Thursday, 31 January 2008

Edwards leaves; reality takes a hit

John Edwards’s attempt to get us to look at social class and the pernicious effects of the ongoing skewering of income and wealth never caught fire. Now that he’s bowed out, the remaining alternatives are: a too-familiar face who shows every intention of consolidating Bush’s worst tendencies or an inspiring albeit unfamiliar one.

Too bad we never really got a debate about what Edwards was saying. Instead, in the midst of the worst economic panorama of the Bush presidency, we got a dopey consensus that the American people need to get a CARE package and rush over to the mall with it.

No one dares to suggest that we’ve organized our society and our economic affairs in such a way that people have been encouraged and tricked into a habit of spending beyond their means, a habit that has to stop—and will.

When countries like Argentina or Russia got into similar trouble, the Great Experts at the IMF and other Washington power tanks prescribed radical government spending cuts and starving of domestic demand. It’s tough medicine, they said, but somebody’s gotta take it.

Funny how that turns out not to be doctor’s orders for us. Despite the appeal of the free-money strategy and the unfairness involved in the mortgage debacle, it remains true that U.S. consumers as an aggregate have over-borrowed and overspent. But politics dictates that the consequences be passed over and passed on.

Edwards was the lone voice suggesting that a redistribution of income was needed to get us through the inevitable consequences of Bush’s eight-year kegger. But that discourse didn’t feel much like the ‘hope’ or ‘change’ the country’s young people were after.

Wherever this whiplash election goes next, we’ll miss the note of sober reality Edwards was injecting. Perhaps he can go to work next on representing the interests of working and poor people now that the Democratic Party has forgotten how to do it.

Sunday, 27 January 2008

Clintons Sink

There are mountains of electronic commentary on the bone-crushing Obama triumph in South Carolina, so I won’t add to or repeat it except to say that I never understood why people insisted that the Clintons were ‘good politicians.’ A good politician not only obtains power but manages to do something useful with it. Instead, they are nothing more than good self-promoters and today are looking a lot less clever on that front as well.

Saturday, 26 January 2008

As above, so below

‘You don’t know who you can trust,’ a high-level banker told NYT columnist Floyd Norris at the Davos power summit. A pity, that.

How ironic that the subprime mess that originated in flimflamming the poor out of their last dimes is now manifesting itself at the highest reaches of the highly pyramidical world of finance and in an exactly parallel way, too. First, sleazebag real estate brokers convinced working people to sign onto impossible bank loans with hidden fees and balloon mortgage payments. They then bundled the bad deals into Scam-Paks and sold them off with the rating agencies’ collusion as top-flight, AAA securities.

The lid remained on while housing prices continued to soar irrationally, then blew off like the wooden derrick in There Will Be Blood. And There Was Blood. The banks have now tasted a little of the bitter medicine mortgage holders have been gulping down the past few months and feeling quite put out, I have no doubt, that they didn’t know what they were getting into.

They don’t know what each other’s portfolios are worth and so can’t do their usual business. Credit seizes up, and the wheels of commerce grind to, if not a halt exactly then at least a disturbingly low gear. If this keeps up, no one will be able to make money.

It’s just not fair.

I can’t think of any better moral to this story than the old saying, What goes around, comes around. Secrecy and no rules—that’s what the financial world has demanded from a parade of accomodating politicians of both parties, all liberally greased by the cash that emerged from these practices. They got their wish, and now they have plenty of time to meditate on the question, Is it good for spiritual growth for one’s prayers to be answered?


Twilight Highlights: Do you totally love the latest about the trader at Société Général dodging the internal security systems and blowing an $8 billion hole in the place? I don’t believe for a minute the assurances that this earthquake had nothing to do with the MLK-weekend stock crash and the subsequent emergency interest-rate action by the Fed. Imagine: world banking turned upside down by a single guy at a computer screen. Isn’t that special?

Thursday, 24 January 2008

Nanny State Rescues Stockbrokers

Now that the ticker-tape is settling after the stock market panic of last weekend, some minority voices are emerging to question whether the Fed’s drastic interest rate cut was the best medicine at the right time. It certainly made Wall Street happy, and there is an assumption on those business-oriented TV shows that Wall Street = Us.

That’s not true although the equation Their Whiny Snuffling = Our Pneumonia remains painfully accurate.

One yearns for a sober voice to deconstruct some of the blather we’re hearing about economics these days instead of the non-stop honking from the testosterone-poisoned experts on the airwaves.

It’s hard to work up the same level of worry about the state of equities as when they bore some relation to actual workers making actual products. But since so much of fancy finance today is an elaborate, reified guessing-game based on derivatives of derivatives of derivatives, why shouldn’t large chunks of it suffer ignominious collapse?

Or perhaps more to the point, what guarantee do we have that the cure is not merely postponing the inevitable? In which case should not our leaders be putting in place something that will ease our likely suffering, i.e. NOT a wad of quickly-spent cash?

But don’t hold your breath expecting any sort of proposal along these lines to emerge from the lapdog Democrats who rushed over to share the pain with W and show how bipartisan they are—not that anyone cares. If the positions were reversed, the Republicans first would blame the collapse on their enemies, then indignantly demand a pound of flesh for joining in any salvage operations.

Not our loyal Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi who could hardly suppress their delighted smiles at being invited to the White House. I half expected them to pull down their knickers and submit to a sound caning before the cameras.

That didn’t happen, but who cares to wager that they won’t buckle on extending the plutocratic tax cuts that have bankrupted the state?

Bernanke’s done his best to put the beached whale back into the water. But if his manuever doesn’t work, it’s not clear how many more buckets of cheap cash he can slosh over it.

In past years whenever things looked a little shaky, the calming line was always, The fundamentals are sound. But today any lay observer can see that they’re not.

Monday, 21 January 2008

Line-dancing and -jumping

I went to a big, commercial, New York dancing party Sunday night and enjoyed Martin Luther King’s birthday in the company of several thousand black, brown, white, gay, straight and funnily-dressed people. There was hardly enough room to take a deep breath, and the lines to get up and down the stairs were ridiculous not to mention the coat-check process. But people were in a remarkably generous and cordial mood.

Maybe it was because the drinks were too expensive for anyone to get wasted, but I was continually struck by how people tried to lean politely out of one’s way, smiled at each other and seemed genuinely concerned about not having their good time at the expenses of other people’s.

I stood rather stiffly pressed against the bar (not to say trapped although I did have nervous recollections about the Rhode Island club fire) and watched a diverse group bounce joyfully up and down, including one big guy with whose shoulders I got well acquainted since they spent a good half-hour just centimeters from my nose. ‘Feels like the ‘70s’ he said, and indeed it did feel like the scene in one of the tribal gay clubs of yesteryear before the stratification of gay commerce based on one’s sub-clan identification.

There’s something special about a social environment dominated by gay men and yet fluid enough to incorporate everyone with ease. I kept pondering how the dance floor vibe would have changed if it had been predominantly straight guys (who were mostly home watching the New York Giants win a ticket to the Superbowl) instead.

I think the answer is that there would have been more fistfights.

Of course, there were a lot of muscle-y fellows with those rounded titties that don’t come from hauling bricks or lumberjacking, but it wasn’t a place to stand around looking fabulous and sneering at people with the wrong bodies. I watched a short, bulbous fellow and two gym Adonises interact quite playfully in recognition that the point of the evening was not who was going home with whom but physical ecstasy of a more collective variety.

On the way out I wanted to rip the face off a saucy little queen who slipped out of the men’s room and into the coat-check line ahead of everyone else, thus saving himself the half-hour’s tedium that a belief in democracy required. But that’s our human fate—while the majority cooperate intuitively, a few stand ready to take advantage and set themselves up with special privileges. The ideological justification follows close behind.

Anyway, I enjoyed my Martin Luther King holiday. He would have, too.

Sunday, 20 January 2008

May I please lose? Thank you

The only entity with a worse sense of strategy and less vocation for political victory than the hapless Democratic Party is, by all evidence, the Democratic voter. You can almost see the Republicans salivate at another chance to run against Bill Clinton. Hey, that got them into the White House in 2000, why shouldn’t it work again?

I say Bill rather than Hillary C because as her campaign bumbled past Iowa into near-oblivion, his profile has constantly increased to the point where it is now not at all clear exactly who is running for president on that family ticket. Bill was key to the Nevada triumph and will be all over South Carolina in the next week doing that faux-sincere thing that he pulls off convincingly and she doesn’t.

Is it really an advance for women that the first female presidential candidate has to be pushed nearly off the stage in favor of her husband? And we make fun of the feudal, family-based politics of Pakistan or Sri Lanka.

Another round of the tired Clintons and their bankrupt, middle-of-the-road, pander-to-everyone approach to politics—how crashingly tedious. I’m all for respecting one’s elders, but political leaders should have a whiff of freshness about them, especially when the country’s problems are as serious as ours and the old formulas so obviously dysfunctional.

The fact that young people have turned out for Obama, despite his serious limitations, while the Clintons win among the blue-haired, should be enough to tell us that this race is as creaky as great-granddad’s knees. Too bad the nation’s Democrats don’t seem to have much youthful bounce in theirs.

Friday, 18 January 2008

More allowance, please, Dad

I caught a few minutes of the Joint Economic Committee hearings with Fed chief Bernanke on C-SPAN yesterday, and if they’re typical, it does not bode well for the republic. The Republican members were sharply ideological and nasty while the Democratic ‘opposition’ was bumbling, parochial and confused. Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur might be a very nice lady from Toledo, but mistaking Bernanke for the former head of Goldman Sachs (um, that would be Treasury Secretary Paulsen) looked amateurish. I mean it’s an honest mistake—if you’re a taxi driver.

Other Democrats droned on about their pet projects, obviously eyeing the next staff-written press release. Meanwhile, the Republicans were taking in the big picture, arguing for more tax cuts or prompting Bernanke to say things economic were neither good nor bad ‘but thinking makes them so.’

It was a short but quite devastating lesson in the difference between the two parties and why Bush gets away with bloody mayhem. If one of the Democrats had managed to put questions that reflected a cogent and inclusive critique of what has gone wrong with our economy and how it could be put right, I didn’t see it. Only then could the party could lay claim to being an alternative. As it stood yesterday, they seemed quite comfortable letting the grown-ups handle things.


I have shied away from predicting anything in this immensely unpredictable political season. But a few events recently have led me to suspect that the excitement will be over fairly soon.

Amazing as it seems, Romney and Clinton represent the kinds of safely meaningless kinda-sorta postures that a few gazillion dollars can ease down the throats of the voters. There will no doubt be more enthusiasm around this or that other candidate, but from my current perspective it looks like the whole exercise will soon be turning us right back off and we’ll preparing ourselves for some major nose-holding come November. I hope I’m wrong.

Thursday, 17 January 2008

Speedboating into the cataract

Well, well, what a surprise. The tale of the Iranian speedboats hurtling toward U.S. warships threatening suicidal mayhem and dropping scary ‘white boxes’ into the water turns out to have been a total hoax.

I am deeply shocked.

And just when I was settling in to enjoy the reports on Bush’s stay at the Emirates Palace Hotel and all the neat jewel-encrusted ceremonial swords he’s getting from the emirs.

Luckily, Bush is an invited guest. If he were paying for his suite, Bernancke would have to recalculate next week’s interest rates.

IPS reports in full Wednesday about all the contradictions, denials and dismissals of the supposed speedboat incident coming from WITHIN the Pentagon and the Navy. I won’t repeat them except to note that despite having been fed a steady diet of blatant lies for seven years, U.S. news organs remain staggeringly eager to slurp up any narrative that will give them a few moments of on-air breathlessness.

No matter if it’s all b.s. 48 hours later—just on to the next fairy tale!

Análisis, a Chilean magazine, carries an interview with a diplomat who was that country’s ambassador to the UN in the run-up to the Iraq war. Chile sat on the Security Council at the time. He runs down all the disastrous things that people insisted would likely (and in fact, did) happen if Bush went forward with his wacko plan.

The Chileans are hardly known for their valiant resistance to U.S. influence, but this diplomat describes how even they balked at going along with the hare-brained American scheme.

He adds that even though things look bad for the lamest duck since James Buchanan, he still fears that worse news may yet follow. I take this to mean that the Bushites are still determined to start a new war with Iran, despite growing opposition to it within the armed forces.

Twilight Highlights: W’s hilarious toadying to the loathesome Mubarak in Egypt recalls his father’s diplomatic grovel 20 years ago when he toasted Philippine dictator Marcos and praised his ‘commitment to democracy.’ These guys couldn’t spot a republic if it ran up and bit them in the hindquarters.

Tuesday, 15 January 2008

Martin Luther King & Dred Scott

While Barack and Hillary go at it over who should get credit for the civil rights advances of 40 years ago, they both waffle about the key civil rights issue of today: the treatment of defenseless prisoners by agents of the United States government.

In a ruling worthy of Justice Taney’s 1857 decision in the Dred Scott case that reaffirmed the chattel status of ‘persons descended from black Africans,’ the Bushite-pere judge Karen Lecraft Henderson celebrated King’s birthday last week in a peculiar way. She declared that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act does not apply to detainees at the Guantánamo prison camp because they do not belong to the category of ‘persons.’

The D.C. Court of Appeals ruling also restated approvingly a phrase from the district court decision that should be chiseled into the Washington Monument as a testament to the Bush years: “Torture is a foreseeable consequence of the military’s detention of suspected enemy combatants.”

Moral outrage bubbles forth over things tucked away safely in the past. We get endless parsing of whether Clinton’s statement was an attempt to downgrade King’s role or whether Obama supporters are appealing to the civil rights-era hero to get an edge in the South Carolina primary.

But neither camp shoulders the tougher chore of confronting those who today are turning people into animals, starting with the armed forces of the United States and their intellectual abettors like Judge Henderson—of South Carolina.

Obama criticizes the handling of detainees at Guantánamo but mostly because the system is ‘sloppy’ and ineffective. He supported the renewed Patriot Act because it made ‘important revisions that reflected our experience about what worked and what didn’t work’—whether or not those affected by it managed to become ‘persons.’

Clinton wouldn’t be caught dead defending the human rights of unpopular foreigners, especially on a sensitive defense issue. For example, at the Las Vegas debate she was asked, ‘What is more important: human rights or national security?’

Not one to dither in the face of a chance to put on the tough-guy act, Clinton dove headfirst for the latter: ‘The first obligation of the president of the U.S. is to protect and defend the U.S.’

She quickly covered herself by a nod to ‘other interests’—which she significantly did not name, then dashed after the Anti-terrorist of the Year award in the rest of her reply.

These aren’t folks who deserve to be telling us about what Martin Luther King did on the margins of our society, pilloried by racists and harassed by the FBI, or about who deserves to inherit his mantle.

[Update: Reprinted by The Huffington Post Jan 15, 2008]

Sunday, 13 January 2008

Just one Gucci bag for me today, thanks

All the talk this holiday season was about how the big retailers were going to do in their attempts to cajole, bribe, hustle, tempt, seduce and bamboozle consumers into racking up more credit card debt for the divine holidays. Turned out, not so well. The latest bad news came from Tiffany’s showing how the ‘low-end luxury shopper’ (would that be Audrey Hepburn?) pulled back from that second diamond ring.

The results are rippling through the business pages, and more teetering bank and investment house presidents are wondering whether they will bounce back or fade into retirement clutching their gold ingots. It’s kind of amazing that our future depends upon whether people buy up enough crap to keep the credit-addicted economic machinery from freezing up.

Since rich people are in trouble now along with the rest of us, there is crushing pressure on the Fed chief Bernanke to pull down interest rates and save their behinds. He announced last week that he will duly cooperate, demonstrating that he hasn’t got Greenspan’s political nostrils—the latter would have given the financiers what they wanted before they had asked for it and then been hailed as a genius and monetary statesman.

But the stock market euphoria that always accompanies promise of an interest rate reduction lasted only a single day before more signs of trouble emerged. The average consumer can’t bail anyone out this time because everyone’s pretty much spent out, and even borrowing another half-trillion from the Chinese to keep the pyramid afloat isn’t such an attractive option.

Something tells me that the pocketbook pain is going to be pretty severe around election time. Wouldn’t it be grand if the sensation of one’s own nuts being squeezed, albeit metaphorically, stimulated a little more outrage around the practice of state torture? I can dream.

Friday, 11 January 2008

Tom Friedan & the Eye of the Potato

New York City’s Health Commissioner Tom Friedan has a really stupid new idea that’s about 25 years old and was pretty dumb back then: close all the gay sex clubs and bathhouses.

This move is the latest lame response to the fact that although no one knows how to get the new HIV infection rate down, the folks in charge do think they know how to make people stop having sex. I agree that the entire field of HIV prevention is in crisis, but one thing that’s NOT going to help is another attempt to get between guys and their dicks.

When AIDS first appeared and nobody knew what it was or how it was transmitted, it’s understandable that panicked public health authorities decided to impede the kinds of casual sex that patrons of gay bathhouses and saunas typically engage in. But even San Francisco, where it was done first, soon moved beyond the simple-minded notion that the venues cause the behavior or that shutting them down would end it.

Friedan’s sex inspectors even want to move against private sex parties, which would draw mocking guffaws from downtown if it were occurring in Georgia. One of Friedan’s top deputies in the HIV program quit, calling the move a ‘witchhunt.’

In fact, saunas and bathhouses are sometimes the best environments to teach or model safe behavior, and there’s something to be said, too, for recognizing that not everybody is going to be 100% safe 100% of the time—it’s called being alive.

Setting oneself up as a hall monitor checking on who’s putting what where is just the kind of Miss Prim sex policing that turned off generations of gay men to the safe-sex message entirely and stimulated fetishism around ‘barebacking’ and similar phenomena.

New York fancies itself oh-so-cool and hip when it comes to sex, but this latest wrinkle smells suspiciously like caving to the Christian right’s relentless war against doing it, dressed up as public health protection.

It’s too bad that Friedan is doing this Giuliani imitation because it will weaken support for his successful, ground-breaking anti-smoking campaign that took bars, clubs and restaurants smoke-free. The tobacco industry’s shills will jump on this crackdown and draw a phony parallel, saying it shows how the nanny state wants to dictate our behavior and limit personal freedom.

That will resonate, especially among gays who already smoke at much higher rates than everyone else. Friedan’s inability to distinguish between the two situations is giving Philip Morris a big fat belated Christmas present just as the drop in smoking prevalence has stalled.

It’s not as if there were no gay lobby or AIDS prevention outfits around to object, but the latter at least are too reliant on DoH dollars to put up much of a fight. Meanwhile, the experts worrying about the spike in new infections wonder where all the feisty spirit and inspiration of the old days went. Good question.

If we’d have waited for answers from doctors and health departments in the 1980s, the concept of ‘safe sex’ wouldn’t exist at all. Their solution would have been no sex.

The AIDS field needs a new round of radical defiance, and there’s no consensus on just what form it should take. But it has to start from the lessons AIDS taught us about the subjective aspect of people’s sexual and emotional beings and not resuscitate failed ‘disease control’ measures that smack of previous centuries.

Thursday, 10 January 2008

Surge of what?

A prediction: Most of this week’s one-year-after stories about the ‘surge’ will take as their point of departure the implicit assumption that the country of Iraq belongs to us. Therefore, the important issues will be, in descending order: (1) level of U.S. casualties; (2) level of Iraqi military casualties; (3) overall number of violent incidents; (4) ‘pacification’ of previously dangerous neighborhoods, enabling little boys to go out and play where no kites have flown before; (5) return of smiling Iraqis to their bombed-out domiciles; and (6) that’s about it.

There will no discussion of the substantial portion of the population living in desperate squalor in Syria and other less-than-appealing holiday destinations. Nor will there be much of a nod to the ignominious failure of the main thesis behind the ‘surge’ in the first place: progress toward a political settlement.

I don’t pretend to know much about the country, but it strikes me that that goal is impossible no matter happens, based on the assumption that people tend not to trust quislings who collaborate in the foreign occupation of their country. Maybe things are bad enough at this point that those Iraqis still inside the country would warily follow the lead of the Green-Zone regime if it were to miraculously become functional.

Given the low likelihood of that happening, someone will have to explain to me exactly how the Iraqi ‘government’ is unlike the South Vietnamese Thieu-Ky regime of the 1970s and why it will end any differently.

Boat People

The Pentagon says an Iranian gunboat harassed U.S. forces in the Gulf; Iran says it didn’t. The navy spokesman played a video and audio tape of threats to blow up the vessel; Iran said it was a fake. Either side might be making up stuff, but which has more credibility for telling the truth these days?

Meanwhile, I read somewhere that the Pentagon is purposely calling the waterway the ‘Arabian’ Gulf now, rather than the ‘Persian’, to try to piss off the mullahs. Are these guys twelve? I guess it makes sense to the Bushites to provoke the adversaries by trying to be a prick. Maybe the Iranian News Agency should reciprocate by referring to ‘American-occupied Colorado.’

Wednesday, 9 January 2008

Chief Executive for Garbage Disposal

Whoever finally becomes the Democrats’ nominee and (Lord, hear our prayer) shellacs the Republicans in November, the next president is likely to face such a gargantuan mess that you’d think it would cool the candidates’ eagerness to win a little. While the New Hampshire voting was going on, the Dow Jones was crumbling another 200 points, a major mortgage firm was denying bankruptcy rumors and Treasury Secretary Paulson was suggesting that the stop-foreclosure remedy they’re preparing might be extended to five years instead of just two.

If we start out 2009 in the midst of a recession, there will be no stimulus wiggle-room available since Bush spent all our reserves, and the safety net constructed to get us through hard times will remain shredded, thanks to the slobbering eagerness of the plutocrat party and the passive complicity of the other one.

Meanwhile, we will now be hearing a lot more about getting past ‘partisan gridlock’ and making nice across the aisle. Naturally, this happens just when the Republicans—who loved partisan nastiness when they were in charge—are looking at an extended stay in the wilderness.

Bipartisan agreeableness will mean none of the kinds of substantial shifts in government policy and action (or ‘change’ as the candidates suddenly discovered we want) will have a prayer.

We don’t want gridlock, of course, but it would be nice to have someone actually stand for something. Now that the preliminary hoopla is over, it is time to demand that the bland phrases from the leading candidates start to be replaced by some tougher and less Hallmark-y policy suggestions.

Personally, I’ve heard enough about effing ‘change’ from the people who got us here.

Tuesday, 8 January 2008

People Get Ready

In another six months we may be digging out Robert Kuttner's prescient 2007 book The Squandering of America and shaking our heads in sorrow. As is so often the case in biped history, the really bad news may turn out to have been hidden in plain view.

Kuttner’s thesis is that our politico-business elites systematically have ignored the lessons learned from the economic meltdown of the 1930s and undermined the regulatory apparatus constructed in its aftermath to avoid a repetition. They have rationalized this dismantling of the financial safeguards for the usual reasons—herd-driven greed and the irresistible temptation of the possible—sort of like knocking off defenseless Iraq. Wall Street highwaymen saw that they could get away with holding up the financial system and walking off with a cool billion. So they did.

Now the speculative game is unraveling on all sides, led by the famous subprime mortgage debacle. But Kuttner argued that the spinout could come from a half-dozen arenas of irrational, over-leveraged, unregulated, speculative shenanigans—all made possible by the bipartisan abandonment of the government’s role as referee.

If he’s right, the casualties haven’t even begun to pile up. With hundreds of secretive hedge funds driving the credit, stock and commodity markets, all on borrowed cash, further disruptions are not only inevitable but likely to cascade throughout the system in a most unpleasant way, and not just for them.

Homowners are obviously on the hook now, but these guys also control our pension fund money. Given all the bogus hysteria over the alleged future bankruptcy of the Social Security system, it would be ironic if instead it was the private sector that went bust and left us destitute in our old age.

But don’t expect to hear much about this from McCain, Obama or Huckabee as they roam New Hampshire chirping about ‘change’ and defending us little guys. Politicians now need such obscene amounts of cash to compete that they live way too far up the GI tract of big business to be suddenly shining any useful torches on those pipes. Or as Kuttner phrases it in his subtitle, ‘How the failure of politics undermines our prosperity.’

Edwards, whose populist rhetoric comes closest to sounding an alarm, hasn’t caught on much, and given the influence all that money buys, it’s even harder to believe he would or could actually do what he says once elected. Real change may indeed be en route, but it’s far more likely to result from disaster on a massive scale than from the superficial, feel-good rhetoric driving this electoral process.

Sunday, 6 January 2008

There Will Be Prizes

One common feature of the many film critics’ Top 10 lists this year was the consistent, though not universal, presence of There Will Be Blood. Hardly anyone had seen it at the time the lists came out since it had opened only a couple days before the new year, just in time to qualify for Oscar nominations (and Top 10 lists).

If I didn’t know that Hollywood is an honest place where altruistic people dedicate their lives to Art, I might suspect that some sort of fix was in. The pre-release buzz was so laudatory and breathless that it took me three tries to get near the picture at all as every show was sold out hours in advance.

Blood tells the story of a turn-of-the-century oil prospector and entrepreneur against a backdrop of frontier life in the Southwest circa 1900. The title suggests an epic tale of ruthless competition for the black gold and the accompanying pervasive social and political corruption, a sort of Chinatown with tumbleweed.

Instead, we get derricks-by-Disney. Daniel Day-Lewis, starring as Snidely Whiplash, masticates his lines en route to full dastardliness around the fourth reel. His main antagonist is a pimply lad who fancies himself a faith-healer and whose preaching is about as lively as a sixth-grade Christmas pageant. Although a good decade elapses in the course of the film, the kid’s stilted dialogue doesn’t advance any further than his facial hair; even his spots remained fixed in place.

But no matter—his job is to be a pious creep, rile Day-Lewis and annoy us so that we can relish his come-uppance. Even more annoying, though, are the three hours we spend watching this sprawling mess of a movie trudge to its pointless conclusion.

By the end we’ve seen a few bits of frontier lore, observed the primitive and dangerous mechanics of early oil extraction, and watched a parade of characters roll by in matching period costumes. But the personages are as flat as the cut-out buildings of the hokey western sets.

Blood isn’t the worst movie around, but it’s sloppy, unconvincing and an awful bore. Why anyone would dare call this clunker a ‘masterpiece’ is a total mystery. However, if a Gucci bag full of cool electronics were to appear on my doorstep, I promise to praise it as great filmmaking.

Saturday, 5 January 2008

The CIA's Torture Porn

Now that there are criminal investigations underway, we’re going to hear a lot about knowledge and complicity in the CIA and the White House about the destruction of the torture tapes. But we should be taking a moment as well to consider why exactly they were made. Tom Englehardt of makes an obvious point that I haven’t read elsewhere: that one purpose of the tapes was training.

If you lived in South America during the 1970s or ‘80s, you heard a lot about how people are tortured, most of which you wish you could somehow wash out of your brain afterward. But the human rights organizations also researched how the torturers became who they were. After all, even for a seriously sick element, some of this stuff takes a strong stomach. How did their bosses create a cadre of human beasts who wouldn’t flinch at it?

One way found to desensitize them was by showing videotapes of torture, starting with animals. (I’m not making this up.) After the video was over, the instructor then quizzed the group with specific questions about how this or that organ was successfully tormented or the precise way the various techniques and instruments were applied. This procedure gets the group to distance itself from the victim and concentrate on the techncial aspects of the ‘performance.’

If this sounds repulsive and nauseating to you, then you remain a human being for now. However, it very probably describes exactly the scenario that has been playing out in secret camps run by agents of the United States of America with the enthusiastic support of the very highest levels of its democratically elected leadership.

How does that make you feel?

Friday, 4 January 2008

Ironies of Iowa

I watched the Iowa caucus proceedings on C-SPAN for a while, and the sight of average folks shuffling around high school gyms and church basements trying to express their political will was heartwarming. It’s a flawed and unrepresentative process but a democratic one, and last night was an excellent example of its potency in channeling a popular statement of considerable weight. My hardly original take on the outcome is that the country is in a rebellious mood and ready to kick serious butt.

Question: Strip away from triumphant Mike Huckabee the abortion nastiness, the antigay pandering and the sudden, born-again hostile stance on Mexicans, and what do you have?

Answer: a liberal.

While some of us smile nervously at the strength of the Bible-thumping social reactionaries, Republican Wall Street must be even more uneasy at the class undertones of the thumping it got last night at the hands of the prayerful.

The bankers and CEOs should have known better than to anoint a slick standard-bearer like Romney who so patently tailors his message to the political exigencies of the moment. It looked too much like an expression of contempt for their long-time evangelical patsies who have patiently supported their own pauperization (and ours) in exchange for anti-sex education and a state religion.

It’s still hard to imagine Huckabee getting much further in this suddenly entertaining election cycle, given his many rough edges and lack of a serious war chest. But the disarray among the Republicans as they, for once, fight over the Titanic’s desk chairs will be most amusing to watch.


So the youthful hordes said to be swarming to the Obama banner were not an illusion. No doubt they will be treated much more kindly by the media than were the Deaniacs of four years ago since the Obamians are as politically bland and vague as their candidate’s speeches. Whereas Howie the Screamer actually had positions that threatened the status quo, Barack gives out a string of thundering commonplaces and cozy bromides.

But the image of the skinny black guy riding the shoulders of American youth towards the White House is irresistible, and it seems obvious in retrospect that the symbolism should have moved the depoliticized teens so deeply. Having spent a lot of time in the southern U.S. this last year, I can attest to the complete dismantling of the color bar and the eagerness of many white Americans to distance themselves from the blatant forms of racism of our recent past.

This says very little about the more institutionalized racism in things like housing, education and health that persist quite merrily there and elsewhere and do not stir local youth to any particular signs of dismay. But symbolism is real, and now that the Clintonoid machine has been dealt what we can only hope was a deadly blow, the possibilities for something new are legion.

A lot depends on what is really going on in the mind of Mr Obama, which so far has not been at all evident.


Summary: The vast sums of cash oiling the Republicrat juggernaut could not stop the expression of popular will. Neither Romney nor Clinton, H, were served by their careful, focus-group-driven phrases and their systematic courting of the nomenklatur and the elites. The stock rhetoric doesn’t add up, and people want something new. Good for them.

Thursday, 3 January 2008

“They All Lie”

That’s what Suffolk County (NY) prosecutor James McCready said in defense of the intimidation and psychological games he used to get then 17-year-old Martin Tankleff to ‘confess’ to murdering his parents. Tankleff is now 36 and served nearly two decades before getting out of prison just last week when an appellate court threw out his 1989 conviction.

The new county D.A. said Wednesday he won’t retry Tankleff, an admission that the case against him was rickety, to say the least. The appeals court had found ample evidence that other person or persons were involved in the double killing, and Governor Spitzer is considering a new state-led investigation, which may include a look at police misconduct.

McCready was featured in a TV investigative report on the case a few months ago and challenged on his use of a police gimmick: they told the shocked teenager (who had just discovered his parents’ corpses) that his father had recovered consciousness in the ER and fingered him as the assailant. The kid assumed he had done something in his sleep and began to confess, then promptly repudiated the confession.

The father had never said any such thing (he remained dead), but that hesitation was enough for a jury to convict Tankleff and ruin his life. The police had a suspect and didn’t bother to look into the forensic evidence that would have contradicted their fantasy construction.

Witnessing the denouement of this terrible miscarriage of justice certainly throws some light on the official use of torture to wring confessions of all sorts out of guys with Arabic surnames, then throwing away the records of same. As the probe into who knew what about the destruction of the infamous torture videos proceeds, we can fall back on Prosecutor McCready’s dictum about the suspects:


Moment of Sort-of Truth

At long last we'll have some concrete results, rather than pundit pomposity, to look at after the Iowa caucuses are done tonight. That’s a relief although I’m not looking forward to the endless parsing of the numbers. Seems appropriate that the voting is occurring along with the first blast of Arctic frigidity in these parts. Shopping’s done, partying’s over, and now it’s time for getting through winter somehow, catching up on work and facing the unattractive domestic and international panorama about to be bequeathed to us by the lamest ducks since James Buchanan encouraged the secessionist movement in the 1850s. My only prediction is that 2008 is going to be full of surprises. Pretty safe, eh?

Tuesday, 1 January 2008

Election Year

Now that the New Year is upon us, and the first Moment of Truth draws near, it’s time to define ourselves. Who will win the presidential nominations and the final prize?

My friend Jerry started a parlor game tradition for the holidays, in which everyone has to say who they think (not favor) will be the winning nominees and finally the president-elect. He asked a roomful of us that, on tape, at a 1979 New Year’s Eve party in New York, and not one person predicted that Ronald Reagan would become the president a year later. It all seems so inevitable after the fact, but it certainly was not at the time.

The results of replaying this game have been quite fascinating because the answers change from one holiday to the next. During Thanksgiving festivities everyone was convinced that Giuliani would take the nomination and carry on to win next November (myself not included). When we entered the pre-Christmas season, Giuliani’s name had all but disappeared from the buzz in favor of Hillary, McCain, Romney and even Huckabee (who was still a second-tier dark horse).

By New Year’s Eve the predictions had shifted again, but interestingly enough there’s no sign of consensus, which seems to coincide with what the polls are saying, too: who knows? There was still plenty of polemic and emotional engagement with the outcome although it’s hard to see how it can last through this endless election season.

Personally, I would love to see a candidate with the foreign policy chops of Joe Biden, the populist, kick-butt rhetoric of Edwards, the careful homework of Clinton’s team and the iconoclasm of a Richardson or a Kucinic. Throw in the lanky boyishness of Obama, and an out-front defender of secularism and/or the rule of law (none of the above), and you’ve got the candidate I want to vote for.

As for the Republicans, God only knows who will win, and since they claim to be consubstantial with the Holy Ghost, I don’t understand why they need to have primaries at all. I guess it’s to spend some of the money pouring in from the guys they’ve made so happy in the last 20 years.

However, given the total mess Huckabee has made of his 15 minutes of fame, it would be grand to see him win and tie the entire party’s collective panties into a real Gordian knot. A Republican meltdown would force the Democrats to define themselves more concretely instead of clambering over one another to occupy the mushy center.