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

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

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

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Monday, 20 March 2006
The game is winding down, the one started on the nursery school playground...
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

The game is winding down, the one started on the nursery school playground...

When you seem to have lost the game you play on, doing your best. It's the right thing to do. And it is possible things may, by some miracle, shift - the other team goes suddenly cold, you get a good call or two from the officials, you get a series of improbable, unlikely, impossible scores. Who knows how such things happen? You can always hope. You play on. That's kind of what the White House seems to doing these days. Everything seems to go wrong, but you put on your game face, you suck it up - choose your own sports cliché - but you plow ahead. It's the manly thing to do.


So what's this about the "manliness" of our leaders - the three strong daddy guys, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld, who say not to worry, not to ask questions and just know they will protect us all us children who fret over things we don't understand?

Well, Monday, March 20th, everyone was pointing to Kurt Kleiner in the Toronto Star where he reported on some amusing research from Berkeley, California -
In the 1960s Jack Block and his wife and fellow professor Jeanne Block (now deceased) began tracking more than 100 nursery school kids as part of a general study of personality. The kids' personalities were rated at the time by teachers and assistants who had known them for months. There's no reason to think political bias skewed the ratings - the investigators were not looking at political orientation back then. Even if they had been, it's unlikely that 3- and 4-year-olds would have had much idea about their political leanings.

A few decades later, Block followed up with more surveys, looking again at personality, and this time at politics, too. The whiny kids tended to grow up conservative, and turned into rigid young adults who hewed closely to traditional gender roles and were uncomfortable with ambiguity.

The confident kids turned out liberal and were still hanging loose, turning into bright, non-conforming adults with wide interests. The girls were still outgoing, but the young men tended to turn a little introspective.

Block admits in his paper that liberal Berkeley is not representative of the whole country. But within his sample, he says, the results hold. He reasons that insecure kids look for the reassurance provided by tradition and authority, and find it in conservative politics. The more confident kids are eager to explore alternatives to the way things are, and find liberal politics more congenial.
And there you have it. The whiney, insecure kids just never grew up. They still need a strong, stern daddy who will explain things, or refuse to explain things, and who will make it all better, or say he will in a way that reduces anxiety. The kids who hang loose and explore things just grew up. Someone plays "strong daddy" and demands this behavior or that? They just shrug. Of course the males in this "confident" group do, later, turn introspective. They get all thoughtful and that sort of thing. They want to figure things out, and ask questions, and consider details. That's not very manly, of course. You might call it "adult" or something.

Somehow this explains a lot about American politics.

One side doesn't understand why everyone doesn't want a strong daddy. The world is scary and no ordinary guy or gal has any power to do anything about it. A strong daddy is what you need.

The other side is puzzled as why you want one at all. The world is interesting, or challenging or whatever, and you figure out how to deal with it. What's the problem?

There is no way to bridge the gap. The whole matter looks to be a function of fairly fixed personality traits. No one is going to switch sides.

The State of Play

Sunday the 19th was three years to the day since the start of the invasion of Iraq (other comments on that here), and oddly enough, three public figures called for one of the three strong daddies to go away.

This is unusual. But you could look it up, as here smiling Senator Joe Biden of Delaware says Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld really ought to resign. And here Pennsylvania congressman John Murtha says, yep, he should go. But you'd expect that from these two. Murtha is a blunt, no-nonsense ex-military guy who's just fed up with what's happening to our Army and reserves, and convinced we're creating more problems for ourselves by occupying a Muslim and mostly Arab nation smack in the middle of the Middle East. Biden is an opportunist. He'd like to be president one day.

The odd call for resignation came from General Paul D. Eaton in the New York Times here. This is the man who, for two years, was in charge of training Iraqi forces to bring them up to snuff. So he's not the grump from Pennsylvania, nor the master politician from Delaware. He's been on the inside.

He says this -
[D]efense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld is not competent to lead our armed forces.

First, his failure to build coalitions with our allies from what he dismissively called "old Europe" has imposed far greater demands and risks on our soldiers in Iraq than necessary. Second, he alienated his allies in our own military, ignoring the advice of seasoned officers and denying subordinates any chance for input.

In sum, he has shown himself incompetent strategically, operationally and tactically, and is far more than anyone else responsible for what has happened to our important mission in Iraq. Mr. Rumsfeld must step down.

In the five years Mr. Rumsfeld has presided over the Pentagon, I have seen a climate of groupthink become dominant and a growing reluctance by experienced military men and civilians to challenge the notions of the senior leadership. [...]

Mr. Rumsfeld has put the Pentagon at the mercy of his ego, his cold warrior's view of the world and his unrealistic confidence in technology to replace manpower. [...]

Donald Rumsfeld demands more than loyalty. He wants fealty. And he has hired men who give it. [...]
Eaton was in the other group in nursery school, it seems. Daddy says "trust me I know what I'm doing" and he doesn't take his word for it. He looks at what's been done, and what is being done, and draws his own conclusions. Not an obedient kid, it seems. As a military man his has no issues with authority per se, but he makes the assumption he's allowed to think things through, assuming too that senior officers should think and add to the discussion of what's the best way to proceed. That's not the model at work in this administration. The place is run by the "other" kids.

Of course, the same day the Washington Post gave Rumsfeld his column inches to explain why we're doing what we're doing, and why we have to do it his way. His killer line was this "Turning our backs on postwar Iraq today would be the modern equivalent of handing postwar Germany back to the Nazis."

Huh? Well, THAT will shut up the critics. Who likes Hitler? That will scare the uppity kids.

The University of Michigan Middle East expert Juan Cole has a few things to say about that here, and CNN gathered other reaction here - Henry Kissinger: "In Germany, the opposition was completely crushed; there was no significant resistance movement." Zbigniew Brzezinski: "That is really absolutely crazy to anyone who knows history. There was no alternative to our presence. The Germans were totally crushed. For Secretary Rumsfeld to be talking this way suggests either he doesn't know history or he's simply demagoguing."

You think? Well, it keeps the kids in line.

And, going back to the sport analogy, when you're down four touchdown with thirty second to play, well, you try a trick play. What could it hurt?

Others see things differently, kind of like when the end of the game will never come because they're replaying a loop of the last controversial penalty, breaking for commercials, then going back to the instant reply.

Matthew Yglesias captures that here -
Today we enter the fourth year of the misguided war in Iraq and it's worth noting that this time around basically nothing has changed in the past twelve months. It continues to be the case, as advocates of continuing the war maintain, that the day after American troops leave, conditions will almost certainly deteriorate. More importantly, it also continues to be the case that every day American troops stay, conditions deteriorate slowly. Moreover, it continues to be the case that American troops simply can't stay forever - it's logistically impossible and keeping such a large number of them in Iraq creates immense problems for our policies around the world.

It continues to be the case that Iraq's problems are overwhelmingly political in nature. There is no consensus among the country's major ethnic and sectarian blocs (or, for that matter, its smaller ones) as to what the outlines of a legitimate Iraqi political order should look like. This is not an insoluble problem (other pluralitist polities exist peacefully around the world) but it's not an easily solved one (these situations are complicated and conflict-ridden everywhere they arise, even in placid Canada) and it's not one that either American soldiers or better-trained Iraqi soldiers are capable of solving. This isn't a deficiency on the part of the military; it reflects the fact that the problems at hand aren't military problems.

The sooner the country's political leaders and elite opinion-makers wake up to this, the better. I'd just as soon not write a "year five" post.
But one suspects Yglesias an post this on May 20, 2007, and May 20, 2008, and May 20, 2009, and so on.

There was similar ennui from the NYU journalism professor and noted author Eric Alterman with this -
I don't have anything profound to add to the commentary on the third anniversary of the Iraq invasion, except that it may be the single most misguided, dishonest and counter-productive expenditure of our nation's blood and treasure in its history. And almost all of this was evident from the start to anyone who cared to look. (The ideological spectrum of Sunday's Washington Post op-ed page on the topic stretched all the way from Donald Rumsfeld to George F. Will.) I do think that any political commentator who supported it owes his or her readers an explanation as to why they would expect such judgment to be trusted again in the future.

This is, after all, the purpose of punditry; to help people make sense of the fusillade of news that comes to them, as Walter Lippmann explained, "helter-skelter." What's fascinating is that everyday people seem to have an easier time admitting how foolish they were to trust this dishonest, incompetent, ideologically-obsessed president.
Ah, but the "everyday people" he is citing, the sixty percent who disapprove of the war (and by similar numbers disapprove of many other policies of the administration), are the "hang loose" personalities from the Berkeley study. There's that thirty-three percent in the latest polling who still trust daddy, or all three daddies in this case.

But things are taking an odd turn. It's March madness. Some of us old folks remember March 16, 1968. That's the date of the My Lai massacre (those younger might go here). Vietnam. Our guys wiping out a village of woman and children, for no good reason. Turned everything around. Upset a lot of people. All our fine talk about the rightness of what we were doing became a whole lot harder to advertise. The "moral high ground" was lost, as they say, particularly when only one Lieutenant took the rap on got some jail time. We said that closed the case. That was a hard sell.

In any event, in the big game you don't want one of your linemen making the bonehead play that ruins everything.

And if Abu Ghraib and some events at Guantánamo weren't enough now we have Haditha.

Well, it doesn't really count as March madness, as the event happened on 19 November last year. Marines this time. The Pentagon and Naval Criminal Investigative Service have opened an investigation (the Marines are traditionally part of the Navy). Time magazine covers it here - a raid where we captured a bad guy, but fifteen civilians, including six women and children, died. Was it civilians unfortunately in the way? The building just collapsed and that was that?

We say so. The local police say no. It may be that our guys lost one of there own and got angry and things spun out of control. A cameraman working for Reuters in Haditha at the time said bodies were left lying in the street for hours after the attack. One source here has the women and children handcuffed and shot in the head, execution-style. ABC News covers it here with video of the aftermath shot by an Iraqi journalism student, but who did what? That there is now a formal investigation is not a good sign. We've been forced to look into this. Abandoning the usual "sorry, fog of war" line is not a good sign. Ah, maybe it's nothing - things happened just as the guys said.

But that "moral high ground" is damned slippery.

Of course, the other side finds it slippery too, as in this item from Afghanistan, where the government is seeking to execute a fellow because, sixteen years ago, he converted to Christianity. That's a capital offense there (and my be in the new Iraq we created). But they may let him live. Their moral high ground? He has the right to convert back to Islam. As the judge there said - "We will invite him again because the religion of Islam is one of tolerance. We will ask him if he has changed his mind. If so we will forgive him." Why does that remind one of Pat Robertson and the Jews who he says are damned forever, but could, if they choose, convert to Christianity and not be?

Just how did the one group of kids from the Berkeley study come to rule the world?

But back to sports. Monday, March 20th the "daddy in chief" spoke in Cleveland. He assumed the role of coach, rallying the team - and sports dads are a pain.

It was the usual - we're fighting them over there so we don't have to fight them over here, the oceans don't protect us anymore, we have an enemy that hides in cave and 9/11 changed everything, and his job is to make decisions and protect us.

How did it go? As the Washington Post reports here it may have been a mistake to make this an open forum after the speech. The audience was not pre-selected and coached, just selected to be generally friendly. The president said "glad to answer some questions." Bad move. They ran trough lunch. He got grumpy - "Anybody work here in this town?" And they missed the obvious punch line as "Think Progress" notes here - "Not as many as used to, sir." The unemployment rate there has increased twenty-nine percent in the last five years. But they were polite.

There was that embarrassing question - "Do you believe terrorism and the war in Iraq are signs of Armageddon?" He said he hadn't thought of it that way, the rambled on for ten minutes or more, dancing around the question. He never answered it. It was a tight spot. Say yes for the base and the moderates go ballistic. Say no and lose the base. It's hard work being president, as he said over and over in his debates with Kerry. Amusing. Who knows what he believes? Motivating a team is hard work too.

As for who is standing with him, the Cleveland Plain Dealer noted this -
Prominent Ohio Republicans including Sen. Mike DeWine, Sen. George Voinovich and Rep. Steve LaTourette say they're skipping Bush's speech because of prior commitments. DeWine is visiting his convalescing father in Florida and accompanying him to spring training baseball games. LaTourette previously scheduled a staff retreat in Washington. Voinovich has meetings in Washington that he couldn't reschedule. Gov. Bob Taft, whose popularity is even lower than Bush's, isn't expected to attend, either. Taft noted that he attended Bush's speech last month outside Columbus, as did Voinovich. Today's event isn't on the schedules of either Jim Petro or Ken Blackwell, the GOP candidates to replace Taft, their spokesmen said.
His local team didn't even show up? Hard work indeed.

Maybe they know how things seem. Most believe there is a mess of our own making over in Iraq, and, as James Walcott here demonstrates with anecdote and evidence, that's just what it is.

And there is that censure thing the senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold, is pushing. Digby at Hullabaloo has a long post on that here. The concept of censuring the president for breaking the law, admitting it, and then saying he will continue to do so, spooked a lot of folks in his own party, and made the Republicans grin. The Democrats had blow it again. Then the polling showed almost half the country agreed it should be done, including a fifth of the Republicans surveyed. Oops. Maybe Feingold isn't a grandstanding madman.

As Digby puts it -
... politics is not just about running on issues people already agree with, it is trying to change public opinion. Somebody had to jump start the debate about the president's theory of presidential infallibility and abuse of power. It's a huge issue to millions of Americans and it's vital that politicians of both parties recognize this.

... People want to know what Democratic base really stands for? The same thing that the majority of the country stands for. We believe in the rule of law, civil liberties, civil rights and supporting the troops - all of those things are embodied in the Alito filibuster motion, the Feingold NSA wiretapping resolution and the Murtha plan. None of them were done out of an expectation that they would win passage in the congress or force the president to change course. These actions, regardless of motive, have laid down the stakes in the next election, which is why Brit Hume had an aneurysm about the proposition that the NSA wiretapping issue might actually play to the benefit of Democrats.

If that's so, then it's true that Republicans are going to be in for a tough time under a Democratic congress. People need to prepare for the fact that accountability is going to be on the menu. Nobody is going to be impeached over silly blow-jobs but there are some very serious matters that the Republican congress has refused to deal with. If that stirs up the GOP base, then fine. It stirs up the Democratic base too.
But, but, but... Daddy said it was just fine and legal as the day is long. It seems of the two nursery school groups the "hang loose" kids who grew up to think a bit are coming out of the shadows.

If you're a coach trying to rally the team, this is not good. They don't like last-minute rule changes. We have the rule book, if you want to think about the constitution that way. It means something else now? No fair. How can you play a game to win when the rules keep changing? If our daddy is coaching our team it gets hard to trust him when he does stuff like that.

And the team is demoralized, as Ron Beasley notes here, pointing to a columnist for The Independent (UK), Johann Hari, saying he trusted the daddy-coach-protector, but he grew up.

Hari says this (British spelling retained) -
So when people ask if I think I was wrong, I think about the Iraqi friend - hiding, terrified, in his own house - who said to me this week, "Every day you delete another name from your mobile, because they've been killed. By the Americans or the jihadists or the militias - usually you never find out which." I think of the people trapped in the siege of a civilian city, Fallujah, where amidst homes and schools the Americans indiscriminately used a banned chemical weapon - white phosphorous - that burns through skin and bone. (The Americans say they told civilians to leave the city, so anybody left behind was a suspected jihadi - an evacuation procedure so successful they later used it in New Orleans.). I think of the raw numbers: on the largest estimate - from the Human Rights Centre in Khadimiya - Saddam was killing 70,000 people a year. The occupation and the jihadists have topped that, and the violence is getting worse. And I think - yes, I was wrong. Terribly wrong.
But it couldn't a fine idea bungled? He gave up on that -
The lamest defence I could offer - one used by many supporters of the war as they slam into reverse gear - is that I still support the principle of invasion, it's just the Bush administration screwed it up. But as one anti-war friend snapped at me when I mooted this argument, "Yeah, who would ever have thought that supporting George Bush in the illegal invasion of an Arab country would go wrong?" She's right: the truth is that there was no pure Platonic ideal of The Perfect Invasion to support, no abstract idea we lent our names to. There was only Bush, with his cluster bombs, depleted uranium, IMF-ed up economic model, bogus rationale and unmistakable stench of petrol, offering his war, his way. (Expecting Tony Blair to use his influence was, it is now clear, a delusion, as he refuses to even frontally condemn the American torture camp at Guantanomo Bay).

The evidence should have been clear to me all along: the Bush administration would produce disaster. Let's look at the major mistakes-cum-crimes. Who would have thought they would unleash widespread torture, with over 10,000 people disappearing without trial into Iraq's secret prisons? Anybody who followed the record of the very same people - from Rumsfeld to Negroponte - in Central America in the 1980s. Who would have thought they would use chemical weapons? Anybody who looked up Bush's stance on chemical weapons treaties (he uses them for toilet paper) or checked Rumsfeld's record of flogging them to tyrants. Who would have thought they would impose shock therapy mass privatisation on the Iraqi economy, sending unemployment soaring to 60 percent - a guarantee of ethnic strife? Anybody who followed the record of the US towards Russia, Argentina, and East Asia. Who could have known that they would cancel all reconstruction funds, when electricity and water supplies are still below even Saddam's standards? Anybody who looked at their domestic policies.
And he decided not to look a motivation, until he did -
The Bush administration was primarily motivated by a desire to secure strategic access to one of the world's major sources of oil. The 9/11 massacres by Saudi hijackers had reminded them that their favourite client-state - the one run by the torturing House of Saud - was vulnerable to an internal Islamist revolution that would snatch the oil-wells from Halliburton hands. They needed an alternative source of Middle East oil, fast. I obviously found this rationale disgusting, but I deluded myself into thinking it was possible to ride this beast to a better Iraq. Reeling from a visit to Saddam's Iraq, I knew that Iraqis didn't care why their dictator was deposed, they just wanted it done, now. As I thought of the ethnically cleansed Marsh Arabs I had met, reduced to living in a mud hut in the desert, I thought that whatever happens, however it occurs, it will be better. In that immediate rush, I - like most Iraqis - failed to see that the Bush administration's warped motives would lead to a warped occupation. A war for oil would mean that as Baghdad was looted, troops would be sent to guard the oil ministry, not the hospitals - a bleak harbinger of things to come.
Welcome to the other side of the nursery school playground. It's where you should have been in the first place.

Of course, the game is still in progress. We're told we must win. We need to define that, even if the daddy-coach-protector says it's not out business.



Pop up these items for additional thoughts.

That question to the president at the press conference in Cleveland - "Do you believe terrorism and the war in Iraq are signs of Armageddon?" - can be seen in a larger context. Read Alan Brinkley's review of the new hot book "American Theocracy," by Kevin Phillips. The review in the New York Times Review of Books is here -
Although Phillips is scathingly critical of what he considers the dangerous policies of the Bush administration, he does not spend much time examining the ideas and behavior of the president and his advisers. Instead, he identifies three broad and related trends - none of them new to the Bush years but all of them, he believes, exacerbated by this administration's policies - that together threaten the future of the United States and the world. One is the role of oil in defining and, as Phillips sees it, distorting American foreign and domestic policy. The second is the ominous intrusion of radical Christianity into politics and government. And the third is the astonishing levels of debt - current and prospective - that both the government and the American people have been heedlessly accumulating. If there is a single, if implicit, theme running through the three linked essays that form this book, it is the failure of leaders to look beyond their own and the country's immediate ambitions and desires so as to plan prudently for a darkening future.
And Kevin Phillips is the guy who wrote "The Emerging Republican Majority" and went to work for Nixon to make it so.

In the same issue there is a review of "Manliness," by Harvey C. Mansfield. That book, and the man, were discussed in these pages the same day here, but Walter Kirn opens with this -
REMEMBER those great old "Saturday Night Live" bits about the moronic Germanic bodybuilders who kept offering to "pump you up" while flexing the delts of their bulbous foam rubber muscle suits? Remember how unwittingly fey they seemed, partly because of their wagging little pinheads but mostly because of the way they loved the words "girly" and "manly" - a pair of usages that was poignantly out of date by then among even minimally hip Americans? Remember that?

Apparently, Harvey C. Mansfield doesn't. In fact, this Harvard professor of government and the author of "Manliness" (yep), a new polemic about the nature and value of masculinity, shows little awareness of much that's happened recently - televisually and otherwise - in the allegedly feminized culture that he aims to shake up. Like Austin Powers (who, come to think of it, made even more fun of "manly" than Hans and Franz), Mansfield seems stuck in a semantic time warp in which it is still possible to write sentences like "Though it's clear that women can be manly, it's just as clear that they are not as manly or as often manly as men."
Hey, he doesn't like the book. But Mansfield was in DC last week speaking to the right-wing think-tank. The whole matter looks to be a function of fairly fixed personality traits. No one is going to switch sides.

Posted by Alan at 22:17 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Monday, 20 March 2006 22:31 PST home

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