April 18, 2008

The Jerk

As I've written before, the single best compendium for all things anti-Bush is Dan Froomkin's daily blog "White House Watch" in the Washington Post, which I've been reading regularly (religiously, you could say -- I cling to it) for about a year. The blog is always 5 pages long, yet the astounding thing is that Dan never lacks material. A lot of the blog consists of excerpts and quotes from other writing and newspaper accounts, but he uses a great deal of original source material as well. Today, for example, he includes citations to a National Defense University study which concluded that the Iraq war has been a "debacle," the sort of "deep" research you almost never see in the mainstream press anymore.

Indeed, Bush has been such a terrible failure on every front that Froomkin's major difficulty is probably the process of exclusion; there is so much negative news to deal with on a daily basis that inevitably a lot of Bush's destructive activity must go unremarked. I've written about this before, the President's protean capacity for generating bad news, his Bizarro-Midas Touch.

Froomkin today quotes Sigmar Gabriel, the German Minister for the Environment (their equivalent of our Environmental Destruction Agency), on Bush's recent Rose Garden "initiative" on global warming. Herr Gabriel called Bush's speech "Neanderthal," but perhaps that's an insult to proto-humans everywhere, including those in GEICO commercials. Bush proposed a regime in which the United States would stop the growth in greenhouse emissions by U.S. polluters (particularly power-generating plants) by the year 2025. If I understand him correctly, Bush is saying that the amount of CO2 and other heat-trapping gases released into the atmosphere may continue to increase every year between now and 2025, at which point, presumably, the emissions would be "forced" to level off at whatever toxic level they had achieved in the interim.

Bush, in 2025, will be about 80 years old and completely irrelevant to American life except as a footnote for historians seeking presidencies comparable in disastrous consequences to James Buchanan and Herbert Hoover. His "idea" seems to have nothing to do with dealing with climate change. Why did he say anything at all, let alone something this insultingly stupid? I think the answer may be simpler than we think. Bush enjoys being a jerk. It doesn't go a lot deeper than that. It's his form of a sick practical joke. We should never forget that he's capable of joking about things that are deadly serious for other people. He joked about not finding weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, for example, and yet since that was the putative reason for the invasion, his little pantomime (which was corny and dumb, at that) amounts to laughing off 4,000 American deaths, 30,000+ wounded soldiers, many with very serious injuries, and an untold (because his Administration won't bother to count) number of Iraqi lives destroyed, probably in the hundreds of thousands.

Bush doesn't care about global warming. He doesn't believe in it, he doesn't take it seriously, and he's spent his whole presidency dodging a real response to it. Way back in 2000 I recall thinking that his election could bring on a disaster of unprecedented scope because we risked eight years of inaction on the critical issue facing the human race. Bush was much worse than I thought he would be, than I thought he could be. The reason he proposed something so ridiculous is because it amuses him to find an "initiative" so far removed from anything effective that it's like proposing absolutely nothing. He's saying: see, you want me to react to this ridiculous crisis made up by liberal scientists, so I'm going to propose that the U.S. increase its CO2 for the next 18 years. Get it? His utterly delights in being so contrary. And despite the devastating effects, God help us all, he thinks it's funny.

April 17, 2008


In its essential elements, the American political scene has come to resemble professional wrestling. The Republicans, naturally, have assumed the role of the heavy, the guy wearing a black hood with eye- and mouth-holes, named something like The Masked Avenger or Darth Raider. Menacing, in other words. The Avenger is out of shape, with a big gut hanging over his long tight pants, but he stays in the match by always fighting dirty. No matter how many times the ref tells him to stop using a closed fist, he keeps rabbit punching away, knee-dropping on his opponent's Adam's apple, anything, so long as it does damage and heightens the drama.

The Democrats are the goody twoshoes, someone like Cowboy Bob Ellis, in fabulous condition and looking buff in a red, white and blue Speedo. Scrupulous about the rules, the good guy takes the Avenger's worst; and while Cowboy Bob's chances often look grim, he throws off a couple of last-minute pins to pull a dazzling reversal that wins the match.

The suckers in the audience are unaware that the Avenger and Bob, just before entering the ring, have met and worked out the elaborate choreography of their match in detail, so that no one gets hurt but the crowd gets a good show. In essence, that's where we are now in American politics, except for the part about no one getting hurt. The Avenger and Bob, through their Professional Wrestlers Union, have guaranteed health care, a well-paid sinecure and a bounteous pension. They're famous and taken care of. The rubes out in the crowd have to shift for themselves.

Books such as David Sirota's Inside Job or Greg Palast's The Best Congress Money Can Buy provide the fine-grained detail on the more or less complete corruption of Congress and the federal government in general. The two parties have worked out the division of labor so that the Republicans do the dirtier work in exchange for the more lucrative graft. For example, the awful bankruptcy bill passed a few years ago was, naturally, introduced by Republicans and written by credit card lobbyists. (This is how it works now; the blow-dried solons are of such low quality intellectually that they rely on lawyers for the industries in question to draft the bills, in this case the American Bankers Association.) No one even pretended that such legislation could possibly benefit the individual "consumer," or what we used to call "Americans." The bankers who wrote the bill were looking for a way to cut their losses on credit card debt which they encouraged in the first place, by mass-mailing solicitations to millions of cash-hungry Americans. The arguments in favor of the bill, from both sides of the aisle, were of course dressed up in the usual finery of homespun virtue, of thrift and "honesty" in paying one's debts. The Democrats voting for the bill, including Joe Biden of Delaware and Harry Reid of Nevada (of course), found ways to justify voting for the bill even after an amendment was killed that would have protected the residence of Americans filing bankruptcy because of medical bills. What the hell. They have insurance. Why didn't Reid use the "60-vote" rule to corral support among the Democratic caucus to prevent this corporate dreck from entering the Bankruptcy Code? Now that the Dems are in the majority, Reid always cites the rule as the reason he can't stop Iraq funding; how come it didn't stop the Republicans from passing this bill? (Hint: Reid liked the bill; it supported his true constituency.)

And why do hedge fund managers, such as John Paulson and George Soros, who make over $3 billion per year (the average among the top 25 hedge fund managers is $775 million per year), continue to pay capital gains rates on their income? Because of the principled advocacy of Democrats such as Chuck Schumer of New York, that's why; it would be tragic indeed if these visionary entrepreneurs were forced to pay the same marginal rate as the secretaries out in the typing pool.

The Iraq war voting, of course, is an old story. Carl Levin, Democrat from Michigan, subjected us to a nauseating analogy between his decision to continue "supporting the troops" by voting "yea" on funding for Iraq with comments Lincoln made about the Civil War. I wonder how much Googling his staff had to do to come up with that claptrap. And despite the open, indeed cocky, admission by the highest officials in the Bush Administration that they committed systematic war crimes, the Democrats will not lift a finger to exercise the Constitutionally mandated remedy of impeachment. You see, "impeachment" is what the Masked Avenger does; Cowboy Bob fights clean and wins the elections. These are required elements in the dramatic form; the handsome lead actor wins the girl in the final scene because he's such a good guy, not because he turned in his rival to the cops.

Gradually I think even the rubes of the American Booboisie have come to the realization they're being taken for a ride by the choreography of the two-party system. It seems to my somewhat acute ear that a rising clamor for an end to the monopoly of the Democrats and Republicans is gaining force. Right now it takes the form of Neo-Nihilism, the utter disgust and contempt of Americans for their elected representatives reflected in sub-20% approval ratings, but maybe it will transmogrify into something more positive in the coming years. Grass-roots movements in which new parties choose candidates from a "bottom up" process. Right now, through processes they don't completely understand, the electorate is presented with choices made by Big Media based on narrative potential. An African-American man; a woman; a war hero, in the present case. We are instructed to get excited about one of these, even if these candidates are completely constrained, by the rules of the Professional Wrestling Union, from ever talking about a problem in practical terms leading to a practical solution. That's not what the Avenger and Cowboy Bob do. They take money from Big Money to represent their interests, then put on a violent show in the center of the caged ring involving flips and body slams and clothesline shots to the throat, and a mesmerized populace votes for their favorite actor. While outside the arena, the world is going to hell in a handbasket.

April 14, 2008

No way out, Barack

Barack Obama realizes now that he made a huge mistake, in an unguarded moment before an "elitist" group of Democratic supporters in San Francisco, in describing distressed members of America's vanishing middle class as bitterly "clinging to guns and religion." Let's face it, he committed the politician's cardinal sin: he spoke his mind. Now he's in the impossible position of explaining away an accurate comment as a "misstatement" because it's political suicide to delve deeper into the reasons for his assessment. For example, he can't say that the burgeoning religiosity and theocratic tendencies which have been ascendant in the U.S. over the last several decades are a sure sign of radical social decay. He's about as likely to add Richard Dawkins to his council of advisors as he is to cite the following 2005 study from Creighton University's Journal of Society & Religion:

"Among the developed democracies absolute belief in God, attendance of religious services and Bible literalism vary over a dozenfold, atheists and agnostics fivefold, prayer rates fourfold, and acceptance of evolution almost twofold. Japan, Scandinavia, and France are the most secular nations in the West, the United States is the only prosperous first world nation to retain rates of religiosity otherwise limited to the second and third worlds (Bishop; PEW)...There is evidence that within the U.S. strong disparities in religious belief versus acceptance of evolution are correlated with similarly varying rates of societal dysfunction, the strongly theistic, anti-evolution south and mid-west having markedly worse homicide, mortality, STD, youth pregnancy, marital and related problems than the northeast where societal conditions, secularization, and acceptance of evolution approach European norms (Aral and Holmes; Beeghley, Doyle, 2002). "

Reading this thorough and well-resourced study, one is left with the impression that conditions in the United States today are somewhat analogous to those immediately before the Civil War, except that the South and Midwest (remember the Missouri Compromise?) have been deprived of the advantages of slavery. Ironic, in some ways, that it took a man of partly African-American descent to point out the obvious: the rural folks first lost their plantations, now they've lost their manufacturing base and their jobs. As Barack said, those jobs have now been gone for a generation, and the "bitterness" does indeed incite fear and loathing of "the other," in modern times, the illegal immigrants who are perceived as taking their jobs (although the quality jobs have been lost for everyone). Part of the reaction is in reasserting the superiority of the dominant whites, battered and bruised as they might be by changing times. So naturally there is a great cry of defiance when this cheeky black man points out the obvious, and the unscrupulous Hillary, a panderer to the last, starts slamming beers-and-shots and rising to their defense. Didn't our newest Pulitzer honoree, Bob Dylan, write about just this tendency in "Only a Pawn in Their Game"?

"A South politician preaches to the poor white man,
"You got more than the blacks, don't complain.
You're better than them, you been born with white skin," they explain.
And the Negro's name
Is used it is plain
For the politician's gain
As he rises to fame
And the poor white remains
On the caboose of the train
But it ain't him to blame
He's only a pawn in their game."

So Barack must pass up the opportunity to talk about what is really going on in this country. Instead, like any Presidential candidate, Obama must praise and adore the very traits in America, its extreme religiosity, its obscurantism and anti-intellectual tendencies, its armed-to-the-teeth nuttiness, which most strongly correlate with its "dysfunctionality" across a broad array of indicators of societal health. Guns & God do go together, as demonstrated by America's astonishing "outlier" status as the homicide capital of the world's developed nations.

I'm sure you've learned by now, Barack, it is audacious indeed in this country to indulge in hope.

April 13, 2008

Primer on Social Studies in the Bush Administration

President Bush's National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley appeared on ABC's "This Week" with George Stephanopoulos and repeatedly confused Nepal and Tibet.

Discussing how Bush has "no reason not to go" to this summer's Olympic games in Beijing and how boycotting them would be wrong, Hadley discussed the outcry over Tibet and the US response, only he kept saying Nepal.

"If countries are really concerned about Nepal, we shouldn't have this sort of non-issue of opening ceremonies or not. They should do the hard work of quiet diplomacy to urge the Chinese government -- in their interest -- to take advantage of this opportunity to do something," Hadley said.

Well, who am I to criticize? There have been times in my life (it's been years, I confess) when I wasn't sure about the difference between Tibet and Nepal. I knew they were somewhere in the Himalayas; when friends went trekking in the high mountains, they talked about going to Nepal, not Tibet. That was a clue. Nepal was in some sense more accessible than Tibet. Over time I realized this was because China overran Tibet a long time ago. Which is why Bob Seger, if he ever got out of here, was going to Kathmandu. He had no interest in going to Red China. The ancient Nepalese monarchy, that was the place for him.

It was probably in the 1970's, during the spirituality boom in the U.S., that I grokked the connection between Tibet and the Dalai Lama. The Dalai was a Tibetan, and the capital of Tibet was Lhasa, not Kathmandu. This is why the Dalai is the head man of "Tibetan Buddhism" (that's a good mnemonic device for Hadley -- not the head of "Nepalese Buddhism"). If he ever gets out of here, Bob Seger is not going to Lhasa. Lhasa is an "autonomous region" of the People's Republic of China, but I think you can guess just how autonomous it is (even if Stephen Hadley can't). The Dalai, for instance, can't even live there. He lives in India (but some of his best friends are Tibetans). Nepal (for Mr. Hadley's ease of reference) shares a border with Tibet but is not actually Tibet. There's a question, however, how much longer Nepal is going to remain a monarchy, because good King Gyanendra is currently under siege by Nepalese Maoists, who want to take over. "Mao" was Chinese, and Mr. Hadley may see a pattern here.

During the 2000 presidential campaign, Stephen Hadley served as one of George W. Bush's "senior foreign policy advisors." This may explain why Bush had a problem naming the capital of France, for example. Not to get too personal, but Hadley looks as if he lives in a crypt most of the time and only comes out to appear on talk shows and display his mastery of Himalayan geography. It does seem amazing that Hadley, aware that a big whoop currently in the news is whether George W. will or will not attend the opening ceremonies of the Smog Games in Beijing, would not have checked Wikipedia or something to figure out the difference between Nepal and Tibet. He's the national security advisor. As I freely admitted a minute ago, I acquired my flawless command over high-elevation South Asian principalities over the course of several decades, but then again, my job wasn't really about that.

It's possible, you know, that these people in the Bush Administration are just really, really stupid. If you think the question is whether the Chinese government is oppressing the Dalai Lama in Nepal, then maybe that's a clue to other puzzling decisions the Bush team has made. On September 11, 2001, the U.S. gets attacked by 15 Saudis, a Yemeni, an Egyptian, a Lebanese, a guy from the UAE, all coordinated by a Saudi living in Afghanistan along with his Man Friday from Egypt and the Brain from Kuwait. Bush, consulting Hadley, wants to find out who attacked us. "Arabs," says Stephen. So we attack the Arabs in Arabia. It's beginning to make sense. That's what Bush meant when he said that it was intolerable to have Saddam as a troublemaker in the "same part of the world" where the 9/11 hijackers were from. ArabLand, he meant.

If I ever get out of here, I'm going to Kathmandu.

Hillary Clinton, Drunk, Shoots Up Church in Rural Pennsylvania

April 13, 2008 (AP) -- The neck-and-neck primary race between Senators Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama escalated in tension and drama last night on reports that Senator Clinton, apparently wasted on Crown Royal boilermakers slammed down in a western Pennsylvania tavern, grabbed her 12 gauge, blasted the locks off a nearby Assembly of God church, and proceeded to shoot out all the stained glass windows. A reportedly blotto Clinton was finally wrestled to the floor of the church by Pennsylvania state troopers who were called to the scene by a witness outside the church who saw shards of the Virgin Mary fly into the street.

Members of Clinton's drinking party at Shorty's Tavern said the Senator, clearly angry over Obama's elitist maundering about "desperate" and "bitter" rural Americans turning to "guns & God" to assuage their feelings of hopelessness (remarks which Obama apparently made while traveling outside the United States, at a Democratic party function in San Francisco), went over the line with whiskey and Schlitz chasers and vowed to show "that skinny-ass punk a thing or two about being an American." Bill Schuilhorn, who was with Clinton at Shorty's, said she repeated this threat "20 or 30 times" in increasingly slurred language before jamming her red plaid hunting cap (with Elmer Fudd ear flaps) down on her short 'do and staggering out of the bar. The men drinking with her (who were also drunk) said they were powerless to stop the Senator from grabbing her Remington and making good on her pledge.

Fortunately, no one else was in the church at the time of Clinton's shooting spree. Hillary was, however, booked and locked up overnight in the town jail, held on charges of aggravated vandalism and overdoing the political pandering. An obviously hung-over and abashed Clinton said this morning that while she apologized for "shooting the shit" out of the church, she would step up her tireless fight for the common people of the U.S., a group which the "elitist Senator from Illinois doesn't know zilch about."

In the latest Gallup poll, Senator Clinton lurched ahead by 25 points in advance of next week's Pennsylvania primary.