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.