Two and a half years ago, I watched the televised bipartisan Health Care Summit called by President Obama to help find a way to pass his embattled but vitally important health insurance reform bill (a few weeks later, Obamacare finally became law). During these intense sessions, I noticed a single Republican politician at the table who seemed far more driven and articulate than all the others. This was my first glimpse of Paul Ryan, the young Wisconsin congressman and House Budget Chief, and I immediately knew he was a politician to watch. Closely ...
My first impression of Paul Ryan became complete when I discovered that he is an enthusiastic follower of Ayn Rand (though he later tried to cover this up after discovering that Ayn Rand polls very badly with religious voters). I don't think it reflects badly on Paul Ryan's character that he believes in Ayn Rand's philosophy of extreme free-market capitalism. I have tried to reach out to the growing worldwide community of Rand enthusiasts through blog posts and a book called Why Ayn Rand Is Wrong (and Why It Matters), a book that evaluates the Rand doctrine seriously and treats her followers with respect. The book has been a success in several ways -- it continues to sell hundreds of copies each month (it has received a significant Paul Ryan bump), and has also allowed me to enter into private or public discussions with Objectivists all over the world when they contact me with critiques of my book. This experience confirms for me what I already knew: Objectivists tend to be very smart, complex, articulate and creative people. The stereotype of a Randian as a lunkheaded bully belongs to the past; today's Randians are young and energetic and full of new ideas. And their ranks are growing, not shrinking -- Ayn Rand is dead, but Objectivism is increasingly seen as a movement for the future.
It shouldn't reflect badly on Paul Ryan's character that he is into Ayn Rand. However, it should reflect very badly -- very, very badly -- on his claim to be a good choice for Vice President of the United States. Do we want an Objectivist one heartbeat away from the leadership of our great nation? I'm sure we don't.
It's funny that some people think presidential elections don't matter. There's little doubt that many things will change quickly if Americans make the nihilistic choice to empower Mitt Romney and Paul Ryan to lead our government in 2012. Every woman's right to privacy over her health decisions will be threatened. The gains made via Obamacare against corrupt health insurance practices will be reversed. A newly aggressive and muscle-bound foreign policy (think: George W. Bush and Dick Cheney) will make an unwelcome return. In fact, so many changes would occur that we the people have barely even begun to discuss all the vital things that will change if we give these two out-of-touch plutocrats a mandate to run our government according to their ideas.
Let's talk about trains.
Nicholson Baker, one of my very favorite contemporary writers, has taken to singing the protest blues. Why not? This Slate article links to his new songs about Bradley Manning, Afghanistan and the ruinous construction of a new military base in Jeju Island, South Korea. Here's a short explanation of the project in the New Yorker.
Baker is not quite as good a songwriter or singer as he is a writer, but his pastoral and arboreal musical atmospherics are pleasant to listen to, and at their best his songs may show some Peter Gabriel or John Cale influence, or possibly John Denver. Keep singing it out, Nicholson Baker.
As the morality tale of the 2012 USA presidential election plays out, the decision we are all making together is often spun in the media as a referendum on Barack Obama, or as an appraisal of Mitt Romney. But the real historical significance of this election may turn out to involve a President who was elected 32 years ago. In 2012, we may finally manage to exorcise the ghost of flawed economics represented by the legacy of Ronald Reagan.
This is not to say that American citizens will ever stop revering Ronald Reagan, who stands at the very top level of the American cultural/mythological pantheon, along with George Washington, Elvis Presley and Jesus Christ. (Indeed, it's funny that conservatives often mock liberals like me for our "worship" of Barack Obama, because we never worship Barack Obama the unabashed way that conservatives worship Ronald Reagan.) The fond memory of Reagan is probably the strongest glue that currently unifies the whole wide Republican/conservative community, from the libertarians to the Tea Partiers to the bankers, from Ron Paul to Michelle Bachmann to Rick Santorum to John Boehner to Mark Levin. Reagan's immense popularity stands on three main pillars, and two of these pillars will survive the 2012 election debacle. One of the three will not.
The Literary Kicks upgrade/redesign is progressing well. I'm on a rare family vacation out on Long Island, catching up on my reading and thinking (sometimes it feels great to just take in, to not be writing) and I'm looking forward to coming back refreshed in early September.
Meanwhile, up in the real world, some people are asking if Mitt Romney's selection of enthusiastic Ayn Rand follower Paul Ryan as his running mate represents the closest Ayn Rand has ever come to the White House, the zenith of her influence on American politics. Actually, Ayn Rand has been in the White House, and in Congress, and all over Washington DC, for nearly 40 years now.
Ronald Reagan was a Randian (though the fiercely independent Ayn Rand herself refused to salute him back). Trickle-down economics -- the idea that government policies should favor the wealthy, ignore the middle and lower classes and "allow the rising tide to lift all boats" -- is Rand's economic philosophy in action. This unfortunate and dangerous ideology, which culminated in the ruinous financial crash of 2007/2008, has dominated federal economic policy since the 1980s. Even the supposedly liberal administrations of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama have barely managed to make a dent in the trickle-down system. The fact that President Obama's call for the wealthiest Americans to pay more taxes is controversial (I think it's a no-brainer that wealthy Americans need to pay more taxes, and begin to pay off the deficit they voted for) shows the powerful presence of trickle-down policy in American economics today.
The photo at the top of this page shows Ayn Rand and her close friend and prize student Alan Greenspan, along with their spouses, visiting President Gerald Ford in 1974. Alan Greenspan had just been appointed chairman of Ford's council of economic advisors, and would eventually go on to run the Federal Reserve Bank under Ronald Reagan. Greenspan was not a strict Objectivist -- a strict Objectivist could never endure the endless compromises of real-world politics -- but his vision of deregulated and hyper-charged American capitalism was highly consistent with Ayn Rand's economic philosophy. That was nearly forty years ago. The important question today isn't whether or not Paul Ryan intends to bring Ayn Rand into the White House. The important question is: what do we have to do to finally get Ayn Rand out of the White House, and out of Congress?
(This book review is the Litkicks debut of Tara Olmsted, who runs BookSexy Review, a blog with a special focus on international and translated literature.)
Attending college in New York City in the mid-1990’s left me with some distinct memories of the city. De La Vega chalk tags on the sidewalks of Broadway next to graffiti stencils that read “Free Mumbia”; the booksellers whose tables used to line St. Marks Place before they were kicked out; boys from Columbia going on (and on) about Ayn Rand and their counterparts from New York University in Che Guevara t-shirts.
Those t-shirts with their iconic image were my only connection to Guevara. Which is kinda’ sad. The man has been made into a symbol and used to market non-conformity, anti-establishment and revolution to a mostly compliant public. His silk-screened face has become one of the most recognizable and ubiquitous commercial images in the world.
So, unsurprisingly, images are what drew me to Remembering Che: My Life with Che Guevara, Aleida March’s memoir of her marriage to Ernesto Che Guevara. The book contains dozens of personal photographs, many published for the first time -- candid pictures of a charismatic and amazingly photogenic couple.
It’s not hard to understand how Che Guevera became the poster child for Latin American revolution. There’s an energy -- a directness -- in his eyes that’s hard to look away from. Even in his later years, when he frequently travelled in disguise and under aliases, that gaze is unmistakable. These photos will be the main draw for all but the hardcore Guevara fan. They, along with the couple’s personal correspondence, provide a definite sense of the man as his family and friends knew him.
I met Eliot Katz many years ago at St. Marks Poetry Project in New York City, back in a different era when several now legendary figures like Allen Ginsberg, Gregory Corso, Herbert Huncke, Tuli Kupferberg and Janine Pommy Vega were still alive and never missed a reading at St. Mark's Church.
I first encountered Eliot as part of the crowd that surrounded Allen Ginsberg -- his "entourage", basically -- but I also heard him read his own poems: moving, well-crafted verses with a humorous Ginsberg-ian self-questioning touch, often containing powerful messages about political activism, about life in New York City, about escapes into nature. Eliot was the co-editor with Allen Ginsberg and Andy Clausen of Poems for the Nation: A Collection of Contemporary Political Poems and also published two books of poetry, Love, War, Fire, Wind: Looking Out from North America's Skull and Unlocking the Exits.
When the Occupy Wall Street movement kicked off last September, I expected to see Eliot Katz around the scene, since I know he's an eager political activist who never turns down a good event. Unfortunately, I learned that Eliot has been slowed down by a bout with Lyme disease, and has been forced to participate in the Occupy movement more from the sidelines than he would have liked. However, the sidelines can offer a good perspective for observation. Eliot recently sent me some notes containing his thoughts about how the Occupy Wall Street movement can best position itself to succeed in the future, and I thought I'd give Eliot a chance to air his ideas out with an interview here. Eliot and I got a chance to talk about some more esoteric and poetic topics too. Thanks, Eliot, and I hope you'll be back in full health again soon.
Levi: In an article you recently wrote, you quoted Abbie Hoffman speaking in 1988 at Rutgers University (where you were a student) about one of the discouraging realities of protest movements:
Decision making has been a problem on the Left. In the sixties we always made decisions by consensus. By 1970, when you had 15 people show up and three were FBI agents and six were schizophrenics, universal agreement was getting to be a problem. I call it ‘The Curse of Consensus Decision Making,’ because in the end consensus decision making is rule of the minority: the easiest form to manipulate ... Trying to get everyone to agree takes forever. Usually the people are broke, without alternatives, with no new language, just competing to see who can burn the shit out of the other the most ... Most decisions are made by consensus, but there must also be a format whereby you can express your differences. The democratic parliamentary procedure—majority rule—is the toughest to stack, because in order to really get your point across you’ve got to get cooperation, and to go out and get more people to come in to have those votes the next time around.
Abbie was talking about the need for decision by majority vote within protest groups, and you quoted him to support your own suggestion that the Occupy Wall Street movement ought to create a leadership structure and begin making decisions by majority vote rather than consensus. But wouldn't that harm the essentially open character of the Occupy movement, and create a politicized infrastructure that would inevitably succumb to corruption, favoritism and personality politics? Wouldn't something great be lost if Occupy ceased to operate as a quasi-anarchist movement? Would it be worth trading this in for a more organized movement?
Okay, enough about what the US Supreme Court's historic ruling to uphold Obamacare means for the country. Let's talk about what our reaction told us about us. It sure was a strange reaction.
The decision was scheduled to be announced on Thursday morning, June 28, starting at 10:am. The first few sentences of the announcement appeared a few minutes later on the SCOTUSblog live stream, and as soon as the first sentences appeared, public hysteria ensued.
At least a full half hour of absolute hysteria followed, mostly caused by the fact that two cable news networks, CNN and Fox News, reported incorrectly that Obamacare had been overturned. The confusion was cleared up quickly, but now everybody was confused, and somehow the hysterical pitch of the first few minutes became the de facto tone of the news coverage for the entire day.
Even today, two days later, there is still an undertone of shock to all coverage and discussion of the Supreme Court verdict -- appreciative and relieved shock on the pro-Obamacare side, and indignant, infuriated shock on the anti- side.
I wasn't shocked. I've been following the healthcare debate closely for years, and I know the bill had been carefully designed to make it through the Supreme Court (the Obama administration is not stupid, after all). I was amazed that so many allegedly knowledgeable people were predicting that the Supreme Court would find ACA unconstitutional, because anybody who knows the history of the US Supreme Court knows how unusual a decision to overturn a law on such optional grounds would have been. The Supreme Court (as Chief Justice John Roberts would finally explain in his preamble) doesn't have a history of challenging legislation at this level, and makes an effort to steer clear of partisan politics. The honor and reputation of the court would clearly be at stake if it made a dramatic decision to overturn such a major piece of legislation, and it was Chief Justice John Roberts's responsibility above all to defend the integrity of the Supreme Court by moving cautiously.
It's the latest trend for Presidents and presidential candidates to go around having dinner with randomly selected donors. Given my general lack of social skills, it's probably good that I haven't been selected to have dinner with Barack Obama. Here's how I imagine it going if I did:
ME: Dude, I was born the same year as you.
SECRET SERVICE AGENT: Excuse me. Mr. Asher, this is President Barack Obama. Welcome to dinner with the President.
Somewhere just before the publication of the fourth book in Robert Caro's planned five-volume biography of Lyndon Baines Johnson, it became clear that Caro had emerged as the only superstar biographer in the world. The ecstatic level of anticipation, attention and appreciation for The Passage of Power was not grounded so much in fascination with Lyndon B. Johnson as in fascination with Robert A. Caro.
This is not because Lyndon B. Johnson was not fascinating; he is incredibly so. It's because we're all aware that we wouldn't know how fascinating Lyndon Johnson was if we hadn't read Caro's earlier volumes, The Path to Power, Means of Ascent, Master Of The Senate, three sharp works of analytic interpretation that transform biography into something new, a tour de force of structured political opinion writing.
The masterpiece of the bunch remains the third volume, Master of the Senate, the story of LBJ's engineering of the historic 1957 Civil Rights Bill, which broke a terrible political stalemate that had lingered since the American Civil War. The big breakthrough occurs at the end of the book, following a long beginning sequence about the United States Senate's history of domination by Confederate-state obstructionists. In the middle of the book, Lyndon Johnson is painted at his aggressive worst, sucking up shamelessly to older politicians and destroying the career of one earnest do-gooder whose plans to improve energy infrastructure in poor sections of the country disturbed the business prospects of Johnson's Texas sponsors. But this is all a wind-up to the book's glorious ending, in which Johnson manipulates every section of the US Senate for a goal that turned out, miraculously, to be close to his heart: breaking the South's stranglehold on civil rights legislation just enough to help usher in a new era of racial integration.