October 31, 2008
Studs Terkel, Rest In Peace
Studs Terkel, winner of the Nobel Prize for Being Human, has died at 96.
Garrison Keillor wrote about a visit to Terkel last July, and speculated that he wanted to make it to the election.
As he left Terkel's home, Keillor says, Terkel offered this "benediction":
Every night when the sun goes down
I say a blessing on this town:
"Whether we last the night or no,
Life has always been touch and go.
So stick with your modus operandi.
Ingenuity! Guile! Art! Good luck. Good bye."
So Stupid It Hurts
Glenn Greenwald writes here about an appearance by Sarah Palin this morning on WMAL in Maryland. Apparently Palin believes the First Amendment protects her from ever being criticized. As Greenwald says, it's so stupid it hurts.
I've grabbed the actual audio, which you can listen to via the mp3 link:
HOST: Is the news media doing a good job—are you getting a fair shake, are the Republicans getting a fair shake this year?
PALIN: I don't think they're doing their job when they suggest that calling a candidate out on their record, their plans for this country, and their associations is mean-spirited or negative campaigning. If they convince enough voters that that is negative campaigning, for me to call Barack Obama out on his associations, then I don't know what the future of our country would be in terms of First Amendment rights and our ability to ask questions without fear of attacks by the mainstream media.
The entire 12-minute segment is available here.
October 30, 2008
The Bush administration's push for a Status of Force "Agreement" with Iraq seems to be falling apart completely. In the past, the United States would by this point have staged a coup to overthrow Nouri al-Maliki and install a more pliable regime. But not this time.
Clearly it's some combination of (1) our diminished power, (2) particularly inhospitable conditions in Iraq, and (3) the internet/satellite TV communications revolution. But what the proportion of each is, and what the details are, is extremely difficult to say. What do you think?
ALSO: Nazar Janabi seems like an excellent candidate for the next Our Son Of A Bitch. His thoughts about how a SOFA-less Iraq would be "vulnerable to regional players that do not have its best interests in mind" are here.
Everything Tom Dispatch publishes is worthwhile, but this piece by Robert S. Eshelman is especially good. Be sure to read it all:
Meeting Myself in Bucks County
Pennsylvania in the Political (and Personal) Crucible
By Robert S. Eshelman
In 1991, at age 17, I fled Bucks County, an overwhelmingly white, working-class region in southeast Pennsylvania where I grew up. I left because the life of the working class was brutal and I wanted no part of it. I cringed at the racism and xenophobia that seemed to rise out of the anxieties of precarious labor. I desperately hoped there was some alternative to coming home each day looking as battered as did so many grown-ups I would catch staring blankly into TV screens or half-empty glasses of beer.
My father was laid off twice in the 1980s, two recessions ago, first from his job at a mustard factory, which packed up and moved south, and later from a company that produced tractor-trailer doors and side-view mirrors. I've only seen him cry twice. The first time was during his brother's funeral; Uncle Jim was killed in a drunk-driving accident. The next time was when he and I had an argument about my skipping a night of work at my first dishwashing job. He demanded I go; I spit back that at least I had a job -- cruel words from a 14-year-old with a Mohawk. Recently, the tip of one of his fingers was shorn clear off while working with a shrink-wrap machine with defective safety gear. He didn't push the issue with the employee compensation folks, though, for fear of creating problems.
My mom has worked in the same factory for more than 30 years. Along with about a hundred others, some immigrants from Southeast Asia, she makes small motors that can be used in dialysis machines, rotating advertising signs, or those amusement park games where you maneuver a metal claw hoping to extricate a small fuzzy animal. I'm amazed this type of production still exists in the U.S. So is she, especially since a holding company took over from the original family owners and, in turn, sold the firm to a tight-fisted corporation that's been cutting corners -- and jobs.
Statistics tell us that Bucks County -- one of those places Nixon's "southern strategy" hit hard when, under Ronald Reagan, it moved north in the 1980s -- has been undergoing a political sea change. The pressure of the Obama campaign and its well organized "ground game," as well as the global economic meltdown and diminished support for the war in Iraq have all had their effect.
For the first time since the 1960s, registered Democrats outnumber Republicans in the county. Since April the Democratic Party has outpaced Republicans in registering voters by a margin of almost two to one. In fact -- and this should stun anyone -- the total number of new voters who choose "Independent," "no affiliation," "the Green Party," or other even smaller third party options surpassed Republican Party registration in those months. Think of that as just one more small indication of the utter bankruptcy of the Bush years and, of course, of the Grand Old Party.
October 29, 2008
By: Bernard Chazelle
When I was 9, several friends and I went to see a movie. The event changed our lives. It featured a guitar piece that we found so compelling we immediately informed our parents we wanted to learn to play classical guitar. My parents bought me a guitar and wished me good luck. Luck struck. One of these friends turned out to be a prodigy who got so far ahead of us that in no time he turned every school recess into a guitar clinic for our benefit. To this day, I have no idea how he learned so fast so effortlessly while the rest of us had to struggle so hard for such pitiful results. Most of us continued to play (often together) until we left for college. I was probably the least gifted member of the group. Interestingly, two of them became professional guitarists; the "prodigy" is today one of the world's most acclaimed guitarists (I'll blog about him some day.)
Oh yes, the movie, "Forbidden Games," is simply the most powerful film about children in war. The ending was so heartbreaking I never had the courage to see the movie again. The musical piece is actually quite easy to play. Pretty soon, any aspiring classical guitarist will get tired of that tune and turn to the great Brazilian composer, Villa-Lobos, for material. And that's when you quickly realize that your fingers are much too far from your brain to do what they're supposed to do.
Villa-Lobos's most famous piece is probably his fifth Bachianas Brasileiras. My school buddies and I all agreed that Victoria de los Angeles sang the definitive version. Many other great sopranos have since covered it with great success. Amel Brahim-Djelloul is a rising young star. Here is a lovely video: the concert was on the beach (you can tell from the wind).
PS: Got to love her smile at 1:46.
— Bernard Chazelle
The Trillion Dollar Tag Sale
How the Pentagon Could Help Bail Out America
By Nick Turse
Wars, bases, and money. The three are inextricably tied together.
In the 1980s, for example, American support for jihadis like Osama bin Laden waging war on (Soviet) infidels who invaded and constructed bases in Afghanistan, a Muslim land, led to rage by many of the same jihadis at the bases (U.S.) infidels built in the Muslim holy land of Saudi Arabia in the 1990s. That, in turn, led to jihadis like bin Laden declaring war on those infidels, which, after September 11, 2001, led the Bush administration to launch, and then prosecute, a Global War on Terror, often from newly built bases in Muslim lands. Over the last seven years, the results of that war have been particularly disastrous for Iraqis and Afghans. Sizable numbers of Americans, however, are now beginning to suffer as well. After all, their hard-earned taxpayer dollars have been poured into wars without end, leaving the country deeply in debt and in a state of economic turmoil.
In his 1988 State of the Union message, President Ronald Reagan called the jihadis in Afghanistan "freedom fighters." They were, of course, fighting the Soviet Union then. He, too, pledged eternal enmity against the Soviet Union, which he termed an "evil empire." For years, conservatives have claimed that Reagan not only won his Afghan War, but by launching an all-out arms race, which the economically weaker Soviet Union couldn't match, bankrupted the Soviets and so brought their empire down.
While that version of history may be disputed, today, it is entirely possible that one of Reagan's freedom fighters, Osama bin Laden, actually returned the favor by perfecting the art of financially felling a superpower. While Reagan ran up a superpower-sized tab to outspend the Soviets, bin Laden has done it on the cheap. Essentially for the cost of box cutters and flight training, he got the Bush administration to spend itself into penury, without a superpower in sight.
October 28, 2008
You Are Under Arrest
Did you know that current Republican voter suppression techniques were invented to defeat Upton Sinclair in 1934's California governor's race? Of course not, because in America knowing important information about the past is illegal. FAIR's new blogue has the details, which we can all discuss at length together in jail.
If you'd like to compound your offense, all of Sinclair's 1919 expose of the press, The Brass Check, is available online. Most of it could have been written yesterday.
October 27, 2008
Preparing For This Moment
W. includes a long scene in the White House situation room before the decision is made to invade Iraq. In it Colin Powell courageously battles the warmongering Cheney and Rumsfeld. Of course, this never happened. In fact, it's so far from what happened, Stone is criticized by Bob Woodward for it in a Slate discussion of the movie:
WOODWARD: [A]s best I can tell, no such meeting ever took place...It gives Powell more credit than he deserves...Powell's plea to the president in August 2002, which he recently affirmed, was that the administration needed to look at the consequences of war, but he never argued openly to the president that he should not invade Iraq.
Here's how Stone responds:
STONE: The issue of the 11-minute-long scene of the meeting in the "situation room" is a very interesting one to me, and we should probably discuss this in a future post. Yes, the scene is entirely invented...I agree that we made Powell probably stronger than he was, but in the end, we remained accurate to his capitulation. We see him as the "good soldier," who all his life prepared for this moment of standing up for a principle, yet, in the end, he folded.
Right. Powell all his life prepared for this moment of standing up for principle, by being a shameless lickspittle for forty years. That's the best way to prepare!
Colin Powell is Waylon Smithers with better PR.
Home of the Brave
By: Bernard Chazelle
As the economic skies darken, and soon so will the skin color in the Oval Office, Americans are doing the only sensible thing. They're rushing to purchase firearms and ammunition: 8 to 10 percent rise in sales this year alone.
"People are preparing for catastrophe right now," said Leyshion, 55, of Nokesville. "It's insurance. With the stock market crash and people out of work, and the illegal aliens in this area, the probability of civil disorder is very high."
Why worry about illegal aliens in our area when you can sing with me the glorious Minutemen Anthem: "Keep killing illegal, unless it's for killing the illegals."
— Bernard Chazelle
October 26, 2008
I found lots of W. really entertaining, and didn't mind living the last eight years all over again. But it was difficult to watch the critical instances in which I believe it didn't dig deeply enough into the history. Most importantly, Colin Powell is presented as an unwitting victim of bad WMD intelligence, as in fact is the entire administration. Also distressing is the unchallenged explanation by David Kay that Saddam Hussein was trying to "make us think" that Iraq had WMD. Together with the 60 Minutes interview with Saddam's interrogator, W. will surely cement the Bush administration's "Saddam was bluffing!" crap as accepted history. And this is from crazy commie madman Oliver Stone, so no one will ever have the chance to take a position to the left of it.
It's amazing to watch the reconstruction of reality in real time. Even the people making W. unwittingly fell prey to this—as did Ron Suskind in a recent Slate discussion:
I found it hard to believe that the loveless father-son tension, as portrayed in the movie, would lead to 43's vengeful outrage over Saddam Hussein's attempt to kill 41. (Besides, there are plenty of foiled assassination attempts on presidents; sort of comes with the job.)
Of course, there is no evidence whatsoever that Saddam attempted to kill Bush Sr.
The older I get, the more I wonder if anything I think I "know" about the past is real.
How The Case Was Solved
Police first became suspicious when Ashley Todd claimed that a large black man mugged her, raped her, carved a B in her face for Barack, and then ran off shouting, "Now I'm going to apply for a subprime mortage which the federal government will force the bank to give me under the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act!"
October 25, 2008
FAIR's New Blug
Whether bluggers know it or not, Fairness & Accuracy in Reporting is the grandfather of most of the progressive bluggosphere. FAIR, which was founded in 1986, was the first place to do progressive media criticism in a sustained, systematic way. Their influence has been enormous—so much so that it's often hard to see, like a movie that changed movies afterwards so much that when you finally see the original, you can't tell what the big deal was.
So it's great that FAIR now has a blug of its own. I urge you to visit early and often.
ATTACKED BY A MONSTER OF THEIR OWN CREATION: In related news, John Caruso has examined FAIR's coverage of Ralph Nader's presidential campaign in 2000, 2004, and 2008. Let's see how you guys like rational, relentlessly fact-based critique NOW!!!
Cinematic Root Canal
By: Bernard Chazelle
I enjoyed 'Nixon' and, for all I know, Oliver Stone's 'W' is a masterpiece. Or a dud.
Who cares? Even the Chinese Central Bank doesn't have enough US dollars to pay me to see that movie. In fact, I can't fathom how anyone who has not lived in a cave for 8 years could even bear the thought of spending 2 hours in the nauseating company of Dubya and his cast of shady acolytes.
What's next for Stone? "The OJ Trial in Slo-Mo" ? "An Anthology of Congressional Poetry" ?
Bush may have been a dream come true for comedians, but actually he is a completely unfunny man.
Nixon was funny. Comedy writing doesn't get better than this:
"People have got to know whether or not their president is a crook. I am not a crook."
Bush is not even a tragic figure. He is just a mistake.
— Bernard Chazelle
What the Good News from Iraq Really Means
By Michael Schwartz
As the Smoke Clears in Iraq: Even before the spectacular presidential election campaign became a national obsession, and the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression crowded out other news, coverage of the Iraq War had dwindled to next to nothing. National newspapers had long since discontinued their daily feasts of multiple -- usually front page – reports on the country, replacing them with meager meals of mostly inside-the-fold summary stories. On broadcast and cable TV channels, where violence in Iraq had once been the nightly lead, whole news cycles went by without a mention of the war.
The tone of the coverage also changed. The powerful reports of desperate battles and miserable Iraqis disappeared. There are still occasional stories about high-profile bombings or military campaigns in obscure places, but the bulk of the news is about quiescence in old hot spots, political maneuvering by Iraqi factions, and the newly emerging routines of ordinary life...
In reality, though, since there are far fewer foreign reporters moving around a quieter Iraq, far less news is coming out of that wrecked land. The major newspapers and networks have drastically reduced their staffs there and -- with a relative trickle of exceptions like Dagher's fine report -- what's left is often little more than a collection of pronouncements from the U.S. military, or Iraqi and American political leaders in Baghdad and Washington, framing the American public's image of the situation there.
In addition, the devastation that is now Iraq is not of a kind that can always be easily explained in a short report, nor for that matter is it any longer easily repaired. In many cities, an American reliance on artillery and air power during the worst days of fighting helped devastate the Iraqi infrastructure. Political and economic changes imposed by the American occupation did damage of another kind, often depriving Iraqis not just of their livelihoods but of the very tools they would now need to launch a major reconstruction effort in their own country.
As a consequence, what was once the most advanced Middle Eastern society -- economically, socially, and technologically -- has become an economic basket case, rivaling the most desperate countries in the world. Only the (as yet unfulfilled) promise of oil riches, which probably cannot be effectively accessed or used until U.S. forces withdraw from the country, provides a glimmer of hope that Iraq will someday lift itself out of the abyss into which the U.S. invasion pushed it.
Consider only a small sampling of the devastation.
October 24, 2008
Shocking Competency By Progressives
For my entire life, progressives have seemed unable to organize anything more complicated than a birthday party for a two year-old. Yet all of a sudden they're acting like competent adults who want to win.
Secondly, Media Matters and the Center for American Progress have created a site about the real causes of the current economic catastrophe called How Did This Happen?. My guess is it's overly gentle to Democrats, particularly Democrats named Bill Clinton and Robert Rubin. But it's still a worthwhile project.
So, what happened? Did all the incompetent people who wanted to lose die?
That's Some Good Nazi Production Design
In a little documentary about the making of The Pianist, Roman Polanski says this about the movie's production designers:
They went through a great amount of research...it was for our own satisfaction that the smallest detail will be exact. It gave us a great thrill sometimes to find tiny little things from the period and [use] it, so it was exact...
Based on this, it seems to me Polanski must be telling the truth:
This is from a scene in which a Nazi soldier uses his dagger to cut some twine. It's on screen for perhaps half a second. But as you can see, there's a small grey...something...at the end of the cord that ties the scabbard onto the soldier.
I don't even know what that small grey thing is called, or what its point was. But Nazi daggers had them, as you can see in this picture of the Nazi dagger (previously described here) that my grandfather brought back from World War II:
I'm not sure this actually adds anything to the The Pianist. But I certainly give them an A for effort.
October 23, 2008
Captain Greenspan Is Shocked, Shocked To Find That Gambling Is Going On In Here
This is from Alan Greenspan's testimony today (pdf) in front of the House Oversight Committee:
Those of us who have looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief.
Hank Paulson then responded that the bailout may be the "beginning of a beautiful friendship" between himself and Greenspan.
MORE: How long do states of shocked disbelief last? I see Greenspan said exactly the same thing in an op-ed back in March:
Those of us who look to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder equity have to be in a state of shocked disbelief. But I hope that one of the casualties will not be reliance on counterparty surveillance, and more generally financial self-regulation, as the fundamental balance mechanism for global finance.
Prudently, however, Greenspan has removed his call for continued "self-regulation" by financial markets from today's testimony.
We're Going To Attack You If You Try To Get The Power To Stop Us From Attacking You
[A]n Islamic Republic of Iran with nuclear weapons capability would be strategically untenable. It would threaten U.S. national security...While a nuclear attack is the worst-case scenario, Iran would not need to employ a nuclear arsenal to threaten U.S. interests.
Simply obtaining the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon would effectively give Iran a nuclear deterrent...
While this seems crazy to the uninitiated, it's long been the view of US foreign policy elites that other countries must not have the power to deter us from attacking them. They must always be vulnerable to being attacked by us. And if they may have the power to deter us from attacking them in the future, that means we must attack them right now.
For instance, here's a little-noticed January, 2001 memo by Donald Rumseld:
Several of these [small enemy nations] are intensely hostile to the United States and are arming to deter us from bringing our conventional or nuclear power to bear in a regional crisis...
[U]niversally available [WMD] technologies can be used to create "asymmetric" responses that cannot defeat our forces, but can deny access to critical areas in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia..."asymmetric" approaches can limit our ability to apply military power.
Another example is found in a September, 2002 speech by Philip Zelikow, executive director of the 9/11 Commission and author of the 2002 National Security Strategy, about the threat posed by Iraq. Once again, this threat is not that Iraq will attack us, but that their WMD will make it possible for someone to deter us (and Israel):
I criticise the [Bush] administration a little, because the argument that they make over and over again is that this is about a threat to the United States...
Now, if the danger [from Iraq] is a biological weapon handed to Hamas, then what’s the American alternative then? Especially if those weapons have developed to the point where they now can deter us from attacking them, because they really can retaliate against us, by then.
And here's a recent report by several retired NATO generals, which deems non-military acts of deterrence by China and Russia to be "acts of war":
[A]cts of war can be committed by individual nation states or allied states by abusing the leverage that other resources bring. China and Russia today are economic powers that might be tempted to deter other nations with the weapons of finance and energy resources.
ALSO: Here's more from Coats and Robb:
Simply obtaining the ability to quickly assemble a nuclear weapon would effectively give Iran a nuclear deterrent and drastically multiply its influence in Iraq and the region. While we would welcome cooperation from a democratic Iran, allowing the Middle East to fall under the dominance of a radical clerical regime that supports terrorism should not be considered a viable option.
Yes—in particular, we would welcome a democratic Iran by overthrowing its democratic government.
October 22, 2008
The Humorology of Power
By: Bernard Chazelle
There is no "debate" about humor: we're all for it. That itself is funny because humor is born in us as a reactionary impulse. That it can be enlisted in worthy causes doesn't mean it can easily wash off its original sin. I took the opportunity of an endless flight to a far-away land to put in writing what I mean by that.
The worshippers who kneel at the altar of Humor never cease to marvel at the unique capacity humans have to make others laugh. They worship the worship, too, for the only thing cooler than having a sense of humor is to know that you have such a thing and that it really matters. Humor is serious stuff. It exposes hypocrisy, punctures vanity, challenges falsehoods, skewers prejudice, and, in our hour of need, lessens the pain. It serves social, evolutionary, and sexual purposes—both Darwin and Freud had much to say on the matter (as on pretty much everything else). The typologies and functions of humor can fill tomes. That's not what this essay is about. My goal is to examine the relation of humor to power.
What is humor?
What makes me laugh is a pleasing answer but it explains nothing. Truth is, humor comes in too many flavors to fit into one all-encompassing theory. Plus it's not for nothing that humor and humid share the same Latin root for "bodily fluid." To analyze humor, indeed, is much like holding water in your hand. It's entirely hopeless to seek sufficient conditions for it—humor is far too dependent on "humors"—so we'll have to content ourselves with necessary ones.
My first point, unoriginal but so crucial it bears revisiting, is that humor, whether hurtful or not, is inextricably tied to a sentiment of superiority. The humorist, a term taken in the broadest sense, can express his or her superiority in at least two ways. Being clever is one of them. All jokes in the universe having been told 1000 times already, all that's left is how clever you make the 1001-st iteration. If such a tiny fraction of comedy is truly funny, it's because being clever is hard work. The Simpsons' writers are quite obviously workaholics. A pity Churchill died too soon to join their ranks:
Lady Nancy Astor to Churchill: "Winston, if you were my husband, I'd poison your tea."
Churchill: "Nancy, if I were your husband, I'd drink it."
Retaliatory humor puts a premium on cleverness:
Priest to rabbi: "When will you eat ham?"
Rabbi to priest: "At your wedding."
The lady and the priest postulate a world of fantasy (world A), free of superstition and pesky restraint on wanton murder. World A comes crashing against world B, ruled, in this case, by cold logic. Note that the rabbi's world does not clash with the priest's over a demand for tolerance but, rather, consistency. The collision is not moral but logical. Punch lines are the emotion-free, high-energy particles emitted by the LHC (Large Humor Collider).
The other way to channel superiority into laughter is to claim the throne of correctness. You can do it in two ways: one is to paint everybody around you as a blithering idiot and pose as a fount of wisdom. The other is self-deprecation, a device used to create a clone of yourself that you can then torment with impunity. The identification is only an alibi, of course. Emotion is the enemy of comedy. You make yourself into the butt of your own jokes only to immunize your audience against that dreaded humor killer called compassion. Self-deprecation is the art of empathizing over your own flaws so others won't have to. Thus free-floating in moral weightlessness, the audience can laugh immune to self-loathing. Yet the main function of self-deprecation is not to protect the audience from guilt but the humorist from harm. It is a safety mechanism that has little to do with humility. It takes a serious man to take himself not seriously.
For the audience, self-deprecation can also be vicarious. The humor of Seinfeld is that we see bits of ourselves in every situation on the screen and laugh cathartically in much the same way we would watching video highlights of our most world-A moments. We do so from the safety, comfort, and detachment of world B. Last but not least, self-deprecation can also be a vehicle for identity marking: one can affirm superiority via the exclusive ownership of certain lexical fragments (the N-word) or comedic licenses. For a taste of the latter, see how Sarah Silverman, the comedic wrong-footing queen, uses the occasion of an "apology" to Asians to ridicule anti-Semitism:
"All the papers were calling me a racist, and it hurt, you know. As a Jew, as a member of the Jewish community, I was really concerned. You know, I was concerned that we were losing control of the media."
Do not misconstrue the word superiority. Ms Silverman does not think of herself as being superior any more than a basketball player does when he fakes a shot to drive around a guard and shoot a 3-pointer. At punch-line time, the humorist must claim the mantle of superiority: she must be the ruler of world B (common sense) and the slayer of world A (fantasy of Jewish conspiracies). The better humorist will share the victory spoils with the audience and have it believe it's in on a secret code. The lesser one will humiliate and gloat. The audience might still laugh, but laughter is an unreliable gauge of humor. Unless earned by uncoerced persuasion, humorological superiority is worth nothing. That said, don't delude yourself: to appreciate comedy will often require shooting your heart with novocaine.
II. Liberation Humor
My second point concerns the common illusion that humor, especially of the transgressive kind, wields liberating power. Like other art forms, comedy can challenge norms and influence attitudes, often for the good. But there is something intrinsic to humor that makes it an unlikely vehicle for "liberation." (Not to be confused with "release"—comedy is big on purging.) If humor could have a driving political purpose (and I doubt that it can), it would have to reflect a certain totalitarian temptation. Laughter is a reactionary impulse and humor is, at its root, a call for order. Crudely put, the humorist is a nag—or, to be technical about it, a law enforcement officer. The law might be noble and good but humor never legislates: it enforces necessary norms by violating contingent ones. The violation can be great fun—in fact, that's the whole point—so the enforcement goes largely unnoticed. But humor serves the same evolutionary function as physical pain. It is an alarm bell. As such, it is no more liberating than a wake-up call.
The confusion is understandable. First, comedy targets power preferentially, but that's only because power offers the highest vanity-to-compassion ratio, a humorological dream mix. Second, transgressive humor may be seen as a threat to authority, but it comes way too preconditioned to be more than a mere nuisance. The only power Lenny Bruce ever threatened was his own, notwithstanding the State's overreaction, which was just that. The reason is that comedy is a purchased license: it is the license society gives itself to explore the forbidden in public. The transgression is therefore contractual. Audiences pay good money to hear from comedians words they would never tolerate, even free of charge, from the man on the street. Third, there is indeed an overrepresentation of the historically oppressed in comedy. You don't have to be oppressed to be funny, but it seems to help. Yet one should not infer from it that humor seeks liberation from the jackboot. Comedy may carve out a safe space that the oppressor cannot penetrate. But freedom is not the purpose: protection is. Humor is fundamentally about survival.
Cossack: "What's the source of all evil?"
Rabbi: "The Jews and the chimney sweeps."
Cossack: "Why the chimney sweeps?"
Rabbi: "Why the Jews?"
The rabbi reacts to the trap laid for him by setting up his own. He prods the cossack into displaying his anti-Semitism a second time. That's the rabbi's first act of retaliation. The second one is to ask "Why the Jews?" and beat the cossack at his own game. But retaliation is not rebellion. The rabbi is not jockeying for power or fighting for freedom. He is merely playing a winning game. He baits the (world A) cossack to step into world B only to expose his unfitness. It's superiority humor of the "survival of the fittest" kind. The political implication is dreadful. Not only does it reduce prejudice to illogic—if only those damn cossacks thought things through—but the competitive nature of the effort itself makes it a status quo joke. "Brains vs Brawn": 1-1. Which begs the question: Is everything all right then? You oppress me but I outwit you. Shall we call it a draw?
There's an old principle underpinning humor that goes back to Kant and even Aristotle (two famous comics): incongruity. I don't like the word much because it's too coarse to carry much explanatory punch—there is just too much congruous humor and unfunny incongruity out there. I prefer the image of two clashing worlds. Humor usually requires a narrative that climaxes in an unexpected collision between two independent universes. There's nothing intrinsically funny about a pair of colliding worlds, so humor assigns specific roles to them. Often first on the scene, world A is characteristically dreamy, cartoonish, fantastic, playful, fanciful, expectative, and ruled by its own idealized laws. World B, on the other hand, is the dull backwater of common sense, physical law, submission to order, determinism, logic, immutability, or perhaps even sheer, dreary survivability. World A is ruled by human agency, often endowed with an automaton-like quality. (Note that humor is always human: a landscape is never funny.) World B is under the iron rule of a nonnegotiable force: logic, physics, shame, etc. Although the force is unassailable, it is often socially desirable. (Note that this classification exempts humor based on wordplay, puzzles, or misunderstandings, all types in which this essay is not particularly interested, anyway.) Why does your heart need a dose of novocaine? Because humor must knock down empathy in order to kill fantasy. For an illustration of this in cartoon comedy, try this one:
"So, Doc, how bad is it?"
"It's bad. There's no cure. There's not even a race for the cure."
With suitable bedside manner getting compassion out of the way, fantasy is next on the chopping block: the target is the loony idea that to cure a terminal disease one should run around the block like a madman to save pennies for the cause. The unassailable forces are biology and realism. (There's more to the joke but that will do.) World B is stealthy and its governing law self-evident. This is necessary because it usually appears only in the punch line and, therefore, must require no introduction. It's hard to crack a racial joke if the audience is still unsure whether racism is a bad thing. (This is true whether the joke is racist or anti-racist.) Most comedy is based on denied anticipation. To make world B a crash site and deny the audience's expectation of a soft landing, comedy, being contextual, must rely on an unspoken code. This is necessary because a joke can be told or explained but not both. Ingredients of surprise and suddenness are key to a successful crash.
"Have you lived in Boston all your life?"
Peremptory claims look more impressive unencumbered by evidence. They're not nearly as persuasive, however, so let me try to argue my case. Grown-up humor feeds so voraciously at the trough of morality (more on this complex relationship below) that it is best to begin with children's jokes, if only to appreciate why humor is, fundamentally, the extinction of fantasy. Tell a 2-year old that in your house there is a polar bear who sleeps in the fridge (world A). She'll open her eyes big and wide and go "Wow!" Yes, Virginia, there's a world out there where polar bears live in refrigerators, and it's all seriously exciting stuff. No joke! World B does not stand a chance.
Now try your polar bear story on Charlotte, who's 4. No "Wow" from her. Unlike her younger sister, Charlotte will laugh out loud. Why? Ask her and she'll say: "A polar bear is too big to sleep in the fridge." Fantasy and physics clashed briefly in Charlotte's mind, and physics won: the humor didn't merely result from the triumph of order over imagination: it was the triumph of order over imagination. No world B victory, no laugh. (Why humor makes us breathe faster and emit strange sounds is a tension/release mystery that I'll leave to evolutionary biologists.) Does that mean Virginia didn't perceive the same clash? She did. But, swayed by the storyteller's talents of persuasion, she decided on a different outcome: fantasy beat reality. World A won. For Virginia, fantasy is no laughing matter. It's a little scary, in fact. Who are you to be bending the laws of physics and squeeze bears into refrigerators?
Things get tricky with the grown-ups. So let's begin with the granddaddy of comic scenes. An Olympic marathon runner slips on a banana peel right at the starting line. Not so funny if he's a paralympics contestant who falls off his wheelchair at the start of the race (at least not until transgressive reflexivity has taught us it's all right to laugh, but let's not get ahead of ourselves.) It's still pretty cruel, though, to laugh at a runner who falls flat on his face. But with the proper emotional detachment boosted by the right narrative—say, the marathoner is an arrogant stiff—it becomes easier to loosen one's moral shackles and laugh. The banana's cult status in comedy also helps (perhaps the sole exception to the rule that objects can't be funny).
What are the colliding worlds? An Olympic marathoner is possessed with uncommon ambition and determination. He dreams of gold medals, glory, and all that fantastic world A stuff. Trouble is, it all comes crashing against the dull, dreary world B ruled by Newton's law and gooey fruit waste. To laugh is to bow to gravity against human aspiration. For humor is not simply observing two clashing worlds: it's taking sides. It's making world B your home team. To laugh is to side with the natural order of things. Humor is a conservative magnet, a submission to a higher force. After all, you're not taking on the mighty Isaac Newton or the greedy Chiquita Banana, are you? You're laughing at a poor bloke whose life dream has just been shattered. Why? To practice your survival skills in recognition of the world-B reality that gravity kills but marathoners don't. For a more subtle take on this, try this joke from the "Who are you going to believe, me or your lying eyes?" genus:
Al comes to the rescue of his friend, Bill, who's stuck in his car after a bad crash. "Bill, are you still alive?" A plaintive voice replies: "Yes, I am." "Thank goodness! But you're such a liar, Bill, I don't really know whether to believe you."
On Planet Al, unusual for world A, logic rules. Of course, it's faulty logic and it is its precedence over the obvious reality that Bill is, indeed, alive that makes Al's world cartoonish and "mechanistic" (to use Bergson's classic characterization of humor). The friendship, the pain, and the anxiety of a car crash make the contrast with the cold logic and prudence of Al all the more dramatic. The flawed logic hits hard because one can easily imagine Al walking away from the scene. So the pull toward common sense is amplified by the unfolding drama. At the same time, Al's fantasy world fails in an exquisitely clever way. Living liars can't be trusted, which is fine. But Al extends that predicate to dead liars, which is creative. That's the cleverness part of the joke. But there's another way to look at it. In his world A, Al is actually showing great courtesy by extending to the dead the laws of the living: it's insane but it's generous. We laugh because we recognize that life is too serious to be left in the hands of cartoon characters: a wise, conservative reaction. Comedy can be adventurous and taboo-breaking but humor itself, to serve its evolutionary purpose, must remain risk averse.
The consensual, unexamined dominance of world B serves a normative function, typically as a social corrective. It may all seem a bit of a paradox. A humorless society would be dreary—laughably so. Comedic intentionality challenges orthodoxies, power, prejudice, and, with its attention to the unseen, sharpens one's critical sense. Humor amuses and cleanses at the same time. Not bad. But humor is merely a call to reality, a sanity check. It abhors denial. If your soul aches, humor is there to remind you lest you forget. Sure, it'll scratch you where it itches, but it'll also wake you up in the middle of the night just to wish you a good night's sleep. Yes, it's that type. Humor is counter-rebellion against the fantastic and the illusory. The confusion has two sources: one is that fantasy can be both wonderful ("I'll cure cancer") and foul ("I'm the Master of the Universe"); the other is that the "unassailable" world-B force to which humor is the handmaiden is typically consensual. One rarely minds being enslaved to logic, realism, simplicity, common sense, humility, etc.
The force has two characteristics: it is amoral and necessary (ie, you don't get to choose it). This is a key point. Humor can challenge immorality only for the wrong reasons. Bad-vs-Good is never funny. Bad-vs-Right is. Remember the cossack. We didn't laugh because of his prejudice but because of its inconsistency. The implication is unequivocal: if the cossack would just be rational, his anti-Semitism would vanish. This may appear naive. Not so. The rabbi was only trying to score points. In the same vein, the subliminal message of the Colbert-Stewart style of political comedy is that, if only Bush were smart, articulate, and competent, then everything would be all right (when, in fact, everything would be worse).
The role of morality in humor is subtle. Jokes often double as morality tales, yet moralizing is a yawn. So morality can only be a stage-setter. But humor does not do rehab. It does retributive, not reparative, justice—just as you would expect from a conservative law enforcement vehicle. As such, it rewards your moral impulse by indulging your mean streak. Like rewarding an alcoholic for staying away from the stuff by giving him a beer.
Despite the saying that performance is what we call comedy that bombs, there is a prevalent confusion in this area that I'd rather sidestep. So I'll focus on humor, spoken or written, that transcends its delivery; in other words, I'll confine the discussion to the funny that remains so even if you can only read it. I realize this excludes the large segment of American stand-up that relies on abjection, power reversal, metajokes, narcissism, forbidden impulses, alienation, performance therapy, and other theatrical modes of self-expression. I'll conflate jokes, wit, and humor, which is regrettable but fine nonetheless, as no theory that did not survive such conflation could be worth much, anyway.
Transgressive humor lives off the very existence of the norms that it seeks to violate. It demands taboos that it can then heroically break. Hippies meant to be transgressive: they tried to change norms and they were utterly humorless about it. But when Sarah Silverman (a rare natural comic) describes her "final solution" for AIDS patients, she's being merely superior:
"If we can put a man on the moon, then we should be able to put a man with AIDS on the moon. And then we should be able to put all men with AIDS on the moon."
It's double entrapment disguised as transgression. The joke is a dialogue based on sudden cognitive shifts, with one part written in invisible ink. Here are the missing lines:
"If we can put a man on the moon ["Oh no, what cliché is coming next?"], then we should be able to put a man with AIDS on the moon ["Huh? But, hey, why not? cool of you to think that way"]. And then we should be able to put all men with AIDS on the moon." ["Will laughing make me a jerk, too?"].
The denied anticipation is brutal. But why the cruelty? Because Ms Silverman wants to tell you that she, unlike you presumably, is so accepting of AIDS victims that she'll treat them like anybody else. You won't catch her babytalking seniors. That her stand may be, in its odious ways, honorable is entirely accidental. Her jokes work because they are clever (and she delivers them well), but her role model is Michael Jordan, not Mother Teresa. Her aim is superiority, not morality. As it should be. The only thing more amusing than the tactical positioning of a comedian on the moral chessboard is that anyone should take it seriously. Ms Silverman seeks no one's moral edification other than her own. There, she is only being true to the narcissistic essence of comedy.
Comedy's normative mode is ecologically parasitic. It feeds off society's darker compromises by making social commentary its primary vehicle, not its primary function. Of course, social commentary as an end in itself can be funny, too (eg, Swift, Wilde, Twain). Humor, indeed, can be used as universal seasonings. But whether served as comedy or condiments, humor's ambition is to change facial expressions, not society. The contextual dependency can hardly be overestimated. Some humor is universal but most of it is not. George Carlin's nightmare probably featured a New York Times announcement that the "F-word" would now be spelled "fuck." Hans Christian Andersen was lucky not to live in a nudist colony, or his story about an emperor having no clothes might not have gotten the same attention. Puritanism and sexual humor are the two sides of the same coin. Get rid of one and, poof, the other's gone, too. Juvenile societies like ours, ie, sexually repressed and anatomically obsessed, fuel their comedy with bodily functions, but for bonobos I suspect the humor gets lost in translation. (Mere speculation on my part, of course.) OK, it wouldn't be fair to leave this statement gender-neutral since it's without a doubt the Y-chromosome that drags down the average emotional age of comedy. It's not even cultural (pace male comics)—it's molecular.
Satire exposes the absurd in the social and political spheres while leaving the nonabsurd hidden. Eye-opening and inspiring though it may be, it is still based on a deception: just because A is bad does not mean that not-A is better. In fact, A might be an ugly compromise that allows humans to get by, whereas world B, unexplained and unchallenged, might be hellish. A society without white lies would be unlivable—when a homely girl asks you if she's pretty, are you supposed to say no? Uncompromising humor can be quite funny, but its pleasures are tainted. Jon Stewart's comedy is innocuous but the authoritarian temptation in Bill Maher's anti-religious rants is unmistakable. Mr Maher knows that religious belief is so world A. But then he goes on to postulate a world B of metaphysical common sense, as though there were such a thing. He forgets that the obvious is not the sole alternative to the absurd. Why is religious belief, which he rightly calls superstition, any less world B than the myths that claim squatter's rights in his own psyche? Doesn't Mr Maher celebrate birthdays and frown upon cannibalism? What's rational about that? His selective, wholesale ridiculing of the sacred stems from a totalitarian impulse. And I say this as someone who appears to share most of Mr Maher's views on organized religion.
Humor is an alarm bell, an attention-grabbing signifier with no particular signified. Bill Maher and Sacha Baron Cohen (Borat) make the same mistake of imparting a comedic signified where there is none. Jon Stewart makes the opposite mistake: an unwillingness to follow through with noncomedic substance. As he readily admits, he won't let a serious thread run for more than 2 minutes without killing it with a joke. In his own words, it's "only" a comedy show. Indeed, and Paris Hilton is "only" a bimbo. Selling short is still fashionable in some circles, I guess. Humor will not make you think: it will merely suggest that you should do so. Good comedy should be an appetizer that stimulates your appetite. But late-night TV comedy is digestive, dessert-time humor. To go to battle, you need compassion, courage, outrage, and, preferably, a plan. And, oh yes, please bring humor along just in case you lose.
My third point is existential. Human beings are deeply ridiculous creatures. The ultimate joke is our very existence. The majesty of horses, seagulls, and house cats reminds me that dignity and laughter don't go together well, do they? Superiority theory tells me humor is suspicious and a guilty pleasure. Yet is there any doubt that it empowers? Humans can't fly on their own but they can be funny, which is the closest approximation. And don't forget that humor is universal: one can laugh about anything.
Sweet. I've managed in these last 3 sentences to shatter my entire cosmology of humor. For example, I argued earlier that immorality couldn't be funny. At first blush, this seems plausible. How many Hitler jokes mock his height, moustache, and barking oratory rather than his unfathomable evil? (Hint: evil can't be mocked.) But reflexivity changes everything: that is the self-awareness that allows us to inject ourselves into the narrative of humor, fully conscious of the embedding. It elevates humor to heights inconceivable without it.
A friend walks into Niels Bohr's office and spots a horseshoe hanging on the wall: "Niels, you don't believe in that sort of thing, do you?" "Of course not, but I hear it works even if you don't believe in it."
Humor is like sneezing. It's brief and hard to control. (Laughing is a different matter altogether. Comedians with no recorded ability to craft a funny line have been known to keep audiences in stitches with a creepy "laugh or you die" shtick.) Like a Charlie Parker solo, a lonely joke or a witty quip can pack a lot of drama. Although the punch line tends to be "atomic"—it's really a punch point—the clash behind it can be ambiguous and multi-threaded. The buildup may contain a multitude of intertwined strands. A joke is a tiny (counter)revolution as well as a tiny play. I mean "play" in both senses of the word: theater and game.
When Ricky Gervais pokes fun at the Book of Genesis for having us believe that God created the heaven and the earth before light, who is he mocking? The joke is that it's hard enough to build the cosmos out of nothing; now imagine doing it in the dark! Is Gervais mocking the bible, Christian fundamentalists, himself (reflexively), his audience? Where is the clash? Is it between the fantasy of Genesis and the commonsensical difficulty of working in the dark? Perhaps. Yet, at the instant of laughter, it is you, the audience, not God, who's trying to build that cosmos. So maybe the clash is about the irrelevance of worrying about such a trivial matter as lighting conditions when your job assignment is to build the planets. The point is that there is a clash somewhere, or perhaps several of them, and it doesn't matter a whit if we don't know for sure.
Rowan Atkinson, as the devil, welcomes the dead to hell:
"Atheists, please move over here. Perhaps feeling a bit like a bunch of nitwits, no?"
Many "wars of the worlds" there: the falsifiability of theology; the arrogance of atheists; the superstition of believers; the incongruity of a humorous Satan; etc. Some jokes can be read in many different ways and still be funny. Reflexivity relies crucially on that attribute. But what is it? First I'll tell you what it's not. Tony Blair once said:
"I don't make predictions. I never have and I never will."
The statement is self-referential but the humor (such as it is) is not reflexive. Reflexivity requires self-awareness (which would be asking too much of Tony Blair). A Broadway play contains this line:
"Bye-bye, hope to see you again soon."
"Well, it's a small cast."
Cute, reflexive humor. Unlike self-deprecation, where the clone of yourself enters in no particular dialectical interplay with the original, reflexivity depends critically on a tightly coupled interaction between the mirrored image and its source. The best kind of reflexivity is suggested, not explicit as in the Broadway play.
A man is led to execution on monday morning and sighs, "What a way to start the week!"
This joke is the template for hundreds of others. (Too bad Bill Clinton forever crippled it by attending to the execution of a retarded death-row inmate in Arkansas, who famously requested that the pudding served at his last dinner be saved for later.) It is reflexive because the primary interpretation, abject foolishness, quickly gives way to a second one, the feigning of abject foolishness, so the joke becomes a joke about a joke. A more potent brew from the same pot:
Chaim and Shlomo are being asked by the SS officer to dig their graves before being shot. Chaim says to his friend: "I am not going to dig my own grave!" Shlomo replies to him: "Come on, Chaim, we're in enough trouble as it is. Dig that grave."
The horror of the backdrop is entirely plausible, yet the humor is irresistible. So, is the SS officer the only monster here? What about the narrator? What about us? The joke is a mirror that reflects a disturbing image of ourselves. There is the obvious clash of the worlds. Like in the monday-execution joke, world A is ruled by Shlomo's flawed logic. But then there's the added poignancy of a child's voice. Shlomo may be an adult but his logic is unmistakably that of a schoolchild. Anyone fearful of getting a higher-up cross can still hear in his head the voice of his mother on his first day of school: "Make a good impression on your teacher. Do just as she says. Promise?" That the "teacher" is, in this case, a murderous sadist is spine-chilling. Shlomo's childish fantasy planet collides with a world B where appeasing monsters is futile.
The joke features a particular brand of self-deprecation that is a signature of Jewish humor. Although I suspect this is an updated Yiddish joke that predates the Holocaust, the context of the self-deprecation matters greatly. It's a "double-down" slam against the charge that Jews walked to Auschwitz like lambs to the slaughter. One can almost hear the narrator riff off the anti-Semitic trope: "Actually, we didn't just dig the graves; we also bought every SS officer in the Fatherland a shovel for Christmas." (As in the car crash joke, imaginary follow-ups, whether conscious or not, play a key supporting role.)
Then there's the implicit reflexivity. The humor is so outré that the listener can only laugh in a state of self-awareness. This, in turn, forces a recasting of Shlomo from his role as an endearing simpleton into an avatar for the heroic narrator. Why heroic? Because gentle nitwits with maternal voices in their heads just can't be allowed to dig their own graves before being shot. So, the narrator is really mocking the scene. (Without reflexivity, this transformation is absolutely impossible: there's not a hint of mockery in the text.) But only a hero jokes while facing death. In the world A of warfare, he who decides death has the last word. In this world B, he who can joke before dying has the last word. You may kill me but I will laugh while you do so. There is a qualitative difference with the cossack joke. This is no longer about scoring points. I ridicule the killing, not the killer; I do so not to diminish it but to vanquish it. Illusory though it all might be, we're back in survival territory.
This new, reflexive world B is evolutionarily absurd. Does this contradict my claim of humor as survival practice? No. Granted, to have the last joke before it's all over does not exactly give you a selective advantage (as is fully expected of world B). But to live aware that you can just might. A good analogy is Stoic philosophy, which promoted the idea of suicide for the power it bestowed upon its holder. That does not mean Epictetus ran up and down the Appian Way urging people to jump out of windows. He simply pointed out the benefit of keeping the option open.
The SS joke features both superiority and abjection. But reflexivity doesn't stop there. You can easily step back again and wonder what kind of vain heroism you've just constructed. This produces an iterative dialectic that can go on as far as your imagination allows. Reflexivity gives humor its universal power by making it its own subject matter. The humorist always has the last word—I'm looking at you, Lenny Bruce and Bill Hicks. You can take anything, even a joke, shrink-wrap it, joke about it, and then rinse and repeat, fully conscious of the recursivity.
In Atkinson's hell skit, we get to play God. In the SS joke, we get to be God. By looking death in the eye and cracking a joke, we declare a meta-victory over all that stands in the way. Humor is no longer about world B, it is world B. Through the sheer power of reflexivity, humor itself has become the unassailable force. And that's no joke.
— Bernard Chazelle
F is for Failure
The Bush Doctrine in Ruins
By Tom Engelhardt
On the brief occasions when the President now appears in the Rose Garden to "comfort" or "reassure" a shock-and-awed nation, you can almost hear those legions of ducks quacking lamely in the background. Once upon a time, George W. Bush, along with his top officials and advisors, hoped to preside over a global Pax Americana and a domestic Pax Republicana -- a legacy for the generations. More recently, their highest hope seems to have been to slip out of town in January before the you-know-what hits the fan. No such luck.
Of course, what they feared most was that the you-know-what would hit in Iraq, and so put their efforts into sweeping that disaster out of sight. Once again, however, as in September 2001 and August 2005, they were caught predictably flatfooted by a domestic disaster. In this case, they were ambushed by an insurgent stock market heading into chaos, killer squads of credit default swaps, and a hurricane of financial collapse.
At the moment, only 7% of Americans believe the country is "going in the right direction," Bush's job-approval ratings have dropped into the low 20s with no bottom in sight, and North Dakota is "in play" in the presidential election. Think of that as the equivalent of a report card on Bush's economic policies. In other words, the Yale legacy student with the C average has been branded for life with a resounding domestic "F" for failure. (His singular domestic triumph may prove to be paving the way for the first African American president.)
But there's another report card that's not in. Despite a media focus on Bush's wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the record of his Global War on Terror (and the Bush Doctrine that once went with it) has yet to be fully assessed. This is surprising, since administration actions in waging that war in what neoconservatives used to call "the arc of instability" -- a swath of territory running from North Africa to the Chinese border -- add up to a record of failure unprecedented in American history.
October 21, 2008
As If We Didn't Already Have Enough Reasons To Love Tina Brown And Colin Powell
From a recent profile of Seymour Hersh:
It was Tina Brown, formerly of Tatler and Vanity Fair, who brought [Hersh] to the New Yorker. 'What's-her-name... yeah, Tina. She gave me a lot of money, and she said: "Just go do it!" But she used to worry. She'd call me up and say, "I sat next to Colin Powell at dinner last night and he was railing about how awful you are." So I would say, "Well, that's good." And she'd say, "Is it?" And I'd tell her, "Yes, it is."'
Al-Maliki's Teeny-Tiny SOFA Figleaf
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki wants to U.S. to stay in Iraq for some time, because we keep him in power. But Iraqis want us to get the hell out as soon as possible, and certainly don't want U.S. soldiers to go around killing people with impunity. And the Iraqi government is somewhat vulnerable to public pressure—in fact, seemingly more than the U.S. government. How can al-Maliki square this circle?
The draft U.S.-Iraq Status of Forces Agreement is now available from the American Friends Service Committee in a translation by Raed Jarrar (pdf) from the Arabic version. It shows how al-Maliki is trying to do it.
First of all, "U.S. forces shall withdraw from Iraqi territories no later than December 31st, 2011." However, "the Iraqi government is permitted to ask the U.S. government to keep specific forces for the purposes of training and support of the Iraqi security forces...Or, the Iraqi government might ask for an extension [before troops are withdrawn]." (Article Twenty-Five, page 14) So the deadline has no teeth, and the SOFA is already looking forward to U.S. troops staying there even after the "withdrawal."
Secondly, al-Maliki has been trumpeting his opposition to immunity for U.S. troops, and claims this agreement doesn't provide that. But let's look at the fine print (in Article Twelve, pages 7-8). To start with:
U.S. has the primary legal jurisdiction over U.S. armed forces members and civilian members concerning issues that occur inside the installations and areas agreed upon, and while they are on duty outside the installations.
Iraq is in charge only under extremely limited circumstances:
Iraq has the primary legal jurisdiction over armed forces members and civilian members in cases of major and intentional crimes...that takes place outside areas and installations agreed upon while troops are off duty.
Moreover, any U.S. personnel arrested under these extremely limited circumstances will be held by the U.S.:
All members of U.S. armed forces or civilian members must be handed over to the U.S. as soon as they are arrested by the Iraqi authorities. When Iraq is exercising its legal jurisdictio...the U.S. authorities shall manage the tasks of detention of U.S. armed forces or civilian contractors.
And who decides whether these extremely limited circumstances apply? That would be the U.S.:
The U.S. authorities [will] submit, in accordance to paragraphs 1 and 2 of this article, a declaration explaining whether the alleged crime occurred while suspects where off duty or on duty. In case the Iraqi authorities think the conditions require such a decision to be reviewed or change...the U.S. authorities takes into consideration all the conditions, events and any other information submitted by the Iraqi authorities that might have an effect on changing the U.S. authorities decision.
Will this teeny-tiny figleaf be enough to get the Iraqi parliament and Iraqis generally to submit to the SOFA agreement? Probably not. According to Al-Hayat, even ISCI, part of al-Maliki's main bloc of support in the Iraqi parliament, has serious reservations.
ALSO: Note that the SOFA has been published in an Iraqi newspaper, but not in any American ones. So not only is the Iraqi legislative branch more independent than ours, their media is too.
Chris Hedges On "The Idiots Who Run America"
Right on. He even mentions John Ralston Saul:
Our oligarchic class is incompetent at governing, managing the economy, coping with natural disasters, educating our young, handling foreign affairs, providing basic services like health care and safeguarding individual rights. That it is still in power, and will remain in power after this election, is a testament to our inability to separate illusion from reality. We still believe in "the experts." They still believe in themselves. They are clustered like flies swarming around John McCain and Barack Obama. It is only when these elites are exposed as incompetent parasites and dethroned that we will have any hope of restoring social, economic and political order.
"Their inability to see the human as anything more than interest driven made it impossible for them to imagine an actively organized pool of disinterest called the public good," said the Canadian philosopher John Ralston Saul, whose books "The Unconscious Civilization" and "Voltaire's Bastards" excoriates our oligarchic elites...
Of course, "exposing and dethroning" our elites is easier said than done. In fact, history suggests it's almost impossible. During the 20th century, German elites started two world wars, committed the greatest genocide ever, and obliterated their own country. Yet at least in West Germany, they mostly remained in power.
October 20, 2008
We're Number One (?)
This site is a surprising #1 for a surprising Google search.
UPDATE: Sadly, this site's longtime dominance of the Google search for "my left buttock" seems to have slightly eroded.
The Rising Body Count on Main Street
The Human Fallout from the Financial Crisis
By Nick Turse
On October 4, 2008, in the Porter Ranch section of Los Angeles, Karthik Rajaram, beset by financial troubles, shot his wife, mother-in-law, and three sons before turning the gun on himself. In one of his two suicide notes, Rajaram wrote that he was "broke," having incurred massive financial losses in the economic meltdown. "I understand he was unemployed, his dealings in the stock market had taken a disastrous turn for the worse," said Los Angeles Deputy Police Chief Michel R. Moore.
The fallout from the current subprime mortgage debacle and the economic one that followed has thrown lives into turmoil across the country. In recent days, the Associated Press, ABC News, and others have begun to address the burgeoning body count, especially suicides attributed to the financial crisis. (Note that, months ago, Barbara Ehrenreich raised the issue in the Nation.)
Suicide is, however, just one type of extreme act for which the financial meltdown has seemingly been the catalyst. Since the beginning of the year, stories of resistance to eviction, armed self-defense, canicide, arson, self-inflicted injury, murder, as well as suicide, especially in response to the foreclosure crisis, have bubbled up into the local news, although most reports have gone unnoticed nationally -- as has any pattern to these events.
It's in The Guardian so It Must Be True
By: Bernard Chazelle
Not sure what to make of this.
American researchers have discovered that owning a pet can significantly reduce your risk of a common cancer. And that's not all...
I am enormously fond of animals and willing to buy any crackpot theory that our pets are the best creatures ever put on this planet. I have the loveliest, most gorgeous cat in the world. I wish I had a dog, too (I grew up with one) but my schedule does not allow me the luxury.
If you think I've gone senile, you might be on to something, but it seems Lord Byron preceded me on that path:
Near this Spot
are deposited the Remains of one
who possessed Beauty without Vanity,
Strength without Insolence,
Courage without Ferocity,
and all the Virtues of Man without his Vices.
This praise, which would be unmeaning Flattery
if inscribed over human Ashes,
is but a just tribute to the Memory of
BOATSWAIN, a DOG,
who was born in Newfoundland May 1803,
and died at Newstead Nov. 18th , 1808.
Byron wrote other things, too.
— Bernard Chazelle
October 19, 2008
The Brain Of The U.S. Overclass Works Sloooooooooooowwwwwwwwwwly
In 1992, when it was first becoming clear the U.S. was running large, permanent trade deficits, a book came out by William Greider called Who Will Tell the People. In it Greider quoted George Soros saying this about the American Empire: "There are many examples in history where military power was sustained by exacting tributes, but there is no precedent for maintaining military hegemony on borrowed money."
Ten years later, in the summer of 2002, I was struck by the way the U.S. foreign debt was still growing explosively, yet the Bush administration was apparently starting out on a new spree of imperial aggrandizement. I assumed this would sooner or later lead us to a situation like that of England during the Suez crisis in 1956. (Like America today, the British had been running their empire with borrowed money—borrowed mostly from us. So when we decided they had to stop attacking Egypt, they were forced to give up immediately.)
I mentioned this to Greider, who unsurprisingly had been thinking along the same lines. And he wrote a column about it in September, 2002:
The imperial ambitions of the Bush Administration, post-9/11, are founded on quicksand and are eventually sure to founder, but for fundamental reasons not currently under discussion...
The US financial position is rapidly deteriorating, due mainly to America's persistent and growing trade deficit...
Elite opinion, after years of offering various faulty explanations for the persistent trade deficits, has now decided they do not matter...
British power was fundamentally eclipsed in 1914, but the United States provided the financial nurture to keep it upright, as a kind of dummy leader in world affairs, until after World War II. Washington decisively pulled the plug in 1956, when Britain (along with France and Israel) invaded Egypt to capture the nationalized Suez Canal. It was the last gasp of British colonialism, and Washington disapproved. By withholding an IMF loan to London, the United States crashed the pound, forced Britain to withdraw from war and its prime minister to resign in disgrace. The Brits were finally relieved of their delusions.
Now, a mere six years later, the Council on Foreign Relations has finally noticed this may be a problem. A new report they've published called "Sovereign Wealth and Sovereign Power" says exactly the same thing:
The lesson of Suez for the United States today is clear: political might is often linked to financial might, and a debtor’s capacity to project military power hinges on the support of its creditors...[I]n some ways the United States’ current financial position is more precarious than Britain’s position in the 1950s...The United States’ main sources of financing are not allies. Without financing from China, Russia, and the Gulf states, the dollar would fall sharply, U.S. interest rates would rise, and the U.S. government would find it far more difficult to sustain its global role at an acceptable domestic cost.
This is notable because the CFR is the mind-crushingly dull heart of the U.S. establishment. They're still not quite sure which way rain falls. (Henry has contributed a terribly convincing piece to Foreign Affairs about how it falls up, although he says he may now need to reexamine the data.)
So if the news has reached even them that the building is on fire, we can be certain the entire structure is about to collapse.
October 18, 2008
Brave Nir Rosen
Please read all of Nir Rosen's recent article in Rolling Stone about his extremely dangerous travels in Afghanistan with the Taliban. There are also pictures, plus a video of him discussing it. Holy crap.
Then read Robert Naiman explain how "General Petraeus Says Talks with the Taliban are Kosher".
By: Bernard Chazelle
It is often said that a good general is someone who would rather risk his men's lives than his own career. That's why Colin Powell is such an excellent general. You don't get 4 stars out of ordinary cowardice. You get 4 stars by pulling stunts like waiting for a presidential candidate to be 7 points ahead in the polls 3 weeks before the election and then declaring your support.
But there's still a certain brashness in Powell's behavior that might explain why he is not a 5-star general. If he were truly 5-star material, he would have waited until Nov 5 to give the winner a retroactive endorsement. Why speak too soon? As Powell found out after his UN speech, loose lips sink ships.
— Bernard Chazelle
Good Advice For The Monkey-Brains
What's the best way to be alive if you, like me, have a monkey brain? Especially if you have a monkey brain that spends any time online?
Emily Yoffe has written a useful examination of the monkey brain phenomenon, and how to deal with it:
[I]s there a way for us to turn off the radar that's constantly scanning for offense? Not really. Being tuned in to the social clues around us is necessary. What we can work at is dialing down our response. Haidt advises that being aware of the forces that shaped and shape us can help us from letting them get the better of us.
"Once we're angry, irritated, we become prosecutors, and our reasoning gets hijacked by our need to build our own case," he says. So he suggests we can stop the prosecution by making even a small gesture of conciliation. We don't have to acknowledge we are wholly in the wrong, but changing our tone, conceding we shouldn't have said something, or said it in such a way, can trigger the reciprocity impulse in our opponent.
Some researchers recommend that when it comes to feeling offended, we could benefit from becoming a little bit Buddhist. Stephanie Preston, head of the University of Michigan's Ecological Neuroscience Lab, says: "The more attached you are to your sense of self, the more you see forces trying to attack that self. If you have a more Buddhist view, and are less attached to self, you are less likely to see offense."
Obviously this Stephanie Preston doesn't understand how important my self is.
You know...I've suddenly realized that I don't like the tone of her hooting! Nor the way she seems to hoard the best bananas!
October 17, 2008
What Was Obviously Going To Happen Is Now Happening
When Hank Paulson handed over $125 billion to America's largest banks, he neglected to force them to reveal and write down their bad assets, and thus kill the ones which are irredeemably bankrupt and should die. Paulson also took non-voting stock, and so we don't have the ability to dictate bank behavior that owners would normally have.
Thus, even though we were supposedly handing over our money in order to get credit markets working again, the banks were obviously going to just hoard the money.
The deepening red ink underscores a crucial question about the government’s plan: Will lenders deploy their new-found capital quickly, as the Treasury hopes, and unlock the flow of credit through the economy? Or will they hoard the money to protect themselves?
John A. Thain, the chief executive of Merrill Lynch, said on Thursday that banks were unlikely to act swiftly. Executives at other banks privately expressed a similar view.
“We will have the opportunity to redeploy that,” Mr. Thain said of the new capital on a telephone call with analysts. “But at least for the next quarter, it’s just going to be a cushion."...
But Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. is urging them to use their new capital soon. On Monday, Mr. Paulson unveiled plans to provide $125 billion to nine banks on terms that were more favorable than they would have received in the marketplace. The government, however, has offered no written requirements about how or when the banks must use the money.
“There is no express statutory requirement that says you must make this amount of loans,” said John C. Dugan, the comptroller of the currency. “But the economics work so that it is in their interest to do so.”
Mr. Dugan added that he would not examine how the banks used the money, but he said their actions would “be open to the court of public opinion.”
Yes, the "court of public opinion." Normally you might want to use real courts, but unfortunately the United States federal government doesn't have access to those.
Use It or Lose It?
How to Manage an Imperial Decline
By Aziz Huq
Do empires end with a bang, a whimper, or the sibilant hiss of financial deflation?
We may be about to find out. Right now, in the midst of the financial whirlwind, it's been hard in the United States to see much past the moment. Yet the ongoing economic meltdown has raised a range of non-financial issues of great importance for our future. Uncertainty and anxiety about the prospects for global financial markets -- given the present liquidity crunch -- have left little space for serious consideration of issues of American global power and influence.
So let's start with the economic meltdown at hand -- but not end there -- and try to offer a modest initial assessment of how the crumbling U.S. economy might change America's global stance.
October 16, 2008
Phil Gramm: Wrong On Regulation, Wrong On Presidential Aphorisms
Phil Gramm is extra wrong:
Throughout much of 2000, lobbyists were flying in and out of congressional offices. With Born gone, they saw an opportunity to settle the regulatory issue and perhaps gain even more. They had a sympathetic ear in Texas Sen. Phil Gramm, the influential Republican chairman of the Senate Banking Committee, and a sympathetic bill: the 2000 Commodity Futures Modernization Act.
Gramm opened a June 21 hearing with a call for "regulatory relief." Peering through his wire-rimmed glasses, he drawled: "I think we would do well to remember the Lincoln adage that to ask a society to live under old and outmoded laws -- and I think you could say the same about regulation -- is like asking a man to wear the same clothes he wore when he was a boy."
That was actually not Lincoln, but Thomas Jefferson.
Also: what Jefferson said would be an argument for regulation of new financial instruments, not against it. And of course Jefferson, as part of his fundamentalist agrarianism, despised financiers in general.
But apart from that, Gramm really hit the nail on the head.
Can Obama See the Grand Canyon?
On Presidential Blindness and Economic Catastrophe
By Mike Davis
Let me begin, very obliquely, with the Grand Canyon and the paradox of trying to see beyond cultural or historical precedent.
The first European to look into the depths of the great gorge was the conquistador Garcia Lopez de Cardenas in 1540. He was horrified by the sight and quickly retreated from the South Rim. More than three centuries passed before Lieutenant Joseph Christmas Ives of the U.S. Army Corps of Topographical Engineers led the second major expedition to the rim. Like Garcia Lopez, he recorded an "awe that was almost painful to behold." Ives's expedition included a well-known German artist, but his sketch of the Canyon was wildly distorted, almost hysterical.
Neither the conquistadors nor the Army engineers, in other words, could make sense of what they saw; they were simply overwhelmed by unexpected revelation. In a fundamental sense, they were blind because they lacked the concepts necessary to organize a coherent vision of an utterly new landscape.
Accurate portrayal of the Canyon only arrived a generation later when the Colorado River became the obsession of the one-armed Civil War hero John Wesley Powell and his celebrated teams of geologists and artists. They were like Victorian astronauts reconnoitering another planet. It took years of brilliant fieldwork to construct a conceptual framework for taking in the canyon. With "deep time" added as the critical dimension, it was finally possible for raw perception to be transformed into consistent vision.
The result of their work, The Tertiary History of the Grand Canyon District, published in 1882, is illustrated by masterpieces of draftsmanship that, as Powell's biographer Wallace Stegner once pointed out, "are more accurate than any photograph." That is because they reproduce details of stratigraphy usually obscured in camera images. When we visit one of the famous viewpoints today, most of us are oblivious to how profoundly our eyes have been trained by these iconic images or how much we have been influenced by the idea, popularized by Powell, of the Canyon as a museum of geological time.
But why am I talking about geology? Because, like the Grand Canyon's first explorers, we are looking into an unprecedented abyss of economic and social turmoil that confounds our previous perceptions of historical risk. Our vertigo is intensified by our ignorance of the depth of the crisis or any sense of how far we might ultimately fall.
The Reason I Had To Kill You Is That The People Who Opposed My Killing You Didn't Do It In The Correct Manner
Robert Rubin opposed the regulation of derivatives when he was Secretary of the Treasury during the Clinton administration. Brooksley Born, head of the Commodities Futures Trading Commission, wanted to regulate them.
As the world financial system lies in smoking ruins today, whose fault is it that derivatives weren't regulated? As Robert Rubin eloquently explains today, it's her fault:
RUBIN: I do think it was a deterrent to moving forward. I thought it was counterproductive. If you want to move forward...you engage with parties in a constructive way. My recollection was...this was done in a more strident way.
Frederick Kagan supported the invasion of Iraq. Almost everyone else on earth opposed it.
As Iraq lies in smoking ruins today, whose fault is it? As Fred Kagan eloquently explains, it's their fault:
KAGAN: I think it's important to mention this—we have really suffered from the fact that the opposition to the war has not been constructive and that there have been many, many opportunities for critics of the war to challenge the administration on the way that it was fighting the war that had been missed as critics through the end of the 2004 presidential campaign focused on whether we should have gone to war or not at all.
It should go without saying that both Rubin and Kagan are graduates of Stutts.
Someone I Disagree With Looks Ridiculous!
I disapprove of using awkward pictures to make fun of people you disagree with politically. I also hate using this blugg to post things that are already circulating furiously elsewhere.
However, I will make an exception this one time.
From another angle:
In any case, the point here really isn't that John McCain is a ridiculous person. It's that he's a person, and hence ridiculous.
October 15, 2008
I can't watch the debate, because I don't want to kill myself. Is anything happening?
My Depression -- or Ours?
By Tom Engelhardt
Among my somewhat over-the-hill crowd -- I'm 64 -- there's one thing friends have said to me repeatedly since the stock market started to tumble, the global economic system began to melt down, and Iceland went from bank haven to bankrupt. They say, "I'm just not looking. I don't want to know." And they're not referring to the world situation, they're talking about their pension plans, or 401(k)s, or IRAs, or whatever they put their money into, so much of which is melting away in plain sight even as Iceland freezes up.
I've said it myself. Think of it as a pragmatic acknowledgement of reality at an extreme moment, but also as a statement of denial and despair. The point is: Why look? The news is going to be worse than you think, and it's way too late anyway. This is what crosses your mind when the ground under you starts to crumble. Don't look, not yet, not when the life you know, the one you took for granted, is vanishing, and there isn't a damn thing you can do about it.
Today, in my world at least, this is the most commonplace of comments. It's just not a line I've seen much when the press and TV bring on the parade of financial experts -- most of whom are there largely because they didn't have the faintest idea that anything like this might happen. Whether they're reporting on, or opining about, the latest market nosedives, panic selling, chaotic bailouts, arcane derivatives, A.I.G. facials, or bank and stock-exchange closures, it still always sounds like someone else's story. I guess that's the nature of the media...
The edge of panic in the voice of a friend telling me about the 401(k) she's not looking at catches the story for me. It's visceral and scary and, let's face it, whether this is the half-forgotten past coming back to bite us or the future kneecapping us, it's depressing as hell.
October 14, 2008
Steven Pearlstein Stunned By Sun Rising In East
Washington Post columnist Steven Pearlstein is stunned:
If Wall Street were truly serious about convincing Main Street that we're all in this together, its top executives would have stepped before the cameras yesterday and promised not to cut lines of credits to long-standing business customers who have never missed a payment...
They would have committed themselves not to foreclose on any homeowner who is willing and able to refinance...
They would have offered to suspend dividend payments...
They would have given us their solemn promise not to advise clients to hold on to their own investments while quietly dumping whatever they can...
And the maharajas of finance could have set a wonderful example if they had all gotten together and agreed to work for a dollar a year until the crisis has passed.
There's a word that captures the instinct to take these kind of bold moves in the midst of a national crisis -- it's called leadership. We've seen quite a bit of it these past few weeks from public officials...Wall Street, by contrast, has served up a nothing sandwich, a lack of leadership that's been stunning.
Other things that have recently stunned Steven Pearlstein:
• Sun rising in east
• Bluish tint of sky
• Pope's seeming Catholicism. Who knew?
Who wouldn't be stunned when the most greedy, venal, vicious, cruel, arrogant, ignorant human beings on earth aren't eager to work in the public interest? Especially when people like them have never been willing to do so in the entire history of mankind, except on the rare occasions when they've been directly threatened with execution? It's stunning!
What Is "This"?
This is not as tragic a moment in western civilization as the sacking of Constantinople in 1453 or the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917, but it suffices as one of those sad moments we will regret over time.
October 13, 2008
Howard Kurtz Beginning To Show Effects Of Giant Steel Spike Embedded In Brain
Sadly, Washington Post media critic Howard Kurtz was injured in an accident last week at his second job laying railroad track. A malfunctioning explosive charge blew a four foot long tamping iron through his skull, destroying most of the front left section of his brain.
Remarkably, however, just like in the case of Phineas Gage in 1848, Kurtz survived. After filing down the two protruding ends of the steel spike, doctors today allowed Kurtz to return to his show on CNN—while emphasizing that he should keep his hair combed over the giant gaping hole in his skull.
At first Kurtz had, like Gage, seemed remarkably unaffected by his injury. But now he's now started making the kinds of statements people do only when they have giant spikes embedded in their brains:
KURTZ: I'm certainly not saying that what people say at these [McCain/Palin] rallies, particularly if it's ugly stuff, shouldn't be covered. It's part of the story. But it seems that the press has kind of adopted this theme that McCain and Palin are stoking the anger...
I was in Indiana with Obama this week. And there was some nut job in the crowd who started screaming about Obama was going to bring about the new world order, and he was ejected from the scene and people booed. Hardly anybody reported that because, who cared? But it seems to me that in the case of McCain and Palin, we have decided that they are somehow responsible for this. And I just question whether that's fair.
Obviously, no one without a giant steel spike embedded in their head would say that. No one with a normally-functioning brain could find it unfair to blame McCain for whipping up the bizarre hatred of Obama on display at GOP rallies, if we don't also blame Obama for the bizarre hatred of Obama at Democratic rallies.
Unfortunately, Kurtz's guest Candy Crowley had not been told of Kurtz's accident, and reacted like this:
CROWLEY: Right, Howie—those two things are exactly the same. Jesus Christ Almighty, do you have a giant steel spike embedded in your brain?
This led to several embarrassing moments for everyone concerned.
World's Non-Crazy Billionaires Have A Message For America
Paul Krugman wins the "Nobel" Prize for Economics.
Gosh, I wonder what Sweden's central bank is trying to tell us?
One consequence of the current economic implosion is the U.S. upper middle class is finally beginning to understand that everyone in positions of authority has been lying to them. This is from a New York Times article about Tyler Pappas, a married 43 year-old father of two and "creative services consultant":
Mr. Pappas is intelligent, well informed, in good standing with society and, like so many of us, not quite sure what to do...
Mr. Pappas is angry. Angry that A.I.G., the insurance giant, spent more than $400,000 on an event at a California resort, including $23,000 on spa services, just days after receiving a government loan of $85 billion. That the federal government’s $700 billion bailout includes billions in pork barrel spending. That average people minding their own business, people like Tyler and Holly Pappas, pay the consequences for the audacious blunders of others.
“We’re in a controlled chaos in my house,” he says. “We’re watching our money evaporate, and we’re debating whether to take it out and take a hit, or just leave it and gamble. And I don’t have any confidence in what I’m being told. I have zero confidence.”
And this is from a recent episode of This American Life:
We got an email on Wednesday from a listener named Will Chen...
"Dear Ira, Alex, Adam and gang...You are our only hope. Please do a show that clearly explains the question 'Should we support the bailout?' If the answer is no, what other options do we have? I'm not dumb or lazy. In addition to listening to NPR and the BBC religiously, I also read—and then he lists all the publications that he reads—there is so much confusion out there I really don't know who to trust. After a lot of soul searching in the last few days I realized there's only one source of information I trust without question. And that is This American Life...Please help us understand this bailout.
There are several interesting things about this:
1. You might have hoped the upper middle class would have noticed before now that the people in power were untrustworthy. One clue was when the government started a giant war to protect us from terrifying weapons of mass destruction that SURPRISE! turned out not to exist. But I'll take what I can get.
2. A loss of faith in existing institutions is only the first step. If there's no one around to tell people the truth, a lot of them are going to fall under the sway of dangerous crackpots. Given that our side isn't organized and ready to go with a honest explanation of what's happened, this is a big danger.
3. It's not surprising this guy felt he could trust This American Life. People trust others when they've been exposed to them, as humans, over a period of time. This American Life has discarded the traditional rules of "news" and put the humanity of the people involved front and center. Meanwhile, the corporate media can't display the humanity of the people within the organization for very good reasons: it needs to obliterate the human side of its employees so they can serve as interchangeable cogs in the machine. This fundamental dishonesty—pretending that "7 On Your Side" has some meaning, when in fact 7 is only on the side of its multinational owner's profits—is what makes people angry at the "liberal media." They know they're being lied to even if they're not exactly sure how. Any new and better form of media will have to display its human side to get its audience to trust it.
This moment could go in a positive direction, or a very very negative one. Given the current balance of power, I'm not getting my hopes up. But we might do okay. Stranger things have happened.
"Let me think about it," Persky said. "Maybe I could work it. Stranger things have happened." Of course, neither of them could think of one.
October 12, 2008
With the Bush administration's Treasury Department resorting to government bailout after government bailout to keep the U.S. economy afloat, leftist governments and their political allies in Latin America are having a field day, gloating one day and taunting Bush the next for adopting the types of interventionist government policies that he's long condemned.
"We were just talking about that this morning on the floor," said Congressman Edwin Castro, who heads the leftist Sandinista congressional bloc in Nicaragua. "We think the Bush administration should follow the same policies that they and the International Monetary Fund have always told us to follow when we have economic problems — a structural adjustment that requires cutting government spending and reducing the role of government."
If the U.S. weren't a powerful country, and had to do what we've made other countries do (via the I.M.F.) when they were in similar situations, we would right now be jacking up interest rates, slashing government spending and allowing the entire banking system to fail—which would guarantee a genuine, deep depression. It was these hideously cruel policies which in part led to the giant demonstrations against the World Trade Organization in Seattle in 1999.
Of course, we are a powerful country, and don't have to take the medicine we shove down everyone else's throats. Still, U.S. elites will try to impose as much of a structural adjustment as they can get away with, in order to make the bottom 80% of America pay the price for the elites' spectacular screw-ups. The Washington Post has already started writing about how the current crisis demonstrates that we must cut Social Security. Look for much more of this to come.
October 11, 2008
The Surge That Failed
Afghanistan under the Bombs
By Anand Gopal
A bit past midnight on a balmy night in late August, Hedayatullah awoke to a deafening blast. He stumbled out of bed and heard angry voices drawing closer...
The intruders blindfolded Hedayatullah and, screaming with fury, forced him to the ground. An Afghan voice told him not to move or speak, or he would be killed. He listened for sounds from the next room, where his brother Noorullah slept with his family. He could hear his nephew, eight months old, crying hysterically. Then came the sound of an automatic rifle, after which his nephew fell silent.
The rest of the family -- 18 people in all, including aunts, uncles, and cousins -- was herded outside into the darkness. The Afghan voice explained to Hedayatullah's terrified mother, "We are the Afghan National Army, here to accompany the American military. The Americans have killed one of your sons and his two children. They also shot his wife and they're taking her to the hospital."
"Why?" Hedayatullah's mother stammered.
"There is no why," the soldier replied. When she heard this, she started screaming, slamming her fists into her chest in anguish. The Afghan soldiers left her and loaded Hedayatullah and his cousin into the back of a military van, after which they drove off with an American convoy into the black of night.
The next day, the Afghan forces released Hedayatullah and his cousin, calling the whole raid a mistake. However, Noorullah's wife, months pregnant, never came home: She died on the way to the hospital.
October 10, 2008
Like The Bush Administration, But Much More Militaristic And Corrupt
Laura Rozen's new Mother Jones piece on McCain's main foreign policy adviser Randy Scheunemann is a great thing to read today, because it makes you grateful to the current financial implosion for keeping these lunatics out of office:
Brooke says he met Scheunemann in 1996 when he and Chalabi were hitting Capitol Hill to try to drum up increased US government support for the Iraqi opposition. Brooke's pitch then was that putting pressure on Saddam Hussein was not just the right policy; it was also a vehicle for attacking Bill Clinton, then running for reelection. "I thought it was a good time to educate the Republican Congress…and give them the ammunition they needed to beat the president up." In Scheunemann and other hardliners on the Hill, Brooke says he found kindred spirits—a clique of Republicans deeply disillusioned with how George H.W. Bush had let both the Cold War and the first Iraq War end without meting out sufficient punishment to America's adversaries. "These people had a great sense of psychic loss that we had not finished the first Iraq War in the most comprehensive way. They hated George Bush the first."
The rest is even worse.
I first learned about the Great Depression when I was ten or so. And I remember thinking: I don't get it. I was mystified by the way this could have happened—everyone suddenly becoming much poorer for ten years—when nothing whatsoever had changed in physical reality.
I understand the process of the Great Depression now. But it's certainly an education to watch a gigantic financial panic in real time. I look outside, and the sun is shining. The world still has all the same people and buildings and cars and factories—i.e., it's not like we've just suffered from a virulent plague or half the planet's been destroyed by bombs. And yet we really may all become much poorer for the next ten years.
It's completely insane. And it could be avoided if we would all just calm down and look at reality, which is not that scary. So we don't have $8 trillion of imaginary wealth we thought we did. Who cares? The industrialized world is still incredibly rich without it. If we were all (particularly the people at the top) willing to accept a little less, and stop trying to stick somebody else with the entire loss, we'd all be fine.
But apparently this type of behavior—something I've dubbed "not being a three year-old toddler"—is beyond the capability of humanity. We'd prefer to suffer enormously instead.
October 09, 2008
I Want To Believe
General Electric, according to the Securities and Exchange Commission, qualifies as a financial company worthy of protection from investors betting against its stock. But that’s not the message General Electric spins to shareholders...
GE Capital Services, as the financial arm is called, holds the rest of the group’s top-notch businesses hostage...GE Capital’s financing needs could put the whole company at risk.
Well, I'm sure if GE bore any responsibility for the current financial panic, Saturday Night Live would have run a sketch about it. That's what the show is all about: pure comedic honesty. As SNL's producer Lorne Michaels says, "We only have the one agenda: We'd like [people] to watch the show." So the only reason SNL is blaming everything on women, gay men, blacks and Jews is because it's really their fault. It's funny 'cause it's true!
(thanks to Rupa Shah for the LA Times pointer)
None Now Live Who Remember It
Two New York Times business reporters, Louis Uchitelle and Floyd Norris, discuss in a video here something lots of people are now realizing:
UCHITELLE: This is an unusual moment in American history, a moment I never thought I'd see. We are in the midst of a panic reminiscent of the Great Depression, stories like my father told...
NORRIS: I don't know anybody who expected this to happen. A lot of people thought there were going to be problems... I think one of the reasons this happened is that the generation who went through the Depression, the people who were around in '29 to experience it, certainly as adults, are virtually all gone now. If you were ten years old in 1929, you're pushing ninety. So this was largely not part of our memory. And if this lasts for a long time, it will be part of the memory of a lot of people.
One thing I didn't understand as a kid is that any good fiction, even the most fantastical, is actually about the bedrock reality of human existence:
The world is changed...Much that once was, is lost. For none now live who remember it...
The hearts of men are easily corrupted...and some things that should not have been forgotten were lost. History became legend. Legend became myth...the ring passed out of all knowledge...
Darkness crept back into the forests of the world...whispers of a nameless fear. And the Ring of Power perceived its time had now come.
On the one hand, we sometimes do a slightly better job remembering history than hobbits. On the other, the One Ring never had lots of right-wing think tanks whose job it is to make people forget everything important.
October 08, 2008
How Satire Has Improved Since 1970
Here But Not Here is a memoir by Lillian Ross about her love affair with William Shawn, the famous editor of the New Yorker from 1952-1987. Ross writes that there was only one time during Shawn's tenure when the publisher tried to interfere with the magazine's content.
Was it hard hitting journalism that made the publisher so nervous? Perhaps Seymour Hersh's famous 1972 series about My Lai?
No, it was satire:
The New Yorker would not keep quiet about Vietnam, no matter how many people, including advertisers, complained...
Once, and only once, the publisher, Peter Fleischmann, came up from the business floor...To Bill's astonishment and anger, Mr. Fleischmann asked him not to publish something. It was 1970. The "something" was the artist James Stevenson's satirical spread on Spiro Agnew and the Nixon administration. Bill told Mr. Fleischmann he was going to go ahead and publish the spread...
Mr. Fleischmann told Bill he thought the magazine was becoming too much of a "political journal."
It's too bad Lorne Michaels wasn't in charge of the New Yorker during the Nixon administration. He would have run real satire, about how all of America's problems at the time were the fault of women, gay men, African-Americans and Jews.
(The Stevenson spread, which seems as though it could just as easily be about Vice President Palin, is below the fold.)
October 07, 2008
The Tiny Revolution-Protein Wisdom Nexus
I didn't realize there was one.
Live Aus New York, Es Ist Samstag Nacht!
At stressful moments in the past, Saturday Night Live has often produced stupid, vicious, ugly material. (See here, here and here for some examples.) But their sketch three days ago about the Wall Street bailout may be the lowest moment in the show's history.
You might have believed the current financial panic was caused by decades of right-wing ideology. But you'd be wrong! It turns out it's the fault of the liberal women (Nancy Pelosi) and the liberal gays (Barney Frank), who've been handing out our money to the shiftless blacks, all at the orders of their billionaire puppetmasters, the thieving moneylender Jews (Herbert Sandler and George Soros).
Did I mention the Jews have weird foreign-sounding accents? And use their filthy lucre to despoil our maidens? 'Cause they do!
Of course, we should give SNL some credit: they merely labeled Herbert and Marion Sandler as "People who should be shot" when, after all, they could have called them "Vermin who must be exterminated."
Here's Soros purchasing the
Aryan lass to gratify his perverse desires:
And here's the original storyboard for the scene:
And the entire video, courtesy of (of course) Pat Dollard:
Original Video- More videos at TinyPic
October 06, 2008
A Funny Joke
It would be excellent if—when Arnold Schwarzenegger arrives at the White House to ask for a $7 billion loan for California—George Bush put on an Austrian accent and told him "Don't be an economic girlie-man!"
I bet Schwarzenegger would really get a kick out of it.
SCHWARZENEGGER: There is another way you can tell you're a Republican. You have faith in free enterprise, faith in the resourcefulness of the American people, and faith in the U.S. economy. To those critics who are so pessimistic about our economy, I say: Don't be economic girlie men!
Will Rogers And His Misunderstanding Of Biology
This is a famous quote by the early 20th century comedian Will Rogers:
I love a dog. He does nothing for political reasons.
Now, here's a story about Saddam Hussein:
Saad al-Bazzaz...came close to being executed by Saddam's henchmen. As head of the state broadcasting ministry, he was summoned to one of the dictator's many opulent villas on the outskirts of Baghdad...
Chillingly, the President enquired after his health...It soon became clear what he'd done to offend the dictator. Iraqi state television and radio broadcasted hours of saccharine poems and songs in Saddam's honour every day. Much of the output was dismal, and in recent weeks al-Bazzaz had instructed producers to dump the worst of it. Saddam wanted to know why. "Who made you judge?" he hissed. "Who are you to stop people expressing their feelings for me?"
October 05, 2008
By: Bernard Chazelle
Don't get me wrong. I am as anti-Palin as the next moose in Alaska, but what Senator Clinton's and Governor Palin's candidacies have revealed is that sexism in America is off the charts. And liberals are, as usual, no better. Chris Matthews and Maureen Dowd might well be the two most sexist liberal journalists in the MSM, but Frank Rich is trying to catch up. After gushing over her fortitude, confidence, and ambition, Rich summarizes Palin's greatest asset:
She has more testosterone than anyone else at the top of her party. McCain and his surrogates are forever blaming their travails on others, wailing about supposed sexist and journalistic biases around the clock.
Yeah, what sexism? Where? After all, isn't there a scientifically proven equivalence between courage, confidence, ambition and a certain male hormone?
Funny that the most courageous humans I've met in my life have been disproportionately female, and I don't think that was because of any testosterone.
— Bernard Chazelle
Back in May This American Life produced an entire episode about the housing bubble. This week they produced another episode reporting on what's going on now. The newer episode isn't online in its entirety yet. But ten minutes of it, discussing whether the current bailout is a good idea, is available here.
If you have a second, please listen to the ten minutes, and tell me this: do you think they did a good job explaining what's happening? Did you understand it? Even if you do, do you think other people would?
I ask because I really don't believe most people would understand what they're saying. Moreover, I think there's essentially no comprehensible explanation available anywhere. I'd guess there are perhaps a thousand people in the entire country who have any real understanding of how we got here, who's to blame, and what should happen next.
So I'm seriously considering writing a one-person (me) show about it. As I'm thinking about it now, it would just be me trying to be as funny as possible for ninety minutes about catastrophic financial collapse. The comedy of charts and graphs is a tough thing to pull off, but Italian performer Beppe Grillo has shown it can be done. It would take a while to get this up and running, but I think we're going to be mired in fallout from this for the next three years at least, and people are going to be furious about it for decades.
What do you think? Is anyone doing a good job helping people truly understand what's going on? And would the kind of show I'm talking about be worth doing?
Dean Baker Is Angry
Here's Dean Baker discussing the bailout plan last Tuesday.
You can donate to the American News Project here.
October 04, 2008
Today's Nazi Comparison
I'm not actually comparing Bush's speechwriters to Joseph Goebbels. I'm just pointing out that the propaganda of people who launch aggressive wars works pretty much the same everywhere.
George Bush, March 17, 2003:
The United States and other nations did nothing to deserve or invite this threat...The danger is clear:...the terrorists could fulfill their stated ambitions and kill thousands or hundreds of thousands of innocent people in our country.
Joseph Goebbels, April 9, 1944:
We were not the cause of this war; our enemies forced it upon us. From the beginning, they have made it plain that their goal was to destroy our life substance and destroy us as a people.
More of the same available here.
I'd missed this when it happened back in April on ABC:
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Do you have any doubt that Barack Obama shares your sense of patriotism?
SEN. MCCAIN: I'm sure he's very patriotic, but his relationship with Mr. Ayers is open to question...how can you countenance someone who was engaged in bombings which could have or did kill innocent people?
MR. STEPHANOPOULOS: Senator Obama says he was eight years old when that was happening.
SEN. MCCAIN: But he became friends with him and spent time with him while the guy was unrepentant over his activities...
I'd like to make some jokes here, but I don't have the heart. What a country this is.
Via today's cretinous NY Times story about Obama & William Ayers, which mentions McCain's statement while betraying no awareness of its significance. And there's more:
Steve Chapman, a columnist for The Chicago Tribune...denounced Mr. Obama for associating with Mr. Ayers...
“If you’re in public life, you ought to say, ‘I don’t want to be associated with this guy,’” Mr. Chapman said. “If John McCain had a long association with a guy who’d bombed abortion clinics, I don’t think people would say, ‘That’s ancient history.’”
Treasury To Pay Tens Of Billions To People Who Created Disaster To Manage Disaster Bailout
It will be one of the world’s largest asset management firms with an impressive $700 billion war chest...
Treasury officials do not plan to manage the mortgage assets on their own. Instead, they will outsource nearly all of the work to professionals...
The government will hire only a bare-bones internal staff of about two dozen people with expertise in asset management, accounting and legal issues, according to administration officials, and will outsource the bulk of the program to 5 to 10 asset management firms...
[W]ith $700 billion to disburse, the plan could still generate tens of billions of dollars in fees if the firms negotiate anywhere close to their standard fees.
October 03, 2008
Promise Made, Promise Kept
As President Clinton pledged, Democrats and Republicans, working together, certainly did end welfare as we know it.
NY Times Covers Net Capital Rule Change, But Misses Paulson's 2000 Lobbying
The New York Times has a long story today about the disastrous 2004 change to the SEC's "net capital rule." The rule change allowed America's five largest investment banks to greatly increase their leverage ratios, from 12-1 to as much as 40-1. All five investment banks have since either collapsed or transformed themselves into commercial banks.
The Times story mentions that "The five investment banks led the charge [to change the rule], including Goldman Sachs, which was headed by Henry M. Paulson Jr. Two years later, he left to become Treasury secretary."
[W]e and other global firms have, for many years, urged the SEC to reform its net capital rule to allow for more efficient use of capital. This is the single most important factor in driving significant parts of our business offshore, so that our firms can remain competitive with our foreign competitors risk-based capital standards must become the norm.
In the same testimony, Paulson also called on the SEC to change to more "voluntary regulation"—exactly what the SEC chair Christopher Cox now says "does not work." (No kidding.)
Here are some relevant sections from today's Times story, although it's well worth reading it all:
Many events in Washington, on Wall Street and elsewhere around the country have led to what has been called the most serious financial crisis since the 1930s. But decisions made at a brief meeting on April 28, 2004, explain why the problems could spin out of control...
On that bright spring afternoon, the five members of the Securities and Exchange Commission met in a basement hearing room to consider an urgent plea by the big investment banks.
They wanted an exemption for their brokerage units from an old regulation that limited the amount of debt they could take on. The exemption would unshackle billions of dollars held in reserve as a cushion against losses on their investments.
The five investment banks led the charge, including Goldman Sachs, which was headed by Henry M. Paulson Jr...
The decision, changing what was known as the net capital rule, was completed and published in The Federal Register a few months later.
With that, the five big independent investment firms were unleashed.
In loosening the capital rules, which are supposed to provide a buffer in turbulent times, the agency also decided to rely on the firms’ own computer models for determining the riskiness of investments, essentially outsourcing the job of monitoring risk to the banks themselves.
The Trouble With Me
I'm a terrible political blugger because I would rather rip off my own head than listen to politicians debate. In most cases I'm tormented by the lies they tell. In the rare cases I think they're telling the truth, I'm tormented by their dreadful presentation (since most politicians are terrible performers). And I'm always always tormented by the fecklessness of the journalist moderators.
So I'm turning over reaction to tonight's debate to my cousin Yael Abouhalkah of the Kansas City Star:
By a knockout, Joe Biden was the more effective, better-informed vice presidential candidate Thursday night.
Granted, Sarah Palin did not look like she was channeling a duncy Tina Fey. Palin looked far more confident than many people had expected. Her folksy approach to answering questions did get old rather quickly, though.
Overall, Biden's strengths overwhelmed Palin's.
October 02, 2008
In 2000 SEC Testimony, Paulson Recommended "Self-Regulation" For Wall Street, Plus A Rule Change Now Blamed For Collapse
Back in 2000, when Hank Paulson was CEO of Goldman Sachs, he testified in front of the Security and Exchange Commission. Among other things, he lobbied the SEC to enact a "change to self-regulation" for Wall Street. He also urged them to change the "net capital rule" which governed the amount of leverage investment banks could use. The net capital rule was indeed changed in 2004, and is now blamed for the investment banks' collapse.
The Challenge of Technology and Change to Self-Regulation in the United States
The third area for re-examination and reform is the structure of broker/dealer regulation, a function now shared by the SEC and the self regulatory organizations ("SROs"), principally the New York Stock Exchange and NASD Regulation Inc.
[W]e and other global firms have, for many years, urged the SEC to reform its net capital rule to allow for more efficient use of capital. This is the single most important factor in driving significant parts of our business offshore, so that our firms can remain competitive with our foreign competitors risk-based capital standards must become the norm. The SEC has made it clear that risk-based capital rules can be implemented only when the Commission is confident that firms employing value-at-risk models have robust credit and risk management policies in place.
For these reasons we think it is time to seriously consider the creation of a single, independent SRO to adopt, examine and enforce a core body of financial responsibility, customer protection and margin rules. We hope and expect that there would be savings generated by economies of scale.
How did Paulson's recommendation to let investment banks borrow much, much more work out?
Here's a story from two weeks ago:
The Securities and Exchange Commission can blame itself for the current crisis. That is the allegation being made by a former SEC official, Lee Pickard, who says a rule change in 2004 led to the failure of Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns, and Merrill Lynch.
The SEC allowed five firms — the three that have collapsed plus Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley — to more than double the leverage they were allowed to keep on their balance sheets and remove discounts that had been applied to the assets they had been required to keep to protect them from defaults...
The so-called net capital rule was created in 1975 to allow the SEC to oversee broker-dealers...The net capital rule also requires that broker dealers limit their debt-to-net capital ratio to 12-to-1...
In 2004, the European Union passed a rule allowing the SEC's European counterpart to manage the risk both of broker dealers and their investment banking holding companies. In response, the SEC instituted a similar, voluntary program for broker dealers with capital of at least $5 billion, enabling the agency to oversee both the broker dealers and the holding companies.
This alternative approach, which all five broker-dealers that qualified — Bear Stearns, Lehman Brothers, Merrill Lynch, Goldman Sachs, and Morgan Stanley — voluntarily joined, altered the way the SEC measured their capital. Using computerized models, the SEC, under its new Consolidated Supervised Entities program, allowed the broker dealers to increase their debt-to-net-capital ratios, sometimes, as in the case of Merrill Lynch, to as high as 40-to-1. It also removed the method for applying haircuts, relying instead on another math-based model for calculating risk that led to a much smaller discount.
Who murdered the American economy? It was the CEO, in the 13th Floor Conference Room, with the Prepared Testimony.
Bailout William Blum
William Blum, author of Killing Hope: U.S. Military and CIA Interventions Since World War II, and the only person I personally know whose writing has been recommended by Osama bin Laden, needs some website help:
AOL is closing down the website service for its members. I have to relocate my website with its numerous separate files and pages to a new host and convert the AOL HTML language, AOLPRESS, to the language of the new host. This is completely beyond my knowledge and skill. Is there an expert out there who can advise me? Some payment can be arranged.
You can email him at bblum6 [at sign] aol.
The Specter of Wall Street
Wall Street's Comeback as the Place Americans Love to Hate
By Steve Fraser
Wall Street sits at the eye of a political hurricane. Its enemies converge from every point on the compass. What a stunning turn of events.
For well more than half a century Wall Street has enjoyed a remarkable political immunity, but matters were not always like that. Now, with history marching forward in seven league boots, we are about to revisit a time when the Street functioned as the country's lightning rod, attracting its deepest animosities and most passionate desires for economic justice and democracy.
For the better part of a century, from the 1870s through the tumultuous years of the Great Depression and the New Deal, the specter of Wall Street haunted the popular political imagination. For Populists it was the "Great Satan," its stranglehold over the country's credit system being held responsible for driving the family farmer to the edge of extinction and beyond.
For legions mobilized in the anti-monopoly movement, Wall Street was the prime engine house of monopoly capitalism, leaving behind it a trail of victimized businesses, consumers, captive municipalities, and crushed workers. For Progressive reformers around the turn of the twentieth century, Wall Street's "money trust" was the mother of all trusts, its tentacles -- and the octopus was indeed a popular image of the time -- choking off economic opportunity for all but a favored few. Its political power in Congress, in presidential cabinets, in statehouses, in both major political parties was seen as so overwhelming as to threaten to suffocate democracy itself.
All the periodic panics and depressions -- 1873, 1884, 1893, 1907, and 1913 -- that, with numbing regularity, punctuated economic life until the Crash of '29 and the Great Depression brought the house down seemed to begin on the Street. And whether they actually began there or not, all the misery that followed in their wake -- the homelessness, the armies of tramps and hobos, the starvation, the bankruptcies, the broken families, the crushing sense of dispossession -- was regularly laid at the feet of the Street.
The Martin Luther King Incitement of Racial Hatred and Bigotry Act of 2008
According to the Constitution, all appropriations bills must originate in the House of Representatives. So what was Harry Reid to do, with the House out of session and faced with the need to immediately give Wall Street $700 billion?
What he did was dig up an appropriations bill that had originated in the House and then been sent over to the Senate, where it bogged down. This happened IN 2002. Moreover, the Senate version had been co-sponsored BY PAUL WELLSTONE.
Of course, Wellstone never wrote a bill bailing out Wall Street. So Reid just gutted the bill and added that part. But Wellstone's name is still on it, on page 263 (pdf). It's like the world's investment bankers dug up Wellstone so they could punch him in the face one more time.
UPDATE: See comments for why literally everything about this post is wrong.
October 01, 2008
Who You Gonna Believe: (My Father's Bizarre Neuroses, Which He Passed Onto) Me, Or Your Lyin' Eyes?
So apparently McCain was challenged yesterday by the Des Moines Register editorial board about all the lying his campaign has done. And he angrily responded:
I have always had 100 percent, absolute truth and that's been my life of putting my country first. And I'll match that record against anyone's. And I'm proud of it. And an assertion that I've ever done otherwise, I take strong exception to.
Here's how Jonathan Karp, the editor of McCain's five books, describes the origins of McCain's emphasis on honesty:
"My father was the most honest man I know," he writes in "Why Courage Matters." In "Character Is Destiny," he recalls a moment when his mother, while playing cards with his father, teasingly accused him of cheating: "He shot up from the table, in great distress, and begged her never, ever to doubt or even pretend to doubt his honesty…He simply couldn't bear the idea of being deceitful or being accused, wrongly, of deceiving anyone."
Yes...such behavior fairly screams, "This is a human being you can trust about anything."
I'm sure you'll also be shocked to hear McCain's father was an alcoholic.
MORE HONESTY FROM THE MOST HONEST MAN I KNOW: All of McCain's books are credited as "by John McCain with Mark Salter," but are actually written by Salter. According to Salter, some of the feelings he attributes to McCain are "my surmise."
It would be a better world if everyone started referring to Mark Salter as "W.W. Beauchamp."