The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
The Perpetual Three-Dot Column
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by Jesse Walker

Wednesday, October 28, 2009
CIVIL DISOBEDIENCE IS NOT TERRORISM: Just in time for Halloween, the press is telling spooky stories about the
Oath Keepers, an organization of current and former soldiers and cops who have sworn to refuse unconstitutional orders. The latest scare piece to cross my screen appeared this week in Alternet under the headline "Right-Wing Extremist Group on Active Military Duty?" The author, Rob Waters of the Southern Poverty Law Center, jumps directly from describing the organization to writing this:
In July, the SPLC also presented Congress with growing evidence that extremists are infiltrating the U.S. military and urged Congress and the military to take steps to ensure that the armed forces are not inadvertently training future domestic terrorists.
If you click on the link from the phrase "growing evidence," you'll find an article that claims the military is being infiltrated by neo-Nazis. You won't see anything about the Oath Keepers there, which is appropriate, as there isn't anything Nazi about them. The Oath Keepers' founder, Stewart Rhodes, has written several articles for Jews for the Preservation of Firearms Ownership, and earlier this month he told the Las Vegas Review Journal, "I loathe white supremacists." If you read the comment threads at the Oath Keepers site, you'll sometimes see anti-Semites and other bigots crawling out to spew their propaganda, as they do all over the Internet, but you'll also see the other commenters shouting them down.

Meanwhile, it seems odd to worry that you're "training future domestic terrorists" when you're discussing a group whose plan of action is to refuse to use their weapons. Indeed, after an unhinged fellow calling himself "Citizen Quasar" announced his support for the Oath Keepers on his Twitter feed while also announcing his plans to start a shootout at the Oklahoma State Capitol, the organization's founder denounced him as a "nutbag." Rather than spinning fantasies of a violent uprising, the group is adopting one of the core ideas of nonviolent civil resistance: persuading police and soldiers to disobey their commanders. Waters quotes an SPLC colleague, Mark Potok, who accuses the Oath Keepers of spreading paranoia and argues that "these kinds of conspiracy theories are what drive a small number of people to criminal violence." But if that were true, surely it would be welcome to see a prominent player in that purportedly paranoid milieu pushing a strategy based on nonviolence. That would be a good influence, right?

And how paranoid is the group? The list of commands its members have pledged to refuse includes some that don't strike me as likely, e.g., "orders to assist or support the use of any foreign troops on U.S. soil against the American people." But it also includes commands that are easier to imagine -- or which have already become standard operating procedure. One item on the list is "orders which infringe on the right of the people to free speech, to peaceably assemble, and to petition their government for a redress of grievances." Maybe Waters and Potok haven't noticed, but American police forces infringe on free speech and free assembly at pretty much every major political summit. I wish there had been some Oath Keepers on the force in Pittsburgh during the G20 meeting last month, or at the Republican National Convention last year.

If you review Rhodes' writings online, you'll find complaints about the militarization of police work, a process he links to both the war on drugs and the war on terror; about the expansion of federal power in wartime; about the illegal disarmament of civilians after Hurricane Katrina. In other words, normal civil libertarian concerns about policies already in place, not frantic speculation about the apocalypse to come. (Note that two of the last three links go to essays Rhodes wrote during the Bush presidency. The Oath Keepers were founded this year, but the organizers behind them didn't need a Democratic president to discover the dangers of state power.)

This is the group that has the Southern Poverty Law Center invoking the specters of fascism and terrorism: a network of present and former public employees who are vigilant about the state of our civil liberties. If their vigilance sometimes shades over into paranoia, well, that's a hundred times truer of the SPLC.

(cross-posted at Hit & Run )

posted by Jesse 2:47 PM
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Friday, October 23, 2009
SELF-PROMOTION: My feature about Jerry Brown is now
online as well.

posted by Jesse 5:04 PM
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THE PARTS LEFT OUT OF THE SESAME STREET ARTICLE: Before Sesame Street, "educational TV" usually meant awkward efforts to broadcast academic content in a traditional academic manner. Afterwards it meant trying to discern what kids were already learning from television and to reverse-engineer a method of delivering lessons the same way. Most famously, this meant creating commercials for letters, numbers, and basic concepts, in hopes that the same children who learned jingles by osmosis could learn spelling and counting the same way.

That experiment turns 40 next month, and I wrote a bit about its history in the November issue of Reason. That article is now
online. There's a bunch of stuff I wanted to discuss in it but didn't have room to get into. Fortunately, I’ve got all the space I want here on the blog.

The story says, for example, that for the show's "first two decades on the air, writers and performers were usually free to follow their creative instincts." I didn't have room to list any of the times the bureaucrats did manage to rein in the creative side. One of the funniest Muppets, the soulful schoolkid Roosevelt Franklin, was axed, for example, because some blacks in the organization felt he was too much of a stereotype. (The equally black people who had created him, and his substantial black fan base, presumably felt differently.) After 14 years in which the show's grown-ups refused to believe in Big Bird's best friend, the Eeyorish and elephantine Mr. Snuffleupagus, the '80s panic over child abuse prompted the program to end the running gag, for fear that it would discourage children from telling parents if they'd been molested. And then there's Don Music, the ever-frustrated singer-songwriter who co-starred in several funny sketches with Kermit the Frog. He was effectively eliminated when producers heard that a few kids here and there were copying his habit of banging his head on the piano.

Also, the story mentions that Will Lee, who played Mr. Hooper, was blacklisted in the McCarthy era. I didn't have room to add that Matt Robinson, the original Gordon and the voice of Roosevelt Franklin, was the son of a Stalinist poet. So the show's cast included more than one man with a radical background. But the show's creators were liberals, not radicals, and sometimes rather fretful liberals at that. According to Street Gang, Michael Davis' recent history of the program, when Jim Henson turned up at a planning seminar, Joan Ganz Cooney was worried that the bearded stranger might be a member of the Weather Underground. "How do we know that man back there isn't going to throw a bomb up here or toss a hand grenade?" she whispered to a friend.

Another difference between liberals and radicals: In the '60s, liberals gave lip service to allowing the poor "maximum feasible participation" in the programs designed for them. For radicals, participation was the opening demand. As I wrote in the article, you can see that distinction at work in the show's approach to education. As I didn't have room to write, you can also see it in the show's approach to TV. Liberal television was about giving viewers the programs that would be good for them. Radical television—or "guerilla television," as it preferred to call itself—was about giving ordinary people access to the airwaves to do with as they pleased. Its partisans were filled with utopian hopes for the new medium of cable TV, which they envisioned as something closer in spirit to YouTube than to Comcast.

That wasn't what Sesame Street was up to. But I'm happy to report that YouTube today is filled not just with classic Sesame clips but with a host of Sesame remixes, mashups, and parodies. It took four decades, but the radicals got their hands on the show after all.

posted by Jesse 4:02 PM
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Friday, October 02, 2009
SELF-PROMOTION: I haven't seen it yet, but I'm told the November issue of Reason is out. It includes an article I wrote to mark the 40th anniversary of Sesame Street. And also my brief review of the documentary Pirate Radio USA.

Those aren't online yet, but my latest
Web column for Reason is. It's headlined "Obama Is No Radical" and subtitled "But maybe we'd be better off if he were."

posted by Jesse 3:52 PM
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HELP US, WILLIAM SAFIRE! YOU’RE OUR ONLY HOPE!: It's always a struggle to keep your eyes from glazing over when reading Peggy Noonan, but I managed to make it to the end of her new
column for The Wall Street Journal. She leads by declaring the late William Safire "one of the great ones, the Elders," and then explains herself:
Who are The Elders? They set the standards. They hand down the lore. They're the oldest and wisest. By proceeding through the world each day with dignity and humanity, they show the young what it is that should be emulated. They're the tribal chieftains. This role has probably existed since caveman days, because people need guidance and encouragement, they need to be heartened by examples of endurance. They need to be inspired.

We are in a generational shift in the media, and new Elders are rising. They're running the networks and newspapers, they own the Web sites, they anchor the shows. What is their job?

It's to do what the Elders have always done, but now more than ever.
Wake up, she's getting to the point:
You know the current media environment. You think I'm about to say, "Boy, what's said on cable, radio and the Internet now is really harmful and dangerous." And you're right, and it is....

Two examples from just the past week. A few days ago, I was sent a link to a screed by MSNBC's left-wing anchorman Ed Schultz, in which he explained opposition to the president's health-care reform. "The Republicans lie. They want to see you dead. They'd rather make money off your dead corpse. They kind of like it when that woman has cancer and they don't have anything for us." Next, a link to the syndicated show of right-wing radio talker Alex Jones, on the subject of the U.S. military, whose security efforts at the G-20 Summit in Pittsburgh show them to be agents and lackeys of the New World Order. "They are complete enemies of America....Our military's been taken over....This is the end of our country." Later, "They'd love to kill 10,000 Americans," and, "The republic is falling right now."

This, increasingly, is the sound of our political conversation.
I'm going to interrupt right here to point out that Alex Jones is a part of the mainstream "political conversation" today in roughly the same way that Billy James Hargis was in the '60s. That is, not at all.
I see it this way. There are roughly 300 million people in America. Let's say 1% of them, only 1 in 100, are composed of those who might fairly be called emotionally unstable—the mentally ill, those who have limited or no ability to govern their actions, those who act out, as they say, physically or violently. That's three million people.

Let's say a third of them are regularly exposed to political media rants from right or left. That's a million people.

What effect might "they want to see you dead" and "the Republic is falling right now" have on their minds?

I was once in a small joust with Roger Ailes about violence on television. I was worried about it. He responded, I paraphrase: But there's comedy all over TV, and I don't see people breaking out in jokes and laughter on the streets. True, I said, but depictions of violence are different. Violent images excite the unstable. Violent words do, too.
There are social scientists who would dispute that.
This is why, I think, so many people -- I include, literally, every person I know, from all walks of life, and all ages -- are worried that our elected leaders are not safe, that this overheated era will end in some violent act or acts.

Stop reading this and ask whoever's nearby, "Do you find yourself worrying about President Obama's safety?" I do not think you are going to get, "No."
I went upstairs and asked my wife, who's a Democrat. She said, "No, why?"

I'm going to stop quoting long chunks of the column, partly out of mercy for my readers and partly because I'm starting to feel like a heckler. I just think it's remarkable (though not unprecedented) that Noonan can switch so easily from denouncing other media figures' apocalyptic rhetoric to spouting apocalyptic rhetoric of her own. How easy would it be to turn her own arguments against her? ("Stop reading this and ask whoever's nearby, 'Do you find yourself worrying about Glenn Beck's safety?'") The novelty of her article is that she explicitly ties her fears of a pending catastrophe to a yearning for a strong hand to "rescue America from the precipice" and "lead through this polarized time." The strong hand "Elders." Like William Safire. And, um, "Walter Cronkite, Bob Novak, Don Hewitt, Irving Kristol." Yeah, she included Novak. I guess she never saw him on Crossfire.

(cross-posted at Hit & Run)

posted by Jesse 12:03 PM
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