Saturday, September 05, 2009

History Of The World, Part II

I was perusing National Geographic magazine's latest issue, and there is a sidebar article on a project to trace human migrations all the way back to the first ones across, then out of, Africa. The article in question talks about a July, 2008 instance where 163 individuals from Astoria in Queens, NY were sampled, and offers four examples from that sample as showing the various treks human populations have made.

With a trip to see family looming, and the issue of immigration legal and otherwise still simmering, I got to wondering what secrets might be locked in my own Y-chromosome and mitochondrial DNA. There is a link here, if you will bear with me.

My parents are from different parts of the country; my father from the northeast, my mother from the midwest. Their five children all married and bore children to individuals from outside our hometown area, with different ethnic and racial backgrounds. Two of my sisters married men from Massachusetts, one of French ancestry, the other Yankee. My oldest sister married someone of Italian ancestry from Poughkeepsie, NY. My brother married an African-American woman from Frederick, MD. My wife is the great-grandchild of German immigrants from the prairie. The confusion of information in the genetic markers of our children might very well be as diverse as that from the sample in Astoria!

Since the beginning of the species, human beings have moved around, sometimes due to environmental pressures, sometimes in the search for better hunting and foraging grounds, sometimes due to political pressures (the various "barbarian tribes" that started swelling the border regions of Roman Empire were refugees from the rise of various Empires in Eastern Europe and western and even central Asia). While the legal and political issues surrounding the migration of human communities are vastly different today than at other times in our history, the reality of human population movement remains a constant. The results, in the various microscopical evidence in our DNA, gives the lie to the rhetoric of race, ethnicity, and their links to culture. We are, all of us (except, as the article points out, to some isolated groups, in particular a group called the Khoisan in southeastern Africa whose DNA shows the least divergence from the initial population 100,000 years ago) a glorious admixture of the human race in all its differences. This is something to celebrate.

I find it fascinating, a source of wonder really, that locked within the cells of each and every one of us is a map of the movements of our species. Each of us, and all of us collectively, show the links and ties that bind the human species together.

Saturday Rock Show

I'm going away for a few days vacation. I've got all sorts of directions to all sorts of places. No doubt I'll get confused at times, but I hope I don't get lost. On Wednesday, I hope I don't get lost . . .

Friday, September 04, 2009

Young Men Die In War; We Need To See It

Sorry, Secretary Gates, but you are wrong.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates is objecting “in the strongest terms” to an Associated Press decision to transmit a photograph showing a mortally wounded 21-year-old Marine in his final moments of life, calling the decision “appalling” and a breach of “common decency.”

The AP reported that the Marine’s father had asked – in an interview and in a follow-up phone call — that the image, taken by an embedded photographer, not be published.

The AP reported in a story that it decided to make the image public anyway because it “conveys the grimness of war and the sacrifice of young men and women fighting it.”

The photo shows Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard of New Portland, Maine, who was struck by a rocket-propelled grenade in a Taliban ambush Aug. 14 in Helmand province of southern Afghanistan, according to The AP.

What offends common decency is that Lance Corporal Bernard was put in the position of having to die this way. What is appalling is the utter lack of information from the battlefield for eight years; thousands of our brave young men and women are injured and killed, and we can't even see images of their final return via Dover AFB. What is horrible is that Sec. Gates thinks a picture of the horror and final truth of war - young men dying horrible deaths - is someone more indecent than the act itself.

Why Don't I Read Michael Kinsley?

Because, if this is any indication, he is a supreme douchebage.

Thursday, September 03, 2009

Absurd, Ridiculous, Stupid

I have reached the point where the latest right-wing ragegasm (h/t Tbogg for the term) is only of interest as a barometer of how truly crazy they all are. I honestly couldn't care less to read their opinions on how horrible President Obama is, or what a threat he poses to the American way of life.

Afghanistan - Beginning, Middle, Stuck

After the September 11, 2001 attacks on New York and Washington, it was clear that the al-Qaeda safe havens in Afghanistan had to be removed. Initially, the United States used special operations troops, but their first significant combat experience ended in almost total disaster. When the decision was made - and when the emphasis shifted from al-Qaeda to overthrowing the Taliban as part of the larger effort to chase the terrorists from their hidey-holes, I'm not quite sure - that it was necessary to topple the government of Afghanistan, it ended up being relatively easy, if for no other reason than "central government" has never been a strong suit in Afghanistan. US forces, moving quickly from supporting various factions to end Taliban rule to chasing down al Qaeda, essentially had them cornered in mountainous regions in the eastern region of the country. What has become known as the Battle of Tora Bora ensued with the happy result that the single individual most responsible for the attacks upon the United States managed to get away, his whereabouts still unknown.

Since that time, the US military has stayed behind in Afghanistan, using a shifting rationale that always seems to end up with "Al Qaeda is still out there," which, while true, is far more an admission of failure than a rational determinant of policy.

The American body count in Afghanistan has been on the rise recently as the Obama Administration has pushed a Marine-led offensive against the Taliban in an effort at political and military stabilization. This decision was made without a whole lot of fanfare, public discussion, or comment, and came after the election of a President by a public one of whose over-riding concerns was the unending, open-ended wars. Rather than seek a draw-down, Obama has pushed a troop increase in Afghanistan and the single biggest military effort since the actual invasion and anti-Taliban conflict eight years ago.

I would offer an historical parallel - the French war in Algeria. The on-going war against groups in Algeria that were seeking independence ended up draining various French governments of legitimacy until, for one last go-round, Charles DeGaulle insisted that only he could (a) end the war; and (b) do so in a way that saved France's honor and democracy. After taking office, he did (a) in a counter-intuitive way. He increased French military and police presence and began a systematic operation that included assassination, counterintelligence in a way unprecedented at any time previous, torture, indefinite detention, and other details that should sound familiar. The process was effective to the extent that the Algerian independence movement was rid of various terrorist elements, and French forces and civilians had a much easier time.

After an intense period where the conflict existed far below the radar of the French public, DeGaulle indeed pulled the French out of Algeria. The cost to the Algerians was quite high; the cost to French prestige and "honor" was also quite low, although it should have been far higher.

Something similar is happening in Afghanistan, with the added bonus of a military offensive led by an entire division of the best troops the United States possesses. While the initial action against al Qaeda was certainly justifiable, the ever-growing list of "must"'s that accompanied our initial action has become a living thing, existing independently of any human effort to create rational justifications for it. Whatever costs, whether political, military, fiscal, our diplomatic, always seem to be at stake when questions arise as to our presence in Afghanistan.

I have no clue as to how to get "unstuck" from our current position of "stuck" in Afghanistan; I only recognize that we are, indeed, stuck, and I see certain parallels between our own effort to stabilize the country, keep the Taliban from regaining power (which would be an open invitation to al Qaeda, it seems to me), and the French effort to tamp down the terrorist campaign the Algerian rebels waged both in Algeria and in France. Sometimes, reality leaves us with nothing but bad choices, and it would be wise to recognize that.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Book Lists

There are always lists of books purporting to be what one should read. There are also books readers love. A friend of mine sent me along a link that puts them side by side.

1. ULYSSES by James Joyce*
2. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald*
4. LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov*
5. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
6. THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner*
7. CATCH-22
8. DARKNESS AT NOON by Arthur Koestler
9. SONS AND LOVERS by D.H. Lawrence*
10. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck*
11. UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry
12. THE WAY OF ALL FLESH by Samuel Butler
13. 1984 by George Orwell*
14. I, CLAUDIUS by Robert Graves
15. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf
16. AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Theodore Dreiser*
17. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers
18. SLAUGHTERHOUSE-FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut
19. INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison*
20. NATIVE SON by Richard Wright*
23. U.S.A. (trilogy) by John Dos Passos
24. WINESBURG, OHIO by Sherwood Anderson*
25. A PASSAGE TO INDIA by E.M. Forster
26. THE WINGS OF THE DOVE by Henry James
27. THE AMBASSADORS by Henry James
28. TENDER IS THE NIGHT by F. Scott Fitzgerald
30. THE GOOD SOLDIER by Ford Madox Ford
31. ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell*
32. THE GOLDEN BOWL by Henry James
33. SISTER CARRIE by Theodore Dreiser*
34. A HANDFUL OF DUST by Evelyn Waugh
35. AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner*
36. ALL THE KING'S MEN by Robert Penn Warren
37. THE BRIDGE OF SAN LUIS REY by Thornton Wilder*
38. HOWARDS END by E.M. Forster
39. GO TELL IT ON THE MOUNTAIN by James Baldwin*
40. THE HEART OF THE MATTER by Graham Greene
41. LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding*
42. DELIVERANCE by James Dickey
43. A DANCE TO THE MUSIC OF TIME (series) by Anthony Powell
44. POINT COUNTER POINT by Aldous Huxley
45. THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway*
46. THE SECRET AGENT by Joseph Conrad
47. NOSTROMO by Joseph Conrad
48. THE RAINBOW by D.H. Lawrence
49. WOMEN IN LOVE by D.H. Lawrence*
50. TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller
51. THE NAKED AND THE DEAD by Norman Mailer
52. PORTNOY'S COMPLAINT by Philip Roth*
53. PALE FIRE by Vladimir Nabokov
54. LIGHT IN AUGUST by William Faulkner*
55. ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac*
56. THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashiell Hammett
57. PARADE'S END by Ford Madox Ford
58. THE AGE OF INNOCENCE by Edith Wharton
59. ZULEIKA DOBSON by Max Beerbohm
60. THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy
62. FROM HERE TO ETERNITY by James Jones
64. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger*
65. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess
66. OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham
67. HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad*
68. MAIN STREET by Sinclair Lewis
69. THE HOUSE OF MIRTH by Edith Wharton
70. THE ALEXANDRIA QUARTET by Lawrence Durell
71. A HIGH WIND IN JAMAICA by Richard Hughes
72. A HOUSE FOR MR BISWAS by V.S. Naipaul
73. THE DAY OF THE LOCUST by Nathanael West
74. A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway*
75. SCOOP by Evelyn Waugh
77. FINNEGANS WAKE by James Joyce (attempted)
78. KIM by Rudyard Kipling*
79. A ROOM WITH A VIEW by E.M. Forster
82. ANGLE OF REPOSE by Wallace Stegner
83. A BEND IN THE RIVER by V.S. Naipaul
84. THE DEATH OF THE HEART by Elizabeth Bowen
85. LORD JIM by Joseph Conrad
86. RAGTIME by E.L. Doctorow*
87. THE OLD WIVES' TALE by Arnold Bennett
88. THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London*
89. LOVING by Henry Green
90. MIDNIGHT'S CHILDREN by Salman Rushdie
91. TOBACCO ROAD by Erskine Caldwell (appeared in a college theatrical production)
92. IRONWEED by William Kennedy
93. THE MAGUS by John Fowles
94. WIDE SARGASSO SEA by Jean Rhys
95. UNDER THE NET by Iris Murdoch
96. SOPHIE'S CHOICE by William Styron*
97. THE SHELTERING SKY by Paul Bowles
99. THE GINGER MAN by J.P. Donleavy
100. THE MAGNIFICENT AMBERSONS by Booth Tarkington

3. BATTLEFIELD EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard
4. THE LORD OF THE RINGS by J.R.R. Tolkien*
6. 1984 by George Orwell*
7. ANTHEM by Ayn Rand
8. WE THE LIVING by Ayn Rand
9. MISSION EARTH by L. Ron Hubbard
10. FEAR by L. Ron Hubbard
11. ULYSSES by James Joyce
12. CATCH-22 by Joseph Heller*
13. THE GREAT GATSBY by F. Scott Fitzgerald
14. DUNE by Frank Herbert*
15. THE MOON IS A HARSH MISTRESS by Robert Heinlein
16. STRANGER IN A STRANGE LAND by Robert Heinlein*
17. A TOWN LIKE ALICE by Nevil Shute
18. BRAVE NEW WORLD by Aldous Huxley
19. THE CATCHER IN THE RYE by J.D. Salinger
20. ANIMAL FARM by George Orwell
21. GRAVITY'S RAINBOW by Thomas Pynchon
22. THE GRAPES OF WRATH by John Steinbeck*
23. SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE by Kurt Vonnegut
24. GONE WITH THE WIND by Margaret Mitchell
25. LORD OF THE FLIES by William Golding
26. SHANE by Jack Schaefer
28. A PRAYER FOR OWEN MEANY by John Irving
29. THE STAND by Stephen King*
31. BELOVED by Toni Morrison*
32. THE WORM OUROBOROS by E.R. Eddison
33. THE SOUND AND THE FURY by William Faulkner
34. LOLITA by Vladimir Nabokov
35. MOONHEART by Charles de Lint
36. ABSALOM, ABSALOM! by William Faulkner*
37. OF HUMAN BONDAGE by W. Somerset Maugham*
38. WISE BLOOD by Flannery O'Connor
39. UNDER THE VOLCANO by Malcolm Lowry
40. FIFTH BUSINESS by Robertson Davies
41. SOMEPLACE TO BE FLYING by Charles de Lint
42. ON THE ROAD by Jack Kerouac
43. HEART OF DARKNESS by Joseph Conrad
44. YARROW by Charles de Lint
46. ONE LONELY NIGHT by Mickey Spillane
47. MEMORY AND DREAM by Charles de Lint
48. TO THE LIGHTHOUSE by Virginia Woolf
49. THE MOVIEGOER by Walker Percy
50. TRADER by Charles de Lint
52. THE HEART IS A LONELY HUNTER by Carson McCullers
53. THE HANDMAID'S TALE by Margaret Atwood
54. BLOOD MERIDIAN by Cormac McCarthy
55. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE by Anthony Burgess
56. ON THE BEACH by Nevil Shute
58. GREENMANTLE by Charles de Lint
59. ENDER'S GAME by Orson Scott Card
60. THE LITTLE COUNTRY by Charles de Lint
61. THE RECOGNITIONS by William Gaddis
62. STARSHIP TROOPERS by Robert Heinlein
63. THE SUN ALSO RISES by Ernest Hemingway
66. THE HAUNTING OF HILL HOUSE by Shirley Jackson*
67. AS I LAY DYING by William Faulkner
68. TROPIC OF CANCER by Henry Miller
69. INVISIBLE MAN by Ralph Ellison
70. THE WOOD WIFE by Terri Windling
71. THE MAGUS by John Fowles
72. THE DOOR INTO SUMMER by Robert Heinlein
74. I, CLAUDIUS by Robert Graves
75. THE CALL OF THE WILD by Jack London
76. AT SWIM-TWO-BIRDS by Flann O'Brien
77. FARENHEIT 451 by Ray Bradbury
78. ARROWSMITH by Sinclair Lewis
79. WATERSHIP DOWN by Richard Adams*
80. NAKED LUNCH by William S. Burroughs
82. GUILTY PLEASURES by Laurell K. Hamilton
83. THE PUPPET MASTERS by Robert Heinlein
84. IT by Stephen King*
85. V. by Thomas Pynchon
86. DOUBLE STAR by Robert Heinlein
87. CITIZEN OF THE GALAXY by Robert Heinlein
89. LIGHT IN AUGUST by William Faulkner*
91. A FAREWELL TO ARMS by Ernest Hemingway
92. THE SHELTERING SKY by Paul Bowles
94. MY ANTONIA by Willa Cather
95. MULENGRO by Charles de Lint
96. SUTTREE by Cormac McCarthy
97. MYTHAGO WOOD by Robert Holdstock
98. ILLUSIONS by Richard Bach
99. THE CUNNING MAN by Robertson Davies
100. THE SATANIC VERSES by Salman Rushdie*

The asterisks are books I have read, trying not to duplicate books on both lists.

What is up wit the reader list having all that L. Ron Hubbard and Ayn Rand garbage on it? Adding, there are books I should read that I haven't read yet. Well, I'm still breathing so there's time . . .

The First Great American Novel

Matt Yglesias has been pimping Moby Dick as a great American novel that explains much about our national character. He takes issue in the linked post with Kevin Drum's dismissal of Melville's whale of a tale, but I have to admit that I think Yglesias is wrong. I am firmly in Hemingway's camp on this one; the first great American novel is Huckleberry Finn, as long as you take in to account that a long piece of fiction writing is not necessarily a novel. Long fiction is probably as old as the art of story-telling. The "novel" is a particular type of fiction, one that seeks to illustrate not just the events it chronicles, but the entire zeitgeist through character, setting, dialogue, plot, and so forth. By this set of criteria, Moby Dick for all its many virtues is not a novel; Huckleberry Finn is.

For that matter, in the manner of 20th century American novels, I would think that An American Tragedy or Sister Carrie, for all that Dreiser wasn't a master story-teller, are far more in the way of "novels" than The Great Gatsby. Similarly, Faulkner's tales of southern families in decline are much less novels than his contemporary, Steinbeck. In particular East of Eden and The Grapes of Wrath are better representatives of the novel than The Sound and the Fury (the first section of which is nearly unreadable) or As I Lay Dying.

Furthermore, I would offer this radical notion (and I know that Feodor is going to huff and puff about what follows): among our post-war fiction authors, few can match three novels by Stephen King for capturing not just the spirit of the age, but tossing our fears about these times back in our faces, forcing us to confront our own inner demons. 'Salem's Lot, The Stand, and It each in their own way are far more than, in turn, a pulp-style "vampires comes to small-town America", "Armageddon times 2", and "Killing a monster at a class reunion". The first is as much a sociological treatise on the American small town in an age of decline, which offers a glimpse of why a creature such as Barlow would have so much ease at taking it over. The Stand, while bearing a similarity to the fiction of destruction so prevalent of the late-1970's, was borne out of an attempt by King to write a novel about the 1960's. His struggles ended when he decided to write a novel about the 1970's instead, but in the process managed to present the degradation the United States had suffered in that decade. In It, we have the fictionalized account of how the children who lived in the shadow of our Cold War insecurities managed to conquer those fears, even at great cost. It is a very different novel than The Stand precisely because it is far more optimistic about our national character. Written and published during the years of High Reaganism, it offers the opportunity, I think for King to picture his generation doing what he believed they could have done, and perhaps should have done, rather than, as he wrote much later, trading in changing the world for the Home Shopping Network.

In any event, literary criticism is a bit like music criticism, much more a reflection on the prejudices and limitations of the critic than any inherent merits or demerits of the subject under criticism.

Moby Dick is a great read (even though the various chapters on whales and whaling should have been included in an appendix or something), and it does have quite a bit to say about our national character, or at least Yankee character, it isn't a "novel" in the way Huckleberry Finn is a novel.

Tactics, Strategy, & Healthcare Reform

The announcement that Pres. Obama will speak before a Joint Session of Congress tomorrow is "In Change of Tactics, Obama To Lay Out Must-Haves for Healthcare Plan". A change in tactics would assume, first, that up to this point, it was never his plan to lay before Congress exactly what he wanted. It would also assume, it seems to me, an understanding of Obama's tactical plan on getting healthcare reform passed, something I doubt anyone but the President understood. At the same time, changing tactics is usually a sign of flexibility in seeking a strategic goal. The goal is getting healthcare reform passed. How that gets done shouldn't be set in stone.

I admired the way the President got his stimulus bill through Congress, even as the House added billions of dollars, the Senate cut billions of dollars, and then in conference the President got pretty much what he wanted. Considering the massive size of the stimulus plan, that is no minor achievement. He seemed to read the situation pretty well, understood the way it was going to run, and when push came to shove, got his way. While we have borne witness to an explosion of right-wing crazy-talk over the past month, the result of it all is the hardening of the Democratic majority in favor of serious reform, and the sidelining of once-major players including Charles Grassley of Iowa (he of dead-granny fame). It seems pretty clear that the August shakedown has resulted in more clarity, rather than less. With the President appearing before Congress tomorrow - and despite various headlines as to what, exactly, will be said and not said, where the various lines in the sand will be drawn - it seems to me the end-game will be clear before the last applause has died and the President is escorted out of the House Chamber.

More to the point, I still place my bets with the President. As a close observer of how he plays the game, I have decided I wouldn't want to play chess with the man. He probably would have the game figured out and won after seeing my first or second move. Unlike Bill Clinton, he doesn't display his political acumen for all to see; he does what he does quietly; the conventional wisdom that he has lost his mojo is a bit premature. When healthcare reform is passed, my guess is all the hand-wringing will be forgotten.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Credibility Versus Truth: A Case Study Comes To My Attention

I wrote yesterday concerning Christopher Lasch's view of mass media in an age of diminishing expectations. My last sentence in that blog post I find is pertinent to a little dust-up between a couple bloggers and journalist Joe Klein.
The source of the problem lies in our willingness to tolerate "credibility" as a test of worthiness.

The links provide the substance of the conflict, and the commentary, particularly by the granddaughter of independent journalist I. F. Stone, is insightful (even more, I think than Greenwald's) on part of the issue at hand.
the main thing I took away from the discussion is that for journalists like Klein the world is divided into practitioners/insiders and totally ignorant outsiders. He was surprised that I brought up the Solomon story, or that I took seriously the Judy Miller issue, because in his world that's really inside baseball. In fact when I pointed out how abysmal the Washington Post's editorial page had been, under Fred Hiatt's tenure, he and another Journalist standing nearby assured me that Fred is an “editorialist” so the ordinary rules don't apply and I don't need to tar the whole paper with his sins. Its as thought they imagine that each story is a stand alone piece and that there's a hard and fast line between opinion and “fact” when every day, and every way, we've seen any pretense to that distinction run right into the ground. Has any adult person thought that since Media Whores Online (of sainted memory?).

Two points here. First, the whole insider/outsider business is actually quite amusing, albeit sad. In Klein's world, indeed in the world of most of our elites in politics and its related professions (not including prostitution, I think), the techonocratic insistence that our politics is far too complex for the great unwashed to understand and therefore comment on properly (bloggers don't have editors!!) might have made me ask Joe, had I been there, "So, Joe, if no one but you experts understand this shit, why do you have the job you do? Who do you write for, or are you just jerking off?"

Second, the mythical line between "journalism" and "editorializing" exists only in the heads of people like Klein and others like him. Editorial judgments effect every part of a newspaper, from what stories are reported to how sources are evaluated to the final copy. Everyone knows it.

I find it amusing that Klein is revealed, yet again, as having extremely thin skin.
For the past several years, Greenwald has conducted a persistent, malicious campaign to distort who I am and where I stand. He is a mean-spirited, graceless bully. During that time, I have never seen him write a positive sentence about the US military, which has transformed itself dramatically for the better since Rumsfeld's departure (indeed, he ridiculed me when I reported that the situation in Anbar Province was turning around in 2007). I have never seen him acknowledge that the work of the clandestine service—performed disgracefully by the CIA during the early Bush years—is an absolute necessity in a world where terrorists have the capability to attack us at any time, in almost any place. Nor have I seen [him] acknowledge that such a threat exists, nor make a single positive suggestion about how to confront that threat in ways that might conform to his views. Therefore, I have seen no evidence that he cares one whit about the national security of the United States. It is not hyperbole, it is a fact.

The central criticism Greenwald leveled at Klein originally was the revelation by Klein that he had not actually read a piece of legislation he was insisting said something it did not in fact say. When Greenwald called him out, not only on his intellectual dishonesty but his professional laziness as well, Klein tried to backpedal, while refusing to grant Greenwald's main point, i.e., that by misrepresenting the bill in question, and refusing to acknowledge that he, Klein, had not read the bill and should therefore be disqualified from commenting on it in the guise of an expert. The entire dust-up was amusing, and Klein has now revealed himself as a bitter, grudge-holding small-minded, thin-skinned child.

Yet, there is more at stake here than an argument among a few folks over journalistic ethics. In a world where people were serious about the question of whether information was true or false, Klein's many, many errors of both fact and judgment would have disqualified him years ago from consideration as a serious commenter, far less serious than Glenn Greenwald (whom, I should note, I also criticized yesterday) or even a "nobody" blogger.

Yet, Klein maintains his position not because of class or even his insider status. For reasons that have far more to do with what the currency of our current journalistic and political culture than anything else, Klein maintains "credibility" in the absence of any question regarding consistency (his output over the years actually follows a pretty predictable pattern of fawning obeisance followed by harsh criticism of the former object of his political affection, with occasional outbursts of sanity interspersed with a dedication to whatever passes for momentary conventional wisdom) or even attention to something as trivial as factual accuracy, let alone non-trivial as the truth. While class status and his professional status as an insider - a player of the game - certainly contribute to his on-going presence in our public discourse, after nearly two decades of his abuse of our patience, one would think he would currently be editing obituaries somewhere, rather than playing a game in which he pretends to talk about stuff he doesn't understand, and we don't get to ask him how he understands it.

Greenwald's original sin - and the subsequent rant at the barbecue on the Cape - was not to call Klein's factual accuracy in to question. Not at all. The whole incident is enlightening precisely because it threatens his credibility, the only real currency inside players in our national politics consider of worth. Far worse than being called out as intellectually dishonest, or mocked for his thin skin, Klein is outraged that people are questioning his credibility. It's one thing to be called a liar; it's another all together to be laughed at because one is shallow and professionally incompetent.

This entire incident shows that it might just be a test of our culture if we continue to tolerate the Joe Kleins of the world.

Monday, August 31, 2009

Democratic Russian Roulette

This is an idea I just can't get behind.
Going back to what I wrote about Friday night, there's this item from Glenn Greenwald calling for a purging of corporate centrists from the Democratic Party. Naturally Glenn includes the Obama administration in his rundown of villains.

While Greenwald calls for "systematic primary challenges," which sounds pragmatic and strategic, I continue to worry that the constant Well The Dems Suck Ass, Too drumbeat will have the unintended consequence of spreading disillusionment among the progressive activist base of the party -- disillusionment that could result in several negative outcomes.

Cesca is right. Greenwald is wrong. And patronizing.
What rational person would ever think that it's a bad thing to force incumbent members of Congress to have to justify their actions to voters, compete within their own party over conflicting ideas, and maximize the instruments available to citizens to keep their representatives accountable? Supporting primary challenges against incumbents who enable policies that you think are bad and harmful is about the purest expression of democracy there can be.

This rhetorical is more a legal than a political statement. I consider myself, for the most part, rational. Yet, I can think of a whole host of reasons why there aren't primary challenges against many, many sitting members of Congress and the US Senate. Cost. The incumbency effect. The party withdrawing support for a challenger.

Politics isn't a wholly rational enterprise. Politicians do not take kindly to folks who try to bump them out of office because of a policy disagreement. When those disagreements are clothed in the often self-righteous mantle of principle, it becomes even more dangerous. There are fewer people more repellent to me than a person who believes that there is no counter-argument others can make against their righteous possession of the truth. Greenwald has crossed that line quite a bit recently, and with his equation of the Bush and Obama Administrations because of the latter is continuing policies Greenwald (and I, I shall admit) find distasteful, we are entering territory that I had thought we left behind after the 2000 elections. While hardly a progressive - and I defy any one to read what I or other true lefties have written that argue otherwise - Obama is far preferable to the Bush Administration. Indeed, it is a handful of Senators who currently are holding up health care reform, and they can be by-passed quite easily. We are much further along on any number of issues than we would have been had John McCain won. While it is certainly true we do not have a perfect group of Democratic politicians in office, our situation is far preferable to any we have been in since Jan 20, 2001. I defy any one - any one - to show me otherwise.

Rather than get in a huff because no one wants to play the game according to your rules, it might behoove some folks to accept the game as it is and win under its rules. We've done pretty well so far. Whining because others aren't bowing before another's superior logic or grasp of the facts, or because another plays the game better is childish.

I would add two things. I have nothing against primary challenges. I am only saying the kind of thing Greenwald is calling for here is not only practically impossible, it would be self-defeating. Also, some of the so-called Blue Dogs got support from lefty-blogger activists. There is no reason in the world why the same thing can't happen again.

Truthiness: The Media In An Age Of Diminishing Expectations

Like many left-leaning liberals, before I encountered the various media-critic sites on the 'net like Media Matters for America and The Daily Howler, I was frustrated with the on-going lie about "liberal media bias". The myth persists, mostly through sheer repetition than anything else; no amount of evidence can kill it. It is a zombie-lie, but far hardier. Even shooting it in the head won't kill it.

While both projects are noble, not to mention occasionally earnest, they are always at a disadvantage, as the August Town Halls proved. While it is important to siphon the crap out of our public discourse as much as possible, the root problem is not one of ideology or even class cohesion (it seems that Somerby's point at the Howler). Rather, it is our cultural desire for spectacle and the shift from "truth" to "credibility" as a test of reliability.

We no longer live in a time when "truth" and "falsehood", at least as tests of factual accuracy, have any currency. All that one needs is "credibility". If you don't believe me, ask Christopher Lasch (from pp. 74-75):
[T]he rise of mass media makes the categories of truth and falsehood irrelevant to an evalusation of their influence. Truth has given way to credibility, facts to statements that sound authoritative without conveying any authoritative information.

. . . President Nixon's press sexretary, Ron Ziegler, admitted that his previous statements on Watergate had become "inoperative". Many commentators assumed that Ziegler was groping for a euphemistic way of saying that he had lied. What he meant, however, was that his earlier statements were no longer believable. Not their falsity but their inability to command assent rendered them "inoperative." The question of whether they were true or not was beside the point.

Related to this notion of "credibility" as a test of public statements - a notion that clarifies the infuriating stupidity of journalists from Judith Miller's multiple stories in the New York Times in the run-up to the Iraq War sourced to a single individual whose worth was always in question by his official handlers to Tim Russert's being played by the Bush White House because of his publicly-admitted deference and willingness to extend the benefit of the doubt to them - is the whole concept of what Daniel Boorstin refers to as the "pseudo-event", which Lasch expands under the heading, "Politics as Spectacle". He says of Nixon that "the politics of spectacle reached a tragicomic climax" during his Administration; fortunately for him, Lasch died before the full flowering of the Bush Administration. From p.78:
Systems analysts and "social accountant" take it as an article of faith that "with the growth of the complexity of society," as one of them, Albert Biderman, once put it, "immediate experience with its events play an increasingly smaller role as a source of information and basis of judgment in contrast to symbolically mediated information about these events." But the substitution of symbolically mediated information for immediate experience - of pseudo-events for real events - has not made government more rational and efficient, as both the technocrats and their critics assume. On the contrary, it has given rise to a pervasive air of unreality, which ultimately befuddles the decision makers themselves. The contagion of unintelligibility spreads through all levels of government. It is not merely that propagandists fall victim to their own propaganda; the problem foes deeper. When politicians and administrators have no other aim than to sell their leadership to the public, they deprive themselves of intelligible standards by which to define the goals of specific policies or to evaluate success or failure.

So, it doesn't matter that thousands of Americans died afterward; when President Bush landed on a carrier and gave a speech saying that the war in Iraq was over, with a banner hanging behind him proclaiming "Mission Accomplished", that was all that was needed. Pointing out the facts of the matter were and still are irrelevant. All that really mattered were those images, so reminiscent of bad Hollywood films, giving the President an air of authority and even hyper-masculinity that all Presidents should have. This combination of "credibility" and the pseudo-event is indeed poisonous to our politics, yet there seems to be no way to combat it as long as we continue to allow these fake non-events to be considered worthy of coverage. Were ours not a pathological society, no news bureau would cover such a stage-managed piece of crap as a United States President pretending he's Tom Cruise in Top Gun. Were we part of a healthy society, Sarah Palin wouldn't have made it out of Wasilia, let alone to the VP spot on the national Republican ticket.

I would like to repeat that it is important to hold the media accountable for the many misrepresentations and falsehoods they offer the public; yet, it would seem that the target is misplaced. The source of the problem lies in our willingness to tolerate "credibility" as a test of worthiness.

Music For Your Monday

For some reason, the autumnal weather puts me in the mood for Pink Floyd.

I know this is blasphemous to some folks, but just the fact that on their last tour Floyd went all the way back and performed "Astronomy Domine" (even though they didn't include it on the DVD, darn it) has impressed me. Improved technology has made the song better, to my ears anyway, maybe even what they envisioned when they first recorded it.

This performance of the first part of "Echoes", from the film Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii has always impressed me. Yes, it's a bit taxing for those with musical ADD, but the whole song takes up side 2 of their Meddle LP, so at least it's only part of the track. . .

Finally, also from both Meddle and Pink Floyd Live at Pompeii, I love the focus on drummer Nick Mason, and I can't even say why. This is "One of These Days".

Eugene Bromley Johnston, Jr.

One day when I was in third grade, I came home from school to find a stranger sitting in our TV room. Short, with short dark hair, he was no one I knew. I asked my mother, with whom he was chatting, who he was. "That's your Uncle Eugene." That was one of three times I met the one they all called "Junior".

My mother's family wasn't much in to nicknames, but to his five brothers and two sisters he was only, ever Junior. Far too smart for his own good, clever with his hands, Junior was a bit of a prodigy. He would take old radios he found put out for garbage, strip them, and build his own. He had a prodigy's ability to build and fix anything electrical, and was helped by his Uncle Bob. A bit too much it might seem. At seven or eight, his mother asked him to fix the family toaster. After fiddling with it, he set it down and said, "Well, that ought to do the bitch quite nicely." My grandmother was aghast, but Junior insisted that his Uncle had told him those were the magic words that helped finish any job.

He missed a year of school because, at 15 or 16, he lost his sight. While it was restored, the exact cause was never known. He still graduated a year early.

At 17, he came home and announced that he had fallen in love and was getting married. To a woman eleven years older. One of his brothers told me that his parents' reaction so horrified him he hid his own whirlwind marriage at 18 from his whole family.

Junior lined up with hundreds of other young men on December 8, 1941 to join the military. He decided on the Navy, and after boot campt at Great Lakes Naval Training Station in Chicago, entered military intelligence, and disappeared from view until he called his parents after V-E Day to tell them he was alive. Of his time in the service, I know a scrap or two. Among his many tasks, he was part of a unit that parachuted in to concentration camps ahead of the Allied advance. After the first couple had been discovered with the inmates murdered and the staff fled, Eisenhower insisted that the camps needed to be controlled before the troops arrived. The things he saw I can only imagine, but lives were saved because of what he did.

He also co-ordinated with the French Jewish community and the Swiss government to get Jews across the border from Vichy and occupied France, saving them from inevitable torture and death. Did he save them all? Of course not. While the Allies dithered over many aspects of the Holocaust, including refusing to bomb the rail lines to Auschwitz-Birkenau, in this effort, at least, they did manage to thwart the attempted destruction of at least part of the European Jewish community.

He would go on, after the war, to serve his country in a civilian capacity. He was visiting our little house in Waverly that day back in 1973 because, as an engineer with Boeing in Seattle, he was meeting with colleagues at IBM in Owego, NY who were working on a project with him. Eventually, that project would become public in the guidance system of cruise missiles.

Like many people, his personal life was beset by tragedy. He lost a step-daughter in the mid 1950's to leukemia.

The last years of his life were spent struggling with diabetes and the various problems that come with it. He also struggled, as did many WWII vets, with the memories he carried with him. The added weight of having been told, over a half century before, that none of those events could be discussed, nearly broke him. In his younger brother, David, he found an outlet, as he and David both shared the same burden of being told to forget what could never be forgotten. They managed to console one another a bit, I think, or at any rate found a sympathetic ear in their older years.

There are only my mother, her brother David, and her brother Ivan left now. Of the eight children Eugene and Emma Johnston bore that survived to adulthood, these three, with their varying lives and families and fortunes are all that remain. God grant them peace and strength.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

For Intelligence, It's Not Very Smart

I have two uncles who served in military intelligence, both my mother's brothers. One, her oldest brother, now in hospice care, entered the Navy the day after Pearl Harbor was attacked by the Japanese. After boot camp at Great Lakes in Chicago, he disappeared. Literally. His family didn't hear from him again until the day after the Germans surrenedered, when he called from Switzerland to let his mother and father know he was alive and would be home . . . sometime. The other, her younger brother, entered the Marine Corpse after graduating from high school in 1945. First, he prepared for the invasion of Japan. When that was cancelled due to the Japanese surrender, he was ready to muster out, only to have his plans change; he spent a year in China, first in Tientsin, then in Peking, attached to the First Marine Division. The war against the Japanese may have been over, but Mao Tse-tung's insurgency against the Republic of the corrupt Chiang Kai-shek went on. I have many written reminiscences of his activities then, and later as a reserve member of the Corps (including being called back to active service in Korea).

In both cases, while the stories I have heard range from the fanciful to the improbable, I also have enough corroborating evidence to conclude that, even if memory has failed on details, and individual incidents may have become overlaid with a patina of flag-waving and even nostalgia, the aura of romantic adventure around them might just be accurate.

The legacy of wild-west, free-wheeling, extra-legal activities that we think of as "intelligence operations" in many ways leads back to one man in our history, William "Wild Bill" Donovan. Donovan was recruited by Pres. Franklin Roosevelt to set up the Office of Strategic Services, a quasi-military intelligence group that would gather information on the enemy and coordinate paramilitary operations under cover of classification. Donovan's legacy included not just a willingness to try all sorts of wild stunts, and fanciful schemes; he also started a tradition of recruiting club and fraternity men from the Ivy Leagues, particularly Yale, and searched the United States Navy in particular for individual operations officers (while never confirmed, either by my Uncle or any research I could find, I am convinced my mother's oldest brother, being both Navy and far too bright for his own good, was an OSS field operative; why else would he be in landlocked Switzerland at the end of the European war? I do know what he was up to, and I'd tell you, but then I'd have to kill you). After the war, like all good bureaucratic entities, the OSS struggled on, eventually transmogrifying, via the 1948 National Security Act, in to the Central Intelligence Agency.

Whether it was the various coups in the Third World or assassination plots against foreign leaders, or even figuring out what our various adversaries were up to, the CIA's record, even should one consider its most ardent supporters, can only generously be described as "mixed". Its later history, from the Iran-Contra operation through the establishment of various "black site" prisons in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, shows the CIA seems too attached to activities that are outside not only any legislative mandate, but any legal architecture at all. In the meantime, the CIA had two abject failures at the core of its mission. It was caught completely flat-footed in 1989 as Central Europe dismantled its communist governments one by one (and later in the 1991 coup in the Soviet Union). The discovery of long-serving double agent Aldrich Ames, who not only fed information to the Soviet Union on our activities for years, but also may have been responsible for the deaths of many sources of information, should have undermined any confidence in the CIA.

Alas, failure in reality has little traction against the romance of possibility, especially when the argument continues to be heard the we as a nation "need" an intelligence apparatus. So what if it is susceptible to penetration by other states? So what if it acts outside any legal structure, torturing persons it kidnaps, "disappearing" them a manner more reminiscent of tin-pot dictators in South America than a supposed world leader? So what if it missed the most important single political event since the end of the Second World War, the one event toward which it was supposed to be working?

We do need some sort of intelligence apparatus. We do have pretty effective ones, especially the National Security Agency, although it has its failures and over-zealous moments as well. While bureaucratic inertia and intransigence may brake any attempt at real reform, the announcement that Attorney General Eric Holder is going to set up an investigation of the CIA's activities during the Bush years is a good start. It would be nice if we could do more, not least including maybe asking whether the structure of our intelligence activities - which stretch across all branches of military service, and several civilian departments as well (did you know there's an intelligence division in the Agriculture Department?) - isn't just a wee bit cumbersome and far too complex and redundant to be effective. It might also call in to question the legacy of Bill Donovan. The "best and the brightest", David Halberstam's ironic phrase for the second generation of folks who lived Donovan's dream in to the morass of southeast Asia, have failed us far too often, and we need to rethink the whole scheme of intelligence.

Virtual Tin Cup

Amazon Honor System Click Here to Pay Learn More