Sunday, March 28, 2010

Why are so many Americans so crazy?

If Obama’s first legislative priority had been immigration or financial reform or climate change, we would have seen the same trajectory. The conjunction of a black president and a female speaker of the House — topped off by a wise Latina on the Supreme Court and a powerful gay Congressional committee chairman — would sow fears of disenfranchisement among a dwindling and threatened minority in the country no matter what policies were in play. It’s not happenstance that Frank, Lewis and Cleaver — none of them major Democratic players in the health care push — received a major share of last weekend’s abuse. When you hear demonstrators chant the slogan “Take our country back!,” these are the people they want to take the country back from. Frank Rich - NYT

Over half of surveyed Republicans said they believe that the president is a socialist Muslim who wants to take away gun rights and turn over U.S. sovereignty to the U.N. What’s deeper, though, is the vitriol of those beliefs, with a substantial number of Republicans believing that Obama resents America's heritage (47 percent), is the "domestic enemy that the U.S. Constitution speaks of" (45 percent), wants to use an economic or terrorist event as an excuse to take dictatorial powers (41 percent), is doing some of the same stuff that Hitler did (38 percent), and may, in fact, be the Anti-Christ (24 percent). Daily Beast    
David Seaton's News Links
Just to begin by giving a quick answer to the question posed by the title of this post, "Why are so many Americans so crazy?". The answer is that living in a cloud of misinformation, they are being driven insane.

There is always the temptation to see certain people as reasonable when they aren't. "Come now, and let us reason together, saith the LORD: though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow; though they be red like crimson, they shall be as wool. Isaiah 1:18", was the favorite bible passage of Lyndon Baines Johnson and it describes the basic attitude of all successful negotiators. The lesson learned from the epic battle to pass a more than tame and mediocre health bill is that it is impossible to negotiate with whipped up insanity.

All of this insanity, from tea party to Antichrist is about using racism to distract people from seeing clearly what is right in front of their faces.

Essentially what we have is Rupert Murdoch in the role of Joseph Goebbels,  with Beck and company playing post-modern George Wallace, nightly on Fox.

The idea is very simple, classic really. The system is in crisis, social inequality is widening and hardening, so stimulating paranoia and racism is a simple and effective way of keeping people from thinking about things like taxing the rich in order to get good public schools, affordable health care and other such Bolshevik twaddle.

To understand this craziness we have to turn it inside out. The first thing about it that catches my attention in the Harris and similar polls is that a significant portion of the American population is totally paranoid and extremely suggestible. If we discount genetics and/or some hallucinogen that has been added to the water, we would have to look at objective factors to account for this vulnerability.

To begin with America's cult of competition, of dividing people from childhood into "winners" and "losers", has created an entire nation within the nation of losers: an enormous mass of people who feel terrible about themselves.

The American Dream is based on social mobility, but a great many Americans have not "moved" up since they arrived, even many who arrived during colonial times. At this moment many are on an express elevator moving down.

Since colonial times the subjugation and humiliation of African-Americans has provided a valuable tool in defusing social tensions in the rest of the population.

It all goes back that far.

Probably the most valuable service to domestic peace that slaves provided even, or especially, for those who didn't own them, was the role of being someone even the most miserable white person could feel superior to.

The real problem in America is not racism in itself, the problem is a society or a culture that divides human beings into "winners" and "losers" and punishes the losers so mercilessly. These unfortunates simply cannot survive psychologically without their "whipping boy". Racism is a tool of social control. The classic "divide and rule".

That is the dirty little family secret of American capitalism: keeping the races at each others throats prevents the social democracy that exists in practically every other country of similar economic development.

God knows that America is full of desperately miserable white people. Not all of them are poor, not by long shot.

For losing and feeling miserable in America is not just economic, a study of marketing messages will give you an idea of the infinite ways that an American can be a "loser".

The entire American consumer economy, which is 70% of the total, is based on making people feel bad about themselves, making them feel poor, ugly, sick, helpless, stupid, inadequate and then offering to sell them something to relieve the pain of rejection and failure. A person of color might blame all the frustrations of life on race prejudice and he or she would be right in most cases. The white loser, and they are legion, hasn't ever had that safety valve.

Those whites who fear they might be "losers" themselves, and if we look at the economic and psychological facts of life in today's American, that might include most American whites, desperately need someone to look down upon as a psychological safety valve and of course, since time immemorial African-Americans, even the lightest skinned among them, have served that purpose. Their status as loser was even pleasing to the abolitionists that wanted to "uplift" them.

For literally hundreds of years, besides this role as the official ultimate-loser, no other role beyond entertaining or lifting heavy loads was permitted them.

In 1952 an African-American author, Ralph Ellison published a ground breaking novel, “The Invisible Man”, whose title many critics feel defined the experience of people of African descent in America: that of being invisible and voiceless. In the years that followed, the people of color in the United States raised their voices and became visible, to the great and continuing discomfort of many whites. The white people of the US south who once voted solidly Democratic have punished that party’s leadership of the civil rights movement by voting solidly Republican ever since… the key to the victories of Nixon, Reagan and Bush. The “Conservative Revolution”, that only favors the rich, is based on the resentment of poor whites and gives the wealthy the necessary numbers to win elections.

With Barack Obama this resentment is coming to head.

Up till now, American "identity" politics was always played with surrogates: WASP or "waspable" white men wearing masks.

Thus Bill Clinton was "America's first black president". The whatever WASP whose turn it was to woo Latinos, would eat tacos and say "juntos podemos" with an atrocious accent etc, etc. Candidates would attempt to show that they were "sensitive" to the feminist agenda and so on. Absolutely de rigueur for all white, male and protestant presidentiables was a photo at Yad Vashem sporting a yomulka. This all came with the turf like kissing babies. It was all a game.

The problems start when the Democrats decided to use "originals" instead of the traditional, "ballo in maschera". The whole charade begins to fall apart without the WASP surrogates.

All of this resentful white anger has been directed heretofore against surrogates: the Jimmy Carters, the Ted Kennedys, the Walter Mondales, the Dukakises, the Gores and the Kerrys; and all the racism was disguised in euphemisms like "state's rights" or "liberal" or "elitist" or "un-American".

Now for the first time the American white ultra-right have got the chance to actually organize and march against a real black man who incarnates all the euphemisms, instead of a surrogate.

Even a "JFK meets Sydney Poitier" figure like president Barack Obama, or especially like Obama, is an unbearable provocation -- a lifetime membership card in the "loser" club -- for millions of American white people.

What is to be done? How to proceed.

Take a look at the two quotes below. I think that between them they hold the germs of program for the American left... if such an animal really exists.
"Reagan’s view of government as the problem is increasingly at odds with a nation whose system of health care relies on large for-profit entities designed to make money rather than improve health; whose economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America; and much of whose fuel comes from unstable and dangerous areas of the world. Under these conditions, government is the only entity that can look out for our interests." Robert Reich
The deeper point--the ones the tea partiers haven’t courage nor the brains to see--is that our technological age has laid bare a core fact of American life: that our corporatist state uses white men and women just like it uses black, brown and yellow ones--as cannon fodder. There is little “upward mobility.” Your children probably won’t live as well as you, much less better. Your 2nd and 3rd mortgages made them billions and then they bankrupted you. They stole your future itself. Leonce Gaiter
The ideas expressed here are not very complicated, they would be practically self-evident if so much time and media effort plus financial fiction had not been expended in clouding all these realities.

When Robert Reich speaks of health care saying that America's "economy is dependent on global capital and on global corporations and financial institutions with no particular loyalty to America", he is underlining one of the principal facts of our world today, i.e. non-state actors, like multinational corporations, effectively controlled by a small percentage of the share holders and/or a management elite, are often more powerful than elected governments. This means, as Reich points out, that empowering government, which we elect, is the only defense we have against these unelected, non-state actors, who are indifferent to our welfare, whose only motive is profit.

Leonce Gaiter makes clear that this relationship with the non-state actors is an oppressive one and that with the bursting of the credit bubble and the destruction of the "wealth effect" created by endless credit, many people are finding themselves to be much less "middle class" then their advertising created fantasies led them to believe. Their treasured self-image is well tarnished and they are discovering that, as Gaiter says, "our corporatist state uses white men and women just like it uses black, brown and yellow ones--as cannon fodder." So in this crisis any person who lives from his salary and whose only patrimony is/was the house he lives/lived in, is, in the words of Marx and Engels, "at last compelled to face with sober senses, his real conditions of life, and his relations with his kind".

Alas, few are equipped either by temperament or by training to face with "sober senses" either the "real conditions" of their lives or the "relations with their kind". This lack makes them easy prey for movements like the Tea Party that fill the paths to truth with the traditional red herrings of American racism disguised as libertarianism.

This nauseating and supremely effective tactic is being trotted out once again.

At this moment the fundamental role of progressive Americans is to expose and root out racism.

The day when Americans in similar economic straits cease to see skin color and see clearly and soberly what they all have in common, in the same way  that the wealthy and powerful minority always have: on that day will the battle for social justice in the United States be more than half won. DS

Monday, March 22, 2010

Looking into the mirror of the healthcare battle

"A mountain had gone into labor and was groaning terribly. Such rumors excited great expectations all over the country. In the end, however, the mountain gave birth to a mouse." Aesop
David Seaton's News Links
There is this saying in Spanish, "did we need such big saddlebags for such a short ride?"

I'm have been having trouble getting deep into this health care battle. I live in  a rather typical European socialized medicine system and even the wildest of European conservatives, and believe me some of them are pretty wild, wouldn't ever dream of privatizing any of those systems down to the size of this "history making" American bill.

The need for a national health system in any developed country is so obvious that I have finally come to the conclusion that the extraordinarily vile opposition to this decaffeinated bill, (the "grass roots" opposition, not that of the insurance and pharma lobbies of course), is entirely racist.

I read this comment over on the BBC site that expressed all this very well:
For those of us who lived through the early days of the civil rights movement, survived busing, dealt with outbreaks of the Ku Klux Klan and the Black Panthers, sit-ins, be-ins and such,one can see the thinly veiled racism that drives the anti-Obama movement. The republican party vowed to destroy his presidency. This health care reform debate has NOTHING to do with health care, economics or anything reasonable. It is unfortunate, but the United States is a classist, racist, economically and socially backward and bigoted country. I am a white woman who is educated and lives in the South. Believe me, this is about our President's race, nothing else. And those who are so evil and bigoted should be ashamed of themselves, but they have neither the good sense, the moral fiber or the will to actually grow up and act like adults.
I'm afraid I have to agree with her. Anyone who could think this sorry little half-baked piece of legislation is "socialism", wouldn't know a socialist if he came up and bit them on the ass. I have to admit that the sole explanation for such incredibly vituperative virulence can only be racial bigotry.

I think the enormous battle to pass this innocuous bill holds up a very unflattering mirror for the American people to look into.

Rather than heralding a "post racial America", the Obama presidency may lead to America's PC "carpet" being finally pulled back and all the nasties that have been carefully swept under it all these years come crawling out, biting and stinging, into the light of day. This may turn out to be very healthy, but it sure wont be pretty. DS

Saturday, March 20, 2010

"Obama's war on Israel?", so says Caroline Glick

David Seaton's News Link
Caroline Glick is the number one op-ed columnist of English language, Israeli newspaper, The Jerusalem Post, which could be credibly linked to both The Wall Street Journal and the neocon faction in the USA. Here is how Wikipedia describes her:
Glick was born in Chicago and graduated from Columbia College of Columbia University in 1991 with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science. She immigrated to Israel in 1991 and joined the Israel Defense Forces (IDF). She worked in the IDF's Judge Advocate General division during the First Intifada in 1992, and while there edited and co-authored an IDF-published book, Israel, the Intifada and the Rule of Law. Following the Oslo Accords, she worked as coordinator of negotiations with the Palestinian Authority. She retired from the military with the rank of captain at the end of 1996. In 1997 and 1998 she served as assistant foreign policy advisor to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. She returned to the US to get her Master of Arts in Public Policy from Harvard University's Kennedy School of Government, in 2000. Upon her return to Israel, she became, and remains, the chief diplomatic correspondent for Makor Rishon newspaper, for which she writes a weekly column in Hebrew. She is also the deputy managing editor of The Jerusalem Post for which she writes two weekly syndicated columns. Her writings have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, the National Review, The Boston Globe, the Chicago Sun-Times, The Washington Times, Maariv and major Jewish newspapers worldwide. She has appeared on MSNBC, Fox News Channel, Sky News, the Christian Broadcasting Network, and all of Israel's major television networks. She also makes frequent radio appearances both in the US and Israel.
Without getting into touchy themes like "dual loyalty", I think it might be fair to say that Ms. Glick keeps a foot in both camps and has a finger in several pies. In many ways she could be held up as an example of what a strange path right-wing American Zionism has taken since the 1980s in evaluating what the United States of America is, what Americans are and what America's role in the world should be.

This is Caroline Glick on Barack Obama and the "crisis" in US-Israeli relations. (I have emphasized some of the juicy parts for lazier readers)
(I)nstead of acting like his predecessors, Obama has behaved like the Palestinians. Rather than reward Netanyahu for taking a risk for peace, Obama has, in the model of Yasser Arafat and Mahmoud Abbas, pocketed Netanyahu's concessions and escalated his demands. This is not the behavior of a mediator. This is the behavior of an adversary. (...) And so, in the wake of Obama's onslaught on Israel's right to Jerusalem, Palestinian incitement against Israel and Jews has risen to levels not seen since the outbreak of the last terror war in September 2000. And just as night follows day, that incitement has led to violence. This week's Arab riots from Jerusalem to Jaffa, and the renewed rocket offensive from Gaza are directly related to Obama's malicious attacks on Israel.(...)  Obama's assault on Israel is likely related to the failure of his Iran policy. Over the past week, senior administration officials including Gen. David Petraeus have made viciously defamatory attacks on Israel, insinuating that the construction of homes for Jews in Jerusalem is a primary cause for bad behavior on the part of Iran and its proxies in Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, Syria and Gaza.(...) he may be attacking Israel in a bid to coerce Netanyahu into agreeing to give Obama veto power over any Israeli strike against Iran's nuclear installations.(...) Obama's advisers told friendly reporters that Obama wants to bring down Netanyahu's government. By making demands Netanyahu and his coalition partners cannot accept, Obama hopes to either bring down the government and replace Netanyahu and Likud with the far-leftist Tzipi Livni and Kadima, or force Israel Beiteinu and Shas to bolt the coalition and compel Netanyahu to accept Livni as a co-prime minister.(...) (H)e seeks to realign US foreign policy away from Israel. Obama's constant attempts to cultivate relations with Iran's unelected president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Ahmadinejad's Arab lackey Syrian dictator Bashar Assad, and Turkey's Islamist Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan make clear that he views developing US relations with these anti-American regimes as a primary foreign policy goal.(...) His consistent castigation of Israel as obstructionist and defiant has led some surveys to claim that over the past year US popular support for Israel has dropped from 77 to 58 percent. The more Obama fills newspaper headlines with allegations that Israel is responsible for everything from US combat deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan to Iran's nuclear program, the lower those numbers can be expected to fall. And the more popular American support for Israel falls, the easier it will be for Obama to engineer an open breach with the Jewish state.(...)  Likewise, the crisis Obama has manufactured with Israel could pave the way for him to recognize a Palestinian state if the Palestinians follow through on their threat to unilaterally declare statehood next year regardless of the status of negotiations with Israel. Such a US move could in turn lead to the deployment of US forces in Judea and Samaria to "protect" the unilaterally declared Palestinian state from Israel.(...) The question is, what should Netanyahu do? One front in the war Obama has started is at home. Netanyahu must ensure that he maintains popular domestic support for his government to scuttle Obama's plan to overthrow his government. So far, in large part due to Obama's unprecedented nastiness, Netanyahu's domestic support has held steady.(...) Netanyahu has to keep two issues in mind. First, no foreign leader can win a popularity contest against a sitting US president. Therefore, Netanyahu must continue to avoid any personal attacks on Obama.(...) Netanyahu must remember that Obama's hostility toward Israel is not shared by the majority of Americans.(...) While in Washington, Netanyahu should meet with every Congressman and Senator who wishes to meet with him as well as every administration member who seeks him out. (...) Obama has made clear that he is not Israel's ally. And for the remainder of his term, he will do everything he can to downgrade US relations with Israel while maintaining his constant genuflection to the likes of Iran, Syria, the Palestinians and Turkey. 
Whew! That's about as rough as it comes.

Anybody that reads my stuff knows that I have yet to be converted to Obamism and they probably know that I think that taking on Israel before getting health care or moving decisively to create more jobs is a strategic error of a certain magnitude (as we can see in Glick's advice as to what Netanyahu should do while in Washington.) I also have a certain suspicion that this all might be a "bad cop, good cop" routine in which the Palestinians get screwed for the umpteenth time.


If half of what Ms. Glick says is true, and Barack Obama has actually got the nads to use nothing less than the US Army to turn all America's rednecks, who love Jesus almost as much as they love the US Army and the US Marines, against Israel, because they are endangering "our troops" and thus make the Israelis comply with the letter and the spirit of UN-242, then, brothers and sisters, verily shall I fall down upon my knees and bathe Obama's feet with my tears and dry them with what is left of my hair and consider myself as truly one of his flock. DS

Thursday, March 18, 2010

What is a girl like you doing in a box like that?

 The message couldn't be plainer: Israel's intransigence could cost American lives. " Mark Perry - Foreign Policy
Pfc. Erin L. McLyman, 26, of Federal Way, Wash., died March 13, 2010 in Balad, Iraq, of wounds sustained when enemy forces attacked her base with mortar fire. She was assigned to the 296th Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Stryker Brigade Combat Team, 2nd Infantry Division, Joint Base Lews-McChord, Wash. Government Press Release (hat to Rutabaga Ridgepole)
David Seaton's News Links
When I followed up the government press release, the picture of Erin McLyman that I found in the Tacoma News Tribune, hit me like a punch in the stomach. Paint a red beard on her and she looks just like I did at 26... That's the age she was when she died.

My family tree is filled with McThises and McThats and before it turned gray I had the same Celtic red hair as Erin did, and so did my mom, and so did her mom, and for that matter so did her mom too... and Badb only knows how many more of us before that.

If this tribal business is so important in all things pertaining to the Middle East,  Erin might not have been of "The Tribe", but she sure as hell was from my tribe.

It also brought it home to me that when we hear talk about "support our troops", it's not like when I was a kid and they were "our boys"... Now it's "our girls" that are also getting cut down by enemy fire, in a useless war, in what, with no exaggeration, we could call the "the flower of their youth".
The latest Joint Base Lewis-McChord soldier reported killed in Iraq overcame drug addiction in her teen years and later served in the Air Force and Army before dying from mortar fire on her first deployment. (...) The 26-year-old is the fourth soldier from the Stryker brigade to die since it deployed in August; the first three were not combat-related.(...) And, to underscore the increasing role women play in combat zones, three of the past four Lewis-McChord soldiers to die in Iraq have been women. Tacoma WA. News Tribune
She looks vital and charming in the photo, but as you see reading the article she didn't have that easy a life. She was obviously a person of will power, able to take control of her life and possessed of a desire to escape a toxic environment and have something to be proud of.

Her short life and violent death also brings home some other things that bear thinking about. According to her home town newspaper she was proud to serve, and her family is proud of her sacrifice.

If she was and they are, we should be too.

But, to me it is a hell of a thing that we have arranged our economic system in such a way that, these days, practically the only way that a pretty working class girl with only a high school education can avoid the fate of slaving, working-poor, in a Walmart or as a waitress in a funky bar and all that goes with that and manage to achieve a structured life with good medical care and opportunities for vocational training or further education and a decent pension on retiring is to have to risk losing her life or getting mutilated in some far off land. ... And find herself buying the farm just for trying to get the things that are simply normal entitlements that go with citizenship in most developed countries.

Helluva thing. DS

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Between the rock (Petraeus) and a hard place (AIPAC)

It doesn't come much clearer than this:
John Podhoretz commenting on the Obama administration's criticism of Israel
"It's hard right now to see any benefits that will accrue from it, especially this week, when he needs every ounce of his own political strength to get the House to act as he wishes on health care; and this year, when he will need every ounce of financial and political support he can squeeze out of his party's core voters and donors to mitigate the effects of a looming political disaster." 
Or this:
On Jan. 16, two days after a killer earthquake hit Haiti, a team of senior military officers from the U.S. Central Command (responsible for overseeing American security interests in the Middle East), arrived at the Pentagon to brief Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Adm. Michael Mullen on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The team had been dispatched by CENTCOM commander Gen. David Petraeus to underline his growing worries at the lack of progress in resolving the issue. The 33-slide, 45-minute PowerPoint briefing stunned Mullen. The briefers reported that there was a growing perception among Arab leaders that the U.S. was incapable of standing up to Israel (...) Not surprisingly, what Biden told Netanyahu reflected the importance the administration attached to Petraeus's Mullen briefing: "This is starting to get dangerous for us," Biden reportedly told Netanyahu. "What you're doing here undermines the security of our troops who are fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan. That endangers us and it endangers regional peace." (...) The message couldn't be plainer: Israel's intransigence could cost American lives. " Mark Perry - Foreign Policy
David Seaton's News Links
That is the situation: the United States armed forces want a viable Palestinian state soon...  Yesterday if possible, so that they can withdraw as bloodlessly and with as much of their honor intact as possible from Iraq and Afghanistan. But, if Obama tries to force the Israelis to do that, he may very well lose most of his Jewish votes and financing and media support coming into the fall elections and beyond.

Well, that's easy for a politician you'll say, just fudge it, because every president that has tried to rein in the Israelis beginning with Gerald Ford, has come to grief. However, this is the first time that the US armed forces have ever been bogged down in the Middle East, taking casualties and stressing their capabilities to the utmost. You may have forgotten that the USA is supposedly ruled by a military-industrial complex, the Israelis sure seem to have.

Perry finishes his piece with the following:
There are important and powerful lobbies in America: the NRA, the American Medical Association, the lawyers -- and the Israeli lobby. But no lobby is as important, or as powerful, as the U.S. military. While commentators and pundits might reflect that Joe Biden's trip to Israel has forever shifted America's relationship with its erstwhile ally in the region, the real break came in January, when David Petraeus sent a briefing team to the Pentagon with a stark warning: America's relationship with Israel is important, but not as important as the lives of America's soldiers. Maybe Israel gets the message now.
So you can see that POTUS is caught between a rock and a hard place. It will be interesting to see how, or if,  he can get out of this trap.

Among the many questions I ask myself is why it took the US military so long to connect the dots?

The neocons have really screwed it up good. Their idea was to draw the US military into a war in the Middle East and by having them break Iraq and then Iran, with Egypt already neutralized,  this would allow the Israelis to deal with the Palestinian "problem" at their leisure. The exact opposite has happened. Now the US armed forces are putting pressure on the Israelis. It wasn't supposed to be like that!

In the coming days we are going to get all sorts of spin and pleading in the coming days and weeks and very little of it will have the tone of The New York Times' Roger Cohen:
Peace is a vital American interest for many reasons, including its inalienable commitment to Israel’s long-term security, but the most pressing is that the conflict is a jihadist recruitment tool that feeds the wars in which young Americans die.
However, I'm afraid a great deal of it will take the tone that John Podhoretz takes in Commentary:
Hillary Clinton called up Bibi Netanyahu on Friday and, if one reads between the lines in the reporting on their conversation, basically screamed at him for 45 minutes. Then her spokesman went out and told the world she had done so, and used startlingly violent language — calling the announcement a "deeply negative signal." That is the kind of talk a country uses against an enemy, and that is why the reaction to it from the Jewish community has been so stark. AIPAC issued a statement the likes of which I'm not sure we've ever seen before, a directly confrontational take on the administration: "The Obama Administration’s recent statements regarding the U.S. relationship with Israel are a matter of serious concern. AIPAC calls on the Administration to take immediate steps to defuse the tension with the Jewish State." Abe Foxman of the Anti-Defamation League, who doesn't usually speak so directly, especially to Democratic presidents, said, "We are shocked and stunned at the Administration’s tone and public dressing down of Israel on the issue of future building in Jerusalem. We cannot remember an instance when such harsh language was directed at a friend and ally of the United States.”
The fat is in the fire, from here on out, there will be many very articulate and sophisticated arguments and great financial and political pressure employed trying to refute this very simple and powerful message: The lives of young American men and women serving in uniform are in jeopardy because of Israeli intransigence.

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out and how Obama manages to talk his way out of this fix. DS

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Drones and the banality of evil

What appears to be a group of Muslims at prayer, caught in the cross hairs of a US drone
I heard a drone pilot explain it this way: You're going to war for one hour, and then you get in the car and drive home, and within two minutes you're sitting at the dinner table talking about your kids' homework. This is a very different experience of war.(...) You can see the videos on YouTube. It's turning war for some into a form of entertainment. The soldiers call that "war porn." We can see more but experience less. P.W. Singer of the Brookings Institution interviewed in Der Spiegel
David Seaton's News Links
I have been reading about the lives of American drone pilots. These are men and women who punch in at the office and then spend their working hours killing people who are half a world away by remote control, without any physical risk to themselves and  then they punch out and go home to a perfectly normal American suburban family life. This is truly what Hannah Arendt spoke of when she coined the phrase, "the banality of evil".

If you look at the world we are creating, where very few people control almost all the resources and these resources are shrinking, and then we have a technology where this tiny minority can physically control the rest of the world's population at little physical risk to themselves, you can see that we are going down a very sinister path.

While reading about drone pilots, it came to me that this situation has the makings of a great film, something that in the hands of the right director, armed with the right script, could be a landmark in the history of the American cinema, because to me the situation sums up something about contemporary American life that troubles all of us, something about alienation and disconnection that is difficult to express in prose, something that requires the perfect metaphor. In my opinion the drone pilot's life is that metaphor.

Hollywood is all about archetypes, stereotypes and allegories.

To give you an idea of the possibilities, imagine if Billy Wilder had filmed the situation with Jack Lemon as the drone pilot... "The Apartment", with collateral damage.

Maybe you would prefer Alfred Hitchcock in the director's seat with Jimmy Stewart as the desk bound killer. How would Hitchcock work in the suspense?

How would John Ford have handled it with Henry Fonda as the pilot?

Who could do it best today? Who would you cast in it?

I would like to open a conversation about this "film to be" in order to further explore this metaphor of the banality of evil. DS

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Joe Biden in Jerusalem

"We have no solution, you shall continue to live like dogs, and whoever wishes may leave, and we will see where this process leads." Moshe Dayan on the Palestinian "problem"
David Seaton's News Links
Reading about US Vice-President Joe Biden's humiliating pilgrimage to Jerusalem I had a Proustian flashback to a short conversation I overheard in the cafeteria of  Beit Sokolov, the government press office in Tel-Aviv, way back in the '70s, when I was a photojournalist there.

The then Prime Minister, Golda Meir, had just made a major speech in the Knesset and Jim, a Canadian, and Eli, a Dutchman, were translating it from Hebrew into English before telexing it to their papers, this while Suzi, the über-sexy, Hungarian hotty who tended the bar, plied us all with steaming glasses of Wissotzky tea.

The dialog went like this:
Jim: I just counted them, Golda used the word "Shalom" fourteen times!

Eli: So?

Jim: So, how do I translate that?

Eli: Huh?

Jim:  Well, Shalom means "peace", but it also means "hello-goodbye"... What do you thinks she meant?

Eli: "Hello-goodbye" probably.
To me, Eli and Jim's short conversation sums up perfectly the entire Israeli meaning of the word "peace", just as Moshe Dayan's quote at the top of the page sums up the entire Israeli meaning of the word "process" and  taken together they explain all the Israeli strategy and tactics that go into the words, "Peace Process". Vice President Biden's trip is simply another chapter in the saga. DS

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Obama: the sprint versus the Medusa

"The Medusa" (Hat to P. P. Rubens)
The leadership shortfall we’ve witnessed during Obama’s yearlong health care march — typified by the missed deadlines, the foggy identification of his priorities, the sometimes abrupt shifts in political tone and strategy — won’t go away once the bill does. This weakness will remain unless and until the president himself corrects it.(...) The problem is not necessarily that Obama is trying to do too much, but that there is no consistent, clear message to unite all that he is trying to do. Frank Rich - New York Times
David Seaton's News Links
As President Obama stumbles and bumbles along to the dismay of so many of his supporters and even the puzzlement of many who voted against him... the question keeps popping up: if his campaign was so professional, so brilliant, so focused, why is his presidency apparently going nowhere?

At the heart of it all is something of great simplicity: being very good at one thing is no guarantee that you'll be much good at something totally different and running for president is nothing like being president. People who were so impressed by Barack Obama's campaign skills might do well to remember that his predecessor, the massively incompetent George W. Bush, was famous for his campaign skills too.

To illustrate this concept I have chosen two images; the first is of a group of sprinters hitting the tape in a hundred meter dash and the other images is of the Medusa. The Medusa was a mythical monster in the form of a woman whose head was covered with writhing snakes instead of hair and whose gaze was supposed to turn men into stone... I imagine that most readers have a fairly clear idea of what a hundred meter dash consists of.

Running for president is a race. Some of the characteristics of a race are: it goes a definite distance, with a beginning and an end and everybody runs in the same direction and when they cross the finish line the race is over and someone has "won"... The winner gets a gold medal or gets to live in the White House for four years or whatever.

Being president is not like that, its not a race, there is no finish line, people are running all different directions, many of them are not running anywhere, in fact they refuse to move at all, while others fly, crawl, bite and sting and even swim. The Medusa was as close to a "one stop shop" of this idea as I could get.

The tactics for winning a footrace are linear. Managing the complexities of a country like the United States are like giving the Medusa a blow dry hair cut.

Of course in the Medusa myth Perseus cut off the Medusa's head and used it as weapon, here the metaphor might break down a bit... or maybe not.

It is all about priorities.

If Obama had identified creating jobs as his first priority and instead of fattening the bankers at taxpayer's expense, had nationalized the bankrupt institutions in trouble and fired the management and had given the shareholders a haircut, broken the nationalized banks into units small enough to fail without bringing down the world around our ears and then funneled federally funded credit to Main Street, and finally sold the sanitized banks at a  profit, right now he might find himself with the American people solidly behind him, eating out of his hand; find himself holding the Medusa by the ears and blandishing her in the face of a thug like Netanyahu and watching him "turn to stone", instead of having him able to humiliate the weak and fumbling President of the United States with a few Jerusalem apartments.

It is all about priorities.DS

Sunday, March 07, 2010

Iceland's ice-tea party

Viking Funeral

Icelanders voted overwhelmingly on Saturday to reject a €3.9bn debt repayment deal with Britain and the Netherlands in a move that threatens to derail international support for the country’s crisis-hit economy.(...) The resounding rejection reflected deep public anger over a deal which critics said would punish taxpayers for the mistakes of bankers and regulators and pile more debts on a country of 320,000 people struggling to rebuild its shattered economy.(...) While the outcome had long been a foregone conclusion, many voters appeared to relish the chance to vent anger against a deal that would lumber every Icelandic household with a debt equivalent to €48,000. Financial Times
David Seaton's News Links
This Icelandic rebellion presents some interesting features. Iceland is a very small country which has been terribly poor throughout most of its history, poor, nearly to the point of starvation in some periods. However until recently voodoo economics and bubbledom were extremely kind to them. Let's let Wikipedia do the heavy lifting in explaining how kind:
In recent years, Iceland has been one of the wealthiest and most developed nations in the world. In 2007, it was ranked as the most developed country in the world by the United Nations' Human Development Index, and the fourth most productive country per capita.
Then Lehman  Brothers went down...
In 2008, however, the nation's banking system systematically failed, causing significant economic contraction and political unrest that led to early parliamentary elections making Jóhanna Sigurðardóttir the country's Prime Minister.
So the government of Iceland went and cut a deal with the principal creditors, Britain and the Netherlands, to pay it all  back, to the tune of $135 a month for every man, woman and child for eight straight years: but the president of Iceland refused to sign such a draconian payback scheme without a national referendum and the voters were not about to hock their future and the future of their children to clean up the mess made by a bunch of overly clever financiers and 90%  of the voters voted no.

Iceland presents a perfect miniature of what this crisis means: a country considered the most developed in the world, with a wonderful welfare and educational system has been ruined by a handful of wiseguys and now all the sick, the children and the old pensioners are going to have to pay for it... for many, many years.

What comes next? Reuters has a pretty good  rundown on the alternatives:
Iceland's finance minister said on Sunday the government wanted to reach a new agreement before the British and Dutch governments get bogged down in elections. Britain's elections must be held by June 3 and are expected for May 6 which means the government will be focused on an election campaign, and the Netherlands holds elections on June 9, which means the window for doing a deal is tight.(...) If the three nations cannot move ahead within a few weeks, Iceland's plight may deepen. The Dutch and British have expressed frustration Reykjavik has not accepted the terms on the table -- a more attractive variable interest rate instead of the previous fixed rate. Under this scenario, negotiations may be stalled until well into the second half of 2010, particularly if it proves difficult for new governments to take shape in Britain or the Netherlands after their elections. Iceland's GDP will contract roughly twice as fast as previously expected in 2010 if the Icesave deal is delayed by several months, its economy minister has said.(...) Iceland's chances of joining the EU would lessen. The Dutch have publicly linked Icesave with the EU bid. The pro-EU camp would find it far harder to make a case to enter a union that includes Britain and the Netherlands. The worst outcome for all three countries, and the one considered least likely, is that no deal gets done. Iceland would be cut off from capital markets and aid. Its economy would have no chance of recovering. (...) Iceland would have to rely more on its fishing sector, which in decades past had played a key role in the economy. By late 2011, it would face problems repaying other debts and could default. (...) Joblessness, in an island that had almost zero unemployment before the crisis, would soar raising the threat of social unrest. Last year unemployment was already 8 percent.(...) The two EU countries would also have no guarantee of repayment. Icelandic resentment towards the British and Dutch, and the EU in general, could be expected to be high.
Now we are talking about 5.3 billion dollars here. With the trillion dollar bailouts we are hearing about nowadays, is 5.3 billion dollars all that much money?

Thank about it, a NATO member with a uniquely strategic location, which you could buy outright or at least secure the undying goodwill of its massively disgruntled population...  for a paltry 5.3 billion dollars! Just to make this real for you, that is barely more than an aircraft carrier costs the US taxpayer.

This is a bill that somebody like Mike Bloomberg, Bill Gates or Warren Buffet could settle with a personal check. And if you stop and think about it some more, it wouldn't stretch Venezuela or Iran's budget that much either... or Russia's or China's...

Think how much trouble somebody with $5.3 billion to spare could cause Britain and the Netherlands, like Iceland both members of NATO. Think how much trouble they could cause NATO and the European Union.

The people of Iceland are angry enough to jump at almost anything.

Probably all of this has crossed quicker and better informed minds than mine, which is a good reason to believe that some settlement will take place that wont put too much strain on the European Union, NATO or the IMF... Or the people of Iceland: certainly the "markets" had better think twice before "making an example" of them.

Still, this is low hanging fruit for any troublemaker lurking in the wings. DS

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Hillary comes up empty in Brazil

Yuck, yuck
"A strong case could be made that, whenever nuclear weapons appeared or where their presence was even strongly suspected, major interstate warfare on any scale is in the process of slowly abolishing itself. What is more, any state of any importance is now by definition capable of producing nuclear weapons. Hence, such warfare can be waged only either between or against third- and fourth-rate countries." Martin Van Creveld - The Rise and Decline of the State, Pg 344

"The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed -- and hence clamorous to be led to safety -- by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary." H. L. Mencken
David Seaton's News Links
Hillary Clinton came up empty when she tried to get Brazil on board for sanctions against Iran.
"We see an Iran that runs to Brazil, an Iran that runs to Turkey, an Iran that runs to China telling different things to different people to avoid international sanctions.” Hillary Clinton in Brazil

The international community should not corner Iran on the issue of its nuclear programme, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva said Wednesday, before a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton. "It is not prudent to put Iran with its back up against the wall," Lula said.
Why is Brazil so reluctant to "partner" with the "international community" in sanctioning Iran?

The real core of the Iran question, the core that draws sympathy from such disparate countries as Brazil, Turkey and China, is the practical question of sovereignty in the face of America's enormous military power. And in the specific case of Iran: sovereignty in the face of America's enormous military power plus Israel's enormous military power.

It is interesting to notice that no country possessing an atomic weapon has ever been invaded. There has never been a war between two countries with atomic arms, not even between India and Pakistan, people who truly hate each other. Yet during all these years, both the USA and Israel have been almost constantly at war, invading and attacking other countries. The lesson couldn't be clearer.

Sticking with the trio named by Hillary (typical Hillary, the use of the word "run"). China already has the atomic bomb: it obtained it at the cost of millions of Chinese starving to death in the 1950s to pay the Russians for the technology. Nobody better than the Chinese to understand the need for the bomb when facing American power.

The Turks are awakening to their own regional power and the risk that power could bring them without a nuclear umbrella.

As to Brazil a future super power: both their capacity and expressed intention to obtain the bomb at some future date are well known.

All three countries understand the cost of sovereignty and the need to insure it.

So the bottom line really is that if Iran gets the atomic bomb, neither the USA or Israel will be able to attack it, in fact, they will have to very careful how they use any military force in the Middle East from that date on.

The United States and Israel want to be able to make war on Iran at will. If Iran has even only one or two atomic bombs this will no longer be possible. This is not about defending against Iran, it's about permitting Iran to be able to defend itself.

Can the the USA and Israel maintain their position in the Middle East without recourse to armed intimidation, that is the real question?

The great irony of the atomic bomb is that it means the end of military conflict, it is the ultimate "peacemaker" and those that live and fatten by one sided war all fear its spread.

The subject of nuclear proliferation is filled with ghastly ironies. Let me try a huge boutade on y'all for size.
"This house maintains that the prime beneficiary of wide and general nuclear proliferation would be the American people themselves".
How do I justify that startling, perhaps Swiftian, proposition?

Simple. The United States is desperately in need of refurbishing its infrastructure, its public education system, its industrial base and a long list to follow. At the same time it spends an enormous amount of money for its elephantine military establishment.

America is now massively, perhaps terminally, in debt... painful economies must be made. Immediately voices are raised advocating a curtailment of "entitlements" up to and including old age pensions for the greedy boomers... but no one seems to push for a drastic cut in military spending.

Since we have seen that war between atomic powers is useless, (here I take as my text the writings of Martin Van Creveld), then proliferation would mean that America's aircraft carrier groups, stealth bombers, assorted drones and its world spanning network of bases (here we read Chalmers Johnson) would be rendered useless.

The United States would be able to cut its military spending by two thirds and still be the most powerful military force in the world.

There might even be a bit left over to heal the sick and instruct the ignorant.

Of course all of this would only make sense if we were talking about the real welfare of the American people as a whole and not just a power elite. And it would only make sense if we were talking about "defense".

Obviously if the real name of the game is "domination" and "hegemony" none of what I have said here makes any sense at all. DS