Wednesday, June 01, 2016

Book 42: The more things change, the more I read old comic strips.

I didn't originally set out to read a collection of Doonesbury strips from the 1990s. It came about because Mr Bunches and I draw a lot of alphabets: he writes the letters and the words, I draw the pictures for him. In between pictures I have some down time, a minute or two. I would spend it chatting with Mr Bunches, but he is all business during alphabets so we can't talk about anything.

One night when we were down in the home office/playroom (Mr F wanted to swing in his hammock) Mr Bunches had me drawing the phonics alphabet, which is a long one. In between my pictures, I was glancing through The Portable Doonesbury, one of the several collections I have. As I read more and more I got kind of hooked on going through the 1990s and remembering issues that seemed big, and noting how much, or little, had actually changed.

Doonesbury is like a history book made funny and interesting. I first read the strip when I was about 11 or 12; the Hartland Library had a copy of Doonesbury's Greatest Hits on display, and I paged through it and then checked it out. I can still remember reading comics about "Park's Parking Tickets" and Duke's sojourn as governor of Samoa, and trying to piece together what these things meant. But even then I got the humor of the strip, in which the joke is almost always on society.

Since then I've been a huge fan of the comic, although it's been years since I went back to look at the old strips. Like I said, it was almost startling to remember things I hadn't thought of for years, and to realize that things don't change all that much.

This set of strips takes place roughly between the Kuwait war ("Operation Desert Storm," remember?) and Clinton being sworn in for his first term.  It's not all politics; there are strips about performance art, which was kind of a big deal in the 1990s, especially when the National Endowment For The Arts became controversial.

It's not really clear when the culture wars began and politics began focusing so much on social issues, but looking back at this demonstrates how little lasting effect social issues can have. The NEA was created in 1965; Reagan promised to abolish it but conservatives (including Charlton Heston) convinced him not to. In 1989 it came under attack again for supporting controversial artists -- the infamous (and probably completely forgotten) Piss Christ was the genesis of this battle. It ended up in court, with the US Supreme Court holding that the law requiring the NEA to award its grants based only on artistic merit was constitutional, and awarding damages to four artists whose applications had been denied on the basis of subject matter. NEA funding has remained fairly consistent since 1990, surviving several recessions, and several extremely conservative congresses and presidents. It's still a favorite target of conservatives, though; fake conservative and failed VP candidate Paul Ryan suggested eliminating it in 2014. He failed.

The bulk of the book is taken up with Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. I remember the outbreak of hostilities in that war; it was the first war in my lifetime. I watched blurry news photos of rocket attacks and wondered about my two friends who were in the Army and were over there.

Desert Storm was really the first incidence of a country renting our military; Saudi Arabia paid us $36,000,000,000 of the total cost (the total being estimated at $60,000,000,000.) The primary result of the whole operation would be the lessons learned by the government and military in 'sanitizing' war for the general population. The military's "pooling" of reporters meant that most news organizations had to rely on the government for their information and footage, which meant that the war featured fewer (or no) shocking images like Vietnam had.

The media policy, called "Annex Foxtrot," relied on claims of national security to censor the media and limit coverage. Sound familiar? The media didn't even fight back: Ted Koppel criticized the policy and networks wrote a strongly worded letter to the administration. I wasn't able to find a single report that anyone had challenged the policy in court. Such restrictions on media involvement are common now, and as a result, the war in Afghanistan has, on average, been given less than 2% of the total news coverage since it started.

In 2015 "the US reversed course and determined to maintain a combat presence in Afghanistan indefinitely."  (Wikipedia.) This was roughly the fourth time the Obama administration had announced and then changed plans to "end" the war in Afghanistan.  Obama's proposal now calls for the US to keep those troops there until 2017 (about 10,000 of them) at a cost annually of $15,000,000,000.

"Desert Storm" was, in retrospect, a remarkably short and restrained war. Bush I was criticized for stopping the troops short of Baghdad. Our 21st century leaders will never be accused of stopping a war.

The book also touches on one short-term political matter and one long-term.  The short-term one was Dan Quayle, possibly the most memorable Vice President of the modern era. Quayle is mostly remembered for Murphy Brown and potatoe, and only one of those really mattered: The Murphy Brown claim that she was promoting unwed motherhood continued the rise of the conservative social issues that would ultimately find 'conservative' poor people siding with the Republicans against their own economic interests.  (In a great article, Hamilton Nolan points out how Republicans, and to a lesser extent Democrats, use social issues to get the middle class and poor to vote them into power, with the rich who control the party using access to power to manipulate economic and political policy to keep the money flowing upward to the 1%.) (Access to power helps immensely. The Clintons had a net worth of about $700,000 when Bill was elected. Today they are worth $131,000,000.)

(Dan Quayle was worth "only" $1,000,000 when elected VP. Don't cry for him, Argentina: he has a 1/12 interest in a $600,000,000 family trust.)

In 1976, 41% of people with only a grade school education, or manual labor jobs, or both, voted for Ford. In 1980, Reagan and his Cadillac Welfare Queens for 42-48% of that demographic, and he got 49-54% of it in 1984.

In 1988 and 1992 and 1996, those trends reversed, with Democrats getting the vast majority of the manual labor/lowly educated people. The numbers then evened out for 2000 and 2004, then dropped again with Romney's race. A focus on social issues generally helped Republicans; in 1992 Clinton's campaign motto was "It's the economy, stupid," and he drove the debates in that direction -- resulting in fewer cultural-issue votes for Republicans.

Republicans tried to make character an issue throughout the 80s and 90s, but were far better at covering up their own problems than causing trouble for Democrats. Doonesbury spent a lot of time talking about Brett Kimberlin. Remember him? Nope. Almost nobody does. Kimberlin was a convicted drug dealer/bomber who prior to the election claimed to have sold marijuana to Dan Quayle; he scheduled 3 press conferences but each time was put into solitary before he could talk to the press. Although he was later discredited, a Senator in 1992 alleged that the Bush Administration had gotten Kimberlin thrown into solitary. Kimberlin is now a political activist and gets into frequent battles with conservatives.

Doonesbury was credited with forcing the release of the DEA file on Quayle. At one point, Gary Trudeau was picked as the 10th most influential person alive -- ahead of the Pope, but behind Alexander Solzhenitsyn.

The other ongoing storyline in this collection was the review of the Bush Administration's "oppo" research on Clinton -- a large team of people who were designated to dig up dirt on Clinton. A study found that lower-income people tend to believe negative advertising more than those with higher incomes; the same goes for education. Bush I was the candidate behind "Willie Horton," of course, and while it wouldn't be right to say he and his operatives were solely responsible for negative advertising's growth, he played a key role in it.

Doonesbury hit on just what was wrong with that type of operation when a character in the strip said to one of the "oppo" guys, Just imagine if that effort had gone into creating a domestic policy agenda.

History can sometimes be better learned through fiction. History isn't just the study of places and events and people. It's the study of interactions between events and people and places, and how they shaped our current life and systems. Events that seem momentous -- the NEA scandal -- end up having little to no impact ultimately.  Events that seem minor -- government coverups of hyperbolic drug deals -- end up presaging a world in which two wars (and innumerable undocumented drone killings outside of war zones) are carried on with no media coverage and the government has over a million people who have a 'classified' ranking and know information the public cannot learn about.

Comics have never been so depressing.

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