Sunday, November 26, 2006

If Bobby Had Lived ...

Leaving the movie theater after watching the new Emilio Estevez movie "Bobby," you won't be able to help thinking how much grief would have been avoided had Robert F. Kennedy lived beyond that fateful June 6, 1968.

Although I lived far, far away from the events and turned only 16 four days later, I was as involved in the politics of the day as a Catholic private school boy could be. This second Kennedy assassination cast the final pall of pessimism upon my youthful idealism. I cancelled my birthday party as I wondered how the world could be going so wrong.

In the film there's a Czech journalist trying to get an interview with RFK. She has to deal with U.S. provincialism before she drives home the point that her country is undergoing the famous "Prague Spring" under Alexander Dubcek. By August 20, Soviet tanks would bring an early Stalinist frost.

Could things have gone any worse in that fateful 1968 that defined, I thought then, the definitive end of the post-World War II optimism I had grown up with as a child?

Recall the Tet Offensive strikes in the heart of Saigon at the beginning of the year, which proved that the Viet Cong was nowhere near vanquished, as military leaders were telling Congress. The third-party presidential candidacy of George Wallace. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. At year's end, the election of Richard Nixon.

Rewind history. Could things have ended up better had Bobby lived?

First off, he would have won the presidential election. Kennedy was still a magic name then. We would have avoided the Nixon presidency and Henry Kissinger would have remained an obscure professor.

Second, Bobby was an effective conciliator and motivator, drawing, like his brother, the best from people from their highest and noblest instincts. It is difficult to believe that such leadership would have yielded ground to mean-spirited conservatism, as happened by 1980. Bobby would have galvanized and reunited the country.

Third, a president as attentive to social disparity as he was wouldn't have allowed the stagnation of wages that occurred following the 1973 oil crisis until the present. Kennedy might have avoided the crisis altogether by bridging differences in the Middle East.

The "Me Decade" of the 1970s might have been the "You Decade" that never came to be. And so on and so forth.

I might have believed more potently in the possibilities of various belief structures, political and religious, to live up to their ideals. I might have become a Catholic priest.

One bullet changed everything. The men who wanted Nixon, who wanted eventually to see in the 1980s a demented president take money from infants to give to the military-industrial complex. Those men won. Those men have been winning so far this century.

Maybe it's time to make Bobby come alive again.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

RIH Awards

In response to the unanimously apotheotic response to the death of economist Milton Friedman, I am hereby beginning an occasional series, the Rot In Hell awards, to note the reasons why, if there was a hell, certain famous newly dead individuals richly deserve to rot there, despite the public claptrap about their awards and honors.

The Roman maxim De mortuis nil nisi bonum dicendum est (Let nothing but good be said of the dead) is the smokescreen for enshrining evil no matter what.

There's some catching up for this year, so let us begin, then.

Milton Friedman, who died of heart failure on Nov. 16, 2006, rot in hell, you bastard, for the millions of children, their parents, and the advocates who fought for them, who died of hunger, malnutrition, in sheer poverty, or tortured by the forces that idolized your maleficent ideas in Chile and other Third World countries.

Caspar Weinberger, died of pneumonia on March 28, 2006, not painfully enough, for a career of covering up for drug-dealing in the Reagan White House, lying to grand juries and war profiteering in such a way that resources that could have gone to heal and to build went to destroy and monger conflict. Rot in hell, you bastard!

Nominations for future RIH awards may be made at this e-mail.

Sunday, November 19, 2006

A Companion for Each Occasion

A French correspondent to whom I write about the nature of love and related matters assures me with feminine infallibility that "to be in love is passion."

Pour moi, la passion, c'est un amour très fort. La passion, c'est un amour déraisonné et un peu possessif.
(For me, passion is a very strong love. Passion is a love without reason and a little possessive.)

This unbridled feeling is focused on the one person, she says, whom one cannot stop thinking about, dreaming about, one cannot imagine life without this person.

So far, I imagine, my correspondent has plucked every heart in the house. I hear the sighs and ever the trickling of slow tears of recognition down the cheeks of some (predominantly female) readers.

Let me risk rotten tomatoes from the peanut gallery, if you'll excuse the mixed vegetable kingdom metaphor (and yes, purists, peanuts are legumes but legumes are still within the vegetable kingdom), and ask:
  • Must one person be the be-all and end-all of one's existence?
  • Is it realistic to expect one person to be the favorite conversation partner, the best dining companion, the most practical and helpful chore mate, the most leonine bed partner, the profoundest fellow philosopher of life and so on and so forth?
  • Aren't such combined, overblown and unliveable expectations or fantasies the cause of all our misfortunes in love?
Again, as I wrote in an earlier post (here), there doesn't seem to be any solid foundation for monogamy other than in the necessities of childrearing and patriarchal inheritance.

Why can't we opt for varied companions for different occasions, instead of single mates for every season who must perforce disappoint us?

We accept that certain friends bring certain gifts and others something quite different. Yet we can't, somehow, accept that there are men or women suitable for a night at the opera and different men or women suitable for a romp in the countryside.

Is there only one for each one? If so, why do at least 50% of those who choose ecclesiastical or legal means to express such a notion end up divorced?

These are just questions. I don't claim to have an answer. My experience just tells me that the conventional, sentimental answers don't work particularly well.

There's just got to be a better way.

Saturday, November 18, 2006

Pelosi Poll

Everybody has heard the joke by now: the Democrats win the House and the first woman House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif), anoints the wrong guy, John Murtha (D-Pa), for majority leader and a minor food fight erupts. Only it's no joke ... why did she do it?

OK, folks, let's vote:

(A) Pelosi's public story is that she thought Murtha, who called for a pullout from Iraq last December, was the best man for the job. This even though Murtha remains an unindicted character in the Abscam scandal and, in his late 70s, is probably not the most spry member of the House. Besides, Murtha has never sought anything before. Vote A if you believe the public story.

(B) My first theory: Pelosi was bullied and/or blackmailed by Murtha into writing the "dear colleague" letter to the House despite the widespread support for Rep. Steny Hoyer (D-Md), who won. She did as requested, fully knowing Murtha would lose.

(C) My second theory: Pelosi, Hoyer and Murtha are in on a fakeout Democratic "brawl" to lull the White House and the GOPers on the other side of the aisle into the belief that the Dems will shoot themselves in the foot. Watch out for sneak attacks in January.

(D) Propose an explanation.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Things Aren't What They Seem

Reviewing what has happened electorally, I notice that increasingly political news lacks sufficient depth to get to the heart of the matter, so that we are presented with a reality that isn't real. A few instances ...


During the campaign, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass) said "You know education, if you make the most of it, you study hard, you do your homework, and you make an effort to be smart, you can do well. If you don't, you get stuck in Iraq."

What his script said was: "Do you know where you end up if you don't study, if you aren't smart, if you're intellectually lazy? You end up getting us stuck in a war in Iraq."

There isn't a substantive difference between the two and, frankly, any sane group of people who were not soaked in political rhetoric and gamesmanship would admit that the troops in Iraq are
  1. not the sharpest knives in the cupboard (see Lynndie England, the poster child for the lower-middle class whites pressed into service with little or no preparation); and
  2. nearly completely devoid of representatives from the privileged class, which is busy making money off the poor saps sent out to die for no reason we know of yet (one day we'll find out which corporations the soldiers died for).
What was the ruckus about the "honor" of the troops? The Republicans and rightwingers have already mocked the troops eleven ways to Sunday. How's being sent to die for a lie honorable, for starters? How does it "honor" troops that their home towns had to hold bake sales to buy them body armor?

And what was the "apology" all about? The statement was entirely right. You study, you become Bernie the Bond-trader with the SUV, McMansion, blonde wife and 2.5 kids. You don't study, you become a dropout whose only career choice is to chase molotov-cocktail throwers in Fallujah.


Here's a different nonreality: the chorus that demanded -- and got -- Donald Rumsfeld's departure from the Pentagon.

Sure, he made for a perfect campaign foil. Rumsfeld was excoriated as the source of everything that went wrong in Iraq by generals, the military press, Republicans, Democrats -- in short, the whole political establishment.

I get nervous when so many folks in the hot-air industry all agree. Don't you? When a cleric speaks about the evils of sex, watch your wallet. When politicos agree, look for what's not being said.

In the case of the former secretary of defense, absent from the debate was the substance. The only substantive matter on which Rummy, whose military experience went no further than a peacetime stint as a flight instructor, had a significant policy opinion regarding business at usual in the Pentagon -- such as $640 toilet seats -- was his well-known differing view of war economics.

Some called it "war on the cheap." Others called it war as a wholly owned subsidiary of Halliburton.

But what Rumsfeld really advocated was far from the headlines: it was a restructuring of the U.S. military away from the massive total-war machine suitable for World War II, with 600 ships in the Navy, countless bombers and fighters, and tons of equipment, to a very lean, easily deployable force capable of waging battle in what since Reagan administration days has been known in military-security circles as "low-intensity conflict" (aka guerrilla warfare).

This has been the challenge to the United States since Korea. No sane nation-state will declare war on, or deploy an army against the United States for the foreseeable future. None has since 1951. In fact, even North Korea originally thought it would fight its neighbor, not the USA and the United Nations.

This is also why a bunch of half-starved Vietnamese in black pajamas defeated the U.S. military. Our troops were fighting World War II-Pacific Theater, they were waging low-intensity conflict.

I don't like any kind of war, but if you're going to wage it, Rumsfeld's doctrine makes sense. What is the problem with Rumsfeld's doctrine? The principal resource is human.

The Rumsfeld doctrine doesn't require purchase of as much heavy equipment meant to be blown up and purchased again and again (talk about planned obsolescence!). Generals can't retire and go to work for Lockheed, Boeing and Grumman. The Rumsfeld doctrine was a menace to something President Dwight David Eisenhower warned us about in his departing speech, the thing he dubbed "the military-industrial complex."

That's why the chorus of the wholly owned subsidiary on Capitol Hill (some also call it Congress) was so dead-set against Rummy. Congresspersons get lots of bribes (aka campaign contributions, junkets, gifts) from the "defense" industry. (Why don't we call it the War Department, which it is, the way we used to? That's another whole blog.)


Let's do a quick little bit of Tuesday morning quarterbacking on the election, now that Monday's way past gone, to note that the results were a resounding victory for ... Wall Street.

Oh, yes, we're going to hear a lot of bad news that was suppressed until after the election. The Bush II jobless "boom" is losing steam. Stop the presses: the Republicans did not abolish the business cycle. We're headed for another recession -- in my opinion a stealth recession has been going on for about two years, but that, too, is another blog.

But Wall Street loves divided government.

In the next two years, investors can be assured that nothing dramatic or upsetting will take place in Washington. Nothing radical a few Democrats will offer has any chance of surviving a presidential veto; nothing crazy the White House might concoct has the slightest chance in a Democratic House and Senate.

So much for the purpling of America. The business of America is business, that's the greening of America that's going on -- for the top 2 percent, anyway.

Nothing is what it seems.

Saturday, November 11, 2006

On Armistice Day

"Blessed are the peacemakers," Jesus is reputed to have said, so in 1982 the Reagan administration built nuclear missiles that were originally to be named "Peacemaker."

War has never been good, nor holy, nor praiseworthy -- even the men who have mongered war have always known this to be true.

In 1917, coming home from the front, Siegfried Sassoon declared, and a member of Parliament read in session: "I have seen and endured the sufferings of the troops, and I can no longer be a party to prolong these sufferings for ends which I believe to be evil and unjust ... On behalf of those who are suffering now I make this protest against the deception which is being practiced on them; also I believe that I may help to destroy the callous complacence with which the majority of those at home regard the continuance of agonies which they do not share, and which they have not sufficient imagination to realize."

Sassoon was locked up as insane.

No war need ever have occurred, had those in power been willing to negotiate and compromise. In the two centuries of U.S. warmaking,

  • the War of Independence and its follow-up, the War of 1812, could have been avoided: Canada became independent without firing a single bullet;
  • the Mexican-American War was an ignominious war of conquest that need not have happened at all save for the Anglo Texans' greed;
  • the Civil War need never have been fought: the backward-thinking South is still retrograde and racist ... the region does not belong in the United States;
  • the Spanish-American War was another naked land-grab and saber-rattling that should never have occurred;
  • there never was a good reason for World War I and, without it, World War II would never have occurred;
  • the Korean War kept the military-industrial complex going but it accomplished little that could not have been negotiated;
  • the United States had no business in Vietnam;
  • nothing achieved in the Kuwait War could not have been acheived through diplomacy;
  • the Iraq War was totally unjustified, launched by a lying president.
All told, this unnecessary warmongering cost the lives of 1,006,935 U.S. soldiers and wounded 1,449,217 Americans. That's more than 2 million mothers weeping ... for what?

And that's only the American dead. The other side, and civilians, were also killed and wounded.

For example, we are all familiar with the 57,690 American dead in Vietnam. Yet according to the The Vietnam War Almanac, the South Vietnamese military lost 243,748 lives; Korea's 4,407; Australia and New Zealand combined, lost 469; Thailand, 351; the Vietnam People's Army and National Liberation Front combined tallied 666,000 dead combatants. Then there are the civilians, estimated at 65,000 North Vietnamese and 300,000 South Vietnamese dead.

In all 1,337,314 people killed. That's 1,337,314 mothers who lost a child. Let's try to explain why their labor was in vain to them, shall we?

Therefore, today, on Armistice Day or Remembrance Day, I do not honor the veterans, for unlike the very few such as Sassoon, most of them do bear some responsibility, as aptly put in the song composed by Buffy St. Marie,

He's fighting for Democracy,
He's fighting for the Reds,
He says it's for the peace of all.

He's the one who must decide,

Who's to live and who's to die,

And he never sees the writing on the wall.

But without him,

How would Hitler have condemned him at Laval?

Without him Caesar would have stood alone,

He's the one who gives his body
As a weapon of the war,

And without him all this killing can't go on.

He's the Universal Soldier and he really is to blame,

His orders come from far away no more,
They come from here and there and you and me,

And brothers can't you see,
This is not the way we put the end to war.

Thus, today I draw on words from a man I did not like very much, Pope Paul VI, yet someone who spoke to the United Nations in 1965 with words that still resonate: “No more war! Never again war! If you wish to be brothers, drop your weapons.”

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

Happy Days

While the balance of power in the Senate still hangs by the thread of votes in Montana and Virginia, happy days may be on the way again. Before the new dawn, let's recall what the party of Thomas Jefferson and Franklin Roosevelt is about and what its opposite number hath wrought.

Starting with the bad news, let's recall that in six short years we in the United States have gone
  • from federal fiscal surpluses projected as far as the eye could see, enough to guarantee the dignified retirement of the entire Boomer generation, whose beachhead turns 60 this year, to $2.8 trillion in debt accumulated by the Bush administration, not counting Iraq;
  • from a decade of declining unemployment and rising wages to what most economists agree has been a jobless recovery from recession (the R in Republican truly seems to stand for recession, the Reagan recession, the Bush I recession, the Bush II recession, even the Nixon recession) and wage stagnation in which the average family income has failed to keep up with inflation for the past five years in a row;
  • from declining poverty and malnutrition to rising poverty and hunger, all while the stratospherically wealthy became richer even still, while paying fewer and fewer taxes;
  • from the breaking out of peace in embattled Ulster and the end of genocide in Yugoslavia -- both brought about by Clinton administration-supported diplomatic mediators -- to quagmire in Iraq and a failure to engage with Islamic jihadism; ...
The list could go on and on. How could everything that was so good go so wrong? How could one group of cynical liars and manipulators turn everything on its head with impunity?

And with the "anti-terror" legislation rammed through by the Republican House of Representatives, the U.S. government edged into an era of despotism in which the ruler can simply classify anyone as an "enemy combatant," without review or appeal, and lock that person away for torture and mistreatment indefinitely!

Goodbye, democracy! Well, it had been that since the coup d'etat of November 2000. But now that jackboots can legally march into our homes.

This is when it is good to recall the roots of the Democratic Party, the only voice available to contest the arbitrary abuse of power upon which the Bush administration is hell bent.

The legacy of Thomas Jefferson is monumental as it is flawed and still imperfect.

Jefferson took the social compact and the idea of balances and checks in the work of English philosopher John Locke and imported what could pass muster into the Declaration of Independence and later the Constitution. The legacy is monumental because it enshrined for the first time in history the notion that human beings were entitled to govern themselves.

The flaws were present at creation: Jefferson himself and many of the signers of both foundational documents I have just mentioned owned slaves. Their actions spoke clearly that some human beings were not worthy of self-governance in the most fundamental ways.

Not only that, they were all landowners, men of wealth; the democracy they started was really a club of wealthy men in which neither women nor slaves, nor Indians, nor even the majority of white men, who did not own property, could participate. Accordingly, the society they founded became later, once industrialized, a plutocracy -- Greek for "government by the rich."

Enter Franklin D. Roosevelt, himself the scion of plutocrats, who created the modern political coalition that invented the American middle class, which did not really exist (other than in mythology) before 1932. It was a coalition that united labor, Americans of "immigrant" background (meaning other than colonist stock) and their churches (notably the Catholic Church and its labor priests) to bring about the first modest programs of social insurance. Later, the GI Bill created the first widespread, university-educated American middle class.

Like Jefferson, even FDR's coalition had a flaw: it made deals with the segregationist devil, the southern Democrats who are now Republicans. (Ever wonder why Ronald Reagan chose to begin his 1980 campaign in Philadelphia, Mississippi, where civil rights workers were slaughtered, nod nod, wink wink?)

Now there's a chance to try again.

Let's not be naive. There is much that is ugly and contemptible in the emotions, prejudices and gut feelings of many Americans. The Democratic Party is not pure, either. (And winning one chamber of Congress is only a beginning.)

But perhaps this time the challenges are so pressing -- from saving social security and medicare from collapse, to addressing the yawning gaps in access to health care, to developing a new source of energy that does not doom humanity to extinction -- that, with leaders who thrive on hope rather than fear, the best can be coaxed out of all of us.

Happy days, happy happy days, might just be here again.