Conspiracy: It’s What’s for Dinner.

Through it all, Barack Obama has held tightly to his cool, unflappable persona, leading me to believe that there’s more to it than meets the eye.

I think it’s fair to say that in the wake of the government shutdown and the laughable antics of the Tea Party, the GOP had their asses effectively handed to them in this latest election. Tea partier Ken Cuccinelli of Virginia was summarily defeated. So too Dean Young of Alabama. New York City elected its first democratic mayor since the early nineties. Democracy reigned across the land, despite voter ID laws designed to keep minorities and Democrats from voting.

All of it: the shutdown, Ted Cruz’s filibuster, the obstruction led by Tea Party wing-nuts has badly shaken the President. Except – it hasn’t. Through it all, Barack Obama has held tightly to his cool, unflappable persona, leading me to believe that there’s more to it than meets the eye. As it stands, this fringe element of the GOP shouldn’t have nearly the voice or the power to sabotage the US government. Yet, thanks to redistricting and gerrymandering, they have infiltrated congress to wield their strange and horrible revenge.

obama-coolBut something about it doesn’t sit right in my stomach. I suspect the story goes deeper than we’ve all been led to believe and that maybe Obama’s calm exterior is the clue we need to put it all together. Remember Syria? That country somewhere across the water from us, in the middle of a whole bunch of other countries that I can’t pronounce/know who they are? Remember how they were going to throw us into a third foreign conflict that had conservatives beating the drum wars (have the ever stopped?) and liberals picketing, recycling our fathers’ protest-wear of the 1960s?

In short, it was a chess game, the likes of which none of us saw clearly until the hand was dealt in John Kerry’s “slip” that if Syria was willing to give up their chemical weaponry, we were going to launch the missiles that were aimed at Syrian targets. It sounded to the world like an offhand comment, an impossibility, and an excuse to pacify the itchy fingers at the helm. But Syria, with Russia’s support, surprised us. They agreed. And most of us let out a sigh of relief.

And it was only after the smoke cleared that the public was able to see why Obama was able to keep his cool in the face of another bloody war: he knew what he was doing. He saw three steps ahead of any of us and played it out. Nothing to get all nervous about folks. I got this.

And so when I see that coolness in the face of domestic conflict in Congress that has organized opposition to every single thing he has ever proposed, I wonder how he doesn’t snap. Just once. Just a bit. An eye-roll. A bitten lip. A shouted obscenity.

But no.

So let’s look deeper at the actual result of the Tea Party’s invasion of the GOP. They have hijacked a powerful political party and taken away their credo of fiscal responsibility and small government and replaced it with a religious dogma that would stump Jesus. Conspiracy theorists have only grown more staunch in their assertions that Obama is really a Muslim socialist intent on waging war against the very country he purports to love. They’re waiting for the axe to drop. They think it might have something to do with his healthcare reform, that there has to be a sinister element to his attempt to revamp a disastrous and corrupt system and put affordable provisions in for the less fortunate among us.

Ted Cruz and Michelle Bachman haven’t stopped to take a breath in their campaigns to enlighten the people to his evil doings. Fox News, in their fair and balanced efforts, pauses naught in their anti-Obama “news,” and Mitch McConnell has vowed to never stop his wave of obstruction. It’s enough to make a leader flip the eff out.

But not this guy.

Consider for a moment how his calm exterior has been a Teflon cover to which none of their vitriol sticks. Consider how the Tea Party-led GOP has succeeded in defeating food stamps for the very poor in hard economic times while clinging to tax breaks for the very wealthy, how redistricting has made their racist motives apparent to the masses, and how they shut down the entire government just to stage a temper tantrum that served only to illustrate how contemptible their positions have grown. Finally, consider how the Tea Party has succeeded where no Democrat ever could: in dividing a once-powerful club whose power was unmatched by anything the world had ever seen. Consider Obama’s ability to play a long game. Consider his chess-playing acumen.

Then tell me that Obama isn’t the biggest sponsor of the Tea Party “patriots.”

(Slow clap, Mr. President. And don’t worry – I’ll keep this between you and me.)

Grand Old Pogrom

The rationale behind their approach is simple and time-tested. Over time repetitious lies begin to have the resonance of truth, no matter how far fetched.

The Republican Convention was going rather poorly. The crowd was homogenous, the speakers were flat and the enthusiasm in the room was manufactured at best. And Clint Eastwood hadn’t even begun a rambling conversation with a chair. The Republican Party’s best hope for the convention was for its candidate to appear “human.”

Although “Eastwooding” would eventually enter the American lexicon and Willard Romney would do his best to connect with his fellow Homo sapiens, it was a quiet delegate from New York who captured the essence of the modern GOP.

Wading in among his fellow delegates, billionaire industrialist David Koch smugly took in the proceedings. Though the convention offered little in the way of celebration, he told a group of supporters at a nearby reception later that he and his brother, Charles, were “in this for the long haul.” Indeed they are. The Koch brothers are part of a well-established movement designed to vilify liberalism and many of the core tenets of democracy.

They are hardly original. But they are unique in that they have elevated their insidious brand of propaganda to a high art form. Groups such as the nativist Know Nothings of the 1850s or the John Birch Society of the 1950s espoused similar hate-filled political messages as today’s GOP but they flamed out as quickly as their stars rose. In terms of longevity, the Kochs and their inspired think tanks such as Americans for Prosperity—busy these days attempting to deny Hurricane Sandy relief funds to our region—have succeeded where their predecessors have failed. For the first time in American history, a small band of angry white men has galvanized a vast number of Americans and irrevocably turned public policy on its ear. The modern American conservative movement has finally arrived. 

Much of this has been accomplished through the elaborate and coordinated messaging emanating from the right-wing propaganda machine. Theirs is a two-part strategy. The first is to consistently contend that the media have a liberal bias when the opposite is true. Talk radio is virtually owned by the right wing. Fox News has become an insanely biased juggernaut and the print media, with few exceptions, has essentially fallen in line with the conservative agenda. Even the majority of the New York newspapers—The Daily News, Wall Street Journal, Newsday and New York Post—endorsed Mitt Romney over Barack Obama. But to hear conservative pundits talk about media bias, one would think the New York Times is the only newspaper on the planet.

The second part of the strategy is to plant false information from seemingly credible sources with patriotic names such as the Heritage Foundation, Americans for Prosperity and the American Enterprise Institute. Representatives from these organizations, which are funded by billionaires such as the Koch brothers, routinely appear on right wing talk shows spouting bogus statistics. These sources are then quoted in newspaper articles that are again mentioned in on-air reports. This is what is known as “the echo chamber.”

The rationale behind their approach is simple and time-tested. Over time repetitious lies begin to have the resonance of truth, no matter how far fetched. Selling an idea as its exact opposite, a mirrored reality, via the continual amplification of such lies has been an effective strategy employed by tyrannical regimes since time immemorial. For example, Adolf Hitler extolled the virtues of physicality, and gushed over the domineering blond-haired, fair-skinned Aryan, who was tall, reasoned and even-tempered. But Hitler himself possessed none of these traits. He was short, pudgy, greasy, and ill tempered.

Likewise, the right-wing echo chamber has been successful in instilling a backward self-loathing belief system among its followers who blithely campaign on behalf of billionaires.

Witness the retired worker receiving Social Security and Medicare benefits carrying a sign bashing entitlements at a Tea Party rally. Or the middle-income wage earner resisting tax increases on the wealthiest Americans because they’ve been told it smacks of socialism. Or perhaps the enraged grandmother who believes “Obamacare” is a Communist plot, even though the concept was hatched in a conservative think tank and first passed into law by a Republican governor.

Brilliantly, there is no single face of modern conservatism, only a secret cabal of dangerous men such as Charles and David Koch, who work behind the scenes to pull the last remaining threads from our democracy. In another stroke of genius, the GOP has joined forces with Christian Fundamentalists to misappropriate scripture while wrapped in the flag to sell the American people on perverted interpretations of the teachings of Christ.

The GOP has wed itself to fundamentalist leaders such as Douglas Coe who, since 1969, as the head of a secret society known as “The Family,” has presided over several Washington “prayer cells” that have been linked to some of the most deadly despots in modern times such as Indonesia’s General Suharto, Haiti’s Papa Doc Duvalier and Yoweri Museveni of Uganda. Not only have Coe’s associates been linked to some of the most heinous genocidal acts in history, they were all at one time members of Family-sponsored prayer cells. Genocide, it seems, is easily overlooked in Coe’s movement so long as lip service is paid to Christ and oil and other natural resources are provided to well-heeled Family members. 

Beyond warping the Bible to suit the Republican ideology, there are secular issues that have been upended by its truth-twisting dogma. The vilification of labor in this country, for one, is sickening and self-defeating. To wit, only 12 percent of the American workforce is unionized, but conservative pundits would have the public believe that unions are wholly responsible for our employment woes and lack of competitiveness. They would also have us believe that Social Security is collapsing under its own weight even though it is, by design, self sustaining and fully funded.

Equally as disturbing is the malicious stance toward immigrants in the United States. The extent of Republican soul-searching post election was to examine strategies going forward that would deal with the problem of changing demographics: how to woo more Latinos into the fold instead of actually adopting more progressive policies.

In fact, Republicans were anything but contrite in the wake of electoral defeat. Forgotten were the insults to women, equating nearly half of America with system-sucking leeches, and the notion of self deportation. The GOP has built a platform based upon misogyny, fervent nationalism, elaborate propaganda, and suppression of intellectualism—each one a hallmark of fascism. Others include high levels of incarceration, secrecy, militarism, and anti-union rhetoric.

These are the enduring legacies of a party gone horribly wrong. The problem we face is that the men behind the curtain believe this past election was a momentary setback, a bump in the road. But this stands to reason. They are, after all, in this for the “long haul.” 

 

Illustration: Jon Moreno
Book Cover: The Family by Jeff Sharlet. The Family offers an in-depth and never-before seen look at the Christian Fundamentalist movement in America.

Culture of Corruption

U.S founders maxed individual liberty, freeing Americans, “to give full vent to the good, bad and ugly behavior of which people are capable,” Walter McDougall observes. “Americans became past masters at hustling: both in the pejorative sense of scofflaws, speculators, imposters, tricksters, self-reinventors, and conmen, but also in the positive sense of hard workers, strivers, builders, doers, joiners, and team players.”

Everyone does it.

“It’s a courtesy, not a crime,” the PBA union president declared to a throng of off-duty cops packing Bronx Supreme Court waving signs insisting “IT’S A COURTESY NOT A CRIME.”

Sounded like a ripe example of PR tone-deafness or maybe just the PBA honcho playing to his troops, public be damned!

The police commissioner begged to differ re: fixing tickets.  “Those actions are crimes under the law and can’t be glossed over as ‘courtesies.’”

The PBA honcho retorted: “When the dust settles, and we have our day in court, it will be clear that this is a part of the NYPD at all levels

Everyone does it.  Gotta problem with that?

Almost all Long Island Railroad employees who retired in 2008 did so on disability, adding an average of $36grand to the average annual pension payout, compliments of the beleaguered LIRR commuter.

Joe Rutigliano, former conductor and one-time LIRR union president, put in 570 hours of overtime with nary a single sick day in his last year, jacking up his pension, then fattening it even more with his disability claim.  Surveillance revealed that Jolted Joe went on to play golf regularly.  To add insult to injury (in a manner of speaking), Jolted Joe played public courses where, by statute, he didn’t have to pay green fees because of his so-called handicap (and we’re not talking 13 over par).

Special treatment for the handicapped has become one of those well-intended cobblestones on the road to hell.  Not because it’s not a noble proposition, but because it is so pervasively abused.  Ever notice what percentage of people parking in handicap spaces actually use a cane, crutches or wheelchair?  For the overwhelming majority there is no noticeable handicap.  But, like railroader scammers, they get notes from their doctors enabling them to score privileged parking.

Could faked handicap parking be the gateway scam to major scams like pension fraud?  I, for one, make a point of confronting obvious abusers when the occasion arises.  A couple of days ago, in fact, I was limping through the ‘Y’ parking lot with my son on our way to a workout.  A lean and limber-looking man about my age in his gym outfit was walking jauntily from the ‘Y’, drawing a bead on his car, parked in a handicapped space.

“And what is your handicap?” I asked him.

“Whatya mean?” he shot back.

“Well, you’re parked in a handicap space and I don’t see any visible handicap.”

“It’s none of your business,” he sneered.

“Oh, it most certainly is my business when someone’s running a scam.”

“Look at you,” he said, outraged as could be, “what kind of example are you setting for your son?”

“He sees me do this all the time.  Call a fraud a fraud.  And you’re a fraud, just like those Long Island Rail Road frauds.”

He slammed his door as I took my three prosthetic joints to the treadmill, my son chuckling for good measure.

Back when I was doing grad work in the mid-70s, I bartended weekends at Long Island’s notorious nightclub – the OBI South.  For a stretch, I worked side-by-side at the back-bar with a rough and ready rogue nicknamed the “Snakeman.”  Invariably, at the height of the mad rush, he would call out, as he was ringing up drinks, “Bonus hour…one for us, one for them.”  “You’re all thieves,” the Snakeman told us, by way of touting he was the most honorable of thieves by copping to it.

Everyone’s always done it.  It’s the American way, according to one distinguished historian.

U.S founders maxed individual liberty, freeing Americans, “to give full vent to the good, bad and ugly behavior of which people are capable,” Walter McDougall observes.  “Americans became past masters at hustling: both in the pejorative sense of scofflaws, speculators, imposters, tricksters, self-reinventors, and conmen, but also in the positive sense of hard workers, strivers, builders, doers, joiners, and team players.”

To con others, best one first con one self.  McDougall believes that Americans’ talent for “self-deception” is one key to their success.  “They pretend in order to get along with each other, or to grease the skids of their institutions, obscure the contradictions in their politics and law, or just to sustain their common faith in truth, justice, and the American way.”  In a broader sense, people are compelled to rationalize their circumstances – self-delusion springs eternal.

Charles Dickens charged, upon a visit in 1842, that Americans “will swallow a whole caravan of camels, if they be laden with unworthy doubts and suspicions…. [They] simply cannot bear truth in any form,” and American newspapers contributed mightily with their “pimping and pandering.” By the eve of Civil War, one of those panderers, the New York Herald worried there would be, “another general collapse like [the Panic] of 1837, only on a much grander scale.…  Worst of all is the moral pestilence of luxurious exemption from honest labor infecting all classes of society.”

Sounds like Fox-watching Tea Baggers spit-balling ne’er-do-well Wall Street Occupiers.  Yet, they are a funhouse mirror of one another’s outrage, one against Big Government, the other against Big Money.  Note how many who sermonize against the breakdown in morality are themselves caught with their pants down.

Let’s be honest with ourselves for a stolen moment– it’s far more satisfying to point fingers then look in the mirror.

Besa. Albanian Honor Code

The spirit of besa and tolerance permeated every moment of the event, with the acknowledgment of interfaith understanding quietly underscoring the day.

Civility has all but disappeared from the national discourse. For example, there’s no middle ground when evaluating President Barack Obama’s performance: he’s either the face of hope and change, or the worst president ever to have occupied the Oval Office. During a recent GOP presidential nomination debate the audience actually cheered the idea of allowing someone without health insurance to die. People from all walks of life are taking to the streets to voice their displeasure with our government—from the worst elements of society such as the Westboro Baptist Church and the Lyndon LaRouche cult to citizen activists like the Tea Party and Occupy Wall Street.

It’s easy to get caught up in the fervor surrounding the discontent in this country and, as usual, it’s all about the economy (stupid). I’m as guilty of it as anyone. But last week my emotions were recalibrated after attending an event that highlighted a little-known part of world history that all of us should know. It’s a story about honor in the face of adversity the likes of which we cannot imagine and, given our current behavior, are unlikely to ever know. It’s a story worth sharing and repeating. 

Like many Eastern European countries in the 20th century, Albania—a tiny coastal nation on the Adriatic Sea tucked between Montenegro and Greece—experienced the dual indignity of both the Nazi and then the Soviet occupations. The former lasted through World War II, the latter endured until 1991. Miraculously, despite the well-documented horrors that European Jews suffered during the war, Albania was the only nation to boast a greater population of Jews after the Holocaust than before the war began. In fact, not a single Jew perished in Albania during this time.

Almost nothing was known about their survival fact until the Iron Curtain fell and Albania was liberated.  The Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center of Nassau County recently assembled a panel of experts from around the globe to discuss this phenomenon, and is hosting a traveling exhibit through Nov. 14th.

The panel, held last Sunday on the grounds of the center, and the accompanying exhibit, explained the reason why Albania, or more specifically Albanians, provided safe harbor to Jews during the Holocaust. They call it quite simply: besa.

Besa is the code of honor every Albanian is encouraged, no, required to live by. Ferit Hoxha, Albanian ambassador to the United Nations, described the Albanian adherence to besa and its manifestation in the treatment of others. “Mik,” he says, “has a dual meaning. It means both a friend and a guest.” This understanding of relationships meant that anyone an Albanian encountered is to be “received, welcomed and honored.” There was never a doubt that Jews would be sheltered from persecution, he claims, because this action is “in accordance with our moral code, our faith and tradition.”

Ah yes, faith.

This is the point where it would be helpful, or perhaps surprising, to know that Albania is predominantly Muslim.

Last Sunday’s event and the message behind it are essential to the mission of the Holocaust Memorial and Tolerance Center, which is to teach tolerance through lessons learned from the Holocaust. “Imagine a world,” says Beth Lilach, the center’s education director, “where besa existed in every human soul.” The spirit of besa and tolerance permeated every moment of the event, with the acknowledgment of interfaith understanding quietly underscoring the day.

Faroque Khan of the Islamic Center of Long Island was invited to participate in the proceedings and introduce Qemal Bicaku, the son of Albanian Muslims, who recalled from childhood how his family rescued 26 Jews from annihilation. Khan remarked that he was “pleased but not surprised” by the story of Albanian Muslims as the Qur’an clearly outlines Muslim’s conduct of doing “no harm to non-combatants, protection of houses of worship, women and children, and are even forbidden to harm a fruit-bearing tree.” One by one, the speakers described, tearfully at times, the efforts of their family members to save frightened Jews on the run and how, even more incredibly, not one villager or neighbor ever revealed the location of someone in hiding even though everyone knew where they were.

The event illustrated how besa, a fundamentally secular concept, transcended ideology and religion while revealing itself as a core element of all religions practiced at the purest level.

Perhaps the most wondrous part of the event came at the end when the speakers and the attendees gathered around an impressive display of food prepared and donated by the Islamic Women’s Center. We are never more connected to one another than when we share sustenance. It was an emotional day inspired by revelations of sacrifice and humanity, punctuated by warm human interaction over a meal made with loving hands.

Occupy Wall Street: “You Should Have Expected Us”

By not asking for anything in particular, they are inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement is “open source.” Anyone can add to it, alter and improve it.

San Francisco has it. So does Boston. It’s heading to Phoenix, Chicago and even making its way across the border to Toronto. “It” is the movement the media only acknowledge when it shuts down a bridge or broadcasts police brutality. “It” is the movement that Glenn Beck claims will lead to “gas chambers, guillotines” and “millions dead.”

The Occupy Wall Street protest is now in its third week. It’s stubborn, plucky, organized and here to stay—weather and cops be damned. For the third week in a row I am dedicating this space to an undertaking so captivating it has garnered grassroots support throughout the country despite obvious and ignominious attempts to stamp it out. Forgive me as I provide some context to my preoccupation by regurgitating a segment of this column written only days before the occupation began:

Those in my generation lost the chance to capture the spirit of revolution by looking the other way for a decade. We bought homes, started families and tried to return to ordinary lives during otherwise extraordinary times. We slept. Younger generations have substituted Haight-Ashbury with Facebook and protests with Twitter. In their frenetically hyper-connected lives they are ironically disconnected digital beings living a purgatorial existence that knows neither revolution nor responsibility. In fairness, how exactly would one protest genetically modified foods, the derivatives market or the carried interest tax loophole?

As it turns out, America’s youth is keenly in touch with its rebellious nature and wholly capable of harnessing it through social media and on the ground. Moreover, it seems, they know exactly how to protest derivatives and tax loopholes. Occupy Wall Street is not an exercise; nor is it a group of out-of-work malcontents and spoiled brats as some pundits and commentators would have you all believe. But given the disgraceful job my colleagues in the “traditional” media have done covering the last three weeks, it’s little wonder there is such a misconception about the protest or the character of the protestors themselves.

Fox News, CNN, MSNBC and other hack, ratings-hungry news operations have done their level-best to seek out the most outrageous or ill-informed members of the movement in an effort to discredit the entire affair. This has served only to embolden the members of the occupation and play directly into the hands of the organizers who are able to maintain their underground “street-cred” while pointing a finger at corporate media with righteous indignation. It’s one of several ingenious ploys (or anti-ploys depending upon which side of the barricade you reside) being exploited by Anonymous, the group at the heart of the protest.

Most of the news reports and the people I speak with about Occupy Wall Street have the same question: “What do they want?” It’s little wonder why the reporting has been so poor because the question itself fails to grasp the meaning of the gathering. Asking “What do they want?” is placing the cart before the horse. It’s not that it’s a bad question; it’s simply impossible to answer. The purpose of Occupy Wall Street is to begin a dialogue among disconnected citizens and encourage a process of self-discovery. Although they have posted a declaration of principles that lists pernicious policies and highlights social and economic inequities, it only serves to provide the framework for the discussion.

But behind this grassroots and organic process is an organizational brilliance in the restraint shown by Anonymous and the surreptitious group in charge of the demonstration on the ground. By not asking for anything in particular, they are inclusive of every person and every idea in general. In modern-day parlance, this movement is “open source.” Anyone can add to it, alter and improve it. It’s why dimwitted reporters have a hard time grasping it and why renowned authors such as Chris Hedges and Jeff Sharlet have been here to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with young people in Ron Paul tee shirts, Vietnam Veterans, union construction workers, lawyers and even some Tea Party activists. They have managed to truly make this the “people’s movement.” Or, as they say: “We are the 99%… and so are you.”

Life In The Park

As for life in Zuccotti Park, the scene is rather surreal. Between the time I first visited the encampment on Day 4 and Day 18 on Tuesday of this week, a mini-city had emerged. Rules of conduct are posted along the walls of the park. There is a media center, a volunteer booth, food line, barrels of drinking water, a compost pile, rows of books and a tobacco-rolling station. They even have their own newspaper, the Occupied Wall Street Journal. Every evening at 7 p.m. there is a General Assembly meeting where the faithful gather to air their grievances, plan for the days ahead, and coalesce some of the more substantive ideas that have percolated throughout the long days of demonstration, learning and discovery.

In the morning I caught up with Julian, who had casually greeted me on Day 4 with a warm and comfortable smile. Upon hearing of the protest, Julian had purchased a one-way ticket from Oregon to attend the occupation. He couldn’t say how long he would be there, only that he planned to stick it out as long as possible. This time around, Julian had the look of someone who had spent the better part of two and a half weeks battling sleeplessness and, at times, punishing weather. He was grittier and weary, though he claimed to have finally snagged a decent night’s rest.

“I would say this has far exceeded my expectations” he said, a hand-rolled cigarette tucked behind one ear and a scraggly beard adorning his tired face. “The growth of the movement speaks to the level of despair in this country and desire for change,” he said, as he greeted another volunteer who clapped him on the back and hung close for our conversation. When I asked whether he had booked that return ticket yet, his warm smile returned as he said, “I decided to keep the next six months to a year totally clear.” Politely, he then excused himself and settled in behind the volunteer table. Julian was all in.

I spent the next couple of hours weaving my way between citizen journalists, musicians, poets, activists, union workers and teachers. Another familiar face from the first week was Gio Andollo, an artist and musician from Harlem who has spent “some part of the day, every day and usually nights” at the protest since it began. He too is committed to occupying Wall Street for “as long as it takes,” and thinks the protestors have “done a really good job of diffusing potentially violent situations.” Gio, like so many of those involved in the Occupy Wall Street protest, is disappointed with the media coverage but shrugs it off. “What we’re trying to accomplish here doesn’t lend itself to media-friendly sound bites,” he says. But unlike others who cry foul at the blatantly misdirected coverage of the protest, Gio is somewhat sanguine. “It’s just a matter of time before even politicians start paying attention.”

Ironically, across the plaza a group began to gather around two men who clearly stood out from the crowd. Lo and behold, politicians had finally found their way to Zuccotti Park to engage the activists in person. City Council Members Daniel Halloran (R-Queens) and Ydanis Rodriguez (D-Manhattan) took center stage for a while to participate in the ongoing dialogue with Wall Street occupiers. Halloran, a self-proclaimed Libertarian Republican, told those around him that he supported their “constitutional right” to gather in protest, but the only way out of America’s economic mess was to “elect better people” to office and “get out and fucking vote.” He touched on hot button issues like diminishing the influence of the Federal Reserve and putting “teeth back into anti-trust regulations,” while Rodriguez, no stranger to controversy and an early supporter of Occupy Wall Street, said, “Wall Street should contribute more,” instead of the city having to “cut agencies and education.”

Despite advocating for things over which neither councilman has control, they caused a stir by at least engaging in the conversation. But their presence only highlights the lack of support and involvement from the elected federal representatives who have stayed as far from the protest as humanly possible. But then again, as Gio pointed out, it’s just a matter of time.

The “Occupy” demonstrations sprouting up around the nation illustrate the strange and uneasy predicament we face. On one side, we see a group of disenfranchised Americans taking to the streets to raise awareness of an increasingly inequitable economic system by exercising their First Amendment right to gather peaceably and protest their grievances. On the other side of the spectrum are charlatans like Glenn Beck, who is warning his ever-dwindling flock of minions to stock up on food and guns because young people have decided to mobilize against the government—pretty fucking hilarious coming from a false-wannabe-prophet who organized his own march in D.C. against the very same government.

Here’s the funny thing. The smallest step back from the fray only serves to highlight our similarities rather than our differences. Like diminutive points on an impressionist painting, there is room in America for every color, from the muted tones of conservatism to the most colorful hue of progressivism. Independent of one another they inevitably clash, but when blended together on the artist’s canvas the true portrait of America is revealed—but only from a distance. In Zuccotti Park, Anonymous may have just emerged as one of the great impressionist masters of our time, portraying America at its finest and capturing the single greatest expression of democracy to occur in my lifetime.

The Fundamentals of Fundamentalism

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation.

The sight of so many conservative Christian presidential candidates attempting to out-holy one another during the GOP debate this past weekend was curious but not without precedent. The role of Christianity in the American political system predates the formation of the nation itself, with the more fundamentalist aspects playing a larger part during difficult economic periods. While it can be said that religion informed the political ideologies of the men who established the framework of our nation, fundamentalism was largely relegated to the fringes of American politics until the first part of the 20th Century.

The circumstances that promoted the rise of the evangelical Christian doctrine in the 1920s and ’30s bear a striking resemblance to our current situation and help to explain—as history often does—why right-wing religious views are influencing the social, political and economic platforms of the GOP candidates.

Prior to the Great Depression, the evangelical set were more like babbling mystics than an influential political force. Think Jimmy Swaggart or Jim Bakker. The mainstream transformation came when successful, white Christian men who accumulated and maintained great wealth during this time were looking for absolution of the guilt they felt while their fellow countrymen fell upon hard times. Enter Abraham “Abram” Vereide, the man perhaps most responsible for the modern fundamentalist Christian movement in America.

Vereide was able to coalesce the successful strategies and teachings of other soul-surgeons and evangelists of his era. By rationalizing the financial success of his followers as the earthly manifestation of Christ’s will, he was able to mold a new Christian doctrine that recognized wealth, power and influence as deliberate and divine endowments. As it turned out, mass absolution and wider acceptance came in the form of Jesus Christ as seen through the lens of Bruce Barton’s bestselling book, The Man Nobody Knows.

Barton, who is more enduringly known as the second “B” in the ad agency BBD&O, which exists even today, published The Man Nobody Knows in 1925. It was an instant phenomenon. Barton’s Jesus was the ultimate winner, the consummate salesman. The book was a pocket guide to winning with Christ that helped extricate Christianity from purely religious constraints and bring it to a wider audience as only a professional adman could.

By 1933, when the nation was in the throes of the Depression, Vereide’s organization began to take shape. The political outgrowth of his movement was formalized in Seattle with the creation of the New Order of Cincinnatus. The parallels between the New Order and the Tea Party today are undeniable. Like the Tea Party, the New Order cherished free market ideals and conservative morality, and organized against taxes and big government.

Vereide’s followers heartily rebuked then-President Herbert Hoover for bailing out Wall Street bankers whom many Americans believed to be responsible for the stock market crash of 1929 just as the Tea Party chastised the Bush administration for doing the same with the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). Both groups found their footing, however, railing against the subsequent administrations for battling economic downturns with public works projects, specifically FDR’s New Deal and Obama’s Stimulus Package. Likewise they share similar views regarding social welfare programs, and were able to elect candidates to battle these reforms. Even the great adman Bruce Barton went on to secure a seat in Congress under the slogan “Repeal a Law a Day.”

Vereide’s organization lives on today through the efforts of a rather enigmatic figure named Douglas Coe, who took over the group upon Vereide’s death in 1969 and transformed it into one of the most influential and highly secretive organizations in the modern era. The only public recognition of the group known today simply as “The Family” is the National Prayer Breakfast held every year in Washington, where political and business leaders assemble to pay tribute to Douglas Coe’s cabal. Most of what transpired beyond the breakfast remained a complete mystery until Jeff Sharlet, a reporter and expert on religion, stumbled upon Coe’s secret world, which he unraveled in his 2008 book titled The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power and his 2010 follow-up C Street: The Fundamentalist Threat to American Democracy.

Sharlet painstakingly details the roots of fundamentalism in America and illustrates the many ways in which The Family’s perversion of Christianity as a doctrine of power has transformed modern political life in America. The ultimate testament to the work of The Family is fully on display in the platforms of candidates such as Michele Bachmann, Rick Perry and Rick Santorum—not to mention the political juggernaut waiting in the wings that is Sarah Palin. But before Bachmann there was Frank Buchman, founder of “Moral Re-Armament,” whose closeted reputation was more Marcus Bachmann than Michele, if you catch my drift. Before Palin there was Arthur Langlie, figurehead of the New Order of Cincinnatus, and before Perry there was Bruce Barton.

When placed in historical context, the great revelation of the Tea Party is that there’s nothing particularly innovative about it. As young as our nation is, we’re now old enough that everything old is new again. In Vereide’s time Vladimir Lenin was the Osama bin Laden of the day and Communism was today’s Islam. The rise of the German economy and the grand display of Nazism in the 1936 Olympics openly mocked America’s failing economy in the midst of the Depression just as China’s present-day ascension and the grand pageantry of the 2008 Olympics in Beijing taunted Americans during the Great Recession. And just as FDR became the bête noire of the New Order of Cincinnatus, so too is Barack Obama to the conservative, evangelical wing of the Tea Party.

What I find interesting about the parallels between our past and present circumstances is that there is room for both sides of the debate to find comfort. Christian fundamentalists can take heart in the notion that their wing of the Tea Party is an idea whose time has finally come while opponents of radical evangelicals may take solace in the fact that fundamentalism ebbs and flows with the vagaries of the economy. It’s simply a matter of perspective, or perhaps it’s a lack thereof.

Our Prime Yearning Years

The only true and good thing about Ayn Rand and objectivism (a fancy word for “that which screws the masses”) is that they’re both dead. Rand may have been a wonderful writer but objectivism is the Scientology of economic theory.

Part II of The Season of Our Disconnect (PART I)

Alan Greenspan
"Deregulation is fundamen... what's that dear? Oh yes, I would like some more pudding."

The haul from Hempstead Harbor was so big the first week it had reopened after being closed for more than 40 years of remediation that the axle on my friend Jimmy’s truck was bending slightly at the end of each day. He said the mood of the other diggers on the water was ebullient. Their boats were tightly locked together, with guys shouting to one another in celebration; it was a strange scene for men who typically toil in solitude to put food on their table by harvesting the ocean floor for food to put on our tables.

I caught up with Jimmy at the end of the first week, and he said, although he was physically exhausted, he wouldn’t trade the week for anything. According to him, the only disappointment was the complaints registered by local residents on the hill overlooking the water who were unhappy to discover their formerly too-toxic-to-fish harbor suddenly filled with small commercial vessels.

It seems the boats’ presence was less of an environmental and commercial triumph and more of a case of urban blight. Jimmy shrugged it off but his words stuck with me. He characterized the irate citizens’ reaction as both funny and sad, saying, “It’s amazing how people with millions of dollars are complaining about watching me scrape hundreds of dollars from the ocean floor.” Though nothing came of their complaints, it is another example highlighting our Season of Disconnect when class warfare seems to be erupting in every corner of our nation.

While politicians argue about the debt ceiling and preserving tax cuts, the big, slogging, hairy middle-class squeeze continues. Across the country people are either accepting the “new normal” or, worse, turning their pitchforks and torches on one another instead of storming the castle. Somehow we’ve lost sight of what brought us here and who is to blame for all of this—and there are some very real people and institutions to condemn.

Those who dare to protect “entitlements” are vilified by the free market despots in this nation who have taken hold of the seminal piece of misinformation that has infiltrated every meaningful discussion regarding the economy: that government is somehow corrupting the markets by attempting to inject any level of consumer protection into the financial system. Rays of common sense such as Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ impassioned plea to restore sanity to the markets and protect America’s working class shone brightly for a moment only to be snuffed by the likes of Michele Bachmann and her quixotic presidential campaign kickoff.

This is a woman who mistakenly believed discussions about pegging global markets to Chinese currency instead of the dollar meant that the Treasury was actually contemplating using Yuan as America’s official money. Beyond the usual mash-up of libertarian, conservative, objectivism ideals that comprise the Tea Party, Bachmann (of course) believes that climate change is a hoax, that anyone who supports healthcare is unpatriotic, and that the best way to protect Americans and the U.S. economy is to dismantle the agencies designed to protect Americans and the U.S. economy.

It’s this last point that is so troubling because it’s what people like Bachmann are gaining traction with. Even the former Fed Chairman Alan Greenspan, the most famous and powerful disciple of free market guru Ayn Rand, testified before Congress that his extreme laissez faire policy and “markets-will-cure-all” attitude were devastatingly wrong because they fail to recognize the most natural  fundamental force that comprises the capitalist economy: Greed. Don’t get me wrong. Greed is indeed an important component of capitalism as it is simply another name for competition. But it cannot go unchecked, as it will feed on itself and everything around it when unfettered by logical behavioral constraints.

To put it bluntly, Alan Greenspan was wrong and admitted as much. So were Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, Securities and Exchange Commission Chairman Arthur Levitt and Treasury Secretary and White House economic advisor Larry Summers. So too were the men they served who facilitated their beliefs. Presidents Reagan, H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush and now, Barack Obama, all of whom surrounded themselves with these free market hucksters and relied on the dearth of financial wherewithal in Congress while counting on the masses’ inability to understand the destructive potential of unregulated markets.

 

The only thing that is honest and true about Ayn Rand and her theory of objectivism is that they’re both dead. Ayn Rand was a wonderful writer. But in terms of her being considered a prophet of sorts, Rand’s theory of objectivism (a fancy word for “that which screws the masses”) is the Scientology of economic theory. And yet, one of history’s silliest figures is now gathering momentum with copies of Atlas Shrugged flying off Amazon’s virtual shelves and middle America wondering aloud, “Who is John Galt?!”

Forget John Galt. We need to start asking the question, “Who are we?” America is stuck in the largest identity crisis we have faced since the Civil War. The unmitigated and unwarranted assault on the middle class, the working poor and, yes, the poverty-stricken in this nation, must end. We begin by restoring authority to the regulatory agencies in our nation instead of simply requiring more bureaucratic paperwork for businesses already playing by the rules. Business owners know the difference between prudent regulation and the appearance of it.

On a level playing field it’s possible to get ahead while looking down on everyone else. It might even change the perspective of a person jaded enough to be offended by the view of men scraping shellfish from the ocean, no matter how far up the hill they live.

The Empire Strikes Back

My election plans almost went off without a hitch with my posterior comfortably settled into the perfectly formed groove in the corner of my couch. Beside me, my wife, my home phone, my BlackBerry, my laptop, my Blue Point Toasted Lager, a bowl of popcorn and a dog with a broken leg and a cast the size of his body (long story) were all neatly in their places for the evening. The only thing missing from my election night space capsule was a pair of Depends. Everything was perfect except for one detail. By the time all of my communication devices were fired up and News12 was tuned in, it was 10 minutes past 9 p.m. Ten minutes from the moment the polls closed throughout New York. Sometime during those 600 seconds I missed the gubernatorial election.

The New York Times had declared Andrew Cuomo our next Governor at 9:01 p.m. with Newsday following suit six minutes later. At 9:10 p.m. I felt like the last lonely boy invited to the dance.

My faithful reporters were on hand at candidate headquarters from Islandia to Manhattan busily reporting, tweeting, blogging and conferring with one another while I stared absently at the computer, my wife stared absently at me, and the dog stared absently at the enormous cast on his leg. By the time I recovered and touched base with the first of our reporters, Sen. Chuck Schumer was giving his victory speech and national pundits were talking about the overwhelming message delivered to Barack Obama and attempting to quantify the “Tea Party Effect.”

All of this with zero precincts reporting in from any Board of Elections in the state.

Life is moving too quickly, and frankly I’m not sure what to make of it. Earlier in the evening I was on a dinner date with my 7-year-old daughter. In between talking about school, friends and funny things her little sister says, I mentioned that it was Election Day again and Daddy would be up late talking to his friends from work. She knows Daddy likes Election Day. But when I mentioned this, a perplexed look came over her face and she asked me, quite casually, “Is it time to get rid of Barack Obama already? Hasn’t it only been like two years?”

Did I mention she’s 7?

Stunned, I sat back in my chair and stared absently at her inquiring little face, and tried to formulate a cogent response. (Little did I know my absent expression would return so frequently throughout the night.) Collecting myself, I stammered through some benign, meandering explanation of federal and state governments, election cycles and the importance of voting. Then I gave her a stern look and said emphatically, “And by the way, we don’t ‘get rid’ of our elected officials, young lady. We need to have more respect for our public servants than to talk of discarding them so callously—irrespective of your opinion of them.” One day, of course, she will question everything I ever told her after she’s dug up yellowed copies of the Long Island Press and perused my vituperative political diatribes. She has plenty of time to reach the jaded pinnacle of life her father occupies now. Until then she should breathe deeply because the air is as thin up here as my patience.

Where was I? Right, 9:30 p.m. Since the world had careened by me in the past half hour and I could only bog down our reporters with inane questions, I settled into my normal caveman routine, obsessively navigating BOE websites and watching television coverage. Since candidates were declaring victory before any votes were tabulated, I assumed the new voting machines were so stealth they auto-tweeted the results and bypassed the media. The only thing left was to watch the flurry of victory and concession speeches, and call it a night.

And then the waiting began.

Sometime in the 11 o’clock hour, after watching the News12 anchors stumble through the broadcast—despite the valiant attempts of the field reporters, Jerry Kremer and Mike Dawidziak, to salvage it—my wife gave up and went to bed. My phone stopped ringing and e-mails ceased shortly thereafter. Even the dog limped away from me and fell asleep somewhere around midnight. By 1:30 a.m. the results were still trickling in with some local and statewide candidates declaring victory; others would have to wait a few more hours or even a lengthy recount. Either way, the early evening mania was a distant memory by this time and no one seemed to know why the results were taking so long.

Much of the uncertainty was put to rest today, and there were few surprises. New Yorkers thought better of Carl Paladino and otherwise returned to their pre-Obama voting habits, complete with the state Senate delegation (almost) back in Republican control. Democrats and moderate Republicans outside of New York were abused, and the House tipped dramatically to the right, while Senate Dems held on for dear life. The real story is the Tea Party newbies and whether anger-fueled rhetoric will convert to policy and reform, or wind up in gridlock and rancor. My guess is the latter because Washington D.C., is about to be overtaken by too many rookie politicians who are probably mouthing Robert Redford’s immortal words from The Candidate: “What do we do now?”

Mid-Term Elections

Dubya

Former President George W. Bush indicated last week that his chief regret from his tenure in office was not privatizing Social Security.

Let’s allow that to sink in for a moment… (Sits back in chair and taps finger pensively on chin and whistles a wee tune from the old country.)

Soooooooo, two protracted wars, economic Armageddon, Osama Bin Laden still among the living, a historic bailout (yes, the first big one was his), the greatest disparity in wealth since the run-up to the Great Depression, a blown surplus he inherited and a record deficit he left us with don’t necessarily rank among W’s regrets. This is why the good Lord invented mid-term elections, a time to evaluate the consequences of our most recent electoral decisions and issue a popular referendum to our leaders. And there’s nothing like a stinging recession to draw the ire of the masses—something that was absent during the foggy days of the Bush administration. Barack Obama will have no such luck next week.

The favored prognostications on the mid-terms have a throw-the-baby-out-with-the-bathwater feel to them. The recalcitrant Tea Party wing nuts have Democrats flip-flopping and Republicans retrenching, and the polling appears to be more out of touch with political reality than the Dow Jones Industrial Average is out of touch with the economic reality of the times we live in. So, while there is little doubt our elected officials will be wildly tossed about on election night, I don’t think anyone can accurately predict where the pieces will land. This applies equally to the national, state and local landscapes.

For my part, I will assume my normal election night posture. This is my Superbowl. No, this is my Uberbowl. After lovingly putting my children to sleep and sweetly kissing my bride, I take up residence on my couch with a laptop, a television, a home phone and a BlackBerry. Beside me rests a bowl of popcorn and a six-pack of Blue Point Toasted Lager to be consumed throughout the evening. At the other end of the myriad communication devices at my disposal are my dedicated editors and reporters who live for this night as I do, strategically positioned at disparate campaign headquarters so they can send me timely updates and anecdotes; the vast majority of the latter are typically inappropriate and not for publication but amusing nonetheless.

But election night is just the capstone to this wild and bitter campaign season that has been gaining steam since the crowning of President Obama. The weeks and months leading up to this election have seen hope replaced by fanaticism, while an estimated $3 billion has been spent assailing the public with dirty-bomb messaging. The media have spent an unprecedented amount of energy dissecting the sources of campaign financing, which has undergone a sea change due to opaque contributions from major donors. The funding is sheltered primarily by committees organized under the 501(c)(4) designation for non-profits that’s now expanded to include advocacy groups. In recent election cycles major donors and corporations have skirted the funding limitations of political action committees (PACs), which require transparency and place limits on contributions, by donating to 501(c)(4) groups who run political ads. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled this year to allow the continuation of this practice, which led Obama to courageously criticize the justices during his State of the Union speech just days after this decision was handed down. This action was indeed courageous because rebuking the Supreme Court in such a public fashion is almost taboo. More importantly, his comments were prescient, and we are all living with the results.

But the media’s obsession with campaign financing and public figures such as Karl Rove, who helped organize perhaps the biggest group—Crossroads Grassroots Policy Strategies—is noise. The Democrats and major backers like George Soros used this loophole to great advantage in the last cycle; but this go-around the Republicans perfected it. Since time immemorial money has been finding its way to politicians. Whether it’s a bag of cash exchanged in a hotel room or a shady “policy group” taking cheap shots in a TV ad over a politician’s war record, campaign cash moves quickly through the Beltway. So while the sheer volume of donations is unprecedented, I find the whole thing quite unremarkable. The only people who give massive sums of money are the people who have it and want more of it.

The argument over secret funding and the anger manufactured from special interest groups preying on people’s fears are what we call gorilla dust. Hopefully Jon Stewart’s rally in D.C. this weekend will indeed restore sanity, and voters will make calculated decisions, not emotional ones. In the waning days of the campaign, when every other television ad is political, newspaper editors make their grand declarations and campaign managers are plagued by carpal tunnel syndrome from tweeting, texting and emailing, do your best to keep your head about you.

Remember that while big things are happening at the top, much of the work is getting done in the trenches. If you’re unhappy with Obama and want to send a message by turning Congress upside down, knock yourself out. Likewise, if you’re tired of the Republicans being the “party of no,” then let Obama keep his House in order. But that lever in the voting booth or oval on the ballot has little to do with the state senator who funded improvements to your library or the town council member who heard your protests at a board meeting and put in a stop sign on your block.

While public tumult is a good thing that keeps our elected officials on their toes and prevents George W. Bush-like amnesia down the road, it can also lead to bad decisions. Or as my father says: everything in moderation… except, of course, on election night in my den.

Carl Paladino: The Mad Hatter of the Tea Party

Does anyone have a cot? Hammock? Jesus, my kingdom for a nap!

It’s a race to the bottom in this year’s mid-term elections and the bubbling cauldron of discontent is spilling into the streets. As the negative campaigning blossoms all around us I cannot help but hum, “It’s the most wonderful time of the year,” every time I see candidates passing out literature or trading daily insults in my inbox. My unabashed love for political theater during this silly season sucks me obsessively into the fray, allowing me to once again forgive my New York Mets for not playing October baseball.

This season is a doozy. No incumbent is safe and everything is fair game. Hope has turned to hatred and voters are wandering the streets with pitchforks and torches ready to perform their civic duty and pull the lever, er, fill in the bubble for the candidate best able

No one, it seems, is more pissed off than Carl Paladino. This guy eats anger for breakfast and spits nails at babies and old people. He’s “taking out” reporters and “taking a bat” to Albany. Oh yeah, it’s on! Unfortunately, “pissed off” is not a legitimate platform no matter how much it resonates with an intemperate electorate. The only thing worse is manufactured outrage, perfectly displayed (again, but sans wagging finger at Hillary) by former gubernatorial candidate Rick Lazio, who attempted to hijack the movement against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque.” You can’t fake anger… You gotta live it.

Yet despite the palpable fury that surrounds so many campaigns and the no-holds-barred negative campaigning now taking place, no candidate has found a way to take it to the next level. Let’s journey into awesomeness and storyboard a Paladino commercial that would really stir things up.

The screen is black. Pitch black. The only sound we hear is a match being lit as we barely make out the silhouette of Carl Paladino touching the flame to the end of a cigarette. As the tip burns and the glow of the match illuminates everything but those (really troubling) black circles beneath his eyes (seriously, this guy really needs a nap), the camera slowly pulls back to reveal the candidate on the steps of the Capitol in Albany.

Suddenly the screaming cries of an electric guitar break the silence as Paladino begins walking down the stairs in slow motion with a baseball bat in one hand, gas can in the other and the cigarette dangling from his scowling lips. He pauses at the bottom step and throws the empty gas can to the ground, wheels around deftly on one foot and points ominously in the direction of the building behind him, like the Babe. In one swift motion Paladino grips his own trademark bat, spits the burning butt from his mouth and swings away like Joaquin Phoenix at the end of that M. Night Shyamalan movie and connects with the cigarette, sending it careening toward the Capitol. As the music hits a crescendo and the camera captures every angle of the shot heard round the state, it pulls in tight on the arc of the cigarette cutting through the dank Albany sky. Cut the music. The cigarette falls to the ground, and the camera captures our dark, mysterious hero as he turns in slow motion, gives the audience a wry smile, and begins walking again.

Boom! Flames shoot high into the sky as the Capitol blows to smithereens, engulfing the city in flames and black smoke, with the soundtrack at full tilt. Through the haze Paladino emerges unscathed with his bat slung over his shoulder, the smile now faded from his countenance. He peers menacingly into the camera as the chorus of guitars strike a final exhausted and dissonant chord and he utters, “Next stop. The White House.” Fade to black.

Now that’s what I’m talking about! If Carl Paladino is going to be the Mad Hatter of this Tea Party, then his collateral marketing should look more like the collateral damage this party is causing.

But this isn’t Wonderland, though it seems we have all lost our heads. Political theater may be fun for political junkies, but this is serious business and these are difficult times that require cooler heads and real answers. Like it or not, our political system is a complex and fragile infrastructure built on the backs of the working class who need to be protected, not riled up. It’s time to leave the Tea Party far down the rabbit hole and wake up from this dream. There’s work to be done.