Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Are Democrats Really the New Republicans?

I didn't want to believe Bill Maher when he offered as a "new rule" that "Democrats are the new Republicans." But reading the votes against the health reform public option in the Senate Finance Committee, it's now difficult to argue with Maher's insight several months ago.

My understanding is that corporate lobbyists are collectively spending $1.4 million a day to get this result. Yet, as the late California Assembly Speaker Jesse Unruh, a Democrat, reputedly said, "If you can't eat their food, drink their booze, screw their women and still vote against them, you have no business being up here."

If a Democratic president, with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress, cannot pass even the timid, tip-toe "public option" reform, it's clear that the Democrats no longer deserve the support of liberals or progressives. Hell, they don't belong in politics.

We need a second political party.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The Anti-soundbite and its Uses to Officials

Do all officials answer reporters questions these days with a questions? No.  But does it help those who do wiggle out of a tight spot? Sure. Why do they do that? Have I said they do?

Do you get my drift here or do I have to explain? Just in case, here goes an explanation.

To my knowledge, the anti-soundbite question was originated by one Donald Rumsfeld, Republican muckety muck and master obfuscator since 1962. Last seen as George W, Bush's secretary of defense. In that position one could see him at Pentagon press briefings responding to reporters' questions by asking himself a question.

Typically, the question was aimed at only a portion of the issue, the more convenient part. The answer, or non-answer, was usually a few words that lent themselves to multiple interpretations.

The advantage of this rhetorical device is that it up-ended the soundbite, which is a piece of speech taken from longer statement. In television and radio time is money and, in any case, the viewers' and listeners' attention has been trained to fit 30-second commercials.

Imagine the following broadcast:
President Lincoln at Gettysburg said yesterday that "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here." Asked about this comment, following a battle involving close to 50,000 casualties, the CEO of War Widows of America called Lincoln's remarks "insensitive."
The quote would have been a soundbite. It's the exact words of Lincoln at Gettysburg. Not all the words, but the ones this particular reporter -- from an early version of Fox News? -- deemed "newsworthy."

Now imagine Lincoln at a Rumsfeldian briefing:

REPORTER -- Did our forefathers mean for this civil war to happen?

LINCOLN -- Well, now, son, did they bring forth a new nation four score and seven years ago? Yes. But did they conceive it in liberty? One would think so. Didn't they state in the Declaration of Independence that they believed it as self-evident that "all men are created equal"? Sure, but notice the word "men." Are women mentioned there? I don't think so.

PRESS POOL (all male): [laughter]

See how the anti-soundbite question pulverizes the sounbdbite. What words are you going to select to quote? You have the statements "Yes," "One would think so," "Sure, but notice the word 'men'," and "I don't think so." The rest were arguably questions, not answers.

Even in paraphrase, what did the Rumsfeldian Lincoln actually affirm? Only that a new nation had been brought forth four score and seven years ago. Not much of a story.

Yet listen to the next broadcast and watch how many times officials of all kinds pretend to answer questions using this device. Examine what is said and notice how little the official has committed himself to any opinion or position and how easily, if questioned further, he can weasel out.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Himym's "Aunt Robin"

With the second new season episode of himym (google it!) coming up tonight, all bets are off Robin Sherbatsky being the second m, except ...

... if "future" Ted at some point begins a story by telling his kids, "You know how we always call Mom 'Aunt Robin,' let me tell you how that got started ...?"

Saturday, September 26, 2009

Iran: The Other Side

The news is everywhere that Iran wants to build a nuclear weapon and is deceiving the West (meaning the USA mainly) about this. But why shouldn't Iran have nuclear weapons and why should Iran be accountable to the USA or anyone else on this matter?

I mean -- and I say this in the first entry of a new blog topic: antipode* -- isn't Iran a sovereign nation? Don't all sovereign nations enjoy ... um ... sovereignty over their government and what their government decides to do within its borders?

Sovereignty is, after all, a nation-state's supreme power within its borders. The United Nations charter explicitly states that "The Organization is based on the principle of the sovereign equality of all its Members" (article 2, para 1).

So where does President Obama get off telling Iranian President Ahmadinejad what to do with his country's nuclear facilities. Isn't that a matter for the Iranians to decide? You might say the Iranians decided when Iran ratified the Non Proliferation Treaty in 1970.

But wait a minute ... who was in power in Iran in 1970? Wasn't it none other than the Shah Mohammad Rezā Pahlavi, installed by a CIA-run coup in 1954, the one whom Amnesty International identified as holding and torturing 2,200 political prisoners, the one whose secularization and modernization plan gave rise to the Shi'ite rebel movement of one Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979?

To say that Iran should be held accountable to treaties signed by a dictatorial monarch, who was opposed to everything mainstream Iranian society today stands for, is tantamount to saying that the United States should respect slave tenure in Virginia, since it was once sanctioned by the Confederacy.

Why shouldn't a contemporary Iran, which repudiates everything the Shah stood for, not be able to repudiate a treaty ratification by that long-deposed monarch?

Besides, who says the United States government has the moral authority to tell any other governments whether they should build nuclear weapons? What makes the USA special? Not its restraint.

Not only did the United States bomb two Japanese cities, killing millions in a flash, with nuclear weapons. At least one presidential candidate -- Barry Goldwater -- advocated doing the same in Vietnam.

What makes the nuclear club -- Britain, France, Russia and China -- so virtuous? They haven't had empires and enslaved millions and been brutal and arbitrary? What reason do we have to believe that if they had had a nuclear monopoly, as the United States had for three years, they would not have bombed their own Hiroshima and Nagasakis?

OK, so Ahmadinejad rigged the elections. Didn't George W. Bush get "elected" in 200 and 2004 by fraud? Wasn't it alleged that Mayor Daley's deceased voters had put John F. Kennedy over the top in 1960?

Let the politician who has never made an unsavory deal, never taken money from companies opposed to every item of his public agenda, never arrived to power thoroughly sullied and compromised stand up and throw the first stone.

The Iranians are wild and crazy? Look at the other nuclear nations that might be at one time or another deemed "crazy" and "wild": India, Pakistan, Israel, North Korea. Why pick on Iran?

Why not ask all of them to stop?

Indeed, why not follow the South African example -- it disassembled its nuclear arsenal -- and have the United States government provide an example of peaceful behavior in the hope Iran might rise to the occasion?

* Antipode is a new topic on this blog in which I will attempt to pay attention to the opposite of the prevailing conventional wisdom.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Missing in Health Care: Common Sense

When I was a boy of roughly 10 or 11, I came across a phrase spoken by teachers and other similar role-modeling adults that baffled me: common sense. It's only now, decades later, that the undefinable, ineffable "common sense" rears up its head again, this time to cover everything that's missing in U.S. health care -- not to mention the debate about its reform.

Let me paint a picture that is a composite of several experiences, my own and those of others.

You go to a doctor because you feel pain -- or a growth, or something that makes you feel uncomfortable about the state of your health, all of which, in the end, is pain. Yet the first thing that happens when you present yourself at a place designated to dispense healing is you get barraged with questions which you are usually in no mood to answer, or if you are, often cannot quite come up with one. Why? Because you are in pain.

I once tried yelling out "I am in pain." No one moved, everything proceeded as usual. So, you're in pain but they're there first and foremost to CYA and M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E you to death.

You're not important. The doctors are important; if not the doctors, then the stockholders, the managers or their aunts in Timbuctu -- anyone but you. Their time is money and their employees know better than to waste it. In this economy finding a new job is tough.

Assume you get treatment before your great grandchildren go to college -- a big assumption in most emergency rooms. Seriously ... the only time I ever got immediate assistance was when I literally collapsed on the desk of the receiving nurse.

Then they ask you what is wrong with you, yet saying "X hurts" -- where X is the part you are clutching like you'll fall into the Grand Canyon if you let go -- is never good enough. They want "I have an episomataspermoanthrodosis that has just trifulcated endomatically." What is wrong with these people? Do you look like you went to Harvard Medical School?

Then come forms of torture that the Inquisition abandoned sometime in the 1840s -- called "tests" -- to determine why that severed foot is bleeding. "Aha, your foot is disconnected from your leg hence the blood vessels have nowhere to go and the blood ... "

They can't say that. So they invent something that sounds good. Shrinks diagnose anything they don't really know what it is as "borderline." Physicians call anything to do with skin "dermatitis" (essentially skin+itis). Borderline dermatitis should just about cover anything.

There's a whole slew of scientific sounding terms for "Hmm ... I don't know what the hell is wrong with you, but since I'm going to charge you at least a few hundred dollars, I might as well make up something." If you don't know what the term means and they can't explain it in simple terms, you've got that Don'tknowwhatitis Syndrome.

Then you don't quite trust what they say, in part because no doctors look like Marcus Welby any more. Did they ever? I mean, Welby was a TV character. Old doctors can't afford the litigation insurance, young Welby-like people are making money on Wall Street securitizing insurance against unknown diseases, or starring in TV shows.

The doctors can never be bothered to explain anything from a normal person's perspective. Nurses dig into your duodenum while they chirp happily, "how are we feeling today?"

Everybody robotically follows some list of tasks written up by the MBA who runs everything from an office tower in Chicago. Even nurse cheer, probably quantified under Baldridge Criteria for Performance Excellence, is prescribed precisely.

U.S. health care, after all, is designed to imitate the assembly line of a Ford Model T automobile. Put an insured patient with the proper documentation at one end and spew out a much poorer, somewhat healed, not healed at all or even dead person, at the other end. All very efficiently, you understand.

If you're tempted to say it's the profit motive -- which in part it is -- you're missing the entire point. Profit is part of the problem, but it's not the essential problem.

The basic problem is a deficit of common sense.

That's a social problem. As we develop into an ever more individualistic society, we are losing our sense of commonality and the ability to trust in our own judgment as adults. That's what common sense was.

"Common sense," growled by exasperated teachers and adults, was what we children lacked when we did something dangerous or foolish or simply without thought. We failed to rely on the accumulated social wisdom concerning some basic basics.

Patients must be ask what they are allergic to, because that way, if we goof, it's their fault. Medical people can't trust their senses because they will be sued. Besides, they make more money testing.

It's a bother to apprentice and train people to use some horse sense about the degree of cheeriness a patient can take while you are rearranging the duodenum; so just give them a clipboard and a checklist: "Item 7: rearrange duodenum while proffering a toothy smile and Baldridge level 4.7 cheer."

The common sense of what is really needed to apply a modest amount of healing -- pain, after all is what keeps us alive -- has gone out the window.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Delusions and Consequences

Is it your fault if a relative you drove to a hospital doesn't like your choice of venue or somehow gets sicker, even though you didn't choose the equivalent of a refugee camp clinic in Chad over a peer of the Mayo Clinic? You had two apples, a red delicious and a granny smith and with the best intentions you chose one over the other.

Is it your moral, philosophical or psychological fault if the person you gave the apple to gets an indigestion or just plain doesn't like the taste? There are people -- often enough they are women taught to apologize for their mere existence -- who would beat themselves up, who would engage for hours in exploration of the chain events that any small and largely apparent choice brings on.

You decided to major in English literature and not accounting, so you failed as a novelist and live in a garret in East St. Louis, but your accounting-major classmates have already retired to mansions in Provence. You turned left rather than right at a certain intersection and a truck laden with hundreds of pounds of bananas backed into your car three blocks later.

Remember, we're not talking legal here. Lawyers could argue that a matricidal maniac should not be punished harshly because he is an orphan, but that's not the kind of issue on which I want to dwell.

Responsibility, to my mind, turns on whether we actually have choices. I would argue that most of us have extremely few meaningful choices and it's a delusion of grandeur -- or Calvinism, depending on your mileage -- to think otherwise.

If I were given the choice of being 15 again to relive it all, given what I know now, I would like to think I would make choices that would make me either rich as Donald Trump or famous as Albert Schweitzer or, at a minimum, irresistibly handsome to women ranging from Heidi Klum to Janet Reno. But it's just not so.

Let's take Heidi Kulm and Janet Reno. Attractiveness to the opposite sex is based on a wide range of biological factors that pair certain groups of men and women with each other and the results ... are happenstance. An actress once told George Bernard Shaw that if they had a child it would be beautiful and brilliant, only to hear from Shaw that the reverse would be true if the child inherited her brains and his beauty.

Social norms have tended to accentuate some aspects over another. Indeed, in its pursuit of study, the Jewish tradition has historically pushed its most intelligent people to marry. A rabbi's son was once the dream husband. Conversely, the rule of priestly celibacy in Catholicism assured that, at least during the long medieval night, the era's most educated and talented men of western Europe either did not reproduce or spawned children born into social disadvantage.

I belabor birth, because one's birthplace and parentage remain the most meaningful and decisive factors in lifetime social and economic outcomes -- democracy and everyting else notwithstanding. Unlike many Americans, I did not get to choose mine, which is why I am not particularly proud of being American -- or of occupying a given quintile in U.S. income distribution or hailing anciently from a particular corner of the world.

It's simply not true that being superior makes you white or being smart makes you rich or being chosen by Uncle Sam makes you number one. Even if it were, what did you have to do with any of those?

So what makes you think that you had a real choice in the hospital for your relative? You didn't have a choice between the Chad and Mayo clinics. At worst you had a choice between equally mediocre hospitals operating in the midst of a collapsing system.

We all do our best -- and, yes, we can choose not to -- and consequences spring whether we like them or not. I'm not even sure that doing one's best makes a difference, except to ourselves.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Values vs. Interests

Dinner with a friend occasionally allows one to plunge into the foundational philosophical issues, disregarding the day's din. In this case, it was the longstanding discussion between materialism and metaphysics -- although he protested that it was not. The crucible in which these views were tested was the basis for human conduct, social convention, law.

My friend held to the traditional, majoritarian view that humans respond to certain essential values that they develop or absorb from childhood on. In other words, we have a nonmaterial, psychological machine, so to speak, that processes certain thoughts and yields certain abstractions called ideas -- in this case they are ideas about what ought to be done.

The ancient Hebrews asked for a king anointed by God and the Romans claimed the Emperor was divine, hence ordained to rule.

Bossuet, court clergyman to Louis XIV, christianized the idea with his theory of the divine right of kings. This echoed Charlemagne's own ecclesiastical scholar court jester, Alcuin of York, who argued that "the riotousness of the crowd is always very close to madness."

Alcuin, I'd guess, would have seen his opinion confirmed in this summer's town halls.

It took 13 centuries for a very chastened Christianity, in the voices of Jacques Maritain and the postwar Christian Democratic parties of western Europe, to adopt democracy, under the motto vox populi, vox Dei (the voice of the people is the voice of God). Too late; that was two centuries after the seizure of the Bastille.

Not only has power traditionally been seen as flowing from godhead to crown and scepter, but also to all morals, laws, socially sanctioned customs and so forth. Or, among philosophers in a theist ocean, ideas spring from the psyche and its archetypes, whence spring philosophies, legal systems and the ordering of what Hegel called "civil society."

Karl Marx was not the first one to dethrone this idea, but he was among the most articulate of early, rationalist critics. In a view he summarized in the much-debated 1858 Preface to his A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy, he wrote:
In the social production of their life, men enter into definite relations that are indispensable and independent of their will, relations of production which correspond to a definite stage of development of their material productive forces. The sum total of these relations of production constitutes the economic structure of society, the real foundation, on which rises a legal and political superstructure and to which correspond definite forms of social consciousness.
These words, which essentially state that the struggle for survival is the basis for everything deemed holy and sacrosanct, or at least, legal and enshrined by custom, struck me like lightening when I belatedly first came across them, while working, oddity of oddities, for the U.S. Catholic bishops, several decades ago. Until then, I had been a modern Thomist.

I never came to embrace the mechanistic view of historical materialism as expressed by the Leninist parties, but I will freely admit that my more recent, post-Christian ethic of survival bears some debt to old Karli.

The fundamental human striving is to survive. As a friend undergoing cancer treatment reminded me recently, we live pretty much like the man who, having flung himself from the top of a tower of Notre Dame, thinks to himself as he falls, "I hope this lasts a while."

To my mind, having rejected the existence of a soul, the metaphysical or spiritual world, all of which puts the existence of any god into serious doubt, it no longer seems plausible that a reality other than the material actually exists.

We have material interests, sure. We canonize these interests in our customs, our laws, even our religions and philosophies. But we do not have values founded in any "higher," nonmaterial source, simply because such a source does not exist.

Monday, September 14, 2009

Last Chance for Change

President Obama, who seems genuine in his desire for carrying the American democratic experiment to its full fruition, represents to me the last chance in a lifetime to show that capitalism's ills can be reformed. And the last chance's decisive moment is here.

If Congress passes a health care "reform" bill that does not include a vigorous and workable public option, then the lesson is that greed is too powerful, too intractable to stop merely with debate and deliberation. Mentally, if this happens, I will begin to pack my bags for some other planet.

From what I have seen, I can't imagine any corner of the Earth suitable for me other than the United States.

Canada is too cold and Britain is heading into another dark night of Thatcherism -- as are France and Germany, whose languages I can't speak well enough to work there. Australia is rife with prejudice. Spain is mildly prosperous, but expensive since its entry to the EU. Spanish-speaking Latin America is too poor, too unjust.

The USA has been slouching toward Brazil over decades of conservative misrule; now phones no longer work, domestic cars that are a wretched disaster and the heartland is in thrall to methamphetamine. The favelas, or shantytowns, of Rio de Janeiro have notably improved over the past 30 years, while New York and Los Angeles is developing uniquely American versions of the vast Brazilian citadels of poverty.

There is one last chance. Now. Press Congress to enact a public health care option worthy of the name in order to prevent a financial and health catastrophy and to show us that our government cares for all of us, not just the wealthy and their lobbyists.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

The Missing Hecklers

Rather than some Republican nut yelling "you lie!" when President Obama said health care would not be offered to immigrants without visas, there should have been hundreds of humanitarians standing up for care for all people, immigrants, native, fat, thin, whatever. Yet no one stood up for the obvious good cause. So much for Congress representing human beings.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009

Corporations are NOT People

The Supreme Court is about to re-hear a case involving the use corporate money in political campaigns. The plaintiffs claim corporations have a right to free speech. If the court changes its views and allows corporate contributions, there is no sliver of a chance in hell that elections will ever mean anything.

Tuesday, September 08, 2009

Republicans Really Are Assholes

Why does a White House aide renown as an environmental policy expert without peer have to resign quietly with a middle of the night announcement because some Republican smear-queens on Fox "news" decided to focus on some off-duty remarks quite some time ago? Everyone knows that one of those comments -- that Republicans are "assholes" -- is true; and if we didn't know it the smear campaign has proved it beyond doubt.

Van Jones, author of the 2008 book, The Green Collar Economy, resigned Saturday night, with a near midnight press announcement on a holiday weekend, to avoid distracting attention from President Obama's so smoothly running campaign for health "reform." That's the official story -- retold, OK, with a little sarcasm.

Half the nation at least agrees that the Bushies knew 9/11 was coming and knew it would create the "emergency" that would free them to do whatever they pleased with the Constitution. It is a documented fact that Bush called getting a recession, the attacks and the war he started a "trifecta," in that oh-so-appropriate humor that reminds one of nothing so much as his grinning campaign admission in 2000 that he had killed more inmates than any other contemporary governor ... heh-heh.

So, why does Van Jones have to apologize for signing a petition endorsing the idea that Bushies, well, did what they did?

And has Fox "news" smearmeister Glenn Beck repealed the First Amendment? It is not legal to think and associate with people of any opinion or religion any more? Having had something to do with an organization whose founders at one time held some Marxist -- gasp! the salts! -- views disqualifies anyone from work for which they have more than the necessary skills?

If that's true, then Glenn Beck should apologize for being an asshole and quit. I don't like assholery and no one on television should practice it.

This is the ridiculous logic to which we are driven if we let three nuts on right-wing propaganda shows dictate what's right and wrong. The time has come to tell the jerks to go beat off somewhere else.

Wednesday, September 02, 2009

Scam Nation's Great Recession

Washington Post headline: "Redskins Fans Waited While Brokers Got Tickets." Don't get me wrong. I'm no football fan. But do the i-bankers always have to get zillions in bonuses, while the rubes they fleeced get foreclosed and evicted?

John Steinbeck described the age-old story in his 1939 novel The Grapes of Wrath like in this car lot conversation: "Watch the woman’s face," one salesman tells another. "If the woman likes it we can screw the old man. Start 'em on that Cad'. Then you can work 'em down to that '26 Buick. 'F you start on the Buick, they'll go for a Ford."

Now it's done on TV. Sell your gold to us, we're so trustworthy. Get fast cash for a car lien. Slim down with [insert gadget here]. Sickening.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

September 1

Hoary date 70 years ago. Franco marches into Madrid, ending the three-year Spanish Civil War. Hitler marches into Poland. The "Concierto de Aranjuez" by Joaquín Rodrigo premieres in Paris, where hordes of Spanish exiles had fled. Oddly enough, Rodrigo's music is so redolent of Spanish tradition than even a nationalist could -- many did -- love the piece.