The Republic Is in Trouble

index

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

Advertisements

Bush Redux

Repeating a now ubiquitous Republican assertion, Jeb Bush recently claimed that President Obama was responsible for ISIS because he pulled American troops out of Iraq too quickly. This is nonsense for two reasons. First and more obvious, it was his brother President George Bush (or more correctly, the undead who manipulated him) who invaded Iraq for no compelling reason and eliminated a stable and secular regime that was holding Iraq together. Yes, Sadam Hussein was a brutal dictator, but when has that ever got in the way of American foreign policy? We supported him during his ineffective war against revolutionary Iran, and he was a Sunni, like all our hillbilly friends in the Gulf. Baghdad was one of the places where Saudi princes went to get a drink or a woman. And he was a priority target for al-Qaeda, second only to the Saudi royal family.

Saddam

Saddam

Jeb

Jeb

W

W

As everyone except Vice President Dick Cheney now knows, Saddam was absolutely no threat to the United States, and we entered what passes for a major war these days with no casus belli. We in effect waged a war of aggression and were forced to come up with some nonsense about Iraq violating the terms of the Gulf War armistice. Why we did this is not at all clear to me, but Bush’s neocon advisors seemed to have some new program for the Middle East. I expect the generals, the military contractors and the Israelis were all whispering in the President’s ear.

 

Incompetence prevailed during the course of the war, and the Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld, should have been prosecuted. Crushing Saddam’s military was efficiently done – we do have an excellent military – but everything else, especially in the postwar period, betrayed a criminal lack of planning and an unbelievable lack of understanding of Iraq. It did not take a towering intelligence to see that disbanding the Iraqi army and firing every single administrator, bureaucrat and teacher because they were members the Ba’ath Party would leave Iraq without its state infrastructure. Ignoring warnings, the administration supported as Prime Minister and our man in Iraq Nouri al-Maliki, who quickly emerged as a Shiite tyrant, disaffecting the Sunni minority and completely ruining the American-trained (and paid for) Iraqi army, whose best Sunni officers are now working for ISIS. Unwilling to fight for the oppressive government in Baghdad, the well-armed Sunni tribesmen stood aside as ISIS seized town after town in western Iraq.

"Screw the Sunnis."

“Screw the Sunnis.”

"I am Death."

“I am Death.”

"Known unknowns and unknown unknowns"

“Known unknowns and unknown unknowns”

Second, it was impossible to reach a Status of Forces Agreement with Baghdad. Iraqis in general wanted US forces out of their country, and the government resisted granting the US military and its contractors the extensive immunity from local prosecution desired by Washington. Consequently, if we stayed, we would be an occupying army, which some Iraqis were convinced was already the case. And a majority of Americans supported withdrawal, sick of this costly war that did not seem to be serving any national interests beyond transferring tax revenues to companies like Haliburton.

 

To be sure, Obama (though more likely his military and intelligence people) might have taken notice of the rise of ISIS sooner, but the prime reason for the appearance of ISIS was the power vacuum and incompetent “democratic” government created in the wake of America’s unjustified and illegal invasion of Iraq. And that was your brother’s administration, Jeb, not Barack Obama’s. The Syrian civil war played a role of course, but it was the regime change and disbanding of the Iraqi army that opened the door to the Caliphate of Doom. Had that ruthless bastard Sadam still been around, who knows what might have happened?

Some of the major beneficiaries of the Iraq War:

"Thanks for all the military equipment, infidel dogs."

“Thanks for all the military equipment, infidel dogs.”

"Hey, we made money."

“Hey, we made money.”

"Ready to kill!"

“Ready to kill!”

Candidate Bush should know all this of course. For all his statements about being “his own man,” 19 of his 21 foreign policy advisors previously worked for his brother and/or his father. This fun group includes some fairly unsavory characters, behind the scenes professionals who never seem to lack for a job no matter how much they screw up. At the top of the list is the infamous and disgusting Paul Wolfowitz, Bush II’s Deputy Secretary of Defense, who created an office in the Pentagon to push for an invasion of Iraq, deliberately delivering false information to the media and government and obscuring the skepticism of the intelligence community. Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley also ignored warnings from the CIA and FBI, allowing Bush to make false claims; he was subsequently rewarded with promotion to National Security Advisor. And how about Meghan O’Sullivan, perhaps the top advisor to Paul Bremer, the man now recognized for his utter incompetence as the Imperial Viceroy of Iraq.

"No Ba'athists, no army and if you don't like the constitution I wrote, you can shove it."

Bremer “No Ba’athists, no army and if you don’t like the constitution I wrote, you can shove it.”

"We are the world."

Wolfowitz “We are the world.”

"You can rely on me."

Hadley “You can rely on me.”

So, much of the team that brought us the Iraq war is presumably working on how to deal with ISIS. This should be good.

 

Incidentally, allow me to throw in a telling statistic that puts the whole War on Terror in perspective. Between 9/11 and now 74 Americans (exclusive of the military) have been killed by people identified as terrorists; in that same period 150,000 Americans have been murdered with firearms. I suppose one way to look at this is that the War on Terror is working.

Arma Virumque Cano

 

In Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the early evening of February 10 a 46 year old man, Craig Stephen Hicks shot and killed three University of North Carolina students, Deah Barakat, 23, Yusor Abu-Salha, 21, and Razan Abu-Salha, 19.  As their names readily suggest, the three were Muslims, American born, and they were all killed by a handgun. (Anchors on CNN kept describing them as “wonderful” young people, which I expect they were, but is this objective reporting? Would it be any less a horrible crime if they were unemployed and obnoxious?)

The shooter - another victim of the Second Amendment

The shooter – another victim of the Second Amendment

Victims of the Second Amendment

Victims of the Second Amendment

The details of the shooting are unclear – police are slipping into the secrecy mania that seemingly affects most public servants – but it appears to have resulted from an ongoing dispute over a parking place, the sort of trivial incident that is increasingly leading to the use of deadly force in America. The shooter and his victims were neighbors in a residential community near the UNC campus, and the students were shot in the apartment of the newly-wed couple, Deah and Yusor. The circumstances of the crime are mysterious. Each was killed by a single shot to the head, and while the police found eight shell casings, suggesting that Hicks missed with five of his shots, three clean shots to the heads of three different people is nevertheless still strange. Unless the victims were completely frozen with fear, Hicks must be a phenomenal shot. I have shot handguns, and even at close range hitting a moving target as small as a human head is not at all easy. But again, we do not know all the evidence.

Because the victims are Muslim, the possibility of a hate crime is being tossed about. In online posts Hicks has labeled himself a “gun-toting atheist” and has made fun of Christianity and Islam, but so far there is no word of any actual expression of hate for any group. Being contemptuous of Christianity and Islam is not hate; I do not have much regard for any of the Abramic religions. That he had a house full of guns and ammunition means only that he is like thousands of other Americans. The fact that his victims are Muslim may have tipped him into violence, but it may simply be this was the argument when he lost control.

I find the whole idea of a “hate crime” a bit disturbing. Our legal system rightly makes distinctions concerning intent – thus the difference between homicide and manslaughter –   but considering motive as a factor in determining the seriousness of the crime and the extent of the punishment strikes me as a dangerous practice. This comes perilously close to punishing a person for what he was thinking, and in a free society one may think whatever he wants. So long as one is not creating an immediate physical danger, such as inciting a riot or an attack, hate speech is protected under the First Amendment, and presumably so is hate thought. The distinction between killing a man because you hate him and killing him because you hate the group he belongs to seems an extremely fine one. Suppose a violent thief happens to hate Muslims and murders a Muslim whose money he wants to steal. Is this a hate crime? And what groupings qualify for hate crimes – just those defined by religion or ethnicity? Suppose you hate Republicans and kill one for that reason. Is that a hate crime? Slaughtering schoolchildren because you are an adolescent with problems and slaughtering schoolchildren because you are an anti-Semite seem equally heinous to me. Certainly, the innocents are equally dead.

More important than this exercise in social engineering is the fact that yet more people are dead because someone, whatever he felt about Muslims, got angry and had immediate access to a firearm. Petty disputes, such as over parking or being cut off on the highway, have become deadly because of the availability of guns and the consequent ability to express anger in a lethal manner. Silly arguments that might have resulted in a fist fight now result in a dead human being. That an “armed society is a polite society” is clearly a ludicrous proposition, especially in a country, such as America, that has long had a culture of violence. Respect engendered by fear hardly strikes me as a laudable social goal.

Women who hang out with guys with small dicks?

Women who hang out with guys with small dicks?

Guys with small dicks

Guys with small dicks

Concealed carry only exacerbates the fear: you never know who is packing and might turn on you.  The state of New Mexico is even considering allowing concealed carry in bars, an idea that should strike sensible people as madness.  Is alcohol and guns any less threatening than alcohol and automobiles (not that New Mexico is particularly concerned about the latter)?  But open carry is also dangerous – and downright embarrassing.  In what other civilized country can you see shoppers carrying assault rifles as they push their carts about?  An armed society is not a polite society; it is some ways a failed society.  And “stand your ground” legislation, as the state of Florida has amply demonstrated, does nothing more than promote violence, suggesting to some people that when confronted with some offense or imagined threat, they are quite justified is blowing someone’s head off.

The Second Amendment – the right to bear arms – made perfect sense in the late 18th century.  It does not in the early 21st century.  We no longer have a “well regulated militia” but rather a professional army, nor do we have a frontier requiring an armed citizenry.  In modern warfare untrained armed citizens are useless against any real military force, and civilians with guns are no defense against tyranny so long as the military remains obedient to the government.

Personal firearms for self-defense may make sense in some few situations, but packing a gun is more likely to find you trouble, especially with the increasingly trigger-happy police forces.  Carrying an assault rifle into Walmart has absolutely nothing to do with personal safety; it is a stupid macho demonstration that disturbs more sensible citizens.  Home defense is more reasonable, but the fact is if you have a firearm in your house you are twenty-two more times likely to experience a serious gun accident, suicide attempt or assault/homicide.  On the average, for every one time a home firearm is used in self-defense or a justified shooting, there were four accidents, seven assaults/homicides and eleven suicide attempts.  Even just living in states with large numbers of guns dramatically increases your chance of being shot.  According to the CDC in 2011 there were 32,351 gun deaths in the US (and we worry about terrorists?), of which 591 were considered accidental, victims under the age of 18 accounting for 102 of those deaths.

I expect one of the reasons American police are employing so much deadly force is because the country is awash in firearms, most of them perfectly legal.  The police have come to expect that any perpetrator will have a gun, and the result is a hair trigger mentality and an increase in shootings of unarmed individuals.  How often do you hear about this sort of thing happening in Europe, where access to firearms is strictly controlled?

What can we do about this?  Well, nothing.  Restricting gun ownership runs right up against the damn Second Amendment, and it would be easier to repeal the law of gravity.  There are of course measures short of this – background checks, prohibition of private sales, registration of all firearms, requiring a license to own a gun – but apart from background checks (less effective when you can turn around and legally sell a gun to someone on the street) it is extremely unlikely.  Politicians, especially Republicans, are sensitive to their gun-owning constituents, and there is of course the National Rifle Association.  There is always a cry for gun control legislation when some loonie massacres schoolchildren, but it rapidly fades, particularly in the face of NRA propaganda and money.  Until the 1970s the NRA was actually a reasonable organization, interested in gun safety and open to gun control, then a leadership change initiated its evolution into little more than a shill for the gun industry, resistant to even the slightest limits on firearm acquisition and use.

People seem oblivious to the irony that while we are wringing our hands and spending billions of dollars to protect Americans from Middle Eastern terrorists who would have a tough time getting at anyone in this country, virtually nothing is done to stop the homegrown slaughter that annually takes thousands of American lives.

And in case you were wondering, yes, I do own guns.  They are almost all antiques, which I collect, and I rarely go shooting, but I must admit that when handling something like an AK-47 I can feel a taste of the macho high that motivates the jerks running around the woods of Idaho in their camos.  Fortunately, I am not an idiot.

How true

How true

Green Eggs and Cicero

I was of course surprised to discover that US Senator Ted Cruz was a cum laude graduate of Princeton University; he must have missed the class on rational thought.  Remember, this is the man who read all of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham during a filibuster.  In any case, in a recent speech he balanced this, I suppose, by paraphrasing an oration of M. Tullius Cicero, the In Catilinam (Against Catiline), delivered before the Roman Senate in 63 BC.  Cruz quotes the opening passage (I.1-3) of the first of the four Catiline speeches, adding and removing words in order to modify the oration into an attack on President Obama, whom he believes is threatening the American Senate and the Constitution.

T. Tullius Cruz

T. Tullius Cruz

M. Tullius Cicero

M. Tullius Cicero

L. Sergius Catilina (c.108-63 BC) was a familiar denizen of the Late Republic, politically ambitious and an increasingly desperate extremist.  The almost five hundred year old Roman Republic was in its death throes, and little more than three decades after Catiline it would finally give way to the Principate, the military autocracy established by Octavian/Augustus (see Stuff from Way Back #26: Image Is Everything).  These are the final days of the Roman Revolution, which had begun in 133 BC with the attempted reforms of Senator T. Sempronius Gracchus, who understood that in the wake of the Hannibalic War (218-201 BC) and the rapid expansion into the wealthy Greek east Italy had undergone massive demographic change that required reform.  Unfortunately, the Senate had become corrupted and resisted any challenge to their authority, even the relatively minor changes proposed by Gracchus.

The result was the Revolution.  Gracchus resorted to more revolutionary – perfectly legal but unprecedented – tactics by appealing directly to the citizen assemblies, which had generally been content to ratify anything the Senate recommended.  His success drove the Senate to more radical resistance, and Gracchus and his supporters ended up dead in a “riot.”  But they had demonstrated it was possible to challenge the Senate, and as the struggle continued, reform was forgotten as politically ambitious individuals entered the fray on both sides for their own reasons.  Within a half century violence had become endemic in the political arena and was finally formalized by the entrance of the legions, and Rome experienced her first civil war in 83-82 BC, resulting in the effective dictatorship of L. Cornelius Sulla.

Sulla actually retired after destroying the opposition and strengthening the position of the Senate, but he himself was the perfect role model for new men seeking power.  Seemingly restored, the Republic was already dead, and the second half of the revolution, though still witnessing political battles centered in the Senate, was essentially a contest among incredibly powerful men and ultimately their armies.  In the 60s BC those men were Cn. Pompeius Magnus, riding an inflated military reputation, and M. Licinius Crassus, the wealthiest man in Rome and political patron of the up and coming C. Julius Caesar.  In 60 BC the three would form a coalition to dominate the state, the First Triumvirate, which would lead to a civil war between Pompey and Caesar in 49-46 BC.

Catiline was one of the minor losers in this environment.  In 63 BC he failed in his second bid for the consulship (the two annually elected consuls were the highest state officials, able to command troops), and seriously in debt and apparently abandoned by Crassus, he was now desperate enough to form a conspiracy to seize control of Rome.  While his associates in the city created chaos and murdered prominent leaders, including Cicero, he would raise a populist revolt in Italy and march on Rome.  This plan was doomed from the start, since even had he succeeded, the inevitable result would be the return of Pompey from the east with his army to restore order, something Crassus and Caesar certainly did not want to see.

L. Sergius Catilina

L. Sergius Catilina

As it happened, the conspiracy was discovered, and Cicero, one of the two consuls, persuaded the Senate to pass the consultum ultimum (“last decree”), a controversial mechanism that in effect declared a state of emergency and directed the consuls to take extraordinary measures to protect the Republic.  Catiline fled to muster his insurgents in Etruria, while his co-conspirators in Rome were arrested, which led to a hot debate in the Senate regarding their fate.  For his own political reasons Caesar argued that as Roman citizens they could not be put to death without a trial, a constitutional point that swayed the Senate, but up popped M. Porcius Cato Uticensis (the Younger), a man so conservative that even most Romans considered him off the deep end.  (The Cato Institute is well named.)  He argued that the conspirators, who were obviously guilty, were no longer citizens because they had plotted against the government and the Senate had to take bold action to nip any insurrection in the bud.  The Senate was persuaded, and the prisoners were executed.

Cato the Younger

Cato the Younger

Cicero before the Senate

Cicero before the Senate

Cato was of course wrong.  Catiline by now had taken up arms against the state and could be legally killed, but the others had taken no action.  In following the advice of the Senate, which he was not bound to do, Cicero had grossly violated basic laws of the Republic.  The news of the executions, however, caused Catiline’s troops to begin melting away, and he was easily defeated by the other consul, C. Antonius Hybrida.  Catiline fought to the death.

Thus, Cruz takes the role of Cicero, defending the Republic, that is, the Congress and Constitution, from Obama, an American Catiline who is threatening the state, not with an army and murder but with executive action.  Paraphrasing a speech of Cicero, the great orator and defender of the Republic, is clever on Cruz’ part, but the analogy is stretched past the breaking point.  Granted Catiline was a populist, seeking to capitalize on popular dissatisfaction with inept Senatorial rule, but he intended to assassinate members of the Senate and seize Rome by military force, hardly in the same league with an executive action.  Cruz argues that the action would be unconstitutional because Obama would be creating law, yet George W. Bush did the same thing, tinkering with the existing situation, just as Obama claims to be doing.

And it must be remembered that the Republic that Cicero was defending in 63 BC was already dead, and the Senate had become a corrupt body, filled with toadies belonging to Pompey and Crassus.  Perhaps here the analogy is correct, since Cruz is defending a Senate filled with members beholden to corporate financiers.  Further, in the interests of expediency this Senate was willing to violate a basic constitutional right (though the Republic had no written constitution) of Roman citizens in the interests of national security, something of course that resonates with the entire American government.

Though an incredibly vain man, Cicero was eloquent, extremely intelligent and a patriot who preferred to die with the Republic rather than flee.  Ted Cruz is a joke, a man of little dignity.  It is impossible to imagine Cicero tying up the Roman Senate with an extended reading of Viridia ova atque perna.

viridia ova atque perna

viridia ova atque perna

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!”

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.

What a Choice!

Why is there no Democratic Policy Guide to match the Republican version?  Well, most simply, while Democrats are as self-serving and dependent on big money as their Republican friends, their party is not nearly so blatantly anti-science, pro-Christian, heartlessly pro-wealth and abusive of females as the GOP.  The Democrats may not do as they say, but what they say – with some glaring exceptions – generally makes sense for an industrialized society in the 21st century.  Their geopolitical thinking of course appears firmly rooted in the 20th century, but even that is attractive contrasted with the Republicans, all of whose policies seem appropriate for the Gilded Age (excepting of course that the Robber Barons of that time actually produced goods and services for the country).  The economic ignorance – or dissimulation – of the GOP is breath-taking, especially considering that even a superficial knowledge of the last hundred years of American history reveals that laissez-faire capitalism can only damage a modern society and generate massive economic inequality.  They are classic extremists, who have set the bar very high.  What positions would Democrats need to take to be as radically to the left as the Republicans are to the right?  Stalinism?  Maoism?

Now, candidate Obama.  Granted, he actually knows (or has people who know) some basic economics (e.g., austerity and deficit pay-off are the worst thing to engage in during a recession) and granted, he inherited a mammoth mess and has lately faced a hostile Congress (including his own party).  But his actions bespeak a man who cannot be bothered to exert himself to fight for his promises and who is just as enamored with the apparatus of national security and the power of the government, especially the Presidency, as any red-blooded conservative.  In fact, this may be the one area where the Democrats outdo the Republicans: hypocrisy.

Being a “progressive” politician apparently does not mean any more commitment to the truth than being a conservative does.  His campaign lies are not as staggering as those of Paul Ryan, but the lies are there (Obama: 1 of 50 statements false; Romney, et al.: 1 of 10), and he avoids the serious media as diligently as Mitt.  After all, they check facts.  Better to talk to People magazine and friendly local radio stations than the White House Press Corps with their annoying regard for facts.  Better the social networks, where disregard for truth is pretty much part of the system.

Obama promised the most transparent White House ever.  That used to be emblazoned on the official White House web site, but I can no longer find it.  Wow!  Are they being honest about their need to be opaque?  All governments want to control their image and avoid letting the public know anything embarrassing, but the present administration might be considered the most opaque ever had it not been preceded by the Bush administration.  Actually, in one area of image control Obama is outdoing his predecessor.   In 1917 Congress passed the Espionage Act, which, as the name suggests, was designed to provide the government with the tools to prosecute those supplying American secrets to a foreign power, i.e., spies. In the 95 years since then the Act has been used on nine occasions to prosecute Americans responsible for leaking classified information not to a potential enemy state but rather to the American media, and thus the American public.  Of those nine instances of the Espionage Act being thusly misused six fall under the Obama administration.  And now he is apparently putting incredible pressure on London to get Julian Assange in a position where he can be extradited to the United States.

Only one aspect of the Bush security apparatus has been eliminated, torture in interrogations, which probably still goes on in the back rooms and undisclosed locations of our countless intelligence agencies. Otherwise, Guantanamo remains open, detainees will receive military trials, we still have detention without trial and none of the provisions of the Constitutionally questionable Patriot Act have been rescinded.  On other fronts, the “too-big-to-fail” banks are now even bigger, and the financial industry appears to be no more regulated now than it was when the economy collapsed.  We are still in Afghanistan, and despite the fact that both the American and Afghani peoples do not want us there, despite the increasingly obvious evidence that the war is a failure, we will be keeping – and losing – our troops there for another year.  Is he afraid of “looking weak” or perhaps the huge collection of war contractors have been on the horn to their purchased congressmen?  To be fair, however, were the Republicans in control, we would be sending more troops to Afghanistan and would still be in Iraq.

Oh, the drones.  Clearly, Bush was a piker when it came to blowing up people around the world, and if anything, Obama is even more oblivious to international law than Bush was.  He has no concern for national sovereignty beyond our own, and while his rhetoric on the Middle East was promising, he has done absolutely nothing in that area except to get more entangled in Israel’s plans to wage a war of aggression.  Perhaps I am unfair here, because who knows what is going on behind the closed doors of diplomacy?  On the other hand, his Attorney General has publically assured us that all of his boss’ activities around the globe are perfectly legal according to international law, a staggering expression of self-serving nonsense.

There seems to be something wrong with Barack Obama, something that goes beyond just being another politician, but for all his faults he and his party are so much better than the increasingly screwball Republicans that were the economy in slightly better shape he would not have to campaign at all.  Nevertheless, I am sick of voting for the lesser of two evils and will drop out of the system.  I am tempted to think in Baader-Meinhof terms and hope that Romney and friends have their chance to ruin the country and demonstrate how utterly wrong they are about most everything, but it is after all my country, and all they are likely to produce is extremism from the other end of the political spectrum.  The nation is in serious trouble.