Saturday, September 23, 2006

Enemies out of Friends

Americans who regard Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez's remarks at the U.N. General Assembly as a rant are missing the point, and the important lesson, of the event.

You have to read the entire remarks -- not just the soundbites about the "devil" President Bush. Chavez masterfully shows just how well he understands the United States and how little the reverse is true.

Alluding to Bush's assertion that "my country wants peace," Chavez stated:

That's true. If we walk in the streets of the Bronx, if we walk around New York, Washington, San Diego, in any city, San Antonio, San Francisco, and we ask individuals, the citizens of the United States, what does this country want? Does it want peace? They'll say yes.

The speech also shows just how completely U.S. government obduracy concerning Chavez has galvanized the Arab League, Latin American nations and even Europe into a bloc so utterly annoyed as to support granting Venezuela a seat on the U.N. Security Council -- just to irritate the U.S. delegation.

The odd thing is that Venezuela, which was for years little more than the Latin American country estate of the Rockefeller family, was historically the staunchest of U.S. allies in its region. Well handled, the country could have remained close enough, even under Chavez.

The problem is that the U.S. foreign policy establishment just won't take a potential lukewarm friend if a passionate enemy can be had.

The saga of Chavez's Venezuela brings to mind the country of another past demonizer of the United States, Ayatollah Ruholla Khomeini's Iran -- just as it recalls Osama bin Laden's Afghanistan and Saddam Hussein's Iraq -- all formerly allied countries turned battlegrounds.

This is the work product of the pinstriped diplomats at Foggy Bottom and their spy colleagues across the river in Langley, Virginia -- not jihadists.

Iran was a peaceable, Western-friendly kingdom in the early 1950s, when a democratic-minded nationalist, Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadegh, nationalized what was then called the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company (later changed to British Petroleum and now BP).

In a move that in hindsight seems deliciously ironic, the CIA paid Iranians to create disturbances disguised as Muslim clerics to set the climate for the 1954 coup that installed the Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The secularist Shah modernized industry but remained in power until 1979 thanks to the CIA-trained secret police SAVAK, known for decades after for its torture chambers.

Without the Dulles brothers running the State Department and the CIA at the time of the 1954 coup, Iran had every prospect of evolving into a parliamentary democracy, albeit influenced by the local Islamic culture. Instead, 25 years of smoldering wrath brought the mullahs and ayatollahs and their radicalized agenda.

Radicalized by whom, you ask? By the U.S. government's stupid disregard for cultural subtleties and its disdain for democracy abroad. In 1954, Iran could have satisfied its pride by owning its oil; now it wants nuclear weapons.

Will Iranian nuclear weapons go to Iraq's rebel cleric Muqtada al-Sadr or to Osama bin Laden? It's not in Teheran's interests to provide such power to loose cannons.

But leave it to the Ugly Americans at State and the torturers at the CIA and, hell, Iran will help Al Sharpton go nuclear -- just to show it can.

Friday, September 15, 2006

Hail to the Hoovervilles!

The fascinating thing about President Bush's Sept. 11 speech was not that more people preferred to watch football than hear him, but that, as is true of every one of his Republican predecessors since 1981, he resolutely offered Democratic presidents as models.

Bush said:

When Franklin Roosevelt vowed to defeat two enemies across two oceans, he could not have foreseen D-Day and Iwo Jima -- but he would not have been surprised at the outcome. When Harry Truman promised American support for free peoples resisting Soviet aggression, he could not have foreseen the rise of the Berlin Wall -- but he would not have been surprised to see it brought down.

Yet the characters of the patrician Franklin Roosevelt and the plain-speaking Truman were the furthest from that of George W. Bush, a profoundly lazy, overprivileged and mendacious man.

Why don't he and his fellow Republicans point to their own great presidents instead of attempting to steal luster from the heroes of their opposition's party?

Afraid to remind us of Herbert Hoover? The 31st president not only failed to respond to the Great Depression, but in July 1932 sent troops against poor World War I veterans encamped in the Washington Mall demanding the payment of a promised postwar bonus.

Or how about Richard Nixon? Is Bush afraid to recall Tricky Dick's burglary of the Democratic Party headquarters in the Watergate complex?

We all know now that Ronald Reagan was probably hiding Alzheimers during at least part of the longest role of his acting career, in which the White House was his stage. We also know that he was too cowardly to accept blame for the Iran-Contra scandal that involved his immediate staff: first he denied the whole thing, then he denied the drug dealing. For all the eponymous airports and buildings, who wants to suggest emulating Reagan too closely?

Is Dwight David Eisenhower's affair with Kay Summersby the reason why Republicans so rarely cite the postwar president? GOPers active in the 1980s and 90s purported to abhor the taint of adultery -- except when adulterers Newton Leroy Gingrich, 1998 House Speaker-elect Bob Livingston and Rep. Henry Hyde had their "youthful indiscretions" unveiled to the public.

Or how about Calvin Coolidge and his response to the flooding of Louisiana in 1927? Was he FEMA's model for Hurricane Katrina in 2005? (It might be recalled that Coolidge's flood relief man was then-Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover, whose relief efforts eventually got him to the White House; note also the parallel that Hoover's abandonment of black flood refugees led to the final parting of African Americans from the party of Lincoln.)

Mention the name Warren Harding and what comes up but the Teapot Dome scandal?

Theodore Roosevelt is admired as a conservationist and political reformer in New York. But he was also a rough-rider in Cuba, in a war against Spain that was a travesty of naked and racist expansionism in which no decent man should have participated.

Bush might be more familiar with the experience of Rutherford B. Hayes, who snatched a contested and fradulent election from Democrat Samuel Tilden, the 19th century Al Gore, who won the popular vote but failed by one vote to win in the electoral college.

Does anyone at this late date forget that the Ulysses Grant administration was the most corrupt in the 19th century?

Finally, we come to the grand old man who invented the Republican Party, Abraham Lincoln, a man who was not, in fact, as honest as he is portrayed in his hagiography.

His Emancipation Declaration was pure rhetoric, as it freed slaves in territory his armies did not control but left untouched those in Union territories. The man who professed veneration for government of the people and by the people jailed the entire legislature of Maryland for the duration of the Civil War, lest they decide to secede.

In any case, now that the GOP is so full of white Southerners who never forgave the Democrtic Party's proposal and passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, even mentioning Lincoln's eloquence and his virtues probably does not play well among Bush's partisans.

Little surprise, then, that George W. Bush and his fellow Republicans need Democrats Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who saved this country from abject poverty and European fascism, and Harry Truman, who completed FDR's work and desegregated the armed forces. Perhaps this is why Republicans are forever mentioning them, along with the charismatic John F. Kennedy and party founder Thomas Jefferson, and why they never quote the wit and wisdom of Hoover, Nixon, and Harding.

Without a doubt, the Democratic Party is not unblemished; presidents elected on the party's slate were not saints. But Democrats need not call upon the words and deeds of Republican leaders to justify their policies.

That's because throughout history Republican presidents have produced the most complete catalogue of misdeeds to avoid.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Everythingness to Nothingness

It's hard to go from hope, faith and, well, a smidgen of charity, to nothing. But that's what happens when I see a long line of cars stuck in traffic at rush hour, each auto with one passenger, the driver.

In vain the 1972 U.N. Conference on the Human Environment in Stockholm, the first of its kind, proclaimed:

The non-renewable resources of the earth must be employed in such a way as to guard against the danger of their future exhaustion and to ensure that benefits from such employment are shared by all mankind.

Back then, I believed in God, goodness, and a better world of more justly apportioned resources.

Still, I had some reason to find unintentional humor in such conferences. My father, who attended the Stockholm conference, failed to see the irony in his using that very trip to purchase a brand-new blue Saab in Sweden, crowing that he did so at some obscure tax advantage.

Thirty-four years later, today, I find myself walking to a crosstown thoroughfare on the way to the Metro and before me is a long, long line of sportscars, SUVs, and other vehicles, most carrying one passenger, the driver.

Most scientists agree that between 2010 and 2020 the world's supply of petroleum will fall below international demand. This was more or less known in 1972. The predictions then were that it would happen by 2005 or 2010.

Malthusian pessimism errs somewhat, but we never seem to get the point, anyway.

Blithely we believe we can commute in our pollute-mobiles one-by-one, as our parents did 30 years ago, while radical theofascists, who long for 1922 or 1902 rather than 1972, push us to war, famine, pestilence, and death.

But I forget ... what's so great about humankind, anyway?

Haven't we despoiled our planet, murdered mercilessly, stolen savagely, lied lavishly? Haven't we turned a deaf ear to all warnings? We deserve the strife and struggle, the death rattle of civilization that can already be heard. The end. The silent nothingness that awaits us.

The world will be better without us. Still it's not easy to go from everythingness, in vision and in life, to nothingness and nihilism.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006


Someone I know doesn't meditate much on what is good, but simply does it as best as it is understood, without any obvious or immediate gain and in surprising measure. Instead of imitating the example, of course, I set myself to think: Does good exist and, if so, what is it?

"The important thing is kindness," my friend said.


"The important thing is to be kind to everyone."

Years ago I believed that. If all we shared, if all loved each other, if… If nothing! What is this mass of humans, this human anthill, for? To sell, to buy, to eat, to have sex, to bathe, to sleep. To wake up to repeat the same thing.

We don't love, we don't share. We are deeply and irremediably selfish.

We get to want one another, now and then. That is to say, we share selfishness: she fulfills him, he fulfills her, they run together selling, buying, eating, having sex, bathing, sleeping, waking, repeating.

From time to time an altruistic impulse arises; it's selfishness more carefully camouflaged: I want to feel I am good.

We don't deserve kindness.