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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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Thursday, 6 July 2006
Story Telling: Notes on Current Events
Topic: Perspective

Story Telling: Notes on Current Events

America paused for the Fourth of July, or the public did, but world events spun on, and much happened. By the time everyone was back at work for a day or so it was time to think about it all. What to make of it?

Of course no commentator could resist what happened on the Fourth - you got to link "the rockets' red glare" line with the amazingly successful launch of the space shuttle after a two-year pause (chat up that national pride in our twenty-five-year-old technological wizardry) with, a few hours later, North Korea test firing seven missiles, one of them a long range gizmo that when operational could reach Hawaii or Alaska, or maybe Seattle or northern California. That one broke up or was "self-destructed" after forty-two seconds, falling in many pieces into the Sea of Japan. This rocket stuff is hard. It's even hard for us, and we're a real country, not some Mississippi-sized dirt poor backwater ruled by an egomaniacal oddball who tolerates no questions regarding his judgment. Well, we're a big country, and the major power in the world, able to do amazing things with our machines, even if our leader does have some similar but less pronounced odd traits.

The Fourth was, in any event, all about rockets. And it closed on an ominous note of threat - if the North Koreans can ever get that thing to work (doubtful), and if they have a nuclear weapon as they claim (never tested one and now one wonders about their bragging), and if they can overcome all the technical issues in reducing its size so it would fit on the tip of the big missile that doesn't work (decades of hard work for a country with first-rate technology), then we're in trouble, and it's worse for Japan, and far worse for our ally and supplier of cheap and reliable automobiles, South Korea, where we now have thirty thousand of our own troops. This is serious, sort of.

The response from our administration was muted - the world should get together and do something. Condemnation? Sanctions? Who knows? We haven't asked the UN or anyone at all, like Tony Blair, to agree that it would be wise to invade the country, toss out the government and bring in some exiles to run one that is more to our liking. Been there, done that, and it has its limitations.

So now what? Do we stress the threat, or if that's not going to fly (literally) do we emphasize the instability of the man in charge of that odd nation, or do we point out the incompetence and say this is serious, but not much of a worry and mock them? There was no talk of preemptive strikes to remove the threat, save for the few on the far right in love with whack-a-mole foreign policy - bomb anything in the world that looks suspicious and remove any government that looks at us sideways (diplomacy reduced to a single element, regime change). What do we want? It's puzzling, and very odd.

The real problem is, of course, that although they will probably never get the ICBM (the Taepodong-2) working, they will continue to sell the short range scud things to anyone with cash in hand, and you can put all sorts of nasty things on the tips of those - chemical agents and biological weapons. And the ones they keep can easily reach South Korea and parts of Japan. And too they may never have the competence to develop a nuclear weapon in a usable form, small enough to move out of the test area, but they do seem to have more and more plutonium in usable form, and they can sell that to anyone who might like some and does have the technology to do something with it. But that's the elephant in the room. No one is saying much about that. It's too scary, and the rocket thing is more dramatic. And we get to say, "See, we actually think diplomacy is a good idea, so stop busting our chops about the Iraq thing."

There's a lot of political theater going on here, and the real threat, and the best response, seem to be hidden.

But then political theater is what we do best. Thursday, July 6, was just another day in Baghdad, as noted here - a car bomber kills twelve and wounds forty-one as the day begins. This is the usual now, but we're told progress is being made (in passive voice of course, where who is making the progress is not given). Rod Nordland, Newsweek's chief foreign correspondent and their former Baghdad bureau chief, says not to worry, conditions in Iraq are "much worse" than they're described in the media over here. We're being had, or it's political theater or something. That's the implication in the interview he gives to Foreign Policy (here). As he explains, the administration does a "great job of managing the news" - and now the military has begun to crack down on embedded reporters. So we're getting the good news, or as good as can be reported -
Before a journalist is allowed to go on an embed now, [the military] check[s] the work you have done previously. They want to know your slant on a story - they use the word "slant" - what you intend to write, and what you have written from embed trips before. If they don't like what you have done before, they refuse to take you. There are cases where individual reporters have been blacklisted because the military wasn't happy with the work they had done on embed.
Still, there only so much you can control, and reporters "get out among the Iraqi public a whole lot more than almost any American official, certainly more than military officials do." Bummer.

So it's obvious there's only so much the administration and the military can do to stage manage this -
It is certainly hard to hide the fact that in the third year of this war, Iraqis are only getting electricity for about 5 to 10 percent of the day. Living conditions have gotten so much worse, violence is at an even higher tempo, and the country is on the verge of civil war. The administration has been successful to the extent that most Americans are not aware of just how dire it is and how little progress has been made. They keep talking about how the Iraqi army is doing much better and taking over responsibilities, but for the most part that's not true.
Oh. Now what?

Is it this bad? Here's an overall assessment from Kevin Drum in the Washington Monthly, thinking about North Korea business and the muddled response, and then about everything -
But that's really just a single piece of a broader, and even more remarkable turn of events: the Bush administration literally seems to have no foreign policy at all anymore. They have no serious plan for Iraq, no plan for Iran, no plan for North Korea, no plan for democracy promotion, no plan for anything. With the neocons on the outs, Condoleezza Rice at the State Department, and Dick Cheney continuing to drift into an alternate universe at the OVP [Office of the Vice President], the Bush administration seems completely at sea. There's virtually no ideological coherency to their foreign policy that I can discern, and no credible follow-up on what little coherency is left. As near as I can tell, George Bush has learned that "There's evil in the world and we're going to stand up to it" isn't really adequate as a foreign policy for a superpower but is unable to figure out anything better to replace it with. So he spins his wheels, waiting for 2009. Unfortunately, the rest of us are left spinning with him.
That may be a bit too dismal, but consider other issues at play.

The Washington Post's Dan Froomkin gives a different overview -
In his second inaugural address, President Bush spoke extravagantly about dedicating the United States to bringing liberty to every corner of the globe.

He made the measure of a president's foreign legacy clear as could be: "From the viewpoint of centuries, the questions that come to us are narrowed and few. Did our generation advance the cause of freedom? And did our character bring credit to that cause?"

And he expressed confidence that the answers to those questions would be in the affirmative: "America, in this young century, proclaims liberty throughout all the world, and to all the inhabitants thereof. Renewed in our strength -- tested, but not weary -- we are ready for the greatest achievements in the history of freedom."

But signs are that the foreign policy legacy Bush will leave behind could be a world in greater disarray than he found it.
And what's the evidence of that?

Of course there's the president saying there will be no significant pull-out of our troops from Iraq while he's president (here) - that's the next president's problem, not his.

And here the Post's Michael Abramowitz and Robin Wright seem to agree with Drum at the Washington Monthly -
From deteriorating security in Afghanistan and Somalia to mayhem in the Middle East, confrontation with Iran and eroding relations with Russia, the White House suddenly sees crisis in every direction.

North Korea's long-range missile test Tuesday, although unsuccessful, was another reminder of the bleak foreign policy landscape that faces President Bush even outside of Iraq. Few foreign policy experts foresee the reclusive Stalinist state giving up the nuclear weapons it appears to have acquired, making it another in a long list of world problems that threaten to cloud the closing years of the Bush administration, according to foreign policy experts in both parties.

... the events on the Korean Peninsula underscored how the administration has lost the initiative it once possessed on foreign policy in the aftermath of the Iraq invasion, leaving at risk the central Bush aspiration of democracy-building around the world.

They also showed how the huge commitment of resources and time on Iraq - and the attendant falloff in international support for the United States - has limited the administration's flexibility in handling new world crises.
The New York Times (David E. Sanger) piles on -
The Bush administration has tried to ignore North Korea, then, reluctantly, to engage it, and then to squeeze its bankers in a manner intended to make the country's leader, Kim Jong Il, personally feel the pinch.

Yet none of these steps in the past six years has worked. So now, after a barrage of missile launchings by North Korea, President Bush and his national security advisers found themselves on Wednesday facing what one close aide described as an array of "familiar bad choices."

... [the big question is ]whether the president is prepared to leave office in 2009 without constraining an unpredictable dictator who boasts about having a nuclear arsenal.

... Another alternative for Mr. Bush would be take a hard line that might risk an escalation of the half-century-old confrontation between the United States and North Korea. But such a tack is now complicated by the widespread assumption that even if the North does not have the ability to launch a nuclear weapon, it now probably possesses enough extra nuclear fuel that it may be tempted to sell some to a terrorist group or another state.
Oh that.

And the Los Angeles Times out here is noting that even the South Koreans aren't too happy - "'The United States is a paper tiger,' said Song Yong-sun, a military expert who serves in South Korea's National Assembly as part of the conservative opposition party. Referring to the North Korean leader, she added, 'Kim Jong Il knows very well that Bush isn't going to do anything to punish him.'"

But the Post's Dana Milbank finds some comedy in all the theatrics -
When the going on the Korean Peninsula gets tough, the tough go on a doughnut run.

President Bush, making his first public remarks since North Korea test-fired seven missiles in open defiance of the United States, boarded his motorcade yesterday for an unannounced trip to a doughnut shop in Alexandria - to talk about immigration.

... After interpreting every gesture of Saddam Hussein as a casus belli, a changed Bush administration is taking the opposite approach with Kim Jong Il. Officials were determined not to give the little man with the big missile the attention he craves.
Mmmm, doughnuts, as Homer Simpson would say.

The political theater gets more and more absurd. What are we to believe about the grand plan and how it's going? Are we to worry, or not worry? Is there a plan, or should we also have a doughnut and relax?

And what about the other leg of the Axis if Evil, Iran? What's the plan there? According to this in "perhaps the biggest foreign policy shift" of his presidency, the man at the top reversed course last month on his approach - agreeing to join talks with the Iranian government on the condition that it suspended its uranium enrichment. Yeah, yeah, but lots of people think this was a sham - setting up conditions they wouldn't accept so we could say that they were refusing to deal with us and it was time to bomb the snot out of them so they'd never have any weapons of this sort (and maybe their people would rise up and welcome us with sweets and flowers as we fly in a bunch of exiles to run the place).

The weekend before the Fourth Seymour Hersh was doing it again in the New Yorker with this, saying this reversal of course was really "an unspoken threat: the U.S. Strategic Command, supported by the Air Force, has been drawing up plans, at the President's direction, for a major bombing campaign in Iran."

Hersh has a track record of exposing what's really going on, from that village in Vietnam and the massacre to Abu Ghraib. And this time it's stuff like this -
Inside the Pentagon, senior commanders have increasingly challenged the President's plans, according to active-duty and retired officers and officials. The generals and admirals have told the Administration that the bombing campaign will probably not succeed in destroying Iran's nuclear program. They have also warned that an attack could lead to serious economic, political, and military consequences for the United States.

... In late April, the military leadership, headed by General Pace, achieved a major victory when the White House dropped its insistence that the plan for a bombing campaign include the possible use of a nuclear device to destroy Iran's uranium-enrichment plant at Natanz, nearly two hundred miles south of Tehran. ... "Bush and Cheney were dead serious about the nuclear planning," [a] former senior intelligence official told me." And Pace stood up to them. Then the world came back: "O.K., the nuclear option is politically unacceptable."
This is big stuff, released on a bad weekend for news, and overwhelmed by the North Korea business. We plan to bomb the snot out of them, no matter what anyone thinks, and no matter what we're saying on the record, but the generals at least got the nuclear strikes off the table.

That's interesting political theater - the generals stop the crazies. You could shop that one out here in Hollywood.

But then, it's an elections year, and some crazy stuff is bound to come up, like this in the Miami Herald -
A wide-ranging report on U.S. policies toward Cuba's possible transition to democracy was officially presented to President Bush at a meeting Wednesday of the White House's National Security Council.

The report by the Commission for Assistance to a Free Cuba, co-chaired by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and the Cuban-American Secretary of Commerce, Carlos Gutierrez, makes recommendations to hasten the end of the island's communist government and assist the transition.

An early draft obtained last week by The Miami Herald included recommendations to create an $80 million fund to support democracy on the island, launch a diplomatic initiative to undermine Venezuela's backing of Castro and tighten the enforcement of the economic embargo against Cuba.
What? We're going after Cuba and Venezuela, because we need something to do? A bit more foreign intervention, because the American public will eat it up? We know how they should run their countries?

See Reuters here -
Two senior Cuban officials charged on Wednesday that a report on the communist nation delivered to the Bush administration's National Security Council amounted to a blueprint for an Iraq-style regime change in the Caribbean.

... The first chapter, entitled 'Hastening the End of the Castro Dictatorship: Transition not Succession,' includes a separate 'classified annex' of recommended actions.

"You can't accomplish what they propose without an invasion, without a war.

... This plan implies a U.S. military invasion of Cuba, a direct U.S. intervention," said Bruno Rodriquez, First Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs.
But it worked so well in Iraq? Something about this is very odd.

It's not like these guys have learned nothing. You just have to keep doing this invade, remove the government, occupy until the exiles you bring in take over, until you get it right. The concept isn't wrong because it hasn't worked yet. The idea is it could, theoretically, and you keep trying no matter how many times it fails, because you know it should work. You could shop that one out here in Hollywood too - a major motion picture with the working title "American Quixote - To Dream the Impossible Dream."

So what is the American Dream now - to subvert other governments or overthrow them outright, to release the hidden American on everyone all around the world?

Christopher Dickey, in American Dream, American Nightmare writing from Paris is the latest issue of Newsweek -
I spent the early morning yesterday in my Paris apartment re-reading George Orwell's long essay, "Notes on Nationalism." It was written in 1945, but seemed the right thing for this year's Fourth of July when so many expressions of nationalism are in the air: the relatively benign World Cup competition, the blood-soaked tension between the Palestinians and Israelis and the ferocious violence of the war in Iraq.

Orwell wrote that nationalism is partly "the habit of assuming that human beings can be classified like insects." He said it's not to be confused with patriotism, which Orwell defined as "devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force upon other people."

July 4, I would argue, is a patriotic holiday in just that sense-a true celebration of so much that makes the United States of America unique. It's the party thrown by a nation of immigrants to mark the creation of something new on the face of the earth, a society devoted not to the past but to the future - the incredibly elegant vision of "certain inalienable rights" to "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."

That's what the flags and the fireworks, the anthems, the civilians with hands on hearts, the soldiers at attention and saluting, the embassy receptions, and, yeah, not a few mind-bending beer-drinking binges, are most often about. I think most of us know in our hearts that the more we live up to our particular way of life, the more attractive it will be to others and the more they are likely to use its ideals to better their own lives. That's worth saluting, for sure, and raising a glass, too.

But American nationalism, unlike American patriotism, is different - and dangerous.
Dangerous? He quotes Orwell on nationalism, who defines it as identifying your country, or you way of seeing the world, and your very identity - "placing it beyond good and evil and recognizing no other duty than that of advancing its interests." The nationalist's thoughts "always turn on victories, defeats, triumphs and humiliations. ... Nationalism is power-hunger tempered by self-deception." So patriotism is essentially about ideas and pride, while nationalism is about something lese entirely. Orwell - "Political and military commentators, like astrologers, can survive almost any mistake, because their more devoted followers do not look to them for an appraisal of the facts but for the stimulation of nationalistic loyalties."

We're there -
All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage-torture, the use of hostages, forced labor, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians-which does not change its moral color when committed by 'our' side.

... The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.
Yep, Orwell is onto something. We're definitely there and so are the Israelis this week, and everyone else, as Dickey notes -
Is Israel's current strategy of crippling the rudimentary infrastructure of Gaza, forcing one million people to suffer for the kidnapping of one Israeli soldier, in any way proportional? No, nor humane, nor very relevant to winning his release. But it fits into a nationalist narrative that says the only way to deal with Palestinians is to hand them one humiliating collective defeat after another. Is a Muslim fanatic's slaughter of innocent Israelis at a night club an act of heroic martyrdom? What about the denial of the Holocaust by Iran's president? The only way to justify such talk is with the particularly cruel know-nothingism of our times.

There are certainly patriotic Israelis and Palestinians who do realize that they have to allow for each other's fears and each other's pride. But patriotism is in short supply on both sides, and nationalism is rampant. Orwell would have understood.
It's a distinction between two different things that has been lost.

As for Americans and their values, which may not be transcendent, Dickey says this -
We are, yes, very materialistic. You could see that in the long list of corporate sponsors for yesterday's July 4 reception at the American ambassador's residence in Paris. But much more importantly, you can hear materialism in the way we talk about almost everything, from the family we have, to the faith we have, the house we have, the cars and diplomas and the jobs we have. We pushed westward because we wanted to have land, which was almost free, and we wanted to have the freedom to forget whatever histories bound us to the past. Ours has become a society based on "having" in a way that's almost indistinguishable from "the American dream," or indeed, "the pursuit of happiness." There's no need to apologize. That's what makes us who we are.

But in much of the old world, people do not "have" families; they belong to families, which belong sometimes to clans and tribes (the extended families we inevitably describe in pejorative terms). Those families belong to a land and a faith-and a history of that land and faith-that may go back thousands of years. Their patriotism is in their blood, not just their hopes, and so is their nationalism.

As we saw in the Balkans in the 1990s, this history-driven, blood-driven nationalism can become brutally racist and explosively xenophobic: we belong, you do not. In Africa, the forces of tribally based nationalism constantly threaten the future of a continent where most national borders were drawn by foreigners. In Iraq, well, we Americans have helped tear apart a state that now shudders at the brink of utter failure in the face of ever-strengthening sectarian and racial nationalisms.

What does not help in the process of encouraging peace (because no one is going to "bring" peace), is the notion that we Americans can apply our nationalist vision to people who never chose to participate in our immigrant aspirations to begin with: people who feel safer, stronger and saner in their worlds of belonging than in our world of having. When we make that mistake, threatening to the core their sense of who they are, all we do is invite hatred.

"The pursuit of happiness" is, indeed, what the Fourth of July is all about, and I'd like to see that wonderfully vague and evocative principle accepted universally as an inalienable right. But let's never imagine that the pursuit of happiness is, everywhere, the same as the pursuit of the American dream. That's something we can share, but never impose.
There's a lesson here. Don't read Orwell in Paris.

Oh yes, there was other news - in the middle of all this Ken Lay died of a heart attack. What's to say?

See Mimi Swartz, the executive editor of Texas Monthly and co-author of Power Failure, the Inside Story of the Collapse of Enron with this -
After watching him self-immolate on the witness stand, I was sure that Ken Lay, Enron's former CEO who died early this morning, had lost for good one of the skills that made him famous and successful - an unerring sense of PR. It was a gift that saw him through his early years at Enron but then seemed to vanish as the company imploded and the legal case against him proceeded to its Shakespearean end. As has been often noted in the press, Lay was so bad on the witness stand - testy, arrogant, imperious, and that was with his own lawyers - that many believe that he not only did himself in but also took former Enron CEO Jeff Skilling down with him. Now it appears that in death he has redeemed himself, at least as far as spinning his own story is concerned.

Lay was always a cipher to those who knew there must be more to the man than his public persona as a folksy, jovial optimist - the one who, after the guilty verdict, insisted that God was on his side and would watch over him during this difficult time. (Was he an idiot or a crook? I repeatedly asked myself this as the Enron story unfolded.) Here in Houston, Texas, he always managed to inspire more ambivalence than his co-defendant Skilling. Before Enron's collapse, Lay lived lavishly - renting a yacht called the Amnesia for a special-occasion cruise, paying tens of thousands to reserve just the right ski trip months ahead of time - but he still managed to keep his reputation as Mr. Houston, raising money for good causes like the United Way, nudging the Greater Houston Partnership toward modernity, and forging compromises between local feuding fiefdoms.

Few managed to catch sight of any arrogance in company business deals, except some grumbling energy competitors, who never figured out how he maintained the public mien of a devout small-town mayor who only wanted the best for everyone. That crackling, semistentorian voice still tinged with his Missouri accent; that politician-like memory for personal details; his penchant to do the right thing, which he sometimes demonstrated with an African-American minister or two in tow (the latter he was still doing at trial) - these were qualities and gifts and shrewd choices that made it hard for locals to see Ken Lay as a bad guy. That is until prosecutor John Hueston plastered Lay's American Express bills on an overhead projector for all the world to see.

The guilty verdict seemed to settle things around here, temporarily, at least.

... Now, the news of Lay's death will, most likely, give credence to his latest identity - that of corporate martyr. Questions about a potential suicide were all over talk radio this morning, as well as crazier theories, like one that the Bush administration was responsible for his death and one that he had faked his own demise.

... So, Lay manages to pass into history as a semitragic figure instead of a laughingstock - the family man, devoted husband, and all-around good guy he always claimed to be.

... Nice going, Kenny boy, is all I can say.
You could shop that one out here in Hollywood too. It's all theater.

Of course it's hard to remember the four basic plots of all movies that they refer to out here in Hollywood. It may be seven. Or it may be just one - boy gets girl, boy loses girl, boy gets girl back (add whatever details you'd like, but that's it). Too there's the noble loner rescues the hapless, cowardly townsfolk (or some variation) and rides off into the sunset. High Noon. That's two. And there's the weak person through seemingly impossible troubles discovers his or her inner strength and triumphs. Luke Skywalker. Frodo Baggins. You sometimes can weave that into the first two. You get the idea. There are only so many plots to go around.

It's the same in politics, as Stephen Denning, notes here -
What's the story that the new leaders will need to communicate? In broad outline, we know what it will be, both for Democrats and Republicans, since as Robert Reich has explained, there are only four stories in American politics:

The Triumphant Individual - This is the familiar tale of the little guy who works hard, takes risks, believes in himself, and eventually gains wealth, fame, and honor. Although the Democrats, given their alliance with labor, used to own this story, the Republicans took it over by offering lower taxes. After six years of profligate spending, that won't win this argument much longer. The winning narrative for both Republicans and Democrats must recognize that without resolving the crises in health and education, the economic future is bleak and there will be no triumphant individual.

The Benevolent Community - "I have a dream," said Martin Luther King Jr and JFK asked us what we could do for our country. Democrats used to own this issue until they became associated with failed poverty programs and handouts for the poor. Now Republicans are also in trouble as Katrina showed the unattractive reality of "compassionate conservatism" at home and the trashing of our allies has left America despised abroad. The winning narrative for both Democrats and Republicans here must obviously re-establish competence in coping with poverty and deprivation at home, while rekindling a spirit of internationalism abroad to solve global problems.

The Mob at the Gates used to be the Nazis and then the Soviet evil empire. Now it's terrorists, against whom we must maintain vigilance, lest diabolical forces overwhelm us. In recent times, Republicans have owned this story, but as disillusion with Iraq deepens and broadens, both Republicans and Democrats will have to recognize that the war on terror has been a war in error, and will need to wind down the misguided adventure in Iraq, sooner rather than later, so that energies and resources can refocused on real enemies.

The Rot at the Top - Since the other three stories are usually so similar for both parties, the "rot at the top" story is usually the pivotal one in leading to change. With Richard Nixon, it was political malfeasance. With George H.W. Bush, it was economic incompetence. With Clinton, it was personal immorality. Now Democrats have abundant evidence that Republicans embody a culture of incompetence and corruption, while Republicans try to paint Democrats as divided, effete, liberal, pro-gay and anti-marriage and opposed to God.
As you see, those in charge now have mastered the first and third plots. On the second and fourth they're vulnerable.

As noted here long ago, Americans want to be told "the real story" - with a narrative already provided to make it all fit together from crisis to resolution. And of course we also require a denouement - to be told what the story means to the next election or whatever. And such a denouement is thus a teaser for the next episode. Stay tuned. (See Tell Me a Story from May 29, 2003.) Our minds are conditioned to see things in narrative terms.

So we get political theater. The narratives play out.

Posted by Alan at 18:38 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 7 July 2006 06:14 PDT home

Wednesday, 5 July 2006
American Values
Topic: Photos

American Values

Some shots from the 2006 Fourth of July parade in Rancho Bernardo, about twenty miles north of San Diego, inland. This was "Duke" Cunningham's congressional district, the congressman now serving time for accepting almost two and a half million in bribes - for government contracts, CIA and military. Those contractors implicated in the scandal, Mitchell Wade and Brent Wilkes, are based in the adjoining town, Poway. The former number three at the CIA, now resigned, Dusty Foggo, is a local too. When Duncan Hunter rolled by in the parade - he's chairman of the House Armed Services Committee - he leaned out of his white convertible and asked us if we were all registered Republicans. Everyone cheered. It's that kind of place.

Up the road is Camp Pendleton, the Marine Corps headquarters and training center on the west coast. It's massive. They sent folks down for the parade. I was there with the family, including my nephew, the Major in the Army out at Fort Irwin, at the National Training Center (NTC) - back from Iraq, again, he and the others are devising the training for those about to there, or Afghanistan. He's a good man, and a good officer. We talk a lot about what you would expect. Birthdays and holidays we give each other books that get us talking more.

All in all, the parade was pretty impressive, in an odd sort of way. All seventy-four photos will be posted in an album soon. That's geek work. It's in process.

Below, Abe Lincoln and Duncan Hunter. Compare and contrast.

Abe Lincoln at Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

Duncan Hunter, chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, at Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

Marines -

Marines at Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

Marines at Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

Marines at Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

Veterans -

Veterans at Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

Veterans at Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

Veterans at Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

The parade -

Rancho Bernardo parade, 4 July 2006

Posted by Alan at 21:52 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 6 July 2006 07:00 PDT home

Our Man in Paris: Bonjour Tristesse
Topic: Breaking News

Our Man in Paris: Bonjour Tristesse
Wednesday, July 5, 2006, France beats Portugal 1-0 and will play Italy for the World Cup this weekend. The tournament is a big deal, only every four years, and France has only won once before, in 1998 when they hosted it. Now they can win it all again. And what was the scene like in Paris? Ric Erickson, editor of MetropoleParis, lets us know in his latest letter from Paris.

Paris, Wednesday, July 5 - This is a historic day. Overnight the temperature dumped from over 30 to a reasonable 26 degrees - after dumping some hailstones the size of Great Auk eggs on unwary residents of southern France - and it is the 60th birthday of France's great gift to funky western mankind - the bikini.

Just think of all the things we wouldn't have if there weren't any bikinis. We wouldn't have dads on beaches and we wouldn't have moms frantically dieting after all those Easter Auk eggs they ate. And, by no means finally, your favorite French wouldn't be as famous as they are, for being cheeky. They would just be small, dark folks clad in itchy wool swimsuits, reeking of garlic.

Between football celebrations I have been watching TV-films on Arte. They have an Israeli series which shows, I am glad to learn, that Israel is a very weird place not anything like your average cheesy French village or oily truck-stop in South Dakota.

You say, 'so what?' You say, 'what else is new?' According to the TV-film I saw last night people who used to be policemen look after imported young ladies from the Ukraine and when they wear out they sell them for a discount to Egyptian spa owners. As unlikely as its theme, even unlikelier the happy end when the policeman learns to swim and the Tel Aviv goon squad nabs the bad guys and all the young ladies get a free trip to America - where they wanted to go in the first place.

But tonight is different because Spike Lee is in Munich to see his friend Thierry Henry playing for France in the semi-finals of the World Cup against Portugal. This city has opened the Parc des Princes and put a big screen up there, adding it to the free one in the Stade Charlety, and another one somewhere in the 16th.

Meanwhile Nicolas Sarkozy has declined to go and see Spike Lee in Munich because he has to stay in town to manage the spontaneous victory celebration on the Champs-Elysées right after the win by the (a) Allez les Vieux or the (b) Portuguese tigers.

Last Saturday night the Portuguese celebrating on the Champs-Elysées were impressive - more than 10 percent of the Portuguese in the world live in France, mostly around Paris - and after I saw the hosting Mannschaft get whacked last night by the Italians who were playing not much more energetically than when they soft-shoed the Americans into losing - I figure no matter who wins tonight, they are going to fix the Italians in Munich on Saturday, and Spike Lee will be there to see Thierry Henry hold the silver pot.

Caf? au Ch?teau, Paris 14th - the local Portuguese watch France defeat Portugal to advance to the World Cup championship gameOoops, that kind of gives it away. Tonight I went to see the Portuguese win at the Café au Château, a nearby mini-version of Porto right here in the 14th. All is very quiet on the streets here during a match and you could hear cats shedding as I neared the café, when about half a block short, a huge cheer or moan sounded. It sounded like a bomb in the stillness, coming as it did from the 700 nearest open windows.

It is not a big café and its TV is not large and it was holding at least 20 more than the legal limit as well as having a fair number sprawled around the terrace, some wearing team shirts. Due to the TV's location it could be seen from the terrace, the far end of the bar, or by short people. Since I wasn't even there I did not know that Zizou popped in a goal somehow - that was the moan I heard.

I never got close enough to the TV to get the score so I didn't know if I was consorting with winners or losers until this dude told me he studies bugs, insects. This was his way commenting on my photos - I was studying bugs? I told him, no. I didn't tell him I was doing it for Hollywood. These folks were going to be depressed enough.

The Portuguese will not be driving their cute honeys wrapped in green and red flags around the Champs-Elysées tonight. They will be home alone listening to old Fado records. Tomorrow they will wake up feeling slightly soggy and after a strong nip or two they will settle into rooting for Les Bleus, these old French dudes who have some new therapist who has put some young Turk spark into their legs.

Do I intend to be on the Champs-Elysées on Saturday night when France beats Italy? Does the Pope do mass? Isn't Spike Lee rooting for the French? Besides, TV-news says the Bleus have a new theme song, and they are going to sing it in public for the first time when they get their hands on that old silver pot again. Allez!

Photo and Text, Copyright © 2006 - Ric Erickson, MetropoleParis

Posted by Alan at 18:58 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 5 July 2006 18:58 PDT home

Tuesday, 4 July 2006
The Fourth of July
Topic: Announcements

The Fourth of July

Out for the day. Family picnic. A long drive south.

"In the United States there is more space where nobody is than where anybody is. That is what makes America what it is." - Gertrude Stein (1874-1946), The Geographical History of America (1936)

American flag as seen from the Page Museum Atrium at La Brea Tar Pits, Wilshire Boulevard, July 5, 2005

Posted by Alan at 07:56 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink

Monday, 3 July 2006
American Values
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist

American Values

When I left teaching in 1980 or so it was to get with the real world. Tried of being underpaid and hearing "those who can't do, teach," diving into the world of business seemed to offer a chance to "do" for a change - not to talk about things, but to participate in them, and make reasonable money. So it was hauling my sorry ass out of Rochester, New York, and moving to Los Angeles, where my sister and her family had ended up some years earlier, and hitting the bricks. In a few months I was doing, sort of, and living down in Manhattan Beach. So this is what the real world is like. That's what I told myself.

First at Northrop, then Hughes, it was working in "Training and Organizational Development" - but it was still teaching. These were, however, classes in supervision - how to manage difficult workers and play by the rules and motivate and reward, and reprimand, and all the rest - as if I knew. But they had scripts and all sort of audio-visuals that made it fairly straightforward, and if you can get seventh graders arguing about Macbeth and his motives, you can use some of the same techniques to get prima donna PhD engineers to be happy and productive workers, designing the next generation of electronics for the spy satellites. The new supervisors and managers needed all the help they could get, having been bumped up from being brilliant workers themselves to suddenly being bewildered bosses who didn't do the doing at all. They did the meetings, and the paperwork, the planning, and all the HR stuff - performance appraisals and the raises, coaching, hiring and firing. A good number of them were not entirely happy with that, but a promotion is a promotion. And that's how large organizations work - do something really well and you'll move up and not do it any more.

A few thrived. Many didn't. Those who thrived later became amazing executives, and those who didn't tried to remember what they had learned in "charm school" as they called it, and got stuck in that dreaded nowhere land of middle management, responsible for the work of those below them, and hammered by those above them for results, and not allowed to "do" anything. That's where I ended up, moving from the training thing to HR systems, coding clever little applications, then supervising those who did, then managing "systems shops" where I had not much idea what real work was being done two or three levels down, for which I was entirely responsible. Managing the business applications shop at a GM locomotive plant in Canada was a long way from those lazy afternoons in upstate New York, getting the kids to think about what Lady Macbeth was really up to, and writing something about it. How did that happen?

But those days are over. The systems world is an awful place, with all that "churn" and the outsourcing and the ever-changing technology, and no sense that anyone is ever safe. After stints at CSC and Perot Systems, where contracts come and go and the reorganizations move everyone around or out quite regularly, it seemed best to move on. The websites are fine. I'm retired.

In the middle of all the business stuff of course you had to read all the books on management theory - Tom Peters and that sort of thing. These books told how to get the most out of people, and be successful. "Management by walking around" made sense - be an open inquisitive presence, hourly if need be, and people will know you care about what's good on. It was all common sense, and rather obvious. These books made their authors rich, and they spoke at all those conventions you had to attend. I think this was supposed to be motivational. But nothing much can fix Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, stuck in a banquet room with five hundred of the clueless, sipping bad coffee and listing to the "insights" and worrying what's gone south back at the office.

And too there was the matter of values. Teaching English to kids from seventh to twelfth grade had that values stuff built in - help them develop the ability to understand what they read, to think critically as best they could, and help them learn to organize what they thought, and to write it down in a way others can understand. That was hard work, but it made sense. That's what they needed.

In the systems world it was a bit different. It was getting people to work well in threatening and chaotic circumstances, and like it, with the ultimate aim of keeping costs down, including the salaries you paid, so that the organization made scads of money and the shareholders were happy. It seemed a bit of a scam. Or maybe it was just detached from any sort of value, beyond the dollar.

This all came back when I came across an item in The New Statesman by Tom Hodgkinson, The Winner Takes It All. Tom Hodgkinson is editor of The Idler and author of "How to Be Idle" (Penguin) - and a bit of a wag, and blunt, as Brit writers can be when they deal with nonsense.

The item is a review of four of those management books -

Winning: the Ultimate Business How-To Book
Jack Welch with Suzy Welch, HarperCollins, ISBN 0007197675

You Can't Win a Fight With Your Boss and 55 Other Rules for Success
Tom Markert, HarperCollins, ISBN 0007227515

The Servant Leader: Unleashing The Power Of Your People - 50 Cautionary Tales for Managers
Peter Honey, How To Books, ISBN 0749445335

Bonjour Laziness: Why Hard Work Doesn't Pay
Corinne Maier, Orion, ISBN 1400096286

As you see, the first three are the management book, and that last one is the subversive one. That's why it was discussed in these pages off and on, most recently here, here, and by guest columnist Bob Patterson here. It "resonated," as they say. It's a values thing.

And Hodgkinson, in his review, dives right in the values issue, as a peculiarly American thing (British spelling, punctuation and usage maintained) -
In 1736, the American Puritan Benjamin Franklin published a pamphlet called "Necessary Hints to Those That Would Be Rich"; this was followed in 1748 by "Advice to a Young Tradesman". In these early management training guides, Franklin outlines the principles of a new kind of capitalism, then in its infancy: riches are to be pursued for their own sake; it must be remembered that "time is money".

Franklin goes on to recommend hard work and stresses the importance of appearing industrious: "The most trifling actions that affect a man's credit are to be regarded. The sound of your hammer at five in the morning, or eight at night, heard by a creditor, makes him easy six months longer; but if he sees you at a billiard table, or hears your voice at a tavern, when you should be at work, he sends for his money the next day . . . it makes you appear a careful as well as an honest tradesman."

As Max Weber pointed out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, Franklin promotes avarice, hypocrisy and the accumulation of wealth as if they were ethical principles. The emphasis is on how you are perceived. It doesn't matter if you go to the tavern - just don't let your boss see you there. Qualities such as honesty are promoted not because they are essential virtues, but because they might be useful business tools.
The scam has been going on a long time, but then, who's not to say avarice, hypocrisy and the accumulation of wealth are the real core of American ethics?

No, that couldn't be. Greed is good? Everything you do must be in the service of profit, growth and share price?

Let's see. Ten years in teaching, twenty-five in the business world. No, that seems about right.

And Hodgkinson is saying the first three of these books, on the secrets of "doing well" in business, promote what is "one of the central myths of capitalism - that, purely by virtue of hard work, anybody can get to the top."

Of course that's silly. If anyone could, they would, and everyone would be at the top, and then it wouldn't be the top, because everyone was there. It would be the dreaded middle. Maybe the books exist make you feel bad - you're not at the top, so you haven't been doing the right things, you inadequate slug. Maybe they aren't motivational at all, but written for depressives who want to think the worst of themselves.

And Hodgkinson, too, says the books recommend all sorts of immoral actions -
In the old days, greed and covetousness were seen as sinful; now they are encouraged. Jack Welch's Winning sets the tone. The author grins manically from the cover - despite the silver hair, manicured nails and perfect teeth, he looks like Beelzebub incarnate. Welch became CEO of General Electric after beginning his corporate life in plastics. He is well known in the business world as a "great CEO" - which, roughly translated, means that he has made loads of money. So now he feels qualified to advise young men and women how to "win". As Welch explains in his grammar-free prose: "And that is what this book is about - winning. Probably no other topic could have made me want to write again! Because I think winning is great. Not good - great."

But why is "winning" so great? Because, says Welch, it enables people to make lots of money which . . . erm . . . enables them to "get better healthcare, buy vacation homes, and secure a comfortable retirement". That's it. Those are the three goals of our mortal existence, otherwise known as more pills, more mortgages and more burglar alarms. Whatever happened to joy, pleasure, brotherhood? Whatever happened to enjoying life? Whatever happened to creativity? Whatever happened to love?
Well, those are for high school teachers to discuss when such things come up in whatever book they're teaching. And curiously, in my last position those who worked for me were aghast because one of the senior executives thought Welch had the right idea - each year fire the fifth of the workforce with lowest performance appraisals, as there's no point in helping them improve their work. That takes too much time and just slows everything down, and costs a ton of money. What's the point? What was I to say, that it would never happen in our office? It was going to happen. Life is hard, and I had to do the performance appraisals on a curve - there would be a lowest twenty percent. What to say? I'd write a nice reference letter. We'd have a going way luncheon at a nice place, if I could play tricks with the budget to find the funds.

But Welch is big on honesty -
"I have always been a huge proponent of candor," he says, before going on to explain why honesty is the best policy in business. Displaying his trademark Franklinesque hypocrisy, he advocates honesty in your dealings with others not because it is ethical, but because it can be useful for making money.
And there's this -
Some of the traits Welch looks for in potential staff are a little worrying: "They're sports trivia nuts or they're fanatical supporters of their alma maters or they're political junkies." Nuts, fanatical, junkies: in the everyday world, being insane, a fundamentalist or a drug addict might be considered bad; in business, it seems, the crazier you are the better. All of which summons up a picture of a madhouse office, with grinning employees giving each other high-fives, shouting "whoop!" and exploding with joy because they have just beaten someone else to a pulp. And Welch warns that you can't be too mad: "Hire and promote only true believers and get-on-with-it types . . . ferret out and get rid of resisters, even if their performance is satisfactory."
Well, he may not be charming, but he is successful, in his own thuggish way. And he has his values. They just aren't very pretty.

As for the Markert book, You Can't Win a Fight With Your Boss, that one is just about working hard - "You can forget lunch breaks. You can't make money for a company while you're eating lunch . . . if you don't put in the hours, someone just as smart and clever as you will. Fact of life: the strong survive." Don't follow that advice "and you might just end up as roadkill - lying dead by the side of the corporate highway as others drive right past you." Thomas Hobbes lives

Of course out here in Hollywood there's the classic line that if you can fake sincerity you've got it made. It's not just Hollywood -
Markert shares Welch's view that certain moral qualities can be useful in business - sincerity, for example, when sucking up to the boss ("The trick is to simply be sincere and charming"). He advises that "having friends at work is not a great idea", and he offers a staggering homily about plane travel. Markert claims that he always introduces himself to the person sitting next to him on the plane. Oh, that's sweet, you think. But then he explains this is "not to be nice"; it's because he wants to find out whether the other guy is a competitor before he gets out his laptop and displays confidential information. In such a world, even eating is seen as a business tool: "I'm a recent convert to eating well . . . food is fuel. Fuel is an element of performance. Bad fuel means low performance."
This is very utilitarian of course, or pragmatic. We American invented Pragmatism as a school of philosophy. Maybe we just don't do values.

The Neuschel book is more of this, and it all comes down to this -
The same tenets are repeated in these books: all variety in life is subservient to the goal of making money; individual character traits are fine so long as they don't hinder profits and share prices. "Eccentricities are welcome provided they do not have a detrimental effect on people's performance," warns Peter Honey in 50 Cautionary Tales for Managers. None of these authors ever mentions what the company he works for actually makes. Not once does Welch or Markert talk of quality of craftsmanship or the satisfaction of creativity; their sole interest is in growth, success and profits. Where the profits come from is immaterial. It could be cat food, computers or cars, any old stuff - as long as it makes money.
Hodgkinson say these books are just "sophisticated whips for slaves." He quotes Raoul Vaneigem - "Every call for productivity under the conditions chosen by capitalist economics is a call to slavery." That did occur to some of us in management, when told to get more out of people, but there was no money for raises, so we had to attended workshops on "no monitary reinforcement and motivation" - the brainstorming session were just depressing.

But that worked for some - heap on the praise, let them leave early and come in late now and then, as they're working at home too. We've all managed a few of these gung-ho happy workaholics. They can be scary. Just what are their values? What do the think, or feel, or dream? Vaneigem - "Nowadays ambition and the love of a job well done are the indelible mark of defeat and of the most mindless submission."

As for the hyper-successful authors of these books, Hodgkinson says this -
These architects of misery never exhibit the slightest concern for ecological issues: these are the sorts of guys who have been wrecking the planet, yet they present themselves as heroes. Nor, unsurprisingly, do they acknowledge the role of good fortune in business. They never say: I was just lucky in that, for 20 years, the markets went my way and I have no idea why.
They like that illusion of control, but how much of their brilliant success was just plain dumb luck, as Chaos Theory would and will demonstrate?

For a discussion of that see this, where Leonard Mlodinow, the author of those books on physics and mathematics - Feynman's Rainbow, Euclid's Window: The Story of Geometry from Parallel Lines to Hyperspace and, with Stephen Hawking, A Briefer History of Time - discusses the Hollywood executives out here who believe their success is based on great decisions they've made and their management skills, when really whether any one movie is a hit or a flop can be explained best by Chaos Theory and information cascades and all that. The mathematical concepts are complex, but explained clearly. The item is long, and amazing. Any movie can be a hit or a flop, and there's not much way to tell which it will be. That is demonstrated mathematically, with plenty of examples. You only have the illusion of control. It's a scam too.

Hodgkinson really likes Corinne Maier's Bonjour Laziness - she knows a scam when she sees one. That's why that one has been discussed in these pages.

And all I can feel is gratefulness. Hodgkinson read these nasty books. Facing that would be too depressing. Those days are over. No more of that.

But that's the business side of things. There are other American vales, as we are a religious nation - a pious nation. Outside the world of Islam and the nations which with we are now in conflict, you will find no more hyper-religious state. We'll match them scriptural revelation to scriptural revelation, the Bible faces the Koran in a showdown of righteousness. We're not all about making money. We're about doing God's work here on earth. And that's a different sort of management theory.

Amy Sullivan explains here, and it's a bit complicated -
For the past six years, the most prominent Christian in America has been the president. His belief is not of the "God said it. I believe it. That settles it," sort that fundamentalists embrace. Rather, Bush subscribes to a syllogistic doctrine of presidential infallibility: God works through Christians; I am a Christian; I have decided to do X; therefore, X is God's will.

Bush is known to start each day reading a devotional from My Utmost for His Highest, a collection of essays by 19th-century Scottish minister Oswald Chambers. As Bob Wright explained in the New York Times a few years ago, Chambers had a very simple - some might say comforting - view of divine will. "The basic idea" Wright wrote, "is that once you surrender to God, divine guidance is palpable." The only questioning involved is whether one carries out God's will, not whether one correctly interprets it.

Those who accuse Bush of being a theocrat have made much of his reported belief that God speaks through him. That's not entirely fair, because what Bush refers to is a fairly common hope among believers that God will use each of us to be instruments of justice and mercy and grace. "May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in Your sight," from Psalm 19, is a prayer many Christians recite. It's just that most of us don't express this as a confident assertion that God does in fact speak through us. Instead, the prayer is a humble plea.
But the man isn't humble. And he's at the top of the heap, king of the mountain. So that's a management approach too.

What to make of all this, the Brit reviewing the management books and ragging on Ben Franklin? And this business about doing God's work when you manage things? What are our values?

Monday, July 3, 2006, there was this -
People in Britain view the United States as a vulgar, crime-ridden society obsessed with money and led by an incompetent president whose Iraq policy is failing, according to a newspaper poll.

The United States is no longer a symbol of hope to Britain and the British no longer have confidence in their transatlantic cousins to lead global affairs, according to the poll published in The Daily Telegraph.

The YouGov poll found that 77 percent of respondents disagreed with the statement that the US is "a beacon of hope for the world".

As Americans prepared to celebrate the 230th anniversary of their independence on Tuesday, the poll found that only 12 percent of Britons trust them to act wisely on the global stage. This is half the number who had faith in the Vietnam-scarred White House of 1975.

A massive 83 percent of those questioned said that the United States doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks.

... US President George W. Bush fared significantly worse, with just one percent rating him a "great leader" against 77 percent who deemed him a "pretty poor" or "terrible" leader.

More than two-thirds who offered an opinion said America is essentially an imperial power seeking world domination. And 81 per cent of those who took a view said President George W Bush hypocritically championed democracy as a cover for the pursuit of American self-interests.

... In answer to other questions, a majority of the Britons questions described Americans as uncaring, divided by class, awash in violent crime, vulgar, preoccupied with money, ignorant of the outside world, racially divided, uncultured and in the most overwhelming result (90 percent of respondents) dominated by big business.
Yeah, but they drink warm beer, and they have those football hooligans (and they perversely call soccer football when we know what that is), and the queen wears funny hats. We have all the money, and we have God on our side. What do they know?

The poll, the review of the management books, appear on the same day, just as the United States celebrates our two hundred thirtieth July Fourth. It's time to examine the values. Again.

Posted by Alan at 23:39 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 4 July 2006 00:04 PDT home

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