Tuesday, March 30, 2010

The Veterans Speak

I suppose that everyone has wished, at one time or another, that they had a crystal ball, or a magic screen, or some other device with which they could see the future – especially the outcome of certain actions that they might or might not take in the present. We would all like to know the answer to the question, “What would happen if...?” And if a glimpse into the future would be a desirable thing for an individual, how much more desirable might it be for a leader – someone who has the resources of a nation, and the lives of its citizens, in the palm of his hand? Wouldn't it be nice, for instance, if, before starting a war, a president or king or dictator could be shown the long-term consequences? (Would even that have convinced Hitler? Who knows?)

Well, such a capability might exist -- “might”, mind you – when it comes to the war in Afghanistan, which President Obama is actively engaged in escalating. A recent article entitled “Red Army vets still shaken by Afghan folly” provides a clue. Of course, at the time the Russians were fighting in Afghanistan – before the Soviet Union broke up, of course – all we knew, or cared to know, was that the Russians were a bevy of faceless brutes, engaged in oppressing a “freedom-loving people” (many of whom wound up in the ranks of the Taliban and Al Qaeda, by the way – so much for our romantic stereotypes!). Now it turns out that the Russians were, by and large, flesh-and-blood human beings, and many of them were not at all happy with the duties they had been ordered to perform in Afghanistan – or with the outcome. I'll say again – meaning, or the ability to attribute meaning, has a lot to do with one's ultimate “take” on a given experience; hence the tendency for World War II veterans to look back and see that conflict as noble, and worth pursuing... in contrast to Vietnam, which was widely considered absurd and futile at the time, and which, in retrospect, still is. And of course, we were happily chortling all during the Russians' struggle in Afghanistan, that it was “their Vietnam”. Well, so it was... but what goes around comes around, and it could just as truly be said that Iraq is our Afghanistan, and that Afghanistan is... also our Afghanistan.

The article makes it clear that Soviet soldiers suffered just as much as our own from what we call post-traumatic stress syndrome... and that they saw, as clearly as any of us do, the futility and utter foolishness of the war they had been ordered to fight. The waste of lives and resources was painful enough... but a government and an entire social and economic system fell as well (perhaps not to the total regret of those involved). Here is one quote: “These generals at the top, they had no sense of reality. They gave us murderous orders. I still bear a cross [note the expression! This is a Soviet soldier speaking] because I fulfilled those orders.” How many of our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan could readily offer the exact same words today? Our military commanders are supposed to be the most experienced soldiers around, hence the most realistic. But as we can see on a daily basis from their actions and statements, as they go up in rank some sort of brain-rot sets in, and they all wind up with delusions of grandeur accompanied by a shocking disregard for human life – that of the troops under their command as well as the residents of the country we are fighting in. We wind up, in many ways, no better than the enemy we are fighting – which calls into serious question our motives for being there as well as the authenticity of our own hallowed system and “way of life”. If the only way to pursue the American dream is to crush other people and nations into fine powder, then of what conceivable value is the American dream? Isn't it more like a blight on the rest of the world, even if it serves to hold off despair on the home front? We expect other peoples to believe our propaganda and ignore what we actually do when we're in their territory... but the exact opposite winds up happening, and rightly so. The biggest weapon that “terrorists” have against us is our hypocrisy.

Another Soviet veteran pointed out that “Afghans will fight foreign troops as long as foreign troops are there. No one should go there armed.” How can it be put any plainer than that? And yet, here we go again, sending more heavily-armed troops in an attempt to “pacify” a place that hasn't been peaceful in its entire history. And in the process, we get thoroughly "gamed" by the corrupt Afghan government, which has only its own interests in mind (and we find this shocking for some reason).

The good news? The war in Afghanistan “hastened the collapse of the Cold War [Soviet] empire”. We might eventually come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan with a collapsed empire as well – and a chance to reassert American independence from the follies of the rest of the world. We could do this right now, in fact... but, as usual, simply knowing what's right isn't enough, it takes a disaster to really convince us. And even that isn't always enough; time will tell.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Under the Spreading Banality

Regarding my recent post, “The Banality of Catastrophe”, it didn't take long to come up with an example. In Sunday's paper, in an article entitled “Social Security day of reckoning closer to reality”, it is made clear that Social Security will already start running in the red this year – i.e., annual costs will exceed revenues for the first time. So what will make up the difference? Why, the Social Security “trust fund”, of course – which is basically a bunch of IOUs, and nothing more. Well, they are IOUs from a government that is bankrupt; in other words, the cupboard is bare. And even all of those IOUs added together, if turned back into actual cash, would not keep the system afloat indefinitely. Hopeless? Well, yes – but not totally, according to Andrew Biggs of AEI, and a former deputy commissioner for policy at the Social Security Administration. He says, “Some people say the government will default on the trust fund and won't pay. That won't happen. [This would be the catastrophe model.] If they don't want to repay it, (the government can) simply cut Social Security benefits, raise the retirement age, raise taxes... It's all under control of the government, basically.” And, “It may not be paid back in time in the sense that we'll pay promised benefits through 2037 – my sense is that we'll cut benefits way before the trust fund runs out.” The point is that something will be done before the point of utter collapse... which is, of course, always the political solution – keep shoring things up and maintaining the illusion of soundness, even as the rot spreads within. So Social Security will end with a whimper and not a bang, according to these prognostications – and that's the point I was trying to make about this as well as everything else of a “time bomb” nature in the economy (or anywhere else).

But isn't it true that things _ought_ to end in a great crashing cataclysm – for this would better satisfy the aesthetic and moral senses? However, they seldom do. We take delight in "disaster movies" because, on some level, we feel that this is what ought to happen -- we are all Jonahs at heart, pronouncing curses and condemnation on a sinful world. (But then when a disaster movie comes to life -- as on 9/11 -- then we're not so sure it's such a good idea.) “Unconditional surrender” is a rare thing in war, for example – although you'd never know it from reading just 20th Century history. People do survive plagues and famines; otherwise there would be no one left to tell the tale.

And if one accepts that our economy is constantly being manipulated by much higher powers than any elected official or aggregation thereof... well, then it makes sense that a sudden catastrophe will occur only when and where they wish it to. For example, 9/11 served a purpose -- "mission accomplished" -- but that doesn't mean we need a 9/11 every other week, any more than most of us need to live our lives in intensive care units. Again, the program is not to exterminate the American people (at least not physically), but to render them helpless and under continual stress, thereby exacting obedience. If you're willing to starve slaves to death, then clearly having no slaves is more important than having slaves, right? The sign that read “Arbeit Macht Frei” over the entrance to Auschwitz was only a bit of gallows humor – the Third Reich was certainly not depending on any great amount of productivity from the camps. What it really meant was that the “Arbeit” -- i.e. work – of the camps was that of getting rid of undesirables, i.e. rendering the German people “frei” -- free – of the sorts of people they didn't like. But for every camp inmate there were many more “free” people on the outside, who were, in fact, slaves... and the same could be said of the Soviet Union and its gulag. There were prisoners, and then there were slaves – and they were separated by barbed wire, watch towers, and a few minor details like the quality of their food and clothing. Our enlightened society, on the other hand, has prisoners – but they are all in jail for a good reason, right? -- and those well on their way to becoming slaves... depending on how high a taxation rate you think constitutes slavery.

Of course, one could also point out that, as in the case of Social Security, there is really, ultimately, only one pot of money. In other words, it's all “fungible” -- nothing is set aside, nothing is protected, there are no “lock boxes”. One government agency can stage a raid on the budget of another agency any time it likes – not that they always succeed, but nothing keeps them from trying. I saw this many times in my time with the “feds” -- a budget item that seemed as secure as eggs in an Easter basket was suddenly pillaged by some obscure Congressman in order to pay for a memorial for fallen Pea Pickers of America – or some other equally idiotic chunk o' pork. And no one objected! You just took the hit, because (1) it was useless to protest; and (2) the next time around it might be your turn to pillage someone else. So each agency was operated as a sort of fiefdom, under the command of a war lord – it looked more like medieval Japan than any Kurosawa movie. People would, literally, go out on raiding parties, appealing to someone high on the food chain to rob someone else and pay them -- and they quite often had a specific target in mind -- a "soft target", if you will -- for pillaging. And this was, mind you, long after budgets had been approved and funds allocated for specific programs. In other words, it was never too late to lose money – or too early to try and lay claim to money years into the future. Now, can you imagine the impact that nonsense like this had on multi-year programs? It made about as much sense as each agency head taking his funding, in cash, down to the local Indian casino every Friday night and hoping he'd come back with more on Monday morning – after having sat around the roulette table with all the other agency heads the entire weekend. Yeah – it made exactly that much sense. But that's really how things work... and it's a miracle that government is not even less efficient and effective than it is.

But setting aside that predatory, jungle-like, “red in tooth and claw” aspect of things for a moment, it remains true that, as Mr. Biggs said, the government can do whatever it wants – in other words it's not truly constrained by any laws, regulations, or “entitlements”. What happens is that it abides by the letter of existing laws and regulations, but then comes up with programs and new regulations and laws that effectively neutralize the old ones. Anyone wonder why the U.S. Code just keeps getting bigger? The truth is that much of it is obsolete and no longer in force... but it's way too much trouble (administratively and politically) to actually remove a law from the books, so they're just, basically, painted over and new structures are built on top of the old – so only the new stuff shows or matters. You know how, every once in a while, some “seldom-applied” or obscure law makes an appearance in a court case? For every one of those there are hundreds, or thousands, more lying dormant – ready to cause trouble if ever called upon, but more likely to rest in peace for perpetuity.

So what we have here is perhaps not proof, but a nice piece of evidence for what I call the "banality" of catastrophe -- the real-world, business-as-usual, non-boat-rocking, go-along-to-get-along aspect of things that eventually takes over even the most high-profile, controversial area of government operations. Today's take-no-prisoners battle becomes tomorrow's dull bureaucratic drill; that's just the way things evolve. Nothing stays "hot" forever, and I guarantee that ObamaCare won't either. It will slowly morph into a great, gray mass like Social Security, farm policy, defense acquisition -- you name it. It's dull, it's inane, it's... banal.

Sunday Sundries

I'll say it again – when it comes to our dealings with Israel, or, more precisely, their dealings with us, there are no accidents. Netanyahu did not get blindsided by the recent announcement, during Biden's visit, of new construction in East Jerusalem, and he was not upset yesterday because an unnamed underling pronounced Obama “the greatest disaster for Israel — a strategic disaster”. It's all part of... well, have you ever trained a dog with a choke chain? As threatening as it sounds, a choke chain doesn't really choke the dog... but it does get their attention. Or let's say, when the choke chain is applied, there's not much else they can do but cooperate until it's released. Well, when it comes to Obama & Co., Israel apparently has felt the need of late to apply the choke chain – although heaven knows why, since they are every bit as abject in their servitude of Israel as any previous administration, if not more so. Take an administration where a goodly number of its top-ranking members have dual U.S.-Israeli citizenship, and what else would you expect? And yet they keep acting as if Obama and Biden have wandered off the reservation – or show signs of intending to. But again, it's just a gentle reminder of who's in charge; it really doesn't mean anything, and no one should get upset... unless, of course, you find it upsetting that U.S. foreign policy is being run in the exclusive interests of another country.

And in the meantime, Obama makes a surprise visit to Afghanistan. Well, at least we were spared the large banner reading “Mission Accomplished”. But the fact that he is acting just like any other “war president” down through the ages doesn't surprise me a bit – although it has to be just the latest thorn in the side of the left-liberals who helped get him elected. But as I've said before, all the aggravations that come their way are richly deserved.

And what's this about Sarah Palin campaigning for John McCain? And here I thought there had been all kinds of awkwardness during their joint campaign back in 2008; I guess time has healed that wound. Apparently now the McCain people have developed a strange new respect for Palin, who didn't just slink off the political stage and disappear. On the contrary, she has become some sort of underdog hero – a kind of female political Rocky. But I daresay that at any given level of politics – and that includes states like Arizona – her fan base is more than overmatched by the people who consider her a dangerous airhead. So why McCain wants her “help” is beyond me, unless “sheer desperation” counts as a reason.

I have to admit it, one of my favorite newspaper features is “Steve Newman's Earthweek”, although it is a “bully pulpit” for global warming, since that's what virtually every phenomenon – weather and otherwise – he discusses is attributed to. Except volcanic eruptions – at least so far. In fact, it turns out that if the current volcanic activity in Iceland turns into “the big one” it might actually create conditions for climatic cooling in much of Europe. Which, I guess, would save the EU a lot of money 'cause they really need it to bail out places like Greece. So I guess it's time to say “Hooray for volcanoes”, or “Go, Eyjafjallajokull, go!” (Well, that's the name of the thing, I can't help it.)

It takes a lot to get a rise out of federal workers. I mean, I guess threatened pay cuts will do it, but otherwise... But now, it appears, there's a new strain of paranoia developing among our loyal public servants that they might actually be in physical danger from “right-wing hate groups”, talk radio hosts, tea partiers, and so on. This is based primarily on two recent incidents where lone nuts (I think that's actually the case this time) attacked a building in Texas and the Pentagon. This is being promoted – undoubtedly by the Obama administration – as the tip of the iceberg, and government employees are now, allegedly, in clear and present danger when all they are trying to do is serve the public to the best of their abilities (never mind what sort of limit that sets on things). So, basically, the fact that there was a debate at all – of any kind – about health-care reform is a direct reflection of a growing violent movement among reactionaries – a planned insurrection, in fact! Anyone see the totalitarian vibe in all this? Any debate, any difference of opinion, is now being treated as a terroristic threat, and poor government workers are suddenly finding themselves on the front lines – crouching behind the barricades as the anarchists mount an attack, with Sarah Palin wearing a liberty cap and Glenn Beck hefting cannon balls. And the tea partiers! Well! I mean, doesn't that automatically imply violence and disorder and... wow, look who's in favor of “law and order” all of a sudden! The same gang that was setting fire to everything in sight back in the 1960s and 1970s. Yeah... power really does strange things to people.

Turns out that “diversity” is not a 20th Century invention after all. Scientists are now suggesting that four species of humans lived at the same time, back in the Ice Age/woolly mammoth/caveman days. They are “modern humans”, Neanderthals, the Indonesian “Hobbits”, and the newest entry, a type from southern Siberia. Now – and I hope I'm not toying with heresy here – did you ever wonder, for example, exactly who Cain's wife was? Or who Seth's wife was? Or who the wives of their first few male descendants were? I mean, were they all marrying their sisters, or is there another possible explanation? When the Bible speaks of “man”, could it be speaking – in that context – in an actual biological sense, i.e. referring to “modern man” (or Cro-Magnon, assuming it's the same thing)? So Adam, Eve, Cain, Abel, Seth, et al could have been the first “men” but they might not have been the first “humans” -- if you want to try and harmonize Scripture with paleontology. And assuming that there was cross-fertility between “modern man” and the other types – and there is evidence that there could have been – is it too much of a stretch to propose that these early wives might have been drawn from human, but not “modern human” species – i.e. not from “man” as scripturally defined? Now, this leaves wide open the question of whether they were “men” in the spiritual sense – i.e. did they have souls? And if so, at what point did the “ensoulment” of the human race, or its predecessors, begin? And if not, how, then, are they honored for their essential contribution to the human race and to salvation history? Yeah – it's highly speculative... but this issue has been on my mind for quite a while, and every time this “human species” thing comes up I think about it again. Anyone out there have any ideas, theories, or comments?

I'll tell you the truth – I wouldn't trade these times for the dull, boring 1950s for all the tea in China. At least now the issues – the real issues – are out in the open. No one can any longer plead ignorance. The choices are laid out quite visibly and unambiguously. Of course, there is still the fear factor, which will keep most people running back into burning barns. But for others it's almost like a cafeteria of ideas. Even “conservatism” can no longer be thought of as a single, monolithic thing except by the highly delusional – there is political conservatism, AKA neoconservatism, AKA “conservatism in name only”, and then there is the much more pure item, which itself bifurcates into paleoconservatism and libertarianism. The situation may be confusing, but at least it's dynamic, whereas the situation for liberals is weary, tiresome, repetitive, and very old. All of the red blood in our time runs in conservative veins; liberals all look like Harry Reid.

In fact, you might call these times the "blogger full employment era" -- as evidenced by the fact that this is my 600th post.

Saturday, March 27, 2010

The Dismal Tide

My nomination for quote of the week – or maybe the month – is this, from Thomas Fleming, editor of Chronicles (in the January issue): “The true American character was forged in danger and hardship and bitter necessity, but that character has been diluted by mass immigration and weakened by the very success it achieved. The weakness of our character was revealed by the number of people who, against all reason, voted for Barack Obama, because they were afraid. The majority of mankind, however, is always made up of weak and frightened people. It has always been an elite... who have defined the real America.” And by “the elite”, he clearly means the strong, independent, and self-sufficient – not to be confused with the “elite” of our time, who are just the biggest, most bloated parasites.

And it's true, I suppose, that the ruling “feeling tone” of most people in most societies at most times in history has been fear – and that fear has been directed at their own rulers as often as at any external threat. If you accept the model of societies being formed from the ground up for mutual protection, then it would seem that fear of “the other” came first – fear of the tribe in the next valley, the raiders from the next village, the pirates showing up on the shore. But once a society is organized, vested interests develop in its staying organized, and with the same power structure. I.e., once the crisis has passed, whatever serves as the “government” will not wither away as some might like; it will stay in place, supposedly as insurance against subsequent threats, but mainly because the people in charge want it that way, and they are able to influence sufficient numbers of others to cooperate and support their position. So you get the “chief” or warlord, sitting on a hand-carved wooden throne surrounded by his retainers – i.e. goons. And if he's doing his job, he is indeed protecting the tribe, group, or village against invaders. But the price he exacts is that, when there are no threats from without, he stays in office – thus “domestic fear” -- fear of the government – is substituted for fear of the invader. And as societies develop, one can expect that this alternation of sources of fear will eventually be replaced by a hybrid system of all fear, all the time -- perpetual fear of invaders (whether justified or not) combined with perpetual fear of the government.

And this is, lo and behold, precisely what we have today. We certainly have fear of invaders – AKA “terrorists” -- to justify any and all military activity anywhere in the world (not to mention the economic and social consequences). And as for fear of the government, seek no further than the IRS. Of course, domestic fear, American style, is not a simple affair; it's cloaked in many layers of deceit and dissimulation. And yet, behind every government program, regulation, or law, there's an “or else” -- either explicit or implied. The hypocrisy comes in when the program, regulation, or law is presented as being “for your own good” -- i.e. for the good of the citizenry, either as individuals or as part of some arbitrarily defined group. But one always has to ask, if this provision is such a good idea, and if any reasonable person will agree that it is, why does there always have to be an “or else”? And the reason is that most of these programs, regulations, and laws are _not_ good ideas; they serve the interests of a select few, and harm the interests of the many. But under our system of rotating bribes, every once in a while you get to grab at the golden ring – i.e. it's your turn to be bribed, and one of the conditions of the bribe is that you have to shut up about everyone else's bribes. And then the propaganda apparatus broadcasts the myth that everyone has come out ahead on the deal -- even when we see that the government itself winds up with the lion's share -- and the deception is complete.

But none of this would work if it weren't for the basic groundwork of fear. And as much as people talk about “freedom”, no one wants to accept the downside of freedom, which is risk. So our freedoms gradually turn into dross, for the simple reason that, in the process of eliminating all risk, we have to eliminate all real freedom; this is an iron law of both politics and economics, although very few people are willing to admit it. So regardless of the government's motives for restricting freedom – which are almost always malevolent, even when they include a patina of “progressivism” -- the end result is always the same, and what I call “domestic fear” is one of the main factors holding the system in place. And this, in turn, is why “education” and the media, are so important to the program – because, in our time, fear is rarely of the bonafide, primitive, adrenalin-laden type; it resides primarily in the world of ideas. And who is in charge of the planting and nurturing of ideas in the skulls of the citizenry? Why, the public schools and the media, of course. So this is why a goodly proportion of any public school curriculum, or media programming, will have a high fear content; the citizenry must be made to feel both threatened and helpless so that it will continue to run to government and lay its few remaining freedoms at the feet of its “leaders”. And, by the same token, any upstarts who start preaching about liberty, or the need for independent thinking, have to be suppressed without mercy.

But Fleming clearly does not imagine that the American character has always been this corroded, corrupted, and degenerate. He clearly believes that what served as the foundation of this country, and what sustained it for a good period of time, was rugged independence – a historically rare thing, apparently. Well, when you think about it, how much “rugged individualism” do we see, or read about, in history? There are plenty of heroes – but a hero is not necessarily an individualist, any more than a military leader or politician is. A hero may simply be the one who is at the front of the band at a given time – the most aggressive, the loudest, the strongest, the most ruthless. But his power is derived mainly, if not entirely, from his position in the group; he might not fare any better going off on his own than any of his followers. Think of the true individualist in the American tradition – the “lone gun”, the homesteader, the trapper, the desert rat of song and story. That is a true American type, and a type rarely to be found anywhere else, at any other time in history. What was it about this place, and this time, that gave rise to, and rewarded, individuals of this type? That would be the topic for a few good books, which I'm not prepared to write just now. But suffice it to say that that rare window in time which was open for a few generations now seems to be closed again – slammed shut, in fact, by the powers that be – the government and the ruling elite. They are, as I've said before, reaping what they did not sow – the last fruits, if you will, of the true American character and his works... his legacy.

But what he built up has been corrupted and distorted beyond recognition. If one knew nothing of American history, one could not even begin to guess as to its chief features by surveying the America of today. Oh, I suppose that one could listen to the propaganda spewed forth by politicians and by speakers at Memorial Day ceremonies, or fed to schoolchildren... but if all one did was observe, one would never guess. What one would see would be a lazy, sensual, decadent, spendthrift, impulsive, delusional, short-tempered, warlike people who use up resources far more rapidly than they can be replaced, and who think that it's their business to interfere with the affairs of every other nation on earth -- who think, in fact, that despite their manifest character flaws, they possess some sort of moral superiority. One would see a bizarre form of nationalism based on a concept of “nation” that is ill-defined, fragmented, divorced from history, and has little or no basis in reality. One would see a political process by which every man is trying to gain an advantage over all others, and, as a result, winds up being exploited by those who are in control – and who, in fact, winds up further behind than if he'd just minded his own business.

And if one were told that the mythical Founding Fathers – with all of their immortal thoughts, speeches, and writings – were still considered our direct forebears, politically and philosophically... well, the only proper response to that would be uproarious laughter. It would be clear that what intervened between them and us, between then and now, was plain old human nature and concupiscence – that the best plan, the best-designed government on earth could not insulate people against their own weaknesses, foolishness, and greed... and that while America might, in fact, have been the most noble experiment in government of all time, even it had its limits, and those limits are long past.

And this is, I suppose, the issue when it comes to responding to idea like Fleming's. Was “the true American character” a happy accident – a flash in the pan – the product of a specific time and place, never to be repeated? And is what we have now – drearily like most other societies down through history – the “normal”, the baseline? In other words, which is the figure, and which is the ground? Fleming, who I would never accuse of being an optimist, nonetheless seems to feel that as long as there is a remnant – a few righteous men – America and the American spirit can never be wholly annihilated. Well, it's true that ideas can survive as a thin, underground stream for many generations without ever appearing on the surface of a society or having any impact on it... but I'm not convinced that that's inevitable. For one thing, how do we know how many “lost ideas” there have been down through history? (If we knew, they wouldn't be lost, would they?) We know that much of what civilization has produced has been lost over time; history is full of references to great works of which no trace remains. And when it comes to political ideas – I say again, can any of them ever stand up, indefinitely, to the corrosive effects of human nature? Won't we always be regressing to the primitive, tribal baseline, where the strong man and his goons rule over everyone else? (Isn't that what we have come back to in our own time?) Won't fear always be the default setting? We see in our current system, as complex and convoluted as it is, that it ultimately all boils down to fear – fear that is generated and manipulated by the ruling elite, and felt by the masses.

There might have been one brief moment in American history – the so-called Progressive Era – when fear was not the main political medium of exchange. For a while there it seemed as if government could actually do some good – albeit in an extra-Constitutional sense – in areas like public health, food safety, drug safety, workplace safety, fair wages... you know, all those great old causes that blossomed in the pre-World War I era. Now granted, there was, arguably, a basis in fear for all of these programs as well; I'm talking about a matter of emphasis. The operational definition of a “progressive” might be found in a quote by Robert Kennedy -- “I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” This is, let's admit, an optimistic point of view – one looks at the status quo and imagines that things could be better... that improvements could be made. And, if one is “progressively” inclined, one imagines that the government is the most fitting agent to make those improvements. It's not that things are all that bad now... but they could be better.

But is this the attitude of the government at present? Is this the “feeling tone” that is being projected? No – it's more like, “Things are terrible now, and we're all helpless and doomed, and government is our only hope... and still, we'll be lucky just to survive, and even luckier if all we do is break even.” In other words, you lower expectations to the point that no one can ever be disappointed. Compared to the sunny, cheerful message of the progressives, this sounds like some black-robed figure ringing the chimes of doom with bats flitting overhead against a stormy sky. In other words, the “fear dial” has been turned up to a high volume, and it just keeps getting higher with each passing day – and not without reason! Things really are getting worse on almost all counts – but the main culprit in all of this is not "the other" -- not terrorism or global warming or any of the other boogeymen du jour -- but government itself. Can you think of a single current “crisis” on any front that did not originate in – or was not at least aggravated by -- some cynical or ill-conceived government policy, regulation, or law? And yet it's always government that is called in – by unanimous plea of the citizenry – to fix what government wrought in the first place... and thus the poison is concentrated to the point where it has to become fatal. And so we have a gradual evolution from government being, at most, part of the solution to its becoming part of the problem, to its becoming _the_ problem. But again, none of this would have been possible without a corresponding, parallel degeneration of the American character. A free people would never have put up with a fraction of the high-jinks that government has been committing down through the years. But what has eroded that freedom more than anything else? Not the law, not oppression, and not plagues, wars, and disasters, but fear. And that, in turn, counts as a bloodless victory for the forces of totalitarianism – to render an entire population afraid of its own shadow, even in the midst of, arguably, plenty of residual prosperity and token freedoms – this is, truly, a prodigious feat. And yet it has been carried off, and with remarkable efficiency – since each succeeding generation has a much lower “fear threshold” than the one before. People of my parents' generation would have scoffed in disgust at what now passes as a “crisis”, or as “poverty”, for example. And yet, I imagine that we're tougher – in all of our cry-baby self-pity – than the generations to follow. I would like to know just how weak Americans can become before they cease to exist at all! I suppose that eventually they will all turn into benumbed slaves whose only source of energy is sheer biological survival instinct – not unlike concentration camp inmates (and even there, inner strength was a powerful predictor of survival). And this, of course... or so one would think... would be a fate to be feared much more than anything that is now causing us to give up our freedoms. I mean, there really are some things worse then death, aren't there? Like death of the spirit, for example? And yet, to see the trends in current events, that seems to be the least of our worries.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Where'd All the Chumps Go?

The basic premise of Ayn Rand's “Atlas Shrugged” is that the producers of this world – the innovators, workers, and, yes, capitalists (which I would clarify by calling them “true capitalists” rather than the degenerate type we see all around us today) – become so sick and tired of socialism, collectivism, and liberals that they begin, one by one, to drop out – that is, to deny the collectivist, parasitical masses and their rulers any more of the fruit of their labor and creativity. It does not start out as a conspiracy, but eventually these titans -- who are ready to shrug off the burdens of a world in which industry is punished and sloth rewarded – find each other and retire, or retreat, to a Rocky Mountain redoubt established by the mysterious John Galt (as in “Who Is...?”, a question that made a brief appearance on bumper stickers a couple of years back). And thus, robbed of their host, the cancer cells of socialism presumably die off, although we are not treated to a description of their final days, Rand undoubtedly feeling that it was easy enough to imagine, and besides, 1000-plus pages was enough.

The book was published in 1957, in what some would consider the golden age of capitalism and big business – although the handwriting was on the wall even then. Business and government had reached an accommodation of sorts after having weathered the crises of the New Deal, and organized labor was powerful and well-established; there was a kind of equilibrium after many decades of strife. And one would have thought all was well and that optimism was the sensible attitude – except that the New Deal, still fresh in everyone's mind – had shown that government could drastically sway the balance of power by the stroke of a pen, at will, and with a minimum of consideration of real costs; rather, the labor-management issue was one terminally fraught with politics, and often corrupted by bribery. The tendency was still for government to grow larger and more oppressive, for the law to become more intrusive and arbitrary, and for the underclass and its enablers to demand more and more of the products of honest labor and innovation. And, incredible as it seems, this was before the New Frontier, the Great Society, and all of the other mischievous and oppressive legislation and programs still to be dreamt up by self-styled progressives – right up to the present day with ObamaCare. If it was indeed a golden age, it was also on the defensive, and the poison of collectivist thinking was well on the way to rendering the capitalist system obsolete (and, in fact, Rand considered capitalism an “unknown ideal” even then).

But in any case, was the book prophetic? The answer has to be an unambiguous “no”, because the very people who, according to the story, were supposed to see through the pretensions of collectivism wound up becoming its allies, in a display of cynicism and moral bankruptcy possibly unmatched in history. Rand was, perhaps, working from a historical and conceptual baseline dominated by communism as "the" enemy and the primary basis and force for collectivism, and her bad characters are, typically, mushy socialists of the New Deal type, gradually becoming drunk with power and moving rapidly toward totalitarianism. There are the liberal elitists, just as in our present day, and the restless underclass clamoring for a piece of the “pie”, also as in our present day. The middle class – whom she doesn't spend much time on, as I recall – are intimidated and “clinging” and silent, also as in our present day (at least up until recently). But the players – the people who can make a difference – are at the top of the heap. (Otherwise, it wouldn't be called “_Atlas_ Shrugged”.) They do have the power to make or break the system – to sabotage that which they themselves built up in order to keep it out of the hands of the parasites.

I don't think that Rand envisioned anything like what actually happened, however -- namely that “big business” -- and the bigger it is, the more true this becomes – would strike a devil's bargain with government, and thus become an equal, and later on dominant, partner in what is, for all intents and purposes, a fascist system. (After all, hadn't fascism been soundly defeated in World War II? Well, yes – two varieties of it had. But it didn't take long before it raised its head again in more subtle form.) It's not unlike what happened to the anti-communist Cold War crowd. They were rightly concerned about international communism and subversion on the home front, but they should have been paying a bit more attention to the rise of the other major form of socialism. But as usual – and matching our approach to foreign policy during that era – anything “anti-communist” was good, no matter what (and no matter how insincere). So when the Soviets broke up, we instantly found ourselves in the grip of other powers. Of course they had been there all along – or at least for a good time. But the Cold War had distracted us from the danger, as does the “war on terror” now (and I guarantee that this is one of the main reasons for the war on terror – to distract us from the real issues).

However, an interesting thing has happened of late. The middle class, which Rand apparently considered “flyover country”, has not only yielded up a goodly portion of libertarians (of both the Randian and non-Randian sort) over the years, but also a goodly portion of the paleoconservatives... and it is also the driving force behind the “tea partiers”. In other words, a small portion of the middle class has awakened from its slumbers and is, at long last, starting to ask the tough questions – not of the old-time left wing but of the ruling elite, which is a cabal of business and government, and of liberals and neoconservatives. Now, given that the questions are, let's say, not all that philosophical in nature, consisting mostly of some variation on “Why are you doing this to us?” -- the fact that they are being asked at all is remarkable. And, I hasten to note, very few people were asking that question in 1957; at that time everyone was pursuing the mirage of a “mixed economy”, where business, labor, and government could peacefully coexist without at the same time threatening the survival of the middle class.

But here's the problem. Whereas in “Atlas Shrugged” the strong and powerful Atlases had some real power -- not to mention a sense of ethics -- and the proletariat, as always and by definition, had sheer numbers, the middle class of today has no real power – at least none that they are interested in using. And their numbers don't mean a thing as long as they can be intimidated into consistently voting against their own interests. The power of the ruling elite is being used against them, as are the sheer numbers of the underclass, so how can they defend themselves? The answer is, they can't, and no amount of town hall meetings or tea party rallies is going to change that. And yet, in a paradoxical way, the middle class can, in a sense, win this battle in the long run – but in order to do that they have to disappear. They can't head for Galt's Gulch because there is no such place – there is no shelter from the growing storm. And yet who is it that feeds the system? Whose resources and “surplus labor” are regularly accumulated and rolled up into profits and wealth for the ruling elite? Certainly not those of the underclass! No, it is still, after all, the middle class that is the economic base for the system as it is presently configured – which means that, as the middle class declines, which it inevitably will, so will the system that it supports, until it gets to the point where the system itself cannot stand, and something will have to take its place. We will then be back to the two-class system of the time before the Renaissance and before the Industrial Revolution; in fact, we will have achieved the communist ideal but through a different route – a vast underclass of workers ruled by an elite, with no one in between. But the question then arises, how can middle-class values survive a cataclysm like this? Will the masses be divided into two parts -- “never anything but underclass” and “formerly middle class”? I doubt this very much. As tempting as it might be to think, or hope, that middle-class values will somehow survive collectivism and impoverishment, it's more likely that the values, or attitudes, will wind up based on the poverty, deprivation, and squalor that the vast majority will then be subject to... and that's the point at which the ruling elite (and those with a true “proletariat consciousness”) will be surprised. Oh, undoubtedly the great, gray mass of workers will manage to put out a level of productivity greater than zero – this certainly happened in the Soviet Union and even in China. But that's never been enough to sustain a modern technologically-based civilization – for that you need, as dull and boring as it sounds, middle-class values and attitudes, and, in particular, the middle-class willingness to sacrifice some of its labor for the benefit of others (deserving or not)... and the middle-class willingness to contribute to the fortunes of the rich. Who, in the brave new world of Obama-ism, is going to be willing, or able, to make that sort of sacrifice? No one! The underclass will feel entitled to, basically, sit on their rear ends, just like now... and the ruling elite will be searching the landscape for someone to do the heavy lifting, which is now still being done by the middle class. But no one will be found – which means that the ruling elite will start feeling like Third World despots, and the aggregate prosperity and productivity of society will plummet.

So what I'm saying is what I've said before, in (hopefully) different words – that the ruling elite is, at present, killing the golden goose – namely the productive middle class, i.e. the middle class that is willing to work but have much of its productivity siphoned off (in both directions, up and down). Part of what sustains the system, which has already become outrageously exploitative, is middle-class rigidity and fear. Plus, it takes a weird kind of faith to believe that a government that takes so much, and gives back so little, is still a government worthy of support. You couldn't pull that scam on anyone else and get away with it – and yet the American middle class is so bovine, and so lulled into contentment by the public schools and the media, and by “patriotism”, that it goes along, year after year – with the exception of a few who finally wake up and start to focus, and that's where the town hall people and the tea partiers come from. But theirs are the bleats and protests of sheep being led to the slaughter – of a dying class that is on the way to being liquidated. But they will get even, in way, because those who are marching them to the killing fields will miss them when they're gone – but by then it will be too late, and how do you “grow” a middle class in a chaotic, hostile environment? I'm not sure you can – which leads me to think we may be in for a very long dark age.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

The Banality of Catastrophe

The passage of ObamaCare by Congress adds another item to the list of government programs that will, according to projections, take up the entire national budget within a decade or two. We already had entitlement programs, first among them being Social Security, on a projected course to bankrupt the treasury... to which one should add both current and proposed environmental (read: “global warming”) measures... and the endless wars... and the interest on the money we've already borrowed (and continue to borrow) to pay for things like bailouts, economic stimulus plans, wars, and so on. When you combine all of these programs, or clusters of programs, into a single vector, they will eventually add up to far more than the gross national product... and yet Congress blithely carries on, hoping for some sort of deus ex machina, like maybe UFOs will appear in the skies above Washington and friendly aliens will slither down spiral staircases carrying a million tons of gold bullion. Unlikely? Yes, but that appears to be the plan.

But in fact, catastrophes of any sort and of any size are seldom neat, clean, and surgically precise. The exceptions are so rare as to be noteworthy. For example, if you were a resident of Hiroshima or Nagasaki in August of 1945, you would have seen the world change in, literally, a flash. And one can always point to volcanic eruptions, hurricanes, tsunamis, etc. But most catastrophes are somewhat ponderous by the standards of our short-attention-span age. Even the Black Plague required a few years to do its work... and a recent book devoted to the topic, “Collapse” by Jared Diamond, shows that very few things go wrong overnight. How long did the fall of the Roman Empire take – certainly in the first rank among civilizational catastrophes, at least. And yet, by the time the political/military fall was complete, the empire was already being revived and reconstituted in an entirely new form by the Church. Most empires do not, in fact, fall even over the course of a lifetime; it can take many generations. The 20th Century provides a somewhat distorted view of the situation, with its 12-year “Thousand Year Reich” of the Nazis and the breakup of the Soviet Union after two-plus generations. Nazi Germany did not have an empire worthy of the name – only conquests. The Soviets, on the other hand, really did have an empire but were unable to hold onto it primarily because of fatal flaws in the Soviet system. (And yes, they did get a gentle push from Reagan, Thatcher, and Pope John Paul II, but that would not have been enough if the Soviets had had a sustainable and rational system.) Older empires, perhaps, provide better examples – starting with the European colonial empires and working back. They at least were predicated on the notion that an empire should be a good thing for the mother country, i.e. be profitable – unlike our current concept, which is that the more we invest the more successful we are, even if there is absolutely no return on investment. And perhaps it's true that the age of geographically- and militarily- based empires has passed, and we now have to look to international financial empires to find the real thing. This is, of course, highly disorienting, since throughout human history there has been a fixation on military conquest, occupation, and administration, with the economic benefits following along behind. But in our time, in many cases the military conquest part can be skipped, as can the occupation; only the administrative part needs care and feeding, since success depends on the installation and continual bribing of the right “leaders”. So while wars are still fought – at least in part – by men in uniform, they ultimately answer to men in expensive suits in high-rise buildings with tinted windows. The real warrior kings of our time have offices on Wall Street, and in London, Paris, Moscow, and so on. And you can even tell this by their attitude and demeanor! Take any number of titans of the financial world who periodically parade before Congress, basically daring our befuddled representatives to do anything about their predatory behavior. Where do you think these guys would have been in days of yore? In saddles atop a war horse, encased in armor, leading an army. That's why I'm saying that we are in a disorienting time – we truly don't understand what we are dealing with. Congress, for example, doesn't realize that, in dealing with the brigands of Wall Street they might as well be dealing with the Huns, or the Golden Horde -- people who have absolutely no interest in the economic welfare of the U.S. or its citizens, except to the extent that it's correlated with their own interests.

But to get back to the hand we are now holding – the impossible array of debt, and proposed debt, that everyone in power chooses to ignore. One possibility is that they ignore it because they know that it's impossible and absurd; these programs can never be paid for and the money already borrowed can never be paid back. So, what winds up taking the hit when that happens? There will be political hits for certain -- but no politician ever thinks beyond the next election. There will also be hits having to do with things like the currency, along with plenty of side effects in areas like employment, productivity, the service sector, and so on. Paradoxically, it is actually easier for an individual to go bankrupt and get away with it than it is for a country to do the same thing. The individual undergoes liquidation down to a certain point, and is then forgiven and allowed to rebuild his assets and credit with no further harassment. But when this happens to a nation, the liquidation can well be total and permanent – it might result in a revolution or a takeover by another nation (friendly or otherwise), and frequently the residual debts or reparations continue to haunt that nation and its people for generations. In other words, nothing is ever truly forgiven -- not really. And it is, in any case, the end of that nation's power and influence, at least until it can manage to build itself up again (which may never happen – and here we can readily see the influence of national character).

So, for instance, is the United States “too big to fail”, just as so many of our manufacturing and financial entities supposedly are? And who makes that call? The problem is that we have been bailing out other nations and other economies for decades... and this is partly the reason we're in the fix we're in. We've spend years, and billions, trying to create economic "mini-me's" around the world, whether or not the people in question had any interest in the matter or any ability to see it through. (And, to be honest, we have to admit that most of the "successes" were on the part of people who already knew the ropes. The failures were on the part of those who didn't know and didn't care, i.e. the majority.) But when we start to stagger and fall, who will bail us out? And even if they could, will they want to? The determination as to whether the “Age of America” on the world stage is over with will almost certainly not be ours; in fact, the decision may have already been made, and all we're seeing now is its implementation. Is it possible, for instance, that international financiers in Europe are conspiring with China to do us in – to render us, as I said in an earlier post, eyeless in Gaza? And don't say it couldn't happen – bigger and older empires than ours have been brought down by conspiracies of just that sort. And don't forget that, even with an economy in ruins, we would still be a country rich in resources – but now more or less helpless to defend ourselves against people interested in acquiring them. This is something people forget when they're talking about the Great Depression. It's not as if the United States disappeared – we still had land, people, manufacturing capability, infrastructure, and so on – we were still, compared to much of the world, the land of milk and honey. What we did not have was a healthy economy. There were imbalances and distortions, mostly caused by, and perpetuated by, the government. The difference is that, back then, the rest of the world was in at least a bad a fix as we were in... whereas in the current case I'm not sure that's true. Oh, certainly the Great Recession, or whatever it's being called, has had some trickle-down domino effects, and some people have borne the brunt to a greater degree than others – one thinks of Iceland, for instance. But overall? World wide? It's clear that some places aren't hurting a bit – and that, in fact, some places – and people, and organizations – have done nothing but profit from the economic woes of others. And while it's a logical fallacy to always judge intentions based on results, it's hard to believe that some of the people who came out of it “smelling like a rose” didn't have something to do with it in the first place. We know that there were massive manipulations going on for years before the crisis... massive manipulations during the crisis... and, right now, more massive manipulations as part of the so-called recovery. If the Great Depression didn't end anywhere near as soon as it should have, it's because a lot of people didn't want it to end; I imagine some of the same dynamics are working at present. Every man's misfortune is another's fortune... and this is true of nations as well, now perhaps more than ever. There is, after all, a finite – not easily countable but finite nonetheless – amount of wealth in the world. Wealth is seldom ever truly “lost” -- it just changes hands. Even the destruction wrought by war, famine, plague, etc. will eventually be balanced out by people and work. Could a better example in our time be provided than that of China? (On the other hand, there will always, I suppose, be Haitis in the world... )

These are all important considerations. But the main point I'm trying to make here is that, while our current and proposed governmental/economic vectors all point to the same thing, namely catastrophe, it is unlikely to be an overnight affair. We won't go to bed one night with currency worth something and wake up the next morning with it worth nothing. And what level of national debt per capita will turn out to be literally fatal? I mean, my share of the national debt could be a million dollars – or a billion. What's the difference if I can't pay it? Are they going to put me to work washing dishes in some restaurant in Hong Kong for ten million years? You see the absurdity of the situation. Even slaves have to be fed and clothed – otherwise the system collapses even faster; and is that what they want? See, long before any of these trends reach the “Hiroshima point”, or the “Black Death point”, the system will start to break down. Remember the population alarmists of the 1960s who predicted that, on a certain day not far into the future, everyone on Earth would starve to death? Pretty much at the same time? People on the Upper East Side of Manhattan would be in the same boat as residents of Mali. It would be food one day, and no food the next. Or – how about the notion that we're all going to run out of potable water at the same time... or breathable air? Or we're all going to succumb to the effects of the missing ozone layer? And for that matter, what ever happened to "heterosexual AIDS"? There was a film some years back – and I forget the title – but the premise was that the population of the Earth had grown so precipitously that now the entire planet resembled a subway platform in Tokyo during rush hour – standing room only. All, that is, except for one acre of green, open space which was the prize in a lottery. So at the end of the movie, the family that won the lottery is seen lounging in its own little greensward (fenced off, of course) while this densely-packed crowd consisting of Everyone Else On Earth mutters and mumbles in the background with a sound like a giant hive of bees.

But see, even allowing for poetic license, this is very seldom – hardly ever, in fact – the way things actually work, and I don't care whether you're talking about natural disasters, wars, famines, plagues, economic crises, or anything else. Not only are there frequently counter-forces at work, but the main force of the catastrophe tends to be self-limiting (think: “killer bees” -- where are they now?). Famines, for example, are seldom total; when the population goes down enough to match the remaining food supply, we can say that the crisis is past. A war can devastate a nation, or a countryside – but aren't there always some survivors? (There have to be, because otherwise who's going to fight the next war?) The Black Death changed the face of Europe – permanently in many ways – but civilization did, in fact, survive.

So what can we expect in the current situation? Sudden and catastrophic, and simultaneous, failure of all major government programs, along with the economy and the currency? An overnight return to tribalism and a barter economy? Mass migrations of the sick, the homeless, and the starving? A thousand civil wars fought on every imaginable level? No – and it's not because negligence on the part of the government could not go that far. Clearly it could. But what I'm saying is that it won't happen because it's impossible; something else will happen first. In fact, many “something elses” will happen first, and it's not by any means certain what the dynamics will be. If you take any historical upheaval, movement, or trend, the “straight-line” projection would have given you one answer, but actual outcomes provide another. I always think, for example, of the “black power” movement that was so prominent in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Militant, heavily-armed, radical blacks were busily taking over neighborhoods and even entire cities, and who knew when, or how, it would end? But a funny thing happened on the way to a black American utopia. A lot of the leaders wound up dead or in jail... others softened their rhetoric or simply left the scene... and others got co-opted by politics and the power structure. So the wave washed over the country, but when it receded things were left pretty much intact. The New Deal is still very much with us, but it doesn't have nearly the sharp, cutting edge that it did in its heyday – although I must admit that ObamaCare looks and feels mighty New Dealish to me. And hey, let's not forget the blessedly-short Era of Jimmy Carter, when all “indicators” pointed to a sudden and irrevocable decline in America's fortunes, both at home and abroad. Ronald Reagan, whatever his faults, didn't buy the hype and decided to do something about it – and enough people agreed with him to actually make it happen. And maybe that's all you need much of the time – sufficient numbers to imagine, and believe, that things can be, and ought to be, different. Will this still be possible as the dead hand of national debt weighs ever more heavily on the populace, and the economy? Hard to say. Certainly a spiritual renewal is always possible, regardless of how dire our economic straits are. But in either case, at some point people have to become truly radicalized – more radicalized than they have ever been in American history. And this, I suspect, is the least likely scenario – at least for the current generation. But if the next generation ever gets in touch with the absurdity of what they have been left with, we might see some real hope, and real change.

Friday, March 19, 2010


Hey, say what you want about local politics, but they do tend to deal with real issues that have traction among the voters. Like the latest brainstorm to come out of the mayor's office – the idea of taxing “sweetened beverages” at the rate 2 cents per ounce. This – as you might predict – is a form of “sin tax” designed to both make money and to discourage consumption of junk beverages. Problem is, the more successful you are with the latter the less successful you'll be with the former – and hence the perennial, illogical hypocrisy of a local government desperate to bail itself out of bottomless financial crises. Pittsburgh is a textbook case of the flaws inherent in the “continual growth” model of city management – the idea that, as long as the population continues to increase, we can put off, indefinitely, the day of reckoning when it comes to infrastructure costs and entitlements. But then they accelerate that day of reckoning by imposing ever more onerous taxes on business and residents, causing both to flee... and leaving the city with a shrinking tax base but – surprise! -- no corresponding shrinkage in infrastructure costs or entitlements. So in desperation, they pile on to the remaining tax base, thereby causing another migration out of town... and so on. Oh yes, and meanwhile they beg for handouts from the state government and from anyone else who will listen. And I guess it wouldn't help to point out that sweetened beverages are only as cheap as they are because of federal government subsidies and preferences for the corn industry. So the incompetent and corrupt have, once again, met on the field of battle, and I don't know who to root against first.

I have to admit, I glazed over months ago on the issue of health care. The only thing I can guarantee is that, whatever they come up with, it will damage the parts of the system that are working and not improve the parts that are broken or non-functional. Count on it.

And, oh yeah, back to Pittsburgh – the police department loaned someone $10,000 “in seized drug money” as a partial ransom for an alleged kidnap victim. The result – the kidnapping was a hoax, and the perps got away with the $10K. Looks like the benefits of a sting operation have not been lost on the criminal element...

And here we go again with Eric Holder – the guy who may be the Obama administration's answer to James Watt and Joycelyn Elders. Fresh from making every possible argument in favor of trying the 9/11 conspirators in the heart of Manhattan, he now claims that Osama will never be taken alive, so we don't have to worry about any kind of trial. Wow, don't you wish you could see into the future as clearly as he can... or as he claims he can? He guarantees – absolutely, positively – that the 9/11 conspirators will be convicted, even as the case starts to fray around the edges. And then he guarantees – just as absolutely and positively – that Osama will never see light of day in New York City... never glimpse the Statue of Liberty... never be forced to contemplate his sins at Ground Zero. The whole thing is just too sad for words.

America has the most jailed population of any country on earth – and, as I've said before, this is because it has more laws that can be readily violated than any country on earth. And more are being drawn up and passed each day – that's the scary part. We still don't have enough! And I imagine that we won't have enough until we somehow manage to work things out so that every American citizen is, by definition, a lawbreaker. But wait, isn't that the definition of “police state”? But, on the other hand, the sheer cost of maintaining prisons at all levels has given some people second thoughts – especially state legislators. Now, all of a sudden, it seems that there are more important things than keeping a substantial portion of the populace in jail – things like avoiding bankruptcy. And as Gov. Schwarzenegger pointed out recently, the federal government can always print more money, but state governments can't (another argument, perhaps, for going back to the Articles of Confederation). Of course, contributing to the problem is the concept that prisons have to be at least as comfortable as the former residences of most of the inmates – an idea that never had all that much currency prior to the last couple of decades, and then only in the U.S. and certain parts of Northern and Western Europe. In most of the world, prisons are places one definitely wants to stay away from. In this country, I understand, many prisoners are more or less indifferent as to whether they're in jail or outside – conditions pretty much add up to the same thing. In fact, it seems that some parolees and ex-cons have taken to throwing the odd brick through a window just to get back in jail, with its “three hots and a cot” -- luxuries which are by no means guaranteed on the outside. What interests me, however, is that this incarceration-reducing trend goes against not only the age-old program of the law enforcement lobby, but also against Puritanism, which I regard as the most deep-rooted part of the American psyche. Could it be that we have, at long last, started to recover from that madness? Or is it just the expediency of the moment, and the core attitudes remain unchanged?

There's been increasing commentary to the effect that President Obama is a bit of a egotist and has overly-high self-regard. But I don't think that's fair. I just think that he has too much of a tendency to believe what he reads in the papers and sees on TV.

It's hard to believe, but Pittsburgh, which was completely snowbound only a few weeks ago, is now enjoying balmy, spring-like weather, with nary a trace of snow remaining. All the signs of spring are here – mainly the sound of motorcycles plying up and down the major thoroughfares at all hours of day and night, leaving a massive carbon footprint and causing extreme noise pollution. The rule of thumb for Pittsburghers is, if you can't do it on wheels while making a lot of noise, it's not worth the bother. So at any given time, the populace can be neatly divided into two groups – the ones sitting on their ass, and the ones sitting on their ass while in motion. Walking is considered somewhat of an eccentricity and a reason for suspicion – and as to running, or jogging, or exercise, or “physical fitness”? Hey, my grandfather worked for 50 years in the steel mills, and he got enough exercise for not only himself but all his descendants. So gimme another beer, wouldja? You gotta love this place – not only is it politically incorrect at times, it's also socio-culturally incorrect, which may be the bigger sin in the eyes of the levelers. After having lived in the D.C. area all those years – with all the politicized, power-crazed robots -- living among people who don't mind scratching their butt in public is more than refreshing.

Biden Comes Home, Missing Some Insignificant Body Parts

If I were to edit an encyclopedia – unlikely, but hey, it could happen -- the entry for “U.S.-Israeli Relations” would be no more than Pat Buchanan's column from St. Patrick's Day (coincidence? I'd rather take it as an omen). It basically tells you all you need to know about the topic, and I recommend that you read it before doing anything else. It can be found at:


Really, nothing more need be said. The title of the column is “The poodle gets kicked”, and I naturally thought that the “poodle” was Joe Biden. But, sadly, Buchanan is thinking bigger than that. Apparently the poodle is America itself – because he says “we got what grovelers deserve”. Note the word “we” and not just “he”. And it's absolutely true, of course – American politicians grovel, and never is heard a world of protest from the citizenry. This has to rank as the most successful brainwashing program in all of human history.

However, Buchanan does commit a bit of a logical boo-boo at the end of the column. He says: “Israeli and U.S. interests often run parallel, but they are not the same. Israel is concerned with a neighborhood. We are concerned with a world of 300 million Arabs and a billion Muslims.” But actually, the only reason we're “concerned with a world of 300 million Arabs and a billion Muslims” is that we have made enemies of them all through our support of Israel. Otherwise, we would be no more concerned with them than we are with any other large racial/ethnic/religious group. (How “concerned” were we with them prior to the establishment of the State of Israel, for example?) But Israel is concerned with much more than its immediate neighborhood; it's concerned – as it should be – with the entire Muslim world. So Pat has things a bit backwards here, but the rest of the column is a masterpiece and a show of astounding bravery.

And as far as all the media gab about a “rift” or “breach”, it seems that the whole thing was a false alarm – at least that's the way it's being spun. The AP says “the rhetoric from both capitals suddenly softened”; Joe Biden is already making light of the situation; and Hillary Clinton “brushed aside suggestions U.S.-Israeli relations are in crisis and reaffirmed America's steadfast commitment to its security,” according to an AP article. And this is in spite of the Israeli ambassador to the U.S. saying “the standoff between the United States and Israel had become 'a crisis of historic proportions'”. Guess he must not have gotten the word. Oh, and -- “experts predicted a period of stormy relations.” Wonder who whose “experts” are, and why they didn't realize that things were already OK again.

And thus, the waters converge and once again all is calm... and the incident is history. Actually, no, it's not even that – it will be thrown down the memory hole and never mentioned again. Now, anyone who doesn't think this entire episode was meticulously programmed, scripted, and timed for maximum impact hasn't been paying attention. What happened was about as “spontaneous and unrehearsed” as a professional wrestling match. You know -- “I'll give you a body slam, and you'll pretend to get mad, and my manager will hit you over the head with a folding chair..” and so on. As entertainment value, there's something to it; as real, bonafide diplomacy it's a total crock. And listen to how the media style the issue: “The Obama administration must decide how far it is willing to go to enforce its political will on Israel, which enjoys strong popularity among Americans.” Oh, right – the U.S. government is fully prepared to be an honest broker and “enforce its political will” -- you know, that thing that vanished without a trace right after World War II. But those doggone American citizens – well, they're just so pro-Israel that Obama's hands are tied. Have you ever heard such nonsense? The message is, "We'd love to do something about Israel -- get tough -- but you won't let us."

The reason that incidents like this have to be replayed in a thousand variations is not entirely clear, but I think it goes something like this: There has to be a groundswell of skepticism from the American grass roots concerning our “relationship” with Israel – it's been way too incestuous, way too cozy, for way too many years. And not only that, it's visibly destroying our economy and making us into a rogue state as far as much of the world is concerned. So what do you do, politically, in a case like that? You do something to demonstrate that things aren't all that cozy, and that we're still “our own man” -- in other words you, from time to time, come up with an “incident”, a skirmish of some sort, that reassures people that our leaders have not totally subordinated American interests to those of Israel, and that there is still an occasional “frank and healthy debate at the highest levels”. So someone – Joe Biden in this case – offers to be the Bobo Doll, and get knocked around a bit, in exchange for which he gets to utter a few stern words in the high-pitched voice of a eunuch, which are followed by a lower-key rebuttal, and then even lower-key expressions of reconciliation – and hey, that young couple in the apartment upstairs? They squabble and fight a lot, but in the end they always kiss and make up. And each winds up stronger in the end. Except in our case, we wind up – well, not actually weaker but visibly weaker. Because even if this scam works on the American public (which it clearly does) it most definitely does not work in the Arab/Islamic world. With each new incident, they see us as even bigger, more abject bumbling fools, as well as servants, gofers, and slaves. Which means, basically, that they have even less interest in dealing with us as mediators, since we don't merit respect and are not acting from a position even remotely resembling impartiality. So the next time we wade back into the Palestinian situation, we are even more emasculated than before, even more obviously doing Israel's bidding, and even less credible. Which makes one wonder, why do we even bother? Why keep up the pretense? And the answer to this is multifaceted, as I've discussed on other occasions. Part of it is our ongoing delusion that we represent “democracy”, and the only valid form thereof – and that our God-given burden is to “spread” it throughout the world. And inseparable from this delusion is that Israel is an ideal democracy – particularly for the Middle East, where we style it the only “real” democracy over there. So if you're pro-democracy you have to be pro-Israel; end of argument. But then we have other influences, like the Christian Zionists, who wield an astonishing amount of political power in this country – no matter which party is in power. Then, of course, there is the all-seeing eye of the Israel lobby and the Israeli intelligence services – who seem to be able to scare the crap out of any American politician, and as always I ask why? I mean, seriously, what are these clowns afraid of? What do they think will happen to them if they don't cooperate? I guess it's not unlike what happens when the Mafia takes over a city, or a country, or a statehouse – one doesn't have to spell out the “or else” in detail; it's enough to know that the people in charge can to anything, at any time, to whomever they please.

I could also mention the “usual suspects” -- arms makers and what not – but that would not distinguish the present issue from any other hot, cold, or lukewarm war that involved military actions or the threat thereof. And as for the Neocons, who share the power triumvirate with the Israel lobby and the Christian Zionists, their agenda when it comes to Israel is indistinguishable from that of Israel itself – so you can collapse them together with the Israel lobby. At any rate, the aggregate power and influence of these various interest groups far exceeds that of any other political entity or grouping in the country, which is why, no matter what happens on the surface, their firm hold on our government and on foreign policy will never be broken – at least not by any force from within.

Well, actually, having a eunuch in the second-highest office in the land is not necessarily a bad thing – I understand some of them were quite competent administrators in imperial China. But it really makes me wonder what makes guys like Biden tick – they are like beaten dogs; the more they are abused the more they run back for more, with their tails wagging. And even Hillary, the attack dog par excellence, has fallen into this trap. I suppose it's the age-old psychology of the victim; at least the abuser is the devil you know, and it gives you an excuse for not taking any risks in order to improve your situation and regain your self-respect.

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Whose Fault Line Is It, Anyway?

The nexus that has formed between Paleoconservatism and Libertarianism – starting, if memory serves, with George W. Bush attacking Afghanistan and Iraq... and, by implication, Islam in general, AKA “everybody who doesn't like Israel” -- has reached a new level of intensity and camaraderie under Obama. Suddenly a bunch of – to vastly oversimplify – atheists and anarchists has found common cause with believers in traditional American values, including religion and (if properly limited) government. And this common cause, rather than being confined to speculations in limited-circulation “journals of opinion”, has been all over the news recently.

But first, a tidbit of history. The Paleocons broke through the media wall when the Neocons stepped on their collective shvantz over Iraq... and the Libertarians broke through when their political party actually started showing up on both local and national ballots. And since then, they have found even more common cause in jointly rejecting Bush/Obama style socialism, which is kind of like fascism except for the fancy uniforms. Not only that, but the most prominent fault line within the Republican Party, and within the ranks of conservatives, seems to revolve around the Neocon vs. Paleocon + Libertarian split. Which is to say, it's not about religion vs. atheism (or agnosticism at least), and it's not even about social issues like “abortion rights” vs. the right to life. No – it's about the answer to two questions.

The first is, should the government be involved in every imaginable aspect of the lives of its citizens, and should it drive them into poverty in order to support (and justify) that program? Another way of putting this is, should the U.S. government be as totalitarian as possible consistent with traditional American values as embodied in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution? (That last sentence was a joke; I hope you caught it.) And contrary to the traditional duality and the propaganda pushed by the MSM, this question does not, in any meaningful sense, divide mainstream Republicans, i.e. Necons, from Democrats, i.e. liberals or “progressives” (as the Democrats have subtly renamed their political stance). Both of these believe in big government – in overwhelmingly big government, in fact; the differences are at the margins, i.e. in what areas of life does government most need to assert its bigness? This is on what is called the “domestic” side.

The other question is, should the U.S. government – and, by implication, Americans in general, including the military – take it upon itself to force “democracy” down the throats of any and all other countries, including the most benighted and hopeless? And should it do this in willful ignorance of the social customs, traditions, values, beliefs, economies, etc. of those countries? And especially, should it do this in the face of outright hostility, or at least disinterest, in the “democratic process” and all of its trappings, shown by the country in question? And even more especially, should it do this when the entire effort is a transparent scam, whose real purpose is empire expansion – trade, oil, etc. -- or some other equally-obvious political, economic, or military agenda?

The answers to these two questions will, in nearly all cases, divide the populace neatly into two camps, albeit of grossly unequal size. You will have anti-war conservatives answering “no” and “no”... Neocons and liberals answering “yes” (if they're honest) and “yes”... and I can't offhand imagine too many people opting for the other two possibilities. Totalitarianism on the home front combined with “isolationism”? When's the last time we saw that? (Some thought it was possible during the New Deal, but it turns out it wasn't.) Or, limited government combined with empire-building? Ah, but that's what the mainstream conservatives say they want – pare government down to the bone, but retain the largest military in human history to go along with a “muscular” foreign policy (that means, if other countries don't do as we suggest, we attack and occupy them). But the mistake they make is that it is simply impossible to have this empire-building, democracy-spreading attitude along with limited government; it simply can't be done. Now, some might say that we were doing plenty of international huffing and puffing under Teddy Roosevelt, but the government was quite limited back then, compared to now. And we didn't actually occupy, or have military bases in, that many places. Or even when Wilson plunged us headlong into World War I, the government was relatively limited (in scope, even if more totalitarian, in some ways, than today). And my answer is, sure, it's possible in the short run, but in the long run the military-industrial complex will make demands on the economy, and the citizenry, that require ever-increasing control of both. Start with taxes, and then add “national security”... and you've already made great strides toward social control. And admittedly, after World War I we did have a brief period of relative isolationism combined with relative economic freedom – but all of that came to an abrupt end with the Great Depression (on the economic side) and World War II (on the military/foreign policy side)... and guess what, most of those “emergency” measures taken to salvage the economy during the 1930s are still in place, and all of the military structures built up in order to fight World War II are still in place. So it might be said that we have a perpetual depression/perpetual war economy and system of government – no surprise to the Paleocons or the Libertarians, and just starting to dawn on groups like the “tea partiers” (who are, basically, conservatives of neither the “neo” or “paleo” stripe – it's just that current events have finally gotten their attention). (Call them "populists" if you like -- but of the conservative rather than the secular humanist variety.)

This fault line was brought out in sharp relief at the recent CPAC convention, where there was a chorus of boos, presumably from the Neocon side, in response to the news that Ron Paul had won the straw poll for the presidential election of 2012. Are you going to see that much excitement in a meeting of liberals/progressives/Democrats? Not bloody likely – they're all walking around with rings in their noses. So in this sense there is far more life in conservative than in liberal ranks – but I believe we have always known this. Liberals are, basically, dead souls who have adopted a completely mistaken view of human nature – in all its psychological, sociological, and biological complexity. And most of their behavior – public and private – is predicated on the rage they feel when their world view repeatedly clashes with reality. So they make up for this failing by proposing ever more outrageous “programs” that are an affront to all that makes us truly human. They are, in other words, trying to turn us into their ideal – namely that of blind, unthinking animals who need perpetual shepherding in order to survive. Conservatives, on the other hand, are more likely to be willing to accept the fallen condition of the human race and of the world in general, and willing to work with humanity as it is, “warts and all”, and not as it “should” be.

But in any case, we know that our work is not yet done when a very large roomful of “conservatives” erupts in boos and catcalls at the mention of Ron Paul. Those few who realize that he represents what they have long since sold for a mess of pottage should slink off and hide their heads in shame. Instead, they wave flags more furiously and bellow out buzz words like “Islamofascism” -- which makes about as much sense as “Buddhocommunism” or “Judeovegetarianism”. The real question, however, is not about conservatives in general or the Republicans – it's about whether the fragile coalition between Paleocons and Libertarians can hold together and continue to form what is basically the conscience of conservatism – ignored tho' it may be (and despite the likelihood that the last thing a typical Libertarian wants is to be placed in that role). One problem is that the Libertarians also share many articles of faith with liberals – but, once again, not with the mainstream but with the more radical, i.e. principled, left, who are not always wrong about everything (there, I said it!). Things like legalization of drugs, for example, which causes most conservatives of any stripe to shy away. Libertarians also tend to be dead-set against any form of nationalism – but this is not to say they are globalists or “one-worlders” either. It would be more accurate to say they share many values with the distributists, who were followers of Catholic social teaching – that social teaching that came about in response to the challenges posed by the Industrial Revolution, socialism, and communism. But then how many Libertarians are comfortable breaking bread with the Catholic Church? They have much more in common than either party wants to admit, and yet there is an awkwardness. For one thing, Libertarians also tend to gravitate toward capitalism – the pure form advocated by Ayn Rand and which is perfectly consistent with everything the Founding Fathers ever wrote or thought. The Catholic Church, on the other hand, and consistent with its social teaching, tends of favor a “third way” based not on collectivism or capitalism, AKA free enterprise, but on distributism, as mentioned above, and most of all on charity – of the voluntary kind, of course, rather than the forced kind we are so familiar with.

One can hope that unity in the face of adversity will be sufficient – kind of like in the old sci-fi movies where every nation on earth joins forces to fight off the alien invaders. This could work indefinitely, in fact, until (in the unlikely event) the Paleocon/Libertarian partnership acquires some real political power – and then let the fun begin. The falling-out would, most likely, be around questions on the role of religion... “legislating morality”... abortion... nationalism... free trade vs. tariffs... in short, anything that would set the ideal Paleocon world apart from the ideal Libertarian world. And don't forget, even within the Libertarian community there is a wide scale of belief in limited government vs. no government... and don't expect the Paleocons to take the side of the anarchists very soon (even though, at this moment in time, they can agree on many things having to do with our current state of government). Heck, as far as that goes, there are Paleocons out there who are nostalgic for monarchy -- despite the ongoing bad example set by the British "royals".

So the ultimate question would be, could everyone in this uneasy partnership fully enjoy their freedoms – according to their definition thereof – in a context set by any, or even one, of the various subgroups? In other words, could the Paleocons find contentment in a Libertarian world... or vice versa? Can the anarchists find contentment in... well, in any world but their own? And as I've said, these are questions that are unlikely to come up in our lifetime, if ever... and yet they are worth considering if one is concerned with the here-and-now health of “real” conservatism, and of the motley crew that supported Ron Paul. He is only one man, and yet he seemed to attract them all. But again, it only gets tougher when you win.

Monday, March 15, 2010

The Gathering Storm

You may recall my recent prediction that, sooner or later, China and Israel are going to have to go to war, either directly or by proxy. The prize? The dwindling, but still formidable, resources of the United States. The irony? If the war is by proxy, we will be Israel's proxy; in other words, we will be fighting to insure their right not only to exist but to continue to drain us dry -- politically, diplomatically, economically, and militarily. As I commented before, there may have been another episode in recorded history as absurd as this, but if there was I have yet to hear of it.

One small sign that the timetable for all of this continues to advance is the “lecture” Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao gave the U.S., just yesterday, on the subjects of currency and foreign policy. Wen, according to the article, was “directing (the U.S.) to change its foreign policy to improve relations with China.” In other words, do as we say and shut up – a line remarkably similar to the one we've been hearing from Israel all these years. So China "directs", but Israel is "she who must be obeyed", to quote a line from a prominent conservative columnist. And unless their priorities are identical -- ha ha -- we're in a heap of trouble.

So China is going to “generally pursue a relatively tough line in its relations with the United States this year.” Is that anything like the “tough line” we seem to be moving toward with Israel, in the wake of their humiliation of Joe Biden? No, because in China's case it's for real.

And this currency issue is interesting as well. We seem to be afraid that China is “keeping the value of the yuan artificially low”. But their currency has no real backing (e.g. in gold), just like ours, right? So who is to say? Without a solid, objective backing, no currency has any value other than that assigned by the people who print it – or the currency traders who trade it. It's entirely artificial, in other words. So our house of cards called “the dollar” is only worth what other countries are willing to, in effect, pay for it, which means that if they aren't willing to pay, it could collapse in a heap. But if its any consolation, China is in the same boat – so what we have is a kind of Mexican standoff, currency-wise. When we politely ask China to raise the value of its currency, what we're really asking them to do is lower the value of ours. But as a debtor nation, this would be to our advantage; everybody wants to borrow high and pay back low. We might wind up like debtors in Germany in 1923 who chased their creditors through the streets with wheelbarrows full of money, demanding to be allowed to pay off now-worthless loans.

As to how things came to this sorry pass, at least part of the credit goes to the fact that, doggone it, Americans are just too big-hearted and generous for their own good. For decades now, every time anyone has asked us for money for any reason, we've given it to them. So we've been like a drunken millionaire staggering through the Bowery, like in an old Chaplin comedy. But we've never neglected “domestic needs” either, and our system of welfare and entitlements is the envy of... well, nobody any longer, since they can all see where it led. And then we're constantly having to destroy the economy in order to save it -- through things like earmarks, subsidies, bailouts, and economic stimulus plans -- all of which lead to more, and even more intractable, debt. Plus, you know, we're a “peace-loving nation”, and the only reason we spend more on our military than all other nations combined is that, doggone it, they just can't leave each other alone. And they can't leave us alone. And we can't just sit there and “take it”, like a bunch of girly men – so we have to go out and, basically, set up military occupations in nearly the entire world, 'cause it's the only way to keep the peace.

Now, notice – when it comes to China, our biggest rival at this point, they have somehow avoided all of those perfectly understandable – honorable, even! -- mistakes. On the domestic side, they expect their citizenry to live, with rare exceptions, in a state of austerity that would send American welfare recipients into the streets. And on the foreign side, they only help other countries when they can see a clear return on investment. And on the military side, why should they be the ones to police the world when we're already doing it (and failing)? There are far more efficient ways to exert power and expand an empire – ones that actually work, even. They have learned from our follies – but we have yet to learn from their successes. And we cling to the notion that China's achievements aren't “real” because they are still, at least in theory, communist – or at least socialist, or collectivist, or totalitarian, or something. But none of this seems to matter; for some reason – possibly anchored in the Chinese national character – capitalist-type success and collectivist-type government and economics can coexist quite nicely. (And as usual, we grossly underestimate national character as a factor in history, assuming that there is only one national character, and that's the American one... and that everyone in the world would act, and think, like Americans if only they were given the chance.)

So this paper tiger called China – relatively new on the world economic scene – is beating us black and blue. Not only that, but it's buying up all of our debt, which is a euphemism for “taking over our economy”. And these folks are patient, have no doubt. They lived through the worst predations of Maoism and the Cultural Revolution, and have come out stronger, and more realistic and level-headed than we are (or have ever been). They are, truly, more dangerous now than they ever were when Mao was testing nukes out in Lop Nur. But are they a threat to “the American way of life”? I say no, because the American way of life is already a thing of the irretrievable past. They are, however, a threat to the American way of self-delusion, which is all that is keeping us going at this point. And frankly, I would be willing to trade that in for a cold dose of reality – because after that, there might actually be some hope of recovering our own national character.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Unbearable Bigness of Ben

I guess to get a point across to the baseline populace of Pittsburgh, especially those who are of the “sports fan” persuasion, any attempt at subtlety is considered a gigantic waste of time. Hence, we have these tidbits, all from a single article by a local reporter concerning Ben Roethlisberger's latest off-field misadventure:

o “... Roethlisberger and his posse of beefy buddies...”
o “... those big ol' boys...”
o “... several very large males...”
o “... seven to nine other large men...”
o “... a group of big guys...”
o “They were all big.”
o “We call them the 'linemen' because they're so big.”

Has anyone gotten the point yet? We're talking big here. Massive, huge. The kind of guys who could darken the door of a dirigible hangar, or swallow Fat Albert in one gulp. I'm talking big. Like, if you're anywhere in the building when these guys walk in, you think an earthquake has struck, and immediately start filling out FEMA paperwork for disaster assistance.

And of course, in this swirling sea of bigness... this maelstrom of hugeness... Big Ben is the Biggest of the Big. He is large and in charge. He is the Sun, and all the other barons of bigness circle around him in orbits of various shapes and sizes. And of course, generously peppered through this solar system of size are all the hangers-on, toadies, gofers, groupies, bimbos, and assorted parasites, barnacles, and leeches of both sexes – think of an entire world made up of Macy's parade-sized floats of the Chippendale men, plus a countless number of Kato Kaelins. And all they want is to touch the hem of his garment, and be photographed with him. (Well, some of them might want a bit more, but...) In fact, think any tribal chief, his ministers, and the rabble. Think Hitler and his entourage... or Stalin and his underlings standing atop Lenin's tomb. This is the shape, in other words, of the most primitive of human societies – the strong man, his goons, and everyone else – a model that is still alive and well in sub-Saharan Africa as well as in criminal gangs... not to mention Wall Street and politics. It prospers, in other words, when the people involved have nothing better to offer, and nothing better to hope for – either because they have given up hoping for anything more, or they don't realize there _is_ anything more.

And really, there is nothing to object to in this model of social organization, as long as it's understood that it is, indeed, the most primitive of them all. You could go back 10,000 years in human history and scenes like Big Ben's barhopping would be as familiar then as they are now. The amazing thing is how many people still consider this the epitome of social activity and “fun” (of both the direct and vicarious sorts). And it's also not uncommon for people with little or no power – that would be most of us – latching on to people with considerable power... or at least the illusion of power... the “charisma” of power, if you will. Perfectly understandable – just simple human nature, right?

But I'm wondering if the writer of the above-referenced article is really as much in awe of Big Ben's bigness, and the bigness of his disciples, as the typical sports fan is... or if he's trying to weave a skillful satire, or lampoon, of this particular fetish. Does he consider Ben & Co. to be truly awe-inspiring and admirable, or a bunch of dumb jocks and fools who don't know how to stay out of trouble? It's hard to say... and it's even harder to say what the aggregate attitude about all of this is among Big Ben's fans. If it's true that he can do no wrong, then his accuser is just another rent-seeking bimbo. But if he is flawed enough to have done what he's accused of, then their idol has feet of clay, and it will be hard to forget all that the next time he takes the field -- “if” he takes the field again, of course. I imagine the main topic of discussion among Steelers management these days is, do we cut our losses and wipe the slate clean and move on, leaving Big Ben to his own devices... or do we wait upon the turning of the wheel of justice? And of course the determining factor, as always, will be the impact on the bottom line. Is Ben more of a liability than an asset at this point? Has he gone the way of Tiger Woods? Because if he has, he'll be cut, fired, and exiled without mercy, even though the people who do the deed don't make one tenth of what he makes. But that's the paradox of power in the world today – it's correlated with wealth, but not synonymous with it... and it's correlated with bigness as well, but there's a limit to everything -- and for that we can all be thankful.