Archive for the ‘Last resort of scoundrels’ category

Trump Administration Reverses Course; Supports Massive Funding Increase For Performance Art

April 7, 2017

A sidelight on yesterday’s Tomahawk raid on a Syrian airbase.

1:  Fifty-nine Tomahawks fired.

2: Targetting:  “The targets included air defenses, aircraft, hangars and fuel.”  For good reason (IMHO) the strike avoided stored chemical weapons.  Personnel at the base were warned of the impending attack and as of now, no casualties have been reported.

3: Results: some shit got blown up. All of it can be repaired or replaced with out, it seems, significant difficulty.

All of which is to say that this was what most kindly can be called a warning shot, and rather less so, performance art.

Which gets me to my point.  The price tag for fifty nine Tomahawk missiles runs a little bit shy of $90 million.

For scale: that’s roughly 60% of the $148 million the to-be defunded National Endowment of the Arts received in 2016.

I believe Donald Trump’s grant was titled, “Very Expensive Holes In Concrete.”

Image: Adrian Hill, A British Mine Exploding, sometime during World War I.

Schvantz Truthers Unite!

March 4, 2016

Not so very long ago I remember this guy, funny hair, blocky, ungainly posture, brash fantasist — a Noo Yawk equivalent of those our Texan friends describe as All Hat; No Cattle — infesting the green rooms and bloviator sets of Fox News, talking about President Obama’s birthplace and demanding the infamous “Long Form Birth Certificate.”

Well, we’ve got a new controversy now, a puzzle inside a riddle wrapped in an enigma:  can the Republican front runner boast masculine sufficiency — or is he a little leaguer, if you know what I mean, and I think you do.*

Given Donald Trump’s distinguished record as a campaigner for truth and unvarnished, unequivocal, impossible-to-falsify empirical evidence on the matter of our current president’s citizenship, there really is only one way forward.

Show us the long form!

Tizian_085

Or rather…please don’t.  Not ever.

Or to put this another way:  perhaps the most remarkable thing about the GOP race this year is the way the Republicans have figured out a new and truly innovative way to kill American jobs.  After last night’s debate, any market for political satirists is dead.  Imagine the writer’s room at The Daily Show right now:  why bother with new copy when you can just revoice that transcript?

This thread?  It despairs of our democracy.  And it is open.

Image: Titian, The Rape of Europa, 1560-1562**

*With absolutely no offense intended to those young ‘uns who actually, you know, swing small bats and run around bases.

**A local favorite — check it out at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum should you ever happen to have a moment in Our Faire Citie

If The Phone Don’t Ring…

November 18, 2015

Hey everyone!

I’ve got a message for you:

Pick up the damn phone.

The backstory:  I heard last night from a valued reader with connections to the Hill reminded me that there is more this crowd can do than point, sigh, and mock the GOP pants-wetters (abetted by an increasing number of feckless Dems) who so fear the widows and orphans from the latest spasm of our long decade of war in the Middle East.*

Rembrandt_Harmensz._van_Rijn_052

What to do about the attempt to make fear the ground state of American policy?  What to do about the spreading political meme that the proper exercise of US state power is to bar the door to Syrian refugees? How should we stand with President Obama when he says of the fear mongers “that’s not who we are”?

Pick up the damn telephone.

Call your Congressional representatives in the House and the Senate.

You know the drill:  Speak your mind, politely, respectfully, but firmly to whoever you get on the phone.

My reader emphasized, and my own distant memory of an internship on the Hill concurs, that these calls really matter.  House and Senate staffs keep notes and logs.  There are regular reports of how many calls came in, on what side, and with what passion or urgency.  \

Paradoxically, because of the ubiquity of social media, an actual human voice that has taken the trouble to pick up a phone carries a great deal of weight.  So call.

The numbers:

The Senate.

The House.

If you’re feeling extra virtuous — your governor and state legislature representatives would also be worth a call.

We can water the tree of liberty not with blood, but words.

Pick up the damn phone.

PS:  Obama gets it exactly right in this devastating take down of the chicken hawks in the other party.

*Yes, I do know that the conflict there — and “Great” Power strategerizing through its misery — extends well before 2003.  But the Syrian Civil War of the last few years is (at least to me) both a conflict with deep roots and a proximate consequence of Bush the Lesser’s attempt to remake the Middle East into an model US client region.

Image: attr. to Rembrandt van Rijn, The Flight Into Egypt 1627

In Our Names

July 8, 2013

Titian_-_The_Scourging_of_Christ_-_WGA22826

Driving back from dropping my son off at his first day of summer camp, I turned on the radio in the middle of our local broadcast of the BBC’s World Service.  Almost the first thing up was an interview with director Asif Kapadia, talking about his latest project, a short film starring Yasiim Bey’s (Mos Def).

Bey’s subject: what it is actually like to be force fed, as is now being experienced by detainees at the US indefinite detention camp at Guantanamo Bay.  Bey’s supporting cast included two doctors, volunteering for the roles.  In the camp the procedure is performed by US personnel, working towards the stated purpose of securing the freedom and liberty of the citizens and residents of the United States.

Bey’s video is propaganda in the purest sense. That does not mean it can’t show us something that we should know.

Warning — and pay attention to me here, kids:  This short film is hard to watch — very much so — which is its point.  Don’t hit play if you have a hard time putting images of cruelty or violence out of your mind.  I’m putting it below the fold so that you don’t click on it by accident.

(more…)

I’m All For The Rule Of Law. It’s The Judges I Can’t Stand

July 7, 2013

Via today’s The New York Times,* some big-time journalism on how the FISA court is creating an alternate judiciary — at least potentially more powerful, than the already compromised public one by which we thought American citizens encountered the law:

In more than a dozen classified rulings, the nation’s surveillance court has created a secret body of law giving the National Security Agency the power to amass vast collections of data on Americans while pursuing not only terrorism suspects, but also people possibly involved in nuclear proliferation, espionage and cyberattacks, officials say

….

“We’ve seen a growing body of law from the court,” a former intelligence official said. “What you have is a common law that develops where the court is issuing orders involving particular types of surveillance, particular types of targets.”

In one of the court’s most important decisions, the judges have expanded the use in terrorism cases of a legal principle known as the “special needs” doctrine and carved out an exception to the Fourth Amendment’s requirement of a warrant for searches and seizures, the officials said.

Pedro_Berruguete_-_Saint_Dominic_Presiding_over_an_Auto-da-fe_(1475)

The special needs doctrine was originally established in 1989 by the Supreme Court in a ruling allowing the drug testing of railway workers, finding that a minimal intrusion on privacy was justified by the government’s need to combat an overriding public danger. Applying that concept more broadly, the FISA judges have ruled that the N.S.A.’s collection and examination of Americans’ communications data to track possible terrorists does not run afoul of the Fourth Amendment, the officials said.

That legal interpretation is significant, several outside legal experts said, because it uses a relatively narrow area of the law — used to justify airport screenings, for instance, or drunken-driving checkpoints — and applies it much more broadly, in secret, to the wholesale collection of communications in pursuit of terrorism suspects. “It seems like a legal stretch,” William C. Banks, a national security law expert at Syracuse University, said in response to a description of the decision. “It’s another way of tilting the scales toward the government in its access to all this data.”

I’m once again crashing deadlines, so I’ll leave off trying to write (n) words on a subject in which I have no particular expertise (the sound you hear is the peanut gallery cheering).  The only thing I can say both quickly and with a reasonable shot at validity is that we already know how this kind of thing, unchecked, plays out.  Secret courts trump even secret police as a threat  to both democracy and freedom of thought and expression.

We’ve seen how this works in plenty of prior examples — and not just in the bad decades of the 20th century either.  This isn’t where we should be now.

Over to you…

*This kind of piece is the reason I maintain my (Sunday) subscription to the Grey Lady.  The opinion pages may be a howling desert of intellectual mediocrity (w. the Krugman exception and a few others worthy of honorable mention) and outright mendacity (looking at you BoBo)¹.  But there is no substitute for the quality of journalism backed by real resources that the Times is capable of when it chooses.  I know it doesn’t always do so (Judith Miller, anyone).  But it still is the home of more of this kind of stuff than any other MSM outlet (that I can think of).  So, yeah, we still need the place, much as we need it do a whole lot better a lot of the time.

¹I’m not even going to go into the “It’s not nice, child, to point and laugh” division populated entirely by Master Ross Douthat.

Image:  Pedro Berruguete, Saint Dominic Presiding over an Auto-da-fe, 1475.

Thank You John Sununu

October 4, 2012

Just a quick follow up to Imani’s post.

Today John Sununu called the President “lazy” — and on being pressed, doubled down and said it again.

Just to be clear:  the word Sununu was looking for is “shiftless.”  And BTW, I disagree with Imani just this far:  Sununu wasn’t really blowing a dog whistle.  He just about stood on top of the bar and trumpeted the noun we all can hear lurking just behind the adjective.

Here we see again what’s been apparent for some time:  the Romney campaign has clearly set itself the goal of out-George Wallace-ing the entire GOP primary field as it looks for ways to remind the electorate that the 44th president of the United States is, you know, an African-American man.

For which I offer my sincere thanks to Mr. Sununu…

…best remembered as the toxic-moocher George H. W. Bush fired in an ultimately bootless attempt to avoid re-election crash-and-burn.

Why such gratitude?  Not just because every time something like this makes headlines the toxic foulness of your current GOP becomes yet more obvious (to the point where even such an MSM Village stalwart as Andrea Mitchell seemed to wince, as you can see in the video at the TPM link).

 

But also because once again Sununu himself and the Romney campaign — a hopelessly undisciplined, tactics-before-strategy, book-a-separate-seat-on-the-plane-for-each-ego kind of operation — have managed to step on their collective genitals, and the story of Romney prowess they hoped would dominate the day.

I don’t know what universe Sununu inhabits, but in the one in which you must  a very small number of folks who voted for Barack Obama last time but might not this time, it just isn’t that great an idea to race-bait in the hopes that no one but your targets will notice.  They will. We do.

Ta-Nehisi Coates linked above as well as here, is dead right on this one.  I don’t know or care if John Sununu is a racist in his daily interactions.  What matters is that he’s a race-hustler.  Hears TNC on that pathology:

We imagine the American past as filled with rabid bigots. But there have always been at least as many people who have some sense that bigotry is wrong, though they may say nothing.  And then there are a select few who are fairly clear on right and wrong, but simply see more upside in being wrong.

The difference now is that we actually have a black President.  And despite the delusions and deceit of the Sununus of the world, an awful lot of the electorate  seems to have its collective head screwed on pretty good.  They — we — get that the Obama Michael Lewis describes is a much better representation of the actual person than any fantasy put out in a haze of power lust by John Sununu or Mitt Romney.  And thus, despite that ever closer tiptoeing to the plain-text Ni-CLANG! moment Imani describes, Sununu’s hateful speech is the howler monkey’s last fling of faeces against the bars of his cage.  Satisfying to the simian involved, no doubt, but hardly a persuasive exercise.

Put simply:  for all the storm and chaos on the right, most Americans wish the President well — for very good reasons of self interest, if nothing else.  When you trumpet the crazy beyond the walls of the asylum, you make even those who might be receptive to calmer argument just a bit nervous.  Folks start to cross the street when they see you coming.  You get my drift?

One more thing:  Sununu, not content to insult every American who believes that the Presidency deserves minimal respect, added this gem  on Fox News.  Asked if Obama would do better next round, he replied “When you’re not that bright, you can’t get better prepared.”

Oh frabjous day.

John — can I call you John? — it’s less descriptive, but trips off the tongue more easily than “pustule” — please, oh please continue enjoying the carnal knowledge of that fine pullet.  I sincerely hope that your view reflects the Romney campaign’s perception of their opponent.

That is all.

Image Otto Marseus van Schreick, Blue Breeze, Toad and Insects, 1660.

“That’s funny, because I happen to have Mr. McLuhan right here…” Benjamin Franklin edition

April 20, 2011

I’m working on another volume in my Pequod-like pursuit of Megan McArdle* (see, after what went on here earlier today, I’ve got a Melville mindworm going), but just to show that I’m not dead yet, I thought I’d toss in a little lagniappe to a discussion begun here in John’s post of a day or so ago.

There, I learned that some idiot I’ve never before had the dystopic experience of encountering had this to say about the notion of an intellectual commons:

But Barton says that the Bible, Ben Franklin and the Pilgrims all opposed Net Neutrality because it violates the rights of huge corporations to charge higher rates and discriminate on content, calling it a “wicked” policyand “socialism on the Internet.”

Here’s David Barton’s own words on the subject, just to show that the snark version is, in fact, deadly accurate:

But we talk about it today because it is a principle of free market. That’s a Biblical principle, that’s a historical principle, we have all these quotes from Ben Franklin, and Jefferson and Washington and others on free market and how important that is to maintain.

Well, as it happens, I’m reading a really excellent book:  Common as Air by Lewis Hyde, which is, among much else, a detailed and beautifully written archaeology of what the founders — and Franklin primus inter pares — thought about ideas, ownership, and the commons.

One thing Hyde reminds us of is that Franklin himself did not claim ownership of ideas that he himself saw as the product of many, the inheritance of all, and the property of none.  He did not patent the lightening rod — instead communicating with David Hume, among others, to make sure that the world — at least those with access to learned journals — could make free use of both the research implications and the practical value of his investigations into the behavior of electricity. He didn’t try to hang on to the rights to the Franklin stove.

If he did choose to keep some trade secrets that advantaged the work that made him prosperous — the techniques he used to render early American paper money more secure against counterfeits — that was one exception against a life time of free public dissemination of discoveries and inventions that he understood to have been built on the work of predecessor and collaborators, to be improved upon still further by the efforts of strangers to come.  [FWIW — I wrote about Franklin’s role as a currency innovator in last October’s American History. Sadly, the piece itself is not online, though I think a draft may show up in MIT’s DSpace archive eventually.

You should all go get Hyde’s book for yourselves, but just to shove Barton’s ignorant lies back down his slimy, authoritarian-slime-filled cake-hole, consider this quote from the chapter Hyde titled “Benjamin Franklin, Founding Pirate”:

Franklin believed that property should not command society, society should command property:  “Private Property..is a Creature of Society and is subject to the Cals of that Society whenever its Necessities shall require it, even to its last Farthing.”  The contributions that private property makes to public needs are not, therefore, “to be considered as conferring a Benefit to the Public…but as the Return of an Obligation previously received or the Payment of a Just Debt.”   (Common as Air, pp. 132-133.  The Franklin quote is from “Queries and Remarks on a Paper entitled ‘Hints for the Members of [the Constitutional] Convention No II in teh Federal Gazette of Tuesday Nov 3d 1789.]

The shorter:  Franklin was down for net neutrality.

You can disagree with his argument, of course.  It’s a wingnut folly to accord the status of revolution to texts that they rarely, if ever read.  Mine are different pathologies, no doubt.

But while the fact that Ben Franklin said something does not make it inerrant truth, still, if I may, can I suggest to the Mr. Barton that before he yaps about what the founders thought about something, it might be a good idea to, you know, actually read what they had to say on the subject?

Just sayin….

*Absolutely no good can come of this metaphor.

Image:  David Martin, Portrait of Benjamin Franklin, 1767.  I’ve always loved this portrait for the fact that Franklin commissioned it while directing that he be painted with the bust of Newton watching over him.

I Do Not Think That Word Means What You Think It Means

April 6, 2011

Late to the party (I think I’m going to let that become my middle name), but just to add one thought on the Paul Ryan lovefest by the innumerate and/or the malign:

With this story, we’ve welcomed into English a new  term of art.  Just as “charm” to a physicist means something quite different than that evoked by memories of Fred Astaire…

…so “Serious” clearly has a meaning to Villagers and the political elite utterly distinct from anything the rest of us understand by the word.

As far as I can tell, it has become a modifier to describe any proposal that transfers a financial burden or the balance of life’s risk from society and or its best-off to middle and the poor.  If a suggested change in the social contract doesn’t f*ck the poor, it can’t be serious.

Syryosly:  the word has become code, several posts here have already pointed out.  Its use signals that the weaker party to any bargain is about to get screwed. The claim that enduring others’ pain is “serious”  is as archtypical an example of rhetorical deceit as one could hope to find.

Which thought leads me to two conclusions.

First, that as Dean Baker says via John, any pundit caught using the word has told you how to rate their opinion on anything.

Second, this disdain for language is one of the central fronts in the GOP and friend’s assault on the whole idea of a social contract.  That”s the point in the debasement of language: to make it as near impossible as it can be to discuss the reality struggling to escape out from under a fog  of meaning-denude verbiage.

There is no one better on this subject than George Orwell, whose 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language” has much to say to anyone interested in how to use and abuse language as a tool to convey experience.

In that essay, Orwell captures the modern GOP and its handmaidens — the Brooks’s, the Sullivan’s, the Slate contrarians and all the others — with perfect prescience:

…it is clear that the decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes: it is not due simply to the bad influence of this or that individual writer. But an effect can become a cause, reinforcing the original cause and producing the same effect in an intensified form, and so on indefinitely. A man may take to drink because he feels himself to be a failure, and then fail all the more completely because he drinks. It is rather the same thing that is happening to the English language. It becomes ugly and inaccurate because our thoughts are foolish, but the slovenliness of our language makes it easier for us to have foolish thoughts.

Who can tell what drives people capable of better to rhetorical drink?  But those “serious” writers who now find themselves writing both falsely and badly have drunk deep of some bad hooch, to the point where the hunger to cuddle up to the powerful has led them to spiel dreck despite what they know — or should — to be true.

Let me give (almost) the last word(s) to Orwell, here from the last sentences of the essay.  It is, characteristically, a message of some succor.

…one ought to recognize that the present political chaos is connected with the decay of language, and that one can probably bring about some improvement by starting at the verbal end. If you simplify your English, you are freed from the worst follies of orthodoxy. You cannot speak any of the necessary dialects, and when you make a stupid remark its stupidity will be obvious, even to yourself. Political language — and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists — is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind. One cannot change this all in a moment, but one can at least change one’s own habits, and from time to time one can even, if one jeers loudly enough, send some worn-out and useless phrase — some jackboot, Achilles’ heel, hotbed, melting pot, acid test, veritable inferno, or other lump of verbal refuse — into the dustbin, where it belongs.

Amen, George, and amen.

Images:  Publicity photograph of Fred Astaire and Adele Astaire in 1921.

James Henry Cafferty, Sidewalks of New York, or Rich Girl, Poor Girl, 1859

Annals of the Village: Mickey Edwards edition.

January 25, 2011

This is so far from being important to the state of the Republic that you can treat what follows as a kind of duty-of-care post: it won’t add anything much to what we already know about the way the Villagers play, but we have to keep pointing and smirking as much as possible.  Naming and shaming is part of how we get our politics back, IMHO.

So after that sermonizing break, here’s a little item that caught my eye a couple of days ago from Mickey Edwards.

Edwards is wired; he’s active; he’s pulled every stop on the Village organ, and no one has ever said that he’s a dummy.

But his post telling us not to “Gloat Over Lieberman’s Exit,” almost comically gives the lie to that presumption of insight.  To begin a minifisking, here’s where Edwards transcribes Lieberman’s self perception:

The truth is, Lieberman is neither fish nor fowl, which makes him the kind of member of Congress we should all hope for; one who decides issues on their merits, not party dictates, and who listens to his constituents, not party insiders.

Well, except for matters like this, in which Lieberman consistently listened to certain constituents (give Mickey one there) but not to anything remotely like a majority of his electorate.

Reality 1, Edwards 0

Then there’s this:

…an opportunistic millionaire named Ned Lamont challenged, and narrowly defeated, Lieberman in Connecticut’s Democratic primary for the Senate…

This is just Village playground taunting, of course.  Ned Lamont is the opportunist, for the outrageous act of having dared to oppose Lieberman over a fundamental disagreement on the value of the Iraq War before running when no one else would.  Yes, he could run because he was rich…but given that this was one campaign (actually two, primary and general) truly argued over a crucial matter of policy, it seems a little odd to those of us outside the Beltway to call Lamont somehow untrustworthy for his decision to run.

And of course, there is the inconvenient fact that it was Joe Lieberman who made the decision of his own free will to enter the Democratic primary, and, when it came time to accept the decision of the voters in that election, chose instead opportunistically to take advantage of Connecticut’s quite forgiving ballot process and run in the general election as an “independent.”  (AKA, Lieberman I-ElectricBoat/Hartford Insurance).

But that’s OK with Edwards, because, as a true villager, actual democracy is awkward:

…in a race that highlighted the way in which closed party primaries distort the election process.

What?  I mean this is mostly gibberish, interpretable only when you realize that Edwards is here offering his voice to the Broderesque choir that sees a parrticular group of self-styled centrists as the only true party of government.  They’re not centrists, of course.  They are bureacratic-elite centralizers, those who want to govern in a father-knows-best manner with minimal checks. But they are deeply constrained, if not, sadly, utterly ingnorable, by the fact that actual people with particular views combine to select candidates to reflect those views, and place those candidates in elections in order to propel those views onto the national stage.

Closed primaries do not distort the election process — they are the process, where they are used.  They only distort if by that word you mean, make it more plausible that actual differences of view will be represented in the general.   It’s open primaries that are much more prone to manipulation — as we’ve seen as recently (at the Presidential level) as  Rushbo’s attempt to work mischief in his “Operation Chaos” nonsense urging his listeners to vote for Clinton during the primary campaign.

Edwards knows this.  He’s too smart, too experienced not to grasp the basic idea that allowing political parties to choose their candidates by themselves is not a threat to democracy.  Or rather, if it is, we’ve been in trouble in the US since 1792.  Why, then, did he write this?

Two reasons I can think of.  The first is that he is a lying tool adding his voice to the collective Village Pravda feed — but that’s not what I believe is the right answer.

Rather, it is that Edwards is suffering from a familiar disease, that narrowing of conceptual understanding that comes from too long within an environment in which certain ideas are simply inexpressible.  He writes nonsense because, like those cave-fish who have evolved the loss of sight, he has severed his own capacity to see himself and his companions as other see them. Spend too long in such a sensory-deprived condition (especially when that’s where they keep your iron rice bowl, of course), you diminish.

Hence this kind of elegy:

Agree with him or not, when a Joe Lieberman can no longer be appreciated or welcome in our increasingly uncivil politics we have indeed lost a vital part of the deliberative process upon which a vibrant democracy depends.

Again with the prophet without honor stuff!

Dude! Remember why Lieberman announced his retirement:  the citizens of Connecticut showed every sign of tiring of his act.  Given the dangerous persistence of incumbents most of the time, I’d say this was exactly the kind of development on which a vibrant democracy depends.  Why does Edwards disagree?

Lots of reasons, probably.  I’m guessing, for example, that he doesn’t believe that Lieberman should pay a consequence for his behavior on Health Care Reform, perhaps because he agrees with Lieberman, and disagrees with a majority of Connecticut voters.  But the closest thing to a real argument Edwards advances in the post itself comes here:

I, too, have argued that our continued involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan is not in the nation’s best interest, but even if I disagreed with Lieberman’s assessment, there was no doubt that he was a man who had weighed the issues carefully and was doing what he thought was right.

No doubt? I wouldn’t be so sure of that…but that’s not my point.

That would be that to the Village, it is not the consequences of your actions that matter.  Rather, it is whether or not you are the “right” kind of person.  Lieberman meant well, according to Edwards, so it doesn’t matter that he was catastrophically wrong in his judgment on waging the Iraq war.

It’s a view that prevails too often. There were lots of things that molded the outcome of the 2010 midterms, but it was striking that so many Republicans who argued for exactly the same choices that got us into such trouble so recently still managed to claw back into power.

But even so that doesn’t make the “right kind of person” trope either coherent or good for the republic.  Lieberman was nearly bounced from office four years ago because he got Iraq wrong.  Now, the disaster is even more obvious.  Even if you were to grant that Lieberman in this case exercised his judgment sincerely, disinterestedly and in the hope of coming to the best possible decision, he failed.

This ain’t a game, folks.  A lot of people have died, more will, and the US will suffer consequences that range from lives and families shattered to infrastructure un-built and kids uneducated because Lieberman and others thought it was a good idea to wage a war of choice in a place and context that they thoroughly failed to understand.

Did we lose a vital part of our democracy when we tossed Joe Lieberman?  Only in the mind of someone for whom what leaders actually do doesn’t  matter.

We have got to get these folks into a new line of work.

Images:  Hieronymous Bosch, The Garden of Earthly Delights (detail), 1503-1504.

Joseph Wright of Derby, Grotto in the Evening, 1774

Cross Posted at Balloon Juice

Andrew Bacevich and Me On Tea Parties: Fringe Ephemera, or Brown Shirts Looking for their Couturier

September 15, 2010

Yesterday I attended a fascinating, depressing talk by Andrew Bacevich (live blogged!) in which he discussed the way the Washington consensus on national security is (a) disastrous and (b) perpetuates itself by trading on the myth of Washingtonian competence and the willingness of those beyond the beltway to defer to the presumed superior expertise and access to hidden information of the national security elite.

He made a powerful case, fleshed out in his new book, Washington Rules, positing that American national security thinking (such as it is) rests on two poles. First there is a “credo”:  that “the US and the US alone should lead, save, liberate, transform the world.” (Bacevich added yesterday that his choice of verbs was deliberate — they are all those used by American policymakers.) And then there is his trinity  — the idea that the US should maintain a global military presence, configured for power projection, and used for that purpose as needed.  (And yes, Bacevich at one point did refer to his atavistic commitment to the Catholic Church of his raising, as if you couldn’t tell…;)

Go check out the live blog if you want more, or better, buy his book.  My focus here is on an answer he gave to a question late in the session, on what he made of the meaning of the rise of Tea Party.  Here, as close to a transcript as I could make it, is his answer:

My bet is that the Tea Party is an epiphenomenon. Despite all the hooptedoo (sic) and the expectations that the Tea Party will have an impact on the elections this November — don’t think that they will be around much longer .  The substance is so thin, and is so based on anger that it isn’t enough to sustain a lasting organization.

I think that’s right…

…but not all that long ago I spent a number of years immersed in the history of 1920s Germany as I was writing Einstein in Berlin.  The book was, as advertised, an account of Einstein’s years in Germany’s capital — 1914-1932, but the question I was really trying to understand was how the 20th century went to hell, using Einstein as my witness at the epicenter of the disaster.

So when Bacevich argued that mere rage and the vague and incoherent sensation that the aggrieved Tea Partiers have somehow been done dirt is not enough to propel a political movement to lasting impact, it immediately reminded me of this:

Asked in December of 1930 what to make of the new force in German politics, he [Einstein] answered that  “I do not enjoy Herr Hitler’s acquaintance.  He is living on the empty stomach of Germany.  As soon as economic conditions improve, he will no longer be important.” Initially, he felt that no action at all would be needed to bring Hitler low.  He reaffirmed for a Jewish organization that the “momentarily desperate economic situation” and the chronic “childish disease of the Republic” were to blame for the Nazi success. “Solidarity of the Jews, I believe, is always called for,” he wrote, “but any special reaction to the election results would be quite inappropriate.”

We know how that turned out — but rather than just make the facile juxtaposition, I’d add that Einstein was almost right, or should have been right.

There was nothing in 1930 to suggest that Hitler was more than just one more raving rightist whom the establishment would dismiss as soon as conditions improved even slightly.  And in fact, through 1930 up to the end of 1932 there remained (IMHO) nothing inevitable about Hitler’s rise to power.  He benefitted from all kinds of chance circumstances, all the while riding (skillfully) the larger and overt waves of economic dislocation and political crisis.  He was certainly helped by the incompetence of his opponents.

But, certainly, even if the attempt to draw exact parallels across historical space and time never work, the lesson of end-stage Weimar Germany is that it is surprisingly easy in moments of crisis for seemingly fringe movements to rise — and that in their ascent, to seize power that could never be theirs in any ordinary time.  And once seized, authority feeds itself — we don’t need to Godwinize the argument to see that; the rapid accumulation of state power by the minority Bush II administration offers plenty of object demonstrations of what happens once folks, however thin or nonexistent their mandate, get their hands on the mechanical levers of power.

All of which is to say I believe we should not wait for the ordinary flow of events to sweep the Tea Party from the stage.  Active opposition is what’s needed, rather than the passive certainty that they’re crazy, wrong, and so openly whacked out that no one could possibly actually hand them the keys to the car.

Above all, what the example of the rise of the Nazis tells us is that rage is enormously powerful, and real hardship combined with a sense of class or race or identity-based grievance is yet more potent.  Tea Partiers, on all the evidence do believe that something has been stolen from them, and plenty of them, including one running for the United States Senate in the state of Nevada (with a reasonable shot at getting in) have suggested that violence to retrieve their God-given right to rule is acceptable, perhaps required.

Bacevich did speak to that as well.  Despite his sense (wrong, in my view) of the minor, temporary danger posed by the rise of the nativist, crazed right, he still  painted a picture of establishment GOPers as analogues (my interpretation) to the elite bosses of the German right:

You may have heard Trent Lott the other day — “We need to co-opt these people.”  And I think that reflects the cynicism of the Republican party –but the GOP is not going to become the Tea Party.

Recall the former Chancellor of Germany, Franz von Papen, crowing at the deal that brought him the Vice Chancellorship to Hitler’s ascension to the top spot in a short lived coalition, replying to charges that he had been had: “You are mistaken.  We have hired him.”

Oops.  Whatever else happens, I think Mike Castle would beg to differ with Mr. Lott.

Just one more thing:  I agree entirely with Bacevich when he said this:  ty ’20s:

You can’t divorce subject of race from all of this — and it is the most troubling part of our current politics.  It seems to me that too many of our fellow citizens refuse to accept the legitimacy of this presidency because it is unacceptable to have a black man as President.  Republicans would deny this, but I think they are lying through their teeth.  Race has not been left in our rear view mirror.

Well, yes.

And if we needed any more glances in the 1930s rearview mirror, then I’d suggest that we have a pretty good idea why in times of crisis demagogues go out of their way to paint as less than properly human a minority group that historically has been corralled into segregated settlements and has been both disdained and feared (by majorities wielding disproportionately more power than their scapegoats) — and we have more than just one precedent of what can happen when they do.

Bacevich bets that the Tea Party cocktail of rage, entitlement, ignorance, viciousness and the studied, cynical attempts at co-option will evaporate as times get less fraught.  I look at the next few months, and think of the three elections of 1932 in Germany, and wonder…if enough of the madness slips into Senate and House seats this fall, how sure can we be the rump of the GOP won’t follow?  And if times remain as hard as they may well through 2012?

Do you feel lucky today?

Well, do you?

I don’t.  I’m finally waking up; my personal enthusiasm gap has closed — I’ve hit the “donate” button three or four times today, and as the election gets closer, I’ll be heading up to New Hampshire to see what I can do to help Paul Hodes get over the hump.  I urge you all to act similarly as your wallets and geography permit.

Images:  Albert Einstein in 1929, playing a benefit concert in a synagogue in support of the Berlin Jewish community.  This is the only photograph I’ve been able to find (and I’ve looked) showing Einstein wearing a yarmulke.

Francisco de Goya, “Courtyard with Lunatics,” 1794