Monday, May 30, 2011

War Day

When I was a kid, it was called Decoration Day – since that was the day on which one would “decorate” the graves – not only of the war dead but of family as well. One of my mother's favorite stories was about my grandfather – a distinguished banker – trundling all the way through town with a wheelbarrow and “decorating” supplies (and, I'm certain, wearing a 3-piece suit with a watch chain), from their home out to the town cemetery on Decoration Day. Then of course there were the parades and the observances – with the inevitable reading of “In Flanders Fields” and taps (that was the pre-bagpipe era, thank goodness!)... and there were more World War I veterans alive at that time than there are Vietnam veterans alive now. Hard to believe, but...

And as far as what was being commemorated on that day so many years ago, it was, first and foremost, “our honored dead” -- those hometown boys who became heroes simply because they got snatched up by a predatory, empire-building government and sent over to Europe to be killed in trenches, field, and forest. Their lives meant more by having been ended prematurely than they would have meant if they'd stayed alive, in most cases – at least that's my supposition based on what happened to most of the survivors. And this, in fact, is the case more often than not in war, it seems to me – it is said, and regretted, that “the dead don't vote”, but actually they do. They do by their very presence – or absence. One dead soldier weighs more heavily on the mind of any politician than do one hundred live ones, and they are more likely to go to war, or remain at war, in order to see that that one “did not die in vain” than they are to resist going to war in order to save the lives of the hundred.

So yes, we were commemorating those dead, and their sacrifice – not pausing for a moment "to reason why”. They were all heroes, and all equally heroic – no matter if they died in a pitched battle with the Japs or from having been run over by a Jeep. Because it is a mainstay of human nature that extreme sacrifice equals justification and validation: It must have been a worthy cause because look at the price we paid! And the argument about “not dying in vain” is used, more often than not, to justify sending more men into the valley of death. And thus it becomes a vicious circle: One death justifies more, and those justify even more, until we have conflagrations like the Civil War – an orgy of self-destruction unequaled in history, perhaps, up until the rise of totalitarianism in the 20th Century.

But what else were we commemorating? War? Peace? Or the endless and inevitable cycle of the two? It's hard to say, because you can't have “honored dead” without war... and yet it takes at least a moment or two of peace to find time to commemorate them. It is tempting to say that Americans are enamored of war, since we, historically, can't stay out of wars for more than a few years at a time, and since World War II we have been in a state of more or less perpetual war – with the economy on a war footing, and the “Defense” Department (and the “security” and “intelligence” cabal) taking up the lion's share of the nation's wealth. And yet the media insist, reference the war in Afghanistan, that Americans are “war-weary”. I don't think this is true. What Americans are weary of is wars that never end, and where there is no clear-cut victor or resolution. Even our defeat in Vietnam was easier to take, in a way, than this perpetual stalemate in the Middle East; the mistake in Vietnam was not in losing the war, but in having gotten into it in the first place. The mistake, in other words, was in embracing absurdity, which is much harder to deal with psychologically than defeat.

So I say that, far from being war-weary, Americans are positively enamored of war – of the chest-pounding “patriotism” it entails... of the American exceptionalism that is one of its foundation stones... of our manifest destiny as the moral arbiter and policeman of the world... of the parades, the flags, the speeches, the excitement, the barking dogs... brass instruments gleaming in the sun, drum cadences. Yes, mes amis, we are off to war again, because... well, if we don't do it, who will? And obviously someone has to do it; one cannot simply leave the world to its own devices.

But – you'll say – what about all the sacrifices, the economic disruptions, etc.? Well, again, we have an uncanny knack for turning dross into gold when it comes to the price of war. Old folks look back on rationing, for example, with an endless supply of anecdotes, and a bit of nostalgia -- “It was tough, but we lived through it.” And every time a home-town hero returned in one piece – lean, tanned, and shining, sitting on top of a Cadillac in the parade – it more than made up for the ones who came home in body bags or wheelchairs... or had to be confined to the back ward of a VA hospital for the rest of their days. But even for those, there was a kind of savor – again, the notion that it's better to be a hero than just another small-town schlump. If you're one of the permanently war-wounded, that defines your life from then on, and there is a certain status attached to that... a certain impunity, even. If war is the premier self-defining act for a society, it can also be that for the individual. One of my uncles never tired of relating stories from his time in Europe (during World War I). He was born in a very small town in upstate New York, lived there all of his life, and died there. Historically, a non-person... except that he had been “over there”, and that made all the difference – in not only his self-image but in his image in the community. In that sort of provincial society, the difference between a man who gets to wear That Hat and the one who doesn't is immense. Just having been a bit too young or too old to go to war is no excuse – the key is to have been in the flower of one's youth at just the right time (as any Vietnam vet can tell you, ruefully).

So what I'm saying is that there are a million reasons why we love war – the testosterone-infused excitement, the ritual, the iconography, the rite of passage... and even what I'll call the “culture of loss” -- the wounded and/or addicted veterans, the widows and orphans, the ubiquitous yellow ribbons, the POW/MIA flags, the massive economic price... these are all self-defining things as well. They add a kind of perverse excitement, or meaning, to the whole thing. And is there a hint of masochism in all of this, of the kind described by Drew Gilpin Faust in “This Republic of Suffering” about the Civil War? I say yes – but it's a masochism based on some sort of need for reparation and repentance for past sins. As chest-thumping and bullying as we might be as a nation, we also seem plagued by self-doubt and guilt at times – and I don't just mean the garden-variety liberal guilt, which will be with us always. This is more along the lines of, if I am not absolutely positive of my position, and of always doing that which is right and just, then what of all the death and destruction that inevitably follows? Will that not redound on me eventually... and won't I deserve it on some level? (When Ron Paul suggested something like this with regard to 9/11, Rudy Giuliani practically had a stroke right on stage... but Paul was right.) And aren't our politicians constantly bellowing that "we will pay any price" to spread democracy and insure freedom for all the world's oppressed peoples, etc.? And furthermore, is not suffering one's basic lot in life, and is not every moment not spent dwelling on this fact a mark against us? I think that this gloomy, fatalistic sort of Protestant thinking had a lot to do with the Civil War... and I think it remains, as a deep substrate, in the background of all of our wars since then. And don't we have a strange tendency, after all, to turn even our victories into defeats? We pounded Germany and Japan to fine powder in World War II – but guess who managed to make a miraculous economic recovery afterwards (even with our troops still occupying their homelands)? We “won” the Cold War, but whose economy is on the ropes 20 years later, and who is ascendant? Right, our old communist enemies. And so on. For all of our bluster and pretense, the truth is that we can't handle victory – not really. It's unnatural... uncomfortable... and if the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Libya were to, magically, end overnight, we would get restless and start fishing around for new conflicts to become enmeshed in.

And this is not to even include the baleful effect of government, war lobbies, armament makers, bankers, neocons, etc. -- all of whom are ever anxious to exploit the American people's love affair with war. One could even ask which came first, our zest for war as a people or the ceaseless propaganda and corruption that facilitates war. I think they are mutually reinforcing, and I don't think it matters any longer which came first. I mean, if the American people really disliked war, they could start by voting out of office any politician who wages war or supports it. And do it not once but in every election, for as long as it takes to eliminate all the war-mongers. But what happens to candidates who are labeled (by our ever-compliant media) “peaceniks”, or “peace candidates”, or (worst of all) “pacifists”? What, in fact, even happens to those who call themselves “anti-war conservatives”? They are, in all cases, thrashed and soundly beaten in the polls, defamed, called every name in the book, and basically run out of town on a rail, politically-speaking. Plus, even those perennial “peaceniks”, who are so fond of demonstrating against war as long as a Democrat is not in the White House, are not really against war. They're only against the wrong _kind_ of war. So they had no problem, for instance, with Clinton bombing Belgrade... and they're in a state of total paralysis with regard to Libya, since it's “their” president who is doing all the bombing and strafing. So no, when it comes to sincere, principled opposition to war, they don't count, and never have. And I'm not building a brief for pacifism here, either – there really are people out there who want to kill us and take our stuff, and we have to act accordingly. But if you cut our level of “defense” preparedness down to only the level that a “just war” would require, you wind up with no more than 10% of what we have now, in terms of total cost for defense, security, and intelligence. The rest is all about empire.

So I leave you with this one thought, above all – that Memorial Day is, indeed, a celebration... but not only of that which we think we're celebrating. If you plumb the depths, you realize that this day is just the sun-lit tip of the iceberg, and that the bulk lies much deeper, in frigid waters, and represents a major part of America's heart of darkness. And on that basis, it would be more appropriate -- if too frank for most people's taste -- to call this War Day.

Sunday, May 29, 2011

China Diary II: Kim Chi For Breakfast

Flying over farm country on the way into Beijing, I couldn't help but notice the difference between the typical Chinese agricultural plan and the one that we see in the American Midwest. Whereas we have farms consisting, basically, of large rectangles, each with its farmhouse, barn, and outbuildings, the Chinese model is of a small village of houses clustered together surrounded by fields. And the fields are laid out in long, undulating strips rather than rectangles. This is, in fact, closer to the traditional European model, and the model, I suspect, of most of the world – people clustered together for protection and for mutual needs, and to perform joint tasks. The isolated American homestead is probably the exception rather than the rule, from a global perspective. And in China's case you have to also recall that, for a while during the Maoist era, agriculture was totally collectivized, so the one house/one field model would have been not only irrelevant but counterproductive (to the collectivist mind, at least). Better to gather all the slaves into a bunch so we can keep an eye on them. But in any case, it does provide a picturesque landscape... at least from a couple of miles up.

Then we have Beijing, and the first thing to note is that the city is extremely flat, and is laid out in a gigantic grid. This is not a new concept, and is, in fact, an extension of the old city, which was a gridwork, and that, in turn, was an extension of the Forbidden City, which is also a gridwork – or at least highly geometrical. And this, it turns out, is a reflection of the ancient idea of feng shui, which, it turns out, is alive and well in present-day China. It influences how sections of the city are laid out, how buildings are laid out, the interiors of buildings and of rooms, furniture, d├ęcor, gardens and public spaces... just about everything, in other words, having to do with the physical environment. And I have to say, this was a surprise, since I would have thought feng shui was one of the countless “old ideas” totally discarded during Mao's time. But there it was, and whether it persisted through that era or rose up again later on, I cannot say, but I suspect the former, since even the Maoist structures seem to conform.

And speaking of buildings – the most prominent feature of Beijing, and of any city in modern China, is the clusters of high-rise apartment buildings, stretching to the horizon (or at least until they are no longer visible owing to smog). I'm not talking about a few high-rises here and there; I'm talking about clusters, and hundreds of them, each on its own very large block. From a mile or two up the city resembles nothing more than a gigantic circuit board, with the buildings as components and the streets as circuitry. Needless to say, the “old town” of any city is completely dwarfed by all of this expansion. And what is it about? Well, the usual things – technology, transportation, economic shifts, and the lure of jobs and bright lights. The countryside, as scenic as it may be, is apparently not all that attractive a place in which to try and make a living any longer, so anyone who gets a chance gravitates to the cities and winds up in one of the apartments in one of those high-rises in one of those clusters... you get the picture. They get, basically, to move from a small town to the world's largest anthill, in exchange for which they get... what? Hot and cold running water and central heating, I guess... but not necessarily elevators! Many of those high-rises are walk-ups, believe it or not... which may explain my finding that there are no fat people in China.

So... you fly halfway around the world and then start “seeing stuff” – with that strange hangover called “jet lag” that comes from having been up 28 straight hours, of which 21 were daylight. You spend the next few days thinking “I should be in bed!” when you're up and about, and “I should be up!” when you're in bed. Plus, you somehow lost an entire day en route. Everyone assures you that you'll get it back on the return flight, but you remain skeptical. There is something unnatural about it all.

But actually, my first introduction to Beijing was dinner at the hotel the first evening, and it was a cause of a certain amount of trauma and apprehension. First of all, we were in a high-end hotel because when you book with one of these tours that's what you get, because people expect it. Now, considering the amount of time one has to actually take advantage of all their offerings, a high-end hotel is, basically, a waste. Something a cut or two down would be more appropriate; it would be easier to do it justice. But that would violate people's expectations, so nothing doing... and so the waste and extravagance roll on. You find yourself in a crowd of tourists dressed, basically, like refugees (owing to severe restrictions on luggage) and encircled by immaculately-groomed staff who, I'm sure, would much rather be waiting on some of those ubiquitous Chinese businessmen in their tailored black suits, white shirts, and black ties. But hey, we're paying them good money to smile and bow, so smile and bow they do.

So what you get with this high-end hotel is a high-end restaurant... one with a fabulous menu that would appeal to elite clientele anywhere in the world. I mean – you're in China, so what do you expect? Chop suey under glass? No, not a bit of it – not even a hint of anything “Chinese” or “icky” -- just the same 5-star menu you'd find in Switzerland, San Francisco, Dubai, or Rio de Janeiro. But guess what, it was fake! Or at least the part that bragged about “Australian beef” was fake. I was treated to – and I do not exaggerate – one of the worst steaks I've ever eaten (or tried to). And at top dollar! I think the Australian Beef Board ought to sue this place for product libel. And it made me wonder about everything else on the menu – like, how about the foie gras? Was it lousy too? (And how do you make foie gras lousy? By feeding the geese turpentine?) How about all the other exotic dishes, with prices ranging up to the many hundreds (in US currency, I hasten to add)? And then... and here's where dark suspicions set in... how about that outrageous wine list, that to look at it would cause Baron Rothschild himself to swoon? Is that fake too? You see how soon paranoia develops. My mind was filled with whispers of that prejudicial old expression “Chinese copy”. Is this the way it was going to be the whole trip – top prices for bogus goods? Well... the answer is... never mind, I'll get back to that topic later.

Fortunately, that one completely fraudulent dinner was to be the first and last of its kind on the trip. But I should also add that the bulk of the meals from that point on were “provided”, as the expression goes, by the tour – which means they were programmed for American tastes and served in a variety of efficient, no-nonsense ways – waited, buffet-style, and the ever-comical “lazy susan” style, about which, again, more later. And when I say “American tastes” I don't mean the food was entirely American, as in Boston Market or Cracker Barrel. That would have been truly tragic. The way it broke down at breakfast was that it was half American and half Chinese. The American half consisted of just about what you'd expect – bacon, sausage, eggs (most styles), toast, bagels, croissants, fruit, and so on. The Chinese half typically featured the ubiquitous congee, which is an extremely bland rice porridge, with the saving grace that they provide all sorts of mysterious pickled things that one can add to provide some flavor and textural variety. And there was always a decent assortment of dim sum – praise be! And then there were assorted other savories, like kim chi, for instance, which is not even Chinese. Needless to say, most of the gringos avoided the kim chi like Dracula would avoid garlic – but I didn't come all the way to China to eat scrambled eggs, dammit! And I have to also note that the overall selections on the Chinese side morphed a bit as one traveled around the country. Xian, for example, had a much greater selection of pickled items, not only at breakfast but at other meals as well. And – oh yes, lest I forget – there was a wide variety of tofu, all the way from fresh to various stages of exquisite decay... and the legendary “hundred year eggs”, in which the whites turn purple and gelatinous and the yolks turn a somewhat dubious gray. I tried to try everything at least once, and I have to say that the only things I found totally inedible were some of those thoroughly-decayed varieties of tofu – especially that kind sitting in a pool of reddish stuff that looked and tasted like nail polish.

There are two things, however, that they just don't “get” as yet when it comes to the American breakfast diner. What they don't understand is that we guzzle orange juice like Snuffy Smith guzzles moonshine... and that we mainline coffee the way... well, never mind, I don't want to get sued for slander. So both of these items are eked out in little dribs and drabs – coffee in particular. Nowhere in China did I see a single “self-serve” coffee facility. You can have a vast breakfast buffet covering an acre of ground, but your coffee – your lifeline! -- will still be dependent on one of those scurrying little female waiters, who only come within hailing distance of your table every 15 minutes. So... China has a ways to go, as I said.

And there's another, more subtle, thing about the food that should be noted. When I referred to “Chinese” food above, I should really have said “Chinese-style food”, or “Chinese-American food”, or “food prepared by Chinese people using Chinese ingredients, but for American tastes”. This revelation came out in a number of ways. The first was when we noticed that, wherever we went to eat, everyone else in the place was also American, or at least non-Chinese. Then, whenever we got nosy enough to check out what our guides were eating, it turned out they were eating totally different food from the rest of us. Then there were the stern warnings from the guides, repeated ad nauseum (or maybe ad anti-nauseum), to not, under any circumstances, eat the “street food” -- that is, all those savory-smelling and scrumptious-looking goodies that were for sale on every sidewalk in the city, from portable kitchens, pushcarts, and doorways. No no, we were assured, those things will put you in the hospital, or at least confine you to the bathroom for 24 hours. So – as the number of categories of authentic Chinese food that we weren't allowed access to began to mount, I had to ask myself, are we going to get any authentic Chinese food on this trip? Or is this just some gigantic gastronomical Potemkin village? And then the realization sunk in that what we were getting was so familiar... why, it was just like “Chinese food” in the States! Which means, I guess, that nothing that we call “Chinese food” over here is the slightest bit authentic! Paranoia again – but this time reinforced by a phalanx of guides. But just remember this the next time you're in a Chinese restaurant – you're eating American food, period.

And once in a while someone in the party had the temerity to bring up this subject with one of the guides – and the friendly, but firm, answer with regard to authentic Chinese food was always “You wouldn't like it.” (That's even in the unlikely event that the hospital and/or bathroom issue had been resolved.) And then there was another bit of minor madness. We already know that different parts of China use different levels of spice in their foods – you know the old rules of thumb, Szechuan and Hunan mean hot, Cantonese means mild, etc. And I'm not sure which city it was, but right off the bat we were regaled with tales about how spicy their food was, and how it was considered healthful because of the climate, etc. But guess what, we never got to find out! Apparently that super-hot, incendiary, spicy food was also on the “forbidden” list. I have to say, I can get spicier Chinese-style food in Pittsburgh than anything I had in 3 weeks in China. So... are they overdoing it? Have they grossly underestimated Americans? Well... after observing my fellow travelers for a while, I'd say, unfortunately, no. Americans as a group are, let's say, semi-adventuresome when it comes to food, but the limit is reached very soon. And I guess the people who programmed the tour decided, at some point, that it just wasn't worth having the odd wimpy eater jumping up from the table like a cartoon character, with fire coming out of his mouth and smoke coming out of his ears. But the loss to the rest of us is immense.

So to sum up – if you're looking for gastronomic adventure in China, don't go with a tour group. On the other hand, if you'd rather stay out of the hospital... well, who knows?

(to be continued)

By George, I Think He's Got It!

I've come up with a theory that resolves the dilemmas presented by the impossibly lame official government version(s) of the (alleged) last stand of Osama bin Laden (referenced in my post “Dead Again”, May 5). Like many inspirations, it came to me in a flash while I was doing something totally mindless – which is a good recommendation for just relaxing once in a while.

Here's the theory. We did, in fact, manage to kill Osama, not on the date claimed but a short time previously, say a week or two. And it didn't happen in Abbottabad, or Costello-abad, or anywhere like that, but in the sort of place you'd expect – up in the mountains of either Pakistan or Afghanistan, in some hideaway. And yes, it was an ultra-secret, ultra-hush raid by some elite U.S. forces – which is what made possible the next step.

A good killing is a terrible thing to waste, right? And aside from the obvious propaganda value of having knocked off the “mastermind” behind 9/11... but wait, wasn't KSM the mastermind? How many masterminds do you need, anyway? At any rate, the geniuses in the Obama administration right away set to work trying to extract the maximum propaganda and, let's say, diplomatic value out of the whole thing. Wouldn't it be much better, for example, if he had been caught in luxurious digs with a stash of pornography? Wouldn't that be a slap in the face to the alleged ascetic, self-denying habits and ideals of the Islamic militants? And then, to add insult to injury, you portray Osama as a lonely old man (except for a clutch of wives) reliving the glory days by watching TV. A kind of Moslem version of Howard Hughes, let's say. In other words, he was out of the loop, but we're gonna get him anyway, based on past offenses.

So what you do? You pick some luxurious digs of some sort, stage a raid, and declare that Osama was, in fact, on the premises and has now assumed room temperature, but we can't show you any photos to prove it, and we're not going to put his body on display because that would violate Moslem burial customs (like we care!)... and so we flew him out over the ocean and bade him a fond farewell.

But where would be the best place to stage a raid on some luxurious digs, hmmm? Well, the Pakistani government has been acting a bit ambivalent of late... they're threatening to wander off the reservation (the one called The American Empire)... so what better way to bring them to heel and teach them a lesson with a bit of humiliation than to stage the raid in what was apparently the West Point of Pakistan?

This even helps explain the hopelessly garbled multiple versions of the story that came out in the first few days, even though there was only one source of the information. The administration couldn't get the story straight for the simple reason that it was, indeed, a story, rather than a set of facts. So they – in typical liberal fashion – tried out one version, that didn't sound quite right, so they tried out another, ditto, and so on until they came up with something that seemed to make some sense... except no one ever attempted to explain where all those other stories came from. Nah, forget it – toss 'em in the memory hole, it's time to “move on”.

This theory is not a whole lot different than Option 1 of my previous post – just fleshed out a bit. What it does is eliminate the notion that he had already been dead for a long time, and thus takes care of the question of why announce it at this point by making it seem like it just happened. Under the new scenario, the administration would have taken just the amount of time it needed to stage the second, bogus raid... but unfortunately not enough time to come up with a story that made sense and was worth sticking to.

Or... this may all be idle speculation, and the administration may have been telling the truth after all. But which truth? Which story? And again, why all the cover-up activity? Weren't we treated to photos of the bloated corpses of Uday and Qusay as soon as possible (within the bounds of good taste, of course)? So what changed? Can it be that we have become more conscious of Moslem sensitivities in the intervening years? Not likely.

Maybe I've been reading too many Father Brown stories recently. But this theory certainly makes at least as much sense as what actually happened... or didn't happen... or... well, you see the point. Compared to the endless re-positioning, shifting stances, and spin of this administration, almost anything that is linear and consistent and logical makes more sense, even it it does sound like something out of Conspiracy Central.

Saturday, May 28, 2011

China Diary I: Gin Over Siberia

I now embark upon my most ambitious blog project to date, namely to convey my impressions from my recent trip to China. I'm not going to simply provide a minute-by-minute narrative, because those are about as boring as your neighbor's slide show of their trip to Branson. This will be more along the lines of observations and discussions based on various topics, with the locations and activities as backdrop. The old notion that “travel is broadening” has, in my opinion, about as much validity as the notion that one becomes better educated by learning another language. Most of the “language nerds” I knew in college were no different from the rest of the herd, except that they happened to be moderately proficient in another language. In other words, learning another language didn't necessarily make them any better educated than they would have been had they stuck with their mother tongue. You can, in short, be as stupid or wise as you want to be in any language. And likewise, travel is only “broadening” if one has what it takes to be broadened – first and foremost, a desire to not just accumulate superficial experiences and impressions, but to fit them into a broader schema. I can point to any number of people who have “traveled the world”, but their outlook is every bit as cramped and provincial as it would have been if they'd stayed home in... Branson, Missouri, let's say. And some of the wisest people I know have barely been out of the county in which they were born. So there are no guarantees in this business.

It's also worth pointing out that Americans have a built-in handicap when it comes to visiting other places, since we have been brought up on a diet of not only cultural superiority (nothing unusual there – in fact, it's pretty much universal) but also on the notion of what I'll call cultural manifest destiny – the notion that it's our bounden duty to spread the blessings of “the American way of life” and of “democracy”, etc. wherever we go – by persuasion or force, it matters little. So no sooner are we across any given border than we start judging the place where we find ourselves in relation to how well it lives up to our own standards – how much, in other words, it looks, feels, and smells like the U.S. And yeah, I know, there is always the lure of the new, different, and exotic – this is what keeps travel agencies in business. But when you get right down to it, what do your average travelers talk about and obsess about more than anything else? Right – it's the extent to which the place they're visiting is not like the U.S., and what it would take to make it that way (“just a few simple changes” is the most common phrase), and what's wrong with these people, anyway? Why can't they throw off all those queer old habits and “superstitions” and outmoded customs... and why can't they speak English better... and why can't they bathe more often? Yes, this is what it finally boils down to more often than not, once we find ourselves in the trenches. So our understandable racial/ethnic/cultural pride (“understandable” because it's a universal trait, and not to be despised) quickly morphs into a sort of imperialism, and we come home congratulating ourselves that we've “been somewhere”... but at the same time wondering why those people can't get their act together. Where is their ambition (talking abut the “Third World” now)? Where is their “get up and go”? (Kind of like Henry Higgins asking, "Why can't a woman be more like a man?") We seldom pause to consider that, with their typical history of war, strife, revolution, famine, plague, and oppression, it's a miracle they've even accomplished as much as they have. We have lived remarkably sheltered lives in this country, historically speaking – at least since the Civil War. We have the privilege of fighting all of our wars on someone else's territory... we have been free of famine (if not entirely of hunger)... our “revolutions” are all of the “soft” variety, and well within the form... we've managed to conquer most plagues (except those resulting from overindulgence)... and what we view as oppression or political strife would make most people in the world laugh. And yet, that is what our perspective is based on, and we see the rest of the world, whether directly or first-hand, from that perspective. And I do not exempt myself from this description! I just hope that I can occasionally rise up from provincialism sufficiently to provide some insight.

But before we get down to business, let's first talk for a moment about... well, remember that old advertising phrase, “getting there is half the fun”? Whoever coined it could certainly not have anticipated the many charms of air travel in our time. Air travel is, to put it bluntly, a pain in the ass, and as far as I can tell it's not going to get any better in the foreseeable future. And no, it's not just about the tender ministrations of the TSA, which seems to add to the number of clothes one has to remove to get through security with each succeeding trip. After all, we got ourselves into this mess, and so have no one to blame but us. And it's not about our chaotic airports, which require a degree of long-suffering and stamina formerly expected only of basic trainees. And it's not even about planes per se, with their endlessly recycled bone-dry air, token meals, and bland announcements that cause me to glaze over about two minutes into the flight. It's just... well, if only it weren't for the old movies, that present travel as such a romantic, free-spirited, breezy thing. Boarding an ocean liner in New York harbor, with piles of steamer trunks, streamers, brass bands, and thousands of people waving handkerchiefs – now that actually looked like fun! Or – boarding an airliner in the old days, with other well-dressed people (who would never have dreamed of taking their own fast food on board – ew, how tacky!), pert stewardesses in pill-box hats (instead of the mixed-gender, haggard workhorses we encounter now), meals actually cooked on board, etc. And don't get me started on trains in the old days! Even the family car trip with stops at Howard Johnson's, cabin courts, and Rock City... OK, I'm a sentimental old geezer, I admit it. But haven't you ever stopped to think of all we've lost? In the “land of the free” travel has turned into something that is, more often than not, oppressive. But if you want to go anywhere, you have to put up with it. It's kind of sad, really.

And another thing (channeling Andy Rooney now) – have you noticed that air travel represents the very last vestiges of the old class system? First of all, we have that endless list of privileged categories of travelers that is reeled off at boarding time. “We will now board members of our exclusive executive gold star elite brahmin caste.” That sort of thing. Who are these people? And the insult doesn't end there. Have you ever noticed that, if you're in “economy class” -- known in the old days as “steerage” -- you have to run, or walk, the gauntlet between rows of the privileged in order to get to your seat? And don't those privileged ones give you the stink-eye, like, “what are you doing on my airplane, you unworthy peasant?” Don't tell me you haven't noticed this! It happens every time. This procedure is set up on purpose to yield the maximum class resentment, I'm convinced. If there's ever a proletarian revolution in this country it will begin on a commercial airliner; I just know it.

But there's something worse – or slightly better, depending on one's class sensitivities. That's when you get on a plane that features what Air Canada calls “Executive First Suites”. These are not just the wide, plush, all-enclosing bucket seats of first and/or business class, oh no! These are cocoons – islands of isolation and tranquility in a sea of squalor. It's as if a whole bunch of small but luxurious travel trailers had been brought in and fitted to the floor of the cabin. And you know, frankly, if I were traveling on someone else's dollar (which most of them surely are), and had to fly a “polar route” once or twice a month, I guess I'd be interested in having my own private cocoon as well. But still, it's a blatant slap in the face to the average, hard-working stiff, having to walk past these cabanas on the way to one's own modest, cramped seat next to crying babies and people stuffing their faces with Big Macs. The only saving grace is that, unlike the first/business class people, who seem to be insecure about their class status, the cocoon dwellers never raise their eyes to the ranks of the unwashed. No, they have already been wafted away on clouds of comfort and luxury, not to touch down again until they reach their destination. They are already sipping their first “free” drink... already tuned in to the Wall Street Journal on line... and so forth. The only thing they are required to share with the hoi polloi is the same over-processed air. So in that sense, they are actually easier to live with than the “upper middle class” in the airline class structure, the same way that people with yachts are typically friendlier than people with “power boats” -- they are secure in their elite status, and don't feel a need to rub it in.

But let's look on the bright side for a moment. Finally the huge craft is fully loaded, all the usual announcements are ignored, and the massive machine rumbles down the runway and is airborne! And... and by the way, whatever happened to those second-floor cocktail lounges on jumbo jets? Those were sweet. But I digress. So something that is, objectively, way too big to ever get off the ground is, in fact, off the ground, and no power on earth is going to get you off of it for 12 hours. That's when panic sets in. Well, not really – but don't you wonder what real claustrophobics do in that situation? I guess they make other arrangements. I don't even think the cocoons would help; they'd probably make things worse.

And now it's a matter of looking down at the world, and the whole figure-ground relationship changes. Now the plane is the immediate reality, and the rest of the world becomes somewhat of an abstraction. We look “down”, but we might as well be looking at a large coffee-table book; our senses really can't take it in – not as it is. We weren't designed that way. We have to keep convincing ourselves that that's the world out there, and we're up here in a large metal container, etc. But it's tough. I had the privilege of looking directly down on Mt. McKinley, in all of its brilliant white, arctic splendor – but was it really Mt. McKinley, or some sort of elaborate stage set, like in “The Truman Show”? Then we had a rousing game of gin rummy while flying over the Bering Strait and eastern Siberia... but was that vast land of ice and snow I saw out the window for real, or someone's idea of “installation art”? All I know is that the world didn't start to get real – really real – again until we crossed over Manchuria and started our slow descent into Beijing.

(to be continued)

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Strauss Kahn Cook!

So it seems that Dominique Strauss-Kahn, erstwhile head of the International Monetary Fund, is being given, at least for now, the Bernie Madoff treatment – i.e., held under “house arrest” in a house that is worth more than most African countries. In other words, he is now subject, just like a million other chumps, to the slow grind of justice in the Big Apple, and unless someone can dream up some way of springing him it's going to be a long, hot summer. But the question, as usual, is “why?” -- simply because someone of that stature caught with his pants down anywhere on the globe is typically provided a pat on the back and a friendly chuckle by the local gendarmes, and then spirited away on the next plane out of town. And the alleged victim is paid, threatened, or conveniently disappears. And don't tell me this hasn't happened countless times in New York City! Let's remember that New York is the home of the United Nations, probably the largest single collection of degenerates on the planet. So what happens in New York stays in New York – except in this case. Clearly the Teflon coating that all international power players enjoy peeled off at some point, and therein lies the intrigue. DSK – as I'll call him, to avoid the risk of Carpel Tunnel Syndrome – is, or was, clearly a charter member of the global power elite, and should thus have been above such petty things as being hauled in to a precinct station for exercising “droit du seigneur” over a hotel maid. I mean, gosh, this sort of thing happens all the time... especially in France, where I doubt it's illegal or even considered slightly tacky. But hey, we are the inheritors of the Puritan tradition, and are the self-styled moral arbiters of the world... which must serve as a constant irritant to our more sophisticated cousins from across the pond. DSK must be feeling like someone picked up in Utah for having only one wife – like, who are these hayseeds anyway? And it's not as if “New York's finest” are strangers to the... let's call it “fix”. The right phone call to the right person covereth a multitude of sins; it's always been that way and always will be. But on this occasion, the system seems to have broken down. Or has it?

Plus, where is the Obama administration and the State Department in all this? Weren't they the first ones to get the phone call? And yet they seem to have adopted a hands-off position, which has to count as unique in their short history. I mean, they'll jump right in if there's an instance of “hate” in a public school anywhere in the country... but a guy who holds the purse strings to most of the world's currency? Nope, just let the wheels of justice roll on. So clearly something is going on here, and I guess you'd have to be a student of the IMF and all of its machinations – which I am not – to figure it out. But what it does demonstrate, among many other things, is that the global power elite, AKA the Regime, is not the work of a single individual; in other words, there is no Dr. Evil running everything from a high-tech underground control center in Switzerland. What's more likely is that it's like the Mafia – a cabal, an organization, a committee, basically... and that no one individual is indispensable. So no matter how much power you wield, when it's time for you to go, you've got to go – and the time-honored way of doing this – assuming the “cement booties” era is past (except in Arkansas) – is to find a weakness, an Achilles heel, and exploit it. Well, in the case of an all-powerful Frenchman, said Achilles heel has about a 99% chance of having something to do with “l'amour”... and I, for one, would like to know a little more about that allegedly innocent, victimized maid. I mean, OK, she might be for real, but doesn't the whole thing make you wonder? I understand that DSK is not that big a guy, plus he's a senior citizen. Couldn't she have just crowned him with a Ming vase? I'm sure these questions are going to come out sooner or later.

In any case, I imagine that, at some point, it was agreed upon by any number of fellow global elitists that DSK had to go – and go he has. Plus, there's that French political connection to be considered as well. Wow, imagine committing political sabotage against someone who is considered a threat! That would surely never happen in this country, ahem.

Of course, we haven't heard the last of this, and DSK might fly out of the Big Apple any day now, free as a bird. But what counts is that he's political dead meat, and has been ejected from the global elite boardroom – or at least, so it appears. But no matter what happens from here on out, what has already happened is amazing and unprecedented enough. We may, in fact, have seen the power elite at work – a rare treat, considering that the vast majority of their operations are conducted with the greatest secrecy and "deniability". Finally, the limousines with blue-tinted windows have expelled a bit of living, if somewhat misshapen, tissue – and it's an unpleasant, and yet strangely gratifying, sight.

Wednesday, May 25, 2011

B.O. the Bobo Doll

I have to admit, I just don't get it. Obama is a much cannier politician than the Republicans/conservatives give him credit for – I mean, he projects this air of being cool and aloof, and above the fray. If Reagan had “Teflon”, then Obama has Teflon with earlaps. Even when Obama gets down and dirty with his opponents, he does it in an offhand, robust way as if he were sitting at a bar talking with his homies – not in that kind of pathetic, whiny way exemplified so well by Jimmy Carter, for example. But when it comes to dealing with Israel, Obama's brain seems to turn to mush, and he always winds up saying the wrong thing at the wrong time – and no amount of pushback, no smackdowns by the Israeli cabal, seem to ever teach him any lessons. The most recent kerfuffle involving the “1967 borders” is an example. The minute you say the word “1967” to the Israelis, their faces turn red and they start huffing and puffing, with steam shooting out of their nostrils like an angry bull. And of course, he immediately backed down – sort of – and started mealy-mouthing about “swaps” and so on... but the damage was done, and we had, once again, to witness him getting a good, sound talking-to – in public – by Bibi Netanyahu. Somewhere Joe Biden had to be smiling – since it was Obama who sent him into the lions' den a while back in order to be thoroughly humiliated.

Now – aside from the broader issue of the very existence of the State of Israel... its advisability... its viability... and so on, which I've covered quite thoroughly in this blog, the question has to be, once again – why? Why does he keep hitting his head against this brick wall, time and time again? I'm tempted to say that it's at least partially due to the long-standing love-hate relationship between American blacks and American Jews – but Obama, wherever he was born (and frankly, I don't give a damn), would have a hard time fitting into that mold. After all, didn't the “black leadership” at some point, way back when, declare that Obama “wasn't really black” in a way that would make him an authentic “black” candidate for president? Yes, I remember – even if no one else does. So did his time in Chicago acculturate him in that ambivalence? I'm skeptical... not to mention which, we're not talking about American Jews anyway, but about Israel – assuming there's a distinction.

Another possibility – also previously proposed on this site – is that the whole “dialogue” between the Obama administration and Israel is little more than a pro wrestling match, where guys who are – away from the ring – good friends and drinking buddies have to pretend to hate each other in order to put on a good show. This is the shopworn act of “getting tough with Israel”, which fails every time, whether it's genuine or not. In other words, they agree to put up with a certain amount of, lets say, adolescent rebellion on our part, just to let our leaders occasionally save face... and we agree to put a sock in it in short order, and mainly to not change our “eternal bond”, or reduce our support in any way. So they save face, and so do we. Very comfy... but ridiculous nonetheless, not to mention humiliating. I mean, no matter how you feel about Obama, it is a bit hard seeing the Israelis repeatedly peeing in his punch bowl with impunity. The point is that no matter what Israel does, nothing changes... and everyone knows that, and accepts it. And yet there is this requirement that every once in a while we start making these “get tough” noises, only to get slapped down. Those are the rules of engagement, in other words -- and they cannot be violated.

Surely there has to be a better way. One option would be for Obama – with Hillary Clinton close at hand, and Biden lurking in the background wearing a shock collar – to state, once and for all, that we were no longer going to “interfere” in Israeli affairs, or offer any ideas, plans, “blueprints”, outlines, etc. etc. In other words, simply disengage from the entire process – while continuing to provide support with troops and money and diplomatic cover, of course. This would, admittedly, be to admit that Israel is in charge of our foreign policy, and therefore of the administration, Congress, etc. -- and it would hardly do to just come out and finally admit this, after decades of avoiding the issue. So Israel has to remain the invisible elephant in the drawing room, and we have to put on this periodic humiliating show of independence and pretend that we have real influence over there, which we clearly don't.

What I'm trying to demonstrate here is that the whole thing is a game – a charade – that has been going on for as long as most of us can remember... and that this is the way -- the only way -- that it can be played – or so think our various presidents and diplomats. It is, indeed, a sorry state of affairs, but an intractable one, unless we decide to do that which is unthinkable, which is simply to disengage entirely and leave Israel to its own devices (and its own fate). But that, for some unfathomable reason, is considered “political suicide”, like unto doing anything about Social Security and Medicare on the domestic front. But something is only “political suicide” if there is a real chance that a substantial portion of the American populace will object to it – and how many of our citizens would really, truly object to the notion of cutting Israel loose (and setting us free in the process)? What's more likely is that it's not about public opinion at all, but about an entrenched power structure that has put one American president after the other on the ropes. But even discussing this power structure is forbidden, again for “political” reasons... so the prospects for any real change are virtually non-existent. So we are fated to see this same sorry scenario repeated time and time again -- David slaying Goliath with words. And remember, we are talking about an "ally" here, not an enemy. And if our "ally" can treat us this this way, isn't that going to start giving some other people some very unsavory ideas?

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Dead Again

I guess it was inevitable. First we had the “truthers”, then the “birthers”... and now we have the “deathers” -- by which I mean the rapidly-growing group of people who are, at best, skeptical as to the official line on the death of Osama bin Laden. Points of contention might include, for example, whether he was killed at all, and if so by whom, where, and when. And you might say, “But, but! Isn't it crystal clear? I mean, at least in this instance?" Yes, that would be a highly desirable thing, for certain – but consider, the government's story about the raid and the alleged deaths keeps morphing, and will undoubtedly continue to do so. And this is quite remarkable considering that the operation was performed, supposedly, by a small elite unit, operating over a very small area in a very limited amount of time – and how many channels of communication were there from those people to the outside world? Supposedly only one, and a highly censored and controlled one at that. And yet the story keeps changing. One minute it was an intensive “firefight” with bullets flying for a considerable time; the next minute only one of the bin Laden people was armed, and was quickly dispatched. One minute bin Laden himself was armed; the next minute he wasn't. One minute he was using a woman as a human shield; the next minute she was on another floor. The number of people in the building, or in the compound, keeps fluctuating wildly; one minute it was a handful of adults, the next it was also a dozen or so kids, most of whom are already on adoption lists being faxed to infertile American yuppie couples. And so on.

Why the chaos? Why not just announce that the deed was done, “details to be provided at a later date... if ever”, and move on? But no – you have to remember that this administration is the ultimate spin machine. It's all spin, all the time, 24-7. So there of course has to be a story, a narrative, a script, to cover every possible contingency. What counts is the coverage -- and consistency, logic, and common sense don't enter in. (Let's not forget, for example, that Hillary Clinton is one of the inner circle -- she of the completely false memory of having been under sniper attack in Bosnia.) So what should have been a single message decayed in short order into a patchwork of mutually contradictory non-factoids, and we already know that we'll never know the truth -- that is, assuming there even _is_ a truth. And that brings us back to the “deather” question.

Who are the “deathers” (even if they themselves don't realize it as yet)? Well, they at least include some of the same folks who have been expressing skepticism all along as to whether bin Laden was dead or alive, and whether the U.S. government knew that, and if they knew he was dead why not admit it? The reason, of course, seemed pretty obvious – a live bin Laden is a much more potent motivator for the “War on Terror” than a dead bin Laden would be. We can all rally round a flag emblazoned “Kill bin Laden!”, but it's harder to rally round a flag emblazoned “Kill all those other guys, who might or might not be terrorists, and we don't really know who or where they are, but kill them anyway!” You know, as Americans we are a simple people. We insist upon simple causes supported by a single, simple idea... usually one summed up by “Kill the [fill in appropriate race, nation, ethnic group, religious group, political movement]”. So keeping bin Laden alive in the American mind was just good politics – and hence the skepticism. Surely the guy couldn't have been so cunning or evasive as to avoid being killed or captured by our forces (either overt or otherwise) for all those years... so, therefore, he must be alive and we must be allowing him to stay alive. Or – he must be dead but no one in the government will admit it. Thus ran the logic.

Then comes the news that bin Laden is dead -- “really most sincerely dead” as the Munchkin would say. So that would have tended to humble the skeptics a bit... except for the informational chaos that followed, and that has only added fuel to the fire. The former skepticism can now give way – seamlessly and with nary a bump – to a new skepticism, and this will take on one of a number of forms. For example:

1. He really had been dead for some time, but someone in the government decided, for whatever reason, that now was the time to officially declare him so. But this obviously could not be done by telling the truth – imagine how that would look! So we had to come up with this bogus raid instead. And who knows how many people (if any) were killed, or who they were?

2. He's still alive and the government knows it, but someone decided it would make a good propaganda ploy to claim that he had been killed. This is, of course, a highly risky scenario, and you could expect to see a photo of him, like Truman, holding up a newspaper announcing his death... so I'd put this in the “unlikely” category.

3. The government doesn't know whether he's alive or dead, but... propaganda again, and also high risk, etc.

OK, so I'm going to settle on Option #1 as the only credible counter-government-story one. But why not just settle for the simplest explanation, which is, in fact, the one the government has provided? The answer to this – as with JFK, 9/11, and countless other conspiracies – is in what I call “cover-up logic”. In a nutshell, if there is nothing to cover up why was there a cover up? In this case we have the hourly shape-shifting stories as to precisely what happened, even though, of all the possible stories to come out of the “War on Terror” this should have been just about the easiest one to nail down. And then there's that “burial at sea” nonsense. Oh right, I forgot – all devout Moslems get buried at sea. Right? Of course not; it's ridiculous. A goodly number of Moslems live in land-locked places at least 1000 miles from the nearest sea. The advantage of “burial at sea” is that you don't have to prove who was buried, or even that _anyone_ was buried. And the only ones performing an autopsy are a bunch of sharks. Now that's what I call “concealing evidence”. Oh, but it was all done for perfectly good reasons. I mean, there was a jet all warmed up and ready to whisk bin Laden's body off shore in less time than it would take Bill Clinton to proposition a hat-check girl. Please, people! Why aren't we all rolling in the aisles over this? Maybe because it's too depressingly familiar. Or... another way of putting it is that it's too absurd not to be true. At least that's the assumption the administration seems to be operating under.

Well... I'm not going to attempt to build an air-tight case at this point. But don't be surprised if the buzz over the Internet and elsewhere on this doesn't keep accelerating and getting louder over the next few days. Because every time the government seems to step on its schvantz, you can be sure that there's a lot more to the story... and that the minor embarrassment of schvantz-stepping is well worth it, compared to the consequences of people finding out what really happened.

And I suppose I should mention a few side-bar issues at this point as well. Clearly, if the operation really did happen as described by the government and its press lackeys, no one in their right mind would have let the Pakistani authorities in on it ahead of time. Read my lips, people – they're not on our side, OK? No one in the administration will admit this... they keep talking around it... but that's the way it is, has been, and will be. It's our war over there, not theirs. And maybe this incident will help people (like in Congress, for instance) keep this in mind. If so, it won't be a total triviality.

Could this have, in fact, been Obama's “October surprise”? If so, the timing was a bit off. No, his party's strategists are much smarter than that. Why let a perfectly good killing go to waste?

As to whether bin Laden was armed or not – implication being, it's hardly fair and sporting to gun down an unarmed chap, no matter the offense, don'tcha know. Right. I'm amazed they didn't just bomb the place, or demolish it with a few tons of high explosive. At least we've shucked off the illusion of “gentlemanly war”. And “precision strike” sounds so... precise. So high tech, so... intelligent. So non-ham-handed. And so forth. As satisfying as “bunker busters” are, something that lends itself readily to a made-for-TV movie is far preferable. (For the role of bin Laden, I nominate Anthony Perkins. Hey, he's the right height, the right weight... the right eye color. You say he's dead? Even better.)

And – oh yes – as to this event increasing the “pressure” on the administration to get us out of the Middle East, because... well, now we can finally say “mission accomplished”, right? That, of course, is a fond delusion, because as we all know by now, the War on Terror is never-ending, and will last as long as the Republic, if not longer. So let's not have anyone getting excited by some kind of “bin Laden bonus”. The people who want us in the Middle East still want us there... the vested interests have not changed... and all the politics and spin-meistering are concerned with is tweaking the fine points, never in questioning the overall rationale.

By the way, isn't that a bizarre picture of the White House “war trust” gathered around in their Sunday shabbies (except for Hillary, note) watching the proceedings? Obama looks strangely small, like some kind of midget (or Sammy Davis Jr.). What he really looks like is a pizza delivery guy who accidentally got in a picture of the White Power Structure at play. (And why does it always have to be me who points these things out? Is everyone else blind?)