Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Hit me again, Stern Master

At last we know the source of the government’s failure to identify potential perpetrators of terrorist acts and stop them.

Labor unions.

It’s logical, you see. South Carolina senator Jim DeMint has been way ahead of the rest of us, demanding that Obama’s nominee to head the Transportation Security Administration, Erroll Southers, promise not to allow collective bargaining among TSA employees.

Without collective bargaining, DeMint explained, the TSA now has the ‘flexibility to make real-time decisions that allowed it to quickly improve security measures in response to this attempted attack’.

Of course, if the TSA had had a chief, that might have helped it ‘improve security measures’ too. But I digress, and meanwhile Senator DeMint is on a roll.

If organized labor got involved, he says, union bosses would have the power ‘to veto or delay future security improvements at our airports’. Whew, what a relief!

You gotta hand it to these Republican operatives—they’re shameless. Instead of worrying about whether someone might blame them for the fact that the TSA has been a headless horseman for a year due to DeMint’s anti-union crusade, they go right on the attack.

You have to scroll down to the 30th graf in news stories about DeMint’s obstructionism to see any hint of a robust counter-attack—from a lowly aide to Harry Reid, no less.

I’m constantly dumbfounded by the utter absence of political blood-lust on the Democratic side while their supposed opponents offer them platter after tray of juicy red meat to sink their fangs into.

Imagine if the sides had been reversed and Democrats had been holding up a Bush-era appointee to a security job just as an airplane bomber almost manages to blow up 200 people. Wouldn’t the White House have been out of the gate in seconds to point the finger at the offending legislator for getting in the way of executive power and ‘endangering American lives’?

But that would be asking Barack the Bipartisan to get angry for a moment.

The recently released Taylor Branch book based on conversations with Clinton hint at why the Republican/Democratic relationship is so consistently S&M. Branch relates how Clinton marveled at the wonderful antics of ‘old Jesse’ (Helms) and appreciated his political acumen—no matter how nefarious the outcome for the rest of us.

So it’s just a big game that you can shake your head at, if you’re a responsible Democrat, and laugh at how astutely demogogic your opponents are. No matter what the ultimate impact on the rest of us. The tea-baggers go crazy, call Obama a Nazi and bring guns; their targets look at all this and go ‘tut-tut’.

Monday, 28 December 2009

Lessons from down below

I thought the name Alex Freyre [seated, right] rang a bell when the story broke about the first gay marriage in Latin America, and I looked it up in a chapter on Argentina in a book on AIDS on that continent. He’s described as the ‘saucy, extroverted’ director of an HIV prevention outfit in Buenos Aires and one of the first people to declare publicly that he had the infection back when that act was not for the fainthearted.

The book quotes his journey through the devastating news and an early hospitalization to emotional freedom and activism:

In the hospital I realized that some things didn’t matter anymore, some limitations had just died for me. And plus, there was this idea in my family of supporting me in anything I wanted. The kid didn’t die! We’re so happy! So if I had said, I want to be a transvestite: Great, whatever! They would have said yes to anything.

Freyre’s psychic rebirth also propelled him past the inevitable cynicism that resulted from seeing how easily HIV morphed into one more money-making opportunity for the non-profit sharpies weaned on the country’s corrupt political culture. After his dramatic televised announcement about being HIV-positive, he said his telephone ‘didn’t stop ringing 24 hours a day’.

I spent months answering all the calls, but not one organization or foundation called me to say, Hey, we’d like for you to meet us, to work with us. Nothing. I was left alone, and no organization took advantage of what I could do.

Okay, I confess! I didn’t just read it in that book, I actually wrote it myself. Freyre was one of the bright spots in my research in eight countries, and it doesn’t surprise me in the least that he’s found the way to break down one more barrier through his relentless search to find the place that would perform the ceremony (ending up in Usuhaia in Patagonia—last stop before Antarctica).

I wish him and his new husband all the best. Live long! Be fruitful and multiply!—even if you do produce bipeds.

Friday, 25 December 2009

How dare they? A creepy Christmas tale

Here’s a good corrective to the idea that torture is sometimes-maybe-possibly justified because Bad People might want to set off bombs and kill Innocent Americans.

Private first class Bowe Bergdahl is the only known U.S. serviceman being held captive by the Taliban. He was videotaped reading a typical propaganda statement condemning the foreign occupation of Afghanistan.

The Associated Press report on this Christmas gift from the Taliban duly notes that the Geneva Conventions ‘bar the use of detainees for propaganda purposes and prohibit signatories from putting captured military personnel on display’.

Oh yes, the Geneva Conventions! I remember those!

When you rewrite the rules and dump the agreements that emerged from the world’s horror over the Nazi atrocities, the unthinkable becomes everyday. Unfortunately for the enthusiasts for Guantánmo and waterboarding (a.k.a ‘a little water up the nose’), it’s not so easy to make sure that the other guy is always the one on the receiving end.

The element of the torture debate that has remained strangely absent is exactly this: why should we think that if we do stuff like that that to them, then they won’t do it to us? And when we have publicly declared that it’s justifiable because we have to protect our security at all costs, what is the moral argument to be marshaled when others copy our reasoning?

The Taliban may not have not resorted to placing Pfc. Bergdahl in a darkened room, blasting Arabic music in his ears 24 hours a day, tying him up in stress positions in freezing cells, pissing on Bibles in front of him, making him masturbate in front of female guards, beating him senseless or subjecting him to 20-hour interrogations without permitting him to sleep more than two hours at a stretch.

On the other hand, if they did do all that, they might argue that he could still have ‘actionable intelligence’ to reveal to them about U.S. troop movements in their country. If they did so and were ever to be prosecuted, they could quote George W. Bush to explain their behavior to an appreciative Afghan judge. ‘We were only doing everything we could to protect innocent Afghan civilians from ticking time-bombs launched by drone attacks on their villages’, they could say.

Those who purport to care about the fate of U.S. military personnel should think twice before bragging about the great utility of torture to get bad guys to cough up the facts. Sooner or later, young kids from Idaho are going to pay the price.

Saturday, 19 December 2009

The Fed's politics of anti-politics

Fed chief Ben Bernancke is the guy who kept banks afloat after being part of the cozy cabal that almost shipwrecked the entire financial system through its self-serving ideological blindness. He apparently did enough things right amidst the crisis so that we have a mere 16% effective unemployment rate nationally rather than a 36% one.

‘It could have been so much worse’ is not much consolation to people who are out of work, losing their homes or facing bankruptcy today. Nonetheless, the fix is in to return this acolyte of Greenspanism to the creepy Temple of Ramses on C Street [below].

Rewarding Bernancke with another term is like giving the guy who got drunk and almost but not quite totaled your car his own permanent copy of your keys.

What is the Federal Reserve supposed to do, according to itself?

1. Conduct the nation’s monetary policy . . . in pursuit of maximum employment, stable prices and moderate long-term interest rates.

2. Supervise and regulate banking institutions to ensure the safety and soundness of the nation's banking and financial system and to protect the credit rights of consumers.

3. Maintain stability of the financial system and contain systemic risk that may arise in financial markets.

4. Provide financial services to depository institutions, the U.S. government and foreign official institutions.

Therefore, Bernancke got one point out of four: he did in fact provide banks with certain ‘financial services’, i.e. huge amounts of money. Everything else was a flop, which would earn him about a D+ in one of his Princeton classes.

I readily confess to being quite ignorant about the implications of various proposals floated by such disparate figures as liberal Democrat Alan Grayson and libertarian Republican Ron Paul on restructuring the Fed and other financial regulatory agencies. But the topic should be as much a part of our political discourse as health financing reform.

Instead, we are being treated to deep bowing from those few reporters ever heard on the topic, whose chronicles are full of the usual banker-promoted clichés about the importance of central bank ‘independence’ (from us, not from them) and the need not to undermine banker ‘creativity’ and ‘financial product innovations’.

Crusty old Paul Volcker, who once had Bernancke’s job, popped that balloon last week when he said that the only ‘innovation’ of any value that bankers had come up in two decades was ATM machines.

Central banks are supposed to guard against politically-motivated inflationary manipulation of the money supply by politicians eager to get reelected. We’ve been convinced that this requires military-style hyper-secrecy about the Fed’s activities (it has less oversight than the CIA) as well as control of far too much of the Fed’s business by bankers it is supposed to be regulating.

The debacle we continue to live through should be enough to explode the notion that these professional Scrooge McDuck poobahs are some sort of ethereal wraiths floating above the political fray. They’ve screwed up so badly that we should get a chance to review and rethink the whole failed system. However, I’m not holding my breath.

Thursday, 17 December 2009

O Come, All Ye Bipeds!

The recent doings of our fellow two-legged ambulants confirm and reiterate how our curious and flawed race hurtles itself ever more eagerly toward collapse by the time-tested strategy of habitat destruction. We’re not the first species to undermine our existence by pooping in one another’s nests, and we won’t be the last.

George Monbiot, a well-known greenie, pens for today’s Guardian the speech that Barack Obama should be giving at the Copenhagen climate protection talks to stop them from collapsing around his ears. It’s a nice speech with good cadences and about as likely to be heard in Denmark this week as ghostly guffaws from King Knut the Great in a surprise cameo from the 11th century.

Monbiot says Obama should pledge American commitment to the difficult process of weaning itself off carbon fuels and boldly promise to shoulder a triple burden: employment upheaval, a new national industrial policy and massive investments in the technological advances needed—which Monbiot compared to the breakneck American efforts to shift to war production in the 1940s.

Ha ha ha.

What (overly toasty) planet does he live on? Monbiot can’t seriously expect any one of these three things to emerge from a country busily debating whether dinosaurs roamed the earth 6,000 years ago while sinking into a slough of opportunistic brinkmanship over how to find enough money somewhere in its $12 trillion annual GDP so that its citizens can take their kids to the doctor.

The G77 (poor and middling) countries threatened to pull the plug on the whole charade earlier this week when the big players refused to countenance binding goals. They’ve got nothing to lose as a continuation of current policy will see them sink literally as well as metaphorically.

The reports coming out of the Danish capital bear titles and headlines such as ‘Chaotic End Game’, ‘Denmark Gives Up’ and ‘Summit in Disarray’. What a surprise!

The corporations eager to undermine the whole accord have been busy and efficient, and their sounding board professional denialists whip up the teabagger crowd to oppose anything thousands of scientists agree on. If Jesus is coming soon anyway, why worry about alarmism from a bunch of silly old Nobel physicists?

Today’s update is that Hillary Clinton is offering $100 billion in U.S. aid if and only if the Chinese act responsibly and reduce their carbon emissions, i.e. immediately start to do what we ourselves have steadfastly refused to.

Copenhagen offers us in one neatly wrapped package the whole spectacle of mass species demise and the incapacity of knowledgeable souls among us to drown out the screeching bipeds swinging through the treetops.

Tuesday, 15 December 2009

Dennis is Dead

I worked for Dennis de Leon at the Latino Commission on AIDS from 2006 until June of this year and could see that he was not in great health long before he entered the hospital in the summer and did not seem to be bouncing back. The Times had a generous obituary outlining Dennis’s unique contribution as one of the first Latinos in New York to go public with his HIV-positive status.

It doesn’t seem like a big deal now, but it took courage and dedication to leave behind a successful career as a lawyer and member of the city’s civil rights commission to take up the AIDS banner. Even nearly two decades later, Dennis commented that professional opportunities still dry up with depressing frequency for people who decide not to hide their struggle with HIV. As the virus thrives on secrecy, this ongoing environment of stigma and discrimination remains the principal barrier to getting sexually active people to have an HIV test.

That has real consequences. Nearly half of all new HIV transmissions in the U.S. originate among people who are unaware that they have the infection themselves, which is why the folks at the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) are so eager to turn HIV testing into a routine procedure. However, they haven’t yet come up with a good formula for making that happen, despite experiments like a huge, emergency room-based pilot project or New York’s ‘Bronx Knows’ campaign aimed at getting every sexually active adult in the borough to test for his or her HIV status.

Despite prevalence rates similar to those in Africa among big city gay populations, you hardly ever see a prevention poster or message in the clubs or bars any more, gay or straight. In any case, condom promotion is a nice idea, but it clearly isn’t enough for 50 reasons I won’t go into—any more than it solved straight teenagers’ pregnancy issues. Gay Americans have learned to live with HIV but haven’t a clue how to put a stop to it.

The nonprofits that grew up in the heyday of activism around AIDS don’t have the answer either. After seeing the insides of plenty of them on two continents, I have no problem in saying that despite their innovations and triumphs of the 1990s, they haven’t grappled successfully with the changing circumstances surrounding the HIV epidemic, especially on the prevention side. There, the programs are feeble and repetitive and with such a shrinking reach that they can’t begin to dent the 50,000-plus new annual infections registered in the U.S. year after year. I wish I knew what they should be doing instead.

Dennis never expected to live another 15 years after his public announcement, but he did. He saw the Commission, like so many AIDS organizations from that era, grow into a mélange of programs in which the leaders and staff had to invent themselves from year to year to keep up. He knew a lot and had a lot of history, and he suffered from the usual 501(c)(3) founder’s dilemma—how to turn the entity from an owner-operated Mom & Pop into a solid institution with a vision, a strategy, a research capacity, policy smarts and that spark of creativity that social movements sometimes have but social agencies rarely preserve.

I wish I knew the answer to that question, too.

Monday, 14 December 2009

Return of the Chilean Right

Sebastián Piñera may become president of Chile, which would mean the first elected right-wing government in that country since it was tarnished by its enthusiasm for one Augusto Pinochet.

In fact, it would be the right's first presidential victory since the election of Jorge Alessandri in 1958.

The fact that it’s taken this long for the pinochetista forces to gather enough strength to compete electorally is a testimony to the depth of revulsion the dictatorship engendered. Chilean voters are as susceptible as any to the blandishments of a conservative, pro-business discourse, and had the political right been less identified with Pinochet’s worst crimes, they might have ousted the anti-dictatorship coalition years ago.

Instead, the four-party Concertación para la Democracia has occupied the presidential palace non-stop since the junta was disbanded in 1990.

Piñera is a mega-millionaire and a sort of Berlusconi figure, but my recollections of his 2000 attempt to become president suggest a guy who is less alarming than the typical reactionary, ultra-Catholic apologists for the dictatorship who populate the right-wing parties. He could turn out to be a sort of unpredictable, Michael Bloomberg-ish president with a CEO mentality and a relatively non-dogmatic approach.

In that case he wouldn’t be all that different from the parade of dullards and suits that have led the country under the Concertación since Pinochet ran all alone in his 1988 plebiscite—and came in second. (There’s a danger in giving the people the chance to vote YES or NO.)

Chileans had high hopes for the return to democracy, and they’ve been pretty disappointed. The pleasant face of Michelle Bachelet, the country’s first female president, renovated the Concertación’s image four years ago when she beat out Piñera by a nose.

But the real victor all along in Chile has been neoliberalism and its aftermath, which all the presidents have administered to a greater or lesser degree since Pinochet installed the system by ripping out the throat of any opposition.

So although it’s too bad that the direct descendants of Pinochet are creeping close to La Moneda once again, it’s a far bigger pity that the whole country continues to be his legatee.

Friday, 11 December 2009

Obama in Oslo

I heard nothing in Obama’s Oslo speech accepting the Nobel Peace Prize that undermines my prior conclusion—that the Nobel is ours for throwing out Bush.

It’s not unprecedented for the Nobel committee to award the PP to a sitting head of state, nor for the recipients to be less than admirable personages. We forget that joining Martin Luther King, Jr., were Henry Kissinger, Yitzhak Rabin, Yasser Arafat and Teddy Roosevelt.

De Klerk, the last apartheid ruler of South Africa, won the prize, too, despite the system he stood for, along with Nelson Mandela.

The point of the prize is not that the recipient is a nice person but that he or she did something to advance peace, and sometimes it’s nothing more than putting an end to gross abuses with which they had been entirely complicit.

Our triumph was reflected in Obama’s call to restore the idea of ‘standards that govern the use of force’, the ones that Bush and Cheney told the world to put up its collective rectum.

Obama spoke of multinational institutions and UN peacekeeping forces and reminded us that he ordered the prohibition of torture and the closure of the Guantánamo prison camp. (Good to be reminded since the latter hasn’t happened yet, and I have serious doubts about the former.)

He had a lot of balls accusing Iran of provoking a nuclear arms race in the Middle East while remaining silent on the country that introduced those weapons there (Israel). But of course he couldn’t have said that without triggering a mudslide of epic proportions back home.

Also hard to swallow was the line about the U.S. as a ‘standard-bearer’ in the conduct of war. Let’s recall that phrase when the commission of inquiry on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan is eventually empaneled.

But the boilerplate in his speech was tempered by decent ideas, like strengthening international cooperation to avoid war, re-raising the profile of human rights, economic development to undermine the causes of war, recalling the special case of genocide. Et cetera.

Obama the president is becoming a little annoying with his penchant for those hold-hands-and-sing moments in his speeches. He’s not really saying anything all that new, nor saying it all that terribly well. But the fact that he’s not hurtling the planet towards the apocalypse is, by contrast, modestly reassuring.

Tuesday, 8 December 2009

Chilean Bombshell

Yesterday’s announcement in Chile of indictments against individuals linked to the Pinochet dictatorship for poisoning former president Eduardo Frei is an 8.0 earthquake in that seismically challenged country in the midst of its presidential elections.

Forensic investigators found traces of thalium and mustard gas in the remains of the popular Christian Democratic president who preceded Salvador Allende. I’m too far away in time and distance to have a feel for the impact, but it is remarkable to open the electronic front page of the profoundly reactionary El Mercurio to see what that Pinochet-boosting sheet has to say for itself.

El Mercurio predated Fox News, but then again the neoliberal Pinochet predated Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan, both of whom took a leaf out of his book. We ignore the lessons of that southern laboratory at our peril.

Frei was a key figure in the middle ground of Chilean politics during the polarization of the Allende-Pinochet years. After early support of the military takeover, he turned against Pinochet and was the natural figurehead of the burgeoning opposition.

Apparently, that was enough to get the late dictator working on ways to eliminate him. The details to come will no doubt be extremely juicy.

But back to the reactions: today’s Mercurio ignores the Frei assassination story completely and headlines a minor, self-generated story about the similar positions of the Socialist presidential candidate and the miniscule Chilean Communist Party on the issue of Pinochet’s 1981 auto-amnesty.

That’s typical mercurial guilt-by-association calculated to reinforce its ruling elite audience’s demented anti-marxist paranoia.

The equivalent here would be Beck and O’Reilly reacting to the news that George Bush and Osama bin Laden were pen pals with a feature on ACORN.

And indeed, Mercurio has a nice front-pager about Chilean magicians—presumably including those on its own staff who can make the biggest story of the decade disappear from its pages.

Now that we have Fox, we can see how a shamelessly crude propaganda organ backed with enough cash can position itself within a society and make itself indispensable, just like El Mercurio did, despite thumbing its nose at any semblance of respect for facts. Through its steady diet of smug indifference to anything outside its Weltanschauung, it pounds a discourse into the consciousness of the populace, much like the thugs in Orwell’s 1984.

Thus the cliché about our evolution into a third-world country has its application in the mediatic sphere as well.

Saturday, 5 December 2009


Outsiders coming to New York tend to see the city as its own universe, but taking up residence here quickly brings you into contact with the hard, cold reality known as Albany. Several things have happened this week to remind us that while our lives may be administered by King Bloomberg I, they are governed by the efficient solons of our state capital.

I say ‘efficient’ because the system they have devised is marvelously adept at shoveling cash into the pockets of its corrupt administrators while setting up future generations for bankruptcy. An ignorant outsider might surmise that this is done through a cozy alliance between the two major parties, both of which accuse the other of fiscal irresponsibility while battling mightily to make sure their favored constituents du jour feed at the public trough.

For decades this system was controlled by the iron triumvirate of Democrat Sheldon Silver (the Assembly Speaker), Republican Joe Bruno (the Senate Majority Leader)[left] and whoever happened to be the governor, who, being around for a mere eight years, threatened this arrangement at his peril.

Bruno is now waiting for a jury to rule on eight corruption charges steeming from his blatant influence peddling and private enrichment, and his statements to the waiting news media are illuminating. ‘Some people don’t understand about business’, Bruno whined to NPR this morning. Killjoy prosecutors who don’t want to see a guy make a buck, Joe was saying, illustrating the special Albany way of doing things.

Meanwhile, gay lobbying groups struggled mightily last year to throw out Bruno and get a Democratic majority in the Senate. Having done so, they logically expected an up-or-down vote on marriage equality for same-sex couples, which they got this week—and were clobbered on it 38-24. Eight of their supposed votes-in-the-bag allies, most of them from liberal-ish New York boroughs who had no trouble taking that useful gay money for their campaigns, voted no. One of them, Hiram Montserrate, just beat an assault rap for slashing his girlfriend’s face with a piece of glass. (Turned out it was an accident, wink-wink.)

It will be interesting to see what backlash this crude betrayal generates, if any, as the highly charged civil rights issue continues to rankle and the shiny new Democrats prove as indifferent as the bad-old Republicans.

Thursday, 3 December 2009

Obama’s Taxi

Commentary abounds on the new Afghanistan strategy, which looks a lot like the old Iraq strategy. They both place a high, perhaps top, priority on making the disasters caused by frivolous warmaking look less like defeat.

The triumphal march into Baghdad was supposed to usher in an era of Middle Eastern democracy and nonstop feeding at the oil trough by happy U.S. corporations. Instead, Bush and Cheney achieved the following: an invigorated, lunatic, anti-Semitic, quasi- military regime in Iran; disappearing business opportunities for anyone associated with the American occupiers; domestic bankrupcy and crushing fiscal deficits; habeas corpus protections, that once distinguished us from monarchies and dictatorships, on the ropes; the national soul pawned on the altar of Security.

What will be the eventual balance sheet on Afghanistan when the postponed withdrawal inevitably comes?

Instead of reading the endless reactions to what Obama said, I spent last night watching Taxi to the Dark Side, a 2007 documentary about how U.S. troops killed a peasant taxi driver named Dilawar at Bagram prison near Kabul. There, soldiers—pumped up with post 9/11 chauvinism and ticking-bomb apologetics for torture—were set loose on a kid caught up in local politics. Since they believed Bush-ite ravings from their superiors that the driver was a deadly terrorist, all their Christian upbringing back in Nebraska didn’t alert them to the possibility that teenagers maybe shouldn’t be beaten to death.

The filmmaker sympathizes with these disoriented and untrained prison guards who took the rap for Rumsfeld, but personally, I can’t share in the ‘just doing my job’ defense. We’ll see how long those excuses last when the harrowing techniques developed by the CIA and the military to turn human beings into lumps of quivering protoplasm are learned—and employed—by our ever-increasing enemies against kids just like these.

Obama is pretty worried about looking like the guy who ‘lost’ Afghanistan, but he is a lot less concerned about what was lost here at home, despite his campaign promises to stop presiding over a lawless military regime that murders teenage boys.

Sunday, 29 November 2009

Cheney's big talk while the enemy walks

John Kerry released his Foreign Relations Committee report on Bush’s failure to get bin Laden in a timely fashion, just hours before Obama is to announce his plans for getting out of the ongoing Afghanistan debacle. Our Republican friends have screamed ‘politics!’, and they’re right, for once—and about time, too.

I’m constantly amazed by how the Democrats fail to wield the huge weapons handed to them on a platter. Imagine what Limbaugh and Beck would be saying if Obama had been in charge of chasing down OBL in the Tora Bora Mountains in 2001 and let him slip through. The utter incompetence of the Bushites as armchair soldiers should be a broken record with the volume turned up every time we hear more crap about ‘dithering’ or similar demagoguery.

The report outlines how it was precisely the Rumsfeld-Cheney axis that ‘dithered’ about going up the mountains to get the architect of 9/11 or even to close off escape routes into Pakistan with more U.S. troops. It attributes this failure of nerve to their reluctance to commit large numbers of troops that might then get bogged down in a ‘protracted insurgency’. This was the famous Rumsfeld Doctrine that would soon be put to the test in Iraq—with the well-known brilliant results.

In fact, the report makes clear that the White House was already charging top Pentagon brass to forget Afghanistan and cook up the next pretty little war in Mesopotamia and that they didn’t care about anything else—an ironic conclusion considering their non-stop pandering to American outrage over the Twin Tower bombings.

So by failing to finish the job in Afghanistan, Bush and Cheney allowed bin Laden to use his local contacts to escape to Pakistan and fight another day. His main ally, Mullah Omar, now directs one of the greatest military comebacks in modern history with the Taliban reoccupying much of the country.

From the teabagger/Christian fanatic point of view, this is treasonous incompetence, and the Democrats should remind them of exactly that in answering the whiny bullshit they will start spouting tomorrow before the ink is dry on Obama’s plans.

Wednesday, 25 November 2009

Deconstructing Iraq

With Obama days from an announcement on how he plans to proceed in Afghanistan, it’s worth looking at what Peter Galbraith had to say about the other, even greater Bush-era debacle, Iraq. His 2008 book Unintended Consequences: How War in Iraq Strengthened America’s Enemies looks like a rush job (if someone edited it, you can’t tell) designed to the hit the bookstores in time to influence last November’s election.

Turns out Obama didn’t need Galbraith’s searing indictment of Bush as having ‘lost’ Iraq, but it’s a wonderful primer on ideology-driven incompetence as practiced by the Christian/neocon Republican coalition. But there’s a nagging question in the book that Galbraith doesn’t answer nor even ask.

Galbraith is an old foreign policy hand who worked for Congress, Bill Clinton (as ambassador to Croatia), the UN in East Timor and most recently the UN again as the number 2 guy ‘monitoring’ the massively fraudulent Afghan ‘election’ that President Karzai stole last August. He had the integrity lacking among his bosses to say that the emperor had no clothes, for which he was summarily canned.

We don’t yet know the inside skinny on why the UN went along with this farce, but the logic of a heavy, back-room American role is compelling. Obama has since accepted Karzai’s action and continues to treat him as a legitimate head of state despite the embarrassment (worsened by Galbraith’s honesty), apparently because Obama has decided that the alternative—calling it quits—would be worse.

Galbraith’s review of what happened in Iraq is particularly timely because it cuts through last fall’s laughably crude electoral demagogy and describes the losses already achieved by Bush’s non-policy: enormous strengthening of Iran; de facto break-up of Iraq into two confessional (Shiite and Sunni) enclaves and one virtually independent state (Kurdistan); direct alliance with the original enemy (ex-Baathists) against Al-Qaeda in Mesopotamia; intervention on one side of the ongoing intra-Shiite battles for power.

At the heart of Galbraith’s criticism of Bush is his conclusion that the stated policy goals—strengthening U.S. interests in the region—were set back by the attempt to conquer Iraq. That seems beyond debate now, but Galbraith never attempts to ask the obvious: then why did they do it?

I suppose that’s not his job as a policy wonk and advocate, and it is always tricky to enter the swamp of speculation on other people’s motives. But if doing what they did weakened the United States and directly undermined their stated goals, what were the real ones?

My own answer would point to the permanent war-making state and the internal pressures to generate profit-making opportunities. Just as Wall Street did not intend to subvert capitalism and nonetheless tempted itself into chasing the bubble’s short-term gains until it nearly did so, I suspect that belief in the trillion-dollar war was carried along by own momentum. Nine-eleven made the idea of war hugely attractive; in hindsight human agency seems almost secondary.

[Addendum] Too bad that a smart guy like Galbraith couldn’t have kept his business affairs out of his professional work and now is discredited by the huge profits he’s about to obtain from his investments in Kurdish oilfields. The fact that he doesn’t realize how bad it looks for a diplomat to pump for Kurdish independence and simultaneously have a financial stake in it might be part of his non-answer to the above unasked question.

Monday, 23 November 2009

Pharaoh, Step Down

Resentment against the Federal Reserve used to be the purview of oddballs like the Lyndon LaRouche sect while most of the rest of us had only a vague idea of what went on in that big marble building. We thought they had something to do with printing money since the capital letter on the dollar bill told you which of the ten regional Feds had produced it.

But financial chaos has unraveled all that blissful ignorance and undermined the Fed’s jealous independence and its demand for quasi-military secrecy. The long Greenspan era—in which the Ayn Rand disciple was treated by Congress as a visiting potentate for his oracular monthly pronouncements about the state of all things economical—has morphed into a populist revolt against the unelected club of experts.

The outrage is fed by teabagger paranoia against everything, and it won’t help matters in the long run if the Fed’s technical powers are cropped and monetary policy starts to be manipulated by politicians facing re-election. But the Fed’s ignominious failure to fulfill its regulatory role over the financial system and its insistence on keeping its doings cloaked in vague generalities as it shovels trillions into the failing banks is forcing Ben Bernancke to defend his role like never before. And a good thing, too.

The Fed’s independence in handling the creation and destruction of money was awarded to it by Congress, and Congress can just as easily take it away. There’s nothing in the Constitution that says it should have these powers.

It’s more or less accepted wisdom now that the Fed under Bernancke has done a good job of preventing the depression that loomed last fall as Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers and AIG toppled like falling dominoes. But given the extent of the economic pain, it isn’t immediately clear to those suffering that things would have been worse without huge handoffs of public funds to the guys responsible for the whole mess. Bernancke & Co. are going to have to figure out ways to explain it and themselves, and they can forget the turgid prose of the typical Fed news release—it won’t fly.

Too bad it isn’t Greenspan himself who has to defend the indefensible. But then there’s Timothy Geithner, a full partner in the Greenspan catastrophe during the former’s tenure at the Fed’s all-important New York office. It won’t help Bernancke to retain Fed powers and privileges to be saddled with someone like Geithner at Treasury reminding everyone that none of the main guilty parties have paid a price for their failure.

The smaller and more politically vulnerable agencies, like the Comptroller of the Currency, the FDIC and the laughably inept SEC—that never noticed Bernie Madoff was stealing $60 billion—had much less clout to intervene in the overheated financial markets while the good times rolled. It is the Fed’s very supra-political independence that makes its inaction unforgivable and puts that independence in congressional sights.

By stepping up and acting boldly a year ago, the Fed under Bernancke may have avoided the déluge threatening us. That success may have required funneling billions of dollars in free cash to investment bankers, but the Fed no longer has the privilege of refusing to explain why and showing us all the fine print. Congress will now see to that, and the coalition stretches from libertarian Ron Paul to liberal darling and iconoclast, Alan Grayson, co-sponsors of the one of the bills to give the Fed a nice caning.

Banks once were perceived as part of the normal landscape of life from big city to rural county seat. Bankers made nice salaries, but you could see them going to work and sitting around with their calculators, reviewing mortgage applications and financing businesses.

Now, however, people perceive that the financial economy has grown into a vehicle for the creation of vast fortunes not necessarily linked to any productive activity. Instead, they see bankers financing job destruction and giddily shipping manufacturing jobs overseas while making mincemeat of companies that communities relied upon and once thought would last forever.

A lot of disparate things—teabagging, banker hatred, hysteria over deficits, resentment of insurance companies—are fueled by the fear and uncertainty engendered by the steady disappearance of our manufacturing base and the employment security it once promised. It’s hard to see where decent jobs for future generations will come from, and meanwhile the sense that the privileged classes have feathered their own nests at our expense deepens.

One possible way for Obama to tap this fury rather than become its target would be to put as much energy into regulatory reform as he has into healthcare. Why not let McConnell and Boehner dig in their heels and defend the bankers for all to see?

Saturday, 21 November 2009

Health bill vote imminent

We will see in about an hour whether Senate Democrats can get their health care reform bill into the debate stage, but meanwhile it is fascinating to hear the tenor of the debate-to-be in advance of the cloture vote on C-SPAN’s live feed.

Curiously, given all the attention paid to teabagger fury, it is the Democrats showing real passion in defending the reform package. New Jersey’s Robert Menendez, hardly known as an inspired orator, shook his finger at the opposition an hour ago for being ‘on the wrong side of history for a century’ from the New Deal through civil rights and environmental legislation, Medicare, Medicaid and a half-dozen other historic government actions.

Tom Harkin from Iowa told his Democratic colleagues that ‘now is not the time to go wobbly in the knees’, recognizing that it was not the weak Republican minority that threatens to derail the reform but his own supposed allies.

The Republican arguments against going forward with the bill illustrate the risks they took on by openly defying Obama to get anything at all done on health. By bragging that they were going to bury reform in its cradle, speakers like Charles Grassley can’t really get much mileage denouncing the White House for ‘putting together one extreme plan after another’, given that he and his colleagues refused to even discuss them.

Joe Wilson’s rude shout-down of Obama continues to echo through the chamber tonight as the vote nears. Whatever happens to the bill and however health insurance and medical care in this country are changed, we will all know exactly who was responsible for it and who dug in their heels to keep things as they are.

Keep Us Safe!

The law entitled ‘Uniting and Strengthening America by Providing Appropriate Tools Required to Intercept and Obstruct Terrorism Act’—isn’t that clever? If you take the first initials, it spells out ‘USA PATRIOT’—was supposed to keep us safer by dismantling all those pesky and legalistic technical protections against government intrusion into our privacy.

Here’s a partial list of what that act, passed by wide margins of solons belonging to BOTH of our distinguished political parties, permitted the government to do: search your telephone and e-mail communications and medical, financial and other records without a warrant; indefinitely detain you if you are a non-citizen pursuant to your deportation on suspicion of terrorism-related acts and refuse you entry if you have incorrect ideas; find out what library books you take out; secretly search your home and property; monitor your Internet searches. Et cetera.

It also established military involvement in domestic law enforcement activities, authorized ‘roving’ wiretaps without probable cause of a crime and permitted ‘sneak and peek’ searches not revealed to the target (later overturned by a judge). This is aside from the complete destruction of judicial review of federal wiretapping of private domestic communications.

So how did all those wonderful new tools help protect us from terrorism? According to the inimitable Joe Lieberman, the Ft Hood shootings were the latest terrorist assault on America. So then how did it occur within the U.S. Army? That is, despite all these police-state methods, the most tightly monitored and controlled institution in the country did not notice that it had a mentally unbalanced dissident in its midst, nowithstanding gigantic warning signs emanating from him over a period of years.

So that’s what we got in exchange for being railroaded into giving up our protections against abuses by agents of the state. It’s wonderful to see how insouciant Americans are about government power when awarding police more nifty tools, then watch them go completely insane when that same state entity wants to find a way to provide health care for its citizens.

Fascists! Nazis! Socialists taking over America! The teabag discourse has a certain resonance among the populace, and it’s not a bad thing to be wary about the state behemoth. But it’s ironic to see how selective people’s fears really are.

As for the authors of USA PATRIOT, this pathetic record not only disrobes their incompetence but also suggests that their motives were more about adolescent emotions all along, that once again they exploited genuine fears to turn themselves into swaggering dicks with new toys. Bipeds are so predictable.

Thursday, 19 November 2009

Law Professor Gets an “F”

The paranoid and hysterical will have nothing to worry about, said a Harvard-educated professor of laws yesterday, when Khalid Sheikh Muhammed ‘[is] convicted, and when the death penalty is applied to him’.

The professor quickly realized that he had gone too far and backpedaled: ‘I’m not going to be in that courtroom. That’s the job of the prosecutors, the judge and the jury’. Referring to the job that he just told them how to do.

Too bad that the professor is also the president of the United States and directly controls their future employment prospects. It’s pretty hard to imagine any judge or prosecutor not doing the ‘job’ that their boss just laid out for them.

Attorney General Eric Holder chimed in with the reminder that ‘Failure is not an option’. Good thing we can arrange the verdicts before starting jury selection!

It’s not surprising that the fix is in for the trial of one of the most notorious perpetrators in our criminal justice history. No one doubts that the evidence is there to convict KSM despite the danger to its admissibility generated by years of systematic torture.

But it is disappointing to see how those whom we elected to restore some semblance of the rule of law are more attuned to the hue and cry of those who did their best to dismantle it. How little backbone Obama and Holder have for defending due process for its own sake in the spirit of Jefferson and Madison in their eagerness to reassure the reactionaries who don’t give a shit about all that.

They also are sorely lacking in killer political instincts. One of their principal critics, former A-G Mukasey, just gave the Obama Administration a huge opening by making a tasteless joke about the Ft Hood shooter, a joke which came pretty close to winking at assassination.

What a great moment to flip the terrorist debate and saddle the crazies and their increasingly reactionary leaders with the implications of their own words. But that would take leaders ready to kick ass like their enemies do.

P.S. The loathesome Mukasey became Attorney General through the machinations of our liberal Democratic U.S. Senator, Charles Schumer, a crime for which he should be pursued by Furies until the end of his days.

Tuesday, 17 November 2009

A Christian Woman Speaks Her Mind

I thought I’d die when I accidentally saw that half-nekkid Sarah Palin woman on the cover of a magazine in public view. And now she’s all indignant about it when she should be ashamed of herself for showing off her body. Why, back in my day, we’d never even heard of a word like ‘sexist’—whatever it means, it sounds filthy. And why does that woman want to have a man’s job anyway?

She should never have got all tarted up in the first place running in that beauty contest. That sort of thing isn’t for a decent young lady, only for a Charlotte-the-Harlot and other Loose Lindas.

The female has the duty to cover herself, act modestly and to teach her girls to honor the temple of their souls by withdrawing their flesh from public gaze and discouraging the lustful thoughts of men. In the Last Days before the Rapture, fornicating women will be swept away by the wrath of God Almighty and will not enter the Kingdom. So Sarah can just stew in her own juice for putting on those awful short pants—never mind letting them take her picture in them. My Harold never once saw my knees in 52 years of marriage—I’d rather be torn apart by lions.

This all started when women forgot about the sacrament of holy matrimony and allowed their young men to have coitus with them in a premarital state—and even cohabitate openly! It’s no wonder young people began to smoke marihuana and take drugs. If you got pregnant, no problem, just go to a doctor and kill it.

I knew things were going bad when they took prayer out of our public schools. When you don’t teach children to respect God, any blessed thing can happen and probably will—like women going off to work instead of remaining in their rightful sphere to provide loving care for their children and keeping the linens fresh.

Women acting like wild animals living in treetops—all that came about because the liberal secular humanists who run the media want to teach our children that our granddaddies were some sort of baboons in Africa and to forget what they read in the Bible. Who ever heard such nonsense in the entire 6,000 years of the created universe?

That Palin woman should have her hands full with all those babies, so I don’t know what she’s all up in arms about just because she got her silly puss in front of a camera somewhere. A Christian wife wouldn’t have troubles like those, so I say, Read the Bible, young woman, and don’t wait for Thursday prayer meeting! Get right with God, and stop whining about troubles you brought on yourself!

Tim & his pals

The unsurprising news that Treasury Secretary Geithner used the TARP bailout to totally give away the store to his buddy-boys at Goldman Sachs and the other professional looters shines an unflattering light on his boss. Geithner is hopeless, but somebody put him where he is despite his underwhelming record at the New York Federal Reserve and his memory lapse involving a tiny little matter called income taxes.

This complicity with Wall Street’s worst behavior fuels the teabaggers and those who might be swayed by them. The tinfoil hats and gun-toters often live somewhere very light on oxygen, but in this case their instincts are quite correct: the big thugs running things are in cahoots and ripping us off shamelessly.

It is an irony of the current situation that populist resentment of these creeps is being held partially at bay by Barack Obama’s credibility. What a pity that he chooses to spend it on the rich and their enablers.

Without pretending to understand high finance, I think it is pretty obvious that the government aid to AIG and the other pillars of the collapsing bank infrastructure could have been packaged in a completely different way and could have included some serious damage to the wallets of our master engineers of disaster. Instead, thanks to Geithner’s non-negotiations, AIG’s counterparty clients walked away with their full dollar and apparently paid nothing.

All this as documented by a Goldman Sachs alum, no less.

The report’s money graf on Geithner’s terminal wishy-washiness is pretty devastating:

[T]he refusal of FRBNY and the Federal Reserve to use their considerable leverage as the primary regulators for several of the counterparties, including the emphasis that their participation in the negotiations was purely "voluntary," made the possibility of obtaining concessions from those counterparties extremely remote. While there can be no doubt that a regulator’s inherent leverage over a regulated entity must be used other instances in this financial crisis regulators (including the Federal Reserve) have used coercive language to convince financial regulators to take or forego certain actions.

Surprise, surprise! Guys whose lives revolve around accumulating wealth decided not to part with any. Gee whiz.

This is the same Geithner who gives every impression of being at the beck and call of the Wall Street moneybaggers.

Given the lack of shyness in the Obama White House to push things they do care about (I’m thinking of Rahm Emanuel here), we can only conclude that keeping the big bankers delighted was and is a top priority. Says a lot about the limits of liberalism and the ease with which the elite awaken the populist beast in all its many colors.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Sentence first! then a trial

The announcement that we will have prosecutions of some 9/11 conspirators in New York’s federal courts is welcome despite the criticism that Attorney General Eric Holder has opted for what are essentially show trials. But the point today is to overcome the hysterical fear of the rule of law drummed up by those hostile to American principles whose views are now trumpeted for all to hear.

I agree with the legal critics of the Obama team’s decision to provide due process only to the extent required to assure convictions. That means a full federal trial for the accused who are already toast, military commissions for those where the cases are weaker and continued detention of those who would get off in any fair trial. So the exercise in public justice for the big fish is already a rigged affair.

The proof that there is little interest in what we used to call criminal justice was ably demonstrated by the truly priceless question asked by the AP reporter at Obama’s news conference on the trials:

President Obama’, said Jennifer Loven, ‘how can you assure the American people that a trial of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed . . . [will] not result in an innocent verdict for him?

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find a transcript of Obama’s answer, but it would have been great to hear him say, ‘Well, Ms Loven, that’s how the American jury system works: they get to decide if the defendant is guilty’.

Holder’s idea is to bring no one to trial who could possibly convince a jury to acquit, so Jennifer L needn’t worry. But it tells us a lot about how the suspension of habeas corpus during the Bush years has undermined civil protections in the minds of the citizenry.

Of course, innocent detainees—or those the system can’t be sure of convicting—won’t be getting fancy trials in federal courts, and therein lies the true challenge for our legal system. Holder’s stacked-deck arrangement does not repair the damage to due process.

But I think as a first step there is something to be said in its favor: we get the chance to see the big bad guys in a court of law with defense lawyers and procedures our system awards even to serial baby-killers. We might even manage to recall that we put these procedures in place for a reason and why we no longer place the accused on the rack or give him the thumbscrew to determine his guilt.

Holder’s Catch-22 process doesn’t award Omar Khadr, the Canadian teenager trapped in a Guantánamo dungeon, the chance to prove his innocence in a real trial. For now, though, the political compromise announced provides his best chance of eventually getting one.

Friday, 13 November 2009

Independence [Updated]

I love how General McChrystal is allowed for several weeks now to lobby and browbeat his civilian commander, one Barack Obama, in favor of his demand for 40,000 more U.S. troops in Afghanistan. But the civilian ambassador to Afghanistan who is supposed to represent our democratically elected government has to shut up. Otherwise, he’s accused of ‘undermining’ what the army wants to do there.

Except that in the current case, Obama’s man in Kabul, Karl Eikenberry, is a former liteutenant general himself and probably knows how that particular game is played.

Big decisions like this have a technical side and a political side, so we have been the object of much balloon-launching in recent days to see how Obama’s handling of the endless guerrilla war in Central Asia was going to fly with the public. My impression is that his enemies on Fox News were delighted to see him following their advice while those of us who got him elected were not thrilled. The idea that Karzai should be reinforced after his open theft of the presidential election there beggars belief.

I think it’s significant that Obama continues to visit places like Dover, Delaware (where the bodies of dead service personnel are shipped) and Arlington National Cemetery. Despite the predictable nasty sniping from armchair soldiers like the horrid Cheney and his horrid offspring, Obama is telegraphing the message about what it really costs to have people pursuing wars in foreign lands, i.e., they get killed there.

Not to mention the wounded, which should be on more people’s minds.

Now it seems as though the big escalation is not necessarily a done deal although for all we know, that could be another floater.

It doesn’t matter until we really find out what he’s going to do, but it is momentarily reassuring to think that he’s refusing to be railroaded and is asking not just how to get more troops over there, but how to get them back, too.

[Update] David Corn ferries the D.C. scuttlebutt from his reporter friends that the White House itself leaked Eikenberry’s memo, thus laying the groundwork for keeping troop levels right where they are or with a meaningless small boost to enable McChrystal to save face. In any case, expect howls of outrage from the usual suspects about losing the war on terror or some such blather. But Obama as the new Truman facing down MacArthur? Can’t wait!

Tuesday, 10 November 2009

The Road of Ideological Purity

A recent article in the New York Review of Books uses the term ‘civic dead end’ to describe the atrophied left-right dispute over what’s wrong with American education, and it struck me as a perfect summation of what Republican know-nothingism has done to all public debate, most recently about health insurance reform. Furthermore, it aptly names the phenomenon by which reactionary Christianity has generated what it most loathed and feared—a weird side B of 1960s counterculture.

It might seem odd to compare the straitlaced, churchgoing family men and women with pot-loving longhairs, activists and cop-baiters, but I maintain that the former have steadily absorbed, reified and evolved into a version of their own worst nightmares, dating from the days in which radical Christians drew together as a political movement in opposition to the feminist, gay, anti-racist and anti-war upheavals of four decades ago.
Sears Roebuck trumpeted an ad campaign back in those days for its kitchen wares as the company’s ‘Counter Revolution’, and at the same time Republican operatives were busy exploiting a similar distaste for youthful ’60s radicalism in the political realm. They reproduced the successes of the grassroots civil rights and women’s equality movements by bringing concerned citizens together for prayer and issue-based activism in thousands of church basements.

Their organizing tool at the time was profoundly ‘anti’—anti-abortion and antigay primarily. But they also held up old-time religion as the antidote and the solution to a raft of social problems—the right to restore prayer in schools being the most emblematic.

The conservative counter-movement flourished dramatically in the 1980 elections that swept both Ronald Reagan and a slew of new-right Republicans into Congress. Their attack campaigns showed the potency of negative advertising on so-called ‘social issues’, driven, ironically, by closeted homosexual Terry Dolan’s innovative techniques. They were ideological and full of themselves but remained within the known confines of planet earth. Those were the good old days.

Back in the 1960s, we felt moral superiority in the face of the slaughter occasioned by the Vietnam war and the very recent dismantling of Jim Crow segregation laws. We got in the face of politicians of both parties and in many ways refused to be part of ‘the system’ at all, believing it hopelessly corrupt and perverse. Today, that’s the outlook of followers of Sarah Palin and Glenn Beck.

Our dropping out led us to a version of the ‘civic dead end’ that the Review laments. We could be crude, rude and self-righteous, and it was only when our own Utopian schemes fell apart—collectively-owned stores in Washington, D.C., rural Oregon communes, experimental urban living arrangements, radical politics of various domestic and international stripes—that we trudged back very gingerly into participation in some pre-established structures.

The radical Palinites and Beck-worshipping troops remind me of ourselves in those days and not in a good way. Their eager assault on Dede Scozzafava in the upstate New York congressional race reflects their mood of millenarian self-absorption and self-indulgence. They didn’t even bother to find a genuine member of the community to carry their ideological standard, blithely assuming that their Truth easily trumped such mundane details, and meanwhile their candidate, glassy-eyed Doug Hoffman [right], couldn’t answer basic questions about the district he suddenly wanted to represent.

Similarly, their rabid opposition to any initiative not led by their religio-patriotic brethren eliminates the possibility of civic cooperation on the pressing issues of the day, as evidenced by the Republican posture of automatic and furious resistance to anything emerging from the Obama White House. They are happiest in the camp of oppositional outrage where things are neatly placed in the categories of Right/Good and Wrong/Evil, as in Obama Health Care=Dachau Concentration Camp [below]. They are indeed the bizarre step-children of the 1960s.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

Blue me

A few months ago Rahm Emanuel notoriously threatened with exile to political Siberia any Democrat who dared to vote against Obama’s request for money to fight the Afghanistan war. Given the ensuing gift of the Nobel Peace Prize, dissident Democrats could have argued that they were ahead of Obama on this point. [Artwork: John Pritchett]

In any case, it will be interesting to see how the White House responds to the gross display of disloyalty by 39 House ‘Blue Dog’ Democrats on health insurance reform, given that it was THE key vote of the Obama presidency so far. Will the Rahm-boys retaliate or call for ‘turning the page’ and ‘looking toward the future’?

Two of the 39 voted ‘No’ because the bill wasn’t tough enough, including the Nader-esque Dennis Kucinich, but all the rest fit into the Blue Dog category. A bunch of them are southerners (3 each from North Carolina and Tennessee), but some are from purplish districts that conceivably could respond to a pro-change stance. Larry Kissell’s Fayetteville-based district even went for Obama.

The blogosphere is abuzz with outrage and threats to go after these DINOs (Democrats in Name Only), and given the historic importance of this vote, that seems like a good idea, to a point. However, some cold-blooded strategic thinking is also in order. As we saw in the upstate New York debacle led by Sarah Palin and her glassy-eyed troops, a primary challenge can feel great, especially if you win. But it can also be a self-indulgent distraction.

I’d like to see someone with a sober grasp of the Washington game lay out which of the three dozen congressional districts are ripe for a solid challenge from a pro-reform candidate both within the Democratic camp and among the general voting public. That is, where can the furious defenders of health reform channel their energies into replacing the Blue Dog with a truer and more faithful representative of that district’s residents?

There are solid arguments for not letting this issue go away. One North Carolina blogger put it this way:

‘For [the Blue Dog congressmen], a vote against reform was really a vote against people they see and hear from every day. We know they were contacted again and again by people and families all over their districts who can’t afford coverage or have family members who have died or become gravely ill because they couldn’t afford coverage’.

That discussion could and should continue especially if people in those districts find their conditions improving under the new law even though their own elected representatives chickened out. An unrelenting focus on that underlying issue would be a good way to make these opportunist elements pay a price.

Otherwise, I fear we will see a raft of fund-raising pitches for all sorts of worthy, well-meaning knights on shiny steeds who are indignant that certain politicians acted in their narrow self-interest. It’s an outrage, I completely agree. . . and?

Saturday, 7 November 2009

Grading Mr O

Now that a year has gone by since we went out and elected Barack Obama, how about an early report card?

Appointees: Obama has elevated some excellent people, usually to the second- and third-tier jobs like his pick for Surgeon-General. Hillary was a potentially good choice for Secretary of State as she’s suited to brokering deals and may do well if she recognizes her own limits. But the economic team is a disaster and saddles his presidency with the sins of the Bush years in turning the government into a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs. Even with the same policy, he could have had other guys doing it (and a few more women). The technocrats in places like energy, education and housing are mostly invisible, so it’s hard to know how they’re doing. Grade: B-

Foreign affairs: The Nobel Peace Prize is a good symbol of what Obama has achieved by radically shifting the discourse and acting like a reasonable collaborator rather than a big bully. This makes the jingo supremacists go mad; when that happens, you know you’re on the right track. The Cairo speech was a marvel, and his handling of the Iran situation almost flawless. On the other hand, Obama criticized things like bombing runs on Afghan villages during the campaign, then escalated them as president. He tried to get tough with Israel but seems to have no stomach for sticking to it as the Zionist lobby within his own party undercuts him. He is said to be considering more troops in Afghanistan, which is nuts. Of course there’s a political price to pay by recognizing a setback, but an even larger one awaits him if he postpones the inevitable, LBJ-style, and the nutso opposition will pillory him in any case. It’s a good sign that he’s taking his time with a decision. Let’s hope it’s the right one. Grade: B

Civil liberties: Obama signed the order closing of Guantánamo with a flourish in the first hours but hasn’t followed through. His lawyers argue for all the worst abuses of the Bush years from rendition to illegal wiretapping, and the rule of habeas corpus and due process is breached day by day. If he has different instincts, he hasn’t shown them. Eventually, the courts will overrule him, and neither he nor the Democrats will get any credit for defending personal freedom or putting an end to torture. The guilty will crow, Those guys did it too! And they’ll be right. Grade: D

Economics: The stimulus package was the right thing to do but probably too timid. Some New Deal-style job projects would make more sense than the absurd housing credit, which is an expensive subsidy to the comfortably middle class. Banking re-regulation is being undermined on a daily basis as is the consumer protection initiative. Obama had a huge opportunity, and a mandate, to clean house and rewrite the rules after last year’s collapse, but he blew it. Grade: C

Health: Well, I guess we’ll know some time next week, eh? If the whole thing flops, he’ll get no credit from anyone, but I think the overall approach was technically sound if politically amateurish. His speech to Congress was terrific, but we needed a better narrative much earlier, before the teabagger parties. On the other hand, his intuition to zone in on one of the toughest issues right from the start was correct, even kind of obvious. Grade: B if we get a decent deal, C if we get a mediocre one, D if we don’t get any.

Spending: The more obscure budget issues don’t get much play, but Obama has been pretty good at eliminating wasteful arms projects. The stimulus money put cash into worthy activities—we’ll see what happens when the deficit has to be reduced and the belts tightened. His political advisors might make more hay out of his cost-cutting. Grade: A-

Gay issues: We’re waiting. Grade: Incomplete

Immigration: Given the toxicity of that topic, I suppose silence is the best approach for now. However, he didn’t have to promise that Those People would not get any health care from his reform (thus earning the famous Bronx cheer from Joe Wilson). If you’re going to keep mum, then shut the f*ck up instead of making the Mexicans whipping boys yet again. Grade: C

Politics: Obama speaks pretty well in public, but that’s no substitute for keeping a grassroots movement energized. He runs the risk of slipping into pretty-face mode and putting too much faith into his clever team of over-achievers. The Obama campaign had a chance to sustain the spirit of a movement with a parallel organizing structure and opted instead to fold it all into the Democratic Party. They may regret that. Grade: B-

Overall grade: B-

I'm just like all wackos whose last names end in a vowel

A simple test of racism is now available for all to see: to what extent to commentators, public and private, decide that because an Arab and/or Muslim went crazy and shot up a bunch of people, therefore all Arabs and/or Muslims are somehow suspect and must be subjected to special loyalty tests.

This makes a lot of sense, just as the arrest of Timothy McVeigh for the Oklahoma City bombing led to a mass vetting of white males.

Collective guilt is a standard biped reaction to people who don’t look or behave like themselves. It’s far older than Christian anti-Semitism based on the crime of Judas and the Pharisees although that’s a good one to recollect at times like these. Here’s another: the Armenian minority was considered insufficiently loyal to the Young Turks after they overthrew the Ottoman sultante, so why not use World War I as an excuse to march a million of them into the Syrian desert to die of starvation? Only logical.

This kneejerk reaction lies at the heart of terrorist attacks on civilians and the familiar waves of racist or ethnic chauvinism. No doubt Fox will pander to its bug-eyed loyalists and whip it up—let’s see if the Republican Party distinguishes itself in this arena as well.

Tuesday, 3 November 2009

I [Heart] New York

Hurrah for independent-minded New Yorkers who very quietly stuck their collective fist up the rectal compartment of His Highness, Mayor Bloomberg, Tuesday—and not in a good way. Bloomberg’s humiliating 5-point victory over a non-entity at the cost of $90 million (or an estimated $35,000 per hour) from his own absurdly stuffed pockets will surely set a different tone to his illegitimate third term.

I have to say it feels great to live in a place where people weren’t completely browbeaten into submission by Bloomberg’s non-stop TV ads and his dozen glossy propaganda sheets in their mailboxes every week, but rather expressed their distaste for the arrogance of rewriting the election rules to suit himself—even while recognizing that his mayoral performance has not been dreadful.

My anecdotal impression is that rigging the third term was simply unforgivable to a large bloc of voters, and all the cash on Wall Street wasn’t going to change their minds.

New Jersey: so a filthy rich Goldman Sachs alumnus didn’t manage to buy another term as governor? Who cares? Loyal Democrats maybe.

Maine: at 11 EST it looks like the repealers of gay marriage will eke out a victory. That’s too bad, but the tide has long since turned against their heel-digging. If half the crusty old Maine yankees think it’s okay to be queer, it’s just a matter of time.

Upstate New York: I wish I didn’t have to go to bed so I could relish the possible defeat of the teabagger-carpetbagger in Watertown, who reminds me of the nasty Baptist preachers’ kids I grew up with. A pity because it might undercut the lovely momentum of the Republican intranecine war.

Election Day One Year Later

The teabagger loonies are probably going to be energized by Republican triumphs today including their favorite, a toothy, self-righteous Bible-thumper about to capture the open congressional seat in upstate New York as a third-party candidate. It will be eerily amusing, from a primatological point of view, to watch them celebrate.

Defeat could also be bracing and healthy for the denizens of the Obama White House although if past history is any guide, they will take away the message that they have been too daring and bold and need to cut more deals with their enemies. If they had behaved as true populist liberals, Obama’s support for a sleazy, Goldman Sachs Democrat like Corzine in New Jersey might have been more persuasive. But given his team’s enthusiastic collusion with the worst abuses of Wall Street, defeat in that governor’s race, if it occurs, will be richly deserved.

Obama’s weakness in dealing with the corrupt titans of finance has enabled the wacko reactionaries to paint him as a tool of the rich and powerful, and that’s one arena where they’re not crazy (although their memories are awfully short). So if his party takes a licking, will he get worse? What would that mean? At this point, how much more collusion with the banker scam artists is even possible?

Monday, 2 November 2009

Hillary grovels, Barack salutes

Although Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are on the same team with Hillary the subordinate getting the distasteful chores, the instincts of the two on display this past week are a good reminder why we made the right choice in last year’s primary season.

Hillary outdid her usual bland cynicism by celebrating the legitimacy of the Afghan presidential ‘election’ and praising the ‘concessions’ made by Israel on the settlements issue. Give me a sip of water, I’m laughing so hard the tears are running down my face.

The ‘concessions’ from Netan-Yahoo’s crew consist of a generous decision not to openly replace the U.S. government with itself and instead settle for wagging Obama’s tail publicly for all to see. After openly defying Obama’s demand that illegal settlement activity on the West Bank be halted to get negotiations kick-started, they smugly waited for the inevitable collapse in Washington. Hillary duly obeyed; the only question is whether she felt chagrined at her own humiliation.

She was even more pathetic wanly accepting the daylight theft through massive ballot-box-stuffing of the presidential election by the head of the Afghan narco-state, Hamid Karzai. Unable to force Karzai to run a real election, Clinton signaled the U.S. acceptance of his fraudulent ‘victory’ by calling the opposition candidate’s withdrawal ‘a personal choice which may or may not be made’.

‘I don’t think it has anything to do with the legitimacy of the election’, she added disingenuously, a nicely rounded and complete falsehood meaning that even though the election is completely illegitimate, the U.S. has been outmaneuvered and will have to go along with it.

I can only wonder what that family in Missouri must be feeling as they read this news and realize that their enlisted loved one must expose him or herself to injury and death in defense of a corrupt warlord who thumbs his nose at the nation whose troops protect him and his opiates.

That’s where Obama’s gesture comes in. After nearly a decade of anti-terrorist crusaders pretending that making war in distant lands comes at no cost, Obama reminded the armchair militarists egging him on to escalate in Afghanistan that these decisions entail sacrifice—of other people’s children.

The two wars brought to us by Bush and Cheney were great money-making opportunities for them and their friends, and as Cheney cracked later when asked about the losses, no one can complain because ‘they’re all volunteers’. That was the attitude from the great patriots of the teabagger party, and it’s mind-numbing to think that they continue to get away with it while those who express concern about the troops are tagged as weak.

I suffer from chronic naiveté, but I cannot understand why this is not the moment to tell Karzai and his heroin-trafficking buddies that the U.S. has had enough and will be handing over the business of their defense to them. After all, these guys have shown how determined they are to be in charge—why not take them up on it?

Saturday, 31 October 2009

It's Alive! [Updated]

‘CBS should be ashamed for continually providing a forum to propagate lies. Consider the source of the most recent attention-getting lies—those who would sell their body for money reflect a desperate need for attention and are likely to say and do anything for even more attention’.

How’s that for the mother-in-law from hell? Yes, the quote is from Sarah Palin speaking publicly about Levi Johnston, the father of her precious grandbaby. I guess that’s one way to defend ‘family values’.

Speaking of selling one’s body for money, Palin is currently extorting $100,000 from Iowa Republicans for the chance to come flash her beauty-pageant mug at them. It sure isn’t for intellectual stimulation.

And speaking of family values, who knew that just-withdrawn Republican candidate for Congress, Deirdre Scozzofava, had toiled away patiently in the New York State Assembly as head of something called the Republican Task Force on Sex Crimes against Children & Women? The days when Republicans can even dabble in such dubiously feministic pursuits are fast disappearing, and Scozzofava’s upstate New York district is about to provide dramatic proof.

Scozzofava got involved in sexual abuse issues as mayor of a town called Gouvernour, New York, when a gang rape investigation took place involving a woman in a bar, back in the time when a woman’s drunkenness could be credibly used to discount a rape accusation. You might know the story: Jodie Foster dramatized it in The Accused.

The Watertown Daily Times editorialized that Scozzofava ‘publicly said little, other than to attempt to protect her community against the national media as it descended on her village to describe it as a town without pity. But privately she was working with journalists, law officers, state politicians and anyone else who might be able to do anything to put those five SOBs in jail for raping a near comatose woman in her town and then bragging about it’.

Not that the people who benefited from Scozzofava’s earnest interest in such topics came to her defense when two boys’ club opponents piled on with all sorts of crypto-sexist tactics to eliminate her. They successfully showed that she would never win a beauty contest, leading to the conclusion that she didn’t deserve to go write laws in Washington. How telling that just as a camera-hogging, boneheaded bimbo like Palin becomes their darling, ‘conservative’ America grinds up a thoughtful professional woman like chopped chuck steak.

‘Conservative’ my upstate ass (I was born in that district)—these are Mongol Hordes attempting to sweep down upon us from the Asian steppe. The cynical Republican machine created this monster in the 1980s out of fundamentalist Christian paranoids to usher in the Reagan revolution and accumulate vast wealth. It has now emerged ready to eat daddy—and mommy.

[Update] Here’s what the now-official Republican candidate for the 23d District, teabagger Doug Hoffman, said about Scozzafava’s decision to drop out:

‘I think her statement clearly implies that the important thing from this point on is that all of us Republicans combine forces to make sure that we get a congressman that will represent the values and the ideals of the 23rd District, and I believe I am that person’.

There’s only one thing wrong with that—it’s totally made up. Here’s what Scozzafava actually said about quitting the race: ‘I hereby release those individuals who have endorsed and supported my campaign to transfer their support as they see fit’.

In other words, the departing Mrs S did not endorse as her party’s candidate for office the guy who helicoptered in (he doesn’t live in the district) and forced her out.

Civil War? If so, there is a God after all.