Josh Marshall

Josh Marshall is editor and publisher of TalkingPointsMemo.com.

Articles by Josh

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

I'm just beginning to reread Between the Woods and the Water and remembering just how good a book it is.

As noted before, it's out of print. But it turns out there are several places you can find a copy. So let me point a few out. Amazon.com has a few used copies available. You can also get used copies at alibris.com. And the book is apparently still in print in hardcover in the United Kingdom so you can grab a copy at Amazon UK. And a paperback edition is apparently coming out in the UK in a few months.

It seems there's no end of dirty laundry in the hamper of George Argyros, Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the United States of America to Spain and Andorra.

Right about the time President Bush was nominating him as Ambassador to Spain, the local district attorney's office was getting ready to sue him and his company Arnel Management Co. for defrauding numerous middle and low-income renters out security deposits, over-charging for repairs, and various other bad acts. Here's the original complaint.

This could have been a major obstacle in the way to getting approved as Ambassador, an appointment Argyros had earned by raising what the Orange County Register tallied up as "tens of millions for Bush's campaign and the GOP." (The LA Times said he "headed a $30-million fund-raising effort in California last year for President Bush.")

Luckily, Argyros' friend Tony Rackauckas is the District Attorney. And he helped put the kibosh on the whole unfortunate matter by getting Argyros' name pulled from the suit. Then, when he was accused of a conflict of interest because Argyros had donated money to his campaign, Rackauckas decided he was really more of a good government man after all and referred the case to the state citing his conflict. These clever shenanigans kept the whole thing on ice long enough to help GA get his ambassadorship. And eventually the state and Arnel settled.

If you're from Orange County you no doubt have heard plenty about this sorry tale. If not, you can check out this site put up by disgruntled members of the DA's Office. Or check out some of the many articles the OCWeekly has written on the subject.

Later: more on GA's long, twilight struggle to force Orange County residents to build an airport with a runway that flies into a mountain.

Here's a complicated but interesting article in Roll Call about Enron and a group of long-time Tom DeLay operatives.

The article, frankly, is a bit hard to make heads or tails of. But I think this is less a matter of the quality of the reporting (which is first-rate) than the inherent complexity or even intentional opacity of what the reporters were looking at.

Briefly, three long-time Tom DeLay advisor/ operatives -- Ed Buckham, Karl Gallant, and John Hoy -- got themselves hired by Enron to put together an astroturf activism campaign in favor of electricity deregulation. This was all done with the assistance, of some sort, of DeLay.

In any case, who's really interesting here is Karl Gallant.

Gallant has been buzzing around the Majority Whip's political operation for the last several years -- most conspicuously as head of the Republican Majority Issues Committee. But his activities are much more complex and varied. He is one of the pioneers of astroturf organizing -- i.e., phony, ginned-up, grass-roots activism -- which he's employed principally on behalf of the tobacco industry, but also gun-rights advocates, the National Right to Work Committee, various other anti-regulatory and anti-tax efforts, and myriad Republican candidates.

And now Enron.

More on Gallant soon.

More on Doug Paal's appointment as envoy to Taiwan. According to Tuesday's Taipei Times, AIT spokesperson Judith Mudd-Krijgelmans says Paal's appointment remains on track.