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Consider:

"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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Tuesday, 5 September 2006
The Case for Pessimism
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
The Case for Pessimism
On a hot day in Los Angeles - it hit ninety-nine downtown early in the afternoon - the only thing to do was sit quietly in the office under the big ceiling fan and browse the net on global warming matters. So on Tuesday, September 5, as the asphalt streets here in Hollywood got gooey in the full sun, while reading about peak-oil and the end of civilization as we know it, this comment shimmered on the computer screen - "Global pandemic is considered a certainty by lots of smart people with good credentials in that area. Some other brilliant people think we're in for a religional [sic] clash of civilizations. Other well-qualified people foresee environmental collapse. War seems ever present in its changing nature. Most of the large fish in the ocean are already gone. Oceanic dead zones are on the increase. Tundra is thawing in vast stretches of northern latitudes, releasing methane in a positive feedback loop driving climate change. Human population is supposed to increase by fifty percent in the next couple or three decades while global energy consumption is supposed to double or more. And so on and so on. We live in interesting times. What's a person to do?"

One could choose an alternative life-style, one not so energy dependent, but selling the car and raising chickens on the balcony isn't going to help much. Feeling noble that the air-conditioner in the wall is dead and you don't feel like having someone fix it seems a bit silly. Things are too far gone. Pour another Diet Coke on ice, fill another pipe with that nice Danish pipe tobacco, and let's think about this. One could think about it down by the pool in the courtyard, but that's mad, in the "mad dogs and Englishmen" way - no one is down there, not even the sweet young things who move in and out of the building hoping to become the next Katie Holmes or whatever - the concrete would blister your feet and the pool, in the full sun for months, is a warm blue-green bath smelling of all the extra chlorine needed to kill the bad stuff that wants to grown in there. The cat in the shade next door looks boneless - a poured, fur lump.

It's a day for pessimism of course. That seems to be back in vogue. In fact, Joshua Foa Dienstag, a political science professor at UCLA, has that new book on the matter Pessimism: Philosophy, Ethic, Spirit - Princeton University Press (July 3, 2006) - ISBN: 069112552X. It's hot.

Here's the deal -
Pessimism claims an impressive following - from Rousseau, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche, to Freud, Camus, and Foucault. Yet "pessimist" remains a term of abuse - an accusation of a bad attitude - or the diagnosis of an unhappy psychological state. Pessimism is thought of as an exclusively negative stance that inevitably leads to resignation or despair. Even when pessimism looks like utter truth, we are told that it makes the worst of a bad situation. Bad for the individual, worse for the species - who would actually counsel pessimism?

Joshua Foa Dienstag does. In Pessimism, he challenges the received wisdom about pessimism, arguing that there is an unrecognized yet coherent and vibrant pessimistic philosophical tradition. More than that, he argues that pessimistic thought may provide a critically needed alternative to the increasingly untenable progressivist ideas that have dominated thinking about politics throughout the modern period. Laying out powerful grounds for pessimism's claim that progress is not an enduring feature of human history, Dienstag argues that political theory must begin from this predicament. He persuasively shows that pessimism has been - and can again be - an energizing and even liberating philosophy, an ethic of radical possibility and not just a criticism of faith. The goal - of both the pessimistic spirit and of this fascinating account of pessimism - is not to depress us, but to edify us about our condition and to fortify us for life in a disordered and disenchanted universe.
Okay then, pessimism can be liberating, and fortifying. Who would have guessed? Things are as bad as they seem, or maybe worse. That's the way to approach the world.

Thursday, September 14, at seven in the evening, the author will be at Dutton's in Brentwood - the fancy bookstore not far from where Arianna Huffington lives, the woman with the celebrity blog, and not far from the site where OJ didn't murder Nicole - for a reading from the new book. But what's the point in driving all the way over there? What good would it do? On the other hand, that Dutton's is supposed to be a hot pick-up spot for a certain class of literate left-wing singles. But then, who would be interested in the fat old guy from Hollywood? Nope, better to listen to Joshua Foa Dienstag interviewed about pessimism on BBC4 here, from mid-July. It's better for the environment than driving across Los Angeles. Or maybe that's looking at things too pessimistically.

But then, consider that chapters in his book -
CHAPTER ONE: The Anatomy of Pessimism
CHAPTER TWO: "A Philosophy That Is Grievous but True": Cultural Pessimism in Rousseau and Leopardi
CHAPTER THREE: "The Evils of the World Honestly Admitted": Metaphysical Pessimism in Schopenhauer and Freud
CHAPTER FOUR "Consciousness Is a Disease": Existential Pessimism in Camus, Unamuno, and Cioran
CHAPTER FIVE: Nietzsche's Dionysian Pessimism
CHAPTER SIX: Cervantes as Educator: Don Quixote and the Practice of Pessimism
CHAPTER SEVEN: Aphorisms and Pessimisms
CHAPTER EIGHT: Pessimism and Freedom (The Pessimist Speaks)
Let's see - consciousness is a disease which Don Quixote conquers by engaging in pointless battles for the right reasons, and Camus should have read Cervantes more carefully - or maybe Sisyphus could just as easily have tilted at windmills instead of pushing that stone up the hill over and over. Same thing. Got it. Schopenhauer and Freud admit we're all screwed. Fine.

What's the point in reading the book now, anyway? Do authors who write such things not know that true pessimists understand that there no point in even buying the thing?

Of course pessimists are not the target audience. The target audience - those who will buy the book - consists of "angry" pessimists (an odd concept when you think about it logically) who are feeling defensive, and those who these days, after six years of being told we're winning the great war (that would pay for itself, where we'd be greeted at liberators, and where our military would be home in a few months), and that New Orleans would be rebuilt, that this and that would be wonderful, are puzzled. We're told to be optimistic. Our leaders are.

What's up with that? Is there something inherently stupid about optimism? That seems to be the argument here. An audience that might accept this idea is possible.

"This will work out wonderfully if you just trust us." And what did we get?

Immediately you trust your leaders less and less. Joshua Foa Dienstag suggests going deeper. Leaders of any sort in America say they're optimistic about just about everything, save for Jimmy Carter. It's what you do. It's what people expect. But maybe the whole problem is optimism itself. That's about as subversive and un-American an idea you'll find anywhere.

As still, the Los Angeles Times on Sunday, September 3, published Dienstag's op-ed piece, Oh, to Be a Country of Pessimists Again, with the subhead - "Too much optimism can leave us stranded in our rose-colored illusions."

This opens with references to the president's second inaugural address where he said he had "complete confidence in the eventual triumph of freedom" and "history has a visible direction, set by liberty and the author of liberty." Then in August he was saying at a press conference - "Frustrated? Sometimes I'm frustrated. Rarely surprised. Sometimes I'm happy. This is - but war is not a time of joy. These aren't joyous times…. "

The question posed is clear. Are we finally ready for some pessimism? Are we?

The problem is clear -
Americans of all stripes tend to treat pessimism as if it were a psychological impairment or rare tropical illness that inexplicably befalls others. Jimmy Carter was widely criticized when he dared to suggest that there existed a U.S. "crisis of confidence," a mistake Ronald Reagan exploited when he announced "Morning in America." During the presidential race of 2004, the candidates of both parties competed avidly for the title of most optimistic. But Bush's verbal fumbling on a question about the Iraq war indicates that there are some situations - unfortunately, very common ones - for which the language of optimism is not helpful.
It isn't? There's not an election consultant alive who would agree with that contention.

But there is history -
The first modern pessimists were dissenters from the Enlightenment notion that the world would be remade according to reason. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, for example. He is often remembered as a precursor to the French Revolution, but he was in fact deeply suspicious of what became the revolutionaries' alternative faith: inordinate belief in their own rational powers.

What Rousseau sought to emphasize was simply that we lacked the tools to master history and bring it to heel. "Everything is in continual flux on Earth…." he wrote. "All our plans for felicity in this life are idle fancies." Politics, like personal life, was a place where grand strategies could and often did go awry. We should celebrate the good that happened but not delude ourselves that the overall pattern of the universe is pre-made in our favor.

This doesn't mean that reason is useless. Rousseau had a variety of philosophical inheritors and, though they disagreed on many things, one point they generally had in common was the idea that reason served humans best by divesting them of politically dangerous illusions.
But illusions not grounded in reason, some would argue, are what made America, the land of big dreams, the wonderful place it is. Is it now more useful to think about what is actually possible? That not very inspiring.

But it may be necessary -
The president's claim that he is "rarely surprised" doesn't ring true; it seems like a particularly desperate effort to assert some control over a situation in which every supposed sign of progress in Iraq is undercut by more violence. Optimists, expecting things to go well, are constantly surprised and disappointed when their illusions are punctured. It is the pessimists, expecting little, who are rarely surprised.

It is sometimes claimed that pessimism retards political action, that one must somehow be an optimist in order to get out of bed in the morning. This is not only silly but dangerous. If one looks at the writings of, say, Albert Camus or Vaclav Havel, both philosophers who also were active in resistance against tyranny, it's easy to see that they had no expectations their actions would defeat what seemed like an overwhelming foe. They were as surprised as anyone when the regimes they opposed collapsed. They acted not out of optimism but out of a sense that opposing dictatorship was the only decent thing to do, the only way to live with dignity in dark times.

Camus liked to say that he wasn't interested in the future at all: "He who dedicates himself to … history dedicates himself to nothing and, in his turn, is nothing." Instead, we should engage in "giving all to the present," which meant dealing with the problems that appear on our doorstep rather than trying to vindicate an idealized destiny, the "visible direction" of history. (Perhaps if this administration had paid a little less attention to the tides of history, it might have had more time to deal with the actual floodwaters.)
So Camus and Havel never expected to win. No illusions. No blind faith the best would probably happen and everything fall into place, and thinking otherwise was defeatist. They only did the right thing at the moment. Fine, but can we use a Frenchman and a Czech fan of Frank Zappa as models here?

Not in this country - "Though the Bush administration may be the latest and most extreme version of the compulsory optimism of American politics, matters will not improve if we simply replace it with an equally optimistic administration from the other party. The problem is that the vocabulary of optimism itself distorts our understanding of the world and leaves us lost in illusions."

Why was the president recently reading Camus? It didn't sink in. Next he'll be reading Babbitt and Arthur Miller's "Death of a Salesman." It won't help. He's locked in that "optimistic mode" - the slang term is "stuck on stupid" - just like most everyone on the left. That just the way it is, and, ironically enough, there's just no fixing it.

But it can tie you up in some odd logic. That's what happened Tuesday, September 5, with the second in the series of speeches to sell the Iraq war and all related policies on terror, and the need to do something about Iran and North Korea, to the American people in the run-up to the November congressional elections, where the president could lose control of the House if not the Senate and then be dead in the water for his last two years, or worse. And the theme itself was mixed - "America is safer, but we are not yet safe." Everything worked out fine, but it didn't.

The speech, before the Military Officers Association of America, is here and the accompanying twenty-ninepage "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" here. It's all very curious - Iraq is not a big deal any longer, nor is al Qaeda and that Osama fellow. The problem now is Iran, but really everyone who opposes us, or opposes Israel, as they're all in this together. The idea is we now have one giant problem no one but this administration, backed by a Republican congress, can solve.

Here's some compact framing from Dan Froomkin in the Washington Post -
The White House today is battling to control the journalistic narrative in the days before the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

There are so many ways that journalists could help the public assess the last five years.

We could, for instance, trace the dramatic expansion of executive power in the name of fighting the war on terror.

We could expose the failures that have plagued the administration's initiatives to coordinate homeland security and emergency response.

We could write about Iraq, the most conspicuous, costly, deadly, and arguably counterproductive byproduct of President Bush's post-September 11 mentality.

We could expound on America's dramatic loss of moral authority, prestige and influence on the world stage.

We could reflect upon the administration's continued stoking of Americans' fears for political purposes.

But that's not what the White House wants, of course.

And while the White House can't exactly prevent journalists from writing whatever we want, the president does have a great way of forcing us to take notice of whatever it is that he wants. It's called a "series of major speeches" on the "Global War on Terrorism."
And the Post's account of the speech is here -
President Bush today renewed his pledge to accept nothing less than "complete victory" in the war on terrorism and delivered a strong warning to Iran, which he described as the leader of a strain of Islamic radicalism just as dangerous as that of al-Qaeda.

In a speech in Washington following the release of an updated strategy document on combating terrorism, Bush repeatedly quoted statements by Osama bin Laden and other al-Qaeda leaders to highlight the radical Sunni Muslim group's "totalitarian" aims, which he said recalled the "evil" ambitions Vladimir Lenin and Adolf Hitler. He said the centerpiece of those aims is the transformation of Iraq into the capital of an Islamic caliphate spanning much of the globe.
So this is a big deal. They're trying to take over the world. Lenin! Hitler! Iraq is only part of it. This could be the end of everything.

And there are the anti-American goals to Shiite Muslim "extremists" - leaders of Iran and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah. (Don't think about the Shiites we have put in power in Iraq.) And then there's the specter of an industrialized world subject to blackmail from nations awash in oil and nuclear weapons "if the radicals achieve their aims." People just aren't scared enough.

And there's this - a captured bin Laden letter, saying al-Qaeda intended to launch a "media campaign to create a wedge between the American people and their government." So if you listen to our own press you're being fooled and manipulated by the bad guys - most American reporters are with the terrorists, doing the terrorists' work. (See one press guy's reaction here - Olbermann was having none of it.)

It went on and on - "History teaches that underestimating the words of evil and ambitious men is a terrible mistake. . . . Bin Laden and his terrorist allies have made their intentions as clear as Lenin and Hitler before them. The question is: Will we listen?"

He also called on Americans to "imagine a world in which they were able to control governments; a world awash with oil, and they would use oil resources to punish industrialized nations. And they would use those resources to fuel their radical agenda and pursue and purchase weapons of mass murder. And, armed with nuclear weapons, they would blackmail the free world and spread their ideologies of hate and raise a mortal threat to the American people." He vowed he'd never to allow this.

The Post quotes Wesley Clark -
"What I hear is the beating tom-toms of another military action taking form against Iran. And I think it's time that the American government stepped forward and talked to people we disagree with, before we start dropping bombs on them."

Clark called the invasion of Iraq "a strategic blunder" that has been "counterproductive in winning the war on terror."

As a result of the Bush administration's policies, "we've lost over 2,600 soldiers and Marines in Iraq," Clark said. "We've spent over $300 billion, with maybe $1 trillion or more on the line. We've seriously damaged our armed forces. … We've reduced our diplomatic leverage around the world. And despite all the trumpeting of patriotism by this administration, this administration and the Republican leadership in the Congress have weakened our country and made Americans less safe at home."
John Kerry is more succinct here -
Afghanistan is slipping back into chaos, Pakistan is one coup away from becoming a radical Islamic state with nuclear weapons, Iran is closer to a nuclear arsenal, and Iraq has become a recruitment poster for terror.
Yeah, well, thing are tough all over. And the president was on a roll. The problem is much bigger than ever - he never says why - and he can fix it if everyone would just shut up and let him do it. And stop saying he made the problem worse - that doesn't matter now. What difference does that make?

But people foolishly want to make sense of this all, like Tim Grieve, reading the "National Strategy for Combating Terrorism" and noting this -
Iraq isn't exactly at the center of it. The word "Iraq" comes up just nine times in the 29-page report, and at least a couple of those are attempts to minimize the role the Iraq war plays in the president's "global war on terrorism." "Countries that did not participate in coalition efforts in Iraq have not been spared from terror attacks," the report says. "The ongoing fight for freedom in Iraq has been twisted by terrorist propaganda as a rallying cry," the report says.

What about Iraq as the "central front" in the war on terror? Oh, it's in there, too - as in, "Terrorists see Iraq as the central front of their fight against the United States."

So what's the central front in the GWOT now? Well, you might think it would be the hunt for the man who masterminded the attacks against the United States five years ago. But Osama bin Laden gets just a single mention in the report, and even then only as an example used to make a larger point: Arguing that terrorism isn't "an inevitable by-product of poverty," the report notes that "many terrorist leaders, like bin Laden, are from privileged upbringings."

It would all be so surprising if it were surprising at all. The president said long ago that he doesn't spend much time thinking about bin Laden, and the CIA last year quietly disbanded the unit that had been assigned to hunt for him. As for Iraq, the White House has some delicate detangling to do. If the polls are to be believed, the fight against terrorism remains the Republicans' sole strong point with voters. At the same time, a substantial majority of the public disapproves of the way Bush is handling the war in Iraq. Having spent the better part of the past four years linking 9/11 to Iraq and Iraq to the overall war on terrorism, the GOP now must find a way to cash in on voters' fears about future acts of terrorism without tainting the argument with the reality that has already come to pass in Iraq.

So just like that, Iraq becomes the central front in the war on terror only in the twisted minds of terrorists. The real central front? It's in Iran, in Syria, in North Korea, on the Internet and in small, decentralized terror cells. "Terrorist networks today are more dispersed and less centralized," the report says. "They are more reliant on smaller cells inspired by a common ideology and less directed by a central command structure." Translation: Forget Iraq. Forget bin Laden. The terrorists are everywhere now. And if you want to keep your family safe from them - unless, of course, one of your family members happens to be serving in Iraq - you'd better vote for the Republicans on your ballot in November.
One would think folks might just get tired of it all.

In Newsweek Fareed Zakaria certainly is -
Washington has a long habit of painting its enemies 10 feet tall - and crazy. During the cold war, many hawks argued that the Soviet Union could not be deterred because the Kremlin was evil and irrational. The great debate in the 1970s was between the CIA's wimpy estimate of Soviet military power and the neoconservatives' more nightmarish scenario. The reality turned out to be that even the CIA's lowest estimates of Soviet power were a gross exaggeration. During the 1990s, influential commentators and politicians - most prominently the Cox Commission - doubled the estimates of China's military spending, using largely bogus calculations. And then there was the case of Saddam Hussein's capabilities. Saddam, we were assured in 2003, had nuclear weapons - and because he was a madman, he would use them.
See Kevin Drum here -
It is not quite right to say that "Washington" has a habit of doing this. Zakaria should instead say that "hysterical Republican hawks" have a habit of doing this.

Accuracy is important in these matters. For the record, then: "Team B" was a creation of George H.W. Bush and included such members as Richard Pipes, Paul Wolfowitz, and Edward Teller. The Cox Commission was the brainchild of Congressman Christopher Cox (R-Calif.). And Saddam's nuclear bombs were the fantasy product of Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, George Bush, et. al.

This quibble aside, the column is very good. The fever swamp hysteria floating around right-wing circles has become increasingly desperate in recent weeks, and Zakaria does a good job of showing it up for the infantile yowling that it is. Democrats who want to be taken seriously on foreign policy could do worse than have it stapled to their foreheads.
Infantile yowling? That'll do.

And, for a minor digression, see Charles P. Pierce here -
Every now and again I give the president the benefit of the doubt, try to see things from his side, walk a mile or so in his manly brush-clearing workshoes as it were. So, I'm George W. Bush, right? I have launched a war that I have repeatedly said is a critical response to an existential threat to Western civilization that is as serious as were those of Nazi Germany and the Soviet empire. Things have not gone well. And most of the country doesn't trust me when I tell them why I'm doing what I'm doing. (Most of the country doesn't trust me if I tell them the sun rises in the East, but that's a whole 'nother mile in them workshoes.) Nevertheless, the threat is real and it is growing and I can't get the country to see it.

Why, then, do I give all my speeches to captive audiences of people who either already believe what I believe or who get paid to serve under my steady hand as commander-in-chief? Doesn't the seriousness of the threat, and the requirements of my job, mandate that I go out into the most skeptical parts of the country and do my convincing there? After all, when confronting the Depression or the growing threat in Europe, FDR didn't send out the fireside chats by subscription only. When Lyndon Johnson wanted to convince people on the need for civil rights legislation, he didn't bring Hubert Humphrey over from the OEOB for a chat. He brought in George Wallace, and damned near got him, too. Shouldn't I have had Cindy Sheehan in for BBQ? Shouldn't I be making my speeches in those places where the war is the least popular? Shouldn't I be convincing the people who most need convincing? Shouldn't I be speaking in Boston or Berkeley? Shouldn't I be talking to town hall meetings in Vermont and Oregon? Aren't I president of all the United States? These shoes are not comfortable at all.
One assumes he likes speaking to fellow optimists. Who needs the others?

See Thomas DeFrank in the New York Dauly News, quoting his White House sources here -
"We'll lose the House," one of the party's most prominent officials flatly predicted, "and the President will be dead in the water for two years." Even a perennially optimistic senior Bush strategist conceded, "I'm pretty worried about it. The House is not looking good."
Pessimism. And more than three years ago they couldn't imagine anything going wrong - get rid of Saddam, install the convicted embezzler Chalabi, secure the oil, and get out. Now they're pessimistic. How odd. Well, their political survival is on the line. Now it's serious.

But we will have total victory or nothing. How did the pessimism man put it? There are some situations - unfortunately, very common ones - for which the language of optimism is not helpful. Define victory here.

Let's get real. But that's pessimism. No, it's realism. Maybe they're the same thing, but optimism unfettered by any sort of reality has gotten us nothing, or less.

Joshua Foa Dienstag is onto something. But he'll never sell that idea in America.

Posted by Alan at 22:46 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 6 September 2006 08:32 PDT home

Sunday, 3 September 2006
The Pause That Refreshes
Topic: Announcements
The Pause That Refreshes
Commentary will resume late Monday evening or Tuesday. The Labor Day weekend calls for a trip south, down San Diego way, to join the family for some relaxing - away from the computer and all that. It's a small vacation, but it will do.

The from-the-ground-up redesign of the weekly magazine-style Just Above Sunset was exhausting. But that is done, and the new issue has been posted. Time to relax.

Hand-painted sign at a dive on Hollywood Boulevard, near Raymond Chandler Square


Posted by Alan at 08:30 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 3 September 2006 08:32 PDT home

Saturday, 2 September 2006
Hot Off the Virtual Press
Topic: Announcements
Hot Off the Virtual Press
The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log, is now online. This is Volume 4, Number 35-36 for the week of September 3, 2006.Click here to go there...

After being down for a week the site has returned. Down is not out. The site has been completely redesigned using new software, and should be easier on the eyes and easier to navigate - and the photographs are clearer. In any event, there is no daily commentary today. It was a day of heavy geek work.

This issue in the new format has six commentaries on current events, from that odd thing Frank Rich said about President Bush being a lot like Tom Cruise, to the Katrina business, to the amazing Rumsfeld speech - most Americans are confused cowards - to all the stuff we're supposed to be scared about, to the new buzzword, to what's really scary, the coming crash of the housing market. In addition there are links to the five commentaries that would have appeared in the previous week's issue had not the site crashed.

The photography special feature is a tour of Los Angeles' Little Tokyo - six pages of high-resolution shots with lots of background information. It's a fine place. For those who need their Hollywood fix, there are shots of what it's like to be mobbed by paparazzi on Hollywood Boulevard (your editor signed the release and will be on the Fox show about paparazzi). And there are the usual Southern California surreal shots - and some beach history. And there are the customary startling botanical close-ups.

There are also two pages of guest photography - Cap Cod and cool cars. They are very fine.

And of course as the issue covers two weeks, there's a double dose of amusing quotes, and a double dose of news of the weird from our friend in Texas.

Direct links to specific pages -

Extended Observations on Current Events ______________________________

That's Rich - Bush as Tom Cruise, or Hamlet
Katrina Day - Everyone visits New Orleans one year after the hurricane, they all say things, and none of it matters much…
Insults - The Amazing Rumsfeld Speech
Danger Ahead - Don't Listen Carefully - The Official Compendium of "What Is Supposed to Frighten Us"
What's in a Word? - Some Thoughts on Making Things Up - The Word is Fascism
The Other Scare Story - "It's the economy, stupid," and the some sort of bubble is about to pop, loudly.
Links to five additional commentaries from the week the site was offline.

Southern California Photography ______________________________

Little Tokyo (a tour of an unusual Los Angeles neighborhood in six pages)
Paparazzi Time (on actually being attacked by paparazzi on Hollywood Boulevard)
Everyday Surrealism
Beach Triptych: The Forgotten Original
Words and Symbols
Botanicals: Full-On Colors

Guest Photography ______________________________

Cape Cod - Reader, sometime contributor, and a man who needed a vacation, Martin Hewitt, sends us Cape Code (Hyannis) looking fine - and in color only when appropriate -
Old and New - Reader, sometime contributor and car buff Bill Hitzel offers for shots from Jackson Cruise Night, July 2006, Jackson Michigan -

Diversions ______________________________

Quotes for the Week: A Double Dose - on Stupidity and on Decisions
Weird, Bizarre and Unusual: A Double Dose from Our Friend in Texas

Posted by Alan at 21:06 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
home

Friday, 1 September 2006
The Other Scare Story
Topic: The Economy
The Other Scare Story
The last week of August was scare week. With support for the war in Iraq tanking and the Republicans facing the very real prospect of losing both the House and Senate, it was time to do something. So Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld told us that if we didn't agree with the administration - policy, strategy or tactics - we were simply trying to appease "a new type of fascism," which made us cowards, confused and morally bankrupt, and also stunning ignorant of history (see Insults). And we were told the fascists are coming, again, even if the argument that the current bad guts are actually "fascists" borders on the absurd, if the word means anything other than they are very, very, very bad people (see What's in a Word? for the details of that). The president launched a series of major speeches to raise alarm, with the last scheduled for 19 September at the UN. The idea is that we've lost our sense of how scary everything is, and might vote for someone other than those who think this is one fine war that's keeping us safer and making the world a better place.

The administration is feeling very misunderstood - no one gets it - war and war more is the only alternative. Or we all die. Why do far more than half of all Americans see the Iraq war as pointless and not having much to so with the main problem? They seem to wonder why we have to stay there and fix their internal disputes. What's wrong with these people?

On the left one has the not-that-scared Matthew Yglesias here -
The idea here is that absent the US military, we would be handing Iraq over to some nefarious - and, admittedly, it would be quite nefarious - coalition of Baathists, Iranians, and al-Qaedists, presumably joined by Dr. Evil and the Cobra Commander. Back in the real world, though, these groups are fighting each other. What's more, the "armed groups with ties to Iran" include the political parties that comprise the Iraqi government. So what is it our troops are accomplishing amidst this frothy mix of bad actors?
It seems you're not supposed to ask questions quite that specific.

On the right there's the not-that-scared and quite frustrated ultra-conservative Stephen Bainbridge, a law professor at UCLA, and a full professor at that, saying this -
There are many advantages to our political system vis-a-vis the British Parliamentary model, but one advantage of the latter is that you can hold a leader accountable. A Prime Minister who has screwed the pooch as badly as Bush very well could have lost his position as party leader.

In an ideal world, it would be possible to win the war in Iraq, which Bush is right we need to do, and hold Bush accountable for having made it necessary for us to win the war in the first place.
The current scare story doesn't seem to gaining traction, as they say. The really scary thing in the mix is, of course, that very real prospect of the Republicans losing control of both the House and Senate. If that happens there will be some major explaining to do, at the top. And Professor Bainbridge will get his wish. It will turn surprising British in Washington.

But there's the other scare story going around, the collapse of the housing market. The economy is sustained by consumer spending, and about a third of all money being spent on consuming this and that comes from home equity - from refinancing your home's mortgage at a much lower rate with some very clever financial instruments, particularly the adjustable rate mortgage (ARM), which, according to Business Week, might be the riskiest and most complicated home loan product ever created, and from all the new homes purchased with such tools.

So what's the problem? Why should we be scared?

That's the cover story for the September 11, 2006 issue of Business Week, Nightmare Mortgages, by Mara Der Hovanesian. The subhead is "They promise the American Dream: A home of your own - with ultra-low rates and payments anyone can afford. Now, the trap has sprung."

And the hard copy cover is classic - a big, green python wrapped around a cute little home, crushing it (image here). And the words wrap around the image - "How Toxic Is Your Mortgage? Deceptive loans. Phantom profits. And coming soon: A wave of defaults."

And here's the opening -
For cash-strapped homeowners, it was a pitch they couldn't refuse: Refinance your mortgage at a bargain rate and cut your payments in half. New home buyers, stretching to afford something in a super-heated market, didn't even need to produce documentation, much less a down payment.

Those who took the bait are in for a nasty surprise. While many Americans have started to worry about falling home prices, borrowers who jumped into so-called option ARM loans have another, more urgent problem: payments that are about to skyrocket.

The option adjustable rate mortgage (ARM) might be the riskiest and most complicated home loan product ever created. With its temptingly low minimum payments, the option ARM brought a whole new group of buyers into the housing market, extending the boom longer than it could have otherwise lasted, especially in the hottest markets. Suddenly, almost anyone could afford a home - or so they thought. The option ARM's low payments are only temporary. And the less a borrower chooses to pay now, the more is tacked onto the balance.

The bill is coming due. Many of the option ARMs taken out in 2004 and 2005 are resetting at much higher payment schedules - often to the astonishment of people who thought the low installments were fixed for at least five years. And because home prices have leveled off, borrowers can't count on rising equity to bail them out. What's more, steep penalties prevent them from refinancing. The most diligent home buyers asked enough questions to know that option ARMs can be fraught with risk. But others, caught up in real estate mania, ignored or failed to appreciate the risk.
This could knock the legs out from under the whole economy - the house of cards tumbles. And it's a big house of cards.

So were these people who got themselves into this mess just stupid?

That depends on your point of view -
There was plenty more going on behind the scenes they didn't know about, either: that their broker was paid more to sell option ARMs than other mortgages; that their lender is allowed to claim the full monthly payment as revenue on its books even when borrowers choose to pay much less; that the loan's interest rates and up-front fees might not have been set by their bank but rather by a hedge fund; and that they'll soon be confronted with the choice of coughing up higher payments or coughing up their home. The option ARM is "like the neutron bomb," says George McCarthy, a housing economist at New York's Ford Foundation. "It's going to kill all the people but leave the houses standing."

Because banks don't have to report how many option ARMs they underwrite, few choose to do so. But the best available estimates show that option ARMs have soared in popularity. They accounted for as little as 0.5% of all mortgages written in 2003, but that shot up to at least 12.3% through the first five months of this year, according to FirstAmerican LoanPerformance, an industry tracker. And while they made up at least 40% of mortgages in Salinas, Calif., and 26% in Naples, Fla., they're not just found in overheated coastal markets: Through Mar. 31 of this year, at least 51% of mortgages in West Virginia and 26% in Wyoming were option ARMs. Stock and bond analysts estimate that as many as 1.3 million borrowers took out as much as $389 billion in option ARMs in 2004 and 2005. And it's not letting up. Despite the housing slump, option ARMs totaling $77.2 billion were written in the second quarter of this year, according to investment bank Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.
That's a big chunk of the economy.

And there are the stories -
Gordon Burger is among the first wave of option ARM casualties. The 42-year-old police officer from a suburb of Sacramento, Calif., is stuck in a new mortgage that's making him poorer by the month. Burger, a solid earner with clean credit, has bought and sold several houses in the past. In February he got a flyer from a broker advertising an interest rate of 2.2%. It was an unbeatable opportunity, he thought. If he refinanced the mortgage on his $500,000 home into an option ARM, he could save $14,000 in interest payments over three years. Burger quickly pulled the trigger, switching out of his 5.1% fixed-rate loan. "The payment schedule looked like what we talked about, so I just started signing away," says Burger. He didn't read the fine print.

After two months Burger noticed that the minimum payment of $1,697 was actually adding $1,000 to his balance every month. "I'm not making any ground on this house; it's a loss every month," he says. He says he was told by his lender, Minneapolis-based Homecoming Financial, a unit of Residential Capital, the nation's fifth-largest mortgage shop, that he'd have to pay more than $10,000 in prepayment penalties to refinance out of the loan. If he's unhappy, he should take it up with his broker, the bank said. "They know they're selling crap, and they're doing it in a way that's very deceiving," he says. "Unfortunately, I got sucked into it." In a written statement, Residential said it couldn't comment on Burger's loan but that "each mortgage is designed to meet the specific financial needs of a consumer."

... Most of the pain will be born by ordinary people. And it's already happening. More than a fifth of option ARM loans in 2004 and 2005 are upside down - meaning borrowers' homes are worth less than their debt. If home prices fall 10%, that number would double. "The number of houses for sale is tripling in some markets, so people are not going to get out of their debt," says the Ford Foundation's McCarthy. "A lot are going to walk."

Jennifer and Eric Hinz of Somerset, Wis., are feeling the squeeze. They refinanced out of a 5.25% fixed-rate, 30-year loan in June, 2005, and into an option ARM with a 1% teaser rate from Indymac Bank. The $1,483 payment for their original mortgage dropped to as low as $747 with the new option ARM. They say they had no idea when they signed up, however, that the low payment adds $600 in deferred interest to their balance every month. Worse, they thought the 1% would last three years, but they're already paying 7.68%. "What reasonable human being would ever knowingly give up a 5.25% fixed-rate for what we're getting now?" says Eric, 36, who works in commercial construction. Refinancing is out because they can't afford the $15,000 or so in fees. "I'm paying more, and the interest is just going up and up and up," says Jennifer, 34, a stay-at-home mom. "I feel like we got totally screwed." They say their mortgage broker has stopped returning their phone calls. Indymac declined to comment on the loan's specifics.

This is a bad business, an essentially unregulated free market. The miraculous "invisible hand" Adam Smith was talking about, unfettered competition, the "hand" that produces the greatest good for the greatest number, is slapping a lot of folks around, and hard.

The political dimension to this, as the election approach, is that the conservatives in control of the government worship this miraculous "invisible hand" Adam Smith was talking about, unfettered competition, the "hand" that produces the greatest good for the greatest number. It is the cornerstone of so much of what we're told is how the world works - deregulate business, help no one with any social programs so they develop personal responsibility, and the nation will thrive.

But what about the angry people?

Duncan Black suggests this -

If, as I cautiously predict, we're about to hit a massive foreclosure wave which is going to hit people at just about every income level there is a certain party whose name starts with the letter 'D' which might find it beneficial to start branding themselves as Friends of Homeowners with some smart policy proposals to back them up.

Off the top of my head this could include cracking down on bad lending practices, providing legal assistance to victims of dishonest lending practices, removing impediments to prepayment and refinancing, and, of course, repealing the bankruptcy bill...
Let's see. That's "more regulation." And the second item is another social "do good" program that makes people think of themselves as victims, and thus undermines their charter and so forth. The third in an intervention to make the bankers and loan companies drop rules that are a stop-loss for their operations. The fourth hurts the banking industry, just last year given the opportunity to stop people from walking away from their financial responsibilities just because those people have no money left. That will never fly.

Here's another UCLA professor - Mark Kleiman (Public Policy, not Law) with this comment -
The coming option ARM train wreck combines consumer fraud with (in this case purely legal) corporate book-cooking. Democrats need to start pounding the table now to take full political advantage of the disaster as it unfolds. I especially like the idea of legal assistance for victims of mortgage brokers' flim-flam tactics.

Of course, the Republicans could beat the Democrats to the punch by actually doing something about the problem before it turns into a catastrophe, but it's a safe bet they won't.
No, they won't.

And Kleiman adds this -
Note that the option ARM crunch has the potential to make the housing-price landing a good deal harder.

Usually, when house prices go down, sellers pull back; you could describe this as speculative holding or as loss aversion, but either way transaction volume drops because homeowners don't want to sell their places for less than they think them to be worth.

But people who can't make their suddenly "adjusted" option-ARM payments, and don't have any equity to refinance, may have no alternative to a distress sale except foreclosure, and the banks aren't going to want to sit on piles of houses either. So we might see the sort of "selling climax" that characterizes the end of a stock-market dive.

The difference is that big institutions don't generally buy individual houses as investments, so it's hard for big pools of speculative money to come in if a selling panic leaves houses under-priced compared to some external standard of value such as the capitalized value of the rent. Being ready to step up and buy in the face of that sort of crisis is an excellent way to get either rich or broke in a hurry.
So the administration wants us to be scared of the "sort of" fascists, and this is going on. One senses this could lead to people to question not just the Iraq business, and the whole idea that wars are good and stability bad, but all of the premises of the guys who have been running things for the last six years. Is their whole theory of government just plain dangerous?

It's almost as if Business Week is changing things up - "So you think that is scary? Try this!" And here the "this" is far more immediate and not abstract at all. It's personal. With our volunteer and relatively small army, and no draft, and no war bonds or special taxes or anything, the war is a bit of an abstraction for many. Losing your house is not an abstraction. And now declaring bankruptcy won't help you at all.

Friday, September 1, Thomas Frank in the New York Times puts what we're told is good for us in historical perspective -
What we have watched unfold for a few decades, I have argued, is a broad reversion to 19th-century political form, with free-market economics understood as the state of nature, plutocracy as the default social condition, and, enthroned as the nation’s necessary vice, an institutionalized corruption surpassing anything we have seen for 80 years. All that is missing is a return to the gold standard and a war to Christianize the Philippines.
We're getting there. Be patient.

In the same issue of the Times Paul Krugman notes the disconnect -
There are still some pundits out there lecturing people about how great the economy is. But most analysts seem to finally realize that Americans have good reasons to be unhappy with the state of the economy: although GDP growth has been pretty good for the last few years, most workers have seen their wages lag behind inflation and their benefits deteriorate.

The disconnect between overall economic growth and the growing squeeze on many working Americans will probably play a big role this November, partly because President Bush seems so out of touch: the more he insists that it’s a great economy, the angrier voters seem to get.
And what's the data?

E. J. Dionne covers the latest just out from the Census Bureau, and says it's worse for the administration than Katrina, as in this -
The "good" news is that the poverty rate, the proportion of Americans who are poor, didn't change much between 2004 and 2005, falling in a statistically insignificant way from 12.7 percent to 12.6 percent. The bad news is that the poverty rate, having risen steadily in recent years, is still higher than it was in 2001, when it stood at 11.7 percent.

Worse is that the proportion of the poor who are very poor has risen. People are considered in deep poverty if they have half or less of the yearly income of those at the poverty line. In 2005 half the poverty line for a family of three was $7,788; for a family of four it was $9,985. (Try living on that.) According to the new report, 43.1 percent of poor people lived in that sort of deep poverty - a record since 1975, when the government started assembling such statistics.

In the six economic recoveries since the early 1960s, this is the first time the poverty rate was higher in the recovery's fourth year than it was when the recession was at its worst.

The number of Americans without health insurance rose, too, to 46.6 million in 2005, up from 45.3 million in 2004 and 41.2 million in 2001. The proportion without insurance is up from 14.6 percent in 2001 to 15.9 percent in 2005.

What about the middle class? Yes, the median income of American households rose by 1.1 percent last year after five years of decline. But most of the growth was in households headed by Americans 65 and over -- who are helped, rightly, by substantial government benefits. In households headed by people under 65, incomes fell yet again.

… The census had some very good news for the well-to-do. The top fifth of American households received 50.4 percent of all income last year, the highest proportion since 1967, when the Census Bureau started following that trend. The biggest gains were concentrated in the top 5 percent.

"The economy is growing, and someone is getting the growth," said Sharon Parrott, a senior analyst at the liberal Center on Budget and Policy Priorities. "So now we know who it is."

President Bush and the Republican Congress, take a bow: You took power to make the well-off even better off, and you have succeeded brilliantly.
Let's see - the line is that the well-off have been made much, much better off because they deserve it, and you'll get yours, eventually. And anyway, the richer they are the better it is for everyone. Right. And the war in Iraq really was necessary, even if the reasons we gave you to start up that all were kind of lame.

One senses that there's the real possibility that people just are not as scared as they're told they're supposed to be, and the possibility that the whole governing theory in play for the last six years is looking to many like smoke and mirrors - a trick to get the goodies and screw everyone else.

Could that shift in public opinion be underway?

No way - people hate the girly Democrats, those do-gooders and tree-huggers who think the government should do things for the people. And people know if they have the right attitude and take personal responsibility they too will get incredibly rich one day, and those tax breaks will come in handy.

But then there's this, noting that last month Rasmussen Reports conducted a national tracking poll of fifteen thousand voters, not the usual 1,012 for minimal statistical validity, and came up with odd results -
The number of Americans calling themselves Republican has fallen to its lowest level in more than two-and-a-half years. Just 31.9% of American adults now say they’re affiliated with the GOP. That’s down from 37.2% in October 2004 and 34.5% at the beginning of 2006.

… The number of Democrats has grown slightly, from 36.1% at the beginning of the year to 37.3% now. Those who claim to be unaffiliated have increased to 30.8% this month. That’s the highest total recorded since Rasmussen Reports began releasing this data in January 2004.

Add it all together and the Democrats have their biggest net advantage - more than five percentage points - since January 2004. In the first month of 2006, the Democrats’ advantage was just 1.6 percentage points. Last month, 32.8% of adults said they were Republicans and 36.8% identified themselves as Democrats.
These figures must be wrong, or maybe people are tired what Rumsfeld only made explicit - tired of being called cowards who are morally corrupt and intellectually deficient, and who don't know their history. And they know they'll lose their homes. And they know the new rules mean they cannot file for bankruptcy for any relief, as that now ruins you forever, not the seven years like before.

The question is just who should be scared here.

Posted by Alan at 22:55 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006 23:20 PDT home

Thursday, 31 August 2006
What's in a Word? - Some Thoughts on Making Things Up
What's in a Word? - Some Thoughts on Making Things Up
"A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself" - or so Arthur Miller once said. Now it's the online media, the web logs and such. That's where facts and opinions are tossed back and fourth in an endless dialog in real time, out in the open for everyone to see. That's the public forum now. Print is just too slow, and the issues that pop up on the twenty-four hour cable political shows have already been tossed back and forth for hours and sometimes days on the web before the "big guns" pick them up.

That may be a worry for the newspapers - the cover story of the August 24th Economist is Who Killed the Newspaper? The idea there is that "the most useful bit of the media is disappearing" - but while that is a cause for concern, it's not a cause for panic, or so they say. Someone, after all, has to do the original reporting so there are things to talk about. Someone has to do the legwork, gathering information - who did what, who said what, and so forth. Their op-ed pages may now provide a secondary, late forum, summarizing and focusing points that have been roiling around the web and more immediate media for some time. The idea now is to provide, on those pages, focus and some consolidation. The primary function of newspapers thus reverts to the natural default, reporting what happened - who, what, when, where, how and generally why - although the broadcast media tells you sooner, even if in little detail. So they aren't part of the public forum, really. Miller's comment no longer applies. Newspapers - and the wire services that feed them - provide grist for the mill, so to speak. And the best newspapers do their own investigative reporting - uncovering more than anyone expected to know. And that's even more material for the national dialog, but it's the raw material. And even if it's often detailed in the way only the print media can manage, it's just that the forum where all that is discussed has moved on.

All that is by way of noting that a topic all over the place, starting perhaps two or three weeks ago, is all this new talk about fascism, specifically "Islamic fascism." What's that all about?

The Associated Press tackled that on Wednesday, August 30, here, in a classic "consolidation" background item. AP notes a new phenomenon, tracks down its origins, and does the legwork - ferreting out what key people are saying about this. Tom Raum, the Associated Press writer, works in the traditional journalistic mode - he doesn't participate in the forum. He observes it and reports on what he sees.

And what does he see? The president seems to have recast all the arguments that the Iraq war is a very good and necessary war by saying it's a key part of a "war against Islamic fascism." That's new, or in this case news. As is the news that fascism seems to be the new buzz word for Republicans. The war is unpopular. There are key elections coming up. They must think it's useful.

And the AP legwork is useful - the president first used the term earlier in August, talking about the arrest of those "liquid bomb" terrorists in the UK, and then spoke of "Islamic fascists" in a later speech in Green Bay. Add to that the White Press Secretary, Tony Snow, has been using variations of the phrase in his White House press briefings. And the very odd Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum, well on his to losing his senate seat in November, on the August 28th drew parallels between World War II and the current war against "Islamic fascism" - they both require fighting a common foe in multiple countries, so it's really the same sort of thing. And he's been using the term for months, not that it's been helping him much. Then there was Donald Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City - previously discussed here. He said anyone who disagreed with the administration - policy, strategy or tactics - was simply trying to appease "a new type of fascism," which made such folks cowards, confused and morally bankrupt, and also stunningly ignorant of history.

That's good reporting. The new tactic is clear, and the AP poll of White House aides and Republican strategists on the outside has them all saying this "Islamic fascism" stuff is an attempt "to more clearly identify the ideology that motivates many organized terrorist groups," although no names are sourced to that. It seems to be a shift in emphasis from the general to the specific, even if there's nothing in the AP item clearly defining fascism in a specific way. But the White House stated that the president would "elaborate on this theme" in a the series of speeches starting with his own go at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City all the way through his address to the UN General Assembly on 19 September. Perhaps he'll discuss the definitions of fascism laid out by Mussolini and demonstrate the exact parallels in detail, but that seems unlikely. It's more likely this will remain general and not specific at all.

But there are folks on the records giving it a go.

There's White House spokeswoman Dana Perino - "The key is that all of this violence and all of the threats are part of one single ideological struggle, a struggle between the forces of freedom and moderation, and the forces of tyranny and extremism."

That's still a bit broad.

There's the Republican polling expert Ed Goeas, saying that depicting the struggle as against Islamic "fascists" is an appropriate definition of the war that we're in - "I think it's effective in that it definitively defines the enemy in a way that we can't because they're not in uniforms."

That's on odd definition of fascists - as people without uniforms. Mussolini had the guys in brown shirts. Goeas seems to be saying they needed something that just reeked of "bad," and this term tested well.

It's hard to see how this is moving toward the specific.

And AP chats with Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - the use of the phrase "contributes to a rising level of hostility to Islam and the American-Muslim community." So it's not polling well in some circles.

Then there's Dennis Ross, the Mideast adviser to both the first Bush and then Clinton, and now the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. They would have to talk to him. He says he would have chosen different words -
"The 'war on terror' has always been a misnomer, because terrorism is an instrument, it's not an ideology. So I would always have preferred it to be called the 'war with radical Islam,' not with Islam but with 'radical Islam,'" Ross said.

Why even mention the religion? "Because that's who they are," Ross said. "Fascism had a certain definition. Whether they meet this or not, one thing is clear: They're radical. They represent a completely radical and intolerant interpretation of Islam."
He's very picky, isn't he?

So AP turns to a specialist in presidential rhetoric - there seems to be such people - and one is Wayne Fields, a specialist such at Washington University in Saint Louis, saying that while "fascism" once referred to the rigid nationalistic one-party dictatorship first instituted in Mussolini's Italy, it has "been used very loosely in all kinds of ways for a long time." No one cares about the details any more - "Typically, the Bush administration finds its vocabulary someplace in the middle ground of popular culture. It seems to me that they're trying to find something that resonates, without any effort to really define what they mean."

And AP taps Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, who says the "fascist" label is just a World War II thing, and is probably being used to vaguely remind us "of the lack of personal freedoms in fundamentalist countries." He thinks the effect on public opinion will be marginal - the first President Bush's 1990 kept saying Saddam Hussein was just like Hitler and was ridiculed a bit for that.

The item ends with some thoughts from Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown - the White House political gurus "probably had a focus group and they found the word 'fascist.'" It was a no-brainer - "Most people are against fascists of whatever form. By definition, fascists are bad. If you're going to demonize, you might as well use the toughest words you can." It'll do.

So that's the grist for the mill. What to make of it?

Here's some of the national dialog.

Digby over at Hullabaloo is here all over Dan Bartlett for what he said on MSNBC's Hardball. Dan Bartlett is a key advisor to the president - he got Karen Hughes' job when she became the lead on improving America's image around the world.

The problem is this transcript -
Nora O'Donnell: Dan do you agree that making an analogy to Hitler can be disproportionate with the current battles - while it's extremely important, the war on terror - comparing it to WWII is overstepping

Dan Bartlett: Absolutely not. The fascist movement from that era is very similar to the totalitarian ideology that al-Qaeda and other extremists, those who are wanting to pervert a very rich tradition of peaceful religion - Islam - to accomplish a certain set of objectives.

They have taken 3,000 American lives on one single morning, they've attacked country after country after country throughout the world with a very determined ideology, they're trying to overturn governments. They took control of Afghanistan, they're trying to take control of Iraq, they're trying to take control of Lebanon and they're doing it for a very specific reason - they have territorial ambition, they want the resources, they want the nuclear weapons, they want to destroy the west.

Very similar in proportion I would argue, and many other people would argue as well. So it is a very important historical lesson for to understand today because the fight we're in today is as consequential as the fight we fought in the last century.
Digby is having none of it -
Let's think for a moment about what he's saying. If it is true that they have suddenly discovered that this threat is equal to the threat posed by the axis powers in WWII, then they have clearly failed miserably to meet such an existential threat. These monsters are allegedly attacking "country after country after country" trying to seize territory so they can take the resources and get nuclear weapons and we are sending national guard troops over to Iraq for their fourth or fifth tours instead of mobilizing the entire nation? The only sacrifice Bush has asked of the American people is to pay their taxes and spend money.
There's a lot of that in the public forum - this doesn't add up.

There's Glenn Greenwald here -
The President's supporters try to decorate their thirst for war by depicting it as some sort of compelled Churchillian defense in the face of unprecedented evil, but it is really nothing more noble than reckless warmongering of the most dangerous kind. Although Donald Rumsfeld's invocation of the "Neville Chamberlain appeasement" insult is being treated as some sort of serious historical argument, it is, in fact, the most tired, overused and manipulative cliché used for decades by the most extreme warmongers in Washington to attack those who seek alternatives to war.

In fact, though Ronald Reagan has been canonized as the Great Churchillan Warrior, back then he was accused of being the new 1938 Neville Chamberlain because he chose to negotiate with the Soviets and sign treaties as an alternative to war.

... Screaming "appeasement" and endlessly comparing political opponents to Neville Chamberlian is not a serious, thoughtful argument, nor is it the basis for any sort of foreign policy. At best, it is an empty, cheap platitude so overused by those seeking war as to be impoverished of meaning. More often than not, though, it is worse than that; it is the disguised battle cry of those who want war for its own sake, and who want therefore to depict the attempt to resolve problems without more and more new wars as being irresponsible and weak.

This same mindset - even, in some cases, the very same individuals - now launching the "Chamberlain/appeasement" insult even viewed Ronald Reagan that way because he negotiated and signed treaties with the Soviets and tried to find ways to avoid constant wars. The Cold War didn't end with wars on the Soviets but with engagement of them and treaties with them, signed by the Neville Chamberlain of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan. Those who considered Reagan a Chamberlain appeaser back then were radicals and extremists (and were viewed as such). They still are extremists, but they also happen to be the ones guiding the dominant political party in our country and they don't just want to prolong the war in Iraq but want several new wars (at least).

That's a bit shrill, but it gets to the core of the nonsense.

So who is more shrill?

Try this -

Charles Black, a longtime GOP consultant with close ties to both the first Bush administration and the current White House, said branding Islamic extremists as fascists is apt.

"It helps dramatize what we're up against. They are not just some ragtag terrorists. They are people with a plan to take over the world and eliminate everybody except them," Black said.
Or as Digby says here -
Run for your lives!

I know I don't have to spell out all he ways in which Islamic radicalism is unlike fascism. But it is worth taking a look at the writings of the guy who pretty much invented fascism, good old Benito Mussolini. He wrote a little treatise back in 1932 that spelled it all out. It's true that fascism considered itself an enemy of democracy (and Marxism) and it fetishized war and violence. And yes, one of its primary tenets was imperialism.

We can argue about whether any or all of those components are part of the "Islamo-fascist ideology," but for the sake of argument, let's agree that on some level they are. But there are a few defining characteristic of fascism - as defined by the man who made fascism a household name - that surely make Islamic radicalism something else entirely.

For instance:

"... The Fascist accepts life and loves it, knowing nothing of and despising suicide: he rather conceives of life as duty and struggle and conquest, but above all for others -- those who are at hand and those who are far distant, contemporaries, and those who will come after...

"… The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality - thus it may be called the "ethic" State.

"…The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone."

Those two things, it seems to me, make any comparison between fascism and a loose confederation (if that) of suicidal religious fanatics spread all over the world, ridiculous. They might just as well have appropriated the phrase Mongol Hordes for all the sense it made. (Actually, Osama bin Laden has made that comparison - with the US.) Not that it will stop the wingnuts from pimping it like it's the latest teen-age fad - making sense has never been a hallmark of these people.

The funny thing is that if you look at Mussolini's definition it does fit some modern western political factions much better than Islamic radicalism. I leave it to you to figure out who they might be.
But is it really fair to quote Benito Mussolini? They don't want us to take this all too seriously, it seems. It's a word for the rubes. They eat it up.

People will buy anything if it's scary enough? Maybe so.

As for the first in the series of presidential speeches to "elaborate on this theme," the president's address before the American Legion's national convention on Thursday, August 31, provided some interesting elaborations, without much in the way of specifics.

The transcript is here here, containing things like this - "The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq."

Those are high stakes, and as Fred Kaplan says -
Does anybody believe this? If you do, then you must ask the president why he hasn't reactivated the draft, printed war bonds, doubled the military budget, and strenuously rallied allies to the cause.

If, as he said in this speech, the war in Iraq really is the front line in "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century"; if our foes there are the "successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists"; if victory is "as important" as it was in Omaha Beach and Guadalcanal - then those are just some of the steps that a committed president would feel justified in demanding.

If, as he also said, terrorism takes hold in hotbeds of stagnation and despair, then you must also ask the president why he hasn't requested tens or hundreds of billions of dollars for aid and investment in the Middle East to promote hope and livelihoods.

Yet the president hasn't done any of those things, nor has anyone in his entourage encouraged him to do so. And that's because, while the war on terror is important and keeping Iraq from disintegrating is important, they're not that important. Osama Bin Laden is not Hitler or Stalin. Baghdad is not Berlin. Al-Qaida and its imitators don't have the economic resources, the military power, or the vast nationalist base that Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union had.

So, the speech sends the head buzzing with cognitive dissonances. There's the massively exaggerated historical analogy (which should have been obvious, if not insulting, to the World War II veterans in the audience). And there's the glaring mismatch between the president's gargantuan depiction of the threat and the relatively paltry resources he's mustered to fight it.

Such dissonances could further diminish, not revive, his support.
But he did say "fascist" - and you're supposed to be scared, and vote Republican.

After a lot of detail, Kaplan comes to a not very startling conclusion -
Not all of our enemies are fascists, and not all of our friends are democrats. The danger - really, the crisis - looming in the Middle East is not the threat to freedom and democracy but rather the threat to stability. This is the bugaboo Bush does not want to face. He has said, over and over, that his predecessors' infatuation with stability is what caused the festering stagnation and resentment that bred the terrorists who mounted the attacks of Sept. 11. "Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither," Bush said this morning. That's a matter of debate. In any event, the new danger is that Bush's neglect of stability to promote freedom will leave us with neither of those things - to the still-deeper detriment of peace: a trifecta of world misery.

There are dangers. Bush is not mustering the resources to deal with them, mainly because we do not have the resources. He needs - we need - assistance from international players who have an even greater interest in preventing Iraq from collapsing or a regional war from erupting. However, Bush will not be able to rally this assistance as long as he makes statements like, "We will take the side of democrats and reformers throughout the Middle East." To the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and others, that sounds as if Bush would take the side of people who want to overthrow their regimes. He couldn't be serious; he is, after all, friendly with those regimes. But what is he up to? What are his real intentions? Why bail him out on Iraq if he sees freedom's triumph in Iraq as the harbinger for the rise of "reformers" throughout the region?

To pursue a sound policy in the Middle East, to impede civil war and worse, would require Bush to shift gears - to drop his rhetoric on spreading some abstract concept of freedom (at least as a centerpiece) and to resume the long-standing pursuit of stability. Such a shift may be too humbling for Bush to endure. And so, as long as he keeps giving speeches on the war in Iraq and the war on terror, the cognitive dissonances will buzz ever louder.
So goes the national dialog, the conversation in the electronic open forum. The son's "everyone who opposes us is part of a giant fascist conspiracy" is going about as well as the father's "Saddam is really Hitler if you think about it." Cool buzz words - until you think about it.

They just make up stuff. They hope people react in some Pavlov's Dog way. Who are the small-brained but happy loyal dogs reacting that way? There's a reason some folks prefer cats - the 'yeah boss you're wonderful" goofy Labrador Retriever puppy can just get on your nerves.

The just make up things. Fascists, indeed.

They make up things? Try this -
Bush suggested last week that Democrats are promising voters to block additional money for continuing the war. Vice President Cheney this week said critics "claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone." And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing passivity toward Nazi Germany before World War II, said that "many have still not learned history's lessons" and "believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased."

Pressed to support these allegations, the White House yesterday could cite no major Democrat who has proposed cutting off funds or suggested that withdrawing from Iraq would persuade terrorists to leave Americans alone. But White House and Republican officials said those are logical interpretations of the most common Democratic position favoring a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
No one proposed anything like that, ever. It's like the fascist thing. It sounds right. People will react.

Somehow they just sound desperate.

Posted by Alan at 23:22 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006 07:31 PDT home

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