Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Descent into the mire

The grotesque utilization of race in the Illinois pay-to-play scandal is the perfect counterpoint to Obama’s election triumph as the most competent candidate who happened to be black. Still-Governor Rod ‘Big Hair’ Blagojevich was crafty in naming another African-American to the Obama seat, but if we were really in a post-racial period, Roland Burris would be getting creamed for accepting the tainted post.

Instead, we get Congressman Bobby Rush’s pathetic call to avoid ‘hanging’ or ‘lynching’ Burris, which in this case means giving Burris a free pass to the Senate after the Hair’s shocking attempt to sell the seat to the highest bidder. A white appointee wouldn’t have the luxury.

The last time I heard about ‘lynching’ was when Bush the First appointed a totally incompetent African-American bureaucrat to the Supreme Court in a breathtaking display of racial tokenism that a large portion of the black political establishment accepted. As a result of the Clarence Thomas aberration, we have had two decades of increasingly reactionary decisions including the most notorious one that put Bush the Second in the White House. A pretty high price to pay for going along with a guy whose skin was the right color.

None of which means racism has suddenly disappeared or that an individual’s ethnic origins shouldn’t be taken into account. But I see no reason to lay off of Burris for being a willing participant in this sleaze. The guy should be a public pariah—all residents of Illinois, of all races, deserve better.

Monday, 29 December 2008

Barbarian chic

I thought it was a joke that New Republic editor Marty Peretz had headlined his discussion of the Gaza attacks ‘Do Not F*ck with the Jews’. But it’s true, you can read the headline on their website. Not ‘the Israelis’ or ‘the Israeli military’, but ‘the Jews’.

You’d think someone concerned about anti-Semitism would exercise a little caution before saddling an entire religion with responsibility for any government’s war-making activities. After all, if it’s ‘the Jews’ who are carrying out the attack, doesn’t that make them a target?

So if Christian America invades Iraq, should Iraqi Christians take credit? Are they automatically co-authors of the act because they believe in the virgin birth? Should they be considered soldiers at war (to be shot at)? How about Christians in Nebraska?

If individuals from one group of Muslims (‘Do not F*ck with the Sunnis!’) destroys a mosque or a shrine, can death squads from another group properly slaughter their co-religionists if they shout, ‘Do not F*ck with the Shi’ites!’?

Perhaps we should reexamine the Rwandan genocide (‘Do not F*ck with the Hutus!’)

The Ninth Crusade ended in 1272—we’re about due for a new one!

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Waltz with oneself

I suppose it’s a positive step that Israeli war veterans are engaging in the sort of soul-searching reflected in ‘Waltz with Bashir’, the just-released animated documentary about the 1982 invasion of Lebanon that culminated in the Sabra and Shatila massacre. The film portrays haunted ex-soldiers wondering what happened to them when they were sent as fresh-faced teens to conquer their northern neighbor with the intention of putting a final end to cross-border attacks from the Palestinian militants.

Three decades later that doesn’t look like a successful strategy, but the film doesn’t grapple with the whys and wherefores of the invasion, just the impact on these stunned Israeli youngsters who find themselves under fire, then suddenly back in Tel Aviv discos looking for their girlfriends.

The war stories are interesting, and the lead-up to the Phalangist slaughter is illuminating—but only partially. Although the documentary shows how Israel’s military command didn’t respond to early reports that Christian militamen were gunning down everyone in sight, there’s no attempt to probe the decision to let them in there in the first place.

Given the well-known hatreds that had built up over years of civil war in Lebanon, the likelihood of atrocities occurring when the Christian gunmen were given free rein in PLO strongholds was enormous. The film takes the recruit’s perspective, in which the crime appears at first as an unintended consequence, an error of judgment. The filmmakers draw an eerie parallel with what is occurring inside ‘the camps’ and the Poles’ serene indifference to events inside those other ‘camps’ where Whocouldanode? remains the standard reply to this day (as I personally witnessed during a visit to Auschwitz in 1994).

It is unnerving to watch this sad and thoughtful film 24 hours after the Israelis have killed several hundred Palestinian civilians once again, this time in Gaza. Ehud Olmert, the outgoing Prime Minister, gave the order, just weeks after his own sad, thoughtful comments were published in the New York Review of Books, in which he calls for ‘some soul-searching on behalf of the nation of Israel.’ Olmert said in the interview that Israel should negotiate seriously, avoid further wars and try to come up with a satisfactory agreement on border issues and the control of Jerusalem.

That ‘soul-searching’ didn’t stop him from sending in the warplanes to bomb Gazan refugees after cutting off their food for months. Olmert argued that Israel couldn’t tolerate mortar shells falling into its territory from Gaza, and given the exclusive focus of ‘Waltz with Bashir’ on the conquerors’ viewpoint, one can easily see how most of the Israeli public will be nodding in agreement, whether they are sad or gleeful about the Palestinian casualties.

There is something disturbingly narcissistic about the film’s gaze on the murdered women and children in the camps as the black-and-white animated figures give way to actual color footage from the immediate aftermath. The camera lingers on the dead in ways that their surviving relatives might find offensive, but the story being told is not about dead Palestinians. It’s about the sorrow of the victors at finding themselves complicit in a war crime. Alive or dead, the Lebanese and Palestinians are mere silhouettes, silent screens upon which the Israeli psychodrama plays itself out.

But like the more recent crimes committed in the name of fighting terrorism, there is an obvious implicit answer to the Israeli soldiers’ trauma: that war is hell, but necessary for survival. One can search one’s soul and keep right on firing. ‘Waltz with Bashir’ reflects that settler consensus with perfect unconsciousness, even in its title. It attempts to find a humanistic way through the minefield of war and atrocity and is shocked by the dance that results. But it never overcomes or even notices the underlying invisibility of the colonized.

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Comfort from the thought police

The lead sentences in the stories about Israel’s attack on the densely-populated Gaza Strip consistently use the trope of ‘retaliation’ and military justification.

AP: ‘Israeli warplanes retaliating for rocket fire from the Gaza Strip pounded. . . ’

The Washington Post: ‘Israeli Warplanes Target Hamas Compounds’.

The Guardian: ‘Scores dead or wounded after missiles hit targets linked to Hamas’

Even the Huffington Post headline echoed this concept: ‘Airstrikes in Response to Recent Rocket Fire’.

None of the headlines provide the perspective from below of the carnage or recall that the civilians on the receiving end of this aerial nightmare aren’t allowed to leave. You won’t see the word ‘trapped’ or ‘slaughter’ in any of the opening paragraphs.

No matter how many defenseless Palestinian civilians are in the line of fire, Israel must always be shown as the beleaguered victim ‘fighting back’. Our papers’ editors never question the contradiction between describing the targeting of densely-populated Gaza with warplanes with terms that suggest legitimate self-defense while never failing to call Hamas ‘terrorists’ when their rockets are aimed at civilian zones.

Friday, 26 December 2008

Brilliant or dastardly?

Satanic homosexual icon
or pretty butterfly?


Several people have flattered me by asking my opinion on Barack Obama’s decision to invite preacher Rick Warren to invoke the evangelicals’ God at the inauguration. The many interesting anecdotes, comments and other reports about this move form part of an evolving response and an evolving situation.

I turned eagerly to read what Paul Schindler, editor of the consistently excellent Gay City News, had to say about it in this week’s issue. Schindler, a well-informed, thoughtful and nuanced voice, wrote a lengthy, front-page news story about it, recording the various statements and positions staked out so far.

Schindler includes an illuminating anecdote from an LGBT outfit called Soulforce, which tried to reach out to Warren’s Saddleback Church in 2008 to discuss family issues. [Check out the details here.] The clear impression from that story is that while Warren started out willing to engage in discussion, he soon backed off when the political/media fallout of the encounter became uncertain and later was extremely careful about managing and controlling the message. This is consistent with a modern religious entrepreneur who is perhaps more eager to play the political game than to engage in meaningful dialogue with his adversaries.

Of course, we’re now expected to meaningfully dialogue with Warren, so it will be interesting to see if that is possible or if he’s a close-minded bigot. Several observers have noted that Warren has backpedaled on some of his most egregious statements and that his website took down an offensive text stating that gays would be unwelcome at Saddleback.

Curiously, Schindler, who normally publishes a signed editorial on the burning issue of the week, is silent. That suggests he’s taking a wait-and-see attitude, which strikes me as exactly the right response for now. Negotiations are a tricky thing, and Obama could find himself outsmarted and exploited by Warren for narrow purposes. On the other hand, Warren is taking a big risk in the Bible-thumping camp by joining forces with the Antichrist baby-slaughterer.

In any case, we are probably seeing a prelude to how Obama plans to govern, pulling in potential adversaries and seeing if they can offer partial support for his program. Given that every time in the past two years that I have said he was going about things all wrong, he turned out to be right, modesty thus requires me to maintain an open mind and wait to see the results.

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Law and Order (not a TV show)

It’s hard to know what to think about Lillo Brancato’s success in beating a murder rap for his nocturnal criminal activities of 2006. The ex-Sopranos actor [left] is obviously wealthy enough to get top-notch lawyers, and they did a good job of convincing the jury that he might not have known his trigger-happy co-burglar was packing. (The accomplice was found guilty of the shooting, which killed an off-duty cop [right].)

On the one hand, it’s ironic to hear Patrick Lynch, the racist head of the cops union (who just called another defendant a ‘mongrel’), denounce criminals who get off because they have powerful friends—as if that doesn’t define New York cops themselves who often get away with murder while Lynch cheers from the sidelines.

Brancato did well in an extremely tight spot, and maybe it was his showbiz glitter or some fancy connections. Or maybe the jury just decided that although the kid might be a druggie, spoiled as shit and dumb as a turnip, he wasn’t a killer—not yet, anyway. The two bozos apparently were breaking into an apartment of someone they knew, and Brancato’s bud was the one carrying the piece and shooting it. So they gave him the benefit of the doubt. It’s a stretch, but I guess I do too.

Monday, 22 December 2008

Feeding at the slops trough

This one is rich: turns out that a federal bank examiner from an entity called the ‘Office of Thrift Supervision’—is this from a Dickens novel or The Washington Post?—conspired last May with the failed IndyMac Bank to falsify its financial records. No surprise there, the fox guarding the chicken coop as usual.

[FDIC and OTS officials happily chainsaw oversight regulations with three top banker lobbyists--this is not a joke! They were boasting about it--see names of the guilty below]

But it gets better: the now-fired examiner, one Darrel Dochow, who incidentally also watched carefully over the books of Washington Mutual, Countrywide and Downey Savings & Loan as they spectacularly tanked, was still a thriving OTS bureaucrat after an equally brilliant earlier performance. Dochow was found to have ‘delayed and impeded proper regulation’ in the notorious Keating S&L scandal of the 1980s and ‘90s, the same one John McCain distinguished himself in.

So this genius Dochow was paid $230,000 a year to supervise banks after having proven himself totally incompetent at it. I guess that would be called ‘personal responsibility’ in the current lexicon.

In any case he got the message and oiled the regulatory wheels once again so that a bank could make off with billions of other people’s money. Why not? After all, we almost elected another guy president of the entire country who was mixed up in the same greasy machinery.

[Photo caption: Two regulators, John Reich (then FDIC, later OTS) and James Gilleran of the Office of Thrift Supervision (with chainsaw) celebrates with James McLaughlin, American Bankers Association; Harry Doherty, America's Community Bankers; and Ken Guenther, Independent Community Bankers of America.]

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Zeroes in Zimbabwe

Zimbabwe has now issued a note denominated 10 billion local dollars, which The Guardian says is worth about thirteen pounds—today. Tomorrow it may be worth nothing as the paper estimates the inflation rate there at 40 sextillion percent. Give or take.

I don’t even know how to write 40 sextillion—40,000,000,000,000,000,000,000? Would that be seasonally-adjusted? I guess that means in practical terms that once you lay hands on one of these new 10 billion Z-dollar bills, you rush across the street from the bank and try to buy a peppermint with it before noon.

Mr Mugabe, the truly repugnant president of what’s left of the country, made another demented speech yesterday daring his African neighbors to come oust him by force of arms. ‘Zimbabwe is mine’, he reminded them in a phrase that will surely live through the ages. With mass starvation and a raging cholera epidemic consuming the country, most of its unlucky citizens would probably happily let him have it and go live elsewhere.

It is inconceivable that this situation can continue for much longer. Perhaps if enough high-ranking military and police officers’ and their relatives suffer more directly, they will be moved to take the necessary actions. Under these conditions any spark could set off an uprising—the sooner the better.

Friday, 19 December 2008

Grief from God

Barack Obama has a preacher problem again.

The Rick Warren invitation certainly doesn’t look good—would be nice to make it to January without the cynicism and disappointment setting back in. Why, after having mortally pissed off a good chunk of voters with one loose-cannon preacher, would you ‘balance’ that by mortally pissing off everyone else with another?

Enough to make you believe in the separation of church and state.

Still, I remain inclined to wonder if we will still get something in exchange for sustaining this slap in the face, like for example, quick action on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell. The inaugural speech would be a good place to bury that disastrous faux-compromise, and it would make the Warren invitation look rather clever with the guy simultaneously allowed to beam over his new prominence and forced to swallow the New Pluralism on the spot.

A less sanguine interpretation is that Obama plans to sacrifice gay issues to further his other agenda items, sort of like Franklin Roosevelt’s deference to southern racism as he put together the New Deal.

The gay lobbies will get over it in any case, just as they conveniently forgot the Clintons’ cowardice and consistent buckling on things like the Defense of Marriage Act. That didn’t stop half the gay world from piling onto the Hillary bandwagon when she was the Inevitable Candidate.

For the time being, however, it’s creepy to think that anyone close to the Obama team signed off on this bigot and another reminder that the movement had better look to its own organizational roots and mobilizing skills to defend itself and its demands.

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Hollywood in the East [Part II]

Caroline Kennedy’s awkward handling of reporters during her maiden upstate get-acquainted tour inadvertently revealed the depths of hubris involved in her unseemly influence-mobilization campaign for ascension into the U.S. Senate. Kennedy didn’t know that it’s not enough to step in front of the cameras and smile on a political whistle-stop but that you also have to face the tough and even unfriendly questions that might arise on such an occasion.

Like for example, What about your total lack of experience in elected office? That’s something American voters obviously don’t mind in the long run (witness Reagan, Schwarzenegger, Ventura et al.), but you still have to have an answer for it. Kennedy swooshed through the assembled photographers and scribes without realizing that even Nicole Kidman has to stop on the red carpet and put up with a snarky grilling from Joan Rivers.

Kennedy’s breezy sense of entitlement is also showing in her attempt to bypass all the hard-working pols, including some smart and capable women, who thought a life of toil in the vineyards might have given them a shot at the promotion. Instead, her candidacy means they get passed over once again by someone with powerful male relatives—how very familiar.

In the end, though, it’s not Kennedy’s fault that she has decided to work the star system. It’s ours. Any Kennedy in the crowd brings out the dazzled biped masses as I recall from my years on Capitol Hill observing Teddy. Her presence guarantees that people will stump up the cash at a fund-raiser, and she probably starts out with 40 percent of the statewide vote in the bag based on her genes.

That’s hard to resist, but I’ll have profound respect for Governor Paterson if he surprises us and takes the hard road of making a merit-based choice.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

How to steal 50 billion

The Securities and Exchange Commission’s statement about l’Affaire Madoff yesterday is an extraordinarily blunt suggestion that people within the agency were bought off by the giant fraudster. Chairman Cox said the snoozy watchdog will investigate ‘all staff contact and relationships with the Madoff family and firm and their impact, if any, on decisions by staff regarding the firm.’

Given the super-cautious, innocence-presuming rhetoric that usually emanates from these bureaucratic entities, that comes pretty close to a pre-indictment. Of course, if you’re a highly paid bank guard shown to have slept through the last decade, you have some serious explaining to do.

I’ve seen two reports so far—who wants to bet there’ll be more—about questionable links between the Madoff firms and the SEC overseers. One mentions a former SEC employee who then went to work for the Fairfield Greenwich Group, the Connecticut investment agency that is the biggest loser to date, having pissed away $7.5 billion of other people’s money. There’s no accusation involved, just eyebrow-raising.

The other is more blatant: a chief investigator for the SEC turns out to be married to Bernie Madoff’s niece, who is also the daughter of the firm’s internal compliance officer. Yeah, yeah, he didn’t notice the lady until after his official duties were long over, just an unfortunate coincidence.

The world of financiers and the super-rich is famously clubby, so it’s no surprise that these folks know and marry each other. But Cox’s language strongly suggests that the regulatory apparatus was undermined by influence-peddling. Given the now obvious signs of fraud, no other explanation makes sense.

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Hollywood in the East

Caroline Kennedy seems like a very nice lady, and no doubt her charitable activities are laudable, but I wish national stars would stop treating our state as if it were Macy’s. Just because Kennedy got a sudden desire for a pretty seat in the U.S. Senate doesn’t mean she should have one.

After decades of Albany gridlock, the Democrats have finally won control of both houses of the state legislature, and we just might be able to get the upstate conservatives to stop resenting the city and pull the state machinery out of the molasses pit. However, awarding yet another Senate plum to another Manhattan icon will hardly endear folks in Buffalo and Binghampton to us or to the state’s leaders who now all hail from the five boroughs.

Governor Paterson now has the unenviable task of presiding over painful cutbacks, and he has a lot of sympathy. So perhaps he isn’t in a position to block what is obviously a full-court press from the Kennedy clan for Hillary Clinton’s seat. But if he were to make a choice based on merit, sorry, there are dozens of people in line before this celebrity miss.

It looks likely that Kennedy will get the nod, and no doubt she’ll do an adequate job down in Washington. Meanwhile, our state government is just as likely to continue its long tradition of undemocratic dysfunctionality.

Monday, 15 December 2008

Whocuddanode? [Updated]

Here’s a believable explanation for why all the Wall Street smart guys missed the fact that Bernie Madoff of the disappearing $50 billion was a fraud.

They didn’t.

According to one econ blog speculation, maybe some of the big money behind his giant Ponzi scheme was placed in his funds precisely because of the assumption that he was up to something shady. Where they missed the mark was exactly what.

If Madoff, a former chairman of the NASDAQ exchange, were using his position at the center of huge trading operations to exploit advance knowledge—the same practice that landed Martha Stewart in jail—then he could plausibly be making steady gains in all kinds of weather. According to this theory, if Madoff had knowledge of trades ahead of anyone else, he would know market movements and could turn them into personal/institutional gain. Others leaving their cash with him would then be piggybacking on his dubious practices with little risk to themselves and full deniability if he got caught.

Imagine the chagrin of these crooks (because this would all be unambiguously illegal) to discover that Bernie wasn’t scamming the system—he was scamming them.

I haven’t seen any coverage so far suggesting that the latest debacle could undermine New York’s role in global finance. But if I were a big money manager in Milan, Singapore or São Paulo, I certainly would be thinking about the ludricous failure of any sort of regulatory controls and the prudence of parking cash with anybody within 50 kilometers of Wall Street.

[Update] Here are the latest estimates of potential losses around the world from the Madoff rip-off:

HSBC (UK) $1 billion
Santander (Spain) $3 billion
BBVA (Spain) $700 million
Fortis Bank (Netherlands) $1.2-1.36 billion
Royal Bank of Scotland $598 million
Natixis (France) $606 million
BNP Paribas (France) $490 million
Nomura (Japan) $303 million
South Korea (several institutions) $95 million
UniCredit (Italy) $100 million
Switzerland (various banks) $5 billion
Bramdean Alternatives Limited (UK) $31.2 million

This last outfit had the most pointed comment to date from any of these red-faced experts: in a statement it said that the debacle raises ‘fundamental questions’ about the American financial regulatory system. Um, yeah.

The statement continued: ‘It is astonishing that this apparent fraud seems to have been continuing for so long, possibly for decades, while investors have continued to invest more money into the Madoff funds in good faith’.

I await the next unthinkable statement: maybe no one’s money is safe there.

Pre-party formations

Our leaders or, if you will, politicians like to talk about hearing the voice of the people, and activist groups of all sorts yearn for a movement of masses to effect needed change. But glib phrases and wishful thinking do not a democracy make; it isn’t easy to mobilize people in any meaningful way.

I attended a post-campaign powwow of the Obama folks last night in a private home, one of thousands apparently taking place around the country. Those of us receiving invitations had either worked for or given money to Obama, and the first 90 minutes were taken up with a round of introductions that turned into mini-speeches about the issues closest to our hearts (or pocketbooks).

My conclave took place in the Upper West Side of Manhattan, so it was professional, largely though not exclusively Caucasian, and late-middle-aged. Nothing wrong with that, and the personal histories were illuminating and varied. The whole thing had a bit of an air of a 12-step meeting, and when each person started off by saying, ‘I’m Charlene’, you half-expected them to add, ‘And I’m an alcoholic’ so that the rest of us could chime in, ‘Hi Charlene!’

And therein lie both the charming potential and tricky weakness of this exercise. Concern and a willingness to pitch in arise periodically among just about every collection of bipeds, and it’s exciting to get together and mull over what could or should be done. But someone has to synthesize the opinions and gauge the strengths of the group, come up with a realistic action plan and manage the myriad complications of actually organizing the next steps, especially when it comes to finding the person-hours necessary for something more than a political cri de coeur.

All of which should logically be handled by, um, a political party—like maybe the Democratic one? It’s a curious sign of the times and the alienation most of us feel toward the eviscerated Democratic establishment run by the nobles of finance and industry and a few connected mega-interest-group elites that Obama’s camp feels the need to generate a parallel structure from within its own campaign. Good for him/them, and I’m in for now to see if it works and also to see how long it takes for it to clash with the previous one.

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Bernie's $50 billion magic act

Fifty B’s—that doesn’t even seem like much cash these days with the talk of $700 billion bail-outs and $1 trillion stimulus packages. But the Bernie Madoff story should certainly cause some of the erstwhile high-flying hedge fund investors to think twice about where they’ve parked their money given the number of people who lost the farm in the last 48 hours.

What is surprising is the lack of commentary—so far—about the possible impact of this disappearing act on the rickety financial system already whipsawing dangerously. Some of the biggest losers are hedge funds who will now be hit with more huge redemption demands both from people who lost fortunes as well as others eager not to join them. The whole shadow banking system that already is having to sell assets at emergency prices will have to find more cash. Right?

I don’t pretend to really understand all this, but logic suggests that the process will drive depressed prices down further and exacerbate the crazy demand for super-safe U.S. government debt, now paying virtually no interest. While Paulson pours cash into the bottomless pit of financier balance sheets, far larger sums are gobbled up by the deleveraging process and what sure looks like an old-fashioned run on what used to be called a ‘bank’.

When we thought we had seen everything—the august Wall Street firms buckling, the megabanks collapsing, whole suburban tracts in foreclosure, the Republicans nationalizing finance—now we find out that one of the oldest names in the New York money business was running a crude Ponzi scheme of unimaginable cynicism, paying off investors with a steady influx of fresh money from the gullible. And hardly anyone even noticed.

Is anybody in charge?

Friday, 12 December 2008

Fly on the political wall

If the transcript now circulating on the net purporting to be the last conversation between Rahm Emanuel and Governor Rod ‘Big Hair’ Blagojevich is authentic, David Mamet has been upstaged forever. This exchange comes up with more uses for the word ‘fuck’ than basic training at Parris Island.

Emanuel, Obama’s chief of staff-select, allegedly got a call from the nation’s most lovable governor on 10 November. Their initial exchange sounds like a cliché of Type-A male dick-waving: whadda fuck you want, ahm fucken busy, doan fuck wid me, etc. It’s not jokey-friendly either—these two definitely are not getting along.

Finally, Blago gets to the point: who do you like, he asks, for the Senate seat? Rahm tells him nothing, but the exchange quickly deteriorates into a shouting match over who is the biggest fucking fuck and who is going to insert what where. Amusing, but just barely.

But the Obama camp should be celebrating this speech by Rahm to close out the little love-fest:

“Shut the fuck up and listen to me for one second, Rod. And I want you to listen carefully, because this is the last time I’m ever going to talk to you. You are fucking dead to me. You been fucking dead to Barack since ’06, now you’re dead to me. Know what that means? That means you’re dead to my people in Chicago, Daley on down, and all these friends you think you have aren’t gonna touch you with a ten foot fucking pole.”

The Hair tries to out-Corleone Rahm, but after another flurry of ‘fucks’ from both sides, Rahm delivers this little hint of the future:

“Listen up, asshole. The shit’s gonna hit the fan, maybe tomorrow, maybe next month, and when Fitz finally brings down the hammer it’s gonna be my name that’s going through your head. You won’t know the hows or the fucking whys, but it’s gonna have my fucking fingerprints all over it. Have a great life fatso.”

Sounds as though Emanuel had been passing on the dirt for a while. Who knows, maybe he even had a good idea he was on tape for the history books. In any case, the whole sorry episode could end up making Obama and his team look better than ever.

Thursday, 11 December 2008

No compromise with torture

Most of the commentary and panty-twisting over Obama’s nominations have struck me as exaggerated and alarmist, but one exception is the arena of national security/ intelligence and very specifically anything to do with suspension of civil liberties and of course the torture of defenseless prisoners. I personally could accept a lot of unseemly compromise and deal-making, even on the best way to wind down the horrible war in Iraq. But not on this.

People better versed than I in the ways of Washington are saying that the powerful are gearing up all sorts of strategies to maintain their new police-state powers and to keep the guilty in key positions throughout the security apparatus. And not incidentally to protect each other from prosecution.

Let’s hope that yesterday’s comments from Democrat Sylvestre Reyes, the goofball head of the House Intelligence Committee, are the result of his general cluelessness rather than a sign of what’s to come. His call to keep the top architects of current policy in place at the NSA and the CIA are a slap in the face to those of us who voted for exactly the opposite, but then again he probably wants a fat job in some consulting firm later and is just going about it more cleverly than the Illinois governor by doing the big boys’ bidding now in hopes of collecting later.

Or maybe I’m being unfair, and Reyes isn’t corrupt, just dumb as a stump. That’s possible since he’s quoted as not knowing whether al-Qaeda is Sunni or Shi’ite. You don’t need access to top-secret briefings to figure that out, but you do have to be at least eight years old and paying attention.

None of these top Democrats had the cojones to stand up to Bush when he was riding high, but you’d expect them to bring a pair out of mothballs now that Bush is a laughingstock and their party just won a convincing triumph. Maybe our man Barack recalls the licking he took from inside the Obama campaign itself when he buckled on the telecom-immunity bill, which gave Verizon and AT&T a Get-Out-of-Jail-Free card despite their illegal spying on us. If not, I’ll be the first to join in the next one.

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Ramrod justice

The arrest of three officers from the New York Police Departments for sodomizing an arrestee with an expandable radio antenna on a subway platform provides yet another opportunity to contemplate that strange entity and ask how a society can provide itself with security without turning its agents into a lawless gang.

The story itself is extremely disturbing: Michael Mineo, a young hipster of apparently Puerto Rican origins, whose parents both died of AIDS, has been in trouble with the law. He may or may not have been smoking weed on the subway tracks and may or may not have run away from the officers who thought he was.

What is now pretty clear, however, is that once they caught him, one of the three stuck a metal pipe up his ass causing him severe injury and drawing the attention of several bystanders who heard the kid scream. The other two police officers stood by passively and later covered up the act. Mineo was charged with a misdemeanor and says they threatened him with a felony if he ever complained.

This story would have gone nowhere except for a couple of courageous witnesses and some DNA evidence. A transit guard corroborated part of Mineo’s story to investigators, and Mineo’s DNA eventually was found on the object. Also, the fact that the investigation went forward at all suggests that the NYPD brass aren’t covering up the incident. There’s also a fourth cop who told the truth about his colleagues and whose life undoubtedly will now become hell.

The image of Mineo lying in a hospital bed in a state of extreme emotional and physical pain has been flashing on our local news screens now for weeks, and in his on-camera statements the guy has given viewers a sense of what it means to be assaulted by those who are supposed to protect you. He says he remains fearful and can’t leave his apartment, still has trouble with his bodily functions and generally wonders when he will get his life back. In short, he is describing the aftermath of rape.

The cops’ union president, Patrick Lynch, immediately scoffed at the grand jury indictments as ‘mere accusations,’ which they are not. You don’t get a prosecutor to present charges and win indictments unless there is some evidence behind them, and anyway Lynch doesn’t use the same criteria when someone gets arrested for assaulting a cop. No doubt half the force will turn out to defend these creeps in court as usual since they seem to think total impunity is required for their jobs.

But Mayor Bloomberg and his police commissioner have another job, which is to figure out how to put an end to these depressingly regular incidents and enforce guidelines for police behavior that will properly orient good cops and winnow out the psychopaths and trigger-happy assholes. As the economy continues to tank and unemployment climbs, crime is likely to increase as well. Let’s see if the city can deal with that without making everything worse by allowing the police to be army of occupation.

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Faux Escandale in Chile-redux

I got a call yesterday afternoon from al-Jazeera TV in English for a live appearance on their nightly news show for a segment about a pumped-up scandal in Chile related to AIDS. They tracked me down through my book on the topic, and I had the goofy experience of sitting in a chair in a Times Square studio all by myself surrounded by camera equipment and talking to a disembodied voice coming through on an earpiece. You’re supposed to focus on the eye of the camera so that you seem to be engaged in direct conversation with the anchor (actually 200 miles away), which is bad enough, but also you can’t see him frantically signalling you to shut up when the four minutes are over. I ended up talking to myself.

The lead-in to this piece on the failure of Chilean hospitals and medical labs to inform some 2,000 people that they are HIV-positive [see Nov. 28 post below] was a testimony by a Chilean guy who acquired the infection eight years ago and had a lot to say about the experience. Unfortunately, it wasn’t very coherent. He lashed out at the government, worried about gains that were being reversed, said people suffered from stigma and discrimination, and then lashed out at the government again. The overall impression was that the negligent public health system had toyed with people’s lives out of a combination of indifference and bloody-mindedness and that right-thinking, decent folks should move in promptly to right all wrongs.

Ah, would that it were so simple. I am reminded of the late Tanta’s lively posts on about the intricacies of the mortgage industry and the cheap shots being scored on the current meltdown by people who should know better. One of her targets was Sheila Baer at the FDIC who is everyone’s current heroine because of her bold plans to Save the Sinking Homeowner. What would Tanta have to say today about Monday’s news that half of the people who got refinancing help are in default again?

But I digress. The problem with the HIV+ guy’s discourse, I repeat, is that the failure to inform people of their HIV infection stems directly from mechanisms built into the system to protect people like him. Hospitals and clinics were prohibited, first by practice and later by law, from chasing after unwilling patients to force their seropositive status down their throats in front of neighbors, relatives and employers. We may think it’s best to know, but once you empower the health department to track down those testing positive, confidentiality goes out the window even if everyone’s intentions are pure, which they frequently are not.

The abuses that occurred in the early years of the epidemic in which people’s lives were destroyed by public revelations while no treatments were available forced the system to shape up and treat clients with more respect. Now, it is true, times have changed, and life-saving treatments are available. So we should reconsider the conditions and figure out a way to get more people into the testing process and to make sure they know the results once they take that step—by use of the saliva-based rapid tests, for example.

One really bad idea, however, is to repeal the protective laws of the 1990s and return to the big-daddy-state approach that the government started out with—under General Augusto Pinochet, I might add—in which people were considered public health menaces and tracked down by nurses in white hats. Given the reigning logic, I anticipate a move to force people to reveal names of sexual contacts as well, thereby encouraging everyone to run as fast as possible in the opposite direction from government-sponsored campaigns about AIDS or any other damn thing.

The HIV+ fellow who volunteered his story last night should be applauded for his courage and his willingness to contribute something to the cause. But the organizations that instructed and coached him have failed to provide him with a sensible analysis, and with their scattershot discourse they run the risk of plugging both themselves and the rest of Chilean society in the foot. It’s dramatic and laudable when people stand up and refuse to be victims, but after a certain number of repetitions that you’re refusing to be a victim, you reinforce victimhood. Simply saying that everyone involved is doing a terrible job has opened the door wide to Chilean conservatives who want to turn the clock back and restore the coercive power of the state in the name of public health.

Monday, 8 December 2008

VA symbolism

The choice of retired general Eric Shinseki to head the Veterans Administration should occupy several news cycles’ worth of commentary about the meaning of Obama’s choices. Shinseki was the dissident general whose excessive truth-telling during the heady days of the original conquest of Iraq led to his public shaming and unceremonious dismissal by the military geniuses Rumsfeld, Feith and Wolfowitz.

Shinseki now gets to shoulder the unenviable task of caring for the tens of thousands of wounded and traumatized vets whose suffering has been kept off the radar by Karl Rove and his disciples, those political geniuses of whom we were all supposed to be in such awe. It will be interesting to see what the incoming team does about the nitty-gritty issues of veterans’ lives and how the long-standing identification of the military with conservative and Republican politics dating from the Vietnam-era culture wars might be affected by an improved performance from an Obama administration.

In any case it is brilliant symbolism to reach back into the sorry history of the last eight years and rehabilitate someone who really did put ‘Country First’.

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Truly horrible

Blogs from Zimbabwe are mostly too depressing to read, but since they all tell the same tale with endless variations, you don’t have to read many entries. They describe a society undergoing complete collapse, where the average citizen’s day starts with hours in a bank queue to withdraw a measly 100 million Zimbabwean dollars, the legal maximum, which might buy them a bus ride or an ear of corn, depending on whether the busses are running or anyone has an ear of corn to sell. Or if the price hasn’t doubled since this morning.

Then there’s mass starvation. Children gathering termites in a bag to take home for an evening meal. Elderly women following trucks to snatch loose kernels of corn falling onto the road.

And forget falling ill even if it is life-threatening, cholera-induced diarrhea, which is now rampant since the water authority ran out of purifying chemicals—maybe while Mugabe and his retinue were staying at a five-star Rome hotel during the World Food Summit [sic] in June. The hospitals have no IV lines, no sutures, no syringes and of course no staff since a nurse’s monthly wages now amount to about one U.S. dime.

Dictators have flourished since the dawn of time, but Mugabe represents the apogee of a peculiar variant, the leader of an armed rebellion against an unfair system who really thought all along that the war was about making him king. In the midst of the staggeringly complete breakdown of his realm, according to one blogger the guy still has lackeys painting the lines on the pavement leading to his kitsch Harare mansion.

You have to wonder how this sort of collective dementia at the top works. Party members share in the loot, and the soldiers are protected by connections and privileges. But when 80% of the country is unemployed and boiling old shoes for supper, doesn’t the message filter back somehow that things are falling apart?

And how long can you go on blaming the burgeoning chaos on old colonial masters deposed in the 1970s or a racist conspiracy led by Condi Rice? After all, the starving Zimbabweans who hate you are not white Europeans.

There is an element of testosterone poisoning involved as well. The Mugabe ads during the last electoral campaign made much of his opponents as ‘losers’ as if only having a monopoly of coercive methods meant anything in life, being the Big Guy and running the most convincing thugs. Okay, I get it, sort of like Marlow Stansfield’s operation in the last season of ‘The Wire’.

Some of the blogs are complaining bitterly about the opposition’s negotiations with Mugabe and the prospect of impunity for the criminals, but I suspect they needn’t worry on that score. The old guy apparently is too far gone to realize that cutting a quick deal was the best way to save his pathetic skin and avoid the kinds of spontaneous people’s justice that may be brewing for him and his retainers. They ought to be nervous.

Friday, 5 December 2008

Explain to me this logic [Updated]

How dumb do you have to be to carry a loaded firearm into a night club without knowing how to handle the damn thing and shooting yourself in the thigh?

Yet while New York Giants star Plaxico Burress faces our Draconian anti-gun laws and the prospect of a mandatory prison term for packing, you can’t help wondering how the city would be reacting if he were white. I suspect half the vox-pop interviewees would be suggesting that he must have felt it was a dangerous place and needed to protect himself.

We will be cursed with bad behavior from professional athletes as long as we make them part of our overpaid glitterati along with film stars and bankers—oops, I mean film stars. No accident that the Burress farce is playing out just as O.J. gets ready for sentencing later in the day—another meathead driven mad by the adulation of the masses.

Then again, if Burress had wanted to fire off weapons in a night club, he should have been a cop. Then they’d be asking why he only got off one shot.

No one came off looking too swift in this sorry episode, including the fancy Manhattan hospital that didn’t inform the police as required by law and had to can an intake clerk. It also exposes the stupidity of the state’s fascination with mandatory prison terms like the disastrous Rockefeller-era drug laws. In any case, thanks to the anti-crime demagoguery of our recent past, the Big Apple isn’t likely to be heading to the Super Bowl this year.

[Update]: The Giants lost Sunday, a fitting denouement and a reminder that brawn is nothing without a little brain.

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Zimbabwe Endgame

When the police and the army start slugging it out in the streets, it’s pretty good evidence that the government nominally in charge of both is in deep trouble.

You’d think that an annual inflation rate of 231,000,000 percent would topple any governing party. But Zimbabwean president and loathesomely despicable individual Robert Mugabe has not hesitated to send out his thugs to beat, maim, slaughter and otherwise dissuade his opponents.

He almost gave up when he lost the last election, but then his enforcers stepped in and insisted he stay in power, assuming, quite intelligently, that he would probably get to escape to exile in North Korea or Turkmenistan while they were all being demobilized into pigeon pie.

But now that a cholera epidemic has spread throughout the country on top of the years of starvation and misery, even the cops can’t keep body and soul together. Their recent mini-riot may have emboldened others in the long-suffering state, such as Tuesday’s audacious demonstration of doctors and nurses who watch their patients die of a completely treatable disease.

At least we no longer have the unctuous Thabo Mbeki uttering his creepy platitudes and defending Mugabe as his comrade in the ‘African liberation struggle.’

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Milk on 8

The post-mortems on Proposition 8 in the gay press are pretty consistent: Harvey Milk was right.

The film ‘Milk’ has a telling scene in which Harvey confronts the comfortable, connected gay establishment over its lame strategy on the anti-gay 1978 Briggs Amendment. Milk scoffs at their defensive campaign materials that dance around the gay issue and don’t even dare to mention the word.

Fast forward to 2008 and Prop 8 on marriage equality, and the whole scenario repeats itself almost exactly except without Harvey or his modern equivalent. Apparently the No-on-8 campaign was late, unfocused, flaccid and, worst of all, de-gayed as if the voters were somehow going to lose sight of that little detail.

The setback recalls the fight in Congress earlier this year over ENDA, the federal Employment Non-Discrimination Act, over which the main gay lobbyist outfit in Washington cut a secret deal with the Democrats and double-crossed the transgender crowd, all for a meaningless House vote on a measure that W was obviously going to veto anyway.

In both cases political leadership seems to have devolved onto the kinds of conservative, horse-trading elites for whom Milk’s style of steady grassroots organizing and innovative approaches to unusual constituencies was, and always will be, alien. Instead, they’re at home with deals and all the cozy bullshit that goes on in the safe, boring gay bureaucracies that yearn to be K Street clones.

‘Milk’ reminds us of a lost world before the ossification of gay politics when an unusual figure with a political nose and a radical vision could be a major player. It would be great if the street mobilizations of the last few weeks somehow got channeled into an injection of new blood into that tired scene. Times are ripe.

Sunday, 30 November 2008

A second look at the three-day war

A Georgian diplomat blurted out inconveniently last Tuesday that it was his own country that started the August war with Russia, which it then lost ignominiously.

Erosi Kitsmarishvili, Tbilisi’s former ambassador to Moscow, not only blamed his own country for the fighting, he also said Georgia had received a green light from the U.S. to go ahead with it.

This bombshell buttresses speculation elsewhere that Condoleeza Rice’s visit to that country just before the debacle included prodding Georgian President Mikheil Saakashvili to pursue the harebrained scheme to recover the territories of South Ossetia and eventually Abkhazia.

Tony Wood mused in the Sept 11 London Review of Books that Rice might have egged Saakashvili on during her visit of July 9-10. The Georgian president miscalculated that the Russians wouldn’t intervene militarily or perhaps thought the U.S. would come to his aid if they did. Wrong on both counts.

So why would Rice/Cheney/Bush encourage such a foolhardy move? Wood reasons that the U.S. gained plenty from the incident: quick agreement from Poland on a long-delayed plan to site missiles there with which to threaten the Russians, possibly a long-term U.S. military presence in Georgia, a cranked-up cold war and not incidentally a shot in the arm to the faltering McCain campaign, whose foreign policy adviser Randy Schuenemann worked for the Georgians until May 2008. All without a single U.S. casualty and full deniability.

The whole sorry episode is reminiscent of another war the United States encouraged and then lived to regret: Brzezinski’s chortling glee over the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979. There’s plenty on the record about the Carter Administration’s game in luring the Soviet dinosaur into those tar pits, which weakened the enemy and also brought us Osama bin Laden and his merry band. I wonder what the successful provocation of ethnic warfare in the Caucasus will mean for us ten or twenty years down the road.

Saturday, 29 November 2008


Poor Peggy Noonan. Her party lost, and now they have to deal with Sarah, the Bride of Frankenstein.

Noonan, a former Reagan speechwriter and now columnist for the Wall Street Journal, moaned this week on Morning Joe that ‘the media wants to make her subliminally the face of the Republican party.’

How about making her that openly and legally, like by nominating her for vice president, then whooping and cheering and applauding wildly at every snarky, ignorant wisecrack served up by her speechwriters?

Despite her supposed credentials in journalism, Noonan uses ‘the media’ as a singular noun, a sure sign of conspiracy-theory paranoia, not to mention illiteracy. She should put on sandals and a hairband and join the gang outside the nearest Pacifica radio outlet—maybe throw on a tinfoil hat, too.

‘They’—suddenly there are more than one ‘media’, but oh well—‘want to make [Palin] what Republicans are’, said Noonan, ‘the face of the party, the leader of the party, because it amuses them to do that’.

Hey, it amuses me too, but I didn’t sit in the White Citizens Council meeting up in Minneapolis and chant ‘Drill, Baby, Drill’ along with her when it looked like a winning slogan. So I get to be amused by seeing her crash and burn and, we hope, take down the entire party. I’m laughing now, Peggy. Ha ha.

Noonan admits later in the interview that Palin is the star because the Republicans haven’t got anyone else of interest to compete with her. There remain ‘emanations and tendrils’ of Palin’s celebrity, she said, making her sound like a spidery creature from Transylvania. But remember what happens in Interview with a Vampire when you try to kill the ones who made you? It ain’t pretty.

Public Crimes

The film ‘Milk’ ends with gay martyr Harvey Milk’s assassination, and one climax is more than enough for this fine, subtle biopic, which treats sex, city politics, a social movement, adolescent psychology, romance and the closet with insight and grace albeit with a glancing superficiality. (Otherwise, the movie would have to last four hours instead of 2’06’’.) But the story was just beginning, and there’s a second film that could be made about the trial of assassin Dan White and its aftermath—Milk II: The Sequel.

Wackos will be with us always, but justice is never entirely blind and less so in political crimes; every notorious incident is a test of wills, strengths, social attitudes and public debate, which is why courtroom drama is such a perennial favorite. Cops understand that, and whenever one of their number is gunned down, they fill the courtrooms to intimidate juries into crushing the defendant or to support their guys when accused, such as in the notorious Sean Bell incident here last year.

Cops were also instrumental in defending White back in 1979 and helped to engineer the slap on the wrists he got for the premeditated double-homicide of the leaders of the city’s liberal establishment. Punishment/impunity is the public acknowledgment that you can/cannot expect the security apparatus of the state to protect you.

‘Milk’ has a lot about the fight over the 1978 Briggs initiative targeting gay teachers in public schools, and it’s eerily apt that the picture should be released just days after California passed Prop 8 to prohibit gay marriage. The defeat of Briggs was Harvey Milk’s great, final triumph, and the film pauses long enough to sympathize with his choppy love life carried on amidst the consuming social struggles. He would have appreciated the irony, but he wouldn’t have slowed down, nor doubted the ultimate victory.

Friday, 28 November 2008

AIDS panic from yesteryear

Chile has been awash in a faux AIDS scandal for weeks now, and the story even reached the New York papers, as in this Daily News headline over an AP account: ‘Hundreds in Chile not told of positive HIV tests’.

The first line of the report gives away the store: ‘Chile is scrambling to reach people who could be unknowingly spreading AIDS’.

The breathless tale is about how Chilean laboratories did not tell some 2,000 people that they had come up positive for the HIV infection.

The health minister had to resign over the revelation, and her replacement, one Alvaro Erazo, solemnly told Chile’s Congress: ‘There is no justification for that.’

Except that, um, there is, and it’s called a public health rationale. People go get tested for HIV under guarantees of privacy and autonomy, and in the old system still in use in Chile involving a blood sample, you have to go back for the results. No one could force you to because the anonymity of the test kept your data out of official hands.

If you later decided you didn’t really want to know, that was your right. Without it, most people wouldn’t go near the damn test in the first place given the wave of insensitive abuses that occurred in the early years.

Guess what? They’re back. The same article notes that a guy in southern Chile had two Nurse Ratchets show up at his job in an ambulance recently to tell him he was HIV-positive. Goodbye job, girlfriend and pretty much life as he knew it. That will certainly encourage more people to get tested.

The fact that an incident of this sort can happen two decades into the AIDS epidemic shows how fragile the gains of the early years still are. I was personally involved in those fights in which we patiently explained to providers that the best way to promote testing was to treat people with respect as sentient beings rather than as ‘vectors of infection’ as their epidemiology textbooks suggested.

The AP language is a throwback to the years of panic in which ‘those people’ were seen to be running around spreading HIV and needed to be grabbed and made to stop. ‘Those people’ being gays, drug users, Haitians and women in the sex trade—NOT you and me and our precious children, of course, and not AP reporters either, all of whom could also be ‘unknowingly spreading AIDS’.

I’ve got news for Minister Erazo and the Associated Press: a whole lot more than 2,000 people in Chile and every other country in the world are unaware of their HIV infection. The estimate in the U.S. alone is around 200,000. We try to encourage people to find out as a double benefit, to them and to their eventual partners, but not with media-driven Sex Panics.

The fact that someone in a laboratory got hold of an HIV+ blood sample changes nothing and means nothing, but in the Chilean case it has stimulated bad public policy and a lot of irresponsible news reporting, too.

If Chile wants to take the strong-arm approach, why not give everyone in the country an HIV test and force them into care? That’s the logic of this reactionary witchhunt, a policy that would last just long enough for the first government official, police captain or rich teenager to get caught up in the dragnet and have his business spilled into the neighborhood gossip circuit.

It says something, too, about the weakness of Chile’s nonprofit AIDS sector that, after wallowing in millions of Global AIDS Fund dollars for a decade, can’t mobilize a coherent response to this gigantic step backwards.

Glug-glug remedies

The name Shiller pops up often in news stories about the collapse of the housing market because Robert Shiller is the co-creator of the Case-Shiller Index for tracking house prices. He’s a thoughtful and amusing number-cruncher who in a recent speech floated the novel idea of creating ‘house price insurance’ to guard against the present-day phenomenon of negative equity, that is, holding a mortgage for more money than the house is worth.

This state of affairs, also charmingly termed ‘being underwater’, now affects 12 million U.S. households and is blamed for a lot of the weakness in our consumer-sensitive economy. Shiller says it would work like fire insurance—you take out a policy upon buying a house that ties your future payments to the surrounding market. If your house becomes less valuable, you pay a lower monthly note.

Innovations in the way we do business like these sound slightly wacko at first, but big upheavals lead to experimentation, and suddenly we can’t imagine doing things any other way. Federal deposit insurance, unemployment insurance, food stamps and Social Security all must have looked peculiar when first proposed, too. I’ll bet money that the Obama inauguration speech or one coming very soon after it will have some startling proposals like this one.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Under our skin

At the Birmingham Civil Rights Museum the exhibits begin with a short film, then the screen rises onto a stark installation: a double water fountain labeled for “white” and “colored” usage.

I find things like that more shocking than the videos images of Klan rallies or hateful white banshees chasing after the little girls who integrated Little Rock High.

How did we get to the profoundly sad state of moral abasement where people had to be cubby-holed based on race for the simple human act of drinking water? And how furious was the reaction to the common-sense campaign to stop the practice.

Al-Qaeda’s nasty rant the other day against Obama as some sort of Uncle Tom house Negro is a good reminder that this country has had the privilege of a painful confrontation with its own racism and has learned a couple of things that religious fanatics in caves could take a lesson from if they didn’t have their headdresses up their butts.

Just this morning Sesame Street featured a little tune illustrated with diversity-heavy images about how we’re all the same under the skin, we all get cold, hot, laugh, cry, etc. Normally that stuff feels treacly and even unnecessary, but the video included a quick shot of two girls drinking at a public fountain, one white and one black. That wasn’t accidental.

I wonder how many countries in the world are aware of the need to pound an ideology of equality and respect into the heads of its children to head off the kinds of nightmare scenarios that racism so easily can lead to.

Rwanda is one. There it’s considered extremely bad form to ask someone what tribal ethnicity they are from given that nearly a million people were slaughtered in the 1990s based on that sole datum. But it’s an unusual case.

No wonder the Iranians were disoriented by the Obama victory and at first had no idea how to respond. Apparently, it simply never occurred to them that a majority white country could elect someone not from their own identity group. They wouldn’t.

We are aware of the symbolic force of the Obama presidency on ourselves. But he also could end up being part of a few teachable moments in our foreign dealings as well. I look forward to it.

Wednesday, 26 November 2008

Of Courage and Valor in the Fourth Estate

I love it when someone has enough historical memory to dredge up what today’s star pundit said yesterday about the same topic. Thus does Glenn Greenwald at take the peepee out of wankmaster Joe Klein, starting with his latest column in TIME magazine in which he kicks the now prone and pathetic GWB by referring to. . .

. . . his ridiculous, preening appearance in a flight suit on the deck of the aircraft carrier beneath the “Mission Accomplished” sign.

Klein calls the flight-suit image ‘one of the two defining moments of the Bush failure.’

Fair enough. But, asks Greenwald, what was the brave giant-slayer Klein saying when Bush was riding high? Greenwald reminds him with a transcript of his May 4, 2003, appearance on Face the Nation:

BOB SCHIEFFER: “How does [the Democratic presidential primary debate] play off against the pictures we saw this week of President Bush landing on the aircraft carrier and appearing before these screaming, adoring groups of military people? As far as I'm concerned, that was one of the great pictures of all time. . . .”

JOE KLEIN: “Well, that was probably the coolest presidential image since Bill Pullman played the jet fighter pilot in the movie Independence Day. . . . And it just shows you how high a mountain these Democrats are going to have to climb.”

Not nearly as high as the contradiction Klein will have to scale to explain this utter disconnect between his current opinion and the one he peddled back when it mattered.

What lessons can be drawn from this hilarious example?

First, ignore Joe Klein always.

More importantly, recall that the chattering classes are mouthpieces of the commonplace and that the task of punditry, almost by definition, is to package and transmit what people are comfortable with thinking and feeling at the moment and within a narrow band of approved possibilities. It is a bit like extracting a blood sample and reinjecting it into the originating veins.

Do not, however, expect to be cautioned about anything that escapes the cozy worldview on display. No commentators will headline their pieces, We Might Lose This War or Our Leaders Are Leading Us over the Precipice. That will only merit comment after the fact.

Monday, 24 November 2008

Submerging markets

Carlos Menem’s 1989 victory over Argentina’s Radical government wasn’t much of a surprise given that the country’s inflation was running about 5,000% annually on election day. In Buenos Aires to cover it, I stood in a line to change some dollars and watched the peso slip 2% between the time I walked in the door to the moment I got to the exchange counter. After the election things were falling apart so rapidly that the in-comers and out-goers got together and made a deal to speed up the transition before the whole place fell apart.

Sound familiar? Yet another way in which the U.S. is looking more and more like dysfunctional Third World countries, now known as ‘emerging markets.’ Make that ‘submerging’ in our case.

Obama’s economic team is not only setting up shop, they’re pretty close to nudging the current seat-warmers out of the throne rooms even before they’ve collected their last paychecks. It’s Obama’s managers and his proposals for restarting the economy that are catching the world markets’ collective eye while the Bushites look clueless. They toss unfathomable sums of cash at Citigroup to save its sorry corporate ass but if experience is any guide, that will only buy a couple of days’ relief before banking and credit resume their whirling descent into the toilet.

There comes a point, as occurred in Argentina, when conditions deteriorate so severely that those in charge simply lose all credibility. Even if they were miraculously to generate great ideas and recognize their own past errors, it’s too late—the restoration of even minimum normalcy requires a new team. The question is, can we wait 57 days?

Saturday, 22 November 2008

No mercy

When my credit card bill arrived, I accidentally saw some of the fine print, which I never examine because I do not run up charges on the damn thing—which makes me, in banker parlance, a ‘deadbeat’.

Seriously—if you don’t let them charge you interest on an unpaid balance, you’re getting a free ride in their bizarro world. This came out earlier in the year during the congressional hearings on credit card abuse, but the full significance of this mindset escaped general notice. The basic idea being that you get in hock to them, allow them to attach suction cups to your income at various key points and breathe deeply while they accumulate riches.

Anyway, there is a line at the end that reads: ‘Annual Percentage Rate for this billing period: 217.80%’. I am not making this up.

The explanation for this usury is that the total includes ‘periodic rate finance charges and transaction fee finance charges’, allowing them collect more than the legal (and still usurious) rate of 8.99% or 20.99% on cash advances. (Don’t you love the .99 part?)

I recently used my ATM card at an airport and was startled to find in the monthly bill a $10 charge for the privilege of obtaining $80. That would be a 12.5% charge for one day—I wonder how that would compound multiplied times 365.

This is the modern version of the company store to which, in the Tennessee Ernie Ford version, you owed your soul and became ‘another day older and deeper in debt’.

No doubt we will have plenty of leisure time in the next few years as the economy roils around on the ocean floor to discuss regulations and safeguards and whatnot, but there is a larger question about how the entire system, both in the mechanics of household finance and in the concepts peddled to us to sustain it, conspired to create the massive debt slavery that eventually brought down the whole house.

For my part, I plan to take a modest step by telephoning the representatives of (now collapsed—isn’t that sad?) Wachovia Bank and telling them I need the $10 charge removed. If not, I will shift my accounts elsewhere. I’ll post the results here.

Friday, 21 November 2008

Sin Comentario

“Breadless in Gaza”

Source: AFP—Thu, 20 Nov 2008

Bakeries in the Gaza Strip will soon have to shut down for want of flour if Israel does not ease its crippling blockade of the Hamas-run territory, the bakers’ association warned on Thursday.

‘All the bakeries will close in two days at the most if the Israeli blockade continues,’ the head of the association, Abdelnasser al-Ajrami, told AFP.

Since a flare-up of violence on the Gaza-Israel border on 5 November, Israel has tightened the blockade it first imposed on the territory when the Islamist Hamas movement seized power in June last year.

Almost daily over the past fortnight, deliveries of both food and fuel for Gaza's sole power plant have been blocked.

Last week, the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine refugees was forced to suspend food deliveries to half of Gaza's 1.5 million population. It distributed some rations on Tuesday after Israel allowed some food in the previous day.

Israel was expected to ease its blockade after an Egyptian-brokered truce with Hamas went into effect on 19 June.

It says continuing rocket and mortar attacks have made this impossible but Hamas accuses it of failing to deliver on its side of the bargain.

[end article]

The Fourth Geneva Convention

Article 33. [Collective punishments] ‘No protected person may be punished for an offence he or she has not personally committed. Collective penalties and likewise all measures of intimidation or of terrorism are prohibited. . . . Reprisals against protected persons and their property are prohibited.’

[from Wikipedia] Under the 1949 Geneva Conventions collective punishments are a war crime. By collective punishment, the drafters of the Geneva Conventions had in mind the reprisal killings of World Wars I and II. In the First World War, Germans executed Belgian villagers in mass retribution for resistance activity. In World War II, Nazis carried out a form of collective punishment to suppress resistance. Entire villages or towns or districts were held responsible for any resistance activity that took place there.

The conventions, to counter this, reiterated the principle of individual responsibility. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) Commentary to the conventions states that parties to a conflict often would resort to ‘intimidatory measures to terrorize the population’ in hopes of preventing hostile acts, but such practices ‘strike at guilty and innocent alike. They are opposed to all principles based on humanity and justice.’

Thursday, 20 November 2008


Winter arrived awfully suddenly this year after a mild early November. It’s shocking to be burrowing under the blankets so soon after strolling in shirtsleeves and to feel the ache of frost in your fingers because you hadn’t even thought to get out gloves just yet.

But the display in Isham Park makes up for a lot, the leaves accumulating in crisp piles, the giant gingko on Broadway putting down thousands of its fan-like leaves on the stone stairs. Nature hasn’t yet turned barren, and the easy days of summer remain within memory. Just two Sundays ago we could sit on the benches watching the neighborhood boys toss baseballs and footballs and even get too hot if we lingered very long in the sunlight.

For a northern kid like me, the dark, indoor season isn’t exactly a joyous time but it’s a necessary one. You shift into different habits, and your attitudes follow along. Going places becomes more complicated, you have to confront the elements, don and shed wraps constantly, stumble around in the dark in the morning, and one result is that you tend to stay put more, head home earlier and turn inward in subtle ways. It’s a time for reflexion and domestic affairs, then the holidays come along to remind you that another year has slipped by, your projects are pretty much where you left them, and life generates about as much happiness and satisfaction as it did the year before.

Usually I’m too exhausted by bipeds to feel much more than despair about their insane behavior, but this time of year does stir my compassion upon thinking back on all the sad stories we’ve had to digest. I recall the lady in New Jersey who came off her night shift at the hospital to find that her two teenagers had died in a house fire. We had the usual endless parade of fatalities, usually female, resulting from violently uncontrolled tempers, invariably male.

We’ve had a terrible uptick in racist attacks recently too, which is disturbing, but behind the overt violence is another layer of steady repression and control, the stream of stories of false imprisonment where black men are assumed to be guilty and railroaded into ruined lives. One guy facing a murder charge in the Bronx was sprung just this week when his electronic subway card confirmed his alibi—the eyewitness accounts of a half-dozen friends didn’t convince anyone because they’re all black, too.

Yes, it’s a time of year when you feel, like the squirrels that own our park, that having a little tree-hole to come home to for the frigid nights, a stash of walnuts and a functioning body is a pretty swell line-up of good luck. Winter reminds us that just getting through life is quite an achievement.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

And. . . ?

I see nothing in the cabinet and other appointments so far announced or rumored that will block President Obama from doing the Lord’s work.

Rahm Emmanuel could be just the guy to kick some Israeli behind and force them to acknowledge the Enlightenment.

Attorney-General Holder looks eager to restore the rule of law and only collapsed briefly on that score after 9/11.

Hillary can listen sympathetically to ruling elites on the six continents and feel their pain. Bill is looking more obedient.

Tom Daschle is far too nice to have been chief of staff (for which he was also rumored), but strikes me as perfect for HHS where he will directly influence both my personal and my professional lives.

Jowly Joe Lieberman, the skunk, can estivate at Homeland Security and keep his opinions to himself for the next four years.

That leaves the Pentagon, Treasury and the intelligence agencies, among the higher-profile appointments. Please, Barack, don’t let any of the current team linger on there and stink up the room.

In short, despite all the rending of T-shirts and shuffling of sandals, it all feels entirely non-controversial. Let’s get on with it.

[P.S. Fun, Weird Facts Dept.]

Final results—Salt Lake County, Utah
Obama : 176,988 (48.17%)
McCain: 176,692 (48.09%)

Obama won the seat of the f***ing Mormon papacy!

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Putin-style punishment?

I’d never heard of ‘billionaire entrepreneur’ Mark Cuban before he was decked by the SEC for illegal insider stock trading, but apparently he has something to do with professional football. Or maybe basketball. Who cares? The interesting thing about the indictment is the buzz that maybe it was retaliation for his backing of a 9/11 conspiracy film that accuses Bush of masterminding the whole attack to provide an excuse for the Iraq invasion.

Now anything that suggests that George W. Bush could mastermind his way down a toboggan slide on trainer wheels is obviously fruity. But if the guy got clipped for exercising his free speech rights, further questions are in order.

It’s tempting to just ignore these cases in the spirit of, They all steal and so what? But the use of selective anti-corruption prosecution is a time-honored tool of tyranny and a constant feature of unlovely polities such as those found in Russia, China, Zimbabwe—in fact, in half the world.

Nor does it matter if Cuban is guilty, which he sure appears to be. But he shouldn’t be singled out because he financed the cult film ‘Loose Change,’ even if no one in his right mind would want to go see it. Especially in that case.

Naked Capitalism relates how an SEC lawyer in Fort Worth named Norris wrote a threatening email explicitly mentioning how ‘upset’ SEC chairman Christopher Cox must be over the film, and Cox was aware enough of the implications that he recused himself in the vote on filing the complaint. Curioser and curioser.

We know enough about how the Bush administration and its minions use every lever of power to persecute their enemies in ways old Tricky Dick Nixon could only have dreamed about. The tawdry tale hangs together—hope there’s more revelations to come.

Monday, 17 November 2008

Yes, what?

The Onion has a hilarious spoof on, well, um, us—all those folks who’ve spent a good part of the last year checking polling websites 12 times a day and dreaming of the double-fudge treat of both ousting the horrible Bushites and having a guy in charge whom we actually like.

It’s called “Obama Victory Causes Obsessive Supporters to Realize How Empty Their Lives Are.” Yikes. Breathe deeply and watch it here.

Like Tina Fey’s deadly piss-taking of the Arctic Lady, this one also rings familiar enough to make us laugh and cringe simultaneously. It says something about the increasing dementia of our system that puts not only the candidates through two years of repetitive nonsense but clogs the mental arteries of anyone paying close attention as well.

The Brits’ parliamentary system has a parallel process in which the out party is constantly jockeying and checking their polling numbers, so no doubt it’s built into an electoral system of any shape. But this one was so transformational that it’s no surprise we’re feeling it in our bones in a post-partum sort of way.

Obama is an inspiration, but he’s a huge challenge, too. The fact that our society has found itself capable of making such a beautiful, radical break with its own past resonates as a challenge to just about everything.

I’m not surprised to feel myself disgruntled about choices I’ve made, current conditions and my own capacity and productivity in everything from paid employment to my exercise program, housekeeping or having more dates.

With the sordid Bush crew in charge, it was a lot easier to blame external forces for any random unhappiness or disappointment. But the manifestation of ‘Yes, We Can!’ as an actual fact turns the question right back on oneself: So Why Aren’t You?

Saturday, 15 November 2008

G8 x 2 1/2

As long as I can remember, it seems the world has been run by a few top players: either the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—the U.S., Britain, France, Russia and China, with a few other completely marginal countries tossed in for the costumes—or the economic big boys invited to form the ‘G7’ or ‘G8’.

So it’s a bit startling to realize that the new line-up of power brokers, the so-called ‘G20’, is not only a lot larger but completely distinct in its make-up: five countries from Europe plus the EU, five from Asia, one from Africa, three North Americans, two South Americans, Turkey, Russia and Saudi Arabia. Enough for a two-day diversity seminar.

One of W’s many hubristic goofs was to toss the old world oligopoly into the trash. He ignored the Security Council and invaded Iraq without its imprimatur, and he wiped his butt with the concerns of other countries on the economic front. If people didn’t like the way the United States did things, they just didn’t understand the eternal glories of free markets and could piss off up a rope.

Now things are so bad that he couldn’t bring back those old partners with an offer of b.j.s in the Rose Garden, and anyway it would be pointless because they’re getting collectively blamed for the mess we’re in. They didn’t exactly create it, but they couldn’t stop it either. They’re history.

Obama lived in Indonesia as a kid, and now he’ll be meeting the Indonesian PM at those summits. It’s a curious symbol of a more modest, more truly globalized America finding its new place in a very different world.

White rampage in blue New York [updated]

In both of the racist attacks we’ve witnessed here in New York in the last week, local TV has featured friends of the thugs insisting they were ‘good kids’ and came from ‘decent families.’ Those supposed Norman Rockwell units produced the group that chased down 17-year-old Liberian immigrant Alie Kamara on Staten Island on election night yelling ‘Obama! Obama!’ while cracking him over the head with bats. One of Staten Island attackers was described by a teenaged girl on camera as ‘not like that at all’ and ‘decent,’ the proof being that he had planned to join the Marines.

‘Decent families’ also produced the six goons who went looking for a ‘Mexican’ to mug after a beer party in Patchogue on Long Island and found 37-year-old Ecuadorian Marcelo Lucero whom they proceeded to stab to death.

It’s tiresome to witness the old racist tropes just days after the inspiration of Nov. 4. Not just in the obvious aspect of the attacks themselves but more insidiously in the knee-jerk responses of the Caucasian event-filterers who would hardly be interviewing black teenagers to elicit laudatory comments if the roles had been reversed and a posse of hoodie-wearers from Harlem had just chased down and slaughtered a white kid for no reason.

Instead, we’d be hearing from psychiatrists and police captains demanding to know why these marauding kids’ parents were such deadbeats and what the city/county/nation was going to do about this pathological behavior once and for all. We’d see a series of candlelight vigils recalling the good deeds of the deceased, weeping and probably indignant relatives including at least one howling for blood and a careful avoidance of anything about the attackers’ world whatsoever. That would be ‘disrespectful’ to the grieving family.

In our racially-tinged worldview white kids from the suburbs just don’t have evil motives even when they ‘use bad judgment’ or ‘commit errors.’ But now it turns out, according to reporters, that the accused in Patchogue had a habit of getting loaded and roaming the streets for easy victims to beat up or rob, all of which sounds pretty similar to the hell-raising in urban ghettoes that constantly inspires law-n-order politicians and turns people into lifelong Republicans.

The other guaranteed reaction to these incidents is a police chief, usually of the lighter shade, immediately insisting that no racial or ethnic motive was involved, sometimes in the face of direct evidence to the contrary, as if the first order of business were to make sure no underlying social attitudes bear any share of responsibility. That’s particularly offensive in the Long Island case where the county supervisor is a fanatical campaigner against ‘illegal immigrants’ and fawned over openly by CNN’s despicable Lou Dobbs.

We now laud the civil rights movement as a shining moment in our history. But each of its achievements was immediately followed by a violent and sustained counter-reaction including acts that most of us would rather not think about right now. It won’t help to bury alarming signs like these two incidents and pretend they don’t mean what they mean.

[Update] I had just closed this window to open the news summary and immediately saw this from AP on an upsurge of post-election racist incidents.

Friday, 14 November 2008

I’m for it

‘How tedious,’ Sebastian Flyte would say about the non-stop heavy breathing over who’ll get what job in the Obama Administration. But the latest speculation strikes me as perfect: Hillary as Secretary of State.

A diplomat’s job is to make the powerful feel as though they’re getting what they want, and that has always been the peculiar genius of both Clintons and why neither of them should be president. Balancing the competing interests of all camps and then figuring out how to keep them satisfied isn’t the same as political leadership or statesmanship, but it’s a great skill when placed at the service of same.

I think Hillary could be a terrific manager of the country’s complex foreign relations as long as she’s not in charge of formulating them. Bill can go along to hobnob, and the Secret Service can keep busy protecting local virgins.

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

Moroni besieged [Updated][Updated again]

A demonstration in front of Manhattan’s Mormon temple drew a good 2,000 people this evening and made a mess of rush hour all along Broadway. The crowd turned out to denounce the church for its role in pushing Proposition 8 in California, which overturned marriage equality for same-sex couples the same night as Obama’s triumph.

‘Tax this church!’ they chanted while the signs alluded to touchy issues in Utah like pedophilia-laced polygamy.

People are pissed. But what’s interesting is that the issue isn’t homosexuality this time around, and it’s not even really about gay marriage either.

It’s about Mormons.

Somehow I don’t think that’s quite what the LDS elders bargained for.

It’s a sign of the new times that gay leadership has taken this fight right to the steps of the temple. That’s a ballsy approach and a much more attractive one than yet another protest down at City Hall, where the march originally was to be held. People don’t have an issue with the mayor on this one. They have a beef with the guys in bad suits dulled by a lifetime of caffeine deprivation.

I suspect the Mormons are going to regret being so visible on this issue and turning themselves into an object of mass hatred. After all, people don’t really like Mormons to start with, and they’re not going to get a lot of sympathy from their erstwhile fundamentalist or Catholic allies. They’re a vulnerable group that prospers when left alone to contemplate their golden tablets.

Next we’re going to hear appeals from Mormon spokespeople—no, make that spokesMEN—about respecting other people’s beliefs and how they are only defending their way of life, blah blah. It won’t fly, guys. Get ready for the debates on CNN: gay parents v/s Mormon ‘weddings’ featuring 12-year-old girls.

You asked for it.

[Update] The crowd estimates now range from 10 to 14 thousand, so I was off by several orders of magnitude. It was a lot of people.

[Update II] My favorite placard so far: “They get five wives, and I don't even get one!” Oh, is that unfair?

Omaha makes it 365

One for every day of the year. Electoral votes, that is.

Obama won the congressional district around Omaha because Nebraska splits its EVs. A tiny blue dot in the middle of the Great Plains.

I was off by two.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

Yet again, race

I was sitting in a hotel bar in Columbia, South Carolina, a few months ago when news of the Clinton-Obama slugfest came on the TV screen and was struck to see how the entire (100% white) crowd turned away in obvious dislike. South Carolina is bright red Republican territory, but the people in that room weren’t interested in giving either of the Democratic candidates even a cursory hearing.

So it didn’t surprise me much to see a pattern appear in the waning days of the campaign, a distinct polarization and mirror-bandwagon effect in which those states and localities where a solid bloc of the population was inclined to take Obama’s candidacy seriously broke for him decidedly while those areas that never gave him a second look piled on at the end in the opposite direction.

So you saw the polling numbers in places like Oklahoma and the Appalachian states move from 10+ in McCain’s favor to 20+ and even 30+ in the final days just as Ohio, Virginia, Florida and New Mexico were tumbling rapidly into the blue column. It was as if the existence of a critical mass of Obama signs and buttons and an active campaign operation had given people the opportunity to think that the skinny black kid might make a good leader after all.

Meanwhile, those in the traditional Republican camp seemed to reinforce each other and swing waverers away from him. Arkansas is the best example where McCain did far better than W did in either 2000 or 2004.

Today’s New York Times suggests that some sort of Bradley effect—although the paper thankfully never uses that dumb term—was clearly in operation in these areas. Perhaps it should be called the ‘Bull Connor effect’ judging from the comments reporters gleaned from locals in Alabama and elsewhere. These rural southerners weren’t saying one thing to pollsters and then switching in the privacy of the voting booth—they were comfortably consistent about their racist views throughout.

The article suggests that these areas risk marginalizing themselves in national politics as the rest of the country moves on. It notes that most Republicans in Congress now are southerners and that the party might no longer build any momentum outside of those areas where race still has the old pull.

So after four decades of their southern strategy of playing to white racial resentments, the Republicans are stuck with themselves, doubly so now that they’ve completely alienated Hispanics by inflaming the Dobbsian fury against immigrants. Their doomed national convention looked like a White Citizens Council rally from the 1960s, and even their concluding chant of ‘Drill, Baby, Drill!’ was an eerily ironic echo of ‘Burn, Baby, Burn!’ from the same epoch.

Let’s hope the Times is right and these clowns are consigned to history’s unforgiving museum. It’s time to stop getting our national politics from people still nostalgic for Jim Crow.

Postscript: The North may have gotten past Obama’s race, but the new n------ are, of course, Hispanics even up in good ol’ blue New York. A mixed-race gang of teens was arrested on Long Island yesterday for stabbing an Ecuadorian guy to death, apparently because he was the wrong ethnicity. Good work, Lou!

Saturday, 8 November 2008


One moment in President-elect Obama’s maiden news conference Friday jarred me slightly—that reference to getting his daughters a puppy from a rescue shelter, what he called ‘a mutt, like me!’ We wouldn’t have heard that line during the campaign as his team studiously avoided the topic of race and kept the focus on the universality of his proposals.

It was both self-deprecating and oddly revealing, a throw-away line that made me ask myself how the topic of race might have been handled in the Obama childhood family among the white grandparents, the half-Indonesian sister and the Hawaiian neighbors. Did they joke about the tonal variety among themselves? Did they make light of people’s occasional discomfort and the insensitive comments that Barack undoubtedly encountered growing up in Kansas and elsewhere?

We’ll probably experience a lot of moments like this as we get used to having a president and a first family who don’t look like the portraits on the White House walls. It won’t be the same as tuning into the Cosby Show or watching a parade of multihued entertainers sit on the sofa with Leno and Letterman. For white Americans it won’t be an exercise in tolerance or inclusion or feeling liberal and magnanimous about ourselves because we won’t have the option of turning to another channel or retreating into a comfort zone of familiarly Caucasian faces.

Barack Obama is going to be our president. People can dislike the president, denounce the president, mock him or hate his guts—hey, I’ve been doing that my whole adult life. But whatever we think or do, it’ll still be his black face looking down at us in the post office and his appointees’ signatures appearing on our tens and twenties. Starting in January we won’t have a choice about living with that every one of the next one thousand, four hundred and sixty days.

That’s radical.

‘Cruel, mean-spirited, immature, unprofessional jerks’

What was I saying yesterday about hypocritcal bipeds? So easy to dish it out, so tough to have it thrown back in your face.

So Sarah Palin, who winked and grinned and revved up the red-meat crowd, spat at Barack Obama for being a community organizer, baited him as a socialist traitor and friend of terrorists, played Annie Oakley, ratcheted up the rhetoric and encouraged loonies of every stripe, now feels all hurt and sensitive because her former co-conspirators turn out to be not nice people.

Boo hoo, je suis désolé.

So fight back, hockey mom! Lipstick up, pit bull! Since revenge is best served cold, maybe Alaska is just the place to dish up a big platter. Let’s hope Palin turns her wacko-guns on the people stupid enough to make her into every demagogue’s favorite pin-up. I can just see the Arctic Lady as Frankenstein rampaging through Republican ranks and laying waste to all she surveys.

Start today!

Friday, 7 November 2008

Critical eye on the God thing

One anomaly of the post-election euphoria is the California vote against gay marriage, an odd victory for the sand-swept Mormon Church amid the deep-blue sea of western voters. Mormons, who can’t seem to eliminate polygamy and systematic child abuse in the states they run, poured huge sums into the fight to screw up people’s lives who aren’t trying to tell them what to do.

Although it’s an annoying expression of mean-spiritedness that doesn’t fit with the joyously inclusionary times, marriage equality won’t be stopped, just postponed. But I’d be a little nervous if I were a religious fanatic just now.

We’ve been saddled with a vision of religion’s role in public life for decades now that has more in common with 20th-century totalitarianism than with the teachings of Jesus, whom the born-agains wouldn’t recognize if he were pissing in the next urinal. Enlightenment naiveté about human perfectability inspired Bush who thought he knew exactly what the big Guy was thinking at all times.

Barack Obama is known to follow the thinking of Reinhold Niebuhr, the Protestant theologian who warned against passivity in the face of evil and at the same time cautioned people against deputizing themselves as saints. Andrew Bacevich has some prudent words in today’s Boston Globe about the failures of evangelism as foreign policy, and we may well be in for some interesting national discussions about where all the self-righteous Bible-thumping has taken us in 30 years and especially the last eight.

I think the light may soon be shown on that old biped hobbyhorse, Hypocrisy, especially as manifest in the projection of our own worst tendencies onto the hated enemy. Just as the Mormons should focus on some home-town clean-up, our (emphasis on our) nation may be in for some soul-searching about how religion-driven delusions blinded the country to its own crimes, just as much as any Iranian mullah or mad bomber from Sri Lanka.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

North Carolina to Obama

Okay, I was off by three electoral votes—he won 364.

My optimism got the better of me—I also said the national margin of victory would be nine points rather than the actual six. I reversed the results in Indiana and Missouri (Obama won the former and lost the latter) and was overly sanguine about the Republican heartland (North Dakota stayed with McCain).

But my intuition was much sharper than I had any reason to expect based on past experience. I sensed the shift back in September and said so right here (I swear I haven’t altered any back posts except to correct a spelling error here and there.)

The level of anxious anticipation and doubt among my friends and acquaintances was quite amazing. I don’t mean to twit you as nervous nellies, but maybe having lived under military dictatorship I had a little more faith in our rickety old democracy than the average person.

Even under Pinochet Chile was capable of holding a reasonably fair election in 1988 and booting the old criminal out of the presidency although not entirely out of power. (That took another 20 years.) When your time’s up, it’s very hard to hold back the tide of history. Even the execrable Mugabe in Zimbabwe isn’t managing to do it very well despite his control of the entire repressive apparatus and his utter lack of empathy with the starving people he misrules.

So based on my modest success, I will now venture another set of predictions.

I think Obama will prove to be a remarkably astute and methodical politician who will line up his forces, gauge his options and move swiftly to win the victories he needs. No doubt the resistance will be intense, but he has to know that the mandate of this week won’t last forever. The exiting Republicans have less credibility than a memoirist on Oprah right now, so now’s the time to pounce.

No one is talking about defense spending, but a collapsed economy might provide an excellent moment to carve out some substantial savings from that overblown monster while waiting for economic activity to revive and refloat the collective boat. A good way to finance that big middle-class tax cut he promised us, too.

Britain established national health care during the depths of its post-war devastation of the late 1940s. That’s nowhere on the radar, but a radically simple proposal hitting Congress in the first 60 days or so might get a lot further than Hillary’s ill-starred plate of spaghetti.

Financial markets reregulation is a no-brainer and should be readied for action before his daughters have arranged their stuffed animals in the upstairs bedrooms.

I wonder if the touchier topics might not get pushed down the list a little so that the political hits come after the first big votes. Among these: closing Guantánamo Bay, dismantling ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell,’ withdrawal from Iraq.

Anyway, we’ll know soon enough.