Thursday, September 30, 2004

A Crossroads

Over 50 people killed in insurgent violence in Iraq today. 35 of them were children, killed at a celebration where US troops were handing out candy to them.

These children were killed in an instant, utterly by surprise, while American soldiers were standing next to them. It was as if the offer of candy lured them to their deaths. Think of what a trauma this will be for the soldiers who were present.

Ironies on top of ironies. The celebration was for the opening of a new sewage plant, of all things.

Today is a pivotal day in American if not world history, I believe. George Bush and John Kerry are debating tonight; today's news will be the featured topic. Kerry is going to make the case that this tragedy shows the complete failure of our military operation in Iraq. Bush is going to argue the opposite, roughly, that this is the kind of evil we're up against. Voters will weigh the arguments and judge whether we need a total change of leadership and direction, or we need to "show resolve" and cling to the mode of action that has brought us here, to a children's party that can turn into carnage in the blink of an eye, and that American soldiers are powerless to stop.

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

YEAR ZERO: This article is devastating. Naomi Klein is reporting about how the Bush Administration neocons were staggeringly overconfident in their ability not only to install democracy in Iraq, but to create a radical Western-style free market economy at the same time. They tried to hit the reset button on the entire economy: privatize state industry, break the labor unions, no trade barriers, no regulation -- Paradise as theorized by Milton Friedman. It's another huge smackdown for the neocons. Iraqi industry is now a blood sport, with threats and murders and bombings between labor and management. Klein tells of one labor union who trumped their company (and Paul Bremer's CPA) in contract negotiations with the demand, Give us a raise or we'll all join the armed insurgency. They got their raise.

Bush's people are unbelievable. Are there actually people this arrogant and dense? Of all the places in the world to use as a petri dish for their pet economic theories, they had to pick Iraq: the oldest culture on earth, a multi-ethnic nation jerry rigged by thoughtless British colonial bureaucrats, just starting to deal with the mass psychic aftermath of Saddam's state terror. Hardly the easiest place to wipe the slate clean and start over.

Props to Harpers magazine for publishing a good article online (I usually find their website to be kind of useless). And big props to Naomi Klein, whom I was unkind to in an earlier post. (Though with this scathing indictment of neocon economics, it makes me wonder anew why Klein is so cavalier about the difference between a Bush and a Kerry administration in '05.)

A choice quote:

New Bridge Strategies, the company that had gushed back in October about
how “a Wal-Mart could take over the country,” is sounding distinctly humbled.
“McDonald’s is not opening anytime soon,” company partner Ed Rogers told the
Washington Post. Neither is Wal-Mart. The Financial Times has declared Iraq “the
most dangerous place in the world in which to do business.” It’s quite an
accomplishment: in trying to design the best place in the world to do business,
the neocons have managed to create the worst, the most eloquent indictment yet
of the guiding logic behind deregulated free markets.

HAVE FAITH BUT VERIFY: Somewhat related to the last post: The faith-based initiative has never been one of my major complaints with the Bush Administration. For one thing, frankly, detailed discussions of welfare or housing or public health policy don’t always rivet my attention. For another thing, my children have gone to church-affiliated day care centers, with which all in all we’ve been very satisfied. No heavy proselytizing; they just provide a much-needed service in an effective way. These centers have been in business for over 25 years, so I know that faith-based social services are not an entirely new thing, nor an inherently scary thing. So I haven't been an absolutist about the separation of church and state. As long as the state doesn’t anoint one faith as the official one, I figure some cooperation is okay.

However, I got to attend a conference last week which looked at this issue from the point of view of congregations themselves, and congregations are something I get paid to be interested in. One of the invited guests was this guy, an expert on faith-based policies. He gave just a brief synopsis of his work, but it was very enlightening. Far from being a recent innovation or a spontaneous movement of the spirit, faith-based social programs are the result of years of groundwork by conservative philanthropic groups who wanted to get government to do their bidding. And it’s worked; more and more, government spouts the conservative narrative of cultural devolution and moral rot. (Think William Bennett.) Faith-based initiatives are a really handy talking point for the Republicans to rally their white conservative base, and they help chip off some votes in the black and Latino communities (which are more socially conservative than some white Democrats realize).

For congregations and other religious agencies, the faith-based initiative has been something of a Faustian bargain. It’s NOT a great bonanza of new funding sources, it’s mostly a confusing mess of new paperwork and procedures. There’s an unfortunate temptation for a church to twist itself out of shape, sell out its vision and priorities, in order to get a piece of a block grant. And conservative Christian groups have the inside track anyway over liberal churches or especially non-Christian groups. Not one dollar of faith-based grant money has gone to any faith other than Christian.

In other words: yet another Bush administration policy turns out to be motivated by political considerations. Its practical impact is negligible or even harmful.

And here comes Amy Sullivan with an examination of faith-based social policies, that pretty much confirms Bob Wineburg’s view, and adds a twist: Bush travels around he country boasting that his faith-based initiative pumps $1 billion a year into church coffers. What he doesn’t say is that a tax benefit he had promised (extending the deduction for charitable giving), he ended up welshing on. That, combined with the repeal of the estate tax, which used to motivate people to bequeath money to charity, costs faith-based nonprofits $80 billion a year.

It really isn’t so much the case that religion infects politics in America, but the opposite: politics uses religion (like it uses patriotism) in cynical ways. The church-state wall, remember, was put there in the first place to protect the church. The wall needs to stay there to protect both religion AND government from doing mischief to each other.

ONE NATION UNDER A GROOVE: This year’s legal controversy over the words “under God” in the Pledge of Allegiance was much ado about, well, two little words. The interesting aspect to me was this: The Bush administration, arguing for keeping “under God” in the pledge, claimed that it was an instance of ceremonial deism. A nod to history and tradition, with no real religious meaning. The phrase has been in there a long time; the whole country has learned it that way; let’s leave well enough alone. In other words, the atheist plaintiff clearly took the name of God more seriously than the government did.

Kenneth Briggs is a well-regarded veteran religion newswriter, and I thought this was a great column. It brings to mind the government’s lazy defense of God-in-the-Pledge. Americans invoke God the way schoolchildren recite the Pledge to the flag: by rote, drowsily.

A lot has been written this year about the role of religion in politics and public life, and the God Gap, and of how striking the U.S. is in its religious fervor. This kind of talk is way overdone. Americans like God in much the same way they like Big Macs and Coca-Cola and SUVs with American flag stickers: reflexively, superficially, out of conformism. It’s easier and more convenient to go with the flow on the subject.

When you read polling data about how religious this country is, how often we go to church, etc. – keep in mind that Americans tend to lie in these polls.

The consumer ethic dominates religion as it dominates every arena of American life. Churches that succeed do so by entertaining and pandering – giving the consumers what they want. Too many preachers are self-help gurus who avoid making demands on people’s consciences. The fastest-growing churches function like retail chains: opening outlets in demographically desirable spots, serving gourmet coffee in the lobby, offering reclining movie-theatre style seating.

The point being, enough of pundits with platitudes about our country’s faith and piety. Spiritually as in every other way, the average American is a flabby, lazy, selfish, smug moron.

Tuesday, September 07, 2004

EMPTY SUIT: A Fantasie. Several people I respect, including my friend Phil from Here Be Monsters, have been talking up James Wolcott and his new blog. So I checked the blog out, and will continue to do so, and hopefully seek out his new book. Ayi Chihuahua , I think it’s called.

Some smart guy (Montaigne? Not sure) once said that in great writers we see our own discarded thoughts reflected back – thoughts that we only half-remember, or that we lacked the courage to articulate. Anyway, I now rate Wolcott as a great writer because of his post saying that GW Bush is scared of losing his election. I remember thinking, fleetingly, during Bush’s convention speech the other night that his eyes didn’t convey confidence but helplessness.

It doesn’t pay to go very far down the road toward psychoanalyzing politicians. Better not to think of them as complete human beings, but as vote-seeking missiles. Nonetheless, almost against my will I’ve formed a strong image of Bush (in a nutshell: rich mediocrity with a huge sense of entitlement and a spiteful streak), and it leads me to believe that in his current circumstance, the guy is way, way over his head. He wanted to be elected President, to prove something to his family and everybody who ever crossed him or doubted him and generally assert himself as a Big Shot. The Biggest. To be able to say anything to anybody and not check his tongue; to hand out favors.

He wanted to get the job, but see, he never relished having to do the job, and being nominally in charge of the nation’s economy and security is acutely unsettling to him. He was shaken to his bones by 9/11. (Though he’ll never admit it. Can’t show weakness, and besides, Cheney and Wolfowitz and those guys obviously think 9/11 was the greatest thing that ever happened.) He never wanted to work this hard, and he never wanted to have people’s lives riding on his decisions. (Regular, innocent people, I mean--not death-row murderers. That never used to be a worry.)

Trying to reconcile the highs and the lows is mind-bending. Giving that speech on the deck of the aircraft carrier, looking at the San Diego skyline: How those sailors cheered! How great he knew it would look on TV! Then, the next day it felt like, that damn press conference and having to try to think of a mistake he could admit to. Serving the Thanksgiving turkey to the troops in Iraq: Take that, forces of evil! Then later, having to consult a criminal lawyer to ensure his ass stays out of jail. Nothing is more humbling than that, am I right?

He doesn’t mind slinging mud in the campaign, particularly if he can cling to a thin pretense of deniability, like with the Swift Boat crap. His conscience, dull thing, is untroubled. But he hates the routine of campaigning, the intense schedule, trying to remember names, shaking hands with some Missouri county commissioner. He’s sheltered from questioning reporters; hell, he’s insulated from anybody who doesn’t worship him, practically. (The quickly squelched heckler during Bush’s convention speech really seemed to throw him for a minute.) Still, he’s nagged by the sense of something that past holders of the office have had, that he lacks: command of the job. Some core beliefs, a sense of purpose, a record of policy achievement to brag on, or at least some hard-earned policy experience to learn from. But that’s the huge vacuum in the room that everyone is too polite to mention. Bush is innocent of belief or purpose or any feeling for policy. He has Cheney and others to supply that stuff. Bring out instead the cheap slogans and bravado and the wisecracks about John Kerry. The applause lines. Let us applaud them.

He often resents his advisors, yet he craves them, for where would he be without them? Some of them are literally irreplaceable. If Rove were hit by a truck, my God, who but Rove could tell him who Rove’s successor should be? Loyalty to his inner circle is desperate unto death, but it comes at a high price for the circle members. Dubya is holy hell to work for. He is furious about any new phrase in the stump speech, any juncture where he has to improvise. Behind the scenes, it takes a brutal combination of browbeating and ass-kissing by Karl, Karen,, to get Georgie even to board the campaign plane or step on the dais.

They wind him up and send him out. He’s terrified of failing and letting them all down. But in his gut, his deepest self, he yearns to go home to Crawford and stay there. Make a few speeches, serve on a few corporate boards. He’d still have his retinue; he’ll always have a Secret Service detail and the armored Chevy Suburban. But please, Lord, he prays, harder than he’s ever prayed before. Let me get through these next two months, sleeping on the plane, prepping for speeches and debates, shaking hands with assholes, facing the goddamned public. Then let me somehow get through four more years of being told where to go, what to say, never quite knowing what’s going on. Then, dear Lord, let me go to Crawford and rest. Finally be a Big Shot, and fuck anybody who doesn't like it. Amen.

THE SCORE: There was a very sad incident at Saturday’s N.C. State football game. Two young men, aged 22 and 23, were shot and killed while tailgating during the ballgame. Two other young men, ages 20 and 22, turned themselves in as the shooters. (This is the second multiple fatality in less than a year happening in proximity to an NCSU football game in Raleigh. Last year, a drunk driver struck and killed six pedestrians near the stadium.)

The chain of events seems to be as follows: Somebody was driving too fast through a crowded parking lot. Somebody threw a beer can at the speeding car. The driver got out and confronted the can thrower. Can thrower(s) beat up and humiliated the driver. So the driver and his running buddy, his brother, left to get a gun, came back to the scene of the fight, and evened the score.

The apparent culprits are from a small town in eastern N.C. Nice enough kids, extremely close to each other, loved by their family, well-liked in their community. They were all pumped up on injured pride and brotherly loyalty. One of the victims was a newly commissioned officer in the Marines, stationed in N.C. I imagine he was feeling ten feet tall and bulletproof. A friend of his visiting from Illinois was the other victim. They died senselessly and a long way from home.

Being a young man is inherently dangerous. (Being a young woman is no picnic either, but mostly due to the presence of young men.) Men should all consider ourselves lucky if we made it through our teens and twenties and emerged intact—in one piece and able to live with ourselves.

UPDATE: It was more random and senseless than I thought yesterday. According to the Raleigh News and Observer, September 8 edition, the shooting was a case of mistaken identity. The two young men from Illinois were not the ones that fought with the Johnson brothers; witnesses say they actually helped break up the fight and help the Johnsons get away. To be clear, the shooting is horrible and unjustifiable either way.