Friday, May 13, 2016

Your Own Facts

Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.

I have read or heard those words (originally attributed to Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan), or variants of them, in any number of articles, blog postings and commentaries. Invariably it's coming from a left-leaning author or speaker excoriating some conservative politician or pundit for inaccurate, misleading or just plain fabricated claims about science, history, politics, social matters and so on.

It is a long-held belief of mine that there is a vastly lower level of inhibition on the right than on the left to support political arguments with assertions that lack a firm basis in fact. I wrote about this a long time ago in the context of the steady stream of crazy right-wing propaganda I used to get sent to me by a close relative who meanwhile seems to have moved on to other leisure pursuits. Democrats just seem to be, well, more ashamed of peddling nonsense in the guise of facts.

Maybe it's the media I consume, or the company that I keep, that leads me to that belief. This study would tend to support me, although I'm not sure it really stands up to statistical scrutiny. This more recent New York Times op-ed piece by a Politifact fact-checker that compares the accuracy of statements made by some leading Republicans and Democrats does seem to show more persuasively (for me, at least) that there are a lot more whoppers being told on the right than on the left.

I was startled and dismayed, therefore, to come across this graphic shared a few months ago on a Facebook page by one of my more staunchly liberal friends, along with some comment signaling general agreement with the statement in the graphic:

Now, one may look at this and say, "yeah, it does seem kind of funny". Maybe it conforms to a general sense that the country, or the world, is controlled by a small circle of individuals who use their enormous wealth to perpetuate a rigged system that enables them to keep and grow that wealth at the expense of everyone else. Maybe it makes one want to reflexively click that "share" button on Facebook to pass the message on. Maybe I even agree with the sort of underlying sentiment about the outrageous influence of the few over the many. But when I see you share this specific thing with me, or something like it, I am pretty shocked.

I'm shocked—and, as a Hebrew-American, personally insulted—because you are sharing with me one of many incarnations of the "international Jewish conspiracy" trope. Do a Google search on "Rothschild central bank meme" and look at the images that come up, and draw your own conclusions about the company in which you find yourself. Then maybe read up a little on the history of this topic; here's one summary.

I'm also shocked because you apparently don't know what a central bank is and how it is governed. Well, maybe not extremely shocked, because central banking, for mere mortals such as you and me, is admittedly a pretty dry and arcane topic. But you have probably heard of the Federal Reserve Bank (the US central bank, aka "the Fed"), and know that its activities are fairly extensively reported on in the press. The Fed's Chair (currently Janet L. Yellen) submits a semiannual report to Congress on current Fed policy (here's the latest one) and then gets grilled in an open hearing before Congress (here's that as well).  So the idea that the Fed is just a cog in the wheel of some carefully concealed international conspiracy is fairly laughable. You might also want to investigate how central banks actually work and then consider how it is that all but a handful of central banks could be "owned" by one diabolical family. Of course, I say all this assuming that you are a reasonable and intelligent person.

Finally, I'm shocked because you are apparently browsing through Facebook posts or liberal political web sites or whatever with your BS detector completely switched off. My dear leftist/Democrat/progressive friends, I expect better of you. I expect you to look at this and ask yourself, "what exactly is a 'Rothschild bank'?", and maybe Google the term to see what comes up. Then I expect you to read a few of those paranoid articles and say, "you know, I see a lot of outlandish assertions here, but not one shred of credible supporting evidence."

Then I expect you to look at that list again and realize that we're not actually "at war with" any of those countries, even though we have our beefs with some of them. The closest we come to that currently is our somewhat tense truce with North Korea. And we did fight North Korea and China in the Korean War, but China is now a key trading partner and a major holder of US Treasury debt. We fought Hungary in WWII, when they were allied with Nazi Germany, but Russia (well, the Soviet Union) was our ally in the same war, and Hungary is a member of NATO now. And Iceland? Really?

As you can probably tell, I got pretty worked up over the whole thing. But eventually I let it pass. I have known the person who shared that graphic for a very long time, and know that person to be a kind and generous soul who would never do anything to hurt anyone and who has never hesitated for a second to lend a helping hand to someone in need, regardless of the associated time commitment and personal expense. And that person is certainly no antisemite or bearer of prejudices of any kind, something I have seen tangibly demonstrated many times. I have to assume that sharing that graphic was a mistake made in haste and not some carefully considered act.

So yeah, I got over it. And then more recently I saw this video shared by a completely different Facebook friend who is a frequent sharer of left-leaning posts:

And I got upset all over again.

According to this video, the list of countries without a "Rothschild-owned central bank" is now just North Korea, Iran and Cuba. The list goes on to say that in 2000, the list also included Afghanistan, Iraq, Sudan and Libya. But wait, what about that other list? It didn't include any of those countries. Can't these conspiracy theorists get their so-called "facts" straight? At any rate, the video goes on to provide an "explanation" of the dark conspiracy that brought those four countries under Rothschild control and how those remaining three will ultimately do so as well. All I can say is, do your homework; If you believe the content of this video after that, then please stop referring to yourself as a "progressive", because you are anything but; you are just an atavistic mouthpiece for the latest edition of a slander that goes back to medieval times.

It comes down to this: think before you post, or share, or "like", or whatever else one does these days on social media. You can't decry Republican denials of global warming (I will still continue to use that term rather than the more neutral one, "climate change"), or bogus claims of rampant voter fraud that necessitates new voter ID laws, or assertions that the President is secretly a Kenyan Muslim plotting to replace the constitution with Sharia law, and then pass on some farcical nonsense you saw on Facebook because it sort of fits your left-wing world view. If it sounds far-fetched and crazy, it almost certainly is. Just do your homework. You owe it to yourself.

My mother told me when I was small, "don't believe everything you see on television". This was long before anyone had even thought of something along the lines of the World Wide Web (a term you don't really hear much anymore, come to think of it). Today I guess she would be telling me not to believe everything I read on the Internet. It makes me think of the lyrics of a classic Frank Zappa song (one of several that support my insistence in discussions with The Young Master that Zappa invented rap); I just substitute the word "Internet" for "TV set".

Friday, March 4, 2016

The "F" Word

I don't feel comfortable using the label "fascist" or "Nazi" to refer to someone with a right-wing ideology that I find distasteful. However strongly I disagree with the policies of a Reagan or a Bush, however obnoxious I find Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter, however insulting and hypocritical I find the whole Fox News crew, I don't use the aforementioned terms to describe their personalities or their politics.

Nor do care for the casual use of those words to mean something like "bully" or "mean person". The Seinfeld "Soup Nazi" episode was pretty funny, but I will always cringe at the term "Soup Nazi" itself. Words that evoke ideologies and events that culminated in the deaths of tens of millions of people and the physical and cultural devastation of an entire continent are not epithets to be thrown around casually.

As I watch the Trump political juggernaut rolling from one primary victory to the next, my inhibitions as far as using the "F" word are rapidly diminishing. I never thought I'd see it in my lifetime, certainly not in America, but there it is.

It's hard to find a single concise definition of fascism, though anyone reading this probably has a general sense of what that word means. I will offer my definition of fascism as a political system characterized by authoritarian rule, violent repression of any and all opposition, chauvinistic nationalism, militarism and expansionism, and featuring a cult of personality around its leader, in whom all political authority ultimately rests. It distinguishes itself from other totalitarian political systems by seeking to incorporate all parts of society into the political system (as opposed to, say, various flavors of communism, which emphasize class conflict), and claims no divine mandate as the basis for the right to govern. I would describe Nazism as a variant of fascism that more sharply focuses the nationalistic/militaristic component into an ideology of racial purity and predestination to rule over all other races.

I usually think of fascism and Nazism as political movements that were peculiar to a specific historical period and were able to flourish due to the prevailing political, social and economic circumstances of that period.To be sure, there are still plenty of authoritarian regimes around, but none that would fully match the definition I've set out above. But now there's Trump. Is it fair to call him a fascist? Let's see.

Last week I found myself in New York City on business. After spending several hours in the train from Boston, and then spending the better part of the day sitting in meetings in a windowless conference room in an office high rise, I had to get out and just walk around a bit, despite the cold, rainy weather that evening. I took the subway from the financial district up to 59th street to check out a couple of stores that interested me, and then began walking back in the direction of lower Manhattan, intending to just walk until I didn't feel like walking any more, then take the subway the rest of the way back to my hotel.

Shortly after stepping out of the subway, I found myself facing a large residential high-rise with the name "Trump Park Avenue" in giant letters over the entrance. I continued my walk, heading down Fifth Avenue, soon coming upon the massive and imposing Trump Tower. I didn't go in, but looking through the glass front into the interior I could see the signs directing patrons to the Trump Grill, the Trump Bar, the Trump Cafe and various other things named Trump. It made me think of the many other things Donald has put his name on (here's a short list, in case you're curious). What is it with this guy's need to put his name on everything? Bill Gates, Warren Buffet and other billionaires own tons of stuff, but none of them seems to share this urge.

Trump's cult of personality seems fairly laughable, but he clearly takes it pretty seriously. His web site offers a random grab-bag of policy statements, but his whole political program is still basically… himself: elect him and he will "make America great again", whatever that means, and never mind how he'll do it. Maybe since he has changed his positions so many times over the years, he's just keeping his options open. Or maybe it's because proposing a concrete policy or program just invites a lot of unhelpful scrutiny, as with his foolproof plan to defeat ISIS or his supposedly revenue-neutral tax reform plan. The bottom line is: he is Trump, he will fix whatever ails you by virtue of being Trump. I vaguely recall the federal government also having a Congress and a Supreme Court, but presumably he expects those to just fall in line behind President Trump.

Among the few concrete policies he has articulated is his plan to build a wall on the Mexican border, which he has justified with a series of racist remarks about Mexicans. He has passed on bogus statistics about killing of whites by blacks. He insists that we must keep Muslims from entering the US, and has repeated his baseless claim that during the 9/11 attacks, "There were people over in New Jersey that were watching it, a heavy Arab population, that were cheering as the buildings came down". In other words, people who don't look like Trump have no business coming into the country—racism as the basis for government policy. And Trump's racist tendencies are not a recent, campaign-induced phenomenon, but rather a consistent pattern going back many years.

As distasteful as I find Trump's narcissistic personality cult and racist bent, to me the really concerning thing is the pattern of authoritarianism and the embrace of violence as a legitimate political tool that runs through so much of what he says and which seems to find such a consistently positive echo among his supporters.

The Trump/Putin mutual admiration society is well documented. Trump seems unconcerned when confronted by assertions that Putin is behind the series of murders of Russian journalists—it's only Putin's endorsement that matters to him. And while referring to him as a "madman", Trump simultaneously expressed admiration for Kim Jong-Un's violent purge of generals and party leaders: "And all of a sudden — and you know it's pretty amazing when you think of it — how does he do that? Even though it is a culture and it's a cultural thing, he goes in, he takes over, and he's the boss… It's incredible. He wiped out the uncle. He wiped out this one, that one." So Kim having his political enemies dragged before some kangaroo court and then summarily executed is, to Trump, not a repulsive act; it's actually kind of cool.

Trump strongly supports the use of torture as an interrogation tool, insisting, "Don’t tell me it doesn’t work — torture works… Half these guys [say]: ‘Torture doesn’t work.’ Believe me, it works." I'm not sure who "half these guys" are; maybe the Senate Intelligence Committee, who after six years of study released a report saying that little to no useful intelligence was acquired  through the CIA's post-9/11 "harsh interrogation" techniques? Not that that matters anyway, since Trump also says, "If it doesn’t work, they deserve it anyway, for what they’re doing." So much for due process.

Trump also makes it clear that he will tolerate no dissent at any of his campaign rallies. I imagine that any of the candidates, Republican or Democrat, would have disruptive protesters and hecklers removed from their rallies, but Trump is not satisfied with that: he wants dissent punished. In a rally in January in New Hampshire, following an interruption by a protester, Trump instructed the security guards to "Get him out of here!… “Don’t give him his coat. Don’t give him his coat! Keep his coat. Confiscate his coat. You know, it’s about 10 degrees below zero outside. You can keep his coat. Tell him we’ll send it to him in a couple of weeks." When another protester interrupted him, Trump again insisted, "OK, throw him out into the cold! Don’t give them their coat. No coats! No coats! Confiscate their coats!" This to the cheers and applause of his supporters.

At a more recent rally, Trump said of a protester that he would "like to punch him in the face". As the man was taken away by security, Trump pined for the "old days", when "You know what they used to do to guys like that when they were in a place like this? They’d be carried out on a stretcher." Now, I'm not the oldest guy in the room, but (regrettably) I'm not the youngest either, and I don't know what "old days" he's referring to. Maybe the early 1960s in Birmingham, Alabama? Or maybe he just means that same Birmingham last November, when a Black Lives Matter protester was punched and kicked at one of his rallies, later eliciting from Trump the comment, "Maybe he should have been roughed up, because it was absolutely disgusting what he was doing." (The thing he was doing was protesting Trump.)

Or possibly he's thinking all the way back to the 1930s, when Nazi meetings and rallies were guarded by the SA (Sturmabteilung, aka storm troopers or "brownshirts"), the party's paramilitary force of thugs recruited from the ranks of the angry and unemployed, who did indeed deal with any opposition in that violent, Trump-approved manner. I can't imagine that Trump could actually create his own private army in 2016 America, but he has no inhibitions about appealing to the kind of people who would be his pool for recruiting. Former KKK head David Duke said in recent days that, "voting against Donald Trump at this point, is really treason to your heritage", so clearly somebody is hearing the Trump dog whistle, which is about as subtle as a foghorn. Trump, clearly wanting to avoid alienating an important part of his base, first claimed not to know who David Duke was (even though it's well documented that Trump knows exactly who he is), then finally came out with a lukewarm disavowal of Duke's support that for me at least had the implied subtext, "I'm just doing this to make the press leave me alone."

I could go on, but let's total up the score. Authoritarian: yes. Violent repression of dissent: check. Nationalism/racism: yup. Militarism/expansionism: not so sure on that one, since Trump hasn't really articulated a policy beyond, "We’re going to make our military so big, so strong and so great, so powerful that we’re never going to have to use it… We’re going to have a president who is respected by Putin, respected by Iran." Oh, and, regarding ISIS, "I would bomb the shit out of them". Cult of personality: absolutely.

Chi non è con noi è contro di noi.

Does that make Trump a fascist? Well, he doesn't overtly espouse a fascist political program, but I have no doubt about his fascist mindset. The only reason I can think of not to put that label on him is that fascism is an ideology, and an ideology is something you genuinely believe in, and for the life of me, I can't tell whether Trump actually believes in anything beyond feeding his own ego.

Would a Trump administration institute some sort of totalitarian, single-party rule? I sort of doubt that would work, but who knows? I know that it was a different place and a different time, but it still sticks in the back of my mind that Hitler didn't come to power through some violent coup, he was elected and then successfully manipulated the system to quickly achieve absolute power. Just recently we heard Trump blustering on about how he's not so crazy about freedom of speech; not a good sign for someone who aspires to office in a democracy. We also heard from former CIA head Michael Hayden that he thinks the US military could refuse to carry out some of Trump's policies—what kind of political crisis would such a confrontation between the Commander in Chief and his top generals produce?

I tend to think that at some point reason will prevail and even if he gets as far as the Republican nomination, he will still never see the inside of the White House. But I also never imagined that he would get even this far. I guess I can take comfort in the thought that if he really became president, and things actually got really, really bad, My Favorite Wife and I could could always return to the progressive democratic country from which we moved to the US sixteen years ago, namely—irony of ironies—Germany.

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Dear Republican National Committee

Reince Priebus, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, has condemned Donald Trump's remarks about banning Muslims from entering the US. Priebus: "We need to aggressively take on radical Islamic terrorism but not at the expense of our American values." Other leading Republicans have done similarly. Even Dick Cheney, certainly not my favorite primate, said his statement, "goes against everything we stand for and believe in.”

But words are not enough. Consequences must follow. The RNC should immediately disqualify Trump from running as a Republican for the presidency of the United States of America.

I watched Trump's latest run at the Republican presidential nomination initially with a degree of bemusement. How could anybody take this guy seriously? He's a preening narcissist. His program is basically himself. He promises to "make America great again", but he has very little to say about what exactly that means and how he plans to do it. When he's challenged by anyone in the press regarding his vague promises and made up facts, he drowns out the criticism by unleashing a barrage of bombast and blather. At base he is a clown, a walking self-parody.

I'm not laughing now. The joke's not funny any more. Trump is nominally a Republican but he talks like the candidate of the National Front. And he continues to lead the polls among the field of Republican candidates. His xenophobic rants against Muslims in particular seem to have no problem finding a receptive audience.

I was startled when my trusty clock radio came on at 5 AM this morning to treat me to an earful of Trump going on about how we need to ban all Muslims from entering the US. This, I thought, is going too far. As already noted, condemnations from leading Republicans were not far behind. But what I didn't hear was a statement like this from the RNC: "It is unacceptable for the candidate of our party to promulgate views that are so totally antithetical to American values. As such we  reject his candidacy and hereby disqualify him from any nomination as the Republican candidate for president of the United States."

To not exclude Trump from the nomination, regardless of how certain or uncertain it is that he could actually win it, is to tacitly approve the views he promotes. Apparently the party's attitude is that if this guy can win enough primaries and caucuses to win the nomination, it's his; all they care about is that someone who calls himself a Republican ends up in the White House. Besides, they're undoubtedly afraid that if they shut him out of the party, he will run as a third-party candidate, splitting the conservative vote and guaranteeing a win for the Democratic candidate. For the sake of having a Republican president, even those in the party who know better are ready to hold their noses and send a guy into the running who at best is Berlusconi and at worst is Mussolini.

Democracy is beautiful in theory; in practice it is a fallacy.
You in America will see that some day.

I couldn't have said it better myself.

In my view that's a cowardly and cynical calculation. If the Republicans love their country as much as they profess to, they will do the right thing and toss this guy out on his ear, regardless of the electoral consequences. I am not particularly confident that will happen.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

For Henry's Sake

It's been well over a year since I posted anything. The Heiress and The Young Master have told me repeatedly how much they miss my scribblings here, so I hope they appreciate that once again I have somehow found the time and motivation to take keyboard in hand.

In light of current events, I thought I would tell you a little about Henry. Henry was an old man when I came to know him. Or at least he seemed old to me because as a small child, which I was, anyone with grey hair seemed really old. I have grey hair now, and I don't feel particularly old, although the offspring rarely miss an opportunity to remind me that I am.

Henry spoke with a faint accent that always made him seem slightly exotic to me. When I got old enough to wonder about such things, he told me that he came from a place called Bessarabia, which for me also had a faintly exotic ring to it. You won't find Bessarabia on a map, unless it's a pretty old one, because it doesn't really exist as an identifiable entity any more, having been divided between what is now Ukraine and Moldova. At the time that Henry left, in 1905, when he was ten years old, it was part of Russia.

Within Bessarabia, Henry lived in a small town called Kalarash. You can find it on a current map of Moldova in its Moldavian/Romanian spelling of "Călărași". Kalarash, at least back then, would more properly be called a shtetl, that is, one of the small, mostly (though not exclusively) Jewish towns in the pale of settlement, that part of the Russian empire in which Jews were allowed to reside permanently.

Henry told me that his family made its living by buying fresh fruit from the local farmers, drying it and then selling it at market in Odessa, on the Black Sea, in what is now Ukraine. If you look on a map, you'll see that Odessa is about 150 miles, or a three-and-a-half-hour trip by car, from Kalarash. I imagine that if you were traveling by foot or in some sort of horse-drawn carriage it would be a multi-day journey and not a very feasible way to get your wares to market, but studying the same maps, it looks like you could travel there by rail (via Chișinău, aka Kishinev) within an acceptable amount of time, even in the early nineteen-hundreds.

The Russian empire in that period was not a hospitable place for Jews. There were restrictions on where you could live, when and where you could travel, how you could earn your livelihood and all sorts of other things. There were plenty of things to remind you that you were a second-class citizen, with no expectation of receiving any kind of fairness or justice from the larger society. But this condition went well beyond just insults and indignities.

Henry recounted to me how during one trip to market, an older cousin of his was commanded by one of the local young toughs to walk a few paces and then turn and stand straight and still; for the amusement of his friends, the upstanding young citizen then demonstrated his knife-throwing skills by hurling his dagger at Henry's cousin, striking him in the heart and leaving him to bleed to death. His distraught family was too terrified for their own lives to retrieve the body until later that night when there was no one else around.

This incident took place in the context of a large wave of pogroms that swept the region during the period of 1903-1906. That wave reached Kalarash in October of 1905. In two days of violence, Jewish houses and shops were ransacked and their residents were beaten, raped and murdered. A number were burned alive when their houses were set on fire as they attempted to hide in attics or cellars. When it was over, some fifty-odd members of the community were dead, scores more were injured and traumatized. Henry told me that this was the event that induced his family to finally leave Russia.

I guess we'll be going, then.

But in 1905, you didn't just leave the Russian empire. Without proper papers of any kind, you had to find a way to sneak out. Henry's family hired the 1905 equivalent of the people that, for the right sum of money, will hide you among the cargo in a truck crossing from Tijuana to San Diego, or put you on a rubber raft in Turkey and point you toward Greece. Each family member was smuggled across the border in a different way. In Henry's case, he was given a flock of geese to drive across the border with a stick, with the guards made to understand that he was just taking them to the market on the other side. Not everyone was able to make the crossing, though; Henry told me he left behind a sister, whom he never saw again. Once across the border, they made their way to Hamburg, Germany and from there traveled via Ellis Island to America, eventually settling in the American Midwest.

One does not simply walk out of Russia.

I can't help thinking of Henry as I follow the news of Syrian refugees. Like them, Henry's family might never have embarked on an uncertain journey to a strange and distant land were it not for the evidence all around them that they were living in increasingly mortal danger. With little more than the clothes on their backs they left behind everything and everyone they had ever known. They risked everything in the hope of ultimately finding a better and safer life in a place they really knew very little about.

Fortunately for me, they were successful. Henry learned to speak English (the only language he had spoken until then being Yiddish), went to school, eventually went into business and had a family. His daughter became my mother; Henry was my grandfather. And he was basically a refugee, forced to leave his home to escape intolerable persecution. Had his family not had a safe place to go, I might not be here writing this today.

How can I, therefore, look at these people coming from Syria and say we should keep them out? How can I not want them to have the same chance my own family had? I think of this, and I look at the efforts that prominent American politicians are making to block their entry, and I am ashamed. I hear Trump/Cruz/Rubio/Bush/Christie/Jindal/Carson/etc. saying that we must keep these people out because some could be terrorists just posing as refugees and I do not think, "Hmmm, that man has a point." I just hear a new and convenient excuse to keep people out because, well, they're not like us.

We've come to destroy America.

And were I to believe in such a thing, I would hope that there is a special place in hell for the likes of Ted Cruz or Mike Huckabee, who perpetually whine on and on about Christians being persecuted in one way or another but (along with Jeb Bush) want to impose a religious test before dispensing their Christian goodness and mercy. Those guys need to stop waving their bible in my face long enough to look inside it and see what it says about how they are supposed to treat their fellow man. Disgusting hypocrites.

Cruz, Huckabee, Bush… You guys go with the goats.

I understand that there could be terrorists trying to gain entry under the guise of being refugees; it's not utterly implausible. But it seems to me that the risk needs to be viewed in perspective, and that this focus on potential terrorists among the refugees is entirely misplaced. The 9/11 hijackers, who visited upon this country the most devastating act of terrorism ever to take place on American soil, all came in on legal visas. It is also well documented that there are more than a few "native-born Europeans" (a euphemistic press term I have repeatedly encountered that means "white people") who sympathize with or have actually joined the ranks of ISIS and could probably easily enter the US with a plan to cause mayhem and violence, but I don't see any politicians saying we should stop admitting Swedes and Spaniards because, well, you just can't be too careful.

Oh, and just in case you hadn't heard, which is not unlikely, since I've seen little mention of it in the mainstream press: that Syrian passport found near the body of one of the Paris attackers, which touched off this whole discussion about how admitting Syrian refugees is dangerous folly? It was a fake, probably bought for a few hundred dollars in Turkey.

Just a couple of good ol' boys

Certainly acts of terrorism in the US are a distinct possibility, and I won't say I don't worry about it at least a little; I live in a major American city, I go to concerts and theaters and shopping malls, I ride the subway. We've even had our own bona fide terrorist event right here where I live, after all, in which several people were killed and dozens maimed and injured. It was a horrible thing, but two years on, it has not really changed how people around here go through life, because it was—rightly, I think—understood as an aberration, for which we needed to maybe take some additional precautions, not something that should rule our lives henceforth and certainly not a reason to persecute anyone who looks a little like the perpetrators.

If I'm going to worry about injury or death at the hands of some well-armed malefactor, it seems far more rational to worry about gun violence of the non-terroristic variety. Looking at the statistics on this web site, which tracks reports of mass shootings in the US, I count so far in 2015 (as of 11/20/15) 337 separate shootings in which 431 people were killed and 1,227 injured. Note, though, that these are only the mass shootings so far this year; if you look at gun violence overall, this site reports, as of 11/24/15, around 47,000 incidents, 12,000 deaths and 24,000 injuries.

Recent events in Paris notwithstanding, the threat of terrorism is still pretty abstract compared to the very real violence I read about every morning in my local paper. The unending stream of mass shootings over the past decade shows me that if a would-be terrorist did successfully enter the US—assuming he wasn't here already, very possibly even as a US citizen—he would have almost no problem acquiring the tools he would need to create all kinds of mayhem and carnage. But I don't see any of the politicians who are beating the drum about keeping out foreigners whom they insist are potential terrorists proposing to do something about that. No, their solution is much simpler than that: just don't let Henry in.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Please Just Go Away

Dick Cheney, the Freddy Krueger of American politics, is at it again. Like a horror movie monster who keeps coming back when you were sure he could terrorize us no longer, this week Cheney and his minion daughter Liz have surfaced on the op-ed pages of the Wall Street Journal to tell us how badly President Obama is botching Iraq policy under the title, "The Collapsing Obama Doctrine".

Back to Terrorize Us Some More

I've been less than impressed by Obama's foreign policy, which has frequently struck me as somewhat unfocused and directionless. That is not to say that I am not happy about specific policies such as his moves to bring our involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan to an end, but if there is some overarching program guiding US foreign policy under his administration, I've had a hard time discerning exactly what it is. There are also what I consider to be some real blunders, such as the failed "reset" of relations with Russia or the "red line" fiasco regarding chemical weapons in Syria. 

But if there is one person who has absolutely zero standing to criticize the president, it's Dick Cheney. That one of the leading lights of the George W. Bush administration would author (or co-author) the words, "Rarely has a U.S. president been so wrong about so much at the expense of so many" is an utter denial of his own role as an architect of the mess that is Iraq in the year 2014, and a direct insult to anyone who has bothered to pick up a newspaper in the last decade and a half. If ever there was a case of the pot calling the kettle black—no pun intended—this is it. So humor me while I return to the days of yesteryear to remind you of some of what we lived through in the years 2001–2008 under Bush and Cheney and their pals.

Long ago I shared what was to be a tale in three parts of my discovery of an old but apparently unread copy of the Boston Globe dated August 22, 2001 in a forgotten corner of my shed. In part one I shared my experiences from that period as I found myself inextricably entwined in dot-com madness that eventually ended in tears—and redemption. In part two I reflected on the period immediately following, which saw both the country and my new job under attack simultaneously. In the third and final installment I thought I would finally open up that paper and share my profound meditations on what I found in there and how it relates to my life now (or maybe just ramble and rant in my usual fashion), but I just somehow never got around to it.

So at last I open up the paper, and… there is actually not that much worth remarking on. There is a story on the front page about Senator Jesse Helms, the arch-conservative republican from North Carolina, deciding not to run for another term. I always thought of Helms as a pompous blowhard extremist and I was glad when he finally exited the scene; by today's Republican standards he would probably be viewed as a right-of-center moderate who could never win a Republican primary election. Otherwise the first few pages mostly contain local and national stories of murder and mayhem, and mundane policy discussions about topics that have long been forgotten but no doubt seemed pretty important at the time.

The international section is a little more interesting. There is a story about Shimon Peres and Yasser Arafat agreeing to hold talks about ending eleven months of continuing violence. Another story is about a bombing by ETA in Spain—don't hear much about ETA anymore. There is a report about the US considering easing sanctions on Sudan, citing a reduction in support for terrorism; war and genocide in Darfur still lay a few years in the future. Towards the back of the section there is a story about how the US Army was performing surveillance missions in support of NATO peacekeeping efforts in the Balkans (remember the Balkans?) by means of "miniature spy planes… guided by remote control"—the term "drone" had clearly not yet entered our everyday vocabulary.

The lead story in the business section is about the Federal Reserve cutting the Federal funds rate to 3.5%, the seventh cut since the beginning of the year. Currently it's 0.25%, where it's been since the end of 2008. More than half of the business section is taken up by the previous day's stock prices and other financial market information; I can't even remember how long it's been since the Globe stopped publishing that, since it's all freely available online.

As for the rest… In sports, the Red Sox were in second place in the AL East, several games behind the Yankees, as so often. The prime time TV schedule listed a bunch of shows that I don't even remember, but then I'm not a big TV-watcher anyway. There was still a small classified ads section; I guess Craigslist hadn't yet completely killed that.

Of all the stories in that old paper, there was really only one that still seems very timely, namely this one from above the fold on the front page:  "Bush Takes Firm Line as Surplus Dwindles—Defends Tax Cut, Says Overspending Is Danger". The story begins with this:

With two reports preparing to announce that the federal budget surplus has melted away in recent months, President Bush launched a defense of his budget choices yesterday and argued that overspending by Congress is a bigger danger to Social Security and Medicare than his $1.35 billion tax cut.

[Note: that $1.35 billion number was an error; the Globe published this on Aug. 24: "Correction: Because of a reporting error, a story on Page 1 Wednesday about the dwindling federal budget surplus misstated the amount of President Bush's tax cut over the next decade. It is expected to total $1.35 trillion."]

The story continued:

Today's OMB report is expected to reflect a $150 to $160 billion surplus, the second-largest in history. But nearly all but $1 billion of that will probably be composed of the Social Security surplus, which Bush, like most politicians, has promised not to touch. And while the OMB report may show the administration only a few steps short of touching that surplus, other calculations based on a slightly different set of economic assumptions indicate that the White House has in fact dipped into the surplus, a circumstance the Congressional Budget Office may reflect in its report to be released Aug. 28.

It then went on to discuss Bush's promise that his budget would ensure economic growth of 3.2% as the economy faltered in the wake of the dot-com bust, while the Democrats prepared to attack him for funding a tax cut with money that could have been spent on education or defense. Representative quotation:

But Democrats, preparing for a media blitz to accompany the release of the OMB report today, seemed undaunted. "George Bush inherited the strongest economy and the biggest surplus in history. We had eight years of fiscal improvement, and in eight months he's wiped it out," said Tom Kahn, Democratic staff director for the House Budget Committee.

Well, we're still chewing on that one, aren't we? Looking back, that story looks to me like the first real taste of what was going to be eight years of ideologically driven foolishness; a series of profoundly bad decisions that, at the end of the G.W. Bush presidency, would find the country embroiled in two largely stalemated wars, the economy in shambles, the federal government running massive spending deficits and a huge segment of the population feeling the kind of deep existential fear that few of us had experienced since the Great Depression. This article reminds us that as they left office, Bush's approval rating was 22% and Cheney's was an even more abysmal 13%. Four years after Bush just sort of disappeared from sight, seemingly overnight, we still have a long way to go toward recovery, but once in a while we should compare that to the state of the country as it stood a little over five years ago.

Actually… no.

There are many who would argue that the G.W. Bush administration is history now, and we need to look forward and not dwell on those years. Obama has already completed a full term in the White House and is over a year into his second, so whatever may be wrong with the country, it's all about his policies and his performance now. But I reject that. As alluded to above, anything you can say about where we are now needs to be looked at in light of where Bush, Cheney and co. left us some five years ago. Furthermore, the Republican opposition would apparently like nothing better than to not only take us back to the discredited policies of the Bush years, but to double down on them. And now, once again, we have Cheney turning up in the media to continue his campaign to rewrite history. We need to remember where we were, how we got there, and why we can't go back to that place.

Let's review some of what happened during those years. As the Bush era started with his inauguration in January of 2001, the dot-com boom was transforming itself into a giant bust, as I recounted in the first part of this little saga. That wasn't Bush's fault by any means; chalk it up to the strange wave of mass euphoria that somehow led otherwise intelligent people to believe that in the Internet era, giving things away for free is a highly-promising business model, followed by the sudden discovery that it actually isn't. I will remember the summer of 2001 as a period in which the Internet economy was crashing down around our ears, taking jobs and wealth with it. Our president wanted us to believe that cutting taxes would fix this. Unfortunately, even at the time there was no evidence that this actually works. Here is someone's nice little analysis that summarizes this well; here is a more formal analysis by the Center on Budget Policy Priorities. The one qualification here is that tax cuts to low-income people do have some stimulative effect, because people in that category tend to spend every dollar put back into their pockets; unfortunately the Bush tax cuts in 2001 and 2003 skewed in the other direction. But don't listen to me; just do a Google search on "evidence that tax cuts stimulate the economy" and draw your own conclusions.

We of course went to war during those years, first in Afghanistan, then in Iraq. I remember when the first shots were fired in Afghanistan; we were there to destroy Al Qaeda and the Taliban regime that harbored it. There were all kinds of declarations about how we would be there to rebuild Afghanistan as a nation, we wouldn't abandon them as we had prior to the Soviet invasion in 1979, and we would generally heave Afghan society from the seventh century into the twenty-first. And what actually happened? 

Well, we got rid of the Taliban government, and in its place installed the fabulously corrupt Karzai government (oh wait, I forgot, Karzai was elected by his countrymen, wink wink). In early December 2001 we located our main targets, bin Laden and his lieutenant al-Zawahri, at Tora Bora and then (according to the 2009 report of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee) let them escape to Pakistan because General Franks and Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld failed to commit the troops needed to kill or capture them, preferring instead to rely on Afghan fighters to do the job (it would be nearly a decade later—under Obama—that bin Laden met his end, and al-Zawahri remains at large). We heard all about how America had to remain engaged in Afghanistan rather than to abandon it to its own devices, and instead help it to become a modern democracy, ignoring both the congenital Afghan allergy to foreigners trying to come in and tell them how to do things and the historic inability of any central Afghan government to control much of the country beyond Kabul (recommended reading: Afghanistan: A Military History from Alexander the Great to the War against the Taliban by Stephen Tanner).

Then the Bush administration just sort of lost interest in Afghanistan, letting the situation devolve into a stalemate between the US and its allies on the one hand and a reconstituted Taliban on the other. No, we had more important things to do, namely to invade Iraq on the pretext of fabricated claims that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction and conspiring to hand them over to our enemies. So off we went, authorized by Congress—with the votes of, among others, then-Senators Hilary Clinton, John Kerry and Joe Biden, let us not forget—to apply the might of the US military to removing Saddam and his cronies from office, but with no actual plan for what would come next. 

Lacking any strategy for a post-war Iraq, the Bush administration instead blundered from one tactical error to the next, with Cheney playing a prominent role. The list of screw-ups is far longer than I could document here without boring you any more than I already have (more recommended reading: Fiasco: The American Military Adventure in Iraq, 2003 to 2005 by Thomas E. Ricks and Imperial Life in The Emerald City: Inside Iraq's Green Zone by Rajiv Chandrasekaran). But just to summarize: Thousands of American servicemen and -women died. Thousands more went home with life-changing injuries, not a few of them discovering in the process that no real consideration had been given to how they and their families would be provided with the support and the resources they would need to cope with their new reality for the rest of their lives. Hundreds of billions of American tax dollars were spent on the war itself, with billions more wasted to support ill-conceived projects that accomplished absolutely nothing (one more book recommendation: We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People by Peter Van Buren).

We of course have to consider the legacy of the war that Cheney so vigorously—and with such blatant disregard for the facts—promoted on the Iraqis themselves. We don't know the precise numbers, but we can safely say that tens of thousands of Iraqis died in the war and its immediate aftermath. Thousands more have died in the civil war that followed and that has continued with varying intensity ever since. As I read practically every day about people being killed or maimed by this or that bombing in Iraq, or about a government led by a prime minister who tolerates, if not promotes, a practically institutionalized culture of corruption, and who seems determined to disenfranchise large segments of the population and turn Iraq into a client state of Iran (see the recent article about Nuri al-Maliki by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker), I wonder whether the average Iraqi thinks he is better off now than under Saddam. I also wonder why anyone is surprised by the rapid advance of the Sunni-led ISIS militia in the Sunni-dominated areas of Iraq, given Maliki's aforementioned determination to cut them off from any kind of influence or power over the institutions that control their lives. I also wonder how the Cheneys can pretend that the logical consequences of the Bush administration machinations that brought Maliki to power are somehow Obama's fault.

The current Cheney op-ed asserts that "[t]his president is willfully blind to the impact of his policies. […] President Obama is on track to securing his legacy as the man who betrayed our past and squandered our freedom." What a breathtaking exercise in hypocrisy and cynicism. What a sad commentary on the state of our society that a major newspaper will publish such nonsense, and that a large segment of our country will no doubt eagerly lap it up. The one thing George W. Bush did right was to just sort of go away when his time in office was up. I wish Dick Cheney would finally follow him.