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.

FRESH NEW IDEAS

Posted in Quick Hits on July 7th, 2014 by Ed

Do yourself a favor and read this summary of the Texas Republican Party platform if you want to see what modern Republican party activists believe in their heart of hearts (or, as the linked piece says, what they say when they are essentially talking to themselves.) I don't want to spoil it for you but let me say this: they're big fans of some really novel ideas. Like nullification.

UNFORESEEABLE

Posted in Quick Hits on July 3rd, 2014 by Ed

Shockingly, the Hobby Lobby decision was followed almost immediately by other organizations lining up to seek "conscience" based exemptions from laws they happen to dislike. I for one never saw that coming. Who could have imagined that setting a dangerous precedent would create a mindset among religiously motivated groups that they are now free to pick and choose which laws they will exempt themselves from.

Oh, and in response to all of the claims that the ruling was "narrow", the Court on Tuesday "ordered lower courts to rehear any cases where companies had sought to deny coverage for any type of contraception, not just the specific types Hobby Lobby was opposed to." Thank god. I was worried for a second there.

THE SHIFTING MENACE OF CONSCIENCE

Posted in Rants on June 30th, 2014 by Ed

In 1885 the Protestant clergyman and popular author Josiah Strong wrote his most widely read book, Our Country: Its Possible Future and Its Present Crisis. His treatise was popular largely because it was awash in the kind of nativist sentiments that found a receptive audience during the immigrant boom that began after the Civil War and intensified throughout the Industrial Revolution. Strong identified the Seven Perils to American society, most of which are easily predictable and align with the most common prejudices of the era: Catholicism, Mormonism, Socialism, Intemperance, Wealth, Urbanization, and Immigration. In the era of scientific racism, social Darwinism, and Robber Baron capitalism it is not hard to see why the moneyed classes and the anti-immigrant working classes alike applauded Strong.

I'm going somewhere with this, I promise.

In his warning about the menace of Catholicism, Strong wrote:

…the Roman Catholic is not at liberty to weigh the Pope's judgment, to try his commands by his own conscience and the Word of God – to do this would be to become a Protestant. Worse, (the Catholic) stands not alone, but with many millions more, who are bound by the most dreadful penalties to act as one man in obedience to the will of a foreign potentate and in disregard to the laws of the land. This, I claim, is a very possible menace to the peace of society. (Emphasis original)

Throughout the book, Strong repeats the warning ("Again, our Constitution requires obedience to the laws of the United States and loyalty to the Government. The Pope also demands of every subject obedience and loyalty to himself.") For this exact reason, Catholics were for many decades – as they are more than happy to remind anyone within earshot – discriminated against in American politics. Today, of course, Catholicism has mainstreamed along with the people – Irish, Polish, Italian, etc – who brought it to the United States. Catholics are no longer discriminated against outside of their own imaginations. Instead, they have become part of a new bloc that argues that far from being a menace to civil society, the right to disregard the law when one's religious beliefs – even those curated by a Foreign Potentate – conflict with it.

Of course 19th Century Protestant leaders feared Catholic conscientious objections only inasmuch as they were perceived to conflict with laws that were already crafted in accordance with the beliefs and desires of the dominant Protestant orthodoxy in the United States. There is no conflict between the law and one's religion, in other words, if one's religion is the de facto faith of the civil institutions that create the law. Now the Papist Menace has exercised enough political power and influence over the law to have their wants and beliefs taken into account from the outset – try to find a remotely relevant law in the last thirty years that doesn't have some sort of abortion caveat written into it. I'll wait.

Allowing personal religious beliefs to trump the law was perceived as a threat to the future of our nation and of civil society when it was wielded by a religious minority. In the hands of the now-majority, it has been rebranded as the last bulwark against that same civil society. What the white Protestant male majority once treated as a combination of treason and heresy is now an act infused with nobility and, as of Monday, sanctioned by the highest Court of the land. While the practical impact of Monday's decision likely will be minimal, the endorsement by the Court of this once-dangerous principle has introduced a dangerous precedent and we will be bathed in its radioactive fallout for some time to come.

ABUNDANCE OF CAUTION

Posted in Quick Hits on June 29th, 2014 by Ed

Here is a fun game to play when reading news items about Ammosexuals. Read about or watch them marching around in public with semi-automatic rifles slung over their shoulders and imagine how the police (and public, for that matter) would react if the proud Second Amendment Patriots were black males. Laugh yourself silly as the police, if they bother to show up at all, treat the gun-toting white people with kid gloves and picture the same scene if a bunch of heavily tattooed black guys with sleeveless shirts and high powered rifles decided to congregate in the main shopping district.

Here's a hilarious video of a somewhat-deranged Patriot exercising his Second Amendment rights as he imagines them:

OK, clearly he's not All There in the head or perhaps this was some sort of stunt designed to get arrested. But watch the police indulge this asshole for almost ten full minutes as he waves around a loaded rifle. A black male with a Fantasy Gun (the type that holds money or makes phone calls) gets about two seconds of benefit-of-doubt from the average cop white a middle aged white male with an Actual Gun (the type that fires bullets) will be talked to until he is good and ready to let the police arrest him. Or in the case of Cliven Bundy and his merry militimen, the police just agree to leave them alone altogether. That works out well for everyone!

The next time you snort dismissively at the idea of white privilege, ask yourself how long the police would hold on to their tasers and pepper spray and live ammo if the 9-1-1 calls started pouring in about a group of angry looking black men with rifles congregating at the Burger King.

NPF: AMATEUR DIAGNOSIS

Posted in No Politics Friday on June 27th, 2014 by Ed

As I get older I go on fewer rants in interactions with other humans. I figure "That's what the blog is for, Ed" and don't expose often well-meaning strangers, acquaintances, and friends to my extended ramblings on every conceivable topic of interest. One thing that still gets the full treatment, though, is when people say they have "food poisoning" and then identify the meal that caused it.

It's not an angry rant. I simply point out that A) actual Food Poisoning is a condition that puts people in the hospital where they must be pumped full of IV antibiotics and B) to the extent that food may have caused you gastric distress, you have no idea which food item or meal was responsible. People assume that whatever they ate most recently (or, failing that, whatever the last "ethnic"/foreign food they ate) was the cause. There is zero medical evidence to support that assumption.

Lots of things you eat can inspire an upset stomach or a case of what medical professionals call Thunder Shits. Perhaps something you ate was a little too spicy, a little too oily, a little too teeming with the bacteria with which all food is teeming by the time it enters your mouth. I just returned from Mexico and I haven't taken a solid dump since the first day I arrived in the country. I proceeded to eat every appetizing looking offering from street vendors and outdoor food stalls where refrigeration and food safety procedures could be described as suspect at best. I ate a lot of food prepared in local water full of microscopic landmines waiting to waylay the unconditioned tourist. All of this was done willingly; the deal is, I eat something amazing and later I will defile a bathroom. It's a trade off and it's worth it. I don't have "food poisoning."

Eating all but the worst, blandest food involves some risk. Take that bucket of oysters or mussels, for example. The odds that at least one of those fuckers isn't "off" or "bad" are exceptionally small. You're going to eat it, it's going to be amazing, and maybe later on you will pay the price by shitting like a mink. So be it. If someone offers you seafood that was pulled from the ocean within the previous hour, you eat it and accept the risk. Or maybe you push the envelope at the local restaurant and ask for "Thai spicy" or "Indian hot" and your stomach and intestines end up somewhat irritated at your decision. Or maybe you try unpasteurized dairy products for the first time with predictable results. Oh well. It was worth it.

You may have a transient stomach virus. You may have eaten something too spicy or oily for your delicate constitution. You may have plain ol' overeaten. You may have eaten something that was a little bit beyond its "Best By" date. You may have eaten something at a big stupid chain restaurant wherein one of the stoned teen kitchen workers practiced unsafe food handling procedures. But you don't have Food Poisoning and your precise identification of the meal and item that caused it makes you sound only slightly less silly than someone declaring that they know when the cold viruses entered their body.

CONSENT

Posted in Quick Hits on June 26th, 2014 by Ed

I have a ton to say about this but it's going to have to wait until I have enough time to do it justice; for now, you should read this Pandagon post about "affirmative consent," rape, and the law. It is very good and very important.

If "She never said no, so it can't be rape" is an argument, how is the converse ("She never said yes, so it was rape") not also a valid argument?

I've always argued, and will continue to argue without apologizing, that not all communication needs to be verbal. There are clear and obvious ways to say yes – initiating sexual activity or being receptive to initiation by someone else – and no – pulling back, pushing away, clamming up, etc – without using words. Sexual activity does not and should not require on person saying "WOULD YOU LIKE TO HAVE SEXUAL INTERCOURSE? IF YES, PLEASE SIGN HERE" nor the other saying "I CONSENT TO SEXUAL INTERCOURSE, INCLUDING THREE TO FIVE MINUTES OF MANUAL STIMULATION AND NO MORE THAN FOUR (4) SLAPS ON THE ASS." But to claim that this is the "feminist" argument is to create a Straw Man.

It baffles me that so many men appear to find this concept so difficult. If you are not sure, you have two options: ask ("So…do you want to do it?") or – and this is the one that blows minds – don't have sex. I've heard every hypothetical what-if situation in which the poor male is victimized somehow by the rules of consent and yet I have never heard a single one that could not have been resolved by one of those two options. Not one. Ever. Those two choices that all men have work 100% of the time.

AN OPEN LETTER TO AMERICAN AIRLINES

Posted in Rants on June 23rd, 2014 by Ed

Dear American “Airlines,”

So that you may not duck this formal complaint with the cheap excuse that it is profane and uncivil I will endeavor to keep my swearing to a minimum. I suspect, however, that I will be as successful as your airline is at getting flights off the ground on time. What say we forgive one another in advance for coming up short?

Simply put, American Airlines, you are a very bad airline. The following tale of woe is true in every detail, as I am certain that other customers who have been bent over and cornholed by your sad excuse for a going transportation concern will be able to attest. Through repeated mergers and acquisitions you have managed the incredible feat of becoming the world’s largest airline while retaining all of the charm, efficiency, and customer service of the third largest taxi company in Lagos. Future generations will look back on this accomplishment with awe and wonder.

On Thursday, June 19 my flight out of Peoria, IL (where hopes and dreams go to die) was canceled for “weather.” I was helpfully rebooked on a flight Friday, June 20. As this cut into an already brief vacation to Mexico, the ticket agent was kind enough to offer me the opportunity to fly out of Bloomington, IL, located 45 minutes away, on the same day. Thus I drove at breakneck speed to Bloomington to make the outbound flight. Figuring that a canceled outbound flight would be lonely if not paired with a canceled return flight, I arrived at O’Hare to find my 9:05 flight to Peoria on Monday, June 23 was also canceled. For “weather.” Suspiciously, the 9:05 flight was canceled before 7 PM yet a separate flight to nearby Bloomington on which your agents refused to book me took off (after sundry delays) at 9:15. If the 9:05 flight could not fly through the “weather”, I can only assume that the 9:15 flight was torn asunder with the loss of all on board since PIA and BMI are merely 30 miles apart.

Realizing that a gaggle of upset customers was waiting at the gate to be accommodated, the AA gate agent helpfully walked away. Like, she just left. This employee – let's call her Eva Braun, to choose a random name – did not return for a full hour, time that I strongly suspect* she used to fortify herself with prescription cough syrup and Jeppson’s Malort.** Upon her return I waited a considerable amount of time to advance in this line at a pace best described as that of a pre-holiday queue outside the last open butcher shop in Riga, Latvia prior to the fall of Communism. When my turn came, Eva informed me that she was “busy” and I should, I quote directly, “go find someone else to help (me).” As a different flight was preparing to depart from this gate, my issue was “not (her) problem.”

American Airlines, I could get better customer service from the Kansas City Mafia. That’s not even one of the good ones.

After trying several people in AA uniforms standing behind desks at AA gates, I finally found a young lady who was able to reschedule me for a flight on Tuesday, June 24. As this strands me overnight in Chicago, I asked which hotel I would be boarded in for the evening. She informed me that I could get a “discounted rate” at area hotels but that I would bear the cost of the room. Confused, I asked slowly if I heard correctly – my hearing has been a bit out of whack since I stood too close to a loudspeaker at a Motorhead show in 1996. She replied, with no small amount of embarrassment, that since the cancellation was due to “weather” and thus "beyond the control of the airline," I would not be compensated with a hotel. Or even a lousy meal voucher. Given that AA cannot seem to control its own scheduled flights it comes as no surprise that the company has not yet mastered control of the weather.

At this point I would like to reiterate that you, American Airlines, are a very shitty airline and I wonder if perhaps you would not be better suited in another line of business. I’d have had better luck getting home by slathering my naked, hirsute body with expired Soviet postage stamps and taking a running dive into a Post Office.

Here I lie on the linoleum of O’Hare Terminal 3, pondering how a company that only does one thing could be so terrible at the thing. In the future it is my fervent hope that AA is purchased by a company that is competent at what it does – say, the makers of Jimmy Dean’s breakfast meat cylinders – and this will instill some managerial and organizational competence in your alleged airline. Their product may be a horror unequaled in the Western world, but at least they don’t fuck up the one thing they do. And I am fairly confident that Jimmy Dean’s would not make me sleep on an airport floor or make me buy my own shitty airport dinner.

In closing, American Airlines is a ball-gargling clusterfuck of an airline. How your one-lung shitshow manages to limp from quarter to quarter in solvency is a mystery. I lie here certain that your long term plan to fly the idea of customer service into the ground at high speed has been foretold by prophecy and cannot be stopped.

You are worse than Delta. How is that even possible. Don't worry though, they plan to one-up you by instituting a new policy under which one passenger on each flight is chosen at random and shot.

In spite,
Ed

*Libelous, likely untrue
**Look it up

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AMERICAN CRAPCEPTIONALISM

Posted in Rants on June 22nd, 2014 by Ed

The key to maintaining the illusion that America and everything in it are WOOO #1 THE BEST IN THE WORLD is never leaving the United States.

I don't present myself as a Great World Traveler, but having been in two "Second World" countries recently (or at present, in the case of Mexico) I can't shake that "Why is everything here much nicer than where I live" feeling. Now, contrary to popular opinion I am not an idiot. Obviously both Mexico and Brazil have areas serious social problems along the lines of inequality, crime, and poverty. Obviously these are not paradises. But they also have things like functional, cheap public transportation and highways that do not look like they were bombed by the Luftwaffe five decades ago and the damage was never fixed. Short of going the full chauvinist Asshole Tourist route ("I hate this place because everything is foreign! Everyone talks funny! Why aren't there more Burger Kings?") it would be extraordinarily difficult for an honest person to look at an unexceptional city in Brazil and argue that St. Louis or some random mid-major city in the U.S. is superior.

Cities with huge areas that are off limits due to violent crime? Throw a dartboard at the U.S. and you'll hit one. Crushing, third world-style poverty? Stroll through housing projects, half-abandoned rural towns, or an Indian reservation and see it stateside. Staggering wealth and embarrassing poverty coexisting side by side? We practically invented it.

The inevitable endgame of thirty years of neoliberal right-wing economics has been to convert the U.S. into a pseudo-third world nation. The only thing we're good at anymore is Cheap. Our workforce will take wages they can't live on and are encouraged to be happy that they have a job at all. Our infrastructure is falling apart. Hundreds of our cities are ugly, polluted, half-empty museums of a time when blue collar work could support a family. To think that Americans living in Terre Haute or Montgomery or the Florida panhandle have the greatest and bestest standard of living on Earth is pretty laughable if you visit…well, essentially any country in Asia, Europe, or South America.

This is a bit unfair because admittedly I live in one of the worst, most troubled cities in the country, but other than having cheaper gas, lower national income taxes, and more Wal-Marts I honestly can't figure out how living in Peoria, Illinois is "better" than living in a supposedly poor country. Maybe this is somewhat naive – I've never lived in a different country and perhaps the downsides to other places would become more apparent if I did. Regardless, the physical isolation of the United States combined with the "Why go anywhere else when everything here is THE BEST!!" attitude ensures that we don't travel internationally nearly as much as our foreign counterparts…and that really helps to fuel the mindset that cities and our society have to be broken because nothing can be done to provide effective basic public services, nor is there any reason for wanting to do so.