October 12, 2007

Pondering the future of this great country of ours

I've occasionally tapped into the dismal spectacle of candidates' "debates," both Republican and Democratic, and like you I have become quickly dyspeptic at the unedifying spectacle of robotic sloganeering by all the "serious" candidates (the ones without any controversial ideas which could possibly have any effect on the country's real problems). The marginal candidates, such as Dennis Kucinich and Ron Paul, naturally have all the "radical" proposals, that is, ideas which upset America's moribund status quo. To be taken seriously in America as a presidential candidate, you have to find a way to adopt and announce "positions" which (a) retain your base without (b) saying anything so "outrageous" that you make yourself a laughingstock with the political arbiters of the mainstream media. As an example of a completely outrageous idea, take Dennis Kucinich's proposal for a "Department of Peace." We don't do peace in the United States; we are the New Sparta, and you will listen a long time before you hear Hillary Clinton, John Edwards or Barack Obama say anything about substantially reducing America's military budget. In fact, listen as long as you want; you'll never hear it. We don't say stuff like that.

I remember, as an undergraduate, becoming interested in the political theory based on the concept of the "normative tendency of the factual." Essentially, this idea is that the essential inertia of a political system derives from the citizenry's identification of what is with what ought to be. So keeping America "strong" has become unassailable gospel in American politics. Is this because America has more enemies than anyone else? Consider that 9/11 was followed by the Madrid train and London transit bombings, not to mention terrorist attacks in Saudi Arabia, Israel, Jordan, Morocco, Bali, Russia and many other places where America was not the direct target. The Spanish and British apprehended the perpetrators; the United States, with the possible exception of Khallid Sheikh Mohammed, has never actually caught anyone directly and materially involved in the 9/11 attacks, though, practically speaking, those 19 hijackers must have had many accomplices for logistical and financial support. The overriding point is that virtually all Western countries are vulnerable to terrorist attack, and indeed endure such attacks. This is viewed as the essential and existential danger of the modern world. Yet the United States alone feels the need to maintain this huge military-industrial complex with such a disproportionate part of its federal budget devoted to a high-tech military designed, obviously, to fight wars in foreign countries.

If a presidential candidate were to challenge this orthodoxy by venturing the "radical" idea that this military complex is not for the purposes of fighting the "global war on terror," he (the sole woman in the race would never say such a thing) would be McLuhanesque toast by the following morning. Suppose the candidate said: I think the MIC exists because it's a business arrangement between government, military contractors and the defense industry, and because we want a big expeditionary force to protect our access to vital resources, mainly oil. We both know that would be it for that flake. Chris Matthews would bray himself scarlet in the face. Rush Limbaugh would demand a Senate resolution accusing the candidate of sedition. Game over. You can't say stuff like that and be taken seriously.

The interesting thing about the "stuff" is that it's true.
If the real threat to the USA is a band of terrorists trying to infiltrate the country with a nuclear bomb, say, then it's obvious that F-15 fighter/bombers and cruise missiles and up-armored Humvees and the rest of it aren't going to do any good. For specific example, they didn't stop 9/11. They didn't stop the 1993 bombing of the World Trade Center. They didn't stop the bombing of the USS Cole or the African embassies or the Marine barracks in Lebanon. The reason they didn't stop any of these things is because a huge military establishment has nothing to do with a group of terrorists fighting "asymmetrical" warfare. The way you counteract asymmetrical warfare is by making it symmetrical, the way Israel uses the Mossad. Infiltration, espionage, bribery, blackmail, assassination. All in a self-defensive way, of course. Aircraft carriers in the Mediterranean are not going to stop a group of Wahhabist Saudis sitting around a dining table in a condo in South Florida.

So we're at the point where a candidate is not electable unless they avoid saying logical and obvious things. There is a very narrow bandwidth of acceptable ideas in the presidential race. On the environment, say, the idea is to "reduce" greenhouse emissions by cap-and-trade or by voluntary reductions. Are these ideas actually related to the inexorable demands of atmospheric science? Who cares. Sound good, anyway. On oil: let's increase CAFE standards by the year 2020 so we're somewhere in the neighborhood of where the rest of the industrial world already is and has been for sometime. Let's grow some corn and make some ethanol, so we have 15% ethanol mixtures by, I don't know, 2020 or so. 2020 is a good year, since it's far enough away to avoid actually doing anything now. On healthcare: that's tough. Let's do something. We'll get back to you.

The leading Democratic candidates have these advantages: Clinton - her last name. Edwards - his haircut and boyish charm. Obama - he's African-American. Since these advantages are decisive over all other candidates, it does not matter whether their actual ideas do any good or change anything, because as long as they remain safely inside the bandwidth, they're good to go. The winner will be chosen on subjective criteria similar to "American Idol."

One might ask: but what about Reality? Won't Reality at some point impose some nonnegotiable demands of its own? Won't the country founder, and break up, and be torn asunder by its inability to adapt to changing circumstances? Well -- sure it will. But remember: that's not what the candidates are talking about.

October 10, 2007

Trials continue at Guantanamo

Colonel Blick Mordred presides over the 3-officer tribunal in Guantanamo Court Room 3, United States vs. Ahmed bin-Mavri. Appearing for the United States is Captain Pierce Rechtman, JAG; for the defendant, attorney Sam Leinwold.

Col. Mordred (Judge): We're on the record in Mavri, day 2. Ready for the United States, Captain Rechtman?
Rechtman: Sir!, yes sir!
Judge: Mr. Leinwold?
Leinwold: As we'll ever be.
Judge: Mr. Rechtman, you're continuing today with your case in chief?
Rechtman: Sir! yes sir! I'd like to present to the court Exhibit 16, an affidavit signed by Abdullah Kalar, not his real name, detailing the defendant's complicity in a conspiracy to attack American interests overseas.
Judge: Marked next in order. Please approach the bench.
(Rechtman does so, hands two page document to judges, who begin reading.)
Leinwold: Can I see this one, judge?
Judge: I'm afraid not. Under the terms of the pretrial order, matters of national security cannot be divulged to the defendant or to his counsel.
Leinwold: We don't even know who Kalar is.
Rechtman: Sir! He doesn't actually go by that name, sir!
Leinwold: How do we know he exists at all?
Judge: Counsel, are you suggesting the United States is fabricating evidence?
Leinwold: How can I cross-examine a piece of paper which I can't read?
Judge: I can assure you this is devastating evidence, counsel, and unlikely to have been made up. I am a little concerned about these water stains on the document. Mr. Rechtman?
Rechtman: Sir! it rains in Cuba, sir!
Judge: Very good. The affidavit is admitted into evidence.
Leinwold: (shrugging) I suppose I can ask. Was that statement voluntarily given?
Rechtman: Sir! the United States does not torture, sir!
Judge: Anything further for the United States?
Rechtman: Sir! the prosecution rests, sir!
Judge: Very good. Mr. Leinwold?
Leinwold: Call the defendant, Ahmed bin-Mavri. (defendant is sworn by Arabic translator). Mr. bin-Mavri, how were you arrested?
bin-Mavri: Near Kandahar, December, 2001. I was tending my poppy field when I was approached by U.S. Special Forces and informed I was under arrest for war crimes.
Leinwold: And what were those crimes?
Rechtman: Sir! objection sir! The indictment is sealed and protected by national security order, sir!
Judge: Sustained. The defendant is aware he has been charged with conspiracy to harm the U.S.A. That is sufficient for your purposes, and strikes a fair balance with our need to protect America.
Leinwold: My apologies to the court. I was seeing if I could get lucky and find out who my client conspired with. What did the U.S. forces tell you?
bin-Mavri: That the son of a devil dog, may his eyes burn in the sun, who lives near my farm, whose cursed name is --
Rechtman: Sir, objection sir! Informant's name is classified, sir!
Judge: Sustained.
Leinwold: But my client knows, Judge. So..
Judge: But you do not, and it is you who will return to the mainland at the conclusion of this trial.
Leinwold: Gotcha. Okay, so devil dog, what did he say?
bin-Mavri: I know that he received $5,000 American, and sold me out just so he could take my crop.
Leinwold: Have you ever...done anything against the U.S.?
bin-Mavri: No!
Leinwold: Which brings us to this signed confession, where you admit you wanted to blow up...
Rechtman: Sir, objection, sir! Target is classified information.
Leinwold: Yeah, but I know what it is, and the defendant knows...
Rechtman: Sir, the court reporter does not know, sir!
Judge: Sustained. There's no point in taking unnecessary risks.
Leinwold: Did you do these things in your confession?
bin-Mavri: May Allah chasten me for untruths, I did no such thing.
Leinwold: Yet...?
bin-Mavri: First, they tied my hands and feet to an eye-bolt in the floor...
Rechtman: Sir, objection, sir! Move to strike and to bar all inquiry into mode of inquiry on grounds all enhanced interrogation techniques are top secret, sir!
Judge: Sustained. You may ask if the statement was voluntary.
Leinwold: (shrugging) Was it voluntary?
bin-Mavri: No. It was coerced by torture.
Leinwold: Your honor, I move to strike the confession from the record on the ground it was coerced.
Judge: And your proof?
Leinwold: My client just said so.
Judge: In a conclusory manner without factual support.
Leinwold: You won't let me get the facts.
Judge: That hardly changes the situation.
Leinwold: Why can't I ask him to describe what they did to him?
Rechtman: Sir! That's classified information which in the hands of terrorists could allow them to prepare better for interrogation, defeating the purposes of enhanced techniques, sir!
Judge: Exactly.
Leinwold: How would they do that? Grow gills?
Judge: Your motion is denied on the basis of an insufficient record of coercion.
Leinwold: Then the confession remains in the record?
Judge: Of course.
Leinwold: So you have a pile of hearsay affidavits from a bunch of people we've never seen and never questioned, and you may have tortured that stuff out of them. And now you won't let me prove you tortured the confession out of my own client. What chance do we have?
Judge: The same one you had when you walked in here. Submitted?
Leinwold: Why not.
Judge: Bailiff will call the case of United States vs. Saleem al-Nouri, Case No....

The Overworld

I think one is apt to see the world in terms of immediate influences, so that if you surf the liberal web, as I sometimes do, no doubt you find yourself in a state of perpetual consternation about the various misprisions of the Bush Administration, and the impotence of a prostrate Congress, and the indifference or complicity of the mainstream media, etc. I'll cop to this syndrome. Where I part company with a lot of the hardcore liberal commentators I encounter while reading around, as I think I've mentioned before, is the tendency to see a dark conspiracy among all the plutocrats, Republican politicians, business tycoons, oil companies, Blackwater, et alia ad infinitum ad nauseum, and to explain the plight of the "middle class" and the poor in America in terms of their manipulations. Such thinking probably reaches its apotheosis in such books as The Shock Doctrine by Naomi Klein, who traces all our modern miseries to a conspiratorial cabal in the United States who have "traumatized" us into economic submission; or perhaps in the periodic screeds of Jane Smiley, she of A Thousand Acres and the Pulitzer Prize, a brilliant mind and writer, who periodically lays it all out, how the Bush Administration has seized control and subjugated us and used their inborn sociopathic tendencies to monopolize all wealth while constantly lying to the public about the reasons for war or economic policy or anything else.

Of course - there must be an element of truth to these ideas in order to support the grand superstructure of their explanatory theories. On the other hand, I don't think they explain very much, and they ignore the most basic of truisms about the current state of America. To wit, however powerful all these gathered forces are, the fact remains that the American people retain the capability to change it all, if they got motivated to do so. We don't actually have to elect dumb guys as President if we don't want to. There are plenty of smart people in the United States; I see where Europe finally won a physics Nobel (shared by a German and a Frenchman) for nanotechnology which is the basis of magnetic hard disk storage, making possible - yippee! - iPods and all the other pointless distractions of modern life. Prior to that, the USA had won the Nobel Prize for physics for every year since 2000. Instead, for ideological reasons, we tend to elect dunderheads like Ronald Reagan, and Bush pere et fils. I know that George II cheated to win the first election, but then JFK secured his election in 1960 with a huge payoff to the Chicago Democratic machine. La plus ca change... Like Jesse Owens in the 1936 Olympics, you have to win by a lot to overcome the effects of scandal. A good candidate could do that.

Similarly, the American consumer could make conscious choices to change the whole world of commerce: balance of trade, American job flight, all the rest. Instead, Americans eat way too much crummy food (getting obese, like Michael Moore), pay too little attention to the requirements of citizenship, put too much faith in divine providence (religiosity, in other words), waste tremendous amounts of energy, and are excessively materialistic. The "Overworld" does not require the average American to do any of this; we choose to do it.

What I think the conspiracy writers tap into is this American sense of entitlement and resulting grievance. Our European and Asian friends (if we still have any) are often too polite to say so, but this is what bugs them about us. Let's face it: the Greatest Generation and the society their forefathers had built won a world war against astonishing odds, overcoming a tremendous German and Japanese head start, and then built an economic colossus which stood astride the world. We exported all kinds of durable goods, we manufactured like crazy, we had plenty of our own oil and other resources, a tremendous food surplus, American citizens enjoyed a lifetime of secure employment at good wages -- and then the world caught up. I understand the concept that economics is not necessarily a zero-sum game, but water does seek its own level. As Asian and European countries took over the manufacturing sector, we became a "consumer and information economy". And the middle class began to erode as international competition drove wages down, while we clung to the same economic model which had propelled our success in the first place.

The American populace then began to panic as the life of assured prosperity began to vanish, and a sense of injured pride (similar to the Germans in the early Thirties) caused us to look around for scapegoats and villains. In truth, we needed to reinvent ourselves and to throw off a lot of the legacy industries (auto-based transportation, nonrenewable energy) on which the old economy was built. Many of the deep ecology writers of the Sixties and Seventies wrote about all this long ago. The "power structure" ascendant in the United States now has relied upon these legacy industries for their own wealth: oil, pipelines, nuclear energy, defense contracting, so they're biased in favor of their maintenance. Duh. But there are other people with other good ideas--most of whom the good people of America regard as "nerds" and "geeks" and "unelectable." We'd rather sit and grouse about the way things ought to be than take steps, for example, to construct a high speed rail system in the USA, or install solar roof panels or change to a vegetarian diet.

We want the old America back, in other words, when we had it made. Since we're Americans and entitled to have what we want, whatever the cost to the Earth or our fellow man, anything standing in our way must be an Overworld conspiracy which is preventing us from our rightful restoration. Baloney. The fault, dear Brutus, lies not in our stars, but in ourselves, that we are such underlings.

October 08, 2007

A President for the People

Before I leave behind George W. Bush's solecisms in favor of the above, more felicitous observation by the immortal Mark Twain, perhaps it would be wise to reflect on the President's recent grammatical atrocity and its implications for America's immediate future. It's my URL and I'll bloog if I want to. To wit, the President of the United States of America recently observed that "childrens do learn" as one of his evaluations of the success of No Child Left Behind, his signature contribution to American education.

First, I didn't think there was much controversy about this phenomenon. Human childrens, along with most higher chordates, do learn things as they...live. I guess that's the process involved, and it reflects on the level of generalization at which GWB ordinarily operates. Bush has a way of announcing things that are so trivially obvious in such grandiose ways that you lose sight of the idea that he's really saying things like "humans do breathe," or "grass does grow." I guess he's learned to operate within his own safety zone of competence, having come a cropper so many times when he's attempted to venture into the realm of abstract reasoning. He's been reduced to pronouncing on tautological verities that can neither be refuted nor...used for any constructive purpose.

It was suggested during the 2000 campaign that Bush might be dyslexic and that this disability offered an explanation for his linguistic howlers. However, when I pair up his "Is our children learning?," his penetrating inquiry into the state of American education during his first presidential campaign, with his later observation that "childrens do learn," a more unsettling inference seems to arise. Bush does not understand that "children" is a plural noun, like "men," "women" or "oxen." I will credit him with perfect parallelism -- the third-person singular verb "is" matches children, if you believe that "children" is a singular noun, and he demonstrates his consistency when he reveals that "childrens" do learn. "Do," as the third-person plural form of the infinitive verb "to do," again pairs up nicely with the new plural form of "child," "childrens," which Bush has constructed on the basis of his belief that "children" is a singular noun. Other sample sentences which we might hear in the future from Bush would include, in other words, such specimens as: 1. A children born into a family is a blessing. 2. One of the things we've got to do in America is to make sure our childrens have the same opportunity that I had when I was a children. 3. I travel around this great country and when I see a children in need, I ask, does this children have the tools he needs to succeed as a children from other generations has, and then what about his childrens?

I would yield in my analysis to a neuroscientist grounded in linguistic disability, of course, but this doesn't really sound like dyslexia to me. It sounds like a really stupid person talking. I don't know if Bush has ever been elected, actually, but it's pretty obvious that on two occasions four years apart, he drew so many votes that he got the horse shoe close enough to the stake to be declared the winner. Our childrens, and our childrenses's childrens, should be wary of that datum in planning their futures.