DADA

Posted in Quick Hits on June 12th, 2017 by Ed

Rankings and superlatives are endlessly subjective. What does "best" or "most important" mean? Bear that in mind when I describe Barbet Schroeder's Idi Amin Dada: Autoportrait (1974) is the best documentary ever made. Is it the most enjoyable? The most technically accomplished? The funniest? The most informative? No. But it's the Best.

If this seems like a random thing to bring up, I'm doing it at this moment because the Trump cabinet meeting on Monday looked like a scene taken directly from that movie. In fact there is an extended scene of a cabinet meeting and many other settings in which subordinates are forced to praise him effusively, even comically. I saw video of the Monday meeting and read the quotes the various secretaries were forced to offer up and the similarities were more than a little eerie.

As difficult as it is to believe, the depiction of an illiterate, violent, charismatic, psychotic dictator in his own words (the film has about 50 words of narration total, and the director lets his subject speak for himself) feels topical here in the United States in 2017. Now, let's not go overboard. Our current president doesn't murder and torture his enemies by the hundreds, if only (primarily?) because he couldn't get away with it. But within the framework of institutions that constrain him – something conspicuously lacking in 1970s Uganda – it's essentially the same person. If Amin can't read and Trump can but refuses to, what's the practical difference?

The idea of a nation being run by a large, violent child who requires constant ass-kissing and obsequious praise to teeter back toward something approaching sanity and away from another temper tantrum is not new. Nor will the consequences of it in the United States be as brutal and severe as they are and have been in many countries around the world. But if you've been waiting for a Smoking Gun to prove that our president has the classic narcissistic Third World Strongman personality, you can rest your case now. A person who is not severely maladjusted is embarrassed by fawning praise by obviously insincere lackeys. Trump apparently can't function without it.

On the plus side, we all know what happened to Amin.

NPF: MISSILE MAIL WAS EXACTLY WHAT IT SOUNDS LIKE

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 8th, 2017 by Ed

When America's economic and military power were peaking in the late 1950s, our government and military were willing to pour money into some pretty dubious ideas. Why? We could afford it. Everything gets the green light when not only is the national mood one in which the threat of the Soviet Union is the dominant concern but economic growth is averaging double-digit percentages annually. Sometimes in hindsight it appears as though we did things that had no real point just…because we could. Because why not. Because rockets and jet planes and big bombs are cool and hey we heard rumors that the Soviets are working on it and by the way did we mention the 12% GDP growth last year?

It is important to preface the following story with the context that in 1959 the U.S. was losing the Space Race and lagged behind the Soviet Union, albeit temporarily, in the development of large missiles. This was considered of extreme importance because of course every missile used to loft something heavy into space was also a missile capable of carrying a nuclear warhead or ten halfway around the world.

Perhaps eager to have a "Look! A success!" headline or perhaps simply for the sheer hell of it by the permissive logic of the Pentagon in those days, on today's date in 1959 the submarine USS Barbero launched a Regulus cruise missile at Jacksonville, Florida. Despite the many arguments in favor of doing so, the missile was not intended to destroy Jacksonville. Its warheads had been replaced with two mail containers filled with commemorative US Postal Service items to celebrate the first delivery of "Missile Mail." So, in case any part of this is unclear, the Navy collaborated with the Post Office to see if mail could be delivered by cruise missile.

Why? I mean. Why the hell not, right?

The Postmaster General enthused – with a straight face, apparently – that "before man reaches the moon, mail will be delivered within hours from New York to California, to Britain, to India or Australia by guided missiles. We stand on the threshold of rocket mail." The Pentagon, however, admitted candidly that there was no possible way to make rocket delivery of mail cost effective, with each cruise missile costing the 2017 equivalent of over a million dollars. The stamps carried by the Regulus mail had a value of four cents each. It didn't take a UNIVAC to figure out that this wasn't actually about delivering mail. A more reasonable interpretation would be that, with Sputnik and the American failure(s) to imitate its launch, the US wanted to show off that it could fire a cruise missile 1) from a submarine, and 2) with comparative accuracy over a long distance. No doubt the Post Office enjoyed the publicity and all involved, in that wholesome gee-whiz 1950s way, considered the stunt Neat-o, but other than to stimulate the American imagination and send Russian surveillance personnel to bang off a dispatch to Moscow about a cruise missile there was no real reason for doing this.

Wasteful? Sure. At the same time, it's hard to argue that Americans are happier today now that shenanigans of this type have been eliminated from the budget in favor of orienting all of the Pentagon's funds directly to killing foreigners.

CUT BAIT

Posted in Rants on June 7th, 2017 by Ed

It is fashionable and born of good intentions to say that Community as a concept is important, positive, and is worth preserving. All of those things can be true while also recognizing that at some point the patient is deceased and no amount of medical intervention will bring it back to life.

Cairo, IL just received attention in the form of an NPR story about its latest in a drawn-out series of death throes. For those who have not had the pleasure, Cairo (KAY-row) is the worst and saddest place you can find in the United States. I have been to all 50 states. I have driven through every inch of the Midwest, which practically abounds with Sad Places. Cairo is the worst. It is a cross between a theme park Ghost Town and a FEMA camp for evacuees from a natural disaster. There is nothing in Cairo. Nothing.

Cairo was important and viable a long time ago due to its geographic position at the confluence of two major rivers. Since this is not the 19th Century anymore and riverboats are not the driving force behind the economy of the region, there no longer is any reason for Cairo to exist. It is conveniently positioned for river traffic but otherwise totally desolate. It is a four-plus hour drive to any city of consequence (St. Louis, Louisville) and even a solid hour removed from remote backwaters like Paducah, KY. When a description of your location uses both "Paducah" and "one hour from," you are admitting defeat.

Even the schools in Cairo are closing, and not for the trendy budget-slashing reasons. They are closing because there are no students. Everybody able to leave this place has left. They have left because there is no reason to stay. Emotionally, I find the willingness of the remaining residents to try to Save Cairo endearing. Intellectually I know that A) it will not work and B) there is no defensible reason to try.

When the state and Federal governments reckon the amount of money they pour into a place like Cairo, the following offer would be in the best interests of everyone involved: give every man, woman, and child in Cairo who does not own a home a voucher for a free moving van, a check for $10,000, and advice on places they could move that are not totally devoid of opportunities and amenities. Give every home or property owner in the city a check for their property and send them on their way similarly. Just pull the plug. The place is finished. Go.

If that seems ludicrously expensive, cutting checks would cost little compared to the long term costs of keeping places like this on life support for no reason anyone can articulate. And there is plenty of precedent for it. The EPA and Congress have evacuated communities before due to determinations that remediation would be so prohibitively expensive that the only cost-effective option is to pay people for their property and move them elsewhere. Gilman, CO. Picher, OK. Centralia, PA (of the infamous smoldering underground mine fires). Times Beach, MO (which is so soaked in dioxin that even the rodents died). These are not examples from 1850 during the Gold Rush. These are recent. This can be done. It is done, when deemed necessary.

It is not absolutely necessary to wait for enough toxic material or enough flaming coal to accumulate before the government decides that a place is no longer habitable. A broader view would include things like economic prospects and quality of life in determining habitability. The problem places like Cairo cannot solve is that the provision of public goods is expensive and providing them in the middle of nowhere at great cost for no obvious reason is a proposition that, rather than leading to eventual improvement, signals the beginning of a death spiral from which small towns rarely if ever recover.

I want to be clear that my point is not "Let Cairo fail" but that Cairo has already failed. It's dead. This is not Detroit, a place with all the amenities of urban life that is struggling to realign its public policy with its reduced population. This is a tiny city that has literally nothing going for it, where the few people who remain are either directly or indirectly (through government employment, just about the only decent employment remaining) subsidized. If subsidizing the population had the tiniest hope of improving the situation there I would be all for it. But it doesn't take an expert in economics or urban planning to take a look at the place in person and realize that it has flatlined.

Should the government go on a town-killing spree to save money? Absolutely not. But with a handful of the worst cases, it would make sense to ask what rationale there is for trying to save places that are too far gone to ever recover when the money could be better used to provide the same citizens with meaningful improvements and better quality of life elsewhere. There is a point at which cutting bait and declaring that there is nothing left to do is in fact the right thing to do.

A MINOR DETAIL

Posted in Quick Hits on June 6th, 2017 by Ed

The Washington Post ran its twice-annual "Poor people in rural areas are all getting signed up as disabled" piece last week, this time featuring some of the most conveniently – almost comically – unsympathetic characters yet. They're poor! They're dumb! The only multisyllable words they use are trendy medical diagnoses! They're divorced a half-dozen times! Look at how many kids they have! Yeah, we get it.

The tiny detail that is wholly omitted from this story, which does describe a real trend and cites the statistics to prove it, is that the rapid surge in disability recipients is largely due to concerted efforts by states to shift people from their own social safety net to the Federal government. Things like unemployment insurance, housing subsidies, etc. are the financial responsibility of the states. Beginning in 2008-09 when state budgets across the country lurched into crisis mode, strategic governors and state legislators saw easy pickings in encouraging state social services agencies to push people toward SSI, disability, and other programs for which the tab is picked up by the Federal government. This saves states millions at a time when saving millions is of particular importance politically and practically.

You'd think that would be worth mentioning. You'd think an honest journalist would drop that in the piece somewhere, or that an editor doing due diligence would add it after the fact. Instead, the emphasis seems to have been on making sure that there were enough pictures of fat stupid poor people.

GRAND GESTURE vs. GRAND THEFT AUTO

Posted in Rants on June 5th, 2017 by Ed

Generation gaps are real. Even among terrorists.

Probably one in a million Americans would recognize the phrase "Dawson's Field Hijacking." It happened some time ago (1970) and involved no loss of life aside from one of the perpetrators. Four airliners were hijacked simultaneously and directed to a remote field in the Jordanian desert on September 6, 1970. A fifth plane eventually joined them. The Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine organized the massively complex undertaking as what amounted to a publicity stunt. The use of that phrase is not intended to demean what the people involved went through; no doubt it was harrowing. The Jewish passengers in particular were held as hostages for nearly 10 days before their release for Palestinian activists imprisoned in various countries was negotiated. But ultimately that is what pre-9/11 airline hijackings were – they were leverage in a process of negotiation. And

The plot that eventually became the 9/11 attack evolved from something called "Operation Bojinka" in which Khalid Sheikh Mohammed planned a dizzying ten simultaneous airline hijackings culminating with, in the words of the 9/11 report (emphasis mine):

Nine (planes) would crash into targets on both coasts — they included those eventually hit on September 11 plus CIA and FBI headquarters, nuclear power plants, and the tallest buildings in California and the state of Washington. KSM himself was to land the tenth plane at a U.S.airport and, after killing all adult male passengers on board and alerting the media, deliver a speech excoriating U.S. support for Israel, the Philippines, and repressive governments in the Arab world. Beyond KSM’s rationalizations about targeting the U.S. economy, this vision gives a better glimpse of his true ambitions. This is theater, a spectacle of destruction with KSM as the self-cast star — the superterrorist

Terrorism up to an including 9/11 focused on this sort of Grand Gesture attack. The goal was not necessarily to kill a lot of people, although that certainly was a part of it. Then 9/11 combined the intricate planning, bold execution, and grand spectacle of terrorism as it was understood at the time with large scale murder. The problem, from a terrorist's perspective, is that the 9/11 attack was simply too bold; frankly it is a minor miracle that they pulled it off, and it required not only years of planning but also an enormous amount of good fortune (again, as they saw it) to have it work out.

That was the older generation. Today's "ISIS-inspired" terrorist was not raised on hijackings and PLO press conferences and plans that unfold over the course of years. This is a generation of nihilists who don't care about making things look pretty or striking fear into the heart of the West with their strategic acumen or ability to coordinate complex plans. The only goal here is to make everybody afraid and kill as many people as possible. Part of me likes to think, if there is any shared humanity between people like us and murderous terrorists, that the older generation frowns disapprovingly at The Kids These Days for their brutality, their lack of any interest in political aims, the absence of any pretense of artfulness, and the apocalyptic pointlessness of it all.

That is why what is happening now is so effective and essentially unstoppable. Complex plots create any number of opportunities for security services and counterterrorists to intervene. The kind of attacks we're getting accustomed to over the last two or three years eliminate that possibility by requiring no planning at all. Grab a gun, head for a crowd. Get in a van, head for a crowd. Build a crude bomb (I've not done so, admittedly, but I believe that anyone with time and internet access could figure out how to make something that will blow up) and head for a crowd.

What these people want is not the release of prisoners or the negotiation of political solutions to problems of international relations. The theology of ISIS is apocalyptic. These are end-timers attempting to provoke a final showdown with the non-believers of the world (which, as they define it, includes most Muslims as well). At this rate I have little doubt that they will get it, eventually. Their strategy of provoking increasingly harsh and anti-Islamic reactions from Western governments is moving more quickly than anyone thought possible ten years ago, and every "crackdown" is a recruiting tool ISIS types use to argue that their predictions of anti-Islamic evils perpetrated by democratic governments is coming true. At the rate of an attack per month or even week, it is only a matter of time until the United States, Russia, or the many nations affected in Europe lurch to the far right spectrum of proposed "solutions" to the current problem.

Nobody is making demands. Nobody wants to negotiate. This comparatively small group of people wants to attack Western democracies and drive them mad with fear until they abandon every principle by which they define themselves to strike back. In time they will get what they want. The chapters being written for future history books in the next decade or two are not going to be pleasant reads.