Saturday, June 13, 2015

Notes on Clinton-Bashing

Isn’t it typical that in the Fox-fed blow-up the past few weeks over the Clinton Foundation and the sources of its fortune, the few truly disturbing stories to emerge flashed only briefly onto the news, and then vanished just as quickly-- while the ridiculous non-scandals seem more stubbornly to hang around? Such ironies in this latest tattle-fest are only one iteration of a well-established pattern in the way the media treats the Clintons. From Whitewater to the whole raft of inane accusations now denoted by the word “Benghazi,” we have been here plenty of times before.

The reason for this staying-power of the non-scandals and the ephemeral quality of the real problems has to do with the particular needs of right-wing news outlets, who usually originate these stories, and then send them outward to afflict the rest of us. You see, in finding reasons to dislike the Clintons, the right-wing media has to do a very delicate jig, since most of the really abominable things that Bill and Hillary have done are also things that Republicans have done, or have longed to do for decades but lacked the votes and charisma. The Clintons’ policies have often been deplorable in precisely the ways that “free market” and “Tough on Crime” and hawkish policies have always been deplorable, but the Right can’t very well start depriving itself of its own shibboleths, so it must turn to the realm of the completely bogus. This is why it makes a perverse kind of sense that it was exactly at the point in Bill Clinton’s presidency when he had given the Republicans most of what they wanted, that they chose to set their most spurious legal trap for him. He most effectively made himself an iron-clad nuisance to the Right by implementing their entire agenda, and they responded by diverting the endless, fruitless, and biased Whitewater investigation into an attempt to entrap Clinton into perjuring himself in an unrelated case, over a matter of personal behavior that was quite deeply selfish and cruel, but never criminal.

All of this is why we can take as our first postulate, in matters of Clinton-baiting, that where there’s most smoke, there's no fire. We can add to this a second assurance: namely, that any real moral travesty the Clintons may commit, and they will, is going to be rapidly and safely forgotten, or else recalled as one of their greatest national achievements. (I’ve been watching an old PBS series on the Clinton presidency lately—to get myself in the mood, if that’s the word, for the new Clinton era we are embarking upon – and it is notable that what the documentary and all the talking heads in it see as the “high points” of that administration could just as well be seen as its nadirs. They present NAFTA and Welfare Reform as ingenious political victories, and we hear from various Republicans, including the all-too-still-around Peter King, who speak of these policies as indicative of a golden era of “bipartisanship,” which was only later destroyed by Clinton’s scandalous personal behavior. Well, I guess everyone likes bipartisanship so long as it means the other party doing whatever you want. From the perspective of a steelworker or a peasant in southern Mexico, though, NAFTA might be the great scandal of the Clinton years, not its great success, much as Welfare Reform would be to a mother now reduced to food stamps and Section VIII.)

Now that we are clear on our two postulates, we can apply them to the present Clinton Foundation hubbub. First, recall the inverse correlation between smoke and fire in all things Clintonian. The right-wing media has been on a sustained campaign to generate a lot of smoke over the Clinton Foundation, but observe that they can’t be too specific about exactly what they think is so bad about this Foundation and its methods of funding itself, lest they start impugning various right-wing figures who do the same things. They can’t sound too many alarms about the conflicts of interest posed by wealthy donors, for instance, since that starts to sound a bit like a point in favor of campaign finance reform (But hey: if making such reform an anti-Clinton issue could swing a few right-wing justices around to supporting it, it might be worth doing). Fox News can’t get too exercised over the idea that billionaires might be able to buy influence with Hillary through major donations, given that Rupert Murdoch is one of those billionaires who have given to the Clinton Foundation. When the Right as a whole runs on Kochs and Adelsons, in other words, a right-wing outlet has to be careful about exactly how much it badmouths the idea of money in politics.

The trick is plainly to find a way to cast a vague impression of seediness over the Clinton Foundation, through rehashing ancient and long-refuted conspiracy theories and groundless speculation, without actually reporting any verifiable basis for concern. I get the sense that the author of Clinton Cash – the cash-grab book that set this current Foundation imbroglio in motion – is an adept at this. Granted that I have not read the book in question, but I gather from reviews, from its bouncy alliterative title, and from the author’s comments to the media, that it keeps safely to the realm of rumor. According to Michael Tomasky in the NYRB, Peter Schweizer, the author, has engaged in speculation on right-wing talk radio that he might be murdered by hired assassins because of his book. His interviewer refers to this as the danger of being “Vince Fostered," which implies, if I understand it correctly, that the tragic suicide of one of the Clintons' closest friends was actually a disguised murder committed by their sponsored hit squad – unless we are meant to think that Bill and Hillary did the deed directly. (Now, one could make a case that Bill Clinton does in fact have blood on his hands, and one wouldn’t need to advert to any wildly unjust conspiracy theory to do so, but only to  public record with regard to Clinton’s politically-motivated role in the execution of a mentally disabled inmate in Arkansas, Ricky Ray Rector, and other things he did to make the death penalty more prevalent during his administration -- but that would require having something substantive to say against capital punishment, rather than just the blind hatred that Republicans seem unaccountably to nurse against the one Democratic president who has come closest to supporting every element of their traditional agenda.)

Not all are as wise as Peter Schweizer, however. Other right-wing outlets seem simply to be unsure of where they now stand, in reporting on Clinton Foundation malfeasance. They know that something is wrong with the Foundation absorbing politically-motivated donations as a sort of ultra-super-PAC, but they can’t go too far down the road of identifying exactly what is wrong with it, for reasons already stated. We are faced, then, with such intriguing spectacles as that of reporting that major investors behind the Keystone XL Pipeline have paid speaking fees to the Clintons, without explaining why, by Breitbart standards, this is a bad thing. What objection would they raise? Could it be,, that the pipeline is damaging to the environment and the people who live in its path? Is it a problem more generally for a democratic society that some people can win more influence than others over politicians just because they have more money? I suspect wouldn’t actually want to go too far in answering yes to these questions. The website writers go on to state that the Keystone donations have "infuriated environmental groups" -- and I'm left wondering if this is the first time they have ever presented such an outcome as objectionable. They are plainly not on familiar ground, at any rate. I am reminded of the Baptist minister, Mr. Lyons, in George Eliot’s Felix Holt, when he is faced with the task of arguing with the semi-infidel title character over whether the latter should sell all he has and join the working class. “If [Holt] had been arguing in favor of gin and Sabbath-breaking,” notes Eliot, “Mr. Lyon’s course would have been clearer.”

Of course, as already indicated, there are genuinely disturbing things at the heart of this Clinton Foundation story, and the Right has not totally misidentified what those things are, to the extent that it has somehow gained a dim sense, through all the miasma of rumor-mongering, that massive donations from powerful people flowing into a presidential candidate’s coffers pose an implicit threat to democracy. True, it is ludicrously unfair that they are only discovering this problem now that it can be used against one of the Clintons, but then, the Left too will be guilty of flagrant hypocrisy if it starts to waver on campaign finance reform as soon as the latter affects Clinton Super-PACS (as David Sirota has argued).

So maybe there is a fire someplace, even if the smoke tends to mislead us as to where that fire is burning, but here we have to turn to the second of our two initial postulates: the fact that any real outrage the Clintons commit is likely to be forgotten or else celebrated by the media (and I’m not just talking about Rush and Fox News at this point, but pretty much every outlet to the right of Democracy Now!)

The reason is that the biggest Clinton crimes belong not just to themselves, as two limited and flawed – and also admirable, in some ways – mortals, but to all of us as well. The outrages they commit usually tell us something not just about them as political figures, but about our own society, the way it acts in the world, and the effects that our cherished public shibboleths have on other peoples when they are put dogmatically into practice. Bill Clinton did a terrible thing to the people of Haiti, for instance, when he was president. He set as a condition on the return to power of Jean-Baptiste Aristide (the democratically-elected and popular president, who had been ousted by a right-wing coup) that he eliminate or reduce to a vanishing point the tariffs on imported rice that had allowed Haitian peasants to compete on the market for decades. The change threw these small proprietors into a hopeless competition with American rice from subsidized farms in Arkansas (see the connection?) that eventually drove them off their land and into destitution in Haiti’s slums. But this sort of thing will never amount to a Clinton “scandal,” because recognizing the evil of this requires us to recognize the fact that what goes by the name of “free trade” is often trade stacked in our favor, that the wretched of the Earth do not necessarily regard the United States as a fond uncle and munificent benefactor, and other things that place responsibility on us too and not just on one politician -- Indeed, Clinton as an individual, to his credit, has apologized for what he did to Haiti, describing his policies that enriched Arkansas agribusiness while ruining Haitian farmers as a “devil’s bargain.” It’s far more than most American politicians have ever admitted of their dealings abroad.

So too, Bill Clinton did a terrible thing in implementing the criminal justice policies he favored. We as citizens ought to be horrified at what the future historians will likely say of the Clinton years – that in the last decade of the 20th Century, our country became simultaneously so enamored of the “market” and so hysterical over crime that our last real public institution became our prison system – the last place in America, perversely enough, to provide free food to the poor and free shelter to the mentally ill. But wrestling with that awful truth requires grappling with the fact that Clinton implemented the criminal justice policies he did at least in part because this is what the voters wanted – because “Tough on Crime” was the easiest sell. And that makes it our fault too, not just his.

To come, finally, to Hillary Clinton, the target of the latest iteration of the Clinton-baiting pattern, we learned from the welter of stories about the Clinton Foundation last week that she has done some horrible things too. Typically, the worst of these tales was not broken by any of the right-wing smoke-generators—not by Clinton Cash or Fox – but by independent left-leaning reporters David Sirota and Andrew Perez writing in the International Business Times. Their investigation documents the fact that while Hillary was Secretary of State, our government increased arms sales to repressive governments in Africa and the Middle East apparently in direct response to the donations these governments made to the Clinton Foundation – or that their shadow affiliates paid to Bill Clinton as speaking fees (the sales increased dramatically and many-fold in the years immediately after such payments were made). This was during the Arab Spring. This was at the same time that Hillary Clinton was denouncing many of these same governments for their human rights abuses. So while she was striking that public posture in sympathy with the protestors, the IBT story reveals, she was also selling to governments the tear gas that was being used against these protestors.

Such actions are far more cynical and damaging than those implied in the most lurid speculations about “Benghazi,” but they’ll never become matters of public controversy for most of our media, because in that case we’d have to deal with things much bigger than Hillary: our government’s longstanding pattern of cultivating repressive client states in the Third World, its various hypocrisies and double-speak with regard to democracy and human rights, the fact that the United States is not always and everywhere “on the side of freedom,” and so on. And such truths implicate you and me, not just the Clintons.

Perhaps all that can be asserted with full confidence of the Clintons, at the end of all this, is that we  are likely to get the Clintons we deserve. Both Bill and Hillary have shown themselves to be willing many times over to turn themselves into whatever kinds of people we are willing to vote into office. They might bomb and kill if we asked them to, but if we asked them to hug the endangered mammals and save the rainforest they’d do that as well (indeed, their foundation is probably doing it already, somewhere, albeit with the assistance of oil-rich despots angling for teargas to suppress their restive subjects and other natural philanthropists, like Blackwater military contractors). The appeal of Clinton-baiting and Clinton-bashing of various kinds is that it allows us to pretend that powerful people are so entirely different from us, i.e. so much more wicked. We forget that in a rough democracy like ours – however strained and corrupted it may have become – we tend on the whole to get the kinds of powerful people we ask for.

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