Saturday, June 28, 2008

Like I said, still around

Updated Okay, even in the middle of my latest funk, I just couldn't let this one pass. Friday's New York Times reported that
[f]aced with a surge in the number of proposed solar power plants, the federal government has placed a moratorium on new solar projects on public land until it studies their environmental impact, which is expected to take about two years.

The Bureau of Land Management says an extensive environmental study is needed to determine how large solar plants might affect millions of acres it oversees in six Western states - Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Utah.
Proceeding with major projects without considering their environmental impact, bad. Therefore, environmental impact study, good. But, please. The BLM?

This is the agency that in 2005 was found by a Government Accountability Office investigation to be so focused on issuing oil and natural gas exploration permits that the staff didn't have time to pay proper attention to doing the related environmental studies - a problem the agency "solved" by bringing in volunteers to expedite those reviews, "volunteers" who actually were paid consultants to the oil and gas industry.

This is the agency that over the past several years has been so busy giving away leases for oil and gas development, giving control of public lands to private corporations, that it has outstripped the ability of the energy corporations to make use of them: There are now leases covering more than 44 million acres of public lands - with drilling taking place on leases covering about a quarter of that land.

This is the agency that last August simply declared a whole range of oil and gas exploration methods exempt from environmental review by ruling they had no significant impact, even though such "categorical exclusions" had previously been applied to activities such as cutting Christmas trees and picking mushrooms.

This is the agency that continues to grant "exceptions" to terms that had been intended to protect the environment in leases for oil and gas exploitation.

This is the agency that in December proposed opening 1.9 million acres of public lands in Utah, Colorado, and Wyoming for commercial shale oil development.

This is the agency that wants to open 11 million pristine acres in Utah which its own survey labels "roadless" to hundreds of miles of off-road vehicle routes in a first step toward opening many more such routes across the western US, despite the risk to archaeological sites. The Wilderness Society says that
[p]rofessional archaeologists broadly agree that cultural resources are at much greater risk of vandalism, looting, and unintentional damages when located near roads and off-road vehicle routes. ... Although BLM has been working on these off-road vehicle travel plans for nearly six years, the agency has not conducted comprehensive archaeological surveys of the areas in which off-road vehicle routes are proposed, including areas that are known to have cultural resources. As a result, the agency is acting blindly and recklessly and putting the nation’s cultural heritage at risk.
So isn't it just so very moving, so very heart-warming, that this is the agency, this same agency, that gets all touchy-feely about the importance of protecting the environment when renewable energy not yet controlled by major corporations is involved?
[T]he decision to freeze new solar proposals temporarily, reached late last month, has caused widespread concern in the alternative-energy industry, as fledgling solar companies must wait to see if they can realize their hopes of harnessing power from swaths of sun-baked public land, just as the demand for viable alternative energy is accelerating. ...

Photovoltaic solar projects grew by 48 percent in 2007 compared with 2006. Eleven concentrating solar plants are operational in the United States, and 20 are in various stages of planning or permitting, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association [SEIA].
The projects proposed involve something over one million acres of public lands, in contrast to the 11 million acres to be opened to off-road vehicles and the 44 million acres leased to oil and gas giants, with all their "exclusions" and "exceptions." But solar is
"a very young industry, and the majority of us that are involved are young, struggling, hungry companies,” said Lee Wallach of Solel, a solar power company based in California,
and ya know, in a case like that, when it doesn't involve those notable corporate environmental stewards such as Exxon-Mobil, ya just can't be too careful.
“It doesn’t make any sense,” said Holly Gordon, vice president for legislative and regulatory affairs for Ausra, a solar thermal energy company in Palo Alto, Calif.
Actually, Ms. Gordon, if you think it through, it makes perfect sense.

Footnote: A double-whammy for solar energy is looming, as the federal tax breaks afforded for solar energy development will run out the end of this year unless Congress renews them. Without those breaks,
says Rhone Resch of SEIA, no more CSP [concentrating solar power] plants will be built
in the US. CSP plants already in the pipeline would generate 4,000 megawatts of power and the companies planning them already have signed contracts with utilities but the twin loss of leases and tax breaks would be a very serious blow. And be clear: That 4,000Mw does not even include the potential for, and the potential harm by the double-whammy to, the rest of the solar industry.

Updated with the news that on Wednesday, the BLM reversed itself and announced it would continue to accept applications for solar energy projects on public lands.

Updating everything

I said in my very first post at Lotus that "my anger is the only thing that keeps me going." So you might conclude from the paucity of posts of late that I'm no longer angry or at least not as angry as I was. You'd be wrong.

I'm as angry as ever, angry at the butchers and bastards who hold the top positions in government and the economy in so many places, here and abroad; angry at the routine, institutionalized, cruelty inflicted on billions of poor around the world; angry at the renewed acceptability of racism and sexism and other forms of hatred; angry at the selfish and greedy indifference about global warming; angry at the self-centered stupidity and arrogance of too many Americans; angry about the lack of anger in too many places about too many things; angry particularly about the lack of anger among so many of the nominal left, who seem to have both forgotten about Iraq and embraced the Obama-approved FISA bill while giving as an answer to anything and everything, "elect more Democrats" even as those same Democrats betray both promises and principles. (And please don't tell me about "more better Democrats" - Obama was supposed to be the big example of exactly that.)

So the anger is still there. It's the hope that's fading. The hope that things will get better at some point in the visible future. Something over 16 years ago, in the print version of Lotus, I wrote that
[e]ven many professional grouches (like me) are actually unregenerate romantics whose sharp words are honed on the inexplicable, indefensible, yet utterly unshakable conviction that things not only can be but must be better than they are.
I'm not feeling very romantic or very unshakable these days. And when the hope runs low, so does the spirit, so does the energy. The bottom line, the actual reason there has been so little activity here of late, is that I'm approaching my 60th birthday, one of those round numbers of sufficient height to induce a few thoughts of mortality - and I find that I'm not sorry that I won't live to see the world I see coming over the next maybe 40 or 50 years.

In that world I see decreasing freedom, vanishing privacy, and the continued ascendancy of corporate and government power at home, leading to even narrower political options, an economy ever-more divided into haves and have-nots, and continued reversal of the partial progress we have made. I see increasing violence, suffering, and hunger around the world as the impact of global warming starts to really bite, leading to tides of refugees and resource wars over arable land and water - an impact that a few decades further on, even the privileged rich countries of the world will not escape. I see, that is, wider political oppression, increased war, and deepened hunger in a world facing environmental disaster. It's a dark future I see.

The only thing that has kept me from packing it in altogether, I suppose, is that there was only one time before I felt this blue, had this lack of hope, about the future. That was in the mid-1980s, a time when - with full Congressional approval - the US was deploying first-strike nuclear weapons in Europe. I said at that time that I believed that the world had less than an even chance of surviving the century, that is, there was a better than even chance of a nuclear war before the year 2000. Happily, I was wrong.

So maybe I'm wrong now. Still, I can't help but think that maybe I wasn't wrong back then, maybe there really was a better than even chance of a nuclear war - but the world beat the odds because there was enough public opposition both here and abroad to those weapons in particular and nuclear arms in general to force changes in government policy, an opposition that raged across two continents leading to the INF treaty and the destruction of the weapons in question just a few years after they were deployed. And right now I simply don't see that sort of opposition existing. To anything.

So for the moment I'm having some trouble rousing the spirit to splutter and spew my own take on, as I prefer to do, some of the lesser-noted events of the days going by. I keep seeing things that make me say "I should say something about that" but when it comes to actually doing it - I don't.

I'm going to assume I'm just going through another one of my I'm getting pretty damned sick of them low times and the spirit and it's associated energy will re-emerge at some point with sufficient force to overcome the dejection. In the meantime, I'm still here and the, I dunno, 20 or 30 of you who check in from time to time should not despair but should keep your faith despite my faithlessness and carry it on despite my letting it down. And please keep coming back: We all know how encouraging hits can be. And I will be around.

Footnote: There is a good deal of technical information online about those 1980s missiles - called Pershing IIs - and the INF (Intermediate or Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces) Treaty, but you have to search rather hard to find anything about the public resistance here or even in Europe (where opposition was much higher) to their deployment. And much of what you do find is suffused with Cold War crap that accepts all the mainstream premises of the US's purity and Soviet Union's (as it was at the time) perversity. This overview from CNN, precisely because it is less egregious than many I could find, illustrates the bullshit perfectly: As CNN would have it, the anti-nuclear weapons movement consisted of a bunch of well-meaning but naive boobs who were manipulated by the Soviets and a treaty was achieved not because the governments of NATO nations listened to the protests but precisely because they ignored them. A shameful and shameless distortion of history.

As a counterpoint, this is what I wrote at the time to a friend active in a peace group in the UK:
Too much of the discussion has centered on what Reagan said about Gorbachev’s response to Reagan’s reaction to Gorbachev’s initiative, ad infinitum. But in fact, it’s generally acknowledged that Reagan originally made the so-called “zero-zero” proposal with supreme confidence that the USSR would never accept it (Indeed, the Joint Chiefs of Staff signed on to it only after being assured of exactly that.), doing it as a means to blunt the power of the opposition here and in Europe to the cruise and Pershing II. When Gorbachev, for his own domestic political reasons, accepted the idea, the Reaganites squirmed desperately but couldn’t find a way to avoid agreeing to their own proposals.

Which means, bluntly, that it’s the peace movement that’s responsible for whatever good comes out of this treaty, because it was the strength of the peace movement that forced Reagan to make the proposal in the first place, the strength of the peace movement that gave Gorbachev the political opening to accept it, the strength of the peace movement that made it politically impossible for Reagan to dodge reaching an agreement.

They aren’t getting rid of those missiles, we are. You are. I am. [The local peace groups we're involved with are.] The millions more like us in the UK and the US and Belgium and the Netherlands and Germany and Italy are. We. Us. All of us. And I think we damned well should be taking credit for it - loudly.
But of course we didn't. And, if the paucity of historical peace-related material online is any indication, we still don't. So history gets written, it seems, not so much by the winners as by those with the finances and connections to occupy the available historical space. Another reason to be depressed.

Friday, June 20, 2008

Not surprising but still depressing

Updated - Updated Again The FISA "comp-" craven capitulation has passed the House, 293-129.

It now moves to the Senate, where it is expected to pass with equal ease, after which it will be signed by King Shrub, no doubt with fulsome praise for this bipartisan act of betrayal.

"I was only following orders" is about to become a legal defense to civil charges of illegal spying.

I'll put up a link to the roll call as soon as I find one.

Updated with a link to the roll call.

Updated Again with the news that due to the opposition of Sens. Chris Dodd and Russ Feingold, a Senate vote has been put off until after the July 4 recess; it's now scheduled for July 8. There still seems to be little chance of stopping the bill, considering that the vote on cloture was a soul-searing 80-15 to limit debate (neither Clinton nor Obama voted). However, it does provide a tiny opening to build opposition and just like last winter, the longer a vote is put off, the better a chance there is to drag it out until it dies of its own shortcomings. Don't count on it, but a tiny chance is still better than none.

Oh, and by the way, there's this little tidbit:
House Democrats who flipped their votes to support retroactive immunity for telecom companies in last week’s FISA bill took thousands of dollars more from phone companies than Democrats who consistently voted against legislation with an immunity provision, according to an analysis by
Overall, those Dums who voted in favor of telcom immunity received double the contributions from the big three telcoms (Verizon, AT&T and Sprint) than those who voted against it.

Wednesday, June 18, 2008

A tale of scumbags

So here's the word: It seems that House and Senate negotiators are near a deal on a "compromise" bill on FISA, one that Congressional "leaders" are hoping will be voted on very soon, certainly before the July 4 recess. Despite the blather and spin that it is a just oh so wonderful bill that will enable the feds "to track terror suspects overseas while protecting the civil liberties of Americans," this concoction of sewage and idiocy is no compromise at all. It is simply a surrender to the fear-mongering of the right in a (very thinly) disguised form.

The details are not yet clear, at least I'm not aware of anyone who's laid them out, but the essence of this "compro-" there's no way I can choke out that word as a description, the essence of this craven collapse is that instead of, as per the original Senate version, simply granting amnesty to the telcoms for their willing, even eager, participation in blatantly illegal domestic wiretapping and spying, it will be left to federal district court to determine if amnesty will be granted or not. (That according to The Politico, which notes the GOPpers originally wanted the FISC to do it. That change, evidently, is part of the yeah sure, "compromise.") The catch is that, as Glenn Greenwald put it, under either version, District Court or FISC,
[c]ourts are required to immunize telecoms as long as telecoms merely demonstrate that the illegal spying they enabled was requested by the President and was represented to them by the Executive branch to be lawful. Courts will be required to dismiss the lawsuits without any consideration whatsoever of whether these telecom-defendants actually broke the law.
And it is already known that the WHS* supplied the telcoms with just such a representation. The bill talks big about "let the courts decide" but the outcome is predetermined, and the "negotiators" on the bill know it. This bill is no different from playing poker with marked cards while claiming the game is legit because the cards seem okay if you don't look too closely. Which is particularly true when the main Dummycrat mover behind this, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, spent days lying about the proposal, insisting it was not amnesty.

This argument that certification will suffice is being pushed despite the fact that, as Vaughn Walker, the judge overseeing the telcom suits, said in July 2006 in rejecting a motion to dismiss,
AT&T cannot seriously contend that a reasonable entity in its position could have believed that the alleged domestic dragnet was legal.
(Quote via Glenn Greenwald; the full ruling can be found here.)

That is, White House assurances or not, the telcoms had to know that what they were being asked to do was patently illegal. Yet the "compro-" I still can't say it, the new bill in essence says even though they knew it was illegal, the courts must say it's okay 'cause the president said so. That is, the president's word overrules the law. And the telcoms walk. Even though the suits against them are the only remaining way to expose the full extent and nature of the criminality of the Bush gang's illegal spying - the only way precisely because the Democrap-controlled Congress has utterly failed to act - still the telcoms walk. That is what this bill will do.

And there's more: Although immunity has gotten the ink, it's not the only issue. The proposal, apparently, also institutionalizes and makes permanent the sharply increased powers of unrestricted domestic spying allowed under the "Protect America Act," the one with the highly-appropriate acronym PAA, pronounced "pah." Some of those concerns were laid out in a letter sent last week to the House and Senate Democrap leadership by Senators Russ Feingold and Chris Dodd. As they noted, the "comp-" craven surrender is based on the Senate bill the House rejected last winter. The bill
authorizes widespread surveillance involving innocent Americans and does not provide adequate checks and balances to protect their rights. First, it permits the government to come up with its own procedures for deciding who is a target of surveillance, and provides no meaningful consequences if the FISA Court later determines the government’s procedures are not even reasonably designed to wiretap foreigners. Second, even if the government is wiretapping foreigners outside the U.S., those foreigners need not be terrorists, suspected of any wrongdoing, or even be of any specific intelligence interest. That means the government could legally collect all communications between Americans here at home and the rest of the world. Third, the Senate version of the bill failed to prohibit the practice of reverse targeting – namely, wiretapping a person overseas when what the government is really interested in is an American here at home with whom the foreigner is communicating. Fourth, the Senate version of the bill failed to include meaningful privacy protections for the Americans whose communications will be collected in vast new quantities.
(Link via Firedoglake.)

"Vast new quantities" indeed: "Wiretapping" does not mean just phone calls, it means all electronic communication. In fact, Pah!
permitted intelligence agencies to force Google, Yahoo and Microsoft to hand over a copy of every email passing through their systems which lists one non-US recipient. [Emphasis added.]
(Original full article is at this link.)

And again, the misleadership is hoping that this will be a done deal before the July 4 recess. How perfect: Celebrate Independence Day by undermining the Constitution and the rule of law. Terrific.

I cannot possibly even begin to express the utter contempt I feel for those disgusting, asinine, cowering, dung beetles occupying the positions of misleadership among Congressional Democraps. Having just months ago done about the only damned thing they've done right since taking over by refusing to be bullied by the usual "omigod we're all gonna die unless you do this" bullshit and allowing Pah! to expire, and despite having discovered they paid no political price for doing so, they're now preparing to roll over. In fact, they're going out of their way to figure out how they can do it:
Senate Democratic leaders said Tuesday that they would not stand in the way of a compromise overhaul of the 1978 Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA), despite their concerns with the impacts of the sprawling measure. ...

When asked if he would whip his conference to vote against it, [Senate Majority Whip Dick] Durbin said: “I doubt if it’s going to be a caucus position.” ...

[Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid said that he would not ask his members to vote against the bill and that he still had not reviewed the language, pointing out that negotiators have been saying for weeks that they had a deal on the contentious issue.
That is, "we're against it but no way in hell are we going to try to stop it." On the other side of the building,
“We want to pass a bill that will be signed by the president,” [Speaker Nancy Pelosi] said. “And that will happen before we leave for the Fourth of July. So the timing is sometime between now and then. I feel confident that that will happen.”
Why oh why are they doing this? The only reason anyone has suggested - and one I completely agree is the reason - is utter, irredeemable, political cowardice. That the Dimcrats are still so ready to piss their pants at the mere hint of being called "soft on terror" that they are desperate to take FISA off the table, particularly since the authority to spy issued under Pah! will be expiring just about the time the Dumcrats will be nominating Barack Obama. That is, their concern is not with the Constitution, not with reining in the illegal excesses of the Shrub gang, but only with winning elections, with maintaining and expanding their hold on power, on cementing their own sinecures. When civil liberties and privacy come into conflict with that, it's no contest. This isn't even Celtics-Lakers 2008 territory, it's Globetrotters-Generals.

Speaking of Obama, as Kevin Drum asked, where is he? He says he's against the warrantless wiretapping program, but is he going to actually do anything about it? True, he has issued a statement repeating his opposition to immunity and adding this:
When I am president, there will be no more illegal wire-tapping of American citizens; no more national security letters to spy on citizens who are not suspected of a crime; no more tracking citizens who do nothing more than protest a misguided war.
That's all well and good, but will he attach action to his words? Has he at least pledged to leave the campaign trail to vote against the bill? Where is his statement as the presumptive nominee insisting that all Democrats must unite against this piece of crap? Or again does what looks good in the short term in order to win trump everything, including conscience?

The only good news here is that this is, reportedly, not actually a done deal and some have even pushed back against the idea that a deal has been finalized. It still has to gain enough support among the issue's partisans and some on the side of good and light may say it goes too far (which it clearly does) while the reactionaries might prefer to kill it in order to have a club to wield against the Dums and that combined opposition may defeat it. That's an outcome to be desired not only because it will kill the bill but because that club has proved of late to be more of a foam bat and we can hope against hope that it's continued ineffectuality will finally penetrate the dark recesses of the minds of the Congressional misleadership.

Still, there is a bottom line here and that line is that this should be, and for me is, a deal-breaker and I have so informed my Congresscritters. Fail to actively oppose this bill, I have told them, and I will never again contribute to your campaign, work for your campaign, or vote for you. Never. (Not that I have done either of the first two, but they don't know that and I have done the third.) I sincerely hope you do the same. If you're of a mind, you might consider a contribution to a new fund intending to bring pressure on leading Dims on the matter. Glenn Greenwald has info and updates here.

Footnotes: The New York Times, despite having previously given credence to the FISA fear-mongering, ran a decent editorial on the bill on Wednesday. The ACLU has joined with others, including Ron Paul supporters and liberal bloggers, in the Strange Bedfellows coalition to fight this contemptible bill.

*WHS = White House Sociopaths

Tuesday, June 10, 2008


Updated Cross-posted to the Out of Iraq Bloggers Caucus.

I've tried various ways to start this, wanting to make sure that I say what I mean and only what I mean. But I've come to realize that there is no way that will not be misunderstood, either accidentally or deliberately, by some. So I gave up trying to do anything other than say it outright.

I am deeply disturbed by the increasing tendency among "progressives" to adulate all things military, and particularly disturbed by the practice of referring to soldiers routinely as "our heroes" or some similar formulation. Let me be clear here: Soldiers are not "heroes." A "hero" is by definition someone who is in some way extraordinary, remarkable, worthy of emulation. It is at best a risky business to define someone as "extraordinary" simply by virtue of wearing a uniform and in fact it is potentially dangerous as it makes it too easy to slip into the militaristic attitude that what soldiers do goes beyond "necessary evil" or just necessary, beyond even honorable, to admirable, to something to celebrate, an attitude that makes it all to easy to promote additional enlistments, additional weapons, and even additional wars.

The root of this, I'm convinced, is that after years of the constant drumbeat from the right that those on the left are "soft" on "national security," that we aren't "tough enough," not ready enough to "do what's necessary" to "protect our way of life," we increasingly have decided to, if you will, fight on those terms; that is, we have absorbed the idea that we have to prove ourselves on "security" issues by proving that we're "tough."

Our means of doing this, a means that first appeared during the Gulf War, was to declare loudly that "We support the troops!" That was our way into the national security debate, a way to (supposedly) oppose the war while, we declared, supporting the men and women sent to fight it. We would prove that we were as committed to the military and national security as the right, just, well, in a sorta different way.

One less important but still revealing example came on Monday during Jon Stewart's interview with Senator Jim Webb. Most of that interview was a discussion about Webb's bill to expand veteran educational benefits, under which, in return for three years in the military, soldiers would receive four years' tuition at their best state college plus the cost of books, plus a monthly stipend. At one point, when Webb said that the least we can do for our soldiers is give them the chance for "a first-class future," the audience burst into loud applause.

And I thought then, as I have before when this bill was being discussed, would there be any chance, any chance at all, of that same sort of reaction if the same proposal was made on behalf of any other group? What if someone proposed paying for four years of college for, say, firefighters? Or cops? How about volunteers in VISTA (now AmeriCorps VISTA)? Or the Peace Corps? The latter two provide some educational benefits for those who put in their time, but nothing vaguely approaching four fully-paid years of college.

What about publicly-funded continuing education for doctors and nurses? Such continuing education is not only a good idea for health care professionals, it's often a requirement for maintaining their licenses to practice. And certainly having doctors and nurses who are up to date on the best knowledge and practice is beneficial to the public. So why not have public financing of that continuing education?

When it comes down to it, why not have public education, tuition-free, taxpayer-supported public education, right up through four years of college for anyone who can show themselves capable of meeting the educational standards for a college degree? Can you seriously imagine a studio audience bursting into spontaneous, enthusiastic applause for someone seriously proposing such an idea?

Why only soldiers? What does it say about us that the idea of paying soldiers' way through college gets ovations while the idea of anyone else getting the same benefit gets at best quizzical stares if not overt sneering rejections? It says that we regard the work of soldiering as inherently more important, inherently more deserving of praise and reward, than the work of others - and the lives of soldiers as inherently more valuable than the lives of the rest of us. That is the attitude we are buying into.

But if it was only things like veterans' benefits, it might not seem particularly important. I say that despite the fact that the amount of money involved in such benefits is not trivial and Webb's argument that his bill just provides the equivalent of educational benefits given to veterans of World War II is quite misleading: For one thing, many of those soldiers had been drafted "for the duration," so it wasn't automatically a matter of three years and out. For another, the avowed purpose of those World War II benefits was to make up for what those soldiers had lost in regard to their civilian careers as compared to those who had not been in the military. That is, they were to insure that soldiers did not wind up being penalized for having been soldiers. They were not intended to give soldiers a leg up over others (or "a first class future") and they most definitely were not presented as being a reward for military service. But that's what they have become over the years and that's how Webb's bill treats them.

I also want to make abundantly clear in case it's not or is willfully ignored that the benefits being questioned here do not include such as medical care, rehabilitation, and counseling for vets wounded either physically or psychologically. But, yes, veterans benefits are too generous to the extent that they become a reward for being in the military. So I am against Webb's bill and I don't give a damn whether it will affect retention rates or not. I am opposed to it so long as soldiers get singled out for an opportunity for higher education that is becoming increasingly financially impossible for many people.

Even so, again, if that's all there was to it, it might not seem like a great big huge deal. But that's not all there is to it, not when we are trying to lay claim to national security chops by out troop-supporting the right, insisting that we're the ones who really support the troops, we're the ones who really support their brave courageous efforts and we prove it by undaunted adulation, blandly treating, with no hint of hesitation, the phrase "have a lot of courage" and the word "soldier" as synonymous.

So we were the ones who loudly decried the lack of body armor and the lack of reinforced plating on military vehicles, accusing the right of "not supporting the troops" as much as we do because of that failure. But as Mark Twain pointed out in "The War Prayer,"
[i]f you would beseech a blessing upon yourself, beware! lest without intent you invoke a curse upon a neighbor at the same time. If you pray for the blessing of rain upon your crop which needs it, by that act you are possibly praying for a curse upon some neighbor's crop which may not need rain and can be injured by it.
In war, in combat, as long as the soldiers are there, there is an unavoidable trade-off: The more you wish for them to remain safe, the more you are wishing for them to kill others. That is what safety in combat means. The more you wish for them to return safely, the more you are wishing for Iraqis not to. The more you wish life for them, the more you are wishing death for others. The more you wish that American mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, don't suffer the loss of a family member, the more you are wishing that Iraqi mothers, fathers, wives, husbands, sisters, brothers, daughters, sons, do.

So when we express "support for the troops" by demanding we "give them the equipment to do the job" and "then come home safely" rather than simply and solely saying "get them the hell out," we are offering a tacit - and sometimes not so tacit - endorsement of the killing. For the sake of the blessing of safety and life for our soldiers, we are calling down the curse of risk and death on Iraqis. When we declare support in terms of equipment rather than withdrawal, that is what we are endorsing. In war, there is no other way.

Undoubtedly, there are those who are prepared to declare American lives are worth more than Iraqi lives. I am not among them.

The emotional embrace of "our heroes" as some sort of disembodied ideal has policy implications beyond the immediate ones. Within that embrace, and the effects can already be seen in various interviews and commentaries, it becomes easy to absorb, absorb so deeply that one is unaware of it, the idea that a veteran's take on the Iraq war - and by extension, all things military - is inherently more valuable than that of others not by virtue of knowledge or logic or informed comment but simply by virtue of being a veteran. We regarded it (correctly) as a scandal when media outlets used retired generals who were actually Pentagon-trained PR flacks as "experts" on military and foreign policy questions in the runup to the Iraq War - but an overlooked point is that the reason retired generals were so prominent in that number was that their status as military people gave them added credibility in the eyes of many viewers and listeners. In our pursuit of "support the troops," we have fallen prey to that same attitude, one that regards the statements of Iraq War veterans as more valuable, more telling, than those of non-veterans. It even has become fairly common to hear dismissive references to those who "never saw combat." At first, that was a legitimate argument, directed as it was against chickenhawks, those rightwingers who were eager for fights, ready for wars, provided they did not have to take part in them. But increasingly it has been used as an all-purpose putdown, even against those on the left who have criticized soldiers - as, I imagine, it would be directed against me (a non-veteran and a Vietnam-era draft resister) were my voice loud enough to attract the attention.

But the real danger is that as the attitude persists, it distorts our way of thinking, drops a magnet on our moral compass. In a bizarre mirror image of the fanatical right, we refuse to blame soldiers who commit atrocities, or, more exactly, we refuse to acknowledge them. We refuse to blame those who shoot civilians even when the attacks are clearly acts of vengeance; we downplay the war crimes and the routine cruelties; we make excuses for those who shoot the wounded or torture prisoners; even when official Pentagon reports casually mention how a US soldier summarily executed a wounded fighter and shot another wounded, unresisting fighter twice in the back, we pay little notice - and if we do, it's usually to brush off complaints with that all-purpose "you've never been in combat" defense. "These things happen in war," we say.

Yes, they do. And "our heroes" are doing them. Which is, even as the deniers seem incapable of recognizing it, the point. Just as the right tries to blame the individuals and exonerate the hierarchy, we want to blame the hierarchy and exonerate the individuals, to remove all their responsibility for their own actions. That is an idea we were supposed to have rejected nearly 60 years ago; apparently, we haven't.

Soldiers are not heroes. They can be heroes, they can act heroically, they can do heroic things - but the act of putting on a uniform and agreeing to put your conscience in a lockbox for the next so many years does not make your life more important than others, it does not make your opinions and insights more worthy of respect than others, it does not exempt you from moral judgment. It does not make you a hero.

And we should not fall prey to hero-worship.

Footnote: This post from last October touches on a similar theme. Oh, and by the way, STDD/GTHO.

Updated with the note that as of December 27, 2009, there are 95 comments on this post. However, I am going to a new comment system in just a couple of days and it's possible all those comments will be lost. If that happens, my sincere apologies to those who have offered serious commentary, both pro and con. The rest of you, :shrug:.

Wednesday, June 04, 2008

The state of McClellan

Otherwise titled Sympathy for the Devil.

So Scott McClellan has written his "tell-all" book. And, as I’m sure everyone is more than well aware, the all that he tells is not complimentary to the Shrub gang, who have come out in force to denounce him as "disgruntled" and to whine in what McClellan himself described as a coordinated campaign, “this is not the Scott we knew.” Apparently not.

That, however, is not surprising, any more than the right-wing columnist whose “media web question of the day” asked people how they would describe McClellan now, with the choices being capitalist, opportunist, weasel, and rat.

(However, for a so-deeply-warped-it’s-funny take, check out Cliff Kincaid of Accuracy in Media, who, fully embracing the “not the Scott we knew” meme, says McClellan actually was a “useful idiot” for publisher Peter Osnos, who is, it seems, irredeemably evil. The proof of that latter contention is that in the 1960s Osnos worked for I. F. Stone.)

Nor, in fact, was it surprising that the initial response among members of the left was something akin to delight: Here was somebody from Shrub’s inner circle confirming what we’d known all along about both the administration and the media, whose flabby response to the crimes committed by the administration in Iraq and elsewhere was “deferential, complicit” enabling of the propaganda.

Soon, however, an undercurrent or perhaps countercurrent emerged among lefty commentators, and it’s that other current that I wanted to comment on and where my sympathy comes in.

The focus of this second-thinking was that McClellan was a Scotty-come-lately, that he should have said all that he said five or even more years ago, “when it would have really mattered.” We at least imply that he’s a hypocrite: Both Keith Olbermann (in a pretty softball interview with McClellan) and Jon Stewart (interviewing Richard Clarke) made a point of noting that McClellan had criticized Clarke’s first book in much the same language as the White House is directing against McClellan now. (Sidebar: In the course of his more contentious interview with Stewart, McClellan said he had recently apologized to Clarke.)

Some charges go well beyond implications. He’s “still the same,” we say: “a scumbag.” We sneer “what took you so long.” We denounce him as a pariah and accuse him of “trying to wash the blood off his hands and add a chunk of change to his bank account.” We demand he be more contrite (specifically, by giving all the proceeds to wounded Iraq veterans), that he should offer stronger mea culpas, act more guilty, bow and scrape and wear sackcloth and ashes and otherwise make repeated apologies and confessions of personal venality and moral failure which for some would never be loud enough or long enough.

Ultimately, instead of being grateful for and pleased with the distance he’s come, we condemn him for not having come further while at the same time declaring him incapable of doing so.

And frankly, I’m sick of it. I’m sick of that whole attitude. I’m sick seeing sneering dismissal of people going through a process of change on the grounds that they haven’t gone further, faster. I’m sick of seeing people who have come to agree with us in some way getting slammed for not having done it sooner. If it was only Scott McClellan, I doubt I’d feel nearly so strongly, but I’ve seen it over and over again in various times and places and the sheer arrogance of it, coming as it so often does from among those who have not had any sort of personal conversion, who have not had to go through the often-disorienting experience of change, is infuriating.

Change rarely comes easily to any of us and too often does not come at all. In fact, we are remarkably adept at finding ways and reasons to not change, to maintain our current image of ourselves, whatever that image may be. To change in any fundamental way - and ways that affect your loyalties are included here - is to potentially challenge your established way of looking at the world, that is, to challenge the entire way you philosophically orient yourself in, make sense of, the world around you.

Some years ago, a friend wrote to me about some changes he was going through at the time and laid into himself for, he said, “not having the stones” to have done it sooner. I advised him to cut himself some slack, because we as humans are very reluctant to rethink ourselves, possibly from scratch. To do so means facing the terrifying “threat” of change - terrifying because that very change also means a new responsibility: It means becoming responsible not only for what you have been but also for what you are to become. You are, at least to some degree, emotionally and psychologically on your own in a way you may well never have been before.

Scott McClellan, it’s clear, really believed in Bush. He really believed Bush wanted to be “a uniter, not a divider” and that his war in Iraq really was about a desire to bring “change” to the Middle East. Yes, those beliefs were futile, and quickly would have been seen by anyone not involved to be at best foolish.

But McClellan was not uninvolved. He was committed. He was a believer. To get out of that, he had to give up that belief, give up the notions to which he had given his loyalty, had to cash in the emotional investment he had made. And that is never, ever easy.

Change, in fact, usually comes slowly over time unless driven by some dramatic event that penetrates the emotional armor in a way that can’t be ignored - and sometimes it’s slow to come even then. McClellan mentioned such a moment in his interview with Olbermann when he said he was “taken back” and “disillusioned” when Bush told him that he, Bush, had authorized selective leaking of classified NIE information as part the campaign to discredit Joe Wilson.

But as if to prove my point, even in the wake of an avowedly disillusioning experience it's still hard for McClellan to give up the beliefs entirely and you can still sense traces of it in his words. For example, in his interview with Stewart, he said
I still have personal affection for the president. But you’ve got to separate your personal affection from his actions and deeds and I was able to do that when I stepped out of that White House bubble.
Note the key phrase: “When I stepped out of that White House bubble.” Some distance, some perspective, yielding some insight. But even now, in that quote, you can sense signs of a lingering emotional commitment, as if he's still clinging to the notion that in other circumstances, surrounded by people other than Rove and Libby and Cheney, Bush could have been the uniting, bipartisan figure McClellan imagined him being as president. Change, again, rarely comes easily.

But even after allowing for that, the fact remains that Scott McClellan has moved. He has shifted. He has gained some perspective. Even though that shift is not what it could be or should be, even though it happened only now instead of then, it does exist, it did happen. It exists to the point where he left open the possibility that he would vote for Barack Obama. Yes, that remark might have been purely political, a simple reversion to the say-nothing statements at which any press secretary is adept. But seeing how easily he could have said that he’s still a Republican, still believes in the principles of the party, and so is supporting John McCain because he believes McCain can fulfill that promise of “reaching across the aisle” that he’d hoped to see from Bush, leaving open the option of Obama is worthy of note. Scott McClellan, a member of George Bush’s inner circle, has moved toward us. Even if not very far, it is still toward us. We should be glad.

But some among us are not. For some among us, that shift is not good enough. For some among us, it could never be good enough. Indeed, I suspect that some among us would have preferred that it hadn’t happened at all, some who would prefer that all enemies remain all enemies and regard anything less than absolute total conversion as proof of deception - and so see McClellan as, again, “still the same.” There are among us, in short, people who hear McClellan say, albeit indirectly but still in essence, “you were right” and respond with “yeah, who the fuck cares what you think, bozo?”

But that is nothing more than moral condescension, merely an excuse to declare our insight deeper, our ethics higher, our humanity superior; and even to the extent that is true, which it is, it still becomes a masturbatory ego trip when directed against someone who has taken a step in our direction, an ego trip which, as satisfying as it might feel, ultimately makes it harder for them to continue to move toward us because to the degree they look to us to that same degree they see dismissal and rejection.

What should we do instead? How about focusing on what McClellan said, on his admissions and acknowledgments, instead trying to show how clever and worldly we are by sussing out his moral shortcomings. How about an attitude of “we’re glad you’ve finally wised up, that you’ve finally gained enough perspective to see there was truth to our words. We won’t refrain from criticizing you where differences remain (and they surely do) but we welcome your growth and hope that this will lead you to reconsider other issues and attitudes as well.”

Ultimately, what has happened is that on a couple of points and admittedly without a direct admission of it, Scott McClellan has surrendered to us. And I wonder about people who seem determined to not accept that surrender.
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