Tuesday, November 26, 2002

Last weekend, I took a break at a party-cum-fundraiser for a local arts group. I was actually there mainly to see the Dresden Dolls, a local musical duo which does cabaret punk, an intriguing genre which they're more or less making up as they go along. (This particular set included covers of The Black Freighter by Weill and Brecht, and I Love Rock and Roll by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, one after the other, both done absolutely straight. It worked).

Along with the bands, the projections, the wall full of secrets from anonymous strangers, and the guy in a back room reading offbeat excerpts from the Amherst, Massachusetts police blotter, was a kind of attempt at political protest --- Dubya's eyes pasted into head shots of assorted wildlife (birds, insects, the occasional bat). I can say with authority that this was, in fact, an act of political protest because the artist's statement pasted up on the wall next to it said so; otherwise, I'd still be wondering what all those poor monkeys had done to deserve their mutilated portraits. But it came with no message, no program, no alternative, not even a clearly articulated critique; at most, there's just a general inarticulate wail of complaint.

Sometimes, freedom of expression doesn't amount to much.

But perhaps I shouldn't complain too much. Even professional politicians these days seem to be having trouble articulating a coherent political statement of opposition to Dubya and Co. Consider, if you will, the truly dismal performance of the Democratic leadership in dealing with the homeland security bill.

Let's begin by remembering that this was, at first, a Democratic proposal. One of questionable merit, by the by; it's by no means obvious, looking in from the outside, that a new law enforcement agency was the right cure for the problems with the ones we already had. (You'd need a full, independant investigation of who knew, or should have known, what and when, to assess that, and Dubya's been blocking that). But that doesn't matter to my argument here; let's just remember for now that it was a proposal initially advanced by the Congressional Democratic leadership in the wake of September 11th.

And, initially, Dubya wanted nothing to do with it. Not for months. That changed last spring, when two things happened. First, it became clear that the Democrats actually had the votes to pass some kind of a bill. So the time came for the Republicans to make Republican virtue of necessity. The second was that the Republican leadership in the House attached some good old-fashioned Nixonian virtue to the bill, in the form of provisions which would exempt the new agency from sunshine laws, deprive its employees of civil service and whistleblower protection, and generally make it easy to staff the new agency with political tools of the party in power, who would be able to function with little or no oversight. Having thus adulterated the bill, they then tossed it back into the Senate, which was still, for the moment, the Democrats' court.

What followed was a bizarre spectacle. While left-wingers with itty-bitty blogs were explaining to each other the importance of maintaining a non-partisan civil service, particularly when it comes to law enforcement, and reminding each other of the dangers of another Watergate or Cointelpro or presidential enemies list, Republicans from Congress and the administration were out explaining to the country that Democrats who balked at the new provisions were trying to serve a helping of pork to the unions, and preaching the virtues of "management flexibility". So, where once Dubya had denied that there was any need to reorganize the government at all, he was now saying that nothing less than ripping out civil service protections for large swaths of it would be acceptable.

And the Democrats responded, at best, by defending their friends in the unions --- allowing the Republicans to define the terms of the argument. Which lead to the elections in the fall, where in several close-run races, the Democrats wound up being flayed as obstructionists to the suddenly critical Homeland Security bill --- a bill which was originally a Democratic proposal.

What the process was really about, from the Republican point of view, became even clearer after the election, when they added another set of riders, including tort immunity for Eli Lilly, whose vaccine additives may have caused brain damage in children, which has to be the most cynical favor to a campaign donor in recent memory. And when the Democrats, and even some moderate Republicans, in the Senate balked at that, they were once again pilloried in the press as obstructionists to the passage of their own proposal.

At times I wonder why bother... I might as well be pasting Tom Daschle's eyes on a picture of a sloth, for all it will amount to. But, like the song goes:

the truth cant save you now
the sky is falling down
and we can't stop the mobs from lying
but like children we keep trying
everything within our power
april trains may bring strange showers...

You can stop the truth from leaking if you never stop believing. Maybe...

Oh, gee --- it looks like Josh Marshall made the same point two days ago. You can tell I haven't had much blog time lately.

Quote from the Dolls song added in proof; this was a hasty draft which got some late editing. And as long as I'm talking about the Boston arts scene, could someone explain to me exactly why all those artist lofts are still scheduled for conversion to office space while new office buildings all over town are begging for tenants? It's an awfully strange landlord in Boston these days that turns away a ready rent check. Sigh...