Sunday, February 27, 2011

“Zenga Zenga”: Mad Dog Gaddafi and the Hip-Hop Theme Song of the Libyan Uprising

(Music: Noy Alooshe. Lyrics: Muammar al-Gaddafi.)

by Michael Kaplan

Downfall of a tyrant?  A poster of Muammar al-Gaddafi is desecrated in Benghazi.  Tyler Hicks/The New York Times.

The account I have given . . . shews how the abuse of authority, by causing the misery of individuals, becomes eventually destructive to the power of a state; and what we may safely venture to predict, will soon prove, that the ruin of a nation sooner or later recoils on those who have been the cause of it, and that the errors or crimes of those who govern cannot fail of their punishment, even from the very misery and wretchedness of those whom they have governed.

The Mad Dog of the Middle East (as Ronald Reagan called him) may finally be meeting his Götterdämmerung. That the world put up with the antics of Muammar al-Gaddafi, the psychopath masquerading as a buffoon, for forty-two years, says much about the sordid workings of international power politics. Leaving aside the horrors he perpetrated on his own people, Gaddafi has more American blood on his hands than anyone other than Osama bin Laden. But since Gaddafi sat on a pool of oil, the rest of the world, including the United States after 2003, was willing enough to do business with him. In September 2009, Gaddafi stood at the podium of the United Nations General Assembly, honoring that august body with one of the most incoherent and downright weird speeches it ever had to suffer through.

The people of Libya, though, never benefitted from their nation’s vast reserves of oil. Instead, Gaddafi, and his equally vile children, used the wealth provided by oil to live lives of gross debauchery and finance armies of terrorists worldwide. One son, the grandiloquently named Saif al-Islam (Sword of Islam), presenting himself as the westernized face of the regime, bought himself a Ph.D. from the London School of Economics. In return for his degree, Saif donated £1.5 million to support the work of the LSE’s Centre for the Study of Global Governance on civil society organizations in North Africa. Even British academia, it seems, was willing to play along with the Gaddafi family’s theater of the absurd if the payoff was right.

Now, as Gaddafi goes down in flames, pledging to take as much of his country as he can down with him, his own words have been turned into the theme song of the rebellion. Noy Alooshe, an Israeli musician of Tunisian heritage, took the phrase “zenga zenga” from a rambling, gibberish-filled, 75 minute speech delivered by Gaddafi on Tuesday February 22, and set it to a hip-hop vibe. Gaddafi, dressed in brown robes and a turban, spoke from what appeared to be the residence damaged in the 1986 bombing raid ordered by Ronald Reagan. Alooshe overlaid the video with footage of a scantily-clad woman dancing to Gaddafi’s trance music riff. The video, posted on YouTube, has gone viral throughout the Arab world and has captured the spirit of the Libyan uprising. The irony of an Israeli artist creating the theme song for an Arab fight for liberty is something we should all ponder. Here is the video.

You know a tyrant’s days are numbered when the people who had lived in absolute fear of his wrath can turn around and assault him with mockery. The speech itself was classic Gaddafi. The self-styled “Leader and Guide of the Revolution,” proclaimed his defiance of those who sought his downfall, blaming the uprising on everyone from Al Qaeda to American agents drugging Libyan youth with LSD-spiked Nescafé. More ominously, he threatened to unleash his security forces on all rebels, declaring that “when I do, everything will burn.” Rambling on, Gaddafi issued a call to his people: “Come out of your homes, those who love Muammar Gaddafi. Women, men, girls, boys, those who side with Muammar Gaddafi and the revolution. . . . As from tomorrow, no, as from tonight, actually, people in Libyan cities and towns . . . chase [the protesters], arrest them, hand them over to the security [forces].”

Monday, February 14, 2011

“The American people are no longer on the defensive”: Ronald Reagan’s Statement of Traditional Jacksonian Values at CPAC, 1985

by Michael Kaplan

“So, let us go forth with good cheer and stout hearts—happy warriors out to seize back a country and a world to freedom.”

Throughout the course of his political career, Ronald Reagan was a firm champion of the traditional values of Jacksonian America. These included an unapologetic nationalism, veneration of the symbols of American patriotism, belief in limited government and rugged individualism, traditional religious faith, and a belief in the greatness and goodness of the American people and America’s exceptional role in history as the champion of liberty in the world. These ideas defined Reagan’s conservatism and they were a major source of his ability to connect with the aspirations of the American people.

Reagan had two overarching objectives when he took office as president in 1981. First, he wanted to dismantle the blue social model (the progressive welfare state) and unleash the entrepreneurial dynamism of the American economy. And just as important, Reagan wanted roll back the Aquarian social and cultural revolution of the 1960s and restore the primacy of traditional Jacksonian culture in American life. Reagan feared that the unrelenting assault on Jacksonian America by the Aquarian counterculture was undermining the American people’s belief in themselves and in their nation. He stated this quite eloquently at the Conservative Political Action Conference on March 1, 1985.
The new conservatives made anew the connection between economic justice and economic growth. Growth in the economy would not only create jobs and paychecks, they said; it would enhance familial stability and encourage a healthy optimism about the future. Lower those tax rates, they said, and let the economy become the engine of our dreams. Pull back regulations, and encourage free and open competition. Let the men and women of the marketplace decide what they want.
But along with that, perhaps the greatest triumph of modern conservatism has been to stop allowing the left to put the average American on the moral defensive. By average American I mean the good, decent, rambunctious, and creative people who raise the families, go to church, and help out when the local library holds a fundraiser; people who have a stake in the community because they are the community.
These people had held true to certain beliefs and principles that for 20 years the intelligentsia were telling us were hopelessly out of date, utterly trite, and reactionary. You want prayer in the schools? How primitive, they said. You oppose abortion? How oppressive, how antimodern. The normal was portrayed as eccentric, and only the abnormal was worthy of emulation. The irreverent was celebrated, but only irreverence about certain things: irreverence toward, say, organized religion, yes; irreverence toward establishment liberalism, not too much of that. They celebrated their courage in taking on safe targets and patted each other on the back for slinging stones at a confused Goliath, who was too demoralized and really too good to fight back.
But now one simply senses it. The American people are no longer on the defensive. I believe the conservative movement deserves some credit for this. You spoke for the permanent against the merely prevalent, and ultimately you prevailed.
Reagan gloried in his role as knight-errant of the Jacksonian folk community, much as Andrew Jackson had in his day. It also drove his liberal progressive opponents into fits of outrage. Reagan could express, in coherent and powerful language, the resentment of Jacksonian populist conservatives toward their liberal elite antagonists. For much of the twentieth century Jacksonian America had been on the defensive; its culture of patriotism and faith mocked as reactionary, its people derisively condemned as boobus americanus. The humiliation of William Jennings Bryan at the Scopes Monkey Trial in 1925 drove conservative Christians into political exile, perpetuating an image of Jacksonians as eccentric primitives. Reagan gave focus and leadership to the Jacksonian revival which responded forcefully to the excesses of the Aquarian counterculture.

However, despite Reagan’s presidency, indeed because of it, the Aquarian counterculture was here to stay. The Aquarian lifestyle could only take root and flourish in a society of mass abundance. People engaged in the struggle for bare survival could not afford to follow their bliss. Ironically, it was Reagan’s own economic policies, by unleashing the animal spirits of capitalism and creating wealth on an unprecedented scale, which enabled Aquarian values to be incorporated into mainstream America. The Reagan years saw the birth of the bohemian bourgeois, or “bobo”—David Brooks’s term—the newest incarnation of the technocratic elite which combined an aggressive meritocratic work ethic with an Aquarian style and hedonism. There would be no return to the 1950s in the 1980s. Jacksonian America, too, was to a certain extent, “aquarianized.” As Brink Lindsey writes:
Capitalism’s vigor was restored, and the radical assault on middle-class values was repulsed. But contrary to the hopes of the New Right’s traditionalist partisans, shoring up the institutions of mass affluence did not, and could not, bring back the old cultural certainties. Instead, a reinvigorated capitalism brought with it a blooming, buzzing economic and cultural ferment that bore scant resemblance to any nostalgic vision of the good old days. Here then was conservatism’s curious accomplishment: it made the world safe for the secular, hedonistic values of Aquarius.
(Lindsey, The Age of Abundance: How Prosperity Transformed America’s Politics and Culture [New York: Collins, 2007], p. 229.)

This raises a question which perplexed the Founding Fathers. Can those traditional American values which create abundanceJacksonian values, of hard work, self-discipline, delayed gratification, and a strong sense of national identitysurvive the very abundance they create? Does the American people’s pursuit of happiness sow the seeds of their destruction should happiness ever be found?

© 2011 Michael Kaplan

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Straight Talk from Chris Christie on Public Sector Sacrifice

by Michael Kaplan

New Jersey Governor Chris Christie confronts defenders of the blue model at a Town Hall Meeting, January 26.

“I am sorry I’m the guy who’s got to be here when the party’s over.”

Below is a video from a town hall meeting held on January 26 by New Jersey Governor Chris Christie at VFW Post 2179 in Middletown, NJ. Christie spoke about the need to cut public sector salaries and benefits to bring them in line with those in the private sector.

Governor Christie, more than most politicians, understands just how serious the crisis of the blue social model really is, and has spoken out on it without pulling any punches or sugar coating it for the public. He has tried to find workable policies to phase out the blue model in the public sector and bring it to as soft a landing as possible. Inevitably he has faced fierce opposition from the public sector employee unions and Democrats in the state legislature. Christie recently accused the legislature of paying lip service to his proposals for rolling back public sector pensions and civil service reform but taking no action on them. “They've done nothing on this issue,” he said. “It is nothing but two-page press releases with bullet points. That’s not how you fix the big things in New Jersey.” Perhaps it does take a man of Christie’s considerable size and stature to overwhelm those who would defend the blue model to the death.

At the January 26 town hall meeting, Christie took on the delicate issue of cutting pensions and health care benefits for the police force. Summing up the dilemma facing the blue states, Christie said “Other politicians made you promises they couldn’t keep.” The governor then challenged the crowd, asking “Why are you mad at me? Because I’m the one who’s telling you the truth. The numbers are the numbers. I’m trying to fix it. I am sorry I’m the guy who’s got to be here when the party’s over.” While Christie has had some heated confrontations with teachers and their union at previous town hall meetings, many of which are posted on YouTube, the governor now had to spell out the facts of economic life to New Jersey’s men and women in blue. When state corrections officer Sean Kelly, sounding more than a bit pissed off, asked how he was expected to pay for one-third of his health insurance premiums, the governor responded with typical Christie bluntness:

Kelly: With a 2% cap on a raise per year, how am I going to afford $8,000 to pay for medical benefits?
Christie: You’re not. You’re not gonna afford it. What’s gonna to happen is you’re gonna have to make choices among medical plans. And have more choices than just 3 choices which you have now, and only the Cadillac plan. You’re going to have to make choices, like everybody else is making choices in this economy. [...]
A whole bunch of politicians who came before me on the local level and the state level made you promises that they couldn’t keep. And they knew they couldn’t keep them when they made them. So, I understand you being angry. But I suggest to you, respectfully, don’t be angry at the first guy who told you the truth.
Not satisfied with Christie’s answer, Kelly went on: “I received a 2% increase in my salary 2 weeks ago, and my medical benefits started to come out. Do you know how much my check went up Sir? $4. How am I supposed to live with that?” Christie then elaborated on his previous points:

Here’s the difference. You’re getting a paycheck. And there are 9% of the people in the state of New Jersey who are not.
And if their property taxes continue to go up to continue pay for higher and higher salaries in the public sector, they’ll lose their homes.
And so, I have to tell you, I understand your frustration about not getting a higher raise. But you go around this room and talk to people who are in the private sector who haven't gotten raises for years, if they’ve been able to keep their job at all. This is the economic reality we live in now. I wish it was different, but it isn’t.
Christie went on to warn Kelly and the audience “If the public sector unions continue to be resistant to wanting to be part of the exchange, they're going to lose jobs. They're losing them already.” In a dire forecast of things to come, Camden, the city with New Jersey’s highest crime rate, laid off 45 percent of its police force in January, when city and police union officials were unable to agree on pension and benefit cuts. None of this impressed the thirty-nine-year-old Kelly, an eight-year veteran of the force, who left the meeting with the governor saying, “I appreciate his honesty. His proposals just don't fit into reality.”

Governor Christie was telling Officer Kelly that this is the new reality. Public sector employees, including police officers, are going to have to work harder and produce more for less money, fewer benefits, and less job security, just as their private sector counterparts have been doing for the past thirty years. Jacksonian populists, including Tea Party supporters, have called for extensive cuts in public sector spending to bring down state and federal debt. But while Jacksonians have no problems with teachers or bureaucratic paper pushers making sacrifices for the public good, they resist imposing austerity on policemen, firefighters, and emergency personnel. Jacksonians venerate police officers and firefighters as the domestic equivalent of the armed forces—men and women who put their lives on the line to protect the folk community. Those who made the ultimate sacrifice on 9/11 have already earned a place in America’s pantheon of sacred heroes. Jacksonians make up the bulk of the state and municipal uniformed personnel, just as they do in the military. It will be a tough sell for Christie to convince the Jacksonian public that the police should sacrifice even more.

Since taking office last year, Chris Christie has been telling the people of New Jersey some hard truths that all Americans need to hear. America is indeed a land of affluence and abundance. But that abundance cannot be taken for granted. The creation wealth involves continual hard work, struggle, and effort; the work, struggle and effort of millions of Americans pursuing happiness in a free market and a free society. The government, Christie was reminding his audience, cannot guarantee your success in that pursuit. Nor can the government create wealth. It can only redistribute the wealth already created by individual Americans in the private sector. Howard Dean, staunch liberal progressive defender of the blue model, may argue that the government’s raison d’être is to redistribute wealth: that “the purpose of government is to make sure that capitalism works for everybody, not just for the people who can run roughshod as they often do in Washington by throwingand as the Chamber [of Commerce] hasby throwing money around.” But in reality the government can’t ensure that capitalism works for everyone. No system or society devised by human beings can work equally well for all its members. In a free society there will be winners and losers, from billionaire plutocrats to minimum-wage burger flippers, and ideally with a large self-sufficient middle class in between. Government can only provide the structure of laws, policies, and institutions that enable individuals to pursue happiness and create wealth on their own in freedom and in security of life and property. Policemen like Sean Kelly make their contribution to society by providing that security.

Christie also reminded the audience that it is the wealth created in the private sector that funds the public sector. The struggling taxpayers of New Jersey and the forty-nine other states, can no longer bear the burden of funding a public sector that has grown too big and too dysfunctional; that demands too much from the taxpayers and returns too little. So let’s hope that Chris Christie becomes a model for other governors, who can work to find creative solutions to avert a disaster in public finance, and give the American people the well-functioning and responsive public sector they need and deserve.

© 2011 Michael Kaplan