Sunday, September 16, 2012

The Idiot Cycle

Here comes another unnecessarily long and rambling essay on current events. Don't say I didn't warn you.

I am observing the current anti-American protests in the Middle East with a mixture of disgust and resignation. It wasn't very long ago that I watched with some amazement as the "Arab Spring" swept away one dictator after another. I was a little skeptical about where that would all end up, but on balance, hearing the words of those who were at the heads of the protests that later turned into revolutions, on balance I was encouraged to believe that a certain degree of modernity and enlightenment would characterize whatever came next.

Well… maybe not. I have railed on more than once in these electronic pages about the armies of the militantly ignorant who comprise a certain segment of our own nation, the ones whose extremist, chauvinistic interpretation of their religion, combined with crazy, paranoid notions about political conspiracies, enables them to deny even the most obvious facts that are not cognate with their worldview. But for the most part, their impact on the rest of us exhausts itself largely in voting for all the wrong policies for all the wrong reasons (in my view anyway). With very few exceptions, they generally don't turn violent. We have so far not seen mobs of right-wing Christian fundamentalists responding to the teaching of evolution in schools, or the "war on Christmas", or even South Park's sacrilegious depictions of Jesus by taking their grievances to the street in a smashing, burning, murdering rage.

But these days in North Africa, and increasingly in other places like Pakistan, Afghanistan, Malaysia or Indonesia, we are seeing just that sort of thing happening in response to a stupid film. In fact, it's not even a whole film, it's just a poorly edited "trailer" of a film with the peculiar tile The Innocence of Muslims that apparently few people if any have ever seen in its full length. I'm not going to link to it here, since it seems to be one of those things that is regularly  posted on YouTube, taken down, and then reposted under a different URL, so any link I publish here may be obsolete by the time you read this—just go to YouTube and search for it. You can also find it (if the link is still valid) on this page from The Atlantic that gives a chronology of events leading up to the current violence. 

The film (or trailer) is undeniably gratuitously insulting to Muslims, depicting the prophet Mohammed as a lecherous, greedy, murderous pervert. But it's also hilariously badly made and it's absurd to think that without its current news-related notoriety, more than a handful of people would even be aware of its existence. But clearly there is no shortage of backward, ignorant people in the Muslim world who are ready to go on a murderous rampage over even the rumor that their religion has somehow been insulted. Now, I know all about the colonial history of the region, and I know that American concepts of free speech are foreign to these people, and I know that their religion is an integral part of their lives and culture, and I know I'm applying my western notions of morality to a non-western culture, and all those other politically correct reasons why I should be somehow understanding and tolerant of the current violence. But dammit, they're burning and killing and destroying over a stupid movie, which I am sure that 99% of the people involved in the rioting have never seen anyway. A few years ago we saw the same thing happening over cartoons, fer crissakes. How can this be excused by any standard? It can only be condemned.

Dividends of the Revolution

But this cannot be condemned without also taking into account that as primitive as the response may be, it's still a response to a deliberate and targeted provocation. The film itself was reportedly made by one Nakoula Basseley Nakoula, an Egyptian Coptic Christian (and convicted felon) who lives in the US. From there, it was picked up by another US-resident Egyptian Copt named Morris Sadek and posted with an Arabic translation on YouTube. Sadek apparently alerted various Egyptian jounalists to the post, while at the same time our old friend Terry Jones, the infamous Koran-burning fundamentalist pastor, attempted (pretty unsuccessfully) to promote the film in the US. These guys all set out with nothing more on their minds than to provoke Muslims. 

Nakoula and Sadek surely knew that if they could get Egyptian Muslims to somehow become aware of their film, the response would be something along the lines of what we are seeing now. (Eventually they did find the conduit they were looking for, an Egyptian TV pundit who, as part of his own twisted agenda, broadcast part of the trailer and set in motion the events we are now following.) They are no better than the rioting mobs. Say what you will about freedom of speech, there's no doubt in my mind that they have blood on their hands. As far as I'm concerned, to argue otherwise would be akin to saying, "It's not my fault that someone left that powder keg lying around. I just lit the fuse."

What we have is an entire cycle of idiots, all feeding off each other in a kind of perverse symbiosis. We have the idiot who invested time and money in this deliberately insulting piece of trash; the idiots who translated and promoted it; the idiots who communicated its existence to a wider audience and then the multitude of idiots who reacted with violence. The idiots at the beginning of the chain, or others like them, will take the response of the mob as justification to retaliate by generating the next provocation. And thus will the cycle continue.

Sowing the Wind

What will break the cycle? The best place to be start would be with the idiots at the beginning of it. But I'm pessimistic here. Publicity-hungry provocateurs like Terry Jones are the tip of the iceberg in this country; below the surface lies a vast mass of people who are not activists but who have bought into the whole Muslims-want-to-take-over-our-whole-society paranoia machine. Yes, I know that Muslims really did kill thousands of people on 9-11-01 on what they considered to be a specifically Muslim holy mission. But to believe that all Muslims in this country are part of some kind of secret conspiracy to subvert our way of life, introduce Sharia law and eventually take over completely—well, it reminds me of some darker periods in the history of my own tribe that were the result of similar thinking.

Reaping the Whirlwind

There is a whole Muslim-bashing industry that seems to be growing up in this country. Maybe I'm the one who is out of step when I'm  shocked to read about something like Pat Robertson's suggestion to a caller to his TV show that he become a Muslim so he can beat his wife. It's not the words themselves that shock me; it's the way that ol' Pat can feel comfortable making a casual joke like this on TV. This was a guy who wanted to be president, remember? As in president of the whole USA, not just the evangelical Christian part. With a sense of humor like this, I'm sure that Pat would have felt perfectly at home in Berlin in 1938.

Given that the idiots at the beginning of the cycle seem to have at least some constituency for their views within the larger population, I don't think that just asking them nicely to knock it off is going to make a difference, even if the request comes from someone like Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. I am sure that the First Amendment precludes any sort of prosecution. So here's my suggestion: let's take up a collection. Let's collect enough money to send Nakoula, Sadek, Jones and a few of their pals on a world tour to promote their film. They can hold screenings and then take questions from the audience. The tour will start in Rabat and continue eastward through Algiers, Tunis, Tripoli, Cairo, Amman, Baghdad, Riyadh, Karachi, Kabul… Armed with the courage of their convictions, let them take their case directly to the people they have their beef with and leave the rest of us out of it.

Saturday, September 8, 2012

Pants On Fire

I have, to a large extent, stopped reading political blogs lately, and haven't posted any commentary of my own in some time either. To a large degree it's the result of being in another one of those phases in which I spend so much time every day hacking away at a keyboard on the job that the idea of doing that as a leisure activity loses its appeal. But it's also in no small part due to a general state of disgust and despair as I watch the current presidential campaign unfold. It's on my mind enough as it is, and reading and writing about it just leaves me that much more aggravated. Lies and more lies.

I realize that wild exaggeration and selective presentation of the facts to demonize the opposing side is a standard feature of any modern American political campaign. Having lived through numerous local and national elections while living in Europe for more than a decade, I will say I'm embarrassed by the infantile niveau of most American campaigns. I can personally attest to the fact that there are at least some places in the world in which candidates for high office have to make and defend actual policy proposals. They can't win merely by outspending their opponents on shrill television adds featuring scary music and menacing narration detailing all the ways that the opposing candidate will surely bring about the doom of the nation. In part that's because they have mainstream journalists who understand that passing scurrilous political assertions on to their readers and viewers, unfiltered and unchallenged, is poor journalism and not journalistic neutrality. They also have actual rules about how much candidates can spend and how they can spend it. But like it or not, I'm at least resigned to the fact that here in the land of my birth, elections from the local to the national level can be won by just shouting the loudest and spending the most. That's just how we do it here in the Beacon of Democracy™. USA! USA! USA!

Anyone who knows me personally, along with the two or three people who don't but occasionally read my impotent rantings here, knows where my political sympathies lie. Still, I would like to be fair. I'd like to be able to convince myself that both sides are equally dishonest and sleazy and it makes no difference who gets into office and how. Maybe then I wouldn't have to work myself up into such a lather for the duration of every election season. I could just tune the whole thing out. "A pox on both your houses!", I would gleefully shout, as I went skipping off to my cabin in the wilderness to raise my cabbage and asparagus. I've tried… I look at web sites like to see where either side is trying to pull the wool over my eyes. I find articles like this one that clearly document that both the Obama and Romney presidential campaigns have made plenty of assertions that that are misleading or inaccurate. 

Still, and maybe this is just my underlying political leanings talking (full disclosure), it sure looks to me like both parties are guilty of the sins of quoting their opponent's statements out of context, playing games with statistics or selectively exaggerating some facts while downplaying others, but the Republicans win hands down when it comes to just plain making stuff up. They're aided and abetted by the unwillingness of journalists to press those who profess obviously invented "facts" to supply evidence for such claims or to simply call them out on statements that are patently false. I despair to think that a substantial part of the electorate is so ill-informed and so devoid of any capacity for critical thinking—and so utterly clueless about where their own naked self-interest lies—that the tactic of just "making stuff up" is likely to be a powerful one in the coming presidential election.

Add to that the fact that we now live in an environment in which vast sums of money can be funneled through super PACs and 501(c)(4) organizations to spread any kind of B.S. on an unprecedented scale. The people who have the kind of money that finances those kinds of efforts tilt lopsidedly in favor of Republican policies; that's not surprising, since they stand to benefit the most from them. At the same time, the Democratic incumbent is extremely hesitant to even get mixed up with the super PACs; in my book that's commendable, but I don't know that I want to see Barack Obama stand on principle and lose the election (see this article in The New Yorker for a pretty interesting analysis of that situation). It looks less and less like this election is going to be fought on that proverbial level playing field. But even beyond this election, in the wake of the Citizens United decision all signs point to a reshaping of the political system into a pay-for-play model that can't possibly be good for the future of American democracy. I don't relish the thought of living in the world's most powerful banana republic.

The more overt instances of the Republican presidential team's invention of an alternate universe are well documented. There's Romney's repeated claim that Obama began his presidency with an "apology tour", something he loves to repeat even though that claim has been roundly refuted. The most famous example would probably be Paul Ryan's acceptance speech for the vice-presidential nomination. Thankfully, that's been extensively discussed in the media, so I won't go into that here, but you're welcome to refresh your memory with this article. But there are other examples, such as Ryan's (discredited) claim to have run a marathon in under three hours or (strongly questioned) report that he climbed 38 of the highest mountains in Colorado. Where does this stuff come from? I'd like to say that it's intentional lying intended to bolster his image as a macho outdoorsman to play to the working-man faction of the party. But it actually comes across to me more as just a casual but pervasive disregard for the facts, which I find much more insidious. If the biography you have isn't good enough, you can just enhance it with a few embellishments here and there—who's ever going to notice?

No, seriously! I swear it's this big!

Ryan wants to enhance his biography in other ways. From his nomination acceptance speech"Now when I was waiting tables, washing dishes, or mowing lawns for money, I never thought of myself as stuck in some station in life. I was on my own path, my own journey, an American journey, where I could think for myself, decide for myself, define happen as for myself. That is what we do in this country. That is the American dream." Apparently he is rather fond of this theme; this article about one of his other campaign speeches quotes a variation of it in which he adds de-tasseling corn and painting houses to his resume. Quite the young entrepreneur, our Paul! I guess these tales of working minimum wage jobs for pocket money are supposed to tell us a lot about the character of Mr. Ryan, how he worked his way up from being a lowly dishwasher to become a candidate for high national office. These stories of course ignore the fact that he came from a reasonably affluent family and never actually had to live off any of those low-wage jobs, and that after high school he went to college, and after college basically became a career politician who pushes policies that are anything but in the interest of the working man. It's an insult to someone such as myself who, though moderately successful now (thanks to an affordable public university education), actually did spend a few years of my youth supporting myself from low-wage jobs without drawing from that the conclusion that in life it should be every man for himself and if you're poor it's your own damned fault.

Of course, when it comes to defining and re-defining oneself, Ryan can take an example from his perhaps future boss Mitt. Mitt, who, as quoted here, a decade before was telling us, "I think people recognize that I am not a partisan Republican. That I'm someone who is moderate, and that my views are progressive." Mitt, who was a driving force behind the Massachusetts healthcare law that was more or less a model for "Obamacare", an achievement that he has been trying to run away from ever since. Mitt, who has mutated into a "severe conservative".

Today's Lesson in Quantum Physics

I'm going to let you in on a very dark secret here. I voted for Mitt Romney when he ran for governor of our fair Commonwealth back in 2002. Yes, your dear Charlie, the bleeding-heart, tax-and-spend liberal, has occasionally voted Republican. Back then it was a clear choice for me; Romney appeared far more qualified for the job to me than his Democratic challenger, Shannon O'Brien, whose campaign seemed to consist mainly of silly personal attacks on Romney without any clear ideas of her own on offer. And I have to say that in some respects I wasn't disappointed; that aforementioned healthcare law was put in place by finding common ground with an overwhelmingly Democratic legislature, and I think that by and large it's been a success that the majority of people here are fairly satisfied with—including the "personal mandate" to purchase insurance. The one thing that really irked me after a while was that for the last two years or so of his term he seemed to have just sort of lost interest in being governor and was putting all of his energy into chasing the 2008 presidential nomination.

During the primaries for this year's Republican nomination, I thought Romney stood out among his challengers as the only one who, with the exception of Jon Huntsman (whose terminal integrity quickly eliminated him from serious consideration by the party faithful), didn't come across as a dangerous nut. It became clear fairly early on that he was going to be the nominee. I had no intention whatsoever of voting Republican, but thought that in a worst-case scenario, if Romney were to beat Obama, it would not be a complete disaster because Romney is, above all, a pragmatist and not an ideologue; he may say anything to get elected, but presumably once in the White House, he would moderate his rhetoric and reach across the aisle and maybe get something useful done, with his time as governor of Massachusetts as a precedent.

Now I'm not so sure; his rhetorical transformation from reasonable moderate to "severe conservative" has been so complete that I would be pretty apprehensive about seeing him elected, because I just have no idea what he might actually do. Take his tax policies: we know he wants to cut a number of tax deductions, but we won't find out which ones he has in mind until after the election. No doubt he will want to receive a second term, which guarantees that for at least the first term he may feel obligated to make all kinds of dangerous concessions to the wingnut faction of his party. I was glad to see him pick Ryan as his running mate, because it really draws a stark contrast and a clear choice between two candidates, two political philosophies, two world views. But the thought of Romney and Ryan in the White House doesn't exactly help me to sleep at night.

In the meantime, Romney will supplement his revised biography with fairy tales about how great things will be when he is president. A recent example: energy independence by 2020. We're going to drill so much that "[w]e're not going to have to buy oil from the Middle East, Venezuela, or any other place we don't want to… We may even be an exporter of energy, considering all our resources." What's wrong with this picture? Well, I confess that I haven't done extensive research into the numbers, but for starters, that's a lot of oil and gas wells. Assuming it's even there, it will probably take a lot more than eight years to bring all that capacity online. So apparently Mitt thinks that while he is doing away with all of the regulations that would need to be eliminated to even begin to achieve what he is proposing (something that I guess will somehow happen overnight), he is going to get rid of the laws of physics as well. 

Another consideration is that demand for energy is growing substantially as economies like those of India and China expand, and all that oil isn't "America's oil", it's Exxon's oil, and BP's oil, and Chevron's oil. If they can get a better price for it in India or China, that's where it will go. That's of course unless we decide to slap export tariffs or other restrictions on energy exports to other countries, but that's hardly compatible with Republican free-market ideology. So in the end this is not a serious proposal, it's just another fantasy being sold to a gullible public, like so many other ideas he has promulgated during the campaign.

Romney/Ryan Campaign Theme Song: My Nomination