No Comment — September 8, 2011, 2:35 pm

Good-bye to All That

Once in a blue moon, a figure deep inside the Beltway beast leaves and says something profound and honest about the environment in which he works. One such figure is former Nebraska senator Chuck Hagel; another is former South Carolina congressman Bob Inglis. Both Republicans presented lucid criticism of their party’s policies and conduct, but were essentially ignored by major broadcast media. Now a Republican staffer in the House and Senate budget committees with nearly thirty years’ service under his belt, Mike Lofgren, has left his position and published a stinging critique of Washington’s partisan ways. Lofgren’s piece, published at Truthout, provides an insider’s assessment of the dynamics that drive the G.O.P., coupled with well-aimed missiles at the Democrats and the Beltway media. It’s also composed in an unusually lucid, entertaining style.

Lofgren’s core thesis is that the G.O.P. has transformed itself into something dangerous: “The crackpot outliers of two decades ago have become the vital center today. . .The Congressional directory now reads like a casebook of lunacy.” He points out, too, that the Beltway media’s inept coverage of political developments has enabled the extremists, writing that the “constant drizzle of ‘there the two parties go again!’ stories out of the news bureaus, combined with the hazy confusion of low-information voters, means that the long-term Republican strategy of undermining confidence in our democratic institutions has reaped electoral dividends.” In other words, the crazies feed off the lazy, inept coverage that fills American broadcast media.

The G.O.P. now has three major tenets, Lofgren argues:

  1. The G.O.P. cares solely and exclusively about its rich contributors. We see this now in G.O.P. positions on tax-revenue issues: The party has adopted a mantra of opposing any effort to dispense with tax breaks for the truly wealthy, even though polling consistently shows a solid majority of Republicans favoring the elimination of loopholes such as tax breaks for corporate jets.

  2. They worship at the altar of Mars. As the conflict in Libya demonstrated, Republican leaders don’t seem to be able to say no to a new war — even when some of them had been coddling Qaddafi in Tripoli only a year earlier. They also instinctively oppose cuts to the single biggest chunk of discretionary spending, the defense budget, an attitude that fuels increasingly extreme positions on other sectors.

  3. Give me that old time religion. Religious evangelicals dominate Republican politics like never before. This helps explain why figures elected on a libertarian-like Tea Party platform instantly set to work on a very un-libertarian social conservative agenda — introducing the most aggressive efforts to curtail abortion rights since Roe v. Wade, for instance.

As Lofgren notes, there is a great deal of interplay between the second and third tenets:

The GOP’s fascination with war is also connected with the fundamentalist mindset. The Old Testament abounds in tales of slaughter — God ordering the killing of the Midianite male infants and enslavement of the balance of the population, the divinely-inspired genocide of the Canaanites, the slaying of various miscreants with the jawbone of an ass — and since American religious fundamentalist seem to prefer the Old Testament to the New (particularly that portion of the New Testament known as the Sermon on the Mount), it is but a short step to approving war as a divinely inspired mission. This sort of thinking has led, inexorably, to such phenomena as Jerry Falwell once writing that God is Pro-War.

Lofgren is not describing trends which may emerge at some distant point on the horizon. He is describing the circumstances that exist today inside the Republican tent. And his assessment is ominous. We live in a two-party system in which the electoral pendulum swings back and forth according to the performance of the economy and other factors. This means that with the crazies in charge of the G.O.P., their control of government is all but inevitable at some point in the near future.

Lofgren’s analysis is sharp-sighted and unsparing. And it suggests why it’s important to treat figures many will dismiss as marginal — Michele Bachmann, Steven King, and Alan West, for instance — with the utmost seriousness. In the past year, they’ve done a great deal of damage to the nation’s reputation in the world, particularly among our allies and in the financial community — but they’re poised to do much worse.

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The Printed Word in Peril·

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In February, at an event at the 92nd Street Y’s Unterberg Poetry Center in New York, while sharing the stage with my fellow British writer Martin Amis and discussing the impact of screen-based reading and bidirectional digital media on the Republic of Letters, I threw this query out to an audience that I estimate was about three hundred strong: “Have any of you been reading anything by Norman Mailer in the past year?” After a while, one hand went up, then another tentatively semi-elevated. Frankly I was surprised it was that many. Of course, there are good reasons why Mailer in particular should suffer posthumous obscurity with such alacrity: his brand of male essentialist braggadocio is arguably extraneous in the age of Trump, Weinstein, and fourth-wave feminism. Moreover, Mailer’s brilliance, such as it was, seemed, even at the time he wrote, to be sparks struck by a steely intellect against the tortuous rocks of a particular age, even though he labored tirelessly to the very end, principally as the booster of his own reputation.

It’s also true that, as J. G. Ballard sagely remarked, for a writer, death is always a career move, and for most of us the move is a demotion, as we’re simultaneously lowered into the grave and our works into the dustbin. But having noted all of the above, it remains the case that Mailer’s death coincided with another far greater extinction: that of the literary milieu in which he’d come to prominence and been sustained for decades. It’s a milieu that I hesitate to identify entirely with what’s understood by the ringing phrase “the Republic of Letters,” even though the overlap between the two was once great indeed; and I cannot be alone in wondering what will remain of the latter once the former, which not long ago seemed so very solid, has melted into air.

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This is the story of how the institutions of British Jewry went to war with Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the Labour Party. Corbyn is another feather in the wind of populism and a fragmentation of the old consensus and politesse. He was elected to the leadership by the party membership in 2015, and no one was more surprised than he. Between 1997 and 2010, Corbyn voted against his own party 428 times. He existed as an ideal, a rebuke to the Blairite leadership, and the only wise man on a ship of fools. His schtick is that of a weary, kindly, socialist Father Christmas, dragged from his vegetable patch to create a utopia almost against his will. But in 2015 the ideal became, reluctantly, flesh. Satirists mock him as Jesus Christ, and this is apt. But only just. He courts sainthood, and if you are very cynical you might say that, like Christ, he shows Jews what they should be. He once sat on the floor of a crowded train, though he was offered a first-class seat, possibly as a private act of penance to those who had, at one time or another, had no seat on a train.

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Nothing but Gifts·

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If necessity is the stern but respectable mother of invention, then perhaps desperation is the derelict father of subterfuge. That was certainly the case when I moved to Seattle in 1979.

Though I’d lived there twice during the previous five years, I wasn’t prepared for the economic boom I found upon this latest arrival. Not only had rent increased sharply in all but the most destitute neighborhoods, landlords now routinely demanded first, last, and a hefty security deposit, which meant I was short by about fifty percent. Over the first week or so, I watched with mounting anxiety as food, gas, and lodging expenses reduced the meager half I did have to a severely deficient third. To make matters even more nerve-racking, I was relocating with my nine-year-old son, Ezra. More than my well-being was at stake.

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