January 05, 2010

The Irresistible Rise of Arturo We

Sometimes it seems that there has been a Zelig quality to my life, an accidental placement of myself at the scene of some historically significant event which I did not appreciate at the time was of such moment. As one example, I was working at Cowell Hospital on the Berkeley campus the day that Governor Ronald Reagan ordered the student body bombed with tear gas. I helped the nurses as we ran from room to room closing the double-hung windows on the second floor to protect the patients, some of whom were pretty sick already, after all.

And in the early 1970's, by an odd confluence of events, I was in West Berlin, and watched a performance of Bertolt Brecht's "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui," the German playwright's satire on the coming of the Third Reich. Brecht used a Chicago setting for his strange play, which analogized Hitler and his cronies to American Mafiosi. My German at the time was just good enough to follow most of the story, but it was pretty obvious anyway what was going on. The Hitler character (Arturo Ui) was hilariously over-dramatic and histrionic. Brecht's point was that there was no essential difference between Hitler's politics and the methods of organized crime. Both relied on brute force, intimidation and the uses of corruption.

So the 1970s passed, then the Eighties, then the Nineties. As with all of my contemporaries, I came of age during a particularly blessed era in American history. The U.S. was the great superpower democracy of the post-war age, with abundant wealth and unmatched power. It was in the process of perfecting its democracy through the Civil Rights Movement and the expansion of social safety nets. My generation can be forgiven for thinking that the United States which existed during this particular period was in some sense an unalterable condition. America was the way it was, and always would be.

That America doesn't really exist anymore. We were lulled into a false sense of security by accidents of history, and mistook the exceptional for the norm. Over the last ten years, without a doubt, America has made its own progress toward gangster politics and a gangster economy. I don't know what Brecht would say about us, but he would surely recognize the signs. The essential fusion between the federal government and Big Business. The outrageous disparity in wealth between the elites and the common man. The exemption of political and business elites from the rule of law, while the commoners are incarcerated at a rate which exceeds the per capita incidence of any other country in the world.

We live now in a lawless state which would have been unthinkable twenty years ago. I suppose that's what shocked me first and foremost about Obama's presidency: his easy acquiescence in the extra-legal and unconstitutional precedents of the Bush Administration. The routine, casual denials of due process to foreigners. The pick-and-choose style of deciding how much justice a person ought to get, depending on whim. The complete control over the legislative process by Big Business agents. The invasions and expansions of wars with or without Congressional approval or consultation. We just bomb and attack where we feel like it now, with no notice and no fanfare. War is routine and unending.

The government and the semi-private financial behemoth the Federal Reserve now essentially own the American economy. There is no meaningful distinction between the central government and the financial system. The government owns the American mortgage business. On Christmas Eve, thinking no one would really notice, or would not care if they did, the Treasury decided that it would expand its financial support for Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac to infinity, instead of the $200 billion that Congress had approved. No one in Congress said anything. The government owns a controlling interest in the country's largest insurance company. It controls what was formerly the world's largest auto manufacturer. It funds the world's largest military-industrial complex. The Defense Department hires huge numbers of private contractors and mercenaries. Large parts of the penal system are increasingly in private hands, so that a profit motive exists for the incarceration of commoners.

While there are philosophical differences between the two political brands, Democrats and Republicans, they are both vassals of corporate America. Money owns the political system, root and branch. The voting populace, moved about by slogans and issues given an exaggerated importance by their newsworthiness (sex scandals especially, e.g. Spitzer), are manipulated by one party or the other into sustaining their power or taking it away. Right now, the Democrats are in the ascendancy but are losing their grip because the headline issues (unemployment, federal deficits) have moved against them. The Republicans will recover enough seats to assure further stalemate, but nothing will be done for the average citizen after their "comeback."

And so it goes, as Kurt V. used to write. History strongly suggests that regimes in such a decadent shape do not reform themselves through "internal" processes. They are acted upon, in Hitler's case by Soviets from the East, and Allies from the West, but there are many more historical examples of what you might call involuntary devolution.

Watching this process gives me that old Zelig feeling again. I suppose it was all too good to last.

Obama Cracks Whip, Connects Dots

I used to Connect the Dots. Remember those sketch books with pages of heavy pulp paper? You could look at the dots and know before you started that it was a clown or a horse, but it was still thrilling to Connect the Dots and see an actual image that you drew, sort of. I Connected a Lot of Dots in my youth.

The President, confrontation-averse as he may be, is not going to tolerate any more Dis-Connecting the Dots. He ascribes the failure to figure out that the Nigerian Underwear Bomber posed a threat to American airliners to a breakdown in "integrating and analyzing" the intelligence the U.S. already had in its possession. A couple of Dots the intelligence community might have "integrated and analyzed" included the bomber's father calling the U.S. Embassy in Nairobi and telling them, "My son poses a serious threat to your country," and the inconvenient fact that Great Britain had already pulled the bomber's visa before the Christmas incident occurred.

I had the usual sinking feeling that Obama's big meeting today was mostly PR when I heard that about "two dozen" security officials would attend. That's a sure sign it's all show, no go. If you really wanted to figure out where the breakdown happened, you would identify who screwed up before such a photo-op meeting was conducted, haul that person or those people into the Oval Office, and fire their asses. Then you could hold the big meeting and use the prior terminations as an object lesson in the perils of going to sleep on the job. Now that would be reassuring to the rest of us.

"While there will be a tendency for finger pointing, I will not tolerate it," he told the high-level officials, according to the statement.

If that makes any sense, I'm not following it. I'm having trouble Connecting the Dots. Someone or a group of people received specific, incriminating information about the Nigerian Boxer Bomber and did nothing with it. Why wouldn't Obama identify those people and point a finger at them? Of course there's a tendency to do that. It's called figuring out who screwed up. But if you hold a large enough meeting, and include lots of people who obviously had nothing to do with the error, then you can submerge the whole idea of accountability in the feel-good vibe of an Encounter Group. We're all responsible. We'll all have to do better and work together as a team. All of us must Connect the Dots.

Maybe what President O should do is to distribute Terrorist Drawing Books and No. 2 pencils to his field operatives, with Dots marked "trained in Yemen with al-Qaeda," "banned in Great Britain," "father phoned embassy with advice son is terrorist," and then the ops could draw lines and see if it looks like someone ought to be on the No-Fly list, instead of putting people like Ted Kennedy on the list, the way Bush's "Homeland Security" did. Maybe the data points, or Dots, could be arranged so that when they're all Connected, it looks like a mushroom cloud or a stick of dynamite. You know, make it fun. Then maybe the rest of us could have a blanket when we fly the red-eye coast-to-coast in a cabin pressurized at 5,000 feet.