Saturday, August 04, 2007

Notes From the Family Reunion

I'm at the Northrup family reunion of four of my brothers and sisters in Asheville, NC. All of us were born in upstate NY, but so many of us have moved South that we've held our reunions in Atlanta and Asheville. My home in Kentucky is now too far north for a family reunion.


1. Who's in shape. It's Mrs. RSI! She's been working out twice a day as part of her diet and it really showed when we went hiking. She did all the hikes on Mount Pisgah the younger people did while I had to pass on the last steep one. My turn to get in shape next.

2. Turning my stomach. I had to leave the conversation when it turned to the neighbor's botched gastric by-pass. It turns out that lots of people have botched gastric by-passes. Personally, I don't have the stomach for it.

3. Bucking the Tide. Septuagenarians Aunt Shirley and Grama Marlene were singing the praises of being a stay at home mom. I thought that being a stay-at-home mom was a terrible idea when I was ten and haven't changed my opinion since. So it was good to hear that my oldest daughter told them that the world has changed since feminism. Because it has.

4. The Popularity of Dogfighting. My Aunt Shirley and her husband Lou talked about the popularity of dog fighting and dog and pig fighting in South Carolina. It's sickening but it goes way beyond Michael Vick.

5. The Power of Plants. Three of my friends in Morehead have bad cases of cancer and a woman I knew died a horrible death after being pinned under a lawn tractor for five hours. Whenever I hear about death and dying among those I know, I imagine myself fathering 5,000 more children just as a way to stick it to death. But it's not necessary. I can always see the force of living things when I see plants growing along highways. Even the sheerest rock faces have plants growing out of them. So does the asphalt on road shoulders. The tenacity of the plants is unbelievable. So is the beauty of some of the flowers that grow alongside highways. The periwinkle blue corn flowers and black-eyed Susans were especially beautiful as we drove down to Ashville from Kentucky.

It was a beauty I needed to see.

Friday, August 03, 2007

Ollie North Casts Shadow On Surge Progress

In a article today, Oliver North let the cat out of the bag while trying to extoll the surge. It turns out that the Sunni tribes in Anbar started switching allegiance from al-Qaeda to our side last December even before the first surge troops started to arrive.
Last December -- even before the additional troops arrived in Iraq -- I reported how the "Awakening" in violent Anbar province had created conditions where, for the first time, Sunni police, Shia soldiers and American troops were working together against Al Qaeda.
Given that the "Anbar Awakening" began before the surge, there's no reason to give credit for the Sunni change of heart to General Petraeus or the surge.

And, as I mentioned before, there's good reason to wonder why the surge has accomplished so little despite the Anbar Awakening and the relative standing down of the Shiite militias.

Surge and Backwash

ANOTHER NAIL IN NEO-LIBERAL COFFIN. One of the real pleasures of the collapse of the Bush administration has been watching neo-liberalism go down with it. The tactic among neo-liberal Democrats like Joe Lieberman was to be almost as conservative as the Republicans while treating liberals as their chief opponents. But the neo-liberal "liberal hawks" who were almost as eager to invade Iraq as the Bush administration now look almost as stupid and delusional as Dick Cheney.

One liberal hawk who probably won't get a job in a Hillary administration is Michael O'Hanlon of the Brookings Institution. On Monday, O'Hanlon and Kenneth Pollack were promoting the surge in a New York Times op-ed entitled "A War That We Just Might Win." Five years ago, promoting a Bush administration line like that would have been the hip, counter-intuitive thing to do for a neo-liberal Democrat who wanted to get ahead. But Democratic leaders have stopped waffling between support for the war and tepid opposition any more. Now, they're waffling between cutting off funding for the war and contempt of Congress prosecutions for the Bush White House.

In that context, the O'Hanlon/ Pollack article was a stab in the back for Democratic presidential candidates and Congressional leaders. Somebody with some clout must have told that to O'Hanlon because he recanted on Tuesday for what he wrote on Monday.

A WEAK SURGE. But the case for the surge is extremely weak.

We have 38,000 additional troops in Iraq. What have they accomplished since the first additional troops allied in February, 2007.

The major objective of the surge was stability in Baghdad? Has that been accomplished? No! Even a guy as pro-war as Michael Totten emphasizes that nowhere in Baghdad is safe, including the Green Zone.

As mentioned in previous posts, what makes the failure to secure Baghdad particularly telling is that U. S. forces have had nearly ideal conditions. Sunni tribes began turning against al-Qaeda last September and the Shiite militias decided not to confront American troops.

But Baghdad isn't secure, there's only one hour of electricity a day (according to Michael Totten), and terrorists have been able to attack "high value targets" like open-air markets, funeral processions, and soccer celebrations. If anything, the counter-surge of Sunni insurgents and al-Qaeda looks like it's having more success in Baghdad than the American surge.

EVEN WORSE, it looks like the American military and American embassy have decided to throw their weight behind a hoped for and inevitably unwieldy alliance of Sunnis, Kurds, and secularists. The U. S. also is pushing against the Shiite militias, forcing the Iraqi government to fire sectarian Shiite military officers, and arming Sunni militias.

It's a recipe for disaster. What the U. S. is doing is driving large sectors of the majority Shiite population toward insurrection. Shiite violence has already flared twice with al-Sadr's campaign againt the U. S. military in 2004 and the death squads of 2006. U. S. policy is pushing the Shiites toward another big blow-up that will reverse months of patient progress.

Thursday, August 02, 2007

Very Bad News

I just learned that one of my friends has stomach cancer. From what I've heard, it doesn't look good for him either but I'm going to visit him at the hospital in Lexington and see his family. So I'll probably get a little more information then.

Given my friends illness and my upcoming trip to Asheville, NC for my family reunion, I might now be doing much blogging over the next 72 hours and probably won't be able to renew my wonderful exchange with the PWC (Protein Wisdom Collective) until then.

We'll see.

The Secret Ideals of the Right

Over that the right-wing blog that dishonors the name RedState, there's a little tribute to Rush Limbaugh's 19th anniversary with his talk show. Here's Hunter Baker affectionately quoting a story he heard William F. Buckley tell comparing Limbaugh to Generalissimo Franco, the fascist dictator from Spain.

At the end of his presentation, [Buckley] allowed questions. The first supplicant approached the microphone and hopefully inquired, "Mr. Buckley, what do you think about Rush Limbaugh?" This was during the time when Rush was still something of a rising star. His rhetoric was bombastic, hard-edged, and wickedly funny. Members of the audience shifted forward in their seats expectantly as Buckley answered by telling the following story.

There were two Spaniards sitting in a bar. One asked the other, "What do you think about General Franco?" Instead of answering, the man gestured for his friend to follow him outside. Once on the sidewalk, he motioned for the friend to follow him to his car. They got in the car and drove to a forest. Deep in the woods, he parked the car and beckoned the friend to hike with him down to a lake. At the edge of the lake, he pointed to a boat which they boarded. He grabbed the oars and rowed to the
center of the lake. Finally, he sat still, looked his friend in the eyes and paused for a moment. "I like him." Buckley told the story so brilliantly and created so much suspense, the denouement brought the house down amid gales of laughter and happy applause.

As a veteran conservative, Buckley captured himself very well. When Buckley retreats deep in the forest for privacy and then rows to the middle of a lake to make doubly sure nobody overhears, he doesn't need all the cover stories that the right tells to make themselves palatable in a democracy like the United States. Buckley doesn't talk about freedom being God's gift to humanity, the beauties of a color-blind society, the need to go back to JFK liberalism, the suspending of habeas corpus under Abraham Lincoln, or the Christianity of the "classic feminists."

Instead, he traced his own lineage back to Franco and the fascist regime in Spain and expressed his affection for Limbaugh in terms of an analogy with affection for Franco.

Of course, Franco's not the only reference point for authentic feeling on the right. There's British colonialism, Israeli rule over the Palestinians on the West Bank, Confederate figures like Jefferson Davis, military dictatorship, absolute monarchy, or the segregation South. If the Nazis weren't so awfully taboo, there'd probably be a few nostalgic references for them as well.

These are the things the right-wing longs for when they think the rest of the world isn't listening.

Book Proposal Done!

My book proposal for Displays of Degradation: Cultural Transformations in Philadelphia, 1785-1850 is on its way to the University of Pennsylvania Press. Submitting a book proposal was a big mental block for me. So putting it into the mail felt good.

Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Romney Breaks Ten--Feel the Momentum

Ten days ago, a senior strategist for Mitt Romney named Alex Gage was claiming that Romney had replaced Giuliani as the front-runner for the Republican nomination.

In that light, Gage must have been happy to see Romney break 10% in the most recent Hart/Newhouse poll. True, The RealClearPolitics Average still has Romney at 9.3% and Mitt is in fourth place behind Rudy Giuliani, undeclared candidate Fred Thompson, and tanking candidate John McCain.

But so what if Mitt's still running fourth among the pigmies. He has established a clear distance between himself and the other undeclared candidate Newt Gingrich. That means that Mitt is no longer the smallest pigmy in the room.

Feel the momentum!

A Note on Beauty in Kentucky

Today's the thirteenth birthday of my older daughter. It's a big deal and we started the day by singing happy birthday to her at 7:00am. It would be a bigger deal at home if she hadn't spent nine hours playing percussion at band camp. But they sang happy birthday there as well.

After she was born, one of the many lights that went off in my head was the ability to see the full beauty of our neighborhood for the first time. We live just off North Wilson Avenue in Morehead, KY. Our section of the street runs at a narrow point in the "holler" and the houses have such a lush combination of trees, bushes, and grass that the rich green colors seem to be pulsating. It's a literal effect created by the way the various shades of green play off each other in the eye as one drives north on the stree. It's a beauty that I sometimes find overwhelming as I drive up the street, but I never would have seen it if my children hadn't been born.

The effect of the green would be even more overwhelming than it already seems if it weren't for the flowers. Currently blooming are the Rose of Sharon bushes which can be found up and down the street. While providing relief from the power of green color, the pinkish and white colors of the Rose of Sharon flowers look especially delicate themselves.

And I would never would have noticed these beauties if my younger daughter had not started picking Rose of Sharon flowers for her fourth-grade teachers last year while we were waiting for her school bus.

If I remember correctly, the Rose of Sharon blooms continuously for at least two or three months and my daughter was picking flowers into October.

I'll have to check to see if I was right there.

Tuesday, July 31, 2007

John Dickerson of Slate: Yesterday's Cliches Today

As part of his series on the "achilles heel" of the presidential candidates, John Dickerson of Slate argues that Rudy Giuliani's strategy of attacking the Democrats "risks damaging his chances in the general election by alienating moderates and independents."

Something tells me that they're not really worried about this at Giuliani headquarters.

What Dickerson is doing is recycling the age-old cliche about presidential candidates "playing to the base" in the primaries and then changing tack to appeal to "moderates and independents" in the general election.

However, the cliche desperately needs to be updated if it's going to apply to the 2008 election.
Because things have changed.

Most importantly, the partisans in both the Democratic and Republican parties have become much more ideological over the last six years. Given that Dickerson's writing about Rudy Giuliani, let's just consider the Republicans here. Republicans have become much more conservative than they were in 2008 and demand that their candidates toe the conservative line. In other words, conservatives want to hear that the Iraq War is good, torture is appropriate, global warming is a myth, the Bush administration is not conservative enough, and the Democrats are effeminate and ineffective if not treasonous.

The activist Republican base wants to try Giuliani on for size as a result of his performance during 9-11 but also have major doubts as a result of his divorces, pro-choice stance, and basic social liberalism. If Giuliani is going to maintain his 25-27% support among Republicans, he therefore needs to deepen his support among activist conservatives. And that's what Giuliani's baiting the Democrats is about. Every time Giuliani throws some red-meat to the base by bashing the Democrats, he solidifies his support with the right-wingers who already like him and makes himself more credible with other Republicans.

Otherwise, Giuliani has no chance of winning the Republican nomination.

What about appealing to moderates in the general election?

There's several reasons that's not going to happen.

First, there aren't that many people who are genuinely independent. As Matthew Dowd established while he worked in the Bush White House, most moderates and independents vote for one party most of the time and the real number of voters who have to make a decision is something like 7 or 8%.

There could be an argument for the number of independents increasing for 2008. Given the tremendous unpopularity of the Bush administration, a percentage of Republican-leaning independents might have moved over into the "undecided" category. But it's also likely that a number of formerly undecided voters have moved over to the Democratic-leaning camp. So, I'm not sure that argument pans out either.

Second, the media is heavily focused on the "consistency" and "authenticity" of presidential candidates. Of course, partisan bloggers keep a close eye on the consistency of candidates and criticize them heavily for wavering. But the mainstream media also likes consistency stories. Because such stories involve so little reflection, they're an attractive way for hard-working political reporters to punch out articles on deadline.

As a result, it's much harder for candidates to get away with changing their story line for the general election.

Not that this particularly bothers the Republicans. What the Republican Party has often done is mount smear campaigns against Democratic candidates during the general election campaigns. The Swift Boat campaign and the Willie Horton ads were vicious, hyper-partisan, and successful because they convinced enough independent voters that the Democratic candidate could not be a credible president.

It turns out that Republicans like to "appeal to the middle" by being even more viciously partisan than when they're appealing to the base.

That's one reason why Giuliani's focused on his current put-downs of the Democrats. If he wins the Republican nomination, he'll have to rev the partisanship up further.

Monday, July 30, 2007

Torture: The Weenie Version of Sex

The more people look at the masculinity of the Bush administration and the right, the more sick and twisted it looks. According to A. M. Hamrah in the Los Angeles Times, lots of people in the Bush administration thought of torture as sex and then . . . closed their eyes.

I'll reprint the article in full. Thanks to Zinya for the heads up.

It's not torture, it's sex
Why is it the more the White House refines the rules, the pervier things get?
By By A.S. Hamrah, July 30, 2007

When a group of 50 high school students visiting the White House in June handed President Bush a letter urging him to stop the torture of suspected terrorists, the president took their letter, read it, then told the students that "the United States does not torture."

By the time a president has alienated even high school overachievers, the cat is out of the bag; it is now general knowledge that the United States of America tortures people. We know that torture rarely if ever works. So what are government officials getting out of it?

Right before his recent colonoscopy, Bush announced that he had issued an executive order banning cruel and inhumane treatment in interrogations of suspected terrorists. This clarified interrogation guidelines he had issued last fall banning techniques that "shock the conscience." While the guidelines appear to be a step toward more concrete protection of human rights, the administration's constant rejiggering of the border between interrogation and torture reveals something else: a Sadean interest in the refinement of torture, a desire to define what is and is not "beyond the bounds of human decency," as the order puts it.

The claim that there is an element of sexual perversity in the government's interest in prisoner abuse may seem broad, but consider how officials discuss it. And when it comes to pictures documenting torture, they react in ways that should be as interesting to psychoanalysts as they are to constitutional lawyers, civil libertarians or investigative reporters.

In April, former CIA Director George Tenet appeared on "60 Minutes," telling interviewer Scott Pelley -- between swigs from a tiny bottle of Evian and his insistent, repetitive bark that "we don't torture people" -- that the reason he has never personally seen the evidence of the interrogation techniques he refuses to talk about is because he is "not a voyeur."

Tenet's reference to voyeurism -- which the dictionary defines as "the practice of obtaining sexual gratification by looking at sexual objects or acts, especially secretly" -- would seem to imply that these unmentionable techniques are sexual in nature and therefore inappropriate. But Tenet can never know if that's the case because he, not being a voyeur, claims never to have seen them. So why bring up voyeurism at all?

A quote from an unidentified lieutenant general in Seymour Hersh's article, "The General's Report," in the June 25 issue of the New Yorker exposes a similar unwillingness to confront scenes of torture. "I don't want to get involved by looking" at photographs and videos of torture, the officer told Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba during the torture investigation at Abu Ghraib, "because what do you do with that information, once you know what they show?"

When babies cover their eyes, they assume the world has disappeared because they can't see it; they think they're invisible too and that the world can't see them. Donald Rumsfeld, in Hersh's article, comes off like an innocent child rubbing his eyes and waking in a world he never made. "My God! Did I authorize putting a bra and underwear on this guy's head and telling him all his buddies knew he was a homosexual?" asks the former Defense secretary. Heck, was it all just a dream?

Maybe the reason members of the Bush administration are reluctant to look at evidence of torture is that if they did, they would be forced to admit that, for them, what happened at Abu Ghraib really wasn't torture. For them, evidently, it was sex, and that's why they won't watch.

It's not like government officials have never come right out and said that. In 2004, Rep. Christopher Shays (R-Conn.) bridged the gap between the painful and the erotic by dismissing the Abu Ghraib abuses as a mere "sex ring": "I've seen what happened at Abu Ghraib, and Abu Ghraib was not torture. It was outrageous, outrageous involvement of National Guard troops who were involved in a sex ring." When asked to clarify, Shays backtracked and dug himself in deeper at the same time. " It was torture because sexual abuse is torture.

This is more about pornography than torture."

Last winter, when an Australian TV network released photos and videos from Abu Ghraib, a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel, speaking for the coalition forces, called the report "unnecessarily provocative." He didn't say the images were wrong or criminal.

Instead of just banning torture outright, as the high school students asked him to do, Bush's new executive order, which purports to be an "interpretation of the Geneva Convention Common Article 3," reduces torture to a series of deviant acts. It dwells on "sexually indecent acts undertaken for the purpose of humiliation, forcing the individual to perform sexual acts or to pose sexually, threatening the individual with sexual mutilation."

It's the exact kind of list you'd expect to find from the kind of people who go on TV and announce to the public that they're not voyeurs. Now that they've defined torture so carefully, it should be much easier for them not to look at it.

A.S. Hamrah is a writer and brand analyst living in Brooklyn, N.Y.

Searching for the Hook: The Hillary Cleavage Flap

A few days ago, Robin Givhan of the Washington Post wrote a breathless little story about Hillary Clinton wearing a top that was cut low enough to allow a brief view of the top of a breast or two. God help us! Cleavage was shown!
The cleavage registered after only a quick glance. No scrunch-faced scrutiny was necessary. There wasn't an unseemly amount of cleavage showing, but there it was. Undeniable.
With Givhan going first on the cleavage story (just mail her Pulitzer to her now), all the other news outlets felt empowered to report on the "controversy" about Givhan's original story. In my opinion, this is an important moment for the mainstream media. The media finally has a gender hook about Hillary that can be interpreted as making her look bad. Actually, the implicit title for the Givhan article is "Hillary Dresses in Bad Taste."

Feminists tend to see this as "focusing on women's bodies" rather than their ideas, character, or experience. But I think what Givhan and her fellow reporters are doing is more insidious. Reporters personally dislike Hillary Clinton just as much as they disliked John Kerry or Al Gore. Or Bill Clinton for that matter. If reporters think of the religious right as too weird to take seriously, they tend to think of Democratic leaders as pretentious stuffed shirts. Or blouses in the case of Hillary Clinton. For the media, the Democrats are not the kind of guys or women you'd want to have a beer or sip a latte with, and they've gone out of their way to pose Republican candidates as fun guys to be with.

John Harward of the Wall Street Journal gets out some of this hostility to the Democrats in his defense of Givhan's story on Meet the Press. Not the comparison with the widely despised Barry Bonds.
When you look ... at the calculation that goes into everything that Hillary Clinton does, for her to argue that she was not aware of what she was communicating by her dress is like Barry Bonds saying he though he was rubbing down with flaxseed oil . . .
Getting to the nitty-gritty, what the mainstream media is trying to do is strip Hillary Clinton down to a symbolic nakedness and "expose" her to the world as an unappealing human being--not the kind of person you'd want to look up to as your president. The underlying idea here is to pose the presidential election of 2008 as a contest between a manly, Reaganesque Republican and a "shrew" or "a bitch" if the Democrat is Hillary Clinton. Of course, the media has been murmuring about Hillary as a "polarizing" figure all along, but they haven't found any kind of hook for illustrating the supposedly unattractive characteristics that make her polarizing. Hillary is "just too damn calculating" for them.

In this context, the cleavage story is the media's first real shot at bringing Hillary Clinton to life as the "Madame Defarge" figure referred to by Chris Matthews.

But it doesn't work.

If anything, the little bit of cleavage tends to confound the memes of Hillary as too smart for her own good, overly calculating, unseemly in her ambition, and too masculine in general. When the media wolves started feeding on the minor exposure of her "female parts," Hillary looked like she was sharing a problem with large numbers of other American women. In other words, she looked like a sympathetic figure.

Not that this failure will stop the media from searching for new illustrations of their stereotypes.

But for this time: Hillary-1, Media stereotypers-0

Bill Walsh--Great Coach, Decent Guy

Bill Walsh, the great coach of the NFL's San Francisco Forty-Niners during the 80's, died today from leukemia.

Walsh was the genius behind the "West Coast Offense," won three Super Bowls, and deserves credit for the two Super Bowls the Niners won under George Seifert. Walsh's coaching disciples are littered through the NFL and most teams still run a version of his passing schemes.

But I'll leave it to the sports writers to write about what a great coach he was.

What I want to focus on here is that Walsh also seemed like a decent guy and was a refreshing contrast to ostentatious assholes like Bill Parcells and Tom Coughlin who also came up during the era of Niner domination.

You have to wonder why it happened, but it was Parcells' bullying and screaming became the model for football coaches at the college, high school, and (at least in Rowan County, KY) middle school levels rather than Walsh's matter-of-fact self-confidence. It's too bad. Walsh was a better coach and a better man than Parcells.

But maybe the trend is moving in the other direction. Tony Dungy, the coach of the Indianapolis Colts, is cut out of the same cloth as Bill Walsh. Football's certainly a violent game but there's no reason why it has to be dominated by assholes and super-assholes.

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Announcing A New Form of Gay Sexuality: Gun Ownership

Now I really wish I'd watched the YouTube presidential debate. Via Michelle Malkin, here's a question about gun control from a guy in Michigan.

"Good evening, America. My name is Jered Townsend from Clio, Michigan,” the YouTube citizen questioner began. “To all the candidates, tell me your position on gun control, as myself and other Americans really want to know if our babies are safe.” Townsend then pulled out his Bushmaster AR-15. “This is my ‘baby,’ purchased under the 1994 gun ban. Please tell me your views. Thank you."

Jered Thompson's relationship with his Bushmaster AR-15 is fundamentally erotic. Sure, Jered might use his gun for hunting. Sure, he might use it for security. But above and beyond everything else, that Bushmaster AR-15 is Jared's "baby." Ooohh. Baby! Baby! Not only that, Jared also thinks that most American gun owners think that way about their guns: ". . . other
Americans really want to know if our babies are safe."

This reminds me of the time that my brother-in-law Charlie came back from a "Court Days" gun show in Mount Sterling, KY talking about the weird kinds of "love" guys had for their guns and I asked one of my classes how many people knew guys who had more affection for their guns than their wives or girlfriends.

Nearly everybody raised their hands.

Which leads us to think a little about sexual orientation. In popular American culture, sexual orientation is considered dichotomously. The fundemantal divide is between heterosexuality and gay sexuality. Of course, "gay" refers most often to heterosexual males but the terms is also used as a cover concept for lesbians, bi-sexuals, and trans-sexuals as well. I think other forms of sexuality that are not heterosexual in any strict sense should be brought under the concept of gayness as well. I'm especially thinking of the male homoeroticism in which all their affection, trust, love, and intimacy is oriented toward other guys even if they have sexual intercourse with women. That stikes me as a form of "gay" sexuality although it's not homosexual.

The same is the case with the sexual relationships that gun owners have with their guns (and other forms of fetishism I guess). Given that their "babies" are their guns, it's hard to see them as heterosexual in the narrow sense we use that term in American society. So, they would have to be gay.

Hmm. I guess there are a lot more gay people than I used to think.