31 May 2008


The Democratic National Committee had a showdown today over the seating of the dubious delegations from Michigan and Florida at the upcoming Denver convention. In both cases, they voted to seat the full delegations, but at half their voting strength, and with certain percentages allocated to Senator Obama. The Clintonites found themselves in a minority. They fumed and heckled and vowed to renew the fight on the convention floor.

I didn't watch much of the spectacle, but I did see one Clintonite committeeman complain that the compromise proposal that prevailed would violate the small-d democratic principle of "fair reflection." He argued that to give Obama a larger share of delegates than he had earned in a primary for which he did not campaign, after a vote from which many Democrats must have stayed away on the understanding that it wouldn't count, violates the democratic will of those Democrats who did vote. As you see, that depends on whether you accept the two primaries as truly representative expressions of the Democratic rank and file in each state. There are plenty of reasons not to do so. In effect, the Clintonites were asking to be rewarded for cheating on the understanding that they knew in advance that the rules would probably be changed, and that Obamites must be punished for adhering to the rules as they understood them at the time and thus silencing themselves. Does that sound like democracy to you? But whatever you think, the Clintonites still call themselves Democrats, and so can anyone else in the American Bipolarchy that gets power within that particular organization. No wonder the word has sort of lost its meaning here.

Mr. Right makes a stand

We were all called to a meeting in the main newsroom yesterday afternoon to hear the publisher announce that our paper had entered into an agreement with a larger rival in which the rival would take responsibility for home distribution of our paper. It was explained that rival papers in other cities, notably Pittsburgh, had entered into similar arrangements, and I was already aware that papers elsewhere had undertaken joint operating agreements which made weaker papers perhaps even more dependent on stronger rivals than we might become.

When the publisher asked if anyone had questions, the harshest response came from the sports department, and particularly from Mr. Right. They had reason to distrust the rival paper. When an independent weekly named ours the area's best sports section, the rival did a talent raid on us. The sportswriters argue that the rival paper does everything possible to undercut them, and they see no reason why the paper wouldn't do everything in its power to ruin our circulation more completely than we've managed ourselves.

These are not unreasonable concerns, but for some reason it surprised me to hear them coming from Mr. Right. As a conservative, shouldn't he trust business people to deal with one another fairly? Shouldn't he find it somewhat socialistic, or downright un-American not to trust corporations and capitalists to do the right thing by everybody? But I remembered that just about no one in the office is as often and as vocally critical of the corporation that owns our paper than Mr. Right. You'd suppose that, with this particular company as your best evidence of corporate practices, and with his cutthroat perceptions of our rival corporation, you might take a less rosy view of corporate America than Mr. Right does generally. Yet, if anything, he goes out of his way to be a die-hard defender of the oil companies, and to curse politicians who dare accuse those worthies of price gouging or outright greed. Maybe he'd say that there are good and bad corporations, and that no one should judge capitalism in general by one awful employer or one ruthless competitor. But as far as the oil companies are concerned it strikes me that he's striking a pose of moral superiority, proud of his refusal to indulge in the rabble's "envy" of the rich. Perhaps he can judge his immediate situation more clearly because he thinks that no one could envy our corporate overlords and the shambles they've made of our business. To be honest, his attitude is unfathomable to me. I don't think it's as simple as how stupid he might be, as some might suspect. I think that there are psychological factors at work as well, and that Mr. Right's style of conservatism is almost pathological in some ways, but I'm not really qualified to develop that idea any further. Those of you who know conservatives must feel the same way sometimes, especially if you see them behave "out of character" as he seemed to.

29 May 2008

Meet Rev. Pfleger

Believe it or not, this is the latest scandal that Fox News wants to create for Senator Obama. The man you're about to see belonged to a Catholics for Obama group, and is shown here preaching at good old Trinity United. Apparently we're supposed to believe that Rev. Pfleger's remarks are awful and embarrassing for Obama. As far as they touch on race, his comments are pretty predictable and easily ignored. As far as they touch on Senator Clinton, they're actually pretty funny. I present the video from YouTube, not to spread any scandal, but to give everyone something to laugh at -- or laugh with.

The Soros-McClellan Conspiracy?

Mr. Peepers was eager to tell me that he had been taunting Mr. Right about Scott McClellan's book for the past two days. Predictably enough, Mr. Right was displeased, just as, predictably enough, Mr. Peepers was gloating. I got a taste of it in the evening, when Mr. Right returned to the office and Mr. Peepers started on the subject again. Mr. Right rehearsed most of the criticisms I've already heard, then offered one I hadn't. His "sources" had informed him that the mastermind behind the publication of the damning memoir was none other than George Soros -- a name Mr. Right uttered as if that closed all argument on the subject.

Mr. Right's sources can be found in the Bushite blogosphere, where Soros is a bogeyman in the mirror image of Richard Mellon Scaife, the reputed mastermind of the "vast right-wing conspiracy" against Bill Clinton. It's probably natural, maybe even healthy for people to feel suspicious about rich and powerful publishers. They seem like the sort of people to perpetrate one-man conspiracies and bend governments to their will. But there's no reason why the McClellan memoir should be disqualified by association with Soros, should the link be real.

For that matter, I don't doubt that McClellan is a "disgruntled" ex-employee, as the remaining Bushies claim, or that he wrote the book for the money, as any cynic would suggest. But it follows from none of these observations that the book is just a big lie, no more than if it can be proven that Soros paid McClellan from his own deep pocket. Mixed motives are a fact of life. No one is pure. Disinterested benevolence is an ideal few can attain and very few aspire to. That's why logicians consider the ad hominem argument a fallacy, and that's why you can ignore all the right-wing whining about McClellan's betrayal. Like any book, his must be judged on its merits. The fact that he denounces Bush doesn't make him right; I'll have to read the book to decide that. But to the extent that sputtering reactionary rage is entertaining, we owe Scott McClellan a debt of gratitude.

Nepal: The March of Democracy?

Here was the sort of event that Americans might be expected to celebrate. The nation of Nepal had abolished its monarchy and declared itself a republic. That sounds like exactly the sort of progress that the Bush administration in particular, claims to encourage. Why, then, has this milestone received so little attention in the United States, and no more comment from the government than the bland, noncommittal remarks of a State Department nobody recorded here? Could it be because one of the driving forces behind the democratization of Nepal is a Maoist movement? Could it be because the change doesn't give the U.S. any special advantage in Nepal's part of the world, and thus doesn't seem like a triumph of democracy to us? Or doesn't democracy matter unless it benefits Americans in a material way not immediately apparent in Nepal?

It might have been different once, since this seems like the sort of news that the Founders would have celebrated with no hint of ambivalence. But monarchy doesn't seem to bother Americans as much as it used to, unless the monarch lacks legitimate family ties, dispenses with the sacraments of coronation, and can be called a "dictator" instead.

You might argue that Americans don't feel threatened by the idea of monarchy simply because so many monarchs are constitutionally constrained these days, and most are little more than media celebrities. Kings and queens, princes and princesses are mostly harmless members of the global freakocracy that holds so many everywhere in thrall. But had someone suggested that future to the Founders, it would probably have given them reason to call more loudly for getting rid of every crowned head. The fact that no one seems to care today suggests that decadence is setting in.

"I'm For Real!"

Halfway up my home block on the way to work this morning I started hearing something disturbing behind me. It sounded like someone rapping with no music or beat. In other words, it sounded like a paranoid schizophrenic person was following me up the block and around the corner onto Lark Street. I wasn't worried at all, because I didn't think someone barking that loudly was going to creep up and mug me, and in any event I've always found my neighborhood safer than its reputation might suggest. Nevertheless, there was that uneasiness you're likely to feel if there's only you and a lunatic in the immediate vicinity. I found myself wondering whether he was rapping along to something on a headphone, reciting something he'd memorized, or improvising on the spot.

At the corner of Lark and Madison he stopped alongside me as we waited for the light. He had headphones on, so there was probably nothing original to his spiel. Someone reading this might even be able to name that tune from the few lines I remember. It sounded like the usual rodomontade of boasts and threats, always returning to the chorus: "Listen motherf***er I'm for real/You n***** aint real/You n***** better chill/Or I'll have to draw my steel ..."

Now the interesting thing about the man was the fact that he was chaperoning a little girl on a bike with training wheels, his daughter probably, all the while unselfconsciously parroting the "mature" lyrics playing in his head, but occasionally pausing calmly to warn the girl if she rode too far ahead of him.Through it all he probably didn't think twice about the language he used around the girl. If you asked about it, and if he deigned to answer, he'd probably tell you his words, too, were "for real." It's a stock phrase employed for emphasis, often abbreviated to f'real, that also seems to indicate that the speaker isn't kidding, bluffing, euphemizing, shamming, spinning or hiding the facts. But what does it mean when a rapper declares himself "for real" in a way others allegedly aren't? I can't claim to know, but I suspect that it isn't any credit to reality, and I worry that it molds reality about him in the form of the girl on the bike. There are people at the other end of the social and cultural spectrum who also believe, in their way, in "keeping it real," but wherever you find it, the attitude is reactionary. It reflects a reluctance to change when civilization demands that we all change.

28 May 2008

Idiot of the Week: Nominees

At first I thought I would use this heading to join everyone in knocking Sharon Stone for her asinine comments on the Chinese earthquake. Now comes a strong challenge from Michelle Malkin, the Islamophobic historian and commentator best known for defending the U.S. policy of interning Japanese-Americans during World War II (not that Malkin being of Philippine descent and thus having a beef with Japan would have anything to do with her views, would it?) Malkin's latest exploit is to provoke a new fit of Islamophobia aimed at Rachel Ray, the TV chef and talk show host. Malkin was alarmed when she saw Ray wearing what she took to be an Islamic and hence terroristic scarf in an online Dunkin Donuts ad. Because the checkered garment resembles something Yasir Arafat used to wear, Malkin concludes that Ray is indulging in radical chic, not to mention "hate couture." She started a ball rolling that led to the donut chain withdrawing the advertisement. In short: Malkin and her fans were alarmed and angered because of something a TV personality was wearing, that had no intellectual content and no symbolism except in Malkin's bigoted imagination, that Rachel Ray didn't even choose for herself. So why exactly didn't the folks at Dunkin Donuts tells Ms. Malkin and her agitated acolytes to drop dead? I'll do it for them: Michelle Malkin, drop dead!

On the other hand, the flavor of the day should not lead us to neglect Ms. Stone. For those who came in late, she opined that the earthquake and the deaths of 50,000 people in China might have been a form of karmic retribution for the Chinese government's oppression of Tibet. This is just as repulsive a thought as the late Rev. Falwell's famous opinion that God had permitted the 11 Sept. 2001 attacks to punish America for its sins, or the lately famous Pastor Hagee's analysis of God's intention for Hurricane Katrina to prevent a gay pride parade in New Orleans. Karma is just as bad as the wrath of God as an attempt to blame humans for natural disasters, or innocents for others' crimes. It seems that you don't need to believe in such an obnoxious entity as Jehovah to articulate your personal opinion that masses of people deserve to die for something that offends you. It may be a universal commonplace to think that when something bad happens to someone, it must be deserved in some way. On such occasions I appeal to the wisdom of William Munny, because the truth probably falls somewhere between his two great utterances in Unforgiven: "Deserve's got nothing to do with it" and "We've all got it coming, kid."

Iraq: What Has Bush Learned?

The President gave a speech in Colorado Springs today urging Americans to emulate the sacrifices of the World War II generation in pursuing victory in the War on Terror. In his talk he admitted that occupying Iraq has been a learning experience for him. It seems to have dawned on him finally that the country can't be equated with Germany and Japan at the end of the earlier war. He notes that reconstruction efforts in those countries went on in relative quiet, though it's still not clear how he accounts for the difference. At least he and his people aren't claiming anymore that Americans had to fend off violent resistance from die-hard Nazis or Japanese militants.But what made Iraq different? Bush reflexively points to the existence of a terrorist ideology in Iraq, but does he really think that the several Iraqi factions were more fanatical, more violent, more extremist than the Nazis or the militarist clique in Japan? Is the difference due to the nature of the occupied people, the nature of the occupiers, or the circumstances of the occupation?

I've argued before for the last option. The end of World War II left the Germans and Japanese people as a whole feeling thoroughly and rightly defeated. Their governments had surrendered unconditionally. Their countries had been destroyed and the consensus in both countries was that they had brought it upon themselves. The people in general were more implicated in a "total war" than the Iraqis ever were, and seem to have accepted occupation as their just punishment, however they felt about the occupiers. In Iraq, no matter how high you estimate civilian casualties, "Shock & Awe" didn't approach the devastation of 1940s style total war. In Iraq, there was no actual surrender ceremony; Saddam's government simply vanished. In Iraq, the people don't appear to have accepted responsibility for Saddam's crimes. To the contrary: ever since the Gulf War they've seen themselves as undeserving victims of punitive policies, from the 1990s sanctions to the present occupation. The real difference may not be whether or not the Iraqis appreciated their "liberation," but whether they accepted their punishment.

But let's not rule out the other possibility that the nature of the occupiers is different. This may be a tough case to make since it would mean that Americans have changed somehow since the 1940s. But some things obviously have changed. The occupiers of Germany and Japan were FDR's army from the land of the New Deal, a conscript force for few of whom the military was a way of life. The occupiers of Iraq are a volunteer army with mercenary auxiliaries, quite likely more alienated from their civilian brethren than their grandfathers were, and acting on orders from George W. Bush. American devolution probably has been a factor in the Iraqi disaster, as has been the unique circumstances of Iraq itself. It remains for people with more time on their hands to figure out the relative influences. I'll just remind you that the President mentioned none of this in his speech. He did mention that he's still learning, but someone's going to be collecting his worksheet very soon.

McCain on Foreign Policy and Heckling

Here's the text of Senator McCain's talk from yesterday. Interruptions from hecklers are not transcribed. His new spin on the question of talking to "extremists" is that we've already talked to them and it's done no good. His specific context on this occasion was nuclear proliferation. On this subject he thinks he can create an international consensus to bring Iran to heel that Bush hasn't managed. He still hasn't made it clear how he can convince the Russians and Chinese to do this when Bush has failed; maybe he just expects us to take for granted that he's smarter than Bush, and that's all it takes. He made a point of saying that he doesn't consider Russia an enemy, though he's had nasty words for Putin personally in the past. Whether he proposes to deal with Russia or Iran or North Korea or China, he has to show voters whether or not he's going to do away with that implicit contempt for the sovereignty of "unfree" governments that has handicapped American diplomacy in the Bush era, but his eagerness to create a "league of democracies," an alliance unhampered by the veto power of China or Russia, is not a good sign.

As for the hecklers, McCain compared his willingness to hear all points of view at his "town meetings" with their alleged intolerance and incivility. That sounds nice, but everybody in the audience gets to hear John McCain all the time, while this was probably the only time a particular group of dissidents was going to get him to hear them. I'm not thrilled by people who replace discourse with chanting, but he needs to hear them as much as anyone else in the building. That said, hecklers shouldn't be surprised or offended when they're removed from a venue like this one. It would be intolerant if they prevented McCain from finishing his thoughts, such as they were. It is no victory for anyone to silence anybody else, and neither he nor the hecklers were silenced. They had their say, and since they were chanting, not making speeches, their point was already made by the time they were removed. Even better, they got McCain to improvise a little rant about never quitting in Iraq, which only confirmed the hecklers' charge of "endless war." That was a victory for them.

27 May 2008

Cry of the Clintonites

Sean Wilentz is a respected and prizewinning American historian. I can vouch for his early work on working-class New York City and the rise of democratic class consciousness in the 19th century. As an analyst of the present he has problems. For reasons unclear to me he's an unreconstructed Clintonite who has responded to the Obama campaign with that exact sense of denied entitlement we associate with Senator Clinton's campaign. His latest screed has been picked up by the History News Network, where you can examine it for yourself. He has convinced himself through reading some selected blogs that the Obama campaign has contempt for the white working class, a condition he deems suicidal for the Democratic party. He reacts with unexplained jealousy to any aspiration expressed by an Obama supporter to expand the Democratic base, as if his salt-of-the-earth heroes had thus been dissed. He tries to convince us that Clinton has won the West Virginia and Kentucky primaries on the issues rather than by riling up a protest vote against Obama's alleged unelectability, which Wilentz attempts to confirm.

It's certainly an arguable point that a Democrat can't win the White House without getting some "White Working Class" votes, but Wilentz too readily buys the Clinton line that Obama will never get these votes to make the claim plausible. I suspect that he's projecting some of his own issues with "elitist" politics onto the larger public. It also looks like he can't quite accept that the WWC, at least as he defines it, isn't necessarily the most progressive constituency in American politics. It appears that, must he choose between progress and the WWC, he'll follow the latter over the cliff, as long as a Clinton is playing the pipes. This fawning attitude toward the Clintons from a man of learning is nearly inexplicable, while the similar fawning toward the WWC may reflect some craving for acceptance as a regular guy -- but we shouldn't speculate too far that way. Let's leave the topic with another writer's comment in response to Wilentz:

"Wilentz observes that George W. Bush carried the majority of white working class votes in 2000 and 2004. Are we then to assume that the white working class can be held responsible for electing the "worst" president in American history. If so, should the judgment of the white working class be trusted?"

Hillary: What If?

Let's use our imaginations. Imagine a powerful person with great influence with the Democratic party, but not belonging to it, visiting Senator Clinton. The meeting is confidential, and must be kept secret from both Senator Obama and Chairman Dean, for were the public to believe that either man had made this proposal, it would kill the campaign. The influential person gives Clinton due credit for her strong run for the nomination, and acknowledges that concessions must be made to her to assure that her supporters will support Obama in November. However, given the reality of Obama's lead and the disastrous consequences of appearing to deny him his due by chicanery, Clinton herself must make an important concession, beyond merely conceding Obama the top spot on the ticket, in return for which she will be guaranteed the second spot-- she must divorce her husband.

It's explained to her that Bill's hovering presence undermines the argument against Senator McCain as the third term of President Bush. Bill Clinton is such an overpowering personality that, even twice removed from power as the spouse of the vice president, he would shape an Obama regime into his own third term. Obama must not be perceived as the puppet of Bill Clinton -- and neither must Hillary Clinton. The only way she would be allowed on an Obama ticket or an Obama administration will be if she cuts ties to Bill. If she says yes, the pretext could be created easily enough; if it doesn't already exist it could be contrived with little trouble. There would be no more than the minimum appearance of political expediency involved. The person with influence will make it all happen, and all she'll have to do is respond correctly.

What would she do? Your answer is likely to tell us plenty about your own opinion of Senator Clinton. If she says yes, does that demonstrate a selfless willingness to make a nearly supreme sacrifice for her party (leaving out the party's worthiness of such a gesture for the moment), or is it the ultimate cynical calculation of self-interest? If she says no, does that prove finally that hers is a true love for Bill Clinton that transcends personal ambition, or would it convince you that she is, after all, no more than a tool of the former President, and incapable of standing on her own?

I exempt myself from answering the question, because I confess that simply asking it betrays my own position. Once Obama has the nomination secured, he must not allow the slightest appearance of becoming Bill Clinton's apprentice. He cannot hope to revive his campaign against the politics of the past while suspicion exists that Mr. Clinton will be lurking near the Oval Office in a manner unprecedented in American history. Leaving Mrs. Clinton's own merits or demerits out of it, the plain fact of her marriage to the former President disqualifies her from consideration as Obama's running mate if the goal is to make Obama look like a strong leader for a new era. If she demands the vice presidency as compensation for conceding defeat, she should be turned down. If that means she fights to the finish, or beyond the finish, so be it.

Don't mistake me for one of those people who are supposedly pressuring Clinton to quit. I would never tell someone to stop running before November, and I'm not a Democrat. But I must laugh when she or her friends complain that she's been enduring some unique form of intimidation. She's experiencing nothing now that any third-party candidate hasn't already -- some of them several times over. Maybe the experience will teach her something about the American Bipolarchy, and maybe her forlorn fight will teach others something as well.

25 May 2008

McCain vs. Obama on veterans, etc.

It seems appropriate that the front-runners in the presidential campaign should concentrate on an issue relevant to military veterans this Memorial Day weekend. Here's where it stands: Senator Obama supports a new "G.I. Bill" introduced by Sen. Webb, a fellow Democrat. Senator McCain opposes the bill. Here's the dialogue summarized, so far:

Obama: "I respect Senator John McCain's service to our country," Obama said on the Senate floor. "But I can't understand why he would line up behind the president in opposition to this G.I. Bill. I can't believe why he believes it is too generous to our veterans."

McCain: "I take a backseat to no one in my affection, respect and devotion to veterans. And I will not accept from Senator Obama, who did not feel it was his responsibility to serve our country in uniform, any lectures on my regard for those who did."

Let me suggest a rebuttal for Obama: "It's precisely because others took my place that I want them to receive the most generous benefits possible, but I still don't understand why Senator McCain believes this plan is too generous."

Actually, McCain has made his explanation already, but it's in Obama's interest to make him repeat it. According to the Washington Post, the Republican believes that the benefits offered by Webb's bill will tempt soldiers into leaving the military too soon. This is definitely something McCain should be made to say in public as often as possible. Critics shouldn't be afraid to interpret it, either, as showing McCain's desire to lock people into the military "for the duration." It's the only thing he can do, short of a draft, to keep troops in place for the perpetual war on terror and the 50-year occupation that McCain envisions. We should hear a lot more about this particular issue in the months to come, and if McCain's attempt to intimidate Obama into silence has had any effect, that might be reason to make Webb Obama's running mate, because that guy, I suspect, would make McCain shut up fast. That's also a good argument against making Senator Clinton the running mate, but that's a topic for another time.

22 May 2008

Rev. Hagee: "Hitler Was a Hunter"

When I first saw the news about McCain suddenly repudiating Pastor Hagee's endorsement, and I saw the quote that apparently provoked the repudiation, my first thought was: So it took Hagee offending the NRA to drive McCain away from him? That turned out not to be the case. The pastor was just again expressing his peculiar love for the Jewish people. From what I've read, Hagee is a legitimate Judeophile; hence his support for Israel and his erstwhile blaming of Catholics for collaboration with Hitler. He believes that God never revoked the covenant with Israel, and that Jesus was not the Jewish Messiah. In his view, the Jews are always God's chosen people, but the deity himself expresses tough love sometimes. Yahweh's attitude, as Hagee interpreted it, seems to have been: "Hey, Jews. Palestine is your promised land, so why aren't you over there?" Working, as usual, in a mysterious way, the Lord put Hitler in power in order to drive the Jewish people to Palestine. If you believe in an omnipotent God, then the Holocaust probably has to be part of a plan, but putting it as baldly as Hagee apparently did was bound to disturb some people. That shouldn't bother Hagee; his calling is to see things in a way that won't necessarily make people comfortable. Non-believers can only shrug their shoulders, since Hagee's interpretation of history is just about self-evidently false. As citizens, we can only ask our politicians what else they expect when they seek the endorsement of people like Hagee or Rev. Wright. Their kingdom is not of this world, after all, so why should they care who's president or whom they embarrass by calling things as they see them? If McCain were to learn from this not to curry favor with the clergy anymore, I'd be impressed and surprised.

21 May 2008


For a moment it sounds utopian: "Traditional African beliefs, Christianity and Islam co-exist peacefully in Kenya. " But maybe people still have to hate or fear something, and who better to fear or hate than old people? Maybe this impulse crosses all cultures, just like the willingness to believe, first in magic, and then in malignant magic. Even in the 21st century of the "Common Era" there remains an ancient habit of ascribing supernatural powers to people just as the habit persists of ascribing similar if not greater powers to an invisible being. It's not a specific product of Christianity or even monotheism. Indeed, it may exist wherever people believe in the supernatural. It obviously exists in cosmopolitan Kenya, and it will do no one any good to look down their noses or sniff at supposed savages without first remembering all the superstitions and even the fears of witchcraft (as allegedly promoted by the Harry Potter books) that flourish in our own enlightened land. This story is the whole world's shame, not Kenya's alone.

Spike Lee: Idiot of the Day

It's unusual for me to go to the trouble of chastising someone in pop culture, but Spike Lee's remarks at the Cannes Film Festival really irked me.Apparently unable to find fault with Clint Eastwood's new film, and determined to promote his own current project, Lee complained about the absence of black soldiers from Eastwood's Iwo Jima movies of two years ago. Lee has made a movie about black soldiers during World War II, and wishes to emphasize the contrast. It's unclear whether he blames Eastwood for neglecting the presence of blacks at the battle or for refusing to hire black extras. Eastwood himself wasn't allowed to respond to a reporter's question about Lee's remarks, but I'd like to think he'd say something like, "I was making movies, not taking a census."

Spike Lee is a superior filmmaker (I particularly recommend the underrated Summer of Sam), but he seems to suffer from a sort of paranoid narcissism. He must see black faces on a movie screen as a sort of mirror; if there are none, he reacts as if his own existence had been negated. His attitude is probably similar to that of the Hispanic activists who complained that their people's particular contribution to the U.S. effort was ignored by Ken Burns's documentary on World War II. It wasn't enough for them to identify with the national effort as a whole; not seeing someone explicitly identified as a Hispanic during the documentary made them think that Burns was denying their history, when he probably just didn't realize that they had to be quantified as much as blacks and women. It would have been fitting had homosexuals or Mormons or others had demanded their moment in the spotlight as well.

In the particular case of Eastwood's films, the fact that one focused closely on the men who raised the flags on Mt. Surabachi, none of whom were black, while the second focused almost exclusively on the Japanese defenders, none of whom were black, probably made it difficult for Eastwood and his writers to come up with a speaking part for a black actor. That's apparently no excuse as far as Lee is concerned, but maybe he would have been satisfied had Eastwood hired a sufficiency of blacks as extras. If so, then he is less crazy than merely crass, but his comments were still pretty contemptible.

20 May 2008

Kennedy: He's Dead to Me.

Senator Kennedy is having the peculiar satisfaction of reading his own obituaries. Indeed, he can watch them on TV or click them on the Web. I imagine him wondering how he can maximize the benefit. Imagine if he feels fit enough to make a "farewell" speech to the Denver convention. Who knows? His showing up now might be enough to suppress any attempt by the Clintonites to stage a floor fight over the forbidden delegates or any other pretext; Kennedy could shame them into submission. Would treatments make this more difficult to do? I can also imagine him weighing the pros and cons at this point. Perhaps I don't do him justice, but I came neither to praise or bury him today.

I find myself annoyed by the flood of reporting on Kennedy's illness, not because I dislike the senator, but because it's just another demonstration of the tabloid tendencies of all the news media now. It's just too easy to file a "Brave Last Days" story and break out the retrospective footage and the remembrances of talking heads. It's always easier to look backward than to look with clear eyes at the present. It's easier to dwell on the human interest of the suffering senator than to consider the larger, sometimes impersonal trends that actually mean more to ordinary people, whether they realize it or not. It's easier to wallow in celebrity and call it history than to examine where real history is being made. There is simply no way in which the mere illness of a senator, even one with Kennedy's seniority, is the lead story on an evening newscast or even a front page story in tomorrow's paper. Even here, this is only the "top" story, physically speaking, because I'm writing it after the Kentucky piece. But my subject isn't Kennedy, anyway, but the coverage of Kennedy. I may have words on the man himself when the right time comes, but for now, let him rest in peace -- er, I mean comfortably.

Kentucky: Another Protest Vote

Do these people really think that Senator Clinton can still be made the nominee? Or have the majority of Kentucky Democrats, like their counterparts in West Virginia, used their primary to issue a warning to Senator Obama? If so, what is the nature of the warning, and what, by voting for Clinton, are they advising Obama to do? The pundits are ready with answers. Most are eager to say that Obama must grovel before the "salt of the earth" so-called Middle Americans, as if they by default define the country in some way that Obama can't. Some say these figures feel ignored by Obama, or feel his implicit contempt, and are bitter about it. I heard one suggest that Obama could help himself simply by telling these people that he needs their help to win. But what if they don't want to help, or they don't think they need his help? What if hearing Rev. Wright has closed their minds for good? What if, without being able to tell any policy that Rev. Wright might support, they reject Obama to spite Wright? Without definitively endorsing Obama myself, I can say if that people reject Obama, especially in favor of McCain, only because of Wright or one sentence about bitterness, I would say, "God damn America," except that I don't believe in God. I can probably come up with some secular equivalent.

By the way, Rev. Wright doesn't take bigots off the hook. Anyone who assumes in spite of all his disclaimers that Obama must be dissembling and concealing a secret commitment to carry out an unspoken agenda dictated by Wright, who assumes that of course they think alike and will act alike, is a bigot, because thinking that way assumes that some inherent affinity between Wright and Obama will outweigh the words the senator has said. If you refuse to take someone at his word because you assume you know his nature, and he has not been proven a liar, then you're a bigot. Nobody who supports Obama should be afraid to call an opponent a bigot if he has nothing better to make his case with than Rev. Wright and "bittergate." For the moment, that goes double for Clintonites, because anyone who argues that Obama's electability falters on these so-called issues is simply soft on bigotry or, worse, is enabling it.

19 May 2008

Overheard in a Library

I was between buses after work, so I stopped at the library and was browsing through the History shelves when I heard an almost familiar sound of a human voice in a halting manner reading something aloud. It was vaguely familiar because I often see literacy tutors working with pupils in the library, but it's never the same twice because the tutors use different texts.

At first I simply processed the sounds like more background noise, but because words are often very carefully pronounced, the meaning of the lesson soon impressed itself on me. The pupil read aloud about an evil scientist creating a race of devils, the white man, who lived in caves and walked on all fours, but were given rule over the earth to commit great crimes for a period of years. His tutor was indoctrinating him with the mythology of the Nation of Islam.

I paused in between shelves and listened. Part of me wanted to walk to the table and tear the sheet of paper from the pupil's hand and tell the tutor how rotten it was to fill the kid's mind with that garbage, but the stronger part of me didn't want to create a scene. That part acknowledged that, while the library is a public place, these literacy lessons were really private transactions between tutors and pupils. What the tutor used to get the kid to read was none of my business -- or was it? That couldn't be entirely true, or else I wouldn't be writing about it now. It's obviously my opinion that teaching Nation mythology does no one any good; if someone needs to believe something like that in order to feel pride about himself, we ought to question the value of pride. But was it my business -- let's leave out the commercial metaphor and ask -- was it my duty to speak out against the indoctrination? Was the right question whether I had the right, or whether I have an obligation to stop the spread of bad ideas? Why not question my own motives? I've heard tutors teaching standard Christianity and Jehovah's Witness doctrine in the library, and I didn't feel the urge to intervene that I felt tonight. Did I object to foolish doctrines or only to someone stirring up the black man? But I was no less certain that Nation teachings were objectively bad, so could I speak out against them if I dared if I wasn't equally willing to challenge any teaching I considered wrong?

Let's face it: my biggest fear was getting into an argument with a black man and getting thrown out of the library. I'm not proud of that, but I honestly don't know if there was a correct course to pursue apart from using my private piece of public space right here to express my views. My gut feeling, with a little bit of brain feeling behind it, is that there are plenty of necessary debates that don't happen because we're reluctant to get into each other's faces and we're not supposed to impose our opinions on each other. But if we are political animals, than we can't help imposing opinions on each other, and probably ought to be doing more in that line. It's bound to be messy and scary and actually dangerous sometimes, but we probably ought to reach out more often and slap some sense into each other -- metaphorically, most of the time. Whether it's worth getting thrown out of a library to stall the poisoning of one mind is a fair question, but it shouldn't be the only question we ask.

"They took our jobs!"

In case anyone thought that hostility toward immigrants during tough economic times was some peculiarly American pathology, here's news from South Africa that makes American groups like the Minutemen look mild. It all looks very familiar, except for the mass killing, but the point isn't to deplore South Africa for its violence, but rather to show that different countries and different cultures seem to respond in broadly similar ways to similar circumstances. South Africans seem no more cosmopolitan or tolerant than their "nativist" U.S. counterparts, which throws into question any attribution of anti-immigrant sentiment in the States to some characteristically American form of racism. This doesn't mean that either Americans or South Africans are right in their attitude toward immigrants, only that there's a predictable range of response to mass immigration in hard times, no matter where it happens.

One point of resemblance is particularly significant. Immigration from Mexico into the U.S. is in many cases a flight from the dysfunctional Mexican economy. Many of the immigrants in South Africa come from Zimbabwe, a country far more dysfunctional than Mexico, with a government propped up in part by its more prosperous neighbor. Just as any solution to any perceived immigrant problem here requires Mexico putting its house in order, Zimbabwe's doing so is even more imperative in southern Africa. There, regional leaders defend the Zimbabwe government out of misplaced solidarity with a fellow revolutionary in the struggle against white rule. A change in attitude by the South African government, well short of "humanitarian intervention," could make some difference in Zimbabwe. It makes one wonder how responsible the U.S. government is for keeping Mexico in its present state, and what the next government might be able to do, short of intervention, to facilitate reform. Somebody better be asking those questions, because there's no guarantee that America will always have a better record on this subject than South Africa does now.

Fake Populism, Part Two

Presenting Senator Hillary Clinton, the candidate of the poor and jobless, who hints that some insensitive complacency toward the cries of the needy compels pundits and others to call on her to quit her campaign in favor of that infamous Scrooge, Senator Obama. If you don't have decent insurance, or any, and you can't afford to send your kid to college, Hillary is your only hope, though Obama may let you eat cake. But more likely he and fellow plutocrat Senator McCain are dining with billionaires, the fat guys who wear top hats and tuxedos with diamond stickpins and dollar signs on them, smoking big cigars and laughing at poor folks. Wait until Hillary leads the charge of the unwashed into their marbled halls, pitchfork in hand and a wad of chewin' tobaccy set to spit in someone's monocled eye. She's Joan of Arc and Mother Jones wrapped in one package, fixin' to raise less corn and more hell, just like back when she and Ole Bill first loaded up the truck and moved to Washington. Don't you remember? Well, why don't you, then? . . .

18 May 2008

Quote of the Day

"The president isn't pro this or pro that. The president is pro-democracy and pro-peace."

This comes to us from Secretary of State Rice, demonstrating a probably unconscious ability to contradict herself from one sentence to the next. She was responding to Arab complaints that the Bush administration is pro-Israel. She was apparently trying to say that her boss isn't "pro" one group or another, but "pro" certain high ideals. The problem is, of course, that like many Americans, Bush identifies Israel with both democracy and peace, regardless of the actual record, so for him consciously to be "pro-democracy" and "pro-peace" means to take Israel's side consistently. As he demonstrated again today, he tends to identify the Arab states with tyranny, if not violence, as if the faults of the region's governments somehow disqualify them from the rights of nations generally. Near the heart of the Middle East problem is this unchallenged premise that the forces of democracy (Israel) have a right to colonize or dominate the region, just as they have a right to topple any government they find threatening, the threat sometimes consisting of a government's mere existence or disagreement with a democratic nation, the democracy of course being incapable of error in such disputes. True fair dealing among nations ought to do without ideological prejudice or any presumption that one form of government ought always to prevail over others. It shouldn't matter whether a nation is a liberal republic or a tyrannical oligarchy; if the republic stole land from the tyranny, the republic is just as much in the wrong as the tyranny would be if the roles were reversed. Those who counter that republics won't behave that way need a history lesson, and fast.

15 May 2008

McCain: I Have A Dream

To be fair, McCain's talk today accentuated the positive. While espousing predictable conservative notions, he didn't really attack Democrats or liberals. To an extent, he may really believe the non-partisan or anti-partisan rhetoric he used today, if only because he believes in presidential rather than partisan leadership. While the section on the war got the headlines, and earned quick criticism for failing even to hint how he would accomplish all he promises, McCain was more substantive on the domestic side as far as improving trade, reforming education and reducing wasteful spending were concerned. This didn't read like the speech of someone who was going to make war and foreign policy the main points of his campaign. At the same time, his optimism on the war is so unfounded as to be disturbing, and anytime he brings up that "league of democracies" idea, promoting an ideological alliance independent of the UN with regime change around the world as its likely agenda, I find myself thinking that it might well be more important to vote against this man as effectively as possible than to vote for anyone else.

In any event, the speech is worth examining to get a fair sense of what McCain seems to be about these days without getting it filtered through me. Those likely to be maddened by the foreign-policy section up front may as well jump to one of the latter pages of the NY Times version of the text.

Obama, Bush and "Appeasement": Everyone is Wrong

The fracas over the President's speech in Israel is one of the silly stories of the week. Bush uttered one of his standard denunciations against appeasement, likening people who recommend negotiating with "terrorists" and "radicals" with people from 70 years ago who thought they could have talked Hitler out of World War II. He's said the same thing innumerable times and so have many other Republicans. But now Senator Obama takes it as an attack on himself. He complains that Bush misrepresented his position, insofar as Obama has never called for negotiations with "terrorists." The White House press secretary was right to remind Obama that, despite the dizzying conditions of a presidential campaign, the world doesn't revolve him, and not everything that politicians say is directed at him. That may be, after all, why it seemed inaccurate to the senator.

Bush is also wrong, of course, to equate negotiation with appeasement. He misses the point of the myth of "Munich," the summit of 1938 when Britain and France appeased Hitler by letting him occupy Czechoslovakia. The problem with Munich wasn't that Britain and France negotiated with Hitler; the problem was that they capitulated instead of telling him that they would go to war if he crossed the Czech border. Telling Hitler that he would be attacked if he tried his stunt is "negotiation" just as much as telling him it was O.K. with you. Negotiation and appeasement are not one and the same thing. Those who equate the two either don't understand what negotiation is, or are uninterested in the concept. Americans, unfortunately, are used to demanding "unconditional surrender" without the bother of compromise, the murky middle ground between plain negotiation and abject appeasement.Convinced of their own right and righteousness, they consider it an injustice if they can't get their own way entirely in international dealings. Of course, just about every other country feels that way as well; that's why we have to negotiate with those we disagree with and sometimes make compromises with them. How long do Americans need to learn this?

To sum up, Obama was right to criticize the speech, but wrong to make it personal. Bush's sentiments would be equally misguided no matter who was running to succeed him, or if no one was.

14 May 2008

Hatred, Insensitivity and Just Desserts

The latest issue of The Nation arrived in my mailbox today. I always check out the letter columns of new magazines before filing them in my to-read pile. This week's letters included expressions of outrage over a cartoon by Rick Meyerowitz published in the 28 April issue. As shown here, it seemed so innocuous to me that I didn't give it a second thought, but it disturbed others. Judging by the letters printed, reader response was three-to-one against the cartoon. The consensus was that Meyerowitz had crossed a line of propriety (or simple decency) by making a joke out of Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston's affliction with Alzheimer's disease.

Hiasaura Rubenstein of Madison WI "could not believe [her] eyes," and failed to find the cartoon "the least bit comic." Instead, it was "thoughtless and cruel," provoking Rubenstein to write, "Shame on you!" to the editors. Ethel Hayes of South Dennis MA found the cartoon "beyond the pale," in part because a friend of hers died of Alzheimers. "You let your ideology run away with you," she chides. Gloria Del Vecchio of Morrisville PA emphasizes that "all who end their lives with this terrible disease deserve compassion," and asks, "Has The Nation lost its humanitarian marbles?"

Nancy Bey Little of Honolulu expresses the minority view. "You will probably get flak for the cartoon showing two right-wing icons in 'Lost Marbles Valley,'" she writes, "but they both deserved it" because "they were powerful, harmful actors." Meyerowitz himself gets the last word:

My drawing was meant to be mean, inappropriate and out of line, and it did attack Ronald Reagan and Charlton Heston for being senile instead of the things they are usually attacked for. It was the visual equivalent of a Bronx cheer, and I'm a Bronx boy, born and bred. My drawings are provocative. Some find them hilarious; others, insulting. Usually they're both. Someone will always be offended by something. If I worried about who I'd offend, I'd never do anything (I can hear the cheers).

Meyerowitz goes on to recount his attempt to make humor out of his own father's affliction with Alzheimers. "His name was Hy," he explains, "I made a sign for him above his bed [that] said WORLD'S ONLY KNOWN VICTIM OF ALZHYMIE'S DISEASE." He claims that "the nursing staff and the doctors loved it," while his dad "would've laughed at the sign too if he hadn't forgotten how to read."

Frankly, the joke isn't that funny and neither is the cartoon, not because they're offensive or insensitive instead but because Meyerowitz isn't as brilliant as he might think. Still, his was a brave response in our hypersensitive era. He dared to say, as I understand it, that Reagan and Heston deserved, not necessarily to become senile, but to be mocked for their senility, to be mocked in general and made contemptible for posterity, for their misdeeds. To some readers, this will prove that Meyerowitz "hates" the two dead men. After eight years of Clinton and eight years of Bush, hatred has come to be politically incorrect. Hatred has been identified with a desire to see someone suffer or even die. Hatred has been confused with prejudice, as if people hate Clinton or Bush in the same way that they might be prejudiced against another race or gender. What's been lost in the confusion of hatred with "hate" (as in "hate crime") is the idea that an individual, through his deeds, might deserve to be hated by his peers or by posterity. In our age of easy celebrity, we've lost track of the significance of fame and its importance as a motivator in public life. Being "famous" is seen as value-neutral, but fame was once something that had to be earned through exemplary activity, and its negative counterpart was infamy, the fate of being despised and accursed down through the ages. If people were honest, they'd admit how they feel about Clinton or Bush, or both, but admitting "hate" might make them look bloodthirsty or vindictive. I don't know about bloodthirst, but we ought to be vindictive toward wicked people if we want to warn our heirs to avoid their example. It's all very nice to say that every bad person was merely a well-meaning failure, but do that too much and you make it sound as if well-meaning is all that counts -- and some of us will still dispute whether everyone really does mean well. At the very least, the threat of ill fame, of being hated in his lifetime and despised after death, ought to exist as a deterrent for any public figure. Meyerowitz's cartoon is just a small gesture in that direction, but it ought to be encouraged.

13 May 2008

A Question for West Virginia Democrats

I'll make this one quick. If you voted for Senator Clinton, are you racist or just stupid? If you've been convinced that Senator Obama is somehow "anti-American," you're stupid. Otherwise, in the continuing absence of any compelling proof of Clinton's allegedly superior expertise that would give you an objective reason to vote for her, you're racist.

I bet you didn't get asked that one in the exit poll.

An Evangelical Manifesto

The news about Pastor Hagee (see below) made me decide it was time to deal with an item I downloaded last week. It's called "An Evangelical Manifesto: A Declaration of Evangelical Identity and Public Commitment." It was issued last week amid a mild media fanfare touting the document as a repudiation of partisan politics.

First of all, it's not "the Evangelical Manifesto." The authors are well aware that they don't and can't speak for everyone covered by that amorphous term, which they then attempt to define. Disagreement is inevitable, and in parts of the document the authors seem to ask for it.

The authors try to establish their bona fides early, affirming their commitment to "right belief and right worship" and "to submit our lives entirely to the lordship of Jesus and to the truths and the way of life that he requires of his followers, in order that they might become like him, live the way he taught, and believe as he believed." This is predictable stuff, and as far it concerns religious doctrine, we can pass it over without comment.

The Manifesto gets interesting when the authors attempt to distinguish Evangelicalism from both "liberal revisionism" and "conservative fundamentalism." Liberalism here means "an exaggerated estimate of human capacities, a shallow view of evil, an inadequate view of truth, and a deficient view of God" that becomes "sometimes no longer recognizably Christian." Once again, this is nothing new, but the critique of fundamentalism is less familiar, to me at least. Check it out:

The fundamentalist tendency is more recent, and even closer to Evangelicalism, so much so that in the eyes of many, the two overlap. We celebrate those in the past for their worthy desire to be true to the fundamentals of faith, but Fundamentalism has become an overlay on the Christian faith and developed into an essentially modern reaction to the modern world. As a reaction to the modern world, it tends to romanticize the past, some now-lost moment in time, and to radicalize the present, with styles of reaction that are personally and publicly militant to the point where they are sub-Christian.

Christian Fundamentalism has its counterparts in many religions and even in secularism, and often becomes a social movement with a Christian identity but severely diminished Christian content and manner. Fundamentalism, for example, all too easily parts company with the Evangelical principle, as can Evangelicals themselves, when they fail to follow the great commandment that we love our neighbors as ourselves, let alone the radical demand of Jesus that his followers forgive without limit and love even their enemies.

This is mild scolding compared to the following:

All too often we have trumpeted the gospel of Jesus, but we have replaced biblical truths with therapeutic techniques, worship with entertainment, discipleship with growth in human potential, church growth with business entrepreneurialism, concern for the church and for the local congregation with expressions of the faith that are churchless and little better than a vapid spirituality, meeting real needs with pandering to felt needs, and mission principles with marketing principles. In the process we have become known for commercial, diluted, and feel-good gospels of health, wealth, human potential, and religious happy talk, each of which is indistingishable from the passing fashions of the surrounding world.

So much for megachurches, the prosperity gospel, and so on. On a related note, "all too often we have attacked the evils and injustices of others, such as the killing of the unborn ... while we have condoned our own sins, turned a blind eye to our own vices, and lived captive to forces such as materialism and consumerism in ways that contradict our faith."

As for politics: "We call for an expansion of our concern beyond single-issue politics, such as abortion and marriage, and a fuller recognition of the comprehensive causes and concerns of the Gospel, and of all the human issues that must be engaged in public life." These Evangelicals will still oppose abortion and gay marriage, but at the same time "we must follow the model of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, engaging the global giants of conflict, racism, corruption, poverty, pandemic diseases, illiteracy, ignorance, and spiritual emptiness." They urge Evangelical congregations to be "never completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, class, tribe, or national identity."

They don't want "to politicize faith, using faith to express essentially political points that have lost touch with biblical truth. That way faith loses its independence [emphasis in original], the church becomes 'the regime at prayer,' Christians become 'useful idiots' for one political party or another, and the Christian faith becomes an ideology in its purest form."

This is an important point to make as repercussions from the Rev. Wright scandal continue to be felt. The danger of American denominations turning into Chinese-style "patriotic" churches should have been obvious to pastors all over the country once the establishment damned Wright for playing a traditional prophetic role. The Manifesto seems right on the mark when it affirms an Evangelical duty "never to be completely equated with any party, partisan ideology, economic system, or nationality."

The authors seem to recognize that religion needs to be dissociated from the state. They trace state-sponsored oppression by Christians to the Emperor Constantine, and remind their readers that "We Evangelicals trace our heritage, not to Constantine, but to the very different stance of Jesus of Nazareth." This was actually the attitude many Evangelicals held before the Cold War, when fears of "atheistic communism" led churches to seek shelter under the shield of the state. The present Manifesto doesn't reject war altogether, since Evangelicalism encompasses both pacifists and "advocates of just war," but it states firmly that "Jesus's Good News of justice for the whole world was promoted, not by a conqueror's power and sword, but by a suffering servant emptied of power and ready to die for the ends he came to achieve."

* * *

Why have I spent so much time on the opinions of superstitious folk? The answer is: because the Wright controversy and its implications for the presidential campaign has convinced me that we can't demand absolute agreement with our own views from those we want to join us in a political cause. It's foolish to reject people who espouse some things we oppose, as long as they don't contradict the larger agenda; similarly, they may deny what we espouse, so long as the disagreement doesn't undermine the immediate cause. Intellectual correctness in a mass movement might be just as futile as "political correctness." We shouldn't automatically reject conspiracy theorists, for instance, as long as they're willing to join us in a common effort for the goal we seek. I'm not going to reject an ally because he believes in God if the goal has nothing to do with establishing a religion. In this Evangelical Manifesto I found things I could agree with regarding our society and culture, along with things I oppose absolutely. Unless I want simply to impose my will on the world and have everyone agree unconditionally with my little red book of ideas, I see no reason why different bodies of opinion can't cooperate when their interests intersect. These Evangelicals have made it clear that they don't want to impose a theocracy on America -- which may be why some others have criticized the Manifesto. Because of that, they may end up having a more positive impact on society, but that remains to be seen.

Pastor Hagee Apologizes

In an act of self-evident political expediency, Pastor John Hagee (sometime spiritual adviser to Senator McCain) has published an apology to the Catholic Church, addressed to Catholic League crybaby William Donohue. Hagee proclaims "an improved understanding of the Catholic Church, its relation to the Jewish faith, and the history of anti-Catholicism." Clarifications follow: Hagee says, for instance, that he only criticized Catholics vis-a-vis their alleged anti-Semitism during the Crusades and the Holocaust.

As for calling the Catholic Church the "great whore," Hagee pleads not guilty. Here's his explanation:

I hope you recognize that I have repeatedly stated that my interpretation of Revelation leads me to conclude that the "apostate church" and the "great whore" appear only during the seven years of tribulation after all true believers -- Catholic and Protestant -- have been taken up to heaven. Therefore, neither of these phrases can be synonymous with the Catholic Church.

This confession would seem to make Hagee a liberal among Rapture-believers. I haven't made too close a study in the subject, but the impression I had was that only "born-agains" would get Raptured. Keep an eye on this side of the story in case Hagee gets himself in trouble in his own house.

Speaking of which, Hagee rather naively states that "I better understand that reference to the Roman Catholic Church as the 'apostate church' and the 'great whore' described in the Book of Revelation is a rhetorical device long employed in anti-Catholic literature and commentary." Long-employed is certainly accurate, since the device probably dates back to the origin of Protestantism. Hagee's report makes him sound ignorant about his own theological roots. To be honest, it makes the apology look more disingenuous than naive.

In any event, Hagee proceeds to fawn over Pope Benedict while reminding Donohue of the strong teamwork of Catholics and Protestants against Communism, abortion, etc. Hagee wants the teamwork to continue, preferably in the interest of John McCain, and Donohue probably thinks the same way, since he says that Hagee's apology closes the issue as far as he's concerned. But that doesn't mean we have to keep the case closed. This is a scab that asks for picking. Let our motto be J. Wellington Wimpy's: Let's you and him fight!

12 May 2008

Our Next Contestant: Bob Barr

Former Rep. Bob Barr, a persecutor of Bill Clinton during the Lewinsky days, and primaried out of his seat by Bush loyalists, has announced that he's a candidate for the Libertarian nomination for President. Barr was one of that segment of Republicans who mistrusted the Bushies' expansion of surveillance power and executive power after 11 Sept. 2001. He eventually left the Republican party to pursue a new identification with the Libertarians. He'll be the highest profile candidate the party's ever had if it nominates him, though his profile isn't as high as it used to be. It's still unclear whether Ron Paul might try to claim the nomination, but my understanding is that "sore loser" laws in several states would keep him off the ballot after his failure to get the GOP nod. In any event, Barr's announcement is a reminder to everybody that there will be more than two choices come November, and every other option is as legitimate as the first two.

Myanmar: Politics of Disaster

The Chinese earthquake may limit that country's ability to continue assistance to the cyclone survivors in Myanmar. Because the Chinese government is friendly toward the Myanmar junta, Chinese relief supplies have had no problem getting into the country, and may have been the primary source of aid to victims since the storm hit. Now the Chinese have perhaps tens of thousands of displaced people of their own to worry about. If that results in cutting off or slowing the stream of aid to Myanmar, we can expect more invocations of the UN's "responsibility to protect" and more calls for humanitarian intervention by powers less friendly than China toward the junta.

Outsiders seem to be estimating a higher casualty count than the Myanmar government has offered so far. There are complaints about Myanmar officials confiscating supplies and distributing them (or not) based on political rather than humanitarian calculations, allegedly making aid an incentive for citizens to vote for the junta's new constitution. This is exactly the sort of scenario in which someone like Philip Bobbitt would suggest that the junta has surrendered its sovereignty due to its failure to protect its people. His answer to the problem, of course, would be military intervention, but so far I haven't heard many Americans making that case. It's been the French who've urged the UN to take forceful action, and the Chinese who've blocked it.

It's indisputably a maddening situation for anyone with the least compassion toward the cyclone survivors. But people need to think about this carefully. Why can't we just give the aid to the junta if it makes them feel good to look like they're the providers? The answer seems to be that people don't trust the junta to distribute aid equitably or without bias. But what are the alternatives? No aid reaches Myanmar, or militant humanitarian intervention creates even more disruption if the junta decides to resist. It looks like elements in the international community want to teach the junta a lesson, but that shouldn't be the issue right now. We may despise the junta and its ways, but teaching them a lesson is an issue for the people of Myanmar. Maybe if the leading dissident wasn't one of those narcissistic pacifists, more interested perhaps in her own karma than the welfare of her nation, the lesson might have been learned long ago. That's her problem, and her country's, but not our country's. The problem Americans have assigned themselves this month is to keep thousands of helpless people alive. It would make sense to pursue the path of least resistance, which means dealing respectfully with the junta and trusting it until it actually violates our trust.

Obama: Stop Wasting Paper!

Senator Obama sent me another letter today. That's at least three since the start of the year, but to be honest with you, he makes a poor pen pal. That's because he sent the same letter each time, the standard fundraising appeal with the exact same note from Ted Kennedy attached each time. I don't know if this is because they've got mailing lists from three different magazines (I subscribe to at least four that might make mailing lists available to a Democratic candidate) or if the Obama campaign keeps sending letters until they get a response, or even after a response.

As past readers may recall, I don't think I owe a candidate anything more than my vote, though if I were especially enthusiastic about someone I might consider volunteering my services to the campaign. I'm not interested in perpetuating a political system that depends on money and creates a class system of rich and poor candidates. But that's as much rehashing of my position as I intend to do today.

Rather than preach about money and politics, I want to ask whether it isn't rather wasteful of the Obama campaign to send me the same letter three times over. That's not nearly as bad as some organizations like Amnesty International that send me identical fundraising letters as often as once a month, but I'll hold Obama to a higher standard because he wants to spend our tax money. It doesn't exactly build confidence in his abilities, or those of people who would probably work for him if he becomes President, to see his campaign blithely send out redundant junk mail. Common sense might tell them that if they don't get money back from the first letter, they're unlikely ever to see any. It might also suggest that if the first letter didn't work, you should try a different approach instead of repeating a failed appeal. But who said there was common sense involved in fundraising? Look at it at the lowest level: if a panhandler had common sense, how did he end up panhandling? I'm not comparing Obama to a panhandler; the comparison is unfair because I blame the system that requires him to beg. But as long as we're stuck with this system there's got to be a better way to beg.

Speed Racer: Cause for optimism?

I've learned to take solace from even minor pieces of news that suggest that there is, after all, a floor beneath which the stupidity and bad taste of the American public might not sink. So I take satisfaction to learn that Speed Racer, the nine-figure budgeted monstrosity adapted from the ancient anime of the 1960s by the Matrix makers, has crashed and burned in the first turn on the track. Estimates posted Sunday projected that the movie earned no more than 21 million dollars in its opening weekend, which might amount to as little as one-tenth of its production and promotion costs.

There's also cause for pessimism amid the rubble, because the Speed Racer saga proves again that Hollywood never learns from past mistakes. How many times has some mastermind produced one or two hits, only to be given a blank check to realize whatever fantasy's been sitting in storage for years. The Matrix films begat Speed Racer the same way The Deer Hunter begat Heaven's Gate. Some fool with money presumes that anything the latest genius imagines must become a hit. In part, that's because Hollywood has fully bought into the auteur theory that makes directorial genius and personal vision the necessary primary ingredient in any great film. In part also, it's because studios behave like gamblers on a lucky streak. If you get one big success with one director, you decide to let it ride. You put faith in the genius of the moment, but the odds are always against you. But you can't swear off it; you're hooked on the idea of the big score. Consider: Marvel Studios has a big hit on their hands in Iron Man (it was better than I expected, too). Now the studio announces that the film is, in effect, the first in a series of at least five films, all with release dates already announced, culminating in The Avengers in 2011. That's a lot of time for a lot to go wrong, and it probably will.

Some people will take a different sort of solace from Speed Racer's failure. They'll take it as proof that "the market" works as idealized by its idolaters, and not as demonized by its detractors. If the market worked like you say, someone might suggest, the public should have been utterly brainwashed by the marketing of Speed Racer and marched out to see it like drones reporting for duty. That they didn't proves that consumers have autonomy and are not the malleable puppets of marketers. This is a straw-man argument that I've also seen in a political context (e.g., "Look at how many times the richest candidate has lost an election. That proves that money doesn't control politics.") In the present context, the correct response is to insist that the problem isn't that movies like Speed Racer automatically succeed -- since they don't. The problem is that movies like that get made in the first place.

08 May 2008

Republicans: "Stop Picking on that Old Guy!"

Have you ever lost your bearings? If so, then you're old. That's what some Republicans seem to think, as far as I can tell from the hysterical response to a really rather generic criticism of Senator McCain by Senator Obama. The funny thing about this episode is the fact that, if you agree with me that "losing his bearings" isn't meant to bring up McCain's age, the only people who wanted to make age an issue today were in the McCain campaign. They just gave the entire news media license to remind the public that the Republican will turn 72 later this year, and would be the oldest president every inaugurated if he wins. Nice work, team! McCain himself, fresh from his latest visit to John Stewart, has got to be wondering who exactly had the senior moment today.

Clinton: "I'm More Popular With White People!"

To be fair, you should read Senator Clinton expressing it in her own words, but I think my header expresses the gist of her latest argument. Imagine how the media would respond if Senator McCain predicted victory in November because he was more popular with whites, or with men. Now apply your virtual outrage to the Clintons.

I don't know if her latest comments are more insulting to Senator Obama or to white voters. She implies that Obama is incapable of winning over non-collegiate whites, and that they are incapable of being won over. She's repeating the fallacy that those Democrats who preferred her over Obama in the primaries will never vote for Obama. She certainly seems to be hinting that prejudice is a factor in her favor. There's also a hint of contempt for all the voters, and maybe for the whole electoral process -- or is it just a dying roar of pain from a mortal wound to her sense of entitlement? Whatever it is, it should warn any superdelegate who thinks that he or she might benefit personally from voting for Clinton to think again, and soon.

Israel Sixty Years On

This sort of thing wasn't supposed to happen in the 20th century: a slow-motion invasion capped by a political and military takeover of another people's land. Israel marks its 60th anniversary today, and with each commemoration comes new expressions of impatience with the country's Arab neighbors. Why don't they come to terms with Israel? Why don't they get over their hatred? But think of it from an Arab perspective for a second. How long did it take for them to drive out the Crusaders? It was something like 200 years. Why should they give up after 60? The implicit answer is: because they have no right to resist. They have no veto over Israeli nationhood. The Jewish people's right to a nation outweighs Arab or Muslim notions of sovereignty over the land of Palestine. These thoughts come easily enough to the American mind, but for some reason it's hard for Americans to empathize with the Palestinians and at least see why those people might consider the entire Zionist project unfair or unjust.

Why should the Arabs of Palestine be treated as if they were aboriginal people like the Native Americans or Native Australians, after all their years of civilization? Why, in the middle of the 20th century, was their land considered eligible for conquest? Were they the only people on Earth obliged to make room for other people they didn't invite to their land? For that matter, why did the Jews have a special right to return to a lost land after 2,000 years? What about people who had been more recently dispossessed? Did they have a right of return, or a right of conquest, in their own stomping grounds? If you granted the Jews a special right to return, was that because of the way you read the Bible? Did Zionists have a right that other diasporic or dispossessed peoples did not share, because they were chosen by God? What if you didn't believe in God, or in the Bible? What if you said that Judaism was a religion rather than a nation, and that the Jewish people had no more right to a country of their own than the Mormons did? Why should you ever acquiesce in the Zionist conquest?

The simple reason, of course, is that the United Nations said that the Jewish people could have a country. If we want the United States to be governed by the international community, than the Arabs and Muslims must submit to the same rules. You might protest that the U.N. was relatively unrepresentative while much of the world was still colonized by Europe, and you might speculate that the partition vote might have gone differently if the Third World could have had their say, but just as Americans are still bound by laws made by less democratic legislatures than our present bodies, so the law remains the law internationally. This answer won't make the Arabs feel better, and it won't open their eyes to any sudden light of reason. But it tells us that if we really believe in international law , we have to demand some kind of final reconciliation. But to appreciate what's necessary to reach that reconciliation, we have to take seriously how the Arabs and Muslims feel about what happened, instead of dismissing their protests as hateful, puerile bloodlust. Reconciliation will probably require some kind of compensation from one side, just as it will require some final admission of defeat from the other. Simply demanding unconditional surrender hasn't really gotten us anywhere. It's been sixty years already, so it's probably time to try something different.

07 May 2008

A "Band Aid" for Gas Poisoning

One of our local TV news readers fancies himself a writer. He publishes a weekly column in one of the local newspapers. This week's column is a plea in favor of a Republican scheme to suspend the state tax of gas, which was approved today by the GOP-controlled state senate.

Our writer tells a harrowing anecdote about a woman in a grocery line having to unload her shopping bag, leaving behind a bag of Oreos, because she was short on cash. "People are hurting," he notes, "Families are having to choose between buying prescription medicine or meat."

He adds:

Thirty two cents a gallon would make a huge difference immediately to people as they struggle to pay their rising bills. Democrats [are] quick to say it's not a solution and would just create a new set of problems. You know what, they're right but I say do it anyway. Cut the gas tax at the local, state and federal level and give people relief. We'll deal with the financial fallout later.
I like our new governor [David Paterson] but listening to him explain how cutting gas prices is not going to help you just made me angry. I feel like we're bleeding, standing in the emergency room and the doctor on duty is explaining how putting a band-aid on the wound will not help us in the long run. For now I think we need to stop the bleeding.

At no point in the column does our anchorman suggest an option that would provide the relief he begs for without creating the problems predicted by skeptics: price controls on gas. This might create a problem of its own if it leads to overconsumption, but people are predicting that if the gas tax goes away. So it would seem to hurt only the oil companies, in the way that life often hurts a spoiled child until it grows up. Yet our author doesn't propose this sensible measure. Since he quickly disclaims any Republican loyalties, I guess this is less due to ideology than to a basic lack of imagination -- the kind of political imagination that gets stunted in our culture of freedom. For some people, however, simple survival instinct is bound to kick in soon, and more imagination is sure to follow in its wake.

Clinton & Obama: Party Poopers

Two more states have voted and the Democratic campaign goes on. Senator Obama's lead remains apparently insurmountable, but he remains unlikely to secure a majority of all delegates before the convention. That fact enables Senator Clinton to continue to make a case to superdelegates for her superior electability. Opinion polls continue to reveal personal animosity between the two factions, sizable minorities of each declaring their refusal to support the other's candidate in the general election, despite the urgings of the candidates themselves. Liberals lament this bitterness, but these people's instincts are at least partly correct. It is their right to prefer persons over parties. The only fault I find with them is that their feelings are pretty much all personal; one group hates Hillary, the other abominates Obama.

What liberals lament about this, of course, is that it might cost them the election and elevate Senator McCain. To be fair, it would be pretty sad if the warmongerer were elected out of liberal spite toward a fellow liberal. But hard-core Clintonites and Obamites have as much right as anyone to reject the Bipolarchical logic that orders them to vote for someone they despise as the only alternative to someone they despise more. As always, I insist that every American citizen has the sovereign right to vote for whomever he believes would make the best president, regardless of whether that candidate is "viable" or has a "realistic" chance of winning. Our first duty is to vote for the best, not against the worst. The people to blame for the election of the worst candidate are those who voted for him, not those who refused to vote for the next-worst. For someone to argue, for instance, that the only way to prevent a war against Iran, or to end the Iraqi occupation, is to vote against McCain, and therefore for whomever the Democrats nominate, is to say that the ordinary American's responsibility for preventing a foolhardy war begins and ends on Election Day. We have a responsibility to prevent an Iranian war, if we think it unwise or unjust, no matter who gets elected. If McCain wins, that only means our individual responsibility as citizens to pressure our representatives to deny him any irresponsible authorization becomes that much greater. That applies equally to the Democratic candidates, and especially to Clinton.

The above was a long-winded way of saying that those who refuse to vote for the Democratic nominee won't be responsible for either McCain's elections or his actions as President. That also applies retroactively to those who refused to vote for Gore in 2000 or Kerry in 2004: don't blame them for George W. Bush, but blame Republican voters instead. Blame the Democratic party for failing to nominate better candidates. If you must blame other people for the past or the future, blame them for failing after repeated quadrennial disappointments to figure out a better way of choosing candidates and presidents.

05 May 2008

Before you drink that Corona ...

On 5 May 1862, a Mexican army defeated French forces at the Battle of Puebla. The French went on to occupy the country and appoint a monarch to rule it in the name of Napoleon III. They were able to get away with that because the U.S. was preoccupied by a Civil War. During the French regime, Mexicans in the United States made the date of the early victory an occasion of patriotic observance. To this day, it's more a Mexican-American holiday than a Mexican one. South of the border, it is not a mandatory holiday, and is only observed intensively in the vicinity of Puebla itself. When "Cinco de Mayo" became a national drinking day in this country, nearly equal to St. Patrick's, I don't really know, but I bet it had more to do with the interests of brewers and bar owners than it did with the ethnic pride of Mexicans.

If you're determined to observe the day, you might want to hoist one for Karl Marx, for whom the defeat of an imperialist army by indigenous forces would probably have been happy news on his 44th birthday. Try not to blame him for all the crap that Lenin and his imitators perpetrated in Marx's name, and why not take a look at the Communist Manifesto and see how much of what he describes, rather than what he predicts, rings true to this day?

04 May 2008

Fake Populism: Exhibit A

After you read this story, there's really nothing I can add, except to note that, at least when Senator McCain said he didn't know much about economics, he didn't say he'd never listen to them. Senator Clinton seems to have stolen this particular issue from McCain, and by the time she's done with it, the Arizonan will probably not regret the theft.

What the story doesn't tell you, but Senator Obama did on Meet the Press this morning, was that his home state of Illinois already tried a gas-tax holiday, after he as a legislator voted for it, and it didn't work, which is why he opposes the idea now. But perhaps it's elitist to listen to experience, as well.

Next: the War on Autocracy?

You'll be happy to hear that the terrorists cannot win. That's the conclusion of Robert Kagan, who reasons that, since Islamists want to take the world back 1,400 years, that just can't happen. It looks like simplistic reasoning, but at least Kagan isn't as alarmist about terrorism as some people. His vision of the future differs somewhat from Philip Bobbitt's. While Bobbitt worries about loose-knit "market state" terrorists, Kagan is bugged by the persistence of nation states, at least certain ones.

Kagan has published a new book called The Return of History and the End of Dreams, which was digested in a recent issue of The New Republic. He takes another kick at the dead horse that was Francis Fukuyama's "end of history" thesis. To bring everyone up to speed, Fukuyama theorized that the end of the Cold War meant an end to any debate over the best form of economic and political organization; it was going to be liberal capitalism for everyone in the long run. Kagan only states the obvious by reminding us that this is a failed prophecy. His own neocon colors show when he declares a new great debate under way, between the forces of "democracy" and those of "autocracy."

Democracy, as you might guess, is embodied by the U.S. and the E.U., as well as Japan and India. They are the good guys. The bad guys, or at least the worst, are China and Russia. They are "autocracies." That news surprised me. I understood the word "autocracy" to refer to one-man rule on the model of an absolute monarchy, so that a Romanov tsar, for instance, was called "autocrat of all the Russias." Now Vladimir Putin may play the strongman role in Russia, but calling him an autocrat, a term also used for Joseph Stalin, seems a bit of a stretch. It's even more of a stretch to refer to the nearly faceless bureaucracy that runs China as an "autocracy," especially compared to the personality-cult days of Chairman Mao.

The way Kagan seems to see it, a country is an autocracy if it rigs the system to prevent an opposition party from taking over the government. He wants us to understand that autocracy is a kind of ideology, which he defines as follows:

The rulers of Russia and China believe in the virtues of a strong central government and disdain the weaknesses of the democratic system. They believe their large and fractious nations need order and stability to prosper. They believe that the vacillation and chaos of democracy would impoverish and shatter their nations, and in the case of Russia [under Yeltsin] that it already did so. They believe that strong rule at home is necessary if their nations are to be powerful and respected in the world, capable of safeguarding and advancing their interests.

Kagan admits that there's nothing new about this. It was pretty much the Western tradition until the American and French revolutions broke out. You can actually catch a small echo of it in the words of our own Founders when they worry about the influence of "faction," which later came to be accepted as the "party system." Other countries have never rejected the idea that "faction" is illegitimate. "Faction" and "dissent" are not the same. The problem with authoritarian states is that they confuse the two, but democratic republics can also confuse dissent with "subversion" or "treason." What distinguishes the "democracies" is their willingness to allow a complete albeit peaceful turnover of the government, the replacement of bureaucracy belonging to one faction with another. The price we pay is "partisanship," the tendency to put the electoral interests of parties over a theoretically objective national interest. By contrast, authoritarian governments identify themselves completely with the state ("L'Etat, c'est moi."). Any movement that seeks to completely replace the governing apparatus is self-evidently factional and subversive. There can be dissent within the governing apparatus itself (even Leninists in principle practice "democratic centralism," permitting principled debate within the Party but forbidding dispute once a decision is reached) but if dissidents choose to work outside that apparatus they necessarily appear subversive and self-serving from the authoritarian perspective.

To differing degrees, China and Russia are authoritarian regimes. I prefer that to "autocracy," not just because I think Kagan's usage is inaccurate, but also because he uses it as a scare word a la "Islamofascism." However realistic he wants to sound, he calls regimes "autocracies" because he wants us to think of them as the enemy, if not as outright evil. He predicts that they will often prove to be enemies of the democracies and will stand in the way of democratic wars against terror when it serves their selfish national and personal interests. He also argues that they'll be enemies out of a sense of self-preservation.

Kagan seems to agree with Bobbitt that democracies cannot leave non-democratic entities alone. He previously wrote a history attempting to prove that the U.S. has always been an interventionist power, and he expects the country to keep behaving that way. The "autocracies" have responded by becoming dogmatic defenders of national sovereignty, and are "pushing back" against pressure from the democracies by supporting smaller "autocracies" like Sudan, Myanmar and Iran (the last of which no objective observer would call autocratic even by Kagan's debased standard). Thanks to the growing wealth of Russia and China, he claims, "Autocracy is making a comeback" and "a global competition [of ideas] is under way." It's an odd competition in that, to my knowledge, no one in Russia or China is arguing that "autocracy" or whatever they choose to call it should be adopted by the U.S. or the E.U. countries. Nor, to my knowledge, are the two big powers trying to replace any existing governments with "autocracies." In fact, Kagan doesn't ever accuse them of doing so. But by the mere fact of their refusing to conform with democracy as defined by the U.S., "the global competition between democratic governments and autocratic governments will become a dominating feature of the twenty-first century world."

It should be obvious by now that this competition exists only in the heads of Kagan and like-minded colleagues who can't let go of the idea of "liberating" the entire world so that no border, indeed, no door is shut to them. These are the people I described before as being unable to accept the idea that there are parts of the world where they are not welcome. They lament the plight of the poor people and suffering dissidents in these countries, but however sincere they are about that (and in most cases we shouldn't doubt them), it should also be obvious that when they demand that the rights of Americans apply in Russia or China, they're also demanding that they have rights in those countries, even to the utmost of toppling governments. There need not be any irrepressible conflict (to use an old American term) between the U.S. and the authoritarian states as long as we acknowledge that the whole world doesn't belong to "the individual," and that nations are organic realities that have interests and rights that may not always override but always must be weighed alongside the rights of "the individual." In short, if we accept the same principle that China and Russia already accept, that the internal affairs of other countries are none of our business, we'll get along with most of them much better.

01 May 2008

Did you miss the holiday?

By the time many people get around to reading this post, May 1 will already be over, and with it will have passed their opportunity to celebrate Law Day. In case you were unaware, every May 1 is Law Day in the U.S.A. ever since the Eisenhower administration. Ike hoped that public events would honor the country's commitment to the rule of law, but he might have had better luck if he hadn't scheduled commemorations for the same date as International Workers' Day. Law Day is pretty obviously intended as an alternative to demonstrations of working-class, organized-labor solidarity, and while we don't see much of those, either, these days, at least over here, I haven't noticed any Law Day parades in, well, my entire lifetime. As a patriotic holiday, it's had no better success than Loyalty Day, which today also happens to be, as mandated back in the 1920s.

The impression I get is that the only special occasion anyone acknowledges today is the fifth anniversary of the "Mission Accomplished" landing of President Bush on the Abraham Lincoln to mark the end of "major combat operations" in Iraq. This milestone might be appropriately observed by reflecting on the fact that American fatalities in that country surged during the last month to the highest tally since September 2007. You can draw your own conclusions.