Saturday, 28 August 2010

Easily persuaded

Reading Andrew Young’s jaw-dropping account of John Edwards’ 2008 self-immolation called The Politician and simultaneously Jane Austen’s Persuasion was oddly illuminating. After all, what do politicians do but persuade, persuade us that they know what’s wrong and that they have the smarts, will and integrity to fix it.

Austen views her world from the mental perch of the landed gentry and carefully assigns a social grade to all human beings, from The Poor, who barely reach that category at all, a faceless mass of no individual interest, past household servants and tradesmen, up to the shabbily genteel and the carefully measured ranks of curates, soldiers, respectable bourgeois and titled nobility.

Austen pokes fun at sterile snobbery, but she knows who is a baronet and who is not. Her works are conservative to the core in ways that we find laughable. But she is on the lookout for what makes people tick within their social milieu, and her values are decency, sincerity and empathy.

Austen would have had her pince-nez firmly focused on golden-haired John Edwards long before the rest of us. She would have spotted the cancerous hubris that sprouts and runs wild when people rocket up the social scale within a single lifetime, from a ‘poor kid from Robbins’ to a major actor on the national stage. We Americans love this myth and think there is something particularly noble in starting from nothing and rising to the top, precisely what would make Austen shudder.

Young worked for the Edwardses, sacrificing his own family life not only to his boss’s political career but also to fixing their garage door, buying their Christmas trees and generally acting as their personal servant. The stories are hilarious and excruciating, like the time Mrs. Edwards promised a woman help in taking a truck-driving course and left Young the chore of getting up before dawn to ferry her to the classes.

Young is entranced by Edwards’ skill as a politician and believes in his stump speeches about the Two Americas, the deepening gap between those who enjoy the fruits of prosperity and those who don’t. He sees the hypocrisy of his bosses’ increasingly lavish lifestyle and entitlement, their stunned fascination with wealth, fame and connections, but he soldiers on, thinking these are necessary compromises, how the game is played, etc.

Persuasion is the drawing room drama of a young gentlewoman convinced to refuse an insufficiently rich suitor and finding her way back to him once he resolves that obstacle by making a ton of money. She is misguided by her advisers but agrees that their advice, under most circumstances, would have been correct.

Austen is telling us that there is no substitute for ‘breeding’, for knowing how one must behave, what is done and not done, and she takes as a given that this knowledge is not available to everyone, nor can it be learned in books (although they help). She would not be surprised that Edwards, a nouveau riche, would take up with a wacko New Age floozy like Rielle Hunter, nor that he would screw her in his wife’s bed while the latter was off getting cancer treatments.

Our myth of the classless society, for all its charms and advantages, has blinded us to the character weaknesses of people who are too scarred by the commonness and poverty of their origins to resist the dazzle not just of power and wealth but also the intoxicating message that they are extremely special. The dizzying social mobility provided by our celebrity culture thrusts people like Edwards into environments they simply are not prepared to handle soberly. Drunken addiction to adulation quickly follows along with the mistaken belief that they can get away with anything.

They also are far more likely than a comfortable scion of old money to swallow the elite’s policy viewpoints, and it is here that the winner of 2008 has manifested a similar weakness. It’s no accident that FDR grew up in a country estate and traced his ancestors back to the Dutch settlers. He and Eleanor knew the bankers and the industrialists and weren’t impressed by them. From this snooty milieu—not from the rags-to-riches set—emerged the landmark anti-poverty achievements of the 20th century.

Thursday, 26 August 2010

No Kidding

It’s a disgrace all right, but don’t count on the New York Post (of the Murdoch/Fox empire) to assume any responsibility for the drunken attack on a random Muslim taxi driver by a white kid from the suburbs. Oh no, it’s just a random incident by a lone nut.

Coincidentally, another lone nut showed up at a mosque in Queens last night:

A drunk barged into a Queens mosque last night and shouted anti-Muslim slurs as he urinated on prayer rugs, cops and witnesses said.

Evening prayers were disrupted at the Iman Mosque on Steinway Street in Astoria when the unhinged man ‘came in with a beer bottle in his hands, clearly very intoxicated’, said Mustapha Sadouki, who was attending services.

‘He fumbled over to our rugs where people were praying’ and then committed the despicable desecration, Sadouki said.

The man, identified by cops as Omar Rivera, also allegedly shouted slurs, calling the worshippers ‘terrorists’.

Can’t wait to hear Beck and Limbaugh react with outrage at anyone who would dare to suggest that their rantings had anything to do with these ‘isolated incidents’. Perhaps they will insist that their whipping up of the crowds is only about raising legitimate doubts about the ‘Ground Zero’ mosque’s funding or some other smokescreen.

These funding issues are clouding the minds of many New Yorkers, including friends of mine, who fail to see that the targeting of houses of worship bears an eerie resemblance to the anti-Semitic campaigns of bad old Europe.

The true culprits are the Republican National Committee and its echo chamber in the reactionary media as they wink at and encourage the crazed Obama-is-a-Muslim meme to energize its base. They think they can turn this stuff off and on at will and ride the winds into office, but history has shown how dangerous it is to play with this sort of fire. As always, they want to milk the political advantage and then wash their hands of the consequences.

Sort of like ex-closet case and RNC chairman Kenneth Mehlman, who helped run one of the nastiest anti-gay campaigns in history and now expects a chance to tell us his inspiring story to a wide-eyed Oprah or the someone similar, something about the inner turmoil of a lost soul finding his way to his true self.

Isn’t that special? as Church Lady would say. Personally, I have no sympathy for this creep and am delighted that he suffered a lot while whipping up reactionary homophobes. Sorry, you don’t get a pass for your crimes because you had personal conflicts and didn’t know your own mind. And by the way, all those people you attacked made it possible for you to get your wig on and still have a career continuing to elect anti-gay Republicans.

It’s kind of like how feminists must feel seeing Sarah Palin exploit the possibilities they created for women and then turn around and trash everything feminists stand for. Well, no one said equality for women or gays would benefit only decent people; the rain falls on both the deserving and the loathsome alike.

Wednesday, 25 August 2010

Bloomberg shames Dems cowering to theocrats

As the cowardly line up to milk the political advantages of either outright opposition to the Islamic cultural center/Ground Zero mosque or support for a ‘compromise’ entailing giving in to bigotry, it is remarkable that the one voice of unambiguous principle to be heard is that of Mayor Bloomberg.

Perhaps it’s easier to be amibitious and principled when you possess 15 billion dollars, but Bloomberg could just as easily have opted to pander to backwardness like Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver or Governor Whatsisname. But he didn’t and as a result looks and sounds—I hate to say it—downright presidential.

Some day, we will look back at this shameful episode and wonder how people could have sold their constitutional birthright to the mob so easily. Bloomberg set out in a second courageous speech that the pressure to move the Sufi mosque would hurt the U.S. image abroad and simply kick the problem down the road. ‘How big should the no-mosque zone be?’ asked Bloomberg, raising an excellent practical and conceivably legal question.

Meanwhile and not surprisingly, we have what appears to be our first anti-Muslim assault today in New York. The victim is a 25-year resident of the U.S. whose four children were born here. Great way to celebrate the obvious superiority of the USA over all other countries and nations known to history.

First but probably not last. Let’s see if the loonies rally to the defense of the assailant, a 21-year-old drunk. After all, he didn’t piss on a Koran first, so it can’t be a hate crime.

Monday, 23 August 2010

There is no way to "compromise" on racism

The Islamic cultural center/Ground Zero mosque madness is a defining moment. It pits the energized yahoos of the creepy, authoritarian right—given wink, wink support from the cynical and opportunistic Republican leadership—versus our fragile and inconsistent traditions of pluralism and civil rights. The appalling video of the black guy being jeered and accosted by the spittle-flecked crowd this weekend is a good sign of where things are headed if this hateful movement is not confronted.
Juan Cole, as usual, nails it in comparing the screaming mobs waving their American flag placards at the Ground Zero site with the segregationist die-hards of yesteryear:

‘We saw this sort of thinking in the Jim Crow era, when African Americans, though full American citizens, were prevented from living, shopping, working and inevitably from worshiping in certain geographical areas, on the grounds that their doing so would offend and hurt the feelings of the White majority’. [my emphasis]

Many others have weighed in with similar observations and historical background, no need to repeat it. But this is the moment for President Obama and his terminally weak-kneed Democratic Party to grow a pair and defend what is right. This means not just mouthing proper sentiments about the general principles of religious tolerance but facing down the blowhards without buckling and offering phony ‘compromises’, backpedaling, hedging or creative phraseology (of the sort favored by doublespeak master Anthony Weiner).

It is time for those who tirelessly trumpet the memory of Dr Martin Luther King to act with one-tenth of his moral courage. Need we imagine what King would have said about this display of racial and ethnic animosity and its enablers like McConnell and Beck?

Although everyone and his cousin is having their say on this growing outrage, the ball is in Mr Obama’s court. Obama famously refused to be drawn into acting like the ‘angry black male’ during the 2008 campaign, and his strategy was proven to work. But running for office and being president are not the same things—the stakes are much higher now, and passivity will cost us all a lot more than a lost election. Sometimes you have to take a stand on principle even if you make some people mad—and anyway, who cares about people who think Obama’s a closet Muslim?

Cole says it best: ‘Those who believe that giving the Lazios and Palins and Gingriches this one will deflate the tension are misreading the historical moment. These are ravenous beasts, and giving them red meat will only send them into a greater frenzy, not satiate them’.

Friday, 20 August 2010

Governor Gumball strikes again

Our state’s very own contestant in the Miss Universally Clueless contest had to admit today that the alleged ‘meeting’ between the Corboda Initiative developers (‘Ground Zero mosque’) and his barely noticed person purportedly to find an ‘alternative’ site for the project was not happening.

That’s because it was a figment of Paterson’s increasingly fevered brain. AP said tersely, ‘The developers from the Cordoba Initiative say there never was a meeting planned with Paterson. No reason was given in the brief written response to a request for comment’. The Islamic center folks wisely avoided getting into a sound-bite match with the governor-of-record, recognizing that he is completely irrelevant and has still not yet understood that NOBODY CARES WHAT HE THINKS ABOUT ANYTHING.

Horrible, Horribler, Horriblest

We knew state senate president Pedro Espada, Jr., is a hilarious sleazebag ($20,000 worth of sushi on Bronx’s Soundview health clinic’s tab, etc.), but some hustlers have enough style to spread the money around.

Espada, however, is such a guttersnipe that he even stiffs his tradesmen. The Village Voice has a truly amazing tale, even for the most cynical New Yorkers, of how Espada ordered a bunch of fancy, hand-sewn suits from hard-working artisans and then didn’t pay for them.

The tailors sued Espada, who then argued that the goods were damaged and that he had sent them back, which he hadn’t. He then appeared on TV wearing them.

The good news: Espada’s primary challenger, Gustavo Rivera, is tied with him in the polls with 35 percent undecided because they haven’t heard the news. So spread it around especially if you have any friends in the Bronx.

Thursday, 19 August 2010

Re Anthony Weiner--don't be fooled

Our purportedly liberal polity here in New York has a nasty little thuggish underbelly, nowhere better displayed than in the person of Queens/Brooklyn Congressman Anthony Weiner. Weiner has burnished a popular image nationally among some leftish types who don’t know him very well (and think being an ex-roommate of Jon Stewart is more than enough).

Weiner does safely high-profile but arguably pointless things like fighting for a doomed vote on single-payer health insurance. And he has a liberal voting record. But what he really, passionately believes in is himself and his career.

The latest example is the annoying doublespeak he generated to take all available positions on the Islamic cultural center (‘Ground Zero mosque’) controversy simultaneously. The ten-line letter is a marvel. It demostrates how media-savvy career politicians can shape their language to satisfy and stroke all potential listeners: it trumpets the ‘constitutional protection of religion’ and in the next graf welcomes ‘fair questions’ that should be raised in the spirit of ‘transparency and tolerance of all viewpoints’.

This way, Weiner can look like an opponent of religious bias with the liberals and still scream angrily about unanswered ‘questions’ over the Islamic edifice when addressing the Satmar Hasidim and other religious fanatics. This expert style of pandering is Wiener’s hallmark, no doubt learned at the knee of Senator Charles Schumer for whom he once worked.

I first heard of Weiner when Matt Taibbi (author of the Rolling Stone take-down of Goldman Sachs) tried to mock the obsessive news coverage of Pope John Paul II’s funeral in a New York Press spoof that misfired badly. People thought Taibbi was making fun of the dead (and a pope, no less) and went ape. Weiner dutifully piled on.

Then Weiner ran for the Democratic nomination for mayor against Bloomberg in 2005 and came in a surprisingly respectable second. He was widely expected to go for the nomination again last year, but Bloomberg bought his way through the two-term limit and scared Weiner off with his billions. Weiner left the field to a Democratic machine pol who then stunned everyone by coming within five points of winning despite Bloomberg’s $100 million campaign.

Weiner could have made the run himself and conceivably even won by turning the race into a populist complaint about Mayor Mike’s buying his own set of rules. Instead he opportunistically criticized the Obama White House for not supporting the Democratic sacrifical lamb.

But when Weiner and the rest of the New York Democrats really raise their faux-liberal skirts is on the subject of Israel. You should have seem them all—Schumer, Gillibrand, Rangel—clamor for microphones to cheer the IDF after its deadly raid on the Gaza aid ship.

Weiner is a clever grandstander and is tiresomely on camera every Sunday evening, having learned from Schumer the old trick that since Sunday is a slow news day, the local TV news reporters are suckers for a visual op of any sort. Here’s Anthony making a splash with his push for more lifeguards at Rockaway Beach, a good way to get himself on air along with some easy cheesecake.

He’s also good at stunts like denouncing Saudi Arabia outside their consulate in Washington since he knows that will go down well with his huge Zionist base. Weiner and other New York pols drummed up a silly ‘Joint Resolution of Disapproval’ of some Saudi arms deal for a few headlines.

But Weiner would never really challenge the strategic consensus that includes the Saudi alliance. He voted for the 2002 authorization to go conquer Iraq when that was the popular position (especially among his base). Later, when it wasn’t popular any more, he told Bill O’Reilly that he regretted it.

Weiner looks scrappy and progressive on the national stage, but he’s no liberal when it comes to New York issues that will win him no points with his comfy constituents. He battled Bloomberg over congestion pricing, which would have alleviated Manhattan’s automobile traffic, because his suburban-ish electoral district is full of car owners.

In short, Anthony Weiner all image and no substance. He stands for nothing but is remarkably quick to sniff the prevailing winds when they offer the opportunity for personal advancement. He is notoriously brutal to his staff, works all the time and wants to be somebody. Maybe someday he will.

Monday, 16 August 2010

Lessons for Arizona from another friendly place

Israel’s having a time with their illegal immigrants, too, but they’re not hearing any guff from weak-kneed liberals about it. And nobody knows about ‘securing the borders’ like the guys with the IDF, right?

Yes, it’s soon going to be round-up time for all those children of sneaky Filipino and Chinese workers who dared to have babies and raise them in the land of Zion.

No ‘anchor babies’ allowed here, nosiree, Bob. Interior Minister Eli Yishai set his aim at the estimated 250,000 aliens taking jobs away from deserving Jews and their 1,200 paperless kiddies. Yishai, who is from the Orthodox Shas party, said he was only ‘defending the Jewish character of the state’ against the threat of illegal immigration. Roei Lachmanovich, a spokesman for Yishai, had this to say—Tea Partiers, sue for plagiarism, they’re stealing your rhetoric—‘The decision is against the illegal workers who think getting pregnant gives them permission to stay here. There’s a way that these parents use the children’.

Big demonstrations against the policy have occurred, even joined by the wife of Prime Minister Netan-yahoo, obviously a self-hating Jew.

Sunday, 15 August 2010


If you want people to come over to your side, you have to have a side.

That’s why it’s so discouraging to see Obama waffle on the Ground Zero mosque craziness after shouldering the political cost of defending the idea—which promptly and predictably sent Fox and the wackosphere into paroxysms of furious delight—he promptly undermined himself by hedging. He looks weak, indecisive, skittish. He looks like that thing Americans love to hate: a politician.

Stubbornly defending a foundational principle of our 200-year-old state, while temporarily costly, in the long run would have been viewed as courageous, tough-minded and even correct. Now, he gets the opprobrium without the respect.

The man sucks as a leader.

Saturday, 14 August 2010

Desperation, by Polly Anna [Updated]

I am not inclined to the sanguine view that when biped enemies of humanity start acting completely demented, this is actually good because ‘people will realize’ how off their rockers these specimens are. History offers far too many examples of how easily an entire society can go mad and how dangerously normal extreme behaviors and discourses quickly become.

However, I am mildly encouraged by the signs of desperation and accelerating dementia in the wacko camp. This includes international goons, national lunkheads and local hustlers.

Starting on the bottom end of the garbage heap, Pedro Espada, Jr., our worst Albany politico-entrepreneur—scraping a very deep, scum-encrusted barrel—is showing signs of panic over a primary challenge for his Bronx Senate seat. Espada’s supporters sent out threatening legal-looking letters to people who signed his opponent’s nominating petition. You gotta be biting your nails big time to stoop to that.

New York’s Governor Goofball also added a note of irrelevancy on the Ground Zero Islamic cultural center by suggesting, in his usual clueless way, that he could provide the Muslims with an alternative site somewhere else, thereby completely missing the constitutional, the conceptual and the political points in one mighty blow. This befits a man boosted by an accident of birth far beyond his Peter Principle level of incompetence and even now failing to comprehend that no one cares what he thinks.

Moving up to the national scenario, the Tea Party-plagued Republican party is having its Frankenstein moment on all fronts. Here’s what a Kentucky congressional candidate, one Gunnery Sergeant Bob Pinkstaff [you can’t make this shit up—oh, and click here to view his ‘Well-Regulated Militias’ page] tweeted about his ethnic-Indian opponent:

‘Just like his evil muslim communist USURPER comrad, barack hussein obama, This goyle character is just another ‘turban topper’ we don’t need in congress or any political office that deals with the U.S. Constitution, Christianity and the United States of America!!!’

According to The Daily Kos, the campaign of Raj Goyle, his opponent, captured the rant and is planning to use it—what fun!

Then there’s Harry Reid’s welcome challenger, the ludicrous Sharron Angle, pushing the idea of doing away with Social Security. Seeing that that was not exactly a winning platform in Nevada, Angle went one better by urging that the U.S. follow the lead of Chile’s Augusto Pinochet on state pensions. Angle didn’t say whether she thought those opposed to her plan should be helicoptered out over the Pacific Ocean and dropped in.

This babe is so bonkers that Reid may keep enough of the broken-down, underwater, bankrupt Nevada desert hermits on his side to get re-elected.

Then there is the sudden burst of hysteria about ‘anchor babies’ and the foolish decision our country made 150 years ago to guarantee civil rights to ex-slaves—and their children. Well, since only the NAACP can be accused of racism these days, I suppose it was only a matter of time until we had people asking to reconsider the plantation system.

For the record, the 14th Amendment includes the Equal Protection Clause, which overruled the 1857 Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court determined Mr Scott was not a person but rather a piece of property. Democrats should note that the decision was issued four years before the civil war broke out in 1861, i.e. that decades of bending over backward to keep the slaveholders happy didn’t work.

Finally, we have our Israeli friends, surely high in the competition for the most bipedal of all bipeds on the world stage. As noted by a number of commentators, the fix is in to normalize and pave the way for an eventual Israeli attack on Iran for allegedly wanting to have nuclear weapons. (Why would they want those? Is anybody threatening them?) Juan Cole hosted a discussion outlining exactly how suicidally insane such an attack would be—not that that will slow down the neocons.

But this cornucopia of mental derangement being displayed on all sides is strangely soothing. We are either headed to hell in a handbasket, or these people are desperate—a sign that their crazed schemes are falling apart. For no good reason, I am inclined to the latter view and am experiencing an intuition that better news, albeit of a temporary nature, is nigh.

One hint: Mayor Bloomberg, whom I heartily dislike, deserves a thumping round of applause for telling the Ground Zero mosque bigots to fuck off. Bloomberg made a rousing speech in defense of religious liberty from Governor’s Island, sticking his neck way out on an issue that will not earn him undying love from the assorted yahoos dominating our news cycles these days.

I was going to make snide remarks about Obama’s inability to make similar unpopular and courageous moves, but he finally did so. Okay, it’s election season, but some politicians (George W. Bush, for example,) understood that taking unambiguous positions and defending them makes people grudgingly respect you even if they hate your guts.

[Updated] I stand corrected by a reader that the Goyle race is actually occurring in Kansas, not Kentucky, that the Gunnery Sergeant Pinkstaff is not his opponent and that the weirdo twitter post was a cut-and-paste error. So maybe the heartland Republicans are not quite this demented. However, I took it seriously when I read it on Kos, which says something about how far over the edge is the rhetoric.

Monday, 9 August 2010

Is there life on this planet?

I am glad to see that Stephen Hawking, the astronomer, agrees with me and endorses the thesis of Biped Twilight.

‘I believe that the long-term future of the human race must be in space. It will be difficult enough to avoid disaster on planet Earth in the next hundred years, let alone the next thousand, or million’, said Hawking.

Hawking added that the world's resources are ‘currently being depleted at a massively-high rate, far beyond what can be replenished naturally or artificially’ and that ‘greed and the quest for profits is making large corporations hinder innovation in fields of scientific investigation of alternative energy sources, and this will soon manifest its effects on the planet’.

Hawking suggests it won’t be pretty, and given his precarious health probably isn’t too worried about it beyond some lingering sympathy for his fellow bipeds. He explains that our species has too much selfishness and aggression hard-wired into its genetic code, which was useful for survival 30,000 years ago but will soon blow us up, one way or another.

Hawking hopes the race will head off into the galaxies pronto so that a few bipeds will survive before the Earth bites it as a human habitat. However, he is significantly silent on whether he thinks that will happen. Current indications are negative. [below].

Using nuclear weapons

The anniversaries of Hiroshima and Nagasaki have passed almost without notice, surely an irony given the continued use of atomic bombs by the United States.

I say ‘use’ in the same sense that a gunman ‘uses’ a pistol when robbing a 7/11. He does not have to fire the weapon to commit ‘armed’ robbery—the mere threat is enough in the eyes of the law and to any rational observer.

The United States in the person of our current president, Barack Obama, continues to hold a gun to the head of the Islamic Republic of Iran, ratcheting up the stakes day by day. Granted, these are not nuclear pistols at present (unlike the Bush II Administration, which openly and irresponsibly talked about using ‘bunker-buster’ nuclear weaponry against that country). But the ongoing demands to conform to U.S. geopolitical interests—or else—are quite unmistakable.

The screaming hypocrisy of the drumbeat on Iran’s supposed nuclear intentions is that the main U.S. ally in the region, Israel, has long possessed them, an escalation of the armaments race that all the western powers colluded in despite their pious pronouncements about non-proliferation. Restricting membership in the nuclear club has never been a real or consistent policy of the United States, but rather restricting it to our friends.

What is the motivation of non-nuclear states to acquire these weapons? To dissuade attackers and of course to feed national prestige/chauvinism (choose one). The criminal North Korean state probably would not exist today except that the Kims prudently acquired a few nukes and Junior constantly displays such extreme eccentricity and disdain for everything that he looks nuts enough to use them—even if the entire peninsula goes up in smoke.

The Iranian mullahs are loathsome in many ways, but their reading of U.S. attitudes toward them is not irrational. The Harvard foreign policy wonk Stephen Walt (yes, the same one who called out the Israeli lobby for excessive influence over our lives) says Obama’s treatment of Iran is based on fantasy and contradiction:

We say we want better relations, but in the meantime we are almost certainly engaged in covert action inside Iran, and we rarely miss an opportunity to remind the world that all options are still ‘on the table’.

The Teheran beards accused the CIA of responsibility for a big terrorist attack in Iranian Baluchistan last month, and who can confidently believe the CIA’s denials? Meanwhile, a guest editorial in Juan Cole’s essential blog, Informed Comment, notes ominously that Admiral Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s highest ranking officer, has now stated publicly that the U.S. ‘has plans to attack Iran to prevent that country from acquiring nuclear weapons’, an escalation that the writer, one Mahan Abedin, says ‘is being treated with the utmost seriousness in political, intelligence and military circles in Tehran’.

The U.S. and Israel have determined that pointing the nuclear gun at the heads of the Iranian state and nation is the way to insure that the Iranians never obtain a similar gun to point back at us. This logic escapes me, frankly, and the steadily rising tone of the verbal confrontation is not reassuring. Neither is Obama’s capacity—Nobel Peace Prize notwithstanding—to resist the siren songs calling him to solve a political problem by military means, which in this case would generate a disaster of epic proportions. Here is Abedin again on the consequences of carrying out such an attack:

[Asymmetrical and more conventional] . . . attacks on American bases in the region will likely result in thousands of American military casualties in the space of a few weeks. The [Iranians have] both the will and wherewithal to inflict a level of casualties on American armed forces not seen since the Second World War.

The political effect of this will likely be even more explosive than the actual fighting. Not only will it awaken the sleeping giant of Iranian nationalism, thus aligning the broad mass of the people with the regime, it will also shore up Iran’s image in the region and prove once and for all that the Islamic Republic is prepared to fight to the death to uphold its principles. Suddenly Iran’s allies in the region—particularly non-state actors like Hezbollah and Hamas—would stand ten feet tall.

Ironically, U.S. military aggression will likely accelerate the actualisation of the very scenario that American political and military leaders insist they are determined to prevent, i.e. a nuclear armed Iran. . . . [T]he immediate reaction of Iran’s rulers to military aggression would be to start a crash programme to produce a nuclear weapon, as a means of deterring future aggression.

Sunday, 8 August 2010

Michelle in Spain

I suppose it was inevitable that the knives eventually would come out for Michelle Obama given the vigorous, nonstop pandering to race-tinged resentment from the usual suspects. But it is still pretty laughable—was Laura Bush ever criticized for extravagance?

Or let us recall Nancy Reagan’s delight in living rich with her BFFs like Betsy Bloomingdale, all constantly celebrated for wearing fine designer clothes and throwing lavish parties. I can personally attest to the Washington press corps’ enthusiastic reception of the Reagan style in the early 1980s, from exotic canap├ęs to tent breakfasts on the Mall, in contrast to the austere Carter period.

That didn’t change, either, when millions were out of work in the first recession Reagan presided over; on the contrary, the Reaganite mystique was all about getting over apologetics and ‘feeling good about America’, which meant consuming whatever you had as conspicuously as possible and not paying taxes that might help those annoyingly whiny lesser people.

But leaders who dare to defend the poor are easily targeted for any signs that they don’t personally embrace poverty. It recalls the notorious Jeremiah O’Leary’s 1973 front-pager in the Washington Star on the coup against Salvador Allende, which started out by chortling over the socialist Chilean president with bourgeois tastes and proceeded to cheer Augusto Pinochet and his worthy assault on Chilean democracy.

The Star and the rest of the American press corps then forgot about official extravagance for the next decade or so—they were too busy applauding Pinochet’s ‘sensible’ neo-liberal economic policies that destroyed Chilean unions and eventually drove the unemployment rate up to 25%. Such is the reigning double standard about who lives in the lap of luxury.

Saturday, 7 August 2010

Tony Judt dead at 62

Sad to see that Tony Judt, one of the sharpest and best informed intellects writing in English, has succumbed to Lou Gehrig’s disease (ALS). I just gobbled up his masterful opus Post-War in its massive entirety despite the threat of developing tennis shoulder from carrying it down to the subway.

Judt was highly sensitive to the sufferings of eastern Europeans crushed by the post-Stalinist states from Poland to Bulgaria and wrote movingly about their struggles as well as the tepid sympathy for them from the western European neo-marxist left. But, trust me, the obituaries will focus on his failure to toe the Likud line on Israel, which will earn him monikers like ‘polemical’ and ‘controversial’ even from sympathetic reviewers.

Post-War is 800 pages long and full of wisdom from someone who actually knows what he’s talking about. He has much of interest to say about how a political and economic system like those of the Soviet satellites survived and how they suddenly collapsed like an auditorium of folding chairs.

He is sympathetically dismissive of ‘reform’ communists like Dubcek, arguing that the one-party, command economy systems could not be fixed. (One topic I never saw him address was how the Chinese seem to be managing exactly that.) Like many observers, Judt was stunned by the revelations of how vast the internal spying system was in places like East Germany and Czechoslovakia—the one thing those inept governments really knew how to do.
But Judt writes eloquently about how little it all mattered in the end that the state knew how many potted plants its dissident citizens had in their apartments or what their elderly aunts had for breakfast. In the end the animal rotted from inside out.

That’s what the obit writers should be exploring when they take a look at his life’s work. But tune in to the NY Times later to see if I’m right, and his criticism of Israel trumps everything.

Sunday, 1 August 2010

Working v/s bloviating

The biggest story out of the 18th International AIDS Conference that concluded last week in Vienna was the finding by a South African research team that a vaginal microbicide using tenofovir actually worked to prevent HIV infection.

Tenofovir is one of the drugs people who already have HIV take to suppress viral replication. Scientists have thought that it and other antiretrovirals might also be able to block the initial infection, but the study done by the Durban-based Centre for the AIDS Programme of Research in South Africa (CAPRISA) was the first to find statistical evidence that it actually does.

[Full disclosure]: CAPRISA is affiliated with Columbia University as am I.

Women who used the gel vaginally at least 80 percent of the time before they had sex were found to be half as likely to acquire HIV infection than those who did not use it at all. That’s far from ideal but nonetheless a major breakthrough in a field where all the biomedical magic bullets have failed miserably.

Most of the people still slogging away in the AIDS field celebrated the research finding. But as never fails, some ultra-left purist whose ideology is far more important than mere facts promptly assailed the study for showing ‘callousness and disrespect for black lives’.

A writer named Andile Mngxitama held forth in The Sowetan that testing the gel on one thousand black women (‘used as lab rats and discarded’) in a depressed area was tantamount to ‘medical genocide’ performed on the weak and vulnerable, a sort of Tuskegee Syphilis Study redux.

The level of ignorance in the Sowetan article is lamentable given people’s readiness to believe the worst when it comes to medical research. But the shameful performance by former South African president Thabo Mbeki—who single-handedly held up HIV treatments for millions of his countrymen and women because of crackpot pseudo-scientific fantasies—should have alerted us to the dangers of this kind of posturing.

In fact, the female participants in the study were extensively counseled on HIV prevention, informed that the gel was not proven to be effective and guaranteed full medical treatment if they became HIV-positive during the trial.

In a stinging rebuttal the respected South Africa advocacy group TAC (Treatment Action Campaign) lit into Mngxitama for ‘distorting facts, taking an opinion on something he knows little about, and making statements that will cause life-threatening confusion’, all ‘under the guise of black consciousness’. Unfortunately, the TAC reply is not posted on the Web, but I will gladly forward it to anyone interested.

Just one detail will provide an ample idea of the sloppy reporting and demagoguery behind the Sowetan article. Mngxitama said 60% of the trial participants eventually became HIV-infected; the actual figure is 11%—in a country where prevalence rates in some areas run over 30% of all sexually active adults.

Efficacy trials for a communicable disease like HIV do face ethical dilemmas because the only way to demonstrate that something works is to establish treatment and the placebo groups and wait to observe how many people acquire the infection. Since we know that a percentage of people will not follow medical advice and expose themselves to risk, trials that are large enough will provide the evidence sought.

The alternative is to do no research and accept that some things can never be studied—an option often chosen when the ethical issues are insurmountable. For example, one can no longer study new HIV medicines against a untreated group because we now know that treatment works. But primary HIV prevention is different.

For reporters interested in learning something, CAPRISA had developed an extensive media kit of fact sheets, videos, PowerPoints and all the rest of it, along with making themselves available for interviews. But writers cannot be forced to do their homework especially if they have pre-set agendas and can’t be bothered with facts.

It is noteworthy that the study achieved a 95% retention rate, which is remarkable for research anywhere. That might be related to the years of medical care being provided in these same settings, which naturally led people to cooperate with the research staff and believe in the process.

Actually tackling a grave social ill like AIDS requires years of quiet dedication and steady work. It doesn’t provide an immediate, facile reward like penning a denunciation in the name of the downtrodden.