Belaboring the Obvious

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Well, that's an interesting take...

... on "peace." The New York Times reports yesterday that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates thinks that the "demilitarization of Europe — where large swaths of the general public and political class are averse to military force and the risks that go with it — has gone from a blessing in the 20th century to an impediment to achieving real security and lasting peace in the 21st...."

Most countries in NATO, apart from the U.S., have militaries suitable to their territorial defense, and probably in excess of any threat they might encounter (near zero, these days). The U.S., on the other hand, has been overspending for so long that it thinks overspending is normal.

Aside from that, how to deconstruct the notion that not buying huge new weapons systems is "an impediment to... lasting peace?" Gates is not only being positively Orwellian here, he's also being highly disingenuous. What he means, of course, is that the well-to-do NATO countries aren't spending enough on U.S. weapons. They're cheating U.S. arms manufacturers out of profits!

Some of this has to do with the government of the Netherlands falling due to its continuing participation in the Afghanistan debacle. Some of it, undoubtedly, is also due to recent calls for the U.S. to remove its nuclear weapons from EU countries. However, just step back and wonder in amazement at the insanity of suggesting that not doing what the U.S. wants is an "impediment to peace." The United States has not only been at war for going on nine years in Afghanistan (as have a number of NATO allies) and nearly seven years in Iraq, but has broadened those wars into Pakistan and Yemen. In those areas, there is no peace.

Where has there been peace for more than sixty years? Yup, that region which had been previously the focal point of wars for more than ten centuries--Western Europe. Precisely the place that Gates now wants to start overarming itself, presumably so it can go on supporting U.S. aims far afield from NATO's core territorial interests.

Consider the possibilities, though. If Western EU countries start spending on defense at the horribly excessive rates which the U.S. has come to view as ordinary, the money will have to come from somewhere, very likely encouraging a diminution of the European social safety net, which may bring on both internal civil strife (along with a corresponding lopsided distribution of wealth as in the U.S.) and cross-border economic conflicts. If those appear and intensify, the gross expansion of various militaries in Europe might result in use of the military inside those newly militaristic countries, or for the use of one's military against neighboring countries. Ultimately, a breakdown of cooperation inside the EU would probably bring an end to the EU.

Exactly the sort of problems common to Europe prior to the end of WWII. Western Europe has avoided war in its region by not following the example of the U.S., and it's getting well-weary of the decision to follow the U.S. into Afghanistan, because of NATO commitments, after nearly a decade of stasis in Afghanistan. The dissolution of the coalition government in Holland over Afghanistan is evidence enough of that.

One could see the first indications of this U.S. pressure to suddenly increase arms budgets in U.S. relations with Canada after 9/11. Canada, with a population of only 35 million or so, couldn't possibly meet the demands of the Bush administration to greatly increase defense spending without sacrificing in other ways--the most obvious being virtual abandonment of its national health care system, which, at the time, seemed the most likely underlying reason for the Bushies' demands. Can't have a workable public health system so close to the U.S., as a desire for one might rub off on us....

Virtually all of the first-world nations today can afford social safety nets that minimize the sort of civil strife that tore apart Germany between the two world wars because they don't spend absurd amounts of money on war materiel, large standing armies, or war itself. As the U.S. continues to decline in power and influence, because of its military and war spending, the more it will try to spend on those items in a vain attempt to stem that decline, and the more stark the contrast will become between the relatively stable countries of Western Europe and the increasingly unstable United States.

This across-the-bow shot by Gates at Western Europe has nothing to do with actual military requirements, and much to do with that growing contrast.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Why is that, when reading this...

... account of XPAC, the line, "How about a Fresca?," keeps running through my head?

Friday, February 19, 2010

Uh, Mr. Obama... about those two guys...

... you picked to straighten out government spending (read: slashing Social Security and Medicare), you know--Erskine Bowles and Alan Simpson?

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

You've got new polls out that suggest:

Sixty percent (60%) of voters think that neither Republican political leaders nor Democratic political leaders have a good understanding of what is needed today. Thirty-five percent (35%) say Republicans and Democrats are so much alike that an entirely new political party is needed to represent the American people.

Nearly half of all voters believe that people randomly selected from the phone book could do as good a job as the current Congress.

Recent BLS data show that lower-income, less-educated workers are disproportionately represented in the ranks of the unemployed (those with less than a high-school education are 51% of the unemployed/underemployed), and this same poll says these are exactly the same people who feel least-represented by government today.

And, here you are, appointing two fiscal jerks who want to create more poor people....

One would think that you and the Dems would be doing your best to clean up your act--to marginalize the DLC/New Democrat types that think emulating Republicans is a good thing. When you get this kind of polling--that says people think there's no discernible difference between the Repugs and Dems--it's about time the Dems woke up and smelled the coffee. Ladies and germs, you've got a problem, and that problem isn't that your Wall Street bankster contributors are fickle friends.

Bowles and Simpson say that you say "everything is on the table."

That's a lie, and you know it. No one will say one substantive word about the twenty-nine-ton gorilla in the living room--horribly inflated military/national security and war costs. Those are just the costs of doing big business (except that big business isn't paying their share of those costs--we are).

If they--and you--simply refuse to acknowledge the obvious, the only conclusion one can draw is that they--and you--are willfully stupid.

We are paying combined national security and war costs of approximately a trillion dollars a year and that's the huge, dominant share of discretionary spending, and the prime reason for deficits, and those costs have been inflated by a conscious program of privatizing and outsourcing national security tasks and by weapons programs that are, too often, make-work for military contractors and/or are wish-fulfillments for every wet dreamer in the Pentagon. We are, quite simply, breaking the budget to further enrich the corporate world.

So, what do you do? You appoint people who want to privatize Social Security and gut Medicare. How do I know that? Because that's the first thing they wanted to talk about upon appointment. They weren't talking about slashing military spending and ending idiotic, illegal wars.

Dumb, dumb, dumb.

[And, on edit, I'll bet these two bozos are not about to say anything about bringing the top marginal rates back into line with the pre-Reagan days, or, heaven forfend, the 94% rate during the last declared war. These accumulating deficits have occurred because we spend, militarily, as if we are at war (and then add war costs on top of that), and yet, we do our absolute best not to tax the rich, who benefit from war, to pay for those wars. That's just plain dumb.]

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Ah, I see that CPAC is in full swing...

... and Shooter and Junior have been returned to the fold. There have been many stirring addresses by people held in the high opinion of the greedy and undemocratic, even as many of those orators have used teleprompters to make jokes about Obama using teleprompters.

It's difficult to sum up in a single sentence such a complex menagerie of political charlatans as is CPAC, but, H.L. Mencken comes close:

The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.

The great conundrum of CPAC, year upon year, is that its participants always seem to be so damned jolly about being fed shit sandwiches. Must be the size of the portions....

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Might this be a more pervasive problem...

... than even Greenwald surmises?

Glenn looks at this from the viewpoint of how Guantanamo has perverted the justice system, and he's, to my mind, quite right in his estimation.

However, I've been thinking about this at a more mundane level for some time. Where I live, jury duty is a protracted business. One must be on call and available for three months, every three years, so, more than people in other areas, I find myself called for a lot of trials.

Invariably, during those jury deliberations, there is a tendency on the part of jurors to dispose of cases quickly, and jury forepersons will often call for an initial vote without much deliberation. Often, those initial votes produce, roughly averaged, a two-thirds majority for conviction. Only when there are holdouts does the actual business of deliberation and examination of the evidence begin, and not always in earnest.

This general trend to unqualified belief in the government's position has bothered me, because it runs counter to the whole point of a "jury of one's peers." That principle, long-held in jurisprudence, assumes that ordinary people, in the face of the considerable accumulated power of the government, will be more inclined to defend the innocence of one of their own than to side with a powerful state that could just as easily, capriciously or mistakenly, put them in jeopardy, too.

And yet, in practice, exactly the opposite happens. Certainly, in some instances, the government's case affirms racial or ethnic prejudices in a given jury. I've seen that happen. But, for the largest part, the most powerful force in effect at the moment deliberations begin is the mere fact that the prosecution has brought a case to trial. For the largest percentage of jurors, that seems to lend more credence to the proceedings than the evidence presented. That's the near-religious faith in the government's infallibility of which Greenwald speaks.

That's a very worrisome trend, for a whole host of reasons. First, of course, is that the average juror is unaware of the circumstances leading to trial--the desperation to produce a suspect might lead an investigation to people who are innocent. Second, the average juror is likely not to understand the ways in which a prosecutor can lead a jury to conclusions that the evidence does not support (I've seen prosecutors use opening and closing remarks, for example, to assert a truth for which they presented no evidence whatsoever, and that works on some jurors). Nor do jurors see the increasingly bitter relationship between prosecutors and defense lawyers regarding the production of evidence (I've seen prosecutors hand previously-undisclosed evidence to the defense moments before a trial began, when there's no time to evaluate that evidence, in order to technically comply with rules of discovery and yet still leave the defense at a disadvantage), and the general trend of prosecutors to see winning cases as the highest priority, with truth and justice of considerably lesser importance.

I don't have any firm conclusions about the reasons for this phenomenon, just best guesses. Media and politicians focus on crime because it's a hot-button issue for most people. People, quite naturally, fear having their lives disrupted by criminals, and it's of little consolation to them that per capita crime rates have, in the very long term, been declining. To many people, that's just statistics, and doesn't have the emotional impact of the nightly news.

Civics education may play a role, too. I've encountered jurors who adamantly believe that the entire system is backwards--that the proper way to proceed is the assumption of guilt, not innocence (and, when asked if they themselves would prefer that sort of treatment, often answer that they're not criminals, and if brought to trial could easily prove they were not guilty--a self-delusion if ever there was one).

For most of the last century, the state has also enlisted science as its ally, even though the question of whether or not the science is properly applied or is rigorous enough to be conclusive is still an open question in most trials, and most jurors are ill-equipped to evaluate scientific findings, no matter how many episodes of CSI they may have watched. Perhaps the most egregious recent example is that of the use of fingerprint analysis to arrest Brandon Mayfield, an Oregon lawyer accused of complicity in the Madrid train bombings. The FBI specifically, and law enforcement generally, has promoted in the public mind the notion that fingerprint evidence is specific, unique and foolproof (in some absolute sense, this is true--even identical twins have different fingerprints), and yet, the Mayfield case showed that the manner in which fingerprint evidence is interpreted is perishingly far from conclusive and absolute. (Mayfield's case also shows fairly clearly that loose interpretation of the evidence may simply be the wedge by which the state manipulates the judicial system toward a desired end. Mayfield was a family law lawyer with connections to the Muslim community and was assumed by the government--without any evidence--to be a material witness in the aiding and abetting of terrorism, in part because he defended one of the so-called Portland Seven. His arrest on the fingerprint evidence enabled exceedingly broad search warrants of his home and office which the government hoped would yield incriminating evidence, or items which could be nuanced as material support for terrorism. Those search warrants would likely not have been approved by any court without the FBI affirmation of a positive fingerprint match--evidence which turned out to be completely erroneous and which was based on inadequate and superficial analysis. Why the government decided to look at Mayfield's fingerprint for a match--among the hundreds of millions of individual prints in its files--hasn't been properly explained.)

Paradoxically, prosecutors have been vigorous in protesting the introduction of new DNA evidence in settled cases for which there have been convictions. The state's belief in science apparently does not extend so far as its use in calling the state's infallibility into question. Of the many cases which the Innocence Project, for example, has successfully reopened, virtually all have depended upon scientific technologies such as DNA mapping, and a significant percentage of those overturned cases show prosecutorial or law enforcement misconduct in the extraction of false confessions for use at trial. (Here, one can find direct analogues in the use of torture at Guantanamo, to both extract false confessions from suspects and false testimony from witnesses.)

Fast fading, too, is the ancient prescription of Maimonides that "[i]t is better and more satisfactory to acquit a thousand guilty persons than to put a single innocent man to death." This is not the sort of thinking that dominates the mind of the average juror walking into a jury room, and yet, it should. Somehow, and for reasons I don't completely understand, many jurors are able to divorce what treatment they would wish for themselves from what the state intends for others. Perhaps, because they are generally law-abiding, they simply cannot imagine any circumstance in which their lives or liberty might be threatened by the state, and yet, examples abound of law-abiding citizens finding themselves in the position of defending themselves against a state system heavily weighted in favor of the state. Think, for a moment, about the thousands of teenagers wrongly sentenced to juvenile detention in the case of the two corrupt judges in Pennsylvania. The general presumption of most of those concerned was that the judges were acting in accordance with law, and even those in the legal system who were suspicious of their actions deferred to them because they were perceived as politically powerful. That case is a prime example of how the power of the state can be misused, and yet, there's little skepticism on the part of jurors, generally, about whether individuals with the power of the state behind them are behaving properly, dispassionately and without self-interest.

Ultimately, I think it comes down to a population increasingly deferential to authority, and tolerant of the use of force, both physical and prosecutorial, by the authorities, the root cause of which is likely fear. Fear of crime is often a more powerful motivator than actual personal experience of crime. Fear of terrorism clearly inclines one toward a dependence upon authority to a much greater degree than terrorism itself (Nate Silver estimates the odds of being a victim of airborne terrorism as about 1 in 10,000,000, while the odds of being struck by lightning are about 1 in 500,000, and yet, there's a helluva lot more fear of terrorism than of lightning, and much more expectation that government do something to allay one's fears of terrorism).

So, is there a chicken or egg feature to this fear? Is government, generally or specifically, encouraging this fear in order to advance its authority? It would certainly seem so if one looks at the last eight years' worth of governmental excesses in the name of fighting terror and the concomitant diminishment of civil rights which has been a result of those anti-terror programs. Even at the local level, ordinary people are remarkably tolerant of police use of tasers, even when it's apparent that their use is intended to enforce deference to authority, just so long as local politicians portray the taser as a law enforcement tool which enhances law and order.

Perhaps it's just human nature to think it's okay to cast off rights which one doesn't expect to have regular need of in daily life, if government promises increased security by doing so. It might also be simple human nature to think of suspected criminals as having lives different than one's own which incline them to suspicion (and presumed guilt). And, perhaps, it is these inclinations which prompt many people to find comfort in the government's depiction of some "other" as an existential enemy not worthy of rights, even when that presumed enemy is a fellow citizen.

The increasingly authoritarian character of our society today should rest uneasily on people's shoulders, and ought to prompt a rational skepticism of government, rather than blind trust. It was that unwarranted trust that Dietrich Bonhoeffer addressed when he said: "First they came for the Communists, but I was not a Communist so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Socialists and the Trade Unionists, but I was neither, so I did not speak out. Then they came for the Jews, but I was not a Jew so I did not speak out. And when they came for me, there was no one left to speak out for me."

The first place that such skepticism ought to be in evidence is in the cloistered rooms of the nation's juries, but, in my experience, it often is not, for many of the same reasons that torture and indefinite detention by an increasingly powerful government are too often tolerated by people who have yet to find themselves in need of those human and civil rights they see as an impediment to the state's aims and intentions, which they credulously assume are the same as their own.

Tuesday, February 02, 2010

Move over, Dougie Feith...

... there's a new dumbest guy on the planet.

[Usual mumblings about right-wing chickenhawk intellectuals getting other people killed and never having to bear any responsibility for their war cheerleading. At least Goebbels, the great propagandist for war and empire, had the decency to commit suicide when his empire came apart at the seams....]

Monday, February 01, 2010

If he were smart...

... Punxsutawney Phil would just say, "fuck it," and stay inside tomorrow.

Because, when the fate of the world is in these hands, we're pretty much screwed:

Every so often at Davos you have a short, startling conversation which completely changes the way you think about a subject — and I just had one of those standing next to Dan Barber, the chef of Blue Hill Farm. He’s a very smart, very funny guy, who’s passionate about food on every level from preparing the ingredients of the dishes in his restaurants to the logistics of feeding the planet.

I bumped into Barber as we were milling around the Davos conference center, waiting for the panel on “rethinking how to feed the world” to begin. I asked him what he thought of the food in Switzerland; he compared in [sic] unfavorably to what he was fed by the airline on the way over here. “I haven’t seen a vegetable since Thursday,” he added, looking a bit overwhelmed by the number of things that the Swiss seem to be able to do with bread, cheese, and bit of veal.

When the panel started, I could almost see the steam coming out of Barber’s ears. It featured two heads of state; two agribusiness CEOs; a representative from the World Bank; and Bill Gates. [emphasis added]

Ah, Davos, where the rich and powerful come to save the world. I keep wondering if Gates suggested shutting down the world for a minute and restarting it.