Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Honest Graft

Ok folks it seems the terms of the game have been set. The republicans left in congress don’t really have too many options left to them as they see things. And the way they see things is purely through the prism of power. Now, considering that they are politicians one shouldn’t begrudge them that perspective since they can’t accomplish anything unless they have power, so in their superficial little mythical republican worlds there’s no reason to support anything at all when it comes to measures proposed by their opposition in the Democrat party.

And by the way, I think I’m gonna start adopting that would-be slanderous usage in much the same way that a gathering mocking movement has begun which sees people adopting Hussein as a universal middle name. Part of the GOP strategy involves taking distinctive labels and using them as slurs against the folks they symbolize; hence “Hussein” as in Barack HUSSEIN Obama, calling the Democratic party the “Democrat” party (probably because it sounds somewhat spittle-like and almost crap), and of course, “liberal”, as if it was a straight-up curse or in the same league as “convicted infant pedophile”.

Today my friend Barry completed the first step in getting his economic stimulus bill in place by passing the House. Not a single republican voted in favor of it. They can take no credit nor receive any of the blame for its success or failure. It’s a mighty gamble considering the stakes. If this thing works even a little bit they can pretty much kiss their jobs (and maybe their party) goodbye because you can bet that any cash that might have flowed their way by participating in the stimulus is more likely to go elsewhere first. The price of purity in principles is going to cost them their jobs just as their constituents’ livelihoods are similarly threatened. And the constituents are to blame just as much as the representatives themselves. They voted ‘em in and clearly didn’t get the message of cooperation out to ‘em while they had the chance. We’re all taking our medicine for the past eight years and some will have to take a stronger dose down the line.

Let’s not be coy about this money business. One man’s pork is another man’s bacon and my friend Barry is trying to pull our collective bacon out of the fire. The business of government is effectively to move money around. When you like where it goes it’s stimulus; when you don’t, it’s pork. When you like the reasoning behind why it gets spent, it’s progressive, when you don’t, it’s socialist. All labels and all marketing and for most of the past near 30 years in power it’s really all the republicans have had. Since Reagan they have succeeded in marketing a series of slogans, slurs, and myths which have made a mockery of the unseemly but necessary business of governing. They have won election after election saying government is the problem and then proving it with utterly ineffective governing. In the process, especially in the past eight years, a small cadre of insiders has stolen almost everything of value in the country and shipped it overseas leaving behind promises of payback that can never be met, all the while telling the rest of us to borrow from them to buy stuff we didn’t used to need, and work harder for them and their profit margin.

If this is starting to sound like class warfare, another phrase they trot out anytime anyone actually analyzes where all the money went, that’s because it has been for all this time. But it’s not warfare against the rich guys, it has been warfare by the rich guys against everyone else who still had stuff they wanted. The republicans became a crowd of Veruca Salts. However much they had, they wanted more, and conned anyone not in their club to pay them to take it. And sorry religious righties, they conned you most of all because they made you think you were part of their club and doing God’s work the whole time. But only your rich reverends are part of the club. You, my Godly friends, are what you have always been, the sheep. And if it hasn’t yet happened, you will soon find that they slaughtered you long ago.

For 30 years everything they said was fake. And when the knock comes on your door and all that you have is taken away, then you may realize too late that this was the case. Or maybe you will self-flagellate yourself for not trying harder, doing better, making better choices. Or maybe you will blame a welfare queen. Who did you vote for?

Look, Democrats are not angels either. They are politicians and I don’t expect or want angelic behavior from a politician. They are humans with all of the usual human frailties only pumped up steroidally by enormous authority, excessive egos, a measure of self-righteousness, and honestly, only a limited ability to know everyone and everything among which to choose to dole out the largesse. But I do expect them to have a sense of proportion and degree. Unfortunately, I expect that out of near a trillion dollars, there will be amounts of fraud and waste that have never been seen before. But there will be much more good to come out of it all. Don’t let the inevitable bad news drown out the good. The media need to be kept somewhat honest too. We must be wary of oversensationalized bad news as compared to what will be much more and therefore mundane good news.

There is a distinction to keep in mind here between honest graft and dishonest graft. Honest graft means that friends of the local representative or senator may get the best shot at the contract for building the new water system for the county. They end up making a lot of money, probably with some delays and cost over runs but when it gets done, the water flows better, is cleaner, and cheaper. That’s good graft. The kind of graft the republicans have done for the past eight years involves destroying an entire country, then paying billions to Halliburton and other friends of the party to fail at rebuilding anything while American soldiers get killed acting as their bodyguards. While they managed to fully destroy Iraq, they didn’t quite complete the job here, and we finally came to our senses before the incapable republican repairmen started digging up the streets.

What we have seen the past eight years from the republicans and are now seeing as if it will continue is a “principled” determination to use the system for nothing even potentially useful if it is not all for them. So they will get nothing. No further opportunity to destroy by incompetence, just by non-involvement. Foolishness. Dereliction of duty. Maybe we need to come up with a word to use as a slur against the name of their party. Republicur? Maybe. But that would be childish and my friend Barry has asked us to leave aside childish things. He was referring in part to false and failed ideologies, specifically those held by the GOP for the past couple of generations. He is a master at the sly and elegant insult by the way. I’m glad he is my friend. And I hope to benefit from our friendship. I hope we all do.

Sunday, January 25, 2009

The Politics of Prosecuting the Past

Waterboarding is torture. Torture is a crime. Crimes should be prosecuted and punishments meted out accordingly. We are a nation of laws and no one is above the law.

Politics is about getting things done … or not.

Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar.

Let me be clear about where I stand just in case it isn’t already by the name of this blog: I believe George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Rumsfeld, Alberto Gonzalez, David Addington, John Yoo, and many others, both conspired to engage and indeed did engage in criminal acts involving the authorization of torture and the use of illegal interrogation tactics in prosecuting their fraudulent war in Iraq and by extension the so-called War On Terror. I believe they should be indicted, tried, and if found guilty, sentenced in accordance with the standards of law appropriate for the heinousness of the crimes committed. Though certainly impeachable offenses while all were still in office, these crimes may also rise to the level of treason and should then also be treated accordingly. I think I’ve now made myself clear.

Nevertheless, I have serious doubts that the Obama administration will proceed with an in-depth investigation and is even less likely to seek indictments. If I am correct, it is not for a lack of desire to do so because I think the new administration is quite serious about bringing lawfulness and openness back to the White House. But I also understand that this country faces enormous challenges to its existence on a variety of fronts. Regardless of the principled approach Obama will demand of his policy-makers, he is first and foremost a pragmatist and is engaged in the work of getting things done at a time when things badly need doing. So in the short term, meaning at least for Obama’s first year in office, the discussion of whether or not there will be any investigations of the former administration is going to be left to the probably increasing agitation of the folks on the far left of the political spectrum. They will keep the issue alive and for that I want to thank them in advance because I am with them. But before we get to the business of putting Bush and friends in the dock, I am more inclined to focus first on policies which will assure that there will still be a country with a legal system that can support such trials a year from now.

Already we can see the makings of what will become a delicate dance between congressional democrats and republicans over the economic stimulus package. The extremes have declared it is either; a) too small; b) too big; c) not fast enough; d) overlarded with pork; and so forth. If this so-called era of new bi-partisanship is to occur, the Boehner (pronounced Boh’-nr) faction will require some manner of mollification to sign on.

Regardless of the outcome, for now the economy is by necessity the immediate focus of the administration. Of course, as Obama said during the transition in one of his many sly swipes at the Bush administration, “[we] should be able to do more than one thing at a time.” So theoretically running an investigation of Bush torture crimes should be easy to manage over at Justice while the money folks are working out the stimulus plan. However, as should be obvious to anyone familiar with the Republican party the past 15 years or so, their operating principle is, McCain’s campaign slogan aside, Party First. As such, you can be assured that any serious whiff of official engagement in engaging a torture tribunal will be met with wholesale obstructionism by the GOP on every major policy effort Obama makes. If it hasn’t become clear that many in the GOP would rather see the country continue to swirl down the toilet rather than adjust their principles or cede some authority willingly, then I’m not sure what the point is of continuing to read this post.

Should an investigation into war crimes immediately begin work? Absolutely. Will it? Presuming we even get an Attorney General soon (see previous paragraph for an explanation of this one), the answer will be no. Claims will be made that the Department of Justice needs to be put back in order and in the business of ferreting out financial crimes rather than to get involved in such high profile and partisan a matter as war crimes and really, it’s just too political a hot-button issue for now. There really is current work which needs to be done that does not need to be stone-walled because Bush and company spent too much time emulating 24.

And really, if we’re talking expediency here, let’s give it a year and see if the economy can be set on solid footing; let’s allow the Obama administration to get some bi-partisan support to do some good things to fix the mistakes of the past eight years. If they can manage that in a year, garnering the credit and political capital which would result, well, then it’s time to start thinking about the 2010 elections. That would be a fine time to declare some victories and get into the business of redressing past grievances. The netroots folks will need their rallying cry and this will be a perfect time to make the push to get over 60 in the Senate and begin the process of putting the GOP as it still exists out of our misery. Maybe then, publicly plucking Bush from his plush digs in Dallas, and Cheney from his iron lung in Dubai will show the world that we in the United States really do care about following the laws we enact.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

What Storms May Come...

What a great day.

I woke up, turned on the TV at about 7 this morning to MSNBC (official cable news station of the Obama administration) and saw an already large crowd gathered as the sun rose on the National Mall between the Capitol and Lincoln Memorial in Washington DC. Impressive, considering the temperature was in the teens and wind chill in the single digits. I started watching, got myself ready for a couple of early morning court hearings and began to revel in the glow of the dawning day.

I truly feel the past eight years has been an almost unending nightmare since election day in 2000. I was teaching US History at Florida State at the time, and initially, it seemed the day had turned on a number of votes roughly equivalent to double the size of the freshman class I was teaching at the time. I didn't make my leanings known to the students but I did try to encourage registration as much as I could. My best student that semester came to me before class the day before the election asking about absentee ballots. Of course it was way too late at that point for an absentee ballot and I told him as much. He was very upset about missing out on his first presidential election. On Wednesday, he came up to me looking horrible and I asked why. Turns out as soon as class ended on Monday, he got in his car and drove home to Miami just to vote. For those of you not familiar with Florida geography, it's about a 7 hour drive from Tallahassee to Miami (unless my mom is driving in which case it's a 5 hour drive). He took his vote seriously enough to make that commitment, unfortunately in a losing effort.

In the weeks following, Tallahassee became the center for the farce of the 2000 recount and I got to see some of it first hand. It seemed clear to me that Gore had probably won the state but it was also clear to me that he was engaged in a legal fight with poor tactics. He asked for recounts in specific counties assured to go Democratic instead of recounting the whole state. Although that was allowable under Florida's ridiculous voting statutes, I knew it would end up going to the Supreme Court, meaning it would be analyzed by 14th Amendment standards. To me that meant Gore was doomed to failure because Gore made some votes (the ones in the counties he chose) more important than the ones in the rest of the state. Seemed like an easy loss on equal protection grounds and I ended up right. Gore lost because he didn't have enough confidence in his possible victory to challenge the whole state. Such was the piecemeal thinking of the Democratic party until my friend Barry went for everyone's vote.

Nevertheless, I started my lecture the day after the election by saying to my class, "for the rest of your lives, if anyone ever tells you your vote doesn't matter, you can tell them you know better, because you were in Florida in 2000." And I could tell the 1/3 of the class, approximately 50 kids, who hadn't voted, knew they messed up (as did the ones who voted for Nader).

At that point though, we didn't know what to expect. GW Bush was an enigma. The apparently not too bright older brother of our governor at the time and the son of the former one term president. The economy seemed solid and the world at relative peace so maybe he would just be a caretaker who would throw some bones at members of his own class but otherwise bring a little quiet to American government after the final tumult of the Clinton impeachment years. And then Gore could try again in '04 and take what was rightfully his in the first place.

And then came the storms...

I scarcely recognize the country I love since that night over 8 years ago now. My life has certainly changed in ways I could never have conceived of at the time either. But here we are, and the result has now been another world changing event but I think for the first time in a long time, a positive one. Maybe one of the greatest in all modern history, not just US History. We have managed to make the most powerful man in the world out of a astoundingly smart kid from Hawaii with a background and experience unlike anything ever seen in a president before, but common enough in this country to be considered All-American. And by the way, he's black (even though he's equally white and was raised by his white family).

This country has been through it. Born in blood with high ideals as well as the stain of slavery, expanded by the genocide of the natives, civil war over human racial bondage, built into an economic giant on the backs of the poor and the eager but unknowing immigrant, made a world power by sending men to war while the women stayed home and built the ships, planes, and bombs, we have incrementally continued to strive towards building a more perfect union.

By 1980, unchallenged as the mightiest and richest nation human history has ever known, a conservative economic philosophy gradually started to chip away at the engine of this country, the vast middle class, sold to us by fear with mythologies of a world that never existed except in the unformed experience of children, with a purpose to hoard or steal what had taken generations to build and share. Finally with a falsely won election under its belt, GW Bush had his suit filled with this ideology, concocted by members of his class of noblesse oblige, and married it to the shallow militaristic ideology of the intellectual heirs of a cadre of disgruntled Stalinist sympathizers re-labelled as neo-conservatives and essentially brought this country and in some sense much of the western world, to the brink of self-destruction.

It is indeed time to lay aside childish things. Thank you America for coming to your senses and giving this man, my friend Barry, Barack Hussein Obama, the chance to guide us through whatever other storms are surely to come.

What a great day indeed!

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Audacity of America

The United States remains the symbol of possibility for the world. The past eight years has sorely challenged that notion in more ways than most of us could ever imagine. But with the change of American leadership, brought about by the sweeping rebuke of Republicanism on November 4, 2008, we are reborn before all. Even in the throes of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, a palpable sense of joy or at least relief is in the air, on the minds, and is being expressed quite explicitly in the words of nearly everyone. Obviously I’m a political junkie and have no trouble voicing my thoughts on such issues but lately I’ve been hearing people at every level of society making their own statements about how good it is that we’re making this switch and that the Bush era is finally coming to an ignominious close.

The audacity of America is that we actually believe in the promise of our founding ideas. We regularly argue over the meaning of those ideas and how we might achieve their promise but it doesn’t change the fact that as a nation we agree that we are on a journey. It’s a journey Barack Obama also regularly refers to. He refers to our ongoing efforts to form a more perfect Union. By doing so he is challenging us to get more directly and deeply involved in what in means to be a citizen in this country.

The idea of America demands that we take citizenship seriously. Because of the demands of true citizenship, it is part of the reason the founders had no interest in extending it to all of the residents of the original 13 states. We The People are not idle words and they don’t represent an abstract concept. When my friend Barry calls us the collective “you” he intends that we take it personally as intended by the Constitution. He has been given a set of responsibilities which immediately put him in league with Franklin Roosevelt and Abraham Lincoln at the start of their terms. It’s pretty obvious to see that he is ready to take his responsibilities as seriously as his predecessor often failed to do. He expects us to do the same and I suspect is not going to hesitate to remind us of it.

We must now do a better job of knowing ourselves, knowing each other, and our respective places as citizens of this country. Continued failure to do so may very well assure that we forever lose the chance to regain any part of a stature only recently thought unshakeable. We must become more thoughtful, more aware, more genuinely critical of each and every proposal put forth by the new government. We have little room for error anymore after 8 years of fairly complete neglect. The ship of state is rotted but it must continue to float or we and very likely the entire world as we know it is sunk. We must be especially wary of the renewed use of tired labels used to frighten us about concepts which have no relation to the problems we face. We must be leery of the greedy and the selfish who would substitute the long-term health of the nation for their own short-term gain. The goal as mentioned in earlier posts is to reject ideology in favor of solid, practical solutions to what are not yet but very nearly intractable problems.

As my friend Barry has stated, we tend to be at our best when things are teetering on their very worst. It’s been a long time since things were genuinely this dangerous in so many ways. The biggest threat to our continued happy existence as a nation though is not from without, but more truly within, from our own failure to rise to the tasks before us. We have a chance to rebuild this nation into something resembling a more perfect Union. If we work, and argue, and challenge each other together, anything is possible. It’s an audacious belief, but it’s been that way since the absurd notion of forming a democracy on this continent was first considered. It is an audacity understood and marveled at by people in other countries throughout the world and it’s high time we become more acquainted with our own audacious heritage and renew it for ourselves and our posterity again.

Friday, January 16, 2009

Excellence On The Hudson

The Miracle will be if we survive the Bush presidency intact.

No more stark contrast could have been on display yesterday than the difference between events on the west side of Manhattan and the East Room of the White House. While an empty US Airways plane bobbed in the frigid waters of the Hudson River, George W. Bush spoke, seemingly oblivious, as he has been during the unfolding of events of his eventful presidency, bidding his farewell suckers to some handpicked lackeys, his clearly ecstatic wife, some people of color who did extraordinary acts, and a scowling Dick Cheney.

As I write, still breathless reporters all over the TV dial are exclaiming the Miracle on the Hudson following the ditching of the big plane in the river west of the city after what was likely a flock of Canadian Geese got run through the plane’s engines, shutting them down. The pilot, Chesley Sullenberg, brought the damaged plane down without incident, followed almost instantly by the appearance of New York City and Port Authority ferries to grab standing passengers off the floating wing of the plane to safety without a single life-threatening injury.

But this was not a miracle.

What we see here is the result of excellence and we should be no less in awe of it. It’s just that after the relentless pummeling of failure and incompetence on display before us and the world of the Bush administration and their apologists trying to spin it away, we can hardly recognize competence and excellence anymore.

The pilot of the plane, and no doubt his co-pilot, the flight attendants, the air traffic controllers, the ferry boat operators, the manufacturers of the plane, and yes, the government bureaucrats at the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) all worked together to assure that a disaster in the making instead is hailed as a miracle. Instead it should be hailed as a mark of pride that such a wide range of people can succeed to such a degree in split seconds in an incident for which all were trained and prepared.

All of these people should be celebrated not for performing miracles, they should be celebrated for being the very best at the jobs they do every day.

You can pray and hope for miracles and for much of the Bush presidency that’s what we had to do all too often to little effect because we could not rely on most of the folks at the top to do their jobs much less do them well. That era (or perhaps error is a better pun) is over.

All appearances and claims are that the incoming Obama team is put together largely because of the excellence that all will bring to their tasks. If that is the case, then maybe Americans and the world can return to the expectation of things as they once were, that we can celebrate excellence in the things we do rather than hope for miracles when nothing else works. If the standard of expectation is excellence miracles aren’t necessary.


Monday, January 12, 2009

A Modest Proposal

In the past few weeks current vice president Dick Cheney admitted that he authorized and supported waterboarding as a method of "enhanced interrogation." Yesterday current president George W. Bush admitted he was presented with a series of interrogation "tools" to use on Khaled Sheikh Muhammed after he was captured and sent to Guantanamo, approving them all, incuding waterboarding. Bush says all those tools remain necessary.

Constitutional law professor and MSNBC legal analyst Jonathan Turley just presented some fairly straightforward logic which goes like this: if waterboarding is torture and torture is illegal, a president who authorizes waterboarding is guilty of a crime.

A succeeding president who states that waterbaording is torture and no one is above the law, at approximately 12:30 PM on Tuesday January 20, 2009, having already taken the oath to "preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States," and just about the time he will be concluding his inauguration speech, should then immediately spin around, point at the most recent former president and vice president standing behind him and instruct the two burleyest members of his secret service security detail, stating in loud, clear, ringing tones, "arrest these two men for war crimes and crimes against humanity," whereupon they would then quickly be cuffed, have hoods thrown over their heads, and flown straight to a cell in Guantanamo next to the aforementioned Khaled Sheikh Muhammed for a trial of some form or another to take place at some future undetermined time.

Part of looking forward invloves in making sure lingering past issues are appropriately addressed.