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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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Thursday, 14 December 2006
On Losing: What Is Acceptable and What Is Not
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

On Losing: What Is Acceptable and What Is Not

Kevin Drum, at the Washington Monthly wonders what happened -
Question: has a hotly anticipated blue ribbon report ever fallen into irrelevance so quickly? The Baker-Hamilton report was released only a week ago, and as near as I can tell it's now a dead letter. Within days, both left and right slagged it viciously, President Bush made it clear that he didn't think much of it, and virtually no one other than David Broder had anything nice to say about it.

(I mean that literally. Has anyone stood up for the report? I can't really think of anyone who's had any sustained praise for it.)

And now? The worst fate of all: it's completely off the radar screen. Its language was so vague as to be meaningless, and within a few days its insignificance was so obvious that no one was even giving it the dignity of arguing about how misguided it was. Chattering classes-wise, it's disappeared down a black hole.

Sic transit gloria mundi.
People did have high hopes this would be a big turning point. Policy would change, or our strategy, or at least our tactics. But it turned out there were two parts to the report - an assessment of where we stand and recommendations as to what we should now do, seventy-nine of them. The first part was devastating assessment - we are not winning and cannot win, or even define what winning is, if we continue doing what we're doing. The second part was suggested actions, many of which were "it would be nice if" speculations that had little to do with what other nations might actually be willing to do, and many of which the president flat-out says he will not do (like agree to talks with Syria, much less any talks about anything with Iran). The report wasn't exactly dead on arrival - it just expired in the emergency room. No one wanted it to live. The problem is that neither the brutal assessment nor the pie-in-the-sky recommendations served anyone's interests. It was designed to please no one, and there was no "saving face" anywhere in it. We may have a big problem, but no party saw anything in it for them. Maybe it had to be that way.

So the president, who was apparently going to announce a major change in our approach in an address to the American people before Christmas, decided January would do. He doesn't want to be rushed, and he began a "listening tour" - meetings at the Pentagon, at the State Department, with retired generals, with "experts." He was looking for someone to agree with him - winning it all was the only alternative - and has been swamped with views as to how to define winning and how to get there. Of course, more and more it appears he will opt for a big bump in troop levels, to get things in Baghdad under control. But that too may just be buying time. One way or another we will leave, sooner or later.

Richard Cohen at the Post puts it bluntly -
[T]he ending is inevitable. We will get out, and the only question that remains is whether we get out with 3,000 dead or 4,000 or 5,000. At some point the American people will not countenance, and Congress will not support, a war that cannot be won. Just how many lives will be wasted in what we all know is a wasted effort is about the only question still left on the table.
And maybe that is why the Baker-Hamilton report slipped into irrelevancy so quickly. It really didn't matter much. What's done is done.

Mark Morford in the San Francisco Chronicle sees it this way -
The good news is, we're all back in harmony. All back on the same page. No more divisiveness and no more silly bickering and no more nasty and indignant red state/blue state rock throwing because we're finally all back in cozy let's-hug-it-out agreement: The "war" in Iraq is over. And what's more, we lost. Very, very badly.

Sure, you sort of sensed from the beginning that we couldn't possibly win a bogus war launched by a nasty slew of corrupt pseudo cowboys against both a bitterly contorted Islamic nation and a vague and ill-defined concept that has no center and no boundaries and that feeds on the very thing that tries to destroy it. It was sort of obvious, even if half the nation was terrifically blinded by Bush administration lies and false shrieks of impending terror.

But now it's official. Or rather, more official. Now it's pretty much agreed upon on both sides of the aisle and in every Iraq Study Group and by every top-ranking general and newly minted defense secretary-designate and in every facet of American culture save some of the gun-totin' flag-lickin' South. We lost. And what's more, we have no real clue what to do about it.
We're not supposed to lose. We cannot accept that. That's not how things are supposed to be. We are strong, and righteous, and good. And no one can question our intentions - rid the Middle East of a brutal dictator and introduce the only system of government that really works - a secular free-market democracy - and see it spread an the dominos fall (the dominos being the autorotation governments in all the nations in the region). Of course these were not precisely what we had originally said were the reasons we chose to wage this particular war. But when, in the end, there were no weapons of mass destruction, and no connection between Saddam Hussein and al Qaeda, they would do.

And who could question the second wave of reasons for what we did and what we are doing, whatever it is? Ask what we are doing and you know what you'll have thrown back in you face. So you think Saddam was a good man, do you? So tell me, why do you hate democracy so much? There's not much to say to that.

But something went wrong. Morford works on that -
It's not like we were overpowered. We weren't outmanned or outgunned or outstrategized, hence we weren't defeated in any "traditional," kick-ass, take-names, sign-the-peace-accord way.

It wasn't because our can't-lose military didn't have the latest and greatest killing tools of all time, the biggest budget, the most heroic of baffled and misled young soldiers sort of but not really willing to go off and fight and die for a cause no one could adequately explain or justify to them.

We still have the coolest, fastest planes. We still have the meanest billion-dollar technology. We still have the most imposing tanks and the most incredible weaponry and the badass night-vision goggles with the laser sights and the thermal heat-seeking readouts and the ability to track targets from 2 miles away in a dust storm.
It doesn't matter, really, as the contention here is we no longer have any idea what we're doing on the global stage, as they say. We lost this "war" before we even began. We went in "for all the wrong reasons and with all the wrong planning and with all the wrong leadership who had all the wrong motives based on all the wrong greedy self-serving insular faux cowboy BS that your kids and your grandkids will be paying for until about the year 2056."

Yeah. This is a left-wing rant, but it has its moments -
Maybe you don't agree. Maybe you say, "Wait, wait, wait, it's not over at all, and we haven't lost yet. Isn't the fighting still raging? Can't we still 'win' even though we're still losing soldiers by the truckload and thousands of innocent Iraqis are being brutally slaughtered every month and isn't Dubya still standing there, brow scrunched and confounded as a monkey clinging onto a shiny razor blade, refusing to let go and free us from the deadly trap, ignoring the Iraq Study Group and trying to figure out a way to stay the course and never give in and "mission accomplished" even as every single human around him, from the top generals to crusty old James Baker to the new and shockingly honest secretary of defense, says we are royally screwed and Iraq is now a vicious and chaotic civil war and it's officially one of the worst disasters in American history?" Oh wait, you just answered your own question.

Yes, technically, the war is still on. The fighting is not over.

… But the nasty us-versus-them, good-versus-evil ideology is over. Ditto the numb sense of Bush's brutally simpleminded American "justice." Any lingering hint of anything resembling a truly valid and lucid and deeply patriotic reason for wasting a trillion dollars and thousands of lives and roughly an entire generation's worth of international respect? Gone.

What's left is one lingering, looming question: How do we accept defeat? How do we deal with the awkward, identity-mauling, ego-stomping idea that, once again, America didn't "win" a war it really had no right to launch in the first place? After all, isn't this the American slogan: "We may not always be right, but we are never wrong"?

It's still our most favorite idea, the thing our own childlike president loves to talk most about, burned into our national consciousness like a bad tattoo: We always win. We're the good guys. We're the chosen ones. We're the goddamn cavalry, flying the flag of truth, wrapped in strip malls and Ford pickups and McDonald's franchises. Right?

Wrong. If Vietnam's aftermath proved anything, it's that we are incredibly crappy losers.
There's more of this, but you get the idea. It's not exactly measured analysis. But we are crappy losers.

So we won't lose. In January the president is set to announce "The New Way Forward" - which may be the "National Strategy for Victory in Iraq" with a new cover, the National Strategy from November 30, 2005, the day the president explained it all at Naval Academy in Annapolis. At least the new name has been chosen, even if it sounds a bit like a name Mao would have chosen. And it will surely be a double-down. We send in fifty thousand more troops. We give it one last shot (before the next "one last shot" and the one after that). We have to try. We will not accept defeat. No desperate scenes of helicopters on the rooftops this time, ferrying our last folks out and kicking the locals off the skids.

The problem, as Glenn Greenwald points out, is the usual. The devil is in the details -
The only specific plan one ever hears from them is that we can go and kill Moqtada al-Sadr, but that is certainly something we can accomplish without more troops. Independently, is killing one of the most popular and powerful Shiite leaders really going to help stabilize Iraq and help us achieve our goals? While that would be very emotionally and psychologically fulfilling to some, doesn't that choice seem far more likely to have the opposite effect - which is almost certainly the reason we haven't done it since 2003?

The problem with fighting insurgencies, of course, is that they are blended into the population itself. They aren't sitting in a field somewhere waiting to be engaged by more brigades. The problem we've had isn't a lack of desire and attempt to kill insurgents. That's what our soldiers have been doing in Iraq for almost four years now. The problem is that you can't actually end insurgencies using military force without using extremely indiscriminate force that slaughters enormous numbers of civilians, and flattening whole neighborhoods wholesale is one of the few things we haven't done during the Bush presidency.

Isn't all this talk about "more resolve" and "doing what needs to be done" - while it is masquerading around as a strategic call for "more troops" - really about demanding that we step up the indiscriminate bombing, violence and killing, including - especially - of civilians, based on the theory, as immoral as it is misguided, that that is the real way we will "win the war" and drive "our enemies into submission"?

As bad as this war is being managed now, the only thing that's certain is that whatever "new way forward" the President is about to embrace is only going to make things much, much worse.
But then that is not losing. And that seems to be the new definition of winning. It will have to do. The president has bet everything he is on this war. And he's about to ask for one hundred twenty billion dollars - extra, supplemental, off-budget - to continue. There's no way congress can turn this down. Our kids are over there, fighting, and we cannot abandon them. And if you don't agree to fighting, you agree to losing. That's the simple-minded dialectic. The Baker-Hamilton Iraq Study Group tried to uncouple that dialectic, suggesting third or fourth or fifth alternatives. But the thing cannot be uncoupled - if you're not fighting you accept losing. Said over and over again, it is a bit hypnotic. We don't like complexity. Keep it simple.

So we must keep on fighting. If we don't, we accept losing. Heck, it worked in Vietnam.

No, wait, it didn't. Could there be a basic logical fallacy here? Not many Americans studied symbolic logic in college, and few who did enjoyed it. But sometimes the oddest of subjects is surprisingly useful. A is not necessarily the opposite of B, even if the words for each seem to imply that. You have to think these things through. The opposite of "fighting" is not necessarily "losing." Many other words could be the opposite of "fighting" - peace, cooperation, even scheming and trickery. One link is as valid as any other. You'd be a fool to not see you're being duped when you're told the "one alternative" is the only alternative.

But the president has bet everything he is on this war, and now on this limited dialectic. We're just along for the ride, and no one is going to impeach him for getting us into this mess, and for our twenty-five thousand casualties, including nearly three thousand dead, and the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis dead (depending on who is keeping count). So we bear no responsibility, or, perhaps we do -
What should we say about the political system? Does America have a collective conscience, or are we absolved, as individuals, of any responsibility as long as we can say we didn't vote for George W. Bush? I'll call the question one more time: If he as the head of our national entity committed crimes against the nation and humanity, and the crimes become known, is he allowed to ride out his term in office, or do we act to remove him? … the founders put a safeguard in the Constitution to protect against elected "despots and tyrants." The safeguard, mentioned six times, is the impeachment option.

As to the question of a collective national conscience, I received an email from a reader who I think eloquently expresses the importance of collective responsibility for Iraq, but who perhaps disagrees with me about the need to impeach.

"… Everyone focuses on Bush's refusal to accept responsibility for what he's done, and that's really important. But the same thing is necessary for the country as a whole.

"This isn't some abstract thing, or just a desire to see the nation do penance for its crimes. It affects the way we see the conflict now and our options.

"This whole mess was caused by problems over here, in this country - our own inability to understand other culture, things that are broken in our political system, problems with our own press, the ease with which such an ugly war was sold to the public as a whole, etc.

"But when we talk about what to do next, we take this patronizing attitude - the Iraqis have to learn this, or isn't it unfortunate that they didn't go through the enlightenment, or the Iraqi government has to learn that we can't do it forever, they'll have to step up and 'take responsibility.' Like a suburban dad teaching a kid how to ride a bike, we'll have to take off the training wheels.

"As far as I'm concerned, we need to do two things. We need to internalize the reality of what's happened - that our aggression caused these deaths, and that it caused the ongoing chaos.

"And we need to take our obligation to our victims seriously. Right now, that means trying to structure policies so that as few Iraqis die every day as possible. The civilian death toll has to be the dominant metric.

"A while back, I was thinking about whether or not Bush lied to get us in to this war, or if he was just spinning very hard and went right up to the line. I think he lied, but I decided that it doesn't really matter.

"When 665,000+ people have been killed, what difference does a lie make, one way or another? To put it another way, if he didn't lie, would things be better? The body count dwarfs conventional morality, and the ideas we have about right and wrong in our personal spheres don't necessarily make much sense on the level where Bush is operating.

"When this is over, Bush will probably have been responsible for more than a million deaths. Probably a lot more than a million. Does it matter if he lied, or if he's censured or impeached? If he's forced out of office six months early, and Cheney runs out the clock, will the dead come back? It would be a farce to say that justice had been done - what kind of justice can balance the books on a million deaths?

"It doesn't address the core problems - one of which is that people are still dying. The other core problem is that we are a paranoid, warlike country, and our public was willing to follow Bush down this path.

"If you listen to the populist right on talk radio now, you'll hear that they're defiant, unbowed, totally delusional, and filled with hatred. And many millions of our fellow citizens listen every day, nod their heads, and say, 'damn straight.' That's what we have to try to fix, although I have to confess I have no idea of how to do it.

"Listen to the debate about what to do now - there is absolutely no sense of shame in any of it. That's what we have to fix. Our actions have lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people, and we are not ashamed."
Fix that? Fat chance. And, as before, we're not supposed to lose. We cannot accept that. That's not how things are supposed to be. And we certainly don't accept shame. We, it is said, have nothing to be ashamed of, or for, or whatever preposition you'd like. That sort of thing, shame, is for the "hate America" crowd. And the Baker-Hamilton report stank of it. Logic and chauvinistic patriotism seldom meet, of course. Non-chauvinistic patriotism - we can do better - is another matter. But then that is ridiculed these days. Take that off the table, with the logic.

Still, things are as they are. And it all may be just a global clash of emotions, or so says Dominique Moïsi, a senior adviser at the French Institute of International Relations. The link here is to an article in the December 15 issue of the Paris-based International Herald Tribune, a cut-down version of what will appear in the January/February issue of Foreign Affairs.

The thesis is up front - "The Western world displays a culture of fear, the Arab and Muslim worlds are trapped in a culture of humiliation, and much of Asia displays a culture of hope." The rest is detail.

Some of the detail -
The United States and Europe are divided by a common culture of fear. On both sides, one encounters, in varying degrees, a fear of the other, a fear of the future and a fundamental anxiety about the loss of identity and control over one's destiny in an increasingly complex world.

In the case of Europe, there is the fear of being invaded by the poor, primarily from the south. Europeans also fear being blown up by radical Islamists or being demographically conquered by them as their continent becomes a "Eurabia." Then there is the fear of being left behind economically. Finally, there is the fear of being ruled by an outside power, even a friendly one (such as the United States) or a faceless one (such as the European Commission).

Some of the same sense of loss of control is present in the United States. Demographic fears are mitigated, but they are clearly present. Americans do not fear economic decay the way Europeans do (although they worry about outsourcing). Yet they, too, are thinking of decline - in their bodies, with the plague of obesity; in their budgets, with the huge deficits; and in their spirit, with the loss of appetite for foreign adventures and a growing questioning of national purpose. And of course after 9/11, Americans are obsessed with security.

Whereas Europeans try to protect themselves from the world through a combination of escapism and appeasement, Americans try to do so by dealing with the problem at its source abroad. But behind the Bush administration's forceful and optimistic rhetoric lies the somber reality that the U.S. response to 9/11 has made the United States more unpopular than ever. The U.S. intervention in Iraq, for example, has generated more problems than it has solved.

The Muslim world, meanwhile, has been obsessed with decay for centuries. When Europe was in its Middle Ages, Islam was at its apogee, but when the Western Renaissance started, Islam began its inexorable fall.
And so it goes. It's a new way of looking at things. It may be useful.

There's far more detail. It's an interesting read, but the conclusion is key -
Given the global clash of emotions, the first priority for the West must be to recognize the nature of the threat that the Muslim world's culture of humiliation poses to Europe and the United States. Neither appeasement nor force alone will suffice. The war that is unfolding is one that the culture of humiliation cannot win, but it is a war nonetheless and one that the West can lose by continuing to be divided or by betraying its liberal values and its respect for law and the individual. The challenge is not figuring out how to play moderate Islam against the forces of radicalism. It is figuring out how to encourage a sufficient sense of hope and progress in Muslim societies so that despair and anger do not send the masses into the radicals' arms.

In that regard, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict appears more than ever as a microcosm of what the world is becoming. Israel is the West, surrounded by the culture of humiliation and dreaming of escape from a dangerous region and of re-entry into a culture of hope. But it must find a solution to the Palestinian problem first, or else the escape will not be possible. So, too, Europe and America seek to permanently banish their fears but will be able to do so only by finding a way to help the Muslim world solve its problems.
So maybe the opposite of "fighting" is not necessarily "losing," nor is it peace, cooperation or even scheming and trickery. Maybe it's helping (if you can do that without being a patronizing asshole with an agenda) - unless "helping" is really "losing." It gets confusing when absolutely everything else is "losing."

Logic traps can be really irritating. But sometimes losing can be winning. Refusing to be goaded into a fight, and then applying logic, and then humor and compassion, and thus gaining a grudging ally, if not a friend, we are told is really losing. And we bought into that for five years? What were we thinking? What are we still thinking?

Posted by Alan at 22:55 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 15 December 2006 07:09 PST home

Wednesday, 13 December 2006
Another Skirmish in the Losing Battle
Topic: God and US

Another Skirmish in the Losing Battle

It just never ends. Back on April 24, 2005, you could read Who is YOUR Copilot?, a discussion of the news items regarding complaints by Air Force cadets of religious intolerance at our Air Force Academy out in Colorado. Some Jewish cadets were not happy with being told, over and over, that they, or their people, had killed Jesus, and with taking crap, and getting hassled, and getting crap assignments. The place was evangelical - and "others" just weren't wanted. The Air Force Academy was Jesus' place.

The news item cited at the time is no longer available on the web, but it opened with this -
Less than two years after it was plunged into a rape scandal, the Air Force Academy is scrambling to address complaints that evangelical Christians wield so much influence at the school that anti-Semitism and other forms of religious harassment have become pervasive.

There have been 55 complaints of religious discrimination at the academy in the past four years, including cases in which a Jewish cadet was told the Holocaust was revenge for the death of Jesus and another was called a Christ killer by a fellow cadet.
The Air Force promised to address this, and some chaplains were reassigned, but the story sank into oblivion.

And the matter of Lieutenant General William Boykin, now deputy under-secretary of defense for intelligence, touring the country telling Christian groups, while in uniform, that radical Muslims hate America, "because we're a Christian nation and the enemy is a guy named Satan," has been floating around since 2003. There's a profile of that guy here, with the classics - on hunting down Osman Atto in Mogadishu - "He went on CNN and he laughed at us, and he said, 'They'll never get me because Allah will protect me. Allah will protect me.' Well, you know what? I knew that my God was bigger than his. I knew that my God was a real God and his was an idol." Boykin apologized. A ten month investigation carried out by the Defense Department later concluded, in August 2004, that Boykin had broken at least three rules in giving the speeches - not clarifying that he gave the remarks in a private capacity, and he hadn't received clearance for making the remarks, and he hadn't declared the reimbursement of travel funds by one of the religious groups hosting the speaking events. But the report made no comment on the actual remarks he made, and no action was taken. It was a freedom of speech thing - and he got the job as deputy under-secretary of defense for intelligence. The New York Times reported on March 18, 2006 that, when asked by Undersecretary of Defense Stephen Cambone to "get to the bottom" of abuses committed by an elite counterinsurgency task force - torture and homicide and all that - Boykin found no pattern of any such thing, despite the ample evidence that there was. Jesus' soldiers don't do such things. This is the man who pretty determines much of how we deal with the bad guys - he assesses their motives and tactics and all, to shape our righteous response. Oh well. He also has claimed, at various times, God made George Bush, the younger, president - guiding the Supreme Court the first time and the voters the second time. This god is obviously a jokester.

And now this business has come up again. On December 10, the Washington Post gave us the latest -
A military watchdog group is asking the Defense Department to investigate whether seven Army and Air Force officers violated regulations by appearing in uniform in a promotional video for an evangelical Christian organization. In the video, much of which was filmed inside the Pentagon, four generals and three colonels praise the Christian Embassy, a group that evangelizes among military leaders, politicians and diplomats in Washington. Some of the officers are in the video. They describe their efforts to spread their faith within the military.
Actually, a Republican congressman, J. D. Hayworth of Arizona, a number of Bush appointees, and various high-ranking Army officers and Pentagon civilians appear in this ten-minute promotional video. So they're enthusiastic. No problem, but the Post item seems to imply that the word in the Pentagon is that your career is over unless you get with their take on Jesus. Get born again, or get out.

You can watch the video on YouTube here and here, or see it using Windows Media Player or QuickTime. It's a bit odd, or if you're a born again person, maybe it isn't.

Bonnie Goldstein at SLATE does the background work. The video was made for the evangelical organization Christian Embassy. Their mission is clear. This is a non-profit organization that "comes alongside presidential appointees in the White House and federal agencies to help direct their focus on Jesus Christ." They buck up souls at the sub-cabinet level. The organization was founded by the late Reverend Bill Bright. The man who also founded the Campus Crusade for Christ International. The aim is that everyone should become an evangelical Christian, damn it!

Goldstein notes that most of the government officials who appear in the promotional video probably violated a particular federal prohibition against proselytizing in the workplace. So there is a law in this matter. And there's the additional problem - the video puts special emphasis on the ministry's presence at the Pentagon and military personnel appear in uniform as they say how wonderful and awesome Christian Embassy is, and both military and civilian Pentagon employees are shown in their Pentagon offices. That almost certainly violates a Defense Department directive forbidding "use of official position" to promote "non-federal entities."

Oops. On December 11, the nonprofit Military Religious Freedom Foundation, a watchdog group that polices separation of church and state in the United States military, sent a letter about the video to the defense department's acting inspector general. If you click on the Goldstein item you can see all five pages of that. The letter, by Ezra Reese, counsel to the foundation, enumerates a long list of regulations that the video appears to violate - and it points out that the video further appears to violate the establishment clause of the U.S. Constitution. It basically asks the inspector general to find out who approved the taping at the Pentagon.

But you know nothing will happen. The battle to keep the military, and the nation, from becoming a de facto evangelical theocracy was lost long ago. What are left are the skirmishes. And de facto trumps de jure, as they say. And Bonnie Goldstein is a Jewish name, isn't it?

The Post item offers an interesting quote that illustrates that point -
"I found a wonderful opportunity as a director on the joint staff, as I meet the people that come into my directorate," Air Force Maj. Gen. Jack J. Catton Jr. says in the video. "And I tell them right up front who Jack Catton is, and I start with the fact that I'm an old-fashioned American, and my first priority is my faith in God, then my family and then country. I share my faith because it describes who I am."
Everyone in the military swears an oath to defend and uphold the constitution. This is DA Form 71, 1 August 1959, for officers. These guys just make the constitution third in their list of priorities.

The blogger Lambert seems upset -
So, which is it, General Catton? Is supporting the Constitution first one your list, or third?

I believe AA has the right take on "God" (or a higher power, or The God of Your Choice, if any). They always add the qualifier "God, as we understand God."

What if, for example, the God of General Catton's understanding told him to heave a nuke at the Satanic regime in Iran? Would he do it? By his own confession of faith, yes.

And this is not farfetched scenario: the Air Force academy has been heavily infiltrated by Christianists.

Can a Christianist ever be loyal to the United States?

If we take General Catton's words seriously- as we've learned over and over again, with the right, that we should do -the clear answer can only be:

No.
But this is a losing battle. One of the litigants in the Air Force Academy matter, Mike Weinstein, was interviewed on this matter and said these guys should be court-martialed. But then he sees what is going on -
I was in Topeka, on a book tour, and the local Episcopal priest came out to support me and five hours later his church was burned down. And the local synagogue in Topeka, where I was to speak that night, was desecrated with spray paint saying, "F**k you, Jews" and "KKK," all that stuff.
Speak about the separation of church and state and bad things happen. These guys play rough. Note that in late November an Episcopal church was burnt down near Sarasota, New York - wrong theology.

The guys at the Pentagon may be relatively harmless.

On the other hand, they must investigate the death of Pat Tillman from friendly fire, and they're finding that hard to do -
[Lt. Col. Ralph] Kauzlarich, [formerly the Army officer who directed the first official inquiry,] now a battalion commanding officer at Fort Riley in Kansas, further suggested the Tillman family's unhappiness with the findings of past investigations might be because of the absence of a Christian faith in their lives.

In an interview with ESPN.com, Kauzlarich said: "When you die, I mean, there is supposedly a better life, right? Well, if you are an atheist and you don't believe in anything, if you die, what is there to go to? Nothing. You are worm dirt. So for their son to die for nothing, and now he is no more - that is pretty hard to get your head around that. So I don't know how an atheist thinks. I can only imagine that that would be pretty tough."

Asked by ESPN.com whether the Tillmans' religious beliefs are a factor in the ongoing investigation, Kauzlarich said, "I think so. There is not a whole lot of trust in the system or faith in the system [by the Tillmans]. So that is my personal opinion, knowing what I know...

[T]here [have] been numerous unfortunate cases of fratricide, and the parents have basically said, 'OK, it was an unfortunate accident.' And they let it go. So this is - I don't know, these people have a hard time letting it go. It may be because of their religious beliefs."
No, they're just pissed. Tillman's brother, an atheist and patriot, like Tillman, did write this -
Somehow those afraid to fight an illegal invasion decades ago are allowed to send soldiers to die for an illegal invasion they started.

Somehow faking character, virtue and strength is tolerated.

Somehow profiting from tragedy and horror is tolerated.

Somehow the death of tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of people is tolerated.

Somehow subversion of the Bill of Rights and The Constitution is tolerated.

Somehow suspension of Habeas Corpus is supposed to keep this country safe.

Somehow torture is tolerated.

Somehow lying is tolerated.

Somehow reason is being discarded for faith, dogma, and nonsense.

Somehow American leadership managed to create a more dangerous world.

Somehow a narrative is more important than reality.

Somehow America has become a country that projects everything that it is not and condemns everything that it is.

Somehow the most reasonable, trusted and respected country in the world has become one of the most irrational, belligerent, feared, and distrusted countries in the world.

Somehow being politically informed, diligent, and skeptical has been replaced by apathy through active ignorance.

Somehow the same incompetent, narcissistic, virtueless, vacuous, malicious criminals are still in charge of this country.

Somehow this is tolerated.

Somehow nobody is accountable for this.
But our leaders are born again men of Jesus. How could this be?

This battle has been lost. And anyway, maybe the surviving Tillman brother probably just ate too much tofu. This "devil food is turning our kids into homosexuals." That's the word on the evangelical website WorldNet Daily. You will find more analysis here. It's the soy! Did you know it reduces the size of your penis too?

And these guys are in charge.

But then, an unlikely soldier has joined the losing battle. You might want to skim this discussion of the latest from the new German pope. Benedict seems to argue that torture, or anything like it, is never, ever acceptable. You can say it saves lives, but that is an immoral argument - it's just rationalizing and pure crap, or whatever the Latin for crap is. And waging war in the name of God is, it seems, a no-no in the pope's eyes. He's not with George on this at all. Things have changed since the Crusades.

The item ends with two quotes -

"This is a point which must be clearly reaffirmed: war in God's name is never acceptable!" - Pope Benedict XVI

"I trust God speaks through me. Without that, I couldn't do my job." - George W. Bush

Now what? Of course, Roman Catholicism - the Cult of Mary - was always suspicious. Kennedy had to say his country came first to get elected back in 1960 - and the KKK way back when wanted to rid the South of blacks, Jews… and Catholics. Now the Catholics are at it again. They say George isn't God's voice on earth. And we put seven Jesuit-educated Catholic justices on the Supreme Court. Ingrates!

And we wonder why the rest of the world is troubled with us.

Posted by Alan at 22:02 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 14 December 2006 07:09 PST home

Tuesday, 12 December 2006
Something Is Up
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Something Is Up

Tuesday, December 12, 2006, was a day of very odd news and views. The epicenter seemed to be the Washington Post, perhaps attempting to prove newspapers, with their primary reporting and editorial clout, aren't dying dinosaurs at all.

Robin Wright was the reporter with the big scoop, with Saudi Ambassador Abruptly Resigns, Leaves Washington - "Prince Turki al-Faisal, Saudi Arabia's ambassador to the United States, flew out of Washington yesterday after informing Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and his staff that he would be leaving the post after only 15 months on the job." She had the story first.

What is this about? Wright speculates another key Saudi prince is ill, and there's some sort of internal realignment going on over there - but that's only speculation. This is a mystery, and a bit of a diplomatic earthquake.

Josh Marshall notes all sorts of officials are giving various unconvincing explanations, the best of which is that, in the words of an unnamed embassy official, "He wants to spend more time with his family." Right - or as Marshall comments - "Perhaps we can take that as a foreigners gently parodic homage to the American tradition of political white lies."

But what's the reason for the standard white lie in this case? He dismisses Wright's speculation about illness or some palace intrigue in the Saudi royal family. He suggests we look at the geopolitical context -
Saudi Arabia's neighbor Iraq is in some sort of slow motion civil war. The neighbor across the water, Iran, has been empowered tremendously and stands to gain even more power if their Shi'a coreligionists in Iraq take over the country and slaughter or dominate the Sunni Arab minority. And the White House is signaling that it might opt to take the side of the Shi'a in that cataclysm and, shall we say, go along for the slaughter.

That would cut at the heart of the seven decade US-Saudi alliance, though admittedly it's taken quite a few cuts already of late. The White House has also just been presented with the Baker-Hamilton report which has, I think fairly, been characterized as a bid to return to the earlier US policy of aligning its regional interests with those of the Sunni autocracies in the region. The White House has dismissed that out of hand.

I'm no expert on the finer points of US-Saudi relations. But I don't think you need to be to see that the underpinnings of the relationship are on the table right now. And just at this moment, the ambassador resigns and gets on the next plane home. To borrow a phrase from our judicial pals, I think any excuse that this is just some personal matter deserves the strictest scrutiny. Something must be up.
You think? The president's national security adviser, Stephen Hadley, wrote in that recent leaked memo, the one about how totally useless Iraq's Prime Minister Maliki was, that Washington should "step up efforts to get Saudi Arabia to take a leadership role in supporting Iraq, by using its influence to move Sunni populations out of violence into politics." But then, the week before, a Saudi who headed a security consulting group close to the Saudi government, Nawaf Obaid, wrote in the Washington Post that Saudi Arabia would use money, oil and support for Sunnis to counter Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq if American troops pulled out (previously discussed here). The Saudi government denied the report and fired Obaid. Actually, Prince Turki al-Faisal fired the guy - he was the prince's advisor.

But something was up with that. This thing is going regional, and the Saudis may be jumpy. The word is the administration is seriously considering siding with the Shi'a in all this, if something can be done about that Sadr fellow and we can keep them from being too friendly with Iran, and writing off the Sunnis, to get us out of the current mess - reportedly Cheney's position. And, as noted last week, things are getting serious - "Private Saudi citizens are giving millions of dollars to Sunni insurgents in Iraq and much of the money is used to buy weapons, including shoulder fired anti-aircraft missiles, according to key Iraqi officials and others familiar with the flow of cash." That was discussed in the pages in Hope as Strategy. It seems we've got to do something, no matter how much it looks like assured genocide.

Marshall says his readers have written in to say that "there's just no way we're going to let ourselves take sides in what would likely be at least a borderline genocidal civil war between Iraq's Sunni minority and Shi'a majority." He notes that, and responds why not? -
Is there anything we've seen in the last six years that makes you think we wouldn't pull the trigger on a ridiculously foolish new plan? I don't just mean that as trash talk. I think it's the only sensible way to approach the case at hand.

The main mistakes I've made thinking about foreign policy over the last half decade were, I think, all cases where there were certain outcomes I just didn't find credible because they were just too stupid and dangerous for anybody in a position of power to try.
Marshall is an experienced political reporter who now has his widely-read blog empire, and decides to raise another point he is not sure is widely appreciated -
The folks who brought you the Iraq War have always been weak in the knees for a really whacked-out vision of a Shi'a-US alliance in the Middle East. I used to talk to a lot of these folks before I became persona non grata. So here's basically how the theory went and, I don't doubt, still goes ... We hate the Saudis and the Egyptians and all the rest of the standing Arab governments. But the Iraqi Shi'a were oppressed by Saddam. So they'll like us. So we'll set them up in control of Iraq. You might think that would empower the Iranians. But not really. The mullahs aren't very powerful. And once the Iraqi Shi'a have a good thing going with us, the Iranians are going to want to get in on that too. So you'll see a new government in Tehran. Plus, big parts of northern Saudi Arabia are Shi'a too. And that's where a lot of the oil is. So they'll probably want to break off and set up their own pro-US Shi'a state with tons of oil. So before you know it, we'll have Iraq, Iran, and a big chunk of Saudi Arabia that is friendly to the US and has a ton of oil. And once that happens we can tell the Saudis to f$#% themselves once and for all.

Now, you might think this involves a fair amount of wishful and delusional thinking. But this was the thinking of a lot of neocons going into the war. And I don't doubt it's still the thinking of quite a few of them. They still want to run the table. And even more now that it's double-down. I don't know what these guys are planning now. But there's plenty of reason to be worried.
Talk about hope as strategy! If Marshall heard them right, those directing the foreign policy of the United States have been smoking some good stuff. Perhaps Prince Turki al-Faisal, and his government, just gave up on the whole crew, and caught the next flight out to go home and help prepare for the regional war we seem to want. The Saudis had asked Cheney to drop by for a chat in late November. It seems they didn't like what they heard from him.

Stepping back, it is possible to see that this the abrupt departure of the Saudi ambassador, could mark the precise start of the major regional Middle East war - from the edge of the Mediterranean to the western border of India - to realign everything, and that may have been the plan all along. You thought we were looking to eliminate Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction? How quaint. Wheels within wheels were turning - big plans and a mad dream of how things could be. So this may be it - the big one. That or the prince really did want to spend more time with his family. That too is possible after all.

Then, late Tuesday, the news broke -
Saudi Arabia has told the Bush administration that it might provide financial backing to Iraqi Sunnis in a war against Iraqi Shiites if the United States withdraws from Iraq, The New York Times reported on Tuesday, citing American and Arab diplomats.

King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia delivered that message to Dick Cheney during the U.S. vice president's brief visit last month to Riyadh, the newspaper said, citing the officials it did not name.

... During the visit, King Abdullah expressed strong opposition to diplomatic talks between the United States and Iran, which is largely Shi'ite, the Times said. The Saudi leader also pushed Washington to encourage the resumption of peace talks between Israel and the Palestinians, the newspaper reported, citing senior officials of U.S. President George W. Bush's administration.

The White House could not immediately be reached to comment on the report.
So things are lining up - until now the Saudis promised they would refrain from aiding Iraq's Sunni insurgency, but that pledge holds only as long as we remain in Iraq. We cut out or cut back, or side with the Shi'a, and they will act. They will not let Iraq's minority Sunni population be massacred, even if Cheney thinks that would be okay, given the fix we're in.

This was such a small news item, but something was up.

As for the other shake-up-everything item in the Post, that was a looking backward item. Fred Hiatt and his crew penned the lead editorial of the day, on the recent deaths of both Augusto Pinochet and Jeanne Kirkpatrick, sure to raise some hackles. They, we are told, were both fine folks and will be missed.

To review, Augusto José Ramón Pinochet Ugarte was the general who became the president of Chile - he led a military junta to power in 1973 through a coup d'état, deposing the democratically-elected president Salvador Allende. Pinochet stepped down from power in 1990, after losing a national plebiscite in 1988. The story is familiar to those who follow such things. In 1970, Salvador Allende, the leader of the Chilean Socialist Party, had been elected president - the first Marxist in the world to gain power in a free democratic election. The business folks hated him - what with his efforts to redistribute wealth and land, with wage increases of around forty percent and companies not allowed to increase prices, and then the copper industry was nationalized, and then the banks. Then he restored diplomatic relations with Cuba, China and East Germany. Something had to be done. The CIA set up a task force to get rid of the guy, and Pinochet was our choice to replace him. Henry Kissinger admitted that in September, 1970, President Nixon ordered him to organize a coup against Allende's government. A CIA document written just after Allende was elected said - "It is firm and continuing policy that Allende be overthrown by a coup" and "it is imperative that these actions be implemented clandestinely and securely so that the USG (United States government) and American hand be well hidden." So Chile had its September 11 - in 1973. Allende was killed in his office that day, or committed suicide. And we deny everything. Kissinger is considered a wise elder statesman these days.

But Pinochet turned out to be one nasty piece of work. He was notorious for "disappearing" his enemies, and for all sorts of torture, the most dramatic taking people for airplane rides over the ocean and dropping them from high altitude, one by one, until someone not yet escorted to the door talked. Some of our guys in Vietnam found that useful too. These acts got Pinochet indicted in Spain, as some of the dead or tortured were Spanish citizens, and he was arrested in London. The rest is old news - he fought all the indictments, unsuccessfully, but died before anything could come of it all. He was an old man. The heart attack was inevitable.

Jeanne Kirkpatrick was a Humphrey Democrat who became a Reagan Republican - a brilliant scholar and a rather mean lady, who Reagan sent to the UN as our ambassador there. Her big thing was that there was a real difference between authoritarian regimes and totalitarian regimes. The former were unpleasant, but the latter - they were all communist, as she said - were unacceptable. So Pinochet was just fine by her - he would evolve and the place would be fine. It was the same with Marcos in the Philippines and all the rest. The problem was the damned Marxists. Everyone knew no good would evolve from any Marxist regime. That was the "realism" of the day, in her day. She died the same week Pinochet died - of old age, pretty much.

Fred Hiatt and his crew decided to offer an assessment of these lives. And the opening is classic - "Augusto Pinochet tortured and murdered. His legacy is Latin America's most successful country."

Now you would expect what follows would be a stirring defense of torture and murder - we may have done those very things in Iraq and elsewhere, but it is obvious and logical that torture and murder are good things. They lead to real success.

Fred Hiatt and his crew just aren't that dumb. They aren't going to endorse torture and murder as fine and dandy. They just want to point out some things -
It's hard not to notice, however, that the evil dictator leaves behind the most successful country in Latin America. In the past 15 years, Chile's economy has grown at twice the regional average, and its poverty rate has been halved. It's leaving behind the developing world, where all of its neighbors remain mired.
So he must have done something right. Sorry about the thousands of dead people, and those who just disappeared. Sometimes you've got to do what you've got to do. And anyway, the Post says, Augusto Pinochet wasn't Castro - and when Castro finally kicks the bucket the left will probably defend him, so in your face, lefties.

Matthew Yglesias, for one, differs -
Seriously? The justification of Pinochet's 1973 coup and subsequent seventeen-year dictatorship is Chile's strong economic growth record after Pinochet left office? Then we learn that Pinochet was a good guy because Fidel Castro is a bad guy, which I think is the moral philosophy of six year-olds. And then Kirkpatrick: "Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right."

I don't really see what's obvious about this. Communist regimes in Central Europe were replaced by liberal democracies, much as Pinochet's right-authoritarianism was replaced by liberal democracy in Chile. But Communist regimes elsewhere have often been replaced by non-Communist authoritarianisms. But then again, right-wing authoritarianism in, say, Venezuela doesn't seem to have paved the road for liberal democracy. And, of course, Communism arose in Russia in the wake of the Czar's right-wing authoritarianism and, indeed, Communism arose in Cuba as the aftermath of right-wing authoritarianism under Battista.

UPDATE: Sorry, Venezuela's a bad example; I thought the military was in charge there in the 80s. Consider, say, Haiti where the Duvaliers hardly seem to have paved the road for a smooth transition to liberalism.
So Jeanne Kirkpatrick was full of crap - arguing against historical fact - and the Post is too, arguing that what happened after the old man was gone from office proved what he did in office was fine and dandy.

It doesn't matter. What is in the air is obvious here. Supporting some awful people, and doing awful things ourselves, may be just fine. It's all how you look at it. It's setting up what we will be doing in the Middle East next, and what we have done already.

But Margaret Thatcher is reported to be sad about the old man's death - Pinochet, not Ronald Reagan (she's over that) - to which Christopher Hitchens adds some thoughts -
There were those who used to argue that, say what you like, Pinochet unfettered the Chilean economy and let the Friedmanite breezes blow. (This is why Mrs. Thatcher was forever encouraging him to take his holidays and shopping trips in London; a piece of advice that he may well have regretted taking.) Yet free-marketeers presumably do not believe that you need torture and murder and dictatorship to implement their policies. I read Isabel Allende not long ago saying freely that nobody would again try the statist "Popular Unity" program of her uncle. But Salvador Allende never ordered anybody's death or disappearance; he died bravely at his post, and that has made all the difference. Meanwhile, a large part of Pinochet's own attraction to "privatization" has been explained by the disclosures attendant on the collapse of the Riggs Bank in Washington, D.C., which revealed large secret holdings in his name. This, combined with the cynical delaying tactics that he employed to delay or thwart prosecution, made his name stink even more in Chilean nostrils while he was still alive.

It is greatly to the credit of the Chileans that they have managed to restore and revive democratic institutions without any resort to violence, and that due process was scrupulously applied to Pinochet and to all his underlings. But there is a price to be paid for the slowness and care of these proceedings. We still do not know all that we might about the murder of U.S. citizen Charles Horman, for instance. And many Chilean families do not know where their "disappeared" loved ones are buried or how they died. (Perhaps sometimes it is better not to know the last bit.) Not once, in the prolonged process of investigation and clarification, did Pinochet offer to provide any information or to express any conscience or remorse. Like Slobodan Milosevic (who also cheated justice by dying) and Saddam Hussein, he was arrogant and blustering to the very last. Chile and the world are well rid of him, but we can thank his long and brutish rear-guard action for helping us to establish at least some of the emerging benchmarks of universal jurisdiction for tyrants.
Hitchens is no Jeanne Kirkpatrick, whatever else he is.

But the Post was on the Pinochet bandwagon. Elsewhere, in a retrospective, Pamela Constable offers this - "Pinochet, who died Sunday at age 91, was a man with a mission. He genuinely believed he was doing the right thing, carrying out a grim duty in order to save his country from evil. In every speech and interview, the strongman of Santiago returned to the same theme: his sacred, patriotic calling to rid Chile of communism, whatever the cost."

It's hard to remember why everyone was so worked up about communism. Communism didn't work out, as it didn't actually work. And it collapsed under its own weight. There was no cost to be paid. You just had to wait. Pinochet didn't get it.

But then, as Yglesias notes, the costs weren't exactly his costs -
Pinochet believed it was his calling to rid Chile of Communism, whatever the cost to other people. He wasn't eager to pay a price personally, or to have members of his circle do so. Indeed, though Pinochet's corruption was hardly on a Mobutu-style scale, it's clear that he and his retainers profited personally from his dictatorship. And when he left office, he didn't throw himself on the mercy of the people, pleading justification but willing to accept whatever verdict - pay any price - they might render. Instead, he had himself made a senator for life to obtain immunity from prosecution. Once that stopped working, he adopted a number of other methods to try - successfully, in the end - to avoid bearing the cost of what he'd done.

This line of thought is, of course, entirely typical of the authoritarian mindset. You hear it in contemporary political disputes about torture and about the use of brutal force abroad. We must do what it takes to succeed whatever the cost. Always suppressed is the proviso - whatever the cost, to other people.
According to an official report by the civilian government that succeeded Pinochet in 1990, at least 3,200 people were killed for political reasons and another 1,197 disappeared. He himself was just fine.

And the Post editorial says we were right to support him, as he wasn't a damned communist like Castro -
The contrast between Cuba and Chile more than 30 years after Mr. Pinochet's coup is a reminder of a famous essay written by Jeane J. Kirkpatrick, the provocative and energetic scholar and U.S. ambassador to the United Nations who died Thursday. In "Dictatorships and Double Standards," a work that caught the eye of President Ronald Reagan, Ms. Kirkpatrick argued that right-wing dictators such as Mr. Pinochet were ultimately less malign than communist rulers, in part because their regimes were more likely to pave the way for liberal democracies. She, too, was vilified by the left. Yet by now it should be obvious: She was right.
No, she was just deeply and vitally angered by, and deliciously frightened of, communism. She didn't know that system would fold like a house of cards, if left to do so, or if just ridiculed (that worked just fine for Havel and his folks in Czechoslovakia). On the other hand, she became famous and powerful with her anger and fear. That works well in the political marketplace. It did then, it does now.

It's just too bad that the rehabilitation of Augusto Pinochet as a hero and role model is underway. That says a lot about us.

On the other hand, again, this too may say a lot about us -
Liberal and progressive Christian groups say a new computer game in which players must either convert or kill non-Christians is the wrong gift to give this holiday season and that Wal-Mart, a major video game retailer, should yank it off its shelves.

The Campaign to Defend the Constitution and the Christian Alliance for Progress, two online political groups, plan to demand today that Wal-Mart dump Left Behind: Eternal Forces, a PC game inspired by a series of Christian novels that are hugely popular, especially with teens.

The series by Tim LaHaye and Jerry Jenkins is based on their interpretation of the Bible's Book of Revelation and takes place after the Rapture, when Jesus has taken his people to heaven and left nonbelievers behind to face the Antichrist.

Left Behind Games' president, Jeffrey Frichner, says the game actually is pacifist because players lose "spirit points" every time they gun down nonbelievers rather than convert them. They can earn spirit points again by having their character pray.
Oh, that makes it better. A Wal-Mart spokeswoman said they have no plans to pull the game from any of their 3,800 stores.

Details -
In Left Behind, set in perfectly apocalyptic New York City, the Antichrist is personified by fictional Romanian Nicolae Carpathia, secretary-general of the United Nations and a People magazine "Sexiest Man Alive."

Players can choose to join the Antichrist's team, but of course they can never win on Carpathia's side. The enemy team includes fictional rock stars and folks with Muslim-sounding names, while the righteous include gospel singers, missionaries, healers and medics. Every character comes with a life story.
As for the names, Frichner said the game does not endorse prejudice - "Muslims are not believers in Jesus Christ and thus can't be on Christ's side in the game. That is so obvious." Indeed.

And evil communists are fifties, aren't they?

And the reviews? There's this -
Jeff Gerstmann, senior editor at Gamespot.com, an online publication, said the game isn't popular. The game itself, which Gamespot rated 3.4 out of a possible 10, has lots of glitches.

"And it's kind of crazy," Gerstmann said. "One of the evil characters is a rock musician. ... If you get too close to him your spirit is lowered."

But Plugged In, a publication of the conservative Christian group Focus on the Family, gave the game a "thumbs-up." The reviewer called it "the kind of game that Mom and Dad can actually play with Junior - and use to raise some interesting questions along the way."
It will raise questions. We're told the company's ultimate goal in offering the game is "to bring parents and kids together to talk about the Bible." God help us all. Something is up.

Posted by Alan at 22:03 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 13 December 2006 08:18 PST home

Monday, 11 December 2006
Embracing the Homogenized Surreal
Topic: The Culture

Embracing the Homogenized Surreal

You have to love the contrarian point of view, especially on cultural matters. There are plenty of contrarians on matters of domestic and foreign policy, and on social policy. Everyone writes about that stuff - illegal immigration is awful, or it isn't so awful, universal healthcare would be wonderful, or a socialist evil portending the end of the nation as we know it, the vice president's lesbian daughter really shouldn't be pregnant and her father happy about it, or that is a big whatever, we should stay in Iraq, we should leave, we should stay in a different way, or something. On his last day in office George Bush should bomb Iran back into the Stone Age and let the next president worry about the blow-back, or not. It's all on the table. Everyone has an opinion.

But then there are the true contrarians, like Virginia Postrel, who, in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, offers this - In Praise of Chain Stores. Of course this hit the newsstands as most American hit the malls to buy Christmas presents, and found themselves staring at the jammed parking lot and the depressingly uniform stores beyond. The mall could be anywhere, they all look alike. The stores are the same.

But she says these chain stores aren't destroying local flavor - they're actually providing variety and comfort. She has an odd view of comfort.

Those of us who spent a decade or two as "cooperate road warriors" know this issue well. You fly back and forth across the country each week and there that sense of dislocation - is this London, Ontario, or Ontario, California? There's the Starbucks and the Gap. It could be Pittsburgh or Tucson. You never know - it's all a blur. You take a break, use the frequent flier miles, and take a vacation. You fly Paris and one afternoon need new jeans - and you find yourself in Gap on Rue des Rennes. Inside you might as well be in Tulsa (except the sizes have odd numbers). Next door, even Monoprix seems comfortingly familiar - except for the language. It has the feel of Albany or Denver. And Starbucks hit Paris two years ago. And every major airport certainly seems familiar - which is either comforting or surreal. They all look alike. This may or may not comfort you. At least it's easy to find the restrooms.

Virginia Postrel sets up the expected -
"Every well-traveled cosmopolite knows that America is mind-numbingly monotonous - the most boring country to tour, because everywhere looks like everywhere else," as the columnist Thomas Friedman once told Charlie Rose. Boston has the same stores as Denver, which has the same stores as Charlotte or Seattle or Chicago. We live in a "Stepford world," says Rachel Dresbeck, the author of Insiders' Guide to Portland, Oregon. Even Boston's historic Faneuil Hall, she complains, is "dominated by the Gap, Anthropologie, Starbucks, and all the other usual suspects. Why go anywhere? Every place looks the same."
Need proof? The array at Faneuil Hall can be examined here, although it should be noted that those of us who are pipe smokers can find a good selection of pipe tobacco at the newsstand near the southeast entrance. In any event, Postrel says what we have now is a variation on an old worry dating back to the twenties - the big guys are putting the Mom and Pop stores out of business. Today everyone knows the little small independents are doomed - and really mostly gone. That's probably most evident with the oddly charming, small, dusty bookstores - Border's and Barnes and Noble buried most everyone and they're long gone, except in period movies for a "cute meet." (A classic is Fred Astaire discovering Audrey Hepburn in that Greenwich Village bookstore in Funny Face, but that was 1957 and seems another world.) Given the small independents have been squeezed out, and that really is a given, the issue now is what's left - and it's just all the same, everywhere.

And it is worst in the suburbs. Postrel's example is the Chandler Fashion Center - Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix, the area's big shopping mall. You have the usual suspects - P. F. Chang's (the nearest here is at Beverly Center on La Cienega), California Pizza Kitchen (Sunset at Laurel Canyon, here), Chipotle Mexican Grill (everywhere), and the Cheesecake Factory (the original is out here in Marina del Rey, started by exiles from Rochester, New York, in the early eighties). One place is as good as another. And it's not just the mall itself -
Drive along Chandler's straight, flat boulevards, and you'll see Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens-n-Things; Barnes & Noble and Borders; PetSmart and Petco; Circuit City and Best Buy; Lowe's and Home Depot; CVS and Walgreens. Chandler has the Apple Store and Pottery Barn, the Gap and Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and DSW, and, of course, Target and Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald's. For people allergic to brands, Chandler must be hell - even without the 110-degree days.
Been there - she's right - the heat is brutal - and the place is just like any other once you walk into Target.

Or as she puts it -
One of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Chandler is definitely the kind of place urbanists have in mind as they intone, "When every place looks the same, there is no such thing as place anymore." Like so many towns in America, it has lost much of its historic character as a farming community. The annual Ostrich Festival still honors one traditional product, but these days Chandler raises more subdivisions and strip malls than ostrich plumes or cotton, another former staple.
So there you have it, the place might as well be Altoona. No ostriches there either.

Then comes the contrarian view - the stores don't really matter. National chains are not some blight on the landscape, and they've not turned American towns into an indistinguishable "geography of nowhere."

That, we are told, is just silly. The idea is what else is there matters far more -
The first thing you notice in Chandler is that, as a broad empirical claim, the cliché that "everywhere looks like everywhere else" is obvious nonsense. Chandler's land and air and foliage are peculiar to the desert Southwest. The people dress differently. Even the cookie-cutter housing developments, with their xeriscaping and washed-out desert palette, remind you where you are. Forget New England clapboard, Carolina columns, or yellow Texas brick. In the intense sun of Chandler, the red-tile roofs common in California turn a pale, pale pink.
So, 1.) Stores don't give places their character, and 2.) Terrain and weather and culture do. The national chain stores, the claim is, just offer contrast. And in doing so they "make it easier to discern the real differences that define a place: the way, for instance, that people in Chandler come out to enjoy the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools."

That's a quite romantic notion. It's more likely not many of these "Zoners" are out enjoying the summer twilight - they're at Target buying this or that, or at home watching some comedy taped out here in Hollywood, on a set in Studio City that's supposed to be New York (think Seinfeld). A sense of place may be a mere indulgence, something for oddballs.

As for the stores mentioned here, we're told that the idea that America was once filled with wildly varied business establishments is largely a myth -
Big cities could, and still can, support more retail niches than small towns. And in a less competitive national market, there was certainly more variation in business efficiency - in prices, service, and merchandise quality. But the range of retailing ideas in any given town was rarely that great. One deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one. A hardware store was a hardware store, a pharmacy a pharmacy. Before it became a ubiquitous part of urban life, Starbucks was, in most American cities, a radically new idea.
And there is economic reality - national chain stores bargain down prices from suppliers and divide fixed costs across a lot of units, a good thing, And the contention here us that they "rapidly spread economic discovery." That would be "the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work." That sure beats trial and error - "Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals." So scale is a good thing, or large-scale is.

There's more -
Chains make a large range of choices available in more places. They increase local variety, even as they reduce the differences from place to place. People who mostly stay put get to have experiences once available only to frequent travelers, and this loss of exclusivity is one reason why frequent travelers are the ones who complain. When Borders was a unique Ann Arbor institution, people in places like Chandler - or, for that matter, Philadelphia and Los Angeles - didn't have much in the way of bookstores. Back in 1986, when California Pizza Kitchen was an innovative local restaurant about to open its second location, food writers at the L.A. Daily News declared it "the kind of place every neighborhood should have." So what's wrong if the country has 158 neighborhood CPKs instead of one or two?
So we have democratization, along with homogenization - good and bad. (Los Angeles used to have many fine, small bookstores, by the way, before the folks from Ann Arbor arrived.)

And there's the matter of growth, which is supposed to be good, and can provide comfort at the same time -
The process of multiplication is particularly important for fast-growing towns like Chandler, where rollouts of established stores allow retail variety to expand as fast as the growing population can support new businesses. I heard the same refrain in Chandler that I've heard in similar boomburgs elsewhere, and for similar reasons. "It's got all the advantages of a small town, in terms of being friendly, but it's got all the things of a big town," says Scott Stephens, who moved from Manhattan Beach, California, in 1998 to work for Motorola. Chains let people in a city of 250,000 enjoy retail amenities once available only in a huge metropolitan center. At the same time, familiar establishments make it easier for people to make a home in a new place. When Nissan recently moved its headquarters from Southern California to Tennessee, an unusually high percentage of its Los Angeles–area employees accepted the transfer. "The fact that Starbucks are everywhere helps make moving a lot easier these days," a rueful Greg Whitney, vice president of business development for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corporation, told the Los Angeles Times reporter John O'Dell. Orth Hedrick, a Nissan product manager, decided he could stay with the job he loved when he turned off the interstate near Nashville and realized, "You could really be Anywhere, U.S.A. There's a great big regional shopping mall, and most of the stores and restaurants are the same ones we see in California. Yet a few miles away you're in downtown, and there's lots of local color, too."
But who cares about local color? The idea is to reduce anxiety. Local color is for tourists. And "contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites," most cities don't exist primarily to please tourists (exclude Paris and Hollywood of course). They're just places people live, and do their best to do well. So you're not supposed to scoff at "the children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals" who are "no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis." They'll be fine.

But there is the conflict -
The contempt for chains represents a brand-obsessed view of place, as if store names were all that mattered to a city's character. For many critics, the name on the store really is all that matters. The planning consultant Robert Gibbs works with cities that want to revive their downtowns, and he also helps developers find space for retailers. To his frustration, he finds that many cities actually turn away national chains, preferring a moribund downtown that seems authentically local. But, he says, the same local activists who oppose chains "want specialty retail that sells exactly what the chains sell - the same price, the same fit, the same qualities, the same sizes, the same brands, even." You can show people pictures of a Pottery Barn with nothing but the name changed, he says, and they'll love the store. So downtown stores stay empty, or sell low-value tourist items like candles and kites, while the chains open on the edge of town. In the name of urbanism, officials and activists in cities like Ann Arbor and Fort Collins, Colorado, are driving business to the suburbs. "If people like shopping at the Banana Republic or the Gap, if that's your market - or Payless Shoes - why not?" says an exasperated Gibbs. "Why not sell the goods and services people want?"
Fine. No oddly charming, small, dusty bookstores - except perhaps for "reconstructions" of what one might be like, for tourists. Embrace the homogenized surreal. Actually, you probably have no choice. And you can always skip the trip to the mall, turn off the television, and step out into the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools. People will just think you're odd. They'll probably call the cops.

Posted by Alan at 21:21 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 12 December 2006 06:44 PST home

Sunday, 10 December 2006
Offered Without Comment
Topic: Couldn't be so...

Offered Without Comment

The events are arrayed below. Draw your own conclusions.

See Andrew Sullivan in the Sunday, December 10, 2006, Times of London with this -
Jose Padilla was born in Brooklyn, New York, in 1970, the son of Puerto Rican immigrants. He was a troubled youth, joining a street gang when the family moved to Chicago, and was once jailed for aggravated assault.

After serving his sentence, he converted to Islam and professed non-violence. He went to the Masjid Al-Iman mosque in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and worked for a charity suspected of Islamist terror ties. He visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iraq.

Returning to Chicago on May 8, 2002, Padilla was arrested and held under a warrant related to the 9/11 attacks. A month later, as a court was about to rule on whether there was any evidence to merit his detention, President George W Bush declared Padilla an "enemy combatant" and he was sent to a military brig in South Carolina. No charges were brought against him for 3½ years.

The basic principle of Anglo-American liberty for several hundred years has been habeas corpus - the notion that the government cannot detain a citizen without charging him with crimes that can be brought before a court and a jury of his peers. It is the keystone of any notion of a free society. For the first time in the history of the United States, it has been indefinitely suspended, and Padilla is the proof.

Padilla was not charged for three years, but he was accused. He was accused by government sources of being part of a plot to detonate a dirty bomb in an American city; he was accused by talk radio of being John Doe No 2 in the Oklahoma City bombing; and he was accused of plotting terrorist acts in the US.

After three years in solitary confinement, the Bush administration feared its detention of Padilla might be struck down by a court, and so it finally decided to charge him with a crime. The charges it brought in November 2005 included no mention of any dirty bomb, no link to Al-Qaeda, and no charge of conspiracy to commit acts of terror in America. A judge threw out other charges. None of the charges that remain involve actual terrorist activity, just of being connected to a group that may have financed such activity in Bosnia and Chechnya.

So Padilla, an American citizen, was detained without being charged for 3½ years. It was nearly two years before he had access to a lawyer.
Now his lawyer claims this -
Mr Padilla was often put in stress positions for hours at a time. He would be shackled and manacled, with a belly chain, for hours in his cell.

Noxious fumes would be introduced to his room causing his eyes and nose to run. The temperature of his cell would be manipulated, making his cell extremely cold for long stretches of time. Mr Padilla was denied even the smallest and most personal shreds of human dignity by being deprived of showering for weeks at a time, yet having to endure forced grooming at the whim of his captors.

… He was threatened with being cut with a knife and having alcohol poured on the wounds. He was also threatened with imminent execution. He was hooded and forced to stand in stress positions for long periods.

He was forced to endure exceedingly long interrogation sessions, without adequate sleep, wherein he would be confronted with false information, scenarios and documents to further disorientate him. Often he had to endure multiple interrogators who would scream, shake and otherwise assault Mr Padilla.
Now his legal team says he is mentally unfit to stand trial. Angela Hegarty MD, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, says now that "during questioning, he often exhibits facial tics, unusual eye movements and contortions of his body. The contortions are particularly poignant since he is usually manacled and bound by a belly chain when he has meetings with counsel."

Sullivan -
To put it bluntly: he has been sent mad. Last week, new photographs surfaced of the way in which Padilla has been treated. He needed to be escorted from his cell to get root canal treatment. Padilla has never exhibited any violent behavior in detention of any kind, according to his jailers. Yet he was manacled head-to-toe, he was barefoot, and given blackout goggles so he could see no light and soundproof ear-muffs so he could hear nothing. He was escorted by three soldiers in full riot gear, visors and weapons. Suddenly, you get a glimpse of the sadism inflicted on him for three years of total isolation.

Could this still happen? Yes, it could. In fact, if another American citizen were today to be arrested by the president, and declared an enemy combatant, he would be barred from any recourse to the federal courts. The Military Commissions Act - passed in the last week of the outgoing Congress before the recent elections - stripped the courts of any jurisdiction over new military commissions set up to try and convict American citizens.
Is that troublesome? The statute - "Notwithstanding any other law (including section 2241 of title 28, United States Code, or any other habeas corpus provision), no court, justice, or judge shall have jurisdiction to hear or consider any claim or cause of action whatsoever, including any action pending on or filed after the date of enactment of this chapter, relating to the prosecution, trial, or judgment of a military commission convened under this section, including challenges to the lawfulness of the procedures of military commissions under this chapter."

So that's that. Sullivan notes that "the president can now detain any citizen he so designates, remove him from the judicial system and subject him to a military commission, with much weaker rules than a civilian court." Yes, torture is formally banned, but torture techniques such as waterboarding are still at the president's discretion. So two hundred years after the nation was formed, and almost eight centuries since the Magna Carta, Americans are "at the mercy of a new king, who can jail without charges and torture at will." So much for habeas corpus.

Is Sullivan wrong to be upset? The New York Times set him off with its December 4 item on this matter.

They note the solitary confinement -
One spring day during his three and a half years as an enemy combatant, Jose Padilla experienced a break from the monotony of his solitary confinement in a bare cell in the brig at the Naval Weapons Station in Charleston, S.C.

That day, Mr. Padilla, a Brooklyn-born Muslim convert whom the Bush administration had accused of plotting a dirty bomb attack and had detained without charges, got to go to the dentist.
Followed by the classic depersonalization -
Several guards in camouflage and riot gear approached cell No. 103. They unlocked a rectangular panel at the bottom of the door and Mr. Padilla's bare feet slid through, eerily disembodied. As one guard held down a foot with his black boot, the others shackled Mr. Padilla's legs. Next, his hands emerged through another hole to be manacled.

Wordlessly, the guards, pushing into the cell, chained Mr. Padilla's cuffed hands to a metal belt. Briefly, his expressionless eyes met the camera before he lowered his head submissively in expectation of what came next: noise-blocking headphones over his ears and blacked-out goggles over his eyes. Then the guards, whose faces were hidden behind plastic visors, marched their masked, clanking prisoner down the hall to his root canal.
And they note the sensory deprivation -
In the brig, Mr. Padilla was denied access to counsel for 21 months. Andrew Patel, one of his lawyers, said his isolation was not only severe but compounded by material and sensory deprivations. In an affidavit filed Friday, he alleged that Mr. Padilla was held alone in a 10-cell wing of the brig; that he had little human contact other than with his interrogators; that his cell was electronically monitored and his meals were passed to him through a slot in the door; that windows were blackened, and there was no clock or calendar; and that he slept on a steel platform after a foam mattress was taken from him, along with his copy of the Koran, "as part of an interrogation plan."
And although the Times is not saying the man was tortured, they do note "his interrogations… included hooding, stress positions, assaults, threats of imminent execution and the administration of 'truth serums.'"

And they quote Hegarty, director of forensic psychiatry at the Creedmoor Psychiatric Center in Queens, in her affidavit filed that Friday - "It is my opinion that as the result of his experiences during his detention and interrogation, Mr. Padilla does not appreciate the nature and consequences of the proceedings against him, is unable to render assistance to counsel, and has impairments in reasoning as the result of a mental illness, i.e., post-traumatic stress disorder, complicated by the neuropsychiatric effects of prolonged isolation."

And note this -
The Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Punishment or Treatment (United Nations, 1985) defines torture as: "any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity." Acts that would be considered torture under the above definition include a variety of methods: severe beatings, electric shock, sexual abuse and rape, prolonged solitary confinement, hard labor, near drowning, near suffocation, mutilation, hanging for prolonged periods, deprivation of basic biological needs (e.g., sleep, food, water), subjection to forced constant standing or crouching, and excessive continuous noise (e.g. McCoy, 2006; Walsh, 2006). Torture may also include actions inducing psychological suffering such as threats against the victim's family or loved ones (e.g., McCoy, 2006).

McCoy, A. W. (2006). A question of torture: CIA interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror. New York: Metropolitan Books.

United Nations, Department of Public Information (1985). Outlawing an ancient evil: Torture. Convention against torture and other cruel or degrading treatment or punishment. New York: Author.
So that's that. The argument we are given justifying all this is that we live in a new age of terror, and we face an existential threat unlike any we have ever faced before. What we face is a threat far more dire than the nuclear annihilation we faced in the pervious decades before the Soviet Union finally collapsed, far more serious than the threat posed by the combined Hitler and Mussolini and Tojo. This time we must play dirty and change the rules about how our government treats its own citizens. Whether that is so is a judgment call. But the idea is that, if you grant that premise, what has happen in this case presents no real issues. Even if this one citizen was a nobody - the charges were pretty much dropped, but for so minor issues - he might have been a major terrorist, and we needed to get information from him, by any means possible, even if the means were both illegal and massively counterproductive. The almost four years of what seems like torture that turned him into a useless basket case, while getting us nothing, might have gotten us something. It just didn't work out. Are you to fault the government for trying to protect us? Yes, what happened to this man could, theoretically, happen to any of us now, but the odds are against that, and you ought to trust the government. They're just trying to keep us all safe. They're not unhinged sadists, after all. That's the line. Buy it or don't.

Just note this - on December 8 the president met with a number of Democratic leaders to review the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, and discuss "the way forward in Iraq." But the president didn't want to talk about that at all -
Instead, Bush began his talk by comparing himself to President Harry S Truman, who launched the Truman Doctrine to fight communism, got bogged down in the Korean War and left office unpopular.

Bush said that "in years to come they realized he was right and then his doctrine became the standard for America," recalled Senate Majority Whip-elect Richard Durbin, D-Ill. "He's trying to position himself in history and to justify those who continue to stand by him, saying sometimes if you're right you're unpopular, and be prepared for criticism."

Durbin said he challenged Bush's analogy, reminding him that Truman had the NATO alliance behind him and negotiated with his enemies at the United Nations. Durbin said that's what the Iraq Study Group is recommending that Bush do now - work more with allies and negotiate with adversaries on Iraq.

Bush, Durbin said, "reacted very strongly. He got very animated in his response" and emphasized that he is "the commander in chief."
Make of that what you will. There's two more years of this in store for us all.

Posted by Alan at 21:07 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
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