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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 5 June 2006
Changing the Subject
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Changing the Subject

What do you do when a week opens with nonsense? What the Marines may or may not have done to civilians in Iraq, particularly women and children, is becoming clearer, and a bit more ominous. With each passing day it only seems to get worse. What do you do with war crimes? Who do you hold responsible, and at what level? And on a merely practical level, how do you explain to the world that we just don't do such things? We say we're the good guys, on God's mission to bring freedom to the world, and that contention needs a little work. Luckily, the mood on the ground in Iraq and around the world is not so much outrage and anger, but more a shrug - "yeah, whatever." We can say such things of course. That's what Americans do. But the rest of the world is treating us the way you treat a loud bore at a party - you politely move on. We can say anything we like. And that's the rock-bottom of our having some sort of influence in the world - what we claim not even worth discussing. Why bother?

And as for the war itself, at the start of the week, Monday, June 5, the chaos continues, fake Iraqi police disappearing fifty-six people, and the usual dead bodies turning up, twenty here and thirty there, tortured. And the Iraqi prime minister cannot seem find anyone to run the army - a Defense Minster - nor anyone to run the police - an Interior Minister. The Kurds and Sunnis and our ambassador want someone somewhat neutral in each slot, while the prime minister's own party demands a hard-line Shiite, friendly to Iran next door. So forming a new unity government seems unlikely. And the whole point is to have one, so we can slowly leave, save for our major military compounds filled with our folks who will "be a presence" in the region. We're told "we're making good progress" (there's bad progress?), but it sure doesn't seem so. There were no weapons of mass destruction. The ties to al Qaeda were bullshit. So we're really there to build a model democracy to impress the socks off of everyone from the Mediterranean to Kashmir. And now we can't even have a government in Baghdad. And the point is? And that tall Osama fellow is out there somewhere, making tapes now and then, and not impressed.

The same day the stock market dropped two hundred points as the new head of the Fed said the economy seemed to be slowing and prices rising, so maybe jacking up the interest rates again seemed to be in order. And there was the usual background noise - real wages dropping for six years straight, CEO and executive compensation at record highs, forty-four million without any health insurance, the public all revved up about the illegal Mexicans and such pouring in and using public services they shouldn't use - so maybe we ought to send them all back and build a giant wall and so on, no matter what it does to our economy based as it is on their cheap labor. And they talk funny anyway. And Iran may one day get nuclear weapons, and even if as a signatory to the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty they have the right to do the research they're doing, we wish they wouldn't and may have to stop them, one way or another, with or without any other nation on the face of the earth joining us. And that's not to mention the rest of the background noise - all the politicians indicted or convicted of this or that.

So congress is getting down to doing something, discussing amending the constitution to make burning the flag a crime beyond the reach of court interpretation (see this). No one here has burned a flag at a political protest since 1968 or so, but making sure it doesn't ever happen again bumped all other legislative business aside, except for the real problem with fags and dykes. It seems some of them want their life-long stable commitment to each other to be legitimized as marriage, where you can share accounts and enter contracts, and when one or the other gets sick, you get the right to visit your partner in the hospital as a real "family member" and do your best to be supportive. And there are tax breaks too. But that's not right -
President Bush reaffirmed his support for a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex marriage today as the Senate began several days of debate on the measure, which is not expected to be passed.

The president, speaking at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, said an amendment defining marriage as a union between a man and a woman was necessary because too many "activist judges" had tried to overturn efforts by voters in several states to ban marriages or civil unions between same-sex partners.

"I call on the Congress to pass this amendment, send it to the states for ratification, so we can take this issue out of the hands of overreaching judges and put it back where it belongs: in the hands of the American people," the president told a gathering of invited social and religious conservatives.

"Marriage is the most fundamental institution of civilization, and it should not be redefined by activist judges," he said.

His remarks today echoed what Mr. Bush said on Saturday in his weekly radio address.

Many Democrats and other critics argue that the president's support of the marriage amendment is a purely political election-year move to mobilize the Republican's social conservative base. Most people on both parties believe the amendment has virtually no chance of becoming reality.
No kidding. The chances of it becoming law are slim, as it would require approval by a two-thirds majority in each house of Congress and then would have to be ratified by three-fourths of the states. It's a noble losing gesture to play to the base, which seems to have a problem with gay folks, and Mexicans and their like, and uppity black folk, and people from the Arab and Persian world, and Apu at the local Quicky-Mart, and who knows what.

Of course it's a gamble. The last time this values crew tried to make a point - the government should intervene in the matter of one family where the husband claimed he had the right to grant his brain-dead wife's previously explicit wishes and pull the plug, and where the courts at all levels agreed he had the right - it blew up in their faces. Most of the nation didn't agree with the basic premise, that a moral government has the duty to intervene in any citizen's private problems, no matter what the courts say. This gay marriage business is somewhat like that - regulating who should marry whom, as the government knows best. The last of the anti-miscegenation laws was tossed out by the courts in 1967, as stopping black and white folks from marrying became legal everywhere. Here? This is called unnatural too. But who cares?

It will destroy marriage as we know it? They said that about the racial thing. And anyway, with sixty percent of all marriages ending in divorce, a few more stable relationships of any kind would be nice. What the harm?

But it was a diversion, even if many on the right were not amused. They wanted to Hispanics to go away. This gay thing was silly.

And you'd find this comment on the Fox News site of all places -
What we have here is a too obvious political play that unfortunately scapegoats a minority as a means to gather votes. This is unkind, manipulative and divisive. My wife and I are Christians. We are not remotely confused abut our own marriage. Are we supposed to care about this because some other Christians are offended? Does this really threaten traditional marriage? Are there truly couples in traditional marriages who are personally confused and threatened by this? Fear not! We know two women who both earlier had children from a traditional marriage. They later lived with one another. They've also made sure their children have male influences. Why not let them and all their children have health insurance benefits and no extra problems? I say this to President Bush: We as a nation ought not impose particular religious beliefs on strangers doing no harm in the name of gathering votes.
That kind of comment is a bad sign.

And a reader sends Time's Andrew Sullivan this -
Having just watched George Bush speaking in his desultory way about gay marriage, I felt a secret glee rise up within me. I think we just watched the death of the opposition to gay marriage.

When a hugely unpopular President rises and speaks with the megaphone of the Presidency about an issue that most consider to be deeply personal, he drags this issue from the realm of family, morals, and religious tradition, into the crass world of politics. By tying gay marriage to the fading star of contemporary 'conservatism', the President has given many people who may otherwise be uncomfortable with the idea of same-sex relationships the concrete reason they need to change their minds. 'If these guys are so hard against it,' millions of Americans without a direct stake in this debate must be thinking, 'it may be a good thing'.

Just as George Wallace's extremism nailed shut the sarcophagus of Jim Crow, so this George will be trotted out as the personification of the bigotry of an era passed. Sometimes, a man's reputation rings louder then his arguments. George Bush's failed Presidency will drag this issue down as does a drowning man a healthy swimmer.
Maybe. Maybe not. But the Saturday address and Monday big statement might be a real "jump the shark" moment here. The world is more difficult and dangerous than ever before, and we get this as a change of subject? That's also the rock-bottom of our having some sort of influence in the world - what he claims not even worth discussing. Why bother?

It's not important. It isn't even that interesting.

What might be important, or might be something some find interesting, arrived out here with the Monday morning Los Angeles Times. That would be this item -
The Pentagon has decided to omit from new detainee policies a key tenet of the Geneva Convention that explicitly bans "humiliating and degrading treatment," according to knowledgeable military officials, a step that would mark a further, potentially permanent, shift away from strict adherence to international human rights standards.

The decision could culminate a lengthy debate within the Defense Department but will not become final until the Pentagon makes new guidelines public, a step that has been delayed. However, the State Department fiercely opposes the military's decision to exclude Geneva Convention protections and has been pushing for the Pentagon and White House to reconsider, the Defense Department officials acknowledged.
And we get the usual players in this game -
The move to restore U.S. adherence to Article 3 was opposed by officials from Vice President Dick Cheney's office and by the Pentagon's intelligence arm, government sources said. David S. Addington, Cheney's chief of staff, and Stephen A. Cambone, Defense undersecretary for intelligence, said it would restrict the United States' ability to question detainees.

The Pentagon tried to satisfy some of the military lawyers' concerns by including some protections of Article 3 in the new policy, most notably a ban on inhumane treatment, but refused to embrace the actual Geneva standard in the directive it planned to issue.

The military lawyers, known as judge advocates general, or JAGs, have concluded that they will have to wait for a new administration before mounting another push to link Pentagon policy to the standards of Geneva.
So this is not a tight exclusion for a handful of CIA officials to torture detainees if they must. This is general policy, for the whole military. And the reasoning is the usual -
But top administration officials contend that after the Sept. 11 attacks, old customs do not apply, especially to a fight against terrorists or insurgents who never play by the rules. "The overall thinking," said the participant familiar with the defense debate, "is that they need the flexibility to apply cruel techniques if military necessity requires it."
Not they ever would.

See Steve Benen, substituting for the vacationing Kevin Drum at the Washington Monthly, with this -
I can't help but wonder if Bush administration officials know or care about how this undermines our standing and credibility in the world. It's simply breathtaking. As Kevin put it a while back, "It's simply impossible to persuade the rest of the world that we're the good guys as long as we persist in plainly repugnant behavior."
No kidding.

And Digby over at Hullabaloo suggests we've been punked -
The problem is that they, and I assume many in the Pentagon, believe the exact opposite. They think that "being tough" and "sending the right message" will make the enemy put its tail between its legs and run for the hills. That's the simple truth of it. And that idea is what's permeated into the military ranks in Iraq and elsewhere. When Cheney said "take the gloves off" he meant it. And people believed it. And that led us directly to Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo and now the horror of Haditha.

... Romans and conservatives are very big on "sending messages." They like to make examples of people; it's one of their favorite authoritarian tactics. And executing children sends a hell of a message, no doubt about it. No gloves anywhere to be seen in that operation. The "humiliating and degrading" treatment at Abu Ghraib, the torture at Bagram and Gitmo and god knows where else, the kidnapping and renditions, and yes, the massacre of civilians including children, is not a matter of incompetence or misunderstanding or the fog of war. It's the plan.

... The vaunted neo-conservative intellectuals have a simplistic, schoolyard view of the world based on what appears to be a very simplistic, schoolyard psychology that very much appealed to the boy-man that had been installed in the white house when bin Laden struck on 9/11. What serendipity! It is this puerile psychological misfire that united them with the feverish one handed typists of the 101st keyboarders - all threats, no matter how small or insignificant at the time, must be met with crude brute force lest someone taunt you about your small cojones. The real threat is the appearance of weakness.

The interesting thing about this, of course, is that very few of these people have ever put any of that into practice in their own lives - this belief exists in an abstract realm of fantasy - a pageant to be performed by others. ... Yet they also need to maintain a sort of religious fiction about themselves as being purveyors of democracy and freedom - concepts that don't ordinarily lend themselves to barbaric message sending.

And that is how we found ourselves invading and occupying (and killing and torturing) to prove we are good and they are evil. And it's why with every failure, every misstep, every hypocrisy and war crime, this brain-dead macho policy makes America far more vulnerable today than we were on 9/11. This mistaken belief that bin Laden attacked us because he thought we were weak - has made us weak. Virtually the entire American political establishment got punked by Osama bin Laden's trash talking and they still don't get it. With every impotent "message" of toughness we send, the more we play into his hands.
Or so it seems. But this is a real discussion about how we as a nation deal with the world. And it has real implications. (And click on the link for all the historic detail and quotes from the war party and its advocates - the "101st Keyboarders" always on the web and in the magazines.) Oddly, here we are asked to look at a basic premise underlying everything - is the real threat "the appearance of weakness," or in proving and reproving we're not weak in anyway at all, that we can be brutal and toss out all our beliefs and values, do we make ourselves fools and targets? The latter seems likely. And questioning the idea underneath it all is odd indeed, and maybe necessary. Something's not working.

What if we tried to be "better" than them, instead of just saying we are, in spite of what we do?

It will be interesting to see how Senator John McCain reacts to all this. He lobbied hard for his legislation banning torture and anything like "humiliating and degrading" treatment as policy, and got it passed. The margin was wide. The thing was veto-proof. And the president signed it into law, but added a signing statement that he really didn't have to follow such a law if it interfered with any decision he might make as commander-in-chief. And now this.

Ah, McCain will say nothing. He wants to be the next president. He cannot appear weak either. Having principles makes you look weak, or so it seems. That is the political assessment, by almost every single politician in each party, of how Americans think. But what if they don't really think that way? Wouldn't it be interesting if they were wrong? That would be a kick in the head.

It should be noted, of course, that Monday, June 5, 2006, the whole government had turned its full attention to more than fags and flags. There was the big push to eliminate the Estate Tax, or Death Tax as the Republicans like to frame it. Renaming is good. Dropping this tax will result in the loss of a trillion dollars in income over the next ten years, and the tax applies to only a few people who are quite wealthy. But it is a "death tax" - and that sounds awful.

Sebastian Mallaby in the Post here -
For most of the past century, the case for the estate tax was regarded as self-evident. People understood that government has to be paid for, and that it makes sense to raise part of the money from a tax on "fortunes swollen beyond all healthy limits," as Theodore Roosevelt put it. The United States is supposed to be a country that values individuals for their inherent worth, not for their inherited worth. The estate tax, like a cigarette tax or a carbon tax, is a tool for reducing a socially damaging phenomenon - the emergence of a hereditary upper class - as well as a way of raising money.

But now the House has voted to repeal the estate tax, and the Senate may do the same this week. Republicans are picking up support from renegade Democrats, such as Blanche Lincoln of Arkansas, Bill Nelson of Florida, Ben Nelson of Nebraska and Max Baucus of Montana. Several more may go over to the dark side if a "compromise" bill, which would achieve nearly everything that abolitionists dream of, is introduced in the Senate. President Bush, who has already muscled a temporary repeal of the estate tax into law, would be delighted to sign a bill making abolition permanent.
Paul Krugman in the New York Times here -
The campaign for estate tax repeal has largely been financed by just 18 powerful business dynasties, including the family that owns Wal-Mart.

You may have heard tales of family farms and small businesses broken up to pay taxes, but those stories are pure propaganda without any basis in fact. In particular, advocates of estate tax repeal have never been able to provide a single real example of a family farm sold to pay estate taxes.

Nonetheless, the estate tax is up for a vote this week. First, Republicans will try to repeal the estate tax altogether. If that fails, they'll offer a compromise that isn't really a compromise, like a plan suggested by Senator Jon Kyl, Republican of Arizona, that would cost almost as much as full repeal, or a plan suggested by Senator Max Baucus, Democrat of Montana, that is only slightly cheaper.

In each case, the crucial vote will be procedural: if 60 senators vote to close off debate, estate tax repeal or something close to it will surely pass. Any senator who votes for cloture but against estate tax repeal - which I'm told is what John McCain may do - is simply a hypocrite, trying to have it both ways.

But will the Senate vote for cloture? The answer depends on two groups of senators: Democrats like Mr. Baucus who habitually stake out "centrist" positions that give Republicans almost everything they want, and moderate Republicans like Lincoln Chafee of Rhode Island who consistently cave in to their party's right wing. Will these senators show more spine than they have in the past?

In the interest of stiffening those spines, let me remind senators that this isn't just a fiscal issue, it's also a moral issue. Congress has already declared that the budget deficit is serious enough to warrant depriving children of health care; how can it now say that it's worth enlarging the deficit to give Paris Hilton a tax break?
Now there's a real issue. Let Lars and Spanky get married if they want. And the business with burning the flag? Is that a big deal? The world won't end if some fool burns the flag and shouts stupid things. We got through the sixties, more or less. But this one, a core tax issue about how we keep the joint running, is about a real issue. What do we owe each other, and are we a community or not?

But the legislature will work on the gay marriage crisis and protecting the flag, the symbol and not the substance. Ah heck, the substance may be long gone.

Posted by Alan at 22:47 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 6 June 2006 06:45 PDT home

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