Syria Shows No White House Should Be Trusted

Syrian Refugees

Seymour Hersh has written a really interesting article in the London Review of Books, Whose sarin? It is about the actual intelligence that we have about the sarin attack. It turns out that the Assad regime was not the only group that has the ability to make the stuff. In particular, there is the al-Nusra Front. They are “a jihadi group affiliated with al-Qaida.” What’s more, They have “mastered the mechanics of creating sarin and was capable of manufacturing it in quantity.” Could they have been the source of the sarin attack?

As you may remember, I was skeptical of the reporting on the use of sarin by the Assad Syrian government. Hersh throws a whole lot of uncertainty on our government’s case that it was so. I’m not convinced one way or another at this point. But there is something really important here that goes way beyond the specific issues of this attack. Hersh shows conclusively that the Obama administration was playing with what intelligence it did have. It was cherry picking information exactly the way that the Bush administration did in making its case for war with Iraq.

This doesn’t come as a surprise. It seems that one of the great perks of occupying the White House is that you get to start wars for no reason in particular. And unlike many of my liberal friends, I don’t think there is a whole lot that distinguishes Obama from others. Soon, I will be writing about a political test that I got a bunch of readers to take. The possible scores range from -10 (extremely liberal) to +10 (extremely conservative). Obama got a score of +6, only slightly more liberal than Mitt Romney, who got a score of +7. Think about that for the next week and get back to me.

Hersh tells the story of al-Qaeda groups growing in strength in the Syrian resistance, and that the intelligence agencies are actually more concerned about that than they are about the Assad regime. That makes sense. Assad may not be great, but he’s fairly stable. And revolution in Syria is going to mean huge numbers of casualties, even compared to what we’ve already seen. But none of that really matters; the Obama administration continues to be in favor of overthrowing the Assad government.

A series of secret dispatches from Syria over the summer reported that members of the FSA (Free Syrian Army ) were complaining to American intelligence operatives about repeated attacks on their forces by al-Nusra and al-Qaida fighters. The reports, according to the senior intelligence consultant who read them, provided evidence that the FSA is “more worried about the crazies than it is about Assad.” The FSA is largely composed of defectors from the Syrian army. The Obama administration, committed to the end of the Assad regime and continued support for the rebels, has sought in its public statements since the attack to downplay the influence of Salafist and Wahhabist factions. In early September, John Kerry dumbfounded a Congressional hearing with a sudden claim that al-Nusra and other Islamist groups were minority players in the Syrian opposition. He later withdrew the claim.

So what is this all about? Regime change? I’ve come to hate that term. For one thing it means that we here in the United States know better what governments different countries should have. I’d be on board with that, if it weren’t for our utter hypocrisy. Why are we not in favor of regime change for Saudi Arabia? That’s a vile regime. But they are our friends, so they’re just fine. Anyone who thinks that international politics has progressed since the time of the Greek city states, is naive or just stupid. And now, we have quite possibly made the situation in Syria far worse:

While the Syrian regime continues the process of eliminating its chemical arsenal, the irony is that, after Assad’s stockpile of precursor agents is destroyed, al-Nusra and its Islamist allies could end up as the only faction inside Syria with access to the ingredients that can create sarin, a strategic weapon that would be unlike any other in the war zone. There may be more to negotiate.

That’s just like America: disarm a stable government and give the advantage to the terrorists. Go team!

Income Inequality Cartoon Wisdom

MonopolyI was looking at cartoons about income inequality last night and I came upon a number of them that I’d like to share. Click on them to go to the original websites. They all highlight different aspects of the problem. As Estragon said, “Nothing to be done.” That’s the conservative answer to income inequality: nothing can be done, and even if something could be done, we shouldn’t do anything. It is for the best that there be high levels of inequality. Why? Because!

Raise the Minimum Wage?

How could the companies possibly afford to raise the minimum wage? After all, profits are at all time highs! We need to wait until profits go back down, and when companies aren’t sitting on piles of cash. That’s when things will be “normal” and companies can make a good decision about how much they can pay. Of course, then they won’t be able to pay more because profits aren’t high enough and they aren’t sitting on such large piles of cash.

Raise the Minimum Wage?

Start at the Top!

If you want to become rich in America, the surest way is to have a rich daddy. Just ask Tagg Romney. But the next surest way is to start at the top with the minimum wage:

Start at the Top!

What?

The big thing about the way that we think about economics in this country is that it is “natural.” But there is nothing natural about it. Income distribution is 99% determined by our laws. I understand that the rich don’t see that, because it would be very inconvenient to see that. But there is nothing natural about this:

There is nothing natural about our income distribution

Family Legacy

We have an economic system that just so happens to make some people unreasonably rich. No one would look from the outside and say, “That’s the way it should be!” Our economy is like a board game. If you are very good at it, you do well. But if the game were different, you wouldn’t do so well. Is the sorta free market economic system we have the best one? I don’t think so. This is a good example of just how “free” and “meritorious” our system is:

Family Legacy

Shared Sacrifice

This is my favorite. I hear this coming from liberalish pundits all the time, “We all need to sacrifice!” How does that work exactly. For the poor, an economic downturn means they lose their jobs. In a normal cultural system, in a downturn, people would work more and harder. But in our screwed up system, they aren’t allowed to work at all. Of course the conservatives and “liberal” moderates aren’t sacrificing except that maybe their investments aren’t growing quite as fast as they’d like. “Shared Sacrifice” (which I’ve heard Obama say so much that it sickens me) is just another way of saying, “Screw the poor!”

Shared Sacrifice

Let Them Eat Cake

But leave it to Dilbert to put it just right: let them eat cake. Of course, it isn’t the employee who really doesn’t deserve a promotion who is the problem. The problem is the corporate system itself and the way that it enriches the rich beyond all reason. And despite what Milton Friedman used to say, this system is not also making the poor richer. But I’m sure if he were alive, he would just come up with a new apologia for why our unconscionable inequality was good. Regardless, let the rich eat cake:

Dilbert - Let Them Eat Cake!

And really: die. That’s when the rich do their best work.

The Invention of Modern Comedy

Max LinderYou know this is quite a day for birthdays when Ludwig van Beethoven, who was born on this day in 1770, doesn’t win the day! But it gets even more bizarre, so read on. Nonetheless, I’m not a huge Beethoven fan. He was great, I don’t question that. But really: Mozart’s my man. For one thing, Beethoven is a bit overwrought for me. And he only wrote one opera and it is hardly great. What’s most important about the man is that he really expanded what classical music could do. Unfortunately, I don’t think it fully pays off for about 50 years after his death. Until then, we have to listen to a lot of Schumann wannabes. Oh my!

So you are probably wondering, “What’s he gonna force us to listen to?” It’s really hard with the great man. I do think that first movement of the Symphony No 5 is great, but the rest is kind of boring. And, of course, the Symphony No 9 is just flat out great, but do we really have to listen to that again? But you can say that about just about everything he ever wrote. So I give you something you will recognize, Fur Elise. I’m kidding! Even I am not so cruel as that. I offer you something you will nonetheless recognize, the Piano Concerto No 5, better know as the Emperor Concerto. I found what I think is the best YouTube performance of it. It is the Wiener Philharmoniker conducted by Leonard Bernstein with the great Polish pianist Krystian Zimerman. Yes, it is 40 minutes long. But do you have anything better to do? No. No you don’t.

You really know it is quite a day for birthdays when Jane Austen, who was born on this day in 1775, doesn’t win the day! Since you probably just skipped right past the Beethoven concerto, I’m sure you won’t be running out to read Pride and Prejudice, which I think is the best of her work. You know, Persuasion had real potential, but my understanding is that she rushed through it because she knew she was dying. She only lived to be 41. I don’t think she is necessarily that great a writer from a technical standpoint. George Eliot is undoubtedly better in that regard. But who really wants to read that stuff? But she puts the Brontes to shame. Am I being sexist? Well, she isn’t technically as good as Thomas Hardy either. But all of these writers are from the generations after Austen. And reading Austen is still fun. What’s more, you know all that modern breezy writing, not just “chick lit” but also people like David Foster Wallace? Where did they come from if not Austen? She is just absolutely great and in a fundamental sense the best English language writer of the 19th century. But we can’t leave without a little something from the great lady. So here is one of her poems, “Ode to Pity”:

1

Ever musing I delight to tread
The Paths of honour and the Myrtle Grove
Whilst the pale Moon her beams doth shed
On disappointed Love.
While Philomel on airy hawthorn Bush
Sings sweet and Melancholy, And the thrush
Converses with the Dove.

2

Gently brawling down the turnpike road,
Sweetly noisy falls the Silent Stream—
The Moon emerges from behind a Cloud
And darts upon the Myrtle Grove her beam.
Ah! then what Lovely Scenes appear,
The hut, the Cot, the Grot, and Chapel queer,
And eke the Abbey too a mouldering heap,
Cnceal’d by aged pines her head doth rear
And quite invisible doth take a peep.

I love that! She mentions Philomel! There was much darkness in the lady. I’m sure we would have seen that had she lived longer. As it is, Sense and Sensibility is a very dark novel if you read it correctly. And she savages the Romantics. It is delicious fun. And no one gets her tongue cut out!

You really, really know it is quite a day for birthdays when Philip K Dick, who was born on this day in 1928, doesn’t win the day. He is the kind of guy I wanted to be when I was young and now I can think of little worse. He was brilliant and pretty much single-handedly changed science fiction from something boring to something profoundly interesting. He was also a nut who suffered from paranoia. I’ll take a more mundane talent along with an easier life. As for his work, there is a tendency to focus too much on his ideas. Although he did have some very interesting ideas, most of them were not thought through very deeply. Check out my article on his short story, “The Minority Report.” But the main thing is that Dick was a great storyteller. Take everything else away and he is still a lot of fun to read. He really understands what ought to be in a story and what is just padding. There is no padding in his work.

Other birthdays: one of the Bluestockings, Elizabeth Carter (1717); physicist Johann Wilhelm Ritter (1776); playwright Mary Russell Mitford (1787); the great economist Leon Walras (1834); the great artist Antonio de La Gandara (1861); if only I had more time I would tell you all about the great painter Wassily Kandinsky (1866); the (Great?) Hungarian composer Zoltan Kodaly (1882); what kind of day is it when Noel Coward (1899) is tossed into “other birthdays”?; anthropologist Margaret Mead (1901); the “great” action screenwriter Shane Black (52); the great comedian Bill Hicks (1961); film director James Mangold (50); and one of my favorite stand-up comedians Todd Glass (49). I can’t help it, I have to break format:

The day, however, belongs to a man you have probably never heard of, Max Linder, who was born on this day in 1883. If you like comedic movies, then you should really care about Max Linder. Before him, silent film comedy was of the style of Mack Sennett and the Keystone Cops kind of humor—outrageous pratfalls and general silliness. What they didn’t have where actual characters who the audience cared about. That’s what Max Linder brought to the movies. He created the character of “Max,” rich man-about-town who got into adventures. The films stand today as satire of the well to do buffoon. His later films are better, but below is an early one (1907!), The Skater’s Debut where you can see what will become of screen comedy and not really change, right through the Marx Brothers and on to Jim Carrey. Note also, Charlie Chaplin was a huge fan and eventually a friend of Linder. On Linder’s death, Chaplin dedicated a film to him, “For the unique Max, the great master —his disciple Charles Chaplin.”

I suppose I should tell you something else about Linder: he suffered greatly from depression and anxiety. He and his young wife made a suicide pact, and the two killed themselves (their second attempt), leaving behind an infant daughter who went on to package Linder’s work for later generations. It’s very sad.

Nonetheless, happy birthday Max Linder!

Christie and Cruz Don’t Play in Iowa

Chris ChristieNot that I really care about the 2016 campaign, but No More Mister Nice Blog is reporting, Iowa Republicans Apparently Live in Their Own Information Bubble, Not the Beltwy’s. It looks at how Iowa Republicans are looking at potential 2016 presidential nominees. They are big on Paul Ryan, which is just short of the most boring thing I’ve ever heard. Much of that is just that he’s attractive.[1] Big deal.

What was more interesting, but no more surprising was, “Iowa voters are apparently not obsessed with the post-2012 media flavors-of-the-month, Chris Christie and Ted Cruz.” The reason for this is simple, although most political observers just don’t seem to get it. Both Christie and Cruz are assholes. That doesn’t play most places.

Rural areas tend to be more conservative for a number of reasons. One is that they aren’t terribly diverse. It is so much easier to think that black folks are bad if all you ever see are black men charged with murder on the television news. What’s more, in low crime areas, people tend to take an over-sized approach to law enforcement—they want to “throw the book” at people for small crimes. These are unfortunately aspects of rural populations. But one fortunate aspect is that the people generally have a more rigid idea of decorum.

Ted CruzTed Cruz, for all his Texas “charm,” comes off as the Princeton University elitist that he is. Every time I see him on the television, I’m not struck so much by his being wrong as I am by how he seems to be talking down to me. I get the very same thing from Rand Paul, who also doesn’t come off too well in Iowa. They both come off like they are trying to school me in basic economics. “If only you fools would read your Friedrich Hayek a bit more carefully, you’d understand how the world really works!”

I understand that Paul Ryan thinks the exact same things, but that’s not how he comes off at all. In fact, if you really listen to him (and I’m afraid most liberals do not), you will hear all kinds of populism coming from him. He talks about the unfair tax code and about how working people are being kept down. Sure: all his solutions will only make matters worse, but his pitch is directed at the middle classes and wanting to save them. The same goes for Rick Santorum, who has great economic rhetoric (and whose economic policies would actually be more populist).

As for Chris Christie, well what do you expect? The only reason the Villagers are so fond of him is that they see him as a “third way” kind of guy. He gets the same treatment that John McCain does. He’s a conservative, sure. But he doesn’t hate the gays! Except he does. He doesn’t want to limit access to abortions! Except he does. He doesn’t want to destroy the environment! Except he does. He’s also corrupt. But none of that matters, because to the beltway crowd, he seems reasonable. Of course, part of that is just that he’s a governor in a blue state. What do these people expect? Did they think he was going to go out of his way to prove how conservative he was during a re-election campaign?

As for the people in Iowa, I’m sure that he comes off as the very rude man from New Jersey that he is. He’s the guy that yells at reporters and teachers and anyone else who asks him a question that he doesn’t like. And don’t forget: he’s big. And that just makes him seem like a bully—which he is! The only places that Christie is likely to do well are the places that will be won by the Democrat in the general election: New Jersery, New York, California. So if the national Republican Party is stupid enough to nominate Christie, have at it. But it would seem that the people in Iowa are a bit smarter than that.

Afterword

I am well aware that there is right now a highly paid team of political consultants who are simultaneously working on ways to make Christie look more traditionally conservative (that is, fascist) and less like a total asshole. I just don’t think that second part can be done.


[1] I saw a blond woman on television talking about income inequality and how she dug herself out of poverty. All I could think was, “Yeah, but almost no one is gorgeous like you are. Do you really think your looks have nothing to do with your being on television?” Looks matter enormously in everything.