Tuesday, May 4, 2010

Low Blows and Old White People

New Rule: Bill Maher must take a leaf from Charlie Crist’s book and come out of the closet … as a Blue Dog Democrat.

And that’s being kind.

Bill can no longer gad about the nation, advertising himself as a spokesman for Progressives any more than his BFF, Arianna Huffington, can presume to present herself as a spokesman for the middle class.

Bill regularly touts himself as a Progressive, laments about the state of political representation in Congress of real Leftists and loves to advertise his Leftwing credentials, as one who always speaks the truth to America on behalf of the Left.

Well …

Maybe Bill likes to think of himself that way, and that’s admirable. Maybe he aspires to be a paragon of Progressivism, but the real truth is, simply, that he’s not really all that liberal.

Until now, I’ve been willing to give him a pass on the fact that, as a declared Progressive, he’s:-

- in favour of the death penalty

- in favour of racial profiling at airports

- virulently anti-union

- opposes government-funded arts programs

- supported President Bush’s Iraqi surge

After all, in anyone else’s political language that whiffs, more than just a little bit, of ardent Republicanism; but, hey, this is Bill. He’s pro-choice, wants cannabis legalised and is an atheist (for the moment, at least, while it’s fashionable). We real Lefties are tolerant enough to indulge Bill’s peculiar brand of ”Progressivism” for those opinions alone.

But Friday night, I’m afraid, he crossed the Rubicon and is straying dangerously close to the dark side.

Last year, from June onwards, Bill incorporated, as part of his schtick, a species of Obama-bashing. Obama was being seen too much on television. He was becoming too much of a celebrity. He was beginning to believe his own publicity. His only major action during the first 100 days was to buy a dog. He’d achieved nothing in six months and even less in eleven. He should be more like Bush, he was too much like Bush, he was everything and nothing.

Most of all, he was “Barry.”

The gratuitous criticism released a welter of discontent amongst the Left’s base, as misinformed and unknowledgeable in their own way, as their counterparts on the Right. Grumblings on the Left erupted and soon ruptured the new-found Democratic unity. People, rather pompously, declared they would boycott the gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey last November, they would boycott the Massachusetts senatorial election in January, the mid-terms; they hoped for a primary challenge to Obama in 2012 – never imagining that such an open display of dissent would play right into a gameplan for a sure-fire Republican victory. Kucinich, Dean, Alan Grayson … all were touted as what essentially became the Great White Hope of the Left.

In the meantime, Bill traipsed from talk show to talk show, touting the fact that he was the first of all the pundits to dare to criticize the “Chocolate Jesus” and people followed suit.

However, when Real Time returned for an eighth season this past February, it seemed that Bill had imposed a moratorium on Obama-bashing. Some petulant tweets about “Barry’s” handling of Afghanistan and the Underpants Bomber were met with some feisty criticism from his more discerning and more mature fan base; and when the healthcare reform bill was passed, Bill gave the President some long-overdue respect – so much so, people were willing to allow him the privalege of the occasional “Barry” reference.

Friday’s show arrived at the end of a week, which was dominated by news of an oil spill off the Gulf Coast of the United States, as well as increasing tension surrounding the new Arizona Immigration Law and the AFL-CIO’s march on Wall Street, after some particularly rancorous hearings on Capitol Hill between the Senate and Goldman Sachs.

Plenty of fodder for the Real Time panel, which consisted of economist Laura Tyson, conservative NYT columnist Ross Douthat and Bill’s long-time friend and commentator Chris Matthews, with Congressman Anthony Weiner appearing as the fourth guest.

Instead, the panel was dominated by a discussion based on two random quotations made by President Obama and taken entirely out of the context in which they were originally found.

Bill was angry with the President. Again. Because of two sentences uttered by the President.

In the wake of the oil spill, Bill explained to the panel that he was angry with Obama and blaming him for the whole catastrophe. In fact, in his words, he couldn’t understand why “more shit wasn’t being heaped on Obama” because of this. After all, when Obama announced, some weeks previously, that he was proposing to begin highly regulated and limited off-shore drilling as a short-term solution to a long-term problem: weaning us off oil dependency whilst developing newer, greener technology and energy sources. In the meantime, the President had said, something had to be used to keep wheels turning and lights on, and that may as well be domestic, rather than Middle Eastern oil.

However, at that time, the President had stated that he’d received assurances from people who should be in the know, that oil rigs, as they are in the present day, pose little danger to the environment and were, for the most part, safe.

As the panelists, including the conservative Ross Douthat, pointed out, just because this tragedy coincidentally occurred on Obama’s watch, didn’t mean that the blame should be shouldered by the President, and least of all, should he be apportioned blame for proposing to begin off-shore drilling again. As Bill’s initial interview guest, the ueber-conservative John Bolton, pointed out, in that sort of industry – as in the coal-mining disaster some weeks previously – these things happen. Besides, the President’s proposed off-shore drilling wasn’t due to occur for another few years.

Bill tried to justify his anger by saying that Obama had caved in on off-shore drilling, only to appease the Republicans and curry bipartisan cooperation, something Bill cannot abide. As he put it, he realised politics was all about compromise and decision-making, but this was just wrong, in his mind.

As Tyson, the economist who’ d served the Clinton administration, then reiterated, the bipartisanship was already there in the climate-change legislation, itself. In fact, it wasn’t bipartisanship, it was actually tripartisanship, as the bill was being co-authored by Democrat John Kerry, Republican Lindsey Graham and Independent Joe Lieberman. The concession to off-shore drilling wasn’t a sop to the Republicans, but the fact did remain that Republican votes were needed for the eventual passage of the bill.

The usual brouhaha ensued, with Douthat chiming in about the expense of new green technology and Tyson agreeing that eventually energy would have to be taxed in this country in the same way it was taxed in Europe (e.g, value added tax) until the whole discussion climaxed in a surreal argument between Bill and Chris Matthews, which originally concerned wind turbines on the Massachusetts coast, but which terminated in a totally incongruent comparison, by Bill, of the late Senator Edward Kennedy with Roman Polanski.

What wasn’t said and what should have been highlighted were these points:-

1. Candidate Obama had always campaigned on the possibility that he might have to initiate off-shore drilling – again, regulated and limited – as a carryover whilst greener fuel-types were developed. He said, specifically, that developing greener fuel technology would involve some tough decisions, of which he was unafraid to tackle – like, specifically, initiating limited, albeit stringently-controlled, off-shore oil-drilling. He said this, again and again, on the campaign trail. Maybe Bill missed that part, because I know that Bill, unlike many of his fans who supported Obama, actually listened to the man’s speeches. I know that because in a recent interview with Laurence O’Donnell, in referencing the healthcare issue, Bill actually remarked on Obama having said that single payer health cover would be ideal, only if the US were starting from scratch in establishing a health insurance system. So I know that Bill very well heard the whys and wherefores of Barack Obama’s decision to implement off-shore drilling.


2. In all of the discussion surrounding the oil spill on Friday, two spectres hovered in the background like Banquo’s ghost. Their presence was certainly felt, but they were never acknowledged. In the entire discussion, not one participant even ventured to mention the name “Cheney” or “Halliburton.”

Tucked away in the print media that day, was a reported fact that the reason behind the oil rig explosion was due to a particular safety valve not having been installed. This is a required piece of equipment in many oil-producing countries. However, it’s not standard in the UK, home base to BP, the owner of the oil rig. Dick Cheney, it was told, surreptitiously confirmed that BP needn’t install the device, as it would cost some $500,000; this was after Cheney’s old mate company, Halliburton, had actually built the structure.

Now, I understand Ross Douthat, the token Republican on the panel, choosing not to bring up either Cheney or Halliburton. I understand Laura Tyson, perhaps, not knowing. But neither Chris nor Bill ever turn down an opportunity to Cheney-bash, or Cheeney-bash, as the case may be with Chris. At the moment when it might have seemed Chris might bring this up, instead he dove into the discussion about wind turbines and how Ted Kennedy compared to Roman Polanski.

The point is that Bill deliberately cherry-picked a sentence spoken by the President and spun it into a veil of blame, encompassing Obama and only Obama as concerned the oil spillage. When Tyson eventually pointed out that one of the President’s first reactions was to call an immediate halt to all off-shore drilling until the causes behind this tragedy had been investigated, Bill’s rather high-handed retort was, “Flip-flopping. Well, that would be one flip-flop I could believe in.”

The second comment which had evoked the ire of Maher this week, in relation to Obama, was a sentence he’d spoken at the meeting of Wall Street bankers some days before, when Obama remarked that Wall Street and Main Street are alike. Considering the fact that the previous week, Bill had admitted not understanding the stock market - honesty which I admire, because I don’t understand that system, myself – he took umbrage at that, remarking that it was the sort of stupid thing George Bush would say. He asked Tyson, the economist, for her thoughts.

She gave a beauty of an answer, before attempting to explain why Wall Street and Main Street were similar.

“Well,” she began, “Considering I don’t know the sentence that was spoken before that particular one, nor the one which was spoken afterward, I’m not prepared to venture an opinion, and neither should you.”

That one observation was all that needed to be said about and to Bill this week, because the entire panel discussion centered around two blatantly cherry-picked remarks, spun into a skein of righteous indignation and thrown into the public domain for consumption.

Please, don’t get me wrong. Criticism of our leaders and our government is allowed and expected, but as they have to be responsible in their actions on our behalf, so we must be responsible in our criticism. In past programs, and most notably, this season, Bill has, rightly, taken the likes of Fox News and the Teabagging contingent to task for irresponsible and wanton criticism of the President – for basically, clutching at the flimsiest of straws – a remark, an action, a nuance – and spinning it into something sinister and frightening.

In fact, Bill markedly pointed the finger at one particular demographic, within the Republican party, whom, he reckoned, guiltiest of inciting such discord: old white people. Old white people, he’s said repeatedly, are the one demographic group who hate Obama. They are the ones, who pluck a word or sentence out of context and parse each word meticulously, until they are able to prove a pejorative point regarding the President’s motives. They are the ones who listen to the likes of Beck and Hannity as they do the same and reinforce their prejudices. Old white people, mostly those who are – in Arianna Huffington’s words – male, stale and pale, are the ones who regularly call the President “Barry.”

And “flip-flop” is an equally pejorative term used by people on the Left to refer contemptuously, and rightly so, about the craven denial of principles in exchange for votes, practiced by the likes of Mitt Romney or even John McCain. Obama deciding to halt a practice in the wake of a tragic accident concerning the relevant industry isn’t flip-flopping. It’s showing responsible caution.

The White House have confirmed, since, that it’s too early to decide whether to rescind their original proposal to re-institute off-shore drilling. That doesn’t mean they’re being stubborn and recalcitrant. It means they are looking into all the details surrounding this tragedy and getting the mess cleared up and paid for by the guilty parties, before ultimately deciding. That’s deliberating, not knee-jerk.

Bill ended his program with an editorial warning Islamic religious fanatics of our cultural superiority as ingrained in our written Constitution. His final words deemed Freedom of Speech in our country as “not negotiable.” That’s true, as long as one exercises such freedom responsibly.

Political pundits indulging in parsing individual sentences spoken by the President of the United States and presenting their meaning as something totally different in order to promote their own agenda or to incite the public is the stuff of hacks like Beck or Hannity, whom Bill recently dubbed “Hack Hackington.” When Bill does this sort of thing, for whatever reason, he’s as irresponsible as they.

Bill’s better than that. He knows better than that, otherwise he risks being identified with that particular demographic who are white, over fifty and call the President “Barry.”

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