Monday, March 09, 2009

Golden fleecing and Twittering politics

Rick Perlstein, who is working on a new book about the immediate post-Nixon-Presidency years, points to an interesting precedent for the current Republican fad of picking out obscure parts of a spending bill and holding it up for ridicule without actually explaining what it really is: liberal Democratic Sen. William Proxmire from Wisconsin (The Saga of the Golden Fleece: Why America Needs to Learn to Love Government Spending Once Again OurFuture.org 02/03/09).

Proxmire used to announce a monthly Golden Fleece Award highlighting what he viewed as a particularly egregious instance of wasteful, unnecessary or misguided public spending. As Rick points out, his targets were often some Pentagon project, and Pentagon spending was receiving far too little critical scrutiny in the 1970s.

But his picks were often very dubious ones. Rick illustrates:

The pundits fell in love with the notion's good-government pretensions, and for all I know the stunt did the nation some good paring the federal budget of waste, fraud, and abuse.

I suspect, though, the exercise was largely a silly waste of time. One of my professors in graduate school won a Golden Fleece award. Senator Proxmire awarded it for a supposed grant to fund her "mountain climbing hobby." Actually, she's one of the nation's most distinguished anthropologists. She has never climbed a mountain in her life, but used her field work among the Sherpas of Nepal to arrive at some of the most incisive theorizing extant on how societies work. Second-guessing the peer-review process of National Science Foundation grants made for nifty headlines. But it was also numbingly reactionary. According to the Wikipedia entry on Proxmire, the prizes sometimes "went to basic science projects that led to important breakthroughs."
The Republicans have since fallen in love with the gimmick.


Bobby Jindal in his response to Obama's speech to the Joint Session of Congress in February ridiculed funding for volcano research. It doesn't really take a lot of imagination to think of ways in which researching volcanoes might be a very worthwhile project, I mean if you've ever heard of something called "volcanic eruptions".

Maureen Dowd thoroughly enjoys this half-wit game, though. In Stage of Fools New York Times 03/03/09, MoDo gushes over several Twitter messages from the press corps' favorite Maverick, John McCain, ridiculing this or that program as self-evidently obvious. Neither the Maverick nor his admirer MoDo bothered to explain what any of them might actually involve. (Or does that go without saying?) Twitter is probably ideal for our press corps, anyway. They get to pick up one-line Twitters from their favorite politicians and then cut-and-paste them into a column, add a few lines of their own snark, and voila! You have a high-end New York Times column!

Plus, those one-liners spare our leading pundits the painful necessity of having to process anything so complicated as a whole paragraph of information.

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