Freedom from Blog

Don't call it a comeback . . . .

Monday, October 30, 2006

More Fall Leaves

Better Foliage, Shenandoah National Park

The post from yesterday has excellent composition, but too many green leaves. These, better foliage colors, if less excellent composition.

FFB Bloggers Wasting Their Precious Blogging Fluids in a Different Forum


Controversial American base at Dal Molin (Vicenza, Italy)

I’m probably going to drive you all bloggy-eyed by my lengthy postings on this topic, but damn the torpedoes since this blog appears to be one of the few friggin’ sources in English, according to Google and Technorati searches, to report on the recent deliberations of an Italian city debating whether or not to expand an American military base in its back yard. Why is this story important? In the short term it provides a snap-shot of the current sentiment towards the American military amongst the population of one of our more important and reliable allies, while demonstrating how the American press and public ignore what seem to us the mundane and quotidian ways our military expands or loses its influence around the globe and what impact our military has on other countries’ local populations and landscapes. O yes, did I fail to mention that should this base expansion be approved it will become the largest American military base outside of the US? So, this is no small potatoes.

The base expansion, as reported earlier here and here, involves the Italian city of Vicenza, which tends to be a less known destination amongst Americans because it is overshadowed by its more well-known neighbors of Padua and Venice. American democratic iconography is, however, infused with an architectural renaissance born in Vicenza. As any Art Historian or architecture buff worth his or her salt can tell you, Vicenza was the home of Palladio, whose resuscitation of the dome from the more famous Pantheon in Rome for his Rotonda impressed Jefferson so much that he once called Palladio his “bible” and he incorporated Palladian techniques for Monticello and the Rotunda at the University of Virginia. The rest is Art History; now most state capitals in the US incorporate a dome, and thus pay homage to Jefferson’s admiration of Vicenza’s most famous son. Although these days I’d like to forget about the White House, the building itself was also influenced by Palladian design. Also found at Vicenza is Palladio’s Teatro Olimpico, the first indoor theater ever, and home to the first modern production of the most famous tragedy of all time, Sophocles’ Oedipus Tyrannus. Had it not been for Palladio, who knows, maybe theater productions, like baseball games, would still be experiencing rainouts today. While on the subject of great literature and plays, another famous Vicentino was the poet Luigi Da Porto, who in 1524 penned the original love story of Romeo e Giulietta. Today one can still visit the opposing castles of Montecchio in the hills near Vicenza that gave rise to this story – a romance that now is arguably the basis of the most famous love story of all time because it was ripped off by Shakespeare. The Nazis held the town during WWII until the Americans bombed the city and the Germans had to retreat. The effects of that bombing are visible everywhere on the city’s walls and houses – at least the ones that are still standing, since many buildings weren’t so lucky (the city’s main theater, for instance, was destroyed and they have only just recently got around to starting a new one). This is not to say that most Vicentini do not reluctantly approve our bombarding of their city as a necessary evil to get rid of the Nazis, but we must remember that hundreds of civilians died in the bombing – their names inscribed on columns around Vicenza and every nearby village. The short of it is that this is a town with a long and illustrious history.

In more recent times, Vicenza has prospered and is one of the major players in the international gold and jewelry market. It also is situated within one the most heavily industrialized zones in the world, sitting as it does along the economic corridor running between Venice and Milan. It is, therefore, a highly populated region with all the attending problems that development and population bring, especially scarcity of land and pollution. Despite the pollution (which Vicenza is combating by shutting off the historic center of the town to automobiles) and crowded area, the center of Vicenza is probably more beautiful than any American city. Expanding the airport here, then, would be worse than building a major airbase 2 miles from, say, St. Augustine in Florida (only imagine St. Augustine a few hundred years from now with more beautiful buildings, crowding and air pollution). It should also be mentioned that Vicenza also has several Italian military bases that dot the stately surrounding hills known as the Colli Berici. There are persistent rumors that some of these bases, especially the ones located under the hills, even house nuclear weapons. So, this base expansion would increase what already seems to the locals as a heavy military footprint and become an even greater military target than it already is. Keep in mind, too, that these bases in Europe are often the first stop for American soldiers’ returning from war theaters. The Vicentini are thus some of the first to experience all the problems these soldiers experience when returning to civilian areas. Often there are scuffles in local bars. One soldier who returned from Iraq (or maybe it was Afghanistan) had hallucinations that he was still at war and went out into a busy street brandishing his gun at the passing cars. Can you imagine what the US public and press would say were a foreign soldier to do the same in one of our cities? Fortunately no one was hurt, but such was not the case in another episode, where an American soldier tortured a prostitute for several hours and then killed her. Then there are accidents, such a few summers ago when an American soldier in his car hit and killed a girl on her bicycle.

Given all that is at stake, the city council of Vicenza held a public town meeting on Thursday, 10-27-2006 to vote on two issues: 1) whether to approve/reject the creation of a popular, democratic referendum on the project, or 2) just have the council approve or disapprove the project. Said project consists in converting the small airport of Dal Molin (located at the suburb of Caldogno) into an air base that will also service the American military’s 173rd Airborne – whose personnel is currently housed at the more famous air base at Aviano, at the current base in Vicenza Caserma Ederle, and also at a couple of bases in Germany. The idea is to consolidate them at Vicenza. O yes, the US military did not bother to tell the local population that this was the plan until this October. Ooops! I’m sure it was just a simple oversight. O well, oversights happen, so never mind, move along. As I said, should it come to fruition it will become the biggest American military base outside the US and is no small tactical piece of America’s future plans to base and project American power around the globe. Now that word has slipped out that the 173rd is planning to move to Vicenza, the local politicians and Americans are promising that no bombing raids will leave from there and they’re saying things like it won’t house “multiple missile launchers” (so I guess single are OK?) or “spy planes” and that all the fighter aircraft will stay at Aviano, but it’s just so hard to believe that in the long run after most of the personnel are concentrated in one place with an airstrip sitting nearby that some new group of military men and politicians won’t try to change the rules and move some of their heavier and more deadly equipment there too. As any northern Italian can tell you, is it realistic to think that they’ll shuttle everyone up to Aviano on the vast parking lot in Northern Italy also known as the Autostrada, which is now overrun by all the traffic and shipping coming in from Eastern Europe? Newspaper polls report that 61 percent of Vicentini are against the expansion, while 65% of those who live in Caldogno – a heavily populated suburb where Dal Molin is located (the word “suburb” is a bit misleading; Dal Molin is only 2 miles from the town center) -- are against it. The US strategy is, therefore, to circumvent the local population and put pressure on the city’s magistrates by saying if the air base project is not approved, then they may pull out the army base, Caserma Ederle, which provides about 700 jobs and 67 million Euros to the local economy (those figures come from a Stars and Stripes article). Historically, this is a fairly typical situation that an external power finds itself in; a majority of the local population is against their designs, but fortunately one need only persuade a small political class with economic incentives or threats.

The town meeting came off peacefully without any reported fights, so the unprecedented security they put in place either worked or more probably was really not necessary. According to an eye-witness with whom I spoke there were, however, a lot of boisterous demonstrations with a lot of noise making and shouting. The picture to the left, which was taken at the town meeting, provides a good flavor of the atmosphere and reads “USA fatal bases. Your house.” 20 representatives spoke for the “yeas” and 20 speakers spoke for the “nays”, and the city council of 41 members voted strictly along party lines first to reject the idea of a referendum and then to approve the expansion. The final tally for the project-vote was close, with 21 “yeas” (right coalition), 17 “nays” (left coalition), 2 abstentions, and 1 missing in action. The resolution was also signed by the town’s center-right mayor, Enrico Hüllweck (many northern Italians have German names and part of northern Italy is even still German-speaking). But, this was a non-binding resolution that included certain stipulations concerning civilian use, taxes, no spy planes... At any rate, this vote, I think it fair to say, gave the matter an appearance of “local approval”, but only in name given that they refused to let the matter go to a popular referendum where it would almost assuredly fail. The ultimate, final decision, however, is being drop-kicked off to Rome and is to be made by the center-left government of Romano Prodi, who has promised that the entire matter, which had previously been approved by his center-right predecessor Silvio Berlusconi, would be thoroughly reviewed. Prodi narrowly defeated Berlusconi this past Spring, largely on one of his promises to pull Italian troops out of Iraq, which he did this summer. But Prodi is in a delicate position on this, because several parties within his slim center-left coalition are staunchly against increasing ties with the US and in fact, want to lessen them, in no small part because of the current Bush administration’s handling of the war on Terror and Iraq. In addition, they are just in the process of shuttering the naval/nuclear US military base at the beautiful island just north of Sardegna called Maddalena (I love that name for some reason), and Dal Molin would just represent a re-expansion. Naturally, a solid block of Italians, including members of the center-left, don’t want to damage the relationship, not because they care about the military or are worried about safety (fact is, most Italians feel less safe around the bases), but just because of the economic benefits the American bases bring. So, the trick for Prodi is to express some disapproval, but not so much as to sour and spoil the entire historic relationship and its attending economic benefits. In addition, the previous mayor of Vicenza for 15 years, Achille Variati, is reported to have said about the council’s decisions after the vote, “No, they cannot decide the future of Vicenza themselves. I will work to bring about the referendum.” So the fat lady hasn’t sung on this one yet.

At any rate, I think it fair to say had we not been in Iraq the opposition would not have been so strong. The entire affair is thus tangible evidence that Bush’s handling of the Iraq War has created a headwind of support amongst our allies. To overcome it, undoubtedly the US will have to meet extra demands and pony up more cash and support to make the seemingly “finalized” deal final again. My advice to America and Americans would be this. There’s a very good chance Americans would not accept such an American project in our own back yard, so why would we think that the Italians should accept an American one in theirs? A popular, democratic referendum on this matter is the only fair and sure way to bring it to a satisfactory conclusion. Are the strong-arm tactics really a good idea? Does America really think it smart to build this base when about 2/3 of the population is against it? Does this not really give the locals the impression that Vicenza is, as the poster in the picture says, America’s house and not their own? Isn’t there a chance we’ll just have to spend more money to move it in the not-so-distant future?

One last thing. I think it useful to publish in English some sentiments of local Vicentini. These are quotes of citizens at the town meeting lifted from the local, middle-of-the-road rag, Il Giornale di Vicenza:

-A group of protesters kept shouting to the council “Vergogna. Siete quattro gatti” (literally, “Shame on you, you are [only] 4 cats”), which means “Shame on you, you are only a small group of people deciding.”

-Omero Cecchi, 44 years of age says, “Dal Molin is a good project, a good opportunity.”

-Giorgio Benedetti, who was accompanied by his daughter of 3 years said: “Look, I’m here as a free citizen, I am not with any party. But I say ‘no’ to the American base because I wish my city well and I ask for a better future for my daughter. Not a Vicenza tied to a military image, but to its own artistic and local beauty. And to a smiling person.”

-Elvi Golin, with her two children of 6 and 10 years, said “I support the Americans because they have always helped and brought benefits to us – I think of the families that work at Ederle and of those who are soldiers, I think of my children and their protection.” When Lia Sacchetto from Laghetto, a grandmother of two children, heard this, she turned around and said, “No base, no pollution, no airplanes, armies, traffic. Yes to life.”

-Leila Albert, 20 years old who works at Ederle said, “Here there are anti-Americans because of a pre-conceived position. They are just a political instrument. If the Americans leave, we not only lose a place of work, but for this city there will enormous repercussions on the economy, counting all the income the base affects.” Massimillian Bozalon, 29 years old and son of a construction company at Ederle underlined this, saying “Do you know how many firms will go out of business without the base?”

-Lorenzo S, 17 years old said, “The Americans? They come here to occupy a sovereign country for 50 years after the War. No, we don’t want them.”

-Maria Luisa Andrightto, 72 years of age, with a photo in her hand said, “I was 10 years old, it was November 18, 1944, when the Americans bombed Vicenza. My mother died in front of my eyes, I have four wounds from the shrapnel. Don’t speak to me of the Americans.”

A Technorati search on blogs brings up a lot of discussion by Italians. Here’s an illuminating extract from a Vicentino Blogger:

We live in a city of shit
In a state even more shitty,
in a world even more shitty than the state.
They have not accepted the referendum.
The “yeas” to the Dal Molin military project have won.
And I no longer know what to think.

Now, let everyone fight against this decision taken by the powerful, fight against this decision that is contrary to the majority of people with a minimum of intelligence in our city

Sunday, October 29, 2006

Fall Leaves, Shenandoah National Park

OK, so here's a view from Old Rag in the full splendor of fall foliage.

Back to the Future IV

I saw Michael J. Fox on Stephanopoulos' show this morning. Of course he’s become a popular interviewee these days given that he is stumping for (mostly democratic) candidates who support embryonic stem cell research, and because Rush Limbaugh decided to bully a man with Parkinson’s by first accusing him of acting out his symptoms and not taking his meds, and when he found out that it was the meds that were causing his symptoms (kinesis), he then said Fox purposely took too much medicine! Amazing.

During the interview with Stephanopoulos (did I really just hear George say that he didn’t think the Ford ad was playing on Mandingo fears?), Fox said of Limbaugh’s tasteless accusations something to the effect that “It’s pointless to get in a fight with a bully.” This struck a chord with me. Say it ain’t so, Marty! What about Biff! Limbaugh's monosyllabic first name, Rush, sounds similar to Biff. His monosyllabic brain is also similar to Biff's. And he even looks like Biff did in BTTF II.

Saturday, October 28, 2006

More Like Craptastic

Paul complains that the World Series was craptacular and disappointing. And it was, from a certain perspective (i.e., the perspective of lifelong Tiger fans). But I am going to try to, well . . . I prefer to look on the bright side. The Tigers won the AL penant and made the Series for the first time since I was in high school and for only the second time in my entire life (born in 1969). The playoffs were a great ride. The Tigers really didn't perform in the Series, but that's life.

So I'm going to look at the half-full side of the equation. Detroit Tigers, American League Champions. A mostly young roster, with room to grow. I really think that this is a team that will only get better. And, on defense, that can't come soon enough.

OK, off to tailgate before the Maryland-Florida State game. Roll Terps!

Craptacular World Series

There. Someone had to acknowledge it on this blog. What a disappointment...

Friday, October 27, 2006

Have you ridden a Ford lately?

As the denizens of this blog undoubtedly recall, we had an extended discussion about the Fancy Ford website, which was obviously just the precursor to the current ads being run by the GOP against Ford that play upon racial stereotypes in the South, specifically the charge that fancy Ford may have some white babes ridin' him. My question is this: Is not the Democratic reaction to these ads more damaging than the ads themselves? I'd compare to it to the conventional wisdom that it's not the deed itself, but the cover-up of the deed. I'm sure TMcD can correct me if I'm wrong, but it seems to me that the ads are purposely designed to suggest racial issues, not so much to appeal to latent racist fears, but to prod Dems into making the charge, and thereby insulting the folks of TN. It's a brilliant ploy. My advice to Dems in the future (it's too late now for this one), especially Yankee Dems, would be to just let the Harold Ford Juniors out there handle these sorts of race-baiting tactics, and my advice to those in Ford's situation in the future would be to just attack the accuracy of the ad and say things, such as "I don't know if they are appealing to latent racist fears or not, but whatever their motive, I don't think an overwhelming majority of the good folks of TN are really racist, so if it they are attempting to play the race card, it won't work here." Maybe he's already said something like this, but the damage by "outsiders" and the "liberal media" has already been done.

In Memorial: Maj. David G. Taylor

Got word yesterday that an old college friend, Major Dave "DT" Taylor, was killed in Iraq by an IED. Dave, who got married last year and had a four month old son and only three weeks left on his tour, was killed while training his replacement in their humvee.

Dave was a great guy. He was ROTC his whole time at Davidson, along with his close friends Rob and Mike. I still think of him wearing his fatigues around the dorm, sporting his trademark Dave Letterman grin, and sharing the bottle of Jaeger he had brought back from his summer in Germany. Dave was a year behind me, we were fraternity brothers, and he lived next door to me my senior year (his junior). I hadn't seen him in years, although we swapped e-mails a few years ago when the Iraq War was just starting up; we commisserated over Dave's frustrations with his graduate school program. My memories? He was always very level-headed, and was in some ways the sane moral anchor for his immediate group of friends, who are some of the best guys I knew in college. Smart, reactively funny, fundamentally decent and humane. And, obviously, a man with a strong sense of responsibility combined with the physical courage that the military requires. A really, really likeable guy. He'll be missed by a lot of people, including me. He died doing work he loved and knew to be important. Good night, Dave, and good luck.

Thursday, October 26, 2006

I Have Seen the Future

And it was my hotel.

Roadkill . . . gross

Of course, all my peeps read Billmon, but check out this new post. And if you're not reading the blogosphere's greatest champion of truth and justice, you should start.

There's a New Atheism?

So, this month's cover story in Wired is "The New Atheism," which presents profiles of Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, and a few others. Here is my favorite excerpt, from Dawkins, responding to the point that his absolutism makes life harder for the "sensible" folks arguing that belief in evolution doesn't naturally or inevitably lead to atheism:

"My answer is that the big war is not between evolution and creationism, but between naturalism and supernaturalism. The sensible religious people are really on the side of the fundamentalists, because they believe in supernaturalism. That puts me on the other side."

I agree with this. The real battle is between naturalism and supernaturalism. I've pretty much had it with quasi-neo-deist explanations of evolution. Either natural processes explain, or can explain, the observable universe, or they can't. I'm on the "can" side.

I also like the author's (Gary Wolf) comment that many of the people he knows call themselves agnostic, but "they don't harbor much suspicion that God is real." I also like Dawkins's point, which I've been making for years, that no one is agnostic about the existence of Apollo, or Thor, or the Thunderbird. If you have to suspend judgment on the existence of the Christian God, why not on all the gods that have ever been believed in?

So, here's a cheer for the old atheism.

LAX Spottings

So, at LAX this morning, I saw both D.C. mayoral candidate Adrian Fenty (with entourage) and Bob Woodward. I guess if you're at the gate for the D.C. flight, you might see some D.C. folks.

Anyway, Fenty tried to walk through the security checkpoint with a half-full bottle of Vitamin Water. This is, of course, verboten. But Fenty didn't seem to know this. And none of his staff entourage (six of them) had told the future mayor of my fine city that this is, well, no longer cool. I wonder what else his staff isn't telling him?

Woodward actually used a pay phone at LAX. A pay phone? Who uses pay phones? Maybe he's afraid that the guv'mint will wiretap his calls? Btw, he talked really loud on the pay phone, which is odd. I should add that he didn't say anything interesting, although maybe he was talking in code . . . .

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

He's History

Went to hear David McCullough speak last night. A real pleasure. He knows how to bewitch an audience, and much of his commentary--on history, education, writing, and culture--was as wise as his grandfatherly eyes were twinkly. McCullough is not an historian to whom I naturally gravitate. Although I admire his warm humanism, in his effort to make history personal he leaves out too much of the intellectual for my liking. Yet his charms are undeniable.

That said, I do have a nit to pick. McCullough claimed that, to be an historian, you must enjoy history as a matter not just of the mind but of the heart. He also argued that the best modern presidents have generally been those who had such an interest in history (TR, Truman, JFK, etc.). And he praised the founders for their immersion in ancient history. The implication was that, by studying the past, these great leaders were best equipped to deal with the complexities of the present. OK. Not an especially controversial claim for an historian to make, but a generally reasonable one. After the talk, McC went on the respond to some questions that had been presubmitted by History Dept. grad students. One question was, "Should historians use their historical understanding to pursue political causes?" His answer, a resounding, "NO!"

Spot the contradiction? How, exactly, can those wise leaders benefit from history if they refuse to apply its judgments to present controversies? And how, pray tell, can historians "take the past to heart" if they don't actively relate it to what they have lived and are living? In one sense, I can sympathize with McC's answer. We've all been in classes, or known colleagues, who used their positions as an excuse to proselytize and harangue for some lame ideological agenda. I'm annoyed by both the lefty sociologist who requires you to acknowledge your own inner racism and the business law prof who relieves his normal schedule of pizza parties and Rambo viewings with diatribes about how any students who vote Democratic are too stupid to pass his (pathetically standardless) class. Objectivity comes first, and we ought to avoid the tedious axe-grinding that is better suited for, well, weblogs like this.

But McC made his point without any nuance. It was a dogmatic, even a silly, claim. He elaborated by saying that he didn't think you could judge a leader until 50 years down the road. Huh? To take an extreme case, did we really need 50 years to know that Mussolini was an asshole? Stalin? Maybe we've gained more universal consensus on those figures over time, as extreme supporters were discredited. But come on! People knew back then. And it wouldn't have done any good for them to say, "Hey, wait, I think Stalin's a scum-sucking commie tyrant, but maybe I'll be proved wrong in 50 years, so I'll shut up about it." You've gotta make judgments, damn it. Yeah, maybe you're wrong, and time will expose the errors. But that doesn't mean you can't--or shouldn't--make them. Why study history if it has NO use in the present? The unwitting endpoint of his argument is raw escapism, or obsurantism.

Back in the USA, of course, things are often more complicated. Truman was unpopular when he left office, but history makes him look a lot better. Harding died a beloved Prez and now lies in utter disrepute. Still, those are exceptions. FDR died a great, and he's only risen. Nixon left in disgrace, and he'll always stay there (no matter how many books his corpse writes). I may like Jimmy Carter, and he may build a lot of houses, but I don't see how he'll ever be redeemed as a successful president. McC may think John Adams got a raw deal, but, ya know, no matter how eloquently he wrote letters to Abby, the Alien & Sedition Acts are still a mightly millstone. Sometimes a trainwreck is what it is. George Bush may tell us over and over that "history will judge," but I can smell his shit now. Maybe history will prove me wrong. I'm willing to take that risk.

Piazza dei Signori Americani?

Many Americans are aware of the terrible costs of the Iraq war in lives and money, among Americans, coalition partners and most especially Iraqis. For those interested in some of the other costs of this war, such as the current perception of the American military abroad, the case of an airport called Dal Molin in the northern Italian town of Vicenza provides a useful barometer. As I had mentioned earlier, the American military wants to expand this airport and convert it into an American air base and then connect it with the current American army base there, Caserma Ederle. The Americans, in fact, had announced that an agreement had already been reached during the Italian government of the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi. But there’s just one problem with this agreement – they forgot to ask the local people of Vicenza what they thought about it and now there are problems. After much agitating, tomorrow there will be an unprecedented meeting at the town’s famous Piazza dei Signori to decide whether or not to submit this decision to a popular referendum. In order to pull off this town meeting, an enormously high level of security has also been necessary to keep the anticipated angry crowds under control, not only at the Piazza, but also at other civic offices. The local paper, Il Giornale di Vicenza, refers to this level of security with words such as senza precedenti (“without precedent”), or, using words that recall the Nazis of WWII, these offices are called Aula bunker (“bunker entrances”), or the local government is referred to as a municipio sbarrato (“barricaded municipality”).

It’s important to keep a few things in mind about this situation. The Italians are among our closest allies in the entire globe, second only to Britain, and an overwhelming majority are disgusted at us over the toxic miasma in Iraq. The damage to American interests that this disgust has produced and is producing should not be underestimated and is not the fault of the Italian left or any other party. The fault lies squarely upon the shoulders of the current American administration, whose hubristic imperial policies have and will not only cost us a helluva of a lot more money (to relocate bases...), but will also make us less safe and more isolated as we take up with unsavory characters in other corners of the globe to replace the good friends we have now.

O yes, in the photo one sees the two columns that grace one end of the Piazza dei Signori at Vicenza – the Piazza of the Lords. The left column was built by the Venetians. The lion was the symbol of their imperial rule and it was Venetian custom to build such lion-topped columns among their subjects. Note the book under the lion’s right paw – it is open. This signifies that the people of Vicenza had willingly agreed to become a satellite of the Venetian empire without battle. Had the book been closed, as is in other places and on top of other columns throughout the Venetian empire, it would have signified that the Venetians needed to resort to coercive measures on the Vicentini. Tomorrow, should the local and national Italian governments not allow there to be a popular, democratic referendum and go on to push through the expansion of the American base without public approval, then we might rightly say that a column topped with an eagle holding a closed book in his talons should be erected on the Piazza dei Signori Americani.

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

In Vino Veritas

For those interested in less widely known wines, I heartily recommend something from Ravines Wine Cellars located in the Finger Lakes region of NY. My cousin sent me a case about a month ago and I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the Dry Riesling, House White, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir. The Riesling is simply stellar and the House White is also good. The reds are almost as light as a Rosé (nothing strong like a Chianti here) and fruity, but not saccharine – truly a good combination.

We Never Said "Unconditional Surrender"

I'm about to head out the door for a three-day swing to the West Coast. Work. But you have to eat. But I just wanted to chime in on the whole "It was never 'stay the course'" thing. Only an administration this used to lying (and getting away with it) would try to deny that they ever used a phrase when, of course, that phrase was their own frame for the war for more than two years. It's a strange Eastasia or Eurasia moment for those of us living in Oceania. I seem to remember . . . that . . . they used to say "stay the" something. Now, what was it, again?

There's an even weirder point here, which is that wars are almost always slogan-heavy human endeavors. Indeed, one can almost describe past wars in terms of slogans and song lyrics. Remember the Maine. Over There. Remember Pearl Harbor. Lose Lips Sink Ships. Hearts and Minds. Even military terminology blends into the pop cultural memory. Strategic bombing. Amphibious landing. Airborne. Demilitarized zone. How about strategic hamlets? Hanoi Hilton. Peace with honor. War has a huge effect on the language we use, since, in a militaristic culture like ours, we tend to describe lots of things in war terminology. And there's so much speech about war, when it is happening, that it is bound to affect the way we speak.

In the present war, I would say we have a few of these phrases or terms. Shock and awe. Greeted as liberators. And, of course, STAY THE COURSE.

It would be like FDR going on the radio and saying, "We never said 'unconditional surrender.' It is possible that we can find a diplomatic solution to the present conflict in Europe." Or maybe even, "Pearl Harbor? What's that?"

Of course, this present administration isn't likely to seek a diplomatic solution, either. And it's not even clear who it is we're fighting, so it's not going to be easy to accept their unconditional surrender on a battleship in Baghdad Harbor. And the primary difficulty in the last sentence isn't that Baghdad doesn't have a harbor.

Rock on, my friends. I will try to post Thursday.

Monday, October 23, 2006

You've Already Read This

But here's a link to a great Josh Marshall post.

Mind Blowing Irony

In a last-ditch effort to reelect PA incumbent/adulterer/accused-mistress-strangler Don Sherwood, the Republican National Committee is sending out mailings accusing Democratic challenger Chris Carney of helping start the Iraq war.

To compound the irony, the RNC isn't lying! Chris Carney worked in the Pentagon's Policy Counterterrorism Evaluation Group, which produced pre-war "intelligence" that Saddam had ties to Al Qaeda. Carney defends himself: "Some of the party disagrees with me on this, but I know what I saw. The party respects that I was in a unique position to know this. They like the idea they have a Democrat strong on national defense joining their ranks, especially on the war on terror."

Well, this little incident nicely encapsulates the complete degradation of our entire political class on everything related to the Iraq War. The Republicans desperately deserve severe electoral punishment for their profound misjudgments and policy failures on Iraq, but it's almost a shame that our Democratic party establishment will benefit from it.

Don't Believe the Hype

So, we were watching that Russert show yesterday, when "Mr. Wonderful" Barack Obama made the "announcement" that he was "thinking about" running for president in 2008. If you hadn't already concluded that he was thinking of running in two years, you haven't been paying attention, people. But this raises two questions: (1) Why would he be thinking of running in 2008? And (2), why would people be excited that he's thinking of running in 2008?

First question first. My sense is that Obama's thinking is motivated by the idea that someone in the Democratic primaries in 2008 will emerge as the anti-Hillary, or the non-Hillary, anyway. And right now, it's very hard to see who that person is. Obama says to himself, "If I run, I can run as the alternative to Hillary. That's the road to the nomination." (The road to the nomination, that is . . . and then this guy with a lack of experience problem goes up against media darling St. McCain?)

Now, a subsidiary question: If Obama competes with Hillary, who's the Lefty? If you're like me, out here waiting for a genuine liberal . . . I guess Al Gore is our hope. But he's not running, yet.

Second question, which is basically, why would voters be attracted to Obama as the anti-Hillary? To put it another way, why is Obama regarded as "Mr. Wonderful"?

I just don't get it. If you watched (and listened to) that Russert interview, Obama sounded just like generic Democratic senator. If you just read a transcript, without names or references to Obama's new book, I defy you to identify Obama as distinct from Kerry, Biden, or even Lieberman based on the content of his answers. More importantly, I follow politics pretty closely, and I can't tell you what Obama's big issue is. I can't name an issue on which he's led, in his less-than-two-year Senate career. I have no idea what he stands for, except for platitudes. And if you actually listen to the guy, that's what he gives you. Platitudes. Like "hope," "the American dream," "personal responsibility." But without policy, these are just empty words.

My best guess is that Obama flatters the establishment, as a certain spouse of mine has put it. He's a non-angry black guy, and he has bought in to all the b.s. that oldsters like Joe Klein have been peddling for years.

But some of us are still waiting for someone who will be able to successfully challenge the utterly discredited establishment and shake things up. And Obama has absolutely nothing to offer us, except more of the same.

If you aren't angry at this point, then you're stupid. Even if you were editor of the Harvard Law Review.

Sunday, October 22, 2006

Have We Reached 50%?

I was wondering the other day whether we've reached 50% in the number of U.S. war dead in Iraq yet. I know that the CW is that, after the election, something is going to change in our "strategy" in Iraq. The reason this seems to be the CW is because a change in strategy (not "tactics," as the president said on This Week this morning) is the only reasonable option, and therefore the administration will pursue the only reasonable option. But I have little faith in this administration choosing a reasonable option in Iraq at this point, since they have failed to do so, yet, to this point. Stubbornness is not a strategy. It barely qualifies as a "tactic."

So, if you believe, as I do, that this administration will refuse to leave Iraq before January 20, 2009, and that the next president will have to be the one who "loses Iraq" . . . then we are looking at more than two more years of combat in Iraq. Iraq is in an increasingly bloody civil war, where Shi'ite militias are now fighting one another--one step beyond sectarian violence. The security situation is increasingly untenable in the north, and the southern part of Iraq is now almost as dangerous as Baghdad. It seems clear now that efforts to confront the violence only inflates the number of U.S. casualties, without improving the overall security situation.

How many more Americans will die to save this president from "waving the white flag" and surrendering to "the terrorists," or from "cut and run"? How many more Americans will have to die so that this president doesn't lose a war, in his own mind? ("In his own mind," because the war was never winnable.)

My sense is that we are closing in on 50%, but we're not there yet. That means, yes, that more than half of the Americans who will die in this stupid war will have died after (almost) everyone but the Decider has decided that this war was a mistake.

Btw, it's a little callous to focus on U.S. casualties, given the horrific number of Iraqis who have died since this war began. But that number, from a U.S. politics point-of-view, is irrelevant. Americans just don't care how many Iraqis die. It would be a much, much better world if they did, but they don't, and they won't. Ever.

Where Are They From?


Where is former congressman Mark Foley from? [A: Florida]

Where is Congressman Steny Hoyer from? [A: Maryland]

Where is Congressman Tom Reynolds from? [A: New York]

Where is Congressman Denny Hastert from [A: Illinois]

OK, so where is Congresswoman Nancy Pelosi from? If you watch tv, the answer is always the same: San Francisco. Not California, but San Francisco. Hmmm. I wonder why that could be?

D-Fence! D-Fence!

OK, that didn't go so well. Cards win Game One 7-2. All along in the playoffs, I've been wondering when the Tigers subpar defense was going to make an appearance. This was actually a phenomenon all season--the Tigers can give up runs in a defensive meltdown inning, but play pretty well the rest of the game. So, overall, this loss isn't that big a deal, except it means the Cards are three wins away.

But the Tigers could still pull this out in five. So I'm still in the game. Remember, the Tigers lost Game One in the ALDS to the Yankees, not looking so good, and then rallied to win seven straight.

Btw, the AL swept the NL the last two years--BoSox in 2004, ChiSox in 2005--so the last game that the NL won in the World Series was when the Marlins won it all in Game Six in 2003. So the NL was due to win a game (or two).

Finally, a comment on the obstruction call on Inge in the blowup inning, when Rolen ran into him rounding third. Now, clearly, that is how the call is supposed to go, and Rolen did run into Inge. But, watching the replay, is there any question at all that Rolen ran straight at Inge, who was well outside the basepath, and deliberately collided with him, in order to get the call? No question in my mind that that is what the replay shows.

Saturday, October 21, 2006

Any Big Plans This Weekend?

So, another whirlwind week. Teaching the night class takes up a lot of my blogging time, and I've been really busy at work. Two big projects, with significant responsibility on both, both of which are at a labor-intensive stage right now. (In a few weeks, the research assistants will be going to town collecting the data, and I may have a bit more time to catch my breath.)

So, another apology for being a terrible blogger.

Any big plans going into the weekend? None here, really. Just a laid back weekend, maybe grade midterms (egad) . . . but, oh yeah, the Tigers are in the World Series starting tonight. Yes. I'm calling it Tigers in five. Any thoughts?

Wednesday, October 18, 2006

Sabbath's Theater (1995)

I finally finished reading Philip Roth's Sabbath's Theater a few days ago, and I've been trying to figure out what to say about it. So I'll start with the obvious, which is that it is one of the most viscerally obscene books I've ever read. Roth takes on Aristophanes, the Marquis de Sade, and even the younger Philip Roth (of Portnoy's Complaint) in a game of "dirtier-than-thou" one-upsmanship. If that's not your cup of tea, you can probably stop reading this post now.

However, ST is also an often hilarious exploration of American culture, one that foreshadows much of Roth's brilliant work over the last decade, including The Plot Against America, discussed by #3 here. Even before the Clinton impeachment spectacle (the backdrop for The Human Stain (2000), possibly Roth's best novel), Roth divined the essence of the 1990s--a vast crisis of moral/sexual identity played out with self-righteous indignation on the public stage ("Sabbath's theater" would be a great name for the decade itself)--and then situates it within the larger current of American culture, post-WWII. Roth's ultimate suggestion, I think, is that the hypocrisies, sexual obsessions, and dramatic narcissisms of the late 20th century are, in part, a result of heroism hangover. The "greatest generation" is dead (if not the individuals, the era itself and its retrospective clarity of purpose), so now what do we do?

The "hero" of ST is Mickey Sabbath, an aging, disgraced, diminutive, master puppeteer who passed on his shot at greatness decades ago: he could have been "Big Bird." Instead, he's retreated into the isolation of a porno-Walden, the sexed-up woods of inland New England. Part of what makes ST rough going much of the time is that Mickey is an insufferable ass for 451 pages. Imagine a George Costanza who thinks he's Jack Nickolson. To crib from Arendt, Mickey is a study in the banality of vice (if not outright "evil"). He never asks if he ought to do something, only if he can get away with it, a practical matter on which he is frequently wrong. And, fueled by "the hormone preposterone," the only thing he's really interested in is his own dick. Seduce the maid? Fondle a co-ed during a puppet show? Write a nasty mind-fuck letter in his wife's journal while she's recovering in a mental hospital? Okey dokey. At one point, Mickey claims that his Kantian categorical imperative is "Please me" (333). It's a pick-up line to the wife of his only friend.

When his long-time mistress, the middle aged Croatian sex-bomb, Drenka, dies of cancer, Mickey plunges into an identity fugue that sends him on both a literal and psychological road trip into his own past. Fear and Loathing in New Jersey. When the story ends, Drenka's angry, state trooper son, Matthew, has caught Mickey pissing on Drenka's grave (an act of love, respect, and remembrance, of course) while wrapped in an American flag and wearing a "V-for-Victory, God Bless America" yarmulke left by his dead brother "Mort" (ha!), a casuality of WWII.

As a novelist, Roth often aims to be both Moses and Talmudist: hero, writer, and interpreter. In The Plot, he's openly all three; here, he's the latter two, although we suspect that Mickey is also his darkest alter-ego. So, not surprisingly, there's a lot of commentary in his pages. Much of it involves death, decay, and the "agrarian dream" (294). James Madison, in defending that Jeffersonian vision of America, once argued that, while the farmer was the model of "virtue," the sailor was the epitome of "vice." In "Republican Distribution of Citizens," from March 1792, Madison wrote: "if his ultimate prospects do not embitter the present moment, it is because he does not look beyond it. How unfortunate that in the intercourse by which nations are enlightened and refined, and their means of safety extended, the immediate agents should be distinguished by the hardest condition of humanity."

Mickey to a tee: an "Evangelist of Fornication," stuck in the eternal present of his sick pleasures, seeking enlightenment through perversity (60). After the death of his brother, Mickey "went to sea," literally and figuratively (421). He became a merchant seaman obsessed with "whores." But he also became a bridge between America and the world. Hence Drenka, who tells Mickey on her death bed, "I was dancing with America." Mickey responds, "Sweetheart, you were dancing with an unemployed adulterer. A guy with time on his hands." Drenka then completes the compliment: "You are America. Yes, you are, my wicked boy" (419). The "intercourse" of nations. Give us your tired, your poor, your huddled masses, and we'll corrupt them and piss on their graves! Roth suggests that, much like Mickey and Drenka, who maintain the outward fiction of virtuous marriages and yet are bound together in "transgression," America appeals to the world, not through our proclaimed virtues, but instead via our dramatic vices.

For Roth, the American psycho-sexual drama is really just an extended suicide attempt. Having lost any sense of purpose we might once have had, we're now begging for someone to put us out of our obnoxious misery. Maybe, since everyone enjoys the play, no one will. But it won't be because we didn't ask.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Fiddling with the Governor

I had the rare pleasure of listening to two different governor debates last night. The first was in Michigan: Jennifer Granholm (incumbent Democrat) vs. Dick DeVos (Republican). The debate began propitiously with Granholm blasting DeVos for showing TV adds "with dead children." The rest that I heard was the usual litany of taxes, job creation... DeVos kept hammering her on the state's horrible economy. I’m sure #3 knows this, but for the rest out there, DeVos’s family is one of the founders of Amway (started in Ada, MI, a suburb of Grand Rapids, MI). Had I been Granholm I would have just asked DeVos, “So, Dick, what sort of pyramid scheme do you have for the Michigan economy?”

Then, as my car sped out of the Toledo area and onwards toward Cleveland, at 9:00 PM I picked up the Ohio Governor's debate: Ted Strickland (D) vs. Ken Blackwell (R). This proved to be one of the more entertaining things I've heard on the radio in a long time. Blackwell's strategy might be compared to a team in the 4th quarter that is down by 20 points. What do you do? Throw the Ave Maria. Or perhaps it might be more like a mini-bike ride where you've removed the governor and are speeding out of control. In this case he accused Strickland at least two times of knowingly having a sexual predator on his staff. Blackwell, a member of the Republican party, also kept bashing the current governor Taft, also a Republican. But the best of all was Blackwell's claim that a vote Strickland cast was applauded by the "North American Man-Boy Love Association." He kept repeating it -- "And my opponent cast a vote that even the North American Man-Boy Love Association praised!" Hell, who needs National Lampoon when you've got Ken Blackwell?

Monday, October 16, 2006

No Sense of Humor?

So, as I was saying earlier, this Sunday's Times Book Review was not very good. Probably the worst piece was the review by Virginia Heffernan of a new book on the origins of National Lampoon. The book's title: A Futile and Stupid Gesture: How Doug Kenney and National Lampoon Changed Comedy Forever. Some excerpts:

So what did Kenney and National Lampoon change? Well, for one, Kenney and his jerky clowns--in creating a magazine that begat a stage show, a television show ("Saturday Night Live")[,] and a movie franchise--staple-gunned a certain kind of absurdist conceptual humor to gross-out jokes about puking, violence[,] and masturbation. That worked well.

To quote a great comedian, Well, excu-u-u-use me.

But even worse, the piece ends by praising . . . P.J. O'Rourke. (#@*!!%$#@?) This alone made me want to puke, commit an act of futile and stupid violence, and . . . well, not masturbate. Last sentence: "If anyone 'changed comedy forever,' it was P.J. O'Rourke." Um, I don't know. Has anyone heard from O'Rourke lately? I'm waiting for his hilarious send-up of the Iraq war, any day now. Any day . . . now . . . because that worked well. Heffernan, the television credit without a sense of humor?

Who Wrote This?

Probably the least inspired issue of the New York Times Book Review ever this week. But this quote, from the cover article . . . on a new book on Dean Acheson. Who wrote it?

The position of secretary of state is potentially the most fulfilling in the government short of the presidency. Its scope is global; ultimately it rests on almost philosophical assumptions as to the nature of the world order and the relationship of order to progress and national interest. Lacking such a conceptual framework, incoherence looms in the face of the daily task of redefining America's relationship to the world via the thousands of messages from nearly 200 diplomatic posts and the constant flow of communication from the Executive Departments--all this against the backdrop of Congressional liaison and press inquiry.

Answer in comments. Hint: The evil genius was featured in a recent TMcD post.

Saturday, October 14, 2006

The Tigers Win the Penant!

And on to the World Series . . . what a great series. The A's threw everything they had at the Tigers tonight . . . but not enough. That Milton Bradley is quite a player, even with a strained quad . . . but he'll have to wait for next year. This year is the Tiger's, baby.

Btw, as a fan, one comes to have strong feelings for certain players. In this case, Brandon Inge and, of course, Pudge. Here's the list: Yogi Berra, Johnny Bench, and Pudge. The three greatest catchers of all time. But this Placido Palanco, he's one helluva player.

Friday, October 13, 2006

Know When to Hold 'em

Know when to walk away. Know when to run.

The Gambler's performance this afternoon-tonight. Pitching 7.1 scoreless innings, on a cold day in Detroit--October baseball in Motown. I'm, well, excited. One game away from the World Series . . . .

Two Thumbs up to Woodward’s Denial & the Disney President

Well I survived the long, hard slog of reading all 491 pages of Woodward’s Denial. The man clearly does not abide by the poetics of Callimachus, who famously declared, mega biblion, mega kakon -- “a big book’s a big piece of shit.” On the other hand, there was so much shit to write about the Bush administration’s handling of Iraq, that maybe the length was justified. It’s hard to say how this book will be treated by history or historians in the future. A lot of that has to do with the book’s ambiguous genre. It, as well as other books written by journalists these days, seems to inhabit a world halfway between newspaper-article reporting and a real work of history. It is what the French have dubbed reportage. These books aren’t churned out fast enough to contain much new information (and hence really aren’t “news”) but they’re churned out too fast to be consistently decent history writing. I readily understand the financial reasons for Woodward to write such books, Simon and Schuster to publish them, and the The Washington Post to tolerate this, but I never really understood why so many politicians and their staff are willing to cooperate with such projects, but not with ordinary journalists on the beat. One answer to this puzzle, however, was supplied at the very end of the book, when Woodward described a interview with Bush on December 11, 2003. Woodward was pressing Bush about not finding WMDs and finally after “five minutes and 18 seconds” of pushing him on this he got him to admit the simple fact that none had been found. Woodward goes on to say, “Later [in the interview] he [Bush] wanted to be sure that I understood the terms of the interview—his comments were for the book and not an article in The Washington Post. “In other words, I’m not going to read a headline, ‘Bush Says No Weapons’” (pp. 489-90). So there you have it. A politician can’t resist being a subject of quasi-historical book study and isn’t afraid of spilling a bit of the truth, as long is it’s not contained in a timely headline.

For Bush and others’ willingness to reveal some of the truth to a reportage project and Woodward’s policy of deferentially denying his readers access to this truth for later publication in a book, I give Bush and Woodward two thumbs up.

Naturally there are some really interesting tidbits buried here or there. Woodward provides some more grist for the mill of W’s tortured relationship with his old man. As you may recall, in Woodward’s Plan of Attack the intrepid reporter asked W why he didn’t ask his father for advice for the invasion, and W answered that “You know he is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.” In Denial we learn that Bush says he really loves his father – a father who clearly is in anguish over his son’s poor judgment on Iraq. One comes away with the impression that Junior moved away from more benign manifestations of rebellion, such as drinking and cocaine, to waging a war that his old man wasn’t strong enough to fight. Scowcroft reads it this way, for he muses to Woodward that W “couldn’t decide whether he was going to rebel against his father or try to beat him at his own game” (p. 420). This brings up a very important historical question that some real archaeologist must eventually unearth. When did W first begin to have disdain for his father’s handling of the 1st Gulf War, and what role did the necons play in this? Of course the list of neocons in W’s administration is long and conspicuous for the fact that they were at odds with the important members of #41’s team: Cheney, Rumsfeld, Libby, Wolfowitz, Feith, Khalilizad, Abrams, Armitage, Hadley... When Bremer replaced Jay Garner in Iraq, Woodward reports that he brought along a large, young staff which Garner’s group dubbed the “Neocon Children’s Brigade” (p. 202). From Woodward’s account, however, it appears that W’s adoption of so many neoconservatives into his administration is almost an accident, as if he didn’t know them in advance and did not pick them for their neocon ideology. And yet, one of the original signatories of the neocon manifesto of 1996 was W’s brother, Jeb Bush, so W must have been aware of them and their basic tenets. Are we to imagine that W wasn’t in their circle too and wasn’t aware of what they were saying, which was basically that George H.W. Bush fucked up in Iraq and around the globe by his policy of “appeasement” and that he didn’t set about to “fix” his father’s mistakes? For Woodward’s failing to dig up some of these answers, I once again give him a thumbs up.

Another interesting refrain of the book is the degree to which the Saudis, especially via ambassador Bandar, were involved in Bush’s elections. Bush literally goes to Bandar to ask him for advice when he’s going to run the first time for president (pp. 4-5). He continues to go to Bandar throughout his tenure for advice (most famously now when he asks Bandar, “Why should I care about North Korea?” – a quote which is now making the rounds -- p. 12). The most outrageous revelation of this special relationship, although no real surprise, comes in the context of a meeting Bandar had with Bush in the Oval office on February 20, 2004 at which Woodward reports Rice and Card were also present. Woodward writes, “He [Bush] then thanked Bandar for what the Saudis were doing on oil – essentially flooding the market and trying to keep the price as low as possible. He [Bush] expressed appreciation for the policy and the impact it could have during the election year” (p. 287). Woodward tells us in an appendix of sources on page 509 that the “Information in this chapter [26] comes primarily from background interviews with seven knowledgeable sources...and from documents obtained by the author.” Throughout the book it is clear that Bandar and Card are two people he interviewed extensively – I would peg Card as the primary eye-witness source for this information. So Woodward reports, probably based on Card’s eye-witness testimony, that the Saudis used oil to interfere with the 2004 elections in Bush’s favor. Those who think Bush and the Republicans also don’t have similar friends in the markets working for them right now in the 2006 election cycle are simply naive. In the very next sentence though, which is the beginning of a new paragraph, Woodward then writes, and I am not making this up, “On a new and important subject, Bush said that the United States had a program of $3 billion in aid to Pakistan.” What the fuck? You mean the revelation that a foreign entity was using oil to influence the 2004 US elections in Bush’s favor is not important? For this entire affair and Woodward’s nonchalant reporting of it, I once again give Bush and Woodward two thumbs up.

A further refrain running through the book is Bush’s purely political calculations for running the war based upon his image as a resolute, unswerving Commander in Chief. This portrait dovetails nicely with one of the salient points made by Frank Rich in his book about how good the Bush administration is at manipulating images and political theater. I too have long thought that Bush’s or Rove’s or the Republicans’ true political genius and success are due to their realization that totus mundus agit histrionem -- “All the world’s a stage.” Who can forget the Bush’s bullhorn-moment at the collapsed World Trade Centers or his Top Gun spectacle just offshore from San Diego, but carefully choreographed to look like it was in the middle of the Pacific? The above Latin quote graced the Globe Theatre and has become synonymous with Shakespearean theater. The Bard, probably more than any other English playwright, grasped the idea that performances are not confined to the footlights of the stage, rather all of life was a stage. This realization perhaps led him to write plays that did not fit the inherited classical categories of Comedy or Tragedy (or even Tragi-comedy), rather he wrote a different form of drama that Lionel Abel in 1963 dubbed “Metatheatre.” Metatheatre is found when a play doubles back on itself, where the performance recognizes, engages, and exploits its own theatricality. It characterizes a work that self-consciously and systematically draws attention to its status as a play in order to pose questions about the relationship between fiction and reality (that is, it can serve as a meditation upon Aristotle’s concept of mimesis). So in Hamlet we find a play within a play where “The play’s the thing, Wherein I’ll catch the conscious of the King.”

Metatheatre, then, arises from a view of life (not of theater) -- that is how life is actually lived, and therefore should be presented on stage. What characterizes that life is its theatricality: characters who know that they are both other than the plot in which they appear and constructed by that plot; characters who attempt to control their plot or reveal their own theatricality like Hamlet. What follows from this worldview is the sense that real world beyond the footlights -- the world of family, of forum, of courts, of political chambers, of symbols and position -- is also a stage. This does not mean that Shakespeare or those who possess the metatheatrical sensibility are uncertain about what is “real”; it merely means that those who view life this way are absolutely certain that all of life is a performance, that it is all an act, all an improvisation of images, all a competition over the meaning of the symbols that inhabit our world, and that we must also improvise ourselves to achieve our desires (position, power, sex...). And this is what Frank Rich sees in the Bush Administration. This is what they are masters at. We need not look far for Bush’s inspiration for this theatrical view of the world. As Woodward reports, one time Bush confided to John McCain that, “I don’t want to be like my father. I want to be Ronald Reagan” (p. 419).

One of the most tell-tale signs, both in life and on the stage, of a metatheatrical character, is his use of rhetoric. A metatheatrical character can take any situation and improvise (spin) an argument on stage. The more amusing examples can, naturally, can be found in Comedy. Digression here: although Abel limited his discussion of metatheatre to Tragedy, as others have argued (Susan Sontag in her review of Abel and more recently Will Batstone), if metatheatre arises from life and depends upon the theatricality of life, then there is no inherent reason why there cannot be a comic version of metatheatre, that is a comic presentation of life as already theatricalized. A good example of metatheatrical Comedy in the ancient world was Plautus. His “clever slave” characters in particular exhibit a comic metatheatrical view of the world. Thus the clever slave Gripus in the Rudens has fished up a trunk in the harbor. When confronted by someone who knows the trunk’s real owner (see here, where the word trunk is translated as “wallet”) he lays claim to the trunk by projecting it as a “trunk-fish” and himself as a “trunk-fisherman” in a brilliant farce of legal argument. As Woodward’s book makes clear, these are the sorts of political and legal farces the Bush administration and Republican party allegedly came into power to resist (Clinton’s comical “It depends on what the definition of ‘is’ is”), yet are performing on the American public everyday in much more alarming and tragic ways than Clinton or the Democrats ever did: “Saddam refused to disarm, so we disarmed him” [how could he disarm when he didn’t have the arms he was accused of having?]; “What does that mean, ‘outrages upon human dignity’?”; “That’s not global warming, why that’s just ‘climate change’”... In fact, as perhaps Plautus reflects at Rome so many millennia ago, it’s obvious that effective empire-building in a democratic republic requires such a rhetorical manipulation of the world’s images. So Bush has become the Disney president in this neocon vision of the New American Century, backed up by Fox news.

Speaking of Fox News and Disney, in Woodward’s book on page 346 we learn that Fox News’s CEO Roger Ailes (who had been Bush senior’s media consultant) relayed a message to Rove late in the evening of the 2004 election that unlike the 2000 election “You don’t want me [FOX] to be the first one to call it.” As for Disney, when Rice was telling Bush that the images from Iraq were a problem, Bush allegedly says, “You know, we could go to Hollywood. I know people in Hollywood. We can go to Disney. We can get people involved who can do this kind of thing.” This perhaps adds some interesting commentary to The Path to 9-11, which was aired by a subsidiary of Disney (ABC). For Bush’s metatheatrical manipulation of images and his Disney presidency, I give him two thumbs up.

Finally, Woodward’s most obvious, unrelenting thesis seems to be that Iraq was winnable if Don Rumsfeld had never been picked as Secretary of Defense or if he had been fired even a few years into the war, or if he had been willing to send more troops – a tactical decision that Woodward has Rumsfeld blame on Franks. This aria of “Rumsfeld is the problem” begins on page one of the prologue and carries on throughout the entire book, one note after another. Rumsfeld had no plan for after the invasion, Rumsfeld replaced Garner with Bremer (who made 3 huge mistakes), Rumsfeld wouldn’t send enough troops, Rumsfeld didn’t get along with the State Department, Rumsfeld micromanaged... In fact, Woodward is so eager to cast Rumsfeld as the villain of the Iraq War that on page 310 he stoops to making even Wolfowitz seem more heroic in order to bring Rumsfeld’s incompetence into relief. Only in the last bar (chapter 45) does the score finally turn to Bush, and then Bush’s inability to see Rumsfeld’s failure is labeled merely a “denial” (the word denial is applied only to Bush and, as far as I could tell, first appears on page 267 and isn’t repeated until page 488, and again in the last sentence of the book on page 491), as if Bush were some sort of sympathetic creature with a pardonable psychic distress. The hard fact is, and one that history has taught again and again, is that occupying armies never succeed against local resistance, no matter the tactics or leaders, unless the occupying army is willing to slaughter most of the local, adult male population, intermarry (and hence produce new citizens with a stake), and take over the land. Of course the real blame for the decision to go war, not to anticipate an insurgency, and to keep the same personnel to run it, falls squarely and solely on Bush, who as the book makes clear, values political loyalty over competency. Over and over again Bush says “Heck of job” to all his players and only those, with the exception of Powell, who leave, are those who choose to leave (Tenet, Armitage, Card...). So, for the book’s underlying thesis that Rumsfeld was the problem and Bush was merely in denial about him and Iraq, I once again give Woodward two thumbs up.

One more new thing I learned from Woodward’s book. On page 290 he reports that “In Iraq the thumbs-up sign traditionally was the equivalent of the American middle-finger salute.” A google search confirms this.

Kiss Me Cato

At Political Animal Kevin Drum takes up the case recently made by Markos for the "libertarian Democrat." Whereas Kos sees opportunities for Dems to attract the "Cato" crowd as a result of Bush's authoritarian policies, Drum suggests, quite rightly, that most modern libertarians remain too ideologically obsessed with tax cuts and laissez-faire to act upon the civil liberties issues that might bring them into the Dem camp. At FFB, we've discussed the "South Park Republicans" before here.

Interestingly, I have yet to see anyone in the discussion mention the original "Cato"--not the Roman statesman, but the English columnists (John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon) whose pen name, appropriated by the Cato Institute, gave primal inspiration to the Murray Rothbard and the founders of the American "libertarian" movement. As it turns out, if you actually bother to read him, the real "Cato" was emphatically a "libertarian Democrat," one now spinning in his (their) grave(s) about how libertarianism has sold its soul.

Take this quote as a good starting place:“O Companies, Companies! ye bane of honesty, and ruin of trade; the market of [stock-] jobbers, the harvest of managers, and the tools of knaves, and of traitors!” (1995, 72) Can't get much farther away than that from the unabashedly pro-corporate sensibilities of the Cato Institute.

Trenchard and Gordon wrote Cato's Letters, a weekly series of 144 incendiary newspaper columns for the London Journal, between 1720 and 1723. The occasion for their outrage was the South Sea Bubble, a massive scandal involving corporate power and influence that combined many of the features of Enron and Haliburton. The South Sea Company was a trading company with private stockholders, chartered by parliament and given monopoly privileges over trade with Spanish South America. The SSC was formed to help manage England’s public debts, run up through royal military adventures. Debt certificates were convertible to company stock. Although the company produced nothing of value, its stock rose through speculation, artificially pumped up by the company’s officers and the public officials they had bribed. When the bubble burst, the directors fled the country to escape the consequences of their mismanagement. Cato called for unrestrained vengeance: “what we can have of them, let us have; their necks and their money” (1995, 50).

Cato’s Letters is a work of synthetic genius. Although their ideas are not always original, Trenchard and Gordon create a seamless merger of Machiavelli’s republicanism, John Locke’s liberalism, and Algernon Sidney’s anti-authoritarian populism. The result is an impassioned defense of the industrious individual fighting against corporate privilege and the forces of “tyranny.” As Gordon writes in his “Preface” to the 1724 edition, “Let us therefore. . . brand those as enemies to human society, who are enemies to equal and impartial liberty” (1995, 12).

Note the emphasis on EQUAL, a driving concern for Cato, who didn't believe that freedom could coexist with imbalances of economic power. Following James Harrington, Cato rages against the "money-monsters" (204) and advocates "agrarian laws," i.e., massive inheritance taxes on the lands of the wealthy as a way to maintain a rough equality. As Gordon writes, "A free people are kept so, by no other means than an equal distribution of property;. . . the first seeds of anarchy are produced from hence, that some are ungovernably rich, and many more are miserably poor" (44). Corrupt and self-interested elites are "ever conniving and forming wicked and dangerous projects, to make the people poor, and themselves rich; well knowing that dominion follows property. . . . They will engage their country in ridiculous, expensive, fantastical wars, to keep the minds of men in continual hurry and agitation, and under constant fears and alarms" (124-5). I'm not sure I could pen a better summary of the Bush years.

What did "freedom" mean for Cato? Trenchard asserts that “a free trade, a free government, and a free liberty of conscience, are the rights and blessings of mankind” (653). For Cato, however, the freedoms of conscience take priority over all others: “Whigs think all liberty to depend upon freedom of speech, and freedom of writing. . . there is often no other way left to be heard by their superiors, nor to apprize their countrymen of designs and conspiracies against their safety” (721). Restricted speech is the hallmark of tyranny, since absolutists always promote “abject sycophancy and blind submission” (115). If you have freedom of conscience, all else will follow in its wake: prosperity, public virtue, and a government as good as its people. This is a key difference between Cato and the Cato Institute. For the former, economic liberty derives its energy from civic equality and civil liberty, NOT vice versa.

Historian Forrest McDonald credits Cato with having invented the free speech ideology of the American founding, arguing that this was never a primary political objective prior to the 1720s. The language of the First Amendment, especially concerning the right to "petition for redress of grievances," comes straight out of Cato's Letters, which was, by some counts, the most cited work of political philosophy during the American Revolution. Interestingly, although it is generally assumed that this amendment reflects the "liberal" or Lockean aspects of the American founding, Cato actually develops his arguments on free speech NOT from Locke but from Machiavelli.

In particular, Cato rests his analysis on Machiavelli's contention that "the people" are more honest and trustworthy than "the nobles." In an extended analysis of "libel," Gordon writes that, "Machiavel says, Calumny is pernicious, but accusation beneficial, to the state;. . . states have suffered or perished for not having, or for neglecting, the power to accuse great men who were criminals, or thought to be so" (229). This does not sanction all attacks, however: "There are some truths not fit to be told. . . . But this doctrine holds true as to private or personal failings; and it is quite otherwise when the crimes of men come to affect the public" (228). In other words, Cato would love Michael Moore and despise Ken Starr. Cato maintains that the truly dangerous libels are not those of the people against their leaders, but of the leaders against their people. For example, if someone were to blame the weak will of the American people for losing the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, rather than assigning responsibility to the failed policies of failed leaders, that would be a "libel." Cato also likes to say that leaders who sap and betray the people's natural liberties are guilty of "treason" (230).

Finally, Cato develops an argument concerning what we now call the "right to privacy." But, again, Cato develops this argument from Machiavellian republicanism, not Lockean liberalism. For Machiavelli, the fundamental difference between the people and the nobles is that the latter want only to oppress, the former NOT to be oppressed. Cato translates this as a right to be left alone to enjoy the fruits of one's labor in privacy and comfort: "Happiest of all men, to me, seems the private man. . . . He who can live alone without uneasiness,. . . enjoys such high felicity as the wealth of kingdoms and the bounty of kings cannot confer" (2).

Put it all together, and Cato looks a lot more like a partisan Democrat than a corporate libertarian. Cato's Letters are the missing link between Machiavellian and Jacksonian democracy. Funny how unexpectedly things turn out when you actually know a little history.

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

FOX & Friends

This weekend Mrs. TMcD and I took a trip to rural SW Virginia for a family wedding (actually, a mainland reception for a wedding that had taken place in Hawaii, where my cousin and his wife are the reigning moderates teaching at a conservative Baptist high school). Since this is Jim Webb country, we enjoyed hearing some radio ads for the two campaigns. Webb's were quite good, in my humble opinion.

But the most entertaining political analysis I saw on the trip came from the TVs hovering over the continental breakfast bar at the La Quinta where we stayed on the drive home. Since I make it a rule never to turn on a television earlier than the evening news, I never knew that there was a show called "FOX & Friends." Wake up with your favorite right-wing nutbars! Just imagine a smug, dye-jobbed Bill O'Reilly-type and a weatherman playing with funny hats. The combination of ditzy banter and far-right agitprop is truly a synthetic marvel. And without precednet, I suspect. Can you imagine "Muffins with Mussolini"? "Nibbles with Nixon"? "Pinochet & Pals ;-)"?!

The morning I watched, the hosts had a really funny exchange about the effort of some GOP congressmen to make English the "official language" of the US. The female anchor put on her best dumb blond routine: "Hello!? Isn't English already our official language? You mean people want to speak other languages in public? This is America, Paco." OK, she didn't say "Paco," but you get the idea. Who would have thought I could get such entertainment at La Quinta, which I guess is "Spanish for 'Learn the Language, Paco.'"

Tuesday, October 10, 2006

The Debate: It's Ford by a Head

Just a quick post on the first debate between Harold Ford, Jr. and Bob Corker in the TN race for US Senate. No real surpises, but Ford won.

As I've said before in an earlier post, these are both good candidates. Corker is smart, qualified, and a responsible moderate at heart. He's not your standard-issue, big spending, warmongering, child-molesting Republican. He generally acquitted himself with poise and dignity in this debate. There was a lot of shameless pandering, of course--especially on immigration, for example. But both sides did it, and we musn't forget that this is a debate after all, so pandering is par for the course.

Two major points of interest, one substantive, one superficial. I'm not sure which will matter more. First, as for substance, both men came across well. Their strategies, however, were exactly opposite. Corker started off with a statement about who he was and where he was from. He sounded like he was running for mayor of Chattanooga, which he's already been. Ford, by contrast, skipped the usual bio and went straight after foreign policy: Iraq, Iraq, Iraq. North Korea. Iraq. He wanted the audience to know that he's thinking BIG. This is a national election. If you want business as usual, if you want to "stay the course," just vote for Corker. Ford took every opportunity to remind people that Corker was a Republican and that they had controlled every branch of government for the last several years. Party was an issue, and Corker never made a serious effort to show his independence from the GOP in Congress or the White House.

Second, Ford's strategy reinforced the superficial visual difference between the two. Ford looked a head taller and much more statesmanlike. As a not especially tall man myself, I feel bad for Corker on this one. But the height disparity really seemed to highlight the greater forcefullness of Ford. And Ford kept using terms like "shortcomings" and "big differences" to give viewers subtle reminders. I'm sure it was intentional.

Corker made a couple of big attacks, but Ford parried them with ease. Given the recent momentum of this race toward Ford, Corker needed to land a few solid blows. I didn't see any.

A Bad Idea?

So, I haven't posted on the Foley scandal, and I haven't said much about the Woodward book. On the Foley scandal, I don't have much to add. It seems to me that it's pretty hard to believe that the leadership did "everything they could have done" to protect pages from Foley's, um, advances. And it seems pretty clear that at least some members of the leadership had enough knowledge of Foley's activities that they were "on notice," with at least some obligation to investigate. OK, nothing to add there. And it seems pretty clear to me that Hastert has been lying about what he knew and about the Democrats' role in the uncovering of the emails and IMs.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to me is that this scandal is the one that might bring the GOP down. But the media will always cover a sex scandal. Lobbyist scandals, another story.

On the Woodward book, few new details, if you've been paying attention the last four years. I realize that most people haven't been, but if you have been, you already knew that the administration went to war--rushed to war--without a clue about what deposing Saddam Hussein would actually mean. What is more interesting, and more on this to come, is that almost everyone who talked to Woodward about this book seemed determined to throw Rumsfeld under the bus. About 300 pages into the book, it's easy to reach the conclusion that Rumsfeld screwed this up. Oh, sure, Bush and Cheney played their own roles (incompetent dufus and evil madman, respectively). But it was Rumsfeld. That seems to be the message of the book, so far.

Oh, did you catch Woodward on Meet the Press this Sunday? There's been some controersy over some of the statements of Cheney, Scowcroft, and a few others in the book. A few of these folks have denied that they spoke to Woodward about State of Denial. And that is true, as far as it goes. Woodward had an inspiration in working on this book, though. Why not, at the same time, write a book on the Ford administration? After all, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and many other players in the Bush adminsitration were in the Ford administration . . . so, at the end of the "on the record" interview on the Ford years, a question about the Iraq war kind of pops up, and the interiewee answers, without having asked, "Is this still on the record?" Brilliant. Can't wait to read that book on the Ford years.

Speaking of old times, I should note that the Tigers start their American League Championship Series showdown with the Oakland Athletics tonight. It's funny the difference that a week makes. On October 1, the Twins won the AL Central, the Tigers finishing the season with a humiliating sweep at the hands of the woefully bad Kansas City Royals. A week later, the Twins had been swept by Oakland, and Detroit had dominated the Yankees to advance. So the Twins had a good week, followed by a bad week, but the Tigers had a series of bad weeks, followed by one great week. Let's hope that that string of good weeks continues. GO TIGERS!

Finally, that brings me to the point of this post.

Have you seen the ads for this new Robin Williams movie, Man of the Year? The one where the comedian runs for and wins the presidency. This seems like the worst idea for a movie I've ever seen. Oh, sure, it would have been funny seen years ago, when we lived in a non-serious time, dominated by MonicaGate. But these are serious times. Are people really in the mood for a "politics is a laughing matter" movie . . . ?

Besides, when was the last time that a Robin Williams movie was actually funny?

Saturday, October 07, 2006

End of a Long Week

OK, so I haven't posted in a long time, but it was a pretty long week. Ran the Twin Cities Marathon on Sunday. My time was decent, about what I expected to run. I probably could have run a little faster, overall, if I hadn't gone out too fast. Also, the hill in miles 22 and 23 pretty much kicked my butt. Then on Sunday, after the marathon, got together with the brother-in-law and his wife; they live a couple hours outside the Twin Cities. Then Monday was a travel day . . . and then the work week started. So today, just a lazy day, watching some baseball, catching my breath. Oh, yeah. Also had some computer problems this week, so I didn't have a home computer for part of the week. So, forgive the lack of posts. (Clearly, it wasn't a lack of things to post about. And I've started State of Denial, so posts on that to come.)

Also, some strange events on 13th Street today. When we came back from our run, the street was cordoned off, with three firetrucks. Apparently, there was something going on, underground, that was blowing the manhole covers off. Huh? The firefighters I talked to didn't really know what had happened . . . or at least they didn't say.

Goliath Defeated; Philistines End Disappointing Campaign Season Without a Championship

I don't know if anyone else watches television coverage of the baseball playoffs, but if you do, have you noticed, um, that almost all the coverage is of one team--the New York Yankees.

This has long bothered me, but I have to say, in the Yankees-Tigers series (which, I should add, the Tigers lead, 2-1), that it's really getting annoying. One of the Fox sportscasters actually said that, if the Yankees don't win the World Series this year, well, "it will be six years for the Yankees without winning the World Series." Really? Is that a long time to go between World Series championships? Because the Tigers haven't won one in 22 years.

OK, sure, I'm a Yankee hater. Go Tigers!

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

That Sound you Hear is Christopher Hitchens's Head Exploding

A graf from Walter Shapiro's review in Salon of the new Bob Woodward book, State of Denial:

But the most alarming Vietnam specter is not body counts, but another two-word noun: Henry Kissinger. As Vice President Dick Cheney told Woodward in a 2005 interview, "Of the outside people that I talk to in this job, I probably talk to Henry Kissinger more than I talk to anyone else." Bush too fell under the sway of that Nixonian relic who did more than anyone else living to add names to the Vietnam Memorial through his stubborn refusal to admit that the war was a lost cause.

As Woodward writes, citing Card as his source, "Kissinger was one of the few nonfamily outsiders with a standing invitation to call whenever he was coming to Washington to see if the president was available."

Aside from passing references to Kissinger distributing copies of his 1969 "salted peanuts" memo (likening Vietnam troop withdrawals to an addictive snack), these anecdotes have not received much attention in the roll-out of "State of Denial." Instead the media blitz has centered on secret Pentagon and State Department reports that described the Iraqi civil war in candid terms at the same time when Bush and Company were indulging in Panglossian fantasies. (If anyone was shocked by these revelations, it is safe to assume that he or she is on the White House payroll.)

So, Henry Kissinger is the evil genius lurking behind the curtain! I wonder how Bush's biggest defender on "the left," Christopher Hitchens, will handle this? Time for a new epilogue to The Trial of Henry Kissinger?

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Grooming a New Generation of Leaders (or, Sadists, and Racists, and Pedophiles, Oh My)

So many jokes, so little time. Where to begin? I guess you know it's been a bad week for the GOP when their shining moment--the one they hope you remember--is the legalization of torture and the shredding of habeas corpus. Thank God they're the party of "strict constructionism." I'd hate to see what those moral relativists, the "Democrats," would be doing to the Constitution right now. If they existed, that is. I suspect they're a myth, like Emmanuel Goldstein.

Don't be confused. I come not to bury Caesar but to praise him. In the interest of fairness and balance, I think it is time to give the GOP their due. Although it may be the case that most sadists, and racists, and pedophiles are Republicans, the converse is surely NOT true. I know several Republicans who are none of these things. I even suspect that some of their leaders, although flawed--like all mankind--are NOT all three of these things at once. For example, as I've often said, George Bush is not a racist. Also, I have seen no evidence that George "Macaca" Allen is a pedophile. So step off, bitch.

Really, if you think about it, there are plausible explanations for all of this week's bombshell revelations. George Allen used the "N-word" repeatedly, for years, in private and in public? I'm sure that he was just instructing others on the damaging power of words. He's a lawyer, isn't he? Or maybe he was offering a sly critique of racist meta-narratives by subverting the paradigm from within, reappropriating the language of their oppression by reimagining himself as a poor black ham-sandwich eating farmer and then confronting his white interlocutors with the terms of their callous indifference. It's post-modern. Duh!

Jack Abramoff had 485 contacts with the White House? Well, he's Jewish, right? A lobbyist for Native American tribes? He was just "genocide-counselling." The White House was invading a sovereign foreign nation, promoting democracy, and liberating its oil reserves. . . I mean, its freedom-loving hordes of huddled brown masses. Just the time for a little sensitivity training. Would "permanent bases" upset the native populations? Would naked dogpiles offend their religious sensibilities? Who better to articulate popular reservations and offer settlements?

And Mark Foley, Deputy GOP Whip, Ways & Means comm. member, Chair of the Caucus on Missing and Endangered Children? Pedophile, you say? Why, he was just engaging in a little "youth outreach." Grooming a new generation for the GOP, as it were. You liberal media types are always complaining about how the Republican Party is filled with rich, old, white guys. Well, how else do you expect them to recruit the old white guys of tommorow? Fogeys don't grow on trees you know. The children are our future. So what if he's not a parent? It takes a village, or something like that. That's also why the House leadership helped Foley out by keeping things quiet. This was a "pilot program," a "double-blind" study on teen susceptibility to peer pressure. Any early publicity could have undermined the objectivity of the research. Large scale public trials were coming later. You're not anti-science are you?

Finally, you chortle, Bob Woodward wrote a book. Condi Rice found out in June 2001 about 9/11 and blew it off. Rumsfeld went around shredding copies of a report calling for an end to torture. Bush was lazy, passive, indifferent, and confused. Yawn. Old news. There's nothing NEW here! We're only interested in NEW ideas. And NEW facts. Like, "Iraq is doing great," "Bush is a genius," and "Americans looove to be waterboarded for their liberal political beliefs." Remember, the GOP are "conservatives." Novelty is their middle name. You can't judge history in the moment. Only generations yet unborn can say whether we've won or lost in Iraq. So we better start seducing them now.