October 03, 2006

My, Who You Wake Up Next To

Or, Is That Sulfur I Smell?

One of the juicier tidbits to come out of the advance notes on Bob Woodward's new book has been the revelation of Henry Kissinger's tendency to lurk about the Bush White House. He's more than welcome, it seems, and not only seen but well heard. Naturally, he's a big fan of "staying the course" in Iraq.

This doesn't frankly come as much of a surprise. But it does offer the consolation of delicious irony, at least if you're among those who have followed Christopher Hitchens's addled post-9/11 politics. A former Nation columnist and long-time left-wing intellectual, Hitch has birthed himself anew in the last five years, and darkly. He championed the invasion of Afghanistan, of course — but then who didn't. On the left, such as it is, most folks stopped there, or at least proceeded with caution. Not Hitch. In what some have seen as psychotic and others as doggedly characteristic, Hitch took the post-9/11 opportunity to latch himself to the Bush wagon with bands of tensile steel. He's always been the vitriolic sort; since the invasion of Iraq, though, lefties have had the disconcerting experience of watching him spit venom not at blustering right-wing functionaries but on their very behalf. Hitchens reversed guns, taking aim with his prodigious intellect, his biting wit, and his apparently bottomless rage at all those former allies who refused to tag along on his jaunt across enemy lines. And he has not done it halfway. Hitchens never does anything halfway. He's downright thuggish, in fact, and personal, and nasty — all of which makes him pretty good company for the Bush team, come to think of it. Take a listen to this debate if you want a for instance (and yes, I realize Galloway is not an uncomplicated figure himself).

But, still, it's been weird, not so much because Hitchens supported the invasion of Iraq — other liberals did that too, like George Packer at the New Yorker, and for some of the same liberal-interventionist reasons Hitchens sometimes cites in his rare moments of lucidity. What's been truly incomprehensible has been the totalitarian nature of Hitchens's self-inflicted intellectual neocon alliance, his refusal to see nuance in either the circumstances or his own position, and his rabid defense of pretty much anything Bush & co. have decided to do — all of which seem at odds with positions Hitchens himself has taken, and vociferously, over the years. Whereas someone like Packer has been able to articulate a liberal justification for military action without losing sight of the faults of the administration figures this allies him with, or of the mistakes that have been made and the mess they've created, Hitchens has gone Maoist, equating the cause (Iraq) with the man (Bush) and regarding anything shy of total fealty to both as cretinous, treasonous, punishable by public flogging at the least, or more, one senses, if he could really have his way.

It just got weirder. Because Hitchens is also a well-known Kissinger-hater. That's an understatement, really; Hitchens has labored for decades to build the case that Kissinger is a war criminal, and should be tried and jailed. It all culminated in his 2002 book, The Trial of Henry Kissinger, the arguments of which are easily guessed but in their execution — this being Hitchens, after all — heartfelt, vituperative, tenacious, eloquent, and persuasive.

What now, when we find that behind his beloved Bush stands this despised figure? Will Hitchens flop again? Is a public self-flaggelation in order? Might he follow Foley (and Gibson, and Ney) into the reformative silence of rehab, or will he crank up his formidable machinery of persuasion once more and find a way to defend Bush, and defend his defense of Bush, by rehabilitating the man he's so long sought to put away?

September 28, 2006

Morning in America Stew


1 NY Times editorial
1 comedy sketch of indeterminate realism
1 foreign poll
1 domestic poll

Bring a large saucepan to temperature over medium heat.

Skim comedy sketch of actual performance; discard, keeping only audience reaction. If audience reaction is staged, discard. If audience reaction is not staged, add to saucepan. (Do you really think it didn't, or couldn't, happen?)

Add meat and trimmings from editorial. Ladle in juice from both polls. Stir. Simmer until gloomy about your nation's future.

Serves 6 to 360 million, hot or cold, rightly or wrongly.

September 07, 2006

Fresh Paths

More on "Paths to 9/11":

> A brief Salon Review and commentary

(Note that in order to read you may have to watch a brief ad, or join Salon.)

In passing, I will note that while no one in his (or her) right mind will dispute the fabulousness of oral sex, one really must wonder, really, just why conservatives remain so, er, worked up over it. Seriously. Why, I mean, it seems to loom so largely -- even overwhelmingly -- in their imaginations.

And I will also observe that the GOP needs new tricks. Every time they manage to crash their way into a crisis they can't get out of, the only move these guys come up with is to trundle poor ole Bill and his whingus-play out for a public gawk. Note to GOP: we get it. He was a horn-dog. He's also not the president any longer. (Oh, how we ever get that.) Yes, we're angry at him for the whingus-play -- mostly because it provides you with a distraction card you're all too willing to throw.

We are, however, far angrier with you for being dishonest, corrupt, bullyingly anti-democratic class warriors, not to mention deeply and hopelessly incompetent threats to the future of the nation, and maybe the world.

Stay tuned. I can smell the smoke of deliberation wafting out of ABC HQ.


In an effort to act more like a real blogger (you know: peripatetic, short-attention-spanned, unable to entertain complex thoughts and possessed of a mile-deep stash of weirdly inappropriate, semi-articulate bile), I am following yesterday's micro-post with another.

If you haven't clued in to the kerfuffle over ABC's upcoming "docudrama" (a nicely dodgy neologism that nudges aside tired old "fiction"), here are two relevant visits you should make:

> The "Path to 9/11" blog

> A NYT story on irked former Clinton administration officials.

The contention is that said "docudrama" makes the Fox-like move of -- how to put it? -- lying about the former Prez's core position on bin Laden. The filmmakers suggest, it's said, that he refused to sign the "kill orders" (or whatever they're called) with which the CIA presented him for bin Laden. This apparently contradicts the historical record (thus putting the "drama" in "docudrama" -- and you have to admit, it's way more, well, dramatic).

The Rachel Maddow Show today made the additional announcement that certain former Clinton administration officials, including the ex-Prez, may be contemplating defamation suits based on the number of, uh, dramatic depictions that conflict with the record, and on the character-assassinating (anyone up for "revisionist historian"?) implications of said depictions. Curiously, Maddow says, ABC has thus far refused to supply Clinton, Albright, or Sandy Berger with copies of the film -- though they've been quick to send them off to right-wing bloggers.

A final note: I tried to make a comment on the "Path to 9/11" blog last night. It was entirely civil and G-rated, not even directed at ABC but at other posters who'd made spurious comparisons between Michael Moore's last film and the upcoming one.* Strangely, the comment has yet to appear. Maybe it just wasn't dramatic enough.

Thus endeth the post. More later on 9/11 films in general, and "docudramas" in particular.

* My point in the comment was, essentially, that there's a big difference between, on the one hand, a film that is produced by a single, named author and that one must pay to see in theaters or on DVD, and, on the other hand, a presentation by an infotainment conglomerate with a substantial news reputation to be broadcast over public airwaves. The expectations audiences reasonably bring to each are very different. A number of posters seemed to be cheering on factual inaccuracy (er, I mean dramatization) in the new film as not only justified but necessary by way of some kind of vengeance for Farenheit 9/11. Leaving aside the painting of Moore's film as inaccurate (which I don't accept, since I've never once heard a single cogent and credible assault on its specific facts), the two are different beasts altogether.

September 06, 2006

Mo' Joe

Though I can't verify this or determine corroboration, it seems worth mentioning as a rather strange -- but not altogether unpredictable -- follow-up on Connecticut:


Shortly and sweetly: enough of this clown. I will gladly contribute to a fund for the purpose of printing this headline on giant billboards and posting them across Connecticut's densely travelled commuter routes.

On the bright side, all that GOP cash couldn't even buy him a working web site on primary day. Seems the price of Republican money not only includes your soul but any trace of competence too. Alas.

August 11, 2006

Just Go, Joe

Am I the only one who sees the recently uncovered airline plot in Britain as yet more evidence of the poverty of our adminstration's strategy? And who sees, by the same light, Joe Lieberman's use of it to whip his victorious opponent in the Connecticut primary (and to threaten those who made that victory possible), as symptomatic of the disease that plagues American government?

We've heard it over and over: "Fight them there so we don't have to fight them here." It has a ring to it. Turns out, of course, that what we'll be doing is fighting them there and fighting them here. And there are more of them to fight — here, there, and everywhere in between — as a result of this adminstration's ignorance, its bumbling, and its inflexibility — to say nothing of messianic fervor and inability to grapple with facts. What's the motto? If at first — and second, and third — it doesn't succeed, tell everyone it did, and keep doing it anyway?

Plainly — and for most of us it has been plain for some time, but not for all — but plainly, whatever the strategy favored by Lieberman and the White House can be called, it has failed. We are in far greater danger today. If nothing else, are people not tired of failure? Even if they can stomach the disingenuity, the condescension, the nascent fascist tendencies. Even if they can tolerate the vituperative attack campaigning, the mudslinging, the namecalling and character assassination. Even if they can take the militarism and the scorn for cooperation in international arenas, and even if they can take the obvious, deepening disdain for actual democratic process, really democracy itself. The simple fact that nothing these clowns do in the realm of foreign policy is working. And that should be enough. That alone should get them jettisoned. People, they can't get it right.

They're worse than do-nothings. Do-nothings might at least keep the numbers of our enemies constant. These clowns fairly breed them. They've planted a crop of terrorists, and it's a bumper, and we'll all be doing the reaping: New Yorkers, Londoners, maybe Angelenos, maybe Parisians. They embrace incompetence. They give it medals and promotions. Shouldn't that tell us something? They don't see it as incompetence. When things don't work, they simply ignore it. Only the room for lies has been utterly exhausted, when disaster is not immanent but rather fully, bloodily upon us — only then does their story change. Iraq has been going very badly for more than two years now, yet only in the last two weeks have they appeared to have an inkling. Before that it was good news, good news, good news.

Listen up: I don't have a security clearance. I don't even live in Washington. I don't know anyone who works in government. I have no special access to privileged information. Everything I know or suspect comes to me from sources widely and in most cases freely available on the street, the tube, the radio, or the internet. And I have known for over two years now that Iraq was going very badly, and about to get much worse. If I can know, anyone can know. Certainly they can know. So why didn't they? There's only one explanation. They didn't want to. They do not care.

I accept the starve-the-beast, corrode-the-system-from-within explanation for why the administration handled Katrina the way they did. I accept it for their approach to environmental regulation, education, health care — anything that involves and actual service to actual Americans, an investment in the nation's human future. They have designed government to fail because they want it to fail. They wish its failure to be a lesson to us all, to convince us that government did not work because government cannot work. We lose faith in government, goes the logic, and then we don't much mind when they take it apart for real and good. Yeah, yeah, yeah. A lot of people think this is fantastic but I am not one of them. I believe it. They do not care. They do not care about democracy, they do not care about the public good, they do not care about your, our human future. Failure is in the game plan; it may even be the game plan. That is what I believe. They are revolutionaries. Revolutionaries are always prepared for collateral losses. Just remember that in this case you are the collateral loss.

Where I do not accept the failure-by-design argument is when it's applied to Iraq. These men may want America to fail, but they want Iraq to succeed. They did not want it badly enough to take political risks, such as the kind incurred by politicians who propose a draft — no, no. But they wanted it. They want it still. Iraq is their chesspiece in the struggle with Iran. Iraq is their hedge against volatile Saudi Arabia. Iraq is their linchpin for military presence in the region, to say nothing of access to that national heroin known as oil. They concocted this war because they believed it was easily winnable — nevermind why they believed this (read George Packer), but they did — and because it would give them exactly what they need. And failure was not a part of that plan.

They've failed anyway. So they fail when they want to, and they fail when they don't want to. Neither their best efforts nor their worst meet with success. So I don't for the life of me understand why anyone — in the Democratic party, in the media, in the blogosphere or in the electorate — does anything other than laugh at them when they pull this tough-on-terrorism shit. They are watering and feeding terrorists, for god's sake. They recruit terrorists better than bin Laden ever dreamed. Comments like Lieberman's and Cheney's should be met with universal scorn by anyone who actually does give a damn about security.

And yet it doesn't happen. Why doesn't it happen? Because people, I think, are confused. And maybe a little ignorant. They don't know what's really going on. Why don't they know? In part because the administration lies. And because the media tends to accept the administration's lies, and don't ask me why that happens because I haven't a clue. But people also don't know, in part, because they don't really look. They don't listen. They go to one of the few tried-and-true feedback loops and they hear the same old shit and they pick at it, nibble it, take a bite or two and then wander back to American Idol Land. They never trusted "those people" anyway, some of them — many of them; more than we'd like to admit — and it's really not that much of a stretch for them to believe that "those people" have evil in their hearts. That "those people" hate us, hate freedom; that it's part of their religion, inherent in the vast mystery that is Islam. It's an explanation that squares with what many already suspected. And thus confirmed, many look no further.

None of this, though, explains the tolerance for ineffectuality. I don't care how many beers you want to have with Bush, there is no measure by which he can be said to have succeeded in foreign policy. No measure. The middle east is six times the powderkeg now that it was five years ago; Al Qaeda and its branches, to say nothing of the Shiite radicals — Iran, Hizbollah — are larger, more dangerous, more determined, and frankly more respected, indeed beloved, throughout the Muslim world. At the same time, the US and Israel are more profoundly despised and moderates everywhere are in retreat. Even before this conflict, our influence in the region had nowhere to go but up. Yet they managed to make things worse. If you reject them for nothing else, why not for that? Where is your worship of competition? Where is the mercilessness of the marketplace? Where is perform or perish? Where is managerial enlightenment, outcomes assessment, milestones, markers, quantifiable goals? Where are consequences?

And yet worse — more cringing, more toadlike, more disgustingly unAmerican — much, much worse than his defense of Rumsfeld's idiocy in Iraq have been Lieberman's attacks on the administration's critics. These attacks have at times borne the tenor of threat, and not subtly. "We undermine the president's credibility at our nation's peril." Could he have put it more ominously, or more self-dramatically? And could he, by the way, have been more wrong? In this case, though, wrong is beside the point. We are defenders of dissent in this nation. We are not its executioners. There can be no greater betrayal than attempts like this to quash honest, thoughtful (and, it turns out, correct) criticism of our leadership and its policy.

The voters of Connecticut, I imagine, may have felt a need to remind Senator Lieberman and his allies in the White House that we do not have — and will not tolerate — kings and vassals in this nation. That we are governed by men and women whom we will treat like men and women and not like minor deities. We will question them (and expect answers), we will lampoon them, we will vote for their opponents. There is neither an ancient European-style court nor a modern Soviet-style politburo to which we are beholden, regardless of Cheney's fantasies. If there is a message in this primary upset, I suspect it may be this.

It's worth noting that meanwhile, as Lieberman and his cronies simultaneously hide from facts and fling dirt at those who would present them, facts march on. We ignore them at our nation's peril. Al Qaeda is alive and well and launching new plots as we speak, and not in distant deserts but in the streets and subways and airports of the west. North Korea builds fresh missile silos on its eastern coast, aiming at Japan and at American bases there. Such is the "success" of administration policy and its enablers. If we are to have any hope of rebuffing these threats and returning to stability, it seems we're going to have to follow the voters of Connecticut. The blind, the deceitful, and the incompetent must go.

We suffer them at our nation's peril.

June 04, 2006

Speaking of MBAs

Matthew Stewart has an amusing piece in this month's Atlantic on consultants, MBA programs, and pointlessly obtuse and thus impressive sounding jargon. It's available here to those with Atlantic subscriptions; otherwise, you may be consigned to the newsstand. Stewart's commentary — part confession, part satirical wince — pairs nicely with my own (also semi-confessional) notes on acronyms from May 26.

Stewart doesn't get at what seems to me to be a core truth of this whole scenario, though, which is that there is smart and then there is, on the other hand, smart. One kind of smart — a kind the corporate universe likes, as do best-seller lists — is capable of learning a few clever steps and then running any old pair of feet up and down them. Those with this kind of smart make great bullshit artists, which is essentially what "management" means in today's corporate world. (It works great in the academic world, too, of which I am also a distant veteran.) Refined jargon is a beautiful thing, in that it accomplishes two mutually enhancing goals: first, to make the speaker or writer seem highly informed, sophisticated, subtle of mind; and second to make everyone else feel like a dolt. A third and equally valuable function is to obviate the need for actual intellectual work. Jargon is a short-cut; its glory is that it's never entirely wrong. Its evil, if we can use such a term, is that neither is it ever entirely right. It elides distinctions, pushing thought onto unctiously cornerless pathways of apparent forward motion without honest concern for the destination. It is the sensation of movement it wants, and the sensation of movement — and sometimes little else — that it provides.

It was a bromide during the late '90s that the brilliant last ditch for struggling companies was to hire McKinsey & Company; stock prices would rebound instantly, it was said. It was tautology: executives in charge of keeping stock prices high brought in consultants; the fact they had done this kicked the price up; ergo it looked as if said executives had done their jobs, and well. It never seemed to matter what McKinsey (or whatever other consultant) actually advised said executives to do, or even whether, in the end, said executives took said advice.

Thus does the corporate world look, to me, from both inside and out-, like a vast series of protections and shortcuts for those who either can't or don't want to do actual work, intellectual or otherwise. It's inanity providing cover for inanity, or for sheer laziness. On the bright side, it does keep a goodly number of people employed. But if you're a believer in meritocracy, or if you're just the type who's disgusted by an entire economic system's capitulation to a reign of fragrant horse manure — and by the inevitable intellectual degeneration that seems to accompany it — then the whole business is pretty much double-plus ungood.

May 26, 2006

... And other lies we like to tell

Add this to the list of found objects of note: from an article in last Thursday's Times, entitled "The Check is Not in the Mail" and subtitled, more helpfully, "Late Payment of Medical Claims Adds to the Cost of Health Care." Do you really need an article after that? I don't. I've seen it. I've screamed about it, even (see this crosspost by way of evidence). And yet examples are always a help. To wit:
Tardiness or refusal to pay what doctors consider legitimate medical claims may add as much as 15 to 20 percent in overhead costs for physicians, forcing them to pursue those claims or pass along the costs to other patients, according to Jack Lewin, a family doctor who is chief executive of the California Medical Association, a professional group of 35,000 physicians.
Don't say I didn't tell you so. The game in this is obvious, of course: the longer they delay payment, the longer they hold onto your money (that is, those mountains of premiums you pay every month), which they're all the while using to make more money, just not for you. In this way have they scored even if they do end up paying the claim. To quote the Times's judicious phrasing:
How is it, as the nation staggers under growing health care costs, that the commercial insurers responsible for paying much of the bill tend to be highly profitable and have stocks that are performing well? Tight-fisted approaches to paying bills may be part of the answer.
"May" indeed. Meanwhile, they've added administrative costs to everyone down the line, not least to the actual physicians who deliver your health care — but also, just in case you care, to you and to your employer, assuming you have one, and assuming the one you have subsidizes your insurance.

I believe the official term for this is waste.

As a rational, free-enterprise- and market-loving American, you're supposed to hate waste. But of course that's only the textbook answer. Off the pages and in the real world, waste can be a business's best friend — as long as it's someone else's waste.

Especially when it allows you to come back next year and talk about the rising costs of health care, especially doctor visits — seeing the circle yet? — which rising costs of course dictate a corresponding rise in premiums. After all, they're running a business here, not a ... well, just not something else.

Thus are you subsidizing, one way and another, the profits of a long list of corporate giants. Thus are you purchasing their executives not just food and wine, but trips to St Bart's, new wings on the McMansion, an extension to the backyard pool, and membership to that country club with the killer back nine.

Class warfare? You bet. But who started it? And who's got all the ammo? And who, in fact, can be said to be winning?

Think of it this way, because this is the way it is: it's in their interests to delay payment of claims. It's in their interests to deny claims. It's in their interests not to do the very thing you believe they exist to do, which is take care of your health care bills. Leaving aside the moral dubiousness of such a strategy — of making profit, that is, from others' illnesses and misfortunes — it's a sorry-ass way to see that anything gets done. Particularly when that "anything" is keeping people healthy, or making them well once they're sick.

It is, on the other hand, a great business model: take lots of money in, let as little as legally possible out. And let's remember that "legally possible" can take ten or fifteen years to define — or it can, at least, when you've got the best lawyers a fat stack of unpaid medical bills can buy.

The VISION Thing

Here's a cute little report in the Washington Post today: turns out not too many industry members are volunteering for the administration's voluntary pollution reduction programs, and thus not much pollution reduction is taking place. Surprising? Of course not. That was the point, after all, wasn't it? But it's discouraging all the same. And it's yet more proof that the one constant to this administration is its replacement of actual governance with governance simulacra. We get slogans and talking points, we get logos and billboards, but we don't get much else.

More than anything in this particular article, though, I think it's worth noting the names of those programs the government oversees. "The Environmental Protection Agency sponsors 'Climate Leaders,'" the Post tells us, "while the Energy Department oversees 'Climate VISION.'" VISION, ominously all-capped, strikes one instantly with the flat heavy hammerback of the acronym. The Post doesn't break it down for us, but internet search technology does. VISION, it turns out, stands for "Voluntary Innovative Sector Initiatives: Opportunities Now."

The first thing we should note is the idiotic fascination with acronyms as such. Or, rather, the fascination with idiotic acronyms. It's not particular to this administration, but it's surely more prevalent here. Acronyms are all the rage in the business community these days. I sit in meetings at least once a week watching whiteboards fill with strings of all-caps jumbles and their lower-case clarifications. Usually, it's the acronym that comes first. Someone tosses one out, and if it's got "ring" to it — which seems to mean it sounds vaguely military, or vaguely sexual, or vaguely rock-and-roll, or just that it makes an actual word that doesn't require cartwheels of the tongue to produce — then you all spend the next forty-five minutes trying to make each letter stand for a word that has something, anything, to do with the topic at hand. They're all colossally, relentlessly juvenile, enough so that the whole thing starts to feel like a kindergarten exercise — you know, the kind that demonstrates our wondrous variations on letter pronunciation — and yet the entire room chases them, and with alacrity. Invariably some exec will develop a liking for one or another (usually one he came up with, of course; I guess there's an acronym hall of fame somewhere to which deskplates are retired. Or maybe they're showing up on resumes, as in, "Holy shit, Bob, did you see that guy in the interview lobby? I checked his resume, dude. He's the one came up with CRACK!"). When this happens, the whole room turns its focus to the exec's personal favorite, struggling mightily to validate it, make it sing, or if not sing then at least just work, just eke out sense, just not sound like the utterly vain and childish arrangement of blocks it certainly is. Sometimes this is not enough. And sometimes it's not enough that it's not enough: we use them anyway. (The colon can be an invaluable tool in effecting this, as we see in "VISION": it permits a complete disjunction in the logic of word flow, which in turn allows you to assign those last two pesky letters, sense be damned.)

Where does this fascination come from? Business school. MBA programs. It's really that simple. The people coming up with them are business school grads (or maybe serve at the pleasure of business school grads), and the people to whom they're ceremoniously presented — they're known as clients, or, in politics, as "donors" — are also business school grads. And no doubt both sides love them so precisely because they harken back to student-project days, to role-playing exercises of the kind reproduced on "The Apprentice." What's the first thing you do? Come up with a name for your team. Make it zip, make it pop, make it zing. Hire a consultant if you have to. Become a consultant, if you find you're really good at inventing words that mean nothing but sound as though they might, like Lucent. Once your team is named, what's the next task? Come up with a name for your initiative. Make it — well, you know.

Who cares? No one and everyone. The fascination with acronyms telegraphs the triumph of the business school mentality in the leadership corps of our current government. The business school mentality believes in acronyms. The business school mentality believes, above all, in marketing, of which acronyms can be a particularly accessible cornerstone. What the business school mentality does not believe in, of course, is a role for government — aside from the redistribution of tax dollars to corporate executive bank accounts.

We live, all of us, today, in a culture defined by the triumph of marketing. It's what we do, and it is, increasingly, all we do. There's a great deal more to be said about that. For now, though, let's look at the actual content of the VISION acronym (as opposed to the actual content of the VISION program, which, as the Post reports, is nonexistent: and thus my point). The goal of a good acronym is to sum up the talking points of your marketing initiative: hit the key notes of the sales pitch simply and concisely, so that each occasion for spelling out the acronym becomes an opportunity for reiterating those notes. What are the key notes in VISION?

First and foremost, of course, is "Voluntary." Here we have the whole enchilada. It means you only do it if you want to (and who wants to?). It's the keyword every exec longs to hear vis-a-vis government regulation. It allows them to say, after all, with a straight face, that they do not in fact oppose all government regulation, and that of course sounds good in any public context.

Next up is "Sector Initiatives." This spells new business, and probably spells government contracts or subsidies for same. Hate government, hate taxes, but love the government checks that are funded by taxes: that's the American business motto. "Sector initiatives" tells the industry that whatever paltry efforts they make at pollution reduction won't cost them a dime: that the bill will be footed by taxpayers: because it's a government program, after all. And you can be sure there'll be plenty of profitable overbilling, and that any investigations of that overbilling which are forced upon the administration by political forces not yet wholly owned will be promptly turned over to the deaf, the dumb, the blind or the well-bribed: so not to worry.

The last and best member of this particular acronymic army, though, is "Opportunity." "Opportunity" is genius. "Opportunity" is multivalent, allusive, scriptural: it means different things to different people, and all the things it means are good. There are business opportunities. There are public relations opportunities. There are political opportunities. Opportunities are what America is all about: the creation of them, the promotion of them. They can be seized or declined, of course; and they conveniently imply no particular outcome (and thus can't be faulted for not achieving one). Opportunities are the sine qua non result in themselves: value-laden, content-free, inarguable and unassailable. They are the American Dream.

Nice work, Bob. See you through my toxin-filtering faceplate* at the hall of fame.

* See? An opportunity — for the nascent toxin-filtering faceplate industry.

February 11, 2006

The Metaphor War

One of the recurrent pillars of the Bush administration's defense of its various infringements on constitutionally protected corners of American life is the theory of the so-called wartime presidency. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales cited this repeatedly in his recent congressional, uh, testimony. ("Testimony" is loose here: Gonzales refused to be placed under oath — gotta wonder why, don't you? or maybe you don't — and chairman Arlen Specter let him get away with it, over the thank-god objections of Russell Feingold, hereafter known as The Last Real Senator.)

This will be short and not all that sweet, because it's incredibly simple. Ladies and gentlemen, we are not at war. Officially speaking, that is. Legally speaking, that is. And in this context, legality is everything.

The constitution is abundantly clear on this: Congress — and only Congress — has the authority to declare war for the United States. The president cannot do it. The president can ask congress for a declaration of war, but he cannot produce one himself. Article I, Section 8 makes this plain. (It also makes plain Congress's prerogative to "make rules concerning capture on Land and Water," which leads me to wonder if maybe the administration's copy of the constitution left Section 8 out.)

Congress has not declared war. Congress has authorized the use of military force. But it has not declared war. Not on Afghanistan, not on Iraq. Until Congress declares it, the United States is not, officially, legally, at war.

And yet war is the talk of our lives. For more than four years — since 9/11, of course — we have felt as though, and talked as though, and in many cases acted as though, we are at war. American troops are deployed overseas (and redeployed, and redeployed again) for months at a time; they are fighting, they are wounded and dying. This is not imagination. There are well-organized entities who wish our citizenry harm. They have done our citizenry harm, and promise to do it again. In at least one case, they have declared war on us, as officially as they can. "Wartime" has entered common parlance as a way of describing the era we live in, especially among those of us in major urban concentrations: the coded alerts, the daily security shakedowns, the jolts of fear we feel in certain unavoidable circumstances: planes; subways; ferries; crowded streets near international icons. We think less in terms of whether than in terms of when. And in all likelihood we are right: we don't know what will happen, but the chances are grimly strong that something will — and that when it does it will be devastating.

War, in this context, is relevant to our contemporary understanding of ourselves. It is one of the dominant metaphors of our time, our state of mind. But it remains, in one sense, only that: a metaphor. It may be accurate; it may be defining; but it is still only that — legally. Which is to say that, legally, it has no standing.

So when the President, or the Vice President, or the Attorney General talk about the powers of a wartime president — and particularly when they talk about it in the context of justifying violations of existing US statutes, let alone Constitutional provisions — keep in mind that these words refer to nothing legally relevant. The President could, of course, ask Congress for a declaration of war, if he wished. I don't know why he hasn't. I can guess — I can imagine, for example, that it has something to do with his inability to persuade Congress (and the American people) that the stakes were high enough, the evidence confident enough, the provocation immediate and grave enough to justify such a profound course, at least in Iraq. But that's speculation. It carries no legal weight. What does carry legal weight is that he never did ask. And not having asked, he never received. And having never received, he is not entitled to claim any privileges or powers that might have accrued — might — if he had.

Remind your Congresspeople of this. Remind them that it makes no difference what the Attorney General says when the Constitution has already decided. Remind them that there is a reason the Constitution vests them with this authority, which is that the founders felt a nation such as ours should only be moved to war as a last resort, after vigorous and searching debate. Remind them that we never had that vigorous and searching debate. Remind them that it may well be time we did, but that in the meanwhile the President cannot claim a legal authority based on a state that does not legally exist.

February 10, 2006

Family Drama

It's getting harder and harder to see how the beast will soldier on. The front page of the Times has begun to look like some experiment in extreme storytelling, each day taking the narrative of our national leadership deeper into unknown territories of fantasy, science fiction, criminality — and at increasing speeds. Plot twists are piling up quicker than in anything ABC or HBO could cook up. Take today, for example. Usually there's just one scandalous headline calling out during my morning scan. But today we get:

White House Knew of Levee's Failure on Night of Storm

Ex-Cheney Aide Testified Leak Was Ordered, Prosecutor Says

Ouch! And that's not all. Click over to the Washington Post and you're greeted by:

Ex-CIA Official Faults Use of Data on Iraq

Oh, for the days of errant oral sex! Oh, for debates over the meaning of "is"!

(And by the way, a skim of weekly congressional headlines — in which icons of corruption, bribery, kickbacks, and various other vices are given choice leadership positions — won't leave you feeling any less queasy. Not only was Tobacco Boy Boehner made majority leader in the house this week*, but the guy he replaced, heavily indicted Tom DeLay, was offered two prestige gigs, one of which is on Appropriations, where he'll be back in the business of distributing your and my hard-earned money.)

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to the United States of the Sopranos. Surely this is what the much hallowed founding fathers had in mind: a cadre of thugs working from the Five Families playbook. (And yet I can't help thinking that if the Sopranos were in charge, there'd be just as much graft and corruption and bullying, yes — but we'd also have killed bin Laden and wouldn't have sold our financial souls to the Chinese government.)

The trouble with all of this is that none of it was unpredictable. Of course they knew about the levees. Of course the leak was ordered. And as for data on Iraq, this one qualifies as a near-snoozer. The revelations in James Risen's book are deeper, wider, and better documented, and they've been out for months. (And if you haven't read James Risen's book, you need to. But bring plenty of aspirin; things are worse than you think, though also different than you think.)

No, none of this surprises. Wherever this administration could have acted corruptly, they have; wherever they could have used official office for vindictive personal business, they have. (This is, by the way, how we really got the Iraq war.) Wherever they could have lied, or deceived, or covered up the truth, they have. Wherever they could have behaved like petty third-world tyrants, they have. And through it all, maybe worst of all, wherever they could have bungled the job irreversibly, they — yes, that's right — they really have. And you're safe in the assumption that things will always get worse, because with this crowd things do, in fact, always seem to get worse.

So the only question now, the only source of suspense, is how long we're going to let them get away with it. We can't expect Congress — it almost makes you laugh to think it, doesn't it? Congress, yuk yuk: those guys — we can't expect Congress to take any action on its own. That would be taking sides against the family. You never take sides against the family. For one thing, they might cut off your allowance. And this family — well, this family will come after you with everything it's got. Or after your wife, anyway. Ask Joe Wilson.

But as of now, at least in theory, Congress still answers to us. Many of them will answer to us this very year. You and I can't press for special prosecutors. You and I can't call for hearings and investigations. You and I can't command media attention, deliver speeches in front of national audiences, issue subpoenas. But we can pressure our representatives to do these things. And we can vote for someone else if they don't listen.

So the question now is not how bad will they get; it's not when are they going to stop. There is no end to how bad they'll get, and they will never stop. The question now is what are we — you: the so-called American people; the shareholders in this bloated, topheavy, teetering corporation; the governed by whose presumptive consent these fools and knaves have jobs at all — what are we gonna do about it?

* In all fairness, he's just as deserving of the sobriquet Fanny Mae Boehner: he chairs the committee that oversees your friendly neighborhood loan giant, while his daughter, conveniently, serves as one of its chief lobbyists. But I'm sure that, like every good mafia family, they refrain from discussing business at the table.

February 07, 2006


It's worth noting that the protests flaring through the near East and Europe — now riots, many of them — are in some measure the fruits of Bush's and Blair's labors. Certainly not directly: neither man is a cartoonist. But the Iraq war to which both stubbornly, ineptly cling has provided angry sectors of the Arab world with ammunition and a glaring target.

Ineptly: it's important to understand that failure, or at any rate lack of success, has played a role here. All would certainly not be rosy had Baghdad never been invaded. But for more than three years now the Arab street has been seething over a low-burning flame, and with each passing day the misery that is Iraq offers generous kindling. Israel, of course — not the real place, but the monster of pointed regional legend and bedtime nightmare — remains the villain of choice. But Iraq is the looming symbol, locally, of Western attitude toward Arabs and the non-Israeli middle East. Iraq is seen as indicative, predictive. The Bush administration has never seemed to understand the extent to which this is so: the extent, I mean, to which it's not the mere presence of US and British armies that fuels tension, but the Westernness of those armies. Troops from Western countries are troops from Christian countries, by and large: not Arab, not of the middle East, not Muslim. Closely allied, those armies are — politically, historically, militarily — with Israel; and they have a record, in the region, of supporting corrupt and tyrannical regimes.

It's instructive that those same regimes are now leveraging proximity to morph themselves into local heroes. Who's busing the protesters in, after all? Who's provoking them with calls to Islamic solidarity? Whose security forces turn their backs while embassies burn?

Local leaders know an opportunity when they see one. They understand that the West is nearly finished in the middle East. We have little clout and dwindling capital. We aren't convincing anyone in the streets; in the streets, no one has been listening for quite some time. Moderates may have listened once — skeptically; cautiously. But the moderates are being squeezed out. There are fewer every day, and we've hastened their demise with our shambling, stuttering, ineffectual bravado and empty promises.

There was no room for Western failure in the middle East. Yet Rumsfeld's war, Cheney's war: failure, from the start of occupation to present day. American troops are sent to slaughter by men who don't know what they want, don't know how to get it, and can't see that they shouldn't come wanting to this part of the world to begin with. Iraqis are killed by those same men: starved, strangled, collaterally damaged, worst of all deprived of hope by delusion and incompetence, poor planning when not no planning at all, demagoguery and negligence. When the men running this war have done something right they've done it too little, too late.

There was no room for that.

If they needed to be shown how far and how badly things have gone — if they needed to know what little hope remains for recovery, or glimpse a very likely future — well, vivid demonstrations are now underway.

February 06, 2006

Free Speech

The chorus, in the aftermath of vociferous and even violent protests by Muslims across the Western and near-Eastern world in the last few days, is that free speech must have our support, but that it also must have its limits. No one has yet said what those limits are, but it seems safe to assume they fall in the vicinity of religious figures. Maybe people envision a summit meeting between international potentates in which one side offers Jesus for the other side's Muhammad, and so on. Freedom of speech, they all seem to agree, is not absolute. Joe Citizen feels compelled to disagree. Joe Citizens says it is either absolute or it is nothing. It is absolute, or it is an oxymoron.

Free speech, as Joe Citizen understands it, means precisely that the government — which is to say the law — cannot decide what is permitted to be said, particularly on such hot topics as politics or religion. Here's a woman in Denmark, a Muslim Dane, quoted on the subject in Sunday's Times: "'You cannot make a fool of someone who means so much to so many people around the world.'" It's a sentiment easy to sympathize with. Yet at the same time it is precisely the sentiment that was, and still is, used to isolate political figures — presidents, prime ministers, kings and dictators — from editorial comment and critique. Who is to say what "means so much" and "so many people" might refer to? Does that describe George Bush? If you ask Scott McClellan, perhaps it does. If you ask Karl Rove, perhaps it does. If you ask Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, it surely does. These are men who refused to let nonsupporters attend the president's campaign speeches during the 2004 election, you may remember — dissent, disagreement literally not countenanced. And how about the Pope: is he not tremendously meaningful to tremendous numbers of people around the world? And is he therefore to be off-limits to editorialists worldwide? Who else? Kofi Anan? Tony Blair? Madonna? And what is to be the penalty for breach?

It is an age-old argument, used by the worst public figures in history, still used by petty tyrants everywhere, every day. Mao and Stalin, Hitler, Amin: each claimed the special significance of his person to the history or imaginations of his nation's people, and used that claim to outlaw any but flattering address. No jokes, no insults, no calls for serious thought. And jail time — or the firing squad — for those who disobey.

The principle of free speech is the most democratic of principles, the most fundamental of rights, precisely because its presumption is that no man of any station is greater than another. No leader of any sort should ever be above question or criticism or, yes, pointed satire. A man in the street may say what he likes, regardless of how sacred the passing dignitary is held to be. Thus a frustrated resident of New Orleans, during one of Cheney's visits, as the latter gave an interview on the street: "Fuck you, Cheney. Fuck you." Elsewhere, in other times, a man of Cheney's temperament and in Cheney's position could have had this fellow shot. As it was, he could do nothing but laugh. (And in the end, isn't that the only appropriate response? This administration has survived far worse than coarse heckling. It has survived its own gross incompetence, and what, really, can it have to fear after that?)

Free speech is also a sign of health, of confidence. It fosters and demonstrates stability, and behind that stability a rational rather than whimsical approach to public discourse and to law. Perhaps this is the more difficult and telling aspect to its character, and the one most applicable to the current controversy. To a Western rationalist like myself, or I'd venture to guess many Europeans, Gaza residents claiming to be diminished by a few square inches in a Danish newspaper is a little like Christians in Idaho claiming their marriages suffer when a gay man in New York is able to stay overnight in his lover's hospital room. I suppose the analogy to anti-semitism is easier to grasp (though i've personally never heard Jews try to prohibit caricatures of Moses, nor to call for the heads of those who drew them), but it's also instructive, perhaps: because there's nothing unlawful about an antisemitic cartoon, at least in America. And yet you'd never see one in a mainstream daily, because the social costs would be devastating. This too is free speech: no editor is above a reader's reproach. No paper is beyond a boycott. Discontent can and will be voiced. This is the strength of free speech, and its own government, and why it only functions in the absolute: any opinion will not — cannot — be voiced in a vacuum, without competition, contradiction, dissent. Stupidity and bigotry will be named and decried when they out, because they have no lock on the public ear. Jail, even death, will never moderate a dialogue so well.

Protesters, then, proclaiming their disgust over a tasteless or denigrating opinion are not just within the spirit of free speech: they are the spirit of free speech, even when they're calling for heads, as ridiculous as some of us may find it. The minute they move to take a head, though — as they have in the last twelve hours or so, by negligence or design — they are its worst enemy. Because the boundary of free speech, if we're looking for one, lies at its frontier with action.