Thursday, 29 January 2009

The view from below

People’s everyday behavior reflects their view of the world and their own place in it, and there’s no larger laboratory for observing that than the 6 million-plus daily riders in the New York City subway system. Two examples in the last 12 hours showed me how contrasting inner universes can co-exist at close quarters.

Two young Caucasian women burst onto the uptown D express from Midtown to Harlem last night and settled in to converse, one sitting next to me and the other standing over her. Their decibel level suggested that they had not come straight from the office. Be that as it may, they were definitely two happy bipeds. They broadcast their personal and professional business affairs with the cozy assurance of those who are entirely at home wherever they go.

Then this morning I was spacing out sleepily on the downtown A when a Hispanic or African-American couple slipped in beside me. They chatted away non-stop but so softly that I couldn’t quite make out if they were speaking English or Spanish until he exited at Columbus Circle. Their exchange signaled profound privacy and careful discretion, an awareness that they were allotted a certain portion of intangible space and no more.

I don’t mean to make too much of race in this case because one could easily find the exact reverse examples any day of the week. But it got me to thinking about Obama’s strategy with the intransigent Republicans who responded to his olive branch and openness to hear opposing views with a resounding goose-egg of support in yesterday’s vote on the mega-stimulus.

Obama seems determined to bend over backwards to please the unrepentant creeps who bankrupted our country and enriched their friends at public expense, and it’s hard to swallow when you recall the way the Reaganomics revolution started out in 1981 by steamrolling all opposition and appealing contemptuously over the heads of the ‘tax-and-spend’ Congress to the masses. At first glance, Obama looks like a wimpier version of Clinton even though Obama’s solid majority gives him a greater mandate. (Bush II’s complete lack of one didn’t slow him down, either.)

But maybe Obama’s biracial life has given him an insight about the double standards that we live with unconsciously, how the underdog has to navigate treacherous waters to win a consensus. Maybe he grasps in ways that are still mysterious to many of us that an unthreatening and patient approach, accompanied by determination, is the only way to build and sustain a consensus if you are a mixed-race, urban liberal handling the small-town, white heartland.

In this speculative subway metaphor, the blithely confident white ladies represent the Republicans. Propelled into power, their default strategy would be to set out their expectations and wrestle dissidents onto the mat for a quick pin. They would expect to be heard, to be understood and to win.

Expectations for and from our guy are quite different. He has to speak softly, alarm no one and carefully seduce without looking too powerful or too sexy. The built-in negatives are so much greater that his tactical approach requires subtlety, patience, endless charm and the right dose of panache.

But he has an advantage too, which is a lifetime of knowing both worldviews, the perspective of the rulers and that of the ruled, from inside and from outside. If Obama isn’t just another triangulating closet conservative, it could be quite a performance.

Wednesday, 28 January 2009

Please go away

I have a long-standing policy not to discuss in person or in print what happens to or in a certain mini-state from yesteryear, but the latest display of insensitivity from His Popeliness is too spectacular to ignore. After several of his predecessors struggled admirably over Christianity’s historical fellow-traveling with anti-Semitism, a certain church has just taken a 600-year step backward and doesn’t appear to be all that sorry.

It’s ironic that just as the United States is getting used to its first non-white president, world Catholicism decides to make nice with a raving Holocaust-denier welcomed back from the cold because he’s reactionary enough to meet all the Vatican’s strict limits on what may be believed.

Belief that the Jews made up all that stuff about Auschwitz not included.

I guess it’s good to know what Benedict the Sixteenth’s priorities are: sex, no; Virgin Mary, yes; Elders of Zion, who cares?

If it were just a nutcase bishop somewhere, one could argue that a billion-person tent is always going to include a wacko. But this action is far too consistent with Benedict’s steady rehabilitation of discredited anti-Semitic currents.

Lest we forget, the execrable Mel Gibson made a movie a while back that resuscitated old anti-Semitic slanders about who killed the Messiah. I personally saw Catholic nuns in Santiago shepherd whole classrooms of tender youths in to see it with the blessings of the local bishops—luckily, they weren’t attending a sex-ed class, merely two hours of torture-porn.

Benedict XVI saw no problem with that display. But I guess we shouldn’t expect an ‘A’ in cultural competency from a guy who could proclaim, ‘Show me just what Muhammad brought that was new, and there you will find things only evil and inhuman. . . ’

Still, rehabilitating British-born bishop Richard Williamson puts him in the W category of tone-deafness. Williamson not only denies the Holocaust and thinks women should not attend universities, he even ‘suggested that the U.S. government staged the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks as an excuse to invade Afghanistan’, according to Michelle Boorstein in the Washington Post.

And these aren’t some musty old off-the-cuff remarks. Williamson reiterated on Swedish television his belief that ‘there were no gas chambers’ just this month.

His buds at the society of Saint Pius X told him to hold off on ‘ill-advised’ statements. How about adding ‘trying to cover up the worst crime in human history’? I guess that’s not important to pastoral leadership.

Benedict obviously concurs with the Saint Pius X gang that anti-Semitic comments may be ‘abhorrent’ but are not ‘heretical’, which fully clarifies what’s important and what’s not in that body of dogma. Glad I have nothing to do with it.

Tuesday, 27 January 2009

Predictions--for 2008 [updated][updated again]

Popular journalism is all about moving on relentlessly to the next hot topic, but a little historical perspective can be marvelously sobering. Because I don’t systematically read my magazines, there’s always an issue lying about from several months ago, and it’s a treat to look at them knowing how things like the Democratic primaries or the Dow Jones averages turned out.

On January 7 a year ago New York magazine’s John Heilemann described Hillary Clinton’s massive misfire in preparing for the Iowa caucuses, how she dissed the local political clubs with no-shows while positioning herself as the inevitable candidate surrounded by presidential trappings, blaring trumpets, seraphin and cherubim. It’s a remarkable article because pretty much the entire primary season is laid out there, her hubris, her clueless campaign operation, the frantic last-minute smears dished out to try to push Obama into a ditch (remember the ‘secular madrassa’ he attended? not a Sarah Palin invention but straight from Hillaryoid Bob Kerrey), and last but not least the fatal influence of Bill, to whose wagon Hillary chose to remain hitched both in life and in the art of politics.

Heilemann speculated that even if Hillary were to win, she had exposed her weakness: the impression that she was a ‘candidate without a core or convictions other than that she should be, must be, president’ and that all the folderol built up around her was engineered to conceal that fact.

By contrast, the ten predictions for 2008 laid out by business writer James J. Cramer in the same issue would be embarrassing if anyone were rude enough to remember them. He acknowledges that making money in stocks may be ‘tough sledding’ over the next 12 months and then boldly insists that Goldman Sachs would finish the year at $300 a share—‘not a prediction, an inevitability’. LOL, ROTFL, off by a mere $226. Similar Fantasyland expectations are laid out for Google, Verizon and Apple.

Cramer’s crystal ball on corporate mergers was a little cloudy too, pretty much a .000 batting average except for a half-point he gets for guessing the acquisition of Merrill Lynch—by Europeans, he said, not as it turned out, by Bank of America. (The Europeans were too smart.) He foresaw that a simple interest rate cut would spur the sagging stock market back into the heavens—not!

Okay, it’s easy to make fun of stock pickers getting it wrong but useful to recall when these ‘experts’ insist on ridiculous fees to manage our pension funds. However, one prediction I would have liked to see come true is Cramer’s vision of an Army of the Foreclosed marching on the White House and camping out on the grounds of the Washington Monument. So far the only army in that town has been Barack’s.

Twilight Highlights: Speaking of politicians with no core convictions, I wonder how long our new senator, Kirsten Gillibrand, will take to distance herself from one of her lobbyist father’s clients: Altria, the tobacco peddler formerly known as Philip Morris. About as long as the rest of the Democratic establishment will take to put mileage between themselves and Governor Paterson, currently buried up to the neck in his own slop.

[P.S.] I forgot to include the fact that Altria executives and its PAC provided Ms. Gillibrand’s 2008 campaign with the tidy sum of $24,200, according to the Jan 25 New York Daily News. Remind me a year from now when the local Democrats insist on voting for her to avoid corporate-toady-sell-out Republicans from gaining her office.

[Update] David Paterson is a prick, but he’s an amateur prick, the worst kind. The New York Post all but outed their source for the hatchet toss aimed at Caroline Kennedy after she bowed out, previously identified by reportorial convention as ‘someone close to the governor’. Paterson denied he knew who did it, but The Post responded with a picture of Paterson with Pinocchio nose on its main web page, and a columnist called him out directly.

Meanwhile, New York magazine reports this week that Paterson commonly uses that phrase when he talks off the record himself. Jesus, God and all the saints. Could DP possibly have heaved that parting burst of mojoncitos from his own sling?! The guy diddles around for a month, goes along with the farce of a total neophyte cashing in on her name for national office and suddenly pirouettes and pretends he never took her seriously. Not satisfied with the hash he made of the whole process, he then stoops to spreading dirt on her personal life? The political knives are about to be drawn on this clown and none too soon.

Saturday, 24 January 2009

Quant-model politics

Is it naïve to expect politicians to stand for something? Anything?

Already the usual suspects are chiming in unison that the new hand-picked senator from our state, Kirsten Gillebrand, can start shaping her unpopular pro-gun positions to fit her new, more urban constituency. Snake-oil salesman Chuck Schumer, her mentor-to-be and apparently a big reason why she got the nod, promptly announced that she would be touring Brooklyn, an area she cared nothing about until last night, so that she can start feeding those residents the proper lines and get herself positioned for a statewide race next year.

Gillebrand enjoys a perfect 100 rating from the National Rifle Association, but her ‘views’ on that topic are now going to get a thorough laundering by Schumer and others whose idea of politics is to develop pandering into a fine art. You calculate who wants what down to the last fraction of a voter, shape your message scientifically to pretend to care about those topics with the most electoral weight, then sally forth onto TV relentlessly repeating the stock phrases that your focus groups have indicated will garner you votes.

Schumer’s success at this model is pretty terrifying, and he has built up a phalanx of former aides as his junior imitators in the state legislature and Congress, like weasely Representative Anthony Wiener and the fresh-faced Daniel Squadron just arrived to Albany. They swarm into our consciousness by following the tested model of non-stop exposure and fanatical pursuit of the lowest-common-denominator commonplaces. (Wiener was on the tube this week praising the re-opening of the Statue of Liberty.)

The result is that these guys get ahead, but the vague sense that they believe in the same things we do is an illusion. Schumer cultivates the image of a standard liberal, but when his accumulation of personal power is at stake, all bets are off. He personally shepherded nasty Michael Mukasey through the confirmation process as Attorney General despite that reptile’s support of the Bush torture program. Not many New Yorkers would agree to that, but 90 percent of them remain ignorant of it since no local Democrats dared to bring it up, and Republicans were delighted.

Schumer apparently got the increasingly pathetic Governor Paterson to choose a Blue Dog upstate Democrat to strengthen the Democrats’ lock on statewide offices. But joy at the precipitous demise of the corrupt Republicans should not automatically generate a hero’s welcome for a passel of corrupt Democrats.

Schumer is also as guilty as anyone in the country for the Wall Street debacle as he shilled for their interests in exchange for contributions just like any Carolina cracker would do for the local cigarette companies. If he were an Alaskan, he’d be competing with Sarah Palin to boost oil drilling in the wildlife refuges. He’s not even embarrassed about it—on the contrary, Schumer likes to brag about how quickly he delivers to the interest group du jour because that’s how he understands his job.

That doesn’t mean we have to accept his philosophy, that politics is nothing but a crude clash of interests in which the relative strengths of each group translate directly into an equivalent portion of society’s goods—an entirely static and conservative formula that can only reinforce the status quo. Schumer is loyal to nothing but himself and his influence game, and under a dictatorship or a fascist state he’d be a cabinet minister with communications channels open to the opposition just in case they some day succeeded in overthrowing his boss.

Governor Paterson shot himself in both feet with his coy guessing-game bullshit, his encouragement of the foolish Caroline K boomlet and now his crass opportunism in putting in Gillabrand to help his own chances for re-election. He’s run through his entire stock of good will in less than a year.

For her part, Senator Gillabrand is the daughter of a Republican lobbyist with business ties to the just-indicted Joe Bruno, who ran the Republican-majority state senate for decades. She seems to fit the Schumer mold of tireless self-promotion and infinite policy flexibility. This the best we could do in one of the most liberal states in the nation? Although the end of the Kennedy-Paterson circus is welcome, it’s a pity that the Obama presidency has not brought to our unfortunate state politics any sense of public service as a noble, rather than a purely expedient, endeavor.

Friday, 23 January 2009


What a relief to see the fresh, new leadership of our country at the State Department signaling by their presence that diplomacy will now take precedence over brute force. If the symbolism weren’t clear enough of Obama and Biden escorting Hillary Clinton to announce the appointment of special Middle East, Pakistan and Afghanistan envoys on only day 2 of the new presidency, their remarks were quite explicit: we’re leaving the disastrous approach of the last team far behind.

Our ‘enduring values’ will be key to American policy, said Obama while announcing the end of torture. America ’s ‘moral example’, not just its military might, will dictate its strategy. These explanatory words are at least as important as the executive order signed to close Guantánamo and end the kangaroo courts there. They suggest thaat his actions are not mere expediency in recognition of a failed strategy but rather a condemnation of morally reprehensible actions.

Obama also took the opportunity, albeit hesitatingly and couched in the required rhetorical bows to the poor-victim Israelis, to refer to the intolerable suffering of the people jammed into the Gaza open-air prison camp. With George Mitchell standing by his side, Obama’s suggestion that their well-being will matter in the diplomatic nudging to start up again in the Middle East is a tiny step in the right direction. Given the nearly exclusive focus on the colonials’ comfort in the last decade and especially the last month, forcing the parties and American public opinion to consider Palestinian lives as essential to progress there is a radical departure.

Speaking of which, I had the opportunity to listen to NPR on the way back from Washington and heard the most remarkable report from Jerusalem. Unfortunately, I’ve been unable to track down the broadcast or the transcript [help welcomed from any savvy weboids out there]. But even without the exact phrases in front of me, I can state that it was an amazing example of the Israeli lock on our national thought process as well as a reminder of the cynicism of that old bromide about ‘balance’ in news reporting.

You can’t get a serial killer story on the local TV channel without airtime for the accused’s lawyer to add some pathetic spin. But a ‘serious’ news entity like All Things Considered can actually broadcast a story covering the ‘full political spectrum’ in Israel (the reporter’s phrase) without a single Arab voice—even though they comprise one-fifth of the population and just might have dissenting views on a few things.

‘All’ the people in this case obviously means ‘all Jewish Israelis’, which says something about the NPR reporter’s unconscious identification with his sources.

I doubt if the two boosters interviewed really do span the notoriously fractious Israeli political spectrum, but let’s assume they’re representative given the enormous popularity of the war among Israel's Jews. There’s no need to repeat the justifications repeated since the Gaza assault began, but the uncritical NPR ‘report’ accidentally revealed something about the motives behind it in the minds of its enthusiasts.

One of the talking heads used a telling analogy: the IDF, he said, was in Gaza to ‘mow the lawn’, not to dislodge Hamas. Obviously, grass grows back, so the exercise will have to be repeated periodically. (The ‘analyst’ admitted as much.)

In short, according to the ‘full political spectrum’ in Israel, Zionism will be at war with non-Jews pretty much forever, and Israel plans to go blow up its neighbors at regular intervals until the end of time. I guess that eliminates the need to pursue a peaceful solution, and it’s a great example of why the departed W was so comfortable with his Israeli counterparts—they conduct their business the same way he did.

Thursday, 22 January 2009

R&B Nation

Every four years on Inauguration Day, the winners descend on Washington, D.C. This time around, it was young adults and African-American families.

That’s my unscientific measure of the 2 million people who gathered in the nation’s capital Tuesday, and it pretty much sums up my impression of who is taking charge of our future. I haven’t seen any estimates in published accounts so far, but to anyone on the street it was pretty obvious that blacks had poured out to celebrate the Obama Moment and comprised a hefty percentage of the attendees—I would say close to half.

I remember when the rich white people took over during the first Reagan inauguration in 1981, a festival of fur and blinding blonde up-dos that augured the coming shift to unapologetic selfishness. No more Carteresque, populist moments like the casual stroll down Pennsylvania Avenue re-enacted Tuesday by Barack and Michelle—Reagan’s day was all about the full celebration of elite power and clubby, neo-royalist exclusivity.

Having lived in Washington for many years during and after college, I can attest to the fact that the city shifts its mood and habits with the reigning powers as befits a factory town—the factory being the machinery of state. I can further testify that having the Democrats in power is tons more fun.

That said, there is nothing to compare to the excitement of having the two Washingtons—one white-ish and official, the other black and often feeling like a foreign country or a barely tolerated colony—merge into one. We strolled along U Street on Monday night where hordes of mostly young people roamed about in the cold, some lining up outside Ben’s, the now-famous chili shack where the Obamas recently sampled the fare.

That nearly hysterical fascination for the First Family hasn’t been seen in Washington-the-city (as opposed to Washington-the-capital) in my memory. Ben’s had set up giant red, white and blue OBAMA letters sculpted in ice outside the door, which caused me to consider the fetishizing tendencies built into our presidential system. Since the Brits have a queen, they don’t fuss over their PMs—hard to imagine anyone building an ice sculpture to Gordon Brown.

As for the ceremony itself, there are plenty of eyewitness accounts, so I’ll only add a few laughs. For example, was Bill Clinton suffering from severe heartburn? The poor man has been eclipsed along with his entire generation and seems none too happy about it.

Reverend Warren spectacularly bombed in his lame revival of the Christian right’s family fetish. Aside from equating himself with Obama by enumerating both the president’s and his own children one by one, a grown man breathlessly uttering the names of little girls does not inspire confidence these days—even if he is a preacher. Especially if he is a preacher. Plus his prayer sucked. Let’s hope the Obama crew has learned that openness to adversaries shouldn’t include tolerance of insults and hateful speech.

Then there was Cheney in his wheelchair looking crumpled and unrepetant as he prepares for his imminent interview with Satan.

The marvelous touches provided to the overly solemn formalities by Aretha Franklin and Joseph Lowery were, to me, the highlights of the stage event. It’s hard to feel ‘history’ in the bones, but Franklin’s elegant styling of a tune we all learned in grade school about ‘my country’ spoke to the ironies of patriotism for people who were officially excluded from citizenship in such recent memory. At the end Lowery tackled the race taboo head-on and made us all laugh—none too soon.

In the end, though, Tuesday was about our long encounter with color and the national dementia that slavery generated as it required us to adopt schizophrenia as a founding ideology.

When I spent most of a year in Africa, the pressure of being the white guy was so exhausting that I promptly moved to the suburbs when I got back to remove myself from the categorizing glance. I had had enough of being saluted in Ghana with an Ashanti term dating from the colonial period that translates as ‘Sunday white man’ (apparently the Brits strolled about after church). There, I was white first and foremost and never allowed to forget it—not from any hostility but simple inability to see past my biological characteristics.

That episode suggests to me that African-Americans were experiencing and understanding the day not only with terrific pride but also perhaps a dosis of relief at the chance to be just folks. It will be quite a moment when Obama ceases to be the first black president because we have ceased to notice that particular detail. The young people who flocked to the Obama campaign and showed up to claim their victory on the streets of Washington grasped that kernel of post-identity wisdom, well before the rest of us.

Wednesday, 21 January 2009

Stand by. . .

Just back from my trip to Washington for the Big Event, spent two nights in a one-room apartment with four other adults (my room was the walk-in closet) and had work-related meetings after the dust settled. So it will take me one or two days to gather my wits, er, thoughts and share them here.

Sunday, 18 January 2009

Heroes of yesteryear

It is always satisfying to congratulate oneself for fighting courageously in the last war, which I will do tomorrow by joining the celebrations in Washington on the remarkable occasion of the collapse of one more racial barrier. The policy details and the criticisms of Obama will just have to wait—we need this party!

But it’s easy to forget, even for us old-timers, that Martin Luther King wasn’t considered a hero at the time and wasn’t seen as a saint until after his martyrdom. He made plenty of people furious, was considered suspect and a dangerous radical, and was denounced, harassed and spied upon by J. Edgar Hoover, who was much more worried about subversives than home-grown racism (or King’s safety).

We realize that Jim Crow racism was wrong and are happy it’s over, but as bipeds we didn’t much applaud those who made it happen while they were doing so. That came later.

There are many examples of unpopular causes around today that could function as parallels, but I think the one most likely to embarrass us the soonest is the torture of defenseless prisoners.

The outgoing governing class installed torture as a matter of state policy, and as the sayonara interviews have shown, they’re not shy about saying so. A few people find that morally reprehensible—although far from enough to end the practice. (Or as my senator “Chuck” Schumer says, Voters don’t care about that.)

But one outcome of the torture policy that hasn’t got much air time is that American soldiers are now much more susceptible to becoming torture victims themselves. They will no longer have any protection in the rules of warfare (if there is such a thing), and they certainly will have no recourse in the court of public opinion. Non-Americans will shrug their shoulders and say, What did they expect?

We should re-evaluate the use of torture in our national security policy on moral grounds. But it may be the torture of an American in uniform somewhere in the world that eventually will end this heinous practice.

Twilight Highlights: New York politicians think they have to say Palestinians have no right to be alive, but Mayor Bloomberg took it a step further by flying to Israel to applaud the killing en situ. Thanks a heap, Mr Mayor! It doesn’t occur to anyone that his grandstanding for next year’s jerry-rigged re-election might make New York a target again? We have cops searching our duffel bags in the subway in a pathetic gesture towards ‘security,’ but the mayor can do his version of ‘Bring ‘em on!’, and we don’t even notice.

[P.S.] The cease-fire declared by the Israelis proves that their stated war goals were a fiction. The rockets continued to fly out of Gazan territory, and Hamas is intact. So all the destruction and death failed to put an end to that.

The Israelis were enormously successful in inflicting punishment and taking revenge. Nothing more.

Wednesday, 14 January 2009

Twilight Highlights

Olmert: He [Bush] was taken off the podium and brought to a side room. I spoke with him; I told him: You can’t vote for this proposal.

He said: Listen, I don’t know, I didn’t see, don’t know what it says.

I told him: I know, and you can’t vote for it!

He then instructed the secretary of state, and she did not vote for it. It was a proposal she had put together, one she formulated, one she organized, one she maneuvered.

It left her rather embarrassed, abstaining in the vote on a proposal she herself had put together.

—from a report by Shmu'el Tal, Voice of Israel Network B, quoted in Informed Comment

THE CHAIRMAN (Senator Kerry): The Senate Committee on Foreign Relations will come to order.

We are here today to consider the nomination as Secretary of State of the Honorable Ehud Olmert, currently Prime Minister of Israel.

Mr. Olmert’s qualifications for this post are well-known. He has had a crucial role in the formulation of U.S. foreign affairs since his accession to the office of Acting Prime Minister in 2006 and previously advised American policymakers on current affairs as mayor of Jerusalem.

His most recent role on the world stage was an eleventh-hour intervention at the United Nations Security Council last week where he successfully torpedoed a dangerous worldwide consensus on restoring peace to the Gaza Strip.

Mr Olmert achieved this extraordinary triumph by his timely consultation with the President of the United States, who was then able to contact Secretary Rice and narrowly avoid U.S. support for the erroneously-authored Rice resolution.

Mr. Olmert, you may proceed with your prepared remarks.

MR OLMERT: Thank you, Chairman Kerry. [Aside to aides: Who bought this guy’s suit?] [laughter]

Thank you for the opportunity to address this committee. As you know, I have been nominated to assume full responsibility for U.S. foreign policy as Secretary of State. Some people suggested I should hold out for National Security Advisor—just a joke! [laughter]

Mr. Chairman, thank you for your kind remarks on my qualifications. [cellphone rings] Just one moment, please, Senator. Hello? Yes, I’m in the hearing now, tell the generals to wait an hour. I won’t be held up long with this.

Pardon me for that interruption, Senators—I’ve still got a country to govern and a war to prosecute, THE war, I might add, against our terrorist enemies.

Now, as for directing U.S. foreign policy, I think you will find that our goals are fully in accordance with those laid down by many U.S. presidents and consistently overwhelming votes of the Congress, such as the 390-5 declaration of support just this week for our defensive action against Gaza terrorists. Despite some differences of nuance and emphasis, I believe we can count on a smooth transition from the indirect management of U.S. foreign policy by my country in the recent past to a more ‘hands-on’ approach in the future.

MR VITTER: Let me interrupt you there, Mr Prime Minister. I just want to say that given that you are against terrorists and we are against terrorists, that I think it is just spectacular to have you take over this position after a lot of paling-around with people who funded other people who probably committed terrorist acts in Lebanon and Sudan and Africa. And by the way, you should come down to New Orleans some time, we’ve got some cathouses down there that’ll rock your Middle Eastern world.

MR OLMERT: Thank you for that kind invitation, Senator Vitter.

MRS CLINTON: What the f*** is going on here, may I ask?

MR KERRY: The junior senator from New York is recognized for one minute.

MRS CLINTON: Forget that one minute nonsense, Buster. I’m sitting down right here at the witness table to deliver my opening remarks.

MR OLMERT: [aside to aides] Where’s this one been? She didn’t hear how I bounced Condi Rice out of the UN all the way back to Ferragamo’s? [into microphone] Mr Chairman, these violent, terrorist-encouraging tactics are out of place in this hearing. And P.S., I’m not budging from this chair. [aside] Bitch.

MR KERRY: I’m sure we can work out a compromise satisfactory to all parties on the question of who will be the Secretary of State.

MR LUGAR: It might be time for a two-secretary solution.

MR OLMERT: We are obviously willing to cede territory on that score in return for a peaceful resolution of this conflict. [laughter]

MR KERRY: Mr. Prime Minister, can you assure this committee that Long Island businessmen carrying suitcases of cash to you will not exert undue influence your decisions as a cabinet officer?

MR OLMERT: What businessman? What suitcases? A man can’t make a living for his family all of a sudden? Define ‘undue’! Of course, I agree to ‘no undue influence’, gladly. We can tease out the details in 2014. [sustained laughter, applause]

[MRS CLINTON raps on witness table with three-ring binder.]

MRS CLINTON: Mr Chairman, I move to suspend this proceeding immediately as my voting delegates from Florida were not seated among the audience.

MR KERRY: Order, order! The committee will come to order. In fact, let’s order out—all this diplomacy is making me peckish. Can I get a Ruben?

Friday, 9 January 2009

Two faces

It is fitting that the inauguration of Barack Obama as the 44th president of the United States will coincide with the seating of one Roland Burris to the Senate seat Obama is vacating. They represent two polar opposites in our national confrontation with race and the divergent visions of those individuals who have been the object of its discriminatory fury.

Burris has appeared in recent hours smiling with evident satisfaction in the company of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid as that body prepares to welcome into its bosom the one Illinois politician shameless enough to ignore the ignomonious behavior of Governor Rod ‘Auctioneer’ Blagojevich. Burris’s contentment with the marvelousness of his selfsame person is similarly displayed in the adornments he has placed on the mausoleum readied for the reception of his earthly remains at Oak Woods Cemetery in Chicago.

Burris, now 71 and thus perhaps increasingly conscious of the fleeting impermanence of this mortal coil, has had chiseled into granite his many ‘firsts’, as for example his accession to the post of attorney-general of Illinois, the first African-American in that state to do so. Happily, it is now also recorded for the ages that Mr Burris became the first African-American college student in world history to be exchanged between the Southern Illinois and Hamburg Universities in the Year of Our Lord 1959.

As Barack Obama travels down Pennsylvania Avenue in a limousine toward the White House surrounded with the trappings of state, many of us will recall that the distinguished yet (by current standards) modest mansion he will occupy as the symbolic incarnation of our body politic was constructed by slaves, men of flesh and blood owned by the structure’s designer. Owned just as many other human beings of dark complexion were owned by the first dozen presidents as a matter of course, sometimes while occupying the same domicile to be occupied by Obama and his family, who, had they been born earlier, would not even have had the right to remain together as such.

Obama, who joins the fourth dozen of presidents, promises to leave us with phrases of great moral and emotional moment. No adult of my generation, whose childhood and adolescence were marked with the cresting of the Second Reconstruction and the murder of Martin Luther King, Jr., can remain indifferent to the social earthquake that we have engendered by electing him and how it speaks of the persistent dynamism of our nation despite the relentless decades of worship of ego, domination, clan and disdain for the weak. Obama’s personal story is transformational; his rhetoric appeals to a shared burden of error and a shared claim to the rewards of justice rediscovered.

Burris’s race story, on the other hand, is not personal but individual. He comes to us not a symbol of a changing society or the struggle of a people, but as a special person accomplishing special things. He joins a long line of others, like our former Mayor Dinkins who could never stop referring to himself as the ‘son of a postal worker’, the breathless Clarence Thomas when Bush the First lifted him out of obscurity into the Supreme Court, or our new state senate majority leader, Malcolm Smith, who promptly marvels at his rise from bicycle delivery boy to a grand job in Albany.

Burris, Dinkins, Smith, Thomas—although they would not exist without the movements that propelled them into prominence, their clamor is less of the barriers removed and the implications of that removal for their peers than for themselves as wondrous spirits. They speak as self-made Horatio Algers, Americans to the bone, rugged individuals who knew how to make it in tough times and get ahead despite all obstacles.

It is good to be reminded simultaneously of these two visions in the persons of Burris and Obama as these are nothing more than the options we all have as we consider our good fortune, either as a mark of the favor of God on our now-apparent fabulousness or, alternatively, as doors that open to us opportunities to serve others and make the world a better place.

On January 20 Obama rises as the cleanest expression of the latter we have had in many years. No matter what happens in the next four, I will be proud to take possession of that day as my own day and of his vision as my own vision.

The grinding mills

I see that some on-line groups are agitating—and attracting broad support—for a special prosecutor to look into the Bush cabal’s torture and wiretapping crimes. They say Obama should assign the chore to Patrick Fitzgerald, and others insist that Attorney-General-designate Eric Holder should be asked the same question that current A-G Mukasey dodged: Is waterboarding torture?

We may recall that Mukasey’s appointment went through despite his failure to answer and weasel-y indirect support for torture, thanks to Democratic senators Charles Schumer and Dianne Feinstein who did what Democrats love best: cut loathesome deals with Republicans for individual gain. This should be a warning sign to those who anticipate that Truth, Justice and the American Way will now triumph given that the Dems control Washington’s commanding heights.

If my past experience is any guide, the opposition critics of these practices now nearing the halls of power will proceed to do the absolute minimum to bring the criminals to justice. While a few low-ranking patsies may get it in the neck, the Obama team’s priorities are all about winning their legislative programs, for which they’ll need cooperation from the ancien regime. So expect some window-dressing gestures while the political operatives hold their breaths and hope the whole seamy topic disappears.

Unfortunately for them, it won’t. As I’ve said repeatedly here (and it’s nothing original, either), torture lingers in the air like the aroma of a dead rat under the floorboards. People, some people anyway, are morally outraged by it, and they’re not likely to let Obama, Biden and the incoming crew off the hook. Judges also tend to resuscitate the issue because year after year, decade after decade, they see the awful consequences of the practices in the persons of those who come before them seeking redress or, for that matter, en route to prison.

You’d be surprised how this whack-a-mole issue pops up no matter what forces are deployed to bury it. Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet issued a notorious amnesty in 1981 covering all political crimes committed since the 1973 coup d’etat, a blatant attempt to cover up his own. But some human rights attorneys argued that the amnesty could not be generic, that is, it could only be applied once each crime was fully investigated and blame individually assigned, not awarded in advance to a vague, undefined group.

That didn’t get too far with the pinochetista judges who dominated the country’s bench in the early post-regime years, and many of us thought the truth would never come out. But the ingenious lawyers weren’t finished: they argued that the crime of ‘disappearance’, that is, snatching individuals off the street and carrying them to secret dungeons, was an ongoing crime. So while outright murder of political opponents might be amnestied under the 1981 law, those thousands of disappearances were violations of law being committed continuously into the present.

This argument, surprisingly, held. The military authorities either had to admit to murder and seek application of the amnesty law or face criminal inquiries.

That meant investigations continued, accompanied by the Rettig and Valech Commissions that dug into the sordid facts of kidnapping, torture and murder, with the country’s political and economic elite kicking and screaming all the way. More than 20 years after the plebiscite that began to dismantle the dictatorship, officials and civilian enforcers still trudge wearily through the nation’s courts to face the long-delayed music.

Meanwhile, the lovely practice of ‘funao’ accompanies those snakes who managed to hide their identities as torturers and fascist muscle. ‘Funao’ is a kind of outing in which activists expose the nazis in their midst with leaflets on telephone poles or sudden guerrilla theatre eruptions at unexpected venues. I witnessed one during a 2003 sexology conference in Santiago.

In short, although President Obama is unlikely to put the torturers in the hotseat, they’re equally unlikely to escape it. They will pay.

Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Excusing the inexcusable [Updated]

As the crushing of Gaza’s civilian population continues, our historic racism peeks out at us once again with depressing clarity. Innocent civilians living in Sderot have the right to live in peace, goes the refrain, but innocent civilians living in Khan Younis do not—in fact, their deaths are their own fault.

Pardon me if I’m dense, but I just don’t see the difference between slaughtering Palestinian children in a schoolyard and slaughtering Israeli children in a pizza parlor. All the lame excuses about ‘targeting’ are pretty unconvincing. One side puts a bomb under a bus; the other puts them on a rooftop. This is supposed to matter?

Maybe Americans are more comfortable with the latter because it’s been our war-making style for decades from Vietnam through Iraq. So we can see the unashamed racism in Hamas’ rhetoric celebrating the deaths of Israeli civilians while failing to see that Mayor Bloomberg applauding the carnage during his campaign tour there is its full-on moral equivalent, just a tad better disguised. What a sad, pathetic spectacle just as we are about to pat ourselves on the back in two weeks for abolishing Jim Crow.

[Update] Richard Falk, the UN Special Rapporteur, reports that 50 percent of Gazan children under 12 have been found to have no will to live. Whose fault is that? Their parents’?

Ladies on the Hill

It didn’t take long to be reminded that when it comes to scraping the bottom of the moral barrel, congressional Democrats do just as well as their counterparts on the Republican side although more as undisciplined free-lancers than in lockstep.

Thus Obama’s first clear break with Bush’s appalling misuse of the spy agencies to bamboozle the American people and lead us into crimes against human rights prompts California Senator Dianne Feinstein to rise up and criticize the choice because of CIA-pick Leon Panetta’s supposed ‘lack of experience’ in the intelligence field, which under the circumstances should be an excellent recommendation. By naming Panetta instead of a CIA insider, Obama suggests that no one from within the tainted agency should be rewarded at this time, an idea plenty of his voters would applaud.

But not Feinstein. Leave it to the centrist, ‘moderate’ Democrats to immediately squawk and complain, something they did precious little of when Bush was juicing up phony facts to justify the Iraq conquest and arranging for the torture of hundreds of suspects detained on flimsy charges. Feinstein not only went along with all that, she (and the loathesome Charles Schumer of my state) broke ranks and helped Bush shoehorn our current Attorney General into office, thus assuring continued impunity for all those complicit with the infamous torture memos and the politicizing of the entire Justice Department.

Whereas Republicans could spend six months parsing Clinton’s use of the word ‘is’, these Democratic stalwarts didn’t even bother to insist that Michael Mukasey define ‘torture’ as he sailed through his congressional hearing with their blessing.

It’s hard to imagine a Republican senator daring to defy an incoming president from their own party with a decisive electoral mandate given that outfit’s notoriously vindictive approach to wielding power. But Feinstein—like her equally complicit colleague Jay Rockefeller, also unhappy with Panetta—may be more worried about having excessive light shown on their own cooperation with the crimes of the last decade.

Meanwhile, across the Capitol a woman named Carolyn is showing why she should take the Senate seat being vacated by Hillary Clinton. No, not the latest celebrity from Eastern Hollywood but Queens/Manhattan Congresswoman Carolyn Maloney who grilled the Inspector General from the useless Securities and Exchange Commission over its monumental failure to do its job. The IG, an annoying pipsqueak who spoke in layers of conditional-tense, say-nothing verbiage, had his only moments of discomfort when Maloney blasted his agency for standing by while her constituents were bilked and New York’s financial industry driven into the ground as a laughingstock.

The SEC should be in receivership by now after failing to uncover a decades-old Ponzi scheme at the heart of Wall Street, not permitted to engage in chin-stroking discussions about how it plans to investigate itself. Maloney was the only Member I saw take part in the hearing who came close to the outrage that the Madoff debacle merits. That’s what we need in the Senate, not more photo-ops.

Sunday, 4 January 2009

Destroy and revive?

A Muslim temple in downtown Washington hosted a seminar years ago on anti-Semitism and Israel, which was not the knee-jerk trashing of the zionist bad-guys some of expected. Middle Eastern scholars and diplomats were invited (excluding Israelis) to reflect on the long history of the conflict and its nutrients.

Surprisingly, speakers identified anti-Semitism itself as one of the culprits for the decades of war and slaughter because, the Gulf Muslims and Christian Palestinians said, that long history and any modern flowering of anti-Jewish racism fed Israel’s determination to remain an apartheid state. Every act of anti-Semitic violence reminded the world of centuries of oppression and reinforced the raison d’etre of the zionist project.

One questioner asked what, given this logic, were the Palestinian movements and Arab governments in the region doing to combat anti-Semitism, and the replies were most unsatisfactory. Three decades later the public face of Israel’s adversaries remain the most backward of the bunch from Bashir al-Assad to the Hizbollah gunners, whose anti-Semitic chants only fuel the fires of Israeli victimhood and provide excellent cover for the continued land grab that exacerbates the endless conflict.

It is therefore curiously consistent although counterintuitive to hear that the current offensive in Gaza, as some commentators argue, will strengthen Hamas, whose support has been slipping badly in the last two years. After diplomatic errors and an erosion of internal democracy, the Hamas-led Gaza government was taking a lot of blame. Now, with the chance to appear as heroic resisters and martyrs, the religious fundamentalist movement may be physically decimated but at the same time politically revived.

A cynic might conclude that this outcome will not particularly disturb the Israeli leadership. As long as permanent warfare against homicidal enemies continues, Israel can continue to consolidate its control over newly seized lands and crush any Palestinian infrastructure or institutions, thus further delaying any formation of a rival state. Hamas—which the Israelis once encouraged as a religious thorn in the side of Arafat’s hated, secular PLO—remains a perfect foil for the zionist project, the face of a thousand-year blood feud that most of the Israeli public apparently believes is eternal, built into the DNA of deluded goyim.

All of which makes me recall that Barack Obama is coming into office with a pledge to bring Republicans and Democrats back together. That’ll be a snap compared to finding sane interlocutors on either side of this tragedy.

Saturday, 3 January 2009

2009: Hope or Illusion?

I resisted emitting a sonorous year-end review or set of predictions for fear of bloviating, but now that we’re a few days into January and almost ready to (shudder) go back to work, I feel the need to take stock in a summary, if whimsical, way. Where are we, where are we going, what does it all mean for my chances and yours at health and happiness, a bit of enjoyment, a flash of satisfaction, protection in sickness, safety in old age?

Both the person of Barack Obama and the event of his election obviously mark the transition from 2008 to 2009, and it remains to be seen if it will mark a larger historical transformation as well. Let’s hope so. Biped mean-spiritedness and egotism have reached heretofore unknown heights in these last decades, and as always the seeds of destruction of the Reagan-Bush-Falwell-Rove regime grew from within itself.

It must come as quite a shock to the hordes of church-going faithful—especially the women—that their loyalty to an ideology of Christian altruism and self-abnegation helped feed a giant maw of incompetence, corruption, conquest and disdain for the weak. They must be a little uneasy at the results of George Bush’s steady reliance on mystical communication with God as a guide for public policy upon viewing the ruins of New Orleans and Baghdad, not to mention the Arctic ice sheet. Obama’s courtship of Rick Warren looks like an attempt to give them new wine to put into those old skins, and if Obama manages to peel a few believers away from their exclusive fascination with the genital doings of us bipeds toward concern for the rest of the body as well, the possibilities for change will be enormous. Like it or not, a whole lot of people view the world through the prism of religious belief.

The other burning issue is, as usual, war and war-making, which marks us as a nation and pretty much always has. We are always refighting the last war or getting ready for the next one; our generals speak for us and lead us; veterans dictate the shape and tenor of patriotism and loyalty. Defeat in Vietnam weakened the militarists, but they were assiduous and patient and restored their monopoly on public discourse culminating in the destruction of John Kerry’s candidacy in 2004 as an aging hippie flag-burner.

I think Obama will represent a huge shift away from the adolescent male posturing of the neocons to a more female style of decision-making whose impact may be too subtle to notice at first. Obama is the product of a matriarchal system, was raised by women and goes home to a female household. He has a woman’s toughness, a non-confrontational style that is less concerned with ‘winning’ than with drawing strict boundaries and enforcing them. The geopolitical game is about scoring points, but Bush has shown us the limits of bullying as a strategy as did John McCain. Obama’s campaign generally avoided it, and he still won.

The other development related to warfare that I anticipate is largely out of Obama’s hands, which is the slow but inexorable confrontation with our national decision to commit torture and abuse of prisoners that occurred under Republican orders with Democratic complicity in a line running from Dick Cheney and John Yoo through Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Jay Rockefeller all the way to John and Jane Q. Public. We felt threatened; we wanted revenge; we got it. Now come the consequences both for our consciences and ourselves.

Torture is a funny thing: it doesn’t go away after the fact. ‘Once tortured, always tortured,’ said a victim from the French resistance in World War II, and that goes for countries, too. No matter what deals are cut to brush the happenings at Guantánamo and Bagram under the rug, no matter how many whitewash commissions sign off on the secret prisons and the rendition to Egyptian and Syrian dungeons, the torture issue will come back to haunt all its perpetrators and abettors even if the bodies have long since been dumped at sea.

Obama will have a lot to say about whether we get our civil liberties back, and his record so far is not encouraging given his buckling on telecom immunity. (He caught hell for it, too, and seemed surprised at how many of us noticed.) But even he can’t stop the putrifaction that arises from the body politic when it commits these crimes, and the foul ooze will bubble forth willy-nilly.

Gazing into the crystal ball on the economic and domestic policy front is much trickier, but I anxiously hope that the proposals are as Rooseveltian and audacious as some suggest, not just the infrastructure spending plans but also radical surgery on our moribund health systems at long last. While most everything else can advance through the usual process, health care reform needs swift action based on Obama’s electoral mandate. Otherwise, the reactive interest groups like doctors, insurance companies and pharmaceuticals will certainly mobilize to keep us enslaved to their profits.

In short, I have high hopes in Obama while not shedding my illusions about the essential contrariness and self-sabotaging instincts of the biped race as a whole. But for some strange reason the country has produced this remarkable guy and decided to take a chance on him. He reflects the times just as Clinton and Bush did, which tells us a lot about those egocentric and self-indulgent years. I want to trust Obama because he is not only smarter than I am but because he may actually have embarked on this crazy mission primarily to get something decent done.

Friday, 2 January 2009

I said/I said

When describing warfare in the Middle East, the careful accusation-and-denial trope used in standard American journalism goes out the window.

Take yesterday’s flattening of the residence of a Hamas principal in Gaza. Both the New York Times and AP stories read like Israeli army communiqués without the benefit of the otherwise essential ‘balancing’ clarification or disputation. The death of Nizar Rayyan’s four wives and ten children, which sounds a little extreme at first, is fully explained (away?) by paragraphs such as these:

The military said he had helped plan a deadly suicide bombing in Israel in 2004, had sent his own son on a suicide mission against Jewish settlers in Gaza in 2001 and was advocating renewed suicide missions against Israel in retaliation for the current offensive. His funeral was planned for Friday.’ (Times online version)

We also learn that the Israelis think Rayyan’s house probably was used to store bomb components and that the attackers carefully warned everyone beforehand. So let’s see, air raid sirens, bombs in the basement, guilty children. . . I guess we are to conclude that everyone who lived there pretty much deserved to die, grandma included.

In any case, we don’t have to consider any alternative viewpoints because none are given. There isn’t even the typical vox populi quotation from someone wandering through the rubble-strewn streets. No, no, the voice of the Israeli Defense Force is the one we need to hear.

It’s significant that no coherent elaboration of the attitudes and arguments of the half-million people trapped inside the 15 square miles of Gaza City is allowed to filter onto the pages of our main news sources. Even Bernie Madoff’s lawyer soon will be duly given a chance to spin away daily in the news items about that scumbag’s antics. Everyone gets equal time—except dead Gazans.

Thursday, 1 January 2009

Debate within Israel

Israeli author Avraham Burg’s 2007 book is now out in English as, ‘The Holocaust Is Over: We Must Rise from Its Ashes’, a title no American writer would have dared utilize for fear of having his work consigned to the neo-Nazi bins. Burg was once speaker of the Israeli Knesset and is an old figure on the Israeli political scene although that doesn’t save him from being accused by the Israeli right of being virtually a Nazi himself, the usual label for any critic.

I haven’t seen anything from Burg on the latest Israeli actions—such as today’s news of the IDF’s success in ‘precision targeting’ and killing a top Hamas official, plus four of his ‘collateral damage’ children. But if I can extrapolate from Burg’s somewhat meandering, memoir-filled book, which I read last week, he would view the attack on Gaza as merely another manifestation of Israel’s psychological enslavement to the Shoah.

Burg compares Israel to an abused child who becomes a violent parent. He laments that rather than tap into the humanistic and egalitarian Judaic traditions, Israel has retreated into permanent victimhood accompanied by a comfortable, Weimar-like exclusion of Israeli Arabs from any significant role in the country’s life (mirroring historic European anti-Semitism) while ignoring the ominous growth of a dangerous ultra-nationalist faction. He proposes overtures toward eventual EU membership for Israel and a Palestinian state, which he thinks would dangle an important set of possible rewards in front of both intransigent leaderships.

Whether or not Burg’s analysis makes sense, it does address one peculiar aspect of the Gaza assault: why Israel continues to repeat failed tactics with the expectation of obtaining a different outcome. After all, the first invasion of Lebanon nearly 30 years ago was supposed to end Palestinian attacks, but it didn’t, and the periodic repetitions of these military campaigns bring nothing but temporary lulls.

Burg’s account explains this apparent irrationality as the result of the overwhelming influence of trauma-induced ideology in which the outcome of the Gaza or other battles is less important than the psychological balm provided by the act of striking out at the enemy.

We can easily recognize this in ourselves as the Bush cabal drummed up support for the Iraq invasion as therapy for our own 9/11 trauma. Whether the Iraqis had anything to do with the Twin Towers or not was perfectly irrelevant then and, to a large extent, now. We were bound and determined to ‘show ‘em’, whoever ‘em’ might turn out to be.

There’s a disturbing extension to this thinking, however, that Burg dances gingerly around. Violent assaults on Israel from within Gaza and elsewhere won’t be eliminated with the usual tactics, devastating though they are, UNLESS the slaughter is much more thorough. Although Burg specifically doesn’t equate current Israeli tactics with fascist antecedents, he clearly sees the possibility that the country will evolve in that direction.

If that were to happen, he would be among its first victims.