March 28, 2008

Just How Nuts Is It Out There?

It's a little disconcerting that 25% of Democrats believe Barack Obama is a Muslim, although, as Jerry Seinfeld once said on a show where he was mistaken for a gay guy, "not that there's anything wrong with that." Nevertheless, it's questionable whether a black man can be elected President of the United States; it's beyond question that a black Muslim cannot be elected President. When facts as basic as whether or not Barack Obama is a Muslim are not conclusively understood, one trembles at the prospects for positive change this fall.

At its very basic level, the recent national spasm about the Trinity United Church of Christ and its "firebrand" pastor (a word chosen by the national media to remind us of Sadr in Iraq) was a racist exercise. People have been looking for some "definitive" way to demonstrate that Obama is a "shifty" black man who holds radical beliefs similar to Huey Newton or Eldridge Cleaver and is merely trying to pass as a reasonable Ivy League lawyer who happened to be editor of the Harvard Law Review. So the imputation of Islamism, anti-Semitism and anti-Americanism was a fairly easy task when the opportunity presented itself, because it was exactly what a lot of people wanted to hear in the first place. A new set of rules developed where if a man was one of ten thousand congregants in a church where the pastor said some things (among hundreds and hundreds of things, many of which were indisputably correct) that offended or were non-mainstream, that congregant was tarred with the same brush. These tactics work because Americans seem peculiarly vulnerable to what statisticians call the "emphasis error;" something is taken out of context and highlighted and the target audience is unable to retain the context and evaluate the point rationally. The scene melts away; all we have left is a vast, empty church, with a pastor yelling, "God damn America," and one lonely black man, Barack Obama in the audience. That Obama wasn't even there that day, that this was one of hundreds of sermons given by Jeremiah Wright, is all forgotten

As an example of this point, consider the case of John McCain and Pastor John Hagee. Who is John Hagee? He's a nut, that's who he is. He claims to be pro-Israel, but what he has in mind, really, is one particular Jew, Jesus of Nazareth. Hagee wants to bring on Armageddon and Jesus's return by fomenting a war between Israel and Iran, nuclear if possible. Something like 80% of all Jews in Israel are going to die in the conflagration, according to Revelations, but it's all good. Has to happen, according to the Pastor, who's written a book on the subject. Some radical right wingers in Israel are okay with Hagee, even if they have to overlook a few of the more disturbing aspects of his character. Such as that he's actually an Anti-Semitic Holocaust Revisionist. Let him say it in his own words:

“It was the disobedience and rebellion of the Jews, God’s chosen people, to their covenantal responsibility to serve only the one true God, Jehovah, that gave rise to the opposition and persecution that they experienced beginning in Canaan and continuing to this very day….

“How utterly repulsive, insulting, and heartbreaking to God for His chosen people to credit idols with bringing blessings He had showered upon the chosen people. Their own rebellion had birthed the seed of anti-Semitism that would arise and bring destruction to them for centuries to come…. it rises from the judgment of God upon his rebellious chosen people.” [Jerusalem Countdown: A Prelude To War”, paperback edition, pages 92 and 93].

If Hitler were around to read this, imagine the great comfort it would bring to his conscience, if he had one. If you see a movie like "The Sorrow and the Pity" or "Night Train" or "Shoah" again, you might want to reconsider your sympathy for the Jews during the Holocaust. If Hagee's right, it was merely what they had coming. A baby huddled in her mother's arms, rumbling along in the Polish night in 1944 toward Auschwitz: the little girl's own fault, if I read Hagee right. She shouldn't have been so repulsive and insulting. Shouldn't have broken God's heart. So she became a casualty as part of God's Master Plan for his Chosen People, and Part Two, or Part Whatever, is comin' right up. (Jackie Mason may have nailed it: "Next time, choose somebody else.")

John McCain actively sought and is proud to have the endorsement of John Hagee. You can Google many quotes to that effect. What you can't find are the searching, inquisitorial interviews of Tim Russert and Chris Matthews of John McCain about why he would enthusiastically associate himself with someone like this. Isn't that odd? Hagee's taken some fire for being "anti-Catholic," but never for buying into the Biblical blood libel of Judaism. Yet many assume that Barack Obama must be an anti-Semite himself (his thousand public pronouncements in support of Israel notwithstanding) because a pastor, whose endorsement he does not seek or accept, presides over a church of ten thousand congregants in a church which gave Louis Farrakhan a lifetime achievement award.

This goes beyond a double standard and into the realm of the truly, frighteningly weird. It is one of the occasional glimpses one gets into the dark forces moving like an unseen tide in modern America. If nothing else comes of Barack's candidacy, I commend him on the sublime beauty of the speech he wrote and delivered in response to this "controversy." He asked Americans to be smart and discerning about a complex subject. I give it long odds, but it is better, as the Buddha said, to light candles than to curse the darkness.

March 27, 2008

Why we're still in Iraq

"Frontline" on PBS is running a pretty good documentary on the Iraq occupation called "Bush's War" which I tuned in to the other night. It had much in common with other recent movies done on the subject, relying extensively on the usual talking-head format using writers who have written the now-familiar canon (among current affairs freaks, like your humble blogster) of books on how Iraq went completely off the rails beginning in the spring of 2003. Books such as "Fiasco," "Assassin's Gate," "Cobra II," "The End of Iraq." I've read 'em all. Iraq is a mess, all right. That's a conclusion which Bush can't lay at the feet of a "hostile media." We won't find out until Bush leaves office just how screwed up Iraq is, and only then if a Democrat is elected. If a Democrat is elected, I suspect he or she will use the conditions in Iraq as the rationale for organizing a departure. The argument will be simple: Iraq is so catastrophically messed up that no occupation which is militarily, politically and financially feasible can stay in place long enough to make a significant difference.

Of course, that's true now. Yet we stay. However, the "Frontline" documentary makes an arresting point: that wasn't the original plan. In all my reading, I had never seen that particular point made. Public statements from field commanders and administrators, such as Tommy Franks and Jay Garner, and interviews with high ranking officials at the Defense and State Departments who are no longer in the government, made a convincing case that the plan was to invade, topple Saddam, receive the grateful thanks and adulation of the Iraqi people -- and then leave.

Whatever the larger ambitions of the Neoconservative cabal infesting the Administration and the Defense Department (Cheney, Libby, Perle, Wolfowitz, Feith), Bush and Rove had simpler ideas. Indeed, Bush's ideas are always pretty simple. He isn't John Adams. He is not a passionate and deep thinker whose very soul resonates with the cry for "freedom!" for the world's oppressed. He's a goofy frat boy with significant problems of mental processing, and the sole function of his presidency is (or was) to settle certain old familial scores about his wastrel life. His view of the relevant world is confined to the perimeter of the mirror he looks into each morning. He has demonstrated his profound indifference to everything else in a thousand ways during his presidency.

So the idea of Bush's War for Bush was to imbue him with the glow of the victorious war president. Mesmerized by Rumsfeld's promise of a quick and efficient victory, and lulled into complacency by his own abysmal understanding of Muslim sectarianism, Bush undertook to finish the job his father left incomplete: overthrow Saddam Hussein. This part worked, which is why he donned the codpiece and landed on the deck of the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln off San Diego on May 1, 2003. He meant it when he said the mission had been accomplished. Over the next few months, the idea was to withdraw the forces and then to crow about Bush's foresight and courage in transforming the Middle East with his lightning strike, thus ensuring a landslide reelection in 2004.

Then the Iraqis started killing Americans and each other in earnest. From the summer of 2003 until the day after the election in November, 2004 must have been one long nightmare for George W. Bush. That he achieved reelection despite the evaporation of all rationales for the war is a tribute to the unscrupulous genius of Karl Rove and to the pitiful state of the American electorate, who are so easily manipulated with empty slogans and posturing.

The price Bush paid for reinventing the rationale for remaining in Iraq has led him to his present predicament, where leaving Iraq is not an option. Since the flower-strewn parade greeting us as liberators failed to materialize, and no WMDs or links to al-Qaeda were found, Bush was left with the program which bored and irritated him most: building a democracy "in the heart of the Arab world." This, it turned out (according to him), was the idea all along.

If we leave today, Bush knows Iraq will descend into unmitigated hell tomorrow. He will lose any element of control over day-to-day events in Iraq and will be at the mercy of international (objective) reporting on conditions in that country. His frame of reference, that morning mirror, does not encompass such an outcome. So five years after invading we're still there. The plans he's discussing with General Petraeus do not contemplate any troop draw down. If the war costs $3 trillion, if another thousand GIs die, if the military deteriorates, so be it. A man's legacy is at stake.

March 24, 2008

An Account of My Harrowing Adventure at Gate 62B

A secretary to then-First Lady Hillary Clinton has taken issue with the Washington Post's decision to award Hillary "4 Pinocchios," its highest level of official mendacity, for her account of her trip to Tuzla, Bosnia in 1996, in which Mrs. Clinton claims that she arrived under sniper fire and ran to a waiting armored vehicle on the tarmac. Contemporaneous press videos show Mrs. Clinton calmly bending to receive a kiss from an 8-year old Bosnian girl who told the Democratic candidate that she was happy because "there is peace now." Mrs. Clinton's secretary stated in her defense:

"I was on the plane with then First Lady Hillary Clinton for the trip from Germany into Bosnia in 1996. We were put on a C17-- a plane capable of steep ascents and descents -- precisely because we were flying into what was considered a combat zone. We were issued flak jackets for the final leg because of possible sniper fire near Tuzla. As an additional precaution, the First Lady and Chelsea were moved to the armored cockpit for the descent into Tuzla. We were told that a welcoming ceremony on the tarmac might be canceled because of sniper fire in the hills surrounding the air strip. From Tuzla, Hillary flew to two outposts in Bosnia with gunships escorting her helicopter."

I find this account credible because of a remarkably similar experience I had on my return from Europe in 2004. While most of the details remain classified, I went to Europe (ironically, also in the company of my daughter, who is not named Chelsea), flying into and out of Frankfurt, Germany. I safely escorted my daughter to Ulm, Germany, and then took a long train ride to a city I can only call a "European Capital." This capital, which is located in France, became my base of operations for the next eight days. Why eight, instead of six or seven? I'm not at liberty to say. At the conclusion of my mission in this capital (code named: City of Light), I returned by train to Ulm. My daughter (not named Chelsea) and I then traveled by train to Cologne. Why Cologne? For the smell? Again, certain aspects must remain secret.

Here the similarities between Hillary's adventure and mine become eerie and striking. After a high speed trip on an express train from Cologne to Frankfurt, we also boarded a plane in Germany for the trip home to San Francisco. We were told that the United States was currently under Threat Condition Orange, an "elevated" level suggesting serious danger of imminent terrorist attack. I saw no alternative to pressing ahead; my daughter had a play-date scheduled for the day after our return. As if to emphasize the peril, the flight attendants did an elaborate presentation of safety features of the aircraft soon after takeoff. We were issued life jackets, or at least told where they were, and were instructed on use of oxygen masks in the event of a loss of cabin pressure, such as might happen if the plane was hit by sniper fire.

I knew that the jet was capable of rapid descents, especially if all four engines failed simultaneously. President Bush, in preparation for the fall elections which were then only a few months away, had declared all of the United States a "combat zone." Fortunately, we landed safely and non-Chelsea and I serpentined our way down the concourse, looking, as signs all over the airport advised us to do, for "suspicious activity." By cell phone, I learned that our welcoming ceremony had been canceled, admittedly not because of sniper fire but because of heavy traffic on the 101. We then ran for a Marin Airporter, again not so much because of danger but because we didn't want to wait another half hour for the next one. It was a near thing, but we made it. The experience certainly impressed on me and my daughter who is not named Chelsea the dangers involved in international travel. I'm only glad that we had the same luck as Hillary Clinton in surviving our perilous journey.

Obama and Trinity United Church of Christ

And, of course, there is the further irony: Obama attends an overwhelmingly black Christian church because of the historical segregation of black churches from white. This is something else I was well aware of growing up, having spent my (de)formative years under the influence of Fundamentalist Christian dogma, in a church with a name not so different from Obama's chosen denomination. My church, which was far more prevalent in the South than elsewhere, always had its white and black versions, a feature it shared with Baptists and Methodists and other good-hearted racists. Indeed, the United Church of Christ is a hybrid denomination based historically on white European sources, the Heidelberg Catechism and Lutheran influences (which underwent various Evangelical, Reformed and Congregationalist permutations once they came ashore in the U.S.). Under American practice, of course, Christian churches became as segregated as the military, schools and all public accommodations. The segregation of churches has outlasted Jim Crow and Brown vs. Board of Education, although at this point it's probably lost much of its quality of coercion. Christ's admonition to love one's neighbor was read by such Protestant denominations within the confines of the Dred Scott decision, meaning, I guess, that one should love African-Americans with about 60% of the fervor one lavished on one's white fellow congregants.

There is now a silly game being played in the media called "pin the pastor on the candidate," where Obama, Clinton and McCain are all chastised for attending churches where irrational or anti-American sentiments were expressed by the cleric-in-chief. Under the new rules of guilt by association, the failure to stand up during services and denounce the pastor, or engage him in a fist fight, and then immediately resign from the congregation is taken as proof-positive of complicity in whatever objectionable tirade is issuing from the pulpit. In my own (admittedly minority, nontheistic) view, the whole business of religion is one massive exercise in irrationality. Indeed, that is the ultimate appeal of faith, as a flight from depressing rationality and the dismal conclusions it leads to. A pastor is a kind of facilitator of group therapy where the reigning treatment protocol is the inculcation of hopeful delusions. As long as he's up there talking about things that don't exist anyway, why not throw in, as Reverend Wright did, that the U.S. government experimented with African-Americans by injecting them with syphilis? Or, in the case of Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson, by blaming the 9-11 attacks on homosexual activity in the United States? Who would even notice? You've got people dying and rising from the dead, water turning to wine, burning bushes holding conversations, and a guy surviving a three-day confinement in the belly of a big fish.

Chris Kelly, who may be the funniest man currently writing in the English language, has done a hilarious send-up of the whole thing by pointing out that Bill O'Reilly currently attends a church where the "head man" is a former Nazi, meaning, of course, that the Pope was in the Hitler Youth (Kelly says that he goes under the "assumed name" of Pope Benedict XVI, but that he was previously known as "Joey Rats"). Why doesn't O'Reilly, each and every mass, get up and storm out of such a blatantly anti-American situation? Didn't Hitler declare war on America in December, 1941? Damn right he did. And although he must have known that Hitler's declaration of war was about as anti-American as you can get, Pope Pius XII actively assisted (well, maybe not actively, but when we're working guilt this way, it's like a game of horse shoes) the Gestapo during the occupation of Rome in rounding up Jewish children for exportation to extermination camps. Catholics are Christians, which implicates Bill & Hillary Clinton, John McCain and George W. Bush as well, who have singularly failed to denounce Joey Rats for his association with Pius. How do they live with themselves, knee-deep in genocide? Does the conferring of a lifetime achievement award (somehow I knew it couldn't be the Irving Thalberg Award) to Louis Farrakahn by the Trinity United Church of Christ cross any lines not already crossed by Bill O'Reilly, who supports The Surge, which supports Bush, who was supported by Hillary's vote for the Iraq War Authorization, who is supported by Bill Clinton, who is supported by Arab Sheikhs, who are in a cabal with the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem, who supported Hitler, thus closing the circle...

This has gotten so complicated. Too bad we can't judge candidates by their own convictions anymore; however, the whole process should be a boon to history teachers.

March 23, 2008

Reverend Jeremiah's Jeremiad & Barack

My grandfather, a Greek immigrant from an island so proximate to the Turkish mainland that its definitive inclusion in Greece was not decided until after he left the island in 1908, settled in the Southern United States, never to return to his homeland. He ran cafes in Texas and the Deep South for most of his long working life, and many of them were named the Oleander Cafe in honor of the flora of his abandoned island. Some of my absolutely earliest memories were of eating in one of his cafes in Athens (no doubt not coincidental), Alabama. The local crackers got along well with Milteadis and were loyal customers. They were, of course, gently condescending, given his inferior ethnicity (that is, not Scots-Irish white trash like themselves), and few of his patrons would have been impressed that he was from the land of Archimedes, Euclid, Sophocles, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. Until the Civil Rights Movement changed things, his cafes always had a rear entrance marked with a cardboard sign that said "Colored," and a small room with a counter served his African-American customers. Once or twice, when I was about eight years old and went down to his cafe in Grand Prairie, Texas, I saw a couple of hunched-over old black men eating the same (specialty) chili I ate at the counter out front. My sense is that my grandfather, a thoroughly decent man without a trace of arrogance in his being, must have found the apartheid system both bewildering and repellent, and I would like to believe my mother's account that when no whites were out front, my grandfather invited blacks into the front room, conspiring in a lunch counter revolution years ahead of the Freedom Riders.

The oppression of African-Americans by the United States has no historical parallels in American history. Comparing blacks, who were treated as personal property and subhuman for the first two hundred years of our history, and then as untouchables for the next one hundred years, to the experience of any other immigrant group is insensate, absurd and all-too-typical of our superficial culture. Such oppression has bred hatred, irrationality and misunderstanding in a unique way.

The hagiography of America by non-minority historians differs greatly from the views expressed by Cornel West, for example, or by Reverend Wright. One would be hard put indeed to find an African-American intellectual of serious stature, from Fredrick Douglass to Cornel West (and passing through Eldridge Cleaver, Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X and many others) who does not share Wright's essential view of American history. Since we live in a sound bite culture, Wright's diatribes can be taken out of their black context and made to sound unique; when they are replayed by Fox News, or Clinton operatives, they sound "anti-American" (Bill Clinton, to his further debasement, is currently playing up this angle). It is then an easy step to conclude that Obama is "anti-American" also, because he has been "part of the congregation."

I think what the country is struggling with is that having a candidate of partly African-American descent is different from having the usual white majority candidate. People want him to hit all the same notes as a white man, but his background is radically different. He knows many, many people who don't look at America the same way as John McCain or Dick Cheney or Henry Paulson look at the country, and these people are "involved" in his campaign. Cornel West (a professor at Princeton), for example, is an enthusiastic supporter of Obama. He describes himself as a "non-Marxist" Socialist, and admired the Black Panthers and Malcolm X as a youth. He is also Co-Chair of the Tikkun Community with Michael Lerner, which puts him on a collision course with Louis Farrakhan, the anti-Semite, but Fox News could also have a field day with West's background by talking about how "radical" it is.

For me, the critical issue is whether Barack himself is "anti-American" or an anti-Semite I don't believe for a moment that he is. Of course he knows lots of people who have grown up thinking about this country in ways different from the average white person; but it's not a requirement of the office to subscribe to some hypothesized "majority" view. If we're going to say that Barack Obama can't be president because Stokely Carmichael or Malcolm X or MLK said things which threaten the false and comfy view Americans prefer to have about themselves, then we have to admit we haven't come very far from Grand Prairie, Texas in 1956