of the soldiers sent to Iraq, many of whom are poor and/or minorities, where close to 2,000 have been killed and over 14,000 wounded, the hurt is literal.

In contrast, the Democrats' policies and philosophies are largely designed to help people, especially the poor and middle class but also nearly everyone else, with pro-health care, pro-environment, pro-education, pro-fiscal responsibility programs.

Obviously, the Republicans and the Democrats have a different philosophy of government. Bush's philosophy and the programs he tried to push under the guise of 9/11 didn't have much connection to 9/11, but he's had some success in pushing them anyway, especially in selling the country on the invasion of Iraq. Imagine the success the Democrats can have using Katrina to push an agenda that actually does have a direct connection to Katrina.

It's payback time.

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September 12, 2005

Welcome to the Media Concepts Blog

Welcome to the Media Concepts blog, created today. The title "media concepts" reflects my long-held view that the media are the most important influences on our lives.

Whether or not you agree, hopefully this will inspire some debate. For example, many might say that religion is the most important influence on peoples' lives. However, if that is true, it is probably because religion has become a worldwide influence due to the media. Didn't we learn in jr. high that the invention of the Gutenberg printing press in the 15th Century spread the Bible throughout the world for the first time, and that, in turn, the Bible was the first mass marketed media product that created demand for more printing presses and their products? Well, tv and the Internet obviously increase that influence exponentially. I believe that the media are the opiate of the masses. I have seen this influence in my professional career, which has been spent entirely in the media. I was at the new Cable News Network (CNN) in the early and mid 1980's, both at its Atlanta headquarters and in its New York bureau, located in the lobby of the North Tower of the World Trade Center. CNN became the Gutenberg printing press of its day, and spawned an entire industry of 24-hour cable news channels that, depending on one's viewpoint, have been a godsend or a curse, or both. At CNN, I worked on the original "Crossfire" program featuring conservative curmudgeon Pat Buchanan and liberal lion Tom Braden (author of the autobiographical "Eight is Enough"). "Crossfire," which was only recently cancelled after more than 20 years on the air and numerous personnel changes, helped spawn the "food fight format" of cable news that is so prevalent today on programs such as "Hardball," "The Capital Gang," "The Beltway Boys" and others. After CNN, I spent nearly the past 2 decades as an attorney in the communications field, specializing in television and cable, and being directly involved in the shaping of the rules and laws that govern how the media are used to inform and entertain. I am now looking for a new professional challenge, but I'm sure it will be in the media as well.

Of course, those media-related rules and laws, as well as the rules, laws and policies that govern our safety, security and economic well-being, are crafted by parties who are, or who are pressured by, powerful interests who often have narrow, selfish, and even dangerous motives. But that will have to be the subject of another post. Meanwhile, thanks for stopping by!

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