Tag Archives: Class Warfare

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Die, Celebrities, Die

Lena Dunham and Emily Nussbaum at the New Yorker festival

No-Talent Hacks Suck Up Millions, Degrade Culture

I hate celebrities.

Not in the particular. Many rich and famous people got that way by working hard, being talented and getting lucky.

Let me take that back. I do hate them in the particular.

Since two out of three of the required ingredients for success in our society, talent and luck, are beyond our control, it follows that no one deserves wealth or fame. But that’s not how we treat celebrities.

We worship them.

They’re in a class above, like gods. We fawn over them and gossip about them.

We’re even sad — really, truly grief-struck — when they die!

Like a dysfunctional relationship, all the love flows unidirectionally, from us to them. Insulated in first class, consulting with their private bankers and safe behind the guardbooths of their gated communities, they don’t care about us; they don’t know about us. They don’t give a crap and are, therefore, the sane ones.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with noticing achievements — when they result from moxie and grit. A person who, through effort and will (not luck or talent or some other accident of birth), transcends the norm to do something amazing, is worthy of celebration. The average passerby who runs into a burning building to save someone is a hero; a firefighter who draws a paycheck, received training and consciously chose the job is not.

Trouble arises when, as in America today, what a citizen has achieved by her own effort and courage is dwarfed by the tsunami of adulation she receives. Why do cable news anchorpeople end interviews with military generals by thanking them “for their service”? As with the firefighters, joining the army is a job. They chose it. There is nothing admirable about such service; to the contrary, they have enlisted as professional assassins in an institution that hasn’t engaged in a justifiable killing in three-quarters of a century. But even if you don’t feel that way (which means you do not live in Pakistan), these desk jockeys don’t fight. The biggest dangers they face are paper cuts and office politics. Thank them for their service? Screw that.

TV generals are celebrities. They are famous because The System has somehow elevated them above all others; we pay attention simply because they are famous.

At this writing, the gatekeepers of the media have decided that it is time for you to care deeply, not about something you should care about (homelessness, climate change, the class divide, mass species extinction, bands that are good but that you’ll never hear about), but the imminent birth of the Royal Baby of England to Prince Bill and Princess Kate.

“The royal couple can’t do anything else but wait,” we are told. Also: “the world [is] waiting.” Royal baby hype, when you think about it — but who has time? — is a Dagwood sandwich of absurdity. We’re not British and we really really really didn’t/don’t want to be. Even in the U.K., only a few dozen psychotic “royal watcher” dorks are paying attention. And the main takeaway — that “the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge’s baby will one day be Head of the Armed Forces, Supreme Governor of the Church of England, head of state of 16 countries and possibly if the role is maintained in the future, Head of the Commonwealth which covers 54 nations across the world and two billion citizens” — is belied by existence of one Prince Charles, age 64, still no closer to the throne since Queen Liz refuses to kick off. Poor Chuck! “I’ll run out of time soon. I shall have snuffed it if I’m not careful,” he confided last year. Once he too was a Royal Baby.

The Royal Baby is the ultimate celebrity — before having drawn a breath, (s)he has been dubbed Someone You’re Supposed to Know and Care About, and thus guaranteed a life of ease.

One almost longs for a miscarriage.

Everywhere you look, celebrities cash in — like that Los Angeles billboard icon Angelyne, for being famous for being famous. I wish they would all die. I wish the idea of celebrity would die.

Like Lena Dunham, who created the HBO show “Girls.” If Hades, God of the Underworld is reading, I would happily trade her in for the late investigative journalist Michael Hastings. Lena drives her burning car into a wall, Michael comes back, it’s all good. (Oh, Lord, now I’m doing it — intimatizing celebs as if I knew them, calling them by their first names.)

So Random House, which routinely rejects brilliant manuscripts by authors who would have been thrilled to have landed $35,000, bought her upcoming collection of “personal essays about sex, mortality and food” for $3.5 million.

Dunham is 26. Maybe she can write, but there’s no way to tell that from her show, which has the distinction of being the only truly dreadful show HBO has ever aired — awful writing, lame acting, insipid plots. Why is Random paying her one hundred advances for one book? Why did HBO sign her? Why does The New York Times cover her show so relentlessly?

Well, as The Guardian notes: “Dunham’s parents are both well-known members of the art world and the girls of Girls are all children of famous parents. Zosia Mamet (Shoshanna) is the daughter of playwright David Mamet, Jemima Kirke (Jessa) is the daughter of former Bad Company drummer Simon Kirke and Allison Williams (Marnie) is the daughter of newscaster Brian Williams.”

As with the Royal Baby, heredity more than makes up for lack of talent.

Magazine covers: they run what sells, what sells is what’s famous, what’s famous is celebrity. The covers make the celebrities even more famous. Which makes everyone else more obscure.

Take, for example, the Clinton family.

To Guantánamo, ideally.

First there’s Bill, whose presidency stands as a memorial to squandered opportunity: screwed up healthcare, sucked up to Republicans and got himself impeached after pushing through two significant policy changes — NAFTA and “ending welfare as we know it” — that screwed millions of Americans. Oh, and didn’t leave behind a single new social program despite presiding over the Internet-fueled Biggest Boom of All Time.

Unlike, say, Jimmy Carter, Bill hasn’t done much as ex-president either. Yet he’s making bank as a speaker: $13.4 million in 2012 alone.

What does Bill have to say that’s worth so much money? Nothing. I’ve seen him speak several times. He’s pretty boring. “The work he does around the world has given him a very unique perspective,” claims Vancouver-based communications exec Norman Stowe. “Not just a former president’s perspective, but also the very unique perspective from his philanthropic work.”

Bullshit. People pay to see Bill because he’s famous. Now he’s famous for earning a lot of money for speaking. Which makes more people want to pay him.

Clinton collected $500,000 for yapping at ex-Israeli President Shimon Peres’ 90th birthday party. Assuming he would have lived through them, Peres could have had 100 first-rate experts on a variety of important subjects speak to him for the same amount.

Sick.

Now his wife Hillary is cashing in on the lecture circuit. Hillary Clinton’s main accomplishment is having married Bill. And putting up with him. And daughter Chelsea isn’t far behind. Three famous Clintons with nothing to say, no accomplishments to point to, $100 million richer just for being famous.

Does it matter? You bet. Celebrities suck the air out of the room, depriving more important issues, and the people who advocate for them, from media attention and thus an audience. They collect money, as with those book advances, that would do society a lot more good in more hands. By attracting so much attention, by being so insipid and famous at the same time, they warp our values and our politics.

What to do instead? Quentin Tarantino has it right. He plucks talented actors out of obscurity and elevates them. Christoph Waltz’s brilliant turns as a sadistic SS officer in “Inglorious Basterds” and as a dangerous dentist and bounty hunter in “Django Unchained” rate as some of the best performances in cinema of the last few years.

Thank God, no one is putting Waltz on any magazine covers. Yet.

(Ted Rall’s website is rall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in 2014 by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

With Recoveries Like These

The bottom 99% of wage earners in the United States lost 0.4% of their income between 2009 and 2011. The top 1% gained 11.2%. So the one percent grabbed 121% of the income gains from the so-called recovery. Can America afford much more recovery like this?

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Stuck

Why Can’t the U.S. Move Forward?

“Your dearest wish is for our state structure and ideological system never to change, to remain as they are for centuries. But history is not like that. Every system either finds away to develop or else collapses.” Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote that in 1974, in his famous “Letter to the Soviet Leaders.” But it could just as easily be addressed to President Obama, Congress, members of the media, corporate chiefs, and others who lead and maintain the power structure in the United States.

The United States is as ossified as the USSR was before its collapse.

Shortly after the start of the financial meltdown which began in 2009, polls found American citizens disgusted with the capitalist system. Tens of millions said they would prefer socialism. When the Occupy Wall Street movement took off in 2011, mainstream pundits began using the “R” word, revolution – but only to ask a question with a predetermined answer. Regime change, they said, was neither desirable nor possible.

Too bad.

We used to be a growing country. Not any more. We used to welcome new states into the Union. It’s been 53 years since we added a star to Old Glory; Puerto Rican statehood isn’t a subject of serious consideration. We used to amend the Constitution to suit changing mores. The last major amendment, granting the vote to 18-year-olds, was ratified in 1971. Apparently equal rights for women is too much to ask.

We don’t build anymore. Think about infrastructure. The last major public works project in U.S. history was the Interstate Highway System, built in the 1950s – not coincidentally when the economy was booming.

Our political system is ossified too. The massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut prompted calls for tighter gun control. But nobody – not even liberals, the traditional enemies of gun rights – argued for getting rid of the Second Amendment which, depending on your interpretation of the prefatory comma, allows us to join a militia or carry guns in our waistbands. “I have no intention of taking away folks’ guns,” President Obama has said.

Well, why not? Personally, I’m against gun control and I’m glad that very little is going to change. Yet I find it disturbing that the Second Amendment is considered sacrosanct, even by the 24% of Americans who want to ban handguns. Pointing out that the country is very different now than it was in 1789 seems reasonable. Maybe we don’t need guns any more. A smart country, one willing to weigh the alternatives when trying to solve a problem, should be able to discuss the possibility of repealing the Second Amendment.

Look at our national political dialogue, which ranges from center-right (Democrat) to right (Republican). Whole strains of ideology – communist, socialist, nationalist, libertarian – are off the table. We pretend most of the ideological spectrum doesn’t exist. Not smart.

Our national unwillingness and/or inability to have a wide-ranging debate reminds me of New York City, where I have lived for many years. There are no public restrooms. Restaurants and other businesses post “Restrooms for Customers Only” signs on their doors. Yet peeing outside is against the law; in fact, it’s public exposure, a sex offense that can land you on a Megan’s Law-style pervert registry. So where are you supposed to go?

A child could tell you this is insane. You know what’s even more insane? That we New Yorkers don’t even talk about it. Like Germans on their way to work in the early 1940s, wondering what that funny smell coming from the camp down the road might be coming from, we pretend that this is all perfectly normal.

As a recent New York Times article by Louis Seidman pointed out, we have foolishly elevated the Constitution to the status of a sacred text, fetishizing a supposedly “living document” that in truth has been dead for years. (Congress, for example, has the sole right to start wars. President Bush ignored the U.S. Supreme Court’s decisions concerning POWs at Guantánamo. And so on.) The result, Seidman argues, is endless petty bickering about what the meaning of “is” is – and what that stupid comma was supposed to be for.

The question for any society is not how to figure out how to conform ourselves to rules and assumptions laid down by our forebears, but to come up with the smartest solutions to our problems and the best systems to make things run smoothly now and in the future. If we were revolutionaries, if we were inventing the United States from scratch, would we create the Electoral College? Doubtful.

The people of the United States are changing all the time, but the United States government and power structure are stuck. The political “culture wars” date to the 1960s and 1980s. Our military thinks the Cold War is still going on.

Our economy reflects our national congealing.

Once a “land of opportunity,” the U.S. is now anything but. If you’re born into a poor family, your chances of elevating yourself into the middle or upper class are lower in America than in other industrialized countries. “It’s becoming conventional wisdom that the U.S. does not have as much mobility as most other advanced countries,” says economist Isabel Sawhill of the Brookings Institution. “I don’t think you’ll find too many people who will argue with that.” Aside from the unfairness and the instability caused by inequality and lack of social mobility, we’re losing the talents of tens of millions of Americans who will never be able to live up to their potential, share their ideas and contribute to the making of a more perfect union.

We haven’t had a major social or political revolution since the 1960s. It’s been too long. Like the Soviet Union, we must develop – scrapping long-held assumptions and reconsidering everything from scratch – or collapse.

I think we’re headed toward collapse.

(Ted Rall’s website is tedrall.com. His book “After We Kill You, We Will Welcome You Back As Honored Guests: Unembedded in Afghanistan” will be released in November by Farrar, Straus & Giroux.)

COPYRIGHT 2013 TED RALL

Bestiary of the American Class System

In the fiscal cliff deal, congressional Republicans and Democrats agreed not to raise taxes on all Americans earning under $400,000 a year – in other words, everyone gets a tax cut except the top 0.5% of income earners. Even if you are an unmarried couple earning $800,000 a year, you qualify for a so-called “middle class tax cut.” In what country could someone earning that kind of money he considered middle-class? Only in the United States in the year 2013. Everybody is middle-class, from the homeless to the middle classy. As for those who earn over $800,000 a year as an unmarried couple or $400,000 as an individual, well, hell, we never see them anyway.

Austerity Made Simple

All over the world, and now here in the United States with the so-called “fiscal cliff” accounting crisis, ordinary people are being told that they must tighten their belts. Why? In order to pay the bills of wealthy elite individuals and corporations that enjoyed almost all of the profits of the boom times and indeed are continuing to live lavishly today.

Birth of the Tax Former Movement

Mitt Romney releases part of his 2010 tax returns, but not 2011 or previous years. What is he hiding? When you make $22 million a year, the odds are…a lot.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Our Politicians Need an Education

Why Both Democrats and Republicans Miss the Big Picture

Public education is mirroring American society overall: a tiny island of haves surrounded by a vast ocean of have-nots.

For worried parents and students, the good news is that spending on public education has become a campaign issue. Mitt Romney is pushing a warmed-over version of the old GOP school voucher scheme, “school choice.” The trouble with vouchers, experts say (and common sense supports), is that allowing parents to vote with their feet by withdrawing their kids from “failing schools” deprives cash-starved schools of more funds, leading to a death cycle—a “winner takes all” sweepstakes that widens the gap between the best and worst schools. Critics—liberals and libertarians—also dislike vouchers because they allow the transfer of public tax dollars into the coffers of private schools, many of which have religious, non-secular curricula unaccountable to regulators.

Romney recently attacked President Obama: “He says we need more firemen, more policemen, more teachers. Did he not get the message of [the failed recall of the union-busting governor of] Wisconsin?”

“I would suggest [Romney is] living on a different planet if he thinks that’s a prescription for a better planet,” shot back Obama strategist David Axelrod.

Both parties are missing the mark, the Republicans more than the Democrats. Republicans want to gut public schools by slashing budgets that will lead to bigger class sizes, which will reduce the individual attention dedicated to teaching each student. Democrats rightly oppose educational austerity, but are running a lame defense rather than aggressively promoting positive ideas to improve the system. Both parties are too interested in weakening unions and grading teacher performance with endless tests, and not enough in raising salaries so teaching attracts the brightest college graduates. Not even the Democrats are calling for big spending increases on education.

Is the system really in crisis? Yes, said respondents to a 2011 Gallup-Phi Delta Kappa poll, which found that only 22 percent approved of the state of public education in the U.S. The number one problem? Not enough funding, say voters.

Millions of parents whose opinion of their local public system is so dim that they spend tens of thousands of dollars a year on private school tuition and—in competitive cities like New York City, force their kids to endure a grueling application process.

According to one of the world’s leading experts on comparing public school systems, Andreas Schleicher of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the U.S. is falling rapidly behind other countries. In Canada, he told a 2010 Congressional inquiry, an average 15-year-old ahead is a full year ahead his or her American counterpart. The U.S. high-school completion rate is ranked 25th out of the 30 OECD countries.

The elephant in the room, the idea neither party is willing to consider, is to replace localized control of education—funding, administration and curricula—with centralized federal control, as is common in Europe and around the world.

“America’s system of standards, curriculums and testing controlled by states and local districts with a heavy overlay of federal rules is a ‘quite unique’ mix of decentralization and central control,” The New York Times paraphrased Schleicher’s testimony. “More successful nations, he said, maintain central control over standards and curriculum, but give local schools more freedom from regulation, he said.”

Why run public schools out of Washington? The advantages are obvious. When schools in rich districts get the same resource allocation per student as those in poor ones, influential voters among the upper and middle classes tend to push for increased spending of education. Centralized control also eliminates embarrassing situations like when the Kansas School Board eliminated teaching evolution in its schools, effectively reducing standards.

A streamlined curriculum creates smarter students. It’s easier for Americans, who live in a highly mobile society, to transfer their children midyear from school to school, when a school in Peoria teaches the same math lesson the same week as one in Honolulu. Many students, especially among the working poor, suffer lower grades due to transiency.

Of course, true education reform would need to abolish the ability of wealthier parents to opt out of the public school system. That means banning private education and the “separate but equal” class segregation we see today, particularly in big cities, and integrating the 5.3 million kids (just under 10 percent of the total) in private primary and secondary schools into their local public systems. Decades after forced bussing, many students attend schools as racially separated as those of the Jim Crow era. The New York Times found that 650 out of New York’s 1700 public schools have student bodies composed at least 70 percent of one race—this in a city with extremely diverse demographics.

If we’re to live in a true democracy, all of our kids have to attend the same schools.

(Ted Rall’s new book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt.” His website is tedrall.com. This column originally appeared at MSNBC.com)

(C) 2012 TED RALL, ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Los Angeles Times Cartoon: Cal State Presidents Cash In

I draw cartoons for The Los Angeles Times. This week’s offering: Cal State trustees have voted to hire two new presidents at high salaries, 10% more than their predecessors. Meanwhile, students face class cancellations and budget cuts.

SYNDICATED COLUMN: Handicapped

Conventional Wisdom Is Wrong. It’s Romney’s To Lose.

Catching Barack Obama in a rare moment of candor, an open mic found the president confiding to his Russian counterpart that he expects to win this fall. “This is my last election,” he told Russian President Dmitry Medvedev.

Last, yes. But I wouldn’t bet on Obama winning.

The corporate pundit class has largely conceded the general election to Obama, already looking ahead to 2016. The mainstreamers have their reasons. Their analysis is based on good, solid, reasonable (inside the box) logic. All things considered, however, I would (and have) put my money on Mitt Romney this fall.

This isn’t wishful thinking. I voted for Obama last time and wanted him to succeed. He failed. His accomplishments have been few and have amounted to sellouts to the right. Even so, the prospect of watching Mitt Romney move into the White House fills me with as much joy as an appointment for a colonoscopy. And I think he’s going to win.

For me, the D vs. R horserace is a parlor game with minor ramifications for our daily lives. Whichever corporate party wins, unemployment and underemployment will continue to worsen, income disparity will widen, and most of our taxes will fund the worst approach to international affairs since a former Austrian corporal blew out his brains out in a bunker under Berlin.

Thanks to the Occupy movement, real politics is back where it belongs—in the streets. That’s what I’ll be watching and working. With a lot of luck (and even more pepper spray) this will be a year of revolution rather than more electoral devolution.

Revolution is inevitable. But we don’t know when it’s coming. So the 2012 campaign may still matter. Besides, handicapping elections is a game I enjoy and am good at. During 17 years of syndication my pick to win has only lost once (for the 2004 Democratic nomination). So, on the off chance that you’re one of those who still cares about our husk of a democracy, who hangs on every meaningless development of a political process devoid of politics—or you’re just a betting person, here’s my thinking.

Barring an assassination or a scandal, Mitt Romney will be the Republican nominee.

Obama currently leads Romney by about four to five points. But that’s not nearly enough of a lead to carry him to November. History shows that Republican nominees steadily increase in popularity throughout the summer and fall of an election year.

In April 2004, for example, John Kerry led George W. Bush by eight points. But Swift Boating erased that lead, and then some.

In order to win, a successful Democratic nominee has to begin with a big margin. That early lead must be large enough to wind up in the black, after months of being whittled away, when the votes get counted in November. I can’t see Obama pulling far enough ahead soon.

Incumbency is a huge advantage. If the election were held tomorrow, Obama would prevail. But the election is not being held tomorrow. It’s being held in November.

By the time they head to the polls this fall, voters’ brains will be drowning in months of hundreds of millions of dollars of slick, demographically targeted, pro-Romney attack ads. Republican campaigns are more effective at this sort of thing, and as Newt Gingrich and Rick Santorum can attest, Romney’s consultants pull no punches. Obama’s current lead will be a faded memory.

Every political campaign comes down to a contest of narratives. In 2008 Obama developed an effective sales pitch: Hope and Change for a nation exhausted by eight years of Bush, 9/11, war, taking off your shoes at the airport, and a full-fledged global economic crisis to boot. Obama’s advisers turned his biggest weaknesses—his inexperience, race, unusual name and foreign background—into assets. Here was a new kind of president. Just the guy to lead us out of the Bad Old Days into something better. McCain-Palin’s narrative—a cranky old ex-POW paired with a zany housewife-gone-wild—didn’t stand a chance.

This year the narratives favor Romney.

Romney is already pointing to the biggest issue on people’s minds, the economy, and claiming that his background as a turnaround artist qualifies him to fix what ails us. His prescriptions are Republican boilerplate, vague and counterproductive, but at least he’s doing something Obama hasn’t—talking a lot about creating jobs. Voters prefer useless attentiveness to calm, steady golfing (Obama’s approach). And—despite its illogic—they like the run-government-like-a-business narrative (c.f. Ross Perot, the Bushes).

Obama is boxed in by three-plus years of inaction on, well, pretty much everything. He’ll argue that he’ll be able to “finish the job” during a second term, but that’s a tough sell when you haven’t tried to start the job—in 2009, when Democrats had huge majorities in both houses of Congress. His single signature accomplishment, healthcare reform, is disliked by two-thirds of the electorate. The recent “good news” on the economy has been either insignificant (net positive job creation of 100,000 per month for two months, less than one-tenth of one percent of the 25 million jobs needed) or falsified (discouraged workers no longer counted as unemployed).

Despite what Obama tells them, Americans know things are still getting worse. Similarly, Obama’s recent, feeble, impotent rhetorical attempts to shore up his support among his Democratic Party’s disappointed liberal base will probably not generate enough enthusiasm to counter other factors that favor Romney.

You can’t vote for the first African-American president twice. Unless he picks a woman as vice president, a vote for Obama will be a vote for the same-old, same-old. The history-making thrill is gone.

At this writing the Republican Party appears to be in disarray. No doubt, Romney is emerging from the primaries battered and bruised. His awkward and demented soundbite stylings (“corporations are people,” “the trees are the right height”) will provide fodder for countless YouTube parodies. But Romney hasn’t been damaged as much as the official political class seems to think.

Republicans are a remarkably loyal bunch. United by their many hatreds (liberals, blacks, gays, poor people, Mexicans, Muslims, foreigners, etc.), they will set aside their comparatively low simmer of anti-Mormon bigotry this fall. Picking a standard-issue white Anglo Christianist thug as veep will cinch the deal.

The GOP enjoys a huge fundraising advantage, especially via the new-fangled SuperPACs. Romney has raised $74 million against $151 million for Obama, but look for that ratio to flip after he locks up the nomination. Cue those vicious, potent ads mentioned above.

About the only major factor working for Obama is the presidential debates. Romney doesn’t stand a chance against the cool, articulate Obama.

Of course, it’s a long way to November. A lot can happen. It’s very possible for Obama to win. But that’s not how it looks now.

(Ted Rall’s next book is “The Book of Obama: How We Went From Hope and Change to the Age of Revolt,” out May 22. His website is tedrall.com.)