Saturday, May 31, 2008

When was the last time you heard "lily-livered"?

Sir Simon Jenkins, writing for the Sunday Times of London, declares al Qaeda beneath the dignity of James Bond:
Oh do pay attention, 007, this enemy simply isn’t worthy of you.
Jenkins traces our need for a great enemy and laments that al Qaeda simply doesn't measure up to Cold War-inspired villains of the Bond books.

But the histrionics of the neocons, Bush and Blair has been a boon to this ragtag troop, Jenkins says, inflating al Qaeda "into a body of fiendish efficiency and global strength. Its cells had to be everywhere, its influence titanic, its fanaticism superhuman." They all but painted bin Laden with a mechanical hand and a white cat.
The West has not curbed Al-Qaeda.

The movement has been honoured by Blair, the neocons and the military industrial complex as the global antithesis to the once-vaunted new world order. Never can so wretched an outfit have been awarded so vast a dignity.

Al-Qaeda is thus an Orwellian classic, a necessary enemy. As portrayed by Philip Bobbitt in his new book, Terror and Consent, it is the ultimate Smersh, terrorist without aim or purpose, secretive, fanatical and blessed with an awesome arsenal on the brink of going chemical, biological and nuclear. Its alleged goal is to create mayhem as a prelude to some notional world theocracy.
Now if the loutish Yanks at Halliburton would just deliver that new Mach 2 jetpack, Bond could kick some Islamofascist butt . . . after a few, quick hands of Baccarat.

Jenkins concludes,
What I cannot do is join the pessimists in claiming that western civilisation is so enfeebled by immorality, as the Bishop of Rochester implied last week, as to be structurally vulnerable to bomb explosions, devoid as they are of any political programme or local support. Because a terrorist claims to attack western culture does not make the claim plausible. Conrad’s terrorist was equally grandiloquent in his demented ambition. This is childish fear-mongering.

I have more faith in western democracy than the lily-livered neocons. I believe in the robustness of its institutions, its traditions and its liberal outlook. They beat the real threat of communist totalitarianism. Nothing on the present horizon is remotely comparable to that. I rather agree with the St Petersburg comrades. That some people need the emotional prop of a Great Satan does not make Satan any more real.
Lily-livered, yet. All things old are new again.

Monday, May 26, 2008

Chairman Mao, Inc. is watching you

File it under "free markets and free people go hand in hand."

Naomi Klein writes, in her current Rolling Stone piece that China's new surveillance infrastructure, Golden Shield, is almost ready to protect China's "market Stalinism."
This is how this Golden Shield will work: Chinese citizens will be watched around the clock through networked CCTV cameras and remote monitoring of computers. They will be listened to on their phone calls, monitored by digital voice-recognition technologies. Their Internet access will be aggressively limited through the country's notorious system of online controls known as the "Great Firewall." Their movements will be tracked through national ID cards with scannable computer chips and photos that are instantly uploaded to police databases and linked to their holder's personal data. This is the most important element of all: linking all these tools together in a massive, searchable database of names, photos, residency information, work history and biometric data. When Golden Shield is finished, there will be a photo in those databases for every person in China: 1.3 billion faces.
Golden Shield (which Klein dubs Police State 2.0) must be inducing surveillance envy among higher-ups in the Bush administration, both for its domestic spying and profit potential. Former Bush CIA chief, George Tenet, is already on the board of Connecticut-based L-1 Identity Solutions, the biometrics firm vying for the contract to supply China with the technology for Police State 2.0. Supplying police-state technology to China is probably illegal under U.S. law, Klein notes, and has been since shortly after the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.

U.S. business consultant, Stephen Herrington, a former military-intelligence lieutenant colonel, tells Klein that what he's seeing in China scares the hell out of him.
"I can guarantee you that there are people in the Bush administration who are studying the use of surveillance technologies being developed here and have at least skeletal plans to implement them at home," he says. "We can already see it in New York with CCTV cameras. Once you have the cameras in place, you have the infrastructure for a powerful tracking system. I'm worried about what this will mean if the U.S. government goes totalitarian and starts employing these technologies more than they are already. I'm worried about the threat this poses to American democracy."

Herrington pauses. "George W. Bush," he adds, "would do what they are doing here in a heartbeat if he could."
If he hasn't already. "Ready for export to a neighborhood near you," Klein quips.

What’s more ironic is how this new Homeland Security industry isn’t some poster child for free-market capitalist innovation, but constitutes another kind of arms industry. Companies like L-1 Identity Solutions developed their technology using taxpayer dollars. Their principle clients are government agencies funded with taxpayer dollars. And their efforts at getting around export restrictions so they can sell these new "arms" to a lucrative Chinese market are defended by a growing Homeland Security industry lobby funded, again, with taxpayer dollars.

Klein observes,
The global homeland-security business is now worth an estimated $200 billion — more than Hollywood and the music industry combined. Any sector of that size inevitably takes on its own momentum. New markets must be found — which, in the Big Brother business, means an endless procession of new enemies and new emergencies: crime, immigration, terrorism.
Homeland Security player General Electric controls major media in this country and Cisco Systems, a supplier of security hardware to China, is a sponsor of television's 24. For both, fear is their business. Maintaining it makes business sense.

In a sidebar, Klein considers what China's security apparatus means for us.
"... they're becoming more like us and we're becoming more like them. I think this urge to know as much as possible about what people are saying and writing and doing, this is something the police around the world share. They generally want as much information about people as possible. The way I put it in the piece is that there seems to be this global middle ground emerging, not to say that we are like China now, but you do have a glimpse of catching the future and of course it's the future that we've imagined many, many times in every Hollywood movie."

Sunday, May 18, 2008

When Bush pardons himself

The Bush administration did not have an exit strategy for Iraq, but you can bet they have one for themselves. With the nation distracted by the election, few are discussing what steps Bush might take before leaving the White House for avoiding the Big House. Or what secret, pre-planning is likely going on as we speak to address that.

We all expect a flurry of preemptive presidential pardons for Bush’s pals before he leaves office. But unless there is a Republican following him in the White House, who pardons Bush?
“He couldn’t pardon himself,” my wife said yesterday.

“We’re talking about George W. Bush,” I replied. Who would have foreseen a president voiding habeas corpus, authorizing torture or any of his other offenses?

Sure, there would be a firestorm of criticism, but if it is between public opinion or George doing time, has he ever cared what we think? They have already granted themselves retroactive immunity for past war crimes in the Military Commissions Act.

With our president’s history, it would not surprise me for Bush to pardon himself. Barring impeachment, the constitution does not forbid it. At worst, Bush might worry that someone will challenge it before the Supreme Court -- the Roberts Supreme Court.

Saturday, May 10, 2008

Empathy 101

Barack Obama won North Carolina by 14 points on Tuesday, but not here in the NC-11. Hillary Clinton won in this conservative district by 16 points, except in Buncombe County. Liberal activists in Buncombe will be grinding their teeth over that for weeks.

Last week, Jeff Greenfield had a piece in Slate that feeds into what I've been thinking about regarding activists and the "elitist" label that gets attached by conservative elitists to liberal ones. Greenfield quotes George Orwell from 1937 on the failure of socialism to take root in England. Orwell brands socialism's supporters as its worst promoters, commonly bearing "the worst stigmata of sniffish middle-class superiority."

Greenfield paraphrases:
Real working-class folks, he says, might be drawn toward a socialist future centered around family life, the pub, football, and local politics. But those who speak in its name, he says, have a snobbish condescension toward such quotidian pleasures—even condemning coffee and tea. "Reformers" urged the poor to eat healthier food—less sugar, more brown bread. And their audience balked. "Would it not be better if they spent more money on wholesome things like organs and wholemeal bread, or [raw carrots]?" Orwell asks. "Yes it would, but the point is that no ordinary human being is ever going to do such a thing. The ordinary human being would rather starve than live on brown bread and more carrots … a millionaire may enjoy breakfasting off orange juice and Ryvita biscuits. An unemployed man doesn't."
The amusing thing about insistent activists everywhere is how smart they think they are about their pet issues, and how dense they are about people -- voters they are asking for the privilege to represent.

With this week's results in NC-11, I'm bound to hear local activists dismissing more conservative Democrats as ignorant or uneducated, the kind of people who still believe Saddam Hussein had something to do with 9/11. The question they should ask themselves is, Why do they trust George Bush rather than you?

Because elections aren't about issues. They're not about programs and policies. Essentially, they are about identity and trust. Greenfield explains:
The perennial struggle of Democratic contenders to appeal to ordinary Americans seems very much of a piece with Orwell's sharp descriptions. Election after election, Democrats argue that once Joe and Jane Sixpack fully grasp the wisdom of the latest six-point college-loan program, or of an 800-page health-care scheme, they will come to wave the Democratic banner. And, sometimes, these voters do just that—provided that the candidate in question has demonstrated a sense that he or she is not treating them as the subject of an anthropological study. Bill Clinton had a full steamer trunk of domestic programs; he also was a product of Georgetown, Oxford, and Yale Law School. But his 18 years in the vineyards of Arkansas politics gave him the tools to compete for support on a more visceral level. Then there were Clinton's obvious tastes for earthly pleasures—from Big Macs to more intimate diversions—which made it very hard to label him as an aloof elitist.
It's their own wonkishness that separates the activists from average voters. Voters want first to vote for somebody who they can trust, for somebody who thinks like they do. This is Empathy 101.

Or as I wrote a couple of weeks ago,
. . . with more and more Americans feeling as if they are treading water amidst a flotsam of bills, soccer practice, commuting and longer work hours, throwing them a candidate survey or a stack of position papers isn't helping. They need a lifeline. Like it or not, many voters just want some way to participate that doesn't require that they master the arcana of the legislative process. That's what they have representatives for. They just want some shorthand way of choosing candidates who will legislate in their best interests. A party they can trust. A party who thinks like they do.

Monday, May 05, 2008

Brings tears to my eyes

First from Alex Knapp:
Both Matthew Yglesias and John Cole agree that the Obama/Clinton proposal to tax the “windfall profits” of the oil companies is a bad idea, and you’ll get no argument from me. However, one thing that I did notice when I was doing a little google-fu on the issue is that there appears to be approximately 20 to 50 billion dollars spent by the federal government per year on direct subsidies (as opposed to tax breaks) given to the oil industry each year.

[. . .]

Not only would that generate more revenue than the “windfall tax” (estimated to be $15 billion), but it would do so without getting the federal government into the problematic business of deciding how profitable companies are allowed to be.
Kevin Drum puts icing on the cake:
Anyway, this really ought to be the liberal rallying cry: forget a windfall profits tax, let's work first on getting rid of the massive corporate welfare infrastructure we've constructed for an industry that really, really doesn't need it. Not as sexy as a gas tax holiday, maybe, but it makes a helluva lot more sense.