‘Politics and world affairs’ Posts

Chertoff to City: Drop Dead

Thursday, June 1st, 2006

Chertoff to City: Drop Dead

Thunder and lightning are barrelling over New York City as I write – a fitting backdrop to the storm of criticism which has greeted the Department of Homeland Security‘s 40% cut in anti-terror funds to New York City and Washington DC, the victim cities of 9/11.

The Daily News on its front page has called for DHS Secretary Michael Chertoff’s resignation. According to Rep. Peter King (R-NY), chairman of the House Homeland Security Committee, the Bush administration has “declared war on New York.” Michael Bloomberg, the city’s outspoken Republican mayor and a major Bush fundraiser, pointed out that “when you stop a terrorist, they have a map of New York City in their pocket. They don’t have a map of any of the other 45 places [on the DHS list].”

Rupert Murdoch’s right-wing New York Post called it “shocking” that “New York City will get its vital anti-terror funding chain-sawed from $208 million this year to $124 million next year – even though security experts agree it is vastly more threatened than any other city in the country.”

DHS claims that cities with “shoddy or poorly articulated plans” had their grants cut. In fact, according to 60 Minutes:

No American city has done more to defend itself against a terrorist attack than New York. Its police department, 37,000 strong and larger than the standing armies of 84 countries, has transformed itself from a traditional crime-fighting organization into one that places a strong emphasis on fighting terrorism. A thousand cops have been assigned to work exclusively on a new “terrorism beat.” And, in an unprecedented move, New York has even stationed its own cops overseas.

Police overtime and security equipment are equally important expenses for which federal help is needed, yet Homeland Security’s grants are intended to be used only for infrastructure. Yet even infrastructure takes years to develop. It can’t be planned and built when there’s extreme budget uncertainty.

To claim that New York’s anti-terrorism plan is “shoddy” is an insult to eight million Americans, and especially the NYPD that protects them.

Most absurd of all is DHS’s determination that New York has – get this – no national monuments or icons. (Word on the street is that Hillary Clinton is sending Chertoff postcards of NYC landmarks like the Statue of Liberty and Empire State Building.) It’s this claim that directly gives away the politics behind DHS’s new “formula.” New York City and Washington DC don’t vote for Bush, so he and his administration have no use for them, their monuments, or their people.

The Executive branch of the federal government is the entity that’s supposed to represent and protect all the people, not just certain constituents. Unfortunately it’s currently headed by a man who knows only politics, and isn’t even good at that. How can we be surprised when Bush’s cronies play politics with anti-terrorism money when their role model is a man who took over 50 years to learn that “in certain parts of the world” “tough talk” like “bring ‘em on” could be “misinterpreted”?

Chertoff needs to go, but so do Bush and Cheney – now, not in two and a half years.

Bennett Calls for Imperial Presidency

Wednesday, April 19th, 2006

Bill Bennett, racist, gambler, failed drug czar and, incredibly, author of something called The Book of Virtues, has gathered up his impeccable credibility and attacked the Pulitzer committee for awarding journalism prizes for reporting on secret CIA prisons and domestic eavesdropping.

The reporters, Bennett said, “took classified information, secret information, published it in their newspapers, against the wishes of the president, against the request of the president and others… I don’t think what they did was worthy of an award – I think what they did is worthy of jail.”

Bennett is – one can only hope – no longer taken seriously by most Americans. But his outburst is worthy of note because it is a slip of the tongue that betrays the real attitudes of the Bush Right. With all their talk of liberty and democracy, in their pickled little hearts they actually believe in an imperial presidency.

Bennett’s phrasing was not accidental. The day journalists are beholden to the “wishes of the president” is the day we no longer have a free press. And the Republican Right doesn’t believe in a free press. How can there be a fourth estate when there’s only one estate – the executive, all-powerful and impervious to criticism?

First Bill Bennett revealed the Right’s core racism by suggesting that crime would go down if all black babies were aborted (also cf. sweet, grandmotherly Barbara Bush’s post-Katrina comments); now he’s betraying its true, only halfheartedly hidden, monarchical ideal. Nicely done, Mr. B.

Appropriately, White House press secretary Scott McClellan’s resignation this morning included the kowtowing due an executive who conceives himself as, in his own words, “the decider”: “I have given it my all, sir, and I have given you my all, sir.”

Indeed. Bush’s imperial attitude has been evident for years. But with everything he’s attempted going horribly wrong, the American public is waking up to it.

Indie Round-Up for November 17 2005

Friday, November 18th, 2005

Stardate 2005:
Drivin’ back from a – hike upstate
Dad ridin’ shotgun, we were – running late
Stuck in traffic, had to – muddle through every
Goddamn CD we could – listen to

All about Vietnam, they were
All about Vietnam, seemed like
Every CD had at least one song, about a
Cool rocking Daddy gone to Vietnam…

Stardate 1984:
I’m just out of college. Still wearing my Ronald Reagan protest beard. Well, protest goatee, on account of those youthful gaps between my chin and cheek hair, but let that pass. Eight more years of Republican White Houses lie ahead, hence eight more years of silly smudges on my face. Our housemate Rick brings home the new Springsteen LP, Born In the USA. Controversy: the Reagan re-election people want to use the title track as a campaign song. They didn’t listen to the anti-war lyrics, I guess: “Got in a little hometown jam so they put a rifle in my hand/Sent me off to a foreign land to go and kill the yellow man.” But let that pass. The beat pounds through the stereo like Thor’s hammer. With five notes and two chords Bruce lays bare the marrow of a generation, Born To Run no longer: “Down in the shadow of the penitentiary/Out by the gas fires of the refinery/I’m ten years burning down the road/Nowhere to run ain’t got nowhere to go.”

Stardate 2005:
Twenty more years down the road: Born To Run is reborn in a fancy new package while the country slogs through eight years of insanity – I’d have to put on a wolfman outfit to protest via hair this time. But let that pass. The blockbuster Born In the USA with its many hits is mostly forgotten. But a CD version now resides in my car. As does Danielle Miraglia’s Nothing Romantic featuring “You Don’t Know Nothing”:

I sang of Vietnam
With a reaper-like charm
Code Red and counting the dead
When an eight o’clock shadow
With eyes like arrows
Slammed down his glass and said
“You don’t know nothin’
You weren’t there
Till you’ve had shrapnel under your skin
You couldn’t begin.”

Then we put on Old Crow Medicine Show‘s self-titled CD. These super-authentic-sounding old-timey youngsters also have a song about Vietnam, “Big Time in the Jungle”:

That young man got his life turned upside-down
Turned his smile into a frown
Robbed that king of his crown
For an ideal he didn’t even know about.

Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road” (“I learned a thing or two from ol’ Charlie don’t you know”) was on one of my self-burned road-trip compilation CDs I still can’t help calling “mix tapes.”

And so it went.

Johnny Cash, now – he wasn’t in the car with us at that moment. But I just saw the new Cash biopic Walk The Line, “What Is Truth” comes to mind:

A young man of seventeen in Sunday school
Is being taught the golden rule
By the time another year’s gone around
It may be his turn to lay his own life down!

Yep, seems you can hardly listen to more than a few minutes of American music without running into ol’ Charlie. Doesn’t seem to matter much if the person who wrote the song was even born at the time of that particular little conflict, either. Songwriters, unlike some soldiers, grow old and die, tapping into something eternal along the way. But war never dies.

Star Date: The Next Friday
But enough levity. Butt-kickin’ blues-rock is alive and well in Texas. Lookin’ for Texas, Brother 2 Brother‘s stew of blues, rock and soul goes down warm and sweet. It’s a studio recording with a live feel: this Houston outfit is not slick – in fact, they’re not always even very tight – but they’re good musicians who sound like they love playing together, which is more important. Clever, well-crafted songs complete the picture. “I Don’t Care” recalls Georgia Satellites via Jerry Lee Lewis, while “Fool Boy’s Road” suggests Jim Morrison and the Doors. You’ll hear some Fabulous Thunderbirds, a little Lynyrd Skynyrd, more than a pinch of soul from the excellent horn section, and plenty of Chicago blues in these eight songs; there’s even a shiver of the bayou in the accordian-led “Toobin’.” Altogether a wide variety of styles, served up with heart and a generous helping of fun. Brother 2 Brother is not literally a band of brothers, but their camaraderie shows in the music.

Wait a minute… “Band of Brothers”… John Kerry… Vietnam… Aughhhhhhhh!!!

Available at CD Baby.

New York Notes: One Week Until New York’s Mayoral Election

Monday, October 31st, 2005

Many New Yorkers will be facing a dilemma in next week’s mayoral election. We think our mayor is doing a good job governing the city. But we loathe the national party to which he belongs.

Four years ago Michael Bloomberg used his personal fortune to fund his longshot campaign. During and since that successful run he never tired of pointing out how his billions make him impervious to the influence of special interests. A lifelong Democrat, Bloomberg had switched parties in order to run, and most New Yorkers believed that he wasn’t a “real” Republican, that he actually had his heart in the right place, and that as far as governing went he could in fact be truly independent, driven only by the best interests of the city and his own ego (hopefully in that order). And I still believe that’s true to some extent.

But personal fortunes aside, politics makes strange and sometimes noxious bedfellows. It’s common knowledge that Bloomberg spent some $7 million of his own money funding the last Republican National Convention, among whose many offenses was its disgusting political exploitation of 9-11. But as Wayne Barrett recently reported in The Village Voice, Bloomberg has also cozied up to the Bush White House in numerous ways. By merely praising Bush, for example – whether in public or at a party event – Bloomberg helps the cause.

Even though Fernando Ferrer, Bloomberg’s Democratic opponent, seems capable, we hesitate to vote out a mayor who’s running the city well. This is the second hardest job in the nation, and if we’ve got somebody good, we’re loath to boot him out before we have to. We weigh Bloomberg’s ties to the Bush administration against our own ties to our life in the city we love. In our minds, New York is not like other American cities: we tend to think of it as a quasi-independent city-state, though it is no such thing. New York City’s economy and the nation’s are interdependent, as are their cultures, but we see ourselves, sometimes obnoxiously so, as above and apart. We often feel a stronger local allegiance than a national one. Hence our dilemma.

I’m not voting for Bloomberg next week, and if he loses, I’ll be pleased. Regaining the New York City mayoralty would be a shot in the arm for national and state Democrats. But I have to admit that I will also be pleased if he wins re-election (which is almost a certainty). And I’ll be less nervous about the immediate future of this great and unique city. Does that make me a strange bedfellow with myself? In the words of that famous New Yorker, Walt Whitman,

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Some eight million, in fact.

Liberals: Stop Being Ashamed of Michael Moore

Tuesday, September 13th, 2005

Michael Moore may be an oversimplifying loudmouth, but it’s time for us Liberals to get out of the habit of ignoring or apologizing for him. Moore’s rhetoric is blunt, his arguments frequently and sometimes even recklessly one-sided. But what he’s fighting against is all those things too, and dangerously so.

Predictably, Moore’s September 11, 2005 letter to Bush voters excoriates the Bush administration for its lackadaisical attitude towards emergency preparedness, laid bare by Hurricane Katrina. Also predictably, the letter wanders off topic and loses focus. But its central paragraph expresses a truth that wealthy politicians and their corporate overlords neither understand nor acknowledge:

Our vulnerability is not just about dealing with terrorists or natural disasters. We are vulnerable and unsafe because we allow one in eight Americans to live in horrible poverty. We accept an education system where one in six children never graduate and most of those who do can’t string a coherent sentence together. The middle class can’t pay the mortgage or the hospital bills and 45 million have no health coverage whatsoever.

The absurd economic inequities that shame this “richest country in the world” do indeed make it vulnerable, just as Moore says, in a wider sense than what we mean when we talk of containers that aren’t inspected or levees that aren’t high enough. We are more vulnerable because of the prevailing “Conservative” view that Government shouldn’t be busying itself with social justice or even caring for the needy. Critics often accuse Bush & Co. of damaging the US’s moral stature abroad by warmongering and backing out of treaties. But Katrina has shown us that this Government is morally bankrupt even within the framework of America’s own ideals. “Opportunity for all” is a sick joke to too many millions of poor people in this country. The Administration, with its rampant cronyism (symbolized by now-ousted FEMA chief Michael Brown) and infantile approach to priorities (evidenced by withdrawal of support for New Orleans’s protective infrastructure) has done virtually nothing since 2000 but turned existing problems into disasters.

The Right doesn’t apologize for its Rush Limbaughs and Ann Coulters. Sensible Liberals needn’t disown their own provocateurs and windbags.

No One Expects the Spanish Inquisition

Friday, August 5th, 2005

Lately I’ve been paying a lot of attention to Sen. Rick Santorum. Among politicians, he’s unusually good at articulating the views of the Christian right, and he’s also willing to debate on the record.

Flogging his new book, It Takes a Family, on WNYC yesterday, Santorum accused the Left of promoting “radical individualism” at the expense of the family. The Right’s view of freedom, he said, was “a freedom with responsibility to something beyond yourself, a freedom to do not what you want to do – not simply “choice” – but the freedom to do what you ought to do.” Santorum admits that not all on the Right share this view. I assume he’s referring to the do-unto-others-and-then-the-hell-with-’em Corporate Right, which actually runs the US, but that’s a subject for another essay.

The Left, on the other hand, according to Santorum, defines freedom as personal autonomy, as encapsulated by the Supreme Court’s formulation in Planned Parenthood v. Casey:

Our obligation is to define the liberty of all, not to mandate our own moral code. At the heart of liberty is the right to define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life.

Santorum then presents his objection to the Court’s formulation:

People going around doing whatever they think is right is imposing a moral view on me… People doing whatever they want to do, and people defining their own concept of existence is… a moral viewpoint, it’s a radically secular one, it is one that does not respect the common virtues and values that communities should share and should uphold… It is a decisively moral point of view. It’s one that I don’t agree with.

Let’s take a closer look at that argument. Santorum begins by taking a very questionable leap of logic. He infers that if you grant a right to “define one’s own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of human life,” one is also granting a right for people to be “going around doing whatever they think is right.” That’s a pretty distorted interpretation of Planned Parenthood v. Casey. Indeed, it’s not a big step from there to the kind of anti-science thinking that led to the persecution of Galileo among others. What the Court actually did is reassert the freedom of religion, using secular terms so as to also describe the broader freedom to think for oneself. Inherent in the Court’s statement, of course, is the idea that people may legitimately have opposing beliefs about “when life begins.”

Santorum’s clever tactic is to interpret the Court’s decision as an endorsement of moral relativism. And by claiming that “people defining their own concept of existence is… a moral viewpoint” he makes it seem as if thinking for oneself is in itself a rigid belief system and, further, he implies that because humans who think for themselves may sometimes have immoral thoughts or reach morally questionable conclusions, the very act of thinking for oneself is morally suspect. Thus he redefines freedom of thought as something it is not (a point of view) and strikes out at that supposed point of view using his own “pro-family” beliefs.

His use of the phrase “radically secular” is telling. This phrase is meant to taint the neutral term “secular” with an extremist aura. That tactic didn’t work – in the long run, anyway – when the Moral Majority defined, and then set about beating up on, something they referred to as “secular humanism,” and ultimately talking about things being “radically secular” won’t work either, since – and Rick Santorum may not realize this – by and large religious people don’t feel threatened by the word “secular.”

Having misinterpreted an assertion of freedom as an endorsement of chaos, Santorum goes on to complain that it “does not respect the common virtues and values that communities should share and should uphold.” But the very “common values” of which he speaks arise from a specific interpretation of Christian morality (combined with a male-centric longing for a mom-and-pop America that never was) against which he sees an opposing “moral point of view” (thinking for oneself). Santorum wants to have it both ways. He wants to appear open-minded, willing to describe his morality as one among alternatives and open to discussion, but he also wants to dispense with those alternatives by redefining them as chaotic and amoral.

Not bad, Senator! I salute your obfuscatory abilities.

The Passion of the Right

Friday, July 22nd, 2005

Opponents of the death penalty may have finally found their “smoking gun” – a case in which an innocent person may have been executed.

Many people have been exonerated while on death row, but the United States has never had a case in which an executed person was later proven innocent. Now, as the New York Times reported earlier this week, St. Louis’s top prosecutor has decided to reopen the case of Larry Griffin, who was executed ten years ago for the murder of a drug dealer. A reappraisal of the evidence has indicated that others may have been responsible for the crime.

The death penalty is the prime example of a public policy based on passion rather than reason. It has been shown time and time again that the death penalty does not deter crime. Rather, it exists in many U.S. states because executing those guilty of heinous crimes fulfils a basic desire – both individual and societal – for revenge.

The thoroughly understandable animal instinct to strike back in kind against someone who has attacked you or your loved ones can be opposed only by reason. Opposition to the death penalty, common among liberals, is sometimes based on emotion or religious convictions. But unlike the pro-death penalty position, it can also be based on reason. In that sense it follows a pattern I have noticed in many domestic issues of the day, namely, that the political differences between “right” and “left” (or “conservative” and “liberal”) often map closely to the human mind’s perpetual internal conflict between instinct and reason.

The Terry Schiavo affair was a case in point. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist’s “professional” opinion based on viewing a video was – even if we are generous and view Frist sympathetically rather than cynically – an example of emotion trumping reason. In spite of his medical training, Frist, along with many other Americans, had an emotional response to seeing Ms. Schiavo apparently smiling and following an object with her eyes. Reason was represented in this case by the various medical professionals who had actually examined Ms. Schiavo over the course of her vegetative state.

Opposition to gay marriage, a position generally identified with a conservative point of view, makes no rational sense. It’s based either on religious belief or on gut feeling rooted in fear of the unknown or the different. Reason tells us that increasing the pool of people who are allowed to marry should, at best, strengthen the institution of marriage, and at worst, have no effect on married heterosexuals. (To test this statement, try to think of a possible rational basis for a married heterosexual to think that gay marriages could threaten his or her own traditional marriage in any way.)

Fear of the unknown and the different is a ubiquitious and instinctive part of human nature; only reason can overcome it. In this case, as in others, the liberal line is more closely aligned with reason, while the conservative position arises from faith (the opposite of reason) or, at its worst, prejudice and hatred.

To be sure, liberals often cleave to their positions out of passions just as strong as those found on the other side. I am certainly not out to condemn the passions – without them we wouldn’t be human. It would not be possible to strive for social justice, for example, without a mix of idealism (fed by passions) and policymaking based on reason. But the difference I have begun to perceive is that where many social issues are concerned, though both points of view have their attendant passions, only the liberal position can claim reason on its side.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Book Review: Baby of Bataan

Tuesday, May 10th, 2005

Escaping difficult family circumstances, Joseph Quitman Johnson enlisted in the US army at the age of fourteen and was stationed with the 31st Infantry in the Philippines in April 1941. After Pearl Harbor, his coming-of-age adventure turned into a nightmare of combat and suffering. Johnson survived shelling and hand-to-hand combat, escaped from the famous Bataan Death March, and ended up a Japanese prisoner of war for nearly four years. Through illness, injuries, the deaths of his buddies and the sometimes extreme cruelty of his captors and conditions, the underage Johnson lived to tell the tale through a combination of quick wits, constitutional toughness, heroism and sheer luck.

Johnson’s account of his childhood and of his time stationed in the Philippines before the US entered the war is as interesting as the later war stories. Scrounging to help his mother put food on the table, traveling the country, working the stables with his father and encountering the era’s greatest celebrity, Seabiscuit – these tales are sketched just enough to give a clue as to where the strength of character came from that enabled Johnson to survive his later ordeals. The characters he meets on the streets of Manila during leaves, the trouble he gets into, and the pleasures and pitfalls of life on the base all come vividly to life on the page. Having fallen for a young pregnant Filipino prostitute, Johnson saves her from a terrible fate, then – when the war is about to come to the city – personally engineers the rescue of all the girls in the church-run refuge for unwed mothers where he’d found her a home.

Johnson’s time in combat is full of the confusion, terror and unexpected heroism that seem always to characterize the battlefield, no matter what century or who the combatants are. After his capture, he is starved, beaten, worked to the bone, imprisoned in the Japanese equivalent of the Hanoi Hilton, flung into the holds of hell ships, and forced to witness friends’ executions, but through it all he retains the core of his humanity and never loses sight of his captors’. He remembers the small mercies along with the terrible cruelties, and he makes no excuses for seizing every possible advantage in order to survive.

It’s a privilege to read this first-person account from the Greatest Generation. Johnson’s excellent memory for both circumstantial and emotional detail make it a captivating and moving memoir. Do not approach this book expecting a literary masterpiece. Johnson’s workmanlike prose is not aided by the editing, which seems cursory at best (grammatical imprecision and missing punctuation abound). But it’s far better to have this story in slightly rough form than not to have it at all. There have been many World War Two memoirs, but this may well be one of the last to be published. The reason it is remarkable, however, is the reason every such story is remarkable. Each is both unique and universal, and we cannot have too many of them. They remind us how terrible it is when armies of human beings go into battle, and how decisions to send them there must be taken for only the very best of reasons.

Baby of Bataan is available here at Amazon.com

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

National ID Cards for US Citizens

Wednesday, May 4th, 2005

When I was a kid I did quite a bit of traveling with my family, mostly in Europe. What made America different from the other countries, my Dad would tell me, was that we didn’t have to carry identification just to exist. In America, a policeman couldn’t just stop you on the street and demand that you prove who you are.

If the Republicans who control the Legislature have their way, that America will soon be but a nostalgic memory. Under a proposal from Rep. David Dreier (R-CA), you’ll need to carry a new type of electronically encoded Social Security card. But “it’s not a national ID card,” Dreier explains. “It will only be required for people looking for a new job.”

Ah. So if you never need to change jobs, or if you prefer to remain unemployed (or perhaps join the everpresent underground economy), you can do without the card. It’s comforting to know our civil liberties will be protected thus. The card will even say, “This card shall not be used for the purpose of identification.” Well, then I guess everything’s just hunky-dory.

Across the pond in Britain, a proposal for national ID cards is a huge issue, but so far there’s been little evidence of a public outcry over the US proposal. Let’s hope the American citizenry catches on soon. But the odds are against it. The sneaky bastards are attaching this so-called “Real ID” to the bill funding the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Al Barger’s notes in these pages notwithstanding, my guess is the American public is going to just roll over and take it.

Incidentally, it’s also yet another unfunded mandate to the states, whose driver’s licenses are being co-opted and turned into these de facto national identity cards. States’-rights advocate Ronald Reagan has probably been turning in his grave at least since “No Child Left Behind.” Now he must really be in a spin cycle.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Enviroclash

Tuesday, April 26th, 2005

I don’t know why I get mixed up in this stuff, but if you want to read some hollering and ranting about global warming, some of it by me, check out this post and the comments after it, and then this one which I wrote as a more considered response.

What Should I Wear?

Monday, April 25th, 2005

Got an interesting voicemail message today: apparently Congressman Tom Reynolds (R-NY) would like the pleasure of my company at a dinner with President Bush and the National Republican Congressional Committee’s Business Advisory Council.

I remain on a number of business mailing lists dating from when my wife and I had a corporation, and I suppose each party works off some sort of registry of companies from which it can seek support. But is the Congressman inviting executives from every company in the state? What if they all accepted? They’d need the world’s biggest pizza.

Maybe the price of admission is very high. Events listed on the NRCC’s events page seem to cost $500 and up for an individual, which doesn’t seem outlandish, although I suppose one with the President in attendance would be at the top end of the scale.

Maybe I really am special. Maybe they read my review of the Tuvan Throat Singers concert and want to discuss international relations. Maybe President Bush wants to invite me to Camp David for a heart-to-heart. Hey, I’m willing to give anyone a chance.

Privacy Groups Combat “Policy Laundering”

Thursday, April 21st, 2005

Responding to a new sort of globalization, the American Civil Liberties Union and two affiliated groups have announced an initiative to monitor and publicize the practice whereby governments, in the name of security, make cooperative agreements with one another in order to “escape domestic legal and political controls.”

The new generation of RFID-enabled passports, which the US is instituting for its own citizens and also requiring of other nations with which it has visa-waiver agreements, is an example. The privacy groups say that by presenting the rollout of this technology as the result of an international agreement intended to help fight terrorism, the US State Department can claim that the international community endorses the policy while in reality the other nations have been coerced into going along.

“In more and more areas, we are seeing security agencies pushing anti-privacy measures before international groups and foreign governments instead of through the domestic political process,” said Barry Steinhardt, Director of the ACLU’s Technology and Liberty Project. “This is the strategy we call policy laundering. The security agencies and law enforcement are ‘going global’ – and so must the protection of civil liberties… Law enforcement, military, and intelligence agencies from different nations are increasingly working together out of the public eye to amass new powers.”

Jim Harper, director of information studies at the libertarian think tank the Cato Institute, has said (in an article in Wired) of the plan to embed RFID chips in passports: “In the U.S., it’s a non-starter politically.” It is difficulties caused by that kind of attitude that the privacy groups say policy laundering is intended to avoid.

Tom Ridge, the former US Secretary of Homeland Security and a member of the board of Savi Technology (an RFID contractor for the Department of Homeland Security), is one who believes in the use of RFID technology for personal identification. “It’s another security measure embedded in the U.S. economy,” Ridge said. “Biometrics and RFID will make us safer.”

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

Real Liberal Values

Monday, April 18th, 2005

The entrepreneurial spirit that made the US the world’s dominant economy can’t thrive without a strong middle class. But the middle class is being squeezed like a lemon, and soon nothing will be left but the pits.

Our national future dims every day as we fall behind other regions of the world in education, science and technology, culture, and progress towards a just society. When hard-working wage earners can just barely afford to make ends meet, we can’t save money, and we often go into debt. Then, no longer in the habit of saving, we spend what disposable income we have on iPods, video games, wildly overpriced children’s clothing, and gas-guzzling SUVs.

These habits have the curious effect of propping up the economy by pushing our trade deficit higher and higher. As long as we continue to buy their products, the Chinese and Japanese continue to finance our debt. This house of cards may come crashing down dramatically, or drift away on a breeze, but it certainly cannot stand for much longer. And when it falls, what’s left of the US middle class will be really screwed.

But we’re screwed already. Our federal taxes are used not for the infrastructure of our economy and investments in our future but on a military that’s employed in costly misadventures. Meanwhile the Bush team further reduces the tax burden on the wealthy, not even pretending to believe in any trickle-down economic theory. The benefits to the rich are pure giveaways.

The Democrats in Congress bear a share of the blame. They are as much in thrall to the robber barons as the Republicans are. Worse, the robber barons have actually become indistinguishable from the ruling politicians. The Bush family beds down with the Saudis; Cheney’s corrupt company is conveniently the only one that can handle fuel deliveries in Iraq (did anyone believe that one?); legislation is not only influenced but actually written by representatives of industry, then rubber-stamped by the supposed representatives of the people.

John McCain recognizes it: we must get big business out of the business of the people. But how? Our elected representatives depend on their business pals to get and keep their positions of power. Measures like term limits are useless, as they can always be overturned in the next term. Campaign finance reform bills are like chickens put under the care of the fox.

Liberal values – not far-left socialism, not Quaker pacifism, but the solid American liberal values that brought us, among many other benefits, the 40-hour work week, safety nets for the elderly and infirm, support for the arts (the lifeblood of a society), and, for a time, the highest standard of living in the world – retain some currency, if not with Democratic politicians, at least with Democratic voters. Liberal values hold that government has its place as an essential element in the construction of a thriving and just society. Liberal values hold that the goal of a just society is, in fact, a worthwhile one. (When was the last time you heard a Republican, even with all their railing against the judiciary, mention justice?)

Liberal values are what gave us a strong middle class in the first place. Without a return to liberal values, our country’s collapse will continue, for only united with a sense of its own value can the middle class make a comeback. If substantial segments of the middle class continue to vote Republican, they will vote themselves out of existence, and with them, the hopes of our nation.

[Cross-posted at Blogcritics]

The Bayoil Indictments

Thursday, April 14th, 2005

So, it seems a Texas oilman (hey, isn’t there one of those in the White House, too?) and two others have been indicted in the corruption scandal surrounding the Iraqi oil-for-food program of the 1990s. The UN, along with business interests from France and Russia, has been taking a lot of heat about the very same affair from anti-internationalist right-wingers in the US. Maybe this’ll shut them up for a bit. Yes, fellas, follow the money and you’re bound to find some corruption no matter what country you’re in.

These guys face up to 62 years in prison. If they’re convicted, I think they should be made to share a cell with their alleged partner in crime, Saddam Hussein. With limited shower privileges.

The Latest Bushism

Thursday, March 24th, 2005

“This [the Terri Schiavo case] is an extraordinary and sad case,” President Bush said in Waco, Tex. “And I believe that in a case such as this, the legislative branch, the executive branch ought to err on the side of life, which we have.” Quoted in The New York Times, March 24 2005.

Book Review: Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace

Wednesday, February 23rd, 2005

Hello To All That: A Memoir of War, Zoloft, and Peace recounts in time-shifting chapters the author’s depression, pharmaceutical cure, and subsequent formative experience as a freelance war correspondent reporting from the siege of Sarajevo in 1993-4. The parallel stories are interesting and vividly told. But readers expecting something heavy, along the lines of William Styron’s depression memoir Darkness Visible, will be in for a surprise. Falk’s fast pace, breezy style and sense of humor make this relatively short book a quick and worthwhile read.

John Falk had at least two advantages over many depression sufferers. First, he had a large and supportive family. Second, his mother, having dealt with the illness previously in her family, appreciated his sufferings and tried unceasingly to help. The author’s relatively good luck is the reader’s as well, for it causes his story to shine an unusually clear light on depression’s most insidious aspect: the way it directs the victim to blame himself, to feel his pain and detachment as a personal failing rather than an illness, and to cut himself off from potential sources of help.

I knew I had a big problem… but never once did I think even the word depression. To me, it was the life I was leading, a life in serious need of an overhaul. I wasn’t sick. I wasn’t different… It was my fault… I was the one who had built this prison for myself.

And when Prozac helps his sister, he reacts not with hope or even sympathy but with defensive anger:

“Sara, listen to me: I’m not taking any fucking drug… I’m not gonna cheat.” Then in the most obnoxious way I could, I whispered, “Prozac’s for losers.”

Falk’s good at giving the reader a feel for what cannot be expressed in words:

“It’s hard to describe accurately what complete hopelessness feels like because ultimately it’s a perfect void, a state of nothing. There’s nothing at stake. Reason doesn’t apply, logic is useless, and faith is something for fools.

But he’s also adept at reporting on the real world. Not coincidentally, immediately after his rescue by the antidepressant Zoloft he made a beeline for one of the worst places one could be at that time: Sarajevo, a ruined city with a terrified population surrounded by snipers. (Not a bad correlate for a depressive’s brain, actually.) Falk’s depiction of the way Sarajevo’s families tried to continue normal life under hellish conditions – constant danger, no electricity, food shortages – is both heartbreaking and inspiring. In spite of their own hardships, several families took him in, and lasting friendships resulted; Falk eventually helped three young Bosnians escape to attend school in America.

Falk writes with humor:

The highlight of the trip was getting stopped by four Serb soldiers… A little on the pudgy side, they were dressed in purple-and-blue tiger-pattern fatigues that could only have been useful if they were fighting their way across Liberace’s living room.

and with evocative color:

The two [Bosnians] … were scheming together to sneak through the siege lines and make it to London.

“God,” the short one said to me. “Will you look at that. It’s almost pretty in a way, isn’t it?” He was pointing out the window with his Gauloises at the tracer fire I had noticed earlier, only now there were green tracers as well as red arcing across the sky.

“I believe the green are ours,” the tall one said.

But occasionally the language jars, as when Falk refers to a group of young women as “chicks,” or sacrifices grammar for colloquial familiarity: “my inner thighs burned so bad it felt as if I’d just dismounted a Brillo pad.” This inconsistency of tone is a small flaw, however, and doesn’t persist after the first few chapters. A bigger problem is that both stories – Falk’s battle with clinical depression, and his wartime adventures – seem a little sketchy. The Bosnian tales are so interesting (the most dramatic of them became the HBO film “Shot Through the Heart”) that one wishes they’d been told at greater length. And the memoir of illness and recovery, while intense and dramatic, leaves one wishing the author had gone deeper.

Of course, depression is an illness that can leave long stretches of one’s life essentially blank. It may be that we should be grateful for people like Falk who have good enough memories, and write well enough, to even partially convey what the depths of the illness are like. There are so many sufferers who can’t speak for themselves, locked in their own thoughts as they are – or dead of it.

Competitive Bidding: What a Concept!

Wednesday, February 16th, 2005

The MTA’s decision to seek competitive bids for the Hudson Rail Yards undercuts Mayor Bloomberg’s plan for a West Side stadium for the Jets, and puts a damper on the city’s hopes for netting the 2012 Olympics. Maybe I’m just a big contrary grouch for not wanting the Olympics, but many people feel the same way, and opposition to the Jets stadium itself is just common economic sense.

Ironically, it was “common economic sense” on the part of the city’s population that put this Mayor in office. We needed a guy who could handle money matters rationally, and that’s what we got – except, apparently, where sports teams are involved. I don’t know enough about Mayor Bloomberg’s personal history (other than as a businessman) to know for sure, but could this be the revenge of the unathletic nebbish?

Interestingly, both the Jets stadium plan and the one for the Nets in Brooklyn depend upon rail yards. In not entirely unrelated news, President Bush’s budget calls for pulling the rug completely out from under Amtrak. Good thing, too; who needs a high-speed, efficient transportation system that’s not entirely dependent on the oiligopoly and its boy in the White House?

If Only She Meant It

Friday, January 28th, 2005

It must be my birthday – actually, it is! – because Maureen Dowd has answered my prayers and announced the end of her unhelpful, sophomoric columns.

If only she weren’t being facetious. The childishness (Alberto Gonzales is “Torture Boy”???), ad hominem attacks and throw-the-words-in-the-air-and-see-where-they-land writing will continue giving the Anti-Bush League a bad name.

The Bush Economy

Thursday, January 27th, 2005

Amid the warnings of further military, social and ecological disasters bruited about during the 2004 election season, I tried to point out that in a second Bush term the economy was probably going to suffer along with our military families, our senses of common decency and national pride, and our Earth.

I wish John Kerry had taken my advice and stressed economic matters during the campaign. The Bush team won by scaring the public about terrorism. It wouldn’t have hurt the Dems, and might have helped, to try a few scare tactics of their own concerning the pocketbook issues on which some Americans do tend to vote. Now we are facing four more years of Bush, and as his domestic agenda takes form, more commentators are seeing the light – or the dark, as it were, for I expect dark economic times ahead.

Robert Kuttner, for example, lays out a scenario for US bankruptcy. Central banks are switching to Euros. And how soon before the headlines blare: “Bush To City: Drop Dead”?

Here’s a broad-ranging round-up of criticism of Bush economic policies.

Requesting a Transfer

Monday, December 13th, 2004

I’m serving notice: as a liberal, I no longer want Maureen Dowd on my side. Her column this weekend begins:

On the first day of Christmas,
my Rummy sent to me
a Saddam pigeon in a palm tree.
Not knowing Osama’s address,
Rummy hastened to ‘Potamia – and a mess,
exhorting his pal Cheney,
“Let’s bomb Baghdad again, golly gee!”

It’s not funny, it doesn’t scan, it barely makes sense, and it only gets worse. If you want to subject yourself to further torture, and a serious case of the D.C.’s, read the whole thing here.

Please consider a new career, Maureen. You’re not helping.