You may only read this site if you've purchased Our Kampf from Amazon or Powell's or me
• • •
"Mike and Jon, Jon and Mike—I've known them both for years, and, clearly, one of them is very funny. As for the other: truly one of the great hangers-on of our time."—Steve Bodow, head writer, The Daily Show

"Who can really judge what's funny? If humor is a subjective medium, then can there be something that is really and truly hilarious? Me. This book."—Daniel Handler, author, Adverbs, and personal representative of Lemony Snicket

"The good news: I thought Our Kampf was consistently hilarious. The bad news: I’m the guy who wrote Monkeybone."—Sam Hamm, screenwriter, Batman, Batman Returns, and Homecoming

August 02, 2007

Our Crumbling America

A country that can't keep its bridges from collapsing is not going to be running the world very much longer. That's the interesting thing about the standard historical trajectory of imperial a certain point they either (1) forget the power they can wield outside their country ultimately derives from a healthy society beneath them, or (2) understand that but decide they'd rather be comparatively more powerful within a poorer society and less powerful outside.

To understand choice #2 it's useful to look at an extreme example, like Saudi Arabia. Certainly it has the natural wealth to be able to oppose Israel effectively. And you'd assume their elites want to do that, given that they're always screeching about it. But effective opposition would require Saudi society to be internally far more democratic, educated and egalitarian. So the Saudi princes have decided they'd prefer their country to be a weak, poor backwater if that's what's required for them to each own nine palaces. As William Arkin said about our new $20 billion arms sale to the Saudis:

U.S. officials say the United States will seek assurances from Saudi Arabia that it will not store its new Joint Direct Attack Munitions -- the satellite-guided bombs -- at northern air bases, where they could threaten Israel.

Israel needn't worry. The Saudi military is even less dangerous than the gang who couldn't shoot's not just incompetence when it comes to the Saudi military. The Saudi monarchy has methodically focused its military on pomp and equipment and spiffy uniforms, ensuring that it not acquire any real offensive capacity or the ability to operate as a coherent force. It does not want a competent, independent military contemplating a coup.

The same thing is true in the rest of the Arab world. For instance, at the beginning of the Six Day War in 1967, as Israel was bombing Egyptian airfields, the Egyptian air defense system was actually turned off. The Egyptian government had done this because they were more worried about internal enemies than Israel—they thought some rebel Egyptian military forces might be trying to shoot down the plane of the Defense Minister, and didn't want the rebels to be able to find out where it was.

Egyptian elites could have avoided this kind of internal conflict by having a democratic country with civilian control of the military, but who wants that? Far more enjoyable to be autocrats who turn off their air defense system RIGHT WHEN THEY'RE BEING BOMBED.

America's elites are, at heart, the same way. They'd prefer to be emirs and kings running a shambling catastrophe of a country than moderately rich men in Sweden.

MORE ON THE BRIDGE COLLAPSE: From Rick Perlstein here and here, and from LeanLeft here.

Posted at August 2, 2007 12:24 PM | TrackBack

I left a similar comment on Rick's story, but, to reiterate: it's ridiculous to blame this on Republicans. The reasons for the bridge collapse are not known, so WHY would you (a) assume it was due to disrepair and (b) assume that that repair would have been effected under a $8 billion Democrat spending bill? This is pure, dumb partisan wrangling. Unbecoming, I think.

Posted by: saurabh at August 2, 2007 01:46 PM

As you know, you cross the Mississippi with the bridges you have, not the bridges you want.

Posted by: darrelplant at August 2, 2007 03:08 PM

I am by now means going to defend this worthless administration. But...
It is highly irresponsible to jump to any conclusions about why the bridge failed. Inspection of large civil structures has been an ongoing problem with no easy fix. This accident is rather more an example of how close to the edge humans are, without their knowing.
Again, I in no way defend the policies of this administration, but they cannot be linked to this event.

Posted by: Heydave at August 2, 2007 03:23 PM

Boy, that was fraught with misspellings!
Sorry for those and perhaps a lack of clarity in written word; just jumping in quickly with my comment.

Posted by: heydave at August 2, 2007 03:26 PM

However, you did endorse Rick's story, which speaks directly of Republicans. Regardless, my objection was more of the sort that your post is in the general line of "Such-and-such tragedy upholds my point of view", when I don't think there is anything resembling a coherent causal chain. Let's hold back before drawing hasty political conclusions.

Posted by: saurabh at August 2, 2007 03:38 PM

History shows again and again
how nature points out the folly of men

Blue Oyster Cult, "Godzilla"

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 2, 2007 04:16 PM

History shows again and again
how nature points out the folly of men

Blue Oyster Cult, "Godzilla"

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 2, 2007 04:16 PM

History shows again and again
how nature points out the folly of men

Blue Oyster Cult, "Godzilla"

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 2, 2007 04:16 PM

History shows again and again
how nature points out the folly of men

Blue Oyster Cult, "Godzilla"

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 2, 2007 04:16 PM

However, I think if you consider the Iraq war in terms of dollars spent per WMD found you'll find that it really is an economical... Wait, what happens when you divide a bagillion by zero?


Yeah, maybe we shoulda fixed the damn bridge. Probably could have upgraded some dikes in New Orleans too.

Posted by: Greg London at August 2, 2007 04:22 PM

"It is highly irresponsible to jump to any conclusions about why the bridge failed" vs. "Again, I in no way defend the policies of this administration, but they cannot be linked to this event"

I don't know about that, heydave. Concluding the latter while citing the former seems contradictory.

Inspection of large civil structures has been an ongoing problem with no easy fix. This accident is rather more an example of how close to the edge humans are, without their knowing.

While it's a given that accidents will occur, it's hardly a stretch to admit the rate at which they occur can be mitigated with the appropriate emphasis on public safety and infrastructure.

So, yeah, there's a fix, alright. It just isn't compatible with the "values" of a nation which forfeits its resources to the military industrial complex - and the kleptocracy it has created - at the expense of infrastructure. The prevailing attitude is more like "Let the insurance companies handle it." Until, of course, the payout exceeds what the insurance companies claim they can handle, at which time, they'll get bailed out with the same public tax dollars which could've been used on the front-end to either improve the quality of life for the public or outright save lives.

Posted by: Arvin Hill at August 2, 2007 05:01 PM

Take a look at this piece itoday's "Counterpunch:"
"The Return of the Robber Barons: In Richistan: Fantastic Wealth for a Few; Steady Decline for Many" by Paul Craig Roberts.
This decline began when the oil, tire and auto industries started to demolish public and rail transportation under Ike, continued with the destruction of unions and with NAFTA and Clinton's "outsourcing" of our manufacturing industry and the coming apart of our middle class.
Same shit, under Republicans and Democrats alike.
Now, a bridge collapses and the "human tragedy" alerts sonme (a few) of us to what's been done.
The sheep aren't going to march or take up arms.
"Who Wants to be a Millionaire?" is us. We love wealth and want to learn how to amass it. That is what passes for wisdom in America today.
I fear for my granddaughter and all our grandchildren.

Posted by: donescobar at August 2, 2007 05:43 PM

I generally agree with saurabh and heydave, but I think the GOP is going to wish they hadn't decided to have their national convention in St. Paul in 2008, when everyone will have a chance to remember a tragedy that -- rightly or wrongly -- symbolizes the danger of the "no new taxes; government is useless" worldview.

Posted by: Whistler Blue at August 2, 2007 08:51 PM

I think it's an outstanding post.

For those offended by the invocation of the Minnesota bridge collapse, try this:
"A country that can't [insert any of the sadly abundant examples of infrastructural and democratic decay all around us]...".

Posted by: Nell at August 2, 2007 08:56 PM

You don't have to look very far to get the idea that American elites are both psychopathic and sadistic. They get a lot of their enjoyment out of knowing that they're better off than everyone else. As a result, they're quite happy to line their own pockets with distorted tax cuts and war profiteering.

Posted by: Swedish Chef at August 2, 2007 10:09 PM

It's quite possible that this particular bridge might have collapsed under a Kucinich Administration with no Iraq War and plenty of money for the repair of infrastructure, but events of this general type would surely be less likely in that kind of alternate universe. I'm a little surprised by saurabh and heydave's reaction.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at August 2, 2007 10:21 PM

Donald, I'm not as surprised as you about saurabh and heydave's reaction. If I might be so bold, I think it illustrates something that is frequently bruited about on this blog: why progressives make poor partisans.

It seemed to me that Saurabh and heydave were offended by a rhetorical strategy they felt was distorting and unfair. On the level of specifics, they could be right. However, having spoken with Jon on such issues at some (ahem) length, I think he was merely using the occasion of this tragedy to air out an idee fixe: that the elites in this country are perfectly willing to let everything go to hell if their privileges (absolute or even relative to the ever-worsening lot of the rest of us) are maintained.

I think that's difficult to disagree with; and furthermore, while I do not know enough about this particular event to assign blame, I do know that I've been hearing for decades--let's repeat that: decades--that America was not investing enough in basic infrastructure. Juxtaposing that fact with the obscene waste of money that is every imperialist adventure is, I think, a valid and useful point.

Sorry if I misrepresented you saurabh and heydave (and Jon). I just think that events like these, simple tragedies that everyone can relate to and feel the horror of, can be opportunities to refocus our priorities. We only have the luxury of arguing about politics as long as the mechanism of modern life in this country works. The current junta ignores this fact. Jon has often told me that he thinks commercial airline travel will remain safe as long as enough of the elites use it; after that, watch out. Two words: NetJets.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at August 2, 2007 10:56 PM

VIET NAM ate up he money to fix and maintain that bridge. WE're just gettin' started with THIS war.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at August 3, 2007 12:05 AM

Mike of Angle's got it right. On the other side, there may have been thoughtful conservatives who felt uncomfortable with Bush using 9/11 to push the war with Iraq. But the hardcore neocons knew right away that 9/11 gave them their opportunity, whether they could prove specific causation or not.

Similarly, there were probably Republican analysts in 1980 who knew Jimmy Carter wasn't really responsible for the Iran Hostage Crisis or soaring oil prices. But Reagan rose to power by using these crises to exploit the idea that Dems are soft-headed on security or economic issues.

That's why I appreciate what Sen. Klobuchar said -- in America, bridges aren't supposed to just fall down. She didn't make any unreasonable claims or sound outwardly partisan; she just subtly supported the idea that GOP leadership is causing our infrastructure to crumble.

Posted by: whistler blue at August 3, 2007 01:20 AM

wish more politicians would take that line of sending messages.. like..
In America people are not supposed to be tortured..
In America Civil rights guaranteed by the constitution and the Bill of Rights are not arbitrarily pushed aside by government agents..
In America elections are supposed to be free and fair..
In America lying elected officials that break laws are to be tried and convicted or impeached..

anyway you get the idea

Posted by: samiam at August 3, 2007 04:46 AM

In America, we don't violate the Nuremberg Principles and start up wars of aggression and kill millions of people for no reason......

Posted by: Susan at August 3, 2007 05:03 AM

that this incident is prima facie evidence of a federal government that ignores more mundane needs in service of the war machine and tax-cuts for the wealthy should-- normally-- fall in the category of a dog bites man story.

The very fact that we're disputing and tossing it back and forth is evidence of just how pervasive and far-reaching Fox News/BushCo style spin has become in making even traditional liberals question their most basic assumptions.

Sorry, I meant traditional progressives.

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at August 3, 2007 06:09 AM

Finally, someone has explained the puzzle of why no one was ready to protect Washington DC from attack after New York was hit on September 11.
Jon writes: "Egyptian elites could have avoided this kind of internal conflict by having a democratic country with civilian control of the military, but who wants that? Far more enjoyable to be autocrats who turn off their air defense system RIGHT WHEN THEY'RE BEING BOMBED."

Posted by: Curiouser at August 3, 2007 08:22 AM

The line between Bush and the broken bridge is not straight, but it is there. I worked in a VA Hospital from 1974 to 1979. They took care of any and all vets with an honorable discharge. People who were schizophrenic but the disease didn't manifest itself until the soldier put on a uniform were guaranteed a lifetime of care. Welcome, son, we'll help you. Now a soldier whose nerves are so shot he can't stir the cream in his coffee has to prove his PTSD is directly attributable to his 36 months in Baghdad.

Just like abandoning our vets, our country has been abandoning the infrastructure. We have the image of New Orleans underwater. Damn the poor people for not evolving gills. California can't keep its roads repaired because our state keeps people who take drugs incarcerated. We have a federal government which seems to have drugs flowing back from wherever it invades. And all the drugs bloom into all sorts of law-breaking which brings more raw material for the prison industry.

The destruction of our unions has been genteel compared to the summary executions and brutal torturing of union organizers in El Salvador or Guatemala, but we still wind up in the same place.

Let's us not forget the millions of dollars and millions of hours spent teaching our children to pass a test. Great way to have our children not learn.

Bridges will fall and levees will break. So what does Dubya say? Hey, it's not my fault. Ultimately it's the fault of the people he represents. It's a class war.

The problem with this class war is that most people are too polite or ignorant to know that a war is being waged against them.

There will be more and more BOHICA moments, and I don't think that any Clinton in shining armor will stop the social gravity that's crushing this country.

Posted by: Bob In Pacifica at August 3, 2007 10:22 AM

Mike of Angle's sensible comments are the sort of thing that keep me reading the comments here.

Sorry for the earlier multiple postings - go, go, go, go, go, go, go, go Godzilla.

Posted by: mistah charley, ph.d. at August 3, 2007 10:57 AM

Whatever the cause of this particular catastrophe - we saw footage of the Minneapolis bridge collapse one night in a hotel room as we were traveling back home - there is little doubt that the infrastructure in the US has been crumbling for some time. Seems to me that for at least the last decade (maybe 15 years) I've been reading warnings about the decaying state of our roads and bridges, sewer systems, power grids and so forth. As our neoliberal elites from both major parties concentrate on world dominion, the rest of us are left to deal with a growing list of ruins at home.

Posted by: James at August 3, 2007 10:57 AM

Susan, "We do not torture!" either. Why won't they believe us?!

Posted by: StO at August 3, 2007 11:28 AM

Mistah Charley: Jon's ideas. All credit belongs to him.

Me, I just make jokes.

Posted by: Mike of Angle at August 3, 2007 12:31 PM

I must disagree with Mike of Angle. I don't take any great issue with the general claim Jon is making; I think the kind of neglect he's writing about is evident in a great many facets of our society. However, I DO think it's important that we keep ourselves honest in our rhetorical arguments. I do not have any interest in being a partisan.

Something I think all of us should fear is the ideological ghetto. If we surround ourselves with like-minded individuals who will automatically agree with our arguments, we become lazy. Our perspicacity is dulled. We say things like, "It doesn't matter if what we say is true, so long as the message agrees with what we believe," which is how I interpret Mike of Angle's comment. (As he said, forgive me if this is inaccurate.)

This is a dangerous and wrong attitude. Ideology is not reliable. It is only correct insofar as it is composed of accurate distillations of observations made from the real world. We should never, ever privilege ideology above the truth. The former should always be subject to the tests of the latter, and when it fails, we should humbly commit ourselves to revising and improving our thinking. When we are settled in certainty, when we think we know all the answers, we're at out worst, inflexible and weak. Lies should be the weapons of our enemies; to us, they should be like poison.

Posted by: saurabh at August 3, 2007 12:44 PM

Curious comments here, the ones that talk about saurabh's post.

I happen to agree with saurabh's perspective that indicates you cannot tie this bridge collapse or any other infrastructure problem directly to Republicans.

I agree because that kind of thinking is sloppy, it is careless, and it is illogical. It is also improperly partisan, no matter whether you want to acknowledge it.

My perspective has nothing to do with "progressives being lousy advocates." That's a bit of George Lakoff-esque thinking there. This is not about framing. This is about honesty.

Infrastructure is a problem of federal, state, and local control JOINTLY. It is not just something that you can lay at the feet of the Feds, and most surely you can't lay it at the smaller set of feet of Republican feds.

In case nobody else has noticed, I'll remind everyone that the Democrats have been handing America it's hat for over 75 years. They have succeeded in convincing Americans that they are the party of "opposition to" the Republicans. The stuff that we're seeing now with the Democrat-run Congress playing Bush's Lapdog is just a more overt form of what's been going on for a while.

It surely got worse with the DLC and the Bill Clinton Regime.

The philosophy of Defense and Cronyism FIRST, the American people and infrastructure LAST is a bipartisan effort.

It's a canard even to suggest that the Republicans are the devil, and the Democrats are not. The only difference is in what form the devil arrives to present his proposals.

Posted by: liquified viscera at August 3, 2007 02:01 PM

Liquified versa, I don't know what blog you think you're commenting on, but it's not one where Democrats are given a free pass either by the proprietor or the commentariat. Speaking for myself, it hasn't escaped my attention that both parties love to spend money on the Pentagon and that sometimes Democrats are in charge. I think the Democrats are the lesser of two evils, but the key word in that phrase is "evil".

I brought up a hypothetical universe where there was a President Kucinich in which this tragedy might still have happened, but would be less likely. It may have escaped your notice that Kucinich isn't exactly a mainstream Democrat--he's someone who really does want to go against the bipartisan consensus we have of spending massive amounts of money on propping up the Empire while things fall apart at home.

But anyway, nice lecture on the need not to be partisan. It's probably needed at numerous blogs I could name. Just not this one.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at August 3, 2007 02:54 PM

Donald, I don't understand your pedantic snarkiness. You need to grow up and/or lighten up.

I know what blog I'm commenting on. Apparently you think that a free pass is warranted because of a "past history" or something like that. Perhaps you should stick to what I commented on, and not stray outside the confines of my observations.

I commented ONLY on what I saw going on the content of posts in this thread.

This thread contains partisan silliness.

What is the majority of cases here, I cannot say.

However, even if the majority were not partisan, that would not remove the partisan undertones in some of those who criticized saurabh's first post.

I would suggest that if you do not see the partisan silliness, that is because you share the same partisan bias.

Posted by: liquified viscera at August 3, 2007 05:16 PM

PS to Donald -

I submit that your observation on Kucinich goes well outside my comment scope.

I submit that your statement about the lesser of two evils is wholly partisan, and is unrealistic and somewhat a fantasy.

Therefore I submit you are biased toward the Democrats and do not hold them as accountable as your mortal enemy, the Republicans.

I suppose you could backpedal swiftly and mostly without awkward movement, and contort your 2:54 pm post into something new, but I think that's not the cleverest of schemes at this point.

Posted by: liquified viscera at August 3, 2007 05:20 PM

A very enjoyable and fact driven post. I also appreciated commenter Arvin Hill's input, consice, spirited and civilised.

Posted by: peter claussen at August 3, 2007 06:46 PM

Backpedal from what? I prefer the Democrats to the Republicans, and think that under Democrats willing to spend more money on infrastructure and less on wars, there would be a statistical likelihood of fewer bridges collapsing. I don't like the Democrats very much, because most of them aren't as far left as Kucinich and would spend too much money on either wars or the Pentagon and less on infrastructure, though they might possibly still be an improvement over my mortal enemies, the Republicans. That's been my position for, I don't know, many years (though if you go back too far I probably didn't know about the existence of Kucinich) and I've managed to maintain this level of consistency throughout this entire comment thread.

Most of your last post was incomprehensible to me, so I'm willing to concede that those parts were no doubt devastating to my position or to whatever position it is you think I hold.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at August 3, 2007 09:21 PM

Saurabh, just to clarify where I was coming from (not that it's important): having read the original post with the benefit of years of knowing Jon and deciphering his rhetorical gambits, I felt that he was making a large, rather abstract point about the nature of elites, not blaming the GOP for the MN bridge collapse, nor suggesting that such things would not happen were the Dems in charge. I am of course assuming Jon's intent; I could be wrong. But I in no way was saying that "It doesn't matter if what we say is true, so long as the message agrees with what we believe."

The two sides in Jon's post, as I read it, are these: the elites, and everybody else. To recast his argument as one that paints the GOP as all that is bad and the Dems as all that is good, is a distortion of HIS post (maybe not Rick Perlstein's, I don't know--I haven't read it).

Complaining about rhetorical sloppiness, unfairness or whatever after recasting somebody's post in such a fundamental way is, I think, a measure of how progressives in general (myself included--witness this comment) make poor partisans. We are all mesmerized by the gotcha game. "Ha! You're hypocritical! Ha! You're illogical!" We all do it. Is it understandable? Sure. Is it useful or necessary? Well...sometimes.

I personally agree with Jon's belief that elites (Democrat, Republican, Whig or Free Silver) are concerned with themselves, and will maintain their own privileges at nearly any cost. I believe that this is an objective fact borne out again and again by history--yet this is at odds with the meme constantly pumped out that ruling elites are rational and responsible. Therefore I think it's cricket to reiterate this larger truth on the occasion of a tragedy that naturally makes us all wonder, "Are the people in charge responsible? Do they have our best interests at heart?"

Posted by: Mike of Angle at August 4, 2007 02:12 AM

Hey, let's cut our ruling class some slack. Even as we speak, I'm sure a ginormous bridge-repair bill is being written up in the appropriate Congressional committee, complete with lots of juicy no-bid contracts for Bechtel and Halliburton.

Our rulers don't wish us ill, it's just that they're indifferent to the possibility of us being crushed under tons of concrete, drowning in a fetid pool of water in New Orleans, or being blown up by an IED in Iraq.

But once they see that there's something in it for them, either a chance to enrich themselves or to increase their own power, they snap right to attention.

Who saw, before 9/11, the goldmine that the "war on terror" would be? Once that became clear, they were climbing over each other in the rush to "protect" us from terror.

The same is true of bridge repair, or combatting the threat of global climate change. They just need a little time to figure out the angles and buy some stock in the appropriate companies. Then we'll have brand-new bridges out the wazoo!

Posted by: SteveB at August 4, 2007 01:02 PM

I agree with saurabh and HeyDave that it doesn't make sense to link this particular bridge collapse with either Republicans, or even with any set of policies. The problem is, the more logical argument that we're neglecting our infrastructure would be a bunch of statistics about infrastructure spending and decay, and testimony by civil engineers. And unless you're a policy wonk, and most people are not, that's super-duper-boring.

So yeah, in an ideal world, this bridge collapse would receive minimal discussion, and we'd go back to the statistical debate about infrastructure that we were already engaged in. And in a slightly less ideal world, the bridge collapse would motivate a statistical debate. But we're far, far, from that ideal world. In this world, the other side is watching the O'Reilly factor, where footage of a catfight is used as evidence of a vast national network of pink-pistol-toting lesbian gangs attacking our men and recruiting our young (google it!). I'm not saying that the answer is to sink to O'Reilly's level; but you can't be a saintly scientist and put up a halfway decent partisan fight.

Posted by: Autumn Harvest at August 6, 2007 12:36 PM