GHOSTS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 22nd, 2014 by Ed

On a long drive to the Gulf Coast a few weeks ago I happened to drive right past Leakesville, Mississippi. This would be of no interest to me or anyone else ordinarily, but Leakesville is the final resting place of Bill Hicks. Now, Mr. Hicks was an important figure in my life even though I never met him. My respect for him goes a bit beyond Fandom or "He's a comedian I really like." So I considered it obvious that I should stop to pay my respects.

Briefly, Leakesville, MS is a goddamn dump.

In my travels through 49 of the 50 states (I'll get you, Alaska) I've been through hundreds of Leakesvilles and so have you. The rusted-out farm implements / hardware store announces the beginning of the town and its end is marked by the combination gas station / Subway. Between those navigational aids you find a handful of churches, one or two dilapidated bars, and mostly deserted houses of the pre-WWII vintage. Despite having only a few hundred or thousand residents there are three or four pharmacies in town to tend to the elderly and a not-incidental number of prescription opiate addicts. If anything else is open for business – and that is a big If – it is a rehabilitation center to help old people move their withered limbs and wheeze through their Winston-stained lungs for another year or two. The only thing in the town that looks like it could withstand a stiff breeze is the Post Office (or on the Plains, the USDA office). The population consists of people under 18 waiting to escape and old people waiting to die.

Census after census we see that small towns are dying all over the country. Very few Americans live in them anymore. Once the current cohort of elderly stragglers dies, they will be abandoned for all intents and purposes. From that perspective I can never figure out why we venerate these places. They are, by nearly any criteria, terrible. And more importantly, they're already shells of their former selves. It is as if we have some kind of collective hysteria in which we pretend that Small Town America is a thing even though it is about as real as the Wild West at this point.

Even in so-called rural states, the majority of the population now lives in urban settings (including suburbs). The election year pandering to "hard working Americans" and good ol' salt of the Earth types (read: white and white, respectively) is indicative of nothing more than lazy, Beltway-centric media coverage that relies on tired tropes and is aimed at an intended audience with an average age of about 70. Even those elderly news viewers are increasingly urbanized, unless anyone out there considers southern retirement meccas to be small towns.

Every election year – and more accurately, every time I take a long drive through the back roads – I am baffled by our obsession with the idea of small towns. We might as well be holding tight to the idea of Conestoga wagons. If it's anything other than a yearning for the idealized version of the 1950s Norman Rockwell America that never was and actually kinda sucked if you weren't white and male, I don't know what it could be.

OWN IT

Posted in Rants on July 20th, 2014 by Ed

In ten-plus years of regularly updating this site I can't remember having written a single thing about the Israel-Palestine conflict. If I have, it escapes my unusually detailed memory in matters like this. I see the conflict as essentially intractable, with Israeli politics driven by right-wing militant assholes who look, act, and sound exactly like the right-wing militant assholes we have here in America (which explains the post-Cold War love affair with Israel on the American right) and Palestinian politics driven by extremist "Wipe Israel off the map" types. Neither nation – the textbook definition, as in a group of people with common culture, language, and historical background – is led by people representative of the public will. This is to say that I believe a two-state solution could easily be hammered out of we shot all of the political and military leaders and selected an average soldier, cabdriver, teacher, ten year-old, and housewife from each nation and locked them in a room until they came to an agreement.

Reporting on the conflict also tends to the ridiculous extremes: the virtuous Israelis defending themselves against subhuman terrorist child-killers, or the poor, defenseless, blameless Palestinians minding their own business until Israel decides to start killing people en masse. On balance, in recent years my sympathies are probably more on the Palestinian side but I want to be emphatic that I see no Good Guys and Bad Guys in the conflict. Both groups of people have legitimate historical and current grievances, and both have been responsible for a lot of wanton destruction over the years. It takes a motivated brand of thinking to look at Yasser Arafat and Ariel Sharon and argue that one is a terrorist and the other a paragon of virtue. Nobody has the moral high ground. That was abandoned decades ago in favor of a grinding slugfest, a war of attrition led by dead-enders in both camps.

One thing, however, consistently bothers me. It bothers me so much that after ten years I finally feel like it's worth pointing out, and it explains why I find the current Israeli political leadership so unworthy of respect. It's the "human shields" argument. They use it over and over and over again. The U.S., not incidentally, used it during the 1991 Gulf War as well. All but the most Kool Aid-soused partisans understand that the "human shields" argument is bullshit. It is a charge you level at the enemy when you killed a bunch of civilians and you aren't willing to accept responsibility for it.

War is awful. Awful things happen to innocent and not-so-innocent people alike. When a nation chooses to wage war, it needs to accept its fundamental..awfulness. When you decide to go to war, you have to be prepared to kill civilians because the killing of civilians is an absolutely unavoidable part of modern warfare. You take the greatest possible pains to avoid doing it, but it happens. Here's what anyone with an ounce of honor and a sense of real leadership in the political-military sense would say when a bunch of Palestinian civilians are killed in air strikes: "We regret that civilians were killed. While we make the greatest effort to avoid harming civilians, we recognize that it is a reality of this kind of warfare. Our enemy operates from urban areas and thus even with great caution, civilians are unfortunately in the line of fire. We hope to end this conflict as quickly as possible so that no further suffering is necessary."

In other words, grow some fucking balls and own it. Be responsible for your own actions and, if you honestly believe your cause is just, defend them. Instead, we get "human shields." Yeah, that must be why there are dead civilians. It certainly couldn't be that military strikes are nowhere near as precise as governments the world around would have people believe. Which seems more plausible – Hamas lining up children to serve as human shields, or an Israeli strike on a military target causing collateral damage to nearby civilians?

If a nation is not willing to accept the consequences of waging war and instead pursues the cowardly tactic of attempting to shift moral responsibility for its own actions onto the enemy, it should re-examine the virtuousness of its cause. If the act requires a propaganda-based defense to justify it, the nation would do well to consider whether it is truly the best course of action.

And that's all I have to say about that.

NPF: FREE AT LAST

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 18th, 2014 by Ed

Are you sick of going into restaurants and seeing "No Praying!" signs everywhere? Do you feel unsafe at the local Olive Garden because your waitress is unarmed? Have you ever looked at a Hooters and thought, "That's just not tacky enough"? If so, your prayers have been answered. Grab all of your firearms and take a trip to Rifle, Colorado to enjoy a meal at Shooters Grill, where brandishing firearms and praying in public (which I think Jesus was against, but what did he know) are both encouraged.

This Hooters/James Dobson Fever Dream hybrid reflects its owner's love of the Bible and Constitution, so unlike other restaurants all over the United States you won't be stopped from praying before you eat by Union Thugs or Liberal Academics or Activist Judges or whatever. The Yelp reviews are a hoot, too. Apparently the salt & pepper shakers are shotgun shells (photo evidence helpfully provided), the whole restaurant grinds to a record-scratch halt if a non-white person enters the premises, and the food looks and sounds about as appetizing as a redneck middle school cafeteria.

A priority stop on any gastro-tour of America, to be sure.

EXPERTS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 17th, 2014 by Ed

In the early stages of any foreign policy crisis – long before anyone knows what actually happened – only one thing can be certain: Noted Foreign Policy Expert John McCain will be on TV talking about it, and by "talking about it" I mean waving his dick around.

Senator John McCain (R-Arizona) declared on Thursday there would be "incredible repercussions" if Russian forces or pro-Russian separatists in Ukraine shot down the Malaysian flight that crashed earlier in the day.

In an appearance on MSNBC shortly after news of the crash broke, McCain stressed it was too early to come to definite conclusions. However, he pointed out Ukrainian aircraft have previously been shot down in recent days and "mistaken identification" of the Malaysian plane could be "part of a pattern" that demands a powerful reaction from the United States.

"This was an airliner headed towards Russian airspace and it has the earmarks — and I'm not concluding — but it has the earmarks of a mistaken identification of an aircraft that they may have believed was Ukrainian. If that's true, this is a horrible tragic event which was certainly unanticipated by anybody no matter who they are. And there will be incredible repercussions if this is the case," he said. "If it is the result of either separatist or Russian actions mistakenly believing that this is a Ukrainian warplane, I think there's going to be hell to pay and there should be."

I wonder if he knows he's not the president.

MERCHANDISING EMPIRE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 15th, 2014 by Ed

It's time to tiptoe into the world of merchandising (posters and stickers aside) with some super-hip t-shirts like all the kids wear these days. Zazzle runs a tad pricey, but there are sales weekly. Any clothing purchase by midnight today (Tuesday) is 30% off with the lamentable code "SUMMERSTYLEZ".

shirt

Here's a direct link to customize and order your very own Gin and Tacos shirt, available in a range of colors and t-shirt styles (prices vary) if this bleak gray doesn't do it for you.

STOP ME IF YOU'VE HEARD THIS ONE

Posted in Rants on July 14th, 2014 by Ed

Here's a long, well-written piece about a factory closing in Sparta, TN. It's OK if you don't have enough time to read the entire thing, since you have already read this story dozens of times by now. You know the drill: Everyone worked hard and lived decently until The Company shuttered the factory and moved to Mexico or China. The town is now suffering from collective PTSD, with much of the population fleeing or sinking into poverty and vice; the few people who have been able to transition into other work are making peanuts and living paycheck to paycheck at a job that is likely to disappear soon and without warning. The role of the government is to come in and set up totally ineffective "retraining" programs among the rubble.

Once you read the first few paragraphs, you can finish the rest of it in your head. Only the names and locations change. We know this story by heart. We have read it before and we will read it again.

The question is, how many times is this story going to play out before Americans have had enough? Will the strategy of distracting the working class with "social issues" and redirecting their anger toward convenient scapegoats (minorities, The Gub'mint, immigrants) work indefinitely? Will we ever reach a point at which people refuse to take this shit any longer?

The most common criticism I get from this site is that I spend very little time (close to none, honestly) talking about solutions and lots of time talking about how much everything is screwed up. This is not an accident. I believe – and clearly there are people who disagree, and there are plenty of other sites for them to read – that it is facile and intellectually dishonest to peddle "solutions" to social problems of this magnitude. To do so would involve one of two things: advocating overarching solutions that are beyond anyone's ability to implement (Let's change our entire political system and the way that several hundred million people think about social responsibility and class!) or pitching achievable but ultimately useless solutions to make people feel like they're doing something (Write your Congressman!).

That is a long way of saying that I understand that figuring out what to do and how is a major obstacle to action. It's hard to expect people to Do Something when it is clear that nobody has any useful idea of what to do. I am amazed, though, by our capacity to hear this story over and over again without being affected by it, or by the capacity of people directly affected by these situations to do nothing but fume, watch more Fox News, and inveigh against the Unions and the Libtards and gee if only the rich didn't have to pay so much in taxes somehow my life would be better.

Roger & Me came out in 1989. Harlan County U.S.A. came out in 1976. The Grapes of Wrath has been on high school reading lists since the 40s. We've heard and seen this story repeatedly. We know exactly how it ends, every single time. We know, based on our post-1980 lurch to the right, that politically and economically fellating the rich doesn't fix the problem and functions only to make it really awesome to be rich. People appear to have breaking points, at least on some issues. After three decades of hearing this same story the only thing about them that remains interesting is the fact that yet another group of people in another town have been ground to dust and nobody intends to do anything other than sit back and wait for it to happen again.

IN THE SHADOWS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 13th, 2014 by Ed

If asked to name some of America's oldest old money families you would no doubt throw out names like Rockefeller, Morgan, du Pont, Ford, Cabot, and the like. The extended members of these clans still show up in the society pages today just as they did during the Gilded Age (fun fact: Did you know Anderson Cooper is a Vanderbilt?) Most of you, I assume, are unfamiliar with the Rosenwald family. Like the McDonald's empire had little to do with the MacDonald Brothers (who sold out to Ray Kroc and were long gone when he turned the company into a global behemoth) Julius Rosenwald took over the Sears & Roebuck Company just two years after it was founded and turned it into the retail hegemon it was until the closing decades of the 20th Century (Richard Sears and Alvah Roebuck contributed little more than their names). Rosenwald was one of the richest men of his time, yet he avoided the kind of "Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous" publicity of many of his plutocratic colleagues.

During the Depression he founded the United Jewish Appeal and underwrote Tuskegee Institute, whose board he sat on until his death. While I can't speak to the ethics of what he did to amass his fortune, he did have his heart in the right place when it came to disbursing it in his later years. Of course there was plenty left over for future generations of the Rosenwald family too. And that brings us to his granddaughter and heiress, Nina Rosenwald. You have never heard of her either. But I bet you've seen her money at work.

Whenever the bombs and bullets start flying in the Middle East – lamentably, it is always just a matter of time before Israel and Palestine get back to brawlin' – and the American Pro-Israel Industry launches another media blitz, you're seeing Rosenwald's handiwork. She has been called, and has rightly earned the title of, "The Sugar Mama of Anti-Muslim Hate." People like Daniel Pipes, Geert Wilders, David Horowitz, and other right-wing Islamophobes have been living off of her money for two decades now. She is to the universe of Islamophobes what Sheldon Adelson (another one of their prominent funders, by the way) was to the Gingrich campaign or what the Koch Brothers are to the Tea Party. Rosenwald has even directly underwritten settlements in the West Bank and Gaza (although she is widely considered something of a rube, an ideologue with a huge bank account and little going on upstairs) along with Adelson.

The noise machine is more active in Europe at the moment. Turns out that most of Western Europe is no better than the U.S. when it comes to assimilating brown-skinned, Arabic- or Turkish-speaking immigrants into their societies. But every time the Israel-Palestine conflict flares up, groups like AIPAC and people like Daniel Pipes start to show up on the talk shows and editorial pages again. Follow the link to learn more about how an heiress you've never heard of has underwritten the entire movement from the shadows.

NPF: MESMERIZING

Posted in No Politics Friday on July 11th, 2014 by Ed

This isn't strictly "No Politics," but in a moment you will forgive me for mentioning Congress on a Friday.

In 1835 a Pennsylvania Congressman of no particular renown, Joel Sutherland, attempted to get his colleagues to pony up funding for the research and development of a rather far-fetched idea. A young tinkerer, Samuel Morse, made the outlandish proposal that information could be sent via electricity over a metal wire. Though this would eventually lead, obviously, to the invention of the telegraph, revolutionizing every conceivable aspect of society in the process, the scientific establishment of the day declared that this was pure fantasy.

Tangentially, while Mr. Morse indisputably invented the simple but effective dot-and-dash alphabet that bears his name, most sources put his contributions to the actual development and invention of the telegraph ranged from negligible to nonexistent.

As is still the case, Congress was not able to identify a good idea on the one occasion per session when one is encountered. Rep. Sutherland and Morse's other supporters in Congress could only get the chamber to appropriate $30,000 (about $750,000 in today's dollars) to Morse by promising to support funding for another congressional faction's pet project. And that is how the hallowed institution came in 1835 to appropriate not only $30,000 for Mr. Samuel Morse but also an additional $30,000 for one "Mr. Fish" to further his research on "mesmerism." This Mr. Fish, it was reassuringly noted, was "an expert mesmerist" in need of funding to support his "experiments in the mesmeric arts." Mesmerism was a pseudoscience that claimed to give an individual control over other beings (practitioners were divided on whether the arts could be applied to humans, animals, or both) using various hypnotic techniques and extrasensory perception.

It says a lot about how far-fetched ideas like the telegraph, telephone, and radio seemed to people during that era if it was roughly on par with mind control. It says even more about how little Congress has changed.

STRONG SUITS

Posted in Rants on July 8th, 2014 by Ed

The inevitable has happened in Iraq as its US-backed government and military have proven themselves unable to exercise any authority over the country without an American military presence on the ground. Shockingly, all that stuff George W. Bush told us about the Iraqis standing up so we could stand down was bullshit and the Iraqi Army consists of a bunch of guys who signed up for a paycheck, food, and a gun with every intention of bolting at the first hint of fighting. Hell, the South Vietnamese put up a better fight than this (and despite the clear and obvious parallels to the withdrawal of American forces from Vietnam and the collapse of the Saigon regime, please remember that Iraq is not like Vietnam at all. Nope.)

Believe it or not, the history books a century from now would actually chalk up the Iraq War as a win if some kind of stable, democratic government run by something other than religious extremists or borderline terrorist groups had taken root. For a brief moment it looked like it could happen – the US troops left and everything didn't immediately collapse in a heap. The time for wishful thinking is over though, and we are now forced to confront the reality that this effort at "nation building" has gone about as well as any of our previous efforts.

This raises an important soul-searching question for the United States: What exactly are we good at anymore? At least during the Cold War we were able to prop up right-wing dictators or interfere with the internal politics of tinpot countries enough to ensure that the right strongman was "elected." Now we can't even do that right. Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan (where all efforts at Nation Building / winning Hearts and Minds have been abandoned and ground forces are now exclusively interdicting terrorists) have proven definitively that our conventional military power – honestly the only thing we have as a nation at this point that we can claim is Number One and not be fooling ourselves – is of limited use in the modern world. We're great at it. We can blow up your tanks, shoot down your planes, sink your ships, and bomb your cities into oblivion better than anyone else. The question is, so what? What good is that anymore? If we have to fight a conventional World War III with Russia or China – doubtful at best – we'll do quite well. With that an a bus pass, as my grandfather loved to say, you can get a ride on the bus.

We've ceded our strengths in manufacturing, education, and non-frivolous technology to the rest of the world. Our welfare state is an embarrassment. Our law enforcement and justice system are a case study in corruption. Our Congress and state legislatures are cautionary tales of what not to do. Other industrialized nations laugh at our health care system. Our standard of living is declining, wages have stagnated for three decades, and the rising cost of living is slowly making 99% of us poorer as we work longer hours with no mandated vacation or personal leave. Is the U.S. still a better place to live than the majority of the countries on Earth? Of course. But we're not comparing the U.S. to Chad. Compared to our peer group, it's hard to figure out what our strengths are anymore other than consuming energy, maintaining a giant stockpile of nuclear weapons, and having a big, powerful, expensive conventional military. Oh, and I guess we're pretty good at spying on everyone's telecommunications, although if I had to place a wager I'd bet the Israelis, Russians, or Swiss are even better at it.

The failure of the Iraq War creates some eerie similarities between the modern U.S. and the final years of the USSR. After wrecking its economy and standard of living with profligate military spending for thirty years, the Soviets found themselves pulling out of Afghanistan in defeat (and the government they installed had collapsed by 1991, too). The rest of the world, including the U.S., looked on and asked, "If you're spending that much on the military and you can't even win a war against a Stone Age country, what CAN you do?" It was a valid question. It is a valid question to ask ourselves as well. We've bled ourselves dry paying for two wars since 2002 and massive annual defense budgets every year for more than a half-century now. What do we have to show for it? Shouldn't we at least be able to do Military Stuff right? If we can't, what exactly do we have going for us?

NETWORK

Posted in Rants on July 7th, 2014 by Ed

"I ignored the flashes of lightning all around me. They either had your number on them or they didn't."

I have Luddite tendencies.

They're only tendencies. I don't bury silver in the yard or refuse to use an ATM or keep my money in a mattress because the banking system is all hokum, I tell ya. My preparations for Doomsday thus far consist of getting drunk and waiting for Thunderdome. Hell, a few months ago I even got an iPhone.

Nonetheless I have never been able to shake the fear that the technological edifice on which modern society is built is vulnerable to collapse. I have done all my banking online for the better part of a decade. It's convenient. But it also worries me – that nightmare scenario where we all wake up one morning and everything is just…gone. It's in the back of my mind.

There is nothing to be gained by giving in to the fear and becoming a cash-only person with a stuffed mattress. If society collapses because electronic data and the networks that move it about collapse, your cash dollars aren't going to be worth shit anyway. Neither is your silver. The best currency to have will probably be whiskey or gasoline. So I bank online and shop online and store my students' grades online and keep in touch with 100 different people online and get all of my news about the world online. Like everyone else under the age of 65, I am nearing the point at which I do essentially everything online.

Sidebar: I barely understand how the internet works. I've asked people to explain it to me like I'm five years old many times. At this point I kind of get it. A little. The basics. But there's something about it I just don't get in the same way that some people don't get calculus or Latin or Trace Adkins. That said, I have worked the problem and made improvements.

I just read The Worm by Mark Bowden (recommended) so it is possible that I have been swayed by a viewpoint held only by alarmists and Chicken Littles. Nonetheless, it paints a very plausible set of scenarios – plausible not meaning imminent or even likely, but merely within the realm of realistic possibility – for the exploitation of the security vulnerabilities of the thing we call the internet. Worms, viruses, and other malicious creatures could, in skilled but nefarious hands, bring the internet to a grinding halt. We're lucky in the sense that most "hackers" (remember when that was a thing?) are interested solely in making money when they engineer viruses and cast them out into the world. But despite the author's caveats, the book leaves the distinct impression that someone – a hostile nation, a non-state group, a "Let's watch the world burn" nihilist – could engineer a much more disastrous outcome by exploiting any of a number of vulnerable points in the system.

People like to joke about what would happen if the internet stopped working. Imagine everyone flipping out when they can't check Facebook! Ha ha. Indeed, people would lose their marbles to an amusing extent if the sites we use to kill time online disappeared. The internet and the machines connected to it are more than just a means of delivering diversions though. They are our entire financial system. They are the power grid. They are air traffic control. They are distribution and delivery networks. It would be funny when we lost Facebook and TMZ. It would be less funny when we see the on-hand supply of food and fuel in major cities without a constant flow of incoming shipments.

Like most people, I deal with such thoughts – scenarios too terrible to comprehend fully and about which I can do nothing – by sticking my head in the sand. Thinking about such things would drive me nuts (moreso). There are steps, theoretically, that could be taken to prevent malicious attacks on the internet, not all of which are taken and none of which are 100% effective. So the risk is like that of getting on an airplane. You know the plane is probably safe, but you also know goddamn well that if today's the day that both engines take bird strikes or one of your fellow passengers smuggles a bomb on board, there's really nothing you can do. You're screwed, and that's that.

That is what I mean by Luddite tendencies. I'm not technology averse, but I am wary. I know that the internet is awesome and convenient in the same way that flying is. And I know that like flying, when something goes wrong it is likely to go horribly, catastrophically wrong with dire consequences for everyone on board. Most of me loves the internet, and the other part of me is the one that thinks it is amazing that our luck has held even this long.