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Saturday, April 26, 2014

10 Things About Ayn Rand and the GOP/Republican Ethic



Alter Net / By Adam Lee

10 Things I Learned About the World from Ayn Rand's Insane "Atlas Shrugged'

If Rand were still alive she would probably say, "Thank you for smoking." 

Photo Credit: Justin Templer; Screenshot / YouTube.com
Over the past year, I've been reading and reviewing Ayn Rand's massive paean to capitalismAtlas Shrugged. If you're not familiar with the novel, it depicts a world where corporate CEOs and one-percenters are the selfless heroes upon which our society depends, and basically everyone else — journalists, legislators, government employees, the poor — are the villains trying to drag the rich down out of spite, when we should be kissing their rings in gratitude that they allow us to exist.

Rand's protagonists are Dagny Taggart, heir to a transcontinental railroad empire, and Hank Rearden, the head of a steel company who's invented a revolutionary new alloy which he's modestly named Rearden Metal. Together, they battle against evil government bureaucrats and parasitic socialists to hold civilization together, while all the while powerful industrialists are mysteriously disappearing, leaving behind only the cryptic phrase "Who is John Galt?"

Atlas Shrugged is a work of fiction, but as far as many prominent conservatives are concerned, it's sacred scripture. Alan Greenspan was a member of Rand's inner circle, and opposed regulation of financial markets because he believed her dictum that the greed of businessmen was always the public's best protection. Paul Ryan said that he required his campaign staffers to read the book, while Glenn Beck has announced grandiose plans to build his own real-life "Galt's Gulch," the hidden refuge where the book's capitalist heroes go to watch civilization collapse without them.

Reading Atlas Shrugged is like entering into a strange mirror universe where everything we thought we knew about economics and morality is turned upside down. I've already learned some valuable lessons from it.

1. All evil people are unattractive; all good and trustworthy people are handsome.

The first and most important we learn from Atlas Shrugged is that you can tell good and bad people apart at a glance. All the villains — the "looters," in Rand's terminology — are rotund, fleshy and sweaty, with receding hairlines, sagging jowls and floppy limbs, while her millionaire industrialist heroes are portraits of steely determination, with sharp chins and angular features like people in a Cubist painting. Nearly all of them are conspicuously Aryan. Here's a typical example, the steel magnate Hank Rearden:
The glare cut a moment's wedge across his eyes, which had the color and quality of pale blue ice — then across the black web of the metal column and the ash-blond strands of his hair — then across the belt of his trenchcoat and the pockets where he held his hands. His body was tall and gaunt; he had always been too tall for those around him. His face was cut by prominent cheekbones and by a few sharp lines; they were not the lines of age, he had always had them; this had made him look old at twenty, and young now, at forty-five.
2. The mark of a great businessman is that he sneers at the idea of public safety.

When we meet Dagny Taggart, Rand's heroic railroad baron, she's traveling on a cross-country train which gets stuck at a stoplight that may or may not be broken. When the crew frets that they should wait until they're sure it's safe, Dagny pulls rank and orders them to drive through the red light. This, in Rand's world, is the mark of a heroic and decisive capitalist, rather than the kind of person who in the real world would soon be the subject of headlines like "22 Dead in Train Collision Caused by Executive Who Didn't Want to Be Late For Meeting."

Dagny makes the decision to rebuild a critical line of the railroad using a new alloy, the aforementioned Rearden Metal, which has never been used in a major industrial project. You might think that before committing to build hundreds of miles of track through mountainous terrain, you'd want to have, say, pilot projects, or feasibility studies. But Dagny brushes those concerns aside; she just knows Rearden Metal is good because she feels it in her gut: "When I see things," she explains, "I see them."

And once that line is rebuilt, Dagny's plan for its maiden voyage involves driving the train at dangerously high speed through towns and populated areas:
"The first train will... run non-stop to Wyatt Junction, Colorado, traveling at an average speed of one hundred miles per hour." ...

"But shouldn't you cut the speed below normal rather than ... Miss Taggart, don't you have any consideration whatever for public opinion?"

"But I do. If it weren't for public opinion, an average speed of sixty-five miles per hour would have been quite sufficient."
The book points out that mayors and safety regulators have to be bribed or threatened to allow this, which is perfectly OK in Rand's morality. When a reporter asks Dagny what protection people will have if the line is no good, she snaps: "Don't ride on it." (Ask the people of Lac-Megantic how much good that did them.)

3. Bad guys get their way through democracy; good guys get their way through violence.

The way the villains of Atlas Shrugged accomplish their evil plan is ... voting for it. One of the major plot elements of part I is a law called the Equalization of Opportunity Bill, which forces large companies to break themselves up, similarly to the way AT&T was split into the Baby Bells. It's passed by a majority of Congress, and Rand never implies that there's anything improper in the vote or that any dirty tricks were pulled. But because it forces her wealthy capitalist heroes to spin off some of their businesses, it's self-evident that this is the worst thing in the world and could only have been conceived of by evil socialists who hate success.

Compare this to another of Rand's protagonists, Dagny Taggart's heroic ancestor Nathaniel Taggart. We're told that he built a transcontinental railroad system almost single-handedly, which is why Dagny all but venerates him. We're also told that he murdered a state legislator who was going to pass a law that would have stopped him from completing his track, and threw a government official down three flights of stairs for offering him a loan. In the world of Atlas Shrugged, these are noble and heroic acts.

Then there's another of Rand's heroes, the oil baron Ellis Wyatt. When the government passes new regulations on rail shipping that will harm his business, Wyatt retaliates by spitefully blowing up his oil fields, much like Saddam Hussein's retreating army did to Kuwait in the first Gulf War. In real life, that act of sabotage smothered much of the Middle East beneath clouds of choking, toxic black smoke for months, poisoning the air and water. But as far as Rand sees it, no vengeance is too harsh for people who commit the terrible crime of interfering with the right of the rich to make more money.

4. The government has never invented anything or done any good for anyone.

In Rand's world, all good things come from private industry. Everyone who works for the government or takes government money is either a bumbling incompetent or a leech who steals credit for the work of others. At one point, the villainous bureaucrats of the "State Science Institute" try to sabotage Rand's hero Hank Rearden by spreading malicious rumors about his new alloy:
"If you consider that for thirteen years this Institute has had a department of metallurgical research, which has cost over twenty million dollars and has produced nothing but a new silver polish and a new anti-corrosive preparation, which, I believe, is not so good as the old ones — you can imagine what the public reaction will be if some private individual comes out with a product that revolutionizes the entire science of metallurgy and proves to be sensationally successful!"
Of course, in the real world, only minor trifles, like radar, space flight, nuclear power, GPS, computers, and the Internet were brought about by government research.

5. Violent jealousy and degradation are signs of true love.

Dagny's first lover, the mining heir Francisco d'Anconia, treats her like a possession: he drags her around by an arm, and once, when she makes a joke he doesn't like, he slaps her so hard it bloodies her lip. The first time they have sex, he doesn't ask for consent, but throws her down and does what he wants: "She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his."

Later on, Dagny has an affair with Hank Rearden (who's married to someone else at the time, but this is the sort of minor consideration that doesn't hold back Randian supermen). The first time they sleep together, it leaves Dagny bruised and bloody, and the morning after, Hank rants at her that he holds her in contempt and thinks of her as no better than a whore. Almost as soon as their relationship begins, he demands to know how many other men she's slept with and who they were. When she won't answer, he seizes her and twists her arm, trying to hurt her enough to force her to tell him.

Believe it or not, none of this is meant to make us judge these characters negatively, because in Rand's world, violent jealousy is romantic and abuse is sexy. She believed that women were meant to be subservient to men — in fact, she says that "the most feminine of all aspects" is "the look of being chained" — and that a woman being the dominant partner in a relationship was "metaphysically inappropriate" and would warp and destroy her fragile lady-mind.

6. All natural resources are limitless.

If you pay close attention to Atlas Shrugged, you'll learn that there will always be more land to homestead, more trees to cut, more coal to mine, more fossil fuels to drill. There's never a need for conservation, recycling, or that dreaded word, "sustainability." All environmental laws, just like all safety regulations, are invented by government bureaucrats explicitly for the purpose of punishing and destroying successful businessmen.

One of the heroes of part I is the tycoon Ellis Wyatt, who's invented an unspecified new technology that allows him to reopen oil wells thought to be tapped out, unlocking what Rand calls an "unlimited supply" of oil. Obviously, accepting that natural resources are finite would force Rand's followers to confront hard questions about equitable distribution, which is why she waves the problem away with a sweep of her hand.

This trend reaches its climax near the end of part I, when Dagny and Hank find, in the ruins of an abandoned factory, the prototype of a new kind of motor that runs on "atmospheric static electricity" and can produce limitless energy for free. Rand sees nothing implausible about this, because in her philosophy, human ingenuity can overcome any problem, up to and including the laws of thermodynamics, if only the government would get out of the way and let them do it.

7. Pollution and advertisements are beautiful; pristine wilderness is ugly and useless.

Rand is enamored of fossil fuels, and at one point, she describes New York City as cradled in "sacred fires" from the smokestacks and heavy industrial plants that surround it. It never seems to occur to her that soot and smog cause anything other than pretty sunsets, and no one in Atlas Shrugged gets asthma, much less lung cancer.

By contrast, Rand informs us that pristine natural habitat is worthless unless it's plastered with ads, as we see in a scene where Hank and Dagny go on a road trip together:
Uncoiling from among the curves of Wisconsin's hills, the highway was the only evidence of human labor, a precarious bridge stretched across a sea of brush, weeds and trees. The sea rolled softly, in sprays of yellow and orange, with a few red jets shooting up on the hillsides, with pools of remnant green in the hollows, under a pure blue sky.

 ... "What I'd like to see," said Rearden, "is a billboard."
8. Crime doesn't exist, even in areas of extreme poverty.

In the world of Atlas Shrugged, the only kind of violence that anyone ever worries about is government thugs stealing the wealth of the heroic capitalists at gunpoint to redistribute it to the undeserving masses. There's no burglary, no muggings, no bread riots, no street crime of any kind. This is true even though the world is spiraling down a vortex of poverty and economic depression. And even though the wealthy, productive elite are mysteriously disappearing one by one, none of Rand's protagonists ever worry about their personal safety.

Apparently, in Rand's view, poor people will peacefully sit and starve when they lose their jobs. And that's a good thing for her, because accepting that crime exists might lead to dangerous, heretical ideas — like that maybe the government should pay for education and job training, because this might be cheaper and more beneficial in the long run than spending ever more money on police and prisons.

9. The only thing that matters in life is how good you are at making money.

In a scene from part I, the copper baron Francisco d'Anconia explains to Dagny why rich people are more valuable than poor people:
"Dagny, there's nothing of any importance in life — except how well you do your work. Nothing. Only that. Whatever else you are, will come from that. It's the only measure of human value. All the codes of ethics they'll try to ram down your throat are just so much paper money put out by swindlers to fleece people of their virtues. The code of competence is the only system of morality that's on a gold standard."
You'll note that this speech makes no exceptions for work whose product is actively harmful to others. If you burn coal that chokes neighboring cities in toxic smog, if you sell unhealthful food that increases obesity and diabetes, if you sell guns and fight every attempt to pass laws that would restrict who could buy them, if you paint houses with lead and insulate pipes in asbestos — relax, you're off the hook! None of this matters in the slightest in Rand's eyes. Are you good at your job? Do you make money from it? That's the only thing anyone should ever care about.

10. Smoking is good for you.

Almost all of Rand's heroes smoke, and not just for pleasure. In one minor scene, a cigarette vendor tells Dagny that smoking is heroic, even rationally obligatory:
"I like cigarettes, Miss Taggart. I like to think of fire held in a man's hand. Fire, a dangerous force, tamed at his fingertips ... When a man thinks, there is a spot of fire alive in his mind — and it is proper that he should have the burning point of a cigarette as his one expression."
It's no coincidence that Atlas Shrugged expresses these views. Ayn Rand herself was a heavy smoker, and she often asserted that she was the most rational person alive; therefore, she believed, her preferences were the correct preferences which everyone else should emulate. Beginning from this premise, she worked backward to explain why everything she did was an inevitable consequence of her philosophy. As part of this, she decided that she smoked tobacco not because she'd become addicted to it, but because it's right for rational people to smoke while they think.

In case you were wondering, Rand did indeed contract lung cancer later in life, and had an operation to remove one lung. But even though she eventually came to accept the danger of smoking, she never communicated this to her followers or recanted her earlier support of it. As in other things, her attitude was that people deserve whatever they get.
Adam Lee is a writer and atheist activist living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter, or subscribe to his blog, Daylight Ath

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

GOP’s super-secret actual road map for winning more races (Hint: It’s not the one released to the public)


GOP’s super-secret actual road map for winning more races (Hint: It’s not the one released to the public)

Remember that GOP "autopsy" that detailed how it would win more races? Forget that sham -- here's the real article

GOP's super-secret actual road map for winning more races (Hint: It's not the one released to the public)Ted Cruz, Reince Priebus, Rand Paul (Credit: AP/J. Scott Applewhite/Chris Usher/Timothy D. Easley)

Despite the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report, a 73-page “autopsy,” released by the Republican National Committee shortly after the disastrous 2012 elections, it’s become increasingly clear in recent months that the party has abandoned even the report’s most anodyne proposals. Instead of outreach to women, immigrants and poor people (among other proposals), here’s what the Republican Party has opted to attempt instead.
It all starts, of course, with a strategy of voter disenfranchisement, where, despite representing a growing share of the populace, the number of minority voters would steadily shrink. In the hypothetical honest version of the GOP road map, the Republican Party admits it hopes to engineer an increasingly toxic political reality that inspires only certain Americans — mostly, old white ones — to register their votes. At the same time, major players in the modern GOP such as Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Rand Paul have bent over backward recently to effect a position of “concern” for the problems of the poor and downtrodden. Unfortunately, their actions speak louder than their words, as their party vigorously undertakes initiatives to diminish these same groups’ electoral power.
The GOP of 2014 maintains an embarrassing melange of nobly stated goals and cynically undertaken actions.
Perhaps there’s a certain method to this madness: Facing a “demographic death spiral,” the Republican Party of today would be foolish to risk losing the aging, conservative, rural, white, male voters who make up the lion’s share of their base. As just one example, while newfound support for immigration reform among Republicans would be unlikely to drive rural and suburban geriatrics to vote Democrat, it could plausibly keep them from heading to the polls entirely in 2014. And if, in the aftermath of reform, the Hispanic community credits the Democrats with delivering immigration anyway — as they likely would — what political value does this position hold for most Republicans?
It should come as no surprise, then, that rather than adapting their policy positions to a changing nation, Republicans have simply adopted cynical tactics that work to minimize the electoral power of these demographic groups at every turn. If the GOP can’t convince minorities and young people to vote against their own interests, perhaps they can prevent the poor, the young, and minorities from voting in the first place. After all, as conservative columnists have noted with some glee, an election using old antebellum rules, where only white men could vote, would have led to a landslide for Mitt Romney! (And white Christians are the only “real Americans,” so this exit-polling proves that Romney deserved to win or something.)
Let’s consider the GOP’s statements and its actions, and examine whether the former has any influence on the latter.
Compared with the current state of the Republican reform movement (which is basically nonexistent), there is much to be admired in the “Growth and Opportunity Project” report. The much-discussed “autopsy” offered some surprisingly clear-eyed assessments of the challenges facing the Republican Party going forward: For instance, the report notes that “[y]oung voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.”
Throughout the report, the RNC suggests policy goals that identify long-term problems, while the fact that none have been implemented reveals the report’s largest flaw. The report completely ignores the uncomfortable short-term political realities that the Republican Party must confront. Take immigration reform as just the most obvious example: Much of the supposed-demographic advantage that Democrats have held in recent elections is a function of the party’s enormous advantage among non-white voters. In this view, demographic groups like young people are disproportionately liberal for no greater reason than that they’re so ethnically diverse. (And comparing white millennials’ voting preferences to those of their older peers seems to largely bear this out.) The cynic might suggest that any immigration reform would only hasten the demographic decline of the modern GOP — and, lo and behold, substantive efforts from Republicans to tackle this issue have yet to materialize, with Marco Rubio (the modern party’s most willing champion of reform) publicly backing off before causing himself any permanent damage within the GOP’s old, primarily white base.
Other reforms that might help the GOP long-term have faced similar fates, while undemocratic tactics of dubious legality are enthusiastically undertaken.
Tea Party radicals have been bragging about modeling their strategy after avowed radical Saul Alinsky for years, but the Republican Party has also clearly learned a thing or two from Vladmir Lenin, who cheered the abuses of the Czarists as “the worse the better.” Basically, the more the Czarists oppressed the populace, the more the people would come to support the revolutionaries. Lenin was willing to see the pain of suffering of the people he ostensibly wanted to help if it meant achieving his larger goal of communist revolution. Similarly, in their crusade to paint Obama and the federal government as incompetent, the GOP has deliberately obstructed any measures he supports, no matter how small — or vital —  they might be. And the Republican leadership has been employing this nearly treasonous political strategy since election night in 2008, when Eric Cantor and Paul Ryan had their infamous dinner with other influential Republicans to craft a strategy centered on blocking any and all positions the president might support — this, at the height of the Great Recession, when millions of Americans desperately needed leaders concerned more with their duty to serve than their craven political machinations. Unfortunately, this strategy has proven successful: While Republicans are more hated than Democrats, both parties are seeing historically low polling figures, with an entire generation of young Americans — who might have otherwise worked vigilantly against Republicans –completely disillusioned and disgusted with national politics.
The GOP’s hypocrisy extends to the other parts of their stated platform, too.
America loves to hate criminals (unless they’re on TV or in movies; we can’t get enough of so-called antiheroes), and Republicans have been the party Americans trust on issues of law and order for at least 30 years, since the political assassination of Michael Dukakis by the visage of Willie Horton. According to their 2012 platform, “Liberals do not understand this simple axiom: criminals behind bars cannot harm the general public. To that end, we support mandatory prison sentencing for gang crimes, violent or sexual offenses against children, repeat drug dealers, rape, robbery and murder.”
What their platform doesn’t note is the relationship between high incarceration rates and the GOP’s long-term political success. It’s no surprise that we don’t see large numbers of Republican lawmakers supporting the intermittent lip service Rand Paul pays to reforming America’s deeply unjust drug laws: Our enormously high incarceration rate — the highest in the developed world — allows for the legal disenfranchisement of millions of young people who also just “happen” to be primarily young minorities. Adding insult to injury, most prisons are located in rural areas — come census time,  prisoners are counted as part of the local population for the purposes of establishing congressional districts, despite their lacking the right to vote while behind bars. Our prison culture is a shameful, odious continuation of the entrenched, systemic racism that has haunted this country since her inception — supporting it for any reason is shameful, but supporting a corporation’s high profits is a particularly disgusting reason to keep this immoral system humming uninterrupted. Yet that’s exactly what happens when private prison companies funnel eye-popping sums to conservative election campaigns, increasing these companies’ influence on our drug laws and creating dangerous incentives for rich Washingtonians to maintain a racist criminal justice system that needlessly incarcerates millions of low-level drug offenders every year.
While using our criminal justice system as a means of disenfranchising black and Hispanic voters is the most shameful aspect of the GOP’s real election strategy, it’s far from unique. When employed by the Republican Party, voter disenfranchisement takes on many forms: sowing apathy among struggling and disaffected young people; restricting the times and days of voting (and eliminating early voting and day-of-registration initiatives); and adding voter IDs and other hoops voters must jump through, a “tyranny of the majority” where citizens with the least money, time and access are most likely to lose their franchise. Any intellectually honest conservative tradition would find such tactics abhorrent, and laudably, some Republicans have come out publicly against this strategy, such as Wisconsin Republican legislator Dane Schultz:
It’s just, I think, sad when a political party — my political party — has so lost faith in its ideas that it’s pouring all of its energy into election mechanics. [...] it ought to be abundantly clear to everybody in this state that there is no massive voter fraud. The only thing that we do have in this state is we have long lines of people who want to vote. And it seems to me that we should be doing everything we can to make it easier, to help these people get their votes counted. And that we should be pitching as political parties our ideas for improving things in the future, rather than mucking around in the mechanics and making it more confrontational at the voting sites and trying to suppress the vote.
Indeed, because Americans are so mindful of the rule of law, it can be really hard to find any clear examples of voter fraud – just ask “conservative prankster” James O’Keefe. This is a shame for the GOP, because the general public is considerably more economically liberal than the electorate, and therefore any excuse to make it harder for poor, young minorities to vote will have the benefit of making it significantly easier for Republicans to win elections without having to compromise their batshit-insane beliefs.
When voter suppression isn’t an option, nakedly political gerrymandering is always an effective substitute. When your base of voters is shrinking and you find the idea of appealing to a broader base of the population abhorrent (you might have to rub shoulders with the Poors, and have you smelled them lately?), it only makes sense to pack them into as few congressional districts as possible. Even if you can’t shrink the actual population (where’s a bloody foreign war with a national draft when you need one, amirite?), you can certainly shrink their representative size. Just look at how gerrymandering helped disenfranchise Democrats in 2012:
A thorough examination of the Republican Party’s recent electoral tactics reveals a strategy predicated on sowing voter disenfranchisement and disillusionment. Cursory public statements to the contrary notwithstanding, the GOP has no strategy or plan for the future that involves making changes to their stale platform. They’d much rather focus their efforts on shrinking and diminishing the inexorable demographic changes that are transforming this country. Even more damning to their long-term goals, they have become completely incapable of undertaking new ideas or supporting innovative policy solutions. As a number of liberal columnists have noted, Marco Rubio’s policy platform is exactly the same as Republicans in office 30 years ago. Indeed, the Growth and Opportunity Project report seems to understand the potential danger that this staleness represents:
“At our core, Republicans have comfortably remained the Party of Reagan without figuring out what comes next. Ronald Reagan is a Republican hero and role model who was first elected 33 years ago — meaning no one under the age of 51 today was old enough to vote for Reagan when he first ran for President. Our Party knows how to appeal to older voters, but we have lost our way with younger ones. We sound increasingly out of touch.”
When people are forced to work two or three jobs just to make ends meet, they hardly have the time to read about politics deeply — or the energy to care. It’s somewhat amazing that so many still manage to read the morning paper, watch cable news or listen to NPR or conservative talk radio on the way to work. Still, political ignorance of all shapes and sizes can be wielded as a cudgel, and Republicans have made the exploitation of ignorance into something of an art form. They have done this primarily by sowing dysfunction: Voters who don’t follow the news closely are deeply aware of the broken state of our national politics, and while polls consistently show that Americans blame Republicans more than Democrats for this state of affairs, that doesn’t mean Republicans haven’t still been successful. Some of the most influential members of the GOP bluntly acknowledge their goals of making government less effective: John Boehner, third in line to the presidency, candidly admitted on CBS’s “Face the Nation“ that he doesn’t see his role as a lawmaker as, you know, making laws. According to Boehner, Congress ”should not be judged on how many new laws we create. We ought to be judged on how many laws we repeal.”
Republicans want to convince Americans that government is the problem, that only when government gets out of the way and allows the free market to operate without restriction will our economy improve. Incidentally, if you’re lucky enough to be a part of the richest 0.1 percent — arguably, the GOP’s core constituency — this viewpoint has been entirely accurate in recent years. And crucially, this disconnect — between the right’s real constituency and its base, between its calculated support of plutocracy and its claims toward championing “freedom” and “small businesses” — goes a long way to explaining the cavernous gap between the GOP’s reasonable statements and its reprehensible deeds.
Tim Donovan is a freelance author who blogs about Millennial issues at The Suffolk Resolves. Follow him @tadonovan.

Friday, April 18, 2014

The 10 Most Obese States in America (And the Right-Wing Policies That Promote Poor Health)

  Personal Health  

Republicans promote policies that entrench poverty, and obesity and poverty often go together.

Obesity is a problem all over the country, but the problem is worse in some states than in others. A recent Gallup study presented state-by-state obesity stats and while the research didn't get into politics, one need only scratch the surface to notice that many of the more obese states lean Republican. Of the 10 states Gallup cited as the most obese, eight went for Republican Mitt Romney in the 2012 presidential election: Mississippi, West Virginia, Louisiana, Arkansas, South Carolina, Tennessee, Kentucky and Oklahoma (the exceptions in that top 10 are Ohio and Delaware, both of which Obama won). And except for Montana—which came in at #1 for thinness—all of the 10 states Gallup cited as the least obese are states Obama carried (including Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Mexico, California, Hawaii, Minnesota, Nevada, Colorado and New York).

This is no coincidence: Republicans promote policies that tend to entrench poverty, and obesity and poverty often go together. The Republican-dominated states where obesity rates are the highest are states where one is more apt to find more poverty, weak union protection, an abundance of people who lack health insurance and a strong opposition to the Affordable Care Act of 2010.
The obesity epidemic in the U.S. can be attributed to a wide variety of factors—not only poverty, lack of health insurance and inadequate access to healthy food, but also everything from sedentary lifestyles to stress. Obesity can’t be blamed exclusively on the conservative policies; there is plenty of obesity in Philadelphia, Baltimore and other Democrat-dominated cities. But Gallup’s poll clearly demonstrates that obesity is widespread in red-state America, and GOP policies, from opposition to healthcare reform to union-busting to cutting food stamps, only exacerbate the problem.

Below are the 10 most obese states with analysis of the economic and political conditions in those states.

1. Mississippi

Mississippi topped Gallup’s list of the U.S.’ most obese states with a 35.4% obesity rate. In other words, one in three Mississippi residents is obese (which is defined as having a body/mass index of 30 or higher). And Mississippi is as Republican as it gets: not since Jimmy Carter’s victory in 1976 has a Democrat carried Mississippi in a presidential race. The U.S.’ most obese state is also its poorest, and Mississippi’s healthcare crisis only makes matters worse: one in five Mississippi residents lacked health insurance in 2013. Regardless, Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant (a Republican) remains a vehement opponent of the Affordable Care Act, refusing any type of Medicaid expansion via Obamacare in his state. The people who need healthcare reform the most in Mississippi—the obese, the uninsured, the poor, the unemployed or underemployed—are the very people Bryant and other Republicans have turned their backs on.

2. West Virginia

West Virginia has long been a poster child for white rural poverty in the United States, and it isn’t hard to understand why. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, West Virginia (which was 92% white in 2012) had a poverty rate of 17.6% from 2008-2012 compared to 14.9% nationwide. In some West Virginia counties, life expectancy is only slightly higher than it is in Ghana or Haiti—and the fact that West Virginia has the second highest obesity rate in the U.S. (34.4% in Gallup’s poll) certainly isn’t helping West Virginia residents live longer. West Virginia does have a Democratic governor (Earl Ray Tomblin) and Democrats (many of them center-right Blue Dogs) presently dominate West Virginia’s state senate. Nonetheless, Republican ideas are widespread in West Virginia, and Republican Evan Jenkins (a candidate for the U.S. House of Representatives) has been campaigning on repealing the Affordable Care Act. Given West Virginia’s obesity and poverty rates and frighteningly low life expectancy, rolling back healthcare reform is the last thing that state should be doing in 2014.

3. Delaware

Although the least obese states in Gallup’s poll were generally either swing states or blue states (including California, Hawaii, New York and Connecticut), Gallup considers Democrat-dominated Delaware the third most obese state in the country thanks to an obesity rate of 34.3%. Very much a blue state, Delaware hasn’t given its electoral votes to a GOP presidential candidate since George H.W. Bush, Sr.’s victory over Michael Dukakis in 1988. Delaware’s obesity problem cannot honestly be blamed on Republicans, but arguably, it reflects the growing inequality in the Democratic side of America. Democratic America ranges from ultra-gentrified, upscale places like Seattle, San Francisco and Manhattan to the most blue-collar parts of Delaware, and blue-collar America has been slammed hard by the current economic downturn.

In September 2013, Democratic Sen. Robert Marshall of Wilmington asserted that Delaware needed to start creating a lot more high-paying jobs that don’t require a college degree. Though Marshall didn’t mention obesity, his point was relevant to a discussion of obesity because a lack of quality blue-collar jobs contributes to poverty—which in turn, leads to obesity.

4. Louisiana

Right behind Delaware when it comes to obesity is the heavily Republican Louisiana, which has an obesity rate of 32.7% in Gallup’s study—and Louisiana has also had, according to the U.S. Census Bureau in 2012, a poverty rate of 19.9% (the third highest in the U.S.). A state with as much poverty and obesity as Louisiana is a prime example of why healthcare reform needs to go forward, yet Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal (a possible candidate in the 2016 GOP presidential primary) has called for repealing Obamacare. Obesity and all the problems that go with it, from heart disease to high blood pressure to Type 2 diabetes, are better controlled when one has adequate access to healthcare, and Republicans like Jindal only make it harder for the poor to see a doctor.

5. Arkansas

Although Arkansas’ current two-term governor, Mike Beebe, is a Democrat, the state on the whole remains very Republican-leaning—and according to Gallup, it has the U.S.’ fifth highest obesity rate: 32.3%. The fact that obesity and poverty go hand in hand is evident in Arkansas, which had a poverty rate of 18.7% in 2011 (according to the U.S. Census Bureau). Arkansas children, according to the 2011 Kids Count Data Book, are facing the second highest child poverty rate in the United States. In a state with all that obesity and poverty, Republican State Sen. Nate Bell’s “solution” to those problems is to fight Medicaid expansion and discourage Arkansas’ uninsured from singing up for Obamacare.  

6. South Carolina

The sixth most obese state in the U.S., according to Gallup, is South Carolina (a Republican-leaning state that Obama won in 2008 but lost in 2012). South Carolina has a poverty rate of 17.6%, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Around 764,000 South Carolina residents lacked health insurance in 2011 (according to a study conducted for the South Carolina Department of Health and Human Services), but Republican Gov. Nikki Haley has rejected Medicaid expansion via Obamacare in her state. In addition to helping keep South Carolina’s poor uninsured, Haley has contributed to their poverty by being fiercely anti-union: Haley infamously said, “I love that we are one of the least unionized states in the country.”

7. Tennessee

The state Gallup cites as the seventh fattest in the U.S. is Tennessee, which has an obesity rate of 31.3 percent. And like other southern states, it is very Republican-dominated. Republicans aren’t big on anti-poverty programs—which, in effect, are also anti-obesity programs given the relationship between poverty and obesity—and in Tennessee, the U.S. Census Bureau found a poverty rate of 17.3% for 2008-2012. Plus, Tennessee is a so-called “right to work” state, meaning it’s very weak on union protection. Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has rejected Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion in his state, where around one million residents lacked health insurance in 2013. To make matters worse for Tennessee residents who are obese, poor and uninsured, Tennessee Republicans have proposed legislation that would outlaw Obamacare exchanges throughout the state.

8. Ohio

Ohio, which Gallup considers the eighth fattest state in the U.S. with an obesity rate of 30.9%, is very much a swing state in presidential elections. Obama carried Ohio (where Republican Gov. John Kasich is seeking reelection this year) in 2008 and 2012, but it took a lot of hard and aggressive campaigning. So why is there so much obesity in Ohio? A lot of it has to do with the fact that Ohio, like other parts of the Rust Belt, has been hit hard by the outsourcing of manufacturing jobs to developing countries. Outsourcing has created a lot of poverty in Ohio (which, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, has a poverty rate of 15.3%).

According to Mary Nally, executive director of Community Food Initiatives in Athens, Ohio, 20% of the people living in Athens County suffer from food insecurity—and Nally has said that “There’s a strong relationship between being food-insecure and being obese.” Nally has noted that in some rural parts of Athens County, the poor suffer from inadequate access to fresh fruits and vegetables and are more likely to eat an abundance of unhealthy processed food. Underscoring Ohio’s swing-state outlook is the fact that Kasich is among the few Republican governors who has agreed to a Medicaid expansion under Obamacare.

9. Kentucky

When health insurance companies send out literature encouraging Americans to get more exercise, eat healthfully and lose weight, they aren’t doing it out of the goodness of their hearts. They realize that if Obamacare is going to bring them a lot of new customers, it will cost them less if those customers are taking better care of themselves. But embracing a healthy lifestyle can be harder if one is poor, and Kentucky is a “red state” with a lot of poverty and a lot of obesity. According to Gallup, Kentucky is the U.S.’ ninth fattest state with an obesity rate of 30.6%—and according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Kentucky’s poverty rate increased to 19.4% in 2012. But Ron Crouch, director of research at the Kentucky Education and Workforce Development Cabinet, has predicted that Obamacare will create a lot of new healthcare jobs in Kentucky, possibly helping offset the loss of so many manufacturing jobs in that state, where Kentucky Gov. Steve Beshear, a Democrat, has been a strong Obamacare supporter.   

10. Oklahoma

The 10th most obese state in the U.S., according to Gallup, is Oklahoma, where there is an obesity rate of 30.5% and poverty reached a 10-year high in 2012. Oklahoma is also a hardcore red state where Republican Gov. Mary Fallin has refused Obamacare’s Medicaid expansion even though many people lack health insurance there. Oklahoma is a textbook example of why healthcare reform is desperately needed in the U.S. According to a report by the Kaiser Family Foundation, about 144,000 poor, uninsured Oklahoma residents would be eligible for Medicaid assistance under Obamacare, but thanks to Fallin and other Oklahoma Republicans, they are being left out in the cold.

Alex Henderson's work has appeared in the L.A. Weekly, Billboard, Spin, Creem, the Pasadena Weekly and many other publications. Follow him on Twitter @alexvhenderson.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Lynching Lincoln: Racism and the Devolution of the GOP

Lynching Lincoln: Racism and the Devolution of the GOP

| October 31, 2012 |

Not all Republicans are racists but it would be folly not to argue that most racists in the United States are Republicans. The Grand Old Party’s stance on racial and gender inequality has been a hallmark of the Republican Party since the early 1950s. But it wasn’t always that way.

Scholars debate when exactly the tides turned and the Democratic and Republican Parties morphed into the ones we know today, yet no presidential historian of merit can argue that the Republican Party of the 1860s and the Republican Party of today are in any way related other than name.

A far right wing pundit could weave tenuous factual threads from the past and present into a blanket confirmation-bias argument, however the reason the current G.O.P.  still banners Lincoln as their political patriarch is, simply put: human rights. And had Lincoln been a flag-waver for states’ rights (which is one of the tenets of the current Republican Party), the U.S. would have been cleaved irretrievably into two countries.

The original Party of Lincoln’s legacy is that of a beacon for human equality — a lantern that today’s Republicans have repeatedly, and legislatively, snuffed out.

Southern Republicans began openly splitting within their party while the Emancipation Proclamation was still being drafted. And those rabble rousers would, over time, become the leaders of the Republican Party that we know today: wealthy white men afraid of losing their social and political stature bound together in their mutual racial and gender-biased bigotry.

And during this time, the pro-abolitionist faction within the party who fought for the rights of freed slaves — who overturned President Andrew Johnson’s veto on the Civil Rights Act of 1866 — were ironically known as the Radical Republicans. However, not surprisingly, their archenemies were the Southern conservatives. The seeds were already planted for a major shift within the Grand Old Party, and it would yield a bitter fruit, ripe for the pickin’, in exactly 100 years.

The Democratic Party has long been the party of the people, enacting social reforms, creating social programs that help the poor or infirmed, and passing laws that protect the rights of all American citizens. Those civil-rights battles were fought piecemeal through many presidential administrations but the one thing they have in common is that after Lincoln they were all signed into law by Democratic presidents.

See how the presidents rank overall.

The second wave of equality came under President Wilson, who succumbed to the demands of Suffragettes and helped pass the Nineteenth Amendment allowing women to vote. (The fact that Wilson opened up an entire new block of voters seemed to all but assure a third term for the stroke-addled president. But that would not be the case, and just like axed kegs of Scotch whiskey and busted bottles of beers on the eve of Wilson’s decidedly unpopular Prohibition, Wilson’s reelection went down the drain.)

President Franklin Roosevelt, with his implementation of the New Deal featured a stipulation that at least 10 percent of welfare assistance be allocated to African-Americans (who coincidentally made up 10 percent of the population at the time and were also within the 20 percent of the population who were living below poverty levels).

Roosevelt’s so-called “Black Cabinet,” (Federal Council of Negro Affairs) which was comprised of forty-five African-Americans (the most famous being Mary Jane Bethune) in lower level federal executive positions, began to swing more blacks toward the Democratic Party. In 1932 most blacks voted overwhelmingly Republican but just four years later Roosevelt, along with members of the Black Cabinet working in tandem with urban mayors (most notably in Chicago), won over the black vote throughout the country.

Prior to 1948 the South was steadfastly Democrat until segregationist Dixiecrats lead by South Carolinian senator Strom Thurmond began whittling away at their party –  all under the bunting of “states’ rights.”

By the time President Lyndon Johnson barreled though the first civil rights legislation since Reconstruction with the Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1965 the party schisms had changed irrevocably.
It was southern-styled, boiled-in-wool racism that officially altered the Republican Party.
Democrats below the Mason-Dixon Line broke with Johnson, a fellow Southerner, fought against desegregation and other morally soiled remnants of the Southland’s “peculiar institutions.” And as blatant racist ideology began to infiltrate the Party of Lincoln, Republicans who stood for racial equality had nowhere to stand and thus crossed the aisle to side with the Democrats. It was southern-styled, boiled-in-wool racism that officially altered the Republican Party. 

Continuing with President Carter’s push for the women’s Equal Rights Amendment and to President Obama’s recent support for gay rights (specifically marriage equality), the Democratic Party has consistently been the party of the people since Wilson.

Meanwhile Republicans, including Governor Romney, continue to tamp down the rights of others by proposing the Defense of Marriage Act, which would be the only Amendment to the Constitution that would actually deny American citizens of equal rights.

The term “post-racial America” ebbed into our collective vernacular during President Obama’s first inauguration in 2008; we had entered a new era and the electorate had, in effect, made reparations for our nation’s soul. And it seemed, for a breeze of a time, to be all behind us. Yet the bigotry continued.

If it appeared there were increased demonstrations of racism during the 2012 presidential campaign season, there’s a reason for that: A survey from the Associated Press reported that people who admit they harbor prejudice against blacks and Hispanics actually increased in four years from 48 percent to 51 percent.

As Election Day neared in 2012, the expressions of bigoted disdain toward both the president and the first lady were cresting. Photographs of chairs being hung in pseudo-effigy were being reported daily and while that may sound like child’s play to some, the implication carries historical racial overtones. And throughout the country, Halloween “decorations” of the president could be seen swinging in lawns from California to Indiana, and even a mannequin with the likeness of the president was photographed being lynched on a truck in the  parking lot of a county fair in North Carolina.

How many college degrees must a black man get — to what lofty ambitions must a black man aspire — how refined must a black man’s demeanor be? How honorable must a black man be as a son, as a husband, as a father, as a president? And to what extent must be prove himself as a man before he can rip off the mantle of “nigger,” “pickaninny,” and “sambo?”

It is a testament to the intellectual inferiority of Teflon bigots that no matter the success or mental superiority of the black man, to a racist it’s all for naught. While most signs of belligerent prejudice can be seen in impoverished rural areas within the Bible Belt, other racial slips of the tongues are coming straight from the mouths of G.O.P. politicos: Republican Governor Sununu even mocked General Colin Powell’s endorsement of Obama saying, essentially, that Powell, a Republican, was only voting for the president based on his race.

In October 2012, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson (Colin’s former chief-of-staff and fellow Republican), came out publicly and admitted rampant racism within his own party:
“My party, unfortunately, is the bastion of those people — not all of them, but most of them — who are still basing their positions on race. Let me just be candid: My party is full of racists, and the real reason a considerable portion of my party wants President Obama out of the White House has nothing to do with the content of his character, nothing to do with his competence as commander-in-chief and president, and everything to do with the color of his skin, and that’s despicable.”
Many right wing politicians’ racial biases are so ingrained, their loathing of Obama so intense, and their prejudicial comments so common that they barely even registered on the radar. Governor Palin’s recent “shuck and jive” comment about Obama (a reference to cartooned foot-dragging “darkies”) went virtually unnoticed. And while twice-failed would-be politician Donald Trump in an attempted extortion-esque promise to donate $5 million to a charity of Obama’s choice if the president released his college transcript simply came off as buffoonery, few people noticed its racial intent. Trump taunted via Twitter:
“If my offer is refused, every undecided OH voter will be fully aware that Obama denied $5M to charity all because he is hiding something.”
(As an aside, Trump had the wherewithal to wager $5 million to help people and because no one would play his game, he did not donate it. This is further proof that his bet is not an act of altruism, but a desperate act of egotism.)

But what most people missed from Trump’s self-celebrated “very, very big” stunt is the racial intent in his so-called offer. Trump believed, as did Rush Limbaugh (who has played a song on his radio show entitled, “Barack the Magic Negro”) that the president was accepted to Columbia University and Harvard Law School based solely on Affirmative Action. Even if this were the case (though no evidence exists to validate the claim) Trump’s intent to parade Obama as a man of lesser intelligence is moot; not only was Obama the president of the Harvard Law Review but he also graduated magna cum laude.

And those aforementioned Republicans actually consider themselves members of the Grand Old Party. Were he alive today,  Lincoln would be a Democrat and they’d be stringing him up by the nearest poplar tree, too.

Maybe it wasn’t a mirror that Colin Powell looked into for voting inspiration — maybe it was a history book.

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