Friday, December 01, 2006

Failure in Iraq: I Blame It on Britney

Conservative attempts to blame the American people for the failure of the mission in Iraq are making Talking Points Memo sick.

Take it easy, Josh Marshall. It's not like the right-wing isn't nauseating about most issues. Have you ever checked out David Brooks' justification of CEO pay?

Personally, I blame the failure of the war on Britney Spears. The core of Bush's strategy on the home front was to keep the American people from paying attention. That's why the Bush administration put so much emphasis on shoring up consumer culture, cutting taxes, not instituting a draft, and not talking about "shared sacrifice." Why would people pay attention if they had no connection to the war?

Britney Spears, the uber-face of 21st century America, was the key to the success of this strategy. Personally appearing on every tv show, posing for every page of every magazine, and singing in every gin joint from the Florida Keys to Walla Walla, Spears was completely devoted to keeping the eyes of the American people on her, not on the war.

But then, Britney seemed to lose focus. She started seeing Kevin Federline, got married, became pregnant twice, and start having babies. Millions of people still adored Britney, but it wasn't the hundreds of millions needed to distract the American public from the war.

That's when the Bush administration got in trouble. Without Britney at top form, the public began to look at the Bush administration and the Republican Congress. In fact, you can trace the big decline in Bush's approval ratings to the beginning of the relationship between Britney Spears and Kevin Federline.

Of course, Britney did not become a complete traitor. She separated from Kevin at the personal request of the President. However, it was too late to save the Republicans in the mid-term elections and perhaps too late to save the war as a whole. Now that she's dumped Federline, Britney's trying to get the old mojo back. She's teamed with the powerhouse duo of Paris Hilton and Lindsay Lohan to ensure that's she is visible every day and recent reports have all three allowing the paparazzi to get crotch shots of her without underwear. (What sacrifices these women make for the good of the country!) But nobody seems interested anymore.

If you want to know why the war has failed, the answer is simple. Blame Britney.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Notes on the Bush-Maliki Summit

What President Bush has to say is not very interesting because he cares so little about the real world. The same is the case with Bush's current summit with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Jordan. Bush talks about "finishing the mission" and victory. The whole world knows that a U. S. victory in Iraq is no more likely than the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series or Vanderbilt University winning the Super Bowl. So nobody particularly listens.

Maliki is a different story though. Today it emerged that he told Condi Rice that al-Sadr and the Mahdi army militia were "not a big problem." Now there's a formulation that's ripe for multiple interpretations. Perhaps al-Maliki meant that al-Sadr and his forces were not a very formidable force and that he could deal with them before his morning prayers if he really wanted. Al-Maliki--too tough to care.

Or perhaps Sadr is "not a big problem" because Maliki sees the Shiite militias as an important element in the power of the Iraqi government. That's a possibility because the ferocity of the Shiite militias has demonstrated indeed that Shiites are willing and able to defend themselves. With the Shiite militias integrated throughout the government, there can be little doubt that the elected Shiite government can defend itself against Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda.

Or perhaps, al-Maliki thinks that Sadr is "not a big problem" because he knows that an American attack on Sadr and the Sadr City slum of Baghdad would create a much bigger problem.

Maybe Maliki was saying that Sadr is "not a big problem" compared to Rice and the rest of the blundering Bush administration.

Bad News for a Noble Enterprise

Today's a bad day for my field. Political philosophy, the effort to think about political matters in moral terms, is among the more ambitious of intellectual enterprises. Many of the great figures of human thought have worked in political philosophy as a genre, including Plato, Aristotle, Augustine, Aquinas, Hobbes, and Locke.

But political philosophy has its share of slimeballs as well. The German political thinker Carl Schmitt caddied for the Nazis. Likewise, Mihailo Markovic served the cause of Serbian nationalism under his brother-in-law Slobodan Milosevic. Now it turns out that Luis Echeverria, the former Mexican president was also a political philosopher. That would not be so bad except that Echeverria was responsible for massacres of Mexican students during the sixties. Today, the charges against him were reinstated.

The Shame!

Actually, it's worse. The Bush administration and their fellow travelers in the media have been loaded with people (actually men) with academic training in the right-wing views of Leo Strauss, a leading political philosopher at the University of Chicago after WWII. Key architects of Iraq invasion like Paul Wolfowitz and Douglas Feith were trained in Straussianism--the same with William Kristol.

My only consolation is that Bush administration Straussians might end up like Echeverria-- under arrest for their crimes against humanity.

Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Newt Plays the Outrage Card

Newt in New Hampshire. Last night in Manchester, New Hampshire, Newt Gingrich proclaimed that the U. S. "will be forced to reexamine freedom of speech to meet the threat of terrorism." Newt's immediate reference was to changing "the rules" so that terrorist groups couldn't get their message out through the internet. But Gingrich is a complex guy and he was talking on many levels. As a result, we need to exercise care in parsing out what Newt meant.

Playing the Outrage Card. Frankly, I think Newt challenged the freedom of speech to incite liberal "outrage" as a way to keep his name in the media. In other words, he was playing people on the left for suckers as a way to promote his long-shot presidential candidacy. On right-wing radio, figures like Rush Limbaugh and their callers get special pleasure out of outraging liberals. It's a form of psychological power that they see themselves as having over the left. One liberal who's already taken the bait is Bob Cesca who couldn't resist the temptation to proclaim that he would be willing to die (and by implication, see whole cities go under) in defense of free speech.

So, let's resist the urge to be outraged.

Nibbling around the issue. Instead, what Gingrich said should be examined in the context of right-wing political discourse. People on the right have been talking about the constitution not being a suicide pact and you can't have civil liberties if you're dead for some time now. Conservative figures ranging from Bill O'Reilly to President Bush have been trying to establish a distinction between "responsible" dissent and "irresponsible" accusations that the administration engaged in systematic lying in order to promote the Iraq invasion (which they of course did). There's the everyday treason accusations made by Ann Coulter and all her bombthrowing imitators. Although the right has yet to launch a full assault on freedom of speech, they've certainly done a lot of nibbling around the issue, looking for a pretext to promote their own schemes for limiting free speech while complaining about the limits that McCain-Feingold puts on their ability to extort money from corporations.

Who's the target? Gingrich talked about curtailing the ability of terrorists to use the internet as if we already did not have laws against criminal conspiracy and recruiting for terrorism that apply to the internet. But, of course, the target is the left. What worries Newt much more than terrorism is the rise of a left-wing blogosphere that has been much more determined and effective than the Democratic leadership and the mainstream media in opposing the Iraq war, the Bush administration, and the right-wing in general. By the eve of the invasion in April 2003, the Bush administration had thoroughly cowed the Democrats and the mainstream media, but the internet turned out to be a powerful mechanism both for rallying anti-war sentiment and challenging the Democrats and the regular media to be more critical. Conservatives have always viewed the development of an anti-war politics as a treasonable exercise in giving aid and comfort to the terrorists. With Republican defeats in the 2006 election, it looks like the current anti-war movement is an intolerable threat to the war effort. As a result, Newt is taking his probe of free speech up another notch. If the Republicans lose another election in 2008, Newt will probably wonder if elections are really that necessary.

The Benefits of Free Speech. In the case of the Iraq War, the exercise of free speech rights has not only been a manifestation of the natural freedom at the core of human existence, it has also been extremely good for the nation. Outside the initial invasion, the Bush administration has bungled the war in Iraq so badly that Baghdad and other cities have become hells on earth. Because the liberal blogosphere and a few Republicans like John McCain and Chuck Hagel had the free speech rights to pount away at the Bush administrations failures from an early point in the occupation, the whole country has a context for understanding the current disaster and an intellectual basis for debating future policy. If dissenters had not had free speech rights, the Republicans would have occupied Iraq for ten or twenty years, wasting lives, money, and military assets, and getting nowhere.

Conclusion. I'm far from being outraged by the right-wing's little campaign against free speech. However, the right is just as wrong about free speech as it was wrong on Iraq, the Civil Rights Movement, women's rights, gay marriage, social security, McCarthyism, the New Deal, government regulation of business, and abolitionism. There are few things more reliable than the wrong-headedness of the right.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Right Where They Want to Be

With Bush being presidential in Latvia, Michael Richards on the apology circuit, and a Republican mayor of New York wondering why his cops are acting like they're in Baghdad, the Democrats are off the front page.

And off the front page is where the Democrats need to be until they're actually ready to do something.

A Note on Mormon Discrimination

To the extent that Mormons are identified with the right-wing and social conservatism, I think their impact on American society is negative in much the same way that the conservatism of the white South and Plains States is a negative.

That is far from excusing Andrew Sullivan's display of "Mormon sacred underwear" on his blog last Friday. What he was trying to do was incite bigotry against Mormons in the same way that right-wingers try to incite bigotry against gays by promoting lurid images of gay sex. Sullivan is gay and is very sensitive about discrimination against gays. He should have known better.

Sullivan was wrong and his actions are harmful to Mormons all over the U. S. My department at my university in Kentucky hired a Mormon government professor and it was a little over a year before some jerk started baiting her about Mormons wearing "leather underwear." We took it as an incident of religious discrimination and complained to our chair. I don't know what the ultimate disposition of the case was, but I was extremely saddened when the professor told me that she had been dealing with these kinds of comments "all her life."

People shouldn't have to deal with that garbage. I know that Mitt Romney is gearing up for a presidential run as a social conservative and I'll certainly oppose Romney as much as I can. But that's no more excuse for promoting bigotry against Mormons than Barack Obama's presidential aspirations are an excuse for white racism or Hillary Clinton's efforts are an excuse for sexism.

The Power of Words

George Bush: Today, President Bush stated emphatically that American troops would not withdraw from Iraq "before the mission is complete." But, the ideal of completing the mission grows more disconnected every day with the reality in Iraq. In fact, Bush's jargon is now so disconnected from the real world that one has to wonder if he actually is thinking the opposite. That was the case with firing Donald Rumsfeld. In October, Bush was already searching for Rumsfeld's replacement when he was offering assurances that the former Defense Secretary would be retained until the end of his term.

A Civil War Too Late: Like President Bush's insistent on finishing the mission, NBC's announcement that the Iraq conflict is a civil war indicates a disconnect. Iraq has been in a state of civil war since Saddam leftovers and Sunni insurgents began assassinating secular figures in 2003. Indeed, civil war may be an overly mild term for the situation that's developed in Baghdad since the March bombingof the Shiite shrine in Samarra. Given the four or five corner conflict between U. S. troops, the Iraqi military and police, the various Shiite militias, the many Sunni insurgent groups, and criminal gangs, it might be better to characterize Baghdad as a Hobbesian war of all against all.

Michael Richards: It's been almost a week but I'm still stunned by the Michael Richards racial tirade. The more I heard the tape and looked at the transcript last night (while blogging), the more upset I got. It's still bothering me tonight. Richards was not just being a racist. He wasn't just using the n-word. He gave a stunning evocation of lynching as a preferred model for race relations. I wonder if that's what all the discrimination against blacks, all the racist stereotypes, all the racial profiling, and all the sneers about affirmative action and "political correctness" ultimately point back to--the lynching regime that served as the violent backbone of racial segregation in the South. Perhaps, all the racial "progress" of the last forty years is a very thin layer of humanity over a bedrock of segregation and lynching.

Monday, November 27, 2006

Michael Richards and the Power of Segregation in the White Mind

By this time, everybody knows about Michael Richard's racist rant at the LA Comedy Club last week. Personally, I'm not particularly interested in whether Richards apologized (he did) or whether Richards a racist (how could he say he isn't?). The tabloid question of whether Michael Richards is going to be condemned, saved, or rehabilitated doesn't grab me either. I never liked Seinfeld all that much. As a result, Richards never really mattered to me as a cultural icon. Perhaps some good will come out of the efforts of Jesse Jackson to use the incident to question the use of the n-word in popular culture.

However, what really interests me is what we can learn about American society more generally from Richard's outburst. I think there's a lot to learn about the enduring symbolic importance of segregation here.

What set Richards off was heckling by either Frank McBride or Kyle Doss that Richards was not funny. The issue here was a black person was passing judgement on him as a white man. From Richards' point of view, McBride or Doss were mistaken in presuming to have the right to evaluate Richards' work as a comedian and he quickly moved to correct them. For Richards, desegregation was an act of noblesse oblige on the part of whites rather than a recognition of racial equality. Believing that McBride and Doss should have been grateful to be allowed in the club at all, Richards was offended that they would presume to judge a famous white man.

This is why Richards reminded the men that "fifty years ago we'd have you upside down with a f***ing fork up your ass." Of course, the "we" here is the white race and Richards is reminding McBride, Doss, and their party of the power he views whites as exercising over blacks in American society. For Richards, segregation and lynching are still archetypical expressions of the fullness of white dominance. When Richards raises the specter of lynching, he is reminding blacks of his view that segregation is still current and fundamental even if it is not often spoken. Racial power relations have remained the same even if few blacks get lynched and Richards doesn't see these particular blacks guys as having any more right to judge him than Emmet Till had to whistle at a white woman during the fifties.

Michael Richards reminds us of the extent to which segregation is fundamental to American culture. With the on-going dominance of stereotypical portrayals of black women and men in popular culture, popular culture inculcates the idea that the racial stereotypes of the segregation period are still "true" and that anyone who rejects those stereotypes is morally questionable as a snob, (most likely a) hypocrite, and a "politically correct" kind of person. The spirit of segregation may have died in American law, but it dominates American popular culture. Of course, Michael Richards is going to be exiled culturally because he crudely spoke what a great many white people think in vague and unselfconscious ways. But his racist tirade spoke something that was very true of white thinking.