January 23, 2009

Blogito, Ergo Sum

Naturally a compulsive blogger such as myself is given pause by the Advent of the O.  Does it usher in a new Era of Good Feeling where my admittedly satirical instincts will be inappropriate, even mean spirited?  Maybe so.  I take heart, however, in early signs from the Obama Administration that many of the lampoonable features of the Bush years will survive in the Years of Change.

As one example, I am indebted to Chris Kelly for pointing out that Obama has already violated his own proscription regarding the "revolving door" between private industry lobbying and government service. And not just in a minor, marginally-relevant way: William Lynn, his choice for Deputy Defense Secretary, was the Vice President of Raytheon, and its government liaison, until Thursday of last week.  This falls somewhat short of the two-year blackout period of The O's new ethics rules; indeed, the ink was still drying on the rules when Lynn was tapped for a big new job where he can help decide whether new defense contracts ought to be signed with, oh, say Raytheon, the huge defense contractor.

This isn't just Change we can believe in; this is Change we can blog about.  And despite Barack's well-intentioned promises about avoiding a "Christmas Tree" approach in the "stimulus bill," the CongressClowns are already loading the thing up with baubles and trinkets for their constituents back home.  It does bring to mind the old joke about the shark who offers to help the castaway get from his leaking boat to shore, then eats the man halfway there.  "Why?" is the dying man's last word.  "Because it's my nature," answers the shark.

So asking the Clown Troupe to set aside partisan bickering, self-interest, obeisance to their corporate sponsors who buy their reelections, a chance to grandstand -- Obama & Biden (who surely knew better) were asking these people to act contrary to their nature.  In the face of the most gigantic appropriation bill in American history, with an opportunity to broadcast money like a farmer sowing the fields, was there any chance that Congress would actually exercise restraint simply for the sake of saving the country?

Of course not.  They can't.  One of the hardest lessons to take in, to internalize and believe, is that modern American legislators are careerists.  They are not otherwise successful lawyers, entrepreneurs, doctors, et alia, simply on leave from the private sector where they can make some real money.  These federal gigs are as good as it gets for them, and they hold on to their seats with a death grip.  As the U.S.A. has progressed toward Banana Republicanism, one feature we have come to share with those emerging African and Latin American republics of forty and fifty years ago is that the "civil service" is where the money is.  The "real economy" is an uncertain, scary place where businesses fail left and right, where jobs are scarce, where one lives by one's wits. Contrast this sorry state of affairs with a CongressClown with a full staff, a travel allowance, a salary approaching $200K, guaranteed health care, perks galore.  So their basic "cultural" norm is simple: don't do anything heroic or stupid to get yourself unelected.  Keep your face in front of the camera when some new gewgaw gets signed, appear on C-Span when your committee conducts a hearing, do what the corporate lobbyists tell you to do (let them write your bills, in fact, they're better at it), and spread the money around back home.  And you're good to go.

This behavior is the ultimate Bipartisanship, and its ubiquity is why bloggers will never run out of stuff to write about.  The satirical point of entry is Mark Twain's: "Congress is America's only distinct criminal class."  As things get worse in the Real World, the Clowns become more determined than ever to hang on to their jobs.  One can begin to appreciate why George W. Bush became such a pariah among Republicans, why they refused to be photographed in the same state he was visiting.  He screwed up the game for the Red Team and allowed the ascendancy of the Blues.

But be careful what you wish for.  The Blues now have such a dominant position that the real chance the whole economy could go in the dumper poses an existential peril.  This is not what they signed on for, but if they don't come through, it could be Game Over.  Then what?  They'd have to go back to living (gulp) in America.

January 22, 2009

Talking about prosecuting war criminals and other ways of pretending to care

We come now to the curious case of Senator John Cornyn of Texas, who is holdng up the confirmation of President Obama's choice for Attorney General, Eric Holder, until Mr. Holder comes clean on whether he intends to prosecute Americans for torture.  Since we live in Wonderland, you of course already know that Cornyn needs to be reassured that Holder won't. 

"Part of my concern, frankly, relates to some of his statements at the hearing in regard to torture and what his intentions are with regard to intelligence personnel who were operating in good faith based upon what their understandng of what the law was," Cornyn said yesterday. 

What Cornyn is trying to say is that both the Detainee Treatment Act of 2005 and the Military Commissions Act of 2006 retroactively provide defenses to those who might otherwise be charged with war crimes or Geneva Convention violations; these might loosely be called "state of mind" defenses, and Cornyn is pretending to be worked up at the prospect of a new Administration nullifying the august and sacred pronouncements of the Senate in carefully "crafting" these loopholes.

You know -- as if.  Senator John, whose law degree from someplace called St. Mary's College in Texas probably does not entitle him to lecture Yale's Eric Holder about how to read criminal statutes, especially since Holder is an actual lawyer and Cornyn is another in an endless series of Lone Star Bullshitters, doesn't care about "intelligence personnel."  Cornyn is holding down the fort for Bush and trying to flush Holder out on whether he's going to prosecute the Big Dog.  Obama, Holder, and the American Public are not going to sit still for another Abu Ghraib bottom-feeding exercise where the Justice Dept. goes after some low-level staffer as a "bad apple." If the procedure of tying an Arab down to a table and pouring water into his lungs was the officially sanctioned policy approved by the "Principals" in the Situation Room, as reported, then there's your target.  Otherwise, forget it.

But it's nice of Cornyn to help Bush decide, while things are still up in the air for the ex-Preznit, between settling down on a ranch near Crawford or un rancho cerca de Asuncion.  But not to worry, W.  You're feeling a little vulnerable right now and your native paranoia has your mind working overtime.  But it's all good.  I know my fellow Americans, and this will all pass.  This is just a fun game for us.  It's all so dramatic  -- torture!  It allows us to pretend to care about other humans (even Arabs!), to simulate concern for our "standing" in the world, and even to feign reverence for the "rule of law."

Oh for crying out loud.  What a bunch of malarkey.  Obama knows it too, which is why he's settled into this "looking forward" mantra as a way to deflect the temporary mania for vengeance. Pres. O has one great gift: an unerring feel for the Zeitgeist.  He knows what works and what don't.  It's why he knew he could get away with Rick Warren and with voting for telecom immunity. And he knows that Americans don't want to see former presidents, vice presidents, attorneys general, secretaries of state or defense, or anyone else prosecuted as war criminals.

It isn't going to happen.  So let it go, Glenn Greenwald, Keith Olbermann, Dahlia Lithwick.  O can't go for that, no can do.  Now it's true that the international Convention Against Torture, signed by President Reagan and with the force of a treaty within the United States (thus: the supreme law of the land under Article 6 of the Constitution) requires us to prosecute torture against anyone found within our borders who is suspected of having engaged in it, with no excusing circumstances such as necessity, peril or anything else. The Convention is quite explicit and unqualified in demanding compliance from its signatories. But seriously folks, we also signed the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, the Anti-Ballistic Missile Treaty and the U.N. Charter, and did that stop us from, respectively, (a) selling fissile materials and nuclear technology to India, a non-NPT party, or (b) unilaterally abrogating the ABM Treaty with Russia or (c) invading Iraq?  Hell no.

So our vaunted "respect" for international law and our "deep concern" about our international standing are simply more cudgels we use for domestic purposes, namely, to beat up on each other.  Americans are smug, indifferent, insular scofflaws whose sleep is never disturbed by any such considerations.  And this same mass media-mediated state of semi-consciousness we call our national "conscience" is not going to arouse us to prosecute anyone for torturing Arabs.  We wouldn't prosecute Jack Bauer, would we?  Of course not.  And he's a real TV character.

January 20, 2009

New Reality, Just Like the Old Reality

I imagine that at some point later in the day, maybe after he woke up from a nap aboard his flight to Texas, someone tentatively explained to George W. Bush that he had been dissed by the following passage in President Obama's inaugural speech: 

As for our common defense, we reject as false the choice between our safety and our ideals. Our Founding Fathers, faced with perils we can scarcely imagine, drafted a charter to assure the rule of law and the rights of man, a charter expanded by the blood of generations. Those ideals still light the world, and we will not give them up for expedience's sake. And so to all other peoples and governments who are watching today, from the grandest capitals to the small village where my father was born: know that America is a friend of each nation and every man, woman, and child who seeks a future of peace and dignity, and that we are ready to lead once more.

Recall that earlier generations faced down fascism and communism not just with missiles and tanks, but with sturdy alliances and enduring convictions. They understood that our power alone cannot protect us, nor does it entitle us to do as we please. Instead, they knew that our power grows through its prudent use; our security emanates from the justness of our cause, the force of our example, the tempering qualities of humility and restraint.

It was kind of the new President to use a word like "expedience," which was guaranteed to go over the former President's head.  It allowed Bush, at least while he sat on stage, to remain blissfully unaware that the major operative principle of his presidency (the Unitary Theory, under which he could do anything he wanted) had just been trashed.  Although it must be pointed out that O's hortatory examples are in fact false.  During World War II President Roosevelt rounded up, dispossessed, and shipped off to concentration camps thousands of innocent Americans of Japanese ancestry.  So American ethnocentrism and unconstitutional oppression of target groups have been around for a long time.  There was no "humility and restraint" about jailing the Japanese at Manzanar, Tule Lake and elsewhere, and after their ordeal was over, there was nothing "just" about compounding this disgraceful episode by refusing to return to them their houses, cars, fishing boats, businesses and other stolen property.  But it sounded so good to put Bush down by comparing him to an imaginary, idealized tradition.  If we want to commend ourselves, it would perhaps be better to argue that our concentration camps, such as Manzanar and Guantanamo have been "nice" (or "first rate," in Wheelchair Dick's description) compared to the Soviet Gulag or Auschwitz, and let it go at that. Our concentration camps are still monstrosities of injustice, they still completely ruin the lives of their inmates, but we're "good," as Bush always argued, and in a sense he's right.  We're much better in our injustice than Stalin or Hitler and for that we should commend ourselves.

Just as a general proposition, on the other hand, we might want to introduce the concept of realism as we move forward and give up once and for all the idea of American Exceptionalism because it's only getting in the way.  One way of looking at our economic problems, which are huge, is that they reflect that reality.  I think there is a lingering feeling that the object of Obama's "recovery" plan is to restore America to that level of wealth and prosperity which it seemed to enjoy at the height of the housing bubble in 2006.  This is entirely chimerical.  In corporate law the concept of "watered stock," a term which has surprisingly fallen out of general use, refers to common stock where the total worth of such stock is less than the capital investment in the corporation. When the "water" is squeezed out of the nominal value of the stock, it more closely approximates the true financial position of the company.  

The national epidemic of upside-down loans, of negative equity, of foreclosures, of plummeting commercial real estate, of ravaged financial statements at all the major banks, the trashed Dow Jones -- these are all signs of that squeezing process. We're about 40% down across the board, and it is futile to attempt to reinflate the bubble which sustained our artificial level of wealth because it relied on conditions which will not be repeated.  

I think President O gets all this; unlike the idiot who preceded him, Obama thinks rationally and arrives at consensus reality the way smart people usually do.  He's not a "free market" ideologue who worships at the throne of Milton Friedman.  I think he'll do what can be done to transform the American economy, but he's going to meet with powerful resistance from the tiny sliver of America's business world who profited from the Bush/Clinton Casino days and the legislators who work for them. But great men are those who meet great challenges and succeed against all odds.  You go, O.

January 19, 2009

Lessons from MLK

This is my own photograph of the Dr. King mural in the basement of the Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church in Montgomery, Alabama.  Martin Luther King, Jr. served as pastor there from 1954 to 1960, in the earliest days of the Civil Rights Movement.  I stood looking at the mural for a long time one afternoon in April, 2004, in the course of a long drive across the United States and through my distant memories of the Deep South. I was emotionally overcome by the sheer power of the art; the painting is simple, direct, but it contains everything.  You can see Rosa Parks, the buses organized by Dr. King as an alternative to the segregated buses of Montgomery, George Wallace, the Klan, the Capitol just up the street.  It was a quiet afternoon in this little museum, this shrine to Dr. King.  I was just about the only patron, and it felt almost silly to stand there with tears rolling down my cheeks. Almost, but not really.

Dr. King was that rarest of humans, a truly great man.  A noble being.  He graced our lives during his short span on Earth, gave us an insight into what true courage looks like.  How to stand up to evil power when you really don't know if you'll win or not, whether you even stand a chance.  He was, of course, the greatest orator in the history of America.  There are really no close seconds.  He was to public speaking what Muhammed Ali was to boxing, Jordan to basketball, Beethoven to the symphony. Simply in a class by himself..  He was as well a deep and courageous writer, a powerful and complex thinker, a visionary.

It is just and fitting that Barack Obama should be inaugurated the day after Dr. King's birthday, the national holiday finally installed after a battle with old guard racists like Dick Cheney and John McCain, who doggedly fought it.  Barack's ascension is in a sense the end of Dr. King's journey, the final resting place for the march that began on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma so long ago.  I know that Barack Obama reveres and emulates Dr. King, that he has internalized some of King's oratorical flourishes and cadences, and that his attitude of nonviolent inclusiveness is modeled on King, to a certain degree. It's important, however, to recall that Barack Obama got to the mountain top by a route different from that traveled by Dr. King.  Martin Luther King suffered through the sweltering heat of Southern racial bigotry and segregation, played always with a deck stacked against him,and came from nothing to become the unrivaled leader of the Civil Rights Movement.  I think Barack Obama still has to learn some of the things that Dr. King instinctively knew from the cradle.  If Barack really wants to be the "People's President," he's going to have to learn how to piss people off sometimes, to challenge their sense of power and supremacy.  Not all, not even most, opposition can be charmed and mollified.  He's taking on a power structure that is dedicated and consecrated, more than anything else, to the preservation of the perogatives of the very rich: tax structure, government funding of the military-industrial complex, health care - over the last 30 years, it has all been set up to serve their interests.  They are not going to give Barack what he says he wants; he's going to have to take it.

That's what Martin Luther King did.  He gladly accepted the help and good wishes of the sympathetic and well-intentioned.  And as to those who opposed him and his cause, he took it to the street.

January 18, 2009

And Now for the Future

My recent screed on George W. Bush will be my last.  At this point (well before this point, really) we have crossed the line of diminishing returns in talking about W.  He was never that personally interesting; he was only interesting as a phenomenon, to wit, how could an advanced country, the world leader in so many ways, find itself in the position of having Bush as its President? Herein lie the disturbing riddle and the question fraught with significance.  

As a parting shot, I would only say that in some ways Bush was the Opposite President, in the same way that Opposite George once served as the theme of a Seinfeld episode.  Bush's particular gift was to achieve disaster when the aleatory processes of flipping a coin or using a Magic 8-Ball would have assured him of at least a 50% better overall result. For example, presented with the famous PDB of August, 2001, if Bush had asked his Magic 8-Ball, is this a serious threat?, and the Swami within had answered, "As I see it, yes," Bush would have demanded a follow-up to FBI reports that probably would have thwarted the 9-11 plot.  Or, after various experts had expressed opinions on the presence of WMD in Iraq, a shake of the Ball might have floated up, "My sources say no."  Was the Mission Accomplished in May, 2003?  "Outlook not so good."

Et cetera.  On his way to the worst approval ratings in American history, Bush defied probability theory by achieving bad results which are almost statistically impossible.

We will no longer have this kind of diversion.  If America continues to flounder, to go broke, to obstruct the greatly-needed changes in our energy regime and approach to environmental crises (chief of which is climate change), then we will not be able to simply blame the leadership.  Our failure will reflect something far more sinister about American society, something hinted at by its election of Bush in the first place, of course, but will confirm how deep the problems run.  Did we become too greedy, too under-educated, too distracted by shiny baubles, too distorted by ideas of American Exceptionalism to see straight anymore?  The election of O militates against such sweeping generalizations, as Obama himself points out.  Americans actually did rise up, in astonishing numbers, to meet the fierce urgency of Now.

Obama is everything that Bush was not: sane, organized, reasonable, informed, hard-working, forward-thinking, non-delusional, ego-realistic, inclusive, collegial, intellectually competent and confident -- in his own way, O is the Opposite W. Objective science will again be accepted as the basis for public policy involving science.  The U.S. Constitution will again be used as the legal framework for American government. Once the United States becomes acquainted again with Objective Reality, instead of forced to make decisions on the basis of apparitions appearing only to Bush, then we can take steps appropriate to dealing with that reality.  

I think Barack Obama will have to take a considerable amount of time to come to terms with what's he dealing with, but at least progress is now possible. Anyway, there is not much upside in looking back.  I do feel for the kids who, for the sake of an arithmetically simple example, are now 16 years old and have spent half their lives under the bumbling, corrupt leadership of Bush. Their public consciousness, in other words, was formed on the basis of what they saw and heard from Bush and his cronies. In my own youth, Eisenhower and Kennedy were the Presidents during similar passages, sane, emotionally complete men who obviously cared about the country and did not use the position as a place to work out the tiresome Oedipal dramas of their own inner demons.  I will assure our youth that you will now see what the country is like when someone who worked hard to become President and is a decent human being takes control.

I'm trying to remember what it was like myself.