Wednesday, 31 December 2008

Descent into the mire

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

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

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

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

Monday, 29 December 2008

Barbarian chic

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 28 December 2008

Waltz with oneself

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 27 December 2008

Comfort from the thought police

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 26 December 2008

Brilliant or dastardly?

Satanic homosexual icon
or pretty butterfly?


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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 23 December 2008

Law and Order (not a TV show)

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

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

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

Monday, 22 December 2008

Feeding at the slops trough

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 20 December 2008

Zeroes in Zimbabwe

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

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

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

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

Friday, 19 December 2008

Grief from God

Barack Obama has a preacher problem again.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 18 December 2008

Hollywood in the East [Part II]

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

How to steal 50 billion

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 16 December 2008

Hollywood in the East

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

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

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

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

Monday, 15 December 2008

Whocuddanode? [Updated]

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

They didn’t.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pre-party formations

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, 13 December 2008

Bernie's $50 billion magic act

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

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

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

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

Is anybody in charge?

Friday, 12 December 2008

Fly on the political wall

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 11 December 2008

No compromise with torture

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Ramrod justice

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 9 December 2008

Faux Escandale in Chile-redux

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, 8 December 2008

VA symbolism

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

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

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

Saturday, 6 December 2008

Truly horrible

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, 5 December 2008

Explain to me this logic [Updated]

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Zimbabwe Endgame

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Milk on 8

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

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

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

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

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

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