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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, 31 August 2006
What's in a Word? - Some Thoughts on Making Things Up
What's in a Word? - Some Thoughts on Making Things Up
"A good newspaper, I suppose, is a nation talking to itself" - or so Arthur Miller once said. Now it's the online media, the web logs and such. That's where facts and opinions are tossed back and fourth in an endless dialog in real time, out in the open for everyone to see. That's the public forum now. Print is just too slow, and the issues that pop up on the twenty-four hour cable political shows have already been tossed back and forth for hours and sometimes days on the web before the "big guns" pick them up.

That may be a worry for the newspapers - the cover story of the August 24th Economist is Who Killed the Newspaper? The idea there is that "the most useful bit of the media is disappearing" - but while that is a cause for concern, it's not a cause for panic, or so they say. Someone, after all, has to do the original reporting so there are things to talk about. Someone has to do the legwork, gathering information - who did what, who said what, and so forth. Their op-ed pages may now provide a secondary, late forum, summarizing and focusing points that have been roiling around the web and more immediate media for some time. The idea now is to provide, on those pages, focus and some consolidation. The primary function of newspapers thus reverts to the natural default, reporting what happened - who, what, when, where, how and generally why - although the broadcast media tells you sooner, even if in little detail. So they aren't part of the public forum, really. Miller's comment no longer applies. Newspapers - and the wire services that feed them - provide grist for the mill, so to speak. And the best newspapers do their own investigative reporting - uncovering more than anyone expected to know. And that's even more material for the national dialog, but it's the raw material. And even if it's often detailed in the way only the print media can manage, it's just that the forum where all that is discussed has moved on.

All that is by way of noting that a topic all over the place, starting perhaps two or three weeks ago, is all this new talk about fascism, specifically "Islamic fascism." What's that all about?

The Associated Press tackled that on Wednesday, August 30, here, in a classic "consolidation" background item. AP notes a new phenomenon, tracks down its origins, and does the legwork - ferreting out what key people are saying about this. Tom Raum, the Associated Press writer, works in the traditional journalistic mode - he doesn't participate in the forum. He observes it and reports on what he sees.

And what does he see? The president seems to have recast all the arguments that the Iraq war is a very good and necessary war by saying it's a key part of a "war against Islamic fascism." That's new, or in this case news. As is the news that fascism seems to be the new buzz word for Republicans. The war is unpopular. There are key elections coming up. They must think it's useful.

And the AP legwork is useful - the president first used the term earlier in August, talking about the arrest of those "liquid bomb" terrorists in the UK, and then spoke of "Islamic fascists" in a later speech in Green Bay. Add to that the White Press Secretary, Tony Snow, has been using variations of the phrase in his White House press briefings. And the very odd Pennsylvania senator, Rick Santorum, well on his to losing his senate seat in November, on the August 28th drew parallels between World War II and the current war against "Islamic fascism" - they both require fighting a common foe in multiple countries, so it's really the same sort of thing. And he's been using the term for months, not that it's been helping him much. Then there was Donald Rumsfeld's speech to the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City - previously discussed here. He said anyone who disagreed with the administration - policy, strategy or tactics - was simply trying to appease "a new type of fascism," which made such folks cowards, confused and morally bankrupt, and also stunningly ignorant of history.

That's good reporting. The new tactic is clear, and the AP poll of White House aides and Republican strategists on the outside has them all saying this "Islamic fascism" stuff is an attempt "to more clearly identify the ideology that motivates many organized terrorist groups," although no names are sourced to that. It seems to be a shift in emphasis from the general to the specific, even if there's nothing in the AP item clearly defining fascism in a specific way. But the White House stated that the president would "elaborate on this theme" in a the series of speeches starting with his own go at the American Legion convention in Salt Lake City all the way through his address to the UN General Assembly on 19 September. Perhaps he'll discuss the definitions of fascism laid out by Mussolini and demonstrate the exact parallels in detail, but that seems unlikely. It's more likely this will remain general and not specific at all.

But there are folks on the records giving it a go.

There's White House spokeswoman Dana Perino - "The key is that all of this violence and all of the threats are part of one single ideological struggle, a struggle between the forces of freedom and moderation, and the forces of tyranny and extremism."

That's still a bit broad.

There's the Republican polling expert Ed Goeas, saying that depicting the struggle as against Islamic "fascists" is an appropriate definition of the war that we're in - "I think it's effective in that it definitively defines the enemy in a way that we can't because they're not in uniforms."

That's on odd definition of fascists - as people without uniforms. Mussolini had the guys in brown shirts. Goeas seems to be saying they needed something that just reeked of "bad," and this term tested well.

It's hard to see how this is moving toward the specific.

And AP chats with Parvez Ahmed, chairman of the Council on American-Islamic Relations - the use of the phrase "contributes to a rising level of hostility to Islam and the American-Muslim community." So it's not polling well in some circles.

Then there's Dennis Ross, the Mideast adviser to both the first Bush and then Clinton, and now the director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. They would have to talk to him. He says he would have chosen different words -
"The 'war on terror' has always been a misnomer, because terrorism is an instrument, it's not an ideology. So I would always have preferred it to be called the 'war with radical Islam,' not with Islam but with 'radical Islam,'" Ross said.

Why even mention the religion? "Because that's who they are," Ross said. "Fascism had a certain definition. Whether they meet this or not, one thing is clear: They're radical. They represent a completely radical and intolerant interpretation of Islam."
He's very picky, isn't he?

So AP turns to a specialist in presidential rhetoric - there seems to be such people - and one is Wayne Fields, a specialist such at Washington University in Saint Louis, saying that while "fascism" once referred to the rigid nationalistic one-party dictatorship first instituted in Mussolini's Italy, it has "been used very loosely in all kinds of ways for a long time." No one cares about the details any more - "Typically, the Bush administration finds its vocabulary someplace in the middle ground of popular culture. It seems to me that they're trying to find something that resonates, without any effort to really define what they mean."

And AP taps Andrew Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, who says the "fascist" label is just a World War II thing, and is probably being used to vaguely remind us "of the lack of personal freedoms in fundamentalist countries." He thinks the effect on public opinion will be marginal - the first President Bush's 1990 kept saying Saddam Hussein was just like Hitler and was ridiculed a bit for that.

The item ends with some thoughts from Stephen J. Wayne, a professor of government at Georgetown - the White House political gurus "probably had a focus group and they found the word 'fascist.'" It was a no-brainer - "Most people are against fascists of whatever form. By definition, fascists are bad. If you're going to demonize, you might as well use the toughest words you can." It'll do.

So that's the grist for the mill. What to make of it?

Here's some of the national dialog.

Digby over at Hullabaloo is here all over Dan Bartlett for what he said on MSNBC's Hardball. Dan Bartlett is a key advisor to the president - he got Karen Hughes' job when she became the lead on improving America's image around the world.

The problem is this transcript -
Nora O'Donnell: Dan do you agree that making an analogy to Hitler can be disproportionate with the current battles - while it's extremely important, the war on terror - comparing it to WWII is overstepping

Dan Bartlett: Absolutely not. The fascist movement from that era is very similar to the totalitarian ideology that al-Qaeda and other extremists, those who are wanting to pervert a very rich tradition of peaceful religion - Islam - to accomplish a certain set of objectives.

They have taken 3,000 American lives on one single morning, they've attacked country after country after country throughout the world with a very determined ideology, they're trying to overturn governments. They took control of Afghanistan, they're trying to take control of Iraq, they're trying to take control of Lebanon and they're doing it for a very specific reason - they have territorial ambition, they want the resources, they want the nuclear weapons, they want to destroy the west.

Very similar in proportion I would argue, and many other people would argue as well. So it is a very important historical lesson for to understand today because the fight we're in today is as consequential as the fight we fought in the last century.
Digby is having none of it -
Let's think for a moment about what he's saying. If it is true that they have suddenly discovered that this threat is equal to the threat posed by the axis powers in WWII, then they have clearly failed miserably to meet such an existential threat. These monsters are allegedly attacking "country after country after country" trying to seize territory so they can take the resources and get nuclear weapons and we are sending national guard troops over to Iraq for their fourth or fifth tours instead of mobilizing the entire nation? The only sacrifice Bush has asked of the American people is to pay their taxes and spend money.
There's a lot of that in the public forum - this doesn't add up.

There's Glenn Greenwald here -
The President's supporters try to decorate their thirst for war by depicting it as some sort of compelled Churchillian defense in the face of unprecedented evil, but it is really nothing more noble than reckless warmongering of the most dangerous kind. Although Donald Rumsfeld's invocation of the "Neville Chamberlain appeasement" insult is being treated as some sort of serious historical argument, it is, in fact, the most tired, overused and manipulative cliché used for decades by the most extreme warmongers in Washington to attack those who seek alternatives to war.

In fact, though Ronald Reagan has been canonized as the Great Churchillan Warrior, back then he was accused of being the new 1938 Neville Chamberlain because he chose to negotiate with the Soviets and sign treaties as an alternative to war.

... Screaming "appeasement" and endlessly comparing political opponents to Neville Chamberlian is not a serious, thoughtful argument, nor is it the basis for any sort of foreign policy. At best, it is an empty, cheap platitude so overused by those seeking war as to be impoverished of meaning. More often than not, though, it is worse than that; it is the disguised battle cry of those who want war for its own sake, and who want therefore to depict the attempt to resolve problems without more and more new wars as being irresponsible and weak.

This same mindset - even, in some cases, the very same individuals - now launching the "Chamberlain/appeasement" insult even viewed Ronald Reagan that way because he negotiated and signed treaties with the Soviets and tried to find ways to avoid constant wars. The Cold War didn't end with wars on the Soviets but with engagement of them and treaties with them, signed by the Neville Chamberlain of the 1980s, Ronald Reagan. Those who considered Reagan a Chamberlain appeaser back then were radicals and extremists (and were viewed as such). They still are extremists, but they also happen to be the ones guiding the dominant political party in our country and they don't just want to prolong the war in Iraq but want several new wars (at least).

That's a bit shrill, but it gets to the core of the nonsense.

So who is more shrill?

Try this -

Charles Black, a longtime GOP consultant with close ties to both the first Bush administration and the current White House, said branding Islamic extremists as fascists is apt.

"It helps dramatize what we're up against. They are not just some ragtag terrorists. They are people with a plan to take over the world and eliminate everybody except them," Black said.
Or as Digby says here -
Run for your lives!

I know I don't have to spell out all he ways in which Islamic radicalism is unlike fascism. But it is worth taking a look at the writings of the guy who pretty much invented fascism, good old Benito Mussolini. He wrote a little treatise back in 1932 that spelled it all out. It's true that fascism considered itself an enemy of democracy (and Marxism) and it fetishized war and violence. And yes, one of its primary tenets was imperialism.

We can argue about whether any or all of those components are part of the "Islamo-fascist ideology," but for the sake of argument, let's agree that on some level they are. But there are a few defining characteristic of fascism - as defined by the man who made fascism a household name - that surely make Islamic radicalism something else entirely.

For instance:

"... The Fascist accepts life and loves it, knowing nothing of and despising suicide: he rather conceives of life as duty and struggle and conquest, but above all for others -- those who are at hand and those who are far distant, contemporaries, and those who will come after...

"… The foundation of Fascism is the conception of the State, its character, its duty, and its aim. Fascism conceives of the State as an absolute, in comparison with which all individuals or groups are relative, only to be conceived of in their relation to the State. The conception of the Liberal State is not that of a directing force, guiding the play and development, both material and spiritual, of a collective body, but merely a force limited to the function of recording results: on the other hand, the Fascist State is itself conscious and has itself a will and a personality - thus it may be called the "ethic" State.

"…The Fascist State organizes the nation, but leaves a sufficient margin of liberty to the individual; the latter is deprived of all useless and possibly harmful freedom, but retains what is essential; the deciding power in this question cannot be the individual, but the State alone."

Those two things, it seems to me, make any comparison between fascism and a loose confederation (if that) of suicidal religious fanatics spread all over the world, ridiculous. They might just as well have appropriated the phrase Mongol Hordes for all the sense it made. (Actually, Osama bin Laden has made that comparison - with the US.) Not that it will stop the wingnuts from pimping it like it's the latest teen-age fad - making sense has never been a hallmark of these people.

The funny thing is that if you look at Mussolini's definition it does fit some modern western political factions much better than Islamic radicalism. I leave it to you to figure out who they might be.
But is it really fair to quote Benito Mussolini? They don't want us to take this all too seriously, it seems. It's a word for the rubes. They eat it up.

People will buy anything if it's scary enough? Maybe so.

As for the first in the series of presidential speeches to "elaborate on this theme," the president's address before the American Legion's national convention on Thursday, August 31, provided some interesting elaborations, without much in the way of specifics.

The transcript is here here, containing things like this - "The security of the civilized world depends on victory in the war on terror, and that depends on victory in Iraq."

Those are high stakes, and as Fred Kaplan says -
Does anybody believe this? If you do, then you must ask the president why he hasn't reactivated the draft, printed war bonds, doubled the military budget, and strenuously rallied allies to the cause.

If, as he said in this speech, the war in Iraq really is the front line in "the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century"; if our foes there are the "successors to Fascists, to Nazis, to Communists"; if victory is "as important" as it was in Omaha Beach and Guadalcanal - then those are just some of the steps that a committed president would feel justified in demanding.

If, as he also said, terrorism takes hold in hotbeds of stagnation and despair, then you must also ask the president why he hasn't requested tens or hundreds of billions of dollars for aid and investment in the Middle East to promote hope and livelihoods.

Yet the president hasn't done any of those things, nor has anyone in his entourage encouraged him to do so. And that's because, while the war on terror is important and keeping Iraq from disintegrating is important, they're not that important. Osama Bin Laden is not Hitler or Stalin. Baghdad is not Berlin. Al-Qaida and its imitators don't have the economic resources, the military power, or the vast nationalist base that Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union had.

So, the speech sends the head buzzing with cognitive dissonances. There's the massively exaggerated historical analogy (which should have been obvious, if not insulting, to the World War II veterans in the audience). And there's the glaring mismatch between the president's gargantuan depiction of the threat and the relatively paltry resources he's mustered to fight it.

Such dissonances could further diminish, not revive, his support.
But he did say "fascist" - and you're supposed to be scared, and vote Republican.

After a lot of detail, Kaplan comes to a not very startling conclusion -
Not all of our enemies are fascists, and not all of our friends are democrats. The danger - really, the crisis - looming in the Middle East is not the threat to freedom and democracy but rather the threat to stability. This is the bugaboo Bush does not want to face. He has said, over and over, that his predecessors' infatuation with stability is what caused the festering stagnation and resentment that bred the terrorists who mounted the attacks of Sept. 11. "Years of pursuing stability to promote peace had left us with neither," Bush said this morning. That's a matter of debate. In any event, the new danger is that Bush's neglect of stability to promote freedom will leave us with neither of those things - to the still-deeper detriment of peace: a trifecta of world misery.

There are dangers. Bush is not mustering the resources to deal with them, mainly because we do not have the resources. He needs - we need - assistance from international players who have an even greater interest in preventing Iraq from collapsing or a regional war from erupting. However, Bush will not be able to rally this assistance as long as he makes statements like, "We will take the side of democrats and reformers throughout the Middle East." To the leaders of Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan, Pakistan, and others, that sounds as if Bush would take the side of people who want to overthrow their regimes. He couldn't be serious; he is, after all, friendly with those regimes. But what is he up to? What are his real intentions? Why bail him out on Iraq if he sees freedom's triumph in Iraq as the harbinger for the rise of "reformers" throughout the region?

To pursue a sound policy in the Middle East, to impede civil war and worse, would require Bush to shift gears - to drop his rhetoric on spreading some abstract concept of freedom (at least as a centerpiece) and to resume the long-standing pursuit of stability. Such a shift may be too humbling for Bush to endure. And so, as long as he keeps giving speeches on the war in Iraq and the war on terror, the cognitive dissonances will buzz ever louder.
So goes the national dialog, the conversation in the electronic open forum. The son's "everyone who opposes us is part of a giant fascist conspiracy" is going about as well as the father's "Saddam is really Hitler if you think about it." Cool buzz words - until you think about it.

They just make up stuff. They hope people react in some Pavlov's Dog way. Who are the small-brained but happy loyal dogs reacting that way? There's a reason some folks prefer cats - the 'yeah boss you're wonderful" goofy Labrador Retriever puppy can just get on your nerves.

The just make up things. Fascists, indeed.

They make up things? Try this -
Bush suggested last week that Democrats are promising voters to block additional money for continuing the war. Vice President Cheney this week said critics "claim retreat from Iraq would satisfy the appetite of the terrorists and get them to leave us alone." And Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, citing passivity toward Nazi Germany before World War II, said that "many have still not learned history's lessons" and "believe that somehow vicious extremists can be appeased."

Pressed to support these allegations, the White House yesterday could cite no major Democrat who has proposed cutting off funds or suggested that withdrawing from Iraq would persuade terrorists to leave Americans alone. But White House and Republican officials said those are logical interpretations of the most common Democratic position favoring a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq.
No one proposed anything like that, ever. It's like the fascist thing. It sounds right. People will react.

Somehow they just sound desperate.

Posted by Alan at 23:22 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 1 September 2006 07:31 PDT home

Wednesday, 30 August 2006
Danger Ahead - Don't Listen Carefully
Topic: Election Notes
Danger Ahead - Don't Listen Carefully
You've been warned, and the French warned you - in this case AFP (l'Agence France Presse). But then it was all over the news, and the AFP item on the late wire Wednesday, August 30, was one of many that covered the basic facts -
US President George W. Bush will launch a campaign of speeches, helped by world leader visits, to defend his handling of the global war on terrorism and the conflict in Iraq.

The thrust comes as many of Bush's Republicans worry that the rising death toll and price tag from the unpopular war in Iraq may cost them control of the US Senate and House of Representatives in November 7 elections.

"They're not political speeches," Bush insisted after a political fundraiser in Arkansas Wednesday. "They're speeches to make it clear that, if we retreat before the job is done, this nation will become even more in jeopardy."

"We have a duty in this country to defeat terrorists. That's why we'll stay on the offense to bring them to just before they hurt us, and that's why we'll work to spread liberty in order to achieve the peace," he said.

The public relations push was to begin Thursday with an Iraq-focused speech to a major US veterans group, and was to culminate with a September 19 address to the United Nations, said Bush spokeswoman Dana Perino.

"The president will put the violence that Americans are seeing on their TV screens and reading in their papers into a larger context," Perino said of his remarks to the American Legion in Salt Lake City, Utah, on Thursday.
So it's a public relations effort, with most of the speeches given a political fundraisers, but it's not political at all. Right. It must be a matter of how you define the term.

Of course, if most of these are addresses to the nation, and not "political," then the media can cover them, live, as breaking news, and the opposition, such as it is, cannot really demand equal time. Of course, since the broadcast "fairness doctrine" is long gone, that is a moot point, or as our language-challenged friends say, a "mute point." But the cable news folks will get a lot of free content to fill the twenty-four hour cycle - start the feed of the speech and grab a cup of coffee, put your feet up, and take a breather.

Will people watch, hanging on every word? That seems unlikely. It will just be a little tiresome - more of the same, with a few minor variations for specific audiences - be very frightened, and support all we do, because if you don't the bad guys are really coming for us this time, for real.

There will be no mention that what we've done has made matters worse - angry attacks are far more likely now than they ever were, as we've ticked off most of the Arab world and befuddled everyone else. That doesn't seem to matter much now. What's done is done. Now the approach is to say "look at how bad things are" and say that we cannot change anything we're doing at any level - or things will get much, much worse. That seems to be the "larger context." A cynic might say this is the administration asserting that, yes, we've stirred up the biggest hornet's nest since the Crusades, and now we have no choice but to keep doing what we're doing, because we set it up so that any change in policy or tactics at this point would have dire consequences you don't even want to think about. But who would be that cynical?

The curious thing is that there's a good-cop bad-cop thing going on - like when you're buying a car and the salesman says he can give you the great price you've both agreed on, but he has to check with his sales manager, who's a mean guy. The salesman comes back thirty-five minutes later, all hangdog, and says the shiny new car you've been staring at the whole time will have to cost a bit more. What are you going to do?

The good-cop in this case is the president - no one questions the patriotism of those who have questions, but let's look at the big picture. The bad-cop is of course the man in charge of the Defense Department, Donald Rumsfeld, and his tag-team partner, Vice President Cheney. Yep, it's kind of like cheesy "profession wrestling," and just about as professional.

There was the Rumsfeld address to the American Legion in Salt Lake City (discussed here) - those who question the president are cowards, and they are morally and intellectual confused (depraved and stupid), and the don't know their history (they're just like Neville Chamberlain, thinking you can talk with the bad guys and get anything useful from them). There wasn't as much coverage of the Cheney speech a day earlier, denouncing the "self-defeating pessimists" who oppose the war in Iraq, which is going quite well actually. Of the war in Iraq - "We wage this fight with good allies at our side." And as for the situation in Iraq and Afghanistan - "Fifty million people are awakening to a future of hope and freedom." He seems to believe both are true. He seems to have different sources of information than the rest of the world.

And Cheney was in Nebraska to do the 9/11 thing, actually - "To stand here at Offutt Air Force Base is to be reminded of how the world changed on that terrible morning. This is where President Bush came to direct the initial response to the attacks, and to conduct an emergency national security meeting by secure video."

See, you have to remember that once you thought he was competent. He still might be? That's the idea. They've got the good-cop bad-cop thing down cold.

The president addresses that same American Legion group in Salt Lake City, but does the "reasonable, simple, pleasant guy" routine. These shifts keep critics off-balance, and as uncertain at the customer waiting in the Ford showroom.

The president's warm-up for the American Legion folks was Wednesday, August 30, in Tennessee -
Linking success in Iraq with the future safety of America, President Bush said Wednesday that withdrawing US troops too quickly would lead to a terrorist state more dangerous than Afghanistan in the grip of the repressive Taliban regime.

Bush, who is beginning a series of speeches on Thursday to counter opposition to the war, spoke at a political fundraiser, which raised more than $1.5 million for the Tennessee GOP and Bob Corker, who faces a tough Senate race against Democratic nominee Harold Ford Jr.

If the United States leaves Iraq prematurely, Bush said, it would embolden an enemy that wants to harm Americans and shred US credibility internationally.

"If we leave Iraq before the job is done, it will create a terrorist state in the heart of the Middle East, a terrorist state much more dangerous than Afghanistan was before we removed the Taliban, a terrorist state with the capacity to fund its activities because of the oil reserves of Iraq," Bush said.

Let's see, we know now that Iraq was not working on any weapons of mass destruction - nuclear, chemical or biological - that Iraq had no ties to al Qaeda, and Saddam Hussein actually feared them (they hated him and could cause no end of trouble), that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, as the president said directly the week before. So how did this incipient terrorist state much more dangerous than Afghanistan was before we removed the Taliban come to be?

Don't ask. What's done is done.

The twist in this warm-up speech is the idea that rethinking all this and trying something new would "shred US credibility internationally." Like we have any? That seemed to be a dispatch from another planet, not this one. But he has his pride, so you have to allow him some harmless delusion. Let him think everyone loves us and agrees with us. What harm can that do? Heck, Cheney thinks we have allies, and the whole world is with us.

And of course the president just wants to bolster support for the war in Iraq, as "a senior administration official" describes it - "Terrorism is on the minds of Americans, and as we go into the fifth anniversary of the Sept. 11 attacks, it's appropriate and necessary that the nation continue to hear about the state of the war and the nature of our enemy."

That's from an analysis (Tim Grieve) that continues with this -

As the Wall Street Journal notes, there's been something of an evolution in the president's rhetorical approach to the war. While earlier rounds of speeches tended to focus on claims of progress in Iraq, Bush will speak more this time about the "high stakes and changing nature of the battle." That's an inevitable result of the facts on the ground, both there and here. There isn't a lot of good news to report from Iraq these days - a roadside bomb killed at least 24 people in Baghdad today [August 30] - and Americans aren't buying happy talk about the war anymore: Sixty-two percent of the public says that things are going badly for the United States in Iraq.

But there's a second sort of rhetorical evolution going on here, too. The public no longer sees the war in Iraq as part of the war on terror, let alone as its "central front," and even the president has now conceded that Iraq had "nothing" to do with 9/11. That won't stop the White House from wrapping the war in memories of 9/11 - see the words at the top of this post, or Donald Rumsfeld's speech yesterday, or Dick Cheney's speech the day before that - but it does seem that the approach is changing a bit: The war isn't right just because we're striking back against the enemy who attacked us (even if we're not); the war is right because it's being brought to you by the man you liked so much in the days after those attacks occurred.
So when the facts don't work, they're painting pictures now of scenes they want you to remember - the president in lower Manhattan with the bull horn, saying we'll get the bad guys, and a year ago in Jackson Square in New Orleans, saying we'd fix all this, and get rid of poverty and racism and all the rest while we're at it. They're selling nostalgia, just like Ford sells the retro-cars, the Mustang and Thunderbird - relive the past in a nicer version of what you remember fondly.

Grieve remembers it differently -
Yeah, Bush looked better with the bullhorn and the rubble than he did in the bizarre blue light of Jackson Square, but it took him a while to get to either place. And once he was there? The results, practically and politically speaking, have been pretty much the same. Afghanistan and Iraq are in chaos, and bin Laden is still on the loose. New Orleans is a mess, and the president seemed to acknowledge this week that the "quick" recovery he promised could take a decade to complete - if it ever happens at all.

Bush may have peaked in popularity after 9/11, and Katrina may have added to his steady slide in the polls. But in the midst of these dual anniversaries, more Americans approve of Bush's handling of the hurricane than they do of his handling of Iraq, his signature response to the attacks of 9/11. A majority of Americans disapprove of both.

… That's why the White House and the Republican National Committee hope that as you head to the polls in November, you'll forget about the president who led his country into a phony and failed war and fiddled while a great American city drowned. They want you to remember the president you saw just after the United States was attacked and just before he actually did anything about it. There was glory in that moment, and the GOP wants it back.
It may work. We're suckers for nostalgia.

Too the idea here is to rediscover the charm of the president - it's not all formal speeches, whipsawing us between pleasantries and insults, and telling us not to believe what we see. There are, and will be, relaxed one-on-one interviews, like MSNBC chat - Brian Williams and the president chatting like two buddies on the streets of New Orleans on the one-year anniversary of Katrina landfall.

The transcript is here, but this video clip is much better - you get a sense of the "ah shucks" thing the president has going - including answering questions about his reading Camus, and how he just read "three Shakespeares." He explains his reading habits are eclectic, but he gets the word wrong and it comes out sounding something like "epileptic." That may be supposed to be endearing - he's just a regular guy and such words are really unimportant. It may be a Freudian slip. It doesn't matter.

As for the Shakespeare thing, over at Wonkette you'll find this - "And 'three Shakespeares?' What kind of reporter doesn't ask which ones? Because 'Lear' would be awesome. Especially if he tried to divide the Crawford ranch between Jenna and Barbara (and, for the hell of it, Pierce)."

That too doesn't matter much. It's just odd.

The meat of the interview is this, but it doesn't make much sense either -
WILLIAMS: When you take a tour of the world, a lot of Americans e-mail me with their fears that, some days they just wake up and it just feels like the end of the world is near. And you go from North Korea to Iran, to Iraq, to Afghanistan, and you look at how things have changed, how Americans are viewed overseas, if that is important to you. Do you have any moments of doubt that we fought a wrong war? Or that there's something wrong with the perception of America overseas?

BUSH: Well those are two different questions, did we fight the wrong war, and absolutely - I have no doubt - the war came to our shores, remember that. We had a foreign policy that basically said, let's hope calm works. And we were attacked.

WILLIAMS: But those weren't Iraqis.

BUSH: They weren't, no, I agree, they weren't Iraqis, nor did I ever say Iraq ordered that attack, but they're a part of, Iraq is part of the struggle against the terrorists. Now in terms of image, of course I worry about American image. We are great at TV, and yet we are getting crushed on the PR front. I personally do not believe that Saddam Hussein picked up the phone and said, "al-Qaida, attack America."
This seems like a bad parody of Samuel Beckett, or as Digby of Hullabaloo says here -
Talk about dumb and dumber. I know the president is intellectually handicapped and I don't expect much from Williams either. But couldn't someone have written down the questions for him beforehand so he doesn't ramble incoherently when he's interviewing the president?

And why, oh why, can't somebody pin the codpiece down when he says in one breath that the war came to our shores and that's why we're fighting in Iraq? Couldn't Williams have followed up with, "but if Iraq wasn't involved in the attacks, in what way was it part of the struggle against terrorism? Until we invaded, Iraq didn't have any terrorists." Bush would blather on about weapons of mass destruction and our oceans not protecting us, but at least it would be out there. That would be too much to ask, I guess.

The thing about how we are "great on TV but getting crushed on the PR front" is just bizarre. I have no idea what he meant by it other than it's something someone said about himself and he applied it to the country. I can't figure out any other explanation.
The problem is expecting logic. Perhaps the president's handlers, approving such an extended interview, know the secret of public discourse - no one really listens. They watch the body language, and catch the tone of voice, and then approve or don't approve of the speaker. A few catch phrases help too - buzz words, but people don't need the whole sentence. Just the buzz words will do. So look relaxed and say things like, "I think pro-life squirrels could probably roller-skate and sing opera in Milan, in Italian, for the march of freedom, which is God's gift to everyone, and toasters and Idaho - they hate us for our freedoms." No one notices much but the key stuff. The trick is not to get too close to total nonsense - don't cross the line - but have fun skirting it. Think of it as a game. This set of responses is, of course, close to the edge, but the president is a risk-taker. Or maybe he's actually a fool.

And it's hard to make this make sense -
WILLIAMS: Is there a palpable tension when you get together with the former president, who happens to be your father? A lot of the guys who worked for him are not happy with the direction of things.

BUSH: Oh no. My relationship is adoring son.

WILLIAMS: You talk shop?

BUSH: Sometimes, yeah, of course we do. But it's a really interesting question, it's kind of conspiracy theory at its most rampant. My dad means the world to me, as a loving dad. He gave me the greatest gift a father can give a child, which is unconditional love. And yeah, we go out and can float around there trying to catch some fish, and chat and talk, but he understands what it means to be president. He understands that often times I have information that he doesn't have. And he understands how difficult the world is today. And I explain my strategy to him, I explain exactly what I just explained to you back there how I view the current tensions, and he takes it on board, and leaves me with this thought, "I love you son."
He loves is dad, the simpleminded old fart. He pats him condescendingly on the head and the old guy smiles. It's cool.

But this is really odd -
WILLIAMS: The folks who say you should have asked for some sort of sacrifice from all of us after 9/11, do they have a case looking back on it?

BUSH: Americans are sacrificing. I mean, we are. You know, we pay a lot of taxes. America sacrificed when they, you know, when the economy went into the tank. Americans sacrificed when, you know, air travel was disrupted. American taxpayers have paid a lot to help this nation recover. I think Americans have sacrificed.
Digby -
Dear God. He brags endlessly about lowering taxes and then calls it a sacrifice for the war effort. It's true that having air travel disrupted for a week was truly a lot to ask of us but we rose to the occasion. The economy he's been pumping as being great for years is now seen to have "tanked" and caused Americans great suffering. I won't even mention the war we didn't need to fight that's costing hundreds of billions of dollars - which he promised would be paid for with Iraqi oil revenues and which will instead cost every American child more than can even be calculated.
Yeah, well, the president has his view, which certainly isn't how another writer sees it here -
It's often claimed that George W. Bush has asked for no sacrifices in this time of war. On the contrary, he's asked us to sacrifice our humanity and our compassion. He's asked us to sacrifice our privacy and freedom, and our respect for our fellow citizens. He's asked us to sacrifice every irreducible ideal - and there were few enough of them, God knows - on which this country was founded, and whatever fragile steps we've taken towards implementing them under the law. He's asked us to sacrifice any religious truth that would interfere with the dreary, mechanical pursuit of redundant wealth and false security. He's asked us to sacrifice our souls and our conscience, in exchange for his snake-oil promise that we'll never have to suffer the consequences of our own inhumanity. He's asked us to sacrifice our present for his future, and our future for his present.
But he such a nice guy. At one time that seemed enough.

What happened?

As well, the speeches will turn it all around. Or not.

Posted by Alan at 22:45 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Thursday, 31 August 2006 06:30 PDT home

Tuesday, 29 August 2006
Topic: Election Notes
Tuesday, August 29, was the actual anniversary of Hurricane Katrina slamming into New Orleans, and the Gulf Coast, exactly one year before. It seemed as if all other news had been suspended - try as you would, there was little else on the networks and cable news shows. All else could wait.

On the other hand, since it was Ingrid Bergman's birthday (1915), the classic movie channel was doing all of her major films, including Casablanca, where the French are actually the good guys, making all sort of trouble for the Nazis with the help of the elegant Czech fellow. (August 29, 1944, oddly enough, was the very day American troops marched down the Champs Elysées, helping celebrate the liberation of France.)

And it was also Charlie Parker's birthday (1920), so the jazz station down in Long Beach was playing his stuff. It was Michael Jackson's birthday too (1958), but as he's become somewhat of a joke there wasn't much on air - no Thriller.

There seemed to be no mention it was John McCain's birthday (1936), but that was probably because the president last year was at a big party for him and the two of them made jokes and horsed around, making no mention of the bodies floating in the water in New Orleans. No need to bring up that birthday. It was also John Locke's birthday (1632), but logic and the Enlightenment are so out of fashion these days no one said a thing.

The day was a parade of politicians in New Orleans - although on CNN's Situation Room Jack Cafferty took care of that. In one minute and forty-one seconds he mercilessly went through what happened one year ago - describing just what happened and what specifically didn't happen - and turned to the host, John King - Wolf Blitzer had the day off - and wrapped it up with this: "I find it absolutely amazing, John, that any politician who had anything to do with Katrina had nerve enough to walk into the city of New Orleans today." Watch the segment here (Windows Media) or here (QuickTime) and you'll get an idea of how angry he was. It seemed appropriate. The posturing was all a farce.

But these guys have little shame - just a need to stay in office. It was a sad day.

The actual news, not retrospective, was happening in Salt Lake City, that awful place with the giant sea of brown fetid water next to it. The mountains it the background are pretty, but the place smells. And Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld didn't help matters, giving a speech to the American Legion's national convention there that seemed to be the real kick-off of the campaign by those in power to remain in power. The midterm elections are coming in November and the polling shows the Republicans could easily lose control of the House, and really could lose control of the Senate too. Then all bets would be off - maybe impeachment is unlikely, but there will be investigations, and all the stalled reports on how we got to where we are will get un-stalled, quickly. This falls under the heading of potential "big trouble" - and that may be putting it mildly.

So Rumsfeld was on the attack. The transcript of the speech itself is here, the brief Associated Press summary here, and the more detailed Washington Post analysis here.

But to cut to the chase, this is what we can expect to hear said endlessly up until 7 November.

Critics of the administration's Iraq and counterterrorism policies simply lack the courage to fight terror. Think the war in Iraq was a bad idea, that maybe it may have had nothing do to with the real threat of al Qaeda, and it may be making things worse, as the majority now thinks? Then you're a coward. Think the president ought to do all he can to find out what the bad guys are up to, but he really should follow the law, and in the NSA business just get the damned warrants and nit endless claim the laws just don't apply to him? Then you're a coward.

The strategy of calling the majority of Americans cowards may, on the face of it, seem counterintuitive, but perhaps the idea is to shame everyone into changing their minds. Forget what you read in the news and see on television. And disregard logic. No one wants to be a coward. Do you want to be a coward?

And there's the secondary argument - the administration's critics as suffering from "moral and intellectual confusion" about what threatens this nation's security. If you think the whole policy in play now for years - change the world through invasion, regime change, and occupation - is making things worse not better, then you're just confused. It may be moral confusion - your values are crap - or it may be intellectual confusion - you cannot think straight - or it may be both. Either your values or your intellect are corrupted (or both) - so you're worthless and should shut up. On the lower levels - strategy and then tactics - the same obviously applies. You know nothing.

The effectiveness of direct insult may also seem counterintuitive, but then it matches how we conduct diplomacy around the world. You remember Rumsfeld saying that stuff about France and Germany way back when - they're "old Europe" and no one cares what they think. You remember Condoleezza Rice recently defending our position that we don't talk with bad governments, not just North Korea but in that case Iran and Syria. Why would we do that? As she said of Syria - there's no point in talking with them as "they know what they must do." These people believe in the effectiveness of insults.

Thirdly, Rumsfeld spoke of what he called the lessons of history. We haven't been good students. We didn't do our homework. There were those failed efforts to appease the Hitler regime back in the thirties - Neville Chamberlain and all that - "I recount this history because once again we face the same kind of challenges in efforts to confront the rising threat of a new type of fascism."

Yes, the parallels are shaky, but it's a good line. Fascism here is supposed to make people perk up and want to agree to any war - just as the word communism did in the fifties. So fascism is a key world for the next several months. You'll hear it a lot. It's a word everyone can "relate to" - and so powerful no one much will think about whether it fits the case now.

But Rumsfeld ticked off all the terrorist attacks - 9/11, Bali, London, Madrid - and said it should be "obvious to anyone" that terrorists must be confronted, not appeased. Then he went off on how stupid people are - "… it is apparent that many have still not learned history's lessons." Of course he said that part of the problem is that the American news media have tended to emphasize "the negative rather than the positive." It's the damned press. His example - more media attention was given to Abu Ghraib than to the fact that Sergeant First Class Paul Ray Smith received the Medal of Honor. What happened ay Abu Ghraib wasn't that important. (The rest of the world, and particularly the Arab world, might disagree, of course.)

So what are you going to do? The press reports the wrong things, the whole country is a bunch of cowards, their values are just wrong, they cannot think straight, and they slept through that high school history class.

So that's the argument - vote for our side as we're not cowards, we have real moral values, we think straight, and we passed that Modern European History course. In short, we're better than all of you on all four counts.

Is this approach a winner?

Matthew Yglesias puts it this way - "Accepting the Bush administration's view that the more dangerous the Bush administration makes the world the more we need to keep on keepin' on with the Bush approach is, as I said, absurd.

And as he said -
For his latest trick, in a speech to the American Legion, Don Rumsfeld gives the full wingnut monte. America faces an undifferentiated fascist menace. Bush's critics are appeasers who don't understand the lessons of history who blame America first and hate freedom. The media is treasonous and a free press is a luxury we can ill-afford in this time of crisis. Etc.

This, I think we can assume, is the fall campaign. The idea is to psyche the Democrats out. To make them think they can't win an argument about foreign policy. To make them act like they can't win an argument about foreign policy. And to thereby demonstrate to the American people that even the Democrats themselves lack confidence in their own ability to handle these issues.

It's essential that the debate be joined, and joined with confidence. Rumsfeld is a buffoon. A punchline. A well-known liar. He and his bosses - Bush and Cheney - are running around the country trying to cite the failures of their own policies as a reason to entrust them with additional authority in order to continue and intensify those same failings. We're witnessing the bitter, bitter fruits of the Iraq War. Other nations learned that they must seek nuclear weapons as soon as possible to safeguard themselves from a newly trigger-happy United States of America. Muslim opinion was sharply polarized against us. Iran and Syria were told that their cooperation against al-Qaeda was no longer needed because their governments would topple soon enough. A power vacuum was left on the streets of Baghdad that parties aligned with Iran have rushed to fill. The Arab-Israeli conflict was sidelined as something that would magically resolve itself once Saddam Hussein was out of the way. And America's allies were taught that our government was not to be relied upon - that we operated with bad intelligence and initiated wars of choice without any real plans or ideas about how to cope with the aftermath.

That's how we got here. By listening to Bush. By listening to Cheney. By listening to Rumsfeld. The idea that we should keep on listening to them is absurd.
But doesn't saying that make you a coward, and a moral reprobate, and a muddled thinker, and someone who forgot about Neville Chamberlain and his umbrella and so on?

Only if you buy into it, and don't just laugh out loud. It is a classic psych-out.

See this -
Never mind the fact that many critics of the administration do not oppose the goals of the administration, merely its methods for doing so. Rumsfeld's criticism, and frankly the view that I have seen repeatedly from the right and specifically the Neo-Cons is that there is One True Path to defeating terrorism and that you either support the President 100% or you must be supporting the terrorists. Which is patently absurd. This type of black and white view is so far detached from the very values they claim to be defending it's almost laughable. Almost, if it weren't so serious.

… Critics of Bush, including myself, do not have a problem with him because we believe that the goal of defeating terrorism is a bad one. No, on that we definitely and most certainly agree. Terrorism is a very real threat. What we DO have a problem with are the means that his administration has used in the past and are continuing to employ.

The best analogy I can think of is two doctors attempting to treat a sick patient. Bush and co. represent a doctor applying, let's say, 18th century medical techniques to the problem. Yes they want to cure the patient, and yes they may even believe that their methods are the best. Any maybe they are marginally effective. Or maybe they are making things worse. Dr. Bush not only refuses to try anything new, but he refuses to acknowledge seriously any setbacks his patient is having. If we were to follow Rumsfeld's line of logic anyone who called into question the good Doctors methods is someone who wants the patient to receive no treatment, that critics just want to sit back and see if the person heals themselves.

On the contrary, those who oppose Bush are saying that there are other, perhaps BETTER ways to treat the patient that should, at the very least be considered, especially since the patient is not showing the promised signs of recovery.
The writer must hate American and want the terrorists to win? Not exactly.

Over at Preemptive Karma ("Sacred cows slaughtered daily…"), "Becky" picks out her favorite parts of the speech, like how Rumsfeld really cannot sleep now, as some things just keep him awake -
"What bothers me the most is how clever the enemy is," he continued, launching an extensive broadside at Islamic extremist groups which he said are trying to undermine Western support for the war on terror.

"They are actively manipulating the media in this country" by, for example, falsely blaming U.S. troops for civilian deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan, he said.

"They can lie with impunity," he said, while U.S. troops are held to a high standard of conduct.
It's just not fair! She calls this sort of whining downright embarrassing -
"The enemy is so much better at communicating," he added. "I wish we were better at countering that because the constant drumbeat of things they say - all of which are not true - is harmful. It's cumulative. And it does weaken people's will and lessen their determination, and raise questions in their minds as to whether the cost is worth it," he said alluding to Americans and other Westerners.
Her comment -
You see, the biggest problem Rumsfeld and the rest of the Bush Administration are facing right now is that even though the media has been uncommonly good to them, the truth still seems to get out to the American people and we are increasingly angry at our leaders over what has gone on. Instead of changing course in service to this country's desires and interests, the Bush Administration has responded to criticism by engaging in a war on the media and doing everything possible to undermine people's faith in what they read about the war.

And there is just one reason for it: the media is the last hope for freedom in this country. If they do their job and keep the people informed, the people will respond appropriately and the government will be held accountable. That is an intolerable state of affairs for an authoritarian like Donald Rumsfeld.
So it would seem.

And at Martini Republic ("Lead, follow, or have a drink…") you can find this, a long and detailed review of what actually happened in Europe in the late thirties, ending with this -
If one is going to analogize Hitler to Saddam, Nazi Germany to Iraq, then the analogy is this: Desert Storm was as if France and England responded to Germany's occupation of the Rhineland by storming over the border, destroying half of Germany's army and all its air force, and re-imposed war reparations.

So where is the appeasement Rummy is talking about? Has he been sniffing glue? What the hell does he put in his hair?

The Right periodically trots out World War II as some sort of justification for Iraq, without any regard to the facts or logic which cut against this piss-poor analogy.

World War II started when Germany invaded a militarily inferior nation, justifying the invasion with the false pretext that Poland was an imminent threat to Germany's national existence.

Our involvement in World War II started after United States forces and territorial possessions were attacked by Japan, followed by Japan's formal declaration of war.

A state of war arose between the US and Germany after the latter issued a declaration of war, and commenced unrestricted submarine warfare against US vessels.

Just how was the situation which existed prior to March 2003, in which we enforced no-fly zones in the North and South of Iraq, launched airstrikes at will, and fostered the creation of an autonomous Kurdish region akin to the appeasement of Nazi Germany, which was swallowing adjacent nations?

And how does our preemptive attack against Iraq compare to our response to two declarations of war, and the initiation of attacks against us?
Ah, someone pays too much attention to details.

And people have noticed what came out of that think tank in the UK, Chatham House, reported first here on the 23rd - "… the foreign policy of the United States "has bolstered Iran's power and influence in the Middle East, especially over its neighbor and former enemy Iraq."

So any way you look at it - and particularly looking at the replacement of "Iran's dreaded enemy, Saddam Hussein, with loyal Shiite allies" - Iran is the winner here. That's what all our work has done.

Or as Glenn Greenwald puts it -
Iraq is a war that is saddled with more incoherent premises than can be counted. Yet the most baffling part of it has to be that the more we succeed in stabilizing the new government and empowering majority rule, the more we hand over to our arch Iranian enemy (the New Hitlers) control over large parts of that strategically vital country. Thus, the principal result in exchange for all the lives lost and hundreds of billions of dollars squandered is to ensure that Iraq will be ruled by those most opposed to US interests.
Nice job.

So, in the end, the day was the president in New Orleans and the secretary of defense in Salt Lake City, bragging that they've done things right, and done them well - so pay attention, and don't be stupid thinking something else. That'll be the next two months.

It could drive you to listing to old Michael Jackson albums.

Posted by Alan at 22:13 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Wednesday, 30 August 2006 07:00 PDT home

Monday, 28 August 2006
Katrina Day
Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist
Katrina Day
Monday, August 28, 2006 - it was Katrina Day -
President Bush saluted the resilience of Hurricane Katrina survivors here Monday and promised that their plight hadn't been forgotten a year after the storm cut a swath of death and destruction along the Mississippi and Louisiana coasts.

"Even though we've been through about one year together, one year doesn't mean that we'll forget," Bush told community leaders at a luncheon in Biloxi, Miss. "As a matter of fact, now is the time to renew our commitment to let people down here know that we will stay involved and help the people of Mississippi rebuild their lives."

Bush's stops in Mississippi and New Orleans were part of a two-day trip to mark the first anniversary of a hurricane that killed 1,695 people, displaced 770,000 others and caused at least $96 billion in damage when it hit land on Aug. 29, 2005.

Bush is using the anniversary to reassure gulf residents and Americans that his administration is on top of the recovery effort after doing an admittedly poor job in the initial days following the hurricane.
Well, there was a lot to do on that front, with Ernesto bearing down on his brother's Florida that day, and at the time working itself up to become some sort of hurricane, not just a "tropical storm." People needed to know the government, to which they had paid taxes for basic services, wasn't going to flake out on them again.

That called for PR - the White House had the week before put out a four-page document detailing what the administration has done for Gulf Coast residents in the past year, securing a hundred and ten billion in federal funds for recovery efforts, repairs to the damaged levee system and for removing many, many tons of post-storm debris from the gulf. But how hard was that? Like the congress, controlled by his own party, wasn't going to vote for the clean-up? No one had to twist any arms anywhere, heroically forcing the stingy bastards in congress to do the right thing. No one would, and no one did vote against helping here.

But then, only seventy-seven billion of the total funding has been released so far, and of that only forty-four billion spent, mostly going to big corporations in bed with the Republicans. There was the seventeen billion to rebuild over two hundred thousand homes, and after a full year that money is just starting to be released. Federal emergency officials, the DHS-FEMA crew, have said they're sure that the levees are ready for a major hurricane - the head of the Army Corps of Engineers, the guys who did the repairs, said it's not exactly clear whether the levees can withstand a big hurricane. Who are you going to believe?

The Knight-Ridder item linked her also quotes the president, kind of getting it - "I know there's some frustration. The checks have begun to roll. They're beginning to move."

After one full year, will "the check is in the mail" do here?

Maybe not. There's the latest Associated Press-Ipsos poll - all of thirty-one percent of Americans now approve of the way Bush handled the hurricane, down a full fifteen points from a year ago, and fifty-six percent of us don't believe that the country is ready for another disaster of any kind. The administration has a hill to climb here.

This is not helped by a number of Democrats planning a conference call for Tuesday morning, along with the Campaign for America's Future, to outline the federal government's "failures" and to charge that hurricane rescue and recovery was hurt by "the conservative ideology of disinvestment, cronyism and corruption." And Nancy Pelosi released a broadside ending with this -
Americans deserve more than no-bid contracts, bureaucratic inefficiencies and a too little, too late PR campaign. One year later, the Gulf Coast continues to need the financial, health care, education, housing and small business support that they deserve to turn devastated neighborhoods into thriving communities. And we still need an independent commission, modeled after the 9/11 Commission, to find out what exactly went wrong, why it went wrong, and how to fix it.

I can even give a hint about where the biggest problem is. Start at the top.

And then there were the pranksters.

CNN reports on them here, figuring out a little too late it was a hoax.

It was The Yes Men, the guys responsible for the Halliburton SurvivaBall (to protect managers against rapid climate change), and a hamburger made from human waste (to solve the global hunger crisis). They were the subject of the 2003 documentary The Yes Men - "A comedic documentary which follows The Yes Men, a small group of prankster activists, as they gain world-wide notoriety for impersonating the World Trade Organization on television and at business conferences around the world." (They fess up here.)

People are always too late to get it - they're not who they say they are. The trick is to start off sounding quite reasonable (and dress right). Then you get people to nod yes to all sorts of foolishness. And they fooled New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco, and a full thousand construction-industry members at a privately-organized conference in Kenner, Louisiana.

It seems Andy Bichlbaum posed as a Housing and Urban Development (HUD) official, a Rene Oswin, and pulled it off. He said the government was really going to help, and so was private industry.

Exxon and Shell would spend $8.6 billion "to finance wetlands rebuilding from $60 billion in profits this year." Wal-Mart would withdraw its stores from poor neighborhoods and "help nurture local businesses to replace them." The federal government would spend $180 million to fund "at least one well-equipped public health clinic for every housing development." And the kicker - the federal government would reverse plans to replace public schools with private and charter schools, and instead create a national tax base to supplement local taxes.

HUD hurriedly confirmed Oswin wasn't part of their agency. Their spokeswoman Donna White - "This announcement is totally false; it's totally bogus. I'm like, who the heck is that?"

And she added - "It's really a sick, twisted - I don't even want to refer to it as a joke. At this point, it's not funny."

No, it isn't. The people and organizations that have the power to do good, and the government, which has the mandate to do good, don't do that sort of thing. It's not funny at all.

As for the president's problem, other than that nasty Yes Men hoax, Sheryl Gay Stolberg in the New York Times puts it nicely here -

When Americans record the legacy of George W. Bush, 43rd president and self-described compassionate conservative, two competing images will help tell the tale.

The first is of Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, bullhorn in hand, feet planted firmly in the rubble of New York's twin towers. The second is of him aboard Air Force One, on his way to Washington from Crawford, Texas, peering out the window at the wreckage of Hurricane Katrina below.

If the bungled federal response to Hurricane Katrina called into question the president's competence, that Air Force One snapshot, coupled with wrenching scenes on the ground of victims who were largely poor and black, called into question something equally important to Bush: his compassion.

A year later, he has yet to recover on either front.
Perhaps that's because the compassion is "self-described." There's not a whole lot empirical evidence for much compassion. But then, this administration is not big on empirical evidence.

And the Times item quotes James Thurber - not, not that one - the director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University in Washington - "This is a real black mark on his administration, and it's going to stay with him for a long time. It will be in every textbook."

And then there's Senator Charles Schumer, the New York Democrat - "I might argue that this was the worst thing that's happened to George Bush in the whole six years of his presidency. It was a perception-altering event. People had questioned his ideology. People had even questioned his intelligence. But before this, average people rarely questioned his competence or his caring."

That's followed by an array of "man in the street" quotes from Republicans who are fed up, followed by quotes from politicians on both sides who say he really does care - but that's just filler.

Better is this analysis from Matthew Yglesias, saying the president's political persona (whatever that might be) has been under-analyzed -
It's a strange thing primarily because Bush didn't really do anything on 9/11 or its immediate aftermath. Terrorists hijacked four planes and sought to crash them into buildings. They succeeded in doing so with three of the planes. Thousands died. The physical destruction was enormous. It was terrible. But it wasn't quite as bad as it could have been. The passengers on one plane downed it before it could reach its target. Many people were evacuated from the World Trade Center and their lives were saved. But none of the good work that was done on that day - and there was some good, heroic work done - was done by the president or had anything in particular to do with him.

Rather, the good vibes about 9/11 Bush all, in essence, relate to a series of speeches he gave in the days following the event (his immediate evening-of speech was poorly received). And I think they were good speeches. The rubble/bullhorn event was a good event. The address to a joint session of congress was great, too. But what does that all really amount to?

Not nothing. Providing inspirational rhetorical leadership in a time of panic is legitimately part of the president's job. But it still doesn't add up to very much. A speech is just a speech. It's not, moreover, like this was a DeGaulle or Churchill type situation where the disaster struck and then a new leader stepped forward to take the reigns of authority from those who had failed and gave a speech to mark a new beginning. His popularity skyrocketed because, having failed to foil a serious terrorist plot, he made a series of pleasing remarks about the plot. And ever since that day, I think this dynamic has been infecting our national strategy. The main goal, in essence, is to do things that signify the adoption of an appropriate attitude toward hostile elements in the world rather than to evaluate possible courses of action in terms of their effects.

The debate on Iraq is just awash in this. The war gets discussed as if it's a metaphor of some kind. A good opportunity to demonstrate resolve or commitment, or else the lack thereof. A place where our stick-to-it-tiveness will show how strongly we feel that democracy is good. A shadow theater wherein we send messages to al-Qaeda or Iran or what have you. But, of course, Iraq is a real place. The soldiers and civilians in that country are real people. They shoot real bullets and detonate real explosives. And so the question has to be, what, actually, is being achieved? What more might realistically be achieved? What are the consequences - not intentions, not desires, not hopes, but consequences - of our policies?
That's about right. The intentions and right attitude aren't much good for the people of New Orleans, or for the peoples of the Middle East. It's as if the quite predictable consequences of any policy don't matter - showing resolve does. And it's not helping.

Or maybe these guys just have a screw loose, as Kurt Vonnegut suggests in his latest book, the collection of essays, A Man Without a Country -
… I myself feel that our country, for whose Constitution I fought in a just war, might as well have been invaded by Martians and body snatchers. Sometimes I wish it had been. What has happened instead is that it was taken over by means of the sleaziest, low-comedy, Keystone Cops-style coup d'etat imaginable.

I was once asked if I had any ideas for a really scary reality TV show. I have one reality show that would really make your hair stand on end: "C- Students from Yale."

George W. Bush has gathered around him upper-crust C- students who know no history or geography, plus not-so-closeted white supremacists, aka Christians, and plus, most frighteningly, psychopathic personalities, or PPs, the medical term for smart, personable people who have no consciences.

To say somebody is a PP is to make perfectly respectable diagnosis, like saying he or she has appendicitis or athlete's foot. The classic medical text on PPs is The Mask of Sanity by Dr. Hervey Cleckley, a clinical professor of psychiatry at the Medical College of Georgia, published in 1941. Read it! [Out of print, but used copied of the 1988 edition available here, starting at only $109.83! - AMP]

Some people are born deaf, some are born blind or whatever, and this book is about congenitally defective human beings of a sort that is making this whole country and many other parts of the planet go completely haywire nowadays. These were people born without consciences, and suddenly they are taking charge of everything.

PPs are presentable, they know full well the suffering their actions may cause others, but they do not care. They cannot care because they are nuts. They have a screw loose!

And what syndrome better describes so many executives at Enron and WorldCom and on and on, who have enriched themselves while ruining their employees and investors and country and who still feel as pure as the driven snow, no matter what anybody may say to or about them? And they are waging a war that is making billionaires out of millionaires, and trillionaires out of billionaires, and they own television, and they bankroll George Bush, and not because he's against gay marriage.

So many of these heartless PPs now hold big jobs in our federal government, as though they were leaders instead of sick. They have taken charge. They have taken charge of communications and the schools, so we might as well be Poland under occupation.

They might have felt that taking our country into an endless war was simply something decisive to do. What has allowed so many PPs to rise so high in corporations, and now in government, is they are so decisive. They are going to do something every fuckin' day and they are not afraid. Unlike normal people, they are never filled with any doubts, for the simple reason that they don't give a fuck what happens next. Simply can't. Do this! Do that! Mobilize the reserves! Privatize the public schools! Attack Iraq! Cut health care! Tap everybody's telephone! Cut taxes on the rich! Build a trillion-dollar missile shield! Fuck habeas corpus and the Sierra Club and In these Times, and kiss my ass!
Well, Vonnegut is a bitter old man now. But old men know things.

And if the third of the country that still supports the president reads Vonnegut, this might happen -
By now the brain circuits of the authoritarians and their followers are breaking down. Ken Lay's did, and he killed himself. Rush Phlegmball's did, so he turned to painkillers. George Bush never had any circuits. The man used to blow up frogs with firecrackers. Now he blows up children with bombs. He can't feel a thing. Who will do the post-mortem on the brains of these psychopaths? Whoever it is, surely they will find broken circuits.
Maybe so, but the "C- Students from Yale" are in charge. And they have no doubts. That seems to impress people no end. They're deadly serious, and they tell you so. And they're the only serious ones - everyone else is frivolous and wrong. They're changing the world. You cannot laugh at them.

One thinks of what Carl Sagan once said - "They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown."

There was a lot of bitter laughter on Katrina Day.


It should be noted that the one year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina got short shrift in the media, as did the wars, and Iran's ambitions, and the economy (new data - ninety percent of all workers are worse off than at any time since 1947), because the same day brought America this - "Schoolteacher John Mark Karr will not be charged with the murder of 6-year-old beauty pageant competitor JonBenet Ramsey, Karr's attorney said Monday."

The guy was a creep, or is a creep, but the crime scene evidence was clear - the DNA wasn't his, and there were no prints or anything else of his anywhere. He says he killed the kid, and they've dropped all charges. They canceled the arraignment hearing. He just wanted to be the murderer. He's one sick puppy.

America is amazed, and confused, and wonders who done it, so to speak. That sucked up all the airtime, and the column inches in the press. Katrina and the wars got pushed into the background. Damn, the OJ thing was more fun - we got a cool trial. Now we get nothing.

The whole thing left the Colorado governor, Bill Owens, saying things like this -
Unfortunately, the hysterics surrounding John Mark Karr served only to distract Boulder officials from doing their job, which should be solving the murder of JonBenet Ramsey. I find it incredible that Boulder authorities wasted thousands of taxpayer dollars to bring Karr to Colorado given such a lack of evidence. (District Attorney) Mary Lacy should be held accountable for the most extravagant and expensive DNA test in Colorado history.
Yeah, well, whatever. The case is ten years old and nobody's business, outside the family involved and their friends. Yes, murderers should be caught and convicted and all. But this one ten-year-old case capturing the imagination of the nation? Ah, it's a compelling diversion from the far too real stuff, the stuff you actually don't want to matter - and it's full of safe vicarious thrills. It'll do. The other stuff is too depressing, and dangerous.

And out here in Los Angeles, the Sunday paper brought a four page promo for a movie about an unsolved Los Angeles murder from that same year, 1947 - Brian De Palma's The Black Dahlia, based on the James Ellroy novel. It opens September 15, but the promo was four pages of precise reproductions of every article on the case the Los Angeles Times printed in January 1947 - so it looked just like a regular news section.  It seems no case is too cold for the American public. We do need other scary things to think about. The otherness is important, and it's Universal Studios to the rescue.

It may be a good idea to check the trade papers and walk up to the premier at the Chinese Theater on Hollywood Boulevard, whenever it is, and take some pictures for Just Above Sunset - maybe, now that he's free, John Mark Karr will jump out from the crowd and say he did it. You never know.

Some of us, of course, like plain old diverting news stories like this -
A woman in Hohhot, the capital of north China's Inner Mongolia region, crashed her car while giving her dog a driving lesson, the official Xinhua News Agency said Monday.

No injuries were reported although both vehicles were slightly damaged, it said.

The woman, identified only be her surname, Li, said her dog "was fond of crouching on the steering wheel and often watched her drive," according to Xinhua.

"She thought she would let the dog 'have a try' while she operated the accelerator and brake," the report said. "They did not make it far before crashing into an oncoming car."

Xinhua did not say what kind of dog or vehicles were involved but Li paid for repairs.
That's amusing, and reminds us we've let the dog drive for six years.

Posted by Alan at 21:53 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Tuesday, 29 August 2006 06:28 PDT home

Sunday, 27 August 2006
That's Rich - Bush as Tom Cruise, or Hamlet
Topic: Perspective
That's Rich - Bush as Tom Cruise, or Hamlet
For the next week or two posting may be light on these two web logs. The weekly magazine-format parent site to these web logs, Just Above Sunset, hit the wall - the online software used since May 2003 to build each issue, and manage the archives, stalled. It can handle no more photos or complex pages with all sorts of complex cross-referencing. It was never intended for use as a tool to build a photo-rich online magazine with fours years of archives.

So the coming weeks will be devoted to redesigning the parent site, using a more professional software tool, one that has no 'ceiling' and will give the site a much more professional look. But there's a lot of work to do - this is a one man operation - so entries here may be spotty.
Frank Rich, the columnist for the New York Times, is one of us. He's a Gemini - born June 2, 1949. That means, in the terms Isaiah Berlin once used, he's no hedgehog - he's more of a fox, jumping from idea to idea, flexible and mercurial (Mercury is the Gemini planet, after all). No one big "fixed idea" for this guy, or for any Gemini.

His beat now is American politics and popular culture - his column used to run on the front page of the Sunday "Arts and Leisure" section. It did from 2003 to 2005. Now it now appears in the expanded Sunday op-ed section. He's pretty much moved to politics. And it's been a long strange road - he graduated from Harvard in 1971 with a degree in American History and Literature (and he was editorial chairman of The Harvard Crimson), and before he joined the Times he was a film critic for Time Magazine. At the New York Times he was their chief theater critic - "the Butcher of Broadway." He wasn't very nice at all - his review of Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Starlight Express" said it was the perfect show "for the kid with everything except parents." Huh? But he liked Stephen Sondheim, and said nice things "Miss Saigon" and the musical version of "Les Misérables" when no one else would. His reviews are collected in Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998), and there's his memoir Ghost Light (2000). The first tries to prove he wasn't that mean - or that what he said really had to be said - and the second explains he was really the unhappy kid of divorced parents so you should cut him some slack.

But he still is mean. Only now he's not mocking pretentious, multi-million-dollar, fourth-rate Broadway musicals. Who really cares about such things? Yeah, they are a unique aspect of American culture - there's nothing like them anywhere on earth - but it's all pretty much silliness. Rich has moved on. Perhaps he came to wonder why he cared about the frivolous at all. Now he's after the administration.

This is a world where the drama actually matters. The words and action lead to war and such, and the denouement involves real dead people, in the sand of Iraq or Afghanistan, or in the case of New Orleans, bloated bodies floating face down in the toxic water. So it's "give my regards to Broadway and remember me to Harold Square," but like, who cares? Real life matters a bit more.

So Rich has become a "must read" for political junkies and those who wonder just what's going in this country.

But then, unless you buy a physical copy of the newspaper, or pay big bucks for access to "Times Select" on the web, you cannot read what he writes. The policy of the Times is that no one reads the good stuff unless they pay. The idea seems to be to restrict readership as far as you can, to pay the bills for running a first-rate newspaper. Think "elite exclusivity" - and it works for Tiffany and Ferrari, so why not? And reporters and foreign bureaus cost money, so they need there bucks, particularly for their new eight hundred eighty million dollar new headquarters going up in midtown Manhattan.

Of course the web is a tricky place, and Rich's Sunday August 27th column, "Return to the Scene of the Crime," is here, screwing up everything for the Times and violating all sorts of copyright law. Of course, the folks at the site, Welcome to Pottersville, could claim fair use, but they don't really comment on the item - they just present it in full. They're in trouble, but they probably know that and don't care much.

But the column is good, and you might read it, if you don't mind abetting a crime. It's his column on the first anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, commenting on the president's upcoming trip to the Gulf Coast, where he senses the real mission is "to try to make us forget the first anniversary of the downfall of his presidency."

That's the old Butcher of Broadway warming up -
The ineptitude bared by the storm - no planning for a widely predicted catastrophe, no attempt to secure a city besieged by looting, no strategy for anything except spin - is indelible. New Orleans was Iraq redux with an all-American cast. The discrepancy between Mr. Bush's "heckuva job" shtick and the reality on the ground induced a Cronkite-in-Vietnam epiphany for news anchors. At long last they and the country demanded answers to the questions about the administration's competence that had been soft-pedaled two years earlier when the war first went south.
So if you think about, this drama had a turning point - that one moment in the action where everything changes, and the terms all shift. In Hamlet it's when he stabs Polonius in his mother's room - the wimp who just cannot act on anything does something impulsive and it changes him, he's wimp no more and becomes a clever avenging plotter. Here is kind of the reverse. Our hero doesn't act, for whatever reason, until it's far too late, and the audience realizes he's somewhat a passive and dangerous fool. It's the reverse of the Shakespeare play, of course.

The problem is our hero doesn't see any of this. Think dramatic irony - where the audience realizes what the character cannot or will not realize.

Rich puts it this way -
What's amazing on Katrina's first anniversary is how little Mr. Bush seems aware of this change in the political weather. He's still in a bubble. At last week's White House press conference, he sounded as petulant as Tom Cruise on the "Today" show when Matt Lauer challenged him about his boorish criticism of Brooke Shields. Asked what Iraq had to do with the attack on the World Trade Center, Mr. Bush testily responded, "Nothing," adding that "nobody has ever suggested in this administration that Saddam Hussein ordered the attacks." Like the emasculated movie star, the president is still so infatuated with his own myth that he believes the public will buy such nonsense.
Yep, that's high drama - the irony is clear. Rich didn't think he was writing a drama review, but he was.

And as for the Hollywood comparison, Digby over a Hullabaloo writes this -
I hadn't thought about the similarities between Bush's plight and that of Tom Cruise before and I should have. After all, Bush consciously adopted the Cruise Top Gun persona for the most audaciously over-the-top performance of his presidency. And here they both are today: absurd, clownish versions of their former selves, rejected by the masses who once worshipped them. The only difference is that Cruise was massively successful at everything he did until he fired his amazing publicist Pat Kingsley and turned into a freak a couple of years ago. Bush's Pat Kingsley, Karl Rove, hasn't been nearly as successful over the long haul.
No, no - be that as it may, this is not Top Gun, is the reverse Hamlet thing.

And the Polonius here, the avuncular advisor to the King, is the reverse of the one in Shakespeare, not bumbling at all, but just nasty. Rich explains what he was up to, selling the war that the president now says had nothing to do with 9/11 -
To achieve this feat, Dick Cheney spent two years publicly hyping a "pretty well confirmed" (translation: unconfirmed) pre-9/11 meeting in Prague between Mohamed Atta and a Saddam intelligence officer, continuing to do so long after this specious theory had been discredited. Mr. Bush's strategy was to histrionically stir 9/11 and Iraq into the same sentence whenever possible, before the invasion and after. Typical was his May 1, 2003, oration declaring the end of "major combat operations." After noting that "the battle of Iraq is one victory in a war on terror that began on September 11th, 2001," he added: "With those attacks, the terrorists and their supporters declared war on the United States. And war is what they got." To paraphrase the former counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke, this was tantamount to saying that the Japanese attacked us on Dec. 7, 1941, and war with Mexico is what they got.
Indeed that is "as ludicrous as Bill Clinton's doomed effort to draw a distinction between sex and oral sex." Except this time people died.

And Rich predicts the president will forget what he said -
Mr. Bush's press-conference disavowal of his habitual efforts to connect 9/11 to Saddam will be rolled back by the White House soon enough. When the fifth anniversary of 9/11 arrives in two weeks, you can bet that the president will once again invoke the Qaeda attacks to justify the Iraq war, especially now that we are adding troops (through the involuntary call-up of reservists) rather than subtracting any. The new propaganda strategy will be right out of Lewis Carroll: If we leave the country that had nothing to do with 9/11, then 9/11 will happen again.
Okay - Through the Looking Glass, Top Gun and Hamlet. This is getting confusing.

But the topic here actually is what Rich calls "next's week's Katrina Show." And the obvious question is clear - "How do you pretty up this picture?"

There's theatrics, or really, political theater in defined acts -
As an opening act, Mr. Bush met on Wednesday with Rockey Vaccarella, a Katrina survivor who with much publicity drove a "replica" of a FEMA trailer from New Orleans to Washington to seek an audience with the president. No Cindy Sheehan bum's rush for him. Mr. Bush granted his wish and paraded him before the press. That was enough to distract the visitor from his professed message to dramatize the unfinished job on the Gulf. Instead Mr. Vaccarella effusively thanked the president for "the millions of FEMA trailers" complete with air-conditioning and TV. "You know, I wish you had another four years, man," he said. "If we had this president for another four years, I think we'd be great."

The CNN White House correspondent, Ed Henry, loved it. "Hollywood couldn't have scripted this any better, a gritty guy named Rockey slugging it out, trying to realize his dream and getting that dream realized against all odds," he said. He didn't ask how this particular Rockey, a fast-food manager who lost everything a year ago, financed this mission or so effortlessly pulled it off. It was up to bloggers and Democrats to report shortly thereafter that Mr. Vaccarella had run as a Republican candidate for the St. Bernard Parish commission in 1999. It was up to Iris Hageney of Gretna, La., to complain on the Times-Picayune Web site that the episode was "a huge embarrassment" that would encourage Americans to "forget the numerous people who still don't have trailers or at least one with electricity or water."
But it was great theater, and show the Times did the logical thing in letting their star, acerbic theater critic cover the big drama of our times.

But back to the Hamlet thing, or the anti-Hamlet - not the one that is transformed from someone who cannot act into a clever follow who gets things done, but the guy here who everyone thinks just does things and doesn't agonized at length over what could happen and what it all means but turns out to be passive and rather useless.

Rich offers this -
Douglas Brinkley, the Tulane University historian who wrote the best-selling account of Katrina, "The Great Deluge," is worried that even now the White House is escaping questioning about what it is up to (and not) in the Gulf. "I don't think anybody's getting the Bush strategy," he said when we talked last week. "The crucial point is that the inaction is deliberate - the inaction is the action." As he sees it, the administration, tacitly abetted by New Orleans's opportunistic mayor, Ray Nagin, is encouraging selective inertia, whether in the rebuilding of the levees ("Only Band-Aids have been put on them"), the rebuilding of the Lower Ninth Ward or the restoration of the wetlands. The destination: a smaller city, with a large portion of its former black population permanently dispersed. "Out of the Katrina debacle, Bush is making political gains," Mr. Brinkley says incredulously. "The last blue state in the Old South is turning into a red state."
It's all in the "not doing." This drama moves from action to passivity as a way to get what you want in the world.

"If it be now, 'tis not to come; if it be not to come, it will be now; if it be not now, yet it will come: the readiness is all." Not exactly. That's not how this guy operates.

Okay - Through the Looking Glass, Top Gun and Hamlet. Just for giggles Rich throws in another movie -
… with no plan for salvaging either of the catastrophes on his watch, this president can no sooner recover his credibility by putting on an elaborate show of sermonizing and spin this week than Mr. Cruise could levitate his image by jumping up and down on Oprah's couch. While the White House's latest screenplay may have been conceived as "Mission Accomplished II," what we're likely to see play out in New Orleans won't even be a patch on "Mission: Impossible III."
Well, far more people are familiar with Tom Cruise than with Hamlet, and that's a snazzy ending, for the masses. Fine. Some of us Gemini's just see the angry, moping and petulant Hamlet of the first two and a half acts, saying he'll do all sorts of things and doing jack shit. It doesn't matter.

But more drama critics should cover national politics. It's a natural fit.

Posted by Alan at 20:34 PDT | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Sunday, 27 August 2006 21:22 PDT home

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