Friday, December 21, 2007

Codifying English

"We have room for but one language in this country, and that is the English language, for we intend to see that the crucible turns our people out as Americans, of American nationality, and not as dwellers in a polyglot boarding house."
—Theodore Roosevelt (1906)

Since the first non-English-speaking immigrants arrived in the British colonies of North America, nativist anglophones have fretted about the imminent loss of their language and , by implication, their culture. In its most extreme forms, the English-only movement has supported the complete elimination of Native American languages and, during World War I, the removal of all books in German from public libraries [1] .

Now, capitalizing on the current hysteria over immigration, some thirty states [left] have adopted English as their "official" language. Bills in congress threaten to do the same for the federal government.

Proponents argue that the current wave of immigrants (read: Hispanics), unlike their predecessors from Europe, are unwilling or unable to learn English—a notoriously difficult language to acquire by any standard. Government support of bilingualism, they claim, will only perpetuate the linguistic isolation and economic marginalization of the growing Spanish-speaking minority. The English-only movement raises the dire prospect that unassimilated immigrants will even become a separatist force that will seek reunification with Mexico, undoing the results of the Mexican War and the Gadsden Purchase.

The only response for the nativists is a kind of tough love: Spanish-speaking children will be forced to undergo total immersion in English—all for their own benefit, of course.

As it turns out, the Hispanophobes needn't be so alarmed. A study by the Pew Hispanic Center, released on November 29th, found that:
Nearly all Hispanic adults born in the United States of immigrant parents report they are fluent in English. By contrast, only a small minority of their parents describe themselves as skilled English speakers. This finding of a dramatic increase in English-language ability from one generation of Hispanics to the next emerges from a new analysis of six Pew Hispanic Center surveys conducted this decade among a total of more than 14,000 Latino adults. The surveys show that fewer than one-in-four (23%) Latino immigrants reports being able to speak English very well. However, fully 88% of their U.S.-born adult children report that they speak English very well. Among later generations of Hispanic adults, the figure rises to 94%. Reading ability in English shows a similar trend.
The study also showed:
Latinos believe that English is necessary for success in the United States... Asked whether adult Latinos “need to learn English to succeed in the United States, or can they succeed even if they only speak Spanish,” 89% of Hispanics in the 2002 survey said that they need to learn English. Slightly more Spanish-dominant Hispanics (92%) voiced this belief.

The other side of the coin is that many Latinos believe that inability to speak English well is the leading cause of discrimination against Hispanics. And discrimination is seen as a major problem in keeping Hispanics from succeeding in America: It was cited by 44% of Latinos in the 2002 survey, 58% in the 2006 survey and 54% in the 2007 survey.
Spanish-speaking immigrants have a thorough understanding of the realities that motivated earlier waves of immigrants to acquire proficiency in English as quickly as possible:
How do the patterns we found resemble or differ from those experienced by the last great influx of immigrants a century ago? The broad trajectory appears to be similar. Researchers generally agree that immigrants who arrived a century ago largely spoke their native language, especially at home. Their U.S.-born children used English and their parents’ native tongue. The children of U.S.-born parents—i.e., the grandchildren or later descendants of immigrants—spoke mainly or only English.


From the first generation to those that follow, we see a nearly complete transition from Spanish to English dominance.
Members of the second and third generations retain the ability to speak some Spanish at home:
Slightly more than half of the second generation (56%) say they speak Spanish very well, as do 29% of the later generations. But Spanish retains a foothold in the third generation and beyond, with 52% reporting they speak it at least pretty well.
But English prevails:
Spanish is the language that most foreign-born Hispanic adults (52%) speak exclusively at home. That proportion drops to 11% among second-generation adults and 6% among those in the third and higher generations.
So if only 6% of third-generation adults speak Spanish at home, where's the great threat that makes it so important to declare English the official language of the U.S.? No doubt the perceived danger has more to do with the skin color, socioeconomic status and demographics of Spanish-speaking immigrants than a desire to maintain the hegemony of the dominant language.


The map [inset] shows the states in which English has been designated the "official" language. Three states have two official languages: French and Spanish, respectively, in Louisiana and New Mexico; Hawaiian and English in Hawai'i. [Wikipedia Commons]

[1] When I started public school in Maine, "subprimary" still substituted for the German "kindergarten" ("child's garden") many decades after the end of that war.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Blues Break: Mississippi Fred McDowell, Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee

Fred McDowell performs at the Newport Folk Festival (around 1965), followed by Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee. (It's too bad that both songs are cut short, but we can still be grateful to have this footage available online.)

Monday, November 12, 2007

Islamofascism: construct and reality

As part of a symposium in Slate involving various discredited "liberal hawks" on the Iraq war, including Christopher Hitchens and Tom Friedman, Paul Berman writes:
It's all too true that better leaders could have made better plans, and the French and the Germans and the United Nations could help even now, if only they would. But it ought not to be so hard to see that, even so, the prospects of the totalitarian movement are looking a lot less healthy today than they did on Sept. 10, 2001 and the prospects of Muslim liberalism are looking up, somewhat.
Huh? Unless the perilous return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan is evidence of better "prospects" for Muslim liberalism, I must be missing something. The "totalitarian movement" in question, of course, is "Islamofascism," a meaningless term that Bush, Cheney and unrepentant neocons toss about recklessly in the hope that it will eventually gain some intellectual traction.

Writing in the neoconservative Weekly Standard, Stephen Schwartz—supposedly the "first Westerner" to use the term—attempts to define "Islamofascism" as the "use of the faith of Islam as a cover for totalitarian ideology. This radical phenomenon is embodied among Sunni Muslims today by such fundamentalists as the Saudi-financed Wahhabis, the Pakistani jihadists known as Jama'atis, and the Egyptian Muslim Brotherhood. In the ranks of Shia Muslims, it is exemplified by Hezbollah in Lebanon and the clique around President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Iran."

In lumping these groups together under the rubric of "Islamofascism," Schwartz seems to have overlooked the reality on the ground in Iraq, to mention just one example, where the schism between Sunnis and Shi'ites seems to have practical significance. Or the vast differences between the Sunni Wahhabis of Saudi Arabia and the Shi'ite mullahs who dominate the current regime in Tehran. If there's an unifying militant ideology that unites these conflicting groups, he's unable to describe it in a coherent way.

Schwartz goes on to state that fascism is "distinguished from the broader category of extreme right-wing politics by its willingness to defy public civility and openly violate the law." By that standard, both Gandhi and Martin Luther King were "fascists."

Terror, Schwartz writes, is one of major "fascist methods" that define the "Islamofascist" movement. Terrorism, though, is a tactic and not an ideology—a fundamental distinction that seems beyond Dubya's grasp. In fact, the systematic application of terrorist methods has been a political tactic for centuries across a vast ideological spectrum, from the Zealots of ancient Palestine to the radical Jacobins of the French Revolution to the 19th-century Russian anarchists and well beyond into the current century. Not to mention state terrorism, which has undoubtedly killed more people than all other forms combined.

The U.S. Department of Justice, back in 1975, offered a workable definition of terrorism that is independent of any specific ideology: "Violent criminal behavior designed primarily to generate fear in the community, or substantial segment of it, for political purposes." Terrorists are motivated by some form of ideology that provides a moral cover, however suspect, for their conduct. It's misleading to focus on the conduct without looking at the specific convictions that animate it.

But back to Berman's argument in Slate. His reference to the condition of the alleged "totalitarian movement" reveals how much he still shares the assumptions of the Bush war planners: they can only understand conflict in terms of a reductionist Cold War paradigm. So this fantasy-based community posits an all-powerful "totalitarian movement" on the communist model, with Al Qaida manipulating every nationalist and Muslim insurgency from Iraq to Afghanistan to the Philippines. Increasingly, in Iraq and elsewhere, Al Qaida and "Islamofascism" have become synonyms. In the same way, Cold Warriors imagined that every nationalist insurgency, from Vietnam to Guatemala, was precisely orchestrated in the back offices of the Kremlin. The reality was, and is, far more complex.

By this familiar process, Bush and the neocons attempt to transform disparate national and religious ideologies into a monolithic "Islamofascism" and launch a global war on it. Ironically, there's a self-fulfilling quality to all this: their "global war" on this alleged "totalitarian movement" may yet bring into being a unified Muslim counterforce that didn't previously exist.

MAP: Islam by country, showing percentages of Sunnis (green) and Shi'ites (red). Click to enlarge. (Wikimedia Commons)

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Norman Mailer (1923-2007)

Norman Mailer was a gifted novelist and journalist (The Armies of the Night, Miami and the Siege of Chicago, The Executioner's Song), but his political views were an infuriating stew of progressive eloquence and macho, antifeminist mush. The man was not lacking in grandiose aspirations or audacity, once stating (apparently without irony) that his goal as a novelist was to "transform the moral consciousness of our times." [1]

Mailer's ambitions for a career in New York politics were likely doomed even before he stabbed Adele Morales, his second wife, at a party in 1960. But his alcohol-fueled campaign for mayor of New York in 1969 was notable in two respects.
  • Mailer remains, to this day, the only U.S. politician who (as he boasted at the time) could tender affidavits from one or more psychiatrists to verify his sanity. [1] If voters had imposed such a requirement in the national elections of 2000, the history of the last seven years might've been radically different.
  • Mailer and fellow journalist Jimmy Breslin, who ran on the same platform for city council president, adopted "No More Bullshit" as their slogan, a theme that has since been claimed repeatedly (though more politely) by mainstream politicians from Jimmy Carter to Barack Obama.
For anyone who aspires to write, Mailer's insights on technique and the writing process are invaluable. His passing comes just seven months after the death of Kurt Vonnegut, whom he deeply respected.


[1] Though I can't find the precise source of this statement, I remember it distinctly.

[2] Again, it's difficult to verify this incident, but it seems to me that Mailer offered affidavits from three psychiatrists.

PHOTO: Norman Mailer in 1948, the year that his first novel (The Naked and the Dead) was published. (Wikimedia Commons)

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Blues Break: Robert "Wolfman" Belfour

Robert "Wolfman" Belfour performs at Del's General Store in Clarksdale, Mississippi, during the 2007 Juke Joint Festival. The vocals are difficult to follow in this recording, but the power of Wolfman's amplified blues guitar comes through clearly enough. After 35 years as a construction worker, this 67-year-old bluesman may finally be getting a well-deserved audience.

Sunday, November 04, 2007

A week in Manhattan

A few impressions

During a trip back east in June, I managed to spend a few days in New York City (where I lived many years ago). It was frustrating not to have more time, but at least I was able to see some friends and spend a full day at the Museum of Modern Art (MOMA). My latest visit of a full week, from which I just returned, was much more satisfying. A few impressions:
European, Japanese and Indian tourists were even more numerous than they were last summer, thanks to the weakened dollar. In midtown and the museums especially, English seemed like a minority language. It's just a matter of time before Chinese tourists become more common in the U.S. New York is a "world city" more than ever.

Traffic remains awful in midtown, where the only rule is: if you can get away with it, it must be legal. Cross traffic doesn't hesitate to block major intersections, causing hopeless (and mindless) gridlock. Drastic action seems necessary—and not just "congestion pricing" below 59th Street or 110th Street or whatever, since its effect would be to impose a regressive form of taxation. New York should follow Portland's example and establish fareless transit zones where private vehicles are banned entirely during the business day. (I rode the M10 bus from 59th Street to Battery Park, a trip of less than five miles that took over an hour.)

As in the rest of the country, public infrastructure continues to deteriorate despite the almost-inconceivable wealth generated in New York (whose private reserves of gold bullion vastly exceed the amount stored at Fort Knox). The subway stations are decrepit, though relatively free of debris and graffiti, and many need basic repairs (leaky ceilings are common). Many of the streets are potholed to the extent that axles are in jeopardy. The two exceptions are Central Park, which is superbly maintained and heavily used even on a rainy day, and the Staten Island Ferry, which has been upgraded and is now free.

After the second warmest October on record, the trees in the parks were shockingly (and somewhat disappointingly) green.

My old neighborhood on West 83rd (at Columbus) seemed eerily the same, decades after I moved away. The areas closest to Central and Riverside parks were gentrified long ago, but it was refreshing to see that the old block retains much of its former ethnic and economic diversity.
New York remains a paradox: the quintessential American city that bears little resemblance to any other urban area in the country. Compared to places like Portland and Seattle, Manhattan seems to be a third-world city in two respects: its ethnic diversity and extreme disparities in wealth. While there's a substantial African American middle class, most of the low-wage and menial work in Manhattan is still performed by black and Hispanic workers. I saw little evidence of racial or ethnic hostility, though it certainly exists near the surface, but the class and socioeconomic distinctions are clear and disturbing.

As just one small illustration of this reality, hardly any white people were visible on the packed subway to Jamaica, Queens, as I rode back to JFK for my flight home (see below). At least 95% of the commuters were black or Hispanic. Once in Jamaica, I transferred to the AirTrain, and suddenly the equation was reversed: 95% of the passengers were white. Though black and Hispanic travelers are hardly rare in airports, I was again reminded that there's a vast underclass, both white and nonwhite, that is nearly invisible in the debased political conversation in this country.

Wandering the museums

Returning to Oregon after strolling through the major museums of New York City, a few images emerged from the hundreds of paintings we saw: Vermeer's haunting Study of a Young Woman (c. 1665-67) at the Met's exhibition entitled "The Age of Rembrandt;" Rembrandt's self-portrait from 1660, which oozes so much self-confidence that it could've been painted with pure testosterone; MOMA's stunning new exhibition of luminous drawings by Georges Seurat, and its familiar galleries of important works by Cézanne, Van Gogh and Pollock.

But there were also disappointments [1]. Minor works by great artists can be worth a look, but a depressing number of the pieces in these museums are either mediocre or downright bad. They shouldn't be taking up valuable gallery space, so move them to the basement where they can be examined by future generations of art historians and specialists. Picasso and Matisse, for example, are overrepresented at MOMA. Many of Picasso's early works are splendid, and his long career displays endless versatility, but some of his paintings would've barely paid for his lunch in a Paris café. And, after Guernica, he seemingly became what he so often condemned: a connoisseur of his own works.

But the biggest disappointment was in what was absent from these collections. Between them, the Met, MOMA and the Guggenheim display just five paintings by Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud, the great postwar British figurative artists. And not a single work by their fellow Brit (born in Austria) Frank Auerbach. The limited selection of five works is impressive enough, but the curators would be well-advised to take down some of the Picassos and Matisses to make room for these worthy painters.

Equally disturbing is the underrepresentation of the post-World War I German and Austrian expressionists, including Emil Nolde, Franz Marc, Otto Dix, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Max Beckmann, Auguste Macke, Paula Modersohn-Becker, Käthe Kollwitz, Max Pechstein and—above all—the great Egon Schiele. Sadly, many of their works are apparently gathering dust in the basements of the great New York museums.

The Neue Gallerie, located on 5th Avenue between the Met and Guggenheim, is the one New York collection that specializes in the postwar Austro-German expressionists. Yet every square inch of wall space is currently devoted to a special exhibition of Gustav Klimt's works. Compared to the edgy and challenging work of Schiele, who died of the Spanish flu in 1918 at the age of 28, Klimt's works seem decorative and sentimental. It's understandable why the Neue Gallerie would focus on Klimt, since owner Ronald Lauder spent $135 million last year to purchase his Portrait of Adele Bloch-Bauer I—the highest price ever paid for a painting until then (since surpassed by two paintings by Pollock and de Kooning). Still, I regretted spending $15 to gain admission to galleries full of paintings by an artist whose continuing popularity remains puzzling to me. I kept looking for the door to the basement, which houses some real treasures.

A tip to travelers

My friend and I shared the $50 (without tip) cost of a "limo" (actually an SUV) ride from JFK to midtown Manhattan. Taxis, without tip, cost $5 less but you may have to wait in line to get one. Returning by myself to JFK, I didn't want to spend that kind of money. So I took the E train from midtown to the Jamaica stop, where I paid $5 more for the AirTrain to JFK. The subway ride is long, even though the E train is an express, and crowded at rush hour. But it's very cheap (especially if you buy a 7-day Metrocard when you arrive), and the AirTrain quickly transports you (on elevated tracks) to all the terminals at JFK. So the cost was about one-tenth of what I would've paid for a limo/taxi, and I didn't have to sit in heavy traffic and breathe exhaust for an hour. I did have to wheel my luggage a few blocks from my hotel to the subway, but that proved to be quite bearable.


[1] Bias alert: as an amateur painter and drawer, I have a preference for portraiture and other figurative works. This certainly does not mean that I disrespect abstraction, landscapes or any other kind of visual art. It's simply a preference.

PHOTOS: Central Park near 59th Street (taken with a Sony digital camera).

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Blues Break: Allen Ginsberg - "Father Death Blues"

From an interview with Ginsberg on the BBC's Face to Face (date unknown, but probably not long before his death in 1997) . The poem, which is Part IV of "Never Grow Old," appears in Plutonian Ode: Poems 1977-1980. Here's the full text:
"Father Death Blues"
Hey Father Death, I'm flying home
Hey poor man, you're all alone
Hey old daddy, I know where I'm going

Father Death, Don't cry any more
Mama's there, underneath the floor
Brother Death, please mind the store

Old Aunty Death Don't hide your bones
Old Uncle Death I hear your groans
O Sister Death how sweet your moans

O Children Deaths go breathe your breaths
Sobbing breasts'll ease your Deaths
Pain is gone, tears take the rest

Genius Death your art is done
Lover Death your body's gone
Father Death I'm coming home

Guru Death your words are true
Teacher Death I do thank you
For inspiring me to sing this Blues

Buddha Death, I wake with you
Dharma Death, your mind is new
Sangha Death, we'll work it through

Suffering is what was born
Ignorance made me forlorn
Tearful truths I cannot scorn

Father Breath once more farewell
Birth you gave was no thing ill
My heart is still, as time will tell.

(Over Lake Michigan)
In loving memory of Elliott Smith
Friend - Songwriter - Musician
(August 6, 1969 - October 21, 2003)

Monday, October 15, 2007

Graduating from the Electoral College

Republican efforts to "reform" how California casts its votes in the Electoral College have quietly, and deservedly, collapsedfor now. A group called "Californians for Equal Representation" (CFE), led by a Republican lawyer and supported by Governor Arnold Schwartzenegger, failed to collect the 434,00 signatures they needed to place it on the ballot. According to the San Francisco Chronicle, the Presidential Election Reform Act
...would have changed the state's winner-take-all means of awarding Electoral College votes to a proportional system that would have awarded 53 of the state's 55 electoral votes - one by one - to the popular vote winner of each of the state's 53 congressional districts. The other two electoral votes would have gone to the statewide popular vote winner.
The Electoral College may be an
antiquated and antidemocratic institution, and its abolition is long overdue, but the CFE's campaign was a brazen attempt to weaken Democrats' hold on the largest bloc of electoral votes in the country. If passed, it might've given Republicans 20 electoral votes (about equal to Ohio or Pennsylvania) that otherwise would've gone to Democrats.

Not surprisingly, the "Equal Representation" effort focused only on California, ignoring the electoral votes of Texas
with its 34 Republican votesand all other states.

The need for serious reform seems clear enough. For example, a Wyoming voter has about four times the clout in the Electoral College as voters in the largest states. As our smallest state in population, Wyoming has one vote for every 171,668 residents, compared to one vote per
662,865 Californians or 691,405 Texans. (My own state, Oregon, casts one vote per 528,680 residents—giving each of us just 1/3 the impact of a Wyoming voter.)

Despite these disparities, outright abolition of the Electoral College, through a constitutional amendment, simply ain't gonna happen. The legislatures of the fourteen smallest states could easily block, forever, an amendment that would end a system that gives them a disproportionate influence on presidential elections.

An intriguing alternative, of uncertain constitutionality, has been advanced by
two law professors (and brothers), Akhil Reed Amar and Vikram Amar. Under the Amar Plan for an interstate agreement, participating states would cast all their electoral votes for the candidate who won the national popular vote. This National Popular Vote Interstate Compact would go into effect when enough states had accepted it to determine the result of the election. Once the members of the compact could command 270 votes, in other words, they could swing the election to the winner of the national popular vote no matter how the other states cast their electoral votes.

National Popular Vote has begun a campaign that is sure to encounter resistance from smaller states and those who fear the domination of national politics by the eleven largest states, who between them could control the 270 votes needed to elect a president.

How would courts rule on the constitutionality of the Compact, if it is ever adopted? States can determine their own methodologies for casting electoral votes, and there's no constitutional provision that specifically conflicts with the Compact. In fact, the Constitution provides that
"Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors..." [1]

Republicans will oppose the Compact, for obvious reasons.
If it had been in place in 2000, Al Gore's narrow victory (by half a million votes) in the popular would've changed the result. Instead, he lost in the Supreme Court by one voteand by 271 votes to 266 in the Electoral College.


[1] Two states, Maine and Nebraska, already allow for split votes in the Electoral College.

GRAPHIC: 2000 election results in the Electoral College, with each square representing one vote (click for larger version).

Friday, October 12, 2007

Keeping the faith

Back to a topic from couple weeks ago...

During the White House Press Correspondents' dinner in 2006, Stephen Colbert famously described George Bush, who was seated nearby, as follows:
"The greatest thing about this man is that he's steady. You know where he stands. He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday. Events can change; this man's beliefs never will."
This concise description of Bush's dogmatism conveys something basic (and disturbing) about him. Nothing has changed, at least outwardly, in the last year. George Bush seems more convinced than ever that he will be vindicated by history, or at least that no one will be able to form conclusive judgments about his administration during his lifetime.

But if history finally condemns him, as seems inevitable, Bush has staked out an unchallengeable backup position: god speaks through him, so he is forever immune from the judgments of mere mortals [also here].

Bush's rigid faith in his United Methodist god places him beyond doubt and critical reflection on his own limitations, which are painfully obvious by now to most of the world's population. In a 2004 article for the New York Times Magazine that included an interview with a prominent old-school Republican, Ron Suskind described Bush in term that are just as telling today as they were three years ago:
''Just in the past few months,'' Bartlett said, ''I think a light has gone off for people who've spent time up close to Bush: that this instinct he's always talking about is this sort of weird, Messianic idea of what he thinks God has told him to do.'' Bartlett, a 53-year-old columnist and self-described libertarian Republican who has lately been a champion for traditional Republicans concerned about Bush's governance, went on to say: ''This is why George W. Bush is so clear-eyed about Al Qaeda and the Islamic fundamentalist enemy. He believes you have to kill them all. They can't be persuaded, that they're extremists, driven by a dark vision. He understands them, because he's just like them. . . . ''

This is why he dispenses with people who confront him with inconvenient facts,'' Bartlett went on to say. ''He truly believes he's on a mission from God. Absolute faith like that overwhelms a need for analysis. The whole thing about faith is to believe things for which there is no empirical evidence.'' Bartlett paused, then said, ''But you can't run the world on faith.''
For Bush, faith and dogmatism provide a convenient rationale for avoiding accountability for the horrific errors of judgment that have caused massive suffering and taken countless lives. As the philosopher David Hume wrote (in a 1751 letter to a friend):
The worst speculative Sceptic ever I knew, was a much better Man than the best superstitious Devotee & Bigot.
Or, as Mark Twain wrote in Following the Equator ("Pudd'nhead Wilson's New Calendar"):
There are those who scoff at the school boy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the school boy who said, "Faith is believing what you know ain't so."
Is Bush truly immune from doubt? Perhaps he is beyond conscious doubt, but he is in such constant conflict with the "reality-based community" that he must, on some level, have at least a vague sense of uncertainty. [1] But he has learned to overcompensate for it with arrogance and a tendency to demean those around him. As Pudd'nhead Wilson wisely observed:
When people do not respect us we are sharply offended; yet deep down in his private heart no man much respects himself.

[1] As the end of Bush's term nears (though to many it seems impossibly distant), the attempts to psychoanalyze Bush seem to be multiplying. For example, one commentator argues in WaPo:
But to me, it sounds like Bush is looking not for answers -- but for rationalizations for his behavior. There is no sign of genuine introspection, no sign of acknowledgment of mistakes, no sign of any significant change of course. In a pattern familiar to anyone who has ever had a drinking problem, Bush appears to be engaged in a furious effort to persuade onlookers that he's fine -- even if he isn't.

In fact, one could even argue that Bush's search for "answers" from a parade of easily cowed visitors allows him to avoid a hard look at the one place he is most likely to find an explanation for his predicament: Within himself.

GRAPHIC: Portrait of Mark Twain (1890) by James Carroll Beckwith (1852-1917). (Wikimedia)

Saturday, October 06, 2007

The new dynastic politics

Following allegations of fraud during the last two national elections, deeper questions have been raised about whether the U.S. can still pretend to be a functioning "democracy." Some conservatives have long insisted that the U.S. is a "republic, not a democracy." Now there are reasons to question whether the U.S. can even claim to be a "republic."

If Hillary Clinton is elected president next year and serves two full terms, someone named Clinton or Bush will have held national office (as POTUS or VPOTUS) for 37 consecutive years. Conveniently enough, Chelsea Clinton will turn 35 and become eligible in 2015, two years before her mother would leave office.

This isn't unprecedented in U.S. history. Twice before, two members of the same family have assumed the presidency: John Adams (father) and John Quincy Adams (son), Teddy Roosevelt and (fifth cousin) Franklin Roosevelt.

Politics in the U.S. has been dominated by a de facto landed and propertied aristocracy that has been in place since its founding, though membership in that group has tended to be fluid and not necessarily fixed by ancestry. But the two competing dynasties of the last fifteen years are caught in an electoral dynamic that's unique in U.S. history.

After eight years of contrived "scandals" involving Bill Clinton, Dubya became the nostalgic choice of a significant percentage of voters who yearned for qualities that his father, at least in their fantasies, represented: the
integrity, stability and moral righteousness of the Reagan/Bush years. Dubya's appeal was undoubtedly enhanced by his fraudulent claim that he was a "compassionate conservative," implying that he would supply a needed corrective to the harsh economic and social policies of the 80's.

After the devastating rejection of the elder Bush in the 1992 election, it's hard to imagine that anyone would be "nostalgic" enough to vote for a proven mediocrity from the same family
the first president in U.S. history who has ever been convicted of a crime. Dubya's appeal based on his ancestry was more subliminal than overt, but it may have had an effect by keeping him close enough in the vote count that he could steal the election in Florida.

After six and a half disastrous years, are we now witnessing the opposite dynamic
a kind of "Clinton nostalgia" that could help to propel Hillary into the White House? After all, she seems to offer the best of the Clinton legacy without the personal, ah, foibles that Bill brought to the office.

To many voters, at least by contrast with the Bush debacle, the Clinton era was a time of peace, prosperity, optimism and stability. The U.S. had emerged from the Cold War triumphant, at least in the popular imagination, and unchallenged. For all his obvious personal failings, Clinton was perceived as brilliant, competent and in control of his administration. As an added bonus, he speaks in complete and coherent sentences, a quality that radically distinguishes him from both his predecessor and successor. Hillary may be a less compelling speaker and presence, but she shares most of Bill's strengths and few of his vulnerabilities. A few political weaknesses are unique to her, primarily the high negatives that come from years of vicious personal attacks by the "vast right-wing conspiracy" that she has accurately described.

So are voters, after a catastrophic attempt to return to the perceived golden years of the Reagan/Bush administration, yearning to somehow replicate the 90's? Clearly we could, and did, do a lot worse.

The Bush brand has become so devalued, of course, that no one with that name is ever likely to get elected again. If daughter Jenna Bush thinks she can promote a political career by simply rebranding herself with her new husband's last name, I suspect she's sadly mistaken. And she, like her sister, also shares her father's reputation as a party animal.

If Seymour Hirsh is correct about the Bush/Cheney plan to launch a limited war against Iran, Republicans could be faced with an electoral fiasco in 2008 that could rival 1964. The end of the Bush dynasty could be the beginning of another.


George Bush has as strong a claim to membership in the hereditary U.S. elite as any president.
The Bush family has been described as "the most successful political dynasty in American history" [a claim which, if true, suggests that dynasties haven't served us very well]. In fact, Dubya is a distant relative of Queen Elizabeth II. By contrast, Bill Clinton's background seems downright lumpen. Hillary's father worked as a coal miner in Pennsylvania before he moved to Illinois and began a successful career in the textile supply industry. The Clintons' claims to membership in the national aristocracy are founded on their educations (Yale and Wellesley) and political success rather than an accident of birth.

Now isn't the time to attempt an analysis of whether the U.S. can best be described as a democracy, republic, oligarchy, plutocracy or kleptocracy.

PHOTO: Samuel Prescott Bush, patriarch of the family and great-grandfather of George W. Bush. (Wikimedia)

Blues Break: Dirty Mac - "Yer Blues"

John Lennon is joined by Keith Richards (bass), Eric Clapton (lead guitar) and Mitch Mitchell (drums) in a 1968 (or maybe 1969) performance of this song from the White Album. (YouTube has a 4-screen version online.)

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Historians as the "Deciders"

In a recent poll, only 5% expressed any confidence in the ability of George Bush to manage the war in Iraq. In the face of that reality, it's remarkable that this inept administration is still able to bully Congress and the MSM into parroting its positions on Iraq at every turn. As Frank Rich points out in the column mentioned in an earlier posting:

The Democratic presidential candidates in the Senate need all the unity and focus they can muster to move this story forward, and that starts with the two marquee draws, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. It's essential to turn up the heat full time in Washington for any and every legislative roadblock to administration policy that they and their peers can induce principled or frightened Republicans to endorse.


Mr. Bush, confident that he got away with repackaging the same bankrupt policies with a nonsensical new slogan ("Return on Success") Thursday night, is counting on the public's continued apathy as he kicks the can down the road and bides his time until Jan. 20, 2009; he, after all, has nothing more to lose. The job for real leaders is to wake up America to the urgent reality. We can't afford to punt until Inauguration Day in a war that each day drains America of resources and will. Our national security can't be held hostage indefinitely to a president's narcissistic need to compound his errors rather than admit them.

Rich makes some points that require a response...

First, Democrats can proceed with Rich's advice with or without the support of "principled or frightened Republicans," who may never be numerous enough to form the supermajority needed to get anything done in today's Senate.

Second, it seems unlikely that Bush will ever acknowledge any significant errors, even to himself in private. As he told Robert Draper, his official biographer, in an interview for Dead Certain: "You can't possibly figure out the history of the Bush presidency - until I'm dead."

Bush's statement is very revealing on several counts. Most importantly, it allows Bush to evade passing judgment on his own conduct because, a priori, he lacks the historical perspective to do so. (Since there's little evidence that he possesses a conscience, this isn't much of a cognitive leap for him. ) Bush also declares that he will continue to ignore the judgments of everyone else, since they're similarly lacking in any long-term perspective.

In effect, Bush claims that he cannot be held accountable by anyone during his lifetime.

If no one can judge his administration until he's dead, Bush simply doesn't have to concern himself about anything he does or what people say about him. He can imagine that he'll be vindicated no matter what the reality-based community concludes during his lifetime. As Sidney Blumenthal (another indispensable columnist) writes in The Guardian:
History has become a magical incantation for him, a kind of prayerful refuge where he is safe from having to think in the present. For Bush, history is supernatural, a deus ex machina, nothing less than a kind of divine intervention enabling him to enter presidential Valhalla. Through his fantasy about history as afterlife - the stairway to paradise - he rationalizes his current course.
The more profound and compounded his blunders, and the more he redoubles his certainty in ultimate victory, the greater his indifference to failure. He has entered a
phase of decadent perversity, where he accelerates his errors to vindicate his folly. As the sands of time run down he has decided that no matter what he does history will finally judge him as heroic.
The greater the chaos, the more he reinforces and rigidifies his views. The more havoc he wreaks, the more he insists he is succeeding. His intensified struggle for self-control is matched by his increased denial of responsibility.
This is a fair description of delusional thinking, as defined in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders: "A false belief based on incorrect inference about external reality that is firmly sustained despite what almost everybody else believes and despite what constitutes incontrovertible and obvious proof or evidence to the contrary."

Getting it right

There are a few journalists in the notorious MSM who usually get it right, and now some of their columns are more readily available due to changes in the way the New York Times manages its online TimesSelect feature. Each of the following columns, now available for free, is well worth a look:
Until recently, TimesSelect was available only to paid subscribers. Since free lunches are unknown in the corporate media, will the tradeoff for "free" access be more intrusive advertising? Too soon to tell, but for now the Paper of Record deserves some credit for making these fine journalists more generally available online.

At the same time, the paper deserves plenty of criticism for its craven response to the fabricated uproar over's recent ad criticizing General Petraeus' longstanding support of the Bush/Cheney line on Iraq.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Sunday trail blogging: Mt. Adams

Last weekend brought the first cool fall weather to the Pacific Northwest, so of course Carol and I had to go camping with Max Da Mutt, our loyal companion. Our choice was an old favorite: Mt. Adams, the second highest peak (12,276 ft / 3,742 m) in the region after nearby Mt. Rainier. This massive stratovolcano is located east of the Cascade crest near the small town of Trout Lake in Washington State. Large glaciers stream down on all sides from the summit, which for a few decades was the site of a working sulfur mine.

Due to a late arrival, we had limited time after setting up our tent in a subalpine forest. So we hiked up a climber's trail to timberline for spectacular views of the sunset behind Mt. St. Helens. The night was cool (around 40º F / 4º C) and breezy in our empty campground on Morrison Creek. The night sky was dazzling, with more stars visible than I had seen in years (a blatant plug for the mission of the International Dark-Sky Association).

The wind increased by Sunday morning and clouds from a weak Pacific front moved across the peak, finally obscuring it above 8,000 ft / 2,400 m. In light rain, we hiked the Round the Mountain trail through Bird Creek Meadows in the half of the mountain that is within the Yakima Nation's reservation. These lush meadows were already showing rich autumn colors as some species of wildflowers were just starting to blossom. Eventually the trail climbed across a lava flow and entered the Mt. Adams Wilderness, administered by the U.S. Forest Service. We encountered just three other hikers all day in meadows that are usually crowded on weekends from mid-July through August, when trails are generally clear of snow.

The Mt. Adams Wilderness occupies just 47,000 acres, a tiny portion of the 1.3 million acres in the Gifford Pinchot National Forest. The Gifford Pinchot extends from Mt. Rainier National Park all the way to the Columbia River Gorge. Adams is relatively pristine, with clearcutting and other signs of logging limited to its lower slopes. Most of the Gifford Pinchot, by contrast, has been extensively degraded by industrial logging and the associated patchwork of clearcutsthe scourge of the Pacific Northwest. (To see what I mean, open Google Earth and "fly" from Mt. Adams to Mt. St. Helens.)

Meanwhile, the Yakima Nation, to its great credit, has declined lucrative offers to develop a destination resort on the wild eastern side of Adams. Though the rough tribal road to the Bird Creek Meadows trailhead still deserves its legendary reputation, the Yakimas are doing a far better job than the U.S. government in maintaining campgrounds and trails. The Bush administration is much more interested in funding road construction for logging ancient forests than in any recreational uses.

Top photo: Mt. St. Helens from South Climb trail on Mt. Adams.
Middle photo: Bird Creek Meadows and Suksdorf ridge, Mt. Adams.
Bottom photo: Bird Creek Meadows.
(All photos by M.J. O'Brien.)

Sunday, September 09, 2007

Breaking The Clinch: A 12-Step Program for Distancing Ourselves

The Democrats in Congress have adopted a basic defensive strategy from boxing: The Clinch. By repeatedly backing down from confrontations over Iraq and other issues, they hope to avoid being attacked for betraying the troops and undermining U.S. security by cutting the Pentagon's funding for the war.

Predictably, Democrats seem no more capable of responding to these attacks than they did during the months before the 2004 election. Instead, they've sought a "bipartisan" alliance with Republican moderates that would impose loose but veto-proof limitations on the U.S. commitment to Iraq.

The strategy has failed dismally. The Democrats don't appreciate the depth and intensity of public rage and hostility towards the war. In boxing, the "clinch" strategy requires one opponent to embrace the other to avoid hard punches. In politics, it becomes difficult to distinguish one party from the other, so the Democrats are now identified all too closely with an unpopular war. Like the Republicans, they fret endlessly but seem incapable of resolute action.

Yet another poll has brought home this point:
Fifty-eight percent, a new high, said they want to decrease the number of U.S. troops in Iraq. And most of those who advocated a troop reduction said they want the drawdown to begin either right away or by the end of the year. A majority, 55 percent, supported legislation that would set a deadline of next spring for the withdrawal of American combat forces. That figure is unchanged from July. Only about a third believed the United States is making significant progress toward restoring civil order in Iraq... [emphasis added.]
In the face of such hostility, Democrats should be gaining major ground. They're not:
Going forward, the public trusts Democrats over Republicans to handle Iraq by an 11-point margin, but two in 10 now trust "neither" party on the issue. In previous polls, congressional Democrats had wider advantages over President Bush on Iraq, with that gap as high as 27 points in January.
These numbers explain why even "antiwar" Democrats returning to the Pacific Northwest for "town halls" have been met by large, vocal and openly hostile crowds. The victims include antiwar Senator Ron Wyden and Representatives Darlene Hooley of Oregon and Brian Baird of Washington State (who opposed the war but inexplicably voted to support the surge).

A more vigorous party, with a real sense of direction and assertive leadership, would figure out that a new strategy is long overdue. Otherwise the hapless Democrats will stagger through another series of lost electoral opportunities.

So here's a modest suggestion: the focus now should be on distancing ourselves and the country, in the strongest possible terms, from the barbarians who've misruled the country for the last six and a half years. The strategy should begin immediately with the following six steps, followed by six more after the 2008 election:
  1. Pass needed legislation, on subjects as diverse as Iraq and health care, even (or especially) if a veto is inevitable. Force the veto, force an override vote, and show exactly who is obstructing solutions to serious national problems.
  2. Launch vigorous congressional investigationsat last!of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, the use of torture and the many other instances of overreaching by a lawless administration.
  3. Refuse to approve Bush nominations for all regulatory, judicial and executive vacanciesfrom the Supreme Court to Deputy Undersecretary of State for Eastern Caribbean Affairs. Bipartisanship has meaning to Republicans in D.C. only when they're in the minority.
  4. Fiercely denounce the Bush/Cheney project in Iraq in every available international forum from the U.N. to NATO and beyond. While the U.S. traditionally has just "one foreign policy at a time," the present crisis demands otherwise.
  5. Declare that ample legal grounds exist to impeach and remove the Bush/Cheney cabal from office based on their war crimesespecially crimes against peace, waging an aggressive war, and crimes against humanity. Not to mention their assault on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.
  6. Then impeach George Bush and Dick Cheney. Force a vote in the House and a trial in the Senate, even if 1/3 or more of the Senators vote for acquittal. This isn't a distraction, as Nancy Pelosi seems to believe, nor is it frivolous. (After the Clinton farce, can any Republican claim with a straight face that an impeachment of Bush/Cheney is a total waste of time?)
Maybe the Democrats will finally get their act together, retain Congress and win the White House in 2008. Then what? In terms of repairing some of the damage to its international stature, the U.S. will urgently need to distance itself from the criminal behavior of the Bush/Cheney yearfor moral reasons, ultimately, but also to rebuild lost goodwill around the world and become a member in good standing of international organizations. For example, a new administration and Congress could:
  1. Initiate domestic war crimes prosecutions against the perpetrators, assuming there are no presidential pardons. [1] (As discussed elsewhere, international war crimes prosecutions are almost inconceivable because the U.S. would never consent, and it wouldn't extradite.)
  2. Appoint a special prosecutor to convene a grand jury and prosecute those in the government who legitimized and authorized torture and other war crimes. (A special prosecutor is necessary because some Dems were undoubtedly involved.)
  3. Aggressive diplomacy to show people around the world that Americans renounce the actions of the part administration.
  4. Organize an international conference of religious leaders to open and expand a dialog in order to prevent the "clash of civilizations" that causes neocons to salivate.
  5. Propose a summit conference of secular leaders for the same purpose.
  6. Expand cultural exchanges to improve communications with the rest of the world and demonstrate that the U.S. can play a positive role in international affairs. Increase foreign aid to bring the U.S. closer to the mainstream in terms of percentage of GPA devoted to that purpose.
No doubt the list could go on, but it's a start. In a time of national crisis, it's absolutely vital to have a genuine opposition party that is willing to distance itself and (more importantly) the country from the outrages of the current administration.


[1] Impeachment and conviction would only remove Bush/Cheney from office. To hold them fully accountable, a criminal prosecution is necessary.

PHOTO: Two boxers in a clinch (Wikimedia Commons).

UPDATE (September 10th):

The latest New York Times poll has more bad news for Democrats:
The poll found that both Congress, whose approval rating now stands at its lowest level since Democrats took control from the Republicans last year, and Mr. Bush enter the debate with little public confidence in their ability to deal with Iraq. Only 5 percent of Americans — a strikingly low number for a sitting president’s handling of such a dominant issue — said they most trusted the Bush administration to resolve the war, the poll found. Asked to choose among the administration, Congress and military commanders, 21 percent said they would most trust Congress and 68 percent expressed most trust in military commanders.
"Commanders" like General David Petraeusthe same "military professional" who testified today that the surge is working and the U.S. presence in Iraq should continue indefinitely?

Apparently there's a misconception on this point: politically speaking, generals are marionettes of the White House, and they're purged on the spot if they're not. Ask generals like Eric Shinseki, Antonio Taguba and George W. Casey what happens if you deviate from the party line. It's no coincidence that Petraeus exactly parrots the White House position (and at the same time praises his own performance).

The confidence in Pentagon "professionals" also elides the larger issue: the military is an instrument of policy whose efforts always need to be placed in the context of policy. As in Vietnam (where the U.S. "won all the battles"), military successes in Iraq lack long-term value if they don't further political objectives.

The policy is what finally matters, not the competence or professionalism of the soldiers, sailors and Marines who carry it out.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

R.I.P. Luciano Pavarotti (1932-2007)

The great Pavarotti in a live performance of Puccini's Nessun Dorma ("Let no one sleep") in Paris (1998), from the opera Turandot. During the last century, there have been a precious few vocalists whose voices could soar with such purity and expressiveness.

Thursday quiz

A quiz: who in U.S. politics matches this description?

Diagnostic criteria for 301.81 Narcissistic Personality Disorder

A pervasive pattern of grandiosity (in fantasy or behavior), need for admiration, and lack of empathy, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, as indicated by five (or more) of the following:

(1) has a grandiose sense of self-importance (e.g., exaggerates achievements and talents, expects to be recognized as superior without commensurate achievements)

(2) is preoccupied with fantasies of unlimited success, power, brilliance, beauty, or ideal love

(3) believes that he or she is "special" and unique and can only be understood by, or should associate with, other special or high-status people (or institutions)

(4) requires excessive admiration

(5) has a sense of entitlement, i.e., unreasonable expectations of especially favorable treatment or automatic compliance with his or her expectations

(6) is interpersonally exploitative, i.e., takes advantage of others to achieve his or her own ends

(7) lacks empathy: is unwilling to recognize or identify with the feelings and needs of others

(8) is often envious of others or believes that others are envious of him or her

(9) shows arrogant, haughty behaviors or attitudes.

Answer: if you haven't already figured it out, give it one more try.

SOURCE: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, (DSM-IV), 4th edition, American Psychiatric Association (2000), and a tip of the hat to

NPD is notoriously resistant to treatment. It accounts for a great deal of the therapeutic treatment in the U.S., not because those with the disorder seek treatment, but because those who are victimized by them do. The disorder wrecks families, organizations, and it seems, entire countries.

Bloviation of the day

"I think part of what we've got to do with regard to the global terrorist problem I talked about is for all the forces of civilization, all of our friends and people who love freedom need to understand that this is a battle against freedom and tyranny worldwide, that the good guys need to be on one side."
—Fred Thompson, announcing his candidacy on the Tonight Show (emphasis added).

Query: Will we ever have another president who can speak coherently on any subject? Or one who can at least distinguish concepts like between and against?

Tuesday, September 04, 2007

Monday trail blogging: Bald Mountain

Portland, Oregon, has the distinction of being the only city that has a last name, as Don DeLillo points out in his latest novel. But it's also surrounded by some of the finest hiking terrain on the continent, including the Oregon coast, Columbia River Gorge and the Cascade range.

Last weekend we took our adult daughter up to Bald Mountain ridge on the west side of Mt. Hood (11,239 ft / 3,426 m), the highest peak in Oregon. Though she's an avid and experienced hiker, for some reason we'd never taken her there before. Besides, it was a good way to celebrate a family birthday.

Saturday was a near-perfect day: the sky was clear just about everywhere except on Hood itself, and the temperature was about 70F / 11C. It was breezy on the ridge, but higher up the winds must have been fierce.

Orographic clouds formed on Hood through the day, especially in the lee of the summit ridge. Sometimes most of the mountain was obscured, but not for long. The clouds changed rapidly, adding to the drama of the mountain landscape. But hikers on high northerly ridges like McNeil Point, Barrett Spur and Cooper Spur were inside a cloud for much of the day.

This is one of my favorite places on the planet, but it's hardly a secret to Oregonians—as demonstrated by the three dozen cars at the trailhead. Not surprising for Labor Day weekend. But on most days, even in good weather, the trail population is sparse and there's a lot of wild terrain where hikers can disperse. (The area in the photograph is part of the designated Mt. Hood Wilderness.)

Stunning views of Hood's west face begin to open up after just a mile or so, and about 500 vertical feet, from the trailhead. The rewards for such a minimal effort are stupendous. The trail goes on for many miles, including the rough climber's route up to McNeil Point and the round-the-mountain Timberline Trail (now closed in some places due to washouts).

Prospective hikers should get a good trail map and description, since there are several junctions that can be confusing without them.

PHOTOS: Mt. Hood and the Sandy River headwaters from Bald Mountain Ridge trail. Reid Glacier on the right, below the spire of Illumination Rock. The second photo also shows the large Sandy Glacier in the center and the Little Sandy Glacier above it to the left. (M.J. O'Brien)

Thursday, August 30, 2007

Inside the charnel house

"Good policy is difficult to make when information is systematically collected in a way that minimizes its discrepancy with policy goals."
—Iraq Study Group report (2006)

Despite predictable but dubious claims that the surge has improved security for ordinary Iraqis, the slaughter of civilians continues at a high level, as most recently demonstrated by the death of more than 500 Yazidis in northern Iraq in concerted bombings that also wounded at least 1,500. During the last two days alone, ten separate incidents involving civilian deaths were reported around the country, including 51 pilgrims at a Shi'ite religious festival in Karbala. Another 247 pilgrims were injured. A million Shi'ite pilgrims were ordered to leave the city to avoid further bloodshed.

There is no reliable data on civilian casualties since the war began, with estimates ranging from 655,000 to 37,000. An accurate total would have to include everything from suicide bombings to "inadvertent" deaths and injuries caused by U.S. air attacks on Iraqi cities and "indirect fire" from artillery.

In an editorial on the Iraqi charnel house, The Economist states:
Faced with what looks from afar like a Hobbesian war of all against all, if not a descent into hell itself, the normal instinct of human beings to exercise their moral faculties grows numb. Often it is replaced by a more craven instinct: to avert the gaze from what has become too painful to look at straight.
The editorial notes that some insurgent groups apparently justify their direct assaults on civilians as part of the "resistance" to the U.S. occupation.

No problems so far: "killing innocents is wrong," as the editorial observes. But the author goes on:
Under all established norms and laws of war (and by most accounts under Islamic law, too) the deliberate targeting of civilians for no direct military purpose is just a crime. [My emphasis.]
When is the "deliberate targeting of civilians" for a "direct military purpose" acceptable? If five insurgents hole up in an apartment complex that houses a hundred civilians, is it morally acceptable (or even lawful) to bomb or shell it even with the absolute certainty that a substantial number of "innocents" will be killed? A "direct military purpose" could arguably be served by such an attack if the deaths of the insurgents would prevent planned attacks on other civilians. [1]

The established practice of the U.S. in Iraq (and the Israelis in Lebanon or Gaza) is to reflexively drop the bombs and then release a prepared statement about "regrettable" civilian casualties. Moral opprobrium is heaped, with some justification, on terrorists who deliberately use civilians as shields by concealing themselves in residential neighborhoods or homes.

Is there a moral distinction between the deliberate targeting of civilians and the "accidental" or "unintentional" killing of civilians in bombings, shellings or other applications of massive firepower?

In a review for New York Times Book Review, the estimable Samantha Power (photo above) argues that "there is a moral difference between setting out to destroy as many civilians as possible and killing civilians unintentionally and reluctantly in pursuit of a military objective..."

There may not be a lot of difference to the affected civilians, but is there a significant moral difference?

Historian Howard Zinn (left), in a letter to the New York Times Book Review last week, gently challenges Power—a person whose work he clearly admires (as do I). Zinn writes:
In countless news briefings, Donald Rumsfeld and Dick Cheney, responding to reporters’ questions about civilian deaths in bombing, would say those deaths were “unintentional” or “inadvertent” or “accidental,” as if that disposed of the problem. In the Vietnam War, the massive deaths of civilians by bombing were justified in the same way by Lyndon Johnson, Hubert Humphrey, Richard Nixon and various generals.

These words are misleading because they assume an action is either “deliberate” or “unintentional.” There is something in between, for which the word is “inevitable.” If you engage in an action, like aerial bombing, in which you cannot possibly distinguish between combatants and civilians (as a former Air Force bombardier, I will attest to that), the deaths of civilians are inevitable, even if not “intentional.” Does that difference exonerate you morally?

The terrorism of the suicide bomber and the terrorism of aerial bombardment are indeed morally equivalent. To say otherwise (as either side might) is to give one moral superiority over the other, and thus serve to perpetuate the horrors of our time.
Still, it's difficult to agree that these actions are "morally equivalent." The legal system here in Oregon, as elsewhere, makes useful distinctions between degrees of homicide, and they provide a rough standard that clarifies some delicate moral distinctions. The deliberate killing of civilians, as in Karbala this week, is clearly a form of aggravated, premeditated murder. The "inadvertent" killing of civilians, by contrast, can be "manslaughter" when it is "committed recklessly under circumstances manifesting extreme indifference to the value of human life" [from Oregon Revised Statutes section 163.118; my emphasis].

Aggravated murder is the more serious crime, but manslaughter isn't to be taken lightly: it's a Class A felony here in Oregon, worth 20 years in the state prison.

Those who lead their country into war, of course, consider themselves exempt from the legal and moral standards that bind the rest of us. But they're not exempt from our judgments.


[1] As the U.S. Army's counterinsurgency manual recognizes: "Bombing, even air strikes, should be weighed against the risks, the primary danger being collateral damage that turns the population against the government and provides the insurgents with a major propaganda victory." Some might quibble, of course, that the "primary danger" is deaths and injuries among civilians. A "propaganda victory" would be farther down my list.

PHOTOS: Samantha Power (Swarthmore College) and Howard Zinn (Wikipedia Common)

Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Ross to Iraqis: "You're grounded!"

Writing in The New Republic, think tanker Dennis Ross proposes yet another opportunity for the U.S. to meddle in the internal politics of Iraq (with thanks to Matthew Yglesias for the link):
...we [!] should set a date for the convening of a national reconciliation conference. Unlike previous such conferences, it should not be permitted to disband until agreement has been reached.

While some of Ross' proposals seem reasonable enough, the irony here seems boundless: after the U.S. overruns their country and precipitates a sectarian civil war, Iraqis have to endure Washington's continuing micromanagement of their politics—possibly including a "national reconciliation conference" that would apparently be held at gunpoint.

A few days ago Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki criticized certain "American officials" who "consider Iraq as if it were one of their villages." He went on to say: “Iraq is a sovereign country, and we will not allow anyone to talk about it as if it belongs to this country or that.”

Though he was referring to Hillary Clinton and Carl Levin, Maliki's larger point is correct. The same "officials" in the White House who incited chaos in Iraq, and their cheerleaders in the MSM, now have the audacity to make endless demands on Iraqis. Apparently they have the moral right to do this because:

  1. The U.S. is so deeply "invested" in Iraq, to the tune of 3,732 lives and $456 billion to date;
  2. U.S. politicians and think tankers like Ross know more about the workings of democracy than anyone else, so we can sanctimoniously prescribe what others must do to move toward our level of perfection.

But the Iraqis never asked the U.S. to invade and occupy their country. So we don't like what's happening in their country? Let's ground them. Maybe that will "alter their behavior" (as Ross puts it). Send them to a room somewhere to "reconcile." No iPods or Blackberries.

The bipartisan tendency to view Iraqis, Iranians, Venezuelans, the French, the Russians and many others as so many misbehaving children is a major reason why the U.S. is so despised today around the world. There's nothing new about this presumption, but it has become more entrenched than ever under the despicable regime that occupies the White House.

Ross finally admits that there may be limitations on the ability of the U.S. to influence events in Iraq:
Maybe it is too late for such an effort to work. For the Iraqis, perhaps [!] there has been too much brutality, too much displacement, too much disbelief in the intentions of the "other," and too little willingness to accept a political solution with its attendant compromises.
If all else fails, Ross suggests that
our "baseline objective should be to make sure that Iraq's problems are contained within Iraq. " Is that the latest, radically-downsized definition of "success" in Iraq?

That may be fine for the realpolitikers on the Potomac. Not fine for the Iraqis.

[A version of this post appears as a comment on Matthew Yglesias' blog]

PHOTO: Nouri Al-Maliki standing in front of what doesn't appear to be an Iraqi flag (Wikipedia Commons).

Sunday, August 26, 2007

The resurrection of Allawi: Rove's new gig?

News Item: "Former Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi is stepping forward to present himself as the ideal candidate" to replace Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister of Iraq.

The article in question notes that the Maliki coalition government is reeling, yet again, with "the defection of the Iraqi National List, an umbrella faction headed by Allawi's Iraqi National Accord..." This defection "coincided with a lobbying campaign promoting the former prime minister as an alternative to al-Maliki."

Not surprisingly, the Allawi PR offensive is based in Washington rather than Iraq:
Allawi has given several high-profile TV interviews and penned op-ed pieces highly critical of al-Maliki. Allawi also hired the Washington company of Barbour, Griffith & Rogers on a six-month lobbying contract for $300,000, according to papers filed with the U.S. Justice Department.

The company includes Robert Blackwill, President Bush's former envoy to Iraq who helped form the Allawi-led interim government in 2004, and Philip Zelikow, a former adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

So now, after a couple weeks of speculation, we know what Karl Rove's next project might be: the resurrection of Allawi as the latest U.S. surrogate in Baghdad. The outlines of Allawi's career are painfully familiar to many in the U.S., so there's no need to go into all the particulars [see here and here for details]. With two exceptions that are often overlooked: in July 2004, Allawi summarily executed six (or seven by some accounts) insurgents in a Baghdad police station "to send a clear message to the police on how to deal with insurgents." (Maliki, not surprisingly, denies the accusation.) Four U.S. "security men" were alleged to have been present. Then, later that year, he claimed that angry Shi'ites in a Najaf mosque attempted to "assassinate" him by pelting him with shoes.

Allawi's misrule, beginning in the summer of 2004, was so egregious, brutal and corrupt that his political party received only 14% of the vote in the elections of January 2005. As Maliki's support seems to be rapidly eroding, especially in Washington, the resuscitation of Allawi can only be interpreted as a truly desperate attempt to prevent political collapse in Baghdad.

Yet it's difficult to imagine that Allawi, with his long associations with the CIA, would be any more acceptable to Iraqis than he was in 2004-05. Two years before his first regime began, secret British government documents described Allawi (as well as neocon favorite Ahmad Chalabi) as a "western stooge" who "lacked domestic credibility" in Iraq. Surely, at best, his standing in Iraq hasn't gotten any stronger.

So the challenge for Rove, if in fact he's somehow involved in Allawi's resurrection, may be even greater than it was in 2000, when he helped to steal an election that elevated a notorious buffoon to the presidency.

PHOTO: Ayad Allawi (Wikepedia Commons)