December 31, 2010

Closing thought for 2010

I leave you with this idea, as we see the headlight of Train #2011 appear far down the track, heading toward the station: a constitutional democracy is something of a learned discipline, not so different from the scientific method in some ways. It takes a certain habit of mind, a kind of intellectual persistence to sustain. There is nothing automatic about it. "Serious" people in our society often seem to discount the idea that a democracy such as ours can degenerate into some far less desirable form of polity, but such thinkers suffer from the fallacy known as the normative tendency of the factual. This fallacy inculcates the illusion that the social and political arrangements around us are in some sense permanent and indestructible.

This is not really the truth at all. Democracy is actually the aberration; humans are far more predisposed to arrange themselves into hierarchical systems which are anti-democratic, which repose absolute power in elites accepted either by acclamation or by acquiescence in Divine Right. Looking back over history, and around the world even now, we can see that kings and dictators have been far more plentiful than democratic governments. Such tyrannies are the default position, anthropologically speaking, just as religion is the default position in the absence of a scientific establishment.

What is going on right now in Washington, D.C. is a modern, technologically-driven form of this degeneration. Sheldon Wolin calls it "inverted totalitarianism," Chris Hedges calls it a move from "Brave New World" to the dystopia of "1984." What it doesn't seem much like is the democracy in the United States which existed even twenty years ago. It's true we still have elections, as poorly attended as they are. There are still "sea changes" in our government, even "hope and change," yet you can still discern the inexorable slide toward a government of men and not of laws. If you pay attention, if you don't get caught up over much in partisanship and just observe how almost all of our leaders are behaving, you can see this. It has become the norm to disregard statutory law and the Constitution, most particularly the Bill of Rights. To my way of thinking, this is neither a "liberal" nor a "conservative" position, the act of pointing out this devolutionary process. Absolute power, once it is achieved by elites, is indifferent to "left" or "right." Was National "Socialism" a disease of the "left" or of the "right?" Were Stalin's gulags features of a "leftist" government or a "rightist" dictatorship? What's the difference, really? In neither system did the common person have any rights. Both systems were simply about the exercise of absolute power by those who seized it.

It has become standard practice in Washington never to punish a member of the political/financial/military elite for anything except betrayal of the elite's interests. That is the only crime now. Torture, lying to Congress and the American people in furtherance of a war, routine violations of the Fourth Amendment, suppression of First Amendment rights, fraud on an industrial scale - nothing ever is done about it through the justice system. Wars were launched first without a Declaration as required by Article 1 of the Constitution. Now they are pursued, as in Yemen, without even the token (and constitutionally insufficient) compliance with the War Powers Act. No government official seeks a FISA warrant to spy on us. If Wikileaks is too big a problem for the U.S. government, it employs a specious distinction which does not exist between Julian Assange and Daniel Ellsberg, as far as First Amendment rights are concerned, in order to silence the former while leaving the latter, contradictorily, untarnished as an American hero.

In some way the power elites, as C.Wright Mills called them, have managed to confuse the common American into thinking that patriotism consists in party loyalty and not devotion to the best interests of the country. This is a very clever trick, and one that the Tea Party has completely fallen for. The Tea Party demands that "the Bush tax cuts" be enshrined and perpetuated, without seeming to realize that the evisceration of the U.S. Treasury cannot possibly serve the interests of the middle classers who tend to populate the movement. They cheer on wars that are supposed to keep us "safe," without thinking through that the wars are for the same purpose as the tax cuts, to keep taxpayer money (and the huge borrowing which such dwindling income makes possible) flowing to well-connected defense contractors and war profiteers. The power elites have managed to incite hate between liberals and conservatives by getting them to argue about such things as wars and tax cuts for the rich in symbolic terms - being for war and tax cuts for the wealthy is patriotic; being against such things is subversive and anti-American.

Eventually, when all the bills come due, the commoners always realize they've been had, when intellectual distinctions or the fine points of partisanship are no longer relevant, because the Queen is telling you to eat cake if there isn't enough bread. Then you wind up with France in 1789, or the American colonies in 1776. Or more darkly, Russia in 1917 or Germany in 1933.

While I don't really see how we're going to do it, I hope we begin to figure such things out before events themselves compel the changes. History teaches us that's often a disastrous way to evolve.

December 30, 2010

My fearless predictions for 2011

It's that time of year when all serious writers, or even people like me, cast their eyes toward the future and make meaningless predictions about what is to come. Since no one, including me again, is likely ever to look at this blog to see if I was right, I proceed fearlessly.

First, on the economic front: the leading economic indicators show some recent improvement. Even websites such as zerohedge which depend, for their very existence, on an unabated flow of disastrous econ news have been forced to acknowledge that some things are getting better. Mostly these things are of little benefit to the millions and millions in the abandoned lower and lower-middle classes, those on food stamps, unemployed, scrambling to keep body and soul together. 2011 will be another bad year for them. In the increasingly merciless form of pure capitalism which dominates the American scene, where even Christians believe that if someone is starving he probably deserves it because of character flaws (i.e., insufficient money), we leave the dead and broke behind and move on toward a Darwinist Utopia. Thus, next up: a curtailment of future Social Security benefits, sanctioned by our proto-Republican President in his upcoming State of the Union, and a gradual paring back of Medicare. With a House of Representatives full of Tea Party thinkers, those delegates ensconced by Fat, Dumb & Busted Americans trained to vote against their own economic interest, the entitlement programs will at last be under serious attack.

The American standard of living, based for the last thirty years or so on the housing market and house-as-ATM and retirement plan, will continue its inexorable sagging toward an Asian (Chinese) mean. There can be no miracles in this regard, folks. Prosperity depends on most people having a good, productive job, and we've sent most of those away. The housing market no longer takes up the slack; thus, how do we continue the consumer jubilee? The best we can hope for is that the descent is more gradual and less disruptive, as Americans adjust to their new, lower station in life. The Federal Reserve seems as though it's beginning to get the message, that the housing bubble cannot be reinflated without ruinous debasement of the U.S. dollar.

My reading, listening and watching lead me to believe that the next major economic hurdle facing the U.S. of A. is the insolvency of its constituent parts, that is, the states. The states and local governments are going to have to choose between paying their current and former (pension) payrolls or paying their bondholders. Big, populous states such as California, Illinois, and New York are involved in such excruciating calculi. I think this is where the Federal Reserve, having ridden to the rescue of Wall Street and Europe during 2008 to 2010, will next focus the powerful beam of its Magical Money Hallucination Generator. The Fed will "purchase" state and municipal bonds to stop a wave of defaults which will otherwise bring the roof down on the populace's heads. This at least is a more manageable job than the previous attempt to reinflate the housing bubble. Probably a trillion or two, chump change in Bernanke's world, will do the trick and buy the states and cities time to bring their programs into line with the general lowered expectations of America as a whole. Bernanke's willingness to conjure money out of thin air and to "appropriate" dough where the skinflint new Congress will not will of course cause all kinds of political convulsions, and that will be a big story line next year, especially with Ron Paul riding herd on the Fed. But we've all gotten used to doing things in a completely illegal, unconstitutional way, and it just doesn't matter anymore.

And as for war, and rumors of war: Obama may actually propose a budget for this (2012) fiscal year, unlike last year when he never got around to it, and there will be no decrease in the defense budget. Maybe a slight increase, although the Ungrateful Nouri over in Iraq remains adamant that the U.S. will leave his country at the end of 2011 as promised in the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA). Smart move on his part; he's probably noticed that we have bases in Germany and Okinawa that were set up in 1945, and if he's going to pull this off, it's best to do so with a President who practices a form of preemptive submission when confronted with any challenge. What will happen to our "permanent" bases in Iraq? And that $12 billion embassy? How would you like to be posted with the foreign service in Baghdad, just across the border from Iran, with no U.S. military as backup? That's a weird one. We're going to leave the embassy staff in the gentle clutches of the Ungrateful Nouri, who is in league with Muqtada al-Sadr, who's already declared war on the U.S. once. What are we, nuts?

Afghanistan will drag on, of course. We have to have at least one shooting war and Afghanistan will have to do until North & South Korea actually get into real warfare, which could very well happen in 2011. That will be the new tour of duty for soldiers rotating home from Iraq.

American culture will remain the same dismal swampland of the lurid and meretricious. So be it. I still have my Complete Annotated Works of William Shakespeare, so I'm alright, Jack. Let us remember, as the Bard would have it, that it's not all that serious in the final analysis. Prospero said so:

Our revels now are ended. These our actors,
As I foretold you, were all spirits, and
Are melted into air, into thin air:
And like the baseless fabric of this vision,
The cloud-capp'd tow'rs, the gorgeous palaces,
The solemn temples, the great globe itself,
Yea, all which it inherit, shall dissolve,
And, like this insubstantial pageant faded,
Leave not a rack behind. We are such stuff
As dreams are made on; and our little life
Is rounded with a sleep.

December 26, 2010

The Comeback Kid, Redux

If you're looking for a creative outlet during this slow time of year, you might want to sign up at and begin making your own cartoons, using such characters as displayed in the linked cartoon or the familiar bears at right. I've written a couple of screenplays myself, collaborating with a buddy of mine who holds an MFA from the UCLA Film School, and thus has serious chops. One of these screenplays (based on my novel) went so far as to be read (and rejected) by a script editor at Lion's Gate. This is considered street cred in the amorphous world of movie making. Anyway, I pass along a couple of screenwriting tips for your use as you put together your YouTube viral instant classic:

As you write your script, remember the basic improv formula: build, don't refute. A character says one thing, and the other character says something which extends that comment or leads to a new turn. For example, if one character says, "Do you want to go with me?" the other character can't simply say, "No," or the skit is over. Instead, character 2 should say something like, "I'd like to, but I'm blowing up the Chinese Embassy." Then character 1 can say, "Well, how about Tuesday," or "Did you get a bad pot sticker?"

Keep the statements of the characters short. It doesn't have to get mannered in the style of David Mamet, but soliloquies are boring unless you can write like the Bard himself. Rapid interchange of dialogue is more interesting than two characters weighing each other down with speeches.

I'm working on a cartoon with two ready-made characters, Obama and George W. Bush, from the It's getting pretty obvious that the two are far more alike than different, and not just in the sense that they are both Harvard grads. Neither of them is (was) really up to the job of being President and Obama relies, and Bush relied, completely on a group of advisors to tell them what to do. Indeed, the three main advisors, David Petraeus, Robert Gates and Ben Bernanke, are the same for both of them. When you've accounted for the military-industrial-financial complex, there really isn't much left to talk about as far as American policy is concerned, and the same people call the shots now as did during Bush's reign. Obama kept Bush's desk, his Oval Office rug and his government, so it isn't really surprising that things don't seem very different. The fact that Obama would choose to copy George W. Bush in making most of his calls tells you probably everything you need to know about Obama's insecurities and internal resources.

In retrospect, it was Bush's unfortunate fate to fall under the insidious sway of Dick Cheney, and Bush the Elder was probably responsible for that, knowing, as he did, that his eldest son was a consummate lightweight and needed heavy guidance from a D.C. insider. But Pappy Bush misunderestimated just how radical Cheney was (I can't figure out why Blogger is underlining in wavy red a perfectly good verb form like "misunderestimated"). Thus, our Constitutional form of government went down the toilet during the Bush years and is probably not coming back.

I note that the MSM has lightened up on the O-Man recently, right about the time I decided to terminate Obama-bashing. Positing a causal connection between my decision and this more general trend, however, would amount to megalomania bordering on solipsism, so I will search for a different explanation. And it's this: the MSM and their corporate owners have decided to Manufacture Consent (thank you again, Noam, for this useful analytical tool) around the idea that Obama's list of trivial "victories" on DADT and Reagan's START negotiations (Obama being one of Ron's major Groupies) should kickstart the Barack's comeback. I believe that this decision (reflected in many opinion pieces from David Brooks at the NY Times to Howard Fineman) was in turn a result of these learned opinion-makers staring into the yawning abyss of a Palin Presidency and not liking at all what they were seeing. Obama, meanwhile, had given the rich a huge tax break in his "deal" with the Republicans (I hope he checked for his wallet as he left the room), and furthermore kicked the stool out from underneath Social Security with his really idiotic "tax holiday," which will cause the "trust fund" to bleed from every orifice over the next year and set it up for sacrificial slaughter. That really was the most evil ploy I've ever seen a Democratic President fall for.

Nevertheless, the MSM, and their dwindling band of mega-owners (Rupert Murdoch, Comcast, General Electric, a few others), must have asked themselves: what's not to like about Barry? He's given us trillions in tax breaks, he's gutted Social Security, he's agreed to leave Guantanamo open in perpetuity, he's "surged" the war in Afghanistan - what does he have to do for us? Why are we giving this guy a hard time? Meanwhile, Sarah Palin is a step into the great unknown. Some of the things she did during her brief reign as Governor of Alaska were scarily populist, such as dividing up oil revenues with common people. She's not controllable and malleable in the same way Obama is. Thus, the trick must be to maneuver the 2012 election toward an outcome where either the proto-Republican Obama is reelected, or (worst case) Jeb Bush is the Third Bush to ascend to the Kennebunkport Throne.

We should all take a great deal of comfort in that. The Powers That Be, while looking primarily to their own interest, of course, accidentally may look out for ours. I guess.