America Is That Guy…

Abu GhraibYou know that guy? He’s rich. Everyone knows it, but that doesn’t stop him from boasting about all his money and his great car. He also boasts about how generally great he is. But he also complains. He complains about every way that every person in his life has harmed him. In fact, if it weren’t for his brilliance, he’d be living in the gutter—or dead. But lucky for him, because he is so amazing and hard working, he has been able to make a success of himself despite all the people who are out to get him. Oh, and did I mention that he inherited most of his money? The extra money he stole from people. But they were bad people—people who were out to get him.

That guy is America. I remember that growing up. I was well into my 20s before I learned that the Soviet Union wasn’t cowering in the corner during World War II. According to our television documentaries, the great war went like this: Germany attacked Poland and France and they both folded like a cheap ironing boards. England tried to fight Germany, but hey, they’re English. And the Soviets were somewhere else—perhaps vacationing in the Bahamas. So America had to step into the war and save the world. And remember: it only became the world war when America joined!

Meanwhile, we harm people all over the world. Our history since World War II is really quite bad. Look at the Vietnam War. There were about 1.5 million Vietnamese killed in that war. Many of them were killed in ways that I can only think of as constituting war crimes. But what do we talk about? The 58,000 Americans who were killed. I don’t mean to minimize our losses. But I don’t think more than one out of ten of those guys were keen on fighting that war. The more the people disliked the war, the more the country killed its people and 30 times as many Vietnamese.

But nothing beats our response to 9/11. It was a tragedy and an outrage. But was it a singular event? Did the United States really suffer something that most of the rest of the world had not? People all over the world have seen their countrymen and loved ones killed unjustly—often by us. Eric Alterman mentions this in his book What Liberal Media? He took a trip in Europe after 9/11 and spoke to intellectuals there:

Almost all expressed solidarity with America vis-a-vis the 9/11 attacks. Alessandro Portelli, editor of an Italian literary magazine, voiced the hope that America’s recognition of its own vulnerability might help the nation develop some empathy for the vulnerable elsewhere in the world, who lack the ability to act on the world stage with impunity. Yet the primary response, as Portelli saw it, as voiced in the media and among well-known American intellectuals, has “a rhetoric of the exceptionalism of American sorrow.”

That’s right. Conservatives like to claim that the media are very critical of America. And then they point to things like this blog as though that has any relationship to what America is seeing and reading. According to our media, America never hurts anyone. We are just this beneficent country and others hate us for our freedom. And no one understands how we suffer when things go wrong here. We are the most powerful country in the history of the world. But somehow we are the real victims of the world—the only ones who really suffer.

I bring this up because I saw a couple of minutes of a documentary on National Geographic Channel, Inside 9/11. It was first presented in 2005. But it was added to over time up through 2010. The whole thing is over the top in its production as though Osama bin Laden were worse than Hitler. As though 9/11 is the worst thing that ever happened to a country. It is all designed to allow America the country to continue its aggressive foreign policy while pacifying Americans with the myth that no one ever has any reason to be pissed off at us.

You know the worst thing about that guy? Since he won’t take responsibility for the bad things that he does, he never learns. He’s the same immature asshole at 50 as he was at 15. And he seems to be incapable of understanding that. So we have many more years of listening to him go on about how great he is and how terrible everyone is to him for no reason at all. Because he’s just perfect. So completely fucking perfect.

Majestic Equality of Opportunity

Majestic Equality

Matt Yglesias caught something in President Obama’s speech for the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. As with most professional liberals, Obama can’t make a speech without attacking his base. In this particular speech, he said, “And what had once been a call for equality of opportunity, the chance for all Americans to work hard and get ahead was too often framed as a mere desire for government support…” I don’t know why Paul Ryan didn’t come to the event. It sounds like he would have been right at home with that kind of rhetoric.

As Yglesias noted, “But this business on equality of opportunity versus a ‘mere desire for government support’ is pernicious nonsense. Unless equality of opportunity is going to be nothing more than a hollow formalism, you need a lot of government support.” But I think it goes further than Yglesias would like to admit. For Obama and pretty much any politician on the national stage, “equality of opportunity” is exactly a “hollow formalism” and they know it. It is just a phrase offered to the prols to justify why nothing can be done about our incredibly unfair economic system.

We now live in a nation that has more income inequality than it had during the terrible Gilded Age. And this is not just globalization—something we just can’t do anything about. Indeed, it is the direct result of government policies. In 1947, the federal government started its attack on unions (not that it had ever been keen on them), with the Taft–Hartley Act. That pretty much put a stop to union growth. Then in the 1980s, Reagan started policies that actively destroyed unions—mostly by simply not enforcing existing labor laws. And since then, no Democrat has done anything to improve the situation. In fact, one of the primary characteristics of New Democrats is their hostility toward unions.

So when Obama talks about “equality of opportunity” I know that he doesn’t mean anything by it. He doesn’t even mean a level playing field. He supports the Federal Reserve and their inflation obsession, even though a little inflation would help American workers. He supports Larry Summers and his strong dollar obsession, even though a weaker dollar would help American workers. And of course, he supports elite unions for doctors and lawyers, even though cheaper medical and legal costs would help American workers. He supports “equality of opportunity” in the sense that there shouldn’t be explicitly racist laws, which would make him very forward thinking if it were 1952.

Liberal politicians especially love to talk about how people should be able to get ahead if they “worked hard and played by the rules.” It’s bullshit of course. The last three presidents didn’t “play by the rules.” They all broke federal drug laws and yet life worked out pretty well for them. And they know (as do we all) that the best way to get rich is to inherit money. They are all involved with a federal government that constantly gives out contracts and other gifts to well connected businessmen. Working hard and playing by the rules has absolutely nothing to do with success in America. That’s because opportunity isn’t even close to equal in our society. And these people who talk about it are doing nothing to improve the situation.

Debra Milke Released on Bond

Debra MilkeThere is a small amount of good news. I have written several times about the tragic story of Debra Milke, the woman who was convicted of murdering her 4-year-old son over 20 years ago. She has been on death row since that time. The evidence against her was terrible, to put it lightly. Mostly, it all depended upon the word of a police officer and serial liar who claimed that Milke had confessed to him. The case came down to his word against hers. So as is usual, the jury believed the police officer. Earlier this year, an Appellate court overturned the earlier conviction (based largely on the officer’s history of lying) and called for a new trial or for Milke to be release. Of course, prosecutors pretty much never admit error and so they are retrying the case. But in the meantime, Milke has been released on bail (against the hysterical arguments of the prosecution).

The injustice in this case makes it extremely compelling. But it is hardly unusual. What I especially like about the case is what it shows about the death penalty generally. Proponents of the death penalty always think that it is applied in cases where there is overwhelming evidence. After all, there is that whole requirement that the jury be certain to within a “shadow of a doubt.” But usually, people are put on death row and later executed based on the flimsiest of evidence.

In Debra Milke’s case it really is just just one guy saying that he told her she did it. Does he have a recording? No. Does he have notes? No. Does he have a history of lying under oath and abusing women during interrogations? Yes! That’s basically what the state thought they should kill Milke over. It is also, what they had no problem putting her in jail for 22 years for. But I think there is something more going on in this case. It was a well publicized case. A 4-year-old boy had been murdered. The jury was angry. They wanted revenge and Milke was offered up.

At this point, I think that Milke will be exonerated. In fact, I’m not sure why they are even having another trial. It seems to me that the prosecution is going to look foolish. They didn’t have much evidence 22 years ago. Now they have much less. That is assuming that the lying cop won’t be allowed to testify—it’s still unclear. And now Milke has a good legal team with financial resources. She’s not OJ, but she will at least get a fair trial. Then again, I won’t be shocked if she is convicted. As we’ve seen, the jury system is not exactly dependable.

But it is at least good news the Debra Milke is out of jail. It is a little bit of justice, a long time in coming. And hopefully it is a good omen for the future. I will continue to follow the story here.

H/T: Debra Milke News

Always Love Ann Beattie

Ann BeattieOn this day in 1588, the “father of acoustics,” mathematician and music theorist Marin Mersenne was born. The French Baroque composer Francois Francoeur was born in 1698. Here is his very fun Allegro Vivo:

Portrait miniature painter Ozias Humphry was born in 1742. The Mesoamerican ethnographer Charles Etienne Brasseur de Bourbourg was born in 1814. Composer Jaime Nuno was born in 1824. He composed the Mexican national anthem, which is not bad:

The great Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was born in 1841. He is not one of my favorite composers, but for a Romantic, he is quite good. Here is his “Song to the Moon”:

The modern composer Willem Pijper was born in 1894. His work is pretty difficult. Just the same, it has a lot of charm to go along with his polytonal palette. It really does reward the listener, although it isn’t something I’m often in the mood for. Here is his Concerto for Piano & Orchestra from 1927:

The great country singer Jimmie Rodgers was born in 1897. Here he is doing a few of his songs inside a really stupid (but charming) narrative structure:

The great comedic actor Peter Sellers was born in 1925. Here he is as a couple of characters in Dr. Strangelove:

Another great country singer Patsy Cline was born in 1932. She was only 30 when she died. Here she is doing “Crazy” on the TV box:

The great comedian Sid Caesar is 91 today. Playwright Michael Frayn is 80. He wrote the very funny farce Noises Off. Blues guitarist Guitar Shorty is 74. Socialist Bernie Sanders is 72. Musician Aimee Mann is 53. She started as the head of the band ‘Til Tuesday, a band that got less and less popular as it got better and better. Here is a great song from their second album. (Of course, Mann has had a great solo career since then.) I like the line, “But anything I could have said I felt somehow that you already knew.” The song isn’t perfect, though; it should have a third verse, but even Mann admits that she’s a lazy writer. If you want perfect songwriting craft, you need to check out her husband Michael Penn. Anyway, here is “Coming Up Close”:

And the great independent filmmaker Kimberly Peirce is 46.

The day, however, belongs to the great novelist Ann Beattie who is 66 today. She had an interesting arc as a writer. Her first three novels were light and funny. They were the perfect vacation novels. And then she wrote Picturing Will, a novel so full of existential angst that I couldn’t stop crying. It was a fine book, beautifully written. But it scarred me and I have not gone back again. However, I do think it would be fun to reread Falling In Place or Love Always.

Happy birthday Ann Beattie!

Two-State Solution Unlikely Anytime Soon

Dimi ReiderI’m very interested in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but it is such a mess that I rarely hazard an opinion about it. So I was very interested to see an article this morning in Al Jazeera America, Analysis: Israelis Not Ready for Two-State Solution. It is by an Israeli journalist, Dimi Reider, and it is calm—and sad.

His analysis is that the Israeli people are not ready for a two state solution to the conflict. They claim to be for one, but this is mostly just theoretical well wishing. When asked about things like land swaps, which would be necessary for any deal, they disagree. What’s more, public opinion goes down the more an actual plan comes into focus. So it really comes down to the fact that the Israeli people would like peace, but they really aren’t willing sacrifice anything to get it.

Even worse, Palestinian attacks on Israelis end up hurting the poor almost exclusively, “those who would use public transport and shop in outdoor markets.” Thus, the power elite have no reason to want a settlement to the crisis and the poor are angry about the bombings and so become more nationalistic.

The situation on the Palestinian side is far worse. They have largely learned that violence only makes their lives harder. So Palestinian nonviolent protest—never a minor form of political involvement (not that you would know it from western press coverage)—has greatly expanded in recent years. But this puts them in a Catch-22 situation. If they engage in violence, it will make things worse and will not lead to a negotiated settlement. But if they do not engage in violence, there will be no pressure on the Israeli government to do anything and so it will not lead to a negotiated settlement.

The status quo is generally all right with the Israeli people. And so the Israeli government can stand by and allow more and more illegal settlements in Palestinian land—each one of which only makes a final settlement harder. Historically, conflicts like that between Israel and Palestine would have been resolved with a genocide. But with the eyes of the world watching, Israel can’t do that. (I’m not suggesting that Israel is especially bad here; they are the more powerful group; I don’t think the Palestinians would be any different if they were the more powerful group.) But it is hard to see the constant trickle of illegal settlements as anything but a slow motion genocide.

Given all the problems, I think a solution to this situation will take outside help. This is one of the great tragedies of the Bush Jr administration. We gave up a great opportunity to push for an end to this conflict. Instead, we invaded Iraq. So in addition to all of the bad consequences of that war, the opportunity costs were probably even worse. I see the Israel-Palestine conflict as a local infection that poisons the politics of the rest of the region. It seemed like Kerry was interested in addressing the problem. But he’s shown far more gusto for bombing Syria. I have very little hope for the future when it comes to the whole region, and this Israeli-Palestinian conflict in particular.


For the record, Al Jazeera America is excellent. Its news coverage is broader and less hysterical than any of the American outlets. And it never wastes my time with stupid coverage of things like Ariel Castro’s suicide.

Australia Tests the Conservative Waters

Max EhrenfreundMax Ehrenfreund is running the Political Animal blog this weekend. He’s a smart young man. But he is a bit wrong in his thinking about the recent Australian election that threw the Labor Party out of power and put the conservatives in power. The situation there is quite interesting. The Labor Party has been in power for 6 years and because of their policies, the economy (and much else in the country) is doing pretty well. But there has been a lot of infighting within the party and the people are sick of it. So they threw the bums out!

Where Ehrenfreund gets it wrong is in thinking this means that economics doesn’t matter as much as we have thought. He wrote:

Yesterday’s election is a reminder that people don’t necessarily care about whether their government is serving their interests. It is a bitter but important lesson for would-be technocrats around the globe: successful policies aren’t enough on their own.

I think what’s gone on is that the people have forgotten just how bad conservative policies are. They are taking the relatively good economy as a given and thinking that they can put the conservatives in charge and everything will be fine. And they might be right. For one thing, the conservatives in Australia are not as bad as the conservatives here in America. And even conservatives here usually take a little time to destroy the successes of liberal governments.

But let’s not forget that Australian unemployment has also been rising the last couple of years. It isn’t a large increase, but it is enough to cause the people to assume that the liberal government isn’t doing that much for them. Sure, they managed the 2009 recession well, but what have they done lately? So it makes some sense for the people to consider trying a new government. And the new prime minister Tony Abbott is not completely unappealing. He panders well to the worst instincts in people like nativism. His economic policies are the same as any conservative: he will cut taxes and regulations. And as usually, this will primarily make the rich richer. It will help the economy a bit because cutting taxes does that. But cutting environmental regulations during a recession is almost certainly counterproductive. And he wants to “cut spending and balance the budget.” So I suspect that the Australian economy will start doing even worse and soon the people will want the liberals back.

Of course, Ehrenfreund is right that the fundamental problem is that voters are not rational enough. In particular, they tend to fall for this same nonsense about cutting spending as though that’s going to make the economy better. But as the conservatives screw up the economy (and they always do), I’m sure we will see the Australian people acting very rational.

Politics in the Bedroom

Shanna Pearson-MerkowitzAt the Pacific Standard, Shanna Pearson-Merkowitz is freaked out, The Big Problem With Online Dating: It’s Making the Country More Politically Polarized. Her theory is that if you meet people the old fashioned way—blind drunk after last call—then you are more likely to hook up with someone with different political beliefs. This leads to more tolerance of said belief and soon we are all singing “Kumbaya My Lord” and looking forward to attending Burning Man.

There is something to what she claims. People who only talk to like minded people do tend to get a skewed notion of how much diversity of thought there is. But she is totally wrong to think that this is what causes political polarization. Couples who disagree about politics just tend not to discuss it. And couples who agree on politics don’t work themselves up into a froth about it, because, you know, they already agree. And given they are already biased in each other’s favor, they would know quite clearly that they aren’t a representative sample.

What does work people up into a reactionary political froth is the presence of political screamers on the radio and television. Part of this is simply because they claim to be objective—in the case of Fox News, explicitly so. But that isn’t the main thing. Relationships have many aspects. A couple may disagree about same sex marriage, but they know that their lives are primarily concerned with the day to day drudgery that is the modern world. A radio ranter talks only about politics and thus elevates it to a level of importance that is far higher.

In my own relationships, I’ve seen that whoever has the stronger political opinions does tend to pull the other person a bit in their direction. But it isn’t a strong effect. Politics is something that individuals bring into a relationship. It’s just like any other interest: religion, hiking, or tattoos. And I think it is better when a couple agrees on things. There are more than enough things to disagree about in a relationship. Even if agreeing about politics were bad for public political discourse, I doubt that would trump the added comity in the private relationship.

The problem with our politics is that we all hear the same kinds of things over and over again. And even still, what most people think is not represented in the mainstream press. The people of this country are actually very liberal when it comes to economic issues. But they hear none of that in the media. Just look at the Sunday morning political shows. The “middle” is represented with its pro-corporate, supposed free trade nonsense. The right is represented by the constant misinformation campaign that is reflected in George Will and Peggy Noonan. And the left is represented by… No one. As a society, we really do need more debate about public policy. But we don’t need it in the bedroom.

H/T: Max Ehrenfreund