September 02, 2008

The Dadaist Phase of American Politics

"Marcel Duchamp was born in in the Haute-Normandie Region of France, and grew up in a family that liked cultural activities. The art of painter and engraver Emile Nicolle, his maternal grandfather, filled the house, and the family liked to play chess, read books, painted and made music together." Wikipedia entry for Marcel Duchamp, innovative French artist and thinker.

I'm sure that sounds nothing like most American families you know. Our families like to snow mobile, watch the NFL, eat fast food, and as for music, it's mainly one of the parents yelling at the teenage daughter to turn the gangsta rap down. That's okay. Sometimes I'm pretty sure I was not only born in the wrong country, but in the wrong century as well. But as to Sarah Palin - you won't find me denigrating her family background or going on and on about her teen daughter's pregnancy or her husband's (then boyfriend) DUI arrest 22 years ago. That's ridiculous. What's the point? Her story is a fairly typical American story, except that Sarah herself is one of those preternaturally pushy and striving people who understand that in American public life, leadership is always there for the taking if you just go after it. The low quality of our political class, I've always thought, owes more to its abandonment by people of higher skills and intellect than it does to some intrinsic quality of politics itself. I watched Barbara Boxer, working the other side of the political aisle, accomplish the same sort of thing in California, a much bigger fish pond than Alaska. Barbara was a stock broker, then a Marin County Supervisor, then a U.S. Representative, then a Senator. When I watch her on C-SPAN, at a committee hearing, I'm always astounded at how ineffective she is. She stands for a lot of the right things, in my book, but she fumbles and flails to no good effect, at least in public.

From Thomas Jefferson and John Adams to Sarah Palin. This surely marks the American progress. My problem with Sarah Palin is that she's almost uniquely unqualified to be President. And a person running as McCain's VP is not a matter of casual interest. I would rate the chances of Sarah Palin becoming President sometime between January 2009 and January 2013, as you read this, at about 25%. I arrive at this prognostication through the multiplication of percentages, taught in American public high schools circa 1963-66. A 50% chance McCain will be elected, and a 50% chance he will not finish his term because of a physical or mental disability (such as death). McCain already shows signs of early Alzheimer's, and this would be obvious to the public if the media would stop screwing around with characterizations of his "confusion" as "senior moments" or the "stress" of the campaign. McCain has referred to: (a) President Putin of Germany, (b) present-day Czechoslovakia, (c) the Sunni trainers of al-Qaeda in Tehran and (d) the Iraq-Afghanistan border. Sometimes when he is asked a question in public, particularly if there is any sort of preamble or predicate to the question, he can't follow or retain the question. With the stress of the presidency, all of these problems would get worse in a hurry; and after the Constitutional crisis about what to do with a President who is not dead but definitely losing it, we would have Sarah Palin as our new leader.

I think a President, at the very least, must be conversant with all of the following in order to be minimally competent. The workings of the U.S. Federal Reserve System, including a detailed knowledge of the role of the dollar as the world's fiat currency. If the President doesn't get that, the entire American economy could go down the tubes in a hurry. (2) A deep understanding of nuclear proliferation, including the safeguards regime, the treaty arrangements and who's got what. (3) An overall comprehension of the U.S. legal system, how the courts interrelate, the role of administrative agencies, the principles of comity between Washington, D.C. and the states, and the function of the Bill of Rights. (4) An appreciation of modern science, the accelerating problem of climate change, the oceanic problems of acidification and hypoxia, and the pathways to alternative fuels to ameliorate all these problems. (5) The looming disaster of avian flu and contamination of the food supply because of the Bush era hollowing out and politicization of the regulatory agencies.

Marcel Duchamp is said to have inaugurated Dadaism by taking a men's urinal, mounting it on a base, and calling it "Fountain." There's a deep joke about modern perceptions contained therein. Something like that is going on here with Sarah Palin. I heard Lindsey Graham of South Carolina passionately defending her as McCain's choice on a Sunday talk show, talking about what a "great" commander in chief she would make, and sneering at the idea of Barack Obama (whose name he pronounced with the utmost disgust - where's the white sheet, Lindsey?) in the same role. (I hope Lindsey is happy with what he's done; because of his intolerance, God has directed Hurricane Hanna to smite South Carolina this weekend.)

What in the world is Lindsey talking about? Is just saying stuff like that enough now? Have the Bush years so degraded national standards that we take seriously the nonsense of people like Cindy McCain, who said Alaska's proximity to Russia gives Sarah "foreign policy experience?"

Oy vey iz mir. Alaska has fewer people than the city of San Francisco, and Palin has been governor for about two years. We're not really going to count her mayorship of Wasilla, are we? What next? Two terms as president of the Rotary Club of Tonopah, Nevada? And although she lives in Alaska, the state where the effects of global warming are most obvious, she doesn't see a connection between all the carbon dioxide we're pumping into the atmosphere and all the methane released by Alaska's thawing tundra, or all the dark sea water exposed by the melting of Alaska's sea ice, or the 3.5 degree F overall warming and 6 degree F winter warming of Alaska since the 1970s. Alaska is the poster state for global warming and its governor doesn't think humans have anything to do with it. Could we call that what it is? It's stupidity.

Sarah Palin has nothing in her background which indicates she can handle that list up above, not academically, not experientially. The Republicans can close ranks and claim another completely unqualified person should be put within a hair's breadth of the Presidency, but that doesn't make it true. It's still a bad idea. It's still a urinal on a base, not a fountain.

Look How They Massacred My Boy

I took a paternal interest in Hurricane Gustav from the very beginning. I knew him when he was just a lonely tropical depression out there in the Caribbean, trying to make his way in the world of big time weather, trying to attract the kind of attention from Coriolis-bent inrushing winds (sort of like campaign contributions) that build a nascent hurricane into a full-fledged monster storm. I could follow him on the NOAA website of the National Hurricane Center, the Public Advisories he generated, the 3- and 5-day cones of the path ahead. He waxed and waned, ol' Gus did, sometimes a Tropical Storm, sometimes a Hurricane, Cat-1.

He started getting it together after he roughed up Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He knew, of course, that destroying "buildings" on Hispaniola is not the real deal, because construction codes are pretty lax there. Maybe it made him a New Haven star, but Haiti is just not Broadway. After Hispaniola, Gus lost it. His confidence, his mojo, I don't know. He dropped back into Tropical Storm territory as he made the turn and headed north toward Cuba, the extreme western end of the island and the Isla de Juventud. It was there that Gus gave us a preview of coming attractions. Reaching deep into his eye and holding his breath (it's difficult to get these pathetic fallacies spot on when dealing with a hurricane), he lowered his central pressure into the 940 millibar range and the winds screamed as they topped 145 mph. Cat-4, baby, and he pummeled the Isle of Youth like there was no tomorrow. I began to suspect at that point that Gustav was an anti-Castro Republican, but politics seemed out of place when talking about a tropical cyclone of this power.

I'd been following Gustav for about 4 days before he made landfall at CNN and the hyper-excitable Chad Myers, their resident hurricane "expert." As Hurricane Hanna approaches North Florida, you can run the following experiment yourself: just go to the National Hurricane Center website, check the "Public Advisory" updates on the storm, and see if EVERYTHING Chad says, at great length and with a worked-up frenzy, isn't anticipated in the NOAA assessment. Now, there's a reason for this: Chad, or CNN generally, just doesn't have any way of knowing what's going on in the eye of a hurricane without those fearless pilots who fly out over the monster and drop their instruments into the storm to measure air pressure and wind speed. The hurricane tracks which NOAA generates are uncannily accurate; while Gus was still over Cuba, the 5-day cone's central track took it exactly over his point of ultimate landfall. It's hilarious, however, to watch Chad Myers breathlessly "update" us on the hurricane's progress as he reads the NHC's latest advisory on his teleprompter, then turns to his big screen loaded with NOAA satellite pictures (also available on the website) and spells it all out.

Of course, CNN also features reporters who stand in the wind and rain and report's windy and rainy. Everyone's favorite is Anderson Cooper, stationed again in New Orleans. I won't speculate why Anderson likes spending so much time in New Orleans; this one isn't that kind of blog entry. He has perfect Hurricane Hair, and I think that's how he got the job. His thick, brushy gray hair acts as a kind of weathervane of the cyclone's progress. It doesn't swirl around, which would be distracting; it just gets pushed into a mound on one side of his head or the other. If you know that cyclones in the Northern Hemisphere spin counter-clockwise, you can make a first approximation of the hurricane's position by looking at Anderson's hair. If he's facing south on Bourbon Street and the hair has piled up on the right side of his head, then Gustav is just making landfall. The somewhat stupid part of stationing Anderson in New Orleans was that there were no hurricane force winds in NOLA this time around. It was too far away from Gus's center (Cat-1 force winds extended out about 70 miles, something which Chad Myers knew from reading the NOAA website). So what, exactly, was Cooper reporting?

Oh well. Gustav never got back to his Cuban glory, even out in the middle of the "bath tub," as the weather guys call the deep, warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Don't ask me why. He eased up to a Cat-2 when he came ashore. I think he pulled his punches, frankly. The thing is, he and his sibling hurricanes know their records are tainted at this point. Hurricanes Betsy, Donna, even Andrew, operated under the old regime of the "dead ball," before global warming really kicked in. Gus, Hanna, eventually Ike (you'll start hearing about him soon), work with the juice of higher ocean temperatures, and they know they'll never get full respect. If Betsy was a Babe Ruth among classic hurricanes, Gus was Barry Bonds. He's just a Tropical Depression at this point, dropping the rest of the water he picked up over the Gulf, blowing himself out.

The thing is, despite all the false expectations created for him by CNN, by their secret wish he would hit New Orleans head-on as a Category 5 and drown the city, I just want him to know I'm still proud of him. He did the best he could.