Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Everything you need to know about Social Security

... in 2 and a half minutes.

We know Republicans want to steal from us to give to the rich. That's what they do. This fall, ask Democrats what they are doing to prevent the theft.

Are we becoming Pakistan?

In 2008, retired generals and admirals lined up with candidate Obama.

On an email list where folks are discussing how to encourage our rulers to wind down their farflung wars and stop starting new ones, somebody mused the other day:

General Petreaus is essentially playing this administration like a fiddle with the "surge" in Afghanistan and our President is basically hapless to rein him in. ...The situation reminded me of how in Pakistan it's the military who has the upper hand in terms of "public confidence" and often openly undermine their civilian leaders.

Am I making too much out of this? The similarity sadly seems to be kind of striking.

When empires are declining, losing their grip, historically their generals have often stepped in to prop up and then take over inept central governments -- think Rome, the Ottoman Turks, etc. After all, the army bled for the empire; if the civilians can't run it properly, don't the generals almost have a duty to push those dithering politicians into a back seat? Or so many come to believe. We shouldn't think this is entirely a phenomenon of the distant past among "less modern" people -- it nearly happened in France in the late 1950s.

The epic muddle that is the Afghanistan war is raising these question in this country among "National Security" thinkers. (Anyone else remember a time when that label was confined to obscure Washington bureaucrats, spooks and a few slightly scary professors?) They are concerned. Bernard Finel (Georgetown University plus thinktanks) writes:

We are witnessing dysfunction[al] civil-military relations in the United States today and that dysfunction is a major reason for our incoherent and unrealistic approach to Afghanistan.

He spells this out:

I don't know if Obama is using Petraeus to float trial balloons, or if Obama has decided -- like Bush before him -- that selling an unpopular war requires a man in uniform. Regardless, there is a broader, and troubling pattern.

It isn't just Petraeus and McChrystal. It is also a matter of Michael Hayden's role as NSA director in developing and implementing an unlawful domestic surveillance program. It is the willingness of military leaders to be complicit in criminal conduct against detainees. It is the increasing role of former military officers in various leadership positions in government.

Even as the percentage of the population with military experience shrinks, the policy influence of serving and retired general officers is extremely high. Is this better than just appointing a president’s cronies or donors to important national security and foreign policy decisions? Maybe. Let's at least have a discussion about it. But claiming that the line between policy and military leadership is as strong as in the past is, I think, not accurate. Old soldiers are not just fading away anymore, they are instead continuing their careers in sensitive and senior policy positions. Is that healthy?

Finally, I am not sure Obama is, in fact, wholly in charge on Afghanistan. ...

Scary, huh? Jason Fritz who writes as "Gunslinger" at the "national security" blog InkSpots thinks he understands why the Afghanistan muddle is almost pushing the generals into action.

U.S. military doctrine demands that leaders act based on their best interpretation of their commander's intent. If that intent is nebulous enough, subordinate leaders have wide flexibility of action. And that's where we've come to in Afghanistan.

Our Afghan strategy, if you could call it such, is horribly vague to the point of uselessness, which I see has a failure in leadership at the highest levels here in DC. Any general, with 30-plus years of leadership experience, will naturally fill that void with how he best interprets his commander's intent. In this case it seems to simply mean: win in Afghanistan. So I think that is what Generals McChrystal and Petraeus were and are attempting to do. I don't see this as a power grab by the generals and I don't necessarily see the President as trying to use them to sell the war. Nor do I see it as a crisis - yet. But the civilians aren't providing the leadership they should and the generals are filling that void as their nature dictates they should.

Those poor military leaders just can't help themselves -- they just have to take over, don't they? It's what they were trained to do.

Viewed from lower military ranks, these general officers pushing their Afghanistan agendas don't appear quite so innocent. Did you hear about the reserve colonel, a vet of both Iraq and Afghanistan, who got bounced out of Kabul for complaining about the command staff's addiction to meaningless PowerPoint presentations? He's not so impressed with the generals' professionalism or superior wisdom about the wars.

I think it is time for the American people to hold the senior military leaderships' (colonels and up) feet to the fire. When they make their reports to Congress, one can be sure that it is the best possible scenario that they can justify without lying. The phrase "progress is being made" should not be accepted as an answer. It is like saying "the check is in the mail."

Everyone should remember that these are military careerists. War provides the opportunity for testing their skills, getting medals and promotions. A compromise peace without their definition of "victory" might be considered a failure. They all want to march down Pennsylvania Avenue like General Norman Schwarzkopf. Likewise, the contractors want to continue making their huge profits. It is the common soldiers, however, who are providing the sweat and shedding the blood.

We must stop treating the Afghans like children. They are not. It is their country and for better or worse, they should start taking responsibility for it. There is little reason not to begin turning over responsibility now. ... After that no more blank checks. In my opinion, time's up.

Colonel Sellin's distress with his commanders points to another historically common phenomenon in declining empires. Once military leaders have pushed those useless politicians off the scene sometimes their subordinates, who know the foibles of their leaders, think they could do an even better job. Once a hierarchical order jumps the rails, the potential for violent chaos rises exponentially.

Obviously we are not there yet. But these are the dangers in empires losing their predominance and the United States is that. Failed wars heighten threat and we have several such wars these days.
Tonight President Obama will address the nation about our Iraq folly. Nothing he can say can excuse all the death, destruction and displacement of that criminal imperial enterprise.

Monday, August 30, 2010

I was wrong

There's a meme going around among bloggers in which they are enumerating what they have gotten wrong -- because the exercise might help us get more right in the future. See DeLong, Drezner , etc.

I like it. Here's my contribution: I figured that the level of popular mobilization against dumb wars and economic inequality that pushed the Dems into control of the House of Representatives in 2006 and made Obama the President in 2008 would have a spill over effect. It has had some, but turning the progressive infrastructure on to go beyond electing passable centrists has proved both easier and harder than I anticipated.

In late 2008, I thought the problem leftists would face would be that people who had worked to elect Obama wouldn't be willing to criticize him in office. I was wrong. Obama insured that early on by inviting Rick Warren (an enemy of LGBT people) to give the invocation at the inauguration -- a reassuringly large fraction of progressives started pushing back immediately and that chorus has only grown as Dems in power have failed one base constituency after another.

But folks have discovered what none of us really had time to pay attention to when we were building a progressive electoral apparatus between the Kerry debacle and the Obama mobilization: the non-electoral components of a progressive infrastructure -- unions, community organizations, advocacy outfits -- are in a pathetic condition, needing near complete rebuilding.

In the 1960s and 70s, most leftists learned that doing elections was a waste of time and built outsider structures of various sorts. We won some fights and lost others. We pushed the envelope on women's empowerment, gay rights, Central America solidarity, anti-apartheid activism -- and struggled against the conservative backlash against the civil rights and anti-militarism of the 60s that was at the core of the Reagan "revolution." Progressives also adopted non-profit status, dependent on foundation (rich people's) funding, and barred by law from doing elections. So getting progressives back into trying to influence who occupied the seats of power was a big and necessary job during the 00s. It required people learning new tricks.

But having done that job, we find we don't have the outsider forces that could hold the insiders to our agenda, especially this ever-so-cautious President. As one of the most enduring activists I know wrote recently:

We do not get progressive legislation because we have progressives in Congress. We get progressive legislation because we have a progressive climate in the country. If we can create a progressive moment, many people in Congress who are not currently progressives will suddenly become more progressive.

When I help people organize election campaigns, often for candidates or on issues when we know we can't win but nonetheless must fight, I always explain that what the left gets out of the campaign is the increased capacity and consciousness of the people who work on it, far more than whatever transitory gain we may get in the election. And I still think that is true.

But all these once mobilized people, including the ones from the Obama campaign, need somewhere to go with their newfound skills and interests. The Dems aren't holding them; that's what this "enthusiasm gap" says. I don't mean they won't vote for Dems. Mostly they will. But they are not being absorbed and engaged by organizations and groups that could help them agitate for MORE. What are we doing to provide those possibilities?

It seems time for a pendulum swing again. Time to shore up the outside so as to put pressure on the inside. Sure, times are tough but there really is nothing else to do.

I like figuring out where I've been wrong. Think I'll keep coming back to this for awhile.

Katrina: this is now

katrina memorial.jpg
The Hurricane Katrina Memorial for St. Bernard Parish is seen in Shell Beach, La., one day before the fifth anniversary of the storm, which took over 1,000 lives and devastated the region, Saturday, Aug. 28, 2010. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert)

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Five years after Katrina ...

New Orleans and the Gulf Coast still are hurting. This weekend, we're deluged in a flood of words and images from that time.

pakistan flood.jpg
And a world away, a natural catastrophe of far greater magnitude continues to drown thousands and shatter the lives of millions. Since July 22, monsoon swollen rivers have rushed through one fifth of Pakistan, displacing at least 18 million people and killing thousands. The flooding is ongoing; just yesterday levees broke in Sindh province, displacing another million people. According to a United Nations relief official:

"This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake ..."

Australian Broadcasting Company

I try to imagine what an equivalent disaster would look like in the United States. Perhaps the magnitude would be somewhat equivalent if one spring when winter snows melted, the entire Mississippi River basin were engulfed by surging waters. In Minnesota, Lake Itasca would overflow and soon thereafter, the river would rush through parts of Minneapolis and Saint Paul. In Iowa, Dubuque and Davenport would be warned the flood was coming, but their sand bags would be breached and neighborhoods inundated. Next St. Louis would get its turn. Cairo, Illinois, at the confluence of the Mississippi and the Ohio Rivers would simply disappear. Despite the best efforts of Army engineers and the National Guard, large sections of Memphis would be the next to go. New Orleans may have some protection now from a hurricane storm surge, but could it survive a deluge flooding out of the entire central drainage of the continent?

Pakistan is supposed to be some kind of U.S. ally. Foreign policy scholar Stephen Walt points out that fruitless U.S. wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have left this country unable to offer significant help in a situation where we could actually do Pakistanis and our own security some good.

Horrible as the Pakistan floods are, they have not received the kind of obsessive first page news attention that we saw for the tsunami or the Haiti earthquake. And consequently they are not getting the kind of charitable help that is so needed. There are groups that have been working in Pakistan for years that can use well any donations U.S. individuals can spare for Pakistan. In particular, you might want to take a look at Global Fund for Women and Doctors without Borders.

Five years after Katrina, I can't push away the memory of the latest flood victims anymore than I can get those awful images of people abandoned on roofs in a flooded U.S. city out of my head.


Saturday, August 28, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Forests heal

Walking the woods feeds the soul -- and can heal the body. I'll leave contemplating whether there is a difference for another time.

According to Science Daily:

Forests -- and other natural, green settings -- can reduce stress, improve moods, reduce anger and aggressiveness and increase overall happiness. Forest visits may also strengthen our immune system by increasing the activity and number of natural killer cells that destroy cancer cells.


Many studies show that after stressful or concentration-demanding situations, people recover faster and better in natural environments than in urban settings. Blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension and the level of "stress hormones" all decrease faster in natural settings. Depression, anger and aggressiveness are reduced in green environments and ADHD symptoms in children reduce when they play in green settings.


"Many people," says Dr. Eeva Karjalainen, of the Finnish Forest Research Institute, Metla, "feel relaxed and good when they are out in nature. But not many of us know that there is also scientific evidence about the healing effects of nature."

Photos taken this summer on Martha's Vineyard at the Menemsha Hills Preserve and Wakosims Rock. H/t for the forest article to Ronni at TGB.

Friday, August 27, 2010

Defending a scurrilous press in a democracy

Derrick Z. Jackson, columnist for the Boston Globe, has raised the alarm about press freedom in South Africa.

Embarrassed by media coverage of scandals in [President] Zuma's family and of profiteering by public officials even as millions struggle in poverty, the government has proposed a "Protection of Information Bill." His party, the African National Congress, is calling for tribunals to regulate the media. Earlier this month, a journalist was arrested after reporting that the national police commissioner may have may questionable business dealings.

Under the bill, the government could define so-called "sensitive information" as anything deemed in “the national interest.’’ It has aroused vigorous opposition, and not only from media organizations. Nobel Peace Prize winner Desmond Tutu last week spoke out against the measures as "something that virtually everybody rejects."

When guided by leaders such as Tutu and Nelson Mandela, South Africa developed a rare moral authority that would be tragic to waste. If the country fritters away freedom of the press, it would almost assuredly embolden less democratic nations to clamp down even harder.

The measure definitely seems a frightening move toward authoritarianism. The African National Congress (ANC) almost completely dominates the political scene on the strength of having led the long struggle against apartheid. Politics in South Africa take place as much within the ANC's factions as outside it or in opposition to the party. It could probably brush aside pesky complaining voices while retaining much popular support. That way leads to terrible governance as people in the United States discovered during the period of emotional national unity after 9/11 when President George W was riding high and leading the country off a cliff.

Alerted by Jackson's column, I decided to read a few South African sources on the press law. Not surprisingly, journalists are protesting.

Scores of journalists staged a silent picket outside Parliament's main gates at lunchtime on Thursday. Forming a line along Cape Town's Plein Street, they presented a phalanx of placards to passing motorists, many of whom hooted in support.

"Keep the Press Free", "Hands Off the Media" and "Fight for Your Right to Know", the posters proclaimed.

Savvy writers also point out that media censorship ain't what it used to be in the bad old days before widespread connectivity.

Government needs to realise that this is the 21st century and you can't stop the flow of information because it's not a one-way street anymore. ... Domestic workers, delivery guys, drivers, shop assistants, shelf packers, tellers -- they’re all getting their news online via their cellphones. It is no longer the domain of an elite middle-class. The truth will out, no matter how many laws you pass or how much time you waste. So ditch the act.

Amanda Sevasti, a young, hip ad executive

But other South African writers are less quick to reassure themselves -- or to make a blanket condemnation of the government. Stephen Grootes in The Daily Maverick took a stab at understanding ANC spokesperson Baleka Mbete's arguments for the "Protection of Information Bill" in a local forum.

For her, it is also about dignity, about how people are treated in the press. This is an issue that the Western-style media (we spent ages looking for the right phrasing here, but we think you know what we mean) we have in this country hasn't actually come to grips with at all. The nicknames, the use of first names in headlines, the damage caused to children at school because their parents are in the headlines, all of this, matters to Mbete and many, many people like her it seems. ...

When the ANC says it has "the people" on its side, perhaps we shouldn't rubbish the claim immediately; we may find that it actually does, and partly because of this issue of respect for elders that is so incompatible with the notion of meritorious society on which the Western-style media is based. It's not enough to just say that if you sought public office you have to take what's coming to you. Many ANC politicians and the party's supporters simply aren't built like that. To them dignity matters in a way it simply can't to a person who grew up thinking they were a master of the universe. The media should take this issue seriously and find ways to make its point. ... And a discussion should be had about this. We ignore it our own peril.

Because I worked briefly in the press in South Africa (in 1990, as apartheid was ending but before majority rule) I bring some small amount of nuance to thinking about this situation.

South Africa inherited some proud traditions from "Western-style media", but it also got a heavy dose of the dregs. The now-defunct tabloid where I worked was a "struggle" (multi-racial, anti-apartheid) publication, but it was also trying to survive (barely) in a capitalist market. It had to sell eyeballs to advertisers in competition with purely commercial papers. The local standard looked a lot like Rupert Murdoch's vicious and sleazy New York Post. So our outfit went along with the local standard, publishing prurient, stupid and even dubiously accurate stories to attract notice in the crowd. I particularly remember the time the front page led with a picture and story about an unfortunate young West African who had stowed away on a freighter and jumped ship in Cape Town, all because unable to find a way to live as person of indeterminate gender. The style is unfortunately familiar from supermarket check out lines.

A quick perusal of online images suggests that little has changed. Here's a contemporary South African tabloid:
The sensational style is pervasive in the South African press. It's not surprising that those elements of the ANC who want to rein in the freedom to criticize government figures can arouse popular revulsion against the media's failings and excesses.

People in the United States should not be smugly confident that a turn against press freedom on the basis of sheer disgust could not happen here. In addition to contemporary Murdoch/Fox News/supermarket tabloid entries, our history is full of corrupt sensational journalism from Thomas Jefferson's purchase of a writer to do hits on his political opponent John Adams through William Randolph Heart's ginning up a U.S. war to conquer the fading Spanish empire.

That stuff sells and always will. To be defensible, journalism has to prove its worth to democracy -- to most people -- in every generation. South Africa is a grand experiment in transition from one of the worst systems of oppression ever invented to a difficult democracy that has to hold the allegiance of people from many cultures and standards of living. I marvel at its difficulties and wish it well.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

In which our local hero --

Matt Gonzalez -- seals his reputation as terminal twit.

Our boy, the "progressive" alternative to empty suit Mayor Newsom in 2003, throws down with a Republican and a racist crank.

I've got no brief for Nancy Pelosi and I'll bow to no one in my opposition to our imperial wars, but this meeting of mini-minds makes me sick.

Taxes, the rich, and the Democrats

Recently, in a discussion of Social Security and the deficit, I suggested:

There are rich people in this country. ... If they are worried about a future shortfall in Social Security, let them pay for it by raising the cap on the tax so they pay a fairer share.

This seems like a no-brainer to me: if the government needs money to meet its obligations, go to the people who have the money and make them pay up.

Dylan Matthews has provided a visual answer to where those rich people who could pay more taxes are located. Here's the map. The yellow and lighter greens have more rich people than the median; the blues less.
He spells it out:

About 3.96 percent of American households make over $200,000 a year. Thirty-eight states have lower percentages than that, and twelve and the District of Columbia have higher ones. Seven states have a percentage of less than 2 percent (West Virginia is lowest with 1.36 percent), 21 have a percentage between 2 and 3 percent, 11 have one between 3 and 4 percent, and four have one between 4 and 5 percent. New York and Virginia are both at about 5.6 percent, and California and Massachusetts are around 6.2 percent. Maryland is at 6.8 percent, New Jersey at 7.46 percent, Connecticut at 7.95 percent, and D.C. tops the list with 8.37 percent.

Watching television and listening to politicians who want to cut taxes, you'd think an awful lot more of us than those small percentages belonged to upper income brackets. But apparently not, according to census data.

Matthews pointed out another notable fact about where the rich are located:

[In the Senate] ... only two Republicans -- Judd Gregg [NH] and Scott Brown [MA]-- were elected from the 12 states above the national average, which would benefit the most from GOP-backed efforts to extend the Bush tax cuts in their entirety.

Apparently cutting taxes for the rich is not a winning stance for politicians from the places where higher percentages of the rich reside.

Andrew Gelman has done the job of showing that rich people are more reliably Republican voters in poorer states than in richer states. That might help explain this apparent discrepancy, that anti-tax Senators come overwhelmingly from states where their rich people would benefit less from continued low taxes.

The contemporary Democratic coalition is often charged with being based in elites. Gelman has pointed out that it is the heavy preference among college educated voters with incomes up to around $75000 that lets those who wish to do so make that claim. It's true; doctors, nurses, lawyers, teachers, and office workers do tend to be Democrats in all states. Their earnings do exceed the national median income. But they aren't the rich. They are the successful middle class whose allegiance makes democratic government work. Democrats are the party of the educated, not the rich.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Do we still have civilian rule? Or perhaps not?

This guy is flat out insubordinate.

WASHINGTON — The commandant of the Marine Corps said Tuesday that President Obama's July 2011 deadline to begin American troop withdrawals from Afghanistan was "probably giving our enemy sustenance."

New York Times, August 25, 2010

President Obama has called for a drawdown from this futile inherited war to begin next year. Will he let generals undermine his authority? They can argue against the policy, but while they serve in the military, they should stick a cork in it and get with the program.

The 2010 horserace: Dems looking droopy

The conventional wisdom is that Democrats are going to get creamed in the midterm elections in November -- and I think that's probably true. What do I mean by creamed? Roughly speaking, seeing Dems knocked down from holding 58 seats in the Senate to 52 (or even losing enough to lose the majority of 50, though that is unlikely) and losing more than 35 seats in the House of Representatives and so control of the 435 member chamber (all too possible).

Just two years after President Obama won 53 percent of the vote nationwide and carried 28 states, Democrats are in big trouble. Why?
  1. The economy is still rotten; in fact it is probably getting worse. Democrats have been in power; they haven't fixed it. They will be punished.

    No, a lot of voters aren't moved by a health "reform" that will kick in four years from now (many probably don't believe that anything that far away is real and they may be wiser than their rulers). They don't believe that a framework for regulations on financial elites that still has to be written amounts to much either. If folks were back at work and secure in their houses, they might give the Dems a pass, but not when whatever economic security they ever had continues to slip away. Yes, there are nuances, but probably not enough to protect Democrats.

  2. The oh-so-exciting Obama coalition -- the young, the newcomers, the unmarried women, the people of color, organized working people, the religiously unaffiliated, and significant numbers of creative, college educated and more affluent whites -- that won in 2008, simply isn't ripe enough to prevail in these awful circumstances.

    That coalition's time is coming. We've seen it emerging in California since 1995. Democratic demographer Ruy Teixeira has described its outlines yet again as recently as this May. But not yet. The fear, the malaise, created by the Great Recession and Democrats' weak response is enough to stifle enthusiasm in an aggregation not yet sure of itself. The Republican strategy of preventing Obama's administration from doing much of anything is paying off. The Obama coalition is the progressive majority of the future, but its day has not yet arrived.
The behavior of the Obama administration in power looks as if his political team didn't understand why he won. (They weren't alone in this; along with too many others, his victory seemed to me a triumph of deft political footwork.) Actually Obama owed his election to George W -- the nation was ready for a black man with a funny name because it had reached absolute disgust with lying and losing wars, watching disgrace of its best principles, seeing a city drown through incompetence, all abetted by corporate and financial looting by elites.

In June, Organizing for America (OFA -- the Obama email apparatus now under the Democratic National Committee) turned its attention to trying save the Dems by turning out the first time voters from 2008. They are bucking all electoral history with this effort; new voters just don't turn out for midterm elections. But the effort is certainly the right one; the emerging progressive majority is real and its time will come unless the Republicans manage to crack up the country completely first.

Because at root I'm an organizing and campaigns geek, as we head toward the November elections, my interest in the mechanics of politics will overwhelm my attempts to understand and explain issues and policy in our limping democracy. It happens every election season. I've decided to post these thoughts occasionally with the topic "2010 horserace" til I get them out of my system. Expect a lot of these posts over the fall.

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Democratic honor roll

Remember these people: Democrats who have spoken up for the better values of the country by supporting the right of U.S. Muslims to build a community center and mosque in Lower Manhattan or wherever else they want to!
  • Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin (IL); hey, if Harry Reid is defeated in November, can we have this guy?
  • Rep. Joe Sestak (PA); this one is showing real courage since he's running for the Senate in a state where rural social attitudes are often compared to those in Alabama.
  • Alexi Giannoulias: Democratic candidate for the Senate, Illinois; he might make a worthy successor for Barack Obama in that state.
  • Sen. Al Franken (MN); we may have wondered whether we needed a comic in the Senate, but evidently it takes a sense of the absurd to stand up for real values.
  • Sen. Russ Feingold (WI); this one is in a re-election fight too. Good for him to call out "gutter politics."
  • Sen. Jeff Merkley (OR); this guy shows himself thoughtful and imaginative on many issues; a new Senator to watch.
  • Rep. Charlie Rangel (NY); the old war horse may be ethically challenged when it comes to Congressional perks, but he knows right and wrong when it comes to racial bigotry.
  • Rep. Keith Ellison (MN); he knows about bigotry since, as a Muslim and an African American, he faces it all the time.
  • Sen. Kristin Gillibrand (NY); her endorsement is more of allowing the city's regular zoning processes to go forward than of the rights of the builders, but even this shows some political courage in New York.
  • Rep. Carolyn Maloney and Rep. Jerold Nadler (NY); these Congresspeople represent parts of New York City and they have stuck up for the project. Opposition seems to increase with distance.
Too many have weaseled on this subject, trying to have it both ways, most notably Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid who affirmed the right of sponsors to build the center, but suggested they move it. Those who have done better deserve credit and future support.

Much of this post is cribbed from Talking Points Memo with my commentary.

Monday, August 23, 2010

Iraq: U.S. on the way out

U.S. troops leaving Basra last year.

ABC News political correspondent Jake Tepper reports that President Obama will be addressing the nation on August 31 to make some points about the Iraq war:

1) Expressing gratitude to US forces -- military and civilian -- who worked so hard and sacrificed so much;

2) Pointing out that the president is keeping a promise he made on the campaign trail for the respoinsible withdrawal of US troops (all troops are scheduled to leave by the end of 2011, per the Status Of Forces Agreement with the Iraqi government);

3) Putting the war in Iraq in the larger context of US national security challenges and the need to focus on larger threats -- such as al Qaeda.

This final message, along with the president underlining that the US commitment to Iraq remains in place, will be part of an overall message that hard work remains on national security issues -- that mission is not "accomplished."

If we already know what he is going to say, do we have to watch?

Over at FireDogLake, David Dayen makes a good point about the upcoming speech:

One thing this type of major speech does: it makes it less possible to renege on the follow-through of that promise, to remove all troops by the end of 2011.

That seems right. I belong to the school of thought that holds that the U.S. peace movement, while remaining vigilant, should applaud Obama keeping his promise to honor the agreement with the Iraqis -- and also recognize that the Iraqis are not likely to agree to his going back on it. Ultimately we're leaving because Iraqis don't want us mucking around in their country and we have no compelling interest in paying the cost in lives and cash it would take to stay.
As usual, it's all too easy here across the oceans to forget what our Iraq enterprise looks like in the rest of the world. This, from Bernhard Zand in the German newspaper Der Spiegel, provides a stinging antidote to any triumphal feelings we may be harboring.

America chose the time of the attack, and also of the appropriate victory speech, which Bush gave six weeks later on board the aircraft carrier USS Abraham Lincoln: mission accomplished. ... What came afterwards -- the terror, the civil war, the 100,000 dead, the widows and the amputees and the tiny sliver of optimism that followed -- was no longer America's choice. It was the consequence of Bush's hubris and his disastrous blunders made right at the beginning of the occupation. Today these mistakes continue to plague Iraq. ...

Now comes another "time of our choosing," the penultimate one that Bush negotiated before he left office. Barack Obama is gratefully adhering to the inherited timetable because it benefits him in the mid-term election campaign: On Aug. 31 the combat mission will officially be terminated for the second time. Last Thursday, the last combat brigade left the country. A total of 50,000 US soldiers, now called "trainers," will remain until the end of 2011. "Iraq! We've won! America!" yelled a soldier as his Humvee rolled across the border. ...

... Is the Iraq War over? Was it worth it? Who won? ... there is no security, unless we declare as "secure" a country in which hundreds of people continue to be murdered every month. There were 222 murders in July, according to the statistics compiled by the Americans. The Iraqis, who have now assumed responsibility themselves and therefore don't tend toward exaggeration, have counted 535 dead.

The freedom that they enjoy today is an abstract achievement for most Iraqis. Last Friday, the temperature in Baghdad soared to 47 degrees Celsius (116 degrees Fahrenheit). The electric fans ran twice -- shortly in the morning and shortly at night -- for a total of two hours.

The inability of the U.S. occupation to get Iraq's electricity running has always seemed a metaphor for the criminal pointlessness of this war. Iraq was once a functioning country. Now it is a baking hellhole, denuded of its professional class who have largely fled the insecurity and futility, waiting for some faction to establish an authoritarian regime that can impose some order.

The U.S. government is not going to pay the reparations we owe to Iraqis -- but peace activists in the United States need to do what we can to maintain some sense of responsibility to a country our nation has trashed.

A glimpse of the President

Just missed him. A family member took this picture in town after leaving us off for the ferry by which we left Martha's Vineyard last Friday. Locals protest the traffic and disruption that accompany a presidential vacation, but they are also happy to be a place the guy feels comfortable.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Visualize the Afghanistan war

This is interesting. According to the creators:

This is a visualisation of activity in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2009 based on the Wikileaks data set. Here we're thinking of activity as the number of events logged in a small region of the map over a 1 month window. These events consist of all the different types of activity going on in Afghanistan.

The intensity of the heatmap represents the number of events logged. The colour range is from 0 to 60+ events over a one month window. We cap the colour range at 60 events so that low intensity activity involving just a handful of events can be seen - in lots of cases there are many more than 60 events in one particular region. The heatmap is constructed for every day in the period from 2004-2009, and the movie runs at 10 days per second.

The orange lines represent the major roads in Afghanistan, and the black outlines are the individual administrative regions.

Visualisation of Activity in Afghanistan using the Wikileaks data from Mike Dewar on Vimeo.

This map shows the context, the international setting within which the video creates its picture. Looking at both conveys additional information. Clearly, Pakistan's border area has been the Taliban's refuge from early on. Later, Afghanistan's northern borders with the "stans" heated up.
Note that almost none of the fighting has abutted Iran -- remember that next time some general or spook calls out "Iranian interference" in Afghanistan.

Horserace season

We're rounding into the horserace season -- the time when politicians' chronic political posturing over policy reaches its climax in an actual election. From now until November, I'll probably be writing more commentary on the midterm campaigns and elections here than on policy topics, often along with this "horserace" icon. In truth, I know more about the campaign politics than policy, so I hope I can add some tiny insight to this season.

To ease into the horserace, I think I'll share an exchange with a smart observer that I had this morning on DailyKos. We were both commenting on a truly dire essay that portrays the prospect of major Democratic Party losses as admitting the barbarians to the gates, seeing hatred and ignorance overwhelm the country's better impulses. I think our exchange gives a fair sense of my orientation toward the fall's contests as well as my friend's assessment of their possibly political meaning.

janinsanfran: I'll work to keep as many Democrats as possible because I've lived a long life of fighting to fight another day. But it is going to be a tough season and it is just a holding action ...

pelagicray: Even stubborn retreats are sometimes necessary in war for hope of eventual victory. This is a war, a cultural war or war for the soul of the nation.

The most significant factor coming out of these midterms in my opinion will be:

  • more than ordinary midterm losses will encourage the present right wing tactics and attacks;
  • losses about the norm will probably do little to discourage those tactics and attacks, though some of the GOP "leadership" may grow cooler to them;
  • fewer losses than the norm ... will tend to show them to be ineffective and drive that faction to the margins of the political spectrum again.
We need to work for the third option because the first is a really grim prospect for our nation and the second is not a lot better.
I agree. Let the campaign season move into full fury.

Saturday, August 21, 2010

Saturday scenes and scenery:
Oxen and drivers compete in sled pull at the fair

One of the first competitions at the annual Martha's Vineyard Agricultural Society Fair is this obstacle course for pairs of beasts over 3200 pounds.

Doesn't look so tough, does it? The sled is not weighted ...

... but these huge working animals need to make some tight turns, all trying for a "clean run" -- no bumped cones at the fastest pace they can manage.

The yoke holds the team together -- and the driver reinforces shouted directions with taps from his whip.

Negotiating the course requires a kind of a dance.

A winning team enjoys a victory lap without that pesky sled.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Presidential visit on Martha's Vineyard

... means hyperactivity among federal agencies. I didn't get to see the Obamas arrivals, nor did many folks, but I couldn't miss these symptoms of Presidential presence.

These were buzzing about, beginning 48 hours before arrival.

These ostentatiously "protected" the ferry boat off the island this morning.

I figure there's a lot of justifying agency budgets going on. Okay by me for the Coast Guard. They lost a boathouse to fire in Menemsha harbor this summer.

On the road today

... like this fellow I jumped over on a trail recently. The trip consists of car -- ferry -- bus -- airplane -- airplane -- car. Lots can go wrong.

More later if we get stuck anywhere. Otherwise regular posting resumes tomorrow.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

General turns ad man

When you can't "win the war" -- when you can't even define what winning the war would mean -- you go on a marketing tour.

Gen. David H. Petraeus, the commander of American and NATO forces, began a campaign on Sunday to convince an increasingly skeptical public that the American-led coalition can still succeed here despite months of setbacks, saying he had not come to Afghanistan to preside over a “graceful exit.”

I am not impressed.

I'll be impressed when our government shows it knows how to avoid The Stupid. Til then, not good enough.
I've added a new widget on the right column that tracks US troop deaths in Afghanistan since the President came into office. The President has made whatever we're doing in Afghanistan "his war" so he now gets credit or blame.

Cordoba House's rights defended by Ted Olson

Former Solicitor General and prominent Republican lawyer Ted Olson lost his wife on 9/11 -- she was aboard the plane terrorists crashed into the Pentagon. He's no bleeding heart liberal; he represented George W. Bush before the Supreme Court in the notorious case that gave Bush the White House without a Florida election recount in 2000.

But he knows better than to trash the Constitution and the country's principles in order to win political points among vengeful and frightened voters.

We don't want to turn an act of hate against us by extremists into an act of intolerance against people of religious faith ...

Worth watching.[1:09]

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Soft bigotry for sophisticates

We know why the Sarah Palins and the Newt Gingrichs want to keep passions burning about the Park51/Cordoba House project in lower Manhattan. These demagogues derive their influence in the country's life from keeping a segment of the country terrified, afraid of swarthy Muslims out to kill us all. They lost a useful, mobilizing enemy when the Soviet Union collapsed. For them, the terrorist attacks of 9/11 were a godsend. People who are scared out of their wits are easy to lead around by the nose, or at least to convince to vote for a Republican party that has no program to address any of the country's real problems. They thrive on phony problems.

The New York mosque is a classic phony problem, a hate balloon. This poses a dilemna for mainstream pundits who try to treat the demagogues as credible spokespeople for something or other. They want to find some defense for their indefensible rantings, but they would lose their own credibility if they signed on with pure prejudice. So in addition to white-hot nativist denunciations of Muslim places of worship from the know-nothing fringe, we're getting dimwitted soft-bigotry from writers who would be ashamed to throw down with the nuts, but want to keep a line open to them.

Marc Ambinder of the Atlantic deigns to tell us "What Obama Meant to Say about the Mosque." Lest we subscribe to the infantile notion that the President might believe in the Constitutional guarantee of free exercise of religion on U.S. soil, he assures us the President's intervention last Friday was mostly about U.S. security -- we have to convince those pesky Muslim countries that we aren't on some kind of crusade, so he has to say these things. And besides, Obama's coalition --"young Americans, modernists, seculars, suburban couples who believe in the virtue of tolerance, members of stigmatized minority groups" -- approve of the President's unpopular breaking of silence. The President's is a "sophisticated position."

But Ambinder is worried about other U.S. citizens who wouldn't understand the President defending the rights of people who affirm a religion that is not (yet) "part of One America."

In America, the Judeo-Christian heritage has essentially been smoothed over into a blend of cultures and traditions that we see as equal. Islam was always marginal. The truth is, as Osama Bin Laden would have it, that Islam and Western values are at odds now; civilizations are clashing. America has never assimilated its Muslims even as Muslims have assimilated into America. Add to this the recent homegrown terrorism attempts from Muslims who've been radicalized by the past ten years and it suddenly seems almost sensible that many Americans do not consider the practice of Islam harmless. This is not a comfortable or capacious worldview, but it is not something that elites, people who don't see Islam the same way, should trivialize.

Is this bigotry? Yes. ...That's soft bigotry and it is excusable.

Over at the New York Times, the resident soft conservative oped ed writer, Ross Douhat is also defending bigotry from elites.

There’s an America where it doesn’t matter what language you speak, what god you worship, or how deep your New World roots run. An America where allegiance to the Constitution trumps ethnic differences, language barriers and religious divides. An America where the newest arrival to our shores is no less American than the ever-so-great granddaughter of the Pilgrims.

But there’s another America as well, one that understands itself as a distinctive culture, rather than just a set of political propositions. This America speaks English, not Spanish or Chinese or Arabic. It looks back to a particular religious heritage: Protestantism originally, and then a Judeo-Christian consensus that accommodated Jews and Catholics as well. It draws its social norms from the mores of the Anglo-Saxon diaspora — and it expects new arrivals to assimilate themselves to these norms, and quickly.

Douhat is a Catholic carrying an ancestral memory of the time, not so long ago, when Catholics were on the receiving end of nativist agitation.

The first America tends to make the finer-sounding speeches, and the second America often strikes cruder, more xenophobic notes. The first America welcomed the poor, the tired, the huddled masses; the second America demanded that they change their names and drop their native languages, and often threw up hurdles to stop them coming altogether. The first America celebrated religious liberty; the second America persecuted Mormons and discriminated against Catholics.

This country has worked, not when Douhat's "first America" coddled its fearful neighbors, but when it asked them to buck up and make the country's ideals a reality.

This poster was a World War II era appeal to the same sentiments that Douhat and Ambinder are so protective of. We know where that led us: the shameful internment of loyal Japanese Americans for which the country is still apologizing. When groups of people are subjected to harm on the basis of prejudice, however seemingly "rational" and "popular," shame follows. We don't have to do this again.

World War II-era propaganda also suggested a better way to deal with difference when the country was under threat. By and large, this was the lesson that triumphed out of that era, as people from many races and backgrounds learned to trust one another as part of a national effort. This took leadership from politicians and, in that crucial moment, we got it.

President Obama could lead far less equivocally in this crucial moment. It's easy to criticize his backsliding on Saturday after his fine statement last Friday. Another of these pundits, Richard Cohen points out that:

The inclination to go from the particular to the general -- to blame a people for the acts of a few -- is what has always fueled pogroms and race riots. History shows that it is a natural tendency and it will literally run riot if not controlled. It is the solemn obligation of elected leaders to restrain such an urge -- to be moral as well as political leaders. Obama almost pulled that off, but he flinched. Yes, he couldn't

I'm not so harsh on the President. He's on the right track -- and his coalition is on the right track -- let's take the country where we know the country must go.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

We need a new sheriff ...

This remarkable populist video promotes the hope that President Obama will appoint Dr. Elizabeth Warren as the founding head of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau created by the new financial reform law. What kind of ordinary looking, white, academic woman inspires this kind enthusiasm?

For starters, Warren came up with the idea of the CFPB. But perhaps even more to the point, though she teaches at Harvard, she can explain the financial facts of life for the ordinary U.S. middle class family in a way we can all understand. For example, in 2005 when times were supposed to be good, she wrote this deconstruction of how so many people found themselves helplessly mired in credit card debt:

Today there are five times as many families filing for bankruptcy as there were in the early 1980s. Home foreclosures have more than tripled in less than 25 years. Nearly half of families with credit cards report that they cannot afford to pay more than their minimum monthly payments. One in every three families with an income above $35,000 reports owing medical bills they cannot pay. ...

The over-consumption story dominates every discussion of the financial condition of America’s families, but when all the changes in family spending over the past generation are added up, a very different picture emerges. Families are spending less on luxuries and more on the basics of being middle-class. Even with two people in the work force, today’s families trail those of a generation ago in the struggle to make ends meet—to pay for their homes, health insurance, transportation, and child care. ...

Why does the over-consumption myth persist? Why does a story of misbehavior and irresponsibility win out over a story of hard-working people who get caught up in job losses, medical debts, and family breakups? Why is there no acknowledgement that financial misfortune is often a matter of bad luck, and that the long lines at the bankruptcy courts and the high rates of credit-card default have little to do with irresponsible spending?

One explanation is political. High-interest credit-card issuers and sub-prime-mortgage lenders operate only because a careful combination of deregulation and protective regulation permits creditors to charge fees and interest rates that would have landed them in jail less than 25 years ago. If millions of Americans believed that families were losing their homes because of deceptive marketing and oppressive contract terms, there would be a public outcry to change the regulations that favor banks over consumers. But as long as Americans believe that the only people in financial trouble are the spendthrifts, there is no reason to restrict the lenders. Everyone is getting just what he deserves.

Boston Review, October 2005

It's easy to see why the credit card companies don't want this woman in a regulatory role -- and why progressives will applaud if President Obama appoints her to the job.

Do read this the entire article. It's the most understandable explanation of how ordinary families are squeezed in the real world that I've seen anywhere. Warren's got the scene covered.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Gotta keep playing, but perhaps not striving ...

My friend Sam was having a great time in the Chilmark 5K Road Race. You might not guess by looking at him, but he's 81.

This lazy summer, I'm reading Play: How It Shapes the Brain, Opens the Imagination, and Invigorates the Soul by Stuart Brown, MD. It's a little pop-psyche-ish for my tastes, but there's something to it.

Brown describes learning from scientists who study animals just what the evolutionary function of seemingly frivolous play might be:

In a world continuously presenting unique challenges and ambiguity, play prepares these bears [and by extension, humans] for an evolving planet.

That is, we need flexibility and imagination to thrive; play teaches us to surmount the unexpected. Brown is convinced our need for this stimulus never stops:

When we stop playing. we stop developing, and when that happens, the laws of entropy take over -- things fall apart. ... When we stop playing, we start dying.

I like that. I don't mean I want to some rigid program that requires me to "play" for my own good -- but I sure want to keep a spirit of experimental delight alive in my life, always.
This seems related to me: James Fallows has published an Atlantic Magazine article that bemoans his observation that contemporary Japanese life has lost the ambitious urgency that he experienced in the 1980s. People are richer; but they are no longer urgently striving for more, personally or nationally.

The elbows-out cockiness of the Japan I remember caused its frictions. But I miss its eagerness for a new version of itself.

A Japanese reader came back at him, arguing that the present more comfortable country had perhaps chosen a better path.

For us, the last twenty years (the two "lost" decades) are simply the normal state of affairs, and it seems silly to expect an economy to keep charging at full-speed forever. We have known from the beginning that an overenthusiastic pursuit of wealth can have devastating consequences. Why not forget about being number one and just enjoy what you have?

... I think that in the past twenty years, Japan has undergone a profound change in its perception of its place in the world. Japan is now confident enough, and mature enough, to just relax. In my admittedly biased opinion, I think this laid-back version of Japan is much more to my taste than the go-go days of the 80's.

This writer says nothing about economic inequality in Japan, a real problem not likely to be addressed by complacency.

But could it be that a rich nation could learn to enjoy what it has -- perhaps to make time for play? Obviously this doesn't work if your aspiration is to be top empire. But if your aspiration is simply to live, it seems more than adequate, in fact the essence of thriving.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Let's pop this hate balloon

This post which I labored on much of Friday went out to the WarTimes/Tiempo de Guerras email list yesterday. You can join this low volume, quality content list at the link.

The right in the U.S. thrives on launching "hate balloons" -- wacko claims such as "President Obama is not a citizen," or "Agriculture Department official Shirley Sherrod is a racist." The list of these eruptions seems never ending. Sometimes, as in the first example, these fables gain traction among a minority of citizens but fail to capture the mainstream; some, like the second, blow up in the faces of their proponents.

Unhappily, one of the right's current hate campaigns has ignited a fire. This is the notion that Muslims are crowing over the 9/11 terror attacks by planning to build a "Ground Zero Mosque" two blocks (600 feet) from the Manhattan site where the World Trade Center stood. A poll on August 11 showed 68 percent opposed to the proposed Park51-Cordoba House, which would serve as an Islamic community center, including meeting rooms and fitness facilities, as well as a prayer space. Interestingly, Manhattan residents favored the project; opposition seems to increase with distance from the city.

The opposition has been fueled by the usual array of right wing media (Fox News; the Weekly Standard) and its usual mouthpieces (Sarah Palin; Newt Gingrich; Rudi Giuliani) with assists from mealy mouthed politicians of both parties with their fingers in the wind and from some relatives of 9/11 victims for whom Lower Manhattan is a kind of sacred ground.

Casting remembrance of the victims of 9/11 in a different light, New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg spoke up for keeping government out of decisions about who gets to practice their religion -- and so in support of the project:

"We do not honor their lives by denying the very Constitutional rights they died protecting. We honor their lives by defending those rights -- and the freedoms that the terrorists attacked."

As of now, there is no legal impediment to the building's sponsors going ahead if they can raise the money.

Because this fight over a mosque is happening near Ground Zero in the nation's media capital, it has commanded mainstream attention. But similar efforts to block or harass Muslim institutions are going on all over the country: nearby on Staten Island, where the Catholic Church backed out of selling an empty convent to a mosque; in the suburbs of Chicago; in Murfeesboro, Tennessee where Republican candidates for office have made preventing the building of a mosque one of their talking points; in Riverside, California where opponents planned to intimidate Muslim worshippers with dogs; in Florence, Kentucky ; in Bridgeport, Connecticut where conservative Christian protesters have traveled all the way from Texas to incite religious harassment of Muslims. Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, a right wing outfit more commonly known for opposing women's and gay rights, took the argument to its logical conclusion:

"Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America ... each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government. Each one is a potential jihadist recruitment and training center ..."

Why is this particular right wing hate balloon so attractive and what are its special dangers? Too many people in the United States are living with shapeless fears and welcome having a visible local enemy to fight, one they might even be able to triumph over. The economy promises no prosperous future for most folks. Wars overseas drag on inconclusively. The government proved helpless to prevent or stop a huge oil spill. There are more and more Black and brown people around, even a Black president. Some of these strangers are probably "illegal" immigrants, come to steal the country. Muslims as enemies present a three-fer: religiously suspect, dark, and foreign.

This convenient outlet for a variety of frustrations provides a perfect stage for the "clash of civilizations" story, which much of the right has pushed for a decade. If the story really takes hold in the public imagination this time, the country is in big trouble. Josh Marshall at TPM took a shot at describing the mindset this hate balloon aims to institutionalize:

"It's not us versus a series of interconnected terrorist networks which are relatively small but episodically quite lethal. It's us, the white Christians and our Jewish junior partner sidekicks versus the brown Muslim people. (If you're keeping score at home, let's call it the Judeo-Christians -white jerseys- vs. the Muslims -brown jerseys.) ...heck, the Holy War is still on. ...I think it is the mindset. Because only in that mode does it make sense that American Muslims building a community center near the site of a terrorist attack from a decade ago constitutes such an outrage."

If most people in the United States fully internalize what Marshall calls "the Holy War," we can forget religious liberty, ever getting U.S. troops out of the Middle East, and as horrors mount, meaningful democracy under universally applicable laws. We're not there yet, but successful hate balloons move us closer.

UPDATE: Nice to be on the same page as the President on this. On Friday Obama chimed in:

"As a citizen, and as President, I believe that Muslims have the same right to practice their religion as anyone else in this country. That includes the right to build a place of worship and a community center on private property in lower Manhattan, in accordance with local laws and ordinances. This is America, and our commitment to religious freedom must be unshakeable. The principle that people of all faiths are welcome in this country, and will not be treated differently by their government, is essential to who we are. The writ of our Founders must endure."

What can progressives do while this toxic brew festers? Some thoughts:
  • Other faith communities that value their own free exercise of religion need to be in the forefront of defending Muslims' religious freedoms. Anyone can learn more about the struggles of U.S. Muslims by subscribing to the mailing list of the Council on American Islamic Relations.
  • Political leaders need to step up and join Mayor Bloomberg in telling people to calm down. Their constituents need to remind them of that leadership responsibility.
  • The peace movement needs to continue and step up its efforts. The public has become disillusioned with the wars, but doesn't see closure ahead. Until we end the shooting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the apparently endless “war on terror” that began with a criminal act at Ground Zero will still grind on.