Friday, November 20, 2009

Uniformed Disservice

I really was trying to avoid any further discussion of Nidal Malik Hasan on this blog. His wretchedness, and the gross irrationality of his act, really don't deserve any further comment. But – the endless ignorant claptrap about how it could have happened, and why wasn't he stopped, and so on, is getting on my nerves. Forget for a moment the politics involved – our benighted foreign policy, his reaction to it and to his absurd situation in the military, his observations of PTSD patients, and so on. These are all, as a colleague of mine used to say, “interesting, but irrelevant” to the issue at hand, which is, if this guy was a “terrorist” (or whatever) act waiting to happen, why didn't someone, or something, intervene before it actually occurred? As is typical in cases like this, everyone knows, in hindsight, that this guy was disturbed, unstable, volatile, a nut, etc. “Yes, now that you mention it, I always knew that there was something wrong with that dude, and I'm not a bit surprised that he did what he did. Yup.” Well OK then, genius, why didn't you ever bring it up to your commanding officer – or to his? Why are people and situations like this left to fester – for weeks, months, years – until something happens that is irrevocable?

Well, to paraphrase something someone once said about California, people in the Army are like everyone else, but more so. That is to say, whereas some of their quirks, eccentricities, and dysfunctions may be smoothed over by the demands of military life (the standardization, conformity, rigidity, etc.), others will only be aggravated. Because letting on that you have feelings (you know – a “chick” kind of thing, not for real men), and problems, and concerns, and “issues”, may add up to a one-way ticket to boring, dead-end assignments and early retirement (of the non-voluntary sort, that is). See, the point in the service is, if you have a less-than-optimal assignment, or some other problem, not to worry, it will be over with in a couple of years and you can move on to something that might be a lot better – so gut it out, put up with it, and count the days – and mainly, don't rock the boat, because we're all in the same boat, so the one you rock is going to dump you overboard as well. And – one way of rocking the boat is to call “command's” attention to trouble in the ranks – because, guess what, it may turn out that _you're_ the troublemaker... and that's not good. The one thing people in positions of leadership in the service are good at – masters at, in fact – is what is called “killing the messenger”. Someone comes to you with bad news... about someone, or some thing. This constitutes an immediate threat to the peace and quiet you have learned to cherish... because the way the system works is, if you don't screw up you might get promoted, or get decent assignments. Whereas a “screw-up”, even if completely not your fault, is going to place a very large turd in your punch bowl. It's like in “Home on the Range” -- “Never is heard a discouraging word.” This could be, in fact, the motto of the armed services.

So what happens when some hockey puck darkens your door with bad news? “Well gee, that's the first I've heard of it – and, are you sure?" (He might just be making it up, after all.) "And how bad is it, really? Aren't you being just a bit (hysterical, hypersensitive, paranoid, etc. -- pick one)?" ("Plus, YOU are the one who is disturbing my tranquility on this otherwise fine day... not the person you're complaining about, but YOU!”)

Understand the mind set? Job One is keeping peace in the valley – which means papering over, or ignoring, any problems, or any signs of problems, or any vague hints of problems, until... well, until you get transferred, what else! Then it's some other chump's problem! Yes, that golden day will arrive when you can leave all the troubles of this benighted place behind and march off to a new destination, and a new destiny... and someone else has to deal with all the things you've ignored or neglected. They have to pick up all the pieces you left, clean up your mess, carry out your trash, dump your garbage. But so what? You've gotten your orders, you got your rating (from a guy who is, presumably, totally ignorant of the situation, because that's what you've been working all this time to achieve – his total ignorance), and you're untouchable. So it's “so long, chumps!” and off to greener pastures.

So... given this bit of background (and I guarantee that it's all true, because I've seen it with my own eyes, time and time again), where does MAJ Hasan fit into the picture? He was clearly one of those types that always winds up on the “too hard pile” -- i.e. that stack of problems that, with any luck, is going to just sit there undisturbed until the next chump, er, supervisor comes along. Plus, let's not forget, Hasan was on his own career track – he got his promotions and transfers just like clockwork – i.e. just like everybody else, i.e. without due consideration of the problems he might be having or might eventually cause other people to have. See, there are really two ways of dealing with problem people in the service – either you get yourself transferred away from them, or you get them transferred away from you. And if the latter strategy involves an undeserved promotion, or a ginned-up performance rating, well, so be it.

I guess what I'm trying to say here is that it's not as if mechanisms aren't in place to deal with much of what was wrong with Hasan – on the contrary, there are quite elaborate mechanisms, and an elaborate infrastructure that includes personnel, facilities, regulations, forms, procedures... you name it. But it's just that, more often than not, people choose not to use them, because – again – not only is it too much trouble (also called, “detracts from the mission”) but it has a funny tendency to backfire, and to brand you, and your unit, as an attractor of problems and problem personnel. Is this fair? Of course not! It's wildly unfair, and irrational, and shortsighted; it's also almost universal. And this, in turn, is because the armed services, even though they have a clearly-defined mission, on any given day are bogged down doing things that have little or nothing to do with that mission. (This is even true "in theater", to say nothing of stateside.) And this, in turn, constitutes a demotivator, and before you know it politics and personal agendas start to creep in, the way weeds creep into an uncultivated garden. The many small irritations and frustrations lead to hostility and a generally sour, cynical attitude. Then you add the crushing burden of political correctness at all levels – and no one can outdo the armed services when it comes to mindless and dogmatic pursuit of political correctness – and the demoralization is complete. Plus, when it comes to promotions, the pyramid gets awfully narrow at the top... which means that most people are going to wind up losers, and much sooner than they would like; so this sticks in their craw as well. And what happens once they get out? The unemployment line – when the guy with 20 years in typically, by that time, has a wife and family to support? Or if not unemployment, then at least underemployment? And what about medical care? We all know what marvelous places the VA medical centers are – and that's if you're basically healthy, to say nothing of, what if you wind up in combat, and come home badly wounded? Ah yes... when you start to think about it, it just gets worse; the night comes on suddenly and without mercy. And yet, under these conditions, we expect people to go out of their way to focus on people like MAJ Hasan, who was, I'm sure, considered not much more than a sorehead, slacker, or goofball.

So yes, the Army has “met the enemy” in MAJ Hasan – and wouldn't you know, the enemy is them.

Baltic Diary III: Shoah vs. Shame

I now reach back in order to continue my meditations on Eastern Europe, the Baltic States in particular, and, in this case, Vilnius, the capital of Lithuania. This is the city that was once known as “the Jerusalem of the North” because of its large Jewish population accompanied by many centers of Jewish learning and culture. This, of course, all came to a sudden end with the occupation of the area by Germany in World War II, and now the rich Jewish cultural life of old is just a memory, with one synagogue (referred to, stoically, as The Synagogue) remaining and a Jewish State Museum which is currently housed in a barracks-like building painted what we used to call (when I worked in a county park back home) “park bench green” -- although I understand a new building is under construction. (Interestingly, the Museum of Genocide Victims is not about the Holocaust but about the Soviet occupation.) And as far as the local tourist information and the tour guides are concerned, the Jewish history of Vilnius is nothing to either be ashamed about or to overly promote; they will tell you precisely which blocks of the city constituted the ghetto (although that was not the only place Jews could settle), and then leave you to explore on your own. And the old ghetto is, in fact, quite a picturesque place, with its winding cobblestone streets, shops, cafes, and what not. If you didn't know the history it would be hard to believe that anything unpleasant had ever happened there. (I should mention that it also seems to be a favorite location for various foreign embassies.)

But here's the point. There is none of the hesitation, awkwardness, or subdued hysteria on the subject that one might observe in Germany, where the trouble really started – or, for that matter, in this country. The Holocaust swept over Lithuania like a tidal wave, and yet the people there are less apologetic about it than Americans are! And, I suppose, less worried about “reparations” -- assuming there's anyone left to demand any. (Well, there are the people at the museum, after all – and I did see one man who was clearly an Orthodox Jew; he and I were the only people in the city with facial hair.) And I suppose that what it takes for this attitude to arise is actual experience – not merely high-school history book narratives, or media with a political agenda. The Baltic States were occupied by the Germans in both world wars and by the Soviets from World War II up until 1990. They know as well as anyone that occupation is a real, solid, tangible thing; it's not just an abstraction. When you're under occupation, you don't get to do things your way; you do them the occupier's way, or else. And in the case of the Holocaust, when the occupying force has all the weapons and controls all the infrastructure, including transportation and communications, and the currency, and has first dibs on food and other resources, and you have, basically, nothing... well, it's asking a bit much for people to look back nearly 70 years later and start feeling guilty, as if they could have “done” anything. And this is not to say that there weren't partisans and underground movements operating... and, likewise, that there were not collaborators helping the process along; these elements are going to appear in any situation of this sort, as they have down through history. Yes, Hitler had his “willing executioners” just as Stalin did... but I imagine that the vast majority of the populace was just trying to stay out of the way and stay in one piece, and keep from starving. (Again, these are the usual priorities, American sentimentality and delusional idealism notwithstanding. And we only fall for those things because we have no living memory of war – as civilians – or of being under occupation.)

So what I'm saying is that the Lithuanians are unapologetic about the Holocaust – and rightly so. They don't attempt to sweep it under the rug, but they also don't spend every spare moment, as we do, shoving it in each other's faces. And history has not kept them from developing, or renewing, a healthy sense of nationalism (as opposed to the more morbid variety represented by the Nazis) accompanied by an equally unabashed assertiveness about their Catholic faith, which seems to have survived the Soviet era quite intact, as it did in Poland. They have, after all – again, unlike Americans – seen the consequences of secular humanism up close and personal, and have stayed on the road of faith instead. But they do not equate this faith – as the chic set in Western Europe and America does – with “fascism”. Nor does faith represent, as some would have it, a “middle way” between the artificial political polarities of communism and fascism; it is on an entirely different dimension. The Nazis were every bit as hostile toward the Catholic Church as the Soviets were – another fact that is almost universally ignored by contemporary “historians”. The answer to one political extreme is not to embrace its alleged opposite; it's to denounce politics altogether in favor of the eternal.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

All Sheikhed Up

It's a common source of late-night talk-show humor: the bland, and unintentionally funny, headlines that often appear in small-town newspapers. But we are in the big city, so what are we to make of a headline like this: “Conviction predicted in 9/11 case”. In other words, both President Obama and Attorney General Holder are predicting – just like Karnak – that the alleged 9/11 conspirator known as KSM, or the Shabby Sheikh, will be convicted. Or, as one of my favorite movie lines goes, “Give him a fair trial then hang him!” Obama and Holder are even “confident” that this will be the outcome, despite the unease from many quarters as to the wisdom of giving KSM a civilian trial as opposed to a military slam-dunk. Quoth Holder: “Failure is not an option.” Well... if failure is not an option, then you'd better not put him on trial, had you? I mean... the point of putting someone on trial is that we are not assuming that he is absolutely, positively guilty until all the evidence is presented... and that there is always a possibility, however remote, that he will be found innocent and, the day after his acquittal, be spotted in some Lower Manhattan watering hole in an expensive pin-striped suit, smoking cigars and sipping fine Scotch, with a blonde on each arm.

But this is impossible! It cannot be tolerated! It cannot even be allowed into one's consciousness! Well then, I say again – why put him on trial? Why not just hold him as a POW for as long as the “war on terror” lasts, i.e. for a few more centuries? That's what “W” woulda done, right? Gitmo is the best thing that ever happened to the “no controlling legal authority” crowd. It's the gray zone to end all gray zones – a kind of purgatory where we can send anyone and do anything, and no one has any basis for stopping us. Truly, an ideal situation – and here's Obama all ready to shut it down, and send its guests to Illinois, where... well, where the situation is pretty much the same, as far as that goes.

But this is to ignore the underlying theme of all the protests and complaints about having the trial within a stone's throw of Ground Zero. All good conservatives know that all good liberals think that anyone who is suspected of a crime – no matter how enormous – is more of a victim than a perpetrator. In fact – logically – the greater the criminal act, the more of a victim the perpetrator must be... by definition. (Which is why it's a miracle that Bernie Madoff has to spend even one day behind bars.) We saw this mind set in action, for example, in the O.J. case – or cases (you know, the one he won, and the one he didn't). We saw it with Michael Jackson. And don't even get me started on Mumia! So what conservatives – and New Yorkers – and Rudy Giuliani – are really worried about is that the liberals who surround Obama and will be not only surrounding, but also in charge of, the KSM trial, will figure out some way to get him off! And who could stop them? All it takes is a crack team of defense lawyers (I understand O.J.'s are available), a mush-brained judge (no problemo), and an error-prone prosecutor backed up by a few dozen members of the L.A. Police Department, and the deal is done. Wow – talk about irony. Talk about “blow back!” I don't suppose the 9/11 conspirators realized that, among other things, they were setting up a kind of acid test for just how liberal a place New York City really is. Here we have a city where the mayor would have no problem being the grand marshal of a gay rights parade... and where refusal to eat the brown M&Ms is considered a “hate crime”... but now they're confronting the spectre of many decades of mindless liberalism, much of which originated – both in theory and in practice – right on their doorstep. This is a city where “victim's rights” are put in the same class as people who bomb abortion clinics or who want art museums to quit funding scatological and blasphemous “art”. And now – an administration headed up by the most purely liberal claque since the New Dealers terrorized the land is saying, in effect, “OK, New York, time to step up and deliver.” Deliver, that is, an inevitable guilty verdict even though the trial is to be scrupulously fair and impartial (and non-racist, and non-homophobic, and... etc.).

And in fact, Holder has not shrunk from the prospect of a negative outcome: Even if a suspect were acquitted, “that doesn't mean that person would be released into our country”. Well then, what would be his status? And why don't we just put him into that status now, and avoid a lot of trouble and expense? So yes, the problem is not just one of venue, or procedure; everyone can see who's in charge, and who will be running the show – and, based on their track record, they don't like it one bit.

Send in the Clowns -- Again

Once again, the gleanings from a mere few days' news make us stand back in awe and ask, “How could things possibly have gotten this bad?” Some examples will, I hope, suffice:

1. President Obama completed his GrovelTour 2009, begging China not to lose faith in the U.S. economy – which they own a very large share of – just because his programs, if fully implemented as he intends, will spell bankruptcy for generations to come, not to mention catastrophic devaluation of the dollar. China's loan-sharking has paid off handsomely so far – not only in the actual “return on investment” sense but in that it has permanently shut us up about “human rights” issues over there (despite Obama's token mewping on the subject). Frankly, I'm still waiting for China to cash in on our debt by taking over Taiwan... but maybe that has to wait until things get even worse. (Or better, depending on your point of view. China's GNP per capita is probably closing in on Taiwan's even as we speak... which makes me think that the day will come when they will no longer be interested in Chiang's stronghold, since it will by then constitute a net liability.) But in any case – and as the news article plaintively says – Obama is “keenly aware of the limits of his administration's leverage over [China]”. “Limits?” Does the word “none” work for you? It is hard to imagine anything China could do at this point that would lead to sanctions by us that would have any punitive or behavior-changing impact. Oh, I suppose we could threaten to devalue our currency more rapidly than we are now... or repudiate all of our debts, or something like that... but that would be to forget that China holds a lot more cards on the world scene at this point than we do. What happens, for instance, if we do one or both of those things and then China promptly turns around and arms its Near Eastern allies for a final assault on Israel – which would be left relatively defenseless (except for all those nukes)? Yes, that inscrutable Oriental patience that we have been warned about is finally paying off for China – a full generation after the madness of the Cultural Revolution. And even that may eventually be seen as a stroke of genius on Mao's part, since it eliminated virtually all of the surplus, unsupportable population from China and thus set the stage for its current prosperity, exponential growth, and dominance on the world scene. Mao had the courage to destroy everything and start anew – which is more than one can say even of the Soviets. That's a degree of radicalism that even Obama must shy away from – and yet the results are plain to see, and they aren't at all encouraging if one is president at this point in history.

2. A small town in Illinois is falling all over itself in an eager bid to be the new home for the Guantanamo prisoners – apparently not worried that they will get loose and declare jihad on the folks down at the local burger joint. In this, they differ from many other places which, when offered the opportunity, sniffed and turned the other way. Plus, the place is in Illinois – Obama's home turf – which makes me think that they're a shoo-in for the job. Actually, given what Illinoians (Illini? What are they called, anyway?) have to put up with on a daily basis, between gangsters and politicians (assuming there's even a difference), the addition of a few terrorists to the mix will hardly be noticed; who knows, it might add a welcome new flavor to the otherwise same old septic tank.

3. It seems that one of the major players in the child sexual abuse witch hunts of the 1980s – a California district attorney named Ed Jagels – is about to retire. Now, here's a guy who, for years, made a good living bringing innocent people up on fantastic charges and, in many cases, getting them convicted and sentenced to years in prison. And, as it turns out, when those cases were appealed the finding in many instances was that the charges had been totally bogus, the witnesses had been coerced, and the whole business had been nothing but mass hysteria. And yet, notice, this guy was never impeached, or removed; he was kept on the job for all these years. I would say that this, more than anything else, testifies as to a profound evil at the heart of not only our criminal justice system, but our society. And history has a perverse -- if that is the word -- way of associating any given nation, or culture, with its most violent and bizarre productions: Whenever anyone mentions “the Puritans”, or “Salem”, for example, the first thing we think of is the witch trials. "Romania" equals Dracula; "Mongolia" equals Genghis Khan, and so on. (What am I talking about? "Germany" equals Hitler, even unto this day.) I can easily imagine that, centuries from now, when the topic of criminal justice in America in the 20th Century comes up, these abominations and those responsible – and very little else – will come to mind.

4. But getting back to the limits of American power – now we have the spectacle of Hillary Clinton threatening to withhold funds from the Afghan government if it doesn't “do something” about corruption and increase “accountability”. Can't you just see Hamid Karzai saying to his cronies, “Oooo, I am _so_ scared!”, and then they fall off their silk cushions laughing. You know... Hillary, whatever her myriad faults, is nobody's fool. She knows as well as anyone that what we call “foreign aid” is just thinly-disguised bribes, designed to make friends by helping those in power stay in power. Oh sure, they'll give lip service to “humanitarian aid” now and then... as will we, just to keep the American voters duped. But supporting regimes, no matter how corrupt, is the real agenda: For every “care” package you're going to get a few dozen RPG launchers. But... given how hopeless the situation in Afghanistan is, I suppose we have to pretend, once in a while, to “get tough” -- but everyone knows the aid is just going to keep coming, and nothing will change. This is because, to put it plainly, we need them more than they need us. And this, in turn, is because our pursuit of al Qaeda and the Taliban is starting to look like Captain Ahab's pursuit of Moby Dick... and nothing will get us out of Afghanistan, or South Asia in general, short of the complete annihilation of both... and since that is impossible, we are fated to remain in South Asia until we are thrown out bodily. And so a primary motive for our bribery fund is simply to insure that at least the warlord in power at present doesn't take it into his head to throw us out. And if he gets toppled, we then have to bribe someone new for the same reason, et cetera – Vietnam all over again, as usual. Now, of course, if we're tossed out by the Taliban itself, the way we were tossed out of Vietnam by the Viet Cong, that's a different story; at least that way no one say we didn't try.

5. And yet it makes sense in a weird kind of way – this “good cop, bad cop” combo that Obama and Hillary have some up with. (And where is Joe Biden in all of this? Isn't the VP usually the “bad cop”? Just asking... ) It's kind of like coaching a football team – you send the right players in to do a given job in a given situation. When the situation calls for groveling, you send in Obama; when it calls for screeching and fist-waving, you send in Hillary. Makes perfect sense – even if it also makes the rest of the world think we're a bunch of idiots.

6. And here's a tidbit. In an article about people who have been dubbed “e-patients” because they use the Internet to obtain medical information, it was mentioned that the AMA “would not comment on the topic”. Yeah – they can see what happens to monopolies as the result of the Internet. Look at what happened to the “Big 3” TV networks. Look at what happened to retail stores. The Internet has, as another recent article put it, “ruined everything” -- for those used to doing business the old way, that is. Which means, basically, fat and lazy providers of goods and services who had a monopoly for so long that they forgot how to compete. Now, how long has the AMA had a government-granted monopoly on medical care? About as long as Ma Bell had a monopoly on phone service... or the Big 3 automakers on cars. As far as these people are concerned, the Internet is a Frankenstein monster that has snapped its chains, and is stalking the countryside spreading death and destruction everywhere it goes. For plain, ordinary Americans, on the other hand... as the article says, “e” also stands for “equipped, enabled, empowered, and engaged” -- and those are the things monopolists everywhere – in business, medicine, politics, education, and so on – fear the most.

7. And the “no duh!” headline of the week has to be this one: “Morale erodes in Afghan war; Army says spirits improving in Iraq.” You think this is way too obvious to merit a headline? But just a few months ago they were writing about how bored the troops in Iraq were, and how they longed to be transferred to Afghanistan so they could see some “action”. Well... now they are being transferred, and they are seeing some action, but apparently they're still dissatisfied. There's just no pleasing these people! I guess, if you subscribe to my “meaningfulness” theory of how to avoid post-traumatic stress disorder, the troops in Iraq figured fighting in Afghanistan would be more inspiring, since Afghanistan had much more direct involvement in the 9-11 attacks (Iraq having had none at all). But once there, and once more confronted with the absurdities of the way we wage war, they longed for the relative peace and quiet of Baghdad. Going back to my theory – it isn't simply a matter of whether the cause is just (or perceived that way); it's also a matter of how the war is fought. The troops aren't stupid; this is something our leadership seems to miss. They can smell ill-defined goals a mile off, along with fragmented strategies and every sort of unanticipated consequence. They can see that we cause much more death and destruction among the local populace than we prevent -- and they can see that the people, by and large, hate our guts. They can also see, plain as day, that the “leaders” we tend to support and fight – and die – for are typically the lowest scumbags around. The troops in Vietnam had these problems, and those in Iraq and Afghanistan have them as well. Any wonder so many of them voted for Ron Paul in the primaries?

8. So why would a smart guy like Bill Gates throw tens of millions of dollars down a rat hole called “the public school system”? Just goes to show you that a person can be really smart in some ways, but really dumb in others. I think we can all agree that the public schools have long since passed the “mend it, don't end it” stage; what we need now is some “creative destruction”. I mean – even in the midst of all the rejoicing, high-fiving, and conga-lining over the Bill and What's-Her-Name Gates Foundation's grant to the Pittsburgh public schools, a cautionary note has been sounded: All of the really important, far-reaching provisions will be subject to approval by the teachers' unions. Which is kind of like saying that all new Israeli settlements on the West Bank will be subject to approval by al Qaeda. Hey, folks, wake up! The unions are going to kill this thing. I mean, they won't kill the enormous inflow of money, but they will most assuredly kill any linking of the funds to teacher performance, however defined. Or – they will appear to bite the bullet on the performance issue, but when it comes down to real-life implementation, it will turn out that the standards are so vague and mushy that everyone gets an A+. Hey – say what you like, the teachers' unions may number much dead wood among their members, but tactically speaking, they are absolutely brilliant. They share with other government workers the ability to lock horns with any “reform” and turn it into a pathetic, toothless bureaucratic enterprise. So... as usual, Bill's money gets dispersed among rabble, and no tangible result is to be seen. Sheesh... can't he just build a place like San Simeon? At least that's a tourist attraction.

9. Well, who'd-a-thunk it? It seems that there are a few Republicans who are willing to show some cojones after all. At a Senate session honoring Robert Byrd for having been the longest-serving member of Congress (a distinction which, I would say, betrays definite felonious tendencies) it turns out that “not a single Republican was present until the final standing ovation, when Sen. Orrin Hatch of Utah strode in to join in the salute.” Well... Orrin Hatch hardly counts; the significant thing is that all the other Republicans in the Senate boycotted the love-in for the ossified-in-mind-and-body Emperor for Life of West Virginia. And Byrd is supposedly, among his countless other accomplishments, a “touchstone for constitutional values”. I'm not sure what that means, unless “promoting the general welfare” means turning West Virginia into an Indian reservation for white people. Only Israel beats West Virginia in the taxpayer dollars per capita they receive. And no Democrat in our time – and precious few Republicans – can claim to have anything but contempt for the Constitution. What amazes me is how quickly the Senate recovered from having canonized Ted Kennedy. Apparently there are some things that really can get done in an expeditious manner in the “upper chamber” -- like fawning and drooling over its own senior citizens, without whom the country would have been way better off.

10. In the top of today's state, i.e. Pennsylvania, news is the revelation that over $12 million in economic stimulus money was received by non-existent congressional districts. But yet, those non-existent districts managed to "save or create" 32 jobs with that money -- which works out to... let's see... nearly $400,000 per job saved or created. Wow -- now I guess we know where retired teachers' union officials retire to: Non-existent congressional districts.

11. And finally – what is it with these casino tour buses, anyway? Another one rolled over in Minnesota yesterday, killing two people and injuring many more. And this was not one of those “red-eye” deals with an overworked, sleepy driver at the wheel; it happened in the middle of the afternoon. Is someone up there trying to tell us something about gambling?

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

A Meditation on Freedom

What passes for a dull news day in these times is a day on which there is not a single new crisis which threatens to exterminate all life on earth, and/or trash the U.S. economy. Truly, the bar has been raised mightily for what it takes to consider an event “important”. But at the same time, the news is full of bland, predictable “filler” that, like the soap operas, does not change appreciably from one month to the next. The custom of establishing “standing headlines”, i.e. ones that can be reused time and time again, has been firmly in place for years. And we see that even trivial, random ups and downs in the stock market can set off reams of newsprint and endless “analysis”. It seems to me that, where the Dow is concerned, any change less than 1% on any given day has to fall under the heading of “random fluctuation”. And yet to hear the analysts talk about it, anything greater than five points – that's .05 percent – merits deep rumination. (And you'll notice, the Dow never just goes up or down any more -- it either "soars" or "plummets".) And the interesting thing about the Dow, for example, is that there's no more of a reason for it to be above 10,000 today than there was for it to be below 8,000 a few months ago. Try and find the cause-effect relationships; there aren't any! The economy is every bit as fragile and crisis-prone as it was then... doomsday for the national debt and entitlement programs approaches as rapidly as ever... the dollar is under attack from places like India (!)... the balance of payments issue remains untouched... and wealth-hemorrhaging wars rage on. And yet the Dow is back above 10,000. What's going on here? One would almost think that market indicators like the Dow had very little to do with the economic health of any one country – the United States, for instance. And if you suspect that this is the case, you're right. There is, basically, only one market, and that is the world market – nationally- and regionally-based markets are only subdivisions, their names holdovers from a time when nations still had economic integrity. Today's empires, unlike those of Alexander, the Romans, the Mongol Horde, et al, are entirely based on international finance – and, as such, are based, geographically speaking, everywhere and nowhere. Oh sure, we can point to Brussels and Luxembourg and Switzerland... but if those places disappeared tomorrow, the global financial power structure would live on. It's like The Blob – it just keeps getting bigger, and if you try and fight it, it only gets bigger faster. And besides, it lives, by and large, largely in electronic form, which makes it harder than ever to comprehend and even harder to catch in the act of any of the countless machinations it must perform on a daily basis in order to maintain its power. Now granted, there are, undoubtedly, somewhere in the world, “Scrooge McDuck money bins” full of gold, other precious metals, and precious stones... and maybe art, stamps, rare wines, and coins as well. These are the most basic holders of value, and have proven reliable for eons -- compared to which, what we fancifully call "money" or "currency" is no more than a will-o-the-wisp. But the everyday manipulations – the incremental accumulation of wealth – its inevitable falling toward the center of gravity of the financial universe... these are done, by and large, through the magic of electrons. The powers that be know that national currencies are worthless (except maybe for Switzerland's), but they also know that most people do not know this -- so currency remains the medium of exchange for the ongoing world-wide scam of redistributing wealth from the ignorant to the wise. (And the stock markets of the world are simply the public face of the currency scams -- they are where the sheep go to get sheared, in other words.)

But then the question inevitably arises, “So what?” In other words, can't the common man – the average schmuck – go on about his life of quiet desperation, ignoring the battles that rage among the pachyderms? And the answer is yes, of course – the masses of humanity always have the advantage of being... the masses. There are just too damn many of us for The Power to keep track of at every moment, day and night, everywhere in the world – although, heaven knows, they try hard enough with con games like the Patriot Act. But then the question arises, are we really that much worse off under The Regime than we would be if we ran wild and free like the mountain gorilla? In other words, if the world had no power structure... if the only “power” in the world was that of local tribal chiefs, for instance... would we really be that much better off? And I think that the answer is – maybe not, but at least we wouldn't be slaves. Because the way things are set up now, we _are_ slaves, although we are much fatter and (we think) happier than most slaves down through history.

See, this is what the Ron Paul campaign was really about – and why it attracted a few fervid believers, and failed to attract the vast majority of willing serfs. Beyond a certain point, “liberty” becomes – for most people -- an abstraction, because they are simply uninterested in whatever true human liberty means, or has to offer. Offer a fat house cat a chance to go wandering through the jungle – chances are he'll come to the door and take a few sniffs, and decide it's not for him. And who can blame him, since cradle-to-grave “security” is all he knows? See, libertarians, and Objectivists (of the Ayn Rand type) always assume that unfettered liberty... freedom, whatever... is man's highest goal and aspiration, and that anything less is a betrayal of human nature and a compromise with the forces of collectivism, statism, evil, etc. But what if it turns out that a huge part of human nature is the desire to sit on one's ass and let someone else do all the work? What then? Can this possibly be some sort of mutation in the human genome that has opportunistically bubbled to the surface with a vengeance in this age of socialism, collectivism, and welfare? If you go by the results of the 2008 election, the dominant species among the voters seems to be the one that wants ever more government power and control over their lives – or at least over the lives of everyone else. They may want, or enjoy, a few meagre crumbs of liberty with which to pursue their own agenda... but as to granting it to everyone, why, that's far too risky. It's easier to give up unused freedoms oneself than to retain them and take the risk that everyone else is retaining theirs as well. See, this is the basic point – people are afraid of freedom for themselves, but they are absolutely terrified of it for others... so the “compromise” is to give up their own in order to maintain “law and order” (or whatever it's called by liberals). So the world sinks into increasing blandness, and very few people see the difference, or care. And those lone voices crying in the wilderness – like the ex-Ron Paul campaigners – remain alone, and in the wilderness, because they really and truly do care about ideas – ideas that are mere abstractions, and therefore irrelevant, for everybody else. They care about freedom so much, for instance, that they are even willing to grant freedoms to others than they themselves are not all that interested in, or are unlikely to ever use. But do they consider this a sacrifice? No, because they are willing to grant unto others the same legitimacy as individuals – as created beings – that they grant unto themselves. Whereas for liberals, there is, ultimately, a sense of solipsism: I am all that exists, everyone else is mere wallpaper. (This is somewhat, but not a lot, better than the psychopath's basic premise that he is all that exists, and everyone else is just there for his amusement.) For a typical liberal, any “right” that he does not value should not be granted to others, because they are wrong to value it. Thus, he imposes his value system on the world. A genuine respect for “diversity” would involve valuing the right of others to value things that one does not value. Got that? But that is not what liberals mean when they talk about “diversity”. What they mean is, it's OK to act out some superficial, folksy “differences” as long as, on the core level, we all believe the same thing and all vote the same way. So the “diverse” world for a liberal is like a bunch of kindergarteners all dressed up for Halloween – under those colorful costumes we're all the same, and that's as it should be. Whereas people interested in true liberty are perfectly willing to accept a world in which, under those colorful costumes, we really _are_ extremely different, and no amount of “foreign aid” or empire building is going to change that. It's the liberal attitude that welcomes people into the U.S. without regard for their racial, ethnic, and cultural attitudes – no matter how much violence and hostility are contained therein – because, as we all know, those things are mere illusions... only skin deep... and the moment our “new Americans” gaze upon the benign countenance of Obama, they will become loyal subscribers to the New American Utopia, and all will be well. Well, OK then, so explain, if you please, characters like Nidal Malik Hasan. Oh, but – they'll say – he was only an aberration. Not true! Not if you accept that his attitudes, and the actions he took based on them, are shared by millions of Moslems the world over.

When we were fighting the Germans and Japanese in World War II, it was remarked how much better our POWs were treated by the Germans than by the Japanese. This was simply the sign of a very different, very alien, culture. We had a similar experience with the North Koreans and the Viet Cong. Does this make them less than human? No – it just makes them humans of a vastly different stripe... and we have yet to effectively deal with that fact in our dealings with other nations and cultures. We assume that because every country on earth sends representatives to the United Nations, and they all dress decently and know how to use the bathroom, we are all pretty much the same – which really means that everyone on earth is like an American, or could be if they would just make a few trivial changes in their life style. And it doesn't seem to matter how often this premise is proven wrong, it continues to dominate our foreign policy and dealings with other racial, ethnic, and cultural groups, including our own “minorities”. No – underneath those colorful native costumes, people are still different, and no matter how deep you dig and probe, they stay different. Thousands of anthropologists have made a career of studying this phenomenon. Of course, all human beings have the same basic organic needs – air, water, food, and what not. They tend to form families, and villages, and tribes. They tend to develop division of labor. They tend to develop agriculture and technology on some level. But deep in that mysterious core of the human psyche – where the religious impulse is born, as well as its alternatives (philosophy, ethics, politics, global warming, etc.) -- there are vast and profound differences in both metaphysics (how does the world work?) and epistemology (how do we know?). And the vainglorious thing about America – as about all empires – is that we care little, if at all, for these differences, assuming that with enough silver crossing enough palms, and enough bombing, we can bend the world to our will while completely ignoring anything that makes the rest of humanity tick. And again, this premise has proven wrong time and time again, but we continue to base our entire foreign (and much of our domestic) policy on it, because... why? Because we are, in fact, so insecure about our own world view and view of ourselves? Because if that were ever questioned, the entire edifice might come tumbling down? And if this is the case, why is our self image anchored to something so ephemeral... so arbitrary... so false? Is it because America is a nation – perhaps the first and only nation to date – founded on ideas, rather than the much more solid and reliable factors of race, ethnicity, and faith? Is it possible that those ideas, which seemed to serve us so well in the early years, have been played out, and are now more of a burden than an asset? When one contrasts our ideas, or ideals, with debacles like the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as with our ongoing and daily-compounding economic and social crises at home, it is tempting to think that they were all a terrible mistake from the beginning – that mere secular concepts cannot make up for the older, more traditional bases for social organizations. In a sense, it's like what happens when one substitutes “ethics” for morality – it works for a while, provided it has internal consistency and obvious means of application. But eventually we find that mere “ethics” has no heart, and no soul. Likewise, we are now finding out that an ideational, propositional basis for a society – and a nation – served about as well as could be imagined, but now that we have gotten “up close and personal” with the rest of the world, and all of its troublesome real diversity, we are finding that those things only go so far, and that they ultimately lack legitimacy where much of the world is concerned (and don't their opinions count, after all?)... and that what we have always considered the moral high ground, on which we firmly stand, is made up of the same clay, sand, and muck as everyone else's point of view, so they are no longer (assuming they were ever) awed by our moral superiority. So we go into battle, and continue to fight it out on the world stage, as equals... to everyone else, even if in our delusions we still consider ourselves superior. The crown on our head is, in fact, only in our head – the rest of the world doesn't see it. Wouldn't life be easier if we just, once and for all, admitted this fact and took a huge dose of humility... and tossed out that boxcar full of hubris?

The Unvanquished, Part 3: After the Storm

I have a few more things to say about the South before moving on. And of course the “issue” sans pareil when it comes to any discussion of North and South – whether historical or current – is that of race. And the convenient fiction – the tale told by the victors, if you will – is that, whereas integration, voting rights, civil rights, affirmative action, and so on were embraced with open arms in the North, they were fought with demonic and atavistic viciousness in the South. That's one stereotype. And the other is that there are countless lingering traces of racism, both institutional and everyday, in the South, whereas the tide of liberation washed over the Northern regions, sweeping all before it and leaving not a trace of non-enlightenment.

But of course real history always turns out to be more complicated, and more subtle, than the tale told by the victors, which is by nature fraught with stereotype, not to mention justifications after the fact. Everyone on the “coasts”, for example, knows full well that, if you give the South its way and lift the boot of civil rights enforcement from its neck, it will revert, in the twinkling of an eye, to the antebellum pastorale of cruel overseers whuppin' slaves in the cotton field while the “massa” lounges on his whitewashed, columned porch and sips mint juleps. I mean, isn't this basically what the likes of Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton say every time someone suggests doing away with affirmative action and quotas? We're going to turn the clock back decades, and all the “progress” that has been made in the meantime will have been for naught!

Now, there is no doubt that the South of old was a highly stratified society... as is the South of today, and the North of today, and virtually any other place of today or down through history. If the poor will always be with us, then so will social class and status, and stratification. This seems to be one of those things that is hard-wired into human nature (as it is for many animal species – and, after all, our Darwinists always claim that we're no different from other animals, so I don't see what their problem is). And it is notorious that, even after the Civil War and up until recently, the best-educated black man in the South was still on a lower rung, status-wise, than the most abject knuckle-dragging white trash. But it would be more germane to point out that, in today's South, blacks and whites have separate and distinct social class structures that are fairly rigidly adhered to, within each respective race. Things only get confusing when you're talking about a “mixed” marriage, or a “mixed” household – and, not surprisingly, people in those situations tend to gravitate to large cities, where they can either hide in the anonymity of the masses or live out in the open, provided they're in the “artsy” part of town. (This, of course, is no different than the situation in the North. Try having a mixed marriage in some small town in the Alleghenies and see how far you get.)

But there's another factor at work here as well. Blacks and whites have been living together – intimately, if you will – for many generations in the South, going back to way before the Civil War. All it takes is reading a bit of Faulkner to bring this point home. Blacks and whites were not equal... but they weren't separate either, except for formal institutions like schools and some (but not all) churches. When you have a “master” class and a “servant” class, they're hardly likely to live in separate enclaves miles apart. Black and white babies nursed at the same breast... and the inextricable bond simply extended itself from that point to a lifetime. Whereas, it's a truism (but true nonetheless) that the vast bulk of the civil rights “workers” who invaded the South in the 1960s were white, urban, and had never had a single black person living under the same roof, or black friends, and their fathers did not have any black employees or, still less, black business associates. In other words, you had people who had grown up in a totally segregated environment preaching the merits of desegregation to people who grown up in a totally non-segregated environment -- “non-segregated” by Southern standards, that is. Blacks and whites in the South had, in other words, a working relationship – a symbiosis – which had its “social” (not to mention psychological) aspects – but they did not “socialize”. So there was a bond there which the civil rights movement and its ancillary features – affirmative action, quotas, “black power”, etc. -- served to break. Or, at the very least, the bond had to be re-defined and re-formed in a way that was satisfactory to all concerned (and not just to one race)... and was also satisfactory to the occupying forces, i.e. the Northern/Yankee power structure's agents and enforcers who had their sights trained on the South (and continue to have to this day).

And yet, out of the ruins new bonds were indeed formed... and part of the reason, I'm sure, was that people hardly had a choice. The South is still a profoundly biracial region – and, unlike the North, there are not vast tracts that are either all white or all black. Each race is larded through the tissues and sinews of the other – and, in fact, it's that reconfigured symbiosis that enables the South to still work... and, in some cases, to work better than in the past.

Now, this is not to deny the persistence of economic inequalities, as well as inequalities in education, training, and so on. It is also not to deny the existence of black vs. white neighborhoods, parts of town, etc. (we tend to forget that segregation can also be voluntary). But what I saw down there recently – and, I admit, it was in a fairly small town that I saw it – was, at least relative to the North, a kind of ease – a relaxation or naturalness, if you will. The tide of federally-enforced integration and civil rights washed over the region, like a Mississippi spring flood of old, but what was left was far from a ruin. And what I definitely did not see was any of the strained, awkward, contrived interactions between the races that one encounters every day in the more “enlightened” cities of the North – with the all-too-familiar nervousness and pasted-on smiles that accompany them. Whites in the North suffer from “the paralysis of analysis” when it comes to interacting with blacks -- “If I'm too friendly they'll think I'm faking it, or patronizing them. But if I'm not friendly enough they'll think I'm one of those people who resent all the progress blacks have made.” And so on. And how do you joke with a person of the “other” race? (Especially if they're also of the "other" gender?) How do you avoid all those taboo “code words” -- you know, that list that the Jackson/Sharpton crowd keeps adding more to each day? And how do you discuss crime, and cities, and drugs, and... well, just about anything? How do you discuss sports or music without implying that blacks might have “rhythm” -- which is, for some reason, considered racist? So Northerners at the racial interface are reduced to conversations of a level of blandness and insipidity that would do justice to a Mormon cooking show on PBS. And all because, in the North, blacks and whites never lived in close contact and still don't. In other words, they had no baseline, and had to dream it up from scratch – whereas in the South, whatever accommodation was made to the new order had to be made quickly, and it had to work, or the whole structure would fall in a heap.

I hope you can see that I'm trying to paint a picture of multiple ironies here. The North forced its world view when it comes to race on the South – but what part of the country has the most racial strife, the most hopelessly anarchistic inner cities, the most intractably segregated (but legally, mind) schools? What part of the country spends vast amounts of time, energy, and wealth trying to “solve” racial problems, to no avail? Where do the race hustlers tend to operate? (And where do they live?) And where are relationships between the races the most strained, awkward, and artificial? If you guessed, north of the Mason-Dixon line, in the victorious Union, you'd be right. Whereas in the South, there is – at least in the places I visited – an almost eerie tranquility... and I don't think it's because the blacks down there “know their place” and still live under oppression and threats. I think it's because everyone down there – not only whites – was forced, starting back in the 1960s, to play by a new set of rules – a set every bit as radical as the set imposed by the victors after the Civil War. And they rose to the challenge because they were determined to salvage the best from their land and their culture – and what they came up with seems to work. Not only does it seem to work, but it would make a good example for the North if people up here were not so blinded by the chronic dysfunctions of race and the interface between races. The South turned defeat (in the Civil War and 100 years later as well) into a kind of victory... whereas the North, when it came to race, did the opposite. The South started out with a biracial culture and turned it into a different kind of biracial culture... whereas the North acquired a biracial culture and has yet to develop the slightest clue as to how to manage it. Thus, the ironies of history, and the idea that it may be too early to declare victory even 100 years after the last bullet is fired.

Sunday, November 15, 2009

He Had to Serve Somebody

Pat Buchanan has it right, as usual – while the rest of the commentariat gyrates around in a spasm of confusion and hysteria, hobbled – as usual – by the dictates of political correctness. How many hours did it take for the first brave soul in the media to even dare point out that Nidal Malik Hasan has a somewhat Arabic sounding name? And this was after every other explanation for why he started slinging lead down at Ft. Hood had proven way too thin. As Buchanan calmly points out, Hasan is a U.S. Army officer and a Moslem Arab – a difficult combination to hold together in this day and age, especially when our own military's “contractors” -- AKA mercenaries – openly admit that (at least in their point of view) we are waging a war on Islam. For Hasan, the prospect of being sent into a battle zone to fight against his co-religionists was intolerable; what he chose to do about it is, of course, another matter. But this sort of conflict seems so rare and inexplicable in our time that it bears further scrutiny. Why, for example, was there so little resistance on the part of German-Americans to enlist during World War I (despite the paranoid fears of the WASPs who got us into the war)? And why did it turn out that many Japanese-Americans – even those with relatives interred in the detention camps – were perfectly willing to fight Japan in World War II? Those actions seem to typify the ideals of a propositionally-based society vs. one that is rooted in race, ethnicity, or religion. And it's true, I have always suspected that people who immigrated to the U.S. from other countries did so for a reason – i.e. that their actions were neither whimsical nor arbitrary. German immigrants preferred the U.S. to Germany – for whatever reason. And ditto Japanese immigrants. Why is this always so hard for people to grasp? As sentimental as a given group might be about their country of origin, they had no problem bailing out when the time came... and, in most cases, pledging unconditional loyalty to their new country. And when it came time to fight, they knew they were not fighting their own people so much as a regime. And while it is true that most refugees over the eons have been of the economic sort – beginning perhaps with the Sons of Jacob – this country was also settled by people fleeing political strife, religious persecution, and – yes – long prison sentences. America is still, to much of the world, the Gold Mountain... although that gold has tarnished a bit of late, so much so that even the invasion from Latin America has subsided a bit. At the same time, however, some immigrants have turned out to be “more equal than others”, as witness the early discrimination against the Irish as opposed to, e.g., the Germans, Italians, Poles, etc. Furthermore, most immigration into the U.S. from places other than East Asia has, up until recently, been at-least-nominal Christians immigrating into a nominally Christian country.

And herein lies the key to Hasan's dilemma. His parents may have been seeking “a better life”, i.e. economic opportunity, in the U.S., but they, by and large, left their co-religionists behind. The far-flung Moslem enclaves of the U.S. don't really make up for the rich and intense experience of living in a place where the entire culture is grounded in one's own faith – especially including Palestine, where that faith is very much under attack from without (as opposed to intra-faith feuds within, as in Iraq). So conditions were ripe for a much more conflicted situation than was ever experienced by the Germans, Japanese, and others. (One could ask, why don't the East Asians have the same problem, and I suspect it's because their religions don't make the same kinds of demands on them that the monotheistic religions make on their adherents – but that is definitely a discussion for another day.)

But was – is – Hasan a terrorist? Buchanan doesn't call him that. Was his attack irrational? Certainly, to the extent that, in doing what he did, he was punishing all the wrong people. The “troops” at Ft. Hood were simply doing what soldiers have always done down through history – following orders. Were any German enlisted personnel tried at Nuremberg? Not that I'm aware. There is a certain wisdom – call it resignation if you will – when it comes to assigning blame for war and even for its more heinous acts... despite the fine propaganda piece “The Universal Soldier” crooned by Buffy Sainte-Marie during the Vietnam conflict. And this is not to say that soldiers leave their free will and Natural Law at the door of the MEPS (Military Entrance Processing Station) when they enlist – and we do see, often enough, prosecution of enlisted personnel for “atrocities”... not only our own but, thanks to the “Nazi hunters”, a bunch of old guys in wheel chairs toting oxygen tanks. But the blame for wars, most of which are, arguably, unnecessary, clearly resides -- at least in our time -- with civilian leaders and politicians, “policy makers”, and – in the next circle out – arms makers and war-mongering media, much more than in the poor schmucks who find themselves caught up in them. So, again, Hasan was definitely dealing with the wrong end of the spectrum – picking on the low-hanging fruit, if you will, because there are more of them and they are much easier to get at. So in his confused mind, the troops at Ft. Hood were America, and they were the cause of all the woes of his people (based, of course, on the premise that Israeli "domestic policy" and American "foreign policy" are one and the same -- which is pretty obviously the case).

Buchanan regrets that “tens of millions have come [to America] whose first loyalty is to the kinfolk and country they left behind and to the faith they carry in their hearts.” The key term here is “first” loyalty – since we can hardly expect immigrants, or sons of immigrants, to turn totally against their racial, ethnic, and cultural roots. But what I'm trying to say is that the situation is different – if not unique – among Moslems, firstly because they preach, and believe in, a doctrine of exceptionalism and exclusivity that rivals anything the Christians or Jews have ever come up with, and secondly because they are, still, strangers in a strange land. And the more devout the Moslem, the more conflicted he will become; that certainly makes sense. Hasan was not only on an “officer track” in the Army, he was also on a “true believer track” in Islam – and the two were certain to clash at some point. The sensible thing for him to have done, of course, would be to simply resign his commission and take the consequences – which might have included having to repay the taxpayers for his medical education. Well, fair enough – it should have been a worthy sacrifice if he had passed the point of no return in his beliefs. So we have to add in the possibility that he was a bit unbalanced in his thinking, which implies that he was unbalanced, period. This is not to excuse his act one iota, merely to call into question his discernment... and I think we can fairly expect Moslems to exercise as much discernment in issues of peace and war as other Americans – especially if they are already wearing the uniform.

Well, Hasan is already, in a sense, “history” -- he will stay behind bars for the rest of his (now crippled) life, as will the 9-11 “suspects” whose day in court fast approaches; the system will see to that. America's love affair with “victimology” only extends so far – how many protested the recent execution of John Allen Mohammed? The real issue is, what is to be done? Not about Hasan but about all the other Moslems in and out of uniform in the U.S.? Do we have another World War II Japanese-American detention camp scenario on our hands? (Michelle Malkin seems to think so.) No – but then what do we have? The question when it comes to violent crime of any sort is, what sort of intervention should there have been, and when? And on what basis? And this is what has the media – and the politicians – and, I assume, the military - in a tizzy. Are we waking up to the fact of having to deal with a fifth column of one-man Islamic sleeper cells? Is anyone in uniform who trots off to a mosque on a regular basis automatically a suspect? Is this just another example of what is called “blow-back” -- but on a domestic level?

But there are even better questions. Why are we, in fact, waging war on Islam? Is it at the behest of Israel? Is it because these people who have been willingly selling us oil for decades now have suddenly “gotten religion”? Maybe it's because Moslems have the bad taste to actually believe in what their faith preaches -- unlike the bulk of so-called Christians and Jews these days. It certainly has nothing to do with any sort of “crusade” in the traditional sense – heaven knows, Christianity is hardly defended in this country, especially by its leadership... and we all know by now what our exertions in Iraq have meant for the Christians over there; they've been driven out. The largest category of ethnic cleansing on the world scene today is that of Christians being cleansed from Moslem-dominated countries, and I think that the cause can be traced, fairly readily, to our policies over the years – that and “economic imperialism”, which has impacted the Moslem world as much as anywhere. The Chinese have finally figured out that the way to combat American economic imperialism is to turn around and start beating us at our own game. For Latin America, the answer is to regress to a political faith – communism – that has been discarded nearly everywhere else. And in the Islamic world, the answer seems to be a form of fundamentalism that requires – in many cases – a return to a pre-technological, pre-industrial (not to mention pre-democratic) paradigm... because those things are associated, rightly or wrongly, with America, Europe, and (to really stretch the point) the Crusades. While most of the world is looking more like the U.S. every day (a particularly depressing observation one can make while traveling – to which, I might add, the U.S. is looking more like northern New Jersey every day) the Islamic world is doing its best to return to some sort of golden age. And of course the first casualty of this movement is what we call, in our fanciful way, “diversity”, or “tolerance”. So in the midst of our own absurdly “diverse” and “tolerant” society, we have pockets of people who are anything but... and who are willing to, now and then, punish the rest of us for our gross failings. I don't think this is going to change too much, but it might not have as serious consequences if we were not – as least in their eyes – waging continual war on their faith, culture, and heritage on behalf of “ideas” which do not stand up to the serious scrutiny of anyone for whom tradition is everything.

Thursday, November 5, 2009

We’re All Outsiders Now

Obama was elected a year ago, and you’d think tempers would have cooled by now.  But no – there is an endless stream of whining, bellyaching, indignation, self-pity, and hurt feelings – and…. oh wait, I’ll bet you think I’m talking about the Republicans and the “conservatives”.  No!  I’m talking about the Democrats and liberals – you know, the folks who won!  And, to the best of my knowledge, they know they won – I mean, after all, Obama is in office and his programs are… well, not marching ahead full-tilt like Godzilla stomping all over Tokyo, but certainly making considerable headway.  But you’d never know it from all the political rhetoric and hypersensitivity.  As I’ve said before – and as many commentators have pointed out – the Democrats/liberals really are more comfortable being on the outside looking in, faces pressed against the window like poor kids in some Dickens story ogling unobtainable toys in a toy store.  Now that they have the whole banana, they don’t know what to do with it; they feel thwarted, and mostly offended that not everyone has signed on to the Utopian delusion du jour.  And that’s because the collectivist/totalitarian mind set does not tolerate dissent, doubt, or skepticism.  Once the millennium has arrived, it’s downright inconsiderate of anyone to do anything but roll over and play dead.  So the liberal media (assuming that’s not a complete redundancy) erupt in frothing indignation about “tea parties” and “town hall meetings” where, occasionally, voices are raised.  Ah yes, there are counter-revolutionaries everywhere, flies in the ointment, and their continued presence on the political scene is as much of a torment to liberals as a case of the chiggers.  Don’t people know that once a president receives a “mandate” that he is, from that point on, licensed to act as an absolute dictator?  Lyndon Johnson made that argument back in 1964, and he was, as I’ve said in a long-ago post, The Last Tyrant.  But liberals since then have been similarly offended by the failure of “all the people” to offer their hearts and minds up to The Future, by whatever name it is called at the time. 

But there is, I feel, another factor operating as well, and that is the overwhelming sense of powerlessness we all have – all across the political spectrum.  Those people we call “independents” include those who have concluded – reluctantly, in some cases – that, in fact, the real power in this country – and in the world in general, as far as that goes – resides not in elected officials or in anyone else who is, at least in theory, accountable to the citizenry.  Behind every elected, or even non-elected, “leader” there seem to be invisible forces at work that serve to bring down all the grandiose postures and promises, and reduce each to nothing more than a cup bearer to those much higher and mightier than he (or she).  I always say that no one gets elected president without already having, basically, sold out to the Regime.  And yet, there is always residual, naive hope that, somehow, this time things will be different.  The leader thinks he can somehow escape the cold, clammy clutches of the powers that be if only he appeals to the citizenry… and the citizenry think that a whole new world is created every time a new leader is inaugurated.  But the truth is, the vested interests remain the same, their priorities remain the same, and what they will and will not permit the nominal leadership to do remains the same.  So there is an inevitable cooling-off of idealism… compromises are made… new “conditions” are imposed that make any sort of radical change impossible… and, bottom line, nothing of any real significance changes.  Obama wants us out of Iraq?  Fine then – get us out!  Oh, but there are “conditions”, you see?  “The people” want universal health care?  Fine then – what are we waiting for?  And so on.  Whether the cause is right or wrong, just or unjust, you will find people waiting impatiently, then getting restless, then getting downright hostile.  And this hostility will be taken out on the hapless “leader” who by that time realizes that he is in charge of precisely squat.  Oh yes, he has the glamour and the perks, but in his heart of hearts he knows that he’s been had – more than the people who voted for him, even.  Because now _he’s_ responsible for the results – for the successes, and more likely the failures.  But he has too much invested to fully admit to the absurdity of his situation – whereas the voters, who have only their own affairs to worry about, have at least a bit more flexibility of thought and perspective – although, heaven knows, very few of them make any use of it.  And the people in between – the operatives – take out their frustrations on “the other side” – the other party – the hapless “tea partiers” and what not, whereas what they should really be taking it out on is the Regime, but they know that it’s just too big, and too powerful, and too overwhelming.  Taking on the world-wide power structure is a candidate for the “too hard pile”, so that gets put off until doomsday, and instead we have schoolyard squabbling.  And with each degree of increased powerlessness, the squabbling can only become more chronic and less civil; and this is the process we see played out on a daily basis.  And ironically, it’s only the _illusion_ of democracy that gives this strife its energy – people who _know_ they have no power, and will never have any power, are going to cope in other ways.  But we are an ideational, propositional society with nothing to lose but our ideas and our ideals – so we will fight, however futilely, to the last, feeling that our “rights” have somehow been taken away from us, either by force or by stealth – while the ones in charge have no such illusions.  For them, there are no rights, only raw power, and that can be expressed in a myriad different ways depending on the structures of the systems in question.  The American way is to believe in “change”, then be deeply disappointed when it doesn’t come, and to blame our leaders.  People elsewhere in the world are at once wiser and more cynical.  But still, it would be somewhat of a loss if we were to follow their jaded example.  And so the battles among the powerless – the outsiders – rage on.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The First Ground Zero

On this bright, sunny, and quite warm day I finally got make my long-awaited pilgrimage to Dealy Plaza – site of the darkest deed ever committed in this land of promise.  The site – in the very heart of old Dallas – the birthplace of the city, in fact -- is, even after all these years, a popular tourist attraction, and it was, indeed, swarming with visitors of all shapes and sizes, who scampered across the Grassy Knoll, posed for pictures on the very spot (marked with an “X” in the middle of the street) where JFK met his fate, and filed through the 6th Floor Museum in the former Texas School Book Depository sporting earphones to hear and view the narrative concerning the events of that dark day nigh unto 46 years ago.  And I must say, the “text” of the museum tour was, if not even-handed, at least not overly propagandistic.  There was plenty of treatment of the various (often conflicting) pieces of evidence and eyewitness testimonies – and the most striking exhibit (to me) was a collection of cameras (still and movie) that various people had been using on the occasion, and which produced important pieces of the mountain of evidence.  Also on the scene – at a table on the Grassy Knoll – was none other than Robert Groden, who has written extensively on the assassination and compiled a great deal of evidence, and who was heavily involved in the Oliver Stone film as a writer and advisor.  Yes, one of the foremost JFK conspiracy theorists was sitting right there, on public property, selling his materials without the slightest harassment from the authorities.  How times have changed! 

Of course, Dallas has come a long way since those innocent times – from a, basically, provincial city to a sprawling megalopolis that threatens to spill over into Oklahoma on the north.  It has more (highway) rings around it than Pig Pen’s bathtub.  The downtown is that typically weird combination of shiny skyscrapers on the one hand, and vacant lots and “legacy” buildings on the other, with an ample helping of new yuppie townhouse condos and “artsy” cafes and galleries thrown in for good measure.  It is an all-American city to a fault.  And it has finally, I believe, lived down its sordid past and its reputation as “that place where JFK got shot” enough so it can freely and unabashedly admit that it is, indeed, that place where JFK got shot – and instead of adding a bunch of chamber of commerce propaganda simply present the event as what it was – the “crime of the century” perhaps, but certainly nothing that reflected particularly badly on Dallas – at least not any more badly than it reflected on any other place, or the country in general.

I have often wondered if Dallas was chosen as JFK’s O.K. Corral because it was the only place – or the best place – such a deed could have been pulled off.  There was certainly an instant and well-orchestrated circling of the wagons immediately after the event… inconvenient facts were suppressed… dark suspicions were quashed… and a united front was, almost miraculously, created out of what had been, truth be told, a very volatile political situation.  Of course, LBJ, being a Texan, had it in his power to more or less dictate every element in the “rush to judgment”, down to the smallest detail – and he had any number of people anxious to assist.  There were cover-ups, then cover-ups of those cover-ups, then cover-ups of those cover-ups, and so on ad infinitum.  Any skeptics were immediately thrown into the outer darkness, and accused of treason and/or mental illness.  (Sound familiar?  The same game plan was pulled out and dusted off after 9-11.)  But having said all this, I suspect that the same thing could have been accomplished anywhere else in the country – perhaps not with as much cold efficiency or completeness, maybe not with the overwhelming, multi-layered blanket of obfuscation, but nonetheless successfully. 

But still, there was something iconic – Greek tragedy-esque, even – about a Northeastern, elite, handsome rich boy with a glamorous wife getting cut down in a Texas cow town, with his successor – a hard-core Texan, no less -- craggy and grim-faced – right on his heels.  Maybe JFK really had walked into the valley of the shadow of death, against all caution and advice – maybe he had refused to be intimidated – maybe he felt that it was time to make amends to the South for all the pre-Civil Rights Act strife.  Who knows?  We know that LBJ was adamant, that JFK simply had to visit Texas.  Was this some ancient Old Testament piece of treachery?  Was this one tribal chief or warlord inviting the opposing warlord into his camp, supposedly under a white flag of truce, only to have him mercilessly cut down so that he could take over?  It seems so savage – so crude – so barbaric.  But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t have happened.  And yet I think the agenda reached far beyond the normal rough-and-tumble of politics.  There were scores of people, groups, and organizations that wished JFK ill… he had disappointed many powerful people… and his own mob connections might, ironically, have backfired on him and hastened his demise.  It’s one thing to be the titular head of the U.S. government – but it’s another thing to be on the hit list of groups that are even bigger and more powerful than the U.S. government… and I suspect that JFK, with all of his titanic self confidence (a family trait, of course), if he had a hint about any of this, did not take it seriously enough.  He was also the first Catholic president – although it’s hard to utter that phrase without gagging a bit – and he was not, i.e. never, acting solely on his own behalf but on that of his family – a criminal enterprise in its own right – and also on behalf of the Ivy League know-it-all elite which had, even then, vexed and offended the South – and so many others – so grievously.  He was a cold warrior who was accused of being soft on communism.  He was a “family man” whose promiscuity was legendary, if kept a total secret from the public by a media even more obsequious than today’s.  And he was, arguably, in way over his head – on all fronts.  It could not have been an easy time to be president, but it was certainly far from the worst.  The country was still enjoying the remnants of the 50s legacy of American dominance and post-war triumph.  Things like race and communism were problems, but not of the magnitude witnessed in prior times or since.  And the economy was in fine shape, thank you – we were still on the silver standard, even!  And Islam?  Never heard of it.  “Terrorism” was people throwing overripe mangoes at Dick Nixon in Venezuela.  No – most of the troubles of that era seem trivial in retrospect.  We had even conquered polio!  And all of these “rights” agitators and victim groups were still in the larval stage.  So – he “coulda been a contenda” – but he got the wrong people mad at him and the result – or at least some main elements of the result – was on open display in Dealy Plaza on a fine, sunny day in 2009.  So long ago… and yet still so riveting, and so conducive to dark suspicions as to how the world really operates, and who is at the controls. 

Dress Code

My nomination for scariest Halloween costume -- that burqa, or whatever it was, that Hillary had to wear on her head when she confronted the Pakistanis on their foot-dragging when it comes to "supporting" our efforts to use them in a proxy war against their neighbor to the west -- or at least one element of that neighbor, consisting of the former regime, "lawless tribesmen", Al Qaeda, and various and assorted wedding parties and hookah bashes. Not to mention poppy fields. In other words, basically everything Afghanistan is, was, and -- in all probability -- ever will be. In other words, Pakistan is supposed to help us grind their co-religionists across the mountains into fine power (but not the naughty kind made from poppies, mind!) -- and for what? For, I guess, not siccing Hillary on them any more -- and frankly, I consider that quite an incentive. All she has to do is show them a few clips of Waco. But really, can Hillary, Obama, et al really expect them to take our side against their co-religionists? Especially when they are involved in all of the same scams? What can we possibly offer them besides an opportunity to become the new star pupil in the American Empire? Well... I guess we could offer to back them up in the event they go to war with India. But wait, we're supposed to be friends with India too -- that got fixed when Hillary showed up there in a sari. (Let's hope she never gets sent into the Amazon jungle to talk with those Indians -- that could get ugly.) You know, just like "Silent Cal" Coolidge who thought he could make friends with our own Indians by putting on a war bonnet, we think all we have to do is put on the right hat, or sample the right food, or sit watching the right folk dancers, and we will win hearts and minds and all will be well. Well, I guess it beats carpet bombing, but still... anyone with any sense over there must be laughing their butt off. Because the custom of nations around the globe, for many generations now, has been to smoke a bogus peace pipe with America in order to get more and bigger handouts, then simply proceed to do what they intended to do all along, namely beat the crap out of their neighbors (or their own domestic minorities). Then we fly back in, scolding ("Don't make us come up there!"), they get all smiley, take more of our money, and the whole tiresome process begins again. It seems that, contrary to the old saw, we don't have any more luck with honey than with vinegar. We offer bribes -- nothing happens. We threaten -- ditto. We bomb and strafe -- still nothing. You don't suppose these people have decided, in secret, to continue to assert their own traditions, culture, and identity no matter what we say or do, do you? Now wouldn't that be rude of them. So... "non-global"... so provincial... so parochial. But so typical as well. The weapon of the "weaker" party for time immemorial has been to smile and nod and serve tea, and wait for the stronger party to go away (after writing a hefty check). Because, ultimately, these people cannot be threatened, and they can't be punished either. (How do you bomb a place back to the Stone Age when they're ** already ** in the Stone Age?) They can only be bribed, which simply reinforces their behavior and provides them more resources to do the opposite of what we want.

So why did I refer to these people as the "weaker" party? They are actually in charge.

What the Heck is the Problem?

Here’s what I don’t get.  The Democrats rode in, triumphant, in January, after dealing the Republicans a crushing defeat last November – nearly a year ago, in fact, although – depending on one’s point of view – it can seem like either ten years or ten minutes.  And yet we now have the spectacle of health care, AKA ObamaCare, struggling and bogged down in the process of becoming the law of the land because of… Republicans?  But they lost – they were soundly defeated – the Democratic program is veto-proof, filibuster-proof, completely supported by the media and by all the important Hollywood personalities (who, after all, count for much more than a bunch of silly health-care professionals).  There is absolutely nothing standing in the way of full and prompt implementation – the world of Cuban-style universal health care, so admired by liberals, is just around the corner.  So what can the matter possibly be?  Oh, I get it – it’s that gaggle of cowardly Democrats who lie awake nights thinking that Obama & Co. are doing too much, too fast – and that their constituencies might just be getting a bit skeptical and uneasy with the spectre (a little Halloween lingo, there) of Cuban, or Soviet, style health care replacing all that we have now.  And these reactionaries – these dupes – these “haters” – might even decide to vote their nervous-Nellie Congressmen out of office next election.  But wait, isn’t that what “democracy” is supposed to be about?  You don’t like the horse you’re on, so you fire it and hire another – even if you are in the middle of the mythical stream (which we always seem to be in the middle of – I mean, we’re never on dry land any longer).  Well, but – heh heh, say the power elites when they survey all of this political naivete – what “democracy” really means is that people pretend to vote for candidates who pretend to have certain points of view… but once in office, those candidates then proceed to do as they damn please, because they are, after all, smarter than any of those foolish people who voted them into office.  Surely the greatest liberal program of our time – the sine qua non of the first year of the Obama administration (the second year will involve the nationalization of Starbucks, Wal-Mart, McDonald’s, and Netflix -- you know, the only outfits left that are still making money) – is not going to be defeated by a coalition of “the people”, is it?  I mean, “the people” is an abstraction which is honored in song and story, and in liberal political rhetoric, but every liberal politician knows that they are really lost sheep, steeped in reactionary superstition and prejudice, who need guidance in order to gain the Promised Land.  And they will embrace, and follow, that guidance if they know what’s good for them; isn’t that right?  And any doubts will be quickly overtaken by a flood of media propaganda, with only a few isolated losers left to bleat plaintively while the rest of the populace marches off into the rising sun of ObamaCare.  Yes, that is the plan all right… but it’s amazing how halting and awkward the process of implementing it seems to be.  Why, if Obama were FDR, the plan would already be implemented – agencies would have been created and staffed – palatial buildings on the Mall would have been built to house them – movies would have been produced to sing their praises (think:  Grapes of Wrath, except for hemorrhoids), and collective amnesia would have set in as to whether things had even ever been any different.  The rough places would have been made plain, and another very large piece of the Brave New World would have been firmly in place.  But Obama is not FDR, apparently… and even members of his own party aren’t so sure they want to be on his jet-propelled bandwagon.  They have been made uneasy by the “tea parties” and “town hall meetings” – they have been confronted -- argued with, even! -- by the unwashed and the unworthy.  Clearly, this is a residual and atavistic remnant of pre-Obama, or even pre-FDR, democracy, that has to be severely dealt with – but how?  Maybe we’ll find out once Uncle Sam becomes everyone’s doctor… but in the meantime it’s more than a little satisfying to see that a few bumps in the road have developed en route to Utopia.