The Republic Is in Trouble

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I have been wrestling with a piece on the election, but it is difficult to get my mind around it all inasmuch as our President-elect is so deficient and offensive in so many ways. And his initial appointments inspire little hope: a racist southern Senator who believes the NAACP and ACLU are communist as Attorney General; a dismissed general who considers Islam a political ideology masquerading as religion as National Security Advisor; a Kansas Representative who believes in torture as CIA Director; an avowed white supremacist who celebrates the “Dark Side” (?) as Chief Strategist.  If he is indeed “draining the swamp,” it is to reveal and hire loathsome creatures lurking in the muck.

An ignorant misogynistic bully with the attention span of a five year old is now President of the United States and a piece of Slovenian arm candy is the First Lady.  We have seen the usual down side of democracy: an ignorant electorate swayed by emotion rather than reason.  The Founding Fathers established the Electoral College to prevent dangerous populists and demagogues being elected President (and to satisfy the slave-owning states), but in this instance it served to allow a dangerous populist and (incredibly vulgar) demagogue to take the White House though losing the popular vote by more than a million and a half.

This Presidency will surely test our political system and our safeguards against tyranny, corruption and violation of citizen rights.  I do not expect Trump’s personality – his truly staggering ego and narcissism and his absolute inability to accept criticism – or his undisciplined and largely empty mind to change in the next four years.  For the first time in my seven decades I fully expect the President to be impeached, despite his party’s control of Congress.

And his neckties are too long. fasc

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For Sale: Slightly Used Country; Needs Work

(Well, I certainly hope macho dentist Walter “Small Dick” Palmer is returned to Zimbabwe to enjoy a few years in one of their prisons or better, shot.)

 

The non-American readers out there may be a bit in the dark concerning the government of the United States, inasmuch as it is virtually unique among the great powers. (Well, in addition to electing some truly stupid people to office.)  Unlike the parliamentary systems in Europe, where the actual head of government, the Prime Minister (or Chancellor), is elected by the members of the assembly, the parliament, the US has a presidential system, in which the head of government (who is also head of state), the President, is elected by the people (well, more or less). The Prime Minister generally remains in power so long as he holds the support of the parliament, either through his party or coalition of parties, whereas the American President serves a fixed term of four years and can be reelected once. There are many variations on these two basic systems, but the result is that the US has a representative democracy very different from those organized along parliamentary lines.

A Chancellor

A Chancellor

The President

The President

A Prime Minister

A Prime Minister

One major difference is the essential separation of the executive from the legislative assemblies, the Congress, which means the President and his party may not control the legislative bodies (as is presently the case). Many feel this is something of a virtue, since the two branches can check one another, and given the composition of Congress these days, getting nothing done may not be such a bad thing.
On the other hand, the system lends itself well to an increasingly powerful executive, who does not depend upon the support of the assembly to stay in power, at least for the next four years. He can veto any legislation, and while his veto can be overridden, it takes a two/thirds vote in both houses of Congress, not an easy task. Congress can impeach and throw out the President, but this is extremely difficult: only two Presidents (Andrew Johnson and Bill “I did not have sex with that woman” Clinton) have had Articles of Impeachment passed against them. In both cases the motives were blatantly political, and both were acquitted.

Bill Clinton

Bill Clinton

Andy Johnson

Andy Johnson

Meanwhile, the power of the Presidency has grown steadily, both because of the changing nature of the country and world in the last couple of centuries and because no political institution, particularly an executive, is going to surrender any power if it can help it. And crises like World War II and 9/11 always result in new powers that are virtually never given up – the President can unilaterally send military forces into combat and more recently, execute without trial anyone deemed an enemy, including American citizens. Further, the President can game the system established by the Constitution: Executive Privilege, for example, is routinely abused, and the Executive Order, whose Constitutional basis is vague indeed, allows him to circumvent Congress.
The other big difference is the fixed term, which means loss of popular support has no immediate effect on the incumbent. After the experience of FDR the President was limited to two terms, a wise decision (despite my admiration for Roosevelt), but no such limitation exists for the Congress, and big money, citizen stupidity and the power of incumbency almost guarantee lifetime tenure, especially in the Senate with its six year terms. And regularly scheduled elections mean non-stop campaigning and money-raising.  No country in the history of the world has a campaigning period even remotely as long or expensive as America now does; it is at present more than a year to the general election and the candidates are already out in full force.  Members of the House of Representatives serve only two years, which means these guys are already sniffing out new money and prostituting themselves the moment they are elected. The single most important event in the life of a Congressman is not the vote but the fund raiser.
Along with being familiar with British parliamentary government, the Founding Fathers were also steeped in classical history and looked to Greece and Rome for models of democracy. They rejected the Athenian democracy, in which the assembly had the absolute last word on everything, as too inclined to instability and mob rule and favored the Roman Republic, which was successful over a half millennium. The Republican government was in practice an oligarchy of wealth centered in the Senate, but it was structurally democratic in that the citizens, through their assemblies, elected and legislated. This might actually be a description of the American government, except that the American oligarchy of wealth is not a group within the government but rather individual billionaires and corporations, who are essentially interested in their own concerns. The Roman Senator was of course motivated by enhancing his image and influence, but for four hundred years that came from actually serving the state.

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Just right (the Senate did not look like this)

Too democratic

Too democratic

Besides, for all their democratic inclinations the economically successful men who wrote the Constitution did not completely trust the common folk. They knew what had happened to Athens. So, there would be a “people’s” assembly, the House of Representatives, where members would serve only two years, mimicking the amateur assemblies of Athens and Rome and insuring the body reflected the changing ideas of the common folk. The Senate would be more akin to the like-named body in Rome (and not so much the House of Lords), and serving for six years, the Senators would constitute a wiser and more capable group of legislators. (And also a somewhat less than representative body: every state has two Senators regardless of population.)
Further, the President (and Vice President) would not be directly elected by the often uneducated and easily misled people, but by electors selected in some manner by the states, presumably from the pillars of the community. There was apparently also some anticipation that the process would not always produce a clear winner, allowing Congress to make the final decision.
Finally, there was the Constitution, especially the Bill of Rights, which essentially states that there are areas where even the theoretically sovereign will of the people cannot go – at least without incredible difficulty. This of course limits the power of the people and makes the state less democratic, unlike fifth century Athens, where a majority in the assembly, which any citizen could attend, could pass any law it pleased. Period. Now, that is really putting your faith in the political wisdom of the people. I am, however, unwilling to trust my free speech to religious zealots, politically correct airheads, professional patriots and above all politicians.

The greatest political document ever

The greatest political document ever

Well, a marvelous and incomparable document, but it did not all work out as the Fathers had hoped. Parties rapidly emerged and the growing need for money followed, gradually producing more or less professional politicians (but not necessarily good rulers), even in the so-called people’s House. Gerrymandering, party power and economic clout conspired to make even a seat in the House a potential life-time job, for which one needed to continually campaign. Incidentally, in Republican Rome once the candidates were formally announced – only twenty-four days before the election! – a candidate seeking votes identified himself (as if the huge entourage were not a clue) by wearing an artificially whitened toga; it was candidus (lustrous white), and he was a candidatus.
For reasons not entirely clear to me – the winner takes all rule and the broad ideology of the parties are certainly important – the United States has essentially developed a two-party system. It is extremely difficult to achieve federal and even state office if you do not run as a Democrat or a Republican, and third party challenges seem only to guarantee one or the other of the two major parties wins the White House. This locks out differing ideas, since although there are factions within the major parties, they after all are parties, with a national party line. The parliamentary system provides a venue for new groups to appear and influence decision-making in the legislature, and the need to form coalitions schools the representatives in comprise, which is desperately lacking in the American system.
In the United States it is almost as if the Democratic and Republican parties were part of the governmental structure. They are the only parties to regularly hold state primaries, which are paid for by the taxpayers, even though many of those citizens will not be permitted to vote in them. Further, the two earliest primaries, which attract immense media attention, are in Iowa and New Hampshire, which are primarily rural, white and well off, hardly representative of the country as a whole. And Iowa is apparently packed with Tea Party and Christian screwballs, compelling the Republican Party to make stupidity part of its platform.
In fact, in some ways the United States is a one-party state. True, the underlying ideology of the liberal Democrats and conservative Republicans is different, especially when their less moderate members are considered, so their legislative agendas differ. Yet, the basic concern of the vast majority of the politicians of both parties is getting reelected, which means raising money. There are a few, like Presidential candidate Senator Bernie Sanders, whose money comes primarily from the small folk, but this is extremely rare, and most all candidates are going to head for the big teats, which means billionaires and corporations, especially the latter. Granted, George Soros is not going to give serious money to a conservative nor Rupert Murdoch to a liberal, but corporations are not so fussy and will dish it out to anyone who might aid their business environment, which appears to include people in both parties.

Sheldon Adelson - part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Sheldon Adelson – part owner of the Republic Party and Israeli agent

Koch brothers - majority owners of the Republican Party

Koch brothers – majority owners of the Republican Party

George Soros

George Soros

Rupert Murdoch

Rupert Murdoch

The American democracy is being bought and sold every election cycle, while candidates who have accepted millions from this or that individual or business are claiming such does not make them beholden to the donor. Sure, multi-nationals love to throw away money.
How did it come to this? The Fathers created a wonderful document in the Constitution, one that with some revisions has carried the nation through two centuries of dramatic change in the world. They were on the verge of the industrial age and knew serious developments were afoot, but one thing they apparently did not completely fathom was the potential impact of marketing. In the eighteenth century marketing was hanging a sign outside your pub or placing a simple ad in a newspaper; candidates marketed themselves with rallies, speeches and broadsheets. As mass marketing developed in the twentieth century, especially with the advent of radio and television, politicians had no choice but to take advantage of it – and the cost of trying to get elected skyrocketed.
Further, large corporations began emerging in the nineteenth century and businessmen certainly appreciated the advantage of political influence, especially when the government began attempting to regulate them in the late nineteenth century. The development of multinationals has made matters worse, inasmuch as they control huge amounts of wealth and are to a good degree stateless. They consequently have even less reason to be concerned with the interests of any host county, and buying politicians, however self-serving, ignorant or destructive to the country they might be, is now part of doing business. What’s good for General Motors (or Exxon or Goldman-Sachs or Bank of America) is clearly not what’s good for America, but since the Supreme Court decided corporations are “persons” they are entitled to contribute staggering sums of money to candidates who will help them makes America a better place – for shareholders.

Some of the good folks whoPfizer.svg[1] are bringing you America:200px-Boeing-Logo.svg[1]Apple_logo_black.svg[1]250px-Bank_of_America_logo.svg[1]300px-Lockheed_Martin.svg[1]Microsoft_logo_(2012).svg[1]250px-Time_Warner_wordmark.svg[1]Koch_logo.svg[1]Halliburton_logo.svg[1]New_Walmart_Logo.svg[1]ING_Group_N.V._logo.svg[1] Monsanto_logo.svg[1]194px-General_Motors.svg[1]222px-Exxon_Mobil_Logo.svg[1]150px-Goldman_Sachs.svg[1]150px-General_Electric_logo.svg[1]
My mother country is screwed.

(Enhanced) Interrogations ‘R’ Us

Extremely rare are the times when I applaud the action of the US Congress, but I do so now with the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the abuses and crimes committed by the Central Intelligence Agency in the forever war on terror.  The five year investigation has revealed repeated acts of what any normal person would label torture and the deliberate misleading of Congress and even the White House about what the CIA was actually doing.  The charges are all based on documentation, and the Committee did not interview spooks because the Justice Department was carrying on its own investigation – and what would be the point anyway?

One should of course suspect the motives of any politician, but Senator Dianne Feinstein’s outrage seems genuine; she is after all a hawkish Democrat who supports the drone program.  And who could gainsay Senator John McCain?  He is a Republican, an extreme hawk and most important, the only member of Congress who has actually been tortured.  One might think his opinions on the subject of torture would carry some serious weight.

liberal patriot

liberal patriot

conservative patriot

conservative patriot

But no.  The Republican heavyweights are condemning the report as politically motivated and a danger to American lives, and inasmuch as it is difficult to deny the CIA actually did these things, they maintain that none of it was torture and that it was perfectly legal and necessary to gain information to protect America.  Former President Bush, during whose administration this crap went down, seems unaware that anything wrong was done, but it appears that he and Colin Powell were not even informed of the program for several years.  Of course Dick Cheney, the puppet master of the Bush administration, knew and has dismissed the Senate report as “hooey.”  Inasmuch as he is one of the few people in the universe who believes the invasion of Iraq was a good thing, I cannot understand why anyone would solicit his opinion.

As expected, the CIA has denied any wrongdoing, emphasizing that it was all sanctioned by Congress and the White House, including the Attorney General – “We were just following orders.”  Apart from the suspicion that Attorneys General always provide cover for their Presidents, it is clear that the President and Congress did not know the extent of the CIA’s actions.  And why would anyone assign any credibility to the CIA?  Not only are they an intelligence agency, engaged in deception and secrecy, but the CIA also has a long, long history of exceeding its mandate and lying to the government.   Feinstein claims the agency spent $40 million to prevent the release of this report; a former spokesman for the CIA (there is a veritable blitzkrieg of former spooks on the news) says the money was used for a “secure facility” to house the documents the Committee wanted.  Now, which of these explanations is more believable?

The Republicans, the CIA and the Pentagon are all saying this is the wrong time to release this report because it will endanger American lives around the world (implying that there is a good time and thus that what the report says is true), which is absolute nonsense.  American lives are already threatened everywhere.  Is there anyone hostile to the US who did not already believe we were torturing people?  Do ISIS and their friends need an excuse?  They claim this will improve ISIS recruitment.  Is there any potential jihadist who would refuse to believe we were doing this without being presented with proof?  They claim this is a bad time because we are at war around the planet.  When will we not be at war?  The Republicans claim the release of the report is politically motivated.  Then why was it not released before the last election?  Further, once the Republicans take control of the Intelligence Committee next year nothing like this report will ever see the light of day.   The Republican Party stakes a claim to being the defender of American values yet constantly demonstrates a willingness to violate those values.

traitor

traitor

traitor

traitor

Hardly able to deny what the CIA was actually doing, its defenders simply assert that it was not torture but only “enhanced interrogation” of “enemy combatants,” essentially arguing that if we call it something else, it is something else.  If what the report describes is not torture, it is hard to see what is.  The Gestapo hung shackled prisoners from the ceiling; was that “enhanced interrogation”?  Stalin’s NKVD employed sleep deprivation, assembly line interrogation, cramped cells and beatings; was that “enhanced interrogation”?  If this was not torture, then why did the agency go to such lengths to do it outside the US?

The CIA now asserts that whatever you call them, these interrogations produced valuable information in the war against terror (saving American lives again!).  Not only does the evidence not support that contention, but the whole history of torture argues otherwise.  The traditional non-coercive interrogation methods of the FBI and military have a proven record of results, while torture manifestly does not.  I have never been tortured, but it sure seems that the average individual will tell you whatever you want in order to stop the pain.  Stalin arrested millions of people, virtually all of them innocent of any crimes, yet the vast majority ended up signing confessions and in some cases performing in the show trials of the 1930s.  Torture does not produce information; it produces cooperation.

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

enhanced interrogator

And suppose the torture did lead to any information.  Is that a valid reason for violating our basic values, of becoming like the Nazis or the Soviets or ISIS?  Once again, the people who trumpet the loudest about freedom not being free and how many men died for our way of life always seem to be the most willing to surrender those freedoms and values in the interest of security.  If we (rightly) celebrate those willing to give their lives in defense of our values, how can we justify violating them on the grounds that it might save lives.  If we are so concerned with saving Americans, why do we not negotiate with terrorists, as Europe and even Israel do?  If conservatives and others are so damned concerned about American lives, why do they not attend to gun control or drunk driving?  The hypocrisy is awe inspiring.

Torture is not only wrong and ineffective, it is illegal, whatever sundry Attorneys General have said.  It is cruel and unusual punishment, and the prohibition applies to non-citizens and “enemy combatants,” who are actually POWs in a new kind of war.  Doing it in Cuba or Poland makes no difference – agents of the US government are still torturing people.  We are also bound, at least in theory, to international law, many of whose conventions we have authored and pledged to uphold, and every one of those instruments prohibits torture under any circumstances.  Unfortunately, America’s regard for international law now goes only so far as our national interests, undermining one of our strongest assets, our long tradition of being the good guys, or at least the better guys.  Another bit of American exceptionalism down the drain of Realpolitik and stupidity.

Ultimately Congress and the White House are to blame for this disgusting episode, allowing the CIA (and NSA and god knows who else) to do pretty much whatever it pleased, including spying on and lying to them.  The Republicans are now actually defending this, and the ever mysterious Obama backed off from any serious investigation and appointed as director of the agency a career CIA official, who is now defending the organization.  What goes on in the minds of these people?

Who is this guy?

Who is this guy?

Nothing will change, except possibly a few unimportant cosmetic touches (we no longer bug Chancellor Merkel’s private telephone).  It has all happened before.  We are already being told that no one will be charged with any crimes, which is hardly a surprise; we already know from the blatant lies of James Clapper, the current Director of National Intelligence, that contempt of Congress does not apply to some people.  One can only hope that the UN and various European countries will take legal action against these traitors and at least deprive them of free foreign travel, but of course America will go into bully mode to prevent this.  What the hell happened to my mother country?

The Gifts Terrorists Bear

The prime directive of virtually all governments is to defend and expand their power. This holds true whether that government is authoritarian or democratic, whether its intentions are malevolent or benign, whether the head of state is King Tiglath-Pileser or President Obama.  Of course, an Assyrian king and an American President face different problems when it comes to defending their government’s power.  If you have absolute power and are ruling as an agent of divine forces, you need only keep an eye on the priesthood and your family members, whereas a modern autocrat must mind the army, bureaucracy and the people.  Naturally, the democratically elected ruler has more constraints and a limited tenure, but there appears nevertheless to be a common inclination that your government should exercise as much power as possible, even if that government may pass into the hands of the opposition.  And certainly the unelected bureaucracy that underpins the government and its agencies wishes to retain as much authority as it can.

 

The premier mechanism for expanding a government’s power is dealing with threats, domestic or foreign, real or imagined.  War has traditionally been a way, at least for authoritarian regimes, to deal with domestic discontent and unite the population behind the government in a burst of nationalism, though one must of course win the war, as the Argentinian generals discovered.  Exterminating Chechens is popular with Russians, so Putin has engaged in wars in Chechnya to improve his standing; now it is the Ukraine.  On the other hand, wars, even the limited ones that have characterized the post-WW II world, are very expensive, though guaranteed money-makers for sundry corporations.

 

Wars typically produce emergency powers, which then tend to remain even when the threat is gone.  The Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, enacted in 1964, gave the President the power to wage war without a Congressional declaration of such, and though it was limited by the War Powers Act of 1973, the fact is that fifty years later the US President still essentially has the power to send troops around the planet and bomb countries against whom we have not declared war.

 

Domestic threats are excellent, since they are more immediate and more easily engender the fear that governments can take advantage of.  The classic example has been the burning of the German Reichstag in 1933 by a Dutch communist, which act provided Hitler with the excuse to assume dictatorial powers.  This has now been supplemented by the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the US, which resulted in the constitutionally questionable Patriot Act and dramatically increased powers of surveillance and policing.  Note that President Obama, a liberal, has not surrendered those powers, despite their seemingly being against his general political philosophy.

 

The greatest example of the usefulness of domestic threats to the government is found in the USSR under Stalin.  The constant threat of spies, counter-revolutionaries and “wreckers” allowed the General Secretary to rid himself of anyone he desired and develop the largest security apparatus the world has seen.  The young Soviet government did of course fight a civil war and suffer foreign intervention, but one might question why a decade and more later the most totalitarian state on the planet was still suffering wave after wave of treasonous plots and sabotage.  Could virtually all the Old Bolsheviks be traitors?  How could it be that in the thirties the vast majority of the military hierarchy were conspiring against the regime and working for foreign powers?  Why were ardent Stalinists being arrested?

 

The often farcical Stalinist Terror is a wonderful demonstration of how people will believe what they want.  Many intellectuals of course saw through things like the Show Trials, but it is amazing how many intelligent people believed it was a mistake when they were arrested and sent off to the gulag: “If only Comrade Stalin knew…”  Building socialism was not child’s play, and fulfilling the dream required harsh methods inasmuch as it spurred such destructive responses from the reactionary elements, who despite being imprisoned and executed by the millions apparently still constituted a huge percentage of the population.  And Stalin was able to play this game until he died of old age in 1953.

 

Communism was a great resource for non-communist governments.  Communists were not only a foreign threat, justifying all sorts of military expenditures and silly conflicts, but they were a magnificent fifth column, providing an excellent domestic threat, useful for pumping up governmental power.  There was also a wonderful kind of vagueness about this threat, allowing anyone with leftist leanings to be identified as a “communist” and thus someone inclined to overthrow the state, perhaps even as an agent of the Evil Communist Empire.  We now know that some American clients would alert Washington to an imaginary “communist threat” in their countries in order to squeeze military and financial aid from the gullible Yankees.  And communist Cuba with its aid to anti-government movements in Latin America provided the US with the perfect excuse to claim every popular uprising against an authoritarian state (usually supported by the US) was communist inspired.

 

Well, the communists are pretty much gone now (and czarist Russia has reemerged, this time with nuclear weapons), so what is a government interested in putting paranoia to work to do?  Enter terrorism.  As far as the purposes of the government are concerned, “communism” and “terrorism” are virtually synonymous; one could take a government document on communism and substitute the word terrorism and it would still make sense.   But terrorism is even better!  Exactly what constitutes terrorism is even more vaguely defined than communism, and while the base definition involves killing or conspiring to kill innocents for ideological reasons, that can cover a mighty lot of people, from ISIS to a mental case – and of course freedom fighters who are not necessarily targeting innocents.

 

While primarily Muslims, terrorists can be anyone and can be anywhere, the perfect threat for any security apparatus.  The intelligence services are especially delighted, now having an excuse to spy on virtually everyone (including that hotbed of terrorism, the US Congress).  No longer are the spooks limited to governments and groups, but can now claim justification for monitoring everyone on the planet, including American citizens.

 

And now there is ISIS, the Rolls Royce of terrorism.  They kill anyone who is not with them, they kill women and children, they make women sex slaves and they do it all with great enthusiasm.  They are well organized, they have heavy weapons (thank you, Uncle Sam) and they actually control territory and constitute something of a state.  Far more than any other group they are the face of Evil, crucifying and beheading people, forcing victims to dig their own graves and doing it all on camera.  Instead of tedious filmed ideological diatribes they produce snappy, if often gruesome videos, and are attracting gullible and/or sociopathic recruits from Europe and America.  It just does not get any better than this when it comes to providing a government with potent material for establishing fear.

 

Being situated in Syria and Iraq of course makes it difficult for them to be construed as a direct threat to American shores, but they are terrorists and have obligingly made it clear they will attack the United States, which automatically makes them a threat to “national security.”  The fact that guns and drunk driving kill far more Americans than any terrorist could dream of does not seem to bother anyone when it comes to the issue of national security, which may be why we constantly hear of the possibility that they may acquire a nuclear weapon.  I expect the scientists and research labs of the Islamic State are working diligently to produce such a weapon.  Odd that our friends, the eighth century monarchies in the Gulf, do not seem as worried as we do about this threat, despite having these barbarians (that may be an insult to the average barbarian) right next door.  On the other hand, that they are finally using some of their expensive weaponry and bombing fellow Sunnis might indicate a bit of concern for their oppressive little kingdoms.

 

If the regional powers (excepting Israel of course) could get together and launch a serious war against this ISIS scum, the Islamic State would be doomed.  Turkey alone could roll over them, but Erdoğan is playing his own short-sighted game and will not even allow his supposed NATO allies use of his airfields.  Perhaps ISIS will be stupid enough to attack Israel.

 

 

American Exceptionalism #1: The Government Shutdown

Some of our foreign friends may be wondering what this “government shutdown” in America is all about.  After all, even many Americans do not have a clue.  So, here is a primer on one of the stranger practices of the US government.

What is a government shutdown?

A government shutdown occurs when Congress (Senate and House of Representatives) fails to authorize money for the operation of the federal government or fails to overcome the President’s veto of a funding bill.  This situation is virtually unique to the United States, with its separation of powers.  It simply cannot happen in a parliamentary system, and in most countries with a presidential system the executive is strong enough to keep the government going.  Only “essential” services are maintained, which of course includes the active core of all the military, security and intelligence agencies – and Congress.  While hundreds of thousands of federal employees are left with no paychecks, and the American people, especially those of lower income, are left without all those “nonessential” services, which include such things as food inspectors and virtually every program serving the poor, the Congressmen, who are responsible for this fiasco and individually well off, continue to receive their pay.

Why does a government shutdown happen?

Basically, a shutdown occurs because the politicians in Congress are more interested in their own agendas than the welfare of the country, and holding the government hostage is viewed as an excellent mechanism for getting one’s own way.  Part of the game of course is to insure that the other party receives the blame from an outraged electorate.  In this case it is the Republican extremists who represent the Tea Party and its obsession with resisting Obamacare at all costs, and apparently that includes national suicide.

What is the Tea Party?

The Tea Party is a collection of anti-government extremists, who are at the least ignorant and in many cases actually stupid.  They feel that the only legitimate functions of the federal government are external and internal security and preventing the people from engaging in fun activities, like sex.  They oppose any credible health care system because of the inherent “socialism,” a concept that most of them would be hard pressed to explain accurately.  These fanatics have no interest in the opinions of the American people.  Their latest leader is Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas, and while he is not the stupidest person in Congress (that would be Rep. Michele Bachmann, though the competition is fierce), for the moment he is certainly the biggest buffoon.

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk

Nyuk, nyuk, nyuk

Tea Party intellectual

Tea Party intellectual

Tea Party stalwart

Tea Party stalwart

Why is that these minority extremists have such power?

I really have no idea.  You will have to ask John Boehner, the Speaker of the House, who seemingly fears for his job more than the fate of the republic.

Why are these self-interested airheads reelected to Congress?

They are in office, like most of Congress, because of more than a century of gerrymandering voting districts, that is, reshaping congressional districts to contain a majority of voters of one party or the other, thus guaranteeing reelection.  This results in the American equivalent of a rotten borough and tenure for life; in the eighties there was more turnover in the Soviet Politbureau than in the American Senate.  Second, they typically have wealthy patrons who, for whatever strange reasons – usually payback in the form of political favors – fund the candidate’s campaign.  Finally, there is the shallowness of the American voter, who apparently votes for the person who bombards him with the most ads.

That there are only two, and apparently permanent, parties aids and abets this corruption, since there is little difference between the two when it comes to self-interest and contempt for the people.  There is of course an ideological divide, but that only matters when it comes to secondary interests, such as governing the country.  In the areas that really matter – rewarding your contributors, feathering your own next, guaranteeing reelection – there is little difference between Republicans and Democrats.  Instead of the lists of government approved candidates traditionally provided in dictatorships Americans essentially get lists of candidates approved by either of the two parties.

Who gets hurt during a government shutdown?

This is easy: the people, especially those in the lower income groups.  The American economy is injured, and the global economy also takes a shot, which seems unfair insomuch as a handful of jerks in the United States can negatively impact people who never had the (somewhat dubious) privilege of voting for them.  Well, this is the story of civilization, and throughout history most of humanity has been at the mercy of incompetent and/or malicious elites.  The difference now is because of the global economy and America’s staggering economic and military power, the bozos in the US government can potentially screw up the lives of everyone on the planet.  That’s power.

Why is this allowed to happen?

See all of the above.  The government shutdown may be seen as another manifestation of America’s new “exceptionalism,” which is pretty much all negative.

What will happen next?

If the pattern holds true, growing popular outrage will compel the responsible party, in this case the Republicans, to reign in their extremist minority, but only after squandering hundreds of millions of tax dollars and causing needless suffering for a lot of people.  Then they move on to refusing to raise the debt ceiling, and Americans and the rest of humanity enjoy the excitement of possible return to a global recession.

What will happen in the longer run?

We will reelect most of these people or be presented with others like them, and the game will go on.  Coincidentally, as I was finishing this I heard house Speaker Boehner proclaim with appropriate indignation “This is not a damn game!”  Well, certainly not for all the ordinary people who are being hurt, but for Boehner and his political colleagues it sure is, and they will play it over and over.

"This isn't some damn game!"

“This isn’t some damn game!”

Pssst! Wanna Buy a Country?

(Now that there are a lot of you I would like to conduct a survey.  Read one of the chapters from the novel I am writing (look for Hear, O Israel) and let me know: 1)great stuff, keep writing or 2)don’t quit your day job.  Thanks)

 

Ads have now begun appearing on these posts, which I suppose is a sign of having arrived.  I could prevent the ads from appearing by buying that service from Word Press for $30 a year and allowing them to pocket the income or I could establish a private domain for $18 a year and request a share of the income.  This did not seem a hard choice, especially since outside the rainforests and high Himalayas everyone on the planet is well accustomed to being bombarded by advertisements.  I am, consequently, now www.qqduckus.com.

 

Advertising, or more generally, marketing, is almost a made-in-America product.  Sellers have been touting their wares and services for millennia, but until recently that marketing was confined essentially to hawking and very limited and primitive signage at the place of business.  It was the United States, with its booming free market economy and emphasis on freedom of speech, that developed modern marketing in the nineteenth century and exported it to the world, especially with the globalization of business after the Second World War.  With the emergence of electronic media and sophisticated information technology advertising now extends into virtually every nook and cranny of our lives, and marketing has become, I believe, perhaps America’s greatest problem, more pernicious than the incredibly exaggerated threat of terrorism.

 

Marketing inherently involves the distortion or outright elimination of truth, particularly when the product, such as toothpaste or gasoline, is essentially the same as that produced by competitors.  Unfortunately, advertising serves as a sort of educational medium for an increasingly uneducated and ignorant populace, especially television advertising.  For many television cloaks everything it presents in at least a minimal air of reality, particularly when an attractive personality, like a sports or movie star, is involved, and the viewer’s understanding of the world, in most cases already filled with gaps and distortions, is further detached from reality.

 

There is clear and simple evidence that many people believe what they see and hear via advertising: it works.  Companies would hardly spend millions on marketing if it did not sell products; Procter & Gamble would not have run all those ads for so many years if Mr. Whipple did not move the rolls of Charmin off  the shelves.  Of course, many – I hope most – will buy the product not because they believe it is truly softer than other brands, but because when confronted with a choice among similar products they remember the amusing Mr. Whipple and grab his brand.  Assuming all travel websites to be essentially the same, I chose Priceline because I like Captain Kirk, not because I thought they were any better than the others.  Perhaps this is the reality for most consumers, but then what is “brand loyalty” based on?  I suggest that many begin to believe their choice is better when using the same brand year after year.  (Am I being too cynical here?  Listen to popular talk shows or read letters to the editor to see just how stupid many of our fellow citizens are.)

real person

real person

Permitting pharmaceutical companies to advertise was easily the biggest mistake the FCC has ever made, and every doctor I have asked agrees.  Seeing a drug touted on television leads many a patient to ask or demand that drug from his physician, making the latter’s  job harder.  The drug companies no longer have to bribe doctors with free stuff; they now in effect persuade the patient to sell the drug to the physician.  Big pharmo constantly justifies outrageous pricing on the grounds that research and testing is so time and money consuming (and the government contributes to this), yet for the past several years the major companies have spent more on PR than R&D.Without question the second most pernicious advertising is that produced by major international corporations, most especially those, like the oil companies, that engage in activity certainly, probably or possibly damaging to the environment or other public interests.  British Petroleum is not attempting to sell you a tankful of gas with its endless ads about the Gulf but rather to convince you – against all evidence – that despite the spills and obvious lies they are just as environmentally and socially conscious as any other global corporation (which of course is not at all).  The point of the millions spent on such marketing is not to sell a product but to create a more attractive (and generally false) image, one that will move public opinion away from any thought of regulation and limits on their business.  It is propaganda, inevitably deceptive propaganda, and apparently people believe a lot of it or why would they bother?  Remembering the state PR of the old Soviet Union, I am minded to call this corporate advertising “capitalist realism.”

"we care."

“we care.”

The most pernicious advertising?  That found in our elections.  With their splendid understanding of humanity and society the Founding Fathers created in the Constitution a document flexible enough to accommodate inevitable change yet difficult enough to alter that stability and basic principles were not threatened.  At the end of the eighteenth century, in the early morning of the Industrial Revolution, it was clear to all but the seriously dense that the world was steadily and fairly rapidly changing, yet marketing was still pretty much what it was in antiquity, despite the development of cheap paper and the printing press.  As a result, the Fathers could not possibly have comprehended the incredible danger it posed to the system.

 

An election campaign is essentially the marketing of a product – the candidate.  In the late eighteenth century this would involve some advertising – broadsheets, leaflets and support in newspapers – but for the most part the candidate had to sell himself by making the rounds, giving speeches and engaging in debates.  He was bound to stretch the truth sometimes, but deception is much more difficult when you are in such close contact with the voters and most of the issues can be fairly easily understood.  In a nation of over three hundred million people and mass electronic media this is no longer the case, and the candidate has become a carefully groomed and  presented product, generally unavailable to the average voter except as an unapproachable speaker at the end of the hall.  He is marketed exactly like laundry detergent or fast food: simple phrases, compelling imagery and a complete lack of any meaningful content.

 

The perfect political marketing storm came in the wake of World War II when television joined radio and spread rapidly and when international corporations began seriously evading the regulation of any single nation  The candidate could now theoretically reach every voter in the country and sell himself over and over and over without ever being challenged.  As the modern dictatorships have demonstrated, repetition and saturation is the key: it works in commercial advertising and it works in political advertising.  Thus, one result is that the candidate is elected more on the basis of ignorance than  knowledge – look at the number of astonishingly, embarrassingly stupid people in Congress, especially the on the extreme right.

 

The second and more fatal result of the marketing storm is the enhanced power of money in our political system.  Economic power is political power, and it consequently must always find access to the political apparatus, regardless of whether it is a kingship or a democracy.  As a result, through most of history the wealthy class has been the political class, but in an age of democracies and corporations this is no longer the case.  Granted, most of the people in Congress are rich, but the real economic power in society is now in the hands of international corporations and a few unbelievably wealthy individuals.  And marketing has provided them with an easy and legal mechanism for dramatically influencing, almost to the point of controlling, the political apparatus.

for sale

for sale

It is simply impossible to launch a credible campaign for national office (or even most state offices) without a huge amount of money, inasmuch as you cannot get elected without television advertising and that is fabulously expensive.  (It is also virtually impossible to do it without representing one of the two established parties, thus helping to preserve their shared monopoly.)  It now costs a billion dollars to run for President, a billion dollars.  But there are equally fabulous sources of money out there: wealthy individuals, organizations with a cause, lobbying groups and most of all, corporations.  All these entities will have some interest in influencing the government, and there is a perfectly legal way for them to do that – campaign contributions.  Political action committees can expedite these transfers of money, and of course the recent laughable Supreme Court decision that corporations are “persons” allows the really big boys to pour in as much as they want.

 

Regarding these “contributions,” the notion is frequently expressed, generally by the recipient, that this money comes with no strings attached.  Is there actually anyone who believes this?  Successful businesses do not give away millions unless something is coming in return.  It is clear and oh so obvious bribery, and we get the best government money can buy, which is of course one not at all beholden to the people.  Our present government may seem a collection of incompetent fools, but you may rest assured that the big donors will still get their exemptions, contracts, favors and whatever.  This is the way it has worked since the beginning of civilization, and the only difference now is that the economic elites are completely vulgar.

Secretary of State Dumpty Speaks

          

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.”
“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”
“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master— that’s all.”

                                                                        Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass

 

It would appear that the Obama administration has chosen to pursue this looking-glass linguistic philosophy, and Secretary of State Kerry is clearly the Humpty Dumpty in Chief.  And while they probably are aware of the deceit that is being practiced, they certainly do not see the silliness.  Politicians have of course always needed to be careful of exactly what they say, and this is all the more a concern in an age when there are microphones and cameras everywhere.  But inasmuch as a politician has an agenda and is inclined to keep it simple for the voters (and his colleagues), this care does not lead to clear and unambiguous statements but rather distortions of the truth and ultimately outright lies.

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, hero and patriot

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, Secretary of State

John Kerry, politician

John Kerry, politician

 

It begins with euphemisms, which is an easy approach since Americans are accustomed to dealing in euphemisms for all sorts of things that are for some reason embarrassing, such as sex and body functions.   The most notorious, and clever, euphemism is well known: collateral damage.  This illustrates perfectly the goal of such expressions, that is, to defuse statements that are unpleasant or counterproductive by attempting to remove the accompanying imagery.  Unlike “civilian casualties,” “collateral damage” is colorless, suggesting broken windows rather than mangled bodies of women and children.

 

Less prominent but a favorite of mine is “degrade” as a substitute for destroy, blow apart or kill, as in “the Republican Guard division was degraded.”  Most listeners will not immediately imagine what that actually means: burned and dismembered bodies scattered all over the place.  “Degrading” Assad’s assets sure sounds more mellow than blowing things apart, including Syrians.  It is a pity that generals are not required to explain in precise detail what occurred or is about to occur.

a degraded unit

a degraded unit

 

We have now reached the point where euphemisms will not suffice and words are simply redefined to mean what the speaker wants them to mean.  This had already caught my attention when a car bomb parked in Times Square was described as a “weapon of mass destruction,” dramatically increasing the magnitude of the charges against the perpetrator.  Or when people who leak classified information to the press are labeled “spies,” despite the absence of any foreign power, which I had thought integral to the definition of espionage.  Also, when did every inquiry about future developments (e.g., if x happens what will you do) become a “hypothetical” and thus not worthy of an answer?

 

Well, Secretary Dumpty has now raised the bar extremely high, asserting that bombing Syria would not constitute a “war” because no American troops would enter the country.  Indeed?  For millennia humans have defined war as doing violence to another tribe or state, whether it was undertaken with spears or cruise missiles.  Certainly, virtually all Americans, including Kerry and his friends, would consider it an act of war if someone bombed this country, and because of such an attack we went so far as to declare war essentially against an idea, terrorism.  According to Secretary Kerry the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor would not constitute an act of war since there were no Japanese “boots on the ground.”

 

This is all blatant misuse of the language in the service of dissembling, but no one really cares.  The military is after all simply using technical terms, which they do all the time, and people, I suspect, now think first of collateral damage rather than civilian casualties.  For the most part, however, Americans do not care because all but the stupidest no longer believe anything politicians say.  Besides, the citizen who agrees with the policy will be quick to embrace the Humpty Dumpty philosophy.