September 08, 2006

Please, Mr. President, Stop. I can't take it anymore

"As the horror of that morning grows more distant, there is a tendency to believe the threat is receding and this war is coming to a close. That feeling is natural and comforting - and wrong. If we give up the fight in the streets of Baghdad, we will face the terrorists in the streets of our own cities." President George W. Bush, before the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City, August 31, 2006.

Okay, I'm scared. Please stop talking about the suiciders, the evil-doers and the haters of freedom. They're ruining my sleep. I'll tell you how bad this has gotten, with your constant reminders, your obsessive evocation of all these nightmarish characters wearing Bedouin Ninja outifts and leaping out from behind parked cars.

I'm thinking we should just leave Baghdad. Right now. Then, as you say, the terrorists will follow us over here. This would be good for two reasons. First, it's not fair that only our soldiers should get blown up in an endless, pointless war. We should all get blown up once in a while. Second, at least we'll see them and have a clear shot at them. The way it is, with you warning us every single day how much trouble we're in, but nothing ever happening, I'm a nervous wreck. I'm sick with worry. It's like we're all in a machine gun nest in a World War II movie, and we know the Japanese invasion is coming, and we're tense as hell, and we hear them talking out there in the jungle in that incomprehensible jabbering -- but we can't see them!

It's like that, you know? You're almost relieved when the attack comes, it becomes more of an even fight. I would rather take on a few Jihadis on my way down to the local upscale market. Hey, the suburbanites around here are locked and loaded, W. Most of them cruise the streets in SUVs with the heft and menace of a Humvee. Not up-armored, maybe, but I understand a lot of the American military isn't either. We can take 'em, once they're in the streets here, just like you say they'll be. They'll be obvious here, too, not like in Baghdad, where they just look like...well, like all the other Arabs. An Arab here in Marin County wearing a feyadeen costume, all black, with an RPG strapped to his think we won't notice? We'll pick him out in a minute.

I'd feel safer on an airplane then, too. Knowing they're in the streets, out in the open, instead of, say, in seat 14B. They won't need subterfuge once they're right out in the streets in a fair fight, right here in America.

So let 'em follow us, W! Taunt them with a sudden withdrawal! Leave Baghdad in a huff! You know: bring 'em on!

September 06, 2006

Lunatics at the asylum convention

Blogging, of course, is yet another artifact of the Information Age. With a few exceptions (none of which come to mind), blogs are poorly written, reactive and derivative. After gaining enough notoriety to attract attention from bloggers with opposing points of view, the political blogger (in particular) can then devote his space to flaming his opponents in a ceaseless roundelay of venomous opprobrium. I have watched the blogs of Eric Alterman and Glenn Greenwald degenerate into just such exercises, among many other examples.

Blog-based catfights are a form of entertainment, as news has become a form of entertainment. Once the concept of a rapid "news cycle" took firm root in the public consciousness, and lead stories were selected on the basis of their lurid entertainment value (Southern coed disappears in Aruba, etc.), the budget for serious investigative reporting dried up and the superficial reigned supreme. Following this, anyone with access to the Internet could then recycle the same news bits in an opinion blog and to an extent could have the same authority as the "reporters," who were also dependent on unverified sources and propaganda. Thus, as one reads through the repetitive rehashes on the Huffington Post, for example, one sees again and again the same factoids repackaged and contextualized in the style of the Blogger in question. These are narcissistic exercises, by and large, the Blogger restating what everyone else is saying but finding his perspective unique and important because of the way he's saying it.

Thus: "We didn't have enough troops." "Deficits don't matter." "Bush joked about finding WMD under his desk in the Oval Office." "Bremer disbanded the Iraqi army." "There is no link between the attacks of 9-11 and Iraq." "We are creating more terrorists in Iraq than we are killing." "Afghanistan is returning as a narco-state, and the Taliban are resurgent." "Iraq is in a civil war." "Iran is the big winner in the Iraqi conflict." "Over 45 million Americans have no health insurance." "Bush routinely violates the FISA law by his warrantless wiretapping." "China is buying up the U.S. through its purchase of U.S. Treasuries." "The government does not allow itself quantity discounts in dealing with Big Pharma." "The Republicans running for office in November are distancing themselves from Bush." "The disparity in wealth between rich and poor has increased with Bush's tax cuts."

Grab 2 or 3 such lines and build a blog piece. Mix in your perspective, your attitude, and presto! You too can be a pundit. What do you have when you're done? What unique contribution have you made to the intellectual edifice of American thought?

There are other facts that might draw the attention of a more curious and insightful reader. The American standard of living has been in steady decline since 1973, since the first Oil Shock. America's preeminent place among educated peoples of the First World has been in sharp decline since the 1950's. 75% of the American economy is now based on consumerism, and mostly buying things made in other countries. The United States is now the biggest debtor country and the biggest borrower in the world. America has no plan for handling its official national debt of $9 trillion, nor any idea (or hope) for dealing with its huge unfunded liabilities for social safety net programs. America is bankrupt. The American people derived more "income" during the period 2000 through 2005 by refinancing houses than by earning money at jobs.

The first set of circumstances, the Blogomania of the modern age, is related to the second set of circumstances. We have become a frivolous and indolent people well on our way to displacement (as usual in the course of World History) by the Golden Horde, the Tatars, the Barbarians, the Vandals. And when we sink out of sight, we'll blog about that too.

September 05, 2006

The gunfight aboard the Titanic

Look, how can I say this politely? George W. Bush has been reduced to saying "Boo!" as a means of rallying the American people to his Great War on Terror. He's made the comparisons of al-Qaeda to Hitler, to Lenin, and by a parity of reasoning, of himself to Churchill. The rhetorical bag is now officially empty.

Meanwhile, this from the British Antarctic Survey, a research group based in Cambridge, that same university where Stephen Hawking occupies the Lucasian Chair in Mathematics. That same Mr. Hawking who recently advised us to colonize Mars as a way of dealing with global warming:

"The core [from Antarctic drilling] shows that carbon dioxide was always between 180 parts per million (ppm) and 300 ppm during the 800,000 years. However, now it is 380 ppm. Methane was never higher than 750 parts per billion (ppb) in this timescale, but now it stands at 1,780 ppb.

"But the rate of change is even more dramatic, with increases in carbon dioxide never exceeding 30 ppm in 1,000 years -- and yet now carbon dioxide has risen by 30 ppm in the last 17 years.

"The rate of change is probably the most scary thing because it means that the Earth systems can't cope with it," Dr Wolff told the British Association meeting at the University of East Anglia in Norwich.

"On such a crowded planet, we have little capacity to adapt to changes that are much faster than anything in human experience."

"The most scary thing" indeed. More scary even than dynamite-laden Muslims, in my way of thinking. Scarier than bird flu. Scarier than the "obesity pandemic." Scarier than just about anything. I wonder if we have become too jaded, too inured to the perilous state of the modern world, to comprehend fully what Dr. Wolff is saying. He is looking back 800,000 years for comparison, and he is saying that CO2 concentrations in our atmosphere are off the chart. He is also saying that CO2 concentrations are rising at a rate that is completely unprecedented during that same time period, 58 times faster than any previous increase of 30 parts per million.

We are in very deep trouble. We're obsessed with episodic events in which crazy people occasionally explode stuff and kill people, and we're paying virtually no attention on a national level to a certainty guaranteed by the physical universe, by atmospheric science, to destroy us all in Hawking's apocalyptic nightmare vision of the runaway greenhouse. On the maiden cruise of modern civilization we're drifting through a dark sea on a white ship, while gunfire rings out on the grand staircase, and bombs explode in the ball room, as we struggle insanely to "survive" aboard the vessel. While we sail, in blind ignorance, toward our fate.

September 04, 2006

On Reading "Fiasco" and "Bush on the Couch" Back-to-Back

First of all, I'm not sure I would recommend such an enterprise. Although I must admit, "Fiasco" is explained to a large degree by "Couch."

"Fiasco," by Thomas Ricks, is about the failed American adventure in Iraq. The central thesis of the book appears to be that all of our problems in Iraq derive from the manner of its execution. Mr. Ricks, in general (as might be expected of a Pentagon writer for the Washington Post), takes a sympathetic view of the military's efforts to succeed. Such charity must not always have been easy, as for example when reporting on the treatment of Iraqi detainees by U.S. forces. Nevertheless, he appears to imply, amid the dense flurry of military acronyms and code-named operations, that the U.S. military might have "accomplished" their "mission" had it not been for civilians screwing up the enterprise. Thus, Mr. Ricks hits all the usual points covered on cable talk shows and Tom Friedman apologetic columns. We didn't have enough troops. We disbanded the Iraqi army. The de-Baathification proceeded too soon and too comprehensively. We alienated the populace with strong-arm detention practices and mistreatment of prisoners.

Blah, blah, blah. It's a long book, but that's essentially what it says. Its value lies mainly in creating a source book for Administration critics who want to argue that the Bush people took an adventure doomed from the start and then proceeded to make it much worse than it needed to be. But that's about all, in my opinion.

The truth is simpler. Donald Rumsfeld may have been more prescient than we give him credit for. He was not gung-ho on this invasion from the beginning. It may have been his decision not to waste more of the U.S. military than was absolutely necessary. More perceptive critics of the war, such as Peter Galbraith, are now pointing out that Iraq is not now nor ever has been an actual "country," in the sense of a people sharing a unified indentity committed to a common polity. Since Churchill stitched its three essential fragments together in 1921, Iraq has struggled restively to break apart at any opportunity. The iron hand of Saddam Hussein held it together by means of a police state during modern times. The United States, on the other hand, in its blissful ignorance decided that the same cohesion could be accomplished by the "Iraqi" people through voluntary commitment to democracy.

This is not going to happen. George W. Bush can continue to say that it is happening until he's left office and is permanently employed as chief brush-clearer at the Crawford ranch. It will make no difference. The Kurds, as the favored sons of the U.S. occupation, are biding their time until they can present their secession as a fait accompli. The Shia are waiting until the U.S. leaves so they can enlist the aid of the Iranians in finishing a Sunni genocide, utilizing their growing militias (trained as the "Iraqi army" by the U.S.). The Sunnis are wondering what to do and who will be on their side.

As for "Bush on the Couch," by Justin Frank, M.D.: Dr. Frank styles this book a work of "applied psychoanalysis," by which he reaches tentative conclusions on Bush's psychological "formulation," both its origins and its current manifestations. In essence, he reaches the conclusion that Bush is a megalomaniac, with strong currents of paranoid ideation, and probably a sufferer from Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder. Dr. Frank traces Bush's mental problems not so much to his decades of alcohol and substance abuse as to formative experiences as an infant under the cold and distracted care of Barbara Bush. Relying heavily on the work of Melanie Klein, Dr. Frank attributes Bush's learning disabilities, linguistic difficulties and anxiety-management problems to a fundamental lack of nurturance. The good doctor is honest in admitting the limitations of diagnosis-at-a-distance and reliance upon secondary sources for much of the evidence.

I think it is interesting, in the first place, that a well-respected psychoanalyst would be moved to engage in such an endeavor. For there definitely is something about Bush that is so perplexing, so troubling, so creepy, that one wants to contain and control it through understanding. Bush is like the girlfriend who drove us nuts with her flightiness, her infidelity, her indifference, her casual cruelty, so much so that we begin to read about "borderline personalities" and "narcissistic disorders" on the Internet, and we check books out of the library and read at great length, all in an effort to distance ourselves from our emotions, to see ourselves as victims in solidarity with other poor souls who have suffered at the hands of similar monsters lacking any trace of's kind of like that. Dr. Frank pours it on, adding anecdote to observation, mining the great seminal texts of his specialty (Freud, Jung, Klein), building an airtight case...which, as he knows and as we really know, doesn't really tell us all that much.

Bush is sui generis, one of those nightmarish apparitions who come along once in a great while to vex and haunt us, the girlfriend who cures you of all future "borderlines," who makes you yearn for someone down-to-earth and sensible who doesn't make your life "exciting" all the time. Just lets you breathe, and calm down, and stop worrying. Coming to terms with such a person is the great enterprise of which psychoanalysis and "understanding" are but a part. Mostly, you simply wait for it to be over.