January 12, 2007

Whither the statesmen of yesteryear

It now seems established as an article of faith that the Democrats will make no serious effort to rein in Bush's war. The rationale is a study in cynicism. Although their ineffective posturing will result in many more American deaths and horrendous wounds, cutting off Bush's allowance and grounding him will transfer "ownership" of the Iraq War to the Democrats and make them responsible for losing. For as certain as CO2 concentrations will be higher in the troposphere next year than they are today, Bush will claim he was this close to winning when Congress betrayed his noble cause. The Democrats (particularly in the Senate, where nearly every Democratic Senator is running for President) do believe Bush when he says losing would be catastrophic. A "failed state" in the heart of the Arab world, a breeding ground for terrorism and all kinds of mischief. Can't have that, and can't be responsible for it.

So I'm wondering: what is the difference between this Congress and the last one, where the war is concerned? It was obvious in Bush's speech Wednesday night that he intends to strike inside Iraq and Syria. His response to the change in Congress, in other words, is to set the entire Persian Gulf ablaze. Joe Biden, as always, has made some disapproving noises about this idea, informing Condi Rice that Bush's existing authority does not allow him to cross Iraq's international borders to carry the battle to the Iranians, in particular. But why else would Bush announce his deployment of Patriot missiles in the region, and the dispatch of another carrier group to the Gulf? We don't need aircraft carriers to fight the Baghdad insurgency, and the Iraqi factions don't use intermediate range missiles. He's going to destroy the Syrian and Iranian networks involved in training and supplying Iraqi insurgents, Bush says. Could they really be doing all that right out in the open in Iraq? It seems far more likely Bush is talking about activities within the territorial borders of Syria and Iran.

Despite what Joe Biden, and Chuck Hagel of Nebraska (who compares the cross-border escalation to the Nixon/Kissinger secret war in Cambodia) may say in rejoinder, Bush will not be deterred in the final 24 months of his presidency from attacking Iran if he feels like it. And he clearly feels like it. Bush thinks that war is the answer, that a surgical strike against Iran's nuclear facilities will elevate him to the lofty plane enjoyed by Israel after the destruction of Iraq's Osirak in 1981. Georgie Boy has never been terribly original. Anyway, he's running out of time; there's room for just one more war, he thinks, and this is the big one, the defeat of America's great thorn-in-the-side.

What will La Diva & Mr. Mumbles do about this one? Maybe they'll at last wake up to the idea you have to take Bush on directly, but I doubt it. It might constitute a brand new ground for impeachment, a violation of the War Powers Act, but Bush's artful dodgers will read those earlier authorizations (2001's authorization for war in general against bad people, 2002's for war against Iraq) as implying a license to engage in "cross-border incursions" (like nuclear strikes against the Bushehr reactor in Iran), and the Dems will fret and worry he might be right, and then, once again, they could wind up owning the defeat.

Nope, they'll cluck, and fume, and pass a nonbinding resolution condemning Bush's unilateral act, and then sit back and see if it works before saying anything else. I was always most worried about Bush if he was put in the position of having nothing to lose, which is just about where he is now. Many consider him the worst President ever. He's not going to do anything really positive, like getting behind alternative energy (although I know his State of the Union will go ga-ga for switch grass - just wait), or solving the medical crisis. Too candy-ass, too caring, for Bush. War's his thing. You can do it fast, you can do it now, you can see the results later this afternoon. Unfortunately, we'll all be witnesses to the same thing at the same time.

January 11, 2007

La Diva & Mr. Mumbles

I do think Bush leads a charmed life in many ways. In 2004, as just one example, the Democrats ran a candidate against him who was maybe the only prominent national politician who was as big a yutz as he was. The Bush camp contended at one point that their guy had scored higher on military aptitude tests than Kerry had, and Kerry simply conceded the point. After watching Kerry try to windsurf his way to victory, I came to believe it, unbelievable as it was. I remember from basketball coaching days that you do not attack a 1-3-1 zone defense by lining up your offense in a 1-3-1 configuration, but the Democrats thought they should take on a pampered prep school Yalie Skull&Bones blueblood who had not earned his great wealth with a pampered prep school Yalie Skull&Bones blueblood who had not earned his great wealth. Well, Kerry windsurfed instead of riding a mountain bike; that was an important distinction.

Now 6 years on in the unfurling nightmare known as the Bush Presidency, the American people finally caught on to, and got fed up with, Bush and his smirking screwingupness. About 15% of the American populace think the flaming centerpiece of the Bush years, the Iraq War, is a good idea, and they said so in November, 2006. What could be clearer? The Democratic Leadership, however, that Dynamic Duo of La Diva (Pelosi) and Harry Reid (Mr. Mumbles) do not respond to the surprisingly clever discernments of the American electorate. Instead, they are in thrall to the Imaginary Focus Group of Their Minds (the IFGTM). This mythical construct dictates the narrow confines of their available options. The IFGTM does not countenance impeachment, although Bush has done everything but run the Constitution through the Oval Office shredder. It permits the Demos only to say tsk, tsk, when Bush proposes to escalate his disastrous project in the Middle East. Their thundering retort is to propose a nonbinding resolution objecting to Bush's plan, although they hope Bush won't be offended since he is, after all, the Commander-in-Chief and one should be careful about criticizing the C-I-C in a time of "war."

Nope, La Diva and Mr. Mumbles think the American people are all lathered up about (drum roll, please)...the minimum wage. What an achievement, and it will only take 2 years to phase in, provided it contains the Treasury-wrecking tax cuts Bush insists upon as a condition of not throwing a veto at it. Bush is lucky, so lucky, to have such "opponents." Diva & Mumbles appear unaware that the Constitution provides that impeachment is available through a simple majority vote of the House of Representatives. Never mind, for the moment, that a 2/3 majority vote in the Senate would be necessary to remove Bush from office. An impeachment would force Bush to spend the rest of his miserable term in office in a desperate battle to save his political life. Republicans impeached Clinton because of his susceptibility to artfully displayed thongs (what guy who likes girls can't relate to that?). Do Diva & Mumbles think it's a bad thing if Bush is distracted from things he could accomplish if he weren't under indictment? What things is he going to accomplish? What has he ever accomplished? Isn't it a positive good if he is sidelined from accomplishing anything else, since he accomplishes nothing but bad stuff?

I just don't get these two. Diva & Mumbles carry on as if they were the Permanent Minority Party, boxed in at every turn by the Focus Group of their minds which disapproves of anything "bold" or "strong." They could put Bush on the permanent defensive simply by dropping articles of impeachment in the House in-basket. They might save the Republic. Instead, they prefer to incrementalize their way to irrelevance.

January 10, 2007

It's not a Pacific Heights cocktail party, Nancy

Like most lawyers who spend a career in litigation, I found myself many times in the chambers of a Superior Court judge negotiating with opposing counsel in 11th hour efforts to avoid trial. It's a big part of the job. They tell us that 90% of all cases end this way, and that if they didn't the whole system would be quickly overwhelmed. Over and over again you play your part in this Kabuki theatre. Your main bargaining chip is simple; if the other side doesn't compromise to your satisfaction, you tell everyone (with as much conviction as you can muster) that you'll let a jury decide.

Nancy Pelosi seems to favor a different approach. She begins her "negotiations" by giving away all of her leverage in the naive hope President Bush will like her for her accommodating nature and will "cooperate." Although (to resume the analogy) she is negotiating with people who are willing to bribe the jury, blackmail the judge and blow up the court house, she says, for example, that impeachment is "off the table." When Bush wants to escalate the war in Iraq, Nancy says, in that fine measured diction that must sound swell up on Russian Hill, "we are not going to withdraw funding, because we must support the troops," although in so doing she gives away Congress's main Constitutional weapon for controlling the conduct of war. She will lead a noble charge instead to pass a non-binding, symbolic resolution expressing her distaste for the "surge."

Joe Biden, in similar feckless fashion, tells us that there's nothing anyone can do to stop the Commander-in-Chief from doing anything he wants in this stupid war. I think he knows better. But who are these people? What's wrong with them? What overwhelming majority of the American people would have to express their utter contempt and hatred of this debacle before the Democrats would "risk" doing something effective?

How about this for an argument? Bush went to war on the basis of a resolution passed by the House and Senate, apparently under the War Powers Act, which was itself probably an unconstitutional abridgment of Congress's right to declare war under Article I. Congress is apparently afraid to declare war, which it has not done since December, 1941, so it passes resolutions saying to the President, "you decide." Nevertheless, the War Powers Act does act to constrain the President in his conduct of war, and the resolution for Iraq reads as follows.


This joint resolution may be cited as the "Authorization for the Use of Military Force Against Iraq".


The Congress of the United States supports the efforts by the President to--

(a) strictly enforce through the United Nations Security Council all relevant Security Council resolutions applicable to Iraq and encourages him in those efforts; and

(b) obtain prompt and decisive action by the Security Council to ensure that Iraq abandons its strategy of delay, evasion and noncompliance and promptly and strictly complies with all relevant Security Council resolutions.


(a) AUTHORIZATION. The President is authorized to use the Armed Forces of the United States as he determines to be necessary and appropriate in order to (1) defend the national security of the United States against the continuing threat posed by Iraq; and
(2) enforce all relevant United Nations Security Council Resolutions regarding Iraq.

So that's it. That's Bush's authority to conduct this insane war. Suppose, for the sake of precision, we say that Iraq may be chronologically considered as Saddam's Iraq (Iraq1) and the present, post-Saddam fiasco (Iraq2). It seems very clear that Sec. 3 of the Authorization was aimed only at Iraq1. The current, "sovereign" Iraq which we installed is not a "continuing threat" to the USA; indeed, they're now our friends and allies in the Middle East, which was the whole idea behind their installation. A "bastion of democracy" in the "heart of the Arab world." And this Iraq (Iraq2) can't be held responsible for any breach of UN Resolutions, such as those pertaining to weapons of mass destruction or incursions into Kuwait. Indeed, what all the Shiites presently in power have in common is their status as victims of Iraq1.

It is true that Iraq2 is having a hard time running the country in an orderly way, on account of the civil war that has gained force in the power vacuum created by Saddam's removal and American bungling. But that does not in itself constitute any authority to continue the war, which is now devoted to "nation building." Bush said the mission was "accomplished" way back in May, 2003. Under the Resolution, his only authority for commanding troops in Iraq at all, he was right. As the War Powers Act of 1973 itself states,

SEC. 2. (c)
The constitutional powers of the President as Commander-in-Chief to introduce United States Armed Forces into hostilities, or into situations where imminent involvement in hostilities is clearly indicated by the circumstances, are exercised only pursuant to (1) a declaration of war, (2) specific statutory authorization, or (3) a national emergency created by attack upon the United States, its territories or possessions, or its armed forces.
The specific statutory authorization is no longer applicable. Nancy, put down the G&T and play some hardball with this clown. Bravely lead or get the hell out of the way.

January 09, 2007

Why we have no idea what's going on

Sometime in the early 1980's, I went with my scientist brother to hear Jerry Mander speak at San Francisco State. It was an informal lecture, sparsely attended, in a classroom somewhere on campus. Mander had just published Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television. He was serious about his thesis; a guy with a video camera from the school TV station showed up to tape the lecture and Mander dismissed him quickly and without humor. At one time Mander had been a founding partner in the brilliant advertising firm of Gossage & Mander, based in San Francisco, and introduced a style and format that forever changed the look of TV ads. For example, in the seminal Volkswagen series of ads, G&M simply extolled the ability of the VW to go forward and backward, concluding with the tag line: "Isn't that wonderful?" Thus was born the notion of irony in advertising, a style which has been emulated ever since. All TV advertising now strives to be funny, with varying degrees of success.

So Jerry Mander is actually a funny guy, but he wasn't amused by the effects of television. Maybe he got religion, in a sense; maybe he became appalled at the effects of his own work, his ability to manipulate the general public with images and minimal text. Maybe he got worried. The essence of his four arguments was as follows:

"The first argument is theoretical and environmental. It attempts to set the framework by which we can understand television's place in modern society. Yet, this argument is not about television itself. In fact, television will be mentioned only occasionally. It is about a process, already long underway, which has successfully redirected and confined human experience and therefore knowledge and perceived reality. We have all been moved into such a narrow and deprived channel of experience that a dangerous instrument like television can come along and seem useful, interesting, sane, and worthwhile at the same time it further boxes people into a physical and mental condition appropriate for the emergence of autocratic control.

"The second argument concerns the emergence of the controllers. That television would be used and expanded by the present powers-that-be was inevitable, and should have been predictable at the outset. The technology permits of no other controllers.

"The third argument concerns the effects of television upon individual human bodies and minds, effects which fit the purposes of the people who control the medium.

"The fourth argument demonstrates that television has no democratic potential. The technology itself places absolute limits on what may pass through it. The medium, in effect, chooses its own content from a very narrow field of possibilities. The effect is to drastically confine all human understanding within a rigid channel. What binds the four arguments together is that they deal with aspects of television that are not reformable.

"What is revealed in the end is that there is ideology in the technology itself. To speak of television as "neutral" and therefore subject to change is as absurd as speaking of the reform of a technology such as guns."

Maybe Jerry Mander was following in the large footsteps of Marshall McCluhan, and others who have worked in a field one might call "technological epistemology." It's very difficult to get your mind around, because it requires us to simply give up the notion that we can trust the mass media information that lies at the core of our roof-brain chatter, our dinner table conversations, our blogging, our confidence that we have any idea about what's going on in the world at large. Our picture of reality is "mediated," in Mander's word, through television; it is not direct; it is not based upon unfiltered sensory inputs; it is edited; it is systematically biased by the demands of the medium itself.

The election of George W. Bush, a phenomenon of modern history which always vexes my understanding, can perhaps best be understood as yet another unholy manifestation of the dark truth at the center of Mander's work. We do not elect national leaders on the basis of first-hand perceptions. We elect them on the basis of manufactured images which are packaged and sold to privately owned television stations. The successful leaders are those who have become most adept at the manipulation of the imagery, who know how to avoid the "sound bite" error of ever saying anything blunt which would look bad out of context, who know how to impersonate the qualities which appeal to some "real" value in the American voter. Thus, George W. Bush was sold as a folksy, honest, down-to-earth cowboy. Over the long, painful years, most Americans have realized that they were sold a bill of goods, as their unconscious minds have gradually assimilated all the dissonant clues that undercut this false image. But look at all the damage that was done through the power of television's fake and mediated reality in the interim. Had George W. Bush been running for mayor of a town of say 1,000 people, no such mistake could ever have been made. The citizens would have known him for an idiot to begin with. His smug and immature personality would have rubbed everyone the wrong way. He could have remained the town drunk he was always meant to be. But his handlers knew he had the last name, the malleability, and the complete lack of personal convictions which made him ideal for their mass marketing purposes. These are not, alas, the same qualities necessary for a president to deal with actual, immutable reality in the world.

The Iraq War might be seen as a kind of black box, in this epistemological analysis. It is generally conceded that the environment around Baghdad is simply too dangerous to permit thorough reporting. All of the statistics concerning attacks, deaths, injuries, refugees, etc., are systematically distorted by those with a political agenda, without fear of decisive refutation, because no better numbers are available. Those of us watching cable news receive our information in a mediated way, through TV. If television decided to show us, for three solid weeks, images of children walking untroubled toward their school in some Iraqi small town, the American public would gradually change its view. But such images (of the kind Donald Rumsfeld mourned the lack of) are not newsworthy. A car bomb sending an orange-black cloud four stories high in the central part of Baghdad, with a tableau of dismembered bodies and burning vehicles in the foreground, makes good news. People will watch the news and sit through the ads to see such mayhem. And these mediated images, confined to the tight focus of a TV screen which eliminates all context, gradually become our picture of Iraqi reality. I think the American public has turned against the war for a couple of reasons. One, the images of George W. Bush, with his trademark smirk and garbled syntax, sicken most people to the point where they oppose anything he's for. And second, the anti-war imagery, with pictures of gore, explosions, death, is more arresting than anything positive that might be put on the screen. TV doesn't care what's right as long as you watch. It's really that simple.

I don't think Jerry Mander expected TV to go away, and it never will, of course. It's an unthinkable world without the electronic hearth blazing. We derive our false, frustrating, distorted view of life on Earth by looking at it and absorbing its images. Where it will ultimately lead is scary to contemplate.

January 08, 2007

The Surge

I guess that George Bush's new impersonation is that of a "reflective man" who considers all options, really listens, and consults all available sources before pronouncing a decision. The underlying reality is that he's still the careless, none-too-bright goof-off who shoots from the hip and has an amazingly clueless grasp of the facts.

We'll hear soon about how another $100 billion and 20,000 troops will accomplish in Iraq what the previous $300 billion, 140,000 troops and 4 years could not accomplish. The situation will continue to deteriorate, of course. A different sort of battle is now raging in Iraq, for control of the country, and the United States is simply caught in the cross-fire. 20,000 troops will simply enrich the target environment.

I wonder sometimes where George got his original ideas about Iraq. I firmly believe the accounts that he did not know there were Shia and Sunni factions in the country before he launched the attack. He reportedly said, on being so informed, that he "thought they were all Muslims." It is a trenchant comment on the state of the Union that such a numbskull could have been elected President. All by itself, such a revelation should frighten thoughtful Americans to their core. His ideas seem transmuted from Dick & Jane books to the world of international relations. Everyone loves freedom, he thought; democracy is the best system; get rid of the tyrant, and the rival factions will put aside their 1,400 year old prejudices and work together to be just like America.

I think that's it, sum total, no refinements or embellishments needed. Syllogistically, it went like this:

All people love freedom and democracy, given a chance.
The Iraqis are people.
Therefore, the Iraqis will become freedom-loving democrats after we give them a chance.

I can see Bush in the Oval Office writing this out in block letters with a No. 2 pencil on a yellow legal tablet Harriet Miers placed there for him. He writes slowly, pressing hard on the pencil. The time is late fall, 2002, and the light coming through the big windows is dimming. It's almost time to quit (4 pm) and go have a diet Coke and pretzels in the residence. George's clever deduction will be filed for him by his secretary in the Presidential papers. A good day's work for George. He's figured out why his plan is right, and he did it in a way that did not involve a lot of egghead, think-tank, overly-detailed baloney, all that talk about "culture" and "theocratic tendencies." The problem was simple. It is obvious to George that someone screwed up his perfectly reasonable plan, because the analysis was flawless.

That's actually what happened. That's what our leadership in Washington is now like. This guy was elected not just once (well, maybe just once), but twice. By Americans. You think maybe something is wrong somewhere?