Character

September 11, 2010

It was a beautiful, crisp fall day just like this one when my car topped the first span of the Pulaski Skyway and I saw the thick plume of black smoke stretching across New York Bay from the World Trade Center.

Lots of pundits talked about 9/11 as the day everything would change. As it turned out, not everything changed, but enough did. George W. Bush was transformed from an ethically and politically compromised pretend-president, tainted by a contemptible Supreme Court decision and slated for ejection after four years of looting, into a delusional world conqueror who led America into a moral cesspool of torture, lies, and manipulation. The day’s death toll was awful, but the most terrible consequence of  Osama bin Laden’s scheme was to give a free hand to an ugly cohort that never should have been allowed near the levers of power in the first place.

It’s been said that crisis doesn’t shape character, but it does reveal character. Click here to see the character of our mass-market media revealed. Click here to see the character of the political opportunists who still exploit the disaster revealed.

Not everything changed on 9/11, but some things did. America turned into something tainted in the eyes of the world, a nakedly predatory country tolerant of blatant lies and willing to give free rein to its worst impulses. For a lot of evil people, 9/11 was just another political day. They have yet to pay any kind of price for their manipulations and deceit. In fact, some of them are poised to get back into power. Osama bin Laden, wherever he’s hidden away these days, must be having himself a good laugh over that one.

Mission Accomplished

September 1, 2010

President Obama’s visit to Fort Bliss just before his speech on the withdrawal of most (not all) troops from Iraq was gracious and dignified. As this Grey Lady editorial notes, it was a welcome change from the behavior of the repulsive little creep who launched the war:

President George W. Bush tried to make Iraq an invisible, seemingly cost-free war. He refused to attend soldiers’ funerals and hid their returning coffins from the public. So it was fitting that Mr. Obama, who has improved veterans’ health care and made the Pentagon budget more rational, paid tribute to them.

Of course, before going on to state the obvious about this contemptible war, the Times has to pause and give the hippies a smack over Vietnam: “One of the few rays of light in the conflict has been the distance America has come since Vietnam, when blameless soldiers were scorned for decisions made by politicians.”

We hardly ever hear about the antiwar protestors who were shot, or beaten to a pulp by hard-hat rioters, or attacked by cops with batons and tear gas. But these yarns about hippies spitting on soldiers, like the fairy tales about Americans still being held prisoner by the evil Vietnamese, will always be with us. They are a peerless mechanism of control, to be used for corralling and isolating dissent, and control was what the Iraq invasion was all about. Not the control of Saddam Hussein — he was already penned in. The control of power in America.

Many fine, patriotic Americans opposed the Iraq invasion right from the start, and I salute them, now and always. Some opposed it out of pacifism. As for myself, I didn’t oppose the war out of pacifism: I opposed it because I can smell a rat. The stench of fraud and lies was thick in the air well before the “shock and awe” spectacle started, and it only increased over the months and years. But “support the troops” was the catch-all response to any criticism, and it worked. The public, scared stupid by 9/11, mostly went along with it. The Democrats who should have been the loyal opposition were cowed. The press, which should have been telling the truth about what was going on, failed (with some honorable exceptions) in this most important task. What an appalling show.

As a military operation, the invasion of Iraq was worse than a fiasco, but it was never a true military operation. There was no casus belli, no real threat to be expunged. I see no reason to doubt that the Iraq invasion was, from the start, a politically motivated spectacle meant to shore up the credibility of George W. Bush and give the Republican Party the whip hand in dealing with the Democrats. It certainly wasn’t meant to go on this long: I’m sure most of the war whores expected it to be done and dusted as quickly as the Nineties romp presided over by the president’s dad, only this time the political capital wouldn’t go to waste.

That’s not the way it turned out, of course, as is shown by the scorecard: some 4,400 Americans dead, another 35,000 wounded, and at least 100,000 Iraqis dead. But that “Mission Accomplished” banner turns out to have been quite correct. George W. Bush, whose presidency was made possible by only Supreme Court justices voting from the bench, got to play Caesar and win himself a second term in an office he didn’t deserve in the first place. The GOP got endless congressional clown shows with ink-stained fingers, and the freedom to turn the economies of the U.S. and Iraq into vast hog troughs of crony capitalism.

And none of the crooks who participated in this awe-inspiring scam has suffered for it. Bush, whose middle name should forever be “Waterboard,” will grow old with his millions. An entire administration that deserved to be led away in shackles for fouling  America’s good name and destroying its economy has not even been subjected to the mild inconvenience of a serious investigation.

Gracious and dignified behavior is not the proper response to what Bush and his cronies did to this country. They used America like a cheap hooker, and they got away with it. So give the hippies their due: they saw something was wrong, and they did something about it. For all the uglies, real or imagined, that might be laid at the feet of the Sixties protestors, they stood up and demanded answers to their questions. All this generation can do is avert its eyes, twiddle its  thumbs, and say “Let’s just move on, okay?”

Mission accomplished.

The Iraqi Prisoner

February 18, 2009

I’ve already noted how closely the actions of the Bush administration, and conservative fiscal policies in general, correspond to a venerable con game called the “Bust-out,” in which fraudsters pretending to take an interest in running a business use a down payment to gain access to the company’s credit lines and assets, then max out all the credit lines, sell off assets at fire sale prices, then clear out just before the deposit check bounces, leaving a bankrupted company hollowed out by unpayable debt.

Readings new stories of how U.S. contractors and military personnel appear to have siphoned off billions of dollars supposedly targeted for Iraq reconstruction projects, an even more venerable con game comes to mind: “The Spanish Prisoner,” in which the mark is induced to pay out large sums of money to secure the release of some unidentified prince being held overseas, in some vaguely defined location, with the understanding that the contribution will be returned tenfold when the grateful prisoner wins his freedom and showers his supporters with royal largesse. A variation of this con, known to police as “419 Fraud” or “Advance Fee Fraud,” has probably turned up in your e-mail – instead of liberating a prisoner, the pigeon is asked to help broker the release of a big pot of money in a West African bank. The target usually expects to get a phat return on the initial investment, but sometimes the con men are also milking the target’s idealism or charitable impulses. To get a picture of how it works, watch House of Games, David Mamet’s first and best film, in which the psychologist heroine is drawn into a long con with the promise of helping her patient get free of his gambling debts. (Though Mamet went on to make another film called The Spanish Prisoner, that con actually doesn’t figure in the plot, curiously enough.) Michael Caine’s character in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is also running a similar scam by convincing rich widows he’s a deposed prince trying to raise money for freedom fighters back home. 

The designation of Bush’s little Middle East killing spree as “Operation Iraqi Freedom” was already a museum-quality specimen of Orwellian Newspeak when he rolled it out, but it becomes even more richly ironic when we consider how the American people were gulled into thinking that by throwing open their coffers to the Bush banditos, they could secure the liberation of the Iraqi people from a cruel dictator in a place many of them couldn’t have found on a map if they had a three-day head start. In return for pretending the whole thing was a John Wayne movie with extra sand on the sets, they would get cheap oil and a nice friendly regime that would recognize Israel and provide us with free military bases, along with the promised cascades of candy and flowers. Remember how we were told the whole thing would pay for itself once the good guys got their hands on all those oil wells? Those were the days, huh?       

Meanwhile, while Bush’s cronies went on looting with both hands here in the States, another team of con-men (maybe even some freelancers — who could tell, with so much money flying around?) tapped into the tsunami – one might even call it the surge — of unmonitored cash flowing into the country. In return, we got a taxpayer-funded training ground for aspiring Islamist terrorists, a pseudo-government composed of crooks, religious fanatics and terrorist sympathizers (kind of like the GOP, when you think about it) and a host of brand-new regional worries that will plague the world long after Bush has strutted off to that great gated community in the sky.  

The only upside I can see to any of this is that political science students attempting to grasp the nature of conservatism need no longer waste any more time studying Friedman, Oakeshott or any of the other great minds of wingerdom. They need only read the latest e-mails from Nigeria, and everything they need to know about conservatism will become crystal-clear.

Weekend Bookchat

February 7, 2009

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Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble: America in the Middle East surveys the actions of eight presidencies — from Dwight D. Eisenhower to George W. Bush — and finds an almost unbroken line of ineptitude, mendacity, bad faith and hubris, from the Suez Crisis to Bush’s lie-driven campaign in Iraq. Tyler draws on newly available archival material and offers some jaw-dropping anecdotes from the history of America’s role in keeping the Middle East ablaze. The sainted Henry Kissinger, who still enjoys a baffling reputation as a master politician and diplomat, comes off particularly badly:

. . . Henry Kissinger, entrusted with a message from Nixon to Brezhnev calling for joint superpower action to end the 1973 Arab-Israeli war and then proceed to a just settlement of the Palestinian question, simply decided, in mid-flight to Moscow, not to deliver it. Nixon’s message, Tyler writes, “threatened to undermine the record Kissinger was seeking to create; that he and Nixon had run the Soviets into the ground and they had protected Israel”. The truth was that the Russian leaders had reacted cautiously and moderately when war broke out, and that Nixon himself had a statesmanlike grasp of what was necessary. But a joint US-Russian initiative “would have thrust Kissinger into the thankless and perilous task of applying pressure on Israel”. So he simply dumped the message. He later encouraged Israel to violate the ceasefire that was supposed to end hostilities so that it could better its military position. With these acts of disobedience – acts which were also, as Tyler says, arguably unconstitutional – Kissinger closed off the possibility that the 1973 war could have been ended on terms which would have left Israel in a less powerful position, making it more amenable to an ensuing push for a settlement by the Americans and the Russians.

Tyler also demonstrates  the problems caused by the “special relationship” between America and Israel:

Tyler does not go quite as far as John Mearsheimer and Stephen Walt, for whom the Israel lobby lies at the heart of American foreign policy; but he is nevertheless a keen critic of the special relationship between the United States and Israel. Indeed, what is perhaps most striking is the constant American appeasement in the face of Israeli aggression. “Don’t lie to me! I’m sitting here watching it on CNN!” Reagan yelled down the telephone to Menachem Begin in 1982, after the Israeli leader had reneged on a promise not to bombard Beirut. But in typical fashion, Reagan did nothing about it – a pattern that has been repeated, by and large, ever since.

Meanwhile, Tyler writes that Bill Clinton fumbleda one-in-a-lifetime chance to capitalize on  “a great convergence: the end of the cold war, the advent of Yitzhak Rabin’s premiership and the PLO’s decision to recognise the Jewish state.” By letting himself be manipulated by Binyamin Netanyahu and Ehud Barak, Clinton tried to force a settlement and had the whole thing blow up in his face. He then blamed Yassir Arafat and everyone except himself for the collapse.

The manifold failures and disasters of the Bush administration have left Barack Obama with one hell of a mess to clear up, but one can only hope he might find time to read Patrick Tyler’s A World of Trouble. He might not be able to improve the situation, but as Tyler makes clear, simply not making things worse will put him miles ahead of his predecessors.

* * * * *

How did so many public fixtures come to be named after Ronald Reagan? How did so many people come to believe that this dozing fantasist, whose administration was a carnival of corruption and who presided over embarrassing military failures ,  single-handedly defeated the Soviet Union, reduced the size of governmentand revived the American economy through tax cuts and positive thinking?

Why, the  way just about everything else beloved of conservatives, from crackpot economic theories to fake bestsellers, comes into being: a small group of dedicated crusaders with access to wingbucks lobbied for them round-the-clock, then created the illusion they had come about through overwhelming public demand. Will Bunch, in his new book  Tear Down This Myth: How the Reagan Legacy Has Distorted Our Politics and Haunts Our Future, chronicles the rise of the Ronald Reagan Legacy Project in 1997, and argues that its rewriting of history (a creation of a fantasy version of a president whose legacy is, at best, highly debatable) is a hindrance to the present and fitire of America

* * * * *

The memoirs of a renowned editor give us a glimpse of a vanishing era in American publishing — and an amusing look at how a neocon blowhard got wild-man lessons from Norman Mailer. A cultural history of Americans and their automobiles.

Zbig Fun

December 31, 2008

Let’s start the last day of 2008 with a bit of lowdown fun as former national security Zbigniew Brzezinski smacks around winger hack Joe Scarborough during a talk about the ongoing horror in the Middle East. Brzezinski, a courtly and diplomatic man, tries to school Scarborough in a gentlemanly fashion, but finally gets tired of the hack’s blowhard spinning and says, “You know, you have such a stunningly superficial knowledge of what went on that it’s almost embarrassing to listen to you.” Scarborough’s petulant response is worth noting as well.

Nobody Likes Dubya

December 30, 2008

But it’s not his fault! He just couldn’t change the tone in Washington because of that darned recount business.

Of course it had nothing to do with him acting as though he’d won in a landslide, then proceeding to lie us into a war, let a city drown and generally screw things up.

The Bush Rules

December 27, 2008

One of the most amazing aspects of the Bush Bust-Out is that the con-men running the show have made no bones about their contempt for the people they’re fleecing — i.e., us. Of course Cheney and Bush sneer at poll numbers showing the majority of Americans living outside of insane asylums can’t wait to see them gone. They’ve never been about anything but padding their pockets, expanding their power and opening up the public coffers to looting by their cronies. As far as Bush is concerned, his only “accountability moment” came in 2004, when he managed to scam his way back into the job his daddy’s buddies appointed him to. Every time he spoke in public after that, there should have been subtitles reading, You had your chance and you blew it, now don’t come bitching to me.

I’ve already suggested that Barack Obama should simply give his spending intiatives names like the Blowing Up Dark-skinned People in the Desert Act, or the Kick Muslim Ass Act, or the Feed Hungry Millionaires Act because everybody knows wars and tax cuts never have to be paid for. And if Republicans try to block him in Congress, or if his currently stellar poll numbers should drop, Obama should simply get up there and say, “In the words of my predecessor, I had my accountability moment in November 2008. You got a problem with that, go cry to Sean Hannity.”

The Bush admninistration has set the bar so low that a new basement has to be dug to give it clearance. Even if Obama does nothing but keep the Pentagon from getting hit by another airliner, or keep another natural disaster from wiping out an American city, he will have been a roaring success — by Bush rules.

The Delusion-Driven Life

December 22, 2008

I was all set to dismiss this Newsweek article about arts and culture in the Bush era — and Joshua Alston’s argument that the revamped Battlestar Galactica should be considered the defining Bush-era television show — as a typical year-end stem-winder, but it’s generated some surprisingly interesting discussions about which bit of pop culture should get the Bush crown.

Scott McLemee and Matt Yglesias agree with Alston that BSG is the signature Bush-era show, and there’s no question that the series has rung some brilliant changes on the scenario of a society faced with the threat of an enemy that can blend in with its potential victims, then strike with genocidal force at the the worst possible moment.

Some of McLemee’s commenters raise interesting points about the likely impact of the Bush Bunch’s favorite what-if scenario — what if the only way to keep a nuclear bomb from going off was to torture a suspected terrorist? — not only on Mel Gibson’s sado-theological tract The Passion of the Christ, but on the rise of torture-porn movies like Hostel and the Saw franchise. The Bushies and Jigsaw share a penchant for using pieties and moralism as a muffler for sadism, along with the delusion that arbitrarily imprisoning people and subjecting them to appalling torture is a means to a higher end, a sure-fire way to reveal greater truths, and even an avenue for self-improvement. (Amanda, the franchise’s second-string villain, becomes Jigsaw’s assistant because she thinks her torment at his hands actually turned her life around.) If “I am not a crook” sums up the Nixon adminstration, maybe “I want to play a little game” should do the same for Bush.

Personally, I think The Wire should be considered the defining Bush-era show. Not because it’s a brilliant critique of the war on drugs — that farce was rolling long before Dubya toddled into the world stage, and will continue to grind up lives and laws for decades to come. Not because it’s a dauntingly ambitious, multi-leveled study of an entire city — again, the forces it examines so closely were at work before Bush arrived. Not even because the second season shows a major drug investigation thrown off the rails because a key villain is valued by the FBI as an anti-terrorist asset — stories that deal with the complicated morality of undercover operations go back to Prince of the City and even further.

The Wire is the perfect Bush-era show because it depicts law enforcement fighting a real problem — rampant, socially corrosive drug abuse — in deluded ways that ensure the problem not only persists, but intensifies. As clever and resourceful as McNulty and company may be, they are basically stupid in that they fail to grasp the fact that no matter how many “big fish” they manage to catch, they are never going to drain the ocean those fish swim through, and their efforts will only act to encourage the growth of more predatory species. The destruction of Avon Barksdale and the defeat of Stringer Bell’s plans to become a respectable businessman doesn’t do anything to halt the flow of drugs; it simply clears the way for the even more monstrous Marlo Stansfield. Because the efforts of the narcos constantly disrupt street-level organizing and raise the stakes, the worst fates are reserved for the players who allow stirrings of decency to color their judgment: D’Angelo Barksdale, Stringer Bell, even Proposition Joe and his desire to do business as quietly as possible. The only significant improvement in the lives of Baltimore residents comes in the show’s third season when Bunny Colvin, one of the police brass, takes it upon himself to establish “free zones” for drug dealing in the vacant areas of the city, and his ideas baffle the crooks as much as the cops. (”We grind and you try to stop us,” one of the corner boys complains. “Why you wanna go and fuck with the rules?”) Ironically, when word of the free zones gets out, the city’s corrupt incumbent mayor sees the benefits and loses valuable time trying to figure out how to present them in a positiive, politically palatable manner.  His weaselly challenger also recognizes that Colvin has pointed the way out of the endless, no-win drug war, but knows he can ride to power by whipping up public outrage against the “rogue cop” and his “legalization of drugs.” Everyone gets to talk tough and claim a victory in the war on crime, but at the end of the day the residents are once again cowering behind locked doors as the drug trade grinds on.

The fifth season, which focuses on the decline of newspapers in general and the Baltimore Sun in particular, is generally considered the weakest, but in fact it brings all of the show’s concerns together in subtly interesting ways. Because HBO would not commission a full run of episodes, the show’s creators didn’t have time to develop their plotlines and characters properly, so the central conceit — a detective cooks up a fake serial killer in order to get funding restored for real police work — seems cynical and forced. I’d have preferred a storyline that grew out of what came before, maybe even one that played off Bunny Colvin’s brainstorm. But the fifth season jolts us with the realization that while the dramas of the first four seasons have been played out, it’s all been lost on the city’s newspaper, where the lives of the homeless are only of interest when the managing editor thinks there’s “a Dickensian angle” and drug-war propaganda goes unchallenged. And when the serial killer story ius snown to be a fraud, the whole thing is kept quiet because careers — and, it turns out, a Pulitzer Prize — stand to benefit from the story’s continued existence.

Fighting a real problem with fantasy, delusion and self-serving political manipulation. Those are the defining qualities of the Bush administration’s war on terror, and The Wire has them down cold.

A Really Big Shoe

December 16, 2008

Having just read George W. Bush’s latest flip of the bird to America and the rest of the world on his bloody fiasco in Iraq, I now find myself wishing Muntander al-Zaidi’s aim had been just a little better.

But rather than mourn lost opportunities, let’s let that Iraqi journalist point the way to a proper sendoff for the Boy Emperor on Jan. 20. On that blessed Tuesday, let us all hang shoes from our roofs, porches and front doors. Maybe even dangle little Bush Push-Off shoes from our car antennae. Let the word go forth across the nation and around the world: Jan. 20, 2009 will be A Really Big Shoe, and I don’t just mean that in the Ed Sullivan sense.

We will mark the day by eating Sole Food: fillet of sole, shoe-fly pie — feel free to write in with your own suggestions. In fact, if you like you can e-mail images of your observance of the Really Big Shoe to The Opinion Mill and we’ll post them as possible.

Musical selections will also be appreciated. I’m starting my song list with “Glad to See You Go” by The Ramones, “Hit the Road, Jack,” by Ray Charles, and “The Time Has Come to Say Sayonara” from the M*A*S*H soundtrack.

Mean-spirited, you say? Just remember: the man who lied us into a ruinous war, trashed the economy, packed the judiciary with religious flakes, opened up the public coffers to looting by his cronies, and turned American into a torture-loving Third World nation is leaving office free of worries about impeachment, prosecution or even the loss of his pension. He isn’t even going to be tarred and feathered, or ridden out of D.C. on a rail. And he’s smirking about it the way Joe Mantegna smirked at Lindsay Crouse at the end of House of Games: “You must admit, we did have our fun.”

So let’s have ours. Good laughs are g0ng to be hard to come by as the damage from the Bush yearrs continues to spread.

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