Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Christmas Post

[Crossposted from BlueOregon]

Sample story, from the Associated Press: "State funding for arts and culture, essentially an endangered species for the past few years, is poised to make a dramatic comeback in 2007."

Another: "task force appointed by Governor Ted Kulongoski is recommending the Oregon legislature pass bills to prohibit discrimination against gays and lesbians and to allow civil unions."

While enjoying sleigh rides and sugar plums yesterday, I had a roast-beast-influenced moment of clarity: the age of the politics of personal gain may finally have run its course. These politics, replete with populist rhetoric, first blossomed in the 1980s with Reagan and his morning in America. As political winds shifted, the left's long run of power crashed against the right's new langauage about empowering individuals by shucking off the encroachment of the federal government into people's pocketbooks and religious lives. A decade later, the collapse of the Soviet Union solidified the right's confidence that liberalism--that scourge of woo-woo bleeding heartism--was dead. What emerged through the 90s was a crass, selfish, and harsh Darwinian politics.

One of the largest failures of the current political movement is that, despite all its populist and religious sentiment, at bottom, it feels hollow and bereft. During Christmastime, almost everyone in America participates in the cultural rituals of giving. Whether we're Christian or Buddhist, we begin to think about our loved ones and what we might give that would make them happy. This simple act of thinking of the welfare of others is deeply enriching. Particularly as we age, on Christmas day the joy of unwrapping gifts tends to center more on watching the surprise and pleasure on others' faces rather than the anticipation of our own gifts. In those warm moments, we realize that our happiness is connected to those around us; we give and strangely, we feel fuller.

But folks like Karl Rove and Grover Norquist adopted the opposite strategy: grab as much as you can for yourself and stick it to the other side. This is the free market in action. (It is no surprise that John Calvin, the intellectual father of Puritanism, was also a proponent of individual liberty. In Calvin's prescription, those who were wealthy were favored by God, while the poor demonstrated their damnation. More than a little of this thinking by Christian Conservatives added a harsh, cruel element to GOP rule.) Reagan's rhetorical genius was to make this seem like a noble and hopeful philosophy. The neocons dusted a lot of his old speech off after 9/11, hoping to see the same benefit. But the naked abuse of power by Bush and DeLay may finally have exposed the soullessness of this political philosophy.

The politics of personal gain mean forever identifying enemies and beating them back--gays, athiests, terrorists, illegal aliens, liberals, defeatocrats, environmentalists. There's a logic to this, and it meant the GOP has dictated political discourse for 26 years. But it is also depressing and sad. I think one of the reasons we welcome Christmas is because it gives us a moment to stop and re-orient ourselves toward the benefit of others. It centers us, makes us feel like we understand what's really important. Maybe, finally, we are about to do the same as we consider public policy. In the past, it has led to such non-free-market solutions as urban planning and free beaches--our parents' gifts to us.

Or maybe I just got caught up in the spirit of the season.

Friday, December 15, 2006

Punishing the Evildoers

A recent review of Thant Myint-U new history of Burma The River of Lost Footsteps got me thinking. The premise of the book, hinted at by the title of the review ("Walled Off"), is that, far from damaging the despotic regime, international sanctions have actually propped it up. In the darkness, suggests Thant, oppression flourishes:
The generals don’t want to engage with the wider world, and they feel that they have little to lose through further isolation. “It is this isolation that has kept Burma in poverty; isolation that fuels a negative, almost xenophobic nationalism; isolation that makes the Burmese army see everything as a zero-sum game and any change as filled with peril; isolation that has made any conclusion to the war so elusive, hardening differences; and isolation that has weakened institutions—the ones on which any transition to democracy would depend—to the point of collapse. Without isolation, the status quo will be impossible to sustain.”
Burma is far from being a top-shelf foreign policy problem for the US, but this situation--to engage or not to engage--is certainly familiar. Take North Korea as a more publicized quandry. For decades following the Korean war, the US has had sanctions against Korea. Although its economy grew in the 60s and 70s, this was followed by a steady decline and, later, famines and mass starvation. All the while, the US held fast on its sanctions. In the 90s, Clinton negotiated an agreement with NK when it appeared they were striving for nukes. Then in 2001, Bush severed all ties with the country, labeled it "evil" and waited while Kim Jong Il went ahead and developed nukes.

Throughout it all, there was a current of moralism running through US sanctions. We did not wish to "reward" a country for bad behavior, and so held fast with sanctions. We maintained this policy in Cuba over the same period, and adopted a similar policy against Iraq in the 90s. Until the rise of the neocons, this moralism was mainly a lefty impulse. In the 90s, following Tianamen, I was among a large cohort of liberals who thought Clinton a corporate stooge for renewing "most favored nation" trade status with the Chinese. I heard his claims that it would advance reform as pitiful bromides.

But with the neocons, the moralism shifted. Now we invaded countries we thought immoral. (Some of them, anyway--mainly those who had oil and were already our enemies.) The logic was roughly the same, but it was a far more manly action to invade rather than punish through whimpy trade sanctions. Killing people with bombs was cooler ("shock and awe") than starving them.

There is something that galls the sense of moralism in offering McDonald's to countries that do not voice agreement with the twin American values of freedom and liberty. The neocon solution offered a two-for-one outcome (your morality remains pure, but you still offer McDonald's); tests in the field have unfortunately shown the theory to be a failure.

I recall when Bush invaded Iraq, people said--bizarrely--"But at least he's doing something." Our morality does not seem to permit a foreign policy that engages without punishment. War, sanctions--something must be done. Invade the wrong country?--what the hell, we did something. Starve a few million Koreans?--at least we did not stand by and let Kim get away with his immoral insouciance.

The immediate future will be defined by marginal states. How we react to them, and whether we can resist our desire to mete out punishment for past sins, will determine how long they continue to define the era.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006


The Slow Fade

Israel admits it
has nukes, Bush shows the world his fiddle while CNN shows Baghdad burning, and the Arctic Ocean will be clear water by 2040. Plenty going on, but none of it disturbs the slow hum of my idling brainwaves. For 38 years, these periods have been interupted by bursts of ire, so there's hope. You'll be the first to know.

Monday, December 11, 2006


Back Tomorrow

A little slammed today, so I'll offer you a lame promise of vast riches to come. By which I mean more of the same old crap.

Friday, December 08, 2006


On the Radio Today

At the risk of inflating the audience who might witness my floundering and therefore cause further embarrassment, I was interviewed for a half-hour radio show on from 4:30-5:00 (PDT) this afternoon on Oregon Public Broadcasting. You can stream it live by following the link, and it should be archived there after five tonight.

Linux is one of the best known sources of "open source" code used to operate computers. Users can generally view the source code, alter it and re-distribute it, with the idea that open source software can then be developed as a public collaboration with no single corporation in charge of it's development and distribution.

While it began with computer code, open source is starting to move out of the realm of software and into society at large.

This week, we're exploring how open source is migrating into daily life and what some of the implications mean.

Host: Colin Fogarty

Guest: Eric Stauer, creative director of Creative Commons; Stuart Cohen, CEO of Open Source Development Lab; and Jeff Alworth, founder of Blue Oregon.

Don't say you weren't warned.

[Update. Analysis: I have a face for radio, but a brain for writing. Oy.]

Wednesday, December 06, 2006

[Language, Politics]


I just watched a clip of Al Gore on the Today show this morning. It's getting some attention because Gore called the Iraq debacle “the worst strategic mistake in the entire history of the United States.” I suspect righties will scream like a mashed cat that this represents further escalation in the polarization of politics. Recall, now that they're out of power, they're all for bipartisanship and power-sharing. But in fact, Gore was remarkably measured, offering his opinion without maligning Bush. If there's one man on the planet with the right to malign Bush, it's Gore. I think we all expect this from Dems--measured, tempered responses. This is alternately admirable or infuriating.

But the GOP? They're still fighting with knives. Bush, for example, can't make it through a public statement without maligning the Democrats:
And I understand how difficult that is, but this report will give us all an opportunity to find common ground for the good of the country -- not for the good of the Republican Party or the Democrat Party but for the good of the country.
So far as I'm aware, there is no Democrat Party in the US. That would be both silly (since there's a Democratic Party) and grammatically wrong. But Bush can't help but take a shot--even at the same moment he's nominally making a bipartisan comment. The GOP has always trusted that the fights would be unfair--for the good of the country, Dems would behave like adults; for the good of their wallets, the GOP would fight dirty and malign the adults. Bush is, as always, the silver-spoon frat kid who never grew up.

If I were Nancy Pelosi, I'd be kneecapping these jerks behind the scenes. "Since you can't have it both ways--share power and constantly slag the Dems--pick one. You can't grow up and treat the other party with adult respect, fine. But don't whine when we do what you did and prevent you from introducing legislation and joining in serious deliberation. You behave like children, you get the kiddie table with round butter knives and spoons."

It would be immensely satisfying to know that a little hardball was happening behind the scenes--I am so tired of the GOP schtick.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006


What We Knew and When We Knew It.

As I listened to the Robert Gates Senate confirmation hearings this morning, I was struck by how strange it to hear someone supposedly close to Bush telling the truth. I didn't listen to the whole hearing, nor do I doubt that he occasionally polished some apples ( Iran Contra ). But he did say, in direct contradiction to Bush, that we are losing the war. He said our current efforts suck (my word). He denied that Iraq was the central front on terror (he called it one of many--a fact that has become true since the invasion). He wouldn't even confirm that invading in the first place was a good call. If he were running as a Democrat for Congress in Ohio's Second, Bush would call him a traitorous liar ratfink chickenshit. But, alas for the man whose confectionary reality once lured Americans away from actual reality, now he must appoint traitors like Gates to the Department of Defense.

I wonder if in thirty years we'll still be debating Iraq the way we continue to debate Vietnam now. (In 2004, a decorated Vietnam vet lost that debate and the White House.) The debate now is "could we have known then what we know now?" Possibly we will move toward a national consensus on the question--no. It pacifies those who weren't paying attention and who now feel complicit. If we couldn't have known, who can now be blamed for the catastrophe. Tens of thousands dead, hudreds of thousands wounded, but it's a blameless war. We struck a similar bargain after the Indian wars and now we venerate Andy Jackson on our $20 bill.

All well and good, except that it's not true. In the months before becoming a blogger, I wrote a document I tried to pawn off on friends and relatives that pretty much got everything right. I was not a genius of war planning with special insight; just someone relatively familiar with the region and history and not blinded by the neocon dogma. After hearing Gates, I went and looked at that document (linked to the right of this post). Periodically, I go back and look at that to see how close I got things. Keep in mind that Bush and his brain trust at the Weekly Standard got it all wrong: no WDM, no joy from the population, no democracy, no peace, no oil, no regional stability, no new markets for American companies.

I broke things down into three categories on which Bush had based his invasion plan--strategic, legal, and moral--and rebutted them. Here are sections from I wrote:
Strategic Rebuttal
Bush implicitly offered a number of assumptions I identified and disputed.

Hussein can be killed.Will the Iraqis support the invading forces? Not a shred of evidence has been offered to support this. Instead, we have a society twice oppressed—first by their leader, and second by unwanted US intervention which has left the country impoverished for the past dozen years.

Invading Iraq Will Stabilize the Middle East. In fact, there is almost no scenario one can imagine in which an invasion of Iraq does anything but further destabilize the region.

Iraq, which Bush declares is in possession of WDM, will not use them during a US invasion. Err, okay.

World Opinion is Irrelevant. While world opinion would not translate into any kind of overt action, it is clear that continued US “interventions” are dependent on soft support, at a minimum. Wave bye-bye to all that, particularly in Muslim countries.
I argued that getting Hussein would be difficult and while it was, it turned out to be far easier than I expected. So I was off on that one. Three out of four ain't bad.
Legal Rebuttal
But in the case of Iraq, there [hasn't been] a shred of evidence that any of Iraq’s activities—tyrannical though they might be—could be considered to present a threat to the US or its interests.They might be called terrorism, but so far, Hussein had only employed them against his own people.No one has ever made the connection between Iraq and global terrorism.
This is one of the areas in which we're most quick to cling to the gray areas about what the intelligence said, but if that's the case, how did a pre-blogger in Oregon know there was no serious argument to be made? (Oh, and then there were all the other countries who opposed this at the UN. We forget about them, too. Poor, doddering old Europeans.)
Moral Rebuttal
No one has mentioned that attacking a sovereign nation—however corrupt the leader—leads to many deaths. Dubya has mentioned frequently his compassion for the Iraqi people. He cites it as one of his principal motives for wishing to attack—“Liberty for the Iraqi people is a great moral cause and a great strategic goal.” One even imagines that he’s sincere.... In prioritizing invasion above non-militaristic approaches, he’s made a clear distinction: American lives are more important than Iraqi lives. Most US citizens would agree with him, but the rub is that Americans aren’t at risk. For the Iraqis it’s damned by the hand of Hussein or damned by the hand of Bush—does anyone think they find Bush’s platitudes just compensation for their lives?
The most passionate argument was also the most arrogant. In placing themselves inside great narratives of liberation--Bush as Washington, Rummy as MacArthur, Wolfowitz as Paine--the neocons forgot the Iraqis. They offered Iraq the shining democracy of their own fantasies in exchange for Iraqi blood. It is not surprising that the neocons were mostly lifelong civilians--for them it was a wonderful way to play hero with no actual risk. The shushed us with their florid talk of freedom (with fingers tipped in ink), believing the argument beyond moral reproach. At the dawn of the fourth year of the war, is it still so moral?

Finally, I offered this observation about what might happen if we did invade, thinking further ahead than anyone in the White House or, apparently, Pentagon:
Sixty percent of Iraq is comprised of Shi’ites who have never held power in the country. Kurds comprise another 19%, and have, of course, never held power. The ruling Baath Party represents a Sunni minority of just 17% of the population. Hussein’s regime gained and maintains control through intense violence, which has left the country seething. If the warlords of Afghanistan are proving more difficult to manage than the American military predicted, how will the US or even the UN manage a post-Hussein Iraq? It is guaranteed to be a mess....

If the US invades Iraq—either with or without world support—there will arise situations we don’t currently envision.... Obvious other issues, such as the place Baghdad holds in the Muslim world, the Israeli conflict, tensions in Saudi Arabia, the Musharraf government’s stability, effects on terrorist support—all these Bush has ignored.
It's nice that some truths are getting told in Washington. But not nearly enough. Anyone paying attention knew this invasion was an illegal catastrophe waiting to happen. Sweeping that foreknowledge under the rug would be yet one more in a long line of casualties of this war.