Wednesday, 30 September 2009

When you say 'Vision', do you mean 'Imagination'?

The Madoff shocker made us realize that anything, really anything, is possible when it comes to brazen theft these days. So it should not come as a surprise if the next scandale du jour turns out to involve the lucrative polling business.
The nerdy, wonky and dustily serious website—a number-laden refuge for many of us during last year’s election campaign—has called out Strategic Vision, LLC, a Republican polling firm, in very specific terms with accusations that its numbers are invented. Wowie zowie, not ‘skewed’, ‘unreliable’, ‘biased’ or ‘built on flimsy methods’, but COMPLETELY MADE UP. It’s pretty much saying that CEO David Johnson, a regular talking head on cable TV (most recently to debunk Jimmy Carter’s comment about racism and Obama), is a Madoffian fraudmeister.

Strategic fed the political gossip mills last fall with insights like this August 30, 2008 revelation:

‘Strategic Vision polling in the key battleground states of Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida and non-traditional battleground states such as New Jersey indicate that 25% to 35% of Hillary Clinton supporters will not vote for Barack Obama and might consider voting for John McCain based upon his running mate’. Yeah, right.

SV is also a PR firm and showcased on its Facebook page client Michael Glassman, author of Outdoor Designs for Living, who ‘offers multiple cooking options when building outdoor rooms’. Hey, one day presidential politics, next day patio furniture.

Nate Silver, who runs FiveThirtyEight, combed through some of Strategic’s results and found them highly dubious. He highlights the test Strategic gave 1,000 Oklahoma high school students of whom NOT ONE could correctly answer all ten softball questions about American history and government, like the names of the two major political parties and who is in charge of the executive branch. Only six of the 1,000 kids even managed to score 70%.

Now, although one can never underestimate the ignorance of any group of people, I’m sure Oklahoma is full of teens smart as whips who DO know which ocean is on the east coast of the United States (one of the ten questions), even if they miraculously were missed in this polling exercise.

But the idea that only one in four kids registering a heartbeat would know that George Washington was the first president is a bit of a stretch. You’d think a Republican polling firm would drum up results like that for a place like, say, northern California or Vermont.

The latest update on Strategic is the revelation that its corporate headquarters is located in a motel in a Georgia hamlet near the Chattahoochee National Forest, an address shared with the county headquarters of the Republican Party.

Silver must be slavering to be slapped with a libel lawsuit, which would open up discovery and enable him to demand business records of actual telephone polling allegedly performed by the offended company. If said lawsuit is not forthcoming very shortly, expect to see a lot less of Mr Johnson on the cable shows. He’ll be very busy keeping his ass out of a sling—and not in a good way.

Bad to Worse

The fix is pretty clearly in to allow Afghan president Karzai to get away with rigging his recent re-election, which will make any attempts by Obama to continue to point the finger at Iranian president Ahmadinejad for the exact same behavior laughable.

Now that the UN Secretary-General has axed Peter Galbraith—the guy from the UN’s own observer mission who actually believed in respecting the electoral process rather than political convenience—nothing will stop Karzai from ramming through his anointment for another term despite the mammoth ballot-stuffing fraud. What an indictment of the whole silly attempt to dress up a warlord/narco state as some type of struggling peasant republic.

And what a nail in the coffin of Obama’s ill-advised determination to fight a ‘good’ war in Afghanistan to balance his election vow to put an end to the ‘bad’ war in Iraq. Obama now faces two simultaneous challenges to the idea that he’s about changing anything: health care non-reform and ignominious failure at nation-building right on the heels (and in imitation of) W’s.

Not accidentally, Obama also continues to preside over the worst ongoing U.S. violation of due process and abuse of prisoners at the Bagram prison in Afghanistan, worse than the criminal debacle at Guantánamo where prisoners have slowly won recognition of habeas corpus rights. By contrast, ‘rendered’ foreign inmates of the Afghan dungeon continue to languish, eight months after Obama became commander-in-chief, in the legal black hole created by Dick Cheney & Co.

On the positive side, there are signals that current Afghanistan policy is not a done deal and that a heated debate is on within the White House. I should hope so. How do they plan to manage a full-scale war in that graveyard of empires arm in arm with a government furiously producing 80 percent of the world’s heroin? Will Americans placidly send off their relatives to die so that a bunch of tribal warlords can make themselves rich? Can this be flogged to them as the War on Terror forever?

Is this turkey even edible?

I would have to be paid a lot to follow all the zigs and zags of the depressing healthcare ‘reform’ debate, but yesterday’s rejection of the public option by a Senate panel looked like really bad news. Five Democrats and all the Republicans voted to bury it.

It’s amazing to see that no matter how badly the Democrats are smacked around by the teabag/You Lie! party, a substantial minority will always break ranks and cave to the monied interests. Then they will be gently massaged by reporters as ‘moderates’ and their views aired endlessly.

I have a sinking feeling about the whole exercise and fear that any attempt to force people into the skin game known as ‘health insurance’ as currently constituted is likely to bomb hugely even in the short run. As someone wrote recently, whether you call it a ‘fee’, a ‘tax’ or nothing at all, legislating the purchase of an expensive product is going to feel like shit to people who can’t afford it even if they eventually get a tax subsidy to ease the pain.

Obama may end up with the worst of all possible outcomes: presiding over a boondoggle for the insurance industry (confirming our bank-bailout impression of him as being in the back pocket of high finance), obtaining no real change in how insurance profiteers poison doctor-patient relations, costing us our left nut singly and collectively, and reinforcing the wild-eyed reactionaries’ paranoid fantasies.

All this in exchange for the laudable but dubious goal of ending the worst abuses of the current system—which, without a public option, may fail anyway as the insurance companies find ways to subvert the new laws.

In conclusion, I am open to the argument that may soon emerge from House Democrats led by Raul Grijalva of Arizona and the Black Caucus, among others, that Max Baucus’s Montana turkey is worse than nothing. It will be interesting to see how Obama’s enforcers would react if there were a threat from that wing to bury the whole sorry animal and how long all the White House posturing about bipartisanship and mutual respect for the other side’s opinions would survive.

Monday, 28 September 2009

Capitalism: A Parable

It’s hard to separate the positive and negative qualities of the new Michael Moore film, Capitalism: A Love Story. What’s good about the film is also what’s bad about it.

Moore is back doing his faux-innocent schlub routine at GM headquarters and in front of the Wall Street stock exchange, and it falls pretty flat. He inserts himself into, plops himself down on, his subjects’ life tragedies and milks them shamelessly. He’s either clueless about how people lost everything and were thrown out of their homes or uninterested in the details. Instead, he falls back again and again on outrage.

I think that is the key to Moore: he’s against Bad Things being done to Good People. His films are less documentaries than morality plays.

Moore confesses in Capitalism that he was brought up in Catholic school and once wanted to become a priest. Actually, that’s exactly what he did. He hasn’t got the patience or the subtlety to get underneath how the machinery of government and Wall Street came together to destroy home ownership and nearly wreck the financial system. But he’s called, driven, to witness against Sin, and he shambles through his own films holding the cross high.

Appropriately, two bishops have cameos.

Like a good Irish prelate, Moore has a terrific sense of humor, and he’s at his best when showing how easily we are fooled by Old Scratch in the form of come-ons, scams, advertisements and the culture of self-satisfied, material indulgence, the yearning to be wealthy despite Jesus’s warning about the rich and camels passing through the eye of a needle.

Moore’s polemics are enjoyable and even laudable as long as we don’t expect coherence or political guidance from them. They’re full of wacky insights and appalling tidbits and they make us laugh, which enables the awful truth of what’s happened to go down more easily.

But Moore is off base in his concluding narration when he mourns that he needs more people to join the crusade because he can’t ‘keep doing this’ by himself any more. Moore isn’t about to share his stage, and if he thinks he’s leading a political movement, he’s over-written his own part.

But Father Michael’s a valuable piece of our political landscape and can frame an argument in a unique way. I’ll pay to hear his sermons.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Now do the same with health care

The anti-imperialist cant from lamentable figures like Chávez and Gaddafy contains enough grains of truth that it’s a real pity they turn themselves into the most public vehicles of what are indeed cogent criticisms. When a goofball like Gaddafy is the one to take the podium at the UN and remind the world of the grotesque illegality of the invasion of Iraq, his antics obscure what should be an uncomfortable truth.

So instead of defensiveness over a criminal war of conquest, the U.S. gets to take Ahmadinejad behind the barn for a spanking over Iran’s secret uranium processing plant. Obama set the stage by shepherding a resolution through the Security Council on nuclear disarmament, undercutting Iran’s (true) argument that it was the nuclear monopolists like the United States who allowed the weapons to spread to favored allies (Israel, Pakistan).

But instead, the world is now focused on Iran’s increasingly unbalanced demagogue who just regaled the airwaves with vile, anti-Semitic claptrap close on the heels of his hugely discrediting electoral debacle of the summer. After Bush had to drag the European allies along kicking and screaming, Obama now has them all lined up behind him (quite literally) to demand concessions from Iran on the nuclear issue and ready jointly to wield effective economic weapons to enforce their wishes.

Obama also dumped a useless and provocative missile program in Central Europe to get the Russians on board, with considerable success by all appearances.

Obama is ten times better at projecting U.S. power and influence than Bush and the neocons could dream of in their adolescent, tough-guy fantasy world. He addressed Muslims and the Iranians specifically in the most respectful terms in his speech from Egypt, called for talks without preconditions and generally looked reasonable in stark contrast with Bush’s wild-eyed, apocalyptic pronouncements about the ‘Axis of Evil’. He stayed mostly out of the Iranian election scandal until it became a world-class embarrassment.

And he has been unexpectedly harsh with Netan-Yahoo and the Israeli bullies, weakening another favorite Iranian argument. Simultaneously and almost unnoticed (certainly by the U.S. media), the International Atomic Energy Agency just slapped Israel with a fairly unprecedented resolution of ‘concern’ about its 200 nuclear warheads. Iran proposed the resolution, and the U.S. voted no, but it seems to me that even-handedness from these multilateral bodies strengthens the U.S. position rather than weakens it.

In short, Obama may succeed where all the chest-bumps from the missile-wavers and their armchair militarists (like David Brooks) failed miserably.

Let’s hope his steady and sane approach produces similar results at home.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

Improving mental health services

Obama displayed calm reasonableness with the paranoid religious fanatics at the United Nations yesterday, pretty much as he has tried to deal with those in the U.S. Congress. It’s not clear that it will work in either place.

His sensible but plodding address would be reassuring if he were a CEO addressing shareholders of a company not threatened by a hostile takeover. But he doesn’t convince as an ass-kicker, and that ‘Make no mistake’ trope falls increasingly flat.

Still, since the assembled diplomats have a broader vision of the world than the parochial solons gathered in Washington, when Obama puts our own willingness to reduce nuclear weapons on the table, he gets some credit from his audience. Saying the same thing to Congress would merely stir worries about the next Northrup Grumman contract back in the home district.

No junior backbencher from North Korea or Swaziland shouted “You lie!” during Obama’s UN appearance, so I suppose they were willing to give the new president a chance with his promises to treat them as partners rather than unruly children.

Not that they all merit the distinction. The infantile Hugo-Chávez moment was not lacking, this time performed by Libya’s Muammar Gaddafy, surely one of the worst human beings on the planet, despite his recent rehabilitation by the oil-hungry opportunists in London and Washington.

Gaddafy seemed to be auditioning for a spot on Jerry Springer—someone should have shouted ‘You lie!’ at him to see if he’d rush into the amphitheatre waving his walking stick.

It’s ironic that just as a sane person like Obama takes over, the wacko brigade from Ahmadinejad to tea-bagger Joe Wilson seems more energized than ever. Perhaps it’s no accident.

The recent anti-Semitic blast from Iran’s creepy president suggests weakness requiring him to toss more and more red meat (along with the handouts) to his legions of dazed sloganeers. Although the Iranian regime may succeed in crushing the opposition, it’s clearly undermined itself by having to steal an election, and its long-term prospects cannot be bright.

The Republicans did much better when they tried that here at home, given the lack of any real domestic opposition. They had quite a run, but then imploded too, at least for now.

It’s still too early to know if Obama’s patient, no-drama approach has a place in this world given the gallery of crazies arrayed against him.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

This v/s That

The bomb-plot arrests in New York and Colorado seem to be the results of proper police work and established procedures, suggesting that we can be safe from terrorism without becoming a police state—what a concept.

The guy visiting from Denver who got caught in the middle of the operation last week had a pretty unpleasant time, but so far I’ve read nothing that suggests police misbehavior aside from maybe seizing the guy’s rental car without telling him (although it may have been towed for illegal parking). Let’s hope the other legal immigrants in Queens who hosted the main suspect—and may or may not have known anything about his alleged plans—are treated properly and not railroaded as accomplices merely because of their Muslim names or Pakistani connections.

What a contrast between this FBI operation and the decade-long regime instituted by George W. Bush and partially continued under the current administration—with the entire Republican party as a cheerleading squad—involving wild paranoia, wacko ‘interrogation’ schemes leading to phony conspiracy hunts, disdain for protection of the innocent, whosesale trashing of normal police work, macho posturing, officially authorized torture and apologetics for outright murder.

I was recently called to jury duty and was amazed to see how carefully and meticulously the system, for all its faults, tries to ensure that the accused are treated fairly. Human society worked for thousands of years to get to this point after millenia of arbitrary royal abuse and justice-by-caste. This is what the blowhard tough guys insist we toss into the garbage.

By contrast, in Chile the police under military rule got so used to beating confessions out of suspects that they forgot how to investigate. I remember covering a rape-murder case in the 1990s in which the suspect—quickly tried and convicted by the pinochetista news media—insisted he was innocent and had only confessed to stop them from torturing him.

Ha ha, said El Mercurio, the Chilean version of Fox News, they all say that, pointing to evidence the police found at the murder site: a makeshift upside down cross, which purportedly showed that the kid was a sicko who used the corpse for his Satanic rituals.

Turned out that the cross had been placed there by a imprudent news reporter to commemorate the victim, an act made possible because Chile’s Keystone Kops never secured the crime scene. Then the accused’s family produced a copy of the kid’s complaint about a stolen radio that he had filed at another police station 100 miles away—exactly at the time of the girl’s death.

If he hadn’t had that stroke of luck, he’s still be in jail today. That’s what happens when you get impatient with the drudgery of detective work and go for the torture short-cut, that is, when you dump individual rights in favor of collective safety.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

Celebrating Constitution Day, CIA-style

The spooks must be getting nervous if they had to roll out seven former CIA directors to ask President Obama to commit a blatantly illegal act: intervening to quash the Justice Department murder investigation against some of their colleagues.

As anyone who remembers Watergate and the Saturday Night Massacre knows, presidents cannot simply reach over to DoJ and interfere with an ongoing criminal investigation. Nixon even got in trouble for casually referring to Charles Manson as guilty before his trial was over. Of course, that was three decades ago when flushing our legal system and its civil protections down the toilet was considered a serious matter.

It’s amazing that this open call for the undermining of the criminal justice system by gross abuse of executive authority has gone almost unnoticed, including by the wackosphere that spent all summer hopping up and down about Obama as the nazi-fascist fifth column ready to take away their assault rifles. You’d think people worried that the government was about to set up concentration camps and slaughter them in their beds would have something to say about the secret services asking for carte blanche to commit murder.

And despite the erroneous headlines about prosecutions of ‘torture’ techniques, the only investigations Holder has allowed to go forward concern cases of Afghan detainees being beaten to death. Even John Yoo’s notorious memos authorizing the CIA and its many contract spooks to let loose did not turn them into double-0s with the right to kill.

Now, the CIA chiefs are insisting that their minions shouldn’t be held accountable even when the victim interrupts the investigation by succumbing. That defense would go far in a normal criminal courtroom—‘Oh yes, Your Honor, I beat the guy with a baseball bat. But I didn’t mean to kill him. I wanted him to stay alive so I could torture him so more’. ‘Oh, okay, in that case it’s not really murder, you’re free to go’.

But who cares about piss-ant technicalities when Our Nation’s Security is at stake? It’s funny how laws and legalities go out the window in the war-making sphere while the same people get all red in the face about ‘illegal aliens’ coming to mow their lawns. It’s not LEGAL for them to do that, say the Fox-oids and Dobbs-ites, neck-veins popping. How dare they disrespect our LAWS??

Thursday, 17 September 2009

We Elected This??

Why does it feel like Clinton, or rather Clintonism, won the election?

If there was any one thing that convinced me to go with Obama as an agent of change, it was the precedent-setting debacle engineered by Bill & Hillary on health. They started out by dumping the simple (though not easy) defense of single-payer/Medicare-style socialized medicine, designed instead a gargantuan, multi-headed mutant in an attempt to satisfy everyone except the supposed beneficiaries, managed the whole process with a tin political ear, buckled in the face of opposition, gave away the store, lost anyway and set back health care reform two decades.

Does this sound at all familiar?

Some argue that Obama has changed the approach by allowing Congress to generate its own plan instead of pitching them a 1000-page package created by an extra-parliamentary commission. Okay, so now that Congress has allowed insurance-industry shill Max Baucus to generate something even worse, what is the game plan?

Baucus looked pathetic standing there alone with his silly proposal after spending months with his head between Chuck Grassley’s knees and being told to get lost anyway. This is exactly what makes people turn to the Republicans for clear leadership because they take a position and stick to it. They stand for something, repugnant though it may be, and it doesn’t take a linguist, an acrobat and a psychoanalyst to figure out what it is.

I was impressed with Obama’s speech because he finally laid out the terms upon which this debate should have been built from the beginning. But I’d rather fund-raise for the Butte Copper Museum than ask any thinking person to lift a finger to support Max’s Montana turkey.

If this is the best the Democratic leadership can do with a massive popular mandate, then they deserve whatever hits them next. It would be terrible to lose an opportunity for health care reform, but it would be even worse to have to live through four years of Clinton-redux on this and every other important issue and then see the reactionaries sweep back into power anyway.

Wednesday, 16 September 2009

New York City votes (barely) [Updated]

New York’s primary election brought a welcome rebuke to the City Council members bought and sold by our plutocrat mayor who decided that term limits were fine in theory but should not apply to him just because a majority of mere voters decided on them. Last year Bloomberg asked the 51 members of that undistinguished body to override both city-wide plebiscites that had established a two-term limit for city pols and give him—as well as themselves—the chance to be whatever-for-life. Surprise, surprise, they said, Sure! by a vote of 29-22.

Twenty-three of those who supported Bloomberg would have had to find new jobs otherwise. It’s hard to understand how something like that could even be legal. Talk about voting yourself a public benefit.

However, at least three of the 29 who joined this nose-thumbing at the voting public have been defeated in their respective primaries, a historic first. Even Council president Christine Quinn—who shamelessly backed Bloomberg when her own mayoral ambitions imploded—barely managed to rack up 50 percent against two non-entities in her downtown district.

I regret to say that my own councilman, one of the 23, will be back although I’m not sure who will notice, even among the other 50.

There were more developments of interest. We may finally get a city-wide official of Asian origin, John Liu, a Taiwanese immigrant, who came in first for the Comptroller’s office and now faces a run-off. It’s a relief to live in a place where a candidate’s foreign birth is a non-issue.

The Working Families Party also scored big yesterday, seeing its endorsements and electoral machinery translate into impressive results. WFP is an interesting third-party model—it’s an activist/union coalition that carefully avoids the trap of splitting Democratic votes and putting total assholes in office. Instead, they cross-endorse favored candidates and concentrate on primary elections like yesterday’s. In a city with 48 Democratic council members and only three Republicans, they have significant weight.

A major yawn is in order as Manhattan D.A. Robert Morgenthau [left] successfully anointed fellow blueblood and old-boy networkee, Cyrus Vance, Jr., to star in the next 22 seasons of Law & Order.

Now we have to slog through two more months before Mayor Mike closes on his latest real estate deal: the throne at City Hall. He’ll pay whatever it takes.

UPDATE: Make that FOUR members of the City Council ousted for their cynical override of voters’ wishes (now including Maria Baez of the Bronx who rarely shows up at the meetings for which the city pays her $112,000 a year) and a fifth hanging on by seven votes pending a recount. For a particularly lackluster primary season, this counts as nearly an uprising and suggests that the race for mayor might be just a tad more interesting.

Monday, 14 September 2009

6,000 Bipedalers

I did the New York City Century bicycle ride yesterday for the third year, which means that this blog is now two years old because an account of my first Century ride was one of the first entries. I recall saying some fairly benign things about Mayor Bloomberg at the time since he has tried to promote mass transit use and bike commuting. If he hadn’t decided to buy himself another term in office, I might have repeated them.

The ride was great as usual, and the weather cooperated, which is saying something this year. Friday and Saturday were miserable, grey days with a permanent mist falling that would have been most annoying and left us riders soggy and ill-tempered before hitting our third borough.

Instead, we had a spectacular day with fluffy white clouds mostly keeping the sun off our backs. The route took us down through Manhattan to Prospect Park in Brooklyn, then south under the Verrazzano and past Coney Island to the Atlantic beach along the Rockaways. We came back over a bridge across Jamaica Bay where at the highest point you can simultaneously see planes landing at JFK and the full skyline of midtown and downtown Manhattan from the east. It was really cool.

The Bronx portion of the 104-mile route was shortened, but there was enough to get a feel for our gritty urban environments and to practice threading the needle through heavy traffic and run red lights en masse—always a special joy.

My buddy John and I needed serious R&R at the 80-mile point and sacked out in the grass under one of the East River bridges in Astoria, then, remarkably restored, soldiered on across the Triborough and the Bruckner to hit the finish line in Harlem at just under 11½ hours from the 6 a.m. kick-off. We got a T-shirt and cheers from two volunteers holding a sign that read ‘Yay!’

Transportation Alternatives, the sponsor of this 20-year-old annual event, is one of the savviest, most professional advocacy groups I have ever encountered, mixing fun and sophisticated seriousness in just the right portions. They’ve accomplished a lot, and I’m proud to have joined up my first week in New York.

Sunday, 13 September 2009


At ‘Aftermath’, the appropriate name of a new play opening at the New York Theatre Workshop this week, the young ladies in my row couldn’t get out of their seats when the curtain fell on its Friday night preview. The play is comprised of six true stories of Iraqi refugees in Jordan, and the sheer scale of the tragedy George Bush and the rest of us imposed on those people left a lot of the audience speechless.

The dialogue is drawn directly from refugee testimony, and it has its lighter moments, even Saddam Hussein jokes. But best of all, it is about Iraqis—the invisible actor in the debates we’ve been having now for six years.

I am SO over crap films like The Hurt Locker, which continues to get positive reviews and run for months despite its rehash of every tough-guy war-movie cliché and the vast desert of moral emptiness at its heart. I walked out after the scene in which an American soldier carries a young boy’s body out of a ruined building to a chorus of swelling strings.

We bomb your cities for weeks, kill you by the tens of thousands, drive 4 million of you into exile and install death squads as your police force. Then we make films showing how badly WE feel about dead Iraqi children.

So it was a relief to see a work in which Iraqis get to speak and be human beings instead of shadowy background figures representing Danger or perhaps the Inscrutable East.

It’s a sign of our self-absorbed world-view that even six years after the invasion no one dares to offer much of a critical eye on U.S. military behavior there, nor is there a hint of the profound doubts about war-making in general that characterized the anti-Vietnam war movement.

Instead, we continue to watch movies about ourselves and weep over our lost innocence.

Friday, 11 September 2009

Horrible, horribler, horriblest

Aside from the amusing but ultimately pointless fascination with the pathetic Joe Wilson incident, reporters generally seem to be missing the 800-pound gorilla in the briefing room, namely, that Congressman Wilson and his entire family are beneficiaries of SOCIALIST MEDICINE and furthermore that he has voted against improving services for VETERANS while protecting his own sweet deal. Review all the seamy details here.

Repugnant, disgusting, nasty, selfish and vile. Oh, and did I mention that he entered politics by working for Strom Thurmond, proud standard-bearer of the segregationist Dixiecrat party? [see the post just below for musings on the link between opposition to health care reform and old-fashioned racism]

Let us also recall that Wilson’s outburst came in response to a promise not to include the current bad guys, ‘illegal immigrants’, from any benefits. Perish the thought that Wilson’s cozy, state-funded, free health service should be in any way shared with South Carolina’s current quasi-slave class, the Mexicans.

I recently spent some time in Wilson’s district, which includes Hilton Head Island. There, the new gated communities are called ‘plantations’. Trust me, I’m not making it up.

Thursday, 10 September 2009

Echoes of Yesteryear

A guy named for two diseases, Addison Graves (“Joe”) Wilson, blew a gasket last night by yelling at Obama, reminding millions of Americans of Republican complicity with the tea-bagger/tinfoil hat brigade. I can’t find it now, but apparently the ineffable Limbaugh spun the whole episode on his radio show today to focus on Obama’s reaction, a flicker of annoyance that we should now interpret as a signal of his readiness to smash Wilson in the face and attack your sister.

Remarkable how these professional reality-shifters work, but then again, not really. Limbaugh plays on historical fears of black males and their supposed violent tendencies, a long-standing trope in the American psyche that goes down particularly well in the heartland of chattel slavery based on brute force. I think shrinks call it ‘projection’. Does this stuff resonate with anyone not under psychiatric care or nostalgic for cotton plantations?

In any case, it brings up the larger issue of where the furious opposition to providing a basic social service comes from. Could it be simply a permanent hatred of and resistance to any government intervention that might threaten to make us equal?

It’s no accident that education and health spending in the South has always been the lowest per capita in the nation. Why direct state resources toward beneficiaries whose granddaddies were sharecroppers? Better to keep things in private hands and thereby guarantee that only people with money will have what they need. I can attest to the odd fact that poor white folks are among the most enthusiastic endorsers of this foot-blasting world-view.

Perhaps I exaggerate, but there is something about the irrational fury being displayed by people in this debate that just doesn’t make sense otherwise. In fact, they remind me of the screeching-harpy faces in the civil rights museum videos in Memphis and Birmingham, the historical footage of crazed cracker females eager to kick the shit out of the half-dozen black girls who dared to integrate Little Rock High.

Finally, Obama gave us a new narrative, and Congressman Joe Two Diseases reinforced it. Now it’s up to We, the People, to decide which one we endorse.

Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Bout Time

Obama’s principal task tonight before Congress was to recast the way we discuss changing our health care system. He did that.

Three quarters through the speech, it looked like a rehash of policy arcana that even a fairly knowledgeable policy wonk such as myself could barely follow. Had he continued in that vein, he might have rallied the troops for another round but probably not reversed the momentum.

But then Obama did the thing that made him president. He marshaled his rhetorical resources, played shamelessly on Teddy Kennedy’s death, picked out Kennedy’s long-time Republican working buddies one by one with reminders of how they had worked together for the common good—and then kicked their party’s ass across the chamber.

I suspect this speech will be an object of study for a long time. Obama avoided harsh polemics (disappointing me and several others at the Harlem political club where I watched it). Instead, he steadily built himself up into the reasonable, caring adult in stark contrast to the tinfoil-hat brigade and those engaged in ‘partisan bickering’. He appealed to traditional, small-town, Republican values like a healthy wariness of government and a willingness to extend helping hands to a troubled neighbor while also recalling the need for reasoned, democratic debate on concrete issues.

At long last, Obama shamed the Republican reactionaries for their selfish complicity in turning the last three months from a debate on issues into a vulgar shouting match and empowering the craziest and most dangerous wackos. In the final ten minutes of his address, as the emotional content built, the room was hushed. The grumpy white males bizarrely waving their little copies of a bill were reduced to grim silence as he accused them of placing their desire to kill his initiative over the well-being of the people—an accusation that has to resonate with anyone who has been paying attention.

Hard to say where the speech will take us next, but I sense the possibility of a shift in tone and a renewed esprit de caucus among the erstwhile buckling Democrats.

There were things in the speech that I didn’t like: turning the exclusion of abortion from federal funding into an applause line, ditto for refusing health services to the ‘illegal immigrant’ whipping boy. Tortured syntax and far too much policy wonkery. Placing himself in the oh-so-reasonable middle opposed by ‘the right’ and ‘the left’, the latter being people who support his original proposals and poured into the streets to get him elected. Referring the public plan as something we can rather than will do.

But I’ll reserve my annoyance and wait for the results. Meanwhile, it may be a whole new ball game.

Monday, 7 September 2009

Mortgage Pool

The Cockburns’ American Casino is a flimsy documentary about the real estate collapse telling us a lot of things we already knew, but it has a couple of redeeming moments, including the stories and faces of those affected, a bracing reminder that we’re not just talking about trillions of dollars but also lives. But a segment on mosquitoes in pools is new stuff.

The camera pans along a streetful of McMansions in Stockton, California, where most everyone is getting thrown out after being bamboozled into believing that they could somehow pay 800K for these monstrosities. The houses now list for less than half that, which presumes that the entire neighborhood still has a reason to exist. (I wouldn’t live there unless wearing an ankle bracelet.) Behind the still-intact façades are abandoned swimming pools festering with rodents and roughly a million mosquito larvae each.

It’s a chilling view and provides an insight into why the American public has gone along with the systematic destruction of its way of life for three decades, starting, as many Labor Day commentators have noted, when Reagan breached the social contract by firing striking air traffic controllers.

Reagan signaled to employers that they needn’t worry about the federal government when disciplining the workforce and also convinced the workers themselves that they didn’t need to seek workplace protection in each other. Suddenly, no one was really a ‘worker’ any more at all—we were all ‘middle class’ lords.

The ambitious purchasers of these faux Stockton estates were encouraged to think that they could strive and triumph strictly on their own merits and devil take the hindmost.

We’ve had a steady drumbeat of ideological reinforcement to this worldview for three decades, and it partly explains the tolerance, including by many liberals, of the Republican-Clintonian dismantling of our manufacturing base and its high-wage jobs through ‘free’ trade. Respect for ‘Labor’ was replaced by worship of wealth. Individual effort over collective bargaining. Reaching ‘the top’ versus shared solvency.

Meanwhile, actual remuneration for labor was so cheapened that the will-‘o-the-wisp of middle-class largesse could only be pursued through a massive expansion of credit, leading us into the current cul-de-sac. The Stockton purchasers were part of that phony bubble.

Reagan discredited the idea of shared social goals and the creation of collective goods through public initiative as exemplified by his famous phrase, ‘Government is not the solution to the problem; government is the problem’. No longer were we to feel solidarity with our fellows (qua workers) or count on the state to protect us from the corporate bosses, which lay at the heart of unionism. Instead, we had the church social, cowboy capitalism, iconization of the fetus and charity.

The Stockton bankrupts who once nestled into their four-bedroom split-levels and cheered California’s low property taxes must be wondering what happened as they watch both their dreams and their state slide into the Trough of Despond. If Obama were to generate a convincing new narrative to explain to them what has happened and how to get out of it, he might find an audience willing to listen. The wackosphere certainly has one all ready.

Sunday, 6 September 2009

al-Kidd and We, the People

How would it feel to be snatched from an airport check-in desk and imprisoned without charges? It happened to Abdullah al-Kidd, and there’s absolutely nothing stopping the U.S. government of Geroge W. Bush and Barack Obama from doing it to you.

Nor do you need a hyphenated, Arab-sounding name. Al-Kidd is a U.S. citizen who used to play football for the University of Kansas. When arrested, he was on his way to Saudi Arabia, but then again so were hundreds of Exxon and Chevron employees.

Al-Kidd’s case against former Attorney General John Ashcroft advanced this week, another chink removed from the wall of denial and obfuscation about the prompt and insouciant abandonment of our civil protections on September 12, 2001. The court ruling, written by two conservative judges appointed by Republican presidents, is an amazing document.

As is extremely common in such cases, the ‘facts’ that generated al-Kidd’s arrest turned out to be inaccurate. The judges’ review of the facts shows shoddy police work and gee-whiz conclusions pulled from half truths. In essence, they had nothing on the guy as anyone who has had a look at his own FBI file will understand. Police agents, like newspaper reporters, often get things wrong.

Al-Kidd spent two weeks in a ‘Guantámano-lite’-type dungeon, was harassed by the feds for a year afterward, lost his job, was divorced by his wife and undoubtedly is looked upon suspiciously by whatever neighbors he still might have—in Idaho, no less. He has never been charged with an illegal act.

Obama continues to defend these actions, which can only mean he wants to retain the power to repeat them. When will the inhabitants of the furious, post 9/11 wackosphere start to realize that while they jump up and down about protecting little Nancy from terrorists, the suspension of habeas corpus rights means little Nancy’s daddy can land in the soup, too?

I spent several years in a country where people could be picked up and tortured at will and often were, and there’s something depressingly predictable about how bipeds will react to that. A substantial minority applaud because they think the bad guys are getting in the neck.

But most unconsciously say to themselves, If I keep my nose clean, nothing will happen to ME. Homo sapiens, not a particularly noble race, is a particularly undistinguished species when danger lurks.

But reading the chilling account of the persecution of an innocent African-American Muslim—aside from the hints of legal lynching throughout—suggests another dynamic at work: revenge.

It is hard to escape the conclusion that the inhabitants of our police apparatus set out to find someone—anyone—to blame for the carnage of September 11th and were getting their rocks off on punishing him, whether or not he was guilty.

This mindset was actively encouraged by the torrent of hysteria drummed up for weeks afterward in which it seemed that we could neither think nor feel anything about what had happened in lower Manhattan without authorization from the news anchors, who generated hurricane-force winds of facile sentiment and bathos.

I suspect that this phenomenon underpins some of the apparent public indifference to the steady drip of revelations about the 9/11 crimes—as revenge was in many hearts, carelessness about protecting the innocent morphed quickly into a collective sin.

Saturday, 5 September 2009


The papers are full of the steady collapse of the U.S. strategy in the Afghan war lately, and those of us who placed our faith in Barack Obama sooner or later are going to have to come to terms with his utter lack of originality in pursuing it largely on George Bush’s terms, even adding a Bushite troop ‘surge’. It is particularly ironic that today’s news is of a massive air strike that probably resulted in the slaughter of dozens of civilians, exactly the thing Obama-the-candidate criticized (and was hounded for doing so by the jingoist red-staters). So Obama has now fully adopted the McCain/Palin approach in that arena.

I wonder how long Obama can keep up this losing battle before taking a political hit like Gordon Brown just did. Brown is the skipper of the rapidly sinking British Labor Party ship and now needs his Conservative adversaries to defend the British war role. His party will very likely suffer a historic wipe-out next year.

Here at home, only the even worse debacle in Iraq obscures the complete failure of the attempt to pacify Afghanistan and the rapid popular disenchantment for the endeavor. Even the keenest patriots have a hard time seeing why the government of that country should be our concern and with good reason.

Despite the lingering emotions associated with 9/11, its impact on policy is just not the same as it was eight years ago. It never made much sense to turn the pursuit of the bin Laden gang into the conquest and occupation of Afghanistan even though the Twin Towers attack made it politically necessary. Now we are stuck pretending that control of a remote mountain range on the other side of the globe matters.

Kennedy and Johnson got led down the slippery slope into Vietnam in similar ways, and one would think a little historical perspective might have filtered into the White House these days even if the guys who run it are too young to have lived through that chapter. Johnson kept insisting that the U.S. just had to control and dominate Vietnamese rice paddies or else terrible things would happen.

Of course there’s no draft to stir up domestic outrage, but Brown and Obama still talk about ‘winning’ the Afghan war just like LBJ did 40 years ago on similarly thin evidence.

The hilarious ‘election’ that President Karzai just juggled and rigged to guarantee himself another term was more farcical than Ahmadinejad’s in Iran, and Obama now finds himself denouncing the latter while sending more troops to back the former. Thinking that this war has a happy ending if we just stick with current strategy a while longer is truly the ‘audacity of hope’.

Tuesday, 1 September 2009

Morgenthau goes at last [Corrected]

We’re already getting the remains of the Brazilian rainforest in our mailboxes touting the marvels of Mike Bloomberg as yet-again mayor, this months in advance of the actual voting. I suppose when your personal fortune approaches infinity, you have to do something to slow down its further accumulation and avoid world exchange-rate distortion.

But more interesting is the electoral slugfest erupting for the job of District Attorney of Manhattan now that Robert Morgenthau is retiring after 100 years on the job. Morgenthau is a city blueblood who has sat at that desk for so long his body is rumored to now swivel at the waist.

The job doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it’s high profile and rather glitzy. Assistant D.A.s under Morgenthau have included Sonia Sotomayor, Andrew Cuomo, Eliot Spitzer and John F. Kennedy, Jr. He has a thinly-disguised counterpart on ‘Law & Order’. So the knives are out.

Leslie Crocker Snyder dared to run against Morgenthau four years ago, which was taken as an act of lèse majesté. She’s probably all right but has an annoying tough-girl stance and is too conservative for this city.

Morgenthau had a long-serving deputy who was considered his heir, but like ruling elites everywhere, he knows loyalty only to families like his own and instead anointed Cyrus Vance, Jr., dumping the loyal drone who had served him for three decades like an aged servant on ‘Upstairs/Downstairs’.

For that reason alone, I’m voting for the third candidate, Richard Aborn, whose father was not famous. I’d already settled on him when I got a lovely piece of campaign literature in the mail lauding him for ‘taking guns out of the hands of criminals’. The picture shows Dick Cheney wielding a rifle.

[Correction: The original version of this post erroneously stated that the mayoral elections are in 2010. They take place in November 2009.]