Sunday, January 23, 2011


Turning Point

By Reginald Johnson

January 23, 2011

The next few months may be a turning point for this country.

What’s at stake is whether America maintains a social compact between the government and the people or whether that compact is destroyed.

The compact is what was created in the New Deal in the 1930s --- in the form of Social Security ---- and in the 1960s in the form of Medicare and Medicaid. There’s other parts of the compact, such as the commitment to provide support for housing and education programs, but Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid are the main ones.

These programs, while not perfect, have provided vital services and support for hundreds of millions of people. Social Security provides retirement income which many people would not otherwise have. Medicare and Medicaid provide health insurance coverage for millions of people who similarly would not have any coverage if these programs didn’t exist.

If you research back newspaper and magazine articles you would find horror stories about what old people in this country used to go through when there was no income support for the elderly, or government-funded medical services. Or what poor people endured without subsidized medical care.

A lot of folks suffered mightily and died early.

So these programs, such as Social Security, represented an advance for our society.

But now the social compact is under attack. Conservatives, who have never liked the New Deal and Kennedy-Johnson-era social programs and have tried to dismantle them before, are barking at the door again. Backed by big business, the right insists the programs cost too much and add to our debt. They also claim that the government shouldn’t be helping people; everything should be done by the private sector. This of course, is an absurd and backwards notion.

Unfortunately, the right wing has a chance to reach its goal this time. That’s because we have a weak president who --- despite his prior claims about wanting to defend Social Security and Medicare --- is willing to consider changes that will begin the process of undoing these programs. Some of the proposed changes involve raising the retirement age and slashing cost of living increases in Social Security as well as cutting benefits in Medicare and Medicaid. This is all being contemplated in the name of reducing our national debt, which is up around $14 trillion or something.

Raising the retirement age to say, 70, (which is being talked about) would effectively put Social Security benefits out of reach for many, since a good number of the potential beneficiaries will die before being able to collect. Reducing benefits and funding for Medicare and Medicaid would also be disastrous, since these programs are already underfunded. Many doctors right now are rejecting Medicare because the reimbursement rates are too low.

Some of the cost-cutting proposals were discussed by Obama’s deficit reduction commission last fall. Though that commission failed to reach a consensus on recommendations for spending cuts, word is Obama will go ahead anyway and call for entitlement cuts in his State of the Union address Tuesday night.

After that, who knows?

Republicans control the House. Many in the GOP, along with centrist Democrats, might support Social Security/Medicare cuts, amid scare mongering in the media about how big deficits threaten the economy. Ditto for the Senate.

So there could be support for this. That is, unless there is a very strong public reaction against it. Here’s the good news: polls indicate that while people are concerned about deficit reduction, they really don’t want cuts in Social Security and Medicare.

A recent New York Times/CBS poll show that a majority of Americans said they’re against the program cuts, and instead would like to see rollbacks in the military budget. A poll of Democracy Corps/Campaign for America’s Future also showed that while there was some support for deficit reduction, people don’t like the social cuts and want more emphasis on job creation and economic growth.

In an article in the Huffington Post, RJ Eskow of The Campaign for America’s Future said if Obama tacks to the political right and stresses deficit reduction for the rest of his term, it will be harmful for many Americans and politically dangerous. “The president’s in danger of moving in a direction that will lose everybody he needs,” he said, commenting on the poll. Pointing to a loss of support from youth and union households, among other groups, Eskow said that “Literally every demographic group he and his party needs will be alienated by a right-leaning set of policies.”

While the news is bleak on Obama’s direction on programs like Social Security, there’s also a moment of opportunity for the left. This is a time when progressives can jump on this issue and rally not only many Democrats, but independents and even some Tea Party people ( I know that will require a lot of work, but it can be done) to a wider fightback. There’s potential for a broad new political coalition.

A key part of building that coalition will be to educate people as to the real causes of the deficit. It’s not spending on social programs like Medicare and certainly not Social Security, which is funded entirely by workers and employers. Instead the debt is driven by the trillions being spent on the military budget, wars overseas and Wall Street bailouts together with revenue shortfalls caused by lavish tax breaks for the rich and big corporations.

Wednesday, January 19, 2011


Uncivil Discourse

By Reginald Johnson

Jan. 19, 2011

Following the horrific shootings in Arizona of Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords and several others, there’s been calls that both the left and the right need to tamp down harsh and “extremist” rhetoric.

President Obama and others say that we need a more civil public discourse, and “make sure that we are talking to each other in a way that heals, not a way that wounds.”

Some have said the angry rhetoric from politicians and pundits in recent years has fueled an atmosphere of hate, and may have helped push unstable individuals, such as the accused Arizona gunman Jared Loughner, over the edge to act in a violent manner. Loughner had reportedly been targeting Giffords for political reasons, though it isn’t entirely clear.

I agree that extremist and hate-filled rhetoric has an effect on people, and has to be condemned.

But I reject the false equivalency of saying that both the left and right are equally to blame for today’s poisoned political atmosphere. Not so.

In recent years it’s clear politicians and pundits on the right have been engaging in hate speech --- through their demonizing and scapegoating of liberals, gays, immigrants, intellectuals and doctors who provide abortions. In many instances, right-wingers have, either explicitly or implicitly, urged their followers to engage in acts of violence towards those they don’t like.

I haven’t seen anything from pundits or politicos on the left that compares with this pattern of irresponsible language and hate rhetoric on the right.

Let’s look at just a few examples concerning actions or comments by right-wingers. Last year, Republican Sarah Palin had her website put up a map with gunsight crosshairs over the districts with congress members she wanted removed. One of those was that of Giffords, a Democratic congresswoman from the Tucson area of Arizona.

Moreover, on a Twitter posting last year, Palin had urged her followers, “Don’t retreat, Instead, RELOAD!”

Or consider Glenn Beck, the wild commentator of the right who has a nightly show on FOX network, a show which reaches millions of people. This man is truly scary. He spends his time every night demonizing people on the left --- “progressives” --- for being a threat to the nation. They’re evil and subversive, he says, and you gotta watch ‘em. He seems to be taking a playbook from the 1950s demagogue, Senator Joe McCarthy, who made a career of labeling anyone left of center a “communist,” and destroyed hundreds of lives in the process.

Recently, Beck has taken to repeatedly accusing noted political science professor, Frances Fox Piven, of trying to bring down the American economic system through her writings about mobilizing the poor and strengthening welfare rights. He even held Piven in part responsible for the Arizona killings. Bizarre. But unfortunately, people listen to this junk or read it in his on-line column, “The Blaze.”

Beck’s rants usually stop short of openly advocating violence against opponents but his constant vilification of individuals clearly engenders anger and resentment among his followers, to the point where they threaten violence. Recently some readers writing comments in “The Blaze” said they would shoot Piven or blow up her house, according to a report on Democracy Now. The messages were not removed from the site.

In some cases, Beck himself has been explicit in calling for violence. “Drive a stake through the heart of the bloodsuckers,” was one comment reported in a book by Dana Millbank of the Washington Post.

There’s many other examples of right-wing pundits and politicos, particularly on FOX, who use the language of violence and vilification. Bill O’Reilly recently said that Millbank should be “decapitated” due to the reporter’s criticism of FOX’s election night coverage. O’Reilly said later that he was, ha ha, only joking. But then he said Millbank should be beaten up anyway. Liberal-hating Ann Coulter a few years ago said she wouldn’t care if the New York Times building got blown up. Later she said that that too, was only a joke. Hilarious.

Right-wing shock jock Michael Savage, as well as other rightist commentators, have called for violence to deal with illegal immigrants. According to the media watch dog group FAIR, in 2008, Savage called for troops to be brought back from Iraq to protect Americans from “the scourge of illegal immigrants who are running rampant across America, killing police for sport, raping, murdering like a scythe across America.”

As noted from letters that come in to Beck, the hate rhetoric whips up anger and appears to fuel a desire to carry out violent acts.

In one confirmed case, a man who said he was influenced by
Beck, set out to kill people at two liberal organizations in

San Francisco. Byron Williams, the man who plotted to assassinate people at the ACLU and the Tides Foundation and who was arrested by police before he got there --- following a shootout --- told an interviewer with Media Matters for America that he was inspired by Glenn Beck.

Those who charge that the left has used a similar language of violence and hate that the right has, have an obligation to provide the evidence. Yes, I’m sure you can find some anarchist somewhere who said we should “destroy the system.” But you’re not going to find much of anything among left pundits or politicians --- who have media stature --- who’ve engaged in a pattern of hate talk or used the language of violence.

FOX, owned by Rupert Murdoch, is heavily responsible for allowing the hate talk to go on. I’m with those who think it’s time to contemplate boycott actions against FOX and have regular protests.

The group Jewish Funds for Justice recently picketed FOX headquarters in New York and submitted a petition with 10,000 signatures of people demanding the cancellation of Beck’s show. They accused Beck of “unchecked hate mongering and public incitement.”

That’s a good start.

Chip Berlet, senior analyst with Political Research Associates, which tracks right-wing movements, told Scott Harris of the Between the Lines radio show that it was time for a campaign to get advertisers to drop their sponsorship of the Glenn Beck program. He said such a campaign had been successful in getting Lou Dobbs removed from CNN, in light of Dobb’s perpetual bashing and unfair portrayal of immigrants.