Archive for the ‘Global Affairs’ Category

The 9/11 Tribute In Light

I guess I spoke too soon. People did eventually fill the streets in Lower Manhattan to cheer and wave flags Sunday night, wearing face paint and shouting “America No. 1!” But I was not wrong about the long, long process of closure. In fact, it seems like there’s a battle for the soul of American justice and how we pursue it.

As people cheered, there was a competing sentiment about Osama bin Laden’s death (perhaps even mine in my previous post) suggesting that this closure should be po-faced, grim and puritanical, that it should be a new opportunity to mourn, not a photo op moment to celebrate more bloodshed.

It’s pretty silly, after all, to say America is great because some Navy SEALs shot a supposedly unarmed guy in the head (I say, “supposedly” because the story corrections and equivocations continue to flow from the White House like an eruption of chocolate party fondue that never quite hardens. This ought be a clue to conspiracy theorists if many of them weren’t so beastly dumb: Even attempted transparency can be contradictory. Now that the White House has decided not to show the photos, you can prepare for years of headache-inducing “Osama’s Alive” stories.)

Almost immediately after Bin Laden went to heaven to claim his virgins, letters and comments and tweets and posts appeared condemning Americans’ jubilation, quoting and misquoting Martin Luther King’s admonitions about hating enemies. Many people on this New York Times’ mood meter summed up the general feeling of the minority: “I refuse to celebrate the death of any human being.” “I take no joy in yet another killing.” “The death of one person should not be celebrated, even to save thousands.” One of my favorite comments: “Anyone who thinks death or physical pain is a valid form of retribution for any crime is an absolutist.” A rhetoric lesson for the author: Anyone who starts a sentence with, “Anyone who …” is also an absolutist. Some Bertrand Russell might be in order for this gal.

You might think that last sentence was meant to be cute. It’s not. I, too, feel something less than glory in bin Laden’s death. But many of these critics are displaying an absolutism all their own.

The perception that people are in the streets cheering only at the blood is A SUBJECTIVE ONE that says a lot more about those who point it out than the people it aims to criticize. The statement willfully ignores other things Bin Laden’s death might mean to people, emotions of relief and hope. Certainly there were people at the WTC site shouting, “Let the dogs eat him.” Weren’t there? Well, yes, there is some of that as there would naturally be, and no, it’s not healthy. But I also heard a lot of other defensible sentiments more along the lines of “We got him. Or, “We did it,” and simply, “I’m proud of my country.” Maybe, “America No. 1.” It’s always likely that jingoism is going to be the order of a day like Sunday’s. To be fair, though, it’s kind of hard to put euphoria into words (just as it was hard to put into words the complicated reasons we were attacked in the first place–by a former ally, no less, with grudges that cut both ways).

But for those of you who only see a celebration of death Roman gladiator style, let me give it a try: This ain’t a sporting event, and we aren’t crazed football fans looking for a high. This was, arguably, our deliverance from ten years of a questionable moral universe in which a religious cult leader willing to murder thousands of people–secretaries, waiters, delivery drivers, security guards, airplane passengers, Christians, Jews, Muslims, etc.–was going to go unpunished mainly for political reasons: First, because our scurrilous U.S. president at the time decided to settle an unrelated score elsewhere, and second because the murderer was safe in the bosom of a chaotic nuclear power. As I said in my first post on this subject, many people celebrating in the streets on Sunday night were children when 9/11 happened, and many of them likely grew up disillusioned that the defining moment of their young lives was going to have an ambiguous, nihilistic conclusion. “Life isn’t fair,” is a hard thing to tell children, as is telling them that they could die instantly and violently for political reasons and the killers would go free. It’s an outlook that could easily lead to despair and erode many people’s sense of morality or accountability. Do you agree, moralists? Do you believe it’s OK to be happy that we’re freed from that reality, at least for the time being? Being happy, are we allowed to cheer? Being allowed to cheer, are we cheering in a way that’s chaste enough to clear the hurdle of your sanctimony?

But that’s the complicated argument. The real hypocrisy of the “humanists” this week is an obvious point they miss: Some of us are cheering because a couple of wars might come to an end, not because a guy got shot in the face. This is something fairly easy to see, unless you’re really, really inclined not to (or if your critical sword only cuts one way). This war, lest you forget, was in a lot of people’s minds about bringing Bin Laden to justice. His death doesn’t mean we’re leaving Afghanistan next week, of course, but the main symbol of our struggle, bin Laden, who ought to embody our entire casus belli, has been removed from the scene. That fact augurs peace, not to mention justice. It suggests deliverance from the nightmare that was the 2000s and the wars that defined the decade. Why is it not allowed for a moral person to celebrate that?

Yet self-proclaimed humanists choose not to look at it that way. Why? What’s the bias? Must they assume those of us who feel a sense of relief and satisfaction right now are just dancing in blood because we have violent ape natures and a nationalistic chauvinism and no reflection and no morality and life for us is like a particularly gruesome version of Battlefield 3?

My thought is that it’s a bit of a tip off, an advertisement of the critics’ conflicted and unhappy relationship with their country. How many of them, I dare ask, used 9/11 as a moment mainly to rip into U.S. foreign policy, as if suggesting that a cult religious figure kicked out of Saudi Arabia had right to avenge El Salvadorans, and in the confusion temporarily left their “humanism” at the door that day? Evidently, there were enough of them that they managed to turn Marxist Brit Christopher Hitchens into a U.S. right winger. I guess people really do have the power.

I, too, disliked a lot of American foreign policy both before and after 9/11 and believe America has committed crimes for which we ought to spend a few years in an international court. But that doesn’t blind me to the clear immorality of Bin Laden’s mass murder or to what his removal means: the possible deliverance from a violent person and a violent past, the need to live in the past with the twin specters of the World Trade Center and the need for more bloodshed.

Merry Christmas, humanists. War is over. Geddit?

Next: Why is it not OK to be happy that a mass murderer is not out mass murdering anymore? That’s kind of a perverse thing to ask for, isn’t it? Why should deliverance from that reality not be worth celebrating? Why is it not right to say, “Rot in hell, Osama!” to give comfort to yourself or others? Was it not OK for Jews to celebrate Hitler’s passing? Would you deny them that, or only deny it for yourself and your own countrymen? You might say all death diminishes us, even Hitler’s, that hatred demeans you, even if the mass murderer wouldn’t show you–or thousands of others–the same sympathy. To want to be better than your murderer is a fine goal. But warning: there is also perhaps a lack of self-regard in it. You wouldn’t force that morality on a rape victim, say, if she said she was glad her attacker had been killed. To say that one person must be allowed to live, to hate and sow new violence based on his medieval religious outlook is a form of extremism, too. Beware your own extremism if you’re going to denounce it in others.

Did bin Laden deserve a trial? Another good question. Remember that a trial of Osama bin Laden would have become a trial of his ideas. And that ought to lead you to this question: Do all ideas deserve trial? Do Hitler’s ideas deserve trial? (Ohhh! That comparison again. More on that later.) Does the madness of a murdering extremist refusing to participate in society (ours and his own) demand society’s channels of due process? Maybe. Would it be more important than emotional closure? Maybe. Is it realistic? No. The reasons for why that is will be debated forever and never answered to anybody’s satisfaction. The violence of one sometimes can’t be made square with the peace of the many. I’m not generally for the death penalty, but as Groucho Marx said, “for him I’ll make an exception.” Does that make me a sell-out to my own values or a person with a bit of depth perception?

OK, the Hitler argument. Isn’t it facile and self-serving to compare Bin Laden and Hitler? Let’s get quickly to the argument that festers underneath this like a hard-to-kill staph infection: Did America deserve 9/11 in the first place? Many people who smartly wheel in horror at mindless patriotism somehow turn dumb really quickly when it comes to mindless knee-jerk anti-patriotism, which they ought to realize is just as bad, especially if they are not willing to support their country doing something inherently good, such as protecting its citizens against a religious maniac. If you insist that every American citizen is guilty, regardless of party or philosophy or details on the ground, for what has happened in Nicaragua, East Timor, Angola, Iraq, etc.,  so guilty he or she, every one, is worthy of dying in a hijacking at the hands of an Islamic religious fundamentalist with an agenda specific to his own idea of God, your outlook can’t survive what we’d call humanism or rationality. It’s such a hopeless argument, I feel dumb even bringing it up. And yet every once in a while … I see that post or hear that argument: “You might not know this about 9/11, but America’s done some awful things…” So goes the critical insight of the new Mother Jones subscriber.

Yes, it’s better to take the moral high ground and not hate or take satisfaction in violence, because it doesn’t do your enemies any harm really, and it doesn’t do you any good either, to say nothing of your humanity. And yet, as much as I hate to say it, I think a fair burden of proof falls back on some of the “humanists” this week. Are you seeing hate in the streets because it’s there or sometimes because maybe you hate a little too? Why should I not feel relief and joy at being delivered from the past? Why do I have to explain myself to you?


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The 9/11 Tribute In Light

I was about to turn off my computer late Sunday night after resting my eyeballs on some mindless TV when all of a sudden, a quick scan of the New York Times shook my peace and ruined my planned sleep. Bin Laden dead. Bin Laden killed. He’s bin terminated. He’s a has Bin. He’s bin there done that.

The Upper East Side, the sleepiest part of the city that never sleeps, had already gone to bed. Two hours after the announcement, I’m still looking out the window on my beautiful city and its always changing landscape and seeing no gathering of people. The local ABC affiliate immediately ran out to Times Square after the announcement and the reporter gushed that it was filling up with people. Behind her, trash blew around in the deserted sidewalks. I highly recommend this clip to the producers of “The Soup” and perhaps Columbia Journalism School graduates who want to learn how to avoid embarrassing themselves.

But put aside the levity and let’s attack the meat of the matter:  The man who slaughtered almost 3000 innocent Americans 10 years ago is dead. The man who was willing to exploit American power for his own ends in Afghanistan until he decided he’d rather murder American civilians to impress psychopathic Islamic fundamentalists–is gone. The man who evaded capture for 10 years and told us what his real aim was–the restoration of the caliphate along the lines of the repressive Taliban, is obliterated.

I am one of those people who has never believed in the concept of closure, whether it’s political, spiritual or even romantic. People love closure the way they like crack–they promise this time is always the last time, and yet they always seem to want more of it after it’s over. So when my wife said to me tonight, as we watched the updates on ABC, that this entire thing felt anticlimactic, I knew exactly what she meant.

It feels that way for several reasons. One, the war is not over. Al Qaeda, what started out as an agreement over a table a couple of decades ago among a few rogue military leaders, one of whose rules was to have good manners, has metastasized into several networks with different leaders all vying for prestige and leadership over a restive culture of America-haters. Two, the relatively bloodless dispatch of Bin Laden in a raid on his compound in Pakistan reminds us of something we have all forgotten: He was just a man. He was not a God. He was not a country. He was not even much of an army. One of the biggest tragedies of 9/11 is that it showed us how a relatively small group of people can cause so much harm. We were attacked by a club, a mafia even, and the justice meted out was never going to compensate emotionally for the pain inflicted. It’s for similar reasons that we can’t accept the idea that Lee Harvey Oswald may have acted alone: How can one puny, limited, brutish person cause so many hopeful people so much grief? It’s for denial of that reality that America inevitably overreacted to 9/11 by invading not one but two countries, one of which had nothing to do with the attack.

The next reason it feels anticlimactic is that we will never get back the people we loved that day. As President Obama said, children are still missing fathers, husbands missing wives. Friends missing friends. The death of one man can’t make up for the pain of that either.

And finally, the reason bin Laden’s death feels anticlimactic is that we waited so horribly long for the day to arrive. For ten years, we had to live with the idea that the man who openly admitted to plotting the destruction of the World Trade Center was indeed sitting somewhere exactly where we imagined him–not in a cave fighting hand to hand but in a comfortable compound in Pakistan, in the nurturing bosom of friendly Pakistanis–drawing ten more years of breath. That was 10 years for many of us to get comfortable with some uncomfortable ideas–that life isn’t fair. That a mass murderer might indeed go unpunished. When George Bush announced at one point that bin Laden had been marginalized and was no longer a big deal, you might have read it the same way I did: He was practically promising that this account would not be reckoned. Now the mass murderer is indeed gone, but the uncomfortable idea remains. What if there had been no tip off last August? What if bin Laden had lived to a ripe old age? It was entirely possible. There were lots of Nazis, after all, who died peaceful deaths after spreading out to the four corners.

I think about this as I look at many of the faces gathering in Washington and Lower Manhattan on television. Many of them are young adults. A lot of them seem to have even been children in 2001. For them, 9/11 was likely the single most important political and philosophical experience of their lives, the event that forged their characters and their morality. It would be much harder for them to live the last 10 years with the same existential unease–that an evildoer would prevail. It doesn’t matter whether they lived in New York City and watched the World Trade Center smash into the ground (as I did) or whether they are willing to put the events in some sort of historical context (which I try to do, as painful as it can sometimes be). For them, bin Laden simply couldn’t be walking about freely in a moral universe. He had to go. I felt that way at one time. I was 31 on Sept. 11 in 2001 and the attack drove me to a despair I’d rather not describe. I had a hard time sleeping for a long time and the sound of planes gave me the creeps. For a few months, many New Yorkers lived with a grim, almost mordant pessimism that the end was near. But my hatred for bin Laden and my desire to see his lifeless corpse dragged through the streets behind a chariot yielded after a while. That kind of hatred did me no good.

But anticlimax or not, we’re still fighting a couple of wars (though Iraq is winding down). And probably the most important question raised by Osama bin Laden’s death is now this: Why are we over there? Osama bin Laden was for so long the answer to that question that you needed little other. But now the palimpsest has been erased. The central premise of our wars overseas has been removed. Though we might still be fighting networks that mean to harm America, we’ve now reached the point in which we remain present only to fight those who fight against our presence. The idea of Afghanistan slipping back into a Taliban-ruled violent, repressive theocracy is repugnant, but so are the accidental killings of civilians and the razing of towns by American forces and the funneling of American money into the pockets of Taliban leaders through public works projects. Now is the time to save face and ask if it’s time to leave. Barack Obama can have his own “Mission Accomplished” moment if he likes. It’s no sin to bug out if what we’re doing in Afghanistan is counterproductive and we got what we came for.

But I’ll sign off with this thought–I’m proud of my country tonight. As I was about to drag my sorry ass to bed, part of me wanted to throw on my clothes and go downtown at 2 in the morning to cheer with my fellow New Yorkers the removal of Osama bin Laden and his hatred from this planet. There is a narrow, joyless view that everything America does it does Energizer Bunny-like for money and oil. Sometimes, it happens, I’m sure. But a more expansive view might allow that Americans have altruism in them and that there is a goodness in us that is worth protecting. Naive perhaps, sometimes, about their own role in the world. But definitely capable of good.

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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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