Thursday, July 28, 2011

A new definition

-- While the American left is content to see an Iraqi dictator terrorizing the Iraqi people, the Bushies in D.C. are not.

-- These developments--a Republican administration recognizing that support for dictators in Third World countries is a losing proposition; a commitment to post-WWII-style nation-building in Iraq--are terrific news for people who care about human rights, freedom, and democracy.

-- But wait! Taking out Saddam means dropping bombs, and dropping bombs only creates more terrorists!
That's the lefty argument du jour, and a lot of squish-brains are falling for it, but it's not an argument that the historical record supports. The United States dropped a hell of a lot of bombs on Serbia, Panama, Grenada, Vietnam, Germany, Japan, and Italy. If dropping bombs creates terrorists, where are all the German terrorists? Or the Italian terrorists? Or the Vietnamese terrorists?
-- But wait! Iraq isn't in cahoots with al Qaeda, so why attack Iraq in the war on terrorism?
Because we're not just at war with al Qaeda, stupid. We're at war with a large and growing Islamo-fascist movement that draws its troops and funds from all over the Islamic world. Islamo-fascism is a regional problem, not just an al Qaeda problem or an Afghanistan problem. To stop Islamo-fascism, we're going to have to roll back all of the tyrannous and dictatorial regimes in the Middle East while simultaneously waging war against a militant, deadly religious ideology.
The above quotes are from a 2002 column by Dan -- not Michael -- Savage, the popular sex columnist and, despite his pigheaded bigotry and from-the-safety-of-Seattle warmongering, liberal hero. Lest you think that was a mere aberration, here he is in 2008 mockingly declaring that "Islam is peace" and fretting about the growing threat from Muslim immigration and the imposition of Sharia law, sentiments that would fit right in over at Pam Geller's cesspool. And let's not forget this gem from last year, "They Blow Up Buses, Don't They?"

But hey, when all is said and done, Savage is mean to Republicans. And what kind of purist, holier-than-though prick focuses on a guy's support, as a grown man and popular columnist, for killing hundreds of thousands of civilians in Iraq as part of what would be just the first step in a broader war against Islam, ya know? Nevertheless, taking a cue from America's most progressive bigot, I propose the following definition:
Dan Savage: The frothy mix of smug condescension and warmongering that is sometimes the byproduct of membership in the Democratic Party.
Update: Meanwhile, over at, Dan Savage is saying mean things about a powerless, washed-up Republican politician. All's forgiven!

Monday, July 25, 2011

Experts: Drone Strike Has the 'Hallmark of al-Qaeda'

A missile from what witnesses described as an unmanned aerial vehicle left dozens of people dead and countless more injured in Pakistan's volatile tribal region this morning, a deadly strike that experts say shows all the classic signs of Islamic terrorism.

Carried out just before dawn, Pakistani officials say the attack killed at least 55 people, including dozens of women and children. According to experts, the obvious ruthlessness and casual disregard for innocent life are clear signs al-Qaeda – or maybe some other Muslims – were behind the strike.

“Killing people is a tried and true tactic of Islamists,” said One Important Expert who picked up the telephone. Indeed, the expert notes al-Qaeda first burst onto the scene with the novel idea of taking the lives of others with the bombing of the USS Cole in 2000 – the first recorded intentional killings since the time of Jesus Christ, renowned savior and author of the Declaration of Independence.

“9/11 was the culmination of their chilling 'kill people' approach to warfare,” the expert said. “That human beings were deliberately blown to bits bears the hallmark of al-Qaeda,” he added. “For sure.”

Another Serious Counter-Terrorism Analyst whose daughter showed him how to use Google Translate said that a previously unknown terror group, “Concerned Islamists of Arabia,” had claimed responsibility for the attack in a posting on an Arabic language forum for fans of the cartoon, My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic. Or maybe somebody retweeted it or who knows?

“While the facts aren't all in, the posting strongly suggests an Islamic hoof in the attacks,” said the expert, attributing the strike to “lingering and widespread anger in the Muslim world over Twilight Sparkle's pretty implausible dialogue in 'The Cutie Mark Chronicles.'” The expert added that the perpetrators may be a splinter group associated with Islamic Jihad, Hezbollah, Hamas or the the guy he sat next to on the Megabus to New York who his friends said kind of looked like Osama.

An effort to verify the experts' claims and engage in responsible journalism was not attempted by press time.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Norwegian killer is actually Grover Norquist!

This article from AlterNet -- "Koch-Funded Tea Party Heavyweight Tim Phillips Spoke at Norweigan Killer's Political Party Event" (sic) -- is as dishonest as anything you'd find in Commentary back when tying anti-war protesters to International Communism was all the rage. Reading the actual news stories upon which the piece is based, one finds that the event in question was not personally hosted by a mass murderer, as strongly suggested by the headline, but by Norway's right-wing Progress Party, which has the second most seats in parliament.

Another small problem: though the headline refers toit as the "Killer's Political Party," upon closer reading we learn that he in fact only "claimed to be a disgruntled former member." But hey, if you've already got the "Koch-Funded Tea Party Heavyweight" template ready to go, why let the silly truth screw up a good smear?

Friday, July 22, 2011

Congress slashes military spending; increases Pentagon budget by $17 billion

“Who knows where the needle will end up?” said Thomas Donnelly, director of the Center for Defense Studies at the American Enterprise Institute. “Nobody has defense as a high priority. It’s increasingly looking like everybody wants to toss the military overboard.”

-- "Pentagon braces for much deeper military spending cuts as part of debt deal," The Washington Post, July 20, 2011
Oh no! Before the invading Chinese armies hit U.S. shores, let's consider where Americans' money goes when they pay their income tax:

Meanwhile, from Reuters earlier this month:
A $649 billion defense spending bill for next year easily passed the U.S. House of Representatives on Friday after four days of debate . . . .

The measure, approved 336-87 in the Republican-dominated House, would raise the Pentagon's base budget for the 2012 fiscal year beginning on Oct. 1 by about $17 billion over current levels, despite intense pressure to slash the $1.4 trillion U.S. deficit.


Obama asked for about $690 billion for military spending for 2012. This House bill does not include funds for U.S. nuclear weapons programs or military construction, which come in other bills and add about $33 billion to defense spending.
To the 14 million-plus Americans (officially) unemployed: don't you wish you were getting tossed overboard like the military?

Thursday, July 21, 2011

'Either way, the problem is Republicans'

The liberal blogosphere is beyond parody at this point. Amanda Marcotte, last seen remarking that when it comes to the war on terror, Obama "has been wisely if quietly winding it down" -- tell that to a Pakistani, Afghan, Somali or Yemeni citizen -- offers two theories regarding the peace president's nature: that he's a benevolent man whose glorious progressive agenda has been blocked by the evil Republicans, in which case those at fault are the evil Republicans; or that he's an evil, vile man, in which case the blames lies at the feet of . . . those evil Republicans.

I'm rather fond of the latter theory:
This theory holds that Obama passed himself off as a moderate Democrat to get elected, but is in fact a secret conservative who has been aching for a chance to destroy Social Security, amongst other programs. I found this theory a little confusing at first, because it seemed to me that his secret plan would have been easier to enact when he had a majority party in Congress, so I asked around on Twitter, and this is the explanation I got: he couldn't destroy Social Security then, because there's enough liberals in the Democratic Party that they could have stopped him. It was only after Republicans got control of the House and went crazy that he had enough cover to do what he always hoped he could do.

The problem: Well, basically the Republicans. If the batshit crazy Republicans weren't there giving secretly conservative Obama cover, none of this would be happening.

So, from my point of view, no matter what evil or non-evil lurks in Obama's heart, the problem is that this country keeps electing frothing-at-the-mouth crazy Republicans, and if voters would stop doing that, we wouldn't be having one politically provoked crisis after another. Sure, if Obama is a secret conservative, that is a problem. But we can't actually know that. But what we do know for a fact is that no matter what lurks in Obama's hearts, none of this would be happening if Republicans didn't win the House. So I think that my priorities are just fine, thank you very much.
The premise is that all Bad, Evil Ideas are the exclusive intellectual property of the GOP. There's not even a throwaway line about the Blue Dogs. More troubling, however, is the idea that -- putting aside their origin -- Democrats like Obama ought not be held accountable when they, in the liberal blogger telling of it, take GOP ideas and run with them. Indeed, it's suggested that to do so would be to engage in the mere adolescent nihilism of a Nader-voting "newly minted leftist," one who fails to recognize that one party in this country is Good, the other Evil

Notice what's missing in all of this: the half-dozen wars the U.S. is openly fighting, including that since-forgotten humanitarian intervention to stop the Next Hitler in Libya, one Obama unilaterally (and illegally) launched and for which he has yet to receive congressional authorization. Marcotte ridicules the notion of Obama as dictator, but as president he of course has massive power and could have, for instance, begun pardoning non-violent drug offenders or prevented the Treasury Department from sticking taxpayers with the bill for bailing out Wall Street. When it comes to foreign policy, he really does have dictatorial power and as commander-in-chief could start bringing the troops home immediately, which you'll recall many liberals calling for from the back bumpers of their Volvos when that other guy was president and the murder of poor foreigners was still seen as an important, moral issue.

But we lefties don't care about that kind of stuff anymore, right? The killing is not being carried out by an evil Republican, so it's explainable: Obama's only killing people because of . . . . the evil Republicans. And that makes it okay, or at least less bad. Sure it's regrettable, if we can be bothered enough to regret it, but don't you say "impeachable" if you still want to get on MSNBC.

Can't we just talk about Eric Cantor?

Just in case you've gotten any ideas about Marcotte, though: "I'm going to be accused of being a partisan shill for Obama," she acknowledges. "I just want to say that I'm really not."

So that's settled.

Cuts in military spending? Don't get your hopes up

"The Pentagon is bracing for spending cuts far deeper than what it was expecting just a few weeks ago," screams the lead of this Washington Post story, bringing tears of joy to anti-American zealots like your humble blogger who would like nothing more than to see the U.S. empire go the way of its Roman predecessor. Alas, as is often the case with articles in the corporate media, the full truth, if its reported at all, is buried at the bottom as an afterthought. What matters to inside-the-Beltway readers is not the facts, but the narrative.

So, before getting to the truth -- which I too am burying, though if you were able to figure out that the circle goes in the round hole I'm sure you've already guessed it -- the Post goes to all the usual, outraged suspects for some choice quotes about how, gosh darn it, no one in Washington is standing up for the military-industrial complex.

“Who knows where the needle will end up?” Thomas Donnelly of the neoconservative American Enterprise Institute tells the paper. “Nobody has defense as a high priority. It’s increasingly looking like everybody wants to toss the military overboard.”

So how 'bout that truth, huh? While some lawmakers are indeed talking of cutting defense spending by hundreds of billions of dollars, if only, as I suspect, to deflect attention from the obvious outrage of slashing the relative pittance spent on social programs to deal with the supposed debt problem, the Post waits until paragraph 16 -- one six -- to inform us that the massive, sky-is-falling cuts talked of in the lede aren't really cuts at all.

Indeed, while the "cuts" discussed in the article may "sound like big numbers, some analysts said they represent a reduction in projected spending only and that the Pentagon’s budget would actually continue to grow slightly, about at the rate of inflation."

That's Washington: not increasing war spending by as much as once projected, but still in fact increasing it, is what constitutes a "cut." Actually cutting programs like Social Security and Medicare, on the other hand, is called shoring them up. Isn't politics fun?

It starts with an 'F' (and the answer's not 'freedom')

In economics, like in war, the best propagandists prefer the language of euphemism to straightforward, ignoble fact, the latest in obfuscatory jargon to the jarring reality of truth. Why, that's not a dead mother whose children are uncontrollably weeping over her corpse as we speak, that's collateral damage; that's not a fraudulent investment that turned out bad for some rich banker who may, god forbid, have to cancel his daughter's private tennis lessons with Steffi Graf, that's a toxic asset.

Like any other illusionist, the better practitioners of the art of literal and economic warfare cloak their actions in mystery – things are never quite as simple as they seem. No, that box doesn't contain two women, just one who I cut in half! No, we're not just stealing your money to give it to rich people, we're restoring systemic confidence! And they do it for the same reason: to deceive.

Larry Summers, former top economic adviser to Barack Obama, is a master when it comes to making theft and exploitation sound banal and almost respectable. In an Op-Ed this week in the Financial Times, “How to save the eurozone,” Summers predictably urges policymakers in Europe to follow the American lead and guarantee one thing and one thing only: Keep the rich, well, rich. And make 'em richer if you can.

To just come out and say that anybody making above a certain six-figure threshold gets to play by different rules than the unwashed masses would be uncouth, albeit true. Summers, faults aside, knows this. But when the purported economic genius speaks of the need for “a clear commitment that, whatever else happens, no big financial institution in any country will be allowed to fail,” there's no getting past the meaning.

And when he condescends that "Teaching investors a lesson is a wish not a policy”? He's being a bit of a dick, yes. But he isn't wrong.

Who, after all, besides those engaged in direct action, is going to hold the likes of Goldman Sachs accountable when the entire ruling establishment is beholden to them? Those with the most power and money in America have long since succeeded in buying the support of that criminal class famous for its fidelity to little more than power and money: politicians. Barack Obama, the much-vaunted community organizer of change, raked in more money from Goldman than John McCain in 2008, and he's gone on to serve the financial elite well since in office, occasional grumbles notwithstanding. Embarrassing perp walks for those who raped the global economy with fraudulent investment schemes financed with cheap government cash is a nice fantasy, but barring an incident with a live boy or a dead girl, it'll remain just that.

Summers, however, expresses some concern over the threat of populism, which has manifested itself in popular protests from Greece to America but not so much in actual policy. The pitchforks are starting to appear, though, and some timid lawmakers could be unserious enough to listen to those wielding them. For that sort Summers has a stern message: “punishing creditors for the sake of teaching lessons or building political support” – there's the allusion to that annoying will of the people again – “is reckless in a system that depends on confidence.”

As a rich man whose own wealth and power has only grown in the face of failure, advocating and helping draft the policies that led to the Internet and housing bubbles chief among them, it's no surprise Summers, who makes tens of thousands of dollars an appearance to make wealthy bankers feel important, believes actual performance should be no obstacle to obscene wealth. And it comes as no shock that he's smugly defensive about it, ridiculing as myopic and driven by emotion attempts to hold the investor class accountable. A lack of personal responsibility and rugged individuality is to be denounced in the lower class, the lazy welfare cheats, not expected from the ruling one.

As other defenders of the bailouts and the accountability-free culture that rules the financial sector, Summers doesn't blame the ongoing economic woes around the world on bankers and the politicians that, listening to folks like him, diverted trillions of dollars in taxpayer money to the very financial interests that helped sink the global economy. No, even as small banks and businesses that were actually responsible are being denied loans because all the money has been redirected to the big boys, Summers maintains the global economic depression is due to the fact that not enough of the lower and middle classes' wealth has been siphoned off by the ultra-wealthy.

Indeed, the problem according to Summers' telling of it is that short-sighted policymakers allowed Lehman Brothers to fail like it were – imagine! – some poor janitor laid-off by his Fortune 500 employer. “The adverse consequences of the shattering effect that had on” – you know what's coming – “confidence are still being felt now,” he says. Employed no less than six times, “confidence” is code-word for “theft,” surpassed in euphemistic quackery only by Summers' appeal to the need for “restoring arithmetic credibility.”

Tom Friedman, hand over your crown.

Thoroughly deserved and unapologetic mockery aside, let's be clear about what Summers is advocating – and the policy his protégé, Barack Obama, is implementing from the White House: the rich, “whatever else happens,” must stay rich, even (nay, especially) at the expense of the poor. If you are deemed rich enough, “big” enough, you and your company will continue to be big and rich for eternity. Financial institutions like Bank of America, Morgan Stanley, Goldman Sachs – they are all too big to fail, unlike you or I. The financial status quo is perfection, bequeathed to us by a loving, day-trading god. Change is a campaign slogan, not an economic policy.

Unless the change in question is the poor getting poorer. That's cool.

Far from radical reform, the Obama/Summers goal is maintaining things exactly as they were before the economic crash of 2008, with a small but increasingly wealthy class calling the shots and free to make mistakes, often criminal in nature, with impunity. At the same time, an increasingly large impoverished class is asked to go further in debt to the same class it bailed out – someone needs to keep buying the cheap crap our economy runs on – with the gap between the politically connected haves and the politically exploited have-nots ever-expanding.

“Systemic confidence,” in this context, is a nothing but an academic-sounding deception, a fanciful way of conning the masses into believing the theft taking place is something other than just a standard stick-'em-up robbery. In the pursuit of “confidence,” the profits of big business are privatized – we aren't communists! – while their losses are socialized. When it comes to the trials and tribulations of the rich, we're all in this together. When it comes to the perks? Get off my lawn, I'm calling security.

There's an admittedly over-used but entirely appropriate word, starting with an “f,” that describes the form of economic system advocated by the likes of Summers and being imposed by the ruling elite. It isn't “freedom.”

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Tool of American imperialism insufficiently pro-American

Like the United Nations, which is supposed to oppose its members attacking each other in wars of aggression but let the United States invade Iraq without so much as a stern non-binding condemnation, the Organization of American States (OAS) is more often than not a tool of American imperialism than a foe. But, like the UN, serving as a tool of its most powerful, wealthy member is not enough for some politicians, who will (grand)stand for nothing less than complete subservience to the goal of U.S. hegemony.

Earlier today, House Republicans lambasted the OAS at a hearing held by the Foreign Affairs Committee, voting to block U.S. payments to the multilateral body. U.S. support for the OAS is "hurting the people of Latin America," Rep. Connie Mack (R-FL) said, according to excerpts posted by the Center for International Policy. "There is a better way to support Latin America, and that is..." -- come on, you know it -- "to pass free trade agreements."

"Let's not continue to fund an organization that's bent on destroying democracy in Latin America," Mack added, noting the case of Honduran President Manuel Zelaya, who was overthrown in a military coup. "[I]t was the OAS who was helping Zelaya, who by the way was instigating the real coup in Honduras by trying to take over that country and trying to take away the right of its citizens to elect a president."

"Let's not continue to fund an organization that's bent on destroying democracy in Latin America," Mack added.

Mack could of course be dismissed as a raving idiot -- and he of course is. But he is, unfortunately, a raving idiot who chairs the House subcommittee on the Western Hemisphere. Let's go over that again: he's a chairman. Someone trusts this man with a gavel. And, even more unfortunately, don't kid yourself -- this is the best the U.S. political system can do.

Here's the thing about Honduras, though: while I don't much care about Manuel Zelaya, or any politician for that matter, I do care -- and please don't groan -- about blatant bullshit being passed off as the truth. And the truth is that Zelaya, far from "trying to take away the right of [Honduras'] citizens to elect a president," was seeking to hold a non-binding referendum on whether his country should have a constitutional convention to revise a document crafted by its previous military dictatorship. If the referendum had been approved, Honduras could have, but would not have been legally bound to, hold said convention, where delegates could have -- potentially -- voted to remove the provision that forbids presidents from serving two consecutive terms.

It's all a bit confusing, yes, but a lot more fact-y.

Zelaya, meanwhile, was not running for reelection, as he was legally barred from doing so. Had the referendum gone forward and been passed, and assuming a convention was held that removed the presidential term limits, Zelaya could run again if he wanted at some point in the future. This would not, however, be akin to taking away Hondurans' right to vote, but could in fact be see as expanding their right to vote by allowing them to reelect a former president if they should so choose.

But Mack didn't even utter the stupidest thing that was said at the hearing. That honor was left to fellow Florida Republican David Rivera (it's not secession, I know that, but what do you call it when you forcibly require a state to leave the union?). Courtesy the Center for International Policy are these two nuggets of congressional wisdom:
  • “It kind of reminds me of that scene in Animal House where the college pledges, pledging the fraternity, as part of the ceremony to become a member of the fraternity you have to get paddled, and every time he gets paddled he says, ‘Please, sir, may I have another.’"
  • “How much longer are we going to say to the OAS, ‘Please, sir, may I have another?’ I understand a little bit about Stockholm Syndrome, where the hostage becomes enamored with their persecutor. And I don’t know if that’s going on with this administration or some who support involvement in the OAS, but maybe it is.”
Animal House, folks. I don't have the transcript, but presumably he worked in a reference to Big Daddy and Old School during questioning.

As Jonathan Schwarz often notes, the hardest part about analyzing members of the political class is figuring out whether they're wicked, evil liars are just really that stupid. Having spent my fair share of time interviewing members of Congress, I wouldn't dismiss out of hand that they are just stupid. But then stupid and evil go together like cookies and milk.

Assassinations are so hot right now

Obama became a great man -- a noble man -- when he released his birth certificate, made some Beltway insiders laugh and ordered an extrajudicial killing. All within the span of a week! Tell us more, Esquire:
Before the fall brings us down, before the election season begins in earnest with all its nastiness and vulgarity, before the next batch of stupid scandals and gaffes, before Sarah Palin tries to convert her movie into reality and Joe Biden resumes his imitation of an embarrassing uncle and Newt and Callista Gingrich creep us all out, can we just enjoy Obama for a moment?

Before the policy choices have to be weighed and the hard decisions have to be made, can we just take a month or two to contemplate him the way we might contemplate a painting by Vermeer or a guitar lick by the early-seventies Rolling Stones or a Peyton Manning pass or any other astounding, ecstatic human achievement? Because twenty years from now, we're going to look back on this time as a glorious idyll in American politics, with a confident, intelligent, fascinating president riding the surge of his prodigious talents from triumph to triumph. Whatever happens this fall or next, the summer of 2011 is the summer of Obama.

Due to the specific nature of his political calculus, possibly not a single person in the United States — not even Obama himself — agrees with all of his policies. But even if you disagree with him, even if you hate him, even if you are his enemy, at this point you must admire him. The turning point came that glorious week in the spring when, in the space of a few days, he released his long-form birth certificate, humiliated Donald Trump at the White House Correspondents' Dinner, and assassinated Osama bin Laden. The effortlessness of that political triptych — three linked masterpieces demonstrating his total command over intellectual argument, low comedy, and the spectacle of political violence — was so overwhelmingly impressive that it made political geniuses of the recent past like Reagan and Clinton seem ham-fisted. Formed in the fire of other people's wars, other people's financial crises, Obama stepped out of Bush's shadow that week, almost three years after taking over the presidency.
The spectacle of grown men fawning over other, albeit more powerful, grown men and elevating them to the status of philosopher-kings is hilariously infuriating in its own right. But think about this: A writer pitched this story. It was accepted, meaning somebody read the proposal and said, "yes, let's put this in our magazine." It was edited, meaning another adult -- perhaps more than one -- read the finished piece and felt the ripped-from-a-13-year-old's-diary tone and the Bieber-like fawning was appropriate for discussing national politics. And then it was published.

Don't worry, though, Ezra Klein: I'm sure the president will still ask you to homecoming.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Liberal politics

An excerpt from Gabriel García Márquez's One Hundred Years of Solitude:
He sat in a chair between his political advisers and, wrapped in his woolen blanket, he listened in silence to the brief proposals of the emissaries. They asked first that he renounce the revision of property titles in order to get back the support of the Liberal landowners. They asked, secondly, that he renounce the fight against clerical influence in order to obtain the support of the Catholic masses. They asked, finally, that he renounce the aim of equal rights for natural and illegitimate children in order to preserve the integrity of the home.

"That means," Colonel Aureliano Buendía said, smiling when the reading was over, "that all we're fighting for is power."

"They're tactical changes," one of the delegates replied. "Right now the main thing is to broaden the popular base of the war. Then we'll have another look."

One of Colonel Aureliano Buendía's political advisers hastened to intervene.

"It's a contradiction," he said. "If these changes are good, it means that the Conservative regime is good. If we succeed in broadening the popular base of the war with them, as you people say, it means that the regime has a broad popular base. It means, in short, that for almost twenty years we've been fighting against the sentiments of the nation."

He was going to go on, but Colonel Aureliano Buendía stopped him with a signal. "Don't waste your time, doctor," he said. "The important thing is that from now on we'll be fighting only for power."
Barack Obama, speaking to a group of college students back in March:
[Lincoln’s] first priority was preserving the Union. I’ve got the Emancipation Proclamation hanging up in my office. And if you read through it, turns out that most of the document is – those states and areas where the emancipation doesn’t apply because those states are allied with the Union, so they can keep their slaves. Think about that. That’s the Emancipation Proclamation. Right?

So here you’ve got a wartime president who’s making a compromise around probably the greatest moral issue that the country ever faced because he understood that right now my job is to win the war and to maintain the union.

Well can you imagine how the Huffington Post would have reported on that? It would have been blistering. Think about it. “Lincoln sells out slaves.” There would be protests. They’d run a third-party guy.
Moral integrity is for losers. And you want to win, right?

(via Tim Cavanaugh)

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

'Unconditional' allegiance is for machines, not people

"My country, right or wrong," is a thing that no patriot would think of saying except in a desperate case. It is like saying, "My mother, drunk or sober."
-- G.K. Chesterton
Merely by uttering the word "war," that which is unquestionably a crime during times of peace -- murder, for instance -- becomes socially acceptable, "legal," lifting the burden of conscience from those tasked with killing on behalf of their nation's politicians. Those who would normally be hung for the supreme moral crime of taking another's life are instead given parades and medals.

Or so that's what one writer for the liberal American Prospect believes. The law, you see, trumps morality; what you or I may think is wrong -- like murder -- is of no consequence so long as a politician and the proper legal authority (dare not ask how it gained its legitimacy) says it's alright. Responding to my recent piece critiquing the mindless paeans to the "service" of military members that pop up on every American holiday, regardless of the unjust nature of the cause they serve, the Prospect's Adam Serwer denounced my disgusting attempt to treat soldiers as regular human beings, not amoral machines. Writing on Economist writer Will Wilkinson's Google Reader feed (via Ryan Bonneville), he wrote:
The above post is attacking servicememebers as dishonorable professional killers. Those are the words they've used. We should support servicemembers unconditionally because their service is unconditional, and I have yet to hear a rational argument for why allowing servicemembers to disregard civilian authority over the military is a good idea, which is essentially what calling for civil disobedience by servicemembers is.
Just as you wouldn't support a friend "unconditionally" -- I sure hope Jeffrey Dahmer's amigos abandoned him -- I dare say members of the military ought be held to the same moral standards as anyone else and at the very least not to have their immoral behavior (for which those who send them into war bear the bulk of the burden) cheered, their "service" fawned over. The same goes for their command-in-chief. If one's involved in the carry out of unjust wars of aggression as part of what Martin Luther King described as the greatest purveyor of violence in the world, the U.S. government, then we shouldn't offer them unadulterated and unconditional praise, for starters. If someone's involved in an immoral enterprise, they should be called out on it and encouraged to follow their duty as a human being capable of moral thought to not perpetrate unjust killing, not cheered on and reassured that their line of employment is right and just.

Serwer thinks he has an answer for the controversial notion that one's moral responsibilities don't end the moment of enlistment:
What if General Petraeus decides that the Afghan surge isn't big enough, so he's morally obligated to take over and make the decision for himself, to save us from ourselves? He's morally obligated to protect his country in the way he thinks is best right? Who cares what the law says?

The whole point of civilian control is to ensure that the people with guns don't get to do whatever they want, that the power given them can only be used with the consent of the political branches, elected by the people. And if you don't think that power is being used properly, than you can change that through the political process.
But no one's arguing, of course, that soldiers should merely do whatever they feel. The argument, at least as I have made it, is that killing people is wrong, except in instances of absolute self-defense, no matter what politician or politically appointed court sanctions it. Now, abiding by one's conscience is typically consistent with the whole not murdering people thing -- poor foreigner or not -- but where it differs, it's subservient to that latter, foundational principal of any truly civilized society. Again, the argument is that people ought to defy orders to kill -- and ostracize, rather than worship, the institutions tasked with carrying out the state-sponsored carnage -- not that they should kill more people if they feel like it.

And instead of wading through a corrupt political process designed to thwart change and serve the needs of the powerful, the legitimacy of which Serwer asserts but does not bother to demonstrate, it's the responsibility of all human beings with a capacity for moral thought, be they uniformed or not, to reject blind obedience authority and the "legal" facade it provides to immoral acts. The idea that only the political process is an acceptable means of challenging injustice treats the average person as but an unthinking cog in the machinery of the state, bound to abide by whatever "lawful" edicts their rulers issue, a worldview that does not allow for principled civil disobedience. We, soldier and citizen, are not entitled to determine what's right and wrong, whether it be a preemptive war or, say, the institution of slavery -- that's left to legislatures.

As I argued on Wilkinson's Google Reader feed (you have to subscribe, I believe, to see all 60-plus comments):
God forbid someone exercise their own moral conscience when it conflicts with a "lawful" order to murder given by some politician. Us proles are powerless to shape the world we live in, you see -- and thank god for that. If soldiers ignored their orders to kill, why, all those wars the U.S. has fought as a last resort and only in self-defense over the last 60 years (help me out here) may never have been fought!

In all seriousness, though, praising as honorable U.S. servicemembers' "unconditional" (and vital) role in unjust wars of aggression -- holding out blind allegiance to authority as a virtue, not a vice, completely divorced from the direct consequences of that allegiance -- perpetuates a dangerous, ignoble myth that U.S. military actions are just or honorable when they are anything but. The U.S. military is not, TV commercials aside, a better funded Peace Corps. No, that doesn't mean we ought to go around spitting on the troops; recruiters, maybe. We're all fallible human beings capable of making morally questionable decisions (particularly if we should choose to be a mere unthinking, conscienceless tool of the state, "a mere shadow and reminiscence of humanity," in the words of noted anti-American Henry David Thoreau). But glorifying what the military does as a public service is a disservice to millions of dead Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, Iraqis, Afghans and Nicaraguans, to name a few. If we're going to make future wars of aggression less likely, we need to stop idolizing the solider as some democratic ideal -- and maybe then there will be less people willing to suspend their better judgment and fight them.

As for the "professional killers" bit: In my experience, actual members of the military are much less reticent to admit what it is members of the U.S. military are asked to do than writers for The American Prospect.
Serwer's rebuttal, in its entirety:
We do have some job openings, but nothing quite as prestigious as writing for Code Pink, I'm sad to say.
Seems like a nice guy.

Monday, July 04, 2011

On 'supporting the troops'

Playing today in the 2011 Women's World Cup, the American national team chose to celebrate their first goal by hailing -- er, saluting -- the hundreds of U.S. soldiers in attendance.

No other country on Earth, barring perhaps North Korea, worships its military in such a prevalent, mindless and such seemingly oblivious fashion as the good 'ol USA. To wit, sportswriter Adrian Wojnarowski on Twitter today thanked "our troops and veterans" for all of their "sacrifices: past, present and future," as if one's gratitude toward professional killers shouldn't be based on, say, the actual specifics of and toward what end they are professionally killing. Repelling an alien invasion? Praise away, I guess. Invading and occupying Iraq -- or Iran? Not so much.

It serves no one any good, especially 17 or 18 year olds who may be considering enlisting, to idolize military "service," particularly when soldiers are killing and being killed not in the name of freedom, but in the service of empire and corporate power. People might mean well when they salute or tweet their thanks to Our Brave Young Men and Women -- or it just might be self-serving, flag-draping political bullshit -- but by doing so they're only perpetuating the dangerous notion that there's anything honorable about the U.S. military.

A final, noteworthy detail upon which I will not comment any further: That women's soccer game where the players did the whole creepy, right-arm raised "salute"? It was played in Germany.

Photo Credit: Alex Grimm/Getty Images

Sunday, July 03, 2011

A few thoughts about travel journalism

1. Is this really all it takes to write a travel piece on Latin America for a U.S. newspaper: a few anecdotes about how poor and dangerous the locals seem -- no specifics about places to go or things to see -- mixed in with a couple of lines about the current political situations? I followed a stoned 19-year-old up an active volcano, almost died, and made about $2.38 in Google ad revenue. The author of the piece in question came out of their rum-and-coke fueled haze just long enough to write 800 forgettable words about . . . where did they travel again? . . . and probably made a few hundred bucks. Boo.

2. There are tens of millions of Spanish speakers in the United States. There's really no excuse for a paper the editors of The Seattle Times to not be aware of the rather significant differences in meaning between año and ano, or for the writer not to educate them and insist they get it right before their piece goes to print (psst: one means anus).

3. Which brings me to this anecodote from the author's trip to Mexico City:
All New Year's Eve, rather than wish the police gathered on major corners "Feliz Ano Nuevo," I'd say, "Police Ano Nuevo" ... and they'd return big smiles and answer, "Igualmente" ("Same to you!") [sic].
Uh, what? "Feliz Año Nuevo" -- with the crucial tilde -- means "Happy New Year." "Police Año Nuevo" means jack shit. First, "police" in Spanish is "policía." Second, "Happy New Police"," outside of a haha-police-kinda-sounds-like-feliz doesn't make any sense whichever language one's using.

Dear Publishers of the World: If you want a gringo to wander around and get lost in major Latin American cities for the benefit of your readers, I'm your guy. I'll even check Google Translate before submitting my piece.