Wednesday, March 23, 2016


March 23, 2016: THE COWBOYS

          We gave a brunch last month for some old and new friends and I was sitting next to someone on our couch that I've known for 35 years, let's call him David, and he leaned over to me and said something about Iraq, to the effect of, what if we had left Saddam Hussein in power?

          Amen to that, brother.

          And then this week I read the very long piece in the current Atlantic about Obama's foreign policy, and my admiration for that policy was confirmed. Obama is cautious. Prudent. He believes in diplomacy, not war. He understand the complexity of the world and its interconnections. He gets it about tribalism in the Middle East. He knows something of the history of the region. He is trying to point America in the direction of the Pacific, as the coming region, a region where we might do more good than in the snake pit of the Near East..

          Most of all, he understands that America is not the savior of the world. It cannot impose democratic systems on societies that do not want them, have no experience with them, and are not ready, and may never be ready, for them.

          So naturally Thomas Friedman, writing today in the New York Times, devoted his column to critiziaing Obama's views as expressed in the Atlantic. To be brief about it, I have long despised Friedman's views on foreign policy. He was one of the principal hawks promoting American intervention in Iraq in 2001, one of the idiots who drank the Kool-Aid, believing in the carefully calculated lies of whichever Chalabi (sp?) it was, who convinced the Neo-Cons that Saddam had weapons of mass destruction even though the international experts--I'm thinking primarily of Hans Blix--knew there weren't, having actually been in Iraq looking for them and found none.

          Has anyone noticed we are still there? Still involved? Is the situation better than it was? As Obama points out, Iraq presented no serious threat to the security of the United States at the time. Is the situation in Afghanistan better than it was? I wrote a piece about the Soviet experience in Afghanistan and read a book about the British experience in Afghanistan and it all still applies. The Soviet intervention, ten years worth, was an utter disaster. Afterwards a Soviet ambassador to the U. S. warned  someone at the State Dept. not to make the mistake they had made. Wasted words. The English in the nineteenth century tried to impose, by force, a tribal leader on the Afghans who would rule the country, and wound up losing an entire army, every single man killed. Nothing has changed. There's an excellent movie out now, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, with Tina Fey, that graphically depicts how things currently fare in Afghanistan, and only the technology has changed. More helicopters. More IEDs.

          I blame Woodrow Wilson for much of this. Make the World Safe for Democracy. Right, Woody, you naive fool. American intervention stems from this doctrine, although, to be sure, there was plenty of infantile talk in the nineteenth century about America being the Redeemer Nation, showing the world how to live free, and this talk went on even while we were exterminating the Indians, another tribal culture, and buying and selling black human beings, breaking up families, treating human beings like cattle. WE did this. Holier than thou Americans, smug, lucky in their isolation between two oceans, and consequently stupid.

          It's a cowboy dumbness. It believes in myths, Shane, really fast with a gun, quick on the trigger, defending the innocent family, killing Jack Palance, then riding into the sunset. And all those who followed, Clint Eastwoods riding into town, killing the bad guys, almost always all by themselves, then riding on. That's who we are, we Americans, heroes bringing law and order to chaotic places. The appalling thing is to see this mentality at the very top, among people who actually run things and have serious power, and seeing how they persist at these levels no matter how many terrible mistakes they make. Caution? Prudence? Not for them.

          Serving in the military, actually firing weapons at other people, and being fired at? Not for them.

          Not until this country faces the truth about itself and so much of its past will it ever crawl out from under its own arrogance. But I don't have a whole lot of hope. Myths are extremely difficult to kill. In a country that seldom pays attention to its own history, its own moral failures, myths can only flourish.


Tuesday, March 1, 2016



March 1, 2016

          Every weekday morning I sit in Starbuck's and spend too much for a cup of tea--in Starbuck's tea costs more than coffee--and read the NY Times and brood. This morning it was an op ed page piece telling us that in Europe Donald Trump awakens memories of Benito Mussolini. As well he should. He has the Republican establishment in a panic, although they created him. He makes me distinctly nervous. He makes the Europeans nervous, as well he should. He is a demagogue, indifferent to policies or the political process, bent on power no one knows how he will wield, an obvious narcissist, racist, blowhard, willing to accept the endorsements of the KKK, a man with no discernible moral standards, with a history of failure, a man who offers no ideas or positions or point of view, who does not argue but wins the crowd with ad hominem insults, and turns every crowd into a mob.

          The Republican Party created their own monster, and now he rages about the countryside raising havoc. The Republican Party created Fox News and Rush Limbaugh, both lying machines, and Glenn Beck and any number of others of their kind, and let them deliberately misdirect the public and play to their prejudices and resentments and buried hatreds. Now we all pay the price. The media love it because it's such good theater, and the mob loves it because it gives voice to their hatreds. Their racism. Their bitterness at their own struggle to make ends meet, which they blame, rightly, on forces beyond their control. And the manifest injustice of seeing the CEO of the corporations they work for making 400 or 500 times what they make, and flying around in their private planes. How ironic that the leader of this mob flies around in his own private plane.

          At some point in the future a clever writer will untangle this disaster and tell us why it happened, although by then it may be too late; we may have, or have had, a President Trump, and the country will be lost. I certainly hope not. But even if the country is not lost this time around, it will remain in trouble, because the fundamental flaws will remain. Let me list them.

          The survival of a republic requires an educated public. Our educational levels are steadily sinking in relation to the rest of the world. If education is adequately funded at all, it is only for the STEM disciplines, science, technology, math, which are thought to be useful, while all the rest are, in the mind even of our own highly educated President, evidently, merely an indulgence. This is an ongoing tragedy. The founding fathers we revere so much were all educated in the classics. Read Jefferson's letters to his nephews about this. He tells them what to read, and it is the classics, and the Enlightenment political philosophers; and it is this that created the Constitution. This is what made Washington, Jefferson, and Madison and Hamilton and James Monroe such wise leaders politically. Now our political leaders are mostly lawyers. Jefferson's reading lists are truly formidable. But he fully expected his nephews to grow into political leaders themselves. That was their duty. That remains the duty of every voter in a republic--to educate himself about politics, to lose his innocence and plunge into it, to study it and to serve. To be a citizen is to take on responsibility for government, to get involved, to follow it closely. And to vote. Fewer than half the eligible population votes in the typical American election now. And that's criminally shameful, and one of the primary reasons the republic is unlikely to survive.

          What else? Money in politics. This is so obvious it hardly needs comment. Every thinking citizen I know believes the Supreme Court decision in Citizens United was essentially corrupt, based on a disastrous nineteenth century precedent that corporations have the legal status of a person and designed to give free rein to the rich to control the politics of the country. A decision, significantly, engineered by the former corporate lawyers on the Court. "The business of America is business," said Calvin Coolidge in the 1920s.. As anyone can see, business bought Congress a long time ago. The lobbying industry is huge in this country; lobbyists write legislation, spend money taking legislators on junkets to golf clubs, all the machinery of corruption firmly in place. Only legislation can change this fact, and what are the chances of that? What are the chances of an amendment to the Constitution destroying Citizens United?

          And then? Ideological rigidity. A few years ago I wrote a piece in this space on why I am a Democrat, which has been lifelong with me, and it has to do with human nature and my understanding of the nature of human society in America. I think most political ideologies are based on just such views, which seem to emerge from particular personality types. More authoritarian types turn Republican. Less authoritarian turn Democrat. It sometimes puzzles me that I'm a Democrat, since I come from a Republican family. In any case, these are deep-seated differences, built into us, which means they are probably, in whatever names, Republican, Democrat, Whig, Tory, Copperheads, Know-Nothing they appear in history, permanent. Which means that the practice of politics will always require compromise. It was just that that Barack Obama tried to practice when he first entered office. The refusal to compromise is what is now coming home to roost on the Republican right. Their inflexibility, their rigidity is doing them in. And it was planned. That's the most remarkable thing. Nothing this President proposed was ever going to get enacted as long as the Republicans held power in Congress, and this was deliberate. Now it's an issue with the Supreme Court, and the egregious Scalia's replacement. They won't even shake hands with Obama's nominee. This is a version of treason. It brings government to a standstill, and it is one source of the mob mentality that engulfs the country. It embodies the smugness, the contempt for the political process, that people instinctively hate about what politics has become in this country. Normally, no politician can afford to be ideologically pure. To his public he must pretend to be if he wants to get elected, but in practice he must work with the other side, make concessions, make deals, tit for tat, in order to get a step closer to what he wants. It takes time and it takes a certain level of prevarication, but that's how it works. In office you serve all the people, not just your side. Purity has no place in politics. But one side has closed its doors. Which is what totalitarian governments do.

          I could go on, and probably will before too long. I am deep in Sag Harbor politics, chair of one of the village's regulatory boards, dealing with the public every two weeks at our meetings, and it's not easy. We have been sued already, will probably be sued again. Hot issues surround us. Vanity Fair will be publishing a piece on these issues in just a month or two. I get paid nothing for this. It's my duty as a citizen. If we don't do it, our village will die. Think globally, act locally. Don't get me wrong, I'm no hero. I just take citizenship seriously. So must we all, if our country is to survive.