Saturday, 30 May 2009

Sultans I've Known

[I am just back from two weeks in Spain and cannot resist filtering current events back here at home through my touristic reflections.]

Triumphant Catholics aren’t known for letting stand rival temples, so when Ferdinand III of Castille conquered Córdoba in 1236, the Umayyad mosque the size of a city block atop the highest hill in the middle of town was slated for some serious renovation. The 63-year reign of his successor Alphonso X (‘the Wise’) provided plenty of time to overlay the Islamic house of worship with symbols of the True Faith, and the victors filled the place with Christian art of a most lurid tendency—naked Jesuses, saints celebrating their mortified flesh, magi, bishops and Roman centurions. All of which the defenestrated Muslims, who shun representations of the human form, would have considered gross idolatry and an extra slap in the face, if anyone were asking their opinion.

So how does the tourist literature spin this potentially embarrassing display of cultural rapine? No problem at all. The cathedral’s present owners recall that the pre-Moorish Visigoths, Catholicized during their relatively brief domination of the Iberian peninsula, had built a church on the same site and that the marauding Muhammedans built right over top of it. Not content with the ‘Johnny-hit-me-first’ line of defense, the tourist brochure adds with a badly-translated snarl that this act ‘questions the theme of tolerance that was supposedly cultivated in the Córdoba of the moment’.

Do we detect a tiny note of defensiveness here, perhaps stemming from the weight of the subsequent record of the Catholic kings of Spain, the expulsion of the Jews in 1492 and the worthy exploits of the Holy Inquisition?

The history of cultural tolerance is one of the slimmer volumes in the biped encyclopedia, and we can sneer at the narrow-mindedness of medivals only by failing to register the utter modernity of their hubris. What really is the difference between the thirteenth century Catholic determination to mold human society according to its particular ideological straitjacket and the blank cluelessness of the neocon Bushites 800 years later as they insisted that Thatcherite capitalism as propagated by the Caliphate in Washington, D.C., must reign over all the globe? Not surprisingly, both regimes utilized waterboarding to enforce their wishes.

I could only hear the echo of the Middle Ages in Cheney’s pathetic defense of his failed record last week. The impressive cathedrals weren’t built by people plagued by doubt; Pope Cheney would have fit right in. Power will persuade any human tribe that its rule is mandated by heaven; our grandchildren will realize that as Americans are replaced by the next self-referent, double-dealing biped empire.

Sunday, 24 May 2009

On Vacation-desde Madrid

No, I did not go underground, just on vacation, accumulating many thoughts and observations to emit at a later date. Chao for now.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

The Friedan appointment and the dilemma of public health

Mayor Bloomberg’s health director, Tom Friedan, is off to head the CDC, and it’s not surprising that Obama has selected him. He’s a pragmatist and an innovator, and sometimes he just doesn’t get it—pretty much like Obama himself so far.

Friedan and Bloomberg can be proudest of their take-no-prisoners stance on smoke-free environments, which has become so standard that it’s easy to forget that how unpopular it once was to force people outside of bars and restaurants to light up. But they rammed it through, which was necessary at the time and also a reminder that the two of them tend toward ramming as a modus operandi.

Bloomberg is an arrogant piece of work and likes to get his way, and public health has long suffered from that approach. The way tuberculosis was handled in the early twentieth century is not a noble chapter in the field given the abuses of immigrants and individuals tossed into quarantine with no real concern for their well-being. On the other hand, when TB threatened to take off again 20 years ago, the city went back to fairly Draconian control measures, and the numbers came back down.

We can see the tensions resurface now with the swine flu scare as officials try to decide whether to close schools or shut down other activities in the name of our collective welfare, and few would deny them the powers needed. But there is more sensitivity now to the inevitable tendency to use these powers on the weak and politically unconnected before hitting the big guys.

AIDS provided more lessons. The grassroots movement did a lot to sensitize health officialdom not just to individual rights but also to the public health benefits of taking a humane, cooperative approach and joining forces with representatives of those affected from gay men’s volunteer groups to IV drug user advocates and sex-worker unions. There, Friedan’s record is a mixed bag as the city moves steadily toward mass testing to identify new HIV cases and away from the more complicated issue of how to prevent transmission from occurring in the first place.

That’s where Friedan’s worst error of his tenure occurred, the ridiculous brouhaha he drummed up over the allegedly drug-resistant strain of HIV found in a meth user and trumpeted at a news conference that turned out to be completely untrue. Friedan succumbed to the ‘disease outbreak’ mode so comfortable for public health types, and he looked dumb as shit. But he’ll fit right in at CDC whose approach to AIDS these days leans more toward disease-detection than sexual health promotion. It’s a technician’s response and acquiesces to the country’s ongoing inability to grapple with human sexuality.

Meanwhile, the city’s new anti-smoking campaigns are as tough and uncompromising as ever. They remind us that kicking ass is sometimes a good thing. . . and sometimes not.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Hating liberty, loving safety

Watching Eric Holder fumble his way through a barrage of hostile questions from a Texas Republican on handling ‘terrorists’ showed how much the Obama Administration has sacrificed in failing to take the high ground on the civil liberties debate. The questioner assailed him on whether ‘terrorists’ or ‘members of groups declared to be terrorists’ would be allowed to enter the U.S.—presumbly in shackles from Guantánamo—and pilloried Holder for daring to resist his blanket statements about the sacredness of protecting that special class of bipeds known as ‘Americans’ from these weird creatures from outer space.

Holder stayed on the defensive throughout because he and his boss accept the logic of this debate on Rush Limbaugh’s terms. If safety from foreign bad guys is the only consideration that matters, then of course it looks weak or criminal to undo the Bush-era approach or even to worry about fairness. Who cares about the suspects? Throw ‘em all out or lock ‘em all up, just KEEP US SAFE. This is the liturgy of all dictatorships, and it’s been a popular one since the dawn of biped time.

Too bad Holder didn’t decide to defend the rule of law and remind his questioner that until a court declares that a person is a ‘terrorist’ or has committed some illegal act, we cannot proceed to punish him. Too bad Obama doesn’t feel strong enough—despite his sky-high popularity rating—to throw the Guantánamo disaster back in the Bushites’ faces and declare that since they seized these individuals and tortured them instead of putting them on trial, anything that goes wrong now is the fault of W and his enablers.

And too bad that no one has the balls to say that in a country of laws sometimes criminals go free and commit more crimes and that that’s the price of a system that protects the accused individual even if sometimes dangers are increased. The reactionaries would have a huge cow, but they will anyway. On the other hand, I’m willing to bet that a substantial portion of the public weaned on Law & Order, Miranda rights and criminal procedure would come around and eventually agree.

Montaigne writes in ‘On Experience’ of his dismay at a group of local peasants who found a man half-dead along the road and ran away instead of coming to his aid. When challenged, they argued that had they stuck around, the local police would have accused them of the crime, put them in prison, and no one would have done anything about it. Montaigne knew they were right and lamented not their inhumane but logical behavior, but rather the failings of a perverse and cruel legal system.

Now Obama continues on the slippery slope of pandering to the safety-at-all-costs crowd and further undermining our civil protections. His action is a shameful abandonment of the basic principles he should have learned at Harvard Law School. The amoral Clintons couldn’t have triangulated it any better, and Obama will reap the same reward they did—hatred from the rejuvenated right and eventual indifference from his erstwhile fans.

Thursday, 14 May 2009

BTK: works for me!

The defenders of torture have two talking points: (1) torturing people ‘works’ because sometimes you get what you want from it, like useful information; and (2) define ‘torture’.

Loathesome Lindsay Graham hammered away at these two themes during the Senate hearings yesterday on the infamous Bybee/Yoo memos, which gave sadistic thugs in the employ of the U.S. government carte blanche. Graham pestered a witness from Georgetown University on whether putting a spider in the cell of an arachnophobe would constitute ‘torture’.

This is reminiscent of the defense lawyers’ approach in the Rodney King police mayhem case, in which each parcel of the incident was separated from the whole and made to look innocuous, allowing the jury to succumb to its suburban prejudices and let the cops-gone-wild off the hook.

So if we slam a guy’s head against a ‘soft’ wall in his neck brace, then it doesn’t really sound much like torture, does it? (Brit Hume on Fox) Or if we make him stand up for a few hours, that’s nothing compared to what a cabinet secretary goes through (Donald Rumsfeld). Cold temperatures? Loud music? Oh, please! And on and on—the phrase ad nauseum really does fit here.

Another way to phrase or to answer the question would be, Would it be appropriate to treat a uniformed American solider by doing X? After all, he (or she) might have ‘actionable’ intelligence related to upcoming attacks that wartime enemies might very well feel entitled to extract, like info on bombing runs over Afghan villages that end up blowing a couple dozen locals to smithereens.

I keep asking myself how this torture debate is finally going to explode, and the possibilities are dizzying. G.I.s videotaped being subjected to these techniques? leading to the obvious question, On what basis do we object? Will the tapes Obama is now trying to suppress include child-rape scenes ?

You’d think the revelations about how torture led to the phony intelligence that led to the debacle in Iraq would have cooled enthusiasm for the practice. But the debasement of ethical discourse in our society is so advanced that the impact was minimal.

Condi Rice’s ex-employee Philip Zelikow had a chilling comment in yesterday’s hearing about the authority sought by Bush’s mob lawyers, noting that the powers claimed would enable Bush or a future president to apply exactly the same tactics to American citizens in U.S. territory. I have no doubt that his warning will prove prescient if the ongoing apologies for torture are not definitively uprooted and discredited.

The issue persists, and all appeals to ‘move on’ or ‘turn the page’ are pointless. A Nazi death-camp guard is being prosecuted just this week for his role in crimes against humanity from 70 years ago. Bybee and Yoo should take note.

Meanwhile, yesterday’s hearing was a good illustration of why we need a sober commission of inquiry to unearth the seamy mess. The undistinguished freshman senator from Rhode Island, Sheldon Whitehouse, had a great opportunity to uncover and broadcast some important facts, but instead led FBI agent Ali Soufan through a series of yes/no set-up questions. The guy had plenty to discuss, but Whitehouse was more interested in getting his own screen time and couldn’t shut up.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Mr. Proper v. Ms. Nasty

Oh boo fucking hoo! Wanda Sykes shouldn’t have hurt po’ little defenseless Wush Wimbaugh’s feelings! So the tasteless White House Correspondents Association dinner now is a harmless jokefest where you roast people but you don’t actually fry them.

Therefore, the suddenly shocked critics say, it wasn’t ladylike for Sykes to mock Limbaugh as the 20th hijacker and say he only missed the event because he was whacked on oxycontin.

These are the same people who chortled when W made ha-ha over the missing weapons of mass destruction at a previous affair. That must have been really funny because the reporters ate it up, probably because they’re not missing a limb or six of their grandchildren as a result of the latest mosque bombing brought to them by these jokers.

Torture is a laffriot too, so I’m surprised no one raised the Bybee and Yoo memos for some stand-up. But I guess if you can listen to Limbaugh without wanting to stick your finger into an electrical socket, torture is pretty tame shit.

Since Limbaugh’s fancy lawyers got him off his drug-running felony, his substance addiction is off-limits? Hilarious! I hope they keep up the criticism so that the entire country can be reminded that the de facto head of the opposition party rants for hours on the radio while delirious on opiates.

That, I suspect, is the real reason Sykes is taking a beating. It can’t be over the tastefulness of her humor because there is no such thing at this smarmy circle-jerk that showcases the chummy consensus between the powerful and their enablers in the news business. The panty-twist over Sykes’s zingers is a perfect reminder of that.

Monday, 11 May 2009


Now that a few days have passed since the Stress Test results were announced (cue: Valhalla motif from Das Reingold), the phoniness of the whole exercise is becoming clear. It’s true the stock markets have responded enthusiastically, but that may be less about the banks’ true state of health than their reading of the Obama Administration as just as in the tank for Wall Street as their predecessors.

Robert Kuttner of the underappreciated American Prospect points out that the numbers of inspectors sent out to gauge the fiscal health of these megacorporations were a tiny fraction of the army of accountants that would have been required to do a real job. [I read this article on Huffington today and now find it’s been withdrawn—we’ll see if it reappears.] That means the banks trotted out some succulent figures, Treasury tossed them with a sprig of arugula and vinaigrette, and we were served a tasty meal that has nothing to do with their solvency or business plans.

So no wonder the stock markets soared on the news: for those who live in that world, it was obvious the government has no intention of threatening the existence of the zombie banks, at least for now. So it was safe to plunge back into their shares, make a killing and stand by for the next chapter.

Another fascinating Huffington piece by Delaney and Grim explains why so many potential short sales are being refused by banks even at the cost of greater losses later on. They demonstrate how the bundling of mortgages into tiered securities introduced all sorts of irrationalities into the marketplace. Now, a 25% loss on a given property will wipe out an owner of the lower tranches while those on the top tiers lose nothing at all. Banks can’t get all these multiple owners to agree, and sales eventually fall through as interested buyers move on. The long-term consequences are housing market stagnation and further deterioration of bank solvency.

In addition, Geithner & Co. have now given banks a huge incentive to book profits over the next six months and show how they will earn their way out of the cash crunch. Then Treasury will reduce its requirements for new, profit-weakening capital additions. The banks thus have a gigantic incentive to juggle their reports and make things look great.

All of which sounds like more of the same that got us here in the first place just as the big hits to credit card debt, jumbo mortgages, adjustable-rate loans, home-equity and all the rest are being felt. If Krugman, Kuttner and others are right, the financial crisis of last autumn may soon be back, only this time with no opposition knights in shining armor standing by to sweep out the incompetants.

Saturday, 9 May 2009

Pelosi and Paraguay

The rush by the Cheneyites and his fellow torture-enthusiasts to justify themselves by showing how Nancy Pelosi, Jane Harmon and other top Democrats knew what was happening all along is going to backfire. Instead of neutralizing the issue by showing how broad was the consensus to torture defenseless prisoners, the revelations that many otherwise respectable leaders were involved, complicit or looking the other way just deepens the nausea. A sickened public opinion will insist all the more tenaciously on a full airing of this collective national crime.

I spent a week in Paraguay in 1984 to report on the Alfredo Stroessner regime, which at the time was in the 30th of its eventual 35 years’ duration, the longest-running Latin American dictator until Fidel Castro beat his record. Stroessner’s fiefdom was also a notoriously totalitarian system with a secret police apparatus, comparable to a Soviet bloc state, that knew everything about everybody and applied repression selectively and precisely to maintain absolute control. A prominent dissident whom I visited in his home (openly monitored by plainclothes goons) quoted the country’s summary phrase, attributed to Stroessner himself, about his approach:

‘For our friends, plata (money), for our adversaries, palos (beatings), for our enemies, plomo (lead)’.

But consolidating and preserving his power also required ruthlessness and brutality, and torture of dissidents considered a real threat to the regime was common. The opposition figure whom I visited told me that Stroessner used to take his top generals personally to witness the practice in the country’s political prisons as a way to guarantee their loyalty, to taint and corrupt them morally. It worked for three decades until he was overthrown by a long-time collaborator.

It’s no wonder, then, that the Bush conspirators brought along selected Democrats like Speaker Pelosi and Senators Jay Rockefeller and Bob Graham and fed them some information on prisoner torture on condition of absolute secrecy. Had they not lost their own moral compass, they would have left the session indignantly and somehow put their objection on record.

Instead, they played along, and now they have to scramble to explain why they didn’t say, Stop. No doubt it is quite uncomfortable, but if the torture-cabal thinks that getting a few Democrats to join them on the griddle will put out the fire, they’ve miscalculated. The more we learn about the seduction of our entire political class by the sirens of torture, the less the opportunists—or pragmatists, if you will—on the Obama team will be able to hold back the tidal wave of revulsion.

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Prairie Home TARP test—Where ALL the banks are above average

The bank ‘stress test’ results announced today are complicated enough to look like arcane technical pronouncements by finance geeks. But given the importance of convincing public and investor opinion that All Is Well, they sound more like a door-to-door sales pitch.

A good indication is Geithner’s comments to Charlie Rose about ‘very significant cushions’ in the banks so that ‘all Americans should be confident’ about their viability. (I notice he didn’t use the word solvency.) ‘The results will be, on balance, reassuring’, said Geithner, referring to his primary function: to reassure us. Given that the bank managers themselves have had opportunities galore to comment on and—dare we suggest?—shape the conclusions, Geithner is simply asking us to Believe. Maybe the banks are solvent, and maybe they aren’t; Geithner’s and Obama’s bet is that they can convince us of the former and thereby stave off politically costly new rescue measures utilizing our money.

If they are being mostly truthful, we’ve probably not lost our $2 trillion or not all of it anyway. But as David Corn at Mother Jones and many others have pointed out, we really don’t know much—certainly nothing about where all that cash went—and no one at the Treasury Department or the White House wants us to find out.

The fast-food headlines paint a convenient picture: a range from ‘troubled’ banks like Citi and Bank of America needing yet more billions to a few requiring far lesser amounts and others declared quite ‘healthy’ overall. The news-cycle impression will be of a mixed report card with some D’s (to avoid generating guffaws of disbelief), some C-plusses and quite a few respectable B’s. In short, things are looking better and better (cue: ‘Always Look on the Bright Side’ starring Monty Python characters nailed to crosses).

But the econo-blogs are parsing the statements down to far less sanguine conclusions. Starting with the worst basket case, Bank of America announced it needs another $34 billion on top of the $45b already received under TARP.

Citigroup needs ‘only’ $5b, but then again it already received $50b plus loan guarantees. And so forth.

Then there are the boys with nice report cards like JP Morgan Chase, Cap One and American Express. They got TARP money in the early days of that mysterious program when we were told only already healthy banks could line up at the trough. They are now solemnly re-declared healthy while in possession of the public cash pumped into them, so were they really healthy then? Or they weren’t then but are now? Or both? Or neither?

Despite the worst financial panic since the 1930s, not one of these institutions is slated for dismemberment a la General Motors or Chrysler. The holy marketplace gets no chance to smack the stuffing out of the wild-man investors or dun the irrationally exhuberant for bad gambling debts. Instead, we get the worst form of warped socialism: banks get the gain, we get the pain.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

I am so over Michael Bloomberg

The mayor is already throwing part of his $20 billion net worth at our airwaves to soften up the terrain and prepare for another crushing electoral victory next year en route to an illegitimate third term. Last year he rammed through City Council an override of the two-term limit that had been confirmed twice in plebsicites by the city’s electorate—but who cares about all that when you’re a big guy like Mike?

Bloomberg even intimidated the terminally pugnacious Queens Congressman Anthony Wiener who thought he was all set to become mayor and now is biding his time. Drab Bill Thompson who occupies the even drabber comptroller’s office is the only likely opponent, and the whole campaign promises to be as stimulating as winter in the Upper Peninsula.That’s a shame because I can think of plenty of ways to go after Bloomberg if the local pols weren’t so afraid of him. For starters, how about recalling for the electorate that Bloomberg was very recently best buddies with one George W. Bush and lent Bush still-traumatized New York City as a backdrop so he could build his 2004 ‘re’-election campaign on lingering GWOT fervor? I’d love to see some hard-hitting campaign ads showing the two of them feeling each other up at the Republican spectacle in Madison Square Garden and a few asides about the heavy-handed mass arrests that took place there on Bloomberg’s orders.

Then there’s his money, which we’re not supposed to notice. Bloomberg plays on New Yorkers’ cynicism about politics and corruption by appearing above it all—how can you bribe someone who pays for his $80 million campaign out of his own pocket?

Thompson or someone else could put it another way: Should we be ruled by the rich? Who needs elections? Why not have them buy the offices outright and be done with it? In these populist times there should be some room for reflection on the implications of voluntarily giving this absurdly overstuffed plutocrat even more power by voting for him.

In addition, Bloomberg’s namesake financial company is now being sued by former female employees for systematic sex discrimination, including retaliation against anyone who dared get pregnant. That opens up some juicy opportunities since Bloomberg has been caught fibbing about how much ongoing contact he has with the management of the firm. Court documents have plenty to say about corporate culture at Bloomberg L.P.—imagine TV ads denouncing him for building his fortune on abuse of women.

All this is fantasy, however, because I can’t believe his election opponent will dare. Bloomberg is part of the permanent insider camp and can be a vindictive piece of work, too. Thompson will probably play along and have a few laughs getting trammeled, then ascend to some sinecure and continue to dine with the grandees. Meanwhile, we’re stuck with the rule of the 20-billion-dollar man.

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Stimulate This!

Amid all the jockeying, bobbing and weaving going on among our mayor, the New York state legislature and Governor What’s-His-Name, the utter irrationality of even thinking about starving, slashing, overpricing and cutting back on our miraculous public transit system is hardly ever acknowledged. If there is one thing that makes this behemoth of a city even marginally functional, it is the 468 subway stations and innumerable bus lines, not to mention ferries, bridges and whatnot, that make it possible to live and thrive in New York City without owning a car, paying for it and going bald trying to park the damn thing.

Our carbon footprint is thus vastly lower than any biped’s in the suburban wastelands or middle America, not only because we don’t drive but also because we can live stacked up vertically rather than in individual, nuke-fam ranch houses whose heat escapes directly into the biosphere.

We should be seeing state and federal pols line up to beg us to keep using our public transport and offering to pour upkeep and staffing funds into it. They should assign more cops to keep out pickpockets and beggars and teach subway etiquette in grade school. Other city mayors and planners should be taking courses in how to lay out an underground and rail grid to make their own tumbleweed-strewn public spaces more interesting.

Instead, the quasi-governmental MTA has to beg and scrape together capital and operating funds year after year, gouge users and threaten the apocalypse with depressing regularity. Where are the stimulus funds that could be dumped immediately into this gaping maw of fiscal need and rocketed directly out again as boosted purchasing power to replace the nation’s disappearing wealth?