June 12, 2009

Keeping bad company

Naturally, one problem with trying to be "objective" about President Obama is that you realize, over time, that you're in league with some truly awful people: racists, lunatics, Right Wing "patriots" verging on a form of Fascism. Increasingly, this "objective center" in American life is a mirage - no one really lives there. Charles Krauthammer, one of the Washington Post's big name columnists, writes this today:

"Not that Obama considers himself divine. (He sees himself as merely messianic, or, at worst, apostolic.) But he does position himself as hovering above mere mortals, mere country, to gaze benignly upon the darkling plain beneath him where ignorant armies clash by night, blind to the common humanity that only he can see."

That's how Krauthammer responds to Obama's Cairo speech, and in particular to the President's reference to the CIA coup in Iran in 1953. This piece of historical honesty enraged Krauthammer, predictably enough, and it sent him into a tirade about "false equivalencies" in the Obama speech. Everything which has ever occurred in the Muslim world has been horrific whereas any mistakes ever made by the United States have been trivial and the result of good intentions with unfortunate outcomes. In essence, that's his argument, proof that the Right's ideas of American Exceptionalism have not changed at all since the days of Mario Savio. We're good, they're bad.

Krauthammer goes so far as to suggest that Obama's speech raises a question about Obama's "ambivalence" about his own country. You see, you can't be an effective leader unless you're as jingoist as Charles Krauthammer. But even more, look at the language in the quote: isn't this simply the fancy-pants (and sort of indirect) way of calling Barack Obama an uppity Negro?

Of course it is. And this is the problem with objectivity in America. Barack tried it in Cairo and this is the reception he gets. If I had one moment of Barack's time, I think what I would tell him to do is to simply and absolutely forget any kind of overture toward the Right. Don't even try it anymore.

More than any other writer I know, Glenn Greenwald has demonstrated over and over again that the American public is more "progressive" and liberal than the Beltway conventional wisdom. The Washington insiders repeated over and over again, for example, that the public would never stand still for defunding the war in Iraq, even while rigorous poll after poll demonstrated the exact opposite to be the case - the American people were way ahead of the Washinton establishment on this issue. I think sometimes that Barack's focus on the equally absurd war in Afghanistan results from a similar Beltway calculation, that the "American people" favor this endless overreaction to 9-11, and even if it's been going on for 8 years and shows no sign of abating, nor shows any sign of progress, the American people just won't abide a cessation of this battle. And it makes Barack look like a "war President."

I actually think what goes on is that Obama and Rahm and the other White House thinkers believe that they won't be able to withstand the withering attacks from the Right, from Fox News and the Washington Times, et cetera ad nauseum, if they were to take the commonsense measure of ceasing hostilities that do us no good. Yet what is the relevance of the "Right" or of Republicans generally if they have lapsed, as they have, into inchoherent lunacy and extremism? Who cares? Why is Obama kowtowing to people who cannot be reasoned with and who consider him "messianic" for trying?

Obama won a HUGE victory in November, and he won it because he seemed so different from what the American people had grown sick of. I wish he would take the obvious lesson from that message. It literally doesn't matter what Krauthammer, or Bill Kristol or Rush Limabaugh or Newt Gingrich or Sarah Palin or Bill O'Reilly or any of these people think - not at all. The only relevance they have is a gift from the "center:" the extent to which rational people pay any attention to them or make any effort to placate them.

June 11, 2009

Those Kodak Moments from the Bush Era

Although I was asked recently for my opinion on this Big Question of whether the most recent batch of torture photos should be released, or suppressed along the lines demanded by Senators Joe Losingit,man (Idiopathic, CT) and Lindsey Ismybutttoobig Graham (R, Deep Closet), I have demurred from so opining. Until now, I guess. Barack is with the two stalwart Defenders of the Troops on this one, whereas the ACLU is the other way.  The ACLU won their FOIA case so the proposed Congressional intervention, actually, amounts to a kind of bill of attainder of the sort used in the Terry Schiavo case, a special statutory enactment to reverse a result in a specific lawsuit.  What the hell - it's not as if the Constitution matters anymore.

The court ruled that the FOIA exceptions for national security had not been demonstrated by the Department of Defense.  Obama, Losingit,man and Graham, on the other side, contend that the photos amount to cumulative evidence of things we already know about, and if the photos are released, the troops in harm's way in Iraq and Afghanistan
 will be endangered more than they're endangered already by fighting completely pointless, inflammatory wars in very hostile territory.  

Obama's position represents a reversal of his earlier decision in favor of disclosure.  That's okay with me.  Changing his mind, I mean.  His predecessor prided himself on often being in error but always resolute.  Bush never changed his mind simply because all of the facts and the rationale for his earlier decision had vanished.  W just wasn't that wishy-washy.  But Barack says, on further review, that we don't really need to disclose another photo album full of naked Arabs being humiliated, led around on leashes, piled up in pyramids, and probably much worse.  If these photos get out, then we can expect more roadside explosions, more random attacks on U.S. soldiers, and increased overall murder & mayhem.

I think that's probably right.  I doubt that we'd learn anything materially new.  The sado-homoerotic excesses of the Bush/Cheney/Rumsfeld years have been well documented already. They messed with these Arabs not to "break" them or to elicit valuable information, but because they got off on it.  Of course, that's the whole problem.  It's why these photos would be so inflammatory - those subjected to this sort of humiliation and their countrymen are going to explode if this documentary evidence sees the light of day because they know how pointless, gratuitous and frigging sick all of that stuff was, and they're under no illusions it was the work of a few bad apples.

The White House, in league with Senators Losingit,man and Graham, have the advantage of arguing now that these photographs are of historical interest only because the Obama Administration doesn't do that sort of thing.  They abide by the Geneva Conventions and the Army Field Manual in handling detainees, with the small possible glitch of detaining people for life without charges and without even necessarily believing that any case could be proved. Nobody's perfect.  Still, point for their side.  The ACLU's argument is simpler: we won our FOIA case and the Administration is stonewalling.

The morality of the situation is somewhat ambiguous.  The Administration's argument amounts to a claim that these photographs are the best proof of abuse and provide clear, graphic evidence of what we did to detainees.  Providing this clear proof to the Arab world will make them angry about things we actually did, as demonstrated by the photos.  So we must not provide this evidence to the world at large, because then all U.S. soldiers, even that great majority who have had no part in the abuse, will be at greater risk.

I guess where I come out on this is that there just doesn't seem to be a heroic stand to take.  I think both wars are pointless in the first place, and the invasions have been accompanied by hideous, flagrant and unnecessary human rights violations, which we would like to cover up to the extent still possible.  That's our moral position.  It seems like a long way from Nuremburg. Still, what good does it do to get more U.S. soldiers killed in an effort to make a "clean breast" of something which cannot be exorcised?  More guys come home in coffins, more Arabs die in the gunfights and explosions which follow, and all to prove what we already know.  

I suppose that's the intellectual and emotional journey that Barack Obama followed in arriving where he did.  Nothing very uplifting about it.  Interference with the processes of law, a coverup and suppressed evidence.  Yippee.

June 10, 2009

Single Payer for the Single Citizenship Citizen

A college buddy of mine just left for an extended visit to Europe, including a stay in his new country of citizenship, Ireland.  He's become a dual, courtesy of the ancestor-based invitations from such countries as Ireland, Italy and Greece, which recognize lineage as a basis for naturalization. Probably part of a family feel in those places, plus Italy and Ireland, at least, suffer from chronic depopulation problems and brain drains, so recruitment of those nostalgic about the Old Sod (and who might have some money to spend during their legally-unlimited stays) is not a bad investment. The dual citizen gets an EU passport, recognized in 27 countries as a basis for residence and employment.  So maybe the new Irishman will stay indefinitely if he finds work. The odds over there can't be a lot worse than here.

Meanwhile, back on the New Sod, I was listening yesterday to the Big Ed Shultz Show on "progressive" radio.  Big Eddie's been whipping his listeners into a frenzy about the Single Payer issue that may or not be on the table for discussion by Congress.  Ed used to host a fishing and hunting TV show in the Midwest somewhere, sort of a Marlin Perkins in a motor boat thing, I guess, with lots of closeups of Ed netting a bass.  I don't really know.  Big Eddie doesn't know much about health insurance, or national politics for that matter, but he has very strong opinions.  He's one of those guys whose career in opinion-flogging was given a huge boost by George W. Bush.  That, at least, must be said for W - he was so outrageously bad and incompetent, so disgraceful, that millions of Americans had their consciousnesses raised politically, and half-assed bloviators like Big Ed rushed in to fill the vacuum.

Yesterday Ed let a guy rant and rave for about ten minutes on the failure of Congress ever, ever to do anything for the "little guy," by which I think he meant (in the midst of his hyperventilating) a middle class American, that vanishing species.  This is true, of course.  If you're in your prime working years, earn any kind of living, are not a government employee or in the military, you will essentially receive nothing from the government other than the basic services (roads, infrastructure, public education) received by everyone else.  I am personally a piece of evidence for this truth.  I'll receive Social Security someday (a vestige of the Roosevelt Administration) and qualify for Medicare (from Johnson's Great Society), and that's it.

My medical insurance premiums are $718 per month with a $5,000 deductible.  The premiums have doubled in the last two years, although I have never submitted a claim for medical treatment at any point during the last twenty years or so, and I use twenty because I can't remember back any further than that.  To receive an insurance "benefit" I would have to go out-of-pocket $13,000 during a calendar year.  This is my biggest monthly expense.  

It's the way we do things here in our Darwinist Sparta.  The caller was right, of course, that Congress does not do any thing for the little guy, but it never has. If you're poor or disabled, you can receive benefits under some circumstances.  If you're middle class and get sick, you may go bankrupt whether you have medical insurance or not.  Medical bills are the cause of 62% of all personal bankruptcies in the United States, yet in 75% of those situations, the bankrupt is insured.  I'll do the math for you, since other blogs don't necessarily do so: that means that in about 46.5% of all bankruptcies, medical bills incurred by an insured person cause the b/k.

Thus the clamor for Single Payer, or Socialized Medicine, to call it by its real name.  Naturally, such a program cannot arrive on the scene full-blown; it must be introduced by stealth, in the form of the "public option" which Cigna/Aetna/Blue Cross and Senator Max Boughtman (I hope you're reading this every day) are desperately trying to ward off.  Obviously, a public option could probably match what amounts to a yearly $13,000 deductible, and since most people hate their medical insurers (I know I do - just reading their nauseating, shameless, cloying, disingenuous, dishonest letter explaining the latest rate hike was almost enough to send me to the emergency room, which may actually be covered despite the deductible), insureds would abandon Blue Shield and Aetna in droves at the first opportunity.  Thus, the $20 million annual salary of some of the CEO's at these big companies would endure a kind of "stress test."

The stakes are high and corruption is likely to kick into even higher gear.  I don't think Prez O will succeed in any kind of meaningful reform this time around, and his presidency will begin to fade some time later this year because of this failure.  It's just too easy for the Senate, in particular, to block him, loaded up as it is with pro-insurer Republicans and corrupt Democrats. Johnson was able to get his monumental Great Society through Congress because he played the hardest kind of hardball - famous for saying that a solon's "pecker was in his pocket." That's the only way to get a corrupt politician to move - scare the hell out of him.  This is not Obama's way, and since he actually only spent two years in the Senate (unlike Johnson, who had been the Majority Leader), I don't think he knows how to play the right games or knows enough about where the bodies are buried.

We'll get something, a "public option" that no one, unfortunately, qualifies for, in much the same way that "foreclosure" relief was unavailable to any "little guy" who actually needed the help - that is, if you were behind on your payments, you couldn't get government help, which is to say, you could only get foreclosure relief if you weren't in foreclosure.  This public option will have some devilishly clever small-print detail, rather like the "donut" in the Plan D Medicare benefit, which makes it functionally useless and defangs it as a threat to for-profit medicine.

But at least we're "safe," sort of, or at least we're led to think so. If you die because you can't afford treatment, at least you'll do so behind fortress walls, and not in some place like Ireland or Italy, where they would take care of you but can't protect you from the jihadi.

June 09, 2009

Washington as a company town

Well, O knocked 'em dead over in Egypt and France, so much so that I've been thinking I should go through the archives here at the Pond and purge any negative reference to The One, the better to increase the favorable receipt of my resume at the White House in case I want a job in the West Wing.  I've been thinking maybe I could be Special Assistant to the President in Charge of Funny Names.  I've got a new one, by the way, a moniker for Max Baucus, the Senator from Aetna/Cigna/Blue Cross -  Max Boughtman.  Not bad, huh?  To go with Mr. Mumbles (Harry Reid), La Diva (Nancy Pelosi), Lindsey "Is-My-Butt-Too-Big?" Graham, et alia.  

Barack's only serious failing is that he arrived kind of late in history.  I think he means well, and he's a classy guy.  It was good that America finally elected a minority, especially an African-American, to the nation's highest office, even if we waited until what may prove to be the waning days of the Empire.  Naturally, a black man capable of election by the general population in this country is not going to be Street; you know, like Stokeley Carmichael, one of my favorites from the Civil Rights Movement.  Man, that guy could bring it.  Barack reminds me more of Leopold Senghor (pictured above), the poet, academic, and political leader of Senegalese liberation from colonialism.  Cool, sophisticated, kinda French (where he was educated and where one of his wives was from - Normandy, in fact).  Stokeley, on the other hand, was with the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee ("Snick"), got involved with the Black Panthers, and was altogether too hot for general acceptance.

It's probably true that Barack did not actually spend enough time in Washington's milieu before he became President.  Realistically, maybe 4 years, and then he started running for President full-time.  He had his eye on the prize.  I think what he's coming up against is the basic reality of Washington, D.C.  The business of the federal government, when you get right down to it, is the care and feeding of the military establishment, or in Eisenhower's phrase, the military-industrial complex.  Here he is now submitting his own "supplemental" for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, to the tune of maybe $100 billion when all is said and done.  The Republicans, faithful rubber-stampers when Bush was in office, will fight him on the bill because they've discovered a new, deep belief in fiscal prudence, so the ridiculous spectacle of the "anti-war" Nancy Pelosi marshalling her Demo charges to get "Barack's war budget" through the House will now entertain us.

If this sounds insane, it's because it is.  The Republicans, of course, are not against the war, are not for fiscal prudence, and actually want to do everything they can to keep the money flowing to the Pentagon, to defense contractors and to their lobbyist friends.  But they can safely fight Obama's war budget because the Democrats can't afford to have Barack defeated on the funding necessary to "wind down" the war in Iraq and rev up the war in Afghanistan, which he calls a war of necessity.  Or did in Cairo, anyway.  So the Democrats now have their war, but the main thing, probably, is that whichever party is in power, some war or other is going to be "necessary."

Wars are good for a major American industry, that industry being war itself.  The United States is on a permanent war footing, and the MIC spending necessary to support it sops up most of what the federal government calls its discretionary budget.  About half the money Congress "spends" each year, after all, is simply the in-and-out of the entitlement programs, which have their own dedicated tax systems and have been self-supporting.  These programs are of no real interest to Congress.  The discretionary half is where the action is, and about 64% of this goes to the MIC.  So peacenik Senators like Barbara Boxer are nevertheless thrilled that the Pentagon is moving ahead with plans to build a redundant aircraft like the C-17, which is built, coincidentally, in California, and the equally useless and unnecessary B-22 is built in Georgia, so Saxby Chambliss will champion that one.

Useful programs like socialized medicine for the public at large do not have a constituency large enough to change this inertial force, so they're doomed to failure.  This is the essential difference between the U.S. and countries such as France and Germany, which have broad social safety nets but without the concomitant burden of a huge military establishment.  Trying to "Europeanize" the U.S. is doubtless beyond even the rhetorical skills of Barack Obama, and even Leopold or Stokeley would struggle with that one.  Wars R Us.  Constant war keeps all that military spending credible (it flagged under Clinton because he just didn't have anyone he could rationally engage in a large land war), it keeps army recruitments up in a time of general unemployment, it enables lots of medal ceremonies and promotions, gives a raison d'etre to West Point and Annapolis, to use a phrase Monsieur Senghor might have employed. Selling weapons remains one of our better export businesses, after all, and it doesn't have much company.  So that in the same sense that New York is the financial capital of the U.S., and Los Angeles the movie industry's center, Washington is war headquarters central.  It's what they do there, one way or another.  We've been fighting wars so long no one can even remember why we're doing it anymore.

My guess is we'll keep it up till it breaks us, which, actually, might not be that far off.