Monday, February 19, 2018

Our Dangerous and Irrational Fear Of Russia

Good news. It turns out that wicked super villain Vladimir Putin, master spy, enemy of democracy, and computer hacker extraordinaire, is actually quite weak in relation to the United States. Russia is encircled by NATO and US military forces, whereas there are no Russian troops on US borders. Its  military budget of around $69 billion is a paltry sum compared to America’s, which is $600 billion and rising. Russia has one aircraft carrier, America has ten. Russia’s GDP is smaller than the state of California’s.

In fact, Putin is so weak, the only thing he could threaten us with was an astroturfing campaign that plagiarized hackneyed right-wing talking points from Fox News, Breitbart and the Drudge Report and disseminated them to an audience who was already sympathetic to their message.

That’s it. That’s all. The Lucifer in the Kremlin’s biggest play against America, the great opus generated by his devious and all encompassing super villain brain, amounted to nothing more than cranking up the right-wing noise machine half a notch. I’m not impressed.  In a country where political candidates are openly bought by wealthy plutocrats and special interests, and where such bribery has been legalized by the Supreme Court, you’ll forgive me if I don’t clutch my pearls and faint over Putin’s, “attack” on our, ahem, sacred democracy.

And I have to say, hearing officials from the CIA and NSA gravely announcing that Russia is trying to “undermine faith” in our democratic institutions is obscene beyond words. It’s like watching a pedophile lecture against junk food because it causes diabetes in children. Those crocodiles have done more to undermine faith in American institutions than anything any foreign leader could ever do in their wildest, wettest dreams. At most, Putin merely exploited a climate of cynicism and disillusionment that their own underhanded conduct and blatant mendacity  helped create.
  
There’s no proof of collusion, no evidence this influenced the outcome of the election, and all of the Americans who participated, save one, did so unwittingly. They were, to borrow Lenin’s term, merely useful idiots. The Russians who were involved won’t be extradited to stand trial, and this was all dumped on a Friday afternoon, where bad or embarrassing news is sent to die. In light of all the hype and hysteria surrounding this investigation, these developments are, to put it mildly, underwhelming.

People who’ve been pushing Russiagate the hardest insist this was a brilliant three-dimensional chess move on the part of Robert Mueller. It protects him from being fired by Trump and keeps the investigation alive. Maybe so, maybe not. I have no idea. Neither does anyone not involved with the investigation. At any rate, all of the hopeful speculation that Mueller “has the goods” and that there are bigger, juicier indictments on the horizon is beginning to smell like wishful thinking on the part of people who still, after more than a year, just can’t reconcile themselves to the fact that Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton, and that he did so not because he was helped by a hostile foreign power, but because he perfectly embodies the mental, moral, emotional, intellectual and epistemological retardation that characterizes an alarmingly high percentage of the US electorate. He’s our biological child, America. Get used it. It’s not Putin’s fault. It’s ours. We really need to stop blaming others for our problems and shortcomings. It’s a positively Trumpian bad habit.

Certainly, nothing in these indictments justifies the level of dangerous and irrational Russophobia that’s been fecklessly stoked up by hyperventilating TV pundits such as Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann, as well as establishment beacons like the Washington Post, the New York Times and NBC. They told us that Russia hacked Vermont’s power grid, until it came out later that, on further review, they didn’t. Oops. Then we were told that Russians hacked into voter data in twenty-one states, until it came out later that, on further review, they didn’t. Whoopsie daisy. Perhaps the worst example came when James Clapper, former Director of National Intelligence [sic], told Chuck Todd that the Russians are “genetically driven to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever,” and that these sneaky and duplicitous traits were “typical Russian techniques.”

If a US official made this kind of statement about Mexicans, Israelis, Somalis, the Innuit, the Bushmen of the Kalahari or the Pennsylvania Dutch, every liberal pundit from Rachel Maddow to E.J. Dionne, to say nothing of every editorial page in every major newspaper in the country, would be screaming “racism” so loudly our eardrums would bleed. But corporate liberals have gotten the memo from the Department of Homeland Security and those much ballyhooed “seventeen intelligence agencies” that anti-Russian xenophobia is A-okay, and our genteel talking classes, who are usually so fastidious in their political correctness, didn’t say mum about this disgusting and utterly ridiculous slur. Chuck Todd didn’t even blink. It was all so normal and acceptable, you see. It was all so, dare I say it, Beltway hip?

Now there’s an outfit calling itself the Committee to Investigate Russia,  which was founded by actor Rob Reiner, who played Meathead on All in the Family and David Frum, who coined the phrase “Axis of Evil” for his former boss, George W. Bush, as they brazenly lied us into invading Iraq. The Committee to Investigate Russia has a few more members you may have heard about:
Other members on the advisory board include James Clapper, a former Director of National Intelligence; Charlie Sykes, a conservative commentator; Max Boot, a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations; and Norman Ornstein, a resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute.
The same neoconservatives, national security hacks, pseudo-intellectuals and “resident scholars” from right-wing think tanks who brought you the Iraq disaster are now deliberately fomenting tension between the United States and Russia. Isn’t that comforting? I particularly like the inclusion of our friend James Clapper, who perjured himself before Congress by claiming the NSA didn’t spy on Americans until it came out three months later that, on further review, it did. Oops. No doubt Mr. Clapper lied out of his great love for American democracy. No doubt he was only trying to protect us from Vladimir Putin’s uncontrollable genetic drive “to co-opt, penetrate, gain favor, whatever,” which are well known, indeed, “typical Russian techniques” in its eternal war against democracy and its dastardly attempt to sap and impurify our precious bodily fluids.

Here’s an ad they put out starring Morgan Freeman, who also, by the the way, shills for Citibank, but he’s cool because he wears an earring and supports pot legalization, so it’s okay if he pimps for Wall Street and spreads anti-Russian war hysteria on the side.

 

Russia has been invaded by Mongols, Swedes, France under Napoleon, and twice by Germany. The Russian experience of war has been one of unspeakable misery and surreal catastrophe. Its combined military and civilian deaths in Word War II were 24 million people (whereas America’s total deaths were 418,000). During the Siege of Leningrad, people had to eat wallpaper paste and sawdust to survive, and many were forced to resort to cannibalism. Your average American, who knows none of this and who has nothing in his historical experience to compare it to, sits on his well-padded derriere and smugly prattles about how war is good for the economy and military spending creates jobs.

Not many people realize that Russia was also invaded by a coalition of allied powers in 1918 who sought to overthrow the Bolsheviks and install a government that would keep Russia involved in the First World War.  The coalition included France, England, Japan and, yes, the United States.

Not one in a thousand Americans knows this. I assure you every Russian high school student does. Somebody tell Morgan Freeman and Rachel Maddow, Kieth Olbermann and Meathead, that the United States has actually attacked Russia with guns and bombs before, not just shadowy astrofurfing outfits and d-rate political ads. Somebody tell Morgan Freeman and Rachel Maddow, Keith Olbermann and Meathead, that when celebrities and pundits declare that Russia has attacked us and that We Are At War, and when a presidential candidate compares their leader to Hitler, it loudly reverberates all the through Russia, scaring the shit out of a country whose history has been marred by one brutal invasion after another and is currently surrounded by hostile military forces. Somebody tell them that this kind of stupid, ignorant, reckless nonsense can very easily drive us into a serious international crisis with a nuclear armed country.

Thursday, February 15, 2018

Politicizing Tragedy

Once again, Republicans are out in force urging us not to politicize a mass shooting while wasting no time doing just that themselves. The Drudge Report (no link) has a picture of the shooter above a bold headline that says The FBI Was Warned, thus cleverly tying the Florida school shooting into its ongoing war against the FBI. Meanwhile, Ted Cruz appears on Fox News to send his thoughts and prayers to an anxious nation, sermonize about the inevitability of evil, and take a few swipes at the Democrats:
Fox & Friends host Ainsley Earhardt noted that “Democrats are calling for gun control, they’re talking about not allowing you to buy the AR-15 anymore.” …


“The reaction of Democrats to any tragedy is to try to politicize it,” Cruz complained. “They immediately start calling that we’ve got to take away the Second Amendment rights of law abiding citizens. That’s not the right answer.”
And since it was Fox and Friends, and since he’s Ted Cruz, there was the obligatory swipe at Obama:
Cruz also asserted that President Barack Obama shared the blame for a mass shooting that killed 26 at a church in Sutherland Springs, Texas.

“Had the Obama administration simply followed federal law and enforced the law, existing gun laws made it illegal for the Sutherland Springs shooter to buy a gun,” he opined. “But the Obama administration failed to report his criminal conviction so he wasn’t in the background check system.”
Just like that, Republicans turn the focus away from gun control and throw the blame entirely on the Democrats, all while lecturing us about not politicizing the tragedy. It’s transparently hypocritical and dishonest, but it works: mass shooting keep happening and nothing is ever done about it. Democrats might make a few good speeches, as Obama did after Sandy Hook and Chris Murphy did yesterday, but in the end, they trudge to the podium like eunuchs and whimper about the need for “sensible” gun control, which, when translated, means any kind of cosmetic gun control law their donors and the Republicans will allow them to have.

Sunday, February 4, 2018

Black Friday Versus The Super Bowl

So which is worse, Black Friday or the Super Bowl? Which of these spectacles most accurately embodies the degraded soul of contemporary America?  I’m going with the Super Bowl. Let’s face it, Black Friday is strictly for the lower orders, a phenomenon of the poor and working classes, the kind of people who eat fast food, go bowling, shop at Wal-Mart and often have brown skin. As such, it can plausibly be rationalized as an outlier in the greater glory that is American culture. But the Super Bowl, ah, the Super Bowl, that implicates us all. Every demographic joins in for the fun, and the event itself contains every important theme of American life. Here is commercialism, nationalism, over-consumption and violent competition at its most hypertophic and grotesque, and it’s all centered around a sport that mimics warfare and causes brain damage in those who play it. Perfect.

This is what our descendants will remember us for when they’re languishing in post-industrial squalor, thirsty and famished, fighting over the few remaining scraps of arable land on an overheated planet. God bless America!

Wednesday, January 31, 2018

The Democrat’s Feeble Response To Trump

I watched as much of Trump’s speech to the Reichstag State of the Union address as my forebrain, my common sense, and my generally good morals could allow. Trump’s lies didn’t bother me half as much as his open pitches to the worst, most reactionary, most fascistic sentiments of America: We love our police. We love our military. We love Jesus, and we love patriotic little boys who place flags at the graves of our soldiers. You’d better not be one of those traitors who doesn’t stand for the national anthem, or one of those countries who votes against us at the U.N., or one of those brown-skinned freeloaders who gets here through chain migration and drags your MS-13 affiliated grandmas and grandpas with you. If you are, we’re comin’ for you. This is one nation under god, and we’re gonna build a fuckin’ wall to prove it.

And this was done with the full, enthusiastic support of the entire Republican establishment. There was the beaming, grinning visage of Speaker of the House Paul Ryan, who just received $500,000 from Charles Koch as a reward for delivering on tax cuts; and there was the approving, creepily repressed grin of Vice President Mike Pence, who wants to ban the burning of the flag and believes fetal tissue from abortions should have burials, and who derides non-coercive interrogation techniques (i.e., not torturous) as “Oprah Winfrey methods.” They all clapped and clapped. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has gloated that this was the “best year” for conservatives in his entire congressional career.

There is not one single, solitary Republican who will go against Trump, not one, not he-man Lindsey Graham, not lovely Miss Moderate Susan Collins, not dying Sunday talk-show ‘statesman’ John McCain. Trump has sprinkled just enough sugar around to ensure their craven compliance, and the venal little cowards are all too happy to oblige. “How eager they are to be slaves, ” the Emperor Tiberius frequently said upon leaving the Roman Senate. Or, in the debased vernacular of our own grotesque reality TV dictator, “What a bunch a fuckin’ losers.”

We are one stock market crash, one war, or one terrorist attack away from this collection of Christian ghouls, reactionaries, grifters, militarists and thugs from taking over completely. How do I know? Easy: There is no opposition.

The Democrats, apparently thinking that the best defense against plutocracy is aristocracy, dredged up a fifth rate Kennedy whom nobody ever heard of to low soothing cliches in our ears about what wonderful people we are, how nice we are, how tough we are, how resilient we are, what survivors we are, and how we can do anything we want when we put our minds to it and join together. Words like “heartland” and “audacity” sprang mechanically from his lips, and by the time he busted out the alliteration (“Mississippi to Massachusetts,” “teacher in Tulsa”), I was convinced I was hearing the work of one of Obama’s speech writers on Thorazine.

One could see the handiwork of Democratic operatives making sure that all the appropriate groups were duly mentioned, all the correct positions were duly taken, and all the appropriate boxes were duly checked: Struggling rural communities? check. Opioid abuse? check. Coal miners and struggling single moms? check. Empty criticism about our rigged system? check.  Obligatory stab at the Russians? check, check, and double check — this is, after all, America, where there is always a wicked foreigner< plotting to ravish our goodness.

There was not a single memorable phrase, not a single original thought, and not a single hint of genuine vision or conviction, just a dull litany of platitudes delivered with all the inspiration of a Sunday school teacher giving the eulogy for an insurance salesman, capped off with the words you say when there’s nothing left to say, nothing left to hope for, and nothing left to do except go home and cry: Have faith

I couldn’t help thinking about how nifty he would look in a pink knit cap the next time the Democrats decide to make another bold stand against sexual harassment.

If this is the best we can do, you’d better renew your passport and get the hell out now.

Monday, January 29, 2018

Ezra Klein Makes A Blindingly Obvious Discovery

Ezra Klein bowed before a picture of the late, great David Broder, dean of DC punditry, as he did  most days, and humbly asked for guidance. “What is thy bidding, Lord Broder?”

With that, the voice of David Broder came unto Ezra. But His was not the thunderous voice of a jealous and wrathful god, issuing stern commandments and demanding blood sacrifice. On the contrary, Broder was a kind and polite, though never loving, deity. He spoke in a soft dull voice and used soft dull words; they made you think of quiet middle roads in the middle of nowhere that led to no particular place at all, where soft dull suns always shone on soft dull grass and the flowers were never too bright. It always made Ezra want to curl up on the sofa with a craft beer and watch old reruns of Washington Week and Meet the Press. Broder spoke:

“America has lost its quintessential optimism and self-confidence. If partisanship and gridlock continue, Americans will lose faith in their institutions. The only way to get it back is to follow the way of the Beltway pundit. What is the way of the Beltway pundit, Ezra?”

“The way of the Beltway pundit is to avoid extremes at all costs. He strives for bipartisan consensus in all matters, for that is the path toward light.”

“And how does the Beltway pundit achieve this?”

“The Beltway pundit achieves this by maintaining bland neutrality in all things, regardless of the moral consequences. He knows that both sides must always share equal praise and equal blame in all disputes, great or small. That is the DC way.”

“Is it ever acceptable for a pundit to take sides?”

“Yes, in fact, a Beltway pundit is obligated to take sides against any figure who is too extreme and threatens the Washington Consensus, but he must take care to do this only after he knows his opinion is safe and will not offend Those Who Matter.”

“And what happens if he offends Those Who Matter?”

“He’ll lose access to the powerful and never be invited on MSNBC or Meet the Press again. Chris Matthews won’t be his friend anymore, and David Brooks will use him as an example of the breakdown in our civic discourse. He might even be cast out of the Beltway and forced to live among Those Who Do Not Matter, where they drive Kias and smoke cigarettes.”

“But what happens if a pundit stays on the right path?”

“If a pundit stays on the right path, he becomes an insider, and once he’s an insider he’ll never be wrong again, even when he’s wrong; he can write of things he knows nothing about and still be considered an authority, and he can make trite observations that other insiders will pretend are original.”

“There’s nothing more I can teach you, Master Ezra.”

And with that, Ezra dashed off to make an observation about Donald Trump that has been blindingly obvious to anyone who doesn’t live within the blinkered confines of elite DC punditry:
The secret to Trump’s success, the insight that has separated him from his competitors, is that he has cared less about the nature of the coverage he received than that he received coverage at all.

“Even a critical story, which may be hurtful personally, can be very valuable to your business,” Trump said in his 1987 book The Art of the Deal …

This is the law by which Trump lives his life. Attention creates value, at least for him. Before Trump, every politician hewed to the same basic rule: You want as much positive coverage, and as little negative coverage, as possible. Trump upended that. His rule, his realization, is that you want as much coverage as possible, full stop. If it’s positive coverage, great. If it’s negative coverage, so be it. The point is that it’s coverage — that you’re the story, that you’re squeezing out your competitors, that you’re on people’s minds.

This was Trump’s true political innovation: He realized that presidential campaigns — and particularly presidential primaries — had become reality shows, and the path to victory was to get the most attention, even if much of that attention was negative.
Ezra Klein has just now learned something that Trump’s spiritual ancestor, P.T. Barnum, discovered in the nineteenth century: There’s no such thing as bad publicity. This is particularly true in our illiterate, TV dominated age, where shiny distractions are all that matter and people have the memory of gnats. Trump understands this with every breath he takes. It’s instinct for him. He’s a TV obsessed cretin in a cretinous TV age. Trump devours attention, good or bad, like a ravenous vampire and instantly craves more. The media give it to him because he’s good for ratings, and the public watches because they they bored, cynical and hopeless.

Trump also knows that our politics are a sick reality TV spectacle, whereas Klein is apparently just figuring this out. But that’s okay. Klein’s slowness to understand is, I suspect, a calculated career move. Being right or accurate, or having an insightful understanding of things, is not too highly prized on Planet Beltway; holding proper opinions is. One may only be right when it is right to be so, otherwise you might offend Those Who Matter and lose your place.

Saturday, January 6, 2018

Our Degenerate Aristocracy

Look carefully at this picture and answer the question below:


Which statement best describes the photograph?
A. Every dog has his day. Miracles can happen.

B. He must be really charming!

C. This woman is obviously an escort.

D. None of the above.
If you answered D, congratulations, you win the prize, which is a dress shirt with pictures of little money bags all over it:


By now you’ve noticed that the same individual appears in both pictures. So who is he? Why, that’s world famous fashion designer Wyatt Ingraham, president, CEO and founder of a company called, logically enough, Wyatt Ingraham, which produces a line of men’s shirts known for their “bold and eclectic” designs. Here he is describing the philosophy that drives his life and work:


 

He’s bold, authentic, and always true to himself. He’s a gentleman too, but that doesn’t stop him from being tenacious in pursuit of his vision. Like Henry Ford and Steve Jobs, he grips it and rips it, and he always, always, always thinks outside of the box.

Oh, did I mention his full name? It’s Wyatt Ingraham Koch, son of Frederick Koch, nephew to Charles and David Koch, hence heir to one of the largest fortunes in America (if not the world). And he’s about to get a great big fat tax cut that you’re going to pay for, courtesy of Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell and their responsible “moderate” Republican colleagues, the ones who establishment Democrats and Beltway pundits habitually cream over, like John McCain, Lindsey Graham and Susan Collins. They chose Wyatt Ingraham Koch over you. They’ve decided that his personal, corporate and inheritance taxes should all be lowered at your expense. It’s nothing personal. That’s just how they roll. You came from the wrong sperm. Better luck next life.

Oh well, look at the bright side. These tax cut will stimulate production at his company, so there will be plenty of those bold and eclectic shirts floating around the boardrooms, yachts and discotecas of Palm Beach.

Besides, Wyatt is a bona fide polymath and Renaissance man. In his spare time, he enjoys playing tennis at Mar-a-Lago, shopping at Neiman Marcus, and lunching at Cafe Sapori in Palm Beach. He also likes to chill out at his 450-acre ranch, Wonderland, where he plays paint ball and races dune buggies. Favorite TV show? Veep. Favorite meal? Spaghetti alla bolognese with an arugula salad. Favorite destination? Martha’s Vineyard, where he has “so many memories.” He also sings karaoke.

If only we could all be such prodigies. He’s so far outside the box, the very concept of shapes have no definite meaning for him, like when you’re two. His vision plumbs the outer limits of fashion while the rest of us are staring at our shoelaces. Where we see a piece of fabric that looks like Walt Disney puked all over it, he sees bold and eclectic apparel that, given the appropriate lack of self-awareness, can be worn in the boardroom, on the yacht, or at the discoteca with equal vim and dash. You can even wear it to Cafe Sapori and fit right in. You’ll never hear the Puerto Rican dishwashers laughing over what a clueless dipshit you are.

I could go on an extended rant about how inbred aristocracies always end up producing feeble and degenerate offspring, pampered and dimwitted mediocrities who are completely detached from reality and a have hyper-inflated sense of their own abilities, people like, for example, Wyatt Ingraham,  Jared and Ivanka, Nero and Caligula, and, of course, Eric Trump and Don Jr., who like to  shoot exotic animals and chop off their body parts for souvenirs. I could do that, but I don’t need to. The existence of Watt Ingraham Koch makes further ranting unnecessary. The argument is made, the thesis is proven. He speaks for himself, as do his shirts. 

See you at the discoteca! Ciao.




Thursday, January 4, 2018

Love in the Time of Cell Phones

I fell in love for about thirty seconds the other day.

It was quite amazing. I really didn’t think it was possible anymore. After a certain age, you’ve learned too much about human nature to ever fall in love with it again, at least completely and unreservedly like when you’re young (I think Mencken said that, but I can’t remember). Nevertheless, I experienced a brief  resurgence of that long lost feeling that plagued me like a fever in my teens and twenties. Love? Lust? Infatuation? Who knows, who cares? It makes no difference. They all lead to the same ball flattening chagrin in the end.

I was in this depressing big-box store where you can buy cardboard flats of things like Stagg chili and Dinty Moore beef stew, and cases of frozen corn dogs at wholesale prices (except they don’t call them corn dogs. They call them deep-fried honey-battered frankfurters on a stick.) Occasionally you get lucky and find frozen hamburger patties or cans of dog food stamped “For Institutional Use Only. Not For Retail Sale.” Muddy wet footprints mar the entryway. Classic rock plays on the sound system.

This is where the dregs shop, the under-educated, under-employed, shuffling, dragging, stooped and hopeless lumpenproletariat of God and Milton Friedman’s own America, with their curious mixture of shabbiness and hipster chic, of poverty sprinkled with grunge and hip hop flair. There’s a twenty-something mom with two kids in tow, a tattoo on her lower back, a studded belt and freshly dyed pink hair; dad’s distractedly following in sagging jeans, a brand new Volscom hoodie and a backwards Dodger cap. They are the unique products of American consumerism in its twilight phase: grown-up people with grown-up problems who still reflect the habits and tastes of their teen years. Adolescence unto death!

So I’m walking around this smelly groin pit of American capitalism gone bad in search of cheap toilet paper and deodorant soap, when I chance upon a striking, totally unexpected vision: a stunningly beautiful woman, well-dressed and stylish, radiating good health and optimism. The one-two punch of a rotten economy and bad life choices hadn’t scarred her yet. She was totally out of place in that seedy warehouse of frozen food and type II diabetes, and made a striking contrast from its luckless and misbegotten clientele. What was she doing there? Was I imagining her? No, it couldn’t be. No hallucination could produce such palpable flurries of lust and hope in a soul as jaded as my own.

But still, she just didn’t belong there. This was most definitely not her world. Like those bored Victorian aristocrats who took day trips to Bedlam to gawk at the inmates or an anthropologist studying tattooed cannibals in some far off jungle, she was clearly only a visitor there.

Then a sound came out of her coat. A Red Hot Chili Peppers ring tone, Californication. Trouble. Apprehension gripped me. The hot bubbling froth in my loins began to cool and curdle. This beautiful specter was transforming in a split second before me. Then the wet blanket descended: In one smooth easy gesture, natural and instinctive, she drew out an iPhone, whisked it to her lips and said in a loud, nasally voice that sounded like two geese squabbling over a stray corn chip, “Whaddup?”

And then, “Just chillin’.”

And with that, my thirty seconds of love were over.

Monday, January 1, 2018

Will The Real Founding Fathers Please Stand Up?

In the winter of 1778, the father of our country was camped out with the harried and motley remnants of the Continental Army at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. They were defeated, hungry, and frozen; the entire army was on the verge of disintegration. Had they fallen apart, it’s possible that the American Revolution would have failed, and the glorious cause of American independence would now be remembered as just another bloody skirmish in British imperial history, not much different than the Siege of Khartoum or the Zulu War in the following century.

Meanwhile, the British Army was comfortably lodged at Philadelphia, where they enjoyed a steady supply of food sent not from England, but over land from … the farmers around Valley Forge!

The Continental Army was wasting away while the hated redcoats were dining fairly well, thank you very much, from the bounty of nearby Pennsylvanian farms.

How did such a travesty come to pass?

By the divine operation of the free market, of course, the last God standing in our hoary universe.

Local farmers didn’t like to sell their produce to George Washington because he paid in nearly worthless currency, the Continental, whereas the British paid in pounds sterling, the choicest coin of the day.

Politics had nothing to do with it. It was a shrewd, sound economic calculation. It was the invisible hand of the market.

I can hear Jim Cramer, or Lawrence Kudlow, or any of the other epidermal infections on CNBC spasmodically cheering them on right now: Take the smart money! It’s a no-brainer!

Thus, from the storied mists of America’s past, we’re offered a prenatal glimpse of our developing national character, not in the stalwart figure of George Washington, but in the mercenary behavior of colonial husbandmen — our true spiritual forebears.

George Washington, on the other hand, displayed some unsavory conduct that would probably get him cashiered in today’s warfare state, as well as subject him to great, gushing heaps of slander from the Morlocks on Fox News and right-wing talk radio.

To wit: when somebody suggested to Washington that they simply confiscate all the adjoining farms and remove the locals in order to deprive the British of supplies, he refused. Such harshness, he argued, would be worse than the problem it was intended to solve. He recognized that wholesale violence against the civilian population would not only be futile, but counter-productive.

And it would also be immoral. The “horror of depopulating a whole district,” he said, “would forbid the measure.” (I lifted the quote from American Creation: Triumphs and Tragedies at the Founding of the American Republic, by Joseph Ellis).

So Washington refused, on both moral and strategic grounds, to implement a policy that’s now fairly standard in U.S. wars, and which flag-waving American consumers regard with bovine passivity: pacification. He refused to burn the village in order to save it.

How positively un-American.

You could say the concept of winning hearts and minds has undergone a slight transformation in the years between Valley Forge and Fallujah.

(This is not to say that George was an angel. He did publicly execute men caught sending supplies to the British in Philadelphia, and occasionally left their bodies strewn along the road as a warning to any other budding entrepreneurs, but that was regarded as an extreme measure undertaken because of dire necessity. Now it’s the military equivalent of a slap on the wrist, and we send American soldiers thousands of miles around the world to do such things on a routine basis. George Washington was responding to an immediate, pressing crisis. We’re doing it now because of … why, exactly?)

Who is more familiar to contemporary American eyes, a general cum politician with common sense and some small measure of humanity, or a bunch of opportunistic profit seekers scrambling to make a buck, regardless of the consequences? Which character type is today more celebrated, more envied, and more sneakily admired? Which type shanks his way up to the highest peaks of American public life?

Which type now makes the rules?

Who are the real founding fathers?

Next Fourth of July, don’t forget to tip your tin cup to the true progenitors of the American way.

Sunday, December 31, 2017

Auld Lang Syne

Anton Chekhov died in 1904 from tuberculosis at the tender age of forty-four. One of my old Russian instructors, an Armenian linguist and grammarian from the Soviet Union, met Chekhov’s widow when she was at an advanced old age. He asked her if she might say a few words about the great writer.

“Meh, ” she shrugged, airily waving her hand, “it was so long ago I can barely remember.”

Love fades. Oh, well.  

Friday, December 29, 2017

A Worm’s Eye View Of The Economy

Over in Drudgeville, every economic factoid that can plausibly make Trump look good and “prove” he’s making America great again is loudly proclaimed at the top of the page. Today, his headlines tell us of a “midwest factory boom” and also that “homeowners made 2 trillion on houses this year.” The main headline trumpets the performance of the stock market, which Drudge is calling the “The Boom of ‘17.”

If you haven’t benefited from any of these economic miracles, don’t feel too bad: There are lies, damned lies and statistics, and when those fail, you can always use the nuclear option: economic statistics, which can easily be stretched and twisted to make things look better than they actually are. Case in point: Is the unemployment rate too high? No problem, just stop counting people who have dropped out of the work force as well as those who’ve been kicked off the unemployment roles but who still don’t have jobs. If that doesn’t do the trick, count partially employed workers — i.e., people who work twenty-five hours a week at Walmart for minimum wage — as fully employed. Bingo! Unemployment just shrank like magic.

It’s all hollow propaganda that every administration and its partisans use to bamboozle us. If the president at the time is a Democrat, phone up Vox and the Washington Monthly; if he’s a Republican, tell Matt Drudge and Sean Hannity. They’ll spread the good news, which will then be used to succour the faithful and bully the naysayers. The fact is, inequality is still growing. Wages are still stagnant and/or declining, people are in debt up to their eyeballs and they have shitty, overpriced healthcare. Unemployment is still much higher than the official rate, and even though economists tell us there is no inflation, rents are sky high, and food and gas prices are rising too. When Walmart is the largest employer in the country, something is deeply, fundamentally wrong.

When the space between official government statistics and the reality of people’s lives becomes too great, a country becomes disillusioned and cynical. This morphs into quiet, seething anger, which finally bubbles over and expresses itself in rage. We’re not at the third stage yet, although Trumpism is a flashing red warning light, but if we stay on our current path we definitely will be. When that happens, you can bet the country isn’t going to turn left. There are no FDRs in our future. When the lid blows off this pot, our childish, unreflective, anti-intellectual population is going to double down with Trump (or whatever Trumpian facsimile happens to be available at the time), and turn hard right. Children want a big strong daddy who’s going to make things all better. Trump (or Pence, or Ted Cruz) can play that part much better than any lefty on the American political horizon.

This has all reminded me of a post I wrote in 2011 called “A Worm’s Eye View of the Recovery.” I had just seen Barack Obama on TV blathering about the wonderful recovery we were then experiencing, and I remember thinking, what recovery? Things were better than in the immediate wake of the economic crash, and according to the narrow definitions economists use for such things, we were technically recovering, but this gave a deeply misleading impression about how things really were. Life on the ground was still shitty — much worse than life before 2008 — and there were precious few indications that it was ever going to get better (it hasn’t). Yet there was the president, cheerfully tossing off abstract statistics about GDP and the employment rate, as if this were ironclad proof that happy days were here again. It inspired me to write a post which, it  turns out, was the only thing I’ve ever written that threatened to become viral. It didn’t, and my brush with internet fame proved fleeting. Alas, my blog remains a lonely and obscure outpost in the series of tubes called the Internet. Sigh.

Anyway, since I don’t have anything new to say, I’ve decided to recycle this old post which still holds up, in my opinion. The economic situation it describes is bleaker than things at present, though not, I think, for much longer, but our political situation is much more dire. Anyway, it’s still worth a couple of minutes of your time.


A Worm’s Eye View of the Recovery

You don’t have to be a comedian to get a laugh in my neighborhood. All you have to do is walk up to someone, just about anyone, and say, “Hey, cheer up, we’re in a recovery.”

You may not get a belly laugh, but you’ll definitely hear something in the nature of a chuckle or a guffaw, or at least a snicker followed by a sarcastic eye roll.

I’ve got bankruptcy to the left of me, foreclosures to the right, and all manner of human degradation in between. When I mount the crow’s nest to get a look around, this is what I see: one guy who just got laid off, and now he and his wife are living on his unemployment and her pension. Once his claim runs out, they could be in for some severe austerity. On the other side, there’s a single mother who’s hours have been cut in half and who’s in the process of losing her home. The family right next door is also in dire circumstances. Dad is underemployed and mom has lupus. They were going to cancel Christmas this year, but all the neighbors pitched in and got presents for their kids. George W. Bush would have considered it uniquely American.

There’s even a guy whose wife just left him for another women. That’s not an economic problem, I know, but it fits in rather snugly with the general theme of misery that runs through these parts. It is so unrelievedly dismal you almost have to laugh, at least in a tragicomic sort of way. I know countless people who’ve been laid off and just flat out can’t find another job. I hear a new horror story every week, and I often find myself just shaking my head and saying, “You have got to be freakin’ kidding me!”

Most people aren’t starving or sleeping under bridges, mind you (though some are). They are subsisting, but only precariously. They’re just muddling along through this grim subterranean world of near poverty, chronic anxiety, and deepening gloom. The most accurate word to describe their condition is submerged. I should emphasize that these people I’m referring to aren’t regular members of the working poor. Until a few years ago, they all had what could loosely be described as middle class lives. They weren’t getting rich, to be sure, but they worked every day, paid the bills, and enjoyed their weekends. Life wasn’t glamorous but it was okay. At any rate, it was a slightly more varied and enriching experience than the grinding, joyless struggle it’s become.

Hard times are not unusual here, but there has never been this kind of prolonged malaise, and it’s leading to a sense of hopelessness and futility that is unique. In the past, people could more or less shrug off hard times because they knew they were temporary. Hang in, tough it out, things will always get better. Historically they always have. That belief is gone. It’s been replaced by the growing conviction that things are never going to improve. Life as we knew it has become extinct. It’s all gone forever, and there is nothing in the future but deep black uncertainty.

The other day I was struck by this weird feeling of deja vu. Where had I seen this kind of listlessness before? Where had I observed this sort of laggard, slumping despair? Then I remembered. It was back in Russia during the Yeltsin years. It was the exact same atmosphere: Things were shitty and getting worse. Life was shabby and dilapidated. Their rulers were corrupt and didn’t give a damn. Cosmically rich oligarchs were cannibalizing the country, and the system was so badly broken there wasn’t a damn thing anyone could do about it. Drink up.

(Interestingly, that’s when Vladimir Zhirinovsky rose to prominence. He’s a right-wing clown worthy of our own Republican party, a Slavic Pat Buchanan. “We like a lot of the things he says,” the people I lived with told me, “but we would never support him because he’s crazy.” Score one for the intelligence of the Russian people. Would that the American electorate was that sophisticated.)

In the words of the inestimable Charles Pierce, people got no f***ing jobs, people got no f***ing money. And, I would add somewhat ominously, people got no f***ing hope.

There doesn’t seem to be any real rage yet, except, of course, among the right-wingers, who are blaming all the wrong people for all the wrong things, just like the right-wingers near you. People aren’t raising hammer and sickle flags and demanding blood. Me and a retired math professor down the street - a raging lefty like myself — are the only ones who seem to be approaching that enlightened stage, but then we’re both intellectuals, ha ha. There is, however, a very distinct mood of hostility towards our elites. I don’t want to exaggerate here. It’s mild, but it’s definitely there. It’s noticeable. People are aware that their suffering hasn’t been caused by their own failings (the Republican view), nor is it the result of a natural economic downturn, a good old fashioned “market correction” that, given a few well placed pokes and prods, will eventually just cycle away (the Obama view).

No, they’re fully cognizant of the fact that they’ve been ripped off, plain and simple, and the criminals who did it not only walked away scott free, but are still in charge of the show. Hence the pessimism. Hence the despair. Things aren’t getting better because they can’t get any better: the convicts are running the prison, and they ain’t doin it with our best interest in mind. People have perceived this basic fact and it’s made them cynical.

When Obama and his supporters speak of the recovery as if it’s an established fact, it just sounds like so much hollow BS. That’s what the recovery looks like down here on the mudsill.