Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Who put the “con” in consensus?

            With the Democratic ward healers running amok, especially the Senate bunch, the word consensus takes on a brand new meaning.  Now that Bill Safire isn't around anymore, I'll take over.  Consensus comes from the Greek "con" meaning "never tell the truth when a lie will do" plus the Greek "sensus" meaning "at least the amount of sense Olympian Zeus gave a monkey."

            (Enter Politicus)  "We need to have a consensus, even when there's no consense on the one side and damned little on the other."  (Politicus is played by Barack Obama in tonight's performance.)  Okay, we get it!  You want to play nice-nice with the old crepitators on the outré side of the I'll.  Is there any elected official on Capitol Hill who hasn't yet heard that a two-thirds majority—you know, the kind that's absolutely filibuster proof—of Americans favor a Public Option?  You can bet their staffers have heard it.

            So why can't the Democrats write the Public Option into the Bill and get it signed by the President?  Well, I think we ought to ask Max Baucus that one, since it's the Baucus Caucus—otherwise known as the Conservative Wing of the Democratic Party—that's pushing Democrats into line with the feckless Republicans, including that Olympian Snowe job from the frigid north.  Max Baucus, aka: Max Nix, represents the Democratic Party about as much as that fossil from Georgia, Zell Miller, did.

            Trying to find "common ground" with conservatives of any political party is a no-win—just ask the Iranians.  Common ground in American political life means status quo ante (which I shorten and simplify to "sqa", and pronounce like a homonym for a Native American housewife).

            The problem is that all of those ethically-challenged sqas hog all available TV cameras and spout talk designed to demonstrate their toughness and rugged American individualism.  (Mmm, Soundbytes!  Get 'em in your grocer's freezer!)  Common ground should be seen in America the way Commonwealth was seen in apartheid South Africa: Wealth for the whites and Common for the blacks.  Just ask yourself who gets the common and who gets the ground in the current health care debate?

            Toughness!  Who elected Poopdeck Pappy to Congress, anyway?  How about representative democracy?  Ever hear of that one?  Even William F. Buckley era conservatives understood that greed was wrong, and that any conservative government had a social responsibility to lift up the economic lives of its people.  I defy any literate conservative to deny this simple truth, which is proven best by the failure to do so under the right-wing ideological regime of President Bush II, as compared to the old style conservative administrations of all other post-WWII Republican Presidents.

            It's time for Barack Obama to put his popular vote where his mouth was and leverage the voices of the American people who sent him to the White House.  We want a Public Option, and the Baucus Caucus in the Democratic Party should either respect the wishes of the American people, or the senior Senator from Sin City should remove them from responsible positions in the Senate.  Perhaps he should also remove himself, for he seems as useless as a thermometer in Hades.   Conservative Democrats who want to "let them eat cake" should dine with the Tea Baggers—tea and cakes are simply splendid together—WASP soul food, m'dear.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

The Wrong America

                It strikes me funny when people suggest that some things come from some places that they can't really have come from.  It's like saying that while Frank Sinatra was from Bayonne, that all Sinatras were.  At some far deeper level, all Sinatras are from Italy, and that may not be deep enough for a few.  "Fitness" fits this idea.

                Modern Americans have fitness on the mind.  I don't, but I'm not a modern American in many ways.  Fitness used to be a byproduct of a certain general level of physical activity undertaken by living.  It was a relationship between work, rest, recreation, and sustenance.  A man would—to paraphrase The Who—put his back into his business to a far greater extent.  Oh, I don't mean some romantic image of the farmer or carpenter as the only examples—there were mailmen and milkmen, too, and how often do we see the former walking or the latter at all.

                More people walked around a generation or two ago; they would be driving today.  People used to mow their own lawns with a push mower.  Kids used to bicycle everywhere.  Cleaning a house and making a meal was not performed with an array of lightweight appliances; you want bread, you knead dough.  People dined out less frequently, and ate less chi-chi finger food then.  My grandfather lived to be 98, and was in damn good health for 96 of those years.  He didn't smoke, he walked to a bus stop to get to work, spent a lot of time on his feet, usually ate lunch at a particular time, and came home to a meal that included meat, starch, and green vegetable, plus an occasional dessert.  He was portly as a man, but suffered neither from diabetes or hypertension.

                Today, it appears that we recognize the "value" of exercise, and that's why many of us do it.  But defining what the value is is not a simple as it seems.  I'm guessing that there are at least three values we attribute to exercise, but that we only ascribe to one.  Enjoyment may be a close fourth in this horserace, but it does not win, place, or show.

                The first value is "healthfulness".  We believe that since we do not live like even our recent ancestors, we should understand that the body needs to be worked in the same way the mind does.  We exercise to promote healthy living, in the same way that we plug organic foods—and avoid meats—into our diets.  This is an excellent value proposition, and is most likely to be the stated one when a person inquires as to why another person works out.  It's likely that 25% of people who work out actually hold this as the principle value for doing so, even if it's the only one stated.

                The second value is "youthfulness".  People believe that by eating well and exercising that they will remain young.  There are old folks who can dance till dawn, and there are old folks who go to sleep in a chair at dusk, and certainly some of that energy level is related to food and exercise.  Much of it is habitual.  In the final analysis, you're liable to live a better quality of life when you eat well, sleep well, and exercise—that I'll give you.  As to how much ultimate time you buy, that's another matter.

                The third value is "sexuality".  People who work out are attempting to make themselves more sexually attractive for a longer period of time.  They proceed as if they were never going to get a wrinkle or a cavity.  These people are fooling themselves, and it is these people who represent maybe 40% of all addicted work-out types—you know, gym rats as devoted to rowing machines as nuns are to matins.

                Members of this group seems to be the same sort of modern people that believe that being a stock broker is actually an occupation.  Building muscles for no better reason that to look better in a suit is as ludicrous as selling virtual paper with a virtual value to a virtual customer and thinking that, as of market closing, you've actually performed a day's work.

                Exercise is a programmed activity for many people, just like work.  There is no intrinsic joy in it for most people, except in the ambiguous atmosphere of an ends-means argument: I'm doing this crap because it's (good for me / I'll live longer / I'll get to fuck Bill or Nancy).  Those who play sports are different.  They play tennis, or softball, or soccer because they like the game, not because they want to get into shape—although this may be a reason to stay in shape.

                Modern life is reflected in a number of activities.  We don't do any muscle work that is useful to anyone but ourselves—we don't use our muscles as a means of production, even personal production, like mowing the lawn.  We engage in occupations that produce nothing—that benefit no one but themselves in any materially significant way because they are purely transactional middle men.  Taken together—strong muscles that produce no labor, and occupations that produce no tangible product, we begin to define the worst of the modern American healthcare system.

                The healthcare system is essentially an unproductive group of middle men, who stand between you and your health providers, with the power to help or hurt you based purely upon their position in the business cycle.  If you are a modern person who exercises and stays fit, they're happy to have you because you will not ask them to make many serious decisions about your health that will cost them money.  If you're not, then they are happy not to cover you, which converts you to the same sort of person as the exerciser—one for whom a decision to spend revenue need not be made.

                As long as we're on the subject, ask yourself why being "fat" is so stigmatized in America.  First, all the exercisers and organic foodies see "the fat" as unenlightened.  Second, people have bought into the economic argument that fat people are costly to our health care system: it's the argument made by those paragons of social responsibility, the healthcare corporations, and it is their prime rationale for rising health costs.  (How could that be, when so many policies are so easily cancelled—haven't you heard that people who make claims get their policies cancelled before?)  In fact, their rationale that fat people are the reason for increased costs is so oft repeated that it has moved into institutionalization—we assume things about fat people that we also assume about black people (including a diet of fried chicken, chitterlings, and sweet potato pie).

                Modern Americans are not live-and-let-live people who also share some sort of shared social contract.  Instead, they are about physical egomania and occupational self-promotional greed.  In India, fat people are mocked just as here, but people do not see them as deficient in some important way.  No, America is a nation where self-interest rules and the social contract is not worth the blood it was written in.  Exercisers, Healthcare Conglomerates, and Wall Streeters are the new America; they are the ones with a set of shared values.  They are the ones for whom looking good replaces doing good. 

                Let's hope that this aberrant strain of modern America, this growth on America's testicles, is about to dust away, because it's as ugly as a Mississippi democrat.

Friday, October 02, 2009

What Do You Call That Thing? A Rose?

"…I am deterred by the knowledge that conservatives, under the stress of our times, have had to invite all kinds of people into their ranks to help with the job at hand, and…to treat such people not as janissaries, but as equals; and so, empirically, it becomes difficult to see behind the khaki, to know surely whether that is a conservative over there doing what needs to be done, or a radical, or merely a noisemaker, or pyrotechnician."

William F. Buckley, in 1963, as quoted in The Death of Conservatism, Sam Tanenhaus, Random House, 2009.

Buckley's quote could have been written last week rather than 46 years ago! In Sam Tanenhaus' excellent and deeply considered book (above), he differentiates between Classical Conservatism (CC) that seeks to conserve what is important about government and correct what needs correcting, and Movement Conservatism (MC), which ignores everything but its ideology.

In CC, the law of politics is that the majority must be heard and that leaders must lead them pragmatically. That is why pragmatists are seen as "flip-floppers" (a ridiculous phrase that grates on my ears) over the course of a long political career; they understand that they are elected as representatives of the people, and when their constituency changes, they must follow to lead. This is not crass politics, but truly reflects representative government, and has been deeply considered and discussed by scholars since before the American Revolution.

CC also employs the other part of the equation: it demands we assist the lower strata of society who need the kind of social programs often equated with liberal administrations in America. What service does government provide to the rich, after all (although the greed of unregulated corporate management is certainly related to acquisitiveness)? It's this second feature of CC that moderates the first—a majority of a minority of people (whites in the antebellum South) can want to continue such institutions as slavery, but there is no way to pursue such an institution as both a pragmatist and as a social programmer—health care for slaves does not liberate them, and perpetuates their enslavement!

In sharp contrast are the MC adherents. We see them every day on Fox News; hear them on Talk Radio, and at Congressional press conferences. They are wedded to an ideology that demonstrates that they care neither about the economic engine of American society (these were the representatives and commentators who were against the financial bailout despite the absolute need to deploy it to continue to have a functioning society), nor do they care about the public ("No" on any Health Care Reform proposal that increases the budget, the bureaucracy, or contains a "public option").

The MC wants to shrink government, as is the case with Ron Paul and other Libertarians, while remaining oblivious to the fact that government employs millions of people who, in the end, do render important services. Have we asked ourselves what the MCs vision of a small government is? Do you think we have unemployment problems today, or that the States could support the full cost of their operating programs on their budgets, alone? This contrasts the CC, who may not have wanted a government as big as the one they have, but recognize that most of it renders important services. Theirs is the path of improvement, not destruction.

William Buckley's quote reflects the trouble with modern conservatism: that in order to get more people into the fold, they have given full membership to fools and fundamentalists, which is why the level of conservative discourse is so low, and why the breadth of conservative opinion is so narrow. The brains of CC have not found a home among the ideologues of MC.

Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh, ably assisted by Bobby Jhindal (as a representative of MC at the gubernatorial level) and the likes of Newt Gingrich's left-behinds in Congress, have emerged as the MC voices of record. Arlen Specter, a CC, woke up one morning and found that he was far more at home in Obama's Democratic Party than he was in Bohner's Republican Party. That leads to the real point of this note on conservatism.

By the standards established herein, I am a conservative of the classical kind. I believe in using the resources of the central government to provide needed services to the American People. I believe that we need to conserve what is right about our governmental practices—both domestically and in the context of foreign policy—and change what is wrong. I believe that the gulf between the rich and the poor needs to be narrowed, and I believe that ideology puts constraints on problem-solving and other creative functions. These could not be further from the beliefs held by Movement Conservatives, and represent a measuring tool by which I can define myself.

Supporting the current administration's agenda is, in some sense, the operational definition of a liberal of whatever stripe. If, by comparison to the fools lording over the GOP's worst nature, I am reclassified as a classical conservative rather than a liberal, so be it. The label means nothing to me.

I believe that President Obama believes exactly the same things as I do, which makes him a classical conservative too. Live with it!

Thursday, October 01, 2009

Iran's Nuclear Program

                Iran's nuclear program is a source of fear for far more people than those of us who live in the United States and Israel. 

                Until the Khomeinist revolution of the late 1970's, few Iranians reviled Israel and far more saw it as an arm's length ally of Iran against the Arabs, a traditional foe, if not downright enemy, of Persia and the Persians.  America, while seen as a self-interested meddler, was not as unpopular with the "man on the street" as generally thought.  It was the U.S. government that Iranians did not like, not the American people.  That changed under Khomeini, who sought to Arabize Iran, liberate it from demonic forces (Americans and Jews, plus a few selected Europeans), and destroy Iran as a nation-state, which he saw as an anti-Islamic and uniquely Western governmental form.

                Today, in Iran, Khomeinist as well as pro-Persian (that is to say counter-revolutionary) factions embrace the nuclear weapons program.  The revolutionaries see the bomb as a path to creating its role as the leading voice in worldwide Islam, irrespective of the fact that the vast majority—a number approaching 90%—of Muslims, worldwide, are Sunni, and Iran is almost all Shi'ah.  The revolutionary government in Iran, by most accounts, is committed to the weapons program out of a sense of holy mission.  Shi'ahs are messianic, like Christians, and the rhetoric often applied to the born-again Christian fundamentalists who, via conservative political policies of the Bush Administration, were suspected of trying to hasten "end times" also applies to their Shi'ah brethren.

                Many suspect the Khomeinists are a regime that is willing to use a nuclear weapon as a threat, or worse.  Iranians would be naïve to think that—even if there were no evidence that a nuclear weapon detonated in Israel or the United States originated in Iran, they wouldn't be sitting on the hot seat.  In all likelihood, the retaliation would be awful, and would include Teheran, Qom, Mashhad and other Iranian cities, plus the oil fields in the south.

                The pro-Persian Iranians, who provided abundant opposition to the recent re-election of President Ahmadinejad, also favor the bomb program, but for different reasons.  They see it as a point of national pride, as have the Indians, Pakistanis, and North Koreans (not to paint with too broad a brush).  There is no reason to believe that this portion of the Iranian public has any intention to use a nuclear weapon—they just want to demonstrate the scientific capacity to create one, and they want to be taken seriously as a modern player and deal-broker in the larger Middle East region where they abide.

                The Arabs of the so-called "confrontation states"—those within reach of Israeli retaliation—are also living in fear of a Shi'ite nuclear threat.  In their minds, only a fool would seek to push the Israelis, with a purported 200-300 such weapons, into an existential conflict which would surely not be limited to Iran, but would involve Jordan, Lebanon, Egypt, Syria, Kuwait, Yemen, the Gulf States, and Saudi Arabia, at a minimum.  The question the Saudis must ask is whether, in addition to their major urban areas and their oil fields in the Eastern Province, the Israelis will also target Mecca, Islam's holiest place.  The guess is absolutely "yes".

                The Saudis, by far the richest state in the entire region, were afraid of Iran when the Shah was still in power.  Field artillery emplacements are located on the western side of the main north-south road running past the town of Qatif, and Qatif is to the east of that road.  Those gun emplacements are aimed at Qatif, home to Saudi Arabia's chief Shi'ah community, and the site of many a bulldozing of local Shi'ah mosques.  What was the Shah's air force as compared to "heretics with a nuke?"  If the Israelis preemptively struck Iran's reprocessing plants, the Saudis would praise them privately before excoriating them publicly.

                There is no way that the United States, or the United Nations for that matter, can control what the Iranian government wants to do inside its own borders.  We might as well come to grips with that fact now.  What we can do, however, is seek sanctions to destabilize this fundamentalist and corrupt regime in favor of a regime that could muster honest popular electoral support.  Don't ask me who.

Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Tyrone's Personal Manifesto

I'm tired of defending myself against those who are either unwilling or incapable, for whatever reason, for taking ownership of their own actions and, instead, focusing on my reactions.  Such actions and reactions are invariably couched in further responses about how my reactions will not "solve" anything.  That begs the question of what needs to be solved.  I suggest that what needs to be solved is the action--the reaction is not to be solved but to be expected.  I can over-react, to be sure, but I don't usually over-react unless the path I am standing on is well worn.
We have held our tempers too long, as far as I'm concerned.  Wrong behavior begets a reaction, and even a child understands that relationship.  The transgressor, in apologetically admitting the original error but following with why the problem is mine rather than the initiator's, is undoing the apology and seeking to sustain the defense of an indefenseable position.  Assuming anything else is as fruitless as an attempt to change the orbit of the planets; it's like breathing water rather than air, or letting a spoiled child lord over the household.  In sum, it is a juvenile method of control and I am not going to kowtow to the control freaks any longer.
I don't care where this nonsense occurs--whether in an office where the boss has no confidence or competence, in the home, or in public life.  I put you all on notice: I won't engage in any niceties when people attempt to control my discourse.  Argue your point, and I'll argue mine.  You are free to tell me how you would have said or done something differently after you have heard what was said or done, but not in advance...unless, of course, if I ask your opinion, which probably won't happen, so grow up!

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Inglourious Basterds

                I just saw this movie today, and I can't remember when I had a better time in a theatre for 2½ hours.  The movie was absolutely wonderful, especially for all of us who know WWII lore, and who have spent hours rewriting it to end sooner, and better, in our dreams.  Those who would have liked to see the Nazi regime succeed, including all those American neo-Nazi losers in prison or in militias, should not pay the price of admission for a lot of reasons.  Here are some.

                First, the American hero-warrior of this movie, Lieutenant Aldo Raines, was played by the very excellent Brad Pitt, and surely named for the intrepid film warrior, Aldo Ray.  Tarantino never misses an opportunity like that.  Also Raines was from Tennessee, was part Indian, occasionally sold moonshine back in the hills, and he and his team were the very scourge of the Nazis from 1941 to 1944.  For all you white losers, scourge means a plague—you know, like your mama's head lice, only worse, like an Old Testament plague.  Ain't nothin' our hero enjoys more than killin' Nazis!  He sounds just like you do, and he wants to kill people just like you!

                Second, the dirty dozen to Brad's Lee Marvin were all Jews, except for one who was an ethnic German who just hated Nazis and had killed more than a dozen officers by the time Brad rescued him from prison and recruited him.  These Jews weren't bookish Jews, or old Hassid's with ear-dreads.  No, these Jews were Bugsy Siegel and Murder Incorporated, and they took scalps!  They said little, but they shot, stabbed, and dynamited their way into our hearts.  Oops, your screed about little hook-nosed thieves, swindlers, and child molesters is all wrong.  Wanna see those types?  Look in the mirror, CONVICT, because that's what you're in jail for!

                Third, the evil Nazi SS Colonel who seemed undefeatable, and was always ahead of the political curve until the very end, got his comeuppance.  He was in charge of rounding up all the Jews in France (and almost rounded up our fleeing heroine in the beginning), had supporters in the highest Nazi circles, and was such a canny bargainer that he ends up making a deal with Aldo's OSS General that was going to earn him U.S. citizenship, a colonel's retirement pay, and a house in Nantucket.  (Should I bother to explain "canny" or where Nantucket is to you sorry-ass jailbirds?  Nah, open a reference book that doesn't talk about converting a gun to full auto for a change.)

                I say that this great and entertaining film was a revenge fantasy of the highest order, replete with villains we have grown up to despise, unlikely heroes in these Jews led by a part-Apache hillbilly moonshiner, and a clever young woman and her black copain who provide the hot-as-hell ending for Adolf and a couple hundred of his closest generals. 

                I laughed, I clapped, and I somehow knew that every Obamacrat in America would see this movie as an example of the difference between standing for Obama and standing for the smarmy Conservatives who are backed by the fringe elements you identify with the enemy in this film.

                This movie ends the Nazi movie genre forever; nothing else, no matter how "true" or well-intentioned will mean anything from this point forward.  Quentin Tarantino has made the one Nazi movie that was never made, but was always on our minds.  Bravo, QT (and I loved that down-tempo version of that Bowie song you used.  What better song for shouting fire in a crowded theatre than one that talks about putting out a fire with gasoline?)  Thank you for this great gift!

Friday, August 21, 2009

Free Speech and the Health Care Debate

                We Americans tend to be confused by concepts—things that are complex and tacit by nature.  Instead, we prefer the black and white.  An example of a concept is Free Speech; another is the Separation of Church and State.  When we combine free speech with complex policies like health care reform, things get difficult for the black and white segments of American society, or maybe they don't precisely because they see in black and white.

                Just as we hear the President and his supporters talk about the morality of providing affordable health care to all Americans, we hear others talk about the immorality of Hitler's Nuremberg Laws.  Since both arguments address morality, some believe that they are equivalent.  That's the conceptual problem in the American national character.  Mr. Obama is no more Hitlerian than the Queen of England, but the LaRouche faction shows up at these local town hall meetings with no compunction about penciling in little Hitler-like mustaches in the President's mug shot.  Free speech!

                Free political speech is a Constitutional right in the United States.  Rep. Barney Frank agreed, even as he asked one participant at a town hall meeting what planet she was from.  She posed the Nuremberg argument as though she had, herself, studied those laws and come to a scholarly personal conclusion that Obama's health care policy—itself no more than a proposal to the Legislative Branch and a call to action for those lawmakers—was somehow equivalent to the Nazi health care "policy" of the 1930's and '40's.  Maybe she is an expert on WWII Nazi history, but I think I'd bet against it... and give odds.

                She was doing what she was told to do, and that was to raise this issue at a public forum.  That she may believe it's true makes no difference to its hollowness as an argument.  Many people in America believe that black people are inferior to whites, but belief does not make it so, and neither do the numbers of people who adhere to such an idea make it so.

                Free speech means that we all have the right to criticize our government, and I rise to uphold that woman's right to proclaim her ignorance in public.  Why would I want to stop her?  If my position is different, and she seems like she's from another planet to me, wouldn't I want her to keep talking?  I'd ask her about everything just so she could lay out all her oddly held opinions for me and whoever chose to listen. 

                Joe the Plumber may very well be an expert on plumbing, so what he says about the slope of a run of pipe might be worth listening to if I want to plumb a waste-water line correctly.  What he says about fiscal policy may be a bit less reliable, yet there are those, including a former presidential candidate, who think that J-the-P's opinion adds value to the public policy debate.  Perhaps the choice of advisors is why former presidential candidates remain former candidates rather than Presidents.

                Two speakers who lay claim to different sides of an issue do not necessarily have equivalent opinions, as in the case where Joe argues the value of PVC piping in a high-rise apartment complex and I, who know next to nothing about the efficacy of PVC piping, simply argue emotionally for bamboo piping because it's "green."  Experts can be wrong, and any two experts may disagree, but they are still experts and their opinions carry more weight than mine or yours.  They have no more right to free speech than you and I, but when they speak they are basing their arguments on having learned, read and synthesized the issues they speak about.

                We also hear a lot of free speech about how England's and Canada's health care systems are not the be-all and end-all of public health care systems.  Brits and Canadians are hauled in front of American TV camera crews complaining about their respective health care systems because they were asked to speak only about what problems they had, not whether they would ever give them up or replace them with America's system.  The response from Americans under the control of lobbyists and political fringe crackpots say, "See!  We don't want what they have.  They hate it!"

                The fact remains that we Americans, who are among the least self-reflective people I have met, never stop to think that people all around the world are griping about their institutions and services just like we are.  Objectively, their national health care systems are better than ours, even if they complain about them.

                Free speech is a gift that accrues to Americans simply because they were privileged to be born here.  Babies who can't speak or understand the world around them still live under the protection of the Constitution.  And if they grow into adulthood and still have nothing intelligent to say, the protections still exist.  Every knucklehead can be a public fool in America, but that doesn't mean they have to be.

Thursday, August 20, 2009

Scabs and Health Care Reform

                In America's trade union movement, workers with grievances would go out on strike as a weapon of last resort.  Nobody wanted to be out of work, but when management simply would not listen to or accommodate workers' needs, the union membership sat down and had a vote on whether or not to strike and walk off the shop floor, out of the mine, or out the front doors of their respective office buildings.  Strikes were not impulsive.  They came after long weeks and months of deliberation and negotiation.

                Dennis Lehane, the Boston-based fiction writer, wrote a marvelous book about the events leading up to, during, and following the Boston Police Strike during the 1919-1920 period.  While "The Given Day" is a work of fiction, Lehane transports us to a time in America when there were strong "nativist" influences exacerbated by a terrible influenza epidemic, when Jim Crow was alive and well, and when the ruling elites ignored the needs of workers, including the police, who could barely make ends meet.

                Then, as today, there are people who act in their own best interests and others who do not.  The health care establishment is certainly acting in its own best interest by pressuring Congress to gut any future reform legislation of provisions that provide a benchmark against which they must compete.  For Conservatives, competition is a good word until it's not.  What the Conservatives mean by competition is what others might call unfettered and unregulated free trade.  A successful business isn't run without rules, processes, and practices in place, so where's the model for successful unfettered, unregulated free trade?  Bernie Madoff?

                It's easy to understand business, which is essentially amoral.  A business does not have a mother or father in a nursing home.  A business does not have children going to college.  A business can neither laugh nor cry, cannot feel hungry, and cannot feel compassion.  Only people can feel these things.  But at some level there is a person or cadre making decisions in a business and they can steer the business in certain general directions.  They are, however, never alone or identifiable as the single culpable human entity to blame for pillaging the financial resources of so-called "customers."

                While there are surely responsible health care companies out there, they are not out in front taking the reform movement's side in public and vocal ways.  The ones using lobbyists, gun nuts, and right wing political thugs to crowd local-level congressional meetings and shout down the advocates of reform are the ones we see.  Even if they are the same minority that loved Bush and hate Obama—that certain white 30%—they are noisy and nasty.  (What's up with that creepy Lyndon LaRouche, anyway?)

                They're exactly what people abroad believe all Americans are, but they've never seen one on their own shore in the flesh because those people don't travel to places where they can't take their guns, where they can't get to by car, and where they have to order odd food from a menu written in a weird language, like bangers and mash.  We, on the other hand, see them all the time, and most of us don't find anything to envy in them.

                So, when the Apathetic Union of American Citizens is out on strike, like 60% of us are all the time, the 30% of righties of the remaining 40% of activists gets shipped, by bus, to congressional health care fora claiming to represent the "regular American people."  Crunch the numbers!  30% of 40% is 12%, and that's who's doing the noise making!  They are paid to be there, or are transported because they are "true believers."

                What they really are is scab labor—people who are brought in to replace others who are out on strike.  Pick that scab and what you get is an infection, but when you overcome the infection, you're well.  America always deserves what it gets because we're apathetic about our union. We enable cranks, fools, sycophants, haters, and the anti-progressive born-again ignorant to stand at the front of the line and shout the rest of us down.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Status and the Status Quo

                When I studied sociology in college, I remember learning that there were two general types of status: ascribed and achieved.  Ascribed status is the one conveyed by birth, and achieved status is conveyed by merit (or demerit).  The latter is generally more fluid than the former, and many modern people around the world are more concerned about the latter than the former. 

                Ascribed status does carry weight and meaning in given situations.  Since ascribed status would appear to be the oldest, it stands to reason that it runs deepest, embodied in rites and rituals.  Ascribed status is the status of kings, of religions, and of castes.  It tells us that we are connected to our parents and to our family-community.

                Achieved status is the status earned in the combat of modern life.  You may have been born poor or working class, and have gotten into Harvard on a combination of hard work, sheer desire, and social programs designed to help students like you.  When you graduate from Harvard, you have a high achieved status.  In some communities, just going to college gets you a leg up on the status chart.      Likewise, the daughters and sons of high achievers have a high ascribed status, but if they fail to perform like the parents they drop a notch or two on the achieved scale.  Life is like that in modern times.

                In Old Testament writings, when young Jacob was sold into slavery by his brothers out of jealousy.  Once Pharaoh was made to recognize this slave's abilities, Jacob prospered.  This is a case where the son of a noble line, and one favored by God—definitely high ascribed status—was given his due by Pharaoh based on a demonstrated set of skills—achieved status.  One might describe this as a moral lesson about God's will, or a modern lesson about overcoming adversity.  It works both ways.

                What happens when we live in two worlds like immigrants and minority communities often do?  One might say that one form of status works on the weekends and during community events, and another works during business hours.  Maybe so, but that doesn't approach the complexity.  Both are important. 

                Recently, Sonia Sotomayor was nominated, confirmed, and appointed to the United States Supreme Court.  Her ascribed status is off the chart as an Associate Justice, but to some she is simply an uppity Puerto Rican woman who has overstepped her boundaries.  How many African-Americans have heard the same words about themselves?  How many times have we heard President Obama spoken about as though he were an affirmative action president, somehow not as deserving of respect as people like George W. Bush, a man whose accomplishments define the term "average"?

                As it turns out, perhaps the only thing we can say about ascribed and achieved status is that they are more or less important given the circumstances.  On a professional sports team, who your parents were means almost nothing.  It might get you a pass to Training Camp, but it won't make you part of the team.  Only your talent—your achieved status—will do that, and your failure to demonstrate that talent for a sufficient period of time may cause you to lose the opportunity you were given.

                Likewise, Britain's princes are princes, and all the wrong they could possibly do won't undo their birthright.  Their ascribed status is simply beyond question, and there's no way they can lose it.  That does not imply that they will be respected if they choose to live in ways that the British people resent or are embarrassed by, but rather that they will always be their mother's sons.

                If you can imagine a graph with the X-axis labeled "Ascribed Status" and the Y-Axis labeled "Achieved Status", with values rising positively from the "0,0" coordinates, you could plot where people you associate with fall on the scale as a scattergram of your acquaintances.  Knowing where you think they are on the scale may tell you a few things about where you are.  If you're heavily linked to high ascribed status individuals, you may want to find a more diverse community of friends, and the same applies if you're linked to high achievers.  I encourage you to learn from the graph.

                Be realistic.  While many of my Punjabi Khatri friends are garrulous and high-born members of the larger Hindu community, a Tamil Iyengar has it all over a Punjabi Khatri in terms of ascribed status.  Leave the ethnocentricity off the graph and the scoring will be more accurate.  Just because people are doctors doesn't mean that Surgeons aren't higher status than GPs, and that Ambulance Chasers aren't lower than M&A lawyers in legal circles.  Maybe you should also plot where you would like to be and then decide what you can do to get there.

                One final caveat: don't confuse "being respectful" of someone with "having respect" for him or her.  A person who is respected is someone whose advice and counsel is sought by others, or one who is listened to by others who then act on those words.  One who is older, but otherwise no different than others, is treated respectfully, and some people confuse the two "respects".  You are respectful of a King whether you have respect for him or not.

                Now that you're yawning, I'll tell you why this stuff matters to me.

                We in the West believe in the rational and the objective.  There is room for the non-rational and the subjective in our lives—as in religion, and in personal emotional responses to situations and circumstances, but we are still committed objective rationalists.  When an objective rationalist world view collides with a subjective non-rationalist world view, there are bound to be deep gaps in perception.  This is the case between Jihadists and nationalists, no matter where these two groups interact.

                Our "War on Terrorism", a war that President Obama is now in the process of renaming and reconstructing to reduce the non-rational and subjective components of the Crusader Bush, is being fought by we, the objective rationalists, against they, the subjective non-rationalists.  We objectively believe that we were unjustly attacked on 9/11 because we hadn't attacked anyone, but our attackers subjectively believe that the attack was absolutely just because the West was responsible for dicing their world into indigestible pieces and who is more "West" than America.  We rationally state that attacks on non-military targets are morally wrong, and they non-rationally state that we are a collective in service to evil and that there is no practical distinction between a soldier and a civilian.  We are serving the world by stopping terrorism and imparting democratic institutions, and they are serving the world by bringing Islam and godliness. Quite a gap, I'd say, not that you have to address every gap, but it's probably good to at least understand this one.

                Osama bin Laden comes from a wealthy and well-connected family in the oil-rich Eastern Province of Saudi Arabia.  His number two in al-Qaeda, Ayman Zawahiri, is an Egyptian medical doctor.  These are both men of high status in their own environments.  Their fight for Islam, against oppressive governments in the Arab world, and against the Americans and their Israeli client state, has increased their ascribed status immeasurably among Jihad-oriented Muslims around the world, particularly the young.  Osama would have been powerful as a merchant, and Ayman as a doctor, but neither would have been charismatic leaders in the Weberian sense of that phrase.

                When we Americans consider ourselves targets of this movement, we sit befuddled, posing questions about why "they" don't like us, and making comments about what we should be doing to get "them" straightened out.  Neither the peaceniks nor the hawks sufficiently understand the issues that confront us.  The truth is that we, as a people, will never quite grasp what they, as a people, want of us.  It doesn't matter a bit whether we are sympathetic to the plight of Israeli Arabs, and of Palestinians in exile or in refugee camps.  Hamas is a political entity, like Fatah.  They can be reasoned with because their objective is not to bring the world to Islam, but to bring about a Palestine with proper borders.  These are not Jihadists, despite their comingling in the rather ignorant press.  So, it's difficult to address these issues by applying one framework or another, and it's even more difficult to separate the various teams of "them."

                The current Iranian government is a perfect case study of the difficulties.  It shares two important attributes of the jihadists: (1) it does not believe in the nation-state as an organizing principle, seeing it as an un-Islamic and Western construction; and, (2) it believes that its mission in the world is to lead the world to Islam.  At the same time and in the same physical space, Iranians know that they have a piece of turf with fixed borders whether they like it or not, and they know that they are unlikely to lead the worldwide Muslim community (ummah) when they represent a heretical minority in the eyes of many of the majority Sunnis.

                This may all be moot anyway when one considers that Iranians historically have seen themselves as separate and distinct from Arabs, cling strongly to Persian and Turkish Sufi poetry rather than to any of the (to them) incomprehensible language arts of the Arabs, and identify with a Persian past that predates Islam by a millennium or more.  To be sure, Iranians are Muslim, but they are also Persian, and that legacy is unlikely to change much after 25 centuries.  Persians won't even name their sons Omar or Othman, two early Caliphs of Islam, because they were part of the "conspiracy" that stole the birthright of Hassan and Hussein, direct descendants of the Prophet Muhammad via his daughter and only child, Fatima (who the Iranians will name daughters after).

                There's also the problem that Iran has a lot of people who don't like the clerics as a group, and there are large numbers of powerful clerics who, themselves, do not believe that religion and government mix well, and do believe that clerics should stay out of the business of governance—not advice, just political office.  So, Iran is in the middle, sharing jihadist elements with stateless jihadists like bin Laden, but being populated by Persians, rather than by jihadists who simply find themselves on Persian soil.

                In all these things is status, both ascribed and achieved.  In a community like Islam, which is very flatly organized, leadership is inextricably linked to Islam.  No popular movement will gain any real traction until Islam is embraced and built into the structure.  Muslims understand this—just like Americans understand our powerful symbols of the flag and constitution—so every new leader will tie his (or her, in those rare cases) movement to Islam.

                Muslim scholars have an uphill battle when trying to wrest control of the faithful from people like bin Laden.  His ascribed and achieved status is high, as is Zawahiri's, and trying to identify al-Qaeda as a heresy is a herculean task, particularly in a flat organization.  Without a real clerical hierarchy, it's very difficult for rules to get made for the billion faithful adherents.  It's the status of the leader that communicants relate to as much as the message, and youth everywhere are attracted to hot blood and guns rather than to sanguine intellectual discourse.  Maybe we all are, I don't know.

                I can only say that I would not like to be in Obama's shoes today because the world is a complex and peculiar place to live.  Have the courage to open your eyes and take a long look, and then read a book or two to find out what experts (Americans HATE experts) are saying.  If you don't want to do that, do what you have always done: defer your responsibilities to your elected officials and gripe about the costs rather than the policy!  As you do that, consider that your continued ignorance is the recipe for disaster that is sure to keep the jihadists in bullets and kabobs throughout your lifetime.

Monday, August 17, 2009

Here He Goes Again!

I don't write for my blog nearly as much as I used to. I still enjoy writing, but I seem to have lost the zest for it that sent me there with a reasonably lengthy think-piece every few days.

Those of you who read my blog know that I have a hard-on over matters of religion and conservative politics, and that I have lived in the Middle East a couple of times for a total of about four years, but never in Israel. Some woman who warned me that, "If we let 'them' get away with 'this', soon we would be living in a world where all women would be in purdah," had also lived three years in the Middle East, but nowhere besides Israel. I understand her paranoia as an American Jew. She is loyal to the symbols of her culture, ignorant of the fact that others are as deeply sincere about just the opposite, and almost totally without coherent information about world affairs.

I've almost finished Reza Arslan's latest book on Cosmic Wars. (I forgot the full name of the book; just google his name and when you see the book with Cosmic Wars in the title, you're there.) He describes a statement made by Osama bin Laden—supreme leader, along with Ayman Zawahiri, of Afghanistan-Pakistan border-limited terrorism, which is pretty much a niche market I'd say. Anyway, Osama said that al-Qaeda recruits its martyrs (read suicide bombers) from Muslim youth between 15 and 25 years old. Why ask why… the answer's so obvious!

That's the age group that has no social power, little personal influence, is generally unmarried, is generally early in a career or bored by being a student or working in someone's shop, and is in the process of personal psychological and social formation—an unfinished work! It was those same kids who took flight lessons in Florida and ran their hijacked planes into American hearts and minds. It's the same kids who blew up a bus in London (known as the 7/7 bombing, similar to our 9/11). That's why the old farts—bin Laden and Zawahiri—are alive and living in a well appointed cavern. You don't think a grown man or woman would consciously blow himself up for an abstraction, do you?

Here, the grown men and women kill others, like they're supposed to, not themselves. No abortion doctor is safe, but the shooters of abortion doctors are! Nope, here no self-sacrifice accompanies the sacrifice. When Abraham was told by God—God, mind you, not some dude with a misguided sense of justice (although I wouldn't want to be God's lawyer on this one)—to sacrifice his son, God didn't tell him to grab his kid and jump into a house fire holding on!

God, in a tremendous gesture of punch-line deftness, actually "punked" old Abraham by replacing Jacob with an animal before Abraham could kill him. After breathing a huge sigh of relief and sacrificing that fucking goat, I can imagine the laughter that Abraham and Jacob had! "Oh, that Yah---! He's something else, man. All that time I thought I was going to have to kill you, Jacob!" "Yeah, Pops, me too!" God was harder on his own kid, but that's only right, I guess.

Maybe what we need to do is blanket the internet with Pink Floyd and the Who. Maybe if we saturate the world's youth with lyrics like, "Hey! Teacher! Leave those kids alone!" or "Meet the new boss; same as the old boss," we can develop enough skepticism so that they end up believing in nothing! It worked for me!

Thursday, July 16, 2009


                Washington is dense with acronyms.  It seems that only a couple of years ago we were alerted to the acronym POTUS, referring to the President of the United States.  Pretty slick!  The Secret Service has probably referred to whoever the current "him" is as POTUS for decades, managing to be both clear and obscure in the same breath.  That's where the "secret" in secret service lies.

                During the Sonia Sotomayor confirmation hearings, we heard a related acronym—SCOTUS, which means Supreme Court of the United States.  Perhaps in regular use among lawyers, and DC lawyers in particular, I only became alert to it just now.  I figure that the conservatives on the Senate Judiciary Committee should have started referring to Judge Sotomayor as "SoSo" since that's apparently how they feel about her.  Nobody ever gave the U.S. Senate points for creativity, even a little bit, so I guess I'm not too surprised.

                Let me have a turn at the name game.  I propose that we refer to the Congress of the United States as COTUS, and the conservative faction of that congress as COTUS interruptus.  Do I need to make myself clearer?

                One illustration is now winding its way through the Senate.  Senators Brownback and Landrieu—a conservative republican and a conservative democrat, respectively, are co-sponsoring a Bill that outlaws the hybridization of humans and animals.  Sounds pretty ugly, that hybridization process, and I guess I'm against that, too.  But wait!  Who's doing that sort of thing today?  Is there a lab anywhere under the purview of the United States that is trying to make hubits (human rabbits), hish (human fish, pluralized in the standard format), or hugers (human tigers)?  Maybe I'm being species arrogant, and should be referring to timans—putting the tiger first.

                If the twenty (Yes!  Twenty!) senators—one-fifth of that august body—had decided to debate eugenics instead, I'd have been all over it like Troy Polamalu on a safety blitz!  Scientists trying to intervene badly in human genetics may comprise the dark side of stem cell research or the human genome project, and a debate on the potential creation of a master race is something people could, and probably should, engage.  Who would waste scientific resources creating a centaur!  Can you imagine if a centaur, at 16, wanted to learn to drive?  We'd need to bring back the 1959 Cadillac convertible to fit the six-limbed freak behind the wheel!

                Nope!  The conservative movement must be absolutely bankrupt to use manimals as a distraction.  Lost on abortion?  No problem.  That magical 25% will be distracted and believe anything you say, so give them another hook to hang their next unintelligent design argument on.

                We're at a political crossroads now.  We are trying to address to wars, nuclear weapons in societies that could actually use them on someone, health care, a financial mess, global environmental issues, and a housing crisis; that's just the top of the list.  Yet conservatives continue to decide that nonsense is the opposing side of the debate from sense.  I can only hope that they practice enough of this COTUS interruptus to achieve negative population growth.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Of Mice-Men

The Senate Bill sponsored by Senators Brownback and Landrieu regarding the genetic engineering of hybrid species who are part animal and part people is a living demonstration of the problem with American education versus the "big lie."


One must first be alerted to the desire among scientists to carry out such preposterous research, and then move to stop it.  As far as I know, no such research is extant, which begs the question of why such a Bill would be necessary.  If we were presented with evidence that such experimentation is happening in labs around the country, practically every American would rise up against it… me included.  But where is that evidence?  Where are those facts?  Where are people getting the information that would lead to such a Bill in the Senate?


The more insidious "master race" issue is not even mentioned in the same context, but that would seem the far more likely result of genetic research.  "Better" people is a much more fraught ethical issue that creating a person whose hair could be shorn, rather than cut, to provide raw material for overcoats. What would you name that person?  Perhaps Al Paca?


How would a cow be improved by making it a biped?  How would a person be improved by providing a smaller brain and a tail?  The imagination runs amok with possibilities, but all of them have already been seen on the silver screen, culminating with the Harry Potter series. 


It seems that these particular senators are afraid that, since they have failed on Roe v. Wade and stem cell research, they need a new boogeyman to scare the nation's scientific illiterates into believing that American values are even further under assault.  Hey, we're losing on every front so let's make something out of nothing!  A whole bunch of people will believe anything if we spin it the right way, and those people wouldn't trust science if it cruised up in a bass boat!


Twenty percent of the U.S. Senate has signed on to this absolute malarkey. That begs the question of whether we need to create an intelligence test that senators-elect must pass before being sworn in.  I'm pretty sure that Al Franken would pass.  I'm not so sure about Mary Landrieu, and since she's my cousin (her grandfather and my grandmother were brother and sister, respectively), I must see myself as suspect—unless, of course, she's a hybrid herself!

Monday, June 22, 2009


Iran was my home for nearly two years.  I ran a training facility for young men and women employees of the Sarcheshmeh Copper Mining Company, a government-owned, Anaconda Corporation-operated strip mine in the mountains above Rafsanjan, where I lived with my wife, who also trained the same people.  At the time, the mine extracted not only copper, but gold.  Obviously, turquoise, which is related to copper, was also gathered there.  The mine has been in continuous operation since at least the time of the ancient Persian Empire, but now it is the source of not just copper, gold, and turquoise, but uranium.

It rained maybe three times during my stay in Rafsanjan, which is typical for that part of Iran that borders two deserts: the Dasht e Lut and the Dasht e Kavir.  Despite the dryness and the high temperatures (think Las Vegas without the nightlife), I have never had a better overseas experience, and I have had a few.  Since the mine was at nearly 3,000 feet above sea level, we wore coats there even in the summer, and in the winter a dry, powdery snow fell regularly there.  The daily commute was an exercise in climatic extremes. 

Back at the base of the mountains, in Rafsanjan, we rented a mud-brick house with a wall around it and several bedrooms.  Joe and his son Eric were co-tenants, and we were not only happy to have the company of Joe, but loved that Eric, who was nine years old when we moved in, climbed the walls and engaged in grape fights with us, picking his ammo directly from the grape arbors draped over the battlements.  We still know Eric, Joe, and a few of the other twenty or so teachers we worked with, plus some of the teachers who were there to teach Eric and the other children of the expats working at the mine.  That was 35 years ago.

Our students were mostly from Rafsanjan, and we would often see them on the weekends, with the exception of Ali, who we saw practically daily because he assumed the responsibility for hosting us.  Ali, like each and every one of our trainees, was warm and authentic, and quite willing to do whatever we asked him to do, which is why we did not ask him more often.  Ayatollah Rafsanjani, by all accounts an opportunist and a fake, was said to be his uncle.  At the time, however, Ayatollah Rafsanjani was not a name that registered as a name of any significance—Ali only mentioned it by way of telling us about his family.  Times have certainly changed, and Ayatollah Rafsanjani is not only a former president of Iran under the Islamic Republic, but is reputed to be Iran's richest man, and a kingmaker of sorts.

That small town 600 kilometers south of Tehran was the Iran I came to know.  We traveled to Tehran many times, and to Mashhad, Esfahan, Shiraz, and many other cities.  The country was beautiful, and the people were not judgmental of us as foreigners (farangi, for those who want to find the Indo-Aryan linguistic root of the Star Trek species who were permanent outsiders to all the other cultures of the series).  We adapted to the pace of life, my wife and I, and managed to learn enough Farsi to get around on the local economy.  We knew when it was time to leave, but we have longed to return and see who remains among our hosts.  That has not been very possible under the Islamic Republic, but we sincerely hope that it will be possible to go back soon, given today's counter-revolutionary movement following the mock elections ostensibly won by Ahmedinejad, a man so odd that he said four squirrels found near the Iraqi border in Iran were CIA spies.

I studied international affairs at the graduate level—despite my faculty disagreeing with practically each word of that statement, and won a coveted internship at Gulf Oil Corporation's International Studies Group.  That group was made up of a permanent team of five scholars and one intern, and I got the overflow work that the other analysts could not handle when a lot was happening in their geographical areas.  Hoyt, the Director, did Europe; John, the Manager, did sub-Saharan Africa; Dick handled the Middle East, Thelma handled Asia, and Mike handled Latin America.  I could not have asked for a more solid team to teach me and to collaborate with. 

At my interview lunch, I was asked by Hoyt and John what countries I knew best.  I said that I had lived for some time in India and Iran, and would consider them to be countries I could speak intelligently about.  They asked me for a current situation report and a snapshot of the next couple of years for both countries.  I responded that Indira Gandhi, then under house arrest, would be freed and would win election as prime minister of India again.  I also said that Iran under the Shah was like a thermos bottle full of soup—cool on the outside and hot on the inside.  I predicted that the Shah would fall from a coup from the right within five years.  They tolerated my comments, but were dismissive.  They gave me the internship anyway, which I performed adequately.  And, I was vindicated by history.  Both India and Iran did as I expected.

I do not mean to gloat.  All I am saying is that reading the world press and listening to high government officials, no matter where, can only take an analyst so far.  To read a country, one must have trodden the soil, lived among the people, and paid attention to what they were saying.  One should not have lived on a compound, or in an embassy, a military base, or in any sort of environment shielded from the affairs of everyday life.  It would have been a privilege to have been a diplomat or a colonel, but I would not be longing to return to Iran had that been my life.  It is my Persian trainees, most within five or ten years of my age, that I miss as sort of brothers and sisters, not institutions or bureaucrats.  I want to know who died in that eight year war with Iraq.  I want to know who has children and who has grandchildren.  I want my grown children to meet their grown children.  I want that relationship to continue.  Who can say that about an institution!

I am happy that Iranians are trying to take back their country today.  I am happy that the old white men there may soon be in the same position as the old white men here.  Frankly, I think the religious conservatives of every society are similar in their intractability, and their reliance on getting all their knowledge from a very small set of books.  Perhaps you can help me see things differently.  Is there a better comparison than between Christian conservatives and Muslim conservatives?  Aren't Americans and Iranians both trying to find a place for religion that does not interfere at every turn with what Rousseau called the Civil Religion?  Aren't we engaged in a struggle between those who see their countrymen as believers and those who see them as citizens?

The youth of Iran is teaching us that religion and politics is a poisonous mixture.  We do not need to lead them.  They need to lead us.

June 22, 2009