January 27, 2011

Do the States Belong to the Union?

I have read different legal opinions on the right of the states to secede. There is the Governor Rick Perry approach, which seems to assume, without citing authority, that if Texas wants to leave the Union, it is free to do so, although in truth I have read analyses which support the governor's view. (He and I have had a symbiotic relationship ever since his campaign, misunderstanding the irony in one of my posts, quoted Waldenswimmer at length in a refutation of Keith Olbermann's sarcastic handling of Perry's claim, which was correct, that Texas is economically better off without the United States than with it.)

Abraham Lincoln led the Union in the Civil War to quell what he considered an unconstitutional multi-state breakaway. The South, of course, called Lincoln's action the "war of Northern Aggression." Since might makes right, the actual underlying legalities were never resolved. I have the general feeling the issue is going to arise again. I have felt for a long time that the United States, as presently constituted, is unworkable for reasons of regional incompatibility, size and complexity. It remains together, I think, primarily for reasons of institutional inertia. For example, President Barack Obama cannot really be president of the United States of America if those very states cease to be united. Many, many political, economic and media elites rely upon the existence of the USA as presently put together for their livelihoods, prestige and reputations. To a great extent, institutional perpetuation is more important to these opinion leaders than whether the union makes a whole lot of sense.

Yet the question whether it actually makes sense remains. As Chalmers Johnson predicted with deadly accuracy, the strains of empire and unsustainable debt are now beginning to work a fierce toll on the body politic. The Hologram did a nice job on Tuesday night of trotting out, one more time, the usual bromides around American Exceptionalism ("winning the future;" maybe just getting there would be enough), but what was notable was how little impact this cheerleading had on the national mood. Almost within minutes the Congressional Budget Office was out with the alarming news that Social Security is now in the red; that the deficit for this fiscal year will be around $1.5 trillion; and that we're probably stuck with the same pitiful income (around $2.2 trillion) as last year, thanks to the wisdom of the Republican/Hologram pact to reduce American income through tax tinkering. I don't believe there is any earthly way for the two ossified political parties which control this country to reach a rational compromise on making the country solvent again, and meanwhile the great mass of Americans remain essentially unrepresented by their representative government. The central government simply acts as the enabler of a small stratum of multi-national corporate operators who themselves are only marginally attached to the United States (and those attachments are purely financial and have nothing to do with "patriotism."). These elites use the Third World's labor supply and America as headquarters for their farflung enterprises, but the participation of about 89% of the American people is limited to buying what these companies make (given that manufacturing is only 11% of the American economy).

The United States has a large enough land area and population to support about four countries the size of Germany (actually, geographically we are much larger than that), or six or so countries the size of France. Within our large boundaries we have populations which favor theocratic rule (the Deep South, Western prairie areas such as Wyoming, Utah and Idaho, et cetera) the same way that many Muslim countries prefer Sharia law. Yet Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Tennessee, Virginia and the rest are frustrated in their attempts to install the Bible as their foundational legal document by the heathens of the Northeast and West Coast. Their goals are simple in a way: to make abortion murder; to outlaw the teaching of evolution, global warming and science in general; to make school prayer mandatory; and to put a gun in the hand of every citizen. The "progressive" areas of the country want to proceed with the 21st century, to advance scientifically, to deal with the world in a factual way rather than on the basis of delusions and mythology, to cope with environmental catastrophes so that the human species survives, and other modest aims, which are in a way consistent with the approach of the social democracies of Western Europe. Some areas are more ecologically oriented, some agrarian, and so forth. Just like the rest of the world.

Something has to give. A federation providing for reasonable common defense, along the lines of NATO, could achieve the one overarching area of shared purpose among the new nations of North America and perhaps avoid an internecine war among the new polities. The European Union could serve as a model for cooperation and freedom of travel, although I suspect that strict immigration controls would be necessary to ensure rational planning in the new alignment.

The Eastern Bloc, Yugolslavia, and many other areas have achieved stability following an initial period of sometimes chaotic disintegration. It appears that the archaic dictators of the north of Africa are now beginning their disappearance from the world stage, and that process will probably spread to the Middle East in general (Saudi Arabia, Yemen and others). Change is in the air. It is a propitious moment to begin thinking of ways to stop throwing good money after bad and to cease operating on the illusion of a shared common purpose which has probably not actually existed since the 1960's.

A rational reorganization would certainly beat the hell out of a breakdown forced upon us by bankruptcy or military overthrow. Maybe Jerry Brown of California and Rick Perry of Texas could discover they have something in common after all. Haven't both of them, after all, wanted to be the President of someplace themselves?

January 25, 2011

Mr. Smooth

It's interesting to watch something like the State of the Union on a live feed without commentators talking over the audio. I could hear what President Obama was saying as he entered the House chamber, undiluted by Chris Matthews telling me that "the President can really work a room." He can, but I was able to figure that out better without Chris's help. Obama, like a lot of upbeat extroverts, seems to take energy from human interaction, in the same way Bill Clinton did. You could see with George W. Bush that the whole process was pretty wearing. He just wanted to crawl into bed, or maybe into a whiskey bottle.

The O man is a master of the small, personalized comment, the bro-hug, the chaste kiss on the cheek (particularly of the women of color in government), the back-pat, the handshake that swings into position in a roundhouse loop. He's charming and he puts people at their ease, and watching him up close (with no Chris Matthews in your ear), you got a palpable sense of his charisma. He's the goods, alright. Particularly in a room full of nerds and geeks, Barack Obama stands out as an actual guy.

As for the speech, well, what the hell can you say about a speech anymore? It was fine. Barack doesn't try to scale the rhetorical heights these days. He's above average in his delivery, his timing and cadence are good, but he's left off from the old style Baptist Revival stemwinding. Anyway, it's hard to get too worked up over stuff like spending freezes - the phrases sort of die on delivery.

Like a lot of charming, intellectually shifty operators, the President doesn't betray any kind of embarrassment over obvious reversals in his position or his adoption of the rhetoric of the former opposition. Indeed, this has become something of an Obama trademark. Take, for example, what he had to say about Iraq:

Look to Iraq, where nearly 100,000 of our brave men and women have left with their heads held high; where American combat patrols have ended; violence has come down; and a new government has been formed. This year, our civilians will forge a lasting partnership with the Iraqi people, while we finish the job of bringing our troops out of Iraq. America's commitment has been kept; the Iraq War is coming to an end.

This looks innocuous enough, even meaningless, but consider for a moment: Obama ran for office declaring that the Iraq war was a "dumb war." He was certainly right about that. What "commitment" did we keep? We invaded Iraq because the Bush Administration told us that otherwise the bad news might arrive "in the form of a mushroom cloud." Remember? We invaded Iraq because of its nonexistent weapons of mass destruction, not as an exercise in nation building. It appears to me that Obama is conceding, as he has on other points concerning the Great War on Terror, that Bush and Cheney were right all along and he was wrong.

Then there's this:

We are living with a legacy of deficit-spending that began almost a decade ago. And in the wake of the financial crisis, some of that was necessary to keep credit flowing, save jobs, and put money in people's pockets.

Not quite, Mr. President. Why is Obama carrying Ronald Reagan's water? That's where the big impetus to deficit financing began, not "almost a decade ago." It was Reagan's administration which, after sharply increasing FICA taxes, began raiding that very surplus created, a wholesale thievery which continued until the system could simply not produce a surplus any longer. $2.55 trillion later, however. It was Reagan who decided to ignore Dwight Eisenhower's warning about the "military industrial complex" and switch the country over completely to "military Keynesianism." Granted, the deficits and the national debt are now totally out of control, and our only hope for funding ourselves is to engage in Ponzi schemes like the Federal Reserve's massive purchasing of our own debt. But this was a problem created over a three decade era, not just in recent years.

Ah well, I think in many ways Mr. Obama is a man for our season, a sunny optimist with a nice list of bromides and a charming way of delivering them. Americans don't really want to hear the truth anyway, and if we're going to be lied to, then we may as well hear it from such a natural crowd pleaser. He makes us feel good about ourselves, even when there's absolutely no reason to feel that way.

January 24, 2011

Preview of post-SOTU analysis

(On an MSNBC sound stage):

Chris Matthews: I'm top dog again. I run this place, not the ESPN guy. But I do want to say something about Keith before we start - he got real, and he paid the price. I hope we can all take something away from that.

Lawrence O'Donnell: Good point, Chris. That's where his sports background let him down - it's okay to sound critical, but within limits. You have to finish on a high note, that despite everything you just said, indicating that things can't possibly be okay, that everything is, in fact, okay.

Rachel Maddow: It is okay, but it's not really okay, but being able to say it's not okay means this is still the greatest country on earth.

CM: Thanks for saying that, Rachel. It's something we need to remind ourselves of - we don't get everything right, but in some completely nonquantifiable, unverifiable way, we get almost everything right so that we're okay.

L O'D: I thought the great thing about the speech tonight is that the President brought that fact home.

CM: What did you think of the Republicans and Democrats all mixed up in the seating? Optics, real?

L O'D: Real in an optical way. The optics were there, it's good, I think we're feeling better knowing that bipartisanship is not just an illusion but a seating chart.

CM: I got the old tingle up my leg looking at it. Jesus, what a country!

RM: It's significant, and the President is the main beneficiary. He waited this country out - he kept insisting we could overcome our differences, and his patience now looks visionary. The 100% Republican House vote to repeal his most important legislative achievement can be put in perspective now - just politics, but working together is the way forward.

L O'D: It is the way forward and I think you'll see a change in tone now. Barack Obama met the Republicans halfway, three-fourths of the way, seven-eighths of the way, three million nine hundred fifty seven-three million nine hundred fifty-eighths of the way, whatever - I'm not a mathematician, I'm a screen writer.

CM: It's thrilling. The tingle is really something tonight. I can't wait to take my pants off later.

RM: Obama said he could politic, or politick, doesn't matter, I'm saying this not writing it, pretty good, and I think he's proving that he knew something about himself that others thought maybe he had forgotten, but those Republicans sitting with those Democrats to me indicates that his message has gotten through and now we're going to pull together and become that competitive place he was talking about, going head to head against the best the world has to offer.

CM: In some ways I think Keith got out just in time, because his shrill tone just doesn't fit this new America we saw tonight, the one with Republicans and Democrats all jumbled up in the gallery, and it was thrilling to me, tingly, seeing that really the one thing everyone has in common is that they're just Americans, at the end of the day, and that's just it.

RM: Thanks for saying that, Chris.

(Fade out.)

January 23, 2011

There's No Escaping This Conclusion

Note to J.M.: I agree with you that the Republican "cross-sitting" (and thanks for that funny description) is probably not related to Congressional gay cruising. It just seemed somewhat out of character for the Republicans to cooperate with Obama about anything, although now when I think about it, quite some time back the President met with the Republican House Caucus for a Q&A and they positively gushed over him - like groupies or something. Which makes the spooky solidarity in everything they do all the weirder, but perhaps typical of authoritarian thinkers who love being part of a Movement. Anyway, I doubt that the gallery action on Tuesday night will look much like the Dom DeLuise scenes at the close of "Blazing Saddles," but who knows. Even if I'm right, it's important to quote Seinfeld at this point: not that there's anything wrong with that.

On an unrelated note, thinking about the Clear and Present Danger presented by the prospect of another Friedman book, I was moved to read again the two funniest book reviews I've ever read, both by Matt Taiibi and both about the hilariously misplaced self-righteousness of the "porn-stached" columnist of the New York Times, which I link here. Taiibi was born going for the jugular, I think, and when he's done with one of his literary demolitions his target is in the same shape as Carthage after the Romans: not a stone standing upon a stone.


O & the SOTU

Ho-hum. Tuesday night we will hear President Obama's State of the Union speech. Although I don't have cable television anymore (it's a personal thing between me and Comcast - okay, I'll tell you what it is. See, for some reason my county granted Comcast an exclusive right to dig trenches in all our streets and to install cable so that Comcast, and only Comcast, can deliver cable TV. And what does a monopolist do when given an exclusive market? That's right. Well, mister, I'm not going to play that game. Sure, I could go back to satellite, but to tell you the truth, it's not bad not having TV. For example, I read on the Huffington Post that Keith Olbermann doesn't have a show on MSNBC anymore and you know what I thought? So what. It's not my problem. I used to watch his show once in a while, but after ten or twenty of those "Special Comments," which he would portentously announce during his show ["I'll have a Special Comment on that at the end of tonight's show"], he started to bug me as much as Glenn Beck and his pathetic stick-figure blackboard lectures. Olbermann, right down to the "good night and good luck" sign-off, was consciously modeling his show on Edward R. Murrow, but he did not have the gravitas to pull it off because he's essentially a jumped-up sports announcer trying to pull off a Tom Paine act.)

(Can't seem to get out of these parentheses for some reason. [Actually, I know the reason: it's because the idea of thinking about Barack and his upcoming Student Body President Nothing Speech is pretty boring.] Really, though, there's another, deeper reason that none of these cable shows actually work to mold public opinion, and that's the McLuhanesque explanation. What Olbermann was actually communicating was his anger - that's it. TV is pretty good at getting emotion across, which is why those dumb 60-second commercials can make you cry. But it's terrible at delivering information in a linear way that you can actually follow logically and retain usefully. A lot of the civil liberties issues that Olbermann used to yell about when Bush was in office [denial of habeas corpus, rendition, indefinite detention, military tribunals, the Bagram Black Hole, Guantanamo, targeted assassinations without due process, etc.] have all continued, or even been extended, under President Hologram. So where did Olbermann get with all that ranting and raving? Well, he made a lot of money. The "Special Comment" was his shtick and it was fun while it lasted.)

Bringing us back to the SOTU, I guess. Since I'm an Obama supporter, a campaign donor, I've received advance texting and email on this exciting, upcoming oration. It should be a real barn-burner. Deficit reduction! Working together! We're starting to get somewhere economically!

Ugh. This isn't working. The Hologram really has his work cut out for him trying to make such topics interesting. Maybe he should try the speech in "Special Comment" form. That would be fun, to see the O-Man get wild-eyed, flecks of spit at the corners of his mouth. Although certainly not very likely. What the media will focus on, I guaran-damn-tee, will be this novel "mixing of the parties in the audience" routine they're going to introduce. That will be the theme-meme-trope of 90% of the commentary. I have to say that the willingness of Republican members of Congress to go along with this bipartisan gag is a major coup for Barry. I can't figure out why they would do it, although I have a sneaking suspicion. I think it's because so many Republican Congressmen are gay. They want to meet some new guys. Sexual rationales can often explain the otherwise inexplicable. Worth considering, and perhaps it's yet another way the Imperial City of Washington is beginning to resemble the libertine omnisexuality of Ancient Rome. You'll never convince me a lot of those Republicans wouldn't like to attend next year's SOTU wearing a toga.