The Best of Bill Ayers

According to James Fallows, Bill Ayers’ interview with Terry Gross for NPR’s Fresh Air is the best of them all.  Here’s why:

Fallows says Gross’ interview with Ayers exemplifies how good she is at her job—and how bad so many other professional interviewers are at theirs. Here’s why he thinks Gross is so great:

…[W]hat she shows brilliantly in this interview, is: she listens, and she thinks. In my experience, 99% of the difference between a good interviewer (or a good panel moderator) and a bad one lies in what that person is doing while the interviewee talks. If the interviewer is mainly using that time to move down to the next item on the question list, the result will be terrible. But if the interviewer is listening, then he or she is in position to pick up leads (“Now, that’s an intriguing idea, tell us more about…”), to look for interesting tensions (“You used to say X, but now it sounds like…”), to sum up and give shape to what the subject has said (“It sounds as if you’re suggesting…”). And, having paid the interviewee the respect of actually listening to the comments, the interviewer is also positioned to ask truly tough questions without having to bluster or insult.

If you have this standard in mindis the interviewer really listening? and thinking?you will be shocked to see how rarely broadcast and on-stage figures do very much of either. But listen to this session by Gross to see how the thing should be done.

Audio of the interview is here

via Utne Reader

“Against Diversity”

Walter Benn Michaels in New Left Review:

The importance of race and gender in the current us presidential campaign has, of course, been a function of the salience of racism and sexism—which is to say, discrimination—in American society; a fact that was emphasized by post-primary stories like the New York Times’s ‘Age Becomes the New Race and Gender’.1 It is no doubt difficult to see ageism as a precise equivalent—after all, part of what is wrong with racism and sexism is that they supposedly perpetuate false stereotypes whereas, as someone who has just turned 60, I can attest that a certain number of the stereotypes that constitute ageism are true. But the very implausibility of the idea that the main problem with being old is the prejudice against your infirmities, rather than the infirmities themselves, suggests just how powerful discrimination has become as the model of injustice in America; and so how central overcoming it is to our model of justice.

From this standpoint, the contest between Obama and Clinton was a triumph, displaying, as it did, both the great strides made toward the goal of overcoming racism and sexism, and the great distance still to go towards that goal. It made it possible, in other words, to conceive of America as a society headed in the right direction but with a long road to travel. The attraction of this vision—not only to Americans but around the world—is obvious. The problem is that it is false. The us today is certainly a less discriminatory society than it was before the Civil Rights movement and the rise of feminism; but it is not a more just, open and equal society. On the contrary: it is no more just, it is less open and it is much less equal.

Read the rest here

via wood s lot

2008 & 1964

From Mark Grief at Dissent:

Nineteen sixty-four represents a date when identity was still racial and integrationist—before the violent turns of the late 1960s and the 1972 McGovern vision of an “ethnic” and pluralistic Democratic Party, which has seemed to many a source of its weakness at different points in the decades since. Nineteen sixty-four means the 1960s without Vietnam and division. It means a politics still oriented toward progress (judged economically), toward the coming Great Society, and not toward liberation (something Obama has been willing to soft-pedal with his strategic dismissal of full gay marriage). And 1964, to confront the weirdest but most visceral dimension of this fantasy, would have been the year of Kennedy’s re-election, had he not been killed; as if Obama were really Kennedy returned, but racially colored in by the civil rights movement JFK did not do quite enough to advance, and as if Michelle were Jacqueline, and the two little daughters were John-John and Caroline, moving into the White House.  “We have,” this story seems to suggest, “another chance.”

We really don’t. There are all sorts of analogies to history floating around at the present moment.  One that I will confess attracts me is the 1932 analogy, in which a massive economic collapse is the only thing that allows the U.S. government to break through disastrous laissez-faire and create essential forms of social insurance for which generations of Americans will be grateful, ever after—indeed, which they won’t be able to imagine life without. But these analogies make the task of this moment look easier than it is. There is an obligation, with a Democrat in the White House and Democratic majorities in the Congress, to figure out what we on the left should want, right now.  An underlying imagination of 1964 or 1932 would suggest that we want the past back—without acknowledging the fundamental shifts made by modern conservatism in American thought, and without acknowledging that liberation is still the rogue element whose value and consequences the left can’t quite get straight.

It’s all right here

How They Talkin’

From Peter Haney at Linguistic Anthropology:

… a strategy of condescension occurs when someone at the top of a social hierarchy adopts the speech or style of those at the bottom. With such a move, the dominant actor seeks to profit from the inequality that he or she ostensibly negates. When Anglo politicians, for example, trot out a few words of broken Spanish on the U.S. campaign trail, they hope to benefit from the unspoken rule that political discourse here will occur in English. It is precisely that rule that leads some voters who identify with the Spanish language to see its use as a thoughtful gesture on the politician’s part. Although Palin’s campaign persona represents an extreme example of the strategy of condescension, she was not the only candidate to take such an approach. Vice President Elect Joe Biden’s endless allusions to his childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania and visits to Home Depot are also textbook examples. Note that for Biden, being an ordinary guy is all about consumption and style rather than labor. When President Elect Barack Obama said in his acceptance speech that the change he represented had been “a long time comin’,” he replaced the nasal consonant represented by “ng” in English spelling with that represented by “n.” In the U.S., this substitution connotes informality and is popularly associated with both White working class and African American vernacular speech. White middle-class liberal friends of mine have criticized Palin for her colloquialism and have expressed longing for a vice president who could, in their words, “prounounce a g.” Most of these friends render “ng” as “n” themselves in unguarded moments, of course, although few of them use her regionally marked nasalized vowels. They key difference here is that my friends believe that Obama can use the formal, standard register of English and that Sarah Palin cannot. I am less convinced of the Governor’s linguistic inflexibility. But it is clear in any case that those who mock her speech see her apparent lack of access to privileged styles as a sign of other, more serious deficiencies.


This is precisely the risk of a strategy of condescension. Bourdieu notes that a dominant actor who symbolically negates hierarchies must do so “without appearing to be ignorant or incapable of satisfying their demands” (1991:69). In her effort to play with hierarchies of linguistic competence, Sarah Palin failed to convince voters that she was above the game. Her attempt to present herself as plain folks failed precisely because people believed it. Joe Biden, by contrast, failed less badly because people, on some level, did not believe him. Another interesting contrast is the case of Senator Hillary Clinton, who was roundly mocked for aping the speech of audiences in the South on the campaign trail. In Clinton’s case, national audiences found her affected drawl so different from her usual speaking style that they doubted its authenticity. Palin inspired no such doubts, but this alone does not explain her failure. Remember that the current occupant of the White House is the scion of an elite New England political family who used language to convince the world that he was a Texas cowboy. His colloquialisms were as forced and robotic as Palin’s, and they succeeded equally well in giving him a common touch with the public. That both Palin and Bush convinced the country of their speech styles’ authenticity is clear from the work of comedians who satirize them. Tina Fey’s overrated Saturday Night Live parody, which recast the Alaska governor as a defanged, rustic ingénue, reinforced rather than questioning Palin’s “Wasilla hillbilly” persona. Similarly, the legion of comedians who lampoon Bush never show him letting the Good Old Boy act lapse while relaxing with Poppy. Belief was not the issue here. But few voters appear to have worried about Bush’s competence or command of policy until after the disastrous consequences of his policies and tactics became clear. These same voters would not give Palin a chance. What explains this difference?

Check this out for the answer

via wood s lot

Only In America?

I’ve heard that phrase four or five times tonight (this morning!) and Spike Lee just said it in an interview on CNN.  I want to know, what do Americans mean when they say that?

Americans are feeling proud of themselves after this historic election and I’m not one to begrudge them that, certainly not after the last eight years.  But what do they mean?  That a black man could only be elected to the highest political office in America?  No, that can’t be it.  That only Americans could elect a black man after years of racial apartheid?  Can’t be that.  What then?

President Elect Barack Obama


11:00 p.m., November 4th, 2008, Barack Obama is the President Elect of the United States of America

May the people of America and of the world push him to do what he must do to secure a healthy and peaceful planet.

Congratulate yourselves, but maybe not quite so much after tonight?  The really hard word lies ahead. 


My Last Words On US Election: Ambivalence

I feel such a mixture of happy and sad in the face of what I’m convinced will be the result of tomorrow’s election in the US.

I’m happy that a man whose skin is not white will be the President of the United States of America.  I wish that he was more willing to claim the disaster of racism as his own and it makes me sad that he doesn’t seem to really “get it”.  Scared too.  For instance, scared for the black American men who represent 65% of America’s prison population and scared for the fastest growing part of that population: African American women.  And for lots of other African Americans, for lots of other reasons.

I’m happy that a man who voted against the Iraq War will be President of the United States of America.  I wish I was sure that he wouldn’t take the world into further disasters in Afghanistan, Pakistan and Gaza and it makes me sad that he doesn’t seem to really “get it”.  Scared too.  For instance, scared for the American soldiers and Afghan, Pakistani, and Gazan women and children who will grow up in poverty or die senselessly because he doesn’t.

I’m happy that a man who is a member of a racialized minority will be the President of the United States and I share in the joy of African Americans.  I wish that he and his campaign and his party hadn’t found it necessary to flagellate Hillary Clinton, the women of America and the women of the world to gain the prize and it makes me sad that he doesn’t “get it”.  Scared too.  For instance, scared for the women who will continue to be the butts of sexist and misogynist jokes, for the women who will be the subjects of  pornography, the forced prostitution and death at the hands of rapists or the men who are supposed to love them; for all of us who wait for a woman leader who is respected as much as Obama is respected – even taking account of the racism the campaign has generated, or exposed.

I’m happy that a man who has some respect for the US Constitution will be President of the United States of America.  I’m sad that he thought that the FISA compromise was ok.  Scared too.  For instance, scared of the United States of America and the weakening of democracy in the country that still stands for the best blossoming of that principle in the world, and that we will lose it – that is, lose the USA and lose democracy.

I’m just plain sad that the next President of the United States of America will not stand up, unequivocally, for same-sex marriage and for the obvious principle that women, and women alone, not women, their families and their pastors, are responsible for their own bodies.

I’ll be just plain happy to see the end of George W. Bush and Dick Cheney.  But I wish Obama would go after them for their crimes. 

I’ll be just plain happy to hear the words “I,  Barack Hussein Obama …”

I’m neither sad nor scared, but damned angry, that the Republican are going to paint Obama’s election as the unhappy result of media bias and voter fraud:

… the Republican base already seems to be gearing up to regard defeat not as a verdict on conservative policies, but as the result of an evil conspiracy. A recent Democracy Corps poll found that Republicans, by a margin of more than two to one, believe that Mr. McCain is losing “because the mainstream media is biased” rather than “because Americans are tired of George Bush.”

And Mr. McCain has laid the groundwork for feverish claims that the election was stolen, declaring that the community activist group Acorn — which, as points out, has never “been found guilty of, or even charged with” causing fraudulent votes to be cast — “is now on the verge of maybe perpetrating one of the greatest frauds in voter history in this country, maybe destroying the fabric of democracy.”

These far right nutbars are a danger to everywhere.  I’ll be happy if they all fall into the sea.  And have a nice relaxing swim.

Obama & The “American Dream”

From Aziz Rana at n + 1:

Throughout our history there have always been multiple versions of the American dream. These accounts held in common the hope that hard work, discipline, and self-reliance would allow those recognized as citizens not only to improve their economic lot and achieve personal happiness, but to participate fully in political life. Today, however, only one version of the dream continues to make sense as a sustainable personal project. This is the dream exemplified by Barack and Michelle Obama—as well as by their former rivals Hillary and Bill Clinton—a dream of success through higher education and a life in professional work. It is a vision of social advancement that leaves little room for historically important narratives of blue-collar respectability.

This now dominant version of the American dream first emerged around the turn of the twentieth century in the wake of massive structural transformations. Industrialization, heightened bureaucracy, and corporate consolidation helped generate an economic and social need for professional groups such as business managers, lawyers, doctors, social workers, and teachers. Louis Brandeis, in his 1905 Harvard lecture “The Opportunity in the Law,” crystallized the account of freedom and independence that motivated these groups. Brandeis argued that lawyers and other professionals were specially situated to think in terms of right policy rather than divisive politics.

The essence of legal training was “the development of judgment,” in which lawyers learned the value of “patient research and develop[ed] both the memory and the reasoning faculties.” Moreover, legal practice, like all professional work, was marked by a high degree of autonomy and creativity. The lawyer defined his own tasks, ideally served a diverse and broad community, and became skilled at testing moral and political logic against empirical reality. Given these attributes, Brandeis hoped that the professional stratum would struggle to reconcile competing interests in defense of a nonpartisan public good. The professional class would protect the weak against the powerful, but only in ways that reduced conflict and allowed for the smooth functioning of collective institutions.

At the time when Brandeis was describing the promise of professionalism, three earlier accounts of the American dream not only survived but were real competitors for social preeminence. In Thomas Jefferson’s founding republican vision, yeoman farmers were “the most valuable citizens . . .   the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, . . . tied to their country and wedded to its liberty and interest by the most lasting bonds.” To this Jeffersonian vision of “the cultivators of the earth,” a rapidly urbanizing nineteenth century added the small-business owner and the unionized industrial worker. The former aspired to the same freedom as the farmer by cultivating a shop instead of acreage; the latter strove (with mixed results) to achieve economic independence through collective political activity. In Brandeis’s time, these three versions of the American dream each still constituted a viable route to meaningful political and social life.

Today, by contrast, all such dreams are essentially foreclosed. The independent farmer lives on in the national imagination, but industrial farming has rendered him marginal both politically and socially. The quantity of small businesses begun each year suggests that the aspiration of having one’s own shop persists. Yet for the past half-century bankruptcy has been more likely than success. Statistics cited by Bush’s own Small Business Administration (SBA) show that more than half of small businesses close within four years and more than 60 percent within six. The title of the SBA article, “Redefining Business Success: Distinguishing Between Failure and Closure,” perfectly captures the difficulty of sustaining optimism, even for propaganda purposes, about the vitality of small-scale entrepreneurship. As for blue-collar workers, deindustrialization and the weakening of the labor movement have made the wage earner’s dream of middle-class respectability less and less tenable. Real incomes for working-class families have been declining for three decades, and highly skilled jobs once available to high school graduates are now memories from a previous era.

Abraham Lincoln, in his 1859 speech at the Wisconsin State Fair, concluded that the ideal of the small businessman or farmer was meant to be accessible to everyone:

The prudent, penniless beginner in the world, labors for awhile, saves a surplus with which to buy tools or land, for himself; then labors on his own account another while, and at length hires another new beginner to help him. This, says its advocates, is free labor—the just and generous, and prosperous system, which opens the way for all—gives hope to all, and energy, and progress, and improvement of condition to all.

This classless universality—the hope that every American citizen, through free labor, could enjoy middle-class respectability, economic freedom, and the intellectual benefits of education—lay at the core of the dreams championed by farmers, small-business owners, and factory workers. In the nineteenth century, such universal rhetoric coexisted with the practical exclusion of blacks and women, who were considered to be beneath citizenship. Crucially, however, there was nothing intrinsic to farming, wage earning, or entrepreneurship that required the permanent separation of these groups from the promise of social respectability. Today, one can and should hope for an American dream that truly includes all Americans, and which recognizes and respects all the different types of labor the country needs. This would fulfill the promise of nineteenth-century aspirations.

Instead we have been left with the professional ideal, which values only certain types of work and thus implicitly disdains the rest. It is an inherently exclusive ideal, structured around a divide between those engaged in high-status work and those confined to task execution. The political theorist Iris Marion Young writes, “Today equal opportunity has come to mean only that no one is barred from entering competition for a relatively few privileged positions.” The idea of exclusivity is a necessary structural feature of professionalization. As a model for society, however, it validates an economic and cultural divide between those with meaningful access to social respectability and the vast majority of Americans, who remain consigned to low status and low-income employment.

This divide is antithetical to democracy. The professional and educational meritocracy justifies a basic hierarchy in which only those with professional status wield political and economic power. The democratic ideal of ordinary citizens collectively deciding the fate of key institutions has little in common with this logic—a logic that is aristocracy by another name. Precisely because all three alternative versions of the American dream were universal, all imagined work—whether industrial, agricultural, or entrepreneurial—as a training ground for democratic citizenship. Farmers and entrepreneurs developed the personal virtues necessary for political decision making. As for the industrial worker, the union was considered a continuous education in democratic control, and one’s role in its management and success were a miniature form of collective self-rule.

Barack Obama’s political ascent reiterates the current dominance of the professional ethic and one side of the civil rights movement. But there was always another side, which presented the movement as our most recent attempt to create a political community in which all citizens, including those truly marginalized, could assert power and achieve social respectability. Malcolm X, and Martin Luther King Jr.  argued that our social problems were structural, the result of fundamental disagreements between the haves and the have-nots. These disagreements could not be papered over by talk of consensus, because the interests of the culturally privileged rested on continuing a politics of exclusion. As King often maintained, freedom requires making democracy a general way of life. This means more than integrating liberal society; it entails eliminating the basic economic and political hierarchies on which postwar liberalism rests. Today’s professional creed—while undoubtedly better than the Bush administration’s culture of cronyism, corporate profiteering, and rejection of expertise—remains a long way from these aspirations.

To the extent that Obama (and the Democratic Party leadership) refuse to offer more than the professional ideal, any reform agenda will fail to address the basic situation of most Americans. His comments about small-town voters at a fund-raising event in San Francisco were indicative: “You go into some of these small towns in Pennsylvania, and . . . the jobs have been gone now for twenty-five years and nothing’s replaced them. . . . So it’s not surprising then that they get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren’t like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or antitrade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” Obama’s tone-deafness, as well as Clinton’s opportunistic denunciations—her aides quickly began handing out “I’m not bitter” stickers—spoke to a larger failing in the party as a whole. Political pundits like Tom Frank and Paul Krugman commonly ask why low-income constituents seem to vote less and less with their pocketbooks. This question suggests that the New Deal coalition was built primarily on a social welfare agenda. While such programs have been essential to providing millions of American with economic security, the heart of the New Deal lay elsewhere.

From 1932 until 1968, the Democratic Party rested on two descriptions of American life—the American dream as embodied by the rural farmer and the industrial worker. It gained sustenance from a respect for these accounts of middle-class achievement, economic independence, and democratic inclusion. Today’s party, however, has given up on establishing new forms of solidarity for nonprofessional citizens. All it has to offer is a lose-lose proposition: join the competition for professional status and cultural privilege at a severe disadvantage, or don’t join it at all. The party holds on to the social programs of the past, but in ever more truncated form. It presents a politics of consensus while ignoring the fact of basic division. If Obama hopes to save his party and to address the interests and experiences of working-class citizens, he will have to challenge the hegemony of the professional and with it the closing of the American dream. The question is whether he and those around him are interested in this task, or whether they are determined to recycle the failed homilies of postwar liberalism and meritocratic success.

Go on, read the whole thing, here


The ’60s Were GOOD!

Gary Leupp at Counterpunch:

Three years after McCain was shot down over Hanoi while on that bombing mission, [Bill] Ayers by his own admission participated in a bombing of a New York City police station, and went on to bomb the Capitol and Pentagon in the next two years. Each action came in response to a specific escalation of the Vietnam War. There were no casualties, and Ayers was never convicted of a crime. He denies that the bombings were acts of terrorism and points out instead that the war in Vietnam was a war of terror. (During this time, by the way, the 11 to 13 year old Obama was living in Indonesia and Hawai’i.)

Bill Ayers like many of his generation was a follower of Martin Luther King before joining the SDS then some of its spin-offs which (like many in the New Left) parted company with the doctrinaire non-violence they perceived as ineffectual. But consider his background. While studying at the University of Michigan in 1965, he joined a picket line protesting an Ann Arbor pizzeria’s policy of refusing service to African-Americans. (18 years later, when I studied at UM, such racist exclusion was unimaginable. How the world had changed because of people like Ayers!) He participated in a draft board sit-in, punished by 10 days in jail. He worked in progressive childhood education. These are the kind of rebellious activities that enraged the white supremicists (then far more respectable and mainstream than now), the kneejerk anticommunists, the reactionaries terrified by rock ‘n roll and the youth counterculture. But what’s there to damn here, for those who aren’t misled by a washed-up generation of racist uptight bigots?

People over 50 remember that period very well, and many much younger people view it with envy and fascination. After all, today’s youth listen to the Beatles, Stones, Doors, Jefferson Airplane and Grateful Dead, considering them their own. (We in the ’60s rarely listened to the music of the ’20s, ’30s and ’40s.) College students flock to courses on the ’60s, viewing that decade as one of turmoil, excitement, and progressive change. The verdict’s in: the war was wrong, segregation and all racism was wrong, sexism and homophobia were wrong—and the limited social progress as we’ve seen since the ’60s is largely rooted in the tireless efforts of the activists of that decade.  The ’60s were good!

Read the whole thing here

h/t wood s lot

Sarah Knows What She’s Saying

From anil dash, blogging about how culture is made:

What’s striking to me this election season, though, is that Sarah Palin has chosen to abuse her command of language so obviously without suffering any serious criticism for it thus far.

The crux of the issue is simple:

  1. Sarah Palin has unequivocally associated Barack Obama with the idea of terrorism and specifically with “terrorists”.
  2. Republican President George Bush has defined in our National Security Strategy, and the Republican Party’s platform affirms, that we may identify and strike at terrorists before they have committed any defined acts of aggression against American citizens.
  3. George Bush has made clear, by stating before a joint session of Congress that “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”
  4. Palin has used deliberate choice of language to avoid these connections being highlighted by the media, while increasing the likelihood that the target audience for her message will be incited by her statements.

Through these arguments, it becomes clear that Sarah Palin’s assertions are designed not to prove that Obama is unqualified for the office of the Presidency of the United States. Rather, she appears to be attempting to convince a substantial portion of her supporters that Obama supports terrorism against the United States and thus should be, at the very least, incarcerated as an enemy combatant (which we are doing to American citizens already) or at worst, assassinated for supporting terror. She has done this knowing full well that she can retain plausible deniability thanks to the ambiguity of her statements as they’ll be interpreted by the media, by her detractors, and by her more reasonable supporters.


… the most dramatic technique in Sarah Palin’s speeches is the use of vernacular to mask the seriousness of an assertion. Sarah Palin cloaks her ideas in “straight talk” to avoid them being subject to fact-checking that would happen if she were to use standard english to make the same points.

Put simply, if Palin says “Barack Obama consorts with terrorists”, she is making the assertion that he supports acts of violence against American citizens and the media will refute this obviously false assertion. If, instead, Palin says he “pals around with terrorists”, she’s used code-switching to mask the seriousness of the charge, obfuscating her meaning enough to get away with making an assertion that inevitably calls for the imprisonment or even assassination of a political opponent.

Reporters wrongly see a term like “palling” as imprecise, when compared to a word like “consorting”.

But these words are not imprecise to their intended audience. They are, in fact, clearer than using legalistic terms like “consorting”. They amplify the urgency of the statements, and increase the sense for Palin’s audience that they’re on the same page with her, speaking a language too “plain”, too full of “straight talk”, for the press to understand. And they’re right. Palin has consistently pitted herself against the media, depicting them as hostile and foreign to her campaign, and thus making it even less likely they’d take her less formal-sounding charges seriously.

On top of this, by deliberately omitting the word “domestic” as a descriptor of “terrorist” after its initial mention in her speeches, Palin has amplified the recurring theme of “otherness” that the McCain campaign and its surrogates have pinned on Obama. There is an unequivocal attempt to assign a commonality of purpose and intent between Obama, his supporters and campaigners, and terrorists who would attack Americans.


I believe the vast majority of supporters of the campaign of John McCain are honorable, honest, well-intentioned and sincere Americans who want what’s best for this country. And I believe that all of us, regardless of party affiliation or political support, deserve better than someone who cynically twists language to inflame and incite the very worst elements of our culture. That’s why it’s important to point out the danger of these actions.

Sarah Palin’s conduct has gone far past the bounds of decency, and far past even the most dangerous efforts of any previous candidate for such high office. This is an inexcusable, unforgivable, and unacceptable transgression and my belief is that she should be removed from consideration for the office of Vice President for her dangerous, unethical and unamerican display of irresponsibility.

This is a fascinating and important piece of writing – read the whole thing here

via wood s lot