Saturday, December 19, 2009

Am I a Commie or A capitalist?

My car is festooned with bumper stickers. Some favorites include “Abstinence Makes the Church Grow Fondlers”, “Alternative Energy is Homeland Security” and “These Colors Don’t Run… the World”. This last one in particular seems to provoke the ire of right wingers.

Recently I picked up a new deer rifle at a local sporting goods store. As I returned to my car, I found a note on the windshield that said “Expletive you and your Expletive Commie Bumper Stickers”. It also had a rather fetching smiley face drawn at the bottom as a lovely coda.

Sure, ‘Commie’ is one of those all-purpose epithets that has essentially lost all meaning to most who wield it, but since I’d just seen Michael Moore’s film about Capitalism, I began to wonder, am I a Commie?

With apologies to Michael Moore, I think I’m actually a bit of a Capitalist. Certainly, I do not believe in an equal share of wealth for everyone. For example, I do not believe that a lazy person deserves my standard of living.

I also believe that this thing called the ‘profit motive’ which Moore seems to find distasteful, obviously works. One has only to look at China and Russia: when their collective farms were given the opportunity to sell some of their harvest on the open market and keep the profit, giving them a direct incentive to work harder, their production soared.

This is human nature. In fact, when you take studies of such diverse animals as chimps and macaws into account, one might even make a case that it’s a near universal natural law of social economy, replete with ancillary laws such as ‘you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours’.

I believe in a meritocracy. You work hard, you contribute; you live better. You’re lazy, shirk your duty, you live worse. And I believe in private property. I’m hardly a ‘Commie’.

But that doesn’t mean I believe in the greedy, self-destructive form of Capitalism we have today. Our current system is like a snake eating its own tail. It is so obsessed with short-term profit that it is actively consuming itself.

The environment is despoiled for short term gain. Dishonesty and poor workmanship are rewarded for those well-connected. And most alarming, human capital – the experience and skills of innumerable workers, is squandered and often thrown away like scrap iron.

And, because the true cost some commodities, like coal and nuclear power, are not rolled into their market value, they remain artificially cheap when compared to more environmentally benign technologies like solar and wind.

The system is rigged. It’s not a free-market at all. It’s not true capitalism. It is, indeed, a bit closer to the tenets of fascism, which might be paraphrased a bit like ‘what’s good for business is good for America’. That, assumes, of course, that this thing we call business, has America’s best interests at heart. It doesn’t. Corporations are soul-less creations with no morality and only one imperative: make a profit at all costs. If a human were so constructed, he’d be called a dangerous psychopath.

Instead of free market Capitalism, we have the worst of both worlds: a largely unregulated economic system that rewards greed, human degradation and environmental destruction, and a nice safe back-door policy that has made sure, since at least the 1880’s, that the truly huge players are protected from their own recklessness.

The irony is that if we lived in an actual laissez faire Capitalist system, while many things would be worse, there would also be no bailouts, no ‘too big to fail’.

Halliburton would go broke because their shoddy construction that electrocutes troops and their vastly overpriced consulting fees would fail in a truly free market.

No bid government contracts would cease to exist.

Large banks and brokerage houses that took daredevil risks with their investments would go bust, probably triggering a vast meltdown as their underwriters, like Goldman Sacks, also failed.

In a true ‘free market’, who you know, and who you contributed campaign dollars and other forms of bribery to, wouldn’t matter; which is, of course, why the idea of a true ‘free market economy’ is a total fiction. We are chattel, bought and paid for by transnational corporations just like coal or soybeans. There’s nothing ‘free’ about it.

Saturday, December 5, 2009

The Welfare State

I have a friend. She’s been a self-employed craftsperson involved in home construction and renovation for 25 years down in South Carolina. For all those years she’s paid her taxes and social security, her own health insurance, and reared a son largely as a single mother.

Recently, her business has all but disappeared due to the recession and the housing crisis. She was having trouble paying the mortgage, so she decided to seek help.

She’d had her first workshop in a rundown part of town, and had seen innumerable welfare families provided with not only housing, but TVs and furniture paid for by the state from the local rent-a-center. Given her neighbors experience, Welfare seemed like an obvious candidate. So, she went down to the office to see what help there was, what the system she’d paid into so loyally all these years as a hard working entrepreneur could give back to her in her time of need.

After her meeting, she called me, incredulous. Yes, they offered to help. They would give her 554.00 a month, garnish her monthly 500.00 in child support, and put a lien on her house. Wow – she could sign over control of her house for a net gain of 54.00 a month! She just couldn’t understand it – what about all of those families that had cars, TVs, apartments, food, medical care, and never, ever worked?

This is the great failure of liberalism. The remnant of LBJ’s Great Society is a social support system that rewards sloth and dysfunction, but has nothing substantial to offer someone of means who has hit a rough patch.

If you own nothing in this country and you’re adept at gaming the system - especially through warehousing foster children – you can live well. Perhaps not luxuriantly, but you can have food, shelter, medical care, and even entertainment. But if you have a job, and own a house, a car, and things get rough, that same network of social services is indifferent to your plight at best, hostile at worst..

There is something wrong with a system that completely neglects the working and middle classes in favor of the welfare class. In fact, there’s something wrong with the entire idea of welfare, except for those who are profoundly disabled. I’ve come to believe that Liberalism jumped the shark with welfare. A state that protects people from dire misfortune and shelters the helpless is to be lauded. But one that coddles the lazy and dishonest, in fact creates entire generations of people for whom hard work and responsibility are alien concepts, is bound to rot from within.

Instead of welfare, America should have committed itself, should now commit itself, to full employment for all who want to work. The recent ‘workfare’ programs were an attempt to reverse this dysfunction, but they are deeply flawed, as they’ve often forced people into little more than indentured servitude – dangerous and humiliating work at less than the minimum wage. People need and deserve a living wage, and their dignity.

There must be better solutions out there. Our government subsidizes crops, the oil and gas industry, the elderly and infirm, and yes, the lazy. Could they subsidize a permanent worker training and employment program instead of the latter? Massive 1930’s style public works projects that trained and then employed millions? I don’t know. I only know that the system as it stands is broken - that if you give generations of people something for nothing, you breed dependence, not freedom.

And we also need to help the struggling working class! They’re drowning and no-one’s throwing them a life preserver. My friend doesn’t have any big credit card debts. Her mortgage is modest and at a very low interest rate. Her distress is not due to rampant personal greed or living beyond her means, as Limbaugh and his ilk would have it.

Rather, she’s a victim of the business cycle, the booms and busts that have accompanied capitalism since perhaps the first barter of labor for grain was made in ancient Sumer.

The question is, do we want a society that buffers hardworking members from these implosions, provides a port in the storm for its workers, or one that leaves them to drown while its right flank protects the fatcats and its left, the layabouts?

Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Obama Sells Out

Shortly after Obama was inaugurated, I wrote a commentary that was quite critical of his economic team, which was composed of the very people who had created the financial crisis in the first place. I ended the commentary by suggesting that the age of Obama was starting to sound more like ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ than ‘a change is gonna come’.

But disillusioned as I’d become about his domestic agenda, I still hoped that Obama would shine on foreign policy – that he might truly turn the ungainly ship of Empire around and return it to port. After all, it’s quite clear that America is following a long line of Imperial mistakes before it, vitiating itself with ever more military adventures, while provoking the ire of subjugated peoples, who are increasingly fighting back, weakening America like Lilliputians tying down Gulliver.

But here, again, Obama has either caved to his corporate masters, or is showing his own true colors. He hasn’t extracted us from either of the costly wars we’re mired in; he’s escalated our involvement, apparently heeding the specious advice to ‘listen to the commanders on the ground’. Those commanders not surprisingly say what such men have always said, everywhere, throughout history: give us more men and arms and we’ll get the job done. Because their only tool is the hammer of military might, they perceive everything as a nail that must be struck repeatedly.

Obama’s taken the Bush position that suspects can be held indefinitely without trial at our new Guantanamo, Bagram Air Force base.

His administration has decided to continue the Bush policy of rendition, wherein suspects are picked up the world over and sent to ‘friendly regimes’ for questioning. The administration reassured the public that this policy would be closely monitored to prevent ‘prisoner abuse’. The entire purpose of rendition is to move a suspect to a country that has more brutal interrogation methods than our own! It’s extra-legal government-executed kidnapping that completely undermines American verbiage about ‘respecting the rule of law’.

Then Obama refused to do anything more than lightly slap Israel’s wrist when that country once again threw gasoline on the fire by confiscating more land, tearing down more Palestinian housing, and going on a spree of new settlement building. The Palestinians have wisely refused to negotiate with Israel until this madness stops, but Obama is offering no carrot, and more importantly no stick, to compel the Israelis. Even George Bush senior was tougher on them, once suggesting that he would cease supporting loan guarantees for Israel if they didn’t stop building.

President Obama is going to Copenhagen for climate talks, it’s true, and on the environment he is clearly a better president than either Bush was, but it’s still too little, too late. The massive public-works projects in renewable energy that this administration could have spent the stimulus money on have been largely swapped for bureaucratic expansion and conventional highway construction. His approach is more fiddling while Rome burns, than ‘change we can believe in’.

White house visitor logs show that our president is eschewing meetings with progressive voices on health coverage, the economy, the environment, and economic justice, meeting instead with corporate interests and their lobbyists on these very subjects. Sound familiar?

And this week, Mr. Obama topped it all. Our newly-minted Nobel Prize winner’s administration stated that the United States has decided to maintain the Bush administration's refusal to sign an international treaty banning land mines.

But that makes sense: not only does America spend more on defense-related matters than all other countries on earth combined, but it’s also the biggest arms dealer, the biggest supplier of weapons of destruction, both mass and individual, on our planet as well.

Frankly, I’m disgusted. Far from being instruments of seismic change, Obama’s policies support the status quo with an almost slavish fealty. I can’t for the life of me understand the hysterical comparisons of Obama to Stalin and Hitler on the right. These must be engendered by racism, pure and simple, because far from being on the radical fringe, Mr. Obama appears to be a middle of the road, bought-and-paid-for tool of corporate America, offering us a sort of ‘Bush Light’ foreign and domestic policy.

At the end of the day, the man who wrote the brilliant, touching and humane ‘Dreams from my father’, and promised us sweeping change, has sold out himself, and all those who believed in him. But it’s our fault; for once again we wanted, needed to believe that this country could change, even though all of its institutions, from the legislative, executive and judicial branches to its ‘free’ press, are now basically appendages of multi-national corporations.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

The Other Healthcare Crisis

There’s more than one healthcare crisis in this country. Of course, there’s the issue of coverage for everyone, but another crisis is exemplified by just how callous, narrow-minded, and often ineffectual our current medical system is.

17 years ago I was paralyzed from the neck down with a crushed spinal cord and brain damage. Thankfully, my total quadriplegia was short-lived and through both hard work and good luck I was able to recover most of my previous abilities.

But the sad truth was that most of my recovery was achieved not because of, but rather in spite of our vaunted medical system. Very little of it was due to traditional Western medical treatment. In fact, even when I was completely paralyzed and in almost inconceivable pain, I still had to summon the strength and fortitude to argue many times with the hospital staff to force access to alternative and non-traditional therapies.

I even had to fight to see my own chart, because once they found that I was having my wife read it me, they physically removed it. My entire hospitalization seemed designed to disempower me, to leave me helpless and dependent.

The assaults on my sanity and dignity that I suffered while a quadriplegic were extreme: One day a doctor breezed into my room with a gaggle of mostly female medical students in tow. He ripped off my sheet without even a ‘hello’, leaving me completely naked and shivering, and proclaimed ‘this man is obviously seriously neurologically compromised and will never function normally or walk again’. He then breezed out, without even bothering to cover me up. I shudder to think that this is the bedside manner taught to medical students, and I am amazed that doctors are either not cognizant of the profound psychological effects that their pronouncements have on patients, or simply don’t care. The power of suggestion, especially from an authority figure like a doctor, is a real, palpable phenomenon, yet they continue to blithely say terribly frightening and destructive things, ignorant of the fact that their words can have physical, even mortal consequences.

Another day I was dragged off, without warning or explanation, and left shivering on a gurney alone in a back hallway for hours, until I was finally dragged off somewhere else for a new round of tests.

I was traumatized, not just by my accident, but by this inhumane treatment. Some of the staff, particularly the doctors, treated me as an idiot or some kind of manikin, to be poked and prodded without regard for my pain, my emotions, or my dignity. And in all the time I was there, not one mental health professional visited me to see if they could help me retain my sanity and process what was happening to me.

Even more ironic was the reaction I got when I exceeded the doctor’s expectations wildly.

At best, I was supposed to never be able to handle stairs again, and to be in rehab for 6 months. Instead, I left after 3 weeks under my own power to a four story walk-up apartment. When I returned for a check up 6 weeks later, the neurologists clustered around me, amazed that my right arm, which had been clenched like a stroke-victim’s, was now working quite well. They proclaimed me a ‘miracle’. When I interjected that I was most certainly not a miracle, but rather the product of much hard work and Chinese Medicine, Chi Gung, and numerous other alternative therapies, they demurred – “oh, we don’t believe in that ‘chi’ claptrap”, they said.

There was no open-mindedness among these supposedly empirical, scientific men, and no real curiosity about how I’d accomplished my practically unprecedented recovery. They knew better than the patient, case closed. They then prescribed a powerful drug for my spasticity that almost killed me. I quit the drug and redoubled my chi gung , which didn’t mask the rigidity and spasticity as the drug did, but rather allowed me to access my clenched muscles and learn how to release them.

It’s ironic that in the years since, when my symptoms have returned, it is always the alternative therapies, the ones not covered by my insurance, which have helped me. Countless other people challenged by chronic disease or injury have also found their most efficacious treatment in alternative, unsanctioned modalities.

Double-blind studies have proven the efficacy of some of these, like homeopathy and chi-gung – even though Western medicine can’t figure out how they work.

But homeopathic medicine is cheap, and chi-gung, once you know it, is free. There’s no profit in it for the corporate medical infrastructure. And so instead we have a system that promotes big-ticket items like MRIs, radioactive tracers, and expensive and dangerous drugs.

It’s been known for years that two people can have equally disturbing x-rays and MRIs, yet one can be wheelchair-bound and in terrible pain while the other plays tennis daily with no symptoms – but Western medicine seems oddly incurious about these suggestive nuances..

Luckily for me, I tend to rail against authority, so the dire pronouncements I’ve received have been more like challenges. A doctor tells me I’ll never walk again, I say oh yeah? And then I proceed to hike, bike, scuba dive, and generally thumb my nose at his supposed authority.

But not everyone is as rebellious or perhaps resilient as I have been. We need a health care system that is interested in results, not the bottom line, and we need to educate our doctors to retain their humanity, to foster a real connection with their patients, and to be cognizant of their patient’s internal lives and psychological needs.

Recently, a doctor told me that I had the worst spine she’d seen in thirty years. What possible therapeutic value was there in this comment? It only served to frighten and depress me. Why on earth didn’t she know that? Why aren’t doctors trained to be people first, healers second, and technicians third, instead of the other way around? When was the last time a radiologist or neurosurgeon or even your GP or internist touched you, either physically or emotionally, in a warm, giving, empathetic way? When did they engage in a meaningful dialogue wherein they listened respectfully as you described your symptoms without constant interjection? When was the last time you felt cared for, in the truest sense of the word? If the answer is recently, count yourself among the very lucky. Most of us are stuck with overworked, unimaginative technicians who throw drugs and MRIs at everything by reflex.

We need a healthcare system that treats people – doctors and patients - as thinking, feeling individuals, not pieces of meat; one that prizes prevention and personal do-it-yourself responsibility over risky procedures and overlapping prescriptions of drugs, all of which interact in ill-understood ways to produce vicious side effects. Our healthcare industry in general has strayed away from the true meaning of healing. It’s become a haven for apparatchiks, technocrats, arrogant high-priests, and cynical businessmen.

Here, as in so many other areas of our society, empathy, and humanity need to be restored to the fore for real healing to take place.

Saturday, October 24, 2009

Our Embedded Media

Recently there was an article on natural gas extraction in the NY Times. It was basically a cheerleading essay on how the wonderful new technology of ‘fracking’ was going to exponentially increase the world’s natural gas supply. There was not one single word in the entire article about this technology’s serious environmental repercussions – from its use of large quantities of highly toxic chemicals, to the truly incredible quantities of water it requires.

This led me to think more and more about how our media have changed in my lifetime.

When I was a kid, the horrors of Vietnam were in our living rooms, and our magazines. As a young child, I was traumatized to see pictures of napalmed children in a copy of Newsweek while waiting in a pediatrician’s office. Until that moment, I’d been an innocent 5 year old, never dreaming that people could do that to other people, let alone that my country could be the perpetrator of such unalloyed horrors.

But as traumatic as that experience was, it’s far preferable to the embedded media we have now, which show us gee-whiz video game footage of smart bombs, but barely any pictures of the carnage, the reality of war. People the world over have been flooded with images of the true human cost to innocent civilians of our shock and awe campaign in Iraq and our incessant airstrikes in Pakistan and Afghanistan. But here in the US, we barely see a trickle of it in the mainstream media. And because of our media bubble, we fail to understand the world’s outrage.

The horrifying truth of the Vietnam War, brought into our living rooms each night, helped end that war. It’s very hard for people, when exposed to the truth of burned babies to feel enthusiastic about war, which is why the corporations behind our new and improved, highly consolidated media, try to shield us from such truths. Of course, the fact that these very same corporations make the weapons systems might have something to do with it as well.

When I was a kid, the NY Times and Washington post braved real threats of federal prosecution when they published the Pentagon Papers, which detailed, among many other things, how we were railroaded into the Vietnam War through a series of bold-faced lies.

Contrast that to the year 2000, when our disputed election was decided by the Supreme Court in Bush vs. Gore. I had no idea at the time that Justice Scalia had been friends with Dick Cheney for almost 20 years. Two of Scalia’s sons worked for law firms involved with the case, and Justice Clarence Thomas’s wife worked for the Heritage Foundation, which was sure to profit greatly from Bush’s election. Yet not only did both of the justices fail to recuse themselves, but the media were largely silent. In fact, it was nearly five years later before I read a major story on the close friendship of Cheney and Scalia, and I was thunderstruck that we’d all been kept uninformed and ignorant of this incredibly salient fact by our major news outlets.

Where were the front-page headlines of every major newspaper demanding recusal while the world awaited a decision? Why wasn’t Scalia’s obvious and profound conflict of interest trumpeted on the morning talk shows, the evening round-ups, the Sunday TV news-fests?

From the courageous reportage on Vietnam, which permeated television, radio and print media, we’ve transitioned in a few scant decades to silence over Scalia’s friendship with Cheney, silence over the theft of Ohio in the 2004 election, and the soft-peddling of our torture policies, which continues today – witness NPR’s continued use of the euphemism ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’. Our media have grown more craven, more complicit, more Orwellian than I could ever have imagined in 1974, or1984 for that matter.

Justice Hugo Black said: "Paramount among the responsibilities of a free press is the duty to prevent any part of the government from deceiving the people and sending them off to distant lands to die of foreign fevers and foreign shot and shell." – Yet our press now seems intent on beating the drum for war. I can still remember NPR anchor Bob Edwards stating ‘we know there are weapons of mass destruction in Iraq’ right after Colin Powell’s laughably tortured and specious presentation to the UN.

In fact, our press even seems to have gone so far as to have colluded in a legal coup de tat underwritten by right wing think tanks and executed by members of our chief judiciary body.

Do we have a free press in this country? Yes and no. Sure, there are programs like Alternative Radio and Democracy Now, and periodicals like Mother Jones and The Nation. There are myriad sites of all political persuasions on the web. There is no hard hand of censorship evident most of the time – except, perhaps, when a newspaper wants to publish photographs of the returning coffins of our honored war dead.

But the average American looks to the mainstream media for their information, and the mainstream media is no longer free. It is bought and paid for by the same corporations that have bought our congress through lobbying – those that comprise the military/industrial/penal/pharmacological/oil and gas/agribusiness complex.

Far from being an objective, inquisitive force, our media have become cheerleaders for much that is rotten in America – because their paymasters profit from our inhumane health insurance system, our centralized energy production and distribution monopolies, our leadership as the world’s number one weapons dealer, and our imperial rape of both human and natural wealth the world over.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Chimps and Bonobos

Humankind’s two closest genetic relatives are the Chimpanzee and the so-called ‘pygmy chimp’, the Bonobo. We share some 97% of our genetic makeup with both of them.

This is a vast oversimplification, but in general, Chimpanzee society tends to be male-dominated and violent. Chimps engage in brutal fights, gang rape, genocide, even cannibalism. Their society is highly stratified, with dominant males at the top and lesser males at the bottom. Although females also have dominant and lesser representatives, in general their health and safety, and that of their offspring, is still largely a matter of male whim.

The Bonobo are quite different. Although there are fights in Bonobo society, they tend to be brief and non-lethal. There appears to be no rape, no cannibalism, no wiping out of other troops of Bonobo. All in all, the Bonobo society is, for lack of a better word, more humane

In Chimp society, sex occurs only when females are in heat. In the matriarchal Bonobo society, sex occurs all the time, for procreation, for enjoyment, and sometimes merely as a form of social stress relief. It’s kind of like the Greek play Lysistrata, wherein the women refuse the men any sex until the men give up war. The Bonobo have largely given up conflict, replacing it with ready access to sex.

What do our two closest relatives have to tell us about human society?

In his landmark work, the Mass Psychology of Fascism, Willhelm Reich posited that the veneration of war and conflict coupled with sexual repression leads to a more violent and easily manipulated, fascistic society.

On its surface, American society is heavily sexualized, not repressed at all. But Reich didn’t mean the repression of all sexual symbols, but rather the displacement of healthy representations of sexuality with unhealthy symbols that debased and dehumanized, coupled with increasing representations of violence.

In light of that distinction, it’s easy to see how American society is sexually repressed when it comes to positive images of sexuality and the human body, while overflowing with negative ones and simply awash in violent imagery. To paraphrase Larry Flynt, in America it’s illegal to commit murder, but not to broadcast movies of it, and legal to make love, but illegal to broadcast movies of lovemaking.

Once, while watching the movie ‘Dead Calm’ on broadcast TV, I saw a naked rear end pixilated on my screen, I suppose to protect me from some terrible prurient urge. This was followed not 5 minutes later by the graphic, unpixelated footage of a man’s head being blown off. What kind of a society finds a naked ass more dangerous than an act of bloody violence?

Obviously, in the human mind, sex and violence seem to be linked in all sorts of complex ways. Look at how the torture at places like Abu Ghraib often devolved into sexual humiliation. The themes of procreation, survival, and death underlie all human activity, and imbue everything with their nascent power, which can be positive or corrosive. It can build a culture up, or debase it. And one man’s view of socio-sexual health can be another’s symptom of metasticized perversion.

For example: when Jonbenet Ramsey was slain, I became aware for the first time of childhood beauty pageants. I was profoundly shocked that these little girls were so sexualized and monetized. The pictures of six year old Jonbenet tarted up like a Vegas showgirl, complete with feathers and heavy makeup, seemed to bespeak some horrific underground subculture of kiddy porn purveyors.

Yet who were the perpetrators of this little girl’s debasement and objectification? Her very own quite conservative, mainstream, Republican, Christian parents, who doubtless saw nothing perverted at all in their actions. In fact, the same segment of society engages in so-called father-daughter purity balls, which ostensibly are about being chaste, but carry many disturbing psycho-sexual undertones, including ones that imply that women are chattel, their bodies and sexuality first owned by their fathers, and then their husbands.

Our culture is so out of whack that a nude adult body part is deemed threatening and perverse while the obvious sexualization of a child, albeit in symbolic terms only, is seen by many as wholesome.

Welcome to the topsy-turvy Chimp world that is America.

Sunday, September 6, 2009

Psycho Pundits

In recent months, The psychotic sophistries of right wing pundits have gone gonzo. It’s as if losing the election has blown their minds.

First, there was Sean Hannity’s ‘tree of liberty’. I defy any sane adult to not fall down laughing after viewing it. Mr. Hannity shows us an old-timey illustration of the tree of liberty, complete with roots named Liberty, Freedom, etc, combining into a strong trunk. Above this trunk there are apples, named commerce, security etc. Then Mr. Hannity tells us that since Obama has become president, all of these apples have fallen into, I kid you not, the ‘apple crate of socialism’. This entire cartoon seems to be for two year olds, but it’s not, it’s for the supposedly adult viewers of his program.

Do his viewers never stop to think that by Hannity’s definition, government-run institutions like fire, police, and military forces, and even public schools and hospitals, are equally ‘socialist’.

Later in the week, he tried to stir public ire over the fact that President Obama ordered a hamburger with Dijon mustard on it. Oh dear, how elitist! It’s shocking that the president might want an exotic condiment like grey poupon mustard instead of Heinz ketchup. No, wait a minute, if he’d ordered Heinz, he’d be funding Theresa Heinz Kerry’s evil radical agenda. I’m sure that was on tap as the diligent Hannity production team parsed Mr. Obama’s menu choices.

Rush Limbaugh accused the president of coddling the Somalis who’d taken an American sea captain hostage. He called them ‘black Muslim teenagers’, the implication being: hey, Obama’s black, and maybe he’s Muslim too. Yes, and maybe on weekends President Obama secretly goes swashbuckling in the gulf of Aden with distant dangerous relatives from the Dark Continent. Scary! Of course, once those pirates were dispassionately killed by Navy Seal snipers and the hostage freed, Limbaugh changed his tune – he then criticized the president’s ‘slow response’.

Now Limbaugh has topped it all by suggesting that Governor Mark Sanford’s affair was caused by his extreme distress at having to accept Obama’s stimulus package money. OK, let’s forget for a moment that Sanford’s been having an affair for over a year, i.e. since before Obama was president. Are we really supposed to believe that a prominent Republican, who was until his recent self immolation thought to be a presidential contender, is so weak that he would break his marriage vows under the duress of… performing his executive duties? Is this the supposedly macho Republican Party we’re talking about here, or a bunch of those famously weak wristed liberals?

OK, I know that this president can do no right as far as these folks are concerned. Their job is to throw raw meat to mouth-breathing australopithecines (I wouldn’t insult the intelligence of Neanderthals by calling them that), but surely even these intellectually challenged listeners must at some point find this nitpicking, absurdist bloviating to be too much.

It defies logic that an adult, who knows the rudiments of personal hygiene, can tie their shoes, read and write, and drive a car, can take any of this seriously.

And this is what I find so distressing about these supposed pundits, and many more from Michael Weiner AKA ‘Michael Savage’ to the joyously malevolent Ann Coulter. It’s not that they exist, not even that some media executive might want to put them on the air because their extremist views are consonant with his own. No, it’s that these people have massive, massive audiences.

Who are these millions upon millions of people who follow the pundits, no matter how absurd their rationales, or egregious their hypocrisies. Rush Limbaugh railed against drug addicts for years, yet he was caught with an astounding 30,000 Oxycontin pills. Anyone other than a celebrity of his magnitude would have gone away for a long, long time for possession with intent to distribute. But Rush kept his job. The question is, how did he keep his listeners? How could these people still respect the world’s greatest hypocrite?

And how is America to prosper when so many Americans are this credulous, and this easily manipulated, whether into nonsensical ‘tea party’ protests or murderous attacks on doctors?

Sunday, August 30, 2009

The Outrage Over Lockerbie

The DJ on my car radio was incensed. The Lockerbie bomber had been released. My first thoughts echoed his: it was indecent that this killer was not only released, but received a hero’s welcome back home in Libya. Yes, I admit it; I’m just not that forgiving a guy. I don’t think a terminally-ill mass murderer should be released on compassionate grounds so that he might spend his last days with friends and family. If he truly is guilty, he deserves to spend his last days, his last breath, rotting in jail.

But other thoughts arose as well. One was that many of the Lockerbie victim’s families doubted his guilt. Jim Swire, whose daughter Flora was killed, said: "I went into that court in Holland thinking I was going to see the trial of those who were responsible for the murder of my daughter. I came out of it thinking he had been framed." A bereaved father’s statement of support for the alleged killer of his child carries a lot of weight with me, as do those of the Scottish Criminal Cases Review Commission, which termed the conviction a possible miscarriage of justice. Where was the media coverage of these nuances? Surely they may even have played a part in his release, yet I heard nothing about them on CNN, ABC, NPR.

My next thought was even more troubling, and it brought me back to the outrage of the DJ, and to my own reflexive anger. How, I thought, can we all feel such outrage when the United States has been harboring a serial terrorist bomber for years?

Louis Posada Carilles is largely thought to be responsible for the bombing of a Cuban airliner that killed all aboard, including the mostly teenage members of the Cuban National Fencing Team. He has been convicted in abstentia in several countries for bombings and bombing plots, and was thought by our own FBI to have been involved in literally hundreds of bombings of Cuban targets in Cuba, Honduras, Panama and Venezuela. Washington even denied an extradition request from the Venezuelan Supreme Court, and Carilles continues to live in the United States though he has actually admitted to several bombings. He said of one bombing in Cuba, that killed an Italian-Canadian national: “It is sad someone is dead, but we cannot stop.”

He also worked for Colonel Oliver North and General Richard Secord as they secretly and illegally armed Contra death squads in Nicaragua. Of course, North, a man who did everything he could to subvert our constitution by doing an end run around our laws and our congress, is now a well paid radio and TV personality and a darling ‘patriot’ of the right. It seems that no bad deed goes unrewarded for these murderous thugs, and the airwaves are strangely mute about their crimes and our government’s continuing complicity.

George Bush senior once said these telling words: “One man’s freedom fighter is another man’s terrorist” – and there, in one sentence, is all you need to know about the moral expediency of the United States. We will protect a bloodthirsty killer involved in literally scores of bombings of civilian targets because he is the enemy of our enemy. And while protecting him, we will respond with self-righteous outrage when another bomber, whose guilt is far less established, is set free.

How sad that the frothing right, and even the average American citizen has forgotten the wisdom of Thomas Paine, one of the pivotal figures of the American revolution, who said “He that would make his own liberty secure, must guard even his enemy from oppression.”. The American policy of covert wars against countries we do not like, wars that often kill innocent civilians, is immoral and reprehensible. America has no solid moral footing, and seems unlikely to develop one when the Obama administration is enthusiastically continuing Bush polices of rendition and holding people without trial at a sort of Guantanimo lite – the Bagram air force base.

Our government, our media, and most of our political commentators, appear to be rank hypocrites as they protest torture, terrorism and oppression in places like Libya and Iran while they refuse to acknowledge, or sometimes even actively cover up, their own country’s equivalent crimes.

Saturday, August 22, 2009

Crush Rambo's History of the Liberal (A Ken Burns style mockumentary)

Audio only, folks. Someday, I'll add the Burns-like pan and scan of historical photos, maybe for next April Fools Day, but for now... enjoy wit yer ears!

And... if you listen past the end. there are 2 bonus tracks, including the game show 'You Can't Prove a Negative'!

Country Gone Mad (Bye Bye Democracy...)

Suddenly, the tea parties are old news. The freak-out de jour is healthcare, and people are so profoundly ignorant about the issue that one woman begged the President not to let the government take over Medicare. ‘Scuse me mam, but just who do you think administers Medicare, the tooth fairy?

This is, of course, not the organically-grown ‘grassroots’ movement the conservative commentators are crowing as a fine example of democracy. It’s funded by special interests, and carried to the people on multitudes of conservative talkshows. And these fine examples of democracy are in fact screaming, shouting people down, and threatening God’s retribution. They resemble a feral mob of brown shirts from Hitler’s Germany, not concerned citizens looking for dialogue and compromise. The Right isn’t interested in dialogue; they’re interested in winning at all costs, even if the cost is the end of the grand democratic experiment that is America.

I think we’re approaching the greatest threat to our democracy since at least the Great Depression. Day by day, my hopes for a post-racial America, and an America that really stands for liberty and justice are crumbling under an onslaught of disgusting, thinly-veiled racist vitriol and lynch mob mentality.

We’ve had people with assault rifles coming to our president’s speeches. One man, with a pistol strapped to his leg carried a sign saying ‘It’s time to water the tree of liberty’. When questioned by the media, he played dumb – oh no, I’m not advocating violence. There was no reference to blood on my sign. Of course, his sign implicitly references bloodshed, since the famous Jefferson quote it paraphrases is: “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time, with the blood of patriots and tyrants.” This quote, a former favorite of mine, was sullied forever by Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh. His favorite tee shirt was emblazoned with it. Apparently Mr. McVeigh convinced himself that the women and children he blew up were either patriots or tyrants, rather than victims of a sick, twisted little man.

A nascent threat to the president is evident at every speaking engagement, along with a veritable flood of racial caricature. We’ve had a seemingly endless parade of Republican party figures outed for emailing or mailing unbelievably racist caricatures of our president, from Obama in a witch doctor’s outfit, to the white house garden filled with watermelon. A Boston cop email blasted out a letter comparing professor Louis Gates to a “banana-eating jungle monkey’. His lawyer said the comments were “taken out of context” – how in God’s name can you take something like that out of context?

We’ve had two Fox News personalities inadvertently voicing their innermost thoughts this way: Brian Kilmeade said “we [Americans] keep marrying other species and other ethnicities . . . Swedes have pure genes . . . in America we marry everybody..." Glenn Beck said: “Obama is a racist who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture.” I’m not sure what white culture is. Is it personified by the transcontinental railroad, built largely with the toil and blood of Chinese immigrants? Or theAmerican cowboy, who was very often black? Or perhaps our constitution, large parts of which were lifted from the Iroquois? The fantasy that white people alone made this great country persists in the minds of these troglodytes, all evidence to the contrary notwithstanding.

Many whites still look back to the 1950’s as a golden time. Funny, I see it as a time of shame, when large parts of America practiced apartheid and lynching, and people were blacklisted for their beliefs. It was a time of paranoia, censorship, and lockstep conformity – none of which are the hallmarks of a great democracy.

So how do we defend our democracy? Surely joining the shouting match isn’t the way. I don’t want to be a bully, but I don’t want to sit idly by while my country is highjacked by a bunch of crazy, ignorant racists either.

Well, money talks, and Glenn Beck’s show has lost a slew of advertisers who felt he went too far – but not until they received tons of mail from outraged Americans. Perhaps a boycott of every Fox advertiser is a start. If you’ve got a better idea, I’m all ears.

Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Dalai Lama - Fundamentalist

The Dalai Lama – revered by many as a highly-enlightened being, a paragon of virtue, someone for us all to emulate.

But is he really so enlightened, or is his vision of humankind prejudiced? In his ironically-entitled book "Beyond Dogma," he wrote that "homosexuality, whether it is between men or between women, is not improper in itself. What is improper is the use of organs already defined as inappropriate for sexual contact." His form of Tibetan Buddhism, though not all forms of Buddhism, prohibits oral, anal and manual sex for heterosexuals and homosexuals alike. It has decided which of our body parts are acceptable for giving and receiving pleasure, and which aren’t. According to its… dogma, there will be a karmic debt to pay if we disobey.

The fact that I can find no reference that the Buddha himself ever addressed the issues of homosexuality, anal or oral sex is apparently immaterial; In yet another example of the supreme arrogance that only religion and politics can engender, some Tibetan ancient decided to define what the Buddha really meant by what he’d termed 'sexual misconduct'.

The Dalai Lama is a fundamentalist, not some new-age modernist, and fundamentalists are consummate dogmatists. Fundamentalist Christians are just as illogical: as far as I can see, the bible never states that lesbianism is a sin, yet they call it one, vociferously.

I believe that if there is a god he, she, it, or they created our bodies to be magnificently sensitive to pleasure. In my book, and I don’t think I’m alone here; sex is too joyous and profound to be reserved for procreation alone. Sex can be dangerous, of course. I am acutely aware of this as my own brother died of AIDS. But so can almost any human endeavor, from rock climbing to the consumption of ice cream sundaes.

William Butler Yeats said that love has pitched his tent in the place of excrement – meaning that humanity’s deranged hang-ups about sex arise from the fact that our primary sexual organs are also organs of elimination. This long-standing neurosis is quite evident in most religions – Eastern and Western alike..

The Dalai Lama is revered by new-agey folks the world over as enlightened and tolerant, yet he continues to parrot the backward, medieval prejudices of a religion that is in dire need of a Reformation. His books and photos adorn seemingly everyone’s home, but we pick and choose from his message, indulging in the parts that make us feel good, and delicately averting our gaze from the parts that make us uncomfortable.

Unlike Paganism and Taoism, Buddhism, Christianity, Islam, and Hinduism are manifestly human-centric religions. All of their cosmologies involve the earth being just about the first thing to arise from the cosmos after the cosmos itself. Yet we now know from astronomy that our young planet is two thirds of the way out on the spiral arm of an ordinary galaxy that is one of at least 100 billion. We aren’t the center of anything.

Though these religions are obviously wrong in their most basic assumptions about the origin of the universe and the primacy of humanity, billions still follow their other, equally outmoded notions – except when it proves inconvenient – witness the millions of Catholics who practice birth control and get divorced. .

And if the religion in question represents some new and exotic import, we merely partake of its sweet, feel-good exterior, and politely ignore the integral parts that require disciplined work or make us uneasy. We are cultural dilettantes, essentially strip-mining every philosophy for its easy ore of ‘spirituality’.

The West is so thirsty for spirituality that we often assume that the ancients were wise and compassionate. I beg to differ. I believe that most religious texts, from the Bible and Quran to the Bhagavad Gita enshrine some aspects of the bloodthirsty, cruel, or bigoted failings of humankind. I do love parts of these books – as lyrically-written allegory. But I don’t rely on them to tell me right from wrong, or how to use my own body.

Nor do I rely on the Dalai Lama, who may be a decent, peace-loving man, but whose consciousness, from what I can see, is still somewhat limited by ancient prejudices.

Monday, June 22, 2009

Democracy - it's scarier than you think...

How responsible are we for our country’s actions? The US government has deliberately done the following: Spied on its citizens, jailed them without benefit of council, flouted the rule of Habeas Corpus, a fundamental human right which dates all the way back to the signing of the Magna Carta in 1215, bombed and massacred civilians, overthrown peaceful, democratically-elected governments and mined the harbors of nations with which it was not at war, tortured prisoners, beaten people demonstrating peacefully, and often legally, for all manner of things, stolen land, exterminated indigenous peoples, polluted and irradiated its citizens, tested pathogens and nerve agents on prisoners, and too many other things to mention.

Currently, we are at war. Every week brings news that tens, even hundreds of civilians have died from our raids, firefights, drone attacks, bombings. The fact that the enemy often uses an essentially captive local population as human shields is often cited as the ‘reason’ such carnage has been visited upon them, as if that justifies the deaths of completely innocent men, women and children.

Yet we do nothing. By and large we did nothing while men and women were beaten in Selma, while the Bush administration kidnapped and tortured hundreds of people in black sites around the world.

And there are more tacit, implicit crimes we fail to object to with our bodies, our fortunes, our sacred honor:

The US Government spends my tax dollars on nuclear weapons that I am morally opposed to, and I go along with it, because the alternative, going to prison, is too unpalatable for me. It squanders my hard earned pay on over 1000 military installations around the world, many of which are a plague upon local peoples. From the birth defects and miscarriages in the Philippines caused by widespread pollution at Clark air force base to the theft of land, irradiation and impoverishment that our bases have visited upon hundreds of communities in places like Micronesia, America has stained other peoples with our profligate waste and heavy hand.

We are told over and over that America stands for peace, freedom, democracy. People the world over can tell you that our actions starkly contradict our words. We do not even remotely walk our talk.

Here is our government’s idea of freedom: America ostensibly wanted the Palestinians to be free and Democratic, until they freely and democratically voted in a regime that the US Government reviled. The fact that I revile Hamas too is unimportant; the people spoke. Along with Israel, America responded to Hamas’ win with an almost complete embargo, one that crippled the local economy and amounted to nothing less than collective punishment, which is prohibited under the Geneva Convention.

Being a democracy doesn’t ensure that we will be a force for good in the world. Hitler was voted in democratically. True, the Nazi’s themselves may have set the Reichstag fire, which catapulted the Nazi Party from a plurality to a majority, but subsequent elections ratified this state of affairs. The people, whether duped or not, willingly ushered in one of the darkest regimes in history. We the people can be stupid, easily manipulated, bigoted, violent, greedy.

Am I arguing against democracy? Not at all. As Winston Churchill said, it’s the worst of all political systems, except for all of the other ones.

But, we should realize that democracy, like almost any other human social construct, can and is used for both good and evil. Not only should we not feel smug about being the world’s oldest democracy, we should be alarmed at how dangerous and destructive ours is, and actively protest against the evil things it does in our name.

And sometimes that means breaking the law, through civil disobedience, just as those brave souls did in Selma so long ago.

When is that line crossable? When do we really stand up for freedom, true freedom, not some empty Neocon slogan that is an Orwellian synonym for control? When is it morally acceptable to revolt against the tyranny of the majority?

For me it boils down again to human rights. Are people’s rights being abridged? If so, we have the moral right to call people’s actions, government’s actions, into question.

In fact, we have the moral duty.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

The Dark Side of Imagination

The human ability to abstract reality has given birth to many beautiful things. What human beings have imagined: soaring cathedrals and bridges, spacecraft, ballet and jazz, they have created. But imagination’s dark side is our ability to abstract other human beings, so that manifestly irrational behaviors like the intentional bombing of civilians, the premeditated sale of tainted milk and peanuts and the dumping of toxic waste can be rationalized. Governments, corporations, and even religious figures take advantage of this aspect of imagination by utilizing useful abstractions like ‘Democracy’, ‘shareholder equity’, and ‘God’.

I’m not saying that God doesn’t exist – I’m saying that when a religious figure invokes God to incite violence or promulgate intolerance, or preach, beyond all reason that condoms make the AIDS crisis worse, they are using our abstract concept of God for their own uses. Similarly, I love democracy, but most of the wars this country has fought in the name of Democracy were in reality about money, power, and subjugation.

People too often justify whatever is done by their government, their corporation, their military unit, their church, by citing rules, regulations, books and slogans. This is how mild mannered clerks kept the trains running and the gas well stocked at Auschwitz. How Douglas McArthur justified his massacre of Bonus Army veterans during the Depression. And how General Curtis LeMay rationalized not only countenancing, but actively trying to foment World War Three with the Soviet Union.

During the height of the Cuban Missile Crisis, LeMay took unilateral, illegal steps, like sending our strategic bomber flights way past their normal turn-around points, in hopes of goading the Russian bear into war. No one questioned the sanity of their superior officer when he spoke of dropping 7000 megatons on the Soviet Union as ‘acceptable’. LeMay opined for the rest of his life that it was too bad we didn’t start World War Three while we had the chance to win it. This highly decorated general, who later ran for vice president on a ticket with George Wallace, was a sociopath; How else to describe a man capable of countenancing the death of millions of innocents as ‘collateral damage’? And LeMay literally had his finger on the nuclear trigger in those days, as there were no locks on these weapons, and the chain of command during times of heightened alert was quite ambiguous. Just think how America would be seen in the history books had he prevailed; how this butchery would have dwarfed Stalin, Mao, and all the other murderers of history combined. .

Imagination permits some people, even people with little girls of their own, to view an innocent little girl as a ‘towlhead’ who should be ‘bombed back into the stone age’, because the abstractions of war, firepower deployed via pushbutton at 30,000 feet, allow them to escape the reality of blood and carnage. Perhaps a media that resolutely insisted on showing us that carnage rather than cravenly substituting video-game like displays of weaponry would make that particular abstraction harder to sustain.

When I visited the Terezin Concentration Camp in the Czech Republic, I often wondered how the commandants, the guards, the myriad others needed to run an enterprise like that could live with themselves. How could they starve little children, only to go home to play with their own? What trick of imagination allowed them to survive such cognitive dissonance?

But could empathy be taught? Could we as a society make the teaching of empathy a priority in our schools? What would emerge if were all trained to feel what others are feeling, to retard our ability to objectify and rationalize; taught the simple primacy of human life over so-called human values? Sure, the true sociopaths – the rapists and thrill killers among us would still exist. I know we couldn’t cure them – but what if we could cure the little complicit pieces of them in all of us?

We’d have a society where men like LeMay would never get their hands anywhere near nuclear weapons, for there would be no nuclear weapons, and no one would be poisoned by greedy corporations or murdered by religious fanatics.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Real Sacred Cow (Podcast Version)

When budgets and deficits are discussed in the media, and on the floors of congress, Social Security and Medicaid are often called the ‘sacred cows’ of American politics, both by laissez-faire Conservatives, who think them a ‘Socialist’ abomination, and by Progressives, who see them as part of the safety net a humane society erects to protect its more vulnerable members.. But the real sacred cow is so sacred, it’s rarely mentioned seriously as a candidate for pruning at all.

It’s the US military budget, of course. Currently, the US military budget proper is 515 billion for fiscal 2009. Add discretionary spending, veteran’s benefits, and military programs that are under the auspices of other departments, and you’re up to over one trillion dollars per year on defense and war.

One trillion is a very hard number to get your mind around. It is bandied about almost casually these days in discussions of bailouts and wars to the point that it loses any real meaning. An American trillion is a one followed by 12 zeroes. One trillion dollars is over 3,000 dollars for every single man, woman and child in America. But that’s still too abstract. How about this: one trillion seconds ago was 31,688 years ago! 31,000 years ago we were nomadic hunter-gatherers living in caves. Agriculture was still 20,000 years in the future. Textiles, domesticated animals, pottery and metallurgy, medicine, writing, the wheel, the arch, houses – none of these existed.

Throughout history, empires from the Romans to the Spanish, Dutch, and British have all made the same mistakes. They’ve expanded rapaciously, controlling more and more territory and natural resources, often under force of arms, and then rotted from within as their treasuries went deeper and deeper into debt supporting the vast weight of their conquests.

America is certainly following the imperial paradigm to the letter. As in Rome, our infrastructure is crumbling; our educational and health care systems are no longer nearly the world’s best, based on any standard metrics from mathematical literacy to infant mortality. Our standard of living is manifestly eroding. We have military bases all over the world, from remote islands in the Pacific to Antarctica. Our military alone uses more fuel than the eighth largest country in the world, Nigeria, which has a population of over 140 million. And our military budget is greater than all other military budgets on earth… combined. Do we really think that this country can keep spending over 3,000 dollars per year for every one of our citizens and survive? That’s over 10 percent of the average adult American’s annual income!

There is a book entitled ‘addicted to war’ which details what our bloated military costs us. It also points out why this state of affairs persists decade after decade: our senators and congressmen are bought and paid for primarily by the Military-Industrial Complex, a term coined not by some left-wing radical, but by Dwight Eisenhower in his parting speech as president. In a draft, he originally called it the ‘Military-Industrial-Congressional Complex’, and his speech should be required reading in every school, as should Addicted to War, because we will not survive if we continue down the path of every empire that has preceded us.

Now, I’m not saying we don’t need a military; Far from it. There are real threats out there that must be met. Nor am I saying that our veterans don’t deserve the best possible care; they do. But I am suggesting that maybe the United States no longer needs bases in Germany, Poland and Great Britain. Maybe the European Union can figure out how to protect itself. I’m suggesting that a plane like the B2 bomber which was designed for a mission that no longer exists and costs over 2 billion per airplane is not the wisest way to spend our money. Our expensive weapons aren’t winning our military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan.

We will always need defense, and deterrence against aggression, but if we stop trying to bend the world to our will, and trade coercion for cooperation, we will see a precipitous drop in the number of enemies we face.

And we must tell our elected representatives and the media that the military budget must be cut, if we are to prosper as a nation.

Audio Version

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Monkey Business

You know, in general, I think everyone's too PC, too damn sensitive, and can't take a joke. Yet when I finally ignored the fact that Sharpton, one of the worst opportunists and demagogues of recent history, was decrying it, and looked at the Post cartoon, I had to agree: it's racist, incendiary, tone-deaf, in execrable taste, and worthy of condemnation. It's so damn obvious, I can't even call is a 'coded' racist attack. It's overt, and the subtext (assasination) only makes it even more troubling. Now, maybe the cartoonist isn't protesting too much. Maybe he's actually too stupid, or too White (as in 'I've never spent any social time at all with Black People) to see how disgustingly this plays on racial stereotypes. Maybe they're so imbedded in him that he can't even preceive them.

But that's what editorial boards are for.

No, I don't this was a mistake. It's like the mistakes on Fox, where the Republican Congressman who's trying to bed his congressional pages is labelled with a 'D' instead of an 'R' (for weeks on end). This was premeditated slander.

I hate to admit it, since I believe in free speech, and am generally in favor of puncturing PC balloons, but I agree with... Sharpton (oh that hurts!).

I'd agree with a call to boycott the Post too but.. who reads it? Mostly white, working class conservative guys who probably hate the idea of a Black President. I mean, this might improve the Post's circulation with that demographic.

So, when do we get worried? (Vol 1)

I see that the left's honeymoon with Obama is still in full swing. Despite mounting evidence that Obama is not going to be a very liberal president at all, that he is hiring some of the same guys who got us into this economic mess to fix it, that he's following that Bush administration's policies forward on excessive secrecy and on Guantanamo prisoners, everyone's cutting him a lot of slack.

Kinda reminds me of the right; You know, the guys who supported Bush no matter what he did?

Yes, I know it’s early. Yes, I know we can’t blame him for Republican partisan slash and burn tactics in Congress. But we can blame him for the company he keeps, and the policies he crafts, and for legacy policies that he upholds rather than repudiates. And we can also blame him for hypocrisy when he abrogates his own rules, citing the financial meltdown as an excuse.

Some things to ponder about the Obama administration so far:

1) In the administration’s first major test case on the rights of a Guantanamo detainee, they supported the Bush administration’s previous position.
2) Timothy Geitner was former Treasury Secretary Hank Paulson's right-hand man during the crafting of the initial, woeful T.A.R.P. plan - the one that had no real oversight at all for how the money was spent - hence, no loans, and big bonuses for execs in the bailed out companies. Geitner and Paulson are both veterans of Wall Street. Couldn't Obama have picked someone more Progressive, like Paul Krugman, or former Labor Secretary Robert Reich? Similarly, Robert Rubin, another top architect of the Obama economic plan, helped gut Citibank (while receiving a salary of over 100 million dollars annually). And Lawrence Summers, Obama's chief economic advisor, loves tax cuts and hates infrastructure. Sounds like... Bush! These people are embedded representatives of the culture of unrestrained greed and short-term gain that got us into this mess - do we really want the foxes guarding the hen house again? Don't we want people who are part of the solution, not part of the problem?
3) A recent NY Times article found the Obama economic plan to be strikingly similar to the Bush plans drawn up in November and December.
4) Obama abrogated his own promise not to hire lobbyists into his administration, citing the financial meltdown as a mitigating factor. Yes, I’m absolutely sure that there are no people outside of the power/money elite that have the skills and background to do the job.
5) A new article today indicates that the Obama administration is also perpetuating the same over-secretive tactics of the Bush administration in its dealings with congressional oversight and Media.
6) Despite the most catastrophic economic meltdown since the 1930’s, no one from the President on down through his administration has talked about our bloated, unsustainable military budget. This is the 800 pound gorilla in the room, studiously being avoided by everyone in power. It is inconceivable that this bloated budget (which includes plans for more nuclear submarines and a new generation of larger, even more expensive aircraft carriers), not be under review. One would think that the ‘most liberal member of the Senate’ might spend a little of his political capital (after all, unlike Bush, he actually did win a mandate) and put our military budget, our Imperial Achilles Heel, into the national debate about our future. Instead, all signs point to a heroin-like injection of even more capital into military projects, which will provide some short-term relief, and major withdrawal symptoms later on. This country has been on a permanent war-economy footing since 1939, and we simply can’t sustain it. Yet, the President, the Congress (and the Media, for that matter), don’t mention it, don’t bring it into the debate, into public consciousness.

So, yes, I’m officially worried. Far from being the most Liberal president in my lifetime (I guess I’d give that to Carter, who’s looking more prescient every day in some respects), Obama seems Centrist, embedded in the power elite, and towing the line for the Military-Industrial Complex.

It’s time for the left (where oh where for art thou, Move On?) to make some noise. It’s time to stop wishing, and fantasizing, and imbuing Obama with all of our hopes and dreams, and start demanding some action on the ground.

This financial crisis is actually an incredible opportunity to change this country’s direction, and to challenge some of the basic tenets of our government and economy that have been taken for granted for years. It’s an opportunity that hasn’t been seen since the early days of FDR. Unlike FDR, Obama is dealing with a much more strident and intransigent Republican faction in congress, which is more intent on bloodying him and the Democratic party than in saving working people’s lives, livelihoods, and dreams. I get that. But he is not even speaking to the real problems. He’s not even trying to inject new thinking into the old order. He’s surrounded himself with the usual Beltway/Wall Street suspects, and they’re polishing deck chairs on the Titanic. (Think I’m exaggerating? Look at the Stimulus Bill, and compare it to what FDR did; very little money for boots on the ground projects, lots to government agencies and… I can’t believe it… MORE TAX CUTS!). Yes, he needed some Republican votes. But the input from the Obama side itself had woeful little in terms of infrastructure construction and repair. The bill should have created something like the WPA and the Civilian Conservation Corps. The government could have employed hundreds of thousands of people to install solar power and water heating, windmills, for every federal building. This would have been akin to Roosevelt’s bold moves. Instead, we get incremental, timid, mostly status-quo mediocrity.

No, Obama isn’t Bush – don’t mistake what I’m saying for that. But from Geitner, Rubin etc. to his policies on secrecy and detainees, there is a whiff of ‘meet the new boss, same as the old boss’ – or at least, it’s feeling a bit more like that than ‘change we can believe in’ – I don’t see it. Same old crew, same old policies, incrementally polished up, same lobbyists like Remoras, swimming in a stream of money, sucking on the Federal carcass.

Kinda makes you pine for a real Revolution…

Monday, February 16, 2009

1300 Palestinians, 13 Israelis

When I was seven, the six-day war was raging in the Middle East. We were one of the first Jewish families in a primarily Arab neighborhood in Brooklyn. The Syrian Ambassador came to Atlantic Avenue and gave an incendiary speech. The only reason I remember it is because it terrified my mother.

Our next door neighbors, whose Americanized name was Kirshy, were Syrian. On the last night of the war, there was a knock on the door. When my mother opened it, the entire Kirshy clan, from young boys to the ancient matriarch, Nina, came in. They carried platters of food, including homemade stuffed grape leaves, made with leaves from our very own backyard grape arbor.

“Let Them Fight over there”, Nina’s eldest son Mike thundered, “here, let’s have a party.” And so we did.

This all seems so na├»ve now, because the ratio of suffering in the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians is so one-sided. One cannot simply smile and break bread here, when so many are dying there; Israel’s response to rocket attacks is so disproportionate that it seems a Goliath towering over David.

I saw Fiddler on the Roof a few years ago and was struck by the ending, where the Jews flee the pogroms and the land seizures, to go to the bright new land of Palestine. To do what, I thought? To seize land from others? To rule with an iron fist? To replicate their own suffering, with only the roles reversed?

I sometimes equate Israel to a battered child, which grows into a big, strong man, who batters his own small children. The Jewish preoccupation with the Holocaust – something that is not unique to Jews in intent, as any Rwandan or Armenian can tell you – has become a sort of moral carte blanche. We were nearly destroyed by the most highly industrialized genocide in history, and somehow, that gives us an excuse to do the inexcusable. And so, the Jewish state steals land and resources, tortures people, and practices collective punishment.

During the last 40 years, throughout every peace negotiation, Israel has continued a feverish process of land grabs and settlement building, which, to my mind, is untenable to true peace. America has made public noises about the need for this to end, but has privately winked and nodded.

But you cannot plow under a man’s house, his olive groves, where his family has farmed for 500 years, over and over, and not engender outrage.

This outrage has become darkly perverted: sweets are handed out after suicide bombings, so-called art exhibits, which are simulacra of Jewish limbs and blood flying out from explosions, are exhibited in the universities of the Arab world. The Palestinian Authority teaches school children that Jews are subhuman, and the preachers preach the same. And of course, the Muslim world as a whole finds the death of one Palestinian at the hands of the Jewish state to be far more distressing than thousands of Muslim deaths at the hands of the Islamic state of Sudan. There is no moral equivalency being practiced by anyone, and there are no clean hands in the Middle East.

So, what can we do to stop a runaway chain reaction that is inbreeding hate? Can we, as Jews, really abide the graffiti in Israel that exhorts ‘Send the Palestinians to the Crematoria’? Or do we, the American Jewish community, need to take a stand. You cannot really change the other in a relationship, only yourself. We need to change ourselves, alter our relationship to the Arab world by reasserting our relationship to our own ethical tradition of justice that stretches back over two millennia.

We should lobby our politicians to cease all financial support of Israel if one more house is planted on other people’s land. They must move back to the borders of 1967. Leave the towns and cities they’ve created intact, gifts to the Palestinians, or forfeit our support.

There is a perception that the American Jewish electorate is monolithic. It isn’t. There are many like myself who think that America’s one-sided support for Israel endangers America, Israel, and, ultimately, the Jewish people themselves. It is time we spoke up.

Audio Version Here

Thursday, February 12, 2009

Fox: red-blooded journalism for those with Iron(y) poor blood!

Fox News ‘contributor’ and NPR Political Correspondent Mara Liasson was visibly angered that Obama called on the Huffington Post’s Sam Stein at his press conference. Horrors! A blogger was called on by the President! Never mind that Sam Stein has been a MSM reporter for years, including stints with Newsweek and the NY Daily News. No, the big question on my mind for Ms. Liasson is, you work for Fox, right? The most biased, propagandistic arm of Main Stream Media, and you really wanna go there? Have you ever heard the expression about 'glass houses', darlin'?

On a related note, former press secretary and serial liar for the Bush Administration, Ari Fleischer, on O’Reilly’s show, noted with some glee that Bush ‘never called on dot.coms and other oddballs’. Yeah, he just called on a shill with a fake name, (who was also, just for flava, a male escort), whom the White House granted credentials,
without a background check
, in order to throw softball questions for the President to hit out of the park! Very professional, Ari!

And let’s not even bother with O’Reilly, one of the greatest bullies of all time, who recently wrote a book for kids which tells them that bullying is wrong. Kinda like Hitler writing a nursery school rhyme about how all life is precious.

Human beings know no shame!

Monday, February 9, 2009

Intransigence (winning at any cost, even if it means losing America)

When Rush Limbaugh said ‘I hope Obama fails’, he spoke volumes, not only about his own world-view, but that of the conservative movement in general, and when coupled with his recent op-ed piece calling for more tax cuts, he really gave us a condensed view of the conservative zeitgeist.

In what he called (apparently without irony, since Rush’s ego knows no bounds) the ‘Obama-Limbaugh Stimulus Plan of 2009’, Limbaugh projects a sort of collegial disagreement, a mere quibbling with the President over details and proportions of modalities to be used to stimulate the economy. But on his radio show, his hard-line intransigence shows that he has nothing but contempt for Obama in particular, and the Democrats in general.

The tax plan he ‘boldly’ recommends is striking not only in its lack of originality, but in its utter adherence to the obviously failed policies of the last eight years. He touts more aggressive tax cuts for individuals, notably ‘wealth’ taxes, like Capital Gains (and who has seen their capital gain, of late, Rush?), and feverishly beats farts out of the dead horse that we have ‘one of the highest corporate taxes of all industrialized nations’. Well, yes we do, on the books, but unfortunately, the corporate tax laws are so rife with loopholes that in practice, we have actually one of the lowest.

I guess one question is whether Rush believes his own propaganda (I’m of the belief that he does – witness how he views his own drug problems, which included possession of an incredible 30,000 Oxycontin pills – versus those of others, most notably inner-city minorities). I know it’s hard to believe, but somehow, I think he really believes that he can save us, and with the same discredited ideas, with the label ‘New and Improved!’ slapped on them. Infomercial political thought, Sham-Wow policy-making.

But saying he hoped Obama would fail shows the other side of the Republican coin: that of a group that has been rejected, shamed, cast out into the wilderness, that is essentially saying, ‘If you don’t play by our rules, we’re going to pick up our marbles and go home.’.

The only problem is that home is here, in the US, and it’s teetering on a cliff of another Depression, and it’s the only game in town. I know that Rush and his ilk, with their large salaries, may be out of touch with the ‘common man’ (ironically, the blue collar ‘silent majority’ types they preach to daily on the radio), but on some level, with bank failures, and all the rest, the reality of the situation must have impinged itself on their consciousness a little, no?

But whether it has or not, the logical conclusion of militant intransigence in the face of our grave situation seems to have escaped not only Rush and his imitators, but the Republican party, from John McCain to the entire Republican side of the House: If Obama fails, we fail. It’s that simple. There’s not going to be egg on the face of the Dem’s and a resounding Republican comeback in the midterms if they just dig in their feet and stage (as one Republican congressman actually said) a ‘Taliban-like insurgency’ – there will be a possibly-fatal meltdown of our entire economic system.

During the great depression, things were so bad under Hoover that Roosevelt got what he needed from Congress; in the first 100 days of his administration, they passed almost all of his proposed legislation. Not so this time. Our political culture has evolved into a zero-sum game – Democrats win, Republicans lose – at least in the minds of the hyper-partisan on both sides. This acrimonious warfare trumps common sense, and the common good. Winning or losing the battle for control trumps losing America. We can’t all win, so we will all lose. But if the Republicans insist on clinging to old implementation of old ideas, and also secretly desire the President’s downfall more than America’s resurrection, we’re doomed.

A juvenile policy predicated on Republican shadenfruede at the expense of the Democrats does not public policy make. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or a Democrat. we’ve tried it the Republican way, it hasn’t worked – except for the very wealthy. It’s time to stop bickering, stop worshipping ideology at the expense of empirical observation, and get to work fixing this country.

I am, frankly appalled at the Obama plan, and not because of the ‘tons of pork’ that everyone on the right is apoplectic about (why, oh why, were the TARP bailouts not ‘pork’? Why is Halliburton’s extortionate pricing of military logistical support not ‘pork’? – oh, never mind) No, what galls me are the tax cuts, and, most of all, the miniscule investment in infrastructure! It’s absurd how little is going to project that will put American men and women back to work!

And yet, even this pathetically watered down bill, a bill totally unequal to the task, is too ‘radical’ in Republican eyes.

And I see the next Republican idea on the horizon. I see the billionaires rubbing fingers together. The way out of this situation must be… a nice big war! I mean, after all, it got us out of the Depression, didn’t it? Never mind that common sense dictates that you cannot survive on a permanent war economy, making things that are destroyed, rather than things like bridges, hospitals, and schools. Never mind that we’re already in a war! No, the solution must be… a bigger war! Perhaps a World War!

War in congress, war on the airwaves, perhaps war with Iran, perhaps with all of Islam; war without end, amen. I think that this, plus unrestrained greed, a juvenile Rovian win-at-any-cost pranksterism and a startling lack of empathy for regular folks, is what has blackened the heart of the GOP and reduced it to a legislative prankster and thug, rather than the party of progress and courage that it once was, under men like Lincoln.

Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Demeritocracy

According to every reference book I can find, there is no antonym for the word ‘meritocracy’. That’s too bad, because that is exactly what America has become. So I suggest the rather obvious ‘demeritocracy’ as a succinct word to describe our culture’s current trend toward rewarding the foolish, greedy, reckless, negligent and dishonest.

Today I read that Kellog Brown and Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton corporation, was just awarded a new contract worth 35 million dollars to do major electrical work, right after they’ve been severely reprimanded by the Pentagon for substandard electrical work that has resulted in the accidental electrocution of at least 18 solders in Iraq and Kuwait. I saw a picture of the mother of one of these dead soldiers, a photo of her son in front of her, testifying before congress a few days ago. She looked shattered, of course, but how does she feel this morning, waking up to find out that the people guilty of at least negligent homicide are being rewarded with another juicy contract?

The question ringing insistently in my head isn’t even why KBR is being given a new contract, it’s why on earth the principals in the company aren’t up on charges!

And of course we’ve also seen corporate CEOs and Wall Street gamblers rewarded richly for gutting their companies. But what’s been most amazing is the implacable entitlement mentality these people project. And it’s not just the corporations, it’s regular citizens too. A woman spills hot coffee in her lap, sues McDonalds, and gets a hefty settlement. A burglar on a rooftop falls through a skylight and successfully sues the building’s owner. A man donates sperm to a sperm bank anonymously, and a woman sues for child support later on.

It’s gotten so bad that if you buy a Superman costume for your kid for Halloween, the label will read something like this (and I am not exaggerating): “This costume does not confer the ability to fly upon the wearer. Do not attempt to fly while wearing this costume, as this may result in injury or death”.

This is how extreme our society has become. Those guilty of electrocuting our servicemen aren’t charged, but innocent companies are sued for acts of consumer idiocy. I’m surprised that reams of paper don’t have labels emphatically warning of paper cuts, but I’m sure that’s coming.

After 9/11, I was appalled to see that the victim’s compensation fund doled out money to families based on the salaries that the victims were making (i.e. a dishwasher at Windows on the World was implicitly labeled as being less valuable than a broker at Cantor Fitzgerald, which is doubly ironic since the dishwasher may have been more useful to society than the broker). Actually, I was sort of amazed that the government was giving these victims money at all. Heinous crimes, from a bodega shooting to a terrorist attack, happen – but does the bodega owner’s family get a government bail out? No. The best they can hope for is that they had life insurance.

Which brings me to the aspect that most disgusted and amazed me about the 911 fund: When the fund was initially set up, the families of those victims who had no life insurance would get more money from the government to make up the difference. So, if you preferred to spend your salary on cocaine, or a new BMW rather than on making sure your wife and kids were protected, your estate was rewarded.

It’s time that we, as a society, started rewarding merit again, and handing out demerits, real ones, that have real consequences; Which means having life insurance if you’ve got a family, losing your bonuses if you wipe out your company, and going to jail for negligence and malfeasance. I know president Obama’s got a lot on his plate, but I hope he will institute a draconian policy regarding government contractors: if you are found guilty of fraud or negligence, no matter who you are, your company will be barred from all government contracts for five years, and you will be prosecuted to the fullest extent of the law.