MAY 8, 2017
HOW I GOT MY JOB IN TRUMP'S STATE DEPT.
Needing a job, I applied at The White House,
And when my turn came, confabbed with a white blouse,
Who asked if I had political ambitions,
And I said 'twas more financial conditions
That I needed to meet in order to pay
One Netflix a month and the rough day-to-day.
She asked my stand on the Affordable C'Act:
I replied history would be glad it got whacked.
"Don't say you like history?" she squawked with eyes wide.
"Pure bunk, like Ford said," I quoth with some pride.
Which sparked her suspicion: "From where comes that ace?"
"A factoid on Twitter," said my poker face.
She asked my opinion 'bout Vladimir P:
I replied it's gone down to the level of sea,
From way up high in the far stratosphere,
Shot down by facts and wide blogosphere.
"You don't mean hard facts? 'Cause we've no room for those!"
"I meant just the right ones the prez does propose."
This calmed her down and she said I'd fit fine,
In an admin that knew to draw fast a red line
Between this old world and reality Trump,
Between Fox reports and an MSM chump,
"What's obsolete yesterday's just fine today,
That folks can't see that causes me much dismay."
She showed me a list of top jobs open still,
And said I could pretty much choose what I will,
Though "those creeps on the Hill" must give their okay,
And for most gov. posts there's no need anyway,
Like why pick Assistant SecState for Mideast,
To just sit around unless Rex gets deceased?
But I took it and at Fog Bottom sit now,
My shoes on the desk and my job a cash cow.
Jared checks in to inquire if I'm moving
The Pals and Israelis toward an improving,
High-fives me when I tell him it's a slam-dunk:
What you read in the Times, J? Nothing but junk.
MAY 1, 2017
I'VE BEEN WATCHING THE OL' COOKIE CRUMBLE
I’ve been watching the Republicans search
If not for their soul at least for a church,
Where they can all pray and left-part their hair,
And gossip with joy about Don who ain’t there,
And watch how he struggles as in he gets reeled,
Views on Russia, Syria and Nato repealed.
Been thinking of views as the French make their choice
Between a young minister and Madame Rolls-Royce,
Who squawks he wants not belle France to be first,
But stuffed with transients and Berlin till it’s burst,
Which neat says it all about My-Country-Firsters:
Suckers for slogans, true brain-liverwursters.
Suckers are the Dems, now less party than part:
Of the guy on the bus who let out a fart,
And everyone knows and in word excuses,
But would like to whack and yell him abuses,
Like “How on earth could you blow that elec’?
To Hillary you caved and created this wreck!”
Been watching more caves-in before the Deep State;
Just ask the reporters who pushed RussiaGate,
Which slunk away sudden without laugh or tear,
The moment Trump launched those missiles at Syr’,
Afraid MSM says Assad makes him quail,
Which proves even Don curves-of-learning can scale,
Been watching too as the Koreans scale quests,
And wondering but why of all hornets nests,
They need to kick this one and make adults mad,
But maybe they’re right: a nuke makes them bad,
And staves off Deep-State-types who flourish Big Macs,
And love turning countries into big fat Iraqs.
Been watching Iraq-types turn jihad hot shots,
Grab a few pistols and squeeze off pot shots
At cops and geezers in the name of the Proph’,
Which done for money would be called a rip-off,
But serve to make interventions all right,
And smiley arms-makers to sleep a good night.
I’ve been watching the ol’ cookie crumble,
And feeling the thunder of destiny rumble
Over terrorists, pols, sad loonies and Trumps,
Who pulling together make history’s speed-bumps,
Sped over blithely by the mighty Deep State,
Who’ll crash, burn and ask us to pay all the freight.
MARCH 12, 2017
WIKILEAKS: ALLEGATIONS THE WAY MOM USED TO MAKE 'EM
Don’t you just love a hot allegation,
Rare to medium, garnished with damnation?
If cooked by the Post, with a side of op-ed,
It has that full body, so smooth like hot bread.
But the best ones you eat with wide Wiki-bibs,
Juicy with documents that stick to your ribs.
Best ’cause most alleg’s have no spice of proof,
No docs and no sources, from all fact aloof,
But they’re now the fast food of public debate,
Ten billion served yearly by the MSM great,
Unlike before when you needed research,
But chutzpah and spit will now do to besmirch.
Yes, “The Trump Method of Public Discourse,”
The choice of those lacking interest/recourse
To sources of info in flat white and black,
And prefer creation to take up the slack,
Which far more efficiently leaves you awestruck,
With more a’cadabra and bang for the buck.
Not that the prez on this market has corner,
The Times and the rest are Li’l Jack Horner,
Pulling out plums, crying “What a good boy!”
And tossing ’em out with Pulitzer joy.
The point is to plug their cool points of view:
And if facts get fudged, well, that’s their purvue.
Into this maelstrom steps dear Wikileaks,
With facts on paper that support what it speaks,
Raining in buckets on democracy’s parade,
Spoiling the coiffures in the Fox News arcade.
Big Brother is peeping in your living room,
On you and your sweet or your style with a broom.
Hence the anger that’s hard raining or reigning,
Depending upon who and why they’re complaining:
Langley vexed sharp about having been ripped,
About household spies, but how’d Wiki get tipped?
While still the day’s cherished by us graying groovers,
When the Tubes were just boobs, not J.E. Hoovers.
FEBRUARY 18, 2017
IF YOU AIN'T FOR NORMALCY, YOU AIN'T IN THE GAME
Of the return to "normalcy" in our foreign p,
Has much been abuzz our dear mainstream me,
Sore cantankerous since the gen'ral elec'
When the coming of Trump did Camelot wreck.
Then the ambass flacked Crimea's return,
And many hearts rose as though they'd been spurn'.
All basked in "normalcy," sprung just like spring,
Thumbs-up for new missions, for having a fling
At terrorists old and newly invented,
At Syria though the worst has been ended,
At Africans, Arabs and Islamists alike,
At any and all from al Qaeders to tyke.
Ab-normalcy's fine, but rather a bore,
With no one to drone nor IS to floor.
Friendship with Russia, hair-pulling with China,
Bomb makers closed in North Carolina.
Rebuilding in places all crinkled to rocks,
Daesch guys putting their Toyotas on blocks.
If you ain't for "normalcy," you ain't in the game,
To squinty-eyed lib'rals one must explain,
Their objections treated with patient kind smiles,
But no sweat for neocons in comb-over styles,
'Cause the only alternative is something sub-normal,
Dreamed up by people who dress too informal.
So bottom line is the new normal is war,
Warming the hearth and quick brought to a roar,
But always abroad where folks weep with aplomb,
And refugees trudge and dream us to bomb,
Unless it's true Trump plans a new quirk,
But I'd bet my patootie it ain't gonna perk.
JANUARY 15, 2017
A COUP IN SLOW-MO
Is anyone else feeling the footing unstable?
’Cause this looks a lot like an Aesop’s fable,
Or Humpty Dumpty where all th’Estab men,
Would happily put him together again,
But only in exchange for a Syria or two,
Swipes at Vlad and a new villain to pursue.
We begin our check with President Sporty,
Sniping at hackers and Prez Five-and-Forty,
Eager to discred him like no presi has,
Making me wonder if his cool is but jazz.
It’s no way to treat the incoming new guy,
Unless he’s a temp and you’re in the loop why.
His successor of course is the King of all Kings,
Proud as Gadaffi with his bodyguard blings,
Who listens to naught but his barber’s advice,
Melania on China, Ivanka on Daesh,
Burning the neocons who had it all planned:
An admin in Moscow that’s at their command.
Then there’s the barkers and partners in crimes,
Like the Company, Bureau, WaPo and Times.
Their cred has of late been taking a beating,
With Clapper’s crew leaking and Comey word-eating.
’Twould seem the spies have nothing better to do,
Than ladle the media conspiracy stew.
Which eat it with gusto and chuck back a tale,
Huge blackmail stories that make the tabs pale:
The elections were rigged at Putin’s behest!
Those orgies and deals will shake him down best!
All that remains is to defame that blond hair,
Proclaim it’s a wig made of strands cut from Cher.
So I feel the ground shifting under my toe,
These massive contractions are a coup in slow-mo.
The Estab wants Trump out, just how it’s not picky;
That or controlled, but with Don that’s quite tricky.
In banana republics it’s yearly conceptional,
But here in America we call it exceptional.
DECEMBER 16, 2016
PROPORNOT: I GET NO RESPECT, NO RESPECT AT ALL.
Heard tell of late ’bout some two hundred sites,
Funded by Russia that mean the last rites
Of truth and thought and all things democ,
Opinion, enlightenment, facts hard as rock.
But take a look here: yours truly ain’t there!
How the heck come I don’t get my fair share?
About 9-11 haven’t I squawked?
Around which Bob Parry carefully walked.
Antiwar-dot-com gives theories wide berth,
TruthDig-dot-com gives them nothing but dearth,
Webpages liberal and radical alike
All made The List but Phil K. got the spike.
I’ve questioned the truth of Abbottabat.
Go ask Chris Hedges if he ever did that.
I’ve whacked the imperial tastes of our leaders,
Decried drone danger as well as their breeders.
I’ve praised Assange, given Gaddafi his due,
Why doesn’t The List list the likes of me too?
And the punchline is this: from Vlad I get dough,
When the rest of them get but a Russian heave-ho.
That’s right, I admit it, we’ve got a deal:
It’s in low two figures but all the same real,
Whenever I hand a new verse to his driver,
Mr. Putin SWIFTs me a fresh ruble fiver.
Which makes of me that rarest of lit. birds:
A scribe in clover paying rent with his words.
Well, if not rent at least bubble-gum,
Since like Mike Jordan I need to chew some,
To come up with lines as cutting as chrome,
That put me in league with Ron Paul and Noam.
When Propornot folks set out to protect
The national mind, I got no respect.
Such is their thanks for risks so artistic,
So pro-Russian they border ballistic.
Check out Paul Roberts who’s read to wide thrall,
And ranked with the biggies: some guys have it all.
NOVEMBER 25, 2016
WHY IS EVERYBODY TRASHING FAKE NEWS?
Why is everybody trashing fake news,
Which rounds out my tweets and strengthens my views?
More reliable than squawkers on Fox,
Mine gives deep meaning to those who break rocks.
I draw this news from sheer circumstance,
Lest harsh realities lead us a dance.
Like this guy who saw long lines of buses,
Figured riders had shown up for fusses
With Prez-elect Trump, and tweeted quick-time:
“This was all planned and on George Soros’ dime!”
Just 40 followed this observant guru,
But his tweet as one they flung far a-strew.
Exactly what’s needed in this day and age!
Less info and fact, and more self-made sage!
More guys like me who can add one and one,
Come up with three and then hit a home run.
I’ve just ten followers: who gives a jay?
My guys will die to blare what I say.
Now since you’re all here attending my spiel,
I’ve got some news you’re welcome to peal:
The Empire State Building just toppled to ground!
Midtown Manhattan to pulp has been pound’!
Terrorism ’twas till yours truly revealed,
Yule trees in offices made steel beams yield.
You’re pro’bly wondering who was my source.
When to be honest ’twas just logic’s force:
I read on the Net that all Christmas fluff
Adds 10 percent weight to mere office stuff.
A hundred packed stories of bulbs, gifts and trunks,
Will make old beams bend and cause major clunks.
Which must’ve caused that big cloud of dust,
That made all complain and facemasks a must.
Freedom Tower can we clearly negate,
Leaving most likely the Empire State,
If you haven’t heard it’s the media’s fault,
Ordered to cover the rise of right-alt.
Weight, old beams, and copious dust:
I put it together and in God We Trust
Tossed it on Twitter and got folks informed,
Unlike hacks mainstream who keep us conformed.
Sometimes I’m wrong, but nuts, what the hey,
For your reporter it’s all in a day.
NOVEMBER 1, 2016
THE LEGACY OF OBAMA: MORE CHAOS OR MORE ORDER?
The legacy of O will soon come to a boil
Among pundit scribes who on it much toil,
Mulling the ‘what ifs’ and ‘if only he’ds’,
Citing new stats like the health-policied,
Or winning in Cuba and losing in Lib,
His killing bin Laden if only as fib.
But as they nitpick and nuance and sum,
I ask for a standard that ought to become
A simple measure by prez friend or foe,
Equally viable for Bush or Monroe,
And lets us judge all, the first with the late,
And thus plot the course of America’s fate.
Scan urbi et orbi and add up the score:
Chaos or order – which one has gained more?
Is the world more quiescent than eight years ago,
Or should we stuff mattresses with all our dough?
Have the globalized waters lifted all boats,
Or does the wise man grab whatever floats?
So which has made hay by the sun of Obama,
The forces of order or more those of trauma?
Abroad no question: you can barely find space
Where his “moderates” and drones have not erased
Peaceful societies with schools and paved roads,
Which till he dies will be history’s goads.
At home he’s exemplified American grace:
Cool, kind and funny and those speeches just ace.
He’s calmed the waters when cops pulled quick triggers,
And pshawed the idea of election-day riggers.
He did what he could for those who need docs,
Sad souls with hard lives still up on the blocks.
Yet there’s Ed Snowden who put on display
O’s five-star indifference, his lack of fair play
With the Constitution, the laws, the Bill of our Rights,
Which fast disappear with technology’s bites.
He paid each year’s budget with a new-borrowed trill,
Stiff-arming a future that waits for the kill.
So it’s no surprise Don Trump’s a big hit,
Bernie near took it and the right’s in a snit.
Pols have turned plastic and Wash-town a club,
Hence the ferment and secession hubbub.
Good jobs at good wages have shrunk quite a lot,
As money pours into the One Percent pot.
You feel it all over that Chaos has growed,
While Order goes walking the Yellow Brick Road.
Not that I’d blame ol’ Barack for it all:
He seems to have striven to hold off the fall,
But can’t tame the soldiers or all the king’s men,
Content not to put him together again.
AUGUST 22, 2016
THE MEDIA GIVETH, AND THE MEDIA TAKETH AWAY
The Don's been having it rough of late,
His face shows how he feels,
He gets no break, gets cut no slack,
And slips on his own spiels.
Since his time as a media star
It hasn't been so long.
He won by ten in every state:
The guy could do no wrong.
And sure he stuck that foot in mouth,
On every other day,
But it never seemed to bug his fans,
Or block his White House way.
So I wonder what has changed so fast,
What's so different now?
Is he so more than e'er a creep,
Or just a dry cash cow?
Methinks it's prob'ly the second choice:
More creep he couldn't be.
But now he doesn't sell newspapers,
He's just a wannabe.
Which means the election's one done deal,
There's little more to say,
Except to tell the Don to stop,
And hope he'll go away.
Hence the Wall Street Journal cries,
"Straighten up or take a hike!"
And editorial pages urge ol' Don
To walk on down the pike.
During the primes such talk went untalked,
No pundits told him to quit,
Though Don pledged dough to pay off thugs,
If enemies they hit.
Nowadays poor Trump's campaign
Is wondering what went wrong,
Bombast having been their stock in trade,
And now it's their swan song.
Yet the principle's not so hard to figure,
In this fine age and day:
The media they're our Lord that giveth,
But also taketh away.
JUNE 16, 2016
HILLARY THE BLEEDING-HEART PEACENIK
A riddle of politics have I yet to parse:
Why do conservatives kick Hillary’s arse?
Yes, she’s a Dem but there’ve surely been worse,
Guys who spend tons and pry open your purse.
Her favorite schmoozes are Goldman and Chase,
Neither one socialist or leftist nut case.
She’s kissed the Israelis, ignored the poor Pals,
Done wonders in Libya and bombed Muslim gals.
She took the Ukraine off V. Putin’s hands,
Helped to push Nato right up to his lands,
And smiled when rich Latins imposed a new reich.
From Dick Cheney’s viewpoint, what’s not to like?
Dissing Maduro, bad blood with the Chinese,
The usual with Iraq stuck on its trapeze.
Her arrogant demand that “Assad must go,”
Showed off her ignorance and neocon gusto.
If what you’re looking for’s the end of the world,
You could hardly ask more than what she’s unfurled.
Yet the right never fails to jerk hard her chain,
Averring she’s soft and quails to cause pain.
Her measures are patches, her words are just words,
Her backers are wimps and her helpers just nerds.
You have to wonder, when you look at the whole,
If these folks are serious, or just playing a role.
Methinks it’s the latter more than anything else,
That and the newsfolk saving own jobs and pelts.
The divine above have a loftier aim:
To make more war or less the name of the game,
And make fools of those who say ‘Peace in our time,’
And turn ol’ Hillary into a bleeding-heart mime.
MAY 8, 2016
DO GUNS HAVE A FUTURE?
The other day I was oiling my Glock,
Planning to raise the human-race stock,
When Mother History gave a tick-tock,
And I realized that no longer guns rock.
I hoped to whack my best old ex-friend Ray,
A guy I'd known well and who lived in L.A.,
For taking my gal would I make him pay,
The tough part was how to make getaway.
But as I thought and rehashed and honed,
I wished that I could just send a clone,
And tell the cops t'wasn't me in that zone,
And then it hit me, why not send a drone?
A drone does business while you drink a beer,
Moved by a joystick, with ease does it steer.
Of shells and witnesses you needn't fear:
Just ram your target and have the last leer.
No need for bullets, no pricey hardware,
Just a good model and friendly software,
And if the cops call, an innocent air,
'Cause end of the day, Hey, I wasn't there.
Yes, folks, it's drones that I recommend,
To do someone dirty and not overspend,
Egg or grenade hung on nether end,
Nuancing the message that you wanna send.
Which is why I think that guns are the past,
Except for the mob and mafia caste,
Who prefer the old ways and hold to them fast,
A hit ain't a hit if the tie isn't splashed.
Terror-biz guys have of course taken note,
And dream of great jobs to drones they'll devote.
Suicide jackets will soon be remote,
Replaced by air mattress beyond an e-moat.
Yes, drones are for all whose shoulder holds chip,
And so hi-tech cool, which makes them a trip.
So turn in that piece and catch the wave's rip,
But don't steal my babe: from Ray take a tip.
APRIL 2, 2016
REPUBLICANS TRY TO STOP THE REVOLUTION OF THE RUBES
I have to admit it’s been really fun,
Republicans frantic to undo what they’ve done,
To put the toothpaste back into the tubes,
And thus head off the Revolution of Rubes.
Since Reagan they’ve pulled on the heartstrings of greed,
Of wallets, low taxes, all the better to feed
The craving for guzzlers, the show of good life,
Government being but a WalMart midwife.
Down and down the public head dumbed,
Till now a point that it’s totally numbed
To the needs of compatriots or Latin wannabe,
Who heal their hunger with crime gonnabe.
But finally Repubs have seen their creation,
Go to the polls and raise a tarnation,
And elect the ultimate in anti-gov grit,
Whose anti-gov talk for once is no skit.
Mitt and John M. have condemned in riposte,
Though I have to wonder what troubles them most:
The fact that Donald owes the party but zilch,
Or that foreign policy from them he will filch.
Neocons, y’see, like f.p. with a bang,
Be it from drones or the army’s big fang.
But Don, who knows a bad deal when it squawks,
Reads the wall’s writing: “it’s the smart guy who walks.”
And walk he will as the going gets toughy
From Iraq and Af-Pak and others as scruffy.
For Don sees the world as profit evolved,
And won’t be troubled by calls for “resolve.”
But Repubs, the party, shouldn’t take all the blame.
Saturday N. L. made Don’s race-hate a game.
Fox News called up Trump to comment on matters,
Classic Fox trites known as “thinking-man spatters.”
To give him his due, Trump played his cards smart,
Using news moguls and opportunity’s art.
Nobody thought he’d be taken for real,
But now that he is, the Republicans squeal.
Cooler t’would be to run a Pink Revolution,
Orange or Vermilion as per your solution.
But it seems our rev will be of the Rubes,
Such is America: dumbed down the tubes.
JANUARY 25, 2016
OBAMA: THE MAN WHO GETS UP AS JFK AND LIES DOWN AS CHENEY
I spent an hour with Mr. O, who explained the Union’s state,
I have to say he sounded good, the country really great.
He made some jokes and talked with gut, didn’t hide the pain,
And made you feel that he’s a man who knows about hard rain.
Hard rain for old and young and mid, for workers, gays and straights,
For folks whose jobs just come and go, or student U-loan rates.
Future pains he understood, especially pension trouble,
For those unlucky sacked mid-stream or hit by Wall Street bubble.
Been years since someone spoke this way, with words so clean and calm,
For many troubled ’bout our nation, his words were sure a balm.
Yet he’s the man of most contrast in Century Twenty-One,
Called quite right a saint, a Bush, or corporate hired gun.
Barack’s the one who slammered Chelsea, sent Snowden on the run,
Dropped Hell-on-Fire on poor Pakis, killed a terrorist’s son.
His new law lets the soldiers in to snatch you clean away,
To leave in prison till you rot; forget in court your day.
Homeland’s only swelled and swelled, your data all to keep.
Yet Mr. O and Mr. Clap just promise not to peep.
His foreign p’s pure neocon, he’s outwarred Gen’ral Ike,
And never met a Saudi king or drone he didn’t like.
What are we to make of him, who zigzags all so zany?
Who gets up feeling JFK and lies down feeling Cheney?
To me in him there’s some huge gap, there’s something very wrong,
This man that oozes common sense, yet strings us all along.
Not to say he’s cynical: he’s way too smart for that.
Nor to say he’s criminal: he can’t wear Nixon’s hat.
But historians will long confer on just who this guy was.
The wonder that was Mr. O will long make people puzz.
JANUARY 1, 2016
SYRIA EXPLAINED IN 300 WORDS
I've been reading Escobar, who explains it all so great,
Yet I find it's really tough, wondering whom to hate.
Can't they get this organized, and draw some lines in soil?
The battle map's a train-wreck mush, the hatreds all a-roil.
Over here you've got Turkmen, which means they're sorta Turk,
Just enough so they get off for doing Turkey's work.
Down the road the moderates have set up their own shop,
But just how moderate they are depends on whom they pop.
The Russkies don't like either crew, they'd rather keep Assad's,
They bomb the mods and Turks and Daesh, who to them are sods,
Pleasing not the Beltway boys, who really hate believing,
That ISIS can be pretty cool, when it's not neck-cleaving.
Then the case of Kurdistan, one of history's losers,
Whacked by Turks and Pres. Saddam, and all of earth's big bruisers.
Their men are sharp, their chiefs corrupt, they just can't get a break.
They fight I.S. to our loud cheers; we ought to send a cake.
The Sultan watches over all and wants to make his mark,
Open up a no-fly zone, make Kurdistan a park,
He figures half of Syria's his, Iraq and all their oil,
And one or two good pipelines more will really make him royal.
Now let's check on those elites, those guys in linen flowing.
They move the pawns and F-15s, humanity forgoing.
Qatar, the Sauds, Dubai, Iran -- each for their horse root
In the race for cash and oil, and souls to save to boot.
Amazing so much shock and awe is caused by pipes-in-line,
Uniting wells in Emirates with yonder Seine and Rhine.
Though happily I'd do without and ride my bike each day,
The chess of state, that never changes. The rest of us must pay.
DECEMBER 16, 2015
HOW THE REPUBLICANS WILL WIN THE WHTE HOUSE
It’s gonna be chaos, gonna be dirty,
With leaders who insult, all vile and shirty.
There’ll be spit on the lectern and blood on the dais,
No quarter given to the righteous or pious.
World War Three? No, that’s not what I mean.
Something much worse: the campaign of ’16.
It’s shaping up messy as you’ve surely noted,
With egos galore and massively bloated.
And this time ’round it’s not gonna be smooth,
With a Dem, a Repub, and a November cruise
To 1600, the nation united.
No, this time ’round it’s love unrequited.
For Uncle Phil’s checked his old crystal ball,
And seen the future which does him appall.
At the end of a month or six weeks into primes,
His Trumpness still strong and spending his dimes,
The Republican brass will slip him the word:
“Sire, thy racism hath too much hate stirred.”
And away will The Donald most angrily stomp,
Change his ship’s flag and continue to romp,
Leaving the others to scurry and slaughter,
At the Convention to spray muddy water,
Whence will emerge a blue suit with wet grin,
That not even his mother thinks will get in.
Yet on our left the scene is no better,
Billary being the top money getter,
Cash gotten from here but No, not from there!
With folks fed up asking, ‘Okay, then from where?’
And Bernie’ll get tired of taking the shaft,
And alone set out on a big indie raft.
Which means down the stretch four guys’ll be vying,
For votes, for favors, and all end up tying.
For no one will have the number so magic,
Which means campaign’s end will truly be tragic,
Thrown into the House where the fix will be in,
The winner – guess who? – that blue suit with wet grin.
NOVEMBER 16, 2016
SATURDAY NIGHT LOW WITH THE DONALD
When I saw the Donald on ol’ SNL,
I verily wondered what in the hell?
Of course I’d heard the idea’d been hatched,
But due to Mex pressure would surely get scratched.
Only rednecks say he might be The Man,
With the tie, the hair, and ten-foot mouth-span.
But at NBC there was dough to be made,
And Trump pulled numbers that would easy put paid,
To doubts of another lucrative season,
Ratings that quashed the power of reason.
Yeah, he’s a racist, but our best guys are on it.
They’ll pour down buckets of laughs and just drown it.
So a comic let loose a milky dumb joke,
’Bout making five long giving Don a good poke.
And Trump replied kindly that he understood,
Since a buck from wherever is a buck to the good.
Hence the race issue got turned into camp,
Easily ignored like a fly or a tramp.
Outside in the cold the Mexies raised Caine:
The humor with them did not translate plain.
They deserved better’n that poorly-lit clip,
Of them marching calmly and giving no lip.
They got no attention, no cash-in-hand deal,
Just two seconds’ news and the anchorman’s squeal.
But such is the change in our common weal:
So long as it’s Mexies, it’s just no big deal.
Imagine if Trump had said rapists are black,
Blacks who speak English and know for a fact,
That you can’t trash them and with it get ’way,
Without half the earth and Barack cut your hay.
Back in the Sixties Trump’s drive would have tanked
The moment he said that José should be spanked.
Not a show in the world would’ve shown his face,
And quickly would he have dropped from the race.
But nowadays bigotry gets smoothed and effaced,
As SNL shows, cold cash now Trumps taste.
OCTOBER 30, 2015
ME FOR PRESIDENT
I’ve decided to throw my hat in the ring,
Always on alert to do the New Thing.
You toss in your cap, your ’stache, or your wig,
Buy a good suit and play Mr. Big.
Character is nowhere greatly required,
The point’s to be airy and nicely attired.
Except for Bernie, who’s dressed by his wife,
But has good ideas and wants to fight strife,
Is willing to damn old Hillary’s demon,
Do it with gusto and both ears steamin’,
Restore the “demo” to our democracy,
Without the hype or even hypocrisy.
Me, I’ll run on the Republican side,
Since a loss to Bernie I’ll gladly abide.
And over here all the standards are low,
You needn’t have record, good sense, or be pro.
The thing over here is to have a great gimmick:
Something the others are hard put to mimic.
Don’s got the dough and a mouth big as Maine.
He’s cornered the market on bootstraps and pain.
Cruz is a Christian and that’s hard to beat,
Turns gays-into-fishes for rednecks to eat.
Ben Carson’s a surgeon who wants a flat tax,
As sure with a scalpel as big budget axe.
Jeb has a surname he’s reluctant to use,
Lest something Bushly his mouth does let ooze.
Rubio’s my rival, the greatest of threats,
Speaking the Spanish which means that he gets
The pain of his people, their struggle ’gainst race,
That smooth “Buenos dias” against all his ace.
But Marco don’t know that Spanish I hablo,
And I can toss verbos like any diablo.
I haven’t slanged Mexies, and with the best
I’ll run against Wash-town and all the rest
Of the lobbies and gen’rals and those well-to-do,
And kick ass in Congress without I.O.U.
So checking the field, my chances look good.
My fanbase is family and old neighborhood,
Which places me fourth in voters’ intention,
And lends some weight to my strong contention.
I’ll talk straight and to wealth I’ll not pander!
(But just in case, give your vote to B. Sander’.)
OCTOBER 12, 2015
THE WORLD IS A TRAFFIC JAM
Sitting so mad in the next traffic jam,
You might hear The Fates to you whisper “Wham!”
Yes, modern life’s dropped by to say hi,
And snatch that big ripe pie from your sky.
’Cause it don’t matter if your car is a Jag,
Ferrari, Porsche, or Dodge top-rag.
You’re stuck in the same lane inches away,
From skins and rappers and lovers-for-pay.
And who’s your savior, who is your daddy?
But yonder three lights: God’s little caddy.
For like it or not, on the state you depend.
And on fellow drivers not you to upend.
Of such jams there’s a lot going ’round,
Problems stupendous and no saviors in town:
Economies, the oceans, some decent tap water,
Or a future of possibles for our son and daughter.
What’s clear it’s only a fool that depends
On enterprise-free to make the amends.
Like V-Dub with its engines so clever,
Which end up pickling the air forever.
Or XL oil from the north to the south:
Long as it doesn’t go make its own mouth.
Or slick-suited traders who move the big cash,
Forgetting it’s plumbers who pay when they’re rash.
Like it or not, let’s all say it as one,
The best hope we have is more law and less fun.
Lest we wind up like those folks from Syrak,
Asking kind strangers to cut us some slack.
JULY 20, 2015
GREECE AND THE IMF SHUFFLE
Easier it’d be to feel sorry for Greece,
If it weren’t themselves that themselves did fleece.
Some folks say those were predatory loans,
As if nations like swells buy big pricey homes.
Well, corruption there was, but a difference there lies,
’Tween finance ministers and truck-driving guys.
So now Greece hobbles down hot rocky roads,
Having poked out its eyes and sung all the odes:
Relief, reapportions, reappraisals, repositions,
Repairs, rearrangements, renewals, re-commissions.
You would think with a list of options like that,
The banks pub’ and priv’ could cut them some slack.
But it’s a sure measure of what Europe’s become,
When banks call the tune and pols play their drum.
The money they’d lose if Athens went south,
Would be a big whack, a punch in the mouth,
But not the K.O. that have them all scared,
They’ll just “take a charge” and act like they cared.
Maybe what irks them is a Greece independent,
Not tied to a bank nor bawling repentant.
Or maybe they’re afraid that others will try
The IMF Shuffle and off their debts pry.
But I’ll tell you one thing that’s truly for sure:
This Greece stuff is only the debt crisis’ spur.
I look at the States whose pols often fret:
Our GDP is the equal of debt!
But add Social S’curity, plus Medicaid,
The huge cost of vets who’ve drunk the Kool Aid,
And 100 trill is the tune the pols muffle,
Which they’ll only pay by doing the Shuffle.
JUNE 22, 2015
PRESIDENT TRUMP TO XI AND PUTIN: “YOU’RE FIRED!”
I was glad to see Donald Trump’s gonna run,
To lend the race drama, great flair and some fun,
With his big ideas whose time has sure come,
Since he has a dream and not crap humdrum.
For campaign gravitas has of late gotten lame,
With Ben Carson, Ted Cruz and Jeb! (no surname).
The Don gave his talk and promised to return,
America its greatness, my biggest concern.
Greatness, you know, can be lost like keys,
Like a ball losing air or flowers their bees,
Turning the country into a big Cameroon,
Which far as I know put no man on the moon.
I particular liked his push for a wall,
Along the Mex border to keep down the squall,
Of mariachi bands and ladies in labor,
And paid for by Mexies like a good neighbor.
That’s called vision in Century Twenty-One,
Joining Reagan and Cesar with Atilla the Hun.
Abroad our enemies will turn pussycat,
As The Donald to them will take a big bat,
Push them around and show them what’s greatness,
Bully them to respect us without any hateness.
And if Putin or Xi of him dare get tired,
Don’s just the one to tell them, “You’re fired!”
Finally! This prince after we’ve kissed every toad,
To take superpowerdom out on the road.
He’s just what we need: a non-politician,
Neither tub-thumper nor thoughtful patrician.
But a billionaire leader as nobody’s been,
Who’ll buy our country its greatness again.
JUNE 8, 2015
DOES ANYONE ELSE MISS MUAMMAR GADDAFI?
Does anyone else miss Muammar Gaddafi?
He of the threads and the ten-girl posse.
Toting his haima, in the backyard he camped,
Raising no fuss if with babes it was cramped.
He was odd, he was cool, independent, aloof.
He did as he liked, was under no hoof.
Dodging astutely from big-power clutches,
He sold oil, bought Fiat, never sought crutches.
Libyans prospered, they got a good deal:
Free college for all and food for a steal.
Here were good doctors, there cement roads.
But jerk not his chain: he took poorly to goads.
He got along great with the Bush CIA,
When called to whack Qaeda was no MIA.
He even stopped folks from jumping the Med.
Stopped them before in the desert they bled.
He threw heart and soul into those non-aligned.
With Africa he wanted all Afs of one mind:
Enough of the white men who'd stolen and robbed,
Gobbling up assets like corn off the cob.
A posture resented by folks in the West,
Who hate a loose cannon, a saint or a pest.
So when Arab Spring in Libya got sprung,
The Yanks and the Euros all wanted him hung.
Sent in their bombers and fine special forces,
And topped it all off with democracy courses.
Gaddafi was chased to a pipe underground,
Filmed while the mob to a pulp did him pound.
Libya's stunned since as a model of progress:
So calm, like Iraq, with smooth-running congress.
Migration has stopped, Al Qaeda is nil,
There are jobs for the taking and all eat their fill.
Hence for Syria we want the same thing:
To throw out Assad and let freedom ring.
There's nothing like being a western Samaritan,
It makes a guy proud to say he's American.
JUNE 1, 2015
WAS OSAMA BIN LADEN REALLY THERE? (PART TWO)
The docs cooked four years till they gave us a look,
(We can thank goodness The Man wrote no book.)
At least it’s all served to wake up some buzz,
About OBL doing the stuff that he does:
Micro-management of the whole Qaeda shtick,
Bosses being bosses, ain’t that a kick.
He bitched at his men about being secure,
While keeping himself to a hovel obscure,
In which he took care of the kids and the wife,
Behind steel doors, a daily half-life.
For dinner I ‘magine they passed through some scanners,
So Father could watch and correct table manners.
Which brings up a question I’ve had from the start,
Regarding the Company and the spies’ art.
Assuming The Man forgot once or twice,
And snapped at his boy about holding his knife,
How come the CIA didn’t record it?
Surely history would greatly reward it.
For as the tale goes, before the night raid,
They told the prez they still were afraid:
They had not a shred Osama was there.
Would our brave Seals end up swatting the air?
The spies had no sound-bite, no video flick;
Just one voice-print would’ve done the whole trick.
It sounds to me like those fine spies begged off,
Recalling Iraq “nukes” at which all did scoff,
And grinning told Seals, “Take a selfie with O.,
Before his head to kingdom come do you blow.”
But either in the moment the photo got muffed,
Or much more likely the whole thing was a bluff.
But the spies got stuck as the clean-up brigade,
Creating a library specially made,
To throw dirt on conspiracy like 9-11,
By setting it with dreams like UFO heaven,
And reams of docs about nothing particular,
And a dash of porn for that touch testicular.
The point to pound is “This happened – truly!”
(All the better if accounts are unruly.)
This from the folks who cough up Osamas,
In time for re-‘lection, Bush or Obama’s.
Methinks it’s just one more proof of the gap,
Between rulers and ruled, hustler and sap.
MAY 25, 2015
WAS OSAMA BIN LADEN REALLY THERE?
I know that Sy Hersch and others worked hard,
To tell us the story, turn o’er every shard,
They’ve brought us detail with all scuttlebutt,
They’ve filled in the gaps and told us what’s what,
And yet I find there are black holes unfilled:
Was The Man there? Was it he who killed?
The reason I’m puzzled goes back a long way,
When OBL entered, did Le Figaro say,
The American Hospital in downtown Dubai,
For double di-al and just to say hi,
To our local CIA, Dubai head of station,
Who brought candy, flowers and polite consolation.
True or not, Osama looked finished,
When he made his last vid, greatly diminished.
‘Twas a bad hair day, and his arms barely moved.
Then two Mideast papers said his bucket got hooved,
This at the end of two thousand and one,
When George and Dick were just starting their fun.
But before his end, OBL talked turks,
And said that Eleven was some other jerk’s:
“Not me, not Qaeda; I condemn the attacks,
I target soldiers, not Jillies and Jacks.”
And you’ve got to wonder why someone would pull
The hit of the century and then call it bull.
But with Osama, you know, that’s always the case:
DNA with no blood, a beard with no face.
Was his bacon saved by some Muslim voo-doo?
Was he grabbed by the Pakis, retired by AQ?
Despite all the hoopla, all that we’ve seen
Was some gent with turban, Mr. O on the screen.
So you can see why I remain undecided,
‘Bout versions that each in turn get derided.
There’s folks cooking books, on that you can bet,
As agencies elbow and compete for bud-get.
While somewhere in Tora Osama must lie,
Enjoying this soap called “Spy versus Spy.”
MAY 18, 2015
DO COMPUTERS HAVE A FUTURE?
Have computers a future? They’ve got out of hand.
Like nukes and carbon, it’s time they were canned.
Starting out, of course, they were quite all the rage,
With folks checking spelling and numbering page,
Your neighbor passed on his forty-meg disks,
And a damsel paid great if her screen you could fix.
But it’s always the same where there’s money to make,
And Windows and others kept raising the stake.
Windows 3 or 95, or 2000.1,
I looked for advantages and really found none,
Though Dell and Big Blue sold many a set:
More oomph being needed lest your desktop fret.
But we’ve come full circle, as everyone bitches,
For computers have gotten too big for their britches.
They’re recording our calls along with the crooks’,
They’re pirating pop songs, great films, and big books.
They reserve our plane flights all nice and quick,
With travel pros stuck on the short end of stick.
Computers now call slick NFL plays,
Correct the defense and analyze frays.
An endless geyser, they gush baseball stats,
Now more germane than the guys swinging bats.
Or take man’s timeless pursuit of the lass:
A mix of tweets, whattsups and emails en masse.
Then there’s the danger from cyber-attackers,
Not just the Commies but lonely odd hackers,
Guys who for fun shut an airport or two,
Poison the water and liberate the zoo.
That never happened with the good old wall phone,
But computers turn geeks into mean Al Capone.
Well, it’s been fun but of a good thing enough,
Thank God we’re too wise to get scammed by this stuff.
Soon we’ll drop apps and with books make amends,
Scale back to word processors and face-time our friends,
Talk to that girl and let emotions take toll,
My, what a close call we’ve had with our soul.
MAY 11, 2015
THREE WHISTLERS, ONE TUNE
I see three whistlers have gotten their due:
Sculpted in bronze and preserved as statue.
To them as they swiped and scoured for more,
It never occurred such pizzazz lay in store.
Nor how their scoops would change all for each:
They could’ve called Chaves and grabbed some good beach.
No, thirty-five years got Chels’ to count sticks,
On top, that is, of slow torture by hicks.
Julian Assange is perfecting his Spanish,
Rankly accused of being too mannish.
Ed Snowden, at least, can breathe some fresh air,
As he offers the Feds a deal and a dare.
‘Twas a great touch to add that fourth chair,
For selfies and bullhorns or just to scare
The guys who record my sly calls to ISIS,
As we hash out names on what target’s nicest.
Or longer ones I make to Janie’s Sex-Line,
Though the guys should chip in for half my time.
Now Assange as publisher, his story’s more moot,
Chelsea and Ed are the ones who stole loot.
With Pentagon squires at work cheek by jowl,
They alone saw the wrong, they alone cried foul.
Such must figure in our final summation,
Of what we consist as a people and nation.
So it’s fitting the statue got put in Berlin,
By Italians was whittled, from chairleg to chin.
The city, they tell me, once housed the Third Reich,
Yet now is a center for culture and bike,
It just goes to show you, nations do change,
And freedom moves on to where it can range.
May 4, 2015
DRONES: COMING SOON TO A STRIFE NEAR YOU
It’s scary to ponder the world of drones,
And not just the ones that wreck Paki homes,
But those coming soon to a strife near you,
As skill, loads and madness to them accrue.
Take for example the ’16 campaign,
Hillary speeching, expressing her pain.
And then from above come a hum and a sign:
“For the best ‘burger, at Joe’s you must dine.”
Will bodyguards shoot or send up a Predator,
Risking the notice of public and editor?
Will Joe be nabbed for terrorist leanings,
Asked if inkblots have violent meanings?
Now it could be a package instead of an ad,
That makes a harsh boom, is more truly rad’.
It could be just kids sending drones in droves,
Or Amnesty making a point dropping loaves.
Or take swarthy folks in yon Tribal Area,
Some teen turned Manson by bombing hysteria.
Surely he’ll figure, “An eye for an eye,
If O. can do it, hey, why can’t I?”
And tinkers and trials and uses test tube,
Until he can fly his own Goldberg Rube,
And wing it over some fine Yankee base,
And make a loud crack and get in their face.
The trouble, y’see, is drones don’t use roads,
They treat fences and de-fenses like little toads.
They’re cheap, they’re small, like throwaway wipes,
Carry cams or meds or bangs of all types.
They’re wonderfully safe, just ask Mr. O.,
Or pilots in Vegas who do it as pro.
Country on radio, ensconced in A.C.,
They wag their joysticks and set Pakis free.
What fool would now send a real James Bond,
To do the same job and risk getting conned,
By informers, lovers, or moderates du jour?
No, best keep it simple and send drones on tour.
Not even if Bond can tell wheat from the chaff,
Tell boys doing push-ups from Al Qaeda staff,
And pick out hostages awaiting their day,
Who sure don’t deserve to get quick blown away.
But sending a drone is cool and good fun,
Like Reese’s and Fritos, you can’t do just one,
They fly where they’re told and turn on a dime,
They take care of business and work overtime.
And when they err big, why, you just say “Sorry,”
And offer some dough with eyes a bit starry.
For drones are designed to dodge consequences,
Clean, sharp and swift like Bruce Lee sequences.
Their future’s the worst, worse even than nukes,
Gas on the fire wherever men put up dukes.
At least with a gun, you aim at one victim,
But drones are mass murder by distant e-dictum.
April 27, 2015
THE TED CRUZ BLUES
Today we consider the cause of Ted Cruz,
A man of great vision comprised of thin views,
Who counts sine qua non to be president,
On those who pray God that he’s heaven-sent.
He’s big on defending sanc’ty of life,
‘Specially the kind that plays drum and fife
Our army to him can do nothing wrong,
And deserves yet another ten million long.
Babies rank particular high on his list,
As long as they like Israel’s right to exist.
The ones that don’t were born just for terror.
They’re fodder for drones, God’s little squarer.
To further our freedom he’d drop I.R.S.,
Though to play on our greed he’d never confess.
Of all Rightist things that puzzle and peeve us?
Their smooth cha-cha-cha with mammon and Jesus.
For some Tex-i-stan he’d make a fine prez,
Where a man packs a Colt and means what he says.
Where kids, maids and migrants all know their places,
Accept mini-wages with bows and good graces.
Where women are careful and don’t fool around,
Make pies like Mother and wear modest gown,
Where b-crats don’t pester, all pay their own way,
And those without health-care have no need to stay.
His campaign intends to wake up the right,
The folks who think pol’tics a dumb icky fight.
But I wouldn’t doubt him, he won in ol’ Tex’.
Came out of nowhere and turned many necks.
Yet how does he plan to lead us as one?
Lots think the Lone Star ain’t so well run.
We’re worried about the old and infirm,
And drones hitting Muslims make us hard squirm.
Try winning the Oval with just half a nation,
Consigning the rest to sinners’ damnation,
I seem to recall it happened before:
It’s studied in school and called Civil War.
Simplicity’s sweet but voters should think,
Of how easy fixes are so rinky-dink.
To protect the poor and pay taxes is cred,
But if mayhem’s your jones, go vote for Ted.
April 20, 2015
OBAMA DOES CUBA - HALFWAY
Mr. Obama deserves some high merit,
For not repeating that same balding parrot:
The one saying Cuba’s an island of creeps,
Who shout dumb slogans and drive 50s heaps.
And then that second il-lumination:
Havana capitals no terror nation.
‘Twas none too shabby, if slightly low-rent,
Since mainly medics was what Cuba sent.
And to call it flat-out a policy wrong,
Which just didn’t work and ran way too long,
Is no mean feat for any state leader,
And often ends as steady poll bleeder.
Yet there’s a few words the prez left unsaid,
And these now trouble my sensitive head.
He said neither “Sorry” nor “Cubans, well-done,”
Since fifty-odd years’s a pretty good run.
But let’s not niggle: that’d be to rub salt,
In wounds that yesterday did high exalt,
The triumph of capital, the fall of K. Marx,
And lemonade stands of kids in the parks.
For in the States there’s a whole generation,
Of Cold War touts who swear black tarnation,
Hearing their efforts have ended in vain,
That old Fidel got away with the game.
Yet O. in coda should someday declare:
“Our methods were cruel and not just an err’.
To make folks suffer so long for their ‘ism,
Is pure un-American and skank cynicism.”
And then should apologize, frank with full-stop,
Admit we’ve been neighbors who run others’ shop.
And make some amends with bucks and close ties,
That all earth might know we can eat humble pies.
And admit the Cubans have done some fine things,
Like health-care for all, and paid on shoestrings,
And cutting the corporate presence by half:
Come the next meltdown, they’ll have the last laugh.
Once that’s done, then we can take stock,
Of the sad list of Latins whose lives we did rock.
This business of running the earth as we like,
Would better have ended with Jack or Prez Ike.
For it’s not that our policies just didn’t work,
They bled our neighbors with grisly black dirk.
The difference with Cuba is they stuck it out,
Not losing their cool, their pride winning out.
April 13, 2015
RUSSIA AND THE NEW ROME
If for ol’ Dubya one thing can be said,
He never tried messing with Vladimir’s head.
Too busy in Baghdad with saving his face,
For Mr. Obama he left Nato’s race,
To Russia's border with snappy panache,
To get in Vlad’s face and settle his hash.
But knuckling under has never sat well,
Either with Russians or KGB swell,
They prefer to invasions their peace nice and flat,
Black bread and vodka, in winter a hat.
Starbucks and ‘burgers are fine in the main,
But Yankees for neighbors jerk hard on their chain.
They watch manoeuvres with brave Pole and Czech,
Observe how n-cons hold O. by the neck,
And wonder how soon will hist’ry repeat,
The err’s of the past, their invaders’ retreat.
And how far will rise the next butcher’s bill,
Which last time around did top twenty mill.
‘Twould be a relief to count on the hate,
That Americans have of aggression by state.
But what they hate more is rank interruption,
Of Internet’s stream, Tom Brad’s ball corruption.
The fact is Russian relations rank yucky,
Compared to Wisconsin beating Kentucky.
Would that folks knew what grandeurs were said,
When shady Yank mand’rins each lend a head,
To bright discussions of the future New Rome,
Of which our dear Washington soon will be home,
And where will reign those lovely long freedoms,
For one-percent raves and corporate spreedoms.
Someday to history’s alarm-clock we’ll wake,
To find we’ve been had by that three-headed snake:
Money, Mili’, and Media move-shakers,
All frosting their loaves like happy cake-bakers,
Till shocked they find but a twig is their perch,
They’re a tail sans dog, a steeple sans church.
April 6, 2015
THE WORLD ACCORDING TO THE ANCHORMAN
“Nightly” or “Evening,” I watch every day,
Wondering what more of the world’s blown away.
Have more heroes, villains or victims bit dust?
What chance exists that my own hair get mussed?
For I do like my ‘do all shiny and trim,
That it may make appeal to yon seraphim.
But in truth my concern is fair plain enough.
Though not being ISIL or Al Gore-type stuff.
Nor is it Qaeda, Ted Cruz or Jeb Bush,
Nor hairy great debts to the brink that us push.
Really what weighs on my thoughts like a canker,
Are those sturdy voices known as “the anchor.”
Day after day they relate the earth’s fettle,
Gibraltar but Jell-O compared to their mettle.
Tie straight and center, hair ne’er just-cut,
Chipper as snowflakes or grim from the gut.
Chatting as if it’s his house he’s to paint,
What kind of fool doubts this latter-day saint?
Yet as he talks I hear master of ring:
Frowning on Putin, and France has no zing.
Iran rates a frown, Brazil a half-smirk:
Beach-bums who don’t know d-squat about work.
Cuba is nothing but constant disaster,
Honduras, so rich, needs no looking-after.
Paki drones fly to “degrade” the worst terror,
Seen from an eagle, without the least error.
Homecoming vets receive grandest grinning,
Surprising their tykes at end of first inning.
It’s always so sweet the way anchors wind up,
With cat-in-a-tree or the return of lost pup.
(Though all in between shout ads for correctives:
Dysfunction, toe fungus, aids for digestives.
And the folks that suffer, why, they look just swell,
That snake-oil must work, you can’t even tell!
Followed by reams on the second effects:
Consult your doctor if you get no respect.)
‘Tween health and horrors the anchor-guy hovers,
Conferring his blessing on all that he covers.
I used to admire how he oozed Fifth Estate:
Before he took cues from the Pentagon’s slate,
Still keen to impress he fends for plain folk:
Those that pull quiet on capital’s yoke.
March 30, 2015
WHAT IF AN AGREEMENT FAVORS IRAN?
I read an agreement might favor Iran.
Or so say those of conservative tan.
That’s always the trouble with doing a deal:
You can’t help but feeling your man got a steal.
But such are the Rightists now time after time:
So damn hard of heart to spare brother a dime.
I read an agreement might trouble old Saudi,
Those saintly white sheets who hate all that’s naughty.
They look at the Persians as Smiths do the Jones,
And would like nothing more than to kick their cojon’s.
Yet both of them love to go Visa-Gold slammin’,
Keeping the peace ‘tween Allah and mammon.
I hear an agreement might ease Iran’s life,
So much degraded by sanctions-cum-strife.
Yet here our savants cruel fuss and debate,
Like Inquisitors judging some sad sinner’s fate:
“How much more pain should these riffraff endure?
“Deserveth they cheer, or just more ordure?”
I read an agreement might favor the Shiites,
Who might pay for guns to blow off the Sun-nites,
Who’re banking on ISIL and mourn for Hussein,
Who drove the Co’lition of Willing insane,
Who sent shock and awe that many were kill’t.
It all sounds a bit like The House that Jack Built.
I hear an agreement might just lead to peace.
If only in part of the sad Middle Eas’.
Now consequences come and also they go,
And far be it from me to know which will grow.
But long has continued this grim song and dance,
So maybe it’s time that we gave peace a chance.
March 23, 2015
After the trouble and grief there in Fergs’,
I question my thoughts on cops in the ’burghs.
I’d always figured our police were just great.
Feeling and sporty and built for big freight.
I mean, take all those folks on cool C.S.I.s
That flash their clean badges and great big blue eyes.
My, they look tough as two-hand their Glocks,
And they cook and play ball and darn their kids’ socks.
The lovelies on Bones indifferent observe,
The innards of victims, the craft of the perve.
They seem to like guys, and dress oh-so-well,
But wouldn’t find bliss with Iowan swell.
Then there’s Arrow, with fine shafts a-flying.
His three-day beard and girls long-sighing.
He’d make short work of a mother-in-law,
Who said “Shave that chin, my daughter don’t paw.”
Navy cops go ’round flirtin’ and frettin’,
Bad guys, great sex and villains a-gettin’.
In office and out they seem to enjoy,
The perks of good quads and tax-paid employ.
(And let’s not forget the murdered throughout,
Paid union wages to just lie about,
Eyes still as moss and yet looking great,
In wide pools of blood, their breath well abate’.)
But with Ferg’ it’s quite clear that crimes won’t get burst,
If you just tuck your shirt and part your hair first.
Down yonder child the bullets do lay,
Quick called mistake, gift-wrapped in cliché.
Yes, I’m much troubled to see cops shoot first,
Ask questions later and skirt judgement’s worst,
They have a good point, those protests so recent:
It ain’t about service, but just being decent.
March 16, 2015
THE NEW THREAT TO AMERICA: VENEZUELA
I was honing my tan on a beach in Caracas,
When the newsman went and announced a fracas.
It seemed Venezuela now posed a grave threat
To my sweet land of liberty, of thee I fret.
“A threat to security” was the phrase the prez used,
Adding a “national” lest Guam feel abused.
Serious stuff this, with jet pilots scrambling,
Bomb shelters opening and pundits a-rambling.
Would schools be shuttered and Pop Tarts sold out?
Would moms call in kids and tanks be rolled out?
A threat to security is mighty strong stuff,
And woe is the fool who thinks Yankees take guff.
I called Uncle Mike who said, “Pretty it ain’t.
“All Spanish speakers are daubed with red paint.
“But I’m American‘s a dead giveaway,
“It’s U.S. person or C’mon make my day.”
“Two major-league pitchers were snatched off the mound,
“With both of ‘em now Guantánamo-bound.
“‘U.S.A., U.S.A.’ poured proud from the stands.
“Are you still safe, Phil, down in those lands?”
“‘Round the beach, Uncle Mike, the threats seem but rare:
“Babes in bright strings and lifeguards in chair.”
“Don’t be fooled, Phil: those guards are Chavistas,
“The guys on Fox News call ‘em ‘hack Sandinistas.’
“And all those chicks with the luscious black eyes?
“Most are nothing but Maduro temp spies,
“Trained to slip mickies and swipe your emails,
“And then steal you blind right down to your nails.”
“Don’t know, Uncle Mike: folks here are neat,
“The guys are true gents, the gals beyond sweet.
“I tell ’em I’m Yankee, they don’t give a damn.
“They say all this tension is just a big scam.”
“As for the menace, I look and see none.
“The store shelves are bare, the rats have all run.
“It’s true there’s danger of street rape and rapine,
“But the same could be said of Holl’wood and Vine.”
Yet I could not dissuade my dear Uncle Mike,
That off the earth’s face poor Ven. we must wipe:
“Now you just be careful and watch out for creeps.
“Fox says they’re commies, and they play for keeps.”
I dashed on more sunblock and counted anew,
Countries our s´curity must pass on through.
There’s Iraq and Iran, a bunch of those ‘Stans,
There’s Syria and Isra’l and more Muslim lands.
Throw in Xe’s China, add Taiwan and Japan,
And four wannabes that still use sampan.
And now Venezuela, who would have thought?
Security loves travel, like a bug that it caught.
March 9, 2015
THE WORLD CONSISTS OF BUMPKINS AND HICKS
The world consists of bumpkins and hicks.
Some have iPhones, some just have sticks.
Some bust up statues from 50 B.C.
Some lynch black men from yonder beech tree.
Some wear grass skirts and eat bowls of petal.
Others wear leather and dance heavy metal.
Some move mountains to get certain shoes,
Others think troubles all come from the Jews.
A touch of world, the grace of perspective,
Largely does lack in the human collective.
When we yoked men to the harness of global
We forgot to re-make them broader and noble.
Take that stock broker hard at the game,
And African farmer of green plantain.
Jack bores you rotten with e-tech and trend,
Mengala knows everything blue ants portend.
But ask the first gent to find Cameroon,
All he can tell you is "west of the moon?"
This Ivy League grad with his sweet M.B.A.,
Which serves him at best to count up his pay.
Or take the sports writer hot on his beat,
Looking for scoops to report and compete,
With all of the others dying to tell,
Who'll be next coach at Tex’ A and L?
But query his views on our Fourth Amend,
So much the Supremes do twist and offend:
“What’s the trouble? My sources are cool:
“A def back, a tight end, the dean of law school."
Let’s ask Talib grunts in one of those Stans,
Why blow up lives like Al’s and Dan’s?
"They changed our laws and droned our town,
"Who are these bastards to kick us around?"
Now give those G.I.s the right of rebuttle:
"Osama bin Laden – he started this muddle.
“He planned Nine-Eleven as you served him tea.”
The grunts only squint and ask them, “Who’s he?”
And each and every, though far or near,
Asked of their countries, will tell you quite clear:
“Like mine, no sir, they’re ain’t nothin’ like.”
For we cling to our tribes, as tire to bike.
It’s not for nothin’ that pol’tics are local.
And woe to the rep who opines to a yokel,
That maybe our interest includes many others’,
As sinkin’ or swimin’ we’ll all do as brothers.
That rep won’t defeat the shyster who says,
“Not us, we’re exception (and vote me for prez).”
What a great soaring phrase that makes for the hicks,
Who love a good ad and make all the wrong picks.
Febuary 28, 2015
EXCEPTIONAL, AND PROUD OF IT
America the Beautiful by all was sung,
Until our leaders claimed a new rung.
Imbued with the Bible, they turned conceptional,
And declared we’re actually A. the Exceptional.
Like Play-Doh and plans, it’s joyfully malleable.
Like being the Pope, it makes you infallible.
And it serves all purposes under the sun,
To skirt silly laws or to pull out a gun.
Invasions become issues: “quality of life,”
That spread women’s lib and make iPhones rife.
You can torture and call it something “enhanced,”
Safeguarding cities where terror once pranced.
‘Tis great consolation when making an error,
Scything a wedding along with some terror,
You go all Gothic and sigh “Drones we need ‘em,
“For such is the price of your future freedom.”
You can buy off locals, start running their shop.
And if all goes sideways, hand allies a mop.
Your snipers are good guys, heroes to mint,
Caring and handsome, well worthy of Clint.
Me, I’m sure proud to be an exception.
It saves time, it’s cool, it assures a reception.
It much makes you feel for those run-of-the-mills,
Like Europes and Asians, all green to the gills.
It’s just such a pity they still don’t get,
The exception that’s us, like Elvis or Rhett.
America the Beautiful’s so yesterday,
Gone with the wind, like vinyl: passé.
Febuary 20, 2015
“NOW THAT WE’RE SHOOTING, IS IT OKAY?”
In Wash’town there runs a morality play
Called “Now That We’re Shooting, Is It Okay?”
The prez asking Congress if rightly he might,
Keep whackin’ those moles on left and on right.
Some are in Syria, some more in Iraq,
And tons are in both of those ‘Stans we attack.
This permit is needed, but O. did aver
All license was given at terror’s first stir.
And I s’pose he’s right that Congress agreed,
To give Mr. Bush the green light he’d need,
To dice bomber, shooter, and sundry bad guy,
With bits of Al Qaeda and make terror pie.
But does that apply to all this earth’s trouble?
With Mesopotam’ a pile of rubble,
With revolt and hatred ‘tween Shia and Sun,
‘Tween rulers and ruled if only by gun,
‘Tween lefties and righties, brown-eyed and blue-,
‘Tween anything else that against me sets you.
And declare war on what? A noisy boys club?
These guys on a roll, Mosul as their hub?
They bang, they rap, they show off their tats,
They rule and decapitate infidel rats.
To unemployed Frenchies they can’t seem but fab,
Tough and respected and dressed in cool drab.
They’ll win some key battles and raise some tarnation,
But let’s not believe they’ll run a strong nation,
Caring for plumbing, the streetlights and potholes,
And schools and the poor alone in their rotholes.
Though great fun it was to chop off those heads,
Hard will it be to put sheets on all beds.
So I think in Congress those people so posh,
Should tell Mr. O., “This time it’s a wash.”
No need, no exit, no timeline, no passion,
No backing and on top: A.Q.’s out of fashion.
Let’s hope our country has paid its last nickel,
For peoples and places turned out so fickle.
Febuary 15, 2015
THIS INSECURE SECURITY
Thousands of people make our nation secure,
Concerned for my safety, how touching, how pure.
But hard as they try and send cameras aloft,
I still get the feeling I'm no better off.
My firm might be purchased, the Chinese might steal
Our great techno-feat that derives from a peel.
That boy with a Glock might do show and tell,
And blow kids and teachers and coaches to hell.
The dentist off-rips me, the plumber -- oh my!
Insurers all gyp me, and Google's a spy.
Even the burger I buy down at Earl's
Consists of mule meat and paws of red squirrels.
The weather gets hotter and doesn’t abate,
Yet on we continue to shop and to skate.
I'd like to conserve and go ’round without gas,
But find me a chick who digs guys with bus pass!
Afar there's ISIL or whatever the name.
Roving the desert and enjoying some fame.
I really don't grudge them their day as top dog,
Until they start looking for sinners to flog.
Amazed they’d be at the fear all this urges,
The ten-hour meetings and budgeting splurges
On strong-arm black outfits that offer great pay,
Great jobs with great perks as way back in the day.
All this at ten thousand kilom’s from black flags,
Where teens blow their dough on torn blue jean rags.
And police go crazy on army sur-plus,
No cop on the beat, just robots-R-us.
And of course I’m grateful: no knife’s at my throat.
A.Q. hasn't called, or threatened, or wrote.
But pre-9-1-1 our lives weren’t so bad,
No need for ten billion to combat jihad.
Which now drives our debt so high, so queasy,
I sorely perceive it cannot be easy,
To defend our corner and half Asia’s too,
And pay those big bills with derivative stew.
Febuary 8, 2015
I'VE ALWAYS FELT SORRY FOR VLADIMIR PUTIN
I've always felt sorry for Vladimir Putin.
First there's his name, not Ryan or Newton,
But a thud or a punch, the spitting of pips,
That rolls down the tongue and pops off the lips.
And he looks like a wrestler ready to choke
Some poor s.o.b. who cracked a bad joke.
I've always felt sorry for Vladimir Putin.
So high in the polls? You're darn-tootin'.
But scorned abroad for his taciturn grace,
Asserting his power, not knowing his place,
Yet working with Hillary, John and The One,
As they picked off his allies, wars yet unwon.
I've always felt sorry for Vladimir Putin.
Not a nice guy, but surely well-suitin'
The times of an empire falling to pieces,
Its business held up by quan’tative eases.
He kindly received their silly "reset"
And braced for an onslaught, ongoing yet.
I've always felt sorry for Vladimir Putin.
He does what he does with minimal shootin'.
His foes being glad of Ukranian fascists,
He sent the Crimea his boys without patches.
They snapped off a portion to wide applause,
Except in the West, where statesmen dropped jaws.
I've always felt sorry for Vladimir Putin,
Tricked by the West for their refutin'
A gents' accord to observe the stat’-quo
And making of Europe a steady strip-show.
Yet still he abides, he’s sent out no nukes,
Unlike old Brezhnev, he's put up no dukes.
I've always felt sorry for Vladimir Putin,
His ruble tankin’, his oil mootin'.
With China he's made amends and said,
"We give you oil, you give us bread,"
Not a dumb thing for a leader to do,
Except for ol’ Vlad, whom they love to chew.
January 31, 2015
HOW AMERICA WENT TO UKRAINE
The State guys last year were sitting around,
Each one displaying his best Foggy frown,
Thinking of China, Brazil and Bahrain,
Of terror, of trends, of tech, the Great Game.
World-beaters all, these masters of U,
Like them, they'll tell you, there are but damn few.
"We should take stock," said Sam with gin neat.
"Afghan democracy cycle's complete,
"Iraq's come 'round, the Kurds are well fair.
"Turks are still Turks, zilch to do there.
"Honduras, Paraguay - still a bit cross,
"That someone came down and showed 'em who's boss."
"And then there's Af-Pak," said Joe through his rum,
"Policed by drones that are ever-less dumb.
"They ought to thank us, in spite of the noise,
"For making them free, both girls and boys.
"Now Syria has prospects and Libya release,
"What else can we do in the cause of earth's peace?"
They sat and they thought and they drank and thought more.
They threw out ideas, like rocks from the shore:
"Can't we kill Xe?" "Is Kim outta bounds?"
"How 'bout some cyber on Cantonese towns?"
And then Ms. Nulland, she of Fuck the EU!,
Said, "Let's take Ukraine, and fuck the Bear too."
"Heck and shazam, Vick, World War Three!"
"My point exactly: we're in for a spree!
"The thing is to pounce while we still have time.
"Russia's pure Bedlam, a disorganized crime.
"Their subs only sink, their army's pure bunk,
"I'll say it out flat: this here's a slam dunk!"
"But Russia has nukes," some flunky reported.
"And we have nuker," Ms. Nulland retorted.
"Not that you blow the Kremlin per se,
"Just neutron their gen'rals to vodka purée.
"Then watch as good Russians dance in the streets,
"And welcome our boys with kisses and treats."
"We install Mr. Karpov, put chicken in pots,
"We divvy up Gazprom in tiny bit lots.
"We hire out Putin as disco line-bouncer,
"And little Medvedev pro-wrestling announcer.
"No more old Russia all wrapped in enig,
"Just Fox News and football, for kids the Mac Big."
"Now that's a plan!" they shouted as one.
"But where to start, Vick? How's the game won?"
"To Ukraine we send our boys with dog tag,
"And after a year do a little false flag:
"How's that? You took down our jet from the base?
"That's too bad for you, champ. (This with straight face.)"
And hence, the folks from Foggy did rally,
And planned, and honed, and did the back-alley.
And now it's a first: our foot in Ukraine,
War games for now, no, nothing to feign.
But bases with hookers and flags will come,
And grim Mother Russia, summing the sum.
January 22, 2015
ON FBI ENTRAPMENT: THE HORRIBLE CASE OF JOE'S BAR
Hakeem Kowalski said, "Let's do a bar."
I said, "I'm not sure 'bout going that far.
"Death to Christians is all fine and well,
"And striking a blow and giving 'em hell,
"But blowing a bar's a pretty long leap,
"Me, all I want is to wake up the sheep."
But Hakeem insisted, in mosque and in park,
And he had a plan, the stuff, and the mark,
So I went along, I wrapped and I taped,
I stripped the wires, I bent, I shaped.
And when came the day to strike at the West,
Hakeem just smiled: "Please be my guest."
So I took a breath and pushed the green button.
And all those sheep got turned into mutton.
Hakeem just stared at me, shock in his face,
"But how, how in hell did that take place?
"Didn't I tell you to leave out the blue wire?"
"You told me red!" I answered with ire.
"But I'm from the Bureau!" he shouted with rage.
"And I'm NSA," I said unassuaged.
"No, that can't be! You're under arrest!"
"You're for the jump, pal, you and the rest!"
Then came boys in blue to us cuff,
All to get sorted in halls painted buff.
Which is why the horrible Case of Joe's Bar,
Just never seems to get all that far.
The perps, they scrammed, and now terrorize,
Half the East Coast, thus giving rise,
To two more agencies, like NSA.
Hakeem got one; me, I said nay.
January 15, 2015
CHARLIE: LEAVE ISLAM ALONE WITH ITS PROPHET
Just as "Polack" troubles a Pole,
And "kike" and "spic" will take their toll,
And picking a nose in public is crappy,
And "Fire!" in theaters makes all unhappy,
Charlie H. should really come off it,
And leave Islam alone with its Prophet.
The face of The Man, neither here nor there,
Has no news value, not hide nor hair.
His ideas may indeed seem odd,
But expect no less from men of God.
From any cover it's easy to doff it,
So leave Islam alone with its Prophet.
We know dear Charlie loves to provoke,
And watch from proud ears arise the smoke,
But Muslims are through with taking our guff,
And the Prophet's face is old-news enough,
So roll that one up under the soffit,
And leave Islam alone with its Prophet.
No, Charlie got no just dessert,
As this attack did nothing assert,
But to let our leaders stick out their chests
And raise that old cry, "Freedom of Press!"
Though news execs all love high profit,
Let’s leave Islam alone with its Prophet.
For small and slight is civilization,
All the thinner for globalization.
And like the sparrow with the owl,
We all must get on cheek by jowl.
So Charlie, though you love to scoff it,
Just leave Islam alone with its Prophet.
October 27, 2014
AMERICAN POLITICAL DEBATE: LEMONADE WITH SUGAR, OR SUGAR WITH LEMONADE?
Over here you see people lining up quietly to cast their votes for Democrats or Republicans; over there you read an article about how a Republican president started mass surveillance of citizens and the next, a Democrat, furthered the program.
Here you see a middle manager rubbing his jaw over some 30-second televised twaddle about how the guy he was going to vote for in the Senate race doesn’t buy the idea of America’s special mission to spread democracy; there you read that only in our hemisphere, only in the last twelve years, America approved the overthrow of two democratically-elected governments (Guatemala and Paraguay) and attempts on two others (Venezuela and Ecuador).
Every network news program in the land splashes the video of some cockney Brit with a knife holding forth on caliphates while his victim patiently kneels beside him; yet a few clicks of the mouse will find inform anyone of ongoing American drone attacks on terrorists and their neighbors young and old.
The greatest disappointment of American political culture, especially in this election year, is the sheer paltriness of the political debate. The electorate’s choice is between lemonade with sugar or sugar with lemonade. "Whenever the people are well-informed, they can be trusted with their own government;... whenever things get so far wrong as to attract their notice, they may be relied on to set them to rights," Thomas Jefferson wrote in 1789. What would Jefferson make of our posturing candidates trying to be tougher-than-thou on illegal immigrants, more balanced-than-thou on the budget, or more patriotic-than-thou regarding the America’s role in the world?
One thing he would notice immediately is how narrow the political debate is, how narrow the political spectrum.
Take drones, for example. They have killed thousands – and maimed Allah knows how many others – most during the Obama presidency. The best estimate is that, only in Pakistan, hundreds of those killed were civilians. And for good measure, the drones continue to fly over the villages, terrifying children and sending everyone running for cover: terrorism in its purest form. Yet have you heard a candidate suggest we ought to stop this barbaric practice outright? That we ought to do things right and either declare war on Pakistan or end our attacks there?
Take terrorism in America. Has any candidate suggested that what terrorism there is – simply defined here as political assassination – is negligible? In the early 90s in Spain, where I live, a bomb was going off right in the major cities almost every week. That was a wave of terrorism.
Take Israel and Palestine. It would be the work of a moment for the United States to declare that it will not use its UN veto power in Israel’s favor until a Palestinian state is a living reality. But you will hunt in vain for an American candidate willing to take on Israel.
One of the healthier aspects of European democracy is that small fringe parties exist to make these points, and every parliament in Europe has its seats with vocal extremists. It’s true that these parties are never elected to run the country – they occasionally play king maker or attain a ministry – but they play the vital role of offering a wider variety of answers to public problems than you would ever find in America.
A wider political spectrum has the added benefit of giving democratic outlet to those fed up with the major parties. And it makes European politics less – slightly, crucially less – subject to big money and corporate influence. If you doubt that last point, just look at France’s answer to fracking: a flat nationwide ban, and that despite an all-out lawsuit by its own national oil giant, Total.
But the U.S.? America’s democracy will not recover until it throws off the dual oxen yoke of the Democrats and Republicans. As that modern sage Chris Hedges wrote: “If we do not rapidly build militant mass movements to overthrow corporate tyranny, including breaking the back of the two-party duopoly that is the mask of corporate power, we will lose our liberty.”
When a candidate begins to ask if we can’t cut back the surveillance state or eliminate most of our bases abroad or make a principle of not overthrowing foreign democracies, you’ll know something has changed. But how far from that day we are!
Here’s a list of the last few years of my articles. Scroll down till you find the one you want.
September 9, 2014
9-11: THE NATIONAL SILENCE
June 30, 2014
WHO LOST IRAQ? THE AMORAL.
May 7, 2014
A GOOD OLD AMERICAN TUG ON THE FRAYING FABRIC OF PEACE
March 31, 2014
YET ANOTHER FAILURE OF THE U.S. FOREIGN POLICY ELITE
February 7, 2014
WILL SOCHI BE THE "SARAJEVO MOMENT"?
January 19, 2014
PEOPLE ARE NEVER JUST VICTIMS, BUILDINGS NEVER JUST WALLS
December 19, 2013
THE YEAR EVERYTHING GOT WORSE
September 27, 2013
IT'S POLICIES WITH TEETH THAT GET US IN TROUBLE
July 9, 2013
EDWARD SNOWDEN AND THE GENTLEMEN'S TRASH TALK
August 26, 2013
SYRIA AND SARIN: SUCH IS POLITICS
June 10, 2013
THE DARK SIDE OF OBAMA'S GOVERNMENT
April 22, 2013
THE TERROR NEXT TIME
April 16, 2013
SELF-PUBLISHED NOVELS: NO RESPECT AT ALL
Febuary 27, 2013
THE WORLD IS AT PEACE: IT'S ONLY A MOUSE
December 23, 2012
ZERO LIGHT FORTY (OR TWENTY, WHATEVER)
(*based on the true facts of an untrue story)
November 13, 2012
OBAMA'S LEGACY? THE COOL
October 24, 2012
THE LEFTIST CASE FOR A ROMNEY PRESIDENCY
October 24, 2012
OBAMA'S LEGACY? THE COOL
October 17, 2012
LAST-MINUTE QUESTIONS FOR OUR ILLUSTRIOUS CANDIDATES
September 5, 2012
AFGHANISTAN - SOME FUTURES ARE TOO CLEAR
June 7, 2012
ECONOMIC WAR ON SPAIN
March 20, 2012
PUTIN'S RETURN: A POLITICAL GLASS-STEAGALL ACT
STIEG AND ME
February 14, 2012
ANOTHER DAY IN SOCIALIST EUROPE
January 18, 2012
December 22, 2011
THE BIN LADEN RAID AND THE TOUCHY-FEELY PROPAGANDA OF 60 MINUTES
October 22, 2011
SPAIN'S SUCCESSFUL FIGHT AGAINST TERROR: THE LESSONS
September 21, 2011
IT MUST BE STRANGE TO BE ISRAELI
September 7, 2011
NATIONAL PATRIOTIC SPLURGE WEEK
September 4, 2011
9-11 WAS A NATIONAL JOB
July 18, 2011
THE BUDGET CRUNCHES: A PANICKED AMERICA, AND A CALM EUROPE
June 29, 2011
MRS. CLINTON AND THE USUAL SUSPECTS
May 26, 2011
AMERICA NEEDS A MAY 15 MOVEMENT
May 8, 2011
TRUE OR NOT, IT'S STILL ARROGANCE TO ME
May 2, 2011
NEED BOOTS ON THE LIBYAN GROUND? MR. TRANSOM'S YOUR MAN
April 7, 2011
LIBYA, WHERE EVERYONE IS RIGHT
March 13, 2011
OPTIONS, COOL AND OTHERWISE
March 6, 2011
TWO PRESIDENTS, ONE DESTINY
February 17, 2011
A LITTLE CHAOS GOES A LONG WAY
February 5, 2011
THE STASIS OF THE UNION - ONE LAST TAKE
September 9, 2014
9-11: THE NATIONAL SILENCE
Thirteen years later, the singular history-dividing event in American politics lies in silence, like the marble sepulchre of an ancient French king. The American media tiptoe past it like monks, faces turned away. Politicians come to kneel at its feet and pay homage. Military men polish its surfaces and go away refreshed and eager for battle. Security-industry moguls in sleek suits lay flowers and, like betting junkies, pray for more luck.
As to Americans, they look on it mute, awed – and dimly doubtful. For years polls have recorded that roughly half believe that the government is holding back information, that the full story has not emerged, that guilt has not been properly established. The difference is that nowadays, a poll respondent hangs up uneasy. Has the call – his answers, his voiceprint, his speech patterns – been squirreled away to one of those monstrous, faceless brains whose minders talk casually of yottabytes and zettabytes? How times have changed – and how much 9-11 changed them.
What has not changed is the silence. Thirteen years after 9-11, scarcely a soul across the length and breadth of the American media – print, electronic, or Internet – dares add or subtract a syllable to the official story: Muslim fanatics, hijackings, box cutters, collapsing buildings, cell-phone heroes, America pushed into war with its classic aw-shucks reluctance. Never mind that several of the famous nineteen hijackers turned up alive and well, not to mention indignant, within months of the event. Never mind that Osama bin Laden, in contravention of the very objective of terrorism, publicly denied involvement and condemned the attacks twice before the month of September was out. Never mind that many of the top figures in the George W. Bush Administration – now in President Barack Obama’s – had itched for just such an event to catapult the nation into action to make a New American Century.
Never mind the people warned off flights on 9-11, or the sudden rise in stock trades on United and American Airlines and the insurers of the towers, or the smooth walls beside the hole in the Pentagon, their windows intact, on which two jet engines could leave no scar. Never mind the enormous initial confusion about the terrorists’ identity when a quick check of the flight lists and airport security tapes would have – should have – sufficed. To this day, they have not been released.
Never mind any of that. As Chris Hedges reminds us in his excellent book, Empire of Illusions, Americans get skittish when reality stares them in the face and are happy to have it channelled and simplified. And on 9-11, those groomed people on the mainstream media jumped right in to interpret it for us: the buildings collapsed. This was the key word planted from the first moment: collapse. Just as with poor President Kennedy, who was not slammed backward by a bullet, but “slumped” – the word still used in history textbooks – against Mrs. Kennedy, on 9-11, the public believed what it was told what to see: “collapses.” And so it has remained.
It is hardly worth going through here the mountain of evidence that sustains that the North and South Towers did not collapse at all but were blown up from the top down in a series of minutely-timed explosions; the reader has every resource available with a few clicks of the mouse. The evidence assembled by the various branches of the 9-11 Truth Movement is physical, chemical, seismic, eye-witness, video, audio, and forensic. There is so much of it that the Truthers’ nemesis, the 9-11 Debunkers, sound ridiculous trying to explain away one item of proof after another, and end up giving the impression of a Bugs Bunny cartoon, with Elmer Fudd twisting every whichaway trying to stick fingers and toes in a leaking dam.
Take, from many possible examples, the Debunkers’ explanation for the black jets of dust seen spurting out vertically from the building dozens of floors below the wave of “collapse.” The Truthers say these are evidence of explosive detonations and cite the opinions of demolition experts, who call them “squibs.” The Debunkers call these the logical result of air pressure building up as the floors collapsed one upon the next, like the plunger of a syringe, and making a window here and there burst.
As usual with the Debunkers, it’s an answer that at first seems plausible, and plays on people’s natural inclination to denial regarding an alternative theory. But it doesn’t survive even the first empirical review, for the simple reason that there was no solid plunger-like mass pushing downwards; everything above the squib was disintegrating into dust. Dust: not fragments, not pieces, not bits, as you would expect to find after a building collapse from, say, an earthquake. Burning-hot dust that could have resulted only from explosions: everything from the urinals to cell phones to expresso makers was pulverized. And dust makes a rather porous syringe.
Besides, thirty floors below the wave, nothing had yet happened. Nothing had exploded – at least in the Debunkers’ theory. Hence no dust.
Still, let’s give two cheers in passing for the Debunkers crowd. It was the Debunkers who, sneering and jeering, hooting and hollering over the least mistake that the Truthers made, obligated them to bear down and grind out every last detail of their theories. The Debunkers pounded out the hollow spots in the Truthers’ arguments, went over their research with a comb fine enough to separate the dots from their I’s, and ultimately strengthened the Truthers’ case. Indeed, the sheer flimsiness of the Debunkers’ own counter-arguments has made the Truthers’ theories shine by comparison. Thirteen years after the attacks, the Debunkers have ridiculed and hooted and razzed their way into irrelevancy. But history will thank them.
For what’s left is solid research and a well-fertilized ground of doubt. If the case of the Truthers is not conclusive, it is only for lack of documents, still ensconced, one hopes, in government vaults. Probably as few as a half-dozen documents, if released, would clear up all the basic questions: the airport-security videos, those near the Pentagon, the two recovered black boxes (unless some of the other six have turned up), and the full version of communications between firefighters who answered the 9-11 call.
Still, it’s not so clear that Americans will want to face the truth, especially when they learn how wide the net of collaboration actually was. It extends far beyond people in on the planning, which was surely very few, to those who went to bed on 9-11 thinking bitterly of how they had been played.
Think of the fighter pilots ordered to stay on the ground or fly the wrong way, the bewildered air-traffic controllers trying to sort out real attacks from war-games attacks, the folks around the Pentagon who thought they were helping out the FBI when they turned over security videos, maybe even the security people around the World Trade Center buildings ordered to let pass certain individuals who showed up at night and on weekends for “elevator shaft renovation” or “rewiring” on the weekend before 9-11.
Pity the reporters – dozens, surely – whose observations of oddities on 9-11 were quietly edited out of their stories. And even more reporters at top news outlets who in the months and years after 9-11 were discreetly contacted by duty-bound military personnel, frightened secretaries, and indignant airline employees; and who set out to write Pulitzer Prize-winning exposés, only to be told by grim-faced editors that the 9-11 story was not to be tampered with.
And as long as we’re near the issue, let’s repel one more time that tiresome assertion by opponents of 9-11 alternative theories: This is America, we love fame, secrets are things of the past, we even talk about our sex lives on the radio, someone would have talked.
There are two answers to that. The first is that someone did talk; lots of someones talked, though their stories reach no further than 9-11 websites. For her trouble, Susan Lindauer earned the distinction of being the second person arrested under the PATRIOT Act. Sibel Edmond got a gag order. Barry Jennings’s experience in Building 7 proved that explosions had already gone off in the building hours before the collapse. J. Michael Springmann at the U.S. Consulate in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, irritated his bosses by pointing out all those visas granted to guys who turned up on the list of 9-11 hijackers. William Rodriguez, initially a 9-11 media hero, later fell from grace for insisting that an explosion came from the sub-level of the North Tower some ten seconds before the first airplane hit that building. And dozens of eye-witnesses from all three crash sites have lent their testimonies, these confined largely to 9-11 documentaries.
The second is that, in real life, it is only the rarest Snowden or Ellsberg or Manning, alone among their multitudinous co-workers who witnessed the same government misdeeds, who comes forward. Or is even in a position to: none of those three was worrying about retirement when they exposed government documents. The ever-higher hurdles of financial life in America – college, mortgage, and retirement – must be a great comfort to the real villains of 9-11.
Yes, 9-11 Truth research is truly stupendous: the computer models, the chemical investigations, FOIA requests (mostly refused) by the busload, the frame-by-frame review of video and audio recordings. Pilots for 9-11 Truth have even sedulously examined radar and transponder recordings and concluded that Flight 93, which was supposed to have crashed in Pennsylvania, was still in the air and sending signals. Others combed through FAA records and found that this airplane was still on the active list years later.
Good for historical purposes, but at present all of this research is little more than a tree that falls in the woods, heard by nobody. Once the proper narratives – collapses, al Qaeda, feisty passengers and stoic flight attendants – had been set down, they were decorated with detail, made into films, and left to harden with the years. Silence is the norm, broken only by the occasional bubbling blurb to reinforce the official story: the 9-11 Commission’s “Final” Report (i.e., no others needed), the 9-11 Memorial and now the 9-11 Museum, which will be visited by and upon generations of school children. And God help the wiseguy seventh-grader who raises his hand and asks the museum guide why thousands of building professionals agree with the controlled-demolition theory. He is likely to be met with a withering rebuke – much as any thinking adult is today – and told that only cranks and fools bother with conspiracy theories.
Silence. Much as concerned folks in New York might try, there will be no second 9-11 commission, as in the case of the Kennedy assassination. At most, in fifty years, grandchildren will come forth with what someone said on his deathbed, a memoir will turn up, and a history professor will piece together a few stories from the archives, just as nowadays such tidbits regarding Franklin Roosevelt’s attempt to provoke the Japanese into attacking Pearl Harbor have come to light.
No doubt the hard-eyed planners of 9-11 found solace in the Pearl Harbor precedent. But Roosevelt’s deception had a clear justification: if Germany had won the war, or if the Soviet Union had won and gone on to dominate all Europe, the future would have been very dark indeed.
The purpose of 9-11, however, went far beyond a simple war or two in Asia. It was the expression of a passion as old as Alexander: the desire to take over the world. Of course, the current terms are “full-spectrum dominance,” “globalization,” and “free markets.” With the fall of the Soviet Union, the American elite imbibed single-superpowerdom. They were inebriated. America had a unique chance to expand their economic and military – hence political – grasp, and they were not going to pass it up.
The problem was their peaceful compatriots, who neither standing so tall nor seeing so far, could not be counted on to support conquest of the planet. Like dumb cattle, they had to be stampeded. Nor could they be trusted to remain acquiescent as they were squeezed economically while The One Percent fattened and the military splurged. So police forces would be turned into paramilitary squads and, as we have learned over the past year with the Snowden-Greenwald revelations, every phone call, mouse click, and text message would be recorded. The villains of 9-11 had seen the Vietnam War protests at first hand, and knew they needed to cut such nonsense off at the knees. Look at Ferguson. Look at Zuccotti Park. It’s clear that no more 1968s will be tolerated.
The elite’s campaigns at home and abroad might be reversed if the facts of 9-11 were allowed a true airing that riled up the public. But that won’t happen. Liberals and conservatives have joined forces to stigmatise anyone who questions the official theory. Even Justin Raimundo at Antiwar.com recently wrote a long essay about 9-11 secrets, but it dealt with the minor question of whether Israel or other countries knew about the attacks ahead of time. But question the 9-11 gospel of box cutters and pancaking building floors? That did not interest him.
Which is typical. With any topic touching 9-11, nobody questions the government version of events. To do so is in bad taste. Take the raid on Osama bin Laden. Nobody but a few pundits like Dr. Paul Craig Roberts and myself wondered out loud how the CIA could have had bin Laden’s house under surveillance for the six months prior to the raid, and never once seen or heard him. Remember that? The obvious conclusion, that bin Laden just wasn’t there, got no traction in the media. But the dashing story that followed silenced any doubt: Despite the CIA’s inability to prove bin Laden’s presence in the house, President Obama, that daring risk-taker, sent in the strong-arm boys. And they got him.
In retrospect it sounds very much as if the CIA, still angry over being pressured into the WMD scam in Iraq, and probably knowing that bin Laden had died years earlier, had refused to get sucked into the game and washed their hands of it with a simple disclaimer. What a pity that Edward Snowden didn’t get a bit of that one down on his hard drives.
So that legend has been closed as well, like the unreal waves closing over bin Laden’s unreal body while America notched a real new bit of history on its belt.
History: what the victors – that riotous One Percent – write. And the left, the right, progressives and conservatives as one do nothing but deepen the grooves of the letters in the rock. Hurray for the free press! As I wrote three years ago, 9-11 was a national job. And so is the silence.
June 30, 2014
WHO LOST IRAQ? THE AMORAL
I watched “Charlie Wilson’s War” on DVD last weekend. Remember this Julia Robert-Tom Hanks film from 2007? It was loosely based on the story of how U.S. House Representative Charlie Wilson got funding and arms for the mujahaddin (he calls them “the muj”) in Afghanistan to fight the Soviet Army. Their casualties mounting, the Soviets ended up signing a treaty and leaving the country, “with their tail between their legs” – a phrase uttered with smug glee at the film’s climax.
As the United States returns – yes, returns! – to the Iraqi killing fields, one has to look with a new perspective on the Soviet retreat: you have to admire their facing the fact that the war was lost.
No doubt Soviet leaders knew that they would take a lot of guff, as everyone in Moscow played the same game now in full swing in Washington and the media: “Who lost Iraq?”
A quick check of the Internet lists pages and pages of this same question. Fareed Zakaria, that most corporate of corporate salesman, has an opinion (predictably, his culprit is the Iraqis). Even humble Minnesota Public Radio has one. Who lost Iraq is now doubtlessly the major issue left from America’s decade in that unfortunate country. The uncomfortable matter of who destroyed Iraq, however, doesn’t get much play: a half-dozen or articles that appear on small websites. Zakaria can’t be bothered.
That is the uniquely amoral American attitude in the aftermath of the Iraq conflict. Just look at the polls taken on Iraq. They show no shame, only disapproval. Between 71 and 75 percent give the thumbs-down to Iraq, depending on the poll. Some 66 percent are down on Afghanistan, and in a 2000 Gallup looking-back-on-it-all poll 69 percent of Americans are down on Vietnam.
But are people ashamed of destroying other countries? Not a bit. Their disapproval has a different root altogether. Look at how these polls are phrased. The NBC/WSJ/Annenberg poll says Iraq “wasn’t worth it.” Wasn’t worth it? Wasn’t worth the trillions spent, the lives lost? Is war, like a car, just one more bang-for-your-buck calculation?
The Gallup poll respondents call Vietnam “a mistake.” A mistake – like spelling Gallup with just one L? Do Americans, if they think at all about their destruction of that country, the chemical weapons spread, the millions of Vietnamese killed, just shrug it off and say, “Well, everybody’s entitled to a mistake now and then.”?
If there is a single summation of the American attitude, it is surely Nick Carraway’s phrase from The Great Gatsby: “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy- they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”
These days, “other people” refers to Sunnis and Shia going at each other’s throats, UNHCR workers desperately trying to feed millions in the middle of sweltering deserts, and Afghans and Pakistanis trying to keep one step ahead of the Taliban and drone strikes and hunger. Americans, ever proud of their flag and their power and their democracy, are just sorry they got so little bang for their buck.
May 7, 2014
A GOOD OLD AMERICAN TUG ON THE FRAYING FABRIC OF PEACE
Imagine how different Ukraine would be today if the U.S. and -- prodded by the U.S. -- the European Union had not put their weight behind the Maidan Revolution. Lacking that sweet five billion bucks that Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland bragged about, the rebels would not have overturned the government. The country would be simmering, rather than shooting, and united at least in their disgust with their corrupt government. And Crimea would still be Ukrainian.
Imagine how different if the U.S. had favored, publicly and privately, negotiations between the pro- and anti-Russian elements in both the capital and around the country. This, together with an electoral, by-the-book change in the government might have been a truly salutary watershed in the country's politics.
The Cold War -- how the U.S. military must be rubbing its hands! -- might not have been rekindled. And Russia, for its part, might not have been stuck once again with its reputation for hegemony.
"All around, the fabric of peace and order is fraying," New York Times columnist David Brooks lamented this past week. "The leaders of Russia and Ukraine escalate their apocalyptic rhetoric. The Sunni-Shiite split worsens as Syria and Iraq slide into chaos. China pushes its weight around in the Pacific."
Yet the first two crises -- Ukraine and the Sunni-Shiite conflict -- are surely the result of Amercian bumbling, the latter the aftershock of America's ham-fisted invasion of Iraq. As to China, what weight is he referring to? Their half-hearted squawking about the Senkaku/Diaoyu isles, which Japan also claims? The Chinese government has not lifted a finger regarding "illegal" flyovers of the islands, which makes one wonder if the government isn’t just making a gesture to domestic constituencies, like the military or the business elite who wants to exploit the area's oil and gas deposits. At any rate, the government is evidently not willing to throw any weight into the air over the issue.
Brooks quite rightly praises the system of foreign affairs going back to the Treaty of Westphalia, which protects "the desire for regional dominance and the desire to eliminate diversity." And he goes on to decry that "China, Russia and Iran have different values, but all oppose this system of liberal pluralism."
Surely he has forgotten recent American history. Has regional dominance anywhere been greater than America's in Latin America over the past century? Its foreign-policy domination of west Europe has been only slightly less great. And as to pluralism and diversity, who can forget Condoleeza Rice's carefree statement in an August 2008 Foreign Affairs issue, "Indeed, we have shown that by marrying American power and American values, we could help friends and allies expand the boundaries of what most thought realistic at the time." The list of abandoned, scarred offspring from that unhappy marriage lengthens every year.
"Preserving that hard-earned [liberal, pluralistic system] ecosystem requires an ever-advancing fabric of alliances, clear lines about what behavior is unacceptably system-disrupting, and the credible threat of political, financial and hard power enforcement," Brooks concludes, and he's again right.
Yet America’s blissful disregard for international law seems not to trouble him. From many possible examples, take drone attacks. They are a "system-disrupting" element if there ever was one. What excuses will the State Department make when Syria uses them against rebels? Or when China zaps a dissident in Manila or Jakarta? Or when Russia sends them to Ukraine? Just when international law was getting some real post-World War II force and character, along came the neocons to shatter it, and Obama to make sure the pieces never get put back together.
For what is most troubling about Brooks's article -- and many others like it from conservative policy circles -- is how they cannot see America's own contribution to the unraveling of international relations. Or rather, they can see it, but they cannot talk about it. A recent article by the excellent Times business columnist Gretchen Morgenson offers a look at the small world of important opinion leaders and policy-makers. She is referring to the financial world in this quote, taken from the book by Elizabeth Warren, "A Fighting Chance," but it can be applied as well to the airy world of foreign affairs.
"After dinner, Larry leaned back in his chair and offered me some advice,” Ms. Warren writes. “I had a choice. I could be an insider or I could be an outsider. Outsiders can say whatever they want. But people on the inside don’t listen to them. Insiders, however, get lots of access and a chance to push their ideas. People — powerful people — listen to what they have to say. But insiders also understand one unbreakable rule: They don’t criticize other insiders."
Ms. Morgenson followed up the quote: "A spokeswoman for Mr. Summers did not respond to a request for comment."
Of course not: why respond to outsiders?
We outsiders have the luxury of looking at the world much more realistically than Mr. Brooks and wondering why America is doing so much to break down and dominate the international system. We wonder why the American government is so intent on trying to break Ukraine off from Russia and make an enemy of President Putin, whose behavior on the international scene, at least, has been basically responsible, if we remember his cooperation on Syria, Iran, North Korea and Afghanistan. He hasn't deserved the White House snubbing, especially Obama's refusal to go to the Sochi Olympic Games.
William Pfaff, the veteran foreign-affairs commentator, said tellingly: "Tact seems a quality long abandoned in an America where officials communicate in obscenities." Putin has given up trying to please the Americans, and you can hardly blame him.
But it's Condoleeza Rice and David Brooks and his blinkered band of brothers who control the policy and the airwaves. We outsiders can only stand around saying whatever we want as we watch the fabric of peace and order fraying all around us.
March 31, 2014
YET ANOTHER FAILURE OF THE U.S. FOREIGN POLICY ELITE
President Barack Obama, who loves to be liked, must be wondering how he got such a poor record on foreign affairs. As far as anyone can tell, he deferred to the experts, like General Petraeus and Hillary Clinton and Susan Rice, and has got little more than grief for his politeness: thrown out of chaotic Iraq, bogged down in an ungrateful Afghanistan, red line wrapped around his throat in Syria, his pivot to Asia unpivved, his land-grabbing Israelis unperturbed.
His single moment of glory was the attack mission on Osama bin Laden, and even that was little more than a sixth-grade Christmas pageant put on by the military and security services who just wanted to show their gratitude for Obama's kind and continuing, um, deference -- let's leave it there.
Like most presidents -- George Bush the senior is an exception -- he came into office with no experience in foreign affairs, and no more knowledge than one might get reading the New York Times every day and some history books. So like the rest he leans heavily on those savants in the foreign-policy establishment. This was long ago purged of anyone except Gothic neocons and America-Firsters, who think that America has special duties, a special destiny, and a special relationship to international law, which is made for everyone else to follow. So it's not surprising that America has the same musty policy that the savants have been serving up, with results that run from lousy (Korea, the Gulf War) to horrific (Vietnam, the Iraq War) for the last half-century.
Their latest effort is the revolution in Ukraine. Assistant Secretary of State for European Affairs Victoria Nuland, not a discreet woman, said that America had invested 5 billion dollars to "promote Ukraine to the future it deserves." (Imperial governments always have the best of intentions.) I wonder: Did Obama himself order America to take a hand in the Ukranian revolution? Does he like the idea of overthrowing a properly elected government? You can be sure that the tame foreign-policy journalists will never ask him.
The great mystery is this: did the savants not foresee that President Putin, fearing Nato ships pulling up at Russia's Black Sea naval base, would annex Crimea? It was a logical outcome the Ukranian revolution, yet this could not possibly have been a goal of American machinations. Maybe in ten years some rogue diplomat will write a book telling the world how stunned the administration was by this move. Perhaps -- perhaps -- this explains President Obama's obvious anger and his futile comparison of the invasions Crimea and Iraq. This comment was so surreally dumb that it brought to mind Lyndon Johnson and Robert Macnamara talking about Vietnam.
At any rate, the result of the Ukraine-Crimea matter can only be called another failure of the U.S. foreign policy elite. President Putin has annexed Crimea to great national éclat and left President Obama sputtering about how invasion is a violation of international law. The sanctions on Russia will hurt West European investment there too much to ever be given any real force. That's the trouble with globalization: sanctions boomerang.
Meanwhile, the unelected ultranationalist fascists from the Ukraine have signed their deal with the EU. You have to wonder what Angela Merkel, et. al., felt on sitting down at the signing table with "Yats the guy."
Perhaps he and his rightists ministers will be cured of their ultranationalism and fascism when they sit down with the IMF, who will tell them that their awful economic situation needs to get horrendously awful before it gets better. Ultranationalist fascists are not known for patience and gratitude. It will be interesting to see how they take this "help." But however they do, let's remember: it's those savants in the American foreign-policy establishment who are responsible for them. The establishment wound up this monster and set it walking.
And who can doubt that those crafty American secret agents, smug with the success of their operation in Ukraine, are not doing the same thing in Venezuela? Well, it still is America's backyard, according to the musty foreign-policy elite. Not to control events there would be yet another sign of weakness, according to American neocons. You have to wonder how many signs of weakness have to be decried by them before the country is actually weak.
Still, a new Cold War must offer hope to the foreign-policy elite, especially its military arm. Defense budgets were not looking good, now that terrorism is getting boring and Americans are looking dimly at new foreign commitments calling for copious cash and leather boots on the ground. But a new, long wrestlers' clinch like the first Cold War can only help out the elite.
In short, "Change you can believe in" has not come to the foreign policy establishment. It is on the same bumbling settings of domination and short-term gain that have got America and the world into one crisis after another. The Nobel-winner in the White House has not lived up to the prize. But given the advice he gets, this is hardly surprising.
February 7, 2014
WILL SOCHI BE THE "SARAJEVO MOMENT"?
The security is oppressive, Olympic Village wiring isn’t finished, Sochi is a Black Sea beach resort and not a ski resort, Sochi residents feel neglected, gay athletes feel offended, spending on the Games is the most expensive in history, spending on the Games was hidden from the public, there isn’t enough snow, there aren’t enough hotel rooms, the IOC is concerned, the IOC is urging action, Sochi city hall is killing off stray dogs, the Olympic torch is sputtering, the slopes are not world skiing standard, the government is cracking down on green activists, the government is releasing prisoners as a whitewash before the Games….
As the Olympic Games in Sochi begin, President Vladimir Putin is watching his dream eight years ago – to win the Games for his favorite resort town – go up in smoke. Like any national leader, he wanted to do an elegant makeover of his image. He wanted to be the benign statesman rather than the scowling authoritarian. He wanted to play the magnanimous host. He wanted to be Big Man on the (World) Campus, and that fat chunk of dough he spent on the Games is the measure of how much he wanted all this.
And what is he getting for his oil money? None of the above. For the western media have no intention of giving him a break. It’s hard to believe that a smart man like President Putin was so blind as to see how the media would tear him apart for every big and little mistake.
I typed “Sochi proud” into Google and found only stories about people proud to represent their countries in the Olympics. Fair enough. So I put “Sochi residents proud.” Only one story was favourable: from the Moscow Times. The rest were stories about how Putin was far prouder of the games than were any of the locals, many of whom had been forcibly relocated, and environmental problems in Sochi, and nearby villages up in arms, and etc., etc., etc..
And of course, as the Games begin and world attention is really focused, the reports will only get worse. For every report of triumph on the slopes there will be another of how Russians in a nearby village can’t get any bread because it’s all going to the athletes, or how local residents make two cents an hour harvesting wheat by hand, or how there’s no sugar in the Olympic cafeteria, or how the hotel beds don’t have sheets. Some skating star will soon tweet that she lost the gold medal due to a stuffy nose because her room was too cold, and American snowboarders will be sneering about how slow the Internet is and how they can’t log on to their favorite video games without having to wait thirty whole seconds. Trust those sleek-haired souls at Fox News to make thirty seconds sound like thirty hours.
Then throw in a terrorist attack – even a popgun, even one that didn’t go off, or just a decent firecracker sponsored by those thoughtful people in Langley, Virginia. And we’ll all be reminded once again of the hard lives of oppressed minorities under President Putin. By the time the Para-Olympic folks go home, the rest of the world will no doubt have consigned Russia to that rank of nations that includes Niger and Bhutan.
So it wouldn’t surprise me if a bitter President Putin decided to do something about it. After all, he’s already taken a few slaps in the face, like American missile “defenses” on his country’s border (protecting Europe from Iran!) and Ukrainians raising holy hell about their government siding with Russia rather than the European Union. He will see dashed his hopes of making the Games a kind of coming-out party for the modern, prosperous Russia, one of the BRIC countries that even clothing lines like Mango and Zara have to respect. He will see his country made a laughing-stock, whether it deserves it or not, because the western media, especially in the United States, is going to make sure that Russia and President Putin get the full salvo of coconut pie blown in their faces.
And that, I think, is dangerous. Marking the hundredth anniversary of World War One, many commentators have talked about a new “Sarajevo moment” that ignites a new world conflagration. Sochi could well be that moment, even if we don’t know it for some time.
There are a hundred ways in which an angry Putin, who figures that he has little to lose and no face left to save, could shove a stout stick into the wheels of the wobbling capitalist bicycle – and then retreat to those oil-rich steppes to enjoy the show.
Well, maybe and maybe not. But as I watch the clouds gather over Sochi and the muscle-bound pride of Mr. Putin – not a nice man – taking its first dents, I wonder fearfully where this will lead.
January 19, 2014
PEOPLE ARE NEVER JUST VICTIMS, BUILDINGS NEVER JUST WALLS
It had blown up, burnt ferociously, and injured many. Surely some would die.
The day-after photos showed a shaggy frost of ice, and that – and the tragedies of the occupants -- seems the way history will remember it.
My memory from the early 80s is of a bohemian place, where a wire basket nailed on the back of the front door caught the mail dropped through the slot, and everyone simply picked out their letters and sorted out the rest to be left on the steps that led up to the apartments.
My own, on the first floor up, had a single window that looked out on the small park to the left of the building. This “studio” apartment – a splendiferous name for a space that wouldn’t have held a Cadillac – was the smallest there.
Small or not, it was the first apartment all my own, rented at $130 a month, with a phone registered to my name. I had a small stove, an ancient, open-flame heater that stank faintly of gas all winter, and a walk-in closet just big enough for my bike to crouch in, front wheel taken off. I furnished it with family castoffs: a punctured armchair, a small kitchen table that served as a desk, and a floor lamp that swung to either the chair or the desk.
The shower-bathroom out in the hall was shared by all four apartments on the floor, an arrangement that made philosophers of all of us.
We were an eclectic group, U of Minnesota students like me. Chris was the last of the West Bank hippies, a guy whose thick hair reached past his shoulder blades. That’s his room on the lower left going up in flames there: a great pity. For a break on his rent, he had paint-stripped, re-sanded and varnished the floor, and it was worthy of the Palace of Versailles.
Lower-right housed a grad-student couple doing research at the massive University medical complex – good folks who often invited me to drink tea with them and filled me with tales of grants and internships. Sexy stuff.
At the back of the building was a maddening, self-indulgent woman preparing two Beethoven pieces on her piano in order to audition for the U of M Music School. She played nothing else, not even “Chopsticks.” I got to know every difficult passage and tensed when she came to them. And she smoked so much hashish that she and her room reeked of it. One time she lent me her calculator – remember those? – and even the plastic smelt of hash.
The building had no laundry room, so we all resorted illegally to the one in that monstrous apartment complex you see behind the smoke and frost. (My own front-door key came from my basketball buddy Bill.) We all dodged the smooth-shaven security guards who were supposed to keep outsiders out. My technique was to sneak in with my laundry in brown paper sacks from the grocer. I believe Chris used a huge cardboard box, struggling up to the building as if moving in.
But in general it was a good place to spend college years – away from the insipid U of M dorms packed with stereo systems. On Cedar Avenue, amidst the squawk of stairway floorboards and the gasps of shock as hot water showered morning skin down the hall, I had the wrap-around security of the beehive.
Of course, I wasn’t in the wrong place in the wrong year, like the poor folks -- east African immigrants, mainly -- at whom destiny pointed its hoary finger.
And who are now being pounded into a pulp of victimhood by newscasters.
As the building itself is now being pounded into fodder by the bulldozers, taking some hundred years of ghosts with it. Which just goes to show: people are never just victims, buildings never just walls.
December 19, 2013
THE YEAR EVERYTHING GOT WORSE
There’s a reason that one cannot describe America and the world as chaotic. Syria, Afghanistan and Iraq daily show us what chaos is. So the word for America and its place in the world as 2013 closes is, to put it charitably, “worse.”
The year began with Hillary Clinton’s 2012 war cry “Assad must go” still ringing in Washington’s ears. In passing, let us note her declaration’s punchy tag line: “The sooner the better for everyone concerned.”
Thus, sooner rather than a prudent later, the Obama people jumped on those gas attacks against Syrian civilians last summer, rolling out “proof” that they were the work of Assad’s army. But it turned out to be proof à la Bush, cherry-picked and air-brushed (which, as I said in my previous article, was predictable).
Seymour Hersch, that great journalist who unlike the rest of the press refuses to be “on the team” of U.S. foreign-policy salesmen, told us why they did it:
“The fact of the matter is that this president was going to go to war because he felt he had to protect what he said about a red line…It’s about a president choosing to make political use of a war crime.”
The year now closes with the U.S. coming full circle: “Western officials” sidling up to the few moderate Syrian rebels still standing (in excellent hotel rooms, most of them) and telling them to accept Assad as part of a new government. For the alternative isn’t a new, democratic Syria, but a hodgepodge of militias dominated by jihadists, overseen by Al Qaeda, and itching to give Israel a bloody nose. “The sooner the better for everyone concerned” -- Wow! Only History could invent a joke that perfect.
History and Obama must thank Vladimir Putin, not a nice man but at least an adult, for stepping in and moving events in the direction of order.
Messes ever-worse burble in the American heartland too. The temporary agreement between Iran and the United States, among other countries, gives cause for hope, though the Senate – yes, the Democrat-dominated Senate – is determined to trash any agreement by imposing greater sanctions on Iran.
The Republican-dominated House, never to be outdone, trashes anything that the White House wants to do.
Though we criticize Syrians and Libyans and Egyptians for not being able to work together, it’s clear that the American Congress would feel right at home in those countries. Do we need Vladimir Putin to step in and establish order in America too?
In the middle of the year Edward Snowden and Glenn Greenwald shone a ray of light – or rather a big, fat spotlight – on what the American security services are doing in the service of domestic order: watch everything and everybody.
It’s an odd thing, the e-world. Imagine if we had discovered that the U.S. Postal Service was noting down all our mail contacts, occasionally opening the mail and reading it. Everyone would have been up in arms. But there is something about computers and software that makes domestic spying more palatable, more distant. It’s like the average person who would feel ashamed to steal a printer cartridge from an employer, but who thinks nothing of downloading a movie or an album of music from Internet instead of paying for it.
And so the biggest uproar has come from a few members of Congress and countries like Brazil and Germany, where NSA villains filched the text messages of leaders, who most likely are really worried about indiscretions giving the guys in Langley a few jollies.
The American public, as usual, is not outraged as one about their Fourth Amendment rights being trampled, but is, instead, divided on the matter: privacy or security? And now that the hubbub is dying down, the NSA, having taken its lumps in Congress, has jumped onto the public stage to sing a lullaby and sent everyone back to sleep.
Did you see the softball 60 minutes double-segment was hosted by John Miller? He started with this statement: "Full disclosure, I once worked in the Office of the Director of National Intelligence, where I saw firsthand how secretly the NSA operates." Of course, this disclosure wasn't all that full, was it? It turns out that he worked for both the NYPD, the LAPD, and has spent much of his career working on high-tech intelligence systems.
Poor Mike Wallace must be turning over in his grave to see what a government mouthpiece that once-worthy program has become.
That is where America is at the end of 2013. The Obama Administration defiantly carries forward the George W. Bush torch, taking two steps forward, then one backward for public relations. Journalists and whistleblowers who point out these abuses are, to global astonishment, persecuted and silenced. Only a few like Seymour Hersch continue, though with ever-greater difficulty, for potential sources remember Edward Snowden mushing through the Moscow winter, or Chelsea Manning sleeping on a hard bed, or Julian Assange counting sticks on the wall of the Ecuadoran Embassy in London. Silence, they figure, is the greater part of valor.
The result of all this is America’s new reputation as a muscle-bound Big Brother, and an astonishingly gray legacy for the inspiring man who came to office chanting, “Yes, we can!” Obama ran as an outsider and ended up swallowed by Washington and spat out to carry on the Bush revolution of spreading chaos abroad and the mechanisms of repression at home.
I look at him nowadays and marvel at how he keeps going. His expectations have surely been crushed: president of a wayward nation, bystander of an undeserved reputation of Orwellianism, victim of an intractable and prostituted Congress. He must wonder why he spent two years running for the White House.
September 27, 2013
IT'S POLICIES WITH TEETH THAT GET US IN TROUBLE
Does public reluctance in America and Europe to using force in Syria indicate a new isolationism? Does it mean indifference to crimes against humanity? Does it mean an “inward turn,” as an article by Judy Dempsey, the New York Times columnist, indicates?
“If Europeans refuse to consider force as a last option to support diplomatic efforts,” she writes in The New York Times, “analysts believe that the European Union’s foreign policy will be toothless.” And Dempsey, whose byline reads “editor in chief of Strategic Europe at Carnegie Europe,” is one of those analysts. She might have used a plain “me and the guys around the water cooler believe,” but “analysts believe” definitely has more brio.
You read of such worrying about European and American publics all the time these days in the mainstream media. The cover story of The Economist this week is called "The Weakened West" and shows a defanged lion. Yet you can never finish these hand-wringing meditations without an odd taste in your mouth. These analysts and the foreign policy elite in general, especially the American type, are peeved these days -- peeved with the public. For they like their foreign policy toothy. In her article, Dempsey sounds like a kid whose kite has being taken away, or at least reeled in a great deal. Without that wonderful length and the bracing dips and dives, kite-flying just isn’t much fun.
We heard pouting of the same tenor when Edward Snowden’s revelations first started to come out. They lifted the lovely embroidered curtain of intelligence and espionage, and the elites – military, security, foreign-policy – and their fellow-travelling mainstream columnists did not like it. Fareed Zakaria on CNN called Snowden’s efforts “a kind of vague nihilistic anarchism.”
The Snowden revelations and Dempsey’s article – and again, it is just one of many concerned about “toothlessness” -- point out the deeper truth that the gap between elites and publics is growing. For the American elite in particular, the public is now the enemy, a sulky teenager that will not listen to reason and takes drugs as soon as one’s back is turned.
Or as the veteran commentator William Pfaff asked in his article “The American Top Secret Kept from Americans”: “What crime is Edward Snowden accused of committing? Not his revelation of American global eavesdropping on foreign governments, which every major government in the world already knew of, or took for granted as existing. Snowden is an international political fugitive because he revealed to the American people what their own government was doing.”
And because Americans cannot be convinced to attack peoples with whom they have no bone to pick, they must be shocked into action, whether by 9-11 or horror stories of Iraqi WMD stockpiles or now, by images of gassed children in Syria. And here, I add this aside: When 9-11 Truthers say that the U.S. military-security complex was the prime mover of the attacks, Americans usually dismiss the idea this way: “Our government would never do that to us.” But people would do well to reflect on the Truthers theories in relation to the sea of disgust and suspicion that has spread between rulers and ruled in America. If the Snowden revelations mean anything, it is that the former group is far more hard-eyed than the latter has imagined.
And now the American public has been jolted awake. It is quite right to second-guess the judgment of its foreign-policy elite, whose policies with teeth have given us nothing but disaster over the past ten years. It has not left a single situation better than it found it, whether in Iraq, Libya, Pakistan, Afghanistan, or Yemen.
I was relieved to see that Dempsey admitted this at the very end of her article: “The instability now in [Iraq, Libya, and Afghanistan] has, as the Transatlantic Trends report shows, encouraged skepticism among Europeans and Americans about the use of force.”
But Dempsey and those “analysts” take negative opinion polls on the Syrian matter as reluctance to engage internationally. This, I think, is a misreading of the publics on both sides of the Atlantic. They are not more cowardly, just more cautious and more informed.
Why? First, the Internet. The mainstream media’s power to shape public opinion on that last bastion of the elite, foreign policy, has been diluted. Back in the 70s and 80s, when I was studying International Relations at the University of Minnesota, the foreign policy debates were basically contained between The New York Times for the liberals (or are we saying “progressives” these days?) and Time Magazine or the Wall Street Journal for the conservatives.
The Internet, of course, has now made this seem like little more than a debate between Pepsi and Coca-cola. Now all of those publications occupy one side of the debate and Internet websites occupy the other. Though websites are of greater and lesser credibility, they make it hard for the mainstream media to slant the news without getting caught.
And hence the second reason. The mainstream media are more and more considered to represent a powerful business and political elite, some of it American, but most of it with dark international loyalties. This has provoked great suspicion. One of the things that struck me immediately about the Occupy Movement was its rhetoric: “talking back to power,” “the government’s propaganda machine.” It was stuff taken straight out of Noam Chomsky, John Pilger, and Chris Hedges. Clearly, leftist voices like these have made inroads; a good part of the public is reading the news more critically.
If there is reluctance over Syria, it’s because people have looked at both sides of the question. They’ve digested more information, more opinions. And the arguments against engagement are articulate and coherent. So people are not convinced.
Analysts and whining columnists regularly adduce Europe’s comparatively skimpy spending on defense as evidence of European spinelessness. Nonsense. European governments simply see no reason to stretch already-thin budgets. Why should they? There is no Hitler around these days. There is no communist threat to be turned back, no nationalist madman threatening his neighbors. Al Qaeda? A terrorist group that must be dealt with through espionage, infiltration, and the occasional fly-swatter, but not a cannon.
Europeans maintain thin, utilitarian militaries that can keep up with military technology, send enough soldiers to assuage America’s thirst for intervention, and make decent showings in Memorial Day parades. Europeans have seen how the Pentagon has pitilessly spent the country into debt, and they want no part of it.
Besides, military force is not the only power behind foreign policy. Just ask the Iranians. They want out from under sanctions. Or ask American members of Congress about European reluctance regarding genetically modified seeds. Or ask the chic Mrs. Assad if she’s planning a shopping spree on the Champs-Elysées once her husband has taken care of those nasty rebels. Most likely she’s going to stick with E-Bay.
No, I don’t see the reluctance, the reticence or the toothlessness that Ms. Dempsey bemoans. I see European and American publics that are a tougher sell for war. The reaction of Europeans and Americans to a real threat in the world? Hard to say. But both peoples know perfectly well what Hitlers and Napoleons and Stalins look like, and I think they would know what to do.
July 9, 2013
EDWARD SNOWDEN AND THE GENTLEMEN’S TRASH TALK
At the end of Fareed Zakaria's program GPS last weekend, there was a short, ugly blurb against Edward Snowden. Zakaria led it off, referring to Snowden: "This guy is not working for another government. It's a kind of vague, nihilistic anarchism. I mean I presume the message here is he doesn't want the governments to do any espionage?"
Not that Snowden ever said that. His protest is against the U.S. Government vaccuuming up data on practically everyone, whether they are terrorists or tinkers, foreigners or Floridians. In that sense, his act has none of the destructive urge of nihilism; quite the opposite. Protest, especially the daring kind that he has performed, is a matter of hope for a better future.
But all three of Zakaria's guests -- Zbigniew Brzezinski, Richard Haass of the President's Council on Foreign Relations, and Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal, all regulars on the show -- did their best to discredit Snowden.
Brzezinski quite rightly brought up the example of Daniel Ellsberg, dean of American whistleblowers. "He may have been misguided, but he certainly was patriotic. What did [Snowden] do? He goes to China and then he goes to Russia. Both countries that would like to replace us on top of the global totem pole." Snowden's locations puzzle Brzezinski: "So, what are his motives? Who's he trying to appeal to?... Maybe he's psychologically mixed up."
I have the feeling that if Snowden had been in the middle of Times Square when the revelations came out, Brzezinski would have felt no better about him.
For Snowden's motives could hardly be clearer: "But over time that awareness of wrongdoing sort of builds up and you feel compelled to talk about. And the more you talk about the more you're ignored. The more you're told its not a problem until eventually you realize that these things need to be determined by the public and not by somebody who was simply hired by the government."
That doesn't sound to me like man who's "psychologically mixed up"; sounds to me like an articulate man who gives a far more concise response to a question than Brzezinski.
Both Haass and Stephens specifically told their listeners that "this guy is not a whistleblower." Well, "this guy" -- what a lovely dismissive term, like Bill Clinton's "that woman, Monica Lewinsky" -- forced DNI James Clapper to admit that he had lied to Congress. And it's not like Clapper told Congress that he hadn't done anything dirty with an intern or hadn't slipped a few shady favors to campaign contributors. The well-known lie he told was about a top-of-the-line, get-your-money-back vital issue. If Snowden's deed isn't whistleblowing, what is?
Both men took their turns vilifying Snowden. First Haass: "People will be vulnerable because of the way that he has tipped off groups and individuals who want to do us severe harm....his legacy will be truly destructive." That's nonsense. It's hard to believe that any "groups and individuals who want to do us severe harm" don't take into account that American intelligence is monitoring electronic communication all over the world. America's enemies have long ago resorted to other methods of communications or simply encrypt their messages. If there is any news to them, it is that the NSA is monitoring its own citizens to the extent Snowden has revealed.
Then Stephens got in his licks: "This is not a guy who is willing to pay the price for the civil disobedience he thought he was committing." This echoed Brzezinski: "[Ellsberg] did it in the United States and was prepared to face the music."
Except that Ellsberg fully supports Snowden’s decision to stay abroad. Back in Ellsberg's day, the status of the whistleblower was respected. Nowadays, the whistleblower needs to seek political asylum – from the United States, who would have ever thought that in Ellsberg’s time? He needs the asylum because the alternative is justice of the type supplied to Bradley Manning: late, terrifying, and hopeless. And as Ellsberg points out, once the feds put the cuffs on him, Snowden will be stifled and at their mercy.
Anger, as British philosopher Malcolm Muggerridge once observed, is usually just a damaged ego. And the damage that Brzezinski, Haass, Stephens and, yes, Zakaria are suffering is obvious: no-name outsiders are knocking holes in the walls of their elitist castle. As Stephens put it, "How is it that after the Bradley Manning incident, you can still have a 29-year-old contractor, not even working for the government itself, essentially walking into the sanctum sanctorum of our American intelligence establishment and putting so much information on a zip drive?"
Which reminds me of that laughable congressional hearing in “Inside Job” where Senator Carl Levin nails David Viniar, Executive Vice President and CFO of Goldman Sachs:
SEN. CARL LEVIN: When you heard that your employees, in these e-mails, said, god, what a shitty deal; god, what a piece of crap; do you feel anything?
DAVID VINIAR: I, I think that's very unfortunate to have on e-mail.
In short, what these four men are really angry about is not the shame of domestic spying, but the fact that someone exposed it.
No, if I were Snowden, I would head for a place on the sunny shores of Venezuela, too. He certainly deserves a fresh towel, a piña colada and, if he feels like facing the music, a six-man band playing salsa. He's done his countrymen an enormous service; he may have started an American Spring. Not bad for a nihilistic anarchist.
August 26, 2013
SYRIA AND SARIN: SUCH IS POLITICS
Can anyone recall a single moment of greater nonsense in international affairs than the one the world is living right now, as the UN inspectors examine the gas-attack victims in Syria and the chemicals used and give us their verdict? A half-dozen nations, including the U.S. and Britain, stand ready to attack if this reddest of red lines – the Assad regime’s use of chemical weapons – is crossed, and it all depends on a group of scientists.
Of course, the scientists will find evidence of the gas, and the Assad regime will say, “Hold on. That’s XYZ sarin, and all our sarin is type ABC. Here: take a few liters straight out of our stockpile and see for yourselves.”
And then some savant from – oh, let’s take some nice, quiet, neutral picturesque place – from Israel will say, “That’s true, but you can easily make XYZ from ABC. All you need to do is add a little JKL and a dash of salt – all stuff you can buy at the local drugstore – and you’re there.”
And just to be sure that this Israeli is not talking out the Netanyahu side of his mouth, another talking head from – oh, let’s take a nice, quiet, neutral place that runs a mile from anything military – from M.I.T. will confirm that this is true, and add the opinion, “Y’know, if I wanted to gas my people and I had ABC sarin, this is exactly how I’d disguise it.” And off we go to war.
It’s instructive to remember a couple of things as we await the learned words of the UN scientists. First, the Syrian government is now winning the war. Russia continues to help out with arms, Hezbollah has sent their seasoned fighters. Things are looking up. What need is there to bring in deadly gas? The only element that could galvanize public opinion beyond Syria’s borders – and the mainstream media is really whacking the old drum – is the use of chemical weapons. Even the Syrian military brass could not be that stupid.
Second, where did the major chemical attack occur? In some distant village accessible only by donkey? No, it took place just a short drive from downtown Damascus. Medecins Sans Frontieres had no people in the area, but hospital doctors contacted them and gave them details. Nice of them.
Third, when did this gas attack happen? As the rebels were gathering for a final assault on Damascus? Was this attack the Assad regime’s last desperate attempt to hold on to power?
Far from it. The rebels have splintered and turned on each other. This was predictable. To judge from every Middle Eastern crisis, Arabs cannot wash a car together without disagreeing, then arguing, then insulting, then separating, then agreeing after tedious negotiations to each wash half the car, then arguing because each wants to wash the more prestigious front half, then insulting more and ending up slugging it out. No, the Syrian military has the crucial ingredient of unity that the rebels lack, and the Assad regime knows it. All it has had to do was wait out the rebels.
In short, it looks to me as if some powerful people want to get America and Nato into the war, and if it takes a gas attack on innocents to do it, well, it does.
I would imagine that President Obama, who nearly alone in Washington wishes to avoid the Syria mess, is watching this and resenting the hands on his back pushing him into another war. In his mind he has long ago run through the argument I’ve laid out here, but he knows he can’t make it in public: it would be taken as yet another sign of weakness. Such is politics.
His wise instinct, back in the day, was to avoid the Libya mess – until Hillary Clinton reversed course. Too bad: today Libya has no democracy and is still a mess, a long step down from the Qaddafi days, when Libya had the highest standard of living in Africa.
The previous link to Hillary Clinton is also instructive in another regard. From a New York Times looking-back-on-it analysis, the article has this line in it: “That night, with Col.Muammar el-Qaddafi’s forces turning back the rebellion that threatened his rule, Mrs. Clinton changed course, forming an unlikely alliance with a handful of top administration aides who had been arguing for intervention.”
It would seem, then, that this winning formula has been taken out and oiled up again. For Bashar Assad’s forces are “turning back the rebellion that threatens his rule.” And someone has decided to do something about it.
June 10, 2013
THE DARK SIDE OF OBAMA'S GOVERNMENT
President Obama has always dreaded the surveillance controversy. From the moment he became president, he knew that it would fall on him. The only question was how hard.
For in order to be president, he had to make his peace with the powers-that-be in American politics. I imagine it as something like this.
Let’s go back to the last months of the George W. Bush’s first term, when the second term was assured (and how could it not be, with a clumsy candidate like John Kerry?), and the War on Terror was transforming the country, and the early 9-11 Truthers were just starting to murmur dark things about “controlled demolition,” and public security agencies were mushrooming at a rate of some twenty new ones a year and putting billions into the pockets of private security firms, and the surveillance state was being lavishly funded and permanently erected, and the housing bubble was just a rumor. Ah, those were the days for the Masters of the Universe.
Bush being headed for re-election, the Masters began to look around for their next president. They did not much like what they saw. Any Republican could be counted on to carry on the revolution, but among Republicans, real contenders for the White House were few. Besides, after the Herculean effort to get the puerile W. into office, they weren’t looking forward to another such battle. So, being pragmatic folks, the Masters of the Universe looked around on the Democratic side. After all, they breezed over their martinis, why get a Republican to do your dirty work when you can get a Democrat to do it for half the price? All they’d had to do was dangle a scandal or two in front of Bill Clinton’s startled face, and financial deregulation was done.
They discussed Hillary, but Hillary came with baggage and, more to the point, a solid political base. She would have the clout to tone down much of the Bush revolution, especially the surveillance-cum-security state, and would probably do so as the fear from 9-11 faded. (Not even the Masters expected it to last ten years.)
Their questing collective eye eventually fell on a personable young state senator in Illinois. Yes, here was their man: intelligent, articulate, ambitious, effortlessly photogenic, clean of scandal, great on the stump, married to the brightest smile in Chicago and father of two cute daughters – rock-of-the-family types who could be counted on to play soccer and pipe down on cue.
So the Masters of the Universe chose the more politically palatable among themselves – guys who know how the world works but like to make sure that everyone has at least a PopTart to eat every day – and they sat down to dinner with the young senator. After the T-bones had been eaten and the cigars lit and the elegant back room in the restaurant filled with smoke – just for that touch of realism – they said to Obama, “Senator, how would you like to be president? We can make it happen.”
And Obama, who is no fool, said, “Sounds great – but there’s always a catch to these things. What is it?”
The Masters replied – and you’ve got to admire their candor – “The catch is this: the financial, military and security policy is ours. To put it bluntly, the whole thrust of Bush-era policy stays intact. Bases continue to multiply abroad, Israel is number one, the surveillance state moves ahead.”
“But I’m already on record against Iraq.”
“Well, you’ll have to finesse it: Iraq stays. As does Afghanistan – and even after the war ends, we keep a dozen or so big bases there.”
“I don’t know….”
“Tell you what, Senator: you can run against Iraq in the campaign. But end of the day, the army stays.”
“Well, all right – that’s politics. Can I do a health-care thing?”
“No problem – as long as it stays within the confines of health and insurance corporations.”
“What about a campaign organization, funding….?”
“Money, staffers, strategists – we got all that worked out,” added another Master.
And Barack Obama saw himself walking through the door of the Oval Office, and he grinned and said, “Great. Let’s go!”
Well, so much for my theory on the election of Mr. Obama.
The point is that Barack Obama signed on the dotted line with the Masters of the Universe and has since then hoped desperately that nothing too Bush-like would blow up in his face. And you have to hand it to him. He handled the Iraq thing masterfully, calling the Iraqi government’s defenestration of America the fulfilment of a campaign pledge. And he has said that American bases will stay in Afghanistan after the 2011 deadline – or was that 2014? – without adding a new wrinkle to the presidential brow.
But now the surveillance matter has finally exploded in his face, and if Obama is miffed that the hue and cry has started now, with a few press revelations, you can hardly blame him. Everybody has known since midway through W’s administration that those hard-eyed security boys were looking at and listening to whomever they pleased. Or what does everyone think that new, two-billion-dollar super-computer center out in Salt Lake City is really doing – calculating a formula for world peace?
Despite everything, I like Barack Obama. He is the most decent, urbane, articulate man since JFK to occupy the White House. And I cannot believe that he would give rein to the security state and a lot of military excesses unless he were having his arm twisted up very hard and high behind his back. There is simply no connection between the man who taught constitutional law and protested the Iraq War, and the man who now sounds like Richard Nixon trying to defend the Department of Justice looking at reporters’ phone records.
Clearly, there is a dark side to the Obama presidency. He is compelled to do things he does not like, and the people in the shadows doing the compelling have a very clear military and security agenda. There is simply no other explanation for Obama’s policy.
April 22, 2013
THE TERROR NEXT TIME
What if the Boston bombing is just the first one?
Legions of commentators have been crying for a decade that American invasions, and now drone bombings, spawn new terrorists who will one day seek revenge on America. Has that day arrived?
At this writing, it is unclear exactly what provoked the Tsarnaev brothers to plant bombs, though clearly religious belief, a sense of solidarity with aggrieved Muslims, and anger with America’s wayward foreign policy all contributed. How many others, either inside the U.S. or outside, Muslim or otherwise, have felt the horror of America’s wars at first hand – even in the flesh – and are planning to do the same?
President Obama’s talk after the apprehension of the second brother was thoughtful and measured, and hit all the right points: hatred won’t prevail, American values define us as a country, unity and diversity make America strong, every ethnic group is welcome, “liberty and justice for all.” Say what you like about Obama, he makes those statements with sincerity and conviction – quite the opposite of George W. Bush’s childish recitations or Ronald Reagan’s schmaltz. You could hardly ask more a president at a moment like that.
Unfortunately this is the age of television, and prospective terrorists are more likely to be impressed by the chest-beating crowds and their ugly gorilla chant: “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” It rings with a muscle-bound triumphalism just touching racial superiority, and must make blood boil across the Middle East.
And of course, the images being what they are and the news what it is, those chanters appeared on every newscast in the world, even here in Spain, where I live. And it makes me wonder how many individuals from a half-dozen countries, their lives long studded with explosions and gun battles and the sight of drone aircraft hovering over their villages, look at those images and long to wipe the grins off those faces and cut the fists off those upraised arms.
What will Americans say when that happens? What if the next time around the bombers are two brothers from Pakistan – or any other country where America carries on an undeclared war – whose family Mr. Obama’s drone missiles obliterated, with the possible exception of, say, a sister who lost all her limbs?
Imagine these two brothers, dressed in shapeless orange prison garb, in a 60 Minutes interview, and as long as we’re imagining, let’s imagine the best case – that they’re educated and speak English, so that we needn’t hear their words through a milky translation.
60 Minutes: Why did you attack our country?
Older Brother: What would you have us do? Just bury our dead, pick up our lives and move on? Would you do that?
Younger Brother: You bomb our country saying that we are harbouring terrorists. What terrorists? After hundreds of bombing strikes, and all the terrorists your government says that you have killed, can there still be actual, operating commander terrorists?
60 Minutes: In some cases, victims’ families have received compensation for innocent lives lost.
Older Brother: I don’t want your money. I want justice.
60 Minutes: Is it justice to plant a bomb at a high school football game and kill thirty people? And maim another two hundred? Those people had nothing to do with the bombs that fell on your family.
Younger Brother: It is not justice, it is revenge. Besides, to judge by popular American films, revenge is well understood and accepted by Americans.
Older Brother: All attempts to bring American servicemen or intelligence agents to justice have failed. Obama himself has protected agents who committed torture from being brought to justice. Or look at Italy: CIA agents condemned in abstentia for kidnapping people off the street. The Italian involved got nine years. In Iraq, the American military finally ended up leaving the country because they would not allow themselves to be subject to Iraqi justice. So don’t ask us to depend on justice.
Younger Brother: You say these people at the football game are innocent. They are less innocent than the Pakistanis killed by American drones.
60 Minutes: Just how do you figure that?
Younger Brother: Because your country is a vigorous democracy in which people can protest, write their representatives, and have a voice in policy. So they are ultimately responsible for that policy. In my country? Yes, we have a vote now and then, but there is a gap like your Grand Canyon between me and the Pakistani Army, which basically runs our country. These people in the football stadium, they are responsible. They are making war against us, so they are soldiers. They are as responsible as those men who sit in air-conditioned trailers in Nevada and drop bombs on us.
Older Brother: Here in this prison, we are condemned to death. I don’t care. My family was the stalk that sustained the flower of my life. My family has disappeared. So will I.
Of course, 60 Minutes would never air an interview like that: nothing is ever to be said to Americans that might make them see the terrorists’ point of view. That’s not how you run a war – against terror or another nation.
But I can’t help feeling that after more attacks and the inevitable follow-up profiles of terrorists that Americans, who are a fair-minded people, will finally begin to see the answer to President George W. Bush’s puerile question, “Why do they hate us?” They’ll see that it’s not for “our freedoms.” It’s for something far more tangible.
And then maybe, at long last, as during those healthy few years of scepticism at the end of the Vietnam War, disgusted Americans will demand a foreign policy that agrees with American values. For Obama was right: they do indeed “define us as a country.”
April 16, 2013
SELF-PUBLISHED NOVELS: NO RESPECT AT ALL
The review of my political thriller, Mockery, came back from the Writer’s Digest Annual Self-Published Book Awards this week. Looks like I’m not going to win: in every category, my writing scored 3 out of a possible 5. Even Grammar came in for a 3. Ouch. One of my prides is my solid writing mechanics.
But that’s the Rodney Dangeresque life of writers who self-publish their books: no respect, no respect at all.
Judge Number 37 called my novel “Overall, an enjoyable read.” He liked the deft first-person narration and appreciated that I “never break character from [the narrator’s] voice.” He thought that I handled the plot twists “generally pretty well.” What brought my novel down, he said, was that late in the story, “there are just a few too many zigzagging plot twists.”
“I feel,” he added, “that an editor would most likely have gone through and eliminated some of them.” I wonder what Judge 37 would say if I told him that it was precisely a book editor, in reading the manuscript some years ago, who had pointed out that technically my villain could be innocent and suggest that I ripple the plot toward the end to ensure culpability.
That editor ultimately rejected the manuscript, but not before complimenting me on the FANTASTIC dialog – the capitals are hers -- that brought to life the story’s host of secondary characters.
Judge 37, however, said not a word about the dialog or the characters. Maybe they spoke ungrammatically.
My point here is not to complain about a bad review; reviews are like a coach’s praise or admonitions shouted from the sidelines, and the smart player takes neither too seriously. But if there is a single element that distinguishes the career of a self-published writer, especially a novelist, it is the teacher-knows-best attitude of his judges, be they in literary agencies, publishing houses or awards contests: Don’t use italics, you might have brought out the conflict more, his motivation could have been clearer, her use of profanity is out of character.
Even Judge 37, with earnest good intentions, finished his two-paragraph review saying that he just wanted “the rest of the book to be as tight and good as possible.”
Does anybody read “The Great Gatsby” muttering that Fitzgerald shouldn’t have dwelled so much on description here, could have shortened the dialog there, left ambiguous Tom and Daisy’s sexual relationship? Of course not. With a real novel, it is the reader’s defective understanding that’s at fault if something seems wrong.
Still, if you typed up a lesser-known work of Fitzgerald’s, put your own name on it, and sent that in to a book contest (and I’ve heard of writers doing it), the “things to improve” section of the review would be full.
The novel market is “A Chorus Line” on a vast scale: a hundred thousand stories clamoring for a literary agent’s favor, a publisher’s nod, and finally a reader’s parsimonious purse. Book awards like The Writer’s Digest’s cost the writer some $75 to $100 to enter – a lot of money for a fifty-to-one shot, but an award seal on the cover provides one of the few vehicles by which to escape the mass of novels.
Which like gravity itself never stops dragging on the individual novel, as book contests receive ever more entries. Judge 37 had probably been assigned to review several books by a certain deadline. Could his haste be the reason he couldn’t go back to understand the final plot points? I’ll never know, though it’s worth noting that nobody else has complained or asked me for clarifications.
But such is the fate of the self-published novel, with its inevitable air of bruised fruit. The story’s defects are automatically assumed to be those of the writer. Of course, his great redemption – or revenge – is sales, but there are precious few of those; last year my four titles altogether sold 37 copies.
Once or twice a year, you hear of someone striking it rich with Amazon and selling a million downloads of vampire histrionics, gooey serial murders or the prosaics of the bedroom. Friends tell me I ought to write one.
But I look over these sublimities – or indeed, page through an actual line-edited, copy-edited, proofread thriller or romance glittering from the airport bookrack – and shudder to think that my name might adorn one. The grammar alone would make Judge 37 cringe.
So I self-publish and take satisfaction in works that have some value other than sales stats. Here and there, my books are bought and opened; now and then, I get a glowing email from a reader. The reading public doesn't nag; they either put down a book or enjoy it, wallowing cheerfully in the odd wrap-around dream that a good novel inspires. One of the nicest things a reader has ever told me was that the characters stayed with her for weeks after she had finished the book.
Beyond the cattle indignities and third-string reputation of self-publishing is the delight of imparting one’s story to a kindred spirit. That’s all that story-telling is, and it is enough.
Febuary 27, 2013
THE WORLD IS AT PEACE: IT'S ONLY A MOUSE
The irony of this period of history is how peaceful the world is. For once, everyone is getting along fairly well: everybody is keeping their army home, is doing business, visiting each other’s lands, sending their young abroad to study and do research. Even the Chinese are glad to build your country an airport or two if it will help them move the raw materials to their factories.
The exceptions are occasional civil war and America, which roams the earth picking fights. Now the Obama Administration has set up a drone base in Niger -- Niger, of all places! And members of the House and Senate are intoning gravely that American security passes through Mali, which hardly one of them could have pointed out on a map six months ago.
But some of those terrorist groups – they’re just groups – have links to al Qaeda, or at least got a couple of stickers and a tee shirt, and that makes them dangerous.
Personally, I think it was a good idea of President François Hollande to send troops and push out the invaders in northern Mali; their Sharia law had made life damn difficult for the locals, all of whom got along pretty well before. But Hollande’s approach is a long way from full-scale occupation that America does when it invades.
But that’s because Hollande sees the “threat” – if that’s even the right word – of al Qaeda more clearly than the Yankees: that is, very small indeed.
And his economy and army, which is under control, don’t demand that he go on with endless war.
That is the real motor of American intervention in Asia: oil economics and the vast military-intelligence-security community that needs to justify its existence. To defeat the Soviet bloc – real, constituted countries with armies and buildings and spies and resources – America did not need half the tumorous complex of agencies and companies that have been marshalled to the opposition of al Qaeda.
The complex’s main locations coincide almost exactly with America’s wealthiest counties, as Dana Priest and William Arkin pointed out in their excellent 2010 series “Top Secret America,” in The Washington Post. And those well-groomed people see the writing on the wall: No threat, no budget, no mortgage payment. So they look after the threat as carefully as their solutions to it.
Hence America continues the “War on Terror,” a term which is becoming as tiring as the “war on drugs.” Missiles from drones fall here and there, and even when they’re not falling, the locals – particularly in Pakistan and Afghanistan – are terrified by the sight of surveillance drones zooming over their villages. How many young people have buried their brothers and fathers and cousins swearing under their breath that they will have at least one American’s head off before they die?
And they would surely raise that figure if they heard how little top American figures in foreign policy consider their grief.
The other night on Fareed Zakaria GPS there was a roundtable discussion among the usual moldering philosophers like Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, former CIA Director Michael Hayden, and a few others.
Haass, to his credit, thought America was using drones too promiscuously. But listen to his reasons: “We don't want to alienate governments. We don't want to alienate populations. The whole idea is to gain progress in the war against terrorists and terrorism.” And that was about as much sympathy as anyone in the group had for the thousands of people who have seen their world destroyed in a flash because one guy was seen twice delivering pizza to the wrong people and therefore assumed to be a terrorist.
Zakaria himself was bloodlessly mathematical: “If you radicalize an entire village by a drone attack, maybe you got one guy, but was it worth it? Is that a calculus?” he asked one panelist, mistaking “calculus” for “calculation”(but it sounded a lot cooler, didn’t it?).
All of the people on that panel emphasized in turn that they agreed with drone strikes. One, Jane Harman, a former member of Congress, was in favor of “drone courts”: “And when [drone strikes] are necessary, not only Americans, [but] foreigners should be assured that America abides by the rule of law.” That will come as cold comfort to Pakistani villagers, and raise the eyebrows of anyone who has watched what America has done to law, both domestic and international, over the past ten years.
9-11, silly TV shows about nuclear bombs and attacks on the “Homeland,” and one dumb propaganda movie after another have turned the America public into the lady standing on a chair shrieking because she’s seen a mouse.
But where is the prominent figure that will say it’s only a mouse and that the world is really at peace?
December 23, 2012
ZERO LIGHT FORTY (OR TWENTY, WHATEVER)
The movie Zero Dark Thirty is coming out to great acclaim, Hollywood doing its usual job of cheerleading for America’s darkest deeds. It’s fiction, of course, loosely based on loose facts supplied by a truth-loose Pentagon, and “unauthorized” books whose versions have that sweet tang of the illicit. The Pentagon was damned angry about the unauthorized stuff, you might remember. And it strikes me as rude to make a big-budget Hollywood film of a version of the events that the Pentagon -- which, let’s remember, did put its men on the line -- disliked to the point of threatening lawsuits. Still, in the interests of entertaining and entrancing Americans, everyone seems to have put aside their differences.
Being a fiction writer myself, I thought I would put together my own version based on what facts have come out of the raid. It wouldn’t make such a great movie, now that I think of it, more a good one-act play on the order of Twelve Angry Men. But with regard to the facts, it seems to me just as valid a take as the movie version. I’m putting out the first part this week and the second part in a week or so. Enjoy.
(And just for the record, I reiterate: This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.)
(*based on the true facts of an untrue story)
The Rainmaker had worked as a government employee – he had no illusions about using the term “served” – for forty-seven years, and had never lost his raw wonder at the blockheads, both the wide- and narrow-eyed, who played the World’s Great Game. Watching the bickering at the far end of the table, he resorted to his usual trick to stay awake: with one hand, he took apart a pen – unscrewed the middle, pulled out the cartridge, pulled off its spring, held all four components parallel and flat in his palm, then put it all back together again. He was not ambidextrous, but with the decades and the long moaning meetings, he could do this with either hand, and so fast that anyone who saw would gasp in amazement – but he did it under the table.
That’s it, children, argue yourselves out, he silently told the scrapping officials. Then you’ll be ready for the Voice of Reason. It was what he called his Meeting Rope-a-Dope. And did these people ever need it – Chip Bookbinder had that one right on the money.
Why? Because the hard-boiled CIA guy up by the screen, laser pointer in hand, was telling the truth and wasn’t budging from his position. This vexed the many top officials assembled – NSA, White House, State, DoD, and sundry emissaries from the far-flung empire of American security – vexed them just on general principles: in Washington, telling the actual rank truth only showed weakness, and as to budging from a position, well, we all budged eventually. It was just a question of more access, control, or budget. All had been offered, graciously and frankly, and still the CIA guy was sticking to his point like a barnacle to a hull.
That is: here they were, just days away from the scheduled raid on Osama bin Laden’s house in Abbottabad, Pakistan – wavelengths assigned, teams limbered up, choppers gassed -- and CIA was tossing a stick into the churning spokes of America’s War on Terror.
Following White House orders, CIA, dubious yet dutiful, had trailed Osama bin Laden’s personal courier right to The Man’s house in Abbottabad – all this the previous September. Then CIA – methodically, delicately, discreetly -- set up surveillance of the house. Cameras in the guise of chunks of cement, arms busted off little dolls, and used condoms gazed without blinking at those four mammoth walls day after day. Listening gadgets beamed microwaves – from down the street, from across the rooftops, from a hundred miles up in the cold dentist’s waiting room of space – beamed them so long and hard that, as the CIA guy put it, “everyone in the goddamn place should have been turned into roast beef by now.”
Yet not a voice-printable peep was heard from Osama – not so much as an “Anybody seen where I left my glasses?”
Nor had a single glimpse of his six-foot-six frame lumbering past the windows been wrung from the terabytes of video streamed 24/7 over hundreds of days.
Could The Man be that security conscious? the CIA man’s listeners wondered. After all, the compound’s inhabitants burned their own trash rather than have it trucked away, lest some street urchin come across The Man’s fingerprints on a Pakistani Playboy. The kids shepherded to school each morning never once let slip to classmates anything about Grandpa Osama, causing the White House guy to mutter, “Wish I had staff that reliable.” And as bad luck would have it, there was no phone line to tap, though surely the neighbors – neighbors being neighbors the world over – all wondered why someone would build two million dollars of bad taste on their street and not put in a phone line.
“And that has led to our considered conclusion,” the CIA man had said after his half-hour presentation, “that the subject is not there and never was. The courier – if indeed he was a courier -- was someone else’s.”
The room was stunned. The room raised holy hell.
For two hours.
“What kinda bullshit is this, boy?” an Air Force general roared. “All the time in the world, finest e-lint money can buy, and you boys can’t find one man in one house?”
“Yes! Exactly! Right! Halleluiah, it’s finally sinking in!” the CIA guy cried in exasperation, tie now pulled down to his second button. “Because he’s not there. Get it, folks? The reason we don’t see him or hear him is – watching the lips this time, right? – he is not there. End of story.”
For the first time in two hours, silence writhed down the lovely oaken table -- a long one, supporting the cufflinks and purses of twelve Type-A bureaucrats.
Except at the far end of it, where The Rainmaker sat in his worn black suit and wrinkled tie, one pylon-like elbow propped on the table, his crew-cut balanced on that. His hand worked furiously under the table -- he could take apart and re-assemble his pen in twelve seconds -- and even with that it was hard to stay awake.
Well, looks like we’re finally getting worn down. Thank god! Five more minutes and I’m going to turn into rigor mortis.
Halfway up the table, the White House guy – in shirt sleeves like his boss, with whom he’d just played “a couple quick three-on-threes, it being such a nice spring day” -- swatted back his chair and jumped to his feet.
"Now just wait a goddamn minute. What the hell is this?" he griped. "I've got a president looking at re-election in the middle of a recession, and he’s not going to miss out on this. He's kissed the ass of every one of you guys from day one. Anybody here lacking for budget? Huh? Anybody worried about joining the legions of jobless? Anybody see anything less than a brilliant career path ahead straight through till retirement? Huh? C'mon, speak up if you do -- now's the time."
Nobody spoke up.
And like the many presidential flunkies The Rainmaker had seen over five decades in government, this one even had his boss’s gestures. He slowly put his hands on his hips to highlight for one and all the flatness of his abdomen.
Of course, that face is so bony you might not have eaten but a leaf of lettuce in six months, The Rainmaker mused.
"All right, all right, all right, so Osama's not there. Fine. Like I give a fuck! Then you make him there. The Seals are ready to go. They’ve been practicing on the mock-up house for weeks. So you make him there."
The CIA guy shook his head – once and sharply. "No way. Not a chance. Not doing it, not going there. This is major shit and our top brass is still walking on thin public ice from Iraq and WMD. Been there, done that, and we’re not going back. Report stands: he's not there.”
“He goddamn well is. The American people never got closure on this guy, and now they’re going to get it. Now do it!”
The CIA man’s face -- and it was a big, loose, pale one under left-parted hair – was turning red. The Rainmaker read him as the kind of man who lost every argument with his wife; Chip had chosen him well. “Crawl the fuck back down off my ass! We told you guys from the get-go that we had it from our best assets since the early Bush days: the man kicked it of kidney failure two months after Tora. A half-dozen Mideast newspapers reported it. Practically every in-theater asset we had came back with the same thing. Did we tell you or did we not?”
“Did we approve your budgets hardly changing a comma, or did we not?”
Why don’t you just pull down your pants, see whose dick is bigger and get it over with? The Rainmaker wondered with a sigh.
The CIA man looked around at the unwilling faces; his opinion was not popular. “C’mon, people, he was on double dialysis, for Chrissakes. Nobody – repeat, nobody -- could survive ten more years in that condition.”
“His myth could, and that’s what we’re about here today,” said the White House guy. “We’re going to bury it.”
The CIA man’s forefinger shot forward like a missile. “No. That’s the thing, see. You’re going to ask us to bury it. And we’ve been down that road before, haven't we? The heavy boys go in and it turns out he’s not there, and then it’s our people explaining to the sub-committee why we were all wrong again. Everyone’s favorite punching bag again. Think we don’t see the play? Forget it. The brass is not going there."
More writhing silence. The Rainmaker put away his pen, took a deep breath, and spoke.
"One man's opinion here, but…" he said in his viscous old Midwestern drawl, all heads turning his way. Of all those present, he was the only one without a title before his blotter. "It’s all a question of narratives, isn’t it? You're just using the wrong one.”
“May I ask who you are and what your agency is?” snapped the White House man, tie wagging as he leaned over the table to get a look at the speaker.
“Oh, what’s in a name? Chip Bookbinder asked me to step in. I keep an office down the hall from his. I’m just kind of coasting along till retirement, to be honest,” The Rainmaker breezed. Harrington Bookbinder was deputy director of the CIA. “People send me psy ops for critique and vetting.” And what hare-brained ops! he despaired silently. “NSA, CIA, just about everybody. The team that polices 9-11 Truthers calls me when they’re in a jam – that sort of thing.”
At the mention of 9-11, several faces at the table went red.
“Now then,” The Rainmaker went on, leaning back in his chair and propping an ankle on a knee. “The problem is not the facts on the ground, but the narrative you give them. You don't need to say bin Laden’s not there. Just say, ‘Well, there was just such-and-such a possibility that we’d find him there.’” He held up a hand before the objections started. “What kind of phrasing would we be looking at here? ‘Possibility’ needs weakening. Let me think…”
There was a skeptical chuckle to his right, and The Rainmaker turned his head that way and for a long moment nailed an Army Intel colonel in his gaze. The man fell silent. “If you are in the mood for humor, Colonel, I suggest you go inspect your troops.”
“That was uncalled for, sir,” the colonel mumbled.
The Rainmaker looked at his long pale hands, which he wrung for some seconds on his knee. “Ah! Yes, the correct phrase is, ‘A strong possibility.’ That’s the ticket."
"Strong or weak," huffed the CIA man. “What difference does it make?”
"Now let’s roll the new narrative and hear how it sounds," The Rainmaker continued. He cleared his throat and let the silence gather. When he spoke, it was with a deepened voice and the patter of a news anchor:
“‘As late as two days before the raid, the best the CIA could say was that there was a strong possibility that Osama bin Laden was in the mansion. They could tell the president that they were’” – The Rainmaker paused – “‘highly confident. The president asked for confirmation but they could not give it. They gave certain odds, they made certain assumptions -- that was the best they could do. Between a rock and a hard place, the president took a risk, gambling his presidency in the bargain. He gave the Seals the green light.’” He stopped and looked at the CIA man at the head of the table. “On board so far?”
“Depends,” he said. “You go in, there’s no Osama. Now what? Finish it.”
The Rainmaker didn’t – not for the moment – and looked at the White House man still sprawled over the table. “And the C-in-C?”
“Yeah, yeah, sure. That’ll play. Keep going.”
“No. No, not quite,” said The Rainmaker. “You’ll need to divert attention from the fact that it’s just a house and one man hasn’t shown up inside it. So you’ll want a lot of moaning and groaning about how hard the op was: Taliban spies everywhere, all the neighbors around, military academy right down the road. And just for good measure, for example, for example…Yes! You red-teamed it first. There we are. You brought in another team of intelligence analysts and presented your findings to them. They agreed: he’s there. I can bring in my own staff this evening if you’d like, just for the versimilitude: reserve the secure room, make a fuss, order in Chinese, walk out looking grave and statesmanlike.”
The rest of the people were chuckling.
God, what children you are. It’s as if you’re plotting to soap the neighbors’ windows.
“Excuse me, sir,” called a Marine general down the table. “I believe I’ve heard of you. Would you by any chance be the man known as The Rainmaker?”
A modest smile. “An old baseball nickname, I’m afraid, General.”
More laughter. The Rainmaker dipped into his patience.
“Well then, the rest is merely decoration,” he went on with a simple shrug. “The Seals drop in, enter the house and…what? They find one of the men. This unlucky fellow is now our Osama. The Seals terminate him along with all other males – leaving the children and females, whose account one way or the other will hold no weight in the Muslim world. They pack up the body with a lot of laptops and electronic files and then --”
“Hold on. Just hold it right there. That would never fly,” said the CIA man flatly. “That won’t work at all. We’re going to take down the man who is at the center of al Qaeda? Like fucking hell we are. We would haul him down to Gitmo and squeeze him like a tube of toothpaste till he coughed up every last detail of his networks. Everybody knows that, and if they don’t, the Times is going to remind them the next day.”
The Rainmaker could not quite hide his amusement. “Now of course, that's true. But when the president of the United States calls a surprise press conference and announces that we just put a bullet through Osama bin Laden's brain, well, I think good Americans will overlook the loss of intel." He waited for the laughter to subside. "With all respect, sir, you live in Langley, Virginia. The folks who need to hear the narrative live in Memphis and Palo Alto and Dayton.”
The CIA man puffed out his cheeks, shrugged, and finally said, “All right, I’ll stretch a point – fine. But then what about the body? You just killed a guy calling him Osama bin Laden. On one hand, you can’t leave the guy there for anyone to discover. But on the other, what justification do you have for weighing down a chopper all the way back to Bagram?”
“Yeah, that’s right,” said the White House guy nervously.
The Rainmaker had an ugly lower-teeth-only smile like a line of gray tenements, which he now displayed. “To check his DNA, of course.”
“We have his DNA.”
“Exactly. And now we check his DNA against the sample that we have. To i.d. him.”
The CIA guy stared as if talking to an idiot. “You kill him and then you check his DNA?”
“You would rather that we checked it before?”
What I wouldn’t give to take a photo of you all, The Rainmaker thought. The Gadarene swine could have not posed more beautifully before running over the cliff.
“I think the point is, son, to have an excuse to get the guy outta there,” said the Air Force general to the CIA man.
The CIA guy could see he wasn’t going to win this battle either. “All right, fine. But if that one goes sideways, we are not taking the rap, that’s all I can say,” he pouted.
“All right. Now we have a body and we are ready to go,” said The Rainmaker. “The Seals pack everything up with a lot of laptops and hard drives and pendrives soon to be used to complete our narrative – and let’s not ponder too deeply the fact that bin Laden never struck anyone as a computer wonk. Off we fly to Bagram. At first light, the Pakistani police swoop in and carry off the women and children. There is a long-standing agreement, I believe, between CIA and the Paki ISI regarding bin Laden?”
The CIA man rolled his eyes as if to concede a single point. “Yes, we have full rights on capture in Pakistan if we locate bin Laden there. I would imagine they’ll cooperate.”
“All the same, you’ll want everyone to raise Caine for the violation of their sacred territory: ISI, Congress, Musharraf, Paki media, president, the works.”
“They won’t need much encouragement,” the CIA man said drily.
“Indeed – but key for the versimilitude. And for the sake of narrative, we’ll need some color. For example…” The Rainmaker wrung his hands twice. “The Seals burst in just as bin Laden was reaching for an AK-47 leaning against the wall. And let’s bring in a woman – that’s always adds the right dabs of blues and violets. Yes, let’s say a woman – a bin Laden wife, say -- stepped in front of Osama, who wasn’t gentleman enough to object. And let’s say someone tried to defend him, maybe a son – all in the fanatical spirit of defending the great man to the death. Whatever – the details needn’t connect.”
See? Even you are hypnotized. The moment you enter the story, you’re helpless, The Rainmaker observed, pausing for someone who was coughing.
“Actually, the more blurry the raid is, the better,” he went on. “Let one version come out, then another, then another. Let the public pick and choose. Nothing stinks more to high hell – nothing’s funner to pick apart -- than the classic seamless narrative. Just look at the first moon landing: pure as the driven snow, but half the public no longer believes it happened.”
“Wow! I get the feeling you’ve done this before,” the White House man joked.
“C’mon – finish it. What about the body?” snapped the CIA guy.
“Simple. Once back at Bagram, Forensics checks out the body, takes photos, does the DNA, and then...Well, I suppose you couldn’t just bury him – that would be sticking a hand into the hornet’s nest. Better to cremate him after a moving religious ceremony presided over by an Army Muslim cleric because we…No – no, that’s madness. The bin Laden family would ask for a box of ashes, wouldn’t they? As would half the Muslim world. No, you…where could you….Ah! You fly the body directly out to a waiting aircraft carrier. Moving Islamic ceremony, the body lowered into the sea.” A frown. “You would want to be very careful with the verb there: ‘lowered,’ ‘slid,’ or ‘condemned to the sea.’ Isn’t that what the sailors do?”
“I believe the phrase you’re looking for, sir, is ‘committed to the deep,’ said a Navy Intel man politely.
“Thank you, Captain. Yes, ‘committed to the deep.’ And as to the media, ‘lowered,’ ‘slid,’ or, or…‘eased into the sea.’ Yes, that’s our ticket: eased. Because we’re a feeling people, even with our bitterest enemies. We’re above them. Even bin Laden gets his final ashes-to-ashes with a few bowed heads by his side.” The Rainmaker looked around. “Everyone happy?”
Silence, which no longer writhed, but slithered.
“This is great stuff,” said the White House man. “Great stuff. Hell, you’ve got to come work on our re-election campaign!”
“And lastly we’ll need the endgame,” The Rainmaker went on hastily, to a few laughs. He stopped, looking up at the ceiling, one hand raised tensely. “No. Actually, in this case – public psy op, narrative built from the ground up…No, here you would do well to have three endgames, one for the immediate narrative, another a week or so later to reinforce, and another for the longer term, after the truthers have had their go at it. It won’t take them long get going on this, you know.”
"Fuck ’em,” said the CIA guy. “We should lock every one of those shits up and waterboard them till they’re sponges.”
“A truly counterproductive act,” said The Rainmaker, and he needed a sharp effort not to add “you fool.”
“How do you figure?”
The Rainmaker addressed the table. “We need truthers, dear ones. We need them making their angry YouTube videos and blogs full of bad grammar and claptrap: ‘blatant,’ ‘obvious,’ ‘utterly.’ They are precisely the ones that make us look as if we have freedom of expression. Internet is our ally – never forget that. Internet turns everything into nothing. It churns truth and falsehood together in a way I could only have dreamed of years ago when I was briefing reporters in ’Nam.”
The Rainmaker felt their astonishment pulse around the table. Why does anyone need to explain this to you? Because you’ve never once lifted your faces out of a computer screen to think, that’s why.
After a silence, the White House guy said, “You said three endgames. What’s the first one?”
“The first, well… You’ll need to release some kind of video -- like the one from Jalalabad where bin Laden confessed to 9-11? That was one of my jobs, by the way.”
“Yeah, and that was a bang-up job if I ever saw it,” sneered the CIA man, finally scoring a point. “9-11 Truthers cut that to ribbons.”
“Yes, well, I apologize for my fat bin Laden. You know how it is: orders came down, not in the original plan, best we could do on short notice. Our model spent three hours in makeup, and even that and a grainy lens couldn’t do much. But at least the proper impression was made at the right time, and that’s the name of the game. The Truthers arrived far too late. Now then: let’s think of another video, which will be released, say, forty-eight hours after the raid – first video from the stash that the Seals pick up. It should prove bin Laden was recently alive, and we would do well to imply that he still had some type of organization supporting him.”
“How about bin Laden giving a speech to his people in the middle of the compound?” said a prim woman with a heavy pearl necklace across her chest and the mysterious initials “ARR and J” before her blotter.
“Yes, not bad,” said The Rainmaker. “And that would give us the extra plus of extended jihad after bin Laden dies.” He tipped his head to either side. “But that would also involve an extended frontal view of him, and then we run into identification issues again. We really must avoid that this time. And then there’s the background inside the compound. We have no idea what it looks like. We don’t want anyone sneaking in there after the raid comparing our video with the cracks in the walls. No, we’ll do best to keep it to an enclosed room with an absolutely plain background. And anything in it would have to be moveable.”
The prim woman wasn’t going to give up. “He could harangue people in a closed space in the house, and you could keep the camera behind him, trained mainly on the followers.” She grinned suddenly at the others. “Hey, this is kinda fun.”
“Uh-huh – better.”
“He could be have a Pakistani newspaper from last week in his hand,” the man from DoD Intel tossed out. “We could have one flown over tomorrow.”
“Yes, but you would run into the problem of specifying exactly what day it was. Not good. Ambiguity is our ally, dear ones.”
For ten minutes, everyone contributed ideas and The Rainmaker fielded them, rejecting, honing, approving, modifying. You’re like a lot of happy college freshmen in a bull session. ‘This is government at its finest!’ you’re thinking. My god, you belong in a Doonesbury comic strip.
At the end, he said, “All right, I think we’ve got it: a from-behind quartering shot of Osama in a bare room, maybe a computer screen to one side. He’s watching a video composite of news items put together by his team. It should show President Obama, a few current events around the Middle East -- the Arab Spring and so on. Can you put that together?” he asked the CIA man.
“I guess,” he said skeptically. “But hell, it’s going to look pretty damn convenient, isn’t it? A video of him taken from behind so that you don’t see his face very much? And what’s on the screen just happen to be events that prove the vid’s recent? Little obvious if you ask me.”
The Rainmaker conceded this with a shrug.
“Besides, if you take video, what do you shoot?” the CIA man went on. “The guy playing with his grandchildren or – well, this is Islam – the guy praying on his rug. Whatever – the guy doing something.”
“Yes, yes, of course – point taken,” The Rainmaker huffed. “But you’re giving your fellow citizens far too much credit. All of these objections will pop up on leftist websites, but only among people who think outside of the TV box, which is very few." He was wringing his hands again. “Ah, may I ask a favor at this point?”
The CIA man flapped his elbows piously. “Have I ever told you no?”
“When you shoot the scene, would you use a skinny little hard-to-use remote control and tell the model to hold it in his right hand?”
“Bin Laden is left-handed,” said the CIA man impressively.
“Precisely. You see, the Truthers caught me out on that one. I had our Osama filmed writing a note and the pen was in his right hand. It simply slipped my mind. I’d just like to give those bastards a little jab so they know that I don’t really give a pig’s pod for their investigations. Do you mind?”
A shrug. “You got it – right hand it is.”
“Thank you. Now then, the mid-range endgame. Bits and bobs from the laptops and pendrives should come out – most of it very hush-hush, TS/TCI, but pornography should figure prominently – nothing dirties an image faster. And you’ll want someone to mention hair dye found in the house – Grecian Formula, Just for Men, whatever. Vanity deflates the image too, and our latter Osamas were indeed a bit on the youthful side.”
“What about pictures, visuals?” said the White House guy. “If there aren’t photos, people think it didn’t happen.”
The Rainmaker shook his head. “Yes, though for the life of me, I don’t know why; the camera always lies.”
That got a huge laugh.
The Rainmaker took out his pen, held it under his thigh, and went through his little drill, just to keep from shouting at them. Because you still believe the camera, don’t you, you fools? A whole lifetime of movies and heroic presidents has made you as gullible as children before the puppet show.
"But I think, in this case” -- a long pause -- “the best we can do is the impression of photos, the news of photos, rather than the photos themselves. Photo-shopping some old photos is but the work of an hour, and then we release them on a limited, official basis. We send --”
“Forget it,” said the CIA man flatly. “The Truthers will go through ten thousand photos of bin Laden till they find the one we used.”
“I said release them on a limited, official basis,” The Rainmaker said patiently. “You circulate them among White House staff, perhaps to the top level of State and DoD, everyone mulling and weighing and splitting hairs and debating like real adults: to release or not to release? That is the question. Because these photos are grotesque. Gory. One of the president’s staffers spent fifteen minutes in the Oval Office bathroom puking his guts out after seeing them. Now: I think we can count on these good people not to check if the pictures are just photo-shopped old photos of Osama.”
“Sure. Hey, we’re on board, count on it,” said the State Department Intel guy.
“And at the end?” The Rainmaker asked. “As one these sensitive elites shout no. The photos are just too awful to be released. Osama with his brains hanging out one ear. Osama missing a nose. Osama with half his face blown off. Decency-in-media associations would protest if we released them. Local PTAs. The AARP. Then the Pentagon --"
"Wait a minute. Aren't you running kind of a risk there?" said the CIA man alertly. "What if the Seals shoot him in the chest? What if his face ends up intact?"
The Rainmaker sighed. "Can someone please tell the Seals that we'd like head shots only? That otherwise our op quickly turns into limburger cheese? Thank you. Now, as I was saying, the Pentagon should also weigh in: these photos would play right into the propaganda hands of our enemies. And the solemn determination is made: these photos will not come to light till well after The Second Coming.”
“Well now, I don’t know here,” said the Marine general. You don’t release any photos, sir, and you’re not going to convince your grandmother. With all respect.”.
Others nodded vigorously. The Rainmaker wondered if any of them had greater intellect than the chairs they sat on.
He pressed professorial fingertips together. “Let’s remember, dear ones, that our job is not to convince, but merely to give people one or two good reasons not to believe any other version. This is a distinction that I’m always having to explain to various agencies. Sometimes, as in an espionage op, you do indeed need to convince. But this is a public psy op. Here we play with a natural advantage” – a tiny chuckle – “and I would imagine it drives the 9-11 Truthers nuts: Americans naturally believe their government. Such is our political culture. Europeans naturally suspect, Americans naturally believe. Just look how long it took for Americans to believe that Nixon was actually involved in his staff’s Watergate shenanigans.”
"Fine and well, but what if some State Department flunky slips a photo or two to the AP?” asked the CIA man.
“I take exception to your inference, sir” said the State guy.
The Rainmaker held up pious hands. “In that case, the White House’s response is adamant: ‘Those are not official photos. We are not responsible, we do not stand behind them. All the official photos have been gathered up, not to be released until 2061.’”
The CIA man shrugged. “All right. So we’ve got this thing tied off for the short and medium. What was the long?”
“Not much – just a little something to reinforce the basic idea. By then the Truthers will have found a few cracks in the official story, and it’s not a bad idea to head them off at the pass. A year or so on, the usual movie will come out. And you have a book put out by one of the Seals that witnessed bin Laden being killed -- the guy who actually plugged bin Laden, let’s say.”
“That’s gonna to stink to high hell, though, isn’t it?” asked the colonel with operational charge of the raid, speaking up for the first time. “There’ll be twenty soldiers in-compound. And it’s just a coincidence that one of the two or three guys who actually go upstairs is the one that writes the book?”
The Rainmaker shrugged his concession. “Point taken, Colonel. But an eye-witness account of bin Laden hitting the deck will be essential.”
“No, no: wouldn’t happen,” said the colonel. “A Seal – who is that? Dyed-in-the-wool military man, that’s what. He would naturally go through channels to publish, for one because he’d need the Good Housekeeping seal from the Pentagon. You’d have to have that in spades. And believe you me, they’d fine-tooth-comb it. He’d have to say something about the months of surveillance. One word about the e-lint used, and they’d blow a book out of the water.”
The Rainmaker nodded. “That’s an excellent point, Colonel. So the book would be published as an unauthorized account. Pentagon up in arms, threats of lawsuits, threats of cancelled pensions, CIA wailing about how their tricks of the trade are being revealed. There’s nothing like scandal to bring out credibility.”
“Bul-l-l-lshit,” moaned the colonel. “I said, ‘a dyed-in-the-wool career military man’ -- a Seal! -- and he’s going to go off the ranch and publish unauthorized? My mother’s raised three military men, sir, and even she wouldn’t believe that.”
“Well, with all respect to your mother,” said The Rainmaker, “in Dubuque nobody makes those fine distinctions. The moment people hear that the book is the unvarnished, unauthorized version, they won’t even need to read the book. They’ll hear it confirms the official version and does a little fan dance around the tricks of e-lint, revealing a little curve here and a dark crevice there, and that’s that. Modern government, dear friends, is the laying of narratives. Properly prepared, the assassination of Osama bin Laden’s house in his house in Abbottabad will soon form part of American history.”
Silence again, complacent and drowsy now.
The Rainmaker stifled a laugh. Why don’t you all yawn and scratch and take a nice splash in the manure pile?
“So are we ready to go?” said the White House guy, looking around the table.
“I guess,” said the CIA guy grudgingly. “We’ll get started on a bin Laden video.” He looked at The Rainmaker and aimed the laser pointed over his head. “Right-handed.”
“Thank you,” said The Rainmaker with a nod.
The White House guy strode over to The Rainmaker and stuck out his hand. “Hey, really: you’ve got to come work for us.”
The Rainmaker took the hand and rose. “That’s very kind, sir. But I work in narrative – a nice Dickensian pastime in my old age. The Orwellian stuff – ‘ignorance is strength’, ‘some animals are more equal than others,’ all that – I leave to more mature minds.”
November 13, 2012
OBAMA’S LEGACY? THE COOL
So President Obama returns to his office for another four years, and anyone with a bit of knowledge of what America does in the rest of the world has to sigh with resignation – not because a President Romney would do it better but because Obama makes what was once unthinkable now seem so cool.
Yet that bit of knowledge is a rare thing in America. Listening to the interviews with voters leaving the polls, I heard talk almost exclusively of jobs, and whether or not Obama would be able to deliver more in the second term, of the economy and whether or not Obama can make it grow, of the national debt – this from the deeper thinkers – and whether or not it’s time to start planning for the possibility of taking the first steps in a national effort that might in ten or twenty years begin to take a percentage point or two off the national debt.
If there is a singular irony to American elections, it is that the incumbent is most crucially judged on the economy and yet this is the issue where he can least effect a change. If it were up to the government, the economy would always be terrific. Yet at best an administration can aspire not to screw things up more. And if there is anything to be said for Obama, he’s done that. Never mind those trillion-dollar deficits; the national debt passed its last chance of being whittled down with the 2008 financial crisis. Obama hasn’t made big mistakes and to his credit he has been trying against enormous and well-paid opposition to get the rich to contribute a few more bucks.
Contribute them, that is, to the national treasury and not to the campaigns of political representatives, though the rich have plenty in reserve for both causes. The tax-the-rich matter, in any case, satisfies our emotions more than the budget. The trillion or so gained from the rich over the next decade is still peanuts compared to the government’s financial problem. Like a pilot whose airplane has run out of fuel, mountains approaching quickly, Obama has chosen to keep people quiet and in their seats playing video games. The point is to look cool doing it.
His foreign policy -- Bushism with a smile -- is, if not change, then at least a rhetoric you can believe in. Bush invaded countries and people protested. Obama drops bombs left and right on belligerents and their cleaning ladies in countries where no war has been declared, and only corduroy-clad lefties point out that this policy violates international law, the principle of due process, and that ever-dustier line in the Constitution about how the Congress must declare war before the president orders out the bombers.
Yet far from denying that he personally orders these shameful attacks, Obama had the whole operation leaked to The New York Times. If the definitely not-cool George W. Bush had leaked a story like that, the critics would have been all over him. But when Obama does it, he’s a cool decision-maker, a quarterback who calls his own plays at the line of scrimmage.
So American bases, still growing abroad, will continue their complacent sucking at the national udder, domestic spying on citizens will grow, and Dick Cheney’s “war without end” is assured by the endless rain of missiles and assassinations that fertilize hatred.
And it’s all so cool. That, really, is Barack Obama’s legacy: to make the neocon agenda cool. Biographers of Obama will have much to mull in coming years about the abysmal dichotomy of a man so full of idealistic rhetoric and so given to the dirtiest realism in his policies.
My own conclusion is this: I think that Obama is a far more insecure man than he seems. He is not shallow, as Ronald Reagan was, preening and posturing heroically for the cameras. Obama weakness is that he wants to be admired. You see it in his snappy suits, his jewel-covered wife, his pulled-down tie, his disgust with low politicking, his football under the arm while he talks on the phone in the Oval Office, and in his carefully-prepared performances in the White House Press Correspondents dinners: “Love you, brother.”
Biographers in the year 2500 (unless the files are still classified) will see it in his relations with foreign-policy and military experts, whom he won’t have thinking he’s an amateur. And so he goes along with them, even if it means extending wars in Afghanistan and Iraq (which the Iraqis ended by throwing the U.S. military out). Biographers will see it in his relations with U.S. security agencies, both domestic and worldwide, whom he won’t have thinking that he’s a wide-eyed idealist. And so he goes along with them. His need for admiration runs deeper than his convictions about the Constitution, and so he goes along, even with that hokey raid on Osama bin Laden, who had surely died years earlier. But you had to hand it to him: that was COOL.
Like most presidents, Obama is deeply concerned with his legacy and apparently talks with presidential biographers about this; he wants to be a transformative president. He needn’t worry, for he will be – just as George W. Bush was. By 2016, Obama will have carried out the transformation that the neocons began on 9-11. (Was it neocons dressed in sheep skins, looking for someone to carry on their revolution beyond 2008, that launched him on his way to the U.S. Senate somewhere around 2004?) His contribution will be to have made the whole transformation seem cool: “Love you, brother” will be the line our domestic spies murmur as they pick over our email.
Be careful what you wish for, Mr. President; you just might get it.
October 24, 2012
THE LEFTIST CASE FOR A ROMNEY PRESIDENCY
Daniel Ellsberg is of course right in his recent essay, “Defeat Romney, Without Illusions about Obama,” in writing that a Romney presidency, “would be much worse, even catastrophically worse, on a number of other important issues: attacking Iran, Supreme Court appointments, the economy, women’s reproductive rights, health coverage, safety net, climate change, green energy, the environment.”
He cites the most flagrant of many liberal gripes with Obama: “a man who’s decriminalized torture and is still complicit in it, a drone assassin, someone who’s launched an unconstitutional war, supports kidnapping and indefinite detention without trial, and has prosecuted more whistleblowers like myself than all previous presidents put together.”
No, Mr. Ellsberg has no illusions about Obama. But having read his passionate article carefully, I wonder if his illusions are not about the electorate.
From where I sit, in Madrid, Spain, teaching English and writing political novels, the trouble is not the American president but the American people. It’s necessary to remember that, with the exception of the occasional horrendous dictatorship -- like Sudan’s, where the government is little more than a group of thugs who shot their way into the national capital -- people get the rulers they deserve.
Just yesterday in the New York Times was an article talking about how Americans have no patience with politicians that talk straight about national issues. A candidate that does, “is, in fact, all but unimaginable in the political culture of the United States. Of their serious presidential candidates, and even of their presidents, Americans demand constant reassurance that their country, their achievements and their values are extraordinary.”
Or to put it another way: try explaining to a roomful of Spanish bank employees during an English-as-a second-language class how it is that three American presidential debates can run their full lengths without anyone saying the words “government bankruptcy.”
So if the root problem of American politics is that the citizens refuse to face their problems, refuse to see how far their government has veered from the spirit and letter of the Constitution, and refuse to consider the ramifications for themselves and the world, it seems to me right to ponder, What might change this awful state of affairs?
Certainly not the re-election of Barack Obama. Another four years of that lovely grin, those great jokes and slaps on the back, “Love you, brother,” the sweet wife and spunky kids -- no, that won’t do it. Those fine speeches, that gutsy empathy for the poor and unemployed, the occasional rocking triumph of health care or bin Laden (or whatever luckless soul actually got “taken down” in Abbottabad) -- all of that makes great TV, but it doesn’t inspire Americans to worry more about the nitty-gritty of what’s going on around them.
No, if Obama is elected, the domestic-spying center in Bluffdale, Utah, will be finished on schedule. The drone missiles will continue to fall and fertilize another generation of terrorists that will keep the Pentagon and the private-security mushrooms in business for another twenty years. Women will keep their reproductive rights and new Supreme Court justices will be of a more agreeable cut, though the rich will continue their romp and the middle class its death rattle.
But if Mitt Romney wins? Then things might get interesting.
Let’s say Mitt went the whole hog: abortion outlawed (and why not, if a majority of Americans favor this now?), police warrants a thing of the past, health care a thing of the rich, invasion of Iran and, just for good measure, a good pasting of those bastards in North Korea; the poor freed to shift for themselves and oil companies freed to shift the blame. And just for that grace note of liberty, new Supreme Court justices whose idea of free speech is an iPhone app that votes Republican on everything so that you needn’t interrupt your cultural activities with crass politics.
Say Romney, bless his hair-gel, did all that. Then maybe, finally, at long last, after all this time and all the delights visited on America by its rock-eyed political elite, we might see a stirring in the Body Politic. The Occupy Movement might bloom, the electorate might throw out anybody who takes money from PACs, and the sound of wickering tent cities and the chattering teeth of nine-year-olds begging in the entrances of shopping malls might finally drive home the point that we need government to organize us and see to the general welfare; that the pioneering bootstrap days on the prairie are over and we must ineluctably work together for prosperity to spread; that those fun, well-groomed folks on Fox News really have led us up the rose path.
As I see it, short of a Romney revolution, the only other thing that might open the electorate’s eyes to the arrogance of their political class is a full outing of 9-11 – which at best would demonstrate government fore-knowledge and at worst its complicity – which is why the elite has worked so hard to stigmatize anyone who brings it up and why it remains the crazy aunt in the American attic.
But make no doubt about it: odious as a Romney presidency might be, a second Obama term would only keep Americans snoring. If eight years of Bush and four of Obama have shown anything, it is that the wake-up alarm must be shrill enough to split granite.
October 17, 2012
LAST-MINUTE QUESTIONS FOR OUR ILLUSTRIOUS CANDIDATES
The presidential campaign is entering its final tired laps around the track, and reporters are no doubt scraping the bottom of their question barrel for a relevant comment from either candidate. Of course, one can always go with the standard, "Well, Mr. President, what's your pick for the World Series?" Or you can ask Mitt Romney about his hair gel. But that is all pretty well-trodden ground by now.
And since we do have the candidates at least theoretically open to questions, and since one of them has been at least theoretically responsible for foreign policy these past four years, I say there’s still time to bring up a few issues that bring us closer to the nitty gritty of the world today.
Here’s one for the president:
Mr. President, it is well-known that you are intimately involved with the drone-strike program in Pakistan and Yemen. It is less well-known, but well-documented by a variety of sources, that sometimes after a drone strike on a terrorist in Pakistan, a second strike is made that kills people who have gone to the aid of those in the wreckage. Putting aside for the moment the question of violation of the Geneva Conventions, I would like to ask, Do you order the second strike as well?
Here’s one for Mitt Romney:
Governor, you have gone even further than the president in saying you would not allow Iran to have a nuclear weapon. Now, if Iran actually used such a weapon to attack anyone, it would in turn face nuclear annihilation in a matter of hours: a reasonable deterrent that has worked for decades. The same would occur if Iran took the crazily rash step of arming a terrorist. So can you explain why an Iranian nuclear bomb would be so dangerous?
There is much suspicion in the West that recent cyber attacks have been the work of Iran retaliating for cyber attacks against them. These latter that have been all but confirmed by our government and Israel’s. Is it fair to say that what goes ’round comes ’round?
You are a Republican, the party of law and order. The past ten years have seen a marked decline in law in order. No bankers, for example, have been brought to justice for wrecking the economy. Immunity has been extended to intelligence agents who have tortured prisoners. President George W. Bush demonstrably got America into a war with Iraq on demonstrably false pretenses. America attacks countries without either provocation or congressional approval. My question is, as president, would you roll back this trend?”
The use of drone attacks on countries against which no war has been declared, nor even nominally approved by Congress, has blurred the line between war and peace. Do you think this has been a mistake? Would you have a serious objection if, for example, Iran made a drone attack on the MEK, recently removed from the State Department’s list of terrorists? Or if Israel made a drone attack on Hezbollah either in Gaza or Lebanon? Or if Russia attacked a country that gives safe haven to suspicious Chechens?
You have been quoted as wanting to win the war in Afghanistan. Are you willing to send, for example, a half-million troops into that country in order to win?
The raid on the Osama bin Laden’s house took place despite the CIA’s inability to find any trace of him. That is, in three months of surveillance of the house prior to the raid, they neither saw him walk past a window – and the top two floors of the building stood above the level of the surrounding security wall -- nor got a recording of him asking if anyone had a couple of batteries to put in the video remote control. And yet the attacking troops reportedly found him in an upstairs room and killed him. Two questions: do you doubt the veracity of events as told to you? Have you asked the CIA how they could miss one man in one house over a period of three months?
Your foreign-policy transition team is headed by Robert Zoellick, a protégé of James Baker. Many of the rest of the team are the same neocon adventurers that got America into quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan. What side do you come out on? The Baker realists or the Cheney adventurers?
The military budget continues to rise and, with troops returning in bad shape from both wars, will continue to occupy a larger and larger percentage of the general budget. Our opponents, however, are no longer an enormous antagonistic group of nations like the Soviet Union and its allies, but small groups of men whose weapons are by comparison extremely limited. Are we overspending?
Some three hundred American troops remain in Iraq, this a contradiction of a recent congressional funding vote and not a small deception of the public, which had been told that all our troops have left. Will you continue this program?
“On your watch America has continued two wars and attacked more countries than any president since World War II. Are we indeed in a world war? Do you agree with former vice president Dick Cheney when he said that this war “is different than the Gulf War was, in the sense that it may never end. At least, not in our lifetime.”? Have you had any thoughts of returning the Nobel Peace Prize that you were awarded?”
September 5, 2012
AFGHANISTAN – SOME FUTURES ARE TOO CLEAR
If there are parallels between Vietnam and Afghanistan, there are futures to predict as well. Let's look at the parallels first.
When the last prisoner of war was brought home from Vietnam and the nation as one sighed, "Good-bye and good riddance," who would have thought that just forty years later America would be in the same mess? And it is the same. A war in an obscure Asian country that Americans neither understand nor care a damn about; against an enemy naturally allied to the country's people, who themselves hold in contempt the corrupt government America is bravely trying to present to the world as representative and patriotic. Again, we continue fighting in order not to lose.
Then as now, the mumbled justification from the usual mandarins is American security and American interests in the region, though just how American security depends on that far-off country and what interests hang in the balance -- these are never articulated, and for good reason: who's willing to die for oil pipelines and rare-earths mines? When cornered nowadays, officials chuck up the Hail Mary: if Americans leave, Afghan women will never break the chains of their enslavement. True enough, but is humanity really witnessing the first war for women's lib? I think not.
Then there is the terrorism argument: if America leaves, terrorists -- that one-size-fits-all substitute for communists -- will again take up residence in the country. Which is far from clear. If the Talibans return to power, what can they actually offer terrorists that other countries don't? Full terrorism services, like assertiveness training for squad leaders? Explosives experts, found where your fingers did the walking, who will prepare your suicide bomber for a real, quality, 100-casualty pop? And financing -- there's another pain in the patootie for terrorists.
(And in a post-American Afghanistan, they can forget about financing with drug money. The Taliban are willing to use it to finance their comeback, but before the invasion, their rulers had stamped out the heroin trade completely, just on principle. And that would be a huge turn-off for terrorists since drug money is a far safer investment than, say, Facebook. Indeed, the FARC, Colombia’s narco-rebels, financed themselves so well in the 90s that in June, 1999, they received a chummy visit from Richard Grasso, then head of the New York Stock Exchange, who pitched them on investing in Wall Street.)
Given the parallels, what will be the final chapter of the Afghan mess? Americans being plucked off the roof of the embassy, as in Saigon? I think that’s it – except that we must substitute “the base headquarters” for “the embassy.” Here’s how it will play out.
To judge by the number of Allied forces that are being killed by their Afghani comrades during training, the Taliban have finally, after all these years, taken to heart General Giap’s lesson that the place to win a war against America is not on the battlefield, but on the streets of America. Every time Afghani soldiers kill Allied ones, public opinion takes another hit. No wonder Nato allies are already heading for the exits.
Not America. The difference between the Vietnam exit strategy and the Afghanistan one is that America can’t just obtain “peace with honor – or even “declare victory and get out,” as Senator George Aiken wisely suggested back then. For it turns out that the Pentagon and those nasty little Napoleons who populate the security, military and foreign-policy circles intend to keep those bases in Afghanistan – all part of the misbegotten and undeclared strategy of encircling China, which has the gall to work hard and save its money and raise its country up, and do it all without sending a drone to suck the oxygen out of anyone's lungs. So Bagram and the other big bases will stay long after America and its reluctant allies have officially “left.”
Or maybe not so long. For the bases will become big, fat targets for Afghanis – and not a few Pakistanis, still smarting from Mr. Obama’s Murder Incorporated – who, like Average Joes the world over, don’t like foreigners living down the road with their damn bases and adjoining streets of brothels and fighter jets humming and twittering all night long.
And a couple years after America’s official withdrawal, the unending attacks on their bases and “green zones” will incline mature minds to the prospect of real withdrawal. Around the world, other Average Joes might well take inspiration from the Afghani attacks and decide to chuck a few firecrackers over the fences of America's 1,180 foreign bases, just to put a little muscle behind their complaints about the noise.
So somewhere towards the end of this decade, the last panicked soldier from Wisconsin will finally be lifted off the roof of the Bagram control tower, still thinking what a bunch of ingrates these people are for not accepting our gifts of civil rights and democracy, and Afghanis will finally be left alone to sort out their differences, just as the Vietnamese did in the 70s, and gained for themselves forty mostly peaceful years.
And lastly the coda. The exodus of desperate Afghanis persecuted for having worked with Americans -- or supplied or traded with or shared a joke with or lent their daughter to -- will swell refugee camps in Pakistan, and eventually end up in the United States. Local welcome committees will be set up, funny anecdotes about families hosting refugees will appear in the news, and little by little puzzling ghosts in blue burkas, trailed by swarthy, squeaking children, will begin to appear drifting uncertainly around supermarkets from Bangor to Burbank. When you see that, you’ll know the war is finally over.
June 7, 2012
ECONOMIC WAR ON SPAIN
I don't know what it is about history, but it always seems to get made without me.
I was just a boy during May 1968, though I remember it vividly: riots, hippies, protest marches, National Guardsmen with bayonets, Robert Macnamara on top of a car shouting at demonstrators, students burning draft cards. All very dramatic and exciting and scary -- and great TV.
But the street outside my house in Kettering, Ohio? Calm as corn flakes. Hank the mailman did his daily rounds. Dad caught the bus into Dayton in the morning and the bus back in the afternoon. A skinned knee in a bike wreck was a far greater tragedy than Vietnam or segregation.
And things haven't changed. Here I am, forty years later, living in Spain at the epicenter of what I am assured is the greatest crisis since the foundation of the European Community after World War Two. And I don't see it. Anywhere.
I dutifully buy my International Herald Tribune, the international edition of The New York Times, which quotes a leading economist, Charles Wyplosz, as saying, "Spain is going down the drain." Spain's default on its debt is inevitable, it tells me. The euro is history, and Spanish banks are wobbling. "There is concern on whether there will be a bank run in Spain that could have repercussions beyond the euro zone," James Saft quotes "an anonymous G-7 source" as saying in today's paper.
This possibility is mentioned in the Herald Trib every day, and I always read it with astonishment. A bank run? In Spain? Where on earth do they get that? There's no sense of panic here. None. Sure, a few worry-warts have pulled out their deposits, and of course the rich, who can move their money with a few clicks of the mouse, have shuffled their cash off to Buffalo -- or Munich. What difference does it make to them? But an actual corralito -- a bank run? Nobody -- nobody -- talks about that here.
Nor does anyone talk of leaving the euro. Just yesterday, the Finance Minister, Cristobal Montoro said, "The way out of our problems is through Europe and the euro." Leaving the euro would invite chaos; the resulting inflation would be brutal. And everyone knows it.
Nor does anyone talk about the government defaulting on its debt. Spanish debt, even after all its borrowing over the past few years, is still under 70 percent of GDP. Indeed, an interesting historical fact of Spain is that the central government has always been fiscally conservative; for much of the twentieth century, it made a point of running small annual surpluses.
Yes, the savings banks are in trouble -- though not the major private banks, like Banco Santander and BBVA, deeply invested in more profitable parts of the planet, like Latin America. Yet the widespread belief here is that, one way or another, the Spanish government, the European Central Bank, and the European Commission will eventually work out a way to recapitalize troubled banks. I give English classes all day to businesspeople and top managers, and I don't know a single person who seriously doubts that.
Experts say that in a few years Spain will have reduced its bloated banking sector from more than a hundred institutions to about a dozen private banks. This is all to the good. The savings banks are semi-public institutions controlled largely by politicians, and they're what has messed up the banking industry.
No, what's really happening is that the American political elite, who lunches with the financial elite, who plays evening paddle-tennis with the media elite, is worried about the euro taking the place of the dollar as the world currency. The Greek crisis wasn't enough to rock the boat, but Spain's could, and this might be the last chance the Yankees have of destroying the euro. So the media is pulling out all the stops.
What we're really seeing, in short, is economic warfare.
And it's working. Spanish bond interest rates are now at a delicious 7 percent, when that kind of return on any investment is pretty scarce. Unmentioned in the American media is that the 7 percent is a solid value. Spain isn't Greece. Investors are going to get their money back.
Nor do the media savants mention an essential difference between American and European approaches to financial problems: to cover its debts, America prints the money; to cover its own, Europeans cut and borrow. Ask Germans who lived through the Weimar Republic which is smarter.
So don't worry about Spain. People aren't running in the streets, nobody's burning cars, there are no lines of businessmen waiting to jump off the bridges. There's nothing but a lot of hard-eyed folks making an easy buck at Spanish expense, and one ex-pat American still waiting to see a little history happen.
April 23, 2012
HOW TO GET AMERICANS OUT OF YOUR COUNTRY
Freedom fighters from Vietnam, Panama, Iraq, and Afghanistan -- guys who really know what American boot leather on the cheek feels like -- were sitting around at the Pizza Hut in Beirut, chewing through an extra-cheese pepperoni and sinking brewskies; the Muslims had laudably put solidarity in alcohol before religion. The Afghani had gotten them together to ask for advice on getting the U.S. out of his country.
"I mean, can you believe these guys? They're worse than the Russians. Defeat stares some general from Wisconsin in the face and all he sees is Pamela Anderson in her lifeguard suit."
"Wait a minute. I kinda thought they were winding it down there," said the Panamanian, and everybody just kind of looked at him they way they'd look at a woman trying different hats.
"Well, nobody's told the U.S. Army, that's for sure. In the last two years, they've gone from four hundred bases to four hundred fifty!"
"Obama, man, that guy can kiss my assets," said the Iraqi. "Maliki told the Pentagon that American soldiers would have to abide by local laws if they wanted to stay in the country, and the Americans no-wayed the whole thing and packed their bags. But how did Obama spin it? He called it 'fulfilling a campaign pledge.'"
"Hey -- that's an idea," said the Panamanian. "Tell Karsai to pull a Maliki on him."
"Been there, tried that," said the Afghani. "Karzai turned us down flat. He's toast as soon as the Yankees go home, and he knows it -- probably hitch a ride on the last helicopter off the roof, the bastard."
"Yeah, but even so, you make a deal with gringos and you might not like the result," said the Panamanian. "We cut a deal back with them back in the Carter Administration and they didn't leave till 1999."
The Afghani: "Oof! Twenty more years of American Idol and women taking assertiveness courses -- that's all I need!"
"Besides, instead of rising prosperity from the Canal, all we got was this lousy tee shirt." He showed them. It read: Dow Jones 35,000 by next year!
A pall fell on the table.
Then the Vietnamese, typically formal and inscrutable, spoke up. "One whose sad intellect is but a guttering match compared to the bonfire of the Atom of Afghanistan, grovels to remind the Icon of I.E.D.s that Uncle Sam's navel is his weak point."
"His navel?" the Afghani said.
"Mine isn't any fortress either," muttered the Panamanian around a fat pepperoni.
"The insuperable Ho Chi Minh and that fox of the guerilla desert, General Giap, predicted with the wisdom of Vietnam's thousand ages that if the pouch of the kangaroo is vulnerable, only a fool struggles against its hind legs."
The Afghani: "What -- you mean public opinion? Forget it. That was then, when there was a draft. Who are their soldiers now? The guys from behind the shopping mall: ne'er-do-well volunteers, luckless immigrants, video-game heroes who don't know a Glock from a gutterball. If they catch lead, nobody waves a placard in front of the White House."
The Vietnamese solemnly raised his hand. "The lowest servant of the Hawk of Kandahar urges His Sublimity to consider that public opinion is but a chit of statistics, a wisp of wheat blown across the interstate. Look deeper, and one sees that the American's Super Bowl is his philosopher's stone, Facebook the mirror of his soul, the i-Phone his ying, Visa his yang. Change his Final Four to a Final Three, and you tilt his universe. Garble his Internet for an hour and he tastes Armageddon. Cleanse his Whopper of mayonnaise and the National Guard must be called out." He glanced across the room, and his face brightened. "Ah! Let me demonstrate."
For an American carrying a Nike bag had just entered the Pizza Hut and now sat down at the next table: a fortyish, lilly-white crewcut wearing Hush Puppies, an L.L Bean polo shirt in their popular "springleaf" color, and the lofty pallor of a churchgoing Lutheran. He nodded politely to them. "Salam maleikum," he said, melting seamlessly into the surroundings.
The waiter came and the American gave his order, which included three XL Cokes, since he had "friends" coming. "Hey, if I pay you with my Amazon.com Visa, will the points show up on my account back home?"
"Yes, but the card has your real name, sir, and that might blow your cover."
"Oh. Caught me, didn't ya? Yeah, that's a point," said the American. Then he chuckled. "Man, you Lebs got all the angles covered, I gotta give you all the credit in the world. Guess I'll just do cash then. Thanks."
The waiter left, and the American rummaged in his pockets and brought out a bill. "You guys can't change me a hundred U.S., can you?"
Between the three of them -- the Vietnamese had excused himself to go to the bathroom -- the men managed to come up with a hundred bucks' worth of Lebanese pounds.
"Hey, cool -- and that's with my thanks," said the American.
Two swarthy, bearded gents sat down with him, the one introducing the other to the American, who said, "Hey, Nouri, great to meet ya today! Not a Vikings fan by any chance, are ya? That was a vetting question. Ha-ha! Fooled ya -- no, heck, relax. Any spook buddy of Achmed's is a spook of mine." He reached into his Nike bag. "Here, take ten grand as a goodwill gesture. Okay, guys, so, let's see here today. Anything on the bathroom wall down at the mosque? Any enriched gossip on nukes going 'round the Qom YMCA? Whatever you got -- Langley gave me a new app that'll sort it all out. I heard that Amadinejad is bucking for supreme high llama or whatever they got over there. True? False?"
The waiter returned to the American's table. "Pardon me, sir. I'm afraid that the kitchen has run out of mozarella. There is no pizza. It seems that the Druze militiamen blew up the mozarella factory in response to the Shia robbery of a shipment of paint-shakers." A tiny smile. "May I recommend my mother's fine goat-meat lasagna, sir? Our customers say that --"
"Stop right there, haji. Damn, I've been on the road for three days straight, and I was really looking forward to an anchovy deep-disher. Where's the nearest Pizza Hut?"
"Homs, Syria, sir."
"Oh. And the second nearest?"
"The Israelis have a very fine one with fantastic views in the Golan, sir."
"Then we're heading for the Golan, gents," said the American to his guests, who expressed shock. Once outside, all three argued, until the American finally said, "All right, all right! Then we'll go to Italy. They always have pizza." And off he strode, the two men trailing.
The Vietnamese returned. "Have they gone?"
"Yeah, how'd you do it?"
"The lowliest chucklehead of a thousand humbly reminds the Sons of Supremity that twenty well-placed euros can effect a true tsunami upon the waters of Babylon: mozarella flows dry up, plans are left half-baked and Cokes half-sipped. Soon Fun finds herself spattered with tedium, Goodness with elbow grease. Glorious horizons quickly become fuzzy, focus groups blurry, and retreat the better part of valor. And the Vultures of Virtue fly elsewhere."
PUTIN'S RETURN: A POLITICAL GLASS-STEAGALL ACT
March 20, 2012
John le Carré, that sage Solzenitsyn of the West, was right when he wrote, "There were even voices--mine was one--that suggested Mr. Putin join Slobdodan Milosevic on trial in The Hague. Let's do them both together."
But since Vladimir Putin has returned to center stage in Russia again, having retaken the presidency, let's look at the silver lining of this political cloud. Of course, to do so, we'll need to look beyond what Pepe Escobar calls, "the relentless demonization of Putin and the myriad attempts to delegitimize Russia's presidential elections," which he says come from the mouthpieces of "some very angry and powerful sections of Washington and Anglo-American elites."
What silver lining? The possibility that the neocon agenda, started under George W. and continued vigorously under Barack, might be blunted for a few years.
Putin has twice been suckered by tricky language in the United Nations, once to allow an invasion of Iraq and second to allow "humanitarian intervention" in Libya to turn into the resistance-movement's air force and special-ops teams. Well, good-bye to all that. As Russia's veto on Syria showed, there will be no more monkey business at the UN.
In a sense, Putin and the Cold War are the political equivalent of the Glass-Steagall Act. This law, which separated normal banking operations from investment business, allowed a half-century of smoothly functioning financial markets. But it was repealed, and the financial barons soon made a hash of things.
Similarly in the political realm, when the Cold War ended, the little Napoleon neocons that populate America's foreign-, security-, and military-policy circles, joyfully proclaimed America "the world's only superpower." But with Bill Clinton in the White House, the 90s were a seething, frothing, bitter decade for neocons, desperate to take only-superpowderdom out on the open road and let it run. And while Clinton never really had much of a foreign policy, he did have enough sense to stay out of trouble. So he allowed bombing runs over Iraq for years after the first war there ended, but resisted the many calls from the right to go back to Iraq and finish Saddam off.
This period ended with 9-11, which was the foreign-policy equivalent of the dismissal of Glass-Steagall. If 9-11 hadn't come along, the neocons would have had to invent it, and they probably did.
We now know how these ambitions, political and financial, have ended: disaster for the planet, with those responsible tiptoeing away from the mess -- fortunes and reputations intact -- all screaming defenses of the indefensible.
How I wish the guys who made Inside Job would do a similar film on that inside job at the World Trade Center.
So the return of Vladimir Putin to the Kremlin is not all bad. There will be no more cynical R2P, no more nonsense about protecting Europe from Iranian missiles, no more American bases on Russia's southern flank, no more chipping away at China's resource bases because Russia will happily make up whatever Libyas the Americans take away. Countries under stiff pressure from America, like Pakistan and Iran, will find a little relief in Putin's sniper eyes.
Yes, the neocons and their buddies in the media will rail and rant against him, just as the financial boys rail and rant still -- still, if you can believe it -- against regulation. But with Putin giving back snarl for snarl, for the first time in years the neocons may have to scale back their ambitions. If the result is a nice, boring, Cold War-type stasis, so much the better. The world could use a break from a decade of America's napoleonic tantrums..
But it's a funny world when you have to count on the likes of Vladimir Putin, and perhaps the Chinese, to keep the world on an even keel.
STIEG AND ME
February 14, 2012
By Philip Kraske
My three novels sold a total of 30 copies last year -- fewer than Stieg Larsson's three novels -- and as the second production of The Millennium Trilogy hits the theaters, film producers are still mulling my stories. Somewhere. Probably.
I read his books too -- or rather, skimmed them as everyone does, they being so stuffed with irrelevant detail that long leaps over, for example, how the surgeon extracts the bullet from Lisbeth Salander's brain, are forgivable.
Which is why I don't envy Larsson. I open my books and find that every line needs to be there.
My content with good work was challenged, however, by an ad I received the other day, sent by one of the many companies that prey on self-published writers like me. For just a few hundred bucks, "leading experts" in publishing offer to teach me "the Strategies that can Turn Content into Cash Flow."
By "content," they don't mean my content with my books.
They want to show me how to make money with them: how to master "the three markets of content," define my "platform," build my "content brand," and identify the markets I "serve."
A writer's work -- it can't be repeated enough -- is not sales. The moment a writer begins to pander to a market is the moment he's finished. Just look at bestselling fiction -- romances, serial-murder novels, suspense stories, whatever. It all has the thousand-watt smarminess of a game-show emcee.
The bestselling writers reply: But it sells, Phil, and not 30 copies a year.
True, but do you really want to show off those 700-page bricks, full of block-and-tackle sex and gummy prose, to your grandchildren?
Besides, it never seems to dawn on writers so intent on pleasing the market that surprise bestsellers written by new writers break all the sales rules. Look no further than the Millennium books, which are far from being models of the lean, keep-it-moving fiction so popular with the write-to-sell gurus.
Or take The Bridges of Madison County, which did pretty well with sales. It's way too short for a commercial novel, has pictures, features characters well into middle age, has not a line of graphic sex, and is set in a place where, to put it nicely, the ravishing cops of CSI wouldn't be caught dead lifting a fingerprint.
But what do Millennium and Bridges have in common? The overwhelming passion of writers caught up in the fascination of their characters and their dramas. The passion is what's contagious in a good story.
Maybe Larsson got too caught up. His Lisbeth Salander starts out a computer genius -- fine and well -- and ends up a math genius, a chess genius, a terrific boxer, and a speed-reader with a photographic memory. By series' end, you wonder if she's from Sweden or Krypton.
Yet nowhere in Millennium -- nowhere -- do you get the feeling that Larsson was pandering to the 18-to-35, professional-female, single-or-divorced, non-smoker, dog-owner, lottery-buying slice of the market. He just loved Lisbeth.
So I'm afraid that I will pass on marketing, branding, and serving. My novels, dished up print-on-demand style, lie dormant on some printer's hard disc, awaiting the occasional order. Royalties come in once or twice a year, whenever they reach a minimum of twenty dollars -- that's the rule.
But no complaints. Here and there across the planet a few kindred spirits sit down and switch on lights and turn their attention to my stories. It's a privilege, an honor -- a sale that cash flow can't measure.
ANOTHER DAY IN SOCIALIST EUROPE
January 18, 2012
As Republican candidates for president often note, here in socialist Europe, the government does everything for us. Normally, these savants mention only our health system, our free universities (free, that is, till you have to pay for books and cafeteria lunches and ever-heftier registration fees), huge severance pays, long vacations, and generous retirement benefits (which only become truly generous when you've paid off your mortgage and sold your car).
Actually, they don't know the half of it. The truth is that socialism here does everything for us.
Here where I live, in Madrid, a typical European day goes like this. It's true that nearly everyone has to turn off their own alarm clock, but after that, social workers with truly hospìtal-like efficiency run our baths, scrub our backs, make our breakfasts and get us to work on our wonderful European transportation systems.
Once at work, we are sat on chairs fit for The Sun King, our computers blink on in front of us, and we perform what is officially called an Act of Work. Our trials are eased, however, by a tiny meter that runs on the bottom of the screen showing us how much our labors are being taxed and poured into that ever-swelling pouch of plenty, The Public Good.
But the stresses of work don't go on for long. After a few minutes, a break is called, and we all head for our second coffee and croissant of the day, there to discuss -- in the case of Madrid -- the successes or failures of the Real Madrid soccer team. The soccer world fascinates us because it is the only real capitalist business in Europe. The players have contracts worthy of NBA players, and -- this being socialist Europe -- the contracts generally include benefits like a dashing supermodel, since it wouldn't do for our boys to show up at a benefit or an awards ceremony with old hags on their arms.
But Europe is not without its discontents, and these now come out. We men grouse about how the supermodel clause violates our sense of European equality. Why doesn't a marketing manager get a supermodel? The women, in return, grouse about how chauvinist the men are and how easily the supermodel problem could be solved: by getting the government to declare all European women ravishing and to offer free plastic surgery to any woman treated with callous inequality by men.
We return to work, but again, not for long. For now a cloud has appeared in our workaday socialist sky. The boss has told us that he needs last month's accounting finished and on his desk by five. Dismayed by such blatant bossliness, we call the union representative to defend us. (We don't really call; there's a button, mandated by the Interior Ministry, under our desks, which presses easily under the thumb, its spring well-worn.)
Within minutes, sped on his way by our excellent bullet trains, the union guy is at our side, listening to our complaint and nodding sadly. He goes and jerks the boss out of his tele-meeting with the London head office, and reads him the Riot Act. The boss, duly humbled, murmurs that he merely suggested the five-o'clock deadline. The sky won't fall if he has the results by, say, tomorrow at five?
But tomorrow as well is deemed an outrage, an attack on the dignity of the working man, and the latest example of crass capitalism responsible for stress fracture, the breakup of marriages, and migraines. A strike is called.
Out we all march into the street, waving signs furnished to us by -- you guessed it -- the Labor Ministry. Within minutes we are joined by the workers of neighboring firms. Even many members of management come down and add to the chanting, just for the nostalgia of it all, for it reminds everyone of May '68.
After tedious negotiations, in which management is made to prostrate itself at the feet of the unions and say ten Hail Marxes, an agreement is struck, a government minister (or the king, if it's a monarchy like Spain) comes to shake everyone's hand and grin for the cameras, and we workers file back into the office. Soon, however, this trying day is over, and we flow effortlessly into subways and trains, and are whisked home by the Forces of Public Transport.
There we find our spouses similarly invigorated by interesting workdays, our children enlightened by lessons in dialectical materialism, and dinner our only task and fascination. Soon the news, brought to us by the government channel, assures us of the excellence of our socialist system. It shows us the latest earthquakes and floods that capitalist governments are incapable of handling, the hopeless government debts that capitalist governments are capable of running up, and puzzling footage of Republican fustian to the effect that Europe is the pit of political iniquity, its people enslaved. Over evening cognac, we page through Rousseau and assure ourselves that this opinion is poorly informed.
Just another day in socialist Europe.
THE TOUCHY-FEELY PROPAGANDA OF 60 MINUTES
December 22, 2011
One of the intellectual pleasures of being an American living abroad -- I live in Spain -- is to observe the subtleties of your own country's propaganda efforts.
I was reminded of this smarmy side of the American political game the other day when I saw that North Korean news anchorwoman crying on television as she announced the death of President Kim Jung Il. You had to wonder if she would take the death of her own father any harder.
That was the point of the scene, of course: the Dear Leader's death was like your own father's. It was the point for North Koreans, that is. The rest of the world probably found it -- let's be charitable, a man died -- melodramatic.
But that's the fascinating thing about international politics: how each nation retains, generation after generation, its personality; how it cannot think, though it can feel; how certain sentiments root so deeply in one national psyche and wither without a trace in the next. Koreans apparently react to tearful displays; Americans react to to cool leaders who play saxophone or make snappy speeches.
Some countries don't need personal identification with their leaders. In Spain, of the six men who have been president, only one, Felipe Gonzalez, had any sort of personal charisma. Presidents here are just heads of the political parties that win elections. It is King Juan Carlos, jovial and distinguished, that personifies the country and that people relate to personally. And the mainstream media, as everywhere, plays its propaganda role bathing him in kingly mystique.
The trick to propaganda is that it can never look like propaganda. And it works best if the people presenting it don't consider it that way either. I would imagine that the Korean anchorwoman really was deeply moved, and if the director had to tell her to save her tears till he gave her the on-the-air countdown, it was only the reverential thing to do.
The image of the crying anchorwoman finds its American parallel in President Barack Obama's interview on 60 Minutes with Steve Kroft a week after the raid on Osama bin Laden's (ugly) house in Pakistan last May.
Is it hard to think of 60 Minutes, that scion of investigative journalism, as a propaganda mouthpiece? That's exactly the point: it doesn't look like one. And just as the North Korean television director told the woman to put everything she had into reading the death announcement, no doubt Kroft saw the post-raid interview as his duty as a patriot and a newsman.
I wonder how the questions were prepared. In cooperation with Obama's people, as with the recent Jay Leno interview? If Obama didn't submit the questions, he certainly had advance warning on them.
And what questions! The killing of bin Laen was an event that, big or small in the general sweep of events, was certainly key to America's sense of 9-11 closure, not to mention Obama's re-election. Questions swirled -- and swirl still -- around the raid; yet Kroft, who like all the 60 Minutes guys goes tooth and nail after fraudsters, mobsters, gangsters and sundry sleazeballs, played the softest of softballs with the president.
A violin might have been playing in the background when he asked Obama, "This was your decision -- whether to proceed or not and how to proceed. What was the most difficult part of that decision?" (To give Obama his due, he occasionally seemed uncomfortable with Kroft's hyper-sensitive, muscular portrayal of him.)
The reason it was difficult to proceed was, as Obama had just mentioned, "We didn't have a photograph of bin Laden in that building. There was no direct evidence of his presence. And so the CIA continued to build the case meticulously over the course of several months."
Kroft never asked how it was that, in months of surveillance of the house in Abbottabad, the CIA had never taken a photo of bin Laden, never recorded his voice. In all that time, no thin, six-foot-six bearded gent ever once passed in front of an open window? With all the super hi-tech devices available to the CIA -- the American CIA, that is, not the CIA of, say, Cameroon or Paraguay -- no recording of his voice was ever made?
All they needed was to match up a voice print of bin Laden yelling "Anybody see where I left my glasses?" or telling the kids to eat their spinach because the Prophet Mohammed did, and look how far he went. If I had been president, and if the greatest intelligence-gathering agency in the world could not find a trace of one man in one house over a period of months, I would have concluded that he wasn't there and called off the mission.
But "direct proof" would have had to be presented to the public, wouldn't it? There was the rub. And as we saw with the faked dead bin Laden photograph briefly floated on the Internet and quickly torn to shreds by sour conspiracy theorists, presenting direct proof was only asking for trouble. So somewhere the decision was made to lie by omission. And to give this crucial absence covering fire, it was couched -- by Kroft and the mainstream media -- in terms of how difficult the lack of evidence made the president's decision.
Not that I'm criticizing: I've used that technique myself in two novels.
Still, let's not be too hard on Kroft. In American political culture, the president's word is never to be called into question, and especially not during a Presidential Soulful Chat in the Roosevelt Room. Imagine the reaction -- the calls, the emails, the outcry -- if Kroft had pulled the president up short and said, "Wait a minute, Mr. President. Are you telling me that you sent two helicopters of men to raid a place when after several months of hi-tech surveillance no trace of Osama bin Laden had been found? You sent those men on the strength of a story about a bin Laden courier?" That would have been Kroft's last 60 Minutes segment.
Steve Kroft knows how to read the landscape. His job was to pour the syrup, and he had an XL bottle of it:
KROFT: Was it hard keeping your focus?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes. Yeah.
KROFT:Did you have to suppress the urge to tell someone? Did you want to tell somebody? Did you want to tell Michelle? Did you tell Michelle?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: You know one of the great successes of this operation was that we were able to keep this thing secret. And it's a testimony to how seriously everybody took this operation and the understanding that any leak could end up not only compromising the mission, but killing some of
the guys that we were sending in there.
What a sweet, cuddly man, our president is -- Kroft too, since he let Obama dodge the question about Michelle. And that bit about "keeping focus" -- that speaks for itself. Can you imagine Kroft asking a dishonest stock broker if it was hard keeping his focus while robbing a seventy-year-old lady of her pension?
And then there was the nonsense about the dead-bin Laden-photos circulated in the White House and deemed too ugly for public release. And here the exchange between Kroft and Obama truly smells of collusion:
KROFT: Did you see the pictures?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: Yes.
KROFT: What was your reaction when you saw them?
PRESIDENT OBAMA: It was him.
That was Obama's reaction? What an odd thing to say. If you had asked me about my reaction to a photo of a dead man shot in the head, I would have said, "Horrible. It made me sick." And if Abbottabad had been a real raid -- fully, not to say easily, documented -- and if there were no question that they had taken bin Laden, that is roughly what Obama would have said.
Yet Obama's "reaction" was to use the question to insist it was really bin Laden. Which says to me that it wasn't. Apart from the gaps in the official story is the evidence that points to the probable death of bin Laden at the end of 2001. But skepticism, in American political culture, has to await other venues and other days. Kroft said nothing; Obama had made his point.
And Obama, who knows a thing or two about making a good impression, continued to make hay while the 60 Minutes sun was shining:
PRESIDENT OBAMA: That's not who we are. You know, we don't trot out this stuff as trophies. You know,
the fact of the matter is this was somebody who was deserving of the justice that he received. And I think Americans and people around the world are glad that he's gone. But we don't need to spike the football.
Which he himself had just spiked, with Steve Kroft's help.
SPAIN'S SUCCESSFUL FIGHT AGAINST TERROR: THE LESSONS
October 22, 2011
On October 20, ETA, the Basque terrorist organization -- "separatist" for those who live outside the country and felt no terror -- declared an end to its armed struggle, ending fifty years of bloodshed. With a long sigh of contented satisfaction, Spain closed the final chapter of this long horror like a marathoner relieved to cross the finish line. It was a rare note of cheer in a country going through tough times: 21 percent unemployment, falling bond ratings, deep budget cuts, and a president widely dismissed as amateurish and ineffective.
ETA's declaration, however, represents Spanish democracy's victory in its toughest challenge since the death of dictator Francisco Franco -- a victory with timely lessons. Lost in its own obsession with terror, America would do well to take note.
The first lesson Spain's experience teaches is that the fight against terror requires patience. Time and again, after assassinations and bombings, presidents and ministers have looked into the television cameras and repeated that democracy and the rule of law would prevail -- eventually. Yes, there would be more violence in the future, more deaths; but democracy would win out. The emphasis was always on the long haul.
And on optimism. The police and security services were always shown to be competent and rigorous, and their every victory led the nightly news reports. But that was as far as propaganda went. Nobody planted false stories in the press; heroes were not fabricated. Terrorists smirking at judges from their glassed-in courtside docks were at the end their own worst enemies in the battle for hearts and minds.
Second, nobody talked about ETA in terms of war, and terror was never dealt with through the military. It was exclusively a matter for police and judges: tireless investigation and ruthless prosecution. To send the army into the Basque Country, controlling highways and corralling suspects, would only have raised hackles among moderate Basques and provided ETA with a recruiting tool. The invasion of Afghanistan has done -- and will do -- more for Islamic terror than a thousand bin Laden videos.
Third, nobody panicked, nobody played the fear card. There were no terrorist advisories, no silly colors denoting degrees of peril, no pat-downs, no waterboarding, no Orwellian Homeland Securities, no end runs around the Constitution amidst Gothic boilerplate about the nation being in danger. The biggest disruption of daily life was the occasional roadblocks that created irritating traffic jams as police checked licenses. And it has to be added that, over the years, several terrorists were caught that way.
Of course, every third Spaniard reacted to the latest bombings and shooting saying that the guilty ought to be lynched. But that was just talk. To this day, the worst ETA can claim is that those imprisoned have not been moved to facilities closer to their loved ones -- for the simple reason that there is no mechanism for this in Spain; you normally serve your sentence where you committed the crime. Anything like the horrors of Guantánamo or Abu Grhaib would have met with revulsion and calls for the government to resign.
In short, Spain as a country fought ETA, and Spain as a country has benefited. As much as regular elections and a vigorous civil society, the struggle against ETA terror has helped bind the country together. It has sharpened Spain's security services and given them an honored place in a country where los militares used to be symbols of dictatorship.
And that is the most important lesson: when a country comes out on the winning end of a difficult challenge, having respected its traditions and laws, like America with World War II, it is a stronger society. What a pity that America's reaction to Al Qaeda -- needless wars, corners cut on the Bill of Rights, runaway military and security budgets, scandalous fear-mongering -- has been so different.
IT MUST BE STRANGE TO BE ISRAELI
September 21, 2011
"The fact that we are not foreigners in this country, that we have rights in this country that go back 'only' 4,000 years, I will say this loud and clear," said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu about his upcoming speech in the United Nations.
No doubt Susan Rice, America's ambassador to the UN, will hear these words and thank her stars that the American Indians' wrath still has 3,900 years to run before coming home to roost.
It must be strange to be Israeli. Present-day Israelis must run hot and cold about their historical responsibility to retain and flourish on land that belonged to their ancestors. After all, several Pacifics of water have passed under the bridge in 4,000 years, and it is unlikely that Mr. Netanyahu's genetic investment in the Holy Land exceeds that of, say, the average Beirut fruit vendor.
Still, after all that time and every possible calamity including their systematic massacre in World War II, Jews are finally in Jerusalem again. A great event. You would think that practically any arrangement with their historical enemies that allowed them to keep the land in peace would be acceptable. Israelis must hear their ancestors whispering, "Take the deal! Sign now while you can! So what if it's not the whole of Judea and Samaria and only half of Jerusalem? What's a few lousy streets? We've got the part we most wanted, and we've got coastlines on the Mediterranean and a port on the Red Sea. A hundred years ago in Russia, we would have given anything for the 1967 borders."
But to Mr. Netanyahu and his colleagues, half a loaf isn't a loaf, and half of Israel isn't Israel. Hence the long, halting war of attrition against their enemies. For that's just what it is: attrition, a holding pattern by whatever trick necessary to buy time while the bulldozers hem Palestinians into ever-smaller spaces and life becomes so miserable and insecure that they eventually pull up stakes and leave. And it works: thousands emigrate every year. But you have to wonder what on earth Israelis are thinking when it comes to the millions who don't leave and have no intention of doing so.
Israelis don't want Palestinians to become a country; the reasons why are well known. But doesn't cutting loose of the costs of occupation -- both monetary and moral -- hold some attraction as well? And wouldn't Palestinian statehood be the easiest way to do it? And aren't there worse things, like grinding intifadas, rivers of money diverted from development for the military and security services, and intractable enemies in the neighborhood?
But Israelis clearly don't think on these lines, and their attitude begs the question: Just what are they going to do with the Palestinians? Occupy them forever? Ship them all off to Jordan during the Super Bowl and hope nobody notices? You would think that after all this time an answer would be evident. But it isn't. The Palestinian question is a black hole of denial that Israelis refuse to deal with.
That's what I mean: it must be odd to be Israeli. They zip along on modern highways and participate in the Olympics and the Eurovision song contest. Meanwhile, the guys on the other side of the Wall -- that crudest instrument -- limp through potholes, bear poverty and unemployment, get thrown out of their East Jerusalem homes, put up with Israeli soldiers rummaging through their baby carriages, and simmer with anger over a situation that only gets worse.
But it doesn't matter. For one reason or another, countries have their blind spots, their denials. The problems are evident, the answers abundant and attainable, and yet it is the rarest of politicians that is able to take action. Since the Reagan Administration, Americans have run massive budget deficits every year with only a few exceptions during the second Clinton Administration. Everyone knew it was the wrong thing to do, everyone knew that people wanted the government services, but nobody wanted to adjust taxes to cover them.
Here in Spain, severance pay for workers is 45 days per year worked, a Franco-era rule that no longer keeps companies from firing workers -- the intention back then -- but ruins them if big layoffs are necessary. It also dissuades companies from hiring workers on any other than temporary basis, and is a major reason for Spain's 20-percent unemployment rate. But change it? Impossible. The recent move to lower it to 22 days -- still higher than the European average -- met with strikes by workers who call 22 days "free dismissal." So nothing changes.
Israel's tortured history just goes to prove that old adage: Be careful what you pray for because that old joker God just might give it to you. Does an Israeli feel the frisson of history when he opens a hardware shop on land that his ancestors worked in 2011 B.C.? Does he sell his first screwdriver and think that the heartbreak and bloodshed of war and the oppression of his neighbor have been worth it?
Man is an extraordinary being capable of every contradiction, but even so, it must be strange, really strange, to be Israeli.
NATIONAL PATRIOTIC SPLURGE WEEK
September 7, 2011
We are mid-way through the 9-11 tenth anniversary week of syrupy, pornographic, pseudo-religious breast-beating in America -- one of those weeks, as with the O.J. verdict and Michael Jackson’s death, when I’m particularly glad to live in Spain.
I need all those words to describe the thoroughness of the campaign, of which I’ve had several tastes on CNN and mainstream news websites. “Syrupy” refers to the stories of the victims’ loved ones, “pornographic” to the footage of the planes hitting the towers, shown again and again, for that thrill is never gone; “pseudo-religious” for the closed eyes and determined expressions as dignitaries lead the masses in communing with their Maker. “Breast-beating” connotes that slithering undercurrent of self-pity: why oh why do they hate us so much?
It would be a pleasure to write “introspective” to describe the commemoration of 9-11. And if the major media had done their job and investigated the not-all-that-abstruse loose ends and oddities of the event – if, for example, they had looked into the serious allegations by serious people that Al Qaeda’s plot was widely known in American intelligence circles – they might have exposed the cruel ambition of our leaders; whose names and party affiliations have by now changed, of course, even if the change is only – no racism intended – skin-deep. If the media had done their job, America might have thrown off the yoke of plutocracy, jailed the many who deserved it, and gone a long way to renewing itself as a republic.
But the media took its cue from government and told the tale it was supposed to, and today we have what we have: syrup, porn, pseudo-religion, and breast-beating.
The media's neglected duty was necessarily taken up by average citizens. David Ray Griffin, for example, who has published several books about 9-11, is a theologian.
Politicians and the infamous 9-11 Commission were also remiss, so instead of real subpoenas and laws and trials, citizens must resort to those bluntest of democratic instruments: the hopeful referendum, the earnest petition. The former percolate through many states, and petitions for a new investigation are multitudinous. The architects have one, the firemen have one, lawyers have another, and so do prominent Americans.
Well, they all have fine intentions. The trouble is that, short of a Soviet Union-style revolution in America that lets us rifle the files of the CIA, neither referendums nor petitions will ever go anywhere. Because 9-11 is nothing less than the breach in the wall of the citadel. Through it a great deal could be brought to light about the political class’s malevolent deeds and future plans. So the breach is guarded carefully by all those who have found the good life under the auspices of the nation’s leaders.
For not just the leaders could find themselves on the business end of the accusing finger, but many of the country’s institutions. The media, as I’ve said, assiduously dodged their reponsibilities. The military and security services are guilty for at least some level of participation in 9-11 and later coverup. Hundreds and hundreds of Americans, from government accountants who noticed odd expenses to diplomats who observed strange meetings, all of whom have come to realize they hold pieces of the 9-11 story, have not come forward; justice will have to wait till the mortgage is paid. And especially, average Americans cling fast to their Civics-class view of the country, unwilling to take a chance on seeing it proven wrong. The guilt of 9-11 actually spreads from coast to coast.
No, where 9-11 is concerned, few Americans hold any truck with Thomas Jefferson’s observation that "The price of freedom is eternal vigilance." Hence both petitions and referendums are doomed. No real investigation will ever come to light outside the electronic flickering of the Internet.
Which brings us back to our National Patriotic Splurge Week. It has a very clear purpose. As the nation “comes together in mourning” amidst the daily fare of 9-11 footage, the subtext is pounded home, especially to those Civics-class Americans: America is strong and democratic and on the side of good. The real question is the future: are we ready for the next attack? The important thing is to “move on.”
And move on we will. Dwelling on problems is not in any case a terribly American thing to do. Just as in Spain, where the present accounting of the massacres committed by General Franco’s forces in the 1936-39 Civil War has had to wait till the death of the dictator, in 1975, plus 35 years, and only then on the insistence of judges rather than the government, the 9-11 truth movement will have to wait many decades for even the most basic accounting of the event.
Short of revolution, that is. And if the American political class doesn’t wake up and start caring for the nation and the people, they just might get it.
September 4, 2011
9-11 WAS A NATIONAL JOB
Ten years on, let's dispense with the gnarled arguments, the nitpicking, the straw men raised and wrecked. Let's bypass the dreary crazies, nod at the outraged, and shrug off the naive who state with the simplicity of a theorem that Our Government Would Never Do a Thing Like That. Enough of them.
After ten years of investigations, let's invoke the commonest of common sense and say what is clear: the destruction of the Twin Towers resulted from the acutely-timed detonations of pre-placed explosives. Nothing else explains the instant and utter pulverizing of 220 floors of foot-thick concrete. Nothing else explains the searing heat of the dust clouds that gushed through Manhattan. Nothing else explains the near free-fall speed of the towers’ plunges, each of a thousand steel beams shearing and snapping on cue with no more resistance than air offers to a falling stone. If the Twin Towers were rigged beforehand, then so was the entire attack. Let's begin there.
The culprits are unknown; they always are in these cases. Mohammed Atta and his colleagues, who by every account had more in common with the Keystone Kops than James Bond, may be safely disqualified: they barely had the skills to fly jetliners, much less pull off a demolition operation. Their role, as they sneaked around to meetings and flight-training classes, thinking themselves secret and clever, was to serve as scapegoats.
Who then? Michael Ruppert, in a complicated argument, accuses Vice President Cheney of being at the helm that day. Alan Sabrosky points at the swift, infallible Israelis. The diligent young men who produced Loose Change say it was the neocons. The rabble's chant has it that "9-11 was an inside job," as if the fighter pilots around Washington had been called together a week in advance and advised that, come next Tuesday, table tennis in the lounge would really be the better part of valor.
Yet we only need to look at the packaging of the event and its gargantuan aims to discover the guilty. Terror, as John le Carré reminds us, is theater. It wasn't enough to ram the buildings with jetliners, counting on the quick reflexes of cameramen who might or might not catch the moment, and even then out of focus and poorly framed. And smoking skyscrapers, secretaries waving hankies from the windows -- what is that but the merest police-beat story? And afterwards, the fires put out, the buildings would have been repaired and businesses re-started.
No, airliners hitting buildings was not enough. For the aim was to give the tectonic plates of history a good old country shove and move America into a new era of fear at home and conquest abroad. Even at the terrible risk of detection, the buildings had to be destroyed, come crashing down live and in color, with fifty cameras rolling. That's theater. That's shoving history.
So if we want to look for culprits, let’s ask: Who could combine such Hollywood showmanship and Shakespearean ambition? Only the high mandarins of American foreign policy, many of them bitterly impatient in the late 90s with Bill Clinton’s reluctance to take superpowerdom out of the garage and onto the open road. Who could recruit the right people, open the right doors, and quietly distribute the millions necessary? Only the most well-connected folks in the land. Who had the means, the organization, the local knowledge? The military and the security services. And that, sad to say, is as close as we'll ever get to naming 9-11's "intellectual authors."
But in a certain sense, it doesn't matter much. The guilt of 9-11 spreads across the entire nation, though certainly thicker in some places than others. As Vaclav Havel said at his inauguration as president of Czechoslovakia, "When I talk about the contaminated moral atmosphere...I am talking about all of us. We had all become used to the totalitarian system and accepted it as an unchangeable fact and thus helped to perpetuate it. In other words, we are all - though naturally to differing extents - responsible for the operation of the totalitarian machinery. None of us is just its victim. We are all also its co-creators...We have to accept this legacy as a sin we committed against ourselves."
Yes, the weasels of 9-11 -- a fitting name; let's use it -- have retired by now, protected by steel and electronics and, most important of all, the silence of their enablers. Some of the latter stay mum out of a dire patriotism -- "The nation needs to heal, sir." -- but surely most of them out of fear. I'm talking first about the guys who quietly wired the buildings, the guys who let them in and then went back to the sports report, the other guys who equipped them, and the accountants who noticed the missing stock and figured it must have been mice who ate it. Everyone kept their head down.
I'm also talking about diplomats who noticed odd meetings, forensic specialists who fudged reports, air-traffic controllers who knuckled under to gag orders, airline officials who quietly rescheduled a few assignments, the government employees warned off flights, intelligence officials who made sure that local agents stayed off the trail of the hijackers – the list is long. And nobody talked. 9-11 was not an inside job – not in the least. It was a home-grown, true-blue national effort.
It has to be said, of course, that a few brave people, such as Susan Lindauer, have tried to get the word out about the irregularities they witnessed. But compared to the hundreds of individuals who must hold greater or lesser pieces of the jigsaw, they are a tiny fraction.
So let's give the weasels their due: they've won. They pulled off a huge and complex secret operation in plain view, and ten years on, the official legend of 9-11 is intact: Bin Laden, suicide pilots, box cutters, weakened beams, dust clouds, Ground Zero. The weasels have kept the whole 9-11 controversy out of the public mind and on the Internet, where it has faded into a curiosity, like Area 51 or sightings of Elvis.
Of course, the weasels got their usual helping hand from the mainstream media. They nurtured the legend and neglected any contradictions. The discovery -- before the year 2001 was over -- that six of the famous nineteen hijackers were alive and well sent ripples through the British media. In America, however, not a line, not a word, not a syllable was uttered. In 2009, a team of scientists, after two years of work, published a paper demonstrating that traces of an exotic high explosive permeated the WTC dust blown all over Manhattan: prima facie evidence of controlled demolition. Big news in Denmark, with TV interviews of the Danish scientist, Neils Harrit, who had participated; not even a news brief in the United States.
Surely not all reporters took the gag order lying down. Imagine the dismissals, the silencing, the spiking of stories, the burned sources, the newsroom wars between reporters who saw Pulitzers for the taking and lame-faced editors who rubbed their necks and repeated the orders handed down from above. The years passed, the revelations mounted. Nobody dared touch the legend. Sweetened with a couple of Hollywood puddings, it has now dried and hardened and turned into history, like Washington crossing the Delaware.
Nobody dared. Not The Times, not the Post, the Journal, the Monitor, Newsweek, Time, nor even those knights in shining armor on 60 Minutes. There were no ten-part series, no teams of scrappy reporters, no Jack Andersons, no Murrows, no Deep Throats, Woodwards or Bernsteins. The media as one took the government at its word. At most, an occasional doubting article buried on page six below the fold was offered as a sop to fairness. But the writer who wished to “explain,” “debunk,” “shred” the doubts -- and in the most sneering terms possible -- found a receptive market for his work.
Once more with feeling: 9-11 was anything but an inside job. It was a national effort.
The true touch of genius, it seems to me, was The Word -- the one selected to ensure the success of the legend, the one flung to every corner of the earth even as the buildings burned. This aspect has gone largely unnoticed by the 9-11 truth movement. What word? Let me quote from my novel Mockery. Here is a conversation between the narrator -- Sam Walker -- who is investigating a gamed presidential election, and the director of a public relations firm, whose name is Laura Prestini.
“The press needs us more than we need them. Surprised? It’s true. They need”—Laura's perfect fingernails popped up from the armrests and scratched quotation marks in the air—“the story. That’s how they pay their mortgages. Like I always say: the goal of PR is to put the frame.”
“Just the key word or phrase. PR puts the frame and the reporters paint in it.”
I shrugged. “That’s a bit condescending, if you ask me.”
“Look, I did my thesis on this. There are loads of historical examples.” She drank and put down her glass with a smart clack on the agate coaster. “The Kennedy assassination, for example. Kennedy slumped against Jackie. Bullshit. He didn’t slump, he jerked back—probably from a bullet hitting him, but we’ll never know for sure. But 'slumped' is the word everyone remembers. You can even find 'slumped' in history textbooks. And then there’s the classic: 9-11. C’mon, Sam: what’s the frame there?”
I was still trying to take all this in. “No… no idea.”
“Yes, you do. C’mon: when you think of the Twin Towers and 9-11, what’s the first word that comes to mind?”
“I don’t know… ‘Collapse’?”
“Of course! Collapse. Which says what? That the buildings couldn’t take the impacts or the fires or whatever. Or at least that the basic problem was the buildings. And that’s that. It doesn’t matter now if ten thousand scientists sign on to the towers falling as a result of demolition explosives. It doesn’t matter a bit. Until they make a full-scale, frontal attack to refute the word 'collapse,' forget it: they’re not going to move public opinion one inch."
Charles Colson was wrong. You don't need to grab people by the balls. Just get the words right; hearts and minds will quickly follow.
Thanks goodness for the Internet.
The weasels who did the JFK assassination had their one slip: somehow a spectator got footage of the crucial moment; without it the alternative theories of the crime would never have prospered. The weasels who did 9-11 had theirs: the Internet, which in 2001 was nothing compared to the phenomenon that it is now. And here again we can make a guess about their identity. They must have all been over fifty, from conservative backgrounds, none from technology or telecommunications, people who still treated computers as advanced typewriters and had no vision of the rising technology.
Internet allowed truthers around the world to hook up through webpages, blogs, and YouTube. And it allowed them to spread word of their investigations to a global audience. It's pleasant to think that, for a while at least, this must have ruined an evening brandy or two amongst the weasels. They had known that the burning towers would be filmed from every angle; that anyone who worked in controlled demolition would immediately see something very different from other people; that architects would scratch their heads and engineers consult their computer models.
But the weasels were still thinking in terms of the JFK assassination. They figured the second-guessers and conspiracy freaks would take years to document their suspicions and longer to rouse the public; and by then Afghanistan and Iraq would have been taken and tamed, Iran would have capitulated before the prospect of a two-front invasion from those countries, and the American-ordered abundance of oil on the market would have brought gasoline to where it belonged: rivers of it in the West, trickles in the East, and all at 1960s prices. Anyone who muttered about 9-11 would be silenced with the retort that it was the best thing that had happened to America since the GI Bill.
That, I would bet, was the line used to sell the operation to The Highest in the Land; who, as long as we're near the subject, replied, "Okay, do it, but with a minimal of loss of life." Hence the first airplane hit the North Tower well before 9 a.m., before most people had arrived at work. Hence all four airplanes took off loaded to between a quarter and a half their capacity (well below the national average of 70-75 percent). Hence the aircraft that hit the Pentagon made a 330-degree sweep around the building to hit the side that was largely deserted due to construction work. Yes, three thousand people died on 9-11, but if Carlos the Jackal had been in charge, that number would have been ten times greater.
But though the Internet gave the weasels a start, they knew they would ultimately win out. Americans, more than most peoples, never question their government in matters of national security. They question lobbyists and influence and politicians lining their pockets. But where matters of state are concerned, suspicion does not form part of our political culture. The armed forces, despite a history of cover-ups and stupendous blunders, enjoy an almost religious veneration. Unless the operation hit a snag -- and the weasels had contingency legends galore, like "Let's roll!" on Flight 93 -- they knew that Americans would dismiss any talk that their own people were behind the attacks.
And the weasels were right: their countrymen swallowed hook, line and Osama, squirmed away from doubters like a child from the doctor's needle, and especially, classically, effortlessly, thoughtlessly, "moved on" -- that quintessential American phrase that once connoted pioneer stoicism and now refers only to the national flight from reality, patent in both our burning obsession with celebrities and our sleepy indifference to war. So the truth of 9-11 stayed on the Internet, "e-cheek by e-jowl with on-line blackjack and Mayberry R.F.D. hobbyists," to quote my novel one last time.
And America has reaped the fruits of this "sin we committed against ourselves": hopeless debt, cureless recession, endless military conflicts of every shade between war and warry. It is impossible to discuss terrorism in anything approaching realistic terms. Just try mentioning to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta that Al Qaeda is now a shadow of its past form; it makes no difference to him. Military and security services comprise one of the fastest-growing sectors of the economy, and those people, to whom the legend of 9-11 is a great comfort in these hard economic times, will not be denied their paychecks.
Just think what America would be today if, say, The Times and The Post had stood up to the weasels and had gone after 9-11 tooth and nail. Democracy might have made a comeback against our venal plutocracy. Our reputation for fair play and the rule of law might have flourished, rather than our reputation for casual waterboarding and wiretaps. At the end, we have passed, as both the great political commentator William Pfaff and former Times reporter Chris Hedges have noted, into an Orwellian society, a society controlled by lies and threat and force, where electronic surveillance of normal citizens is the order of the day. 9-11 was that fatal shove down the slippery slope.
But let's not blame our political class too much, for 9-11 was no inside job. Everyone who was tapped to help, did -- and then kept silent; everyone else closed their eyes. 9-11 was a coast-to-coast national effort. That approaching thunderstorm is history's judgment.
July 18, 2011
THE BUDGET CRUNCHES: A PANICKED AMERICA, AND A CALM EUROPE
As the Day of Budgetary Reckoning draws closer in America, I would imagine that a lot of investors must be thinking, "Thank God for the euro and the European Union." Say what you like about the EU, but it’s stable and responsible. America, on the other hand, looks ever more like a dumb pro-wrestling show. Just look at how each has faced its budget crisis.
Yes, the EU is slow, awkward, indecisive; it has important debt problems; it jumped the gun putting together a monetary union without an accompanying financial union. Yes to all of that.
But bad as the problems are here in Europe, nobody is panicking. Nobody is grasping at imbecilic simplistic solutions like just stopping to contract more debt. The grappling with solutions in those vast, convention-like meetings of two dozen nations in Brussels and Strasbourg (the EU can't even settle on a final home) are the sober meetings of sober heads of government.
The solutions they're finding are sober too. This year the Spanish government, at the EU's demand, cut its budget no less than 12 percent, taking a good share from the salaries of bureaucrats, and raising taxes. But unlike in America, nobody here would make serious cutbacks in social spending. Even the leader of the parliamentary opposition, Mariano Rajoy, who is about to run for election, has said that he'll cut the budget to bring Spain's deficit down -- but he won't touch social spending, which is sacrosanct here.
Sacrosanct because it makes society run right – just as much as the individual wealth of citizens. If you doubt its effectiveness, walk through any major European city and note the excellent public transportation, the hospitals that cost little, the evidently scarce poverty. “Entitlement” is not a dirty word here; it’s what a person is entitled to.
Nor are Europeans reaching for facile solutions like abandoning the euro -- much to the continuing irritation of the American political class, which rightly sees the euro as a rival dominant currency. (Already in Africa and much of Asia they prefer it to the dollar.) The economies of Europe are far too integrated for everybody to go back to their national currencies. And much as Germany complains about the profligate Greeks, it knows that one of the keys of its present success is that the southern countries can no longer devalue their currencies to compete against German companies.
Already the sub-ministerial economists and university specialists are meeting to figure out how to integrate fiscal and spending policies so that the euro will be backed by EU-wide coordination on national budgets. Government TV channels have talking heads on the screen explaining to citizens why this is important, preparing public opinion. Though people don't much understand it, they accept the general reasoning.
In short, Europe is taking a calm, methodical approach to its problems, and there is no sense of panic here. America, on the other hand, sounds like a country being run by wild-eyed teenagers who just finished Poli Sci 101.
The budget-ceiling crisis surfaced in America months ago, and in Europe hardly two weeks ago. People here are hard put to take the no-more-debt idea seriously. Just read how fully it all has to be explained to Europeans. Here’s an excerpt from a report in Spain's El Pais, in the July 16 edition:
"The [House] Republicans have been saying for months that they are not going to authorize new debt if the government does not agree to cut expenses, including and especially social expenditures. For them this is not an electoral tactic, it is a philosophical position, and from their point of view, a test of their word. This is why they were sent to Washington by their citizens: to stop Washington in its tracks, and that is exactly what they are doing. It doesn't matter to them if, to do it, they take down half the nation and the world economy."
The news that the state of Minnesota -- not a household name here, I can assure you – has shut down its government for more than two weeks recently hit the European media, and shocked people. You mean, politicians would really do this? people asked me. It wasn't just brinksmanship, boilerplate, fodder for the rank-and-file? Not just a hiccup closing, as during the Clinton Administration? It had never occurred to my Spanish friends that a government could actually close its doors.
Now Europeans are seeing articles and interviews with serious American presidential candidates like Ron Paul, saying that not raising the debt ceiling is really feasible: he says that America can keep up its financial obligations, run the government, and keep everything going just with the revenues that are coming in. So Europeans are now seriously wondering who they're dealing with on the other side of the Atlantic.
Barack Obama, despite general European disappointment that parallels that of the American left, more and more appears to be the Last Reasonable Man in America. As with Louis XV: after Obama, le déluge.
And as America's credibility wanes, so does the enthusiasm of Europeans for following Americans into another of their silly Wars on Terror. For the next Iraq or Afghanistan (or Yemen or Somalia or Pakistan), America will at best corral the Brits into collaborating. Nobody else. Europeans have no interest in a Nato that merely does the Pentagon's dirty work.
Neither interest nor -- and this is the new development -- any sympathy. America's monstrous debt and its spastic new demagoguery are killing what remains of Europe's respect. The results will not be long in appearing.
June 29, 2011
MRS. CLINTON AND THE USUAL SUSPECTS
"The bottom line is, whose side are you on?" Secretary of State Hillary Clinton asked her Congressional critics. "Are you on Qadhafi’s side or are you on the side of the aspirations of the Libyan people and the international coalition that has been created to support them?"
I wish Secretary Clinton had tossed out a few more options, but the rules of Bushian rhetoric -- "You're either with us or against us" -- refuse to be stretched. Me, I'm not impressed by any of the options offered. Of course, I'd like to be on the side of Libyan rebels, but they have proven so vaguely democratic and shady that I'm not sure they deserve my support.
Take the rebel leadership, such as it is. The recent report from two French thinktanks says it all. According to them, the eastern-Libyan rebellion is basically an armed revolt under the cover of the "Arab spring." No peaceful resistance for them.
Its leader is Qadhafi’s former justice minister, Mustafa Abdul Jalil, "who twice confirmed the death sentences passed on five Bulgarian nurses and a Palestinian doctor for allegedly deliberately infecting 400 children with HIV," the report reminds us. Not a Confucian voice of reason and compassion, is he?
Do these men represent the aspirations of the Libyan people? Maybe. But they certainly don't represent those of "the international coalition that has been created to support them," who, in theory, represent the aspirations of their citizens footing the bill for this nonsense.
Besides, when armed struggle determines a civil conflict, the military ends up with the upper hand in government. Surely one of General George Washington's finest moments was when he bowed to civilian leaders of the Revolution. But he was an exception.
Military types are not paragons of liberal thought -- just ask American ones about gay rights -- and George Washingtons don't seem to pervade the Libyan rebel army. Indeed, the first tenet of the Transitional National Council is the imposition of Sharia law. Those macho guys shooting off riffs of bullets for the CNN cameras: are they really willing to let their wives and sisters vote alongside them in elections? Get educations? Run businesses? Walk around the streets wearing something less than a portable tent? Sharia law, I hear, is as pitiless as an L.A. traffic cop's radar.
Where Libya is heading is clear. The eastern rebels hooked up early with the American, Brit and French spooks -- you have to wonder whose idea it was to start with -- guys who rarely leave a country more democratic than they found it. And once the new Libyan leaders are dressed in good suits and installed in Qadhafi’s palaces, the piper(s) will have to be paid. The oil aspect -- the Chinese given pink slips, deals for western companies, relations with OPEC -- is obvious. But look at the others.
Their foreign policy will come largely under the auspices of Washington. Economic development will be supervised so that, for example, workers are not given so many rights that they might inspire others in the region to rise up. Taxes, especially for companies, will be kept low enough so that government services hardly improve over those of Qadhafi’s regime; for they know in Washington that no good can come of displaying for other nations in the area a Muslim nation modeled on Norway, where oil revenues pay for an enviable welfare state. The new Libyan hard-eyed boys -- the secret services, the police, the military officers -- will do Washington's bidding and accomodate Washington's bases, and woe to the fool who points out that Al Qaeda really isn't the threat everyone says it is.
I suspect, however, that Secretary Clinton has known from the beginning who she's dealing with: the usual band of suspects. The hustlers, the businessmen, the guys who talk a good democratic line for CNN and The Times, but who are secretly texting Qadhafi's present team, promising decent jobs if they'll just send the curtain measurments of the top offices. Plus ça change, plus la meme chose: America dealt with the same shysters in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan, passing through El Salvador, Grenada and Panama on the way.
In short, America's interest in Libya is not about democracy -- not as any more than a front. It's about the same old imperial ambitions, for nobody has yet told the military-oil-financial complex in America that the credit cards are maxed out, and the party is over.
No, Mrs. Clinton, I'm afraid that none of your candidates gets my vote -- not Qadhafi, not the rebels, not the grasping international coalition. Here in Spain, Defense Minister Carme Chacón mouths the translated reasonings of the White House, but clearly has no heart for it -- or Afghanistan either, where Spain has now lost 100 soldiers.
Beyond a stern warning -- international isolation, blockading of oil ports -- against a bloodbath as Qadhafi's troops were first heading towards Benghazi, it was better to leave well enough alone in Libya, which, it is still worth pointing out, is not our fight.
And as for decent Libyans and their democratic aspirations, they will have to wait. Mrs. Clinton will get to them when she can.
AMERICA NEEDS A MAY 15 MOVEMENT
May 26, 2011
A Spanish friend told me once, "In this country, nothing good ever happens with the government. Anything good comes directly out of the people."
I'm not so sure of that -- just plain folks didn't plan the high-speed rail system slowly transforming the national landscape.
But my friend certainly has the weight of history on his side. Two hundred years ago, in the same semi-circular Madrid plaza, Puerta del Sol, nowadays occupied by a spontaneous, sweeping revolt for the past two weeks, another spontaneous, sweeping revolt occurred: Madrileños set with fury upon Napoleon's occupying troops. The revolt was brutally repressed, a horror memorialized in Goya's famous painting, The Third of May. The uprising is commemorated in a Madrid holiday and in the eternal flame that burns just up the street from the Prado.
The current protesters, thanks goodness, haven't met the fate of their forefathers -- or Syrians or Bahrainis, for that matter. Though the courts ruled that the sit-in was illegal and had to cease, the Interior Ministry finally grumbled, like a parent whose kids are holding an unruly party, "You can stay, but keep it down." They do. In slack times, the police and protesters sip coffee and beef about the issues over the crowd barriers.
It's a common mistake to attribute the protests to Spain's high unemployment. Widely cited at 21 percent, it is not nearly that bad. If properly accounted for, the underground economy, a Spanish tradition as old as the Inquisition, would raise Spain's GNP by between 20 percent. Spain's real unemployment is probably several points lower.
Just take a walk through Madrid: the restaurants and theaters are full, and the recent San Isidro bullfighting festival was sold out. This is hardly a country nearing depression.
Which is why it's not remarkable how little the job theme has entered the protesters' language. Indeed, the movement's slogan is a general, "We are not merchandise in the hands of politicians and bankers."
Of the five points in the employment part of their proposals, only two offer concrete means to combat joblessness. One is a workable, sound program for companies to lower the proportion of temp employees to less than ten percent of staff, this in exchange for tax breaks. The other is an unworkable, unsound measure: reducing workdays in the hope that firms will take on more employees to cover operations.
The rest of the economic proposals is not directed towards the job problem at all, but at those who control the economy. The banks should function for society's benefit, the rich should see higher taxes and tight controls on their capital, and the Tobin tax on international capital movement should be a reality
Most of the manifesto deals with social and political matters. Politicians will be obligated to actually show up for official duties; perks and legal immunity will go by the board. Spain's millions of empty housing units will be expropriated and rented cheap to those who need them. The judiciary must be completely independent, and not named by the executive branch.
Some of these ideas are more feasible than others, but even among the executives in my English-as-a-second-language classes, Spaniards back most of these measures. Like most Europeans, Spaniards want capitalism together with strong government intervention in the economy to insure a decent physical welfare for everyone. That a common citizen cannot go to a hospital for medical care is abhorrent to even the well-to-do, a point that often comes up when my English students discuss America.
Yet when they ask me if I think this movement will spread to America, I say no. Americans rarely see the answer to society's problems in collective action, much less in protest. Perhaps this is one reason that in America there is more crime -- in which the individual benefits -- and in Europe more terrorism, which has a political aim.
Second, though America's political experience since Reagan shows that citizens really want government services, there is a spooky disconnect between politics and government. Even many Americans who stand to benefit from President Obama's health care plan, reject it. And what is this nonsense about not raising the debt ceiling but sheer denial regarding the provenance of government services?
But there can be no doubt that the "May 15 Movement," as it's called here, has touched a deep chord in Spaniards and in Europeans, who see their societies controlled more and more by chummy political and financial leaders and a faceless European Union. The movement’s impact will be a healthy wake-up call to all of them. Young Defense Minister Carme Chacon, on the short list to succeed President José Luís Rodriguez Zapatero as head of the Socialist party, has already said that politicians have much to learn from the movement.
I just wish America, angry and frightened as it sinks under the selfishness of its financial, security, and political elites, could find a way to hold a May 15 of its own.
May 8, 2011
TRUE OR NOT, IT'S STILL ARROGANCE TO ME
I know that some kindly soul at the Al Qaeda press office, wishing to increase American joy in the death of Osama bin Laden, has acknowledged the event, but the controversy hardly ends there. The offical version may be true, it may be false. Thinking it over, though, I find that it doesn’t matter much. Either way, what comes clear is that Obama and those shadowy hard-eyed folks in charge of security don't care a lot about what the public thinks.
Let's say that we believe the offical version: the raiding party worked its way up to the third floor and found bin Laden, who with the foolishness of a hunted man who parks himself in the same house for years, made a false move at the wrong time and got blasted for his trouble. The Seals packed up the body and some computers and made a clean getaway.
At that point, barring a second helicopter failure, the mission was a perfect success: Bin Laden was in a bag, none of our guys took a scratch, the Pakistanis hadn't interfered, and Obama could look forward to a second term. Only one thing could mar the glory: the identity of Bin Laden's body could be called into question.
You would think that this possibility would weigh on our president's mind. This is, after all, the Internet age, and we’re all armchair – keyboard -- detectives. Hadn't the country just gone through months of dumb squawking about Obama's birthplace? Hadn't the debate about 9-11 boiled for ten years?
And especially where Bin Laden is concerned, the public has good reason to be vigilant. That 2001 video of him, the one miraculously found by invading American troops in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in which Bin Laden is telling a buddy about listening to a radio report of the Twin Towers burning and falling -- that video was proven a fake; it's not Bin Laden. Yet that was the one shown to the whole world to galvanize support for the invasion.
So it was crucial to nail down beyond question that Sheriff Obama had got his man. But we all know what happened: a quick DNA check -- "99.9 percent sure" -- and into the drink.
Imagine how different the story would read today if, under whatever pretense, a dozen forensic experts -- maybe including some from other countries and one or two from medical NGOs -- had been assembled in Afghanistan, ready to examine the body as soon as it arrived. They could measure, film, photograph and X-ray to their hearts’ content. And at the end they could proclaim as one: yes, it's him.
But the Obama people were stricken with cultural sensitivity for Muslim burial tradition, and no such autopsy was done. So at the end the only independent sources we have are the people who lived in the house, and one of them says that Bin Laden was kidnapped and executed long before the raid.
So here we are once again, the fog of suspicion growing like The Blob over the original story, slowly suffocating it. You have to feel for the people who planned and executed the mission. They must know what Neil Armstrong goes through when moon-landing doubters challenge him.
Now let's take the other possibility: that the raid was bogus. Or, to give the CIA its due, months of surveillance had failed to detect Bin Laden in the house. But the Seals were sent; they landed, searched, and found no Osama. They asked his wives: No, said they, he had died long ago. Damn. To top it off, on their way in, the Seals had already blasted a few people. And as we all know, (yet another) American apology for accidental death doesn't really cut it with Muslims.
What to do? The pre-approved Plan B: make the best of a bad situation. So the Seals popped someone -- say, the wives' personal shopper – tossed him into the chopper with the computers, and a quick "burial" at sea wrapped up the whole mess.
In this case, the first thing that stands out is the poor quality of the story. Its second element -- the forensics in Afghanistan and the squeamishly respectful disposal of the body - never stood a chance for believability. So the attack itself had to carry the weight. It would have been easy for the techno-artists to supply false night-vision footage of the raid. The moment of bin Laden's death would have been carefully choreographed and, even if not filmed, recounted with every possible detail.
Instead, what do we have? This:
"When the commandos reached the top floor, they entered a room and saw Osama bin Laden with an AK-47 and a Makarov pistol in arm's reach. They shot and killed him, as well as wounding a woman with him."
Not to brag, but in my own novels, everyone has enough sense to grab their piece when the helicopter lands in the yard, and doesn’t need a lover for comfort when the going gets tough.
Between the official version and the other one, reasonable people can disagree. What both versions have in common, however, is the political class's blithe carelessness about providing a properly-documented version of a crucial event. You hear it in Obama's reasoning for not publishing the photo of the dead Bin Laden: "And so we don't think that a photograph in and of itself is going to make any difference. There are going to be some folks who deny it."
Yes, "some folks" are always a pain in the patootie, aren't they? Far more dependable are those chest-thumpers with their caveman chant of "U.S.A.!" Why bother with the skeptics?
Me, I wish the planners had bothered, and bothered meticulously, as much as they had done about preparation and execution (two backup helicopters!) and respect for Muslim tradition.
But Obama’s answer is actually the political class speaking to us: take it or leave it. They learned with 9-11 that second-guessers, even if they document their discoveries, even if they appear with them on CSPAN like David Ray Griffin, can't make any significant dents as long as the mainstream media is sold the story properly. The chest-thumpers will always back the official story.
Such is today's lesson in the arrogance of power, and from people who know that it can't be taken from them.
NEED BOOTS ON THE LIBYAN GROUND? MR. TRANSOM'S YOUR MAN
May 2, 2011
Bill Clinton was Mr. Teflon, George W. Bush was The Cowboy, and it is every day clearer that President Barack Obama is Mr. Transom. Transom, that is, in the sense of “slipping it over without anybody making a fuss.” The One, as we all know, abhors a fuss.
Hence insurance-company control of health-care was slipped over the transom as “reform.” Lifetime imprisonment – sorry, “detention” – of men not involved in any declared war is slipped over because they are, conveniently, too dangerous to ever be let out. (The “detainees” must shake their heads in amazement at the fear their reputations inspire.)
What else? Withdrawal from Iraq isn’t quite withdrawal, Afghanistan is still too chaotic (and too full of American bases) to be released from the American grip, dictators who awaken the wrath of their people are urged by all good democratic peoples to resign, um, unless they have a massive U.S. military base or allow U.S. special forces to romp in their hills or, as with Bashar el-Assad, comfort the Israelis with their optometrical gravity. Yes, those cases are quietly passed over the transom into policy.
The latest example of Transomism is Libya. Remember when we were all mulling over the virtues of the “no-flight zone”? “Humanitarian intervention”? Ah, for the good old days. Turns out those were really the thin edge of the wedge. Once Nato started firing missiles at Qaddafi, it couldn’t possibly walk away with him still in power.
And now we are on to the next phase of the transom. Libyan loyalists – or at least the mercenaries who would like to live to see their paychecks – have taken the predictable step of getting close enough to the rebels and surrounding themselves with civilians to nullify the effect of airstrikes. So it turns out that boots on the ground really are necessary. The trouble for the Pentagon is, how to sell this phase to the public? Not to fear. Our smarmy mainstream media has risen handsomely to the challenge:
“With civilians dying daily in Misurata, the push is now for the broadest possible interpretation of the United Nations Security Council resolution allowing ‘all necessary means’ for the protection of the Libyan people and for, in the words of one person involved, ‘getting this over as quickly as possible.’ The talk here is of weeks rather than months,” writes the Times “Globalist” Roger Cohen.
Cohen is a poor writer, and in love with his position as a foreign-policy savant, but he is worth reading: he brings you the fine print of the empire’s line. Note how he greases the transom hinges: “as quickly as possible,” “weeks rather than months.”
“This embryonic force is not going to defeat Qaddafi in the foreseeable future,” Cohen says of the rebels. He actually traveled to rebel-held Libya (“The tricolor is everywhere.”) to be able to write that. But the implication he makes is clear: advisers and trainers are necessary, but for weeks rather than months, if not in the foreseeable future.
James M. Dubik, in his Times Op-Ed article, finishes the grease job. He says of Cohen’s “embryonic force”: “To give them a fighting chance, NATO must put military advisers and combat air controllers on the ground — not just British, French and Italian, but also a small number of American ones.”
Once again we note: “also a small number.” And another hinge of the transom is quieted.
He adds, “Such measures are essential, but they would require relaxing the Obama administration’s prohibition on the use of American ground forces.”
Yet something tells me that this one is as safe a bet as the one about Osama bin Laden’s DNA. (Long reported dead, this wonderfully useful bogeyman was reported killed several hours ago by Navy Seals, and at this writing – it’s 6 PM here in Madrid, 12 PM in New York – the confirmation of his DNA is still pending.)
And after American boots are on the ground, as Dubik writes, Americans will need to be a force shaping the new Libya and providing security as they do in Iraq. He’s surely right: lots of Libyans are going to be damn angry about losing their government contracts, privileges, and probably a lot of property; and they’re going to blow up a few cars to express their dismay. Americans will need to jump in with medical care and statistics.
Dubik, a retired Army lieutenant general who oversaw the training of Iraqi troops for two years, sums up with painful naiveté: “The charade is over: America has intervened in a civil war with the de facto aim of regime change in Libya. Washington must now accept that decision and face its consequences.”
Personally, I think that those crafty folks in military-security America knew with great precision what the consequences of intervention were – knew them way back when the rest of us were fretting about no-fly zones. After all, they’ve been through the same drill, with not much variation, in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.
Oil-rich country, runaway Arab liberation spree that needs to be headed off, crappy army, a huge land area jutting far into the new Chinese playground and just thirsting for an American base or three. How could they resist?
All it took was that magic phrase “all necessary means,” in the U.N. Resolution. There’s nothing that a Pentagon general likes more than that word all – so simple, so far-reaching, so flexible, so all. Because once you’re in, you’re in till the end, whatever you want that to be.
Thank you, Mr. Transom.
April 7, 2011
LIBYA, WHERE EVERYONE IS RIGHT
"Just because we allowed Rwandans or Darfuris to be massacred, does it really follow that to be consistent we should allow Libyans to be massacred as well?" asks Nicholas Kristof in his latest New York Times column. "Isn’t it better to inconsistently save some lives than to consistently save none?"
Well, yes, it is. And the people who argue for Nato's intervention in Libya have a strong case -- as long as you grant that this is a humanitarian intervention, which not everyone is willing to do. Me, I look at those pious Pentagon faces talking about Libya, and it's clear that there's a hidden objective: Gaddafi's posse of Amazons.
The love interest apart, one of the most interesting aspects of the Libya intervention is the strength of arguments on both sides. Neither one knocks out the other. The result of the conflict -- or its duration -- will determine who was right. In Libya, it's the end that truly has justified the screams.
But in a sense, that's exactly the problem with the intervention. Once America -- or Nato, or the French -- launched the first missile, the die was cast: Nato was in for the duration; in, that is, until the Gadaffi regime was history. And if missiles from the air don't do the trick, it will have to be boots on the ground.
Yes, once the first missile was launched, everyone started looking for the end game because that was the key to determining winners and losers in the argument and the policy. (Or maybe because we are all so accustomed to movie-length stories.) Nobody wants to talk about the uncomfortable possibility that Gaddafi -- and his sons and his family -- might pull back and hunker down in Tripoli. That would cause one of those "to be continued" movies like Kill Bill, and would ruin everyone's day.
Even Kristof is into the end-game stuff. He's a fine columnist -- one of those who really goes where the action is -- but his idea of a dénoument is pitifully neat, like something out of a Mission Impossible movie: "It would be a fine step toward ending global impunity for atrocities if a SWAT team of Libyans and coalition forces swooped down one day and seized Colonel Gaddafi to face trial in The Hague."
It sure would be a fine step, but even if something like that were successful, Kristof ignores the cards that Gaddafi himself can play if he sees the good guys closing in. I count three cards, but surely Gaddafi has more: a wide net of trained spies, tons of money, and a stock of old mustard gas that like an old umbrella will do for you in a pinch. Yours quite faithful rides the Madrid subway several times a day, and this last card troubles me.
As he awaits the arrival of those tough guys sliding down the ropes from the helicopter, Kristof makes a suggestion to hasten the breakup of Gaddafi's inner circle: a price on Gaddafi's head of 15 million cool clams, and on the barrelhead, not paid out in monthly installments like those chintsy American lotteries. Sure, greed can wiggle in where snipers can't. But what if Gadaffi returns the favor to Sarkozy or Obama -- or Kristof?
Because this isn't Kosovo or Bosnia, which Kristof lauds in his column as successful interventions. Libya can fight back, and a cornered Gaddafi, like a cornered squirrel, is likely to take a last good swipe or two before going into that long night.
"Intervention" -- not "invasion," and not, God forbid, "war" -- has a lovely humanitarian ring, especially since we'll never be able to compare how many innocent lives were saved in Benghazi to how many have been lost since then. We are assured that Gaddafi's "inner circle" is cracking, and as much as possible the western media is giving people the sense that this will all be over and done with in a few swift strokes.
Frankly, I hope they're wrong and that this intervention proves a quagmire, with allied fighter pilots shot down and taken prisoner, long negotiations, and the rebels trying to split off and form their own country, handing the allies a major pain in the patootie.
Why? Because history shows that especially for Americans, a successful intervention only encourages the next, or the next two. Just as Iraq I encouraged Iraq II and Afghanistan, just as Grenada encouraged Panama, just as the CIA cakewalk installing the Shah of Iran inspired shenenigans in Guatemala and other Latin American nations, one cheery swagger just whets appetites for the next.
If the Libya wingding goes well, the Pentagon will smell a new market for its services and start looking for other ops. (Europeans, who seem to have learned a thing or two from WWII, less eagerly.) Maybe, quietly prodded by the Israelis, the Americans will even take a crack at Syria.
Which is why I still say: better not start down the slope. Better stick with sanctions and isolation. Better leave the soldiers in their barracks -- and save a trillion or two -- until there's a real Hitler on the loose in the world who needs to get his fanny kicked. Better to have told Gaddafi that his international relations would be limited to Niger if he got rough with Benghazi.
I don't care if Kristof's muscle men go sliding down the rope into Gaddafi's haima tomorrow. Yes, his Amazons will certainly find them more interesting than the colonel, and the country might -- might -- turn towards democracy, but it was still a bad idea to enter Libya.
March 13, 2011
OPTIONS, COOL AND OTHERWISE
All the options were on the table with the last North Korean crisis in December, and again they are on the table with Libya. You begin to wonder: all those options, left out on the table so long, aren’t they getting stale?
They certainly are. As we’ve learned in Iraq, Afghanistan, Panama, Vietnam, Granada, and El Salvador: you attack it, you own it. To his great credit, President Obama understands this and seems to be reluctant to make any kind of military commitment in Libya.
But he couldn’t help rattling his presidential saber, could he? Well, The One does enjoy coming off The Cool One. And after all, it’s such a great phrase: “all the options are on the table.” Very catchy – something that Schwarzenegger ought to say.
Yet there is a real virtue in saying, “Actually, our options are limited. About Libya, about North Korea, about everything.” Or quoting economist Herbert Stein, who said, “If something cannot go on forever, it will stop.”
This is particularly true of Libya – or whoever the creep of the month is. Because sooner or later, a meanie like Colonel Gadaffi just might do a Saddam Hussein and call America’s bluff: “Go ahead, slugger: make my day. Are you really going to run another half-trill in debt over my sandy little kingdom? Besides, I have a veteran network of spies, guys who really know how to sew a pair of explosive underpants, and they’ll make Al Qaeda look like the Keystone Kops. You want war? Tell those basketball fans that I can give them March Madness worthy of the name.”
By admitting that we can’t put many options on the table, none more than the usual soggy economic sanctions and travel restrictions, Obama would also do a great deal to shift the debate in America in the direction of reality. Imagine if he said this:
“Even if we wanted to help the rebels in Libya, we could not. We don’t have the money. And we don’t have it because we spend so much of it on a charity program: defense.
“To win the Cold War and defeat Communism, which was a government-sponsored movement with a substantial ideological backing, we didn’t need half – not a third – of our present defense outlays. We didn’t need 1,100 bases around the world, a trillion in defense spending, plus tens of billions in sponging spy agencies, or all these blue-water ships, many of which set sail understaffed anyway.
“And all of this to fight what enemy? (What enemy, that is, besides the wanton financial Scrooges who never met a junk bond they didn’t like?) Over the last decade, the enemy is some loosely-bound bands of religious fanatics -- not Soviet superspies – terrorists so inept that most of the time our FBI has to help them along in order to get an arrest.”
Is Gadaffi an enemy? The short-term answer is no, he’s too busy with his own problems. Once they are over, however, if Gadaffi is still in power, the long-term answer is yes. For Gadaffi takes it poorly to be treated as less than a god. Only for not being allowed to pitch his tent before the United Nations in New York, he delayed the agreed-upon evacuation of his weapons-grade uranium from Libya. Touchy guy. Imagine if his entourage of Amazons had been given a JFK pat-down.
Which is why I hope that between the Americans and the Europeans and the Arab League, someone will lay a discreet thumb on the balance of Libya’s civil war and make sure that Gadaffi loses. That’s an option on the table you can believe in.
Because if Gadaffi retains power in Libya, you can bet that he will send out his underlings – or just pay freelance James Bond-types -- to express his displeasure. And his targets will be all those fickle folks who told him to take a hike, changed their embassies’ locations, or modestly suggested that the voice of Libyans ought to be heard. Just yesterday, again bizarrely trying to ingratiate himself with the West, he threatened to not be so vigiliant where Al Qaeda is concerned.
And that's only the start of what he could do.
March 6, 2011
TWO PRESIDENTS, ONE DESTINY
For a while there, you had to wonder if the man was pulling your leg or if he really believed it.
He looked into that camera and assured us all that everything was fine, everything was normal, and that little noise you all heard out in the boondocks was just the squeaks and squawks of a nation on its way to a yet-glorier future. Conspiracy freaks. Unsubstantianted rumor. Civilization and its discontents.
Sure, a little reform here and there was necessary. Committees definitely needed to be formed. We had problems to tackle and when we did, man, those problems were going to be sorry for the day they were born.
Of course, reform didn't necessarily mean reform of our glorious army. The al-Qaeda boys were on the move and they meant business; as that Alaskan lady Sarah Palin said, you can see 'em from your front porch. With those guys only the big stick would do: air raids, bombs both smart and stupid, and plenty of boots on the ground.
So all was well. No need for revolution; our responsive government would heed the will of the people. All right, lately it had been a little deaf, but since people had started rattling their cages, government was shaping up. Just give us time and a few well-placed tweaks.
Well, enough of that.
For those first ten days of the Libyan revolt, you couldn't listen Muammar al-Gaddafi, entrenched in his haima, gunshots audible in the distance, without thinking that he had stolen a few lines from Barack Obama's recent State of the Union Address. Their respective end runs around reality were breathtaking. Gaddafi now seems to be dealing with his problems; Obama, on the other hand....Well, let's compare the two men's situations.
Libya, of course, is in a far better financial position, but Gaddafi is limited to the cash he has at arm's reach, since the Swiss and a few others have frozen his assets.
Obama, on the other hand, talked breezily of plans, of enemies, of programs, though he has no cash on hand except that which the Treasury prints up. America is tapped out. Only the deficit this year -- or last year or next year -- is equivalent to the entire GDP of Spain, the eight largest economy in the world.
Spain, incidentally, is a good example of a country that faces its problems squarely: it cut its budget by an incredible 12 percent for this year. Such realism, however, has no role in President Obama's plans, and there are signs that creditors are starting to look into that black hole of borrowing and wonder if anything is ever going to come out again.
Both men's armies are equally ineffective against ragtag enemies. Most of Gaddafi's soldiers are finding treason the better part of valor, and they're no fools: Gaddafi's remaining loyal troops, mainly mercenaries loyal to money, may well end the game lined up against a wall.
The American soldiers, equally reluctant to risk life and limb in a dubious cause, are less inclined to treason; payment for services rendered is more their style. So they and their coalition partners -- the latter bullied into Afghanistan and damn resentful of it -- are paying the Taliban to take an occasional break and let convoys through. Both they and Libya's rebels are thus obtaining fine, new arsenals.
Surely Gaddafi envies Obama, since the latter's enemies shoot, bomb, and harass on the other side of the earth. This makes rush hour easier, your Ukranian nurse doesn't get so homesick, and the NBA plays its games on schedule.
But Gaddafi also knows that Obama is going to get his fanny kicked too. Both governments coddled their armies while their countrymen lost jobs. The youths of both countries find no avenue for their talents and energies. And sooner or later, as Gadaffi is finding out first hand, the pool of public anger swells amazingly when the military, the security services, and the massive industries that wait on them make fortunes on the public nickel. Already the richest counties in America are the ones that have the heaviest concentrations of the military-industrial complex.
So it must give Gaddafi some solace to hear that Americans are beginning to beef too. Madison, Wisconsin, a place where they know how to raise hell, recently hosted a squawk-fest about squashing public-employee unions and cuts in government services, and it won't be the last one, especially if protesters manage to effect budget changes for their trouble. It is a crucial moment: any success of demonstrators in one state will be imitated in others, with increasingly dire implications for budgets local and national.
The calls to patriotic service, which both men employed in their speeches and find ready echo in their respective media, quickly wear thin. When revolution finally broke in Libya, all the purveyors of Our Wonderful Nation were doing their jobs, just as they are in America today: the magazines and movies are churning out the-system-works sausages, pro athletes sweat in uniforms that sport the flag, the president is sermonizing that a growing economic pie will satisfy rich and poor, and financiers honest and otherwise are dithering between Ferraris and Lamborghinis, knowing that real financial reform has been kicked down the road with a very swift and sure foot.
But we're all getting superb lessons in people power on the nightly news these days, and that is bound to impress those Americans whose end of the stick is decidedly nubby. The happy-happy munchkins at Time, Newsweek, and the newspapers are losing audience to websites like Antiwar.com and DemocracyNow.com, which bestow upon their readers and listeners stark takes on how Your Government (Mis)Serves You.
Gaddafi could not look revolt in the eye till it was too late; now he's making up for lost time. President Obama, though, has yet to feel that cold wind on the back of his neck. He continues to avoid the sponging charlatans in the military, financial, and security circles, where a real righting of the economic ship might still take place. Spiffy guys, sorry futures.
A LITTLE CHAOS GOES A LONG WAY
February 17, 2011
Wikileaks popped the State Department, the Tunisians punched their rulers and the Egyptians theirs, and now the freshman Tea Party-types are poking the House of Representatives. As much as the White House has been fretting about "chaos" lately, I find that my opinion of chaos, like the strange neighbor that you really never got to know before, is rising swiftly.
Take that chaos in Egypt. All during the crisis, the Obama people were trying to control the situation so that Vice President Omar Suleiman, the CIA's point man in Egypt for secret rendition and torture, would come out on top. "Orderly transition" this was called. But from an Egyptian's point of view, replacing the Mubarak with the head of the feared secret police was like trading King Kong for Godzilla. Thank goodness that chaos prevailed, and the military took over.
And that since then, the Obama Administration has changed its tune and is, much to its credit, calling Egypt a model for everyone else.
Chaos is also on display at the U.S. House of Representatives. Take this sign-of-the-(New York)-Times, regarding the Republicans:
"The leadership was clearly surprised by the resistance (of new members) to a measure to provide aid to workers displaced by new trade agreements and the Patriot Act renewal, two measures deemed so uncontroversial that they were brought to the floor under an expedited process that requires a two-thirds majority for passage. Republicans said they had not even considered it necessary to aggressively court support."
Renewal of the Patriot Act is uncontroversial? Wow, that's what I get for reading the Internet instead of the newspapers. Another part of the same article zinged by calling the temporary extension "routine." Fortunately the Times' casual treatment of this frontal assault on civil liberties finds no echo among a good part of the House of Representatives, where a lot of freshman conservatives teamed up with righteous Democrats and voted to put it on the slow legislative track. The hope is that this time around people will actually have time to read it before voting.
Yes, a little chaos goes a long way. It has certainly changed the status quo more than circus-barker slogans of hope and change.
I mean, a little chaos. A lot of chaos is like six rock bands playing their hits simultaneously.
Which is something that a whole passel of Internet columnists swooning over Tahrir Square have been fantasizing about lately. How sweet a Tahrir-style revolution would be in the west, they say. For example, John Pilger, the eminent Australian journalist, dreams of an Egyptian or Tunisian uprising in London:
"Try kettling a million people in the center of London, bent on civil disobedience, and try imagining it could not happen."
That might improve politics in Britain -- better ask John le Carré -- but not in America. Imagine a million Americans marching into Washington, Porta-Potties in tow, all with the salutary idea of citizens' re-taking control of government. Like the ring of that? I don't: that would turn into chaos on a truly stupendous scale.
Sure, at first, the liberals and conservatives might find common cause in the U.S. Army packing up its tents and its Burger Kings in Kabul or telling Iraqis to get a life. They might even be able to compromise on wresting power from lobbyists and campaign contributors, or on reducing the number of foreign bases from four figures to two.
But there the lovefest would end. The Tea Partiers, like all American conservatives, have a Daniel Boone vision of America: just get government and taxes out of the way, send the immigrants home, and Americans will clear the forests and make the country great. The left's vision is of a government that cares for its weakest members, distributes the wealth, and has a hospital bed ready for anyone who needs it.
So an American Tahrir Square would quickly turn into a shouting match, then a shoving match, then a shooting match. Yes, guns. Decades of pontification from gentle savants like Steven Seagal, John Rambo and Chuck Norris have taught conservatives that the most noble use of fists and firearms is to "defend American values." Only a fool would underestimate how deeply their message has rooted in America. And if conservatives couldn't clean up Washington with hot lead, they would go back to their own states and turn them into well-armed countries. In a question of days, Barack Obama could find himself the second Illinois president to deal with civil war.
Those little wisps of chaos are doing wonders these days, but Americans do things in a big way. So to those Middle Eastern peoples hoping to scream their rulers out of the country, I say good luck. And to those who hope to do it in America, I say take along your flak jacket.
THE STASIS OF THE UNION – ONE LAST TAKE
February 5, 2011
Pundits have summed up the latest State of the Union speech as a rousing call to action short on detail, and I suppose they're right, though I am always puzzled that people expect any more than histrionics from these speeches. With Congress and the Supreme Court huddled around the commander-in-chief, they are more show than tell. And that consummate showman, Barack Obama, like the daily dose of Oprah or Letterman, stirs not thought, but passion. You get your laughs from Letterman and your rouse from Obama.
Obama turned out the usual suspects. He sprinkled the holy water of patriotism equally over foolish foreign interventions and "the working class kid from Scranton." Every problem was a "challenge" and every reform "meaningful." Playing fields were to be bulldozed -- or bombed -- level. Loopholes, those sine qua non of the smoke-filled room, would finally be boarded up. Lobbyists, always skulking past in "parades," took their usual shellacking, which was really unfair. Who paid for all those loopholes and playing fields, anyway?
Then there was the de rigeur snarl at "enemies": "We will defeat you!" Funny word, "enemies." It swipes so deftly with that big rolling-pin of fear -- at the home crowd, though, not the Taliban, who probably just laugh, since they're winning.
Obama doesn't need to employ fear. Here in Spain, home to what was till just recently the most active terrorist cell in the world, the Basque terrorists ETA, the government talks about "the terrorist band," but never "the enemy." The government's very salutary idea has always been to impart not fear, but confidence that law, democracy, and the Constitution would prevail -- as indeed they have.
But Obama, who knows which side of the bread holds the guns and butter, plays the fear card as shamelessly as Bush and Reagan before him. No matter that Al Qaeda is a clammy little junkyard compared with Soviet Communism -- or even ETA. The point is to justify war and a fat defense budget. So fear is part of the lullaby.
Yes, lullaby. Just as part of Letterman's or Oprah's attraction is its folksy predictableness, so Obama lulls us to sleep. Reality makes only cameo appearances -- the national debt, the dodgy infrastructure -- mainly to brace up the malarkey.
Take this classic example: "That’s what Americans have done for over two hundred years: reinvented ourselves."
Nonsense -- reinvention is about Angelina's new makeover or the latest fad diet. Search the length and breadth of American history, and the only reinvention you see, a real grassroots effort, is the struggle for civil rights, the righting of the original sin of slavery.
Beyond that, like every other western country living in the same age, America has undergone an evolution in morals, living standards, ways of work, education, or pursuit of the opposite sex (or the same). These are the predictable result of technological change, the prerogatives of capitalism, more money in the pocket and, since Glass-Steagall went out the window, keener greed at the bank's loan window.
Reinvention in America is really a more modest matter: men leaving their wives for younger women, and poverty-stricken kids sleeping through English class because, bereft of a social-welfare net, they've worked the 4-to-12 shift at Burger King.
Actually, if there is a single most worrisome feature of public life today -- a real violin squeal moving right up the G-string -- it is America's inability to reinvent itself, reform itself, or just make a modest change in direction. Our tiller is lashed.
Look at how little has been done to avoid another financial meltdown. As Gretchen Mortgenson, the New York Times excellent business columnist writes of the just-released Financial Crisis Inquiry Commission report, "The report....makes for compelling reading because so little has changed as a result of the debacle, in both banking and in its regulation." It's no coincidence that the day after Dodd-Frank passed, bank stocks rose.
Look at President Obama continue Bush's curbs on habeas corpus and the expansion of warrantless wiretapping that as senator he opposed. Some "change we can believe in."
Look at what the Pentagon is doing, opening base after base abroad -- now estimated at 1,100 -- and taking over the reins of foreign policy. "The Secretary of Defense has also agreed," said the president, "to cut tens of billions of dollars in spending that he and his generals believe our military can do without." Which is like allowing the fox to choose what he can do without in the henhouse, like all that straw and all those feathers lying around.
All told, President Obama's speech is the standard company line – a strong, forward-looking, flexible America, agile as a kid. I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the speechwriter swiped half the text from Truman’s or Kennedy’s speech. Hope blazes like crazy: more economic growth, lower corporate taxes, more technology and Internet access will save the day. Congress applauds, the public swoons from the poetry, and the kindest thing you can say about Obama is that he is simply another weak president unable to tame the Pentagon, the corporations, and the financial barons.
You have to wonder how much of this he knew before winning election -- and how much he was quietly told in the Oval Office.