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Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

Here's an interesting article on an important topic you've probably never heard about: American POWs forced into slave labor in Japan during World War II, their current efforts to seek judicial relief in the courts, and the State Department's long-running effort to stand in their way.

The piece is in the Taipei Times and it's by Steve Clemons. You can find links to articles on this and other related topics at Steve's site, steveclemons.com.

Let's get another ball rolling. At what point does Lou Dobbs of Lou Dobbs Moneyline become so comically biased that it becomes a problem?

Yes, it's business news. And right-wingers would have a good point in arguing that the 30 minute 'let's all love the environment' program that CNN used to run on the weekend tilted as much left as Moneyline does to the right.

But then the tree-hugger show didn't double as the evening newscast, did it?

More on this to come.

It's bad enough that the likes of Tom Synhorst can clog up your phone with annoying pre-recorded phone messages from Tom DeLay or ambush candidates like John McCain with lurid under-the-radar smears. But should he be able to do it on the government's dime?

He thinks so. And apparently he's right.

Synhorst is now behind something called Constituent Calls -- a joint venture of Synhorst's company DCI (now Feather, Larson & Synhorst-DCI) and some other outfit called CallingPost. Constituent Calls is basically a phone-banking operation specializing is peppering your phone with prerecorded messages from your congressman or senator. They can pick a special target audience from amongst their constituents and even get a guarantee on how many people will be annoyed by their message.

Just listen how great it is ...

Immediate feed back from constituents is another advantage of this service. Feedback can come in the form of a response keyed in by the constituent receiving the message, or calls to a phone number given in the message. Additionally, you are guaranteed that 80% of your targeted audience will hear your message. We can also send your message during specific times of day, in order to reach people at home or target answering machines.

Now here's the key. The Constituent Calls website says your Rep or Senator can get the government to pay for this crap out of their franking allowance -- the government money members of Congress use to send constituent mail.

Again, from the horse's mouth ...

Automated calls are considered unsolicited mass communications and can be paid for out of the Members' Representational Allowance when conducted under the guidelines set forth by the Franking Commission. For more information, contact the Franking Commission and/or the Office of Member Services directly.

Is this the best use of government money?

Does this annoy you as much as it annoys me?

Is Ari Fleischer long for this town?

After today's antics (blaming Middle East violence on Bill Clinton), and then getting snapped back so hard his neck is probably still vibrating, maybe not.

Obnoxious and irresponsible is one thing. Offensive and incompetent is quite another.

The bill of particulars on Fleischer has been growing for some time. But no one is going to be laughing about this one. I'd say the writing's on the wall.

Will it be Senior Counselor Fleischer? Or just Fleischer Associates?

Ari Fleischer: outta the loop; outta luck; outta time.

A few days ago I went to a lunch panel where two luminaries -- one of the right and one of the left -- discussed the cultural contradictions of capitalism. You know, morals and the market, creative destruction, that sort of stuff.

Well, I think we have our test case.

On March 13th Fox is broadcasting a live boxing match called "battle of the bad girls." It's former ice-skater, knee-capper, and accidental pornstar Tonya Harding vs. suburban mattress-back, attempted murderess and darling of alienated university post-modernists Amy Fisher, AKA the Long Island Lolita.

A long-time reader (CR) writes in to ask, just what is this "astroturf" or phony grass-roots organizing you keep talking about?

Good question. Let me see if I can answer it.

Start with the premise that any organized interest group or corporation can hire some shark who served a few terms in the House and have him go to the Hill and lobby. But what really gets Reps' and Senators' attention is when the issue being discussed is one that people care about back home. One that can get the switchboard humming with calls from the district.

That matters.

If angry voters are pissed because Senator X isn't supporting or opposing amendment Y, that matters a helluva lot more than the lobbyist's $2000 suit, manicured fingernails, and gaudy watch. Astroturf organizing begins with the following question, why can't we buy that kind of support too?

Well, it turns out you can! Or at least, sorta. Astroturf organizing describes a series of services consultants provide to simulate the existence of grass-roots interest or concern with an issue. It's fake grass-roots, thus 'astroturf.'

So how is it down? Basically, with a mix of phone-banking, setting up of front groups meant to imitate citizen groups, media campaigns, and the like. Perhaps even demonstrations if a sufficient number of rent-a-protestors can be assembled. On top of this, mix in some clever new angles for your message... like maybe pollution actually counts as paid speech and is thus constitutionally protected! These guys are very creative.

In any case, astroturf originated in the field operations run by the tobacco companies and the gun lobby. Again, phony groups, paid-rabble-rousing, and so forth. But obviously this wasn't all phony. With guns at least, there obviously is a very real constituency for anti-gun-control activism. (Much less with tobacco, of course. And that's where the art was really developed. More on this later.) But the folks who originated the skills got them down to such an art that they started selling them to other organized interests. The health care industry. Energy deregulators. Microsoft. And on and on.

A typical 'astroturf' effort might have a given turfster receiving a certain amount of cash for delivering X number of citizen calls to a certain congressperson, yelling at them to oppose this or that piece of legislation.

Don't place caps on my electricity prices! I WON'T STAND FOR IT!!!!!!!!

There's also something called 'grass-tops' organizing. This is what Ralph Reed got in trouble for when he was allegedly lobbying candidate Bush on Microsoft's behalf, while also working for candidate Bush. (I have some doubts whether this was the whole story, but we'll get to that later.) Grass-tops is when you get a certain number of community leaders, bigwigs and so forth to contact a candidate or office-holder on behalf of some issue. So this is the tops not the roots; you get the idea.

The key to the 'astroturf' world is that pols are continually getting wiser and wiser to the turfsters' games. A good staffer can spot turf a mile away and once it's identified as such it loses all its value. So the turfsters are constantly developing more and more subtle ways to imitate and fake citizen interest.

More later on how American politics is becoming more and more like 1970s baseball, with astroturf crowding out natural grass.

As a general matter I'm not at all well-inclined to those who've tried to argue that Islam is somehow an inherently violent religion. I don't think that's true.

But the following does occur to me. One hears quite often that 'Islam' means 'peace.' Not just the religion, but the word itself. My understanding though is that it means something closer to the English word 'submission.'

Similar, yes. But hardly the same thing.

A few more points on Ralph Reed and the entertaining world of "astroturf" political organizing. Lobbying on the Hill is currently regulated under the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995. A Capitol Hill reporter tells me that when the bill was being put together, Reed was a key force, perhaps the key force, making sure that "astroturf" work (phony grass-roots organizing) would not be covered under the LDA. This of course was while Reed was still Executive Director of the Christian Coalition.

Reed's frequent partner in "astroturf" work is Tom Synhorst. Let's run through some of his exploits in the "astroturf" biz. Synhorst's main shop is Direct Connect Inc., DCI. DCI did the "astroturf" work for the 'Health Benefits Coalition,' trying to kill the Health Care Bill of Rights back in 1998 (Nat. Journal July 11, '98); DCI also spearheaded various efforts by the tobacco industry and the NRA; it also helped set up Americans for Competitive Technology and Americans for Technology Leadership, two Microsoft front groups agitating against the Justice Department's antitrust suit.

Of course, Reed and Synhorst will always have a special place in my heart for that stand-up work they did ambushing John McCain in South Carolina in 2000 with their nasty, below-the-radar push-polls.

As a lapsed historian, Talking Points' own reading habits tend often toward the out-of-the-way and even obscure. For the last eighteen months or so that's included a lot of reading on the history of Islam.

A solid general introduction is Bernard Lewis' The Middle East. Also interesting is Lewis' The Muslim Discovery of Europe, which examines Islamic knowledge of, and understanding of, Europe over the last thousand or so years. Lewis' thesis, briefly, is that they didn't know much. And he makes a pretty strong case. At first this was understandable and even benign, since the Islamic world was so far superior to the Christian West - technologically, civilizationally, etc. - particularly to what we now call Western Europe.

But over time this ignorance and indifference became a profound liability, leaving the heartlands of Islam woefully unprepared for West's commercial, imperial and finally cultural onslaught. It's an interesting book. And the central thesis is deeply illuminating. (In some ways more illuminating about Europe than about Islam.) But I thought it ran a bit low on steam toward the end and fell, perhaps, too much in love with its own central thesis for its own good.

This week's selection for the TPM Book List, however, is Moorish Spain by the British historian Richard Fletcher. This is a small book, both in size and ambition. But I think it's quite a good read. Books like this - histories of distant lands or periods - tend to be either overly academic, focusing on very specific times or questions or they are bland and unserious. This one is neither.

(By the way, if you're interested in a couple picks in the former category consider The Succession to Muhammad by Madelung and The End of the Jihad State by Blankenship. Each is fascinating in its own way and lush with fact -- but they're detailed and terribly specific and they can be slow-going. One other book that really manages to avoid either of these pitfalls is Norman Itzkowitz's beautiful and brief - 117 pages - thematic history of the Ottoman Empire Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition. This book is a masterpiece of synthesis, clarity and erudition.)

In any case, Moorish Spain provides an accessible overview of a fascinating episode in the history of Europe and Islam - when the two were united on their respective promontories for almost a thousand years.

At the high water mark of the first Muslim expansion, in the early 8th century, an army of North African Berbers under Arab generalship overran the Iberian peninsula and established a Muslim kingdom. Muslims dominated most of what's today Spain and Portugal for more than five hundred years. By the thirteenth century the Christian kingdoms of the north had won back most of the peninsula. But the last Muslim kingdom in southern Spain, Granada, was only destroyed in 1492, not coincidentally the same year Columbus sailed to America.

Fletcher covers the whole period, with a nice focus on the arts, architecture and like - not just amirs, kings and politics and such.

This isn't the sort of thought one is supposed to allow oneself in a book review - even a casual one. But what I find so captivating about this topic is how striking it is that this part of Europe - deeply Christian, speaking a Romance language, part of the western fringe of the Roman Empire - was Muslim for more than half a millenium. Mosques ruled over churches. The Christian population slowly converted to Islam. Arabic became the lingua franca - at least for the more refined and cultured portion of the population, and at least in the great cities. It's all very alien and weird - an alternative possibility for how Europe might have developed - and thus fascinating.

A few points.

Muslim Spain is often held up as an idyll of tolerance where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived peaceably and productively amongst each other. But Fletcher makes clear that these interludes were seen by many orthodox Muslims as periods of decadence and decay. And they were punctuated by periods of fundamentalist rule resembling something between that of the Saudis and the Taliban.

Given our present concern with the military dimension of the relationship between Islam and the West, what's also interesting about the book is its description of the furious punch and counter-punch of Crusade and Jihad that roiled the peninsula during the High Middle Ages. My one complaint is that the author gives us too little of a sense of the exclusivist, Crusader ideology the Spanish Christians developed in their long effort to drive Islam off the peninsula and win it back for Christ. That ideology cast a long shadow over the Spanish colonization of the Americas and over the future of Spain itself.

Again, not a smashing book. But a pleasant, engaging, edifying read about a fascinating subject. No mean feat

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