Monday Reads: A Game of ThronesPosted: March 3, 2014
I’ve been watching two HBO series recently as well as doing my usual reading of the latest news. I’ve sensed a theme. I’m not sure if it’s because it’s what I’m fascinated with, drawn to, or surround by in this existence. But, every where I look I see power brokers and money and ultimately war and violence against mostly the poor, women, and children. This is true in the worlds of True Detective and Game of Thrones which are fiction but appear to be loosely based on the corrupt mess of politics and religion in Louisiana and the nastiness of England’s War of the Roses respectively. It’s also true if you look around.
Grabbing power and vast wealth takes money, cunning, and the naked willingness to do anything to further one’s fortunes. Every one else be damned! I looked for news for the morning post and it appears that fiction does indeed mimic real life because the same threads of deceit and power grabbing rule the headlines too. Evil power brokers and tyrants looking for more territory don’t only exist in the pages of literature and the visuals of cinema. They also don’t just haunt the pages of medieval history or swampy, backwards Louisiana. The desire to corrupt the corruptible for personal gain is every where.
“People are really drawn to the Koch model,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a New York hedge fund investor and Republican fund-raiser, who attended the Kochs’ annual donor conference near Palm Springs, Calif., in January. “It’s adaptive, data-driven, and they are the most propitious capital allocators in political activism.”
The quiet revolt signals a broader shift in the world of big money. Clubs of elite donors in both parties are taking a more central role in shaping policy and campaigns, displacing party leaders and the outside-spending organizations they helped create after the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010. And the sheer scale of their spending is almost certain to rewrite the playbook for political campaigns this year, as candidates reckon with the strongly held views of some of the world’s wealthiest people.
The phenomenon is not limited to the right. Super PACs blessed by Democratic congressional leaders have posted strong fund-raising over the last year, bolstered by victories in 2012. But those organizations are now being overshadowed by donors like Tom Steyer, the billionaire who is raising a $100 million political fund with other wealthy environmentalists to battle politicians deemed hostile to climate regulation.
Parties have “lost the ability to control the process,” said Jim Nicholson, a former chairman of the Republican National Committee, partly because of legislation that cut the flow of money to party committees. “The party can’t coordinate with these super PACs and neither can the campaigns, so there’s a lot more chaos and disequilibrium in the campaigns. And the party structure clearly has a diminished role because they don’t have the resources they used to have.”
Rob Stein, a founder of the Democracy Alliance, one of the largest clubs of donors on the left, agreed.
“The devolution of the two-party system has begun,” Mr. Stein said. “Money is leaving the parties and going to independent expenditure groups. These now are fracturing the ‘big tents’ of our old two-party system into independent, narrow and well-funded wings.”
We’ve seen the Republican party struggle recently with so many factions that it has nearly made the country ungovernable. The powerful–who once thought that religious kooks were their pawns–are now looking to other means of addressing their greed and expansion needs. I’m watching Mary Landrieu be assaulted on TV by Koch Brothers money right now. There is not even a challenger at the moment although there are several very extremist congressmen hanging about in the wings. The point appears to be to remove the obstacles first. I’m not sure that they very much care about the overall results as long as the resulting chaos creates an environment where they can thrive without oversight and responsibility for the havoc they cause.
It’s also fascinating to watch Putin flex those old KGB muscles in the Crimea. The same teapots seem to brew endless tempests. Wow. Did the establishment media and analysts miss this one. They’d do a lot better spending time with reruns of Game of Thrones than sitting in their Georgetown condos discussing their talents for taking complex concepts and boiling them down to digestible and infinitely discussable bits of prose and sound bytes.
Nobody, including us, is infallible about the future. Giving the public your best thoughts about where things are headed is all a poor pundit (or government analyst) can do. But this massive intellectual breakdown has a lot to do with a common American mindset that is especially built into our intellectual and chattering classes. Well educated, successful and reasonably liberal minded Americans find it very hard to believe that other people actually see the world in different ways. They can see that Vladimir Putin is not a stupid man and that many of his Russian officials are sophisticated and seasoned observers of the world scene. American experts and academics assume that smart people everywhere must want the same things and reach the same conclusions about the way the world works.
How many times did foolishly confident American experts and officials come out with some variant of the phrase “We all share a common interest in a stable and prosperous Ukraine.” We may think that’s true, but Putin doesn’t.
We blame this in part on the absence of true intellectual and ideological diversity in so much of the academy, the policy world and the mainstream media. Most college kids at good schools today know many more people from different races and cultural groups than their grandparents did, but they are much less exposed to people who think outside the left-liberal box. How many faithful New York Times readers have no idea what American conservatives think, much less how Russian oligarchs do? Well bred and well read Americans live in an ideological and cultural cocoon and this makes them fatally slow to understand the very different motivations that animate actors ranging from the Tea Party to the Kremlin to, dare we say it, the Supreme Leader and Guide of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
As far as we can tell, the default assumption guiding our political leadership these days is that the people on the other side of the bargaining table (unless they are mindless Tea Party Republicans) are fundamentally reasonable people who see the world as we do, and are motivated by the same things that motivate us. Many people are, of course, guided by an outlook not all that dissimilar from the standard upper middle class gentry American set of progressive ideas. But some aren’t, and when worlds collide, trouble comes.
Too much of the Washington policy establishment looks around the world and sees only reflections of its own enlightened self. That’s natural and perhaps inevitable to some degree. The people who rise through the competitive bureaucracies of American academic, media and think tank life tend to be those who’ve most thoroughly absorbed and internalized the set of beliefs and behavioral norms that those institutions embody and respect. On the whole, those beliefs and norms have a lot going for them. It would not be an improvement if America’s elite institutions started to look more like their counterparts in Russia or Zimbabwe.
But while those ideas and beliefs help people rise through the machinery of the American power system, they can get in the way when it comes to understanding the motives and calculations of people like President Putin. The best of the journalists, think tankers and officials will profit from the Crimean policy fiasco and will never again be as smug or as blind as so much of Washington was last week. The mediocre majority will go on as before.
It seems power brokers do lose interest though. A few years ago, this skirmish was centermost on the minds of those folks getting their opiate on via the Oscars last night. There is just one more imperialist army left in the Afghanistan dirt. Russia has moved on from there. And, now, so do we. There is one more little outraged pawn exiting the global throne room.
In an unusually emotional interview, the departing Afghan president sought to explain why he has been such a harsh critic of the 12-year-old U.S. war effort here. He said he’s deeply troubled by all the casualties he has seen, including those in U.S. military operations. He feels betrayed by what he calls an insufficient U.S. focus on targeting Taliban sanctuaries in Pakistan. And he insists that public criticism was the only way to guarantee an American response to his concerns.
To Karzai, the war was not waged with his country’s interests in mind.
“Afghans died in a war that’s not ours,’ he said in the interview, his first in two years with a U.S. newspaper.
In Karzai’s mind, al-Qaeda is “more a myth than a reality” and the majority of the United States’ prisoners here were innocent. He’s certain that the war was “for the U.S. security and for the Western interest.”
Such statements elicit scorn and shock from U.S. officials, who point out that Americans have sacrificed mightily for Afghanistan — losing more than 2,000 lives and spending more than $600 billion in the effort to defeat al-Qaeda and the Taliban and rebuild the country.
Let’s call it McDomination. It’s been a well thought out and highly financed war plan since the 1970s. Big Business and Power Brokers dislike all the little people taking to the streets about ecology and civil rights.
On August 23, 1971, Lewis Powell sent a confidential memo to his friend Eugene Sydnor, Jr., the director of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. The memo was both a call to arms and a battle plan for a business response to its growing legion of opponents. Powell was a corporate lawyer, a former president of the American Bar Association, and a board member of eleven corporations, including Philip Morris and the Ethyl Corporation, a company that made the lead for leaded gasoline. Powell had also represented the Tobacco Institute, the research arm of the tobacco industry, and various tobacco companies. Later that year, President Richard Nixon would nominate Powell to sit on the U.S. Supreme Court, where he served for fifteen years.
Powell’s memo serves as a useful starting point for understanding how the transformation of the corporate system that began in the 1970s set the stage for today’s global health problems. “No thoughtful person can question that the American economic system is under broad attack,” wrote Powell. “The assault on the enterprise system is broadly based and consistently pursued. It is gaining momentum and converts.” “One of the bewildering paradoxes of our time,” Powell continued, “is the extent to which the enterprise system tolerates, if not participates in, its own destruction.” He enumerated the system’s enemies: well-meaning liberals, government officials intent on regulating business, news media, student activists, and an emerging environmental and consumer movement— especially its most visible leader, Ralph Nader, in Powell’s view “the single most effective antagonist of American business.”
Powell called on business, especially the Chamber of Commerce, to end its “appeasement” of its critics and launch an aggressive and systematic counter-assault. The memo warned that “independent and uncoordinated activity by individual corporations, as important as this is, will not be sufficient. Strength lies in organization, in careful long-range planning and implementation, in consistency of action over an indefinite period of years … and in the political power available only though united action and national organizations.”
Powell urged new, well-funded public media campaigns to support the free enterprise system, the creation of think tanks and institutes to develop policy proposals and “direct political action” in legislative and judicial arenas. “It is time,” he argued, for “American business … to apply their great talents vigorously to the preservation of the system itself.” Powell’s “confidential” memo was first circulated within the Chamber of Commerce, then released in 1972 by investigative reporter Jack Anderson during the Powell Supreme Court confirmation hearings. While the document may not have been the blueprint for the rise of the Republican right that some analysts claim, its real value is as the articulation of the corporate prescription for capitalism’s ills.
Today, more than forty years after business took up Powell’s appeal, its success in achieving the goals he laid out makes it hard to fathom the depth of his concern.
A new fresh hell from the minds and money of Putin, Charles Koch, Ted Cruz, Henry Kissinger and Richard II . Perhaps I should be watching less dark fiction and I’d be less prone to pick up the similarities.
What’s on your reading and blogging list today.