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“Can Dish It Out, But Can’t Take It”: The Republican Delusion, Free Speech Includes The Right To Be Free From Criticism

The GOP is a “party of crybabies.” Or so says Jonathan Bernstein in yesterday’s Salon, reprieving one of my biggest pet peeves, which is the presumption by conservatives that freedom of speech entails freedom from criticism for one’s opinions – no matter how absurd or obscene those opinions might be.

The reason this matters is that one important measure of the health of a democracy is the quality of its public discourse and debate. Politics, after all, is the process by which unlike groups sort out their differences.

“I’m Okay, You’re Okay” sounds harmless enough. But inside the velvet glove of the right wing’s democratic-sounding assertion that we are all entitled to our own opinions and that all opinions should therefore be equally tolerated and respected is the iron fist of an authoritarian mindset that presumes when one group – typically theirs – seeks to demean or marginalize some other group there is not a damn thing the rest of us can do about it but grin and bear it.

On the contrary, the entire justification for freedom of speech in a liberal democracy, and why it is one of our cardinal political values – enshrined in the very First Amendment of our Constitution — is that free speech provides the foundation for open and robust debate, for a marketplace of ideas, for the sifting process of political give-and-take that sorts the wheat of what is true from the chaff of what is false.

Debate defines the mental habits and values — the character — at the core of what Walter Lippmann called the “traditions of civility” which separate Western democratic political institutions from all others that have existed throughout history.

Yet, we know that right wing conservatives do not believe in free and open debate or subscribe to Lippmann’s traditions of civility, or at the end of the day believe in free speech at all for any but themselves and likeminded true believers, because of their hysterical reaction to requirements like the long-dead Fairness Doctrine that do nothing more than guarantee opposing ideas equal time.

What right wing conservatives want in the end, says Bernstein, is not the freedom to speak and compete as participants in a democracy but the freedom to monopolize the means of communication, to proselytize without interruption, to propagandize without rebuttal, to transmit whatever angry, hateful, insulting and offensively anti-social messages they choose without censure.

In this way, conservatives hope the larger society will eventually conform, by a process of relentless repetition and attrition, to their reactionary notions of what a proper society ought to look like.

And so, says Bernstein, “it’s time to call out” Republicans for their belief that “democracy” means giving them “the supposed right to be free from criticism.”

Such “epistemic closure” might be popular inside the “faith-based community’s” closed-information loop, he says, “but it’s a nasty idea that sorts exceptionally badly with democratic politics.”

Thus, to right wing conservatives, it was far less offensive for immigration “expert” Jason Richwine of the Heritage Foundation to call blacks and Hispanics mentally deficient than it was for Richwine’s critics to call him a “racist.”

The mainstreaming of extremism begins with the absurd — and very unconservative assumption — that in some way all ideas are created equal, or that standards do not exist for identifying and ostracizing wrong or deeply offensive ones.

Thus, we are logically led to a conviction popular with conservatives these days that “the accusation of racism is one of the worst things that anyone can call you in public life,” as Richwine himself pleads, for “once that word is out there, it’s very difficult to recover from it, even when it is completely untrue.”

Yet, someone with more imagination than Richwine might imagine even worse things to be called than “racist,” counters Bernstein. “For example, someone could be called a member of an intellectually inferior race, genetically doomed to always be looking up to those races that have superior intelligence. But pointing that out would no doubt violate Richwine’s standards of civilized political discourse.”

The same goes for Christian fundamentalists. With them, calling homosexuality a crime against nature and a sin against God barely registers on their Outrage-o-Meter. What really stings is to call these anti-gay holy-rollers “bigots.” Indeed, it’s the liberal critics of religious anti-gay critics who are the real bigots, according to these right wing fundamentalists, because it’s liberals who are persecuting the devout for offenses no more sinful than defending their Judeo-Christian traditional family values.

Similarly, notes Bernstein, the Republican response to the Democratic rhetoric of a “war on women” wasn’t so much that the substance of Democratic charges was wrong, since Republicans made no effort to offer a point-by-point substantive rebuttal. It was, rather, as one Republican Congressman put it, that the criticism of conservatives itself was “repugnant.”

No wonder the perpetually put-upon Peggy Noonan is always shaking her well-coiffed head and sighing her by now-famous sigh and asking why do President Obama and the Democrats always seem to be picking so many disagreeable fights?

Even more telling, says Bernstein, was Mitch McConnell’s “epic” op-ed in the Washington Post this week, in which McConnell claimed the First Amendment was imperiled by the Obama campaign’s “explicit attacks on groups and other private citizens” in 2012.

How so? Because the Obama campaign published opposition research on big Mitt Romney donors on its website, says Bernstein. There were no claims from Republicans that the information on the website was false. One Romney big-money donor singled out did in fact pour millions of dollars into anti-gay rights crusades.  Neither were their claims that criticism of Republicans was linked in any way to their harassment at the hands of federal agencies in the same way Richard Nixon once ordered the IRS to target those on his “enemies list.”

No, for McConnell, the truly offensive thing about Democratic criticism was that it occurred at all.

For McConnell, such criticism is all part of “the left-wing playbook: Expose your opponents to public view, release the liberal thugs and hope the public pressure or unwanted attention scares them from supporting causes you oppose.”

What McConnell objects to, in short, is the possibility that billionaire businessmen who bankroll Republicans or other far right causes might face retaliation from their customers exercising their own First Amendment rights of free speech and free assembly to organize boycotts of right wing businessmen whose politics or causes they oppose.

That’s what McConnell cannot abide: The idea that the plutocrats he supports — the upper crust, the ruling class, the New American Oligarchy — might in any way be inconvenienced or held accountable through the normal channels of democratic give-and-take for their exercise of political power.

McConnell and fellow plutocrats like Mitt Romney think members of their class ought to be able to pull strings anonymously, surreptitiously, “quietly behind closed doors,” without the public being any the wiser or able to retaliate in any way.

“The First Amendment was written to protect speech that was not popular,” said McConnell, cynically twisting the meaning of one of America’s fundamental democratic rights to suit his own self-serving   purpose, which is to revive a new Gilded Age Plutocracy. “The American people need to remain vigilant against any effort by the powerful to stifle speech.”

That means, as Bernstein points out, keeping speech as anonymous and immune from criticism as possible.

That idea is not only “nuts,” says Bernstein, it is also “deeply anti-democratic.” We should all be careful in democratic politics to avoid questioning other people’s motives, he says. But there is nothing wrong with taking note of whose interests are being served in politics or questioning who benefits from a particular policy.

“Indeed, there’s nothing wrong with the press using those donors as a shorthand way of informing citizens which interests are represented by the various candidates, or for those candidates to make a point of which interests finance their opponents,” he says.

Recent liberal complaints about conservative criticisms have been limited to legitimate concerns about their accuracy, as in the phony idea that 47% of the population is a parasitic class of “takers” who pay no taxes. Liberal complaints of conservative behavior have also focused on their decency, as when Sandra Fluke was slandered as a “slut” for offending right wing talk radio fat man Rush Limbaugh when she testified publicly for birth control benefits under the Affordable Care Act.

Free speech and democracy are inextricably linked, says Bernstein, and so “the Republican delusion” that free speech includes the right to be free from criticism is, therefore, “quite destructive.”

It’s destructive because right wing conservatives think they have the latitude to attack ethnic groups without the risk of being called out for their racist comments, says Bernstein, or to dominate campaigns financially without the risk anyone will notice who really runs the country.

Democracy and secrecy – or silence — don’t mix. But that is what Republicans think they are entitled to under their contorted definition of what “democracy” entails.

It’s long been said that if ever government of, by and for the people were to perish from this earth, it is likely to be done in from within – by those who had grown weary of its disciplines of liberality, disinterestedness and broad-mindedness or found that popular government did not serve their selfish, parochial interests.

That’s why this debate over free speech matters, and why it’s important we understand its meaning. With their dangerous assertion that criticism of conservative ideas imposes an intolerable contraction of their First Amendment rights, political reactionaries like Mitch McConnell have once again unfurled a rich liberal tapestry of individual freedoms, liberties and democratic rights as a cloak for autocracy and authoritarianism.


By: Ted Frier, Open Salon Blog, May 26, 2013

May 27, 2013 Posted by | Democracy, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Putting The Train Wreck On Hold”: Everything Anti-Obamacare Republicans Predicted Is Proving To Be The Opposite Of Reality

The Affordable Care Act, like every landmark piece of legislation in modern times, has faced its share of trials. Getting it through Congress was nearly impossible, and the law was very nearly killed by the Republican appointees on the U.S. Supreme Court.

But with the law now secure and President Obama re-elected, there’s one more major challenge for “Obamacare” to overcome: the implementation hurdle. As we discussed several weeks ago, this is at least as big a hurdle as the others, and more than a few observers have raised the prospect of a “train wreck.” Even those who generally defend the law are worried.

They are, however, a little less worried today. As Matt Yglesias explained, implementation of the law is “fundamentally” going quite well.

The latest evidence comes to us today from California, America’s largest state and one of the states that’s tried the hardest to actually implement Obamacare. As Sarah Kliff explains, their exchanges are getting set up, and it looks like premiums for “silver” and “bronze” plans are both going to be lower than was previously expected. Far from a “train wreck,” in other words, the biggest single set of clients for the program is getting something like a nice, smooth high-speed train ride.

There was also good news from Oregon recently, where insurers that had initially come in with high premium bids are now asking to resubmit with cheaper offerings in the face of competition. And the Affordable Care Act’s goal of slowing the growth in aggregate health expenditures is also coming true.

Yep, at least for now, everything anti-ACA Republicans predicted — on premiums, on competition, on exchanges, on escalating costs — is proving to be the opposite of reality.

Now, because of state-by-state differences, there will be quite a bit of variety in outcomes. If you live in California or another state dominated by Democratic officials, you’ll likely have a very positive impression of how the law is being implemented, and how it benefits you, your family, and your community.

If you live in, say, Texas, you’re likely to have a very different kind of experience.

As Jonathan Cohn explained this morning:

Unfortunately, millions of uninsured and under-insured Americans live in places like Florida and Texas, where there is far less sympathy — and a great deal more hostility — to the idea of Obamacare. It’s entirely possible that the insurance bids in those states will be a lot higher, precisely because state officials there are doing nothing to help and quite a bit to hurt implementation. But if that happens, blame won’t belong with the heath care law or the federal officials in charge of its management. It will belong with the state officials who can’t, or won’t, deliver to their constituents the benefits that California’s officials appear to be providing theirs.

It’s not necessarily an explicitly partisan matter — I’m not saying that Democrats are necessarily better at health care governance. Rather, the point is, Democrats don’t have an ideological axe to grind when it comes to trying to sabotage federal health care law. Rick Perry, however, does.

To be sure, these red-state residents won’t be left out entirely, and they’ll still benefit from all kinds of consumer protections and expanded access that they’ll really appreciate, even if they don’t yet realize the available benefits. But the full benefits of implementation will elude them for a while in ways blue-state residents won’t have to deal with.

Regardless, the news out of California is a bit of a breakthrough, and heartening news for anyone hoping to see the Affordable Care Act succeed. For more on this, also take a look at the reports this morning from Klein, Krugman, and Beutler.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, May 24, 2013

May 27, 2013 Posted by | Affordable Care Act, Republicans | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Not An Isolated Incident”: Washington Bridge Collapse Another Sign That America’s Infrastructure Is In Bad Shape

On Thursday evening, an Interstate 5 bridge over the Skagit River in Washington state collapsed, sending two cars into the water and injuring three people. So far no fatalities have been reported. Authorities don’t yet know what caused the collapse.

Another bridge also collapsed in Texas on Thursday after catching fire. The fire burned too hot for firefighters to put out, so they let it burn. It was a railway bridge over the Colorado river and repairing it could cost $10 million.

The bridge in Washington was listed as “functionally obsolete,” which does not mean it was considered structurally deficient or unsafe, but rather that it was built to standards that are no longer used and may have had inadequate lane widths or vertical clearance. As Yahoo! News reported, the bridge was built in 1955 and had a sufficiency rating of 57.4 out of 100, “well below the statewide average rating of 80.”

Unfortunately, these bridge collapses are not isolated incidents. There are 759 bridges in the state that have a lower sufficiency rating than the one that fell apart. More than 350 bridges in Washington are considered structurally deficient, meaning they require repair or replacement of a component, although are not necessarily considered in danger of collapse. More than 1,500 are considered functionally obsolete.

Overall, one in nine of the country’s bridges are rated structurally deficient by the American Society of Civil Engineer’s yearly report card in American infrastructure. The average age for the nation’s bridges is 42 years. This netted the country a C+ rating on its bridges, which is mediocre. To upgrade all of the deficient ones, the U.S. would need to invest $20.5 billion annually.

Yet only $12.8 billion is being spent on bridge updates currently. The country’s infrastructure only got a total grade of D+, a poor rating. Overall, the country needs to spend $3.6 trillion by 2020 to bring it into the 21st century.

Investment, however, has been moving in the opposite direction. Public spending on infrastructure as a percentage of GDP has dropped dramatically in recent years, falling to the lowest level in two decades, as Joe Weisenthal pointed out. The U.S. is only expected to spend about a third of what the report card calls for by 2020.

While the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, or 2009 stimulus bill, made infrastructure improvements, that money has mostly been used up. But as that package of spending proved, investment in infrastructure not only upgrades roads and bridges to make them safer, it also puts people back to work and helps improve the economy.

President Obama has proposed further stimulus spending on infrastructure, but his proposals have been repeatedly blocked by Republicans in Congress. Yet America’s borrowing costs are extremely low and deficits are shrinking, so there is no time like the present to invest in upgrading our infrastructure.


By: Bryce Covert, Think Progress, May 24, 2013

May 27, 2013 Posted by | Public Safety | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Bleed Until Bankruptcy”: Top Senate Republicans Want To Keep Playing Into Al Qaeda’s Strategy

Back in 2004, in a video addressed to the American people, Al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden described his “bleed until bankruptcy” strategy. “All that we have to do is to send two Mujahedin to the farthest point east to raise a piece of cloth on which is written al-Qaeda in order to make the generals race there to cause America to suffer human economic and political losses without their achieving for it anything of note other than some benefits to their private companies,” bin Laden taunted. “So we are continuing this policy in bleeding America to the point of bankruptcy.”

The twin goals of this strategy were to drain the U.S. of resources by baiting it into expensive, open-ended military interventions like those in Iraq and Afghanistan, with the resulting anger over those interventions causing more people to join Al Qaeda’s cause.

I was reminded of that by these specific remarks from President Obama’s speech on counterterrorism yesterday:

The AUMF is now nearly twelve years old. The Afghan War is coming to an end. Core al Qaeda is a shell of its former self. Groups like AQAP [Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula] must be dealt with, but in the years to come, not every collection of thugs that labels themselves al Qaeda will pose a credible threat to the United States. Unless we discipline our thinking and our actions, we may be drawn into more wars we don’t need to fight, or continue to grant Presidents unbound powers more suited for traditional armed conflicts between nation states. So I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate. And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further. Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue. But this war, like all wars, must end. That’s what history advises. That’s what our democracy demands.

There was a lot to chew on in the president’s speech, and obviously we’ll have to wait and see how much weight the president actually puts behind some of the reforms he suggested, but I think this core passage represents another important shift away from the rhetorical construct of a “Global War on Terror.”

Meanwhile, on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, four of the Senate’s leading hawks — Republican Senators John McCain (AZ), Lindsey Graham (SC), Saxby Chambliss (GA) and Kelly Ayotte (NH) — responded as you might expect to the prospect of the loss of that rhetorical construct, which has proven extremely politically beneficial to hawks over the last decade.

“I believe we are still in a long, drawn-out conflict with Al Qaeda. To somehow argue that Al Qaeda is ‘on the run’ comes from a degree of unreality that, to me, is really incredible,” said McCain, adding: “Al Qaeda’s ‘on the run’ is expanding all over the Middle East from Mali to Yemen and all places in between and to somehow think that we can bring the authorization of the use of military force to a complete closure contradicts the reality of the facts on the ground. Al Qaeda will be with us for a long time.”

“The President’s speech today will be viewed by terrorists as a victory,” Chambliss declared.

Graham took the chance to ding the president on Iraq: “Iraq is a country that went through hell, was inside the 10-yard line, the surge did work and it’s falling apart because the president chose not to leave any American soldiers behind when 10,000 or 12,000 would have made a difference.”

Leaving aside why Graham thinks 10,000 or 12,000 U.S. troops would have made a difference in Iraq when over 100,000 couldn’t stop it from descending into civil war in 2006 (not to mention the tension between claiming to support democracy in Iraq while bashing the president for not working harder to circumvent democracy in Iraq in order to keep U.S. troops there), it’s remarkable that these Congressional leaders essentially want America to keep playing into Al Qaeda’s “bleed until bankruptcy” strategy.


By: Matt Duss, Think Progress, May 24, 2013

May 27, 2013 Posted by | Terrorism | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Arrested Governance”: Do Everything You Can To Sabotage Government To Keep It From Operating Effectively

The Internal Revenue Service was closed today, as employees were furloughed due to sequestration’s budget cuts. Conservatives found this to be an occasion for side-splitting humor; Sarah Palin, for example, tweeted, “The IRS is closed today, feel free to use your phones.” Get it, because the IRS was tapping … um … well, never mind. In any case, today is a reminder that this scandal could be an opportunity for reform that clarifies the law on political and non-political groups, leads to a greater professionalization of the agency, and makes future misconduct less likely. Or it could wind up being just the opposite.

As Kevin Drum reminded us yesterday, one of the low moments of the Gingrich years in Congress was a series of hearings meant to expose IRS wrongdoing, in which horror stories of the agency’s abuse of taxpayers were told to lawmakers eager to hear them. In response, the IRS’s authority was curtailed and its budget slashed. The predictable consequence was less enforcement of tax laws (warming Republicans’ hearts, no doubt), but also an agency that had to do more with less.

If anyone was forced to do more with less, it was the office in Cincinnati, where a small number of poorly trained employees had to process thousands of new applications from groups seeking tax-exempt status after 2010. That isn’t to say there was no wrongdoing, but if you want an agency that does its job well and upholds the highest standards of professionalism, cutting its resources is not the way to get it.

But that could well happen again, and Republicans would be only too happy about it. It would be of a piece with the way they approach so much of what passes for their attempts at governing: Do everything you can to sabotage government and keep it from operating effectively, and then when it falls short, shout “See?!? We told you government can’t do anything right!”


By: Paul Waldman, Contributing Editor, The American Prospect, May 24, 2013

May 27, 2013 Posted by | Internal Revenue Service, Republicans | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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