September 30, 2006

Why is Bush picking on Americans instead of Iraqis?

As we approach the crescendo of the Fall 2006 elections, Bush is amping up the vitriolic attacks on non-supporters of his war on Iraq. "Cut and run," "appeasement," "shaken will" -- all the terms from his meager pejorative vocabulary are hurled at his political enemies, those who do not share his unique insight into the true state of the battle for democracy in the heart of the Arab world, who don't appreciate the Herculean efforts he is making (as he told Katie Couric) to connect the Iraq war to the wider war on terror. He's out on the hustings again, his mouth agape, his hands flailing the air, as the nervous beneficiaries of his support - Republican candidates - stand just out of camera range at the back of the platform.

Curiously, however, Bush aims his criticism at Americans, and more particularly at Democrats. Now that Bush (as he admits) reads the news, didn't he see the recent AP poll on Iraqi attitudes about the war? Specifically,

— About six in 10 Iraqis say they approve of attacks on U.S.-led forces, and slightly more than that want their government to ask U.S. troops to leave within a year, according to a poll in that country."

The AP poll is scientifically designed (a point in its disfavor, of course) and includes Iraqis of all sectarian stripes. The enthusiasm for American carnage runs across the board, including the Shiites we have installed in power and the Sunnis we displaced. They all like seeing us blown up. They cheer when American soldiers, Army, Marines, National Guard, you name it, are shredded by RPG's, when they're shot through the head by an automatic weapon, when their arms and legs are reduced to blackened, bleeding stumps by roadside bombs, when they are blinded, or parts of their brains are blown away and the soldiers become helpless vegetables. When they die, right then and there or from horrible complications. When these things happen, more than 60% of the Iraqi people are happy that they happened. They're glad American soldiers are suffering and dying. Most Iraqis feel that way. The people that Bush's war on Iraq liberated. The people we are protecting with all that carnage, the people we are going bankrupt for.

They want us dead.

So, Mr. Bush -- wouldn't it be appropriate for you to aim some of your famous bad temper and irritation at them? Just lay off Democrats and members of your own party, like that troublesome Chuck Hagel, and all those generals who don't buy the party line --and in fact, the 60% of Americans who don't like your war. Leave them alone for a while, grant some leeway for honest dissent. Turn that inimitable ire on your adopted children, the Iraqis, and give them a piece of your mind. They're not only "naive" about the war on terror, as you accuse American dissenters of being -- they're monstrously, inexplicably, outrageously, unconscionably ungrateful. How sharper than a serpent's tooth! (I know you read Shakespeare now, so you'll get it.) Tell them to get back in line. Tell them you know, better than they do, what's good for them. Tell them to shut the hell up and appreciate us!

September 29, 2006

The End of the Republic

The matchless beauty of the American legal system, as it existed until September 28, 2006, originated in the thinking of the Founding Fathers, who seemed animated by two contemporary influences. The first of these was the Enlightenment and the evolution of the scientific method. Rather than arguing on the basis of a priori logic, which held (as in religious or dogmatic thinking) that answers were preordained or accessible through Received Wisdom, the Enlightenment and the scientific method born of Enlightenment thinking proceeded on the basis of intellectual humility. That the answers were not known beforehand through divine revelation, that the secrets of Nature must be discovered through a rigorous process of trial and error, through scrupulous intellectual honesty, and that service to the Truth, as it was discovered and regardless of the form it might take, was the ultimate guiding principle. Subjective assertions of being "right" were of no weight; you had to prove it, and according to precisely defined standards.

The second influence was the tyranny of the British Crown. The colonists in America had suffered under the arbitrary and cruel dictates of an unchecked monarch and were determined to eliminate such capricious subjectivity from their own legal system.

Thus, the Founding Fathers introduced the concept of an "anti-majoritarian" Bill of Rights, encoding America's basic civil liberties. If one examines closely the ideas behind the Bill of Rights, you are struck by the close correlation between the scientific method and the fundamental principles behind such bedrock concepts as the presumption of innocence, the right to counsel, the right to trial by jury, and the right of a defendant to be confronted by all witnesses and evidence against him. The maintenance of such delicate systems was entrusted to the political system, with its intricate clockwork of checks and balances. In particular, the interplay between the legislative and executive branches, on one hand, and the judicial system on the other, ensured that arbitrary and unjust decisions against individuals could either be prevented or redressed in the event of miscarriages of justice. No matter how "obvious" the criminal case against an individual, you still had to prove it, and according to the exacting standards of the rules of evidence, and only after a full, bilateral and open trial.

That system, that magnificent edifice of justice, served us so well for so long. It's gone now. We have joined the others, the juntas, the dictatorships, the Central Committees, the strongmen, the kings. We legislated it out of existence. What we will now call justice will be characterized by arbitrary decisions by Presidents and his High Command, by subjective judgments unchallenged by open trials, and by the sequestration of individuals locked up forever without legal recourse of any kind.

Why? I don't think there's any point in asking why. We lost respect for the wisdom of the Ancients, of our elders, of our betters, all of whom endured far greater threats, far more desperate battles, than we have ever seen. We proved unworthy of our heritage. We will now descend from our Enlightened ramparts into the depths of a new Dark Age.

September 26, 2006

Where is John Lennon now that we need him more

I confess that I always thought John Lennon was The Man, the artist par excellence, a performer/songwriter of such immense genius that being great was to him as natural as going through the motions of everyday life for the rest of us. Onstage, especially after he left the Beatles, he commanded the attention of everyone watching and listening, the cynosure of all eyes, the natural leader of whatever aggregation of musicians or artists he happened to be among. His guitar playing, his singing, even much of the writing seemed in some ways secondary to his creative genius. Most of all, it was the way his mind worked that was most captivating. He was, of course, good at all the things that went into performing music, the rock-solid rhythm, the phrasing, the shaping of melodic contour. He wasn't the best at any of those things, but he didn't need to be.

He was also very funny, deeply wise and penetratingly direct. All of those qualities came through in the movie "The United States vs. John Lennon," the recently-released documentary about Lennon's years in New York post-Beatles, when he fell in with radicals like Jerry Rubin, Abbie Hoffman, Bobby Seale and others. About his political awakening, and his subsequent harassment by Hoover and Nixon, which led to a prolonged immigration fight. Through it all, Lennon kept his integrity and his puckish, self-effacing humor, which naturally rubbed some people the wrong way. The masses love false humility in their idols. I don't suppose he was the easiest human being on Earth to get along with, and no doubt he left many bruised egos in his wake. You don't become John Lennon, I guess, by just being one of the guys. Asked why he would not simply leave the U.S. and return to Britain to end the immigration fight, Lennon answered by saying that he liked New York, that he had many friends there, that he liked the artistic stimulation, and then, with his typical deadpan irony: "And I even brought my own cash."

During one meditative moment in a videotaped interview (with Dick Cavett, or maybe Geraldo), Lennon expressed his view that a fair analysis of what the governments of the United States, or Great Britain, or China, or most other countries were up to yielded the conclusion that they were pursuing "insane" goals. That their very purpose was to do insane things, and that a person such as himself, who pointed out the insanity (the Vietnam War, for example, or the repression by the Chinese government of its own populace) was nevertheless the one considered insane, who ought to be locked up for pointing out the madness. Somehow, when he said it, this perhaps commonplace observation acquired a new resonance. Thus always with the truly exceptional.

Monday I watched Senator James Inhofe, Chairman of the Senate's Committee on Public Works and the Environment (something like that) take the floor, as he does periodically, and denounce global warming as a hoax or hysterical overreaction or however it is he describes it these days. He talked about "left wing" scientists, used "California" as a pejorative term in describing Schwarzenegger's global warming initiative, and employed vague and ad hominem arguments such as the failure of the "environmental movement" to be right on all previous predictions as proof they were wrong about this one. He said that he was going to take on the "science" of global warming in his speech, but I didn't hear him do that. Over the years, as he has gone through these exercises, the science becomes more conclusive, better refined, and coheres toward an inescapable conclusion we're headed toward disaster, and sooner than we used to think. Inhofe, with his sandy hair and blandly rubicund face, stumbling along in his inarticulate manner, continues to proclaim what I guess is the official Senate take on this life-or-death issue: there's nothing to worry about, the climate changes over time but we don't have much to do with it, and the issue has been hyped by "Hollywood" and liberals and people like that because they want the attention. While this impractically practical man, whose formal education, as far as I can tell, does not include any curriculum involving hard science (he used to be the mayor of Tulsa, and attended the University of Tulsa in business or economics), appoints himself the gate keeper of the U.S. response to climate change, probably the main existential threat to human life over the next century. I'm sure there are reasons not immediately apparent why a Senator from Oklahoma would assert that fossil-fuel burning is no big deal, although Inhofe's attitude seems at this point even more backward than Exxon Mobil's.

I don't know who Inhofe's real audience is. One thing that is obvious is that he's not qualified to make the judgments he's making. He doesn't have the depth and he sounds like an idiot when he talks about atmospheric science. There are ways that public policy could be advanced on the subject. For example, Inhofe could bring in the posse of global warming deniers he always cites and have them square off against James Hansen and the many other (read: virtually all) serious scientists who hold the contrary view. Stephen Hawking, armed with his voice synthesizer, could attend. There's something I would pay a great deal of money to see: Senator James Inhofe of Oklahoma making his inane arguments in the presence of Stephen Hawking. Remember the scene in "Annie Hall" when Woody pulls Marshall McLuhan out of nowhere...? Like that. A public debate in a Senate hearing room running over 5 or 6 days. As long as it takes, because if we don't figure this one out, nothing much else is going to matter. Thus, instead of an egotistical exercise in thundering, meaningless oration, by a Senator who thinks scientific opinions are simply expressions of underlying political leanings, we could actually find something out. If global warming is a hoax - great! I'd be glad to hear it. And if we'd better get started on a crash program to save ourselves - the sooner the better.

But to proceed in such a way would require a sane government pursuing sane objectives, instead of what we've got. Sad to say it, John, but in the generation you've been gone, things have only gotten worse. And I sure miss your music.

September 25, 2006

Toward an understanding of the American economy

I think it works along these lines, and if any insight is contained herein, I credit that in part to a recent trip abroad which confirmed the essential unlivability of even the First World at this point in world history.

America is the most desirable place to live on Planet Earth. The reasons for this are many and are related to the factors which made the United States preeminent in the first place. Favorable placement in the world's latitutdes, producing generally clement weather; a varied topography; lots of empty space; abundant resources; the inheritance of an advanced civilization. We have, for the most part, squandered all this, but we should not beat ourselves up about it. Humans are uniquely unsuited to the maintenance of beauty, and the mass production of ugliness is a general malaise of homo sapiens and not a strictly American characteristic. Other cultures produce ugliness as fast as they can, but they have, until recent times, lacked a comparable ugly-making technology.

It is said that America practices something called the New Economy, or the Information Economy, or the Post-Industrial Economy. These are stand-in terms for another way of looking at it, which is that we don't like doing dirty work anymore. The Hallucinated Economy is probably the most viable term at this point, where "wealth" is created through manipulation of paper instruments of debt, expansion of a money supply untethered to any standard (such as a precious metal) and a massive group psychosis. We pretend to envy countries like China which proliferate sweat shops and drudgery, but we don't, really. That's how we used to work in the old industrial towns of the Midwest, and upper Northeast and...well, just about everywhere. We didn't like the work then and we would hate it now. It is repetitive, difficult, soul-crushing work, as millions of young Chinese girls would affirm after a day of piecing together seams on NFL jerseys destined for Wal-Mart's leisure wear departments.

What was left after we decided to quit work? Well, it was kind of like the late stages of a losing game of Monopoly. You've got a lot of property cards, and a bunch of green houses, and a few red hotels. But you're low on cash, because you keep buying things (off the board, you could say) that you can't afford. You think you deserve them because everyone else has them, and the country's so...well, rich. Isn't it? The government assures us we are. The economy is booming, they say. So what's left? You don't want to work, or you lost the one job the United Auto Workers promised you'd have forever. So you borrow against those cards, those houses, those hotels. You refinance. That provides jobs to those who manipulate the money, who arrange the loans, who "appraise" your property, who "check" your credit, who bundle your loan with millions of others and make new "securities" out of them, which then are sucked into the dark vortex of the derivatives industry where they lose any resemblance to the simple transaction your loan once was. We take the money and head to the Big Box stores and buy stuff made in China. The line workers, the drudges, the wage slaves in China save astonishing fractions of their small earnings and live in crowded hovels dreaming of the day they can live like Americans. Their savings create a vast money pool which is loaned back to the USA, and the government issues IOUs to the Chinese and all our other creditors in the form of Treasury securities, T-bills, notes, bonds. The foreign creditors pretend that the cash-strapped American government can pay this money back, but the real security for their loans are all those green houses and red hotels. You are their security, your state of indenture to your own house where you derived all your "income" to buy hair dryers and an extension phone for every room.

Voila! The American economy. It is, strictly speaking, a psychological construct. It will exist so long as Americans and their slightly nervous creditors will it to exist. We shall mortgage the Great American Development to the hilt, to the max, to the roof to keep the game going.

Until, one dark day, it stops going altogether.

September 24, 2006

Meandering through Europe

Perspectives change as the years go by. Of course, of course. The difference between a sojourn to Europe in 1972 and 2006, among other things, is that the Uncertainty Principle assures me that the Reality I See is different not just because Europe has changed so much, but because I have too. The Observer and the Observed. Most Europeans are now younger than I am, and it feels a little foolish to be much in awe of an ancient culture being run by a bunch of kids, particularly kids who hyphy out to the same music as at home, who wear the same Hard Rock Cafe T-shirts, who drive at insane speeds on the same high-end Japanese motorcycles.

I don't think I encountered much in the way of anti-American sentiment, but then again the primary interface of an American tourist is with the mercantile segment of European society who need the American's poor, pathetic, devalued dollar more than ever. Who's got time for chauvinism under circumstances like that? When a sandwich costs $12 and a beer 8 bucks, they'll overlook a few hegemonic impulses.

I got through Customs at both ends, not that I'd done anything wrong (I hasten to reassure the NSA), but that momentary glitch at SF International, when she ran my passport through the magnetic reader...and looked at the screen, wrinkled her brow, and then ran it through again...Just a paranoid flash, I'm sure. At the luggage carousel, I read the electronic board with its saccharine reassurances about how the Border Control was just there to help. The Memo has been circulated, in other words; we're tough now, but we'll put it out there in a sort of menacingly nice way. Play ball and nobody gets hurt. The Bushies are in control now, and you wouldn't want to leave something off your customs declaration and wind up rendered in an extraordinary way to Syria. You think you got jet lag now? Wait till you've been up for 8 straight days in Damascus, scumbag.

It was interesting to sit in a hotel breakfast room in Lyon and read about the courageous stand of the defiant Republican Senators, the "insurgents," who refused to knuckle under to Bush's demand to gut the War Crimes Act. The International Herald Tribune covers such stuff pretty well, mixed in with a quasi-European perspective. Arriving home, I realized it was simply more kabuki theatre from McCain & Co.; the main thing Bush wanted, the retroactivity of the amendment to get himself off the hook for authorizing war crimes, with its haunting long-tail statute of limitations, the Senators are sure to give him. The rest is persiflage. Bush doesn't care about interrogation "tools" for harassing inmates at Guantanamo; he knows as well as anyone 90% of them have nothing to say. But facing serious jail time himself for roughing up a bunch of Muslims...that's intolerable, or "unacceptable," as he said in his press conference, talking about "this program," meaning his gulag set-up for disappearing the flotsam and jetsam of the war on terror.

No one anywhere in "respectable" journalism points out the ludicrous premise of Bush's demand that this legislation be passed now, so that not another day of delay ensue. This demand, after sitting on the heads of most of these prisoners for the better part of 5 years. Yep, we'll lose the war on terror if we don't get Khallid Sheikh Mohammed in the dock by the middle of October. Few and far between are the reporters who dare to point out that Bush has just a few days left with a reliably Republican Congress to secure his get-out-of-jail-free card from McCain & Co. THAT'S the reason he was so animated, so solicitous of the interrogators who were simply doing their jobs in a "thorough and professional" manner. Professional manner? What profession is that? Marqui de Sadists? But, as ever, the Decider had procrastinated until the last possible minute, and now he needs to get a year's worth of work done in a week.

Not much has changed, in other words. I wasn't gone long. Couldn't afford to be, actually. The dollar is becoming the New Peso. A kind of scrip. I'm back in the Bush Leagues, now, waiting for the next bizarre turn of events, the next strange piece of legislation to slither up from the Congressional Well.