Political Animal


October 19, 2014 7:41 PM The United States is not a meritocracy

The entire conservative ideological program on economics depends on cosmic justice: the idea that those who develop talent and work hard will succeed as they deserve, while those who are lazy and without skills will fail as they ought. That meritocratic concept is the justification for slashing all forms of assistance to the poor and the middle class from food stamps to healthcare. Further, if the rich got there by just deserts, then they should get even more money to keep being so productive for everyone else.

But if it turns out that there is no meritocracy—if the rich get there through privilege and luck rather than industry and talent—then the entire rest of the conservative agenda morally falls apart.

It just so happens that a new study shows that the United States does not, in fact, have a meritocracy:

America is the land of opportunity, just for some more than others. That’s because, in large part, inequality starts in the crib. Rich parents can afford to spend more time and money on their kids, and that gap has only grown the past few decades. Indeed, economists Greg Duncan and Richard Murnane calculate that, between 1972 and 2006, high-income parents increased their spending on “enrichment activities” for their children by 151 percent in inflation-adjusted terms, compared to 57 percent for low-income parents….
Even poor kids who do everything right don’t do much better than rich kids who do everything wrong. Advantages and disadvantages, in other words, tend to perpetuate themselves. You can see that in the above chart, based on a new paper from Richard Reeves and Isabel Sawhill, presented at the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston’s annual conference, which is underway.
Specifically, rich high school dropouts remain in the top about as much as poor college grads stay stuck in the bottom — 14 versus 16 percent, respectively. Not only that, but these low-income strivers are just as likely to end up in the bottom as these wealthy ne’er-do-wells. Some meritocracy.
What’s going on? Well, it’s all about glass floors and glass ceilings. Rich kids who can go work for the family business — and, in Canada at least, 70 percent of the sons of the top 1 percent do just that — or inherit the family estate don’t need a high school diploma to get ahead. It’s an extreme example of what economists call “opportunity hoarding.” That includes everything from legacy college admissions to unpaid internships that let affluent parents rig the game a little more in their children’s favor.
But even if they didn’t, low-income kids would still have a hard time getting ahead. That’s, in part, because they’re targets for diploma mills that load them up with debt, but not a lot of prospects. And even if they do get a good degree, at least when it comes to black families, they’re more likely to still live in impoverished neighborhoods that keep them disconnected from opportunities.

Everything about the conservative economic agenda is wrong not only on the merits (supply-side economics is a proven logistical failure, for instance), but from its very philosophical underpinnings.

There is no meritocracy. The rich do not get ahead by their industry and talent, but by luck and connections. It’s more about who you know, than what you know. Which means that anyone defending the right of the rich to take even more money is exalting a system as indefensible as the divine right of kings.

October 19, 2014 4:30 PM What Can Brown Do For You? (Not A Damn Thing!)

In New Hampshire, Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen is hitting Republican opponent and Massachusetts reject Scott Brown hard on his backward energy policies:

U.S. Sen. Jeanne Shaheen is turning the focus to energy this week. Shaheen’s campaign today released a report highlighting votes her Republican opponent, Scott Brown, has taken on energy policy that she says will take New Hampshire in the wrong direction. And tomorrow, the state Democratic Party will host Massachusetts lawmakers and a New Hampshire energy expert to discuss Brown’s energy record…
While energy hasn’t been a central issue to the campaign thus far, both candidates have outlined positions on the topic.
At an energy forum in Concord last month, Brown touted an “all of the above” approach that includes support for nuclear, wind, solar, biomass and geothermal. He has continually called for the approval of the Keystone XL pipeline, a proposed oil pipeline that would run from Canada to the U.S.

Shaheen shouldn’t fail to point out that Brown’s views on energy are obviously influenced by one of the darkest forces in American politics:

Karl Rove is also lusting after a Brown win in the Granite State. If New Hamsphire voters judge candidates by the company they keep, they will judge Brown as harshly as Keith Olbermann did four years ago.

Those who don’t learn from history are doomed to repeat it. I hope that New Hampshire voters have learned from history.

October 19, 2014 1:18 PM If you want a real answer from conservatives on science, then change the question

In case you haven’t heard by now, the latest conservative cool kid response to questions about climate change or evolution is “I’m not a scientist.” It displays a certain humility and folksy ignorance while avoiding tough questions about destructive GOP policy.

It’s cute, but it only works because journalists are asking the wrong questions. As Ben Adler notes, the question isn’t whether a politician believes in climate change or evolution. It’s whether they accept the scientific consensus on the issue:

So how can journalists avoid letting Republicans give this asinine answer? By asking the right questions. If you ask a non-scientist whether human activity is causing climate change, “I’m not a scientist” has a surface validity as a response. But climate change isn’t a matter of belief. It’s a matter of scientific consensus, just like evolution or gravity. One should not ask whether politicians believe in climate science or evolutionary biology, just as one wouldn’t ask whether a politician believes that gravity causes apples to fall from trees. Instead, the question should be whether they accept climate science. The phrasing could be, “97 percent of papers published by climate scientists in peer-reviewed academic journals have found that human activity is causing climate change. Do you accept those findings?”

Therein lies the key. It’s not about belief, but about acceptance of the scentific consensus.

But I would argue that it doesn’t just stop at the edge of “sciencey” issues like evolution or climate change. We now know a great many things that prove Republicans are dead wrong about policy: higher minimum wage laws create jobs rather than kill them, higher marginal rates on the wealthy do not hurt the economy, abstinence education is a failure, etc.

If journalists want to strive for accuracy, they could begin by asking whether politicians accept the scientific consensus around the minimum wage, tax policy, climate change, evolution, supply-side economic, sex education and a great many other things about which conservatives have been proven wrong by hard data.

If conservatives want to engage in a PR war with science and reality itself, let them do it brazenly in the open rather than with ersatz folksy dodges. It’s all about how you ask the question.

October 19, 2014 1:00 PM The Missing Menino

Boston Globe columnist Lawrence Harmon isn’t too impressed by former Boston mayor Thomas Menino’s new memoir, Mayor For A New America:

Menino, Boston’s longest serving mayor at 20 years, did a good job of providing high quality city services while keeping a lid on residential property taxes. But that’s not the main reason why he left office with a 74 percent approval rating. He is beloved in Boston because he’s the kind of man who puts his granddaughter’s feelings — and the well-being of others, in general — above his own needs. If the book tanks, Menino won’t lose an ounce of popularity in Boston.
Writing a memoir, even with the help of author Jack Beatty, had to be a stretch for Menino. No one would describe the 71-year-old former mayor as self-revelatory. He’s a lot better at doing things than describing why he does things. Surgeons have a saying: You can name it and cut it. Or just cut it. Menino is in the latter category.
Still, Menino worried during the writing stage that his “voice” was missing from the memoir — not his signature mumbling, but the voice that pertains to a writer’s distinctive way of looking at the world. It was a valid concern. The reader gets a good sense of the growth of the city under Menino as he reshaped the city’s skyline, revitalized outlying neighborhoods, invested in successful crime fighting tactics, and gathered in political exiles, including new immigrants. Missing is a sense of Menino’s personal passage from an inconspicuous political aide to a great urban mayor.

In particular, Harmon takes aim at Menino’s chapter on issues affecting the city’s schools, which became infamous during the 1970s busing crisis:

Literarily, Menino loses his voice in an overlong chapter on his efforts to overhaul Boston’s school system. There is too much about mayorally-appointed school boards and superintendent searches and too little about the lives and challenges of Boston’s schoolchildren. Like so many of them, he struggled in school and received painful messages at an early age that he wasn’t destined for success. Menino has maintained contact with many Boston students over the years. It would have been nice to get to know some of them in his autobiography.

Reading Menino’s 250-page book, I find it interesting that with regard to the schools, Menino didn’t mention his courageous effort to defend diversity in the city’s elite examination schools
in the face of two right-wing lawsuits that challenged such diversity efforts. Menino showed uncommon valor in his efforts to maintain the diversity of the city’s exam schools, and it’s odd that he chose not to write about those efforts. It wasn’t his fault that the courts ultimately went against him.

In 2005, a decade after the first of those right-wing lawsuits was filed, the Boston Globe noted the consequences of the legal assault on the diversity efforts at the exam schools. These were the consequences Menino courageously tried to avoid. He should have given himself some credit for not knuckling under to the right-wing forces that regard diversity as just so much political correctness. By fighting for diversity, he indeed showed that he was the mayor for a new America.

October 19, 2014 8:45 AM Bipartisan consensus for universal basic income

It’s an old irony of politics that “bipartisan consensus” only counts when it comes to ideas backed by wealthy centrists between the two parties, but it doesn’t count when it unites both of the more populist elements on right and left.

Thus, deficit reduction, corporate tax breaks and military interventions receive the “bipartisan” label if a few centrist Democrats and Republicans agree on them. But anti-interventionism, resistance to corporate-friendly trade deals, and civil liberties protections that unite right and left along a different ideological axis are still considered outre.

The same goes for a univeral basic income (UBI), which is still pretty far outside the Overton Window of mainstream political discourse (for now), but that is increasingly uniting both progressives and conservatives on the edges. A growing number of progressives have been calling for UBI as a response to globalization, mechanization and flattening of the labor force, and increasing inequality. After all, why roll Sisyphus’ stone up the hill of job protections when jobs themselves are becoming scarce and lower-paid for a wide variety of reasons, when instead we could free up human dignity and creativity by not tying survival to having a “job” for a corporate overlord in the first place?

From a certain conservative point of view, meanwhile, UBI is a simple and elegant solution to the problem of government bureaucracy and program multiplicity that keeps people fed and happy and the pitchforks at bay. Yes, many Objectivist types would prefer that the “non-producers” face starvation as incentive to near slave-wage toil for the “producer” class. That immoral worldview has the producer-parasite metaphor topsy turvy, but it’s also foolish because it nearly guarantees violent revolution. More intelligent conservatives at least comprehend the necessity of maintaining the social order. Milton Friedman supported a universal basic income for similar reasons.

And now even disgraced racist Charles Murray of Bell Curve fame has seen the wisdom of granting a universal basic income to those he delusionally believes to be of lower intelligence than himself.

In short, two very distinct worldviews have both come to the same conclusion: we need to provide a basic universal income that allows people to live in dignity and unleash their creative potential toward their own interests. It’s a bipartisan view.

It’s just not the sort of bipartisanship that has street cred in the Village.

October 19, 2014 8:00 AM The Face of Courage

Rick Piltz, the man who blew the whistle on the George W. Bush administration’s vicious assault on climate science, has passed away.

From Climate Science Watch:

From 1995-2005 he held senior positions in the Coordination Office of the U.S. Global Change Research Program. In the spring of 2005, Rick resigned from his position to protest the Bush Administration’s political interference with climate change communication. His whistleblower documentation of politically motivated White House editing and censorship of climate science program reports intended for the public and Congress received front-page coverage in the New York Times and was widely reported in the media. Rick testified before both the House of Representatives and the Senate at hearings on political interference with federal climate scientists.

Piltz was, of course, brutalized by the climate-change denial industry for his bold decision to reveal the full extent of the Bush administration’s malevolence on this issue: the late wingnut columnist Robert Novak was particularly savage in his attacks.

Piltz refused to bow down to the forces of denial. After leaving the Bush White House, he continued to speak and write and fight for strong action to reduce carbon pollution, and demanded that members of both parties be held accountable for failing to take all appropriate and necessary action to limit dangerous emissions.

Rick Piltz may be gone, but his fight continues. We will fight in his name, and we will make sure that his name is remembered as a hero in the fight for climate justice.

In June 2012, my Progressive Radio Network colleague Betsy Rosenberg and I were honored to interview Piltz; she previously interviewed him in January 2007.

Below, a 2013 interview with Piltz, and a 2005 Piltz appearance on Air America Radio’s The Al Franken Show. More interviews with Piltz can be found here.

UPDATE: From 2005, Brad Friedman interviews Rick Piltz. Part 1 and Part 2.

SECOND UPDATE: Rick Piltz speaks at 350.org’s October 10, 2010 Global Work Party in Washington, DC. He is introduced by Roger Shamel of the Global Warming Education Network.

THIRD UPDATE: More thoughts on the passing of Rick Piltz. Plus, more from Climate Science Watch.

October 19, 2014 7:00 AM Daylight Video

Thirty-five years ago this week, Herb Alpert’s “Rise” was the number-one single in the United States.

October 18, 2014 8:43 PM Economic populism still works as always

Just another reminder that economic populism still works:

Of all the negative campaign messages that Democrats have used this midterm election, the most effective one is a time-tested line of attack: hitting Republican businessmen for being exorbitantly wealthy while outsourcing jobs overseas and laying off employees. It was President Obama’s central argument in his reelection campaign against Mitt Romney, and it is being put to devastating use again in a handful of close gubernatorial and congressional races this year.
More than any of the other well-worn Democratic arguments—Republicans want to restrict access to abortion, they’re beholden to the agenda of the Koch brothers, and so on—this argument is successfully persuading undecided voters in close races.

It’s frankly a good argument in any election cycle, as it has been since at least the days of Teddy and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. But it has special resonance at a time of record income and wealth inequality, aided and abetted by a noxious flood of unregulated money buying elections.

It’s also a good argument when most Americans haven’t seen their wages increase against inflation, and an extremist cabal of ideological conservatives stands fast against even the preferences of rank-and-file Republicans to raise the minimum wage:

A Hart Research Associates poll conducted last year found that 80 percent of Americans surveyed—including 62 percent of Republicans—favor a $10.10-an-hour wage floor. Those numbers appear to have influenced even some top Republicans; 2012 presidential candidate Mitt Romney now says he’s for a hike, as is former Senator Rick Santorum, who warns his party, “Let’s not make this argument that we’re for the blue-collar guy, but we are against any minimum-wage increase ever. It just makes no sense.” Some GOP candidates in tight races have taken note. In Arkansas, Senate nominee Tom Cotton says he’ll vote yes on his state’s referendum, as does Alaska Senate nominee Dan Sullivan.

When you see conservative Democrats shrink away from the economic populist messaging, it isn’t because they don’t think it will work. It’s because they’ve either bought into a wrongheaded and counterproductive supply-side view of economics, or because they’re more afraid of big money corporate attacks than they are desirous of appealing to the wishes of the electorate.

October 18, 2014 5:00 PM Forward Thinking

So the wingnut websites are having a grand time over recent reports of problems affecting MSNBC, including the allegedly impending demise of midday host Ronan Farrow’s program. Among non-irrational folks, there are any number of theories as to why the network has yet to outfox its competition; I can say that among some members of my social circle, there is a strong belief that the network hasn’t been the same since Keith Olbermann left nearly four years ago.

Last month, Variety’s Peter Bart suggested that MSNBC’s isn’t doing enough to keep progressive viewers:

What sets MSNBC apart, of course, is its political posture, which serves an important counterweight given Rupert Murdoch’s clout with Fox and the Wall Street Journal, and the dominance of talk radio by Tea Party propagandists. Coverage of the Ferguson, Mo., racial tension provided a fascinating focus for all this. Fox coverage was fervidly pro-police, while CNN agonized for the protestors and MSNBC gave us Al Sharpton, posing as both journalistic observer and social provocateur. The only balanced coverage was from the BBC and Al Jazeera.
It seems to me the ball is now in your court, Phil, to re-energize your network. The big stories are there. The coming elections will bring new personalities and issues to the fore. While the political system continues in a stalemate, with voters polarized, there should certainly be a place for a passionately informative force on the left. Or even in the middle.

To that end, I’d like to suggest a—pun fully intended—out-of-left-field choice to replace Farrow, if he is indeed heading out the door…

read more »

October 18, 2014 3:42 PM Election rigging, culture war edition

Republicans in Texas have managed to finagle a world in which a gun permit counts as proof of voter eligibility, but a student ID does not.

A divided Supreme Court handed a big defeat to the Obama administration and numerous civil rights groups early Saturday morning when it ruled that Texas can enforce its 2011 voter ID law in November that some have called the strictest in the country. Three justices dissented from the ruling that rejected an emergency request that had been filed by the Justice Department and civil rights groups.
The decision appears to mark “the first time since 1982 that the Court has allowed a law restricting voters’ rights to be enforced after a federal court had ruled it to be unconstitutional,” notes Scotus Blog’s Lyle Denniston. A federal judge had struck down the law last week, saying that some 600,000 voters—mostly black or Latino—would face difficulties at the polls due to a lack of proper identification. The law, which was approved in 2011 but only came in effect in 2013 lays out seven approved forms of identification—a list many have questioned for including concealed handgun licenses but not college IDs, notes the Associated Press.

Earlier this week Rachel Maddow called these tactics exactly what they are: cheating. There’s no sense in which a gun permit is a more reliable form of identification than a student ID, and no sense in which it’s constitutional or fair to require a person who tends to move every year or more and often depends on public transit, to have a current driver’s license in order to vote.

It’s election rigging, plain and simple, designed to give Republican and conservative voters the opportunity to vote while denying the franchise to traditionally more Democratic and progressive demographics.

But while these tactics are an outrage, they are in a sense a mark of desperation by the Right. They know that they can’t compete electorally, and that demographics work more and more against them with every election cycle. They see the handwriting on the wall, and unable to win the argument on policy, they rely on gerrymandering and vote suppression to hold onto power for just a few more years.

A slim extremist majority on the U.S. Supreme Court is helping to enable these tactics, but it won’t serve them for long. Democrats have gotten very good at voter turnout operations, and it won’t be long before demographic pressures overwhelm the ability of conservatives to win elections by suppressing and slicing away a few percentages here and there. It simply delays the inevitable.

October 18, 2014 1:00 PM Bake-Off

Imagine voting to give someone as job as governor of your state, only for him to force you out of your job!

The stakes couldn’t be clearer in Massachusetts, as Democratic candidate and state Attorney General Martha Coakley is going toe-to-toe with faux-moderate/alleged job-creator/Republican candidate Charlie Baker. Baker’s real business history was exposed a few days ago:

The photograph - apparently taken in late summer of 2008 (it’s undated, but that’s when the story it accompanies was published), when the economy was teetering on the edge of catastrophe - says it all. There’s Charlie, in a tux, holding his award for his awesome outsourcing work. LOL.
Today’s Globe has most of the key details. In brief: in the course of his work at Harvard Pilgrim, Baker outsourced most of Harvard Pilgrim’s IT work to Perot Systems (yes, that Perot). Nothing wrong with that, exactly - Harvard Pilgrim apparently couldn’t handle the work on its own and needed outside expertise. But then it gets dicey.
This relationship [between Harvard Pilgrim and Perot Systems] includes some offshoring components. [Harvard Pilgrim Deputy CIO Bob] Trombly explains that healthcare insurance is a low-margin business; “a one percent annual fluctuation can make or break us. There is constant pressure from employers and regulators to reduce administrative costs. In our recent contract renegotiation, we challenged Perot Systems to help us aggressively reduce costs. One of the things they brought to the table was a proposal to reduce administrative costs by sending some of the work offshore.” …
Trombly is the first to admit he had “fears and misgivings” at the outset. But his view changed when he visited Perot Systems’s facilities in India. When he came home, he told his oldest son, who is heading to college this fall, “You better get off your butt because the rest of the world is ready to compete. It’s one thing to read The World is Flat; it’s another to see it in real time.”
He says “the staff in India is very well trained, doing great work, and eager to take on more. I think that’s a sobering lesson to everyone about the global marketplace.”
Charlie Baker sent Massachusetts jobs to India. There’s a campaign ad that writes itself.

As President Clinton noted at a campaign rally for Coakley on Thursday:

“You don’t need trickle-down economics..You need build-out economics that give people who are poor a chance to work their way into the middle-class.”

According to recent polls, the race is close, but considering who they’re really representing, I’d love to see Baker get just 1% of the vote, while Coakley gets the 99%.

October 18, 2014 8:45 AM Why aren’t the deficit fetishists exalting President Obama?

Remember just a while back how the deficit was going to swallow the country whole and lead our children into indentured servitude? Remember the chorus of very serious people intoning that companies would hire more people if only had more certainty about the nation’s fiscal solvency, and that only by coming together for a Grand Bargain raising taxes and cutting government spending would the nation save itself?

About that:

The White House hailed a return to “fiscal normalcy” Wednesday, reporting that the federal budget deficit shrank to $483 billion last year, the lowest level as a share of the economy since 2007, before the Great Recession. Driven by higher tax revenues, the shortfall for the fiscal year that ended in September was sharply lower than the $680 billion tallied in fiscal 2013 and about a third the size of the record $1.4 trillion deficit hit in 2009, the year President Obama took office. At roughly 2.8 percent of the overall economy, last year’s deficit also achieves a White House goal for deficit reduction two years earlier than expected.

Interestingly enough, however, now that the deficit is shrinking in large part due to a growing economy—not the other way around—the deficit fetishists seem to have grown silent. Simpson and Bowles are suddenly quiet, and John Boehner is riding other hobbyhorses.

It’s almost as if crying over the deficit weren’t about the deficit at all, but rather a cover for ideological maneuvering.

The deficit and the debt isn’t a complicated problem, especially at a time of radical inequality. Deficits decline and reverse during boom times, and they increase rapidly during recessions. The more unequal and asset-tilted the economy, the more prone it is to larger boom-bust cycles. Deficits will grow steeply during the busts, and shrink and reverse rapidly during the booms.

It’s the job of conservatives during the busts to make sure that progressives don’t get any ideas about helping the 99% left behind in the economic dust, by whining about the supposed cataclysm of government deficits. It’s their job during boom times to discredit government and tell people they should be able to keep more of “their money” in the form of tax cuts, even as they throw more spending at military and tax cuts for corporations.

Conservatives have never really cared about the deficit. They not only prove that by ballooning the deficit whenever they hold the White House, but by the deafening silence whenever Democrats close deficits by focusing on demand-side economic growth.

October 18, 2014 8:00 AM It’s Not Rocket Science

How could someone who is so right be so wrong?

We would not be able to understand our world—and the peril our world faces from global warming—were it not for the indispensable work of former NASA climate scientist James Hansen over the decades. Hansen’s warnings of the risks of carbon pollutionand his stirring 1988 Senate testimony on what would happen if emissions were not slashed—generated tremendous concern from those who actually gave a damn about their children and grandchildren…and tremendous opposition from the fossil fuel industry, which spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to discredit him and other prominent climate scientists. Hansen’s 2009 book Storms of My Grandchildren: The Truth About the Coming Climate Catastrophe and Our Last Chance to Save Humanity is one of the best books ever written about the climate crisis, and should join Michael Mann’s The Hockey Stick and the Climate Wars: Dispatches from the Front Lines and John Berger’s Climate Peril: The Intelligent Reader’s Guide to Understanding the Climate Crisis on your bookshelf.

Hansen’s continued leadership—in particular his 2011 declaration that the Keystone XL pipeline project must be stopped at all costs and his call for federal legislation that would put a price on carbon emissions, with all collected revenues returned to the public as a dividend—is admirable, and frankly I’m reluctant to criticize a man who has done so much to protect this planet. However, when someone, no matter how principled, makes an inaccurate claim, that claim must be corrected—and when it comes to the current US political system, Hansen has made a claim that is profoundly inaccurate.

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October 18, 2014 7:00 AM Daylight Video

On October 18, 1983, in what would be one of her last “News Digest” broadcasts, NBC anchor Jessica Savitch mentions a recently released EPA report on the consequences of carbon pollution.

October 17, 2014 5:17 PM Day’s End and Weekend Watch

I have a soft spot in my heart for Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (featured below) because theirs was one of two albums I bought along with my very first real stereo system (Advent II speakers, a Pioneer amp, some random turntable). I was feeling a little guilty about spending the dough on it ($300 in hard-earned wages, as I recall), but my best friend said: “Don’t worry, Kilgore; there’s something spiritual about stereo!” And ain’t it the truth.

Here are some remains of the day:

* Because deep down you want to know: an update on Edwin Edwards’ congressional race, which, if God is merciful, will make it to a runoff.

* GOP going all Willie Horton in effort to save Rep. Lee Terry of Nebraska.

* Peter Beinart takes a dim view of Leon Panetta’s efforts to exaggerate his agreements with Hillary Clinton.

* At Ten Miles Square, Julia Azari explores the question of why pols are so often silent on the big debates over race and gender that enliven ideologues and advocates.

* At College Guide, Daniel Luzer discusses the radical but understandable idea of cutting student loan debt by not offering so many loans.

And in non-political news:

* Florida man who shot teenager in argument over loud music is convicted of first-degree murder.

That’s it for Friday. D.R. Tucker and David Atkins will be in tomorrow for Weekend Blogging. We’ll close with a tune from a later incarnation of Manfred Mann, called Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, performing “Buddha,” a sort of anti-religious religious song, or religious anti-religious song—hard to say.


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