Topic: Reality-Based Woes
Reading the Tea Leaves
Reading tea leaves? The lateral outgrowths from a plant stem that are typically a flattened, expanded, variably-shaped greenish organ, constituting a unit of the foliage, and functioning primarily in food manufacture by photosynthesis? No, no. Political tea leaves (or the alternative, leafs) - as of late in the day, Tuesday, the seventh day of March of this odd year.
So how's the struggle going, the one between the president and his administration on one side of the issues, and, on the other side, the congress, the courts, the American people (according to all the polling on most all national issues)? Who is likely to come out on top?
Late in the day the USA Patriot Act was renewed, finally. A win for this president. The Associated Press has the story here, but say the whole business was a cliffhanger (odd term). But it passed, "extending a centerpiece of the war on terrorism at President Bush's urging after months of political combat over the balance between privacy rights and the pursuit of potential terrorists."
It breezed through the House and that's that - but earlier there was a Senate filibuster that forced the guys in the White House to accept some "curbs."
Now, if you get a court-approved subpoena for information in some sort of terrorist investigation you have the right to challenge the earlier requirement that you must not tell anyone anything about any of what's going on. So you can tell your wife you're worried.
And now there's no longer a requirement that "an individual provide the FBI with the name of a lawyer consulted about a National Security Letter, which is a demand for records issued by investigators." So if you seek legal advice you don't have to explain it to the feds and identify your lawyer, so the feds can go after him or her. Hey, anyone, even a public defender, who represents someone suspected of terrorism is probably a terrorist too, right? That assumption was removed.
And the library thing was straightened out - librarians don't have to provide the feds with records of who reads what and tell no one they have given the feds a record of what you like to read. They can just be librarians, not secret agents.
The White House is unhappy with the changes, but they'll take this as a win, just four days before the whole USA Patriot Act was to have expired in a puff of smoke and the smell of cordite.
And the changes are minor. The rest stands - "federal officials can still obtain 'tangible items' like business records, including those from libraries and bookstores, for foreign intelligence and international terrorism investigations."
They just have to do it the old fashioned way, without enlisting librarians as informers and without harassing attorneys asked to look into things.
And they still have their "national security letters" directing employers, banks, credit card companies, and other such entities to turn over their records when asked, and the USA Patriot still prohibits those who must turn over these records from revealing they have done so to the "subject" of the probe. You'll never know. That's still in there. There's word that a whole bunch of these "national security letters" have been ordered for reporters who have written about the NSA thing or the secret prisons we run for people we have made non-people. But that can't be confirmed. No one is allowed to say anything about it.
It's a win for the White House side.
Of course it's not a "clean bill" - it has these new restrictions on selling over-the-counter cold and allergy medicines. You see, if you buy enough of that stuff you can actually use it to manufacture methamphetamines. Don't want that. It may have nothing to do with terrorism, but it's in there. And there's a maritime thing in there too, to impose "strict punishment on crew members who impede or mislead law enforcement officers trying to board their ships." Whatever. But then too there's nothing in there about opening up the Alaska wildlife refuges to oiling drilling, and no funds for the new NASCAR Hall of Fame in Charlotte or for pocket parks in downtown Indianapolis. Close enough.
So late in the day the White House got a win, and they got a loss - White House Effort to Block Challenge to Ports Deal Collapses (Washington Post, dated March 8) -
No, not that Jerry Lewis, the puffy old comedian the French used to like for some reason. This guy's a Republican from out this way. And he and the rest of the Republicans in the House of Representatives just told the president what he could do with this Dubai World Ports deal. He can stuff it. They'll stop it.
House Majority Leader John Boehner, the fellow who got Tom DeLay's job - "Listen, this is a very big political problem." Yep, he just wants the whole thing to go away. Speaker of the House, the former high school wrestling coach Dennis Hastert, is standing also standing behind this other Jerry Lewis. No deal. Former Bush-is-God types Duncan Hunter and Peter King are quoted as being outraged by the whole idea of a company owned but the United Arab Emirates operating out key ports.
This not a win. The White House will need to spin this quite a bit to say it is. And they sort of do
Translation? "Gee, what interesting thoughts, and we appreciate them, but these interesting thoughts, and the people who think such interesting thoughts, don't mean a thing - the deal will go down - but we appreciate the heartfelt sincerity, as pointless as it is."
Not a win.
But the same day there was another win (details here) - Pat Roberts' Senate Intelligence Committee voted not to investigate any of that NSA spying on Americans without warrants stuff. The senator from Kansas met with the White House and decided that wasn't necessary. They could just form a subcommittee for "oversight" of this apparently illegal eavesdropping program. That'd do.
It looked like there might be an investigation. Senator Jay Rockefeller proposed one. He got key folks from the other side to agree - like Senator Olympia Snowe of Maine. Pat went to the White House and came back saying it was a bad idea. And Snowe, after publicly saying hold the investigation, changed her mind. The committee voted to bag it, and her vote tipped it. Rockefeller is quoted as saying the committee is basically under the control of the White House - "It's an unprecedented bout of political pressure form the White House."
Really. That's what winning is about. They don't want anyone looking into this. Roberts is their man. Snowe knows Rove is dangerous. And a win is a win.
Of course there's another committee that will hold investigations. That's Arlen Spector's Senate Judiciary Committee. Spector, a Republican from Pennsylvania, isn't as pliant as Roberts. He thinks something smells here. We'll see if he visits the White House and sees the light.
Does the president have to obey the clear-as-day and quite specific law? He's says no, he has an exemption, Article II of the Constitution no one can question any battlefield decision he makes as commander-in-chief in wartime, or something like wartime. And this was a battlefield decision. That's just the way it is. And your telephone calls and emails are out there on the battlefield.
And the news is part of the battlefield too, as in this -
Their media is better than our media. If only our news folks were more like Fox News, cheering us on and keeping our "will" up, then we'd win. That's the real war. How people feel. We need to manipulate the media better than we have been doing. We need to catch up. We will have won when we convince people we have won, and everyone believes it, deeply.
Of course it's nonsense. If we all clap Tinkerbell won't die. That whole theory was discussed in these pages here in May of 2004 - this whole concept that the problem is that the media just isn't believing hard enough that we're winning. The mosques blow up. The murder squads go after folks. They cannot form a government even after the elections. But, according to Rumsfeld, it's a media problem. He's a pip.
But then, the same day, the media is filled with an example that Rumsfeld is onto something, and it's an ongoing big win for the administration. The media has a story that people are comfortable with, so they run it again. One more time, as in this in the Washington Post - "Democrats Struggle To Seize Opportunity - News about GOP political corruption, inept hurricane response and chaos in Iraq has lifted Democrats' hopes of winning control of Congress this fall. But seizing the opportunity has not been easy, as they found when they tried to unveil an agenda of their own."
It's called conventional wisdom.
The New York Times runs a variation here about how the Democrats are "trotting out" the fact that the Republicans have been lax on port security. How sad.
Yes, the Times notes this -
But the Times sees the Democrats "trotting out" these facts as kind of pathetic. That's what real losers do when they have no agenda. Or something.
What's up with that?
NYU journalism professor Eric Alterman explains here -
E. J. Dionne at the Post agrees -
That Contract With America came late in the 1994 campaign, and gas little to do with anything. It's not why the Republicans won. It was window-dressing. Dionne is talking about the power of the narrative, the story everyone accepts, as it's comfortable, like those old shoes that after a time just feel good.
So ignore this -
Doesn't fit the "story" - disregard. Everyone likes a good story. Why ruin it? (And for a discussion of narrative theory and how it shapes the news, see this in these pages from May of 2003.)
Of course there are some narratives that are as persistent as the "hapless, ineffective Democrats" myth (using the term myth in its proper sense, a shared fiction that explains the world). How did Will Rodgers put it? "I don't be belong to any organized political party - I'm a Democrat." The myth has been around forever.
The counter-myth is that of the fat-cat Babbitt Republican, as in the Congressional Quarterly reporting this -
That makes sense to people. It's what they think happens, down to the cigar and the dark oak panels and high ceilings. That's the way things are supposed to be.
And the "little people" are supposed to suffer, nobly. That's how the world works, as you in this exchange between President Bush and a Nebraska supporter during on of those staged Social Security tours in Nebraska back when he wanted to "fix" that program -
Everything fits. The rich and powerful do what they do. The working stiffs do what they do. All is right with the world. Everyone wins. (Credit: SusanG at "Daily Kos" seems to be the first to line up these two items here.)
But sometimes the narratives, the myths bump up against each other. It happened out here in Los Angeles on Ash Wednesday, as you can see here when Los Angeles' Cardinal Roget Mahoney ran the old Christian myth up the flagpole, and no one saluted - if Congress passes legislation to criminalize the act of offering support to an illegal immigrant, he will instruct his priests and Catholic parishioners to ignore the law.
Oops. Lots of angry letters to the Los Angeles Times as the "broken borders" narrative - we need to build a wall, we're being overrun, our schools and hospitals are swamped with criminals who snuck in - championed by Lou Dobbs on CNN and half the Republican Party - runs the other way. The Republican sponsors of the bill say that they're just targeting those who smuggle immigrants, but they've written such a broad definition of "alien smuggling" that it could potentially include babysitting for a neighbor or working at a soup kitchen. The legislation has already passed the House and is being considered by the Senate Judiciary Committee this week. Mahoney says he'll close no soup kitchens. He'll take care of these people in need. It's the Christian thing to do. There are irate letters in the Times every day asking how the CHURCH could advocate breaking the law - that's just not right, and seems immoral. Various priest are, each day, saying they're with Mahoney - it's a matter of conscience.
Sometimes the narratives collide. Don't you hate when that happens? The shared fiction that explains the world splits in two. Yipes.
There's another example of that here from Digby at Hullabaloo, regarding the big news out of the heartland - South Dakota Bans Abortion, Setting Up a Battle.
They banned abortion almost completely. No exception for rape or incest, and very few for the health of the woman. Five years in jail for any doctor involved - Class 5 felony. They want to see if they can get this past the newly configured US Supreme Court.
But Digby covers the logic here. They say abortion is the murder of actual children, but only make it a Class 5 felony, not murder. And should the woman be held legally liable for having an illegal abortion? What about charging her with at least a Class 5 felony, if not murder? There's something wrong with the narrative. They don't have their story straight.
He links to a video in which anti-abortion protesters are asked why not punish the woman. And they seem not to have thought of that -
No. Apparently not. You don't mess with myths, although the "abortion is murder" narrative has its internal contradictions.
Well, you win arguments on other grounds. The president wins most by just doing what he wants. What argument? He trusts enough folks buy into the myth of the presidency where he's some sort of fisher-king, if you know the narrative there, down to the detail of the hero killing his own father to renew that land and all that sort of thing. Rumsfeld is saying winning a matter of taking hold of the narrative and redirecting the myth - winning is defining winning and facts and reality are minor matters of little importance. Cardinal Mahoney is on this old narrative no one's buying - good works and doing that right thing trump the laws of man. The anti-abortion folks need to get their story straight.
If you're going to win, you need to get your story straight.