Wednesday, June 30, 2010

The Sin of Wages

A news article caught my eye a few weeks ago, but I've held off commenting on it until I had what I call some “mental elbow room”. Fortunately, the political events of the past few weeks, in their gray, bland, inane sameness and predictability, have provided such – the Obama administration more than earning its stripes as the third term of George W. Bush. The economy recalls the satirical line of poetry, “under the spreading atrophy”... and our suicidal dedication to hopeless wars reminds me of nothing so much as moths streaming toward a bug light of a summer evening. It really does seem, at times, that the “American system” will indeed end with a whimper, not a bang – with plenty of contenders waiting in the wings to take up the slack. We are faced, across a remarkably narrow ocean, by many lean and hungry peoples and nations – China, India, a Russia that is busily trying to reinvent itself... not to mention all of the countless Islamic hordes that have already made Western Europe their home... and the Hispanic hordes that have laid claim to vast tracts of the southwestern U.S., and have penetrated as far as the northern plains and New England. What little is left of “the America we knew and grew up in” is starting to seem more and more like that bedraggled band of survivors clinging to a flimsy raft in the old shipwreck paintings... or to an isolated rock in renditions of the Deluge.

But as I've said before, those who search for “the heart of America” search in vain – because that heart is a heart of darkness, for all of the false light of the “Enlightenment” and the (more apparent than genuine) triumph of “ideas” like “democracy”. People – like Pat Buchanan, for instance – who believe that the United States is only now being battered against the rocks of collectivism and humanism haven't taken a serious look at American history... or if they have, they haven't absorbed its lessons. We are, as many have pointed out, an “ideational” society – but those ideas, and ideals, have, from the very start, run up against human nature in all of its perversity and concupiscence. To begin with, much of this country -- or, more precisely, the American colonies -- were founded by religious fanatics -- Protestant ones at that, who made the Taliban look like a group of jaded Frenchmen sitting around a cafe table sipping on pastis. But that was before the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, so we no longer have to make excuses for those folks, right? But then the country was founded -- by landed gentry, by and large (and Freemasons to boot) -- and already before the Civil War we had a populist of sorts – Andrew Jackson – ascend to power as a counterforce to the ruling elite who had been in charge up to that point. Why did a nation “of the people, by the people, and for the people” need a populist? Simply because the rich and powerful tend to hold on to their wealth and their power – that's just elementary human nature. The “elite” can almost be defined by their distrust of “the people” -- and, frankly, that distrust is oftentimes well-justified. Think of populism, and popular movements – not only on the national level, but on the provincial and local levels as well. How often do they represent the result of philosophical consideration, healthy debate, and enlightened discourse (even on the “town hall meeting” level)? Hardly ever, is my conclusion. Lest we forget, the lynchings of the post-Civil War era were populist acts, on the local level – as were the anti-Catholic riots of the pre-Civil War era. In both cases, “the people” spoke – but it was a tale told by an idiot. And what would most of our wars have been without mass hysteria and “the delusion of crowds”? Politicians have always taken advantage of the worst, most primitive human impulses – both of individuals and groups. And the only reason politicians are higher on the evolutionary scale than their victims is that they have some degree of insight – they see opportunities and take them, whereas the “booboisie”, as Mencken called them, only see what is in front of their noses. In fact, they don't even see that in this age of TV and the Internet; they only see what others show them, and only “know” what others tell them about what they see. So they are living life second- or third-hand, and vicariously at best. It's a sad state of affairs, truly.

But, unlike Pat Buchanan and so many of the other “paleocons”, I don't see any of this as a contradiction of the true essence of America and American society – I see it, rather, as a logical consequence... as a reductio ad absurdum of things that have been going on since the beginning... because the problem with an “ideational” society is that if its ideas are wrong, or flawed in some way, or based on faulty premises, this tends to, over time, to become amplified and exaggerated to such a degree that said society would be barely recognizable to its founders – and yet, in a sense, it is the end result of distortions in their thinking, and errors in their implementation of their ideas.

Take one simple and obvious example, which has been pointed out any number of times, beginning (?) with de Tocqueville – that any society in which people are able to vote money out of their neighbors' pockets and into their own is bound to fail in the long run. Well – it took a while, maybe much longer than de Tocqueville envisioned – but sure enough, our time of economic failure is here, and the primary reason is exactly that – involuntary redistribution of wealth, mainly income, on the part of the government. But this is nothing new, since there were plenty of “Daddy Warbucks” types prowling the landscape at least as far back as the Civil War... and the golden age of welfare had its precursors in the populist movement, got greatly accelerated during the New Deal, and reached a fever pitch in the postwar era. None of this would have been possible without the government's power to tax – anyone, at any time, for any amount, for any reason. And the mealy-mouthing about how it's, after all, “our own elected representatives” who approved most of these taxes – that, again, is to ignore human nature. It takes a person of heroic virtue to go to Washington to serve in Congress without become part of the machine – and most people, politicians in particular, simply aren't up to it. This is, in fact, one of the major systemic flaws with big government – that even if it “works” on some level, it is far too corrupting to ever be done in a legitimate, detached, principled way. We always associate the saying “Power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely” with characters like Louis XIV, but any U.S. president, or Congress, is also far above that threshold – the point at which corruption is almost inevitable, given the, again, weakness of human nature even in normal people, to say nothing of politicians, who tend to be morally and ethically marginal to begin with. So when we start to get indignant about “corruption in high places”, we should remember that the cure is not to “throw the rascals out”, but to get rid of the “high places”. Nothing else is going to work. The problem, of course, is that the size of government tends to be driven by the number of people governed, and the geographical area in question. And this is why the concepts of distributism and subsidiarity are so vital as a counterforce – to keep governments from becoming “too big to succeed”. But those concepts have an innate moral and philosophical basis; they are not just “good ideas” that might work, or that would inevitably enhance the general level of comfort and convenience. In fact, their implementation would, without a doubt, greatly _reduce_ the level of what most people – in their hermetically-sealed cubicles – would consider to be comfort and convenience... and the virtues obtained would, I fear, be of little interest or reward value to most. And this is, I suppose, the ultimate basis for the American (and world) tragedy – that losing sight of what is “natural to man” has completely upended our value system and rendered us vulnerable to any and all forms of despotism, demagoguery, and tyranny. We have, if you will, lost our moral and spiritual resistance, and are now lying helpless, like someone with a severe immune disorder, while those who would change the world by crushing the human spirit and defying human nature run amok. But it is no excuse for the controllers' actions that few, if any, of their victims care, or even perceive what is happening to them. They are still responsible for each spirit crushed, each soul perverted – the way the Soviet authorities were responsible for the lost generations that suffered under their rule. The mentality of the ghetto gang-banger who contends (in court!) that his victims were just “chumps” and “they had it coming to them”... that is just not going to go over too well before the Throne of Judgment, it seems to me. And yes, it has even been pointed out that much of what we call victimization or exploitation is done “with the consent of the victim”. Well, fine – a lot of things happen to creatures in confinement or under some other kind of stress. We have the “Stockholm syndrome”, for example – and armies of women proposing marriage to serial killers on death row. But that doesn't make it OK.

But to return, however unwillingly, to the present, or almost present, day – the article that caught my eye was headlined “Private wages at lowest in history”, and the subhead was “In major U.S. shift, government-provided benefits at record high.” Well... given the economic news of late, it's hardly a shock to see private wages down and “government-provided benefits” up. But what strikes me is that this only tells part of the story. If you drive around Washington, D.C. on the Beltway, you'll notice any number of tall, gleaming office buildings owned by various corporations (mostly with ambiguous names so you can't tell precisely what they do – if anything)... and the aggregate population of those buildings runs in the hundreds of thousands, at least. And they are all what would be termed “private industry”, but guess what – they are all “government contractors”, so their income, and the livelihood of their employees, is based entirely on government money, the same as what the article calls “government-provided benefits”. So really, the situation is even worse than the article implies... and, needless to say, this phenomenon is not limited to Washington, D.C. but is also found at the state and local level. Every state capital is surrounded by a glorified tent city of squatters, parasites, and bloodsuckers who are engaged in the same scam as their more glamorous brethren along the Beltway... and when it comes to large cities, like New York, Chicago, and, yes, even Pittsburgh -- “forget about it” -- you can't get anywhere near the mayor's office without stepping over a few hundred rent seekers who are sprawled in the corridors waiting for a “grant”.

Now... here's another point. The article (from USA Today, which tells you something right there) was a bit equivocal about this finding. They quoted an economist who said “the trend is not sustainable”... and another who said “the shift... shows that the federal government's stimulus programs have been effective.” Another economist said “the riots in Greece over cutting benefits to close a huge budget deficit are a warning about unsustainable income programs.” (But that's about those crazy Greeks, right? Not about us sober Americans.) And still another says that “people are paid for being, rather than producing.” OK, that's a vote of, I guess, 3 to 1 in favor of more “private” and less “government” -- but obviously it's the pro-government types who are in charge, and, by their logic, it would make even more sense for the government to take on even more of the task of distributing salaries and benefits. In fact, why not have a “single-payer” system like Cuba's, where the government is the only source of income, and writes all the paychecks? I mean, if that's the answer to our economic woes, why not go all out, and stabilize (or paralyze) the economy in perpetuity? We already have the government writing checks to automotive, bank, and real estate executives, and that hasn't hurt anyone, right? In fact, those guys are happier than pigs in stuff, because they're getting the same rewards with greatly-reduced (or nonexistent) responsibilities. And this is, of course, the essence of the collectivist ideal – the government gathers everything in in one great harvest, then redistributes it based on “need” (you know, like the way those AIG guys “need” $10 million bonuses). So any trend that brings us closer to that glorious day should be welcome – which, in fact, it is, by liberal economists and anyone with any connection to the Obama administration. And all of my quibbling about so much “private” money really being government money – well, that would please them even more.

And if you accept the premise that the system has, at this point, evolved into one where government and business are virtually indistinguishable – well then, there's not a whole lot of difference between getting a paycheck from Big Pharma, or Big Agriculture, or Big Banking, or any other “Big”, and from the government itself. Right? If government “regulates” business and industry, but business and industry control the government, any differences between them are a mere technicality. So in that sense, the line between “government workers” and “private industry workers” has become, basically, meaningless – as has the line between private wages and government benefits. I will, as usual, make an exception for small business – which is, as we know, being slowly annihilated by government regulations. That and “family farms”, which are, likewise, being plowed under by agribusiness. Our entire economy – and society – is being overwhelmed by “bigness” -- which is precisely the opposite of the ideal, as represented by Catholic social teaching. How any form of morality can survive under these conditions is a mystery – and one that the collectivists are only to happy to revel in.

As an aside, I should point out how excessive regulation naturally favors large businesses and disfavors small ones. Large businesses can afford to hire numerous staff members whose only job it is to provide guidance on, and oversee, government regulations. Small businesses can't do this – even though they come under all the same regulations and have to fill out just as many forms as the large businesses. This is not unlike the situation in the agency where I worked when I was with the “feds” -- an extremely small place as agencies go, but we had to comply with the same regulations and “reporting requirements” as the big boys. As a result, we had, I would say, about 10% of our total staff (both technical and support) dedicated to little else than regulatory compliance, programmatic work (i.e., explaining the program to anyone who had any interest in it for any reason – even if it was to justify pillaging it of funding and/or personnel slots in order to support their own program), and answering inquiries and “data calls” (mostly from other agencies, not the public). Now, 10% is a huge, expensive bite out of an organization that doesn't employ many more than 100 people... whereas the big agencies, with personnel rosters in the tens of thousands, could afford 10, or 20, or however many you like, to take care of matters like these. So in the long run, the smaller agencies are increasingly hobbled and rendered anemic, and the larger ones continue to prosper; same with large and small business in the face of government regulation.

But to return to the original point about private vs. government sources of income – a distinction which, as I said, is becoming fuzzier with each passing day – there is another, related phenomenon which comes into play. Right offhand, I would be willing to bet that the United States has – right now today – the lowest percentage of its citizenry engaged in producing marketable goods and services than any other nation in history – up to the present day. And I say this fully aware of cases like the Soviet Union – but even there, most people were engaged in some minimalistic, rudimentary form of production, even though it was woefully inefficient and mismanaged; in other words, there were far fewer true parasites, percentage-wise, than we have. But now, if our “producer quotient” is at a record low level, “production” is still fairly respectable. And this seems like a paradox, at least – if not an impossibility. How can a country continue to be a “producer” when the majority of its citizenry are, bottom line-wise, dependents and wards of the state (as argued above)? Well, part of the answer to this – maybe the biggest piece of the answer – is technology. We need fewer people working in the agricultural sector than ever before in order to feed the populace, and in fact generate a surplus – and the basis for this is, clearly, technology, not just that those few are working harder than anyone has ever worked in all of human history. (And a similar idea applies when we're talking about other basic necessities.) So in this sense, I'm afraid to admit, “agribusiness” and the technology that made it possible has arguable advantages, since a greater percentage of the citizenry than ever can be freed up to do other things... and they will still get fed. The problem is that most of those “other things” do not provide goods and services that enhance quality of life; what they mostly do is accelerate consumerism into a perpetual spin cycle. And many citizens opt, as their answer to being thrown off the family farm, to do nothing – to be overt, and unabashed, wards of the state. Others opt to be wards of the state by getting a government job, or going to work for a government contractor. And this is not to say that those people do not “work” in the literal sense of expending energy; you ask them, and they'll tell you, damn right they work! They commute back and forth five days a week in heavy traffic in all kinds of weather... arrive at their jobs wild-eyed, panting, and dripping with road rage... spend the day in a Dilbert-esque cube breathing fake air... endure the blessings of the “company cafeteria” or fast-food joints... then, at the end of the day, they drag themselves, exhausted and even more demoralized than they were that morning, back to their cars to make the long trek home, where they can look forward to spending the evening in a state of autistic stupor in front of the TV. And these are people, mind you, who have “good jobs” -- people whom the unemployed envy – people who fancy that they are “making a contribution” -- and so on. Washington, D.C., is known for being “recession-proof” for good reason; in fact, the worse off the rest of the country is, the better off Washington is – which kind of gives you a hint as to why Congress and the administration seem so apathetic, at times, about the economic plight of “flyover country”. And yet, Washington has some of the worst traffic of any urban area in the country... the weather is atrocious much of the time... it's expensive... and the people there are completely taken up with power games, from international intrigue down to the most petty sorts imaginable. So yes, there is some poetic justice in all of this. For their delusions of grandeur they pay a heavy price. But lest the rest of us get too smug, we should remember that Washington has turned into a gigantic black hole whose force of gravity is rapidly sucking all the resources of the rest of the country towards annihilation. The process is accelerating, and is, I fear, too late to stop – despite all the exertions of the “tea partiers” and the scattered remnants of true conservatism (and/or libertarianism). So this shift the article talks about – yes, it's a milestone of sorts, but no more of one than the point at which a tidal wave hits 100 feet in height; it's still a tidal wave, and it's still growing, and it's still headed our way.

Monday, June 28, 2010

No Serf Left Behind

Whenever I hear about people attempting to do battle with the monolith that is the public school cabal, I think of various mythical figures who exemplify frustration and defeat – Sisyphus, Don Quixote, Wile E. Coyote, and such like. They are forever coming up against a power that is – for some mysterious reason – nigh unto absolute. And yet, they invariably survive, and live to return to the fray. So in this sense, their lives and efforts seem fraught with futility... and yet they do what they do, “for the sake of the absurd” as Kirkegaard put it. And while it is absurd, and a bit pathetic, to see the same battles fought over and over with the same result, the notion that there is someone out there who dares “to dream the impossible dream” is an inspiration for the rest of us, who have neither the fortitude nor the persistence – nor, perhaps, the foolishness – to engage in this kind of conflict.

And yet, there was a time, within living memory – including mine – when the public schools stood for quality, and a sincere belief in the value of education – I mean real education, and not only on the practical side but for its own sake. They also stood for patriotism – a bit starry-eyed and delusional at times, but at least genuine and not of the cynical, manipulative type that we see emanating from Washington these days. And I'm sure that there are teachers even now – a lonely remnant – who believe in the old values, but hardly dare admit this in the company of their peers -- a group dominated by "furry radicals" from the 1960s. As it is, the main, if not sole, mission of the public schools in our time is political – to turn out “good citizens” of the Servile State – the contemporary version of The New Soviet Man. This would be the ultimate authoritarian, who questions nothing and accepts everything – quite the opposite of what formal, institutional education used to be about, which was all about questions and inquiry... and skepticism, as appropriate. As the bumper sticker says, “Question Everything” -- except one suspects that the people who sport this sticker are the same ones who swallow whole everything that is claimed about “global warming”. But in any case, the mission of schools used to involve expanding one's thinking, and one's horizons, as well as one's assessment of one's own potential. But students nowadays are boxed into a minuscule space of non-thought and non-action, with the walls of political correctness closing in and the ceiling of “equal outcomes” getting lower all the time. Once they are crushed into a tiny intellectual and psychological cube, they are spat out by the system and told to go, and be good citizens – which means, take your place on the mile-high Matrix wall with all the other cubes. And the fact that this is, indeed, Job One of the educational system is brought out in sharp relief by the reaction whenever anyone questions it, or proposes that there might be a better (or at least alternative) way.

Case in point – the recent interest in single-gender public schools – and it should be noted that single-gender schools were, not all that long ago, just called “schools” since many, if not most, of the high-quality private and parochial schools were, in fact, single-gender, and proud of it. But the public schools, being a creature of “democracy”, have had to succumb to the same Utopian - and now unisex -- thinking that has characterized so many of our other institutions. But even so, no one with a grain of sense would have claimed, in the old days, that putting, say, middle-school kids of both genders in the same classroom would achieve anything other than to get them each thinking, non-stop, about the other gender – to the detriment of all else. But of course, it is the “all else” that the educational establishment of our time has written off as being unimportant and irrelevant; what counts is “socialization”, and the word has a funny ring to it. It almost sounds like “socialism”, which, of course, it is – or, let's say, it's one of the major building blocks of socialism. The first thing you do when you want people to “work and play well with others” in the Servile State is to put them into situations where all the rough edges – all the individuality – get beaten down and rubbed off.

There are many ways of accomplishing this, and the public schools are adept at most. And, when it comes to gender, a major part of this campaign is something that has characterized human initiation rites since the dawn of time – namely sexual humiliation. In this case, it refers to the humbling of an individual in the presence of the opposite sex -- but the more traditional, all-male version is still used as a tool, to great effect, in fraternities, the military, and prisons. But who is it who is commonly sexually humiliated in the average middle-school classroom? Is it the boys? Hell no – that piece is reserved for the locker room. No, it's the girls. And they come out of the experience either traumatized or hardened -- “toughened up” -- all to the detriment of themselves, of society, and of true femininity. And yet! Guess who is the most vehemently opposed to the notion of single-gender classrooms – the feminists, of course. They have no problem at all sticking girls into rooms full of predatory boys... hoping, I guess, that the girls will beat them at their own game, whereas, more often than not, they are the ones who get beaten... at least psychologically, spiritually, and morally.

What's interesting in the present case (bubbling up in the Pittsburgh public school system) is that the assistant superintendent for Pittsburgh secondary schools has called single-gender schools “an effective model in raising student academic achievement, particularly [note this!] among historically low-performing student groups.” What “historically low-performing” means is “black”, in case you didn't notice. But that only aggravates the problem, since the primary target group for the Regime's brainwashing schemes is blacks – always has been, ever since the great migration from the South. And along with this brainwashing effort goes an absolute indifference toward academic achievement – both on the part of blacks themselves and their white caretakers. So the notion of “fixing” that situation by segregating (by gender) blacks will inevitably meet with furious opposition – which it has. The ACLU is, of course, already on the attack, even though Title IX (of all things) has been “interpreted” by DOE, to allow for “options for school districts to create single-gender public schools”. It'd be awful funny if the ACLU had to go to court with Title IX on the other side of the aisle, wouldn't it?

The primary argument revolves around the concept of “separate but equal”. On the one hand, the advocates claim that single-gender classrooms, while they separate the sexes, nonetheless provide equal quality (or non-quality) education to each... while the opponents would counter that, in the words of the Supreme Court in Brown vs. Board of Education of Topeka, "separate educational facilities are inherently unequal”. I mean... if this argument can be used when race is a factor, it can certainly be used when gender is a factor. Right? But then the question arises, is there a difference between “equality” and being identical? A male-only classroom will certainly be different from a female-only classroom, but does that make them unequal? And the problem with that question comes not with comparing metrics – i.e. making comparisons based on measurable commodities – but with comparing what are, in effect, two different art forms. For teaching is, finally – and ideally – an art, just like coaching, or leadership, and the skill with which this art is exercised probably has more influence on the results than any other single factor. Who has not read or seen stories about teachers in “ghetto schools” who have achieved amazing results with “unpromising” students? What changed? It certainly was not the schools, or the students (in terms of their baseline culture or families, etc.) -- it was the quality of the transaction between the educator and the student. And this particular quality is, I submit, something that, ironically, can't be taught – i.e., excellent teachers can't teach mediocre teachers how to become excellent. They might be able to provide them with “tips”, and procedures, and a few basic concepts, but that's about it. And frankly, the education departments in our colleges and universities aren't going to come up with a Pat Conroy all that often. For one thing, that's not their goal; excellence and “thinking outside the box” are simply not on the agenda. Plus, they have to deal with that portion of the population that is still attracted to that line of work, and public education these days has come to be considered – rightly or wrongly – a sheltered workshop for mediocrities, losers, busybodies, and frustrated leftists. People looking for a “quality” life doing “quality” things are not likely to focus on the public schools as being their first choice. And of course one response to this is that the problem is not with the teaching, it's with the “politics”. But how did the schools become such hotbeds of “politics”? I mean, any time people are working together in an organized group there are going to be transactional aspects, personality issues, etc. But this notion that public school teachers are somehow frustrated by “politics” is a red herring – the political obsession and intrigue are part and parcel of the whole public education mindset, starting at the grass roots. When your world view is based on what Ayn Rand called “social metaphysics”, then everything becomes political. And the teachers' unions are, after all, creatures of the teachers, who, aside from being entitlement junkies, were brought up with a certain mindset – namely that all worthwhile human activity has to be motivated by some (usually collectivist) concept of “social good”, and that it has to, in turn, be mediated by government – and the bigger and more intrusive the better. What counts is uniformity – and what we are doing in this society is educating to uniformity, not to any sort of outstanding, high-profile achievement; the latter is left to arise spontaneously, in spite of the system, not because of it. And, by the way, when the social work establishment started looking for ways to extend its clammy reach into the lives of American citizens and families, who did they recruit as their very first auxiliary force? Public school teachers, of course – since they already had the attitude that they knew better than parents how children should be raised and taught. And it's never the agenda of the majority of parents that is pursued in the public schools; it's the agenda of the teachers, the teachers' unions, the education bureaucracy, and, ultimately, of the “social change” advocates in departments of education. So yes, it really does all begin with ideas – with a philosophy and a certain world view. Most important things do, in fact – even though this will be denied by the practitioners, who pretend to be totally objective and “scientific” (even though that is itself a world view).

And when one thinks back on the history of public schools as a subset of social history, it's amazing that the schools remained bastions of quality for so long after liberalism and collectivism became the preferred points of reference in so many other aspects of American life – social welfare, the economy, the arts, politics in general. It's almost as if the schools held out until they could hold out no more. Think about the sudden and precipitous changes in the dynamics of the American economy and social structure that came with the New Deal; it was a revolution with far greater impact than most of what are called “revolutions”. It was, in effect, a top-to-bottom restructuring of society and the economy (something the Obama crew are trying to recapitulate in our time, by the way). But the schools remained intact – teaching the basics in an organized, coherent way... turning out “good citizens”, but without the degree of brainwashing that is commonly applied in our time. And what was the difference? I think the main one is that what we today call “family values” were still pretty much taken for granted; they at least weren't universally derided by the media. And what that involved, more than anything else, was trust. The “system”, if you will – the government, the schools, social welfare agencies, etc. -- still basically trusted most parents, most of the time, to know what was good for their children – including education – and to properly implement it. The sanctity of the family was still accepted as the cultural baseline, in other words – unlike today, when families are considered “accidents” and pretty poor ways of bringing up children. And this was despite the impact of mass migrations, the growth of cities, the decline of rural life, and the teachings of the likes of John Dewey. Yes, public schooling was about “integration” in the broad sense – integration into American life and the inculcation of certain common values. It was opposed to provincialism and (because this is America, after all) sectarianism... but I can't recall it ever being actively opposed to religion, for example; at least it wasn't during my time in the public schools. It also wasn't opposed to the notion that parents are the best judges of what, and when, to tell their children about sexuality. It didn't attempt to undercut parental discipline, or ideas about nutrition, or politics. The schools had not yet set themselves up as opposing forces to the home, in other words – as hotbeds of radicalism and social activism where all the latest political fads would be mercilessly promoted and pushed onto families by way of their children. These are ideas and techniques that were universally applied in the Soviet Republic – and, as I said, it's amazing, when you think back on it, that they hardly made a mark on our own public education system until, probably, the 1960s. And that's considering that the Soviet system was considered the wonder of the world by the New Dealers, who were already running everything else in the country starting way back in 1933. But I suspect that the delay had mostly to do with the local character of public schools – the fact that teachers (and therefore curricula) were answerable, primarily, to local school boards, and secondarily to state education offices, and hardly at all to the federal government and its “brain trusters”. And the unions had not come into their own as yet, with all of their “one-worlder” ideas. At that time, if a parent didn't like what he or she saw when their kid brought things home from school, they could just call up the teacher (who was probably a neighbor) or a school board member (ditto). Things could be changed and adjusted at the local level without making (literally) a federal case out of them. But now, it's all so centralized – such a faceless, multi-storied, Byzantine bureaucracy, that parents feel powerless – which they, in fact, are. Plus, they know that the system has ways of dealing with “troublemakers” and those who question the wisdom of the educational hierarchy. You can be “hot lined” for any number of things these days – and we now have such a gigantic, tangled web of laws that, at any given time, just about everyone is violating at least one law, whether they realize it or not. And the Regime knows this, and its foot soldiers (including teachers) know it. Again, it's more like the Soviet Union every day – you can be denounced by anybody, for any reason, and that gets you caught up in the machinery of the system... and lots of luck ever getting free. So the smartest thing for parents is to keep a low profile and stay below radar... even though it's their own children we're talking about. But their attitude is one of, basically, despair – when it comes to their own freedoms, so that naturally extends to the freedoms of their children as well.

One of the reasons for the widespread dysfunctionality that characterized the breakup of the Soviet Union was that there was no living memory of freedom – the people were like caged animals who are suddenly confronted by an open cage door; they didn't know what to do, or what to think. It was much more comfortable before, when they knew their limits. And so it is in our society, and one of the main institutions that exists to define, and enforce, those limits is the public education establishment. Do as they say... think the way they want you to think... and all will be well. Do or think something else, and the entire weight of the establishment will come crashing down on you. And how many people want to move out of their “comfort zone” to that extent? Very few. So they will offer up their children as sacrifices to The Power, hoping that, somehow, they will all survive and come out intact – but the child's spirit is a delicate thing, and is easily crushed. And when you have the largest bureaucracy in the country devoted to doing just that... well, the outcome is pretty inevitable, unless one is willing to stand up in defiance, and risk everything for the sake of the truth.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

McChrystal Balls

The McChrystal affair demonstrates, once again, a basic fact of life when it comes to the American nation – namely, that the military will never – and I mean never – not in a thousand years – overthrow the civilian government in some sort of coup. Now, I say this despite its being a fairly obvious fact, because it wasn't that long ago that it wasn't obvious at all. There were rumors of military coups in the offing during the Vietnam war, for instance – the notion that the civilian leadership was too soft, too ambivalent, too willing to compromise... and not patriotic enough. Downright anti-American, even. Treasonous! And so forth. Some of this same thinking was revived – with good reason – during the Clinton administration, and, sure enough, the next Democratic president has created some of the very same... not ideas so much as feelings.

I mean, think about it – the military is expected to go to war for no damn good reason in any flea-bitten craphole on earth that our politicians and their advisors consider fighting in, or over. That's number one. And then they are subject to mediocre, at best, compensation, housing, food, medical care, etc. -- they are trapped in the service because of “stop loss” policies... and if they come home in anything but one piece they will be subject to the tender mercies of the VA hospital system for the rest of their natural lives. All in exchange for fighting what can, at best, be described as unpopular wars. Their only hope for unambivalent esteem and respect lies in the possibility that they'll be sent home in a body bag, in which case all of the fetishes and iconography of America in the act of burying its war dead will be trotted out. But if they're not around to appreciate it, what good is it?

On the other hand, the military as an entity, and especially its higher-ranking officers, see value in war for all sorts of reasons. Not only is it, as I've said before, the premier self-defining activity for any society, especially our own, it's also an opportunity (one of the few that is left) for our youth to “prove their manhood” (or for their female counterparts to prove their manhood, I suppose). That's on the idealistic side. On the practical side, there is no form of training that is better than actual combat... and no form of testing of weapons and materiel better than that afforded by actual fighting in a war zone. I mean, how do we know whether our troops are well-trained and their equipment well-made unless they are tried out once in a while – and not in some limp-wristed military “exercise” but in the real world of blazing combat, against people who really are trying to kill you, no kidding.

And then there is the whole promotion/rank/esteem aspect of war... the fact that wars generate medals, and ribbons, and ascending to the heights for those who have shown themselves worthy. We need, and want, victory parades and heroes crowned with laurel wreaths... and there is considerable self-definition value in having millions of veterans, in various states of handicap and decay, housed in a vast system of hospitals and available to be trotted out on patriotic occasions. As a culture, we place a higher value on war than on any other activity – so it's shameful when we wind up ambivalent, at times, about the results. Millions of veterans with PTSD? We should be celebrating the fact! After all, they went where they were told to go, did what they were told to do, and all for the greater glory of “the American way of life” (which somehow, mysteriously, requires us to always be in a state of war with at least one other country). So even if we were remiss in fully celebrating their return to the homeland, we should not now continue to neglect them, or their needs, because they represent, in fact, the ultimate truth about America... our world view... our way of life. Without them, none of it would be possible; you might say that by their stripes we are healed and made whole.

Now, having said all the above, you would think the American military would settle comfortably into their role as the leading edge of the American Empire, with all that that implies and entails. And most of them do, most of the time. But occasionally a troublemaker manages to rise up from the ranks (even though countless safeguards are in place to prevent this from ever happening). This would be someone with an “attitude”, let's say... someone who fancies themselves a modern incarnation of George Patton (or Rommel). Now, these people are valuable, no doubt – especially in extreme situations. It's not hard to imagine McChystal, for example, crawling up out of a swamp with a dagger in his teeth, ready to slay an entire platoon of Viet Cong (or Taliban, whatever). But the problem with these Rambo types is that you can dress them up, but you can't take them out. They don't work and play well with others. They have spotless uniforms but bad haircuts. They're not paper-pushers, bureaucrats, administrators, diplomats, ass-kissers, toadies, or any of the rest of it – qualities which are invaluable around the Pentagon, and around Washington, but which are generally held in contempt by “the guys in the field”, especially the guys in war zones. So the eternal conflict – within the military as well as between the military and their civilian overlords – is: What makes the good, and ideal, general (or admiral)? The diplomat? The bureaucrat? The ass kisser? The technocrat? Or the warrior? (I use this term advisedly, because, as someone once pointed out, “Soldiers are trained to fight, but warriors are _born_ to fight.”) Is there any room, in other words, for the Patton or the MacArthur in today's military, in which the skills that are needed most of the time and in most places anything but combat skills – i.e. anything but leading troops to victory. And this is why kerfuffles like the McChrysal affair are inevitable, if increasingly rare – because the military itself is ambivalent as to what makes a good leader, and the civilian world is even more ambivalent. And for the “purist” among the military – and I assume McChrystal counts as a purist – this is all a perfectly disgusting and distressing state of affairs. After all, the purpose of the military is to fight, right? With everything at one's disposal, and without holding back. No doubts, no second thoughts, no ambivalence – just “over the top” and mow down as many of those little yellow (or brown, whatever) devils as you can, because this is what the folks back home (and especially that “special gal” who still writes you letters, thank goodness) expect you to do. And, above all, don't wimp out, don't be one of those pussies who refuses to fire live rounds at the enemy, or who develops “shell shock” or PTSD. War is a man's game, so be a man – or get the hell out of the way. This is what you might call the “McChrystal mindset” -- his and that of his type. And they have very little use for their peers in the military who insist on seeing the other guy's point of view – especially when that other guy is some fat, lazy, corrupt politician who's probably never even fired a gun in his life (Dick Cheney being at least one notable exception). It is a vision that is remarkable in its clarity... in its black-and-whiteness... and it is simply incompatible with politics, or diplomacy, or all the other ambivalences that characterize our habit of making war in these times. And at times the dissonance between this vision and the political reality reaches such a level of disgust that even the best-disciplined, most self-sacrificing and stoic soldier occasionally “loses it” and starts saying what he really thinks. And when he says it to a reporter (Rolling Stone?? You've got to be kidding.) there's hell to pay... because all of a sudden the wimpy, pale, flabby civilian turns out to be your boss, and you turn out to be... turned out. And that this situation is highly offensive to the true believers in the military hardly needs to be said... but it's a fact nonetheless, and one that is not likely to change at any time in the present era of history. The U.S. is not, after all, in Latin America, or Africa, or Southeast Asia, or just about anywhere else where, because might makes right, the military take it upon themselves, on occasion, to upset the civilian government and install one of their own as ruler. And this usually turns out to be a bad idea because... well, because the military mind is the military mind, that's all. Even Gen. Petraeus, for all of his brilliance, only thinks part way into questions – further than most, certainly, but not as far as one would need to think to be a truly great leader. The military attitude, basically, is that if you've solved the military questions, you've solved all the questions – there are no others worth worrying about. But this is to believe that the military, and war, are ends in themselves, and not means to other ends. But we know better – or at least think we do. The military is a tool, and nothing more – although this role can be of vital importance, and it makes a huge difference to the fate of a society whether or not it is performed well. A successful society with an incompetent military isn't going to last for long – at least not in this world. A deeply flawed society with a successful military? Well, it may last a while, but it will not die an easy death. This is what the Romans experienced, and what, I believe, we are fated to experience. I don't suppose sending the McChrystals out to pasture is going to accelerate the trend all that much... but the incident does illustrate our degree of degeneration at this point. If a general who believes in winning is fired for expressing that belief, what does that say about the civilian leadership? That they don't believe in winning? Ultimately, the answer has to be yes. They don't want to win, because the current program is based on a premise of perpetual war. So things have to stay ambivalent, equivocal, and a bit anemic – and this is precisely what people like McChrystal object to, and can't stand – that the military is being given hopeless, no-win assignments on purpose... and we are fighting wars that not only are unwinnable, but are actually designed that way. This has to be infuriating for the true believer type, and I'm amazed that his comments on the matter were as mild as they were. What he should have said is that politicians who get us into wars in places like Iraq and Afghanistan should be taken out and shot. But then, there are all those medals...

Monday, June 21, 2010

You Bet Your BP!

Well, what's a gigantic, multinational oil company to do, anyway? You spend years, if not decades, building up a following with people who can impact your bottom line... you donate millions in thinly-disguised bribes to Congressional airheads... you exert influence in such a way that regulations are ignored and regulatory agencies become flaccid lap dogs... you support vast propaganda campaigns designed to reassure the public that all you do is right and good, and your opponents and skeptics are motivated by evil intent, or at least neurosis, paranoia, and hysteria... you ignore safety rules in order to keep your board of directors and stockholders happy... you market your wares, offer free doughnuts and coffee... and then what happens? Out of nowhere, a bunch of incompetent fools on some offshore drilling rig manage to blow a hole in the bottom of the Gulf of Mexico, and there go a few years worth of profits. It seems like you just can't win...

Of course, as it turns out, when it comes to BP's policies regarding safety and environmental regulations, the term “criminal negligence” hardly covers it. This is a company operating in the best carpetbagging tradition – moving into a third-world area and exploiting it for all it's worth. (Oh – you don't consider the Gulf of Mexico “third world”? You need some re-education, my friend.) They cut corners in order to increase profits – but hey, everyone else does the exact same thing. The difference is that, for most of them, screwing up doesn't have the same environmental impact as a very large meteor striking the Earth during rush hour. And sure, they were good at getting oil out of a mile-deep hole in the ocean – not too shabby a technological accomplishment, you must admit – but there is something lacking in their ability to handle the situation when that mile-deep hole blows itself up. This is something no one planned for because, frankly, there was no payoff in planning for it. No one spends much time on worst-case scenarios unless there is money in doing so... and in this case, there wasn't. So their behavior is perfectly understandable... as is the behavior of Congress and the Obama administration, nearly all of whom have been bought off, long ago, by BP and like outfits.

But here's where it gets awkward. Here you have an environmental catastrophe that makes the Exxon Valdez look like farting in someone's swimming pool... and yet everyone who could possibly do anything about it, in the way of sanctions, is on the payroll of the offending company. This is, you might say, the down side of fascism. If you allow business and international finance to run the country, then you have to put up with whatever mistakes they make, no matter how much those mistakes harm your constituents – you know, those “little people” who still, inexplicably, have the power to vote you out of office. And the irony is, you bought a lot of those “little people" votes with the money given to you by outfits like BP. So the perfidy comes full circle and, in a sense, all are guilty. I mean, let's say you're a fisherman working off the Louisiana coast – an honest living, but at the same time you voted the latest corrupt, collectivist scoundrel into office (not that you had much of a choice, especially in Louisiana)... and he has most definitely not been working in your best interests. So now you find out what the consequences are of having this clown in Washington as your representative... except now it's too late. But how many people are going to connect those dots? Precious few, I imagine. To them, it's all a matter of fate – but at least they have someone to blame it on – not only a name (BP) but a face (Tony Hayward).

And here's the thing about Tony Hayward -- he did not come off very well at all when he was confronted, in Congressional committee, by the very people he thought he had in his back pocket. And is this because he's just another clueless elitist? No – because they all are. His problem is that he doesn't have “the look” -- you know, that look that all the domestic corporate moguls who have been up on Capitol Hill over the last couple of years have – that look that you, basically, have to have if you're going to ascend to the upper stratosphere of American business. What this look consists of is the following: You have to be tall and mesomorphic, with a vaguely athletic build... have a square, symmetrical face, a lantern jaw, those kind of scary “make my day” eyes... and either “great hair” -- white, full-bodied, and perfectly styled... or be perfectly, shiningly bald. Your skin has to be either a healthy pink or deeply tanned; too olive and you look “ethnic”, and that's a no-no. (Needless to say, being black or Oriental is completely out of the question.) And of course, perfect attire is an absolute must. And no jewelry! (Even wedding bands are considered somewhat sketchy. They might reflect a willingness to compromise.) Nothing else will do, and you'll notice that every one of the characters who have testified before Congress since the economic meltdown began fit this description. And – oh yes – no lips. Lips are way too feminine, and we're talking about guys with a surfeit of testosterone here – that's what got them to the top. Oh, they had to be moderately intelligent, I suppose... and have considerable family and/or money connections... but what counts, in the end, is testosterone, and evidences thereof. So nothing has changed since the caveman era, basically – except they're now wearing power suits instead of bear skins.

But here's the problem with Tony. He didn't fit any of those descriptors. For one thing, his face is way too small for his head – he looks like an extra in “Lord of the Rings” (“wizened Shire resident, uncredited”). His skin is blotchy, his eyes bug out, and his hair – while “good” -- is much too “big” -- almost reaching the televangelist level. This is not at all right. These handicaps are what are responsible for his abject failure, not only before Congress but before the American people. I mean – think of what you can get away with if you have the right look in this country – think about O.J., or Bill Clinton... or even Michael Jackson (“bizarre” counts as a right look, at least on the subculture level). And as much as our politicians try, they seldom if ever are able to pull off the exact right look. Oh, you will have the common-enough phenomenon of great hair... the very occasional well-fitting suit... and so forth. But they generally can't pull it off; it's just not in their nature. They rely way too much on being charismatic in a non-threatening way... in being one of “the folks” -- which means, being a bit unkempt and rumpled. But they are commonly confronted, in committee, by the best-dressed, most expensively groomed people on the planet (outside of Hollywood, that is) – namely, the American CEO. These guys got where they are by making an impression... and by a few other tricks as well, but the impression part is always paramount. There is a hilarious scene in “American Psycho” where a bunch of up-and-coming yuppie businessmen in Manhattan are having a competition to see who has the “best” calling card. Yeah – that's what it's really about about. Substance? Forget about it. It's all about style... that and ruthless ambition. I mean, look at Lloyd Blankfein. He looks like Harpo Marx without the blond wig. But he goes up on Capitol Hill to be “interrogated” and goes home with a few dozen Congressmen's balls in a 6-pack cooler. That's dominance, my friends. And he is the perfect American type... whereas Tony simply isn't. So it looks like he's being replaced on the firing line by... guess what... an American! Now the playing field has been leveled again, and so we can expect a fair fight. I mean, the oil moguls will win, because they always win... but at least this time the winner will look like an American.

Friday, June 18, 2010

I Can't Stan It

I don't get it. Here we have the latest version of ethnic cleansing, this time in the “stans” -- i.e. in the Central Asian remnants of the Soviet Union, which – predictably – separated along ethnic lines after the Soviet Union broke up. Once they were “Soviet socialist republics”, and enjoying at least a modicum of peace and tranquility, albeit under the iron hand of the Kremlin. But now they are free – and perpetually at each other's throats. No wonder there's a wave of "Stalin nostalgia" in Russia these days; he would have gotten these people squared away in no time at all (the way Tito would have gotten the warring parties in ex-Yugoslavia squared away).

I should point out that these are the same people who, at one time, invaded, conquered, and ruled over most of the known world – you know, the “Asian horde”. Well, that era lives on mostly in memory, but it's clear that the hot-bloodedness is still very much a factor to be reckoned with. And what makes it even more bizarre is that, in the case of Kyrgyz vs. Uzebks (wouldn't you love to play Scrabble over there?), they are all Moslems and all the same subdivision of Moslems. It would be like one Southern Baptist country going to war with another. But hey, try making any sense of the Islamic mindset – I can't, and I've tried, believe me. Apparently ethnicity really is more important than religion over there – a lesson that our State Department has yet to learn when it comes to dealing with places like Iraq and Afghanistan.

But here's the real mystery. If you look at a map of that region – Central Asia – you'll notice that it's just about the most gerrymandered place on earth. The national borders don't follow any natural features, and they aren't in the form of stark straight lines either. What they do instead is meander up valleys and over mountain tops, with arms and tentacles reaching out into far-flung places, and encircling single cities, villages, and – for all I know – individual houses. This is all, of course, in an attempt to round up all the people of one ethnic group and exclude the people of all others. And I was under the impression that this had worked – I mean, it's been 20 years now. And yet, all of a sudden, it turns out that there are huge numbers of Uzbeks living in Kyrgystan, and my question is, who screwed up? You can either divide up territory along ethnic lines in the first place – which is what I thought had been done – and this is a relatively peaceful process. Or you can set down arbitrary lines and wait until things go from “simmer” to “boil over”... at which time you have a refugee crisis on your hands, and any number of other problems. And at that point ethnic cleansing, or at least segregation -- voluntary or otherwise -- is the only remaining option. But from the looks of the map, it seems like the heavy lifting had already been done... and yet here we are, with 400,000 Uzbek refugees fleeing Kyrgyzstan. Clearly someone goofed when it came to redrawing the post-Soviet map. They should never have left that many members of Group A in a country run by Group B.

All of which causes us all to heave a great sigh of gratitude that we live in a country where things of this sort never happen. Right? Not so fast! We have an intractable race problem, with vast areas of our major cities off limits to whites... we have a Hispanic problem which is no longer confined to the Southwest... we have a "Native American" problem which won't go away no matter how many casinos and cigarette stores we license... and, historically, one can point to many instances of racial, religious, and ethnic strife. Every new immigrant (legal or otherwise) group to show up on our shores has been greeted with not only skepticism, but downright hostility and violence. But sooner or later they're integrated, and then become part of the opposition to the next immigrant group... and so it goes. We mock places like Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan, not only because they have funny names and a low GNP, but because they seem to be bogged down in age-old feuds revolving around religion and ethnicity that we are thankfully rid of. But consider – we have had, in all this time, only one Catholic president – and a very bad Catholic at that. We are right now enjoying the benefits of having our first “black” president, even though he was widely criticized, by the black leadership, as “not really black” during the campaign. We have yet to have our first female president. And so on. The key to success in the upper echelons of this society is still to be whiter than white... non-”ethnic”... and, most of all, non-Catholic. Of course, we also have an opposition movement usually referred to as “diversity”, which is a shorthand term for “anything but white/male/Protestant/heterosexual”. But it is, in fact, an opposition movement, and seems to have had little or no effect in the upper echelons. So yes, we are an allegedly “non-racist” society which is obsessed by race, a "non-sexist" society obsessed by gender, a "non-homophobic" society obsessed by "sexual preference", and a “melting pot” in which one's ethnic background still looms large.

And what does this all reflect, after all? Merely the cold, hard fact that ultimately, “blood” -- race and ethnicity – and creed are still the prime movers in human societies. The liberals, globalists, one-worlders, et al may not like it... they may oppose it with every piece of delusional legislation they manage to turn into law... they may propagandize against it day and night in the captive media... but it's there nonetheless. We find it whenever we venture more than a few miles from our shores. Iraq was supposed to be a “cakewalk”, but guess what, it turns out that there is no such thing as an “Iraqi”. There are only Sunnis and Shiites and Kurds, and countless subdivisions thereof... and loyalties are invariably based on those divisions, not on any artificial concept of “nation”. Likewise, there is no such place as “Afghanistan”, except in the fevered imaginings of the State Department and the U.N. Ask any “Afghan” who, or what, he is, and the least likely term he will come up with is “Afghan”. What he will tell you – with great vigor – is that he is the son of so-and-so, of such-and-such a family, of a certain tribe and/or a certain village. He might mention a province, area, or fiefdom of some sort... but that will be the end of it. Does the average New Guinea highlander know he lives in a place called New Guinea? Hell, no. How about someone living on the Upper Amazon? Brazil, schmazil. This is the natural human lot – this tendency, this drive to identify with something tangible and visible, something that can inspire loyalty and be passed on to the next generation. And this, of course, goes directly in the face of the social change mavens – the people who want to turn everyone on Earth into plain vanilla (so as better to exploit them). Ethnicity rears its unruly, unwashed locks every time some Utopian idealist wants to tear down the “groves and high places”, and replace all “provincialism” with some sort of one-world consciousness (“brotherhood of man”, etc.). And this is precisely what we are running into, with a vengeance, in Southern Asia, which is a redoubt of this sort of atavistic attitude, reinforced by a religion which rejects all forms of modernism.

And why do we have so much trouble with this idea? Because it's not been totally exterminated in Europe, for instance... and certainly not among our “allies” in places like East Asia. There, pride in race and blood – ethnicity, religion, and all the rest – is alive and well. Every country, or subdivision thereof, has its own form of exceptionalism – the age-old notion that “we're better than you, because... well, just because we're better, that's all.” Try to prove them wrong! It can't be done. And we fancy that we're free from all that... which we're clearly not. But there's more to it. We have our own form of exceptionalism, but it's based not on race, ethnicity, or creed, but on ideas... or ideals, take your pick. The United States has been described as an “ideational” society, in which nothing really counts but ideas about things like freedom, democracy, human rights, etc. And while this is clearly delusional right off the bat, it has had a huge impact on our development as a nation, and particularly on our foreign policy (which means, on the wars we choose to fight). See, when all you have as your claim to specialness is your race, your ethnic group, your religion... well, you have to admit, at some point that everyone else has comparable claims. This is the basis for what is called “tolerance” -- that thing particularly lacking in places like Kyrgyzstan today (but also, let's admit, in Japan... Iran... Saudi Arabia... almost every college or university campus in the U.S.... etc.). Tolerance is not the same as “indifferentism” -- you can still believe that your race/ethnic group/faith are the best, while allowing others to persist in their errors (you know, like being born in the wrong place at the wrong time – that kind of thing). And this, I have to admit, is one thing the U.S. has been fairly good at – not perfect, and not even the best, but fairly good. (If you want a truly race-blind society, try Brazil. Or Cuba, for that matter.) The problem is that, while we eschew all the old, atavistic categories of race, ethnicity, and religion, we dream up and adopt – and attempt to impose on others – all sorts of brand-new categories. Is a given society, or country, “democratic”? I mean really democratic, not just in name only? Does it practice “tolerance” and “equal rights” -- which at this point have been expanded to include just about every real or imagined victim group on earth. And this ideational baseline forms the basis for our opinions about other countries... our foreign policy... and our decisions as to whether or not to invade (and bring about “regime change”, etc.). We will actually make war on another country based purely on ideas! That sounds incredible, but it's totally true. And we advertise this as a much more “enlightened” and “humanistic” approach than making war based on bad, old reasons like race, ethnicity, and religion. The rest of the world, on the other hand, doesn't give a fig for our “ideas”, and would much rather wage war (or “terrorism”) based on the old values... so this is where things get complicated, and why we can go into places like Iraq and Afghanistan, but we can't get out – at least not with our self-respect (and pocketbooks) intact. We don't understand – in other words – that we are in the minority on this issue. In fact, we're a minority of one. No one else on earth fights the way we do for the things we allegedly fight for. Oh, some of them pretend and go along – you know, the “coalition of the willing” -- but that's all politics; they think we're a bunch of nut-case Puritans, which, in fact, we are. Now, this is not to say that fighting for “ideas” is a brand-new thing on the world scene. Aside from the argument that religious wars are also wars of ideas, one can certainly point to communism as an ideational motive. (I don't give fascism and national socialism the same credit. Germany and Italy were not fighting to spread their way of governing per se – only their political and economic power.) But guess what, communism as a major world force is in semi-hibernation mode at this point, and is not really much of a threat – which leaves us, and our ideas/ideals, the last man standing. So who are we going to go up against? Where will our next crusade take place? Certainly not in Europe, which is showing every sign of latter-day degeneration and decay, and is anything but "ideational"... and certainly not East Asia, which has come up with its own form of capitalism and is, basically, kicking our butt. And not Africa, which has lapsed into tribal primitivism. No – it has to be the only place left with ideas that are considered worth fighting and dying for, namely the Islamic world. But even this is an unequal fight, since it pits secular notions and “philosophy” against a relatively ancient religious creed. How many of our troops, for example, would be willing to go on a suicide mission? My guess is, approximately 0%. That's the difference between ideas and beliefs – people are willing to die for the latter, but not to be any more than mildly inconvenienced for the former. So it is an unequal fight, and we see evidence for it every day in Iraq and Afghanistan. Our military is fond of talking about “asymmetrical warfare”, but what they are usually talking about is technology. Asymmetry of ideas may, in fact, be a more critical factor – but who, in all of the administration or the military, has been willing to approach it this way and discuss it this way in public? No one, as far as I can tell. The military talks about “winning hearts and minds”, but it's clueless as to the real issues. What we need is a “philosopher king” who can start straightening out our thinking – but I don't see one anywhere near Washington, DC at this point. What I do see is hordes of politicians who simply don't know what we're up against... who don't realize that our ideas and ideals have only survived thus far because of our relative isolation (and power)... and that, once they encounter the rocky coast of real, fervent belief... well, we can already see the result.

Thursday, June 17, 2010

No Exit

Now here's a shocker. Whereas Obama, in arguing for the 30,000-troop “surge” in Afghanistan, promised – or seemed to promise -- “the beginning of a drawdown” by July 2011, now Gen. Petraeus is already sounding major notes of caution regarding that, or any other, deadline. What he told the House Armed Services Committee is that “I would not want to overplay the significance of this review” -- i.e. the year-end review that is supposed to “evaluate whether it will be possible to begin” a drawdown in July 2011. Now – first of all, I've already lost count of all the cascading conditionals in this language. No one has said we will simply leave Afghanistan in July 2011. But by the end of the year we will “evaluate” whether it will be “possible” to “begin”... and now Petraeus is saying that even that evaluation, although it will indeed take place, should not be taken too seriously. He recommends, rather, that we anxiously await something called “a date when a process begins based on conditions”. Um... OK. But what will this “process” consist of, other than more waiting? And what are these “conditions” likely to be other than the ever-elusive and ever-changing criteria that, because they are never quite achieved, form the conceptual basis for war in perpetuity?

One reason this is interesting is that what Petraeus is saying is, basically, ignore what the president said about the surge. So he has basically applied a brisk dash of cold water to anyone's hopes that we will be out of Afghanistan in July 2011... or, frankly, at any time in the foreseeable future. But is he thereby “correcting” the president – his own commander-in-chief? Is he “second-guessing” the administration? No – it's just another round in the by-now-familiar game of good news/bad news when it comes to the administration and the military. Today the administration is delivering the good news, and the military is coming, hot on their heels, to correct and “clarify”. Tomorrow it will be the other way around – the military will put out the good news, and their civilian masters will come along right on their heels to correct and clarify. But it's the perfect scam, since no one can claim there is never any good news... only that it's "conditional" on "circumstances", etc. And "reassessments" can always be made at the time, etc.

What this all amounts to is a tacit admission that there is no intention, on the part of the administration, the military, or anyone else, to leave Afghanistan or Iraq – not next year, not ever. And this is all to be expected, since the reasons for the invasions were highly ambiguous (and intentionally so). If there was no good reason for going in, there doesn't have to be a good reason for staying, does there? And there certainly can't be a good enough reason for leaving, because what can possibly compete with a fait accompli? “We're here because we're here” is all anyone needs to know. (No one ever brings up the contrary notion of cutting our losses.) And this is how a perpetual war system is initiated and maintained. If the administration (the present one or its predecessor) had, at the outset, provided exit criteria... criteria for mission accomplishment... criteria for “winning”, even... then someone could have held them to those criteria. But when no criteria are provided, what is there to hold anyone to? There is no standard... and therefore any reason for perpetuating the conflict – or no reason at all – is sufficient to insure its perpetuation.

Of course, there is nothing new about the “perpetual war” strategy. One could go all the way back to World War I, when we were supposedly fighting to “make the world safe for democracy”. The problem with that mission is that it's neverending, since there is always someone out there who doesn't care much for democracy and sees fit to threaten it in some way. But, as it turned out, after Wilson's welcome demise, we enjoyed a brief “return to normalcy”, i.e. what is now termed (by liberals and the media) “isolationism” but what was then termed “minding our own damn business”. But wouldn't you know, along came the Depression, and the New Deal, and the communist infiltration of the Executive Branch, and the next thing you know we were back in the mix again – this time to exterminate one form of collectivism (i.e., fascism or national socialism) and make the world safe for another (i.e., communism). And this worked – for a few years at least. But then someone decided that communism was as much of a threat – or a bigger one! -- than fascism had ever been. So there we went again.

See the trend here? Find an enemy – any enemy – and declare war on him, them, or it. And there are always plenty of candidates. And the Cold War served as our version of perpetual war for a good lifetime – right up until 1990 or so, at which time peace broke out in unprecedented numbers, and the military was in a complete funk (not to mention the arms makers and anyone who wanted to be a “war president”). It was just getting too hard to drum up business! And those few pathetic military “operations” with all the inane titles didn't quite fill the bill. But then, a miracle! 9-11 happened, and we were back in business again... but this time it was even better. Unlike World War I, we didn't have to go home after Germany and Austria-Hungary were defeated, and unlike World War II, we didn't have to go home after Germany, Italy, and Japan were defeated, and unlike the Cold War, we didn't have to go home after the Soviet Union broke up. Now we were fighting “terrorism” -- the ideal enemy! Because “terrorists” can be anywhere, or anyone... and we can never be sure that they're all either dead or neutralized. And it's not a matter of conquering a country or a given piece of territory... even though “regime change” is one of the high-priority pieces of the strategy. But here's what's best -- “terrorism” is based directly on the tenets of a major world religion (monotheistic, even!) -- one that's been around for 1400 years and is actually gaining strength and adherents, many of whom are of the militant cast and are thus available to take the role of enemies virtually in perpetuity.

Interestingly, when the Moslems accuse the West of fighting a crusade, they're only half right. The original Crusades were designed, principally, to insure the safety and access of pilgrims to the Holy Land. The current “crusade”, if you listen to the Evangelicals, is bit different. For one thing, Christians (and everyone else) already has access to the Holy Land, so that can't be the issue. And it's not just about keeping it safe either. What it's about this time around is, in fact, not Christianity at all but Judaism – specifically the notion that the State of Israel, a totally man-made entity, has somehow, mysteriously, acquired the status of key to the “end times”, and thus to the world's salvation. But there's another difference as well. In the case of the original Crusades, once the Holy Land had been conquered (more or less) it was then a matter of consolidation, and maintaining a power base. The Moslems could go right on worshiping in their own way, and no one cared, as long as they stopped harassing Christians. And the Jews could do whatever they did as well – the few who were still left in that part of the world, that is. So the criteria for success were fairly objective and achievable, all told. But this time around... well, I suppose one criterion for success would be “no more terrorism, anywhere on earth”, which means “no more militant Islamists”. Lots of luck with that one. Or, if you want to get even more extreme, it could be “no more Moslems, period”; this is certainly what the Evangelicals and outfits like Blackwater seem to believe is appropriate. But in that case, you're also going to have to wipe out fairly large chunks of the current population of France and a few other European countries. So you see, there can't be an ultimate goal, or criterion for success, that makes any sense or that satisfies anyone. So we're asked to be satisfied with limp-wristed “interim” or “transitional” goals – which usually involve turning the control of a given country over to the people who actually live there. But that's certainly not going to solve our problem, which is “terror” -- which can strike anywhere, at any time, and for any reason (or for no reason at all). And clearly, we can't trust the people in those flea-bitten places to ever do the right thing, either as individuals or in the aggregate, so our only option is -- regretfully and with a heavy heart -- to just stay there forever – which is precisely the intent, but for some reason it isn't yet possible to admit this in any public forum. I mean... Obama could get on TV, the way he did the other night, “from the Oval Office”, and just say “We're going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan forever. You don't have to like it, but that's the way it is. Good night and good luck.” Now that would be concise... and, best of all, honest – which is why it will never be done.

And this is not – I hasten to add – about “empire building” in the traditional sense. As I've pointed out before, all of our attempts at empire end the same way – with a hemorrhage of our national wealth. We just can't do it right. So it is far from our national interests to occupy places like Iraq and Afghanistan – or have them as colonies; it only costs more in money and lives with every passing day. But it is very much in the interests of certain parties for this situation to persist – and I've cited the “unholy foursome” many times in the past: the arms makers, the Evangelicals, the Neocons, and the Israeli lobby (including Israel itself). These are all parties that want us “over there”, that want us in a perpetual war, and their combined power is something that no president, or administration, or Congress, can possibly oppose successfully, even if they wanted to, which they don't. But I shouldn't leave this point without also mentioning that, most importantly of all, it's the Regime that's the most in favor of all of this – and, after all, the Neocons are creatures of the Regime, the arms makers and Israel are key elements in the Regime, and the Evangelicals – well, let's just say they're dupes of the Regime, for lack of a better word. Of the four, they're the only group that is not cynical, and that, in a way, makes them the most dangerous. The other three might be willing to stop before, say, the complete bankruptcy of the U.S. -- but as far as the Evangelicals are concerned, no price is too high, including the sacrifice and self-immolation of America itself. This is what misdirected religious fanaticism comes to – and, ironically, it has come into play at the very same time that a particular form of Moslem religious fanaticism has – namely, what we call “terrorism” (but which the “third world” considers to be “our way of making war against the powerful”).

But as I said before, it is apparently not yet time to admit, to ourselves as a nation, that perpetual war is not only in our future, but is already here. And the reasons for this are far from obvious. Clearly, as a nation we are not only used to war but we severely miss it when there is a too-long period of peace. The military certainly cannot get along without war for more than a few years, because peacetime is a very unsatisfactory time to properly assess training and weapon systems. The Evangelical or neo-Puritan mindset, being the foundational American attitude, is militant by definition. And, as a nation, we have chosen to define ourselves – our identity, our destiny – almost exclusively in terms of war... ones we have fought, ones we are fighting, and ones we are likely to engage in in the future. And when you look at the pageant of observances, ceremonies, military burials, and memorial services across the land – both for veterans and for those lost in combat – you realize that America would simply not be America without war, and without its ritual, iconography, and even its long-term impact. I don't think it's dishonoring the dead to point out that we have piled fetishes upon fetishes in our drive to turn war and death into some sort of neo-pagan religion. We are willing to sacrifice lives by the million (our own, but even more those of other peoples), and a large portion of our national wealth, in order to maintain our status as the biggest and best war makers in all of human history. I mean, forget about those pathetic “empires” of ancient times – we could flatten Napoleon's entire army with one gunship. And the paradox is that we have not, in the post-Soviet era, become the gentle giant; our alleged monopoly on military power has made us, if anything, more belligerent and more peace-hating. We used to at least express a passing interest in peace as the goal of any conflict – but when's the last time you heard this point even discussed? No one wants peace any longer... or, at least, if they do they don't dare express it in a public forum. No – George W. Bush did succeed in one respect – he made the expression “cut and run” into the most fear-evoking term in the English language, when it comes to politicians and their position on war. No one wants to be seen as a coward – even vicariously. So for a politician in our time to come out in favor of peace for its own sake... well! That would evoke images of... well, let's say George McGovern. Or Gene McCarthy. Or some other mush-headed liberal who wants nothing more than to sell us down the river to... OK, the commies are pretty much history at this point, so who is left to be sold down the river to? About the only possibility I can think of is China... or Israel... or both. Whoops, those deals have already been made. And this just aggravates the absurdity. We are no longer our own country, or our own people; we have been sold down the river by our “leaders” and by the Regime... and yet we fight on, as if “we” still had something to fight for, and defend. This, in my opinion, is the most pathetic thing of all.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Crisis Mismanagement

When it comes to predictions, I freely admit that my record to date has not been so hot. After all, I predicted that the presidential election of 2008 would be between Giuliani and Clinton (Hillary, that is), and that Hillary would win. But Rudy jumped the shark when he trash-talked Ron Paul during the debates, and then sealed the deal when he placed his political fate in the hands of east coast Floridians (AKA expatriate Jews from New York – there, I said it and I don't apologize!). And Hillary, as usual, underestimated the sleaze factor that clung to her like a slick coating of BP oil – a residual effect from her husband's administration (which was, in all likelihood, more her administration than his – hopefully someday we'll know for sure). So what we wound up with was, on the Republican side, a permanently PTSD-addled presidential candidate with a fanatical Christian Zionist for a running mate, and, on the Democratic side, a guy who advertised himself as an outsider and as Mr. Clean, even though he had just crawled up out of the cesspool of Chicago politics. And his running mate was (and is) a flaming a-hole, but at least he was “the devil we knew”. So the Mr. Clean outsider won, and immediately proceeded to surround himself with an army of hard-core insiders, most of whom, although they couldn't be elected dogcatcher in their own right, have had placed into their hands all power and authority over the future of the nation and its hapless citizenry. (And I should add that the other two pieces of the traditional power triumvirate, namely responsibility and accountability, were somehow forgotten along the line, leaving them with only pure power.) So now we have, in all but name, a socialist administration – or, at least, one that aspires to socialism (a variety more properly termed fascism) – that is the supposed “answer” to the many encroachments and abuses of its predecessor. And the cry rings out from every corner of the White House and the Capitol: Capitalism is dead! Long live – what? Power to the people? Not really. “Power to the government” is more like it. And no one dare object, since all of the alternative forms of government have already been tossed, by Obama & Co., onto the ash heap of discarded ideas (if I may indulge in a bit of Bushism here).

And when it comes to quotes, I predict (yeah, I know) that the defining quote from the Obama administration will be that of Rahm Emanuel, Israel's man in Washington, when he said “Never let a serious crisis go to waste.” That mindset has, in fact, characterized nearly every move of the Obama administration to date, and every crisis (or alleged crisis) – the economic meltdown, failing industries, trade imbalances, Wall Street shenanigans, global warming, health care, education, etc. -- somehow, mysteriously, calls for the exact same solution, namely bigger government (along with higher taxes, more borrowing, bigger debt, and inflation). The latest crisis, of course – which mercifully drove all the others from the headlines, at least for a while – is the Gulf oil spill, and the solution to that is – bet you can't guess – bigger government! Now, of course, this philosophy of governing – pick the crisis du jour and use it to justify passing laws that will lock in collectivism for generations to come – could, at least in theory, turn on its very advocates. What if, for example, a crisis occurs that reflects badly, and directly, on the administration? Well, that would be a terrible thing to waste too, wouldn't it? And the solution, clearly, would be to toss Obama and his cronies onto the ash heap of discarded politicians. This is clearly what the “tea partiers” have in mind – and the Republicans are only too glad to second the emotion from their amen corner (even though they both despise and fear the tea partiers, truth be told). Smart and manipulative conservatives of the conventional mold have become born-again constitutionalists... whereas those who were constitutionalists all along, like the paleocons and libertarians, are feeling kind of like those guys who came up with a world-changing invention but were conned out of their share of the profits (and credit) by sharp operators who knew the ropes. Or – like the gal who was invited to the prom just so some dude could get in the door, at which point she is promptly abandoned while he goes and spends the night dancing with more desirable partners.

But really, this newfound Republican respect and affection for the Constitution is no more than an exercise in massive hypocrisy. Where were they when Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al, were trampling everybody and everything underfoot? Nowhere to be found, basically – stunned into silence by the spectacle of a naked power grab by people who were supposed to be the “good guys”. And what I fear is that the tea partiers and their ilk will suffer the same fate – they are simply too naïve and idealistic to be able to cope with the realities of Washington. It would be like a bunch of vegans wishing they had jobs in a sausage factory; it just ain't gonna work – not now, not ever. So the Regime will march on, oblivious to the wants, needs, and desires of the people, because, you know what? To quote a line from Lily Tomlin's “Ernestine” speaking for the phone company: We don't care! We don't have to!

Which brings us, I suppose, to the question of the upcoming mid-term elections, and even the not-all-that-far-away election of 2012. Will the Republicans succeed in throwing the rascals out? Maybe – but even if they do, it will only be to put their own rascals back into power. Some see a ray of hope in Sarah Palin, who seems to be running one of the best pre-presidential campaigns in recent times (you'd have to go way back to William Jennings Bryan to find something comparable) – but I get the feeling that she is too easily manipulated. She would be surrounded, as she was during the campaign, by an army of “handlers” like so many bacteriophages, and even if she were to get a truly liberty-oriented thought in her head, it would quickly be snuffed out before it ever saw the light of day. And everyone else who believes in constitutional freedoms – Rand Paul, for example – is an even bigger long shot. The tea partiers are going to wind up in a “flop sweat”, sitting dejectedly among deflated balloons and banners... or at the nearest bar... and the libertarians are going to say -- as they are well-practiced in saying -- “a curse on both your houses”. Thus, my prediction for 2010 and for 2012 as well. The powers that be are just too entrenched, and nothing short of a genuine revolution of the old style is going to shake their hold on the body politic... and even that might not work. It might take a huge meteor striking the Earth... or an invasion from Mars... or real global warming!

Of course, in all of this, it must be admitted that America is no longer an island, entire of itself. We do have the rest of the world to deal with, and we have been all too willing, of late, to deal with it, usually in the most dysfunctional way possible. One problem is that we just don't do “empire” right – we don't know how to make a profit from foreign engagements, and wind up allowing them to drain our treasury and sap the will of our citizenry. Will the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan end with a bang (us getting kicked out, a la Vietnam) or a whimper (some sort of “compromise” that leaves us with little or no influence, but still holding the bag money-wise – think Korea, for instance)? Will the EU declare independence, once and for all, from our follies – recognizing that its very survival might be at stake? Will China put the ultimate squeeze on, or will it continue to bleed us like a herd of Masai cattle? And how about Israel? Will it finally be locked away in an asylum, there to rage and rant until the (next) millennium... or will it, in a fit of self-destructive rage, cause a conflagration that we will inevitably be drawn into? These are the unknowns... at least to me.

But there is also the strong, steady, calculating hand of the Regime to be reckoned with – and this is a tricky issue, since most people, at least publicly, are unwilling to admit that there even is such an entity. As far as they're concerned, the world really is a crazy house – full of chaos, irrationality, atavism, racism, sectarian conflict, “hate”, and the like – and the financial world is just a subset of that. So it could all just blow up, or melt down, and national leaders would be helpless to do anything to prevent it. But this is, I submit, to vastly underestimate the strength and influence of the (international) Money Power, which clearly has all Western governments in the palm of its hand, and which, I'm sure, can come to some satisfactory accommodation with China (and with Russia as well, although they are wisely keeping their own counsel at this point). Will the Regime, furthermore, allow Israel to push the doomsday button? I think this may be the key question in all of this; it all depends on who is where on the totem pole. And, to what extent does the Regime have any influence over the Moslem world, which to us seems so volatile and out of control? Clearly, the Moslem/Israeli (and American, by extension) feud is going to have to be resolved eventually – but if it is, it will surely be resolved in the interests of the Money Power. That is, unless this feud is serving some purpose... supporting some agenda. It's certainly making a lot of arms makers rich, but are they at the top of the heap? Don't they, ultimately, have to answer to the international financial elite, whose interests surely lie in much more than mere profits from arms sales? After all, wars destroy much more than they build... and if you're rich and powerful, it's your “stuff” that's being destroyed.

My theory – as you know by now – is that all that is visible in the way of governments, politics, and economics is subordinate to a much higher-level controlling elite. But – to borrow a question from Freud – what do they want? Are they content with the chaos that characterizes current events? Or would they prefer to eventually consolidate it all into an overtly one-world government (or as much of the world as they care to bother with)? If you take the world scene, and eliminate all the major players, there's not much left – Africa and Latin America, basically, as well as some isolated outposts that are of little or no concern to the powers that be. And – the core “cui bono” question – is all of this apparent chaos and strife really as chaotic and strife-laden as it appears, or is it simply part of a larger agenda... a means to an end? It's clear, once again, that chaos at the grass roots in this country only feeds into the agenda of the collectivists – which implies that, on some level, the type and intensity of chaos is being carefully controlled and programmed for the maximum effect. (There is overwhelming evidence of this just in the daily output of the media; it's certainly no secret, and is not done subliminally.) I've talked about the “fear factor” -- and we're not the only ones suffering from it. Overseas, it's about the Moslem “invasion” of Europe... of native populations actually declining... of selected economic meltdowns that ensnare more sound economies (think: the “PIGS” of the EU). Global warming is being used as a hobgoblin elsewhere as well... although it doesn't get much of a hearing in “developing” countries like China and India. (But if it's all a myth, it hardly matters anyway, does it?) Maybe the plan is to cripple the West so that Asia can take over; but would that really be preferable? Certainly there is little or no resistance to collectivist notions in the Asian part of the Old World... and maybe that's the key. Why bother with people who have some exalted notions about “freedom” when you can deal with people who have been slaves for millennia? But that implies that the people who are running the world are running the _whole_ world... and I'm not yet convinced of that. I think there are battles yet to be fought between East and West... between the Asiatic mindset and the “Judeo-Christian” one. And we see that much of the current strife is happening in the border lands – Afghanistan, Iran, Central Asia, and so on. Does this reflect the deepest reality, or is it, too, a symptom and, basically, a hoax? Whose orders is Ahmadinejad following, for instance? One suspects China, but does their reach really and reliably extend that far at this point? The Cold War was ostensibly between communism and capitalism... but how about what has been called World War Four – that thing we call the “War on Terror” but which most of the world sees, correctly, as the next major round in the war between Islam and the West? China seems, at times, to be taking the side of Islam, but the Chinese leaders are too smart to allow this to become plain and obvious, and maybe it is, in fact, neither plain nor obvious. They will always be pursuing what is in their best interests – a lesson we seem to have forgotten since amnesia set in in Wilson's time. They will always take advantage of our delusions, foolishness, and impulsiveness, as they did in Vietnam. Perhaps that legendary “inscrutable Oriental mind” will finally triumph over misguided Western idealism; the stage is certainly set, and China is doing all it can to severely compromise our economic strength and independence. Play one of those “world conflict” board games, and extend it fifty years into the future – who is on whose side at that point? Who has won or lost in the meantime? Who has ceased to exist and who is still around? Is the Regime, at the present time, all-powerful, or are they girding themselves for Armageddon, with China on the other side? All we can do at this point is watch and wait – look and listen, try to detect trends... read between the lines (or electrons)... and wonder if true liberty was, as some have speculated, a brief flash of light in an otherwise dark night of tyranny.

Monday, June 14, 2010


This is what passes for headlines on the local scene: “Condemned Home Demolished”. Note that I didn't say “non-condemned home demolished”, which might have been newsworthy... or “condemned home not demolished” -- which would have been worth a headline in the D.C. suburbs, but not, unfortunately, in this area, which is dotted with condemned buildings that persist, in the most ornery way, in remaining standing and being eyesores. Now, to be fair, the story really did have more significance than that. The reason for the condemnation was that the house began mysteriously sliding down the hill a while back. Now, this is not a big area for landslides of the “natural” sort – the kind that occur in the Los Angeles area, for instance. But it is a big area for what is called “subsidence”, which is, basically, the shifting of land in a downward direction due to an abandoned mine underneath finally collapsing. This is nothing unusual, and what makes it kind of scary is that no one is sure where all these old abandoned mines are. The entrances have long since been silted over or concealed by vegetation, so the first indication you get that your house might be built on top of a big nothing is when it starts to sink into the ground (or slide, which is more likely considering that the vast majority of houses in Pittsburgh are on a hill of some sort). Of course, the mine owners, and the miners, and the coal they mined, are all long gone, so there is no question of a lawsuit, and I frankly don't know what home insurance policies have to say about this issue; my guess is they're protecting the interests of the insurer. Still, it is a sobering thought, and a lesson in impermanence, that what you thought was your land was at one time someone else's land, and they might have carted a good deal of it away long before you appeared on the scene.

Now here's a very – let's say Seinfeld-esque – question. Half the time, when I walk into the post office, there is someone there (or usually a couple or family) trying to obtain a passport. Nothing too strange about that, except for one thing – they invariably can hardly speak English. And they don't know the first thing about how to fill out a form. All of which implies that they are relatively new arrivals... in which case, why do they need an American passport? (And how can they even qualify for one?) Don't they already have one issued by the place they just arrived from? It's a mystery... and anyone who can help me out on this one is asked to comment. Please!

“Shazam” of the week – or month, or year. Now it turns out that Afghanistan has newly-discovered (ahem) “vast mineral deposits” -- like lithium, for instance -- that might be worth up to $1 Trillion. Finally, something that makes our invasion of that sorry-assed place make sense! I mean... it's a bit tacky to invade, and take over, another country just so you can grab their natural resources... and we know that it doesn't even work half the time; I mean, look at Iraq and all of its alleged oil – where did it all go? But at least it makes sense, if you know what I mean. A lot more sense than “the war on terror”, for example. And... oh, you're saying how can this new discovery have been the basis for an invasion which occurred more than eight years ago? It's obvious, silly – this is not a “new” discovery at all; the Russians knew there was gold in them thar hills – we're just confirming the fact and getting ready to take bids from “developers”. If we play our cards right, we might even get back all we've spent on the war, plus change. But what are the chances – the American taxpayer is no match for “Big Lithium”.

Another attempt to link teacher compensation to student performance is being made out in Colorado. In this case, the issue is tenure, AKA “job security for life”. Of course, if you start linking tenure to student performance, then it isn't tenure any more, is it? It would be as if Supreme Court justices, who are appointed for life, could still be voted out of office. But as usual, any story about teachers and teachers' unions has to include at least one mind-boggling quote. In this case, it's “... over 40,000 teachers in the state of Colorado... have been given the message that it is all up to them.” That's in reference to student progress. Well, um... if student progress is not up to the teachers, who is it up to? The janitor? It seems like at one time there was this strange concept that the job of teachers is to cause a phenomenon in students called “learning”. And any measure that reflected that learning was said to be a measure of “progress” or “achievement”. But those were simple and naïve times, of course – we know much better now. It's much more important that teachers get rated on things like having completed “leadership training” and other such boondoggles. Well... we'll see how Colorado makes out. The teachers' unions are, after all, one of the most powerful political forces in the country, and they can thwart and defeat any state legislature or governor, not to mention the will of the citizens of said state. But we'll see; perhaps the tide is turning at last.

I'm sure you all remember the wall of silence that went up in the American media concerning the Mossad hit squad that managed to knock off a Hamas agent in Dubai in January. The word from on high was that this was OK, and perfectly legitimate, because, after all, Israel has “the right to self-defense” -- no matter where in the world that “self-defense” has to occur. But guess what! Not everyone is so easily cowed. Now an Israeli agent has been arrested in Poland (of all places! Didn't he know better?) and is slated for deportation to Germany (same comment with earlaps!). This is because he helped issue a fake German passport to a member of the hit squad. It seems that some countries take their territorial and diplomatic integrity seriously; clearly we don't – at least not when Israel is involved.

I recently commented on what a good -- i.e. bad -- example Hugo Chavez serves when it comes to judging the advisability of converting to a communist system. But this time he may have gone too far; “he has ordered the military to crack down on businesses selling beer on the streets or after legal hours.” (Just try that in Pittsburgh!) This is part of what he terms a “moral crusade” -- and it's funny how often communist regimes start acting downright Puritanical. “Moral crusade”, indeed! -- within a system that is essentially immoral. And in the meantime, Chavez's comrades-in-arms in Cuba have decided to stop providing free lunches to 225,000 workers. Instead, they're each going to get a stipend: 70 cents per day. That's not gonna get you the lunch special at Legal Seafood, pal – with or without the glass of chablis. But as far as American liberals are concerned, Cuba is still the example we should all be striving to emulate.

Darn! I hate it when this happens! Remember when Bill Clinton – back when he was pretending to be president – started accusing white racists and “haters” (and, by implication, all Republicans and conservatives) of setting black churches on fire? These places were going up in flames too quickly to count, like tumbleweeds caught in a prairie fire. Remember? Well... it turned out that there were far fewer than advertised, and they either caught fire by accident or were torched by – gasp! -- black people. But of course Clinton was never made to withdraw his statement, so it sticks in the national psyche like some kind of tropical fever. But now here are three white dudes up in Massachusetts, no less, who are accused of having set fire to a “predominantly black” (90%) church “because they were angry with President Obama's election”. And one has agreed to plead guilty. Now, these guys have not been identified as being either Republicans or conservatives... and let's hope they never are. We can at least say that they aren't too bright; I mean, what does a black church in Western Massachusetts have to do with a semi-black (but not “really” black, as our “black leadership” pointed out any number of times) machine politician from Chicago? Clearly, they were over-generalizing. I just hate the thought that Bill Clinton might have been as much as 1% right... about anything.

The Senate gave Timothy Geithner a hard time the other day for “refusing to label China a currency manipulator”. Well... other than the old saw about the pot calling the kettle black (our government constantly manipulates our currency to the detriment of the citizenry), hasn't it yet occurred to them that China holds all the cards? We can't start calling them names, or even mildly annoying them – because who knows, they might decide it was time to cash in all that American debt and therefore pretty much trash our economy. Of course, they haven't done this yet, even in the face of outrageous insults like a low-level American diplomat having tea with the Dalai Lama... but it remains a sword that they can hold over our heads, pretty much as far into the future as anyone can see. And I will admit to having stated, back in the glory days of the Clinton administration when China was helping finance his campaign for re-election, that if China didn't make its move on Taiwan then, it never would. And I still believe this to be the case. They could have gotten away with it at that time... and they could get away with it now, but they didn't do it then, so I have to assume that they won't do it now either. I suspect that they see, in the long run, that some sort of bloodless reunification will take place, just as with Germany and with Hong Kong. The day may come when it will actually be to Taiwan's economic advantage to reunite with the mainland. For that matter, it might already be the case... but old habits die hard (as do old politicians). But in any case, we're not about to give China a hard time about anything... kind of like Israel, now that you mention it. One owns our economy, and the other owns our politicians. And I've already speculated that one fine day these two are going to come into direct conflict because there's only so much in the way of American resources to go around. So watch this space.

OK, stop the presses (if you're printing a new edition of “The Joys of Yiddish”, that is). I've got a new definition of “chutzpah”. A local man killed three – count 'em, three – cops back in April when they responded to a 911 call about a domestic disturbance. The call was placed by the guy's mother, and the “domestic disturbance” was between the two of them. OK so far? So now guess what, the guy's mother is suing Allegheny County because “the... fatal gunfight and investigation... have made her home uninhabitable and of no value.” Yeah, you got it right – the place is full of bullet holes because her psycho son had a gun battle with the police after killing three of them, so she's suing the county. Oh, and she also wants compensation for “the cost of living elsewhere” since the event in question. Any questions as to how someone like this could wind up being the mother of a cop killer?

But on the brighter side, another local woman has reached the venerable age of 110. And predictably, those gathered around quizzed her as to what she attributes her longevity. Now, in a situation like this you almost always get the stock answers that the oldster thinks everyone wants to hear – things like “never drank, never smoked”, “always looked on the bright side”, “raised on home cooking”, “walked five miles a day”, and so on. But this gal showed some refreshing honesty. Her secret? “Luck”. End of story!