DIRE STRAITS

Posted in Rants on December 26th, 2016 by Ed

It was not the closest the US and USSR came to blows during the Cold War, but the Turkish Straits crisis of 1946 was both the first and easily the most thoroughly forgotten brush with World War III.

Briefly, at the end of World War II the Soviets under Stalin made a laudably ballsy attempt to solve one of its oldest strategic, economic, and political handicaps. For all its globe-spanning size, neither today's Russia or the former USSR lacks one very basic and crucial feature: a year-around ice free shipping port. Its eastern ports are not economically and militarily useful because they are thousands of miles from European Russia, and its northern ports like Murmansk and Leningrad / St. Petersburg (Not to be confused with the one in Florida, aka "America's Strip Club") freeze over during the winter.

Of course the country has port access in other places, but all involve a second country. Most prominently, the Black Sea provides year-around access to the Mediterranean (and thus the world) but requires passage through two narrow straits that pass through Turkey – the Bosphorous and the ones I have never once spelled correctly on the first try, the Dardanelles. If you recall, two years ago we refreshed our memories about how important this Black Sea outlet to the world is to the Russians when they moved aggressively into Ukraine to secure access via the Crimea. There was also a thing called the Crimean War a while back. It's safe to say this is kind of a big thing to Russia. (As a side note, Soviet Georgia had territorial claims on part of Turkey, which the Russian government includes today in their territorial claim over, well, all of its former republics)

In the period of exhaustion and confusion that followed WWII, the Soviets formally demanded that Turkey allow it to place bases on the Bosphorus and the Dardanelles. Later the demand evolved to joint Soviet-Turkish administration of the straits, effectively giving the USSR not only access to but sovereignty over the seaway. Harry Truman, always one for subtlety, used the pretense of needing to repatriate the remains of the recently deceased Turkish ambassador to the US to send the battleship USS Missouri and a half-dozen other Big Stick vessels to Turkey to sail around and look really impressive. The Soviets responded by conducting "exercises" in the Black Sea within spitting distance of the Turkish shores. In a then-classified telegram, American diplomat Dean Acheson described the situation in a way that would come to define the Cold War:

In our opinion the primary objective of the Soviet Union is to obtain control over Turkey. We believe that if the Soviet Union succeeds in introducing into Turkey armed forces with the ostensible purpose of enforcing the joint control of the Straits, the Soviet Union will use these forces in order to obtain control over Turkey…. In our opinion, therefore, the time has come when we must decide that we shall resist with all means at our disposal any Soviet aggression and in particular, because the case of Turkey would be so clear, any Soviet aggression against Turkey. In carrying this policy our words and acts will only carry conviction to the Soviet Union if they are formulated against the background of an inner conviction and determination on our part that we cannot permit Turkey to become the object of Soviet aggression.

Even Stalin, as belligerent as they come, recognized that the Russians were not actually prepared to fight over the straits or anything else in the Summer of 1946. The USSR dropped its formal request to take possession of the two straits but, for face-saving purposes, maintained its "opinion" that the Soviets should have sovereignty over them. When Stalin died they abandoned the issue altogether. By then it was too late, though. The acquisitive stares and saber-rattlings of the Soviet Union sent Turkey running for the sweet protective embrace of NATO and $100,000,000 in economic aid in 1952.

As the story of the assassination of the Russian ambassador to Turkey unfolds, it's worth keeping in mind that successive Russian governments have been searching for a reason to fight this fight for a couple of centuries. It's a good thing we have such a strong visionary leader ready to stand up against Russian aggression. A modern day Harry Truman.

T-SHIRT "300"

Posted in Quick Hits on December 22nd, 2016 by Ed

The response to the "Everything is Terrible" t-shirts exceeded all possible expectations, and I'll have to order a few hundred (!!!) more early next year. For now, all sizes are sold out except for the last few I have in the bottom of the box: 4 men's XL, 2 men's L, 1 men's M, and two women's v-neck M. If you're interested in any of those sizes, take them off my hands here. Until I get more delivered, sate your needs with Clurb shirts and bumper stickers (I saw my first one in the wild, it's majestic.)

FISCHER-PRICE "MY FIRST DICTATORSHIP" KIT

Posted in Quick Hits on December 22nd, 2016 by Ed

As first reported in NY Mag, Trump plans to maintain his own private security detail while in the White House. That can serve no conceivable purpose other than to circumvent the Secret Service and, you know, the basic tenets of legal conduct that it adheres to. He's just smart enough to realize that the Secret Service isn't going to go around beating up protesters at his command. You know who will? Glorified mall cop private security guards.

I'm starting to wonder if part of the transition plan involved Googling "All the things Hitler did" and then seeing how many of them he could imitate before anyone could stop him. Hitler analogies are reductive and hyperbolic in most cases, anyone who doesn't know about the centrality of a party security apparatus loyal only to Hitler himself and functionally above the law to the erosion of the German state in the 1930s should read up on it presently. References like "SA" and "Sturmabteilung" probably don't mean much to most Americans today – hell, a lot of us couldn't give a coherent explanation of "Nazi" at this point – but between Trump's army of shut-ins ready to harass and bombard with death threats anyone he identifies as The Enemy and this bizarre move toward sidestepping the legal restrictions on Federal law enforcement employees, we may be in for a crash course.

WHY STOP NOW

Posted in Quick Hits on December 19th, 2016 by Ed

We've spent the better part of 18 months predicting one Donald Trump moment after another will be the straw that breaks the camel's back, the moment where we announce that we've proven ourselves willing to put up with quite a lot but this time he has Gone Too Far. And then the election rolled around and we proved that we really have no values, ethics, or standards for behavior as a society that we're not willing to waive when the prospect of a tax cut and cracking down on scary brown people is on offer. Right-wingers have always been good at the hypocrisy of preaching civility and Family Values for everyone but themselves, but it's not far-fetched to describe 2016 as having taken it to a new level.

So when the Russian hacking stuff came out after the election – which, to be clear, I don't believe told us anything that anyone paying attention could not have concluded with confidence prior to the election – I was embarrassed to find myself thinking yet again, "Well this time he's gone too far." Cut me a little bit of slack, though. If there's one thing that old white people, and old white conservatives in particular, could not conceivably go soft on it would be The Russians. We are a nation of people literally raised to hate, fear, and mistrust The Russians even when there is no logical reason to do so and even (or especially) when we don't quite understand why. They are the bad guys, period. They always have been and they always will be. Even abandoning communism didn't change the dynamic. America Good, Russia Bad.

Except, of course, when they actively attempt to screw Hillary Clinton. Then they're our pals, or at the very least they are inept and harmless.

The closest thing to a silver lining from this year is the way we will emerge from it with a much clearer understanding of American conservatism in its current incarnation; at its core, it really is just authoritarianism. They can try to decorate it with bows and ribbons and puerile rhetoric about God and Guns and Freedom, but this man-crush on Putin gives the lie to all of it. The closest thing to a legitimate use of "freedom" by anyone willing to cozy up with that guy is a selfish, authoritarian one. We love freedom in the sense that everyone should be free to do as they please as long as they do exactly as I do.

When you're willing to excuse away a foreign country trying to fuck with our presidential election what you're really saying is that you've gone so far in on this hand that you don't see any reason to stop now even when logic and judgment dictate that you should. This is like a gambler down to his last $20 pouring it into a slot machine and figuring that having $0 to your name and $20 to your name are, if not economically or rationally identical, functionally so.

CURIOUS GAMBLE

Posted in Quick Hits on December 15th, 2016 by Ed

If you feel like you've been in withdrawal from the pre-election "We talked to Trump voters and you won't believe the stupid things they say" pieces, Vox has you covered.

Despite the tone of the previous sentence, this Sarah Kliff piece is actually pretty good. It interviews rural Kentuckians who stand to lose their health coverage (which they gripe about in terms of price, granted) if Trump goes through on his promise to repeal the ACA. Two things stand out.

1. Contrary to the widely held view that Trump voters are low on information, these people (all of whom voted for him) appear to be well aware of his promise to repeal the ACA and "replace" it with…well, don't worry about that part. Whatever it is will be great. So a lack of information is not the problem here. They have chosen the curious strategy of assuming that even though he said he intends to repeal it on his first day in office, he will not actually do so. "Too many people depend on it" and "You can't just take insurance away from all these people" are the common themes here.

That is a really odd roll of the dice compared to the other candidate who promised to continue or expand the law. Personally, I wouldn't put a lot of faith in a man who literally craps in a solid gold toilet to care suddenly about some Appalachian yokels' subsidized health insurance. And anyone who thinks that the current crop of congressional Republicans "wouldn't do that" is somewhere between delusional and willfully obtuse. The people in charge of the GOP on the Hill right now are the son the rest of the family knows will unplug Mom's respirator when the time comes. As for the political fallout of a Republican president and unified Congress taking away health insurance from tens of millions of people, after what we have seen in 2016 I'm sure they will construct and successfully sell some narrative explaining how it is all somehow the fault of Democrats. The art and science of creating one's own reality is advanced enough to pull it off.

2. I know many people in the situation mentioned throughout the piece – working poor who pay a lot for very bad insurance because they are Not Poor Enough. Medicaid is better and cheaper than the bottom end of the private market. It's not even a close call. Rather than jumping on the resentment bandwagon and finding a way to take Medicaid away from people in poverty, we could, you know, find a way to improve what is available for people just over the poverty cutoff. The nihilism of "If I don't have anything nice, nobody else can either" is a race to a bottom that we are getting dangerously close to reaching.

THE ANNA KARENINA PRINCIPLE

Posted in Rants on December 12th, 2016 by Ed

Life isn't fair. To prove it, compare the amount of time it takes to build something with the time required to destroy it. Spend a few hours on a sand castle and someone can knock it down in about ten seconds.

Pick any kind of organization – a family, a corporation, a sports team, a social circle, a volunteer group – and the amount of time and effort required to make it functional and successful is vastly disproportional to the ease with which everything falls apart. One person or one bad decision is all that it takes in some cases to ruin something that was the product of thousands of people and an equal number of good decisions.

In Anna Karenina, Tolstoy states that "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way." It emphasizes that in order to make something successful it's often necessary to avoid dozens of potential mistakes but any one of a large number of potential mistakes will result in failure. This is why, for better or worse, most organizations succeed or fail based on decisions made at the top. Leadership is important – overly so, in many cases – because it alone has the power to make the kinds of mistakes that can be fatal.

This is important to remember as we watch the painfully long roll-out of an impending Trump administration that all but promises to set the country back a few decades in a matter of months. Governing for people of these ideological stripes is easy in the same way that dynamiting a skyscraper is easier than building one. Liberals and centrists are at the constant disadvantage of trying to create things that require a dozen different things to be executed nearly flawlessly, while anti-government conservatives can dismantle it or render it useless in no time at all.

The really troubling part of this clown car of losers getting to sit at the controls is not that they will do damage to the economy, national security, civil rights, and the environment. What is alarming is the years it will take to undo. We could suck it up and live with a couple of bad years, but the consequences of those bad years will linger long after the people responsible for it have returned to obscurity where they belong.

Progress is incremental. Regression is precipitous. This is going to be bad.

BEYOND THE PALE

Posted in Quick Hits on December 8th, 2016 by Ed

So this is a weird post. Maybe you're familiar with all of these things already. But here are a few suggestions from one white liberal to another on how to dilute the painful whiteness of most of our internet reading experiences. I mean, I'm not going to say that opinions you enjoy reading are not valid if they come from someone who is the same as you in terms of demographics, but over the last few years I've made an effort (and due to the dominance of White Dudeness and White Feminism in the blogosphere, "effort" is an appropriate term) to make the perspectives I expose myself to a little less homogeneous. I am a white dude, I am more likely to Get other white dude humor, writing style, and perspective, and they are more likely to get mine. I don't think any of us need to apologize for that, but it's worth recognizing that we're looking into the mirror a lot when it comes to the perspectives we see online. Yeah, everyone gets their dose of Ta-Neshi Coates. Here's some other good stuff I've found that fits the product category, "Things a Gin and Tacos reader will probably like."

Yesterday I linked some Damon Young. You should read basically everything he says, including but not limited to VSB (Very Smart Brothas). I first became aware of this thanks to….

Samantha Irby, who does Bitches Gotta Eat, a great Facebook page of the same name, a best-selling book and soon a TV series on FX based on said book.

Luvvie Ajayi similarly has a best-selling book, an active FB community, and a website updated regularly with long-form stuff. The sense of humor is a little less twisted and more Normal Person compared to mine or the above Irby material, but I think it's still funny without being cornball or wandering into Wayne Brady / Dave Coulier territory.

Wain Bennett's Field Negro has one of my favorite comment sections on the internet. I've had people compare me to him in terms of willingness to go full R-rated in his writing. The assumption, though, is that if you're in for Gin and Tacos nothing over there will shock you much. People are very candid on that site.

Anyway, that's just a sample. The internet is cruel in a sense, there is always more good stuff than any one person can reasonably consume. But if you're looking to freshen up a stale set of daily reads, you could do worse than sampling a few of these.

NORMALIZED DEVIANCE CEASES TO BE DEVIANT

Posted in Rants on December 7th, 2016 by Ed

Sometimes I get lucky and by the time I can make words about something it turns out that other people already said what needs to be said. I found the widely circulated appearance of neo-fascist Barbie Tomi Lahren on The Daily Show with Trevor Noah deeply disturbing. Their exchange was not interesting and it went about as one might expect – imagine an internet comment section where someone tries over and over to get the head cheerleader from your high school to understand that maybe black and white people are not treated equally by society, without success, and you've seen everything the footage has to offer. Add in the predictably heavy emphasis on "dialogue" and "civility" and lots of laughs and smiles to show that we can all get along even if one of us thinks the other is subhuman and you end up with something out of a mushy centrist's wet dreams.

This is not OK. You can't have a civil Agree to Disagree conversation in that format with hardcore racists, or people who make their living making excuses for hardcore racism. Taking someone like Lahren, a troll from deep within the dark right wing internet thrust into the public eye because she's conventionally attractive, and presenting her in this way normalizes extreme beliefs in a way that is flatly dangerous. All this appearance did was offer free publicity to the smiley, perky face of white nationalism. This was a dream come true for Lahren, to be taken seriously and presented as a serious person with something useful to say. Neo-fascist cliques have been trying to find a way to attain that kind of mainstream legitimacy for decades, going to ridiculous extremes like trying to lure in kids with Nazi pop music. And now the mainstream media are doing it for them, for free, under false pretenses of objectivity. All Opinions Matter, right?

Here's Damon Young on why people need to stop playing along and giving right wing demagogues something they badly want – a black sidekick to legitimize how Not Racist they are. The title "It's time to stop allowing ourselves to be seduced by shitty white women" is my kind of title, too. Some random college undergrad, believe it or not, offers a great long take on the white liberal discourse fetish on, believe it or not, Huffington Post. And Vann Newkirk offers a similar but equally worth reading take on reordering our priorities and values so that we recognize that some things are more important than civility and Playing Nice, especially when doing so is exactly what the other side wants as they prepare to walk all over you.

All worth reading. Everything I have to add would be redundant on that.

THE HUMAN ELEMENT SEEMS TO HAVE FAILED US HERE

Posted in Rants on December 5th, 2016 by Ed

As an obsessive consumer of books, movies, and TV from the Cold War era about living under the threat of nuclear annihilation, one thing that becomes apparent is that the fear of accidental apocalypse was easily as prominent (or, in the view of some scholars, more prominent than) as the fear that some madman bent on destroying the world would gain access to the Big Red Button. It was broadly recognized, particularly once the hydrogen bomb and the ICBM entered the picture in the early 1960s, that a nuclear war was not "winnable" and that even the evil, bloodthirsty Commie understood that well enough that no sane man would initiate one. Ivan knew that Uncle Sam was ready to hit him back hard enough to return the planet to the Stone Age, and both Eastern and Western political systems were robust enough (in their own very different ways) to prevent the elevation of the kind of lunatic who would say "Screw it, let's all die!" into a position of authority.

The biggest fear, then, was that once a massive apparatus of global annihilation was created humans would somehow lose control of it – that like a careless child who finds dad's gun, we would blow the planet up without intending to do so. On the American side, the heavy reliance on automation and seemingly half-crazed SAC Generals combined with the sheer size of the nuclear arsenal strained the ability of the civilian leadership to ensure that nothing happened that was not supposed to happen. For the Soviets, perversely, it was the lack of effective command and control, combined with the doddering character of their political leadership after Kruschchev, that raised the red flags (pun intended). That the world could come to an end because an American computer or a Soviet radio hookup from the 1930s malfunctioned was more plausible to most people than a cartoon villain President or General launching the missiles with a bloodthirsty laugh.

The most popular and in many ways best depiction of this fear in the arts is, of course, Dr. Strangelove:

Muffley: Well I assume then, that the planes will return automatically once they reach their failsafe points.

Turgidson: Well, sir, I'm afraid not. You see the planes were holding at their failsafe points when the go code was issued. Now, once they fly beyond failsafe they do not require a second order to proceed. They will fly until they reach their targets.

Muffley: Then why haven't you radioed the planes countermanding the go code?

Turgidson: Well, I'm afraid we're unable to communicate with any of the aircraft.

Muffley: Why?

Turgidson: As you may recall, sir, one of the provisions of plan R provides that once the go code is received the normal SSB radios in the aircraft are switched into a special coded device, which I believe is designated as CRM114. Now, in order to prevent the enemy from issuing fake or confusing orders, CRM114 is designed not to receive at all, unless the message is preceded by the correct three letter code group prefix.

Muffley: Then do you mean to tell me, General Turgidson, that you will be unable to recall the aircraft?

Turgidson: That's about the size of it. However, we are plowing through every possible three letter combination of the code. But since there are seventeen thousand permutations it's going to take us about two and a half days to transmit them all.

Muffley: How soon did you say the planes would penetrate Russian radar cover?

Turgidson: About eighteen minutes from now, sir.

This is, as we have already been reminded with the Taiwan Phone Call Crisis, the fear we once again have to live with as a nation. If for no other reason than self-interest, we can safely assume that Donald Trump does not actually want to get us all killed. The problem is that he's exactly the kind of person who would blunder into it. Shoot first – from the hip, naturally – and ask questions later. Act with an open disdain for forethought. Be "disruptive" and then let others rush in to clean up the mess you just made. This is, as the well worn saying goes, precisely how accidents happen. I'm not worried that Donald Trump wants to start a war. I'm worried that Donald Trump will start a war, at which point his intent will be irrelevant. That refusal to think about things he says and does that was pointed out throughout the campaign is not a bug. It's a feature. He states explicitly that he wants to be "unpredictable" in foreign policy. It doesn't take much imagination to envision how the infamously irony-deficient Chinese or Russian leadership are going to react to Diplomacy by Coked Up 3 AM Twitter Zinger.

"He wouldn't do that" is only reassuring inasmuch as the "he" in question is conscious of the potential consequences of his words and actions. Your dog doesn't want to knock over the glass perched on the edge of the kitchen table, but dammit if he doesn't do it every time he gets excited.

YOU WERE HERE FIRST

Posted in Quick Hits on December 4th, 2016 by Ed

It's kind of ridiculous how many of the Everything is Terrible All the Time shirts you guys have ordered, but if you really want that "In on the ground floor" credibility when visiting your respective clurbs there are still a handful of the original Follow Me to the Clurb shirts and bumper stickers waiting for loving homes. Christmas is just around the corner.