Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Bad Words


What an awful acronym and even worse catch phrase: Weapons of Mass Destruction. The fact that these became common parlance is pretty disappointing.

It points to a different issue, however. Weapons, of any caliber are of interest, but only really big weapons are frightening. It is the worst of obsession with size.

If we remember back in the old days of the Cold War, we were obsessed with big weapons. For proof, recall the Cuban Missile Crisis. Two movements, arising simultaneously and collaboratively within the Cold War were: opposition to Communism and opposition to nuclear proliferation. Conservatives and Liberals took on these separate concerns with vigor and allowed each other a great deal of freedom because the people that were most troublesome to us were engaged in pursuing both.

After the Cold War, we became more interested in questions of arms [what a strange euphemism, since arms denote embracing—perhaps referring to weapons as fists might be more appropriate] due to the Iran/Contra scandal and the collapse of the Soviet Union and questions of its Nuclear stockpiles raised what we might call terror alerts around the world.

But we forgot about weapons in the 90’s. We did promise not to escalate with nuclear weapons, but that was (and is) a no-brainer. Where did our diligence go?

Then in 2003, we heard Bush argue that Iraq was stockpiling “WMDs”. Even economists got into the act: Alan Greenspan recently noted

“I personally believed that Saddam was behaving in a way that he probably very well had, almost certainly had, weapons of mass destruction. I was surprised, as most, that he didn't.”
But what is funny is this: why would we think he had weapons, when we are so sure about everything else?

In the late 90’s we bombed Iraq’s main weapon stores. We knew from the weapons inspectors that as of 1998, Iraq had no WMDs. Our intelligence proved that he had not obtained any of the subsequent years. Nobody watching Iraq thought that they had any weapons, nor was Iraq pursuing them. This becomes the source of The Big Lie with regard to Iraq. Knowledgeable people had information that differed from the president’s plan and he ignored them.

Most pernicious about the term ‘weapons of mass destruction’ is that it removes us from responsibility and sets us above the fray. We think that Americans would never support “mass destruction”, despite our singular status with the atom bomb and the execution of a military campaign in Iraq that was initially dubbed “Shock and Awe”, which included mass destruction of Iraqi infrastructure including water and electricity. I said at the time that the name “Shock and Awe” sound like the prime tenants of a terrorist act. We think that Americans couldn’t use the types of weapons that could cause that devastation, nor would we. And there is the rub. WMDs were pushed into public consciousness as something separate from the act of destruction. It is the gun owner’s response to regulation: guns don’t kill people, people do. But the concern for the gun leads to a multitude of actions: one of which is the discharge of the gun in order to kill a person.

By separating the weapons themselves from the actors, we are able to justify to ourselves the wanton destruction of entire nations and peoples in pursuit of weapons. The administration was able to make weapons a justification for invasion: a ridiculous idea considering our intimate understanding of their weapons stores. In fact, the very basis for invading Iraq is no different than city police invading your township home to keep your rifle out of your own hands—which should confuse the Republican—do I support a person’s right to weapons or do I blindly support the military? Shoot! What a tough choice?

Alan Greenspan now argues that Iraq, for him, was always about oil: not ownership: but the flow of market forces in the region. Think about this in relation to what we’re doing and what was originally argued (WMDs). Where is the compassion? Where is the concern for others? Where is the love of neighbor and the appreciation of culture? Where is Christ in this (for the self-styled Christian-in-Chief)? Money and guns are not acceptable reasons for military action. Greenspan is trying to apply political cover for the administration’s war crimes in which he participated. As an advocate of war, suggesting the economic need for war, Greenspan is as guilty as Cheney and Bush of international and domestic war crimes. One hopes that their illusionment campaign can be shattered by 2009.

Monday, September 17, 2007


File this under “law of unintended consequences”. Or perhaps they were intended.

A relatively secretive group called Blackwater came to public attention last spring after the publication of the book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army by Jeremy Scahill. The book highlights the ins and outs of this organization (including the former Navy Seal/Born-Again Evangelical billionaire founder) and discusses the implications of the group.

I couldn’t do the story justice by trying to tell you who this group really is, but I will give you this:

  • They have been granted over $800 billion in no-bid contracts from the U.S. government for work in Iraq.
  • They are not operatives of the U.S. military and have no relationship with them.
    • Nor do they fall under a provision that allows them to represent the U.S. in a foreign nation and therefore fall under the jurisdiction of international military law.
  • They are universally better paid than U.S. soldiers and have more access to body armor and armored equipment.
    • If you are following along at home—since we are paying them to be there, then that means that our tax dollars are paying for mercenaries to be better equipped than our military.
  • They were brought into Iraq to protect convoys of contractors (Halliburton, perhaps?) but since 2004 have increasingly been used as a military presence, with over 1,000 armed civilian operatives in Iraq.
  • They are universally despised by Iraqis for their rude behavior, carelessness, and disregard for civilian life.

And the kicker: “The question of whether they could face prosecution is legally murky. Unlike soldiers, the contractors are not bound by the Uniform Code of Military Justice. Under a special provision secured by American-occupying forces, they are exempt from prosecution by Iraqis for crimes committed there.” (emphasis mine)

So here it is. Our fragile international community is governed by a few principles: sovereignty, peace, human rights, and fair trade. We ask our neighbors to behave themselves and we promise, in turn, to behave ourselves. Since the writing of the Magna Carta through the Geneva Convention, humanity has sought ways to work together and developed broad and decent international codes; codes by which we could all agree to live. For the brief 231 years since we declared our independence, the U.S. has stood by these codes, helped write these codes, and develop the relationships that would become the organizations of NATO and the United Nations. We have served as a (relatively) honorable member of the international community.

Then we broke the first one: we declared Iraq’s sovereignty benign. We invaded militarily, breaking the second one. We reconstituted prisons off our soil (Cuba and Iraq) where we would systematically commit acts of torture or else ship them off to other countries under the cover of darkness and let those countries commit torture (destroying that third provision). And not to leave them all untouched, we felt compelled to destroy the cradle of civilization, devastating the thousands of archaeological digs in southern Iraq and manipulating the markets in the Middle East (that fourth provision).

So, we don’t seem to care about international law, and we disregard our own laws. So what happens when we constitute this mercenary group in Iraq? We allow them to exist as a unique entity without any means of holding them accountable. The U.S. military and the Iraqi government have no jurisdiction to hold Blackwater accountable for their actions, even after the public killing of four civilians and reports of indiscriminate shootings at civilian and soldier alike. Where does this put us? And because we’ve done it, what grounds can we stop other countries from selling off their warmaking to civilians, abdicating their own responsibility and culpability? What is there left of both democracy and diplomacy? And what of human decency?

Then again, we can all pretend it never happened and save our moral outrage for ‘foreigners’. Americans have always done a great job of that.

The first and last Britany Spears post

I have to hand it to the media: they convinced me to do the one thing I never thought I'd do: think about Britany Spears.

My first confession is that I never 'got' her. I never understood the creepy fascination that middle-aged men had for her in the 90's, nor did I understand the point of listening to vapid music. She seemed like a well-meaning, if not articulate young woman that didn't need yet another person giving her career the time of day. Then came the blond celebrity one-upsmanship in which she and Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton have recently participated. Dispersions aside, Ms. Spears' only crime is not thinking. Unlike Lohan, Hilton, and Ritchie, Britany did nothing wrong; she committed no crime. Yes, public indecency in the not-wearing-panties scandal and the questionable ability to mother her children area were bad--but that is something we knew before she got pregnant. We can't stand here dumbfounded and pretend that we couldn't predict this: we all saw it in our respective minds' eyes! We knew this day would dawn: so no more self-righteous soapboxing!

Then came the VMAs: the annual MTV tribute to wanton sexuality and inappropriate relationships between 30 year-old musicians and their 13 year-old fans (think about it). Britany, seemingly making a last-minute decision to join the show, was given the 'kickoff' spot--seemingly enticing a scandal.

There are three things to say about this performance: she looked stoned or drunk; her ability was impaired; and she chose a bikini as her ensemble. Of course, none of us watched it live--I haven't watched MTV since Clinton's first term: we had to catch this on news programs or online, but the career damage was done. She displayed none of the self-confidence or ability that one expects from a star performer. That's it. Except for one thing...

The media decided she was fat. They decided that this relatively skinny woman was fat. And worse: they decided that this was offensive. It wasn't the fact that anyone dancing in a bikini in a hall (as opposed to a beach: the only place that we allow that dress on anyone above a size 2) would present a problem, or the crotch-grabbing and rubbing of the "dance" was objectionable, or that her inability to perform these moves felt less about her preparation and more about a lack of sobriety; no, it was that a bunch of men in the media decided she was fat. This was discussed on talk radio, morning shows, and nightly newscasts: even the ordinarily reliable Keith Olbermann felt compelled to call Britany fat. If any of those men were in a bar and saw her or a doppelganger walk up in her current physical state, they would try to take her home.

The dichotomy between what is expected of celebrities as opposed to the rest of us has never been clearer. A woman that appeared to be physically healthy and well-proportioned was intoxicated and the social crime leveled against her was that she was fat. Excuse me, moral police, but get a grip. I have never been more ashamed of my people (men) than I am about this.

Tuesday, September 11, 2007

Muddying the Water, part 2

A documentary called No End in Sight was a winner at this year’s Sundance Film Festival [more info and an interview with the director can be found here]. To be honest, I have not seen it, but I recently read about it in The Nation. This film helps us recognize that we have to start having a real discussion about the Iraq Conflict.

The conservative muddying tactic has done wonders to obfuscate the real impact of the Iraq Conflict. Imagine that each pertinent piece of information that could lead to a discussion is represented by a colored thread. These threads are all tied to an object at one end and the other is free and lying on the floor. There are a rainbow assortment of colors, though many of them repeat or are similar shades. Got it?

Now imagine that the American people and the media look at these threads and begin matching them by color: reds together, blues together, yellows together, etc.: but before they can get very far, the president’s press secretary, Tony Snow, takes those threads out of your hands and says “that’s not how it goes; it goes like this” and proceeds to match up random colors. You say “I don’t see it” and he says “that’s because you’re stupid; leave it to the experts.”

So now you’re confused. You want to trust Uncle Tony, but you still don’t get it. So then you think about arranging them according to a rainbow or the color spectrum. Maybe that’s how its supposed to go. This time, the president himself comes out and pulls the strings away from you and says “silly normal person, you just don’t understand” and proceeds to match up random colors again.

What this documentary does is a few things: it points out that very few people in the administration were really on board with Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and Wolfowitz: they couldn’t see how the random colors connected either. Unfortunately they went along with it.

Secondly, it points out that the original state department plans were for !) a quick strike, 2) to overwhelm the military, and 3) then leave. The usual MO would fall into place with the U.S. appointing a new dictator. That’s where the administration changed it all with disasterous results.

It was the original leaders on the ground, representing the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA) that had the pre-war planning implemented and were well on their way toward completing the U.S. mission in Iraq. It wasn’t a perfect plan: they actually supported the looting of museums, for instance: but it had a timetable. The neocons removed ORHA and replaced it with the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which proceeded to demolish Iraqi infrastructure, including removing the 400,000 Baathists from the army, which meant that we actually created the insurgency.

Is it becoming clearer that those random collecting of threads in my image was intentional?

What I like about what is revealed in this new documentary is that it outlines precisely how criminal this administration is. It doesn’t focus on the president’s immorality: devotion to criminalizing, torturing, and killing people; his desperate need for complete control and unquestioned authority; his denial of American ideals such as health, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness: it instead focuses on what can only be construed as deliberate negligence. Its genius is in indicting the president on abandoning a winning strategy crafted by military experts for a hatchet-job crafted by politicians. This is not only reprehensible, but it is criminal and impeachable.

With all of those aforementioned threads, there are so many strands for us to bind together. How about these batches:

He’s a liar.

  • His lies encouraged the nation to participate in a criminal act.
  • He conspired to commit mass murder.

He’s incompetent.

  • His placing of the CPA in charge of Iraq devastated the mission in Iraq.
  • His intentions cripple our ability to act internationally.

He is a war criminal.

  • By invading a foreign nation and targeting civilians, the president has made himself and his entire administration culpable for the breaking of those international laws that we had a hand in writing.

He is destroying the U.S. military.

  • Extending overseas stays, the backdoor draft, and quick redeployments are breaking the military.
  • All of the above reasons have devastated recruitment, making fewer new soldiers to replace the retiring ones.
  • This makes the U.S. an easier target and simultaneously incapacitates our ability to help in humanitarian efforts (Darfur) or to catch Osama bin Laden.

Do I need to keep going?

Muddying the Water, part 1

What comes to mind when I say “Iraq”?

If you are like me, then a lot. We now have war images of soldiers with enormous guns, patrolling or firing at someone we hope is an “insurgent”. We have thoughts of lies (yellow-cake uranium from Niger) and thoughts of dissatisfaction (remember the calls from the hawks: “the first Bush should’ve finished the job”) and mercy (the families torn apart, the women that can no longer work, and the fewer than four hours a day of electricity). We think of all of the President’s speeches and public appearances—including the aircraft carrier with the cod piece and the “Mission Accomplished” banner. We remember all of the conservative pundits repeating the refrain “stay the course” and reminders that any dissention from the president’s strategy is unpatriotic (regardless of the fascist hypocrisy of it all).

If I had asked you about Iraq four years ago, you certainly wouldn’t have thought of those things. A few images may have come to mind. Most likely Saddam Hussein, a well-orchestrated army, and Desert Storm. That’s about it. Maybe the conflict with Iran, maybe the U.S. abandoning of the Kurd uprising (that we encouraged), and maybe the encouragement and support we gave Saddam to take over the country. Maybe those things would pop into your head.

The latter makes a lot more sense, doesn’t it? The popular conservative tactic over the last two decades is to muddy the water. We treat it like the bad-sport manager that kicks dirt over the plate after a bad call, but it isn’t that at all: it is a political tactic. Make the people confused, keep them that way, and then do whatever you want. If someone drops something in the water at the beach, what do you do? You wait for the sand to fall back to the bottom so that you can see.

So the president keeps using that tactic in Iraq, or demanding that we do. Wait. In December, it was wait a couple of months. In March, it was wait a couple of months. In May, it was wait a couple of months. In July, it was wait until September (a couple of months). Each suggestion of waiting was accompanied with “the next two months will be critical: a potential turning point”. It has become clear that we have to stop waiting.

While you are waiting for the sand to fall back and clear your vision, you also have to stop moving. If you remain still, the sand won’t kick up again. So what happens when regardless of what you do, a kid nearby keeps kicking the sand? And we’re talking, huge upheavals, muddying your vision for yards all around. And what if this kid is the one who claims to have dropped the toy in the first place? What is the purpose of waiting? Don’t you eventually come to a time to decide? You could restrain the kid and keep him from kicking up the sand. You could do his work for him and get on your hands and knees, feeling along the bottom, hoping that you don’t get kicked in the process. Or you could leave.

Our prospects in Iraq are muddied; not by insurgents, but by a president whose only interest in Iraq has been revealed to be merely staying—not building a democracy, not ending terrorism, and not bringing stability to the region—just staying. He wants you confused. He wants you to act in the manner that comes most naturally to us: wait and see. That is all part of the plan.

The only alternatives are stopping him, working even harder despite him, or to withdraw.

Am I the only one that thinks impeachment is the most rational solution of all of these?

Saturday, September 8, 2007

Fundamentalism: it's not just for religion anymore.

There’s a funny thing about fundamentalism: it’s intrinsically ironic.

One of the main aspects of fundamentalism is its demand that the world be seen as black and white; either / or; us and them. Most of us recognize the irrationality of choosing between white and black when nobody is white and nobody is black: just gray. But fundamentalism doesn’t allow for self-examination. It requires whole-hearted belief and dedication to one’s own righteousness; damning the consequences.

What is ironic about this position is that it requires simultaneous strict adherence to law/scripture as it is written, but broad (dare I say liberal?) inclusiveness in how that is to be interpreted. On the former hand, we can see the Supreme Court’s decision against free speech in the “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” case as specific nuancing of the law: it doesn’t say that minors get free speech. At the same time, this Court would no doubt read the 2nd Amendment broadly. Christian Fundamentalists (dare I say extremists?) love to demonstrate their strict adherence to scripture (interpreting the Jesus statement of salvation through Him from Matthew as meaning only Born-Again Christians are ‘saved’), but show a strangely broad assessment of the Bible’s supposed opposition to homosexuality (Sodom and Gomorrah were about male rape of angels thousands of years ago: what does this have to do with homosexuals in loving relationships today?). In other words, the order of the day is broad inclusion of things we hate and narrow exclusion for things we like. Sadly, the humor in this is lost on them.

Perhaps the strangest place to find fundamentalism in our culture is in sports, but it is rampant. You can’t blame Barry Bonds for using steroids (‘allegedly’) because they weren’t illegal at the time. Bull!

But the greatest hypocrisy of fundamentalism is shown by the NCAA. That pernicious need to see things in black and white has devolved the game and given us the usual byproduct of fundamentalism: the maintenance of injustice and inequality over the needs of the many.

In the world of Division 1A football (now FBS), there have always been princes and paupers. Alabama, Michigan, Notre Dame, Oklahoma, Texas, and USC have all been perennial powers. Every year, you expect the rich to stay rich and the poor stay poor: that’s what the conservative brand of capitalism has taught us. We get excited when new elites come from out of nowhere: Louisville, West Virginia, Rutgers: and consider this to be proof of true grit and determination on the schools’ parts. But it isn’t quite like that.

It is well established that the schools all see their football programs as a means of income for their schools. Very few of them merely pay for themselves: most of them bring in big money to the school. The biggest programs fund their entire athletic departments and then some. So the addition of a twelfth game was always a money-maker: just as the maintenance of the bowl system is a money-maker.

But the NCAA has encouraged the exploitation of its own rules. By helping the SEC become a ‘super’ conference like the Big-12 (read two divisions with a championship game), they have further favored the haves, by pushing the sport toward extra “championship” games, which the likes of ESPN’s Mark May seem to believe is the only way of naming a champion. The PAC-10 made the alternative choice of actually playing every other team in the conference, round robin style. Until recently, this was a legitimate choice for sports—this method has so fallen out of favor that the SEC has seen fit to declare itself Fascist Overlords of the World (with the help of ESPN).

Despite the SEC’s abandonment of round robin and the use of the extra game by adding another cupcake: LSU, the supposed holder of ‘the world’s toughest schedule’ do not play two of the top SEC teams (Georgia and Tennessee) and play Tulane, Louisiana Tech, and Middle Tennessee. But they have a championship game so it’s all good!

The NCAA has rules about when you can play, how many games you can play, and a minimum number of division teams you are required to play. So why don’t they close the loop-hole of the championship game? Why don’t they cap the season’s end earlier?

Looking back at the end of last season, the number 2 team (Michigan) had only lost to the number 1 team (Ohio State). The dispute over who gets into the title game should have taken these two things into account: Florida’s extra game should not have been seen as Michigan’s fault, but as Florida’s benefit from an unjust system. Similarly, Urban Meyer’s reprehensible parading and pleading for his team’s shot at the title should have been discouraged, not rewarded. Lloyd Carr’s graciousness and character in the situation has been under-reported, because we don’t really want to see our coaches setting a positive example to 55 young men—we want them to be cheaters and exploiters.

Everyone knows that teams bend the rules: it’s an axiom that is embodied in nearly every organized sport. But there is also such a thing as professionalism, balance, and sportsmanship. Yes, conferences should be able to determine their formats, but each team in each conference should each play 12 games: and no more (I’m looking at you, Hawaii!). Similarly, they shouldn’t be able to exploit the system by adding games at the end of the year (which is up to three weeks after the Big Ten is finished!).

I haven’t even touched on the competitive imbalance of the bowl system (giving the most favor to SEC, PAC-10, and Big 12 South teams, since nearly every bowl, and all BCS bowls, are played in their territories) or the support the NCAA gives cheater coaches (Jim Tressel, owner of the dirtiest resume in collegiate sports—“But he wins!” you say; “Oh, but he’s still cheating!” I say).

But like religious and political fundamentalists, the NCAA only looks at the black and the white, ignoring all of that dark charcoal ruining the sport.