Friday, August 31, 2007

Let me get this out there . . . I do not support bathroom sex in any form. I could not possibly endorse something so unhygienic. I have a hard enough time opening a bathroom door without using a paper towel as a buffer so that my freshly washed hands don’t get soiled. I simply can’t fathom sensual fondling in some place so horribly unsanitary as an airport bathroom.

Oh yeah, and there’s that whole public thing too. Why individuals want to subject the public to the awkwardly squeamish, decidedly jerky, and completely unpleasant sight of middle-aged lovemaking is completely beyond me. We all deserve better than seeing Larry Craig’s face peering in through the crack of our bathroom stall, his hand motioning under the stall, soliciting us for sex. Leave us alone Larry Craig; we just want to poop in peace.

People hate hypocrisy. Unfortunately most politicians are hypocritical – this is the dilemma of politics. Republicans, I think, more than Democrats. Because we are the party of tradition, we have locked ourselves into all kinds of stupid beliefs in terms of public morality. If we weren’t the “values party”, then Larry Craig probably would have been able to go home after being arrested, have a weird conversation with his wife (as if she didn’t know), and then probably keep his seat in Congress, maybe with a few additional smirks from the press gallery.

That is if he wasn’t a big fat hypocrite. I will pose the question from inside the Republican Party: What exactly is wrong with electing a gay Republican senator?

Larry Craig’s alleged sexual preference is taboo in the “values party” because our party is dominated by bigoted notions (and, well, bigoted people), who dehumanize homosexuals for reasons of fundamentalist religiosity, profound ignorance disguised as tradition, or maybe, just good old fashioned prejudice.

I’ll pose the question again: What is wrong with electing a gay Republican? A person’s sexual preference has little to do with their moral development and you can be just as adamant about “family values” and be gay. There is nothing excluding a gay Republican from public office except for the fact that the Republican Party doesn’t like homosexuals.

I believe in calling things what they are; if you are advocating a position that I consider to be questionable morally, it is my right to challenge that position. From my experience in dealing with the Republican Party faithful, I have seen very blatant bigotry toward gay people. You can tell by the way that your average Republican committeewoman says the word homosexual – like it is taboo – her face tense and tight, like she’s trying to work out an unpleasant popcorn kernel from her teeth. The majority of GOP faithful talk about gay people like they aren’t people at all. They hide behind values as a way to ignore gay people – to passively disenfranchise them from society by wishing that they would just keep to themselves.

Stupidity, to me, is the conscious decision by a person to remain intentionally ignorant because it is easier to hate what you do not know or understand, to be paralyzed by it, than it is to admit that you might be wrong. The GOP’s bigotry toward an entire demographic is based upon fear and upon constructions of morality that reinforce stereotypes of a cruel cultural past.

Unfortunately, it took a stupid senator’s solicitation of public sex to show how stupid the GOP is. Larry Craig’s Party is abandoning him not just because he solicited sex in a public place – lots of Pols have done that – but because he wanted to “do it” with a man. Though I don’t like lewdness of any orientation, I have no moral issue with homosexuality. I am not threatened or intimidated by any sex, whether gay or straight. My position in my party is in the decided minority.

By condemning gay sex so blatantly, by being so repulsed by it, the GOP is sending a message of intolerance hiding behind rather stupid “values”. They are also telling moderate and liberal Republicans, those who like me believe in equal treatment for people of all sexual orientations, that in moral terms, we don’t measure up. They are condemning not only homosexuals, but also, those of us who believe in that very American value, equality.

Wednesday, August 22, 2007

It would be a severe misstep for the County Council to implement a drink tax in Allegheny County. Though we have heard from tavern owners in opposition to the tax, we haven’t heard from a lot of tavern patrons. Eventually this tax will trickle down to middle and working class people who like to go out for a drink.

Americans are notorious for our strange relationship with alcohol. Religiosity has something to do with it – after all taxes on alcohol and cigarettes are commonly called “sin taxes” – but it’s about time that we grew up as a nation. Anyone who’s been to the Plymouth Colony in Massachusetts can tell you that the Puritans, our original cultural policemen, drank beer in quantities we would now view as decidedly immoderate.

A tax on drink hurts taverns and their patrons. Which demographic of patron will be hurt the most? The working class – any additional tax on alcohol distributes the burden of collective revenue unfairly on those who have the least amount of money to pay for those taxes. For the tax on cigarettes this is understandable; we have long known that cigarettes kill and it is in the public interest to decrease the number of cigarette smokers.

Alcohol is a different substance and one that, unlike cigarettes, is determined by the individual’s relationship with it. There are significant health risks in drinking immoderately. There are also public risks. Drunk driving should be penalized, perhaps, even more heavily than it is now and particularly for repeat offenders.

However unlike cigarettes, where exposure increases one’s chances of getting cancer exponentially, the moderate use of alcohol has been shown to be, well, somewhat healthy. It’s not as healthy as going for a jog but there is nothing wrong with a glass of wine a few times a week. The majority of drinkers are moderate in their consumption but we make laws that seek to passively impose an abstentious morality on people that don’t want it.

A good, reasonably priced drink, is one of those quiet luxuries that crosses class divides: an investment banker and a welder can both share an affinity for Belgium beer and afford to do so. A strapped for cash graduate student and a successful lawyer can both order the same glass of Pinot Grigio at an Italian restaurant in Oakland and be, at least in terms of food and drink, equal patrons.

Any ten percent drink tax won’t break the bank of most people, but it may make them think twice about going out for a drink. On a $4 glass of beer, a ten percent tax would increase that drink to $4.40. If a person drinks four of those beers a week at a local bar (certainly not an immoderate amount), that is an increase from $16 a week to $17.60. In a year that’s the difference between spending $832 dollars on weekly drink compared to $915.

To a person who is making eighty thousand dollars a year, the $83 difference isn’t that much. To a person who makes twenty thousand dollars a year it is. Critics would say that if a person is one a shoestring budget then they shouldn’t be out at a bar drinking. To say this is not to understand the social motivations for doing so. Meeting friends for a drink is one of the cheapest ways to socialize in the evening, particularly those strapped for cash and for young people. It is far cheaper to have a drink than to see a movie – it is cheaper to have a drink than to go to a play or museum – in some places, it is cheaper than a latte.

For all the lip service by public officials in Pittsburgh about economic development and especially the declining number of young people, it is amazing that the County Council would consider a tax that would hurt businesses and disproportionably hurt young drinkers and the working class. A sin tax on drink, whether used on transportation or whatever, does exactly that. It’s a backward step from a region that, frankly, can’t afford any more backward steps being made by their government.

Tuesday, August 21, 2007

This weekend 5 GI’s (Buddhika Jayamaha, Wesley Smith, Jeremy Roebuck, Omar Mora, Edward Sandmeier, Yance Gray, and Jeremy Murphy) authored a column in the New York Times entitled The War as We Saw It. This article has been attracting controversy: From Hardball to O’Reilly, people are fired up that a group of active duty NCO’s published an article on the state of the ground war in Iraq. Though I can understand the certainly cringe-worthy issue of front line soldiers venting their frustration to major news sources, I am glad that in this case, they did.

It is considered a faux pas for soldiers to offer political insight. This hasn’t always been the case. We like to think of our soldiers as dutiful enforcers of political might. However, soldiers are just as prone to opinions as the rest of us and they are, in fact. a reflection of our democratic society. Moreover, who better to offer insight into our situation in Iraq than people who are actually on patrol putting their lives at risk. For all the tough talk by politicians about what we should or shouldn’t do, for all of the lip service paid by men in suits toward men in uniform, we get skittish when men in uniform speak their mind.

Who else should we be talking to? The best of embedded reporters in Iraq are still one degree of separation away from having to shoot someone; we should be getting our news, in part, from soldiers in the field instead of through the filter of reporters and editors, or worse, from ex-soldiers who now have an axe to grind. Active duty men walk a fine line when speaking their mind.

The issue this week us whether these five men are showing disloyalty by writing a frank but very balanced article. I was actually surprised by the tone - there was nothing disloyal about what these soldiers said. There was certainly nothing “unpatriotic” as subjective as that term may be. In this article there was little that we don’t already know or haven’t suspected for a long time. It is, however, the first published account of its type in a major news source (a liberal one too) and this is challenging a convention.

However, this convention is one that has been frequently challenged. Soldiers have historically vented their opinions to Congressman and Senators on national television in committee hearings on everything from strategy to body armor. They are encouraged by Congress to do so. Soldiers occasionally publish stories, poems, or even their own opinion pieces, often in magazines and on websites associated with the military. Uniformed officers publish scholarly articles for the Army War College and teach “mistakes”, often contemporary blunders, at the Service Academies. It is a falsehood that active duty military leaders need to be silent – in fact it is a detriment to the service if they don’t share their opinions.

It is only when you have something published in an outside newspaper or magazine that the disloyalty hawks and the Chain of Command fascists come out questioning your patriotism. Will this letter hurt morale? I can’t answer this question but it is hard to imagine that a well-reasoned article on the difficulties of fighting an insurgency in Iraq is more detrimental to morale than the actual fighting of the insurgency, which has to be a rather tough thing on morale itself. I anything, I would think a letter from the grunt’s perspective would be a welcome thing for soldiers in the field – their voices and frustrations are being heard over the usual political static and military jargon of the General Staff.

It is cheap and easy to question one’s patriotism or loyalty. It’s far easier to do that than to accept that some of the things in this article are probably true.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

Of Politics and Youth

It’s an old cliché that those who are liberal in youth become conservative with age. In my case I have become more tolerant, lenient, even some would say, more liberal in the ten years since my nineteenth birthday. Hopefully I can make a turn right soon; no one wants wake up at forty realizing that they are living in an organic farming commune in Vermont. I suppose that there are worse things in life than folk singing and groovy drum circles – though this image has long been my vision of purgatory. I believe firmly that though political beliefs can change it is a far tougher for people themselves to change. In my case they go hand in hand.

I went a little (or a lot) to the left in recent years. It was a big leap to go from that sweater-vest wearing, national review reading, insufferably pretentious teenager I was ten long years ago. As a young man I beat a few brows, always favored the sucker punch in debate, and was as complete a party man as my penny loafers would indicate. Being the resident little old man with a teenager’s complexion and the brooding sense of self-importance of a middle-aged man was extremely difficult work for a high school kid.

On the outside, I am sure a lot hasn’t changed. Internally, I feel like my eighteen-year-old self is a curious relic, someone to smirk at in a bemused way, not sure if I am embarrassed of immensely proud. It was so easy then to be absolutely sure in absolutes – I thought I knew who I was at eighteen more than I certainly do now. The gradually process of adulthood has brought more insecurity, doubt, and fear (not in the physical sense), and these things have challenged and molded me into someone different. Now my life is an altered version of that former self. I think I am stronger, certainly more aware, and far less ambitious and self-absorbed (at times this is subject to debate).

I am positive that education had something to do with this. Education can easily change your opinions, but I think it rarely changes who you are internally. For that you need a personal crisis. When your very emotional being, your soul, is challenged to the edge of civility, that’s when you realize the stuff you’re made of. I don’t think I felt grown up until very recently when I looked around and saw so much that didn’t really matter but knew exactly, for the first time in my life, what things really did.

The point in all of this was that when I was a younger man, I believed in political parties and issue politics. Now I don’t. A recent New York Times/CBS poll of the political trends in young people showed that only twenty-five percent of those ages 17-29 identified themselves as Republicans. By the time they’re forty I think these numbers will even out a little. When I was at the lower end of this demographic (now I’m at the very top!), I identified myself as a big R Republican. Now, I don’t agree with most of the party platform. I can say this now without any guilt or sense of disloyalty. My party and I are in a separation period – some day we might file the papers but not just today.

Though I know it is wickedly condescending to say, I actually feel sorry for red meat voters. These are the people who drink the cool-aid of party ideology and don’t realize that the entire game of national politics is one designed to manipulate their passions. I think this is why elected officials feed off the young – why they recruit idealists to work for them and then destroy their humanity sometimes through corruption, but more often, through simple apathy. When you see the wheels of government spinning in the mud of ego and petty corruptions, working hard but hardly making any difference, it’s easy to lose your faith in a system, especially one run by so many loud, boorish, and unimpressive people. Not to mention stupid - I have always been amazed how people confuse a base level of manipulative ability with genius or cunning - especially in politics.

My political evolution, I think, has mirrored an internal personal change, as it was apt to do. I am still embarrassed to some degree by reminders of my nineteen-year-old self. When I am around my parents, who don’t believe in personal change, or when I meet someone, a long lost acquaintance, one who knew me then but has no interest in getting to know me now, this feeling is more acute. They usually say something like “you just haven’t changed at all.” I just smirk. It’s a lot easier, and more polite, so do so than to tell someone how wrong they really are.

Friday, August 17, 2007

I was, perhaps, a bit mean in my entry yesterday. It not mean then certainly unfair. All politicians are slaves to their own sense of ambition; why should the young Mayor of Pittsburgh be any different?

I spent three very long years working in local politics in Pittsburgh. I try to say little of that experience because it is so varied and so complex in my memory that I feel I would do a great injustice to write about these experiences in any type of direct memoir. I am often told at dinner parties, or when out for drinks, that I have a hundred great stories from my short experience being a legislative briefcase boy and constituent caseworker. Perhaps this is true, but not unique. All former staffers with a decent long-term memory can frame their experiences into stories; we all have them and share them with each other. People in other professions do the same thing.

I learned enough in those three short, yet very long years in terms of my human development, that there are many types of people attracted to political work. Among the young people who go into the field (I am intentionally excluding older, more seasoned veterans who have their own hierarchies and motivations) are principally two kinds of people.

On one side, are the youthful idealists who eventually, after a rotten stint or two of staffing, will go on to better careers in the law or in “real” government, working for an agency, or maybe, a non-profit. Maybe they will become teachers or reporters. Their future is open once the scales are lifted from their jaded eyes and they look around with a sigh and say, “I simply can’t do this anymore.” These people are diligent community workers; they are the kind of people that legitimately try to help constituents because they have that sense of idealism pressing upon their shoulders, whispering daily into their ears, that they are making a difference. Even if they aren’t.

These folks and very different from those who work in, what I will call for convenience, the more political side. These people are motivated by ideology, ego, or just basic competitiveness. They love politics because it provides a psychological gratification. Some are romantics – they love the idea of living in the real life West Wing while working out of some grubby campaign office in a suburban strip mall. Some are power-hungry – they seek to crush the opposition because they like the power involved with crushing and conniving. Some are ideologues – they legitimately drink the party cool-aid and are crusading for moral or social causes. They are tough people; they are hacks.

Both of these types have been with us since Rome. Brutus was an idealist and Cassius was a hack – it’s the simple nature of our political human development that we can so easily fall into these categorizations. Jack Burden, the self-conscious narrator of Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, is the classic man in the middle of these two worlds, a tough place to be, and the reason Burden was burdened with alcoholic self-loathing throughout the book.

Although the Mayor is an elected official and not a staffer, his age and accidental authority, not to mention his behavior, is more staffer-esque than that of a chief executive. I have read some interviews with Mayor Ravenstahl and I have followed his antics and scandals casually over this last year. His behavior isn’t consistent with that of the idealist; it is, instead, consistent with the behavior of the campaign hacks I knew in my short-lived days writing briefing memos and fetching coffee. The love of perks, the celebrity stalking, the parties and photo ops, the complete lack of policy, and the focus on ego over substance all are demonstrative of a man who’s political motivation is personal ambition – not of community service. It’s easy to say you’re interested in these things; those who legitimately are, though, are consumed with it. Fixing problems is their motivation for going into the office every day.

With Ravenstahl, you don’t get the impression he’s burning the midnight oil studying policy. Surely, you don’t need to be a policy wonk to be a great leader. But you need to show that you at least care. Unfortunately, the Mayor hasn’t shown anything but an affinity for empty phrases and tired initiatives. Both are the mark of that dubious label – political hack.

Thursday, August 16, 2007

As I have been sitting at home watching my face become infected from a root canal operation gone bad, I have been looking for breezy reading material. Because of the painkillers, I can’t handle anything heavy, so I looked to my trusty subscription of Esquire Magazine to provide the necessary blend of fluff, humor, and advice. This is a shame, of course, for I have many books that need my attention and all of them deserve the priority more than narcotics.

I always like reading Esquire because its nice to see pictures of beautiful clothes on people who can afford them. Its like staring at a beautiful painting and knowing that no image in your own life will ever be seen in such a beautiful way as it has been depicted by that artist. Much the same I think, though superficially, with fine clothing.

Though not a model and certainly not decked out in finery, I was surprised to see Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl, one of 28 Mayors profiled in their photo spread on mayoral fashion. Was he a debutante? Did he look sartorially superior to his fellow mayors? The answer, unfortunately, is no. He looked like an insurance agent from Penn Hills: completely average and a little bit smarmy in a dark coat, bad tie, cheesy smile and car dealership haircut. He looked like someone who was a fluke, which I suppose, is fitting. The only thing remotely remarkable about him was his hair gel, which he uses liberally, though this is no indication of his politics. No, you need to think about things to have opinions and nobody checked for thought when he became mayor of the fastest dying City in America. People in Pittsburgh are impressed easily; they often confuse confidence and ambition for competence and experience. Hair gel boy is a case in point.

Did he offer wisdom for the magazine to show that he is a much older soul than his haircut would denote? Here’s his quote:

“I don't have the political relationships yet, so I think that's an advantage. But because things move so quickly, I haven't had the chance to sit down and digest it. To this day, quite honestly, it hasn't hit me -- the opportunity I have."

Of course, nobody really buys this bit of nonsense. If anyone has been subject to that age-old cliché of good intentions gone bad by party machine, it is this poor shlub of a mayor. He only makes the headlines now for doing something embarrassing, like kissing up to sports heroes, or blowing off his official duties to party with second and third rate celebrities, which I guess is fitting, because Pittsburgh is a second or third rate town. He obviously has digested the fact that he’s mayor because he’s been running around telling everyone who would listen for over a year as the City suffers further humiliation at the hands of his blatant incompetence.

The part about not having political relationships is another old lie. He is completely dependant upon the old guard Yinzer democrats that have aided in his wrecking the ship of state upon the rocks of irrelevancy. What about jobs, economic development, healthcare, jobs, infrastructure, taxes, jobs, urban blight, poverty, conservation and JOBS, Mr. Ravenstahl? I guess these things can take a second stage to whether or not the Steelers are going to have a winning season this year.

Hey, at least it’s an election year.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

I watched the AFL CIO Democratic debate this week. I have been avoiding the debates because I have developed a no-tolerance policy toward blowbagship. Of course, my no-tolerance policy was certainly tested by the Democratic candidates, particularly Chris Dodd, who likes to position himself as an “expert” on foreign policy. The problem is that for all his expertise, he has the know-it-all demeanor of an aging columnist for a second rate publication, thereby marginalizing anything of sense he might say. Then again, the odds of finding sense at the Democratic debates are about the same as trying to finding a virgin in a whorehouse.

None of the candidates were striking. None were worth the hype they have received in recent weeks. All their answers were disappointing. It was like their campaigns sat around a blackboard sketching out their responses to hypotheticals. On the top of the board are headings like Health Care, Economy, Defense – general issues that real people give a crap about. The hacks then decide what to write under each heading – they say them out loud - then they tweak their answers to make them catchier. It is an exercise in finding a creative way to say the obvious to people to stupid to know any better.

This is the state of modern political rhetoric. I suppose this was the state of ancient rhetoric as well. Mark Anthony, not to be confused with Marc though both handsome, was known by his peeps in ancient Rome for his ability to speak with passion and vigor and to persuade the mob of his day by the emotion of his addresses, instead of by the substance of his message. The modern politician does the same thing; they focus on making the highlight reel on shows like Hardball rather than actually persuading anybody of anything. It’s a sad state of affairs when the most persuasive thing about MSNBC’s prime time politics are the bowel softeners being hawked during the commercial breaks. What is even sadder is that the public buys this stuff wholesale (not the bowel softeners – the politics of stupidity being hawked by the candidates). The collective attention span of John Q. Public is now about the same as that of a puppy. I know . . . it’s not our fault, we all got ADD from TV and video games.

Obama was a big let down at the Labor debate. He couldn’t put together an articulate thought to save his life – his soundbites were muddled compared to the soundbite attacks on his foreign policy misstatements by his neighbors. Joe Biden made sense on Iraq, but he’s got no chance of being elected, so he can afford to be honest with people. Clinton continues to amaze me. She talked down NAFTA even though her husband, sorry co-Presidential contender Bill, has been NAFTA’s loudest spokesman since the law took effect under his presidency. Senator Clinton continues to pander on the war, saying nothing but still sounding tough, and if I have to hear another three point plan, I might move to Siberia for the rest of this campaign. Wouldn’t four points be better than three? Surely four or five points are better researched, deeper, more developed than a measly three points.

The Republicans are no better so please don’t accuse me of partisanship. The best thing about the Republican debates seems to be Ron Paul. Enough said. Republicans don’t even have three-point plans – plans are un-American – they just say “terror” and “values” and hope the formula works with only a two-part strategy to win over the NASCAR voter.

We hear from politicians all the time that the people are cynical. They say this like they have nothing to do with it.

Tuesday, August 07, 2007

Arlen Comes to Town

When Senator Arlen Specter walked into Mara Auditorium at Gettysburg College yesterday morning, an elderly woman behind me said, “he looks frail.” We should take this more as an observation on how people become more critical with age than an accurate depiction of the senator. Though his legs were carrying slightly slower now than when I saw him last, he proved in this town meeting that his mind is anything but frail

And besides, the squash playing cancer survivor deserves a little more respect than the pallid criticisms of a judgmental collection of geriatrics bent on grandstanding.

Arlen Specter is one of the most interesting people in national politics. He is also one of the most demanding; if you go to any staffer happy hour in DC, Pittsburgh or Philadelphia when his junior staff is imbibing, you will hear of the horrors of Snarlin’ Arlen. He is the kind of boss that one thinks of surviving and not of working for. That being said, he is a truly independent voice in a political system that frequently punishes people for unique thought.

Unfortunately, the town meeting is a public demonstration of the complete idiocy of the masses. Specter does these town meetings with frequency and I am sure at each one of them, he has to answer to the same imbecilic questions from people on the barely functional cusp of rationality, people like those in the audience at the Gettysburg event. If ever there was a demonstration of the Churchillian mantra that “the greatest argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter,” it is the town meeting.

Specter, a man short on temper but tall on self-esteem, bears these things well. When a man, one who could only be described as a lunatic, asked Arlen whether he believed that the United States Government was responsible for 9-11, the senator answered with a dismissive “no”, a shake of the head, and the eternal line of “you are entitled to your opinion”, a line that coming from him means that his opinion sucks.

Specter characterizes his recent pit-bull-esque attacks on Alberto Gonzales, “a one man crusade to oust the Attorney General,” a line that was greeted with bipartisan claps. When one questioner, a rather rude man who heckled his fellow questioners for long-windedness only to ask a seemingly long-winded question himself, asked the Senator when he would change parties and become a Democrat, Specter said that he felt “very comfortable” being a Republican.

His explanation of that comfort was a comfort to me. It sums up a probable reason why I have remained in a party that’s platform I find more contentious and moronic, every day. Explaining his position within the party, the senator said that by remaining a republican he assures that his voice can be heard because he is not lock step with the party platform. If he were a Democrat, he would not enjoy the same unique position. He is able to be a contrarian, a lone voice of objection in a party suffering a public identity crisis, and one of moderation. There is much to admire here since it is easy to give up and switch your party – it’s another thing to try to change it.

When the senator detailed his position on the issues, it became apparent that Arlen Specter isn’t a bad Republican; he’s just an archaic one. He believes in the line item veto, the balanced budget amendment, small and cautious reform rather than large and risky public programs, and a strong defense. He is an Eisenhower republican who never got the message in the 90’s that the party was changing. Socially, he is liberal; economically he is sensible. He is an optimist and a compromiser.

People hate him for these traits but I find them endearing and sensible. You could tell at the town meeting that Arlen Specter didn’t make anyone want to grab a sign and follow him outside on some public crusade, but you did get the feeling that people had a begrudging amount of respect for him. The public at large likes to vote for the dynamic firebrand, people like Rick Santorum, who eventually burn out and disappoint. It’s a lot harder to get really excited about a guy who has spent the last twenty years hoping for a chance to revisit the balance budget amendment.

This is why Specter is good for my state. It is also why he is underappreciated.

Saturday, August 04, 2007

Senator Hillary Clinton has repeatedly promised that of the Congress doesn’t end the Iraq war by next year, then as president, she will. Who’s being naïve now?

Surely, you can end a war by admitting defeat and withdrawing your forces. You can as long as your opponent is a conventional one. However, in unconventional conflict, like the Iraq War, withdrawal doesn’t end the war, but instead it changes the landscape of the conflict.

Whether Sen. Clinton wants it or not, she may not be able to end this war, even if the country decided to elect her. To claim that she will end the war is naïve and overtly political. It also sets a dangerous president of candidates making declarations of future strategy or military decisions without taking into consideration the opinions of generals in the field. This is not to mention the fact that the very landscape of this conflict could be completely different in one year’s time.

Here’s where the neocons have it right, though it pains me to say it, because they got us into Iraq under dubious pretenses and numerous deceptions. For two years they have equated retreat in Iraq with losing a major battle in a global conflict on terror. Though they often use this piece of strategic thought in overtly political ways, equating it with doomsday scenarios to question the patriotism and resolve of political rivals, it doesn’t make the belief any less sound. It appears to be a piece of propaganda because it is used that way. However, it doesn’t make it wrong.

Widespread withdrawal from a shooting war in Iraq, one that is both an ethnic conflict as well as a very active campaign against terrorism, is a concession of defeat in that war. I am not saying that we shouldn’t concede this defeat – for many battles surely are lost before a war can be won - but to say that withdrawal is anything but a concession of defeat is putting lipstick on a pig. It certainly does embolden our enemies, it does send a bad message to those who are teetering on the boundary between extremism and normalcy in the region, and it destroys what little credibility we have left in the Middle East.

I fundamentally believe that if we withdraw our forces, as Clinton and others want to do, then this campaign against terror will only shift in focus but not in severity. The prospects of this are grim and too speculative for a serious person to engage in print, but I think that the thoughts have crossed all of our minds, when we consider what would happen if Al Qaeda in Iraq wins a major victory and become ambitious as a result.

Clinton and the other Democratic candidates frequently reference Afghanistan as a justified conflict worthy of more funding and troops. They are surely right. However, by withdrawing from Iraq, they hope to repeat the past by focusing on the just war thee instead of on the battles we are already fighting. You can’t go back to 2002 again and act like Iraq never happened because the instability there, no the war being fought there, will have ramifications beyond the borders of that nation far deeper within Middle Eastern culture than we can now fathom.

I don’t mean to play the neocon line here because I hate the neocon line for screwing this thing up from the beginning, but I think it is important that we know what we are voting for when we vote for the anti-war candidate. All rational people are anti-war; all of you probably are, because to be anti-war is to value human life over the ambitions of tyrants or of the ideological blindness of ambitious nations. Americans are individualistic, we believe in people and value them, and that’s what makes each loss of a serviceman so painful. This is also why we are so reluctant to go to war.

But whether we like it or not we have to see the Iraq War through. We need to expect our politicians to view this conflict with the seriousness and strategic learning that it requires and not with cheap sound bites that play on our emotions. If Senator Clinton wants to get us out of Iraq, she should be talking to ex-generals who know a thing or two about shooting wars, and find a way to win. Or has the word Victory out of fashion?

Friday, August 03, 2007

Lost Generations

In recent weeks I have been reading First World War memoirs published in the 1920’s and 30’s. This is partly professional but it is also informational and I believe we can learn something about the way we view history, as well as contemporary politics, from these war writers.

There was a conscious literary movement after the First World War, led by ex-subalterns who fought bravely on the Western Front, to portray the war as a generational bloodletting wrought by irresponsible politicians and bad generals. This futile bloodletting led to a culture of disenchantment and cynicism. These writers are known collectively as Lost Generation writers, survivors who became the voice of their fallen comrades from beyond the trenches.

Most of these writers were pacifists in the 30’s. They had seen enough combat to know that they thought all war to be slaughter and folly and they had no problem telling people so in this decade of appeasement and political debate.

However, the Lost Generation writers that we identify with now, are those whom fit nicely into this narrative of the war. Siegfried Sassoon and Robert Graves lead the pack and Edmund Blunden brings up the rear. All three were friends, deeply loved Wilfred Owen (a good poet who died in the trenches) and all three sought to show their disdain for the war and the men they believed caused it.

Their interpretation of the Great War was not the only one; however, their collective voice has proved to be the most lasting, calling out from the 30’s to our present day. In their time, these authors were greeting with skepticism by people, largely other writers, who believed that the war was not all great folly and destitution, and that to call it such was in poor taste. This alternative view believed strongly that though Great Britain had lost so much in terms of the human costs of the war, they had shown great courage in the conduct of the war, and were able to win the war of attrition through better discipline and morale over an inferior German force and government.

There is some truth to this interpretation. When we think of the First World War, we think of futility, but surely if the men in the trenches thought their actions were completely futile then they would have given up. Writers construct their own version of history after the fact. Often this memory of war is clouded in horror or sentiment, sometimes nostalgia, and sometimes bitterness and political objective. In this case, writers after the war created a genre of literature that we often take as history, instead of taking it as memoir, which is a subjective retelling of one’s life events, a deliberate construction. When we think of the cost of the First World War, we think of the war poets, but we should think instead, of the letters written home by Tommy’s in September 1918.

For those few of you who are interested in these things, think for a moment about our perceptions of the Iraq War and where you predict they will be, say, in fifteen years. All governments, in time of war, put the best possible spin on the outcome of that war. Bush does it now and Asquith did it in the First World War. The legacy of this war will be determined, largely, by the end result. However, the experience of war, what our perception of combat is like, is not always interpreted by whether war is won or lost. You can win a war but lose the legacy of that war – the case in point is the Lost Generation.

Now I end with that generic, but appropriate dodge, only time will tell.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

Continuing our discussion from Sunday on the South Carolina Monument, today we’re talking about misnomers; when a word or a phrase is wrongly substituted for where a more accurate word or phrase should go. Think Orwell when you think misnomer and you can come up with a laundry list of conspiratorial misnomers used by our public officials. There are zillions of these but today we’re just going to look at three.

The first is the term “family values”. Usually this means anti-gay when used in a conversation with an idiot. “I am in favor of family values,” says the idiot about why he is against gay people getting married. Who can blame the idiot though; it’s more pleasant to say a bigoted thing with a positive spin on it.

One of the president’s favorites is to protect our “culture of life”. Maybe we could take this one seriously if he didn’t start the Iraq War. It doesn’t really mean anything – it’s the least provocative way to say you don’t like abortion. There was nothing wrong with the term “pro-life” except that too many people who were pro-life liked to see criminals and retarded people get the electric chair, so politicians had to find an even more docile way to say they were against killing unborn children but in favor of killing live adults, as long as they were bad eggs. Protecting a culture of life gives you a little wiggle room. You can protect life by killing so long as the person being killed, in turn, killed someone else.

In Gettysburg and throughout the South there is an emphasis by some white people to protect their “heritage”. This word is a silly one and very problematic. Gettysburg is considered, in fact, a “heritage site” so said the person at the beer distributor. I see the term on T-shirts adorned with the Confederate Flag and bearing the words “It’s Heritage Not Hate”. Heritage here means racism. They aren’t celebrating black heritage on that grubby T-shirt waiting in line for General Pickett’s Buffet to open – they’re celebrating Southern fried white heritage. That heritage comes with slavery, segregation, and a legacy of doing everything possible to marginalize African-Americans. “It’s ignorance not heritage” would be a more accurate shirt though if I wore it, I could get beaten up in town.

I am sure that the left has some good misnomers too but I don’t know their hypocrisy as well as my own. I am less familiar with the vernacular commonly used by democrats in the public sphere because I turn off the TV when someone like John Kerry or Barbara Boxer comes on - I don't like being talked down to. Of course, I am not saying that racism itself is a right wing issue, because it certainly isn’t, but only that a majority of the people wearing the Confederate Flag shirt, I bet, voted for the President. Then again, so did I.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

The South Carolina Monument on the Gettysburg National Military Park bears an inscription that reads the following:

“That men of honor might forever know the responsibilities of freedom. Dedicated South Carolinians stood and were counted for their heritage and convictions. Abiding faith in the sacredness of states rights proved their creed here. Many earned eternal glory.”

There has been an ongoing debate on the role of Confederate symbols, memorials, and markers in our contemporary society. This monument is four miles from my house, it is one that I literally pass a few times a week, on my battlefield jog and it is one that really bothers me.

The monument itself is not an offensive image: there is no glorified artistic rendering of the Confederate soldier, no kneeling slaves, and no “superman” or Christlike depictions, like the many statues of Jackson and Lee. It is a simple granite memorial to the contribution of this southern secession state at the battle. Or so it would seem if you didn’t read the text.

The inscription is bothersome because it is an affirmation of Lost Cause sentiment in a public memorial placed in a National Park. It reinforces the outright historical fallacy of the Lost Cause. I would say it reinforces a “myth”; however, a myth transmits a degree of truth to the reader. The Lost Cause of the Confederacy is only fiction.

Closely look at the text of the marker. South Carolina’s soldiers, according to this marker, fought for “heritage and convictions”. What is that heritage? Is it the dubious claim that the South emerged as culturally independent from the north, a claim long debunked by serious cultural historians? Does heritage, in this context, include centuries of racism and racial dominance? Is this what is being fought for and memorialized? What “convictions” did South Carolina fight over if not the adamant conviction of racial superiority?

The prominence of state’s rights is emphatic. The sanctifying of state’s rights as the cause of the Civil War is a claim that seeks to undermine (if not sanitize) the importance of the institution of slavery to the causality of the war, but also in it’s very nature, marginalizes the issue of slavery and the experience of millions of slaves. It is a skewed and destructive historical abstraction that is harmful to people today.

The inscription implies that the freedom fighters of South Carolina earned “eternal” glory through fighting for this heritage and conviction in the Civil War. Whose freedoms were they fighting to protect? Who’s heritage were they fighting for? Whose convictions? These are the questions we need to ask but it is a lot easier to drive past the monument, read the roll of honor, and keep on driving than it is to admit to the grim realization of our collective history.

Friday, July 27, 2007

This week has proved the old adage that a controversy can be made of anything. This is not to say that there hasn’t been significant “real news” out there to report. The FBI Director sold out the Attorney General, the War in Iraq continues, the President emphasized vigilance in the war possibly setting the stage for further escalation, and there has been more evidence linking the deaths of American soldiers to Iranian mercenaries.

Not to mention Lindsay Lohan!

The political news that dominated our cycle though was over the YouTube Obama/Clinton spat over foreign policy. Each one called the other naïve. The pundits are analyzing what each camp did right and wrong and are mostly calling the match for Hillary.

Only in the stupid world of position politics could so much be made of so little. Obama let his idealism get the best of him and Clinton showed that she is perfectly willing to assassinate that idealism (not to mention vision and his meaning) to score some cheap points. He showed he is still new to the cutthroat world of political debate where you can’t say anything of substance for fear of reprisal, and she proved that she is just as vindictive of an opportunist as we all thought. As for me, I will take a Lincoln any day over a Stephen Douglass. I’ll let you figure out who’s who.

I don’t want to feed into this debate any more than to register my official disdain for its very existence. The priority story this week should have been Bush renewing the Al Qaeda in Iraq rhetoric in the past few days, linking again the fight in Iraq to the global war against this fascist organization. There is a signal here – this White House doesn’t change their rhetoric often so when they do (even subtly) it usually is followed by a major policy announcement.

That announcement will be for a prolonged reauthorization of the surge policy. Congress, impotent and adrift, will fail to stop the war and we will go on with the same measured level of frustration until the next president is elected. It would be irresponsible to leave Iraq now and there isn’t a single anti-war Congressman who wants to be labeled as a facilitator to genocide in Iraq.

Meanwhile, while we are distracted by “what comes next”, we are missing what is going on before our very eyes. Congress is so Iraq crazed, so caught up in subpoenas and in finding new levels of corruption that they are confusing their role of oversight with their duty to legislate. We have seen preciously little in terms of substance from this Congress other than a lot of press conferences and spats with the White House.

Surely, oversight is important, especially with imperial presidents, but we have staggering domestic problems that need to be addressed now, rather, than by the next president. Or should we wait until fall of 2009 to deal with health care?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Today the minimum wage went up by seventy cents. Adjusted for inflation, that means that workers who earn the minimum today, are no better off than workers who earned it in the 1950’s. Then again, organized labor has never been a weaker entity than it is now.

There are serious income problems in America; however, they aren’t exclusive problems concerning the poor. Next to seniors, the federal government spends the most money on programs to help the poor get a leg up in society, find jobs, educate toddlers, and even provide food and healthcare, than any other social demographic. The government sees to it that people living in despair have a glimpse of opportunity.

An issue, I think, is in the lower income brackets that make too much money for aid but not enough to afford basic benefits. It is here that you find many of the 47 million without health insurance; it is here that you find the equally high number of underinsured people. It is not only a demographic populated by people working service jobs or retail, it is also a demographic that includes many young and highly educated people who are encumbered with debt and trying to start their careers.

We can make an easy example of such a person, made up from scratch, to fit our model. Janet graduated from college in 2005 with a degree in Art History. Janet works as a docent at a city art museum 36 hours a week. Because she is considered a part-time employee, she is not entitled to benefits, however she is paid a salary of $24,000 a year.

She works in a smaller city, like Cleveland, and is able to pay her rent ($1000 a month, utilities included). She has $15,000 in educational debt and wants to get her masters so she can get a full-time position, but right now, can’t afford it and doesn’t have the time. In order to afford health insurance, she works part-time three nights a week at the Gap, at 8 bucks an hour. She has a cataclysmic health insurance policy that costs her $3,000 dollars a year but no dental or visual benefits. She has an older car that costs her $1500.00 a year in insurance and about a $1000.00 a year in maintenance.

She has no savings, pension, or job protection. However she is in reasonably good health and is a fine worker. If you add up her expenses Janet is living on a shoestring budget but with some careful planning and by avoiding extravagance, she is able to get by. She has absolutely no fiscal mobility if something happens with her health or if she loses her job.

Nobody would say that she isn’t a hard worker or that her work was not beneficial to the community; but Janet is saddled with a fairly large debt and is getting no benefit from the money she is putting into her healthcare “plan” other than a degree of security that if hit by a bus, she will be covered. If she was able to purchase a comprehensive plan from her employer, even at the same cost as her cataclysmic plan, she gladly would do it, and she would gladly pay into a pension plan or a 403B, but she is currently prohibited. If the government offered a health plan she would likely take it.

Though she is not considered poor her quality of life is. She doesn’t travel and looks for ways to socialize with people at home rather than out and looks for ways to save money. When invited to a bachelorette party a few weeks ago in Philadelphia, she didn’t go, because she couldn’t afford to travel there and rent a hotel with her other friends from college because she had to go and pay for a regular appointment with her physician.

My point with Janet’s story is not how bad off she is – because she isn’t – but just how normal her experience may seem to many of you: there is a banality to her experience that many of you may identify with. She is not destitute, but she hardly has a high quality of life and has absolutely no sense of security. She is a hard worker and has done well to make her way in the world but could use more in the way of opportunity so she could access better healthcare and have more disposable income to save or even, to spend. When we consider investing in our future, it seems obvious that hard working people like Janet, deserve a little help, not in terms of a handout, but in terms of a government investment in their future.

Saturday, July 21, 2007

As I was getting a cavity filled on Thursday, the dental hygienist asked me, in one of those “lets get to know the patient so he doesn’t run away” moments, if I had any plans for the weekend. I said yes: to read Harry Potter. She seemed a little weirded out by this answer. I mean she was around my age, had children, and has otherwise better things to do with her time than read a book better suited to obsessive teenagers rather than neurotic adults.

I can’t think of any better use of my time than my weekend Potterfest 2007. There have been few things in my rather dimly lit life that have caused me as much emotional comfort and complete range of feelings as these books, meant for children, but cherished by this adult (and many others).

It is hard for me to pinpoint exactly what it is about Potter without getting too psychosomatic for this blog. Sure, I am all about being personal with you, devoted readers, but some feelings are my own and I cherish them closely as I would an old heirloom. With that disclaimer in mind, Rowling’s world reminds me of a cherished time in my life both past and present. In the past, it reminds me of a small window of time in my childhood. In the present, it reminds me of a four-year struggle I have endured in my middle twenties, a time when I read Harry Potter, along with all the other dusty books lining my shelves.

This latter period of my life I believe has been a transcendental experience, a new awakening for me as a person and a second coming of age, and coincidently, it has happened simultaneously while reading these books. They are to me (and millions of other readers) documents of joy and release, from a world of growing disappointment. If there is any great wisdom in literature – it is seeing your own world in the world created by another and finding something of value in your own experience by reading, witnessing, and experiencing the fictionalized life.

What the modern world has become has been disappointing. I suppose people felt that way before “modernity”. There is so little in terms of wonderment in our daily lives. I am, in this statement, getting dangerously close to embracing a form of nostalgia. Please bear with me for a moment. The Rowling world is one where morality is in conflict with immorality; where good and evil are reasonable terms to use, and where relativism is seen as collaboration with darkness. Her characters become more human because they can be seen as people within this paradigm, within the conceptual frame of human struggle, defined by her as the ancient conflict between love and power, good and evil.

This conflict is timeless and the lesson of it is something that is completely transcendental. For children and teenagers the Rowling world explains so much about what their later lives will encompass and how to react to the daily “battles” we all face. For adults, the books remind us that no matter what baggage we brought into adulthood, there is always a place for wonderment and speculation through a highly imaginative sphere that mirrors our own world, only with a reliance on magic instead of our modern reliance on technology. The people in both the world of magic and the world of muggles remain the same.

Wednesday, July 18, 2007

I was up with the United States Senate last night. This was purely coincidental. Although prone to no small degree of interrupted sleep, I am not one to watch the Senate, day or night. If I want idiocy I will watch MTV – at least My Sweet 16 has some concept of reality.

Both the Senate and myself were up fretting into the wee hours of a Tuesday night. Both of us were worrying about a toothache. Mine is due to an old botched root canal. The Senate’s is due to Iraq.

Five years ago I had a root canal. My dentist at that time originally wanted only to cap a fractured tooth. In the process of capping it, the fracture deepened, and the tooth split without the dentist knowing it. I got a really bad infection and had to have a second operation, this time, the dreaded root canal. Now it appears that the bone is, five years later, infected again and I will either need to have another root canal (at considerable expense I might add) or I might lose the tooth.

Four years ago we went into Baghdad with confidence. Like my former dentist, it was a simple matter to put a cap on a cracked tooth, and go out for a game of tennis. If we took out the upper layer of Baathist support for the existing regime, we could pacify Iraq with a modest security force while the Iraqis formed their own government and began the process of rapid democratization. The US Army and Coalition Provisional Authority would be able to cap the tooth preventing it from becoming infected.

However, like my tooth, the US made the fracture deeper and created an infection in Iraqi society that fed the insurgency. If you don’t buy this argument, then I suggest you have a close look at what happened after Paul Bremer began his program of rapid de-Baathification and dismissed the existing army – an army I might add – that wanted to stay intact to build the new Iraq. The insurgency was created and spread to neighborhoods that once supported the US invasion. Like white blood cells, the US Army initially fought the infection with a scorched earth policy, losing support from Shia and Sunni alike, and spreading the infection.

A root canal was necessary in the form of a military surge beginning this year. Now, after some small successes, it appears that the infection is too overwhelming and we either need to continue to reinforce failure with yet another troop increase, or pull out the infected tooth.

Nobody wants that to happen but extraction may be unavoidable.

Tuesday, July 17, 2007

I was away from the spectacle that is national politics for five days and four nights this past week. I missed nothing for there is nothing to report but bitterness, vendetta, and obstinacy – three societal virtues present in our elected “leaders”. No wonder the public is so very cynical.

Hobbes seems almost quaint, especially with all the brutishness, never mind the nasty in today’s body politic. The one thing that life is certainly not anymore is short - the political process has never been longer, especially since our attention spans are about the same as that of a hummingbird, as we flip through channels and loudly announce that there is nothing new on TV.

The Bush administration seems to have been in office for an eternity. This war is nearly five years old, longer than the Civil War, and with no end in sight, it seems even longer when there isn’t hope for victory only the potential for a settlement in the distant future. Nobody even knows what victory looks like and this cultural ennui is fierce in its effect, the apathy of the masses, the dulled novocain of the soul, dulled from bad news from a corrupt administration. Such is the thing when mediocrity is the highest expectation.

The media are in their full cycle of summertime mania. Soon they will be dashing from amber alert to shark attacks; once August is here we won’t know a good story from a sham one. Thank God for Harry Potter for without the Boy Who Lived to distract us and fill page after page of commentary and analysis, we wouldn’t have any news but for the sexual escapades of a conservative senator and sexual abuses of archdioceses.

A five day respite from all of this has made me learn a lesson that I learned and forgotten after every vacation. The events of one week are seldom the stuff of lasting concern. The events of some years even, are hardly transformative. The scandal today is the forgotten relic of the past for most of us, though not for those in Washington, who sit so far removed from our collective mentality.

People care about the big things in their own little worlds. Their children, the dentist’s office, the recent diagnosis, a consumer tax raise, and spending money. This is the stuff for concern in most of our lives, as it should be, but is seldom the concern of our government. For all the lip service paid to the average American, both Washington and the media seem to know little about him/her.

Thursday, July 12, 2007

One of my favorite bumper stickers is a simple little thing, like so many simple little things, says so much. The bumper sticker is in red, white, and blue and uses the graphic design of a typical campaign yard sign. The message: Republicans for Voldemort.

I read it for the first time in a Dartmouth College parking lot. Although that region of the country is prone to some of the most self-righteous of liberal sentiments, the simplicity of the Voldemort line was what struck me as genius. It is so over the top it is hilarious.

If ever there was a Death Eater in the White House, and I suspect there has been more than one (damn you Harding), it’s Dick Cheney. I think we know the house he was likely sorted into when he first arrived at school – nobody gets that gloomy being a Hufflepuff.

Here’s what we know to be true. Voldemort uses terror to gain power. He is secretive. He values loyalty above competence. He attracts bad eggs to do his bidding and unsavory people to manage his affairs underground. He only cares for power and immortality, the means however unjust, are completely irrelevant. It’s the power that matters.

Okay, I can see some similarities between the Bush Administration and the Death Eaters. However, please don’t forget that Voldemort is something of a genius as well, and the president, well . . .

I can see just as many similarities between the fictional Dark Lord and Democratic hacks, pundits, and lobbyists as I can with their Republican counterparts. In this case it isn’t an issue of political partisanship, its an issue of the political class being dominated by people who love power despite its toxic effects on the soul of the nation, not to mention, the body politic of the nation. This is not something new – petty little backstabbers dominated Rome – but it is something that is not beyond our skeptical eye. The closest thing we have to Death Eaters are congressional staffers.

To push this a little farther, would your average Republican vote for Voldemort? When I was in eight grade I was an insufferable Republican child know-it-all. Not much has changed, right? One of my classmates called me mean because I was a Republican and all Republicans were, according to her moronic mother, were a bunch of big meanies. The Voldemort line is a humorous way of saying the same thing and reinforcing the myth of the mean Republican. I might not be the most pleasant person in the world but I wouldn’t vote for the Dark Lord.

Republicans, generally, believe in moral absolutes. They think that matters of right verses wrong are real dynamics in the universe, however skewed their value judgments may be, they actually believe in tangible things. This is in concert with the world of Harry Potter where there is no relativism, instead, a real paradigm between what is considered good and what is considered evil. Some have called this “pre-modern” worldview but I think thats just a cheap way to dismiss what is a compelling outlook, even in our post-modern society. Hogwarts is just as much about morality as it is about potions and spells. With those on the left morality is often a dirty word.

The fact that so many Republicans, including this token writer, have abandoned the President now that his true colors (stupidity, arrogance, disregard for law and tradition, secrecy and incompetence) have shown through, shows that as a species, we Republicans still put some value in the individual running for public office as a person of character. Just because the base 29 percent of absolute lunatics out there refuses to see what is blatantly apparent, doesn’t make the rest of us compromised simply because of our party affiliation.

Republicans aren’t for Voldemort. We aren’t even for Cheney anymore.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Courage? Get over yourselves!

We have a misplaced notion when we use the word “courage” in the political realm. When I worked in local politics, I saw very little in the way of courage. Instead, I saw much in the way of pettiness. Being a casual observer of human behavior, even then when I was a boyish young idealist being robbed of my conviction, I was able to clearly see the blatant self-interest and posturing around me.

Nationally when we consider our leaders actions we are frequent to utter the word courage in reference to either an uncharacteristic act of honesty or one of common sense.

Hillary Clinton showed courage for staying with her cheating husband. She has subsequently showed courage on the campaign trail going after the president, confronting critics, and defending her husband’s record as president. Please spare us from this America and vote for anyone, anyone but her.

Like Clinton, John Murtha showed courage for saying that the war was a load of “crap” (Murtha’s term and not mine) even when the whole world already knew this to be true. Even the president shows “courage” in the eyes of the media when he lies about the war.

Finally, now that elected Republicans are running away from the president faster than wasps from Raid, the mainstream media with its penchant for hyperbole is lauding the courage of these senators and congressman.

It isn’t courage to state the obvious. Also (and this is directed to Mrs. Clinton) it isn’t courage to do something that a focus group is telling you to do. It’s one thing to have a sense of conviction but lets not cheapen the deeds of the truly courageous by ordaining politicians with words that should be reserved for genuine heroes.

Modern politics doesn’t have heroes anymore – it can’t because heroes are real people – and politicians aren’t real. They’re a product of biological humanoid tissue, injected with a mutated and inflated sense of self, and topped of with a limited vocabulary of sixty power words of which “Insurgency”, “Amiable”, and “Alternative Energy” top the list.

Here’s an experiment to prove this point. Listen to your local Congressman at a town picnic and count how many times he says “I” or “me”. Go home and try to give the same speech into the mirror. If you are not unbelievably embarrassed by three “me’s” into the speech, you should run for public office. The rest of us sheepishly look away or stop and say “Oh God that’s just awful” into the mirror.

There may be a lot of other things in politics but there isn’t courage. I live in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. I went running past a monument this morning to the First Vermont Brigade. On July 2, 1863 the men of this brigade conducted a forced march of thirty-two miles in 80 plus degree weather, over half of them suffering from sickness, just so they could be shot at. Later in the war, half of these men would be lost in Grant’s final Virginia Campaign. That was courage.

Courage is the 61st Pennsylvania on May 31, 1862. Facing three thousand Confederates, the 580 men of the 61st held their ground against a murderous rifle fire from their front, sides and after being surrounded, from behind. They continued firing until they had exhausted all of their ammunition. The remaining survivors then turned their rifles into clubs and beat their way through the Rebels at their back. At the end of the day 263 men and 48 officers fell, the largest proportion of officers to be killed, wounded, or missing in any battle of the Civil War. They fell because the officers were leading from the front.

These were, like our soldiers now, men from families, fields, and furnaces, who volunteered for service and suffered routine abuses only to persevere. When we talk of courage we should look for the man with everything to lose yet who still risks everything, for little personal reward. This part is crucial. These men weren’t fighting for treasure and stood to gain very little. They fought because they thought it was the right thing to do. They didn’t need a focus group to tell them to go out and get shot at.

So when we talk of a politician having courage, let’s remember what an actual thing courage is, and what a powerful standard we are holding their trivial actions to. In short, a little perspective goes a long way. There are other words for what Mrs. Clinton and company is doing. Courage shouldn’t be one of them.

Monday, July 09, 2007

I caught snippets of the Live Earth concert this weekend. Not enough to offer a solid verdict on the concert as a whole but enough to get annoyed. I watched two songs by Melissa Etheridge and she proved the suspicion in the deep recesses of my cold soul that though I may be a “bad” Republican I can never share my political tent with her. The professional protest singer is as unappealing to me as chlamydia.

She opened her set with a dramatic deep breath – an allusion to the clean air of New Jersey - and then began singing a stupid song about the inarticulate Cindy Sheehan. The song was made worse by the adoring fans, half of them middle-aged women who looked like Cindy Sheehan. I grimaced at the way she dramatized this ridiculous woman’s life into song, positioning her as an American folk hero. When I saw Cindy Sheehan interviewed on the Today Show, in her cut off jeans and dirty T-shirt spewing a moral worldview that I am convinced she got from a bumper sticker, she wasn’t someone who I was rushing out to immortalize in song.

I agree with people like Etheridge, Sheehan, and company on the war, for the most part, but I disagree with their methodology. Contrary to popular myth, the war in Vietnam didn’t end because the hippies marched their smelly bodies on Washington. The war ended because people like my grandparents, the status quo American watching the nightly news, lost faith in their country because they realized that their government was lying to them and they didn’t want to see any more kids killed for a futile experiment in democratization. Sound familiar? The left always hates the President – they are predictably dissatisfied - and they are embarrassed by patriotism. Sheehan and Etheridge only mobilize people who are already committed to their cause (which might be self-righteousness, or maybe, self-loathing – I get them confused) but they turn off people like me.

That’s why people don’t take them seriously. Your average American (Come to Gettysburg in the summer – you’ll see who I mean) feels deeply for our soldiers. The liberal columnists in the Washington Post and New York Times haven’t changed the public mind, but instead, their minds have been changed by the images of amputees trying to learn how to walk again at the dilapidated Walter Reed Medical Center. The political center was lost on this experiment in Iraq when the Administration wasn’t able to answer the question: Why?

This is precisely where we are now. David Brooks, a revered columnist on this site, said yesterday on Meet the Press that the Republican Party as we know it will cease to exist in a few years. For someone as even keeled as Brooks, this was a startling prediction. He was saying that the Party of today is a fractionalized and embittered place and likely to be divided up like a pizza in the coming years. Conservatives get the meatball, libertarians prefer BBQ, lefty moderates like veggie, and Evangelicals get extra cheese – we are a party that can’t agree on one type so we’re all going to order something different and sit in our respective rooms eating alone and watching different news channels.

I, like Gibbon, blame the Evangelicals.

Brooks said that middle-left Republicans, the liberal republican of the 50’s or the Eisenhower Man (a person not unlike this token blogger) has either left the party or is in the process of leaving. We’re attracted to a person like Bloomberg and if we haven’t bolted to become an independent yet, we will likely make the move in the next two years. Though I hope to be a lot of things in two years time (a rodeo clown or a jockey) an Independent isn’t one of them, and becoming a Democrat is certainly not an option. Democrats think Etheridge’s song about Cindy Sheehan is good music. Democrats think the Clintons are gods. Democrats believe that people are fundamentally good. I am no Democrat.

But I am also not much of a Republican either. This is the dilemma.

Friday, July 06, 2007

Today – Two Quick Reviews


I finished Imperial Life in the Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran. The author, a Washington Post reporter, was in Baghdad before and during the early years of the Iraq War. His book is an attempt to show the follies of the War from inside of the Green Zone, appropriately named by soldiers, The Emerald City for it fantasy and illusion, like Oz.

The best parts of this book are the vignettes. Mr. Chandrasekaran uses one to two page anecdotes to break up the chapters. These short sections are stories about people inside the Green Zone and they show us more about what life was like there than the other two hundred or so pages of the book. He tells us about clubbing, drinking, the undercover whorehouse, the cafeteria, hooking up, and where you could get the best pizza in Baghdad. Good stuff.

The worst parts of the book can be lumped into the rest of it. The critical praise it has gotten is largely undeserved, especially when there are better accounts (see Fiasco) that manage to put the entire war in perspective, not just present us with pitfall after pitfall. In Imperial Nights, you get the point twenty pages in and the rest of the book becomes just a bitch session about how young, naïve, and incompetent the civilians running the CPA were. There seemed to be displeasing element of score-settling as well. This is a problem of tone. The tone of the book is very “know it all” reporter trying to dish on what he witnessed, after the fact.

For example, Mr. Changrasekaren spends at least a third of the book on the Iraqi economy. Here’s the summary: the US screwed up the already screwed up Iraqi economy. In trying to set up a new western style stock market we alienated the Iraqis and made them distrust our intentions. Privatization of factories led to thousands of lay-offs and reprisal killings. The book is supposed to be about the Green Zone, not about the economics of occupation, though a fascinating subject for some; it is not exactly page-turning material. He focuses all of his attention on the little stuff and misses, completely, the big.

Nobody wants to go on a journey with someone who is dissatisfied with everything he sees. Mr. Changrasekaran is that person and glimpsing Baghdad through his eyes fulfills every stereotype that the right-wingers say about the media. He witnesses an awful lot of cringe-worthy things in his time there, but you don’t get the impression he wants you to learn anything from the book, but instead, just get mad about it, which doesn’t accomplish anything. He is constantly critical and perpetually dissatisfied – two very displeasing traits in a narrator.

My father sent me Bruce Springsteen and the Sessions Band’s Live From Dublin CD. In this CD, the Boss is playing a live show in Dublin with the band from the Seeger Sessions. Though there are some admirable musical performances, the album itself falls short. Not every concert deserves to be made into a CD. Not everything the Boss does is gold.

Perhaps I am a little Boss-weary these days. I don’t attribute this to over-listening, but perhaps because I am malcontented with the role of Springsteen now, as opposed to his role, ten years ago. When he was first doing the comeback thing, there was a lot of energy and freshness to his music. It was like he was becoming big all over again, like in the early 80’s. In the past decade, we have followed the Boss as an iconic figure, the aging rock star who can do no wrong.

When dealing with icons, you run the risk of celebrating them too much and missing the human being there. With the aging Boss, I appreciated getting the CD, listened to the same old stuff on it, and then threw it up on the shelf. Why? The CD is completely unremarkable and something of a bore. Like most live recordings, it is just a crappier version of the studio songs. They are slightly different because of the band, but they are also cheesier too, because the Seeger Sessions band’s appeal is slowly wearing off. On this album when the Boss does try to vary some old standards like Highway Patrolman and Atlantic City, they simply don’t work.

Let us not forget why we love the Boss – before he was an icon he was a struggling kid trying to make it big. We love him because of the struggle, because America watched him transform, rooting the whole way for him to succeed. We want a little of that early rebellion. In Live From Dublin, we don’t see it at all. We see a guy resting on his laurels and seemingly ready to retire. He runs the risk here of becoming a parody; the Bruce Sprinsteen trying to live up to the image of the Boss is a parody - and nobody wants that.

Thursday, July 05, 2007

The Dopeness of TJ

I posted the “original draft” of the Declaration of Independence yesterday. I didn’t want to post the final draft, because it’s pedestrian, but also, there is something refreshing in seeing the “original draft”. It shows that like all other writers, Jefferson needed a good editor. This is best demonstrated by his original opener:

“When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, and to assume among powers of the earth the equal and independent station to which the laws of nature and of nature's god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the change.”

You lost me at hitherto TJ. The lead, or opening, is supposed to be attention grabbing, you know, really laying it out there. Objective failed. Jefferson suffers from smart guy syndrome of the nth degree and he clearly is trying to pack as much of that William and Mary vocabulary into this essay question, assigned by Congress, as he can. The final version reads much better – as does the section about life, liberty, and happiness, though slightly changed in meaning in the final draft from the original. Writers need good editors and Jefferson needed someone to tell him that it was just as important for the guy in the local Butcher shop to know what the hell he was talking about as it was for the King.

The Declaration is one of the finest examples of deduction written in a public document – there is no course for conclusion than the one given, derived from the evidence presented. I love the declaration because it is so over the top and so undeniably ballsy. It is a literally a big f-off to the King and his toadies, given in that 18th century way, which contrary to most old time things, doesn’t sound at all quaint. There is a degree of quaintness in the original draft; Jefferson is clearly intellectually musing here but in the final, when he’s at his best, he lets it go with the classic American bullet point approach to government. Here’s what we believe, here’s what you did, here’s where we’re going.

When I play that strange colonial fantasy game in my head, you know the one where you imagine yourself as a fly on the tavern wall at some of the best colonial discussions, I like to picture Jefferson as a humorless know-it-all, dressed in finery, and reading in the corner of the tavern, failing to engage his fellow guests. They all thought TJ was a little too good for them. TJ thought he was a little too good for them too and he would retire early, go to his rooms, and scribble out some notes from Locke that he simply must do something with if he ever had the chance.

Sometime around midnight, Tom Paine stumbles up, a little worse for the wear, drunk off Bishop’s finger (see Boswell for the recipe) and beating at his door wanting to see if TJ wants to come off and throw rocks at the loyalist’s windows. TJ declines, but he invites Paine in for a nightcap; as insufferable as he might be at least he was good company. TJ would smirk and listen to Paine who was telling him a casual story about whoring or about their mutual opinion that John Dickinson was, in the words of the erudite Paine, “a total dick.”

Then I wake up from my daydream and realize just what a massive pain in the ass I must have been in high school history class.

I have no great admiration for Jefferson the man but I do for Jefferson the mind. Jefferson the man is a bit of a let down because of the whole slavery thing and the fact that he was a petty and vindictive guy. He also, notes Christopher Hitchens in his pithy biography of TJ, had no sense of humor, a trait that probably made dinner parties with him a bit of a let down. However, it took a lot of guts to write the Declaration, and it took a pretty good mind (a horrid understatement) to come up with language that would cast a shadow over the rest of American Rhetoric, in imagery as well as societal values; from Lincoln to Martin Luther King, Jr., great people go back to the Declaration for reassurance that their words fit the narrative of America. Jefferson doesn’t prove that one person can change the world – but he does prove that one person and a committee of editors can, and in this case, did.

Wednesday, July 04, 2007

The Rough Draft of the Declaration of Independence

A Declaration By the Representatives of the United States of America, in General Congress Assembled.

When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a people to advance from that subordination in which they have hitherto remained, and to assume among powers of the earth the equal and independent station to which the laws of nature and of nature's god entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the change.

We hold these truths to be self-evident; that all men are created equal and independent; that from that equal creation they derive rights inherent and inalienable, among which are the preservation of life, and liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; that to secure these ends, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just power from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government shall become destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new government, laying it's foundation on such principles and organizing it's power in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their safety and happiness. Prudence indeed will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes: and accordingly all experience hath shewn that mankind are more disposed to suffer while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, begun at a distinguished period, and pursuing invariably the same object, evinces a design to reduce them to arbitrary power, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government and to provide new guards for future security. Such has been the patient sufferings of the colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to expunge their former systems of government. the history of his present majesty is a history of unremitting injuries and usurpations, among which no one fact stands single or solitary to contradict the uniform tenor of the rest, all of which have in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states. To prove this, let facts be submitted to a candid world, for the truth of which we pledge a faith yet unsullied by falsehood.

He has refused his assent to laws the most wholesome and necessary for the public good:

He has forbidden his governors to pass laws of immediate and pressing importance, unless suspended in their operation till his assent should be obtained; and when so suspended, he has neglected utterly to attend to them.

He has refused to pass other laws for the accommodation of large districts of people unless those people would relinquish the right of representation in the legislature, a right inestimable to them and formidable to tyrants only:

He has dissolved Representatives houses repeatedly and continually, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people:

He has refused for a long space of time to cause others to be elected, whereby the legislative powers, incapable of annihilation, have returned to the people at large for their exercise, the state remaining in the meantime exposed to all the dangers of invasion from without and convulsions within:

He has endeavored to prevent the population of these states; for that purpose obstructing the laws for naturalization for foreigners; refusing to pass others to encourage their migrations hither; and raising the conditions of new appropriations of lands:

He has suffered the administration of justice totally to cease in some of these colonies, refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers:

He has made our judges dependent on his will alone, for the tenure of their offices, and amount of their salaries:

He has erected a multitude of new offices by a self-assumed power, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people and eat out their substance:

He has kept among us in times of peace standing armies and ships of war:

He has affected to render the military, independent of and superior to the civil power:

He has combined with others to subject us to a jurisdiction foreign to our constitutions and unacknowledged by our laws; giving his assent to their pretended acts of legislation, for quartering large bodies of armed troops among us;

For protecting them by a mock-trial from punishment for any murders which they should commit on the in habitants of these states;

For cutting off our trade with all parts of the world;

For imposing taxes on us without our consent;

For depriving us of the benefits of trial by jury;

For transporting us beyond seas to be tried for pretended offenses;

For taking away our charters, and altering fundamentally the forms of our governments;

For suspending our own legislatures and declaring themselves invested with power to legislate for us in all cases whatsoever:

He has abdicated government here, withdrawing his governors, and declaring us out of his allegiance and protection:

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns and destroyed the lives of our people:

He is at this time transporting large armies of foreign mercenaries to compleat the works of death, desolation and tyranny, already begun with circumstances of cruelty and perfidy unworthy the head of a civilize nation:

He has endeavored to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages, whose known rule of warfare is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions of existence:

He has incited treasonable insurrections of our fellow citizens, with the allurements of forfeiture and confiscation of our property:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither. This piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidels powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. He has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he has deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

In every stage of these oppressions we have petitioned for redress in the most humble terms; our repeated petitions have been answered by repeated injury. A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a people who mean to be free. Future ages will scarce believe that the hardiness of one man, adventured within the short compass of twelve years only, on so many acts of tyranny without a mask, over a people fostered and fixed in principles of liberty.

Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend a jurisdiction over these our states. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here, no one of which could warrant so strange a pretension: that these were effected at the expense of our own blood and treasure, unassisted by the wealth or the strength of Great Britain: that in constituting indeed our several forms of government, we had adopted one common king, thereby laying a foundation for perpetual league and amity with them: but that submission to their parliament was no part of our constitution, nor ever in idea, if history may be credited: and we appealed to their native justice and magnanimity, as well as to the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations which were likely to interrupt our correspondence and connection. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity, and when occasions have been given them, by the regular course of their laws, of removing from their councils the disturbers of our harmony, they have by their free election re-established them in power. At this very time too they are permitting their chief magistrate to send over not only soldiers of our common blood, but Scotch and foreign mercenaries to invade and deluge us in blood. These facts have given the last stab to agonizing affection, and manly spirit bids us to renounce forever these unfeeling brethren. We must endeavor to forget our former love for them, and to hold them as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends. We might have been a free and a great people together; but a communication of grandeur and of freedom it seems is below their dignity. Be it so, since they will have it; the road to happiness and to glory is open to all of us too; we will climb it apart from them, and acquiesce in the necessity which denounces our eternal separation!

We therefore the representatives of the United States of America in General Congress assembled do, in the name and by authority of the good people of these states, reject and renounce all allegiance and subjection to the kings of Great Britain and all others who may hereafter claim by, through, or under them; we utterly dissolve and break off all political connection which may have heretofore subsisted between us and the people or parliament of Great Britain; and finally we do assert and declare these colonies to be free and independent states they shall hereafter have full power to levy war, conclude peace, contract alliances, establish commerce, and to do all other acts and things which independent states may of right do. And for the support of this declaration we mutually pledge to each other our lives, our fortunes, and our sacred honour.

Tuesday, July 03, 2007

Though I called for Scooter Libby to be pardoned in this space two weeks ago, I do not want to be lumped in with the neo-cons or Republican base that has been calling for the same result. My motivations have not been partisan in this matter. In my previous post I said, quite plainly, that the man deserved to be pardoned because a prison sentence would not accomplish anything except putting a high profile person in a taxpayer funded jail, for perjury, or lying under oath, the same thing that President Clinton did. The punishment, in my estimation, did not fit the crime.

The President did the right thing by sparing him jail time, a sentence that accomplishes nothing, but keeping the fine and the felony conviction in tact. This punishment is harder on a man like Libby – if you want to punish the privileged go after their money and their capacity to make more of it. Prison could’ve led to a tell all book, enriching Libby more, and hurting the administration (probably not possible at this point). By commuting the sentence you buy Libby’s loyalty but still make him pay a quarter of a million dollars for lying. This is not to mention that it’s the right thing to do.

What people are confusing with Libby’s perjury is the issue of war causality. Libby, no doubt, had something to do with selling this country a bill of goods in the Iraq War. He was not convicted of this; he couldn’t be. Let us not forget that it was not Scooter Libby that published the outing of a CIA agent, Valerie Plame, to discredit her husband but the press (in numerous outlets) who did the administration’s dirty work for them. If you closely examine the reports coming from people like Judy Miller, whose strange relationship with Libby has never been properly dissected, it was clear that editors as well as journalists had no more a passion for the truth when it came to Iraq than the administration did. They were accepting a sitting administration’s confusing logic as gospel and failed to hold the administration up to scrutiny as it sought to go to war. This was their job and that of Congress, and both entities, or Estates, failed. This does not morally absolve the administration but it does hurt the credibility of both institutions.

So now that all the talking heads are all calling for Scooter’s head, we have to ask the following: Where was that diligence in 2002-2003? Where was this desire to question and dissect the motivations of this sinister administration when it really mattered? The press has, from the beginning, remained fifteen steps behind this administration and settled for scraps of information from junior level staffers left behind in bubble gum wrappers on the pavement.

If there were any sincerity about punishing the people responsible for getting us into this war, there would be serious talk of impeachment, of serious investigation of the administration by Congress, etc. Instead we have a lot of hoopla over nothing – a man accused and convicted of lying about leaking the name of a CIA agent for political purposes. This does not address war causality – no it avoids war causality by focusing the attention on minutiae and completely missing the real issue. The media, instead of reporting on this silly affair, should have put their energy into investigating the real issues. But they failed once more by focusing on the easy headline and by not going after the big story.

But they missed the point completely. Today’s headlines confirm why people don’t like to read the newspapers anymore and seek to get their news from the Daily Show. Satire seems to have more moral credibility these days.