December 31, 2012

Coralie and Me

By: Aaron Datesman

I suffered some losses in 2012. The one I feel most keenly was my grandmother Miriam Urffer (née Miller), who passed away in June of this year. She's the second from the right in the picture below, taken with her family when she was about sixteen. Miriam, born in 1922, was the last of my grandparents to pass away.

Coralie and Me Fig1.jpg

Shortly after this picture was taken in 1938 or 1939, my great-grandmother perished in a house fire. According to the story as I understand it, she rushed into the burning house to save a rocking chair, was overcome, and died in agony with Miriam nearby. I was well into adulthood before it ever occurred to me to wonder how my grandmother's life might have unfolded absent this tragedy.

Miriam lived, I think, an average sadness.* When this picture was taken, she was probably already working as a seamstress in an underwear factory in Coopersburg, PA. (None of my grandparents graduated from high school; I think only my father's father, Ralph Datesman, remained in school past the eighth grade. His first job was working in a silk mill.) She smoked until quitting for good around 1980, was a member of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union, and voted only twice in her life.

FDR got Miriam's vote in '44 - the first presidential election in which she could vote - because the union boss demanded it. Obama got her vote in 2008 because my mother and I demanded it. It pleased me that the woman who referred to African-Americans as "schvartze" (Pennsylvania Dutch and Yiddish coinciding in this case) in my presence pulled the lever for one later on.

I was, again, quite far into adulthood before I understood why she and her husband slept in separate beds in separate rooms. Probably I was always too young to determine whether she was bitter or simply resigned. She didn't drive, didn't work outside the home within my memory (I was born in 1971), and was totally dependent upon her husband and children. She did not enjoy a life with much independence or personal agency, nor any wealth.

But she was not plunged into more dire poverty when her husband predeceased her, and was able to enjoy a greater degree of dignity than I expected in the last years of her life. Social Security was entirely and solely responsible for this. The last years of Miriam's life would have been spent in true misery without it.**

And for that blessing, credit is mostly due to this tenacious and remarkable woman: Frances Coralie Perkins, FDR's Secretary of Labor and principal architect of the New Deal.

Coralie and Me Fig2.jpg

Without irony or reservation, I believe there should be a monument to Frances Perkins on the National Mall, as well as a federal holiday. Without much more than simple conviction, Perkins managed to turn the levers of power in the United States rather permanently toward compassion. The efforts intensifying today aimed at unwinding her accomplishments, including the singular achievement of Social Security, often drive me to the brink of despair.

On the other hand, in 2012 I also enjoyed a few sweet victories. The federal government (without even asking!) nicely sent me a card to celebrate the best of these. It's pretty good as an antidote to despair:

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This is my daughter, Magnolia Coralie Thomas. She was born on May 19, 2012, after nearly 40 hours of labor. Although I fully intend to have all three of these things some day, for the moment she's better than a monument and a federal holiday all rolled together.

Coralie and Me Fig4.jpg

Thank you, Frances Perkins. I hope a few more people will learn about you in 2013.

— Aaron Datesman

* "An Average Sadness" is the title of the final essay in a collection edited by Paul Auster, called True Tales of American Life. I find the expression useful and think about it often. These are the final two sentences of the essay, which I love: "Sometimes it is good fortune to be abandoned. While we are looking after our losses, our selves may slip back inside."

** I could tell a similar story, harder and nearly as sad, for my father's mother, Violet Datesman (née Kooker). For instance, there's a family story about how she got caught stealing potatoes from a neighbor's farm so her younger brothers and sisters would have something to eat. This is so foreign from my experience that it might as well be a story from another planet. Violet's husband Ralph Datesman died young, in 1977, after which Social Security became her principal means of support.

Posted at 09:27 PM | Comments (22)

December 27, 2012

Fred Burton: WikiLeaks-Hater and Dangerously Weird Person

Last February WikiLeaks began releasing a large collection of emails from Stratfor, a self-described "global intelligence company." The most important thing you learn from the emails is that the higher-ups at Stratfor are total bozos who sagely exchange completely wrong information with each other. If I were one of their big corporate clients I'd ask for all my money back.

It's also notable how much everyone at Stratfor, especially Fred Burton, their Vice President of Intelligence and a former member of the State Department’s Diplomatic Security Service, LOATHES WikiLeaks and Julian Assange. According to Burton, Assange "needs to be water boarded" and "is going to make a nice bride in prison. Screw the terrorist. He'll be eating cat food forever, unless George Soros hires him." To make this happen, Burton writes, the U.S. should "Take down the money. Go after his infrastructure. The tools we are using to nail and de-construct Wiki are the same tools used to dismantle and track aQ. Thank Cheney & 43. Big Brother owns his liberal terrorist arse."

It's bracing to see how nutty people like Burton, who once had real responsibilities in the U.S. government, can be. But actually no leaked emails were needed to learn this about him; all you had to do is read his book Chasing Shadows: A Special Agent's Lifelong Hunt to Bring a Cold War Assassin to Justice.

I picked up Chasing Shadows because it's about a murder that took place on July 1st, 1973 in the Bethesda, Maryland neighborhood where I grew up. (My parents bought their house two days earlier, that June 28th.) Yosef Alon, an Israeli military attaché, was shot in the driveway of his home after coming back with his wife from a party, and, while everyone assumed his killers were Palestinian, they were never found and the case was closed in 1976.

Burton was then sixteen and also lived near Alon's Bethesda house, and became obsessed with finding his killer. It's really worth reading his explanation of why:

That July morning became a turning point in my own life. It was the first time violence had intruded on the one place I felt most safe: home. I had a dim understanding that, outside Bethesda’s city limits, the world was on fire. Here in the quiet, leafy suburbs, however, we were supposed to be immune to such things. We were not, and it was a tough lesson to absorb at sixteen. The sense of vulnerability I felt at the time was one of the reasons I chose a career in law enforcement…

Why had I been so consumed by this case? Was it for Joe? He was a man who served his nation at a pivotal time in its history, only to die on the battlefield of terror. For years I had told myself I was doing it for him…

But that still did not explain the years I had spent trying to solve this crime. For that, I had to turn inward and look inside my own heart. When I was sixteen years old, a man was brutally murdered in my quiet world. All my life I had known nothing but the safety of my community and the security of my parents’ home and love. When I came downstairs and saw the headline that summer morning, something changed forever inside me. Violence had reached deep within the town I had known and claimed a schoolmate’s father.

Joe’s death had sent me in a search to reclaim that sense of safety, and my life became one devoted to protecting others. In the process, my narrow and naive worldview was shattered by the realities of hijackings, car bombings, murders, assassinations, and torture. In my years overseas and serving with the Diplomatic Security Service, I saw things average Americans would struggle to comprehend. I witnessed the low regard for human life common in many parts of the world. Over time, I came to realize that the violence that invaded my quiet suburban neighborhood in 1973 was not an aberration at all; the aberration was my community, my state, and my country. We were, and are, the last oasis in a world consumed by violence and human depravity. And for most of my adult life, I stood on the ramparts between the two. I was not just solving Joe’s murder. I was solving the riddle of my own life’s path. The choices I made, the career I chose, and the way I governed myself all were influenced by that July day in 1973.

It's hard to say whether this is more hilarious than terrifying, or more terrifying than hilarious. I'm going to call it a tie. I've mapped a short car trip below that will help you understand Fred's quiet, leafy suburb that until that dark day in 1973 was immune to violence and human depravity.

(BLUE) This is the location of the gas station that was then owned by Burton's father. I've been there many times myself.

(RED) Yosef Alon's 1973 home.

(GREEN) The 1973 home of Ted Shackley, then-head of the Western Hemisphere Division in the CIA's Directorate of Operations. Shackley was deeply involved in the U.S. attempts to overthrow Chilean president Salvador Allende, which came to fruition on September 11, 1973, about ten weeks after Yosef Alon was killed. About 3,000 Chileans were murdered by the new government, and ten times that many were arrested and tortured. Before his accomplishments in Chile, Shackley had been the CIA's station chief in Vietnam.

(YELLOW) The 1973 headquarters of the U.S. Defense Mapping Agency, where my father then worked. The Defense Mapping Agency helped produce maps for the 1965-1973 U.S. bombing of Cambodia, which reached its peak in 1973 just before and after Yosef Alon's murder. The U.S. dropped about 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, more than the 2 million tons dropped everywhere during World War II by the Allies. No one knows how many hundreds of thousands of Cambodians were killed, because who cares, but the bombing helped generate support for the Khmer Rouge, which went on to kill even more Cambodians.

I could add hundreds more little pins to this Bethesda map if I had time. And WikiLeaks exists to add even more, there and elsewhere. That's why Fred Burton calls them "terrorists"; he's terrified of reality and hates anyone who tries to get him to look at it.

View Fred Burton, Dangerous Weirdo in a larger map

P.S. You can donate to WikiLeaks via the Freedom of the Press Foundation here.

—Jon Schwarz

Posted at 08:35 AM | Comments (41)

December 18, 2012

How to Know and Not Know Stuff, by Sen. Marco Rubio

You may remember that for Marco Rubio last month, there was just no way for mere humans like us to figure out the age of the earth:

GQ: How old do you think the Earth is?

Marco Rubio: I'm not a scientist, man...I don't think I'm qualified to answer a question like that. At the end of the day, I think there are multiple theories out there...I'm not sure we'll ever be able to answer that. It's one of the great mysteries.

But today there is something he is qualified to talk about and does know for sure:

[Marco Rubio's] response to Plan B [John Boehner's planned bill to allow pre-Bush tax rates to return for people making over $1 million] underscored how unlikely it was to become law. "I continue to know that raising taxes on anybody is not a good way to generate economic growth," said the Florida Republican.

This is the way cults "know" stuff. There's total certainly about imaginary things they want to believe (slightly raising taxes on millionaires will hurt economic growth, Saddam has WMD!!!). Any "evidence," they can find, no matter how shoddy, proves that they're right.

Then if one of their treasured beliefs is shown to be catastrophically wrong, suddenly there's just no way to answer this confusing question (we may never know how old the earth is, what happened to Saddam's WMD is an unsolvable mystery).

Of course, all groups of people operate like this to some degree, but it's usually not this bad, and most groups of people don't have access to nuclear weapons.

—Jon Schwarz

Posted at 10:35 PM | Comments (34)

December 15, 2012


This seems appropriate right about now. It's from the book Who Will Tell the People: The Betrayal of American Democracy by William Greider, which came out in 1992 and has been prescient in just about every way possible:

The usual story of great powers is that sooner or later, when the glory faded, they sank into social decay and bitterness. That is the usual ending for a political system that persistently ignores reality, and for a people who became alienated from their own values…

The present generation and the next, in other words, must find tangible way to reinvigorate the social faith in the promise of democracy. The nation's sense of its own continuing search for something better is endangered and, without that civic faith, this nation is in deep trouble. If democratic character is lost, America has the potential to deteriorate into a rather brutish place, ruled by naked power and random social aggression.

—Jon Schwarz

Posted at 04:14 PM | Comments (44)

December 10, 2012

It's Wrong to Pre-Judge, But on the Other Hand, Zero Dark Thirty Sure Looks Like Total Garbage

I hate to be the kind of person who criticizes a movie without actually seeing it. But apparently I am that kind of person, so I'm going to go with it.

Lots of people, including Glenn Greenwald, are grossed out by Zero Dark Thirty's apparent insinuation that torture was necessary to locate bin Laden. But however that's presented in the movie, I'm even more irritated by this scene, which is the only clip I can find online:

KYLE CHANDLER: Someone just tried to blow up Times Square and you're talking about some facilitator who some detainee seven years ago said MIGHT have been working with al Qaeda?

JESSICA CHASTAIN: He's the key to bin Laden!

CHANDLER: I don't care about bin Laden! You're going to start working on the American al Qaeda cells. Protect the homeland.

CHASTAIN: Bin Laden is the one who keeps telling them to attack the homeland! If it wasn't for him, al Qaeda would still be focused on overseas targets. If you really want to protect the homeland, you need to get bin Laden!

CHANDLER: This guy never met bin Laden!

CHASTAIN: You just want me to nail some low level mullah-cracka-dollah [?] so you can check that box on your resume that says that while you were in Pakistan, you got a "real terrorist." BUT THE TRUTH IS, YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND PAKISTAN, AND YOU DON'T KNOW AL QAEDA! Either give me the team I need to follow this lead, or the other thing you're going to have on your resume is going to be being the first station chief to be called before a congressional committee for subverting the efforts to capture or kill bin Laden!

Maybe the rest of the movie is a sophisticated critique of the worldview of these two characters, especially that of the lead played by Chastain. But in general, giant Hollywood movies aren't sophisticated critiques of their heroes, so I'm guessing that's not what's going on here.

Here's what's wrong with this scene:

Islamist terrorists who attack the U.S. aren't all robots programmed by Osama bin Laden. This isn't Lord of the Rings, and killing bin Laden was never going to be like destroying Sauron, after which all his orcs run away and never bother you again.

There's no question that bin Laden was one of the biggest advocates of attacking "the far enemy," as opposed to U.S. client states in the mideast. But most of the people who've planned attacks against the U.S. had their own agendas, and — both before and after 9/11, including after bin Laden's death — have been perfectly capable of coming up with the concept without him "telling them to attack the homeland."

According to The Black Banners by Ali H. Soufan, Ramsi Yousef, the mastermind of the 1993 World Trade Center bombing, "operated independently [in Afghanistan] and had no desire to be under bin Laden's command." The Far Enemy by Fawaz Gerges says Yousef was a "freelance independent jihadi." Moreover, bin Laden claimed in 1998 that he'd never even met Yousef. Maybe bin Laden was lying; Yousef apparently did get bomb training at a proto-al Qaeda training camp, and there's also no question that bin Laden and Yousef were part of the same networks, which also included Jersey City's famous blind shiekh Omar Abdul Rahman. But there's also no evidence I've ever seen that bin Laden told Yousef to attack the U.S. or could have stopped him if he'd wanted.

The same description in both The Black Banners and The Far Enemy applies to Yousef's uncle, Khalid Sheik Mohammed – and he's the guy who came up with the idea for the 9/11 attacks, not bin Laden. KSM came to bin Laden with the idea because al Qaeda had the money and personnel to execute it.

Then there's Faisal Shahzad, the person who "just tried to blow up Times Square." (The reference to him means this fictionalized scene is supposed to be taking place in May, 2010, just after Shahzad unsuccessfully tried to detonate a car bomb at West 45th and Broadway.)

Shahzad thought bin Laden was totally awesome, and called him the "Saladin of the 21st century crusade." But bin Laden had no connection to the botched attack, and he actually criticized Shahzad when he heard about it. And as with Yousef and KSM, there's no reason to think Shahzad wouldn't have been motivated to attack the U.S. all on his own.

And so sooner or later, Chastain's character is going to look like a gigantic idiot, after another successful terror attack in the U.S. demonstrates that we don't need bin Laden to make people want to kill us. That's because the underlying motivation of terrorists like Yousef, KSM and Shahzad – U.S. foreign policy – hasn't changed.

Also irksome is Chastain's all-caps declaration that "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND PAKISTAN, AND YOU DON'T KNOW AL QAEDA!" In fact, her character clearly herself does not understand Pakistan. Shahzad is a child of the Pakistani elite, and he conceives of himself as an Islamic and Pakistani patriot. His father was an Air Vice Marshal in the Pakistani military, and dealt with the security at Pakistan's main nuclear weapons facility. When the children of your nuclear-armed ally's high-ranking military officers want to murder you, you have bigger problems than some old guy jerking off in Abbottabad.

And that's the worst thing about this scene: maybe the character played by Kyle Chandler is right.

If you're an American and care whether you live or die, your first choice should be to change our foreign policy. But short of that, you should seriously consider whether trying to catch people actually in the United States is a better use of scarce resources than flying heavily armed troops into Pakistan without telling Pakistan about it and then blowing stuff up.

That's because Pakistanis are the same as everyone everywhere on earth: they don't like it when foreigners show up uninvited and start killing people. So now we've generated "seething anger" toward the U.S. among junior officers in the Pakistani military and questions to senior officials about why Pakistan will not "retaliate." Even before the bin Laden raid, according to a high-up Pakistani officer who was concerned by it, "deep in their hearts ... [some of the] troops have sympathies for AQ/Taliban who, in their perception are fighting a holy war against non-Muslims ... These feelings have obviously ... penetrated the rank and file of the Army."

However, even for the few U.S. policymakers intelligent enough to be concerned by this, it would have been essentially impossible to say no to the bin Laden raid. Why? Because people like Chastain's character would scream at you "YOU DON'T UNDERSTAND PAKISTAN AND YOU DON'T KNOW AL QAEDA" while knowing little about them themselves, and then threaten to get you investigated by Congress if you resisted. That dynamic is one of the reasons the U.S. engages in so much violence around the world: if you're a politician, wise restraint will often cause you to lose power, all because of people like the heroine of Zero Dark Thirty.

I sure hope I'm right about the movie and didn't write all this for nothing.

(Also, I really hope they don't talk about "the homeland" for real in the echoing corridors of the CIA.)

– Jon Schwarz

Posted at 09:33 PM | Comments (26)

December 04, 2012

Are You a Crazy Billionaire? Antonio Villaraigosa Would Love to Hear More of Your Fascinating Ideas!

Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa (and chairman of the 2012 Democratic National Convention) has just joined the Steering Committee of Fix the Debt.

Fix the Debt is the latest Wall Street/Corporate America front group for their decades-long campaign to slash Social Security and Medicare. As always, it's not that they want to kill America's most popular social programs; it's just that if we don't the United States is going to run out of money in the next three minutes and explode in flame. (This might remind you of how in 2003 we had to invade Iraq in the next three minutes or Saddam was going to eat all your children. It's the same guys – they really only have one game plan.)

Anyway, because Wall Street and Corporate America fund both parties, Fix the Debt is "bipartisan," and it's no surprise to see Villaraigosa snuggling up to them. All you really need to know about him can be found in this long article:

One night last May, some twenty financiers and politicians met for dinner in the Tuscany private dining room at the Bellagio hotel in Las Vegas...The richest man in the room was Leon Cooperman, a Bronx-born, sixty-nine-year-old billionaire...he has gained notice beyond Wall Street over the past year for his outspoken criticism of President Obama. Cooperman formalized his critique in a letter to the President late last year which was widely circulated in the business community; in an interview and in a speech, he has gone so far as to draw a parallel between Obama’s election and the rise of the Third Reich…

The star guest at the dinner was Al Gore, who was flanked by Antonio Villaraigosa.

…[hedge-fund manager Anthony] Scaramucci, the organizer of the dinner, told me the next day that the guests had witnessed the “activation” of a “sleeper cell” of hedge-fund managers against Obama. “That’s what you see happening in the hedge-fund community, because they now have the power, because of Citizens United, to aggregate capital into political-action committees and to influence the debate,” he said…“If there’s a pope of this movement, it’s Lee Cooperman.”…

Cooperman had come to the dinner to give Gore a copy of the letter he’d written to President Obama. “I’d like you to read this,” he told the former Vice-President….

Al Gore was diplomatic when presented with the letter...but others in the room were enthusiastic. Villaraigosa gave Cooperman his direct phone number.

So if you're Villaraigosa and anxious to get input from billionaires who believe Obama's 2008 election was similar to Hitler's rise to power, it's no surprise you're also willing to shill for Fix the Debt. Their ideas on Medicare, as crazy and disgusting as they are, are actually a step up sanity-wise.

—Jon Schwarz

Posted at 08:51 PM | Comments (23)