May 31, 2006

Prisoner Of Trebekistan

Josh Joss Whedon, creater creator of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Serenity, says this:

"Effortlessly funny and informative... a must for anyone who loves Jeopardy!, has seen Jeopardy!, or is breathing."

What does he say this about? Prisoner of Trebekistan, Bob Harris' memoir of his 12+ appearances on Jeopardy! over the last decade. Not only has Bob won more times on Jeopardy! than most of us can imagine, he may also have lost more times than anyone else in history. Prisoner of Trebekistan is coming out in September, but you can pre-order now it at Amazon here.

I read the final draft, and Josh Whedon couldn't be righter. It's not just that it's truly hilarious; it's not just that you find out the ultimate secret of Jeopardy! (p. 54) and what kind of cologne Alex Trebek wears (p. 232). You also learn an enormous amount about why we remember things and how brains work—both brains generally and the one belonging to Bob specifically.

I can't recommend it highly enough. In fact, I'm so sure you'll love Prisoner of Trebekistan that I'll offer this guarantee: if you buy it and don't enjoy it, I'll come to your house and give you your money back. Then I will punch you.

The memory of this will remain so vivid in your mind that you will then realize the book was right all along (p. 178).

UPDATE: Clearly one memory-related thing Bob's book can't do is help you remember how to spell.

May 30, 2006

How Many Hadithas?

Given the news about the massacre in Haditha last November, now's the time to remember Seymour Hersh's story from October, 2004:

HERSH: I got a call last week from a soldier -- it's different now, a lot of communication, 800 numbers. He's an American officer and he was in a unit halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border. It's a place where we claim we've done great work at cleaning out the insurgency. He was a platoon commander. First lieutenant, ROTC guy.

It was a call about this. He had been bivouacing outside of town with his platoon. It was near, it was an agricultural area, and there was a granary around. And the guys that owned the granary, the Iraqis that owned the granary... It was an area that the insurgency had some control, but it was very quiet, it was not Fallujah. It was a town that was off the mainstream. Not much violence there. And his guys, the guys that owned the granary, had hired, my guess is from his language, I wasn't explicit -- we're talking not more than three dozen, thirty or so guards. Any kind of work people were dying to do. So Iraqis were guarding the granary. His troops were bivouaced, they were stationed there, they got to know everybody...

They were a couple weeks together, they knew each other. So orders came down from the generals in Baghdad, we want to clear the village, like in Samarra. And as he told the story, another platoon from his company came and executed all the guards, as his people were screaming, stop. And he said they just shot them one by one. He went nuts, and his soldiers went nuts. And he's hysterical. He's totally hysterical. And he went to the captain. He was a lieutenant, he went to the company captain. And the company captain said, "No, you don't understand. That's a kill. We got thirty-six insurgents."

Now's also the time to remember the dismissive reaction to this from U.S. conservatives. Here's Max Boot writing in the Los Angeles Times: his lectures [Hersh] has spread the legend of how a U.S. Army platoon was supposedly ordered to execute 30 Iraqis guarding a granary.

And here's the Weekly Standard's happy chortling:

...maybe you're an aging lefty icon who got famous reporting the My Lai massacre in Vietnam. And so maybe you're still milking your notoriety for everything it's worth. And maybe you're always imagining another scoop like My Lai, because you're afraid that on some level you've become just another old gasbag on the lecture circuit.

Of course, we still don't know the truth behind Hersh's story. But if accurate, it does more than indicate the recent Haditha massacre wasn't an isolated incident. It suggests it may be fairly common.

Why? Note again the location Hersh gives for the alleged fall, 2004 massacre:

...he was in a unit halfway between Baghdad and the Syrian border.

Now, note the location of Haditha, site of the confirmed November, 2005 massacre:

I Wish I'd Gone To A School Where They Taught Us Stuff

The Independent in England just published an excerpt (now unfortunately behind a pay wall) from a new book by Mark Bowden called Guests of the Ayatollah: The First Battle in America's War with Militant Islam.

If I were teaching a high school class about politics, I'd make them read this on the first day. It explains essentially everything you need to know about how the world works.

First, Bowden gives us the U.S. version of the hostage story:

To Americans, for whom the incident has become little more than an embarrassing footnote, the hostage crisis was an unprovoked crime, carried out by a scruffy band of half-crazy Islamist zealots driven by a senseless hatred of all things American.

Then there's the Iranian version:

For many Iranians, however, the hostage crisis was an unalloyed triumph. Embossed with florid Shia mysticism, the episode has taken on the force of national myth -- an epic story of a small group of devout young gerogangirha (hostage-takers) who, armed with only prayer and purity of heart, stormed the gates of the most evil, potent empire on the planet, booted out the American devils, and secured the success of the mullahs'revolution.

And then, most important, is REALITY:

The young Iranians envisioned having to subdue and confine members of the American mission for perhaps a day or two, but they had no intention of holding them for any length of time...The hostage-takers' immediate goal was to put pressure on the provisional government of Prime Minister Mehdi Bazargan. This interim authority had been appointed by Khomeini after the fall of the Shah to preside until a new constitution could be written. Bazargan favoured a Western-style state, but in the eyes of extremists - both Islamists and Marxists - he was watering down the revolution. They saw the provisional government's efforts to re-establish ties with the rest of the world as a sell-out.

The opportunity for radical change appeared to be slipping away. So extremists fanned fears of an American-led countercoup' the plan to seize the embassy grew out of these fears. Khomeini was not informed about the takeover in advance, and by the time it was presented to him it was a fait accompli, and hugely popular. Hundreds of thousands of gleeful Iranians celebrated in the streets around the embassy night and day, burning Carter in effigy and chanting: "Death to America!"Khomeini had little choice but to embrace the brash gerogangirha, and to officially anoint them as national heroes. Bazargan's government resigned two days after the takeover, and the revolution tilted permanently into the arms of the mullahs.

There you have it: the main goal of all political actors, particularly violent right wing ones, is almost always to make themselves more powerful than their rivals in their own country. They are trying to beat their "enemies" on their own "side." However, they always always always claim they're it doing for everyone in their tribe. (Meanwhile, their counterparts on the other "side" make up a mirror image fantasy to make themselves more powerful than their own domestic "enemies.")

Thus, Bush invades Iraq because he thinks it will help him crush the Democrats. Osama bin Laden kills thousands on 9/11 because he thinks it will help him crush his Muslim rivals. But rather than being honest—"I'm doing this because I think it'll really be great for ME!"—Bush, bin Laden and the Iranian mullahs all claim they did it to protect their "people."

This is the most obvious thing in the world. It's Politics 101, what everyone should learn when they're in 3rd grade. What I find peculiar is I went to school for seventeen years yet had to figure it out for myself.

Why X-Men 3 Is So Disappointing

Mike went to see X-Men: The Last Stand, and warns everyone not to get your hopes up:

None of my favorite ones were in it. I couldn't have been the only kid who loved "Lariat," the guy with the mammoth, prehensile penis. Or "Waft," the dorky dude who could turn into a mildly unpleasant smell. Him and Wolverine fighting would've been great comic relief. Or "Spurt"--remember Spurt, the guy who could empty his circulatory system at will? I guess I understand why they didn't use him; his was obviously a one-shot kind of skill. Still, I remember crying during the issue with the blood drive. "To Serve His Fellow Man."

The rest is here.

May 29, 2006

World Opinion Remains Split On Serial Killing

I like to mark every Memorial Day by examining a few brazen lies by world leaders.

For instance, here's Tony Blair speaking in Washington on Friday about Iraq:

"The war, I know, split the world."

Of course, in a sense this is true. It's true in the same sense the world is split on the question of serial killing, pedophilia, bestiality, feeding asbestos to infants, etc. After all, there are obviously a few people somewhere who think such things are fantastic.

By non-insane standards, however, the invasion of Iraq did not "split the world." People interested in reality can find this out by consulting this January, 2003 Gallup International poll.

Gallup asked people in 41 countries whether they were in favor of military action against Iraq. They were given three options: (1) under no circumstances; (2) only if sanctioned by the United Nations; and (3) unilaterally by America and its allies.

Majorities in many countries chose #1. And there was no country on earth where a majority chose #3—i.e., what Tony Blair supported and what actually happened. Even in the U.S., only 33% favored an invasion without U.N. sanction.

And the numbers drop sharply off from there. Here's the level of support elsewhere for Blair's war:

20% Uganda
17% Kenya
15% Colombia
12% Australia
11% Romania
10% or less India, Russia, Germany, France, South Africa, Canada, Denmark, Finland, Ireland, Luxembourg, Netherlands, Portugal, Spain, Iceland, Switzerland, Norway, Albania, Bosnia & Herzogovinia, Bulgaria, Estonia, Georgia, Macedonia, Romania, Yugoslavia, Argentina, Bolivia, Canada, Ecuador, Uruguay, Hong Kong, Malaysia, New Zealand, Pakistan, Cameroon, and Nigeria

In fact, only 10% chose #3 in England, BLAIR'S OWN COUNTRY.

I'm absolutely certain more people than this would agree with the statement "Tony Blair should be hung for war crimes." I look forward to a proclamation by him that this issue has "split the world."

May 27, 2006

It Can't Go On, It'll Go On

This is a beautiful rant by Jamison Foser of Media Matters:

At this point, you'd have to be blind to miss the pattern. Every prominent progressive leader who comes along is openly derided in the media as fake, dishonest, conniving, out-of-the-mainstream, and weak. We simply can't continue to chalk this up to shortcomings on the part of Democratic candidates or their staff and consultants. It's all too clear that this will happen regardless of who the candidate or leader is; regardless of who works for him or her. The smearing of Jack Murtha should prove that to anyone who still doubts it.

Meanwhile, any conservative who comes along is going to be praised for being strong and authentic and likable.

The rest, of which there is quite a lot, and is all worth reading, is here.

The only part I disagree with is the very end:

...for years, the media has employed a double-standard in covering progressives and can't go on.

First of all, the corporate media has ALWAYS employed this double-standard, not simply "for years." And of course it can go on. What would stop it?

Of all the things that drive me crazy about my progressive compatriots, it's this belief that you can change the corporate media with accurate criticism of it. They believe at some point the people within the media will realize they're wrong, and their behavior will improve.

This is insane. The corporate media is the way it is because it exists to make as much money as possible. It doesn't exist to give people an accurate picture of the world. It doesn't exist to provide jobs for honest journalists. On rare occasions it will do both. But mostly it won't, because the need to make as much money as possible usually conflicts with everything good.

Waiting for this to change is like waiting for Santa Claus to bring us presents. But Santa Claus won't ever bring us presents, because THERE IS NO SANTA CLAUS.

May 26, 2006

A Funny Three Day Weekend

Memorial Day will be funny this year, thanks to Mike:

1. A Fishing Story

2. Five Things You Didn't Know About the Indianapolis 500

They May Have Won All The Battles, But We Had All The Good Songs (And Phrases)

What is the "underlying nature" of America's right-wing? David Neiwert, using all his writerly skills, has the answer here: it is "a festering cloaca of senescent amorality."

May 25, 2006

What Does And Does Not Fascinate David Broder

Perhaps you've already seen this column by David Broder, Dean of the Washington Press Corps, in which he explains what he's interested in:

But for all the delicacy of the treatment, the very fact that the Times had sent a reporter out to interview 50 people about the state of the Clintons' marriage and placed the story on the top of Page One was a clear signal -- if any was needed -- that the drama of the Clintons' personal life would be a hot topic if she runs for president.

Now, here's Broder on Meet the Press last November, explaining what he's NOT interested in:

MR. RUSSERT: David Broder, is it possible for official Washington--the president, Democratic leaders, Republican leaders--to arrive at common ground, a consensus position on Iraq?

MR. DAVID BRODER: It's possible, Tim, but they won't get there by arguing about who did what three years ago. And this whole debate about whether there was just a mistake or misrepresentation or so on is, I think, from the public point of view largely irrelevant. The public's moved past that.

Of course, by "the public's moved past that," Broder meant "I've moved past that." Just days after he said this, a New York Times poll found that 80% of Americans felt it was "very" (56%) or "somewhat" (24%) important for Congress to investigate Bush's use of intelligence on Iraq.

So to sum up Broder's worldview:

Bill Clinton's Wang And What It's Doing Right This Second: HOT! HOT! HOT!

Lies That Have Killed Tens Of Thousands: EH. THIS MAKES ME SLEEPY.

Dear Washington Post: I Hope Someday You Can Come Visit Us Here In Reality

I think the Washington Post should change its name, from the Washington Post to the Daily Example of Why Dean Baker Was Forced to Write "The Conservative Nanny State."

Here's today's example, from a story about the three year-old Bolivarian University of Venezuela:

Venezuela's people are already thoroughly politicized; even the university's physical structures are potent political symbols. Most of the buildings, including those on the main Caracas campus, once served as headquarters for the state petroleum company, an institution purged of many anti-Chavez employees after a crippling strike against the government in 2002. Offices once reserved for executives who favored free-market economics are now decorated with posters of the socialist icon Che Guevara.

The thought process of the reporter here is clear:

(1) The former executives at PDVSA, Venezuela's state-owned oil company, favored policies supported by conservatives, both in Venezuela and abroad.
(2) Conservatives support free market policies.
(3) Therefore, the former executives at PDVSA favored free market policies.

And indeed this would be sound reasoning, if we lived on some other plane of existence than this one.

Here in this world, though, the executives at Venezuela's state-owned oil company did not favor free-market economics. One indication they did not is that THE OIL COMPANY WAS STATE-OWNED. What the executives actually favored was massive state intervention that made them, a thin strata of Venezuelan society, and foreign companies extremely rich.

In other words, as The Conservative Nanny State says, there's really no one anywhere who favors genuine free market policies. There are people who want state action that helps regular people, and those who want state action that makes the richest even richer.

What's particularly impressive in this Post story is the reporter went from "state petroleum company" to "free-market economics" in just one sentence. This ability to write self-contradictory gibberish while sincerely believing it makes sense is really the core competency for a Post writer.

TO BE FAIR: The rest of the article isn't that bad. And I see the reporter, Monte Reel, can write some pretty good pieces.

May 24, 2006

Let The Econo-Blather Begin!

Dean Baker will be appearing today from 1:00-2:30 pm ET over at MaxSpeak! to answer questions about his book The Conservative Nanny State. I myself will be there making strained, non-funny jokes such as "please speak more clearly and directly into the microphone."

Good Point

You probably know lots of whiny college professors and snobby Hollywood elitists and gay-married Saddam-lovers claim President Bush was lying when he said this:

...any time you hear the United States government talking about wiretap, it requires -- a wiretap requires a court order. Nothing has changed, by the way. When we're talking about chasing down terrorists, we're talking about getting a court order before we do so.

And it's true, this does look bad for the first. But David Rosnick has written me to point out that when taken literally, everything Bush said was completely accurate.

Read that again carefully. Did the president say the government was GETTING a court order for a wiretap? No he didn't. He merely said the government was TALKING ABOUT getting a court order.

And that, my friends, is 100% true. My sources (i.e., David Rosnick) tell me this discussion happens constantly at the highest levels of government:

NSA AGENT: Sir, should we get a court order for this wiretap?

May 23, 2006

Back In The Days When Spymasters Wrote Limericks

Michael Pollak has discovered another of the type of peculiar snippet of information that makes me want to go on living. Apparently in February, 1940, MI5's director of counter-espionage wrote this little bit of verse in his diary:

An elderly statesman with gout
When asked what the war was about
In a written reply
Said "My colleagues and I
Are doing our best to find out."

You really got a higher quality of grey, faceless bureaucrat in those days. Michael Hayden probably relaxes by playing a 14 hour game of Halo 2.

McCain Gives Us More Straight Talk About How Great Santa Claus Is

In John McCain's spate of graduation speeches this spring, he's told the story of his unlikely friendship with a man named David (no last name given). Apparently David had traveled to Hanoi during the Vietnam War and denounced the war on the radio, which was played in McCain's cell. Later they met, David apologized, and they became close.

According to McCain, soon after David traveled to Hanoi he had a big change of heart:

A few years later, he had moved temporarily to a kibbutz in Israel. He was there during the Yom Kippur War, when he witnessed the support America provided our beleaguered ally. He saw the huge cargo planes bearing the insignia of the United States Air Force rushing emergency supplies into that country. And he had an epiphany. He had believed America had made a tragic mistake by going to Vietnam, and he still did. He had seen what he believed were his country's faults, and he still saw them. But he realized he had let his criticism temporarily blind him to his country's generosity and the goodness that most Americans possess, and he regretted his failing deeply.

Okay, that's the Straight Talk version of history. Now let's examine the historical version of history.

The Yom Kippur War began on October 6, 1973, when Egypt and Syria attacked the territory of theirs that Israel had captured during the Six Day War in 1967. During the first two days, Egypt and Syria were so successful the Israeli government became deeply worried that pre-67 Israel itself might be overrun. One reason for their fear was that they were running low on military supplies.

Now, it is true the U.S. then launched the huge airlift of weapons to Israel, called Operation Nickle Grass, that McCain referred to. But to claim this was due to American "generosity" is like telling children they're getting chocolate because the Easter Bunny is so generous—except the Easter Bunny story is more honest.

First of all, I doubt even one in three Americans was aware the war was going on, much less was breaking down the doors of the White House demanding that we rearm Israel. Second, U.S. strategy, as devised by Henry Kissinger, was to "let Israel come out ahead, but bleed." (Kissinger felt some degree of Arab victory would make a later peace deal more likely, and also was concerned that too much U.S. aid too soon would damage U.S. relations with the rest of the mideast.)

So the U.S. would have been perfectly happy to stay out of it for a while longer. However, the U.S. hopped to with the airlift because on October 8th and 9th we began hearing from Israel that they were seriously considering the use of nuclear weapons. This, of course, would inevitably have led to World War III between America and the Soviet Union.

The U.S. reaction was exactly what Israel expected. As Seymour Hersh writes in The Sampson Option, Israel had two reasons for signaling they would use nukes if necessary. One, they wanted the Soviet Union to rein in Egypt and Syria. And reason number two?

...such a drastic step would force the United States to begin an immediate and massive resupply of the Israeli military. There was widespread rage inside the Israeli cabinet at the Nixon White House—aimed especially at Henry Kissinger—over what was correctly perceived in Israel as an American strategy of delaying the resupply...

Thus does McCain convert the most cold-blooded realpolitik on the part of the U.S. and Israeli governments into a happy fairy tale about how his wayward friend realized America is good, good, GOOD!

People should keep this in mind when Senor Straight Talk speaks in a quavering voice about our great moral cause in Iraq.

(For more on McCain's truthiness-telling, see here.)

UPDATE: See comments below for discussion on whether I'm 100% right here or merely 98% right.

May 22, 2006

Why Not?

In Ted Koppel's New York Times column, he isn't afraid to ask the tough questions:

So, if there are personnel shortages in the military (and with units in their second and third rotations into Iraq and Afghanistan, there are), then what's wrong with having civilian contractors? Expense is a possible issue; but a resumption of the draft would be significantly more controversial...

So, what about the inevitable next step — a defensive military force paid for directly by the corporations that would most benefit from its protection? If, for example, an insurrection in Nigeria threatens that nation's ability to export oil (and it does), why not have Chevron or Exxon Mobil underwrite the dispatch of a battalion or two of mercenaries?

Really: why not have Chevron or Exxon Mobil underwrite the dispatch of a battalion or two of mercenaries? Seriously, what possible problems could arise?

And then, what about the inevitable next step—when corporations feel they've been unfairly treated by the governments of Saudi Arabia or Venezuela or Boliva, why not have them underwrite a battalion or two of mercenaries to overthrow those governments? A resumption of the draft to do this would be significantly more controversial.

And then, when corporations become unhappy about the government of the U.S., why not have them underwrite a battalion of mercenaries to stage a coup? Again: it would be much less controversial than a draft.

And then, when the world is run directly by corporations, why not have them underwrite gigantic armies to do battle with competing corporations? At long last we would be completely free of the awful "voting" and "democracy" that has created unpleasant controversies for centuries.

For too long we have been afraid to engage in this critical debate. So as Ted Koppel says: "Let the discussion begin!"

May 21, 2006

Please Welcome Michael Pollak

I've read Doug Henwood's listserv lbo-talk for a long time. In fact, I blame it for this site. Seth Ackerman often posts stuff there, and it's always compelling—which is one reason why I've kept pestering him to write stuff here.

Lbo-talk also introduced me to another extremely interesting commenter, Michael Pollak. I've been after him too to chip in, and so now I'm very pleased to present the first of what hopefully will be many posts of his. As you'll see, it's in response to what Seth wrote yesterday. Both Seth and Michael are trying to answer the question: what is it the people who run America think they're DOING, for God's sake?

Be forewarned, however: Michael shares Seth's fatal flaw, which is knowing what you're talking about. This leaves both of them much less time for my specialty, which is crude insults and jeering.

• • •

by Michael Pollak


I don't buy the Nitzan-Bichler theory, although I clearly haven't put as much work into the book as you have. But with that qualification, I think this Kinsley anecdote is kind of perfectly timed to highlight the central problems with the Nitzan-Bichler theory.

When it comes to this oil prices, I'm a conventional thinker. I think oil companies do like price stability for all obvious reasons that have always been given. The only time they like war is when it's very short -- like Gulf War I, which has clearly just finished when Kinsley is having this conversation. At that point, oil prices had been suffering from glut since the mid-1980s (the third oil shock, the one that everyone forgets, the negative oil shock, the one that had Poppa Bush running to Saudi Arabia to get them to raise prices). And then, during GWI, just for a few months, the price spiked enormously. And then went back to its previous level. It was one of the shortest, most successful wars in history. And it was one of the steepest and shortest price spikes in history.

Well, you can see why an oil man would want to have one of those again. It was an idyllic example of the fabled windfall profit. Oil companies did nothing and money just fell in their lap.

But what you don't want as an oil company is a war that keeps oil prices high for an extended period of time. Because then you run into three problems that are all very much increasingly in evidence now -- and which have always invariably recurred since oil first became an industry in the 1860s whenever disturbances have kept prices high for an extended period:

1) Resource nationalism

Oil price contracts are between countries and country-size companies. There is no higher court. It's a purely a matter of power. Whoever has more power gets more money.

When oil prices are low, oil companies have more power. Countries are starved for income and dying for investment. They can be forced to make deals that are outrageously in the companies' interests. And so long as the oil price stays steady (or even better, goes up slowly and steadily) the oil companies keep the whip hand. The countries can't afford the losses that would be incurred by abrogating those agreements.

But double the oil prices and suddenly the producing countries are rolling in money. And then they have the whip hand. And all the advantageous contracts that were agreed to in time of scarcity are "renegotiated" -- i.e., torn up. And the oil companies have to take it. Because they do have contracts at the consumer end that they have to honor or they'll get sued.

As you rightly say, its all about percentages. Gas companies in Bolivia were a lot happier paying 18% of a low price than 82% of a high one.

2) Consumer nationalism

Oil companies are the juiciest scapegoat in the world. No one trusts them and no one likes them. And when price jump dramatically and stay up, the people cry for their heads. The longer they stay up, the more the cry for windfall profits taxes and removing incentives and renegotiating contracts -- whatever will take it out their hides.

The current US government is the exception that proves the rule. This has to be the most oil friendly administration and congress in history. And even here you can see how congressmen feel they have to at least pretend to hit the oil companies. In the past, they did hit them. It takes sole ownership of the government to make it not happen now. And once the oil companies are hit -- in consumer countries, this means an increase in taxes and decrease in subsidies and, most importantly, changes in the bookkeeping and restrictions on doing business -- that hit stays until the balance of power shifts the other way. Which in a consumer set-up happens when prices are stable for a long time. Because that's when gas prices recede into the background. And then they can write in their depletion allowances and lease terms and everybody's eyes glaze over. In consumerland, stable prices are the grail for goldilocks reasons: oil prices going down is always bad; and going up too fast means unwelcome attention; but going up slowly is just right.

3) Huge, long-term fixed investments

This of course is the main reason that oil companies like stability -- and the main reason they hate wars that keep prices high for years at a time and uncertainty of any kind.

If you're going to sink a couple billion dollars into an infrastructure project that's going to last for 30 years, you've got to have an estimate of how much oil is going to cost. And so long as prices are being artificially inflated by war, you don't know what that price is. So no one is going to build a project based on $60 a barrel oil. But if they don't, and prices stay that high, then they'll slowly get squeezed. Producers will take a larger and larger cut. And if it goes on long enough, they'll start nationalizing billion dollar infrastructure projects you've already built. This is the oil companies' idea of hell. This is when their power is at a minimum vs. the other two players in the game.

But so long as the faux inflation lasts there's nothing they can do. If no oil investments are made based on an oil price above $30, and the market price stays $60, supplies will get steadily tighter and their power position will get rapidly weaker. But if they make a long term investment in oil that wouldn't normally be profitable -- let's say at $40 a barrel -- and then, 5 years from now, oil comes back down to $30, then they're fucked. They'll have to keep pumping the oil because of the financing and the contracts with the country. But if they dump it at a loss, the market will go into a death spiral. This is *exactly* what happened after the second oil shock in 1979, which was purely a matter of disturbance in the middle east -- there was no real underlying shortage, just leapfrog buying as distributors and consumers tried to secure supplies. And when all the investment made at that level came on line in mid-decade, oil prices cratered for the next decade and more.

Oil companies would have no trouble investing based on $40 a barrel or $50 a barrel so long as they're sure that's the underlying price based on supply and demand. But that's just it: you can't be sure that's true when prices are artificially inflated. And you doubly can't be sure when they've jumped suddenly and then plateaued at double their normal level. Because then you have a second problem. Not only do you not know what the true long term price is, but there is a 100% margin for using new technologies that have never been used before -- the results of which are by definition incalculable. It might turn out that with that much incentive someone really will come up with a way to make oil shale into a marketable product at $45 a barrel. And that when that opens up whole new huge reserves we'll be back in the land of glut. In which case every multi-billion dollar project based on $50 oil would be a ticket to bankruptcy.

And oil companies do go bankrupt -- all the time. (Although a lot of the time it's called mergers.) Despite their unfathomable amounts of power and money, oil investing is still a hugely risky business. And the reason it will always stay risky is because so much money is at stake, and because the time lines are so long. Keynes defined radical uncertainty as trying to guess the price of commodity in 20 years. Anyone want to bet 3 billion dollars on it? Without even worrying about being nationalized or renegotiated against your will? Or the problems inherent in running through extreme geographical and political environments -- which is the case with almost every new investment from here on out?

So that's why oil companies like stability: it maximizes their power and it maximizes their return over the long term. And the guys who really run the oil companies -- not the drones who fly retail who were ironically joking with Kinsley -- always think in the long term. It's the nature of their business.

One last footnote: the one thing the oil companies have most wanted in the middle east for the last 20 years -- and the thing they still most want in the middle east -- is the ability to invest in Saudi Arabia again on ownership terms. And in the mid 90s they were closer than they'd ever been before. It's conceivable that if they'd had just 5 more years of collapsed oil prices, they probably could have pulled it off -- they were this close to getting the gas contracts that would have led to the oil. Saudi Arabia was famously strapped and suffering badly for it. And now, poof, that's all gone for the foreseeable future. This was not the middle east future the majors wanted.

IMHO, of course.

May 20, 2006

Feel My Flow

A few weeks ago, Michael Kinsley wrote this in his Washington post column:

In, I guess, the early 1990s, when I worked for CNN, I found myself one evening at a Washington reception, chatting with an oil company executive and one from a defense contractor. The oilman said, "How's business?" How's business! Delighted and emboldened by the discovery that businessmen actually say this to one another, I arched a conspiratorial eyebrow and said, "Well, we could use another war."

The defense contractor said, "So could we."

The oilman said, "So could we -- as long as it's in the Middle East."

Now hold on, you might be tempted to say. A defense contractor praying for a war, that I can understand. But an oilman hoping for a war in the Mideast? I thought the oil companies – those far-flung undertakings led by enterprising men with melting, gelatinous faces – I thought they were always pleading for “stability” and “order” in the “region,” and then “hitting” the “links” for a few rounds of “golf.” Sure, if they find their access to oil supplies threatened, they might support a little shooting to eliminate the trouble. But all things being equal, a war in the Mideast is the last thing they want.

Well, not according to one theory. Two Israeli political economists, Jonathan Nitzan and Shimshon Bichler, have argued for years that the usual thinking about these issues on the left (and the right and the center) is all backward. It’s an intricate argument that I won’t try to fully summarize (you can read their grand opus here) but the main idea is this: In Israel and the U.S., two rival coalitions of business interests have arisen since the ‘70’s with conflicting sets of interests. A Weapondollar-Petrodollar coalition whose main components are oil companies and defense contractors (think Halliburton, Exxon, Lockheed Martin), and a Technodollar-Mergerdollar coalition whose members tend to be multinational financial or high-tech firms eager to expand globally (Citicorp, Cisco Systems, Verizon).

As you’ve probably already guessed, the first group tends to be Republican (or Likud), while the second waxes Clintonite (or Peres-ite). Most of all, the first group really like wars in the Mideast. Wars make oil prices go up. And that raises oil company profits. It also fills the coffers of Persian Gulf oil states, who have tacit agreements to use a big chunk of the profits to buy weapons from US defense contractors. The oil and arms companies then use their giant profits to support trigger-happy think tanks and politicians who tend to start wars in the Middle East. And round and round we go.

So that’s the Nitzan-Bichler idea. I’m not endorsing it here in all its particulars, but it’s a fascinating argument backed up by a lot of careful empirical work. It also has the virtue of sounding frankly crazy at first while becoming more and more plausible as you read.

But the real reason I bring all this up is that, whether or not one buys the theory, it does raise the following question: If the Iraq war is “about the oil” somehow, then in what way, exactly, is it about the oil? This deceptively simple question is a problem both for the left and for more establishment types.

After all, even Colin Powell will freely admit that the US mostly cares about the Mideast because it has lots of oil. But why? The usual answer is that we must “protect the flow” or preserve our “access,” or some such. But as even a casual observer of Mideast politics will have noticed by now, Middle East rulers tend to like a nice, healthy flow of oil just as much as we do.

We really don’t have to twist many arms to get people who have oil to provide it to us. It’s a commodity like any other: It’s only worth something if you can sell it. Have you ever noticed that no one ever worries about preserving the flow of, say, cheap plastic bath toys from China? It’s almost like they want to sell them to us.

Posted by Seth

Five Civil, Respectful Questions For Mark Salter And John McCain

This has been updated since first posted.

John McCain was loudly heckled at his commencement address for the New School in New York. And even before his time at the podium, Jean Rohe, one of the student speakers, had some sharp things to say about him. She's written about her experience for the Huffington Post, which also reprints her remarks themselves.

Soon afterward Mark Salter, who's been close to McCain for some time and co-wrote several of his books, wrote a long comment to Rohe's post. As you can see, Salter felt what she said was disrespectful to McCain.

I take no position either way on that. However, I do believe in a respectful exchange of ideas. So I've written the below letter to Salter.

* * *

Mr. Salter,

In a recent comment on the Huffington Post, you expressed your deep unhappiness about the recent events at the New School commencement. You stated Jean Rohe's remarks were "an act of vanity," and said she and other New School students may in the future become ashamed of their actions.

By way of contrast, you wrote that Sen. John McCain believes "we owe each other our respect." In his address at the New School, he spoke about the importance of civility. And of course his website is called Straight Talk America.

I agree with Sen. McCain and yourself on the importance of mutual respect, civility, and straight talk. They are important at all times, but particularly at this difficult moment in our country's history.

Therefore, in the interest of advancing honest, civil dialogue even on contentious issues, I ask that you forward these questions to Sen. McCain and arrange for him to answer them fully and candidly.

As you'll see, these are inquiries about basic aspects of his political perspective. Without excusing the behavior of the hecklers at the New School commencement, I believe they acted out of frustration with our political system—a frustration I share. This frustration stems from the way prominent political figures (including but certainly not limited to Sen. McCain) are rarely even asked fundamental questions such as this, much less answer them forthrightly.

Many Americans are deeply cynical about politicians. I'm certain most readers of this will assume you and Sen. McCain will simply ignore this—or at best, respond with obfuscation.

I very much hope you'll seize this opportunity to prove them wrong. While I acknowledge these questions may be uncomfortable, I believe they're completely legitimate, and that in fact American democracy depends on the willingness of politicians to answer such inquiries. This is particularly the case when the questions have to do, as these do, with matters of live and death. (Also, while there's no particular reason you should care about my political views, if you have any questions for me I'm more than happy to answer them.)

1. Sen. McCain supported the Iraq war, and still believes it was justified. In a piece called "Despite Everything, the Right War," he wrote "even if Saddam had forever abandoned his WMD ambitions, it was still right to topple the dictator."

My first question is this: did Sen. McCain ever make this case in the build up to war in 2002 and 2003—that is, that it was irrelevant whether or not Saddam had or would ever get WMD?

2. The main reason Sen. McCain has given for his belief it was right to invade Iraq in the absence of WMD is Saddam's brutality against Iraqis, which he's compared to Auschwitz and Treblinka.

Saddam's worst actions against his own people took place during the eighties before the invasion of Kuwait, when he was an ally of the United States. Sen. McCain was elected to Congress in 1982, and then to the Senate in 1986.

Did Sen. McCain speak out about Saddam's most horrible crimes during this period—that is, while they were actually in progress?

3. The Reagan and first Bush administrations gave Saddam critical financial, political, and strategic support, even though they knew he was using chemical weapons against Iranians and his own people. In April, 1990, Republican Senator Alan Simpson (a close friend of Dick Cheney, who was then Secretary of Defense) met with Saddam and told him his problem lay "with the Western media and not with the U.S. government." Sen. Simpson also called the media "haughty and pampered." Just four weeks before this meeting, Saddam had executed Farzad Bazoft, a journalist with the British paper The Observer.

Again, Sen. McCain has compared Saddam's actions to those of Hitler. What would he say about politicians who offered comparable support to Hitler during the Holocaust? Does he believe the same should be said about Reagan, Bush Sr., and Simpson?

4. In 1995, Saddam Hussein's son-in-law Hussein Kamel defected from Iraq to Jordan. Kamel had supervised Iraq's WMD programs before the Gulf War in 1991. After his defection, Kamel told the CIA that Iraq had not been honest about its pre-Gulf War programs. However, he also told us Iraq had no remaining WMD and that its nuclear weapons program had ended four years previously. We now know everything Kamel said was accurate.

President Bush, Vice President Cheney, Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Powell all referred to Kamel in the build up to war. However, none of them told Americans that Kamel said Iraq had nothing.

Why does Sen. McCain believe Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell all left this out?

Also, Sen. McCain served on the commission investigating the intelligence failure regarding WMD and Iraq. The commission's report mentions Kamel repeatedly, but never refers to his statements that Iraq was disarmed.

Why does the report fail to mention this?

5. My last question has to do with domestic policy. Sen. McCain is a vocal supporter of President Bush's proposals to privatize Social Security. While touring the country speaking about Social Security with President Bush last year, Sen. McCain made many statements such as this one:

"Some of our friends, who are opposing this idea, say, 'Oh, you don't have to worry until 2042.' We wait until 2042, when we stop paying people Social Security?"

This is not accurate. There will never be a time when the government simply stops paying people Social Security. In fact, according to the projections of the Social Security Administration (to which Sen. McCain was referring), in 2042 Social Security will with no changes be able to pay recipients more than retirees receive today. The only question is whether without changes Social Security will be able to pay benefits even higher than that.

This is one of the most basic facts there is about the Social Security debate. With all respect, it's certainly something a senator should be expected to know, particularly if he's proposing significant alterations to the program.

Was Sen. McCain unaware what he was saying was false? If so, and he genuinely didn't know this basic aspect of how Social Security functions, will he apologize for not being informed before speaking out so strongly on this issue?

Thanks in advance to both you and Sen. McCain for addressing these questions. Again, I emphasize my genuine commitment to civil dialogue. I look forward to your response.

best regards,
Jonathan Schwarz

This Tom Tomorrow Lad Shows Some Real Cartooning Promise

I own all the This Modern World books. But I'd forgotten about this cartoon from 1992, which sums up everything there is to say about the U.S. media in sixteen square inches.

May 19, 2006

Stutts! Stutts! Stutts!

My alma mater Stutts University obviously leads the world in all areas of human endeavor. (Stutts also leads the universe in trans-human endeavors, though the details of this are for us to know and you to find out.)

And since cheating is a human endeavor, Stutts is better than everyone else at that too:

The Alternative Moralities (“AltMo”) major was instituted at Stutts four years ago, but it’s already one of the most visible, powerful departments on campus. Though it started out as a branch of the Philosophy department, its wild popularity with the students—along with some Machievellian dealings by the AltMo professors themselves—soon made it one of the most voices inside Stutts. Proof of this came on April 23, 2003, when CHEATSTAR-1, the first-ever satellite dedicated solely to academic malfeasance, was lifted into geosynchronous orbit.

“There are times in life when the standard paradigm does not work,” President Rivington said in his pre-launch remarks. “That’s why we encourage our students to seek out new solutions, wherever they might be. Studying for a test, memorizing the information—that’s one solution. Uploading your entire textbook to CHEATSTAR, is simply another, more efficient solution…We know our students could ace any test if they wanted to—they’re Stutts students. That’s why nobody gets anything lower than a ‘B,’” Whitbread said, “and that’s why we’re launching CHEATSTAR.”

ALSO: There's some sad news from Stutts as well. Apparently Shabby's, the used bookstore that has made generations of Stutts students smell slightly mildewed, has closed. Never again will Stuttsians be attacked by the pack of feral cats known to prowl the basement's extensive World War I history section.

I'm Superior Because I Know Many Tiny Little Shards Of Information

I'm working on a magazine piece on the issues covered in this old post called "Schrodinger's War." And something I've learned is which country is the last against whom the U.S. formally declared war. I hope many people here will say they don't know this, so I can be filled with a senseless, utterly unwarranted sense of superiority towards them.

May 18, 2006

Let's Be Sure To Do Exactly What Bin Laden Wants Us To

A while ago Judith Miller mentioned that she'd heard in the summer of 2001 about U.S. concerns about a big impending Al Qaeda attack. Now Rory O'Connor William Scott Malone have interviewed Judith Miller about it, and written it up for Alternet. Her account is corroborated by her then-editor Stephen Engelberg.

According to Miller, many government types were extremely worried there would be an attack on the July 4th, 2001 weekend. She went down to DC to try to talk to people, but they were mostly too busy. Still, Miller says:

...I did manage to have a conversation with a source that weekend. The person told me that there was some concern about an intercept that had been picked up. The incident that had gotten everyone's attention was a conversation between two members of Al Qaida. And they had been talking to one another, supposedly expressing disappointment that the United States had not chosen to retaliate more seriously against what had happened to the Cole. And one Al Qaida operative was overheard saying to the other, 'Don't worry; we're planning something so big now that the U.S. will have to respond.'

But Miller et al couldn't learn anything more about this, and so the New York Times didn't end up running a story. Kevin Drum asks, "Perhaps now would be a good time to follow it up?"

I feel the same way, particularly because doing a follow up shouldn't be too hard. The obvious place to start beyond Miller is the 9/11 Report. According to the report, after the Cole attack,

...Bin Ladin anticipated U.S. military retaliation. He ordered the evacuation of the al Qaeda's Kandahar airport compound and fled...

There was no American strike. In February 2001, a source reported that an individual whom he identified as the big instructor (probably a reference to bin Ladin) complained frequently that the United States had not yet attacked. According to the source, Bin Ladin wanted the United States to attack, and if it did not he would launch something bigger.

That's on page 191. It sources this claim to "Intelligence report, Terrorism Activities, Oct. 1, 2001" (Chapter 6, footnote 126).

I've long been amazed that the news bin Ladin really, really wanted retaliation from the U.S. has gotten so little attention—even after it appeared in the most official report imaginable. The phrase "complained frequently that the United States had not yet attacked" gets 5 results from Google, one of which is simply the text of the report.

REMEMBER: As I wrote yesterday, al Qaeda's real goal has nothing to do with "our freedom." As the 9/11 report also says, what they're trying to do is win "their struggle for preeminence among other Islamist and jihadist movements." Having a gigantic military response from the U.S. has helped them do just that.

Stutts! Stutts! Stutts!

So there's a new article in the Washington Monthly by Zachary Roth about the Democrats' fear they might be seen to stand for something:

What will the Democrats really do if they win the House? I spoke to a broad range of Beltway Democrats...Lanny Davis, who served as White House counsel to President Clinton, [argued] that any use of Congressional investigations that's not directly focused on solving the public's problems will backfire on Democrats. “I could come up with a hundred investigations, and 90 percent of the American public would say: 'Can you please do something about our public school system?' And: 'Would you please tell me why we're not energy-independent enough?' And: 'Would you please get us out of Iraq and make us safe from terrorism?'” he told me. “I don't care about digging up whether Bush lied or not, or whether they manipulated evidence or not. That's just playing gotcha.”

You can only learn this combination of moral integrity and tactical brilliance at one place: Stutts University. Not surprisingly, as his online biography makes clear, Mr. Davis landed the treasured Stutts triple axel: he graduated from Stutts, was chairman of the Stutts Daily Spectacle, and then went to Stutts Law School. He currently sits on the board of the famous Stutts magazine Hmm: A Journal of Reasoned, Centrist Quibbling.

Teh Funny & Teh Awful Truth

Spaghetti Happens asks in comments to the below post "Bob Harris & Teh Funny":

What does "teh" mean? (I really hate being the last one in on the joke.)

Actually, the last one in on the joke here is me. The sad fact is I'm using teh funny without being sure I understand it myself, which reminds me of some of my less glorious moments from 6th grade. I just want Belle Waring to like me. (She is a frequent teh funny user.)

That said, I believe the answer is simple: it's a way people often misspell "the funny" while typing. Beyond that, I'm not sure where "the funny" comes from. Maybe "show me the funny," if such a phrase exists, in which case I assume it's derived from "show me the money."

If the internet overbrain has an explanation that's more accurate, or less accurate but more entertaining, please tell me.

May 17, 2006

How To Not Get It, And Not Get It Hard

It's incredibly dispiriting to me how I'm right about terrorism and everyone else is wrong. Here's something ultra-wrong by Georgia10 at Daily Kos:

I've had my share of heated debates with conservatives who claim we are winning the war on terror because we haven't been attacked since 9/11. But only those with a myopic view of the conflict can make such a claim. Limiting the definition of success solely to the physical safety of Americans fails to take into account that the goal of al Qaeda is not merely to cause death, but to cause a destruction of the very thing that defines us as Americans: our freedom.

Whenever I read something like this, I wonder what thought process got the thinker there. Specifically, has the thinker ever met a human being in their entire lives who would die in order to deprive others halfway around the world of freedom? Obviously not, because out of the 10 billion humans who've lived on this planet, the number of people like that is zero. Therefore, the thinker believes al Qaeda and their cohorts are essentially some other species.

Yet they're not. They're just as boring as me and you and everyone we know. All that was missing in the videotape of Osama and friends discussing their excellent 9/11 adventure was them passing around a bong.

They don't care about destroying our freedom. In fact, they give no thought whatsoever to us. Their goal is the same as the goal of political bozos the world over: they want to have more power than their "domestic" rivals.

Think of Bush. If you could listen in on every White House conversation, you'd find his central, overriding goal is not to reorder the Middle East or seize the world's oil. It's to have more power than Democrats. They invaded Iraq because they thought it would help.

Likewise with al Qaeda. If you read the 9/11 report, you'll find the central, overriding concern for al Qaeda had nothing to do with us. Their goal was to triumph "in their struggle for preeminence among other Islamist and jihadist movements," and splashy suicide attacks seemed like the way to make that happen (p. 191).

Meanwhile, the Taliban's goal was also to have more power than their domestic rivals. Thus, they opposed the 9/11 attacks: "The Taliban leaders put their main emphasis on the year's military offensive against the Northern Alliance...They certainly hoped that this year's offensive would finally finish off their old attack against the United States might be counterproductive. It might draw the Americans into the war against them."

But bin Laden's domestic rivals were different. He pressed to go forward because he "thought an attack against the United States would benefit al Qaeda by attracting more suicide operatives, eliciting greatest donations, and increasing the number of sympathizers willing to provide logistical assistance" (p. 251).

Note the lack of desire to destroy our freedom. Nor was there gloating over all the Americans they were going to kill, just complete indifference. Instead, they were focused on the same crap the political bozo genus is always obsessed with: money and footsoldiers, so they could stay in power within their own societies for a few more luscious minutes.

They're not supervillains. They're just standard-issue dipshits.

That doesn't mean they're not pure evil. It's just that evil is really, really boring.

P.S. There are no serial killers who are charming and erudite and quippy like Hannibal Lecter.

Prepare Now For "Conservative Nanny State" Web Gab

Max Sawicky reports that next Wednesday the 24th his site MaxSpeak! will be hosting an online discussion with Dean Baker about Baker's new book The Conservative Nanny State. So now's the time to download the free pdf and start preparing ill-informed, accusatory questions. (Sample: "Mr. Baker, why do you dhimmi Leninists want the Islamo-fascists to gay marry the Dixie Chicks?")

May 16, 2006

Bob Harris & Teh Funny

Bob Harris:

Bush dispatches National Guard to defend the border with Reality

In a move White House staffers describe as an attempt to shore up his remaining support, President Bush last night announced his intention to send National Guard troops to line his administration's increasingly fragile border with Reality...

"We are a nation of laws," Bush declared, although it was unclear if he understood the words. "Reality is always welcome within our borders, when it is willing to cooperate with our laws and obey our commands. But Reality cannot enter this great nation in an uncontrollable tide. Therefore, tonight, I am announcing a comprehensive solution initiative."

The rest is here.

No Horrible Thing Ever Dies

In The Shawshank Redemption, Tim Robbins' character writes a letter that includes the line "No good thing ever dies." It's a great movie but, I've always thought, a dumb line. Because WHAT ABOUT MY BELOVED PET GOLDFISH SAMMY? Is Tim Robbins implying he was EVIL?!!?

Indeed, I believe the opposite is more likely true: no horrible thing ever dies. You see this in history. The same type of awful people everywhere always use the same appalling techniques to stay in power.

There's a fantastic article by the novelist Kevin Baker demonstrating this in the June issue of Harper's. It's about the persistence of the "stabbed in the back" myth, from Weimar Germany to post World War II America (we were stabbed in the back at Yalta) to Vietnam to today.

I was particularly surprised to see how consciously the U.S. right-wing of the fifties was using the same slimeball tactics of today. I'm always taken aback by the way our contemporary conservative attack machine is willing to tell five or six contradictory stories about a subject at the same time. They just throw the crap against the wall to see what sticks. Then they choose the stickiest crap and go with that.

But it's nothing new. This article quotes Robert Taft cheering on Joseph McCarthy's purges, saying McCarthy should "keep talking and if one case doesn't work out, he should proceed with another."

The only difference between then and now is the noise machine has gotten louder and slicker. But their complete lack of concern with reality remains the same.

May 15, 2006

Topic For Discussion: Will The Future Suck Less Than Now?

I've been talking with Dennis Perrin and Mike Gerber about the significance of the rise of blurfs, MySpace, YouTube, and online frothing generally.

My belief is it's been almost completely positive for everyone except gigantic media conglomerates. I'm certain all the odious media executives terrified of the internet are right to be scared. Not only is the downturn in movie ticket sales, etc. real, I suspect it will continue no matter what they try.

Here's why: before the web, when it was essentially impossible to reach large numbers of people without lots of money behind you, I believe many freakazoids with something to say just didn't bother because it seemed so pointless. Other freakzoids got involved in the corporate culture industry, but in so doing they had to shave off all their hairy interesting parts in order to fit the machine's needs. After decades of this, I think, we'd successfully neutered our imaginations without being aware of it. If the only way to get an audience is to write for Third Rock from the Sun or compose power ballads for Britney Spears, then people will stop having thoughts that don't fit into that iron straightjacket.

Now, however, people are free to take their inner freak out in public, where it grows stronger through exercise and exposure to sunlight. This naturally leads to smaller audiences for pre-digested pap, both because there's less interest in pap and because people have less time for pap when they're busy creating their own peculiar home brew. (I know this site has greatly cut down on my own consumption of crappy crap.)

Moreover, this has implications for politics beyond the obvious. One thing that used to drive American progressives to despair was the complete triumph of corporate culture in the U.S. By nature corporate culture is anti-democratic, because it conditions people to think of themselves as an audience rather than participants. Every zine from 1987-1994 was about the author's belief he or she was surrounded by shambling zombies controlled by the MTV video games.

But the "I can only be part of the audience" worldview is swiftly eroding. And as the online frothosphere continues its exponential expansion, and new generations come along *expecting* to participate in their own lives, the world may look significantly different.

What do you think?

May 14, 2006

Dog Whistle Politics FROM BEYOND THE STARS

George Bush is notorious for his use of dog whistle politics—that is, references in speeches that strike most people as innocuous if peculiar, but are freighted with great meaning for certain constituencies. For instance, in one of the 2004 debates, Bush said he wouldn't appoint anyone to the Supreme Court who would condone the Dred Scott decision. This was confusing, given that this question seemed to have been definitively settled by the Civil War. But it turns out "Dred Scott" is actually religious right-speak for Roe v. Wade. It was inaudible to almost everyone else, but they heard what he was saying.

Yet few have noticed Bush's secret messages to an even more terrifying group of supporters. Take his speech from the 2004 convention:

Like generations before us, we have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.

This was such an important point he repeated it on Inauguration Day:

We have a calling from beyond the stars to stand for freedom.

This seems weird but essentially meaningless...unless, that is, you are familiar with the Necronomicon of the Mad Arab Abdul Alhazred:

I hear the Crawling Chaos that calls from beyond the stars...

Or as it was put by H.P. Lovecraft himself: with minds sensitive to hereditary impulse will always tremble at the thought of the hidden and fathomless worlds of strange life which may pulsate in the gulfs beyond the stars...

That's right! Bush was directing these references not to us, but to the specialest special interest of all:


Moreover, as the End Times approach and R'lyeh prepares to rise from the sea, Bush is getting more and more overt about this. Indeed, according to advance copies, his prime time speech tomorrow will conclude with these words:

My fellow Americans: the Old Ones were, the Old Ones are, and the Old Ones shall be! Yog-Sothoth knows the gate! Yog-Sothoth is the gate!


So, here's some advice from an old political hand: when Cthulhu awakes, try if at all possible to be among the first to be eaten.

May 13, 2006

Lockheed Martin Is A Coalition Of Concerned Citizens

What I most appreciate about this new astroturf group Hands Off the Internet is the shamelessness of their self-description:

Hands Off The Internet is a nationwide coalition of Internet users...

Sure, you bet. Though to be fair, of course, in a certain sense it is true AT&T, BellSouth, Alcatel and the National Association of Manufacturers are "a coalition of internet users."

May 12, 2006


1. Dennis Perrin's views on the Yalieban.

2. Mike Gerber's story of the recent horrific changes at Disneyland.

3. Informed discussion about the New Orleans mayoral election by Oyster of Your Right Hand Thief here and then here.

4. A sweet poem by Anna in Cairo's 15 year-old son on Egyptian Mother's Day.

5. WTF? (This bit of information, heretofore unknown to me, courtesy of Mike.)

OF COURSE Ahmadinejad Sounds Like Cindy Sheehan

The recent letter from Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to George Bush predictably was filled with criticism of America. Just as predictable was Rush Limbaugh's reaction:

The letter covers a list of grievances that have made Bush deeply unpopular among Muslims: the Iraq war, the U.S. support for Israel, and the treatment of prisoners in Guantanamo Bay.

Once again, it's the Democratic talking points...Yeah, it's Cindy Sheehan talking.

Back in January, Chris Matthews said something similar about bin Laden's latest tape:

...he sounds like an over-the-top Michael Moore here, if not a Michael Moore.

This kind of thing upsets many of my progressive compatriots. It doesn't upset me, though. And I don't think the correct response to any of it is to demand Limbaugh or Matthews apologize. Instead, what we should be saying is:

Of course Ahmadinejad sounds like Cindy Sheehan. Of course bin Laden sounds like Michael Moore.

And why do they all sound the same?

For exactly the same reason George Bush, when talking about Iran, sounds like Shirin Ebadi.

Lots of people find this confusing, so let me try to explain.

Many countries have right-wing nutjobs as leaders. These leaders often do terrible things, like invading other nations or supporting terrorism. Meanwhile, these countries also have normal people who are extremely critical of their own right-wing nutjob leaders.

When two of these countries with right-wing nutjob leaders come into conflict, the leaders will loudly criticize each other. Often these criticisms are completely accurate. Indeed, they will generally be exactly the same criticism made by the normal people of the country being criticized.

So, Cindy Sheehan accurately criticizes the U.S. for the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. So does Ahmadinejad.

Meanwhile, Shirin Ebadi—the Iranian woman who won the Nobel Peace Prize in 2003—accurately criticizes Iran's lack of a free press and independent judiciary. And so does Bush. (In fact, Bush's message broadcast to Iranians just before the elections there last June could easily have been written by Ebadi.)

The difference, of course, is Sheehan and Ebadi are sincere, and are criticizing their own countries because they love them and want them to be better.

By contrast, Ahmadinejad and Bush are preposterously insincere hypocrites. Does anyone think Ahmadinejad truly cares about the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo, even as the Iranian government imprisons and tortures its own citizens in Tehran? Does anyone think Bush truly cares about an independent judiciary and free press in Iran, even as the Republican Party does its best to destroy an independent judiciary and free press in America?

Obviously you have to be an incredible tool and/or Rush Limbaugh to believe either thing. Ahmadinejad criticizes America to whip up fear and hatred among Iranians, which is good for him politically. Meanwhile Bush criticizes Iran to whip up fear and hatred among Americans, which is good for him. The only people it's bad for are normal Americans and normal Iranians.

And here's the part Rush Limbaugh doesn't want you to think about: whenever Bush criticizes Iran's human rights record, there are Iranian Rush Limbaughs who say, "Did you hear that? Bush sounds just like Shirin Ebadi. Haw, haw!" Then the Iranian Rush Limbaughs go and snort some Iranian Oxycontin.

If this still doesn't make sense, I've expressed it below in easy-to-understand diagram form.

(Note that while this uses America and Iran, it can easily apply to any two countries led by right-wing nutjobs.)

Here's Where Knowing No History Whatsoever Really Comes In Handy

So Tristero has an interesting story to tell over at Hullabaloo about going to a fancy dinner for some liberal organization and getting into a discussion about Iraq with a liberal hawk. The liberal hawk said he thought at the time our invasion was a good idea. Among the reasons was that "he had been in Cambodia and seen firsthand the capacity of human beings to do evil."

There are lots of little sniggering jokes that could be made about this. But I'd prefer to concentrate on the big sniggering jokes.

Specifically, it's very unlikely the Cambodian genocide would have occurred if the U.S. hadn't bombed the holy freaking bejeesus out of the country from 1969-73. Moreover, things like the Cambodian genocide are just the type of unanticipated consequence you often get from gigantic helpings of ultraviolence. That's one of the main reasons ultraviolence should be avoided whenever possible.

And indeed, the world generally and Iraq specifically will be extremely lucky to get out of this without another genocide, either in slow motion or very very fast motion. Of course, if things do get as bad as they may well get, I'm sure this liberal hawk will be using it as a rationale to support our invasion of Peru in 2021

May 11, 2006

Ho-Hum, Just Another Day In The Craziest Country On Earth

Living as I do in the World's Insanest Country, I sometimes don't notice our loonitude. It gets to seem normal after a while. A few White House speeches and New York Times op-eds about the Aresian Threat and you find yourself earnestly considering whether we need to invade Mars.

Take this statement about Iran by Fox's John Gibson: leaders may be coming to the U.S. saying, "Would you please use your super-duper nuke bunker-busters to end this thing with the least possible -- pardon the phrase -- collateral damage?"

...Do we use ours on them first or wait for them to use theirs on us?...It may come down to them or us.

What would we think if we were outside looking in at this? Imagine two countries, A and B.

Country A:

• is the richest and most powerful country that's ever existed
• has been inexorably expanding since its founding 230 years ago
• has previously used nuclear weapons against a non-nuclear nation
• has invaded a dozen countries within past 50 years, and recently attacked Country B's neighbor on the pretext this totally disarmed neighbor of Country B posed an intolerable threat to it

And Country B:

• was until 25 years ago ruled by a dictator installed when Country A overthrew its democratically-elected government
• has 1/4 the population of country A
• has an economy 1/25 the size of country A's
• has not invaded anyone in living memory
• was recently invaded by Country B's neighbor—at the urging of Country A
• has no proven nuclear weapons program

Then, a prominent news anchor in Country A advocates a nuclear first strike against Country B in "self-defense," and claims the rest of the world may beg Country A to do this.

Also, the anchor's network is owned by a billionaire who's a ferocious supporter of Country A's government, while also hosting fundraisers for the most prominent member of the "opposition" party.

Who in this scenario is dangerously bonkers? I think the answer is obvious: Tom Cruise.

BONUS: Gibson also asked this piquant question:

Could they really wipe out Israel with one monsoon-like attack?

I've often wondered exactly this myself, usually while very high.

Dean Baker Continues His Disgusting Reality-Mongering

As everyone knows, conservatives favor free market policies. Meanwhile, liberals want the government to intervene in the market to alter the natural course of events.

This is obviously true because the New York Times tells us that it is every day. Why bring the real world into it? That would just make everyone uncomfortable.

Unfortunately, economist Dean Baker has done exactly that in a short new book called The Conservative Nanny State: How the Wealthy Use the Government to Stay Rich and Get Richer. It examines massive government interventions in the market—including immigration, trade, monetary and intellectual property policy—and notes how they all have the curious effect of making America's wealthiest people even more stupendously rich.

And as if this weren't bad enough, Baker has made The Conservative Nanny State available for free as a pdf (or at low cost as a paperback). Clearly he's a madman who'll stop at nothing.

I just thank god we don't have to pay any attention to this garbage. Because if we did, we might begin to suspect the people who scream constantly about free markets are con men engaged in elaborate misdirection to fleece us. That would make us sad, and who wants to be sad? We have enough to worry about just paying the damn rent.

May 10, 2006

Better Angry Love

In comments here about my ongoing fixation with Richard Cohen, there was this exchange:

If mainstream journalists turn off their email because people use words like "murder," what will politicians do?

Do you think the little old lady down the street will vote Democrat because we get angry?

I'm troubled by what's happening here. Jesus said, "Love your enemies." I think America wants more love, less hate.

Posted by: S at May 9, 2006 07:55 PM

S., I don't know if you realize how the actual world works, but people hold elective offices and other positions of power between (or even during) elections, and they do various things that affect our lives during that time. When we are e-mailing, say, Richard Cohen, we are obviously not affecting the opinion of the lady down the street one way or another -- we are trying to get our voice heard by the elites who actually run things.

You can say that the obnoxious bile isn't the best way to do that, and you would be right in most cases -- but in no way is "love" (at least that demonstrated by Jesus in the actual gospels) incompatible with anger. Do you think people were telling Jesus, "Listen, the lady down the street is never going to vote Christian when you're running around calling Pharisees white-washed tombs"?

Posted by: Adam Kotsko at May 9, 2006 09:07 PM

We need Better Angry Love.

I'm actually totally serious. We need Better Angry Love. We gotta engineer it, optimize it, keep it angry and forceful, yet loving and true. We don't spend enough time honing our angry love skills.

Posted by: Saheli at May 9, 2006 09:35 PM

I don't have much to say about "S"—apparently one of America's many conservatives deeply concerned about "the angry left"—except that he could profitably read the Sermon on the Mount, specifically Matthew 7:3-7:5.

However, anger is important to understand, both in politics and human life generally. In particular, I believe progressives, especially the middle class caucasian kind who subscribe to Utne Reader, are sometimes wrongly uncomfortable with anger. They feel it's illegitimate, dangerous and should be repressed.

And they're right it's dangerous, like all strong emotions. But despite their danger, strong emotions are not illegitimate, and ignoring them doesn't make them go away.

What I've always found useful here is the perspective of the Industrial Areas Foundation, people who've thought seriously about anger. Here's one of their star organizers, Ernesto Cortes:

"A good organizer must be angry," he says. "Not irritated or enraged, but angry. In the dictionary you'll find that it comes from the Old Norse angr, meaning loss or grief."

Cortes says his grief -- his anger, in the Nordic sense -- stems from America's failure to fulfill the promise of democracy, the promise that all citizens can play a meaningful role in their own governance.

(What Cortes says about "anger" being derived from a word meaning "grief" is true. You can look it up.)

In other words, anger is not only NOT counterproductive, it's ABSOLUTELY REQUIRED. People who tell you otherwise do not have your best interests at heart.


Until today I'd never heard of this special Douglas Feith plan after September 11th:

Days after 9/11, a senior Pentagon official lamented the lack of good targets in Afghanistan and proposed instead U.S. military attacks in South America or Southeast Asia as "a surprise to the terrorists," according to a footnote in the recent 9/11 Commission Report. The unsigned top-secret memo, which the panel's report said appears to have been written by Defense Under Secretary Douglas Feith, is one of several Pentagon documents uncovered by the commission which advance unorthodox ideas for the war on terror. The memo suggested "hitting targets outside the Middle East in the initial offensive"...

Specifically, Feith wanted to bomb the "triple border region" where Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil meet. I think one thing's for sure: that would have been "a surprise." And, not just for Osama bin Laden.

Moreover, if the criteria was just that our response be violent and "a surprise to the terrorists," attacking South America is thinking kind of small. Here's what I would have suggested:

• assassinate the Dalai Lama
• blow up the moon
• have the entire Bush cabinet dress up as Carmen Miranda and then, on national television, commit hara-kari

I hope you might have some ideas of your own.

An Important Insight From Adam Kotsko

Adam Kotsko says:

I think that if he had just said, “Gosh, you guys caught me—I guess I counted wrong,” the world would have literally ended. So actually, we should be thanking him for this.

Who and what he's talking about is explained here.

May 09, 2006

We're Very Concerned About Family Values Except Of Course When It Involves Children

Over at This Modern World, Señor Mañana is rightfully appalled about a new CNN story reporting that the American infant mortality rate is higher than that of all other industrialized countries except Latvia. And not just a little worse, a lot worse: "American babies are three times more likely to die in their first month as children born in Japan, and newborn mortality is 2.5 times higher in the United States than in Finland, Iceland or Norway."

Señor Mañana writes:

Because of some unholy confluence of conservatism, free-marketism, and general head-up-ass-ism, this country has never made health care for all a national priority. Things like this are the result, and it infuriates me...

For a nation as advanced and wealthy as we are alleged to be, [it's] unspeakably obscene.

I agree. But this actually lets us off easy. America has favorable conditions matched by no other nation that's ever existed. We've suffered less than almost any country from armed conflict, even given the ferocious devastation that was the War of 1812. Meanwhile we have an extremely helpful, temperate climate and natural resources coming out of our noses. By contrast, Japan has 1/3 the infant mortality rate of ours, with no natural resources and sixty years after it was burned to the ground and then nuked. Europe is also far better, after it almost obliterated itself twice within the past century.

In other words, not only should we have the highest level of average health in the world, it shouldn't even be CLOSE. How far we've fallen short of this says something extremely unflattering about us.

For instance, here's how Canadian malcontent John Ralston Saul describes America in The Doubter's Companion:

Sheila Greene

"Sheila Greene" is the pseudonym of a young New York woman who recently learned she has Hodgkin's Lymphoma. Her Live Journal includes an extremely funny and well-written account of her diagnosis and the treatment she's beginning now. She's rightfully optimistic; as she cheerfully explains, "Hodgkin's is the cancer to have, if in fact you must have cancer."

Here's a sample:

"So, we can do the bone marrow biopsy now if you agree." To which I said, "...Now? Really? ...Now? And, um, you said I *have* to have one, right?" It didn't take me long to decide that if the test was really necessary, I'd rather do it now than later -- I certainly wouldn't profit from having several days to worry about it. Surprise biopsies are the best kind of biopsies. But Mom and I were planning to meet Boyfriend Dan after the appointment (which was plainly going to last a little longer than I'd expected), and I wasn't sure how mobile I would be after undergoing the BMB, so I asked about this. "Oh, you can go out dancing tonight," Dr. H assured me. "Will it be painful?" I asked, and he said, "We numb the skin, and then we numb the bone." That wasn't exactly a "no."

...They extract the sample from your hipbone, because there's less flesh and more bone there (from what I understand). The "numbing" shot stung quite a bit (there was no pre-numbing numbing), but it worked; the next shot (into the bone?) wasn't painful, and I could only feel pressure when Dr. H punctured me with his big biopsy needle. This says a lot for the power of the numbing stuff he had injected into my butt only moments earlier, because I've seen pictures of the biopsy needle. I will spare you the link, but think of a meat thermometer and you won't be too far off. Still, I don't think anybody could really enjoy the experience of having a hole drilled into his or her hipbone, no matter how technically painless the experience might be. And even though I couldn't see what Dr. H was doing, I could feel him rocking the needle back and forth as it burrowed into my hipbone, and, whew, I am getting a little woozy just writing about it now.

Then he said, "Okay, now I am going to suck out the sample marrow, and I can't do anything about this pain." How reassuring! Now, I am here to tell you that the pain was not nearly as terrible as I'd been primed to expect. Maybe a 3 on a scale of 1 to 10. And it didn't last that long. But by this point I was so freaked out and anxious, and so sure that it would be excruciating, that I nearly fainted...

Then everybody left me to recover, and Mom came in, and although she was probably alarmed to see me hooked up to an IV and an oxygen tank, I think it was probably less traumatic than if she'd been present for the actual procedure. (I read another blog by a BMB survivor who said that the biggest mistake you can make during the biopsy process is watching the facial expressions of any loved ones who might be watching.)

ALSO: Here's an account by my Stutts classmate Glenn Fleishman of his own victory over lymphoma.

May 08, 2006

The Greatest Comparison Ever Compared

It turns out the feelings of Richard Cohen (or as I think of him, "Richard Cohen") were hurt by lots of rude email he got about his column on Stephen Colbert. So he's written YET ANOTHER COLUMN about it. Here's the greatest line:

Institution after institution failed America -- the presidency, Congress and the press. They all endorsed a war to rid Iraq of what it did not have. Now, though, that gullibility is being matched by war critics...

That's the kind of insight that makes Richard Cohen such an esteemed member of the Washington press corps. Not many people would perceive that these things—

(1) lying America into a war that will eventually kill hundreds of thousands and cost a trillion dollars
(2) sending mean emails

—are functionally equivalent. Both, you see, involve matching amounts of "gullibility."

It's at times like these when I sympathize with the alcoholic, scrofulous hacks of Pravda and Izvestia. At least they HAD to write what they did. Richard Cohen does it because he truly believes it.

We Have The Letter!

Everyone's dying to know what this letter from Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to President Bush says. Well, Mike Gerber and I, using our enormous network of imaginary sources, have scooped the mainstream media YET AGAIN. You can read the truly shocking text, which will rock the international diplomatic system to its core, here.

Bush and Nixon In A Photo Finish

So six months ago I graphed Bush and Nixon's approval and disapproval ratings against each other. Then I did it again last week. I wasn't planning to update it for a while—but the newest Gallup poll shows Bush's approval rating dropping from 34 to 31%, and his disapproval rating rising from 63 to 65%.

Bush's disapproval rating now exceeds or equals that of Nixon's in every poll except one— the final poll in July, 1974 just before Nixon left office, when Nixon's disapproval rating was one point higher at 66%.

What's really remarkable about this is it's WITHOUT any congressional investigation of Bush's misdeeds, plus an economy far better (as much as it sucks for many) than in summer 1974. So Bush really has nowhere to go but down. This one is going to make sporting history.

(All polls are Gallup. Thanks to Crayz for the heads up on the latest.)

What's really remarkable about this is it's WITHOUT any congressional investigation of Bush's misdeeds, plus an economy far better (as much as it sucks for many) than in summer 1974. So Bush really has nowhere to go but down. This one is going to make sporting history.

(All polls are Gallup. Thanks to Crayz for the heads up on the latest.)

Zembla Unfair To Norquist!

The King of Zembla (a distant northern land) is, of course, infallible. That goes without saying. However, some of His Highness' infallibility is more equal than his other infallibility.

For instance, His Majesty recently brought to His people's attention an article in the Atlantic. It's about William A. Niskanen,

...a veteran of the Nixon OMB and the Reagan Council of Economic Advisers, who now serves as chairman of the libertarian Cato Institute. An old-school conservative, Mr. Niskanen has always been skeptical of the conventional GOP wisdom that by cutting taxes, and thereby decreasing federal revenues, you "starve the beast" -- i.e., force spending cuts and thereby shrink government to the point where, in Mr. Norquist's famous formulation, "it can be drowned in the bathtub"...In a show of rare bad form Mr. Niskanen undertook to chart changes in the tax code against a quarter-century's worth of real-world government spending -- and so discovered that starve-the-beast theology is at least as bogus as that other Reagan-era nostrum, the Laffer curve.

It seems that Niskanen found that over the past twenty-five years, spending goes up when taxes are cut, while it goes down when taxes are raised. Niskanen theorizes this is because lower taxes will make government seem "cheaper" and so people want to "buy" more of it, and vice versa.

His Royal &c., &c. endorses this perspective—i.e., that conservatives aren't getting what they want by cutting taxes. However, this really doesn't give enough credit to smarter conservatives, of whom Norquist is probably one.

What they're trying to do is not force government revenue down so that spending will then be prudently cut. They think Americans are too attached to their disgusting unearned Social Security, Medicare, food, etc. to ever do that. However, they do believe they may be able to crush social spending if there's a gigantic fiscal catastrophe.

So, they've set out to create one. This requires planning and effort over decades, particularly for a country as economically powerful as the U.S. But they've gone a very long way to succeeding.

The most likely motor for such a welcome financial panic is our gigantic foreign debt. The longer this debt accumulates, the more likely it is there will be a rapid collapse in the dollar. Then the fed will jam up interest rates, the economy will stagger, and with the government already heavily indebted there won't be much room to maneuver.

Believe me when I tell you they are already preparing for such a day. When it comes, they will have an explanation they will scream from every TV and editorial page in America: THIS IS THE FAULT OF AMERICA'S GREEDY WELFARE RECIPIENTS. The only solution, they'll explain, is a massive cram-down of government-funded pension and medical benefits.

Of course, it won't be the fault of greedy normal people. Nor will slashing government benefits solve anything; just the contrary. But this is a game plan they've successfully executed in many third world countries. There's no reason it can't work here, particularly given that they've been laying the groundwork for it for years and we're completely unprepared.

True, this will be disastrous for the U.S. as country. But that's the last thing Norquist & co. care about. What matters to them is their relative power within the U.S. They'd far rather be the upper class in a poor country like Ecuador than the upper class in a rich, developed country. And that's what they're shooting for:

My family and I rented an apartment in the new section of Quito... Beyond the office towers, up along the valley walls, were lavish new condominiums and golf courses and tennis clubs. A good French dinner ran about fifteen dollars, a full-time, live-in house servant about twenty-five dollars a month.

I called them servants; one of my neighbors, Alex, called them slaves...

For someone like Alex—that is, for anyone, American or Ecuadorian, who works in the white-collar end of the petroleum business... Ecuador's ever-increasing poverty was a windfall. The price of slaves kept dropping. "The debt?" Alex said. "I love the debt."

May 07, 2006

Washington Post Is Flummoxed By Yet Another Impenetrable Mystery

Why o why don't American leaders know how to win? This is the question that bedevils Henry Allen, an editor at the Washington Post:

"In war, we have to win," said Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap.

This was on television about 20 years ago, a PBS series about the war in Vietnam. Giap was sitting behind a desk, as I recall, a picture of lethal ease. He seemed amused to think he knew something that the Americans still hadn't figured out. He added: "Absolutely have to win."

For me, a former Marine corporal who'd heard some Viet Cong rounds go past at Chu Lai, Giap spoke and the heavens opened -- a truth seizure, eureka. I finally had a useful, practical explanation for why we had lost after the best and brightest promised we were going to win. And nowadays, thanks to Giap, I have a theory, no more than that, about why winning is so elusive in Iraq... our high-ranking leaders believe, like Giap, that we have to win?

...I'm just saying that I want us to win the wars that we fight. And I'm worried that Iraq was never one of them because it was started by people who knew everything except how to win -- who have yet to learn that in war we absolutely have to win.

I myself have a theory, no more than that, about why our leaders haven't learned that in war we absolutely have to win. My theory is they haven't learned that we absolutely have to win because WE DON'T ABSOLUTELY HAVE TO WIN.

Let me illustrate this with some suggestive numbers:

Distance from America to Vietnam: 8,000 miles
Distance from Vietnam to Vietnam: 0 miles

Distance from America to Iraq: 6,000 miles
Distance from Iraq to Iraq: 0 miles

My point here is that leaders may be more motivated to win when they're fighting against people who invaded the country they live in.

There might even be a deeper point—that countries get different kinds of leaders when the country is defending itself from invaders than countries do when they're invading other lands thousands of miles away.

For instance, let's consider an imaginary nation named the Dunite Esstat of Caameri. Right now Caameri has leaders named Beorge Gush, Chick Deney, and Ronald Dumsfeld. Gush, Deney and Dumsfeld like to invade other countries thousands of miles away. However, many citizens of Caameri oppose these wars. And leaders like Gush seem to have a hard time winning these wars halfway across the earth.

But then Caameri is actually itself invaded by another country, and things aren't going well. And interestingly enough, Gush, Deney and Dumsfeld are no longer the country's leaders; in fact, at the first sign of real danger to themselves, Gush, Deney and Dumsfeld began collaborating with the invaders. That's because their motive before the invasion was to enrich themselves at the expense of everyone else in their country, and this motive remains unchanged after the invasion.

Meanwhile, new leaders have arisen in Caameri. They're the kind of leaders Henry Allen wishes for—leaders who believe they absolutely have to win. And interestingly enough, many are the exact same people who opposed the wars started by Gush, Deney and Dumsfeld. In the end, with their leadership, Caameri drives out the invaders.

But again, this is no more than a theory. Surely the answer couldn't be so simple, or the Washington Post would have figured it out by now.

May 05, 2006

History's Greatest Bullies

After Richard Cohen pointed out what an appalling bully Stephen Colbert was toward Bush last Saturday, Mike and I started thinking about the larger issue. We began with the assumption that Colbert's the greatest bully who's ever lived...but realized that, as horrible as it is, there are a few who may have been worse. Emphasis may—we think the jury's still out. You can see the other contenders, and register your own views, here.

My Email To Richard Cohen

Dear Mr. Cohen,

Congratulations on your hilarious column about Stephen Colbert. It was a stroke of genuine comic genius on your part to "criticize" Colbert's performance by adopting a persona so similar to that of Colbert's own -- i.e., a high-status, self-satisfied idiot completely oblivious to how he appears to others.

Moreover, as much as you clearly admire and have learned from Colbert, you showed yourself to be even more talented than he is. Colbert and other comedians sometimes claim it's difficult to satirize current events because they can't imagine anything worse than what already happens. But you've proven it's indeed possible to create an imaginary character far more egregious than anyone real.

As "you" say, you are truly funny. Please keep up the good work.

Jon Schwarz

May 04, 2006

Another Proud Son Of Stutts

This is from an excerpt of Lapdogs by Eric Boehlert:

Washington Post columnist David Ignatius, looking back on the press's failings with regards to Iraq, suggested, "The media were victims of their own professionalism. Because there was little criticism of the war from prominent Democrats and foreign policy analysts, journalistic rules meant we shouldn't create a debate on our own."

Coincidentally, I possess David Ignatius' essay from his 1969 application to Stutts University. That year students were asked to write 700 words on the subject "My Greatest Flaw." Here's a brief sample of Ignatius' contribution:

My Greatest Flaw
by David Ignatius

My greatest flaw is that I can never give less than 100%. Many people criticize me for my complete commitment and follow through, and wonder why I always demand the best from myself. And I must admit they have a point: I pour my heart and soul into everything I do, and just can't stop before I give "the last full measure of devotion" (A. Lincoln).

Ignatius was immediately admitted "with extreme prejudice."

May 03, 2006

Mary Matalin, World's Most Astute Comedy Critic

Here's what Mary Matalin has to say about Stephen Colbert's performance:

"This was predictable, Bush-bashing kind of humor," Ms. Matalin, who was there, said in an interview. Of Mr. Colbert, she said, "Because he is who he is, and everyone likes him, I think this room thought he was going to be more sophisticated and creative."

Yes, indeed. If there's one person everyone trusts to judge whether comedy is sophisticated and creative, it's Mary Matalin. She's been a guru to so many. Some call her the female Del Close, but really Del Close was the male Mary Matalin.

Also, note Matalin's plaintive (and likely honest) remark that "everyone likes" Colbert. Remember what Billmon recently said about Colbert's material: "It seemed obvious, at least to me, that he didn't just dislike his audience, he hated it."

Yet Matalin doesn't get this, just as Tucker Carlson hadn't realized that Jon Stewart genuinely loathed Crossfire. The targets of this kind of comedy honestly think it's good-natured ribbing. They can't perceive the people making all these jokes truly, deeply hate and fear them.

I understand the NY Times previously ran an article about Julia Sweeney's show "God Said 'Ha!'" containing this passage:

"This was predictable, Cancer-bashing kind of humor," the malignant tumor, who was there, said in an interview. Of Ms. Sweeney, she said, "Because she is who she is, and everyone likes her, I think this audience thought she was going to be more sophisticated and creative."

Wall Street Journal Discovers New, More Complex Way To Froth At Mouth

Lots of people—including Glenn Greenwald and Billmon—have taken note of a new Wall Street Journal op-ed on Iraq by Shelby Steele.

Of course, it's filled with the standard frothing at the mouth. And it's the fact of this frothing on which Greenwald, Billmon, etc. focus. But it wouldn't be a Wall Street Journal op-ed without frothing—that's part of the contract every Journal contributor signs. What's interesting to me is that the froth is of a slightly different texture than normal.

What's different about it is that Steele (who's half-black) acknowledges the reality of colonialism. He refers to its "sins" and the "evil of the Western past." He even halfway compares the actions of "the white West" to Nazi Germany.

Of course, Steele then goes on to reassure Journal readers that that's all in the past. After a "remarkable moral transformation," the only thing that remains from those days of yore is an unfortunate "white guilt." And it turns out it's only this white guilt which is preventing us from waging war in Iraq with "enough ferocity to win."

But that's standard. As I say, every Wall Street Journal contributor is legally required to advocate blowing the shit out of at least one country. Seriously, they take you to court if you don't.

Grappling openly with colonialism, though—that's something new. Usually the Journal is too busy talking about the generosity with which King Leopold brought civilization to the Congo's savages.

So, I look at this like a German neo-Nazi newspaper acknowledging that the holocaust occurred. It's a step forward, even if afterward they say Germany needs to get over its guilty feelings and go ahead and kill millions of Jews—since this time they really ARE trying to destroy the master race.

(Remember, Shelby's the one who made the Nazi comparison.)

ALSO: Here's the precise moment where Steele leaves earth and embarks on the long journey to Wall Street Journal Planet:

Because dissociation from the racist and imperialist stigma is so tied to legitimacy in this age of white guilt, America's act of going to war can have legitimacy only if it seems to be an act of social work--something that uplifts and transforms the poor brown nation (thus dissociating us from the white exploitations of old). So our war effort in Iraq is shrouded in a new language of social work in which democracy is cast as an instrument of social transformation, bringing new institutions, new relations between men and women, new ideas of individual autonomy, new and more open forms of education, new ways of overcoming poverty...

In fact, what's remarkable about the language used regarding Iraq is not that it's new, but that it's SO OLD. Can Shelby Steele really be unaware that colonialism was always, everywhere justified with exactly this language of moral uplift for the heathens? I guess he can.

May 02, 2006

Plagiarism Scandal Rocks Stutts! The Most Prestigious University On Earth!

Mike Gerber explains: March the Stutts Daily Spectacle reported that a Stutts student, Malati Sulabha '08, had plagiarized large chunks of her first novel, "Girl with Perfect SATs Goes Nuts, Drinks Cosmos, and Hooks Up," from another "chick-lit" offering, "The Rodeo Drive Club's Blow Job Queens of MySpace." Ms. Sulabha had received $500,000 in a two-book deal, an astonishing advance for an unpublished writer, even one attending Stutts, the world's finest university.

Ms. Sulabha (or as she was known on campus, "the fucking bitch who got all that money to write a book I totally could if I wanted to--did I tell you I won like, five literary prizes in high school?--it's just that I spent the entire summer doing Outward Bound with like, poor kids") initially characterized the disputed passages as "unintentional." This defense became problematic when evidence surfaced showing that whole chapters had been simply photocopied...

So far, her sorrow, while great, has not taken any financial form. In fact the whole brouhaha has done wonders for her book sales.

As a result, publishers have begun to scour Great Littleton for other writers who are willing to shamelessly plagiarize novels. "We're looking for that 'Stutts touch,'" one publisher said anonymously. "Somebody who doesn't have anything to say besides, 'I am smart and hard-working and will TOTALLY WHORE MYSELF OUT FOR SUCCESS.'" The publisher paused. "Make sure you put that in all-caps," she said.

The rest of the shocking story is here.

Bush And Nixon Battle It Out (Update)

Six months ago I graphed Bush and Nixon's approval and disapproval ratings against each other. With a new Gallup poll showing Bush's approval rating at an all time low (for Gallup) of 34%, I thought now would be a good time to do an update.

Note that while Bush's approval rating is still a bit higher than Nixon's at a comparable point in his presidency, Bush's disapproval rating is almost exactly the same as Nixon's just before he resigned. In fact, at 63%, Bush's current disapproval rating was only exceeded by Nixon's in two Gallup polls—March, 1974 (65%) and the final poll in July, 1974 just before Nixon left office (66%). For instance, in June, 1974 Nixon's disapproval rating was only 58%, noticeably lower than Bush's is today.

I think this one is going down to the wire.

(All polls are Gallup.)

May 01, 2006

Hostile Takeover

David Sirota is at the TPM Cafe Book Club discussing his just-released book Hostile Takeover. And he is appealingly pissed off:

On the right we have networks like Fox News that serve as arms of government propaganda, echoing and reinforcing the dishonest narratives. This is supposedly countered by media figures on the left. But that "left" in the media is largely occupied by out of touch elitists a la Tom Friedman, Joe Klein and Peter Beinart – loafers on the Washington cocktail party circuit who want us to believe that the real problem facing America is that politicians aren't supportive enough of job outsourcing, are actually too populist, or are not sufficiently willing to indiscriminately bomb enough dark-skinned people throughout the world, respectively. From the comfortable confines of their upper crust lifestyles, these folks, of course, never have to experience the real-world consequences of the policies they advocate (which might explain how they can push them so haughtily). Except for a few courageous souls, most of these media opinionmakers – left and right – are clearly more interested in kissing the fat white ass of power, rather than challenging it, for fear of being left off their favorite politicians' Christmas card list.

The only flaw here is that Sirota fails to refer to Peter Beinart by the nickname I have given him. That nickname is Pe-nart.

Sam Husseini Trip

Sam Husseini just got back from a family visit to Jordan and the West Bank. I'm sure he'll have more about it soon, but for now he's written briefly about the border crossing, visiting the Dome of the Rock, and meeting Mordechai Vanunu. Plus he took some pictures.

Let's All Thank Stephen Colbert

You can thank Stephen Colbert for his freaktastic performance Saturday night at

Here's something Billmon wrote that's right on:

Colbert's routine was designed to draw blood -- as good political satire should. It seemed obvious, at least to me, that he didn't just despise his audience, he hated it. While that hardly merits comment here in Left Blogostan, White House elites clearly aren't used to having such contempt thrown in their faces at one of their most cherished self-congratulatory events.

Something that people often don't understand about comedians is they are the angriest people on earth. It's either telling jokes or taking hostages. They start out angry—at the universe and/or society and/or themselves. And then their job requires that they cultivate this anger every day. It's not a profession that leads to optimal mental functioning.

That said, the things that make great comedians angry (and I think Colbert is a great comedian) are things that should make EVERYONE angry. And yet they don't. And that makes comedians EVEN ANGRIER. And then they usually stop being funny, and people ignore them, which makes them ANGRIER STILL. It's an angry job, is what I'm saying.

Anyway, Colbert was also profiled on 60 Minutes last night. CBS has posted some of what he said and a video clip here.

angry angry angry