March 24, 2007

Aragoto or Wagoto?

"Kabuki theatre" is now used so often to describe political discourse that I was forced to look it up. I always have the sneaking suspicion that a term which comes into general usage by the unlettered boobs populating the legislature and pundit class loses its original meaning, and the talking heads employing the word have only a foggy notion of what they are trying to say. It just sounds hip and au courant to say "Kabuki theatre."

Kabuki theatre is a form of highly stylized, traditional Japanese drama, and comes in two varieties, "rough" (aragoto) and "soft" (wagoto). Of the two, aragoto is the more stylized and mannered, using outlandish costumes, exaggerated gestures and histrionics and bombastic forms of speech. Wagoto is more realistic and natural.

My guess is that politicians and the usual experts mean aragoto, if they mean anything at all, and that their implication is that whatever political maneuver they are denigrating was not in good faith and was solely for dramatic effect. So I think I was right: they don't know what they really mean by "Kabuki theatre," and they would be better off borrowing a term, say, from shadow plays from the Czech tradition, or that weird Indonesian puppet thing that I remember from "The Year of Living Dangerously." Some of that, if I recall correctly, involved the shadows of puppets. Now we're getting somewhere.

Rushing to the podium yesterday to discharge his latest load of unbearable anxiety, President Bush accused the Democrats of "political theatre" in passing a military funding bill laden with deadlines and troop-readiness and veterans' care baggage (not to mention spinach and shrimp). Unfortunately, he didn't use the term "Kabuki theatre;" that's disappointing, because I would just love to hear him attempt the Japanese word. What Bush wanted was the money. He was not interested in all these carps and codicils which La Diva Pelosi presented to him after her massive exercise in cat-herding with the Democratic Mob in the House. So Bush engaged in some aragoto of his own, claiming that the Democrats were endangering the troops with their off-Broadway shtick, and that they ought to close after one night.

Face twitching, eyes downcast, upper lip stuck to his front teeth (the surest sign of Bush's anxiety-caused dry mouth), Bush warned that he would never take this $124 billion unless he got it his way, neat and clean, so that he would be free to squander it as he wished. It was his second tantrum in the space of four days. It's comical that Bush cannot control himself for even an hour when he feels thwarted; he has to rush out right now, whereas more artful and effective negotiation requires a sang-froid which is beyond him. What W doesn't get is that thwarting and taunting him is getting to be something of a blood sport among his opponents. They enjoy seeing him bug-eyed, twitchy and spitting his words. It's a fun kind of aragoto.

Especially when he can't do anything about it. Bush demanded that the Democrats reverse course and give him his $100 billion with no strings attached, so the troops will have the resources they need to roll around Baghdad and Anbar until they hit a roadside bomb and die. The Democrats aren't going to do that. Bush's veto means that he will decline to accept the money that would keep him rolling in war-cash until September 2008, nearly the end of his era of misrule, but that's not good enough for W. War Profiteering 'R Us in Bushland. Do we all realize that every time Bush demands another $100 billion for Iraq and Afghanistan that he is asking for another 3.3% of the entire $3 trillion federal budget? Well, he is.

Bush now faces this awful prospect. His duty as the Commander in Chief means that he has to plan for the safe and orderly extraction of the American military from Iraq with the money on hand. Bush never plans anything. He just does the next stupid thing and then asks for more money to keep the stupid thing going. That was another curious feature of Bush's appearance at the podium yesterday, backlit with the beatific smiles of the military mannequins behind him. He showed absolutely no cognizance of the reality that this Iraq madness has already been underway for four solid years, and that all the reasons for the dumb thing have proved nonexistent. Yet not a flicker of shame or remorse in those haunted, angry eyes. In some ways, a bravura piece of aragoto all in itself.

March 23, 2007

The Desk Murderer

Paul Slansky, who writes occasionally on the Huffington Post, and contributes regularly to The New Yorker, is one of the more colorful and devastating of the Bush-bashers I've read. He really hates Bush, and you can feel it in such passages as the following from the Post:

"What's obvious to all but the willfully blind is that Bush truly enjoys hurting people. His every action is designed to inflict pain, from that loathsome habit of giving people nicknames - hey, media suck-ups, it's not cute, it's contemptuous, a bully-boy saying, "I think so little of you that I'm not gonna call you by your name, I'm gonna call you what I want to call you" - to the cavalier decimation of a nation. Bush's utter heartlessness is breathtaking, though no more so than the mainstream media's craven refusal to even acknowledge it, let alone to truly do its job and relentlessly point out every instance of his wanton malice."

Over the top? I think it's possible it is. I'm not emotionally inclined to give Bush the benefit of any doubt at this point; I simply think such descriptions, in a perverse way, give Bush too much credit. It ascribes a purposefulness and over-arching design to Bush's malfeasance that I simply don't think is there. The language describes a monster in the Hitler or Stalin mode, and Bush lacks the discipline and vision to operate in such a league. I think it would be fair to say about Hitler, for example, that "his every action [was] designed to inflict pain." A human being who establishes a goal of exterminating an entire race of innocent (and ethical, humane and unusually productive) people is a person of "breathtaking heartlessness." Hitler's decimation of the Jewish people was "cavalier," to say the very least; so was Stalin's liquidation of intellectuals, the religious and his political opponents.

I think Bush's "wanton malice" arises from an interpretation of the results of his carelessness and incompetence, and his general indifference to his performance and effectiveness, rather than from Bush's personal motivation to sow destruction. I don't think he cares enough to cause the damage attributed to his intentions. Hannah Arendt, in her consideration of the trial of Adolf Eichmann in Jerusalem, coined an apt phrase for the "banal evil" flowing from the actions of a morally indifferent human. She called such a functionary, whose quotidian actions relating to matters of career or ambition inflict human devastation, a "Desk Murderer." She could not find in Eichmann the malignant heart she was expecting to discover. He was a man of limited intellect and vision who simply did what he was told, which was to work on the logistics of killing Jews, and gave the matter very little additional thought.

Bush strikes me as just such a morally vacuous and emotionally empty human being. His main career goal was to get elected President and to settle old Freudian scores about his wastrel young life, the failure to fulfill the promise vouchsafed by his manifold advantages of family and fortune. The actual "content" of his presidency (spreading American democracy in the Middle East, protecting Israel, whatever else he pays lip service to) does not matter to him. He demonstrates this indifference on a daily basis, such as his casual abandonment of the Mideast peace process. The true meaning of the Walter Reed scandal, where Bush "heartlessly" allowed returning veterans to be dumped in a mold-ridden hovel, is related to this carelessness, as is his "response" to the Katrina aftermath or to the looming criticality of climate change.

Bush is a trembling mass of anxieties with almost no internal resources for dealing with them. His psychological functions are devoted to maintaining his sobriety and sanity, and there is nothing left for dealing with "externalities." He doesn't know how to grasp a problem, dissect its details and formulate a solution. He's an empty suit and a Desk Murderer. Whatever their motivations, writers like Slansky make Bush, in a paradoxical way, much more interesting than he really is. It would be difficult to imagine a man with less on the ball than Bush. As far as I know, he never says anything interesting or funny. He doesn't write anything. I'm not aware of any intellectual interests in his life (classical music or drama, e.g.) or of any personal talents in the arts he has developed (painting, playing a musical instrument, woodwork). He occasionally talks about reading through a syllabus (Camus's L'Etranger, for example) that is usually covered in first-year university literature classes. There is no evidence that any of the "disciplines" he actually "studied" at Harvard or Yale ever inform any of his decisions, or assisted him in any way in his private sector "career."

The overreaction to Bush which we see in Slansky and many others is the conditioned revulsion which decent humans feel after too much exposure to an irritating personality. Without question, Bush is an uncouth, intellectually gauche, defensively smug jerk. Almost all Americans are very, very sick of him, but this is no reason to install him among the pantheon of great heartless tyrants of the modern age.

March 22, 2007

The deal with executive privilege: a short primer

"However, neither the doctrine of separation of powers, nor the need for confidentiality of high-level communications, without more, can sustain an absolute, unqualified Presidential privilege of immunity from judicial process under all circumstances. The President's need for complete candor and objectivity from advisers calls for great deference from the courts. However, when the privilege depends solely on the broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations, a confrontation with other values arises. Absent a claim of need to protect military, diplomatic, or sensitive national security secrets, we find it difficult to accept the argument that even the very important interest in confidentiality of Presidential communications is significantly diminished by production of such material for in camera inspection with all the protection that a district court will be obliged to provide. [418 U.S. 683, 707] " United States vs. Nixon (1974) 8-0 vote, with Rehnquist abstaining.

A privilege, in the law of evidence, relates to matters which are assumed to be relevant or "probative" of some fact in dispute (tending to prove or disprove the issue, in other words), but for reasons of public policy are suppressed or excluded from public disclosure in a trial. A common example is the attorney-client privilege. No one doubts that information passed along from the perp in a robbery case to his mouthpiece might be "probative" as all get-out; nevertheless, to promote the "effective representation of counsel" we permit these conversations to remain private.

The Constitution does not actually provide the Executive Branch with an "executive privilege." By contrast, state and federal rules of evidence specifically enumerate the privileges (attorney-client, priest-penitent, etc.) by statute. One would think that Alberto Gonzales, who doesn't even concede the existence of habeas corpus despite its explicit reference in the Constitution, would dismiss the idea of executive privilege out of hand (one wouldn't actually think that - it depends on whether it serves the purposes of his career sponsor, George W. Bush).

President Bush, in his usual unlettered, Cliff-Notes manner, has made the "broad, undifferentiated claim of public interest in the confidentiality of such conversations," which the Supreme Court said, ordering Nixon in 1974 to turn over the tapes to Leon Jaworski, deos not get the job done. In his brief statement and Q&A on Tuesday, Mr. Bush did not claim that his conversations with Rove and Harriet Miers, among others, involved "military, diplomatic or sensitive national security matters." There might be two reasons for this. One is the usual explanation, that Bush doesn't know what he's doing; the second is that the White House has figured out the brouhaha about U.S. Attorneys doesn't involve such sensitive matters, for the same reason that Nixon's tapes related to nothing more than the "bunch of burglars" described by Senator Sam Ervin in the Watergate hearings.

On the other hand, Bush's real counsel on this one, Fred Fielding, has been around this block before, including the Watergate claims of executive privilege. Notice that the Supreme Court was not talking about turning over witnesses and e-mails (blessedly, there were no e-mails in 1974) to Congress. Chief Judge Warren Burger was discussing production of tapes to the district court under the protection of a preliminary "in camera" (secretly, in chambers) review by a federal judge. These may prove crucial distinctions. The Senate "lawyers" (Chuck Schumer, et al.) are painting with the same broad brush as George W. Bush. United States vs. Nixon is not exactly in point, and it's probable that the wily Fielding, recognizing that he will have home field advantage with the anti-democratic Supreme Court packed by his own client , has chosen his conditions (private interview, no transcript, no oath) carefully to play to his intended audience. Scalia, Alito, Roberts and Thomas can be expected to jump on the distinction between an in camera inspection by a district court judge and the "show trial" for which Schumer and the Democratic Gang are salivating, and Fielding has established conditions parallel to a judge's in camera review. While it's an open question who will prevail, I am always pessimistic these days when the ultimate outcome is dependent on this particular Supreme Court acting in the interests of the people.

March 21, 2007

A failure to communicate

The popular cable news shows, like "Hardball" and Tucker Carlson's show, are having a hard time finding a conceptual niche for the issue du jour, the firing of 8 United States Attorneys by the Justice Department. They keep tripping over the concept of presidential discretion; the President, they say, can fire U.S. attorneys for a good reason or for no reason; therefore, they argue, the only problem Gonzales has is that he didn't quite state things accurately before Congressional committees when he described the reaons for their cashiering. He said they were performance-related. This turns out not to be true.

Since polls demonstrate that most Americans get their information, and the bases for their "opinions," from such cable news shows (more than from networks or newspapers), it is small wonder that the public gets so confused about political issues. If 74% of the American populace believed that there was a connection between 9/11 and Iraq before the March, 2003 invasion (as appears to be the case), then the inability of the mass media to explain or educate the public on such fundamental facts must bear a heavy responsibility for their ignorance. Something simply doesn't happen, something important is completely lost in the process of video images speaking words in the rectangular box about huge issues of the day. What we have here, as the chain gang boss said in "Cool Hand Luke," is a failure to communicate.

The U.S. Attorney "scandal" can actually be exlained with an economy of verbiage. Succinctly, you might say. While it is true that U.S. Attorneys can be "terminated at will," such latitude is limited by the rule that they may not be terminated for an improper reason, such as the unwillingness of a given U.S. Attorney to hew to a partisan political program. That constitutes an unethical and unconstitutional intrusion into the judicial process. A parallel concept is found in discrimination law, where a job (or housing) may be denied for "any" reason (employment "terminable at will"), but not for a racist reason (for example). People like Chris Matthews and Tucker Carlson simply cannot enunciate such a principle. It isn't actually that difficult, but it is beyond them. Their broadcasting imperatives are driven by the "entertainment" principle, and so the focus must be on whether Alberto Gonzales "lied" to Congress. Of course he lied, just as he lied earlier about the extent of NSA spying on Americans. The more important issue behind his lying, however, is why he lied, and this, as I say, is beyond the pundits.

In part I think this is because the style of television reporting requires (in the view of network execs) the repetition of certain superficial catchwords ("lying," "scandal," or [omigod] "prosecutorgate") and any attempt at "depth" is frowned upon as non-entertaining and "technical." Thus, the principle (analogous to discrimination law) described above cannot be used because of its "complicated" form. It is a true statement, it is the actual issue, but it is not infotainment, so it is rarely articulated.

Since the proper functioning of a democracy depends upon informed choices by an enlightened electorate, you begin to wonder how much longer this whole enterprise can go on. The connections and networks in the "organic society" (in Max Weber's phrase) become ever more intricate and technical as electronic communications and data storage, among other scientific frontiers, push forward. Feeling the hopelessness of trying to explain the political and economic artifacts engendered by this complexity, the information is dumbed down to generalized descriptions for mass consumption, but the "generalizations" are often not even related to the underlying factual matrix, as the above case in point illustrates. The decision-makers, such as Congress members and the President, recognize that the battle for public opinion is actually fought on the virtual terrain of this substituted "reality," and thus simplify and distort the issues they are dealing with to conform to the characterizations of the mass media, so that a congruence with public "opinion" can be achieved. Thus, Bush yesterday in his press conference emphasized the "resignations" of the attorneys and the "discretion" he enjoys to hire and fire "at will." Chris Matthews reacted in a telling way: he admired the President's "toughness" but caviled at the the President's "insincerity" in praising attorneys he had terminated. The real issue, as noted, was not even part of the discussion.

March 18, 2007

The Strange Moral Calculus of the Democratic Leadership

In essence, this is the oft-cited "power of the purse" in Article I of the United States Constitution:

Section 8.
The Congress shall have power to lay and collect taxes, duties, imposts and excises, to pay the debts and provide for the common defense and general welfare of the United States; but all duties, imposts and excises shall be uniform throughout the United States;

Without money, George W. Bush cannot prosecute his war in Iraq. He's asked for another $100 billion or so for Iraq and Afghanistan for the coming year. Only Congress can give it to him. If Congress says no, the war will soon be over.

Senator Russ Feingold sees this issue clearly. So do Representatives Lynn Woolsey and Maxine Waters of California. It is not really a complicated issue at all. It takes close to $2 billion a week to run the Iraq war. Unless Congress exercises another Article I power and borrows the money from the Chinese and Japanese and then gives the money under Section 8 to Bush, the President will have to close down his failed war once and for all and bring the troops home.

Either house of Congress can shut Bush down on this point. All they have to do is say no. Nonbinding resolutions opposing the "surge," bombast and thundering oratory, even of the over-the-top Joe Biden variety, will not make the slightest difference, will not dissuade Bush for a moment, so long as Congress writes the check Bush is asking for. He will take the money and go about his gruesome business, oblivious to the meretricious outrage of the Democratic leadership.

The Democrats prefer to make the issue bewilderingly complex, speaking of "benchmarks" or "performance standards," or "reporting schedules" on progress in Iraq. This micromanagement is probably indeed violative of the President's powers as Commander in Chief, and the timidity of the Democrats in forgoing their real power sets them up for this telling objection from the other side.

Or they engage in the duplicity of buying into Republican talking points about "abandoning the troops in the field," even though they know this makes no sense. The Democratic leadership insults the intelligence of the Americans who restored their majority by pretending the cash-flush Pentagon cannot possibly fly the American military out of Iraq with the billions already on hand.

Considering only the Americans in theatre, and leaving aside the Iraqi casualties which the presence of American soldiers enhances and exacerbates, there are over 150,000 American soldiers currently in danger of being shot, blown up, captured and mutilated, or grievously wounded in ways which will make their future lives an awful ordeal. These soldiers constitute one side of the equation we are considering. The other side of the equation is comprised of the political calculations by which Democrats determine which of their modes of evasion will make them look good in '08, will allow them to escape responsibility for a bloody aftermath in Iraq, or will serve some other, strictly political end.

And while they play these political games, tomorrow and every day that this war goes on, American soldiers will have to suit up, mount their vehicles and roll down bomb-infested streets, or walk the neighborhoods of Baghdad and Anbar province door to door, and wonder if this is the last day on Earth they will see the sun in the sky. Their calculations are primal and basic: will I survive this war for as long as they keep sending the money that makes me stay here?