Thursday, May 27, 2004

Sean Hannity Makes His O-Face
We've been assembling an informal list of things that are sure to happen if Bush is reelected. Roe v. Wade is history; Medicare will be broke within 15 years; oil rigs will go up in national parks. We can add another now: further budget cuts for things people like, such as education, veterans benefits, and environmental protection. All in the name of deficit control and fiscal responsibility, of course. Please do not suggest it's to fund more wars and more tax cuts for the rich. (The Progress Report was on the case today in a big way.)

And now, some good news. In Washington Monthly, Chuck Todd suggests that far from being the close race everybody (including me) has been saying it will be, the 2004 election might be a blowout win for John Kerry, on the order of 1980. Of all the presidents in recent memory, Bush is looking most like Jimmy Carter at the moment, in terms of his domestic and foreign policy problems. But Todd warns that even though history is on his side, John Kerry still has to run the race. The second most likely outcome this November, says Todd, is a Bush landslide.

I found Todd's article while visiting one of the blogs I've just added to my own blogroll: Political Animal. It's on the main page of Washington Monthly's website. Among his posts today, Kevin Drum attacks the fallacious arithmetic used by conservatives to downplay the casualties in Iraq. I've also added another blog to the roll: George W. Bush, Will You Please Go Now? This site has some hilarious stuff, like a parody of the movie Office Space, and a post demonstrating (with photos) that Democratic women are hotter than Republican women.

You might want to spend some time exploring these blogs over the next few days, as posts will be light to nonexistent here from now until Monday night or Tuesday. Happy Memorial Day weekend to all.

Blessed Are the Cheesemakers
If you haven't read Al Gore's speech at NYU yet, the text is here. It's quite a contrast to the bilgewater George W. Bush spewed out on Monday night--a measured, reasoned case for the utter incompetence of the Bush Administration--and as a result, unlikely to resonate beyond the already convinced, or get much notice from the bought-n-paid-for media. CNN's Judy Woodruff (how does somebody so obviously dim keep a network TV job year after year?) dismissed it yesterday as mere partisan politics sponsored by an anti-Bush group (MoveOn.org, which she didn't mention by name). As I read the transcript, I wondered again--where was this impassioned, hard-hitting Al Gore during the 2000 campaign, the recount battle, and the first year of the Bush Administration?

There's additional heavy reading at Counterpunch this morning, too, with Marc Estrin's review of David Ray Griffin's The New Pearl Harbor: Disturbing Questions About the Bush Administration and 9/11. Griffin disputes nearly every sentence of the official 9/11 storyline, and Estrin observes that the 9/11 Commission's mandate is to make sure it never happens again. Which means that the many unanswered questions about what happened on that day will never be answered at all.

But if all that's too heavy for you, there's a piece by Kurt Vonnegut that's been whizzing around the Internet since being published at In These Times earlier this month. If, like me, you need a periodic fix of Vonnegut's self-described Hoosier shitkicker act, "Cold Turkey" will provide it. But as he's always done, Vonnegut leaves you thinking while you're laughing. He wonders why conservatives who claim to love Jesus so much want the Ten Commandments posted everywhere and not actual words of Jesus, like the Beatitudes. (Could it be that the Beatitudes are all about compassion and connection and not enough about obeying and smiting?) And in two sentences, he condemns us for our failure to feel the often-painful reality of the world in which we live: "One of the few good things about modern times: If you die horribly on television, you will not have died in vain. You will have entertained us."

Lighter still, Eric Idle is the last of the Monty Python troupe still making a living primarily at comedy. He whipped up a little song recently while duck-hunting with a judge, a tribute to the FCC, and he says, "if they broadcast it, it will cost a quarter of a million dollars." You can download the MP3 here. It's definitely not safe to listen to at the office.

Wednesday, May 26, 2004

This Time We Mean It, Really
A year ago, during the famous orange alert duct tape freakout, Secretary of Doom Tom Ridge stood in front of the TV cameras and predicted something like an eight in 10 chance that there would be a major attack within the next few weeks. Today, he said the intelligence leading to today's advisory was as ominous as any he's seen. Never mind that it wasn't specific. Never mind that officials in New York and Los Angeles hadn't been briefed yet. Go about your business normally, Mr. and Mrs. America, but prepare to die.

Could terrorists hit the political conventions, the World War II Memorial dedication, or the July 4 fireworks in Newburgh, Indiana? Sure they could. Do they want to? Sure they do. Will they? Who the hell knows? I don't, you don't, and Ridge, Ashcroft, and FBI director Mueller don't know, either.

It didn't take long for experts to suggest that the administration is covering its ass just in case, or trying to wag the dog after their disastrous month of May. (And if there's going to be a major terrorist attack anywhere in the world this summer, it'll be at the Olympic Games in Athens, because it draws a worldwide audience, and because "Greek security" is an oxymoron on the order of "jumbo shrimp.") It's interesting that Ashcroft said terrorists might want to do the same thing in the U.S. that they are credited with doing in Spain: timing the attack to influence the elections so a party favoring a pullout from Iraq might win. Nobody thinks that would happen here--first of all, nobody favoring an immediate pullout, a la Spain, is a viable candidate. And second, the more likely scenario is that an attack would clinch a close election for Bush. It would be the same phenomenon we saw after 9/11, which caused Americans to transform an over-his-head doofus into approximately Lincoln. And the administration knows it, which is why this announcement today is effectively an admission that they've got nothing left in the tank. Hard to believe they played their last card so early.

Also on the political front, John Kerry said today that yes, he'll accept the Democratic Party's nomination in Boston in July and abandon that weird plan to hold off for a month. Sure, there's a compelling reason to hold off, but the extra dollars his campaign could raise and spend in that month probably wouldn't offset the PR damage the move would cause.

The Democratic Party bosses thought that front-loading the nomination process was a good idea--remember that in years past, the Iowa caucuses were in late February and the California primary wasn't contested until June. But this year's mid-March denouement gave Bush two or three additional months to frame Kerry, and stretched Kerry's own finances. As the date for turning over federal funds to the candidate, the convention date is entirely arbitrary--federal funds could be released to candidates on September 1, which is the traditional start of the fall campaign anyhow.

If anything good has come of the delay-or-not-delay conundrum, it might be the way it makes conventions look more like the relics they are. It's been 50 years since a convention needed more than one ballot to pick a nominee; the party platforms are meaningless; the only people who benefit are the delegates, who get invited to a four-day party, and various hotels, restaurants, and bars in the convention cities. But the idea of getting a free four-day campaign commercial from the cable news channels is too good to give up, so neither party ever will.

Quote of the Day: From a guy at Tammy Baldwin's listening session last night, criticizing the Bush Administration for, among other things, bombing a wedding party: "I thought the Republicans were in favor of marriage."

If Only . . .
My representative in Congress, Tammy Baldwin, held a listening session in my suburb last night, and attracted an SRO crowd. Such an event is really where the rubber meets the road, democracy-wise. Absolutely anybody can come in, sign up, and speak to their representative about absolutely anything. (Attendees are not screened for the proper political allegiance, like they were at Bush's appearances in Wisconsin two weeks ago.) Health care was a big topic, which is not surprising, as it's Baldwin's signature issue. But Iraq also came up time and again, as citizens both eloquent and not expressed concern, confusion, and/or outrage at what our country has done over there. Now, Baldwin's a liberal Democrat (the only openly lesbian member of Congress), and because she represents mostly Madison, her district is more liberal than most--although this part of the suburbs is alleged to be more conservative than Madison proper. So you might expect her audience to be largely in tune with her politics. But the outrage against Iraq seemed to go deeper than partisan politics. It was the simple sense that something is desperately wrong, and that people want somebody, anybody, to do something, anything, to make it stop.

Whether that something is electing John Kerry is questionable. (Baldwin slipped and called him "President Kerry" once last night, to chuckles, including her own.) Many commentators have noted that Bush's Iraq plan unveiled Monday night is actually fairly close to what Kerry is suggesting we do over there. This isn't exactly the right prescription for Kerry to separate himself from Bush--which might help explain why Kerry's spending so much time on health care and jobs, where there are greater differences to highlight. But maybe it helps explain why the presidential race is still pretty much a dead heat despite Bush's approval ratings sinking into Carter country. And I gotta wonder: If the Democratic candidate represented a clearer contrast with Bush at this point, especially on Iraq, would the margin still be so close?

It would be a sad thing for the country if the Democrats nominated Kerry--who was not the best candidate in the field on the issues--because of his vaunted electability, only to find that they could have won the election with one of the stronger candidates. I wrote last winter as Howard Dean imploded that if he is unelectable, then Kerry is too, and for a lot of the same reasons. And the way things are going today, I am becoming convinced that if Kerry is electable, then Dean would have been, too--and the cakewalk that everybody was predicting for the GOP if Dean were the nominee would actually be the catfight we Deaniacs were thirsting to see all last summer and fall.

Tuesday, May 25, 2004

Soul Power
I have said this here before, and now I'm going to do it again: I do not believe that the average American has the slightest idea how extreme are some of the religious ideas animating supporters of the Bush Administration. I think that Christians from liberal denominations generally think that everybody who calls themselves "Christian" believes in the same god, and that their miscellaneous doctrinal differences are ultimately just fiddling at the margins and not to worry--in the end, they'll all stand together playing harps in Heaven. And as for unchurched liberals, they're willing to let people believe more or less anything they want as long as it makes them happy. Because liberals, Christian and not, don't deal with hardcore fundamentalists as anything but an abstraction, they don't see them as a threat.

Well, wake up. Millions of Americans are yearning for the certainty that fundamentalism provides. They anxiously await the Rapture, and their delivery from this sinful planet--and they want their government to make sure nothing happens to screw it up. Some, the Christian Reconstructionists, would prefer to see the government hurry it along. And all of them will turn out to vote for George W. Bush in November because they put their eternal souls at risk if they don't. So as Joe Bageant writes on ICH News, fundies may be culturally isolated, but that doesn't mean they don't have clout. And many of them would use their clout to remake American society into something reminiscent of the Old Testament, right down to the stoning--of both unchurched liberals and liberal Christians.

Bageant's piece serves as a good introduction to the doctrine of Christian Reconstructionism. (He recommends Georges Monbiot as someone who can tell you more, and I'd also recommend the folks at Political Research Associates, especially the inimitable Frederick Clarkson.) He also writes about the experience of being a liberal in a fundamentalist family--which goes a long way by itself to show how hardcore some fundies can be.

The problem--which neither Bageant nor I quite know how to solve--is what to do about Reconstructionists and other fundamentalist hardcores. Religious belief is in some ways indestructible, so there'll be no convincing them to become Unitarians or anything. Neither will it be easy to convince other Christians to swallow their ecumenical impulses and say that a group of coreligionists is misrepresenting the spirit of Christianity. Voting against Republican candidates--who are a million times more likely to be enablers for the thought processes behind this pathology even if they don't believe in it themselves--couldn't hurt. But that's all I've got.

Of course, not everybody thinks it's possible to reclaim America for Jesus, even if Bush gets reelected and installs righteousness everywhere. Some folks think they need their own country. (More details here.) If they'll let me know when they're leaving, I'll help 'em pack.

You Gotta Believe
Well, I was right. There really wasn't anything new in Bush's speech last night. Bulldozing Abu Ghraib (the name of which Bush mispronounced) is a fine idea (much better than the loony plan to rename it "Camp Redemption" that surfaced for a day or so last week), but other than that, there was no there there.

Bush is still trying to sell the idea that everybody fighting us in "the central front of the war on terror" (which wasn't a front until the United States made it one) is either a Saddam loyalist or a foreign fighter--or an agent of Al Qaeda--and he's still parroting his usual nonsense about how terrorists "seek control of every mind and soul" and how terrorism is a manifestation of "totalitarian political ideology." (In other words, they're insane like Stalin and they all gotta die.) And he blandly assured us yet again that we will prevail because of all the good things we believe in, and all of the good things we've already done. (So does this mean the electricity is on in Baghdad for more than a couple hours every day now?)

Bush is apparently not going to get the chance to pose with returning soldiers just in time for the footage to appear in campaign ads, which, I am convinced, was one of the primary reasons for the June 30 handover date. How we can say we're ending the occupation while keeping the same number of troops on the ground and possibly adding more is something that makes sense only in BushWorld. Salon has a roundup of analyst comments on the speech. The comments of Asad Abu Khalil, an expert on Arab media, seem especially pertinent--in BushWorld, where all you know about Iraq is what you're told by the administration and/or want to believe, what Bush said sounds OK. But Iraqis, the Arab world--and, I might add, others around the world and in the United States who know a little about what's going on over there--are likely to feel as though the speech insulted their intelligence yet again. And Princeton historian Sean Wilentz, with the last word, nails the absurdity of Bush's statement that the swift toppling of Saddam last spring gave time for Saddam loyalists to regroup: "So, let me get this straight: If the war had only gone worse last year, it would be going better now? If only we hadn't accomplished our mission then so easily, we'd be accomplishing it more easily now?"

Recommended reading: For a long time now, when you Google the words "miserable failure," you've gotten Bush's official White House biography. Wired News reports that thanks to an effort by conservative bloggers, when you enter the word "waffler," you get John Kerry's official website.

And from the Village Voice, Ta-Nehisi Coates reports that Bill Cosby shocked a black audience last week by launching an attack on poor and working-class African Americans. Coates says the audience shouldn't have been surprised. For the better part of 20 years--at least since The Cosby Show was the top-rated program on TV--he's been the "patron saint of black elitists."

Monday, May 24, 2004

The Eternal Now
Everybody's seen the photo, taken during the Tet Offensive in 1968--South Vietnamese general Nguyen Loc Loan executing a prisoner with a pistol shot to the head. Even though 36 years have gone by and we're all a lot more jaded now, the photo is still a horrifying image. What you might not know is that there's motion picture film of the execution, too. The general speaks to the prisoner, and after a few seconds, blows him away. The prisoner falls to the street, and soon the film is over. Although it's horrific, too, it doesn't have the same effect as the still photo. In the film, the event happens and then it's over. In the still photo, however, the event goes on happening forever. Look at the photo and it's still happening, right now, and it always will be.

That's not an original thought of mine--but it occurred to me reading a piece by Susan Sontag that's being widely reprinted around the Internet this week. The pictures of prisoner abuse from Abu Ghraib are going to endure for as long as history is written. They'll be there long after Rush Limbaugh and James Inhofe are moldering in their graves. And in the same way the execution of the Vietnamese prisoner has been happening eternally since 1968, for the rest of time, Americans will be tormenting Iraqis and smiling about it.

Recommended Reading: Every time one of the players in the Watergate affair weighs in on current events, it's worth reading what they have to say. Carl Bernstein has his say in today's USA Today, even though his point is ultimately a depressing one: If anybody is going to put a stop what is looking more and more like utter incompetence on the part of the Bush Administration, it's going to have to be Republican leaders. Perhaps not those in official leadership positions, like Bill Frist and Tom DeLay, but perhaps, as in 1974, one or more of the party's "wise men"--senior members with the vision to see beyond short-term political concerns to the long-term future of the country and the institutions of government that serve it. The recent decloakings of Richard Lugar and Chuck Hagel, who have dared to criticize the administration from within its own party, won't win them any friends in their own caucus--but it might from historians yet unborn.

PS: USA Today gave the Bernstein piece a fairly pedestrian headline: "History Lesson: GOP Must Stop Bush." TomPaine.Com linked to it with a headline of its own that's much better: "It's Beginning to Look a Lot Like Nixon."

The One Who Should Be and the One Who Is
In the kabuki dance that is the modern campaign, today in Wisconsin we're getting The Announcement. We've all known for months that Russ Feingold is running for reelection to the U.S. Senate, but today he's doing the statewide flyaround to make it official. I was part of the crowd at his Madison appearance this morning (actually in Middleton, the suburb we both call home--Feingold and I are literally neighbors, as he lives only about two blocks from me). In his speech, he stressed deficit reduction, jobs, and health care, but got the biggest applause when he criticized Bush, Iraq, and the Patriot Act. And that's what the campaign is going to come down to. His opponents have already tried to make it a referendum on Feingold's patriotism and devotion to the War on Terrorism, because their stands on other issues are largely indefensible. They can't run on Republican job creation in a state that's lost 80,000 manufacturing jobs since Bush took office; they can't run on health care when they're on record as supporting Bush's inactivity in guaranteeing real care for every citizen; and they sure as hell can't run on fiscal responsibility.

(And they can't run on personalities, either. Feingold is as likeable a guy as you'll find in public life, self-effacing, uncontaminated by the pomposity that can infect even the most level-headed person elected to the Senate. He's got no shady business dealings to defend and no friends of dubious integrity to keep off the front pages. His opponents--unfortunately for them--have got to run on the issues.)

Listening to Feingold speak this morning, I couldn't help thinking, as I've thought before, that he's running for the wrong office. He should be running for president. As a speaker, as a thinker, and as a progressive, he makes John Kerry look weak by comparison.

The current resident of the White House is going on TV tonight to lay out a clear strategy for the June 30th handover of power in Iraq. (The Progress Report notes the irony of the speech being given at the Army War College, which released a report earlier this spring blasting the administration's military strategy in Iraq.) Over the weekend, The Observer reported on three possible scenarios for the post-handover period. One is fairly positive, suggesting that the new leadership will have a honeymoon that might permit them to make progress in appeasing the country's various factions on the way to free elections. The other two, however, are dark and darker, predicting instability more serious than we've seen under American occupation at best, and at worst, civil war--perhaps with more than two sides.

I have utterly no confidence that Bush's "clear strategy" will be any different from the ad-libbed cluster-fuck we've seen so far, a lot of wishful thinking leavened with lame platitudes bearing little relation to the way things really are on the ground over there. (Jerry Bowles floats a possible draft.) So it seems to me that odds of 2-1 against the handover going well are about right.

Sunday, May 23, 2004

The Wish
Bush falls off his bike, and his people can't even be honest about that. (Josh Marshall has more about the bike including Kerry's wisecrack, Drudge's reporting of Kerry's wisecrack, and an irony about the whole training-wheels metaphor.)

First he fell off the Segway, now the bike. Seems to me we ought to get him on a motorcycle doing 75 down the expressway as soon as we can.

Asthma in Heaven
I caught just a wee bit of William Kristol on the BBC World Service the other morning (as I was up and about at an ungodly hour--it seems like the World Service is public radio's all-night answer to TV infomercials). It's been widely noted recently that Kristol, one of the original neocons, has been critical of the execution of the war in Iraq. (And he ain't alone.) But even though he criticizes Bush with the same supercilious tone he might use to criticize a sommelier for failing to let him sniff the cork, Big Bill still has no problem with the idea of invading Iraq, or the dream of converting it into some kind of Islamic Switzerland, thereby bringing democracy and sweet Christian love to the entire Middle East. Well, he oughta read Jack Beatty's analysis on The Atlantic's website: "Like the [post WWII] isolationists, the neo-cons are history's fools. The strategy they championed was the wrongest possible strategy for the wrongest possible moment in the wrongest possible region of the world."

Also this weekend, Asia Times has a story suggesting that the famous video of Nick Berg's execution may have been faked. I have seen suggestions of this elsewhere over the last couple of weeks--that an actual beheading by knife would have been even more gruesome and bloody than what the tape purportedly shows. (What I have not seen is the video itself. I've been tempted, but I haven't succumbed.) The Asia Times report also examines allegations that the executioner was none other than arch-terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi. The first time I heard that, I thought it seemed a bit too convenient--after all, we had just declared him the most-wanted man in the world, and then he mysteriously appears on this incendiary video? Forgive me for not being immediately convinced. As it turns out, neither were plenty of terrorism experts.

Recommended reading: Hal Crowther on 2004, the worst year ever to be an American, and the resulting case against George W. Bush: "Journalists used to look for the smoking gun, but this time we have the cannons of Waterloo, we have Gettysburg and Sevastopol, we have enough gun smoke to cause asthma in heaven. I'm overwhelmed. Maybe I should light a match to this mountain of paper and immolate myself."

The Progressive's McCarthyism Watch feature on Bush's recent appearance in Dubuque (where I lived for a couple of years in the early 1980s): If you couldn't certify you were a Bush supporter, you weren't going to get in, even if you had a ticket.

And finally, something I hope is real, and not an urban legend, or something cribbed from The Daily Show: 15-year-old Billy Wilson of Freyburg, Maine, describing the most important thing he learned in school this year.

Friday, May 21, 2004

Dis is Ya Goberment Talkin' to Ya, Mon
Random notes on a morning when you could hear the gears grinding at Fox News, as the grinning morons on Fox and Friends tried to come to grips with the fall of Iraq's George Washington (honest to God, some neocons have called him that) Ahmed Chalabi:

After the United States invaded Cambodia in 1970, a young diplomat named Roger Morris resigned from the Foreign Service in protest. At the time, he and his colleagues joked that the Nixon Administration was so unprincipled that it took nothing special to resign. Now, Morris says, Nixon and Kissinger seem like model statesman compared to the Bush gang, and he's calling on members of the Foreign Service to resign in protest themselves. "Unless and until you do, however, please be under no illusion: Every cable you write to or from the field, every letter you compose for Congress or the public, every memo you draft or clear, every budget you number, every meeting you attend, every testimony you give extends your share of the common disaster."

In the Hartford Advocate, Alan Bisbort considers every American's share of the common disaster: "Just as dog owners come to resemble their pooches, we all look like George W. Bush now. We have two choices: love it or change it."

Earlier this week, I wrote about individual responsibility in the prisoner abuse scandal. Even though there are plenty of extenuating circumstances you have to consider that put those American guards in that prison to begin with, there's still a simple matter of right and wrong and the requirement that each individual know the line and keep from crossing it. At ZNet, Zeynep Toufe says that if we take away the personal responsiblity of the Lynndie Englands and Jeremy Sivitses and ascribe all of their behavior to extenuating circumstances, we subject them to "The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations" and deny them their humanity. "Denying moral agency and refusing to push for full individual accountability is not respect; in fact, it’s rather blatant disrespect, especially given the fact that our concern for "our brave men and women in harm’s way" has been a central slogan of the anti-war movement. Concern without accountability is inherently contemptuous -- even children are generally held accountable, subject to the limits of their understanding." And when we start believing that people are not accountable, we become victims of historical forces who can only throw up our hands at injustice and say, "There's nothing we can do."

Recommended reading: The Memory Hole has become insanely popular over the last few weeks, so its pages are loading slowly. But it's worth the wait to read the story of a government pamphlet that was supposed to be translated into French Creole, but was mistakenly translated into English Creole.

Thursday, May 20, 2004

Curb Your Tendency to Extraneous Bombastic Circumlocution, or, Pipe Down, You Gasbag
I've set myself an experiment. Instead of going on at length, as I usually do, I wonder if I can comment on the afternoon's news stories, each in 50 words or less. Let's see.

Item: I paid $2.09.9 for gas this afternoon.

Comment: The thing that bugs people about gas prices as much as the money is the reminder of the money. On every corner, you're reminded how much gas costs. How much higher will it have to get before people cut down their driving? I'd guess a lot. (46 words)

Item: Milk is over $3 a gallon here.

Comment: Surprising amount of anger about that here, even though Wisconsin is America's Dairyland. Farmers are getting twice what they got for milk this time last year, so this increase, unlike others, is actually going back to the source. As the son and grandson of dairy farmers, I can't complain. (49 words)

Item: The Madison Blues Festival will not be held this year.

Comment: A two-day fest with nothing but major national artists and $35 tickets for each day? It's great for Madison's reputation--but attendance was dismal the last two years despite great lineups. The promoter is promising to scale it back next year--which he should have done this year. (48 words)

Item: Ahmed Chalabi gets raided.

Comment: "Let my people be free. It is time for the Iraqi people to run their affairs," he said. Be careful what you wish for, sir. You're seen as a leading American tool. One of your people's first affairs may well be to shoot you, you slimy bastard. (53 words; 50 without gratuitous epithet.)

Item: Bush asks Congressional Republicans to "keep the faith" even though his poll numbers are going down like Shaquille O'Neal falling through a skylight.

Comment: The classics never go out of style. He told them to "stay the course," too. And also, presumably, "hang tough," "be strong," "stay cool," "look sharp," "Saddam was a threat" and "It's Bill Clinton's fault." (35 words)

There was an article in Slate earlier this week in which the author details what he sees as the impending implosion of the Bush Administration in a cloud of investigations by Congress, the courts, and the media. The Senate's hearings into the prisoner abuse scandal are just the tip of that potential iceberg. But before we imagine the summer of 1974 all over again, when Republicans began bailing on Nixon and the party's "wise men" eventually had to tell him it was time to go, we need to keep in mind a couple of critical differences 30 years later. First, Democrats controlled both the House and the Senate in Nixon's day. Democrat control of Congress opened investigative avenues that do not exist today. Today, Bush has a seemingly impregnable firewall in the House of Representatives, where Tom DeLay cracks the whip over a compliant majority and regularly scorches the minority for its lack of patriotism. Short of Bush being caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy, the House Republicans will protect him to the end. In Congress a generation ago, the group of people willing to support Nixon to the bitter end eventually dwindled to little more than a sad lot of crackpots.

Bush also has another kind of support unavailable to Nixon: the strong backing of popular media outlets that keep telling the faithful that everything will be all right--and/or whipping up hatred for anyone and anything that doesn't support their belief that everything will be all right. There simply wasn't as much media in Nixon's day, and audiences were broader for what there was. There was no echo chamber like today's, no place for a news consumer to go where he could be insulated from news he didn't want to hear. Everybody heard the bad news about Nixon, regardless of whether they wanted to or not. As a result, his approval rating at the time of his resignation was 24 percent (which would about cover the combined percentage of people without TV or radio who couldn't read). Even though he's in the high 40s now, for Bush to fall anywhere near Nixonian levels would seem to require a dead girl or live boy yet again.

And then there's the ultimate firewall. My post the other day about the religious group arguing against Palestinian statehood because it would delay the Second Coming is just one example of what I'm talking about. Sidney Blumenthal, writing in Salon about the role of Admiral William "My God's Bigger Than Yours" Boykin in the prison scandal, quotes some of Boykin's more ridiculous remarks about how God put Bush in office even against the wishes of the voters. So there are a lot of Americans--a minority, yes, but a significant number with power beyond their numbers--who think that Bush is God's will made flesh. That, too, is likely to make some people think twice about the effort to peel off the emperor's clothes--not necessarily because they fear offending the Deity themselves, but because they fear offending those offended when the Deity is offended. (One of the many reasons I'd like to see Kerry win in November is to douse some of the hubris of the religious right--because if Bush wins, we ain't seen nothing yet.)

To be sure, Christian charity doesn't necessarily extend to places like the press corps (now that it seems to be regrowing testicles), or to public officials with axes to grind and damaging information to leak. And it's possible that we might be in the April 1973 stage of the Iraq affair. April 1973 was when Watergate burst into the mass consciousness after 10 months as inside baseball. It took 14 more months before Nixon's demise began to look inevitable, and two more after that for it to actually happen. Bush only has to hold out for 5 1/2 more--and then it won't make a damn bit of difference what he did before. The Mission will truly be Accomplished. And even if the spiral accelerates and things get swiftly worse this summer (after all, everything else has accelerated in 30 years), he's still got his firewall.

Evil Cyborgs Who Hate America
Do you have the same impressions I do of the 9/11 commission's hearings in New York this week? Specifically: Who the hell cares precisely how and why the NYPD and NYFD failed on that day? That's utterly beside the point, at least of this commission. James Ridgeway of the Village Voice agrees, and suggests some more relevant issues the commission might better have pursued--essentially, why were state and local officials in New York more-or-less on their own without any federal help for over an hour on that morning?

It's hard to read Ridgeway's simple chronology of events on the morning of 9/11 without at least wondering if the feds' neglect during that critical first hour was intentional. Even though I am willing to believe the worst about Bush and Cheney, I have a hard time swallowing whole the idea that they let 9/11 happen. But as Mike Ward writes on Alternet, the "Orwellian turn" of American life since that day makes it wise to revisit the most popular conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 and events following. What he ends up revisiting are not so much conspiracy theories per se, but popular ideas about what was changed by 9/11 and what wasn't, and how those ideas are right and wrong.

Elsewhere, ZNet reprints a long post from Tom Engelhardt's TomDispatch that is, even though it's a week old, a pretty good recap of the current state of play in Iraq. Engelhardt characterizes the Abu Ghraib photos and the Nick Berg video as "the pissing contest from Hell," and the standoffs in Iraqi holy cities as classic examples of asymmetric warfare, and which are being utterly screwed up by America's preference for straight-up battles we're guaranteed to win. (That merely scratches the surface of Engelhardt's piece. Take the rest of the day off to read it.)

In Salon, cartoonist Ruben Bolling imagines yet another scenario in which Bush reveals his true colors and John Kerry still can't get any traction.

And finally, it's a shame Onion contributors don't get bylines, because I'd like to know who wrote "U.S. to Fight Terror With Terror." It's an elegant bit of writing, taking quotes used by peaceniks as moral lessons and twisting them into justifications for terrorism, which makes for a hilarious parody of the Bush Administration's Orwellian mindset. Hilarious, that is, until you ponder just how much they've done that's just like that.

Wednesday, May 19, 2004

Harry Potter and the Apocalypse
I have read a little bit about the families of the soldiers being court-martialed for prisoner abuse, and I caught some of Jeremy Sivits' father's comments after his son's conviction this morning. And what I feel mostly is sorrow. These are people who believe in the military, believe in the mission, and believe what the military does is important. And clearly, their children do, too.

Now you can argue--and I will--that people everywhere ought to be able to tell the difference between right and wrong, and that when it comes to beating, rape, and general humiliation of other human beings, the line of demarcation isn't hard to see. And the soldiers who chose to cross the line anyhow should be punished for that. But I wouldn't be a liberal if I didn't argue that there's more to their crime than simply crossing the line. Earlier this week, Josh Marshall published a communication from a friend in Iraq, a retired military intelligence official now working as a private contractor. Among its many grave observations is this one: "I told a journalist the other day that these kids here are being told that they are chasing Al Qaeda in the War on Terrorism so they think everyone at Abu Ghraib had something to do with 9/11. So they were encouraged to make them pay. These kids thought they were going to be honored for hunting terrorists." What we wrought at Abu Ghraib, then--and what the court-martialed soldiers and their families are going to suffer--is another sterling byproduct of Bush's apocalyptic framing of the war on terror, and the way its purposes have been misrepresented from September 12 forward.

Speaking of Bush and the apocalypse: Once you start poking around in the darkest corners of fundamentalism, you find some fairly creepy stuff, like this from Rick Perlstein in the Village Voice. Recently, a Bush administration official met with a Christian group vehemently opposed to yielding one inch of land to the Palestinians in Israel and the eventual establishment of a Palestinian state. The reason--if Israel does either of these things, it could postpone the second coming of Christ. It's not clear Bush himself buys this particular type of Christianity--as Perlstein notes, it was more Reagan's style. But it doesn't say a lot for the administration's judgment when it would grant an audience to a group like this--whose representative on the ground in Israel believes Jews have to convert to Christianity or be damned, and who claims to have been bewitched by a Harry Potter book.

Tuesday, May 18, 2004

You Look Fabulous
You have probably noticed that the sun has gone dark, large craters have opened everywhere because of the earthquakes, and children have been murdering their parents since gay people started getting married in Massachusetts yesterday. Blogger Kevin Drum observed over the weekend that the wingnuts are frustrated by the lack of traction the anti-marriage issue is getting, even amongst their own. (Insert happy chortle here.)

I don't think the fundie bigots are going to go away entirely--after all, when you get your marching orders from God, you don't waver. But I do think that large numbers of Americans who have previously greeted the concept of same-sex marriage with "Ewwwww!" can't help but look at the smiles on the faces of the couples in Massachusetts--most of whom look so utterly goddamn normal--and start to wonder who, exactly, same-sex marriage is supposed to hurt. When it becomes clear that it hurts no one--one of those simple, common-sense facts that even the dimmest, most distracted American can easily grasp--the fundies will be back where fundies deserve to end up: in their little ghetto, railing at the already-converted, preaching to the choir, taken seriously by nobody. On this issue, at least.

Favored Children
Yesterday I wrote about how Americans act like favored children who've been told all their lives how special they are, to the point at which we believe it even when we're confronted with evidence to the contrary--that our motives are not always pure, that our cause is not always just, that we're not immune from the forces of history. William Pfaff, whose work I've linked to previously, wrote an article for The Guardian last Sunday that incorporates some of the same themes. We reacted to September 11 in a way totally in character for us, as the chosen people of history unjustly challenged by usurpers of our divine rights. The war on terror in general and the war on Iraq in particular was supposed to put the world back into its proper order--but it hasn't. And now we face a period of domestic uncertainty as we try to figure out how to stomach this defeat, just as after our defeat in Vietnam. Pfaff doesn't speculate what the uncertainty might entail. Neither will I. I will say that it took us the better part of 15 years to incorporate Vietnam into our self-image--and when we finally did, we don't seem to have learned much.

Elsewhere this morning, US News and World Report features a brief squib about the possibility of terror attacks on American soil before the November election. The administration has reportedly been holding secret drills so everybody will know how to respond to either a massive attack on something like the Capitol or a series of smaller attacks in the DC area. For a long time, I suspected that Bush might try to find some pretext to cancel the election. Now I don't think it will be necessary. The administration would welcome a terror attack. An official quoted in the US News article is surprisingly candid about it: "I can tell you one thing. We won't be like Spain." For more on the prospect of future attacks leading up to the November election, click this from the Asia Times.

Recommended reading: One of the first progressive political websites I read on a regular basis was TomPaine.Com. The site went dark last week for a relaunch that finally happened yesterday. While I am not entirely wild about the layout and design of the site, the content is still first-rate. In addition to the usual opinion columns, the site now has a couple of new sections featuring news headlines and ways to get involved in progressive causes, and has added a blog page, which features the Dreyfuss Report and a new feature called "Blog of Blogs," which is a digest of commentary from progressive blogs around the web. Dreyfuss has a great post about Democratic enthusiasm for John McCain as Kerry's running mate, and how it ignores McCain's record in Vietnam: "Both McCain, and his father--the admiral in charge of the Pacific theater during the Vietnam war--were enthusiastic, bomb-them-back-to-hell advocates of the war in Vietnam, and McCain’s imprisonment does nothing, in my mind, to expiate his guilt for killing thousands of Vietnam during bombing raids in North Vietnam."

Monday, May 17, 2004

Mass Confusion
It's only a mild exaggeration to say that Walter Cronkite helped raise me--we had supper on the farm every night at 5:00, and at 5:30 damn near every night, we had Cronkite for dessert. After he retired, I tried to make do with Peter Jennings, but it just wasn't the same.

Cronkite's retirement and the nearly simultaneous rise of CNN signaled the end of an era in broadcast journalism. During the 1980s, the economics of broadcasting required news operations both network and local to make money, thus opening the door for what was soon labeled "infotainment." But it always seemed to me that even though news outlets were reporting more fluff, at least it was factual fluff. That era ended in 1996 when Fox News Channel went on the air.

The Fox difference, of course, is the utter confusion of news with propaganda, and a corresponding failure on the part of Fox's audience to be able to tell the difference. What Fox does looks like journalism, but it isn't, really. John Carroll, editor of the Los Angeles Times, discussed Fox and the responsibilities real journalists feel to the audience in a lecture he gave at the University of Oregon a couple of weeks ago. One responsibility he discusses is to correct mistakes. The Times, he says, printed 2,759 corrections in 2003. Like the rest of us, he's still waiting for the first one from Fox. Like the one about Saddam not being responsible for 9/11 after all, or that there were no weapons of mass destruction.

Recommended reading: Blogs purporting to be written from inside Iraq always inspire skepticism. After all, on the Internet you can say you're anywhere and anybody, and who's to say otherwise? (I have always told you I'm a fortysomething writer in Wisconsin and you most likely assume I'm a guy, but how do you know I'm not a 52-year-old lesbian who runs an organic car-repair service in Jamaica?) Many people suspected that Salam Pax, who became internationally famous through his blog "Where is Raed?" in the early days of the war, wasn't really who he said he was (although it turned out he was). And so there's some skepticism on the web about Riverbend, who writes a blog called Baghdad Burning. My guess is that she's real--and she's worth reading.

Happy Mice
Opposition research is the science of finding ways to screw your opponent in a political campaign. It has, like most things, evolved from ad-hoc and informal to highly sophisticated. Consultants who know the field are highly sought-after, and become important players in campaign organizations. The campaigns feed damning stories about opponents to news organizations, knowing the stories will contribute to the "framing" of the candidate. If done effectively, opposition research can turn the tide of a whole campaign, as Joshua Green reports in the current Atlantic. The barrage of bad-PR news stories that dogged Howard Dean in the last month of the Iowa caucus campaign came largely from the Clark campaign. Green notes that the Clark takedown of Dean actually backfired on Clark. Because Clark was not competing in Iowa, his campaign's attacks helped swing momentum to John Kerry, the candidate Clark matched up the poorest against.

Speaking of important players, I just caught up with this story today from last week in Salon: Texas journalist James C. Moore on Karen Hughes and her true-believer relationship with George W. Bush. Like Bush himself, Hughes seems impervious to persuasion even in the face of evidence. She believes what she believes, and that's that. Never mind how scary that quality is in someone who has the ear of the most powerful man in the world--it would be creepy even if she were only your friend's mom or something.

Recommended reading: My fellow guest poster on Best of the Blogs, Opus, has a great bit this morning on American athletes being warned--by American officials--not to grab the flag and wave it during medal celebrations at the Athens Olympics this summer. Bush and Company can keep insisting that all is well, but evidence keeps appearing every day that more Americans are beginning to believe that the Iraq war is unjustified, and that Bush has screwed us bigtime.

And finally--I haven't given up any love to Tom Tomorrow for a while, so he's overdue. Today, Fluffy Bunny and Happy Mouse discuss the war in Iraq.

American Dreaming
I once had a colleague who saw herself as the smartest person in any room she happened to be in. My sense of her was that she hadn't necessarily come to this conclusion entirely on her own--rather, than she'd had it inculcated in her from childhood that she was special. The fact was, of course, that she wasn't any more special than anybody else, and acting like she was didn't earn her a great deal of respect. I thought of her this morning while catching up on some articles I'd missed late last week and over the weekend.

Britain's New Statesman magazine published an article (no longer available online) wondering just why the world still expects so much from the United States. People from everywhere still think of us as the great bastion of liberty--never mind our staggering rates of poverty, gun violence, and incarceration. They think of us as the leading light of freedom and democracy, when we've overthrown governments, massacred civilians, and played political hardball openly and surreptitiously to get what we want, over and over again.

What is more important than what the rest of the world thinks of us is what we think of ourselves. As I've mentioned here before, lots of us seem to be trapped in the America we learned about in social studies class. It makes us oblivious to our faults, and at worst, makes us feel as though the rules of history don't apply to us. In other words, we're special. The social studies version of America is convenient for us because it represents its own justification. We are the great bastion of liberty and the leading light of freedom and democracy because we are the great bastion of liberty and the leading light of freedom and democracy. Therefore, we have the right to act in a particular way because we have the right to act in a particular way. And because we have the right, all the niggling little details will take care of themselves.

In The American Prospect, Jason Vest writes that thinkers as widely diverse as Clausewitz and St. Augustine argued that "moral authority" was necessary for any war to be prosecuted successfully. More contemporary military theorists have made similar arguments. But the debacle of postwar planning in Iraq, and now the prisoner abuse scandal, have pretty much eroded whatever moral authority the United States possessed. As to what made us think we had the moral authority to proceed in Iraq in the first place, well, the answer looks to me like we had it because we had it, and because we had it, the niggling little details involved in maintaining it would take care of themselves.

Here's another thing we learned in social studies class--that Americans are willing to do what they have to do, no matter how difficult or dangerous, in the name of the greater good. Trouble is, since September 11, "doing what we have to do" has had a different definition. White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales (a top candidate for a Supreme Court seat if Bush gets to fill one) wrote a memo suggesting that the Geneva Conventions are obsolete in the post-9/11 world. And in the wake of the prisoner abuse scandal, many people voiced sympathy for the soldiers accused of abuse--suggesting that the Iraqi prisoners got what they deserved, and if they were not personally guilty of anything, well, somebody over there was, and deserved what they got. Random punishment for collective guilt is a concept that's hard to hold in the same brain with the presumption of innocence and belief in trial by a jury of peers. But ask Rush Limbaugh or James Inhofe which is the America they live in, and they'd name the latter. (At Salon, Charles Taylor writes about the revenge-fantasy film Man on Fire, and how the prisoner abuse scandal has exposed the American taste for revenge.)

Writer Todd Gitlin once remarked on the odd phenomenon of "the American dream." What a strange thing it is for a country to be so rooted in a dream. (Gitlin wondered why there is, for example, no Pakistani dream.) More than any other people in the world, Americans are driven by an image of what they imagine themselves to be. We learn how special we are early in life, and we continue to believe it because it's such an integral part of our identity--if we lose it, who are we? So, like my old colleague, we act on the assumption of our specialness long after it's been proven to be much less than we think it is. But the world is starting to see through us to what we really are. How long before we are capable of it?

Sunday, May 16, 2004

You Couldn't Have Done It Without Us
They had a celebration in Baghdad yesterday for Iraq's national soccer team, a surprise qualifier for the Summer Olympics earlier in the week. The team was there; officials including Paul Bremer gave speeches; only one thing was missing--fans. Citing security concerns, American officials did not admit one single Iraqi fan into the stadium. This story is being covered practically nowhere this morning. NPR's Peter Kenyon filed a report yesterday, but a Google News search turns up no other mention of it. Kenyon's report included descriptions of heartbroken young fans being turned away at the gates and the players' disappointment at being props in a Coalition photo op. You can't listen to it without feeling a deep sense of outrage at our presumptuousness. Who the hell do we think we are?

We can talk all we want about geopolitical realities and post-Cold War power arrangements, but the war in Iraq is about American egotism, too. We like standing astride the world with a sock stuffed in the crotch of our flight suit, showing how big and bad we are. So yesterday's Baghdad ceremony, which should have been an opportunity for the Iraqi people to feel good about themselves, such opportunities being damn rare over there, turned into another American ego show. In effect, we took credit for the team's victory. And in another small way, we displayed our utter contempt for the people we are supposedly liberating.

Friday, May 14, 2004

Any Surly Media, or Dairymen Lay Us
I have used the phrase "news fast" here a time or two. I have a couple of friends who use it as well. It means just what it says--that you stop taking news internally for a while, usually out of sheer exhaustion and for the sake of your mental health. It's not easy to do. I have logged on more times than I can count either with no plans to blog, or with an idea to blog about something not related to the day's hard news, only to find myself back on the treadmill of link and rant. It's a hazard when you have a hobby like this one and an avocation like politics and government. But we do all need a vacation from reality--or, more precisely, a vacation to a different form of reality, away from the poisonous nonsense of the front page, into realms where a bush is something you make love under and a rummy is someone who's had too much Captain Morgan. (Mark Morford elaborates.) So in the interest of directing you elsewhere on the Internet, here are some alternate destinations to visit this weekend instead of Google News or CNN.

Retrocrush is one of the more interesting time-wasters on the web. They've begun a series of the 50 coolest song moments of all time. Not whole songs--just bits of songs that are extremely cool. I knew exactly what they were talking about when I clicked number 50--Richard Betts' slide guitar from heaven on the fadeout of the Allman Brothers' "Ramblin' Man." (To find it, scroll down from the main page.)

The Annals of Improbable Research collects, well, improbable research projects from academia, and they're more or less serious about it. So if you want to know which came first, the chicken or the egg, or how to make your own glowing electric pickle, you can.

I don't think the Etiquette Grrls site has been updated for a while, but no matter--proper etiquette is timeless. And besides, their work will never be done because, as the Grrls' main page says, "Somewhere, someone is wearing a tube top in church. At a funeral."

The Matrix is making its basic cable debut on TBS this weekend. If you want to look for parallel universes in your own home, all you need is a laser pointer, a pin, and a piece of paper.

Last of all, there's the Internet Anagram Server. Priceless. Or as they might call it, "licepress"--but surely that's not an anagram, that's a spoonerism.

On Your Knees, Knaves
I have been rereading Barbara Tuchman's A Distant Mirror recently. The book might be my very favorite work of history--an exhaustive and involving chronicle of what Tuchman calls "the calamitous 14th century." It was a tortured time of political failure and horrific violence, and of the Black Death, and the time of artists like Chaucer and Boccaccio. Tuchman's book is full of saints, mystics, peasants, kings, torturers, popes--the full panoply of medieval Europe. Her dry wit keeps it entertaining, even when she's explaining medieval economics or the byzantine courses of dynastic politics.

In an era when nearly every crime could be punished by death, the most horrid crime a person could commit was lèse majesté, an offense against the sovereign. Anything from open and armed rebellion to looking at the king sideways could be interpreted as lèse majesté, depending on who was doing the interpreting. The penalty was usually swift and brutal--beheading, drowning, or hanging--and could be imposed on the population of an entire town for the offenses of a few townspeople. (In those cases, the town could be sacked and burned and the inhabitants, including women and children, slaughtered by the sword.)

So when I saw John Nichols' recent column in the Capital Times (reprinted at Common Dreams) about the quashing of dissent during Bush's western Wisconsin bus trip last week--particularly Nichols' allusion to "King George"--I heard an echo. Just as in the 14th century, the villeins of western Wisconsin were warned that they dared insult the king at their peril. In one case last week, a peace activist in Platteville (where I was an undergrad in the 14th century) was actually arrested simply for holding a sign along the route that said only "FUGW." (The reason given by local authorities was that children could see the sign. The children . . . my God, who will save the children?? I'd rather the police just admit they're fascists than resort to such patent nonsense.)

The activist, Frank Van den Bosch, got a $243 citation for disorderly conduct. Platteville was not sacked and burned (as far as I know). But what Bush did last week, with the help of local governments along his route, was to criminalize activities permitted by the First Amendment, in a way highly reminiscent of a medieval king. And people are more upset over a voting controversy on American Idol than they are about that.

Thursday, May 13, 2004

They Say This Cat is a Bad . . . Shut Yo' Mouth!
I'm late on this one, but Daily Kos handicapped the VP sweepstakes earlier this week--for some reason, Iowa governor Tom Vilsack is still on what is supposed to be the definitive short list, along with Edwards, Clark, Graham, and Gephardt. Kerry will reportedly make his decision sometime next month.

Because you probably don't have time to wade through all 327 reader comments on the original post, I'll do it. One Kos reader explains the case for Vilsack here: "Vilsack balances against elitism issues that crop us. His image as a plain-spoken midwesterner comes with little baggage, as opposed to all the others, who've been fully vetted by the 'totally unbiased' broadcast media mavens. There is no standard off-the-shelf manual on how to abuse Tom Vilsack. He's managed to 'fly under the radar,' is as well-respected by labor as Gephardt, and, though he's been a governed Iowa as a moderate, can claim on much of his positions that he was advocating for the state (as a good governor would)."

I said yesterday that I think Clark is the best guy at the moment, and other Kos readers think so too. One remarks: "Could we have a more bad-ass ticket than Kerry/Clark? Two 'Nam vets who killed commies and took shrapnel for their country, who both received high honors for bravery, and one of which was Supreme Allied Commander of NATO forces in Europe. You know Clark's got a wallet with 'Bad Motherfucker' stitched embroidered on it." (And he's just that, according to another reader, and not in a good way.)

Another reader hates all five candidates, so after presumably inhaling a little weed he came up with this: "What we do is go to McCain and Hagel and offer them the VP slot and the Sec of Defense slot IF THEY SWITCH PARTIES RIGHT NOW. Then we gain every committee seat in the Senate and can control the agenda and open investigations on the President and Cheney. We also approach Snowe, Chafee, and Collins and offer to give them juicy seats if they switch too. The only danger is if Kerry dies in office, but this guarantees victory and the destruction of the GOP."

And from left field, there's this interesting idea. "The unfolding torture fiasco in Iraq is just one more reason why Kerry might be very shrewd and wise to pick [Congressman] John Lewis for his VP. As America's moral credibility declines because of the contempt with which Bush treats the world (and because of his arrogance, immorality, thugishness, and hypocrisy), it is imperative that the US forcefully demonstrate to the world that Bush is an aberration and the US really IS a positive moral force. Having a VP with the moral authority of Lewis, one of the original Civil Rights heroes, could be a good first step in regaining the trust of the world community."

One Max Cleland supporter uncovered a campaign cliche that could not be applied to a Kerry/Cleland ticket. He says he had touted Cleland as a possible running mate for Howard Dean until he learned that Cleland had been campaigning for Kerry from the start. "Campaigning" wasn't his first choice of verb, though: "Damn," he said, "I almost wrote 'stumping' ... sorry."

Wingnut Anguish
I've wondered for a while if we'd ever reach a tipping point when the wingnuts go so far that Mr. and Mrs. America finally start to realize how loony they are. I'm not saying we're there, but I'm beginning to believe we're far closer than we've ever been before. MoveOn.Org's Daily Misleader has a good post today summarizing the White House's refusal to repudiate Rush Limbaugh and his comparison of prisoner abuse to college pranks. Oliver North said the same thing the other night--which makes you wonder just what the hell these guys did in college. The only way this leaky barge continues to hold water is if people ignore the evidence of their own eyes, because you can't look at the pictures and still think they're innocent unless you are deceiving yourself. (Alas, self-deception is a talent conservatives possess in spades--witness Sean Hannity's claim the other night that all mainstream media, even the world of talk radio, is irredeemably liberal. If he stops believing that, he loses his bunker mentality, and what's he got left without it?)

It's by no means an original thought of mine that these conservative opinion-makers are not that far removed, emotionally, from Islamic fanatics. Both believe firmly in their own righteousness without reservation or recourse to evidence, and they'll go to any length to hang onto what they believe, because they can't fathom the idea that they might be wrong. It's said that the only sure cure for bad ideas is better ideas. Trouble is, half of the American people can't seem to tell the difference.

A River in Egypt
I heard it twice in a single, three-minute NPR newscast first thing this morning, from Rumsfeld in Iraq and Democratic Senator Bill Nelson of Florida regarding the latest horrific pictures of prisoner abuse: We've got to put it behind us.

We live in a therapeutic, self-esteeming, feelings-matter-most culture, and the concept of "putting it behind us," whatever "it" may be, is always a prominent part of it. While I acknowledge that it can be healthy not to dwell too heavily on our personal sins and shortcomings (take it from someone who has always done this), I submit that it's just as bad not to dwell on them enough. If you don't dwell on them sufficiently, you can't learn anything from them. Instead, you go blithely skipping down the same path you always travel, blithely acting the same way you always do, self-esteem intact--thus there's a pretty good chance you'll fall victim to those sins and shortcomings again. So to suddenly shift the focus from looking at the pictures, finding out how the abuse happened, and deciding who is responsible, to putting it behind us is not so much putting it behind us as shoving it under the rug, or turning away from the mirror before we've had a good enough look. It's a form of denial.

This isn't necessarily political, either. I am not suggesting we need to keep focusing on these pictures until Bush's approval ratings are hammered further into the ground, although the wingnuts amen corner keeps accusing us of wanting just that. Every one of us, liberal, conservative, Democrat, Republican, is paying a hell of a price throughout the rest of the world for the incontrovertible photographic evidence of our country's failure to live up to the ideals we love to preach so priggishly. Most observers think the price is going to be paid by Americans in harm's way suffering greater brutality. We had goddamn well better get something for the price we will have to pay, but we never will if we "put it behind us" in hopes of making ourselves feel better. Sometimes, feeling bad is necessary. That violates the major tenets of our therapeutic culture, but perhaps it's time we grow the hell up and face our sins and shortcomings like adults. This ain't Oprah, this is real life.

Wednesday, May 12, 2004

The Day That Was
To release the new photos, or not to release the new photos? Members of Congress who've seen them say no, and for what seems like a reasonably decent reason--because the outrage they are likely to cause would further endanger the lives of Americans in Iraq. But in a world with millions of websites, you know the latest photos are going to come out sometime. And so the lives of Americans in Iraq are going to be further endangered one way or another. Perhaps it's better if we all see what we've done.

I said one day last week that the first round of photos didn't trouble me much more than the line of coffins in the photos Russ Kick got released a week or two before. Having looked at some more of the prisoner photos, I can say that's not true anymore. The one with the naked prisoner threatened by huge snapping dogs is particularly disturbing. The one described today ("a nearly naked man 'handcuffed to a wall, beating his head against the wall, recoiling back and forward, probably trying to knock himself unconscious and avoid having to live through the experience,'" as Reuters quoted a California representative) sounds equally horrific. If that's representative of the videos included in this batch, well, Finding Nemo it ain't.

It doesn't sound like the bad-apple excuse is going to hold water much longer. The more we learn, the more it becomes clear this isn't a matter of a few poorly trained MPs running amok (or avenging Jessica Lynch, as one of them claims). And once it implodes, you have to wonder how much longer the wingnuts can go on excusing the abuse and defending the perpetrators. (Well, forever, if we're talking about Fox News, but I digress.)

If Bush can't be persuaded to make a few heads roll on his own (sorry, that's probably a bad metaphor given events of the last day or so), maybe the latest polling numbers will convince him of the true intensity of the shitrain currently falling on him. With six months to go before the election, Gallup and Zogby both put Bush's approval ratings down around those of Daddy Bush, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford at a similar point. All of them lost. What this seems to mean is that people who have been peacefully dozing and believing things are going to be OK are starting to wake up and smell the carnage.

For once, John Kerry seems to be taking advantage. He's been too quiet about the Abu Ghraib scandal, preferring to stick to safe issues like jobs and education that are, under the circumstances, beside the point. (It reminds me of the way Al Gore kept Bush competitive in 2000, by talking about everything except the one guaranteed winner in his arsenal--in Gore's case, the successes of the Clinton/Gore administration.) Kerry stirred today--not what the situation warrants, but more than he's done lately--with some mild criticism of Bush and Donald Rumsfeld on Don Imus's radio show. Kerry also tossed out some possibilities for Secretary of Defense in his cabinet, including John McCain, Carl Levin, John Warner (another Republican), and Clinton-era secretary William Perry.

Naming possible cabinet officials is a wise gambit for Kerry. It can only help him if people get a sense that his team would be better than the crowd running the current cluster-fuck. But he ought to quit tossing McCain's name around. McCain quickly said "No thanks" when he heard about Kerry's comments this morning--which he's done before.

That means no dream ticket of Kerry/McCain. There's a plausible argument for Kerry to pick a Republican running mate, as a powerful statement of the extremism and isolation of Bush--but if not McCain, who? For what it's worth, I think the leading candidate for VP at the moment is Wesley Clark. Clark gave the weekly Democratic address last week--plus, he's a general who's actually won a war. As soon as Kerry figures out that it's about the war, stupid, he ought to see that Clark's positives far outweigh his negatives. If he ever figures it out.

Never Mind
If, like me, you were astounded by the Appleton Post-Crescent's solicitation of pro-Bush letters to the editor earlier this month, you might want to take a look at their mea culpa, published yesterday, backing off. The paper didn't mean to solicit pro-Bush letters. Honestly. "Unfortunately, we weren't clear enough in our intent. . . . We should have done a better job of stating our case." Well, yeah--if yesterday's editorial was what the paper intended its original case to be. But I'm skeptical. It reads like a lawyer's brief--carefully worded, backed with evidence, and just a wee bit defensive--whereas the earlier solicitation for letters reads like, "Come on, Bush backers! Don't let the Kerry people beat us! Where's your team spirit?" They can call it an unfortunate bit of confusion if they want, but that doesn't change the impression that the original editorial was intended as a sop to right-wing critics of the paper--which left the editorial board with egg on their faces. Now THAT'S entertainment.

Nyuk nyuk nyuk: The Mrs. sends the following e-mail forward: "How many members of the Bush Administration are needed to replace a lightbulb? The answer is SEVEN: (1) One to deny that a lightbulb needs to be replaced. (2) One to attack and question the patriotism of anyone who asks questions about the lightbulb. (3) One to blame the previous administration for the need of a new lightbulb. (4) One to arrange the invasion of a country rumored to have a secret stockpile of lightbulbs. (5) One to get together with Vice President Cheney and award a one million dollar no-bid contract to Halliburton Industries for supplying a lightbulb. (6) One to arrange a photo-op session showing Dubya changing the lightbulb while dressed in a flight suit and wrapped in an American flag. (7) And finally one to explain to Dubya the difference between screwing a lightbulb and screwing the country."

Second Acts
That the case of Emmett Till, the Mississippi teenager murdered in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman, should reenter the national consciousness on this particular day--and not two weeks before or two weeks after--almost makes you think that the universe is trying to tell us something. Yesterday, Luc Sante wrote in the New York Times that the expressions on the faces of the American MPs posing with Iraqi captives are like nothing so much as the faces seen in crowd photographs of lynchings during the early 20th century. At Best of the Blogs, Josh Hammond pondered yesterday's cable-news juxtaposition of the stories of Till, Nick Berg (the beheaded American), and Kobe Bryant, and suggested that the Abu Ghraib scandal is no more an isolated case of a few bad apples than the lynchings were: "both cases show the consequences of indifference to human rights that starts and is sustained at the top." Jerry Bowles also invoked Till as he wondered whether the beheading of Berg is proof that we're fighting barbarian hordes in Iraq. Jerry's answer--no. They're no more barbaric than Till's killers, or the killers of James Byrd or Matthew Shepherd.

With all this history floating around in the ether, it shouldn't be a surprise that a senator from Oklahoma would rise to defend the abusers of prisoners. After all, there were plenty of people ready to defend the rights of lynch mobs back in the day. Precisely what's going on in James Inhofe's brain isn't clear to me--and I damn well don't want to go poking around in there any more than necessary. His comments during the Taguba hearings yesterday were as foolish and indecent as anything ever uttered in the Senate. But his tone of aggrieved righteousness shouldn't be mistaken as something belonging only to him.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously said that there are no second acts in American lives, but he was wrong. America is all second-act, and third, and fourth, and fifth, because we can't remember the preceding acts. We have a handicap--unique among the peoples of the world, I think--of being unable to remember history, and being unable to learn anything from it. It's what makes foreign press commentaries on the world so very different from American ones--the sense of history with which journalists like Robert Fisk and John Pilger approach their work is inescapable. Americans, however, are forever wiping the slate clean and starting over. (Perhaps it's a hangover from the days when people could pack up and move on to the next frontier whenever a new start was needed.) So, instead of remembering the barbarity in our own past--from the annihilation of the Indians to our own record of lynchings--and using it to help us understand the pictures from Abu Ghraib and the conditions that led to them, we stare open-mouthed at the photos and wonder how they could have happened. And then, as Josh observed, we try to comfort ourselves by saying, "It's just the actions of a few bad apples" and "This is not the America we know." And then, just as Inhofe has done, we turn on the messengers, and blame them for making us feel bad about ourselves.

I don't have an ending for this entry--no philosophical pronouncement, no wry observation to tie it up with a lovely blogosphere bow. That would require things to make sense, and most of the time, they don't anymore.

Recommended reading: Far-East expert John Feffer says the neocons want to do for North Korea what they've done for the Middle East. Be very afraid.

This morning on Best of the Blogs: Quote of the Day.

Tuesday, May 11, 2004

If the Shoe Fits
Robert Fisk on prisoner abuse: When you dehumanize the enemy, you become dehumanized yourself, and it's always been that way.

Richard Goldstein in the Village Voice: Lynndie England, the female soldier prominently featured in the first blizzard of prison photos, is "the dominatrix of the American Dream."

Quote of the Day: "A tyrant must put on the appearance of uncommon devotion to religion. Subjects are less apprehensive of illegal treatment from a ruler whom they consider god-fearing and pious. On the other hand, they do less easily move against him, believing that he has the gods on his side."--Aristotle

Earl Landgrebe, Call Your Office
Earl Landgrebe was the Indiana congressman and Nixon supporter who, when confronted with the smoking gun tapes at the climax of the Watergate affair, said, "I have made up my mind; don't confuse me with the facts." His ghost has apparently landed in the office of Oklahoma's prize idiot, Senator Jim Inhofe. He's more outraged by the outrage over the treatment of Iraqi prisoners than he is over the treatment itself. Reuters quotes his comments this morning a to Senate committee probing the scandal: "I'm probably not the only one up at this table that is more outraged by the outrage than we are by the treatment." And also: "These prisoners, you know they're not there for traffic violations. If they're in cellblock 1-A or 1-B, these prisoners, they're murderers, they're terrorists, they're insurgents. Many of them probably have American blood on their hands and here we're so concerned about the treatment of those individuals." And, predictably: "I am also outraged that we have so many humanitarian do-gooders right now crawling all over these prisons looking for human rights violations, while our troops, our heroes are fighting and dying."

The Red Cross quotes Coalition Provisional Authority estimates that say up to 90 percent of the prisoners were captured by mistake. But what the hell, says Senator Jim. Kill 'em all and let God sort em out.

More than anything else, it's people like Inhofe who make me wish I lived in some other country, where such common-sense-defying, lunatic ravings didn't pass for leadership.

Snowballs in Hell
The Nation is out with a forum in which various authors, thinkers, historians, and academics (several of whom were in Madison last weekend for a celebration honoring the 95th birthday of The Progressive magazine) weigh in with advice on just how the United States can extract itself from Iraq. I wouldn't presume to distill it here--you're gonna have to read it, and get a cup of coffee because it's lengthy. One interesting point that keeps recurring is criticism of the idea that utter chaos would ensue if the United States pulled its troops out in favor of a multinational force. Historian Howard Zinn puts it this way:

In Vietnam, they promised a bloodbath if we left. That did not happen. It was said that if we did not drop the bomb on Hiroshima, we would have to invade Japan and huge casualties would follow. We know now and knew then that this was not true. The truth is, no one knows what will happen if the United States withdraws. We face a choice between the certainty of mayhem if we stay, and the uncertainty of what will follow if we leave.

John Brady Kiesling, a career foreign service officer who resigned in protest just before the Iraq war began, writes:

We were defeated once, in Vietnam, and the dominoes did not fall. We remained the leader of the free world, sadder but wiser. The ignorance and megalomania that brought us into Iraq are far more dangerous to US security and prosperity than would be the symbolic military defeat that gets us out.

While I don't agree with every author's every idea (Noam Chomsky, for example, needs to stay on his medication), what comes through in the forum is the profound need for our leaders to give up the fantasies that have driven the Iraq project so far and make hard, statesmanlike choices, the sort of thing upon which history smiles.

But screw history; Bush has got an election to win and there's no time for statesmanship.

Recommended reading: Also from The Nation, former TV Guide and People TV critic Jeff Jarvis, a writer whose work I've always liked, analyzes the FCC's most recent moves to regulate broadcast indecency. He highlights the important point that at the behest of the administration's Religious Right allies, the government is going far beyond any previous attempts to regulate the content of programming. Some in Congress are even threatening to start regulating cable and satellite channels, which have been exempt from scrutiny up til now because they are not broadcast over what are ostensibly public airwaves.

Monday, May 10, 2004

This morning's post on the Appleton Post Crescent's trolling for pro-Bush letters was inspired by a link on MediaMatters.org, a new website that promises it will "document and correct conservative misinformation in each news cycle." The website is the brainchild of David Brock, one of America's most famous repentant conservatives, who participated in the destruction of Anita Hill during the early 1990s, but later switched sides and wrote a book called Blinded by the Right. (Brock detailed his vision for the site in an interview with Alternet.) MediaMatters has been on the case of the abused Iraqi prisoners, collecting right-wing explanations for who's to blame: feminists, the media, and, of course, Bill Clinton. I haven't seen this many people twisting themselves into knots since the contortionists' convention left town.

While I have predicted here that Rumsfeld won't get fired or have to quit over all this, the jury is still in fact out. And it occurs to me that Bush's appearance at the Pentagon today, although scheduled long before the Abu Ghraib story broke, might be useful in building a firewall if Rumsfeld really has to go. Imagine that the to-be-released pix Rumsfeld alluded to last week are as bad as he says. Imagine the continued erosion of support for Rummy in Congress, even among Republicans. Imagine Rummy falling on his sword for the greater good. Now imagine Bush and Cheney on the offensive, bashing evil Democrats and the evil media for forcing out "the greatest defense secretary this country has ever had," as Cheney termed him today. It'll play big in the red states. Never mind that there are ample reasons for Rumsfeld and others to go, as Juan Cole notes. The nut graf, as they say in J-school, is:

You really wonder whether the Bush plan to Americanize the Middle East isn't being turned on its head. We now have an unaccountable government not elected in accordance with the will of the majority of Americans, which victimizes critics like Joe Wilson and engages in torture. Bush and Co. are emulating the worst aspects of the military governments of Egypt and Yemen. They have no credibility to push the latter toward democracy.

University of Wisconsin professor of history Stanley Kutler wrote last week that another highly placed resignation is in order--Colin Powell's. The resignation on principle of such a high official would raise the stakes of the debate over Iraq. The administration's standard rejoinder to all criticism from ex-officials (Joe Wilson, to name one)--that such criticism is partisan and designed to elect John Kerry--wouldn't work on Powell.

Recommended reading: Many of the eulogies for football star Pat Tillman in the sports press started and stopped with simplistic paeans to his heroism. Rick Reilly of Sports Illustrated went a bit further, as Jonathan Tasini observed on TomPaine.com. (You're on your own to find the whole Reilly column. It's apparently available to subscribers only on SI's website. But Tasini captures the gist.)

Bizarro World
Last month I linked to a piece in The Gadflyer which contained the following worthwhile quote: "[J]ournalism's adherence to the ideal of objectivity and its reliance on 'two-sided' reporting make it structurally weak in the face of official mendacity. Reporters are taught that they are supposed to achieve balance at all costs and have difficulty when the scales are tipped in one direction, much less when one side is lying outright."

Wisconsin's entry in the Structural Weakness Olympics is the Appleton Post-Crescent, which published an editorial last week in which the paper solicited more pro-Bush letters: "We’ve been getting more letters critical of President Bush than those that support him. We’re not sure why, nor do we want to guess. But in today’s increasingly polarized political environment, we would prefer our offering to put forward a better sense of balance."

You probably caught the Quote of the Day lurking in that paragraph: "We're not sure why, nor do we want to guess." You're not sure why people are more critical than supportive of Bush? Do you read your own damn front page? You don't want to guess? Why? Because as a Gannett paper, and thus part of one of the major media corporations controlling public opinion in this country, you might not like the reason when you figure out what it is?

I wrote a letter to the Post-Crescent's editor this morning, which I doubt will see publication, as it's been a week since the solicitation for letters first appeared. So here it is:

Your recent solicitation of pro-Bush letters in the name of "balance" throws into sharp relief one of the biggest problems in modern journalism--the belief that "balance" is what it's all about.

To use an extreme example: If this were Nazi Germany in the 1930s, and the preponderance of your letters was critical of the anti-semitic tone of the German government, would you solicit letters in favor of anti-semitism? I think not. And I think we'd all agree that in that particular case, "balance" is the last thing you would try to achieve.

While I do not in any way mean to suggest parallels between our country today and Germany in the 1930s, [not in this letter, at least] I do mean to suggest that "balance" should not be the primary goal of any journalistic enterprise. Truth should be. And if the collective "truth" of your readership comes down as critical of George W. Bush, maybe there really is something to be critical of, and maybe that "something" is more than just partisan bickering.

Going out of your way to solicit pro-Bush letters when the majority of the letters you receive are anti-Bush, all in the name of balance, will actually give you only the *appearance* of balance--and this appearance will actually serve to benefit Bush, by giving readers in the Fox Valley the idea that he and his policies are more popular than they really are. And the only place that's considered "balance" is in the right-wing Bizarro World.

Friday, May 07, 2004

A Few Bugs in the System
This morning, NPR profiled Joseph Darby, the Pennsylvania soldier credited with reporting prisoner abuse to his superiors, thus blowing the lid off the situation in Iraq. Darby wasn't the only person who knew about it--the International Committee of the Red Cross said today they'd been complaining about it for over a year--but if he hadn't slipped a note under a superior officer's door, the abuse might have gone on longer. To go by the comments of friends and neighbors in the NPR profile, Darby almost comes off as a fictional character--quiet, kind, the sort of kid who wouldn't cut through a neighbor's yard to visit a girlfriend even after the neighbor gave him permission to. Opie Taylor in fatigues.

It's hard to be a lone wolf, especially in the military, "army of one" notwithstanding. But Darby saw an injustice and said something about it when other people didn't, which is mighty damn brave in my book--and more heroic than anything Jessica Lynch did. So where's Darby's book deal and TV movie? My guess is that he might get something else first. Unlike Lynch, whose largely-manufactured plight served the interests of the war machine, Darby's actions brought worldwide condemnation onto the Bush administration, and we all know what happens to anyone who dares to speak ill of our Maximum Leader. So how long until the right-wing smear machine cranks up to destroy this kid for daring to speak out?

I have to hand it to Rumsfeld, though. In an appearance before Congress today, he apologized for the abuse in an explicit fashion: "I feel terrible about what happened to these Iraqi detainees. They are human beings. They were in U.S. custody. Our country had an obligation to treat them right. We didn't, and that was wrong. So to those Iraqis who were mistreated by members of the U.S. armed forces, I offer my deepest apology. It was inconsistent with the values of our nation. It was inconsistent with the teachings of the military, to the men and women of the armed forces. And it was certainly fundamentally un-American."

That is precisely what needs to be said. (Bush should have said it too.) But it shouldn't have taken this long. It's clear that the administration would not have gone this far in apologizing if the story could have been made to go away at any point in the last couple of weeks. And it's clear also that the Bush apology yesterday and Rummy's mea culpa today are intended to signal that it's time to move on and that there's nothing more to see here. But there ought to be more, and everybody who knows anything about how Washington usually works knows it. In other administrations, people as senior as Rumsfeld have been terminated with extreme prejudice over far less. It's indicative of the intransigence of the administration that nobody is going to get fired over this.

Recommended reading: By the time the November election happens, it will have been handicapped in every way imaginable. In the New Yorker, Ben McGrath introduces us to Kathryn Cason, whose field is textual analysis. Based on her analysis of the two candidates' rhetorical styles, she is 100 percent certain that Kerry will beat Bush--but by her formula, Dennis Kucinich and Carol Moseley Braun would, too. So maybe there are a few bugs in the system.

Tonight on Best of the Blogs (yep, I'm still posting over there sometimes): Road Trip.

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