Wednesday, 29 August 2012

Christie goes national -- where no one knows him

RNC keynote speaker Chris Christie of New Jersey is not only a huge windbag from the Jersey shore, he’s also a total phony. If hypocrisy were measured in BMI, he’s be breaking the scales.

As demonstrated last night in his prime-time blusterfest, Christie loves to show off his tough-guy attitudes toward government spending, especially when dealing with dangerous public enemies like schoolteachers. He also wrecked the plans for a new Hudson River tunnel that could have alleviated the congestion that plagues his suburban commuters’ lives.

But when it comes to dishing out tax money to wealthy developers for tacky eyesores like the Meadowlands shopping center (once called Xanadu, now named American Dream@Meadowlands--oh, stop!), Christie suddenly becomes a soft touch. This should surprise us exactly how?

New Jersey has already spent $1 billion on this white elephant, and Christie eagerly ponied up another $200 million while posturing as Tony Soprano shaking down Miss Cartwright for her pension in front of a roomful of first-graders.

The American Dream project will benefit the Canada-based Ghermazian family and will feature an indoor ski slope—surely just what New Jerseyites need to take their minds off facing retirement on a diet of cat food.

It should also come as no surprise that Christie supported the tunnel project while running for governor before smashing it once he got into office. (His opponent was Wall Street crook Jon Corzine.) But commuters sitting in their cars all those extra hours might not take kindly to a second term for the fat guy, so it’s a smart move to start building his campaign for 2016 at Romney’s expense. Hey, it’s all about climbing up the weakest guy’s face on your way to the top.

Monday, 27 August 2012

So shoot me

“They sit and they pontificate and they complain, but they don’t do anything”.

That’s Mayor Mike Bloomberg ragging on the American Civil Liberties Union after the New York chapter sued the city’s cops over ‘stop-and-frisk’ (the program that permits police to harass black and Latino males with impunity). It’s a pity no one took the time to parse this peculiar outburst or ask the mayor what he was expecting the ACLU to do instead of exercising oversight of those who wield deadly force. Join neighborhood watch patrols? Form vigilante squads? Sew super-hero outfits and wear them to parades? The ACLU doesn’t want to replace the police force, but it does think policing can and should be done without violating the Constitution—what an odd notion.

Bloomberg was contrasting the ACLU’s annoying criticism with the brave actions of our rough-and-ready police force, which has distinguished itself this week in two shooting incidents. Unfortunately, the danger to the public in both cases may have been multiplied by the NYPD’s eager use of the collective trigger finger. The mayor is certainly right in these cases: when it comes to guys roaming the streets with weapons, our cops cannot be accused of idleness. When something happens, they sure don’t just sit back and pontificate; they take out their guns and fire away.

The famous case is, of course, the Empire State Building shooting in which a disgruntled ex-employee went up to his former boss and whacked him right in the street. According to reports, the police were alerted to the perpetrator, followed him and mowed him down when he drew his gun on them. Nine bystanders were injured by police bullets or shrapnel.

No one in his right mind would expect the cops to let this guy continue on his deadly rampage. But the fact that no one was killed or paralyzed by the NYPD fusillade was a lucky accident. It would be interesting to see a detailed report on how the officers reacted on the scene and whether all that shooting was needed. But with Bloomberg’s mentality dominating our terror-obsessed city, even raising the question will be denounced as disloyal meddling. The next group of bystanders may not be so lucky.

The other shooting incident was the Aug. 11 felling of a mentally deranged man waving a knife around in Times Square. Clearly, public safety was threatened. Then again, was it enhanced by a phalanx of officers firing 12 bullets into the guy? Maybe so, but it would be nice to have some cool-headed, external auditors looking at these two incidents and getting an unemotional hearing from the city fathers and the top cops.

That’s not likely, however, because Bloomberg also likes to say that he and the cops ‘have to get it right 100 percent of the time’. By that, he means that no violent plots can be allowed to hatch, even if it means a few innocent people get the short end, their mosques snooped at, their telephones tapped, their kids patted down and sometimes (accidentally!) killed. He also means—and says—that his critics are whiny jerks who don’t know the score. So don’t expect questions about how and when the cops decide to shoot.

Tuesday, 21 August 2012

Dear "Ms. Reid"

Ms. Nordia Reid, Customer Service Representative
P.O. Box 7051
Utica NY 13504

Dear Ms. Reid:

Thank you for your recent reply to my query. Although I’m not sure ‘thank you’ makes much sense when addressing a computer. You see, ‘Ms. Reid’, I know ‘you’ are not a person at all but a pre-programmed answering system. Since ‘you’ are really just a series of electronic impulses zipping around the insides of a server somewhere, it is a bit creepy to add ‘thank you’ for an act that had no more consciousness of itself than a stone rolling down a cliff—perhaps less. But I am Old School and tend to say ‘thank you’ for minor cordialities even when not really merited. By the way, ‘No problem!’ is not really a proper reply despite what these perky youngsters all say nowadays. I hope you’ve been programmed to say ‘You’re welcome’, it’s much nicer.

Now, how is it that I know ‘you’ are not real? It’s quite simple, really, and I’d like to explain. I wrote to your creator’s parent company, ACS, which as you ‘know’ (in a manner of speaking, that is to say, it’s in your database) is an educational loan servicer charged with collecting college loan repayments and reaping a fairly handsome, government-subsidized reward for doing so. That s probably already too much information for ‘you’ given your limitations!

Anyway, I took this step because it was impossible to use your sister service, the online go-to-for-everything account management system, even though I have been making my loan payments on time for six years. That’s because it refuses to recognize me unless I answer a series of personal identification questions, including a telephone number that I got rid of in 2005. Since I am not the Harry Houdini of memory, I no longer know this magic code and thus do not exist for the ACS Web site. That is, ‘you’ in one of your alternative avatars.

Oh well! I don’t mind writing an old-fashioned letter. (Forgive me for ‘bothering’ you with all these details, even though I know you are incapable of being ‘bothered’—only electro-magnetically altered. But I digress.) So I wrote one asking for some help in establishing my existence within the ACS universe. Please recognize me! I said. It was a bit like the lament of Pinocchio—I am a real boy! with a touch of whimsy and pathos. Only my nose didn’t grow because I don’t tell lies and furthermore, I pay my bills on time, which Pinocchio did not, being a piece of wood. (‘You’ can certainly relate.) Nonetheless this fact ‘you’ already ‘know’, not in any human sense, of course, just that it’s a fact embedded somewhere in there among all your 1s and 0s.

So now I’m coming to the point—please bear with me patiently (even though I know you don’t have a concept of ‘impatience’, that would be silly. I can leave my home computer on all night, and it immediately responds when I hit the keyboard at 6 a.m. Imagine treating a friend like that! They’d drop you in a minute.) So in response to my simple request, ‘you’ (not Ms. Reid who, if she exists, I’m sure would be more alert) wrote to say the following:

Thank you for your recent letter notifying us of the discrepancy in payments applied to your student loan account.

‘You’ then go on to ask for photocopies of checks, and ‘you’ kindly offered to attend to my difficulties by telephone. That was very kind of ‘you’! Except for the problem that whenever I attempt to call ACS, your sister telephone screening system just won’t let go of that 2005 telephone number and blocks my access. Which is why I wrote ‘you’ that letter in the first place. It’s all rather circular, don’t ‘you’ ‘think’?

Please note (not that ‘you’ can really ‘note’ anything, being a collection of wires and microchips sitting under a desk in Utica or Bledsoe, Kentucky) that I did not at any time say the first thing about a payment discrepancy. ‘You’ made that up! ‘You’ little devil! I guess that’s what happens when ‘you’ take over the chores that poor old Ms. Reid can’t see to—things just get all mixed up. I completely understand—being a human being with a rational faculty, I know exactly how that happens. Trust me, I have made some mistakes in my life as well. (I know that ‘trust’ is probably a pretty remote concept for ‘you’ too, but let’s just say, ‘Correct input, verified data’ for simplicity’s sake, and leave it at that.)

However, since ‘you’ are not really in the same category, ‘you’ really can’t do much about this little mix-up ‘you’ have been sent out to handle. ‘Don’t send a boy to do a man’s job’, my grandmother used to say, which in this case could be amended as, ‘Don’t entrust your correspondence to an inanimate object’. Things are likely to go wrong if ‘you’ do! As they did here right before our eyes. So Grandma was right, as usual.

Anyway, I don’t know why I’m even writing ‘you’ about all this in the first place. Somehow, I suspected that someone like ‘you’ would be charged with responding to my letter and that ‘you’ wouldn’t really be up to it. So I returned to my old college alumni office and tracked down a special telephone number that the loan officers had, through which I finally managed to get a human voice on the telephone. At least I think it was a human voice—she was quite convincing. My accounts are in order, and if things continue to go well for me, I’ll be paying off this loan faster than ‘you’ can say ‘Bob’s ‘your’ uncle’ so that the money spent by the government to pay ‘you’ for my servicing needs can be put to some socially beneficial use. I’m sorry, ‘Ms. Reid’—it’s really wasted on ‘you’.

Don’t take it personally!

Sincerely ‘yours’,

Timothy Frasca

Monday, 20 August 2012

Truth from Gumballs

An army of spinmeisters will not hold off the flaming ball of shit hurtling toward the execrable and now notorious Todd Akin, the bozo from Missouri who thinks all that rape talk is exaggerated. To call him a douchebag would be an insult to douchebags, which are far more useful to the human race than he is.

But the fantasy that if a woman is experiencing sufficient terror during the act she will somehow produce abortifacient hormones is not a new idea. In fact, I’m surprised Akin and his Bible-thumper friends haven’t already criminalized it. I mean, if removing the possibly fertilized egg is murder, shouldn’t a woman be prosecuted for permitting herself to be that scared? Doesn’t the Sacredness of Life dictate that she should smile broadly and welcome the precious seed into the world? How dare she murder an unborn child by succumbing to a silly fear of being strangled or cut to pieces?

The scramble to dump this loony-tunes candidate quicker than he can say, Jesus Loves You, is a sure sign that the anti-sex crowd wants this one to go away yesterday if not sooner. But it won’t be so easy to disentangle the underlying Republican/Christian Right posture on birth control and abortion from this embarrassingly revealing Akin-boner.

Turns out Righteous Mike Huckabee, the last Christian standing in 2008, has his own record of endorsing the prophylactic qualities of women’s fear. Ezra Klein notes that as governor Huckabee appointed an Akin clone to be the head of Arkansas’ health department who believed that ‘fear-induced hormonal changes could block a rape victim’s ability to conceive.’

Akin’s outrage isn’t really that much of a stretch if you believe god’s finger is on the fertilized egg the instant it begins to roam inside the female body, even before attaching to the uterine wall or achieving the most incipient viability. With that as your starting point, actual women are reduced to slightly inconvenient holding tanks for the propagation of the species, which is not a terribly popular notion outside of places like Saudi Arabia and Mississippi.

It’s going to be comparatively easy for the wackos to muddy the waters on the Medicare-Obamacare debate. But this one is a losing battle because people not living under purdah are alert to this issue and its subtexts. The GOP poobahs want Akin and his mega-gaffe to go away ASAP.

Todd Palin at least has a reality show to occupy his idle moments; the Missouri Todd might want to ask him if there’s a free slot. The guy is going to have time on his hands.

Saturday, 18 August 2012

' [not] sorry to bother you’

Okay, here’s the latest assault on civilization dreamed up by the bipeds of the non-profit world, to my deep chagrin as many of the guilty perform worthy tasks. But I have had it with the chirpy youth wearing aerobic smiles who now accost one all over the streets of Manhattan, clipboard in hand, to ask if we can ‘talk’ about the great work of Planned Parenthood, Greenpeace, Public Citizen, or DoGooders International, Inc.

News flash: this is glorified panhandling. It is also a plague.

Upon taking the subway this afternoon, I was hit up by an obvious drunk with a red face who started off by complimenting my hat and telling me what a cool guy I was. Then he wanted to know if he could ‘ask me a question’, which we all know means, Can you give me a dollar? When I said I was in a hurry, he began to curse me as a rude asshole and threw in a few references to my poor old late mom, to boot.

How exactly is this different from the requests to ‘talk’ from all these aggressive hustlers representing the professional world-saver brigades? Okay, they don’t have anything to say about my ancestors, and supposedly it’s not for their pockets or their bar bills. But then again, they’re not out there for their health. Are they hired by these organizations for ‘summer internships’ and then sent out to drum up cash? Do they get a percentage or minimum wage?

I don’t like begging and hustling in any of its multitudinous forms and respectfully submit that the public byways should be maintained, to the extent possible, free of it. I would and often do gladly contribute generous sums to organizations that provide, or at least seem to provide, real services for people in need. Yes, yes, we do not live in a truly humane polity, and people fall between the cracks. Point taken; therefore, what? We should have strangers’ hands in our pockets every time we go out the door? We should smile graciously at the supermarket and the big-box stores when their drones ask us to put in an extra dollar for their favorite charity?

I recognize that begging is as old as humanity and that people are sometimes in a tight spot. New Yorkers are fairly generous by nature and will help people out when they can. But it can be managed. I work right down the street from one of the city’s largest homeless shelters, and the men there are strictly enjoined not to harass passers by. I think it dignifies them not to feel they must rub the sleep from their eyes and then hit the sidewalks to cadge quarters from people doing better than themselves. No doubt some of them panhandle elsewhere, but for at least a part of their day, they are just guys getting by with the same right to the sidewalk as the rest of us.

Meanwhile, these prosperous nonprofits (the latest one I was hustled by in Chelsea was the gay-rights Human Rights Campaign, which owns an entire huge building in D.C. for its lobbying) can do us all a big favor and at least leave the panhandling to guys wanting a few coins, a cigarette or a bottle of Thunderbird. They don’t need the competition.

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Oo, Ahh, Skeery Mr Ryan

We now have a presidential ticket openly advocating the end of the social contract that has held the country together for 80 years. Is it condemned to death no matter who wins?

Mr. Ryan has cooked up a bunch of ideas so inane and internally contradictory that his ascension to the vice presidential nomination could only be possible with the assistance of a willfully blind, i.e. deeply complicit, media echo chamber. As Dean Baker has pointed out for years, the Washington Post, once a reliably liberalish establishment newspaper, regularly pours the Ryan Kool-Aid on budgetary matters and the supposed ‘crisis of entitlements’. He patiently corrects the falsehoods by noting, first, that Social Security, an insurance pool, is comfortably solvent and could easily be strengthened to handle retiring boomers with a modest tax increase on higher earners.

He also repeats almost daily—although few listen—that the crushing increase of Medicare/Medicaid spending requires major surgery on health costs that no one in government is even suggesting as it would entail a challenge to powerful pharmaceutical interests and the earnings of medical professionals. None of our current ‘leaders’ would whisper such things even in private. So the Beltway consensus that ‘something must be done’ is nearly unanimous, and Paul Ryan is merely the extreme and openly heartless version of it.

There are signs that the wagons are circling to bring Obama and his team back for another cycle, and one can take brief comfort in the idea that the country is not yet ready to stand before the cameras and to throw Grandma down the stairs in her wheelchair. But just because despicable acts cannot be performed in public does not mean that they cannot be performed. The Romney-Ryan train may indeed crash—‘Enjoy Tasty Catfood & Make Me Rich!’ is not really a great advertising slogan—but then what?

If past behavior is a good predictor of future action, a second Obama term should give us pause. Is there a single piece of evidence, not counting frothy campaign promises, that he will dig in the presidential heels and defend the social programs that Ryan wants on the chopping block? I see none. We will hear a lot in the next three months about the hallowed commitments to our aged and infirm, dating from Franklin & Eleanor, just as we heard four years ago about torture, indefinite detention and illegal warmaking.

How did all that work out? Obama has neutralized Republican attacks on his foreign policy by largely adopting theirs. No one calls it a ‘Grand Bargain’, the term Beltway hacks like to use when contemplating how to dismantle guaranteed state pensions and free health care for the elderly. But that’s what it is, a slightly toned-down version of the Bush-era war-on-terror strategies, including drone missile attacks and authorized assassination lists. As a chilling article by Tom Junod in the latest Esquire points out, Obama gets plenty more elbow room to carry out these policies because he’s successfully painted himself as a decent, even agonized, guy doing his best. And since he’s black, he’s on the side of the underdog, right?

Who’s to say that a similar dynamic will not emerge post-November when the howling wolves, despite photo-shopping bones through the president’s nose, will retreat to their forest lairs licking their self-inflicted wounds? Obama, if history is a reliable precedent, will then extend the olive branch and ask them to come play nice so that they can carve up our future together hand in hand. And after the relief many will feel that two disgustingly rich and selfish creeps are not in the White House, Mr O will have plenty of room in which to do it.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Food fight among the 5 families

There is a fascinating case roiling the financial pages involving a bank called Standard Chartered and its willful and highly lucrative violations of the sanctions imposed on Iran. The sanctions themselves are part of our next nefarious, undeclared war against a non-enemy, but they are the law of the land. Therefore, helping the Iranian regime get around them is, like laundering drug money, highly profitable.

As we have seen repeatedly, Geithner and Obama are indifferent to banking crimes, but at the same time the entire political class is also fanatically committed to making the Israelis happy in all things. So here is where two immovable forces hurtle down the train tracks at each other: bank crooks defrauding the system (great, where’s my cut?) v/s bank crooks defrauding the system by helping Israel’s enemies (how dare you? pillory them! hang them in the public square! etc.)

The twist is that the regulatory action against SCB was issued by a tiny player, the New York State Department of Financial Services, not the Federal Reserve or any of the other big oversight agencies. That’s because those agencies are completely captured by the industry and intimidated by Congress, which in turn is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the banks themselves, as confirmed by Senator Durbin years ago in an imprudently frank moment three years ago.

And the threat issued by the DFS head Benjamin Lawsky is enough to focus the mind of any bank exec: to revoke the bank’s license to operate in New York State, which would be The End. The bank’s stock promptly cratered, and subtly phrased howls of outrage immediately began to issue from the pages of the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, wherein banks are not to be expected to hew to any silly laws or things in their pursuit of lovely piles of cash.

But the complaint shows that Lawsky has the goods on this bank, not in a narrow, legal sense as the pro-bank propaganda machine is now spinning it, but in their internal e-mails displaying explicit attempts to hide the illegal activities. These included stripping the Iranian parties out of wire transfer cables so that the final beneficiaries remained invisible. Deloitte & Touche, their TBTF auditors, also played along.

In an honest financial system (especially one in which corporations are people), those responsible for these actions would be looking at lengthy prison terms rather than a slap on the wrist, a miniscule fine and a couple of weeks of head-hanging and phony repentance. Lawsky would never be able to resist the vast pressure from Obama on down to back off from his regulatory function and let the big boys get away with it.

But given that it involves helping Iran avoid economic pain (and not merely ripping off poor people), the bankster mob has a problem with this one. Even Wall Street-friendly pols like Schumer may not be willing to go to the wall for crooks who undermine Israeli foreign policy goals. And presidentially ambitious governor Andrew Cuomo, who in theory could undermine his appointee Lawsky, gains nothing by looking like yet another Blue Dog Democrat indistiguishable from the country club Republicans. (First you legalize gay marriage and get elected as a progressive surrounded by hordes of adoring youth and only then you emerge as the next defender of the 1%.)

Whether or not this turns into a real defeat for our financial overlords, it is a good indicator of where the battles will be drawn, i.e. not between the 1-percenter bosses and the rest of us, but among sectors of the 1 percent whose interests diverge. Will illicit money-scouring trump zionism this time around, or has SCB gone too far? Stay tuned.

Thursday, 9 August 2012

What is wrong with bipeds, anyway?

Not strictly a rhetorical question although I do not anticipate a satisfactory reply. It is prompted by a silly fake-debate broadcast last night on New York 1, the local all-news cable channel that does a pretty good job of keeping up with city news and politics. Curtis Sliwa, the self-promoting face of the Guardian Angels, argued that the recent rash of gun violence around New York City is causally related to the measurable drop in frisk stops by the NYPD, which in turn is arguably a result of public pressure against the racial profiling involved. You stop grabbing black and Hispanic males off the street and searching them for guns, argued Sliwa, you get more shootings; therefore, Al Sharpton is the guilty party here.

Sliwa is making the cardinal error of bad science, equating correlation with causation. Just because I see fewer female smokers among pregnant women, it does not mean that tobacco is a contraceptive. Phenomena are often associated without being related, and even if they are related, A may not cause B. Instead, B might cause A, or A might cause C, which causes B. Or A and B may have nothing to do with each other.

Sliwa’s argument can be turned on its head: given that the huge number of stop-and-frisk non-arrests over the past decade have been sold to us based on the theory that they stop crime, why do they apparently fail miserably in doing so? One could then counter-argue that the violence would be that much worse without stop-and-frisk, but the available evidence doesn’t really tell us anything one way or the other.

The supposed logic of these postures isn’t really the point, and it doesn’t take a research scientist to see that our emotions, not our reason, drive our politics when it comes to crime, fear of crime, the desire for safety, etc. Those feeling they will be victimized want strong action and rarely stop to think about police abuses unless and until they become the object of same.

But the whole debate about guns, frisks, and shoot-outs at the Brooklyn version of the O.K. Corral reminds me of the bizarro-world that emerged after 9/11.

Consider this thought experiment: what if Al Gore had not only won the presidential election of 2000, but also been allowed to take office and then presided over the 9/11 attack? This presumes that he would have been as distracted as Bush was by a fanatical desire to conquer Iraq and equally dismissive of the red flags that many intelligence people were waving in the presidential face, but let’s presume both those things. What would have been the reaction of the Republican opposition upon seeing the smoking ruins of the twin towers?

I don’t think we need speculate for long: there would have been a sustained howl of outrage about how the weak-kneed, lily-livered, pansy-ass, towel-head-loving, get-down-on-your-knees-and-surrender Democrats had sold out the nation’s security and allowed an attack on the heartland for the first time since the War of 1812. We would still be hearing about it, and the Dems, for their part, would still be apologizing for it.

Instead, as we all know, criticism of Bush’s negligence was promptly declared out of bounds and tantamount to disloyalty. Furthermore and incredibly, Bush backers blithely argued that there had ‘never’ been a terrorist attack on ‘our watch’ by way of justifying his introduction of a whole slew of abuses, including detention without trial, rendering to secret prisons and torture. (Obama later doubled down by adding kill lists.) No one seemed to notice that the event had occurred on the Bush ‘watch’, and woe to anyone who would dare to recall this salient fact.

So to return to the original question, What is wrong with bipeds who are ever-ready to forgive the tough-guy blowhards, who make a big show of their willingness to drive a tank ruthlessly through any and all comers and obtain revenge for injury, while apparently unable to perceive that this macho display might mask total incompetence in achieving the supposedly desired ends? I don’t think there really is an answer except that the DNA that made us a successful species has outlasted its usefulness and that we’re stuck with it.

Monday, 6 August 2012


Here are three verbal tics propagating themselves through our culture like E-coli, against which I hereby declare myself at war:


This ugly neologism is now an annoying constant in our language as a substitute for ‘later’ or ‘in the future’. It violates a cardinal rule of speech, which is: do not replace a perfectly good, simple word with a mouthful of prissy bullshit for no reason. WTF with ‘moving forward’?? Suddenly we’re entering a time capsule every time we refer to the future? If not, there is no need to describe the future in terms of motion given that our non-Einsteinian, everyday, popular universe treats past-present-future as fixed categories, which is really useful if you want to get your bills paid without a late fee.


According to the Merriem-Webster, the verb astonish comes from the Vulgar Latin tonare = thunder.

This recurring sin comes from the art world, which is big business in our self-conscious town. But critics seem to think that because they are thunderstruck, we must also be. I can’t count the number of times I have read that such-and-such a work of art, film, writing, or music is ‘astonishing’—upon which I immediately drop the review and refuse to hear anything more about it.

The overuse of this verb stems from sheer laziness or to use the old cliché, a failure to show rather than tell. If I am instructed that a work in question bowls one over, I must then scramble to be bowled or recognize that I am a hopeless Philistine who does not understand Ahhhhhrt. A diligent critic, rather than simply trumpet how ‘astonishing’ a piece of work is, will explain the particular skill deployed and lead the reader through its appreciation, recognizing that not everyone is equally sophisticated in the act of viewing or listening or reading. This useless crutch is a neon sign exclaiming, ‘I AM A PRETENTIOUS AESTHETE! AVOID ME!’

There are exceptions. Certain things can fairly be described as ‘astonishing’, such as witnessing people jumping out of the Twin Towers on 9/11 or running into an escaped wildebeest on Lexington Avenue. Most works of art, however, are just nicely done and can be reviewed without recourse to breathless exaggeration.


So far, ‘no problem’ is the crime of the decade. It is a perfectly fine phrase to toss off when you want to say, ‘Even though you just stepped on my foot in the subway, it really is okay because I know you didn’t mean it as you promptly apologized’. It makes sense and is appropriate when and only when the speaker wants to express that an error has been committed by his or her interlocutor but that it is excused and dismissed.

It is NOT equivalent to the time-tested and cordial phrase, ‘YOU’RE WELCOME’, which means something completely different, i.e., ‘The action for which you are thanking me I have done gladly, and I am content that it pleased you’.

Why has this subtle but significant change completely taken over human interaction (at least here in New York—is the phenomenon nationwide)? Can we no longer recognize that people see, speak to and cooperate with others dozens of times per day and that the social lubricant of formal speech has an important role to play in this intercourse? If I say ‘thank you’, am I now admitting existential guilt? Am I a chump for interrupting my text messaging and iPhone game-playing long enough to acknowledge that a favor has been done?

I sat next to a young lady in a theater last week who epitomized the oblivious narcissism of a large and growing sector of our society. While the play was in progress, she pulled some sort of hair cosmetic out of her handbag and proceeded to apply it to her golden tresses for nearly five minutes. I was tempted to address this sudden conversion of a public space into her private toilet by leaning over to whisper, ‘If you decide to urinate, please alert me so that I can look away’. I have no doubt that she would have replied perkily: ‘No problem!’

Saturday, 4 August 2012

Olympic legal gymnastics

is a now famous documentary film on the fracking lunacy, and Josh Fox, the director, is featured this month in Columbia, the university alumni magazine. Reading it side by side with commentary on the Supreme Court’s Obamacare decision, I was struck by the howling contradiction between what the court’s right-wing faction argued in that case and the exact opposite posture when citizens try to stand up to the bone-crushers of private enterprise.

Recall that the Tea Party phenomenon was born as a furious Don’t-Tread-on-Me style reaction to the perceived intrusion into our personal budgetary habits represented by mandated health insurance. They attacked the standard post-New Deal interpretation of the Constitution’s Commerce Clause, which has long enabled the Federal Government to impose its will based on the need to regulate a complex, interstate economy.

Okay, so conservatives want government out of our lives and communities and individuals permitted to arrange their affairs without the big, bad Feds sticking their noses in, right? Not so much. This logic is completely turned on its head when giant businesses want to frack, i.e. to run roughshod over the wishes of farmers and small-town residents who would prefer not to add benzene, toluene and xylene to their morning coffee. Suddenly, the fearless tea-tippling braggarts with the Obama-as-Joker signs are nowhere to be seen, and if they dared to bring their sidearms along to the anti-fracking protests, something tells me the cops in rural Pennsylvania suddenly wouldn’t be so respectful of the Second Amendment.

It’s just priceless to see the twisted logic deployed by the Pennsylvania State Department of Environmental Protection, an entity ‘wholly captured by the natural gas industry’, according to Susan Kraham of Columbia Law School’s Environmenta Law Clinic. Instead of respect for private property and small-town values, instead of the worship of ruggedly self-reliant, salt-of-the-earth farmers and all that is right and lovely according to conservative folklore, those resisting the fracker bullies are suddenly not in charge of their local affairs—the state of Pennsylvania is.

This past March, the governor signed into law ‘Act 13’, stripping municipalities and townships of zoning authority for gas drilling and overturning their painstaking efforts to protect their land. The law even forbids doctors who find illness among fracking-affected locals from discussing these health effects with other doctors—or even the patients themselves since these details are considered privileged commercial information. Tea Partyoids insisting that Pennsylvanians should be able to opt out of dictatorial health insurance plans don’t seem to be paying much attention to that display of intimidation.

So there we are: when the business elites want people to resist expanded social benefits, we’re all American revolutionaries in tri-cornered hats resisting Cornwallis and the illegitimate use of the Commerce Clause. When they want to drill on your land, commerce reigns supreme once again. Logical!

Friday, 3 August 2012

Debased suffrage

There’s a lot of garment-rending in the news lately about attempts at ‘voter suppression’, meaning the Republican tricks designed to keep blacks and Hispanics away from the polls through things like picture-ID requirements and other modern versions of the poll tax. Oh my, really? We’re just now discovering attempts to deny victory to the majority?

Earth to base: during a certain presidential election in recent memory, the ENTIRE COUNTRY’S vote was hijacked, and no one did diddly about it because our capital-D Democratic leaders did not think electoral theft of the presidency was worthy of a mass movement to protest and reform the system.

This supine collaboration in one’s own defeat has long been a mystery to me until I realized that it’s a feature, not a bug. When popular discontent against things like the rule of the plutocrats balloons, the Democratic poobahs rush to put themselves in charge of it. (I am reminded of an activist guy I knew years ago who was so personally prickly and difficult that he could never work in an organizational setting but immediately ran to the head of whatever march was put together by others to try to take charge of it.) But their ‘leadership’ does not stimulate or maximize the movement’s energy and potential as much as divert and deflate it, and the pattern is so consistent that it cannot be an accident.

Obama’s campaign itself is an easy example: the country was on the verge of revolt at the mismanagement, plunder, stupidity and moral bankruptcy of the Bush years, including the criminal wars, the looting by the bankster class, and the all-round indifference to the commonweal. Obama stood at the head of a vigorous, spontaneous outpouring of political engagement, led by youth. I witnessed it from the inside and can announce—not that it’s a secret—that those energies were tapped, then shunted aside. We got little pats on the head and were told that the adults would now handle things. Go home. Attempts to maintain the Obama mobilization itself as an active force dissipated as everything was folded into the existing party apparatus.

Just imagine, as a thought experiment, what would have happened if the 2000 Bush-Gore election results had been reversed, with Bush the winner of a popular vote plurality and Gore made president through the arcane workings of the Electoral College. The Tea Party would have been born a decade earlier, and we would still be hearing about the Great Larceny of the presidency by the pointy-headed liberal elites. Add a Democratic-sympathetic Supreme Court to this political sci-fi, and the permanent outrage would be ionospheric. Furthermore, the accompanying narrative would be rather persuasive: a corrupt system stole our votes. Who could argue that it had not happened?

Instead, who today even remembers the scandal of 12 years ago? And the successful purloining performed then is now spawning its evil children in the form of voter-roll purges and other anti-democratic schemes. Democrats pretend to be concerned, but as junior partners in the one-percenter duopoly, they’re shamefully complicit and willing to settle for crumbs tossed by the big guys’ spoils, all in exchange for keeping us carefully boxed into their fantasy ‘opposition’.

Thursday, 2 August 2012

No, ‘both sides’ are not equally guilty

What is it with modern journalism that makes reporters bound and determined to find the ‘middle ground’ in a story where it is does not exist (except of course when echoing the line emanating from Washington)? The News Hour last night reported on the apparent execution of secret police agents during the battle in Aleppo, which was captured on the usual cellphone videos and posted. The ITN voiceover then ponderously declared that both the Assad regime and the Free Syrian Army are now guilty of atrocities and therefore morally equivalent.

Oh, please. For over a year now, Assad’s thugs have systematically fired into peaceful demonstrations, rounded people up & disappeared them, tortured children (you do NOT want to know the details), and just this morning were found to have slaughtered dozens more people in Damascus. If Bashir and his family could nuke half the country to stay in power, they would. Now, in the middle of a war zone where the regime is targeting civilians, members of this criminal gang fell into the hands of the revolutionary army. So now we—who continue to stroke chins and debate when we have the right to torture civilians whom we deem our enemies—dare to compare them to a genocidal regime because they executed these prisoners?

This was an ugly scene, and summary justice is wrong. But time for a bit of real balance, my dears. We are witnessing a fight to the death on the streets of a city in chaos. We could ask—as the ITN reporter did not—if there were places to hold the captured cops, who had just picked off a dozen FSA fighters, so that they would not return to shoot at them again. Or do we expect them to behave correctly to satisfy our need for a pure, good-guy side to root for?

Let’s just do a thought experiment: if NATO troops in Afghanistan had done it, would we be having this debate? Or would the person who shot the video be in hiding with Julian Assange?

Wednesday, 1 August 2012

Texas Tea Party rolls GOP establishment

I remember 30 years ago when the Christian Right and the grassroots conservative movement built up through the evangelical churches displayed its muscle in the Reagan sweep, mis-labeled a ‘revolution’. A lot of veteran Democrats got knocked off in that 1980 election, including an old favorite of mine, George McGovern of South Dakota, for whom I briefly worked during my college years. Terry Dolan, the closet case head of ‘Nick-Pac’, the National Conservative Political Action Committee (he later died of a certain disease while his guy Reagan studiously ignored it), crowed at a morning-after news conference about the effectiveness of their negative advertising campaign that banged away at abortion, homosexuality, drugs, and the entire 60s legacy that the activist Christians thought they were reversing. Campaigns have never been the same since, and now any election is an excuse for a barrage of depressing mutual denunciations that reinforce the deeply reactionary idea that all politics are filthy and corrupt.

Who would have thought that these same forces would now be turned against the Republican establishment that seeded them? Today, the church faithful comprise a very loose cannon roiling about the mother ship, full of agitated true-believers with their blood up, ready to beat their flippers like a hired claque at the latest idiocy from Sarah Palin or Glenn Beck. They’re nuts, yet effective. Crusty old sea captains like Bennett of Utah, Lugar of Indiana and now Queen Rick’s carefully groomed No. 2 in Texas have all gone down to ignominious defeat by a popular movement they clearly did not expect to get so far out of hand. While the Teabaggers and other wacko brigades remain useful for them in fights against the hated liberals, in one-party states like Texas the insurgents are not simply going along for the ride. They are determined to be in charge.

No one really can know what this will mean in practical terms when these inflamed ideologues take up their seats in the 2013 Congress. If the current Tea Party-inflicted House of Representatives is any indication, their goal will be to grind the business of state to a halt based on the belief that nothing is always better than something where government is concerned. That sounds good in theory, but as Newt Gingrich learned in an earlier incarnation of this posture, people actually do like to have libraries open and streets cleaned after snowstorms. Drowning the federal beast in the bathtub is a popular notion, but then there’s the corpse to get rid of.

We are living in right-wing times, and the future may include rule by one or a full deck of these cracker dingbats. I don’t look forward to it, but it would be interesting to see how the guys who cranked up this reactionary force for their own purposes will deal with its more bizarre manifestations.

True, but inconvenient, Mitt

The Mitt is an embarassment, true enough, but his celebrated ‘gaffes’ pretty much consist of saying true things at inopportune moments. (Who really thinks the London Olympics are a model of smooth management?) Aren’t Romney’s racist confessions about Palestinian v/s Israeli ‘culture’ are an accurate reflection of how the U.S. mainstream views both? While we can certainly bemoan his open support for the Israeli war machinery, now gearing up to attack Iran, who can pretend that the current occupants of the White House have done anything much to discourage the imperial idea that we get to attack people at will?

Lost in the demonization of the Iranian regime is the salient fact that they have not done anything illegal in pursuing nuclear enrichment. This has been pointed out ad nauseum but has no impact on the breathless war-boosterism passing for journalism. Romney’s endorsement of an unprovoked Israeli attack is merely an immoderate formulation of current policy, and the sight of Obama’s Pentagon chief now in Tel Aviv promising to ‘exert all options’ against the Iranian nuclear capacity is a reminder that, on this point, the U.S. establishment is entirely united.

I’m amused by the legality argument because it is such a piece of cynical opportunism when used to denounce the guy doing your lawn and washing your dishes at the Olive Garden. ‘What part of illegal don’t you understand?’ is the favorite placard slogan. And yet the entire topic of what is permitted by law flies out the window when discussing surveillance, torture or nuclear non-proliferation.

A question I have not seen asked so far is what impact an Israeli attack might have on the revolution in Syria? One would think this latest attempt to oust a hateful and genocidal tyrant would be the priority for any decent regime in the region. Will an Israeli bombardment of Teheran help or hurt that cause? While the Israelis certainly detest Assad, they may be even less eager to see a revolutionary regime appear on its borders. I’m waiting for this debate.