November 23, 2007

Quiet Days in Baghdad

It is a right-wing canard that those on the "left" (I love how we use these political designations borrowed directly from the despised French) revel in the daily reports of mass carnage from Iraq. No doubt among the true political die-hards on the liberal side, especially those who in some way have tied their livelihoods to opposition to the Bush regime, there is an element of barely-suppressed glee at a picture of another red and black cloud erupting on a Baghdad street. I have never felt that way myself. I have always hoped that Iraqis might some day live in peace and prosperity. The idea that thousands of Iraqis, men, women, children, have been slaughtered in the anarchy unleashed by the American invasion has always made me sick. As it would be for us, each one of those deaths was endured by someone with one life.

So if things are genuinely quieter in Iraq now, that's okay with me. It might discomfit factions of the Democratic opposition, especially those like Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer who have in some sense entangled themselves in the simplistic calculations of Bush himself. If violence has decreased, then the war was always a good idea, according to Bush. I saw this coming a long time ago, if I may say so now. That's what the war had become "about;" Reid insisted the war was "lost," but those words can have only one meaning to the barely-discerning general American public: the mighty U.S. military had been defeated in battle. The conniving George Bush, whose own intellectual limitations place him closer to the general perceptions of average Americans, saw his opening. Of course, we hadn't "lost." There was no combination of Iraqi regular army, home-grown insurgents or foreign jihadists who could actually defeat the American military. And John Q. Public measures success or failure by one "metric," and by one metric only: how many American soldiers are being killed.

I imagine this statistic can be manipulated. For example, the unctuous and importuning little commander on the ground, Gen. David Petraeus, could limit American casualties simply by curtailing street patrols where Americans get blown up. He could use aerial bombing more, and there is evidence this is exactly what he's doing. He could arm and bribe local Sunnis into directing their general antipathy toward changed circumstances against foreign jihadists and "al-Qaeda in Iraq," and this is announced official policy. All of these things dial down the American death-o-meter

Still, things do seem generally quieter in Baghdad and elsewhere, and that's a good thing that may be separate and apart from anything the Americans have done or not done. I would imagine, for example, that a young Iraqi insurgent, Sunni or Shiite, would simply tire of battle. It's been going on for several years, and it's a lousy way to live. It's made thousands of American soldiers completely crazy and dysfunctional, and compared to an Iraqi fighter, Americans have layers and layers of social and medical support. From the Sunni perspective, the ascendancy of the Shia is now a fait accompli; they greatly outnumber the Sunni and they dominate the army, police and militias. One of their number, Nouri al-Maliki, an old anti-Sunni guerrilla fighter, leads the notional Iraqi government, and no progress is being made toward power-sharing. The Sunni, on the other hand, have consolidated their control of western Iraq, and the independence of Kurdistan in the north (where they don't even bother to fly the Iraqi flag over government buildings) is another accomplished fact. So the remaining question, really, is Baghdad, a city which is likely to be embroiled in turmoil much as other multi-ethnic and -sectarian cities in the Middle East, including Jerusalem and Beirut, have been for decades. It's quieter, but it will never be completely quiet.

So maybe before too long we can actually assess the Iraq War as a crystallized experience, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It was a war the true purpose of which, gaining enhanced access to huge oil reserves, was camouflaged behind talk of weapons, al-Qaeda and regime change. After a relatively easy military victory (not unexpected), the occupation was completely botched, leading to the loss of thousands of American lives, hundreds of thousands of Iraqi lives, and maybe $2 trillion in war-related costs before all is said and done. America, it might be said, has tremendous brute force but little finesse, as can be confirmed in any American parking lot of any NFL football stadium a few hours before kickoff. Loutish? Yes. Competent? No. The opportunity cost to the USA in spending all that money on one project, the true purpose of which has not been realized, is real and gigantic (possibly decisive), but no one will ever bother to measure it. We don't do body counts, and we don't calculate squandered resources.

More likely, in this dumbed-down country of ours, the Iraq war will be chalked up as a "win" for George W. Bush. To figure it out any other way is just too subtle and too mentally taxing. But I'm still glad if an Iraqi family somewhere in Baghdad today can enjoy their Friday as much as I'm enjoying mine.

November 21, 2007

You mean...Bush knew about the Valerie Plame leak?

Knock me over with a feather. Scott McClellan, in his artlessly artful way, appears to imply that President George W. Bush was in on the ground floor of the Plame cover-up. In a careful leak of one excerpt from his new book, which apparently will not be published until April, 2008, McClellan exonerates himself and throws Bush, Cheney, Rove, Libby and Andrew Card under the bus. Then he declined interviews. Thus, McClellan can enjoy his Holiday season with a clear conscience, held in high esteem by his friends and relations once again, while leaving everyone else to pore over one paragraph like the entrails of a perfectly preserved pterodactyl. This is what passes for integrity in high places these days.

In March, 2007, on the Larry King show, McClellan was somewhat easier on Bush. McClellan: "I spoke with those individuals [Libby & Rove], ... and those individuals assured me they were not involved in this. ... said what I believed to be true at the time. It was also what the president believed to be true at the time based on assurances that we were both given. Knowing what I know today, I would have never said that back then." This makes it sound like McClellan was told by Libby and Rove that they played no role in leaking Plame's name to the press, and that Bush was told the same (false) thing. Bush went around the country from July to the end of September, 2003, asserting that he intended to "get to the bottom" of the leak scandal, and assuring everyone that anyone involved in the leak would be fired, although this promise morphed into a threat to can only those "convicted of a crime." So if Bush was genuinely ignorant of the truth, that can only mean that Rove, Libby and Cheney sat mute while the Chief Executive discussed an "investigation" which they knew was completely unnecessary. Then, when the complete truth came out in the context of the Libby prosecution, and it was established that not only were Cheney, Libby and Rove aware of the leak, but in fact had orchestrated it, Bush took no action against the cabal. And these conspirators purposely kept him in the dark and allowed him to make a complete fool of himself at the same time he was looking stupid already for finding no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Huh?

That version of events has never made much sense. Bush has gotten away with it only because the comatose Washington press corps is too lazy to look at clues lying around in plain sight. I sit here this morning possessed only of my native logic, various quotes and a sense of the time line, plus the revelation from a hearing conducted by Henry Waxman, where James Knodell, the White House chief of security, confirmed that no internal investigation of the leak had ever been requested by Bush. How did Bush propose to get to the "bottom" of anything, other than the moral bottom where he and his Administration always dwell?

So when McClellan now writes that Bush was "involved" in McClellan's dissemination of false information about the leak, the logical inference to be drawn is that Bush knew from early on that Libby, Rove and Cheney were involved in the intentional outing of a covert operative. Bush's innocence simply does not make sense. An early decision to make him appear innocent does fit the case, and since he was widely regarded as a simpleton, this possessed an inherent credibility. The general approach of the cover-up was taken directly from the Watergate playbook, to insulate the top man from the shenanigans of his subordinates. But, as with Nixon, Bush wasn't innocent. If Scott McClellan ever expatiates on the subject, I imagine the true extent of Bush's complicity will become more apparent. Maybe Scottie's rehabilitation could follow the lines of John Dean's, il capo di tutti capi among historic whistle blowers.

The astounding thing is that the Washington press corps never figured this thing out, and that Bush was reelected in November, 2004. Dorothy, I don't think we're in 1973 anymore.

November 20, 2007

Sigmund and Marshall

I tend to think of Marshall McLuhan as a visionary in the same style as Sigmund Freud, someone whose ideas were ahead of the physiological neuroscience available to him at the time of his landmark work. As a result, the theories of both tended toward the heuristic and metaphorical rather than the rigorously scientific. I suppose a brain surgeon might plumb around all day in someone's cranium without actually finding the site of an id, or an ego or superego. As a result, Freud has been often dismissed by serious psychologists who are impatient with his references to Greek myths about killing the father as an explanation for a patient's neurosis. Well, he was doing what he could with what he knew; still in all, his hypothesis of an unconscious was extraordinarily fruitful in understanding the mysteries of human mental life, and for that alone he is justly regarded as a pioneering genius.

And McLuhan more than other theorists cast light on the pervasive influence of the electronic "extensions" of human consciousness found in "media," a term which was not widely used until his work. His writing is dense, allusive and elusive, and jargoned-up to the point where it's difficult to make sense of a sentence. Still, you knew something important was contained in his idea that the "medium was the message." I think we're now fully enclosed by the world he described, in fact. He once explained what he meant by saying the "content" of the medium, say a television program, was irrelevant to its effect; we could turn the airwaves over to public television and televise debates, educational programs, Shakespeare's plays or serials of Henry James's books on a 24/7 basis, and the effect on the viewers would be the same as nonstop "American Idol" and "Survivor." That's hard to accept, and given the state of neuroscience at the time, McLuhan seemed like a crackpot. Later research unearthed the reality that brain wave patterns when "consuming light" from a television are different from those when reading. The latter are conducive to retention and synthesis (sometimes called "learning"), whereas TV is a form of hypnotic relaxation. Furthermore, as described by Jerry Mander in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, constant consumption of television images distorts our perceptions of reality, substituting a "mediated world" in place of the real one that sustains our lives. Perhaps as a direct result of this substitution, humans have become increasingly careless about the appearance and health of the natural environment. And maybe you've noticed, as I think I have: you can't go anywhere out in public anymore without finding yourself surrounded by people using the gestures and stock phrases of television and movie characters. "Extensions" of consciousness, indeed; or have we become the extensions of it?

America always leads the way in these degenerate processes, of course. A new study by the National Endowment for the Arts revealed that Americans just don't read books very much anymore, and as a result, they can't write either. 72% of the employers surveyed said that recent high school graduates in their employ lacked basic proficiency in writing English. About half of all Americans aged 18 to 24 read a book "voluntarily" as a form of entertainment or self-improvement. Reading rates for all other Americans, and the amount spent per capita on books, are on steep downward trajectories over the last 20 years. I sometimes think that shows like "Hardball" and the rest of those irritatingly crappy programs should forswear Pat Buchanan and George Will for one afternoon and just bring a panel of public high school teachers and ask them what they think of the future of American democracy. Keep bringing them on, panel after panel, hundreds and hundreds of teachers on the front lines of America's future, until we get the idea. It might put a stop to this silly notion that one more "election cycle" is all that is necessary to transform the American polity into its former vibrant, productive self. It's probably truer to say we ain't seen nothin' yet. We think it can all be done with a conjurer's trick, as wish-fulfillment, instead of looking at the actual architecture of the "electronic village" and seeing how horribly wrong it's all gone while we weren't paying attention.

I gotta run; can't miss "Countdown" with Keith Olbermann. After all, he must have the answer to everything.

November 18, 2007

The IPCC lays it out

As part of my ongoing quest to fulfill the twin goals of my blog, that is, (1) to be as informative and entertaining as possible while (2) being as sharp a thorn in the side of the Bush Administration as possible, I commend to you the report of the Intergovernmental Report on Climate Change, linked right here at the Pond. I continue to think that those guys and gals, 2,000 scientists from relevant disciplines, deserve their Nobel Prize just as much as Al Gore, even though, unlike Al, they do not have seats on the Board of Directors at Google and Apple, and are not partners in a Palo Alto investment banking firm. Nor do they necessarily own a condo in a San Francisco high-rise, as Al and Tipper do, a pied-a-terre convenient for Al's show-and-shine appearances at Silicon Valley Internet events. Forget the "Draft Al Gore" malarkey; the guy is not going to take the pay cut and the step-down in stature. From Patron Saint of the global warming movement to just another sullied politician is a long fall indeed.

This report is such big news that it made the front page of today's San Francisco Chronicle, the Voice of the West. The Chronicle's account ran to a second full page, which, however, contained this puzzling observation: "Despite the exhaustive work by the U.N. Panel, much is still not known, the scientists said. For example, it is not clear whether the planet is more likely to be 2 to 3 degrees, or 10 degrees warmer by the end of the century. Other unknowns are the amount of sea level rise and how precipitation will be affected in different parts of the world."

Just as a style note, I wonder why the writers (Jane Kay and David Perlman) would refer to "the planet." It's Earth we're talking about; it's true we live on a "planet," but for now the only planet where global warming is an issue for us is the one we're trapped on. A cavil, true, but this "planet" stuff, which is intended to sound so Universe-hip, kind of grates on my classicist's nerves. Beyond the trivial, however, I have to say that's a helluva "for example." I assume that the writers are referring to the "scenario table" laid out by the IPCC, where they contrast different outcomes depending on the response of humanity to the crisis. (Of course the Chronicle writers also use constructions like "the data supports" [sic], which also grate on my classicist's nerves, but for different reasons; I think Bush's chronic difficulty with noun-verb agreement has infected common usage.) Back to the scenarios in the IPCC tables, which in fact answer the "mysteries" the Chronicle seems baffled by: Business as usual leads to an outcome known as humans-are-shit-on-toast, e.g., where global average temperatures might be 6 degrees C. higher by 2100. This would represent a continuation of the policies of the Bush Administration, world leaders in seeking human species extinction. White House flacks are busy eviscerating the IPCC Report as we speak, seeking to make it consistent with a world view that holds the Earth (our "planet") is 6,000 years old on which Man was given Dominion over all the beasts of the oceans and the fish of the world (or the other way around, it doesn't really matter), and the best thing that could possibly happen would be to speed up our ascension to Glory. So if those ideas go on...I still continue to maintain that Bush runs a very serious risk with his intransigence on this issue. It is becoming increasingly obvious in places like, oh, Atlanta, that this climate change problem is not some futuristic, sci-fi dystopia, but something you think about now when you turn on the water tap. He keeps talking about the need for more money, huge amounts of it, to send to a desert country busily installing an Islamic theocracy while Bush pays no attention to the imminent collapse of a second major Southern city during his presidency. Where Bush is most obtuse (and it is a characteristic which came back to haunt other rulers who mistook transient invulnerability for lifetime immunity) is in thinking that if things go really, really bad, an aroused American mob won't be looking around for people to blame and punish. Suppose that the good folks of Atlanta are forced, within the next 6 months, to begin dispersing to other parts of the country where they can finally take a shower. Why isn't this a realistic danger? They're down to 80 days of water, and Governor Sonny Perdue is now holding prayer meetings on the state capitol steps. I hope he has better luck with Divine intercession than indicated in all the controlled experiments on the practice. Shouldn't the USA be engaged in yet another "Manhattan Project" (so many Manhattans, so little time) to develop desalination using solar power to run a reverse osmosis system? And figuring out useful ways to handle all the osmotic sludge you pile up from doing so? Atlanta (and Los Angeles and Phoenix and New York City) are not that far from huge reservoirs of water (known as the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans) that are positively brimming with H2O, and which, in fact, are getting deeper every day! Research and industry like that could make the USA a world leader in...something again. Is ensuring a thriving Kurdistan really more important than all that? Do people down in the Peach State know how badly they're being neglected by this regime they, more than most states, put in power?

Another 14 months of this clown. While Atlantans pack up and move to Manitoba, Bush wants to keep sending all the taxpayer money he can get his hands on, and all he can borrow, to Baghdad. Of course, Georgians will have to cross a lot of decrepit bridges and overpasses to get there, and it will cost a fortune, what with $4 or $5 or $6 a gallon for gas, if, in fact, OPEC still accepts the greenback for oil. We may have to start laundering our money through a hard currency, like the Mexican peso.

I suppose one kind of prison for environmental criminals could be built on a remote and low-lying Pacific island. Suppose the jail is built right at (present) sea level. But the sentences are long, 20 or 30 years, and the inmates are told that no matter what happens, they won't be transferred somewhere else. The cells are only a few yards from the surf, and they're all on the ground floor. And what's worse, the world has chosen that very first scenario, business as usual...