Using Technology to Deepen Democracy, Using Democracy to Ensure Technology Benefits Us All

Thursday, June 14, 2012


My lecture at Berkeley today begins with Book II of Cicero's De Oratore and then turns to the delightfully hard-boiled election advice Commentariolum Petitionis attributed to his brother. It is hard to read Cicero's lamentations about the ubiquitous corruption and plutocratic-sponsored warlordism of his failng Republic, on the verge of its Augustan reconstitution as an outright imperial tyranny but not before still more civil war and anarchy will provide cover for Cicero's political enemies to have both him and his brother murdered for their pains.

I am a bit flabbergasted at the relentlessly stupid and negative coverage of the Obama administration as we head into the Presidential homestretch. As billionaire Adelson throws Romney a hundred million dollars and declares there is no limit to the money spigot he'll turn on to get rid of Obama a saturation bombing of derision and deception is investing Washington and its commentariat in its doom and gloom. Even Greg Sargent, who is a very sharp and astute progressive commentator says of a new Romney ad not that it is a despicable lie, but that it is "tough."

The ad is still spinning from the so-called Obama "gaffe" from last week that wasn't a gaffe. It closes with the line: “Doing fine? How can Obama fix the economy if he doesn’t understand that it’s broken?” Of course, the line to which the ad refers took place in the question and answer session following a special national press conference convened by the president to discuss the recent bad economic picture and the danger that still greater economic woes in Europe posed for hopes of an American recovery. The press conference happened only because Obama knows the economy is broken and wanted to discuss this with the American people.

Even the line "doing fine" referred not to "the economy" but to the fact that the public sector has been bleeding jobs and feeding a crisis of unemployment while the numbers for private sector growth have been rising in comparison. Sargent declares, "This ad shows just how bad a screw up Obama’s remark really was." If Obama's slightly less than perfect off-the-cuff formulation of an actually complicated point represents a "bad... screw up" just because Romney is willing to lie about it so egregiously, then honestly why even bother?

Such minutely infelicitous formulations will inevitably continue. Even the hyper-discipline of the Obama campaign won't be able to perform that smoothly: Nobody can. I will say that the endless round of stories about Obama's gaffe all week long preceding the ad created a context in which the lie it tells has the purchase to seem so devastating -- but I am honestly quite sure the Romney campaign would have made it even in the absence of the firestorm, likely with much the same idiotic effect anyway.

Of course, everybody knows that one of the main problems the economy faces is that the conspicuous remedies available to government in times like these (jobs bills swelling the public sector, vast investments in infrastructure repair and construction at a time of historically low interest rates, cramdown for underwater home mortgages, sweeping student debt forgiveness, raising taxes on the wealthy who can afford it and treating capital gains as regular taxable income, instituting a financial transaction tax, making medicare buy-in available to all citizens, and raising the cap on income going to social security) are all being prevented by monolithic GOP obstructionism, just as everybody knows that the sources of the problem were the pre-emptive wars based on lies waged by a Republican president with Republican majorities at his disposal at the same time as the taxes to pay for them were slashed on the rich and the obliteration of regulations on financial fraud and speculative looting of banking assets inspired by market fundamentalist ideology began to do their predictable (and predicted) catastrophic work.

These Republicans are the only ones who are beneficiaries of all this negative coverage of the President, and they also happen to be the ones who want more tax cuts for the rich while dismantling the safety net further still. Everything they want to do is known to be catastrophic by everybody who actually understands the policy, everything they want to do is unpopular with the people, but Romney is going to drench our days in deception and complexities will vanish behind self-serving lies propelled by billions, and little doubts and little dreads will germinate from that spreading of poisoned seeds and we may, like sleepwalkers, open the door with our own slack hand that lets our murderers in.

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