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.

Wednesday, 5 November 2008


There are many eloquent and astute comments about what happened last night, and I will spend any leisure time I can carve out reading rather than adding to them.

But I have to join the personal note sounded by many to say that this election was indeed about belonging, and I am a little taken aback to feel it in my bones. I got up this morning a citizen of a country that I really didn’t know existed and that I certainly never felt as part of as I do today.

McCain’s concession speech, typically, showed that he still doesn’t get it, which makes sense since his campaign kept emphasizing how the rest of us don’t measure up to his heroics, have the wrong ideas and aren’t real Americans. He talked about Obama making it as a black guy rather than the country moving itself into a new and more inclusive era.

This nugget of simple wisdom drove Obama’s remarkable run, and his refusal to dump it as a core strategy was the right decision not only for winning but for governing. He was right not to sacrifice his vision and rhetoric of unity, and surprise, surprise, he turns out to be smarter than I am.

Tuesday, 4 November 2008


My voting precinct usually looks like a Christian Science Reading Room. I have never once had to wait behind a single human being to enter the voting booth, and the poor poll workers always look like they could each use a packet of No-Doz.

Today, however, I waited happily in line from approximately 7.40 to ten past eight. This in a reliably blue state where half of Manhattan could sleep through it, and Obama would still win with 75%. Something is afoot.

Monday, 3 November 2008

Limbward at 24 hours

What's a presidential election without making an on-the-record guess? Okay, let's play:

Obama wins all the blue states and the following hard-fought or marginal ones: Florida, Ohio, Missouri, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado, Nevada and North Dakota. Losing only Indiana, Montana and Georgia.

Total electoral votes: 367.

National margin of victory: nine points, 53-44.

There it is, and I promise not to make ex post facto alterations even under pain of mortification.

Sunday, 2 November 2008

Fugue in B Mayor

The peculiar Mike Bloomberg probably can buy himself a third term, but he may well live to regret it. That is, if people in his airy realm still have that word in their dictionaries.

Bloomberg, the proud possessor of some eight billion dollars as well as the mayor’s office, just rammed through the City Council a suspension of the two-term limit that would apply to mere mortals. Given his famous pockets, that should be enough to shoo him into a third four-year stint.

But the move threatens the key to his success. Bloomberg has benefited from a long American tradition of the anti-politician, the weary ‘outsider’ trope now being reprised by Sarah ‘Shopping Spree’ Palin who rails against ‘greed and corruption’ while charging her daughters’ airfares to the state. Saint Ronald was the master of this chorus as he solemnly exhorted the populace not to expect government to solve any problem because, as he quipped to a round of yuks, ‘Government IS the problem!’

The faux-populist message in its essence goes something like this: Potholes should be filled and fires extinguished for free. Government should provide the services that make my life more comfortable, but I should not be compelled to pay for them.

There is a faintly royalist hue to this worldview. It would fit nicely if we were ruled by absurdly rich princes who magnanimously bestowed their favors upon us, their peons, upon which we gratefully repaired back to our fields rubbing our calloused hands and remarking upon the fine lord’s largesse.

That’s why anti-politics fit His Bloombergship so well after his accidental stumble into the mayor’s job in a post 9/11 fluke. He doesn’t draw a salary and isn’t directly beholden to the monied interests because he can buy and sell them and so comes up with one policy scheme after another, ranging from the brilliant (smoking bans) to the hare-brained (the Westside stadium). Whatever you think of them, you know they spring fully-formed from his exalted forehead, and his alone.

But the crude railroading of special rules through the Council, dismissing two citywide plebiscites on term limits with a wave of his patronage-laden wand, has given Mayor Mike feet of clay, and New York is still enough of a mob town that you don’t want them to harden into cement. Instead of a selfless public servant, Bloomberg now looks like a rich bully-boy and will enter an eventual third term tarnished just as the populace is about to experience the shock of recession in the flesh and gets ready to denounce either the deprivations to come or the nasty chore of paying money to avoid them. Or both.

The anti-pol pol routine is a great electoral strategy, and if you’re a lucky s.o.b. like Reagan, you can carry it right into the grave while the political class you spent your life dissing sings hosannas and showers your bier with rose petals. Somehow I don’t think Mr Bloomberg’s going to enjoy a similar fate.