Wednesday, September 30, 2009

The Flatster Warns That The Gap Between "You Lie" and "You Die" Is Narrowing

Yitzhak Rabin was assassinated in 1995 by an Israeli, not a Palestinian. Rabin was vilified as a Nazi by his opponents in Israel prior to his murder. Do you hear echos in the howling of the loonies today? The Flatster does and so does this blogger. If this is (fair & balanced) dread, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Where Did "We" Go?
By Thomas L. Friedman

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I hate to write about this, but I have actually been to this play before and it is really disturbing.

I was in Israel interviewing Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin just before he was assassinated in 1995. We had a beer in his office. He needed one. I remember the ugly mood in Israel then — a mood in which extreme right-wing settlers and politicians were doing all they could to delegitimize Rabin, who was committed to trading land for peace as part of the Oslo accords. They questioned his authority. They accused him of treason. They created pictures depicting him as a Nazi SS officer, and they shouted death threats at rallies. His political opponents winked at it all.

And in so doing they created a poisonous political environment that was interpreted by one right-wing Jewish settler as a license to kill Rabin — he must have heard, “God will be on your side” — and so he did.

Others have already remarked on this analogy, but I want to add my voice because the parallels to Israel then and America today turn my stomach: I have no problem with any of the substantive criticism of President Obama from the right or left. But something very dangerous is happening. Criticism from the far right has begun tipping over into delegitimation and creating the same kind of climate here that existed in Israel on the eve of the Rabin assassination.

What kind of madness is it that someone would create a poll on Facebook asking respondents, “Should Obama be killed?” The choices were: “No, Maybe, Yes, and Yes if he cuts my health care.” The Secret Service is now investigating. I hope they put the jerk in jail and throw away the key because this is exactly what was being done to Rabin.

Even if you are not worried that someone might draw from these vitriolic attacks a license to try to hurt the president, you have to be worried about what is happening to American politics more broadly.

Our leaders, even the president, can no longer utter the word “we” with a straight face. There is no more “we” in American politics at a time when “we” have these huge problems — the deficit, the recession, health care, climate change and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan — that “we” can only manage, let alone fix, if there is a collective “we” at work.

Sometimes I wonder whether George H.W. Bush, president “41,” will be remembered as our last “legitimate” president. The right impeached Bill Clinton and hounded him from Day 1 with the bogus Whitewater “scandal.” George W. Bush was elected under a cloud because of the Florida voting mess, and his critics on the left never let him forget it.

And Mr. Obama is now having his legitimacy attacked by a concerted campaign from the right fringe. They are using everything from smears that he is a closet “socialist” to calling him a “liar” in the middle of a joint session of Congress to fabricating doubts about his birth in America and whether he is even a citizen. And these attacks are not just coming from the fringe. Now they come from Lou Dobbs on CNN and from members of the House of Representatives.

Again, hack away at the man’s policies and even his character all you want. I know politics is a tough business. But if we destroy the legitimacy of another president to lead or to pull the country together for what most Americans want most right now — nation-building at home — we are in serious trouble. We can’t go 24 years without a legitimate president — not without being swamped by the problems that we will end up postponing because we can’t address them rationally.

The American political system was, as the saying goes, “designed by geniuses so it could be run by idiots.” But a cocktail of political and technological trends have converged in the last decade that are making it possible for the idiots of all political stripes to overwhelm and paralyze the genius of our system.

Those factors are: the wild excess of money in politics; the gerrymandering of political districts, making them permanently Republican or Democratic and erasing the political middle; a 24/7 cable news cycle that makes all politics a daily battle of tactics that overwhelm strategic thinking; and a blogosphere that at its best enriches our debates, adding new checks on the establishment, and at its worst coarsens our debates to a whole new level, giving a new power to anonymous slanderers to send lies around the world. Finally, on top of it all, we now have a permanent presidential campaign that encourages all partisanship, all the time among our leading politicians.

I would argue that together these changes add up to a difference of degree that is a difference in kind — a different kind of American political scene that makes me wonder whether we can seriously discuss serious issues any longer and make decisions on the basis of the national interest.

We can’t change this overnight, but what we can change, and must change, is people crossing the line between criticizing the president and tacitly encouraging the unthinkable and the unforgivable. Ω

[Thomas L. Friedman became The New York Times' foreign-affairs columnist in 1995. He won the 2002 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, his third (The earlier Prizes were awarded in 1983 and 1988.) Pulitzer for this paper. Friedman's latest book, The World is Flat: A Brief History of the 21st Century, (2005) won the inaugural Goldman Sachs/Financial Times Business Book of the Year award. Friedman received a B.A. degree in Mediterranean studies from Brandeis University in 1975. In 1978 he received a Master of Philosophy degree in Modern Middle East studies from Oxford.]

Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company

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Listen To Wobegone Boy: Pass Real Healthcare Reform Already!

On the heels of the Senate Finance Committee (with a Donkey majority) vote against the public option in the Senate version of healthcare reform, this blogger received e-mail soliciting contributions to the Donkey effort to retain control of Congress in 2010. This blogger may have been born at night, but it wasn't last night. Senator Max Baucus (D-MT) led the vote against the public option. Joan Walsh reported that:

Between 2003 and 2008, according to the Washington Post, Baucus took $3 million from the health and insurance sectors, 20 percent of his total contributions. And he collected half of that money in just the last two years, as the committee he chaired began holding hearings on healthcare reform.

And, as if things weren't bad enough, this blogger's old young friend in the Valley of the Sun sent along a link to video of his congressman, Trent Franks (R-AZ), speaking to the Dumbo faithful at the "How To Take Back American Conference." If you're not gagging after viewing Franks. check out congresswacko Michele Bachmann (R-MN) at the same gathering of drooling knuckle-draggers. The Dumbos are howlin' at the moon and frothin' at the mouth and should be put out of their misery. If this is (fair & balanced) animal control, so be it.

[x Salon]
Cut Republicans Out Of Healthcare!
By Garrison Keillor

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Every so often, sitting down to your Cheerios, you open the New York Times to the crossword puzzle and find clues such as "_ Van Winkle" and _ of 1812" and "Buried in Grant's Tomb" and you finish the thing in five minutes flat feeling brilliant and unappreciated, some sort of national treasure, and then you spend an hour searching for your glasses and car keys and that brings you down smartly to earth. For some reason, you've parked your glasses in the top drawer of the bureau next to the pewter soup spoons and the car keys in an earthenware vase atop the clavichord.

The easy crossword threw you off stride. Up here in the North we believe that adversity is a stimulus of intelligence, so we don't want our kids stuck in the slow track in school, putzing around in the shallows, trapped in boredom and lazy thinking. We want the schools to push them, make them write whole sentences and paragraphs, grapple with calculus, learn about the Renaissance, and all the more so if they're bound to become truck drivers. What is so disheartening about politics is the putzing around in the shallows. The sheer waste of time — years, decades, spent on thrilling public issues in which the unconservative right fights tooth-and-nail against the regressive left and nothing is gained. It's like a tug-of-war between two trees.

The so-called cultural wars over abortion and prayer in the schools and pornography and gays, most of it instigated by shrieking ninnies and pompous blowhards, did nothing about anything, except elect dullards to office who brought a certain nihilistic approach to governance that helped bring about the disaster in the banking industry that ate up a lot of 401Ks, and all thanks to high-fliers in shirts like cheap wallpaper who never learned enough to let it discourage them from believing that they had magical powers over the laws of economics and could hand out mortgages by the fistful to people with no assets and somehow the sun would come out tomorrow. The anti-regulation conservatives enabled those people. We're still waiting for an apology.

And now here comes the Supreme Court, about to rule in the case of a little plywood cross erected, as it turns out, on federal land in the Mojave Desert as a memorial to war dead — could there be anything less pressing right now? But we shall have great legal minds wrangling over something that doesn't make a dime's worth of difference to anybody whomsoever.

Thirty-six years of bitter battle over Roe v. Wade and what has it gotten us? If the decision were overturned tomorrow, not much would change. The question would revert to the states, and some would permit the termination of pregnancy, others wouldn't. Meanwhile, the effect of the battle has been quite other than what the Catholic Church could have wanted, the unleashing of angry demons, the poisoning of the body politic.

Conservatives and liberals can agree on the basics — that the nation wallows in debt, that it is shortsighted of the states to cut back on the most essential work of government, which is the education of the young, and that somehow we have got to become a more productive nation and less consumptive — but the ruffles and flourishes of Washington seem ever more irrelevant to the crises we face. When an entire major party has excused itself from meaningful debate and a thoughtful U.S. senator like Orrin Hatch no longer finds it important to make sense and an up-and-comer like Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty attacks the president for giving a speech telling schoolchildren to work hard in school and get good grades, one starts to wonder if the country wouldn't be better off without them and if Republicans should be cut out of the healthcare system entirely and simply provided with aspirin and hand sanitizer. Thirty-two percent of the population identifies with the GOP, and if we cut off healthcare to them, we could probably pay off the deficit in short order.

It's time to dump the dead-end issues that have wasted too much time already. Old men shouldn't be allowed to doze off at the switch and muck up the works for the young who will have to repair the damage. Get over yourselves. Your replacements have arrived, and you should think about them now and then. Enough with the shrieking. Pass healthcare reform. Ω

[Garrison Keillor is an author, storyteller, humorist, and creator of the weekly radio show "A Prairie Home Companion." The show began in 1974 as a live variety show on Minnesota Public Radio. In the 1980s "A Prairie Home Companion" became a pop culture phenomenon, with millions of Americans listening to Keillor's folksy tales of life in the fictional Midwestern town of Lake Wobegon, where (in Keillor's words) "the women are strong, the men are good looking, and all of the children are above average." Keillor ended the show in 1987, and 1989 began a similar new radio show titled "American Radio Company of the Air." In 1993 he returned the show to its original name. Keillor also created the syndicated daily radio feature "A Writer's Almanac" in 1993. He has written for The New Yorker and is the author of several books, including Happy to Be Here (1990), Leaving Home (1992), Lake Wobegon Days (1995), and Good Poems for Hard Times (2005). Keillor's most recent book is a new Lake Wobegon novel, Liberty. His radio show inspired a 2006 movie, "A Prairie Home Companion," written by and starring Keillor and directed by Robert Altman. Keillor graduated (B.A., English) from the University of Minneosta in 1966. His signature sign-off on "The Writer's Almanac" is "Be well, do good work, and keep in touch."]

Copyright © 2009 Salon Media Group, Inc

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Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Welcome To The Land O'Double Suffering & "Unbridled Rhetoric"

This blog has observed that Richard the Great (Hofstadter) wrote in "The Paranoid Style" of our politics (1964):

"We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well."

The paranoia has not quieted. Joining the Birthers Deathers and the neo-Brownshirts, we now have the Tenthers. Welcome to the mental institution formerly known as the United States of America. If this is (fair & balanced) dementia, so be it. Boo!

[x HNN}
What Did Hofstadter Really Mean By "The Paranoid Style"?
By David Greenberg

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A few years ago, in this column, I proposed a moratorium on drive-by references to historian Richard Hofstadter's classic essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Too often, pundits invoked the title of that Goldwater-era exploration of right-wing fringe politics without giving much attention to the essay's actual content, let alone the context in which Hofstadter wrote it.

Not surprisingly, my plea worked about as well as a stop sign before a runaway 18-wheeler. Lately, from the rise of Sarah Palin to the spring's "tea parties" to the "birther" frenzies and health care town halls of this summer to the Joe Wilson contretemps, allusions to Hofstadter have never seemed more widespread.

It's hard to deny that the title recommends itself. Today's ultraconservative activists exhibit many core elements of the style that Hofstadter identified: the penchant for "conspiratorial fantasy," the apocalyptic stakes imagined to be involved in policy debates, the imperviousness to rational persuasion. Nonetheless, Hofstadter's thesis ought to be used carefully and sparingly. All too often, pundits wheel out Hofstadter's intellectual authority as a substitute for fresh analysis; sometimes they appear to be endorsing a psychological diagnosis of conservative activists—a reading of Hofstadter's work that he pointedly disavowed ("I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics"), but that his choice of words inevitably, and unfortunately, encouraged.

So, if "the paranoid style" is destined to stay with us as a concept, it's worth re-examining its meaning and the context in which Hofstadter developed it.

For Hofstadter, the essay (first given as a lecture at Oxford in 1963, published in short form in Harper's in 1964, expanded for the book in 1965) represented the final statement, if not exactly the culmination, of a decade of explorations into the American far right. It was during the heyday of Sen. Joe McCarthy—who claimed that Cold War espionage "must be the product of a great conspiracy, a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man"—that a claque of intellectuals began to examine the sources and motives of these outré movements that were suddenly visible in American politics.

The thinkers who investigated the historical, psychological, and sociological roots of right-wing extremism ranged from social psychologists such as Gordon Allport to continental theorists such as Theodor Adorno to best-selling popularizers such as Eric Hoffer—many of them unsettled by the trauma of European fascism and its echoes in the McCarthy movement. (In the 1960s, with the rise of conspiratorial thinking in the New Left, many turned their attention to the paranoid style on the left as well.) A handful of these thinkers, collaborating in a Columbia University faculty seminar, wrote up their theories for a volume called The New American Right (1955), later updated as The Radical Right (1963).

Hofstadter's contribution to The New American Right was "The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," which actually makes more of an effort than does The Paranoid Style to identify the sources and hallmarks of ultraconservative thought. Like many of his colleagues in the Columbia seminar, Hofstadter had by this point long ago dropped his youthful Marxism and come to regard the economistic worldview of the previous generation's leading historians as inadequate. He and his peers sought to mine richer veins of social thought, going back to Weber and Freud, to dig deeper into motive, values, ideology, and the habits of mind of subcultures.

Hofstadter's 1954 essay introduced the concept of "status politics." It suggested that the far right's obsessions—which he judged inexplicable solely by reference to conventional material interests—were tied to a distinctly modern anxiety: "[t]he rootlessness and heterogeneity of American life," felt as the old order of the rural village collapsed. Once-dominant WASPs of native stock feared displacement by rising ethnic groups, while Irish and German Catholics embraced "hyper-patriotism," "hyper-conformism," and kindred values to strut their American bona fides. Patriotic societies, veterans' groups, and McCarthyite causes helped these groups equate their own values with American ones.

"The Pseudo-Conservative Revolt," furthermore, situated these individuals within a rapidly shifting culture. Contributing to their frightened, aggressive, and bitter disposition were, among other factors, the "the growth of the mass media of communication," the "long tenure in power" of liberals, and the feeling during the Cold War of "continued crisis" rather than the periodic involvement in world affairs that the United States had enjoyed before 1939. Although Hofstadter didn't plumb these factors in depth, and although at times he let his contempt for his subjects overwhelm his capacity to explicate their thought, he was still able to describe the impulses behind the new conservatism nonjudgmentally, as "a response, however unrealistic, to realities."

Over the next decade, Hofstadter retained his interest in ultraconservatism. As the fury of McCarthyism gave way to the more quotidian conformity of the Ike Age (and the popular rejection of the cerebral Adlai Stevenson), Hofstadter trained his focus on the historical sources of America's long-standing hostility toward the life of the mind, producing perhaps his most brilliant work, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life (1963). Just at that moment, however, right-wing extremism came roaring back. In 1964, the far right won the Republican presidential nomination for its own standard-bearer, Barry Goldwater. And the assassination of President Kennedy on a trip to seething, ultraconservative Dallas—where mobs had just verbally and physically harassed Stevenson and where a John Birch Society newspaper ad on November 22 menacingly charged the president with communistic sympathies—made the extremists appear newly dangerous.

Hofstadter hints at the influence of the assassination on his thinking in The Paranoid Style. He recounts a congressional hearing, following Kennedy's murder, on a gun-control measure that so exercised three Arizona men that they "drove 2,500 miles to Washington from Bagdad, Arizona, to testify against it … with what might be considered representative paranoid arguments, insisting that it was an 'attempt by a subversive power to make us part of one world socialistic government. ' " If nothing else, the assassination crystallized the worries about a resurgent right that led historians in the 1960s to look again at conspiracy-mindedness.

Ironically, the historical portion of Hofstadter essay, though seldom cited these days by journalists, was groundbreaking, though not very controversial. It traced the tendency in our political culture, on the left and right, to see all-powerful conspiracies devoted to subverting the American way. In contrast, the essay's latter half, a portrait of the style and practices of the contemporary far right, is what usually gets cited.

No one would deny the cogent insights of the essay. Hofstadter identifies real aspects of a familiar right-wing type, from the hyper-competence he ascribes to his conspiring enemies ("he is a perfect model of malice; a kind of amoral superman") to his taste for pseudo-pedantry ("McCarthy's 96-page pamphlet McCarthyism contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch's fantastic assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, is weighed down by a hundred pages of bibliography and notes"). And as countless admirers have noted, some of Hofstadter's language about the right of that era—from anti-fluoridation cranks to John Birch Society members—perfectly describes today's extremists. To wit: "The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialist and communist schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners but major states—men seated at the very centers of American power." Direct links between the Goldwater-era conspiracism and today's are easy to find: the right's criticisms of President Obama's health care reform, for example, carries the distinct whiff of Ronald Reagan's early-1960s alarums against "socialized medicine."

But while dead-on in many details and useful in anatomizing angry fringe groups, Hofstadter's essay evaded the hardest questions. He never explained what moved particular people or subcultures to embrace the paranoid style. He's probably correct that "the paranoid disposition is mobilized into action chiefly by social conflicts that involve ultimate schemes of values and that bring fundamental fears and hatreds, rather than negotiable interests, into political action"—in essence, status politics again—but he was frustratingly silent about who, precisely, is drawn to the Manichaeism he described.

Moreover, at a time when a magazine called Fact used a (methodologically bogus) survey of American Psychiatric Association members to conclude during the 1964 campaign season that Goldwater was clinically paranoid, Hofstadter's psychological metaphor sounded like elite condescension—an impression of Hofstadter's work that has endured among not just the conservatives he studied but also his own academic heirs. Indeed, for all the continual journalistic hosannas to the relevance of The Paranoid Style, professional historians have grown increasingly confirmed of late that Hofstadter, Bell, and company got conservatism wrong. For about 15 years now, ever since Ronald Reagan's ascent became grist for the historian's mill, there has been a "cottage industry" of dissertations and books seeking to understand how a fringe conservatism—famously dismissed by Hofstadter's Columbia colleague Lionel Trilling as "irritable mental gestures that seek to resemble ideas"—went mainstream and gained power. These new studies of postwar conservatism often begin with a ritual denunciation of Hofstadter and his contemporaries. They deem the Columbians to be patronizing toward their subjects, too dismissive of the grass-roots right's actual ideas, and above all too keen to place quasi-psychological neuroses, whether "status anxiety" or a nonclinical "paranoia" (whatever Hofstadter meant by that) at the center of their analyses. They fashion the right's midcentury critics as hopelessly elite liberals, peering down their noses at the Southern and Western riffraff mindlessly rallying behind screwball ideas, demagogic leaders, or ethnic hatreds.

It's true that Hofstadter often failed to grant the legitimacy of certain conservative principles that were at least defensible. What's more, his Olympian tone, despite his leavening wit, could come across as supercilious. Yet as easy as it is for today's historians to deride Hofstadter's condescension—and to take pride in feeling superior to him in the process—these historians themselves fall into an identical dilemma, without resolving it any more satisfactorily than Hofstadter did. The dilemma is how you understand an extremist movement with analytic detachment without legitimizing what are often deeply misguided (and sometimes despicable) beliefs. How do you offer a sympathetic account of paleo-conservatives like Phyllis Schlafly without glossing over their anti-Semitism—or explain the Klan without explaining its racism away?

The problem is compounded by writing about current politics: When Hofstadter examined the distant past—the paranoid style in the anti-Masonic movement of the 19th century, for example—he didn't worry that he might be seen as insufficiently judgmental toward a dim historical curiosity. But in the wake of the Kennedy assassination, even the most dispassionate historian would be hard pressed to muffle every note of contempt, anger, or even crankiness of his own.

This is, I think, the main problem with using Hofstadter and The Paranoid Style to understand the birthers and town hall screamers and Glenn Beck acolytes of today. It's difficult enough to write about McCarthyites and Goldwaterites with the proper proportions of imaginative sympathy and moral judgment. But when we're caught in the throes of our own contentious moment, it hardly seems possible to separate the political need to fight irrationalism and zealotry from the psycho-sociological project of distilling the motives of extremists. It's natural, even necessary, to try to make sense of a movement that appears—to many of us, at any rate—delusional. But the most that history, or historians, can do is what Hofstadter did in the first half of the "Paranoid Style": point to the many antecedents of today's right-wing fantasies and, by putting them in historical context, making them more comprehensible and perhaps less fearsome.

Those who talk about being frightened today or act as if Obama is the first president to suffer the slings of what Franklin Roosevelt called "nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror" would do well to note that on the back cover of my 1996 reissue of The Paranoid Style in American Politics and Other Essays is a quote from Hofstadter's sole equal among his generation of political historians, Arthur Schlesinger:

Recent months have witnessed an attack of unprecedented passion and ferocity against the national government.… Unbridled rhetoric is having consequences far beyond anything that antigovernment politicians intend. The flow of angry words seems to have activated and in a sense legitimized what the historian Richard Hofstadter called the "paranoid strain" in American politics.
—Schlesinger published his comment in the Wall Street Journal on June 7, 1995.

The "paranoid" style did not return suddenly this summer. On the contrary, Hofstadter was surely correct when he wrote that while "it comes in waves of different intensity, it appears to be all but ineradicable." Ω

[David Greenberg, historian, teacher, and writer on political and cultural affairs, is associate professor of Journalism and Media Studies and History at Rutgers University, New Brunswick. His first book, Nixon’s Shadow: The History of an Image (2003) won the Washington Monthly Annual Political Book Award, the American Journalism History Award and Columbia University’s Bancroft Dissertation Award. He is currently at work on a biography of Calvin Coolidge for the American Presidents Series. Greenberg has written for numerous scholarly and popular publications, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Atlantic Monthly, The New Yorker, Foreign Affairs, The Journal of American History, Reviews in American History, and Daedalus. He is a regular contributor to the online magazine Slate, where he writes the "History Lesson" column and other occasional reviews and essays. Before pursuing his PhD, he served as Acting Editor and Managing Editor of The New Republic magazine and, early in his career, as the assistant to author Bob Woodward, on The Agenda: Inside the Clinton White House (1994). Greenberg holds a BA in History from Yale University (Phi Beta Kappa, summa cum laude, 1990) and a PhD in History from Columbia University (2001).]

Copyright © 2009 History News Network

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Nazi Schmazi

In 1965, the great Tom Lehrer sang in "Wehrner Von Braun,"

Gather round while I sing you of Wernher von Braun
A man whose allegiance is ruled by expedience
Call him a Nazi, he won't even frown
"Ha, Nazi schmazi," says Wernher von Braun

Now, in 2009, the Brownshirts have resurfaced in the Land O'The Free and The Home O'The Brave. Those striving to be the Oberster SA-Führer of the Brownshirts are The BFI, BillO The Clown, Glen Dreck, Sean Handjob, Orly Lack Of Taste, and the grassroots organizers of the Tea-Baggers, Birthers, Deathers, and other assorted Dumbasses. If this is (fair & balanced) hatred of homegrown Brownshirts, so be it.

[x Salon]
This Modern World — "Language Is A Virus"
By Tom Tomorrow (Dan Perkins)

Click on image to enlarge. Ω

Tom Tomorrow/Dan Perkins

[Dan Perkins is an editorial cartoonist better known by the pen name "Tom Tomorrow". His weekly comic strip, "This Modern World," which comments on current events from a strong liberal perspective, appears regularly in approximately 150 papers across the U.S., as well as on Salon and Working for Change. The strip debuted in 1990 in SF Weekly.

Perkins, a long time resident of Brooklyn, New York, currently lives in Connecticut. He received the Robert F. Kennedy Award for Excellence in Journalism in both 1998 and 2002.

When he is not working on projects related to his comic strip, Perkins writes a daily political weblog, also entitled "This Modern World," which he began in December 2001.]

Copyright © 2009 Salon Media Group, Inc.

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Monday, September 28, 2009

"The Erie Canal Song" Brings Back Memories

Back in the dawn of time when schooling occurred in caves, this blogger received music instruction from Miss Whitney. This poor woman — faced with an elementary school class sans musical ability — always gave us the chance to choose one song to sing since we mangled all of her selections despite her efforts to get us to sing with some semblance of melody. Inevitably, we cried out: "The Erie Canal Song"! It was an "action song" and we leaped out of our chairs at "Low bridge, everybody down...." Miss Whitney stood behind an upright piano that was a barrier between her and the class of hooligans with a frozen smile on her face during the chaos of falling chairs. If this is (fair & balanced) nostalgia for the Erie Canal, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
A Hundred Miles on the Erie Canal
By Rachel Dickinson

Every time I steered my boat past a stone bridge abutment, I’d begin to whisper-sing, “Low bridge, everybody down / Low bridge, for we’re coming to a town.” Certainly that irrepressible song is what comes to most people’s minds when they hear mention of this historic waterway, even if they’ve never “navigated on the Erie Canal.” As a native upstate New Yorker, I had decided it was time to broaden my canal repertoire, and get on the water.

My boat, hired for a week, was steel, sleek, and low-slung, and painted maroon with yellow and green trim and a knotty-pine interior. Mid-Lakes Navigation built these self-skippered canal boats to be both rugged and comfortable. With a full galley, a head with a shower, beds for six, and bicycles for trips ashore, the Cayuga became my home as I explored the central part of the Erie Canal and its connecting waterways—which bisect New York through the backsides of towns like Palmyra, Newark, Lyons, Clyde, Seneca Falls, and Waterloo.

SLIDESHOW: A photo tour of the Erie Canal, narrated by the author

It’s hard to fathom the impact the Erie Canal had on the growth of our newly minted democracy. The canal, which some might call America’s first economic stimulus package, was the brainchild of Jesse Hawley, a failed businessman who wrote—from debtors prison—anonymous articles envisioning a canal that would connect the Hudson River to Lake Erie, linking the port of New York with the West and turning wilderness into wealth. His ideas finally found an ally in the prominent New Yorker, and future governor, DeWitt Clinton.

Construction began in 1817 and took eight years, thousands of workers, and $7.1 million to complete. Solving engineering problems required sheer genius, and involved draining swamps, constructing aqueducts, making cement that hardened underwater, clearing forests, and building the massive locks. When finished, “Clinton’s Ditch” covered 363 miles, was about 40 feet wide and four feet deep, and rose 573 feet through a series of 83 locks. When the waterway opened, in 1825, it unlocked the floodgates to western settlement. Even though within decades it would be eclipsed by the railway, the Erie Canal was an important—and cheap—mode of transporting goods across the state for more than a century.

The canal has been enlarged several times, and today looks like a languid river. In many places it runs parallel to or completely obscures the original canal, which had towpaths on either side so mules could pull barges through the murky water. Every so often I’d spy what looked like Roman ruins made of limestone block—a bit of the old canal.

Cutting through farm fields, forests, and the outskirts of towns, the canal is used mainly by recreational boaters and state barges, and fishermen. People fish from chairs bolted to flat-bottomed bass boats, and from rickety wooden docks jutting into the water. At every opening in the lush vegetation along the shore, chairs face the water: plastic chairs, wooden chairs, Adirondack chairs, lounge chairs, kitchen chairs, and overturned buckets.

As the Cayuga sliced through the green water, spotted sandpipers ran along the stony banks. Great blue herons stood on snags and docks and took off with slow flaps when I came too close. Families of Canada geese—mother and father on either end with goslings in between—made forays into the canal. Red-tailed hawks, ospreys, and turkey vultures flew overhead. Belted kingfishers hunted from branches hanging over the water. In one four-mile stretch along Montezuma—a malarial swamp during the canal’s construction and now a national wildlife refuge—eight bald eagles, including one adult and two young birds in a nest atop a high-tension pole, considered my passing. Toward dusk, metallic-blue barn swallows with orange bellies swooped and dived in front of the boat, hunting for insects.

The Cayuga's top cruising speed is 5.6 mph, not much more than the canal’s original speed limit of 4 mph. Each lock—and there were often several in a day’s journey—could take up to 40 minutes to navigate. Upon approach, I would radio the lockmaster and let him know whether I needed east- or westbound passage. Then I would control the Cayuga while the water rushed in or out through valves in the lock’s floor.

When given the green light, I would pull the boat into the lock, place her along the cement sidewall (a feat with a boat that acts like a bath toy because it has no keel), and grab hold of a weighted line that ran down the side of the lock—slick with ooze from the canal water and sometimes covered with zebra mussels, the scourge of the Great Lakes. Huge metal gates would slowly shut behind me, and the lock would either fill or empty. The Cayuga might rise only six feet or, in the case of the double lock at Seneca Falls, the height of a five-story building.

Herman Melville once wrote:

Advance into knowledge is just like advance upon the Grand Erie canal, where, from the character of the country, change of level is inevitable; you are locked up and locked down with perpetual inconsistencies, and yet all the time you get on.

One day, as I stood at the tiller and motored toward the town of Newark, a line of angry thunderstorms raced toward me. I had three locks to go for the day. After the first, the lockmaster called ahead and had the next two get ready for me. At the last one I yelled up to the lockmaster and asked about the state of travel and traffic on the canal this year. “Judging from all the boats for sale on the side of the road, I think it’s going to be a bad one,” he said. Then he pointed to the Cayuga and shouted over the wind, “I sure hope Mid-Lakes Navigation makes it. I’d hate to see these canal boats go.”

I pulled up to the wall in Newark and threw the stern line to a man who happened to be standing there, willing to help, just as big splats of rain hit my boat. I made the Cayuga snug, then hunkered down in my knotty-pine bunk. The rain pelted the steel roof and I wondered about the future of the grand canal, which has so far managed to weather almost 200 years of periodic economic storms. Ω

[Rachel Dickinson is a freelance writer. She graduated from Kirkland College, now absorbed by Hamilton College, with a B.S. in geology. Dickinson also pursued graduate work in American History at the University of Delaware. Her first book, Falconer On The Edge: A Man, His Birds, And The Vanishing Landscape Of The American West appeared in 2009.]

Copyright © 2009 The Atlantic Monthly Group

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Sunday, September 27, 2009

The Butcher On Broadway Says That If You Liked "MIss Saigon," Wait Until You See "Miss Kabul"

Wow. Y2K came and went and nothing happened. The last domino in South Vietnam fell in Saigon in 1975 and the sun rose the next day and the beat went on. With regard to Aghanistan in 2009, the Abraham Maslow's adage comes to mind: "To the man who only has a hammer, everything he encounters begins to look like a nail." The U.S. military in Afghanistan is a hammer sent in search of nailing Osama bin Laden after 9/11. Enough! Out Now! The mobs of protesters chanting, "Hey, Hey Obama! Why Did You Kill Kareem's Mama?" History doesn't repeat itself. It's the fools at the helm who want to do the same thing over and over again and expect different results. If this is (fair & balanced) insanity, so be it.

[x NY Fishwrap]
Obama At The Precipice
By Frank Rich

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The most intriguing, and possibly most fateful, news of last week could not be found in the health care horse-trading in Congress, or in the international zoo at the United Nations, or in the Iran slapdown in Pittsburgh. It was an item tucked into a blog at George Stephanopoulos reported that the new “must-read book” for President Obama’s war team is Lessons in Disaster by Gordon M. Goldstein, a foreign-policy scholar who had collaborated with McGeorge Bundy, the Kennedy-Johnson national security adviser, on writing a Robert McNamara-style mea culpa about his role as an architect of the Vietnam War.

Bundy left his memoir unfinished at his death in 1996. Goldstein’s book, drawn from Bundy’s ruminations and deep new research, is full of fresh information on how the best and the brightest led America into the fiasco. Lessons in Disaster caused only a modest stir when published in November, but The Times Book Review cheered it as “an extraordinary cautionary tale for all Americans.” The reviewer was, of all people, the diplomat Richard Holbrooke, whose career began in Vietnam and who would later be charged with the Afghanistan-Pakistan crisis by the new Obama administration.

Holbrooke’s verdict on Lessons in Disaster was not only correct but more prescient than even he could have imagined. This book’s intimate account of White House decision-making is almost literally being replayed in Washington (with Holbrooke himself as a principal actor) as the new president sets a course for the war in Afghanistan. The time for all Americans to catch up with this extraordinary cautionary tale is now.

Analogies between Vietnam and Afghanistan are the rage these days. Some are wrong, inexact or speculative. We don’t know whether Afghanistan would be a quagmire, let alone that it could remotely bulk up to the war in Vietnam, which, at its peak, involved 535,000 American troops. But what happened after L.B.J. Americanized the war in 1965 is Vietnam’s apocalyptic climax. What’s most relevant to our moment is the war’s and Goldstein’s first chapter, set in 1961. That’s where we see the hawkish young President Kennedy wrestling with Vietnam during his first months in office.

The remarkable parallels to 2009 became clear last week, when the Obama administration’s internal conflicts about Afghanistan spilled onto the front page. On Monday The Washington Post published Bob Woodward’s account of a confidential assessment by the top United States and NATO commander in Afghanistan, Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal, warning that there could be “mission failure” if more troops aren’t added in the next 12 months. In Wednesday’s Times White House officials implicitly pushed back against the leak of McChrystal’s report by saying that the president is “exploring alternatives to a major troop increase in Afghanistan.”

As Goldstein said to me last week, it’s “eerie” how closely even these political maneuvers track those of a half-century ago, when J.F.K. was weighing whether to send combat troops to Vietnam. Military leaders lobbied for their new mission by planting leaks in the press. Kennedy fired back by authorizing his own leaks, which, like Obama’s, indicated his reservations about whether American combat forces could turn a counterinsurgency strategy into a winnable war.

Within Kennedy’s administration, most supported the Joint Chiefs’ repeated call for combat troops, including the secretaries of defense (McNamara) and state (Dean Rusk) and General Maxwell Taylor, the president’s special military adviser. The highest-ranking dissenter was George Ball, the undersecretary of state. Mindful of the French folly in Vietnam, he predicted that “within five years we’ll have 300,000 men in the paddies and jungles and never find them again.” In the current administration’s internal Afghanistan debate, Goldstein observes, Joe Biden uncannily echoes Ball’s dissenting role.

Though Kennedy was outnumbered in his own White House — and though he had once called Vietnam “the cornerstone of the free world in Southeast Asia” — he ultimately refused to authorize combat troops. He instead limited America’s military role to advisory missions. That policy, set in November 1961, would only be reversed, to tragic ends, after his death. As Bundy wrote in a memo that year, the new president had learned the hard way, from the Bay of Pigs disaster in April, that he “must second-guess even military plans.” Or, as Goldstein crystallizes the overall lesson of J.F.K.’s lonely call on Vietnam strategy: “Counselors advise but presidents decide.”

Obama finds himself at that same lonely decision point now. Though he came to the presidency declaring Afghanistan a “war of necessity,” circumstances have since changed. While the Taliban thrives there, Al Qaeda’s ground zero is next-door in nuclear-armed Pakistan. Last month’s blatantly corrupt, and arguably stolen, Afghanistan election ended any pretense that Hamid Karzai is a credible counter to the Taliban or a legitimate partner for America in a counterinsurgency project of enormous risk and cost. Indeed, Karzai, whose brother is a reputed narcotics trafficker, is a double for Ngo Dinh Diem, the corrupt South Vietnamese president whose brother also presided over a vast, government-sanctioned criminal enterprise in the early 1960s. And unlike Kennedy, whose C.I.A. helped take out the Diem brothers, Obama doesn’t have a coup in his toolbox.

Goldstein points out there are other indisputable then-and-now analogies as well. Much as Vietnam could not be secured over the centuries by China, France, Japan or the United States, so Afghanistan has been a notorious graveyard for the ambitions of Alexander the Great, the British and the Soviets. “Some states in world politics are simply not susceptible to intervention by the great powers,” Goldstein told me. He also notes that the insurgencies in Afghanistan and Vietnam share the same geographical advantage. As the porous border of neighboring North Vietnam provided sanctuary and facilitated support to our enemy then, so Pakistan serves our enemy today.

Most worrisome, in Goldstein’s view, is the notion that a recycling of America’s failed “clear and hold” strategy in Vietnam could work in Afghanistan. How can American forces protect the population, let alone help build a functioning nation, in a tribal narco-state consisting of some 40,000 mostly rural villages over an area larger than California and New York combined?

Even if we routed the Taliban in another decade or two, after countless casualties and billions of dollars, how would that stop Al Qaeda from coalescing in Somalia or some other criminal host state? How would a Taliban-free Afghanistan stop a jihadist trained in Pakistan’s Qaeda camps from mounting a terrorist plot in Denver and Queens?

Already hawks are arguing that any deviation from McChrystal’s combat-troop requests is tantamount to surrender and “immediate withdrawal.” But that all-in or all-out argument, a fixture of the Iraq debate, is just as false a choice here. Obama is not contemplating either surrender to terrorists or withdrawal from Afghanistan. One prime alternative is the counterterrorism plan championed by Biden. As The Times reported, it would scale back American forces in Afghanistan to “focus more on rooting out Al Qaeda there and in Pakistan.”

Obama’s decision, whichever it is, will demand all the wisdom and political courage he can muster. If he adds combat troops, he’ll be extending a deteriorating eight-year-long war without a majority of his country or his own party behind him. He’ll have to explain why more American lives should be yoked to the Karzai “government.” He’ll have to be honest in estimating the cost. (The Iraq war, which the Bush administration priced at $50 to $60 billion, is at roughly $1 trillion and counting.) He will have to finally ask recession-battered Americans what his predecessor never did: How much — and what — are you willing to sacrifice in blood and treasure for the mission?

If Obama instead decides to embrace some variation on the Biden option, he’ll have a different challenge. He’ll face even more violent attacks than he did this summer. When George Will wrote a recent column titled “Time to Get Out of Afghanistan,” he was accused of “urging retreat and accepting defeat” (by William Kristol) and of “waving the bloody shirt” (by Fred Kagan, an official adviser to McChrystal who, incredibly enough, freelances as a blogger at National Review). The editorial page at Will’s home paper, The Washington Post, declared that deviating from McChrystal’s demand for more troops “would both dishonor and endanger this country.” If a conservative columnist can provoke neocon invective this hysterical, just imagine what will be hurled at Obama.

But the author of Lessons in Disaster does not believe that a change in course in Afghanistan would be a disaster for Obama’s young presidency. “His greatest qualities as president,” Goldstein says, “are his quality of mind and his quality of judgment — his dispassionate ability to analyze a situation. If he was able to do that here, he might more than survive a short-term hit from the military and right-wing pundits. He would establish his credibility as a president who will override his advisers when a strategy doesn’t make sense.”

Either way, it’s up to the president to decide what he thinks is right for the country’s security, the politics be damned. That he has temporarily pressed the pause button to think it through while others, including some of his own generals, try to lock him in is not a sign of indecisiveness but of confidence and strength. It is, perhaps, Obama’s most significant down payment yet on being, in the most patriotic sense, Kennedyesque. Ω

[Frank Rich is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times who writes a weekly 1500-word essay on the intersection of culture and news. Rich has been at the paper since 1980. His columns and articles for the Week in Review, the Arts & Leisure section and the Magazine draw from his background as a theater critic (known as "The Butcher On Broadway") and observer of art, entertainment and politics. Before joining The Times, Rich was a film critic at Time magazine, the New York Post, and New Times magazine. He was a founding editor of the Richmond (Va.) Mercury, a weekly newspaper, in the early 1970s. Rich is the author of a childhood memoir, Ghost Light (2000), a collection of drama reviews, Hot Seat: Theater Criticism for The New York Times, 1980-1993 (1998), and The Theatre Art of Boris Aronson (with Lisa Aronson, 1987). Rich is a graduate of the Washington, DC public schools. He earned a BA degree in American History and Literature from Harvard College in 1971.]

Copyright © 2009 The New York Times Company

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Saturday, September 26, 2009

Get Off Our Backs!

Bill The Butcher (not to be confused with the NYTimes' Butcher On Broadway — Frank Rich) went all out in his show-ending rant ("New Rules") on last night's "Real Time With Bill Maher" on HBO. Bill The Butcher blogs for The Greek (Ariana Stassinopoulos Huffington) on The Huffington Post and his blog entries usually consist of his capstone rant from that week's show. Bill The Butcher preached a sermon on public apathy/lethargy/self-indulgence in The Land O'The Free and The Home O'The Brave. Nothing is free and no one is brave; we are slouching towards... Bethlehem or Gomorrah: pick your poison. If this is a (fair & balanced) jeremiad, so be it.

[x HuffPost]
New Rule: If America Can't Get it Together, We Lose The Bald Eagle
By Bill Maher

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[x YouTube/TechnologyJules Channel]
Puppy: I've fallen and I can't get up!

New Rule: If America can't get its act together, it must lose the bald eagle as our symbol and replace it with the YouTube video of the puppy that can't get up. As long as we're pathetic, we might as well act like it's cute. I don't care about the president's birth certificate, I do want to know what happened to "Yes we can." Can we get out of Iraq? No. Afghanistan? No. Fix health care? No. Close Gitmo? No. Cap-and-trade carbon emissions? No. The Obamas have been in Washington for ten months and it seems like the only thing they've gotten is a dog.

Well, I hate to be a nudge [nudjh = nag], but why has America become a nation that can't make anything bad end, like wars, farm subsidies, our oil addiction, the drug war, useless weapons programs - oh, and there's still 60,000 troops in Germany - and can't make anything good start, like health care reform, immigration reform, rebuilding infrastructure. Even when we address something, the plan can never start until years down the road. Congress's climate change bill mandates a 17% cut in greenhouse gas emissions... by 2020! Fellas, slow down, where's the fire? Oh yeah, it's where I live, engulfing the entire western part of the United States!

We might pass new mileage standards, but even if we do, they wouldn't start until 2016. In that year, our cars of the future will glide along at a breathtaking 35 miles-per-gallon. My goodness, is that even humanly possible? Cars that get 35 miles-per-gallon in just six years? Get your head out of the clouds, you socialist dreamer! "What do we want!? A small improvement! When do we want it!? 2016!"

When it's something for us personally, like a laxative, it has to start working now. My TV remote has a button on it now called "On Demand". You get your ass on my TV screen right now, Jon Cryer, and make me laugh. Now! But when it's something for the survival of the species as a whole, we phase that in slowly.

Folks, we don't need more efficient cars. We need something to replace cars. That's what's wrong with these piddly, too-little-too-late half-measures that pass for "reform" these days. They're not reform, they're just putting off actually solving anything to a later day, when we might by some miracle have, a) leaders with balls, and b) a general populace who can think again. Barack Obama has said, "If we were starting from scratch, then a single-payer system would probably make sense." So let's start from scratch.

Even if they pass the shitty Max Baucus health care bill, it doesn't kick in for 4 years, during which time 175,000 people will die because they're not covered, and about three million will go bankrupt from hospital bills. We have a pretty good idea of the Republican plan for the next three years: Don't let Obama do anything. What kills me is that that's the Democrats' plan, too.

We weren't always like this. Inert. In 1965, Lyndon Johnson signed Medicare into law and 11 months later seniors were receiving benefits. During World War II, virtually overnight FDR had auto companies making tanks and planes only. In one eight year period, America went from JFK's ridiculous dream of landing a man on the moon, to actually landing a man on the moon.

This generation has had eight years to build something at Ground Zero. An office building, a museum, an outlet mall, I don't care anymore. I'm tempted to say that, symbolically, all America can do lately is keep digging a hole, but Ground Zero doesn't represent a hole. It is a hole. America: Home of the Freedom Pit. Ironically, it's spitting distance from Wall Street, where they knock down buildings a different way - through foreclosure.

That's the ultimate sign of our lethargy: millions thrown out of their homes, tossed out of work, lost their life savings, retirements postponed - and they just take it. 30% interest on credit cards? It's a good thing the Supreme Court legalized sodomy a few years ago.

Why can't we get off our back? Is it something in the food? Actually, yes. I found out something interesting researching last week's editorial on how we should be taxing the unhealthy things Americans put into their bodies, like sodas and junk foods and gerbils. Did you know that we eat the same high-fat, high-carb, sugar-laden shit that's served in prisons and in religious cults to keep the subjects in a zombie-like state of lethargic compliance? Why haven't Americans arisen en masse to demand a strong public option? Because "The Bachelor" is on. We're tired and our brain stems hurt from washing down French fries with McDonald's orange drink.

The research is in: high-fat diets makes you lazy and stupid. Rats on an American diet weren't motivated to navigate their maze and once in the maze they made more mistakes. And, instead of exercising on their wheel, they just used it to hang clothes on. Of course we can't ban assault rifles - we're the first generation too lazy to make its own coffee. We're the generation that invented the soft chocolate chip cookie: like a cookie, only not so exhausting to chew. I ask you, if the food we're eating in America isn't making us stupid, how come the people in Carl's Jr. ads never think to put a napkin over their pants? Ω

[William (Bill) Maher, Jr., is a comedian, actor, writer, and producer. He hosted the late-night television talk show "Politically Incorrect" on Comedy Central and ABC, and is currently the star of "Real Time with Bill Maher" on HBO. Maher received his Bachelor of Arts in English from Cornell University in 1978.]

Copyright © 2009, Inc.

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