Monday, November 3, 2008

Candidate of the establishment

IT WAS a sharp rebuke of the McCain campaign--sharper, in many ways, than anything that has come out of the mouths of Barack Obama or Joe Biden.

But what's more, in endorsing Obama on the news show Meet the Press in October, former Bush administration Secretary of State and retired Gen. Colin Powell became the most visible of a series of establishment conservatives who are repudiating John McCain and the Republicans and supporting the Democrat in this presidential election.

Powell was unequivocally critical of the hysterical scare tactics of the McCain-Palin team. About the focus on Obama's association with ex-Weather Underground leader Bill Ayers, he said:

Mr. McCain says that [Ayers is] a washed-up terrorist, but then why do we keep talking about him? And why do we have the robocalls going on around the country trying to suggest that because of this very, very limited relationship that Senator Obama has had with Mr. Ayers, somehow Mr. Obama is tainted. What they're trying to connect him to is some kind of terrorist feelings.

Powell slammed the Republican operatives who contribute to the rumors that Obama is a Muslim--but in a way that went much further in challenging Islamophobia than Obama and his fellow Democrats typically do:

Well, the correct answer is: He is not a Muslim, he's a Christian. He's always been a Christian. But the really right answer is: What if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country?

The answer's no, that's not America. Is there something wrong with some 7-year-old Muslim-American kid believing that he or she could be president? Yet I have heard senior members of my own party drop the suggestion, "He's a Muslim, and he might be associated with terrorists."

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THE RESPONSE to Powell's endorsement by the right's loudest voices, like Pat Buchanan and Rush Limbaugh, was predictable. "Entirely about race!" Limbaugh declared on his radio show.

But ranting won't hide the growing rift within the Republican Party--between Limbaugh-Buchanan social conservatives, corporate executives, conservative intellectuals and libertarians. Powell's comments represent the discontent among a wide section of Republicans with the voice of unreason in their party.

While the Republican right may be frightened by fantasies about the "terrorist sympathizer" and "socialist" Obama entering the White House, the business interests in the party are more scared by the disaster of the Bush presidency, and the inability or unwillingness of many Republican leaders to recognize failure and chart a new course.

As Lance Selfa wrote recently in his book The Democrats: A Critical History, "The ruling class of the world's largest and most technologically sophisticated economy is no longer wiling to invest millions in a party whose candidates kowtow to people who want to use the government to promote belief in creationism."

America's corporate and military elite sees its position in the world as weakened after eight years of George Bush in the White House.

Bush's war in Iraq was supposed to extend U.S. hegemony in the Middle East and domination over the world oil market. Instead, it has stretched the U.S. military to breaking point and left Washington's rivals--from Iran in the Middle East to China and Russia on the global scale--stronger. And now, in what may ultimately prove to be the more severe blow, Bush is responsible for presiding over the most severe financial crisis since the Great Depression.

Thus, to the rich, the Republican Party is looking like an even worse investment than mortgage-backed securities. Conservative columnist David Brooks described the extent to which big business money has left the Republican Party:

The Republicans have now alienated whole professions. Lawyers now donate to the Democratic Party over the Republican Party at 4-to-1 rates. With doctors, it's 2-to-1. With tech executives, it's 5-to-1. With investment bankers, it's 2-to-1. It took talent for the Republican Party to lose the banking community.

At one point, it seemed like John McCain's victory in the primaries represented a new direction for the Republicans. McCain was viewed as a moderate within the party, with a record of standing up to the Bush administration on some issues, and opposing the Christian Right's more fanatical positions.

But then, McCain chose the Christian Right's favorite, Sarah Palin, as his running mate--in the hopes of rallying the Republican's hardcore base and building some enthusiasm for his campaign machine to rival Obama's army of volunteers.

The idea worked with the base--three-quarters of self-identified Republicans think Palin was a good choice--but at the cost of alienating support outside the party, and outraging establishment voices within it who thought at least a McCain ticket could at least claim to be more experienced.

This elite section of the Republican Party had no problem with social conservatives--like Ronald Reagan or George W. Bush or Dan Quayle--so long as they advanced the position of Corporate American and the U.S. empire. But following the self-destruction of the Bush presidency, even the establishment recognizes that elements of the right-wing agenda have to be junked.

Exploiting fear and suspicion on the Christian Right's hot-button issues, such as same-sex marriage, doesn't have the same appeal among a wider electorate that has grown more tolerant and liberal on these questions--and so it is losing its usefulness in rallying support for a pro-business agenda.

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BUT THERE is another element to the splits that are fracturing the Republican Party--the way that the Democratic Party, led by Barack Obama, has made a bid for support from Wall Street and the political establishment.

Obama built an enthusiastic following based on his rhetoric about change, appealing to the bitterness that people feel toward the Bush presidency.

But Obama was always careful to suggest he would stop the "partisan battles" between the two parties. He has bragged for months about his Republican supporters, dubbed "Obamacans."

He staked out conservative ground on foreign policy issues--for example, giving a speech at the American-Israel Political Affairs Committee conference after clinching the nomination that took a position to the right of the Bush administration on Israel's war on the Palestinians. His choice of the ultimate political insider, Joe Biden, as a running mate was another gesture in the same direction.

And on economic issues, Obama was slower than his Democratic primary opponents, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards, to embrace anything approaching populist proposals.

In other words, Obama has positioned the Democrats to be viewed as the more reliable manger of U.S. corporate and imperial interests than the out-of-control Republicans.

Anyone who thinks that Obama, once in the White House, will abandon this positioning should think again. He has made himself the candidate of the U.S. ruling establishment--and he is certain to act as the president of that establishment, unless he faces pressure from below.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

W(hat, he worry?)

Oliver Stone's "W." doesn't probe as deep into the psyche of his subject as his "Nixon" does, but Stone makes the case--convincingly--that there is not much depth to probe.

Granted, there are some cartoonish elements, in particular the portrayal of Condoleeza Rice and a few obligatory scenes that don't add much to the film--the famed pretzel incident, for example. In a sense, it threatens to devolve into a "lowlights" of the Bush presidency, where every "misunderestimated" sentence spoken by the President is given a chance to air. Josh Brolin's protrayal, though, is spot-on. Sure it is a bit of a caricature, but what exactly have we seen over the last 8 years? Brolin takes Bush's voice and mannerisms and gives us a new look at him behind the cameras--a bit buffoonish, but just enough so to make him believable AND ridiculously funny.

But "W." is at its best where it really should be at its worst--lengthy staff meetings in the White House with the cabinet discussing war strategy. This ought to fail miserably, but instead these scenes are a fascinating portrayal of the various tensions and opinions that played out in the lead up to the invasion of Iraq. In moments like these Bush seems completely out of his element--not a simpleton too stupid understand the issues, but a simple man with a very simplistic view of the world. When it all unravels, he just cannot understand why people don't appreciate him more.

There is little political context to the events that play out, although this is a part of the lead character's narrow world view. For example, there is almost no discussion of the Democrats role in the Iraq War, although we do get a scene of all the major Dem's--Clinton, Kerry, Dodd, Biden, and Kennedy--applauding Bush's State of the Union preceding the 2003 invasion. Junior's relationship with his Dad is similarly overplayed a bit in terms of understanding the man, though it is portrayed well with James Cromwell as "H.W.".

Finally, it must have been hard to write an ending, considering the timing of the release, but the one that was chosen was especially confusing and dissatisfying. Nonetheless, "W." maneuvers its way around a number of even larger pitfalls to make it well worth seeing.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Turning ordinary people into punch lines

Scott Johnson reviews Religulous, starring comedian Bill Maher, who revels in his contempt for working-class people.

October 16, 2008

Bill Maher during the filming of ReligulousBill Maher during the filming of Religulous

THE BEST documentary films seek out fascinating subjects unfamiliar to the audience whose stories allow us to take a fresh look at the world. Comedian Bill Maher, star of the film Religulous, certainly seems to think he has found such a subject--himself.

In fact, the entire film plays like a stand-up comedy act where the people he is interviewing are just as often the punch lines as Maher's condescending comments. The result is a film that does little to illuminate religion in modern life and politics and is often downright reactionary.

The fundamental problem with Religulous is that Maher's focus is on interviewing religious people in order to expose how stupid they are--especially compared to such a clever interviewer as himself--while he never attempts to take a deeper look at the social circumstances behind religious ideas and institutions.

At least three of his interviewees express exasperation on camera that they felt ambushed by his film and didn't realize that his line of questioning would be so harsh toward their beliefs. In the meantime, Maher throws out a series of pre-rehearsed zingers to ridicule his unsuspecting subjects.

Presumably, Maher, an opponent of George W. Bush and the Iraq war, sees himself as an anti-religious Michael Moore. But while Moore has his own brand of smugness, he is much better at finding interesting subjects who can speak for themselves. Moore also has respect for working-class people and avoids ridiculing their opinions when they are working through their contradictions.

There is a world of difference between Moore's ambush of gun-nut Charlton Heston--who certainly had a little idea of what he was getting himself into when he agreed to be interviewed for Bowling for Columbine--and Maher's accosting of Christian truck drivers in their makeshift chapel. That is, while Moore attempts to show the stupidity of the powers-that-be, Maher is focused on showing the stupidity of the little guy.

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MAHER IS not only condescending, he is also a hypocrite. Even though he is an agnostic who is opposed to institutional religion, he is also a Zionist. This may be one of the reasons why he doesn't investigate the political views of evangelical Christians more closely, as they would agree with him on the need to defend Israel, and focuses on ridiculing their theology instead.

Furthermore, Maher never questions the lunatic fantasies of Orthodox Jewish Zionists in Israel and their often violent, racist and theocratic attitudes. Instead, he interviews a Jewish rabbi wearing a Palestinian flag pin who is an anti-Zionist--as though he is the crazy one!

The film dishonestly edits one of his responses to make him appear dismissive of the Holocaust and plays up his associations with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Though the rabbi refuses to be caricatured, his views aren't investigated much further, as Maher storms out of the interview after he is himself exasperated. Apparently, Maher was even less prepared for this interview than the Christian truckers he ambushed earlier.

This line of thinking is brought to its logical conclusion toward the end of the film with a discussion of Islam. While most religions are made to appear merely stupid, Islam is presented as inherently violent and dangerous, in particular by a representative of the World Court at The Hague, who explicitly says, "Islam is a violent religion."

In discussing criticisms of religions versus violent responses in defense of them, Maher asserts, "The people who do the killing usually wind up on the Muslim side," conveniently forgetting all of the Muslims who have found themselves victims of U.S. and Israeli policies. And when a Muslim woman he tells this to insists that not all Muslims are violent, the film cuts to Maher telling the camera that he thinks Muslims only say this sort of thing in public but in private they know there is something wrong with their religion.

He goes on to question Muslims about violent passages in the Koran and even refers to it as an imperialist religion that at one point ruled a large part of the world! Even more shocking, in a discussion of the "Islamic threat" to Israel, the film points out that there are 1 billion Muslims in the world but only 14 million Jews. One might be forgiven for concluding, after hearing Maher, that the Holocaust was perpetrated by the Islamic Middle East and not the "enlightened" Christian West.

If "religulous" ideas are an irrational belief in improvable supernatural phenomena, then Bill Maher's views should be identified as "areligulous"--irrationally opposed to religion, Islam in particular. Had he taken a moment to investigate his own prejudices, he might realize that he is spouting the same sort of offensive nonsense about Islam as Jewish Zionists and evangelical Christians.

Instead, Maher makes the same mistake as the militant atheist Christopher Hitchens--by demonizing the "enemy religion," he makes the reactionary forces among the dominant religion all that much stronger.

Several documentaries have been released in recent years with an interesting take on religion, including Hell House, Devil's Playground and Jesus Camp. All of these take a critical look at religion in the lives of young people but also allow the subjects to speak for themselves.

This does not keep the filmmakers from clearly criticizing what we are seeing, but in the end we get a much more nuanced and interesting picture of the people behind the ideas. We are allowed to sympathize with the individuals in the movies but we are also given an honest look at both the attraction and the torment behind religious beliefs.

Religulous does none of these things. Ultimately, it is a vanity project by a comedian who provides a shallow commentary that is more condescending than funny and more effective at justifying the status quo than challenging it.

A deeper look underground

Dan Berger
Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity
AK Press, 2008
450 pages $15


THERE HAS been a resurgence of interest recently in the Weather Underground Organization, the group of 1960s radicals who went underground in the 1970s and bombed government buildings. Most widely known is the Oscar-nominated documentary The Weather Underground, but the past decade has also seen the publication of several memoirs by leading members and a short historical overview, Ron Jacobs’ The Way the Wind Blew.

But not until Dan Berger’s Outlaws of America has there been such a thorough documentation of the group’s history. In many ways, Berger’s book is a step forward from both the film and Jacobs’s book. It goes much deeper into the history of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), the group that gave birth to Weather, than either of the former were able to go. It also looks much more closely at the individual experiences, memories, and regrets of ex-members.

Jacobs, whose book was released in 1997, was denied many of the interviews granted to Berger (who surely benefited from the release of the film) and was only able to hint at the recollections of the various people involved. Berger synthesizes many of the recent memoirs and makes use of his own extensive interviews with, among others, David Gilbert, one of the few Weathermen who ended up with a lengthy prison sentence for his post-Weather activities. For these reasons, Outlaws of America is well worth reading, especially for anybody looking for a detailed account. But while Berger provides a fascinating history, his book is marred by an uncritical analysis of the group’s politics.

The Weather Underground began as Weatherman, a faction of SDS that broke with Progressive Labor (PL), an influential faction of Stalinist/Maoists. PL’s “class-unity” brand of anti-racism bred a mechanical hostility to Black Nationalism and to nationalist struggles in the Third World. Berger describes the split in SDS as, “Something historic.… Beyond the messy process of faction fights was the reality that a sizable sector of white American radicals had broken with white supremacy.”

The split in SDS, however was not a moment of historic clarity but rather a symptom of the impasse of the New Left. After spending years building impressive struggles against segregation and the Vietnam War, and living through the historic events of 1968—which saw millions of young radicals break with the Democratic Party and look to the struggle of the Vietnamese resistance and the general strike of 10 million French workers as a way forward—it was utterly unclear to many in SDS how to make a revolution in the United States.

As Weather saw it, nationalist struggles were challenging imperialism, and it was the primary job of white radicals to break with their “white-skin privilege” and, eventually, to take up armed struggle against the U.S. government. Anything less would be an acceptance of privilege, which was just as bad as being a full-blown racist. This led to all sorts of radical posturing and displays of militancy based on showing off rather than engaging other forces in mass action. The masses, after all, were supposedly too busy wallowing in their privilege to fight for a revolution. Unsurprisingly, this failed to provide an effective strategy for stopping the Vietnam War or for challenging the effects of racism.

Berger is certainly critical of many of the sectarian stupidities carried out by Weatherman, such as the Days of Rage protest in October of 1969, which promised to turn out tens of thousands but only turned out hundreds, in no small part due to Weather’s hostile attitude to other activists. He also mentions the Flint “War Council” shortly after, where Weather leader Bernadine Dohrn praised the Charles Manson group’s Los Angeles murders while others talked about whether killing white children would help stop the spread of white supremacy.

It was this “War Council” which eventually led to the decision to take up underground activities, toward which Berger is fairly uncritical. He writes, “Bombing pierced the myth of government invincibility—one of Weather’s most important accomplishments, some former members argue.” How this invincibility was pierced, and whether Berger agrees with these former members, is never explained.

Berger even states that, “The lessons [of the Weather Underground] are not primarily to be found in the bombed buildings but in the politics and practice of the group.” It is unclear how the “bombed buildings” can be separated from the “practice of the group.” Furthermore, Berger never relates the group’s sectarianism or ridiculous behavior to the split or the politics on which it was based. In the end, it is the theory of white-skin privilege that is important to Berger—in spite of the flawed practice that flowed from it.

Incredibly, Berger even writes that, “[I]t is not true to say that the group maligned, minimized, or missed the role of the white working class.” This is simply false. According to Jacobs—in an event ignored by Berger—during a national strike of General Electric workers in November 1969, Weatherman distributed literature denouncing the workers as “pigs” and one member held a sign at a picket line in Boston stating “Ho Chi Minh, the NLF are going to kill GE workers.”

Ultimately, the politics of the Weather Underground led to its downfall. After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, some in Weather grappled with a class analysis of war and racism as an alternative to a single focus on national liberation, and thus considered leaving the underground in order to work toward a mass base. Berger dismisses this as a turn to “the multinational working class,” using snide quotes and all. How clear these Weather members were about making this turn is beside the point. The problem is that one section of Weather saw the adoption of a class outlook as a betrayal of anti-imperialism and anti-racism. Rather than deal with these issues honestly, the leadership simply tried to impose the new line.

The debates of 1976-77 turned into personal attacks and accusations of racism—the Weather Underground’s procedure for years—and led to the group’s hasty dissolution. This was no accident, but represents the dead end of their politics, an end reached by much of the radical Left, which had seen American workers as bought off and became disoriented by the late 1970s as social movements went into retreat.

It is to Berger’s credit that a decent understanding of these issues can be gained from reading his book. But in spite of the wealth of information he provides, one must often read between the uncritical lines of his text to understand the underlying dynamics of the Weather Underground.

Shall We Play A Game?

Scott Johnson reviews War Games, now 25 years old with an all-too-relevant take on the arms race.

August 28, 2008

WHEN THE Cold War political thriller War Games was released 25 years ago, it cut against much of what was being sold by Hollywood by portraying realistic, vulnerable teenagers who weren't drunken, horny party animals and by challenging the backward thinking of the nuclear powers.

The film is about two teenagers, played by Matthew Broderick and Ally Sheedy, who hack into an online military simulator and challenge it to a game of nuclear war. It turns out this computer is actually the War Operations Planned Response (WOPR) artificial intelligence system working for the U.S. military. The Air Force radar system it is connected to confuses this "game" for a real attack, setting off a chain reaction of events that nobody seems able to control.

On paper, Broderick and Sheedy's quest to save the world from itself by convincing the U.S. military to stand down reads like a preposterous fairytale. But War Games manages to pull it off with a suspenseful plot and smart characters.

One thing that makes War Games so effective is that the writers understood--as seemingly dozens of CSI knock-offs do not--that suspense and mystery work better when the viewer gets into the mind of the guilty and the pursued. So rather than Broderick being some all-American Boy Scout, he is a young hacker who likes to get himself into trouble.

When he finally gets into the game system, Broderick is not interested in playing checkers or chess. Instead, he really wants to play Global Thermonuclear War--who wouldn't?--and when the computer asks him which side he wants to be on, he responds sheepishly, "I'll be the Russians!"

War Games dramatized the insanity of nuclear weaponsWar Games dramatized the insanity of nuclear weapons

What follows not only provides great suspense but also cuts sharply against the main assumption behind U.S. strategy in the Cold War--that we are safer by being permanently prepared to launch a devastating counterattack against the USSR.

Alongside the threat of nuclear war is the theme of computers and technology having too much power. At the beginning of the movie, we see two missile commanders in a silo ordered to launch a nuclear attack. They don't realize it is just a test and one of them refuses to carry out his orders.

We then see U.S. Air Force leaders discuss what a problem it is that 22 percent of missile commanders refuse to launch when ordered. This is certainly a problem for the military--although not necessarily for anybody else--and leads to the decision to empower the WOPR to control missile launches.

The lesson is not just about the threat of the growing power of technology, but that the nuclear powers should not act like computers. They should have a heart as well as a mind and see what madness the arms race has wrought.

There is a sense in which this message is directed more at the powers that be than the audience. This leads to some hokiness in how Broderick and Sheedy find the cynical professor who designed the WOPR and they all end up in the position to argue with U.S. military to stop the impending disaster.

But War Games had many opportunities to fall totally flat on its face. The script started as The Genius, a story of a teenage misfit and his relationship with a Stephen Hawking-like physicist. Eventually, the teenager turned into a hacker and the physicist turned into the designer of the WOPR.

Somehow, The Genius turned into a sharp political thriller with the nuclear establishment directly in its crosshairs. It should come as little surprise, though, that War Games does not portray the U.S. military as utterly worthless and irredeemable--as they are portrayed in the 1960s nuclear farce Dr. Strangelove. Certainly, Strangelove is the direct ancestor of War Games and it provides a political critique that is much more pointed and uncompromising, as with the general who thinks acceptable casualties are "10 to 20 million, tops!"

The leading general in War Games, on the other hand, is much more open to a reasonable argument. But we do get to see some of the foolishness at the top with ego battles between military and civilian leaders arguing over whose plan for nuclear holocaust should be accepted by the president and knee-jerk assumptions by military officials that Broderick is working for the KGB, straight out of some right-wing Cold War fantasy.

Ultimately, War Games is a gripping thriller that is great fun to watch with a clear political message--in the game of nuclear war, the only winning move is not to play at all. So how about a nice game of chess instead?

Counting (almost) every vote

Scott Johnson recalls the real events depicted in Recount, HBO's film about the 2000 election fiasco in Florida.

June 3, 2008

RECOUNT, WHICH premiered last week on HBO, provides an entertaining account of the behind-the-scenes fight over the 2000 Florida election results.

Unfortunately, even though the movie exposes a number of the problems in the Florida election, it presents such a narrow view of the events that, in the end, the Bush team appears to have simply outmaneuvered Gore rather than stolen the election outright through a concerted effort of racism and fraud.

The Florida election crisis--as depicted in Recount--began as simply a too-close-to-call outcome on election night, resulting in a mandatory vote recount. It became clear, however, that there were a number of irregularities that tainted the vote itself. In one county, a "butterfly ballot," in which candidate's names were lined up on two sides of the ballot, resulted in many elderly Jews mistakenly voting for anti-Semite Pat Buchanan, instead of Al Gore.

But even where voters clearly chose the candidate they wanted, many worn-down voting machines--often in lower-income communities--failed to count the "hanging" and "dimpled" chads, or incompletely punched holes, on the ballot. In some places, selecting Gore and then writing in Gore on the same ballot was considered a spoiled ballot, that was rejected by the voting machine.

HBO's film on the Florida election fiasco understates the crimes committed so the Bush family could take back the White HouseHBO's film on the Florida election fiasco understates the crimes committed so the Bush family could take back the White House

Eventually, we are shown that thousands of voters were denied the right to vote at all, as the administration of Gov. Jeb Bush removed the names of supposed felons from the voter rolls, even if they committed a felony in another state or simply shared the name of somebody who had. These people--the majority of whom were Black and tended to vote Democratic--were simply turned away at the polls.

When Kevin Spacey's character discovers this, his team is shocked, and there is a stunned silence. Those votes can't be cast again--"All we can do is make sure this doesn't happen again in 2002," says one staffer. They then continue to go about the business of making sure that the recount is carried out.

And here lies the problem with Recount. At this point, most people would stop and say, "Dear God, how could this happen in a democracy?" That was certainly the response of many people who watched the events play out.

The tactics used in Florida to suppress voter turnout were not only successful (for Bush), they were criminal--exposing the undemocratic and even racist nature of elections in the U.S.

Not only were names scrubbed from the rolls, but police set up roadblocks in Black neighborhoods to slow down traffic to polling places and intimidate people, an action not mentioned in the film.

In short, there was a concerted campaign from well before the election on the part of Jeb Bush's administration in Florida to assure that this crucial swing state would be awarded to his brother. Whether more people in his state wanted Gore to win was simply a minor inconvenience, easily overcome by altering the results--that is, stealing the election.

The racist nature of this effort is occasionally seen in the movie, but not as an overall strategy of disenfranchising the Black vote in order to assure a Bush victory. The entire recount effort, as problematic as it was, simply sought to cover Jeb Bush's tracks and assure the theft was successful. Failing this, the Republican-led Florida legislature was fully prepared to hand the state to Bush, regardless of the recount.

It is hard to believe, watching Recount, that such a systematic campaign could have been carried out. Most of the problems are seen as a series of unrelated irregularities, made difficult to overcome by the intransigence of the Bush team.

James Baker, the head of the Bush effort to stop the recount, is portrayed as a tough fighter determined to win, but otherwise, a pretty decent guy--not an election-stealer.

Florida Secretary of State Katherine Harris, who was responsible for managing the recount and also happened to be the chair of the Bush for President campaign in Florida, is presented as such a buffoon that it's hard to see collusion in her actions rather than just self-serving incompetence.

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FOR ALL of Spacey's demands that "every vote should be counted," there is surprisingly little interest in the most indisputable fact of the election--Gore won over 500,000 more votes than Bush nationwide.

That Bush could still take the election is a result of the slavery-era Electoral College system still used in U.S. elections. This system was meant to assure that ordinary voters did not actually choose the president, and that Southern slave states would dominate in the federal government.

Gore's victory in the popular vote--though not the undemocratic nature of the Electoral College--is mentioned only once in passing in the film, simply as justification for why a thorough recount in Florida should occur.

Unsurprisingly for people who lived through these events--although maybe more surprising for those only familiar with them through the movie--a wave of protests occurred throughout the country, not over chads and court appeals, but over the civil rights issues raised by the election.

Many of these were small, although they were much more significant in Florida where people had experienced disenfranchisement firsthand, a reminder of what they and their parents had lived through under Jim Crow.

Protesters in Recount are occasionally seen outside courthouses and state government offices, but the only time they are discussed is near the beginning of the film, when Secretary of State and Gore supporter Warren Christopher states that Jesse Jackson should be asked to stop leading protests, so as not to hurt their chances in court.

The Gore strategy wasn't concerned with exposing the dark side of American elections, but asking the courts for recounts in just the right number of counties to assure a victory.

Had Gore actually taken up the civil rights issues, he might have been able to better expose the racist election theft that was underway and build pressure for a more thorough recount. Instead, his focus on appearing respectable simply allowed the Bush team to brush them aside.

Ironically, Gore's recount strategy would have failed to gain him enough votes to win Florida, although a full recount of all the uncounted votes in all of the counties--that is, counting all the votes--would have won Gore the election, according to a study by the New York Times and other media outlets.

This is never revealed, which isn't surprising, as the articles that described this study claimed the study proved that Bush won Florida!

This evidence that our real-life protagonists really were fighting the good fight would have provided a stirring conclusion. Instead, we simply see boxes of Florida ballots stored away in a warehouse to be forgotten forever, a la Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Unfortunately, Recount misses the opportunity to provide a more dramatic--not to mention a more thoroughly historical--story by accepting the narrow premise of the Gore campaign, and not seeing the Florida recount as fundamentally a civil rights issue. This may be too much to ask of the movie--but, as Spacey says, every vote should be counted.

Friday, March 7, 2008

City of a thousand foreclosures

Scott Johnson explains why his hometown of Stockton, Calif., is being hit hard by the foreclosure crisis.

March 7, 2008 | Issue 664

FOR MOST of 2007, Stockton, Calif., topped all lists of the American cities worst hit by the housing crisis.

As of last summer, one out of every 27 homes in Stockton was in foreclosure--an increase of 256 percent over the previous year. The fact that Detroit--a rust-belt city well known for its long-term economic collapse--took the lead in foreclosures late last year only goes to show the depth of the crisis in Stockton.

But the foreclosure crisis in Stockton didn't come out of nowhere. It's only the latest chapter in the roller-coaster ride that the city has been through over the past decade.

I grew up in Stockton and lived there through the mid-1990s. When I left, the city was still struggling to revive after the early '90s recession, and was best known for its incredibly high crime rate. That hasn't changed--in 2005, Stockton had the highest violent crime rate in California, putting it ahead of Oakland, Los Angeles and San Francisco.

What did change, however, was a sense that the city was getting back on its feet and beginning to move forward.

In the late 1990s, the shopping malls often seemed desolate, with surprisingly few shoppers and storefronts closing faster than they were opening. More recently, though, business and development thrived with the arrival of more big box retailers, as well as a $500 million downtown revitalization project that included the construction of a new arena for live performances and a new stadium for the minor league baseball team.

Downtown Stockton went from being notorious as a center of crime and poverty to a place where families went for weekend entertainment.

But as it turns out, much of this resurgence was built on sand. Stockton's growth was based on the booming housing market, which was spurred large part by relocating Bay Area residents looking for a home they could afford.

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WITH STOCKTON within a 90-minute drive of San Francisco--although it takes up to an hour longer during rush hour and bad weather--the city's relatively low cost of living, combined with the relatively high wages for Bay Area employees, made it seem ideal for relocation.

During the dot-com boom of the late 1990s, people from around the country flocked to the Bay Area to cash in on the new gold rush. But after the bubble burst, the early 2000s saw cities like San Francisco and Oakland shrink in size. Meanwhile, Stockton's population grew by 17 percent, from 243,000 to 285,000.

Considering that the median home price in San Francisco in 2000 was $566,000, but only $133,000 in San Joaquin County, where Stockton is located, the attraction was clear. According to Stockton's main newspaper, the Record, "By 2001, Stockton real-estate agents reported that eight out of 10 home buyers were coming from the Bay Area."

It's important to note that these Bay Area emigrants weren't necessarily millionaires. On the contrary, they were people who mostly couldn't afford a half-million-dollar mortgage in San Francisco.

For a generation of parents who don't expect to see their children to earn more than they do, home ownership means at least having something to pass on--so for many Bay Area workers, the hot summers of the Central Valley and the exhausting commute were worth it.

An increase in demand for housing due to an influx of higher-income homebuyers, along with an aggressive development plan aimed at attracting new buyers, caused a speculative bubble. By the end of 2006, the median home price in the county had nearly tripled since the beginning of the decade to $385,000.

According to a study from November of last year, the average family in San Joaquin County couldn't afford 95 percent of the homes on the market in the county. Home ownership became virtually unattainable for them.

Once prices maxed out and the bubble burst, there was a surge in defaults, and mortgage holders couldn't sell the homes they foreclosed on. Many homebuyers and developers are now thinking twice before getting into this mess, which puts Stockton's future growth plans in jeopardy.

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BUT THIS is only part of the story. It wasn't only an influx of outsiders that created the housing bubble. The root of the problem in Stockton is the same as everywhere else--people were convinced to buy homes at inflated prices, reassured by a whole cast of unscrupulous characters that everything would work out.

The realtors, lenders and banks--and the corporate boards that oversaw the whole process and orchestrated massive profit margins out of it--are responsible for this debacle.

A recently retired escrow manager at a title company in Stockton related to me how the industry set up new homebuyers for failure. "Almost every single day, I would see a young couple in their late 20s or early 30s who were buying their first home and were in way over their head," she says. "When I went over their contract with them, I would invariably find something they hadn't agreed to, like a variable interest rate or hidden fees that hadn't been explained."

In fact, it wasn't uncommon for a homebuyer to have to unexpectedly come up with thousands of dollars in fees in order to close the deal--even when they had been told that no down payment was required for the mortgage.

Some of these were "garbage fees"--which included, for example, the lender charging hundreds of dollars for printing out the paperwork for the contract. But this was trivial compared to the unexpected rise in mortgage payments built into the contracts on variable rate loans.

The former escrow manager told me that when realtors or lenders were called on to explain the full implications of the contracts, they always found a way of convincing buyers that it would work out in their best interest. As she explained, "They would say, 'Interest rates are going down, the price on your home is going up, your salary is going to increase, so this will all work out. You can trust me.'"

Of course, none of these things about interest rates or rising salaries were actually going to happen. But for a lot of people, they were facing the final obstacle to getting their dream home and were therefore willing to believe the lenders--and in any case, they were already committed to buying and couldn't see how they could back out.

"The problem," the former escrow manager told me, "was always that it was a Tuesday or a Wednesday, and they had to be out of their apartment on Saturday or Sunday. So they were basically pressured into making a decision at the last minute that they weren't prepared for."

Once the variable interest rates started climbing, homebuyers could no longer pay their mortgages and defaults ensued.

Capitalist crises don't merely create wreckage in their immediate path. They also indirectly affect all sorts of people who never saw them coming.

So while the worst hit are people who are losing everything because they are stuck with a skyrocketing monthly mortgage payment, renters are also facing new difficulties. Increased demand is driving up the cost of renting, making it increasingly difficult, even for those with access to vouchers for low-income families, to find an affordable apartment.

There have also been stories about renters being evicted from foreclosed properties--with no power to stop the eviction, they face demands that they move within days, and may struggle to get a refund for paid rent and security deposits.

Beyond this, the growing number of mortgage defaults in places like Stockton are causing an even deeper financial crisis, which is having an effect on the world economy. The mortgage crisis will, thus, cause the coming recession to be that much worse--and the layoffs and wage cuts that are a product of the economic downturn will lead to further declines in home prices and put a strain on even more households struggling to pay off mortgages.

It is a vicious circle--and the culprit is the capitalist free market system.