Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Intense Argument on Israel

The following is a transcript from a debate that began over a Facebook status I posted. I refer to this exchange as an argument instead of a debate because, well, referring to the other person's involvement as "debating" would be far too generous.


Matthew Rozsa - Facebook Status:
The central committee of Israel's conservative Likud Party (which currently controls that nation's government) is meeting to draft a resolution supporting renewed construction of settlements in many predominantly Palestinian neighborhoods. The Israeli right-wing needs to realize that roughly 75% of American Jews (on whom Israel depends for support) are liberal and thus wearying of Israel's human rights violations.

Kirk Harlan
Until an organized movement with decent media coverage here in the US gets rolling, I doubt anyone will do much. I really hate to say it, but the mentality that "Israel can do no wrong" is still rather strong in this country; though not as strong at is once was.

Cliff Smith
Integration is a human rights violation?

Who knew? I always thought segregation was personally.

Matthew Rozsa
Integration is not a human rights violation, but pressuring people out of their homes - either through direct force or by creating an environment so hostile that fleeing is rendered necessary - is definitely a human rights violation.

I've noticed, Cliff, that your talent for limply tossing out wise-ass remarks is not matched by an ability to contribute anything valuable to these conversations.

Maximillian P. Miller
Point, Rozsa.

Cliff Smith
Yah? I've noticed you can dish it out but not take it. Emotional, demagogic talking points don't make for good debate.

Yes, most of my comments have been wise-ass comments. They are responding to deliberately inflammatory comments that don't even take into account the most obvious objections of the opposing side.

If you want to have a serious, nuanced conversation, make a serious, nuanced point.

Needless to say, I categorically reject that merely having Jews in a neighborhood "creates an environment so hostile that fleeing is rendered necessary," and I find such a notion repugnant and racist, frankly.

Even discounting the obvious legitimacy of Israel as a state (being recognized by the UN at it's creation, if that's what you look to) and it's ability to control what's going on in it's own borders, it is the Israelis who are ready, willing and able to have Muslims and Arabs in general live in their territory. It is the Palestinians, by and large, that are unwilling to reciprocate. Certainly every political movement of any strength relating to the Palestinians.

Ruben Wills
Actually I think you both have something to add even though theres a Jon Stewartesq quality the comments are still thought provoking. You may have birthed a million dollar radio hosting duo

Matthew Rozsa

Um... "dishing it out and not being able to take it" is used when someone who criticizes and/or insults others whines when he is himself criticized and/or insulted. Regardless of whether you think I'm right, wrong, or Hitler, I'm clearly not doing that here (and I doubt even those who disagree with my position would argue that that's the case in this situation). If you're going to use cliche put-downs, please do so properly.

The same problem is evident with your description of my comments as "emotional, demagogic talking points". I'll grant that you like adjectives, that much is clear; the correct application of said adjectives, though, does seem to elude you.

How exactly were any of my statements "emotional" and "demagogic"? For that matter, when have any of them been used as "talking points"? To paraphrase Inigo Montoya, "You keep using that words that are fashionable as political insults, but I do not think they mean what you think they mean."

I will concede that my comments are inflammatory, although in my defense, the stifling of national dialogue on this issue has made it so that any harsh criticism of Israel is often perceived that way.

As for "taking into account the most obvious objections of the opposing side", you will notice that I am more than willing to use my Facebook wall to debate any and all comers when they express disagreement with my opinions. I believe that that practice is more than fair. If, on the other hand, you're complaining that I don't incorporate my rebuttals to the other point of view in my initial status updates, I feel it necessary to point out that I am limited to 450 characters per status update (a fact that has frustrated me many times, lemme tell ya).

See my observations about the first paragraph.

You have conveniently chosen to interpret my comment about Palestinians feeling pressured to flee with an unsavory, Jew-hating connotation that could only have been seen by someone who wanted to believe it was there. In reality, Palestinians are forced to flee because either (a) they are forcibly evacuated from their homes, so that they can either be occupied by Jewish settlers or bulldozed so as to make way for new construction, or (b) so many Israelis move into their neighborhoods that, through direct and/or de facto discrimination, an environment is created where leaving becomes necessary (or at the very least desirable).

I must admit that I got a kick out of being accused of racism against Jews. When you take into account my own Hebraic heritage, the countless times in which I talk about being Jewish and other Jewish-related topics, and the horrifying experiences I have had to endure as a result of my ethnic background, the least I can say is that I'm eternally grateful to have had you accuse me of anti-Semitism - it will no doubt provide me with comedic fodder for many years to come.

Arguing (as you implicitly do) that my opposition to Israeli treatment of Palestinians is tantamount to a challenge against Israel's legitimacy is patently abusrd - it would be a bit like claiming that I want to dissolve the State of Arizona because of Governor Brewer's anti-Latino laws.

Claiming that one side has been more or less intransigent than the other is a gross oversimplification of this conflict. Certainly I wouldn't argue that the Arab side is blameless - their proliferation of terrorist groups, perpetuation of Jew-hating propaganda (from Holocaust denial to Henry Ford-era conspiracy theories) and unwillingness to recognize Israel's existence exacerbates tensions just as much as Israel's persecutory policies, encroachment onto Palestinian land, and disproportionate military retaliations. It is you, not I, for whom nuanced understanding is apparently an enemy.

Cliff may have the bellicose fatuity of Sean Hannity down pat, but I'd like to think I am a tad less meek than Alan Colmes.

This debate went on for quite a while after that comment, but I know that many of my readers are turned off by the lengths of these posts, so I'm going to end the blog article here (besides, the conversation was pretty cyclical after this point). If you are interested in reading the whole exchange, and you are lucky enough to be my Facebook friend, check out my wall:


The Economy

While normally I try to avoid reposting old blog entries, these two pieces touch on issues related to our economic recession which, because of their ongoing relevance, I felt belonged at the top of this webpage.

On why we shouldn’t listen to deficit hawks:

On what we should do to get out of this economic mess:

On the right-wing’s contempt for the poor:

The themes in that last blog article came up again today, in this op-ed piece written by Senator Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) for Politico.com:

"Jobs missing, not motivation"
By Senator Sheldon Whitehouse

As America continues to recover from the Great Recession, millions of people remain out of work through no fault of their own — including more than 71,000 people in my home state of Rhode Island.

Through the recession and its aftermath, Congress has done the right thing and extended unemployment benefits to ensure that families can make ends meet during unusually long job searches. Unfortunately, these emergency programs expired earlier this month, and Senate Republicans are obstructing further assistance — coldly contending it is too costly.

This is unacceptable.

Senate Republicans have argued in recent days that if we cut off people’s unemployment insurance, they will be motivated to get back to work. If only it were that simple.

The unemployment rate in Rhode Island now stands at 12.3 percent. It has been at more than 8 percent for nearly two years, at double digits for more than a year.

The unemployed Rhode Islanders whom I’ve heard from desperately want to get back to work, but jobs just aren’t there. They don’t need any additional motivation — they need jobs.

Republicans have also argued that we can’t extend this important safety net because of concerns about our national debt. Some of these are the same Republicans who supported eight wild years of debt by the Bush administration.

President Bill Clinton left office in 2001 with a budget surplus and the nation on an economic trajectory that would have made it debt free by 2009. But the Bush administration and Republicans in Congress quickly squandered those surpluses through tax cuts for the wealthy, a prescription drug program designed by the pharmaceutical industry and a war in Iraq that was not paid for.

By the time President George W. Bush left office, he had managed to amass $9 trillion in lost surpluses and new debt. He left behind an economy losing close to 700,000 jobs every month. Our country required wide-scale spending to stave off an economic collapse.

Unemployment insurance has played a crucial part in preventing economic disaster for people like Bill, from North Kingstown, R.I. Bill, age 57, used to do sales work for a technology company. But his company was forced to lay him off as a result of budget cuts.

He has now been unemployed since January 2009. Bill has already faced eviction twice because of lapses in unemployment benefits and is worried about facing that prospect once more.

As Bill and other out-of-work Americans continue to search for good jobs, unemployment insurance helps them feed their family, pay the rent, put gas in the car and buy shoes for the kids.

This money immediately goes back into the economy, helping fuel the recovery and ensuring that we don’t slide back into recession.

Unemployment checks turn right around — paying for prescriptions at the local pharmacy or food from the grocery store. Small businesses throughout the country benefit from the increased spending generated by unemployment insurance, and that helps them start hiring again.

We should extend emergency unemployment insurance programs through at least the end of this year. I would hope that my Republican colleagues — who were more than willing to run up record deficits to provide tax breaks to the rich — would also be willing to help Americans who are struggling to stay afloat in this tough economy.

On a humorous note... am I the only one who would find it hysterically funny if Senator Whitehouse was elected to the presidency? Just think about it.

Governor Brewer's Observation

In an interview last week, Arizona Governor Jan Brewer had the following observation to make about illegal immigrants coming into her state:

We all know that the majority of the people that are coming to Arizona and trespassing are now becoming drug mules.

What I find most revealing about Governor Brewer's comment isn't, as many might suspect, its brazen racism. After all, it stands to reason that someone who would fight so hard for racially discriminatory legislation would probably have little difficulty accusing the race she is targeting of engaging en masse in criminal activity (to say nothing of referring to members of that race with a term that, regardless of its other potential uses, still compares them to barnyard animals). Racists, if nothing else, are dependably consistent in holding less-than-flattering opinions of the groups they dislike.

By now I have no doubt prompted the handful of right-wingers who read my blog to seethe in resentment at accusing Brewer and her supporters of being motivated by prejudice. Yet before the accusations start flying that I'm "playing the race card", let us remember that:

1) The bill authorizes law enforcement officials to pull over drivers and demand paperwork verifying their residency in the United States based purely on the suspicion that they might be illegal immigrants. While defenders of this measure point to the fact that it doesn't explicitly single out Latinos for special treatment, they conveniently ignore that the only realistic way any police officer can identify whether an arbitrary driver is potentially an illegal immigrant is visually - i.e., on the basis of whether he or she "looks" illegal. Put another way: In order for this portion of the bill to be rendered effective, Arizona cops would by necessity be encouraged to pull over drivers on the sole basis that they appear to be Latino.

2) This same bill allows police officers to arrest individuals and detain them without a warrant so long as they believe there is "reasonable suspicion" that they might be illegal immigrants. Once again, despite the use of the adjective "reasonable" in front of "suspicion", the only realistic way for police officers to determine whether a random pedestrian MIGHT be an illegal immigrant is if, on sight, he or she happens to look like a Latino. Apart from the manner in which this measure can easily lead to severe abuse against Arizona Latinos, its underlying premise - if taken to its logical conclusion - virtually codifies that Latinos who DO legally reside in that state will be officially considered second-class citizens. After all, the United States Constitution explicitly states (in its Fourth Amendment) that "the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause..." Considering the inevitable reality that, among the thousands of Latinos to be targeted by cops on the basis of their race, some will actually wind up being American citizens, this statute sets a precedent wherein it is permissible to violate the Constitutional rights of law-abiding Latino citizens on the basis of their racial identity.

3) Similarly, a subsequent bill was passed that makes it illegal for schools in that state to teach "ethnic studies classes". Like its predecessor, defenders of this law try to avoid the charge of racism through artful interpretations of the language used in that statute, in this case by claiming that "the measure doesn't prohibit classes that teach about the history of a particular ethnic group, as long as the course is open to all students and doesn't promote ethnic solidarity or resentment." Of course, also like its predecessor, that claim is easily debunked with the application of elementary logic: What exactly does the bill mean by "ethnic studies classes"? How does one determine whether a given course "promotes ethnic resentment"? By using such ambiguous language, the drafters of this bill have made it so that the government appointees responsible for executing this law (all of whom, naturally, are right-wing Brewerites) will be able to apply any set of criteria they choose in implementing it, so long as those standards loosely fall within the parameters of the policy's vague definition. While some have argued that those administrators wouldn't necessarily use their newfound power to target Latino students and classes, (1) Governor Brewer herself admitted that the bill was passed for the purpose of curbing potential protests from the Latino community and (2) the fact that the government has this power in the first place should cause consternation among libertarians, since in a free society no law should exist that empowers individual state officials (and bureaucrats, no less) to so easily deprive citizens of their fundamental civil rights. Yet there is good reason to believe that the officials responsible for school policy will interpret this policy in a distinctly anti-Latino fashion - after all, why else did the law prohibit not only classes that promote "ethnic resentment," which is admittedly a bad thing, but even courses that foster "ethnic solidarity," which is not? Indeed, this conflation of "ethnic solidarity" with "ethnic resentment" should in its own right be deemed problematic, although the fact that it isn't also is quite revealing of the unspoken assumptions of this bill's proponents and defenders.

In short - yes, Brewer's anti-immigration laws are racist, in both motive and effect, and those who fully understand them and support them anyway are also racist. This is why I didn't find the blatant bigotry in Brewer's recent statement to be particularly revealing. It didn't make evident anything that hadn't already been obvious since the legislation's passage.

No, what I found remarkably revealing in Brewer's quote were the first three words she used:

"We all know..."

That, to me, speaks volumes about the psychology behind racism. Despite the boldness of her assertion, and the confidence with which she made it, Governor Brewer did not have a single piece of substantiating evidence or data to back up her claim. Instead, she fell back on that old stand-by for those who don't have a factual leg to stand on - that while she can't prove what she's saying to be true, she shouldn't be criticized for her statement, since "we all know" that it's true.

While I could pontificate and wax poetic ad infinitum on just the long, sad history of the "we all know" assumption, I shall instead make my point - and end this piece - with a simple Mark Twain quote that summarizes my reasoning better than I ever could.

It ain't what you don't know that gets you into trouble. It's what you know for sure that just ain't so.

Thursday, June 24, 2010

Limbaugh the Reprehensible

Rush Limbaugh is not just a man with “a different point-of-view" (a phrase that is often used as code these days for “shut the hell up and stop making life mildly unpleasant for complacent people by criticizing the opinions of the idiotic and monstrous”). The beliefs of Limbaugh, and everyone who agrees with him, are nothing short of morally reprehensible.

But let me back up a little bit.

Economic elitists in this country have always had a rough time selling their case to the American people. After all, unlike monarchies and dictatorships, the source of power in democratic countries lies in the approval of the populace. Since class-based elitists are, by the very nature of the arguments they advocate, insisting that the interests of a small fraction of the general public should be put over the needs of the overwhelming majority, their position becomes an extraordinarily untenable one in egalitarian societies.

This goes a long way toward explaining why America’s first prominent voice of economic conservatism, Alexander Hamilton, soon found that these ideas – as most eloquently espoused by himself, and as championed by the political party he helped to found, the Federalists – became politically poisonous:

All communities divide themselves into the few and the many. The first are the rich and well born, the other the mass of the people.... The people are turbulent and changing; they seldom judge or determine right. Give therefore to the first class a distinct, permanent share in the government. They will check the unsteadiness of the second, and as they cannot receive any advantage by change, they therefore will ever maintain good government.

I will give Hamilton credit for one thing, though; whereas he attempted to justify his position with rationalizations that didn’t condemn the poor so much as dismiss them as sociologically irrelevant, his counterparts today are not only less cerebral, but so bilious and hate-filled that Hamilton would likely be mortified to have them represent his cause.

This, of course, brings me to Rush Limbaugh, the de facto leader of the conservative movement in our time. During a recent statement on his radio program, he expressed dismay at reports that children from poor families may have to endure hunger this summer once they no longer receive free or discounted school lunches. Sadly, this dismay - as always - was pointed in precisely the wrong direction:

God, this is just -- we can't escape these people. We just can't escape them…

Where to find food. And, of course, the first will be: "Try your house." It's a thing called the refrigerator. You probably already know about it. Try looking there. There are also things in what's called the kitchen of your house called cupboards. And in those cupboards, most likely you're going to find Ding-Dongs, Twinkies, Lays ridgy potato chips, all kinds of dips and maybe a can of corn that you don't want, but it will be there. If that doesn't work, try a Happy Meal at McDonald's. You know where McDonald's is. There's the Dollar Menu at McDonald's and if they don't have Chicken McNuggets, dial 911 and ask for Obama.

It gets better...

There's another place if none of these options work to find food; there's always the neighborhood dumpster. Now, you might find competition with homeless people there, but there are videos that have been produced to show you how to healthfully dine and how to dumpster dive and survive until school kicks back up in August. Can you imagine the benefit we would provide people?

In response to Limbaugh’s remarks, Congressman Jim McDermott (D-WA) delivered a statement from the floor of the House of Representatives:

I rise today out of disgust over recent comments by Rush Limbaugh about child hunger… Mr. Limbaugh ultimately recommended these children "Dumpster dive" -- Dumpster dive! -- to find food until school starts back up. In the midst of a deep recession that has forced millions of Americans to face the daily fear of losing their homes and failing to provide food for their kids, all Mr. Limbaugh can contribute is another awful example of shameless and callous commentary.

Limbaugh has never been a particularly good debater, so I guess one shouldn’t be surprised at the low intellectual and moral quality of his rebuttal:

It's called a kitchen, and there's cupboards in there and sometimes there's a refrigerator in there, and if you have responsible parents there's going to be food in there. If you find that doesn't work, go to a neighbor's house. Then there's also McDonald's and the Happy Meal.

Oh, and in case you feel that Limbaugh's recent remarks are a mere momentary lapse, allow me to bring you back to the Limbaugh of the 1990s:

The poor in this country are the biggest piglets at the mother pig and her nipples. The poor feed off the largesse of this government and give nothing back... I'm sick and tired of the one phony game I've had to play and that is this so-called compassion for the poor. I don't have compassion for the poor.

I’m not sure what is more disturbing: The fact that Rush Limbaugh and his twenty million listeners can have such smug, self-satisfied contempt for people who are powerless and suffering, or the fact that HIS bubbleheaded, mean-spirited elitism has become so widely admired, thus implying that Hamilton's mistake back in the 1790s was not so much BEING elitist as it was not being sufficiently stupid and hateful in practicing his elitism.

Actually, it's pretty obvious which element of this story is most disturbing: Namely, that I even need to write an article calling Limbaugh and his supporters "reprehensible" in the first place.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Patient's Bill of Rights

Although media attention has not paid to this story, a significant development occurred today that will have an enormous impact on the lives of the American people for many years to come.

How would you feel if health insurance companies were never again allowed to impose pre-existing condition exclusions on children? What if they were prohibited from taking away coverage from people who made unintentional mistakes on their applications? Would you support measures that banned insurers from setting lifetime limits on insurance coverage, restricted their ability to impose annual limits on coverage, and demanding that "prior approval" be granted before allowing patients to seek emergency care at hospitals outside of their plan network?

If you support these and other progressive measures, then you will be pleased to know that President Obama has just announced a series of new regulations in the Affordable Care Act. These measures, better known as the Patient's Bill of Rights, bring to fruition another important segment of the dream given its most eloquent articulation by Senator Edward Kennedy almost thirty years ago:

We must not surrender to the relentless medical inflation that can bankrupt almost anyone and that may soon break the budgets of government at every level. Let us insist on real controls over what doctors and hospitals can charge, and let us resolve that the state of a family's health shall never depend on the size of a family's wealth.

It is unfortunate that Obama's approval ratings are continuing to sag. In the past month he has engaged in a brave (and disturbingly unpopular) campaign to reverse Arizona's racist anti-immigration law, forced BP to pay $20 billion to Gulf Coast residents whose livelihoods have been impacted by the oil spill (thus doing justice to thousands of innocent Americans and saving billions of taxpayer dollars), boldly fired a prominent military leader whose insubordination posed a threat to the institution of civilian control over the armed forces, and now has pushed through the long-overdue Patient's Bill of Rights.

Frankly, I couldn't be more pleased with Obama's recent performance.

The McChrystal Crisis

Yesterday I posted the following Facebook status regarding General Stanley McChrystal's soon-to-be-published criticisms of the Obama administration.

America has a long history of hubristic generals being insubordinate to their civilian commanders (i.e., the president). In the 1860s you had George McClellan and Abraham Lincoln; in the 1950s you had Douglas MacArthur and Harry Truman; now we have Stanley McChrystal and Barack Obama. Hopefully Obama knows enough about history to realize that, like Lincoln and Truman before him, he must fire McChrystal.

Matthew Rozsa
I just realized that the last sentence in that status update was grammatically flawed. Technically, what I wrote there implies that Abraham Lincoln and Harry Truman had to both fire Stanley McChrystal; what I meant to write, of course, was that each of them had to fire the insubordinate military leaders from their own respective periods of history. Most people probably didn't notice this gaffe, but since I am so quick to jump on mistakes like this when they're made by others, integrity requires me to forthrightly acknowledge my own error.

Jim Chambers
George McClellan ain't worthy of sniffing MacArthur's jock.

Matthew Rozsa
I actually agree with you there, Jim. McClellan was a terrible military strategist whose out-of-whack ego wrote checks that his limited brainpower couldn't cash, and who was inexcusably timid in deploying his forces when circumstances called for it; MacArthur, on the other hand, is more responsible than any other single figure for winning the Pacific Theater during World War II and reconstructing Japan into the economically prosperous capitalist democracy that it is today.

Even so, for the purposes of the point being made above, the comparison between McClellan and MacArthur remains apt. Both men were grossly insubordinate to their respective presidents - McClellan during the Civil War and MacArthur during the Korean War - which is why both, at the end of the day, needed to be relieved of duty. If Barack Obama is smart and demonstrates the proper cojones, he will follow in the example of Lincoln and Truman, in this case by sending McChrystal packing.

Although my political support for President Obama is well-known, my reason for feeling that he needs to fire General McChrystal goes much deeper than that. Civilian control over our military establishment is key to the maintenance of American freedom; the instant leaders in our armed forced are permitted to engage in disrespectful and/or defiant action against their non-military superiors, a precedent is established whereby the mechanisms of democratic government are subjugated to the whims of the brass.


This article was written before President Obama's announcement today that he would indeed remove Stanley McChrystal from his post. His rationale was basically the same as mine:

"The conduct represented in the recently published article does not meet the standard that should be set by a commanding general. It undermines the civilian control of the military that is at the core of our Democratic system. And it erodes the trust that’s necessary for our team to work together to achieve our objectives in Afghanistan."

Sunday, June 20, 2010

The Anti-Semitism of Helen Thomas

One of the problems with the militant Zionist movement is that they tend to brand Israel's critics as being anti-Semitic. This has two distinctly negative consequences:

1) It creates a climate in which those who have legitimate objections to Israeli policy are intimidated into silence, lest they be accused of bigotry otherwise.

2) It makes it so that ACTUAL anti-Semites who choose to use criticism of Israel as their cover are better able to get away with venting their venom - since, after all, many who aren't anti-Semites will secretly wonder if this person is really a bigot or just another victim of an over-zealous pro-Zionist crowd.

In my mind, there is a very simple way to tell the difference between a legitimate critic of Israel and an anti-Semite - i.e., whether the position articulated by the individual in question focuses on the actions of individuals and institutions within or pertaining to the State of Israel OR whether that position attempts to, by extension, make larger comments about "the Jews" in general. The litmus test may seem basic, but in my experience it works like a charm.

That is why I resent it when many of Israel's more outspoken critics on the left (Jimmy Carter, Dennis Kucinich, Michael Moore) and on the right (Ron Paul, Rand Paul, the late Barry Goldwater) are denounced as Jew-haters. It is also why I feel, just as strongly, that comments like the one made by Helen Thomas a few weeks ago ARE undeniably anti-Semitic.

For further elaboration on this position, I cite an excellent editorial in The Washington Post written by the rabbi whose interview prompted her shocking statement:

She didn't say that the blockade was unjust, or that aid was not getting to Gaza, or that there was a massacre on the high seas, or that East Jerusalem is occupied, or that the settlements are immoral . . . and get out and go back to West Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Haifa and Eilat. No. This was not the two-state solution. This was get the hell out and go back to the places of the final solution, Poland and Germany. The Jew has no connection with the land of Israel.

This one isn't even ambiguous.

At the same time, you can't be too harsh on those who are reluctant to fully accept that Helen Thomas is a bigot. In part this is due to her sterling reputation as a White House reporter who broke gender barriers, asked tough questions, paid severe prices for her bravery, and has been around since the days when Richard Nixon was a mere vice president. Yet in part it's also because, at the end of the day, groups like AIPAC - which are too quick to play the "anti-Semite" card whenever it suits their geopolitical agenda - have created a latter-day "boy who cried wolf scenario". We need to more vocally condemn the practice of branding Israel's critics as anti-Semites, not merely because it stifles one of our nation's most cherished precepts (the right to free speech), but because it makes it that much harder for us to be believed when a real anti-Semite rears her ugly head.

Friday, June 18, 2010

Obama in Arizona: The President We Need

The latest polls on Arizona's new anti-immigration laws - which, by allowing police officers to pull over drivers on suspicion that they are illegal immigrants (i.e., because they look like Latinos - heavily indicate what course of action a politically prudent president should take.

"A new law in Arizona would give police the power to ask people they've stopped to verify their residency status. Supporters say this will help crack down on illegal immigration. Opponents say it could violate civil rights and lead to racial profiling. On balance, do you support or oppose this law?"
Support - 58%
Oppose - 41%

As such, it stands to reason that our current president, Barack Obama, should be foursquare behind the actions of Governor Jan Brewer and the rest of the Arizonans who support this measure. Instead he has proven an outspoken opponent of what they've done, a decision that goes a long way toward explaining the results of this poll:

"Do you approve or disapprove of the way Obama is handling immigration issues?"
Approve - 39%
Disapprove - 51%

To this I have only one thing to say...

Good for you, Barack Obama.

Now there is an update from CNN.com:

Obama administration lawyers are planning to file a legal challenge to a controversial Arizona immigration law within a month, according to a senior administration official.

The Justice Department would not confirm the claim, saying only that "The Justice Department is continuing to review the law."

Federal government lawyers who have been working on the expected challenge for several weeks will most likely file their arguments in federal court in Phoenix in the days leading up to July 28, when the statute is scheduled to take effect, the official said.

Although the Justice Department indicates no final decisions have been made at this point, officials were put on the spot when Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a recent television interview in Ecuador the government "will be bringing a lawsuit" in the case.

Administration officials have indicated the question of Arizona usurping federal authority to control the border and enforce immigration law is the most likely federal point of attack against the state law signed by Gov. Jan Brewer earlier this year.

To this, I have only to add:

Best of luck, Barack Obama. I am honored to say that you are my president.

Oh, and if by any chance you actually SUPPORT the Arizona immigration law, please read my elaborate rebuttal of your position, as can be found at these two links:




Republicans: The Party of Joe Barton

This has to be the best quote of the week:

“If anything I have said this morning has been misconstrued to the opposite effect, I want to apologize for that misconstrued misconstruction."

That "apology" came from Republican Congressman Joe Barton, who was ordered by Republican congressional leadership to issue it after blurting out a much more convincing apology to BP CEO Tony Hayward yesterday:

"I'm ashamed of what happened in the White House yesterday. I think it is a tragedy of the first proportion that a private corporation can be subjected to what I would characterize as a shakedown. In this case a $20 billion shakedown. I apologize."
Yes, you read that correctly - Congressman Barton apologized to BP for being forced, by that dastardly President Obama, to financially compensate Gulf Coast residents whose livelihoods were ruined by the oil spill. No wonder Republican congressional leaders demanded, for the sake of their image, that Barton offer an apology for his apology.

Of course, if the political tacticians of the Republican Party really want to repair the damage to their partisan brand, they'll have a lot more work cut out for them; plenty of other Republicans - from Michele Bachmann and Rush Limbaugh to the 114-member Republican Study Committee - have already expressed agreement with Barton's position. That is because, in the eyes of the ascendant conservative movement, Barack Obama's demand that BP provide financial compensation to Gulf Coast residents is a threat to "the US Constitution, the American way of life, American exceptionalism, what it was that made this country great" (Limbaugh), a "redistribution of wealth fund" that renders BP into "chumps" (Bachmann), and "Chicago-style shakedown politics" (the 114-member Republican Study Committee).

All of these individuals are quick to follow their earlier comments by insisting that they are NOT defending BP, but rather simply angry that President Obama didn't allow the claims process to go through normal, proper judicial channels. There are three major flaws to this position:

1) The financial damage that has been done to residents of the Gulf Coast has been extensive and immediate, and any judicial process would inevitably take months (at the very least) to provide residents of Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Mississippi, and Florida with the aid that they need right now. Only an escrow fund of the type President Obama pressured BP into establishing can achieve an immediate and effective result.

2) What President Obama did was not illegal. Although he no doubt used the prestige of the presidency (as well as his Rooseveltian "bully pulpit") in an effort to pressure BP CEO Tony Hayward into doing the right thing by creating this fund, there isn't a shred of evidence that he abused his executive authority in order to coerce or force BP's hand in an extra-legal manner. Frankly, the only way this reflects poorly on President Obama is that it makes one wonder why he didn't display similar cojones when dealing with Wall Street last year.

3) The Republican Party claims to fight for small, fiscally responsible government. Yet had they had their way, the American taxpayers would have had to shoulder an enormous financial burden as a result of BP's mistakes. After all, lengthy judicial proceedings are not cheap, to say nothing of oil spill clean-ups (which Obama also forced BP to finance in his so-called "shakedown") and providing unemployment benefits to the Gulf Coast residents whose livelihoods have been affected by the spill - although, arguably, Republicans may have opposed even doing that much for BP's victims, considering their staunch opposition to the legislation currently pending that would extend unemployment benefits to the victims of Wall Street's malfeasance. Because of President Obama's actions, the American taxpayers will not have to spend a dime as a result of BP's errors, and the residents of the Gulf Coast will have justice done to them at the expense of the perpetrators themselves and no one else. This is in stark contrast to the ideal for which Republicans are now fighting, one in which justice to the people of the Gulf Coast would either have to come with a price tag of billions of dollars to the already-beleagued American taxpayer (assuming the courts ruled in favor of BP and conservatives voted with liberals for a special unemployment benefits package) or not at all (since the courts might not rule in favor of Gulf Coasters and conservatives might oppose a special unemployment package).

So what is the method behind the Republican Party's seeming madness? Democratic Representative Chris Van Hollen of Maryland put it best:

“This will become an issue in the races around the country, because it’s another big piece of the story about how the Republicans have been on the side of the big corporations."

OUTRAGE! Support for the Uzbeks in Kyrgyzstan

As of June 17, 2010, ethnic rioting in Kyrgyzstan has led to the deaths of hundreds of Uzbeks (who are a minority in that nation), forcing thousands more to become refugees as they flee this small Central Asian country for their lives.

This is a humanitarian outrage, and if you wish to express your solidarity with the persecuted Uzbeks - as well as your condemnation for the Kyrgyz responsible for these atrocities - please do so by joining this Facebook group.

While I'm not naive enough to believe that a Facebook page can have the geopolitical influence necessary to change the course of current events, it'd still be nice to know that humanity's moral nerve endings aren't completely numb.

For more information on this story, please see:

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Unemployment Discrimination

My Facebook status:

Matthew Rozsa
Want at least one cheap, simple way of dealing with America's unemployment problem? Pass a bill that makes it illegal for companies to engage in hiring practices like this one (as excerpted from an article on CNNMoney.com):
"Looking for work? Unemployed need not apply... Employment experts say they believe companies are... increasingly interested only in applicants who already have a job."

Matthew Rozsa
Here's a link to the article:

It's most salient point is that many employers operate under the assumption that the unemployed are in their current predicament because of poor performance at their previous job. Although economists from all over the ideological spectrum have long since dismissed this belief as a myth (which is doubly true in times of economic hardship, such as this one), employers still embrace this perspective, in part out of convenience (it reduces the number of applications they have to sift through) and in part because they're plain out-of-touch.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
It's a bitch out there, I imagine those employers that discriminate against the unemployed will lose out to competitors that weild such untapped talent

Morgan Kanter
How do you *enforce* such a law?

Tiguhs OndaBayou
You can't. It's just pointless regulation Matt supports, are you surprised?

Morgan Kanter
Look, I'm not saying it's pointless and I don't like the implication that I'm supporting such a position. The free market correcting itself has the same flaws of timing here that it has in countless other applications. If the regulation is actually enforceable, it does not seem like a poor idea.

If it's not enforceable though, it could clearly cause obvious problems.

Matthew Rozsa
I'm not sure how regulation that can put the unemployed back to work can be considered "pointless". While enforceability would be difficult, it is hardly impossible. Because there are already laws banning hiring discrimination based on race, gender, religion, and sexual orientation, one could easily (and cheaply) expand those laws to encompass individuals who are currently unemployed. Although the system for guaranteeing fair employment standards would inevitably still have some injustices to slip through the cracks, merely having those standards in place - and particularly making it possible for lawsuits to be pressed against employers who violate those standards - should go a long way toward correcting the problem.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
Now that's rich, you simply assume the policy would be successful if implemented!! lol

Tiguhs OndaBayou
Morgan, if it's not enforceable it's = pointless

Morgan Kanter
I did not say anything to indicate that that wasn't the case.

Matthew Rozsa
Did I say that the policy would be successful simply because it had been implemented?

What I said is that, if incorporated into existing legislation protecting select groups from hiring discrimination, it would probably have the same amount of effectiveness in protecting the unemployed as those laws have in protecting racial, religious, and sexual minorities. Would it be perfect? No. Would it be better than the status quo? Yes - and it would be both cheap and relatively easy to put in place.

"Insert witty and unnecessarily incendiary political comment here."

Since I so often use my Facebook status as a forum for posting witty and unnecessarily incendiary political comments, I thought it would be a great meta-joke for me to post the above-cited quote as my new status update:

"Insert witty and unnecessarily incendiary political comment here."

For once, I thought, I may be able to avoid a heated political confrontation.

I was wrong. What's worse, because this took place late at night, my exhaustion from a long day of political argumentativeness soon began to take its toll.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
Ripping off a saying I once heard:

pets in America live better than poor people in third world countries

Matthew Rozsa
That certainly qualifies as an incendiary political comment.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
Unfortunately there's a good deal of truth to it, I actually heard that one from Maria.

Also, hard to deny (u can't) that most poor people in America have the luxury of being fat.

Matthew Rozsa
The last time you made that comment*, I told you what I thought of it, both morally and in terms of its accuracy (which is, to say the least, grossly distorted by your own pro-Wall Street biases).

My opinion of your Limbaugh-esque contempt for the American poor has not changed at all since the last time you expressed it.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
poor people are more likely overweight than not, you can't deny that.

Difference between me and you: I have plenty of friends that are poor. There's a lot of poverty in Louisiana. I once had that self rightious attitude you now have on display, then I learned to detach myself when cinsidering controversial issues that the PC crowd refuses to touch (and often cannot refute)

Matthew Rozsa
How exactly are you so certain that I don't have friends who are poor?

What's more, how dare you denigrate the suffering of human beings whose plights - though not as terrible as those of the economically underprivileged in third-world countries - are nevertheless quite awful?

I have friends who don't have health insurance, who struggle each month to afford their rent, who have real worries about being able to pay for the basic necessites of life, such as electricity and water and, yes, food (one of the reasons so many poor people are fat, by the way, is that junk food is much cheaper than the healthier alternatives). The mere act of getting by everyday is so difficult for them that the notion of socio-economic mobility - of going to a decent college, getting a sound education, and having opportunities to tap into their personal gifts and thereby advance their station in life - is more quixotic than realistic.

You don't know nearly as much about me, my life, or the predicament of the American working class as you claim. You, Tom, are all sail and no ballast.

John Hagan
Matt, perhaps you could just as easily have said this: knowing poor people does not make you any more likely to propose good policy. Southerners being Southern doesn't make their economic policies any better for the South. (Etc.)

Matthew Rozsa
True, although frankly, I am trying to end this conversation. While I appreciate your support, John, I am TIRED. lol

John Hagan

Tiguhs OndaBayou
That's certainly a lot shorter, John. Though having a masters in public policy indicates to me Im likely more apt at discerning the impact various policies have on allieviating poverty.

Matthew Rozsa
"Much reading is an oppression of the mind, and extinguishes the natural candle, which is the reason of so many senseless scholars in the world."- William Penn

I'm using a Penn quote to rebut your latest point - the one about having a Masters - because I'm so tired that my natural laziness is prevailing, so I'll just use the words of a 17th Century proto-liberal to back me up instead of having to come up with my own.

Poor people are fat because cheap food is unhealthy. Cheap food is unhealthy because of the US Farm Bill.

Are you two arguing over who has more poor friends?

Poverty is poverty no matter how you cut it, and it's unacceptable no matter the context. I have been working in sub-Saharan Africa since 2008 and poverty there is just as upsetting as poverty in the US. Poverty is poverty. Everyone deserves basic amenities and an opportunity for decent work (see ILO definition).

At the same time, one could argue that it's more unacceptable/upsetting in the US, given that it is a so-called modern and industrialized country (and arguably one that should take more care of its citizens because the government is/should be less corrupt and more accountable).

One could also argue that it's more upsetting in low- and middle-income countries (note: the term "third world" is outdated) because the absolute poverty there is higher, there is little/no government support, and the poor in those countries don't even have access to basic amenities (water, shelter, sanitation).

In any case, poverty sucks.

Matthew Rozsa
Good point, Liz. I agree with most of what you said, although your characterization of what I was arguing - namely, that I was trying to see "who had more poor friends" - is inaccurate (Tom began by claiming that I didn't know any poor people, and I rightly pointed out that he had no basis for claiming that).

After responding to Tom's assertion, by the way, I then went on to make pretty much the same points as you (albeit without half the hands-on expertise that you possess, and while neglecting to take into account the psychological dimension of how poverty affects people in industrialized-versus-poor nations).

Agreed. Matt, you sure did make those points - "whose plights.... are nevertheless quite awful."

Sorry I had to jump in on this argument. I was mostly trying to point out that "knowing" poor people doesn't necessarily make one's argument stronger, nor does geography make anyone's poverty more or less dire. I think we totally agree on this. Which just leaves Tom out there all alone....?

p.s. I wouldn't necessarily say that I have very much "expertise," but thanks for the flattery :)

Matthew Rozsa
Hey, you gave me free beer and fried chicken at the Super Bowl party last February. The least I can do is acknowledge your expertise where such acknowledgement is due (and possibly hope for more fried chicken in my future... lol).

Tiguhs OndaBayou
I don't know which comment you're referring to but if it has to do with your knowing poor people I'll concede to that lol

Liz, the US Farm bill should shoulder a lot of the blame, but it's clear healthy, affordable choices do exist (grocery store vegies and rice vs McDonalds--- McDs is more expensive) and Americans, of which poor folks are more likely not to exercise that option. I don't blame them, eating unhealthy tastes good and it's my mo too

Tiguhs OndaBayou
I'll concede defeat on this one matt, tho to my little sister, not u! Bwahahahahaha

* - For Tom's original comment, and my reaction to it, see: http://riskinghemlock.blogspot.com/2010/05/i-become-economic-policy-dick.html

ADDENDUM - July 5, 2010:

An excellent Paul Krugman article that addresses some of the themes touched upon in this conversation:

Deficit Hawks = Scum

Here is what I wrote as my Facebook status.

Deficit hawks are scum.


Because the same people who want to reduce the deficit by slashing unemployment benefits, cutting back on state aid that can save jobs, and opposing the economic stimulus programs that would put Americans back to work......THESE are the same people who bellow in rage when you suggest raising taxes on large corporations and the wealthy.

So I reiterate... deficit hawks are scum.

The following debate took place on June 16, 2010:

Tiguhs OndaBayou
The eurozone is presently demonstrating why you are wrong.

Kevin Brettell
Matt, this kind of generalization is just plain wrong. Not every person out there who is in favor of getting our deficit under control is also in favor of lower taxes for the wealthy and large corporations. For the record, I am currently in favor of economic stimulus programs, as I think they are required in our current situation. However, in the long term, I am definitely a deficit hawk. What we are doing right now is unsustainable in the long term.

Matthew Rozsa
To Kevin:

The term "deficit hawk", at least as it is frequently used in contemporary political vernacular, does not refer to people with the positions you've just articulated. Liberals as well as conservatives agree that the budget deficit needs to be reduced, and the national debt gradually paid off. That said, "deficit hawks" are those who believe that all other economic priorities must come second to the need to balance our budget right away, while non-hawks feel that this issue - though important - right now must take a backseat to more important policy concerns (like putting Americans back to work, or improving our economic competitiveness with nations like China, India, and Japan).

While taking this approach does not NECESSARILY mean that you support policies that favor the rich, the reality is that most "deficit hawks" are so obsessed with this issue because they're less concerned with the plight of the unemployed than they are with the gripings of Wall Street and the bond markets, which are more adversely effected by a sizeable deficit than they are by high unemployment - hence their vocal opposition to any programs that take money away from their chief constituency, the rich.


Really? Because I see the flailing of the American economy - combined with the extent to which fiscal austerity has done nothing to solve the budget deficit while working wonders in worsening the economic plight of average Americans - as very clearly demonstrating why I'm right.

Once again, I am not saying that we shouldn't fix the budget deficit; claiming otherwise is a blatant (and, in my opinion, intentional) effort to distort my position. What I'm saying is that we need to reduce the deficit in a way that does not hurt America's working class, but instead cuts wasteful programs and demands greater sacrifices from the well-to-do. Because deficit hawks don't want the rich to pay more - and because they know perfectly well that this option is just as viable in reducing the deficit as forcing the middle-class and poor suffer - they attempt to make all advocates of increasing taxes on the wealthy seem like people who ignore the deficit problem altogether. This is a falsehood, and the people who try to present reality that way are liars.

Kevin Brettell
Just to be clear, Matt, I don't think that you think we shouldn't fix the budget deficit.

I'll chalk this one up to me misunderstanding what you meant in your first post. It sounds like we essentially agree on this subject.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
a lot of generalizations, little understanding of what's going down in Europe--IMF officials are presently visiting Spain--u know shits about to turn for the worst when the IMF shows up

Tiguhs OndaBayou
That first paragraph doesn't make any sense, spending on social programs has increased under every president since i've been alive and then some. So I don't know who's austere fiscal policy u are criticizing (i see it as a silly strawman argument)

Cliff Smith
I'd argue with you, but I don't really disagree.

You don't understand basic macro or micro economics, that seems pretty clear, but you're 100% correct on what I want to do.

Matthew Rozsa
To Tom:

A) Once again... I am not saying that we don't need to balance the budget. What I am saying is that this objective can, and should, be achieved by means other than cutting programs which affect the economically disadvantaged. When you bring up examples such as the IMF's involvement in Spain, you imply that I am ignorant of the dangers of our out-of-whack deficit. This is an intentional effort on your part to establish a false dichotomy regarding this issue - i.e., to make it seem like the two choices are between (1) cutting programs that help the working class in our economy while improving the budget deficit and (2) allowing the budget deficit to spiral out of control in order to have new spending programs. You deliberately ignore the third option, which is to increase taxes on the wealthy and cut wasteful spending in other programs, as well as rely on the fact that - when economic stimulus causes employment to go up - the increase in revenues from income taxes will further help us get the deficit under control.

B) Spending on social programs has increased under every president since you've been alive ONLY when you refuse to take inflation into account. In fact, plenty of social welfare programs were cut during the first four presidencies of your lifetime - not only with Reagan and the two Bushes, but Clinton as well.

C) The fiscal austerity to which I refer is the movement among conservative Democrats in Congress to stymie legislation that would extend unemployment benefits, increase economic stimulus, and provide aid to states that desperately need it (particularly for teachers, our education system, and state employees). It is, incidentally, the same fiscal austerity to which I referred when I began this conversation ("...the same people who want to reduce the deficit by slashing unemployment benefits, cutting back on state aid that can save jobs, and opposing the economic stimulus programs..."), so I don't know how you could have been unclear about what I was referring to. If you really think that this isn't a problem, and that I'm erecting a straw man, then you are out of touch with the news.

Matthew Rozsa
To Cliff:

Listen, I'm not going to object to your decision to insult me - in light of what I wrote about deficit hawks, that would be more than a little hypocritical. However, I am going to politely request that you follow up all insults with substantive, intelligent arguments, as I have attempted to do. If your approach is going to be one of insisting on your own expertise and ridiculing my presumed lack thereof - without, of course, actually backing up either of those assertions - then I'm not going to take you seriously.

Cliff Smith
You didn't present a serious argument. Excuse me if follow your example and also decline to do so.

Matthew Rozsa
To Kevin:

Having re-read our exchange, I realize that I was wrong in not being clearer in what I meant by the term "deficit hawks". It is understandable that you misunderstood what I was trying to say, and the fault for that misunderstanding is entirely mine.

Matthew Rozsa
To Cliff:

"Insults are the arguments employed by those who are in the wrong."

- Jean-Jacques Rousseau

Rousseau's quote, for the purposes of this debate, needs to be updated:

"Insults that are unaccompanied by arguments are used by those too stupid or lazy to construct a sound rationale for their opinions."

I may have insulted deficit hawks, but at least I explained why. You have used insults but haven't provided a single explanation, for reasons that my update of Rousseau's quote makes pretty clear.

In case I need further proof (which I don't)... if my argument is really so ridiculous, why are you unwilling to take the few minutes necessary to point out how? All you do is say things; you apparently view yourself as being above the fine art of actually having to prove them.


TiguhsOnDaBayou - better known as Tom - did include a response after the last comment which I mention here (Cliff, on the other hand, never offered a follow up, although he has had time to post extensively on other subjects). Because Tom's reply dealt more with the subject of my blog article "What We Should Do" then it did with the budget deficit debate, I posted it on the bottom of that piece instead of this one (http://riskinghemlock.blogspot.com/2010/06/what-we-should-do.html).

Two days after this conversation, Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman wrote the following about the motivations of American deficit hawks:

In America, many self-described deficit hawks are hypocrites, pure and simple: They’re eager to slash benefits for those in need, but their concerns about red ink vanish when it comes to tax breaks for the wealthy. Thus, Senator Ben Nelson, who sanctimoniously declared that we can’t afford $77 billion in aid to the unemployed, was instrumental in passing the first Bush tax cut, which cost a cool $1.3 trillion.

Paul Krugman's support of my position is not limited to my characterization of what motivates deficit hawks:

Suddenly, creating jobs is out, inflicting pain is in. Condemning deficits and refusing to help a still-struggling economy has become the new fashion everywhere, including the United States, where 52 senators voted against extending aid to the unemployed despite the highest rate of long-term joblessness since the 1930s...

The key point is that while the advocates of austerity pose as hardheaded realists, doing what has to be done, they can’t and won’t justify their stance with actual numbers — because the numbers do not, in fact, support their position.

Just to reiterate what I wrote two days ago:

That said, "deficit hawks" are those who believe that all other economic priorities must come second to the need to balance our budget right away, while non-hawks feel that this issue - though important - right now must take a backseat to more important policy concerns (like putting Americans back to work, or improving our economic competitiveness with nations like China, India, and Japan).

Need I say any more?

What We Should Do

One of my main criticisms of liberal bloggers is that, while they are quick to criticize the policies of those in power, they are often much more reluctant to come forward with alternatives of their own. So as to avoid falling into this trap myself, I have outlined below the economic program that I would attempt to implement if I were in a position to do so.

I shall begin with a quote from Franklin Roosevelt:

“Our Republican leaders tell us economic laws — sacred, inviolable, unchangeable — cause panics which no one could prevent. But while they prate of economic laws, men and women are starving. We must lay hold of the fact that economic laws are not made by nature. They are made by human beings.”
- Franklin Roosevelt (1932)

Sadly, the primary difference between the America of 1932 (in which FDR uttered this line) and its 2010 counterpart is that today, far too many Democrats are becoming gelded echoes of deficit hawks, laissez-fairers, covert plutocrats, myopic shills of Wall Street (such as yourself), and other birds from the Republican economic aviary.

No one is denying that our budget deficit and national debt pose a great threat to our country's fiscal soundness, and that both will eventually need to be addressed. That said, our priority right now must be to alleviate the great human suffering that has been caused by the economic calamities of the Reaganite agenda (the same one brought to its unfortunate fruition under George W. Bush) - rising unemployment, stagnant and/or declining incomes, a deterioration in the quality of our education system, and a dwindling of our national competitiveness with other nations in clean energy, biotechnology, and other industries of the future. These are not problems that can be solved while simultaneously trying to fight the budget deficit and reduce our national debt. Therefore we must accept three hard truths about what our policies need to be, at least temporarily:

1) We will need to drastically increase spending, and with it the deficit and our national debt, until the aforementioned side effects of this economic disaster have subsided. These spending increases should include a comprehensive latter-day New Deal, one which emphasizes modern equivalents to the Works Progress Administration and National Recovery Act; increased regulations on Wall Street and big business; legislation strengthening the power of labor unions to control employee wages; a law that mandates annual increases in the minimum wage in accordance with the national cost of living; state aid to help local government save public sector jobs - and especially teaching positions, thereby guaranteeing that a decline in our education system does not force future generations to pay for today's recession; a job training program to help those who are out-of-work acquire the skills needed to become employed in industries that are creating jobs; and federal investments in future industries that are likely to increase America's worldwide prestige and serve as engines of job creation for years to come.

2) To offset the deleterious impact those spending increases will have on our deficit and national debt, we will need to make dramatic cuts NOT in social programs, but in areas where government spending is either necessary but currently excessive (such as with the military-industrial complex) or a moral as well as fiscal affront (such as the war on drugs, particularly as it is made manifest in the ongoing prohibition of marijuana, and its concurrent proliferation of our prison system).

3) After unemployment is down, wages are up, and the other policies necessary to secure America's economic future have been put in place, we will then need be able to wage a full-frontal assault against the budget deficit and national debt by raising taxes. To accomplish this in a way that brings in enough revenue to actually make a dent in solving these problems, while simultaneously not thrusting the burden onto those Americans least capable of shouldering it, we should raise taxes on both non-essential goods and services (one great example of this would be to not only legalize marijuana, but impose a considerable tax rate on it) and on the individuals and financial entities most capable of affording it (such as by raising taxes on large corporate earnings and the incomes of wealthy Americans back to Eisenhower-era levels).

I am not under the illusion that any of this will be easy. That said, it must be done, not simply because it's financially sound, but because it's morally right.


In a later conversation that I had about deficit hawks (which I have posted in the article after this one), my friend and I had a brief exchange about the value of creating "policy wishlists". The dialogue seemed far more appropriate for this article than its predecessor, which is why I pasted it below as a conclusion to this piece.

Tiguhs OndaBayou
Matt, think that you might be wrong, if just for a few minutes as a thought exercise.

Oh, and u can adjust for inflation and the increase is still there lolalso, I'm all for cutting wasteful programs as you suggested we do. That's a no-brainer. Miltary, war on drugs etc, let's slash spending in half (or eliminate re war on drugs). Do I think these measures are politically feasible at this point in time? About a snowball's chance in hell. we can revert to making policy wishlists whist raising our fists at the man, but I thought we got that out if our system in undergrad

Matthew Rozsa
1) It is pretty condescending of you to assume that I haven't tried to imagine this case from the other point-of-view, not merely because it insults my open-mindedness, but because it operates on the premise that no one who understands your position could possibly come to an intelligent disagreement with it.

2) Adjust for inflation and the increase is not there. Trust me, I've done my research too.
3) That's the problem with so-called centrists - they have a cynical contempt for the practical value of idealism. History has shown that people usually wind up landing a little bit lower than the highest point toward which they shoot. That is why it is important to aim for the ideal in all things, rather than make concessions as to what you can accomplish before you even try; those who adopt the latter approach may take comfort in being smugly assured of their own "pragmatism", but it is those in the former category who change the world.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

American Zeitgeist Rhetoric (1970-2010)

First, some clarification:

zeitgeist –noun, German
the spirit of the time; general trend of thought or feeling characteristic of a particular period of time

I have long been fascinated by the power of rhetoric and, more specifically, the capacity of words to capture the "essence" of specific periods in history. It is from this interest that I have created a list of "American Zeitgeist Rhetoric" - i.e., individual pieces of rhetoric that summed up the zeitgeist of the years from American history in which they were produced. They come from speeches, movies, songs, interviews, newspaper headlines, and even commercials; they range in length from a few words to several pages of text; some are among the most famous utterances of our time, while others are relatively obscure. Each selection is accompanied by a brief explanation as to its history and why I saw fit to include it on this list. Of course, given the passionate feelings that this subject is bound to arouse, I more than expect there to be ample disagreement on many of my choices - and I welcome the debate!

1970: President Richard Nixon, “Cambodian Incursion” Speech (April 30, 1970)
The Vietnam War was one of the defining political issues of the late-1960s and early-1970s, and although Richard Nixon claimed, during the 1968 presidential campaign that led to his election, that he had a "secret plan" for peacefully ending the war, it soon became abundantly clear that his policies were not going to be substantively different from those of his predecessors. That said, his decision to expand America's bombing program OUTSIDE the boundaries of Vietnam itself - by bombing the adjacent nation of Cambodia in the spring of 1970 - marked a turning point not only in the war itself, but in the reaction to it at home. The announcement of his escalation was greeted with cheers by hawks and cries of outrage by doves; it led to the protests at Kent State University which prompted the Ohio National Guard to lash out in horrifying violence against unarmed students; and it enhanced Nixon's status among right-wing reactionaries whose support he would need to be re-elected.

1971: John Lennon, "Imagine" song (October 11, 1971)
Those who had hoped that the dissolution of The Beatles in 1970 would silence its most outspoken political activist, John Lennon, would be proven mistaken. Indeed, Lennon soon emerged as one of the leading voices of the protest movement, an individual who mobilized millions of Baby Boomers during the late-1960s and early-1970s and inspired future generations of progressive activists. While the themes covered in his song "Imagine" had been addressed before - both by himself and by dozens of other prominent countercultural figures of the time - the lyrical beauty and melodic simplicity of this piece embodied the spirit of "the movement" that was such a defining aspect of both 1971 and the larger period known as "The Sixties".

1972: Al Pacino as Michael Corleone,“Powerful Man” monologue from movie “The Godfather” (March 15, 1972)
The quixotic idealism that John Lennon so eloquently captured in 1971 came hand-in-hand with a seemingly paradoxical reaction that was born from the same wellspring of dissent - pure, unadulterated cynicism. It is appropriate that the most perfect encapsulation of the jadedness toward established institutions which was felt at the time came from one of the most acclaimed motion pictures released in both the 1970s or any other decade - Francis Ford Coppola's "The Godfather". In a single brief and oft-overlooked explanation delivered by Al Pacino's Michael Corleone to his girlfriend, Diane Keaton's Kay Adams, the future mobster constructs a shockingly simple rationalization for the actions of the mafia by comparing them to other "powerful men" whose actions are quickly justified and dismissed by society. Although the brutal realism from Coppola's magnum opus seems to exist in stark contrast to the hopefulness embodied by Lennon's music, both brilliantly summarize the spirit of disenchantment and rebellion felt in their respective years.

1973: President Richard Nixon, "I Am Not A Crook" statement (November 17, 1973)
Although the Watergate fiasco technically began exactly seventeen months before Nixon's famous declaration of innocence - with the botched burglary of Democratic National Committee headquarters at the Watergate Hotel on June 17, 1972 - it wasn't until 1973 that the political scandal truly started coming to a head. The controversy that eventually led to the disgrace and unprecedented resignation of President Richard Nixon better epitomized the growing loss of faith in previously-untouchable figures and institutions then perhaps any other event within the last half-century. When one takes into account just how deeply Watergate dominated America's political and even cultural life at the time - and considering how apparent the multi-layered irony of Nixon's famously shifty insistence in his own trustworthiness was to those who witnessed it - the selection of a "zeitgeist rhetoric" for 1973 was self-evident.

1974: President Gerald Ford, "Inaugural Address" (August 9, 1974)
Less remembered for its irony and false reassurance was the inaugural address of Richard Nixon's successor, Gerald Ford. On the same day that Richard Nixon's dishonor culminated in his stepping down from the White House, the newly-sworn in Gerald Ford - the first, and so far only, unelected president in American history - famously comforted the American people by proclaiming that "our long national nightmare is over". Given Ford's humble and down-to-earth personality, as well as his clear discomfort with the power that had just been thrust upon him, many Americans did indeed believe that their new president might usher in a great restoration of faith and trust in national institutions, beginning with the presidency itself. That promise was soon dashed, however, with President Ford's decision - made exactly one month later - to unconditionally pardon Richard Nixon of all crimes committed regarding the Watergate cover-up. Although historians today agree that Ford was motivated by a misguided sympathy for his predecessor rather than any self-serving ulterior motives, at the time public sentiment overwhelmingly turned against the new president, as more and more people suspected that Ford had arranged a covert deal with Nixon to trade the presidency in return for a pardon. No restoration would occur.

1975: Associated Press headline "Mihn Surrenders, Vietcong in Saigon" (April 30, 1975)
Just as the resignation and pardoning of Richard Nixon solidified the large-scale embarrassment of our domestic political establishment, so too did the fall of Saigon to the Communist-backed Vietcong movement officially bring about the humiliation of America's international establishment - namely, its military. The same country that had turned the tide in two world wars, held back Communist advances from Korea to Germany, and single-handedly become an international superpower in one-third of a century had now been defeated - in a war that spanned more than a decade - by a handful of guerrillas. The news that conveyed this to the American people, and thus the rhetoric capturing the zeitgeist of 1975, needed no embellishment, which is why the Associated Press report will more than suffice.

1976: Peter Finch as Howard Beale, "Mad as hell" monologue from movie "Network" (November 27, 1976)
By 1976, Americans were angry. The economy had entered an interminable state of hyperinflation and recession, violence was rampant in our cities, faith had been shattered in virtually all major governmental, business, and cultural institutions, and no one knew where to turn for solace. The collective cry of frustration and rage was brilliantly evoked in a speech delivered by the fictional protagonist of Paddy Chayefsky's classic film, "Network" - an ex-news anchor named Howard Beale, whose rapid descent into insanity helped him tap into the outrage and despair of the American people better than any real-life, sane human being. Although "Network" is best remembered today for its eerily prophetic vision of the exploitative dumbing down of the American news industry, it is the ranting and raving of Peter Finch (who won a rare posthumous Oscar for his performance) in the Zeitgeist-capturing "Mad as hell" speech that gives this movie its transcendent genius.

1977: Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi, "May the force be with you" line from movie "Star Wars" (May 25, 1977)
People needed a form of escape from reality, and in 1977 that thirst was quenched with the release of a motion picture that revolutionized the film industry - "Star Wars". Although movies had been popular prior to George Lucas' masterpiece, never before had a single movie completely swept up the country in its thrall. From its eye-popping special effects and brisk cinematic pacing to its mesmerizingly-evoked fantasy world and crisp dialogue (the last feature which would, sadly, deteriorate quite noticeably in subsequent franchise installments), "Star Wars" dominated the ethos of the year in which it was released.

1978: Cardinal Karol Wojtyla's Address to the Crowd (October 16, 1978)
When Cardinal Karol Wojtyla was chosen by the Papal Conclave to become Pope John Paul II - the third pope to serve in 1978, as the great Pope Paul VI had died earlier that year and his successor, Pope John Paul I, died after a papacy of only thirty-three days - he shocked the world by breaking centuries of precedent and addressing the crowd which had assembled beneath the Vatican balcony to greet him. Even more surprisingly, he opted to speak to them not in Latin - the language preferred by clergy in the Catholic church - but in their own native tongue, Italian (interestingly, this was not the natural language of the pontiff himself, who as a Polish citizen had become the first non-Italian to become Pope in more than 450 years). This action inspired Americans as much as it did the rest of the world, which is why the bold egalitarianism of Wojtyla's words - despite being delivered by a non-American in a foreign country - better captured the zeitgeist of 1978 for America than did anything uttered by one of our own citizens.

1979: President Jimmy Carter, "Crisis of Confidence" Speech (July 15, 1979)
On July 5, 1979, as President Jimmy Carter found himself scheduled to deliver a national address on the oil crisis - yet another installment in a long series of speeches which had been devoted to that subject - he came to the realization that, if he were a normal citizen instead of the president, he would have long since grown weary of hearing America's leaders drone on endlessly with solutions that didn't work and reassurances that rang hopelessly false. Consequently, he cancelled his expected speech and retreated to Camp David for ten days, reading the works of prominent sociologists and philosophers and engaging in conversations with Americans from all walks of life - from politicians and business leaders to small-town clergymen and working-class citizens. Carter then did something that few other presidents have seen fit to do ever since - he spent some time by himself and reflected on what he had learned. The ultimate product of those contemplations is a speech of remarkable profundity and insight, one that cuts to the heart of America's loss of confidence - in established political and social institutions, in the future, and in itself - better than any other piece of rhetoric delivered before or since. Although the speech temporarily revived Carter's flailing political fortunes, he soon undermined its impact by arbitrarily demanding that all of his Cabinet officers submit letters of resignation, eventually firing four of them. While the speech itself was popular, the dismay people felt at President Carter for his cabinet purging was soon conflated with the rhetoric of the "Crisis of Confidence" address, eventually enabling Republicans to deride Carter's observations as being "the malaise speech" (even though Carter hadn't actually used the word "malaise") and discrediting, in the eyes of many, everything Carter had to say. Despite this, the "Crisis of Confidence" speech better captures the zeitgeist of its year - as well as, arguably, the mood of an entire generation - than any other political oration in recent history.

1980: Republican presidential candidate Ronald Reagan, "There you go again" statement at presidential debate (October 28, 1980)
In 1960, and in every subsequent presidential election since 1976, the two major party candidates have faced each other in national debate on multiple occasions throughout the year. 1980 has been the sole exception to this rule - in it, Republican Ronald Reagan and Democrat Jimmy Carter debated each other only once, exactly one week before Election Day itself, on October 28, 1980. Although Carter dominated his opponent on substantive matters, Reagan's ready arsenal of memorable quips and telegenic expressions of amused disdain caused him to win the perceptual war over his hapless opponent. This approach was exemplified by Reagan's decision to interrupt, and glibly dismiss, one of Carter's main arguments by condescendingly chiding him, "There you go again." The fact that the audience applauded, and the American people were impressed, does not reflect well on either group, considering that Carter's point - which was that, as governor of California, Reagan had voted against Medicare and Social Security benefits, with disturbing implications of what his social policies would be as president -was one that the American people should have listened to. Unfortunately, this preference for style over substance, as well as the public's misguided fleeing into the arms of the New Right for political salvation, was the essence of America in 1980.

1981: President Ronald Reagan, Inaugural Address (January 20, 1981)
By declaring in his inaugural address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem", President Ronald Reagan was able to pull off one of the great paradoxical achievements of modern American political history. He became a president who expanded the powers of government over the lives of citizens as never before, even as he claimed to be getting that same government "off the backs of the people"; he ushered an era of ostensible fiscal responsibility, even as he ran up unprecedented budget deficits; and he created a climate in which conservatism adopted a populist ring through its use cultural reactionism and knee-jerk fear of socialism, even as its policies caused a deterioration in the standard of living for middle-class and working-class Americans. All of this was symbolized in the rhetoric of the inaugural address that ushered in not only Reagan's own presidency, but a new era in the ideological paradigm of American politics.

1982: Letter from Samantha Smith to Soviet President Yuri Andropov (December 1982)
After hawks took over the governments of the world's two great superpowers - first Ronald Reagan in the United States, then Yuri Andropov in the Soviet Union - concerns flared up, and dominated American's psychological life, about the possibility of nuclear war. In response to this, a ten-year-old girl from Maine named Samantha Smith wrote a letter to the leader of the Soviet Union, General Secretary of the Communist Party Yuri Andropov, asking him to do what he could to create peace in the world. Her letter not only received a tender response from the hardened 68-year-old politician - eventually prompting him to invite Smith on a tour of his country - but brought international recognition to the cause of world peace, particularly for those concerned with the increasing threat of nuclear annihilation.

1983: President Ronald Reagan, "The Evil Empire" Speech (March 8, 1983)
Although American foreign policy had taken a hard-line approach against the Soviet Union, and international communism overall, since the Russian Revolution had taken place in 1917, Ronald Reagan was nevertheless able to bolster his standing among far right-wingers and other hawks - as well as dramatically increase the profit margins of the corporations fueling America's military-industrial complex - by casting himself as the originator of a newer, tougher stand against the USSR. This bellicosity was encapsulated in Reagan's famous "Evil Empire" speech, which came to define much of America's political ethos during the 1980s.

1984: Apple's "1984 - Big Brother" commercial (January 22, 1984)
Another key development of the 1980s was the birth of the personal computer, which revolutionized the way Americans - and, eventually, the rest of the world - lived. This event neatly dovetailed with the rise of Apple Computers as an economic and technological powerhouse, which in turn coincided with the airing of the legendary "1984 - Big Brother" commercial during the third quarter of Super Bowl XVIII on January 22, 1984. In ways that perhaps only Apple CEO Steve Jobs fully appreciated, personal computers truly did change the world - not only in the way we process information, but in the very way we think and live. In retrospect, the Big Brother commercial can be remembered not only as a brilliant piece of advertising, but as a remarkably prescient harbinger of the computer boom to come.

1985: Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie (with the help of supergroup USA for Africa), "We Are The World" song (March 7, 1985)
The technological optimism of the 1980s was matched with an equally potent optimism - albeit one set against the backdrop of dissatisfaction with the policies of the Reagan administration - in the world of pop culture. This was best demonstrated by the release of "We Are The World", a song written by musical behemoths Michael Jackson and Lionel Richie in order to raise funds to fight disease and famine in Africa. It was performed by musical legends, under the aegis of a supergroup called "USA for Africa", including not only Jackson and Richie themselves, but Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, Hall & Oates, Bette Midler, Willie Nelson, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Tina Turner, and Stevie Wonder. Although the song made a considerable amount of money, much of its total profit wound up going to the governments of the affected countries instead of the people they intended to help - a fact that tragically underscored how even musicians with the best intentions can fail to achieve their desired goals unless they couple their idealism with political savvy (a lesson understood by John Lennon, though not by his many would-be successors). This disconnect between the motivations of progressive movements and their efficacy was, sadly, another noteworthy element of the 80s zeitgeist.

1986: Matthew Broderick as Ferris Bueller, "Life moves pretty fast..." line from movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" (June 11, 1986)
Despite all the serious topics dealt with on this list, there is a lighter, even happier side to the zeitgeist of certain eras. Such is the case with 1986, a year in which the whimsical joie de vivre of youth - a quality that made itself evident in pop culture throughout the 1980s - was captured with a single line from the cult classic, "Ferris Bueller's Day Off". You know which one I'm talking about.

1987: Michael Douglas as Gordon Gekko, "Greed is good" monologue from movie "Wall Street" (December 11, 1987)
Although America's middle-class and working-class took a significant economic hit during the 1980s, the deregulation and overall laissez-faire policies implemented by Ronald Reagan caused a period of dizzying prosperity for Wall Street, big business, and others in America's upper class. Fueling this development was a materialistic ethos that permeated our country's moral and cultural, as well as economic, life throughout the decade. It was most brilliantly evoked, and skewered, in a scene in Oliver Stone's classic film "Wall Street", wherein stockbroker leviathan Gordon Gekko (played to perfection by Michael Douglas) explains to a rapt audience that - all assertions to the contrary notwithstanding - "greed, for lack of a better word, is good."

1988: Lee Atwater, presidential campaign of George H. W. Bush, "Willie Horton Ad" (September 21, 1988)
Although there were real problems in 1988 - economic decline, staggering national debt, growing discontent in an increasingly-militant Third World - political professionals realized that the way to win elections was by playing on the public's most irrational fears, preferably (if possible) by focusing on irrelevancies. This technique was turned into an art during the 1988 presidential election, in which Vice President George H. W. Bush - finding himself seventeen points behind his Democratic opponent, Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis - drew attention to a prison furlough program supported by his rival that had inadvertantly led to the escape of murderer Willie Horton, who went on to savagely rape a young woman in Maryland after knifing and binding up her fiance. Horrifying though the story was, it had no real bearing either on Dukakis' qualifications to be president or on the welfare of the nation as a whole. In spite of this, it did play on latent racial concerns harbored by millions of white Americans, causing the advertisement aired by the Bush campaign - and masterminded by its great strategist, Lee Atwater - to play a decisive role in reversing Dukakis' lead and ultimately getting Bush elected by a nine-point margin. Its immediate impact aside, however, the advertisement embodied much of the pettiness that characterized American politics throughout the entire decade - perhaps explaining why the 1988 presidential election saw the lowest voter turnout in sixty-four years (although an even lower turnout would take place, due to disinterest rather than disgust, during the Clinton-Dole election eight years later).

1989: Hanns Friedrichs, newscasting "This ninth of November is a historic day..." (November 9, 1989)
Since the end of World War II forty-four years earlier, America had defined itself, internationally speaking, by the Cold War. When the Berlin Wall was torn down on November 9, 1989, the Cold War came to an abrupt end - an end best summarized by the statement of Hann Friedrichs, Germany's most well-respected newscaster, when he issued the simple declaration that "this ninth of November is a historic day." This declaration thus earns its place as one of the three pieces of "American Zeitgeist Rhetoric" to not take place within this country, due to the manner in which the fall of the Berlin Wall transformed how America viewed its role in the world community.

1990: Nelson Mandela, "Speech on Release from Prison" (February 11, 1990)
The sense of hope regarding world affairs that began with the fall of the Berlin Wall continued in early 1990, when Nelson Mandela was released from the jail cell where, as punishment for his outspoken opposition to South African apartheid, he had spent the previous twenty-seven years of his life. Along with being a signficant international event in its own right, Mandela's liberation struck a deep personal chord with the American public due to the similarities between apartheid and the system of segregation that, until relatively recently, had prevailed in America itself.

1991: President George H. W. Bush, "New World Order" Speech (January 10, 1991)
1991 was the third consecutive year of good news on the international stage - and this time, the news directly involved the actions of America itself. After issuing multiple warnings to Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein to cease developing nuclear weapons, President George H. W. Bush - with the full support of the United Nations and larger international community - declared war on that country. America's swift and decisive military victory restored faith in the supremacy of our armed forces, a faith that had been shattered more than a decade earlier by our defeat in Vietnam. More significant than this, though, was the speech President Bush delivered as the war drew to a close, one in which he laid out a vision for a "New World Order" of international cooperation and peacekeeping efforts that would exist in the wake of our military victory in Iraq and the rapid decline of Soviet geopolitical influence. This speech also marked the high point in Bush's presidency - his approval ratings peaked at more than 90%, by far the highest of any president in American history up to that point, rendering his re-election the following year a seeming inevitability.

1992: James Carville, presidential campaign of Bill Clinton, "It's the economy, stupid" haiku (1992)
Although President Bush assumed his triumph in the Persian Gulf would help him coast to victory in the presidential campaign of 1992, Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton recognized that the economic hardships suffered by the American people over the last twelve years would become increasingly prominent in people's minds as foreign policy receded from the fore of public attention. This realization was best captured by a "haiku" written by Clinton's campaign manager, James Carville, for the use of his staffers. Including the memorable line "It's the economy, stupid," it would up proving remarkably adept at identifying the chief concerns of the American people in 1992. Not only would Clinton decisively defeat President Bush that year, but voter turnout reached the highest America had seen in twenty years.

1993: Denzel Washington as Joe Miller, courtroom monologue on AIDS discrimination from movie "Philadelphia" (December 23, 1993)
The AIDS epidemic, which devastated homosexual and minority communities since for more than a decade, had been brushed under the table during the 1980s thanks in no small part to the diffidence and contempt in which its victims were held by the (then) reigning conservative majority. In 1993, however, Hollywood released its first mainstream feature film to directly address the humanitarian ramifications of this disease. Boasting among its all-star cast such prominent names as Denzel Washington, Antonio Banderas, and (of course) Tom Hanks, the movie contains a particularly powerful monologue by Washington that provided defenders of AIDS discrimination with the condemnation they so rightly deserved - and which captured the spirit of assault against AIDS that so dominated much of the public mindscape in 1993.

1994: Weird Al Yankovic, "Headline News" song (September 27, 1994)
By 1994, the economy had entered one of the greatest periods of prosperity in American history. This boom - accompanied by unprecedented peace abroad and a general sense of American military, political, economic, and even cultural supremacy throughout the world - caused the attention of the mainstream news to shift away from matters of consequence and focus instead on trivial-but-sensational stories that would have been relegated to the sphere of tabloid journalism only a few years earlier. The absurdity of this development was identified and irreverently ridiculed by America's leading parodyist, Alfred "Weird Al" Yankovic, in his music video "Headline News". Little could Yankovic have known that he was diagnosing an element of the American spirit that would dominate the remainder of the decade.

1995: Johnnie Cochran, "If the glove don't fit..." closing remarks (September 27, 1995)
The obsessive focus on the lurid-and-petty that characterized so much of the 1990s reached its apex with the trial of football star and television personality O. J. Simpson. The story itself was a perfect storm of journalistic sensationalism, one that contained murder, illicit sex, celebrity, and race relations. Appropriately, the story was best summed up not by such factors as the guilt or innocence of its main character, but rather by a memorably delivered line from the main character's colorful attorney.

1996: "Seasons of Love" song, by Jonathan Larson, sung by the cast in the musical "Rent" (April 29, 1996)
The youth of the 1990s felt a sense of ennui that they could not shake - and that feeling, with its beautifully paradoxical mixture of romantic idealism and cynical frustration, was best evoked in the opening song from Jonathan Larson's musical "Rent", which debuted on Broadway in 1996 (although it had been first performed Off-Broadway two years earlier). Even though the story of "Rent" was set in 1989 and 1990, its ability to combine Bohemian frivolity with the more serious (and under-recognized) issues of the day (the AIDS epidemic, lingering racial and economic inequalities, the burgeoning gay rights movement) made it especially relevant to the era in which it was released.

1997: Robert DeNiro as Conrad Breen, "There Ain't No War But Ours" monologue from movie "Wag the Dog" (December 17, 1997)
Despite the peace and prosperity which marked the 1990s, an air of cynicism toward major institutions - particularly those in government and media - continued to dominate American life. This was perhaps embodied best by the movie "Wag the Dog", in which a scandal-ridden president desperate for a boost in his approval ratings pretends to wage war against Albania. The monologue delivered by media consultant Conrad Breen (played by Robert DeNiro) about how "there ain't no war but ours" says just as much about the attitude held by the American people at that time toward opinion-shapers as it does about the shapers themselves.

1998: President Bill Clinton, Denial of Infidelity (January 26, 1998)
The O. J. Simpson trial was not, unfortunately, the greatest trivial news event of the 1990s. No, that distinction belongs to the sex scandal of President Bill Clinton, one blown grossly out of proportion by a news media that craved high ratings and exploited by a conservative majority in Congress which salivated at the prospect of disgracing a president they detested. Even though Clinton eventually emerged as the winner in this debacle - not only by avoiding forced removal from office but by being the beneficiary of extraordinarily high approval ratings from a sympathetic public - his famous denial of having ever had "sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky" became one of the defining statements of his presidency - on par with another zeitgeist-capturing denial, from a different president, nearly a quarter-century earlier.

1999: Brad Pitt as Tyler Durden, "No Great Wars" monologue from movie "Fight Club" (October 15, 1999)
If "Rent" addressed the plight of 1990s ennui with music devoted to love, passion, and artistic expression, then the movie "Fight Club" responded to those same problems with a middle finger and a punch in the face. In a highly quotable monologue, the character of Tyler Durden (played by Brad Pitt) captured the feelings of a whole generation of Americans by pointing out how - with no "great wars" to win and no "great depressions" to conquer - men everywhere lacked a sense of greater purpose. Much of the frustration that existed as an undercurrent since the beginning of the decade was given its most eloquent expression in Pitt's monologue from this movie.

2000: Vice President Al Gore, Concession Speech (December 13, 2000)
Americans entered the new millenium with the first presidential election in 112 years in which the victorious candidate had failed to receive the most popular votes. Despite strong evidence of electoral fraud in Florida - evidence that, if properly accounted for, would have caused Vice President Al Gore to be declared the winner instead of his opponent, Governor George W. Bush - the Supreme Court of the United States, in a transparently partisan decision, decided to favor Bush's case over the one presented by Al Gore. Even though Gore was thus fated to never become president, he still had the distinction of becoming that year's greatest leader, by delivering a concession speech after the Supreme Court's decision that handled his injustice with grace and sage perspective. While the speech failed to remove the sting of democracy thwarted, it at least allowed the long-awaited year 2000 to end on a somewhat upbeat note - and allowed Gore, who prior to then had been widely criticized for his overly-cerebral and lackluster speaking style, to reveal surprising gifts as an orator.

2001: President George W. Bush, Bullhorn Speech (September 14, 2001)
The rest of the 2000s would be defined by a single event - the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center and Pentagon on September 11, 2001. Although President George W. Bush had, up until then, suffered from low approval ratings and even lower public esteem, his popularity quickly became the highest of any president's in history after he was perceived as unifying the country and taking charge following the tragedy of that day. Bush was even able to rise to the occasion in a spontaneous moment - when addressing a crowd of firefighters from the rubble of one of the World Trade Center buildings three days after the attack, he heard a voice shout "I can't hear you". In response, the new president Bush replied:

"I can hear you! I can hear you! The rest of the world hears you! And the people -- and the people who knocked these buildings down will hear all of us soon!"

Had Bush followed through on his encouraging words from that day - had he brought Osama bin Laden to justice and increased America's prestige throughout the world, instead of capitalizing on the 9/11 attacks to wage an unnecessary war against Iraq - his bullhorn speech might have captured the zeitgeist of 2001 as a moment of inspiration. Instead, those words captured not only the horror of that time, but the failures of the man fate (and the Supreme Court) had chosen to lead us through it.

2002: President George W. Bush, State of the Union Address (January 29, 2002)
The first State of the Union address delivered by President Bush after the September 11th terrorist attacks, this speech set the policies and general tone which would define the remainder of Bush's presidency. Along with condemning the perpetrators of the World Trade Center and Pentagon murders, Bush proceeded to label the nations of Iran, Iraq, and North Korea "an axis of evil". Just as Bush's speeches immediately after September 11th helped establish him, in the minds of most Americans, as a leader, so too did this speech convince lay the psychological foundations that would persuade most Americans to follow their president into an eventual war with Iraq, as well as an unprecedented estrangement from much of the international community.

2003: Secretary of State Colin Powell, Address to the United Nations Security Council (February 5, 2003)
By 2003, the zeitgeist of the times had evolved from one of unwavering support of President Bush and his agenda to one of cautious-but-growing skepticism with his single-minded insistence on toppling the regime of Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. As a means of winning the support not just of the rest of the world, but of the holdouts among the American public, President Bush dispatched the most widely-trusted figure of his administration, Secretary of State Colin Powell, to make the case for war to the United Nations Security Council. Although history has since then revealed that Powell had grave doubts about the veracity of the argument he was presenting to the world, he dutifully performed as he was told. There can be no doubt that the war would have taken place even if Powell had abstained from delivering his speech to the UN; even so, the fact that a man of Powell's renowned pragmatism opted to throw his credibility behind the war effort instead of resigning in protest (as one Secretary of State, William Jennings Bryan, had done in opposition to America's growing involvement in World War I) epitomized the larger national trend of falling in line.

2004: Democratic Senate candiate Barack Obama, Keynote Address at Democratic National Convention (July 27, 2004)
The outrages of Bush's stolen election in 2000, the climate of fear that had been stoked by the Bush administration after September 11th, the gradual abridgement of American freedoms as made manifest by the USA Patriot Act, and the unjust war in Iraq all fired up the liberal movement in ways that had not been seen in more than thirty years. Yet although the Democratic party nominated as its candidate a man believed to be a surefire winner - John Kerry, whose war heroism was felt to make him an ideal opponent to the increasingly bellicose (and chickenhawk packed) Bush administration - Kerry's incompetently-managed campaign, combined with the effective scurrility of the Bushies in casting false doubt on his military record, ultimately rendered the Massachusetts Senator a poor spokesman for the liberal movement. Fortunately, the cause of the left was not without its zeitgeist-capturing advocates; that honor went instead to the Democratic party's Senate candidate in Illinois, Barack Obama, whose eloquent speech at that year's Democratic National Convention made him an overnight star in the political world. Although Kerry would lose to Bush in that election year, Obama's speech made him the voice of a political movement that Kerry was never able to become.

2005: Kanye West, protest at Hurricane Katrina benefit concert (September 2, 2005)
After Bush's re-election, his administration seemed unstoppable - until the bungling of its response to Hurricane Katrina caused many to take the first, tentative steps toward confronting their president on his record. The outcry against the incumbent reached its climax that year at a televised benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims, during which then-unknown rapper Kanye West spontaneously blurted out that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." West's statement seemed to symbolize the emergence of an increasingly empowered voice of opposition to the president - a symbolism further highlighted by the split-second decision of the producers to cut off West rather than allow him airtime to further criticize the president. Yet West's words showed that, after Hurricane Katrina, more than one tide had been turned.

2006: Stephen Colbert, comedy routine at White House Correspondents' Dinner (April 29, 2006)
Hurricane Katrina might have marked the turning of the tide against President Bush, but Stephen Colbert's roasting of the president during the 2006 White House Correspondents' Dinner was the most cutting - and hilarious - condemnation of everything the Bush administration represented during that decade. Along with giving brilliantly edgy expression to the sentiments of millions of Americans, Colbert's performance also managed to catapult him to iconic status as a court jester whose unique method of offering faux support for his targets could bring the great and powerful to their knees.

2007: Al Gore, Academy Awards Acceptance Speech for movie "An Inconvenient Truth" (February 25, 2007)
After spending more than half-a-decade out of the public limelight following his historic defeat in the 2000 presidential election, Al Gore's career experienced an unexpected renaissance with the release of his documentary, "An Inconvenient Truth", in 2006. By focusing public attention on the growing threat of global warming - an issue that, despite its increasing relevance, had been largely ignored by a war-and-terrorism obsessed public since 2001 - Gore not only managed to reassert his own relevance, but forced political dialogue to end its single-minded obsession with the issues pre-selected by the Bush administration. The success of Gore's efforts would be made clear in 2007 - eventually, late in the year, by his winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, but first (and more importantly insofar as his influence on the American public is concerned) in February by his receiving an Academy Award for Best Documentary. His acceptance speech during the awards ceremony, while only repeating the basic message of his film, nevertheless revived the spark of public interest in the need to address global warming. One year later, the presidential candidates of both major parties were acknowledging the validity of global warming as a direct result of the accolades Gore received for his movie.

2008: Senator Barack Obama, "Yes We Can" Speech (January 8, 2008)
After besting his two chief rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination - Senator Hillary Clinton of New York and former Senator John Edwards of North Carolina - in an upset victory at the Iowa caucuses earlier that month, Senator Barack Obama seemed unstoppable in his quest to be his party's standard bearer in that presidential election. That image suffered a setback on January 8th, when Clinton defeated Obama (just as unexpectedly) in the Democratic party's New Hampshire primary. Yet despite this serious blow to his presidential ambitions, Obama managed to use his misfortune to deliver a concession speech that would define not only his presidential campaign, but the sense of hope and change that would characterize American politics through most of that election year - i.e., the "Yes We Can" speech.

2009: Jon Stewart's confrontational with Jim Cramer (March 12, 2009)
In late 2008, the bottom of an economy that had been declining for seven years finally fell out in a stock market crash and mass mortgage crisis that still rattles us today. Americans were livid at the manner in which their lives, to say nothing of the prestige of the country they loved, were destroyed by the financial titans of Wall Street. The pervading sense that the people responsible for getting the United States into its current mess were managing to not only avoid accountability, but walk away with record profits, was made manifest when comedian and satirist Jon Stewart received an opportunity to interview Jim Cramer, a prominent economic pundit who had been one of the most passionate shills for the interests of big business. By admonishing Cramer for neglecting his duties as a supposed reporter, and instead contributing to the mentality and practices that made the financial crisis possible, Stewart emerged as one of the few public figures capable of effectively demanding some sort of responsibility from the self-entrusted keepers of America's economic health.

2010 (tentatively): Matt Stone as Kyle Broflovski, bleeped monologue at conclusion of "South Park 201" (April 21, 2010)
The year 2010 is young, and therefore no final zeitgeist-capturing rhetoric can be designated. That said, I feel the bleeped monologue delivered by "South Park" character Kyle Broflovski is a strong contender, not only for the statement it makes about America's willingness to capitulate to the coercive tactics of terrorists, but also for the manner in which it shows how real free speech, as well as the courage it takes to employ it, is stifled far more often than it is rewarded in America today.

So... what do you think?