Foner: W “Worst President Ever”

Righties will fabricate myriad disses of Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton professor of history at Columbia University, but in fact he’s enormously respected among other historians. His book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (Harper & Row, 1988) is THE most respected book ever on that complex period. (I was going to call him a “rock star” among American historians, but Tom at Corrente beat me to it.) He specializes in 19th-century history, meaning he is well acquainted with the bottom-of-the-barrel presidents like Franklin Pierce, James Buchanan, and Andrew Johnson.

And Foner says George W. Bush is the worst president ever. He combines, Foner writes, the worst qualities of the worst presidents — “the lapses of leadership, misguided policies and abuse of power of his failed predecessors.”

At a time of national crisis, Pierce and Buchanan, who served in the eight years preceding the Civil War, and Johnson, who followed it, were simply not up to the job. Stubborn, narrow-minded, unwilling to listen to criticism or to consider alternatives to disastrous mistakes, they surrounded themselves with sycophants and shaped their policies to appeal to retrogressive political forces (in that era, pro-slavery and racist ideologues). Even after being repudiated in the midterm elections of 1854, 1858 and 1866, respectively, they ignored major currents of public opinion and clung to flawed policies. Bush’s presidency certainly brings theirs to mind.

Harding and Coolidge are best remembered for the corruption of their years in office (1921-23 and 1923-29, respectively) and for channeling money and favors to big business. They slashed income and corporate taxes and supported employers’ campaigns to eliminate unions. Members of their administrations received kickbacks and bribes from lobbyists and businessmen. “Never before, here or anywhere else,” declared the Wall Street Journal, “has a government been so completely fused with business.” The Journal could hardly have anticipated the even worse cronyism, corruption and pro-business bias of the Bush administration.

When I was a girl, we were taught that the Teapot Dome scandal was the nadir (or the pinnacle, if you want to visualize it that way) of federal government corruption. But if you look at the details of the Teapot Dome scandal now, Teapot Dome seems downright picayune. Those people were amateur crooks; we’ve brought in the pros.

Despite some notable accomplishments in domestic and foreign policy, Nixon is mostly associated today with disdain for the Constitution and abuse of presidential power. Obsessed with secrecy and media leaks, he viewed every critic as a threat to national security and illegally spied on U.S. citizens. Nixon considered himself above the law.

You get the picture.

IMO the measure of good and bad presidents is whether they have left the country in worse shape or better shape. Look at the cumulative effects of their administrations, in other words. Yeah, Franklin Roosevelt made mistakes — the internment of Japanese American was inexcusable — but you can’t say the man didn’t leave the country in better shape than it was when he found it. Bad presidents, on the other hand, leave wreckage behind for others to clean up. Pierce and Buchanan dumped a civil war on Lincoln. Andrew Johnson’s disastrous Reconstruction policies left us with unresolved racial problems we are still struggling to address. Calvin Coolidge bequeathed the Great Depression to poor Hoover (who was a decent guy, on the whole, but he was out of his depth).

Foner has been around the block enough times to know that historians — and the public — change their minds. Warren Harding enjoyed wide popularity when he died in office in 1923. It wasn’t until after his death the stories came out — about Teapot Dome (which wasn’t Harding’s doing), and Harding’s predilection for keeping mistresses hidden in White House closets. On the other hand, Ulysses S. Grant’s presidential record and reputation continue to be unfairly trashed, but in recent years some historians have reconsidered his administration and have given him an upgrade.

But on the whole, Foner says, historians’ rankings of presidents “display a remarkable year-to-year uniformity.” And you sure don’t have to be a university professor to see the damage Bush is doing. Most of us won’t live long enough to see his messes cleaned up.

Naughty Words and Pictures

I’m a week late commenting on the infamous “W-word post” at FireDogLake. That’s because I just now read it. The post criticizes a Democratic Party congresswoman in sexually inflammatory prose. Via Shakespeare’s Sister, I see that Tom Watson criticized the post as “a vicious attack on her gender, dressed up as ‘snark.'”

I hope Peter Daou is reading this, because his boss [Sen. Hillary Clinton] may well have to face this kind of sexist attack beginning next year. It’s so bad, so poorly executed, that it really does appear to be a clumsy Republican efforts to pollute a top Democratic blog. These posts are permanent, folks. They give aid and comfort to the other side. They make our side look surly, sexist, hypocritical. …

… in a world where a hero like Mukhtar Mai of Pakistan overcomes court-ordered gang rape and a corrupt regime to help educate the children of her attackers, we kid ourselves that we’re advanced enough, cool enough, hip enough, or evolved enough to throw around this low-brow gender-based garbage and think it won’t stick – to us, to the left, to the Democrats, to our candidates, to our movement.

(By some coincidence, the under-the-masthead story on Daou Report today links to a Media Matters story about some sexist drool from the mouth of Rush Limbaugh.)

Then Tom points to another FDL post that had used the “C” word to describe conservative pundit Laura Ingraham. Commenters objected, and the word was edited out. James Wolcott commented,

Sexism is second nature to so many on the right, which is why those on the left have to ensure that their antennae are acutely tuned to the misogynistic jibes thrown at Nancy Pelosi from everyone from Maureen Dowd to Dennis Miller. As Tom Watson, provoked by this outburst of projectile vomiting in Firedoglake, points out, such rhetorical rot will only end up eating into our own faces.

That the original “W-word” post was, in fact, sexist, was well demonstrated by Zuzu at Feministe. It was not just making use of sexist words to make a non-sexist point; the post itself was permeated with sexism. In the “C-word” post the offending word was an isolated incident in an otherwise non-sexist post, which doesn’t necessarily make the usage less sexist. Zuzu comments,

As is depressingly common, commenters — most of them progressive men — tripped all over themselves to excuse the use of “cunt” and the rather florid whore imagery as just desserts for Ingraham and Tauscher. Come on, can’t you take a little vulgarity? Hey, they’re right-wing bitches; they deserve it. You’re limiting my vocabulary! Women use it, too, so why can’t men? You have no sense of humor. But “prick” is an insult, too! It’s just a word, it doesn’t mean anything. But FDL’s raised a lot of money for Democrats!


We’ve been down this road before, kids. With Ann Coulter. With Michelle Malkin. With “pussy.” For that matter, with fat jokes. [And, as Lauren reminds me, with blackface.] And those arguments are no more valid now than they were then.

If you can’t attack the positions of a rabid antifeminist commentator or a deep-in-the-pockets-of-Big-Pharma politician without resorting to insults designed to highlight not just their gender, but their relative worth as fucktoys, then you have no business writing what passes for commentary.

It’s easy to reach first for the gender-based insult. And it’s wrong.

And, seriously, how can you sit there and be shocked, shocked, that people you don’t agree with are attacking Nancy Pelosi for her femaleness and not realize that you’re contributing to the problem by portraying a United States Congresswoman as a cumguzzling two-dollar whore? By whining that women are too sensitive because they complain when you call a media figure a cunt?

Shakespeare’s Sister defends Tom Watson’s post:

He’s right, of course—not only does it perpetuate a culture in which women are so easily marginalized just because they’re women, but it also cedes high ground we’ll surely need while the Speaker is a woman, no less if the Dem nominee is.

One might think that wouldn’t be a controversial suggestion, but only because it’s easy to forget that there are still people who will argue from here to eternity in defense of their right to use with impunity sexist language and imagery to demean women.

Pachacutec could have just said “Yeah, I called her a whore. So what? Fuck you.” to anyone who disagreed with that language. As Tammy Wynette might say, stand by your sexism. But instead, the argument became, as it always does, that the language wasn’t sexist at all, and anyone who thinks otherwise is a hypersensitive, hysterical loser. Tom was deemed “Ned Flanders,” and Pachacutec told him to “Face it. We do punk rock posts and you’re into Guy Lombardo.” All I can say is that if punk is challenging the comfortable conventions of the bourgeoisie, there’s almost nothing less punk than demeaning a woman by calling her a whore and pretending it’s not sexist. That’s the Milli Vanilli of blogging—derivative and radio-ready, pretending to be something it ain’t.

The “W-word” post was intrinsically sexist. It was sexist through-and-through. If the writer of the post can’t see that, I’ve got a problem with that writer. And IMO the user of the “C-word” to describe Laura Ingraham got caught being sexist and should have just apologized.

But the question of when sexist or racist language may or may not be sexist or racist is complicated. Neil the Ethical Werewolf explores the topic today. His point very basically is that words have the connotations we give them and are not intrinsically bad. Neil’s post also takes us to the issue of the use of “naughty” words in a non-derogatory sense, noting that Shakespeare’s Sister uses the “C-word” to describe herself sometimes. Yes, and some of her commenters called her on it. One writes,

I confess, I’m stumped on this post myself. You say you’re wrong to use certain words in certain ways, but that it is effective and fun when you do, but you shouldn’t, and you can’t defend it… sorry, but huh?

To which Sis replied,

I don’t know what’s so hard to understand about that. Powerful words used to demean other people are useful and potent because they’re demeaning–which makes them indefensible, in spite of the fact that they can be attractive when you’re frustrated or pissed off.

I’m saying I understand the desire to use ugly words to insult, but that doesn’t mean I condone their use. Including my own use of them.

It’s true that words and images themselves have no intrinsic meaning except what we give them. Words are conveyors, not the thing conveyed. Depending on context, sexually or racially charged words and images may or may not be intended to convey a sexist or racist message. The writer or speaker may be trying to say something about sexism or racism, for example. Or maybe the point had nothing to do with racism or sexism at all.

We’ve had some episodes recently in which people took offense at racist images used in a non-racist context, and no amount of explaining could placate them. In the case of the image linked, seeing the point requires an advanced ability to think abstractly; I ‘spect it just plain flew over a lot of peoples’ heads. But I understand that sometimes emotional associations with a word or image are so overwhelmingly painful that people can’t see the intention. I understand this; I feel the same way about a lot of sexually aggressive language. Some words are so painful to me that I can’t bring myself to use them, as you may have noticed. However, I tend to think of my problem with naughty words as, well, my problem. It reflects my age and upbringing, and I don’t burden the young folks about it. Maybe I should speak up more.

I do think we owe it to each other to respect these sore points, even if we don’t share them. On the other hand, if I think the point intended by the word or image was not racist or sexist, any lynch mobs that form in retaliation will have to get along without me.

There are lots of places to go with this topic, including whether use of male-specific naughty words and phrases should be just as off-limits as female counterparts. Dissertations could be written on this stuff. I don’t have the energy for it. I just want to make one basic point, about power.

First, verbal abuse is abuse, and abuse is not communication. The use of hostile and abusive language does not strengthen whatever point a writer or speaker is trying to make. Indeed, it is more likely to be counterproductive to that point, for several reasons. Yes, it can feel good to heap abuse on someone who has angered us. Likewise, we might enjoy reading a verbal punching of someone we don’t like. But readers who don’t already share that dislike will be turned off by the aggressive rhetoric, and will stop reading.

And if the piece of writing is nothing but verbal punching, even those who enjoy it won’t take anything away from it but more hostility. As a blogger, I try very hard to provide information and perspective that, I hope, readers can find useful as they form opinions or engage in political discussions with others. This is not to say that I don’t also provide plenty of snark. But if all I did was say that Republicans are poopyheads, even in wondrously entertaining ways, what’s the point? In the case of the “W-word” post, even though it did contain some information, it was written in such a way that it was a chore to sift out the abuse to get to what that information was. I really hate that. Frankly, it’s juvenile.

Awhile back the MSM was pushing a narrative about angry liberal bloggers. Billmon wrote a response that included this wise observation:

I don’t know what lesson to draw from all this, other than the fact that the great and mighty Washington Post is apparently scared of its shadow. It’s not that the kind of left-wing anger the Post describes isn’t out there in – it’s certainly inside me – but what the Post reporter doesn’t seem to recognize (he wasn’t supposed to) is the difference between the anger of those who have absolutely no power, who have only their words as weapons, and the anger of those who wield considerable influence over the party in complete control of the most powerful government in the world.

In the Post article, Maryscott says at least one thing that is both true and wise, which is that her rage and her blogging are both “born of powerlessness.” The problem is that Lord Acton’s maxim is equally true in reverse: If power corrupts, so does powerlessness. It can lead to fatalism, apathy and irresponsibility – or to paranoia, rage and a willingness to believe every loopy conspiracy theory that comes down the pike.

Remember, nearly always abusive people are insecure people. By the same token, writers (like the “W-word” guy) who over-use vituperation and verbal aggression are writing from a position of powerlessness. Think temper tantrum. It’s loud, it gets attention, yes. But screaming is about all a baby can do to get his way.

If you are writing from power, you assume some responsibilities. One of these is a responsibility not to contribute to the problems of racism and sexism by using racist and sexist language to diss people.

Righties, Billmon says, “wallow in the mindset of a besieged minority.” That’s one reason they are dangerous; they think their (imaginary) status as oppressed persons gives the the moral authority to strike back at their (imaginary) oppressors. And they are so certain of their own virtue they don’t think rules need apply to them — setting law and the Constitution aside to enforce their agenda, for example. I noted earlier this week that being liberal involves some self-abnegation. Power requires self-abnegation as well, or else it becomes oppressive. Those male “progressive” bloggers who don’t think the rules apply to them need to re-think, and grow up. They should assume an attitude of power.

And by assuming an attitude of power I don’t mean being a narcissistic asshole, like George W. Bush. Bush is what happens when an insecure, abusive person is given carte blanche to act out his insecurities. Genuinely powerful people are mindful of what the exercise of their power does to others.