Friday, 30 May 2008

Religion as farce

The latest spectacle from a preacher peddling his peculiar vision of the nation’s needs could be a great opportunity to ask why we have so damn much confessional presence in our political debate anyway. Father Michael Pfleger, the Catholic priest black-guy-wannabe caught on video in a mocking, holy-roller harangue of Hillary Clinton, is one more in a long line of religio-political showboaters who should decide whether they want to guide the flock to heaven or take up auctioneering.

With the help of YouTube, we’ll undoubtedly have a continuing parade of self-appointed sociology experts white-knuckling their pulpits and making a damn fool of themselves from now until November. Someone in charge should tell these jamokes to shut up, and I’m glad Pfleger’s cardinal instructed this particular goofball to stay the hell out of the presidential election. Unfortunately, many of the evangelicals thumping their testaments are free-lancers who answer to superiors more nuts than they are—or to no one at all.

I just finished reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a reminder of how deeply religion has driven our politics throughout American history—in this case, the fight against slavery. Half the book reads like an evangelist’s tract. But that movement had to fight the powers of the moment, not cozy up to them in an alliance against convenient scapegoats. Abolitionist preachers had to confront the slaveowner system and shame their own wishy-washy leaders into principled resistance, in the face of the constant buckling on things like whether escaped slaves should be returned to their ‘owners.’

By contrast, the Republicans’ cynical culture wars mobilized embittered Christians in the 1970s and ‘80s to target equality for women and gays and sexual emancipation generally and soon turned the country’s holy naves into political clubhouses that would have warmed Boss Tweed’s cockles. The issues du jour came and went—the Equal Rights Amendment, abortion, gay marriage, sex education, now terrorism—but the main goal was to get the otherwise apolitical devout to see their Republican votes as an essential part of the catechism.

We once expected our divines to turn their thoughts and ours to somewhat more lofty subjects than the delegate count or the TV coverage of the last debate, and I’m surprised more people aren’t getting a little sick of seeing their spiritual yearnings turned into partisan fodder. Meanwhile, more yokels in the altars of the heartland will be spouting foolishness that should make their plaster saints blush bright pink, and when they do, we should all promptly stand and chant the disestablishment clause in unison, like a Hare Krishna troup manquée.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Scurrying rats

My God, what a repulsive little worm Scott McClellan is, selling books about how Bush bamboozled the public on Iraq and other topics—thanks to HIM, as said lying was being seconded by McClellan himself as the chief b.s. peddler at the White House’s noon follies. But get ready, these are the kinds of people who are going to be given a platform as serious commentators in coming years, the same ones who were fully complicit in all the crimes and now need public repentance to save their souls and, not incidentally, their careers.

It’s amazing how the people who saw through the lies at the time are marginalized as the parade of those complicit with the phony foreign conquest and now backpedalling furiously grows ever larger. But ‘twas ever thus. The pack mentality rampant among the news media at the time is too embarassing to face squarely, so what better way to handle the continuing debacle than to showcase people who claim to have been ‘taken in’, ‘fooled’ or other euphemisms for spinelessness, opportunism and stupidity.

No doubt McClellan will piss off some die-hard Republicans and never get a job shilling for the tobacco companies or Exxon. But he’ll do fine in the Beltway hothouse pontificating on issues of the day as a ‘political analyst’ or media affairs commentator. After all, who better to parse the ongoing and necessary cover-up of how we got to our current disastrous state than someone directly responsible for it?

Monday, 26 May 2008

Pandora for President

The Hill shills are busy telling us that we’re making a mountain out of a molehill while her campaign blames the whole A-word dust-up on. . . Obama! because his people have sent out copies of harsh criticism by Keith Olberman and others. Paul Krugman, another Clinton loyalist, whines in today’s New York Times that poor Hillary’s campaign has been hit with one unfair news cycle after another. Boo hoo hoo, it’s so sad.

But whoa! turns out the A-word is now getting further jokey play from none other than the incomparable Fox ‘News’ channel. Reporter Liz Trotta, interviewed by Eric Shawn on that vile toilet-seat of a television station actually said the following:

‘And now we have what some are reading as a suggestion that somebody knock off Osama—uh, Obama. Well, both, if we could!

She actually said that. Hear it yourself on YouTube:

Then the horrible woman laughed, and Shawn joined the fun: ‘Let’s talk about how you really feel!’ After enjoying a good chuckle, they then proceeded to discuss the Clinton reference and political murder.

This is why Hillary Clinton no longer deserves to be taken seriously by any decent human being. By her either ill-advised or sinister remark, she has unleashed serious, public contemplation of the whacking of her adversary.

She is no longer cute. She is no longer irritating. She is no longer a daffy policy nerd. She is no longer the Energizer bunny. She is no longer a tough fighter/sore loser.

She is dangerous.

Sunday, 25 May 2008


I won’t repeat the cliché that language is debased by over- and misuse—there, I repeated it anyway—but it is a pity that one can no longer say that anything is ‘astonishing’ in the wake of Hillary’s I’m-not-dead-yet-but-other-people-could-end-up-that-way remark. In the last ten days I’ve seen the word pop up so often that it now runs a close second to the phrase ‘four-dollars-a-gallon.’

Every arts critic in print suddenly thinks they have to call whatever they like ‘astonishing’. The word’s latinate origins (attonare) link it to hearing thunder and metaphorically to being struck by lightning, which suggests something very intense that doesn’t happen very often, i.e., not every time you go to a museum, see a play or hear a piece of music.

When we’re constantly told that an artwork should make us feel like a million volts have passed through our bodies, one of two things happen: we either dismiss the hyperbole as more hustle from a culture suffering from commercial dementia—not an inappropriate reaction when a painting like Bacon’s triptych sells for $80 million at Sotheby’s. (That’s not a typo.)

Or we unconsciously conclude that artistic events or objects that merely amuse, entertain, inspire, please or instruct are second-rate. Why do they all have to astonish us as if merely being alive is a second-rate experience and we need instead to seek to be blasted with adrenalin?

No wonder people are attracted to crystal meth. They say the high is—well, you know.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

It's 3 a.m. -- is anyone safe?

Hillary’s ready to take that 3 a.m. phone call all right—let’s just hope it’s not from a nut case with a hunting rifle asking her for directions.

The latest obscenity from this walking corpse shouldn’t surprise anyone who has seen her grasp at any argument, no matter how contradictory, unfair or insulting, that would help her claw her way into office. Issues come and issues go, but the real subject of Hillary Clinton’s campaign is herself in charge. She’s like a heroin addict in pursuit of another fix of power. So we shouldn’t be surprised if she steals her grandchildren’s comic book collection to obtain one.

The assassination-comment flap has obscured the many other recent dredgings of her decomposing campaign’s playbook. Like comparing her manipulation of the delegate seating process with Mugabe’s election-stealing or invoking the civil rights movement and black Americans’ fight for the right to vote without getting killed. Not to mention openly exulting over the fact that a lot of white people think Obama’s the wrong color.

It’s always revolting when a hyper-cautious, self-promoting politician recalls the principled courage of figures from the past who did things she wouldn’t have dreamed of imitating. Perhaps this acutely distasteful hint about the kinds of fantasies going through her mind will convince her die-hard enthusiasts to cut loose this disastrously unhealthy family for good.

Thursday, 22 May 2008

Why, oh why?

The most convincing explanation of why Hillary plunges forward despite defeat appears in the Washington Post column The Fix today where Chris Cillizza opines that she’s polishing the Hillary ‘brand’ in preparation for 2012, carrying the lost battle just far enough to be able to say ‘I told you so’ if Obama loses without getting blamed for it.

There’s just one gap in this logic: if she has basically accepted defeat this time around, why charge into Florida with the bogus—not to mention offensive—comparisons with the civil rights movement’s fight for voting rights against the segregationists? Why suggest that the DNC is some sort of KKK for refusing to seat her delegates, thereby scraping the raw skin of race yet again?

But perhaps Clinton is redefining her ‘brand’, if we must use that awful term. Having fallen short in the terms proposed—the first female; the tough, seasoned hawk; the policy wonk; the whatever—she now falls back onto crude racial signaling, which historically works very well.

Perhaps her supposed slip-ups are not errors at all but icy calculations that the Obama era will generate enough resentment to turn her into the lunchbucket heroine of the white underclass.

It’s divisive, even explosive, but who cares when you’ve got a career to think about?

Tuesday, 20 May 2008

The ooze

Who can keep up with the steady seep-seep of details about the torture of defenseless detainees by the U.S. government’s agents and its authorized proxies in faraway lands? The latest is tomorrow’s New York Times summary of an FBI report detailing the abuse witnessed by its own agents who, despite feeling occasional distress at what they saw, let it continue.

The report by the Justice Department’s Inspector General is based on one of the absurdly lethargic ‘investigations’ launched by government bodies back in 2004 so that they could pretend to be doing something after the revelations at Abu Ghraib. If the conquest of Iraq had been successful, no one would be paying the slightest attention to all that now. Another of the downsides of losing a war.

Not that there’s a tremendous amount of interest even now in who saw or did what, but it’s still early. I lived through the last years of a vicious dictatorship and witnessed how the revelations and denunciations of murder, torture, kidnapping, extortion and conspiracy steadily accumulated over a period of decades, long after the assassins responsible thought they had gotten away with it for good.

But they didn’t. There’s something about torture that lingers on in the collective memory, despite the best-buried bones or the corpses tossed far out to sea, despite amnesties, bought judges and skulduggery from turncoat politicians who rode opposition to the dictator into power, then forgot about his victims. Eventually, hundreds of the torturers and assassins faced prosecution and ruin.

One aspect of the truth that eventually bubbles to the surface in these cases, like the effluvia of a broken sewer main, is that torture is a conscious policy designed to punish and dehumanize the enemy, even—or especially—if a given individual is found to be innocent.

‘When a man is wrongly condemned to punishment, it becomes necessary for his judges to use greater severity to cover up their own misapplication of the law’ [Galileo to Nicole Fabri de Peiresc, 1630]. Galileo knew something about false accusations and how, once persecutors have launched them, redoubled efforts must follow in the cover-up.

Nineteen-year-old German citizen Murat Kurnaz was picked up by American troops in Pakistan in November, 2001 after a local denounced him to collect the reward money. Kurnaz had gone to study Islam at the wrong time and ended up at the Guantánamo prison where his captors soon realized he hadn’t been fighting anybody’s war and knew nothing.

But that didn’t make him harmless. On the contrary, any proof that the U.S. and its allies were arresting and tormenting the innocent was extremely inconvenient. It would endanger the official policy of setting platoons of thugs loose to grab suspects and beat ‘intelligence’ out of them.

Kurnaz’s story is in the latest issue of the Amnesty International quarterly magazine, and one detail jumped out at me. He relates that after months in prison in Cuba, he was visited by German intelligence agents who, as has now been confirmed, were convinced of his innocence.

However, instead of immediate release Kurnaz suffered even more intense and sustained psychological torment from the Americans, including sleep deprivation, interrogations that lasted for days on end and other techniques designed to drive him into madness. Meanwhile, the German government simultaneously sought to keep him from returning home.

The only credible explanation of this procedure is that a conspiracy took place by which Americans and their German allies, fearing the credible denunciations of a sane victim of their treatment, tried to destroy Kurnaz to save their international secret police camp system.

This is a far more serious set of crimes than the repugnant but amateurish humiliations practiced by Lyndie English and her sub-normal compeers at Abu Ghraib. It reflects an icily calculated system with deep layers of protection and complicity as well as the technical expertise of seasoned psychopaths.

The fetid stink of this pool of malevolence will assault our nostrils for years to come. But the perpetrators may be surprised to find how long memory survives as well and how far back the arm of justice can reach.

Monday, 19 May 2008

Mine, mine, mine

There’s really no reason to bother dismantling Madame Hillary’s latest whiny cortortions about why Obama cannot and should not be the nominee. But I’m going to do it anyway because it might relieve me of the desire to smack this annoying woman.

In her latest silly appearance before the white people in Kentucky, Hillary said Obama’s caucus victories in places like Utah and Alaska should matter less in the final outcome because those states aren’t competitive for the Democrats in November. Anyone ‘who’s analyzing this’ would conclude likewise, she said smugly.

By the same logic, Clinton’s victories in Massachusetts, California and New York should be discounted as well since those states are locked up for any Democratic candidate.

She also dismissed the massive turnout at his Oregon rally as unimportant compared to his refusal to have a 19th debate with her over things like flag lapel pins and who loves America more. She dismissed the 75,000 people who came to hear him with the nasty crack that Obama would ‘rather just talk to giant crowds than have questions asked.’ So those people are just ignoramuses and should have stayed home to watch her on TV.

After all the generous recognition of her stamina and relentlessness by many observers, including the guy came from nowhere to shellack her, what a puling, puny-spirited, ‘poor me’, sore-loser display. If Obama pulls out enthusiastic supporters, that doesn’t matter because inspiration is nothing next to . . . what exactly? If he wins caucus states because he out-organizes her, that’s meaningless because the popular vote is the key (even though she was supposed to be the queen of insider party politics). If he wins the popular vote, the totals from Michigan—where she cheated—have to be included.

I’m glad Clinton keeps at it though because it reminds people of how obsessively focused she is on self-promotion at the expense of any and all other considerations. The rest of us worried about the criminals in power can move on to more serious matters.

Friday, 16 May 2008

Say it: Disloyal [Updated: The Path to Victory]

The dust-up over Bush’s ridiculous effort to drag the tired, moth-eaten Neville Chamberlain analogy out of the attic is another sign of how intellectually and morally bankrupt our rulers are, but it also demonstrates the lack of fighting spirit from the Obama/Everyone-else-not-clinically-demented camp.

Obama responded with a lame effort at reason and common sense, arguing somewhat defensively that talking to your adversaries is a time-honored tradition known as ‘diplomacy’. I don’t know what planet he’s living on, but that gets you exactly nowhere with Rove-inspired smear tactics and the West Virginia voters who aren’t embarrassed to tell the TV cameras that they don’t like black people.

I’d like to see a response along the lines of: George Bush is disloyal to what America stands for, betrayed us with phony threats, led us into a disastrous war and sent troops off to kill and die based on a pack of lies while his lazy-ass war-profiteer buddies are all getting obscenely rich.

Okay, I’m hallucinating. But I think it would be reasonable to expect some rhetoric commensurate with the level of criminality and venality that this pack of gangsters continues to manifest with indecent glee. Some people will have a cow, but a lot of others will respect the Democrats’/Obamanians’ capacity to kick some serious butt, even if they disagree.

Every time the Bushites rachet down the level of their attacks to new depths, the supposed opposition bends down to reply, which partially reinforces the accusations. Instead, they should be resetting the terms of the debate. I look forward to some of that, if not from OB himself then from some of his more skilled attack dogs.

It’s not as if there’s any lack of material.

[Updated] Done, hallelujah. Obama came out swinging in exactly the way I had hoped: ‘divisive’, ‘dishonest’, ‘naïve’, ‘irresponsible’, ‘a lot to answer for’, ‘trying to fool you and scare you’. This is the lexicon of a leader staking out territory and marking it strongly.

There is an automatic gain in this type of approach, unknown to Dukakis, Kerry and Harry Reid: whether people agree or disagree, they know you stand for something, and they can see you stand up for it vigorously. After all, that’s half of John McCain’s bizarre appeal, that he isn’t afraid to take an unpopular position.

Obama is showing that he’s willing to take on the Bush neoconderthals, and that makes him look like someone capable of taking on the nation’s enemies as well. It’s a winning formula, whatever the final vote turns out to be. It’s the first sign I’ve seen in ages of the Democratic Party looking like a real opposition.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Who knows? I don’t

It’s easy to forget, as the incidents along the primary way pile up, that we had no idea what was going to happen in presidential politics this season. I asked people to predict it over the last nine months and heard a lot of things: that our next president would be Giuliani or Hillary Clinton, that Romney would walk away with the nomination, that Edwards would be a major contender.

What no one in my acquaintance said would happen is that Barack Obama would face off against John McCain. No one.

As we move into the next mysterious phase in the process, I remind myself that our expectations and suppositions about what is happening to us politically have been way off. This suggests that things are occurring under the radar, that there are currents in the ocean that cannot be read in the waves tossing about on the surface.

Bill Clinton came out of nowhere in 1992 and became, for better or for worse, what he is today. The pundit class missed that phenomenon completely until it was in their face. Ronald Reagan was a known figure in the 1970s, but few people would have expected him to become president in 1981, much less saint in the 2000s.

So amid all the buzz about the race factor in the West Virginians’ decisive rejection of Obama, I say let’s wait and see what comes next. We have lived through one surprise after another, and there’s no reason to think we won’t have more.

Personally, I’m more intrigued by the drubbing the Republicans took in the Mississippi Delta’s special election for a House seat despite running against Obama’s non-white face and rubbing the local opposition in his—horrors!—liberal record. The analytical colums are calling that three straight losses, including Louisiana and Illinois, but I say it’s four if you add the Watertown, New York, seat, which the Republicans lost for the first time since 1910. Other important forces, not just curmudgeonly White Joe, are weighing in.

Monday, 12 May 2008

Passports: The new chads

A disturbing story from Missouri suggests that Republican mafia dons are plotting a new way to frustrate the popular will as the voters get set to blow them Katrina-style into a Level 5 pile of political rubble. The new scam is a proposed referendum to require voters to show proof of U.S. citizenship.

The cynicism of this latest alarmist ‘illegal immigrant’ panic is mind-boggling. Given the miniscule numbers of voter fraud cases actually found or even conceivable, the plot obviously has nothing to do with protecting the electoral process. But it might be a great way to play on people’s xenophobic fears to reverse the results of the next election.

If this new version of the poll tax were to succeed, it might block upwards of 200,000 legitimate voters from casting a ballot in that swing state, where presidential elections are decided by substantially fewer (e.g. Bush’s 80,000-vote margin over Gore in 2000). But that doesn’t mean our trusty Supreme Court would declare it an abuse of democratic practice.

It would be ironic if all the demagoguery pumped up over Mexican gardeners and Salvadoran cleaning ladies were to lead to yet another judicial coup and hijacking of the presidency through utilization of the Dobbs-ian clamor for respect for THE LAW.

Another Fine Mess

The NYPD has its hands full with the ongoing Sean Bell disaster as Reverend Sharpton continues to lead civil disobedience; Congressman Conyers arrives to hold a public hearing on police conduct; and the new governor, who joined a previous protest against trigger-happy police years ago, very publicly meets with Bell’s family members to leave no doubt about where he stands.

Not content with this ongoing bitch-slap from everyone except the judge who absolved the three detectives charged with filling the unarmed Bell full of holes, two white cops poured gasoline on the flames by accosting a black SUV driver and demanding his ID, forcing open the car and verbally dressing him down as occurs hundreds of times a day under the police’s stop-and-frisk guidelines.

Turns out, however, that the driver was the highest-ranking black police officer in the city.


If there were any further need to demonstrate to the New York public, 56 percent of which is non-white, that the Caucasian-dominated police force discriminates, abuses and is generally out of touch, there ain’t any more. Mayor Bloomberg took advantage of the departmental nadir to announce that city budget cuts would push the police hiring freeze into 2010, and the very loud, very obnoxious patrolmen’s union president didn’t issue Peep One about it.

So far, the outrage over the Bell verdict hasn’t generated any counterproductive reactions, which of course could change. But for the time being the post-Bell moment has been a grostesque spectacle of retrograde, dufus officers making public fools of themselves and showing up their ample racist underbellies. Would that someone could now take the opportunity to turn the NYPD into a professional force with decent salaries and respectful procedures instead of a lingering throwback to its notoriously corrupt past.

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Turmoil in Bentonville

I’ve been a lay reader of the business pages for many years, enough to detect certain amusing patterns without pretending to grasp the intricacies of markets or finance. One thing I’ve learned is not to trust the expert boilerplate either from government or industry any more than the weather report or the official typhoon coverage on Burmese TV.

Treasury Secretary Paulson is already crowing that ‘the worst is past’ in the financial sector, which is reassuring until you consider that he never thought there was a problem in the first place. But here’s a little item way off the main radar screens that suggests he’s rather premature in his judgment: a bank failure in Arkansas. ANB Financial, headquartered in Bentonville, ran aground on construction loans and commercial real estate development.

I note that ANB didn’t croak over the subprime mess that’s walloped Wall Street over the last nine months since ANB is, er, was one of the tiny banks that shipped their decomposing home-loan portfolios off to the big guys. That freed them up to get into even worse trouble by betting on commercial builders who then hit the brick wall of the recession when they brought their projects to completion.

I further note that Bentonville houses the worldwide headquarters of Wal-Mart and idly ask myself if that means the metastasizing monopsony retailer isn’t doing much for the local economy. Or could it mean something even better, like a limit to the endless growth of that cancerous entity?

Essay question: If housing remains in the tank, office buildings follow close behind and construction projects in Wal-Mart’s back yard are collapsing, is the recession winding to a close as suggested by Secretary Paulson? Discuss.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Cuckoo, Cuckoo! & Fun-Loving Vito

The interminable presidential nomination process has moved from seesaw to Ferris wheel and now to funhouse hall of mirrors in a bizarre endgame. Hillary Clinton must live in a parallel universe if she thinks she can simultaneously emit tasteless racial comments like her reference today to ‘white Americans, hard-working Americans’ and also pose for a spot on the Obama ticket—surely the weirdest suggestion heard yet. If she’s serious, the woman is so out of touch as to provoke fear for her sanity. We know the clock is ticking, but I didn’t think it was a full-fledged cuckoo.

Update on Vito [see ‘Lawyers to the Rear’ below] So now it turns out that not only did our Staten Island congressman blow a .17 on his alcoholemia test, he was also out partying with the mistress the whole time. Not to mention the 3-year-old daughter Vito Fossella now admits he had with her while racking up an 81% ‘pro-family’ voting record for the Christian Coalition. Maybe that’s what he was thinking about when he began his original obfuscatory statement, issued to deaden the impact of the DUI charge, with the line ‘As a parent. . .’

Tuesday, 6 May 2008

Clinton Death Rattle

Could Hillary Clinton now pretend to be more electable in November than her opponent, having successfully narrowed her electoral base to elderly white people?

To get elected president as a Democrat in 2008, you need solid backing from African-Americans, independents and motivated youth. Hillary’s demographic base, after having slammed Obama for the last three months in insulting terms while husband Bill courts the bubba vote, is now reduced to one virtually identical to McCain’s. In the choice between a Republican and another Republican, voters would have little reason not to choose a Republican.

Personally, I hope she sticks around despite the seismic shift in sentiment back to the Obama movement. If she persists in the destructive game played up to now, she will pound into dust whatever credibility and respect she retains and forever eliminate the Clinton curse from the Democratic Party and, not incidentally, our consciousness.

For that alone, North Carolina is today a land of heroes.

Hear Ye, Hear Ye

I don’t discuss my job on this site, but if anyone would care to hear about that, please tune to your local National Public Radio affiliate Wednesday to hear the program ‘Tell Me More’, on which I will be a guest. The topic is HIV and the Latino population of Mississippi. It’s scheduled for 9 a.m. Eastern Time, and I assume that means other time slots elsewhere.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Pander bears

Madame Clinton favors bringing down the price of gas because she is desperately emitting such huge clouds of it that her underfinanced campaign may go broke on the excise tax alone. The Clinton duoply continues to set records for discovering every last scrap of short-term, instant-grat self-interest on the part of the beaten-down white underclass to pander to them while promising all the people they screwed while in office that they will stand up and defend them if they could just, please, pretty please, be allowed back in again. Ha ha.

It wasn’t enough for HC to peddle the whopper throughout the rust belt that she was unenthusiastic about NAFTA, which loyal hubby personally triangulated through Congress while she grinned her frozen grin. Obama could and should have crushed her with that gross hypocrisy instead of allowing himself to be railroaded into looking as though he were the inconsistent one on trade. Now we have the ridiculous woman standing by gas pumps and promising single-handedly to roll back the world market, a veritable Caligula on a white horse challenging the sea to demonstrate her ineffable godhead.

Despite my ever-sinking opinion of bipeds, I have managed to retain some remnant of sympathy for their suffering. But if people buy this vast load of horseshit, then they deserve to grovel through another four or eight years of abuse, led either by the Robotic Pair or, as is entirely likely were she to snatch the nomination, the ghostly, ghastly McCain. My position will be based, in the spirit of this latest display, on blatant self-interest while watching everyone else piss off up a rope.

Sunday, 4 May 2008

Rather Wright than President

The verdict absolving all three police shooters in the Sean Bell slaying has deepened the sense of entrenched racism in New York, and the ongoing reaction to it provides an insight onto where this disagreeable presidential election contest is heading as well. Plenty of people are outraged, and Reverend Al Sharpton has called for civil disobedience on Wednesday to raise the temperature around town.

I sympathize. At the same time, it recalls the fascination long current amid white-dominated leftish movements to be carried off to jail as an objective of political action rather than a tactic to further a cause. Wiser voices than mine have noted that this temptation soon shifts the center of gravity to the activist core rather than keeping the focus on the ongoing battle for public opinion and influence.

I can’t help thinking simultaneously of the ego-parade staged by the peculiar Pastor Wright last week as he did his best to keep Barack Obama out of the White House. No one has yet explained the logic of his actions in any satisfactory way, and I can only conclude that the deepening segregation of our society has left Wright without any sense of how his positions play across the racial divide. Another possibility is that he just doesn’t care. If it’s all about him, there’s no reason to miss out on his 15 minutes of fame.

David Blight’s wonderful framing of two newly discovered escaped-slave narratives, just published as A Slave No More, reminded me that we still have a lot to review and learn about the institution of slave-holding in the United States, which ended only 140 years ago, i.e. during the lifetimes of my great-grandparents, and its continuing impact on our polity. Of particular interest is how the narratives lay bare the vast psychological divide between slave and master, how white Southerners often were convinced that their chattel possessions would want to hurry off to the interior with their masters rather than face the terrible Yankee invasion.

In fact, John Washington describes his fellow slaves as bursting with concealed joy as the enemy troops approached Fredericksburg, Virginia, and the modern reader is hardly surprised to hear it. Yet post-bellum writings abounded with the quickly reinstalled slaveholder narrative that ‘their’ loyal servants were sorry to be separated from such kindly masters and could barely survive without white ‘protection’. The all-important illusions had to be maintained.

Obama briefly promised a healthier approach to these festering historical wounds. Instead, biped bloody-mindedness has triumphed anew.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Lawyers to the Rear [Updated]

As I finished a long biography of Izzy Stone, the iconic creator of I.F. Stone’s Weekly and permanent gadfly of the Washington journalistic establishment, I realized modern reporting has developed a tic at which the late Izzy would have taken deadly aim. It’s the habit of allowing lawyers for the powerful to place their spin on events whenever they’re accused of wrongdoing.

This practice is the crime-blotter parallel to letting the White House flakmeisters determine how a political story will be shaped or to permitting the Pentagon to lead reporters around by the nose on war coverage. What all these situations share is that they involve news organs’ kowtowing to the powerful while pretending they have no choice in the matter.

Last night the TV channels here all led with the story of a congressman from Staten Island who was picked up on a DUI. Like metronomes set to tick-tock in unison, every station dutifully featured the statement from the guy’s lawyer and even copied it onto the screen behind the announcer just in case we didn’t get the full impact: ‘As a parent, I know that taking even one drink of alcohol before getting behind the wheel of a car is wrong.’

Of course the legislator didn’t say any such thing, but the expert team who wrote it for him successfully managed to leave viewers with two impressions, one irrelevant and the other false: (1) that the guy has created one or more babies and (2) he was only ‘technically’ drunk since a single drink can put you over the legal limit.

Note that the statement says nothing about how many drinks he actually consumed before turning on his ignition, only a pious phrase about how he thinks people should behave. He could have chugged an entire bottle of Jack Daniels, but his handlers hint that he’s merely been caught in the strict web of police breathalyzers and perhaps over-vigilant rules.

The ‘as a parent’ line serves only to obfuscate and play on the family-guy trope as if that should absolve him of something.

Why do news organs think they have to trot out this pap just because some powerful guy’s lawyer provides it? It would be perfectly legitimate to receive the handout and report simply that the accused’s representatives neither confirm nor deny the charge and provided no further details. When the news is about some down-and-out bad guy, their appointed lawyers rarely get this deferential treatment although the habit is now so ingrained that sometimes even they get to join in the manipulative chorus.

This routine is an example of the journalism-as-messenger-service mentality and the tiresome pursuit of a phony ‘balance’ that properly belongs in a courtroom where everyone gets equal time in front of the judge or jury. News reporters have no responsibility to neutralize a story in this way just because the principals can hire a combination attorney/PR agent.

It’s a lot more serious when editors simply splash political or war-news spin as is onto their front pages or prime-time news shows rather than take the time and trouble to parse it and cut through the diversionary baubles. That’s the way our system gets the news vehicles to conform, and it’s as effective in its way as the more heavy-handed methods of dictatorships.

So for the record: Congressman Vito Fossella got popped for drunken driving in a D.C. suburb, and we don’t know whether he had one drink or fifteen although if it were the lower number, why wouldn’t he say so? Both Fossella and the cops are mum. The rest is distraction.

[Update:] Vito's blood alcohol content upon arrest turned out to be .17 or double the legal limit in Virginia. According to the Blood Alcohol Content Calculator, that means if he weighs 180 pounds, Fossella probably consumed no less than four stiff ones in the hour previous to setting off in his WMD. So much for the lawyerly spin. His constituents can now consider whether this guy should be in the business of writing laws for the rest of us.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Yes, we did

Juan Cole writes today that ‘only gullible, self-righteous Americans’ could have taken seriously Bush’s infamous 2003 Mission Accomplished speech aboard the USS Lincoln, and I would add to those adjectives ‘gullible, self-righteous and mesmerized by the sight of an overgrown kid in a combat flight jacket.’ His point by point dismantling of the non-stop lies in that speech is essential reading.

The larger point, however, is a concealed truth that needs a better airing than it’s getting from the Obama campaign and, I believe, reveals one of the weaknesses of that endeavor. The unity message is all well and good, but the voting public also needs a good injection of wake-up to its own complicity in the astounding b.s. that’s been peddled en route to this war of conquest and ever since. It would be a bracing antidote to the endless electoral pandering parading as leadership, which assumes we are all 9-year-olds tempted by too much ice cream.

Militarism and imperial adventure took a licking during the Vietnam debacle, but those permanent American values recovered quickly, thanks to the steady rewrite of history by cash-flush think-tanks and films like de Niro and Streep’s, The Deer Hunter. We were barely into the Carter presidency when the Committee on the Present Danger and other defense contractor front groups were back to their Cold War tricks, stimulated by the Soviet blunder into Afghanistan in 1979.

Carter tried to ride this wave, not realizing that it would soon carry him out to sea on an ice floe. Zbigniew Brzezinski, Carter’s Rasputin, celebrated the Soviet Afghanistan error and may have conspired to provoke it, convinced (correctly, it turns out) that the invasion would weaken them mortally and lead to an American Cold War triumph. A mere million and a half Afghans had to die to give Zbig his wish.

Lest we forget, Carter’s boycott of the 1980 Moscow Olympics was part of this remilitarization—so enough about keeping politics out of that quadrennial PR campaign.

Bush stood on the deck of an aircraft carrier five years ago and crowed about the humane and virtually painless American conquest while lying through his teeth about weapons of mass destruction, al-Qaeda in Iraq (which didn’t exist until he created it), the elimination of the Taliban in Afghanistan and peaceful U.S. intentions toward the Palestinians (!) How many Americans, today disgruntled, noticed or cared about the vast bundle of lies contained in that photo op?

At the beginning of Louis Malle’s crushing World War Two film, The Sorrow and the Pity, he interviews a middle-aged German couple at their daughter’s wedding party about their wartime experiences. The matron remembers the early months of conflict and says matter-of-factly, ‘We were very happy with the news of all our victories.’ The camera lingers on her blank face while the viewer conjures images of Nazi troops pouring into Yugoslavia, Holland and Czechoslovakia. She doesn’t add anything more and is either unaware or unconcerned about what those lovely ‘victories’ meant for the people on the receiving end of Nazi bayonets.

The crimes of this war are sufficiently grave that a leader wishing to appeal to our better selves must also tell us some uncomfortable truths about what America has done. It’s not enough to say we should join together and lift up our collective hearts to a better land on the horizon. Like it or not, we also have to look back and notice the dead bodies left in our wake.