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Archive for December, 2010

Merry Christmas

Wishing all of you a merry Christmas.

Especially my beautiful mother.

Wherever you are.

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–*Independent filmmaker Barbie with a can of the wrong ASA film to throw at your freakin’ head.

–*Ambulance-chasing personal injury lawyer Barbie

–*Barbie with septicemia from a hard-to-close wound

–*Video camera Barbie with a real camera stuffed in her decolletage, a doll that allows you to videotape yourself and allows your parents to spy on the baby sitter (she’s admissible in court!)

–*Expert witness against predators Barbie (she’s adorable in court!)

–*Bratz Barbies (she’s easy to pass off as a competing brand)

–*Licensing Barbie (making sure you’re not violating her intellectual property and trademarks)

–*Health care quality control specialist Barbie (making sure you’re out of the hospital in two days)

–*Medical lab tech Barbie (making sure the insurance companies are getting charged for unnecessary procedures)

–*Top 2% Barbie (she’s making 433 times more income than the lowest 50%)

–*Mullet and rat-tail Barbie. She doesn’t need money. She’s got love and smokes.

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A letter from a disgruntled reader*:

Christmas, as you know if you’re a regular Fox News viewer as I am, is under attack. From the streets of Tulsa where holiday parades have been renamed, to Texas classrooms where little girls writing paeans to Jesus are removed from class, to New York City, where some school halls have been decked out with pagan items like menorahs, the battle against the Christian religion has been joined, and the dismantling of our official national religion has begun. You are probably asking yourself, how is it that I, as a Christian, am always being persecuted? Why it’s almost as if somebody gave us a persecution complex!

Everywhere you look these days we suffer religions repression as Christians. We no longer are allowed to say “Merry Christmas” to each other in front of those 1,000 foot Christmas trees at the mall. We are made to feel embarrassed when we hang 200 foot crosses on our skyscrapers in the middle of Manhattan. Our “Merry Christmas” cards are being moved over exactly six inches to the side to make room for “Happy Holiday” cards, or worse, or even something in Hebrew, which has nothing to do with Jesus whatsoever.  If you look hard enough, and by hard enough I mean if you call up numerous churches in the southern states asking specifically of anything out of the ordinary, you are bound to find somebody who writes a blog who claims he was personally persecuted for his religious beliefs.

Things have gotten so far out of hand with political correctness that even the Texas House of Representatives has fallen under the leadership of a well-known Jew. How, you might ask, could this happen at Christmas, the holiday we Protestants invented?

The watchwords for the new age are “diversity” and “multiculturalism.” These used to be innocent words–it simply meant that Christians, Jews, Africans and Muslims could all live freely and celebrate Christmas together. However, something has happened to those innocent words, perhaps something we could associate with the immigration of more non-Christian Mexicans into our country. Diversity now means acknowledging other people’s absurd magical beliefs at a time of year we’re supposed to be acknowledging Jesus’ virgin birth. If you, like me, are a Christian, you know that acknowledging other people this way is impossible and will get you an eternity of having bleeding-eyed Mollochs and fire-farting demons shove torches of flaming pitch into your ass all the way up to breakfast. Obviously, acknowledging other people’s beliefs always means destroying your own.

Think about it. East Berlin would have been no kind of city at all without a big fence to keep everybody in. I like to think of Christmas the same way. A little East Berlin walled off from other cultures with fantastic green and red bows  garlanding the barbed concertina wire.

But you must remember, as a Christian, that as a newly persecuted individual, you are actually in your element. I dug into the library the other night and did a bit of research. There I found a little-known movie called “The Passion of the Christ.” Evidently, Jesus did quite a bit of suffering himself. In fact, there is a long history of people whipping, flagellating, scourging and wearing hairshirts to show their thanks and understanding of Jesus’ sacrifice.

The best way for you to preserve Christmas in the face of this onslaught is to buy a big tree that you can hang lights on. I like to call it a “Defiance Tree.” You can also buy red and green wrapping paper and wrap within them “Defiance Gifts.” Put brightly colored sequencing lights around your house as a signal to everybody that you are angry about the way Christmas has been demonized. Nobody else is likely doing this. Put a nativity scene in front of your house. Nobody is doing that either. Go to Christmas parties and drink lots of eggnog spiked with rum and yell very loudly that the party is likely going to be outlawed soon. And most important, you should watch Fox News at all times, because only this channel is keeping the guttering flame of Christmas alive. That and maybe the fourth hour of the Today show.

Remember: There’s no “Happy holidays” mealy mouthing here! Make an East Berlin of your heart and fight back against the attack on Christmas whenever you can. When we have won back our holiday and our culture, Christmas will go back to being about what it’s always been about in the past:

Fighting with your family.

*Lie!

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I’ve said lots of times that far-right Republicans and Tea Party members likely don’t believe half the things they say. People who use the words “freedom” and “socialism” without clarification, qualification or even subject-verb agreement are merely doing it to stop a conversation, not to get points across. It allows them to stun opponents into mute stupidity, because being against freedom is like being against kittens or puppies or children. Why you could even cry “freedom” if you’re leading people to the gas chamber if you wanted to. Playing victim is a great tactic because it always works, even when you’re using it against uninsured children.

I’m sorry … I used sick children to force you to concede a point. How very Tea Party of me. How about special needs children? Cheryl Ladd in a bikini?

If you try to introduce universal health care policies, something more than two-thirds of the American public have long wanted, you will have to mind being bullied by cretins who insist that this is an “experiment against their liberties.” Never mind that under such a strict view of the Constitution, Medicare, Social Security and the CIA are also “experiments.” Social Security, in fact, is an experiment that provides half the income for 52% of elderly married couples and 72% of elderly unmarried people. That’s a lot of old people depending on government money. This experiment, this “innovation” against your freedom is also providing more than half of the money that your grandparents live on.

So when you see so many vigilante mob members animated about basic freedoms they aren’t losing, you might at least take comfort that they’ll step up for you when there’s an actual threat to the real Constitution, not an apocryphal James Madison quote (like the one about the experiments). You might hope they would defend Wikileaks cables, for example, as an archive of information that, for all its flaws, strengthens freedom of the press, curbs the power of centralized government to protect its own power first and illuminates the misdeeds of our foes and heroes both. It’s unfortunate that the founder has silly anarchist beliefs or hasn’t redacted information that could get people hurt, which is why I’m not a big fan. But his mission is actually an important one for people who claim they want to be politically enfranchised, who yell in the streets that their freedoms are being violated by centralized authority.

Where are these freedom defenders now? Gone huntin’. You’ve got Sarah Palin saying that Wikileaks’ founder Julian Assange is comparable to an Al Qaeda and Taliban leader and his acts “treasonous.” (Never mind that treason applies only to U.S. citizens). Newt Gingrich calls Assange an “enemy combatant.” I pick on these two frauds a lot, but only because they are positioning themselves for the presidency in 2012, and neither has shown real courage to defend the teeth of the Constitution where it’s needed.

There has been a lot of debate about whether Gingrich and Palin are implicitly condoning Assange’s murder by the CIA, but even if they aren’t, other crackpots are. You must savor the irony when you have a loud chorus of so-called patriots and Constitution fundamentalists call for the death of a journalist. Their fundamentalism is suddenly gone, and what’s left is their slave morality.

Perhaps that’s harsh, extremist language to use? Consider that anybody trying to get health insurance to children for the last two years or even trying to get small business owners health insurance subsidies has been compared to Hitler.

Of course, there are some right wingers who see this contradiction in their arguments against Wikileaks, but not nearly enough of them given the way they go into temporal lobe seizure over, say, the public health option. One troubled Tea Party writer flirts with the contradiction with his stance this way: “I’m all for 1st amendment freedoms and the freedom of information act. I am protective and thrilled we are not a secretive and communist society, BUT, there is never an excuse for leaks between to top level officials or heads of state regarding sensitive national security issues.”

You mean, like the Pentagon Papers?

Are you surprised that right wingers show the white feather when it really comes to Constitutional protections? I’m not. I’ve said all along: These people have already shown during the previous administrations their ambivalence about Constitutional protections over and over. Habeas corpus was gutted during the Clinton administration, and there was no groundswell of right wingers coming forward to protect Constitutional freedom. Of course, that ambivalence was nothing compared to the way they let George Bush gut the Constitution. The Patriot Act allowed law enforcement officials to look at what we were taking out of the library. The Iraq War, fought with a huge disinformation campaign and tons of publicly issued debt, was the right wing’s patriotic rallying point. Where was the right wing when George Bush was running up record deficits? Or getting the NSA to spy on us without wiretaps? Even if the right has now been chastened on the war issue, how can they not at least admit that it is the American taxpayer’s bill to pay?

Or let’s talk about their interest in religious freedom. If they really supported it, they’d have to support it for everybody, even for Muslims building mosques in lower Manhattan. Right wingers also take a crap all over separation of powers, too, as Republican legislators did in Oklahoma recently. The Oklahoma legislators said judges could not consider Sharia law (or any other international law) in making decisions, even though it’s never been a threat to the Oklahoma legal system. They didn’t seem to notice how they’d made the mistake of telling the courts what they could and couldn’t do. Separation of powers didn’t cross their minds. The establishment clause of the First Amendment didn’t cross their minds. International business contracts (which Oklahoma dearly needs to diversify its heavily oil-dependent economy) also didn’t cross their minds. No, it was only the bigoted fear of Islam, whose system of religious law has never posed a threat to this heartiest of heartland states.

Of course, there are very consistent Republicans, like the reliable Ron Paul, who deserve much credit for their brave stances against the forces of right-wing conformity, bigotry and alarmism. I know there are moderate Republicans out there who negotiate the ethical problems of government with an open mind and without dogma, but such Republicans are running scared and with few happy exceptions will not confront the bigots, demagogues, culture warriors and superstitious yahoos in their ranks. The fact of the matter is that loud bullying Republican minorities get away with a lot in our public discourse because they can so ably bully the soft-bellied moderates in their own party and through this lever and fulcrum mechanism turn a tiny bit of hate into a lot of hateful action.

Constitutional fundamentalism is a show for these people. Any right thinking person would hold the Park 51 mosque against the right wing they cry about their gun rights. Would hold Wikileaks against the right wing when they shout about how income tax enslaves them. There is a real experiment against liberty going on–the Tea Party experiment. Its adherents want to see how many of you it can fool.

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It’s my birthday this week, and my wife will be taking me out for a fine repast, though she already knocked me out with a great surprise on Saturday night–an evening at Blue Smoke with Argentine nuevo tango master Pablo Ziegler. If you haven’t been introduced to his tango-jazz music, you can check it out here. Imagine the music with a tasty plate of ribs smoked over hickory, and you’ve got the flavor of the evening. Just add, in your mind, a lot of rich white people. OK, maybe a few young Asian aficionados, too. Who knew?

This is too much fun for an old person. Last week, my friend Jenny got several of her friends together for “A Taste of Oaxaca,” replete with quesadillas, mole chicken and a variety of mezcals. A perfect New York party with smart talk, good food, and liquor that alternatively finished like sweet vanilla and an ice pick in the brain. Since I’ve partied so much in the last week, if you include Thanksgiving, I’ve decided to sort of keep my birthday itself low key. I’m going to sleep in and read, and hopefully I’ll get some fiction done before night’s end. Now that I’ve passed 40, I don’t feel the need to throw myself a big party again. OK, maybe not until I’m 50. After the year I’ve had, with so much loss, and yet also so much more to find myself thankful for, I kind of feel like every day is my birthday now.

 

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Sorry for the sparse posting of late. Like many of you, I was enjoying a holiday out of town (going to see an old friend in D.C. for Thanksgiving) and I’ve becoming a bit wary of telling people, perhaps burglars, when I leave the house by blogging about my travels. I have also tried to get a handle on a new writing regime. As much as I love my readers, blogging every day as I used to, even when it’s just stupid, puerile jokes and top 10 lists, has been sapping the strength I should be putting into my fiction. Furthermore, I was also going through something akin to post-coital depression after the election last month. I felt like I had summed up a lot of my feelings on America’s misguided self-mutilation in electing Tea Party members, and I felt I’d succinctly explained my economic point of view. I was a bit spent and didn’t feel the need to hash it all out again.

I’m currently working on a 2011 economic outlook for the magazine I write for.  The news there is pretty dismal–our unemployment problem could continue for years, not because Republicans or Democrats can do anything about it, but because we have years to pay off our debts, both personal and institutional. Americans in saving mode don’t goose GDP forward, and with stagnant growth, unemployment continues. What might help is more government fiscal stimulus. But that’s now become politically impossible because of the national mood and anti-government backlash. In other words, America–your misery is largely your own fault. So make sure and go to the mirror tonight and ask yourself, “Why am I personally hurting the economy? Am I a bad person?” If you feel comforted watching non-financial expert Ralph Reed on CNN telling you what’s really happening, then that’s a perfect place to start looking for your problem.

But I didn’t come here to bitch. I came here to share more music (perhaps you’d prefer it if I bitched). I was digging through some old music files last night and came up with something I recorded in 2007 that I never shared–a guitar piece inspired by John Fahey with lyrics inspired by Huck Finn (which I re-read that year). I had planned on flushing this song down the toilet, but was surprised at how much I still liked it, long and dour as it is. It finds me still trying to negotiate a strange path of Americana, threading a route from folk artists like Fahey to noise artists like LaMonte Young and Sonic Youth. The result seemed to be perfect for a melancholy lyric I’d written about death and the frontier.

So for better or worse, I’m sharing it with you now. It’s called “Where You Dream Tonight.” As always, all the work belongs to yours truly, as if somebody else would claim it.

Where You Dream Tonight
copyright 2007, Eric R. Rasmussen

Where you dream tonight

Is where your heart belongs

Steamer through the mist

Ferry hits the logs

Cannon raise the dead

Stuck two fathoms down

Halo round her head

Waterlogged and drowned

Everything you know

Everything you see

Paddle boats and hacks

None of this is real

Looking through the trees

Tarred and feathered thieves

Is that you and me

Longing to be free?

Carnival in town

Fireworks display

Midgets monkey men

Wonders of the day

Bring your children round

To the river town

Halo round their heads

Thank God that you’re not dead

Image: prozac1 / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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In the 1950s, as the United States slept, its citizens were subject to a highly complex conspiracy. Millions of items were sold to the U.S. public that diverted our attention and changed our cultural discourse. A small group of people made money off of it. It was called the hula hoop.

Why do I call a plastic toy a conspiracy? Because it was a completely useless invention that won approval through a vast chain of social feedback. You probably didn’t need one, but having one excited your brain and offered you the comforts and privileges of connecting with your others in this, our species of social animal. And it’s circular, which makes it a good metaphor for people who chase conspiracies. Today we have Facebook. That, too, is a conspiracy of sorts.

So what does that have to do with the Hadean eruption of U.S. military and state secrets from the bowels of State Department offices onto the Web site Wikileaks? You might say that the site and its founder Julian Assange have also tapped into conspiracies, but if they have, they have also showed us again how banal conspiracies sometimes really are, like hula hoops and Facebook.

Assange’s supporters argue that free flow of information, even secret information, is the most important part of the democratic process. His detractors argue that he’s going to get undercover intelligence assets killed and harm U.S. security. Both sides might agree, however, that a lot of the information he’s released so far is either not new or doesn’t change the conversation much about the big picture. The stuff that has everyone screaming bloody murder is the ugly little details. Horrific sometimes. Embarrassing to certain individuals definitely. And possibly a threat to the lives of intelligence sources, including Afghans, according to Assange’s own former colleagues. Indeed, Assange seems to be the most dangerous to the functionaries. You could argue that he’s not bringing down a big government so much as hurting a lot of little people who participate in it by doing necessary jobs. If a journalist’s job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, we have to ask how much of a fourth estate hero this Pynchonesque Australian really is.

Assange, like the Hula Hoop, is now a meme himself. The first three letters of his name will now pull him up first in a Google search, which means he currently bests Julius Caesar, Julia Roberts and the month of July in popularity. His uploads of classified cables about the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, U.S. diplomatic spying on the United Nations and perhaps even promised revelations about Bank of America could hand our government its most embarrassing intel episode since the 1970s, a series of revelations that included the Pentagon Papers and the Church Committee hearings. If you remember, this is when we found out that the escalation of the Vietnam War was predicated on an attack that didn’t happen.  When we found out the CIA actually spent money not only trying to poison Fidel Castro but also make his beard fall off using poison cigars (nice Freudian, castrating touches). We also found out nastier things about how often the CIA tried to kill foreign leaders it didn’t like very much.

Wikileaks started with bits of the obvious (Pakistan’s intelligence service is not working very hard with the U.S. in Afghanistan ), then moved on to the useful (the Defense Department finally had to admit how high civilian casualties were in Iraq, which gives us more accurate, if ghoulish statistics) and has now, if you believe some pundits, skirted sabotage (the State Department says the site is giving up U.S. intelligence assets and putting lives in danger). And worst of all, the site has confirmed the dirty little secret everybody over the age of 20 should have already known–which is that our government’s diplomatic corps spies on people. (Actually, I have a 20-year-old book on the CIA that might have told you the same thing.) But knowing it is a far cry from having the specifics of it shoved in our faces. And now we supposedly have even a smoking gun to present to Hillary Clinton, who the leaks suggest asked her team at State  to gain information on foreign diplomats in the supposedly off-limits United Nations, including the DNA, fingerprints and iris scans of diplomats from certain African countries. If that weren’t enough, she wanted their frequent flier miles!

Big government intelligence leaks are the kind of things that send journalists into both pink and green epiphanies and ethical quandaries. When you have material on your desk that could ruin or end lives, you have to think twice about how you use it, and that requires experience, insight and judgment. As much of a hero as the picaresqe, buccaneering Julian Assange might be to some in the fourth estate, he’s a problematic hero for many reasons, and he gives pause to a lot of us who might otherwise want to cheer him on.

I’m not talking about the rape accusations made against him by the Swedes. Those need to be thoroughly vetted and examined with great bias against the accusers. No, I’m talking about his own muddled and suspect political philosophies, his understanding of ethics and the flow of information. Assange launched his site a few years ago with a paranoid rant about systems of control, something that reads like a cross between cyberpunk fiction and anarchist Mikhail Bukunin. It’s too shallow to be considered academic, too clinical to be populist, and too paranoid to be considered a statement of journalistic ethics. It reads, in fact, like the kind of blog post you’d find in the underbelly of a Thomas Pynchon appreciation society on Usenet. The distinction between paranoia and self-importance in time becomes a distinction without a difference, and Assange, who now has arrest warrants and Interpol after him and is supposedly hiding somewhere in Britain, seems to believe that the transparency he would confer on others doesn’t apply to him or his case or his Web site. He has, from the beginning, seemed like a man with a persecution complex in search of a persecutor. Finally, he provoked a few enemies into action and has likely fulfilled anti-authoritarian dreams worthy of either Che Guevara or Willy Wonka.

Assange’s manifesto compares the players of government to little nails with twine connecting them. Not every nail is connected, but the power structure as a whole relies on the interlacing thread. By cutting these ties through exposure, Assange hopes to destroy nefarious systems by keeping the players from working together. This idea is anarchist in the sense that Assange believes information and authority are locked naturally in a constant state of mutual negation. His writing, in this one section at least, is very elegant and populist and disinfected of a lot of academic jargon, so you might be forgiven for not seeing how all completely full of crap it is.

For Assange makes the conspiracy theorist’s eternal mistake–he doesn’t see that the thinker is the one spinning the twine. Making the connections between people who may or may not get along, who may or may not be communicating. The secret conspiracy is very often the subjective creation of a person who personalizes complex information. When you look closer, what you see is often not the man behind the curtain but something a lot more prosaic–a government full of individual, siloed fiefdoms whose dukes jealously protect their own self-interest. That’s why the story of Wikileaks has so far been one of messy, embarrassing details, a few tiny conspiracies, a lot of helpful details for historical color and shading, and beyond that a lot of stuff that was mostly already understood. Not warts and all. Just a lot of warts.

We might, in fact, ask why the U.S. even needs a person like Assange to keep it honest when there are plenty of other people out there every day arrogating that glory to themselves. Four years ago, the New York Times found out that the Bush administration was letting the NSA tap the phones of American citizens, overstepping its authority by not asking for permission from the courts. This sorry fact wasn’t revealed by a buccaneer anarchist zip lining through the windows of skyscrapers like Robert DeNiro in Brazil. It was revealed to the press by pissed off insiders with grudges and fiefdoms they didn’t want stepped on. This monolithic system of power, such as it was, exposed itself.

There are countless books on organized complexity theory, if anyone cares to read them, one of my favorites is “A New Kind of Science,” by Stephen Wolfram. Leave aside Wolfram’s computer experiments, and it suffices to say that no complex behavior can be reduced or understood by the simple behavior of its constituent parts. My personal behavior, for example, cannot be predicted or understood by the interactions of my body on a cellular level. When the body reaches a certain level of complexity, it acts according to different rules.

And yet, if you’re an outsider looking in, and you see the beast somehow lumbering forward, backward, up or down, you tend to see it, first as a monster with a will and second as a monster coming FOR YOU. The yarn spinner forgets the fraud of narrative and only takes the information that tells a story, leaving out the rather humdrum information that does not. Assange may or may not understand his role in what he’s looking at. (For a another good example of this, read Matt Taibbi’s ridiculous story on Goldman Sachs in Rolling Stone last year, which lays our entire financial crisis at the feet of Goldman, much the same way idiot right wingers might lay it at the feet of ACORN or Fannie Mae.)

The fact is, big conspiracies are often very much out in the open, like the hula hoop. As much as Assange might fashion himself a new Daniel Ellsberg, there is no “Gulf of Tonkin” incident that is ever going put the Iraq War into perspective. The most horrifying thing about Iraq has always been abundantly clear: Without any evidence of foul play against Saddam Hussein’s regime against our country or proof of his weapons arsenal, and with many newspapers constantly pointing out these facts, Americans went into the country anyway as revenge for 9/11. No smoking gun is ever going to change that. The conspiracy was out in the open. You can make the same arguments about Hitler. There is lots of evidence from the early days of Hitler’s regime to suggest he was going to do exactly what he said he would. The worst thing about abusers of power is sometimes they tell you exactly what they are doing because they want you to think like they do.

If you choose to believe the narrative, however, that the forces of power are working in secret and as one, you do so at your peril. You risk missing information that allows you to make a better judgment. You hurt innocent bystanders, or narrate them into the guilt. It may or may not occur to Julian Assange that there are people who realistically need to work in secret for the greater good, whether it be undercover narcotics officers, CIA assets, Taliban infiltrators, Alan Turing breaking the Enigma Code or scientists working on the Manhattan Project. The greatest thing about the Pentagon Papers, and the reason they were necessary, is that they exposed the wrongness of the policies and ideas behind the Vietnam War and the deception behind them, not that they tried to stop our intelligence agencies from working properly.

If Wikileaks fans are so gleeful about outing all CIA assets everywhere, putting lives in danger to expose the bigger truth about U.S. control, then I wonder if they would run to the defense of Scooter Libby for outing Valerie Plame. Was his indiscretion any different just because he was part of the power structure? Or was his act defensible because the power structure is actually just a lot of competing smaller units?

Part of me still wants to support Assange (and I have to admit I like reading those tasty cables). His many detractors are going to find themselves sooner or later pitting knowledge versus security, and that’s going to be a losing battle in favor of truth. I don’t think the revelations about Hillary Clinton are going to harm the government (or even Hillary Clinton).

And yet  I don’t feel like Assange appreciates the nuances enough, and I feel like in many cases he may have in fact crossed the line with this new brace of intelligence. It would be a political nightmare to actually throw him in jail and bring him to trial, of course, but that’s a political call to make. So why do I feel like the people who would take him into custody might have a better grasp on that irony than he does? To Assange, it just all looks like monsters.

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