Thursday, October 28, 2010

Thinking about the election.....

I am thoroughly sick of the election coverage right now. This has been going on since November 2008. Sarah Palin is suffering from overexposure (and not just the Alaskan weather kind) and I can't keep track anymore of which vitriolic right-wing candidate's followers have arrested or beaten up people who disagree with the candidate. Joe Miller, Rand Paul, they all run together after a while. Personally, I think private retinues of political thugs is a rather ominous phenomenon. Alas, I'm not talking about Roderick Spode again.

The Tea Party is a formidable opponent, far more ferocious than the old-line institutional Republicans like Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. They have a broad appeal to the people who feel they've been given short shrift by the system. Most of them are, however, probably mad at the government for what was actually done to them by their health insurance companies, employers, or banks, or the general and continuous slide in real wages since the 1970s, rather than the government.... but it is hard to get that point across. In any case, they're mad as hell and are lashing out at the most visible and vulnerable target. After all, you can't vote out the head of your HMO after your benefits have been slashed.

In that respect, they're not that different in motivation than the progressives who voted the Democrats into control of Congress in 2008, and into the White House in 2008. Some of them are probably even the same people.

Still, when the Tea Party puts the Republicans back in charge of the House, it won't be the hellraisers who get the prominent seats and the most power. We'll be back to guys like McConnell, Boehner, Cantor, et al., most of whom have been in DC for ages. Even if Christine O'Donnell, Rand Paul, Carly Fiorina, or any of the other current crop of Tea Party heart-throbs get elected, they'll be reduced to cogs in a machine controlled by older men with very different priorities, including an affinity for corporate economics and an ill-concealed disdain for the people and populism, even as manifested in the Tea Party. There is seldom any gratitude in politics.

Thus the irony.

It also says a great deal about the respective priorities of the Obama White House and the Republican machine that while the White House has imposed strict new disclosure and access requirements for lobbyists and has fought for campaign finance reform, the Republican candidates in this year's election benefit from the Citizens United windfall, which opened the gates to a flood of unregulated cash from anonymous donors. The Republicans are outspending Democrats seven to one on media advertisements, and it hasn't escaped public notice that multimillionaires in New York are meddling in congressional elections in Oregon by essentially laundering money through a 527.

For all that President Obama and his supporters have accomplished in the last year and a half-- and the list is really impressive, to those who bother to read it-- it was unlikely the Democrats would retain even their nominal control of Congress after the midterms.

That the Democrats managed to accomplish what they did in the face of such entrenched, well-coordinated, and well-funded opposition is extremely impressive.

I call it a nominal control because of two things. The Republicans managed to get a great deal of mileage out of simply saying 'no' and filibustering at every opportunity, and because the Democratic majority was a paper tiger that depended too heavily on Blue Dogs, many of whom are 'conservatives in the wrong party,' so to speak-- leftovers from before Goldwater and Nixon turned the Republican party into what it is now. Once you stop counting the Blue Dogs as Democrats (which Reid and Pelosi might well have done, since they couldn't count on Blue Dog support without heaps of pork), the Democrats didn't have any kind of a majority at all.

Most importantly, the expectation that the Democrats will take losses in the 2010 election isn't sour grapes or pessimism, it's based in historical reality.

Incumbent parties almost always take a brutal walloping in the midterm after a new president is elected. The most recent such midterm, in 2002, was an anomaly, largely because of the September 11 terrorist attacks. Even in midterms in general, every midterm election for the last 70 years has resulted in the President's party losing seats in Congress, with exactly three exceptions-- 1934, 1998, and 2002.

I must admit, though, that the Democrats are actually doing better than I expected.

What I find exasperating, however, is how many Democratic candidates like Chet Edwards, Jason Altmire, and Joe Manchin have essentially given in to the right wing's demonization of the President, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and (perhaps most of all) Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Most of these guys are essentially Blue Dogs anyways, and fighting for their lives against Republicans, but it is infuriating nonetheless.

The Republicans, for their part, generally wasted no time in running away from George W. Bush after 2006. I'm sure the world still wonders why.

I think part of the problem is that the public is just grossly misinformed about the issues.

TARP didn't start under Obama, it started under Bush.

So did the auto industry bailout.

The deregulation that allowed the crash of 2008 also happened under Bush, but Obama did something about that.

Most of 'Obamacare' consisted of strictures binding on health insurers, not the consumer, and were certainly more to the benefit of the consumer than the Republican bill of 2005, which forbade Medicare from negotiating pharmaceutical prices and gave Big Pharma the right to charge whatever it wanted.

The Obama administration actually CUT taxes for most people, which begs the question of exactly what reality most of the Tea Party howlers live in.

I'd particularly like to know how many people in the US actually understand what socialism is and how it works, as opposed to just parroting right-wing talking points.

In general, the election coverage as a whole increasingly begs the question of whether a non-conservative administration, candidate, or party can expect a fair shake from an increasingly partisan news media. Jon Stewart really IS the hardest-hitting journalist in the media, and I'm appalled by that fact too.

By partisan, of course, I certainly do not mean the mythical "liberal media." I point as an example, rather, to the network whose owner has donated millions of dollars to Republican party organs, and whose primary media outlet once used as a defense in court the argument that the media has no obligation to tell the truth.

The result ultimately remains to be seen......

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Glenn Beck, America's Own Roderick Spode

My last post, Glenn Beck, The World’s Greatest Authority on Slavery, included the phrase “America’s own Roderick Spode.” I cross-posted the blog on the Daily Kos, and one Mr. Dbug enjoyed it immensely.

The more I think about the comparison, the more apt and amusing it seems, so I thought I should delve into it some more.

This is Roderick Spode, as played by John Turner in an episode of the Jeeves and Wooster television series produced during the 1990s. Most Americans will probably not know who Spode is, save for those of us who enjoy British humor.

Roderick Spode is a recurring character in P.G. Wodehouse’s “Jeeves” novels. Spode, usually portrayed as a nemesis of Jeeves’ master Bertie Wooster, is an overbearing presence, described as looking “as if Nature had intended to make a gorilla, and had changed its mind at the last moment.” In his spare time, Spode is an "amateur Dictator" and the leader of his own fascist movement, dubbed The Black Shorts. Spode is typically encountered as he stomps around the countryside, delivering passionate speeches at rallies (click to see Spode at full tilt) or marches consisting of a few dozen Black Shorts, while he poses and preens as if he was watching thousands go by.

Although an aristocrat—a baronet, and the 7th Earl of Sidcup-- and a wealthy man, Spode is a populist who believes that national industrial capacity, national prosperity and national unity are correlated, promising that “at birth, every citizen, as of right, will be issued with a British bicycle and an honest British-made umbrella. Thus assured of a mobile workforce adequately protected against the elements, this great country can go forward once more to glory!”

If Wodehouse’s satiric pen is laid aside for the moment, much of Spode’s ideology consists of a marriage of scientific rationalism (the idée du jour) to appeals to historic British nationalism, particularly the ideal of the “free-born Englishman.” Though in reality largely mythical, the idea was real enough in the heads of generation after generation of nostalgic working-class Britons as they sought a decent condition for themselves in the socioeconomic hammermill of the Industrial Revolution.

For all his buffoonery, Spode is unalterably convinced that he is right and bound only for success, and takes every opportunity to press his views on the idle landed gentry who are Bertie’s social circle. As Spode himself put it, “Nothing stands between us and our victory except defeat! Tomorrow is a new day! The future lies ahead!”

Like Beck, Spode had many strange fixations—his political platform included dedicating Wales entirely to the production of turnips; a ban on the import of foreign root vegetables; the mandatory eating of asparagus; widening railroads to allow for the transport of livestock; and the scientific measurement of all British male knees (a riff on the contemporary eugenics movement). Spode enthused at length on the knee issue in The Code of the Woosters, declaiming: “Not for the true-born Englishman the bony angular knee of the so-called intellectual, not for him the puffy knee of the criminal classes. The British knee is firm, the British knee is muscular, the British knee is on the march!” Spode is glib when it comes to defending his bizarre positions, with blandishments such as “I can assure you, it has all been worked out scientifically ...”

One of the easygoing Bertie Wooster’s few truly fiery moments was when he upbraided the overbearing Spode in The Code of the Woosters, written in 1938.

The trouble with you, Spode, is that just because you have succeeded in inducing a handful of half-wits to disfigure the London scene by going about in black shorts, you think you're someone. You hear them shouting "Heil, Spode!" and you imagine it is the Voice of the People. That is where you make your bloomer. What the Voice of the People is saying is: "Look at that frightful ass Spode swanking about in footer bags! Did you ever in your puff see such a perfect perisher?"

—P. G. Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster in The Code of the Woosters (1938)

Granted, Bertie had an ace up his sleeve, courtesy of his valet Jeeves, concerning Spode’s own dark secret—that Spode’s other enterprise is a very successful ladies’ undergarment store. As Bertie later put it, "You can't be a successful dictator and design women's or the other, not both..."

Spode was a cutting parody of the UK’s real would-be fascist of the 1930s, the pompous but deadly serious Sir Oswald Mosley, the aristocratic leader of the British Union of Fascists, as well as other fascist leaders such as Benito Mussolini, Adolf Hitler, and the like. Most of Mosley’s BUF was consciously based on Mussolini’s Brown Shirts and similar fascist groups in other countries, and his Black Shirt paramilitary organization were a rising and ominous force in British politics during the 1930s, until their defeat in an East London street brawl known as the Battle of Cable Street brought about the Public Order Act of 1936, forbidding political uniforms and private paramilitary associations in the UK. Mosley and the BUF championed British isolationism both before and after the outbreak of the Second World War. Mosley himself was attacked by a mob after the German invasion of Norway, following which he was interned as a potential spy or traitor, and kept under arrest for the remainder of the war. Ironically, after the war he changed his politics dramatically and launched a new, non-fascist organization, the Union Movement, whose goal was a unified Europe. Mosley continued as a perennial fringe candidate in British politics until 1977.

If you haven’t seen the Jeeves and Wooster series, incidentally you are seriously deprived—Hugh Laurie stars as Bertie Wooster, a well-meaning wastrel aristocrat, and the incredible Stephen Fry stars as Jeeves, valet to the gods. Hilarity ensues.

This is Glenn Beck. Most Americans will know who he is, mostly because he’s managed to attract a great deal of attention to his on-air and on-screen antics, as well as his recent rally at the Lincoln Memorial.

[I assure you, I had nothing to do with the coincidence in their poses and uniforms. All right, so I did, but it was only because the resemblance is what put the Beck = Spode thing in my head in the first place.]

Glenn Beck is a prominent conservative talk-radio personality, television presenter, and political activist, strongly allied with the more radical elements of the Republican party and other conservative organizations. He was born in 1964 and grew up in Washington State, having been raised Catholic. Catholicism notwithstanding, his parents divorced when he was 13, due to his mother’s alcoholism. Rather than attending college, Beck got married, worked a series of low-paying jobs at radio stations and “getting high every day” for fifteen years. After joining Alcoholics Anonymous in 1994, he remarried and converted to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, commonly known as the Mormons. From the late 1970s until 1999, Beck was a low-grade comedian and prankster, one step up from Jackass or Punkd.

Mr. Beck is frequently lampooned for his frantic blackboard diagramming and over-emotional delivery, including his famous March 13, 2009 ‘breakdown’ when he broke out in tears and theatrically sobbed, "I'm sorry, I just love my country and I fear for it." Jon Stewart of the Daily Show parodies Beck’s style here. The weeping was eventually revealed to be a not-even-very-clever stage trick, done by smearing Vick’s Vapo-Rub on his face to make his eyes water. Beck marries the fervor of the convert and true believer to the cynical charlatanry of the carnival huckster.

Beck is also frequently criticized by economists, scientists, historians, and other experts for gross errors of fact and repeated clumsy attempts to rewrite the republic’s history to fit his political views. These have included Beck’s supporting the patently false claim that Thomas Jefferson endorsed the idea of the US as a Christian republic, based on the evidence of his having signed shipping permits dated with the phrase “In the year of our lord, Christ.” As Chris Rodda promptly and succinctly pointed out, however, the documents in question were pre-printed forms prepared by the Dutch government, which was not separate from the Dutch Reformed Church, rather than the US government.

Beck’s standard approach to virtually any topic is to take any issue, whether a thing he favors or a straw-man iteration of something he opposes, and weaving around it a tangle of saccharine uber-patriotism, Leave-It-To-Beaver family values, and New World Order conspiracy theory, in which the latter imperils the former. He describes the federal government and the progressive movement as an enormous conspiracy dedicated to the repression of individual rights and the American way of life, staging a coup (referring to the 2008 presidential election, in which conservatives were sharply defeated) or ‘soft revolution,’ and amassing an army. He is essentially taking a large page out of Joe McCarthy’s “creeping communists” playbook and adding to it the ‘black helicopter’ antigovernment paranoia of the militia movement of the 1990s. He further accuses the left wing of preparing for mass violence. There is a black sort of irony in how much of Beck’s own fearmongering consists of allegations that the federal government is using fear tactics to further the progressive agenda. He has yet, to my knowledge, to comment on the Bush administration’s chronic and Machiavellian abuse of the Homeland Security “terror alert system” for political ends, including raising the warning level around election time or when the administration was having PR difficulties on other fronts.

In effect, he is working off the old ‘rights of the freeborn American’ idiom that has been kicked around the political sphere for two centuries, starting with a mythical golden age in which a Christian republic of happy freeholders basked in the glow of the free market, ruled over lightly by a limited federal government. What brought an end to these good old days—not that they ever actually existed—was supposedly creeping increases in government power, heavier taxes, and the evolution of the modern federal government from it’s 18th-century form, in a supposedly slow but steady march of big-government liberalism. This false continuity makes sense to people who only see history in black and white, but doesn’t even attempt to account for issues such as the legal status of slavery (more precisely, how could an ideal society embrace slavery as a fact of cold economics), the Industrial Revolution, evolutions in finance, the klepto-capitalist government from 1870 until 1930, and so on. It makes for a depressing story, a legacy of decline and defeat to rival that of Tolkien’s Sons of Feanor in the Silmarillion, or the humiliations of Israel in the Old Testament, but there always lingers the promise of eventual revenge and redemption.

As for Beck’s own particular interpretation of the ‘freeborn American’ idiom, religious scholar Joanna Brooks suspects that much of Beck’s almost religious reverence for the Founding Fathers and their era is an outgrowth of his newfound Mormon faith, where in her words, “reverence for the founders and the United States Constitution as divinely inspired are often-declared elements of orthodox belief.” At least one Mormon President claimed to have experienced divine visions including the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

Mr. Beck quite obviously doesn’t know his history very well—in fact, one of the major sources of his gratuitous factual errors is his partnership with David Barton, a controversial pseudo-historian, evangelical preacher, Republican political consultant, and textbook consultant to both the Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps and the Texas State Board of Education. Mr. Barton is an ardent advocate of Biblical government of the United States, to the extent of excluding non-Christians from public office, and argues that the traditional “separation of church and state” aspired to in the US is a myth built from false pretenses. The latter assertion was, unfortunately, included in a core textbook provided to JROTC students.

Mr. Beck is also conspicuous for embracing antigovernment conspiracy theories of the sort beloved by the 1990s “tin-foil hat” sector. In addition to alleging that the federal government is out to get him, personally, Mr. Beck has repeatedly insisted that that the Federal Emergency Management Agency is running concentration camps in the continental united states (even after he was thoroughly spindled by Nobel Prize laureate Paul Krugman on the subject). Beck subsequently denied ever having mentioned FEMA, even though he was videotaped talking about the concentration camp issue on an episode of Fox & Friends.

In some ways, Beck also mirrors Stephen Colbert’s character on the Colbert Report, which presents the odd situation of Beck, a real person, being more off-the-wall than Colbert’s stage character pretends to be.

The significant difference is that while the worst damage Colbert has done is to conservatives who took too long to realize he was parodying them, not joining them, Beck has inspired people with short tempers and poor judgment to commit violent acts. As one example, an avowed Beck fan, Byron Williams of Oakland, California, in July 2010 engaged the California Highway Patrol in a gun battle in which two police officers were seriously injured. As it turned out, Beck had spent much of the previous several weeks ranting about the Tides Foundation, a harmless social justice nonprofit, and casting it as the nexus of a vast conspiracy of Beck’s enemies. Mr. Williams explained that listening to Beck had enraged him to the extent that he was attempting to start a revolution, and that the ACLU and the Tides Foundation were his targets.

As usual, Beck reacts to such criticism with his usual gormless and glib “who, me?” defense, and then goes right back to waving the same red flag in front of the bull. Despite the overtly political and heavily partisan nature of his programming, Beck has disingenuously claimed that his business is entertainment rather than the news, in an attempt to disassociate from the actions he quite plainly inspired. The extent to which Beck is responsible for their actions despite his own thinly-veiled advocacy of violence is starting to look like an increasingly valid legal question.

So to sum up, Beck and Spode have the following in common:

• A belief that modern society is sick and weak, and in need of rescue.
• Some really bizarre ideas about the proper order of human society, be they the proper agricultural economy of Wales or the role of the federal government in economics and religion.
• A belief that strongmen and motivated followers can effect change.
• Unabashed contempt for anyone who disagrees with them (c.f the title on the book cover above).
• Histrionic public speaking, and gross delusions of how many people are actually in the audience.
• A propensity to erratic behavior, and sweating.
• Outspoken interests in maintaining law and order, even though they also propose overthrowing or replacing the established order.
• A few embarrassing secrets. Please not that I am not equating being a Mormon with being a lingerie merchant, but it is quite likely that his following among evangelical Christians would shrink if his “heretical” Mormon religion were more widely known.
• A sense of messianic destiny, whether for themselves or for their movement.
• Horrible dress sense.

If there is one way in which Spode thoroughly outshines Beck, it is in having at least some intellectual respect for his audience. While Spode lays out his “worked out scientifically” platitudes, Beck reacts with a nauseatingly glib “who, me?” when called on the carpet, even when he’s not flatly denying that he said what he is caught on video as having said. Beck, it seems, simply doesn’t think his audience is smart enough to pick up flat-out lies and contradictions.

I can therefore assure you that it has all been scientifically worked out—that Glenn Beck is the United States’ own Roderick Spode. As with most American things appear when compared to their British counterparts, they are bigger, richer, louder, and cruder.

What makes the odious Spode more tolerable than the odious Beck, of course, is that the former is a fictional character, while Mr. Beck exists in this universe, which means we are unfortunately stuck with him. To be more precise, Mr. Beck’s corporeal form exists in this universe, but quite where his strange little mind is at any given time is…well, that is a damn good question, but it’s almost certainly not the same reality in which we live.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Jah Wobble's "Memoirs of a Geezer" (book review)

Jah Wobble, one of the most amazing musicians to come out of the United Kingdom in the last thirty years, has recently had his autobiography released in the United States. I managed to get a copy, found it was “a cracking good read” as they said in a bygone era, and decided to post this review in an attempt to get more people to read it, not least because I think many of you would enjoy his music if you heard it.

To give you a brief synopsis of Jah Wobble’s life, John Wardle was born in the grim postwar environment of Stepney, East London in the year 1958. He grew up in a working-class family and was working irregularly as a laborer until music and luck changed his life. He was a friend of two members of the Sex Pistols when the punk rock fad broke in 1977, and in fact his “Jah Wobble” nickname was given him by John Simon Ritchie, generally known as Sid Vicious, as a drunken mangling of “John Wardle.”

In 1979, having played bass for maybe a month, his childhood friend, drinking buddy, and fellow troublemaker John “Johnny Rotten” Lydon recruited Wobble into his new post-Sex Pistols art-rock band, Public Image Ltd., the infamous “PiL.” From PiL’s first record, Metal Box, and Wobble’s subsequent departure, it was a short step to making a record with Holger Czukay and Jaki Liebzeit of the German band Can, playing on reggae songs, and cranking out a series of increasingly jaw-dropping solo albums.

All told, Wobble went from being a non-player to a name-dropped pro in virtually no time at all, and by the mid-1980s, had produced twelve records in eight years. Then, burned out on the financial chicanery of the music business, with a wife and daughter to support, and increasingly befuddled by drug and alcohol problems, he joined Alcoholics Anonymous and got a day job. For most musicians, that’s where the music ends—they get “real jobs,” write off their chances of ever doing a world tour, and leave the stage and studio behind.

F. Scott Fitzgerald once pontificated that “There are no second acts in American lives. Wobble’s a Brit, so he’s allowed a second act if he wants one.

The first thing Wobble did after turning his back on the music industry was to sell his bass and put the money through his wife's mail-slot while he went off to get sober. The second thing he did was get a job. His ‘straight jobs’ lasted several years and included stints as a truck driver, warehouse manager (fired for punching out the owner’s obnoxious son), and a term on the London Underground which has attained near-legendary status. He worked day shifts and night shifts and played in bands with friends in his off-time.

In 1988, a sober and divorced Wobble fought his way back into the music business on a full-time basis with Without Judgment, a powerful live album mostly recorded on his vacation time from the London Underground. With a lot of work and a lot of luck, he embarked on what was almost an entirely new career at the head of the globe-trotting Invaders of the Heart, the ensemble he would captain for about eight years.

Following that, he started his own record label 30 Hertz Records, released two albums of poetry set to music (The Inspiration of William Blake and The Celtic Poets, both of which I consider essential listening), a requiem mass, a string quartet, collaborations with Laotian and Chinese musicians, remarried, released at least one album per year for fifteen years, had two sons. In 1999 sadly, the Wardle family was eventually forced to move out of his beloved East London, squeezed out between gentrification driven by New Labor and the ethnic ghettos. In 2010, now based in the north of England, Jah Wobble is still at the top of his game and hunting down new challenges with the intensity of Blake’s burning-eyed tiger of the night.

Where Memoirs Of A Geezer is a world-beater is that the geezer himself gives you a fearless moral inventory (to use his own phrase), well-laced with sarcasm and dry wit, of who he is, where he comes from, and all the wheres, whos, and whyfores of his life.

Some of the story is not what one would expect. Wobble is, if nothing else, a man who keeps himself in tune with his surroundings, and he writes extensively about the context in which he moves. The first third of the book includes a detailed discussion of Wobble’s family, the harsh life of postwar Britain (wartime food rationing only ended in the UK in 1954), how Blitz-ruins still littered the city blocks, his struggles in a Catholic school where corporal punishment was more common than pencils, the punks-vs.-teddy boys brawls, police corruption and abuse, and the generally miserable life of working-class youth. The later chapters include a scrutiny of the economic and cultural changes in his beloved East London borough, including the influx of Bangladeshis, violent Islam, the crack epidemic that began in 1992, and so on. This is the sort of detail that doesn’t make it into most books about musicians.

It’s just plain fun to read, in a way that doesn’t depend on the reader admiring the subject. You can easily imagine being parked next to Wobble in a pub somewhere, as he tosses out aphorisms, jokes, bits of pub-booth philosophy, musings about music, and stories from his past over a cup of tea (having been sober for a quarter century).

There are a few self-deprecating tales of the sort of chemically-induced excess that fuel the music industry, it is true, but Wobble puts it into a new light. As he tells it, he grew up in a working-class, East London environment where everyone drank from an early age (his Christmas encounter with a bottle of chartreuse at the age of thirteen is amusing, but rather ominous), and where people split their home lives between their flats and their pub.

Wobble is certainly a man of strongly-held opinions, and not above making a stand on principle. As with most Britons, race mattered less than class or economic standing. He didn’t like Thatcherism and its callous disdain for the working classes, or New Labor and it’s oily institutionalized greed, and he certainly doesn’t much like most “toffs” or “public-school boys,” whether politicians or Peter Gabriel, which is understandable since most of the grief in Wobble’s life, came directly or indirectly at the hands of the Old Etonian clique who dominate the UK’s leadership. He finds race and racism depressing. It must have come as quite a shock to the man who once berated white skinheads for their “Paki-bashing” to himself be assaulted and hospitalized by a mob of Bangladeshis in his own old neighborhood of Tower Hamlets twenty years later.

It is particularly refreshing to have a book written by the author as an honest and unpretentious autobiography, without heavy-handed ghost-writing or the elaborate reworking a PR machine. Wobble is perfectly capable of writing on his own—he has written book reviews for the UK’s Independent newspaper for many years, and has a BA in Humanities from Birckbeck College—and this book certainly reads like it was written by the geezer himself.

If the book has a central theme, it is “I am a geezer (a regular guy) and I come from somewhere.”

I would like to close with an observation. Wobble claims to have introduced a young Sting to reggae music in the late 70s, while working as a roadie for Johnny Thunders and the Heartbreakers, with whom the Police were touring. Their paths then diverged; Sting earned millions of dollars and global name recognition, and has sold millions of records since. Wobble, admittedly, made a living but didn’t do as well. The difference is that Sting has to play “Roxanne” every night, else the promoters or the audience will shoot him, while Wobble hasn’t had to play a song off of Metal Box in three decades.

That is a kind of freedom that most musicians would deeply appreciate.

Tuesday, October 5, 2010

Glenn Beck, The World's Greatest Authority on Slavery

I saw a clip on Keith Olbermann’s Countdown program last night that made me want to bang my head on the table, even though my head already hurt.

He played a clip of Glenn Beck, America’s own Roderick Spode, discussing slavery. I reproduce Beck’s monologue below under the Fair Use doctrine:

The President is exactly right when he said ’slaves sitting around the campfire didn’t know when slavery was going to end, but they knew that it would. And it took a long time to end slavery.’ yes it did. But it also took a long time to start slavery.

And it started small, and it started with seemingly innocent ideas. And then a little court order here, and a court order there and a little regulation here and a little more regulation there. And before we knew it, America had slavery.

It didn’t come over in a ship to begin with, as an evil slave trade. The government began to regulate things because the people needed answers and needed solutions. It started in a court room then it went to the legislatures. That’s how slavery began. And it took a long time to enslave an entire race of people, and convince another race of people that they were somehow or another, less than them. But it can be done.

I would ask you to decide, are we freeing slaves? Or are we creating slaves? That’s a question that must be answered.

Now I know from having heard Beck’s monologues, rants, sermons, and Jimmy Swaggart-style tearful breakdowns that he really just doesn’t know much about history. He’s demonstrated his remarkable gullibility and willingness to make stuff up more times than I can count. Case in point, his disingenuous claim that Thomas Jefferson intended the US to be run on Christian principles by citing one-countem-one example of a document dated "in the year of our Lord Christ.” Never mind that this document was a pre-printed form issued by the Dutch government, not the United States, and which Jefferson merely filled in.

As a side note, one would think that a nation run with Biblical law and Protestant customs well in mind would have had a rather more ‘old-fashioned’ take on one Joseph Smith, founder of Beck’s own Mormon religion. Old-fashioned, perhaps, in the sense of John Calvin’s regime in Geneva, under whose authority the philosopher and astronomer Michael Servetus was burned at the stake as a heretic in 1553.

Still, this comment about slavery really pushes the envelope—but then again, when you’re in the middle of a midterm election season that many conservatives see as a war for the preservation of civilization, and if you want to keep your audience well-fed on populist bile, and if you’re really just not that bright to begin with, you have to be able to take any topic and relate it back to conservative talking points. It’s Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon with history, politics, economics, philosophy, religion, you name it.

In typical Beck fashion, he manages to avoid any specifics—he speaks of court orders and the like. What court orders? Without data, it’s just hot air from another right-wing blowhard. Then again, most if not all of what Beck says, week in and week out, probably can’t survive facts.

The fact is, slavery is a result of the free market. More precisely, it is the product of what we today would consider to be a part of the free market, since the concept of the free market didn’t really exist in the modern sense in the early 17th Century.

Many of the colonies that later became the United States were the result of land grants by European governments, made to aristocrats, speculators, and other parties (what we might term venture capitalists), by which the rulers hoped to turn a profit from all this trackless wilderness. William Penn, for example, was given what is now Pennsylvania (and much else besides) as repayment of a 16,000-pound debt floated to Charles II, the perpetually profligate king of England. Never mind that Penn didn’t want land, he wanted cash, and had no idea at first what to do with the land.

The point was simple—give someone land, charge him with the responsibility for populating it and making it productive, and then get some tax revenue out of it. Welcome to capitalism, even when it was cameralism or mercantilism.

Most of the Hudson River valley in New York State, for example, was originally settled under the Dutch government of New Amsterdam, and was divided into vast ‘patroonships,’ where absentee landlords rented land out to tenant farmers on terms only slightly better than serfdom (for example, the tenants could only bring complaints against landlords in the courts run by the landlords). Many of these quasi-feudal landlords’ rights lingered on well after the American Revolution, until the Anti-Rent movement of the 1840s. Some of these estates were immense almost beyond belief—the “Manor of Rensselaerswyck” covered almost all of present-day Albany and Rensselaer counties and parts of present-day Columbia and Greene counties.

Good arable land was perhaps cheaper than at any time in history; Charles II, James II, William III, Anne, and George I all handed out vast tracts without a second thought, and often without even knowing where the borders were. Many of the colonies were originally chartered to extend all the way to the Pacific Ocean. In some areas, such as New England, land could be had in freehold simply by building a house on it and filling out the appropriate paperwork, provided you had all the livestock, tools, seed, and other necessities for making a go of farming. One bad crop, though, and you would probably have to sell your land and continue as a tenant or hired hand.

The major problem was labor. Colonial America was chronically short of manpower, since most of the potentially valuable land was trackless wilderness inhabited only by Native Americans. Whether you are growing sugar cane or tobacco, or growing foodstuffs rather than cash crops, you need people to do the work and extract the valuable stuff from the land. Without workers, land was worthless, and each worker represented an investment. This was a time period when “human resources” would have meant something rather different to what it means now.

Workers—slaves, freeholders, hired hands, or indentured servants—were industrial capital, the equivalent of manufacturing equipment or the tractors and combine harvesters on an agribusiness facility (after all, a 16,000-acre tract of land, staffed by 150 people from veterinarians to mechanics, with an operating budget in the millions of dollars and owned by a Delaware corporation can hardly be called a farm without laughing).

As bad as things were in Europe for many in the lower social classes, in the absence of a motivator like ready plunder (the Spanish colonies) or religious fervor (the Pilgrims) it is a tough prospect to encourage hundreds of people to pack up and move to a wilderness on the other side of the planet, likely never to see home again. It’s also expensive to ship them and all the necessary equipment across the Atlantic, so establishing a colony was a major undertaking, usually underwritten by stocks or bonds sold in London or Amsterdam.

Indentured servants were an attempt to recruit manpower for the nascent agribusinesses of the New World, and something over half of the immigrants to the English New World between 1650 and 1750 were indentured servants. In theory, a plucky young volunteer from Dorset or Lincolnshire would sign up, sail across the sea, work on a plantation for some years in order to pay off the cost of his trip, and muster out with enough savings to set up on his own freehold. Unfortunately, the prospect of selling oneself into a life of unremitting toil to pay off your sea passage’s cost never recruited as many willing hands as the venture capitalists of the 17th and 18th Centuries had hoped, and certainly nowhere near enough to keep up with the demand for tobacco, the fortune-making boom product of the English New World’s agribusiness.

A finite supply of labor meant that the supply of commodities was limited—if you have X field hands, you can only grow Y tobacco—which thus limited the amount of tobacco you could sell and the amount of money you could make. Expanding production meant expanding the labor force.

Slave labor had been an option in the New World for centuries—the Spanish and Portuguese dominions had been shipping Africans to the Caribbean since the early 16th Century, within decades of Columbus’ first voyage. British and French colonies in the Caribbean had followed suit in the late 17th Century, when establishing sugar plantations on islands such as Jamaica, which was essentially one immense sugar plantation by 1700. The first slaves to be shipped to Virginia arrived in 1619, the year before the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, Massachusetts.

The London business community had been waist-deep in the slave trade since the 1570s, but by 1700 the London Exchange saw sufficient potential revenue in a monopoly of the slave trade that gaining control over the asiento, or the official contract to supply slave labor to the Spanish New World, became a major policy goal of the English government. The Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which ended the War of the Spanish Succession (known in most of the English-speaking world at the time, and to two centuries worth of beleaguered high school students, as Queen Anne’s War) granted the asiento to the United Kingdom, who promptly turned it over to the South Sea Company, a London-based corporation, most of whose stockholders and directors were members of Parliament or otherwise creatures of the British establishment.

This accomplishment was actually one of the biggest and most remarkable financial shenanigans in history The British government (no longer English, the Act of Union with Scotland having been passed in 1707) took advantage of the historically fuzzy line between the British government and the financial community to create the South Sea Company in 1711, as part of an elaborate scheme to bankroll the national debt and keep the nearly bankrupt government afloat during wartime. The Lord Treasurer Robert Harley and a number of other government officials, acting in what was officially their private capacities as businessmen in the London Exchange, chartered the company, sold stock, and used the proceeds to buy up 11.7 million pounds sterling worth of the government’s debts, keeping the government solvent for the last several years of the war. Once the war was won and Spain signed over the Asiento to the government, the government promptly signed the Asiento over to the South Sea Company. The effect is similar to, say, the US Secretary of the Treasury or the Chairman of the Federal Reserve conniving with Wall Street to buy up federal bonds during the occupation of Iraq and receiving in exchange a monopoly on the Iraqi oil industry.

Starting in 1714, cheap slaves became readily available in the English New World in unprecedented numbers—an estimated 645,000 people over a century’s time. While slaves were present in all of the English colonies, their greatest impact was the southern colonies, where they flooded the labor market and contributed to the rapid increase of the plantation system, which grew as fast as slaves could be shipped and land could be cleared. Plantations sprouted like toadstools between the coast and the Appalachian Mountains before the American Revolution, and spread to the Mississippi and beyond in the half-century after independence, all built overwhelmingly by slave labor, and at tremendous profit.

Slavery meant not just cheap and readily available labor, but labor that was more easily controlled than a group of indentured servants who remembered what life was like in Dorset or Lincolnshire, and who insisted on having personal freedoms and legal rights. Indentured servants, after all, had a notorious habit of pulling up stakes and moving out to the fringe of settlement to start out on their own, understood the concept of a legal contract, and could only be pushed so far.

A slave could be fed the worst food capable of sustaining life, could be beaten nearly to death as punishment, or sold on a whim—in other words, slaves could be subjected to the sort of treatment that no European would put up with. As a simple contrast, the Rensselaers of the Hudson Valley depended on private courts and legal arm-twisting to control their tenants, while slaves in the Carolinas or Virginia could simply be beaten or tortured, or (more rarely) hanged as an example. Hanging slaves in other than extreme circumstances was generally seen as wasteful, akin to shooting a valuable and healthy horse, which is why punishment usually stopped short of death or crippling injury.

By introducing chattel slavery into the economy, the slaveholders created a permanent underclass of biped humanoid who was in many respects outside the definition of ‘human being,’ a legal distinction supported by theological and philosophical sophistry (c.f. the Aristotelian hair-splitting of the Valladolid Controversy), embraced by the financial world because it was useful. Slaves were property except when it suited their masters to claim them as human beings. For example, witness the Three-Fifths Compromise in the United States Constitution, which counted slaves as three-fifths of a human being for electoral purposes, thus granting the southern states an artificially inflated congressional delegation, which was dominated by the slave-owning interests until the Civil War.

Slavery, which was never as prominent in the colonies north of Virginia, died out in the northern colonies shortly after the American Revolution. Even where it wasn’t abolished by popular vote, it faded into extinction because it wasn’t economically viable in a region unsuitable to cash-crop monoculture, and where the main economic sectors were logging, shipping, quarrying, fishing and whaling, and manufactures, which were unsuitable for slave labor.

At the other end of the seaboard, however, the southern ‘plantocracy’ had a good racket going and knew it—with a permanent, cheap (slaves cost money, but did not have to be paid) and tightly-controlled labor force and a near monopoly on several sought-after commodities, such as tobacco, indigo, and of course cotton, they buttressed their financial interests with an enormous legal and regulatory infrastructure dedicated to keeping slaves in their place (literally). State and federal laws were rammed through by slaveowner-dominated legislatures, ultimately culminating in the odious Dred Scott decision, arguably the nadir of American jurisprudence.

In other words, the plantocracy used the ‘freedoms’ won in the Revolution to keep another class of people in chattel slavery, essentially using government to support and maintain their economic arrangements.

The worse part is that the United States was one of the last countries in what 19th-Century Europeans would have considered the ‘civilized’ world to abolish slavery, and the second to last in the Western Hemisphere. Great Britain abolished the slave trade in all Britain’s colonies and possessions in 1807, and abolished slavery itself in 1833. France abolished slavery in 1848. The former Spanish colonies abolished the practice during their wars of independence from Spain. Tsar Alexander II freed the Russian peasantry from serfdom in 1861. Brazil held out until 1888.

Mr. Beck, all of this sounds a lot like series of calculated policy decisions made by educated businessmen who had their eyes firmly on the bottom line, and who knew full well what they were doing and why. How exactly is this not evil?

What regulations are we talking about? The colonists and the Old World didn’t ship free Africans here only to enslave them later. They were slaves when they got on the boat in Africa. They were slaves when they got off the boat in Charleston, Savannah, Norfolk, or Portsmouth, and they were slaves when white colonists bought them for a labor force. That sounds evil from the get-go.

Slavery was the answer to a labor shortage experienced by colonial agribusiness. That’s an answer. That might not be the answer Glenn Beck likes, but at least it has the benefit of being a documentable truth.

The long and short of it, Mr. Beck, is that the analogues of the free market and capitalism from three centuries ago are what brought slavery to North America in the first place, not your boogeyman of government regulation.