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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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Tuesday, 31 January 2006
Light Fog: Making Much of Nothing
Topic: Breaking News

Light Fog: Making Much of Nothing

Tuesday, January 31st - the president delivers the State of the Union address. Does anyone watch this? Our here in Los Angeles it started at six in the evening, as a light fog started to slide in off the Pacific. Those of us who once taught "creative writing" know the dangers of employing the sympathetic fallacy - we warn our students. In real life it seldom rains when the noble hero tragically dies.

This was just fog. The Pacific is damned cold this time of year, and the off-shore Santa Ana winds of the previous week are long gone. It's not a symbol. It's just fog. And this was just a political speech.

This is a telling admission, from Josh Marshall, a major political analyst -
I have a confession: I'm not sure when the last time was when I watched the State of the Union address. I think I may have watched it in 2003. But I'm not even certain of that. Perhaps a glance through the archives would show that I watched a bit of it last year, I don't know.

The truth is, I find it unwatchable.

Now, I read the transcript later. I'll often go back and watch key sections so I can get the flavor of a particular passage in the speech or of a debate it has spawned.

But the thing itself (watching the actual production in real time) and then the imbecile chatter afterwards - I just can't deal. I just find it unbearable.

Are there others out there like me? I know that a great portion of the country never watches the thing and can't be bothered with politics in any case. But are there others out there who are genuine political junkies - downright incurables - and yet can't bear to watch this thing?
Yes, there are. Right here.

Of course the White House released the full text to the press a few hours early, so they could do their reporting. And if you found it you didn't have to watch.

The text came with this tag - "Embargoed Until Delivery of the State of the Union Address at 9:01 PM EST January 31, 2006." Right. It was posted, in full, hours before the speech, here, with this tag - "We'll start respecting White House embargoes when they start telling the truth."

Marshall says the speech is "unwatchable" - it's also unreadable. Nothing new. Same defense of the wiretapping - constitutional by the new theory the White House uses, and authorized by congress, even if they think they didn't authorized any such thing. Same platitudes about everything else. There was the "addicted to oil" line - we need to kick that habit. Yeah, like what does that mean? That's not policy. What's our methadone? Ethanol? Hardly. The economic stuff was just nonsense - make tax cuts for the rich permanent and cut a hundred and twenty social programs. And the deficit isn't getting as big quite as fast as it was before, so things are looking good. And we're really the good guys in this world, really, we are. We bring democracy. The bad guys die. Everyone will cheer, eventually - not the subtlest thinking. But then, what do you expect in this venue?


The arrest of Cindy Sheehan was amusing. No, you're not allowed to unfurl banners in there. Grandstanding. Give it a rest.

Many in the opposition think it's time for substance, not drama. Harry Reid, minority leader of the Senate, does a point-by-point refutation here - facts and reality to counter every platitude and claim. The message? Most all of us live in the real world and need a government that has a clue about what happens here on earth.

Note here, an alternative State of the Union address from Gore Vidal -
This is an unpatriotic government. This is a government that deals openly in illegalities, whether it is attacking a country which has done us no harm, two countries - Iraq and Afghanistan - because we now believe, not in declaring war through Congress as the Constitution requires, but through the President. "Well, I think there are some terrorists over there, and I think we got to bomb them, huh? We'll bomb them." Now, we've had idiots as presidents before. He's not unique. But he's certainly the most active idiot that we have ever had.
There's much more. It's snide. But then...

It's just a speech. It's just evening fog.

But the world progresses apace, as in this -
San Francisco - The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) filed a class-action lawsuit against AT&T Tuesday, accusing the telecom giant of violating the law and the privacy of its customers by collaborating with the National Security Agency (NSA) in its massive and illegal program to wiretap and data-mine Americans' communications.

The NSA program came to light in December, when the New York Times reported that the president had authorized the agency to intercept telephone and Internet communications inside the United States without the authorization of any court. Over the ensuing weeks, it became clear that the NSA program has been intercepting and analyzing millions of Americans' communications, with the help of the country's largest phone and Internet companies.

Reporting has also indicated that those same companies - and AT&T specifically - have given the NSA direct access to their vast databases of communications records, including information about whom their customers have phoned or emailed with in the past. And yet little has been accomplished by this illegal spying: recent reports have shown that the data from this wholesale surveillance has done little more than waste FBI resources on dead leads.

"The NSA program is apparently the biggest fishing expedition ever devised, scanning millions of ordinary Americans' phone calls and emails for 'suspicious' patterns, and it's the collaboration of US telecom companies like AT&T that makes it possible," said EFF Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston. "When the government defends spying on Americans by saying, 'If you're talking to terrorists we want to know about it,' that's not even close to the whole story."

In the lawsuit, EFF alleges that AT&T, in addition to allowing the NSA direct access to the phone and Internet communications passing over its network, has given the government unfettered access to its over 300 terabyte "Daytona" database of caller information - one of the largest databases in the world...
Hey! Someone is actually doing something. Cindy can unfurl her funky banner, and get that shot of being dragged out of the House chambers, and Gore Vidal can be snarky, but these guys are doing useful work.

Someone has to.

Ah, for an alternative speech, on doing something, the right thing, even if you lose 58-42 in the Senate on the judge, Digby, over at Hullabaloo here reminds us of what Bobby Kennedy one said - this -
Some believe there is nothing one man or one woman can do against the enormous array of the world's ills. Yet many of the world's great movements, of thought and action, have flowed from the work of a single man. A young monk began the Protestant reformation, a young general extended an empire from Macedonia to the borders of the earth, and a young woman reclaimed the territory of France. It was a young Italian explorer who discovered the New World, and the thirty-two-year-old Thomas Jefferson who proclaimed that all men are created equal.

These men moved the world, and so can we all. Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal, or acts to improve the lot of others, or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million different centers of energy and daring, those ripples build a current that can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.

Few are willing to brave the disapproval of their fellows, the censure of their colleagues, the wrath of their society. Moral courage is a rarer commodity than bravery in battle or great intelligence. Yet it is the one essential, vital quality for those who seek to change a world that yields most painfully to change. And I believe that in this generation those with the courage to enter the moral conflict will find themselves with companions in every corner of the globe.

For the fortunate among us, there is the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who enjoy the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. Like it or not, we live in times of danger and uncertainty. But they are also more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history. All of us will ultimately be judged and as the years pass we will surely judge ourselves, on the effort we have contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which our ideals and goals have shaped that effort.

The future does not belong to those who are content with today, apathetic toward common problems and their fellow man alike, timid and fearful in the face of new ideas and bold projects. Rather it will belong to those who can blend vision, reason and courage in a personal commitment to the ideals and great enterprises of American Society.

Our future may lie beyond our vision, but it is not completely beyond our control. It is the shaping impulse of America that neither fate nor nature nor the irresistible tides of history, but the work of our own hands, matched to reason and principle, that will determine our destiny. There is pride in that, even arrogance, but there is also experience and truth. In any event, it is the only way we can live.
Fight the good fight. It really is the only way we can live.

And he's dead.

So let's turn to other matters. Here, as the president was delivering the big speech, with no sound to Harriet-the-Cat in the far room, KUSC was still broadcasting Mozart.

January 27th was Mozart's birthday - he's two hundred and fifty this year. There was no mention in these pages. Sorry.

The Wall Street Journal arts critic, Terry Teachout, here found some odd things.

First he quotes himself from long ago -
In 1945, Arturo Toscanini told the music critic B.H. Haggin that he preferred Haydn to Mozart. "I will tell you frankly: sometimes I find Mozart boring," he said to his astonished interviewer. "Not G-minor [the G Minor Symphony, K. 550]: that is great tragedy; and not concerti; but other music. Is always beautiful - but is always the same."
Maybe so.

But then he quotes others -

"We all drew on the comfort which is given out by the major works of Mozart, which is as real and material as the warmth given up by a glass of brandy." - Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon

"The truth is that Mozart, Pascal, Boolean algebra, Shakespeare, parliamentary government, baroque churches, Newton, the emancipation of women, Kant, Marx, and Balanchine ballets don't redeem what this particular civilization has wrought upon the world. The white race is the cancer of human history." - Susan Sontag, Styles of Radical Will

"There is no female Mozart because there is no female Jack the Ripper." - Camille Paglia, interview, International Herald Tribune (April 26, 1991)

And that covers Mozart and his birthday. Harriet-the-Cat sort of watched George Bush speak, but heard Mozart. The whole thing was better that way.

Posted by Alan at 20:46 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2006 20:49 PST home

Monday, 30 January 2006
Sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you in trouble...
Topic: Reality-Based Woes

Sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you in trouble...

Monday, January 30th, the Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice, in London, trying to get some consensus on Iran - no one knows what to do to stop them from developing "the bomb." It is unthinkable to use our air power, or that of the Israelis, to take out all their facilities. The new Shiite government we have brought into being in Iraq would be outraged and turn on us, as would much of the Arab world (those who haven't already), and Israel would be at risk for massive retaliation, and such an attack might well spark a regional war. The fallout, even if we don't use our nuclear bunker-buster bombs, would be enormous. And it is also unthinkable to have a nuclear-armed Iraq, as the government there says things about wiping Israel off the face of the earth - not the sort of thing that gives you those warm-fuzzy feelings about how that might turn out. We're working on some other alternatives. It is not going well.

Rice's other task was getting the UK and the EU to agree to cut off all aid to the newly-elected government in the proto-nation of Palestine, as the bad guys, Hamas, won in a landslide (see this and this in these pages). We will, the EU may not - the UN is saying its future funding depends on Hamas avowing "peace." And that, in turn, probably depends on how you define "avow" and how you define "peace."

No one expected this, as she said - "I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas' strong showing." I guess our government, with all its spies and satellites up in the sky, really doesn't know much about the political currents and crosscurrents in the Middle East - or we prefer to believe what we wish will happen, because that's how things should work out. Have to look on the bright side, at how things should be, because we will them to be so. She's like that. As she said back in May, 2002 - "I don't think anybody could have predicted that they would try to use an airplane as a missile, a hijacked airplane as a missile."

It seems idealistic optimists get surprised a lot, particularly those who don't like detail and make fun of policy wonks. As the administration has said - "We make our own reality." But, unfortunately, others do just the same thing. It's just not fair.

As for the idealistic optimist-in-chief - the president out to change reality and disregard pesky facts - Monday everyone was waiting for his Tuesday evening State of the Union address. What would he say? Polling showed him at around thirty-nine percent in the approval ratings, with about two-thirds of the country thinking we're going in the wrong direction, generally. No one seemed to know how he'd deal with that. Conciliation? Belligerence? Coherence?

But what is this speech? John Dickerson here calls it the "Silliest Speech in the Union" - George Washington's first was 833 words and now a State of the Union address will be about five thousand words. In 1801 Thomas Jefferson mailed his speech in, arguing that "the ceremony smacked too much of the British monarchy." Smart man. It wasn't until 1913 when a president, the wooden Woodrow Wilson, again actually delivered the speech himself - making it more than a document and in 1966 Lyndon Johnson moved the address into "prime time." It's become "an event" and not an assessment of "the state of the union." Spin City.

But the bad guys have a wicked sense of timing and their own way countering the spin of the optimist-in-chief, as we got this the day before the State of the Union, a bit of taunting - "Osama bin Laden's right-hand man, Ayman al-Zawahiri, appeared in a new video Monday, saying he is alive and well just weeks after a U.S. missile strike targeted him in Pakistan."

And that's not all he said, as we get this referring to Osama bin Laden's audio message ten days earlier, offering a "truce" if we'd just leave -
Your leaders responded to the initiative of sheik Osama, may God protect him, by saying they don't negotiate with terrorists and that they are winning the war on terror. I tell them: You liars, greedy warmongers, who is pulling out from Iraq and Afghanistan? Us or you? Whose soldiers are committing suicide because of despair? Us or you?
Well, it is true we won't be there forever, and they may very well be.

But what's this about suicides? Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, dropped a line, with a question - "Do the Americans have suicide bombers in Iraq?"

No, and al-Zawahiri seems to think our soldiers are committing suicide in droves. They're not.

But al-Zawahiri he may be picking up on the story of the "Marlboro Man" in the famous photo from Fallujah. He's home, and he's not doing well. They asked him to leave Fallujah to ensure he didn't die - bad PR, particularly after the Pat Tillman business - and now, heroic or not, he has classic post-traumatic stress disorder. He's a bit unhinged. Ayman al-Zawahiri can spin the news too.

But the good news for the idealistic optimist-in-chief the day before the big speech to explain everything (it's not so bad and actually just what we really want to happen) and tell us where we're going (whether we like it or not), was that Kerry and Kennedy's fight to mount a filibuster in the Senate to block the nomination Samuel Alito to the Supreme Court failed, spectacularly - drama, impassioned speeches, but a 75-25 trouncing in the full Senate. Those who didn't think an anti-abortion, pro-business pleasant ideologue - who seems to want to reverse Marbury v. Madison so the president can ignore laws congress passes and rulings of the court that interpret them - isn't good for the country, well, they couldn't assemble the forty votes to stop the nomination. The president gets a victory going into the speech. The opposition gets a pyrrhic victory - they stood up for what they thought was right, even if they knew it was hopeless. You remember the line from The Man from La Mancha where Don Quixote says this - "Sometimes the only battles worth fighting are losing battles." Noble. Cold comfort.

But this was a long time coming. Our friend, the fellow who teaches would-be MBA's all about marketing at that graduate school in upstate New York, referred the email discussion group to this in the Monday New York Times. It's a detailed report on something that was started way back in 1982, in the early years of the Reagan administration - a careful plan by the ultra-conservative Federalist Society' to pack to lower levels of the judiciary with their super-conservative judges. No one would realize what was going on, and sooner or later one or more of them would finally reach the Supreme Court, then another, then another. This was a careful, long-term plan. And it worked.

What to make of that? There's this -
The congratulatory subtext is that Conservatives are steadfast rather than doctrinaire, patient rather than obsessed, that Liberals are vacillating rather than intellectually rigorish, inconsistent rather than rigidly unswerving. Because Conservatives created, funded, sponsored, and promoted judges over the course of 24 years who've been Stepforded in training and who owe their allegiance to their patrons, this somehow proves the Conservative ideology is superior to a Liberal ideology by sheer weight of relentless, myopic persistence. Because the Conservatives hatched a batch of cloned jurists, ensuring those jurists' fealty through technically legal but morally questionable patronage, they MUST be superior by simple dint of effort.

In essence this comes down to the fight motif that the Right uses to define the difference between them and us. If Liberals were as serious as us, the argument goes, they would have used the very same tactics we use. Why aren't Liberal think tanks creating an army of Liberal judges who all think alike? And the answer, in Conservative terms: Because Liberals don't take the law as seriously as Conservatives do. If they aren't competing just as ruthlessly, as seriously as Conservatives they must be weaker. If Liberals aren't as rigid - if they have these foolish notions of nuances and relativism and fairness - they can't be considered "serious," a code word of vast importance to the Right.

As long as the political debate pivots on the Conservative meme that in domestic and foreign policy, in interpretation of the law, in matters of morality, truculent rigidity is synonymous with intellectual seriousness, then the majority of us, who understand that the issues confronting the country and the world are far too complex to be solved by an adherence to an hortatorily propounded single and simple and childish truth, are going to be labeled as unrealistic, idealistic, unserious, and therefore our relevance to any debate dismissible...
In short, they win.

On the other hand, sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you in trouble.

See Anatol Lieven, a senior research fellow at the New America Foundation, and author of America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism, in the International Herald Tribune with this -
The victory of Hamas in the Palestinian elections ought to lead to a fundamental rethinking of U.S. strategy in the Middle East, especially since it follows electoral successes for Islamist parties in Pakistan, Iran, Saudi Arabia and Egypt.

The most important lesson of the elections is that the United States cannot afford to use the rhetoric of spreading democracy as an excuse for avoiding dealing with pressing national grievances and wishes. If the United States pursues or supports policies that are detested by a majority of ordinary people, then these people will react accordingly if they are given a chance to vote.
That's the thesis. Well, duh!

But Lieven has an interesting idea of how we got on this kick of "spreading democracy" in such a feckless way ("I don't know anyone who wasn't caught off guard by Hamas' strong showing"). Why are we so divorced from reality and oblivious to basic logic? We ran out of excuses -
... the present centrality of the "democratization" idea to administration rhetoric does not come from any study of the Middle East, or of reality in general. Rather, the Bush administration has fallen back on this rhetoric in part because all other paths and justifications have failed or been rejected. The administration desperately needed some big vision that would give the American people the impression of a plan for the war on terror, promising something beyond tighter domestic security and endless military operations.

Thus spreading democracy was always one of the arguments used for the Iraq war, but it only became the central one after the failure to find the promised weapons of mass destruction. As a result of the Iraqi quagmire, the language of preventive war and military intervention, so prevalent in the administration's National Security Strategy of 2002, has also become obviously empty, requiring a new central theme for the forthcoming security strategy of 2006.
So "democratization" isn't some grand first-principles theory of how we deal with the world. Rather, it's a default position to use when all else goes in the weeds.

The problem with that, even if it sounds noble and good -
... the Bush administration's combination of preaching human rights with torture, of preaching democracy to Muslims with contempt for the views of those same Muslims, has not helped either the spread of democracy or US interests but badly damaged both.

In fact, the distance between Bush administration rhetoric and observable reality in some areas is beginning to look almost reminiscent of Soviet Communism. And as in the Soviet Union, this gap is also becoming more and more apparent to the rest of the world.
Drat! They're not supposed to notice!

Next thing some will say we're not at war at all.

Oops, someone did - James Carroll in the Boston Globe here -
We have a war president, war hawks, war planes, war correspondents, war cries, even war crimes - but do we have war? We have war dead, but the question remains. With young U.S. soldiers being blown up almost daily, it can seem an absurd question, an offensive one. With thousands of Iraqis killed by American firepower, it can seem a heartless question, as if the dead care whether strict definitions of "war" are fulfilled. There can be no question that Iraq is in a state of war, and that, whatever its elements of post-Saddam sectarian conflict, the warfare is being driven from the Pentagon.

But, regarding the Iraq conflict as it involves the United States, something essential is lacking that would make it a war - and that is an enemy.
What? But, but...

Here's the reasoning -
The so-called "insurgents," who wreak such havoc, are not America's enemy. They are not our rivals for territory. They are not our ideological antagonists. Abstracting from the present confrontation, they have no reason to wish us ill.

Americans who bother to imagine the situation from the Iraqi point of view - a massive foreign invasion, launched on false pretenses; a brutal occupation, with control of local oil reserves surely part of the motivation; the heartbreaking deaths of brothers, cousins, children, parents - naturally understand that an "insurgency" is the appropriate response. Its goal is simply to force the invaders and occupiers to leave. Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds have intrinsic reasons to regard each other as enemies, from competition over land and oil, to ethnic hatreds, to unsettled scores. No equivalent sources of built-in contempt exist among these people toward America. Taken as a whole, or in its parts, Iraq is not an enemy.
But we'll always have "terrorism" in general and Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda specifically, won't we? Maybe war in Iraq was a huge mistake, but it's as good a place as any, isn't it?

No -
Bin Laden was a self-mythologized figure of no historic standing until George W. Bush designated him America's equal by defining 9/11 as an act of war to be met with war, instead of a crime to be met with criminal justice. But this over-reaction, so satisfying at the time to the wounded American psyche, turned into the war for which the other party simply did not show up. Which is, of course, why we are blasting a substitute Iraq to smithereens.

Iraq is not a war, because, though we have savage assault, we have no enemy. The war on terrorism is not a war because, though we have an enemy, the muscle-bound Pentagon offers no authentic means of assault.
Ah, truculent rigidity ("we will settle for nothing less than total victory") masquerading as intellectual seriousness (we need to wage war on this "unprecedented threat" no one else seems to get) - on parade!

But then, there seem to be odd waves of logic rolling in now. If people like Carroll and Lieven keep looking at facts and being so rational in major publications, and people catch on, the idealistic optimist-in-chief has a much harder job selling his vision - or "visions" in the religious sense. There's the danger he becomes a curiosity, not a leader, as most of us have to live in the real world.

These are the big issues, but one should note that sometimes truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness just gets you on the local level.

There's still a lot of discussion about this story - the part-time Target Stores pharmacist who lost her job for refusing to dispense or refer for the morning-after birth control pill (Plan B - Barr Pharmaceuticals). She, one Heather Williams, said these pills were a form of abortion and she'd have nothing to do with them, and wouldn't fill the prescriptions, and wouldn't say who would, even though she knew others who would fill the prescriptions.

She's held this position for five years.

Is this truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness?

"For me, life begins with two cells."

Tell the distraught women who would fill the prescriptions? "I just can't be a link in the chain at all."

Seriousness? It depends on you point of view. She filed a complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission of Missouri. She says when Target forced pharmacists state-wide to sign a "conscience clause" last fall agreeing to dispense Plan B, or refer to another pharmacy that does, she just couldn't sign that, as that would make her "a participant." So they fired her. The irony is the Target store where she worked has never stocked Plan B at all. This is some kind of rigidity, or adherence to noble principle, as you wish.

And she's not alone - see this, the Washington Post reviews the whole debate, legislation proposed in a dozen states to back people like Heather Williams.

What's that about?

This -
About half of the proposals would shield pharmacists who refuse to fill prescriptions for birth control and "morning-after" pills because they believe the drugs cause abortions. But many are far broader measures that would shelter a doctor, nurse, aide, technician or other employee who objects to any therapy. That might include in-vitro fertilization, physician-assisted suicide, embryonic stem cells and perhaps even providing treatment to gays and lesbians.
There's something very odd going on here.

John Cole (the libertarian-type conservative, not Juan Cole, the University of Michigan Middle East guy often quoted here), suggests this -
There is little room for nuance in my opinion on this. If your religious beliefs interfere with your job providing any and all desired or required care for a patient, you have several options - change your job, change your religion, suck it up and hope yours is a forgiving God.

Denying people care because it upsets your sensibilities should not be allowed, and those who choose to do so should not be protected by legislation, they should have their licenses revoked. People who refuse to provide mainstream and accepted medical treatment to patients because of their own religious beliefs should no longer be considered doctors - they can hang a plaque outside their door that says the following: "Joe Schmoe - Unlicensed Faith Healer."
So is this truculent rigidity masquerading as intellectual seriousness?

Well, he calls denying care for the ill "upsetting their sensibilities." They call denying care for the ill simply refusing to be accomplice to murder, or, in the case of refusing any treatment to gays and lesbians, that's just refusing to keep the "evil ones" alive and healthy, as God commands of them. (I'm not sure where in the bible He commands that, but they seem to think He does.)

Maybe they should not be in medicine at all, of course. Or maybe we need a two-track health system - one licensed by the state medical boards with their own clinics and hospitals and pharmacies and all that, and a parallel system of the same licensed by the evangelical churches of the religious right. You choose.

Yep, the choice in all this - all topics here - is between idealist vision and dealing with pesky facts. It's too bad that those of us who prefer the latter are pretty much being asked to shut up or leave.

Posted by Alan at 21:58 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 31 January 2006 08:53 PST home

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

Going Downtown -
Topic: Announcements

Going Downtown -

The new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format parent site to this web log is now on line. This is Volume 4, Number 5 for the week of Sunday, January 29, 2006 - full of extended and amended versions of what first, appeared here, and a wealth of new items.

This week's commentaries cover, sequentially, the major stories in the national dialog, and some of the minor ones. Did you know last Monday, the 23rd, was the worst day of the year for most people? Some scientist has it all figured out, and the day bore it our with the president giving one more "if I break a law it probably wasn't a very good law for us all" speeches, and some other matters. But Tuesday a columnist out here really ticked off the country, explaining why he just doesn't support the troops. Read all about it. Wednesday, well, the big gun commentators told us all, and you have to respect them, or not - we're either in a heap of trouble, or not. Then there was the election in Palestine, where the whole theory of the wonders of spreading democracy backfired on us, when the folks there elected, in a landslide, the folks they weren't supposed to elect. Oops. Friday was when the stories you want to bury get released, late in the afternoon. We've been doing what? Amazing stuff. The final item explores an underlying political theory the administration is quite fond of - and it's very odd.

Ah, but there's Paris. Our Man in Paris, Ric Erickson, offers an account of a cold Saturday night there, with a fellow from Los Angeles and a woman from Japan, and he somehow wishes he were out here. Two Paris photos there.

Bob Patterson is back, in his WLJ column with some curious political thoughts, and in his Book Wrangler column with a primer on Orwell.

The photography this week? Three extended collections - a famous film location, the old movie palaces downtown, and the street scene on the other Broadway, the one out here in the middle of this city, Los Angeles.

The quotes? They're about humor. As Charlie Chaplin said - "In the end, everything is a gag."

Direct links to specific pages -

Current Events ______________________

Low Points: They Call It Stormy Monday, But Tuesday's Just The Same
Controversy: Maybe honesty isn't actually the best policy…
Perspectives: Those Who Tell Us What It All Really Means
Voting: People Deciding What They're Not Supposed to Decide
Friday Follies: A Media Tradition
Political Theory: Power Doesn't Corrupt, It Forces Pragmatic Dreariness

The International Desk ______________________

Our Man in Paris: Now Playing

Bob Patterson ______________________

WLJ Weekly: from the desk of the World's Laziest Journalist - Are Judas Goats Leading The US Toward A Third Term For Dubya?
Book Wrangler: "How many fingers, Winston?"

Southern California Photography ______________________

Landmark Architecture: On Location at the Bradbury Building
Past Glory: Broadway Movie Palaces, Los Angeles
Street Scenes: In and Around Broadway, Downtown Los Angeles

Quotes for the week of January 29, 1006 - Lighten Up

The interior of the Bradbury Building, as seen in Blade Runner and many other films -

Posted by Alan at 10:41 PST | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 28 January 2006
Political Theory: Power Doesn't Corrupt, It Forces Pragmatic Dreariness
Topic: For policy wonks...

Political Theory: Power Doesn't Corrupt, It Forces Pragmatic Dreariness

The old saw is that power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. But put aside consideration of the Republican Party in firm control of the executive and legislative branches of the government, and about to pack the highest court with its newest "yes man," and the coincidental Abramoff lobby scandal, and the former leader of the House under indictment in Texas, and the current leader of the Senate under investigation by the Justice Department and the Securities and Exchange Commission, and the Medicare Plan D mess with the pharmaceutical corporations and HMO's raking in the bucks while hundreds of thousands of the elderly and poor suddenly cannot get their medications and the states have to toss in millions so people don't die, and the half-hearted effort to fix New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and all the business with Halliburton and the other contractors in Iraq scamming the system left and right, and the president's supporters, and the president, claiming he can break any law he decides is keeping him from doing what he alone decides is best (eminent scholar and Federal Judge Richard Posner says that's fine here, and discussion here). And disregard the tax cuts that hit the middle class and let the rich get much richer, the budget that cuts services and rewards corporations who make donations to the ruling party, the soaring deficit and all the "pork" in the budget for each home district or state, and all that economic stuff. This isn't about that.

Imagine you're a struggling minority party, one most everyone reviles, and suddenly you're voted into power and have to run things. What do you do then? Does the sudden ascension to full power make you power mad - you can now do all the things you were screaming about - or do have to drop all the inflammatory rhetoric and settle down and do the nuts and bolts things all governments must do, that dreary stuff like making sure everything runs and someone pick up the garbage and the electricity and water keeps flowing?

That is what seems to be playing out in the Middle East. There were those elections Wednesday the 25th in Palestine and the Islamic fundamentalist group, Hamas, to the surprise of everyone, won 76 of the 132 seats on the Palestinian Legislative Council. They didn't expect that themselves. No one expected it. And now they have to run things.

So what will that mean? Of course, Hamas proudly claims responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of Israeli civilians - they have a militant arm" - and their core aim is to wipe out Israel. We designate them a "terrorist group" and so does Israel and the European Union. They are not good guys. But then they have long run their network of health-care and social programs for Palestinians, and ran on the platform that the Fatah Party was corrupt and not taking care of its own people - and was talking too much to Israel and the United States.

It seems voters there agreed the relatively moderate Fatah Party was a bunch of crooks and not taking care of things. They threw the bums out. And they got the alternative - the people who do some good, and are a bit more honest - even if they are wild-eyed terrorists willing to kill women and children and plan to wipe out Israel and are shunned in horror by most of the civilized world.

You cannot have everything.

You do get riots in the streets - anger at the old party that lost, the Fatah police and militias screaming this and that. Chaos.

As mentioned elsewhere - People Deciding What They're Not Supposed to Decide - the Bush drive to democratize the Middle East has backfired, big time. Democracies are peaceful, so we'll let folks vote and everything will be fine.

Israel told us this Palestinian election was a really, really bad idea. We told them elections were always good - and they were wrong, Hamas should be on the ballot. Others, in a more general way, suggested holding elections was only a small part of establishing a democracy, in Iraq and in Palestine and anywhere - you need a culture and institutions to make things work, and a shared sense of cooperation and all that. The administration preferred the cartoon version - people vote and things will be fine.

So now Hamas will set policy for the Palestinian Authority. And former Fatah leader Abbas remains president and commander of Palestine's official police force. Yipes.

This wasn't in the script.

How did this happen? Scott MacMillan offers an explanation here -
Critics say Bush himself deserves much of the blame by promoting what Daniel Pipes and others have pejoratively dubbed the "pothole theory" of democracy: the idea that if you allow radical Islamists into the political fold and get them competing for votes - and dealing with mundane civic issues like fixing potholes and collecting garbage - they will, by necessity, turn moderate and palatable. At the very least, so the theory goes, such inclusion will force a split between the "hard men" and those willing to pursue Islamist goals through peaceful means.
Well it's nifty theory.

But Hamas has no idea how to run a government. Hamas asked Fatah to enter into a coalition. Fatah refused, maybe, as MacMillan suggests, because they screwed things up so badly there's no money for anything and everything was so mismanaged there's no fixing it all - let them sink. There's this quote from Ziyad Abu Ein, a Fatah official - "Let Hamas alone bear its responsibilities, if it can."

This is not looking good.

But can the nifty "pothole theory" of democracy actually work, and Hamas turn, well, mundane and harmless? They do have a government to run, after all.

MacMillan says there's evidence it might, noting in London's Financial Times earlier this month, an anonymous senior official in the Bush administration cited two French scholars, Olivier Roy and Gilles Kepel, who have long noted that political Islam becomes less caustic the less it is repressed. But they're French.

But there is this -
In Egypt, the banned Muslim Brotherhood has donned democratic garb since President Hosni Mubarak began tolerating the group in the mid-1980s.

The movement now speaks of pluralism and civil liberties, although its supporters still hate Jews, call the Holocaust "a myth," and dismiss al-Qaida as "an illusion." A similar shift took place in Tunisia between 1975 and 1990, when the national Islamist movement adopted more liberal positions on women's rights and democratic reforms as the government temporarily relaxed its repression.
Well, will this work out in this case? MacMillan acknowledges the commentators who worry that Hamas will create a Taliban-like fundamentalist enclave - "Hamastan" - in the West Bank and Gaza - these folks who say Iran will step in to finance the Palestinian Authority as funding from the European Union, the United States, and Israel goes away. That's possible.

But as is clear, "the more immediate issue is how Hamas will adapt to the reality of the existence of Israel, whose citizens now play the role of lab rats in Bush's grand experiment with potholes and democracy."

Yep, whatever the Hamas rhetoric, Israel is not going to magically disappear without a trace - and one assumes the people of Israel are not happy about being lab rats in this experiment to see if Hamas, of necessity, turns boring and bureaucratically efficient.

We'll see what happens. It is a grand experiment. One suspects many will die as we see if it works, or not. But then again, they won't die here.

Posted by Alan at 16:20 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 28 January 2006 16:27 PST home

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