Occasional blogging, mostly of the long-form variety.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Asymmetric Inhumanity

What General Lee's feelings were I do not know. As he was a man of much dignity, with an impassable face, it was impossible to say whether he felt inwardly glad that the end had finally come, or felt sad over the result, and was too manly to show it. Whatever his feelings, they were entirely concealed from my observation; but my own feelings, which had been quite jubilant on the receipt of his letter [proposing negotiations], were sad and depressed. I felt like anything rather than rejoicing at the downfall of a foe who had fought so long and valiantly, and had suffered so much for a cause, though that cause was, I believe, one of the worst for which a people ever fought, and one for which there was the least excuse. I do not question, however, the sincerity of the great mass of those who were opposed to us.

- U.S. Grant, describing meeting with Robert E. Lee at Appomattox to end the Civil War, 1865. Emphasis added.

It's Memorial Day, which started as a remembrance of slain Union soldiers, and later became a day to remember all Americans killed in war. Grant's passage remains one of the more memorable descriptions of the American Civil War, and captures some of the futility and pointlessness of most wars.

It's only right to honor those who served and those who are serving. However, Memorial Day and Armistice Day are also for remembering the ugliness of war, working to prevent unnecessary conflicts, and to hasten the ends of wars still raging. Somehow, the war-makers tend to avoid these lessons.

I'm reminded of a passage from novelist and Vietnam vet Tim O'Brien (quoted in a previous post):

A true war story is never moral. It does not instruct, nor encourage virtue, nor suggest models of proper human behavior, nor restrain men from doing the things men have always done. If a story seems moral, do not believe it. If at the end of a war story you feel uplifted, or if you feel that some small bit of rectitude has been salvaged from the larger waste, then you have been made the victim of a very old and terrible lie. There is no rectitude whatsoever. There is no virtue. As a first rule of thumb, therefore, you can tell a true war story by its absolute and uncompromising allegiance to obscenity and evil.

Not all who fought in the American Civil War were noble, nor evil. (Although the abolitionists and the slave-owners hold greatest claim on each trait, respectively.) But war itself is evil, or ugly, and it's dangerous to forget that. It's dangerous, while we're honoring those who deserve it on Memorial Day, to mistakenly ennoble war itself, and forget what war does to human beings – to its victims, its participants, and its perpetrators.

Wikileaks released this video in April 2010. You may have already seen it; if not, be warned that it's graphic. The incident took place in 2007 in Iraq. Even if we posit that the vast majority of those who serve in the Armed Forces for the United States are honorable, things like this happen:

There was much discussion of this at the time it was released, but perhaps the most sobering aspect is how common such killings are in both Iraq and Afghanistan. Whatever good the American military has done, it has unquestionably killed many innocent civilians. The number of those killings have outpaced any good will we ever earned. The most charitable interpretation of this video is that these warriors were once decent human beings, but became desensitized to violence over time, or saw so many of their comrades killed over time they became willing to kill at the slightest perceived risk or provocation.

Last month, Wikileaks released some Guantánamo records, confirming that many prisoners were held for years despite being innocent or being held on the flimsiest of charges. Back in 2006, three inmates at Guantánamo committed suicide. One was set to be released, but didn't know this. The suicides drew this response (emphasis added):

Meanwhile, a top US official appeared to row back from the tough line taken by other officials over the suicides.

At the weekend, one top state department official called them a "good PR move to draw attention", while the camp commander said it was an "act of asymmetric warfare waged against us".

"I wouldn't characterise this as a good PR move," Cully Stimson, US deputy assistance secretary of defence, told the BBC's Today programme, on Monday.

"What I would say is that we are always concerned when someone takes his own life, because as Americans we value life even if it is the life of a violent terrorist captured waging war against our country."

The most charitable interpretation is that the first two quoted officials were once decent men, but their response to the chronic abuses at Guantánamo was to further dehumanize the prisoners, imagining them to be devious masterminds, such that an act of deep human despair became a personal insult and an attack on America. In normal circumstances, they would have investigated and stopped the regime of torture, abuse, and indefinite imprisonment without charges, rather than resort to Orwellian language about suicide being a "PR move" and "asymmetric warfare." They would have worked to alleviate rather than excuse human suffering.

Lastly, drawing from a February 2011 Washington Post article entitled, "Petraeus's comments on coalition attack reportedly offend Karzai government ", there's Jonathan Schwarz' post, How to Burn Children and Live with Yourself" (emphasis his):

KABUL - To the shock of President Hamid Karzai's aides, Gen. David H. Petraeus suggested Sunday...that Afghans caught up in a coalition attack in northeastern Afghanistan might have burned their own children to exaggerate claims of civilian casualties, according to two participants at the meeting...

Karzai's office placed the civilian death toll at 50....

Wahidi, the provincial governor, sent a three-person fact-finding team up the valley to the village of Helgal. They returned with seven injured people, including a woman and a man, both 22 years old, and five boys and girls 16 or younger [with] burns and shrapnel wounds...

"[Petraeus] claimed that in the midst of the [operation] some pro-Taliban parents in contact with a government official decided to create a civilian casualty claim to pressure international forces to cease the [operation]. They burned hands and legs of some of their children and sent them to the hospital," a second participant said...

(The entire short post is well worth reading.)

The most charitable interpretation is that David Petraeus was (or is) a decent man, but in the heat of the moment, angry at his perceived foes, he dehumanized them and imagined them so vile that they would willingly – nay, gleefully – burn their own children to make him, and America – look bad.

There is no question that there are genuinely honorable people serving in the military, and they deserve to be remembered. There is also no question that war is hell, and that even in wars fought for the noblest causes, or planned with best intentions, innocents will die. In unnecessary wars, or unnecessarily-prolonged wars, that's all more starkly the case – or perhaps there's just less pretense. As Americans, there's much we can take pride in, but I feel Memorial Day should have more the feeling of a funeral than a celebration. It's a day to note human folly, and the narcissism of imperialism and hatred. It's a day to remember that, especially in war, our own countrymen are capable of saying and doing truly evil, despicable things – and doing so in our name. It's a day to remember the danger of believing in asymmetric humanity – the lie that other humans are truly lesser beings, and do not value life or love their children. Most of all, it's a day to remember that we don't have to repeat the same terrible mistakes over and over and over again.

(See also "Fuck War" by Atrios [via], plus Daniel Larison and Andrew Bacevich. This post is part of The War Series.)

Thursday, May 19, 2011

k.d. lang – "Habit of Mind"

Here's the entire set.

Eclectic Jukebox

Killer Sheep

Did you hear the one about the Beltway's killer sheep? Well:

The Gingrich camp thinks the punditocracy’s got it all wrong. When asked by The Huffington Post about media coverage this past week, Gingrich press secretary Rick Tyler fired off a response blasting the political and media elite.

“The literati sent out their minions to do their bidding,” Tyler wrote. “Washington cannot tolerate threats from outsiders who might disrupt their comfortable world. The firefight started when the cowardly sensed weakness. They fired timidly at first, then the sheep not wanting to be dropped from the establishment’s cocktail party invite list unloaded their entire clip, firing without taking aim their distortions and falsehoods. Now they are left exposed by their bylines and handles. But surely they had killed him off. This is the way it always worked. A lesser person could not have survived the first few minutes of the onslaught. But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead those who won’t be intimated by the political elite and are ready to take on the challenges America faces.”

Yes, the awkward grammar and casting Gingrich as Rambo are both impressive, but damn, there's a metaphor for ya: Gun-toting, cocktail-swigging sheep.

It's hard to improve on Paul Krugman's take, "The Fascist Octopus, Having Sung Its Swan Song, Needs to Retire":

Orwell wept. His famous examples of careless writing — the fascist octopus has sung its swan song, the jackboot has been thrown into the melting pot — must exit the stage in the face of Newt Gingrich’s press secretary.

As Krugman goes on to note, Gingrich has always been a clown, but the media hasn't bothered to notice. If there's any doubt, read through the Mother Jones article, "Newt in His Own Words: 33 Years of Bomb-Throwing." It's because of people like Newt that there's a Godwin's Law. He can't go more than a few months without attacking his latest target with an inaccurate, irresponsible Nazi analogy.

Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber asks, "What is it that the right has against sheep?" and I share the same question. He compiles a few anti-sheep links (including Carly Fiorina's infamous, Pythonesque Demon Sheep ad), and updates the post with a commenter's villanelle. If there's one thing fascist octopi and killer sheep fear, it's whimsical poetry.

Update: John Lithgow gives a dramatic reading of the press release on The Colbert Report:


Thursday, May 12, 2011

Marvin Gaye - "Yesterday"

PBS' American Masters recently re-broadcasted a good 2008 installment on the amazing, tragic Marvin Gaye. The show ended with this cover, which I don't remember hearing before. Marvin Gaye has extraordinary vocal range and remarkably supple technique, but it's the sheer soul he brings to some tracks that's so transfixing.

Eclectic Jukebox

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The People's Budget

The Congressional Progressive Caucus has produced The People's Budget, a genuinely smart and responsible way to address fiscal and economic issues in America. It's refreshing to read after all the lavish Beltway praise heaped on Republican Paul Ryan's fraudulent, cruel budget built of supply-side fairy dust... not to mention thirty-some years of conservative fiscal irresponsibility and recklessness as official Republican policy.

Follow the link, and you can read a budget overview and a technical analysis.

The CPC proposal:

• Eliminates the deficits and creates a surplus by 2021
• Puts America back to work with a “Make it in America” jobs program
• Protects the social safety net
• Ends the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq
• Is FAIR (Fixing America’s Inequality Responsibly)

What the proposal accomplishes:

• Primary budget balance by 2014.
• Budget surplus by 2021.
• Reduces public debt as a share of GDP to 64.1% by 2021, down 16.5 percentage points from a baseline fully adjusted for both the doc fix and the AMT patch.
• Reduces deficits by $5.6 trillion over 2012-21, relative to this adjusted baseline.
• Outlays equal to 22.2% of GDP and revenue equal 22.3% of GDP by 2021.

Paul Krugman writes:

I’ve been remiss in not calling attention to the budget proposal from the Congressional Progressive Caucus. It’s not going to happen — but then neither is the Ryan plan. And unlike the Ryan plan, it actually makes sense.

The CPC plan essentially balances the budget through higher taxes and defense cuts, plus some tougher bargaining by Medicare (and a public option to reduce the costs of the Affordable Care Act). The proposed tax hikes would fall mainly on higher incomes, although not just on the top 2%: super-brackets for very high incomes, elimination of deductions, taxation of capital income as ordinary income, and — the part that would be most controversial — raising the cap on payroll taxes.

None of this is economically outlandish. Marginal tax rates on high incomes would rise substantially — enough to make even liberal economists slightly uncomfortable — but the historical evidence suggests that the incentive effects wouldn’t be too severe. Overall taxes as a share of GDP aren’t given, but they would clearly remain well below European levels.

It’s worth pointing out that if you want to balance the budget in 10 years, you pretty much must do it largely by cutting defense and raising taxes; you can’t make huge cuts in the rest of the budget without inflicting extreme pain on millions of Americans. So the CPC plan is actually much more of a real response to the deficit worriers than all the nonsense we’re hearing from the right. What it doesn’t do is address the long-run health cost issue, which is essential looking beyond the next decade. But as a medium-term proposal, it’s quite sensible.

My guess, in fact, is that in the end we’ll do something along these lines, although probably with more of the tax burden falling on the middle class.

So why does this plan get no attention, while the cruel fantasies of the right get headlines? I’ll leave that as a question for readers.

I linked some earlier liberal proposals in a December post that centered on a cool (if limited) interactive feature from New York Times that allowed readers to balance the budget. The main obstacle to fiscal sanity is political will. The Republicans are entirely plutocratic and corrupt, and the Democrats are partially so. It's crazy that the Ryan budget can be treated as "serious," and I wish liberal plans were given much more attention – because they work and typically benefit everybody, not just the rich and powerful. Responsible governance – what a radical concept!

Update: Blogger was down for a while, and this post was taken off-line, which also erased the comments on the post.

Tuesday, May 03, 2011


One of the biggest problems with the America media is their veneration of civility and surface politeness, paired with a dismissal of honesty and accuracy. The dynamics are precisely reversed from how they should be: Media figures generally won't call out liars – but will scold the people who dare to call the liars out as terribly rude.

Rick Perlstein's written a few good pieces on this theme (a popular one in the liberal blogosphere), but a new article for Mother Jones may be his best to date on it, "Inside the GOP's Fact-Free Nation." A tag line below says: "From Nixon's plumbers to James O'Keefe's video smears: How political lying became normal." Here's a taste:

It takes two things to make a political lie work: a powerful person or institution willing to utter it, and another set of powerful institutions to amplify it. The former has always been with us: Kings, corporate executives, politicians, and ideologues from both sides of the aisle have been entirely willing to bend the truth when they felt it necessary or convenient. So why does it seem as if we're living in a time of overwhelmingly brazen deception? What's changed?

Today's marquee fibs almost always evolve the same way: A tree falls in the forest—say, the claim that Saddam Hussein has "weapons of mass destruction," or that Barack Obama has an infernal scheme to parade our nation's senior citizens before death panels. But then a network of media enablers helps it to make a sound—until enough people believe the untruth to make the lie an operative part of our political discourse...

There evolved a new media definition of civility that privileged "balance" over truth-telling—even when one side was lying...

The protective bubble of the "civility" mandate also seems to extend to the propagandists whose absurdly doctored stories and videos continue to fool the mainstream media. From blogger Pamela Geller, originator of the "Ground Zero mosque" falsehood, to Andrew Breitbart's video attack on Shirley Sherrod—who lost her job after her anti-discrimination speech was deceptively edited to make her sound like a racist—to James O'Keefe's fraudulent sting against National Public Radio, right-wing ideologues "lie without consequence," as a desperate Vincent Foster put it in his suicide note nearly two decades ago. But they only succeed because they are amplified by "balanced" outlets that frame each smear as just another he-said-she-said "controversy."

Do read the rest. While lying isn't limited to one party, Perlstein tracks how it became endemic to the Republicans Party, and points out the key role Reagan played in creating the current dysfunctional dynamic.