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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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Wednesday, 26 April 2006
The conceptual flaw in the
Topic: Political Theory

The conceptual flaw in the 'intimidation model' for getting what you want...

In these pages last November, around the time the president gave his Veterans Day speech and John Murtha, the previously hawkish congressman from Pennsylvania, caused a firestorm by suggesting we ought to get at least our troops out of Iraq and do this Iraq thing a different way, in Things Coming to a Head there was a reference to the third volume of the C. S. Lewis "Perelandra" trilogy, That Hideous Strength (1945), where one of the characters says this -
If you dip into any college, or school, or parish, or family - anything you like - at a given point in its history, you always find that there was a time before that point when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp; and that there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous. Good is always getting better and bad is always getting worse: the possibilities of even apparent neutrality are always diminishing. The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder.
Back then, Thursday, November 17, 2005, seemed like a day full of "the possibilities of even apparent neutrality" diminishing really fast. (Oh yes, as before, you can learn about the CS Lewis book here, if you're into theological science fiction.)

But Lewis was right - elbow room disappearing is a continuous process as things get "sharper and harder" day by day, month after month, and in America today too, as if the current administration wants it to be so, in some kind of "final showdown" way. Call it governing by confrontation, and in foreign policy, replacing diplomacy with carefully stage-managed public conflict.

Maybe it's a Texas thing. You get done what you need to get done with your squinty-eyed look and threats, and sometimes you shoot.

The problem is, as we see with Iran - Iran Threatens To Strike At US Targets If Attacked. If you want to bring something to a head the other side sometimes doesn't back down like they're supposed to.

And now we have a domestic example. The president's opponents have a large bill of particulars, from telling us we had to war because of the nuclear and chemical and biological weapons we could prove Iraq had in stock, which turned out not to exist, and now we know all the warnings that they didn't exist were dismissed, to the various scandals, almost too many to mention, to the claims the president has the right to ignore this law or that, to the far less than half-hearted response to Hurricane Katrina, to the Dubai ports deal, and so on and so forth. The president's opponents - rather than caving in to all the claims that being bothered by any of this means that they just "hate America" and are, in effect, "on the side of the terrorists" - are not rolling over and seem to be willing to say "not so fast." Two can play that game.

There seems to be a basic, conceptual flaw in the "intimidation model" for getting what you want. Projecting power and refusing to compromise were, we were told, what would win the day in Iraq and cow North Korea into dropping their push to build nuclear weapons, and what, we are being told now, will force Iran to back down from their efforts to do that too. It doesn't work, and there's no evidence it ever has. But we are told it always works, and that it's the only solution to get what we want.

Anyone can see it has the opposite effect, but we are told that's just because we just haven't been intimidating enough, so far, and the bad guys sense some of us want to compromise, so that dilutes the effect. So we must show more resolve, and the thoughtful and questioning should just shut up, as they're ruining everything. Well, maybe so. There's always a first time for everything. In the history of the world this "intimidation model" has never worked even once. But it sounds good, if you're from Texas.

As a grand experiment in redefining who we are and how the world works, it is interesting in a theoretical way. It's something new, and captured in the core doctrine of "preemptive war" - we reserve the right to wage war on any nation on earth that sometime in the future might act in a way that threatens us, and we'll use our own secret evidence of what they might do one day and no one else's. The neoconservatives and their easily manipulated and somewhat clueless president really do have bold ideas. Confusing "bold" with "sound" seems to be at issue, of course. It's an easy mistake to make.

As for the purely domestic example of "push-back" that really isn't supposed to happen, there's new talk of impeachment. It seems someone looked in the user manual, the constitution, and found that the framers, in assigning rights to the states to balance the powers of the federal government, added a curious provision - if both houses of any state legislature vote that the president should be impeached, congress must take it up and hold hearings. And there's a move in both Illinois and Vermont to do just that, as noted here in the Boston Globe. The modern conservative movement made its bones on "states rights" - fighting integration and fluoridation and nationally-mandated Daylight Savings Time and all the rest - and the irony here is delicious. Not that anything will come of it. Vermont may be able to pull it off, maybe, but in Washington the Republican-controlled House will schedule the required hearings for sometime in 2025, or later. Still, it's push-back, Texas-style, from Vermont.

And then there's this, a discussion of a short speech that Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia gave on the floor when everyone came back from their two-week Easter break -
"Despite more than two centuries of pressures to change and 'modernize,' the Senate, as an institution, remains remarkably similar to the body created at the Constitutional Convention in 1787," Byrd said. "It retains all of its original powers, including providing advice and consent - yes. You said it. You better read that again in the Constitution. It retains all of its original powers, including providing advice and consent to presidents on nominations and on treaties, serving as a court of impeachment. You better believe it, Mr. President. The Senate can send you home. You better believe that. If the House impeaches you, the Senate will try you."
So the old coot from West Virginia talks Texan too. The president a few years back, when asked what he thought about all the folks fighting us in Iraq long after we had "won" and whether we could handle that without increasing the number of troops we had there, famously said there was no problem - "Bring it on." Two can play that game.

But the other side is supposed to back down, isn't it? You can almost hear the befuddled anger at the White House. What's wrong with these people? Don't they know how things work?

What could this mean?

It could mean that the days of "shock and awe" as both a military tactic, and a political one, seem to be passing. Yeah, we captured Baghdad brilliantly and the regime of Saddam Hussein fell quite nicely, but "shock and awe" are not very effective long-term tools. There's resentment, and blow-back. The neoconservative might claim it's just not fair, as the tactic is so impressive. Maybe we should do more of it and see if it still works. But it just doesn't. That's life. And on the political side, the bold and audacious radical remake of who we are and how things work, with its own "shock and awe," turns out to be only useful in the short term. Either way you create insurgents - a nasty army of the resentful. And they fight back.

So C. S. Lewis was onto something - things come to a point, "getting sharper and harder." The process continues.

How does the president respond now?

For that you might go read Sidney Blumenthal on how he sees the White House.

The passion of George W. Bush
"The president doesn't care that he is reviled. He is a martyr, and someday all will see his glory. Meanwhile, he's got Karl doing his dirty work."
April 27, 2006, SALON.COM

That opens with this -
The urgent dispatch of Karl Rove to the business of maintaining one-party rule in the midterm elections is the Bush White House's belated startle reflex to its endangerment. Besieged by crises of his own making, plummeting to ever lower depths in the polls week after week, Bush has assigned his political general to muster dwindling forces for a heroic offensive to break out of the closing ring. If the Democrats gain control of the House or Senate they will launch a thousand subpoenas to establish the oversight that has been abdicated by the Republican Congress.

In his acceptance speech before the Republican National Convention in 2004, the "war president" spoke of "greatness" and "resolve" and repeatedly promised "a safer world" and "security," and compared himself "to a resolute president named Truman." Afterward, Bush declared he had had his "accountability moment"; further debate was unnecessary; the future was settled.

But Rove's elaborate design for Republican rule during the second term has collapsed under the strain of his grandiosity. In 2004, Rove galvanized "the base" (ironically, "al-Qaida" in Arabic) through ruthless divide-and-conquer and slash-and-burn tactics.
This is followed by a great deal of discussion of Rove, but gets interesting when it gets beyond that one man -
For Rumsfeld and Cheney the final days of the Bush administration are the endgame. They cannot expect positions in any future White House. Since the Nixon White House, when counselor Rumsfeld and his deputy Cheney watched the self-destruction of the president, they have plotted to reach the point where they would impose the imperial presidency that Nixon was thwarted from doing. Both men held ambitions to become president themselves. The Bush years have been their opportunity, their last one, to run a presidency. Through the agency of the son of one of their colleagues from the Ford White House, George H.W. Bush (whom President Ford considered but passed over for his vice president and chief of staff, giving the latter job to Cheney), they have enabled their notion of executive power. But the fulfillment of their idea of presidential power is steadily draining the president of strength. Their 30-year-long project on behalf of autocracy has merely produced monumental incompetence.

Yet Rumsfeld and Cheney do not really care. Bad public opinion polls do not concern them. Their ambition is near its end. They want to use their remaining time accumulating as much power in an unaccountable executive as possible.
And as for the president -
The more beleaguered Bush becomes, the more he is flattered by his advisors with comparisons to great men of history whose foresight and courage were not always appreciated in their own times. Abraham Lincoln is one favorite. Another is Harry Truman, who established the framework of Cold War policy but left office during the Korean War deeply unpopular with poll ratings sunk in the 20s. Lately, Bush sees himself in the reflected light of Winston Churchill, bravely standing against appeasers. "Never give in - never, never, never, never, in nothing great or small, large or petty, never give in," Churchill said in 1941 as Britain stood alone against the Nazis. "Bush tells his out-of-town visitors to think of how history will judge his administration twenty years hence and not to worry about setbacks in Iraq," conservative columnist Arnaud de Borchgrave writes.

... The greater the stress the more Bush denies its cause. In his end time he has risen above his policy and is transcending politics. In his life as president he has decided his scourging is his sanctification. Bush will be a martyr resurrected. The future will unfold properly for all the wisdom of his decisions, based on fervent faith, upheld by his holy devotion. Criticism and unpopularity only confirm to him his bravery and his critics' weakness. Being reviled is proof of his righteousness. Inevitably, decades hence, people will grasp his radiant truth and glory. Such is the passion of George W. Bush.
Could this be so? Is this where ruthless divide-and-conquer and slash-and-burn tactics end up, with an apparent failure muttering to himself that nothing in the polls matter, that most of the world's nations now at best don't trust America but more generally see America as both foolish and dangerous doesn't matter, that the enormous federal deficit and massive trade deficits don't matter, that the scandals don't matter - history will prove him right? "The whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder." Cold comfort. One wonders if uses the "history will prove me right" line on his father, the president who decided against taking Baghdad.

And the hits just keep coming.

Wednesday, April 26, was the surprise testimony of Karl Rove, this for the for the fifth time before the grand jury investigating the Valerie Plame case. It seems the "intimidation model" may not have worked so well there, having the team go after her husband, who revealed embarrassing things, by leaking to the press that his wife was a CIA agent and set the whole thing up to get him out of the house. Now that gets sticky.

The Washington Post has details of what it was all about here, but it's very complicated. Kevin Drum untangles it all nicely here, or you might go to a famous defense attorney here. It comes down to Rove probably bargaining for lesser charges, but being charged none the less, and Fitzgerald works his way up through Stephen Hadley to Vice President Cheney. This wasn't supposed to happen. When you're indicted for a crime you sort of have to leave office. Who will be left?

Then there's this - "Investigators for the European Parliament said Wednesday that data gathered from air safety regulators showed that the CIA had flown 1,000 undeclared flights over Europe since 2001, sometimes stopping on the Continent to transport terrorism suspects kidnapped inside the European Union to countries using torture."

From Reuters, this -
A senior EU lawmaker on Wednesday backed accusations the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency had kidnapped and illegally detained terrorism suspects on EU territory and flown them to countries that used torture.

"The CIA has, on several occasions, clearly been responsible for kidnapping and illegally detaining alleged terrorists on the territory of (EU) member states, as well as for extraordinary renditions," Claudio Fava said in his first interim report of the European Parliament's probe into the suspected CIA abuses.
No one was supposed to know, and the cooperating people within certain governments were supposed to keep quiet. Too many things are coming out.

Luckily a good number of Americans think kidnapping and torture are just fine, as these people aren't like us but merely depraved evil devils. We are the people who did the Salem witch trails in the seventeenth century. We get it. Who cares what the Europeans think? And whatever it was we did it was only to keep us safe, and that's our right, and we're the good guys. Right.

But there are other things.

Will people, angry over the high price of gasoline these days, put two and two together and figure out that if you go to war with a major oil producing country you take maybe thirty percent of the world's oil out of production for a time, and in this case the time has stretched to over three years. That might make for tight supplies and, as a result, high prices. World demand is high and the insurgents keep blowing up the pipelines in Iraq, and making the rebuilding of the refineries and ports damned hard. They were supposed to greet us as liberators and we'd be out in six months, as Rumsfeld said, with Ahmed Chalabi running the place for us. Should have happened, but didn't. If people think about the crude removed from the market, as the result of the long war, as they're now calling it, and see the enormous profits from Exxon-Mobile and the rest, and think about the president and vice president coming from the oil industry... this could be trouble.

Well, at least there's a new White House press spokesman, that fellow from Fox News, Tony Snow. A well-spoken and well-liked new press secretary, energetic and photogenic, can explain it all.

What's to say about that? He has a hard job, of course. Yes, he comes straight from pro-Bush Fox News, which is more of a political movement than a news network, but that hardly matters. The White House would hardly pick Dan Rather or Bill Moyers, and Snow has been blunt at times in the past. He'll do. He's rather pleasant. He has a nice smile and a good sense of humor. And he will tell us what?

Walter Shapiro imagines that here -
Question: Karl Rove is making his fifth appearance in front of the grand jury today. And I'm wondering how you would characterize its effect on the administration? Is it a disruption, a distraction?

Press Secretary: Actually, it's a great tension release mechanism around here. We all have a great laugh imagining Karl sharing a cell with Tom DeLay and Kenny Lay. Of course, we try not to make those jokes when Karl's around. But then we don't see much of him, since he's constantly with his lawyers or sitting in a darkened office muttering about running off to Tahiti to write a McKinley biography.

Question: What do you think the impact is going to be at the gas pump of relaxing environmental rules, and how soon do you think that will show up?

Press Secretary: Is the Twelfth of Never soon enough for you? If the inky-dinky spider fell down the water spout, we'd use that as an excuse to relax environmental rules. But seriously, no president - Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative - can do much about gas prices in the short run. It's like King Canute trying to command the tides.

Question: Has the president been briefed at all on the CIA's firing of Mary McCarthy for allegedly leaking classified information? Does he have any reaction to this?

Press Secretary: Look, it's not coincidental that the most leak-obsessed president in history has named the most leak-obsessed CIA director. It's also not coincidental that the first victim of this internal investigation happens to be somebody who donated $2,000 to John Kerry in 2004. As far as the president is concerned personally, he's totally in favor of finding out the truth. As long as it doesn't come too close to the Oval Office.

Question: How would the president assess his final 1,000 days in office?

Press Secretary: Like a prison sentence.

Question: Does the president support Senator Clinton's move to have the generals who are calling for Secretary Rumsfeld's ouster testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee?

Press Secretary: This administration rarely supports Hillary Clinton on anything, of course. But we would even let Laura and Barbara Bush testify before the Senate Armed Services Committee if it would convince Don Rumsfeld to quit. In case you haven't noticed, we are at an impasse here. One of President Bush's most admirable human qualities is his reluctance to fire anyone. One of Secretary Rumsfeld's least admirable qualities is his refusal to take a hint. I'll let all of you in the press room connect the dots.

Question: What does the president plan to do differently between now and November to get Republicans elected or reelected?

Press Secretary: Raise money in private for any Republican who asks and avoid appearing in public with any Republican who has serious opposition. If you've got another strategic idea for us, please call Karl. That is, if you can find him.

Question: The president made a phone call to Canadian Prime Minister Harper on the weekend? Can you tell us the contents of that call?

Press Secretary: About all I know is that the conversation was short. Very short. With all the problems facing President Bush, do you think he cares about the mood of Moose Jaw?

Question: Just a personal question, just wondering how you're feeling today with this transition, what your plans are for the future? What do you want to do when you grow up?

Press Secretary: I feel envious of my predecessor Ari Fleischer for so wisely getting out in time. I feel pity for my successor who doesn't fully understand how hard it is in this White House to be allowed to say anything publicly. I feel a trifle bitter that the president I have so loyally served set me up to fail in this job. I feel hopeful that I will be rewarded in the private sector for all the abuse I have taken in this room. And, most of all, I feel sorry for all of you in the press corps who somehow cling to the illusion that asking a White House press secretary - any press secretary - a snarky question at a televised briefing is an exercise in uncovering the truth.
Well, it will be an interesting charade.

But the fact remains, there was a time "when there was more elbow room and contrasts weren't quite so sharp" and "there's going to be a time after that point when there is even less room for indecision and choices are even more momentous." Of course "the whole thing is sorting itself out all the time, coming to a point, getting sharper and harder."

That may be the grand experiment in governing by intimidation. And it's too bad it just doesn't work.

Posted by Alan at 22:29 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 27 April 2006 07:43 PDT home

Tuesday, 25 April 2006
What Adults Do
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

What Adults Do

Glenn Greenwald is that constitutional law attorney in New York, the one who writes the political blog, "Unclaimed Territory," often cited in these pages. Oddly enough, he's also written for the magazine American Conservative, and you see him on television now and then, or hear him on the radio. He's been on C-Span's "Washington Journal" and Air America's "Majority Report" - and on Public Radio International's "To the Point." You find him doing his blend of reporting and analysis in print and online here and there. He was on fire when the NSA warrantless story broke, or he covered that like white on rice - choose your own cliché. Greenwald didn't much care for the president saying that, yes, he knew there was a law requiring that if any president was going to have his NSA folks secretly spy on American citizens - listening to their phone calls and reading their email and such - that president had to run that past a special court for approval in the form of a warrant, but the White House legal staff had assured him that the correct way of looking at the constitution showed he could ignore that law, and the congress and the courts did not have any authority to make him follow that law, or any other that he decided, without review by anyone, just didn't apply to him.

Of course, the implications of this new and special way of seeing the constitution were enormous. And the president's "spying on anyone he chooses" business was matched by the signing statements, the most widely discussed one being when the president attached a signing statement to the McCain legislation the definitively outlawed any agency of our government doing anything like torture. The president attached a statement that said as he read the legislation it was fine, but he reserved the right, under his plenary powers as commander-in-chief, to ignore the law when he decided it would be better to ignore it, and that wasn't open to review, as he saw it, and the White House attorneys assured him.

The idea was you just had to trust the president that any secret spying on American citizens, that no one would ever know about, would only be for the purest of motives, to get terrorists, and never to find out things about political opponents and their plan, or anything like that. The president seemed more than a little surprised and a bit miffed that anyone would even think otherwise. And as for torture, the president time and time again said, in spite of all the obvious evidence, we never do that. But then, he reserved the right to order just that if he alone decided it might be useful, and no one had the authority to stop him from ordering torture when he so decided.

You see where all that leads. Yes, when confronted with the many calls from recently retired top generals for the Secretary of Defense to be replaced, the president simply said "I'm the decider." Case closed. He stays. No real substance, no reasons he's the right man. Not open to discussion. This is a distinct new view of presidential powers. There are no limits on them, except for an election every four years. Congress has no authority at all, with their "laws." And the courts have no jurisdiction.

All this is the sort of thing that drives constitutional law attorneys up the wall, although, considering the results of the last presidential election, it was just fine with slightly more than half of all Americans. When you're convinced the world is a scary place full of very odd people, many of whom want to kill us all, and no one anywhere likes us much anyway, you elect a strong daddy who will fix things without tedious explanations. You may suspect some very nasty things are going on, but you don't ask, and daddy doesn't tell. It's a mutual bargain.

The problem is that the more you inadvertently discover about what is actually going on, and what it can lead to, the more you may want out of the bargain. You can be told, again and again, this is just what you agreed to, and there's no backing out, and, if you have a problem with any little or large bit of it, go do something about it in the voting booth in 2008, but just shut up now.

That worked fine for the administration after the events of September 11, 2001, when almost ninety percent of the angry, frightened and confused public bought into the bargain. Now that's down to thirty-two percent. That would be the thirty-two percent who would still like to be treated as children, and who just trust daddy, because not to trust daddy is just too scary.

And that brings us back to Glenn Greenwald, who has just written a book for the growing majority of people who think that bargains you made when you were a child, to keep the monsters under the bed from attacking you in the night, can be discarded, along with GI Joe and Barbie.

The odd thing about the book is that, as of six in the evening, Pacific Time, Tuesday, April 25, 2006, it was sixth on the Amazon bestseller list, and hadn't been published yet. The ranking was based solely on pre-orders. Times have changed quite a bit.

If you don't want to be left out - if you're tired of sitting at the children's table while the adults are across the room with the good food and interesting talk - here's the book.

How Would a Patriot Act? Defending American Values from a President Run Amok
Glenn Greenwald
Paperback: 146 pages
Publisher: Working Assets Publishing (May 15, 2006)
ISBN: 097794400X

What Greenwald says about it over at his blog is this -
What I hope will be the book's principal impact is to cast a very bright light on the fact that all of these Bush administration scandals which are always discussed in isolation - lawless detentions, secret prisons, the use of torture, illegal eavesdropping, etc. - are merely symptoms of a profound political crisis which our country faces, brought about by the fact that this administration has adopted radical theories of power whereby the President literally and expressly claims the right to act without restraint, including those imposed by law. The powers seized by this president are exactly those powers about which the founders most urgently and explicitly warned, and which they sought, first and foremost, to prevent.

A substantial portion of the book is devoted to highlighting the ways in which the administration has used rank fear-mongering and an endless exploitation of the terrorist threat to attempt to obscure and justify these abuses. Those manipulative tactics have not only enabled them to embrace these most un-American powers right out in the open, but they are also threatening to alter, perhaps irreversibly, our national character.

Perhaps most importantly, the book documents the fact that even when all other intended checks on government excesses fail - when the media, the Congress and the courts are co-opted or are otherwise neutralized - Americans always have the ability, inherent in our system of government, to put a stop to abuses and excesses, provided they choose to exercise that power. But to do so, it is necessary that it first be understood just how radical and dangerous our government has become under this administration, and making the case that we have arrived at exactly that point is the primary purpose of the book.
So it's time to walk away from the bargain we made four years ago, and this is the precise time to do it. Part of it is walking away from childish things - the need for a strong daddy and a fear of thinking about what to do and then the responsibility that goes along with actually making decisions about what to do. Part of it has to do with all the things that used to be associated with being an American doing the right thing - not cheating or lying or hiding information to get what you want, a system of laws everyone follows and some kind of "justice for all," a governmental structure that keeps any one person or party from having all the power. It's all that stuff from civics classes, about how things run here, and the constitution that provides the basic user manual.

Note this from Digby at Hullabaloo, from his comments on the new Greenwald book -
The founders knew that relying on the good will of men in power is stupid and we are seeing their predictions come true before our very eyes. The modern Republican leadership may currently have a monopoly on authoritarian impulses, but they are by no means the only people in this country who could be seduced by this Republican notion of executive authority. The constitution is what protects all Americans from the dark side of human nature when it has power over others, regardless of party or political philosophy. Those of us who worry about this usurpation of the constitution and degradation of the Bill of Rights know that this is not a passing fashion that will easily be tucked back into its former shape. Once you allow powerful men to seize power it's awfully hard to persuade their successors to give it back.

... Unless we insist upon accountability for what these people have done, I fear that the country will not be able to recover. People need to see that our system of government can not only survive such assaults on its integrity, but that justice and the rule of law will reassert themselves under responsible leadership. It must be publicly demonstrated that this doctrine of unlimited presidential authority is unacceptable and un-American.

A distorted, authoritarian undemocratic view of American government has persisted now for more than a generation among certain conservatives. This philosophy has taken us from Watergate to Iran-Contra to Impeachment to the Supreme Court deciding a presidential election and the last five years of unprecedented assaults on the constitution in the name of a war that has no end. We need to drive a stake through the heart of this philosophy once and for all before it kills us.
Well, we may not be fighting the undead, even if the image fits in an odd sort of way (Nixon rising from the grave and all that). But it may be time for a bit of a new American Revolution, to get us back to where we were after the first one, unless you think what happened four years ago "changed everything" as the president and his supporters so often say. Time to choose.

Who will you have for company if you leave the children's table? There is Bruce Springsteen of all people -
"I guess my take on some of the last experiences we've had," Springsteen says, "is that a small group of men with a very particular ideology found their way into power and pressed themselves on an immature president. They were able to literally get what they wanted: They got their tax cuts, they got their war, they got their money going to the places they wanted it to go to. I don't think that's being cynical."
No, that's just realistic. Time to do something.

After all, things like these below can't go on forever. Someone has to deal with them, preferably an adult, who knows how to work with others and together figure out what to do.

This is just a sample from Tuesday, April 25th.

A few days after the audio tape from Osama bin Laden - he doesn't much like our "Zionist-crusader war on Islam" and is urging militants to fight in Sudan, and calls for attacks on civilians in the west, as they elected those waging war on Islam - we get this - "Terror mastermind Abu Musab al-Zarqawi revealed his face for the first time Tuesday in a dramatic video in which he dismissed Iraq's new government as an American 'stooge' and called it a 'poisoned dagger' in the heart of the Muslim world."

And this wasn't a tape delivered to al Jazeera by a series of couriers with lots of clever cut-outs. This was a video web broadcast, and he showed his face - no hood or anything. So we know just what he looks like at the moment. He doesn't care.

This war is not going well, and it could use a "rethink." Admit it's a mess, get a lot of adults together, the thoughtful and maybe the irritating contrarians, and let's figure out a new way to deal with this. Why not? Maybe daddy doesn't know best and all the adults could come up with something. That seems unlikely. But it's an idea.

And the same day there was this - "Iran ratcheted up its defiance ahead of a U.N. Security Council deadline to suspend uranium enrichment, threatening Tuesday to hide its program if the West takes 'harsh measures' and to transfer nuclear technology to chaos-ridden Sudan."

Okay, same thing, get a lot of adults together, the thoughtful and maybe the irritating contrarians, and let's figure out a new way to deal with this. Making threats seems to be making matters worse, so why bother? And the United States refuses face-to-face talks with Iran, preferring "proxy diplomacy" - the UN or NATO or somebody better fix this or we really will bomb the crap out of Iran. Of course, adults do the adult and responsible thing - when you have a problem with someone you sit down with them and figure out what's going on. They talk, you listen, and you talk and hope they listen. It's unpleasant, but that's what adults do. Children hide behind others and make threats.

But what do we get? Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in Europe with this - she's asking NATO to do something harsh to show Iran they're being very, very bad. She says the NATO nations really need to support us on this. The item doesn't mention any NATO ambassador asking her why, if this is such an urgent problem, doesn't Bush send her to Tehran to sit down and talk with them and explain the concerns and see if something can be worked out, or just go himself if he's so hot and bothered.

That no one asked the question indicates what people know of us now - we don't do that sort of thing. We ask the grownups to do that talking stuff, while we pout and hide. Why even bother to pose the question? This was in Athens, and there were anti-American riots in the streets - tear gas and everything - with the crowds telling her to go home. Who needs a brat, or more precisely a princess, whining that no one will do what she won't do?

As for the big story of the day, it was the president delivering a major speech saying the government really was going to do something about the record high gasoline prices.

CNN - "Calling the oil issue a matter of national security, President Bush outlined a plan Tuesday to cut gasoline costs and temporarily stopped deposits to the U.S. Strategic Petroleum Reserve."

The New York Times - "President Bush today announced a series of short-term steps that he said might slightly ease energy prices, including a suspension of government purchases to refill the Strategic Petroleum Reserve and investigations into possible price gouging and price fixing. The moves reflect growing concern among Republicans that the price hikes would become another election-year liability for them."

Buried in each story was also dropping all the environmental regulations for now, so you will be able to get anything at all at the pump, and anyone who wants to build a refinery can build anything they'd like, no matter what it does to the air or ground water.

And they admit it really won't fix anything. The price of gasoline will only go higher. But they care.

Bill Montgomery here and what else they could try -
They could even try telling the truth: That sky-high gas prices are the product of many forces, including the economic rise of China, our national allergic reaction to conservation, the security nightmare of trying to protect a far-flung global energy infrastructure, and, most of all, the inevitable fact that the supply of light sweet crude is finite, and production is probably nearing its peak.

They could explain to the American people that there is no quick fix, no miracle fuels on the horizon, no package of tax incentives or industry subsidies that is going to make the problem go away.

They could warn them that even if there was such a solution, current fossil fuel consumption trends still wouldn't be sustainable, not unless we're willing to turn most of coastal cities into salt water swimming pools.

And they could try to make our pampered upper and middle classes understand that the sooner they adjust their bloated lifestyles to reflect these unpleasant facts, the better off we will all be in the long run.

But it looks like they want to keep their jobs.
On the other hand, given Greenwald's not-yet-published bestseller, it would seem that the idea that you keep your job by concealing the unpleasant truth may be an idea that's just outmoded. What Montgomery proposes is treating people like adults, rational participants in events that effect them, and able to handle the facts.

Some of us would like to be treated that way. In fact, there are more and more of us everyday. Someone should tell the White House, but maybe that comes in November.

Posted by Alan at 22:27 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 26 April 2006 07:36 PDT home

Monday, 24 April 2006
The Great Unraveling, or Something
Topic: In these times...

The Great Unraveling, or Something

Looking back on Monday, April 24, 2006, it might be possible to see the political system in place disintegrating. The administration has about a thousand more days in office, and no one knows quite how those days will play out. Maybe this happens in the middle of every second term. Decisions were made in the first six years and the implications of those decisions cannot be glossed over or spun as "not as bad as they seem" forever. The mood of the country is sour, and those who have run the joint for the last six years are increasing seen as somewhere between incompetent and bat-shit crazy by increasing numbers of people.

The clock ran out on any number of things, and long before the mid-term elections, when angry voters may change the House and Senate from majority Republican to majority Democratic, and with those bodies no longer controlled by the party of the administration things could get really ugly. There'll be some explaining to do, after six years of a free ride where the administration "got the benefit of the doubt" or just unquestioning approval born of loyalty, and the puzzled and alarmed were told they were the usual - that they were unhinged by irrational personal hatred of a great man they just didn't understand because of their elitist, intellectual way of looking at things, or that they wee unpatriotic, if not treasonous, for raising issues in dangerous times. The puzzled and alarmed could say, all they wanted, that, no, it wasn't "the man" really, it was the decisions, the policies and the responses to events that were dangerous. It didn't matter. Such talk was dismissed with a patronizing shrug, or attacked as something like treason, as any questioning of any of all that, even minor tax policy, was letting "the enemy" know we weren't united behind our leaders.

But you can only ride that pony so far. As the war in Iraq seemed to be worse than pointless as it entered its fourth year, and although the stock market was healthy, and corporations, for the most part, making fine profits, real income for most had declined for four years straight, costs had risen, particularly for healthcare and health insurance (now forty-five million don't have any at all), and then, with all the talk that maybe we should launch a preventive war with Iran, maybe using nuclear weapons, to keep them from developing their own nuclear weapons in eight or ten years, the price of crude oil jumped to record levels, and thus the price of gasoline, as that neared four dollars a gallon, the simmering resentment rose too.

There is some explaining to do. And if the Republicans lose the House or Senate, or both, then the current implicit administration position - "we don't have to explain anything to anyone, and you have no right to ask questions" - becomes impossible. Subpoena power is nasty. When confronted with the many calls from recently retired top generals for the Secretary of Defense to be replaced, the president simply said, "I'm the decider." Case closed. He stays. No real substance, no reasons he's the right man. Not open to discussion. Since the start of the administration six years ago, with Vice President Cheney formulating energy policy, and perhaps foreign policy too, with the heads of the oil industry in secret meetings, it's always been this way. Heck, the Supreme Court decided Americans had no right to know what went on in those meetings, in a decision where the key vote was that of Antonin Scalia, who went duck hunting with Cheney the weekend before the oral arguments. Now Scalia says "his proudest" moment on the court was refusing to recuse himself on that matter (you could look it up). Maybe those "we don't explain, we do" days will be gone.

November is, of course, a political lifetime away. Many things could happen to reverse the mood of the country. Would a war with Iran rally everyone behind the administration, if they make a convincing case we just had to drop some nukes on them, given what they might do sometime in the next decade? After Iraq and the weapons of mass destruction that weren't there? It's a long shot that that would work, but it may be the only thing to do to recover from the current mess. Nothing to lose, after all.

And things keep happening that shouldn't have happened before Election Day in November.

The political week started Sunday evening, not Monday morning, with the former head of covert CIA operations in Europe telling "60 Minutes" that the Bush administration had "politicized and cherry-picked" intelligence on Iraq (see CBS's excerpts here for details). Tyler Drumheller has turned Naji Sabri, Iraq's Foreign Minister, and got him working as a CIA asset. Drumheller informed George Tenet, the head of the CIA. Tenet told Bush, Cheney and Condoleezza Rice. They were thrilled. They wanted to know what this Sabri fellow had to say. But they were told Sabri said that Iraq did not, in fact, have any active WMD programs. None. Nothing there. But it was too late. The administration had already decided Saddam Hussein had to go, and, one assumes, decided that no one would ever find out that what they were saying was the reason we had to go was just not so, or wouldn't find out until it was too late. Well, three years later it is too late.

This is an historical footnote. It doesn't much matter now. They fooled us all but good, and there's something to say for that, although just what that is depends on your political leanings. As for the "benefit of the doubt" element, see Josh Marshall here - he interviews Tyler Drumheller after the "60 Minutes" show and asks about the big post-war effort to blame the whole thing on the intelligence community, the commissions and all. They interviewed Drumheller. He told them just what he told "60 Minutes" - more than three hours of testimony in front of them all. They seem to have decided this was not worth a mention, and one assumes the Republicans on the committee in question felt revealing this would embarrass their side, and the Democrats knew that harping on this would make them look unpatriotic or something or other. Interesting, but ancient history.

But it does leave the general public feeling a bit like the rube at the carnival tricked in front of everybody, bitter and embarrassed for getting suckered. And unfortunately Tyler Drumheller didn't have the decency, or feel it was his patriotic duty, to keep quiet until November - or alternatively, CBS didn't sit on this story until after the November election because they have it out for Bush and the Republicans. There they go, those lefties, subtly trying to influence the upcoming election with such things.

But it's history. What's done is done.

But it must be irritating for the White House. And making things worse was Osama bin Laden. Yeah, we were going to get him "dead or alive." We didn't. So what? So much else is going on everyday that at one point the president even said he didn't matter - "I really don't think about him much." We weren't supposed to think about him much, either. But the week opened with a new tape from him - he doesn't much like our "Zionist-crusader war on Islam" and is urging militants to fight in Sudan, and calls for attacks on civilians in the west, as they elected those waging war on Islam. Odd, it hardly seems that the Islamic government in Sudan needs much help in driving out the whole population of Darfur from the western edge of Sudan and starving the hundreds of thousands they haven't yet killed (see this).

But these calls for new attacks? There was a general shrug - there he goes again. Then there was this -
Three nearly simultaneous bombings hit an Egyptian beach resort popular with foreigners Monday, killing at least 23 people on streets filled with vacationers and Egyptians marking the beginning of spring.

The bombers struck the Sinai seaside city of Dahab in the early evening along a crowded promenade of shops, restaurants and bars. Interior Minister Habib el-Adly said those killed included 20 Egyptians and three foreigners. Sixty-two people were wounded.

The explosions came a day after Osama bin Laden issued a call to arms to Muslims to support al-Qaida in fighting what he calls a war against Islam.
Osama bin Laden couldn't wait until November?

This is not helpful, politically. And the same day another retired general says Donald Rumsfeld, the Secretary of Defense, has to go (see who here). That makes eight. And he says it on Fox News, of all places.

That was the day after the first major newspaper in America calls for the president to dump Vice President Cheney. That would be the Los Angeles Times here, as they see it is one way to save things, after dumping Rumsfeld, "not because he has been criticized by a group of retired generals but because he embodies the smugness and inability to acknowledge error that has characterized both the Iraq war and the wider war on terrorism."

Yeah, that. But they say it's time to be even more "bold" and "audacious" - and of course "throwing Cheney overboard would be an implicit repudiation of the excessively hawkish foreign policy with which the vice president, even more than Rumsfeld, has been associated."

The president knows he should -
The truth is that the president, however grudgingly, has recognized that he and the administration made mistakes in the run-up to the war in Iraq and in its aftermath. He has not confessed that the invasion of Iraq was a mistake, but he has acknowledged with increasing explicitness that he was wrong to believe that Saddam Hussein harbored weapons of mass destruction.

No longer proclaiming "mission accomplished," Bush has been pursuing a sadder-but-wiser policy in Iraq that many Democrats also endorse. It involves ramping up the training of Iraqi troops to take over from U.S. forces while leaning on Iraq's feuding sects to join, however unenthusiastically, in a government of national unity.

Having changed his tune, the president should also think about changing the company he keeps - big time, as Dick Cheney would say.
Of course, Cheney will never allow the president to do this, but it is odd to have a major paper call for the resignation or dismissal of a duly elected official. You don't see that very often. And irritating for the White House.

But it seems we're going to have a government in Iraq, and that should shut up some of the critics, except the new man finally selected to lead Iraq seems to think would be a good idea to take all the roaming militias and death squads and incorporate them into the armed forces (see this) - as if we'd fix the gang problems out here in Los Angeles by having all the Bloods and Crips and such join the Los Angeles Police Department.

As for how the war is going otherwise, along with the daily deaths of our guys, two or three a day, and the usual Baghdad bombings and thirty or so locals dead each day from those, or just showing up shot in the head and dumped in an alley, there was this - joint US-Iraqi inspections of detention centers continue to reveal "signs of torture," particularly at the Ministry of Interior. It seems the Shiites now in power, or in the majority in government for the first time in many decades, tend to get a little carried away in their political discourse. And that's not a good sign. On the other hand, this is - our top commander in Iraq changes the rules governing privatized military support operations after confirming cases of "human trafficking." Subcontracting services can be such a bother, and kidnapping to build a workforce and keeping them in what amounts to slavery reflects badly upon your skills in vendor management.

But do people really care what's happening in Iraq? Yes and no. There was that Gallup poll the week before showing that Americans' biggest concerns are Iraq, immigration and the price of gas. So if things are going to get better for the administration, and there will be this wonderful "reenergizing" of the Bush presidency and the American people will come around, there will be a serious rethinking of the war, and real leadership on immigration and on the gas prices.

Maybe. Maybe not. There's not much more the administration can with Iraq, as events on the ground are "not in the control" of the White House, and all the levers have been pulled. And gasoline prices cannot be controlled by much of anything the administration does, although blustering about bombing Iran if they continue being pesky does tend to drive prices up, and that could be toned down, even if it's politically useful not to tone it down. The best that can be done is this - "President George W. Bush, alarmed by a spike in gas prices at the pump, has asked the Departments of Energy and Justice to look into possible cheating or manipulation of gasoline markets, White House spokesman Scott McClellan said on Monday." The Democrats had been urging this, so the Senate and House majority leaders, Frist and Hastert, said it was their idea and sent a letter to the White House, and the president says it was his idea. Whatever. Nothing will come of it. But it's a nice gesture.

As for immigration, the president was out here Monday the 24th, speaking down in Irvine (see this) - pleasing no one. His party in the House wants to build a big wall at the Mexican border and make being here without papers an aggravated felony. His party in the Senate wants to allow those without papers to pay a fine and jump though some hoops to "earn" citizenship. No one is compromising and he's stuck, and favoring the latter, but his "base" is furious.

The result, a major poll released after he spoke, from polling the previous week, ending Friday - "President Bush's approval ratings have sunk to a personal low, with only a third of Americans saying they approve of the way he is handling his job, a national poll released Monday said." Thirty-two percent approval, sixty percent disapproval - the worst ever. And that was before gas hit four dollars a gallon at some places out here. We're talking trouble.

But he has a new chief of staff, Josh Bolten, replacing Andrew Card, shaking things up, and according to Time Magazine, Bolten has a recovery plan.

The best summary of that is from Tim Grieve here -
The plan: Seek more money for immigration enforcement, then pose for lots of pictures with new agents in uniforms. Put smiles on the faces of Wall Street pundits by pushing through extensions of tax cuts for stock dividends and capital gains. Talk more about the Medicare prescription drug benefit, the stock market and the economy generally. Talk more with the press. Talk tough with Iran.

If you didn't see anything about Iraq or the price of gas in there, well, you didn't. The administration apparently hopes that happy talk from happy talking heads who are happy about tax cuts will make Americans forget that they're paying three bucks a gallon at the pump. As for Iraq? It's there only by implication. In a sign that the bubble may be a whole lot thicker than we thought, Time says Bush's advisors think Bush can recapture the national security credibility he lost in Iraq by turning up the pressure on Iran.

Out here in the reality-based world, we think that the opposite is true: Every time we hear the Bush administration warn about the threat Iran poses, we remember the similar threats the Bush administration made about Iraq. But the Bolten plan isn't about us; it's about the base, the third of the country that still approves of the way the president is handling Iraq, the people who still believe - every new revelation notwithstanding - that Bush told the truth then and can be trusted to tell it again now.
And there's another good summary here, but it's all the same - change next to nothing, but talk more about how you're right about everything. It's not the product, it's the PR. Right. Maybe they'll send out Karen Hughes to visit gas stations to tell folks, as the pump up, that things are fine. Or she could bring cookie to people reading the eviction notice or waiting, uninsured in the emergency room, or visit the families of dead soldiers and say pleasant things about the weather.

Bah. This really is unraveling.


Bonus items:


"What are the fed smoking?" asks a Scientific American blog post about the FDA's statement reaffirming its opposition to medical marijuana, which reportedly "directly contradicts" a 1999 review by the National Academy of Sciences' Institute of Medicine.

These guys don't do science. They remember Reefer Madness.

Last week, Tommy Chong at a convention in San Francisco, with this -
"I know Dick Cheney's Secret Service guys smoke pot," Chong said. "The reason I know that is I sold them bongs."
Ha. The whole speech is here (an audio mp3 file). It's amusing.

Also this -

That woman who was fired by the CIA because she leaked classified information to a reporter about our secret overseas prisons and our rendition practices? That was discussed in these pages here - Dana Priest of the Washington Post wins a Pulitzer for investigative reporting, digging in and letting the American public know what is secretly being done in our name with our tax dollars, disappearing people forever in a chain of secret foreign prisons - no charges or chance to dispute the reason for removing them from life for life, with "enhanced interrogation" or whatever you choose to call waterboarding, beatings and carefully planned humiliation - and often people we find out did nothing and know nothing and were grabbed by mistake or misplaced enthusiasm, like the useless German fellow we later dumped in the woods in the Balkans who wants to sue us. It seems some think it was good reporting to uncover this, as it violates any number of treaties we recognize and thus have the force of law, and contradicts what the administrations has said publicly. Some think it was not good reporting, but rather something like treason. And the leaker got fired.

Since then, someone who worked for her, Larry Johnson thinks the firing of his former boss Mary McCarthy "smells a little fishy."

Then it gets real odd. The woman "categorically" denies she was the source of the leak about the secret CIA detention and torture camps in Eastern Europe. She says she passed the lie detector test for that part. They fired her for having social contact with the press, or because she was a Democrat, and the new head of the CIA, Porter Goss, is a former Republican congressman and he's been purging the CIA of anyone who isn't a conservative Bush supporter, no matter what their skills or accomplishments.

See Newsday, November 2004, with this -
The White House has ordered the new CIA director, Porter Goss, to purge the agency of officers believed to have been disloyal to President George W. Bush or of leaking damaging information to the media about the conduct of the Iraq war and the hunt for Osama bin Laden, according to knowledgeable sources. "The agency is being purged on instructions from the White House," said a former senior CIA official who maintains close ties to both the agency and to the White House. "Goss was given instructions ... to get rid of those soft leakers and liberal Democrats. The CIA is looked on by the White House as a hotbed of liberals and people who have been obstructing the president's agenda."
Just following orders.

Newsweek breaks the currnet story, and adds -
A counter-terrorism official acknowledged to NEWSWEEK today that in firing McCarthy, the CIA was not necessarily accusing her of being the principal, original, or sole leaker of any particular story. Intelligence officials privately acknowledge that key news stories about secret agency prison and "rendition" operations have been based, at least in part, upon information available from unclassified sources.
Oh. And CNN adds this - "A U.S. official told CNN on Monday that the CIA officer fired for leaking classified information was accused of a 'pattern of behavior,' including multiple contacts with more than one reporter."

The woman had tendered her resignation and was fired one week before her final day. This is very odd.

Of course it's not as odd as what one UCLA professor, for the fun of it, collects here - all the right-wing blogs and radio shows saying there were no secret prisons, none at all. It was just a ruse to trap CIA folks who like to leak information to make Bush and his administration look bad. They made it all up to trap people like this woman.


Not this from conservative Andrew Sullivan -
It is against the law for CIA officials to be leaking extremely classified information - especially information as sensitive as secret detention facilities. But all these comments seem to me to have ignored the critical and unmissable context. Yes, leaking is against the law. But what if the leaker is exposing something as grave as illegal torture? Isn't that when a leak becomes the blowing of a whistle? Wouldn't you want law-abiding officials within the CIA to do something if their own government is breaking American law, violating treaty obligations, breaking the law of other countries - and using the secrecy of the executive branch to conceal it?

Recall the story McCarthy is accused of leaking. ... It just won the Pulitzer Prize, and it richly deserved to. What Dana Priest reported was that the Bush administration had taken over former Soviet camps in Eastern Europe and adapted them to abuse and torture terror suspects. The detainees' innocence or guilt was never verified by anything approaching due process. For me, it represented the quintessence of Bush's betrayal of Reagan. Ronald Reagan helped liberate Eastern Europe from Communist tyranny. He wielded the moral authority of freedom and tore down the walls of Communism, a system where people could be detained without trial, "disappeared", and tortured. In an inversion as hideous as at Abu Ghraib, Bush's CIA was twisted into a reflection of our former enemy.

Many, many people in the military and CIA are in close-to-open revolt against these policies; many, many more have been placed in morally excruciating positions: they have been forced to choose between loyalty to their country and their conscience. They hate what this president has made them do: every fiber of their being as Americans and as moral individuals rebels against it. This doesn't necessarily excuse McCarthy legally. If she is guilty as charged, she probably should have quit first, disclosed all she knew and faced the legal consequences. But when the government itself breaks the law, when it violates ancient moral standards that Americans have fought and died for, sometimes people within the government have to stand up and be counted.

McCarthy may well be one of those people. And, if that's true, I have a feeling that history will be much kinder to her than to her hyper-ventilating critics.
Of these many, many people in the military and CIA are in close-to-open revolt against these policies, and the generals, much is going around. The change may not come in November in the elections. There may be a revolt, a revolution led by the decent, sensible people. Who needs a left-leaning opposition bloc when you have people of common sense? Thomas Paine was onto something.

Posted by Alan at 23:29 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 25 April 2006 14:13 PDT home

Sunday, 23 April 2006
Hot of the Virtual Press
Topic: Announcements

Hot of the Virtual Press

Just Above Sunset logoThe new issue of Just Above Sunset, the weekly magazine-format site that is parent to this daily web log, is now online. This is Volume 4, Number 17 for the week of April 23, 2006.

This week's current events took some odd turns, and the extended commentary covers, first, the current rhetoric regarding Iran, as it got all Germanic as everyone seemed to talk about the Rhineland in the thirties for some reason. And there's a second item on how positions are hardening, and why, and of course, a discussion of the big changes at the White House that weren't. And of course, what would political week be without a discussion of alarmists, and their credibility? And finally, a long item on leaking secrets and the press, the big story that ended the week with a CIA executive being fired.

On the other hand, you will also find a discussion of a conversation now going on in Britain - is boredom actually good for you?

The photography this week, in honor of the visit of the president of China to the White House, opens with seven pages of photographs of Los Angeles' Chinatown, with some notes on what that man from China might make of it all, and of course, a shot or two of the impressive statue of Joan of Arc in our Chinatown (really). For architecture buffs, new detailed shots of Frank Gehry's Walt Disney Concert Hall in downtown Los Angeles and shots from the gardens there. And there are the usual botanicals, this week even more detailed.

Our friend from Texas returns with notes of the weird, and the quotes this week match current events, as they concern keeping secrets.

And there are links to two external pages of additional nature photos.

Direct links to specific pages -

Extended Observations on Current Events ______________________

Springtime for Hitler
Fixed Positions: No One Now Gives an Inch
Perspective: Making Much of News of Superficial Changes
Alarmists and Others: When to Worry, When to Not Worry
Shutting Things Down


Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought

Southern California Photography ______________________

America and China: Los Angeles' Chinatown (seven nested pages of photographs)
Architecture: At the Walt Disney Concert Hall
Floral Context: At the Walt Disney Concert Hall Garden
Botanicals: Working Close-up


Quotes for the week of April 23, 2006 – State Secrets

Additional nature photography at Just Above Sunset Photography ______________________

Calm (a turtle and a bee)
Motion Capture (birds)

Posted by Alan at 17:49 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Saturday, 22 April 2006
Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought
Topic: Backgrounder

Boredom: More Useful Than You Thought

So it's a dark rainy April afternoon in Rochester, New York, in the late seventies, and you're teaching your English class something or other about a key passage in Hamlet, asking questions about what they think is going on with this moody prince and his inability to get his ass in gear and do something about his unhappiness. Does he over-think things, being too smart for his own good? Is he afraid to take responsibility, or, in some smug, self-satisfied way, does he just love thinking there's nothing he can do? The roomful of sixteen-year-olds doesn't care. Whatever they bolted down for lunch has them groggy, and faint pattering of the rain outside has put them in their own moody trance. Some stare out the windows and others draw nothings in their notebooks.

Then it comes. It always does. In a dead spot among the few grudging responses - one or two of them testing if they can actually say the words they think are the words they may be supposed to say - one of the kids, in a fit of frustration and a flash of sincerity, blurts out "but Shakespeare is so boring."

The room comes alive.

You have your stock response - nothing is in itself boring. It would be more accurate to say the you are bored. That puzzles them all for a moment, when they all had thought this was "case closed" - a definitive judgment had been uttered by someone in the class who just cut through all the pretense. Now they have something to think about. And you can do a quick shift in the lesson plan, to a consideration of why some find Shakespeare, or anything else, boring, while others think it's fine stuff. They can dig into that, and discuss punk music and what they watch on television, and you can get to where you were going by the backdoor. It works.

But the sixteen-year-olds were bored. Even back then, thirty years ago, they were overloaded. Too much was going on. In addition to the social-sexual complexity of navigating their world of constant crises, and six or more classes each day in wildly different disciplines (chemistry and French and math and history and all - taught by some very odd adults who for some reason weren't in the "real world"), and after-school sports or music or clubs, their parents had them signed-up for this and that, and too there was keeping up on music and anything else that was supposed to be cool. And that's not even to mention dressing properly - disengaging from what the patents thought was appropriate and choosing what was distinctive and individual, but would be seen as cool within the parameters of the moment, what they saw on television and in the music videos and the ads everywhere. It was all exhausting. And Shakespeare was a pain, and boring.

But then, if the Brits who gave use Shakespeare are to be considered, boring may be good.

An item appeared in The Daily Mail (UK) in early April this year, summarized in Discovery Health thusly -
Psychology lecturer Dr Richard Ralley of Edge Hill College in Lancashire has embarked on a study of boredom - and says that a little thumb twiddling might be a good thing. Dr Ralley said that boredom could be useful because, at times when nothing is happening, humans conserve their energy for when they are able to re-engage. He advised that children should be left to their own devices to recover from a school term - or parents could involve them in their own activities in a challenging way, instead of "overwhelming" them with children's activities during the holidays. He began to collect case studies in 1999, and to date has received information from more than 300 young adults who have written about boredom. He hopes to present his findings this summer. He warned against parents "overcompensating" their children for having so much free time during holidays. Dr Ralley says boredom is associated with guilt about not having anything productive to do, but is a "natural" emotion and exists for a reason.
Okay then - you could have told the English class that, sure, Shakespeare really is boring, and they should be grateful for being in the class, as bored is good for you.

That may not have worked, but it's a thought. Riazat Butt in The Guardian (UK) had more detail on Thursday, April 13, 2006 with Boredom Could Be Good For Children - "It was Friedrich Nietzsche who wrote 'Against boredom the gods themselves fight in vain.' Although the musings of the German philosopher will certainly be lost on the millions of schoolchildren over the Easter holiday, their parents can find comfort in his words as they struggle to keep their kids entertained for a fortnight."

Did Nietzsche say that? Who knew?

In any event, the idea floating around is that boredom is a naturally occurring emotion that should not be suppressed. And this Ralley chap, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire, has launched his study of boredom.

Riazat Butt, not a boring name at all, gives us quotes from the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire -
Boredom can be a good thing. In psychology we think of emotions as being functional. Fear, anger and jealousy all serve a purpose but they're painted in a bad light even though they exist for a reason. It's the same with boredom, which also has a bad name.

We get bored because we get fed up when we have nothing to do and feel the need to be productive. We feel bad when we're not productive and that's what boredom is associated with.

"Boredom is something, it's not just switching off. It can be useful. When there's nothing rewarding going on we conserve energy, so that when we want to re-engage we can. There's a balance between doing something that's rewarding and doing something that's rewarding but not being happy about doing it.
So the problem is the result of some emotional need to be productive, and sometimes there is just no need to be productive, and that upsets us.

Here's where we part with the Brits, and the rest of Europe it would seem, and especially the French. Americans worship productivity, all this making and doing. We work more hours per year than anyone else in the world, except for maybe the Japanese. We take little or no vacation. Successful mothers and fathers may seldom see their children, and when home be on the laptop or Blackberry catching up on email, reviewing data or tinkering with the next report. The kids are scheduled for this special lesson or that, or off to computer camp or whatever, so that's no problem. Meals are refueling stops - the idea of a leisurely dinner with friends and four hours of chit-chat is torture - and actually having to sleep is just an annoyance that messes everything up. We don't do bored.

Ralley says "Boredom is natural, so let's deal with it." It doesn't seem natural on this side of the pond.

And too, the fellow thought of this study, which he thinks he'll call "Boredom," six years ago, in 1999, and he's only now getting around to collecting case studies. Now he has more than three hundred from "young adults" who say things about boredom. And he "hopes" to present his findings this summer. So he may not. Or he may. Yep, he's not like us.

And the comments in the UK have been mixed, like Caitlin Moran in the Times (London) on April 21 with this -
All goes well in the halls of academia. Presumably reflecting a world where our major problems have been solved and nothing bad has happened for at least 50 years, a psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College, Lancashire, is embarking on a study of boredom. Dr Richard Ralley hopes to present his eventual findings over the summer - traditionally a time when teachers experience great boredom themselves, what with there being no marking, or small boys to remove from big bins.

Dr Ralley, it seems, believes that boredom has been underestimated. While humanity has acknowledged its enjoyment of other negative emotions - blind murderous fury, say, or the kind of moping self-pity that involves wearing unwashed bed-socks for a week - it seems that boredom, like communism or Supertramp, is one of the few things not to have enjoyed a modish rediscovery trumpeted by Dazed and Confused.

"Boredom is something - it's not just switching off," Dr Ralley is quoted as saying, presumably in a perversely excited tone of voice. "Boredom has a bad name ... but it can be a good thing. It can be useful." He is particularly concerned that the large, grey estuary-like stretches of boredom that characterised the childhoods of previous generations might be lost to the modern child.

... Of course, however laudable Dr Ralley's aims, the layman can observe a few flaws in his project. First, one wonders how he will actually find any bored subjects to study. As he suggests, the combination of PlayStation, Sky+, contraceptives and skunkweed have surely eliminated the pockets of ennui that previous generations will have so readily not-enjoyed. Sunday trading alone has irrevocably altered the current generation. I can recall being so bored on Sundays - empty streets, tolling bells, a million identical roasts slowly drying in their ovens - that I had competitions with my seven siblings over who could hold their breath the longest. Often we passed out and fell to the floor whilst the others looked on, purple-faced and impassive. On other occasions we tried to eat small snacks with pugilistic slowness.
And it goes on, suggesting "any number of swimming lessons, activity schools and instruction on the piano would have been more useful." Being bored, is, of course, boring.

And the British bloggers have taken up the topic, as in this, and review of others who seem to agree with the psychology lecturer at Edge Hill College in Ormskirk, Lancashire.

That item concludes with this -
Lack of purpose leads to boredom; boredom leads to the discovery of new purpose. Boredom is therefore a mechanism (which, like most mechanisms, doesn't work always but does work sometimes) for turning no-purpose into purpose.
Oh. That clears it all up.

See also Zoe Williams in The Guardian on April 14 (Good Friday) with this -
Strictly speaking, you should not have a newspaper yet. You should not even be out of bed. It is a holy day. You should be lolling about on that tightrope of boredom where you are at a perfect equipoise between getting up and going back to sleep. Oh, you have children, you say. They are on holiday. You need to teach them Greek, and fast, because they've got kayaking in the afternoon, and the interactive "What Does The Inside of My Intestine Look Like?" exhibition at the Science Museum closes at a quarter to midnight.

Parents worry a lot about keeping their children entertained. In the holiday season especially, the thought process goes: we are a lot older than their fun little friends, plus we both have a hangover. Must entertain little bleeders. Must entertain and improve.

In fact, you could not be more wrong.

... The interesting thing about boredom, Ralley says, is that: "Boredom is unpleasant. You would expect an unpleasant emotion to have a really straightforward motivational effect, so being bored would make you get up and do something. But that doesn't seem to be the case - where people have written about being bored, they describe just sitting about more. You withdraw from things, so maybe there's an energy-conservation function going on. But at the same time, it is still unpleasant, and the unpleasantness could be a protection against your withdrawing completely." What a delightful emotional knife-edge.

Naturally, you don't need an academic to tell you there's a causal link between being bored and sitting about not doing anything. My office friend used to describe this as the Three Bs: Busy, Bored and Behind. Interestingly, neither of us has a job anymore.

... And ha! I haven't even got to school, which I genuinely, at 13, thought was designed, not for learning, but as some kind of preparation, some breakage of the spirit, for the appalling boringness that would later constitute the world of work.

I was totally wrong, of course, since school is way more boring than work will ever be.
That is a taste of what they used to call a "rollicking good read." But the real point is this -
What I would say, though, is that boredom is like olives, or antiques, or green vegetables, or black-and-white films. Children might get force-fed with boredom just in the run of things, and it might actively be good for children, but only adults will really appreciate it. Only adults realise what a valuable place it is, this emotional state of not actually being asleep that is to all intents and purposes, being asleep. Only adults realise that the 70s chant "Why don't you just switch off the television set and go out and do something less boring instead?" was actually meant ironically (like, why on earth would you?). Expecting a child to understand is like expecting it to have a mature and thorough grasp of Freud, or agricultural policy. Though possibly, the more bored you make your children, the quicker they will pick this stuff up.
Good point. Bore them. They'll acquire a taste for it. And it'll do them good.

And make them discuss Hamlet.

Posted by Alan at 15:41 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Saturday, 22 April 2006 15:42 PDT home

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