January 2009

Dying for what?

When you’re wounded and left
On Afghanistan’s plains
And the women come out
To cut up what remains
Jest roll to your rifle and blow
Out your brains
An’ go to your Gawd like a soldier.

Rudyard Kipling, “The Young British Soldier,” 1892

From one rattrap of a hellhole called Iraq to another called Afghanistan. That is what President Obama has in store for America. Instead of wisely abandoning the Islamic world to fester in its own fetid juices of religious depravity and 10th century fundamentalism, Obama has pledged to move any troops exiting Iraq to Afghanistan, an ancient civilization. And, oh, woe be to America.

I use the word civilization lightly. Afghanistan is a collection of disparate tribes that have historically consumed one another, only unifying to resist any invader foolish enough to attempt an occupation. This nation allowed 6th century works of art, the Buddhas of Bamyan, carved into rock cliffs and towering 180 feet and 121 feet respectively, one of a kind art treasures of the world to be shot to pieces by the Taliban. Target practice.

I could list page upon page of recent atrocities committed by Afghans against their own people, against their own culture. Whole segments of the population (men) consider women expendable and not worthy of education. The Taliban have targeted girl’s schools for destruction. They throw acid on the faces of young schoolgirls to intimidate them not to attend classes.

For anyone harboring hope for Afghanistan, please rent the DVD movie titled, “Osama.” It is, bar none, the most heart wrenching, sad, sad movie I have seen in a decade. It captures in horrid detail the results of combining religious extremism and men. Afghanistan is all about men. From my perspective the society is barbaric. Any culture that relegates women to second class status, in the name of God no less, is barbaric. And as Bismark said is, “not worth the bones of Pomeranian Grenadier.” Or one American soldier.

If I were God for a day, I’d give every Afghan woman a 45-caliber pistol and 50 rounds with the instructions of, “Do what feels just. Do the right thing.” And the cemeteries filled.

Oh, it is argued, America has to invade and occupy Afghanistan because that country was used to host training camps for the attacks of 9-11. Okay, we’ve blown up the camps, made the Taliban go underground or across the border in to Pakistan, now what? What do you, Mr. & Ms. America think the United States is going to accomplish in that nation, a nation where men willingly (with religious fervor) throw acid into the faces of its young women?

Oh, we’re going to bring the blessings of Democracy and stability to that poor, poor nation of opium growing, women hating scum. Yea, you bet we are.

Just a few more troops and we’ll secure the country. 30,000 more troops is the number being bandied around. As a start. And our goal is? We’ll know we’ve “won” when what occurs? Our exit strategy is we’ll leave when “X” is achieved (you fill in what “X” might be). Folks, we are dupes, we are fools if we expand our presence in that nation. Our boys will die for what? So President Hamid Karzai can travel five miles out of Kabul and claim he is the leader of the entire nation. So his corrupt government can what? Be corrupt in the suburbs, too?

Sure, there are, undoubtedly, good, decent people in Afghanistan who share our (Western) values and are educated, liberal, tolerant and peaceful. People who enjoy art and literature and have high, wonderful aspirations for their children, their daughters, too. So what.

I am sorry (it is tragic) that they have arrived in life and find themselves living in a larger culture of uneducated, religious zealots (men) who cherish their God more than they do their women. And America is supposed to do what about any of this? Invade and occupy a pit, a region of depraved men, wave our magic wand of freedom, sprinkle a little “Pixie Dust” of Democracy, sing a few bars of “God Bless America” and what? What are we doing?

It is as if no one reads history. We are different? America is different from Great Britain or the former Soviet Union? We are going to succeed with our occupation of Afghanistan when those two super powers could not. We have better military leadership, better troops, better planning, more will, more stamina, more determination than either the Russians or the Brits demonstrated? We know more? But we have justice and truth on our side! We are America after all! Are we nuts? What makes Americans so blind to the limitations of wars of invasion and occupation?

But, but, everyone says we have to stay in Afghanistan. I say, you want America to be in Afghanistan, then “you” be in Afghanistan. Just you. Take your sons or grandsons and go fight for “X.” You remember “X.” That’s why we are in Afghanistan. Go there and fight the good fight, just you, and when they ship your grandson’s body back wearing a medal on his dead chest, stand a little taller knowing your child died for “X.” And when America inevitably leaves, just like Britain and Russia and Alexander the Great and the Afghanistan zealots are once again in control of their little hellhole of a country, remember that our good sons didn’t die in vain for a worthless goal, they died for “X.”

But you know what? They will be just as dead.

Leave the Middle East. Now.

A House of Cards

I confess to knowing only “some” things in life. I can parallel park. I can swim the Individual Medley. I can tie a bowtie. I can be silly and easily laugh with children. And some adults. I do not pretend to understand the intricacies and nuances of America’s (and the world’s) economic systems. I do, however, have a nose, a sense that “Something is rotten in Denmark,” when it comes to the nation’s financial system.

Question: why do we not bailout the “losers” of Bernie Madoff? Seriously, fraud was committed, deceit was promulgated, the gullible were fleeced and horrible woe has befallen the unfortunate (life savings gone, lives disrupted). But we say, “So sorry.”

Yet, we’ll take “our” money (taxes) and give it to corrupt, poorly managed banks and brokerage firms? What gives? How can this be? Oh, it is repeatedly asserted, “The house will fall if we don’t underwrite the bad debts of these institutions.” That house is America and it is a house of cards.

Let’s examine one decision I am totally at odds with President Obama on, his nomination to be Treasury Secretary, Timothy Geithner.

Geithner has run the Federal Reserve Bank in New York City since 2003. He witnessed, participated in and has been up to his neck in the fetid business of Wall Street and did not sound the clarion horn alerting America of the prevailing and prevalent corruption or that the “emperor had no clothes.” According to an article in the Washington Post, Geithner was/is “a primary architect of the Bush administration’s response to the financial crisis,” and “has worked closely with [Paulson] to devise responses to the most critical events of the market turmoil.”

In other words, Geithner will be “more of the same” of the foulest aspects of the George W. Bush administration — more questionable bailouts, an appalling lack of transparency in the bailouts, and more unprincipled, corporate welfare for his friends, associates, colleagues and fellow travelers in the charade we call free market capitalism. Everyone, please, now kowtow and genuflect (or at least reverently sigh) before the shrine of free market capitalism as practiced by our finest American Wall Street financiers.

It is an appalling nomination. It is as if Obama nominated the fox to oversee the henhouse. You are there on Wall Street, overseeing the Federal Reserve for the five years preceding the biggest financial meltdown since the Great Depression and you do what? I recommend that you now mentally “Tune-up” that ubiquitous quiz show music they play while the contestant determines which curtain to open with his prize! And!?! And!?!

Geithner did nothing to prepare America for the economic hellhole we now find ourselves. He said nothing. He saw nothing. He heard nothing. Geithner did nothing but play funny-money squash with the boys for five years while Rome burned. Where are the prescient reports written by Geithner but ignored by his colleagues warning us of all this? Where was the public refutation of our profligate ways? Where was the public threat to resign unless facts were acknowledged and changes made? Where?

And your reward for doing nothing is a promotion? To be Treasury Secretary of the United States! Coach, say it AIN’T so. I simply do not get it. Oh, it is argued, we must have “someone” who knows and understands the complicated financial markets and the arcane, esoteric investment instruments. We need someone who is trusted by Wall Street, who has the confidence of the barons of boardrooms, who can talk the lingo, and has the “street-cred” to force the hard decisions that inevitably must come. That is pure crap times seven. It is dribble, hogwash and pabulum for the unwashed masses (the financially ignorant) of America, myself included. We’re rubes in a timeless parlor game, we’re the mark for the Three-Card monte. We come to our own rape, begrudgingly, somewhat suspicious yet hopeful that it will now be different. Believe me, Geithner is no horse of a different color.

My daughter asked me what I was going to write about this week and I said the economy. She raised an eyebrow and said, “You wrote about that two weeks ago.” I had suggested in that column that “luck” was going to be a significant factor (“X”) on how well the nation does in the next decade.

Doling out money to banks and investment firms is not the solution. We (Geithner, Paulson, et al) are dispensing incredible billions to institutions with no idea the outcome. That’s called gambling where I am from. But we’re not giving money to banks, we are giving money to the management teams that created the problems in the first place. These are Geithner’s friends and cronies and associates, guys he pledged with, vacationed with, his peers. His buddies. His banking and investment buddies. And now, for the good of the nation, we’re going to give these incompetents, these criminals, thieves and idiots our money. To do what?

We’ll definitely need luck with leadership like Geithner’s.

Bernie Madoff fleeced his clients and we say, “Jeeeez, can you imagine? How tragic.”

Our banks, our investment firms, our rating agencies and the financial miscreants who run them lead us down the primrose path to national bankruptcy and we say, “How much do you need?” Not only do we write them a virtual blank check but the check signer is going to be Timothy Geithner. Are we nuts?

Madoff goes to jail amidst the wailing of his jilted investors.

And America’s corrupt financial community? They go all the way to the bank.

With our money. And Geithner’s blessing.

Go ahead, assume the position now. Do you require a kiss first? Ask Secretary Geithner. He’s only too happy to oblige. Maybe a little tax break? You sucker. We are all suckers.

H.L. Mencken said, “The common people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard.”

Sadly true.

From The Sublime To The Ridiculous

So many issues I was going to move on from, Bush perfidiousness, the presidential election, the running joke of Sarah Palin, and the Obama transition. They are all of a one, a hydra-headed Washington monster only a modern day Hercules might subdue. To liberally use Webster’s: The Bush administration is “a multifarious evil not to be overcome by a single effort.”

My original idea for this week’s essay was to write on the sublime. I was reading in last week’s New York Times an article on architecture. It was concerned with a splendid, concrete block home built on a remote Idaho plain. It has stunning vistas and the structure itself is equally inspiring. The article ended with a quote by the homeowner that went, “I can relate,” Ms. Cox [homeowner] wrote. “Tom [architect] and I would not have been so presumptuous as to have the sublime as a goal, but we sure tried not to screw up what was here.”

I read that and exclaimed out loud (to no one but myself), “What? It’s presumptuous to have the sublime as a goal?”

I didn’t just fall off the turnip truck on this one. One, human beings are presumptuous if nothing else and two, since when have humans not pursued “perfection?” The sublime in this case.

My all-time favorite quote is by Robert Browning and it goes, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” Browning captures in a few exquisite words what it means to be alive, to be human. We are all Gods. We are all Godlike. In our potential.

I started asking folks whose opinions I respect, are “things” or “moments” sublime? Things aren’t sublime, I argue, it’s the moment of recognition that achieves sublimity. And then I’ll be damned if Sarah Palin didn’t open her mouth and crush the moment.

Sarah Palin, national joke and pastime, recently conducted a series of interviews and she asserted that the liberal media treated her differently than they did the candidacy of Barack Obama. I mentally said, “Uh-oh,” and sure enough Ms. Fertility Queen of the North then said something to the effect, “Barack had stated his family was not on the table for national discussion and I foolishly thought that that standard would apply to my family.” Tears started streaming down my cheeks. You bet they did.

This is too funny. And disingenuous by half. First, Michelle Obama was constantly being dissected (sliced & diced if you will) by the press. Is she anti-white, is she anti-American, blah, bu-blah, bu-blah. But let’s briefly examine what Ms. Republican was really talking about.

I want the white, only-slightly-bigoted readers to now put on their “Imagine That Hats.” Are they on? Good. Imagine if Barack Obama, a black man had announced his candidacy to be President and a few days into the campaign it turned out Obama’s 17-year-old daughter had premarital sex as a sophomore in high school, was now pregnant, unmarried and oh, by the way, had for all intents and purposes dropped out of school. To recapitulate, the daughter is pregnant, unmarried, seventeen and has dropped out of high school.

Oh, it gets better. The father authored a profanity strewn web-page claiming all he wants to do is drink, shoot moose, fish and, uh, he doesn’t ever want to get married. I could make this up. I could. My imagination is up to it but I didn’t. I didn’t have to.

Well, which candidate fits our stereotypical preconceived notions of illegitimacy, unmarried and a high school dropout? Barack Obama would not have even entered the race if his offspring had such a history. If he had, the folderol accompanying his candidacy would have gone something like this, “What in heaven’s name is going on? Has the nation deteriorated to such a place that illegitimacy is now a sanctioned American standard? How utterly disgusting! Well, what do you expect? After all, he is black!”

Sarah Palin was selected out of the ether by John McCain because she can spout the simplistic Republican creed of “Guns, ‘Guberment’ and God!” Oh, and she was a woman. No national experience, no public scrutiny ever and Sarah Palin thinks the press is not going to vigorously peel back the onion of her life and that her daughter’s “condition” is not going to become an issue and a national punch line? C’mon! Republican “Abstinence Only” and “Virgin Pledge Campaigns” virtually guaranteed that wasn’t going to happen. Humans love hypocrisy, well, the exposure of blatant and flagrant hypocrisy and Republican Palin’s embracement of abstinence-only sex education is, well, too funny under the circumstances. I guess it’s just another one of those wonderfully successfully government programs Republicans are always bragging about. Huh?

Aside: Florida’s genuinely goofy Republican-controlled legislature is in a special session cutting the absolute hell out of the state budget. Abstinence-only programs have been totally discredited and determined ineffective. Are they being cut? Nope. Gotta love those Republicans. Dumb right to the end. Tell me again, what is the hobgoblin of small minds?

I’ve a theory concerning Sarah Palin’s continued national presence. Sarah Palin was “given” a gift. The sublime gift of physical beauty. She is a genuinely beautiful woman much as Anita Bryant was once a pretty specimen of femininity. And then they opened their mouths (revealing their minds) and out poured something significantly less than beauty and it is illustrative of how the gods can so bless and curse simultaneously. Palin is so inviting to the eye yet so repugnant to the mind.

As Napolean retreated from Moscow he sent the following message to Abbé du Pradt, “From the sublime to the ridiculous is but a step.”

In politics, too.

Hope Is A Lottery Ticket?

Bill Kelter, executive editor of The New York Times described his newspaper as liberal in the sense that a liberal arts college is liberal, “generally secular in outlook, disinclined to take things on faith, nondogmatic, tolerant of and curious about a wide range of views and behaviors.” Brother, have you ever read a view at greater odds with where America is at the moment?

America is coming off, arguably, the worst administration and government of the past century, lurching into a new year broke, battered and bewildered. And, baffled.

Several smart friends have volunteered that they do not want to read or hear the news; each day’s installment and updates worse than the day before. If you’ve had any money invested in the stock market, the chances are good your portfolio is worth anywhere from 25% to 35% less than a year ago. Your home is worth less, business property values are tumbling and “some” economists are talking 10-12% unemployment in 2010. The federal government is broke and is contemplating a trillion dollar stimulus package to avert a 1930s like Great Depression. California, emblematic of the states, is likewise broke. The federal solution: print money by the trainload.

Businesses are closing and ironically an immediate concern is deflation. Will prices fall such that no one buys because “goods” could/will be cheaper tomorrow? It is too funny except the consequences are so tragic.

Policemen, firemen and teachers in some Texas towns are taking a 3% paycut. Some recently constructed subdivisions of Las Vegas are ghost towns, so overbuilt is the housing supply in that city, so crashing is that economy. Indeed, gambling just might be the appropriate metaphor. Florida adopts the multi-state PowerBall, claiming it will provide more dollars for education. What utter nonsense. The Orlando Sentinel provided documentation as to where the most retail shops selling lottery tickets are located. It is Parramore, a predominantly impoverished, minority community in our city. Is that a (your) definition of economic justice? Hope is a lottery ticket? In some communities. And gambling is offered as a societal solution.

From everything I read on America’s economic meltdown, there were prescient men and women shouting, “The Emperor has no clothes!” I personally know an individual who sold millions and millions of dollars of mortgages knowing they might ultimately be worthless. Eighteen months ago his staff gave him a gold watch upon his leaving the company. He made everyone (his staff) buckets and buckets of money. He received the last check issued by the holding company that had a year earlier purchased his business. He got out. With his. And perhaps yours, too. Think taxpayer financed bailouts. Timing is everything. He’s fine.

There are those who say, “Hey! Mistakes were made. What’s the point of rehashing old news? Let’s move on. Let’s now do what is required to restart the American engine of prosperity.” I am not one of those, however. I want names and dates and investigations. I want perp walks and prison sentences, crying spouses and humiliated families. With the necessary, salubrious and justifiable hanging or two. Or fifty. I do.

Rightwing talk radio is apocalyptic (and apoplectic I might add); the end times are near if not already arrived. Capitalism is being destroyed no matter its destruction is/was self-inflicted. Please recall now the past 12 years of economic deregulation and elimination of regulatory oversight. What hath deregulation wrought. Bonuses & Bankruptcies. Ah, excess.

I won’t even go into the state of the world. The Middle East!!! Russia. Africa. Millions displaced. Congo massacres. Rape as a battle strategy! Mexico. Violence & poverty. Iceland. Ireland. Pirates off Somalia. Bombings in Mubai. Just a typical day’s news cycle.

Environmentally, we continue to literally destroy our planet. We poison our water and air and willingly (through subsidization) practice a form of corporate agriculture that is washing the Midwest into the Gulf of Mexico. Every coral reef on the planet is suffering, if not out and out dying. Coal wastewater retention ponds collapse and it’s ho-hum. That’s the price of clean (cheap?) coal, ol’ chum. Too funny.

Newspapers are collapsing (closing) all over the nation and with their demise the only check on bad government and bad business continues to be weakened and with it our way of life. Maybe Twitter will fill the information gap. You bet! That seems about right for the “typical” American.

Every state seems to have a plethora of corrupt public officials and too many of those elected to federal office either wear blinders (simpletons) or have the spines of nematodes. Please somebody somewhere resign on principle!

All of us like to think/believe that America is outside the forces of history. We eagerly embrace the myth that God somehow anointed (chose) America and Americans. How laughable is that? Things can get worse. Will they? I don’t know. So much seems out of “our” control.

And the liberal society (see above) so many of us take for granted can be lost in a second (so to speak). Ratchet-up the international violence, stoke the fear of terrorism here at home, have a violent demonstration or two (over employment opportunities or how the “pie” is actually distributed) or have racial tensions turn ugly and whether the president is black, white or Hispanic will be inconsequential. “Ve must hafe order!”

How we think we live is actually at odds with how quickly it can change. The dustbin of history awaits all. People and nations alike. Regrettably so.

America desperately needs leadership and luck. If hope is a lottery ticket, I’d sooner rely on luck. The odds, bleak as they may be, are better.