THE BLOG

The Evil of Banality

03/12/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham's fulminations on the Senate floor last Friday were a sight to behold. He denounced President Barack Obama for being "A.W.O.L." on providing leadership for his economic stimulus bill and theatrically concluded: "This bill stinks. The process that's led to this bill stinks. If this is a new way of doing business, if this is the change we can all believe in, America's best days are behind her!" Graham then made his usual rounds on corporate media repeating his "it stinks" tag line. When I caught a snippet of Graham's dramatic soliloquy it led me to wonder to what constituency is he speaking? Could it be the people who live in those counties in South Carolina where unemployment is now 20 percent? Or was Graham just channeling the sentiments of the beleaguered white men of his state?

Graham voted for a constitutional ban on same-sex marriage and for a ban on gay adoptions. For those votes and many others the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), the largest gay rights organization in the country, gives him a zero rating. Conversely, the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC) and the Christian Coalition give Graham's voting record a 100 percent rating. All said, in addition to his horrible record on civil rights, the environment, and the separation of church and state, Lindsey Graham has one of the most atrocious voting records on issues that affect the lives of gay and lesbian citizens as does any member of Congress. It's a curious voting record for a 53-year-old bachelor who is rarely seen in the company of women.

Meanwhile, right-wing talk radio and its television counterparts continue to trivialize the current economic crisis. The Republicans' failed economic theories are causing real suffering among millions of Americans who have recently joined the ranks of the unemployed and the biggest mouthpieces of the Right fail even to acknowledge the hardships of their fellow citizens. The discredited former Merrill Lynch CEO John Thain, who spent $1.2 million redecorating his office, was on John McCain's short list to be his Treasury Secretary (as was Phil Gramm). How's that for "new ideas" coming from the Washington Republicans?

No GOP personality could win a national election today, not John McCain, not Sarah Palin, not Bobby Jindal, not Lindsey Graham, not Jon Kyl, not even Rush Limbaugh or Sean Hannity. The leadership vacuum at the top has enhanced the power of "conservative" media personalities. The target audience for right-wing talk radio is mostly white workingmen, many of whom are now unemployed. It is the target demographic that explains that pitiful contrivance, "Joe the Plumber," a cartoon character that allows Republicans to say: "See, we have average working stiffs who love our anti-labor agenda."

And then there's the cynical elevation of former Maryland Lieutenant Governor Michael Steele to be the first African-American to chair the Republican National Committee. A colleague of mine who has been part of the black struggle for forty years told me that he thinks the Steele pick is part of a ploy aimed at trying to win over to the Republican cause upscale people who happen to be non-white -- the same yuppies at which the Republicans aim Bobby Jindal. He calls Steele the "reverse Harriet Tubman"; whereas Tubman led enslaved people to freedom, Michael Steele is going to lead freed people to slavery. I guess some white males are attracted to Steele because his sister was once married to "Iron Mike" Tyson. (With luck, his political judgment will turn out to be as poor as his sister's taste in men.) There has been little commentary of substance on the racial implications of the new RNC chair. Many people in the black community, in light of the first African-American president, no doubt see the move as an expression of tokenism, but these views in the media are as invisible as the people who hold them. The only time race relations were addressed in a meaningful way recently was when Obama spoke about the topic last September in Philadelphia. And that was only after the Republicans and the Clinton camp did everything they could to derail his candidacy through endless tape loops of Reverend Jeremiah Wright's most inflammatory sound bites.

And then we turn to "experts" like the Republican propagandist of youth Ben Stein. In yesterday's New York Times Stein pooh-poohs President Obama's stimulus goals of putting people back to work arguing that the solution is not "to hire men and women to build more wind-power windmills, or '21st-century classrooms.'" Not for Stein. His "solution" is for Obama and the Congress to throw more money at Wall Street. Stein wants the Obama Administration to ignore the fraudulent waste that is going on of scarce tax dollars spent on corporate jets, lavish bonuses, and vacation retreats because, as Stein puts it: "Yes, they will do stupid, immoral, evil things with some of the money. They are humans and that's what humans do. We're sloppy and often dishonest." Speak for yourself Ben. So much for strict government oversight on how the TARP money is flushed down the toilet.

As Stein would have it the American taxpayer should just throw more money at Wall Street and hope for the best without even purchasing equity in the banks "we" are saving. That's exactly what is wrong with TARP in the first place, and it is generating widespread public disgust. Stein uses the Savings and Loan scandal of the early-1990s as his model, and in a typical Steinian feat of intellectual dishonesty he states: "In the end, the government made money on many of the assets, then 'toxic,' that it bought." But Stein fails to mention that American taxpayers lost over $150 billion in the deal. To Stein Wall Street malfeasance is "what happens in life" because "life is sloppy." I wish Stein and other high-profile Republicans had this same kind of "que sera, sera" attitude toward the people on the lower income scale when they receive tax dollars in the form of government subsidized health care, cash payments, or other social welfare programs.

We are also seeing in the mainstream press a great deal of hand wringing and fretting about "protectionism." There's a consensus running from the Wall Street Journal to the editorial page of The New York Times and beyond that is screaming that any "Buy American" provisions put inside the stimulus bill will be a disaster on par with the 1930 Smoot-Hawley Tariff Act. What a sorry joke! After thirty years of the relentless internationalizing of production where multinational corporations have "outsourced" and "downsized" the American manufacturing base nearly into oblivion; and at a time when we face severe trade imbalances to the tune of $50 billion each month; and when we already had a $10 trillion federal debt before the current economic collapse; a few provisions that protect American jobs inside a giant taxpayer-funded stimulus bill are not even in the same economic universe as the conditions that surrounded Smoot-Hawley. It's a scare tactic that capital and its mouthpieces use to ensure that working people will not accrue their rightful benefits from their own government's largesse. Under these economic conditions the "free trade" argument is a disgrace. Our political discourse insists on framing the trade debate on Republican terms and still uses laissez-faire concepts that the current economic bloodbath has completely discredited.

Even the "moderate" Republicans like Senators Susan Collins and Arlen Specter who voted for the stimulus bill only did so after gutting $40 billion out of it that was designated to help ease the fiscal crises of state governments. My friend who just took a nine percent pay cut as part of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger's "furlough" program of state workers could have used a helping hand from Uncle Sam. It makes no sense to force state governments to lay people off at a time when the federal government is trying to stimulate employment.

We are about to find out whether or not our governing institutions have the capacity to deal with the serious economic and political crises facing our country. It could be that our institutions are so corrupt, our political discourse so banal and polluted, that they are incapable of lifting us up from our national malaise. After seeing one prominent Republican after another on television railing against the stimulus bill as if it is just another "pork barrel" project from any old Congress; and then seeing these stupid arguments disseminated through the corporate media and influencing public opinion, it is clear that Washington Republicans still frame the debate. And with their filibuster power in the Senate they still control Washington. At some point the logjam must be broken. This state of affairs, if not disrupted by the mass energy of organized people, threatens to succumb to stasis and gridlock.