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Holden Caulfield, the self-described if suspect expert on phoniness in The Catcher in the Rye, would have a field day. Phoniness abounds, shredding a sense of fair play, from predatory lending, Ponzi schemes, gouging credit card companies, greedy medical insurers, insider trading, egregious campaign betrayals, sports steroid usage, mock journalism, doctored government agency reports or disgrace for the west’s most durable institution, the Catholic Church, inadvertently teaching by negative example – how not to deal with its own pedophilia.
Every week breaks new thresholds for backsliding, subterfuge, and hypocrisy. Phoniness undermines hope, especially remaining correlated with wealth and fame. Karl Rove, the master of guile, is revered, with his own soapbox; W., who mouthed his every deception, is a well-heeled stage monkey; and my favorite, one Alberto Gonzales, the amnesiac attorney general who infected our Justice Dept. with criminal schemes, well, okay, he’s a shyster lawyer having trouble finding work.
Let me recognize the rare honest commentators: Bill Moyers, John Dean, Bruce Fein, Frank Rich, Glenn Greenwald, Jim Hightower, Amy Goodman and three or four others I neglect. No doubt a dozen or two politicians still boast insides that match outsides, like Ron Paul, Russ Feingold, Dennis Kucinich (mostly), Carl Levin, and whatever your favorite pick. Heroes don’t have to be right or prescient not to be phonies, just independent, courageously mavericky voices who tell the truth almost all of the time, believe in evidence, reason, democracy, majority rule, elections and precedence.
Which brings us to desperado John McCain, reviled just when he deserves belated credit for admitting he’s a world-class flimflammer. “Never a maverick, not me,” comes the cry to get re-elected. What about daily reminders with that fellow maverick on the campaign trail? Some other guy titled McCain’s autobiography, Worth Fighting For: The Education of an American Maverick. Okay, delete “maverick,” not worth fighting for. Insert “truthful, ruthless phony.” Oh, the horror of truthiness.
Becker’s Law: Honesty vs. Inflation
Today’s thesis: any culture risks disaster when the total sum of its honest souls number less than the rate of inflation, around 2%. That means, for example, the dominant, winning party is duty-bound to push what its campaigns promised. Wasn’t the last election about rejecting “politics as usual,” when Bush got re-elected for being a phony war president? Would an upstart, non-veteran black man easily beat a war hero if Bush and Cheney hadn’t poisoned the GOP well?
Beyond politics, phoniness dominates organized religion, business, sports, and the media, even scientists who mess with global warming numbers. It turns out we have “death panels,” but intellectual and moral ones – entrenched mindsets that serve not telling the truth, that reward manipulation, discredited ideology, and con artists like Sarah Palin or Michael Steele. Any economic system paying Glenn Beck $32 million dollars, or Rush Limbaugh $400 million, while banishing Bill Moyers, is committing intellectual suicide, awash in propaganda to match its phony wars.
Any system that glorifies its most unreliable guides – whether Robert Rubin on capitalism or Dick Cheney on “wars against terrorism,” or the Vatican on pedophilia – invites crises and upheaval. Bin Laden can only dream of nuclear devices surpassing the debacle of the conspiracy of Wall Street dunces grabbing fat bonuses by killing the golden goose. 9/11 impeded growth for months; rapacious capitalists have sent it reeling for a decade, perhaps a whole generation, with worldwide ripples terrorism can’t match. And if the original crime by bankers isn’t enough, what followed were threats, then blackmailing, and now new Goldman Sachs bonuses, S.E.C. lawsuits be damned.
Best and Brightest Eating Their Own?
What more damage can casino capitalism, as initiated by Rubin by displacing Glass-Stiegal with derivative gambles, do to real lives and real people, to blunted social and economic mobility, or profitable, humane breakthroughs? Can any cynical warmonger like Cheney, whose batting average for accuracy matches his age, not doom confidence in politics long after he’s silent? Can any pope, especially today’s unappealing stand-in for dis-enlightenment, do more damage to his benumbed followers or besieged church than this one, stonewalling on behalf of pedophiles and protectors? The mind reels.
A little good news. However he parses his truth, President Obama doesn’t stand a chance against fringe phonies. Top Republicans spew out more garbage, and more logical fallacies, than a waste pickup at the end of the day. The Rethugicans are so bad, just reverse whatever Beck or Limbaugh or Palin say and truth comes out of the darkness. Yesterday Senator McConnell claimed Obama is “politicizing” financial reform. Egad. Nothing W. said about invading Iraq was logically defensible, ignoring oil or geopolitics or neo-con ideology about imperial dominance.
That Mr. Obama is not about systemic change, or soon changing conditions for malnourished children, the foreclosed, uninsured or jobless, is easy to show. Promised transparency is spotty at best, with national security and secrecy invoked more often than Bush-Cheney, conceded as radical Constitutional subversives. Egads again. Last week the Obama Justice Dept. indicted an NASA whistle blower (against Bush abuses) and no outrage has stopped the assassination of American citizens without due process, even trials in absentia. Suspending habeas corpus, our most essential private right against government seizure, invokes Civil War excesses. Triple egads.
94% Oppose Phony Afghan War
Obama isn’t W.’s twin, and he will positively impact income disparity, make less ideological court picks, improve trade and foreign relations. But his justification for Iraq or Afghanistan – serving “democracy” or national security – are bogus, Bush-like phony baloney. This week a U.S. Army survey revealed 94% Afghans support negotiating with the Taliban. Plus, 85% of locals view “insurgents” as “our Afghan brothers,” making strongman Karzai hardly crazy when threatening alliances with our declared enemy. Imagine 94% anywhere favoring peace talks – and the war droning on because Yankee “liberators” across the globe seek more “progress.”
Religion fares no better: the disgraced Catholic hierarchy (isn’t that the perfect word?) hardly lets other religious leaders off the hook. Where’s the culpability when non-Catholic ministers don’t indict misbehavior, at the least demonstrate homosexuality is a really phony dodge. Why so little protest against wrong endless wars in the wrong place? Where are educators shouting what disasters occur when public education funding is crushed? Wouldn’t superior high school instruction on logical fallacies have saved all of us from Tea Party stupidity demanding less taxes but higher Medicare benefits? Further, where are national leaders – university presidents, executives, top scientists – speaking out against bankrupting military spending year after year, connecting as did Martin Luther King the booming war machine with other entrenched oppression?
The South Falls Again
The flap over the “Confederate History Month” only reinforces truly high-level phoniness as rightwing revisionism. The same charlatans who distort health insurance reform (“the death of freedom,” per one House numbskull) now fantasize what wasn’t even a Civil War (no, a glorious “war between the states”) barely about slavery. Locks in with Tea Party racism and scapegoating. This GOP pandering to Confederate wingnuts, who distort open insurrection against the Union as “Northern aggression,” wins this week’s prize for off-the-cliff phoniness.
Perhaps in some alternative universe the Confederacy didn’t attack first, then won, then established its own separate (but equal) nation, and fulfilled its liberation against an oppressive north. If the South wanted to split away, the Constitution provided means for change. But that would have mandated the logic and reason of hard political work, defending the indefensible horror of slavery and plantation life. When the inexorable logic of history and human dignity stand in your way, cling to old-time Dixie religion and guns and fire away, turning complex geo-political fights into our worse catastrophe, bar none. What didn’t work for these earlier anti-democratic rebels who defied majority rule – brute force and bloody ignorance – isn’t working for today’s terrorists, domestic and foreign, despite the threats.
How long will it take for “confederate” to mean what it denotes: a phony, a co-conspirator or partner in crime? With predictably more gestures of baseless political fraud like this one, historians won’t struggle capturing our era: “A Pageant of Phoniness.”