Friday, 31 December 2010

Top 10 of 2010—New York City (and State)

What’s New Year’s without a Top Ten list? Everyone else is creating one, so here’s my Top Ten New York Developments of 2010.

#10. Meltdown of the Accidental Governor. David Paterson is a poor boob and grew up in an over-privileged, Democratic machine household in Harlem, leading to major cluelessness. Like when he used his office to run interference for a thug bodyguard facing a battering charge. For that alone Paterson deserves the ignominy of forced retirement. Then when the state’s budget was melting down, he spent hours memorizing his state-of-the-state speech to impress us with how clever blind people are instead of figuring out how to keep the damn place afloat. What used to be called ‘handicaps’ can be inspiring in public figures, but unfortunately you have to overcome them, not be seen to flop as a result of them.

That said, Paterson almost redeemed himself in the waning days of his happenstance regime by doing a few right things, like his pardons of long-term but undocumented New York residents facing deportation for the equivalent of a pot bust. He also signed into law other good measures like the dismantling of the horrible Rockefeller drug laws and occasionally reminded us how nice it is not to be ruled by Republicans. We’re glad to be rid of him, but in retrospect the guy didn’t deserve to be elevated to his Peter Principle level of incompetence.

Parallel to that major disappointment was. . .

#9. Resuscitation of Eliot Spitzer as cable TV attack dog. Despite the ostensible air of chastened wise man and his vaguely hangdog posture, Spitzer on cable is just mean old Eliot back in true form. Seeing him lambaste easy targets like Muslims who don’t toe the Zionist line is a reminder that the guy isn’t much of a human being and was only useful when he sharpened his knives for the Wall Street gang, the same one that probably engineered his precipitous tumble. Too bad state attorney general is not a lifetime appointment—what fun we’d have had if Spitzer were still in that job when AIG and Goldman were looting the federal treasury. Who knows, Obama might not have been able to shovel trillions into his banker friends’ pockets with Eliot around. Instead, he’s another broadcast bobble-head screaming at us 24/7. Ho hum.

But that was nothing compared to . . .

#8. Intentionally Provoked Mass Dementia over the lower Manhattan mosque. This total non-story (notice its complete disappearance once the election was over) was and is a disgrace that will live through the ages. It also may augur very ugly events as yet to be lived through—let us not pray but rather act so that we don’t witness some sort of Kristallnacht down the line. But the spirit behind this racist campaign is precisely that which poisoned Europe 80 years ago, yet another reminder that bipeds are the same the world over and given a quarter of a chance will succumb to viciousness and racism without blinking. Society, decent society anyway, exists to restrain these evil impulses, Thatcherite mantras notwithstanding.

Related to which are. . .

#7. Implosion and final, crushing, humiliating defeat for Rick Lazio who thought he would run for governor against Andrew Cuomo. Lazio tried to turn himself into the state’s First Racist by running TV ads to denounce the skeery downtown mosque. Inexplicably, this was considered far too tame for the Republican primary voters who promptly brought us. . .

#6. A Complete, Spittle-flecked Lunatic as candidate for governor. Carl Palladino joined the throng of Tea Party wackos like Angle in Nevada and O’Donnell in Delaware who saved the Democrats’ undeserving asses in November by being so out to lunch that even fat white people in SUVs couldn’t stand them. Palladino got bad press by trying to punch out a tabloid reporter and gay-bashing in front of a gaggle of honking rabbis. But when he tried to get serious, he looked even worse, thus illustrating how much the Teabagger scene is comprised of incoherent babbling that belongs in bars with sawdust on the floors. Luckily, New York voters have not completely lost their minds just yet and on election day handed the tough guy his ass in a pair of lace panties.

Meanwhile, life goes on, and the subway fare goes up due to . . .

#5. Continued Beggaring of the MTA. The New York public transit system, where one third of all public transport rides in the entire country are taken, is the beating heart of the city. Without it, the famed metropolis would be a shaggy dump like Phoenix or a bleak wilderness choked by vast, metallic suburbs. Despite its key role in our well-being and in sustaining the city’s unique cultural and commercial life, the transit system continues to be deprived of oxygen—that is, cash—by the state and the feds, and fares went up yet again just yesterday for the upteenth time. Inflation in subway tickets has now reached 100% just in the six years I have been in New York. When the transit workers went on strike in 2005, you never heard the end of how awful they were to disrupt our lives. But the ongoing hacking away at the city’s infrastructure by our ruling elite gets barely a notice.

Speaking of our ruling elite. . .

#4. Recession Slams City. . . unequally. Boarded up storefronts were a rarity when I first moved here—now they’re everywhere. The unemployment rates unsurprisingly vary widely from uptown to downtown, and the usual victims are taking it on the chin again. For a while, it was amusing to see the real estate offices disappear overnight and the gouging commercial landlords suddenly find themselves with empty spaces after thinking the party would go on forever. But the city also runs on finance, and since the banks are back, spending on consumer luxuries is brisk. It’s possible to miss the extent of human suffering caused by the plutocrats as the employed continue to hobble down the streets of Soho fully burdened by their freshly creased shopping bags.
But nonetheless, it’s rough at the top. . .

#3. Rust Pokes through Bloomberg Sheen. Ever since his fist-in-rectal-compartment re-election squeaker in 2009 despite the $100 million he dropped to rub his wonderfulness in our faces, our snarky mayor has struggled against the gradual appearance of his clay feet. His phony apolitical/master technocrat stance is looking increasingly unpersuasive after news of a mega-normous payroll scandal, and Bloomie now has to defend his new bimbo educational commissioner just as people slowly awaken to the charter/ privatization scam Bloomberg and the Obama team are running on us, to the cheers of the Wall Street Journal.

And on an even brighter side. . .

#2. Horrible Pedro Espada Leaves State Senate, Heads to Sing Sing. A perfect creep meeting his just demise is joy to behold. There’s no guarantee that this heart-warming tale will conclude with anything close to the public drawing and quartering merited, but the case brought by Cuomo as A-G has a good chance of sticking against this personification of Albany corruption. Even before the indictments came down, Espada was crushed in his re-election campaign despite all the usual dirty tricks. Hail, bipeds of the Bronx! You saw through the smoke, refused the bribes and bounced this sucker out of your difficult lives.

And finally. . .

#1. New York City, still a goddam marvel, just is. Every cliché about the place is true, including the tiresome narcissism of its residents who, like me, never tire of expressing their good fortune to live in it.

Monday, 27 December 2010

“A Black Christmas after all”

That’s what a guy said to me as we were fighting our way through the horizontal snows yesterday in downtown Manhattan. It’s been a while since I’ve heard anyone play on those standard clichés, and that wish for a snowy Yule is certainly one that could be defended on objective grounds, unlike ‘black humor’ or ‘a dark mood’.

The double standard, however, remains intact in the sphere of criminal injustice and prisons, which is certainly a gloomy environment as well as an overwhelming black one. Our bumbling governor did the right thing and commuted the sentence of a guy who should never have ended up in jail, charged with occupying suburbia while black. John White (yes, yes) blasted a teenager off his property a while back and killed him, and although gunplay is not my reaction of choice to rowdy kids, let us do a thought experiment: if a gang of black teens were chasing a white kid up to his doorstep with threats of violence, would a white homeowner be facing charges to have shooed them off with a shotgun?

Paterson is soon to be our ex-governor, for which thanks may be offered to Lord Jesus or whomever. He characteristically handled the incident badly and then apologized, leaving everyone pissed off. But Paterson is so irrelevant it didn’t even generate a decent scandal, and the tabloids hardly noticed.

However, the White case does recall the Christmas, 1984 Bernard Goetz subway shooting, in which Goetz fired away at a group of black kids and immediately became a city-wide hero, at least to some. He got off with a weapons charge, and as can be seen in this Time magazine cover on him, generating ample discussion of ‘violent crime’ (which Goetz probably feared) and attacks on the courts for even charging him. Check out this account of him at www.heroism.com if you have any doubts.

The defenders of the slain white teenager in the black White case made a lot of noise about how he wasn’t a racist and that therefore, White should be punished for shooting him. So running after a lone black kid in a gang right up to his doorstep and shouting ‘nigger’ at him is not racist. Go figure. Even today, the Long Island newspaper recalling the case shows that 57% of its readers think Paterson was wrong to let White out.

I guess it’s relevant to recall this double standard now that Bradley Manning is being psychologically tortured for spilling government secrets while Dick Cheney and Lewis Libby, who arguably did far worse, are enjoying a bountiful holiday season. Cheney and Libby maliciously exposed an active CIA agent trying to spy on nuclear weapons proliferation, and Libby—who was caught—was pardoned by George Bush for doing so. Obama then pardoned all the Bush-era torturers without even investigating their crimes, but he doesn’t seem too upset about the continuation of torture in different U.S. venues and with other excuses.

We’re a long way from a true Black Christmas, but who knows, we may get there yet.

Thursday, 23 December 2010

Further thoughts on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell

My work involves listening to people put their intimate behavior, including sex, into words, which is not as easy as it sounds. Once you get beyond the five Ws of Who, What, When etc., questions along the lines of, So what, Why and Would you do it again? are not so easy either to formulate or to answer coherently.

In reviewing hundreds of pages of transcripts of interviews done in the mid-2000s during the heyday of this peculiar policy—which would never have worked during the debate over desegregation of the armed forces since being black isn’t so easy to dissemble—I am struck by how often the metaphor of Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell was used by our subjects, mostly gay-identified men, to describe a curious silence about HIV status that many said had become routine.

A lot of these guys’ disease avoidance strategies included a variety of techniques to determine whether a prospective partner was HIV-positive or not. These approaches did not always, and in fact frequently did NOT, include asking. There was something disagreeable and mood-slaughtering about bringing up the topic of what to do about disease.

A lot of people find it hard to believe that a guy wouldn’t ask his partner about HIV, to which I always inquire, Did you? The last time you had sex, did you spruce up your seduction routine by saying, Oh and by the way, Do you have a deadly disease that you might give me later if I’m not careful? It’s easier to tell other people what they should be doing than to follow one’s own sensible instructions especially when out Looking for Love, however we define that.

My impression is that the introduction by Clinton of hiding and avoiding as official policy had a spillover effect in the realm of intimate behavior. The military did not invent the closet, but the policy’s shorthand phrase reaffirmed that pretending and avoiding was proper and reasonable, that it was respectful to cover up and dangerous to tell the truth.

It can hardly surprise us that these habits should not be confined to the barracks.

Tuesday, 21 December 2010

Pretend and protect

Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell is finally dead, 20 years after Bill Clinton permitted the religious right to turn its vindictive gaze on gay and lesbian soldiers. The policy was always a shambles and a fraud. It achieved the precise opposite of its promise: that prudent silence would be respected and that no one who kept his sexual orientation to him or herself would be bothered.

Almost immediately after enactment, gay advocates reported that the military services were engaged in a frantic witch hunt to root out suspected homos; thousands of lives were wrecked. Even when the country desperately needed language and other specialists after 9/11, the vigilantes continued to probe the private lives of the troops, looking for signs of forbidden, same-sex amours.

It was guaranteed that plenty would be found given the enormous appeal of the same-sex lifestyle typical of military service. All the intrusive campaigns to pretend that there were no fags and dykes in uniform were pointless and doomed to fail, but the pretense was important to preserve the military mystique and provide plenty of red meat to Christian fanatics in military careers.

‘There are no homosexuals in the Navy’, said a gay acquaintance of mine in the 1970s after serving two years himself and, by his own description, ‘fucking everything that moved’ during his posting to the Philippines. DA/DT didn’t change that, but it did energize the commissars eager to harass those whom they suspected. Like all thought control systems, it could not wipe out homosexuality or dissident impulses, but it could suppress and pervert them and terrorize people into neurotic doublethink.

Obama will get some credit for the abolition of DA/DT, which he does not deserve. The true heroes of the repeal are its victims and the many advocates, from the late Leonard Matlovich to Dan Choi, who refused to be silenced and refused to give up during decades of abuse from the reactionaries and weaseling non-support from their supposed Democratic allies.

In typical fashion Obama stood aside while the social forces favoring repeal gathered force and overcame their adversaries. Things were ‘trending in the direction’ of repeal, Obama notoriously commented when asked why there had been no movement on the issue for the first two years of his presidency. As Maureen Dowd commented: Really inspiring, dude.

Unlike Ronald Reagan, one of Obama’s admired predecessors, who used his first days in office to fire union members with a stroke of the pen, Obama was unwilling to take unilateral action. Instead, he waited until the uniformed services themselves had grown tired of the failed policy and allowed it to collapse.

There is nothing admirable about the way the country has shucked off this disaster; all the political leadership has played an appalling role, from smiling Bill Clinton who creating it when he signed off on official discrimination in 1993 to demented John McCain and his strutting colleagues now eager to collect their revenge.

The men and women who demanded their dignity and rights and battled them all into submission should not share the achievement with anybody.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

Wheeler-dealers of fortune

The completely loathesome Pedro Espada, Jr., the outgoing Democratic Party leader of the New York state senate (yes, really) bit the pavement today in a richly deserved appearance at federal court. Espada [below right] & son are charged with embezzling scandalous sums from a Bronx health center dad helped found and then proceeded to loot for a decade. It’s too bad prosecutors took so many years to put an end to this clown’s shameless career, but at least they got around to it eventually.

Seeing the corrupt crash and burn is essential to the workings of democracy and, may I add, to capitalism, a detail largely forgotten by political ‘leaders’ of both parties these days as they maneuver to carry hod for the banker oligopoly. In the economics pages and blogs, which I read with great interest, there are more and more pleadings for someone, somewhere, to start slapping some subpoenas on the megacrooks who drove the economy into the ground and brought great suffering to millions.

Instead, the only criminal sent up the river from Wall Street is Bernie Madoff, who committed the highly punishable crime of stealing from the rich. But when Wall Street types themselves and a goodly portion of the economics profession are raising alarms about the future, it suggests something is deeply amiss.

Turning the capital markets into casinos has been great fun for the new ruling elite who now dominate our lives. The hurricane of financial manipulation will continue unchecked until the next meltdown, and the powerful will enjoy themselves immensely, thanks to the Republican mafia and its principal enabler, Barack O.

Now we have the hilarious spectacle of the Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission, another silly exercise in ‘bipartisanship’, now turning into a cat-foodfight along partisan lines. One cannot be amazed at anything these days, but the Republican idea of excising words like ‘Wall Street’ and ‘shadow banking’ from the consensus document is setting a new record for insanity, only surpassed by Obama’s latest Alzheimer moment in creating the damn bipartisan commission in the first place.

The estimable Yves Smith waxed particularly eloquent on the subject this morning:

Lordie, the Big Lie is with us in force.

The intent [of the Repub rewrite] is pretty transparent: to discredit an effort at fact-finding into the roots of the crisis by making it appear partisan and launching an alternative narrative to muddy the waters. And the reason is clear: . . . it appears that even lesser forms of criticism of the banksters must be sandbagged. . . .

This pathetic development shows how deeply this country is in thrall to lobbyists. But these so-called commissioners, who are really no more than financial services minions out to misbrand themselves as independent, look to have overplayed thier hand. This stunt shows more than a tad of desperation on the part of banks and their operatives in their excessive efforts block any remotely accurate, and therefore critical, report on the industry.

Perversely, this development may be a positive indicator on several fronts. . . . It may suggest that the banking industry is feeling more cornered than its continued high-handed posture might suggest. I continue to receive reports from industry insiders confirming that the biggest banks in the US are insolvent. The only sensible resolution of the mortgage mess involves deep principal mods, which will force the top four banks to write down their second mortgage books, blowing big holes in their balance sheets, and raising numerous, embarrassing questions (how could they and the Treasury defend paying back the TARP, much the less the level of 2009 and 2010 bonuses?)

In other words, the banks may be worried about the possibility of a backlash that might actually be effective. But they are already too late to stop the inevitable. They refuse to halt the juggernaut, a doomsday machine that continues to grind up families and communities and saddle innocent bystanders with the costs of higher taxes, unemployment, sagging infrastructure, and poor prospects for their children. This next two years may be the last window to leash and collar a parasitic financial services industry. If the authorities fail yet again, the cost will be both the rule of law and our unwritten social compact. If you tear asunder structures that fundamental, expect to reap a whirlwind.


I perversely hope Congress succeeds and undermines all restrictions on the bankers so that the next debacle occurs sooner rather than later. It will be great fun to watch the free marketeers destroy the goose that laid the golden egg as corruption, hustling and double-dealing spread far and wide and poison business transactions, legal contracts and even property titles a la Foreclosure-gate. Eventually, no one will be able to get anything done without the kinds of wholesale bribery, kickbacks and payoffs to the mighty that make China, Nigeria and Azerbaijan such great places to live. When it’s too late, these same jokers will weep copious tears for the capitalist marketplace they were unwilling to preserve and protect.

Tuesday, 14 December 2010

DoH sucks

The usual excuses are pouring forth from our city health department about why they chose to revert to an early ‘80s-style HIV scare campaign to reawaken concern about getting infected. ‘I am completely comfortable with what we put out here’, intoned one Monica Sweeney of the HIV prevention unit in response to the chorus of indignation from community agencies and many HIV-positive individuals. Well, as long as you’re comfortable, Monica, that’s what’s important.

This is reality, she also reminded us, referring to the images of young guys suffering bone degeneration, getting soft in the head from dementia and a full litany of AIDS horrors. So since it’s ‘true’, we can’t criticize the communicational aspects. It’s as if the department pines for the old days when guys got really sick—that sure got everyone’s attention!

I sympathize with the health bureaucrats who have to deal with the steadily growing cost of treating tens of thousands of New Yorkers with expensive medications while the roster of the newly infected continues to grow. Precautions in the sexual arena haven’t gone out the window, but I can attest to the existence of a large hope-for-the-best gay subculture where caution is no longer the default position. I applaud the concern and the interest in understanding how this shift came about.

But it’s another sign of our creepily reactionary times that the department is taking this step backward without even consulting its supposed community ‘partners’. Sure, they held focus groups where, predictably, participants will react to sensational images that ‘they’—meaning those other guys who run risks—should be forced to see.

But the campaign will backfire in one important way: it will reinforce the current sexual apartheid that exists in gay circles here wherein guys no longer adopt universal precautions to avoid HIV infection but simply avoid anyone suspected to be HIV-positive. The hook-up ads are full of demands for ‘ddf’, meaning ‘drug and disease free’ for prospective partners—that means, don’t have HIV if you want to get laid.

The obvious implication is that once you assure me that you don’t have the virus, we can then screw merrily without tiresome old condoms. But this, in a city where one in five gay men is already HIV-infected, is not exactly a winning strategy. The health department’s ads will reinforce this dangerous trend by deepening the fear of the disease without illuminating the gratifying psychological tricks guys play on themselves in pursuit of intimacy and sexual satisfaction.

And the HIV-positive return to their old pariah status—stay away, you can’t be loved. That will certainly encourage responsible behavior.

One can’t be too surprised by this strange relapse from a city bureaucracy run by the monarchy of money. Bloomberg’s team may be encouraged to think it can and should apply the same techniques to HIV that were used in the city’s anti-smoking campaign: graphic imagery and heavy restrictions on behavior like smoke-free bars.

But sex ain’t in the same ballpark, and one doesn’t say goodbye to HIV like an ex-smoker putting down the cigarette pack. Would the city try to combat obesity by putting pictures of fat people on TV and showing how gross their lives are?

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

Apartheid wall grows higher

Obama is not just giving away the store to the Republicans here at home; he’s also busy making sure the Israelis don’t take him seriously either.

His Mr Reasonable stance is having a bracingly civilized effect on that outpost of modern bipedism in the Levant, as outlined in yesterday’s Haaretz, an Israeli newspaper:

Top rabbis move to forbid renting homes to Arabs, say ‘Racism originated in the Torah’

A number of leading rabbis who signed on to a religious ruling to forbid renting homes to gentiles—a move particularly aimed against Arabs—defended their decision on Tuesday with the declaration that the land of Israel belongs to the Jews.

Dozens of Israel’s municipal chief rabbis signed on to the ruling, which comes just months after the chief rabbi of Safed initiated a call urging Jews to refrain from renting or selling apartments to non-Jews.

Signatories include the chief rabbis of Ramat Hasharon, Ashdod, Kiryat Gat, Rishon Letzion, Carmiel, Gadera, Afula, Nahariya, Herzliya, Nahariya and Pardes Hannah, among a number of other cities.

‘We don’t need to help Arabs set down roots in Israel’, Rabbi Shlomo Aviner of the Beit El settlement, said on Tuesday. Aviner explained that he supported the move for two reasons: one, a Jew looking for an apartment should get preference over a gentile; and two, to keep the growing Arab population from settling too deeply.

‘Racism originated in the Torah’, said Rabbi Yosef Scheinen, who heads the Ashdod Yeshiva. ‘The land of Israel is designated for the people of Israel. This is what the Holy One, Blessed Be He, intended and that is what the [sage] Rashi interpreted’.

He added that he did not see the move as racist so much as segregationist. ‘The world is so big, and the State of Israel is small that God intended it for the people of Israel and the whole world covets it. That is the injustice’.

The original ruling by one rabbi, which sparked the racial solidarity campaign, called on good Jews to refuse to rent to an Arab and for the entire community to shun anyone who dares to do so, including ‘denying him the right to read from the Torah until he goes back on this harmful deed’.

At least in Israel such a blatant manifestation of racism—called by that name even by its perpetrators—merits criticism and denunciation. But can anyone imagine the Congressional Black Caucus, so righteous and militant when it came to South African apartheid, daring to issue a squeak over this one?

An Israeli parliamentarian, Ilan Ghilon, immediately called for the rabbis (who are salaried, state employees) to be canned, saying ‘We are witnessing an epidemic of racism and xenophobia, and we must act firmly’. Another, Ahmed Tibi, called the letter ‘a mass crime by a group of racist rabbis who should be given an intensive course in Jewish history’. The Israeli mayor of Haifa said it was a ‘desecration’.

But don’t hold your breath waiting for similar words from a U.S. senator, especially including the ‘liberals’ from New York State.

We can also imagine how U.S. commentators would react if Iran’s mullahs were to issue similar guidance calling on Muslims to discriminate against non-believers.

However, despite the far more vigorous debate in Israel itself over its steady descent into overt apartheid, I see no reason to think that the tendencies will be reversed given the carte blanche offered to Israel by our first black president. Empowering and enabling racism—despite pious bleatings about the ‘peace process’—guarantees that further racist acts will follow.

Obama is expert at dressing up his total caving to the most reactionary elements as part of a clever, long-range plan to reverse the tendencies some years down the road. As in his bizarre collapse in the face of Republican obstinacy and obstructionism on tax cuts for the rich, Obama operates as if he were a monarch with a 20-year reign ahead of him.

But his insufferable appeals to the ‘long view’ and the need for patience to bring about ‘change’ reflect a psyche going off the rails in the time-honored fashion of politicians intoxicated with a sense of their own exceptionalism.

Meanwhile, not everyone is sitting around waiting for Obama to make water out of wine. Three more countries, this time in Latin America, announced they were recognizing a Palestinian state, thereby poking another tiny hole in Israel’s long-term legitimacy.

The gesture is not tremendously significant, and it isn’t the first time that minor states have annoyed Israel in this fashion. But Brazil is one of the three (along with Argentina and Uruguay), a country determined to play a larger role outside its immediate sphere of influence.

It was Brazil, along with Turkey, that arranged a possible compromise deal with Iran over the latter’s nuclear industry, an initiative promptly shot down by the U.S. without further ado as Obama & Co. much prefer to continue rattling the sabers without interference. But the Turkish aid flotilla followed soon thereafter with violent consequences and the demise of one of Israel’s key strategic alliances.

Our founding fathers thought they could kick the can of slavery down the road and did so. But the country did not escape its original sin, and neither will Israel. The bunker mentality now reigning there will not protect its inhabitants in the long run, and much human suffering will ensue before the situation inevitably blows up.

Monday, 6 December 2010

Revenge of Santa Claus

It’s finally turned wintry here after a long, leisurely and very pleasant autumn, and those Christmas decorations no longer look peculiar. My thoughts turn to those many Christian celebrations in Latin America designed to imitate northern Europe’s festivals of light despite the little detail that December hosts the longest, most sun-filled days of the year in the southern hemisphere.

During the bleak Pinochet years in Chile, we would often repair downtown to watch the very regular dust-ups between citizens yearning for democracy and the agents of the military state. In late springtime, i.e. early December, the plazas would fill up with small groups who might risk singing the national anthem in public, which would merit a police baton or worse while the evangelical preachers harangued passers-by (those heroic defenders of God’s will were never molested by the professional assassins).

Soon the tear gas would begin to fly, and the freelance Santa Clauses, who had set up in the main squares dressed for a Dutch winter to bounce toddlers on their laps for tips, would be dashing not through the snow nor in a one-horse open sleigh but on foot into a chaotic downtown mall in 90-degree heat, tears running down their false white whiskers.

Once the festivities were underway, and the riot police and their plainsclothes goons were fully activated, the water cannons racing up and down the thoroughfares and the whole downtown section obscured by a haze of tear gas, lemon venders would promptly appear shouting their odd wares. Because a taste of citric acid neutralizes the effects of tear gas on the mucous membranes, a slice of lemon suddenly commanded a quarter each, and no commercial opportunity would be missed by the hawkers as they put Milton Friedman’s philosophy to work in their modest way while Pinochet’s economists applied it in theirs.

But although Chile and all of Latin America have looked to Europe and gobbled up American-style mass culture for decades, there also has been movement in the other direction. In fact, we remain saddled by the social experiment we imported from the South after it had been tested out under optimum conditions—of dictatorship.

Chile has long been a social laboratory, and the worship of free markets got a head start there in the mid-1970s with Pinochet’s gorilla state so beloved of Nixon, Kissinger and their CIA pals. While we were still enjoying the waning days of New Deal/Great Society liberalism, the Chileans were showing the world how to crush labor unions, privatize public services and ram a monetarist paradise down the helpless throats of the destitute. Britain’s Thatcher and our own two-party duopoly were quick studies.

And so authoritarian cowboy capitalism became a non-traditional export along with copper, grapes and the final remnant stocks of Chilean sea bass. With Reagan’s smiling salesmanship the white working class bought into the new Ayn Randian vision; government became the whipping boy, and cash the king. We live with that legacy today, so while it is fun to laugh at the slavish consumption of American mass culture by Third World wannabees, the last laugh is really on us.

Thanks to the Reaganite legacy, we no longer believe that the role of the state is to succor the weak and vulnerable and limit the greed of the rich and rapacious. Instead, we glorify individuality in its multitudinous manifestations from Kim Kardashian to Donald Trump, gaze awestruck at obscene wealth, sneer at the vulnerable and take pleasure in seeing ‘losers’ trampled underfoot.

The latest example of the triumph of elitist contempt for anyone not in the club is Mayor Bloomberg’s appointment of a silly magazine bimbo as Commissioner of Education.

In a sane world the appointment of Cathleen Black, a Hearst Corporation executive in charge of overseeing Seventeen magazine and Good Housekeeping, as educational anything would be a bad joke. At best Black would be permitted a gig as a flashy, superficial media advisor, in charge of handing out invitations for reporters to clamber onto Bloomberg’s private jet and rub elbows with his important guests. It’s an insult to the thousands of struggling kids and their parents that this glitzy suit is taking over the nation’s largest school system with absolutely no credentials other than wealth and connections.

Black has no educational background, doesn’t even hold the required master’s degree and required a waiver from the state to be permitted to assume the job. Bloomberg, in his typically high-handed fashion, pulled her out of a sack with no prior warning and, of course, no consultation with anybody.

The idea that a rich babe with her kids in private school, lucrative links to Coca-cola (in a city being crushed by the obesity/diabetes epidemic), and a net worth greater than the combined income of an entire city block should suddenly be in charge of the city’s creaking public school system during a huge crisis is a scandal.

But it’s all of a piece with the steady erosion of the idea that we should provide free, public education for all children in pursuit of the will-o’-the-wisp of a shared social experience for future citizens. Problems in education? Oh, that’s the fault of teachers and their nefarious unions, and the answer is to smash them and pump up the charter school movement, aided and abetted by propaganda like Waiting for Superman, Oprah’s new film toy, in which little kids compete for something they should have a right to receive automatically.

Diane Ravitch took down the contemporary unwisdom emerging from that film in the New York Review of Books, but she’s a voice in the wilderness while Obama’s neoliberal team faithfully carries out the right-wing education program—pretty much consistent with his role in our lives, i.e., to deepen and consolidate the Bush legacy.

And so the Chileans’ revenge is complete: they gave up their dream of a more just society 37 years ago and then again 17 years later after the ouster of Pinochet left the system intact. After decades of showing the world what they have to do, we get to have a taste of our own national medicine—perhaps it’s time to be fitted for a colorful poncho.

Monday, 29 November 2010

Open diplomacy

Juan Cole has the best line on the Wikileaks avalanche: Now that the government has decided all our e-mails and telephone calls are fair game, he says, it can hardly complain if we return the favor by reading theirs! HAHAHAHA.

That said, I think the leakers could have approached the revelations differently and set up a better line of defense from what we can anticipate will be a ferocious counter-assault. That would be to do the hard, slogging donkey-work of poring over the documents and writing up the significant findings themselves rather than just dumping the raw sewage onto the Internet. Of course, this is like asking my aunt to have a pair of cojones—Wikileaks is not a traditional journalistic enterprise, and they have chosen this course.

I fear, however, that the end result may be further attempts to chill the worthy cause of official de-pantsing and whistle-blowing, which the Obama Administration seems to hate worse than being de-friended by Mitch McConnell. How long will we have to wait for some sort of Draconian new federal law condemning Wikileaks-type behavior with public stoning?

Or worse. There have been no shortage of calls for Mr Assange to be handled extra-judicially, and no one can argue that the precedents are lacking.

Saturday, 27 November 2010

Citizens, arise

The euro is dead, but no European pol wants to trigger the unraveling by stating this uncomfortable truth. Therefore, European workers, students and pensioners will be saddled with endless austerity plans to enable the bosses to extend and pretend until eventually the entire Ponzi scheme of bailouts and faux accounting collapses, maybe three, maybe five years from now.

Unless. . . unless the people take matters into their own hands. Demonstrations so far have been rather pro forma, the sorts of rhetorical set pieces with placards that the French and Spanish unions are so good at. But there is a big demonstration coming up in Ireland, of all places, and there are signs it will not be business as usual.

In a by-election in the Republic Thursday, the ruling party was crushed in a race for a once-safe seat with a swing of 30 points.

By comparison, many U.S. states in this month’s Republican sweep saw a swing of less than 10. This suggests a political earthquake.

An uprising at a time of discredited leadership can rattle the ruling elites and unleash a chain reaction. How long will Europeans permit the banker class and its captured multi-state apparatus to impoverish them?

And smug observers from this side of the sea ought to wipe that smile off. Our banks are propped up on artificial life support to no lesser degree, and popular resentment equally seething.

Thursday, 25 November 2010

Is the euro toast?

One does not have to be particularly versed in economics to see signs of panic among the continent’s finance ministers and PMs, whose default position always, always, always is to insist, Things are fine!

Last night I caught the Irish bloke in charge of his country’s finances (who would want THAT job just now?) standing at a podium somewhere and running through a list of the great achievements of the Irish economy in recent days. What great material for a revived Monty Python Comedy Hour. You had to pinch yourself to recall that this is a country that has just handed over its fiscal and monetary sovereignty to a committee from Brussels. A country that has been forced by its bank sector folly to introduce a package of austerity measures that will wreck an entire generation’s futures, led by a governing party about to experience its worst drubbing in history.

‘Growth has been in positive territory over the last six months, outperforming our earlier expectations’, droned the minister, or something equally absurd and meaningless.

These creepy fellows whose lives revolve around power develop a brutish, hectoring tone that must be required for parliamentary debate or cable interviews where you can’t cede the tiniest point or dare to sound nuanced. But it doesn’t work well when the walls are collapsing behind you, sort of like ‘Comical Ali’, Saddam’s spokesman during the Baghdad war saying that the Iraqi forces were on the verge of a great triumph while the Americans could be seen driving up in tanks over his left shoulder.

The pattern is Europe this year has been deny, deny, deny (everything is fine, no bailouts are needed); switch briefly to a reality-based discourse while the bailouts are being cooked up; then deny, deny, deny once again. Bankers are like Vatican bureaucrats, it seems, the pope is never ill, only dead. Economies are never imploding, except when the masses must save their local millionaires by turning over their life savings.

So far the pattern has included Greece and Ireland, but the who’s-next list grows apace: there’s Portugal, the favored candidate, then Spain, but whoa! now little Belgium is in the line-up, too. It’s like a cracked Agatha Christie with lots of corpses, ‘25 Little EU Indians’, but with whodunit announced in the opening credits.

One particularly amusing side note is that the two Irish behemoth banks were given a clean bill of health in the summer ‘stress tests’, just in time to be rescued by measures like the clawback of a full pound in the Irish minimum wage and the elimination of tens of thousands of state jobs. Doesn’t that sound familiar? Ours are also officially robust if perhaps breathing a tad heavily. Inspires confidence.

The Europeans’ pain stems from the same disease as the one we suffer, a bloated finance sector that has captured the commanding heights not only of the economy itself but a large chunk of the political apparatus as well. Under these conditions permanent, acute mendaciousness is inevitable, and all the talk that the ‘euro is sound’ is white noise for the credulous. They emit soothing phrases, but no one knows what will happen next except that the super-rich will not be made to pay.

Wednesday, 24 November 2010

AIDS world rewired

The announcement Tuesday that pre-sex pills probably block HIV infection has the AIDS world, of which I am a part, in a second tizzy. The first one occurred in July at the big biennial AIDS powwow in Austria, and the implications of this double revelation are myriad and not yet entirely clear.

I unscientifically call them ‘pre-sex pills’ for clarity’s sake, but that’s in essence what they are: you ingest a low dose of the same medication that people who are already HIV-infected have to take, and voila, the nasty little virus doesn’t stick no matter kind of pelvic partnership you are down with (the study, called iPrEx enrolled gay men, mostly in Peru and Ecuador).

There are 8 million caveats for specialists to scratch their armpits over, but the operative concept is exactly the same as that shown to work in the South African vaginal microbicide study unveiled in Vienna this summer. In that case, women inserted a gel laced with an AIDS medication before and after having sex, and that also brought the anticipated number of new HIV infections way down.

The problem, as always, is human behavior. In both cases, even under the optimum conditions provided by research environments, an enormous percentage of study participants simply didn’t use the products as directed and obtained a correspondingly lower level of protection. This should surprise no one familiar with the tribulations involved in convincing people highly at risk for infection to use condoms. One would think that something as easy as popping a pill would generate greater adherence to the protocol, but it didn’t.

On the other hand, if people were not predictably non-compliant with life-saving advice, none of these research studies could ever obtain evidence. After all, a certain number of people have to engage in unprotected sex to produce the minimum numbers necessary for comparison’s sake. It’s a paradox of the research world that while vigilant protection of the welfare of human subjects is strictly enforced, the underlying assumption of any of these trials is that some people will take the risks you’re telling them to avoid so that the exposure arm and the placebo arm will produce measurable differences. If they don’t, the whole exercise is a waste of time.

That generates further complication because now that the pre-sex pill and gel techniques look awfully promising, how does one proceed with research at all? Some people argue that enrolling people NOW in placebo trials, given the apparent efficacy of the pre-exposure prophylaxis approach, is unethical. Others counter that the test results aren’t strong enough and that further confirmation is necessary before anyone can confidently recommend vaginal gels, rectal microbicides or pre-whoopy pill-popping.

Furthermore, any introduction of a new technique might also weaken the already unsteady condom-use practices of a large swath of the population. We might push people into an uncertain alternative causing them to ditch a proven, albeit uncomfortable, safety device, thus increasing rather than lowering their risk. How ethical is that?

The ethics and prevention debates, important as they are, remind me that such discussions, now carried on in remote, academic circles like mine, were once the province of whole communities. Gay men especially but lots of other people too once sat around thinking of what to do about the dangers out there and how to obtain sexual satisfaction despite them. That’s pretty much dead, from what I can tell.

I saw my doctor yesterday for the annual poke-and-prod session, and he remains indignant about the new cases of HIV infection he sees regularly in his practice. I have the feeling that he isn’t shy about telling patients what he thinks they should do, and it’s good that he raises the issues that many doctors would rather avoid.

But one thing I have learned about people’s sexual and other health-related behavior is that they hate to hear lectures about it, even—and especially—when the advice provided is crucial to their well-being. We’re a long way from figuring out how to resuscitate the kinds of horizontal, friend-to-friend, or barstool-to-barstool conversations that enabled the reimagining of sexual habits and practices that occurred in the 1980s.

The furiously reactionary opposition to that conversation raised by the Catholic and evangelical right was successful in driving it underground and crushing it. No lame, latecomer reversal from a pope is going to undo that damage.

[update P.S.] Here is what candidate Barack Obama said about AIDS in 2007:

‘I'll expand the President's Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief by $1 billion a year in new money over the next five years so we can reach more people’.

Instead, the Obama Administration has flat-lined funding and allowed 4,000 people in the U.S. to be forced onto AIDS drugs waiting lists. I know, I know, there was an economic crisis and a huge deficit. But that did not stop O from pandering to the Republicans he had just crushed electorally by offering them billion-dollar tax giveaways to attract a vote or two here and there--which he never got anyway.

Monday, 22 November 2010

Repeat after me: Spain is not Ireland, Portugal is not Spain

A satirical piece on one of the finance/econ blogs the other day went through a whole list of these inane geography lessons trotted out to reassure bond markets that Country X will not fall apart like Greece, that Ireland is not Portugal, Spain is not Italy and Bangladesh is not Tuvalu.

The point is that despite the second domino (Ireland) falling yesterday after weeks of pious promises to the contrary, all the central banker poo-bahs are rushing to promise that the Euro zone is in fact not buckling but rather that things are fully ‘under control’. When a prominent finance ministry official intones phrases like, ‘The Euro is not in danger’, you know that the opposite is true.

Ireland may be not Greece, but perhaps it should aspire to reach that category. Instead, the Emerald Isle looks depressingly like 1970s Zambia or soon will once the ECB and the IMF get through with it. Remember the bad old days when African, Asian and Latin American countries would get slammed by the suits from Foggy Bottom and have to impoverish whole generations to pay off their debts to first-world banks? When Chicago-educated Friedmanites would swarm into town to give the powerless lessons in monetarism and how to do things right, the way we do them up in Thoroughly Modern America?

Now Ireland is being handed a bunch of money in exchange for hocking future generations to the needs of the reckless banking class, exactly as occurred here. It’s amazing how consistent these guys are: the cancerous, overblown financial sector runs rampant and drives the ship of state onto the rocks, and yet they’re the ones who get into the lifeboats while the rest of us dog-paddle our way to shore—or don’t.

Welcome to the new world order where globalization now enables everyone to have the Zambian experience. If Greek, Portugese and Irish consumers can be put on cat food diets, are the rest of us far behind? Long before today’s anticipated denouement with the Irish handing over the keys to French and German bankers, the bond tyrants had set their eyes on Portugal and Spain. But some experts say none of the Eurozone countries are really safe because their capital markets are interlinked, and the exposures will reverberate in Frankfurt and London if any country should simply declare itself unable to pay up.

Argentina was warned off this course in the early 2000s and had to default anyway, which was extremely painful. But as subsequent events have shown, it was not the deadly Armageddon all the wealthy experts said it would be, and the country bounced back quite nicely once it got the debt monkey off its back.

The Irish populace seems far too supine at this point to do much more than throw the current helmsmen out of office when what they need to do is storm down to the parliament buildings and eat these guys’ lunches, for starters. But if the bank-friendly rearrangements continue throughout the continent, how long will the social peace remain? And who will be targeted? The right? The left? Bankers? Politicians? Immigrants? Jews? No one can anticipate with confidence any one outcome if this slow-motion train wreck continues.

Sunday, 21 November 2010

The Guantánamo-ForeclosureGate connection

ForeclosureGate continues to refuse to go away despite the best efforts of the bankers and their shills in the business cable universe. The deadbeat-borrowers-who-just-want-free-rent meme is wearing awfully thin under the pressure of reality as evidenced in last week’s hearings on the topic on Capitol Hill. No doubt the impact of hundreds of thousands of cases of foreclosure abuse as the banks and servicers continue to defraud the nation’s middle and not-so-middle classes of their earnings is filtering upward even into the parallel universe of our legislative branch.

Nonetheless, the assembled solons at last week's Senate hearings expressed an eerie detachment from the ongoing looting and its fundamental causes. The oddest exchange arose from one senator, Johanns of Nebraska, who, upon hearing that people with loan modifications are being railroaded into perjury-laden bank proceedings, repeatedly moaned, ‘That’s not right’, like an earnest Midwestern Sunday School teacher before a classroom of sixth-grade farm girls. Johann’s exchange is at 1:02 of the hearing linked above on C-SPAN’s video library (a great resource BTW—imagine what fun I.F. Stone would have had with it).

Johann and other senators, like Utah fossil Robert Bennett (ousted by Tea Partiers who decided he’s a dangerous liberal), were shocked, shocked, to discover that banks put their short-term profit-gouging before fairness to customers or even to preserving their ‘brand’. Bennett marveled that no smart owner would do that because it will undermine their client base and ruin their business in the long run.

Really? These deluded seniors apparently think we’re still living in 1950s America where good old Jerry is the bank officer handing out mortgages, and he’ll look after things to make sure they’re all right.

The legal services lawyer, who inserted some uncomfortable case histories into the discussion, didn’t do her side much good with her Central Casting imitation of a shrill social worker, but a legal expert from Georgetown struck just the right note of relentless refuge in the facts, which can be summarized as follows:

-Mortgage delinquencies are mushrooming, and not all of them can be fixed since people have lost jobs and income. But a lot of them could be if it were not for the juicy fees that can still be stripped from the losers’ assets by mortgage servicing firms.

-While the banks and thug reporters in the business media furiously attempt to paint the whole situation as technical slip-ups that the penniless want to exploit to delay the inevitable, many, many supposed remods are going down because banks refuse to stop the simultaneous foreclosure process and systematically trick desperate families. (Senator Tester of Montana referred to the flood of complaints of this nature that his office is getting from a state with fewer than a million inhabitants.)

-Robo-signers and other abuses of the legal system are not rare accidents but are required since the banks and issuers of mortgage-backed bonds failed to follow explicitly detailed legal procedures in establishing the bond trusts. This was done to speed up the process and generate more and faster profits. Now, the bankers want the feds to come to their rescue once again as in 2008 arguing that they are essential to the nation’s fine economic recovery—the one we all continue to search for under rocks.

What is not revealed in the hearing is the nefarious role of Treasury outlined at length by Yves Smith at Naked Capitalism: that the Obama Administration is attempting to ignore the scandal because its number one and perhaps sole priority is pumping cash into the illiquid—or maybe insolvent—banking system. If a few poor slobs get crushed under the wheels, that’s a small price for the other guy to pay. Since that worked so well for Obama so far, we should just keep up the good work, is the apparent philosophy at Treasury where most of the architects of the situation can be assumed to be eagerly awaiting the chance to jump to lucrative banking jobs once Obama crashes out fully.

My contribution to the discussion of this ongoing collapse of the rule of law in the property courts is that it exactly parallels the other one initiated by Bush and sustained by Obama’s collusion and the hearty and full-throated support of the majority of the American people. I refer to the destroying of habeas corpus and the entire panoply of extra-judicial assassination, impunity for torture, obstruction of justice and wholesale spying. The latest round of testicle-grabbing by TSA is only the latest manifestation, and if someone does not revolt pretty soon, we will promptly get to see exactly what it means to hand over to the state the tools it needs to get its way under any and all circumstances.

Perhaps the 1.3 billion Chinese would like to give us some lessons on how that feels since they’ll soon be in charge anyway.

Wednesday, 17 November 2010

Nourishment for antisemitic tropes

Preferring or appearing to prefer a foreign nation state’s interests above one’s own is a recipe for persecution as Communist Party sympathizers learned during the witch hunts of the McCarthy era. In the emergencies of the Depression and the war against the Nazis when the Soviet Union was a key ally, the CP and its members could be seen as dubious or alien but more eccentric than dangerous.

Once times changed, however, and the Russkies became the threat against a backdrop of Armageddon, the party’s slavish obeisance to the line being handed down from on high in the Soviet Union became its Achilles’ heel, and the Rosenberg espionage trial was a not exactly surprising outcome. Opportunities always exist for a campaign against any group that can be painted as a domestic fifth column, and if you appear to express loyalty to a country other than the one you live in, you provide the demagogues with ammunition.

All of which makes the current posture of most of our political class towards the Middle East so reckless in terms of its impact on the well-being of American Jews. Now that the Israeli state openly uses its relatively small tail to wag the American dog, it is irresponsible for the incoming Republican lords and their Democratic colluders to place or appear to place that foreign state’s interests above those of the good old US of A.

Eric Cantor, the incoming House majority leader, recently announced that ‘the new Republican majority will serve as a check on the Administration’. That is fairly standard boilerplate, but raised eyebrows for its timing, coming after Cantor met with Israeli PM Netan-yahoo and making him look like the Republicans would line up with a foreign state against the head of their own government.

Cantor is also pushing the bright idea of shielding future U.S. largesse to Israel by peeling it out of the category of ‘foreign aid’ so that the much-anticipated assault on government spending by his party can never affect this special foreign country. That is, while Cantor and Co. are arguing that we Americans cannot afford schools, hospitals, roads or investment for ourselves, taxpayers will still bear the burden of providing these nice things to people half a world away. Forever.

The European Monitoring Centre on Racism and Xenophobia (EUMC), an agency of the European Union, once described a long-standing antisemitic stereotype—‘accusing Jewish citizens of being more loyal to Israel, or to the alleged priorities of Jews worldwide, than to the interests of their own nations’. Given this extremely dangerous history, why are our leaders playing with fire?

For now, things are all fine on the antisemitism front, and aside from a few random loonies, no one is advocating hostility toward Jews or spouting, in the EUMC’s words, ‘mendacious, dehumanizing, demonizing, or stereotypical allegations about Jews’—unlike, say, the things you hear about Arabs, Muslims or Mexicans these days.

But that can change, and the role of countries here and there can and undoubtedly will shift and mutate as has occurred throughout human history. If, one day in the remote future, the interests of the Israeli state diverge from our own in palpable and concrete ways, can it possibly be good for the Jewish population of the U.S. that the unbalanced Christian majority has witnessed generations of special treatment of a country profoundly identified with a domestic religious minority?

One cannot be overly alarmed by the sight of U.S. politicians scrambling to shovel expensive favors to Israel. But our leaders’ vision of the future seems to be shortening by the day as if we were in an Einsteinian space capsule hurtling at near the speed of light away from our beleaguered planet. Facile pandering to the political demands of the moment can have nasty consequences, and someone should remind Cantor that in elevating the needs and wishes of an alien state above the allegedly perfidious occupant of the White House, he is sowing the seeds of an extremely toxic plant.

Friday, 12 November 2010

Obama’s collapse—and ours

Teabaggers and their friends may chortle with glee over the rough handling Obama’s getting in Korea, but they would be well advised to cut the gloating short. Our president seems constitutionally averse to looking decisive and taking charge, but underneath his personal shortcomings is the country’s strategic foolishness budding into full flower.

Trotsky argued in his history of the Russian revolution that the appearance of Czar Nicholas II just as the Russian monarchy was about to collapse was not a coincidence. He is devastating about the incompetence of the czar, but he insists that it was no accident that a dizzyingly clueless bumbler who had no idea how to react to the upheaval occurring under his feet would arise just at that time.
Trotsky said the centuries of isolation and backwardness of the regime made it incapable of producing a leader that would know what to do to save itself, a tendency that finally manifested in simple biology.

Amid the general astonishment at how faithfully Obama is carrying out the bidding of the people we recently threw out of office is plenty of evidence that our governing elite is another kind of Romanov dynasty unable to discover the tools to address its own dysfunction. And it’s the big guys who are going to have to come up with something after the masses mobilized in all innocence and naivete in 2008 to elect an unknown and an outsider who looked like a fresh face who might have a new idea or two. We see how that turned out, and whether it’s a personality failing of Obama himself or something structural that clipped his wings from the start is intellectually interesting but in the long run irrelevant.

It’s actually kind of wonderful to see Obama breeze into the big Seoul summit and be treated like a tag-along kid brother by the Asians and the Europeans both. We need a trade pact with South Korea—oops, not ready yet. Let’s all gang up on the Chinese and make them pump up their currency—um, nope. There should be more fiscal stimulus to boost aggregate demand—actually, no there shouldn’t.

Despite all the hang-wringing about the new flavor at the Capitol Hill Baskin-Robbins, I am inclined to cheer the president’s weakness on the world front as likely to constrict his chances of pummeling us with more ‘bipartisan’ disasters like tax cuts and Social Security privatization. At this point gridlock looks pretty attractive compared to the kinds of Blue Dog-Republican deals that Clinton enjoyed so much, like the wonderful free-trade agreement with Mexico or Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell.

Sunday, 7 November 2010

‘Should be a scandal’

Pretty amazing that the only thing W can think of to regret upon reviewing his presidency is a bad photo-op from the window of Air Force One.

Bush said it made him look out of touch to be seen observing the Katrina aftermath from the sky. Note that he’s not sad about his actual performance in helping people escape death or getting them food and water afterward, just the image problem.

Bush also said he was stung by Kanye West’s refreshingly blunt statement that the president ‘doesn’t care about black people’ in the middle of New Orleans’ martyrdom. It’s hard to remember now that the Fox News mafia didn’t jump on that statement all that much because it was so hard to refute.

But even West is backing down now, which is another disturbing sign of the times.

Meanwhile, no one at all even gives a shit that Bush placidly admits now that he authorized torturing defenseless prisoners during his reign. Given that Obama and the Democrats refused to go after them for it, why shouldn’t he? And the lamestream media—so concerned about the ethics of Keith Olberman’s campaign donation—has no interest in that ‘old story’.

On the economic front, the supposed experts at the Federal Reserve had a big powwow to debate whether their latest monetary measures, called ‘quantitative easing’, will resuscitate inflation. Inflation??!! At a time when essentially one-sixth of the workforce is out of a job, and bank accounts are paying 0.2 percent interest, that’s what the poobahs in Washington are worried about?

As this dumbfounded economist opines, the fact that they are having that discussion at all should be a scandal. That it is not tells us that the ruling elite is entering some sort of black hole/parallel universe that bodes very ill for the land (to plagiarize Tony Judt).

Strike while the iron is hot

January 2009: huge Democratic majorities, a hot new president who came out of nowhere to crush the old guard, a fired-up popular movement dominated by youth. Anything is possible, right?

So what do we get? A two-year plea to the losers to please come inside while the Yes We Can movement is systematically jettisoned. No movement on Guantánmo, no action on Don’t Ask/Don’t Tell (despite the military’s readiness to give it away), no face-down of the banker-criminals, a double-down extension of the Afghanistan war. A half-hearted stimulus with no direct jobs-production component and the health insurance rewrite from hell.

The iron is now cold, and behold, whaddaya know? Now that the danger is passed, the old creeps are rushing back on stage with all their worst ideas. The new Marine Corps head wants to preserve DA/DT after all, and Lindsey Graham thinks it would be nice to bomb the shit out of Iran. Time to give the super-rich new tax breaks and restart the privatize Social Security campaign so that Wall Street can loot that too. (Obama: I’m open to all ideas from my Republican friends—even totally fucked ones.)

The Bush-era agenda is about to come surging back as if those guys were still in charge, which thanks to Obama, they sort of are. But the circumstances are in some ways worse given that the loonies from that debacle now don’t have to take responsibility for anything that goes wrong and can just snipe from the sidelines.

The most ominous development is the talk about ratcheting up the rhetoric against Iran, starting with David Broder at the Washington Post, who said that threatening yet another war would be a great way for Obama to restore his standing.

(I strongly recommend this article on it describing how the Republicans could induce Obama to do their dirty work—it makes all too much sense.) Graham’s endorsement turns yesterday’s wacky into today’s normal, and Obama is so reluctant to say no to the powerful that he is unlikely to quash the talk, thus enabling more of it.

Unless there is a change of climate at the White House—which would signal the existence of an Obama heretofore unseen—the next two years could outdo late Bush in awfulness. Obama has to turn things around by showing he’s not afraid of actually exercising the power that his office awards him. If he’s not capable of that, he shouldn’t have run for it in the first place.

Incidentally, I love the fact that Graham spoke of ‘neutering’ the Iranian regime—this from a guy threatened last year by rumors in his own camp that he is a closet case. No better way to tamp those down than to look butcher than a Marine platoon—from the safety of a fancy office in Washington, of course.

Thursday, 4 November 2010

Beyond blue and red

During his campaign President Obama eloquently preached about superseding the false barriers of race, religion, color and party identification in the pursuit of common national goals. Just one problem with that: there is no agreement on what our national goals actually are, and so the barriers of race, religion, etc., etc., are not so false after all.

That was never clearer than this week with the openly racist Tea Party vying with old-line Republican godfathers to see who could display more pettiness of spirit. The overwhelming impression is that of a political system kidnapped by the forces of bullying entitlement and guarded by armies of lumpen enforcers who stand by ready to crush dissent.

Meanwhile, fully intimidated Democratic party hacks huddle disconsolate in a distant corner and spit at their erstwhile constituencies—unions, blacks, women, gays, immigrants, the poor, the sick, the vulnerable. In fact, the sorry state of what purport to be the humane political forces is far more disturbing than the ugliness of the elitist demagogues.

Obama is the principal engineer of this kneecapping of our side, never so well expressed as at his $30,000-a-plate Greenwich fundraiser in which he caricatured the ‘professional left’ that always sees the glass half-empty. ‘And gosh, we haven’t yet brought about world peace,’ mocked the guy we put into office. By contrast, the Republicans, who don’t see the glass at all (and if they did, would stick it in his eye), are welcomed in eager pursuit of ‘bipartisanship’.

But in one sense, Obama the campaigner is right—we are moving toward a social consensus in a number of areas. No one seems much worried any more about wars (including the two we continue to pursue); global warming is either a hoax or no big deal; and racism is over except for those resentful minorities who continue to dislike white people. Although agreement on these topics is not yet universal, the public debate on them is pretty much dead. Certainly ever fewer Democrats would risk an attack from Fox by raising them.

Those topics off the table, things do get much simpler: TAXES, GOVERNMENT, SPENDING, TERRORISM = BAD. Markets (while not quite as convincingly virtuous as before) = GOOD and certainly better than SOCIALISM/OBAMACARE. And to summarize, UNITED STATES = STILL THE GREATEST COUNTRY IN THE WORLD, just temporarily hijacked by a Kenyan tribe.

What will the future bring to a nation so enveloped in its comforting illusions and daily less inclined to entertain doubts about them? When the inevitable terrorist strike on an American city actually succeeds, how quickly will our remaining civil protections be jettisoned—by Obama himself?

Given the extant consensus, I am comfortably detached from any regret over the oscillations of electoral contention such as those that occurred on Tuesday. The nation proceeds upon its downward trajectory; we pursue the Reaganite will-o-the-wisp, to ‘feel good about America’ once again; and evidence to the contrary is not to be admitted. Cultural anthropology is set to make a comeback.

Monday, 1 November 2010

Vote! . . . while you can!

As Joan Rivers says, the great thing about anal sex is you can do your ironing or answer your e-mail on your Blackberry.

This year, you can also vote because no matter where you put your X, you will also feel very clearly that you are getting a certain kind of massage at the same time.

Far from me to criticize, I guess a lot of people like it, more than you would think.

As for the choices in the voting booth, I have nothing much to add after Marc Cooper and Robert Kuttner channeled my inner thoughts one by one. I concur that tomorrow is going to be a massacre with the only bright side being that the feckless Democrats richly deserve the shellacking for failing to seize a historic moment that comes around once in a generation.

Imagine what we could be rallying about if they had stood up to the banks, done the right thing on Guantánamo, abolished Don’t Ask and actually done half the things they say they believe in.

But that would be a parallel universe, and instead we have to live in this one where people pour into the streets to promote . . . sanity.

How lame.

Friday, 29 October 2010

Macaca glennbeckus provides proof evolution is real

A half-baboon, half-human organism, long sought by paleo-anthropologist Glenn Beck as the missing link between simians and homo sapiens, was positively identified in the town of Pleasant Plains, Arkansas this week, bringing a vigorous controversy about the validity of Darwin’s theory of evolution to an indisputable close.

Scientists have yet to agree on a name for this entity, which responds to dog whistles and high-pitched clicking sounds vaguely resembling the name ‘Clint McCance, Clint McCance’. Following the usual practice among paleontologists, the creature will probably be dubbed ‘Macaca glennbeckus’.

The discovery has undermined completely any lingering doubts that bipeds and the simian genus are closely linked in an evolutionary chain. Still to resolve, however, is in which direction the evolution is occurring.

Some scientists are convinced that two-legged creatures continue to evolve into increasingly sophisticated social groups and eventually will develop complex colonies and even the basis for a civilization.

Others dispute that theory and point to the Macaca glennbeckus finding as evidence that the entire class of bipedal vertebrates is splitting into increasingly bizarre life forms, none of which will be capable of long-term survival or adaptation.

Thursday, 28 October 2010

Very cheap thrills

Frederick Wiseman the cinema verité master was at the IFC Center last week as part of a program in which directors choose a favorite old film and then talk about it with the assembled movie freaks and film school students afterward. He chose Duck Soup with the Marx Brothers, which was prescient although not in the way he meant—I found Groucho’s aggressive humor more snarky than amusing. Everyone gets mocked and humiliated or their hat set on fire, and I remember that being funny when I was 8.

But the Marx Brothers are alive and well and not just because Fredonia’s motives for declaring war are no more flimsy than our own. Wiseman [below] was also promoting his new film, Boxing Gym, which is getting the usual raves for his technique of delicately allowing a place’s magic to unfold. You’d think all this praiseful attention would stimulate some of the new filmmakers to imitate his approach to documentary instead of the Harpo-Chico-Groucho, baseball-bat style we usually get.

If Charles Ferguson’s attempted takedown of the finance industry, Inside Job, is any indication, succeeding generations have missed completely Wiseman’s principal lesson, that things can be shown instead of described if you have the patience and the wit to watch closely. Ferguson mostly manages to take down himself as he obtrudes again and again into the predictable interviews with finance shills and prosperous economists [like the Bush-vintage suit below] to tell his subjects that they’re assholes.

They, not surprisingly, take offense as they’re meant to, and since we’ve already decided that anyone with ‘banker’ in his job description is an evil creep, we get to watch them squirm in the kleig lights. Ferguson could have shortened the film by just taking out a pair of scissors and clipping the guys’ ties.
I don’t know what Ferguson thinks he is accomplishing by this provocation routine, which isn’t even zany and faux-serious like Michael Moore’s. Moore at least lets us have some fun for our $12 while Ferguson’s background lessons on mortgage finance are old news, primitive and not even graphically interesting. The result is 90 minutes of reassurance that we are virtuous and the world is run by venal rich people, including Obama’s top economic advisors.

Given the perilous state of our polity, these self-indulgent exercises are just not good enough. The times call for serious thinking and principled opposition, not tweaking noses for a few cheap laughs.

Wednesday, 27 October 2010

The Obama Sleeping Pill v/s the Bush Kool-Aid

As we head into the election stretch, the narrative on offer from Obama’s party is congealing and persuading some skeptical voters, perhaps enough to stave off total disaster. I, mercifully, am spared the sludge being generated on the airwaves in industrial quantities by not having a television, but the general content of this rather limp message seems to be comprised of the following:

1. We (Obama & Co.) have done a very decent job, and our main failing is working too hard and not communicating our achievements. We were distracted (so busy!) and inexperienced as political salespeople.
2. You people (our voting base) are so demanding, you’re never satisfied. Why, when we pass a historic health care reform, you bitch because it isn’t perfect.
3. A scary monster is inside that closet. If you don’t stick with us, it will come out and get hold of you. Don’t forget, we are the party of the people [unions, gays, women, minorities, the poor], not those venal, corrupt, corporate-serving other guys.

There are several problems with this campaign starting with the historical issue of our two-party duopoly, which leaves no way to register the kinds of dissent many, if not most of Obama’s original supporters feel. But aside from that structural obstacle, the Obama team IMHO is sowing the seeds of a longer-term debacle in two ways.

Its failure to put forth and hammer away at a compellingly combative counter-narrative to the Tea Party/Republican hysteria may put at risk even the modest achievements of the last two years. The health insurance rewrite is already under massive attack by right-wingers and some states who are determined to dismantle it piece by piece. Their success in restricting abortion access over the decades since it was declared a right by the Supreme Court should convince us that this is not an idle threat.

It wasn’t enough to simply pass a piece of legislation; we also needed to understand why it was the right thing to do so that it can be defended coherently. Obama’s team gets a big red ‘F’ on that especially considering the barn-sized targets that exist in the health insurance arena if anyone had cared to take aim at them.

One particular sign of weakness is the spectacle of Democratic candidates apologizing for supporting the thing in the first place.

Secondly, the campaign narrative is, in many very key aspects, a baldfaced lie. For example, Obama has not ridden to the defense of average homeowners but instead chucked them under the bus for the convenience of the megabanks. This sorry example is extremely telling because it shows how our white knight is invidiously strengthening and consolidating the corporate dominance over our lives that Bush advanced more openly.

A number of bloggers attended a private meeting at the Treasury Department a while back and have reported on the highly revealing conversation that took place with officials there. Here is an excerpt from an account by one of them:

On HAMP, officials were surprisingly candid. The program has gotten a lot of bad press in terms of its Kafka-esque qualification process and its limited success in generating mortgage modifications under which families become able and willing to pay their debt. Officials pointed out that what may have been an agonizing process for individuals was a useful palliative for the system as a whole. Even if most HAMP applicants ultimately default, the program prevented an outbreak of foreclosures exactly when the system could have handled it least.

This begins to sound like the Treasury officials—those guys appointed by Obama to defend the little people—used struggling homeowners as cannon fodder to stave off defeat, very much like the boss sends troops in the ‘volunteer’ army off to extend-and-pretend in Afghanistan. But it gets worse:

The program was successful in the sense that it kept the patient alive until it had begun to heal. And the patient of this metaphor was not a struggling homeowner, but the financial system, a.k.a. the banks. Policymakers openly judged HAMP to be a qualified success because it helped banks muddle through what might have been a fatal shock.

Now the indifference to Foreclosuregate from the Administration begins to make real sense. HAMP was not designed to actually help people work out easier terms and avoid getting thrown out onto the street. It was a bank-friendly program to give dangerously illiquid institutions, not citizens, a little breathing room. So abuses by servicers gouging out a few more months of payments and fees from families that are collapsing into destitution is a small price (for someone else) to pay. Or as the blogger puts it:

I’m sure they [Treasury] would have preferred if the program had worked out better for homeowners as well. But they have larger concerns, and from their perspective, HAMP has helped to address those.

So there we have it: Obama as the friendly face of a mortgage banking system determined to claw its way back from the precipice to which it had pushed itself and the rest of us, not to restore homeownership but to save its own sorry ass and grotesque privileges. Obama as Mr Nice, the biracial hope of the downtrodden, whose enforcers are blithely collaborating with the looting of middle-class families.

There may be other areas where the Obama government is playing a more humane role, and it would be nice to hear about them. But again and again, one is struck by how much seamless continuity has been stitched between the bad old Bush years and our disappointing present. So while it will be painful to see people turn in this electoral cycle to the cynical snakes on the other team, one cannot fail to sympathize with those who are sitting this one out on principle.