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

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

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

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Sunday, 29 January 2006
Thirteen Ways of Looking at the News (with apologies to Wallace Stevens)
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the News (with apologies to Wallace Stevens)

An Index of Items of Interest, Sunday, January 29, 2006 - Which Will Be Forgotten First?

One: Science

The New York Times offers this -
The top climate scientist at NASA says the Bush administration has tried to stop him from speaking out since he gave a lecture last month calling for prompt reductions in emissions of greenhouse gases linked to global warming.

The scientist, James E. Hansen, longtime director of the agency's Goddard Institute for Space Studies, said in an interview that officials at NASA headquarters had ordered the public affairs staff to review his coming lectures, papers, postings on the Goddard Web site and requests for interviews from journalists.
That's the gist of it, but the Times of course provides a ton of detail - the threatening phone calls to a thirty-year career man who is respected around the world, the hints his career has ended, accusations he's not a "team player" - that his job is not science but supporting the president and all that. He's now on a short leash. His friends are not happy and talking to the Times. He's toast.

So, is global warming a "great hoax" - the work of mad eco-scientists as the novelist Michael Crichton claims? He really does sell a lot of books, like Jurassic Park - and The Andromeda Strain, and The Great Train Robbery, and Congo, and Sphere, and The Terminal Man. They, and others of his, all made fine movies. He may not be a NASA climatologist, but he's made a ton of money. The American Enterprise Institute for Public Policy honored Crichton with an invitation to Washington to address its members on global warming. They know. Republican chairman of the Senate Environment Committee, James Inhofe - "With all of the hysteria, all of the fear, all of the phony science, could it be that man-made global warming is the greatest hoax ever perpetrated on the American people? It sure sounds like it."

If there is a Republican "War on Science" (there's a recent book that says so), well, they're winning.

There was that set-back in Pennsylvania about "intelligent design" - you cannot teach faith in a supernatural (in the exact sense of the word) clever creator in courses about the evidence of cause and effect in the natural world - it's a bit off topic, and a bit unconstitutional. Save it for some philosophy course, or comparative religion. Ah, but they'll always have Kansas, where they've redefined science to now include the supernatural and paranormal and whatever - science shouldn't be narrowly limited to the, ah, scientific.

Bush, McCain and the rest say Kansas has it right, teach the (cooked-up) controversy - and Senator Santorum from Pennsylvania was with them, but changed his mind late last year (he hopes he'll get reelected soon but it's not looking good).

But Rick from Penn Hills aside, these are the guys who began deploying a missile defense system without any evidence that it can actually work, and banned funding for embryonic stem cell research except on the sixty cell lines already in existence, most of which turned out not to exist, who forced the National Cancer Institute to say that abortion may cause breast cancer in spite of all the peer-reviewed studies that found no evidence for that at all, and who ordered the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to remove information about condom use and efficacy from the web site there. This NASA guy was out of step, on the global warming business. He's one of those "evidence" and "facts" kind of people.

Of course, at the same time the Washington Post gives us this - Global Warming Debate Shifts Focus To 'Tipping Point'.

It may be too late to do anything at all, and the whole question becomes academic, in all senses of the word. And if that is so, why not let the NASA guy say what he will? What does it matter? The stall worked, the political contributions from the oil folks have been deposited, and that's that.

These global warming stories will die. There's about science, and we've been taught to distrust science, as science, while not exactly the work of the devil, makes us think things that make Jesus cry. Who wants to make Jesus sad? Or the oil companies?

And nothing bad will happen this month, or this year, maybe.

Two: Making the Most of Bad Times

A minor item from the Times here -
Two FEMA disaster assistance employees working in New Orleans were arrested yesterday on federal bribery charges, accused of accepting $10,000 each in exchange for letting a contractor submit inflated reports on the number of meals it was serving at a Hurricane Katrina relief base camp there.

The charges against Andrew Rose and Loyd Hollman, both of Colorado, came after they told a contractor hired on a $1 million deal to provide meals in Algiers, La., that he could submit falsified invoices for extra meals, a Justice Department statement said.

The two were arrested hours after accepting envelopes containing $10,000 apiece. These were supposed to be down payments in what the two had said should be a $2,500 weekly bribe for each, officials said.
Had Michael "I'm a Fashion God" Brown not been forced to resign as head of FEMA would these two have been so bold? Probably.

There will be some conventional "oh my" commentaries here and there on this, but there have been a flurry of articles on how all the promises to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast seem like so much bullshit now. Nothing much is happening, and the most "nothing much" is at the federal level - no head of the effort, no big plan, not even many words. All that seems so 2005 - we've moved on.

All that's left is the spoils - not rebuilding most of the schools and issuing vouchers, so the white kids can go to unlicensed Christian Academies, and the minority kids can find something else. Contacts for this and that to Halliburton and its subsidiary Kellogg Brown Root. The Army Corps of Engineers is letting big contacts to try the levee thing again.

Something will be built there. And these sort of bribery stories will come and go. This is not news. Actually, one expects such things - people get tempted. Human nature.

And sometimes these pole get caught.

And as for the federal response in the long term (week six on out), well, the administration is in a tough place. They really don't need any minority voters, and there's a whole "tough love" bunch of evangelicals who hold people should assume "personal responsibility" and pull themselves up by their own bootstraps (basic physics and basic mechanics not withstanding), and you have to play to them and not go all FDR here. And there are the corporations who bankroll the Republican Party - they expect something. But you have to show some appearance of giving a damn about all the folks who've lost everything - it's basic PR. You just don't say you're all heartless bastards lazing around the White House and these people can rot. That's bad politics. So you do a bit, but not too much, and try to balance it all out.

But wait. There's more. And it regards human nature, and how people get tempted, and take advantage of situations in ways that are not nice at all.

The Times, in the same weekend, also gives us this -
A new audit of American financial practices in Iraq has uncovered irregularities including millions of reconstruction dollars stuffed casually into footlockers and filing cabinets, an American soldier in the Philippines who gambled away cash belonging to Iraq, and three Iraqis who plunged to their deaths in a rebuilt hospital elevator that had been improperly certified as safe.

One official kept $2 million in a bathroom safe, another more than half a million dollars in an unlocked footlocker. One contractor received more than $100,000 to completely refurbish an Olympic pool but only polished the pumps; even so, local American officials certified the work as completed.
We're pretty good at war. What follows? Well, we subtract that out to the corporations who bankroll the Republican Party and they see there's no oversight, and well, sometimes the temptation is too much.

Most of the Iraqi oil proceeds and cash seized from Saddam Hussein's government - mysteriously gone.

But sometimes it's individuals, not corporations - as with the American soldier assigned as an assistant to the Iraqi Olympic boxing team. He was given a lot of bucks for that, and somehow end up in the Philippines - he gambled away somewhere between twenty and sixty grand. No one knows the exact figure, and no one kept track of how much money he was handed in the first place.

Things were run a little loosely there -
In another connection to Iraq's Olympic effort, a $108,140 contract to completely refurbish the Hilla Olympic swimming pool, including the replacement of pumps and pipes, came to nothing when the contractor simply polished some of the hardware to make it appear as if new equipment had been installed. Local officials for the provisional authority signed paperwork stating that all the work had been completed properly and paid the contractor in full, the report says.

The pool never reopened, and when agents from the inspector general's office arrived to try out the equipment, "the water came out a murky brown due to the accumulated dirt and grime in the old pumps," the report says.

Sometimes the consequences of such loose controls were deadly. A contract for $662,800 in civil, electrical, and mechanical work to rehabilitate the Hilla General Hospital was paid in full by an American official in June 2004 even though the work was not finished, the report says. But instead of replacing a central elevator bank, as called for in the scope of work, the contractor tinkered with an unsuccessful rehabilitation.

The report continues, narrating the observation of the inspector general's agents who visited the hospital on Sept. 18, 2004: "The hospital administrator immediately escorted us to the site of the elevators. The administrator said that just a couple days prior to our arrival the elevator crashed and killed three people."
Well, tossing around money with no records of anything - your tax dollars congress appropriated for the "reconstruction" of Iraq - means some will slip through the cracks. Here it seems eighty percent of it did - billions. And some folks died.

The leader sets the tone, and the subordinates reflect that in all they do. Our leader is not very detail-minded. Thus this.

As news stories go, this doesn't have legs. What's done is done - except the next five or six generations of Americans will be picking up the tab here, given what the war and the tax cuts have done to the deficit. It will take some time to pay down the tab the Chinese are now holding in US paper, and pay it down with interest. Perhaps someone in 2024 will be ticked off that we pissed all this money away, letting anyone grab what they could and not even keeping records. But now? We'll sell more treasury bonds and move on.

Three: The Man Who Would be King

Yeah, that's also a movie title (Michael Caine and Sean Connery is a rip-roaring Rudyard Kipling tale set in Afghanistan), but then that's how Newsweek Presents the hottest political story of the last week in January.

On a theater marquee it would look like this:
They were loyal conservatives, and Bush appointees!
They fought a quiet battle to rein in the president's power in the war on terror!
And they paid a price for it!
(A NEWSWEEK investigation)
But it's not a movie. It's a five page piece of investigative journalism, by Daniel Klaidman, Stuart Taylor Jr. and Evan Thomas.

Still, it reads like a movie.

The quiet heroes are James Comey, former administration deputy attorney general, and former assistant attorney general Jack Goldsmith. They have the Jimmy Stewart roles - good guys trying to do their best, humbly and quietly - but finally facing down the bullies and winning the day. Except the story is ongoing so we don't know exactly how it comes out. But it's very Frank Capra.

The bad guys are really bad. The evil mastermind is Vice President Cheney (think Professor James Moriarty as played by Sidney Greenstreet, without the charm). His "muscle" - the enforcer - is his former counsel, David Addington, the fellow who is now his chief of staff, having been given Scooter Libby's job when Scooter was indicted on multiple felonies - short-tempered, nasty and smart as a whip. You don't mess with this Addington guy. Lurking in the background is John Yoo, the administration legal advisor, scribbling away at legal opinions late at night, giggling manically - ah, we can justify torture as long as the pain only simulates organ failure, and if you think real hard, the constitution does imply the president can break any law he wants! Think an Asian Peter Lorre.

Comic relief - the bumbling Polonius role - is provided by Attorney General John Ashcroft. Never quite getting it all, in and out of the hospital with gall bladder problems, knowing he should support his guys Comey and Goldsmith, but when he does, getting hammered by Cheney's crew. Now and then he just sings his song about eagles soaring (change of pace for the audience).

The scene - nine months, from October 2003 to June 2004, the Justice Department.

The conflict - the hard-liners, centered in the office of the vice president, who want to give the president virtually unlimited powers in the war on terror. Justice Department lawyers, backed by their "intrepid boss" Comey, demand that the White House stop using what they saw as farfetched rationales for "riding rough-shod over the law and the Constitution." Goldsmith and the others "fought" to bring government spying and interrogation methods within the law. "They did so at their peril; ostracized, some were denied promotions, while others left for more comfortable climes in private law firms and academia. Some went so far as to line up private lawyers in 2004, anticipating that the president's eavesdropping program would draw scrutiny from Congress, if not prosecutors."

The hook - "These government attorneys did not always succeed, but their efforts went a long way toward vindicating the principle of a nation of laws and not men."

The irony - "They were not downtrodden career civil servants. Rather, they were conservative political appointees who had been friends and close colleagues of some of the true believers they were fighting against. They did not see the struggle in terms of black and white but in shades of gray - as painfully close calls with unavoidable pitfalls. They worried deeply about whether their principles might put Americans at home and abroad at risk. Their story has been obscured behind legalisms and the veil of secrecy over the White House. But it is a quietly dramatic profile in courage."

What's in quotes is from Newsweek. Dramatic indeed.

Character Notes:
The chief opponent of the rebels, though by no means the only one, was an equally obscure, but immensely powerful, lawyer-bureaucrat. Intense, workaholic (even by insane White House standards), David Addington, formerly counsel, now chief of staff to the vice president, is a righteous, ascetic public servant.

... He is hardly anonymous inside the government, however. Presidential appointees quail before his volcanic temper, backed by assiduous preparation and acid sarcasm.

... Addington and a small band of like-minded lawyers set about providing that cover - a legal argument that the power of the president in time of war was virtually untrammeled. One of Addington's first jobs had been to draft a presidential order establishing military commissions to try unlawful combatants - terrorists caught on the global battlefield. The normal "interagency process" - getting agreement from lawyers at Defense, State, the intelligence agencies and so forth - proved glacial, as usual. So Addington, working with fellow conservative Deputy White House Counsel Timothy Flanigan, came up with a solution: cut virtually everyone else out.
That's a role an actor could really sink his teeth into.

The whole story is complex, and needs to be read for all its twist and turns, but these guys stood up to the Cheney-Addington-Yoo plan to ditch the rules and sort of take over the world, if you will. They may have been Bush appointees and as conservative as you want, but they stood up to a power grab that broke all the rules, and stopped it - or at least slowed it down.

And they had to leave, but they left with their heads held high. They did the right thing. Cue theme music. Fade to black.

It's too bad all this is really not a movie. We're coming close to a ditch-the-constitution screw-the-rules takeover. And it's deadly serious.

Four: We're Being Jerked Around

Long ago in these pages (November 2004), Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, said it - There is No War on Terror. To quote him - "Listen up! There IS no War on Terror! I repeat: There IS no War on Terror! None! We have all been conned!"

Almost fifteen months later the world catches up with him.

See this opinion piece, January 28, 2006, by Joseph J. Ellis in the New York Times - Finding a Place for 9/11 in American History.

Ellis is a professor of history at Mount Holyoke College and his latest book in on George Washington, and he's big on historical perspective -
My first question: where does Sept. 11 rank in the grand sweep of American history as a threat to national security? By my calculations it does not make the top tier of the list, which requires the threat to pose a serious challenge to the survival of the American republic.

Here is my version of the top tier: the War for Independence, where defeat meant no United States of America; the War of 1812, when the national capital was burned to the ground; the Civil War, which threatened the survival of the Union; World War II, which represented a totalitarian threat to democracy and capitalism; the cold war, most specifically the Cuban missile crisis of 1962, which made nuclear annihilation a distinct possibility.

Sept. 11 does not rise to that level of threat because, while it places lives and lifestyles at risk, it does not threaten the survival of the American republic, even though the terrorists would like us to believe so.
They're not the only ones, although they love that we think this way. The administration is playing it exactly the same way. It's useful to them too.

And Rick, the News Guy in Atlanta, did have something to say, in August 2004, our dialog about the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798. That's here. We saw where this was heading.

Professor Ellis now says this -
My list of precedents for the Patriot Act and government wiretapping of American citizens would include the Alien and Sedition Acts in 1798, which allowed the federal government to close newspapers and deport foreigners during the "quasi-war" with France; the denial of habeas corpus during the Civil War, which permitted the pre-emptive arrest of suspected Southern sympathizers; the Red Scare of 1919, which emboldened the attorney general to round up leftist critics in the wake of the Russian Revolution; the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, which was justified on the grounds that their ancestry made them potential threats to national security; the McCarthy scare of the early 1950's, which used cold war anxieties to pursue a witch hunt against putative Communists in government, universities and the film industry.

In retrospect, none of these domestic responses to perceived national security threats looks justifiable. Every history textbook I know describes them as lamentable, excessive, even embarrassing. Some very distinguished American presidents, including John Adams, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt, succumbed to quite genuine and widespread popular fears. No historian or biographer has argued that these were their finest hours.
Yep. That was the point.

And Ellis' conclusion -
What Patrick Henry once called "the lamp of experience" needs to be brought into the shadowy space in which we have all been living since Sept. 11. My tentative conclusion is that the light it sheds exposes the ghosts and goblins of our traumatized imaginations. It is completely understandable that those who lost loved ones on that date will carry emotional scars for the remainder of their lives. But it defies reason and experience to make Sept. 11 the defining influence on our foreign and domestic policy. History suggests that we have faced greater challenges and triumphed, and that overreaction is a greater danger than complacency.
Context is everything. We need to calm down and act sensibly.

Glenn Greenwald puts it nicely -
The total number of Americans killed by Islamic terrorists in the last 5 years - or 10 years - or 20 years - or ever - is roughly 3,500, the same number of deaths by suicide which occur in this country every month. This is the overarching threat around which we are constructing our entire foreign policy, changing the basic principles of our government, and fundamentally altering both our behavior in the world and the way in which we are perceived.

And yet, one almost never hears anyone arguing that the terrorism threat, like any other threat, should be viewed in perspective and subjected to rational risk-benefit assessments. That's because opinions about terrorism are the new form of political correctness, and even hinting that this threat is not the all-consuming, existential danger to our Republic which the Bush followers, fear-mongerers and hysterics among us have relentlessly and shrilly insisted that it is, will subject one to all sorts of accusations concerning one's patriotism and even mental health.
But the president says this is an "unprecedented danger." He never was good at history. Someone is calling him on it. It may be politically incorrect. It just happens to be correct.

You used to get hammered if you said that, putting things in perspective, we don't have an existential threat here. We have a problem. It can be solved. And, perhaps, the solution isn't a military solution - as Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis wrote in these pages recently (see this).

There's something in the air, besides the "we're all going to die" politically correctness. It's been a long time coming.

But over at Hullabaloo, Digby says what's really in the air isn't that nice -
... the endless evocations of pre-9/11 and post 9/11 thinking reminds me of nothing so much as people who are hooked on a stimulating drug.

Of course we all felt real fear in the early days, none so much as those who lived in New York and DC. It was almost unbelievable to see those scenes. But there was a sense of spectacle and drama about it that was literally unreal to those of us who watched it on television. This was fear put to music, with dramatic title treatments and a soaring voice-over. Because of that, on some level, 9/11 was a thrill for many people, even some Democrats. It was sad and horrifying, of course, but it was also stimulating, exciting and memorable because of the way it was presented on television. (When we were talking about this, Jane described it as if "the whole country was watching porn together every time the rerun of the towers falling was broadcast.") And we subsequently fetishized the "war on terrorism" to the point where some people become inexplicably excited whenever it is mentioned. They want that big group grope again, that sense of shared sensation. That is the "fear" that people say they have. And it's why they want to vote for the guy who keeps pumping it into the body politic.

It's why the "war on terrorism" still has some potency for the Republicans that the very ugly, very real war in Iraq does not. We can't lose the "war on terrorism" because it isn't a real war. Unfortunately, because we have allowed those words to be used, we have opened the door for authoritarian Republicans to assume the powers of a dictator under its auspices.

Greenwald and Ellis both argue very persuasively that Islamic fundamentalist terrorism does not present an existential threat to our country. I think that idea is beginning to get some traction in the national security debates. I don't know how long it might take to break this country out of its shared fetish for the "war on terrorism" but perhaps it's time to start addressing that as well. Until we finally admit that we aren't "at war" by any real definition of that term, we are going to be hamstrung in addressing the very real national security challenges we do face.

I haven't the vaguest idea how to do it, though. This nation is on the "war on terrorism" thrill ride and is enjoying it so much they've bought a season pass. And like most thrill rides these days, after the first little while I start to feel nauseated.
He's onto something. Folks like the rush.

But something is up.

Five Through Thirteen: Say What?

These items may be of some importance, or not.

Mixed U.S. Signals Helped Tilt Haiti Toward Chaos - the New York Times assembles the clear evidence we worked hard to overthrow the elected government of Haiti, undermining the "we spread democracy" business. We don't. This matches out funding of the coup in Venezuela a year or two ago - Chavez was elect in a fair election, a few times, and we funded a coup, announced that it happened and praised the generals who took over, but then it failed in less than a day, and Chavez was back, and we looked stupid. We pulled it off in Haiti. But it's a backgrounder, not a news story as such, and one more nail in the coffin for our claims to be the bringers of democracy. We do that when we must.

Bombs Strike Christian Targets in Iraq - AP lets us know its not just the Sunni and Shiite folks at each other. The bad guys know how to really get to us. Bomb Christians. Crusades, anyone?

Religious Groups Get Chunk of AIDS Money - AP lets us know our government is paying the Christian right with our tax money to tell those who might get AIDS no drugs, no condoms, just don't "do it" like God says. Same groups need not follow employment law - hire only their own, fire those who don't read the Bible enough. Not an issue for hyper-religious America now.

Saddam, Defense Team Walk Out of Trial (AP) and Trial chaos as Saddam walks out, half-brother ejected (AFP) - old judge quit and new judge no better - chaos and farce - and as holding elections doesn't make it a democracy, so holding a show trial doesn't make it justice. Confusion of one part for the whole. Will be in the news, but it's just a mess.

Republicans urge Bush to release records on Abramoff - Reuters lists the Republicans, who, worried about the fall mid-term elections, want to seem "clean" - and don't fear Karl Rove that very much any more. A curiosity, and a bother for the president, but no much more than that.

Enron's Lay: Trial will turn out 'fine' - CNN on the trial opening this week. Ken Lay is whistling in the wind. Folks are still angry about Enron, particularly those who lost their retirement savings. Bush still maintains he doesn't really know the guy he nicknamed "Kenny Boy" all that well - and never did. Lay will get creamed. The president has to look clean, now more than ever. Bad news for Lay

Paper: Berlusconi Vows No Sex Until Voting (AP) - Silvio Berlusconi is one odd duck. The Italians are an odd lot. Focus groups gone wild? Who advised this PR stunt? This is something that will just make heads explode all across evangelical America.

Not Just Another Column About Blogging: What Newspaper History Says About Newspaper Future - Jack Shafer at SLATE.COM with a brilliant analysis of how, just as when computers replaced linotype and hot lead (and with a few other factors), the nature of the newspaper changed, so with dirt cheap web media available to anyone, things will change again, in a big way. Fascinating. Not "hot" news, but he's onto something.

Posted by Alan at 22:48 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 30 January 2006 06:41 PST home

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