Monday, February 28, 2011

Hello darkness, my old friend

Americans love revolutions. But conservative intellectual Niall Ferguson thinks we should be afraid – very afraid – of the revolts unfolding in Arabia.

The Harvard history professor believes Americans are naïve about the nature of rebellion and notes (rightly) that most end in carnage and tyranny. Comparing the upheavals in Libya, Egypt and elsewhere to our own revolution is a fool’s errand, in Ferguson’s view.

Ferguson writes:
“The people who made the American Revolution were, by 18th-century standards, exceptionally well-off and well-educated. People in Libya today are closer to the sans-culottes of the Paris back streets, the lumpenproletariat of the Petrograd slums, or the illiterate peasants who flocked to Mao’s standard. And that is why the likelihood of large-scale and protracted violence is so much greater in the Arab world today than it ever was in North America in the 1770s. Poor, ill-educated young men. Around 40 million of them. […] The far more likely outcome—as in past revolutions—is that power will pass to the best organized, most radical, and most ruthless elements in the revolution, which in this case means Islamists like the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Professor Ferguson’s points are worth mulling seriously. Yet, he sees only darkness where there remains the possibility of light. I am not as pessimistic as he. History does not repeat itself precisely. Ferguson underestimates Arab fatigue with autocracy (be it secular or theocratic) and overestimates the power of radicals. It’s a new day. Tellingly, he fails to mention that the most radicalized Islamist group of them all – Al Qaeda – has been totally sidelined in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and elsewhere. That fact alone is a game-changing development. The question now is whether the Obama White House can fashion a coherent grand strategy to exploit this potential opening in Arabia. That will require fresh thinking, bold action and, with all due respect to Hillary Clinton, a new secretary of state.

Obama, with his focus on domestic affairs, and Clinton, with her evident inability to think strategically, can be fairly criticized (as Ferguson does) for allowing the remnants of Cold War orthodoxy drive foreign policymaking in the Middle East. The status quo – propping up autocratic regimes for the illusion of stability – is no longer tenable. If we’re wily enough, there remains an historic opportunity to soften the landing of the revolts. Ferguson’s darker scenarios are not inevitable. But it’s going to require Obama getting his best international chess game on. Now's the time to start earning that Nobel Peace Prize the world awarded you, Mr. President.

Welcome to the Dark Ages

Truthdig columnist Chris Hedges is not happy about the recent sale of The Huffington Post to AOL for an eye-popping $315 million. He believes "Huffington's Plunder" is emblematic of the rapid decline of American journalism. In a compelling, passionate, well-written lament, he explains why. Read it here.

On the future of news, Hedges writes:
"[The newspaper] has been replaced by Internet creations that mimic journalism. Good reporters, like good copy editors or good photographers, who must be paid and trained for years while they learn the trade, are becoming as rare as blacksmiths. Stories on popular sites are judged not by the traditional standards of journalism but by how many hits they receive, how much Internet traffic they generate, and how much advertising they can attract. News is irrelevant. Facts mean little. Reporting is largely nonexistent. No one seems to have heard of the common good. Our television screens are filled with these new chattering celebrity journalists. They pop up one day as government spokespeople and appear the next as hosts on morning news shows. They deal in the currency of emotion, not truth. They speak in empty clichés, not ideas. They hyperventilate, with a spin from the left or the right, over every bit of gossip. And their corporate sponsors make these court jesters millionaires. We are entertained by these clowns as corporate predators ruthlessly strip us of our capacity to sustain a living, kill our ecosystem because of greed, gut civil liberties and turn us into serfs."
I'm not sure things are quite as bleak as Hedges paints them. Yet there's no denying that the state of journalism is dismal and getting worse. Though havens of great news reporting remain, the holdouts increasingly resemble Custer's Last Stand. And as Hedges argues, mash-ups like HuffPo and its imitators aren't helping matters. Still, my inner optimist senses that we're at a turbulent transition point as we leave Old Media behind. Though it has yet to emerge, something fresh and worthy of journalism is struggling to be born.

What passes for journalism today is not sustainable over the long term. The reason is simple: For every reader captured or retained by a news outlet, two or more abandon it. That's called a death spiral. Yet, pent-up demand for professional journalism and good storytelling remains. But it's going to take something novel (probably tied to technology) to captivate the public again. That, I think, is the thing that’s trying to birth itself now. Unless we get lucky (and we might), the newborn’s delivery will take time. So, our meanderings through journalism’s present Dark Ages could be lengthy.

A word from the ugly Republican

"Lawrence O'Donnell and Bill Maher epitomize the ugliness of liberalism." Those ridiculous words belong to chief dittohead Rush Limbaugh. When it comes to sheer ugliness, talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Queen's Gambit?

Citing military officials, the Wall Street Journal reports that the Pentagon is "repositioning warships and planes in the waters off Libya to be ready to enforce a no-fly zone or deliver humanitarian aid" to prep for possible intervention in Libya's civil war. Knowing President Obama is working the levers behind the scenes, the move reminds me of the "Queen's Gambit" in chess. Per the QueensGambit website, the opening is popular with Grandmasters and is one of the oldest. It lends itself to a quieter, more positional style of player, although there are many lines with complex tactical positions. Yep, sure sounds like Mr. Obama.

Countdown to meltdown

"I am on a drug. It's called 'Charlie Sheen.' It's not available because if you try it once, you will die. Your face will melt off, and your children will weep over your exploded body," said the ex-star of CBS's "Two and a Half Men" during a bizarre interview on "Good Morning America." I could be wrong, but Charlie Sheen is displaying all of the symptoms of schizophrenia. The delusions of grandeur (he says he has Kryptonite-free "tiger blood"), persecution complex (everybody's out to get him), anti-Semitic remarks, denial of his substance abuse problem -- it's all there. It's a shame that the news media complex is cravenly exploiting his condition for ratings. As I've said before, we're watching a train wreck unfold -- live, and in HiDef. When is some responsible party in the media going to do the right thing and say stop? Yeah, I know -- I must be as high as Sheen for making the plea.

Your brain on crack

"I'm underpaid right now. I'm tired of pretending like I'm not special. I'm tired of pretending like I'm not bitchin', a total frickin' rock star from Mars." -- Charlie Sheen on CBS "Good Morning America."

Sunday, February 27, 2011

Oscar gets it right

The King's Speech won "best picture" at the 83rd Academy Awards, and deservedly so. Colin Firth also took home the Oscar for lead actor. On the red carpet, Dame Helen Mirren summarized it best: "'The King's Speech' had little to do with the royal family. I don't think it struck a nerve so much as it's a well-made film and a story that is very accessible, and about a simple personal human struggle that we all have in different ways. So I think the simplicity was a great appeal. It has incredible performances and it's a beautifully made film."

Nitpicking history to death

"I would have had a hard time recognizing my own brother," said a sibling of T.E. Lawrence after watching his portrayal in Lawrence of Arabia. Intimates of King George VI would probably say much the same after viewing The King's Speech, the movie likely win an Oscar or two tonight. Adding insult to injury, neither Lawrence nor George were anywhere near as handsome as Peter O'Toole or Colin Firth. Critics like Isaac Chotiner ("Royal Mess") and Christopher Hitchens ("Churchill Didn't Say That") argue that Hollywood's version of the stammering king is riddled with historical inaccuracies. Both critiques are right. But both are decidedly beside the point. Writing in the Washington Post, film historian Jeanine Basinger says historical movies use facts to create drama. "History - whether in books, lectures or movies - is always someone's story. Every movie based on a true story has condensed, simplified, telescoped, created explanatory characters, eliminated facts, introduced political significance, altered timelines and omitted details. It's part of the craft."

I'm like, whoa, this is English?

Yesterday, I posted an item about the decline and fall of the spoken word. "Vagueness," writes critic Clark Whelton, is a "linguistic virus" that is infecting the American spoken language. As a result, he thinks too many of us are too often reverting back to a kind of child-speak best exemplified by serial grammar-abusers like Snooki Polizzi: "I was like, my bronzer’s leaking off my face, and stuff." We hear verbal constructs like this all the time. I confess to using them myself when making a sardonic point. Still, I think the King's English will survive this latest assault to its linguistic castle keep. Then again, I can't help but marvel at the inroads to it, even in the vocalizations of very, very smart artists like Gore Verbinski, director of the "Pirates of the Caribbean" movie franchise. During an otherwise erudite interview with the New York Times about his next film project, Verbinski injected this gem: "And I was like, whoa, hey, this is an identity-quest movie." Sigh. Let's hope the castle's ramparts are sturdy.

Just a thought

I was scanning the New York Times headlines this morning and came across this: "Lawmakers Debate Weapons on Campuses." Put aside the pro and cons of letting students carry firmarms at public universities. How did we get to a place where we're discussing the prospect of students, our children, packing heat at all, let alone in the halls of higher learning? If ever the fevered paranoia of a minority succeeds in pushing America across this Rubicon, the descent into madness and self-destruction will be swift.

Gabby, an update

In a lengthy piece about Rep. Gabrielle Giffords's recovery, the Washington Post writes, "The congresswoman wears a helmet designed with colors of the Arizona flag when she goes to therapy. With it off, her friends say, she looks like herself. Her hair is growing back; the wounds on her head are healing. She listens, smiles and frowns at appropriate moments. She speaks single words even though she cannot yet carry on a conversation. [...] Healing proceeds in small steps ..." The article is a difficult but poignant read, and worth your time.

An appropriate affront

Noy Alooshe, an Israeli journalist and musician, put together a brilliant spoof of Colonel Qaddafi on YouTube. It's the latest (and well-deserved) affront to the delusional Libyan strongman, reports the New York Times. Alooshe took Qaddafi’s televised speech last Tuesday (the discombobulated rant in which he vowed to hunt down protesters “inch by inch, house by house," etc) and turned it into a "trance party" clip. Evidently, the Arab world loves it and the video, an instant classic, has gone viral on the Web. It's a late entry, but Mr. Alooshe deserves an honorary Oscar. Check out the clip here.

Quote of the Day

On Sarah Palin and the presidency: "And I think if she wants to prove she’s ready for this, you got to have some unscripted moments. Now, she may very well be up to it. If she is, good for her. But I think people want to see that. [...] They want to see that about her to make a judgment as to can you trust somebody in the Oval Office who can do that? Unless you do those unscripted moments, I think it’s hard to get the person to pull the lever for you.” -- New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie on "Face the Nation"

Saturday, February 26, 2011

Quote of the Day

"Change your opinions, keep to your principles; change your leaves, keep intact your roots." -- Victor Hugo, French novelist ("Les Misérables"), born this day in 1802

Wither English, and stuff

Like a lot of folks (me included), Clark Whelton mourns the the decline and fall of American English. To wit, a woman describes a baby squirrel that she had found in her yard: “And he was like, you know, ‘Helloooo, what are you looking at?’ and stuff, and I’m like, you know, ‘Can I, like, pick you up?,’ and he goes, like, ‘Brrrp brrrp brrrp,’ and I’m like, you know, ‘Whoa, that is so wow!’ ” As the woman rambled on, Whelton notes, "she never said anything specific about her encounter with the squirrel." Read the rest of his witty lament here.

Divided we stand

The Washington Monthly argues that the "GOP caucuses in both chambers have embraced a hysterical, borderline-nihilist worldview, which is often terrifying in its scope and severity." This political disease is now spreading to GOP governorships, in their view. Moderates like Charlie Crist in Florida and Arnold Schwarzenegger in California are becoming quaint relics. Therefore, "President Obama not only has to resolve crises unlike anything his predecessors have dealt with in generations, he has to do so with a ridiculous Republican Party in Washington that approaches public policy with all the sophistication of a junior-high student government, and Republican governors who resist effective policies for purely ideological reasons." A troubling state of affairs.

Integrity matters, Wisconsin

Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker got "punked," as it is fashionable to say. It seems he took a call from a liberal blogger pretending to be conservative billionaire David Koch, a patron. Read Dana Milbank's witty take on the episode here. Anyway, during the chat, Walker praised Tim Cullen, a centrist state senator, as a "pretty reasonable" chap, for a Democrat. A principled man would have stopped there. But the blissful Walker chose instead to swan-dive over the proverbial cliff: "But he's not one of us. ... He's not there for political reasons. He's just trying to get something done. ... He's not a conservative. He's just a pragmatist." Like Milbank, I, too, wondered when “pragmatist” became an epithet. I’ll make two predictions. Cullen's epitaph will read: “An honorable man who got things done.” Walker’s epitaph will read: “A charlatan who was one of us.” I hate to say this, Wisconsin, but you elected this cheesehead. Now you’re reaping the whirlwind. The lesson: Brains and integrity do matter, regardless of party. And the higher the office, the more it matters.

Friday, February 25, 2011

Cheesehead Fail

Republican Gov. Scott Walker, like so many on the right, fancies himself as a hardcore Reaganite. For Wisconsin's top cheesehead, the Gipper is the source of all wisdom and eternal truth. But consider this: In late 1981, the Soviet-controlled Polish government outlawed Solidarity, the independent trade union. The move outraged then-President Reagan. During a December 1981 address, Reagan said, "[...] the Polish regime’s action yesterday reveals the hollowness of its promises. By outlawing Solidarity, a free trade organization to which an overwhelming majority of Polish workers and farmers belong, they have made it clear that they never had any intention of restoring one of the most elemental human rights — the right to belong to a free trade union." Somebody needs to remind Walker and his union-busting cohorts in today's GOP about the meaning of those words. I’m no Reagan fan, but he is towering ever higher above his cheap imitators.

Quote of the Day

“In my opinion, any future defense secretary who advises the president to again send a big American land army into Asia or into the Middle East or Africa should ‘have his head examined,’ as General MacArthur so delicately put it.” -- Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates at West Point

Thursday, February 24, 2011

The New New Thing

Well, it's official. The news media has found its next bright, shiny object. Drum roll, please. Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for New Jersey Governor Chris Christie. The New York Times has just rolled out an 8-page opus by Matt Bai for its Sunday magazine. Never heard of Gov. Christie? No worries, you will. He is the gruff-talking President Glen Walken (John Goodman) of The West Wing, Gov. Willie Stark of All The King's Men, Gov. Huey P. Long of Louisiana, Joe Sixpack with more brains and part Tony Soprano -- all rolled into one huge package. Weighing in at 250 lbs (at least), Christie has kept Dunkin' Donuts afloat virtually alone. "I'm pretty fat," he admitted without blinking an eye. Talk about made for TV. And man, can he walk the talk. If you thought our coverage of Sarah Palin was obscenely obsessive (she is so 2010), you ain't seen nothin' yet. Christie is not – repeat not – running for president in 2012 (he's offered to commit Seppuku to prove it), but we'll keep insisting that he is. Trust us, America, our pet goat man Christie is the next household name. He’s the “new new thing.” Just you wait.

We, Narcissists

Mark Zuckerberg didn't invent Facebook. We did, claim Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss, the gratuitously rich and handsome twins who once worked with Harvard classmate Zuckerberg.

Per the Los Angeles Times, the 6-foot-5 brothers are contesting a $160 million out-of-court settlement they reached with Facebook three years ago. Facebook owes them more, the twins say. Much more. If they win their court appeal, they'll have a chance to score at least $600 million based on Facebook's current $50 billion valuation.

A successful appeal means they'll get another shot in court to win a new settlement amount. But once there, the current settlement is nulled. So, it's all or nothing. Legal experts say they'll likely lose their appeal. In that case, the twins will be forced to: Split the $160M already won, park it in separate Swiss accounts, and console themselves by crying into identical champagne glasses of Shipwrecked 1907 Heidsieck. What a bummer that would be.

The twins insist it's not about the money. Right. It's all about the money. A writer for the UK’s Sunday Times described the two as “the binary expression of brain meets brawn [...] men so much on a mission that they can have no comprehension how pathetically flaky we lesser mortals are.” Here's some advice from a lesser mortal: Dudes, take the bloody money and run. You think you’ll get more girls with an additional $600 million? OK, don’t answer that. Just know that narcissism, even in Facebook-obsessed America, can only take you so far.

Whoa Nellie!

Evidently, the editors at Esquire collectively got out of the wrong side of bed this morning. Check out this massive (and, I think, inappropriate) take-down of New York Timesman David Brooks for his column about the Wisconsin protests:
"Usually, unless you happen to be one of the fifty-odd people with whom David Brooks customarily eats dinner, throws back a few, or gobbles the free snacks in Jim Lehrer's green room, reading one of his columns from the position of a normal, everyday, wage-earning human being gives you the inescapable feeling of being a bug, looking, upwards and backwards through the magnifying glass, at a giant eyeball. No columnist is as obviously convinced that everybody on earth is a specimen in his jar. No columnist is as utterly contemptuous of his fellow Americans if they don't stay pinned right there on the card where they belong. His self-important is that of a two-bit grifter, looking to sponge the loose change somebody might have left as a tip at Applebee's."
A two-bit grifter? My goodness. What brought that on? Apparently, Esquire is mortified that America has - gasp! - elites. And worst, as they make clear in their editorial, the likes of Brooks have "ingrained in themselves the habits of oligarchy." They say that if you read the Brooks column about Wisconsin, then you, too, shall see The Unadorned Truth according to Esquire. Or something. The editors believe that even President Obama has bought into this, um, conspiracy (they call it a "phenomenon"). As a result, Obama may "go down in history as the wrong man at the wrong time." Jeebus.

You know, in Freudian psychoanalysis, there's a roughly applicable term for this mindset. It's called Penis Envy. Memo to Esquire: You guys really need to get a grip. The fate of nation doesn't hinge on David Brooks' words, no matter how much he pontificates. And try debating him on the merits next time. Only "girlie men" make personal attacks.

Wisconsin explained, sorta

I'm not closely following the battle royal between union workers and Gov. Scott Walker. But my interest was piqued in the Republican governor when an Esquire editorial referred to him as "an undereducated county commissioner." Per Wikipedia, Walker was an Eagle Scout. Check. He met President Reagan as a teen (the source of his political aspirations). Check. He went to Marquette University in Milwaukee. Check. He ran for student body president as a sophomore promising to fix the school’s budget, but got bounced from the race for alleged campaign violations. Hmm. He graduated in … oops. Though he put in 4 years at Marquette, he didn’t earn a degree. He did earn 94 credits with a C grade point average. He later explained to the Wisconsin State Journal, "...once I had [a good job], family became more important than getting a degree." Fair enough. Walker worked in sales before entering politics. That’s probably how he learned to “walk the talk,” as they say. So, yes, he’s clearly not the brightest light in the harbor. It’s likely a reason why he isn’t politically nuanced. The less educated one is, the easier it is to adopt rigid ideologies. But, fine. That’s not a crime. But his background does help explain why Wisconsin is having problems in governance.

Palin Crack

"You know you want it," Andrew Sullivan drolly wrote today. Excerpts from former Mama Grizzly aide Frank Baily's forthcoming book, In Blind Allegiance to Sarah Palin, are hitting like bombshells. I've always known the other shoe would drop eventually. Could this be the one that sinks her? Some tidbits (courtesy of the Daily Beast): Sarah and Todd had marital problems. Palin confided to Baily: "We're not like normal couples, Frank. We don't talk." The Palin children were evidently abandoned for "large stretches of time." In one e-mail, Palin wrote: "Bristol's mad at me. Says this isn't fun. Too bad." Palin sent Letters to the Editor lavishly praising herself but signed them with the names of supporters. Palin thinks of herself as the biblical heroine Queen Esther. Though it's unlikely God would approve, she urged her "prayer warriors" to pray for the demise of opponents. Hubby Todd said Palin walks around the house (nude or partially so) with her robe open, in front of windows ... and he's cool with that. And this is the unbalanced woman some hope will replace Obama as President of the United States. The mind reels.

Quote of the Day

Former aide Frank Baily thinks there's a beast inside Sarah Palin: "Her image is micro-managed on a minute-by-minute basis, and she has no interest in reflecting the truth when it might tarnish, even a smidgeon, her gloss. If she had any empathy for anyone, it lasted only as long as was convenient." (From his unpublished book)

DOMA doppelgänger haunts GOP

The Obama White House no longer thinks the Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA) is constitutional and has ordered the Justice Dept. to stop defending the law in court challenges. Naturally, the legal eagles on the right (mostly anti-gay pundits without "esquire" after their names) are unhappy. Welcome to another round of politically-motivated argument for (mostly) argument sake. Per the Washington Monthly, some conservatives charge that too-clever-by-half Obama is doing "an end-run around democracy." Too much power is being ceded to the Executive Branch, they fret. Others apocalyptically predict DOMA will doom Obama's entire presidency. But as the Washington Post calmly notes, "the Obama administration will cease defending the law in court; it won't cease enforcing it. It has publicly informed Congress of its decision, rather than writing a secret memo empowering the executive branch to pretend certain laws don't exist." Plus, the administration's legal maneuver is "hardly unprecedented," the Post says. That's good enough for me.

The siege of Madison

As part of the union protests in Wisconsin, demonstrators have, in effect, occupied the state capitol building by sleeping overnight in its main chamber. Presumably in an effort to break the siege, Sen. Scott Fitzgerald, the GOP's leader in the upper house, said today that access to parts of the Capitol will be closed off to the public starting tonight, per Fitzgerald's namesake, famed novelist F. Scott Fitzgerald, once said, "Some men have a necessity to be mean, as if they were exercising a faculty which they had to partially neglect since early childhood." The quote is poetically appropriate, don't you think?

Libya is not Egypt

Food for thought from James Miller of EA WorldView: "Libya is not Egypt or Tunisia. Muammar Qaddafi has no centralized government, has no institutions, and has few rivals inside his own government or military. This is why were are seeing a very different pattern in Libya. The protesters are physically taking control of the country, not just a single square, and they are sometimes doing so by force. Each man employed by the Libyan state is being forced to pick sides. Many are joining the protests, but there is no other way for this to play out than violent revolution. There is no government, to speak of, to hold a gun to the back of the dictator's head."

And what of Iran?

Mao Tse-Tung famously said, “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” Although I (and others) gleefully noted that this wasn’t the case in Egypt, the assertion was too glib in retrospect. History has stubbornly shown that Mao’s observation is more often right than wrong (see Libya). James Miller of EA WorldView acknowledges this reality in a thoughtful piece about Iran in the aftermath of Mubarak’s toppling. In Tehran, “The protesters are still showing up, still chanting, still marching, but as the old adage goes, words do not break bones,” he writes. “Events will move to the breaking point, when someone holds a gun to someone else's head, and everyone is forced to react.” I’m inclined to agree. Miller’s concluding words may prove prophetic. “The earthquakes of Egypt and Tunisia built up for a long time on softer ground. It has taken, and will take, much longer for the fault lines to break the foundations of Iran's government. When it happens, the regime is likely to go quickly, and like a high-magnitude earthquake, the results will be felt far and wide. We're already feeling the foreshocks, but the whole world is waiting for the big one.” Let’s hope it happens sooner rather than later.

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Quote of the Day

“We just want to be able to live like human beings.” -- Anonymous Libyan (Cited by President Obama in his remarks today)

Silence broken, carefully

President Obama walked before the cameras and broke his silence on Libya just as I finished my last post. He delivered a muscular but very carefully-worded statement.

“First, we are doing everything we can to protect American citizens. That is my highest priority,” the president said. That’s the reason he deliberately avoided mentioning Col. Qadhafi directly in his remarks.

Key passage:
“We strongly condemn the use of violence in Libya, the American people extend our deepest condolences to the families and loved ones of all that have been killed and injured. The suffering and bloodshed is outrageous and it is unacceptable. So are threats and orders to shoot peaceful protestors and further punish the people of Libya. These actions violate international norms and every standard of common decency. This violence must stop.”
Intriguingly, Obama also said the administration is preparing a “full range of options” for dealing with the crisis, including “those actions we may take” alone. Translation: Qadhafi, the day of reckoning is coming. ABC News also reported that Hillary Clinton will lean on the UN to kick Libya off its Human Rights Council. About time. Read the full text of Obama’s remarks or watch the video here.

Silence is golden, for now

Impatient interventionists, mostly on the right, are ratcheting up their handwringing over President Obama’s “deafening silence” on Libya. Alas, the struggle to “see what is in front of one’s nose” is especially true of armchair generalissimos opining from the cheap seats. William Kristol's op-ed is a classic example.

Here’s the reality on the ground: Roughly 5,000 U.S. citizens – men, women and children – live in Libya, according to the State Department. There are also 35 U.S. diplomats and their families residing there. Anarchy has closed Libyan airspace, so we’re evacuating our people via a sea ferry to Malta. The process takes time. Do those facts put Obama’s silence into proper perspective? It should.

Qadhafi is a full burger short of a Happy Meal. He may even be strung out on drugs as some reporting suggests. Mix in his martyr complex and penchant for brutally lashing out at foreign “infidels” and we have a recipe for a calamity that could easily degenerate into hostage taking or worst. At this stage, then, saber-rattling or airstrikes would only place American expats at greater risk. Yes, at some point, we may have to send the Marines back to the shores of Tripoli to fetch them. But we’re not there yet.

An “anonymous” senior U.S. official told the Washington Post, "There's a sequence here. The first step is to get American citizens out of harm's way. The second step is to fully document the human rights violations that are occurring. And the third step will be to take appropriate action under our laws." Trust me, folks, this is a deliberate leak from the White House. It’s the outline of Obama’s game plan. Acts I and II are quietly underway now. When the way is clear, don’t be surprised if Act III involves military muscle.

Channeling Qadhafi

Over the weekend, Mother Jones tweeted a report (which proved incorrect) that riot police were being sent to break up the protest at the Wisconsin capitol building. Twitter user JCCentCom gleefully responded: "Use live ammunition." Aghast, MoJo staff writer Adam Weinstein confronted him about the statement. In his reply, JCCentCom disparaged the protesters as "political enemies" and "thugs" who physically threatened "legally elected officials." Still, surely he wasn’t serious about shooting into a crowd. JCCentCom tweeted back, "You're damned right I advocate deadly force." He added "liberals hate police" and called Weinstein a "typical leftist." Just another whack job in full bloom, right? Not quite. It turns out JCCentCom is Jeffrey Cox, a deputy attorney general for the state of Indiana (one of 140 in that office). And he’s a 10-year veteran. Cox’s Twitter bio says he’s a “lawyer, writer, amateur classicist, military historian, runner, dancer and all-around weirdo.” He has 273 equally “all-around weirdo” followers on Twitter. My only question is this: How does an educated man like Cox get to a place where he can advocate the killing of peaceful, American demonstrators exercising their right to assemble? Madness.

UPDATE (2/24/2011): Cox has been officially consigned to history's ash heap. Indiana AG's spokesman Bryan Corbin confirmed that Cox had lost his job. To wit: "Today the Indiana Attorney General’s Office announced that Deputy Attorney General Jeffrey Cox is no longer employed by this agency ... as public servants we are held by the public to a higher standard, and we should strive for civility." Amen. Buh bye, Jeff.


The New Republic's Jon Chait asks, "Why is Washington obsessed with the deficit?" Short answer: Because the Washington press corps is obsessed with the deficit. But never mind. Read Chait's piece here.

Libya: Land of no good options

I rarely find usable insights on Politico, the political equivalent to the Daily Racing Form. But star writer Glenn Thrush put together a fairly decent piece about why the White House has remained mum on the Libyan crisis thus far. He notes that hundreds of Americans (and other foreigners) are still trying to get out of Tripoli. Since Qadhafi is crazy, rash U.S. action (like no-flight zones or selected airstrikes) might encourage him to take hostages. Gratuitous statements by Obama could adversely move markets already jittery about the supply of oil. A cut-off might spike higher gas prices and imperil economic recovery both here and abroad. Lastly, Libya ain't Egypt. What was a protest movement is now a full-blown civil war divided along tribal Bedouin lines. If/when the Qadhafi falls, there is nothing to replace him. Neither opposition nor governmental entities exist in any coherent form. The military is nakedly corrupt and tribalized. And the rule of law is a joke. Failed states abhor a vacuum. Therefore, anarchy is filling the void, and it will only get worse. As Thrush rightly says, Libya is the "land of no good options." It is in fact a black hole. If we boldly charge in, as some observers want, it becomes our black hole. Tread carefully, Mr. President.

2012 predictions for cousin Vito

It's way too early to read the tea leaves for the 2012 presidential election. Too much can happen between now and then, including some game-changing x-factor. And trust me, all polling at this stage is utterly meaningless.

But if cousin Vito held a water gun to Barbie’s head and said, “Gimme your 2012 picks right now – or the doll gets it,” then I'd say the election is Obama's to lose. He is still the most popular politician in the land. And if history is any guide, he will be a formidable candidate (the road to Rome, as they say, is littered with the political corpses of those who doubted his campaign skills). The economy’s health will be a determining factor, but not the only one. If Obama secures the independent vote, then it’s game over, Vito.

On the Republican side, I can barely see the tea leaves let alone read them. But I suspect Mitt Romney will become the GOP nominee by default. To me, he's the only electable candidate among the likely GOP entrants. (If Sarah Palin runs – and that’s a big if – her campaign will be distracting, short-lived, and the mother of all freak shows. And if by divine intervention she won the nomination, then Obama is guaranteed a 50-state landslide.) Though Romney is smart, rational and a pragmatist at heart, he’s desperately trying to cloak himself in ill-fitting Tea Party garb. It only adds to his reputation as a spineless panderer. Also, he’s about as exciting as watching paint dry, even for Republicans. It’s a safe bet Obama would clobber him.

Sorry Vito, but today I see no Republicans who can beat Obama in 2012. The one politician who might give Obama a run for his money, Jeb Bush, isn’t running. Though it’s a stretch, I could spin a plausible scenario in which Chris Christie (Vito's favorite), Mike Pence or John Thune might be competitive. But all have declined to run. Thune (an empty suit) formally bowed out today. Jon Huntsman, Obama’s ambassador to China, is another undeclared wannabe. The ex-Republican governor of Utah, now burnished with foreign policy expertise, is eminently qualified to be president. I’m told he’s even charismatic. But Huntsman is a moderate linked with Obama, and therefore a leper. So scratch Huntsman. Ex-Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty (another moderate forced to don Tea Party garb) has lit no fires to date and remains at the bottom of every GOP poll. The remaining GOP field (Gingrich, Huckabee, Trump, Bachmann, etc) are all Loony Tunes destined for history’s ash heap along with Palin.

And so the trap is sprung. The Republican establishment is now realizing how much damage the Tea Party and Palin have wrecked on the once Grand Old Party. The reactionaries have made it impossible for any moderate candidate with gravitas to win the 2012 nomination. And sensible Republicans know they cannot win the presidency without the political center, the place where most Americans live. Even if a Jeb Bush or Huntsman could magically surmount the party’s current dogma (i.e., the politics of the paranoid), they would still have to face-off against a popular sitting president in an improving economy. “That way madness lies,” as the Bard might advise, since most incumbent presidents win decisively.

Therefore, I think, the Republican “best of breed” will sit out 2012. By 2016, Obama will have left the building, Palin will have flamed-out, and the GOP will have awakened from its Tea Party fever dream. The presidential field will be wide open on both sides. The chance for a fresh start will beckon. The only potential fly in the ointment is the Democrats fielding another Obama archetype, perhaps this time in womanly form. You laugh? See Kamala D. Harris, California’s new attorney general. They’re already calling her the “Female Obama.”

Okay, Vito, satisfied now? Put the gun down Vito. No, your Gov. Christie can't win. Yes, Vito, I know you're both from New Jersey. Move away from the doll, Vito ...

Theater of the absurd, UN-style

Did you know Libya has a seat on the United Nations Human Rights Council, a body pledged to “strengthening the promotion and protection of human rights around the globe?” Between strafing protesters from the air, employing naval gunfire for crowd control and torturing anyone who doesn’t like it, Col. Gaddafi’s Libya “affirms the right of the individual to direct participation in the exercise of power, establishing a system of direct democracy based on the broad participation of all the people in the political and administrative decision-making process.” Meanwhile, Tripoli is burning tonight. Does anybody else think that maybe, just maybe, a change is in order at the HRC – or is it just me?

Hizzoner Emanuel

As predicted, former top Obama aide Rahm Emanuel won the Chicago mayoral race in a walk with 55 percent of the vote. It wasn’t even close. Famously known in DC (and on SNL) for his take-no-prisoners style, “Rahmbo” will take office in May. Tomorrow he may wonder what he has gotten himself into. Citing the city budget, an alderman from the North Side told the New York Times, “There are no more rabbits to pull out of the hat. What is left for the next mayor and the next City Council is a series of bad choices — cutting services, perhaps raising taxes and fees.” But that’s tomorrow. Tonight, Hizzoner is all smiles, and rightly so. The well-known “Rahm F-in Emanuel” parody site on Twitter summed it up best: “Let the reign of Rahm f-in begin! Chicago is motherf-in mine!” It sure is. Good luck to both.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

And - they're off!

I had to chuckle at David Corn's piece today about the prospect of Congress shutting down the government. Corn's op-ed is headlined: "Government Shutdown: Who Wins -- or Loses?" The real answer is: The Press. You could float the Titanic on the amount of digital ink the media generates on this confrontation between the Republican-controlled House and the White House. Corn is a good opinion journalist and, for political junkies, his piece (focused mostly on Speaker Boehner's strategy) is worth reading. Still, this approach to the story is emblematic of the Washington press corps' obsession with the political horse race -- i.e., who's up, who's down, who's winning or losing. Most Americans don't care about the sausage-making. They do care about the meaty content. But that's exactly what gets lost in process stories like Corn's.

Did we save the world yet?

Just after we invaded Iraq in 2003, ex-SecDef Donald Rumsfeld wanted to know why was it taking so long to save the world? Here's the memo in it's entirety. Nope, it's not a parody. It's an official Defense Dept. document:
April 7, 2003
To: Doug Feith (then-Under SecDef for Policy)
From: Donald Rumsfeld
Subject: Issues w/Various Countries.

We need more coercive diplomacy with respect to Syria and Libya, and we need it fast. If they mess up Iraq, it will delay bringing our troops home. We also need to solve the Pakistan problem. And Korea doesn't seem to be going well. Are you coming up with proposals for me to send around? Thanks.
Heck, why not throw in resolving the Israeli-Palestinian problem by, say, close of business Friday? This is just ... wow. The Atlantic dug up this jewel from Rummy's website, As the Washington Monthly drolly noted, Dick Cheney once called Rummy "the best Secretary of Defense the United States has ever had." Right. I still wonder how we survived Team Bush.

Why Libya isn't Egypt

From New Yorker writer Andrew Solomon ("How Qaddafi Lost Libya"): "A post-Qaddafi Libya could easily be roiled in internal battles, ultimately dividing into several smaller countries, each dominated by local tribes. That could make life better for some Libyans, and it could make life worse for others; it would almost surely be problematic for Western companies with oil interests in the country. Modern Libya is an artificial construct, a remnant of colonialism. The glue holding it together is failing, and the warnings of chaos are real. The choice between chaos and oppression is always a tricky one, but this population is tired of oppression and corruption, and chaos may look more attractive to them. Chaos tends, however, to wear thin." These observations ring true and are worth bearing in mind as events unfold in the Great Socialist People's Libyan Arab Jamahiriya. ("Jamahiriya" is Arabic for "republic ruled by the masses.") Read Solomon's terrific essay here.

Monday, February 21, 2011

Rummy blowing smoke big-time

Yesterday, on CNN’s Sunday talk show "State of the Union," ex-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld showed us again why he is as hollow as a rotten tooth cavity.

When asked if he thought the world now viewed the U.S. more positively under President Obama’s leadership, Rumsfeld said, “No, and I don't think there's data that supports that. I think he has made a practice of trying to apologize for America. I personally am proud of America.”

In one fell swoop, Rumsfeld repeated a wingnut falsehood and then insulted a sitting president. We can dispense with the slur that Obama is obsequious since the notion is preposterous on its face.

As for America’s revived popularity under Obama, let me count the ways. And let’s start with this reminder of where things stood at the height of the Bush presidency. In Feb. 2007, a BBC World Service poll of 25 nations found that only 29% viewed the U.S. positively – a precipitous drop from 40% in 2005. Put another way, 71% of the world thought we sucked.

Then Obama happened. Behold the sea change:

Oct-2009 (Nation Brand Index poll): Found the U.S. to be the “most admired country in the world.” Main reason cited: Obama. Feb-2010 (Gallup-Meridian Global poll): 51% of the world approved of Obama’s job performance, up from 34% in 2008 when Bush led. Dec-2010 (Gallup EU poll): Obama, 50% approval compared to Bush’s 19% in his last year of office. Feb-2011 (Gallup poll): 52% of Americans say foreign leaders respect Obama (a figure higher than what Presidents George W. Bush and Bill Clinton rated during most of their terms). Plus the world thinks Americans are the most attractive looking people on the planet to boot, according to a just released British survey. Heartthrob Obama probably has something to do with that, too. By any measure, the contrast to Team Bush is striking and obvious.

So, yeah, Rummy, the data you swore did not exist says Obama (and by extension, America) is way more popular on the world stage than your guy ever was. Given his astonishing inability to see reality or facts, is it now becoming clearer why Team Bush invaded Iraq to destroy WMDs that never existed on the fabricated advice of a defector named Curveball? As my British friends would put it, America never stood a chance with this crew of wankers at the helm.

Quote of the Day

"[Glenn] Beck's either deeply disturbed or he's exceptionally good at pretending to be deeply disturbed." -- Steve Benen, Washington Monthly

Wanted: Federal Goodfellas

Well, it seems the Bush administration got conned (again) back in 2007. Per the NY Times, a California man claimed to have invented software that would uncover terrorist threats and even catch Bin Laden. Turns out it was all a crock. D'oh! It'd be funny if we (the taxpayers) hadn't paid the programmer $20 million for his services. The scam artist, Dennis Montgomery, got caught trying to pass almost $2 million in bad checks in Las Vegas casinos. As Tom Ricks put it, "the casinos, they don't like that sort of thing." Naturally, no one knows how Team Bush got bushwhacked or why it took so long to figure it out. Ricks suggests that next time, we might be better off using casino "wise guy" tactics to protect ourselves. A clip from the movie Casino [Robert DeNiro voice-over]: "In Vegas, everybody's gotta watch everybody else. Since the players are looking to beat the casino, the dealers are watching the players. The box men are watching the dealers. The floor men are watching the box men. The pit bosses are watching the floor men. The shift bosses are watching the pit bosses. The casino manager is watching the shift bosses. I'm watching the casino manager. And the eye-in-the-sky is watching us all." Works for me.

Ghosts of the Old South

Over the weekend, the remnants of “the Cause” gathered at the Alabama Statehouse to celebrate the swearing in of Jefferson Davis as Confederate president 150 years ago. In effect, they were there to cheer the 11 Southern slave states that started a conflagration through secession and eventual use of arms against Fort Sumter in April 1861. At bottom for these kepi-capped Rebels, it was all done to preserve a “way of life.” The Civil War cost over a million American casualties (3% of the population), including some 620,000 soldier deaths. Some 3.5 million slaves were emancipated, but it would take another hellish century for African Americans to fully realize their freedom. At the rally, the Davis obsessives pined for “the land of cotton” where “old times there are not forgotten.” Most everybody else in Dixie just chose to “look away, look away” in quiet embarrassment. It was also telling that the Confederate re-enactors outnumbered the spectators. It’s a free country, no thanks to the Confederacy, and these folks can toast Jeff Davis to their heart’s delight. But I’ll never understand these apologists for the Old South and the legacy of its crimes against humanity.

President's Day Trivia

John Adams, 2nd President: 1797-1801. Adams was the first president to reside in the White House, moving in November 1800 while the paint was still wet. When Adams and his family moved to Washington to live in the White House, they got lost in the woods north of the city for several hours. John Adams and Thomas Jefferson both died on the 50th Anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 1826. Not knowing that Thomas Jefferson has already passed John Adams was quoted as saying "Jefferson survives," when he whispered his last words. More trivia.

Saturday, February 19, 2011

Wisconsin. There's an app for that.

Time columnist Joe Klein has an interesting take on the Wisconsin upheaval: "An election was held in Wisconsin last November. The Republicans won. In a democracy, there are consequences to elections and no one, not even the public employees unions, are exempt from that. There are no guarantees that labor contracts, including contracts governing the most basic rights of unions, can't be renegotiated, or terminated for that matter." Klein, a liberal, thinks public employees unions have probably become too powerful and irresponsible (he cites teacher unions) over the years. He's not for union-busting. But he sees the events in the Badger State as a "rebalancing of power that, after decades of flush times and lax negotiating, had become imbalanced." It's a point worth pondering. There's another lesson in this for Democrats. Want more favorable policies? There's an app for that: Vote Democratic next time.

Quote of the Day

"We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be." -- Kurt Vonnegut

Age of Un-enlightenment

Here's how NOT to win over minorities in your community: “I grew up probably in the same situation as you guys. I started school in public housing. My dad had a sixth-grade education,” said Florida Gov. Rick Scott at a luncheon for 20 black lawmakers. Ergo, if you're black, you must have grown up poor and had illiterate parents. A quick glance at the biographies of these Democrats revealed that you could almost paper over the luncheon hall walls with all of the civic awards, masters degrees, law degrees and doctorates between these accomplished folks. Not that it will surprise you, Scott is a conservative Republican, another in string of pols who seem blissfully stuck in circa 1954. Is there a special GOP factory someplace where they make these idiots?

Friday, February 18, 2011

A.I. verses us

The humans got crushed by a computer on "Jeopardy." And let's face it: the machines are only going to get better at it. Naturally, the predictable string of laments began anew in the post-mortem. Dour skeptics, like the medieval Cardinals they eerily recall, warn that the black art of artificial intelligence amounts to heresy. (Repent, IBM, or burn ye in Hellfire!) “Profound sociological and economic changes” are in the wind, New York Times essayist John Markoff gravely cautions. Acknowledging this wariness in a piece for The Atlantic, computer scientist Mark Bernstein says the worrywarts believe that, at best, thinking machines will ultimately “throw legions of workers out of work.” At worst, they will go all “Skynet” on us, Terminator-style. Such anxiety is nothing new, writes Bernstein. Many thought widespread reading skills would render priests and scholars obsolete. Others feared books would eliminate the need for teachers and tutors. And, as Bernstein drolly observes, “When we decided that it was self-evident that all men are created equal, lots of people were worried: Won't this be the end of civilized life? Who will make dinner and clean up the mess?” Given the possibility of human extinction by nukes, pandemic or global warming, methinks the coming age of A.I. is the least of our worries. And who knows? Maybe brainy computers will end up saving us from ourselves.

A legend in her own mind

Former half-term Gov. Sarah Palin (speaking before a New York audience): "I am still thinking of leading this country. I am still thinking about it. I haven't made up my mind." Fortunately, most of America has already made up its mind about her. Last month's Gallup poll shows a whopping 56% of all Americans have an unfavorable view of the Wasilla Wonder. That's a record high in disapproval ratings for her.

Renaissance man

Michelangelo died this day in 1564. He was a painter, sculptor, architect, poet and engineer. Per Wikipedia, he is the best-documented artist of the 16th century. His life’s output was prodigious, to put it mildly. His best-known works include the marble statue David and The Last Judgment, the famous fresco painting on the altar wall of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. If you’ve never seen either of these masterpiece artworks, add it to your “Bucket List.” Michelangelo and fellow Italian Leonardo da Vinci are considered archetypes for the “Renaissance man.”


On this day in 1954, the first Church of Scientology was established in Los Angeles by science fiction author L. Ron Hubbard. So, what is Scientology? It's complicated. According to Wikipedia, Scientology maintains that "people are immortal spiritual beings who have forgotten their true nature." This is somehow involved with "extraterrestrial civilizations and alien interventions in Earthly events" that Hubbard collectively described as "space opera." What does all of that mean? I haven't the foggiest. Anyway, well-known Scientologists are John Travolta, Juliette Lewis, Kirstie Alley, Catherine Bell, Tom Cruise and Lisa Marie Presley. Hey, whatever floats your boat. But I guess this validates the idea that God - even among Scientologists - works in strange and mysterious ways.

Father of the A-bomb

"If the radiance of a thousand suns were to burst at once into the sky, that would be like the splendor of the mighty one ... Now, I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds." Manhattan Project director J. Robert Oppenheimer recalled those words from the Hindu Bhagavad Gita scriptures as he watched the detonation of the first atomic bomb in New Mexico on July 16, 1945. Oppenheimer died this day in 1967 at age 62.

The HuffPo Effect

The Huffington Post is infamous for maximizing SEO (search engine optimization) tactics to corral readers in big numbers. And, for good or ill, it works. Evidently, extreme SEO - call it the HuffPo Effect - is spreading to other political blogs like Talking Points Memo. TPM headlines this morning include: "Glenn Beck: WI Unions, Muslim Brotherhood Want New World Order"; "Jim DeMint: Obama Is Not The Nation's Leader"; "Wisconsin Dem Senator Posts 'brb' Message On Facebook"; and "Obey: WI Gov. Walker Is Channeling Mubarak." As you can see, it's purposely more sizzle than steak. This is America, of course, and these websites certainly have the right (and need) to make an honest buck. Still ... sigh.

What's the matter with Wisconsin?

There's a growing ruckus in the Badger State. The Washington Monthly explains: "To briefly summarize, [Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican] has a plan to cut state workers' benefits and effectively remove their collective bargaining rights. Walker also hopes to make it harder for unions to collect dues, and prohibit union members from being allowed to negotiate for better pensions or health benefits. And in case all of this was too subtle, the newly-elected conservative governor said a week ago he would refuse to negotiate with union leaders." State workers are willing to negotiate increased benefit payments. It's the union-busting part that's got their backs up. Hence the Tahrir Square-sized demonstrations inside and outside the state Capitol in Madison.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Cellular nirvana, almost

IMAGINE owning a superfast smartphone that also runs a superthin laptop. When connected, everything you can do on your cell, you can do on your laptop - only better. Your laptop has a full screen plus a normal keyboard plus "always on" Internet access via your Wi-Fi phone. Think of the convenience on a plane or commuter train. The laptop will even charge your phone's battery. And on top of all that, the phone and laptop are drop-dead gorgeous. Think slick, black, brushed-aluminum. Guess what? I've just described the Motorola Atrix 4G (Android) and its companion laptop. It's real. As I read David Pogue's review in the New York Times, I kept thinking of that classic restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally. After Sally (Meg Ryan) loudly faked an orgaism, a fellow diner tells her waiter, "I have what she's having." Me, too. But while reaching for my wallet, I thought: Wait -- this seems way too good to be true. Alas, it was. As Pogue notes, there are "a few flies in the Atrix ointment." Read about them here. Still, the idea is a fantastic one. Text me when they perfect it. Check, please.

Earthlings in perspective

The vastness of our universe is mind blowing. Even distances in our local "neighborhood" are huge. In an article about the federal government's long-term plans for space exploration, Talking Point Memo writes, "The solar system's nearest stellar neighbor, Alpha Centauri, sits 4.5 light years away. Voyager I, currently the farthest human-made object outside our solar system, will have to travel for another 50,000 years before it enters the neighborhood of the stars." It kinda puts the Earth, and us, into perspective.

Birthing the truth

As I've long suspected, "Bush's Brain" really does possess a brain. Last night, ex-Bush adviser Karl Rove let slip an inconvenient political truth. He told Fox News that "within our party, we’ve got to be very careful about allowing these people who are the birthers and the 9/11-deniers to get too high a profile and say too much without setting the record straight.” Rove also suggested GOP leaders are naively falling into a White House trap by getting knocked off message. "Look, these guys may be lousy at governing ... but they’re damn good at politics." Unfortunately for Rove, his fellow Republicans remain lousy at both, and seem quite content to ride the birther bandwagon right over the cliff.

Is the sky falling?

The U.S. Labor Department said claims for unemployment benefits edged up 25,000 from the week before. That, in turn, triggered another round of rooftop exclamations mostly articulated as: "Oh. My. God!" To wit: "Unemployment benefits jump to 410,000," screamed the Washington Post headline (accompanied by the obligatory photo of a forlorn unemployed guy). The figures “jumped,” mind you. "Stocks fall on higher unemployment claims," reported Bloomberg Businessweek, evoking images of the Duke Brothers desperately shouting “Sell! Sell! Sell!” in Trading Places. "Every time we dip below 400k, it inches back up," said the Washington Monthly blog, as if the economy is sentient. The sky is falling! The sky is falling! Um -- No, actually it's not. "This is nothing to worry about," said Ian Shepherdson, an economist. He told CNN: "The downward trend is still in place, though the weekly numbers have been hugely volatile in recent weeks because of the severe weather." Thank you for that splash of cold water. Don’t get me wrong. The unemployment problem is worrying. But we’re not yet in the grip of Judgment Day. Memo to Media: Can we stop behaving as if the apocalypse is nigh, especially, you know, week to week?