Friday, October 30, 2009

October 30, 2009--F-22s, I.E.D.s: Change I Can Believe In

During the campaign some began to wonder if Barack Obama was decisive and tough enough to stand up to various forms of powerful opposition. They liked his change message but suspected that he might not have the chops to stand up to Hillary Clinton much less the generals. Maureen Dowd, who was attracted to his message and the hope he represented, went so far as to not only call him The One but also Bambi.

Well, Bambi may not wind up standing up to the generals about plans for Afghanistan—I fear he will give in to the pressure to send tens of thousands of more young Americans there in a futile effort to do I-know-not-what—but about their even more favorite thing—building more and more ludicrously expensive weapons systems we don’t need—he not only stood up to them but also managed to wrest and sign a defense spending bill from a reluctant Congress that significantly ends the production of some systems of this kind and which also saves hundreds of billions of dollars a year. Enough, in fact, to pay for pretty much all he wants to do to reform health care.

This is a remarkably under reported story, the New York Times for example buried their article about it on the bottom of page 2 in the Thursday Business section. (It is linked below as “Original Story”).

For a White House that daily now is being criticized for not being able to walk the talk, this is truly a remarkable accomplishment. Not only do military leaders want to build an enormous fleet of F-22 stealth fighter planes (what they call “the next generation” of them) but members of Congress who are either on the payrolls of defense contractors and/or have weapons system manufacturers in their districts (John Kerry, for one, who few would accuse of being a Hawk, tried to keep the F-22 alive since Massachusetts is heavily involved in their manufacture—“It’s about jobs” he shamelessly said), but Obama had to buck the decades-long propensity to give the Pentagon whatever it wants. Toys such as the F22 again, which, if you can imagine, cost at least $70 million each. Or “a copy” as the boys like to say.

As evidence of his toughness, Obama threatened to veto the defense bill if there weren’t cuts, among others, in the F-22 program. Knowing he would be vetoing a bill approved in a fully bipartisan way—his favorite thing is bipartisanship. Isn’t it amazing that bills of this sort consistently receive such inter-party support?

Rahm Emanuel is on the record as saying that that veto threat was real, in part because they wanted “to show we were willing to expend political capital and could win on something that people thought we could not.”

Known for his ober-macho, I do understand this unguarded comment; but though I would have liked to have heard more about why we need these things in the first place, I’ll take it.

In fact, why do we need hundreds of these kinds of military aircraft? Isn’t it true that the enemies we face are now fighting in what strategists call “asymmetric” ways? They battle us as loosely organized insurgents across borders, blending into the terrain while living among the people. Rarely taking and holding ground. Even less frequently digging in as a way to defeat the very kinds of high-tech equipment about which we pride ourselves.

Even when we use unmanned drones to bomb suspected Al Qaeda fighters in the valleys of Afghanistan and Pakistan, we wind up killing at least as many women and children as we do terrorists. So all the stealthiness, all the super-technology often have the opposite effect than we seek—rather than winning the hearts and minds of those we purport to “liberate” and protect, we wind up turning more against us and help groups such as Al Qaeda recruit more followers and suicide bombers.

And those terrorists and insurgents with these tactics render our most-vaunted weapons obsolete by attacking us with homemade devices such as I.E.D.s—improvised explosive devices. In the same issue of the Times that reported in a stealthy way about the defense bill, there was a more prominently displayed article about how these makeshift weapons, which cost just a few hundred dollars each to make and are typically exploded by enemy fighters using simple cell phone technology as the trigger, that they are not only dramatically increasing in number in Iraq and Afghanistan--where this week nearly two dozen Americans were killed by them--but they are also showing up all over the Middle East, Africa, South America, and even Europe.

So while we build the next generation of fighter planes—at a cost that has been contributing to bankrupting us—those who wish us harm are shopping in Radio Shack for components for their weapons of choice.

Befuddled by some of this, I asked a Florida-based very conservative friend of mine, one who loves the military and knows a great deal about modern weapons systems, why we have invested so much in my favorite F-22s. He said, “To prepare to go to war with China.”

Thinking I hadn’t heard him correctly, I said, “Huh?”

“Yes, China,” he repeated.

Still incredulous I asked, “Tell me more.”

“Well, they’re preparing to go to war with us . . . “

I interrupted, “More than economically?”

“You bet your ass. They are investing very heavily in these same kinds of weapons. Let me tell you that within ten years they will have not only . . . “

Before he could conclude this fantasy, I again cut him off and said, “Sorry, but I have to go. There’s someone at the door.”

I didn’t want to have the glow fade that I was feeling when I knew that Bambi was living in the White House.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

October 29, 2009--Fox, CNN, MSNBC, Obama, and "The Daily Show"

All the media were atwitter last week when the TV ratings for October were announced and CNN was found to be languishing in fourth place. (See New York Times front-page article linked below.)

I asked Rona, “Fourth place? I thought there were only three cable news channels—CNN, MSNBC, and of course Fox.” Separately Fox had been very much in the news because of the open warfare that had broken out between it and the White House. Even Mr. Cool, President Obama had been slamming them in public, denying that they were in the news business and comparing them to rabidly partisanly Talk Radio. But what was the fourth network?

“Headline News, silly,” Rona reminded me. “Their primetime line up that includes the equally-rabid Nancy Grace finished ahead of CNN and wound up in third place. I bet that especially will make the stodgy CNN folks crazy. Pretty soon it will be up for sale and I’ll bet Rupert Murdock will try to buy it.”

Ever the skeptic I checked the numbers and sure enough with the exception of “The Larry King Show,” which finished third in the ratings race, all other 7-11 PM CNN shows came in last—from Campbell Brown (no surprise) through, big surprise, Anderson Cooper.

Here are some of the actually numbers about viewership. Read them and weep:

Campbell Brown—162,000
Anderson Cooper—211,000
Larry King Live—224,000

Hardball With Chris Matthews—179,000
The Rachel Maddow Show—242,000
Countdown With Keith Olbermann—295,000

Shepherd Smith—465,000
Sean Hannity—659,000
Bill O’Reilly—881,000

As a sidebar, immigrant-basher Lou Dobbs, who should and probably will wind up on Fox, draws just 62,000; and Teabagger Glenn Beck’s show, which airs on Fox at 5 PM, before the primetime hours, has between 500,000 and 600,000 daily viewers.

All tolled, a few hundred thousand viewers per show is a lot, but are these numbers either large or significant enough to make the front page of the Times much less get the White House pants all in a bunch?

I do remember photos of LBJ, isolated in the Oval Office, watching three TVs simultaneously while the country ignited around him to protest the Vietnam War. He was tuned in to the news on the then three existing networks—NBC, CBS, and ABC—at a time when at 6:00 o’clock in the evening everyone, and I mean everyone in America, was watching Walter Cronkite and his anchorman colleagues. That’s when the news was the news. But now? Whose watching? And who should care?

If you want to know where on TV people are actually getting their “news” (and the quotes I feel are appropriate), they are tuned in in much greater numbers to “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report.”

In October, Colbert drew 1.2 million viewers each night while Jon Stewart had 1.6 million. About twice O’Reilly’s total.

If Obama and his minions want to keep an eye on things, I suggest they pay attention to what these guys are saying about them since I am sensing a shift toward real criticism.

And while I’m making suggestions, rather than taking on Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, it would be a better use of time to take on members of Obama’s own party who are about to filibuster his healthcare reform legislation to death. All in a move to protect their own individual changes for reelection—Evan Bayh, Blanche Lincoln, Mary Landrieu, Kent Conrad, and, how-could-I-forget, Joe Lieberman.

To get Joe on board Obama will have to agree to bomb, or have Israel bomb Iran before the vote.

Wednesday, October 28, 2009

October 28, 2009--$1,605 For A Checkup!

Last night, on MSNBC’s Countdown with Keith Olbermann there was a report by an advocacy group about how much abuse, fraud, and defensive medicine runs up the costs associated with providing health care to Americans each year. They claim that it is a staggering number. Even discounting it by half, since it is of course an estimate and the group has an ideological axe to grind, it comes to hundreds of billions of dollars a year—they said it totals about $500 billion; I say if it is “only” half that, if these abuses could be ended (don’t hold your breath) the savings alone could pay for more than the entire cost of meaningful reform.

About $200 billion, the group says, is what is wasted by doctors authorizing unnecessary tests to prevent them from being sued for malpractice; another $100 billion or so is how much is spent because our medical administration and record systems are inefficient; and about $100 billion more is the result of just plain fraud—doctors, hospitals, and insurers charging us for tests and treatments they in fact do not perform.

These big numbers numb the brain and in their totals are impossible to confirm. Suffice it to say that in a variety of ways we are being ripped off.

But I suspect that all of us can testify to personal experiences that demonstrate the essential truth of these findings. If I can manage to tread carefully here to protect the innocent as well as the guilty (I am a little of both) I can tell you enough about my own annual medical exam earlier this week; and, if we extrapolate from that, the numbers can get pretty big very quickly.

I am fortunately in fairly good health and do not and did not require anything exotic. I needed a flu shot and while I went in for that had my physical. Also fortunately, I have very good health insurance that allows me to go to fancy, fee-for-service Upper Eastside doctors and get reimbursed for virtually everything they do—all exams and tests and so forth.

My regular internist was away on holiday and so I saw someone recommended by him who practices as he does. I had my flu shot, they took and analyzed my blood, and he gave me your traditional physical exam—from listening to my heart and lungs; palpating me all over; checking my ears and throat; asking if I have any problems such as dizziness or shortness of breath (no to all of these); and of course fooling around with my prostate, which he pronounced, snapping off his latex gloves, in good shape for someone my age.

That was pretty much it. We chatted amiably for the 15 minutes we were together, mainly about the healthcare debate in Congress and why there isn’t enough H1N1 flu vaccine. (He is still waiting for his supply.)

Then it was time to pay. He walked me to the front desk and I overheard him whispering to a member of his staff about how to bill me. He listed all the things he had just done, including what the blood test had measured from cholesterol (a little high) to PSA (more about that prostate). And then he asked me what that illness was I had told him about from six years ago. “Diverticulosis,” I reminded him. He then passed that along to his assistant. I wondered why he was telling her about that since it had long ago been cured and he hadn’t done anything about it—there was nothing to do--while examining me.

“And,” he told her, “put down ‘shortness of breath.’ That’s always good.

“But,” I said, “I told you I’m not at all short of breath.”

He looked up at me, smiled, and winked.

I was so happy with the results of my exam, so eager to get out of there before he came up with anything to be concerned about, that I didn’t pursue either the diverticulosis or shortness of breath issue. I was just happy to give his office assistant my Amex card, sign it, head home, and try to get through another year unscathed.

I didn’t even look at my bill until safely back in my apartment. It was for $1,605. Rona asked, “What’s the $5 for?”

I said that I didn’t know, nor, now that I was more aware what had happened, “To tell you the truth I don’t know why he charged me $1,600. All he did was a few simple tests and gave me a quick look over.” And I proceeded to tell her about the diverticulosis and shortness of breath business and the doctor’s wink.

“I can tell you about both of these,” she said. “The more things he lists on what he submits to our insurance company the more we will get reimbursed for his bill.”

“I don’t follow you,” I am that naïve, “Why should we care about that? I mean, of course we want to be reimbursed so our out-of-pocket is as little as possible. But won’t cost us more if we get back 80 percent or so of $1,600 than 80 percent of, say, $1,000? Actually, wouldn’t we do better if the number was smaller?”

“Yes, we would. But that’s not the point. He wants $1,600 for your visit, not $1,000, and to get that he lists various things to the insurer that he didn’t do—like check for any signs of diverticuloisis. For that they’ll pay, say, $150 plus another couple of hundred to test you for shortness of breath; and before you know it you’re up to $1,605. About the five dollars of which I am still puzzled.”

So in my head I multiplied the extra $600 he charged and multiplied that by a conservative million and came up with quite a big number.

Now I’m struggling with what to do. Minimally, I plan to call his office later today and raise a few questions. Maybe I’m missing something, including some of the things he actually checked me for—I grant that I’m so nervous during these exams that I could have missed something—but then again . . .

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

October 27, 2009--Obama & the Guys

Two contrasting photos from Sunday’s New York Times

On the front page there was one of Barack Obama seemingly suspended in air as he is about to launch a jump shot during one of his frequent pickup basketball game. The second, buried on the next to last page of the Sports section is from early in the 20th century. It depicts James Naismith, the inventor of basketball, holding a wooden fruit basket aloft, the literal “basket,” while his wife Maude, six or seven feet away, prepares to take what appears to be a version of an underhand foul shot. (See linked article and photo below of the Naismiths on the campus of the W.M.C.A. Training School in Springfield, Mass.)

And while Obama is getting all sorts of grief from women’s groups that he is showing his sexist side by recreating with only other fellows, from the photographic evidence it appears that the inventor of Obama’s most beloved sport, Dr. Naismith, was clearly a proto-feminist and way ahead of his time.

The criticism of Obama (criticism of him is growing by the day—check the cover story of this week’s Newsweek as another example: how he is thus far failing to deliver on his campaign promises) there is more at issue than who is invited to join him in his daily basketball game.

A growing number of women are beginning to express concern that he is not sufficiently surrounded in his inner circle by women. With the exception of Valerie Jarrett, an old pal from his Chicago days, pretty much everyone else is a guy. And guys they surely are. The testosterone level in the West Wing is noted to be especially high. Rahm Emanuel is virtually oozing it and even the hemming and hawing Robert Gibbs, his press secretary, employs at least half a dozen sports analogies and metaphors a day at his public briefings.

This not only looks bad, it is claimed, but it more importantly means that Obama is not receiving the diversity of gendered opinion required if he is going to be a new kind of accessible, empathetic, transparent president. We know what Bill Clinton was up to while surrounded by a women or two during his White House days, but at least when he went jogging he was smart enough to occasionally invite some woman to join him. Golfing while smoking cigars was another matter, but at least he was an equal opportunity jogger.

Obama’s mantra, Change You Can Believe In, from the perspective of who he hangs out with, looks pretty much like business as usual. Ironically, some of his highest-level female appointees— UN ambassador Susan Rice and Kathleen Sibelius, Secretary of Health and Human Services, both played college basketball. And as Secretary Sibelius pointed out the other day when asked about Obama’s locker room behavior, she quipped that she and Susan Rice made their college varsity teams—Obama, in contrast, she winked wasn’t even a third-stringer at Columbia.

Digging a little deeper into the history of basketball’s origins, I learned that Dr Naismith invented the game in 1891 when challenged by his boss to come up with something with which to keep rowdy W.M.C.A. boys occupied during long Massachusetts winters.

From this, though I am sympathetic that Obama and other presidents, considering their daily pressures, should be allowed to blow off steam in pretty much any politically incorrect ways they choose, perhaps during his current deliberations about what to do next in Afghanistan, if he wants to resist pressure from the hawks to send tens of thousands of additional troops to the region, perhaps during breaks in their discussions, he should invite his Secretary of State out to shoot a few hoops since, from reports about her macho views, Hillary Clinton could use a little calming down.

Monday, October 26, 2009

October 26, 2009--Dithering

Famous Chicken Hawk Dick Cheney, who wangled five deferments from the army during the Vietnam War, who in 1989 imperiously said in an interview for the Washington Post that “I had other priorities in the ‘60s than military service,” last week accused Barack Obama of “dithering” rather than acting decisively in regard to what next to do in the miserable war in Afghanistan.

Never mind that it conveniently took Cheney six rather than four years to graduate from college because, as he falsely claimed he needed to work his way through (in fact he was a terrible student and needed the extra time to complete his studies and undoubtedly to work the Selective Service System student-deferment safe track), but what were he and his alleged boss doing prior to 9/11 to keep us safe but dithering on vacation in Crawford Texas (Bush) and Wyoming (Cheney) during the summer leading up to that dastardly attack while the intelligence data about Al Qaeda, untended to, piled up.

Never mind any of this for a moment while we contemplate what he and George W. Bush did after that attack—how they pursued the ruinous and unnecessary war in Iraq and the one in Afghanistan where the terrorists who attacked us were trained and the Al Qaeda leadership were harbored. Guided by Cheney they took their eye of the real problem—Al Qaeda in Afghanistan and later Pakistan--to pursue their crusade, call it what it was, in Iraq. And in both places, great military minds that Cheney and Bush will in history be famous for, they made messes as our chief executives as they both had made messes during the course of their entire lives.

So Joe Biden had it right the other day—when asked about the dithering comment, the current vice president dismissively quipped, “Who cares.” That gets it right.

Cheney has been wrong so often about so many things that he and his hypocritical family (which of his children, also beating war drums, deigned to volunteer to serve while Joe Biden’s son went off to Iraq?), they got things so consistently wrong that it would have been better for us and the world if he and Bush had continued to dither after 9/11 as they clearly were doing prior to it.

But it was something else that Biden said, which was echoed by Bush-appointee Secretary of Defense Robert Gates, that is worth paying attention to: that since the US and our allies have not had a comprehensive review of our strategy regarding Afghanistan since 1980, since Ronald Reagan was president, it is worth the time now to think through carefully what we should do next because what we have been up to since at least the fall of 2001 has been so ultimately ineffective (Osama bin Laden, remember him—“bring him back dead or alive,” Bush swaggered, is still actively directing Al Qaeda) that our so-called strategy to this point could rather accurately be described as a version of dithering.

I am inclined to want to get us out of there. It is feeling to me like a contemporary version of a Vietnam-like quagmire that will continue to literally bleed us until we in humiliation are forced to withdraw. I am too aware of Afghanistan’s multi-thousand year history of successfully defeating invaders and occupiers. And make no mistake about it this is how we are currently perceived by Afghanis. Would we feel any differently if they had invaded and occupied our country? They repelled Alexander the Great, the Brits during their empire years, and most recently, with our active help, the Soviets.

Thus isn’t it obvious that our days on the ground there are numbered? If we do not begin to get out during Obama’s first term it will inevitably be during his second—if he is reelected—or his successor’s or the president we elect after that. This is one certain lesson of history. In Afghanistan we will ultimately confront the fate of the Greek, British, and Soviet empires. We are on the same historical track, and our decline will surely accelerate if we indulge in the same kind of hubristic self-delusion about our exceptionalism as they claimed for themselves.

As one hint of how complicated the situation in that region is, please read all of the linked New York Times article. By attempting to understand via sound bites conditions on the ground in the border areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan, the Taliban seem to be the Taliban and the connections between them and Al Qaeda appear to be uniformly strong.

But, if we take the time, we will learn that not all Taliban are alike (minimally there are the Afghani Taliban who was the host to bin Laden and want to overthrow the Karzai government and reassert itself and the Pakistani Taliban, who are primarily nationalistic and seek to overthrow the government of Pakistan) and not all the Taliban by any means have a worldwide agenda or see the United States and the West as their primary enemies. Nor do they all support al Qaeda. And so on.

Thus we should be pleased that the Obama administration is taking its time to think things through. I wish that Obama, feeling the political need back in March to present himself as a credible Commander In Chief (he too chose not to serve in the military) began to talk tough about Afghanistan, calling it a “war of necessity” and authorized the deployment of 21,000 additional troops, I wish he had been able to restrain himself until after a careful review of the situation. But here we are.

So I say, “Dither away, Mr. President; and here’s hoping that you have the courage to do the right thing.” Because it will take more courage for him to change course there than just to accede to the generals’ request for tens of thousands of additional troops. When our presidents did that during the past 40 years invariably it has led to disaster.

Friday, October 23, 2009

October 23, 2009--Take TV Out Of the Ballgame

Summers and winters are long and thus we need baseball to help us get through them.

Some complain that a 162-game season is too long and the games too slow for our no-attention-span era especially since post season now lasts forever. And with the distractions of football and basketball, which conveniently fill in the time when baseball is in suspension, who any longer needs a Hot Stove League—long gone are the winter days where men, yes men, would huddle by wood fires in cast iron stoves in general stores across America to replay in their minds the last innings of every critical game--should the Dodgers have left Ralph Branca in the game to pitch to the Giants Bobby Thompson; or who was the best centerfielder—Willie Mays, Duke Snider, or Mickey Mantle; or was Jackie Robinson safe as the umpire said or out when stealing home in the opening game of the 1955 World Series? Did Yogi Berra, as he still claims 54 years later, make the tag?

Now with things so speeded up and technology so sophisticated and omnipresent, at least Yogi’s phantom tag could be resolved by super slow-motion instant replays from at least half a dozen different angles. But if we had all of this then what would the guys have had to talk about up in Caribou, Maine in the middle of January, when spring training’s pitchers-and-catchers was still months away and it was pushing 20-below outside.

We, on the other hand, know for certain that the Los Angeles Angel’s catcher did in fact compete a double play by tagging both Jorge Posada and Robinson Cano out at third base the other night during the American League Championship Series. He blew the call and, if we didn’t have instant replay, not knowing for certain what happened would have kept a lot of baseball fans (the etymological root of “fan,” by the way, is appropriately “fanatic”) going during an endless string of short days and endless-feeling winter nights.

What we are left with is not the actual game to argue about but the umpiring (see linked article), generally thought to be adulterated in quality like so many other things in our society—we can’t seem to get anything right: high-quality fuel efficient cars, wars, or tag plays at third base. So I suppose, as it has been for more than 100 years, baseball continues to be a metaphor for our collective lives. Think football or basketball if you want to see how unmetaphoric a national sports pastime can be.

After that third game of the ALCS game out in Anaheim (what kind of a place is that by the way to have a Major League team—isn’t Disneyland enough for a city like that?) I was talking to a friend and all he wanted to discuss was the umpiring. I was eager to argue about the game itself, the momentum swings back and forth that first favored the Yankees with Jeter and A-Rod hitting solo homeruns and then the Angels rallying to overtake them and turn the ALCS into a competitive series. Did the managers make all the right moves and decisions?

“Too bad they weren’t playing at the new Yankee Stadium,” he said with vicarious pride in that new billion-dollar facility. “There they have that huge Jumbotron out in centerfield so you can watch the game on TV and not miss anything. Including the umpires’ calls. And if you’re downstairs on line getting a hot dog or taking a pee they have all these high-definition TVs all over the place so you can watch from there. Even when you’re in the men’s room!”

“That’s why I refuse to go there. I’m tired of the DJ’d music pounding away all the time and all the TVs. I find them distracting. When I go to the ballpark I want to watch the game. If I want to watch it on TV I prefer to stay home and lie around in my pajamas and save a few hundred bucks. I’m not paying $200 for a ticket and $10 for a hot dog. And, to tell you the truth, I’m even beginning to want to ban the TV networks from showing replays. I don’t want to have everything resolved. Every ball, every strike double-checked by videotape. I like not knowing everything to such a degree of certainty. Call me old-fashioned, as I know you will, but I’m even thinking about turning off the TV and listening to the games on the radio so I can use my imagination again.”

“You actually are an old fogey!” I chuckled in agreement. “And how about that ‘old fogey’ bit? Old-fashioned enough for you?"

He roared with laughter and hung up before I could ask him what he thought about the series Alex Rodriquez was having. Or agree with him about what I fogey I’ve become.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

October 22, 2009--Paranoid Style

I have been engaged in an e-mail debate with a group of friends and acquaintances about the state of our nation and our place in the world.

Of course I am convinced that my views are correct and based both on a close and sensitive reading of American history and contemporary facts on the ground. I am equally convinced that their views are ideologically driven; that they are misreading the lessons of history; and that their arguments, since they are based in fear and suspicion, are not only wrong but quickly lead to name calling and invective.

Thus I thought to send out to them, and to those who share their "ultra-conservative” views, selections from a classic 1964 essay by Columbia University historian Richard Hofstadter, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics” written shortly after Mr. Conservative, Barry Goldwater secured the Republican nomination for the presidency.

Below are a few selections. Even those of my ilk should pay close attention since we are not entirely immune to these same tendencies:

American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of mind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.

Hofstadter goeson to claim:

The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization... he does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated — if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.

Then adds:

The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind.

And, notwithstanding the now somewhat dated examples, concludes:

It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through "front" groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist "crusades" openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.

Hofstadter was a professor of mine and makes as much sense to me now as did back then.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

October 21, 2009--Jet Lagged

Though we didn't cross any time zones, I am still somehow jet lagged. I will thus return here on Thursday. I'm headed back to bed!

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

October 20, 2009--Heading North

I will return to blogging on Wednesday.

Monday, October 19, 2009

October 19, 2009--Anger Central

Not only is southeastern Florida where Bernie Madoff inflicted much of his damage but at another level it is where populist anger is most palpably felt.

After feeling this directly the other morning, I thought that if media pundits want to understand what is raging in many parts of the country they should get out of their newsrooms and studios and come down here where real folks are both hurting and raging. And though they are feeling it in their pocketbooks, a lot of the anger is not just about the fallen economy.

You meet a lot of people who are working six, seven days a week at two, three jobs and barely getting by. But I have yet to hear a complaint about how hard they have to work just to stay barely above water. These tough, resilient folks are used to enduring whatever is dealt them.

I have, though, been hearing about all sorts of frustration with the larger state of our nation. They are angry with our federal government and our president, to be sure, but also at all forms of government and politicians of all persuasions.

But deeper than this is the rage that comes from the perception that America is losing its place in the world. There is the persistent, unsettling sense that we are no longer Number One. In pretty much anything. And this is profoundly disturbing to people who, though know in their own lives that they are far from dominant or successful, have historically taken pride in being an American and in America’s successes.

Those now in their middle years learned in public school that America had never lost a war—from the Revolution through World War Two--but then there was the ambiguity of the outcome in Korea (still unsettled), the defeat in Vietnam (no matter the reasons), and the current fiascos in Iraq and Afghanistan where even with superior forces and technology we cannot achieve victory. For decades no one has had the exhilarating experience of witnessing anything pridefully equivalent to our victorious soldiers raising the American flag on Mount Suribachi on Iwo Jima.

And the countries we defeated in WW II, risen from the ashes, are now making better products than we. When once our automobiles were the envy of the world, two of the Big Three are virtually bankrupt and the highways around here and throughout America are full of Hondas and Toyotas and VWs and Mercedes all zipping by our now second-rate Chevys and Chryslers.

Even our athletes, once indomitable in most major sports from baseball to basketball to tennis to track and field are increasingly overshadowed by players from Latin America and Europe. No wonder Tiger Woods, Lebron James, and Derek Jeter are so popular—they represent the contracting corps of American sports heroes.

And then there is our incredibly shrinking dollar. It is irrelevant to those I talk to here who are so generally frustrated and angry that a weaker dollar might actually help make American exports more attractive around the world. What matters most to them is how it feels to have China and others talking about using some other currencies, a bushel of them, to which to peg the price of a barrel of oil.

They know that our education system is no longer the best in the world. That in math and science we have slipped to virtual Third-World status. And that our healthcare system not only excludes tens of millions but the average person even with insurance gets treatment that doesn’t meet world-class standards. They have experienced this themselves.

No matter that they blame this on immigrants—legal as well as illegal, who refuse to assimilate or learn English—and other minorities who they view as basically lazy and only interested in collecting welfare and food stamps. It doesn’t matter that I attempt to challenge them about these views and suggest that we have always had immigrants in this country, including our own grandparents or great grandparents or that we have the healthcare system we have because of the rapaciousness of the insurance companies. Yes, they will grant me that, but their anger is still unrelenting.

It is as if they are feeling that though their own lives may at times be full of frustration at least they used to be citizens of a country that knew how to win wars, build bridges and dams and superhighways, make the best products in the world, had a government which more or less worked, and where the American dollar was what everyone everywhere wanted to get their hands on.

This sense of diminished circumstances is not entirely class and status based. The less well educated, the economically threatened are certainly more frustrated and angry—how could we expect them not to be—but even many who have a fine education and are still, relatively speaking, doing well are unhappy. Very unhappy.

They tend to be free marketeers who see unfettered business to be the answer to virtually all of our domestic woes and see government involvement in economic affairs to be another example of how those in Washington and state capitals are seeking to limit or abrogate all of our rights—among other things they want to keep the money they earn; purchase any kinds of weapons they wish; bomb or invade any country that appears to want to do us harm; keep gays from marrying and serving in the military; drive any kind of cars they desire, regardless of MPG ratings; and seal our borders to stop “the invasion from the south.” You know the list.

But the more I feel and absorb this sense of profound frustration I am convinced that these ideas, these beliefs, this ideology, though not well supported by evidence from either history or current circumstances, are rooted in a fundamental, and correct, awareness that this is no longer the America they grew up in or imagined. That open, free-spirited, can-do, don’t-tread-on-me US of A of our real and mythical past. Pessimism has replaced that bright-eyed American optimism that used to be so characteristic of us.

Thus there is a lot of flailing around to find the reasons for this, to figure out where to place blame—from Obama to immigrants. I am, though, hearing a lot of hyper-caffeinated talk about “taking back our country.” The teabaggers are a vivid example of this. They have been dismissed and roundly mocked by much of the media, but we should be careful no to overdo this. As back in the 1930s we may be living in a quasi-revolutionary time. But the outcomes this time could easily by much more regressive and oppressive. We’ve seen that too.

Friday, October 16, 2009

October 16, 2009--Our Rights

After breakfast yesterday in Florida at the Green Owl, as we were about to leave, one of my best friends here—my favorite Republican—finally showed up. I had been concerned that he might be avoiding me since some of our recent exchanges had been unnecessarily overheated. But he is the last person I know to duck a good political fight and so I was not surprised to see him and was very glad at that.

After a few cursory catch ups (“How have you been?” “Fine.” You?” “Fine.” “You still look good.” “Thanks. So do you.”), we got right to it. This time we found ourselves arguing about global warming. For some weeks he had been sending me stuff from Michael Creighton and aviation pioneer Burt Rutan, both of whom are deeply skeptical about the data that indicate humans are contributing to it these environmental changes.

When I quoted Rutan back to my friend in order to suggest that these skeptics and others are as much motivated by political ideology as by their interpretation of the science, he countered that the Al Gores of the world were similarly inclined.

He hasn’t as yet found Gore saying anything ideologically equivalent to what Rutan said in his now famous speech this past July at the Experimental Aircraft Association’s annual conference in Oshkosh:

I put myself in the those who fear expansion of government control group, and do not hide the fact that I have a clear bias on Anthropogenic Global Warming (AGW). My bias is based on fear of Government expansion and the observation of AGW data presentation fraud--not based on financial or any other personal benefit. I merely have found that the closer you look at the data and alarmists’ presentations, the more fraud you find and the less you think there is an AGW problem. (Emphasis added.)

But even assuming that Al Gore has his own ideological axe to grind, I pressed my friend yesterday morning to take an objective step back and tell me why he thinks those on both the far Right and Left are so emotional about the subject.

In a whisper so as to perhaps prevent being overheard by some of his fellow conservatives who were still sipping their coffee and straining to listen in on what we were discussing—I have been told that many at the Owl enjoy our tussles—he said, “Look, most of the emotion is not about the fate of the planet. It’s really ideological, just as you say.”

“Why is that?” I also whispered.

“Think about it for a minute. You already know the answer.”

“Maybe I’m still a little jet-laggy, maybe I haven’t yet had enough caffeine, so please tell me what you think I already know.”

It’s about our rights. Those on the Left want to see more government control. They don’t trust the people to make the right decisions. So they are using global warming as an excuse to have government tell us what kinds of cars to drive, what ways to heat our homes, and what industries should be allowed and not allowed to do.”

“And those on the right?”

“The opposite. They are denying that humans are contributing to global warming as a way to justify their call for smaller government. To get governments out of our lives, off our backs, telling us what we can and cannot drive and what business can and cannot do.”

“I think you’ve got it right,” I said.

“And I’ll tell you one more thing.” A few of the Owl regulars had joined us and there were by then five or six of us standing in a circle at the cash register. “Every time government passes a new law they take away more of our rights.” From all the head nodding I knew I was out numbered and that I wasn’t back in Manhattan anymore.

With that he said he needed to get to the office and promptly turned to leave. The others then drifted away.

I felt that I hadn’t acquitted myself very well, letting him get away with that final comment which had the sonorous ring of truth about it. Clearly my brain was not working for if it had been I could have offered myriad examples of how government action (constitutional amendments, laws, and court decisions) had done the opposite of what he so forcefully and succinctly asserted—they had expanded and protected rights. Many of which he and other conservatives fervently fight to protect.

Freedom of speech and the press. The right to practice or not practice any form of religion. The right to free assembly. To a trial by one’s peers. To privacy. The right to own property. And a local favorite—the right to bear arms.

Then there has been rights-expanding legislation that expanded democratic rights, including the direct election of senators and the president. And other amendments and laws to end slavery give women the right to vote, and to protect the civil rights of minorities.

I could have gone on. But then again there is tomorrow morning and I promise to be better prepared.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

October 15, 2009--Julie, Julia, and Nina

I’m a reader. Have been for decades. Nothing gives me more pleasure than when curled up with a book and nothing gives me more anxiety than being on the road with nothing to read. I was more careful to pack a couple of books for our current trip to Florida than a bathing suit.

I like to think I’m a serious reader. This time I have with me Richard Russo’s Risk Pool, his second novel, and Richard Ford’s book of three novellas, Women With Men. Though I’m reading all the time I’m intentionally a slow reader. If Russo or Ford or Philip Roth spent a year or more working on a novel, and there is much to savor and think about, I want to give it my best attention.

Thus, you can only imagine what I thought when I read about Nina Sankovitch of Westport, Connecticut who is almost through a year of reading a book a day, writing a daily review, and posting them on her blog, I’ll give you a hint--nothing good.

I enjoyed the recent film, Julie & Julia, about Julie Powell’s successful attempt to cook her way through all the recipes in Julia Child’s Mastering the Art of French Cooking (524 in 365 days) and blogging about it. But serious, books and cooking? A recipe or more a day, fine; but a book a day? Snob that I am . . . not my taste.

But then, guided by an article about Ms. Sankovitch in the New York Times (linked below) I looked at her blog and was frankly surprised to discover that her book list put mine a bit to shame. Unlike Nina, I haven’t recently been reading all that much Thomas Pynchon or W. G. Sebald. But when I saw the ground rules she set for herself, it gave me a bit of personal solace—to get the job done each day she opts to read short books—rarely any even 300 pages long. And she does throw in a decent number of gothic mysteries. Pages turners such as the very lengthy 560 page Revelation by C. J. Sansom. Far from my cup of tea.

So I turned to a few sample reviews, expecting, to be quite honest, that they would resemble the kinds of book reviews I was required to churn out in public school—long on plot summaries and very short on analysis. Thus, the inestimable value of Classic Comics and Cliff Notes. It’s a miracle I read any books at all after that stultifying experience.

But Ms. Sankovitch surprised me again. Yes, the Roth she read and wrote about, Indignation, is not only short (233 pages) but is far from his best or most demanding. As the New York Times reviewer Michiko Kukutani rightly in my view concluded, “In the end this little novel possesses neither the ambition nor the scope of the author’s big postwar trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain).”

She writes well and appreciatively:

The characters and the plot defy reader expectations, twisting along the narrative path and opening us to the wonder of life -- it is not what we expect! -- and so making the ending that much more heartbreaking. Knowing the outline of what is coming (Marcus tells us early on) cannot prepare us: the ending hits like a hammer to the heart.

And when she tells us, charmingly yet profoundly, what this all means to her, I am thinking less about soufflés and pressed duck than, well, why I read:

I've learned so much from all the books I've read and I need more. Both personally and in the world at large, I feel a little lost; what is my purpose in life, what is my place in the community, where is our country, the world, heading? And does any of this matter? Of course it does. Can I make a difference in how I live my own life, how I raise my children, mark my ballot, drive my car, heat my house, treat my neighbors? None of the issues underlying these questions are new: the themes of identity and responsibility and culpability and accountability have been debated and explored and examined in the great novels.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

October 14, 2009--Heading South

To visit my mother. Blogging will resume tomorrow.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

October 13, 2009--Insurance Fraud

For months the health insurance industry offered support for various efforts to expand coverage. CEOs of the major providers stood at Barack Obama’s side, nodding their heads in apparent agreement as the president called for reform.

All along I suspected that they must have made a deal with the administration: in spite of the rhetoric by Obama and his representatives that reform would lead to lower costs to the insured I assumed that if the kind of reform these executives were supporting was ever approved by Congress and signed off on by the president there would be more money, more profit in it for them. After all they are publicly owned companies and there was no way they would agree to anything that would negatively affect their bottom lines. Their Wall Street investors wouldn’t sit still for that.

Since I have been inclined to trust the Obama administration about this, I assumed the extra profits that would flow to the health insurance companies, eliciting their support, would come from the tens of millions of new customers they would sign up if reform were ever approved. Especially all the younger, low-risk people who would be required to buy insurance who currently do not have any. Insurers make more money from them since they pay premiums but get sick much less often than older folks.

But then just yesterday, the day before the Senate Finance Committee is set to vote on the so-called Baucus bill, the one many concede is most likely to include the core of what is likely to ultimately be approved by both houses of Congress, the medical insurance industry came out with a report sharply critical of the Baucus plan. Claiming, listen to this carefully, that if approved it would dramatically raise the cost of insurance premiums for all Americans. And thus, they now no longer support it.

Here is the opening sentence of the New York Times article about this (full piece linked below):

“Obama administration officials and Congressional Democrats fired back on Monday at a new insurance industry report that said premiums would climb sharply with the passage of comprehensive health legislation.”

Putting aside the suspicious timing of the report and the fact that the insurance companies themselves paid for it, why would anyone without political motives believe a word it contains?

One could pore through the more than 1,000 pages of the Baucus bill or the full report of the independent Congressional Budget Office, which says that the bill would be budget neutral, actually saving taxpayers more than $80 billion over ten years, in an attempt to figure this all out--neither I nor I suspect you are inclined to do this—but if one were to apply just common sense to the new insurance industry report how likely is it that any for-profit business would criticize anything that would bring them more profits?

If it were true that health insurance premiums would go up an additional 18 percent, as claimed, for families because of comprehensive reform wouldn’t that by definition mean that income and profits for the insurers would also go up?

When was the last time any business just passed along rising costs? Isn’t it routine, when this happens, for them to see this as an opportunity to make more money?

So what’s wrong with this picture—without a public option (and the Baucus bill does not include one) all low-risk new policy holders would have to pay cash (with or without subsidies) for their insurance on the open market, which would mean lots of new profits for companies; while all others would see the cost of their policies rise faster and higher than if there were no reforms, also good for the insurance companies’ bottom line.

Why then are they now opposed to comprehensive reform? Again applying just common sense, it must be because they must have just figured out that even the Baucus tepid version of health reform is actually a good deal for citizens and a bad one for insurers.

This to me then means that I should probably be feeling better about the Baucus plan than up to now I have been.

In other words, if they’re again’ it, I’m for it.

Monday, October 12, 2009

October 12, 2009--Columbus Day

Though I will not be parading today neither will I be blogging. I will return tomorrow.

Friday, October 09, 2009

October 9, 2009--Party of "No"

During the summer Republicans railed against the Democrats' emerging health care reform legislation by calling it a step toward not only the socialization of medical care but also part of the Obama secret agenda to turn American Capitalism into full bore Socialism.

When it was pointed out to some of their most fervent followers--senior citizens on federally-run Medicare who were the preponderant participants at so-called town meetings--that they were being manipulated into opposing something they were already enjoying the talking points changed.

After that line of attack failed to work, Republicans raged that it was going to be a trillion-dollar tax increase that would add at least that much to the deficit. They, of course, failed to mention that more than three-quarters of the current federal budget deficit was run up when Republicans were in charge of Congress and the White House--from the Reagan years through the second Bush administration.

Wait, they gleefully said, until the politically independent Congressional Budget Office (CBO) gets its hands on the current Baucus version of health care reform, the one apparently most favored by Barack Obama. The CBO would expose it for what it is--a budget-buster that will be paid for by tax increases with at least a trillion dollars added to our already swollen national deficit.

Well, last night the CBO released its anaylsis of the Baucus plan--it would "cost" $829 billion over ten years but all of it would be paid for. Not only wouldn't it add one dime to the deficit, the CBO went on to say, but over that same ten year period it would cut the deficit by $81 billion.

So what will Republicans say about that? They looked forward to the CBO asserting that Obama's health care plan would contribute to bankrupting us, but here there is this plan that will cover 94 percent of Americans (not enough from my perspective) and not only not cost anything but actually save a lot of money.

Senate Minority Leader, the dyspeptic Mitch McConnell gave us a preview of coming attractions--according to the linked report in the New York Times, he is saying that the Baucus bill is not the real Democratic bill. That one is being worked on in secret, it will be 1,000 pages long, and when it is revealed it will be shown to cost a full trillion and will all be paid for by new taxes. I am not making this up.

He, of course, is implying that he and his fellow Republicans have a actual reform package that the Democrats are refusing to consider. That it will not raise any taxes at all and will cover all Americans.

Maybe the Democrats in Congress are not interested in considering it, but I would sure like to see it since it sounds so good.

It may be no surprise, though, that no such Republican plan exists. I have been searching for it but can't find it. And thus I can only conclude that Mitch and his colleagues are in fact not serious about proposing an alternative and that they are interested in only two things--saying "no" to any reform plan (including their own) and doing whatever they can to bring down Obama by blindly opposing literally everything he wants to accomplish--from health care reform to securing the Olympic games for the United States.

If McConnell were serious this time--saying that the Baucus bill is a stalking horse and that the real one is being hidden from view, he is I think implying that the Baucus bill is a pretty good one. I come to this conclusion since he is not longer trashing it but turning Republican fire on the one allegedly being concocted in private.

I have a solution for the good senator from Kentucky--come out in favor of the Baucus bill, get his 39 other Republican senators to support it and then get at least 20 Democratic senators to go along with this bipartisan approach. That should be easy to do. Then with those 60 GOP and Democratic votes pass it. That would doom the socialistic bill supposedly being concocted in secret and we would have a pretty good health care reform bill.

But I suggest not holding your breath. Because the only thing most Republicans want to do in addition to "breaking" Obama is nothing.

Wednesday, October 07, 2009

October 7, 2009--My President

Offline I have been hearing from friends that my recent questions, my criticism of President Barack Obama is not helpful. That it is playing into the hands of his bigoted and ideological opponents who only care about his failing; who, in the words of Republican South Carolina Senator Jim DeMint want to “break” him. At a time when they are lying about him, calling him outrageous names, even threatening his life, it is our responsibility to show support for him.

I do continue to support him as I feel I have supported every president during my adult lifetime. Even those with whom I had fundamental disagreements. I came to feel that George W. Bush was the worst president in at least 100 years; but for the most part I supported his education policies and his leadership after 9/11, including the overthrow of the Taliban in Afghanistan, though not his economic policies and ruinous war in Iraq.

Having said this, my support for President Obama continues to be more than the support I, as an American, have offered to all of my, our presidents. I was enthusiastic about his candidacy, did all I could to help him get elected, have been inspired and moved by his vision and soaring words, and continue to endorse almost all of his agenda.

But I am worried that he has thus far not shown the forceful leadership required to get important things done (on health care as one huge example) and has appeared to waffle and be indecisive about even larger issues such as what to do about our failing efforts in Afghanistan and more significantly, Pakistan. Even today, a report in the New York Times (linked below) about his meeting yesterday afternoon with congressional leaders about Afghanistan indicates that he is looking for “a middle ground.”

Not the right and best course of action but some policy in the middle, triangulating between those who want to see us begin to embrace the reality of the situation—for thousands of years outsiders have not been able to defeat or occupy Afghanistan—and begin to extract ourselves and those views, such as his own generals, who are calling for further escalation.

Seeking the middle ground should not be his goal. Or that of a courageous president who came into office promising change. Lyndon Johnson was always attempting to juggle the urgings of his generals in Vietnam for ever more troops with the swelling anti-war sentiments of the people. And we know the disaster to which that straddle led. Defeat and humiliation. From which we still have not recovered. John McCain and his hawkish ilk serve as a case in point.

How, some of my friends are saying to me, can you be so critical of Obama when he has been in office for fewer than nine months? I say that for his most critical domestic policies—not just health care but also the economy, education, the environment, and financial industry regulation—he in effect has just three months remaining before everything grinds to a further halt and the midterm election campaigns begin to suck up all the political and media oxygen. Even now, on half the radio and TV talk shows, it’s all about 2010 and the presidential contest of 2012. How many seats in Congress will the Democrats lose? Will General Petraeus run for president? What about Sarah Palin’s chances? And it is disturbing to hear that Obama’s closest advisors—his Chicago inner circle—are already discounting the likely Democratic loses in 2010 and focusing on how to get him elected to a second term. All after only eight and half months in office with very little of his agenda accomplished.

And then in whispers some of my friends are saying, “He is our first black president and shouldn’t we thus be extra careful about criticizing him?”

I, not in a whisper say, “This is of course a great thing. It shows that Americans are capable of transcending our past. But I care more about his being an effective president than an African-American president.”

And thus I will continue to do what I can to hold him to the same high standards he has set for himself. Looking for real evidence of not just change we can believe in—that was great for campaigning—but by expecting him to bring about the changes we require if we are to survive and once again thrive.

Tuesday, October 06, 2009

October 6, 2009--Obama At Balthazar

Balthazar is still one of downtown’s most popular restaurants. When it opened about 12 years ago it was the hottest place in town. Reservations for all but those on the VIP list were almost impossible to obtain. Everyone who was everyone flocked to It-restaurateur Keith McNally’s latest. Not only was it a scene where the beautiful people came to be seen but the food was (and is) terrific and fairly priced.

So when Balthazar began to serve continental breakfast a year or so after it opened, Rona and I began to go there for our morning coffee and to meet with a growing group of “regulars” who quickly became good friends. It’s a terrific place—still is—with lots of semi-authentic French bistro atmosphere and savory fare.

Caffeinated conversations in the morning ranged widely from the latest novels and movies and plays to where to get the best pasta. And of course always politics, politics, politics. It was the last year of the Clinton administration and we debated how much Al Gore should or shouldn’t use Clinton in his own run for the presidency, and then we had to endure eight years of George Bush. I say “endure” because Balth is a decidedly liberal place. In fact, during the nearly 10 years we have been going there for coffee and croissants, I can recall only one Republican ever taking us on. A twenty-something waiter named Steve from New Jersey who almost wound up voting for Barack Obama. Sarah Palin’s being on the ballot made it difficult for him to vote for McCain. In other words, he was Balthazar’s kind of Republican.

So to have one of our smartest and closest friends show up yesterday morning and declare, loud enough for all nearby to hear, that she is “finished” with Obama was to say the least jarring to the half-awake.

“I’ve had it with this bipartisan business. We need a president, not the editor of the Harvard Law Review. For that he was fine. To be open to a diversity of opinions. We’re not only talking health care and the economy but also whether or not to turn Afghanistan into another Vietnam, and I don’t think he’s capable of standing up to the generals who are calling for escalation. Harry Truman would have fired that McCrystal who the other day in London in public made a speech about how it would be defeatist not to send in another 40,000 American soldiers. That was outrageous.” Others at nearby tables, not looking up from the New York Timeses or Guardians or Le Figaros were nodding their heads in agreement

“Not that I totally disagree with you,” I piped up, “but isn’t it a little early to come to this conclusion? After all he’s been president for less than nine months. These are complicated issues and they take time to think through and get Congress to act on. It’s not just up to him to pass health care legislation, and after eight years in Afghanistan he can’t just have us pick up and leave. Or, for that matter, expand our efforts.”

“You sound just like him. Like a member of the Law Review or worse a professor.”

“Touché. But isn’t it a good thing to try to work in a bipartisan way?”

“Initially, yes. He was, and I emphasize was, he was right to try to do that. But within weeks it was clear that the Republicans were going to do everything they could not only to disagree and defeat him but to break him. You heard that Senator DeMint say that very thing didn’t you?” I acknowledged that I had. “Well, at that point, if he hadn’t figured out what they were up to, he should have realized that they were out to destroy him and his presidency and he should have unleashed Rahm Emanuel. If he himself was incapable of fighting back. Or going for their jugulars.”

“I think it’s more complicated than that. Lyndon Johnson could do that because he had the goods on half the members of Congress—who they were sleeping with and whether it was with women or young boys. He could use that—and I’ll grant you he did—to twist arms and at least early in his presidency get his way.”

“Fair point. But we are again in a crisis and we again need forceful action. Obama and his people call it a recession; I call it a depression. And so, since he’s a student of history he should have learned from Roosevelt’s example and been much more aggressive.”

“Well, isn’t he still in the process of working with Congress on his legislative agenda? I mean, he has problems within his own party when it comes to health care. Some of the Democrats in the Senate are worried about their own reelection chances.”

“Isn’t that pathetic. They care about their own reelection than the good of the country. But for the first three or four months Obama was so popular that if he had really gone after them, threatening them if he needed to, I think he would have been able to push things along and would have seen his approval ratings go through the roof. But he frittered that away by being passive and indecisive. For example, why did he say back in March, after being in office just two months, that Afghanistan was a ‘war of necessity’ and that we had to expand our efforts there? Didn’t he know anything about the danger of quagmires? I’ll tell you why. It’s because he was trying to appear tough and decisive. About this he was forceful. About the economy and health care he just made speeches. Good speeches yes. But while he was carefully crafting his words both the Republicans and his own Democrats in Congress were doing him in, and now he has even lost a lot of his support among the public. At this point why would anyone in Congress feel threatened by him? Quite the contrary—they know that they can roll him. He’s so eager to be nice and liked that he can’t scare even a freshman congressman. Or pressure anyone to vote one way or the other.”

“I think you’re right about his wanting not to appear threatening and to be liked. This is probably the way he made it though Columbia and especially Harvard Law School. As a biracial person he opted to be black but not an angry, militant version of a black man. I understand that; and you may be right, it has probably caused him to be too cautious, too equivocating.”

“Minimally, I like to see him express some understanding about why people are feeling so frustrated and angry. Why that slimy Glen Beck has become so popular. There is a Populist wave out there in the country but Obama seems oblivious to it. I emphasize ‘seems’ because I’m sure, smart and aware as he is, that it exists. But he doesn’t appear able to empathize with it. Make fun of him as you will, but when Bill Clinton said ‘I feel your pain’ a lot of people believed him. At a minimum I’d like to see Obama say, believably, that ‘I feel your frustration and anger. I too am frustrated and angry.’ And he needs to not only say the words but act in ways that show his frustration and anger.”

“I agree with this as well,” I said, surprising myself. “He thus far is unable to do this. I’m sure that he understands things but he appears emotionally aloof and above the fray. Out of touch with the emotions sweeping the country.”

“To tell you the truth I’m not so sure that he understands this. If he did he would get rid of that friggin teleprompter—he can hardly utter one sentence about anything without using it—and speak to us from his heart.”

There was more head nodding at nearby tables. People by then had put down their newspapers. “At the moment I’m feeling very sorry that Hillary didn’t get elected with him as vice president. She would have busted a few chops and he could have spent eight years learning how to do things. I know she’s a hawk, but it is looking to me that he too will turn out to be one. She, at least, would by now have gotten a few things accomplished. The folks on Saturday Night Live got it right the other night—he’s done nothing.”

I had no rejoinder. “One more thing,” she said, “which I know I not politically correct it that it’s great that we elected a black man. It really is. But what we need is not a black president but an effective one.”

I again had nothing to say. But I did know that if Obama is losing his Balthazar supporters he’s in big trouble.

And if you read Bob Herbert’s column in today’s New York Times (linked below), you’ll see that some of his leading public supporters are coming to the same conclusion.

Monday, October 05, 2009

October 5, 2009--Culture Rage

Many in the media may have declared the end of the Culture War but the rage lingers on.

Cases in point—the reactions to the reactions among many of the Hollywood elite after Roman Polanski’s detention and possible extradition for his confessed rape of a 13-year-old child and the outrage at the snickering behavior by sophisticates after David Letterman’s jokey admission that he has had sexual relations with members of his staff.

Fellow directors Martin Scorsese, Ethan Coen, Pedro Almodóvor, and that paragon of propriety Woody Allen, who ran off with an eventually married his stepdaughter, leapt to Polanski’s defense, claiming either that the rape occurred so long ago (in 1977) that he had already “suffered enough” or, since he is such a great artist he should be forgiven his transgressions. Great artists, you see, should be allowed to live by their own moral code unlike the rest of us schleppers.

But when the likes of that great jurist Whoopi Goldberg said he should be allowed to run free because, in her words, “I do not believe it was rape-rape,” the outrage at this casual permissiveness was too much for just-plain-folks to handle. There has been such a backlash against these Hollywood and New York City types that even Whoopi, who prides herself on her tell-it-like-it-is integrity, has been backing off. Perhaps ever mindful of who her View viewers are. Concern about ratings and your paycheck have a way of getting people such as Woopi to rethink their strongly held beliefs.

If you want to judge for yourself if it was or wasn’t rape-rape, I encourage you, I urge you to read the transcript of the 13-year-old girl’s 1977 testimony that is linked below. Especially the second part where she offers a graphic and totally believable account of her night with Polanski at Jack Nicholson’s house. Yes, at his house on Mulholland Drive. Though she has since asked that Roman Polanski no longer be prosecuted, her story of Polansk’is creepy seduction and rape, over her protests, is more chilling than any scene from his Rosemary’s Baby.

And on the subject of his films, if there is a case to be made (and there isn’t) that artists should be permitted to follow their own moral compass and be forgiven their felonious behavior because great artists are different than you and I and are essential to the propagation of the culture that every society requires, let us remind ourselves that Polanski is far from a great artist. Yes, his early Knife In the Water is a distinguished film, but Rosemary’s Baby? Repulsion? Even his Academy Award winning Chinatown? Good films they are. Well done pieces of entertainment for certain, but to call any of them art, to want to excuse him from raping a 13 year-old because of this oeuvre, is a sorry state of affairs.

We’re not talking the Sistine Chapel. Or the Jupiter Sympathy. And even if we were, the rage surrounding the Polanski’s sordid affair is not only understandable but also justified.

As is the reaction to Letterman’s very clever monologue the other night when he not only told about the extortion plot he foiled but also acknowledged, to his audience’s laughter and applause, that he had had his way with (many?) female members of his staff. But not to worry, we were assured the next day, his production company, Worldwide Pants (oh, how clever a name), does not have sexual harassment rules that forbid such behavior. It might be that in your or my company or organization we can’t, appropriately, even make an off-color joke in the presence of co-workers, great men such as Dave are allowed to live by a different set of rules. Wouldn’t it be a shame, we are being led to believe, if they had to behave like the rest of us. They are so special, so gifted that all should be forgiven them. Talented boys, after all, will be boys; and we shouldn’t get in the way of their creativity.

Ironically, many progressives who have been in the forefront of insisting on the establishment and strict enforcement of sexual harassment laws and rules are among those most amused by Letterman’s clever management of the situation. “Wouldn’t it be good if our politicians handled their own missteps as openly and cleverly,” I have heard some say. “Just get it out there and it will become a 24-hour story. The news cycle will move on.”

So it is no wonder that folks living between the coasts are in a rage. So much so that it is spilling over into other areas, including into the political arena where there is growing frustration and anger about some of Barack Obama’s alleged behavior. Much of it simply made up by ideologues and bigots—why is he going out for dates with his wife or taking any vacation time when so many are unemployed are among the most benign of the criticisms. They have conveniently forgotten that George Bush spent fully one-third of the days of his presidency clearing brush and riding his trail bike at his ranch in Crawford, Texas. But he at least was pretending to be one of us.

But these Obama-haters got so tangled up in the rage on Friday that they literally cheered when America, sorry, Chicago, did not get to host the 2016 Olympics. These otherwise super-patriots, as they delighted in Obama’s alleged failure, forgot for the moment that they are Americans and that their country lost the games. And they even forgot one of their cherished country’s most venerable verities—that it’s not just about winning and losing but how well you play the game. But in our current Era of Rage anything an Obama touches is by definition vilified and despised.

Sad and dangerous but he Polanskis and Letteremans and their supporters aren’t helping.

Friday, October 02, 2009

October 2, 2009--No Degrees of Separation

Especially in the Middle East all politics is both local and interconnected. There are no degrees of separation. And nothing is fixed in place. Everything is negotiable. Like how much to pay for a Persian rug in a souk in the Casbah.

With the US and Iran right now in Geneva for the first time in decades engaged in hopefully substantive discussions, leaders of other Arab nations are not only anxious and conflicted about a possible wide range of outcomes—from some sort of understanding to the unleashing of Israel to take out Iran’s nuclear facilities—but they are also struggling to figure out how to reconfigure their own foreign and regional policies and relationships based on whatever new calculus between Iran and the West might emerge.

For example, in an incisive report in yesterday’s New York Times (linked below), in a place such as small but oil-rich Bahrain—a country few of us could easily locate on the map and is rarely in the headlines-- if the Iranians, in spite of their denials, develop nuclear weapons, how will Bahrainians react? They are not likely to start a weapons program of their own though they would certainly feel threatened by Iran. They might though, in response, ask nuclear powers such as the United States to place nuclear weapons in their country as a form of deterrence. All that would be required, if the US were to agree, would be for us to ship a few nukes to our already-existing naval base in Manama, Bahrain’s capital.

In the words of Abdul Khaleq Abdulah, a professor of political science at United Arab Emirates University, “It’s a whole new ballgame. Iran is forcing everyone in the region into an arms race.”

And in the spirit that the reality of nuclear can make strange bedfellows, mainly off the record of course, many autocratic Arab regimes in the Gulf are hoping that Israel acts to remove Iran’s uranium enrichment plants. The editor of the pan-Arab newspaper Al Quds Al Arabi, Abdel-Beri Atwan, wrote that based on Iran’s recently revealed new nuclear capacities, “the Arab regimes, and the Gulf ones in particular, will find themselves part of a new alliance against Iran alongside Israel.” (Emphasis added.) And an increasing number of regional policy experts are actually openly calling for either the US or Israel to take military action. The head of a well-regarded research center in Dubai said recently that it would be good if the West—or Israel—bombed Iran rather then letting them produce nuclear weapons.

In Saudi Arabia there is emerging some of the same kind of thinking. Abdulaziz Sager, a wealthy businessman and former diplomat says that “The region can live with a limited retaliation from Israel better than living with a permanent nuclear deterrent [in Iran]. I favor getting the job done now instead of living with a nuclear hegemony in the region that Iran would like to impose.”

Ironically, the likelihood that Iran is working on weaponizing nuclear materials—and they already have missiles supplied by Russia to deliver warheads if and when they develop them—it appears that Saudi and Egyptian officials are more seriously than in the past seeking ways to reconcile their differences with Syria so as to present a united front against Iranian ambitions. And various Gulf states that have important trade relationships with Russia and China are pressing them to end their support for Iran. The Saudis, in another example, have told the Russians that if they reduce their weapons trade with Iran—to Russia, among other things, an important source of hard currency—the Saudis would agree to buy many billions of dollars of Russian armaments. To wean the Russians away from their interdependence with Saudi Arabia’s neighbor and potential enemy. And, to up the ante, the Saudis have indicated that they would work on creating an alliance with other Gulf states to come up with a million visas to allow Chinese citizens to work in the region.

Further, after the recent revelation that Iran may be moving more quickly than thought to develop nuclear weapons, Arab states, which had been worried that President Obama, eager to strike some sort of deal with Iran, might appease them, these leaders are no longer so worried. Their fears about increased threats from Iran have neutralized much of that concern about US actions. In fact, during just the past week, most Arab states have come around to fearing Iran more than any deal the US might strike with them.

As Hossam Zaki, spokesman for Egypt’s Foreign Ministry said the other day, “No one said it was an easy situation.”

Amen to that.

Thursday, October 01, 2009

October 1, 2009--Day Off

Back tomorrow.