Saturday, December 26, 2009

Running in Place

I'm just so way behind here, and all my excuses are seasonal. Winter is hard and exhausting. Christmas is fun but exhausting. First it was the manic mayhem of shopping and wrapping, the giddy thing of tying endless bows, the ritual trip to the post office with two shopping bags full of presents. This is a luxury I enjoy indulging myself in: having lots of friends and celebrating them at Christmas. (I'm pit when it comes to birthdays.)

Then, a week ago last Friday afternoon, the snow began to fall. By Saturday morning, it had broken all records for the month of December. Talk about having a white Christmas! The night the snow started, nervous about what was coming down the pike and fearful of losing electricity, I pulled a Tarot card. It's first words were, "You are probably experiencing a period of enforced incarceration." I had to spend days digging my way out--shovel shovel, toil and trouble--until Tuesday, when I finally got out with the help of an angel friend, and we made straight for the local cafe so I could have a heavenly mocha.

Shoveling snow is like walking the plank to oblivion. It leaves your muscles and joints rebellious, and makes your brain go dead. Merry everything! So who else is going--and what should I wear?

The next dreck thing that happened is that my friend Fern, who always comes for Christmas from Chicago, got herself a miserable case of shingles in one eye. So I didn't get to give her the alligator-skin cigar holder I was planning as a Christmas gift. (Virgil, my snarky but delightful alligator blogging assistant, is quite happy about this, since he is always disgruntled whenever a compatriot's hide has been misappropriated. But he was quite bummed at not seeing one of his favorite humans.) In the end, Christmas did happen, just not on the right days or with all the right people.

Meanwhile, the good news came that Harry Reid had eked out his sixty votes for the health care bill in the Senate. As one commenter stated on MSNBC's blog FirstRead: "Senator Reid deserves recognition for never giving up, for never backstabbing anyone, for never walking away. It is his maturity, his steadfastness, his willing to listen to all, that will make this legislation possible. Something our government has never been able to accomplish. Hopefully this legislation will get better through the years."

As for the GOP, they have done their damndest to create "Waterloo" for Obama. Now, they will spend the next months trying to prove the bill is unconstitutional, if it does indeed finally pass. It's like doing battle with a plague of mosquitoes. Comments from the two Senate Majority Leaders, Democrat and Republican respectively, sum it up, party on party:

Harry Reid: "Affording to live a healthy life isn't about politics, or partisanship, or polling. It is about people."
Mitch McConnell: "This fight isn't over. My colleagues and I will work to stop this bill from becoming law." McConnell speaks for all Republicans, as they work hard to figure out what is stinking up the refrigerator, never realizing it's them.

But not only them. Liberals like Drew Westen continue their assaults on the Huffington Post, more dreadful and bilious than ever. Westen complains bitterly that Obama has delivered only "half a loaf." (You can read the entire piece on "Leadership, Obama Style: Pretty Speeches and Compromised Values" on HuffPo if you are cheered up by his exemplary discharge of baffled energies):

"I don't honestly know what this president believes. But I believe if he doesn't figure it out soon, start enunciating it, and start fighting for it, he's not only going to give American families hungry for security a series of half-loaves where they could have had full ones, but he's going to set back the Democratic Party and the progressive movement by decades, because the average American is coming to believe that what they're seeing right now is "liberalism," and they don't like what they see. I don't, either....What's they're seeing is weakness, waffling, and wandering through the wilderness without an ideological compass. That's a recipe for going nowhere fast -- but getting there by November."

Funny, but I don't have any problem knowing what Obama believes, and I don't see the multitude of lapses everywhere that Westen does. What I see instead is the constant buzz of mosquitoes, pressing all legislation flat into the ritual symmetry of "last man standing"--and a brutal guarantee "to keep it up at the same rate eight hours per day as long as the demand holds out."

In my humble opinion, ideological compasses are so 20th century anyway. Non-ideological governance is a change I can believe in. I really admire Obama's efforts of trying to govern non-ideologically. It is stimulating and refreshing to me. So how will the health care vote be remembered? Marc Ambinder asks on his blog. "A major victory for the forces of progress? A great moral advance in the history of America? Or the culmination of a scandalous series of secret compromises, backroom deals, and a blind ignorance to public opposition?"

Whatever you happen to believe, there is only one right answer. (Spoken by a Kenneth Lonergan character in "The Starry Message"): "Nobody knows anything. We're all just guessing." I think it behooves us to remember this in our puzzled attempts to understand.

Personally, I would like to wish our president a better decade to come, in his valiant struggle with the great crumbling sandbank that is now our country. As I write this, the snow has pretty much melted away--and the mosquitoes? They, and their dismal absurdities, sadly aren't going anywhere.

Sunday, December 13, 2009

Criticizing Obama: The Debate Continues

Look at our President--he's bowing AGAIN! This time it's to SANTA CLAUS, no less, on the cover of the New Yorker! How obsequious can you get? Obama, some people think, is making America look weak and deferential in the eyes of the world. Well, the eyes sure ARE funny things. If you follow my point for a bit, you'll see just how funny they are.

It seems that my recent post "Why I'm Not a Liberal Anymore" hit some kind of national nerve--a shot that reverberated round the world, in this case, the digital world, which throbs with news night and day. The locusts have moved on to other things, but the firestorm that broke out over the far Left's unrelenting assaults on Obama in the blogisphere, in tandem with the far Right's bludgeoning attacks, is a hot issue for many people. The discussion about whether or not this criticism is justified and necessary, or is mean-spirited and counterproductive, and where to draw the line, continues to rage on. Not only did my original post (thanks to Andrew Sullivan's link) spark off a number of responses from other bloggers, it also became the theme for a discussion on live radio in San Francisco [the Angie Coiro Show at].

So, "If you could see a large-animal trainer mauled in the middle of his or her show, perhaps even killed, would you prefer to see the mauling done by a lion, a tiger, or a bear?" (Multiple-choice question.) "Have you ever been not disappointed by a banana split?" (Answer, yes or no.)
[Hat tip for the questions to "The Interrogative Mind: A Novel" by Padgett Powell]

A good friend in Blacksburg, Bob Walker, who is a writer and photographer, but no friend to Obama, sent me this e-missile after catching up with my blog:

"Obama has never disappointed me, simply because I never expected anything from him. I never expected him to act with genuine integrity, sincerity or honesty. I never expected his actions to be different in any way from the odious G. W. Bush, except in the eloquence with which he bamboozled what ‘s called The Left in America, the dupes, the starry-eyed believers, who are suddenly oh so disappointed to discover that Obama is but one more politician on the make. He’s a lean and handsome, charismatic killer. A warmonger. A man who colludes with financiers to rob the citizens. A man who condones torture in his own administration and refuses to bring to justice the torturers of the Bush regime. Or to stand up to the Wall Street miscreants who looted America. A man whose weak leadership as well as his failure to act with diligence to insure the health of every citizen, allows his party to hand over 40 million new insurees to the health care industry. Smarmy.

"I expected Obama to use the machinery of power to satisfy the financial and corporate interests that own and run the United States of America. I'm not cynical. No man or woman becomes a contender for the White House without first being vetted by the ruling class. The president’s “loyalty rating”, should it ever fall below AAA, gets him one term in office—or a bullet in the head. It’s a system that benefits the few at the top. Obama is only the president, a figurehead....

"Those who claim Obama acts out of fear of appearing weak, or to forestall Republican attacks, are simply clueless. The ruling class is bi-partisan. Obama’s agenda is the agenda of the plutocrats. He’s got his priorities straight and it’s a short list and the needs of the average man and woman are not on that list, though well-timed spin might make it seem otherwise. While studiously ignoring the liberals, Obama acts in the interests of those who put him in power and who will maintain him in power as long as the two know they can be of mutual benefit to one another....

"Obama’s vaunted promises are lies and double-talk. He’s not getting out of Iraq and he’s doubling-up on Pipelineistan because that’s where the money is. Oil and gas reserves in the region are purportedly worth five trillion dollars. If that prospect doesn’t explain to the liberals why we’re in Central Asia, then consider the pluperfect demolition derby called “fighting terrorism” that guarantees obscene profits to the military-industrial complex through never-ending war. Andrew Sullivan’s use of Chuang Tze to validate Obama’s decision-making and thus justify the continuing slaughter in Af-Pak is simply beneath contempt. I've been to the left of the liberals all my life. I'm not leaving."

Move over, make room, Arianna: Bob is here! Venom is alive and well in my sweet home town!

Questions: When does criticism mutate into rancor, and antipathy into malevolent animosity? How does the wooden Buddha walk through fire?

Having given my friend Bob his say, I also want to share some thoughts here that come from a couple of other bloggers, brought to my attention courtesy of Google Alerts. Although neither of these individuals has actually read the commentary above, their remarks felt to me, when I read them, like some kind of synchronistic response. I always love it when the universe puts my blogs together in some brilliant fashion of its own, and the Tao tells me exactly how to go.

"Most of [these critics], let's call them the anti-Obama left, have a few specific and general complaints. Foremost among these is Afghanistan. As many correctly point out, Obama made it fairly clear that he was in favor of continued action in Afghanistan during the campaign...[but] a lot of voters project their own desires and dreams on to Obama, and I think the whole 'peace movement' did this in particular, seeing Obama as some kind of uber-dove candidate....Another complaint...involves corporate power, the two-party system, and Obama being a Republican or some such....

"Most of the objection to the two party system comes from this idea that corporations control both parties through and through. While corporations do have undue influence that needs to be curbed, and probably harshly penalized, I think there is considerable naivete about how they exert influence and to what extent, so much so that the typical account from the anti-Obama left has more in common with a conspiracy theory than with anything resembling reality....There is plenty to be critical about when it comes to corporations, their environmental record, the effects of globalization, and the limits of specific models of capitalism, specifically the free-market fundamentalist model that ruined the economy. But reasonable objections are often overlooked in the annals of article comments and discussion forums in favor of vague, misanthropic tirades against the aesthetic crimes of the modern world." [Full post for this blogger can be found at]

"I just don’t have much patience for people on the left who seem to believe that Obama is a sellout to interests they don’t agree with. All of these arguments seem to have the same form: 'President Obama will not do this thing because he is afraid to stand up to this group.' He is not pushing for the public option because he’s afraid to stand up to Joe Lieberman. He is not ending the war in Afghanistan because he’s afraid Republicans will attack him for it. He didn’t nationalize the big banks because he was afraid of Wall Street. He has not passed financial reform because he’s afraid of Wall Street. The list goes on.
All of those things could be true, but there are other equally plausible explanations for each of them. Take the public option.... Obama detractors argue that had President Obama drawn a line in the sand and refused to accept a bill without a strong public option, a strong public option would be there, but I believe that the Obama administration has a better sense of Congress than the average blogger for the Huffington Post. The probability that a hard public stand for a strong public option would have killed health care reform entirely is greater than zero.

"I am in complete support of criticism of the White House for policies you disagree with. There are plenty of things the White House is doing that I find unsatisfying. A few are infuriating. But I don’t assume that because President Obama is choosing a course that does not match my ideal, he therefore does not share my goals, or that he has abandoned the principles that he espoused during the campaign. People can say what they like, but I’ve pretty much stopped listening to those who go that route." [Full post for this blogger can be found at]

Like I said earlier, eyes are funny things, and calibrating how several people, looking at the same thing, inevitably see something quite different, is one of the primary impulses that drives this blog of mine. I find this phenomenon endlessly fascinating and intriguing. In the meantime, I asked a couple of friends who were visiting me this weekend what they thought about the New Yorker cover. "Oh, it looks like Obama's smiling at Santa Claus and giving him a hearty welcome," one of them said. "Probably because his arrival signals the consumer economy is back in business again."

Wednesday, December 9, 2009

Virgil Crashes the Net

On December 8th, 2009, my blog, virgilspeaks. suddenly went viral. The previous day my net counter (an automatic tabulator that registers the number of "hits" per day) averaged around 12, and had reached a total of about 6,080 for the entire year, or so. Then, within a brief span of 24 hours, that number had tripled, registering at more than 21,000. Over 200 people had written comments to a post called "Why I Am No Longer a Liberal"--many of them thoughtful and responsive, a few of them rude and nasty, and a solid majority supportive of what I had to say.

As someone accustomed to receiving only the occasional comment or two, you could have knocked me over with a feather--except that it wasn't really necessary. I fell over, all by myself. What happened reminded me of something I'd only just read by David Sedaris in the New Yorker; it was about an experience he'd had while swimming in the sea in Maui with his boyfriend, Hugh. A gigantic sea turtle suddenly loomed up between them. It was, in Sedaris's own words, "worth the entire trip, worth my entire life, practically...isn't that what we've all been waiting for?"

I do want to share how this high-impact, "sea turtle" experience suddenly loomed up in my blogging life. When I wrote "Why I'm Not a Liberal Anymore," I incorporated an entry about Taoism lifted from Andrew Sullivan's The Daily Dish, a blog that I admire and read regularly. I decided to e-mail a copy of what I had written to Andrew, thinking he might find it of some interest. (I've sent him things before.) Andrew did write back, just two words: "will link." The next morning when I woke up, there were 51 comments to the blog, waiting on my e-mail--and that was just the beginning.

I've always wanted to start a larger conversation on line via my blog. But now, I feel a little bit like the dancer whose red shoes kept her dancing, even to the point of exhaustion. I'm not quite sure what, exactly, has been set in motion here, but I'd like to respond to some of the comments, and to the points they raise.

Regarding Obama's decision to raise the stakes in Afghanistan, Andre wants to know: "What could possibly be preventing the most powerful man in the world from making the most morally honest decision in the world and ending the war? (Hint: he doesn't want to.)"

Anonymous wrote: "You don't say what you think will be accomplished there by our actions and whether or not they're worth the money and lives we have spent. Without you saying where you stand on the occupation, we'd have no way to know on what basis you're judging the story."

From Blitzkreig Bill: "Um...what about the substance of that offending paragraph from Parenti? [in which Parenti claims Obama escalated the war so as to get himself re-elected in 2012]. "Wouldn't it have been better if more people had called Johnson on Vietnam at the time, rather than 'stand by him' and 'trust him' to do the right thing? If we think Obama is wrong here, shouldn't we say so?"

First off, I don't believe Obama is wrong about the war. As for what I personally think, I've written five posts about the situation in Afghanistan ("Taliban Dreams" 1-5). I invite anyone who is interested to read them on the blog. I definitely reject the notion that Obama is "sending troops into harm's way" (to use the lingo of the day) because he wants to look tough to Republicans, or to win re-election in 2012 at any cost, as Parenti suggests, What I do believe--in a nutshell-- is that our presence there is an unwelcome necessity, at the very least to try to impede jihadists from starting World War III in the Middle East, as part of a strategy to re-instate the 7th-century religious Caliphate of Muslim supremacy across the entire region.

There is a serious threat emanating from Waziristan, the large border area between Afghanistan and Pakistan, a region which is not actually governed by either of those countries. It will require a pincer movement from both sides of the border to corner and then "degrade" the enemy, which is exactly what Obama wants to do. Our military has to maneuver mostly from the Afghanistan side, because the Pakistani government won't allow us to operate in their country--at least, not for now.

Since I do not happen to believe Obama is another Lyndon Johnson, or that he is ignorant of lessons learned in Vietnam, I find myself more in agreement with what (another) Anonymous commenter wrote, namely: "In the environment currently prevailing, it is sheer stupidity not to stand by a man attempting to clear up 30 years of skullfuckery."

That said, I don't think we can afford this war on any level, which is profoundly unfortunate. Obama has called the Taliban and al Qaeda a lethal cancer, and his assessment, in my view, is correct. We are like the cancer patient who has received a deadly diagnosis and who is now facing the prospect of an equally deadly treatment. The treatment could kill us, but so could the disease. However you slice it, either way, this is not a pretty situation, and abusively attacking the unlucky person who has to resolve it on our behalf, by undermining his character and motives, is less than helpful. There is, as I see it, a huge difference between constructive criticism and mean-spirited character abuse.

"Some people on your team are acting like assholes so you're taking your bait and going home?" asks Jonathan. "This is a very odd post," writes pereubu77. "The point seems to be that some on the left have been mean to Obama and so Suzi doesn't want to associate with them anymore, because, I suppose, all liberals should rally around Obama." I do happen to believe that. So kill me.

"The looniest liberals," a Republican writes, "pale in comparison with the wackos in the Republican party." Agreed, but they are still serious troublemakers.

So where are you going from here? Mojo wants to know on his blog, Stinque, which sports the logo "If it smells, we're on it. "A Taoist?" he mockingly asks, as if I had somehow lost my marbles, or never had any to begin with. "Do you have even a fucking clue what you're talking about?"

As a matter of fact,I do. I'm not exactly a Johnny-come-lately to Taoism--having studied Chinese martial arts and sword form with a master teacher every day for ten years. I am also an avid user of the Chinese Book of Changes, the oracular I Ching, a classic manual of Taoism. But I say this knowing it may well turn me into an object of ridicule: this is just one of the hazards of bloggerism gone viral. Once the door is open, anyone can walk in.

So, in response to Joseph Hutchison, who wrote that "My bet is you're not really a Taoist, just a liberal who's sick of True Believers, who are annoying regardless of where they sit on the political spectrum:" Joseph, you're right about the True Believers, but you lose the rest of the bet about me. My Taoism is absolutely kosher.

Monday, December 7, 2009

Why I'm Not a Liberal Anymore

Maybe the initial illuminating moment came when I learned that Tom Hayden, the anti-Vietnam war activist, had removed the Obama bumper sticker from his car. All I know is that I can hardly stand reading the Huffington Post these days. The stuff coming out of "progressive" mouths is all too often on a par with Glenn Beck's abusive rants--both sides (right and left wingers) playing thousand-pound national football with the President as the ball--meaning, kick kick kick, until you bust his dick. This truly makes me sick. (It's meant to be the rhyme from hell.) I think the straw that broke this camel's back was an horrendously ugly and smearing essay Christian Parenti wrote last week, which was published on the Huffington Post after Obama's Afghanistan speech. In what follows, I have compressed into a single, loathsome paragraph his most outrageous statements:

"Like Lyndon Johnson who escalated in Vietnam, Obama lives in mortal fear of being called a wimp by Republicans. To look strong in front of swing voters he will sacrifice the lives of hundreds of US soldiers; allow many more to be horribly maimed; waste a minimum of $30 billion in public money; and in the process kill many thousands of Afghan civilians. It is political theater nothing else. The real purpose of these 300,000 [sic] soldiers is to make Obama look tough as he heads toward the next US presidential election. In short, he used Afghanistan to show that we [sic] was not the soft, meek, scared, pussified, little Democrat portrayed in GOP spin. There is nothing else to Obama's Afghan strategy. Victory in Afghanistan is reelection in 2012. Whatever the outcome, Obama has made it clear: he is willing to kill to get reelected."

Just get me out of here, folks, fast, or I may do something none of us will like--and it won't be standing tiptoe on a misty mountaintop. More likely, I will need to wash my mouth out with soap when I am done. Or else, allow me to use Andrew Sullivan as my personal Listerine instead. Yesterday he wrote on his blog that he is reading Thomas Merton's translations of Chuang Tzu, and offered up this neat little story reminding him, he says, of Obama's governing style, and helping him to understand better how Obama approaches things:

"When we wear out our minds stubbornly clinging to our partial view of things, refusing to see a deeper agreement between this and its complementary opposite, we have what is called "three in the morning".
What is this three in the morning?
A monkey trainer went to his monkeys and told them:
"As regards your chestnuts: you're going to have three cups in the morning and four in the afternoon."
At this they all became angry. So he said: "All right, in that case I will give you four in the morning and three in the afternoon." This time they were satisfied.
The two arrangements were the same in that the number of chestnuts did not change. But in one case the animals were displeased and in the other they were satisfied. The keeper had been willing to change his personal arrrangement in order to meet objective conditions. He lost nothing by it!
The truly wise man, considering both sides of the question without partiality, sees them both in the light of Tao.
This is called following two courses at once."

So, if you're not a liberal anymore, then what are you? a friend asked me. The answer is I'm a Taoist, even though there isn't a political party yet that goes by that name. And now I can add that I'm also "three in the morning"--which means, in considering both sides of a question, I'm willing to follow two different courses at once. And I'm really glad to have a president who is brave enough and willing to do exactly that, too.

Thursday, December 3, 2009

Taliban Dreams (5): Obama's Revolving Door Strategy

I watched Obama's West Point speech the other night on NBC, and the thing that stands out in my mind was the look on John McCain's face afterwards when Brian Williams asked him for a response. You could see he was not all that comfortable about how to answer without trapping himself into defending something he would later regret. McCain liked the ramping up of troops (all too predictably), but not the suggestion of a date when we would leave. "It gives the wrong signal to the enemy." We already know the drill--this is neo-con speak for endless war.

Everybody has been waiting for three months now to hear what Obama would come up with in the face of impossible, no-win choices. The more I think about his declared strategy, the more it comes across as being a revolving door--at least, that's the image that sticks relentlessly in my mind: we're going in faster with more troops, but we're also getting out sooner. At one point Obama even looked straight into the camera and spoke to the Afghan people. "We do not want to occupy your country," he said, and seemed to mean it.

In the McCain view, once you're inside the revolving door of war, you keep going round and round until you "win." The way I see it, for Obama, a revolving door represents a metaphor with more options. If you get out at just the right moment, for instance, you will end up somewhere (i.e. inside the building). But if you stay in too long, you end up back where you started, having missed the exit and having gotten nowhere.

On the one hand, Obama seems like he has thrown Republicans their requisite bone--a "surge" in troops. But on the other, he has significantly dropped from the equation any talk of "staying the course" indefinitely, a la Bush-Cheney, in order to "prevail." Indeed, the words "victory" and "winning" were never used. I have to believe Obama feels, along with General McChrystal, that we somehow still have a decent shot at this "degrading of al Qaeda and the Taliban" and must try to use it--before we can justifiably admit, if we should fail, that the thing was finally not doable. "It's an expensive gamble," says the Democratic senator from Wisconsin, Russ Feingold.

He's right, of course, but the bottom line remains: we cannot allow the Taliban to have a state structure to spread Jihadism throughout the region. This is 'no idle danger," as Obama said, "no hypothetical threat." These are not just a bunch of guys with Kalashnikofs sitting around in caves. "We are in Afghanistan to prevent a cancer from once again spreading throughout that country."

I only wish Obama would have gone further in mapping out this threat, especially for those who would opt for an immediate withdrawal. He needs to educate us better and state the bottom line beyond the bottom line--namely, the real prospect of World War III being ignited in the Middle East by Jihadists in their quest to re-establish a 7th-century Caliphate across the entire Muslim world. After that, the plan is to do the same in Europe. We in America are still the "far enemy," so it may take a while before they get us infidels more fully in their sights. But if Jihadists succeed in regaining control of Afghanistan and then moving on to destablize and overthrow the nuclear-armed government of Pakistan, I fear we will all be staring, not just at the prospect of another 9/11 attack--a mere two cents on the dollar--but at Armageddon.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

No-Win Situations

When I was in my late teens, I had a poet friend whose name was Arthur Gregor, who happened to be a well-connected dude in the art and literary circles of New York. He threw a big party once and invited me to come. I was very excited--until my mother rolled right over it and told me I couldn't go. The reason being that it was totally inappropriate for a young woman to go unaccompanied to a man's apartment. It didn't matter that there would be dozens of other people there. "What if he tries something?" my mother wanted to know.

The truth is that Arthur Gregor would never have "tried something" with me, because he was gay. But I didn't dare tell that to my mother, as it would only have made things much, much worse. My mother was the first person who taught me about no-win situations. And I was definitely afraid of her.

This week I've been thinking a lot about people who make you feel afraid, and people who don't--Sarah Palin falling into the first category, and Barack Obama into the second. Then I happened on a couple of random sentences while reading something: "He's ridiculous, and yet you have to take him very seriously." (Change the "he" in this case to "she.") And, "To be a leader, you have to make them fear you and love you at the same time." That really got me thinking. One thing I can tell you for sure about Sarah Palin is that, like my mother did, she scares me. She's got chutzpah, is punitive, and is on the attack. But she's also got a lot of fans who love her, and her neurotic lust for destruction is gaining the upper hand. In the Huffington Post, Ian Gurwitz confessed that Sarah Palin scares him, too. "She's the anti-Susan Boyle," he wrote. "She's physically appealing. But she can't fucking sing."

Here is a recent statement Palin made to Bill O'Reilly on her qualifications for the presidency (hat tip to The Daily Dish): "I believe that I am [qualified to be president] because I have common sense, and I have, I believe, the values that are reflective of so many other American values. And I believe that what Americans are seeking is not the elitism, the kind of a spinelessness that perhaps is made up for that with some kind of elite Ivy League education and a fact resume that's based on anything but hard work and private sector, free enterprise principles." The last line gets four stars. Three cheers for no education!

Well, to borrow this train of thought, Obama definitely knows how to "sing," and he is also physically appealing, but I am beginning to wonder about his ability to strike fear--and whether or not this matters in public life when you have to make deals and squeeze advantage out of tough negotiations. The verdict on his China trip is that he was too deferential. So far neither the Israelis nor the Mullahs in Iran have paid him much heed. And Republicans act like they are standing on his balls, waving the American flag. This week Obama's approval ratings slipped to just under 50%. It's not the end of the world by any stretch, but I can't help wondering if ultimately, this has anything to do with an absence of the fear factor fulfilling the laws of its being within the presidency.

Mercifully. we don't have suicide bombers over here; however, instead of loaded vests, we use lies as explosives to blow everything up, and believe me, it's working. (Has anyone seen the latest Republican ads against health-care reform?) Fact-checking organizations are working overtime to refute them, and believe me, it's not working. So far, I've never seen our President pound his fist on the table or the podium, demanding to know "Who said that?" or "Who did that?"--and glare at everyone. And I am beginning to wonder if being grown up and socially responsible and self-contained is going to be enough to keep the world from ending in communal failure. I desperately hope the President won't miss his cue, and that one day soon we'll hear the loud crack, as his fist finally meets the table.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Taliban Dreams (4): Political Suicide

I've suggested in previous posts that with regard to Afghanistan and Pakistan, Obama is having to make his moves on an already check-mated board. None of his choices--whether to escalate and "surge," or to de-escalate and withdraw, or to stick with the bare minimum and just contain--have any significant chance of success. In such circumstances, it is unbearable to be the person in charge of sending exhausted soldiers ever more deeply into the jaws of death--and you can see the president wrestling with kaleidoscopic feelings as he paces his cage like a trapped animal, trying to make sense of his rotten choices. Andrew Sullivan put it even more succinctly:

"The awful truth is what 9/11 revealed, and what it was designed to reveal, is that there is nothing we can really do definitively to stop another one." I didn't think it would be possible to sound a bleaker note than my own, but Sullivan manages it. "If you calculate the costs of that evil attack against the financial, moral, and human costs of the fight back," he writes, "9/11 was a fantastic demonstration of the power of asymmetry to destroy the West....Everything that has subsequently transpired has merely deepened that lesson. The U.S. is now bankrupt, trapped in Iraq and Afghanistan for the rest of our lives, unable to prevent the two most potentially dangerous Islamist states, Pakistan and Iran, from getting nukes, morally compromised and hanging on to global support only because of a new president who is even now being assaulted viciously at home for such grievous crimes as trying to give more people access to health insurance." So much for spitball politics and the art of the impossible.

I predict that when the bipartisan attacks explode over Obama's Afghanistan policy, once it has been officially announced, the health care debates will quickly seem like dry catarrh in comparison with a lethal case of swine flu. In other words, when it comes down to "vicious assaults," we ain't seen nothin' yet. "I am told by people I respect that Barack Obama cannot pull out of both Iraq and Afghanistan without becoming a one-term president," Garry Wills writes in the current issue of The New York Review of Books. "The charges from various quarters would be toxic--that he was weak, unpatriotic, sacrificing the sacrifices that have been made, betraying our dead, throwing away all former investments in lives and treasure. All that would indeed be brought against him, and he would have little defense in the quarters where such charges would originate."

What Wills is saying, in so many words, is that for Obama to quit Afghanistan at this stage would be to commit political suicide. Quite simply, it would make him into a one-term president.

"But what justification is there" he asks, "for buying a second presidential term with the lives of hundreds or thousands of young American men and women in the military?...I would rather see him a one-term president than have him pass on another unwinnable war to the person who will follow him in office."

If Obama is already in an implacable "no-win" situation regarding his choices in Afghanistan, the choices facing him right here at home are no less lethal. Wills is suggesting that some leader has to finally break the spell and give the military a break and a chance to recover, and that Obama is the best person to do that. It is unlikely, he thinks, that there will be another president in the foreseeable future with the moral and rhetorical force to talk us out of a foolish commitment that cannot be sustained without shame and defeat. "If it costs him his presidency, what other achievement can match it?" he writes.

Not being one more president willing to kick the can down the road would indeed be a major achievement, I agree. But if the cost of getting ourselves out of these unwinnable wars entails the predictable demise of our president, that is a staggering price to pay--one that, with a challenged Obama out of the picture, could be the final, ruinous checkmate for our country. Even in a world of long shadows, this would be a bitter trade-off. The very prospect makes me twitchy.

Of course there are just as many millions of Americans who have already determined that if Obama DOES decide to pour more troops and resources into Afghanistan--the biggest black hole ever--they will also withdraw their support of him forever. Either way, Obama is now a moving target: America's new scapegoat. Whatever he decides, he stands to lose major support, big time, either way. It's not a pretty picture. The saddest part is, if Obama loses, which seems to be how the internal politics of all this is aligning, every one of us will become a loser as well, right along with him. We have no viable replacement.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Taliban Dreams (3): The Jihadist in Our Midst

There was an amusing cartoon in The New Yorker several weeks ago of a male customer in a shoe store, examining the athletic shoes arrayed in rows along a wall. The shoe groups were sectioned off with labels above them, such as "Running" and "Hiking." The man was studying the final group, which was labeled "Blogging."

If there really were such a thing as blogging shoes, I'd head out and buy myself a pair, because being a blogger definitely makes you feel like you are always racing, away from the last blog and towards the next one, with no end in sight and no one handing out bottles of Gatorade along the way. Unless you decide to give it up and stop blogging altogether, or you happen to die, you will always have to keep slogging on, relentlessly, even when you have no idea what you are going to write about next, which is always the case with me. I'm forever hanging off the side of cliff when it comes to subject matter. Blogging, I can now say from acute personal experience, is a perfect fit for what Ken Wilber (the integral theory guy) calls "Mind Module Practice."

Mind Module practices include any activity (reading, studying, writing, etc.) that expands your ability to take more adequate perspectives. I read an interview in EnlightenmentNext magazine with Terry Patten, a co-author with Wilber of a new book called "Integral Life Practice: A 21st-Century Blueprint for Physical Health, Emotional Balance, Mental Clarity, and Spiritual Awakening," in which Patten says: "You have to be able to take very complex, nuanced perspectives. Sometimes you have to be able to relax and let go of those perspectives. You need the flexibility to meet a moment without any preconceptions, and to be able to generate a framework for understanding and seeing it in a way that's appropriate to the context. Our ability to be that flexible is the fruit of the practice of the Mind Module. Someone who's not actively practicing that process of taking and releasing perspectives misses something core in their whole life."

As mission statement for a blogger like me, this works. I've definitely tried, in the (most recent) case of Afghanistan for instance, to "take and release perspectives," when exploring a very complex situation. I didn't really have another "Taliban Dreams" "Mind-Module" in mind for this week, however, until that lone gunman tragically opened fire inside a medical building at Texas Army Base, Fort Hood, killing thirteen people and wounding thirty. Now everyone is busy searching for a motive.

What would have caused Major Nidal Malik Hasan, a devout Muslim and long-time counselor of soldiers suffering PTSD, to commit such an atrocity, randomly killing men and women preparing to deploy to Afghanistan? NB: it's the same question every American asked after 9/11: "Why do they hate us?" We didn't know the answer back then, and apparently we still haven't figured it out, even now.

Hasan, it seems, had been ordered to deploy in the Middle East, and was allegedly very stressed about it, having developed some sympathy along the way for suicide-bombers. It isn't rocket science to understand that being a devout Muslim and living comfortably in the U.S. while working for the military is one thing. But being mandated by your employer to go out and kill other Muslims--well, that is something that could become nervous-breakdown material. If you are a really devout Muslim, there is no way to cultivate a readiness for that. In fact, Hasan had asked to be discharged.

"Joe Public had no idea of the existence of an angry Mohammed Atta and a determined but patient Ziad Jarrah, both of them products of Jihadism," writes Walid Phares in "The War of Ideas." "In fact, average citizens in the West, including the United States, knew nothing about Jihadism at all." Eight years later, Americans still remain largely ignorant about the motives, intentions, and full reach of Jihadism to spread the word of Allah--not just within the Muslim world, but beyond. The massacre at Fort Hood last week, in terms of people's response, was not perceptibly different from the one immediately after 9/11. Once again, the hunt is on for "a possible motive."

I can remember being absolutely baffled, myself, the day it was reported that Taliban had blown up several huge, ancient, Buddhist statues in Afghanistan. Statues aren't dangerous, I thought; they can't fight. Why would anybody want to attack them? Anyway they're Buddhist, not Christian. I really could not fathom the destructiveness.

What we in the West have so far failed to understand is the total, relentless, and irreversible attitude of Islamic fundamentalism. It is not another ideological vision that can be accommodated under the democratic umbrella of freedom and pluralism. Jihadism, pure and simple, opposes all other viewpoints, worldwide. It wants to dominate the entire planet, destroy the "democratic state" and its political institutions, replacing the Western system of international laws with dar el Islam (house of Islam). Symbols of other religions must be destroyed. Jihadists are willing to kill and die for the idea of reinstating the caliphate as the hub of civilization everywhere.

The way I see it, last week's atrocity brings into sharp focus the pressing need to educate the American public about the true nature of Jihadism. We still cannot fathom, as a people, how a fanatical religious ideology could be more compelling to someone than a life lived in freedom and prosperity. Given this limitation, we have been unable to take the full measure of our enemy. To get to that place will require a massive effort of education and attention. Otherwise all our responses will continue to be shaped, and ultimately doomed, by the same implacable incomprehension of what we are really up against.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

Taliban Dreams (2): Unfathomable Choices

I've watched Barack Obama edge and angle himself out of many tight corners with canny moves, but when it comes to Afghanistan and Pakistan, there are no canny moves. It's the equivalent of playing chess on a board that has already been checkmated, even before you start. Plus, in this case, the board sits on top of an intricate cat's cradle of crossbones and chicken wire--which is to say, a convolution of ideas so self-contradictory and incompatible--where, like tea going into a cup, escape is impossible. Let me try to explain.

By checkmating, I mean: whether we stay in Afghanistan or leave, either way we will end up destablizing the Middle East. All our presence there has really produced so far is a growing, seemingly unstoppable, insurgency; Osama bin Laden has used our occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan to convince potential jihadists that Islam is under attack by the West. On the other hand, even if we now draw down our troops, we also stand to grow the insurgency, as they will quickly close in to fill the gap and declare victory. So we are on a Saint Catherine's wheel, struggling to prevent what our presence there has already made inevitable--and landing, with froglike accuracy, on the same, unrelenting conundrum over and over again. It seems there is simply no right way to invade and transform a Muslim country without becoming a magnet for jihadists and furthering the cause of Islamist extremism.

I was struck by Tom Friedman's conclusions this week in his column in the New York Times. He casts a no-nonsense vote on the question of ramping up or drawing down in Afghanistan, as follows: "We need to be thinking about how to reduce our footprint and our goals there in a responsible way, not dig in deeper."

Friedman then argues that we simply do not have the Afghan partners, the NATO allies, the domestic support, the financial resources or the national interests to justify an enlarged and prolonged nation-building effort in Afghanistan. And he does not see any sign of a moderate Muslim majority ready to take ownership of its own future. So he bemoans having to watch our secretary of state plead with President Karzai to re-do an election that he blatantly stole, or beg intractable Israelis to stop building settlements in Gaza. "It is time to stop subsidizing their nonsense," he writes, like someone who has finally arrived at enlightenment. "Let them all start paying retail for their extremism, not wholesale. Then you'll see involvement...." Friedman claims we no longer have the resources we had when we started the war on terrorism after 9/11 and, even more to the point, we desperately need nation-building at home. "Yes, shrinking down in Afghanistan will create new threats," he says, "but expanding there will, too. I'd rather deal with the new threats with a stronger America." I felt substantially invigorated after reading his piece.

The next day, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof took a similar tack, stating that we have already increased our troop presence in Afghanistan, and the result has not been more stability but more casualties and a stronger insurgency. If the last surge of troops hasn't helped, why will the next one be any diffierent? In Kristof's opinion, building schools would be a better investment, and serve as a counter-force to the influence of all those Islamist madrassas.

Even while many are proposing it is finally time to reduce our footprint in the Middle East, others are arguing the precise opposite, with equal cogency and fervor. Christiane Amanpour, for instance, a highly respected and experienced international CNN correspondent who has been reporting from Afghanistan since 1996, deduces from her many conversations with Afghans on the ground that what they most want, after 30 years of war, is security and the chance to earn a decent living. They also crave release from the threat of more terrorist attacks. The majority want nothing to do with the Taliban, but they fear America will not have the will to stay around long enough to finish the job. Our history in the region has so far not been one of promises kept.

David Brooks also speaks to that same issue in his column this week, "The Tenacity Question." Brooks claims to have called around to a number of smart military experts he knows personally, to get their views on the choices facing the president. What concerns them most of all, it seems, is Obama's level of determination. They are unable to scope out his commitment to this effort, his willingness to persevere through good times and bad. "They do not know," Brooks writes, "if he possesses tenacity, the ability to fixate on a simple conviction and grip it, viscerally and unflinchingly, through complexity and confusion." Obama, they worry, might just prefer addressing the many pressing issues on the home front. Mostly their complaint centers on not being able to get a fundamental read on where the president really stands. (It's the same criticism that has been leveled at Obama's approach to health care reform.) In the matter of Afghanistan, Dick Cheney calls it "dithering"--and a threat to our national security. Brooks and Cheney both consider that Obama may just be deficient when it comes to having core convictions and raw determination.

I think about this a lot, myself. And I am reminded of those Cheyenne warriors I once read about, whose tracks were just so hard to read. They pointed in all directions so you were never quite sure which way to proceed. They preferred to create bafflement in their doings, so they could stay clear of any demands others might make of them. Obama, with his highly strategic basketball skills, is like a twenty-first-century version of that, keeping his intentions partly hidden while he prepares for an action, and keeping opponents at bay, so they can never be quite sure of his next move. It's the basic skill of the martial artist.

"The president is not a strong man." a blogger commented in the Times, responding to David Brooks' article, "I have determined, after supporting the President, that he doesn't really know what he thinks, or what he believes. He is just here, blowing in the wind, this way or that way, whatever happens to be the popular breeze. We can't know where he stands, if he doesn't know, himself." In this view, Obama is quintessentially faint-hearted, unwilling to really stick his neck out.

It's all in the eye of the beholder, as they say, isn't it?

And then there was Sting, wildly singing the president's praises this week, going so far as to claim that he might just be a divine answer to the world's problems. "In many ways, he's sent from God," he joked, "because the world's a mess." But Sting is altogether serious in his belief that Obama is the best leader to navigate the world's problems. "I found him to be genuine, very present, clearly super-smart, and exactly what we need in the world," he was quoted as saying in my local paper this week.

So where, exactly, am I in all of this? Still haunted by the memory of what Osama bin Laden's deputy. Ayman al-Zawahiri, said way back in 2003, about us being in Iraq: "If they withdraw, they will lose everything, and if they stay, they will continue to bleed to death." Given the two choices, which I believe are the ones actually at stake here, I am quite happy not being the person who is charged with making the deadly choice.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Stockpiling Lies and Judas Kisses

Last week, in our monthly salon group, a conversation spontaneously kicked off about the "balloon boy"--the wild story of Richard Heene and his son, Falcon, that had been gripping the media for several days. At that point, it was known that Falcon was not in the balloon, but it had not yet been established that the whole thing was a hoax designed to get the family a gig in a reality TV show. Everyone in my living room that night agreed, however, it was likely that the Heene family had probably made the entire nation their dupe.

Which led us then to an interesting discussion about hoaxes and about what it means to be duped. One saloneer, Bill, told us about how his brother has been making mysterious trips to England for the past year or so. After some Google sleuthing behind the scenes, Bill had discovered his brother was an active member of a psychic organization there that holds seances. He described being nonplussed when his brother asked him if he would like to have a conversation with a former U.S. president. The president in question turned out to be not someone living, but Thomas Jefferson. Bill described how his brother wept when talking about these conversations, and how they have changed his life. So, what do you say to a brother who has become obsessed with having conversations with dead people? Bill wanted to know.

The salon then zoomed on to Bernie Madoff--how did he manage to fool so many people? Did his family know what he was up to? And I brought up my old experience with psychic surgery, which I had witnessed years ago in the Philippines. Did that doctor's hand really penetrate deep inside the woman's stomach and pull out some diseased matter? I was watching him "operate" in his clinic, only about five feet away from the table, and I even took a couple of photographs. It certainly looked legitimate enough and real. But was it a fraud? What is "real" anyway? I have always tended to think that "real" is somehow equivalent to the truth of things. But these days, the truth of things is so hopelessly scrambled, it has become like a collection of useless, mismatched shoes.

Yesterday I woke up to warnings on NPR about counterfeit cures for swine flu being sold all over the Internet. Today it was news of students in Afghanistan protesting the desecration of a Koran by U.S. troops; the accusation was totally denied by the U.S. military, which claims that the event never happened but is a rumor being perpetrated by the Taliban to stir up hatred against the U.S. All summer long we had to endure attempts to derail health care reform by fabricated stories of "death panels," and protests by Medicare recipients demanding that government stay out of health care. These events were followed by two major fraudulent elections, in Iran and Afghanistan. This morning it was a report of toxic dry wall imported from China that is destroying the infrastructure of many houses and undermining owners' health. Everyday we hear about more banks failing, while those that were bailed out are suddenly making outrageous profits again.

I could of course go on and on with examples of the sinister way the world is moving from near nervous breakdown, to nervous breakdown. Whenever I think about what this breakdown might actually look like, it strikes me that maybe it won't be malign buccaneers arriving at the front door in the middle of the night, or global pandemic, or wandering the roads and eating grass. Maybe it will look more like the extinction of truth under a fire-hosing of fraud and deceit: a stockpiling not of nuclear weapons but of treachery, bad faith, lying, double-dealing, hoaxes, and unrelenting dishonesty.

A friend of mine wryly pointed out the other morning over brunch at my favorite restaurant that all my sentences seem to end in apocalypse. Yeah, I agreed, but pessimists tend to be right, although optimists probably live longer. Truth is, I really don't want to live in a world without truth: a world in which every single thing becomes an object of suspici0n. Admittedly, I have trust issues. But what's a girl to do? It just isn't a whole bag of fun watching the human race exterminate itself with a steady stream of Judas kisses.

Saturday, October 17, 2009

Taliban Dreams

Interesting dreams have never been my forte. Usually I'm lost in a foreign land, can't remember the name of my hotel, and so I can't find my way back to where I came from. Sometimes my wallet's gone as well, and I have no money and no ID. Or, I return to where my car is parked, only to find that it's not there. I don't seem ever to have those luminous, revelatory dreams in which you meet up with an archetypal angel, or a Himalayan master who offers helpful advice.

Last night I dreamt I had a brush with the Taliban. I was with a good friend in an apartment building much like the one I grew up in in New York years ago. We knew Taliban were in the neighborhood because we had seen them. Despite the middle-sized green armchair (similar to the ones in my present-day living room) we put up against the door to block their entry, they showed up and managed to capture my friend while I was somehow outside in the hall bathroom. My friend yelled at me to run, and somehow I succeeded in getting on the elevator. "The Taliban are here," I said breathlessly to the elevator man. "Yes, I know,' he answered quietly. I hurried into the street to find help, even while I understood that this was impossible because it was already too late. Then I woke up, shaking.

While the Bush administration was busy conflating the Iraq War with the "war on terror," al Qaeda and the Taliban were busy regrouping and revving up in an ungoverned region on the Afghanistan-Pakistan border, biding time while they watched America bleed its military and its economy over a misbegotten war in Iraq. Recovering at the time, myself, from a serious bout of illness, I spent a lot of time reading books about global Jihad, trying to understand what radical Islam was really about. That was when I learned they actually want more than to get rid of us--to get the West out of Muslim lands. Just as the U.S. wants to establish free-market democracies around the globe, Islamists have a similar ambition for 7th-century Sharia law to gain ascendency worldwide. They despise democracy. As I came to understand the real danger brewing in Waziristan, I would mention it to friends. Invariably I got the same response: "What's Waziristan?" And so I would joke back, "Have you gotten yourself a burka yet?"

Now President Obama has openly designated the border region as "the most dangerous place in the world," and by doing so, risks beating the hornet's nest with a baseball bat. Everyone has become aware of what Waziristan is, but, as a friend pointed out, we have only a not-very-large green armchair at this point with which to defend ourselves. It isn't working. Suicide bombers are currently fanning out all over Pakistan and only 37% of Americans, according to the most recent poll, are in favor of continuing this war.

After the U.S. had driven the Taliban out of Afghanistan, Bush's strategy for the threat emanating from Waziristan was to ignore it, and to rely on his "ally," then President Pervez Musharraf, also commander of the Pakistani army, to keep a lid on the "Islamofascism" breeding in the area. Unfortunately, it was a Faustian bargain, given that Musharaff's success depended on his hands-off policy: namely, we won't bother you if you don't bother us. It was always clear to Musharaff (and to me) that if ever he tried to go after the crowd in Waziristan, death-dealing insurgents would come after him and chop off his head. They would also begin suicide-bombing Pakistan. So, under his live-and-let-live approach, the danger continued to lurk and silently grow, like a toxic tumor in the body of the world. Bush considered the problem solved, and continued his war with the wrong enemy in the wrong place.

Now it seems we are stuck with yet another war--one that requires building a state, defeating the Taliban, defeating al Qaeda, and bringing economic activity to a country where there is none, except for international aid and the production of illegal narcotics. As Rory Stewart--the Scottish-born professor of human rights at Harvard who has lived and worked in Afghanistan--explains in his essay entitled "The Irresistible Illusion," this policy rests on "misleading ideas about moral obligation, our capacity, the strength of our adversaries, the threat posed by Afghanistan, the relations between our different objectives, and the value of a state." Is a centralized state, he wonders, even an appropriate model for a mountainous country with strong ethnic traditions of local self-government and autonomy? Besides, Osama bin Laden (as far as anyone knows) is hiding in Pakistan, a country that does have a strong central state government--one which has already made clear that it won't have its sovereignty violated by us, probably the main reason Osama prefers staying there.

Our attempt to modernize feudal, fundamentalist societies through building democratic nation-states has proved to be a thankless, witless task, especially in the face of adversaries who want, themselves, to remake the world through spectacular acts of terror. Just as technology can't stop climate change, it is proving impossible to stop a world network of terrorists with outposts in regions that no state controls. However, it is equally hard to accept that there are problems at the heart of American security that might have no solution. All of which brings me to precisely the point that I am hardly the first to make: in this new kind of unconventional war that is now being fought, THERE IS NO PROSPECT OF VICTORY. We are not winning now, and we are not going to win in any imagined scenario in the future.

Americans are particularly unwilling to believe that problems are insoluble or that a mission is impossible. Continuing the fight in Afghanistan is as much about the need to avoid being labeled a loser as it is about winning. No politician, as Stewart underscores in his article, wants to be perceived as having underestimated, or failed to address, a terrorist threat; or to write off the blood and treasure that we have already spent. Certainly they do not want to be the one to admit defeat. "The language of modern policy does not help us to declare the limits to our power and capacity; to concede that we can do less than we pretend or that our enemies can do less than we pretend; to confess how little we know about a country like Afghanistan or how little we can predict about its future; or to acknowledge that we might be unwelcome or that our presence might be perceived as illegitimate or that it might make things worse."

Recently I saw a section of the PBS documentary "Obama's War" as shown on Frontline. Stranded in the outer reaches of Afghanistan, our stalwart soldiers there function as "bait." Every day they get up and go out in search of an enemy they almost never get to see. They wander the streets and talk to ragtag bands of Afghans, who look at the them with mildly mocking smiles of curiosity, while the soldiers try to win them over and convince them that we are there to "help." Meanwhile, however, the Taliban have made it clear that anyone seen with the Americans should expect certain death, so I don't see any "Anbar Awakening" (like the one that took place in Iraq) happening in Afghanistan any time soon.

Obama's "Yes We Can" mantra may still be very much a work-in-progress in the U.S., whose final outcome is not yet clear. In Afghanistan, however, I don't think the phrase has much resonance or chemistry. It's more like when Tonto said to the Lone Ranger, "What do you mean 'we,' white man?" In this case, it really doesn't matter that our president is black, because the question still stands.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Rogue Elephants

"Someone on the Huffington Post has invaded your territory," my friend Hakuin told me while I was getting massaged last Sunday. Seeing my perplexed look, she explained that one of their bloggers had used the Thesaurus as the basis of a post about Sarah Palin's forthcoming memoir, "Going Rogue." After searching out the various meanings of "rogue," the writer (whoever it was--I couldn't actually find the piece) declared that if Palin had really understood what the word refers to, she would never have used it as her title.

I was intrigued, and decided to check the situation out on my own. After all, I have the most extraordinary Thesaurus on the planet, acquired about four decades ago when I first began living in London. The book is falling to bits, is without its cover, and its pages have become practically like lace; but I am in love with my Thesaurus-with its Introduction to the original edition, dated 1852, still intact. No other more current Thesaurus I have ever seen is a match for this one, which manages, all on its own, to unfurl whole worlds about almost anything that comes near, and to peel away layers of a situation until it gets you to the core of its truth. So, in case you don't believe me, just test-fly this drop-dead portrait offered up of the former governor of Alaska (who resigned from her job on July 4th) when I investigated "rogue":

"Deceiver, shammer, hypocrite, turncoat, two-timer, trouble-maker, confirmed pathological liar, mythomaniac, fibber, yarn-spinner, imposter, cuckoo in the nest, boaster, bluffer, pretender, charlatan, quack, fake, fraud, phoney, hoodwinker, quick-change artist."

Having read Levi Johnston's tell-all interview in Vanity Fair last month about the vicissitudes of living in the Palin household for almost a year during the campaign period, when he was publicly displayed as Bristol's boyfriend, none of the words above seem forced or contrived or inaccurate. The biggest shocker revealed by Levi in the Vanity Fair piece was that Sarah Palin doesn't even know how to use a gun. So much for the colorful mythology of aerial wolf-hunting--and the cherished image of her racing home from the governor's mansion to grill up mooseburgers for the kids. Not happening. According to Levi, Sarah almost never cooks. On returning from work, she would, often as not, lock herself in her bedroom and soak for an hour in the bathtub. She and Todd, he claimed, did not share the same bedroom. According to Levi, Palin relentlessly tried to persuade him and Bristol to give her their baby, so she could pass it off as one of her own.

But my trusty Thesaurus was not ready to leave it at that. There are still more relevant aspects of "rogue":

"Mischief-maker, little devil, disturber of the peace, bad egg, bully, bad influence, bad example." Remember those infernal campaign rallies when she would insist that Obama palled around with terrorists and would stir the crowds into yelling threats of "Kill him"? It was at that time Sarah Palin seriously began to make herself "public enemy number one"-- a "hell hag, she-devil, wild-cat, tigress." However, once in the animal sphere, I confess it was the term "rogue elephant" that got my attention. The elephant, as everyone knows, is a symbol for the Republican party. A rogue elephant separates from the herd and roams alone, becoming wild and vicious. It will send clouds of dust into the air to signify that it is feeling aggressive. Under Bush, the U.S. government became the rogue elephant of international law and politics. Recently I found this comment by Jack Tworkov, a Polish-American artist born in 1900, that "under Reagan, it's America that has become the greatest danger to the world, not even less than what Hitler was."

It seems as if the panel in Norway who awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to President Obama gave it to him because he has tried to reverse this image of America as a rogue elephant that has become the greatest danger to the world. Depending on what you think, this was a big, or merely a tiny but awkward spritz on those aggressive clouds of dust kicked up by past and present rogue elephants. Obama got the Nobel Peace award not so much for what he has done, according to Robert Fuller in the Huffington Post, but because of who he is: an exemplar of "dignitarian politics." Obama has brought dignity back to the political arena. "Dignitarian politics," Fuller writes, "means not condescending to Americans or citizens of other countries. It means not treating political opponents, whether at home or abroad, with indignity. Globally, Obama's politics of dignity makes Americans safer, in contrast to policies that, by humiliating others, leave us vulnerable to retaliation. .. President Obama understands that part of a strong defense is not giving offense in the first place. He realizes that in an interdependent world, muscular exceptionalism is a losing strategy."

But just as the rogues cheered and howled last week when America failed to win the Olympics for Chicago, only because they thought it was egg on Obama's face, they are now ridiculing his receiving this prestigious award as "no achievement at all." You could almost see Michael Steele's face go green with envy. "Revenge raids" on the President are becoming more and more tiresome, ridiculous, and all too predictable. Even David Brooks, usually one of the few sanguine conservatives out there in the elelphant pack, when asked for his response to the award, said he thought it was "a joke," and proposed that the best thing Obama could do would be to give it back. Maybe he thought kicking up some dust in the panel's faces would be a good way to go. Things have come to a sorry pass when even the honor of receiving the most prestigious international prize in the world is a pretext for launching ever more disrespectful and savage attacks. My friend Ciel put it well when she wrote me that "our country has gone mad: totally madly unhinged."

"From now on," offers scallywag Virgil, "it'll be all about the toxic chemistry between feral, nihilist rogues and the delicious but disliked dignitarians. I suggest you spackle over your despair and just enjoy the manic mayhem. Remember that when God is giddy, she separates the light from the dark, and then does two loads of laundry." While I go do laundry, please read this postscript from

The GOP's New Foreign Policy: Undermine American Diplomacy
Eric Kleefeld | October 2, 2009, 2:04PM

"An interesting pattern has been emerging in the Republican Party's handling of foreign policy: Individual GOP officials are now making a regular point of not only formulating an alternative foreign policy, to be presented to the American people and debated in Congress -- they're acting on it too, and undermining the official White House policies at multiple turns:

• Sen. Jim DeMint (R-SC) is visiting Honduras in order to support the recent military coup against a leftist president, which has been opposed by the Obama administration and all the surrounding countries in the region. (Late Update: DeMint's office says he is not taking sides during his visit to the current Honduran leadership, denying the New York Times reports that this was his intention.)

• Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) will be going to the upcoming climate change conference in Copenhagen, bringing a "Truth Squad" to tell foreign officials there that the American government will not take any action: "Now, I want to make sure that those attending the Copenhagen conference know what is really happening in the United States Senate."

• House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (R-VA) traveled to Israel, where he spoke out against President Obama's opposition to expanded settlements. He also defended Israel on the eviction of two Arab families from a house in east Jerusalem, which had been criticized by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

• Rep. Mark Kirk (R-IL) boasted in June that he told Chinese officials not to trust America's budget numbers. "One of the messages I had -- because we need to build trust and confidence in our number one creditor," said Kirk, "is that the budget numbers that the US government had put forward should not be believed." Since then, he has declared his candidacy for U.S. Senate."

Saturday, October 3, 2009

Weimar Moments (4): Enemies of Humanity

No matter how you slice it, I'm no Jewish mama, but I confess to being worried sick about my boy, our President. To state what I am feeling in the most idiomatic way, I'm absolutely scared shitless he's gonna get killed. Reading Thomas Friedman's column this week in the New York Times did not exactly allay my rampant anxiety, which just happens to be high right now anyway.

In his column, Friedman likened the ugly mood in this country to the one he encountered in Israel in 1995, when he paid a visit to then Prime Minister, Yitzak Rabin. Right-wing extremists were doing all they could to delegitimize Rabin and question his authority, as he moved toward finalizing a peace agreement via the Oslo Accords. The wingers accused him of treason, created pictures of him as a Nazi, and shouted death threats at rallies. Same old, same old, you might think, or wink. Except that shortly after that, Rabin was assassinated.

"The parallels to Israel then and America today turn my stomach," Friedman says. He only chose to write about such an untouchable and unthinkable subject because it disturbs him hugely that, at a time when "we" have such huge problems in this country--the deficit, the recession, health care, unwinnable wars, unemployment, climate change--there is no collective "we" at work anymore trying to solve them. Instead, there are vicious attacks on the President and efforts to delegitimize him coming even from inside the White House by members of Congress--the latest being yet another Republican, Trent Franks from Arizona, who called Obama "an enemy of humanity." The words hang in the air like a funeral wreath. (Later on Franks claimed that he really meant to say "an enemy of unborn humanity.") We now have, according to Friedman, "a permanent presidential campaign that encourages all partisanship, all the time among our leading politicians." It means we can no longer discuss serious issues or make decisions on the basis of our national interest.

For those of us who watch these matters with unaccustomed attention, what is happening can no longer be dismissed as just rude and disrespectful infringements of decency. What we are witnessing, I believe, is nothing less than the unraveling of our government's ability to actually govern. Next will be a full-frontal breakdown of the daylit world we thought we knew. Andrew Sullivan is very concerned about this as well:

"At the same time, you see the right urging a coup, while all but beating a drum for the assassination of the president, an event that would tip this country into a near civil war. In this climate, establishment conservatism for the most part is fanning the flames and pouring on the gasoline.
I always thought it would get worse before it gets better. But I never thought it would get this poisonous this soon," he wrote recently."

Hardly a day goes by that I don't ask myself "What is wrong with us anyway?" It's our one and only last chance (if indeed it isn't too late already) to pull things out of the fire, with a president who finally "gets it," and what are we doing? Trying our damndest to destroy him. And I have to wonder why--why is this happening? How can it be that a fistful of ignoramuses like Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity are able to hold us all hostage with their apish antics, to the point where nothing will grow anymore in our stone civilization? How can they have such a stranglehold on people's minds? I ask myself these questions daily, and then I look for clues under the bed, like Sherlock Holmes. David Brooks claims the Republicans are beholden to this wing of the party because the GOP leadership is "bamboozled." One clue I found as to why arrived yesterday, while I was reading a book called "Straw Dogs" by John Gray, a professor of European thought at the London School of Economics:

"New technologies do more than transmit information. Not only does everyone receive information faster than before, the mood it creates is far more swiftly contagious. The Internet confirms what has long been known--the world is ruled by the power of suggestion." Contagion and hysteria and suggestibility are all magnified by these new communications technologies. "In evolutionary prehistory," Gray states, "consciousness emerged as a side effect of language. Today it is a by-product of the media."
Wow! it's not the economy, stupid. It's hypnosis. These guys are HYPNOTISTS. Sometimes I receive information like this as flaming darts.

I expect we are about as likely to shut down this aspect of our poisoned media as we are likely to stop driving cars. Sometimes I ponder Eckhardt Tolle, and how he sat for two years on park benches (with no job, no home, no socially defined identity), and what he experienced, he claimed, was a state of INTENSE JOY. In the upside down world of today, personally I don't know what to think anymore--everything seems just ever-so-slightly beyond my comprehension. So, by what right do I put forth ideas as a contribution to society's discussion of its life? Rest assured, it's none at all. But I expect I will continue forever to roll my stone to the top of a hill and watch it then roll down the other side, because it seems that this is our fate.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Our Final Evolutionary Exam

What follows here is a text composed of reconstructed reading notes culled from a recent notebook. I noticed that the way they happened to fall together seemed to provide a set of provocative test questions as to whether or not the human race is likely to survive. I would suggest that people reading the questions answer them (giving a single point to each "yes" and to each "no"). Then add up each of the two separate scores, and report the final verdict back to Virgil.

A time of troubles and crisis points can make or break a civilization. At this juncture in history, our major crises--climate change, economic breakdown, and terrorism--can't be managed alone. They are systemic threats that demand global resolutions. Our success will be measured not by money or power, but by resilience: the ability to change and adapt. The line between our personal lives and the world has become ever more permeable. We are in a profound crisis that is going to demand radical changes, and require engagement, action, and personal responsibility. And the outcome is uncertain. Conformity to old ideas is now lethal; only radical rebellion can change the planet when everything that we cherish is under threat. Two hundred years of growth economy has destroyed the "steady state" of the ecosphere. Will we continue to recklessly pillage and not listen to our own warnings?

Democracies have often gone to war with totalitarian states, but never with each other. But is democracy in the U.S. now at war with itself? Democrats always break their word, and Republicans lie to begin with--but they stick to that lie and thus seem more honest. Are compromises crippling? Is compromise beyond a certain point a deal-breaker? Are the balance of forces biased against significant reform?

The essential skill of the next fifty years will be crisis management in an age of limited resources and instability, uncertainty, and unpredictability. These are the ideas on which we must base our policies if we are going to match conditions in the world around us. The qualities needed will be preparedness, readiness, alertness, vigilance, and the ability to teach ourselves to see differently. Do we have these qualities and are we likely to use them?

Can art help? In our compromised world, can art still be a catalyst for change? The economic boom times are over, and capitalism is flat on its face. But art is still trapped in the "dead objects" paradigm: "Damien Hirst's pickled shark nets $17 million in art auction." Changing our ways is proving difficult for mankind. Given the intensity of economic and environmental collapse, can art do anything in this, Barack Obama's, new "age of responsibility" to make itself more relevant? Certainly the path out of the crisis cannot be a return to the status quo. Or can it? The problem is that we do not look at the consequences of our acts until it is too late to deal with them. Will this ever change?

Is the human race a flawed species? Is the human race doomed? Is it fit to survive? Will our proclivities toward greed and fear do us in? Is there still any possibility left for not heading off into utter disaster? Can that "Green New Deal" for the twenty-first century save us, or will the credit crunch, the oil crunch, and the climate crunch lead to collapse? Does humanity have the will to reverse the damage it has done to the world--and is that damage even reversible any more?

Buckminster Fuller: "We are facing our final evolutionary exam."
Ronald Reagan (in 1981): "A trillion dollars would be a stack of thousand-dollar bills 67 miles high."
Norman Mailer (in a letter to his wife, Beatrice, August 8, 1945): "Really, Darling, the vista is horrifying...I believe that to survive the world, cities of tomorrow will be built a mile beneath the earth."
Morris Berman: "I am no longer convinced that the institution of some new paradigm can really save us."
God: "Please don't ask me to come down there."

Applying the American model of freedom and democracy to other cultures and religions outside America has very real limitations. To think otherwise is politically reckless. Anti-Western Islamism has only grown stronger because of our occupation of those lands. We have failed to win in these countries, and we will go on failing to win. Sending more Americans to die will not change that painful reality. Occupations are inherently humiliating. People prefer to run their own affairs. Keeping our troops in Muslim countries is the problem, not the solution. Our motives for being there are seen as suspect and predominantly imperialistic. Would it be better to spend less time on manipulating the world and more on appreciating it?

True or false? Science makes progress, humanity does not.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Weimar Moments (3): White Supremacy Is Out of the Closet!

There was something really strange in the air last week. Former President Jimmy Carter took to the air waves and denounced the vitriolic attacks being launched in President Obama's direction, declaring them mostly driven by racist feelings that an African-American should not be in the White House. Asked about his reaction to Carter's statement, Obama refuted it, saying he did not agree that this is what is motivating people. What is prompting so much unrest, Obama suggested calmly, is a historic, age-old disagreement about the proper size and role of government in people's lives. It's to be expected, he said. It's always been the case, especially over health care. Well, maybe.

But I was mystified, all the same. Not racism? I was feeling like a bit actor in the middle of a movie called "A Perceptual War of the Worlds," spitting against the Waste Land's implacable wind. My mind kept racing back to that memorable moment in August when Barney Frank said to a woman at a health care rally who was screaming in his face about Obama being a Nazi: "What planet are you living on, Madame?"

Hasn't he seen those placards? Is the President sleeping with the enemy? Or maybe a victim of Stockholm Syndrome? I love this man. As do most of the folks I know. I/we want to make sense out of everything he does. But denying the blatant racism? Will he be denying the Holocaust next? Everyone I know is on the edge of their seats about the extremeness of the racial hatred and threats towards Obama now rearing their ugly head:

"I just read your latest blog and printed it out for James," writes my long-time friend, artist, and activist, Margot McLean. She is married to James Hillman (post-Jungian, archetypal psychologist and writer). "Jimmy Carter, who seems to be the only one who is willing to tell it how it is, is absolutely right. It is about racism. It's as clear as black and white...The most frightening thing to me is that everyone seems to want to "move on" about race in this country, but we haven't even entered into facing it yet. How can we move on? As James has said more than once 'Americans always want to move on. It's our psychopathy--ignoring the past. No remorse. No learning.'..James also said when I showed him the protest sign on your latest blog "That's great. At least we can see it. It's much worse when it's hidden."

I slowly began to understand the President's weird response to all the irrefutable race-baiting after reading this cogent commentary by Ta-Nihisi Coates (who happens to be a black man as well), a regular blogger on

"Barack Obama, bourgeois in every way that bourgeois is right and just, will not dance. He tells kids to study--and they seethe. He accepts an apology for an immature act of rudeness--and they go hysterical. He takes his wife out for a date--and their veins bulge. His humanity, his ordinary blackness, is killing them. Dig the audio of his response to Kanye West--the way he says, "He's a jackass." He sounds like one of my brothers. And that's the point, because that's what he is. Barack Obama refuses to be their nigger. And it's driving them crazy."

That's it! I thought. I finally got it. Obama isn't dancing. He refuses to be "their nigger." Wow! This became even more clear on the Sunday talk shows when he was being interviewed. Obama does not intend to let the race-baiters--or the media--pre-empt the conversation about health care and turn it into one about race, or for that matter, about him. Like I've said many times already on this blog, this man's greatest teaching to our species is HOW NOT TO TAKE THE BAIT.

No sooner had I written this, then James Hillman, ever the maverick, e-mailed me his comments. I add them here with gusto:

Dear Suzi,
Mocking the upsurge of the "crazies" and exaggerating their sudden danger to res publica is altogether the wrong move. Exult! Show them off! Don't you see: white supremacy is fully out of the closet. They parade in the nation's capital, announcing their ideas on placards, their hidden hatred and fear and desperation in full view—no longer hidden behind small town sherifs and good old boys at Shriner's conventions and local Lion's clubs of business men, their confederates who murder in the dark and on the sly, burn churches in Mississippi, and drag gays to an ugly death. And, don't forget they do have a grievance: our system has always abused the ignorant and the poor. All their beliefs have capsized: the shibboleths of church honesty, the ideas of free market and equal chance to fulfill the American dream, the loyal breadwinner husband and the faithful wife. It crumbled and they know it; they just don't yet get who's really at fault. They still haven't seen through the hypocrisy of carpetbagging, freebooting capitalism that has been strangling their honest impulses ever since Nixon and Reagan and their cynical cohorts turned them into Republicans, and their religion offered salvation only in another world.

I expect there is a good case to be made that "sunshine is the best disinfectant!" But where is all this headed?

"I think we have two countries," writes my friend Bill Rutherfoord. Certainly that seems to be more and more the case, but surely it is an alarming prospect. How will it end? The closest thing I've found to a meaningful answer comes from an anonymous commenter on the Huffington Post:

"Everyone I know agrees, Obama's problem is his race. The Regressives ain't even trying to cover it up. Obama's biggest endeavor probably won't be health care or the wars. It's going to be leading our country through a cultural change, which will end up either isolating the bigots and their leaders or, the bigots will win--and the Republicans will continue to ruin our country."

Anyone care to place a bet?

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Weimar Moments 2: "Obama Derangement Syndrome"

We delude ourselves in this country if we think we're in the middle of a really nasty debate over health care. What is really happening is some sort of freak phenomenon that somebody has rightly called "Obama Derangement Syndrome." When, inevitably, we find ourselves looking back over all the unsavory events of this frenzied summer of 2009, I think Joe Wilson's disruptive "Liar!" moment will be recognized as the tipping point when (as Frank Rich put it so aptly in last Sunday's New York Times), "the inmates took over the asylum."

Catalyzed by hate, a Republican member of the Senate unexpectedly gives his secret audience an official "thumbs-up"--which declares that it is perfectly acceptable not only to derail the President, but also, by his own dramatic example, to show disrespect to the U.S. government and its institutions. This "liar!" moment was hardly the "spontaneous" welling-up of anger Wilson later proclaimed it to be. It was timed and aimed precisely as the words "undocumented immigrants" passed through the President's lips. And it signaled to all the growing "patriot" brigades out there--those groups whose vision of America is of an exclusively white, Christian country and who protest because "We want our country back!"--that the time has come for concerted, vehement action. The very next day, ordinary people took to the streets in Washington D.C., holding up signs that said "Liar! Liar! Liar! Liar!" affixed to pictures of President Obama. And, believe me, this was only the half of it.

Vicious invectives like these are being attached to political blogs everywhere:

"Nobody is afraid of the CIRCUS CLOWN Community Organizer."
"You're stupid if you take this BIG EARED AFRICAN FREAK seriously."
"Nobody. His stupid smile and his coa-coa skin just doesn't cause UTOPIA anymore."

Such slurs, resounding not just over the Internet but across Cable news and right-wing talk radio as well, are like an apocalyptic plague of locusts descending down upon the human race. They fill one with a tactile sensation of horror: an aspect of so-called "enlightened" society that has gone defiantly feral. And they are not going away any time soon.

The day after reading my previous blog (number one in an ongoing series of "Weimar Moments," which states that "socialist" is the new code word for "nigger"), my friend Jane wrote me:

"Last night I painted late into the wee hours, and I found an Atlanta radio station with Michael Savage, the late-night Rush Limbaugh. "Socialist" was the most composed word he used. He insinuated that Obama would soon gather up the Republican opposition into camps where they wouldn't be heard from again (genocidal maniac) and that he would dilute our national masculinity until, as he put it, we would all soon be "on all fours," praying to Allah...."

"I am hoping that the fearful brains of the furious men and women who see my President as a chimpanzee do not blow too hard with their blind force," she continued. "I am hoping that they do not flatten our landscape. But at the moment it feels like they are huffing and puffing at The White House (literally, protesters all but foaming in D.C. right now, castigating illegal immigrants, pro-choice supporters, gays, blacks, communists, socialists, Muslim sympathizers, god knows what other offenders). My painting is of a languid reclining Buddha with a turbulent indigo river swollen and racing behind him, and a downpour of rain and candy splashing against him. He seems to be enjoying the Candied Monsoon. Nowhere even in the background can you see those D.C. protesters in my painting. They have not gotten as far as this riverbank. They are never going to find some places."

Oh, how I wish my friend Jane was right! As far as I can tell, they are already massing in droves, quite near the riverbank. I've just finished reading the recently published "Intelligence Report" from the Southern Poverty Law Center, whose research indicates a radical resurgence of Klu Klux Klan and white nationalism movements. These groups are composed variously of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, teabaggers, tax protesters, Holocaust deniers, Oathkeepers, "birthers" (who question the legitimacy of Obama's citizenship), Swiftboaters, Survivalists, "Sovereign Citizens" (who declare themselves outside the jurisdiction of the police and the courts), and anti-government "Patriots" (who believe the Feds have set up 1000 internment camps and are storing 30,000 guillotines and caskets for when the government finally declares martial law and moves in on dissenters). Many of them are now banding together via the Internet and forming coalitions. These groups are well-funded and well-organized, and their goal is to push our entire society into a ditch and start a race war.

After their disappearance from public view for nearly a decade, there has been a huge and worrying uptick in these outlaw militia organizations and their propaganda, creating a milieu "where violence is a likely outcome," the report states. On the Oathkeepers' website, for instance, you will find the declaration "We will not fear our government. They will fear us." And should you feel inspired by this, you can purchase a tee-shirt with their logo: "I'm a Right Wing Extremist and Damn Proud of It." (Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night!)

Meanwhile, I seem to have acquired a new blogging companion-in-arms in cyberspace, one Tom Degan. Please dont fail to check out his website, "The Rant," at I am now going to give the steering wheel over to Tom, and let words from his most recent blog finish this post and drive it home:

"The extreme right wing is at the moment having a collective, massive nervous breakdown. They just refuse to accept the nasty little fact that a black guy is now the most powerful human being on the face of the earth - and it is killing them....

Here's what's happening, boys and girls: The "party of Abraham Lincoln" (Imagine that!) has forever been exposed as morally and ethically bankrupt, and they are now in the process of implementing their "scorched earth" policy. In other words, if they have to go down, they have every intention of bringing the rest of us down with them.

If you thought for one minute that the loony right wing had lost all the marbles they could possibly lose - OH, BROTHER! - As the late Al Jolson used to say, "You ain't seen nothin' yet!" ...

Joe Wilson and the nincompoops on the far right have opened a Pandora's Box that may very well prove difficult to close. What they are now doing - consciously or unconsciously - is prompting their brain-dead masses toward violence and intimidation. And let's not forget the untidy little truism that a lot of these folks are armed and dangerous. Who can forget the asshole who showed up outside one of the president's Town Hall meetings in New Hampshire last month with a gun strapped to his leg? My biggest worry is that that little incident is merely a small illustration of worst things to come.

Listen, I really hate to be the bearer of bad tidings here, I really do. But if you can't foresee some kind of Timothy McVeigh-style domestic incident somewhere down the pike, you're a hell of a lot more optimistic than I am. Also, if you are not seriously alarmed by what is now happening to our beloved country, you're not paying attention."

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Weimar Moments

This has been an intense week, to say the least. It was not just the discovery that one of the steel radials on my aerial roof antenna had gone missing, but that after having the house power-washed, I find myself having to kick in the front door just to get inside. Then there were those skin thingies I had removed a couple of days ago. All of it pales, however, and is small potatoes, in comparison to those school kids who were hauled out of classrooms across the country to prevent them from hearing Obama's speech on Tuesday--because their parents think he is Hitler. That really did seem like the last straw in the department of outrageous insults and disrespect that now passes for political life in this country.

But so-called "last straws" at this point have become the unfortunate norm. Not only did Halloween hooligans (disguised as Republican members of Congress) boo the President the following night while he was giving his much-awaited public address to both Houses of Congress and the American public on health care, but one of them, Joe Wilson, shouted at him, saying "You lie!" It seems like we are having ever-escalating examples of what one columnist tagged as "America's very own Weimar moment."

The next morning Wilson mustered a phony apology to the President, but later that day, he used the incident not only to fund-raise on his website, but also to reassert his drivel. "I will not be muzzled," he announced. "I will speak loudly against this risky plan of government takeover of health care and giving health care to illegals." Joe Wilson, it turns out, is a card-carrying member of a White Supremacists group, and also belongs to the Sons of Confederate Veterans, a contemporary offshoot of the KKK. If it were up to Wilson, the Confederate Flag would be flying over the South Carolina State Capitol.

Wilson is now widely known for his absolute contempt for Barack Obama. Two anonymous reader comments I found on the Huffington Post summed it up pretty well, at least for me:

"The bigots of the Republican whites-only world are beside themselves with rage because a black man is in the Oval Office and he isn't there to polish the silverware."
"A black president and a white southern congressman. You do the math. I'm just glad he didn't say, 'You lie, boy.'"

The day after Obama's speech, my friend Liz forwarded me the following letter, written by Lou Pritchett, vice-president of sales and customer development for Proctor & Gamble. It was originally submitted to the New York Times, but did not get published. Now it is circulating in cyberspace, supposedly vetted by a fact-checking site, I've included about two-thirds of the full text.


Dear President Obama:

You are the thirteenth President under whom I have lived and unlike any
of the others, you truly scare me. You scare me because after months of
exposure, I know nothing about you.
You scare me because I do not know how you paid for your expensive Ivy
League education and your upscale lifestyle and housing with no visible
signs of support
You scare me because you did not spend the formative years of youth
growing up in America and culturally you are not an American.
You scare me because you have never run a company or met a payroll.
You scare me because you have never had military experience, thus don't
understand it at its core.
You scare me because you lack humility and 'class', always blaming others.
You scare me because for over half your life you have aligned yourself
with radical extremists who hate America and you refuse to publicly
denounce these radicals who wish to see America fail.
You scare me because you are a cheerleader for the 'blame America'
crowd and deliver this message abroad.
You scare me because you want to change America to a European style
country where the government sector dominates instead of the private sector.
You scare me because you want to replace our health care system with a
government controlled one....
You scare me because your own political party shrinks from challenging
you on your wild and irresponsible spending proposals.
You scare me because you will not openly listen to or even consider
opposing points of view from intelligent people.
You scare me because you falsely believe that you are both omnipotent
and omniscient.
You scare me because the media gives you a free pass on everything you do.
You scare me because you demonize and want to silence the Limbaughs,
Hannitys, O'Relllys and Becks who offer opposing, conservative points of
You scare me because you prefer controlling over governing.
Finally, you scare me because if you serve a second term I will
probably not feel safe in writing a similar letter in 8 years.
Lou Pritchett

Even if this letter were a proven fake, the sentiments expressed in it are bonafide; they are circulating widely on the Internet and on talk-show radio as a matter of course, every day. A short while after reading Lou Pritchett's letter, the same friend forwarded me another article, this one written by a senior writer at Tallahassee Democrat, Gerald Ensley. Ensley identifies the word "socialist" as the new racist slur. It replaces the old "nigger"-word, which it is no longer considered socially acceptable to use. "Socialist" has become code for expressing unrelenting contempt for the black man who was elected President of the United States. "This is hateful, ignorant, racist bile," he writes. Obviously not all people who oppose Obama are racists, he adds, but those people do not use buzzwords like socialist or communist or Nazi. They simply oppose his policies, not the man.

Honestly I wasn't planning to blog about this subject (yet again), until something else put me over the top. Almost immediately after receiving these two e-mails, I happened to read an article in Vanity Fair about the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The essay, by Sam Kashner, was actually more about the huge emotional upheavals undergone by the assassination's embattled chronicler, William Mancheste, in his subsequent relationships with certain members of the Kennedy family, most especially Jackie, who tried to stop the book's publication. "The Death of a President," finally appeared in 1967, and by 1970 had earned more than a million dollars, all of which was donated to the Kennedy library. But it is now out of print. All of which makes for a fascinating story.

However, it was a particular section of Kashner's article that jumped off the page at me, in light of this summer's tea-bagging health-care rallies and the two events (recounted above) of outlandish Obama-bashing that occurred this week. Kashner describes a period when Manchester went back to Dallas, to walk the five-mile motorcade route where Kennedy was killed, and to explore for possible clues to the assassination around the city. What he discovers is that such deep political enmities were simmering in the town that Kennedy had been warned not to make the trip--by people as diverse as Billy Graham and Senator William Fulbright, who both pleaded with him not to go there. Here is the relevant paragraph that made my hair stand on end, and has caused me write this huge, over-sized blog:

"Manchester also discovered that Dallas 'had become the Mecca for medicine-show evangelists...the Minutemen, the John Birch and Patrick Henry Societies, and the headquarters of [ultra-conservative oil billionaire] H.L. Hunt and his activities. In that third year of the Kennedy presidency' Manchester wrote, 'a kind of fever lay over Dallas country. Mad things happened. Huge billboards screamed, 'Impeach Earl Warren.' Jewish stores were smeared with crude swastikas...Radical Right polemics were distributed in public schools; Kennedy's name was booed in classrooms;...a wanted poster with JFK's face on it was circulated...[for allegedly] appointing 'anti-Christians...aliens and known Communists to federal offices.' " That day an ad had appeared in The Dallas Daily News accusing Kennedy of making a secret deal with the Communist Party. When it was shown to the President, he was appalled. He said to Jackie, "Oh, you know, we're heading into nut country today." Shortly after that he was shot.

Yesterday I received a copy of the Southern Poverty Law Center's "Intelligence Report: The Second Wave." The letter which accompanies the report starts off:

"Dear Suzi Gablik,

Nearly a decade after virtually disappearing from public view, the so-called 'Patriot' movement is back. These antigovernment extremists--right-wing militias, 'sovereign citizens,' groups and ideologically driven tax defiers--are being revitalized around the country, and authorities are reporting a disturbing increase in Patriot activities and propaganda....In this issue of the "Intelligence Report," we investigate the recent proliferation of potentially dangerous Patriot groups and examine an alarming new component. Previously, these extremists were motivated mostly by a paranoid hatred of the government. But with a black man now in the White House and high levels of non-white immigration, the movement has been infused with racism. Already we've seen a rash of domestic terrorism incidents largely in response to Obama's election....

Morris Dees, Founder"

I haven't read the report yet, but plan on doing so soon. Even Virgil finds himself at a loss for some kind of worthy punch line to offset the darkness of this blog and close it down. He's just as jumpy today as I am. So I'll let "joetheinformed" have the last word here: "The Republican party needs to be disbanded. They are a disgrace to this country."

"Indeed," Virgil does pipe up. "It's either disband, or take up Tantric Yoga: learn to sublimate those base instincts." The trouble with both of these suggestions is that neither will happen. Growing good human beings is definitely more difficult than growing good asparagus.