Wednesday, 31 October 2007

Illegal, Unlawful, Illicit

HELP HELP!! ****ILLEGAL**** immigrants are coming! Emphasis on the illegal. We have to insist that people obey our precious LAWS, dontcha see? That’s the mantra you hear from pious ‘moderates’ trying to figure out a way to pile onto attacking Latinos without looking like racists.

Funny how the whole idea that laws exist only pops up in the context of immigration while anywhere else it’s a pansy whine from mushy liberals soft on terrorism. No one gets up in arms when telecom companies illegally wiretap us at Bush’s behest, nor when the Democratic Congress enables them to be forgiven—retroactively, no less! Nor when these same servile hangdogs insisted on taking impeachment ‘off the table’ as soon as they gained control of Congress, despite Bush’s trituration of the Geneva Convention, torture authorizations and phony war.

But when it comes to impoverished Guatemalans risking their butts to cross the desert for the chance to work 14-hour days, suddenly it’s The Law, sancrosanct, the Holy of Holies. You hear this refrain endlessly, and its spouters think they’re so original.

The Constitution in Article II says the president ‘shall take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.’ But the entire history of the last six years has been the utter lawlessness of the Bush regime and their obscene frat-boy delight in it. Bush’s ‘signing statements’ are a public declaration that laws suck and he wipes his ass with them. When he’s caught out again and again, he simply browbeats the execrable congressional copperheads into changing the laws violated, then grants immunity to the guilty and crows about it. This doesn’t outrage the defenders of statutory rectitude; Mexican gardeners do.

Monday, 29 October 2007

Rules and Rulers

If you’re one of those people who thinks the Iraq war isn’t going so well, you might have gone down to one of the demonstrations against it this past Saturday, unfortunately a pale shadow of those mounted at the outset against the whole idea. Wiser heads than mine have discoursed on why that is the case.

For my part, I’m curious about the arguments you hear about what should happen in Iraq next and about what U.S. policy should be. That discussion often presumes that the people in charge of those decisions have some sort of legitimacy, and personally I don’t grant them any. Mind you, I’m not eager to get involved in acts of civil disobedience due to my current state of moral and physical laziness. But given the ongoing complicity of the so-called opposition party and the drumbeats of yet another war against Iran getting a boost from Madame Hillary, I believe the first order of business is to find new ways to challenge the legitimacy of this ruling clique to, well, rule us.

I don’t refer to the ravings of left-wing sects but rather some of the effective undermining of the consent of the governed that occurred during the 1960s and ‘70s and gummed up the gears of the war machine during the Vietnam debacle. It took a variety of forms, cultural, political, practical and unfortunately sometimes criminal as well. But beneath it all was a profound shift in attitudes, a visceral reaction against the dominant class and their logic. If you read the writings from those years by insider commentators like Joseph Kraft or David Broder, you get a sense that this widening split, this crevasse between the governing and the governed, was what finally turned the tide and convinced policymakers that the war couldn’t go on.

We’re still a long way from anything like that Slough of Alienated Despond, which tells me that this war has many more years to run.

Sunday, 28 October 2007

What is Hate?

Twenty-nine-year-old Michael Sandy headed for Plumb Beach one day last October for what he thought was a date along a wooded stretch of the Brooklyn-Queens shoreline (yes, woods in New York). He had hooked up with the guy on the internet, but instead of a walk on the wild side, he was mugged by four men, ran onto the Belt Parkway to get away and was killed by a passing automobile.

Police tracked down the perps, and they were charged with murder as a hate crime, which increases the potential jail terms in case of a conviction. Prosecutors argued that Sandy had been targeted for being gay, a category covered in New York’s hate crime statute. The attackers knew they could prey upon Sandy in a specific way—get him to come to the park alone—and that he might well cover up the crime instead of facing wisecracking police at the station house. The fact that Sandy was black added to the complexity despite or because of the fact that prosecutors never argued that the muggers were racists.

The trial was an extraordinary opportunity to see how the hate-crime phenomenon plays out, and there were surprises as well: one of the defendants said HE was gay too, and brought in ex-lovers as witnesses. So, he argued, whatever crime he committed, it wasn’t based on hate.

In the first case to go to trial, the jurors took their time figuring out what to do with all that, and they came back with a measured decision. They reduced the charge to manslaughter, but affirmed the hate-crime aspect, endorsing the idea that the point was not the defendant’s private sentiments but the act of targeting an individual for what he is.

That strikes me as a new wrinkle in the debate about hate crimes, and it’s worth considering now that nooses are appearing in doorways all over the New York area lately, probably an after-effect of the attention paid to the racist incidents in Jena, Louisiana. Al Sharpton is clamoring for the law to be expanded and toughened, and the situation is troubling enough that the idea deserves a hearing.

It also brings up two other situations to my mind: all the undocumented Hispanic workers being mugged by knowing teenagers, such as the rash of incidents reported in the Washington Post Friday, anecdotes I hear repeated all over the South where I travel for work. Since the Mexican and Central American workers aren’t likely to go the police and can’t get a bank account to deposit their earnings, they’re easily victimized by young thugs. According to the Michael Sandy standard, those are hate crimes and should be prosecuted accordingly. I wonder what Sharpton would have to say about that.

Finally, you can’t live in New York these days without seeing frequent news items about young African-American males shot down by city police officers, on and off duty, under highly suspicious circumstances. Oftentimes, the officers themselves are African-American too, but the effects are pretty much the same: dead, unarmed black men who were minding their own business. Using the Sandy standard, these incidents are arguably hate crimes, given that the perpetrators apparently think the victims are easily targeted as a class.

In any case, something needs to be done to stop this epidemic of official violence, and it would be a strong signal if a hate charge were slapped on one of these trigger-happy cops.

Thursday, 25 October 2007

Who Slew Whom?

Twilight Highlights: Oklahoma state lawmaker Rex Duncan wins our Biped of the Week award for hastening the Twilight hither one giant step. He returned a Koran to the Governor’s Ethnic American Adivsory Council because the Muslim holy book condones the killing of innocent people. Dastardly. Regrettably, Mr Duncan is not acquainted with the Holy Bible, which exhorts Joshua in the eponymous Book (6:21) to ‘destroy with the sword every living thing in [Jericho]—men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys as God had ordered them, so the false gods will not be adored among them because the gentile women will induce the Israelites to adore false gods’. Those gentile women, what can you expect? Never happy unless they're off inducing. Anyway, no false gods here, nosiree! Just a normal manifestation of biped genius.

Wednesday, 24 October 2007

Smithereens (Updated)

What sort of individual could place bombs in places likely to go off and blow defenseless civilians to bits? What perverse, medieval fanatic with utter disregard for human life could harbor such vile sentiments?

Of course, bombs can be placed on a suicide belt, secreted under the bar in caf├ęs Battle-of-Algiers style, wired to the pillars of a building—or dropped from airplanes. They tend to have rather the same effect in any case, throwing bits of metal in every direction, collapsing structures, blowing out eyes and ears with their shock waves, burying the innocent, often alive, under tons of concrete and steel.

If one places a bomb on one’s person, there is probably a fairly clear radius of those likely to be destroyed by it. Leaving it in a public place and hurrying away is less precise and, one could argue, somewhat more cowardly if there can be a hierarchy of such things. But dropping a bomb from a mile high is undoubtedly the least careful procedure in terms of directing the intended terror toward a given target and therefore the most morally troubling as one can merely fly away from the aftermath without a glance.

How curious that our entire society shrinks back in horror at the idea of rushing toward other human beings with a bomb strapped to one’s waist yet barely registers the impact of ordnance delivered from above. No doubt we identify with those airborne due to the relative impunity of the American territory, whose citizens are unfamiliar with the flights of enemy aircraft overhead. Conversely, our own military force is projected most effectively and consistently through domination of the skies, so we are infrequently called upon to wonder what is must be like to have lethal projectiles rain down upon us.

This is not the case for many of the world’s peoples—no need to be tedious and list them. But one would think that a man responsible for having dropped bombs on civilian populations, for whatever laudable and applaudable reasons, would have some sense of awe and reserve over the terrible impact of his actions. Americans aren’t much for totting up the numbers of foreigners slain in wars of our doing, but they’re just as dead all the same.

However, there is a layer of moral vacuity that defies labeling involved in laughing at those you have killed in war, especially when they have not donned the enemy uniform. That is what makes John McCain’s preening performance at the Republican ‘values voters’ debate—scorning the Woodstock memorial while boasting of his days as a bomber pilot—such a monstrosity, coming after his jokey warbling of ‘Bomb Iran’ to the tune of an old Beach Boys number. The value-laden faithful thereupon rose to their feet and roared their approval of a perverse, medieval fanatic with utter disregard for human life—not to be harsh.

Not incidentally, it turns out that air strikes in Iraq are up, including those called in to support troop movements on the ground. Aerial bombardment of a city that one already occupies militarily turns out to be a violation of human rights law as it inevitably maims and kills civilians—not that Mr McCain cares about that or them.

I often fantasize about how people would react if foreign pilots destroyed Pittsburgh and left ten thousand people dead. I don’t think we’d need Dick Cheney to propose waterboarding those whom we managed to shoot down. McCain is lucky to be alive, but after seven decades on the planet, he’s remains devoid of human empathy. Do we want a ruthless killer to lead us? I don't.

Twilight Highlights: Chris Dodd's spirited albeit perhaps opportunistic defense of the Fourth Amendment and the rule of law is highlighting by contrast the weasely positions of the major Dem candidates. Glenn Greenwald exposes them so thoroughly that I have nothing to add. Don't miss.

Tuesday, 23 October 2007

Grovel Pit

What a contrast between the Republican candidates groveling before the organized social-issues conservatives Sunday night and the complete reversal of roles among Democrats where the base is expected to grovel before the politicians. While the Republicans have to justify themselves and defend their career compromises before a knowledgeable, stiff-necked and exacting crowd of anti-evolutionists, we in the reality-based camp have to defend our lack of enthusiasm about another decade of Clintonoid triangulation.

I’m already bored with all the arguments about why we should not expect more of Hillary or the rest of the candidate pack, not demand that they put an end to torture, nor go to bat for the separation of powers nor even cynically promise to restore our civil liberties. The reasoning follows just a few, endlessly repeated mantras, which I will intone below:

One: The Republicans are an imminent danger to the republic, so we must stop demanding a fabulous or perfect candidate (note the straw man) and settle on a middle-of-the-road moderate who can actually win. For example, Jimmy Carter in 1980, Michael Dukakis in 1988 and John Kerry in 2000. These are appealing, safe, centrist candidates, albeit a little bland, and even if they lose, they’ll leave a powerful movement for change behind them ready to sweep into power later.

Good thing we listened to that wise counsel—otherwise, we might have been saddled with Ronald Reagan, George Bush and George W Bush respectively. And we might also have ended up with a weak Democratic opposition that could never have mounted the effective challenge we’ve just witnessed to two decades of right-wing social, cultural and political trends. Whew, that was close!

Two: Hillary has to sound tough on Iraq because she’s vulnerable as a female and has to run to her right to neturalize the yahoo Nascarites, nervous Jews and confused suburbanites buying duct tape. Although the Iraq war is a disaster, she shouldn’t be faulted for voting to authorize it because she had to shore up her conservative New York base. And she HAD to vote to rattle sabres at Iran for the same reason. We can’t indulge ourselves and be one-issue voters because that would play into Republican hands.

Three: We need Clinton in office to protect the Supreme Court. Without a Democratic majority we might have ended up with a reactionary court majority eager to dismantle judicial review of the Unitary Executive. Lucky for us that didn’t happen!

And so on. Where the right wing has a social movement with organizations, resources, strategy and troops, the amorphous liberals rely on—the Democrats. Instead of demanding that Democrat potentials meet us on our terms, we’re browbeaten into accepting theirs, based on flimsy promises that they’ll do the right thing later. Given the vast evidence that they won’t, these tails attached to the Democratic Party’s rear end are just as faith-based as the Dobson-Robertson gargoyles.

The irony is that I hardly disagree with the proposed tactics nor with the world-class disaster posed by the Republican machine. I’ll probably do what’s necessary when and if the time comes to choose between the two horrors. But the furious reaction I get when expressing distaste for these sound-bitten, fleabag politicians is highly suspect. It suggests to me that the same things many of the Bush-hating Democrats are so up in arms about now won’t bother them much when done by a certain lady in the Oval Office.

[Update: I wrote that last night, and lo and behold read the following in New York magazine two hours later: “Far from Bush’s policies being repudiated in a Clinton presidency, they might in fact be continued with a different paint job.” –John Podhoretz, neocon extraordinaire and the new editor of Commentary.]

Monday, 22 October 2007

The Four Horsemen Chase the Cash

My friends at Off the Bus, which covers the campaign for the Huffington Post, asked me to jump in on a juicy story about the aftermath of the no-show debate at Morgan State. (Mentioned on this site Sept 29, which includes a link to that story on Huffington.) You will recall that the four top Republican contenders didn't show up at that historically black college to address minority issues because they had 'scheduling problems.'

Turns out they were busy raising cash from a host of the usual suspects, including a company accused that same week of redlining, i.e. racial discrimination. Check it all out here, and note that the cynical irony is getting a strong push from the Huffingtonoids.

Saturday, 20 October 2007

Holocaustics (bis)

It just gets better and better. Recall the very recent, very public rending of garments sustained in New York over the visit of Iranian president Ahmadinejad who questions the historical accuracy of the Nazi holocaust. Fine, well and good, he deserves it.

Now let’s move over to the Turkish slaughter of 1.5 million Armenians. The Turks have always denied it, and their intellectual thugs, like the Auschwitz deniers, call for endless scholarly commissions to reexamine the evidence as if there were doubts.

Among the latter—Abraham Foxman, national director of the Anti-Defamation League, i.e. Holocaust Central.

This can be explained (although not explained away) by the fact that Turkey is a key ally of Israel and has made it clear there will be reprisals if the U.S. Congress passes a pending resolution declaring the Armenian killings a genocide. The resolution sponsored by paragons of ethical probity in our national legislature is wobbling severely as a result of Turkish pressure (some of which has been generated by disgraced ex-Congressman Livingstone who now earns millions peddling holocaust-denial).

After reading a full piece on the controversy in Friday’s Times, one can hardly escape the conclusion that genocide memorials are today a political tool to be trotted out when they are convenient and buried, excuse the expression, when they are not.

It’s no revelation that anti-Semitism, for the zionist camp, can be reduced essentially to hostility to the state of Israel. Anyone who slavishly adheres to the zigs and zags of Israeli interests and policy cannot by definition be an anti-Semite even if he is standing by to applaud the annihilation of any Jew who refuses to convert to Christianity at the time of the Rapture.

This suspension of all critical thought about a given nation because one considers it the beacon of hope for the future of mankind, or at least a portion of it, has an eerie parallel: the blind allegiance toward the Soviet Union required of the international communist movement during most of the 20th century. The iron discipline imposed on European CPs and sympathetic radicals provided a certain potency, but by shifting their focus to a foreign capital, they paid a heavy price.

Friday, 19 October 2007

Payoff

Iraq is in chaos, but what if the ultimate goal of the conquest isn’t stability at all? The provocative London Review of Books has a short article by Jim Holt suggesting that the U.S. could be quite content to let most of what’s left of the country continue to slide towards hell in a handbasket as long as enough territory can be secured to permit oil drilling and exploitation.

Under this line of thinking, the vast untapped and unexplored oil reserves lying under the Iraqi desert more than justify a continued occupation especially if U.S. forces can be reduced substantially and casualties minimized by essentially giving up on the place. Under this approach, the U.S. lets the three main ethnic factions go their respective ways, and signs oil deals where necessary with willing partners, which won’t be in short supply given the staggering opportunities for bribes and kickbacks. The control of Iraqi oil would shift the geopolitical balance of power significantly by enabling American overlords to dictate the price of oil on the world market, bypassing the Saudis and keeping the oil-dependent Chinese on a short leash as well.

This makes eerie sense if you take Bush’s repeated references to the 60-year U.S. military presence on the Korean peninsula. Furthermore, it’s exactly the kind of halfway solution that would fit into a new Democrat-led administration. Madame Hillary would be more than comfortable defending a low-intensity war there and finding convincing justifications, starting with keeping her constituents happy at the pump.

Two other bits of evidence support this analysis: Greenspan, aka Our Lord, blurted out an inconvenient truth the other day when he said the war in Iraq was always about oil (he admitted to being embarrassed by that fact although I can’t imagine why). And then there was the fierce battle, successful so far, to keeping the deliberations of the Cheney commission on energy policy secret seven years after the fact? Did they include a plan for conquest?

I have great faith that the great majority of Americans will forgive all and abandon their opposition to the war if it leads to cheap gasoline flowing lovingly and forever into their tanks. Now there’s a chilling thought—Bush proved right.

Wednesday, 17 October 2007

Sin

I’m reading a biography of Mae West along with the new book about the murder of Bishop Gerardi in Guatemala, which feels like just about the right mix for keeping sane. West was a Brooklyn girl and a product of the burlesque/vaudeville circuits that pre-dated movies and television, and the ambience described in the book feels closer to theatre in ancient Greece than our aloof electronic entertainment. But the tales of how she clawed her way to stardom are quite contemporary.

It’s curious to watch how she toyed with sexual innuendo and conquest in her roles and her public image, stirring both amused fascination and outrage. Although her movie career was pretty much crushed by the Hayes Code and the moralistic counter-Reformation that cooled Hollywood’s jets during the Depression and war years, West must have struck a deep chord among women finding their way into the working world and trying on new ideas about what women could be and do.

West was no avant-feminist because her only real cause was herself and her career. But she seems to have been quite genuine in expressing her puzzlement over all the fuss made about what people do in bed. Too bad she couldn’t take enough amused distance from her camp self to accept the role of Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard (which was offered to her). Imagine West behind the line, ‘I’m still big—it’s the movies that have gotten small!’

The book is entitled, It Ain’t No Sin. Speaking of which, Bishop Gerardi was the moving spirit behind the report on Guatemala’s 40-year nightmare of war and the human rights abuses committed therein, including massacres of whole villages by the Guatemalan armed forces. He was murdered in his garage two days after the report came out, and it’s no accident that Guatemala continues to occupy a lower circle of hell while many other Latin countries have clambered away from impunity toward some semblance of civilized politics. The Art of Political Murder by Francisco Goldman is part detective story, part lament for the capacity of a vicious elite to keep itself in power pretty much forever.

I wonder when the slaughter of 200 thousand Mayan villagers will merit a solemn pronouncement from Capitol Hill, busy denouncing what the Germans did in Europe or the Turks did in Asia. Not likely to happen any time soon since they’d have to explain Saint Ronald's support for one of its principal architects as just a regular guy ‘getting a bum rap.’

[Update] I wrote that last night, and lo and behold today’s paper says the House of Representatives is getting cold feet on denouncing Turkish genocide after all since the plans for conquest in Iraq come first. Isn’t that special?

Monday, 15 October 2007

Holocaustics

Just days after the great gnashing of teeth over Ahmadenijad-the-Holocaust-denier, complete with dramatic mugging for the cameras by Bush, rabbis in Brooklyn and the president of Columbia, now we have half of Washington trying desperately to figure out a way to keep discussion of the mass slaughter of Armenians away from the dinner table. Since it was our allies the Turks who massacred them, we’re not to discuss that.

Our valiant Congress chose this time to declare itself against the murder of thousands of people 90 years ago in lieu of doing anything about the thousands it’s responsible for killing in the last four. A Turk sitting behind me in a movie theatre Saturday said it was because Nancy Pelosi has Armenians in her district, which sounds about right for this sorry band of moral pygmies.

The timing has created a problem for the Bush warmaking strategy in Iraq, and for that reason alone I applaud Congress in all its glorious opportunism. The Turks don’t like to have that particular mirror held up to them and are threatening to stop cooperating and force the U.S. military to fall back on support from coalition members like Azerbaijan, Estonia and Bosnia-Herzegovina.

Meanwhile, did anyone notice the public tongue-lashing Putin gave Condoleeza Rice and Pentagon chief Gates at their little confab last week? Putin kept them waiting at the door, then lit into U.S. plans for missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. All Rice’s stunned press people could say later was, He has a really nice personality in private. It’s a sign of the steady collapse of U.S. power and influence that Bush’s envoys can be stiffed and humiliated with such impunity.

For the record, the Ottoman Turks slaughtered over a million Armenians just as their empire was being crushed during World War I. The Turks’ efficiency in transporting the victims in railway cars was observed by German military officers posted to the region, who made note of the technique and, need I add, used it later. The Turkish state and fascist nationalists refuse to acknowledge this history, and I think it’s great when it gets thrown in their faces. That said, the U.S. congressional action is still pathetic. Stop funding today’s slaughter, THEN pass pious resolutions about other people’s crimes.

Saturday, 13 October 2007

Warm me, globally

Good for you, Al.

Now before anyone takes the piss out of me for churlishness, let me rise in my own defense and say that 90% of the following was written last week. I already hadn’t been reading any of the latest news about global warming when the news broke that Gore had won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work on the topic. Not from indifference but because I’m waiting for someone to take us to the next chapter, beyond feeling really bad about it.

So far, I don’t see a coherent political action program, and I wonder if the prize, instead of focusing on that thorny question, will only reinforce the sense that things are now okay, or will be soon.

Sure, there are solemn recommendations from think tanks and experts, but they sound like the liturgy from a church service (‘Blessed art thou who purchaseth a flourescent bulb. . .’) Does anyone really believe that our society is going to undergo the sort of radical transformation in consumption that the diagnoses point to?

There’s a peculiarly American habit of associating the identification of a problem with its solution, as if naming the evil somehow casts it out. Our sunny pragmatism is most on display in the televised confessional industry in which people face the Awful Truth as a valiant step on the road to Healing.

Whether this rump psychiatry actually works is highly debatable, of course, but it is clearly a failure when applied to public policy. It’s not enough just to FEEL really bad about global warming.

I trace this habit of mind in the political realm to the Saint Ronald years, in which ‘feeling good about America’ was our top priority. We were coached full-time to think that our feelings were so important that they could overpower, if not replace, disagreeable external realities. The Bush gang is only the reification of that principle taken to absurd heights, and the Bushites themselves a veritable pageant of rich-kid self-reference.

As a Washington reporter I witnessed Reagan’s handlers sacrifice 25 years in responding to global warming with the cynical and opportunist position that the phenomenon needed further study, even though the science was compelling even in 1980. But habitat-destruction didn’t fit into ‘feeling good.’

Now we’re reacting to those Pollyanna years by feeling bad. But Al Gore the prophet can tell us a whole lot of things that Al Gore the president wouldn’t have dared, which tells me that the future of this topic is far more likely to be more schlumping along with a lot of crisis alerts that lead nowhere, Nobel prizes notwithstanding. We bipeds need a catastrophe of mammoth proportions to wean us off SUVs, fossil fuels and plastic Tide containers.

I hope I’m wrong, but I suspect that as long as Oprah feels our globally-warmed pain, that’s going to be pretty much enough for now.

Thursday, 11 October 2007

Out of town

I'm away from home for three days, so hope to have a lot to comment on when I get back. Bye for now.

Tuesday, 9 October 2007

Yankees Lose

I’m not sad to see the Yankees gazillion-dollar baseball team head for the showers though most of my neighbors are, another example of the irrationality that surrounds spectator sports. What those pampered millionaires have to do with the community spirit that makes you want to root for the home team is beyond me. But people think that because they play their home games in the Bronx, that makes them family, sort of like my feelings of kinship with people whose post office box numbers are similar to mine.

I actually enjoy the game of baseball because I once played it (badly), know the rules and can get caught up in the unfolding contest along with all the sub-narratives. But the last time I went to see a game at Yankee Stadium, owner Steinbrenner made us all stand up for the national anthem at the seventh-inning stretch, ‘to support our troops fighting for freedom in Iraq.’ I don’t see it quite that way, but freedom of opinion wasn’t one of the values on display that night on the diamond or up in the stands either.

There is always baseball down in Inwood Hill Park out my back door, and some of them are organized teams with uniforms and girlfriends sitting behind the chicken wire, plenty of illicit beer drinking and platoons of little kids running around one of the greenest corners of Manhattan adjacent to a nature preserve. If I knew any of the guys, I’d probably be moved to go see their moments of glory and disappointment. But the Yankees? Who dey?

Monday, 8 October 2007

If patient weakens, increase dosage

The business pages continue to fascinate these days. Credit is back in style scarcely a month after the ‘perfect storm’ August meltdown that reestablished the law of gravity in the housing finance market. It’s amazing that the financial world can adjust to these disturbing developments with such aplomb and find a spin that suits their interests, like the way Bush regularly discovers ‘progress’ in Iraq.

The money shovelers cried for relief from the Fed a few weeks ago when a flood of bad loan packages jerryrigged out of stacks of bad mortgages threatened to unleash panic selling. And the Fed obliged in September with a big rate cut to bail out the financiers.

But lo and behold, things now are worse than ever for the average Joe. After dipping into their inflated housing values with equity loans, Friday’s figures show that consumers now are turning back to their credit cards of all things—just the kind of hara-kiri move the financial counselors tell you to avoid.

If I read these stories right, people who used to get home equity cash at 8 or 9% are instead using credit card debt for which they’ll pay 18 or 20% or more, not to mention late fees and penalties, thus improving their chances of slipping down the hidey-hole of insolvency.

So two months after the recent crunch, the average household budget is more leveraged than ever, and the full ripple effects of the home-building collapse haven’t yet kicked in. I can’t make sense of the statistics, but there’s something disturbing about the way our entire economic edifice is built upon this mountain of greater and greater debt, especially given its very recent totters.

Or as George Bush would say, Well, that failed. Let's try it again!

Sunday, 7 October 2007

God Paints

Just as we’re getting yet another confirmation that the United States of America tortures defenseless prisoners comes the news that the entire family of one Augusto Pinochet has been rounded up and indicted for corruption.

This juxtaposition of events is too aesthetically satisfying to be entirely coincidental. Sometimes God paints with a marvelous palette.

Pinochet’s fans among the rich and privileged in Chile never really minded that he and his goons had women raped by trained dogs or threw their half-alive torture victims out of helicopters. But when it was revealed that he was also stealing THEIR money, that was too much. Now it turns out his wife, children, other relatives and top retainers were all in on it as well—not that that should surprise anyone.

During the Pinochet years any thought of accountability for the secret police terror apparatus seemed so unlikely as to be surreal given its origins in the Chilean army. The courts were corrupted and intimidated, and public opinion divided, not that it mattered much for the first decade or so.

Of course, the information was there all along, just as it is here, but the propaganda machine cranked out disinformation just clever enough to allow the regime’s supporters to pretend it wasn’t happening and the apolitical to ignore it.

But all the justifications, policy twists, spinmeistering, cover-ups, clandestine operations, secret dungeons, hiding of remains, the whole structure typical of authoritarian regimes including, yes, anti-terrorism campaigns—none of it was enough to stave off judgment day for these low-lifes. They seem invincible at first, but the moral rot at the center cannot be halted. It spreads and oozes outward bit by bit until the stench is overpowering, like the smell of cadavers dumped in a cellar.

Twenty years later the parade of former thugs and goons including their notorious chief, lower-ranking assassins and torturers, their superiors, the superiors of their superiors and at long last Pinochet himself faced the black robes, many of them going off to jail. They never believed it could happen to them. But they were wrong.

The faux shock from the Democrats at the latest revelations about torture U.S.A.-style is part of a familiar minuet as well, as if anyone not on life support could doubt what has been going on since the ‘War of Terror’ was announced. Pat Leahy and Senator Rockefeller can be shocked! shocked! to hear of secret memoranda if they like. But if this president hasn’t been trumpeting from the White House roof that he’ll ignore any laws dealing with treatment of prisoners since Day One, then I need to relearn English.

I may not live long enough to see it, but I have no doubt that if the biped race survives, the morally depraved perpetrators and enablers of the Bush regime will also face the music for their multiple crimes.

Patience.

Thursday, 4 October 2007

Explain to me high finance

It’s a little early for Christmas, but Wall Street is hymning ‘Joy to the World’ just a month after the sudden meltdown that the smart guys said no one could possibly have seen coming while losing tons of our hard-earned money. Bells are ringing, cash is flowing, the Fed is doing what it’s told, and all’s right with the world.

Except.

‘The housing bubble has burst, prices are going to collapse, and sales are going to fall through the floor.’ That’s a housing economist quoted by AP Tuesday as the Dow average was floating back above the 14,000 mark.

Now, explain to me how stocks can be climbing toward Everest while one of the most important industries in our consumer-dependent economy is tanking. Every single statistic coming out these days dealing with mortgages, housing prices, new home sales, existing home sales and the like repeats the same litany: buyers have disappeared, and those few who could buy and want to can’t get financing.

The goofball securitization process by which worthless mortgages got pretty bows tied onto them and resold as arcane investment vehicles blew a massive, gaping hole into the whole system. But now it’s all fixed—except that it isn’t. Nonetheless, all the geniuses are swooping back into stocks.

These are the same geniuses who didn’t see the August double hurricane coming and lost a bundle. But now they’ve got it right. Right?

Wednesday, 3 October 2007

Faludi/McCandless

Susan Faludi has a new book coming out, and I want to read it just from the anecdote she told the Times in an interview last week. Faludi won a Pulitzer for her book on the backlash against the women’s movement and followed it with ‘Stiffed,’ about how our society pulls the rug out from under men, too.

After the 9/11 attacks a reporter called Faludi to get a response and at one point said to her gleefully, Well, this pushes feminism off the map, doesn’t it? She was so dumbfounded that she dropped her current project and started researching this new book.

Faludi is definitely onto something.

It’s an ongoing mystery to me how anyone can take seriously the transparent tough-guy posturing by the chicken hawks that has led our sorry world into its present disaster. But there must be a strong appeal in it and one that doesn’t have to be based on anything real (such as military service, for example). The remark Faludi cites suggests that it’s not this or that policy people are responding to, it’s the whole hip-hop posture, the revenge mode, the need to show ‘them’ that we’re not lying down and taking it like any wuss.

You heard the same sentiments after 9/11 in a more buttoned-down version from the commentators like Armitrage and Kissinger, too, as if the entire foreign policy establishment decided to appear at the UN covered in bling. At least now we know what has been happening to us all these years—testosterone poisoning. Is there an antidote?

***

Into the Wild

The strange story of Christopher McCandless that appeared in the New Yorker years ago always stuck in my mind, so I was very curious about the film made out of the Jon Krakauer book. It’s long and taxing—and a marvel. I was mostly paying attention to the way the young protagonist, rejecting society and his own family, took chance after chance on the road and kept pulling them off, sometimes brilliantly. Then about halfway through I realized that as a piece of visual art the film was doing the same thing.

Throughout his picaresque journey McCandless stirred affection and love in people, then left them and pushed himself on to more and more extreme situations. The film offers some partial explanation but wisely pulls back and leaves him and his choices in the realm of human mystery.

The only missing piece, to my mind, was any attempt to examine his sense of masculinity. I say this as someone who also wondered what it meant to be a man at about the same age and exposed myself to dangers as a test. Was there something in his make-up that told him he didn’t measure up? Was that part of the foolhardy tempting of the wilderness that ended his life?

Tuesday, 2 October 2007

And did that dream frighten you, Mr Bolton?

Can these guys hear themselves? Do they see themselves on TV afterward and cringe? Apparently not. The exaggerated way the powermonger boys strut their macho stuff would embarrass a Panamanian boxing champion.

For example, former US Enforcer to the United Nations John Bolton recently called for whacking Iran because Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is ‘pushing out’.

We wouldn’t want one of our rival males to successfully ‘push out’, now would we?

Back in the Reagan days we used to go to Capitol Hill to cover Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger sounding regular alarms about the Soviet intentions in Afghanistan. Weinberger actually once spent a whole morning testifying to a committee there about the ‘Soviet thrusting movements’ in the Persian Gulf. We were in the back howling, but apparently no one else even got the joke.

Bolton said Ahmadinejad is ‘not receiving adequate push-back’ from the West. Does that sound like a plea for marriage counseling to anyone?

Larry Craig, don’t leave us!