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Archive for the ‘Global Affairs’ Category

My wife and I finally switched off our cable for good the other day. I could use this column to reflect on all the fun that I had with the now antiquated concept of cable TV–the place where I discovered music videos, Tony Soprano, meerkats, Wolf Blitzer’s beard, Jennifer Jason Leigh’s breasts, Suze Orman’s teeth and, back in the early days, practically non-stop viewing of the Kris Kristofferson’s film Convoy.

And yet I feel like what I’m saying goodbye to now ought not to be called cable but simply “The Kardashian Box.” The fundamental problem with cable is the illusion of choice: It was supposed to give us thousands of channels, and perhaps offer us a peek into different languages, religions, histories, cultures, entire libraries of film (old movies, new movies, lost movies and perhaps even the 90% of independent movies that don’t get distributors). That’s not even to mention the sports. Instead, cable has become a brand-building machine–an entablature of pretty faced caryatids with fake boobs who sell us and perfumes and young adult books and predatory lending scams and those death traps called “cars.” The Kardashian Box has organized into a few repeated themes–nostalgia (TV Land), masturbation (Cinemax), death drive (the CBS weekend cop shows, and I guess the increasingly aggressive nightly news programs, too) and fetish object (QVC and Snooki). Because the audience is hard to corral otherwise, my one-time favorite movie channels are now showing cheap reality TV and reruns to keep their overhead down and still showing more ads than broadcast TV. Why in the hell am I paying for this?

And there is probably no better time to get rid of cable than now, when America has seemingly become enthralled by the tax-revenue-consuming capers of a monarchy we rejected 235 years ago. “Could Kate Middleton be the new Diana?” ask the journalists as they run down the street chasing Prince William’s bride and miss the irony. If you have ever seen Bernardo Bertolucci’s film “The Spider’s Strategem,” perhaps you have a sick feeling like I do when Jane Seymour and her blinding dentition come onscreen with more Royal news. The Bertolucci movie was about a man who was trying to escape his family’s history and for his efforts found himself increasingly enmeshed in it. So, too, do I shudder at watching the press build up another couple of people they can later tear down. The viewers, of course, aren’t stupid. At this point, they likely know how the dirty game works. They’ve torn down Britney, Lindsay, Miley and Barney (OK, maybe not Barney). A lot of them have given it up this game and stopped watching. Others, however, still need the comfort of seeing the accident happen over and over. Fetish. Death drive. Deliverance. Stasis. Digestion. Bathroom break.

Perhaps nothing is as telling in the royal wedding phenomenon as the fascination with clothing, traditions,  supporting characters. The identity of the dressmaker is shrouded in secrecy until we find an appropriate moment to invade his or her privacy. We are schooled in the finer points of heraldry and learn the difference between a lozenge and an escutcheon, a party per pale and a party per saltire and other details of the bridal panoply. For good measure we invite the ghostly visitation of one departed player whose spectral, Pre-Raphaelite vacuousness haunts us as certainly as Hamlet’s father: Yes, SHE is back. We are asked if the couple’s first female child will be called Diana. We are shown split screen comparisons of old bride and new. A news story breaks that William will use his mother’s sapphire engagement ring. Kate’s Libelula dress is compared with Diana’s Emanuel dress. The old video is shown. … And then, as James Frazer predicted in The Golden Bough, the “Killing of the King” process begins anew as new bride supplants old in a form of psychological ritual murder (OK, sorry, just riffing there).

In a way, life has come full circle, because the Royals were reality TV before there was such a thing. Henry VIII’s exploits were fodder for townie gossip and scandal sheets long before we had a Kardashian Box. Both then and now, the viewers know the game and even may know the rules are contrived, just as they know Jersey Shore‘s Snooki is likely flirting with invisible cameramen. It’s just that the viewers don’t care. I once met a Lancashire woman who was something of a political firebrand and came to America to announce that U.S. citizens owe all Native Americans reparations. I felt hard-pressed to argue, but then in an unguarded moment, she admitted she had loved the royals and wanted to be Princess Di when she was younger. Who was I to be self-righteous at that moment and say, “Your monarchy lives off the fat of the poor and is an abomination to the Rights of Man, Republican idealism, human equality and basic morality. Also, they can’t dance.”

I, too, love reading English history and marvel as chips off the block of William the Conqueror globe trot and take gap years in Chile and need to do little else to stand as testament to the island’s storied past. It’s just that you can love Roman history without needing the Empire to come back. Still, forget the argument about whether the royals are important, whether they should be taxed, or whether their political function makes them easily replaceable with a rubber stamp from Staples. The more important question is: What is the emotional need they fulfill, even in Americans who are supposed to be decathected from such nonsense? Do men in Britain still feel an aching affection for routinzed charisma? Do women still secretly love the idea of being chattel princesses? Or is it more simple? I feel that if we looked into ourselves deeply enough, we’d discover that it’s the same reason we need cable (and pay so much for both): We are existentially sick. We no longer want to live in our bodies. We have checked out. Watching Kate Middleton wed in a story book tale allows us to project ourselves inside of her (take the meaning there however you want), and abscond from our own here and now and the responsibility to our reality. (FYI: Another way to abscond from reality is to believe in heaven.)

Being in our own here and now, after all, is too hard. We are most of us at the mercy of adrenal glands who do our thinking for us. Our bodies are tired from feeling things, freeing ourselves from them mentally is our constant burden. To be in your body all the time requires constant thought and maintenance. Exercising. Working. A debate. Running errands. Motorcross. Skydiving. Even blogging. To take ownership of your own being is a task many of us would readily shrink from. Some literary critics even contend that it’s the struggle where mythology originates–the contrived stories we tell each other and which we use to arrange reality are nothing more than shadows on the wall projected by our own conflicted glands. Thus the royals are are not just Williams and Harrys. They are also our Dicks.

I leave you with that thought as you enjoy the royal wedding. I hear that Sophie Cranston is a fab designer!

Where does that leave me? … Just bought a new Apple TV. So juicy … so delicious … here comes my descent into existential oblivion.

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Now why, you ask, may I be thanking God for a lot of hate mongers? For people inflicting harm to the parents of dead soldiers? For people who have spurned every belief system but their own, even the dogmas of other Christians, and other Baptists to boot? Why would I thank people who use other people’s suffering as a way to draw attention to themselves and their megalomaniac founder, a fame whore about one step removed from Mark David Chapman in his utter depravity? Why would I draw your attention to people who have distilled only the pure hatred of a distant Hebrew deity without any of the mitigating love that was supposed to emanate from his son? (I’m an atheist, but I’m just asking here.)

I’m not just pointing it out because it’s timely (the Supreme Court recently decided that these God-fearing Christians could harass the families of dead soldiers any damn time they please to show God’s condemnation of America for its tolerance of gays). I point this out because we hate a lot, America. We’re good at it. It’s in our blood. If we all weren’t such consummate haters, Sean Hannity would never have brought these lunatics on the air in the first place. We like watching the Westboro crazies on Fox News because we enjoy the spleen it allows us to vent. In fact, I would say, taking a leaf from George Orwell’s 1984, that our hatred has taken on a nightly, regimented format, replete with car commercials and steak with shallots. Hatred was built into the spiritually parsimonious Puritans that first landed on these fertile shores. It’s built into our discourse and our increasingly heated political rhetoric. When it is put into action, as it was in Arizona earlier this year, we are surprised and quick to blame anybody but ourselves. It wells up very easily in those who are inexpressive, who have no creative outlets, who have no way to show what they are feeling, except, say, with a lifestyle or a rigid political affiliation–a flag if you will–to say what they can’t work through logically.

It’s not that we don’t love. Humans love a lot. They love their children. They love Elmo. They love the Beatles. They love the hit show Glee. They love Mother Teresa (except for Christopher Hitchens). But what to do with the still abundant rage and violence that is stamped into our lowly monkey DNA?

I thank God for the Westboro Baptist Church because they remind us that there is perversity everywhere, not just in Kansas. These sociopaths show us all what we’re capable of if we live in insulated cults drowning out other people’s logic and reason (sound familiar, Fox News viewers?), and that’s why the First Amendment and Milton’s Aeropagitica before it encouraged a markeplace of ideas, true and false, side by side. We need to know exactly where the haters are and what they think. Because the fact is, there are a lot of people who mindlessly hate homosexuality, and these people won’t be swayed not even until they become consumed by their hatred and drop dead of myocardial infarction. We need to know who they are, because they aren’t merely people hiding in the shadows. They hold elected office and do violence on paper.

The Westboro sideshow wasn’t much of a concern to conservatives until the group started picketing military funerals. Do you see now, gay haters, what it means to be hated and hounded for no good reason? Do you realize that one of the darkest creatures of your id, Rick Santorum, is still running loose and considering a presidential bid, drawing political strength from that hatred. Do you not see how he and the Westboro crazies are not far removed from each other? Santorum may not get it all mixed up with the army somehow, but that’s a distinction with little difference.

Maybe you’ve seen the movie “The Aristocrats”? It’s a film about a tasteless joke that seems to have no reason for being other than to gross people out as its teller runs through a litany of a sick family’s sexual perversions. Why would somebody tell such a disgusting joke with no punchline that serves no purpose than making us sick? Because the sickness itself becomes funny after a while. And that’s what has happened with the media frenzy known as Westboro and Rev. Fred Phelps. I submit the joke that the Westboro Baptist Church has been playing on us: a perverted family act that has completely lost its sense of offensiveness and brought incest to a whole new level.

“… the Aristocrats!” yelled Rev. Fred Phelps, as America writhed in tears of laughter Friday realizing that the Westboro Baptist Church was only telling a joke the whole time.

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[Update, September 30, 2011: I recently updated this piece with some rigorous copy editing. I apologize to my readers. I have rarely been so proud of a piece I’ve written, only to see that pride eroded by copy errors that sometimes hid or sank my points.]

Have you ever thought of how great it would be if we could just get rid of unions altogether? Why, without collective bargaining rights, the real work of capitalism could be done–a mechanism for unlocking wealth that would make that wealth work far more efficiently, especially by paying workers what they’re really worth: at best, $3.50 an hour.  Such unlocked greatness would make America strong and proud in the way it was back when we had kids working 12 hour days and our food was full of extra human thumbs, earlobes and gizzards.

I’m sorry, does this sound stupid to you? Then I’m not sure why it’s even a debate in the state of Wisconsin, where a new Republican governor completely in the back pocket of a couple of anti-union billionaire industrialists, is working to curtail collective bargaining rights. As long as we’re throwing union people out the window, we ought to at least remember a time when the defenestration was much more literal: The 100th anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire is coming up in March. In 1911, 146 employees of the Greenwich Village company were killed in a fire when their bosses had locked them inside to keep them from leaving early. Many had to jump to their deaths from the eighth, ninth and tenth stories. The fire galvanized the union movement and helped usher in modern building codes, labor practices and even the New Deal, depending on whom you ask.

This is when a lot of red staters start to nod that this was just one more in a long line of progressive mistakes going all the way back to our nation’s founding. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to mark the anniversary than by going back with a red marker and erasing all of the “progressive” nonsense that has come about since then.

A lot of people’s antipathy toward unions comes from a complete misunderstanding of their function. If you’re a conservative, you likely buy the argument that stronger unions have given Americans a sense of entitlement, pushed us toward decreased productivity, made our labor too expensive, and thus made American industry less nimble and less able to respond to crises. That’s an awful lot of big words, red staters! And yet, it’s a compelling and simple argument if you only look at one side of the ledger–and trust me conservatives are awfully good at both simple narratives and reading only one side of the ledger. What you won’t find when you blame unions for hobbling business is the increasing sham that corporate governance has become–how executive pay is far out of control compared with those of the lowest-paying salaries, and that executives often game the system. How? By withholding dividends–an increasingly popular corporate gambit since Reagan’s times; by creating excessive stock options, which dilute shares and funnel money away from shareholders; and by simply overpaying CEOs. (Does anybody remember Dick Grasso?) Meanwhile, it’s only the cruel market that decides what you’re worth if you’re a laborer. Unless you’ve got collective bargaining.

Here’s an argument for you conservatives, since you hate Hollywood: Imagine an Eddie Murphy movie that costs $50 million to make. As part of his deal, Eddie gets $40 million gross. The movie makes $90 million. How much did this movie make? Zero. After everyone grosses out (both financially and literally) on two hours of fart jokes, the studio can actually say they have a money loser. The people with net points in the movie get nothing. It was in this way that another film, the phenomenally popular Forrest Gump, was actually a money loser because Tom Hanks and the director got so much gross.

So now imagine, America, that you are getting net points and the richest 1% are getting the gross points. Meanwhile, the price of your labor, with your union bulwark weakening nearby, has been pushed down by the flood of flat earth labor into the market–the freed hordes of Chinese, Indian, Eastern European and South American labor.

And so now we come back to the standard conservative argument about Laffer curves and the idea fixe of Reaganism–which is that Reagan cut taxes and the economy took off for 30 years and that’s all there was to it. Listening to this bullshit after a while is a bit like hearing a schizophrenic compulsively repeat single lines of “Old Mother Leary.” Fire is a wonderful thing, conservatives, but it doesn’t mean you throw it on your roof. Likewise, tax breaks are nice quick incentives for a monetary system but keeping taxes low forever does not make your society or even your economy better. But most people who are insecure about their economics knowledge hold up the Laffer curve as if it’s the college degree they never had, and as if Glenn Beck were the Civics 101 course they slept through.

Speaking of Beck, onto the “Egypt” part of my story–which is exhibit 587 in an exhaustive case, “Glenn Beck Vs. Linear Thinking.”

If you can stomach this video, you’ll see Beck squaring off not only against Bill O’Reilly (Beck is perhaps the only person in the world who can make O’Reilly look like a genius) but against a purely democratic uprising in Egypt. The first thing I thought when the dominoes started to fall in the Arab world was that conservatives might claim a victory of sorts–and make a specious argument that the Iraq War fomented these pro-Democracy movements. So you can imagine my utter horror when a bunch of self-described individual liberties champions like Beck began knocking the Egyptian revolution. Beck’s argument is that it’s not a democracy movement since it could end up in the hands of Islamic extremists. What’s most galling about this video is two American conservatives arguing whether democracy is something America ought to confer on the Egyptians rather than something the Egyptians’ have a natural right to. In other words, Glenn, Egyptian liberty is not yours to give, and the fact that you would say so proves you’re no libertarian but another paleo-con American imperialist. It would be hard to explain to Beck or his spongie followers how even a revolution that was thoroughly Muslim in character is none of his fucking business, but instead the natural inclination of a people who ought to make their own decisions about when to be liberated (unlike the Iraqis whose liberation was forced on them, and so can only be called “liberated” by a morally bankrupt few). In a bizarre turn perhaps lost on everybody but the legions of hard-of-hearing people who listen to Beck, Glenn actually says (around minute 2:23) that American progressives (I would suppose that’s the people responsible for securing fire exits for the Triangle Shirtwaist Co.) are somehow responsible for both Hosni Mubarak and the Shah of Iran. Yes, friends liberal imperialism has built up Hosni Mubarak. Our support of him has nothing to do with conservatives and capitulation to the needs of Israel for a regional friend.

Even worse is the utterly loathsome former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who here makes the disgusting suggestion that Hosni Mubarak was an ally (read: Israeli ally) and therefore was owed our allegiance no matter what. His argument: we didn’t support an Iranian revolution with force, so we shouldn’t support an Egyptian one even with words–even if the two movements are based in the same democratic ideals. Again, of those of you conservatives unable to read between the lines: We cannot support even a Democratic movement that was anti-Israel. (I shudder to think that there’s a person left on this planet to listens to this homophobic, science-bashing, war fan, hate monger–a man who said that poor New Orleans Hurricane Katrina victims should simply have gotten out of town and who seems to be the only person on the planet to have found weapons of mass destruction in Iraq).

This was a lot of stray comments, but I impress upon you, long-suffering Beauty is Imperfection reader, that they are motivated by the same idea–the democratic impulse rises naturally in nature, whether it be against union busters in Wisconsin or strongmen in Libya. But just as easily as it is created, it is confused, used, abused, assimilated and exploited by medicine salesmen, tiny generals, wee-brained Fox News employees and even by would-be rapists (my heart goes out to CBS news reporter Lara Logan, a woman so brave she makes me ashamed to call myself a journalist). Democracy is harder than it looks, and it is vulnerable not only money like the Koches’ and brute power like George W. Bush’s but most often simply to lots of lies, lies, lies.

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I think we all forget how caginess is one of the most important resources of a leader, even or especially the ones who seem to be invincible. Hosni Mubarak, we are now told, has been orchestrating his own demise for the past few days, and yet Thursday night, he gathered all of Egypt close to their televisions to tell them at the last minute, “FU.” He was staying and that everybody should go home.

That was either the most desperate act on television since the Beatles’ Magical Mystery Tour or an inspired bluff. Can you imagine what might have happened if everybody believed him? I recall the immortal words of Cool Hand Luke, who got his name because nothing is, in fact, a real cool hand, and sometimes you win just by pretending you have everything when in fact you have nothing. Could a last-minute head fake have similarly saved Mubarak and his oppressive, 30-year regime? Hardly, yet he certainly thought it was worth trying. Had everybody believed him, he might still have been president this afternoon.

I’m not trying to be flip or cute about somebody so loathsome, but people tend to think of autocracies as monolithic things, and it’s that veneer of invulnerability that helps give them their power. This sort of monolithic view not only aids the oppressors. It also conveniently removes the possibility of human free will, and that’s where this becomes something of interest for non-Arab Westerners glib about their freedom and liberal tradition. My personal feeling is that dictators are secretly pleasing to people like Noam Chomsky, whose narratives about power require the impregnable man behind the curtain to work, who assumes every action of a nation or state happens in secret for an advantaged few working in cahoots, even, I would suppose, a welfare system like the U.S. had in the New Deal era. Chomsky believes we all live in dictatorships everywhere and that we will continue to until the day the government is destroyed and we’re all living in anarcho-syndicalist trade unions.

The fact is that systems of power bubble up from much more complicated underlying factors and internecine rivalries, some of them from movements that were organic or based in an idea that was originally populist. These inevitably turn on themselves because nature abhors a vacuum and the system self-organizes into a new power structure (something Chomsky and his fawning, uncritical acolytes can’t or won’t acknowledge because evidently anarchism is as cool to them now as it was high school).

Truth is, dictatorships are much more mundane and complex than the man behind the curtain–they involve the difficult mechanics of a party process, political patronage and the cover of a happy business communities willing to trade freedom or class estrangement for stability. They may have started with some sort of non-violent political legitimacy (we all seriously err when we forget that Hitler was democratically elected). Dictators are famous for their brutality, but not quite as famous for the gifts they hand out or the bread and circuses they lavish on the common people to strengthen their personality cults. You will find dictatorships throughout history that are much more benign in character than Hitler’s–even ones liberals don’t mind defending occasionally.

Many people have been wondering whether it was the actual price of bread that brought Mubarak down (since the Russian tightening of wheat exports has threatened to make penny loaves more expensive, and Mubarak’s efforts to subsidize cheap bread after the food riots in 2008–literal bread, if not circuses–had only bought him time.

Was it bread or Facebook or the revolutions next door? It’s probably not that clear cut. In Nicaragua, the dictatorship of 45 years fell in 1979 because the dictator spent the previous decade squeezing private enterprise out of their cut of GDP, until finally the middle class were so fed up they decided they’d rather cast their lot with a scruffy lot of communists then deal with a thief in a business suit. It’s a chain reaction, not an outburst of anger, usually, and that seems to be the case in Egypt as well.

I’d like to think that everybody all at once just stood up in a moment of clarity and decided they were oppressed and that they wouldn’t be anymore. What Egyptians have bought, however, on Friday was a new government with the military in charge of it and an awful religious/political group, the Muslim Brotherhood, waiting in the wings to re-assert itself after years of oppression. In other words, a mess. In their natural desire for self-determination, Egyptians have won the admiration of the world and a reason to joyously celebrate in the streets, because they did it with courage and  without quite as much violence as there could have been. Peaceful protesters miraculously stared down and parried thugs hoping to come beat them and stand as an example of (mostly) non-violent democratic change. But now that the Egyptians have earned it, they’ve got to earn it again just by keeping it. My optimism tells me they can.

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Evidently, the Iraq War was simply a passive-aggressive misunderstanding. So suggests Donald Rumsfeld in his sure-to-be-awful memoir.  Mr. ex-Defense Secretary writes, “While the president and I had many discussions about the war preparations, I do not recall his ever asking me if I thought going to war with Iraq was the right decision.”

I want you to imagine the contretemps in such a Jane Austen comedy of manners–one man orders an invasion of Iraq thinking it might impress the other man, and the other man goes along so as not to appear fussy. What you get is an Iraq War and an unwanted scone. But that’s a bit disingenuous. Rummy is not polite to anybody, not the Bush family nor his colleagues nor John McCain. It seems like he’s willing to trash everybody and anybody for the failures of the war he prosecuted. That’s the mark of a true independent spirit or a psychopath.

I get kind of tired like everybody else chewing over the consequences of this disastrous war and American immorality in pursuing it. As it becomes clearer over time how much our leaders deceived us by assuming that the humanitarian goals in Iraq might have made it worthwhile, nobody ever seems to bring up a couple of points:

Did it occur to anybody that the insurgency would start in Iraq because Iraqis understood the invasion better than we did? Was it not anticipated they might fight back because no matter how much they hated their leader, they knew the American reasons for invasion were based on revenge and perhaps worthy of resisting?

The reasons for invasion were convoluted. There is part of me that secretly believes it allowed us a way to save face as we completely capitulated to Osama Bin Laden’s demands that we leave Saudi Arabia. Conservatives like to point out that there were no more 9/11s after Iraq. They won’t point out that it’s because we gave the horrible Saudi jackal what he wanted.

Someday we’ll all have to leave Iraq–physically and emotionally. But it will be hard as long as self-serving careerist bureaucrat resume jockeys with blood on their hands like Rumsfeld roam loose and drag our nation through the pain one more time, not for the good of a country but for his own soulless vanity.

Go to Elba, asshole.

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The Mr. Banana Grabber T-Shirt

I was going to blog about the Israel-Palestinian conflict today, but instead I thought I’d make you jealous with my cool Mr. Banana Grabber t-shirt, given to me by my sister for Christmas. Not only do I get to show off my love for the long-dormant TV show “Arrested Development,” but I get to do it with an achingly obscure sub-reference.

Meanwhile, in Israel, Palestinian negotiators were embarrassed by a series of leaks to television station Al Jazeera suggesting they have all along been making huge concessions to Israel, including the right of the Jewish state to annex parts of contested East Jerusalem. Protests have erupted among the Palestinians accusing the papers of being lies and propaganda, and now both sides in the conflict, to prove themselves sufficiently strong, will likely have to backtrack and return to anachronistic negotiating strategies and arguments.

So I hope I’ve kept you up to date on all this fun / patently horrible news.

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I don’t usually press my financial articles on people. I’d much rather you go watch the hilarious comedy “The Retributioners,” or listen to my often eclectic but increasingly accessible rock music on the right hand side of this page. But if you want some insight into the China and its economy, you might like this article I wrote for Financial Advisor magazine.

First of all, China has taught us that free markets are superior to ones that are totally government controlled. In 1979, Deng Xiaoping introduced market reforms to China, conferring a special economic zone status on a sleepy fishing village. That village, Shenzhen, has become one of the fastest-growing cities on the planet, a place where China still tries out new free market experiments while also learning how to balance it with its responsibility to its people’s well-being. To the shame of the Chinese, they have not yet developed Western style free speech, and the country’s human rights record is abysmal–government critics are imprisoned, vital AIDS statistics are suppressed, and the country is in denial about the environmental impact of its boom. These are all things to fear about a country not totally awake from its legacy of totalitarianism. But don’t let these things cloud your vision of what the country has done economically or get confused that free markets alone are saving it. What’s making the country better is a sober-sided and smart mix of capitalism and socialism both.

Now that it has been unleashed, China is now about to explode with a rampant consumer economy. More than half of its population is still rural, and as the country inevitably urbanizes, it will gobble up the world’s iron, copper, oil and coal. It’s become the biggest market for cars and, according to some sources, for energy. Its economy has fuel to burn. This growth was threatened by the economic crisis of 2008, so China’s government did what any responsible leaders would do: they spent money on stimulus. About a trillion dollars. This has kept their GDP humming while the United States’ has faltered. Some say that China’s growth can’t be compared to ours, because it’s a actually a brand new economy with lots of room to run. A country where many of the cell phones and cars have yet to be bought, where there are few hackneyed businesses and lots of room for innovation and enterprise. Nevertheless, government stimulus indubitably can help an economy out of trouble when markets overheat, an idea that short-sighted Americans have either forgotten, out of impatience in 2010, or deny themselves, out of ideological fanaticism because fanaticism is part of their identity, much like their old company t-shirts and pet rocks.

It’s a bit harder to see how a mature economy such as ours can explode again when we first have to cut out all the cancer–the overleveraging, the overspending, the abundant undeserved credit. Some say we just wait for the next tech bubble and get rid of our government in the meantime. That’s a cruel, nihilistic philosophy, and if that doesn’t chill your heart, let’s just call it completely wrong. For anybody with a memory (hard to find in the United States), I’ll remind you that America got through the years of the New Deal (let’s say 1932 to 1980) with high progressive taxes and Social Security and Medicare, and at the same time we created computers, lasers, televisions, FM stereos, new ways of distributing and preserving food, new ways of communicating and we went to the moon–all under the aegis of what is now called socialism by the right wing. This large government presence didn’t hold America back one damn bit. In fact, if it didn’t create the middle class, it certainly helped preserve it.

Unfortunately, these people wearing tricorne hats and waving “Don’t Tread On Me” flags have learned the wrong lessons from Ronald Reagan. Our economy will indeed come back in the next couple of years, but it will likely be because we take up where we left off (pursuing all the bad habits Dutch left us)–by selling IOUs to each other, insuring them, and trading monopoly money and putting that in place of productivity. We can also hold our breath and wait for a new asset bubble. But what they don’t realize is that China (and oil-rich nations with lots of petrodollars) are going to continue to fund it, because we refuse to pay for the things we demand. Some of us want roads. Some of us want firemen. Some of us want to build bombs. But whoever it is in charge, Americans love to spend other people’s money. If I thought the Tea Party would address that issue, I might take sides with them. Unfortunately, they won’t. The “Leave Me Alone” party wants it all for free and won’t tell you the truth about any of these issues. They wave the flag and scream that they are victimized–somehow while they are also stomping on people’s heads.

And elsewhere, the highly productive Chinese will be earning their strong economy and handing our asses to us.

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A lot of people, journalist Ron Rosenbaum probably the most prominent, have questioned how someone like Adolf Hitler could rise to power in a country as culturally sophisticated and technologically advanced as Germany was in the 1930s–a country where there was almost no illiteracy. A country where there was political plurality and a free press. A country that, we should all remember, voted Hitler into power in a fair, democratic process.

I submit to you that maybe it was Hitler’s private collection of himself in beefcake poses.

Fast forward to the United States in 2010 and I give you Pamela Geller, a woman who has risen to fame almost entirely for hateful diatribes toward Muslims and her bikini photos. No matter how long you write, no matter how long you study, no matter how much thought you put into a subject, no matter how many credentials you collect or peer reviews you receive, it still seems as if the best way for you to get attention and to snag a bit of celebrity for yourself, even in a “good” society like America, is to do it just as you did in high school: find the person who is not like anybody else and then go to town on him. In high school, you gave wedgies or beat somebody up in the locker room. Today you get on a Web site and bash foreigners.

Geller even calls herself a bigot racist as a joke. It just makes her that much cuter, and we’re supposed to laugh her off. I suggest we create a new line of racist Barbie or Bratz dolls–“Give Us A Squeeze,” says the box.

Ann Coulter led the way when she learned that the more provocative you are, the more beloved you are by people with no self-esteem and no imagination. It’s led us directly to Geller, a person who might even chagrin Coulter (who has recently tried to rehabilitate herself a bit by cuddling up to gays).  It’s always been pretty easy to call Coulter an attention whore. For Geller, it seems too nice a phrase.

Of course, the U.S. is not Nazi Germany, and I don’t mean to suggest that it is. I make the comparison to show how bigotry, which we were all taught to watch out for in school, is even today an aphrodisiac with a sexy hint of taboo.  This woman uses a lot of meretricious rhetoric appealing to those with wounded pride. It could be she appeals to people who are too nationalistic. Those who are out of work and need someone to blame. Or more likely it’s those whose lack of intellectual confidence turns them into “joiners.” It sounds insipid to say out loud–that there’s a group of Americans who’d be swayed by a pastiche that is so transparent–and yet this woman mobilized thousands (millions?) against Park 51, an Islamic center in downtown Manhattan whose symbolism makes it somehow unacceptable, even in an area that already has mosques in it.

Geller called the center a “victory lap” for America’s enemies. You can’t argue with buzzwords like that. They’re so small, you can’t get an editorial in edgewise.

As a proud atheist, I dislike all religions, and would definitely challenge some of the points of Islam–the treatment of women in some corners (though not all) and the iconoclasm of certain sects that denies the bigger imperative of free speech (something I’m a bit of an absolutist about). I’m as angry as anybody that an American cartoonist, Molly Norris, was forced to go into hiding for her satiric idea that we should have an “Everybody Draw Mohammed Day” (an idea that wasn’t even serious, but that grabbed the attention of extremist cleric Anwar al-Awlaki and got the poor woman put on a hit list). If we can’t get past the ephemeral (and totally inconsistent) picture-drawing ban by Muslims, then how might we ever drill down into their even more troublesome ideas?

But criticizing Islam in its cultural confrontation with the West is a far cry from dehumanizing all Muslims. I interviewed several Muslims myself for a book a few years back, and what I discovered is that there are plenty of competing philosophies and reflections and ways of reconciling the sacred and profane within Islam as there are anywhere else. I was most impressed by a Sufi adherent who said that the religion he knew didn’t believe in mullahs or burkas but was only obsessed with the spirit and what nourishes it. He didn’t see Islamic teaching as incompatible with a Western upbringing. You might say he’s not representative, but then you might ask who is a representative Christian. A Crusader? Torquemada? Jerry Fallwell? Larry Flynt in his born again period? An atheist who just thinks it’s right to turn the other cheek? We say that we hate Muslim strictures on female clothing, but what about the rules of certain Christian faiths that girls must wear skirts and nobody can dance? This is usually where arch-conservatives write in that Christians don’t blow up buildings. I feel unable to defend myself against a person who can’t count the billion or so non-building-destroying Muslims out there. It’s like arguing with a pelican.

I’m a bit depressed that The New York Times had to give this lunatic coverage, even under the pretext of responsibly keeping tabs on her. I just hope it doesn’t give her some kind of legitimacy.

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Why is the middle class disappearing? Why are women suddenly making more than men in their peer groups? Why is consumption in China all of a sudden looking like it could outpace the U.S. one day?

These questions might seem unrelated, but they’re not. They are all the signs of the anti-Christ.

No wait. What I meant to say is that they are the predictable results of capitalism. But it’s an easy mistake to make.

We all remember “Leave It To Beaver.” The classic nuclear family protected by middle class trappings and postwar prosperity wrapped up in pretty shirtwaist era dresses. A whole slew of new articles have been appearing in the major magazines pointing out what a lot of you already know, which is that Beaver is dead. And no, I don’t mean that he died in Vietnam after getting a punji stick infection. I mean the American dream of the 1950s–to have one breadwinner with economic security and a stable pension who can also provide for a family with two or three kids, all of whom can afford college–is disappearing. It was a reality so recent and so palpable that it seems now with each passing year to have been a pernicious joke played by God or the Shriners to make us feel that much worse now that it’s disappearing.

But it seems in retrospect Ward and June lived at an inflection point in history–a vast expanding post-war boom on the one hand and a strong labor movement on the other that protected workers, where a floor was set on wages. Where one of the world’s best educational systems allowed a smart person to go to class, and more important, allowed him to leave his class, too. Ward cringed when the Beaver wanted to be a garbage man. Why? Because American upward mobility has been the siren song drawing immigrants up through dry bone desert nights and the recurring source of American pride for both left and right. It’s one of the few things we all agree on. That and Willie Nelson.

Now it’s being chiseled away at, and everybody’s got their own parochial ideas about why it’s happening. Timothy Noah at Slate is currently publishing an incredible series on the vanishing middle class that I highly recommend. The good news about him is that he approaches new ideas with intellectually curious humility, not the dismissive, counterintuitive arrogance of lawyers (like many other Slate writers). In this particular case, he tries to examine all sides of the issue.

First the right wing: to the extent that they care at all, they seem to think the vanishing middle class is an immigration issue. It’s simple supply and demand. Paco the wetback is coming over here to pick your grapes and tomatoes, and because he’s bringing his cousins, the dollar that would go to your cousin gets divided up into nickels. After all, the tomato doesn’t care.

This concept is so easy to understand that I can almost forgive you for believing it.

I give you an other image: Paco the Wetback Accountant, crossing the border with his clothes in a plastic bag, dodging concertina wire and rattlesnakes and the Minutemen all so that he can come over to set up an office of beaverboard in a strip mall and steal your tax planning clients with his cheap Mexican calculator.

Sound stupid? Yes, immigration would be harming our middle class, but only if 1) Immigrants were coming to America with middle class skills (they aren’t), and 2) They were fanning out across the U.S. (they aren’t).

But let’s skip the loin and go right for the ribs: right wingers don’t care if there’s a wealth disparity anyway. The rich right wing have got the fundamentalist tenets of capitalism on their side which says, “If I have the capital, I’m already doing my job. You can party in my house. But don’t forget who owns it.”

You might say, “So what? That how capitalism ought to work!” But you might also know people (as I do) in all walks of life who are overpaid at their jobs. Similarly, I think the rich are vastly overpaid for the work they do in our economy. At the end of the day, the main thing they want is to suck more off the top than they put in. That’s what private equity investing is. I drink your milkshake.

Those conservatives who aren’t rich … well, they confuse me. They seem ready to fight and die for the most insignificant tax breaks you can imagine. They are either perversely wedded to ideology or ready to give up better roads and schools for a plasma TV.

For more proof about how conservatives don’t care about wealth disparity, you only need read an article by the rare one who does–say, a National Review writer who brings up the shrinking middle class issue to his fellow conservatives and gets himself roundly booed for it. Read how he sheepishly has to apologize that he’s not arguing for socialism. For conservatives, there is no middle ground between a discussion about wage disparity and collective farming.

Liberals have their own problems to work out. My personal feeling was that Ronald Reagan ended the middle class by cutting taxes on the rich and destroying labor when he fired air traffic controllers. But that’s an oversimplification, too, because wages started to stagnate in the 1970s, before Dutch took office. Still, the periods in the U.S. when there is an aristocratic tendency toward wealth disparity have usually been those periods when government was least involved, in other words, when Republicans are in charge, the poor see income stagnate and the rich don’t. That’s not because they’re stealing. It’s because they are letting the engine run without controls. And over time, the engine diminishes the rewards to those with redundant skills (in other words, regular people) and rewards those with the capital (mostly the rich, even if, like me, you have a mutual fund and benefit slightly).

When your labor is redundant or commoditized or can be taken over by a machine, your value declines. This is as true for doctors as it is for mechanics. To be paid more, you have to offer something that is not routinized. You have to find a place where the market could be working better and see how you can be taking advantage of it. This is one of the beauties of capitalism because it creates wealth where there wasn’t any before. But when it decides that your labor isn’t necessary any more, screw you. A doctor surrounded by lots of other doctors won’t make more money. Only a frontier doctor will. Problem is, the frontier is gone.

Today it’s in China, a country with a 60% rural population rapidly urbanizing and rapidly creating a consumer culture–which is the economic potential of a supernova. What you call the American dream will in 50 years be called “The Chinese Dream.”

The nice thing about America circa 1950 and its nice middle class was that the lines were blurred enough that anybody could conceivably jump classes (up or down) according to what their spirit desired. If a stupid Marxist attacked you for your bourgeois indulgences like perfume and chocolate, you could rightly say “a world in which everybody could chase perfume and chocolate indulgences would be a pretty sweet ass world.”

To keep your middle class, you need new industries to be borne up and you need more ways for more people to participate in it. It means giving business incentives, but it also means educating your people and safeguarding their wages with rugged regulation. There is no way around this. If we ignore it and let the anti-government fanatics have their way, America is going to become a world of plutocrats and look more like one of those tiny countries with a landed class that sells rubber and coffee and lives off the backs of peasants. Despite what flag-waving faux-patriots at Fox News say, our greatness will surely be over.

*My original title for this post was “Kiss Your (Middle C)lass Goodbye,” but then I saw after the fact that the Huffington Post already took that headline a few months ago. This is the problem with trying to be original. Too many other people do it first.

Image: healingdream / FreeDigitalPhotos.net

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What can I say? It’s been no fun at all. And yet all horrible things must come to an end.

It was a messy relationship; maybe we shouldn’t have gotten involved at all. You were violent and volatile, ruled by a tyrannical father. We were idealistic and naive and had been hurt before. But still, we were impulsive; we took the plunge quickly. We were addicted to drama. And you had no choice. You just fell for us.

But oh how quickly things change. You became much too hot to handle. You spurned us almost as soon as you welcomed us. First you threw roses at us, and we thought it meant you loved us. But maybe you just meant, “Please don’t kill me.” As soon as our honeymoon ended, you turned schizophrenic. You acted like you didn’t know from one minute to the next what you wanted or who you were or which mosque you should attend. Sometimes you wanted your mean father back; sometimes you just wanted to blow us up. You turned to outsiders who poured poison in your ear and said lots of nasty untrue things about us and offered to help you get rid of us in horrible ways. You craved our stability and guiding hand and mentoring one moment but hated us for it at the same time. A typical Pygmalion relationship. We should have known, you can’t carve the perfect lovers out of stone. You have to let them just be who they are. Even if that means letting them hate you. Or letting them go.

The Flag of Iraq


We acted like the boss, but we weren’t. We couldn’t even get you to take out the garbage. You were so passive aggressive you put roadside IEDs in it.

You were insecure. And by that I mean your internal security forces were politicized and mercenary and graft-ridden. You were unstable. And by that I mean you had a nasty case of pyromania. It’s never as sexy as Def Leppard makes it out to be. You were proud and had to fight for every inch of property. You wouldn’t get organized. When somebody tried to help you get organized, boom! They were dead to you.

You crumbled into many mental and physical states. We binged (on oil) and you purged (each other of heretics). We were very curious to see your dad’s guns. Turned out he didn’t have any. Later, you did away with your dad entirely, and it wasn’t the victory either one of us thought it was going to be. In fact, it just made our relationship that much more sour.

Sometime in the second year, we knew, both of us that, that our relationship was a mistake. Yet we were too proud and embarrassed to end it. We insisted foolishly that we could make it work. Sometimes we went at each other without having enough protection. Isn’t that America all over–giddy and never properly sheathed.

But it’s silly to ask now what might have happened if we hadn’t gotten involved. That was a long time ago, and the choices can’t be unmade. We’re different people now, and can’t live in the past. Our mistakes are ours, and they make us who we are. Hopefully they help us become better. And hopefully we can end this bad blood on good terms, with no mutual recrimination, without debts and without too much rotting infrastructure. You seem to have gotten your shit together a bit. We went into debt trying to make you happy, of course, but we’ll be OK, because we work hard and have good government jobs to tide us over.

But we’re finally pulling the plug. This is it, Iraq. We’re leaving you. We’ve fallen in love with somebody else and her name is Snooki. She’s a mess, too, but we think we can help her. In the meantime, don’t cry. We hold no grudges toward you. After all, we have to thank you for not lasting anywhere near as long as our horrible engagement with Vietnam. That was probably the worst relationship ever. So wipe the tears from your eyes, Iraq. In the words of Luther Vandross:

We’re so in love but wrong for each other
Each hurt that heals brings on another
Both of us abusing
Both of us using
Darling
It’s time to stop pretending
There’s just no way to rewrite our ending
We’re caught in this game
And we both know we’re losing, but

How many times can we say good-bye?

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