Sunday, April 21, 2013

April 21, 2013
"Don't be cross, uncle!" said the nephew.
"What else can I be," returned the uncle, "when I live in such a world of fools as this?"
Dickens, A Christmas Carol
I wouldn’t offer Scrooge — the early, unrepentant one — as a model, but in this exchange with his nephew Fred, he sums up the present situation rather well: we’re surrounded by fools.
Recently a friend forwarded a video entitled "Send in the Clowns," containing clips of famous comedians. It’s funny and nostalgic, but the title also is a perfect description of contemporary politics.
We have a glut of guns, which are available, thanks to a lack of background checks, to any nut who wants to work out his maladjustment in violence. Do we consult with sensible voices? No! We send in the clowns: Wayne La Pierre and his Senatorial stooges, four of whom pretend to be Democrats. The Senate as an institution qualifies as a clown act. It has allowed a procedural device, the filibuster, to be converted into the requirement of sixty votes to pass any bill, thus handing the minority a painless method of exercising a veto. The result is that background checks on gun purchases, supported by an overwhelming majority of citizens, are rejected. That would be foolish enough at any time, but in the aftermath of Newtown, it is difficult to believe and impossible to accept.
One of the louder fools, Alex Jones, did his bit to bury the lesson of Newtown. He did so by adding that crime to his long list of imaginary federal-government conspiracies: [43] in the strange world he inhabits, the "illegitimate criminal government . . . probably staged this event." He now has done the same for the Boston Marathon bombing: it is a "false flag" operation, one perpetrated by the government, apparently using Navy Seals as bombers.[44] His theory is that the government staged the killings so that it could confiscate guns. Jones argues that we "need guns to protect ourselves from criminals, crazy people and this corrupt foreign occupation government." (The last apparently refers to his notion that the government is an arm of "offshore New World Order bankers," and that "globalists are trying to conquer us.") His reference to crazy people is deeply ironic; watching him scream and threaten [45] would convince any viewer that he is the last person on earth who should have access to firearms.
Another tribe huddled around its campfire, fearing the next attack of the feds, goes by the clan name Tenther. They demand that states nullify federal laws, often in aid of guns, but also to prevent health care. Like so many of the foolish, they live in a partly imaginary past, any real aspect of which vanished in the 1860s.
Millions watch Fox "News" and follow its inane lead. Glenn Beck was the perfect Fox pundit, having described himself as a rodeo clown.
The President at times joins the ranks of the foolish. His attempts to compromise with the House GOP fall in that category: usually they fail and when they succeed he gives away too much. It’s fun to imagine Lyndon Johnson dealing with the nitwits in the House or Harry Truman running against the do-nothing Congress.
Americans often take matters a step further by being fatuous, i.e., foolishly proud, in their belief in our exceptionalism. An example is pretending that we have the best health care system, unlike the (shudder) socialist countries. A glance at any study on cost, life expectancy or infant mortality would show otherwise. Despite the increasing concentration of wealth, and therefore power, at the top, we also pride ourselves on being champions of democracy.
Bah! Humbug.


43. A summary is here: I discussed his fantasies in my post of May 30, 2010.
45. ; see, especially, the diatribe beginning at 7:59.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

April 10, 2013
Various observations marked the tenth anniversary, last month, of the beginning of the Iraq war, including a few qualified recantations. For example, in The Washington Post, David Ignatius offered a limited mea culpa:
Ten years ago this week, I was covering the U.S. military as it began its assault on Iraq. As I read back now over my clips, I see a few useful warnings about the difficulties ahead. But I owe readers an apology for being wrong on the overriding question of whether the war made sense.
However, in determining whether the war "made sense" he turned to secondary issues including, rather bizarrely, that the country "didn’t have the stomach for a protracted war that President George W. Bush couldn’t explain and the public didn’t understand." Bush couldn’t explain it, nor could Ignatius, because the war was, in concept as well as execution, wrong.
Another form of limited reappraisal came from Paul Farhi, who "covers the news media" for the Post, under the revealingly evasive headline "On Iraq, journalists didn’t fail. They just didn’t succeed." There were some skeptical stories, he said, which is true, but "[s]ome of these stories — too many — were not given prominence and, in the case of newspapers, didn’t make the front page." However, "it wasn’t impossible for skeptics of the war to connect the dots." Again true, but there’s the rub: in his view, it was up to the rest of us to see through the false rationales and criticize the war because the Post didn’t have the wit or courage to do so. Why? According to him it was because of "Congress’s unwillingness to stand up to the president . . . . There were no hearings that could have featured skeptical government experts disputing the official line." Also true, but is Congress’ cowardice an excuse? Apparently so; he quotes Leonard Downie Jr., the Post’s executive editor at the time: "Downie believes that no amount of media skepticism would have stopped the administration. ‘We were going to war,’ he said." It’s going to happen; why fight it? What a stirring slogan; for this we have freedom of the press?
Howard Fineman, on Huffington Post , offered this:
It began with fear and, for some journalists including me, misguided patriotism. Washington and New York, the centers of the American media, had been attacked on 9/11. We all knew, or knew of, people who had been killed. We had only one president, and as incurious and unprepared as he was, there was a natural desire to see him somehow grow in office to meet the moment.
The last comment is a variation on rallying-around, which certainly was one of the factors creating support for an illegitimately selected president of obviously limited ability. It doesn’t, though, explain the easy acceptance of the administration’s dubious arguments in favor of invading Iraq, especially as eighteen months elapsed between 9-11 and that event. Fineman noted, but did not explain, the failure: "Of course for journalists, the most patriotic thing we can do is our jobs — which meant that we all should have doubled down on skepticism and tough questions. Some did. I wish I could say that I was one of them."
"Fear" in the first sentence seems to refer to the shock of the 9-11 attacks and the concern that more might follow. However, another sort of fear affected some, as pointed out by Chris Hedges: "The war boosters, especially the ‘liberal hawks’ . . . did what they always have done: engage in acts of self-preservation. To oppose the war would have been a career killer."[39] By contrast, supporting the war had no price: Media Matters quoted pro-war statements by various pundits and noted that most of them, despite being so wrong, haven’t recanted and all still have platforms from which to offer up opinions to further mislead us.[40]
It may be too much to expect that national policy would be altered significantly by the fact that the Iraq war was unnecessary, unjustified, wasteful of lives and money, and just plain stupid. In part because coverage and commentary by the news media on the invasion of Iraq were so pro-war, the public does not even now appreciate just how wrong and disastrous it was.
Our problems did not end with the withdrawal from Iraq or the end of the term of G. W. Bush. The presidency has become even more imperial since Arthur Schlesinger so dubbed it in 1973. Congress, so assertive and conservative in domestic matters, has become passive on matters of war and peace, content to let the president wage war at will. Fears about national security, whether sound, exaggerated or imaginary, lead to extreme actions almost by default. In addition to fear, there’s the irresistible drive to be tough. As Seymour Hersh put it in The New Yorker, "Nothing succeeds in Washington like being tougher than the next guy. And woe to those who express doubt." His comment referred not only to Iraq but to the Obama administration’s policy of assassination by drone. There has been little adverse comment about that, even though American citizens are, contrary to the Constitution, included in the targets. We had secret memos authorizing torture; now we have secret memos authorizing remote-control killing.
As Hersh said, "Vietnam. And Iraq, and Afghanistan. We have a lot of anniversaries to forget." As with economics, so with war: we never seem to learn.




Wednesday, April 3, 2013

April 3, 2013
At times it occurs to me that my comments are unduly harsh and negative. I tell myself that the targets deserve it, but still . . . . Recently I saw a quote from H.L. Menken, and that led me to reread the essay from which it was taken. Next to it my ramblings are the soul of restraint. Here is Menken on the state of the nation circa 1922:
It is . . . one of my firmest and most sacred beliefs, reached after an inquiry extending over a score of years and supported by incessant prayer and meditation, that the government of the United States, in both its legislative arm and its executive arm, is ignorant, incompetent, corrupt, and disgusting . . . . It is a belief no less piously cherished that the administration of justice in the Republic is stupid, dishonest, and against all reason and equity . . . .
So much for then domestic scene; what about foreign affairs?
It is another that the foreign policy of the United States — its habitual manner of dealing with other nations, whether friend or foe — is hypocritical, disingenuous, knavish, and dishonorable . . . .
The government is awful, but what about the people it so miserably serves?
[I]t is my fourth (and, to avoid too depressing a bill, final) conviction that the American people, taking one with another, constitute the most timorous, sniveling, poltroonish, ignominious mob of serfs and goose-steppers ever gathered under one flag in Christendom since the end of the Middle Ages . . . .[38]
And so on, for another thirty pages. Reassured that I have been, at least comparatively, moderate, measured, tolerant and respectful, I can go on.
A model for insightful, critical analysis combined with style, elegance and restraint is provided by the columns of Anthony Lewis, who passed away last week. I haven’t come across a collection of his columns and, if none has been produced, some publisher should fill the gap.
Lewis retired from The New York Times at the end of 2001, three months shy of his 75th birthday He had seen enough of the effects of 9-11 on the national psyche to recognize its dangers, many of which are still with us. Here are excerpts from his last Times column , published December 15, 2001:
No one can miss the reality of that challenge after Sept. 11. Islamic fundamentalism, rejecting the rational processes of modernity, menaces the peace and security of many societies.
But the phenomenon of religious fundamentalism is not to be found in Islam alone. Fundamentalist Christians in America, believing that the Bible's story of creation is the literal truth, question not only Darwin but the scientific method that has made contemporary civilization possible.
Faith in reason was the foundation stone of the United States. The men who met in Philadelphia in 1787 . . . wagered that a national government based on written rules could hold the country together.
Of course we have not always been faithful to the vision of the Framers. In time of war and stress, we have yielded again and again to fear. . . .
Today again fear threatens reason. Aliens are imprisoned for months on the flimsiest of grounds. The attorney general of the United States moves to punish people on the basis of secret evidence, the Kafkaesque hallmark of tyranny. . . .
The hard question is whether our commitment to law will survive the new sense of vulnerability that is with us all after Sept. 11. It is easy to tolerate dissent when we feel safe.
In the end I believe that faith in reason will prevail. But it will not happen automatically. Freedom under law is hard work. If rulers cannot be trusted with arbitrary power, it is up to citizens to raise their voices at injustice. The most important office in a democracy, Justice Louis Brandeis said, is the office of citizen.
I wish that I could be that optimistic. Perhaps my failing is having less trust and faith in the ability of the American people to live up to the nation’s principles and the better aspects of its history. In any case, the better outcome requires leadership, which at present is in short supply.

38.Menken, "On Being an American," in The American Scene , pp. 6-7 (essay reprinted from Prejudices: Third Series , 1922).
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