Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Let Them Have Nukes

U.S. hypocrisy about nuclear proliferation is truly boundless. For the past two years America and its allies have warned Iran that it must halt its nuclear activities or the country will be sent to bed without dinner and have its TV privileges revoked. Meanwhile the United States sits atop a stockpile of nuclear weapons large enough to erase every man, woman and Republican from the face of the Earth.

From the perspective of the Global South, this is like Bill Bennett telling you not to build casinos while he’s tossing dice at the craps table. In reality, its even worse, since Bennett is at least repentant about dropping millions of dollars into the bloated coffers of gambling houses, while the U.S., France and Britain are utterly unapologetic about possessing nuclear weapons. The nuclear weapons countries no longer even give lip service to the idea of disarmament.

The same thing happens every time a new country decides to build nuclear weapons. Climb into the way-back machine and recall the faux outrage that swept the globe like bird flu when the Indians and then the Pakistanis tested nuclear weapons in 1998. Short-lived sanctions were imposed on the South Asian rivals. So far the peace between those two countries has held despite a number of close calls.

Many people point toward the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s unhinged statements about Israel – it needs to be “wiped off the map” – as proof that the typical calculus of nuclear weapons does not apply to Iran. His religious millenarianism indicates that he may not be deterred by Mutually Assured Destruction (MAD) – the idea that Iran would not launch a nuclear strike on Israel or any other nuclear-armed state because of the knowledge that Iran would in turn be destroyed in retaliation.

Of course the decision to launch nuclear weapons ultimately rests not with Ahmedinejad, but with the actual center of power in Iran – the profoundly conservative Council of Guardians, stocked with clerics who would not sign off on a suicidal decision to destroy the Israelis. MAD may be just a theory, but so far it has proven to be a pretty good one, since no two nuclear-armed states have ever gone to war with one another. It is certainly a more reputable theory than the disgraceful Intelligent Design.

But more importantly, this scare tactic is coming from the United States, a country that in 2002 released a Nuclear Posture Review, which indicated our willingness to launch first-strike nuclear attacks against countries that do not possess nuclear weapons. What’s crazier -- a virtually powerless Iranian president making empty threats against a sworn enemy, or the world’s most powerful country threatening to obliterate you any time it pleases? Keep in mind that this country is still, 60 years after the dawn of the nuclear age, the only country ever to use nuclear weapons in combat.

And who could blame the Iranians for wanting nuclear weapons? Every developing country must look at the divergent fates of non-nuclear Iraq, which was invaded and occupied by the U.S., and nuclear-armed North Korea, which was left alone, and draw the same conclusion. If you don’t want your country crawling with American GIs, build some nukes. Iran was also the recent victim of an invasion at the hands of Iraq, a war that cost as many as 1 million lives and almost certainly would never have happened had one or both states possessed nuclear weapons.
The Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), which the Iranians are still a part of for the time being, makes it clear that the nuclear weapons states are eventually expected to disarm. The Cold War gave states an excuse to keep their nuclear weapons, but the disappearance of the Soviet threat left the nuclear weapons states with no clear rationale for their stockpiles. It’s the same thing that happens to every pothead that graduates from college – what exactly to do with that brick of weed now that there’s no dorm room to smoke it in. The U.S. has chosen to keep puffing away on its nuclear joint.

And like most potheads, the United States is not thinking very clearly. Neither the Americans nor the Europeans can really stop a country bent on acquiring nuclear weapons unless they are willing to unleash a bombing campaign. And with the U.S. military tied down in Iraq, even this administration is unlikely to start another war -- particularly against a country that is much more capable militarily than circa-2003 Iraq.

The Iranians know this. They also know that they could cripple the world economy just by taking their oil offline for a few weeks. So if you try to send them to bed without dinner, they may burn down the house. I say let them have their nukes.

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Thursday, January 26, 2006

Is this democracy?

Only a month after Israeli PM Ariel Sharon’s sudden stroke shook Israeli politics, the Palestinians have experienced a shock of their own. Hamas (the Islamic Resistance Movement), the militant opposition to the ruling Fatah party, appears on the verge of scoring a huge victory in the Palestinian parliamentary elections. While the party’s victory is almost certainly bad news for the peace process, it may be the best thing ever to happen to Palestinian politics. It may even transform the politics of the whole region.

If this were any other developing country we would be hailing the victory of an opposition party over a corrupt and ineffectual ruling party. It’s funny though, I don’t hear anyone waxing eloquent about the Green-and-White Revolution yet. That’s because this is Palestine, and a different set of rules apply to out-of-favor Arabs (i.e. not Saudi, Jordanian, or Lebanese) than to everyone else.

First the bad news. Hamas maintains what you might charitably call an untenable position in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The organization remains officially committed to Israel’s destruction, although in the past its leadership has indicated a willingness to accept a two-state solution to the conflict as a stepping-stone towards the reclamation of all of Israel by the Palestinians. The forthcoming Israeli leadership is unlikely to bargain with Hamas unless it renounces violence and accepts the so-called Road Map. This is a bit ironic, since Sharon did more than anyone else to destroy the Road Map, but that’s politics for you.

But let’s be honest here – there is not currently much of a peace process to speak of. The Blue Jays and the Brewers did much more talking and dealing this winter than the Israelis and the Palestinians. Israel carried out its evacuation of the Gaza Strip by fiat and refused to negotiate with the secular Palestinian leadership at all. Sharon’s obstinate neglect of Mahmoud Abbas and the Fatah ruling group sealed the demise of the old guard in Palestinian politics. A cynic might suggest that this was what Sharon wanted all along – the end of the moderates, the rise of the extremists, and a tailor-made excuse for Israel to keep the West Bank indefinitely.

Nevertheless, the ascension of Hamas could in theory trigger some positive events, in Palestine and in the region. First, the peaceful transfer of power from a ruling group to the opposition is one of the hallmarks of a democracy. And if Fatah actually releases its grip on power – unlike the Algerian junta, which canceled elections won by the Islamist opposition in 1992 and plunged the country into a ten-year civil war – then the Palestinian polity will qualify as at least somewhat democratic. If nothing else, this would mean that the Israelis and Americans could no longer use the lack of Palestinian democracy as an excuse for their refusal to negotiate.

More importantly, the behavior of Hamas in office could have important implications for the region. No one expects them to govern like the Canadian Liberals (another corrupt party that got thrown out of office this week). But if Hamas displays some pragmatism, bargains with the opposition, forms coalitions, and moderates its position on Israel, it would suggest that participation in parliamentary politics by Islamist groups is not the horrifying specter that some people suggest.

If Islamists can govern Palestine, they can govern elsewhere as well. And this means that the corrupt kleptocracies “governing” places like Tunisia, Algeria, and Jordan would no longer be able to use Islamic oppositions as a scare tactic. The U.S. could place more pressure on these governments to open up their systems and share power with the Islamist oppositions, since in all cases Islamists constitute the only viable alternative to the ruling groups.

Of course you can see this all going horribly wrong too. For instance, the official Hamas leadership might shift its position, creating splinter groups within the organization which carry out attacks in Israel. The Israelis then blame Hamas and either cut off all contact or actually assassinate the elected Palestinian leadership. It doesn’t take a particularly vivid imagination to come up with a whole host of such pessimistic scenarios. It doesn’t help that Hamas, assuming it is permitted to take power, will be governing a series of disjointed and disfigured territories, with all the same limitations imposed on Fatah and maybe even more.

But for now, everyone should keep their wits about them and give the political process within Palestine a chance to unfold.

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Monday, January 23, 2006

Persecute, Kill the Democrats!

Hide your exam sheets. Get your blue books notorized. Cover up your Kerry/Edwards bumper stickers. The “academic freedom” movement has descended on Pennsylvania. Spearheaded by the bitter and deranged ex-Marxist David Horowitz, Students For Academic Freedom seeks to strip professors of their right to do independent teaching and research, and instead to impose on them an arbitrary set of standards designed to ensure the absence of “bias” in the classroom.

The banner of this Orwellian crusade – which after all seeks to strip professors of their academic freedom – is “balance,” or as they call it, “teaching the controversy.” The focus of most of their ire is anyone who dares to teach the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in front of anyone other than their close friends and family. I myself, a lowly teaching assistant at Penn, have been harassed for a full semester by a dim-witted, crackpot student-spy from the odious Campus Watch, and tailed at public lectures by senile watchdogs from the Zionist Organization of America. And I’m basically a nobody.

The natural endpoint of this crusade is the pitiful, 52-year-old snot-nose who recently sued his professor for giving him a B- at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. Continuing-ed students aside, an entire generation of conservatives are being taught that they can write any idiotic thing they’ve cribbed from Bill Kristol or Jonah Goldberg, turn it in as a term paper, and expect to receive the A- they believe they so richly deserve. And if they don’t, they’ve been taught to bitch about it -- imitating the very worst tendencies of the political correctness movement that conservatives have so long abhorred.

In Pennsylvania, lawmakers have been holding hearings about alleged bias on state campuses. Republicans, not content with controlling basically every lever of power in this country, now want to get their gold-stained paws on the academy. These fascist crusaders cite surveys that indicate a massive Democratic majority in the humanities and social sciences. They want students who argue that evolution is just a theory to get the same grades as the kids who actually study and learn things.

Well of course there’s a Democratic majority in the academy. Who but a liberal is willing to withstand the years of grinding penury of graduate school, followed by a lifetime of mediocre wages and marginalization in the public sphere? It’s the same reason that corporate boardrooms are dominated by Bush-voting exurbanites who drive Hummers to work and contribute to Americans For Tax Freedom. Some professions are self-selecting. But not all professors are lefties – pay a visit to your local economics department or business school, and I guarantee you that you’ll find a much-reduced advantage for the donkey.

I think it’s ironic that a political party that has always advocated for freedom from government interference now wants government oversight of higher education. If Horowitz, Campus Watch, and SAF had their way, there would be a pinstriped bureaucrat in every college classroom in America, zapping professors with a dog collar every time they dared to utter treasonous words about terrorism or Israeli aggression. If you think GOP actions on this issue are inconsistent with official Republican dogma, you’re right, but you haven’t been paying much attention to the news. The crooks running this country don’t care about ideological consistency – they want your submission to their every whim.

And in Pennsylvania – including the countless universities of Philadelphia – they are coming for your academic freedom. It’s like someone seeking to strip you of your civil liberties under the name Americans For Civil Liberties, or trying to stop you from smoking in bars with the Committee For Smokers’ Freedom. The cognitive dissonance is overwhelming -- just not overwhelming enough to stop the PA House from establishing a Select Committee on Academic Freedom this past summer, which will hold more hearings later this year to determine whether an Academic Bill of Rights is necessary here.

I can tell you exactly what will happen if Pennsylvania continues these hearings and seeks to interfere with the academy: Professors will increasingly be intimidated by radical right-wing fundamentalists who want to censor, hector and obstruct professors. Anyone sympathetic to the Palestinians – like Joseph Massad of Columbia, who was viciously smeared and attacked by the SAF crowd – will come under attack. Every single conservative on campus will assume that he or she has a blank check to write whatever suits them on exams and papers, even if it wasn’t on the syllabus and has nothing to do with the content of the course. And tenure will be rolled back – long a cherished dream of the radical right.

Finally, the Right, having recently cowed the media into Swift-Boating John Kerry and covering up an illegal spying scandal until a year after the 2004 election, will have forced yet another institution to succumb to its browbeating and victim-mongering. Republicans, for all their pretensions about being the party of manly men and iron-chested warriors, sure seem to get their panties in a twist every time someone gives them a bad grade on a midterm, or God forbid, says something liberal in a classroom.

I mean, God, this professor totally just dissed George Bush and junk! Like, call the cops!

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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Thanks, Jack. Just Because.

I’d like to second George Clooney’s Golden Globes thank you speech that tipped his hat to former Republican uber-lobbyist Jack Abramoff. While standing at the Tinsel Town pedastal earlier this week, Clooney gave the soon-to-be felon a shout out “just because.”

I have reasons for my praise of the man whose name will soon be synonymous with brazen disregard for fundraising ethics. For one, he’s already prompted the resignation of former House Majority Leader Tom Delay, R.–Sugar Land, Texas. Second, Pennsylvania’s favorite son – Rick Santorum, R-Penn. -- seems poised to be another political casualty caught in the Abramoff web of legal and moral impropriety. (And Santorum thought abortion was immoral!)

Though fundraising rules were never carefully heeded by either side of the partisan divide, Republicans took their schemes to a new and unstomachable level when they created the so-called K Street Project. Named in honor of the plethora of lobbists with offices located on Washington’s K Street, the project created a backscratching symbiosis that awarded job openings to Republican friends and large injections of lobby funds into GOP campaign coffers in exchange for policies that matched interest group desires. In short, high-ranking Republican loyalists would get well-paying lobby jobs at corporations who would concurrently get profit-friendly legislation. Morally righteous Santorum was a key player in the creation and maintenance of this K Street Project. This might be another pivotal tidbit to keep in mind this election year. It can be tucked into your collective memory along with his love of gays and women's rights. I can’t say that enough.

The K Street Project is just one manifestation of the problems that plague Washington’s existing interest-group bonanza. One person, one vote no longer means anything when millions of dollars are flippantly tossed among corporate kingpins and key politicos. But the Abramoff shock to the system offers Congress and the public the opportunity to redraw the existing structure of interest group politics and political candidacy.

Both Republicans and Democrats are currently burning the 5:15 p.m. oil, creating policy remedies to close up the cheesecloth of loopholes that comprise existing campaign fundraising law. But why not throw the lachrymose politician[S?] out with the tainted bathwater and start anew? With public awareness and outrage piqued, now is the time for elected officials too make real change. And this is where my big thank you goes to Abramoff. He's so villified [SP?] right now, he's opened a vent in a perpetually gridlocked political system. He's created a window in which real, structural change to a faulty system can be made. Now is the time to move from a system that rewards backroom deals that effectively remove the importance of voting from the political process and usher in the remedy of publicly financed elections.

I know, I know. It sounds crazy. It’s like I’m asking you to seriously consider socialized medicine (which, I actually do). But, stop. Take a look at how the existing rules make our elected officials behave. I’m not saying DeLay and Santorum are innocent victims of a pernicious set of campaign finance rules. No, they’re unethical, self-indulgent political slugs. But every congressperson has to spend the bulk of their time courting sources of funding – especially members of the House, who come up for election every two years. Publicly financing elections would not increase public spending -- taxpayers already give money to those who seek office. But adopting the new system would push political office away from something only guilty or greedy millionaires could secure. Instead, knowledgeable everymen and women might actually be able to win an election.

This is a historical moment that allows politicians to actually remove the evils of money from the political system. And I’m watching as our elected representatives bicker partisanly over who's more egregiously exploited the faulty existing structure. Instead, why can't they enact a solution that actually solves the ethical problem instead of shifting and tucking its weaknesses for later abuse? You know, why don’t they save democracy, “just because.” Thanks, Jack Abramoff.

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Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Take out a contract on them

Rumors have been floating around the internets that the Democrats may be ready to float their own contract with America, ala Gingrich and the mid-90s GOP. My fear is that this platform is going to contain more meaningless gibberish about “working families” (what, does everyone in the family work?), keeping you safe from Arabs, helping old ladies cross the street and that sort of thing. Now I like my party, but they’re about as exciting as a bag of chex mix, and they have the strategic wisdom of that second interception Tom Brady threw against the Broncos.

Say what you will about Newt and his fellowship of the right wing that took over Congress in 1994, but they had a vision. People are compelled by strong storylines and a coherent narrative. You tell them what’s wrong and how you’re going to fix it. While voters may not agree with every bullet point, if it’s all connected by a governing philosophy, they may just buy it.

This is something the Dems have been sorely missing for a generation, since the collapse of the New Deal consensus. What is the Democratic solution to health care; try to insure everyone, somehow, but if we leave a few people out, well, shucks, that’s just too bad? What is the Democratic position on the war? Give me the Democratic critique of GOP national security policy, other than the ridiculous claim Kerry kept making that we aren’t inspecting enough containers at our ports? How do the Democrats feel about privacy?

If you don’t know the answers to those questions, you’re not alone. My guess is that most people couldn’t locate Democratic positions on a political map even if they had a political GPS system. At the same time, they could probably sum up the GOP platform with a few quick phrases: more guns, more bombs, more Jesus, fewer taxes, fewer gays, more barefoot and pregnant women.

What the party really needs is a nationwide debate about what belongs in its platform. Being a man of many opinions, I have my own ideas about what belongs in our own ten-point contract. We need to take the most popular aspects of libertarianism and marry them to a progressive social policy grounded in ethics that are recognizable to religious Americans. Our slogan would be – Pay us more, fix the roads, and leave us alone. Here are my ten:

1. U.S. Out of My Pants
The government of the United States has no business telling consenting adults what they can and can’t do in the bedroom. The state also has no right to issue marriage benefits only to certain kinds of people. The second part of this platform can slip in under the radar if we emphasize the first.
2. Give Me More Money
I fail to see the appeal of capitalism if people who work their asses off cleaning our toilets and slopping up our fast food can’t make enough money to get by. Have you ever seen the movie The Best Years of Our Lives? It’s about a returning WWII vet who makes a living as an ice cream man. Today that guy would get laughed at and would have to work three jobs just to pay the rent on a flophouse on skid row. Every American deserves a living wage. Santa Fe, NM's living wage law may serve as a bellweather for these policies.
3. Mandatory Insurance Isn’t Just For Metal Driving Machines
Our health care practices are killing us. They kill uninsured Americans, and they kill businesses big and small. We need to get the private sector out of the insurance business. It’s good for corporate America and it’s good for the millions of uninsured people who have to go to the emergency room every time something goes wrong. The French spend less per capita on health care than we do, they insure everyone, they live longer, and their women are more promiscuous. There must be a connection.
4. People Need Drugs
The drug war is costing us $30 billion a year. It is destabilizing countries like Colombia and Bolivia, and it is pissing off everyone in Latin America. It is also not working. Some people seem to like and need drugs, and I don’t see why we should subject our cities to drug turf wars every day of the year just to keep the heroin out of their arms when it is clearly going to find its way in there anyway. Frame it as a freedom from government issue and run with it. With a competent politician making the connection between the illegality of drugs and crime, people might start to get it.
5. War and Peace Or: War, What Is It Good For?
War should be a last resort when we are truly threatened, not a tool used blindly to accomplish strategic aims that could be reached with other methods. When we go to war unnecessarily, we expose our own weakness and leave those who are actually imperiled (i.e. the Sudanese) to die.
6. Free Trade Is Not As Cool As Free Love
I’m as eager to buy $15 cars from China as the next guy. But if it results in the wholesale destruction of our most important industries, we might want to think twice about untrammeled free trade. If trade doesn’t include the appropriate protections for labor and the environment, then it’s just another form of destruction.
7. Size Doesn’t Matter For Business
The GOP keeps trying, preposterously, to portray itself as the party of small businesses. This is so ludicrous I almost dropped my triple mocha latte onto the floor of my Volvo station wagon. The Republicans are so closely tied to the Wal-Marts and Targets of the world that they eat out of the same mass-produced, polyurithane bowls. We should maybe start pointing this out and stake out a position as the defender of the beleaguered small entrepreneur. And yes, in places like Philadelphia, this means getting rid of some of the annoying legislation that gets in the way of people opening restaurants, bars and that sort of thing. Some laws suck even though they were designed for your protection.
8. People Need More Vacation
Americans work more than basically anyone else in the industrialized world. Some sick, depraved people don’t even take the vacations they have coming to them, feeling some weird obligation to show up at work even when they are not needed or wanted. The Democrats should campaign for a mandatory minimum of three weeks vacation for every full-time worker in the United States. Who will have a problem with that?
9. We Don’t Want To Take Your Guns.
No really, we don’t want them. There’s too many of them out there anyway, and it would take the cops 475,293 hours to collect every handgun in America. This has always been a losing issue for us. We live in a violent society, and that violence has other causes.
10. You Should Get Stuff For Being Born
Every baby born in America should get several thousand dollars from the government that they can claim to buy houses or start business when they turn 30. This would help rectify the resource gap that still separates black and white Americans, and it’s a surefire winner. We can pay for it by suing Halliburton for all the shit they’ve stolen.

Your thoughts?

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Sunday, January 15, 2006

Gloomier times?

Normally I like ESPN's Jim Caple, a smart writer who rises above the usual tripe posted by the average sportswriter. But he has just written one of the most astoundingly silly things I've seen in a long time. Expounding on the impending pursuit of Hank Aaron by Barry Bonds and comparing it to the Summer of '98, Caple writes:

We'll see what the nation's reaction will be as Bonds approaches Aaron (assuming he's healthy enough to do so), but here's one guarantee. It will not be the national lovefest McGwire and Sosa received in 1998, when those two sluggers captivated us amid gloomier news of a White House scandal and a falling stock market.

On one hand, it obviously is not going to be a national lovefest. Very few people like Bonds, and the steroids scandals of the past few years have made most fans wary of getting too excited about home runs flying out of ballparks, even 756 of them. So on that score, Caple is right. But what the hell is he talking about when he says that 1998 brought us "gloomier news"? Yes, there was the Asian financial crisis that hit the stock market in the spring and summer, but the low point, which came on August 31st, was still 1,200 points higher on the Dow than the previous year's low.

Americans really had not begun to feel this economic bad news at the time. There had been no recession, the country was not bleeding jobs like it was from 2001-2004, and more importantly, there was no war. Furthermore, the economy quickly recovered from the "Asian Flu," and the stock market reassumed its rocket-like climb, recovering to over 9,000 by the time the World Series was over. Having lived through that summer, I can say without hesitation that while people were concerned about what was going on in Asia, and although the market took a dive, it wasn't exactly like people thought the sky was falling.

Even if you grant Caple his contention that the Summer of '98 was a gloomy one, economically speaking, how can you argue that it was a worse time than today? The Lewinsky scandal did not exactly blacken the national mood -- in fact the GOP's reaction to the President getting a blow job seemed to rally the public around Clinton. At the height of this supposed national depression, on August 19th and 20th, Bubba's approval rating spiked up to 65% in the CBS news poll. This is not exactly evidence that Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa somehow pulled us all out of a country-wide skid. People like Mike Lupica have long traded on the notion that Sosa and McGwire saved civilization, something that makes much less sense when you wipe away the warm glow of nostalgia and recognize that 1998 was pretty much a year like any other.

Compare 1998 to today. Like 1998, the White House is plagued by scandal, although instead of rummaging through the president's sex life to expose his peccadilloes, the press is now exposing much graver misdeeds -- particularly the revelation that George Bush, on the advice of his power-mad legal advisors, set aside the Constitution in order to spy on people without so much as a warrant from the rubber stamp court set up for precisely that purpose. News is starting to trickle out that perhaps the reason the Bushies wanted to keep this all a secret was because they were spying on people they shouldn't have been -- perhaps even journalists.

Looming larger for my purposes here is the small matter of the endless guerrilla war in Iraq that keeps chewing up American soldiers and spitting them back home in wheelchairs and bodybags. I just don't remember 2,200 dead American GIs back in the Summer of '98, or the possibility that our children will be garrisoning the Green Zone until I start collecting Social Security. Sure, we had a few thousand troops in the Balkans, and there was the Kosovo storm cloud on the horizon, but 1998 was a much more peaceful year for the United States of America. Aside from the retaliatory strikes on Afghanistan and the Sudan, I don't even think we bombed anyone. Now that makes it an annum to remember.

Finally, you can perhaps judge the national mood by approval ratings. Although Bush has climbed out of the mid-30s in the polls, he is not a popular man. Pew still has Junior at 38 percent, while even Faux News has him at an abysmal 42 percent. These are not the marks of a man presiding over happier times than Bill Clinton.

What this all means for Barry Bonds is unclear. I think the sourness to come over his pursuit of Hank Aaron has less to do with some ethereal national moodiness than with the fact that steroids have tainted every home run hit over the past 12 years. What do Mark McGwire's 583 taters mean now that we know he was juicing the whole time? In retrospect, what was the Summer of '98 except the high point (or the nadir, depending on how you look at it?) of the Creatine and Andro Era?

Columnists are suggesting that McGwire should not get into the Hall next year. If people are turning on Mr. Sunshine and Charity, how are they going to react to the morbidly grumpy and churlish Bonds? My guess is not well. And I don't think it has anything to do with blow jobs or wars.

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Monday, January 09, 2006

Brother, can you spare a turning point?

The horrific carnage in Iraq this past week has shattered the emerging myth that the war is won and that the elections convinced hard-core insurgents to put down their weapons. A brief post-election lull has been followed by some of the worst violence of the war, including one of the single worst days for U.S. troops on Thursday. It only got worse over the weekend, as five more soldiers were killed, a Blackhawk crashed or was shot down near Tel Afar, and hundreds of Iraqis perished.

This war has featured more turning points than a Mapquest printout. From the flyboy proclaiming Mission Accomplished before adoring crowds of Republican military grunts to the capture of Saddam (after which Rumsfeld said, "Saddam's capture likely has cut off one source of funding for insurgent attacks against coalition forces.") the handover of power, the interim constitution, the November 2004 siege of Fallujah, the elections of January 2005, the constitutional referendum and now once again another round of elections, you surely can’t blame the Iraqis and Americans for having a bit of turning point fatigue.

Still, at each of these crossroads, the Armchair Division of the Navy Seals tell us that things really aren’t that bad – schools are opening, electricity is flowing and goodhearted American GIs are doing their darnedest to bring democracy to the benighted Iraqis. People like the bloviating Victor Davis Hanson tell us that the carnage is no worse than your average day in inner-city Los Angeles, [HA! DASH]as if this is supposed to be an argument for American tutelage rather than a terrific case against it. He writes:

Read the papers about an average day in Washington D.C., Los Angeles, Detroit, or even in smaller places like Fresno. The headlines are mostly the story of mayhem — murder, rape, arson, and theft. Yet, we think Afghanistan is failing or Iraq hopeless when we watch similar violence on television, as if they do such things and we surely do not.

You might wonder about the last time a car bomb went off in the United States, and you might also tell this blowhard that not even those unmentionable black people in our scary, scary cities have to go to work wondering whetheR they will be blown to pieces by a suicide bomber. It is typical of deranged, racist and utterly uninformed Republican paranoiacs to believe that U.S. cities are plagued by the kind of violence currently infesting Iraq. When was the last political assassination in the United States? How many highways in America are considered unsafe for travel because of the threat of IEDs and kidnappings? Do you remember the last time 130 people were killed and more than 200 wounded in massive bombings?

It is a shame that Harper’s is not available online because there is a very long and devastating dispatch from Iraq by Tom Bissell called “Improvised, Explosive & Divisive: Searching in vain for a strategy in Iraq.” At one point, Bissell writes, “The Marines are forced to travel four hours out of their way to avoid a particularly dangerous highway between TQ [Camp Taqaddum] and Fallujah. ‘The most powerful army in the history of the world,’ one soldier told me, ‘cannot keep a two-mile stretch of road open.” I’m sorry, but how can this be no worse than an average day in Philadelphia? Victor, as a denizen of one of those cities that you and your effete, elitist friends would never dare venture into except perhaps to visit the Ritz Carlton for a conference on Spartan military history, I can tell you that I drive through one of the most blighted stretches of city in this country -- Northwest Philadelphia -- every day, and I don’t need a military escort.

Victor Davis Hanson (or VDH as he is called by his fellow Laz-E-Boy infantrymen at the Corner) wants you to believe that things aren’t that bad in Iraq. He tries to convince you of that point by making these kinds of idiotic, unthinking comparisons in every single column. But more importantly, there is a reason that he and his fellow masters of war see turning points where there are only roundabouts and dead ends: they have to. If there are no real turning points -- if Iraq is going to scuffle along in violent turmoil for five, ten or fifteen years -- then the last justification for this terrible catastrophe of a war will evaporate like Ann Coulter’s cheap perfume.

The reality is that the insurgency, while ultimately doomed because of its narrow, sectarian character, can go on for years. The U.S. does not have enough troops on the ground to decisively defeat such a determined enemy. Our very presence in the country is a big part of the problem, leading to a vexing catch-22: leave and abandon the overmatched Iraqis to a grueling civil war, or stay and ensure that the violence continues indefinitely. All the while our forces are stretched like one of Laura Bush’s fake Stepford smiles. Everywhere our enemies are nodding their heads and saying, “Not only are they weak, they are weak and stupid.”

Not coincidentally, it looks like the bill for this little misadventure might be a touch bigger than we originally thought. Remember when we were going to zip in and out with a few thousand troops, get showered with candy and sweets and return triumphantly to win the 2004 elections to continue fighting tyranny everywhere we find it -- outside of our own executive? Well, we’re two months away from the three-year anniversary of the invasion, and according to people who can actually count things and compare them, we’re no better off than we were in the Summer of '03, since the death rates have stayed more or less the same for three years. The fact that we’ve saddled the Iraqis with a ruinously immobile constitution does not help matters, since only politics can truly defeat the insurgents.

So here’s where things stand: Iraq is a violent, chaotic mess, nearly 2,200 American soldiers are pushing up daisies, another 15,000-or so are crippled or wounded and anywhere from 30,000 to 100,000 Iraqis are no longer with us to enjoy the benefits of the freedom that George Bush so selflessly and graciously granted them in between naps and pratfalls. The U.S. military can’t meet its recruitment goals. The other two members of the Axis of Evil have basically been thumbing their noses at us for two years because they know we can’t do anything about it. The Middle East is, if anything, more violent and chaotic than it was before, with Lebanon gripped by fears of assassinations, Israel and Palestine no closer to peace than the day Bush took office, Syria dangerously unstable, and Jordan threatened by radicals who were trained and armed in Iraq.

I guess $2 trillion just doesn’t go as far as it used to. Don’t worry though, I’m sure there’s another turning point coming up just around the corner.

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My Resolution of Revenge

I knew last year’s resolution was a bust (literally) as I sat at my home computer, caked in self-tanning lotion while watching my then-gooey skin turn orange. In a fit of rage, a handful of weeks earlier, I had vowed to try out for the Philadelphia Eagles Cheerleading Squad. But, at that moment, I more closely resembled a rejected Buccaneers jersey design than a buxom Eagles beauty.

My embarrassing and angry journey began months earlier when my boyfriend Dave and I attended the wedding of one of his friends. At the wedding was a member of the current Eagles Cheerleading Squad – Corinne. Now, I’ve known of Corrinne because Dave has made more than passing reference to “Hotty Corrinne” on several occasions. But this wedding was to be my first face-to-face with the woman of lore – or so I thought it was to be.

I’m not gonna lie: at the wedding I was looking pretty good. Green halter dress. Cute heels. Minimal, but accentuating makeup. But Corinne was definitely the one searching for male attention. After a very public argument with the man she brought to the wedding, Corinne was bouncing from man to man with a big smile and an eager attitude. At some point she bounced happily over to Dave and just grabbed and kissed him. I hasn’t seen him so happy since 2000, when the Yanks won the series.

I’m not the kinda girl who gets upset when an attractive girl smooches on her boyfriend. Not my style [IS THERE A PERIOD MISSING HERE?] I realize that no other woman in her right mind wants him [DAVE SPECIFICALLY HERE, OR JUST ANY BOYFRIEND? THIS IS CONFUSING] for much more than a sad ruse to anger a nearby, misbehaven boyfriend. But if you’re gonna use my boyfriend for such a ploy, however, I ask that you introduce yourself to me and at least acknowledge the gambit. But Corinne gave me nothing – not a “hello,” not an “I’m sorry for that, but …” Nothing. She just turned around with a contented grin and walked out onto the dance floor, where her anger continued its public display.

It was at that moment I began racking my brain for revenge techniques. It wasn’t until about a month later at a drunken New Year’s Eve bash that I concocted the scheme: take Corinne’s slot on the cheerleading squad. It was juvenile -- after all, I was heavily inebriated. Success was highly unlikely to nearly impossible. The scheme was brilliant.

The plan wasn’t entirely crazy. I have more than a decade of classical dance training under my tap shoes and tutu. The plan was to try out at the Linc with the other bosomy hopefuls and wow the judges with my wit and rhythm.

When I went to the Pre-audition Workshop, however, my hopes were substantially lowered. There were about 200 girls there learning how to gain an edge in securing the coveted squad openings. Current cheerleaders – who in a few weeks would be our competition – were offering advice on how to gain an edge on the other competitors. Wear lots of makeup. Straighted[N] your undesirable curly hair. Wear as little clothing as possible. Fake bake – that is, use sunless tanner.

It was this last option that proved to be the greatest misstep. Contrary to popular belief, redheads were never meant to tan. I spent a few days avoiding the public while the orange glow washed off a bit in the shower each day. When gameday came for real, I had returned to my translucent self. Maybe that was the problem. The day of the tryouts arrived, and I got all slutted up – as directed. I straightened by curls. I gobbed on the eyeliner and eyeshadow. I ripped and clawed to get on an undersized sportsbra and bike shorts combo. I knew I was on the right track when I walked downstairs and asked Dave how I looked. He grabbed my hand and dragged me back upstairs in true caveman fashion.

When I arrived at the link, more than 500 girls were crashing through the entry doors in the hopes of becoming the subject of Eagles fans’ wet dreams. I, on the other hand, was simply out for revenge.

The punchline is that I didn’t even make it past the first cut. I knew the routine and hit the steps, but it wasn’t enough to impress the judges. I was taller than all the other women by at least four inches. I was really, really white and I was wearing more clothing that[N] all the other would-be cheerleaders if you stitched their clothes together.

I knew I was in trouble when several of the girls started doing splits in their skimmies within clear eyeshot of the male judges. It got worse when I realized I was the only contestant without a hand-held mirror and a make-up bag the size of Andy Reid’s pre-diet gut.

Corinne remains a staple of the Eagles’ squad. I remain in grad school. I came home that day with a wounded ego and a bit of a pulled groin muscle. But my skin has returned to its happy, pale glow.

This year’s resolution: make out with other women’s boyfriends.

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Friday, January 06, 2006

Dead miners would have loved their ownership society

"We are the union, the mighty mighty union"

I don't generally like to simplify cause and effect, but there are 12 dead miners (well, quite possibly 13) in Tallmansville, West Virginia, who would still be alive today if they were in a union. Mines are difficult things to run under the best of circumstances, but they are much worse when the workers are disorganized and the government refuses its role as regulator. And with the most anti-labor administration in history ensconced in the White House for three more very long years, strong unions are the only thing that can prevent more of these disasters

This is not exactly theoretical physics here -- reasonable people can disagree about whether the universe is expanding or contracting. But no one can get around the fact that the mine was cited nine times in the last year for failing to implement a ventilation plan. Without proper ventilation, mines are more prone to fires and explosions -- and hence more prone to piling up the body bags for its workers. It's that simple.

It is definitely not a coincidence that this disaster happened under the Bush Administration, which has overseen the two worst mine catastrophes in the last 20 years. In 2001, two methane gas explosions killed 13 workers in Alabama. The Mine Safety and Health Administration (MSHA) has not upped its funding to keep pace witht he expanding activities of mines, and in fact the 2006 budget slashes its funding by $4.9 million, adjusted for inflation. You get the feeling that this little line item might be revisited by nervous GOPers in Congress. Right now they look like they've all handled this issue about as well as Putin handled the Kursk.

The mines have no incentive to look after the workers. There's always a fresh supply of unskilled workers who are willing to risk their lives and their health to keep America's supply of coal flowing. And as is often the case, fighting the lawsuits that are likely to be launched as a result of this tragedy will be cheaper than actually taking the measures needed to prevent them. You just don't have to look very hard to identify the business community's attitude toward employees, or the government's attitude toward workers. What we have here is an intersection of profit-seeking interests -- maximize profits at the expense of the vulnerable.

What better illustration of the so-called "ownership society" could we ask for? Bush wants you to own your health care costs, your retirement costs and your unemployment costs. Well guess what -- you own your risk of horrific death by suffocation in a mine shaft, too. Congratulations! You've hit Republican Bingo! Far be it from a regulatory agency to say, do something about such an atrociously run mine other than throw pennies-on-the-dollar fines at it. It's like when managers fine guys like Bobby Abreu $1,000 for not running out a groundball. Seriously, it's not worth it for him to even run towards $1,000 that's being pulled away from him on a string by Montgomery Burns.

I actually think old Burnsie is a pretty good model for this administration: ruthless, amoral and perfectly inept. Isn't it wonderful that the entire country is being run like the Springfield nuclear plant?

It would be funny if it wasn't so horrifying.

I'll say it again: those guys needed a union. Everyone who works in hazardous conditions for mediocre pay in the service of bottom-line-wielding corporate suits needs a union. You get paid better, you retire earlier and you chop your chances of dying in half. Do unions introduce inefficiencies? Sure they do. But that' s kind of the point. Those 12 dead miners and their needlessly suffering families would probably be happy to trade a little inefficiency for their lives.

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