Wednesday, October 28, 2009

To Sleep, Perchance to Dream

When I was in the eleventh grade I voiced a theory, whose hypothesis I had subjected to the usual rigorous four-second cogitation period, that all poetry was about death. The idea greatly upset my English teacher; naturally I immediately adopted the half-baked argument as if it were revealed scripture.

The following year I wrote a paper on the role of sleep (and its obvious analog, death) in Updike's "The Centaur." My thesis had, as far as I could tell, no support of any kind in the existing critical literature.

To fulfill the requirements of the assigment, I invented sources that said the things I wanted them to say. I even invented a quote by George Bernard Shaw, an excellent, witty and believable one.

My teacher caught me without much trouble. Here, readers who did not grow up as babyfaced white boys in the south in the 1980's probably are wincing in anticipation of some great cataclysm of shame and disgrace.

Those who did grow up as I did are smiling a knowing, self-satisfied smile. There was, of course, no comeuppance. My teacher never directly confronted my about my deception, instead setting up a farce of a "supplemental final exam" in which she provided me with the research materials to write an essay on no notice. I have no idea what asinine, patronizing tripe I chose as my thesis. I knew it would satisfy my teacher.

I did not speak to the assembled graduates and well-wishers the day I received a diploma I did not deserve, despite the fact that a spontaneous groundswell of support had surfaced among the senior class for my inclusion in the list of presenters. The administration, in their only policy move made during my tenure for which I have an iota of respect, nixed the idea of allowing a known swindler and con artist to address a crowd of four hundred of central Virginia's best and brightest.

Incidentally, I stand by the lies I told. Updike WAS writing about a man drifting in and out of consciousness. The fact that this central fact was ignored by critics for decades doesn't change its salience.

High school WAS stupid, an endless parade of nonsense that no sane person would ever countenance. It was a time of slumber, in which the various manifestations of the self interact with one another in absurd, obviously counterproductive ways. Some things are sorted out Nothing is learned.

Now, years later, we drift off to sleep. With all our poetry and music, dripping with false significance, what do we know even of this small death, to which each one of us has traveled and returned countless times?

The question had not been taken up by English speakers to any great degree in 1994, and to my knowledge the field remains in a state of advanced disrepair. The most universal psychological phenomenon on earth is, for practical purposes, still largely a closed book.

It bears thinking about.


Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Time and Tide

Uncle Kevin came by some time ago to comment on the previous post. He made several points that were important and incisive.

The Afghan/Pakistan region is currently one of several in which an wide confederacy of actors are operating against whom we have complaints.


It is merely the case that Afghanistan is a useful place with which to do battle with this confederacy. The local civilians merely get in the way, or are useful as methods with which to engage the confederacy.

The first bit is self-evidently true and is substantially confirmed by Filkins' account. The reason the war in Afghanistan was not a completely crazy idea a la Iraq is that Afghanistan/Pakistan really IS a reasonably convenient place to engage the coalition of groups we generally refer to as "al Qaeda." It is also self-evidently true that the United States has altogether legitimate grievances with this coalition.

However, as Uncle Kevin and I seem to at least partially agree, it is not self-evidently true that it is a good idea to use third-world battlefields to engage this coalition in a proxy war in the way that we did with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Even if we grant paleoconservatives their fairly well-accepted assertion that American "projection of power" was crucial in bringing about the fall of Soviet communism, it would certainly seem logical that combating a diffuse transnational group of intelligence, counterintelligence, and sabotage experts would require a different approach than did combating the USSR.

After all, in a resource war based on petroleum, narcotics, and illegal weapons smuggling, is it really that hard to imagine that a coalition of wealthy hard-liners in Tehran, Sana'a, and Mogadishu might be able to outlast a group of wealthy hard-liners in Houston, Washington, and New York? The US military is big and scary, but it doesn't have any idea how to stop these guys, who have billions of dollars and are able to "project power" merely by convincing some poor grieving person that the best way to honor their brother's memory is to blow up a bus.

And of course it is always the civilians who bear the real cost of war, though even the sort of semi-idyllic bribery-based warlordism I described in my earlier post was and is bad enough for the Afghan population. It should probably be specifically conceded that the war in Afghanistan HAS indeed brought real benefits to some segments of the Afghan population.

Continued US operations there will kill more people, but more importantly (from a purely self-interested POV, anyway) they will be a giant waste of time.

New ideas, please. We're losing.

Thursday, July 02, 2009

Warblogging: Serious and Unserious

Serious first...

While I was traveling recently I picked up Dexter Filkins' "The Forever War" in Dulles while I was on a medium-sized layover, and it's an excellent book. Anyone who is interested in Iraq and Afghanistan, and really even in modern war generally, should read it. Filkins is not a leftist by any stretch, and anyone could probably find information in the book to support their political leanings if that's what they were looking for, but quite apart from any ideological importance the book bears witness to war as it really is and that's worth reading no matter what your convictions.

Now, putting on my Dirty Fucking Hippie hat:

It's once again my duty to point out as we read about the most recent improvement to the Awesome War of Good Neighborliness that the war in Afghanistan, despite being substantially less stupid on its face than the war in Iraq, is unlikely to ever produce any outcome that could reasonably be described as "good" and that any operation undertaken today is likely to have the long-term effect of killing a large number of people for no real reason at all.

If you read through the linked article, you might notice two things. One is that some pretty important strategic realities are papered over with Newspeak (emphasis mine):

That mistrust [of the Marines by the local Afghan population] stems from concern over civilian casualties resulting from U.S. military operations as well as from a fear that the troops will not stay long enough to counter the Taliban.

First of all, this use of the term "concern" reminds me of the way dentists love to use the word "discomfort" to mean "pain." "Discomfort" is when you're shifting in your bus seat because your ass is sweaty. A steel drill boring into your tooth is painful.

In the same way, if someone kills your brother with a big-ass bomb, and you happen to run into the bomber on the subway, it's unlikely the ensuing dialogue will prominently feature the word "concern." Presumably you'd be angry. In a murderous rage, even.

Meanwhile, it seems unlikely to me that the people who are "concerned" over the large number of locals being killed by the Marines are the same folks worried that the Marines won't stick around long enough to finish the job. It seems more likely that those are two distinct groups with distinct interests, who need to be approached in (at least) two different ways.

The second thing you might notice upon reading the article is that in an article of some 1500 words, one paragraph is spent actually describing the goals of the mission:

Once basic governance structures are restored, civilian reconstruction personnel plan to focus on economic development programs, including programs to help Afghans grow legal crops in the area. Senior Obama administration officials say creating jobs and improving the livelihoods of rural Afghans is the key to defeating the Taliban, which has been able to recruit fighters for as little as $5 a day in Helmand.

I'm tempted to say that the first clause in this graf is doing all the work, but actually I don't think that's the case. My limited but not totally impoverished knowledge of asymmetric warfare suggests to me that when the US military really focuses on restoring "basic governance structures," the results are usually pretty good. Marines grumble a lot when they're asked to do "nation building" (later caricatured in the article as eating goat and drinking tea with locals), but the results, tactically speaking, can often be surprisingly impressive.

The problem, almost always, comes next - "helping Afghans grow legal crops" and the like. International agricultural development is pretty good at solving technical problems - reducing transaction costs through the use of scrip, etc. - but it's not great at solving problems like "the entire economy of this country is based on the production of an illegal crop." There's just no sustainable path forward for Afghanistan to join the international economy as a normal agro-export country.

When the US leaves, whether that's in ten months or ten years, Afghanistan will revert to its natural state as a poor, landlocked country with a weak central government and constant warring factions that mostly operate by bribing each other's soldiers to change sides before any real battles can happen. If great powers would leave the place alone for fifty years, maybe something better would come along, but in the meantime it's all just wishful thinking.

The Afghani economy, outside of opium and pot production, doesn't really exist. Subsistence agriculture, a little wheat. . . there's just no there there. No platoon of Marines, however well-trained and well-intentioned, is going to fix that fundamental problem.

What they can do is kill a bunch of people for no good reason. And that, their training and intentions notwithstanding, is what they will do.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Raul's Reflection #5

One of the functions of wisdom is to serve as a corrective against certain tendencies. This is one reason that ideas that are said to be "timeless" are not so at all. While people are conditioned in a certain way, a wise saying may truly be wise - helping to bring humankind away from old patterns and into a new phase of thought and action.

When "wisdom" becomes merely a saying, which reinforces the way people already tend to think, it ceases to be wisdom and becomes at best a useless plaything and at worst an obstacle to further development.

A strong medicine, taken for too long after the passing of an illness, may make the patient sicker than he was to begin with.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Obama's Cairo Speech

Let me start this off by saying that I've been pleased by the first six months or so of the Obama administration. Obama is to my right on most issues, but then, that's elected officials for you. People to my left tend to get locked up in psych wards rather than elevated to political office, so I've gotten used to that.

Though there are lots of things I think Obama could be handling better for the most part he seems to be doing a decent job with a rough situation.

In that context let me also say that the Cairo speech last week was a pretty decent attempt to lay out some basic common ground between US foreign policy thinking and the thinking of the rest of the world's people who tend to take a dim view (as I do) of most of the core tenets of US foreign policy.

That said, there was one part of the speech that gave me a case of the disappointed-headshakes, which was paradoxically the part of the speech that's being most characterized as an "antiwar" sentiment.

Near the beginning of the speech, Obama had this to say:

The situation in Afghanistan demonstrates America's goals and our need to work together. Over seven years ago, the United States pursued al-Qaida and the Taliban with broad international support. We did not go by choice. We went because of necessity. I'm aware that there's still some who would question or even justify the offense of 9/11. But let us be clear. Al-Qaida killed nearly 3,000 people on that day.

Which is pretty standard boilerplate for US foreign policy discussions over the last eight years. The statement's main drawback is that it has only a very vague relationship with reality.

The truth is, the war in Afghanistan was a war of choice. We didn't HAVE TO go invade Afghanistan. It is undeniably true that many people (including many people who are generally antiwar) felt at the time, just a few weeks after the attacks on New York and Washington, that we had no option other than to invade. But that simply wasn't the case. There are many paths we could have taken with regard to pursuing the goals set forth at the start of the Afghanistan invasion.

This is one case among many where the really transcendent awfulness of the Bush administration has screwed up the entire context of our discourse. The Iraq invasion wasn't just a "war of choice." It was a self-evidently absurd and boneheaded policy choice that was at the time completely unmoored from any rational, ethical or moral foundation.

Compared to the Iraq invasion, though, Afghanistan is generally thought of in the US as "Bush's good war." So it generally gets the sort of treatment that it got in Obama's Cairo speech.

I just want to make a couple quick points about this. At a very minimum, if we're going to talk about whether a decision was correct or not we should compare the consequences to the probably consequences of the main alternative course of action (in this case, pursuing the 9/11 terrorists through an international criminal investigation rather than through military action), and also to what might have happened if we had done nothing.

The three primary goals set out in the early weeks of the war were the goals of apprehending Osama bin Laden, disrupting and restricting the activities of Islamist guerillas operating in Afghanistan, and ousting the Taliban in favor of a democratic, representative government.

On the first goal, obviously we failed utterly as bin Laden is as far as anyone knows still at large. It can't really be known whether he could have been apprehended by an international criminal justice effort but it's certainly the case that he wouldn't be less in custody than he is now. In fact, it's fairly clear we could have gotten the same result if we had done nothing.

On the second goal, people generally assume that the Afghanistan invasion has done a lot to restrict the movement of guerillas in Afghanistan, but the one specific investigation of that question that I know of (Hy Rothstein's "Afghanistan and the Troubled Future of Unconventional Warfare") concludes that the picture is at best mixed. The US effort in Afghanistan has been remarkably, and foolishly, focused on blowing things up rather than building the kinds of human networks that make it difficult for terrorist groups to operate, and thus it's not very clear how much we've really improved things with the invasion. Once again we can say that the international criminal investigation probably would have achieved at least the same result, if not a better one, and that doing nothing at all would not have been demonstrably worse than invading.

As for ousting the Taliban, we did that, but we never managed to replace them with anything particular, and thus in the judgment of most of the experts I've read if we were to withdraw from Afghanistan today the Taliban or some Taliban-like group would regain control of the country fairly quickly. This is the one area where you can say pretty definitively that the invasion came closer to achieving the goal than could have been achieved by doing nothing or by conducting a criminal investigation. It's not nothing, but given the costs of the invasion, high on the US side and immense on the Afghanistan side, it's pretty thin gruel.

Now, it's not logically impossible for something to have been completely necessary and yet failed to achieve any substantive positive results. There's an argument to be made that the Afghanistan war was necessary and correct despite having failed. It's just that I'd like to see someone actually MAKE that argument, instead of it constantly being assumed to be self-evidently true that a failed war was a good idea.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

The Death of George Tiller

I rarely post about abortion. It falls squarely under the "dumb stuff I can't believe we're still arguing about" category.

However, after the death of George Tiller, by most accounts an extremely compassionate, courageous women's health care provider, I thought I would toss my basic thoughts on the matter out into the ether.

Many years ago, there was a consensus in this country that if a woman was pregnant she should be forced to carry the child to term and deliver it. There were laws against seeking abortions and laws against providing them.

As the rights of women advanced throughout the 60's and 70's, this consensus broke and eventually the Supreme Court recognized an affirmative right of doctors to provide abortions. Now, abortion is legal, and a comfortable majority of Americans consistently agree in polling that abortions should be legal and available to women who need them.

That's the state of play, though the large, vocal committed minority of people who want to make abortion illegal again do their best to obscure it. It is close to unthinkable that the old consensus, grounded as it was at least in part in the view that women were not fully citizens, will ever reemerge.

It's certainly possible that through the use of terrorist violence - gunning doctors down in church, say - some especially unbalanced abortion prohibitionists will be able to intimidate some doctors into ceasing to provide these procedures. What's much less possible is that Americans will ever again come around to the belief that women should be forced to carry to term pregnancies that they desire to terminate.

Given the roots of the anti-abortion coalition in the "born-again" social engineering movement sometimes called "evangelical christianity," I know as well as anyone that they will continue to fight on with whatever means are at their disposal - it is not in them to look around, consider the situation, and back down.

Count me as one lonely voice trying to wake a few of them up.

This one's over. You lost. If this truly is an inhuman horror, it is one that, despite your ironclad conviction to the contrary, your God can clearly abide.

Pick a different battle. The world is full of injustice.

Monday, May 04, 2009

Harsh Technique Blogging

Haven't updated in a while; for that reason I'm sure my readership has dwindled to the point where I'm basically telling this to myself. That's fine; I'm writing it mostly to get it out of my head where it's driving me a little crazy.

Tons of discussion once again of "the torture debate," which I put in quotes because from my perspective I haven't seen a lot of debate, just various people rehashing various ludicrous justifications, going around and around and periodically congratulating each other on how wonderful it is that in a free society we can have open discussion and blah blah blah.

Here's how I see it. The United States of America, a government that to an almost unique degree in human history depends upon the consent of the governed, tortured people as a matter of government policy. We put people in small, dark boxes with insects crawling on them. We strapped them to boards and poured water in their faces until they broke down crying and pleading in abject fear of death by drowning. We told people we had their children in custody and threatened to mutilate their childrens' genitals.

I could go on, but really, there's no point. This happened, in part at least, because the people who authorized these policies believed that if and when these practices came to light, a significant slice of the American electorate would have trouble coming to a clear conclusion about whether such conduct is wrong, and that as a result they would get away with it.

We have seen throughout the last several years that in fact these policymakers were correct in their belief. Given enough arm-waving and bloviation about ticking time bombs and other such nonsense, many Americans do in fact appear to be able to integrate the knowledge that the United States tortured people with their image of the United States as a just and lawful nation.

This problem has no immediate solution. People who lack the moral faculties to conclude that torturing people is wrong cannot develop these faculties by continuing to run their mouths about it, or by staining the pages of academic journals with beard-stroking foolishness. What is needed is a serious exercise in self-reflection and contemplation, which can happen only in the hearts of the people who need it.

The best the rest of us can do is to stop enabling this pathetic fiction that these people are engaged in something other than evil. I am not saddled with a Manichean view of humanity and thus I can say this without fear that I am saying that these people are evil. In each person's life constructive and destructive forces are at work always. The work of conscious, terrestrial humankind is to strive to enable the good within us and to control the evil.

Occasionally it is good for people to be shocked into looking in the mirror and seeing what they are really like. It may make them angry; they may dislike the mirror or the person who held it up, rudely, to their face in a vulnerable moment.

On TV, the great perils we face are gigantic, inhuman menaces like terrorism, global warming, pandemic disease. In real life what threatens humanity is that we will be too feckless, too deluded to look in the mirror and face who we are, and what may happen to us as a result.

Time is short. Start today.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Warren Mosler and the Value of Money

In this discussion on an Yglesias thread I was reminded by another commenter of the fascinating work of one of the big three modern economists who have most shaped the way I think about economics. Kuttner is one, Taleb is another, and this guy, Warren Mosler, is the third.

The linked post is called "The Natural Interest Rate is Zero," but what it's really about, like most of Mosley's work, is how the relationship between a government and its currency is fundamentally different from every other entity's relationship with that currency.

The point he makes many times that is really quite interesting when you turn it over in your mind is that if you pay the government with cash, whether you're paying taxes or buying securities, the government shreds the money.

He does a good job going into some of the implications of that fact, but it's also fun to just sit and thing about it.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Honest Men

I once heard someone say "An honest man never won anything in a fight." I think what the guy was driving at was something akin to "Nice guys finish last." He meant it, in other words, as a statement about the value, or lack thereof, of honesty.

It occurred to me today while I was out walking that there's another, more interesting way of looking at the statement. It could be a statement about the value, or lack thereof, of fighting.

The Power of El Rushbo

In my life as a Richmonder I've had occasion to know many a Rush Limbaugh fan. There are lots of reasons to like listening to Rush - I'll admit I used to find him mildly entertaining myself back in the day. But there is a certain type of person who really LOVES Rush, who is fanatically devoted to him and cannot allow himself to understand that the vast, vast majority of the "commentary" that Rush offers is just made-up inflammatory nonsense.

I knew a guy back when I was first starting out in the computer biz who was one of these Limbaugh dittoheads. His name was Nick and he was a little angry guy who was reasonably intelligent but not particularly curious and who had a massive Napoleon complex that required him to tell everyone what to do and how to do it at all times.

I remember once he gave me a ride somewhere in his little dirty white sedan and he had Rush's radio show on in the car. I, being young and arrogant myself, sort of thought that everyone must listen to Rush the same way I did - appreciating his cracked perspective, but understanding that his views didn't represent any coherent, serious political philosophy.

I made an offhand comment that somehow revealed my point of view, and Nick blew up. It was instant and impressive - his face got red, spit flew from his mouth, and he began an impromptu tirade about how I had been brainwashed by the liberal media to believe that Rush was a fool when in fact he was the only sane man in the entire media landscape.

It's important to reiterate - Nick was screaming at someone who, at that point in his life liked Rush Limbaugh. To him, nothing less than fanatical, unquestioning devotion was sufficient to separate me from the massing communist hordes poised to tear the country apart with their fascist campus speech codes and capricious environmental regulations.

Over time, as the old Republican base of old-style racist white male voters has aged and begun to die out, the GOP has become increasingly dependent on guys like Nick whose worldview is ENTIRELY shaped by talk radio, and Rush in particular.

The dilemma for the GOP is that there just aren't enough guys like Nick. As the years roll on, the Republicans are going to lose more and more elections as long as they cling to a narrative that most of the population finds moronic. The trouble is, Dittoheads now represent a decent chunk of the Republican coalition. They vote at a high rate, so it's possible that Rush Limbaugh fans represent a large plurality of the Republican electorate in many elections. If those people were to desert the party suddenly, the Republicans would be doomed.

Unfortunately, unless they can leave Rush behind somehow, or at least marginalize him to the point where he is no longer the de facto leader of the party, they're doomed anyway. I hope they keep him around - an extended run as a permanent minority party seems like the proper fate for the modern GOP.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Grief #1

It's now been a full two weeks since I received the news that my good friend Nathan had died.

So far I would take a bit of issue with the idea of the "stages" of grief, at least as I've heard of them. I definitely see that the early days of knowing of his death were characterized primarily by a refusal to admit, emotionally to myself, that he was gone.

These days I'm definitely very angry. However, my experience of the anger is in a sense an expression of denial. It is not that I feel angry at Nathan for dying, or even for taking his own life. I feel angry in the way that we used to feel angry together, an unfocused, juvenile dissatisfaction with the obvious cravenness and parsimony of the world and the people in it. I feel angry so that I can be close to the ferocious, passionate intensity that made it so hard for me to reach out to Nathan while he was alive, to drink it in one last time.

So I am angry with my kitchen for being messy, and at my family for expecting me to do my job and clean it up. I am angry with my parents for all the things they ever said to me that I didn't want to hear, and also for all the things that they didn't say to me that I needed to hear. I'm angry with my high school teachers for not understanding me. I'm angry at my high school crushes for not falling in love with me. I'm angry with my cats, the trees in my yard, my muddy lawn, my cracked driveway, and my ridiculous heap of a car.

I wish I could write all this on a card and tape it to my chest so that the people who cross me in minor, insignificant ways over the coming weeks will understand that yes, there IS a reason why this normally easygoing guy is looking like he might punch them for blocking his path in the produce section of the grocery store.

The reason is because when I stop being angry and go back to being myself, then Nathan will really be gone. And I'm not there yet.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Raul's Reflection #3

When someone says "I don't understand" it is usually assumed that he is describing something he has tried and failed to do.

It's worth remembering that he may be describing something he has succeeded in doing.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Raul's Reflection #2

People often say "the road to hell is paved with good intentions." Pessimists like the phrase because it confirms their pessimism. Cynics like it because it excuses their intellectual laziness.

I myself, being an optimist, like the phrase too. Who, after all, would want to travel to hell on an unpaved road?

Pennywise, Pound Feckless

I liked this Yglesias post on Obama rolling the Blue Dogs, but it seemed like he buried the lede a bit.

I'd like to see a whole post on the phenomenon of GOP and right-wing Dem "fiscal conservatism."

The plain fact is, for decades the people in US government with a reputation for fiscal conservatism (that is, the GOP and their righty-Dem pals like Ben Nelson) maintain that reputation by spending as much time as possible on television scolding Americans about why they cannot have useful, well-run government services because those programs cost too much money, despite the fact that most of the programs they say this about do not add anything significant to the deficit, either this year's budget or the budget 10 years from now.

Yet these same politicians are always, ALWAYS the ones arguing in favor of truly wasteful, budget busting spending - giant, failed wars whose purpose no one can explain, for example. They are always front and center telling us why we can't do anything to contain medical costs, despite the fact that our country wastes more money on unneeded administrative costs and unhelpful, mass-production medical treatments than most other countries spend on anything, period.

In short, "fiscal responsibility" in the modern media environment is a sham. The people who cultivate a reputation for it are con artists with big PR budgets. The people who really value fiscal conservatism - that is, real Democrats - know that it is but one of many important principles of governance, so they are not able to compete with the hucksters who pretend, when it's convenient to do so, that it is the most important thing in the goddamn universe.

Obama's right that the right path to fiscal health is a repair of the broken finance sytsem, a return to full employment, medical reform, and fewer giant failed wars whose purpose no one can explain.

If you do those things, there is no way to run a crippling deficit in the richest country in the world by spending too much money studying how much methane is released by cow farts.

Sunday, February 08, 2009

In Defense of the Compromise

[Cross posted at Yglesias' House]

At the risk of sounding like a centrist morally bankrupt appeaser (and I hope a cursory reading of my work over the years would dispel the notion that I’m USUALLY singing such a tune, regardless of what you think of my POV at this instant) I think this is one of those moments where we’re all getting a bit hot and bothered because we’re refusing to see this in terms of political interests rather than policy principles.

I was as disappointed as anyone to see that so much aid to the states had been cut. Just about all liberals seem to be in agreement that such a thing makes no sense. I am in wholehearted agreement with that assessment, and I also share a lot of the angst over some of the smaller cuts that were made as well.

But the reality is that Senate rules and recent Senate practices make it the case that a committed minority of at least 40 Senators can block legislation. The current GOP Senate caucus constitutes such a committed minority.

What the Democrats did in this case was allow a detachment of the Democratic caucus made up of members who, for whatever reason, don’t like the stimulus that much but who are willing to go along with it if they get something out of it to get together with a detachment of Republicans who don’t like the stimulus that much but who are willing to go along with it if they get something out of it.

What I’m hearing from a lot of liberals is that the Democrats should instead have forced the GOP into a game of chicken where we would have risked deep-sixing this stimulus bill on the theory that some Republicans would cave anyway, and that if they didn’t we could try to ram it through under budget rules. That may well have worked. But we can’t know. More importantly, OBAMA can’t know. And that’s why, obviously, he’s going to prefer this shitty compromise to a coordinated PR high-wire act that could doom his presidency if it were to fail.

The bottom line is that passing this bill strengthens (in this order) Obama, wishy-washy center-right pseudodemocrats like Ben Nelson, and wishy-washy center-right Republicans like Olympia Snowe. Is that a perfect outcome, even in political terms? Hell, no. But guess what? The people who have the power to decide what happens with this bill are Obama, wishy-washy center-right pseudodemocrats like Ben Nelson, and wishy-washy center-right Republicans like Olympia Snowe.

That’s life in 2009. To change it, we need a powerful Democratic President and more and better Democrats. Full stop.

I’m all for bringing this all up again when Nelson or any of the other “moderate” Dems are running in Democratic primaries down the road. They should of course face angry Democrats in those primaries, and if the Democrats of their states are angry enough, we’ll throw them out and get some real Democrats.

But right now, at least by all appearances, THIS fight is over. And we won. Let’s act like it.

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Raul's Reflection #1

To be thought of as a good man is no great feat. Simply ask the people you know what it is that they think a good man is like, and then be like that.

This requires no special talents or training, but there is one catch. Being consumed by your task of seeming to be good, you will of course never find any time to actually learn how to be good, much less practice what you have learned.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The Money and His Fool

The Money and His Fool

by Raul Groom

January 20th, 2009
Richmond, Va

Parting is all we know of heaven and all we need to know of hell. ~Emily Dickinson, "Parting"

Staring at this passage on a cold black night, with the frozen void yawning menacingly above me, I find it hard to believe the words were not written specifically to describe the retirement of the forty-third President of the United States. George W. Bush departs the White House to the same cheers that greet a used-up third-year NFL quarterback in a big-market city like Miami or LA as he's carried to the sideline on a stretcher, his brain quivering spasmodically from the one final hit that ended his brief, unremarkable run at the top of the world. The cheers denote neither appreciation for the man's service nor glee at his demise. The people cheer for no other reason than that the backup is coming in. Someone else is finally in charge.

Inside each fan's lusty yawp of exaltation is a kernel of melancholy, of recognition that something has gone terribly wrong and cannot be put right. A franchise, a city, a people have been driven into catastrophe and ruin for no other reason than that they chose as their leader a man who was not up to the task. One inept person brought low a great machine that had, once upon a time, seemed poised to roll over the world and every damn thing in it.

"The fool and his money are soon parted," it is said. Perhaps in simpler times the equation was so straightforward. In George W. Bush's last wild days as our lame-duck president, we are seeing what happens when the money is parted from its fool.

No president, it should be admitted, controls the economy. High finance is a strange beast, and in a panic any economy, even a well-run one, can founder upon the rocks of uncertainty and fraud. Yet we have seen enough even at this early date to say that the state we find our economy in now is a direct and indeed predictable result of years of happy talk and easy money allowing the wise old men to pretend that the worst, most feckless presidency of all time would have no consequences.

Call it the housing bubble, call it the Bush Bubble, call it what you like - it has burst. The so-called "real economy" lurches to a halt even as the virtual economic wizards unfreeze the credit markets they themselves froze up, with the government picking up the tab for their tireless service of the national interest. Great American retailers run aground so abruptly and completely that major newspapers run well-sourced articles within weeks detailing the degree to which everyone knew all along that the company sucked eggs and could never reform.

It turns out eight years of laughing at the daily spectacle of a glaringly unfit man signing off on every major decision made by the richest, most powerful country in the world has a cost. Fortunately for the Bushes, as always, it is not they who will bear the direct brunt of their profligacy. Instead the grateful taxpayers will bear it, for after all it was their money Bush tirelessly safeguarded by lowering nominal income tax rates. The devoted soldiers will bear it, too, for after all it was their interests Bush zealously represented by making sure that the giant wars where they bleed and die can never end. And the nameless dead will bear it most of all, men and women and children across the world, for after all they can't complain.

The Boy King stands tonight, for one last night, at the head of the most successful political dynasty in American history. Upon the railways of their ancestors the Bush Boys - Jeb, George W., and the old man - did build this endless croaking machine of death and terror that has ruled us for as long as anyone can remember. One would imagine, looking at the wide expanse of history, that it would rule us still tomorrow. But it is not to be.

In the end, one flaw held back Samuel P. Bush's generations-long plan for impenetrable military hegemony over the destiny of the free world. His line could not overcome its own genetics, siring an increasing cacophony of shockingly inarticulate winos with no business running a diner in Connecticut, and culminating in the elevation - to the Presidency of the United States, no less - of the greatest fool ever to set foot on the American political stage.

It is here, at the moment of Bush's elevation to the presidency, that history begins to look a bit murky. Beginning with Bush's highly unusual and unconvincing declaration of victory after the 2000 election, the journalistic record loses whatever tenuous grasp on reality it enjoyed before that moment. Bush's wizardry with the press - unusual, to say the least, for a man with no verbal skills of any kind - was once regularly discussed with great wonder by the enormous glowing heads that invade American television every Sunday like an absurd bloviating platoon of coiffed marines.

It is only now, looking back at his record from a slightly wider angle, that we get a clear sense of why it has been so difficult to record with any true vision the years in which Bush has been President. Bush destroyed the old hoary scold of investigative journalism, much as Nixon had tried and failed to do, by being so awful that he could not usefully be described in any objective way.

Certainly no article that appears on Bush's last day in office in any respectable print daily will include a serious accounting of Bush's ignoble feats these last eight years. It is impossible to provide a balanced view of a record that appears as a Jamaican slum would appear if it were plopped down at the doorstep of a great American city, his achievements an absurd and pathetic shanty town in the shadow of the vast panoramic skyline of his towering failures.

You and I, of course, are bound by none of the strictures of reasonable commentary. We can be serious. The record shows that Bush has started two wars and achieved not a single publicly stated prewar goal in either conflict. Troops remain in harm's way with no timeline for withdrawal. Uncounted thousands lie dead in the streets, casualties of American bombs, American guns, and American stupidity in a region of the world already inclined to view Americans with suspicion before George W. Bush took office.

The record shows that Bush took office an unserious, inconsequential intellect and that he will exit it that way. Taken as folksy comic relief during the 2000 campaign against Al Gore, Bush's many weird verbal gaffes remain by far his most significant contribution to the annals of Presidential speech. His greatest moment in the national consciousness found him holding a bullhorn atop a pile of rubble that used to be the World Trade Center, yet a cursory review of the audiotape reveals that not only did Bush not say anything noteworthy that day, he couldn't even figure out how to work the bullhorn.

Indeed, the record shows that Bush failed to handle any of the major crises of his Presidency with any visible aplomb, and that no management decision he ever made can be credibly said to have done anyone but himself a lick of good. When the Enron funny-money machine that had bankrolled his Texas political career collapsed in a puff of smoke, he couldn't figure out what to do, so he just stopped returning his former benefactors' calls. When the top federal law enforcement agencies approached him with credible evidence that terrorists were plotting a strike inside the United States, he let John Ashcroft push ahead with his plan to crack down on Internet porn.

When a terrorist network holed up on the Afghanistan/Pakistan border turned out to be tough to pin down and eliminate, Bush let the old, crazy Reaganites running the Pentagon talk him into invading Iraq on the pretext that Saddam was reconstituting weapons of mass destruction. Bush avoided any conflict this fanciful notion had with the information-gathering being done done by his own intelligence services by simply declining to read any of their reports.

When a hurricane devastated a major American city, Bush spent the first few days blaming the city's problems on the mayor, then flew into town just long enough to give a reassuring speech about rebuilding. Eventually, of course, he let the federal reconstruction effort die on the vine. Bush reflected on that incident recently when asked if he made any mistakes during his Presidency - he lingered particularly over the question of whether perhaps an earlier and more forceful empty, punchless gesture of support by the most powerful man in the world would have made for better television.

The record shows that through it all Bush remained a hero in the eyes of the press, until six years into his rule things hit an unexpected bump. Democrats took control of both houses of Congress in a historic bloodbath for the governing party. The daily carnival that is American news does make its money off the fortunes of wimps and losers, and at this defeat the bloom finally began to fade and tumble from George W. Bush's rose. In the light of this dawn of renewed press skepticism of our Commander in Chief, some cracks were revealed in the foundation of Bushism. People in the US, it turned out, were not particularly impressed with the worst president of all time.

The record shows that from the ashes of Bush's legend arose an electoral landscape so toxic to Republicans that a wise old avuncular war hero with a triple-digit approval rating among TV pundits went on to lose the Presidency to a black man from Chicago named Barack Hussein Obama, and the election was such a blowout that Minnesota mistakenly elected a beloved comedian to the United States Senate for the simple reason that he was not a big fat Republican idiot.

It is this aspect of Bush's legacy that can produce in even his most ardent detractors at least some glint of appreciation and respect. George W. Bush's last jest as our King Fool is this one - having crudely blundered away a century of shrewd tactics and meticulous planning by the architects of the greatest Machiavellian conspiracy of all time, Bush now takes aim at the very plutocratic power structure that made it all possible in the first place. To put it plainly, Samuel P. Bush's war machine would be rolling through Asia by now had its stewards not given the keys to their late patriarch's idiot inbred great-grandson, whose useless head manifests no more sense than those lifeless grinning skulls within the family's whitewashed mausoleum.

Bush's guilt is indisputable, his culpability limitless. No punishment could exceed the horror of his crimes - even a deranged rant such as this one leaves so many of his misadventures on the cutting room floor. Torture, rampant spying on American citizens, crumbling national infrastructure; none make the cut. To even scratch the surface of Bush's many assaults on decency and goodness is to begin a book of many volumes, whose completion is in the dim and hazy future.

Yet if there is still, at long last, anything that remains high and fine about the American experiment, it is that while we ridicule our failed tinpot dictators into obscurity and humiliation, while we blacklist them from every respectable discussion and remember their toadying visages only in stock footage running over somber documentary montages about abuse of power, whlie we despise them unto death. . . we do not hang them.

Bush will live out his days. We, his subjects for eight years, owe him nothing more, but we owe him that. He was, as they say, the President. George W. Bush 's ancestors, thanks to him, will one day be forgotten. His children, no thanks to him, will one day be forgiven. But the man himself will rot in hell forever. What he did not kill he ruined, and what he did not ruin, he cheapened. He was the worst kind of hack and the vilest brainless monster any of us has ever seen.

He will not be missed.