Sunday, 29 March 2009

Turning the page

‘They won’t be missed’ seems to be the conclusion of several people whose opinions I value on the topic of the decline and fall of the nation’s newspapers. Jack Shafer in Slate asks what’s so essential about the printed sheet to the preservation of democracy, and my old bud Marc Cooper defends the blogosphere as collectively at least as coherent and defensible as the ‘professional’ reporter class led by people like Judith Miller who peddled the pack of lies that brought us the Iraq war. (In all fairness to Miller, newspaper jingoism and war-promotion goes back quite a long way.) Glenn Greenwald at Salon regularly chimes in with similar tunes.

Here’s a fascinating addition to that discussion: John Mearsheimer writes in the London Review of Books this week that the Israel lobby suffered a setback in its successful campaign to trash Charles Freeman and keep him away from the chair of the National Intelligence Council, the body that produces those pesky National Intelligence Estimates saying Iran in fact is not building nuclear weapons. Mearsheimer is half of the team (along with Stephen Walt) who wrote a book about the oversized influence of the Israeli right on American policy, previewed last year in a huge excerpt in the same LRB after The Atlantic buckled and spiked it.

Mearsheimer points out that although the Israel lobby did manage to bury the Freeman nomination when Obama failed to back him up (in contrast with Obama’s tenacious, ongoing defense of creepy Tim Geithner), it was exposed in the process and did not succeed in browbeating its opponents into silence or retraction. Jimmy Carter led the way in this regard with his book calling Israeli policy a form of apartheid, and Mearsheimer is encouraged by the fact that bloggers, no less, stood up to the Likud bullies.

Mainstream media—that is, the newspapers we’re supposed to be mourning—largely ignored the whole incident, which makes them complicit with the lobby’s desire to kill off unwelcome appointments without leaving fingerprints. But blogs were afire with the story and, as Mearsheimer notes, were not intimidated into silence: ‘A vigorous, well-informed and highly regarded array of bloggers defended Freeman at every turn’ until the likes of Nancy Pelosi, Lieberman and the other Democratic stand-bys weighed in and finished the job for the Israelis.

‘The lobby never has had much trouble keeping the New York Times and the Washington Post in line, but it has few ways to silence critics on the internet’, says Mearsheimer. I gather he’s not lamenting the death of the Cincinnati Post.

Friday, 27 March 2009

Oh-So-Liberal New York

As news filters out of Albany about the possible, dare-we-hope-for-it end of the horrible 1973 Rockefeller drug laws, it is time to reflect on how far we have to go to fulfill Obama’s campaign promise to rehabilitate science and formulate policy based on knowledge rather than ideology and emotion.

The Rockefeller drug laws have now been with us for three decades, roughly coincident with the Nixonian War on Drugs, and have been just as ignominious a failure. They mandated gigantic prison sentences for drug selling convictions and thereby jammed state prisons full of non-violent offenders. Drug use has continued to rise, and the trafficking business has become more lucrative than ever.

Misha Glenny’s fascinating book McMafia outlines how easy it is to predict all this and leads inescapably to the conclusion that powerful criminal interests are just delighted with the Draconian approach to drug addiction and abuse because it creates a great business opportunity for them, just as it did for Al Capone in the 1920s. Doh. That doesn’t mean Rockefeller was in the pocket of organized crime. Perish the thought.

Meanwhile, demagogic drum-thumping will now ensue as opportunist (white) politicians raise the spectre of increased street crime when all those bad sorts get let out of jail. Given the three decades of stupidity in drug control policy, they could be right, especially as sentence reductions may occur just as we enter the worst economic environment in a half-century. We need spokespeople ready to do battle with this kneejerk response and go to bat for the kinds of rehab and re-entry programs that will make us all safer. (Don’t expect the conservative pols to support any of that spending, either.)

Speaking of conservative pols, the New York Times outlines in detail today just what a nasty bit of work our new U.S. Senator is. Turns out that Kirsten Gillebrand, named by Governor Paterson to replace Hillary, started out as an enthusiastic conniver for the tobacco companies along the path to her current glory at the right hand of Chuck Schumer.

This disaster was one of many sins committed by our laughingstock governor who may mercifully be put out of our consciousness forever in next year’s primary. Gillebrand, however, like a case of Type I diabetes, is probably with us for life.

Thursday, 26 March 2009

Toxic Tim

I really don’t get the big terror over taking over the asphyxiating large commercial banks—the dreaded ‘N-word’. After all, isn’t that exactly what the FDIC does every Friday when it declares a bank insolvent and seizes it? This utterly uncontroversial federal entity then sells off its deposits and tries to dispose of the remaining assets in the cheapest possible way while announcing up front an estimate of what the cost to taxpayers will be.

No doubt it is easier when dealing with smaller operations or those limited in their field of activity like mortgage banks or S&Ls, but the principle seems to little ol’ unsophisticated moi to be exactly the same: regulators recognize a teetering bank, swoop in, socialize the unrecoverable loss, restore normalcy. Everyone is happy, and bank runs are the stuff of old movies.

One line of gossip in the business and economics blogs is that Obama’s people know this is inevitable but haven’t got the 60 votes supposedly needed to just go out and do it. So they are setting up this latest version of the Geithner plan as the only possible compromise until the next round of failure permits them to take the proper course of action.

Who knows if there’s any truth to this, but if so, it’s a helluva way to make policy. Not to mention a rather expensive one if the bank behemoths and their eager counterparties scurry off with a trillion of our dollars in the meantime. Wall Street’s celebrations are not entirely encouraging in this regard.

Another view somewhere between support and condemnation is that the Geithner plan builds on mutual strengths by pulling in private investors to these asset purchases, thus avoiding a wholesale raid on the public purse. Since they are liable for the initial investment (and can lose it), they will be more cautious and astute than the feds would be alone.

That’s fine if the economy doesn’t further tank from its current miserable state. But that’s a big ‘if’, and the quiver of policy arrows is not limitless. The fact that Geithner proposes to use FDIC and Fed as well as Treasury funds gives him the opportunity to avoid congressional approval, which becomes less likely for any big-ticket items with each passing day. The emergency conditions may merit this end run, but as a precedent it’s a bit scary.

Meanwhile, whatever happened to the ‘stress tests’? They were supposed to tell us which of the wounded elephants were completely moribund and which could be carried on Geithner’s trillion-dollar pallets into the veterinary ICU. Is all the ‘stress’ now relieved by the quickie profits earned off the Dow in the last two weeks?

The problem with continuing to throw cash at ‘toxic assets’ under the assumption that they are temporarily priced below their true worth is that there are fewer and fewer fall-back options if Geithner—make that Obama—turns out to be wrong.

Tuesday, 24 March 2009


Geithner has given Wall Street a terrific orgasm, but it’s too early to say whether he cleverly turned a bad hand into a great hand-job or just postponed the déluge. The underlying debate about whether the big banks are illiquid (Geither, Summers) or insolvent (Krugman, Roubini) is still with us.

There is plenty of precedent for not taking the current euphoria at face value—kind of like SIVs and CDOs from Lehman Brothers. Every time the government has intervened dramatically to pull us back from the precipice, the financial markets have rallied only to reverse course and sink even further once the warm afterglow has faded into a clammy sweat.

If Geithner’s plan works, we will forget the fact that the Obama Administration missed a gigantic opportunity to put into practice the ‘personal responsibility’ mantra that Mr O is fond of by chasing the guilty gamblers and moneychangers out of their ruined behemoths through direct state intervention, a.k.a. the N-word (nationalization). Too bad, but not disastrous.

If, however, the latest scheme tanks because these mega-entities really are zombies that cannot be brought back to life, then we have a really depressing scenario: the progressive, people-first, hopefully audacious, once-in-a-lifetime, broomstick-wielding Obama team has just poured unimaginable sums of public cash into the private pockets of the rich.

Not just depressing but also dangerous because the next wild swing away from the Obama promise is likely to be in a most unappealing direction.

Monday, 23 March 2009

Helluva Job, Geithner

It’s hard for a lay reader to evaluate whether the new bank bailout is well-considered or has a chance to work. But it’s pretty easy to see that the political framing of this chapter is a miserable failure, and the responsibility for that resides with one Barack Obama, President.

Obama seems to have concluded that the winning formula for electoral triumph directly translates into the best way to run the country, that is, steady, plodding consistency without too much attention to the ups and downs of the polls. Under normal circumstances he might be right.

But these aren’t. The country is facing a populist revolt that is simultaneously encouraging and dangerous. The mobs getting out their pitchforks to skewer the gamblers and usurers who’ve ripped us off for decades are certainly to be applauded for finally catching on. But they can just as easily be whipped into a frenzy by Sara Palin as by Jon Stewart.

If Obama doesn’t channel this righteous anger into some serious paddling of the rich and their bloated institutions and some quick relief for the underdogs, it will very quickly shift course and come after him. There’s plenty of pent-up hostility to Obama and his liberal program that is just waiting for an opening.

Obama is obviously unwilling to jettison his first economic team just weeks into the new administration, but he could do himself (and us) a favor by locking the completely inadequate Geithner and Summers into a broomcloset and finding a new face to front for his program. Even some additional visibility from Paul Volcker or another roundtable with a broader mix of experts would provide much needed balance.

Bankers, bad; working stiffs, good. That’s the narrative out here and across the land. Obama has a big chance to show us which side he’s on. He better not blow it.

Thursday, 19 March 2009

Technocrat hell [Updated]

If Treasury Secretary Geither had a political team, someone might have warned him that dishing out succulent, taxpayer-funded bonuses to incompetent bankers who have wrecked millions of lives might be problematic. But Geither does not have a political team because he is short-staffed because his advisors and assistants are stuck in the vetting process because Geithner’s boss wants to avoid another problem like the one Geithner himself brought him by not paying his taxes. Thus ‘the whirlygig of time brings its revenge’.

Many of those ubiquitous Voices of the Powerful are now heard in Geithner’s defense: he didn’t know (except he did); he wasn’t responsible (except he is); the holiness of sacred contracts trumps all (except it doesn’t); members of Congress did it (except if they did, no one knows who). President Obama’s defense lingered on the fact that Geithner is working so very hard (and works out at 5:30 a.m. daily—okay, all is forgiven!)

Meanwhile, as the Huffington Post has outlined, no one knows who killed the Wyden-Snowe provision that would have halted this outrage. If Obama is sincere about shouldering blame for the bonus debacle, he should be getting to the bottom of that decision and rethinking the employment of whoever—at the behest of which lobbyist—reached into the rush-rush House-Senate conference committee to erase the ban.

It would also be a good time to address the conference committee abuse that presents such perfect opportunities for corruption.

Only weeks into the new administration, an aroma of putrefaction emanates from Geithnerville, fanned by the rush to defend him. Obituaries are clearly premature as, we are told endlessly, Geithner has unique technical knowledge that makes him oh so valuable. Ho fucking hum. At least as important as knowing how to crunch numbers is having a clue about how this plays out to people chewing their pillows at night over the next mortgage payment. Geithner and Summers, who live in the bankers’ world and explicitly permitted the bonuses to go through, are total disasters at that, and Obama himself isn’t doing much better despite his trips to see The People out in Ohio and California.

At a certain point, the soothing confidence from on high will start to sound like detached indifference to reality. Before that happens, we need strong signals that more crap like the A.I.G. hogfest are out of bounds and will cost the perpetrators dearly. ‘Personal responsibility’, I believe is the favored phrase.

[Update] When the Prez has to appear on Leno to say your job is safe, your job is NOT safe. The trickle of devastating revelations on the A.I.G. rip-off threatens to turn into a flood of hogslop. Witness the Mother Jones item on key Geithner aide Patterson, Geithner's own completely unconvincing miasma of non-denials on CNN, dodge-ball as played by Senator Dodd and on and on. I see no sign of a waning of outrage over Ain't-I-Great-gate; if so, prepare the first political tombstone of the new administration, and none too soon.

Tuesday, 17 March 2009

Obama on the Potomac

I visited the Civil War battlefield at Antietam Creek on the way back from Ohio this weekend and was touched by the somber setting and the opportunity to learn of that terrifying event. The carnage of the war’s bloodiest battle (over 20,000 dead) is easy to imagine as the fields and woods are kept roughly as they were on September 17, 1862—there’s even a whitewashed, stone smokehouse that remains standing on the old Mumma farm just as it did when Robert E. Lee made his first attempt to invade the North. (Gettysburg was his second and last.) Chirping birds and ground hogs the size of small elk are the only signs of life on the landmark site.

In the car radio all along the route to and from the battleground in the western Maryland mountains, I got an earful about the A.I.G. execs helping themselves to our money. It appears that Obama’s managers were slow to react to the outrage and haven’t yet realized that the country is feeling a tad murderous about the continued looting of the national treasury to feed the greed of these arrogant pricks. Timothy Geithner seems not to have much of a feel for the pulse of the nation, despite his extensive training at Kissinger & Associates, the International Monetary Fund and the Clinton White House.

At the head of the Army of the Potomac in 1862 was George B. McClellan. He was an expert general and had observed campaigns in the Crimea, spoke French and had broad knowledge of the logistics involved in equipping and mobilizing large armies. He once wrote a manual on cavalry tactics.

Lincoln kept General McClellan in charge of the battle at Antietam despite the latter’s miserable failure to smack Lee down during the Peninsula campaign in first year of the war. McClellan was cautious and overestimated the size of Lee’s army, but his timidity was political as well as military. McClellan, like many northerners, wasn’t sure that the southern white elite should be crushed, despite their treasonous assault on the nation. McClellan, who later ran against Lincoln on the antiwar Democratic ticket, was also quite comfortable with slavery and assured slaveowners in what later became West Virginia that he wasn’t about to touch their ‘property’.

Obama fished Timothy Geithner out of the murky waters of Washington-New York high finance where he clearly developed a low opinion of things like income taxes, given his disinclination to pay them. When he talks, he sounds like any of the interchangeable Republicrat suits trained to answer questions by divulging no information. His ascent to high office was built on an appropriate number of Indonesian, Korean and Thai backs as the IMF and the Clintonians spooned up disastrous fiscal medicine during the 1990s Asian financial panic and added greatly to human misery in that part of the world.

McClellan hurried west from Washington to cut off Lee’s audacious attempt to march into Pennsylvania and seize Harrisburg, further undermining the North’s will to fight after the string of Union defeats. Despite having stumbled upon a copy of Lee’s battle plan, McClellan settled for a draw and failed to deliver the knock-out blow that could have shortened the Civil War by three years. Lee’s army escaped back across the Potomac.

Lincoln was indignant and had had enough with his lukewarm commander. He issued the Emancipation Proclamation and cashiered McClellan for good.

Geithner helped salvage the crumbling financial system by arranging the rescue and sale of Bear Stearns last March and is believed to have played a big part in the A.I.G. bailout. His co-consul Lawrence Summers bleated pitfully over the weekend that top bankers’ contracts are Sacred Documents that, sadly, must be respected at all costs—or roughly $180 million out of our threadbare pockets. Those objecting—or raising distractions like their own labor and pension contracts—simply don’t understand the subtle nuances of finance and should trust Daddy.

As the sans-culottes gather at the gates of their local Wal-Marts, cobblestones and pitchforks (but not paychecks) in hand, one wonders whether the president from Springfield, Illinois, is ready to heave these stale, preening overseers into the dustbin of history and bring us victory.

Friday, 13 March 2009

Ponzi nation

As Bernie Madoff was led off to his dungeon beneath the murderous gaze of the investors he ripped off for $50 billion, the Fed reported that $11 trillion had been wiped out of household net worth nationwide.

So Bernie only was responsible for about 5 percent of that if we believe his calculations.

Jon Stewart did a good job of reminding the sniveling Jim Cramer from CNBC that guys like him could shoulder the blame for at least an equivalent portion. Stewart has done a public service that should make his name live through the ages: he has definitively pilloried and finally unmasked these screaming on-air con artists. And he does it looking indignant rather than nasty.

Too bad we don’t have any Democrats capable of doing the same in the name of the Party of Working People.

Despite the anticipated spinelessness of congressional Democrats, I hold out some hope that the full political weight of the cataclysm wrought upon us by the fast-money boys like Cramer, Bush, Madoff, Thain, Rubin, Lewis, Cheney and all the rest has not yet settled upon the land. Thousands of Madoff victims now join the millions of mortgage-holding marks in waking up day after depressing day to their newfound destitution.

That’s gotta rankle.

We hear a lot of historical parallels drawn between the present and the post-1929 crash that led into the Depression, and few are so foolhardy as to predict where things are headed. But it is worth recalling that Roosevelt faced furious opposition to most of his measures and was blocked repeatedly by the Supreme Court, yesteryear’s equivalent of the Republican saboteurs of 2009.

Things were even worse in 1936, but that didn’t stop FDR from rolling over the Republican candidate in the worst electoral drubbing in a century, only matched by Saint Ronald’s 1984 triumph.

All of which proves absolutely nothing except that anything can happen, and a lot of experts listening to the sweet tunes of their self-generated flatus are going to be spectacularly wrong—kinda like Jim Cramer.

Thursday, 12 March 2009

Do as I say, not. . . .

The New York legislature is again debating a change in the state sex-abuse law’s five-year statute of limitations, and guess who is fighting it tooth and nail? A coalition of Catholic and Jewish entities who do not argue that sexual abuse is actually good for children exactly, but rather that it is unfair to burden religious schools with a stricter law than that governing public schools.

If a teacher in the public sector sexually abuses your kid, you have only 90 days to complain formally, compared to five years for parochial schools. In addition, the new law would give people a one-year window to file a complaint based on incidents from any time in the past, undoubtedly triggering an avalanche of lawsuits and millions in damages for the local diocese, which so far has avoided the crippling legal bills seen elsewhere.

Given the hysteria over ‘recovered memories’ and the witch hunts against daycare workers that occurred in the 1980s, I’m almost persuaded by the argument that claims based on 30-year-old incidents ought to be treated with respectful skepticism especially when they make their way into courtrooms.

However, there is a big difference between an accused average citizen or kindergarten teacher and an accused priest or rabbi: power. The power of their offices and the power of the institutions backing them up.

Many a claim against priests went unanswered for decades because no one could fahtom them and because influential bishops could move the sanctified fathers around and protect them from the normal course of justice. There is evidence that a similar dynamic operates around synagogue bigwigs who run into such accusations and can call upon their impressive system of controls to suppress or discredit victims. So it is hardly surprising that only a mature victims’ movement would bring these tragedies into the light of day.

One Catholic representative said the law was designed to bankrupt his church, which is a bit slanderous. But even if it were true, I thought religion was supposed to teach us to face up to our sins and repair the damage we have caused, whatever the cost. If repentance doesn’t hurt, how do we know the sinner will not revert to the errors of his past ways?

Furthermore, given the current Pope’s dogmatic focus on theological purity to the exclusion of all else, I see no reason to trust the institution to weed out future abusers of any sort. His rehabilitation of the Holocaust-denying reactionary bishop, now retracted as an innocent mistake of ignorance, is revealing enough. We pore over his doctrinal beliefs with a magnifying glass, but who cares what he thinks about gas chambers?

Wednesday, 11 March 2009

Pyrrhic victory?

No one could mistake me for a fan of the U.S. spying/coup-fomenting services, but the appointment of Charles Freeman to chair the National Intelligence Council looked positive given that it had brought the entire bullying Israeli lobby to the verge of apoplexy. Well, they got their way by trashing Freeman relentlessly, and he pulled out. But then again they also got their way with their screaming boosterism over the invasion of Iraq, and that didn’t turn out so well.

I get the impression that this episode will not redound to their favor in the long run. It’s one thing to drum up campaigns against sitting politicians—they’re supposed to take whatever gets thrown at them, nasty as it may be. The viciousness of the attacks on Freeman, however, were extreme, and no doubt he said to himself, I need this?

There must be a lot of gray-suited bureaucrats in the intel world who are trying to do a good job as analysts and are tired of being dictated to by unapologetic agents of a foreign power. Freeman didn’t mince words about it; here are a few of his descriptive phrases:

. . . unscrupulous people with a passionate attachment to the views of a political faction in a foreign country. . .

. . . [whose tactics] plumb the depths of dishonor and indecency and include character assassination, selective misquotation, the willful distortion of the record, the fabrication of falsehoods, and an utter disregard for the truth.

. . . [and who are] intent on enforcing adherence to the policies of a foreign government.

That’s pretty strong stuff, and Freeman can say it because he doesn’t give a crap about holding office and go back to retirement. How many others think it but can’t?

I believe it is dangerous for any group entering the public debate to lose sight of their need to express—whether or not they feel—a primary loyalty to their nation of citizenship and residence. I am reminded of the facile targeting of American radicals during the anti-communist era because their rigid ideological identification with the Soviet Union so often convinced them that its interests were coincident with human progress.

Tuesday, 10 March 2009

‘Moral hazard’

This phrase always makes me chuckle, but I can see the intuitive logic of the concept. If we continually rescue people from the consequences of their bad behavior, we set them up to repeat it. It’s actually a good principle to keep in mind when dealing with irresponsibility in the personal as well as the financial realm.

In finance ‘moral hazard’ refers to the unintended consequences of bailing out institutions or individuals who have made mess of things, and the frequent linkage of the two phrases is no accident. Conservatives love to argue that they aren’t heartless, they just don’t want to create ‘moral hazard’ through things like extending unemployment benefits or rescuing destitute mortgage-holders.

Average folks have a sense of ‘moral hazard’ too. They (we) are mad as wet hens over all the government cash pouring into the pockets of the banker screw-ups, not just because they don’t deserve it, but also because it encourages those responsible to go right back to business-as-usual as soon as the threat of cataclysm fades.

I hope that’s not the meaning of today’s stampede into banking stocks as Geithner and Summers seem to have got their way. If they are rescuing the big debtholders of the giant vampire banks despite their catastrophic performances, the same speculators and sharpies who did this to us will be encouraged to go do it again, and all the talk of ‘tighter regulation’ will turn into pious bromides. The moneychangers have a million ways to get around that stuff especially if there’s no real risk involved in blowing open the system once again.

On the other hand, if these guys are wiped out as they so richly deserve, fancy regs from Uncle Sam will be welcome reminders but with much larger teeth. It might keep these institutions cut down to a less threatening size, too, as big-bigger-biggest will be no longer a guarantee of eternal life.

This isn’t the same as letting B of A or Citigroup collapse a la Lehman Brothers. A coherent nationalization process would separate good from bad bank assets as in the Swedish model everyone is talking about, manage the latter and return the former to a re-privatized institution somewhere down the road. As I imperfectly understand it, the fact that the government would be holding the bag of bad debt eliminates the stampede threat that occurred with Lehman and other big entities that then cascades throughout the financial system, carrying the threat of a total meltdown. It costs money, but the system is cleansed quickly to avoid the Japanese error of dragging out the process forever (which everyone is also talking about), which results in higher eventual costs and can also fail entirely.

A bold stroke of this sort would also dispose of the need to price the mystery assets accurately. You read everywhere that uncertainly about who really is holding what is clogging up lending of all sorts as people simply don’t trust each other. (The crafty financiers outsmarted themselves and took us along with them.) We need the state to repair the damage, but there has got to be some real pain attached to the strategy so that we’re not back in the soup ten or twenty years from now.

Monday, 9 March 2009

John 2:15

I’m reading Obama’s wonderful memoir Dreams from My Father and enjoying his storytelling skill and every insightful incident. He comes across as so thoughtful and smart, which makes it doubly difficult to understand why he’s hanging the success of his economic program and potentially his entire presidency on the unimpressive shenanigans of Timothy Geithner and Lawrence Summers, the two-headed beast standing at the gates of the national treasure chest while their minions shovel out ever vaster quantities of its contents.

Economist Robert Kuttner—whom I saw warn against financial derivatives and the potential for catastrophe on C-SPAN about two years ago—has an amusing satire on the situation. He mockingly asks why doesn’t Obama do what he does best and bring together a roomful of smart people who disagree and get some dissident views on what should be done with the financial system.

But Kuttner has no answer to the question of why Obama is letting these two tainted figures from the worst excesses of the past run his shop and shut out the chorus of voices across the political spectrum who are warning that fast action is needed to pull the plug on the moribund patients, namely Citigroup and Bank of America, before it’s too late. ‘Dr. Doom’ Roubini now says the chances of a depression have risen to 1 in 3 (six months ago he was saying 1 in 10), all because no amount of cash flushed down the toilets of AIG and these other two living-dead, vampire banks will work until the government puts them into receivership.

People’s patience with Obama has not run out, but their tolerance for more profiteering out of the gathering cataclysm just might be. The guys he’s letting run the show are letting their old buddy-boys loot these shell banks for bonuses and channel taxpayer funds through AIG to their chums at Goldman Sachs and elsewhere. I don’t know if Obama is the Messiah, but if so, we’re way past the chapter where he should be throwing the money-changers out of the temple.

Friday, 6 March 2009

Westward Ho

“Wherever they stayed, the soldiers left behind piles of refuse: not just empty bags of provisions, sleeping bags and other military gear, but plastic bottles filled with urine and ‘waste disposal bags’ containing human faeces. In many cases they smeared shit on floors, walls, mattresses. Some of the people I talked to say they can’t return to their own homes even after having cleaned them. The stench clings to the walls.”Amira Hass, London Review of Books, 26 Feb 2009

This is one of many similar descriptions of the aftermath of Gaza, and although one in search of apologia might dismiss them as isolated incidents or ‘War Is Hell’ boilerplate, taken as a whole the accounts suggest a qualitative shift in attitude of the occupying troops and, by extension, Israeli society toward the entrapped residents. In previous wars and even during the intifadas, you would read stories about young Israeli recruits acting decently or even being appalled at the official policies that dictated their actions.

Now, however, the accoutrements of the attacks—aside from the slaughter involved in the attacks themselves—is of a piece with the tone of Israeli politics and the ascendancy of ever-more reactionary tendencies, such as the overtly racist Avigdor Lierberman, the recent arrival from Moldova who now heads Israel’s third-largest party. (See ‘Lieberman’s Anti-Arab Ideology Wins over Israeli Teens’ in Haaretz.) Hardly any of the leading groups even pretend to believe in the Oslo accords or any of the peacemaking efforts of recent decades—and why should they when straight conquest works fine?

Hass, the journalist quoted above, notes that Gazans are not starving because food always manages to get into the Strip. More importantly, she says, building supplies do not; the strategy seems to be strangulation of any possibility of economic activity, leaving the Gazans in the role of permanent beggars. She writes: ‘The denial of the right to a livelihood is the essence of the siege, the foundation block of the separation policy.’

Many commentators seize upon certain parallels with the Warsaw ghetto, which has become almost a cliché at this point aside from inflaming survivors’ sensibilities. But there is a more precise metaphor, in my view, that should be meaningful to Americans.

The same LRB issue carries a review of the works of S. Yizhar, an early Hebrew author who grew up in an ethnically mixed environment rather than among the proto-socialist but exclusionary kibbutzim. Yizhar’s world was bound up with the Arab village society that 1948 decimated, and he wrote sympathetically as an eyewitness to the triumphant Israeli army driving local families into an exile from they would never return.

Yet the review notes that Yizhar’s elegaic tone carries with it a fatalistic acceptance of the extinction. ‘Today there is no Mansoura, and you won’t find it, it has been wiped out, it no longer exists, and in its place there is just a road, eucalyptus trees and some stone ruins.’ Or this: ‘These Arabs will not remain. . . Zarnuga will not remain and Qubeibeh will not remain and Yibneh will not remain, they will all go away and start to live in Gaza’.

We see similar feelings of doom and tragedy in the creepily effective animated documentary Waltz with Bashir that, not surprisingly, failed to win an Oscar for its treatment of Israeli complicity in the refugee camp massacres in Lebanon (described by the movie-star announcers at the ceremony as ‘a controversial military action’). The young Israeli soldiers are scared about the fighting, trying to save their skins and finally dumbfounded by the deliberate slaughter of Palestinian refugees by their own Christian fascist allies—while they guard the perimeter.

What is this but a replay of the nineteenth century American fascination with the ‘noble savage’ of the western plains, whose decline and annihilation were to be mourned while nothing was done to stop it? They must disappear so that white settlers could safely pass through and homestead in the ‘uninhabited’ interior, all formalized in religious terms as our Manifest Destiny. No wonder the Israeli occupation appears to received American opinion as the most reasonable thing in the world.

Monday, 2 March 2009

Jungle Book

The torrent of economic and political news coming at us from all directions tests the attention span and tolerance levels even of the most avid consumer. One defers to the specialists to piece together a coherent panorama of what is coming next, but given the uncertainties and surprises, there’s no reason to think that even the smartest have a lock on what is happening to us.

I’ve been paralyzed for a week trying to take it all in, but I keep coming back to certain snippets and images. The story, for example, of the ex-Chicago alderman who got five years’ probation for scheming to get a $1.5 million payoff in a real estate deal. The judge let him off without a jail term or even restitution of the scam (he was fined a paltry $50,000) and argued that Edward Vrdolyak’s actions had ‘not cost anyone the loss of money’ in the NY Times paraphrase.

If that’s how things are done in Illinois, it’s no wonder “Senator” Roland Burris can’t understand why people are in his face for playing footsie with Blagojevich. But aside from the notorious habits of the Chicago machine, it’s a startling statement of the thinking that got us where we are today as we watch the federal government throw trillions of our dollars down the toilet of the looted financial system.

The concept of the ‘victimless crime’ used to mean things like illicit gambling or selling liquor on Sundays, misdemeanors that had to be prosecuted for their dissuasive effects but didn’t really seem all that harmful to most people. But there’s something chilling about seeing how deeply gangsterish exploitation has permeated our society to the point that running a scam on the public purse is seen as a legitimate way to make a living.

And it’s not just the Republican Menace that’s responsible for this outlook, either, although they’re the crudest practitioners. Bill Clinton’s wandering-weenie was defended by the entire Democratic establishment in the 1990s on the assumption that having a cigar-moistening session with Miss Monica didn’t really harm anyone if the lady volunteered for erotic gymnastics in the Oval Office. But then when Clinton’s powerful friends got her a cushy government job to move her out of the way, dozens of better-qualified chumps who didn’t do the president got stiffed, and the entire liberal establishment surged forth to defend the practice along with their own privileges.

Nonetheless, the Bush years consolidated a far more toxic and pathological sense of entitlement among a domestic ruling class that really thinks the world and everything therein was arranged to feed their narcissistic desires. These over-indulged infants were on display over the weekend at the Conservative Political Action Committee powwow and thrown 90 minutes of red meat by their de facto leader, Rush Limbaugh.

If I were a stronger person or still getting a salary to cover these events, I might have studied the content of this opiate-fueled tirade. But the evening news excerpts of Limbaugh going red in that fat face was enough to demonstrate that while the Sarah Palin’s and John Boehner’s represent the slick, faux-populist side of American authoritarianism, Limbaugh leads the unrepentant Hermann Goering faction. With the economy in free-fall and the chances of a full-blown depression still 1 in 3 (according to Dr. Doom Roubini), the appearance of this thug at the head of a major party is not a comforting thought.