Monday, August 30, 2021

The Obama Iconography Tour

 The insipidly iconic Mona Lisa sadly will not be embarking on any more world tours to entertain and inspire the teeming desperate masses of our dying planet. For despite the pleas of French officials anxious to prove their diversity cred, her handlers at the Louvre nixed the idea for good and all in 2018.  La Giaconda, as she is also known, has become so fragile that every time the art medics remove her from her bulletproof glass-encased frame for her annual airing, a new crack extending from the tips of her fingers to the top of her forehead grows just a wee bit wider. She'll never leave home again. There's even been talk of canceling her altogether, given that not only is she falling apart, she is vastly overrated as a work of art. She is above all a marketing product of unfettered capitalism.

No such danger for the more nouveau official portraits of Barack and Michelle Obama, which the art-marketing world declared to be instant classical icons the very minute they were unveiled at The Smithsonian for good and all in 2018  The Obamas themselves may have developed some cracks in their own carefully curated images as a result of that ill-advised pandemic birthday bash they staged earlier this month at their faux chateau on Martha's Vineyard. But you wouldn't know it from the sold-out opening of the Brooklyn Art Museum leg of their national iconography tour this past weekend. 

 Advance reservations, proof of vaccination and photo I.D.s are all required to stand in awe before the Obama simulacra for no longer than 15 minutes. Tickets are already going fast, according to the Brooklyn Brownstoner, a real estate guide whose core mission is alerting the upwardly mobile to the latest million-dollar bungalow in Crown Heights.

Not for nothing is one of the major financial sponsors of the show a New York real estate developer and gentrifier named Donald A. Capoccia. Other backers include Hollywood director Stephen Spielberg, racehorse  breeder Robert Meyerhoff, and insurance tycoon Tommie Pegues. 

The tour's biggest corporate sponsor is the notorious Bank of America, which reached one particular sweetheart settlement (out of several) with Obama's Justice Department for mortgage and securities fraud that actually gifted it with $2 in government credits for every dollar that it returned to its foreclosed victims. Bankrolling the Portraits Tour is the least that BOA can do for its loyal protector.

In case you can't score the same sort of timed tickets to gawk at and take selfies with the Obama simulacra that the Louvre requires of tourists to gaze upon the Mona Lisa, please don't despair. You can have all the time you need to eyeball facsimiles of the facsimiles of the Obamas in a very special souvenir coffee table book published just for the occasion.

The Smithsonian gift shop ever so subtly pitches the merch to the discerning art lover: 

After witnessing a woman drop to her knees in prayer before the portrait of Barack Obama, one guard said, “No other painting gets the same kind of reactions. Ever.” The Obama Portraits is the first book about the making, meaning, and significance of these remarkable artworks.

Richly illustrated with images of the portraits, exclusive pictures of the Obamas with the artists during their sittings, and photos of the historic unveiling ceremony by former White House photographer Pete Souza, this book offers insight into what these paintings can tell us about the history of portraiture and American culture. The volume also features a transcript of the unveiling ceremony, which includes moving remarks by the Obamas and the artists. A reversible dust jacket allows readers to choose which portrait to display on the front cover.

If you didn't fall for that pitch, then you might be suspected of occult Donald Trump fandom. Worse, if you don't think that Obama starting more wars, dropping more bombs, deporting more migrants and evicting more people from their homes than any other modern president were positive achievements by the Adult In the Room,  then you might as well just stoop to sneakily viewing them right here, for free, in all their glorious lo-def pulchritude: 

Or, if you tastelessly insist upon realism in your art:

Meanwhile, if you're among the millions of renters in Brooklyn and all over America who are in imminent danger of losing your home because the Supreme Court cruelly overturned the national eviction moratorium, don't fret. Because arch-conservative Trump appointee Amy Coney Barrett showed that she really does have a heart after all, in favoring Obama and unilaterally denying a bid by environmentalists and neighborhood preservationists to block construction of his massive shrine. (dare to read the fact-based criticism of this vanity project at Jackson Park Watch.)

  Look on the bright side, naysayers! To prove that there's no such thing as the class war, to demonstrate that there really is equality between plutocrats and struggling renters, the Obama Foundation will now be forced to pay rent. They signed an unconscionable lease with the strapped city of Chicago for a staggering $10 yearly rate (not a typo!)  for the next 99 years. Lucky people like you and me, on the other hand, have the freedom to commit to unconscionable leases every single year of our lives.

 And what's with people needing affordable housing and boring public parks anyway? According to the Obama Foundation, what people in the Jackson Park area need most of all is a state-of-the-art recording studio in the neighborhood to inspire, empower, and uplift them. As Obama himself was always wont to say: "Don't be cynical. Stop complaining. Get out there and vote!"

As the cutting-down of as many as 800 shade-providing, pollution-filtering, oxygen-creating, art-inspiring trees in Jackson Park begins, the Obama project explains that all that iconic lumber will be responsibly used to custom-build furniture to fill his own monument.

 The Foundation celebrated the groundbreaking like this:
The project serves as a catalyst for long-overdue investment in and around historic Jackson Park — creating a new destination to move visitors from hope to action, breathing new life into the park, and delivering amenities and economic benefits to the community the Obamas called home."

Notice the past tense. Besides their mansion in Washington, D.C. and their ocean-front chateau on Martha's Vineyard, the Obamas are also constructing a winter vacation compound in Hawaii. They will breathe new life into the South Pacific air even as they help exterminate life in the actual Pacific Ocean. As ProPublica reported last year, Obama friend and Foundation president Martin Nesbitt finagled an expansion of the sea wall to ensure that they get the privacy they crave. This construction will endanger such species as monkfish and sea turtles, and is otherwise banned in Hawaii. Nesbitt, incidentally, is also one of the backers of the current Obama Icon Tour, whose ostensible purpose is to foster good will and art appreciation among Peoples. 

Climate change? When you have a manufactured icon sharing the planet with you, what more could you possibly want? For as long as their shell games are plastered with enough glitter to disguise the gruesomeness, as long as there's oligarchic Superglue both to sniff and to mend the widening cracks in their facades, as long as glib performance art is more valued than human decency, there will always be Obamas.

Wednesday, August 25, 2021

The Fog of Public Opinion

Nearly half the US population now wants government to censor online "misinformation." And an even greater number of American citizens are totally on board with the tech oligarchs of Silicon Valley taking it upon their august selves to censor everything that we see, hear, and read.

At least, that's according to a recent survey conducted by the Pew Research Center. But before you conclude that your fellow human beings have suddenly become the victims of an epidemic of  Authoritarian Personality Disorder, a different survey conducted at around the same time found, paradoxically enough, that most Americans also think that the government should do a lot more to rein in the tech oligarchs of Silicon Valley.  

People are ambivalent, and confused, and they have been since the dawn of time. So what else is new? 

And polls are definitely skewed. The one just concluding that the American appetite for censorship has increased by a whopping 33 percent in just the past three years is, of course, directly linked to the Covid pandemic and the mixed messaging on vaccine efficacy emanating from both reliable ("scientific") and unreliable ("partisan") sources. Given that the definition of "government" itself is also so skewed along partisan and class lines, the results of this poll are probably unreliable on their face.

 But pollsters gotta poll. How else can our politicians serve the public? How else can our politicians get away with not only doing nothing to make people's lives better, but blaming all the divisive and divided people out there in the hinterland who, stupid as they are, were nonetheless smart enough to vote them into office? 

Manufactured public opinion stalemates are just what the pollster ordered to effectuate legislative gridlock, which in turn only helps the rich to grow richer and the poor to grow not only poorer, but as atomized and isolated and oppressed as is inhumanly possible.

The subliminal message in the recent Pew poll results is that only ignorant right-wingers are against benevolent censorship by the government-tech consortium of thought leaders. Educated liberals supposedly are the ones who want the discourse controlled. Ergo, if you don't like censorship, then it automatically follows that you are a Trump supporter, a Russian asset, a non-woke bigot, or any number of distasteful things you would never be caught dead being.  Everything must be deemed misinformation and disinformation until proven otherwise by a shadowy panel of unnamed experts.

 From the Pew Research Center's synopsis of the pro-censorship poll results:

Partisan views on whether technology companies should take such steps have also grown further apart. Roughly three-quarters of Democrats (76%) now say tech companies should take steps to restrict false information online, even at the risk of limiting information freedoms. A majority of Republicans (61%) express the opposite view – that those freedoms should be protected, even if it means false information can be published online. In 2018, the parties were closer together on this question, though most Democrats still supported action by tech firms.

Corporate Democrats and their acolytes began supporting censorship in droves just as Donald Trump took power and the paranoid Russiagate propaganda franchise dreamed up by the defeated Clinton team took off and infiltrated mainstream media with a vengeance. The ultra-right Republicans later wasted no time in weaponizing Covid, turning both the disease and its preventions and its treatments into another front in the perpetual Culture Wars. These dueling propaganda campaigns are at their cores an intra-oligarchic battle that simultaneously serves to entertain and terrorize the hapless spectators in the stands while effectively keeping their minds off such monstrous scandals as the orchestrated, deliberate, bipartisan lying about the war in Afghanistan.

The alleged majority of  people who want the "government" to stop the bad actors from spreading lies about vaccines and the pandemic should also ponder what late great muckraking journalist I.F. Stone had to say: All governments lie, but disaster lies in wait for countries whose officials smoke the same hashish they give out.”

What with climate catastrophes, refugee catastrophes, health catastrophes, is it politically correct to say that government is collapsing, and disaster is already here? Maybe Pew can do another poll to see what people think about that, not to mention ask them what they're smoking these days.

And about that poll purporting to show that increasing numbers of people are craving the censorship drug to keep them feeling safe and secure? Read the fine print about their methodology, and you find that the 11,000-odd respondents are part of a pre-selected American Trends Panel (ATP) who have been recruited ("persuaded") over the years to take part in frequent and very time-consuming public opinion surveys. Although new people are recruited all the time, Pew acknowledges that 

 Another concern is that repeated questioning of the same individuals may yield different results than we would obtain with independent or “fresh” samples. If the same questions are asked repeatedly, respondents may remember their answers and feel some pressure to be consistent over time. The reverse is also a concern, as respondents might become “conditioned” to change their behavior because of questions asked previously. For example, questions about voting might spur them to register to vote. Respondents also become more skilled at answering particular kinds of questions. This may be beneficial in some instances, but to the extent it occurs, the panel results may be different from what would have been obtained from independent samples of people who have not had the practice in responding to surveys. Fortunately, research has detected no meaningful conditioning on the ATP.

So have the people who have been recruited also been subjected to polling to find out whether they've been overly conditioned by polling itself? Remember, there would have been plenty of cross-over between the respondents who wanted more censorship by Big Tech one week, but more reining in of Big Tech just a week or two before. 

I myself was once recruited by a polling outfit during the 2012 presidential campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, and I agreed to participate. It took a good half hour of my time. I remember answering "none of the above" to several multiple choice questions which I considered too artificially narrow in scope. I even asked the pollster whether my own ad hoc answers would be accepted. (They would not be.) When I said that I would not be voting for either Obama or Romney but would be casting my vote for Jill Stein, my answer was duly entered as "not voting."

But according to Pew, being subjected to continuous polling not only forces people to clamp down on their previous answers and opinions for the sake of consistency, it also nudges them to get out there and vote for the candidates they were so narrowly asked about!  I guess that makes me a polling failure. I am not an ideal candidate for the ATP Club.

How many people who don't automatically hang up the phone when a pollster invariably calls right in the middle of dinner are just plain lonely and desperate for the sound of another human voice? How many answer because they have a home and a phone in the first place, meaning they are minimally well off, have plenty of disposable time, and don't have to work two or three gigs just to make ends barely meet, and are therefore not much in favor of radical social policies outside of the parameters of the polling questions? How many respondents engage with pollsters just to mess with their heads? 

I don't know, but maybe they can do a poll about it.

Meanwhile, what are all my fellow Sardonickists thinking (or smoking)?

Thursday, August 12, 2021

Making Sense of the Census

 The bad news for reactionaries is that for the first time in American history, white people are rapidly becoming outnumbered by black and brown people and people of Asian descent, but especially by those identifying as mixed race, who now represent the majority of younger people surveyed.

The good news for reactionaries is that the fastest-growing metro area in all of America is The Villages of central Florida, a planned retirement community made up almost exclusively of well-off conservative white people. They might also take heart from the rapid growth in Phoenix, an historically conservative city in an historically conservative state.

The bad news for reactionaries is that the denizens of The Villages are old, and young people in general are giving them fewer and fewer grandkids. Not because the childless all hate kids, but because they can't afford them due to education debt, low wages, unaffordable housing and lack of medical care - especially in the age of Covid.  And so, when the Villagers and their ilk die off, black and brown and Asian and mixed-race people will outnumber white people by even greater percentages.

 As far as Phoenix is concerned, the climate crisis alone ensures that the lack of water will force the denizens of the desert to move sooner rather than later.

The only thing that might keep white reactionaries still believing that they rule supreme by superficial dint of their skin color will be if elderly Florida resident Donald Trump (or, god forfend, a younger smarter reactionary) wins back the White House and a GOP Congress abolishes the Census for good and all, thus completing the disenfranchisement of black, brown, Asian and mixed race people for good and all. They can make up their redistricting maps the same way that Trump once used a black sharpie to draw a fake hurricane trajectory on a map.  If they can only stop counting inconvenient people, then maybe we will cease to exist!

From the New York Times:

The data offered the most detailed picture of race in America since the last decennial census in 2010, —and they are also the basis for redistricting, a process in which state legislatures redraw voting lines based on changes in their states’ populations.

The increase in the numbers of people who identify as Asian and Hispanic was less dramatic than in previous decades, but still much more robust than the increase in the number of Americans who checked the box for white or Black.

The good news (or so they think) for the liberal side of the gerontocracy is that will now glom on to their shallow identity politics platform with an even greater vengeance. Their challenge is to prevent increasing numbers of leftist or socialist black, brown, white, Asian and mixed-race candidates from winning seats in Congress and in state legislatures while still professing to fight against the structural racism and classism that they themselves continue to champion and perpetuate, if only by orchestrated inaction. To "moderates" like them, it doesn't matter that black and brown people comprise the majority of the unvaccinated, largely because they have no paid time off, no reliable transportation and less "access" to the Internet - not to mention the historical lack of medical care in general. It's so much easier for these political leaders and pundits to blame ignorant white anti-mask cultists for the spread of Covid, rather than their own failure to enact Medicare For All, loan forgiveness, guaranteed income/living wage of at least $25 an hour, and subsidized child care.

One snippet of good news for the poor and working class is that just like their GOP partners in crime and political theater, these corrupt Democrats are also getting older by the day. In some rare cases, they might actually retire from public service even as, thanks to their own guaranteed no-cost health care, they defy the plummeting life expectancy rate in the richest country on earth.

The bad news for the poor and working class is that red-state Florida and Texas stand to gain the most House seats in redistricting, while the blue states of New York and California stand to lose the most. 

New York and California, despite their Democratic majorities, are losing voters precisely because they have set the records for the most extreme wealth inequality in the United States. Once the eviction moratoriums expire, this juxtaposition of billionaires and homeless people will become more glaringly obvious than ever. It will be harder than ever for liberal elites to point their enlightened scolding fingers at Florida and Texas and claim moral superiority just because they ever so occasionally deign to elevate brown, black, Asian and mixed race people to their own ranks, using them as cynical token cover while the planet burns and they fly their private jets to one another's yachts and transactional birthday parties.

Perhaps the worst news of all for the historically marginalized minority communities whose numbers are growing is that they will not be able to keep their precarious communities together long enough to draw new voting districts, as the housing and eviction crises get worse by cruel design. Solidarity among people is simply not in the interests of the billionaire class. They can remain obscenely rich only as long as too many people remain obscenely poor.

Monday, August 2, 2021

The Narrative Souffle Is Overbeaten and Collapsing

"Sir, there is something on your chin," read the aide's discreet note, whereupon President Biden swiped something yellow off his face with his finger, peered closely at the little blob of goo, and then proceeded to nonchalantly pop it into his mouth.

I guess it could have been worse. Biden could have been choking on his own word salad again, and the aide, perhaps privy to a recent top-secret PET scan, could have discreetly written "Sir, you have swiss cheese for a brain. When you refer to the talking points that we so carefully write down for you on your cue card,  could you just for once also please remember to keep it out of camera range?"

Luckily for Biden, neither the gross food/bodily secretion recycling incident nor any other "gaffes" are receiving any coverage at all in establishment liberal media. You just have to grit your teeth and hold your nose and gingerly descend into the deepest depths of right-wing and click-bait media like Yahoo!, Fox, and the The Daily Mail to see either the above clip or the recent suggestion by former White House physician and current congress-critter Ronny Jackson that Biden should be subject to emergency cognitive testing. Of course, given that Jackson had also once opined that the overweight and hypertensive Donald Trump would live to be a hundred, you can pretty much rest assured that his concern about what could be early signs of dementia in Biden are not altruistically medical, but crassly political. 

On the other hand, you can also rest assured that if it had been Trump oafishly wolfing down a glob of mystery goo that he'd just picked off his face, it would have been trending at Number One on CNN, the most trusted name in nooze. That's why it's always a good idea to get your nooze from the entire duopolistic spectrum of A to B, the better to bypass all the censorship by omission while at the same time using your own critical thinking skills to sidestep all the virtual La Brea tarpits bubbling over with gooey propaganda. Swallowing whole, no matter how outrage-inducing or delectable that any given nooze-morsel might seem at first glance, is not only a choking hazard, it can wreak havoc with your overloaded information digestive system.

 That's a daunting prospect for sure, especially given that most of us are too beaten down by neoliberalism and too worried about our own precarious lives to indulge in media criticism as yet another side-gig. But here's where we might finally be getting lucky ourselves.

On the surface, it might seem lucky for Biden that he is still being treated with kid gloves by the liberal establishment media. But anybody with a functioning brain can also plainly see that their myriad official narratives have so many holes in them that they're collapsing faster than an overbeaten swiss cheese souffle. When powerful establishment figures start turning on each other, like House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is now turning on the White House for not extending the national eviction moratorium, that leaves a fleeting power vacuum that the rest of us can and must fill.

When progressive "squad" maven Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is so cowed by Medicare For All agitators that she has to close her district office, she has received the message that her pithy tweets against Republicans don't cut it any more. She should be smart enough to realize that unless the "progressive" wing of the House of "Representatives" uses its very real leverage in the here and now, she might even lose her seat.

Notwithstanding the establishment media's tacit agreement to ignore Biden's cognitive issues, the role of the establishment media as a government mouthpiece is beginning to wobble. There is widespread agreement that both the White House and its private corporate partners jumped the gun in declaring victory over the pandemic early this summer, as they made a euphoric return to "normal" their highest priority. Watching the poobahs undercut each other on mask-wearing, eviction moratoriums and the spread of the virus even among the vaccinated is a sign that the ruling class is weakening, at least insofar as their propaganda narratives are concerned. They all look bad, because they're all, in fact, guilty of putting profits over people. Nothing points to their cynical self-dealing more than the current eviction crisis.

Take the White House's pathetic rationale for not extending the eviction moratorium. Since Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh wrote in a majority opinion upholding the moratorium that any further extension would require an act of Congress, Biden's flouting of this judicial opinion could, his legal minions claim, lead to the Court overthrowing further executive public health actions, possibly even declaring that in the future, no president can ever again declare a public health emergency for any reason whatsoever. The Black Plague could make a comeback and wipe out half the population, and the US president still would be powerless to order a mass lockdown. Therefore, Biden claims he has no other choice but to let millions of people lose the roofs over their heads during the current pandemic. It's a flimsy claim at best.

Now, if Biden were really proactive, he would have attempted to overhaul the court by now, so that reactionary ideologues like Brett Kavanaugh would not have such outsize power to effectively dictate public policy. 

Instead, Status Quo Joe did the cynical thing. He appointed a commission to study Supreme Court reform, and he even appointed a stalwart Brett Kavanaugh defender to sit on it, all but ensuring that, once again, "nothing will fundamentally change."

Just as Biden punted tenant protections to Congress just as they were leaving for their summer vacation, he is now using the Supreme Court as another excuse to do nothing. As The Nation's Elie Mystal writes,

Perhaps even more troubling, instead of balancing some of the center-left people on the commission with more, or any, outspoken advocates of court reform, Biden went the other way and put Federalist Society scholars and judges in there to drag the whole thing to the right. I cannot recall the last time a Republican president bothered even to consult a Democratic voice, never mind a genuinely left voice, on how to proceed with a matter related to the Supreme Court. But Democrats continue to act like they need a hall pass from Republicans before they take any action.

If Biden didn't have the Court as his partner in crime, he can always fall back on such useful idiots as Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, not to mention Senate Parliamentarian Elizabeth McDonough, all but designated by Biden as America's official Pope-Queen for her power to impede Democratic reconciliation bills. This is legislation introduced by the ultra-slim liberal majority to great fanfare, great grandstanding, and most important of all, great re-election fundraising campaigns to show how much they care and how hard they are fighting for us.

But, gosh darn it, their poor grasping hands are tied. They like to say they're being thwarted by those nasty old Republicans. But let's get real. It is more obvious with every passing day that these supposed handcuffs are nothing but cheap canned silly string.

They all have egg on their faces, not to mention the ice water mush flowing sluggishly through their tortuous veins.