June 15, 2006

The Problem With Liberal Illusions About Bush

The text for today's sermon is taken from the Huffington Post blog. These words were written by a well-intentioned University of Chicago law professor. Clearly, the sentiments expressed are sincere and the attitude they express admirable:

"It is time for President Bush to take a stand. Despite his cynical and exploitative support of a constitutional amendment that would ban gay marriage, he has long maintained that he is a compassionate and tolerant person who has no gripe against gays and lesbians, as such. He just thinks marriage is only for heterosexuals....I believe Mr. Bush truly holds these values, but thus far in his presidency has been too timid to act on them. As a lame duck with increasingly negative public opinion polls and a doubtful place in history, this is the moment for Mr. Bush to "go to China." He can restore his personal credibility and create a lasting legacy for himself as a moral leader by announcing his support for federal legislation prohibiting discrimination in housing, employment, education, and public accommodations on the basis of sexual orientation."

In the late 1930's in Europe, two attitudes prevailed concerning Adolf Hitler. One was embodied in Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time" pronouncement following his summit with Hitler in Munich, the other in Winston Churchill's "wage war" speech. We can leave it to history to decide which of these approaches was more effective. Perhaps Chamberlain was afflicted with that persistent liberal malady, a belief in the innate perfectibility of man. Churchill did not labor under such an illusion. He knew Hitler was evil and his intentions were debased. He would be defeated in one way, through superior power.

Is Bush like Hitler? I would suggest that they share one relevant characteristic: the relentless drive to accumulate power. In Bush's case, this has been manifested in many ways, from his fetish about secrecy; to his tendency to label large groups of people who may or not have done anything wrong "enemy combatants"; his enthusiasm for torture; his unprecedented and unconstitutional use of signing statements to eviscerate acts of Congress; his open defiance of federal law concerning wiretapping and surveillance of Americans; and his refusal ever to compromise on issues such as troop withdrawal, firing his Secretary of Defense or atoning for lies about WMD, Saddam's connections to 9-11 or the disclosure of Valerie Plame's identity by his immediate staff.

And in Bush's case, there is something paradoxical about this obsession. He is quite obviously a man of very modest intellectual "gifts," little strategic vision and poor judgment. The only apparent effect of his steady drive toward power is to potentiate the damage he can do to the United States and to the world.

Nevertheless, there it is. It is pointless to appeal to Bush's "better angels." They simply don't exist except as projections of decent people. It is difficult for normal humans to imagine a life devoid of a functioning conscience, where all decisions are subsumed under an overarching desire to appear powerful and to inflict damage to demonstrate that power. This is Bush's delicate psychological construct, and it explains everything.

For a most recent example, it explains Bush's recent trip to Baghdad. The man is getting a little desperate. Suppose the House of Representatives turns Democratic in November? Bush's remaining two years in office will become a living Hell and he knows it. He absolutely HAS to hold on to power until he can get safely out of office under the protection of a blanket pardon, such as that which Arlen Specter is drafting for him in the guise of "amending" the FISA law. Bush knows that Iraq is an irremediable mess. The ruse of a Camp David "retreat" was necessary simply to make it possible for him to go there, for the first time in nearly 3 years. He spent 5 HOURS there, in Baghdad's Fortress of Solitude, the Green Zone. It is astounding that the media do not comment on the jarring contrast between Bush's resumed "swagger" and the conditions under which this President was forced to visit his greatest foreign policy "triumph."

But these illusions are everywhere in the modern Fun House America, the House of Mirrors. But liberals, please: stop asking Bush to be nice. Stop asking him to be consistent and "compassionate." Stop asking him for anything. Tell him the way it's going to be by making his life that living Hell he so richly deserves.

June 14, 2006

Yo Mars, U ready for this?

"The survival of the human race depends on its ability to find new homes elsewhere in the universe because there's an increasing risk that a disaster will destroy Earth, world-renowned physicist Stephen Hawking said Tuesday.

"Humans could have a permanent base on the moon in 20 years and a colony on Mars in the next 40 years, the British scientist told a news conference."

San Francisco Chronicle, June 14, 2006

When Stephen Hawking, the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, begins sounding like a Doomsday nut, it behooves us to pay attention. You could say, without exaggeration, that our lives depend on it. Hawking is one of those seminal thinkers occuring on a semi-regular basis, say every hundred years or so, whose incomprehensible brilliance is paired with a paradigm-shifting imagination enabling outlandish predictions about remote and arcane phenomena in the Universe (black holes, for example) - that are then confirmed in the physical universe. Einstein, making up an entire new reality in his head, predicted that light would undergo bending by gravity, and then astronomers confirmed that just such a bizarre thing happened during the next solar eclipse. And Newton, whose chair Hawking now occupies at Cambridge, demonstrated that physical forces could be understood through the abstractions of mathematics. Heady company, to be sure.

My first, bar-stool reaction to colonizing Mars, the Moon or some distant Earth-like planet with a whole bunch of humans reflects, no doubt, the disillusionments of our age. Why take this sorry-ass show on the road? Haven't we sent one blue and white paradise to the FUBAR bin already? Leave the universe alone, goddamit. There might be nice animals on some likely candidate near Alpha Centauri.

Hawking seems to be talking about three likely catastrophes in the near term: nuclear armageddon, genetically-engineered viruses and the runaway greenhouse effect. He has appeared, in recent years, to devote considerable attention on this last disaster, a disturbing development when you consider how valuable his brain-time is.

I would describe the runaway greenhouse effect, or Venus Scenario, but I don't have the heart today. I don't even see the point. The United States of America, which would have to lead the way immediately with an emergency program to slash greenhouse emissions to mere fractions of current levels, is instead engaged in political games of gotcha concerning one, moderately populated country in the Middle East, an enterprise which is at bottom about releasing Iraq's one-trillion-barrel reserves of fossil fuels into the overheated atmosphere as soon as possible. And that, dear fellow humans, is the crux of the problem. Because of the egotistical demands of Homo sapiens, right here, right now, of the insecurities which must be dealt with, right here, right now, of the personality dysfunctions of one President, right here, right now, we cannot react to the danger that we may be hurtling toward a world, not so long from today, swathed in dense, steamy clouds of water vapor, where the oceans boil and dry up and tin and lead melt on the land. Where the skyscrapers will stand as mute tombstones above a world where all life has vanished, until they too ooze and melt away.

So don't worry, Mars. And goodnight, Moon. You'll be safe. Other Cosmo Men, Alan Guth, other big thinkers, seeing Hawking's (at last) exposed intellectual flank, have taken issue with his timing. We can't colonize the Moon in 20 years, or Mars in 40. Better to build subterranean caverns in Antarctica, hunker down beneath the rivers of melting ice. We can plan our Comeback there, just as soon as it's safe to go outside. A Green Zone for the entire Human Race.

Gee, I feel better already.

June 12, 2006

The Age of Vacuity

Let us return in time to those enchanted days before Muslim extremists hijacked commercial aircraft and flew them at several hundred miles per hour, fully loaded with people, jet fuel and America's destiny, into two tall Manhattan buildings, the Pentagon and Pennsylvania. Just for a moment, pretend it is September 10, 2001.

Are you there now? Okay, let me ask you a question: Are we at war? And if so, with whom?

If we are at war, why is Richard Clarke forced to run around like a man with his hair on fire in order to get even grudging attention from Condoleezza Rice, the nation's putative National Security Advisor, about al-Qaeda and the threat it poses? The Bush Administration, tough, macho, ruthless, has a different foe in its crosshairs: America's secondary school principals. Education is going to be held accountable so No Child Is Left Behind. Bush is the CEO President, after all, and his action list demands one high profile issue at a time, which he accomplishes in a methodical and efficient way, just as he learned to do when...okay, he never actually learned to do anything of the kind. But the way someone, probably the tubby guy with glasses and the nimbus of baby hair, told him that real executives get things done.

Bush is just happy to be President. All he really wants are three things: to relieve all rich people of the obligation to pay taxes, to go Poppy one better by invading Iraq again and toppling Saddam (this time), and to get reelected, something else Poppy couldn't pull off. Then call me a drinkin', snortin' ne'er-do-well, ya Poppy-injay!

Bush is not that interested in getting rich. Not really. You see what he makes, even today? Somewhere around $780,000, of which $400,000 is his Presidential salary. Which means he makes about $380,000 on his accumulations. Not exactly Big Rich by Texas standards, not at all. A man 60 years old, graduated from Yale and Harvard Business School, CEO of oil companies, an owner and president of the Texas Rangers, former Governor of Texas, beneficiary of many sweetheart loans from generous and probably bewildered older members of the Poppy-razzi, who couldn't quite believe what a colossal screw-up the Old Man's kid was - making less than a part-time plastic surgeon in the tonier sections of Dallas.

But before that mild digression, I was talking about Bush and the war on terror, and what Bush thought about on September 10, 2001. I think he was as indifferent to terrorism as he was to any other aspect of his new job. The conspiracy nuts have gone wild with Bush's Pet Goat moment, reading into it whatever they need to see. Such tea-leaf-reading is standard procedure in American hysteria. We're a spoiled people, and whenever anything goes wrong here, our entire sense of Self is thrown into disarray, and we become determined to find out Who Was Responsible. Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, Atta, and 18 other guys were responsible, that's all. KSM, the Gargling Informant, has "confessed" while in damp repose on his Jordanian waterboard. I think he was pissed off about his nephew Ramzi rotting away in SuperMax in Colorado, just like John Gotti did. And shit, the World Trade Center is still standing! Like Bush, the Sheikh is task-oriented, a box-checking freak. No Skyscraper Left Behind. So work yourself into whatever lather you want, and if you have Mommy and Daddy Issues, like most unbearably spoiled Americans, talk about "blowback" and spend your time figuring out how we deserved it.

Nah, Bush, on September 10, is indifferent to terrorist attacks. He sees them, if he "thinks" about them at all, as cyclical phenomena. The World Trade Center in 1993, the African embassies, the U.S.S. Cole. Timothy McVeigh, but he doesn't count. Too pale. Too local. Ditto the Unabomber. The reason is simple: there's not much point in thinking about them. You just get bummed out. If they happen, they happen. That's why the Bush Administration, which now proclaims, with astonishing chutzpah, its unique suitability to lead the War on Terror, paid no attention to field reports that Something Big was up. As Condi said, who ever dreamed they'd start flying planes into buildings? And if not that, they'd come up with something else we couldn't do anything about. In other words, the Bush Admin thought about terrorism in the same terms everyone else did. If it happens, it happens.

Think how easy it is. You want to blow a hole in the roadway of any American bridge? Drive a Ryder truck to the middle of the bridge, park, and detonate the load of fertilizer in the trailer. You want to freak America out and bring the consumer economy to a grinding halt? Pick ten big malls in exurbia and at Zero Hour, detonate ten car bombs in ten big parking lots. Does anyone seriously think that anything the Bush Administration, or any other political leadership, could do would have the slightest efficacy against things so simple?

It's an asymmetrical war, alright. An easygoing, freedom-loving, fundamentally lazy, essentially trusting American public, on one side, and guys with a huge sense of aggrievement, monomaniacal dedication and way too much time on the other.

America has been very lucky. Our principal foes, so far, have been a little on the dramatic side. Given to tactical histrionics. They plan for years because they think only something that plays well on TV can have a real impact on a populace geared to a 22 minute attention span, the length of a TiVo'ed sitcom. If it doesn't happen on TV, it isn't real. That's why the Iraq War can drag on forever. It isn't real. We never see it. That may be the result of Unintended Genius in prosecution of the war, to create a battlefield so dangerous, with no defined front, with nowhere Behind the Lines, so that no journalist can photograph the war as it happens.

The drama isn't necessary. America would be more effectively undone by the quotidian, by the sense we can't make our consumer rounds in complete safety. A burning skyscraper in America's richest borough is an image from a psychological distance. We can see that isn't us. It's happening to them. Unless, sad to say, them happens to be you.

So the Sheikh checked the box, eight years after his first attempt. And how about Clinton's War on Terrorism, huh? From 1993 to 2000, not a single attack within the United States by Muslim extremists, and his crack anti-terrorist operatives (the U.S. Border Patrol) foiled the Millenium Plot! Bush, so far, has kept America explosion-free for not quite 5 years. The American populace, which is not, in a broad-based sense, schooled in the scientific method or the interpretation of statistics, does not see the distinction between coincidence and causation, or the critical role played by just dumb luck. They think uploading Aunt Millie's phone bills into a vast database in Maryland will prevent a laid-off call center worker in Dearborn, Michigan from driving out to California and detonating a trunk full of Semtex in front of a Safeway in Culver City.

But it is a peculiarity of modern American life, as it is represented in public media, that no one requires anything to make sense anymore. Things get said and everyone pretends it makes sense. It's why we're all going crazy, at variable speeds. Reality is losing its integrity.

So thank goodness, so far, the world's terrorists, whoever they are, have chosen big impact scenarios, as they conceive them, as their attack of choice against America. We can survive those, blog those, make movies about those, attack each other about those, and live our lives around those. KSM & the Paradise Boys haven't quite figured it out yet. Their approach just sticks us with a lousy government, courtesy of an easily-manipulated American voting populace. That is the long term significance of their attacks against "symbols of American power." Those propel America into a narcissistic frenzy of Power Demonstration, the use of the army, navy and marines, the entire espionage apparatus, stealth bombers, aircraft carriers, cruise missiles, irrelevant wars, the wholesale rounding up of Arabs, the suspension of civil liberties and due process, the creation of a police state, the distortion of spending priorities, the dismissal of far more serious existential threats such as global warming and avian flu. All this for Something Which Has Already Happened, where 19 of the 20 perpetrators are already dead and the 20th, the Mastermind, is currently touring Eastern Europe courtesy of the Central Intelligence Agency.

So, now we must endure the debate about who's tougher in the War on Terror. In other words, who talks tougher about something we've already let happen and are powerless to prevent from happening again. The America of September 10, 2001, is gone forever. We were curiously ready to say goodbye, I suppose. So ready that we collaborated with our government, with KSM, with our own fearful selves in letting it go.

The A Team at Camp David

Cue up the music. The posse strides confidently forward, led by the Prez himself, his simian arm-swing propelling him up the rise toward the row of microphones. The national park-like cabin is behind them. Bush has on a blue blazer and light blue shirt, no tie. Condi, to his left, is cross-dressed in a severe blazer of her own. Rumsfeld is wearing a parka with a crest. The stooped mound of Dick Cheney is to Rumsfeld's right, grinning lopsidedly. General Peter Pace, Negroponte, and of course Alberto Salazar fill in the second row.

In other words, the same group of hacks who have always screwed up Iraq have gone on a retreat. They'll come up with new ways to screw up Iraq, but in Maryland, not in Washington. Now they can video conference with Maliki, far away from the irrelevant influence of Congress, the undomesticated press, and the American People. You can imagine how spontaneous and free-flowing the talk will be under the masterful leadership of George W. Bush, who will fearlessly seek out dissent in order to optimize the marketplace of ideas. Also, to help him figure out who to shitcan next. The video hookup with Maliki should be deeply elucidating, as Bush congratulates Maliki on the routine appointments to his cabinet which only took four months. He may assure Maliki he's doing a heckuva job. Maliki will express his profound gratitude for this unsolicited show of support and for the American resolve in seeing through whatever the mission is at this point. All will agree that substantial progress is being made in Iraq, or so they hear, since no one can actually go outside in the street and look.

At night the crew will gather in the Camp David game room to watch Bonanza re-runs. There will be little talk, not only because of the arduous day spent video-conferencing, but because this crew has no interest in ideas, conversation, other people or the job of governing. Bush will chug an O'Doul's and hit the hay at 9. Condi, 15 minutes later. Rummy, Cheney, Negroponte and Gonzales will then break out the tequila and get wasted.

Tomorrow: Day 2 of the Retreat!

Alice Meets the Jester in the Ex-Checker

“And as in other years, the figures exclude the effect of the surplus being run by Social Security, which uses the excess to buy government bonds that it plans to use to pay benefits later in the century. The actual difference between non-Social Security revenues and spending projected for 2005 is $541 billion, not including the expected costs for the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. The actual spending gap in 2004 was $567 billion.” New York Times January 25, 2005

“When the U.S. annual budget for defense is compared with that of other nations, the true magnitude of U.S. defense spending becomes clear. The United States alone accounts for more than one-third of the world's military spending. U.S. defense spending roughly equals the combined spending of the next 18 nations and is more than triple the combined defense budgets of the remaining 142 countries in the world. The United States outspends both Russia and China seven to one. More important, the United States spends 54 times the combined amount spent by potential rogue state threats – Iran, Syria, Libya, Cuba and North Korea.” Analysis from the (conservative) Cato Institute

Wonderland was certainly a perplexing place. For a long time, the unpleasant chortles of the Mad Hatter and the gravelly voice of the strange, rotund man who used only one side of his mouth to say disagreeable things rang in her young ears. Alice felt lucky Wonderland offered refuge from encounters like that, though you might imagine a sunlit meadow would be an unlikely place for such a loathsome collection of individuals to disport themselves. She wondered if the Colon ever made its way to safety. It was curious the Hatter seemed to pay no attention to him, either while he was in distress or as he wriggled through the high grass to the safety of the forest. Alice wished him well.

For now, Alice found herself overcome by a ravenous appetite. She came upon another hole blocked by a short wooden door. This surely could not be the same hole she’d run down initially, since she was already in Wonderland. A sign on a rope hung over the knob: “Gone till we come back. Keepers of the Queen’s Ex-Checker.” That meant nothing in particular to Alice. She tried the door and found it opened onto a steep set of stairs leading to a murky basement of sorts. Intrepid as always, she started down, listening to the hollow echo of her steps against the stone walls. In time, she could hear metallic clinks and a murmuring voice. Reaching the bottom of the stairs, she saw a diminutive man wearing a jester’s cap and green tights in a candle-lit corner. He was standing behind a long wooden table piled high with gleaming coins. On two hooks on the stone wall behind him hung two enormous burlap sacks. One was marked “Ours” and bulged heavily with its burden of coins. The other bag was marked “Theirs” and hung limply from its hook. It was apparently empty. The Jester had a large sheet of foolscap on the table and a thick pencil. He dropped coins in the heavy bag and made marks on the paper as he went.

“Hello,” said Alice.

“We’re busy here,” said the Jester.

“May I ask where I am?” Alice said.

“You can ask,” said the Jester.

“Who are you?”

The Jester made another mark and then looked up, frowning.

“If you must know, I’m the Queen’s Secretary of the Ex-Checker.”

“What’s that?”

“It’s the only game in town,” said the Jester.

“That’s not a very good joke,” said Alice politely.

“Who let you in?” said the Jester.

“The door was open,” said Alice.

“Didn’t you see the sign?”

“But you’re here after all,” Alice pointed out.

“True enough. We don’t like people to see what we’re doing.”

“What are you doing?”

“I’m counting the People’s taxes.”

“It looks like an awful lot of money,” said Alice.

“It is, though it’s never enough.”

“Why is the bag marked ‘Ours’ so heavy and full?”

“That’s the money the Queen uses to run Wonderland, to defend it from its enemies and to provide for the common good.”

“Wonderland has enemies?” said Alice.

“You ask a lot of impertinent questions,” said the Jester.

“So I’ve been told. Why is the other bag empty?”

“That’s the bag that will be used to pay for the Queen’s subjects in their old age when the money in the Queen’s bag isn’t enough to do it anymore.”

“Oh, I see,” said Alice, though not really seeing.

“Maybe you can explain it to me then,” mumbled the Jester.

“Beg your pardon?” said Alice.

“I’ve got a lot of work to do,” said the Jester.

“So when will you start filling the bag marked ‘Theirs’?” Alice asked.

“Never,” said the Jester.

“But you just said…”

“Right, I did. Later, when there isn’t enough money in the Queen’s bag to pay for the retirement of the Queen’s subjects, the Queen will use the money in the People’s bag to make up the difference.”

“But there’s no money in the People’s bag and never will be.”

“You’re a smart little girl,” said the Jester. “Maybe a little too smart.”

This was certainly not the way she had been addressed back at school in Swansea. For the second time that day, Alice felt very homesick and afraid.

“It’s just when I did my sums…” Alice began tremulously. “What I mean is, I don’t see how adding zero to anything can make it any bigger.”

“It can when the Queen says it can,” said the Jester.

“Why don’t you put some of the money into the People’s bag now so you’ll have some later when you need it?”

“Because we don’t have enough as it is, silly,” said the Jester.

“But later on you’ll have more than enough so you can put some in the People’s bag?” said Alice hopefully.

“Heavens no,” said the Jester. “If anything, things will be worse than ever. So her subjects will love her more, the Queen requires them to pay her less now than ever before.”

“That seems rather shortsighted,” said Alice.

“It would,” said the Jester. “To you. That’s why you’re not the Queen.”

“Do the People know how dire the situation is?” said Alice.

“Oh my, yes. The Queen warns them every day. She wants to avert a crisis by acting now.”

“But not by putting money in the People’s bag,” said Alice, beginning to catch on.

“Of course not,” said the Jester.

“Although that would solve the problem,” said Alice.

“Indeed,” said the Jester. “But not without making Wonderland vulnerable to its enemies.”

“I forget what you said before. It’s been such a day. Who did you say were Wonderland’s enemies?”

“You might say they’re everywhere,” murmured the Jester.

“Can I just ask you one more thing?” said Alice sweetly.

“If it really is the last thing,” said the Jester.

“What’s the fastest way to get the Hell out of Wonderland?”