Saturday, March 26, 2011

Bob Herbert's Last Column For The New York Times

This is the second high profile defection from the New York Times in the span of a few weeks. First it was Frank Rich. And now, Bob Herbert. They were quick to note that it isn't a knock on the Times. But, in my view, it's a symptom of the troubled state of American journalism and of our politics and society at large. Increasingly, print media has been shuffled to the back of the relevancy line, and although the Times continues to set the standard in depth of coverage its quality has declined, succumbing to Gray Lady staidness while more aggressive advocacy publications like Rolling Stone and Mother Jones have scooped the Times on some big stories.

As the Times' capacity to influence and inform public opinion wanes, it has been replaced by the venomous propaganda of right wing media dominated by Fox and its minions. When Fox's principal competitor in defining not only the parameters of the public debate but separating truth from lies is half-owned (it was fully owned before the Comcast merger) by the nation's largest corporation, GE, which, it was recently reported, did not pay a cent in corporate taxes, then the scope of the problem with American media today becomes clearer.

And this is only part of the problem. The extremist, corporatist GOP has launched a frontal assault on public broadcasting, namely National Public Radio (NPR) and the Corporation for Public Broadcasting (PBS). For those of us who rely on public broadcasting for news that is objective, incisive and truthful, this is a tragic development. In the place of very modest public funding  from your tax dollars and mine, increasingly we see PBS and NPR having to accept money from right wing billionaires like David H. Koch with his baggage of an aggressively partisan and anti-democratic agenda. As a result of a carrot-and-stick strategy from venal right wing corporatists stepping into the funding breach, public broadcasting is cast in the position of supplicant, afraid to offend its new patrons. The influence of these  repulsive corporatists is insidious. It can be seen in how the News Hour reports (or rather fails to report) the seminal events in Wisconsin and America's heartland in favor of softball interviews with Republican governors, in which the hard questions are not asked and remain unanswered. Except when Scott Walker reveals his true intent to a fake Koch brother or in a Talking Points Memo report.

The Koch brothers are not to be confused, for example, with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, whose philanthropy is aimed at improving education for low-income kids and ending the spread of contagious diseases in third world countries. The Koch brothers are pursuing an agenda that is inimical to what poll after poll indicates are the American people's priorities: Taxing the rich to pay down our debt as President Clinton did, no privatization of Social Security and no reduction of Medicare benefits, Defense cuts first before slashing education, and opposing laws aimed at stripping collective bargaining rights from public employee unions.

The GOP's brazen disregard for the expressed wishes of the American people is a reflection of the right wing corporate agenda of its master funders — the Koch brothers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce among them. It draws upon the cocky conviction they can keep poking us in the eye with one outrage after another, and we won't react. Whether it's defunding NPR, Planned Parenthood, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, tsunami relief, or the Financial Consumer Protection Agency — a death by a thousand cuts of amazing programs that are part of the fabric of our lives and distinguish America as a modern state from just another third world oligarchy. They believe they can stomp on people who earn less than six figures because we've fallen into a kind of media/propaganda-induced stasis that makes us unable to react and fight back. And if we do, they will pit us against each other, whether it's the working poor or the struggling middle class, or the unemployed, or the medically uninsured that have been identified for demonization.

They have the arrogant conviction that they can pull the wool over the people's eyes at the most important juncture — our electoral system — by which we reaffirm this democracy, because under the Citizens United decision they can now spend unlimited funds and blanket the airwaves with 24/7 propaganda. The latest, a crude Koch-funded anti-union ad urged We, The People to tell our elected representatives, "you're not going to take it anymore." Not, as Rachel noted, "we're not going to take it anymore" — no no, it's "you're not going to take it." A revealing Freudian slip, perhaps. They, the super-rich millionaires and billionaires are not to be confused with We, The People. And don't you forget it! They are supremely confident that they can sell us anything, because they control and own everything: The media, most of our nation's wealth, and our government. They may be right.

Ironically, PBS's coverage of other countries is far more penetrating than their coverage of what is happening in our own backyard — which has never been more relevant to our lives. This is but another symptom of the poisonous influence of right wing money and corporate ownership of government and media. The right wing's noxious influence is everywhere. You can no longer do a Google search on certain topics and expect to find a wide range of factual information that informs rather than distorts. Such topics can include "hot button" issues such as the KKK or Islamic terrorism. Wikipedia, the open source internet encyclopedia, is being rewritten by agenda-driven propagandists to project a distorted right wing point of view.

When I looked up the KKK on Wikipedia I found a revisionist partisan screed which skillfully sought to link the KKK with the Democratic Party to the exclusion of the GOP. For example, the one president pictured in a photo and mentioned eight times is Woodrow Wilson, a Democrat. Nowhere are the Republican presidents and (alleged) Klan members William McKinley, Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge cited. Harding was buried with full "Klan regalia and honors." (Correction: This is what Klan sites proudly claim of their "history." There is no evidence for this whatsoever, that I could find. Nor is there evidence for Coolidge's membership, despite Klan claims, although his Democratic rival, Al Davis, hurt himself in the South when he denounced the Klan in a speech in the election of 1924.) Further, contemporary history of the Klan's close ties to the GOP, no pun intended, is a total whitewash.

Similarly, when I tried to research the Islamic Brotherhood I was redirected to a plethora of right wing Islamophobic sites with the usual fearmongering speech about the threat of Islamic extremism that one hears from Glenn Beck. The Wikipedia entry for the Islamic Brotherhood was a cut-and-paste job from an ultra-right wing anti-Islamic site that doesn't even list its members. Nowhere could I find a scholarly, balanced, objective examination of the Islamic Brotherhood. This was not the case only a few years ago. Today, once reliable and objective reference sites on the internet — Wikipedia chief among them — are being polluted and distorted by right wing propaganda.

Rachel's fabled "Google machine" isn't so reliable anymore as a source of unbiased information. Not that it was before, but at least then certain search terms weren't appropriated by narrow political and ideological interests. It's one of the least reported stories in the "culture wars" and all the more disturbing because it's part of a larger pattern of historical deception and misinformation that can be traced to the rewriting of history and science textbooks by right wing ideologues on the Texas Board of Education rather than by university trained historians.

The result is the dumbing down of America, as related in a recent Newsweek article that found most Americans are incapable of passing a citizenship test, lacking the most basic knowledge of our history. Some of its most incredible findings are: 70% of Americans do not know the Constitution is the "supreme law of the land;" 63% do not know how many justices sit on the Supreme Court; 81% could not identify some of the powers of the federal government under our Constitution. Or how many years a U.S. senator is elected to serve (61%); or who was the president during World War I (80%); or what did Susan B. Anthony do (59%). The parade of ignorance just goes on, and on. And on. It's stunning. And it explains a lot about our present condition.

One of my all-time favorite quotes is by Thomas Jefferson:
"If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, in a state of civilization, it expects what never was and never will be."
He was right, of course. We may well be living in revolutionary times in which the people are slowly awakening to the realization of who and what their real oppressor is. Another favorite quote, this one by Lincoln, known to most of us, dovetails nicely with this theme:
“You may fool all the people some of the time, you can even fool some of the people all of the time, but you cannot fool all of the people all the time.”
We can see this happening in Wisconsin, Ohio, Michigan, New Jersey. We can see it in the plunging poll numbers of the corporatist Republican governors with their extremist agendas. People are waking up everywhere, and they may find there is no choice but to fight back by any means necessary. For if the ruling oligarchy believe they can commit economic violence and repression to people without pushback or consequences, then they have misread their history and have deluded themselves into believing their own propaganda. Bob Herbert writes of this in his last column; the parts that resonate — the historical fault line on which the American Dream ends — I have highlighted.

Fortunately for us, Bob Herbert is not leaving the Times to drop out of sight. He is leaving to join the fight, rather than just observe and report it.

March 25, 2011
Losing Our Way
So here we are pouring shiploads of cash into yet another war, this time in Libya, while simultaneously demolishing school budgets, closing libraries, laying off teachers and police officers, and generally letting the bottom fall out of the quality of life here at home.

Welcome to America in the second decade of the 21st century. An army of long-term unemployed workers is spread across the land, the human fallout from the Great Recession and long years of misguided economic policies. Optimism is in short supply. The few jobs now being created too often pay a pittance, not nearly enough to pry open the doors to a middle-class standard of living.

Arthur Miller, echoing the poet Archibald MacLeish, liked to say that the essence of America was its promises. That was a long time ago. Limitless greed, unrestrained corporate power and a ferocious addiction to foreign oil have led us to an era of perpetual war and economic decline. Young people today are staring at a future in which they will be less well off than their elders, a reversal of fortune that should send a shudder through everyone.

The U.S. has not just misplaced its priorities. When the most powerful country ever to inhabit the earth finds it so easy to plunge into the horror of warfare but almost impossible to find adequate work for its people or to properly educate its young, it has lost its way entirely.

Nearly 14 million Americans are jobless and the outlook for many of them is grim. Since there is just one job available for every five individuals looking for work, four of the five are out of luck. Instead of a land of opportunity, the U.S. is increasingly becoming a place of limited expectations. A college professor in Washington told me this week that graduates from his program were finding jobs, but they were not making very much money, certainly not enough to think about raising a family.

There is plenty of economic activity in the U.S., and plenty of wealth. But like greedy children, the folks at the top are seizing virtually all the marbles. Income and wealth inequality in the U.S. have reached stages that would make the third world blush. As the Economic Policy Institute has reported, the richest 10 percent of Americans received an unconscionable 100 percent of the average income growth in the years 2000 to 2007, the most recent extended period of economic expansion.

Americans behave as if this is somehow normal or acceptable. It shouldn’t be, and didn’t used to be. Through much of the post-World War II era, income distribution was far more equitable, with the top 10 percent of families accounting for just a third of average income growth, and the bottom 90 percent receiving two-thirds. That seems like ancient history now.

The current maldistribution of wealth is also scandalous. In 2009, the richest 5 percent claimed 63.5 percent of the nation’s wealth. The overwhelming majority, the bottom 80 percent, collectively held just 12.8 percent.

This inequality, in which an enormous segment of the population struggles while the fortunate few ride the gravy train, is a world-class recipe for social unrest. Downward mobility is an ever-shortening fuse leading to profound consequences.

A stark example of the fundamental unfairness that is now so widespread was in The New York Times on Friday under the headline: “G.E.’s Strategies Let It Avoid Taxes Altogether.” Despite profits of $14.2 billion — $5.1 billion from its operations in the United States — General Electric did not have to pay any U.S. taxes last year.

As The Times’s David Kocieniewski reported, “Its extraordinary success is based on an aggressive strategy that mixes fierce lobbying for tax breaks and innovative accounting that enables it to concentrate its profits offshore.”

G.E. is the nation’s largest corporation. Its chief executive, Jeffrey Immelt, is the leader of President Obama’s Council on Jobs and Competitiveness. You can understand how ordinary workers might look at this cozy corporate-government arrangement and conclude that it is not fully committed to the best interests of working people.

Overwhelming imbalances in wealth and income inevitably result in enormous imbalances of political power. So the corporations and the very wealthy continue to do well. The employment crisis never gets addressed. The wars never end. And nation-building never gets a foothold here at home.

New ideas and new leadership have seldom been more urgently needed.

This is my last column for The New York Times after an exhilarating, nearly 18-year run. I’m off to write a book and expand my efforts on behalf of working people, the poor and others who are struggling in our society. My thanks to all the readers who have been so kind to me over the years. I can be reached going forward at

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