Monday, 31 December 2012

Films of 2012


One of the marvels of New York is the remarkable access it provides to great films from all over the world and from the hundreds of independent directors toiling outside the narrow confines of the industry. There are a half dozen film clubs that one can join for $75 or so per year, constant premieres, and frequent colloquies with the directors themselves.

This year I’ve seen Chilean Patricio Guzman present his film on the search for the disappeared, Werner Herzog describe his interviews with death row inmates, and Sara and Ken Burns introduce the Central Park 5 after an emotional screening of their film on that police/media crucifixion. I probably averaged at least one movie a week and often took in more when the banquet table was just too heavily laden. But I also managed to see quite a few of the commercial favs, too, and thus have my own opinions about what were the high- and low-lights of the year, which you, faithful Reader, should you so choose, will now learn.

As this cannot be a complete list given the many offerings I missed, I will merely comment on the year-end ratings compiled by the critics in the periodicals I read, endorsing or contradicting their considered and yet fallible opinions.

A. Stick a fork in it: the overblown, over-hyped and overrated

(1) The Master. This Paul Thomas Anderson film loosely based on the origins of Scientology lumbered heavily into view and was duly praised by the experts for its unusual scope. Some called it the year’s best picture. Yes, it was ambitious in an Icarus sort of way—it soared, then landed with a thud. More a vehicle for stars to show off their chops than a credible portrayal of the cult phenomenon, The Master promised insights that did not materialize and provided only a static relationship between the two main characters that, in the end, made little sense. The 180: Joaquin Phoenix was terrific.

(2) Zero Dark Thirty. Sorry, po-mo aesthetes, it just won’t do to divorce this moral outrage from its impact on our lives. While apparently an excellent piece of filmmaking, ZDT justifies torture and will someday be watched in horror like Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will or her beautiful shots of the Nuremberg rallies. Placing it on the top-ten list without comment shows the depths of our culture’s blindness to its ongoing crimes. (Thought experiment: what if someone had made a great movie about the brilliant attack on the Twin Towers in 2001? Would it be ‘just a film’?)

(3) Lincoln. There were certainly things to enjoy about this fascinating account of the dificulties in getting even a Union-dominated Congress to abolish slavery, and I’m all for history lessons. But the portrayal of Honest Abe had serious holes, and the politics sucked. Slaves had zero agency as mere choristers trotted out to harmonize about the wondrous gift of Emancipation, and abolitionists, as usual, were painted as unreasonable extremists. Day Lewis captured Lincoln’s whimsy, but the attempt to recreate his historic oratory bombed.

(4) Keep the Lights On. A gay partnership struggling through addiction issues—hey, I’m certainly sympathetic. But this shipwreck of insipid dialogue gave off the air of unresolved confessional, the fallacy that because we lived through something, it has to be interesting to others.

B. Yes, these were terrific.

(1) Elena. Russian noir makes other noir look scarcely a pale gray. And this wasn’t even the grimmest from that frozen continent.

(2) The Kid with a Bike. Lovely Belgian tale of average people drawn toward decency.

(3) This is Not a Film. Understated (and courageous) docu-drama of thought control in totalitarian Iran.

C. Missed, but to be Netflixed

A few films keep popping up on the Best lists and seem worthy of a look: Magic Mike, Bernie, The Imposter, Not Fade Away.

D. Documentary excellence

Detropia, The Central Park Five, The Flat, Hitler’s Children, How To Survive a Plague, Marina Abramovic: The Artist Is Present, On Death Row, Nostalgia for the Light

Will be adding to this as memory is refreshed.

Saturday, 29 December 2012

The expendable Ms. Rice


John Heilemann, an astute political columnist for New York magazine, shot himself in the foot this week in a revealing way, providing yet another illustration of how much more our errors teach us than our triumphs. He wrote a full-length opinion piece about how Susan Rice WAS in fact going to be nominated and confirmed as Hillary Clinton’s replacement. As it turned out, not so much.

Heilemann’s reasoning was based on five embarrassingly well elaborated points: that Obama wanted Rice for the job, that she was qualified for it, that the dust-up over the fatal attack on the Benghazi consulate was a non-issue, that John McCain making a big deal out of it showed that McCain was a jackass (and that Obama was sick of him), and that Obama by standing firm would obtain a solid victory because the GOP would fold in a real fight over the nomination.

The ink—if they still use ink—was barely dry on that run of the magazine when Rice threw in the towel, and Kerry was brought in next. How could such a prescient and careful political observer make such a goof? I think it reveals the lengths to which many in our midst are determined to drink the Obama Kool-Aid.

Heilemann must have forgotten that Obama is a pussy. That is, when faced with Republican opposition to pretty much anything, his default position is to find a way to cut a deal and compromise halfway. When that fails, as it inevitably does since for the Repubs he’s a Kenyan socialist gangster, Obama cedes more ground. But when the situation is binary, as in Congress does/does not confirm person X to a job, Obama has nowhere to go. So he buckles.

There are exceptions that prove the rule, notably the lengthy fight over Obamacare, which partially obscured his tendency to start out by giving the Republicans far more than they deserved and then backtracking from there. In fact, the pattern was established firmly in the healthcare fight itself after which Obama got nothing despite providing constant sweeteners for nearly a year. It continued through the stimulus package, financial services reform and other budget issues. We can anticipate another bout of here-have-the-farm on the bullshit ‘fiscal cliff’ scam, which is likely to be sealed at five minutes to midnight Monday.

There is, however, one place where Obama consistently stands firm: sticking it to his liberal base. That’s where the president displays his pair of steely cojones, whether it’s the recently renewed snooping on U.S. citizens, flaunting his godlike assassin’s powers, not closing down the Guantánamo dungeons, deporting Mexicans by the tens of thousands, or enforcing archaic federal marijuana laws.

Obama’s record suggests that his chronic apparent weakness in the face of Republican opposition is nothing of the sort, but rather a convenient way to pretend to be forced into doing what he is more or less inclined to do anyway. Putting up a good show of conflict keeps us all agog and rooting for him to finally get ‘tough’ and use his power to do good as he supposedly wants to but, for some inexplicable reason, can’t or won’t.

It’s painful to think that his real program is the one we are getting: constant concessions to the financial elites and the security state, a gradual chipping away at the New Deal legacy, continued redistribution of wealth upwards accompanied by further concentration of power at the top. But the evidence shows that that is the Obama program, not some warmed over nouveau Great Society liberalism.

So it’s wonderful that Heilemann pissed all over himself in this dramatic fashion, not because he’s a rotten sort but because he’s a perfectly decent guy. When our opinion leaders finally wake up and observe the reality about the Obama White House, rather than the fantasy image they’ve been sucking on for years, we’ll be ready to have a real debate about where the country is. Probably far too late to do any good, but whatever.

Saturday, 22 December 2012

A zero from Kathryn Bigelow


Apparently, Zero Dark Thirty isn’t a bad movie. On the contrary, the critics say it’s a very good movie.

Which makes it a very bad movie.

Glenn Greenwald opened the fireworks with a scathing non-review of the Kathryn Bigelow film in The Guardian over a week ago in which he said that the film provides a morally repugnant justification for torture. He was immediately twitted (and Twittered) for ‘reviewing’ a film he hadn’t seen, despite his explicit, upfront framing of the commentary as a criticism of the politics of the movie, not its aesthetic qualities.

As everyone will soon know, the film treats the search for and eventual assassination of Osama bin Laden and includes harrowing and lengthy scenes of torture performed on detainees by Americans and/or their agents. The torture is shoehorned into the film narrative as a necessary and useful procedure by which the U.S. obtained intelligence on bin Laden’s whereabouts and could finally kill him.

It is a key issue in the ensuing debate that this is completely false and that, in fact, no one argues as a point of historical fact that torturing bound and shackled detainees provided any useful intelligence in tracking down bin Laden, as even crusty old John McCain, to his credit, recently reiterated in a criticism of the film. Bigelow and her screenwriters have argued that, oh well hey, we needed a little narrative arc there, and it’s Just a Film after all! Not a documentary.

So now everyone and his transgendered brother has weighed in, and from what I can gather, the non-Greenwaldian responses fall into two camps:

-those who say it’s a great film, the ‘politics’ doesn’t matter, and you can’t judge a fictionalized treatment with the strict criteria of reportage (Not A Documentary); and

-those who say we can and should address the politics but given that the gruesomely detailed torture scenes show America in a bad light, the film forces us to recognize the ugliness of what we did; ergo, even though the history is falsified, we watch the film, rub our faces in our baseness and concede that as a nation we committed heinous and immoral acts. Which is good for us.

These two responses roughly correspond to the Republican-red and the Democrat-blue views of our recent history, which is exactly why Zero is such a morally bankrupt affair. No matter who got your vote last November, this film provides a vehicle for you to give the official torture regime a pass, either as a straight-up great idea or else as a necessary—albeit terrible—one.

That’s why the argument that the torture scenes are chilling and awful and thus provide a corrective to our recent sorry history is exactly backwards because they do the exact opposite: we can experience the horror and then absolve ourselves collectively by seeing the denouement in the punishment of the Evil One. Despite or rather because of our cathartic discomfort, we end up reviving our idea of ourselves as morally intact through the vehicle of suffer through the terrible (but necessary!) actions taken to restore our security.

Militarists and crude racists can and no doubt will simply cheer at the punishment meted out to the Islamic prisoners, but Bigelow provides a far more insidious and dangerous absolution for nervous liberals uneasy at the techniques applied. No wonder the Obama White House was so eager to cooperate with her team. The set-up makes Dick Cheney and by extension Obama look like realists and the Amnesty/ACLU/Human Rights Watch types a bunch of well-meaning naifs: the Dark Side is surely a frightening and terrible place, we conclude, but our protectors must travel there, like Orpheus descending into hell to rescue endangered Eurydice. Otherwise, they cannot protect us.

I must add that I am not in the least surprised given Bigelow’s last and equally reprehensible award-winning effort, The Hurt Locker. I may be one of the few viewers who walked out of it halfway. It contains perhaps the most despicable single scene produced in film since the U.S. invaded and destroyed Iraq under false pretenses and left the country in shambles.

Bigelow sets up her bomb-squad guys in that movie in an atmosphere of menace and danger. The Iraqis are portrayed to be not thrilled with their American conquerors though they are given no reasons for such attitudes. Then in early scenes an Iraqi child is introduced whose innocent ball-playing provides a moment of relief in the midst of constant death, threat and horror. But the kid is promptly blown up in a bomb factory, and the heroic G.I. protagonist gets to carry his lifeless body out through the wreckage.

Given the deaths of tens of thousands of Iraqis as a direct result of the U.S. takeover of their country, a filmmaker who head was not completely buried in the rectal compartments of the U.S. military might permit an actual citizen of that country to express the grief corresponding to one of their own children’s death. But Bigelow doesn’t give a shit about Iraqis or any damn foreigners—they’re just chum to be tossed in to provide dramatic background. Her films reveal the profound racism at the heart of the American imperial enterprise, which has changed little if at all since the Vietnam debacle of our youth, and we should expect nothing less than revisionist torture porn from her.

Wednesday, 19 December 2012

Pakistani vaccine workers murdered



Anyone surprised by the attacks on nurses?

Recall that the collection of intelligence on the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden involved a fake vaccination campaign in which Pakistani health workers collected bodily fluid samples (to check DNA, apparently) from a lot of people in the Abbottabad neighborhoods. The genius who thought this up undoubtedly chuckled in glee at the clever use of people’s credulous faith in medical personnel to zero in on the enemy.

Perhaps no one gave much thought—or if they did, couldn’t give a shit—about the impact of using white-coated tricksters on the long-term health of the Pakistani population. Once the residents of that city and in fact the entire country realized that these benign-looking caregivers really could be foreign spies, it was just a matter of time before they became war targets.

In fact, locals predicted attacks on vaccine workers that would severely crimp the U.S. funded campaign against polio in Pakistan, one of only four countries in the world where the disease remains endemic. Kidnappings and death threats against these field workers already had occurred—now they are pretty sure to worsen.

So the Pakistanis have yet another profession burdened as a provocative red flag waved at the local fundamentalist gunmen—and of course all females will be immediately suspect anyway for not hiding in the kitchen.

It’s ironic that in the U.S. suspicious fundamentalists stymie vaccination campaigns as government-sponsored attempts to compel compliance, fueled by unsubstantiated and demagogic fears of vaccine-induced autism. Yet the Obama Administration thought nothing of confirming foreigners’ worst fears by turning a vaccine program into a CIA plot. Who is now responsible for the damage to the public’s health in Pakistan?

In the public health field, by which I am currently employed, we are required to produce reams of documents proving that we are taking all due steps to avoid harming people, all under the rubric of ethical treatment of human research subjects. Who in the government charged with overseeing the ethics of vaccination campaigns carried out with U.S. money in foreign lands has had anything to say about this outrageous ethical violation? I am going to spend some time trying to find out.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

Enough pious bullshit


Jay Carney’s notorious comment Friday that ‘today is not that day’ for discussing gun regulation reflects everything that is wrong about the Obama team and Obama personally. It reflects the ball-less political calculations of phony leaders waiting for the winds to shift enough to give them the right cover for action. Real statesmen would create the winds—for god’s sake, what kind of ‘right’ day are we waiting for while the entire country is imagining the carnage of 20 white grade-schoolers riddled with bullets?

Weepy Democrats will react to that harsh opinion as if they’d just been given an enema of crushed jalapeños. They’d rather join candlelight prayer circles at the Unitarian church and wait patiently for their liberal leaders—who said jack shit about gun craziness during the endless 2012 campaign—to do something in their own sweet time, which means never.

The ‘right day’ for unpopular or politically controversial action, from the politician’s point of view, is always tomorrow or next year, a lesson completely obfuscated by the film Lincoln, which teaches us that because Abe was a Great Man, he knew how to cleverly balance all the extremist forces around him and end slavery. This success was obtained, the film asserts, because Lincoln managed to cool off the radical hotheads like Thaddeus Stevens and navigate the passage of the 13th Amendment through a reactionary Congress.

The abolitionist movement gets no credit, and of course slaves themselves are just passive lumps awaiting liberation from above, upon which they break into gospel hymns in the House galleries. In fact, but unknown to viewers of Lincoln, slaves were taking things into their own hands and deserting their masters as soon as Union troops got close. Today turned out to be ‘right’ for ending their slave status, not some later moment on the leadership’s magic calendar.

Back when Arizona Congresswoman Gabby Giffords was lying in a coma from a gunshot to the head from another deranged gunman, Obama’s previous press rep, Robert Gibbs, made this statement: ‘I wouldn’t rule out that at some point the president talks about the issues surrounding gun violence’. Wow, isn’t that a ringing commitment to bold action? I guess O just never got around to that mission afterward—probably got buried under some papers.

Carney probably assumed that the latest massacre would fade from memory in due course as well, and so the president wouldn’t have to sacrifice any political capital on a divisive fight, given that fighting and divisiveness with our Republican friends is to be avoided at all costs.

But it seems that maybe, just maybe, it won’t be so easy this time. Our mayor is among the few public figures making sense on the Connecticut shooting. Bloomberg called Obama out for limiting himself to pious sentiments when the country needs proposals for action, not just hand-wringing and televised funerals.

In the end it won’t be the pols of any stripe that will move states and the feds to action—it will be people up in arms, pardon the expression. The first order of business is to insist that the conversation, long censored by the NRA bullies, HAS to take place. The details of what policies should be adopted can be worked out along the way.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Endangering the social media geese with the golden huevos


I sometimes send small donations to this or that worthy cause and consider it an adult responsibility to do so. But I have no illusions that this in any way substitutes for more concrete forms of civic or political action—it’s a check or a tick on a Web form, nothing more.

That’s why I am eager to warn the myriad groups now milking social media for their livelihood not to squeeze the ample teats of Twitter, Facebook and the more traditional email campaigns too tightly lest they dry up the juice entirely. Here’s an example:

I was walking home a few hours ago and received a cell call from a number in the Bronx that I did not recognize. It was Working Families, a New York-based alternative party whose organizing and campaigns I have found admirable and well considered. They sometimes run candidates but more often engage in direct action and public education while not above backing a local progressive Democrat against some awful creep. Currently the main force behind the anti-fracking drive, a topic close to our hearts (and noses) here in New York State, they’re clever, strategic and capable of nuance. I like them and allowed them to have my number via one of their many online petition drives.

The lad who was working their phones asked me if I knew who they were, reminded me of their good works and promptly laid into The Pitch. I interrupted him to say that I would gladly make a donation but was much more interested in what he was asking me to DO, rather than how much money I was going to GIVE. I repeated that I promised to send something but insisted that he tell me what was on their agenda of organizing and agitation.

He couldn’t. Instead, the poor kid slipped back into his prepared text and started to give me the payment options, the suggested monthly amounts, and the ease with which I could express my solidarity with humanity if I would Just Say Yes. Nothing about trying to speak with my state senator, who happens to live on the next block, no request to take the anti-fracking petition door to door in my apartment building, no alert about the next demonstration or upcoming educational seminar, absolutely nada—except to reach into my pocket and fork over what I find there.

Hey, I understand. These groups need cash, and the Internet is a magic money mountain. You tap into it, and the bucks flow out in satisfyingly predictable amounts. So it’s tempting to turn to it again and again. But we know from direct mail campaigns how quickly these tactics burn themselves out and sink into decadence. Groups still make money on them, but what does steady cash for the Sierra Club or Amnesty International have to do with social movements? They’re largely divorced from each other, and these inert mailings (and now Facebook hustles) are part of the over-oiled machinery of the do-gooder nonprofits.

I say all this as a frequent contributor and an inveterate do-gooder myself, so it’s not a question of going broke out of ideological purity. But I wish all these entities would remember that every time they approach their potential allies with their hands held out is one less opportunity to engage with us about the actual work they are doing and how to join up with it.

It’s all well and good to dip their nets into the pond in hopes of bringing up a few lumps of needed gold. But please, pitchmen, beggars and donation scroungers all, put the actual WORK that we all can do up on top. If your labors are essential and we’re actually a meaningful part of them, we won’t mind being reminded that someone has to pay for them, too. On the other hand, if you only love me for my bank account, let me tell you something: I already know how it feels to be treated like a john.

Monday, 10 December 2012

Get ready for the Obama sell-out


The shape of the new bipartisan sell-out of working Americans is now becoming clear, so buckle your seat belts. It will be led by the Great and Powerful Defender of the 99% Barack Obama with sour-faced, grumpy Republicans pretending to be dragged kicking and screaming into the briar patch of their choice. The result will be the further impoverishment of the middle classes (no one cares about the poor at all, so fuck them).

The online NY Times had a big, neon warning sign in a weekend article that started like this:

“A small but growing group of Republicans say the party should perhaps accede to President Obama‘s demand for higher tax rates for top earners so that the attention can shift to making serious cuts in benefit programs like Medicare and Medicaid, a top Republican senator said on Sunday.”
The article then goes on to mention the Obama-Boehner meetings and the continued Republican insistence on “deep, long-term reductions” in Medicaid and “other social programs” to obtain their cooperation. Well, I guess that makes sense given the Republicans’ stunning triumphs in the recently concluded elections.

Oh, wait a minute! I thought the guys in favor of shoveling yet more of the national income upwards were soundly defeated. Huh? Did I miss something?

No, actually, I didn’t. But a whole lot of frantically canvassing and snottily superior Obamanoids did—while they were swooning over their guy’s solid victory, he was telling anyone who cared to listen that the first order of business upon re-election was to chip away at the New Deal social safety net that has kept our grandparents away from the cat food for 50 years. He said it, but the self-righteous Democrats who were telling me I should shed my skepticism and swallow the Kool-Aid NOW refused to hear it.

Note also that although the immediate focus of attention is cuts to Medicaid—which is an easier target since it serves low-income people rather than the powerful elderly (Medicare) or the so-far sacrosanct Social Security—that weasel phrase “other social programs” is a hint about where things will head once the principle of “deep, long-term reductions” is established. After all, if the problem is “entitlements,” those things the government gives away to undeserving mooches like you and me, rather than unfunded wars, de-industrialization by off-shoring, Pentagon bloat or massive value extraction by Wall Street, then well, I guess we’ll just have to man up and start knocking down those big, bad, expensive things like government retirement plans and socialized health care.

A really progressive administration would campaign for the opposite: to expand the more efficient state-run health insurance schemes like Medicare and Medicaid, thereby reining in our ridiculous healthcare costs. It would also stomp out all the talk about Social Security’s alleged demographic problems and the lies about its imminent insolvency. Earth to base: these tales are FALSE and tendentious, i.e., designed to rob you while you slumber. Given the full house Obama is holding with the automatic expiration of the Bush tax giveaways, there is no reason at all to bargain away our legacy from the Roosevelt years.

In short, we are about to witness a new Nixon-in-China moment: Barack Goes to Wall Street. The old anticommunist hellcat sucking up to Mao Zedong marked the end of a Cold War era, and Obama’s success in opening up the New Deal safety net to plutocratic plunder is its mirror image—only a liberalish-looking Democrat could pull it off. It is the culmination of Obama’s faithful toadying to the interests of finance over the productive economy and the citizens, and the result will be an historic shift in the assumptions about what our government should provide.

True, Romney & friends, the purported losers last month, may end up paying a little more to the IRS although let’s not count on that given all the ways the moneybags have to shelter their income and get around the system. But the really significant prize—access to even more wealth once the safety net is further shredded—will now be open to them. And since we’ve been lulled into a political coma by the electoral spectacle, we won’t feel a thing.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Egyptian revolution still smoking



It’s doesn’t take expertise in Arab politics to see that the Egyptian upheaval of 2011 has not run out of steam by a long shot. Given the trauma, repression (including nearly 1000 deaths), and economic damage that occurred during the revolution against Hosni I’s pharaonic rule, Egyptians reasonably could be expected to want a break from street demonstrations and further disruption of their lives and livelihoods.

But clearly the promise of living in a real democracy where people have a fighting chance for a decent existence remains a palpable dream for millions of people in that country who are now watching aghast as the Islamist faction tries to hijack the revolution and turn itself into the new, single-party state. President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood has shown a perverse determination to collect all meaningful powers into his own person and stiff the other factions and interest groups completely, both in the writing of the new constitution and the control of the main levers of state power. While the country has had a long tradition of autocratic rule, to say the least, it looks as though the populace is impressively unwilling to sit by and let this happen.

If the MB were to consolidate its power and hold all the reins, Egyptians probably could kiss goodbye any chance of enjoying a functioning democracy and economic opportunity for another half-century while the bearded poo-bahs sit around debating how long women’s hijabs should be. You’d think that after the successful uprising against Mubarak and the multiplicity of social actors involved in it, from secular liberals, union members, women, rank-and-file soldiers, and yes, Islamic organizations, that whoever ended up in charge would have realized he needed to build a coalition and preserve the revolutionary unity as long as possible. Trying to build a new society under such conditions and with so many competing interests is not a job for the fainthearted. But it’s been done often enough and well enough in human history that one could learn from those lessons. Morsi didn’t.

Instead, he quickly decapitated the armed forces, for better or for worse, and then thought he could stifle and crush anyone else in the way of his singular authority. It remains to be seen whether the nationwide suspension of judicial review, the packing of the constitutional convention with Islamist hard-liners AND the final straw of the rushed plebiscite to ratify it will succeed or backfire. So far, it looks like a severe overreach. With mass demonstrations growing in number and violent clashes breaking out, Morsi now needs the security forces to line up behind him. Let’s see if they do. It can’t be reassuring for him to have to flee from the presidential palace with a few hundred thousand of his own citizens baying for his beard out front.

Morsi also seems to have inherited Mubarak’s ideas on how to respond to mass discontent. His address to the nation last night was provocative and insulting, offering zero concessions, insisting on the bogus plebiscite, and trashing his critics as criminals and foreign agents. This is not merely boneheaded and gratuitous, it also suggests that Morsi and his group wallow in a sectarian view, consistent with their neurotic religious prejudices, that they themselves are the only true Egyptians.

While there are clearly dangers ahead, the vigorous popular reaction is, once again, inspiring. Morsi is losing key allies daily, and the longer the massive repudiation lasts, the weaker his position becomes. If Morsi is forced to back down on the constitutional vote, the Egyptian revolution will be looking healthier and stronger than ever.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

“The Cliff” is So-o-o-o-o Much B.S.


Today’s breathless debate about whether Obama’s proposals or the GOP’s replies will help us avoid the ‘fiscal cliff’ is the modern equivalent of the ancient slugfest over the Nestorian Heresy. That was an urgent debate about whether Jesus of Nazareth was fully human, a divine being, or a goddish entity somewhere in between. Isn’t it just marvelous to see that the biped race can still engage in these sorts of arcane battles 17 centuries later? I’ve no doubt that given half a chance and appropriate weaponry, the Reds and the Blues would sally forth with gusto and beat each other senseless, just like they did in 423 C.E.

Why is there a ‘cliff’, and why do we have to rush ourselves into a bipartisan deal to avoid rushing ourselves over it? Simple answer: it’s not there. Yes, some tax measures will expire on January 1—so what? Neither side wants to take the blame for payroll taxes on the average worker to be restored to their prior levels, but the Bush-era tax cuts favoring the wealthy expire, too.

Dean Baker, who twits that tendentious GOP propagandist and willful ignoramus David Brooks at Beat the Press, points out that Obama holds all the necessary cards—if he should choose to use them:

If nothing happens right now, the top tax rate goes to 39.6 percent on January 1, 2013. There is nothing that John Boehner and the Republicans can do to stop this. Furthermore, President Obama has a mandate to raise the top tax rate. Brooks probably missed this, but we just had a lengthy election campaign where taxes on the rich were the central issue. President Obama won.
The ‘fiscal cliff’ that we’re supposed to be all skeered of is an overstuffed, papier-maché wolf that our leaders say they can hear howling somewhere in the snowy wastes beyond the Beltway. But there is absolutely no evidence that current deficit spending is leading us into perdition or that a real economic recovery would not restore historic tendencies in the federal budget and at least partially resolve the deficit issue.

But the ‘fiscal cliff’—which should always be placed in quotation marks to distinguish it from something real—is an excellent opportunity for the Repubs and, sadly, the president as well to do what they both salivate over: plunge daggers into the ribcage of Social Security and Medicare/Medicaid. This is also known as the “Grand Bargain” or more accurately the “Catfood Campaign” aimed at encouraging our seniors to go back to the good old days when varieties of Friskies were the dinner options starting at about the 20th of every month. Although neither of these issues is directly involved in the expiring tax rate business, Obama has been saying for years that he is willing to chip away at these New Deal legacies in exchange for higher taxes on the rich.

The pity is that Obama probably will get what he is demanding and that it will be meaningless in the long run. Boosting the tax rate on high earners can and will be subverted in other ways, but the very dangerous precedent of a Democratic president ceding ground on the big social insurance programs of the 1930s and 1960s will open up a floodgate of demands to go further and deeper. In fact, we are rarely reminded that the tax break given two years ago was itself based on a very unwise precedent, that of allowing workers to forego the very payroll taxes that assured them they were buying retirement insurance from the federal government and have the right to then receive it. How much easier to beat the drums about the alleged (and false) ‘bankruptcy’ of the Social Security trust when legislators themselves are undermining its income by pandering to the universal desire of people to pay less!

It is particularly ironic and annoying that the Obama campaign is using its recently compiled lists of supporters to pump up this campaign—something his people studiously refused to do when Obamacare, financial regulation, or other truly important issues were at stake. But they don’t hesitate to corral people into this entirely bogus World Wide Wrestling match complete with deadly ‘blows’ and ‘throws’ over the ‘fiscal cliff’. I’ll stick to real controversies, like whether the Virgin Mary’s nether parts remained intact throughout her subsequent childbirths or just during you-know-who’s.

Saturday, 1 December 2012

The Election III -- The Ugly


Elizabeth Drew writes with uncharacteristic indignation in the New York Review of Books that Obama’s re-election occurred despite a scheme ‘concocted by small-minded men to subvert the natural workings of our most solemn and exhilarating exercise as a self-governing nation’. Republicans failed to suppress enough votes among the Democratic base to win, but the attempt, Drew cautions, was a grave assault on our democracy nonetheless.

The details are worth a look at the full article and include both well-known and obscure tactics: requiring special voter IDs and making them hard to obtain; restricting early and absentee voting; setting up inadequate polling places without enough poll workers to ensure lengthy waits (up to eight hours in Florida); even, in one case, forcing voters to fill out their own provisional ballot forms, thereby sharply raising the chance of errors and the loss of the vote. The outcome was that thousands of people met enormous obstacles in their exercise of their most basic right as citizens.

Drew also notes the bank of lawyers the Romney campaign had standing by to put on a repeat of the 2000 Florida challenge that put Bush II in power. We can gloat that because their guy was trounced so thoroughly, not one state hung in the balance, and they had nothing to do after all. But that’s slight reassurance, and the parallel with 2000 is particularly disturbing because it reminds us that the GOP paid such a negligible political price for ripping off a presidential election 12 years ago that it felt emboldened to try it again.

We’ve been treated over the last four years to the spectacle of a die-hard opposition in Congress saying ‘Nicht’ to anything coming from the Obama White House, just ‘because’. But let’s fantasize: what if the Democrats had adopted a similar posture after seeing the election of 2000 snatched by judicial coup and had based their intransigence on the perfectly serviceable theory that the incoming Bush Administration was illegitimate? True, this is like asking my aunt to have cojones, but it does illustrate how Romney’s team could have seen no reason not to try for a repeat.

Drew writes that the plan backfired because the people targeted for disenfranchisement—blacks, students, the elderly, workers—were outraged and streamed to the polls in greater numbers than ever, assisted by the Obama campaign’s meticulous planning to get them there. But she also notes how Obama tossed off a casual reference to the mess in his post-midnight victory speech while people in Florida were still waiting in line to vote. ‘By the way, we have to fix that’, he said, as if the breakdown of the cornerstone of democratic rule were a technical glitch rather than intentional voter suppression. He obviously knows better and chose not to make an issue of it. This is wrong and dangerous.

ACORN, the voter registration nonprofit entrapped and pilloried eventually to death over a handful of errors, is no longer around. But Karl Rove’s super-PAC is, and while his team is suffering for its lousy performance and its waste of ridiculous piles of money, no one is on the spot for its concerted attempts to undermine the act of voting itself. They goofed this time in a host of ways, especially by being so bloody obvious. But they’ll be back, and since voter suppressors need fear no retribution, their tactics will be more sophisticated next time around.

Friday, 30 November 2012

New winds ruffling Israeli feathers


The reactions of our fearless diplomats to the UN General Asssembly vote on Palestinian quasi-state status were marvelously contradictory: first, furious lobbying took place to prevent the issue from coming to a vote at all (successful on the first try). Then, when it was obvious that the U.S. was going to lose badly, bland assurances that the whole exercise was meaningless, a position obliquely endorsed by the NY Times headline today, ‘Statehood Is No Closer’.

No, it’s not, but severe diplomatic isolation sure is for the U.S. and its Israeli ally, and any talk of this being irrelevant is complete whistling in the dark. Negotiators and diplomats are extremely conscious of building alliances and really, really like having other guys singing from the same songbook (and conversely, hate it when other countries break ranks). When the Central American wars were raging, State Department people whom I covered in Washington and later in Santiago when they passed through always made a big show of the alliances they had built up with wonderful partners like the Guatemalan dictatorships, the Honduran junta and anyone else they could corral to look less like go-it-alone bullies.

The Times is certainly correct that the vote waves no magic wands, returns no refugees and stops no illegal West Bank settlements. But it is folly to pretend that it is merely ‘symbolic’. After all, symbols are very powerful—take flags or crosses, for example. And having some sort of UN status is a step forward in the Palestinians’ long trek towards having some sort of human and civil rights, which statelessness robs them of, as diaspora Jews know from bitter experience.

One knowledgeable observer explains that there are a number of entirely concrete measures that logically could follow from the Palestinian presence in world bodies as they are now enabled to bring resolutions and complaints before a number of UN bodies.

Over time, such steps could begin having a major impact on settler enterprises and even on the Israeli economy itself (which is fragile and highly dependent on foreign trade with Europe, since its goods are often shunned in the Middle East).

An example is the recent demand of the youth wing of the Swedish Social Democratic Party that Sweden boycott all settler-made goods. (Sweden, a little unexpectedly, voted for the UNGA resolution yesterday). If such demands proliferate, and the next generation of Europeans feels so strongly on this issue, the settlers could end up bankrupted. Over time, such steps could begin having a major impact on settler enterprises and even on the Israeli economy itself (which is fragile and highly dependent on foreign trade with Europe, since its goods are often shunned in the Middle East).

This starts to sound like the anti-apartheid divestiture movement, which cut the props out from under that regime and turned Nelson Mandala from a terrorist pariah into a worldwide hero celebrated by rock stars. We can safely presume that the Israeli hard-liners are extremely disturbed. Not only that, they seem to be suffering from a sort of Romneyoid break with reality are are completely shocked by the diplomatic shellacking suffered from their key European trading partners.

A very smart Israeli Arab journalist once said to me, back in the 1980s: ‘The U.S. has Egypt, Israel, Jordan, and Saudi Arabia. With that, you control the region.’ Only two of those four pillars remain sure things (given the Jordanian king’s vulnerability to Arab springism), and now the Europeans are acting like independent actors capable of real mediation. American pols will continue to wag their tails dutifully at Netanyahu’s command, but the game has changed.


Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Whocuddanode?


Who would ever have thought that Senate Republicans would invite potential Hillary replacement Susan Rice over for a nice, friendly chat and then slip a dagger between her ribs on the way out? Why, there’s NO precedent for thinking they would ever-ever do that over the last four years! Is there?

The mindless faith displayed at the White House in the ever-elusive Big Bipartisan Family Chat To Work Things Out is really stunning, and no doubt they thought that this time would be different since it was to be a powwow on foreign policy issues, where not ever a “wafer-thin” mint could be wedged between most GOP and Democratic policy positions. But oops! turns out the duo of brain-dead John McCain and butchona Lindsay Graham turned out not to want to play along. So McCain—who brought us the mighty intellect of Sarah Palin as his back-up president—gets to trash Rice as intellectually inadequate. News flash: the alleged death of wacko, nutjob, Republican obstructionism widely announced after the recent election is a tad exaggerated.

I don’t give two farts about Susan Rice and her ambitions to become the latest defender of anonymous drone missile assassinations and Israeli war crimes. But I hope to live long enough to see the Obama team of chronic enablers figure out that they have to change tactics if they plan to get anywhere, starting with a little hardball a.k.a. old-fashioned revenge. Meanwhile, you do what you’ve always done, you’ll get what you’ve always got. And you’ll deserve it.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Turning children into trash

Two films are playing here on what appear at first glance to be separate topics: pedophile priests and the notorious 1989 Central Park jogger rape case.

But in fact, Mea Maxima Culpa: Silence in the House of God by Alex Gibney and the new Ken Burns documentary, The Central Park Five, treat exactly the same subject from different angles—how easy it is in our supposedly child-worshipping culture to take vulnerable youth, have them for breakfast, spit them out and then wash our collective hands of responsibility. That is, if you belong to one of the powerful institutions that will protect you from the consequences like the police or the Catholic Church.

In the Central Park case, police and city authorities needed to solve the brutal rape and near-murder of a young woman jogging through the park on a summer evening. Detectives found five usable suspects ages 14 to 16 and intimidated them into making phony statements through threats and all-night grilling sessions. False confessions are better understood now, but at the time the idea that a ‘wolfpack’ of rampaging black teens were responsible for the attack on a white female fit the stereotype and the narrative the city thirsted for. Crime, punishment, psychological safety restored—who cares if it’s true? It was ‘truthy’ as Colbert would say, and that was enough.

A school for the deaf in Wisconsin was the site of decades of serial child molestation, made doubly heinous by the calculated use of children who literally could not speak up. Father Murphy even may have targeted specific boys whose parents did not know American Sign Language. But the creepiest part of the film is how eager those around Murphy and above him in the church hierarchy were to push the business under the rug. His elderly housekeeper is outraged that the adult abuse survivors would dare to confront him in person about something ‘from long ago’ rather than ‘forgive’ the perpetrator like good Catholic boys.

One can conjure easily the defense that ‘pro-life’ types and defenders of childhood innocence would formulate upon seeing these accounts, and in fact there is already a campaign from the Murdochian right-wingers to defend the Central Park 5 cops and suggest that the exonerated boys—now men of 40—were accomplices to the real rapist even if they didn’t do the things they confessed to. The cops must be shown to have acted properly at all costs, and Bloomberg even now is trying desperately to fight off the civil damages suit moving glacially through the courts. After not cooperating with Ken Burns’ documentary, the city of New York promptly tried to subpoena his unused film to snare some contradictory evidence and buttress their case.

Gibney shows that the current Pope directly assisted in the suppression of damaging revelations and never ordered the principal diddler of boys in the Wisconsin case to be defrocked. Protecting the priestly caste was and is the Vatican’s priority, not succor to their victims. In this regard the two mighty institutions exposed in these films are mirror images of each other: Mafia-like structures whose mission is to ensure that shit flows only downward and no noxious fumes reach the top.


Thursday, 22 November 2012

Hitler’s Children and The Flat

Holocaust reminders are in the cinemas yet again, and some of us never tire of revisiting this mind-melting tale of our recent biped past. I’m not sure if poetry is pointless after Auschwitz as Adorno claimed, but it’s pretty hard to read it in the same old way after immersing oneself in the details.

Arnon Goldfinger’s The Flat tells the bizarre story of an Israeli fellow (himself) who rummages through his late grandmother’s hoards of belongings and finds copies of a Nazi newspaper, Der Angriff (Attack). Justifiably mystified by this, he begins to track down the story of his grandparents’ lifelong friendship with a German couple that began pre-war and was reestablished after the nightmare was over. That the German gentleman in question was a correspondent for this Nazi mouthpiece never interfered with the regular visits between the two couples and joint holidays, a fact the filmmaker grandson finds peculiar, to say the least. I don’t want to spoil the gradual revelations that make the film worth seeing, but it won’t ruin anything to say that the Nazi’s daughter becomes increasingly uncomfortable with the news that good old dad wasn’t just a cog in the evil wheel.

Denial and cover-up is the theme of the other Holocaust film now showing, Hitler’s Children, about the descendants of top Nazis like Goering, Frank and Hoess, and the startling element there is that these daughters, sons and grand-nieces refuse to partake. It’s quite something to see a healthy, clear-eyed young woman named Katrin Himmler speak with brutal frankness about who her granddad was and how she faced it.

Thinking that one’s DNA is eternally corrupted because of the sins of one’s forebears, she points out, is Nazi ideology. Ms. Himmler rejects it, and given that she’s married to an Israeli Jew, she’s obviously not kidding (nor, needless to say, is he). A lot of her relatives don’t feel the same way, and these uniquely disturbing accounts are full of family splits and rejections.

Perhaps most poignant and terrifying are the tales of the now elderly son of Hitler’s governor-general of occupied Poland, Hans Frank (executed after a trial at Nuremberg). Old enough to remember watching cruel games with ghetto prisoners (and worse yet, enjoying them), Niklas Frank wrote books denouncing his parents’ crimes and speaks regularly to high school students. His siblings hate him for it, and one hears the steady pressure, from unheard, off-screen voices, to bury the past and stop saddling the living with disquieting recollections.

Given the success with which many Nazis slipped back into polite society and were never confronted with their collusion, it’s hardly surprising to learn elsewhere that neo-nazi ideology is making a comeback all across Europe, aggravated by the economic train wreck gobbling up one country after another. Banker misdeeds always are easily blamed on ‘the Jews’ if one is so inclined, and we delude ourselves to think that a new round of scapegoating cannot follow.

Perhaps the eeriest comment comes from the grandson of Auschwitz commandant Rudolph Hoess who peers at the photos of his father’s upbringing in a sheltered compound on the grounds of the concentration camp. ‘Here is where my grandfather sat around with his family having tea’, he muses, ‘and then got up to say, All right, children, I’m off to kill a few more thousand. Back soon.’

Spielberg’s “Lincoln”

With Tony Kushner writing your script, it’s no wonder that Lincoln feels at times like a stage play carried to the screen. It relies on lively dialogue to tell the little-known story of the Thirteenth (abolition of slavery) Amendment at least as much as on its sometimes predictable imagery. That’s not really a criticism, and the two-hour-plus film is more engrossing than a standard biopic would have been especially on such an over-examined and profoundly unknowable life.

Lincoln keeps its focus narrow and lets us see a lot of the secondary characters like Tommy Lee Jones as the radical (Republican, no less) Thaddeus Stevens, David Straithorn as Seward, and many others in the surprisingly raucous Congress and among Lincoln’s inner circle. The portrayals, including Daniel Day Lewis, of course, are nuanced and convincing. (Prepare to hear about their Oscar chances for the next six months.) The Confederates and their sympathizers get a rounded treatment as well, including a watery-eyed Alexander Stephens, the CSA vice president trying to salvage a deal for the South as the war goes against them.

Considering the central issue being discussed and fought over, however, it’s at least curious that household servants, life-long freedmen and recently liberated slaves in the film are generally ciphers. At the film’s opening, a black enlistee speaks up boldly (and rather incredibly) to the visiting prez, Mary Lincoln’s maid is given several bodice-heaving moments of high emotion, and a Greek chorus of well-dressed Negroes in the House gallery is introduced to cheer and weep at the passage of the amendment at the end. Lincoln has a manservant who gets a few lines, and other black figures flit across the screen here and there.

None of them, however, ever gels into a full-fledged character. They remain stock figures and are largely interchangeable. It’s ironic that in a film that hinges on how the nation will consider its African descendants, none of its representatives ever achieves full personhood.

Wednesday, 21 November 2012

Crooks afoot


Readers of the financial press will have noticed a stunning admission from the heads of Hewlitt-Packard this week, that they had been bamboozled by the managers of a company called Autonomy, which HP recently absorbed, causing them to lose the tidy sum of $8.8 billion. Oops! HP’s stock dropped like a stone, losing 13% in one day, heads rolled, etc.

Why this is not just another case of nefarious corporate hustling may be gleaned from this paragraph:

The Autonomy investigation is believed to have been started by a whistleblower in Autonomy's leadership who came forward after Lynch's departure. The whistleblower gave ‘numerous details’ of alleged accounting irregularities about which the company [HP] said it had no prior knowledge. HP called in PricewaterhouseCoopers to do a forensic review.

How curious that accounting fraud, i.e., not copping to your company’s true financial state, is named as the culprit in this gigantic rip-off. Hold that thought while we turn to another event of the week.

The State of Missouri has just settled a suit against one of the most notorious mortgage fraud operations involving so-called ‘robosigning’, in which minor officers of mortgage servicing firms around the country were discovered to be rubber-stamping foreclosure and other documents and notarizing them despite having no concrete knowledge of whether the facts and figures contained therein were true or recently pulled out of their aunt’s butler’s ass. This practice has been whitewashed since as ‘sloppy paperwork’ or ‘processing errors’ instead of what it was: fraud. Fraud of the most serious kind, i.e., fraud in the preparation of documents to be used in court.

So tons of these perps and their bosses were frog-marched off to jails from sea to shining sea as a result of this massive criminal scheme, right? Um, not so much. The mortgage fraud Get-Out-of-Jail-Free-card ‘settlement’ cooked up by Obama and AG Eric Holder, with shameless cover provided by our turncoat state Attorney General, Eric Schneiderman, allowed for no prosecutions and even permits a ‘small number’ of continued abuses to continue indefinitely into the future.

Let’s take a moment to stop and think about what is being enabled here: banks and mortgage servicing companies can mess with the single most important asset of most American households and not fear prosecution if they make shit up, including documents that could cause homeowners to be falsely accused of missing payments and eventually losing their properties. If this sounds exaggerated, you’re not doing your homework—such cases have been reported over and over again in the ongoing scandal related to the destruction of the U.S. mortgage market, and IMHO the only reason there is no national movement to place heads on pikes in retaliation is that our president is named Obama rather than Bush or McCain.

Allowing corporate entities to falsify documents is equivalent to giving them permission to steal your checkbook and not worry about getting caught. Not prosecuting notary fraud undermines the entire system of contractual obligations and opens up the economy to rampant corruption a la Mexico or Azerbaijan.

Given this sorry and very recent history, HP’s dilemma at being bushwhacked by clever accounting crooks is not only not surprising but an omen of where corporate life could be headed. And if the big players suddenly discover that they can’t trust the guy in the next suit as far as they can throw him, they will have only themselves to blame.

Saturday, 17 November 2012

Petraeus and the perils of bimbography


Glenn Greenwald’s take on l’affaire Petraeus in The Guardian remains the best to date:

Having the career of the beloved CIA Director and the commanding general in Afghanistan instantly destroyed due to highly invasive and unwarranted electronic surveillance is almost enough to make one believe not only that there is a god, but that he is an ardent civil libertarian.
Despite Greenwald’s musing that perhaps, just maybe, this self-consumption by the Security State of itself could lead to a national conversation about snooping, one should not err on the side of excessive optimism. Petraeus was a big fish, but he’ll be forgotten soon, and others will pick up the juicy pieces, including the many trillions of our private messages now being stored by the Matrix.

Nonetheless, gape-mouthed amazement is in order that the FBI could perform warrentless trolling through the private emails and computer files not of mere you and me, but of the nation’s top intelligence officials without even a nod at a court-approved warrant. They did this on the basis of a vague and not particularly threatening series of anonymous notes from a supremely stupid grown woman acting like an adolescent bitch and wrecking a half-dozen lives in the process. Well, yeah, police states provide lots of opportunities for people to rat on each other—is that what we want?

However, the implications of the scandal, now blooming and blossoming daily like genital cauliflower warts, are legion. Let us earnestly hope that much attention is paid to whether the hallowed general’s weenie wandering compromised state secrets. This is highly relevant given the immediate and Obama-endorsed assurances that Bradley Manning’s alleged document dump to Julian Assange at Wikileaks did exactly that and in fact was the full equivalent to intentionally shooting American soldiers between the eyes. Let’s hear the details about exactly how which piece(s) of sensitive data damaged U.S. security interests, and then let’s compare that with the evidence soon to be presented in the Manning trial. It will be great fun because in one case the state wants to prove nothing terrible happened, and in the other, the exact opposite.

Also of note is the less-than-ringing endorsement offered by Obama when commenting upon Petraeus’s departure. Let’s parse the exact phrases used:

I have no evidence at this point from what I've seen that classified information was disclosed that in any way would have had a negative impact on our national security.
In the first highlighted phrase, the prez is saying that he personally has not seen anything so far about classified information being disclosed. That leaves several lawyerly gaps through which truckloads of secret documents can be driven. If it turns out later that Petraeus did give his bimbographer the keys to the CIA safe, Obama can backtrack and clarify by adding, Well, I hadn’t seen anything then, but now I have, golly gee. Compare that to a statement that Obama could have issued but did not:

General Petraeus did not give that woman any state secrets.
Now how about the ‘would-have-a-negative-impact’ line: Obama is saying that even if the skinny that Paula got while sitting on David’s lap was classified, nothing bad came of it. That immediately suggests that the first half of the sentence is already known to be false or at least that there is a good chance secrets were in fact told. So Petraeus is getting two firewalls of legal protection, that he didn’t tell her anything classified—which is almost impossible since the government has long since gone wild and classified EVERYTHING—and that if he did, it doesn’t matter.

Contrast that take with Obama’s April statement on the Bradley Manning whistleblower case:

And if you’re in the military… And I have to abide by certain rules of classified information. If I were to release material I weren’t allowed to, I’d be breaking the law. . . . We’re a nation of laws! We don’t let individuals make their own decisions about how the laws operate. He broke the law.
So Manning did but Petraeus didn’t, okay. But aside from the legal pirouetting, it’s remains pretty incredible that the guy charged with managing the nation’s secrets, for pity’s sake, is being carried off in a sedan chair before any sort of thorough investigation can be done on whether he got caught in the oldest intelligence goof in human history: the Venus spy-trap. So is the man a moron?

Clearly, no. But Petraeus’s careful massaging of reporters to the point where they will perform hagiography on him is a well-known secret of his success: he has been playing the media for decades to make himself out as the smart guy in the room, an image which many sheepish reporters are now recognizing publicly that they unduly burnished. One aspect of that ambitious strategy was to go off the record with them and discuss issues beyond the usual official line, a practice journalists love because they get more meaty insights into what’s going on. But they can also be more easily played that way, and were.

So Petraeus’s possibly excessive “access” granted to Ms. All In Broadwell is just part and parcel of his well-known propensity for chatting up reporters to show off his intellectual chops and promote his career. Given that top military officers are now quasi-politicians in their own right and have to polish their image right along with their rows of medals, this spectacular nose-dive of his golden career should not really come as such a great surprise.

[P.S.] Anyone notice how the right-wing press (e.g. the New York Post) have used the word-play on Petraeus/betray us that got MoveOn into so much trouble years ago? So you can’t criticize as disloyal a guy who is organizing death squads in Iraq, but it’s open season if he puts his penis somewhere he shouldn’t.

Monday, 12 November 2012

More beans yet to spill


There are just too many signs that the full story of the Petraeus resignation has not yet been told. Although having an affair that conceivably could subject one to blackmail obviously is grounds to losing your job as the nation’s top spymaster, the seamier details of what exactly happened suggest that many elements of the scandal remain hidden.

Teddy Partridge at firedoglake summarizes the mysterious Dianne Feinstein flipflops, starting with the Senator’s unusual initial statement that she wished Obama had NOT accepted Petaeus’s resignation. As Partridge points out, openly questioning her party’s president means either that she was completely in the dark about what was happening (a protocol goof by the White House), or that she was not told the full story (ditto, but maybe she then got the full story by this very public signal), or that she is just now grasping the political implications of a late-October national security blow-up during a tight presidential race (hard to believe).

Then, too, the actual facts of the case remain completely fuzzy. So Horndog Dave was banging Paula Broadwell, his official hagiographer, while talking to her about how great he is (the fantasy scenarios waiting to be hypothesized here are juicy), and that is a serious breach of judgment if said lady-friend were to threaten to tell his wife or his boss unless-you-give-me-X. Okay. But why did she send threatening messages to Jill Kelley, and what did the messages say? Why would she do that unless she is an absurd bimbo or thinks she is among people so powerful nothing can touch her? If the latter, what experiences have led her to think that?

And who is Jill Kelley? Is she a prior Petraeus bangee? So far, everyone says, Perish the thought! She likes to call herself ‘ambassador’ but is not one. In fact, she does not work for the State Department. In fact, she does not work for the U.S. government at all. WTF? AP said today she is an ‘unpaid social liaison to MacDill Air Force Base’. That’s the dangerous rival that Broadwell decided to pester? Could this whole thing be as banal as an adolescent facedown over b/f access or unauthorized eyelash-batting?

The FBI is understandably sensitive to trolling in officials’ sexual escapades given how J. Edgar notoriously turned the whole Bureau into a perv patrol for his own nefarious ends. But news of the dirty little secret seems to have been kept very close to a very few chests. That makes sense in rumor-hungry Washington, and yet someone decided that the situation that was not dangerous to national security in July or August was so in October. Who was that and why?

Saturday, 10 November 2012

Elections II – The Bad


[Second of three parts]

Subway track workers say the most dangerous moment for fatal accidents isn’t when a train is barreling towards you. An old hand knows where to find a concave safety shelter while working on repairs and step out of the way.

No, the worst moment for sudden subway death is when the train has roared past, and you feel safe. That’s when you move onto the tracks without looking both ways—just when the next unexpected, unheard train is approaching.

The soon-to-be-forgotten Mittster is the dangerous train that has just rattled through our lives on its way to historical oblivion. Given how long it took to pass, it felt several light-years long. That train, deadly as it was, isn’t going to flatten us despite its size, speed and ugliness.

But Obama’s might.

Now that our guard is down, Obama and his neo-liberal cabal have free rein to turn the will of the people on its head. In fact, he’s promised to do exactly that, and we, our ears still ringing from the danger we sidestepped, are deaf to what he’s saying. The ‘fiscal cliff’ is just the latest bogus, induced panic over the government’s books to be used to convince us that Something Must Be Done to right the fiscal ship of state and that that Something involves taking our public assets like Social Security and Medicare and starting to strip them away.

Oh, it will feel like minor surgery at the beginning, but given the RepubliDemocrat consensus gathering force like a new Stage 1 hurricane, the essential elements will soon be in place: that Social Security is ‘bankrupt’ and must be ‘fixed’ by reducing the benefits paid out in ‘entitlements’ to retirees. (Isn’t it odd that a social insurance program that we pay for during decades of employee is suddenly an ‘entitlement’? Does your car insurance company argue that anyone who submits a claim for accident damages is a whiny ‘entitled’ boomer?) In addition, despite our still-warm rejection of the Ryan plan to privatize and wreck Medicare, the long knives promptly will come out for that successful program as well.

Glenn Greenwald has a convincing narrative of how this occur with ample posturing by the ‘defenders’ of Social Security saying that this punishment is for our own good. Many economics and finance writers have been predicting what they call the Great Betrayal as its political rationalizations gel and set in the public mind, and they can even spot the rhetoric as its engineers from the Obama camp and attendant echo chambers in the big newspapers drum these talking points into us as if they were Revealed Truth. Here’s just the latest of a dozen ideological attacks from a former Obama team player, now employed by welfare queen Citigroup.

I plan to pound away at the scam regularly in this modest space while looking for an organizational vehicle to join for pushback, some sort of Occupy Social Security. (It will be far more difficult with Democrats in power as people will refuse to believe that such a lovely family would be at the service of Wall Street and the piggybanks. Romney would have been a much easier target.) I assume the long-term trends are unfavorable since the 1% no longer needs a prosperous middle or working class to sustain its accumulation. Instead, having milked dry the housing market, the parasitical finance sector needs new revenue streams to divert from public utility into private pockets.

The vast pool of capital set aside for Social Security is the next target (the huge spending on public education is already being looted). The bloated robber barons of today want to get their filthy mitts on it, and unless we put aside our party blinders and look at what is happening to the legacy of Franklin Roosevelt, they will.

Feeling disempowered? Hopeless? Don’t be. Here’s a way to signal your discontent with the stealth attack by signing a petition against the rumored appointment to Treasury Secretary of Old-People-Should-Eat-Catfood Commission chairman Erskine Bowles. Bowles held up the Demo half of the ‘bipartisan’ attack on Social Security along with Republican Neanderthal Alan Simpson after Obama put them together on a blue-ribbon panel and gave them the mandate to justify what the big boys have already decided has to be done: slash, cut & burn our government-backed pensions. It’s a simple way of showing Washington that we’re on to what’s coming.



Thursday, 8 November 2012

Election Part I: The Good


[First of three parts]

Some good news from Tuesday: the American people are not completely insane. This is good. This is a good thing. It is also a very modest thing given our collective future, roughly comparable to feeling satisfied that your liver spots are not Stage 4 pancreatic cancer. Or feeling a warm glow over the fact that your children do not inject crystal meth. Nothing wrong with that. But limited.

Only the demented could have welcomed a President Romney, a candidate who promised, with trumpets, that he would set about to strip them of their remaining assets and transfer said wealth to people like himself. Happily, we have proven ourselves temporarily free of that psychosis. Nonetheless, this malady was manifested by a significant minority of the populace, many millions of whom now will complain loudly if the government benefits they just repudiated do not suit them.

Another good thing to add to our repudiation of mental instability: rape still is considered by a wide majority not to be normal or to involve in any way the will of ‘god’. Also, women’s vaginas are understood not to be capable of distinguishing between the penis of a rapist and that of a bank president or a member of the Rotary Club. Rather, most Americans, particularly females, retain a rather protective feeling toward this zone and think that unauthorized entry therein should remain a matter of grave public concern. Those not adhering to this view are considered, for the moment, beyond the pale. Rah.

Further positive news: homosexual behavior, including the matrimonial version, once a sure-fire generator of horrified alarm in church basements throughout the land, has become remarkably mainstream. It has been defanged as an issue by three decades of repetitive exploitation and by effective push-back deployed by well-heeled, well-organized, savvy, and impassioned defenders of human sexual rights. Another factor in lesbian and gay respectability is those communities’ noble and expert response to the HIV/AIDS epidemic, a landmark in public health activism.

Thus the long, demoralizing culture wars, artfully mined by the Christian politico-preachers and their GOP empresarios, have ground to a stalemate. No longer can the call of 1980 against homos, amnesty and abortion guarantee electoral success. But wait! Amnesty is back, just with a different alleged beneficiary: instead of war resisters, the enemy du jour is undeserving, dark-skinned immigrants. That one will take a bit longer to undo although the growing Hispanic vote may focus the Republican mind before too long.

But the most gratifying aspect of Tuesday’s climax is the public’s capacity, not yet lost, to perceive the elite rich for what they are: smug, disconnected, selfish, entitled and clueless. As Dana Milbank reported in the Washington Post, Romney told reporters sitting in his (coach section) campaign aircraft that one of his first acts as president would be to buy another Weimaraner, a pricey hunting dog once bred by European royalty.

Dear merciful God, Jesus and all the saints! Was he also planning to don one of those funny English riding hats and carry a crop? Maybe to his inauguration? You cannot top self-cariacature, and luckily for our reasserted sanity, we won’t have to witness it.



Tuesday, 6 November 2012

It will soon be over


Praise Jaisus.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

How about we dig our heads out of Coney Island sand?


It is too early to appreciate the long-term impact of Hurricane Sandy, but already there are stirrings of unease, perhaps a dawning sense that we are indeed in a brand new ballgame. And no, I do not refer to the (yawn) presidential foolishness. This is something much more visceral and serious.

I wish I had a copy of something a woman read a year or so ago down at the Poets’ House in its old Soho location. She explained that somewhere on an island off Lake Michigan, I believe it was, a tiny group of a half-dozen birds representing the last of their species being driven into extinction, was observed by naturalists. Little by little, she described in her short piece, they stopped flying out to feed or gather debris for their nests and simply huddled together in a seizure of dazed passivity.

The story has stuck in my mind.

As disasters go, this storm is nothing special, and plenty of places around the country and the world go through much worse on a regular basis. But this is New York City, home of the masters of the universe and their ruling banks—this is not supposed to happened to us.

I dare to predict that Romney’s pathetic trashing of FEMA as part of his four-legs-good, government-bad litany is going to be ditched (although I see he lamely attempted to whip up the right-wing talking point about how ‘just folks’ will pitch in to help their neighbors without any bad old gummint getting in their way). It’s pretty hard to stand there with the waters lapping at your ankles and argue that the private sector should somehow magically come to the rescue and pump the water out of the subway tunnels.

But now that the storm-of-the-century now occurs once every few months, the non-topic of climate change is going to force its way back onto the agenda. No doubt the oil companies and their intellectual enforcers, like the cigarette companies before them, will find a way to adjust to the new conditions and shift their discourse away from total denial to something that will enable them to extend the delays and keep their earnings intact.

But what we really need is a sharp break from the Pollyanna past in which mindless pseudo-debates over the reality of climate change have been permitted to block the screamingly urgent need for immediate action. Back during the run-up to the Iraq war, Condie Rice and her thugs used to go on TV to warn ominously that we could not afford the luxury of a ‘mushroom cloud’ error if we got the facts wrong on Hussein’s weaponry. You don’t hear much about the need to act on greenhouse gases even if there were lingering doubts about the science—which there aren’t—despite the many mushroom clouds in our collective future.

That’s why Obama will be marked by future generations of historians—if there are any—as a presidential failure. Not because he’s done such a terrible job overall, but because he had a tiny, platinum opportunity to rip up business as usual and set the country on a different path, and he refused to use it. Even if he had been crushed by the security state and the financier elites, he could have opened up the needed debate and staked out positions on the issues that can and probably will kill us, such as the looming climatic disaster. Instead, we remain leaderless.

This impassioned open letter by Wen Stephenson to former journo colleagues printed in The Phoenix from a mainstream idea-meister is a good example of what we needed then and now: he describe the safe, cautious world in which he found himself when he realized that he was part of an unconscious old-boys consensus to indulge the two sides and avoid open disbelief of bullshit because it constituted a career-busting display of ‘advocacy’. He quit his job and has become a full-time activist on the issue, picking up the old ACT-UP slogan in their fight against AIDS: Silence = Death.


Monday, 29 October 2012

Chile celebrates

Whooping and shouting occurred in my old hometown of Santiago, Chile, last night as three of the dictatorship’s worst creeps were booted out of office in the municipal elections by the ladies shown above, a stunning reverse for the still-putrid remnants of those awful days.

I cannot help but feel a swell of pride that the granddaughter of Salvador Allende edged out the long-time pinochetista mayor of my home comuna of 20 years, Ñuñoa. Comunas are local administrative units comparable to counties in rural areas or simply city neighborhoods. They have their own budgets and city councils and are much more relevant to residents’ lives than governors or, in many ways, the congress. According to my friends’ reports, the vote was neck-and-neck until she squeezed out a victory around midnight, causing the locals to pour into the streets to celebrate. Sorry I missed it.

Another nazi, who in a sane world would be behind bars and away from decent folks, was finally beaten in a historically conservative neighborhood, Providencia. Christian Labbé [below left, oink oink] was an open defender of Pinochet’s crimes and probably participated in them; upon defeat, he had the unbelievable balls to say that ‘hatred had triumphed’ and caused his defeat. Think about that: a guy who probably at least witnessed people being tortured for their political beliefs is now an expert on ‘hatred’. You have to wonder about the mental state of someone that disconnected from reality.

Labbé made the mistake of dissing his female opponent as ‘just a housewife’, and he took a drubbing from her, sadly only an electoral one. But he also suffered a funa when he went to vote. Funas are surprise, public denunciations of criminals associated with the old regime who escaped prosecution. Frustrated victims and their survivors often burst into public events or gather outside their houses to remind the creeps that their actions haven’t been forgotten. (I witnessed one at a professional conference in the early 2000s.) In response, the ex-torturers’ party that Labbé belonged to issued a whiny complaint about the ‘aggression’ he had suffered. Poor snookums, do you want nana to put a Band-aid on it?

Another major pinochetista figure also was felled in the Santiago comuna, by the daughter of one of Allende’s ministers who was murdered by the junta. How curious that in each case the victor was a woman. Even more noteworthy: the kids chasing these nazis’ fat asses through the streets and calling them out on their pasts weren’t even alive during the most brutal years of Pinochet’s dictatorship, the 1970s and early 1980s.

Chile has long been a social laboratory for worldwide trends, so it’s worth having a look at what’s going on there. Pinochet himself inaugurated the neo-liberal counter-revolution when he stage his 1973 coup, closed the legislature, rounded up and slaughtered union leaders and terrorized the country into accepting the Friedmanite monetarist/free-market straitjacket. Margaret Thatcher followed later, taking power in 1979 to jam her version down the throats of the Brits, and Ronald Reagan brought up the rear starting in 1981.

Even today, some of the GOP geniuses are trying to sell us on Pinochet-era pension ‘reforms’, which funneled Chilean workers’ savings into private financier hands and deprive people today of decent retirement incomes. Paul Ryan is a direct descendant of all of them with his cynically airy-fairy promises that simply unleashing private enterprise and smashing the government to bits will provide prosperity for all.

So what’s going on in Chile now? The successors to the dictatorship (equivalent to our Democrats) presided for 20 years over a plus-c’est-la-meme-chose electoral democracy accompanied by continued economic feudalism. They bragged about growth while doing nothing to stem the increasing inequality of income distribution and very little to alleviate the bleak destiny of most Chileans continually scrabbling to make ends meet. The Pinochet-era privatization of education, for example, which failed miserably at everything except deepening class divisions, was never reformed, leading to the famous student uprisings of the past two years. (Does this sound at all familiar? Get ready, we’re headed there.)

They finally lost to the reconstituted pinochetista parties in 2009 under a Bloombergian billionaire, Sebastián Piñera, who is now a laughingstock with the lowest approval ratings of any chief executive since AP himself. Now, the kids who have to find some kind of life under the wrecked society Pinochet and his thug crew left them are rebelling. It’s no accident that they do so by recalling the crimes of that era, such as this election-day demo outside the National Stadium [below], a notorious torture and disappearance center (featured in Missing, the film with Jack Lemmon and Sissy Spacek).

Without ferocious repression, Pinochet’s economic counter-revolution could not have succeeded. As we amble along into ours, let’s not be naïve or surprised when an American version of repression also forms part of winning strategy.

But another lesson from Chile is that torture and assassination don’t go away. It’s not like sweeping a little dirt under the rug on order of the ruling poobahs and their eager lackeys across the political spectrum and thinking that is that. More like fishheads left under the floorboards—sooner or later, sometimes much, much later, the guests are going to start feeling uncomfortable.

What, me worry?


Here’s a new drinking game we can play: while watching the newscasts and the breathless statements from political leaders, whenever someone discusses the causes of the storm without mentioning global warming, down a vodka shot! You’ll be having a private storm surge over the toilet bowl well before the next high tide.

I see some entirely appropriate, mid-hurricane twitting of the Ryan budget plan that calls for federal emergency spending to be cut to shreds along with Social Security and Medicaid. But there is nothing from anyone, including our stalwart liberals, about Obama’s shameful silence on the most crucial environmental issue of our or probably any time in human history. Instead, the two bobble-heads compete over who will make the U.S. ‘energy self-sufficient’ first as if that were a laudable goal. Come on, even the Saudis are trying to develop wind and solar power for the day when they’ll have no stores of liquid gold.

When future generations—if there are any—look back on this period, they will shake their deformed heads in awestruck wonder at the capacity of their biped forebears to ignore the evidence before their eyes about an imminent threat. They also will curse us for what we left them.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Beyond red & blue. . . is green


The New York Times published an extensive exposé Friday of the mysteriously obtained wealth of Wen Jiabao, the Chinese premier. It’s a pretty staggering display of the Wen family’s web of stock and real estate holdings arranged in innocent sounding enterprises overlaid with layers of owner-masking shell companies, all comprising a family tree whose boughs sagging with cash are sprinkled with the magic Chinese businessman’s fairy dust: political connections. The Chinese government was not amused and blocked access to the Times on its Internet servers. I suppose the Chinese should be glad that this sort of despicable behavior, at least, still has to remain hidden away.

Luckily for us, we still have a fourth estate with the time, energy, resources and freedom to dig into such things and write them down for all to see. Curiously, the Times quotes liberally in the piece from diplomatic cables made public by Wikileaks despite the paper’s nose-holding attitude toward Wikileaks’ public face, Julian Assange, now holed up in the Ecuadoran embassy in London to avoid disappearing into an American rabbit hole. Thus we can still see what is happening to our principal trading partner and recipient of all those manufacturing jobs ripped out of the heartland.

And what do we find has happened to the great Asian workers’ and peasants’ state? Why, it’s a giant looting operation organized and run by the Communist Party—how’s that for an ironic twist after the Cold War paranoia of two generations back? It turns out that we have indeed been betrayed to the commies after all—by American businessmen.

The Chinese elite’s arrangements must make the Wall Street boys jealous as hell. Still, we sneer at our peril. The incomparable Yves Smith, whose Naked Capitalism blog is essential reading for understanding our present circumstances, implicitly suggests that we are headed toward something much closer to the Chinese model than to our own golden past:

We are in the midst of a finance-led counterrevolution. The long standing effort to roll back New Deal reforms has moved from triumph to triumph. The foundation was laid via increasingly effective public relations efforts to sell the Ayn Randian worldview that granting individuals unfettered freedom of action would produce only virtuous outcomes since the talented would flourish and the rest would deservedly be left in the dust. In fact, societies that have moved strongly in that direction such as Pinochet’s Chile and Russia under Yeltsin, have seen plutocratic land grabs, declining standards of living (and even lifespans), and a rise in authoritarianism or (in the case of Colombia) organized crime. Those who won these brawls did flourish but at tremendous cost to society as a whole.

I date this counter-revolution roughly to the ascent to power of Saint Ronald the First in 1980-81 at which time the country’s attitude toward itself and the citizens whose comprise it underwent a profound shift. We left behind the bad old attempts of entities like the civil rights movement to obtain fairness for all in favor of unrestrained greed and personal selfishness. (Ironically, this was precisely the cliché criticism of the sixties as an era of irresponsible pleasure seeking and sexual indulgence by spoiled brats—but I digress.) With Reagan and his radical circle in power, we were encouraged to jettison any notion that people should strive to make a contribution to the well-being of others in favor of the new, ‘muscular’ ideology of neo-liberal self-reliance and market worship in which real men made tons of money, gained power and prestige, and had a blast as top dogs while pathetic losers down below could piss off up a rope. The nanny state would no longer be responsible for these inferior, weak elements, starting with ‘welfare queens’ and other leeches standing in the way of unbridled capitalist bliss.

It’s no accident that Reaganism arrived jointly with the Christian right and its calculated attack on women (dressed up as a reaction to ‘feminist’ excesses), especially including their reproductive function, and on gay emancipation, another aspect of the redrawn sexual hierarchies. The new politico-economic religion was grounded in the old macho virtues, slightly recast to accommodate women in new roles, an adjustment that was only skin-deep in any case: while women were permitted to infiltrate the old boys’ clubs in business, politics, and science, the anti-abortion crusades kept the pressure on. As long as reproductive autonomy remains in doubt, women cannot breathe entirely freely. Meanwhile, the Equal Rights Amendment, once thought to be as sure a thing as women’s suffrage, went down to defeat by the church ladies assisted by the Democrats’ usual lackluster defense.

Back to Smith’s analysis of how the uber-rich utilized stealth weapons to seize the commanding heights of the economy and the state:

In the U.S. the first step was making taxation less progressive. A second parallel measure was deregulation, particularly in financial services. Together, they fostered the growth of an uber-wealthy cohort that increasingly lives apart from middle class and poor citizens. The rich can thus tell themselves they have little to gain from the success of ordinary people. And, perversely, the global financial crisis has worked to the advantage of the financial elite. As former IMF chief economist Simon Johnson described in a May 2009 Atlantic article, the U.S. instead suffered a quiet coup with the top end of the financial services industry becoming more concentrated and more firmly in charge of the political apparatus. And you see more vivid evidence of the financial takeover in Europe where technocrats are stripping countries of their sovereignty and breaking them on the rack via failing austerity programs so as to avoid exposing the insolvency of French and German banks. In the U.S. the events of the last year are less dramatic but no less telling, including a coordinated, 17-city paramilitary crackdown on Occupy Wall Street, a ‘get out of jail almost free’ settlement for the mortgage-industrial complex, and an election where the two candidates are indistinguishable in their enthusiasm for having old people die faster cutting Medicare and Social Security and murder by drone.

Smith is telling us that the structural changes taking place at the upper reaches of the system under which we live are setting us on a course for further and deeper disaster, and she offers a bracing corrective to the naïve Obamanians’ fervent desire that the ‘true’ Barack will suddenly appear in a second term and fulfill all their hearts’ desires. I’m as disgusted by the demented Republican thugs as anyone, but I concur that the real dangers for our fragile future lie not solely with the outright loonies but also with their legions of willing collaborators in the supposedly sane camp.

[Smith’s blog at www.nakedcapitalism.com is holding its second annual fund-raiser at present; all decent and solvent persons should send a donation.]