Monday, December 20, 2010

I Feel a Strange Disturbance in the Force...

Look, goddammit.  Music has always been desperately important to me.  I've never been that firmly anchored, and without the solace and promise of the Rock n Roll I loved I'm not sure I can tell you unequivocally that we'd all be having this conversation today.

And I've never been terribly experimental in what I demanded from my music.  Guitars, loud and melodic, tunes you could sing along with and lyrics that spoke to more than the junior fucking prom was the extent of my requirements.  There are certain bands I hang my hat on, music makers who's product over the years is tied inextricably to my identity.  The riffs have become deep trenches in my pre-frontal cortex and the lyrics tell my life's story in a way I never could.  I could run through the all-to-predictable list, from Boston to Journey, from BTO to AC/DC, from Springsteen to Zevon, but you'll find no surprises on that list, even if you'll never understand why the songs cause me to tear up at apparently odd and unpredictable moments.

But if there was one constant, one band that represented the sound track of my life, one influence that was there for every important moment over a life lived profligately and without suitable care or caution, that band would be Aerosmith.  From my first love, our awkwardly passionate attempts at finding something special to her miscarriage and her father's proceeding and somewhat charming attempts on my life, through my descent into and experience with addiction and recovery, from Toys in the Attic and Rocks to Get a Grip, Nine Lives and Just Push Play, along with Warren Zevon, Aerosmith has been the musical anchor of my world, the lens through which I tried with uneven success to understand the world and my place in it.

So now what am I left to think?  The example I most often use to describe and define the vapidity and disengagement of the American population is American Idol, that mindless sop to our cultural worship of  immediate success and instant, unearned fame.  And so the arc of history brings us to a place where the hopelessly stupid, drug-addled and emotionally damaged Paula Abdul is forced to leave the shows staff of so-called 'judges' and is replaced with none other than that elder statesman of the music in my soul, Steven Tyler.  Now along with the vapid and mindless ranks of Jennifer Lopez and the charming but otherwise unemployable Randy Jackson, he'll form the nexus of illusory dreams and savage heartbreak for the millions who sit, curled up in a snuggy in dimly lit and poorly decorated living rooms from Burbank to Bangor drawing impossible emotional highs and lows from the airwaves like a Vampire sups from the underside of a cow.

And millions who know nothing of the past, who owe no debt of consequence to the complex guitars and soaring vocals of Aerosmith, who share no identity with the young madmen turned successful artist turned national treasure and know nothing of the twisted path they walked will find this exotic, odd-looking man strangely charismatic, and he will become something he is not, but will always henceforth be.  When all the danger and all the history and all the bad acts and redemption have all been left behind, he'll be that nice boy on American Idol, another Bon Jovi to be loved by old women who forty years ago would have found him frightening and obscene.

People will say "mikey, you don't have to watch" and it's true, and I won't.  And my memories of Mama Kin and Walkin' the Dog in endless summer nights in a pickup truck on the shore of Benbrook Lake will remain undisturbed.  The past immutable, the future unknowable, musical entropy takes hold as it must.  But I cannot help but be saddened, even a little disappointed.  I couldn't say what my expectations were, but if such a thing is possible, a piece of my life is now forever out of reach.

Sunday, December 19, 2010

Didn't Your Grandmother Tell You Not to Settle?

The bribe was rejected.  Whether it was simply not large enough, or whether ANY bribe would have been accepted in this case is unclear, and ultimately unimportant.  The direction that Netanyahu and Lieberman along with the rest of the Likud leadership has chosen is unequivocally clear now, for all to see.  Only the most strident propagandists can continue to argue otherwise.  The talks never really had a chance - when the party with the power to enforce the status quo wishes to preserve the status quo, it is probably unreasonable to expect anything to truly change.  And now that the Israelis have made their choice abundantly clear, it is the Palestinians who have some difficult choices ahead of them.

If there is any glimmer of good news in all this, it is that at long last it appears that the Palestinians are beginning to learn how to play this game.  They know that in the current security and diplomatic environment, armed resistance is not just futile, but counterproductive for it accomplishes nothing and fuels the Israeli narrative of Palestinian violent intransigence.  At the same time, they have finally figured out that peace talks that don't start from a standpoint of Israeli borders and boundaries are not negotiations at all, but rather a manipulative ploy to keep a lid on a stateless people under military occupation while the land that might have eventually comprised a Palestinian homeland is systematically looted.

Instead, they have begun to look to the history of the South African people, and the end of Apartheid, and even to black Americans' own struggle for civil rights..  The comparison is imperfect, but the tactical mechanisms couldn't be more clear.  And this time, it's Europe and Latin America that will provide the impetus for widespread global opprobrium of Israel over the treatment of the Palestinian population both in the occupied territories and increasingly in Israel itself.  It is genuinely odd that the Israeli people are having so much difficulty in recognizing that the way history has played itself out, that it is Israel whose survival depends upon a viable Palestinian state even more than the Palestinians.  The other options are an Israel that ultimately succumbs to demographics and becomes a Jewish minority state or permanent occupation, conflict and apartheid, neither of which end well for Israel as we know it.

If the Palestinians can heal their rift and continue to become increasingly media savvy while the Israelis, led by their hard-line anti-Arab secular and violent expansionist religious fundamentalist factions continue to act in heavy handed and arbitrary manner toward their Arab and Muslim constituencies, time will work to move global public opinion to a position of sympathy toward the Palestinian position.  Increasing economic sanctions, divestment and boycotts, along with actions from the UN and other extra-governmental organizations will eventually force Israel to allow the creation of a Palestinian state, and at that point the terms will not be so much in Israel's favor.

Which brings us to the US.  No matter what the rest of the world might be doing, the US political leadership is deeply beholden to the Israeli lobby.  Particularly in Congress, the American elite will always work to enable the Israeli leadership, and will legislate with a bias towards implementing whatever the Israel lobby supports.  But while it would be nice to see the US adopt a more even-handed approach to mid-east political affairs in general and play a more aggressive role in Israeli-Palestinian peacemaking specifically, it is increasingly apparent that it's not necessary.  As long as the Israelis continue to take over from the Palestinians the task of shooting themselves in the foot, the US and Israel will find themselves increasingly marginalized in world opinion.  In Europe, Asia and Latin America, even in Africa the brutal oppression of the Palestinian people is driving people to exercise their political and economic power to influence what they see as an untenable situation.

But after being repeatedly snubbed, rejected and ignored by the Netanyahu government, America may well decide to moderate her position vis a vis Israel in the near future.  And she doesn't need to reject Israel or withhold economic or military aid, or even vote against Israel in the UNSC.  Indeed, all America need do is consider her own interests and global agenda in the decision-making process, just as she so commonly does when negotiating aid packages with other nations.  It's hard to imagine the US providing economic or military assistance to other nations, even Saudi Arabia or Egypt without insisting upon certain quid pro quos to align those nation's behaviors with American Interests.  Which isn't even to consider the outcome of those negotiations if those allies chose to ignore those demands and continue behaving in direct defiance of American interests and desires.  For that matter, it's easy to imagine what might happen if those nations were involved in a brutal military occupation in violation of multiple UN Resolutions.  By merely considering our own interests ahead of those of other nations, as is the case in all other bilateral relations, the US could send a signal to the Israelis that some some modification of their hard-line, unilateral intransigence is going to happen one way or the other - it might as well happen on terms the Israelis deem favorable, or at least less unfavorable.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

For a Minute There I ALMOST Thought You Said Joe Lieberman...

America's primary founding values are inarguably Freedom and Equality.  And the story of America has largely been one of a struggle, often a violent one, to make those values a reality for all Americans everywhere in America.  And in spite of the desperate rear-guard fights from the bigots and reactionaries, from the very beginning America as an entity has moved inexorably in the direction of genuine universal Freedom and Equality.

Certainly there is still inequality for many, fueled by fear and hate and superstition and nothing more than a pathetic inertial resistance to change that represents the parochial nature of many of the more tribal segments of American society.  Driven by a worldview absolutely dependent upon an unequal power hierarchy, many Americans continue to advocate discriminatory practices towards women, Latinos, Muslims, Gays, and in an indication of how enduring the structures of bigotry can be, African Americans.  But even so, the arc of history could not be clearer or more easily defined - ultimately, the fears are seen to be baseless, the hatred pointless and the discrimination corrosive and toxic, and Americans, as they so often do, follow the demands of their conscience and eliminate the institutional and statutory basis for discrimination, allowing society over the next several generations to forget the shameful behaviors of their grandparents.

And so it is today.  A shameful legal compromise that attempted to eliminate the worst effects of bigotry while retaining the institutional discrimination that has always been the core of the problem, a policy tellingly known as "Don't Ask, Don't Tell", has finally been legislated out of existence, and another group of Americans moves another step toward just being Americans, and not some kind of second class partial citizen with fewer rights and less comprehensive legal guarantees than enjoyed by us "regular" Americans.  It's important to recognize that changing the law doesn't change anyone's mind, it only starts a process whereby citizens in the future will experience a nation one less legal or institutional processes supporting discrimination, and as a result that discrimination will wither and eventually die.

There have been many unhesitatingly courageous voices driving the debate in the face of the bigots and those politicians that catered to their hatred, but one stands out, not only for the surprising ferocity of his sustained attack on DADT, but also for an unexpected unwillingness, even refusal to pander to what has become his core constituency.  That voice belongs to the otherwise loathsome Joe Lieberman.  Yes, in the past I have called him treasonous for his willingness to put the national interests of Israel ahead of those of an America he swore an oath to serve, and his sickening and disturbing desire to shed the blood of millions of innocents unnecessarily in the furtherance of ambiguous and uncertain policy goals can never be overlooked, and must never be countenanced.

But this is precisely where his courage in the name of equality is so surprising, and perhaps why it was so effective.  He has come to align himself so closely with the military leadership and the extreme voices of intolerance and prejudice of the extreme right wing that it really seemed a foregone conclusion that he would back away and pander to that constituency whose support he would need to further his foreign policy objectives.  And yet he never wavered, never took an opportunity to sit back in silence, to back away from this fight.  He stood up time and again, even a number of times calling out John McCain, whose Presidential run Lieberman famously backed, always making the point that it was about fairness and equality, more important issues than the hand wringing over some imaginary disaster that clearly was never going to actually come to pass.

I think it's very possible that without the contribution of Joe Lieberman, Don't Ask, Don't Tell would still be the law of the land.  I find that somehow both reassuring and disturbing at the same time.  I suppose the lesson is that nobody is truly how we caricature them, neither all bad or all good, and even those whose redeeming qualities are resolutely hard to see can, on occasion, do something courageous and important.  If that is so, it's equally important to remember that the opposite must also then be true - those from whom we have come to expect acts of honesty and nobility may well let us down on important occasions.

So tonight I'll turn Mother's picture to the wall and raise a glass to Joe Lieberman.  Joe, I hate you down to your treasonous black soul, but I can no longer ever say I hate everything you stand for.  You stood up and made America a little bit better, and you deserve to be recognized for it.  Thank you...

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who is a Terrorist When Everybody is a Terrorist?

Julian Assange has been called many things.  Hero, villain, journalist, criminal.  Some have gone so far as to call him a traitor, a particularly difficult allegation to support since he is an Australian citizen and the nation he has supposedly turned against is the United States.  But one particularly outrageous charge came last week when Mitch McConnell, among others, declared that Assange was a terrorist.  Under what tortured definition of terrorism, do you suppose, would the release of classified information fall?

Of course, this is part and parcel of a larger strategy of popular re-definition of certain words, a kind of linguistic area denial weapon that makes benign terms toxic and hides the most vile of intentions behind pretty verbal decorations.  People who thought a woman had a right to make her own medical decisions were designated 'Pro Abortion', so they fought back by identifying themselves as 'Pro Choice'.  After the Second World War, the threateningly-named US War Department was officially renamed the Department of Defense in order to emphasize that no matter the nature of any conflict, the US is never the aggressor and any war we find ourselves involved in is by definition defensive in nature.  And after a multi-decade concerted campaign of vilification and vituperation, virtually NOBODY wants to be called a Liberal anymore.

But even in light of this history of etymological violence, the word terrorist stands out as a special case.  We have always reserved certain categories for maximal opprobrium, if for no other reason that we have so many TV shows in need of ready-made villains, and therefore certain terms must come to function as verbal shorthand for the most hated of society's dregs.  We have previously used child molesters, Latin American drug kingpins, crazed Vietnam veterans and rogue KGB agents in this role, but after the 9/11 attacks, the number one feared and loathed classification in America became terrorist, a condition that has only grown and expanded in the intervening decade.

We've never settled on a firm, accepted understanding of what constitutes a terrorist.  Indeed, the aphorism (often attributed to Ramsey Clarke - I prefer the Michael Collins attribution) "One man's terrorist is another man's freedom fighter" has gained popular usage due to the underlying confusion of intentions and methods.  But as the debacle in Iraq ground on, with atrocity piled upon atrocity, it became a common way to describe anyone either a.) Trying to kill Americans or b.) Killed by Americans.  When Iraqis came together to defend Faluja from American attack, they were labeled terrorists.  When Ahmed Ghailani killed a soldier in a firefight in Afghanistan, he was taken to Guantanamo Bay as a terrorist. 

At first, terrorists were people who, logically, had committed acts of terror, usually defined as politically motivated attacks against civilians.  Later, it had evolved to mean people who had interest in committing acts of terror in the future, or even providing funding or material services to organizations that might, at some time in the future, assist in the commission of acts of terror.  Finally, we come to a point where the acts they plan or commit don't even have to qualify as acts of terror for them to be branded as terrorists.  The word has lost it's meaning, and at least from the standpoint of the American political leadership and media has come to mean anybody that either doesn't like America or America doesn't like, or both.

Of course, the American political leadership has found it convenient to rebrand other, similar terms of art.  When the Bush administration was providing justification for the invasion of Iraq, it was the threat of Weapons of Mass Destruction, big, scary nuclear or biological weapons with the potential to kill millions.  A few days ago, Antonio Martinez was charged in Federal Court with the attempted use of a Weapon of Mass Destruction when he attempted to detonate what he thought was a car bomb.  Setting aside the fact that there not only never WAS a car bomb in this case, but there never WOULD have been a car bomb if the FBI didn't supply one, what is it about a CAR BOMB that qualifies it as a Weapon of Mass Destruction?  What do you suppose that makes a shotgun?  Do you suppose that the prosecutor thought that charge might garner a longer sentence than good old fashioned Conspiracy to Commit Murder?

Thursday, November 25, 2010


I'll be spending Thanksgiving day at my sister's house up north.  One of the interesting paradoxes of Thanksgiving that must be kept in mind is that despite the chill of the weather, with all the cooking and people and fireplaces and such, the gathering itself, along with the concomitant dinner will be HOT.  One must be careful to dress for the reality, and not the season, or one will be uncomfortable, damp and limp before even the climax of the festivities.

Thanksgiving is my favorite American holiday of all.  A big part of that, I suppose, is it's simple and attractive premise.  It is not predicated on some weird mythological event, or anything that might require one to believe up to six impossible things before breakfast.  It doesn't have a lot of ritual requirements or expectations.  Instead, it is an abidingly secular day, situated consistently in mid-week, resulting in a four day holiday, premised on nothing more than getting together with friends and loved ones to cook and eat a massive meal of specifically prescribed but for the most part delicious foodstuffs.

One Thanksgiving 'tradition' I could do without is the whole dumb hoopla around the White House turkey and the annual Presidential pardon.  Sure, it was funny and kind of cute when Bush 41 issued the first 'pardon' to the Turkey that was presented to the White House by the Poultry Association.  But by now it's just become this silly, redundant hackneyed ritual without either meaning or honesty.  On Thanksgiving, Mr. President, we cook and eat turkeys, we don't send them to zoos.  Just stop it, ok?

For some reason the song of the day this bright, sparkling Thanksgiving morn is Smashing Pumpkins '1979'.  I don't know why, exactly, but it's in my head while I'm making a couple of good old fashioned Kentucky Pecan Pies to bring to the feast.  I ordinarily prefer to do something a bit off kilter for Thanksgiving, something unexpected and truly non-traditional (last year I did a Thai Roasted Butternut Squash Soup that was so good it made you weep), but this year the holiday is permeated by fear and uncertainty and an all too real awareness of the state of my declining resources, so it was hard to think in those terms.  But on the upside, my sister makes really good Pumpkin and Apple pies for Thanksgiving, so there will be guests that welcome the old southern Pecan variety.

One of the reasons I enjoy watching pro football is that there can be interesting, exciting, captivating matchups even when they don't include the team or teams one regularly roots for.  However, unfortunately, today has three games, all of which are ugly mis-matches that should between them, have no interesting or exciting moments whatsoever.  Patriots at Detroit?  Well, that ought to be good for Brady's stats anyway.  Cincinnati in New York to play the Jets?  Maybe Terrell Owens will do something weird.  One can always hope.  And the Saints in Dallas?  Hey, it's never totally boring to watch the Cowboys get humiliated.  In fact, that will brighten the day even more!

Obligatory Gratitude List:

• I'm grateful to Julian Assange and WikiLeaks for trying to make the world see crimes for what they are.  America can't seem to live up to her own values anymore, so a little nudge now and then isn't such a bad thing.

• I'm grateful to Turkey, particularly Prime Minister Recep Erdogan for his unusually honest and principled stand against Israel's crimes.  Again, a nation that has lost its way needs help getting back to its own founding principles, and despite the risks and costs, Turkey will provide that help.

• I'm grateful for the US Federal extensions to Unemployment Insurance.  I can't even imagine where I'd be today if not for those funds.  Oh sure, they'll come for their taxes, and when I can I'll pay them gladly.

• I'm grateful to the people who have helped me stay sane and upbeat through this foul, lost year.  As above, I fear I DO know where I'd be without you, and that scares me.  There are not many of you, and a good percentage I have never met in person, so I'll not embarrass anyone but know this - if you think you might be one of those people, you most certainly are.  Thank you.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Stopping START

It's a valid argument.  They're the opposition.  It's their role in the political process to oppose the party in power.  The question that necessarily arises at this point is opposition in favor of what?  Is the opposition principled, espousing a different philosophy, a different direction, a different set of priorities?  Or is it really just mindless opposition, where it doesn't matter how productive or effective the President's agenda might be, it will be opposed en bloc merely for the sake of political gain and regardless of the cost to the country and it's citizens?

It certainly seems that we find ourselves washed up on those shores of mindlessness.  There are pieces of legislation that are not inherently partisan, that serve to move the republic in a positive direction, to support economic advancement and international stability.  Examples of that sort of legislation abound, but we'll focus on only two - the Unemployment Insurance extensions and the START treaty.   Now I'm not sure why federal unemployment insurance benefits are repeatedly set to expire, but their economic and compassionate value is impossible to dispute, and to deny American citizens this kind of support in the midst of an economic downturn even as we provide similar services to millions of foreign citizens in some wildly misguided attempt to establish American hegemony over poor, benighted, landlocked villages fifteen thousand miles away seems not only unfair, but offensive on its very face.

And the START treaty?  I suppose it is possible to negotiate a bad strategic arms reduction treaty, but it's hard to imagine how mutual, verifiable reductions in nuclear weapons stockpiles could be bad enough to go unratified.  And in the case of this treaty, the arms control community AND the military are unanimously on board.  It significantly reduces the number of warheads and missiles the US and Russia will have on hand while increasing the effectiveness of the on-site inspection and verification regime.

Not to mention the tattered and ill-treated remains of that other treaty, the Nuclear Non Proliferation Treaty, has lost credibility around the globe in part because the nuclear powers have failed to live up to their obligations of nuclear disarmament.  The failure of the US Senate to ratify the new START treaty would be another nail in NPT's coffin, as other nations wonder why they are repeatedly expected to honor their treaty obligations while the US seems to consider them all optional.  In short, the New START treaty is good for the US, good for our allies and good for the world.  There is no risk or loss of power or prestige anywhere in the agreement, and after the warheads and missiles have been destroyed, it will even reduce spending on strategic arms, thereby reducing the deficit.  It's hard to find a logical or principled reason to oppose ratification.

Which brings us to the Republican party, as it's currently constituted, their legislators committed to lockstep opposition to anything the administration wants to put forward.  And what is the basis of this blind, thoughtless across the board obstruction of not just the Democratic agenda, but of even the most basic governance?  Here's a hint:  It's not because they have a different agenda, or would like to see different priorities or implement different policies.  No, if this treaty came up for ratification under President McCain, it would be passed quickly and  very likely unanimously.  This is a political tactic, plain and simple - an attempt to deny the Obama administration anything it might present as a policy success.   It is what would have previously been an unthinkable decision to place the political power of their party ahead of their country's security interests.

But ultimately, a policy of blanket opposition and obstruction must lead the Republicans to confront a key question:  Are there issues where the political advantage of obstruction is more than offset by the negative impact on popularity that obstruction generates?  That is to say, are there issues the public wants, or even demands that they pass?  It may be that START ratification, being as it's supported by virtually everyone in the diplomatic, military and arms control communities and opposition to ratification is premised entirely on willful misinterpretations and outright lies about it's provisions might very well be one of those issues.  Just as it will be difficult for them to hold fast against unemployment insurance extensions for their fellow citizens, it is not difficult to imagine enough Republican Senators choosing the less confrontational path for the treaty to pass.

Unlike the debt ceiling vote, where Republican intransigence would be extremely unpopular due to it's widespread destructiveness, but the leadership feels they can shift some if not most of that blame for the resultant government shutdown over to the Obama administration, blame for the failure of START or UI Extensions would fall entirely on the shoulders of the Republican legislators who either vote as a bloc to defeat the measure or simply use arcane and dysfunctional Senate procedures to prevent a vote altogether.  In the case of START, that will come down to whether or not the public cares about another arms control treaty with Russia in 2010.  And like so many other issues, the President has been ineffective in explaining to his constituency why they should care.  And without any real public interest, the media will ignore the issue or cover it in their usual, dysfunctional "Earth - Flat or Round?  Experts Disagree" fashion that will emphasize the political horse race over the actual policy at hand.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Does Bipartisanship Matter?

Making public policy is like making anything else.  Above all, quality matters.  In legislation, it's really not important who voted for it, or against it, how many pages it fills or how long it took to produce.  The only thing that really matters is that it perform it's intended function without introducing a new set of inefficiencies, and that it do so in a cost effective and timely fashion.  So why is it considered so important that public policy be made in a 'bipartisan' manner?

It's important to view this question in the current context.  Over the preceding years and decades, the idea behind legislation and public policy was much like the idea behind an adversarial legal system.  You would bring in voices from both sides of an issue, and have them work out a solution that was acceptable to all.  This made certain you wouldn't end up with something extreme or unfair to a fault.  And as long as the politicians and legislators shared the same goal of governing well, this system did work.  It tended to move slowly, but it prevented wild swings in political, economic or social direction.  This process in no way guaranteed good policy, but it functioned fairly well in preventing exceedingly bad policy.

Today, all discussions of politics and public policy in America must be viewed through a cracked lens:  Our system has broken down under the strain of an increasingly polarized debate and the willingness of the participants to operate as desperate players in a zero-sum game of survival rather than statesmen seeking to improve the lives and well being of their constituents.  Indeed, the very goal has shifted, from a desire to govern well to a desire to have the power to govern.  The goal is no longer to improve the lives and well being of the governed, but rather increase the power and wealth of the party.  When the rhetoric went from a staid "my opponent is wrong" to an apocalyptic "my opponent is an America - hating socialist trying to destroy the America we know and love" the opportunities for reasonable discussion are at an end.

Interestingly, you'll notice no outcry for bipartisanship in Parliamentary governments.  That's because whoever wins the election gets to implement their agenda, and the other side is seldom even asked for input.  One may agree or disagree with the function or general tone of any particular policy, but it is rarely heard that Parliamentary democracies by their very nature produce bad or wildly extreme legislation.  When you stop and think about it, any belief that legislation must have bipartisan support in order to have political legitimacy is completely unfounded, and indeed, in the context of the twentyfirst century American political system merely gives an unprincipled opposition another tool with which to obstruct real attempts at governance.

While some of these demands for bipartisanship in the the media may well reflect an honest, if misguided desire to return to serious and effective governance, many of them seem merely intended to delegitimize a Democratic legislative agenda they deem too liberal.  But any serious effort to improve the legislative product coming from Capitol Hill must address the various procedural impediments to good policy.  In fact, at this point we should be demanding less bipartisan activity, not more.  At this point, it only seems to slow down the process, water down the legislation and create gaps and loopholes that greatly reduce the effectiveness of the finished bill.  If some of the arbitrary and nonsensical procedural veto points were eliminated, a smaller group of public servants genuinely interested in governing might well produce better, more effective and less costly public policy that accomplishes important goals.

Saturday, November 20, 2010

Bomb Bomb Bomb, Bomb Bomb...Iraq?

In the latest formulation in the ongoing argument from the US Military that the occupation of Iraq must never, ever come to an end, Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan expressed his deep concern that if America was to actually honor her treaty obligations and withdraw completely from Iraq, it would be bad because then Iraq would be vulnerable to air attacks.  It's interesting.  If you look at the last twenty years of history, the only nation that has shown any interest in attacking Iraq from the air has been the United States.  But General Buchanan doesn't seem to be indicating that in the event of US air strikes against Iraq the US Air Force would be there to prevent them, so it's not at all clear what exactly is the basis for his concern.

Before Iraq under Saddam Hussein ran afoul of the US political leadership, the vaunted Iraqi Army, particularly the Armored Divisions of the Revolutionary Guards, were seen by Washington as a bulwark against Iranian expansion and hegemony in the region.  In order to understand this construct, one must be careful to forget that there never was any actual evidence of Iranian expansionism, and indeed, it was Iraq, along with that other peaceful democracy, Israel, that tended to start wars and squabbles in the mid east.  Iraq did come under air attack from Iran after Saddam invaded Iran to start an eight year marathon of bloodletting in 1980, and of course, after launching ballistic missiles at Israel in 1991, Israel threatened air strikes of their own.  But the lesson here is that first, Iraq is now closely allied with their former enemy Iran and is under no risk of attack from the east, and second, history demonstrates that Iraq is unlikely to come under further air attacks as long as they refrain from starting wars in the first place.

It's also more than a little unclear that the US would even act in the case of a third nation's air strikes on Iraqi territory.  Turkey regularly bombs Iraq with impunity, and the only nation that might realistically develop significant tensions with the new Iraqi leadership, Saudi Arabia, is a major US ally and trade partner, and if events led the Saudis to the conclusion they needed to attack Iraq, it's a little difficult to see the US deciding to intervene militarily.

Honestly, this desperate desire on the part of the US military leadership to keep significant forces deployed in Iraq essentially forever is very difficult to understand.  It might be one thing if by accepting withdrawal the armed forces would lose some amount of funding for personnel or procurement, but the only budgetary reductions they would see from withdrawal are those funds being spent to sustain the forces in the first place.  They can't keep enough troops on the ground in Iraq to represent a powerful presence on the oil fields, and yet they have enough troops still in country to represent a major impact on the operational tempo.  As things have evolved politically and diplomatically in Iraq, the US military would lose nothing by willingly ending their involvement there as quickly as possible, and they would recognize significant gains.

Still, it seems as if much of the military command structure spends much of their time trying to come up with a compelling reason to stay in Iraq beyond the end of next year, despite there being no rational reason for them to do so.  Certainly, one of the things the world has learned about the US since the Bush/Cheney administration is that we don't take international treaties and agreements seriously, and will violate or abrogate them on a whim.  But their real problem, the thing that makes these transparent attempts at some level of permanent occupation appear silly, is that there really IS no good reason for the US to continue to keep military forces in Iraq.  So we get these kind of nonsensical concerns like General Buchanan's newfound desire to protect Iraqis from air attack.  

Friday, November 19, 2010

Burnin' Down the House

Follow the logic here.  It's all about Government spending.  Why is it all spending, all the time?  Because you're not allowed to talk about raising taxes, only lowering them.  But why is it an issue at all?  The answer, we are repeatedly and shrilly informed, it the Deficit.  Now if you talk to someone who is expert in these sorts of fiscal matters, and they aren't shrieking and spewing spittle over ideological received wisdom, they will tell you that deficit spending is not a problem today, and is an easily managed problem in the longer term.  And polling consistently shows that the American people A.) don't care about the deficit and B.) don't want their taxes to increase or spending to decrease.  Except for foreign aid - everybody's uniformly against foreign aid.  But if deficit spending is not a near term problem, not like unemployment and economic growth and home foreclosures and the like, then why are we hearing nothing but endless screaming about the deficit in general, and an immediate need to cut spending right NOW?

To understand the underlying dynamic driving this misappropriation of political and economic concern, you have to see it for what it actually is - an ideologically driven political tactic.  There are certain primary goals of the American Political Right, and to a large extent they can be summed up as A.) transferring as much wealth as possible from the poor and middle class to the wealthiest Americans and B.) preventing the downward distributional transfer of wealth from the wealthy to the poor.  Every position they take and every issue they involve themselves in can only be understood when viewed through this lens.  By coordinating a unified message that deficit spending is the greatest threat to the union in recent memory, they can convince the electorate that they must, in the name of the very survival of the nation, accept significant pain as the government is force to cut programs they depend on, from education and Pell grants to state and local aid to unemployment benefits and access to health care.  Of course, their utter incoherence on tax policy, the theory that even as clear and present a threat as the deficit represents, taxes can never be raised in any form and indeed must be reduced for corporations and top earners should expose the entire argument for the fraudulent political tactic it is.  But alas, it never does.

So they come, like a flock of Valkyries in green eyeshades, this 112th Congress will descend on Washington with but a single, overarching mandate: Cut government spending to decrease the deficit.  No tax increases and no increases in the deficit will be allowed.  And so we arrive at the crux of the matter.   Back in February of this year the congress raised the statutory debt ceiling to 14.3 trillion dollars.  In their very first month in session, the new Congress will have to raise it again, or the government will be unable to continue to function.  Now understand, there is no reason why they couldn't raise the debt ceiling to allow government to continue to operate while they craft their supposed debt reduction legislative agenda.  But since it's not really about the deficit at all, and no one in congress really has any intention of actually doing anything that significantly decreases the US debt, symbolic gestures become important.  Things like a moratorium on earmarks, which has been at the forefront of conservative deficit foment for years, and which does precisely nothing to reduce the deficit.  And things like the debt ceiling.  By refusing to increase the debt ceiling, they accomplish several things.  They show their spending cutting bona fides without really cutting spending.  They throw yet more sand into the gears of "big government" in general and the much loathed Obama administration in particular.  And of course, they shut down the government.

Newt Gingrich, never much of a team player, has already gone ahead and spilled the beans on their game plan.  They will give Obama a budget full of such draconian cuts, one that so reduces the government's ability to provide services and meet existing demands that he will be unable to sign it.  Hence, the cry will go up, it is Obama who is preventing the operation of government.  With a single stroke of the pen he could end the dispute and get back to the business of governance.  But remember, it is as it has always been with the teabaggers.   It is their own crass, ham fisted stupidity that is their own worst enemy.  We've seen for the last two years how quick the President is to capitulate, how willing he is to bargain away core progressive positions for a pittance, or even, frequently, for nothing at all.  A classic pol, he seems to have no central guiding principles, but rather a willingness to sacrifice whatever is necessary on the altar of political expediency in order to take what he can get.  I feel certain that if Boehner were to send Obama a budget filled with radical right wing economic ideology, with no sop to the progressive caucus and deep, painful cuts to social programs and safety nets, but one which preserved JUST enough of the status quo that signing it would not lead to outright chaos, Obama would back down in short order.  It is only the fact that they can be reliably counted on to overstep, reach for too much on their opening gambit, that will prevent the predictable Democratic surrender and lead us into the most dangerous game of political chicken we've ever seen.

The path to a full government shutdown is clear.  The path to it's resolution may not exist.  Nothing good will flow from it, and to add offensive insult to sickening injury, the best hope we have is that American business, particularly the financial sector and the Chamber of Commerce step in and reign in their attack dogs in order to preserve their profits.  And when we're reduced to hoping that the same greedy plutocrats who put us in this horrific position and nearly destroyed America in the process will come to our rescue, even if only as an unintended consequence of them saving themselves, that's when we realize how badly it's all gotten away from us.  The new year does not bode well for us.

Cantor Intuitive

Eric Cantor, one of the most powerful American political leaders, wants to make sure you know where his loyalties lie.  In a private meeting with Benjamin Netanyahu in Washington last week, Cantor assured the Israeli Prime Minister that he and his fellow congressional Republicans would "serve as a check" on the Obama administration's mid-east foreign policy.  But in addition to being very powerful, Eric Cantor, like many of the other right-wing extremists in Washington, is both stupid and deeply egotistical.  So while it's a reasonable assumption that assurances like this have been offered before, Cantor's office immediately and proudly issued a press release describing his conversation with Netanyahu honestly and in detail.

It's hard to even find a way to express how radical and un American this is.  For years now, we have watched Joe Lieberman endorse a series of actions and policies that are unequivocally in Israel's national interest, or at least in those interests as perceived and advocated by Likud and AIPAC, even when those policies and actions would function to the detriment of the United States, ostensibly Lieberman's home nation and one to which he swore an oath of office.  But while Lieberman's actions clearly favored Israel's interest and well being over America, he was always careful never to actually SAY that his primary loyalty was to Israel, and whenever those two national commitments found themselves in tension, he would choose to side with the foreign power over his own.  You could SEE this was true, but his words of denial and claims to American patriotism served as a kind of a bulwark against any accusations of disloyalty.

But Cantor has crossed even that faint, grey line.  He has promised privately, and touted the promise publicly, that he would support the policy agenda of a foreign head of state against the policies of his own nation and without consideration to how it might harm US interests.  As if there are not substantial risks to US National Security in the mid east, and as if Israel, as America's largest foreign aid beneficiary had no responsibility for considering America's interests even as she accepted the billions in American largess.

So, what is to be done with a member of the Congressional leadership who promises support and fealty to another nation in defiance of his own?  Well, to put it succinctly, nothing.  This is a new era, where soaring American rhetoric of the rule of law, particularly the inspiring part where no one is above it, is a quaint reminder of an earlier, simpler time, and to rise to a certain level of political power and influence is to be afforded a kind of across the board immunity.  When torture, indefinite detention and illegal surveillance no longer have any consequences, what are we to do with mere treason, a simple political decision to put the interests of another nation ahead of your own as long as your own is headed by a member of the other political party?  It's all fair game now, dismissed with a rueful smile and a "politics ain't beanbag" sort of truism so that we might get on to the more important matters of denying Unemployment benefits to desperate American citizens and making certain that bank foreclosure efforts continue to run smoothly despite any minor paperwork "irregularities".

At some point, the collective problems, crises, inefficiencies and dysfunctions of American governance will have to be confronted, honestly and effectively.  The pandering, the lying, the pretending will all have to end, at least for a while, in order to forestall disaster for the cherished business and political classes themselves.  The real costs to real lives will have been immense, but when the time comes they will work together with surprising efficiency and capability to save the system that so richly benefits them and their peers, so that they might return, with a wink, to the lovely gentleman's club of life that is theirs by birthright.

Thursday, November 18, 2010

Dirty Deeds, Done Dirt Cheap

Ahmed Ghailani lost in Federal court. And, of course, the media dashes to the exits to pronounce him a winner.  Even as I grow more disgusted with the dregs celebrating the collapse of the American experiment in justice, democracy and the rule of law, I wonder.  Do these cretins honestly not get it?  Or are they just so subsumed with hatred, and so captivated by the concept of 'the other' that they honestly cannot see the course they have chosen.  

How many times does it have to be said?  How hard, really, is it to grasp?  Ghailani is not a soldier.  He is a criminal.  There IS no war.  There is no army, no capitol to take, no government to depose, no identifiable enemy, just a few hundred trans-national criminals to be prosecuted, convicted and sentenced.  All within the simple day-to-day process of a functioning democracy.  But when it all goes off the rails, when we violate our own laws and adopt the very methods of those we are fighting, when we choose to fight criminality not with the rule of law, but with more, and more vicious criminality, we find ourselves caught in a bind of our own making.

We must realize that it would have been a simple matter to convict Ahmed Ghailani on all these charges if we had followed our own time-proven rules.  He was NOT acquitted because the prosecutor failed, or the Federal Courts somehow were unable to deal with the magnitude or character of his crimes.  Pay attention now, this is important.  He was acquitted of most of the charges because WE TORTURED HIM.  Those statements are NOT admissible in a trial.  We, as Americans, used to be very clear on why that is important, and why coerced testimony cannot be allowed.  Now, frothing at the mouth, we wonder why this criminal defendant was acquitted of the murder and terrorism charges against him, ignoring the fact that he WAS convicted of conspiracy for which he will spend decades, if not the rest of his natural life, in prison.  We demand Military Tribunals, a system of justice that has a poor track record for convicting terrorist defendants and little global respect, over a system that somehow managed to render a harsh verdict and maximally punish a mid-level terrorist operator for crimes committed DESPITE the fact that the American government found it expedient to torture him and hold him illegally for years in detention without charge or due process.  I'd have to say that's an amazing and somewhat disconcerting accomplishment all on it's own.

And yet the politically motivated outrage comes screaming in from every speaker, from every screen, from every paper.  It's not good enough that we captured him.  It's not near enough that we held  him, and tortured him, and interrogated him and in the end prosecuted him and convicted him.  Oh no.  That the courts that acquitted him on the terrorism charges did not have the capacity to accept coerced evidence proves they are simply not up to the job.  We need to try terror suspects in a venue that will ensure their conviction, no matter what has been done to them in our names.  What if Ghailani had been found not guilty of all charges?

And that is, ultimately, the key question.  I submit that we have become cowards, too afraid of the wrath of one man to live up to our own values, and we would have been seen by the world for what we are.  It is one thing to hold people in detention without trial or due process for years, but it is another thing altogether to put one of those detainees on trial, have him found not guilty and still refuse to release him. What do you suppose we have learned about the future of the Guantanamo detainees, and our belief in our system of justice?  We know our justice system works, not because of Ghailani's conviction, but because of the hundreds of not guilty verdicts.  And sadly, disgustingly, it is precisely because the system is so good at rendering justice that it is clearly too politically risky to allow it to be used going forward.  But even the Military tribunals have rules against coerced evidence, and they all will have to operate under the minimum mandates in the Constitution.  And so, in the dawn of a new era, call it the "Sovietization" of America, we now have our own set of political prisoners we can't try and we won't release.  And I miss living in a country that I was proud of.

The President is Revolting!

Hamid Karzai, the President of Afghanistan, came out forcefully against unfettered US and NATO combat operations in the country he nominally leads.   Recently, under the leadership of General Petraeus, special forces nighttime raids have more than tripled - with the attendant increase in Afghan civilian deaths and detentions.  The people are, unsurprisingly, fed up and frightened, and it is the Afghan political leadership, not the foreign military leadership, that must answer for the death, destruction and intimidation.

In another glaring example of the hubris and lack of self-awareness that has come to characterize the US Government, General Petraeus was said to be furious that the President of Afghanistan would have the temerity to suggest he might have some oversight or control over military operations in Afghanistan.  In a particularly American view of the relationship between the occupiers and the occupied, Petraeus not only expects obedience and fealty from the Afghan political leadership, he expects them to be grateful for his willingness to help them by killing and detaining whoever he wants to, whenever he feels the need.  You'll likely remember the prototypical example of this behavior, when Secretary of State Hilary Clinton stood on a giant US airbase just outside of Baghdad and vehemently criticized what she termed Iranian "Interference" in Iraqi affairs.  She kept a straight face, too.

Now it's bad enough that no one in the US government can provide a simple and plausible answer to what American national security imperative requires the massive deployment of military power in a small, poor, mountainous, landlocked nation with no resources thousands of miles from US shores.  It's bad enough that Obama claims to be working to deny al Quaeda access to 'safe havens' in Afghanistan when he knows that their real safe haven is in Pakistan and there isn't anything he can do about that.  It's bad enough that we are told we must defeat a small, local insurgency in Afghanistan no matter what expenditure of lives and resources it requires, but we seem to be much more sanguine about similar or larger insurgencies in places like Somalia, Yemen, Sudan and Nigeria.  But when that military presence demands we pretend to partner with a corrupt thug like Karzai, accepting all the diplomatic and credibility costs that come with it, and then undermine it all by making it clear that, even as President, he has less power in his own country than a 34 year old SpecOps Major from Kentucky.

Afghanistan is a bleeding wound on the American nation, but as often happens with wounds, it provides an opportunity to see more clearly the underlying condition.  It is in Afghanistan that we learn that Barack Obama is driven not by ideals or philosophy, but by naked political calculation.  The American presence in Afghanistan is indefensible, and surely Obama knows that.  Not even with his vaunted oratorical skills can he provide a coherent explanation for the Afghan war that doesn't fall apart even as it's uttered.  But the political costs and risks of ending the American involvement in Afghanistan are undoubtedly much higher than those associated with a few hundred billion dollars and a few hundred young American lives lost every year.  It would take substantial political courage to end the American involvement in Afghanistan, certainly, but we can now rest assured that whatever else he might have, Barack Obama does not have that courage.


Monday, November 8, 2010

Carrying Their Water

The path from memoirs to justice is long and convoluted, and the US government has made a decision to "look forward instead of backward", but none other than GW Bush himself may offer us, if not justice, some kind of closure.  Stalin never admitted to authorizing torture as a policy of state.  Neither did, at risk of finding myself in some distasteful company for the reference, Hitler.  Heads of state tend to try to separate themselves from the more unpleasant aspects of empire, both for reasons of historical legacy and simple legalistic pragmatism, even without considering the effect on international diplomacy.

Now to be fair, Bush and Cheney have consistently denied that waterboarding is torture.  This position is supported by a compliant DoJ Office of Legal Council, which was prepared to offer legal cover to the devouring of newborns on the White House lawn at midnight if it was requested.  But there is no doubt.  Waterboarding, the practice of using water to drown a subject within seconds of his life, only to allow a bit of breath before drowning the hapless victim once again, has been denounced, criminalized and prosecuted as torture, an inhuman brutality that produces not information, but desperate, hopeful confessions to any crime the dying subject might think will improve his objectively slim chances at survival not just in recent times, but for centuries.

By now we're all too familiar with the history.  Often used during the Spanish inquisition, the 'water torture' was used steadily down through the ages because of it's combination of effectiveness at securing a confession and it's unusual (in the realm of torture) capacity for leaving an unmarked and (physically) undamaged subject.  After World War II, Japanese troops were tried for war crimes that included waterboarding prisoners.  During the Vietnam war, at least one American soldier was court martialed for waterboarding NVA prisoners.  In short, pathetic attempts by the Bush administration to re-brand waterboarding as a method of interrogation that falls somewhat short of torture in some technical sense will never be able to overcome hundreds of years of common sense and legal decisions.

All of which brings us to the pre-release hype for "Decision Points", the memoir from George W. Bush. In it, he readily offers that when the CIA asked him if they could waterboard Khalid Sheik Mohammed, his response was an enthusiastic "Damn right!"

The first interesting question is why would he do that?  You know his lawyers vetted the book, and there can be no doubt that they strongly encouraged him to describe these events more ambiguously.  It's what lawyers do, and it is not difficult to come up with a way to tell the same story without explicitly admitting ordering an act of torture in violation of US and International law.  So one cannot help but arrive at the conclusion that he was completely confident, likely to the point of having received personal assurances from Federal prosecutors, that he would enjoy de facto immunity from prosecution in the US for the extent of his lifetime.  And so, it seems, he will.

But George Bush is, at 64, a relatively young man.  A former President, wealthy and powerful, with a large circle of wealthy, powerful, pampered friends.  He's without doubt an arrogant man, thoughtless and impulsive, with an expectation that he will get what he wants.  And now, as a result of the admission, much of the world is closed off to him today.  It is the richest of ironies that this President, who made such self-serving noise about the benefits of democracy will now be unable to travel to any real democracy in the world out of fear of prosecution under international treaties covering war crimes and torture.  Sure and he will be able to travel freely and without concern to any of the authoritarian dictatorships he counts among his friends and allies, from Saudi Arabia to China.  But any thoughts of travel to the democratic nations of Europe, South America and South Asia will give him pause.  One can easily imagine a judicial prosecutor in France or England or India taking him into custody, at least for questioning.

But despite the small sense of justice one might feel knowing his monstrous actions will cost him a few of the perks of office and wealth, and even some marginal bit of prestige, it's important to recognize what he has once again done to us all, collectively, the (hopefully) final insult of a foul era.  As Americans, we are frequently surprised by the hate and anger expressed by people around the world at our actions, but even more surprising might be how ultimately limited the hate and anger actually are.  Even as we murder Pakistani citizens with impunity, and bribe the corrupt Pakistani government for their complicity, even as our troops operate in other nations without a thought to their sovereignty, even as our intelligence services spy, murder and bribe in nations on every continent for ill-defined but certainly self-serving purposes, much of the world sees the tremendous wealth, the dynamic energy, and even the shining promise of our founding documents, and their anger and outrage at our brutal, destructive actions is muted.  To a large extent, that is because of who we are as a people.  Or, more accurately perhaps, who they've come to believe we are as a people.

But who are we really, if our elected leadership freely admits to horrific criminal acts and is not only not prosecuted for it, but is rewarded?   What does it say about us, finally, when a man elected to the position they call "leader of the free world" not once, but twice, can arrogantly stand up before the world and announce proudly that he is a torturer?  How can we continue to call out the likes of Omar al-Bashir or Kim Jong-il for their savage mistreatment of their people when our leader admits to the same actions with a smile?  This man, this smug, repulsive man-child has single handedly made America a rogue state, and he has done it in all our names.  While much fiction has been produced exploring what might happen if America elected a sociopath with no values, no compassion, no humanity, here it is, played out before out eyes.  And while the real-world outcomes of that very scenario might have been more prosaic, they are ultimately even worse than many of those envisioned.  For we are left tarnished, devalued and exposed for what HE is, a venal, greedy thug for whom power is the only measure of value, and human suffering is merely a coin to be spent in pursuit of other goals.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

I am Outraged by Your Outrage!

Kieth Olbermann made a few political contributions and was suspended indefinitely by the powers that be at MSNBC.  From Facebook to Twitter to a million liberal blogs the outrage is as palpable as it was predictable.  Spittle seems to spew off the pages as they shout their hoarse cries of offense and rage, shaking with anger at the unfairness and bias they see behind this action.  And so it may be.

But I want to make one thing as clear as I possibly can.  I don't care about Kieth Olbermann.  I don't care about Cable TV news shows.  They simply do not matter.  They are closed systems, preaching the gospel of high dudgeon to an audience that already believed all the same things and is absolutely unwilling to listen to anything they might disagree with.  That would make them uncomfortable.  One of the clearest signs of a closed-minded ideologue is that they never seek information - only reinforcement.  There is a risk to learning - everything you learn changes the way you see the world.  Learn enough things and the next thing you know you'll be reexamining your entire worldview.  Of course, this tendency to cling to a set of beliefs runs counter to the instincts of empirical secularists, which certainly explains why Olbermann was losing the ratings fight.

But therein lies the point.  This sort of spittle-flecked ranting over prosaic events of little significance is classically a wingnut trait.  I do not have to see the people I disagree with as horrific monsters, as Hitlers and Stalins and Guevaras and killers of innocents.  I can see them as misinformed, I can call them out when they are disingenuous, and I can argue in favor of affirmative public policy actions I believe will improve the lives of citizens in my community.  Certainly, every now and then someone will actually do something so offensive, so beyond the boundaries of legitimate political discourse that outrage is a natural result, and in those cases it is not only justified, but necessary.  But by allowing ourselves to become outraged daily by small events of little consequence, we end up in a place where it's hard to react differently to rape than to an illegal left turn.  In all our repeated fury, we lose an important part of our humanity when we lose all sense of degree.

The outrage du jour is a mindless, silly game played at the confluence of the 24 hour news cycle and ideological demonization.  My political opponent is so evil, so completely monstrous that there is nothing he or she cannot do that doesn't inflame my anger, offend my sensibilities and generate gigabytes of demands that it all stop now.  I recognize there is no hope of recalibrating our sense of outrage, but like so many things, I do not have to participate.

A rich, famous television star losing his job does not cause me outrage.  Politically, we lost nothing - he was not converting people to see the world the way I do, he was not exposing criminality and wrongdoing, he was simply telling a few million people what they want to hear, night in and night out.  Poor, sick, unemployed, homeless Americans is an outrage.  Murdering Pakistani villagers is an outrage. Providing cover for people to take the ancestral homes of Palestinians at the point of a gun is an outrage. Threatening to attack other sovereign nations that do not threaten the US or her interests is an outrage.  But we don't want to talk about these things.  We don't want to talk about economic solutions, or the proper role of government in society, or the most appropriate way to raise the revenues necessary for government to deliver those services.

We scream and rant about a fired TV host, or shout nonsensical lies about a routine Presidential trip abroad.  We worry endlessly that a doomed candidate might be a witch, or whether another is really a Christian.  And all the while, with every tick of the clock, the real problems become greater and that much harder to solve.  We'll need to talk about them at some point.  Maybe after tomorrows' outrage?

Thursday, November 4, 2010

Nothing Succeeds Like Stupidity

What IS it with us?  How can it be true that while the twentyfirst century didn't give us robot housekeepers or flying cars, it gave us alone in the world a political leadership whose defining characteristic is their ignorance?  I don't mean the kind of metaphorical, out-of-touch kind of ignorance most nation's elites acquire from the tiny bubble they live and work in they entire lives, I mean a more crass, destructive, willful ignorance that brings them to espouse beliefs that are, in a word, false.  Not just discredited or formerly believed but proved false, but blatantly textbook F-on-the-test wrong.  Beliefs that transparently support their ideological agendas but are simply known to be incorrect descriptions of how the world works.

Certainly one must consider Climate science.  No other group, no matter how conservative, how right wing, how pro-business they might be denies the established science - only the American Political Right.  Making them not only a global laughingstock, but making the rest of the world that much less willing to curb their greenhouse gas emissions if the largest polluter on the planet not only has no intention of taking action, but one of their two political parties utterly refuses to acknowledge that a problem exists.  How frustrating it must be for political and economic leaders around the globe to try and work with an American government that seems willing to delude itself in order to protect short term corporate profits.

And, of course, in America we have a 'Christian Problem'.  As our politics move to the right, our politicians are increasingly activist, dominionist, theocratic fundamentalist Christians, with all the tribal, sectarian, anti-science and anti-woman dogma that goes with it.  We have reached a point, as demonstrated by the just-concluded Rand Paul campaign where even an otherwise ideologically pure atheist candidate must credibly claim to be a "Pro Life Christian", and must maintain the illusion for their entire political career.  In order to qualify to hold public office, an American "conservative" must at a minimum deny climate science, claim to believe that the bible is the literal word of god and refuse to acknowledge belief in evolution.  In other words, they must proclaim a level of understanding of our world commensurate with their counterparts from the sixteenth century.

But by far the most destructive manifestation of the increasing demand for willful stupidity in our political leadership today is economic.  Now, there are some legitimate debates one might have over macroeconomic policy.  But there are also established facts, ground truths that cannot be  disputed in good faith.  The entire edifice of modern economics is predicated on a set of basic facts, and when the people who make the economic decisions can't or won't understand those facts, they are going to make policy decisions that not only do not improve economic conditions, but actively make them worse.  As usual, we have arrived at this collective delusion out of party dogma run amok.  The American Political Right and their Republican political leadership have long used 'the deficit' as a cudgel to convince ordinary Americans to transfer some of their wealth to the wealthy, which is against their personal interests.  Most ordinary Americans don't really know what the deficit is, how big it is, what makes it grow or contract - they only know that it's bad, because they've been repeatedly told so.  In their collective minds it gets conflated with economic conditions, income growth, taxes and unemployment.  Now to be sure, the conservatives don't care about the deficit - historically it always rises under Republican leadership and shrinks under the Democrats - for them it is nothing but a marketing term, used to sell an otherwise unpalatable agenda on the basis of fear and doubt.

But it brings us to this very dangerous crossroad.  In America, we have a multi-trillion dollar output gap. Spending and demand are down as people don't have jobs and struggle to stay in their homes.  Incomes are flat, and businesses are desperate for sales revenues.  Nothing can change until somebody starts to spend real money on goods and services, so demand increases and companies need to hire, expand, buy inventory and equipment and raw materials.  The well known macroeconomic solution is called "expansionary fiscal policy" or by the more common, if badly tarnished "economic stimulus".  An argument about whether or not stimulus "works" is stupid.  If you own a business selling screws, and nobody's buying screws, you lose money, you lay off workers, you have trouble paying your mortgage.  If the government then steps in and buys ten million screws from you, you need to hire workers, expand your building and buy more inventory which means your supplier has to expand too.  And all those new workers take their paychecks out in the community and spend money that would never have gotten there without the stimulus purchase of those screws.  To deny that government spending can increase economic activity is, well, once again, ignorant.

As a side note, one cannot help but wonder why President Obama is playing along in the willful idiocy game.  He keeps talking about reducing spending and lowering the deficit, which is a long-term concern.  The unemployment rate is a crisis right now.  You KNOW he's a very smart man, and he knows that austerity will hurt the American economy, and yet he pretends he believes the collective delusion.  He could easily be saying that we need more stimulus but congress won't appropriate the funds instead of helping to perpetuate a false, delusional worldview.  I cannot begin to imagine what he thinks he is accomplishing by pretending to be a stupid as his opposition.

But this is what we've come to.  The most powerful, wealthiest nation in the world now not only embraces stupidity, but demands it.  How can we ever solve our problems when we no longer are even willing to accept the basic facts that underlie them?  We've become a spoiled child, not only unwilling to do the hard things, but not even willing to believe there might be consequences.  When all paths to the future are effectively foreclosed, there is only the past.  And I fear we are entering our dark ages.

Tuesday, November 2, 2010

A Magic Number

Eleven wins.  That's what it takes to win baseball's postseason and become the champion.  Eight teams start the playoffs, and the first one to win eleven games is the big winner.  Eleven wins is really a small thing.  The regular season is 162 games long, stretching from April to October.  No eleven of those 162 can be deemed to be critical, although the difference between going to the playoffs and going home can often be just a win or two.  But when they start the postseason, it's a sprint, a race to eleven.  It's amusing how baseball analysts will decide this playoff game or that one is a 'must win' game.  Eight teams.  Eleven wins.  They're ALL must win games.  Lose just one too many and the dream ends for another year.

After the Padres imploded (interestingly dooming their season by losing ten in a row), you could begin to see the playoffs take shape.  The Giants were better than the Braves - the only real uncertainty in the NLDS was the best of five format.  In such a short series, too much depends on luck - a single good or bad break, a missed call, a bad hop can determine the outcome.  In a five game series, the best team doesn't always win - but you had to like the Giants chances.

The real obstacle, the hill that would likely prove insurmountable was the Phillies.  They were the 800 pound gorilla of the National League, with the killer pitching staff, the superstar lineup, the World Series experience.  No, sadly, the plucky Giants had little hope to win the NLCS.  The Phillies knew it.  The analysts knew it.  Hell, if I was to be honest, I knew it.  The conversation had already begun to drift to who the Phillies would play in the World Series.  Unfortunately for the Phillies and their fans, nobody told the Giants.

One of Dusty Baker's greatest failings as a pro baseball manager was his unwillingness to take his veterans out of the lineup.  He'd stick with his guys, no matter how awful they were playing, no matter what options he had available.  This is where Bruce Bochy stood tall.  Renteria made all the difference in the world, but Bochy should be MVP.  He was ruthless, dispassionately leaving Zito behind, leaving fan favorite Sandoval on the bench, moving his pieces every day without regard to feelings or seniority, but only to give his team their best chance to win.  And they were a team.  There was no bruised egos (well, one - but Bengie gets a ring anyway), no public whining, no thoughts of who deserved to be there, only of who was the best available option on any given day.  So Cain pitched at home.  Renteria and Uribe anchored the left side of the infield.  When Burrell HAD to sit, Huff was DH'd and Ishikawa got a rare start at first.

And the Giants played as advertised.  First and foremost, they PITCHED.  Two shutouts, and Game 5 was one mistake from being a third.  It's hard to remember now, but before the season started there was grave concern over the ability of this team to play defense.  Huff would be a disaster at first, Sanchez didn't have enough range at second, Renteria couldn't make the play in the hole anymore.  But the defense in the World Series was stellar.  From Torres and Ross in the outfield to Sanchez and Uribe to Buster Posey gunning down baserunners with nothing short of alacrity, the pitchers were unafraid to challenge the strike zone and put the ball in play.

In the end, it wasn't ever close.  The Rangers depended on their tremendous hitters to win games, and the Giants pitching just shut them down.  Hamilton, Guerrero, Young, great hitters made merely human by even greater pitchers.

On July 6th, one week before the All Star Game, the Giants went to Milwaukee for a three game set.  They were one game over .500, in fourth place in the Division, 7½ games out of first place.  They had just lost a 15 inning heartbreaker in Colorado.  No one was surprised, and when talk turned to potential postseason matchups, the Giants were never mentioned.  A .500 team in the middle of the pack, they had put together a terrific pitching staff and were squandering it with a limp, pathetic offense.  On April 20th, Jonathan Sanchez pitched a one hitter against San Diego and lost.  In May, after a particularly frustrating game in which the Giants lost the lead twice, broadcaster Duane Kuiper deadpanned "Giants Baseball: Torture".  And so it was.

When you hear people speak of "intangibles" and "chemistry" in sports teams, there is no longer any room for argument or debate.  Talent, grit, focus and a little bit of luck make good teams.  What makes them great is a little harder to describe.  The 2002 Giants were the most talented team they had ever put on the field, and they went to the World Series, but they lost.  Those last bits, those final pieces of the puzzle that made the Giants not just better than the Phillies but World Series Champions don't show up in box scores or lineup cards.  But without them, greatness is out of reach.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Dead Dogs

Conventional wisdom is that it's better to have legislators who vote with your caucus occasionally than it is to have legislators who will NEVER vote with your caucus.  And like much of the most conventional of conventional wisdom, this is unarguably true in theory.  The problems arise when you try to translate it into practice.  And in the case of the so-called 'Blue Dogs',  those problems are legion.

The political theory is that the Democrats are a "Big Tent" party, and for Democrats to be elected to Congress in states and districts with less liberal populations, you will naturally end up with less liberal Democrats.  And that not only makes sense, it should allow you to build a larger, more diverse caucus.   But here's the thing.  That -D at the end of your name has to still mean something in the end.  If a representative is so conservative that he or she is effectively part of the opposition, then you are no better off than if he or she has a -R after their name.

A working majority is a valuable opportunity for legislators to implement their agenda, and the agenda of their party (which should be very close to the same).  And all things being equal, a larger majority is better.  But, in the case of the Blue Dog Democrats, all things are most certainly NOT equal.  It's not even that they often vote against their caucus.  One of the advantages of a larger majority is that it can absorb a more significant number of defections.  It is a longstanding political tactic to whip enough votes to pass a bill, and then select those lawmakers for whom the vote would be politically problematic and let them know they can vote no and the bill will still pass.

No, the problem with Blue Dogs is not when they don't support a bill, but rather when they actively undermine the caucus and it's agenda.  When they form alliances with the opposition to water down important legislation, or stand on the Capitol steps in front of the microphones and repeat Republican lies and talking points.  When they siphon off Democratic money and support and then act in ways destructive to the goals and aspirations of their fellows and their leadership.

According to Nate Silver's Projections, the expected House Democratic minority of 203 seats will include just 27 Blue Dogs, representing 13% of the caucus, down from the current 21%.  Now a Republican Majority in a time when bigotry, fear and ignorance is ascendant is by no means to be welcomed, but in general, a smaller but more cohesive and disciplined Democratic caucus would be more desirable than the chaotic and unfocused group we saw in the 111th Congress.

We probably will never be completely rid of the Blue Dogs, but as the American political process evolves towards a more parliamentary system where the parties are unified around both an ideology and an agenda, they will lose their bite and will find it less beneficial to bark.  The goal isn't personal aggrandizement nor is it necessarily even deal making.  The goal is to accomplish something, to define an agenda and find a way to implement it.  And the time for dissension within the ranks of the party is quickly becoming a thing of the past.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Just Mailing it In

Ok, sure.  There's a whole lot we don't know, and a whole bunch more we'll never be told.  But if we are to take this latest "terror" attack at face value, there's a lot that's pretty hard to understand.  As we understand it at this point, explosive devices (that's 'bombs' to you and me, but maybe not to Obama) were sent via UPS from Yemen to targets in the US including a Chicago Synagogue.  Man.  That's a whole lot of lame, right there, in one sad sentence.  Ok, quick disclaimer.  I'm glad the attack was disrupted, and I want these assholes to lose, but as a fan of operational efficiency, I have to give this a D-, where the explosive underpants guy was just an F.

Let's just set aside for a moment the obvious questions one might want to ask about a package sent from Yemen to a Synagogue in Chicago.  I'm pretty sure that's a shipment that was flagged for additional security, and if for some inexplicable reason it was not, it is now.  That, as they sing endlessly in the commercial, is Logistics.  The only advantage that mailing a bomb in a box from Yemen has over a more traditional terrorist attack is that it is safe.  Now, I don't know about you, but when I listen to the American Political Right these terrorists are brilliant, lethal, they can't be bargained with. They can't be reasoned with.  They don't feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And they absolutely will not stop, ever. But safe?  They told me they WANT to die, to die in jihad is something something something.  And, of course, it's all bullshit.

Nobody wants to be caught.  You can convince people to die for your cause, but it's important to remember that most of the 9/11 hijackers had no idea they were on a one way mission.  But its another thing entirely to sit in Yemen and put a ninety dollar bomb on UPS and say, hey, let's see what happens.  That's pathetic.  Dudes.  You'll have to engage America from American soil, and you'll have to be willing to die or spend your life in prison.  But beyond that, the tactics available are obvious.

I'm going to assume two things here.  One, even at this point, they don't have trustworthy operators on US soil, and two, they want to carry out a real attack, not just some symbolic threat.  So, first, getting your operators to US territory.  The one thing the jihadis have, and really, the only thing they need is money.  Money will get them everything else.  Come on, they HAVE to know this, don't they?  Having trouble getting operators on US shores?  The North Koreans will happily make you a Cambodian or Thai or even  Japanese passport for US dollars.  You can buy virtually everything you need IN the US, weapons, ammunition, operational gear, communications gear, surveillance gear.  You can buy Norinco AKs that are not difficult to convert to full auto.  If you need to bring in specialized equipment, pre-built suicide vests, grenades, RPGs, Semtex, detonators, you can easily pay the Mexican cartels to bring it in.  And weapons and explosives are cheap.  If your shipment gets interdicted, hey, it was a cash transaction, just try it again.

If you game it out from the terrorists viewpoint, it's pretty easy to figure out how to approach it.  And there are a million variations, from Canada to Montana transfers to freighters offloading off a deserted Oregon beach.  But they chose, instead, to cross their fingers and ask that eternal question "What can Brown do for you?"  There's really only two possibilities at this point.  Either they are WAY smarter than we think, and they are walking a fine line of keeping the American population fearful without actually DOING something that might invite massive retaliation, or they are just hopeless, so beaten down by years of relentless American violence and vigilance that they just don't have a Plan B.  It's hard to know, but given what we've seen, we have to arrive at two simultaneous conclusions.  One, it's harder to attack America than it looks.  And two, they may not realize how vulnerable we are to a few coordinated, small bore attacks.  As long as they think they have to bring down giant skyscrapers to make a point, we're safer than we think...

We have now been informed that the bomb was built into a small desktop laser printer, with the toner cartridge packed with PETN explosive and wired to a cellular phone.  Now, I have no idea what systems UPS has in place, but you can buy a laser printer in Chicago for less than $100.00.  I can think of NO scenario where it would make any sense to ship one from Yemen to the US.  Shipments like this, that are unreasonable on their face, certainly should require some additional security, it seems to me.

The additional question is why a cell phone detonator instead of just rigging the package to explode when opened?  Wouldn't someone have to be quite nearby to actually observe the delivery in order to time the detonation correctly?  That's got to be extremely difficult to coordinate.