Friday, November 6, 2015

If the series of Republican presidential debates is a reality show, then Ben Carson’s version is alternate reality TV

By Marc Jampole

Every day we’re learning more about the fantasy world in which presidential candidate Ben Carson inhabits. Carson believes in a curious hodgepodge of fantasies, discredited myths, false ideas and inaccuracies, all of which he seems to have determined a priori, that is, before he considered any evidence outside his own longings or those of his constituencies.

These false beliefs—many self-serving because they justify Carson’s political stands—are cancerous, because they can spread quickly among people through the Internet and social media, infecting the innocent with ideas that are not only wrong but can sometimes harm them, like the idea that more guns in public will keep us safer.

The latest “Carsonoma” is the revelation that 17 years ago, Carson told a group of graduating college students that the Egyptians built the pyramids to store grain under the direction of the Biblical character of Joseph. Since Buzzfeed first reported this fantasy, Carson has defended his statement with an even greater stupidity: "Some people believe in the Bible, like I do.” It’s a greater stupidity, because the Bible does not mention storing grain in the pyramids, nor does it say anything about Joseph initiating the pyramid construction program.

Media outlets are furiously looking to find a new Carsonoma that tops the last revelation of Carson’s ignorance. I’m quite certain the Bush and Clinton campaigns, and perhaps others, are aiding journalists as they pore over every piece of video or written comment the benighted Carson has ever uttered.

For those who think I’m exaggerating the extent to which Ben Carson lives in an alternate reality, let’s review some of Ben’s greatest hits. Some of these are quotes, and some paraphrases based on quotes and media reports:
·         Homosexuality is a choice because people go into prison straight and come out of prison gay.
·         The theory of evolution is a fraud promoted by the “forces of evil.” Evolution is a theory from Satan.
·         Obamacare is like slavery.
·         Jews could have defended themselves against Hitler if they had guns.
·         Without Fox News, the United States would be like Cuba.
·         A Muslim shouldn’t be president. 

But wait, there’s more! Carson said that when he visited federal prisons, he was “flabbergasted by the accommodations,” and he worries that we are “creating an environment that is conducive to comfort where a person would want to stay.” Yes, Carson believes that people are committing crimes for the privilege of rotting in a Texas or Alabama prison.

Behind each of these statements is either a political stance or an appeal to Carson’s main constituency, fundamentalist Christians. He is in favor of loosening gun control laws even more than they are now. He doesn’t like it when the government helps the poor or the elderly. He wants to establish Christianity as our state religion.  To prove his point, he either makes stuff up, or believes the half-cocked, already disproven theories of others in the reality-challenged community.

Besides looking for new verbal boners, the media is hot on the trail of Carson lies, and it’s about time.

Like all Republican candidates, he tells the standard lies like you cut taxes to stimulate growth and Social Security is in trouble. And again, like all the other republican candidates with the possible exception of Rand Paul, Carson tells special lies related to his own past and/or present. He has certainly lied about his role in promoting Mannatech, which sells nutritional supplements, skin care products and weight management products, all using multilevel marketing, which essentially builds a pyramid of sales by having sales people recruit other sales people in whose commissions they share.  He claims not to have been tied to Mannatech, yet his name and image have been used extensively in marketing the company’s products. 

The latest allegation of Carson lying comes from CNN-TV, which could find no evidence that Carson was mean, prone to violence or a bully in interviewing people who had gone to school with Carson. None could remember any of the incidents of violence that Carson touts in his book.  As is typical of politicians who try to pretty up their past, Carson had no reason to pretend he started as a bad seed. The very fact that he went to Yale and became a prominent neurosurgeon is admirable in and of itself. Carson gilded the lily, probably because the myth of the reformed sinner plays so well with his constituency. It took years, but he was finally caught in the lie.

And let’s not forget about the inherent lie underlying Carson’s campaign. Although Carson is raising a lot of money, he’s spending a higher percentage of what he takes in every month than every other candidate except Hillary Clinton. A typical campaign spends money on traditional and online, rent, payroll and travel, spending that enables the candidate to build a real campaign infrastructure for the long haul. By contrast, virtually all of Carson’s money is being plowed back into raising more money. In other words, Carson doesn’t really have a campaign, but a fund-raising machine built almost exclusively on direct marketing.

The chance of any future embarrassment leading to Carson’s decline is minimal, since lots of people in his core constituency believe a lot of stuff he says. But his fantastical statements and fibs about his past and present will prevent other Republicans and most independents from supporting him. I don’t think we need fear Carson being elected president, or even being nominated by the Republicans.

It seems as if the United States often flirts with candidates who are living in a dream world and build their campaigns almost entirely on lies, myths and fantastical notions, but we never elect them. That’s right…there was Ronald Reagan and that Bush II fella. Make that almost never. 

Thursday, November 5, 2015

In thinking about our troops in Syria, remember Viet Nam and how quickly 50 can become 500,000

By Marc Jampole

I wonder whether the Obama Administration has been watching too many superhero movies. You know, the kind in which a team of three or four superheroes take on armies of the powerful.

How else can we account for the administration’s assertion that embedding 50 specially trained soldiers into Kurdish and certain Syrian rebel forces will make a difference?

These must be 50 very talented individuals.

Especially when you consider that President Obama has predicted that Russian actions in Syria would lead to a quagmire. Russia now has 4,000 troops in the country, or 8,000 boots on the ground, as military pundits like to write. Before Russia began bombing ISIS, and perhaps rebel, positions a month ago, there were only 2,000 Russian troops on the ground.

What difference does it make? 4,000 or 2,000, with or without the air strikes—that’s nothing compared to 50 red-blooded Americans. We’ll get the job done while avoiding both the quag and the mire.

Obama’s initial announcement said the 50 troops would provide strategic and tactical advice. Now it turns out, that they will also go out on raids. But since they’ll be fighting less than 50% of the time, the mission is classified as “non-combat.” It sounds as if some professor of Newspeak left over from the euphemistically inclined Bush-Cheney Administration thought up that logic. I lost some respect for the President for telling this big white lie.

At least these 50 soldiers don’t have as their goal the one thing that U.S. troops have consistently shown they are able to do: Get the local military anywhere from weeks to months away from being ready to go it alone. Wasn’t that the assessment of the situation for months, and sometimes years at a time in Iraq, Afghanistan and Viet Nam? Turns out that our armed forces never were able to complete that job anywhere.

We’re not on a training mission, and we’re not on a combat mission. What then? Some have characterized what our troops are doing in Syria as offering guidance: Let’s hope, then, that we’re talking about group therapy, because one-on-one sessions can get to be expensive. Or will we get into the heat of battle and our guidance be to show the Kurds/rebels how to fire their shiny new American-made weapons? First we load, then we aim, then we push this button. Gee that was fun, let me show you again.

The sarcasm of these comments is meant to hide a large, gnawing fear that Syria is going to become the next Iraq, Afghanistan or Viet Nam. At this point, it structurally resembles Viet Nam in that we are starting with a small contingent of crack troops whose job is to train and advise the locals. Our troops in Viet Nam ballooned from a few hundred advisors to a half a million soldiers in what those who lived through it probably remember as a blink of the eye—but what was really just a few years. The difference of course is that this time we’re supporting two of three rebel forces and not the official government. That’s Russia’s role in this increasingly bloody farce.

Syria is a mess, and for a change, it’s not entirely America’s fault, as the mess in Iraq is. But like Iraq and Afghanistan, there is nothing that we can do to fix the Syrian situation. Four forces are fighting over a territory jerry-rigged between the 20th century’s two world wars and at least two of the forces would be delighted to rule over a part of the whole.  No side has distinguished itself for its humanitarianism or its dedication to free-market democracy.

The only skin we should have in this game are the Syrian people themselves. And there can be little doubt that the Syrian people will suffer from the Administration’s policy of a slow water-torture kind of ratcheting up of our military involvement, and will suffer even more from the Putin and Republican solution of making a major commitment to the fighting.

If we care about the Syrian people, we should withdraw all military aid to all parties involved in the Syrian free-for-all. We should sell no more arms to any of these forces, nor to any other country in the Middle East, including Israel and Saudi Arabia. Instead, we should lead a massive relief effort to get humanitarian aid to the refugees and place them in other countries throughout the world. We should be prepared to take a hundred thousand Syrians ourselves.

The war will go on, but wars have a way of ending when resources are depleted, and withdrawing our military support from the region will accelerate that depletion process by years. Our withdrawal from an active role in the Syrian melee will, of course, position Iran and Russia to become the major foreign players in Syria—more of a poisoned pawn than an honor, based on the experience of various powerful nations in Viet Nam, Chechnya, Iraq, the occupied Palestinian territories and Afghanistan.

After the smoke clears, we should provide economic but not military aid to the two or three governments that will control parts of the former Syria. That aid should be conditioned on those governments having free elections and refraining from the worst sorts of human rights violations now practiced by Assad and ISIS. We forgave Menachem Begin and Anwar Sadat for their terrorist pasts and consider the only countries to attack our shores—Great Britain and Japan—as best of friends. I don’t believe it’s inconceivable that we will be doing business with ISIS if and when they mature into a legitimate government.

Or not.

What isn’t conceivable is getting into another war in which American soldiers are lost and tens or hundreds of thousands of innocents are killed, injured or displaced. I fear going from 50 to 5,000 or 500,000 troops on the ground much more than I fear a few beheadings.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

EHarmony resurrects TV ads that proposes having a threesome with a Christian authority figure

By Marc Jampole

Do Americans want a “Big Brother” figure involved in their intimate relationships?

That’s what, one of the largest dating sites in the world, seems to be saying in a commercial that it aired two years ago and recently resurrected with some fresh vignettes.

Underlying the imagery is a sleazy subtext that suggests the possibility of a wholesome threesome involving a man and a woman and a sage-looking elderly gentleman, who happens to be EHarmony founder, Neil Clark Warren.

Here are the vignettes that visually dominate the current versions of the ad:
  •  A man and a woman take a romantic ride in a horse carriage. As the carriage moves past the screen, we see that Warren is sitting with them in the open cab.
  • A man and woman are getting cozy on a couch, about ready to watch TV when Warren sits down between and the woman offers him a large bowl of popcorn and starts munching.
  •  At the beach, a woman gives a man a drink with a little hat or umbrella in it and turns to her other side and gives a drink to Warren.
  • My favorite because it is so overtly sexual: An African-American man gives his African-American girlfriend a ring at a fancy restaurant, then she reaches across the table to show the ring to Warren, who comments about his role in the selection. At the end of this vignette, the black man and Warren bump fists, much as they might after cackling about conquests.

In all of these vignettes, Warren has intruded on a romantic moment that typically leads to a sexual experience, turning the scene into symbolic ménage a trois. In all cases, Warren enjoys the romantic activity with the couple, which of course, implies that he will also enjoy what comes later. It’s pretty smarmy, whether you conceive of Warren as participating or merely watching.

Meanwhile, the voice over makes a completely grandiose and mendacious claim: “Chances are behind every great relationship is” “Chances are” means probably or almost definitely. The explicit statement here is that is responsible for a large part of all great relationships (at least between men and women). Even if we believe the eHarmony website that 438 members get married every day, plus the implication that they marry other eHarmony members, that’s not a lot of marriages. Experts predict that there will be about 2.2 million marriages in the United States in 2015. An average of 438 members married a day makes eHarmony responsible for about 80,000 marriages a year at the very most, or about 3.6% of the total.  That’s a long way from “every great relationship.” It’s also worth pointing out that not every marriage involves a great relationship. The claim in the TV ad goes far beyond exaggeration. It’s an outright lie.

More disturbing than this false claim, which most will easily see as self-serving puffery, is the hidden message that eHarmony makes by injecting its founder—a white male dressed in a traditional formal suit—into the happy relationships it shows in the ad. The elderly well-dressed white male has been a symbol of authority since humans began conjuring symbols. EHarmony could have just as easily built put a computer or another representation of its survey questionnaire into the ad as the “third party” (of “secret sauce,” as eHarmony says on its website!).  As a sort mechanism, the eHarmony questionnaire  probably works as well as joining other dating services or singles clubs, bar-hopping, attending singles dances, asking friends for fix-ups, taking cruises, or going to adult activities such as Scrabble clubs and singles nights at the symphony.  

But the ad is not saying, use us as a tool. It’s saying: interject us—as represented by our white male Christian founder—into your life and your relationship. Let our “key dimensions” of compatibility be your guide, your guru, your teacher, an integral part of the relationship with your significant other. Put us directly into the world you build with your significant other.

Here’s where it gets creepy! Warren is a Christian theologian who first marketed the eHarmony dating site on Christian websites and in other Christian media, touting eHarmony as “based on the Christian principles of Focus on the Family author Dr. Neil Clark Warren.”  EHarmony now claims to be secular and advertises everywhere, plus it has affiliate websites for Asian, black, Christian, senior, Jewish and Hispanic dating. 

The hidden message in the ad, however, reflects an authoritarian Christian outlook. One of the main principles of many right-wing Christian denominations and Catholicism is that god is part of the marriage, almost a third person in the relationship. Whether taken on a literal or figurative level, “god in the marriage” represents both the person of god and the principles of action that supposedly lead us to god.

One traditional image of god is as a wise old man. Moreover, a genial grandfatherly man has served as an image for pastors, rectors, priests and other human figures of religious authority for centuries. The hidden message of the ad then is that eHarmony will bring god (or the religious and ethical values god represents) into the relationship.  It’s easy to make the assumption that the god in question is Christian. Moreover, Warren has made the round of mainstream and religious talk shows in the past, and so many will recognize him as an authority figure who promotes Christian values in relationships. So men needn’t fear—that other guy in bed with you and your woman is not another guy—it’s the kindly (and fun-loving) white male god who rules over and protects all of us.

The commercial unfolds so slickly—a few story lines, a voice over delivering the uplifting message and feel-good gospel pop music in the background. Like all TV commercials, it goes by so quickly that we are unaware or only vaguely aware of the subliminal messages. But make no mistake about it—the ad is meant to appeal to those who want someone to tell them what to do, whom to love, how to get it right. Warren and his key dimensions of compatibility are a stand-in for an authoritarian, right-wing church.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Boehner Finally Does His Job

While he was packing up after he announced plans to quit in frustration with the far-right obstructionist Republicans, lame duck House Speaker John Boehner reached the very deal with the White House that the Freedom Caucus, a.k.a. the Tealiban, feared he would, to increase the debt limit so the US Treasury can pay the government’s bills until March 2017 and to approve the federal budget for two years.

The deal also relaxes the sequester, as military and domestic programs would get $25 billion each above current budget caps in this fiscal year and $15 billion each above budget caps in fiscal 2017.

So Democrats got $40 billion in additional domestic spending over two years and Republicans got $40 billion in additional military spending. Democrats also got a solution to a glitch in cost-of-living calculations that threatened to hike premiums 52% for 30% of Medicare Part B recipients and Democrats got a reallocation of Social Security funds to keep disability insurance solvent. Republicans had proposed to cut disability benefits by 20%.

Republicans got cuts to Medicare health care providers, a tightening of eligibility requirements to the Social Security Disability Insurance program and more resources to investigate purported Social Security fraud.

The compromise — that word the Tealiban detests — would get Congress through next year’s election without the threat of another right-wing-manufactured government shutdown. But it still depends on Congress approving the appropriations bills — which will fill in the broad budget outlines — by Dec. 11. That could give the Tealiban another swing at controversial issues such as Planned Parenthood and environmental regulations.

The deal gained the approval of AARP, which claims to represent 38 million seniors, and Social
Security Works, a group that advocates for retirement benefits.

Social Security Work’s president, Nancy Altman, said the Republican leadership had released its hostages: the need to raise the debt limit, the need to keep the government operating, and the need to ensure that all Social Security benefits can continue to be paid in full and on time beyond 2016. “When hostage takers release their hostages, we are, of course, relieved that the hostages are no longer in harm’s way, but this is nothing to celebrate. That the ransom isn’t steeper is also not something to celebrate,” Altman said in a prepared statement.

Part of the ransom, she said, is a diversion of Social Security resources towards virtually nonexistent fraud. “Those provisions will likely require workers with disabilities to wait longer to receive their earned benefits and may prevent some from receiving their earned benefits completely. That is wrong. The legislation has some good provisions, along with the ransom. It does ensure that Medicare beneficiaries will not experience drastically large premium increases. It also closes a loophole that was introduced in the law relatively recently that allows wealthier Americans to game the system by claiming extra benefits inconsistent with the goals of the program. …

Eventually, she said, Social Security should be expanded. “As the overwhelming majority of Americans recognize, Social Security’s one shortcoming is that its benefits are too low. Congress should follow the will of the people by expanding those modest but vital benefits and restore the program to long range actuarial balance by requiring the wealthiest among us to pay their fair share.”

The House “Freedom Caucus,” a group of about 40 right-wing Congress members who led the fight to unseat Speaker Boehner, wanted the next speaker to commit to tie any increase in the debt ceiling to real cuts to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.

The Freedom Caucus wanted the next speaker to commit to not funding the government unless President Obama agreed to defund Obamacare, Planned Parenthood and other priorities. They didn’t want an omnibus bill that would keep the government running. Instead, they wanted separate bills to finance the military while leaving behind domestic programs. They were looking for a repeat of the 16-day shutdown in 2013, hoping that this time Obama and congressional Democrats would capitulate.

As a lame duck, Boehner was able to strike a deal that could rely on a minority of Republicans joining Democrats to pass it, without worrying about the unofficial “Hastert rule” that requires a majority of Republicans to approve any House action. The deal was approved 266-167 Oct. 28, with 79 Republicans joining 187 Democrats for the bipartisan majority, and 167 Republicans voting no.

Ways & Means Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.), the likely successor to Boehner, tried to distance himself from the distasteful compromise since he didn’t participate in the negotiations and he said the process “stinks,” although his Ways & Means staff worked on it and he voted for it. However, Ryan is a right-winger who agrees with the Tealiban on forcing cuts and/or privatization to Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid. He has earned the nickname “zombie-eyed granny starver” bestowed by Charles Pierce of Esquire.

But suspicions that Ryan is a latent compromiser complicated his race for speaker. The Republican caucus nominated Ryan for speaker on Oct. 28, before the vote on the deal, but he only got 200 votes in the caucus, 18 short of a majority, as Tealiban Rep. Dan Webster (R-Fla.) got 43. Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.), whose hopes to become speaker were dashed after he spilled the beans that the special Benghazi committee was set up to bring down Hillary Clinton’s poll numbers, got 1 vote. Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.), the chair of the new House PAC to probe Planned Parenthood, also got 1 vote.

Republicans had set up the Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) fund to hit a cash crunch that was expected to force a 20% reduction in disability benefits for 11 million beneficiaries in January. The new budget deal will allow 100% of promised SSDI benefits to continue to be paid through 2022.

Expand Social Security

The agreement does not address the long-term needs of the Social Security Trust Funds. The Social Security retirement fund is projected to run out of money in 2034, but incoming revenues would still be able to fund an estimated 79% of scheduled benefits, according to the Social Security trustees’ most recent report in July. There is a simple fix to keep full promised benefits coming for the foreseeable future: Congress should do away with the ceiling on taxable income, so that a person earning $1 million no longer pays the same amount of payroll tax as a person earning $118,500 (the current ceiling on taxable income). That would raise about $100 billion a year from the wealthy and close the funding gap. In 2010, the Congressional Research Service said removing the cap would make the Social Security Trust Funds solvent for at least the next 75 years.

This is a fix that you don’t see or hear much about in the corporate media. Their correspondents are more likely to advise people approaching retirement to prepare for cuts in their expected benefits. They even tell young people entering the workforce not to expect Social Security to survive until they retire. And the oligarchs’ propaganda has been successful: A 2014 Pew Research Center survey found that 50% of Gen Xers and 51% of Millennials said they believed they would receive no Social Security benefits at all by the time they retire. (Republican presidential candidates debating in Boulder Oct. 28 reinforced this myth.) But in January 2015, 66% of Americans told Pew that taking steps to make Social Security financially sound should be a top priority for Obama and Congress, placing it fifth among 23 issues, and 67% said benefits should not be reduced.

Improving and expanding Social Security won’t happen under a Republican administration, or with Ryan in the Speaker’s Office. On the Democratic side, the issue distinguishes Bernie Sanders from Hillary Clinton. At the first Democratic presidential debate Sanders supported removing the cap on taxable income, while Clinton said she supports Social Security and would defend against Republican efforts to privatize it, but she would not commit to supporting Sanders’ plan to expand it. — JMC
From The Progressive Populist, November 15, 2015

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Selections from the November 15, 2015 issue

Selections from the November 15, 2015 issue

COVER/Heather Digby Parton
Chaos theory of Donald Trump

Boehner does his job; Expand Social Security


Liberals can’t afford to forget 2014

RURAL ROUTES/Margot McMillen
Farmers need to hold onto their topsoil

Budget deal releases Social Security hostages;
Jeb sees Rubio as threat;
Probe clears IRS in Tea Party reviews;
House votes to reopen Export-Import Bank;
Notorious pill profiteer undercut;
Not just Trump: Latinos down on Bush, Rubio, Cruz, too;
Trump is selective in journos that cover him;
Obama tops Brownback in Kansas popularity
Texas cuts Medicaid payments to Planned Parenthood ...

Obama’s unholy trade policy

That voodoo that GOP does so well

Meet GOP’s newest conspiracy, ‘Rangerghazi’ 

Trudeau did what FDR couldn’t: win with Keynes

HEALTH CARE/Joan Retsinas
Inequality in the age of affluence

Star Trek didn’t rely on a congressional vote

The Fed’s great flattening

Campaign finance and the future of democracy

The end of the Republican Party

Uber drivers mount nationwide protest

Oddballs make Hillary’s odds look good

and more ...