Thursday, March 31, 2011

Andrew Sullivan: Lost in America

It’s really too bad this Libya situation has caused once rational people to go off the rails, because as a consequence what was once a daily read for me has been rendered all but unreadable. I’m referring, of course, to The Daily Dish, Andrew Sullivan’s online vehicle, which used to be one of my favorite places to stop, morning coffee in hand, for a bit of calm rationality before the predictable nuttiness of the day took over.

Don’t get me wrong. Although I reluctantly support military intervention in Libya, I have absolutely no problem with good faith disagreements on the matter. War is always a hard issue, should always be a hard issue, and we on the left know all too well what it was like to have our decency and our patriotism called into question when we protested ill-advised military adventures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. So you won’t find narrow-minded flag waving like that on this blog.

But as I said yesterday, I get genuinely irked when Andrew Sullivan, once a pro-Iraq war blogger (who, to be fair, came to regret that stance), now wants to lecture those of us who support the UN’s action in Libya but were wise enough to oppose the Iraq misadventure from the get-go. I would’ve let it go after yesterday’s comments, but Mr. Sullivan appears to be hell-bent on pushing the limits of our patience. Or at least mine. Today, for example, Mr. Sullivan posted a very brief piece featuring a picture of Secretary of State Hillary Clinton under the heading: “Amazonian War Mongerers” (why Mongerers instead of Mongers, I’m not altogether sure; must be an English-English thing). Anyway, I only wish I were kidding.

Amazonian War Mongerers. I’ve often thought Mr. Sullivan was a bit tone-deaf when it comes to Americans’ sensibilities about race and gender – well, at least liberal Americans’ sensibilities about race and gender – but Amazonian? Really?

So, anyway, when I do bother to read what Andrew Sullivan has to say about war and foreign policy these days, I can’t help but be reminded of the Albert Brooks-Julie Hagerty film, Lost in America (1985). If you’re not familiar with it, the basic premise is this: Two west coast yuppies named David and Linda Howard, fed up with the pressure and disappointment of their faced-paced corporate lives, decide to cash in their nest egg, buy a Winnebago, and head out on the open road to “find themselves.” But they only make it as far as Las Vegas, where Linda blows their entire savings in an all-night gambling binge. Which prompts David Howard to go on this righteous rant about the nest egg principle:

David: You know it’s a very sacred thing, the nest egg, and if you had understood the Nest Egg Principle, as we will now call it in the first of many lectures that you will get, because if we are ever to acquire another nest egg, we both have to understand what it means. The nest egg is a protector, like a god, and we sit under the nest egg and we are protected by it. Without it, no protection. Want me to go on? It pours rain. Hey! The rain hits the egg and pours off the side. Without the egg? Wet. It’s over. But you didn’t understand it and that’s why we’re where we are.

Linda: I understood the nest egg …

David:Please do me a favor. Don’t use the word. You may not use that word. It is off-limits to you. Only those in this house that understand the nest egg may use it. And don’t use any part of it either. Don’t use “nest.” Don’t use “egg.” You’re out in the forest, you can point - the bird lives in a round stick. And … and … you have things over easy with toast.

That’s my reaction these days when Andrew Sullivan – once a proud supporter of George W. Bush and the Iraq war, and all that that implies – now feels as though he can use the language of anti-war liberalism to lecture me (or, say, Juan Cole of Informed Comment, or Charli Carpenter of Lawyers, Guns and Money) about Pres. Obama’s decision to support the UN No Fly Zone in Libya: Mr. Sullivan, please, do me a favor. Please do not use the language of the anti-Iraq-war movement, because it’s off limits to you. Only those of us who understood the wrong-headedness of the Iraq war from the outset may use that language. And you may not use any part of it, either …

Well, you get the idea. If you were that wrong about Iraq, you forfeited your credibility about Libya.

(Oh, and by the way: Looks like I’m not the only one who sees the usefulness of the nest egg principle speech from Lost In America. Hah! Great minds and all that.)

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

What to Make of This?

The latest drama on Libya:

President Barack Obama has signed a presidential directive authorizing the Central Intelligence Agency to conduct secret operations to support rebels in Libya, according to government sources.

Government officials told Reuters on Wednesday that the president had signed a presidential “finding” within the last two or three weeks. The order is a necessary legal step to conduct secret CIA operations, but does not mean that such operations will actually occur.

In response to the report, White House Press Secretary Jay Carney issued a statement saying he would not comment on intelligence matters.

Alright, I understand that anytime the President of the United States authorizes covert operations in a foreign country (especially doing so before having obtained a UN resolution imposing a No Fly Zone there), it will necessarily raise concerns on the left. And I suppose that it should, although I find it beyond irritating that a guy like Andrew Sullivan – who cheered on George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq – now wants to be the moral and legal arbiter of U.S. foreign policy. (I also find Sullivan’s sneering reference to Libya as “another chaotic Muslim country” to have a certain, I don’t know, bigoted overtone – much like opponents of the Iraq war who suggested Iraqis were somehow incapable of democracy; or the supporters of the Iraq war who viewed all Muslims, from al Qaeda to Hamas to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, as completely interchangeable. But I digress.)

Anyway, here’s the thing. This, unfortunately, is exactly what every president has done with the CIA, since its inception in the late 1940s. The CIA was on the ground in Vietnam long before the United States was at war there; meddled in the affairs of Guatemala dating back to the 1950s; was neck deep in the 1953 Iranian coup d’état that secured the brutal reign of Shah Mohammad-Reza Pahlavi; aided the Chilean military in the coup that brought Augusto Pinochet to power; worked with El Salvadoran death squads for decades; established secret prisons in Eastern Europe to detain and interrogate detainees in the “war on terror” … and on and on and on. I’m not suggesting that any of that was right – it most definitely wasn’t – but note that for decades the CIA was, in almost every instance, on the side of brutal dictators who were oppressing their own people.

And don’t forget that with or without the CIA’s assistance, past American presidents tacitly supported Pol Pot in Cambodia after Vietnam overthrew him in 1978 (later Pres. Reagan doubled down on America’s covert support for Pol Pot, leading to years of civil war there); supported the Shah throughout his dictatorial reign despite his horrific record of human rights abuses; supported the Contra rebels in Nicaragua, many, if not most, of whom formerly worked under the dictator Somoza; and only grudgingly (and ineffectively) came to oppose Apartheid in South Africa in the 198os.

So when I hear that Pres. Obama wants to support a popular revolution against a brutal dictator like Muammar Gaddafi, you’ll have to forgive me if I’m not outraged. Maybe we shouldn’t ever, under any circumstances, covertly support one side or another in a civil war; and if Congress has a problem with it, Congress can make it illegal to support the Libyan rebels just like Congress made it illegal to support the Contras in Nicaragua.

In the mean time, though, this at least President is siding with the people rather than the tyrant in Libya. Given our dismal history of supporting the Shah of Iran and Pinochet and Somoza and Pol Pot and Apartheid in South Africa … I’d say that’s a step in the right direction.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Wait, 9/11 “Truthers” Still Exist?

So, the other day I’m having a conversation with this person who claims to be a progressive, and the strangest thing happens. Now, I’m not going to identify this person by gender, let alone name, because I’m willing to assume he or she is a genuinely decent person in all other aspects of her or his life, and I wouldn’t want this conversation to come back to haunt him. Or her. But, so, anyway, we’re having this conversation about garden variety progressive issues – the corporate-dominated media, the decline of workers’ rights and so on – when this person, out of the blue, says something like, What are we going to do about the fact that the government is lying about the real reasons we’re at war in Libya?? And I thought, Uh-oh, here we go; but I kind of kept that to myself, because I recognize the decision to use military force is always a controversial one – should always be a controversial one – and I expect people to have rather strong feelings about it, pro or con.

But then, as soon as I can catch my breath, the other foot drops. Because this person goes from saying we’re being lied to about why we intervened in Libya to this:

And what about how we’re not being told what really happened on 9/11? Have you ever heard of a group called Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth?

(Um, no, I won’t link to that group’s website.)

So I’m all: What the– ???

Real people still think like this? I thought it was just guys like Ed Asner and Alex Jones; not real live flesh-and-blood otherwise-normal people.

Note, too, that this so-called progressive just dropped it into the conversation, matter-of-factly. From corporate media to unions to Libya to … 9/11 “Truth” – like that’s a perfectly normal progression in a perfectly normal conversation. It’s like one of those moments when you’re having an nice conversation with a co-worker or a neighbor, and all of the sudden he (or she) asks you if you’d like to attend a Klan meeting, as if everybody goes to Klan meetings.

Holy cow.

So, I exited the conversation just as quickly and politely as I could; because, you know … I suddenly realized I was talking to someone who might be clinically insane.

But, anyway, yes, apparently, 9/11 “Truthers” still exist and some of them walk around disguised as normal, every-day progressives. Who knew.

I’m not going to go into the dozens of reasons why the 9/11 “Truthers” are wrong, anymore than I’m going to go into why evolution is a firmly established scientific fact or that human activity contributes to global climate change. If you’re interested, Popular Mechanics published a fairly extensive article debunking a host of 9/11 myths here; deftly handles many of the 9/11 “Truth” movement’s claims here; and addresses the false myth that something other than a passenger jet hit the Pentagon on 9/11, here. Enjoy the real truth, if you’re so inclined.

No, the point isn’t to engage in a debate with people who are simply unwilling to be persuaded by reality. The point is to emphasize (and I can’t believe this point needs to be emphasized) how utterly toxic the 9/11 “Truth” movement is to the progressive cause. Of course, not all “Truthers” are progressives. Jerome Corsi, one of Pres. Obama’s chief character assassins during the 2008 presidential campaign, is known to have drunk the “Truther” Kool-Aid on occasion:

The fire, from jet fuel, does not burn hot enough to produce the physical evidence that he’s produced,” Mr. Corsi said [in a January 2008 interview with Alex Jones]. “So when you’ve got science that the hypothesis doesn’t explain–evidence–then the hypothesis doesn’t stand anymore. It doesn’t mean there’s a new hypothesis you’ve validated. It just means the government’s explanation of the jet fuel fire is not a sufficient explanation to explain the evidence of these spheres–these microscopic spheres–that Steven Jones has proved existed within the W.T.C. dust.”

Nonetheless, as my recent conversation evidences, the 9/11 “Truth” movement apparently attracts at least a handful of erstwhile progressives, and that, as I say, is positively toxic to the progressive movement. Because nothing washes the crazy off a discount-costume-store-powdered-wig-wearing, Don’t-Tread-On-Me-flag-waving Tea Party loon quite like a full-metal left-wing “Truther” conspiracy theorist. The corporate media don’t really want to mock the eminently mockable Tea Party movement anyway; so if they can point to anyone on the left who’s even slightly crazier than the latest grammatically-challenged sign-carrying Patrick Henry-wannabe in full Continental Army regalia, well, believe me, they won’t pass up the opportunity. And the public will look right past the vaguely racist trappings of the costumed winger-loon and say: Look how crazy those liberals are. They think the Bush Administration was competent enough to pull off something like 9/11!

(Apologies to Bill Maher, of course.)

But more to the point, in a general sense 9/11 “Truthers” suffer from the same fundamentally flawed thinking neocons suffer from: Neither group is willing to accept the fact that living in a free society carries with it some major risks that are, to a large extent, unpreventable. Neither group is willing to accept the fact that a relatively small group of individuals – either working as part of some international conspiracy in the case of the 9/11 hijackers, or working essentially alone in the case of, say, Timothy McVeigh – can wreak such an insane amount of death and destruction on us, all with only a relatively small investment of time, effort and expense, and we can’t, no matter how hard we try, absolutely prevent them from doing it again.

On the one hand, neocons look at that risk and they try to sell the public on a complete fraud: That they can provide absolute security against attacks like 9/11, if we only give them unchecked executive power, if we only allow them to take away enough of our individual liberties, to start enough wars, to kill enough people – mostly people with brown skin and names that are hard to pronounce and who happen to worship a “different” God … All we have to do is surrender our personal freedom and agree to endless war, and eventually they’ll kill all the bad guys and we’ll never have to worry about terrorism, ever again.

On the other hand, the “Truthers” want to believe either that the government itself carried out the 9/11 attacks – not some random group of Middle Eastern men – or that the government could have stopped the 9/11 attacks but elected not to. Note that in either scenario, the attacks themselves were preventable: Either the government could have elected not to slaughter its own citizens, or the government could have stopped the 9/11 hijackers from doing it. So … if we only get to the “truth” of what happened on 9/11, we can guarantee it’ll never happen again.


The world’s a dangerous place – and believing in either the necon state security apparatus or the “Truthers’” insane conspiracy theories only helps to distract attention from the real truth: That there will always be a risk that bad people will inflict tremendous harm, here or elsewhere; and that the only way we can make the world safer, little by little (but in all likelihood never all the way safe), is to work tirelessly for peace and understanding and economic and political justice for everyone, including everyone in the Muslim world. But that’s really freaking hard work, and it may be impossible or very nearly so. So it’s much easier to believe in Big Brother, or insane conspiracy theories.

Meanwhile, we’re no closer to the better, safer, fairer world we really need.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 28, 2011

On the Air Again with Tim Corrimal and Friends – Episode 161

… Or, Better Late Than Never.

Well, due to a whole variety of events conspiring to prevent me from posting this yesterday, I wasn’t able to get to it until now. So, without further ado: Episode 161 of the Tim Corrimal Show is now up!

On this week’s show, Tim and I were joined two old friends: our Middle East/North Africa expert, Sarah Cosgrove of Mashrabiyya (@s_a_cosgrove on Twitter), and Andy Wienick (@awienick on Twitter). We primarily discussed the situation in Libya and current line-up of potential Republican candidates for president, and Tim once again gave us the best “Foxisms” of the past week (always worth a listen). On the subject of Libya and the “Arab Spring” revolutionary movements throughout the Middle East and North Africa, you simply must read “Current Middle East Uprisings” on Sarah’s blog. Next to Juan Cole, Sarah is the best source I know on what’s going on over there.

And speaking of Libya, I guess I was a little … um, intemperate … when it came to one Rep. Dennis Kucinich (D-OH), who went on a predictable anti-Obama tirade last week:

A hard-core group of liberal House Democrats is questioning the constitutionality of U.S. missile strikes against Libya, with one lawmaker raising the prospect of impeachment during a Democratic Caucus conference call on Saturday.

Kucinich, who wanted to bring impeachment articles against both former President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney over Iraq — only to be blocked by his own leadership — asked why the U.S. missile strikes aren’t impeachable offenses.

Yeah, that kind of got under my skin. Like, to the point where I suggested that Rep. Kucinich should seriously consider taking early retirement for having made such a outrageous suggestion.

Let me be clear about something. My problem with Rep. Kucinich isn’t over his opposition to the Libyan operation. Nor is it over his, and other liberal Democrats’, argument that the President should have gotten Congressional authorization before committing troops to the UN-imposed No Fly Zone over Libya. I happen to think he’s wrong on both points, as I explained on the show, but there’s certainly room to disagree.

What I cannot fathom is how anyone who purports to believe in small-d democracy could even begin to suggest that there’s a basis for impeachment – meaning, of course, overriding the results of the last presidential election – just because certain members of Congress disagree with the President over a very difficult question of constitutional law. To me, raising the specter of impeachment in these circumstances is disgusting. It’s not an argument that one can make in good faith, and it’s blatantly undemocratic.

It’s worth taking a little time to review the specific constitutional issue involved here. When Kucinich and others say the President was required to get congressional approval before authorizing military action against Libya, presumably they base that argument on Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution, which vests in Congress, not the Executive, the power “[t]o declare War.” And that certainly makes sense in the traditional situation where we are attempting to determine whether another country has done something to the United States sufficient to justify our going to war against it. Even after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Pres. Roosevelt went before Congress to ask for a declaration of war against the Empire of Japan.

But it’s hardly clear that every use of military force requires a formal declaration of war by Congress under Article I, because Article VI of the Constitution defines “the supreme Law of the Land” to include, in addition to the Constitution itself and all duly enacted federal laws, “all Treaties made, or which shall be made, under the Authority of the United States … .” So, say, for instance, the United States enters into a treaty that requires us to come to the defense of an ally if it’s attacked by another country. That’s what treaties of alliance typically do, and that was hardly a concept that was unknown to the framers of our Constitution. But that treaty obligation – the obligation to use our military to defend an ally – would be part of the “supreme Law of the Land” under Article VI; and so it arguably would enable (or maybe require) the President to authorize the use of force independent of Congress’ power to declare war under Article I, Section 8.

Of course, the United Nations itself is a treaty organization, and the UN Charter is a treaty that the United States is party to. So the UN Charter is, in Article VI terms, a “Treat[y] made … under the Authority of the United States,” and is therefore part of the “supreme Law of the Land.” Moreover, Chapter VII of the UN Charter authorizes the Security Council to “determine the existence of any threat to the peace, breach of the peace, or act of aggression and [to] make recommendations, or decide what measures shall be taken in accordance with Articles 41 and 42, to maintain or restore international peace and security.” UN Charter, Art. 39. Article 41, in turn, authorizes the Security Council to take certain non-military actions to try to establish peace or bring an end to aggression, and Article 42 provides:

Should the Security Council consider that measures provided for in Article 41 would be inadequate or have proved to be inadequate, it may take such action by air, sea, or land forces as may be necessary to maintain or restore international peace and security. Such action may include demonstrations, blockade, and other operations by air, sea, or land forces of Members of the United Nations.

So the question arises: If the UN Security Council authorizes military action under Article 42 to stop aggression, as it did when it authorized the No Fly Zone in Libya pursuant to Resolution 1973, can the President of the United States, as the official directly responsible for seeing to it that the United States lives up to its treaty obligations, send American troops into conflict under Article VI of the Constitution, without obtaining a declaration of war under Article I?

While constitutional scholars might argue that point till the end of time, it’s worth noting that Congress – the very entity who’s constitutional authority Rep. Kucinich claims to be defending – Congress has already provided what it thinks is the answer to that question, via the United Nations Participation Act. Specifically:

The President is authorized to negotiate a special agreement or agreements with the Security Council which shall be subject to the approval of the Congress by appropriate Act or joint resolution, providing for the numbers and types of armed forces, their degree of readiness and general location, and the nature of facilities and assistance, including rights of passage, to be made available to the Security Council on its call for the purpose of maintaining international peace and security in accordance with article 43 of said Charter. The President shall not be deemed to require the authorization of the Congress to make available to the Security Council on its call in order to take action under article 42 of said Charter and pursuant to such special agreement or agreements the armed forces, facilities, or assistance provided for therein: Provided, That, except as authorized in section 287d-1 of this title, nothing herein contained shall be construed as an authorization to the President by the Congress to make available to the Security Council for such purpose armed forces, facilities, or assistance in addition to the forces, facilities, and assistance provided for in such special agreement or agreements.

22 U.S.C § 287d (emphasis supplied).

(Note that Article 43 of the UN Charter, as opposed to Article 42, involves long term peace keeping operations, for which U.S. participation does require Congressional approval under 22 U.S.C. § 287d.)

In other words, while there may be an open question as to whether Article VI gives the President, acting pursuant to treaty obligations, the power send U.S. troops into a military conflict without Congressional approval, Congress itself consented to the use of American troops without prior Congressional approval in the event the UN Security Council acts under Article 42 of the UN Charter. So, at least as to the specific situation where the President supplies troops to the UN under Article 42, Congress itself believes the President has the power to do so on his own. And given that the issue here is the power of Congress vis-à-vis the President, I should think Congress’ own opinion on the matter should carry particular weight.

So getting back to Rep. Kucinich: In light of the foregoing, how could anyone argue in good faith that a difference of opinion over the scope of the President’s authority to commit troops to the UN No Fly Zone could amount to an impeachable offense? If you really believe in elections and democracy and all that, the simple answer is: You can’t.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Boy, Did Shakespeare Get It Wrong

… Or, maybe more accurately, Mark Antony got it wrong in Julius Caesar when he said that bit about how the evil that people do lives after them, while the good is interred with their bones.

Take, for example, the apparent liberal hagiography/amnesia on the untimely death of Geraldine Ferraro, the 1984 Democratic Vice Presidential nominee – the first woman selected to run on a major party’s ticket, which was, without question, an event of major historical significance. Don’t get me wrong; I very much appreciate what a big deal that was. The 1984 election was only the second presidential election I was able to vote in, and I, like many wide-eyed young liberals at the time, was enormously proud of my party for taking such a (an?) historical step. And Ferraro seemed like a genuinely likable candidate: She was well experienced and smart, and, best of all, took no grief from anybody. That combination of competence and toughness went a long way to shatter the prevailing gender stereotypes of the day, and for that Geraldine Ferraro deserves much credit.

Unlike a lot of other equally qualified and likeable women in politics, however, Geraldine Ferraro had a fairly glaring character flaw: She was a racist.

Recall Ferraro’s infamous attack on then-candidate Obama when she (repeatedly) said: “[I]f Barack Obama were a white man, would we be talking about this as a potential real problem for Hillary?” As discomforting as that was, a lot of liberals struggled to defend her against claims of racism at the time. As Ta-Nahesi Coates observed:

There is peculiar bit of jujitsu that white public figures have employed recently whenever they're called to account for saying something stupid about black people. When the hard questions start flying, said figure deflects them by claiming that any critical interrogation is tantamount to calling them a racist, which they most assuredly are not. …

It gives me no joy to report that Geraldine Ferraro has now applied to join the ranks of the obviously nonracist. I was 8 when she ran for vice president and vaguely aware that a party that would promote a woman for an executive office might be a party that would one day give a kid like me a fair shake. Thus I’ve retched while watching Ferraro beeline to any television studio that would have her, flaunting her rainbow bona fides, and claiming that she’s being attacked “because she’s white” and demonized as a racist.

“The sad thing is that my comments have been taken so out of context,” Ferraro told Diane Sawyer, “and been spun by the Obama campaign as racist.”

The racist card is textbook strawmanship. As opposed to having to address whether her comments were, as Obama said, “wrongheaded” and “absurd,” Ferraro gets to debate something that only she can truly judge—the contents of her heart.

The bar for racism has been raised so high that one need be a card-carrying member of the Nazi Party to qualify. Had John McCain said that Hillary Clinton was only competitive in the presidential race because she was a woman, there'd be no dispute over whether the comment was sexist. And yet when the equivalent is said about a black person, it’s not only not racist, but any criticism of the statement is interpreted as an act of character assassination. “If anybody is going to apologize,” Ferraro told MSNBC, “they should apologize to me for calling me a racist.”

Okay, actually the more I read about Ferraro’s anti-Obama slur, the less forgiving I become. And it’s all the more alarming when you consider that this wasn’t the first time Geraldine Ferraro channeled her Inner Pat Buchanan. From Ben Smith at Politico:

“If Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn’t be in the race,” [Ferraro] said.

Really. The cite is an April 15, 1988 Washington Post story (byline: Howard Kurtz), available only on Nexis.

However, judging by my Twitter stream earlier today it seems as though all is not only forgiven, but forgotten. I’m not going to call out anyone in particular, because most of what I saw came from genuine friends of mine whose views I respect. But in tweet after tweet after tweet, I saw glowing comments about what a brave soul Geraldine Ferraro was, how she was a dedicated public servant, how she was a martyr for women everywhere … and on an on. For the most part, without a word about her disturbing racist past.

I don’t get it. Yes, she was a figure of tremendous historical importance. So was Henry Ford, but we don’t forget about his anti-Semitism. So please don’t ask me to forget about Ferraro’s racism.

And this isn’t about picking race over gender; it’s not about saying racism is a worse sin than sexism – but it shouldn’t be about saying the reverse, either. If you lionize Geraldine Ferraro while brushing off her racism, that’s really what you’re doing: You’re saying her overcoming sexism is somehow more important than her practicing racism. My question is, why should we have to choose between fighting one or the other? There have been plenty of genuinely qualified non-racist women in both major political parties whom we can and should admire; I’m just not inclined to admire a racist who happened to be a woman of historical significance.

Sorry if that offends, but that’s the honest truth.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Friday, March 25, 2011

Your Friday Clash Song: Running Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday …

In honor of Chicago being named “the most surveilled city in the world,” I give you “Police On My Back,” the first song on the fourth side of Sandinista! (1980) (when it was, you know, an actual record):

I’m running down a railway track

Can you help me? Police on my back

They will catch me if I dare drop back

Won’t you give me all the speed I lack

I’ve been running Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday,

Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday …

(There’s also a great live version here.)

Okay, I actually picked this song because I was up before 5:00 a.m. this morning to get our 7th grader off to school for a trip to Springfield, Illinois, and was out running by, like, 5:05, and this song is featured prominently on my iPod under “marathon songs” (even thought it’s been awhile since I actually ran a marathon) – right between Tom Petty’s “Running Down a Dream” and Bruce Springsteen’s “The Promised Land” … and, anyway, it’s just a great song to run to, for obvious reasons.

But it just so happens “Police On My Back” is also apropos of this recent story from our local NBC affiliate:

If you always feel like someone is watching you in Chicago, it’s because they are.

In less than a decade and with little opposition, the city has linked thousands of cameras — on street poles and skyscrapers, aboard buses and in train tunnels — in a network covering most of the city. Officials can watch video live at a sprawling emergency command center, police stations and even some squad cars.

“I don’t think there is another city in the U.S. that has as an extensive and integrated camera network as Chicago has,” said Michael Chertoff, the former Homeland Security secretary.

New York has plenty of cameras, but about half of the 4,300 installed along the city’s subways don’t work. Other cities haven’t been able to link networks like Chicago. Baltimore, for example, doesn’t integrate school cameras with its emergency system and it can’t immediately send 911 dispatchers video from the camera nearest to a call like Chicago can.

Even London — widely considered the world’s most closely watched city with an estimated 500,000 cameras — doesn’t incorporate private cameras in its system as Chicago does.

And even our idyllic little burg on the city’s west side I’ve noticed surveillance cameras at one major intersection near our house, and the village just installed radar-controlled speed limit signs on another street that – yes – have cameras to snap your picture if you exceed the posted limit.

Predictably, the “authorities” argue increased surveillance helps them do their jobs “more effectively” – which is the catch-all justification for literally every invasion of your privacy and every erosion of your personal liberty since the original Boston Tea Party, and as someone who actually gives a damn about our Constitution and is tired of the constant whittling away of it, I call B.S. The state can’t continually eat away at your constitutional rights just because it happens to make its job easier. Enough already.

But here’s a thought. Courts usually uphold this type of surveillance because it occurs in public, and people are said not to have any real expectation of privacy when they’re out on the street. Of course, anti-eavesdropping laws still apply in public, so one could argue that the no-reasonable-expectation-of-privacy rationale is suspect to begin with. But now, with an increasing number of states considering laws that would make it illegal to record or videotape police officers making arrests and carrying out other official duties, based, in large part on (wait for it) … anti-eavesdropping laws … it seems to me states are undermining their own position with regard to the use of surveillance cameras. I cannot wait for the day when municipalities like Chicago try to argue that uniformed police officers on the clock have some “expectation of privacy” out on the streets that you and I don’t have. If that doesn’t give a judge pause, nothing will.

Until then, though, the police really are on our backs. So, you know what to do.

Turn. It. Up.

© David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

A Short Post About a Long Run

… Not the long run, but a long run.

Okay, I don’t want to brag or anything, but it so happens that I’ve run the Chicago Marathon four times: in 2001, 2002, 2005 and 2006. Well, okay, yeah … I really do, in fact, want to brag, because running a marathon is, like, really hard. Sure, I’m pretty slow – I’m old, too. But like my brother-in-law Ed always says, anybody can run for two-and-a-half, three hours; it’s really hard to run for four or five.

Try it sometime. You’ll see.

But anyway, once you get into running marathons, especially if you train with a group like Team in Training like my wife and I did in 2005 and 2006, you gain entry into this sort of club were some really elite athletes hang out. It’s kind of like George Costanza and the forbidden city: “The legends are true.” And the thing I’ve noticed about a lot of athletes (and by athletes, I mean real athletes, not middle-aged, overweight five-or-more-hour-marathoners like me) is this: sometimes they just don’t get it. Sometimes – maybe often – they don’t realize that they have gifts they really didn’t earn; genetic gifts that allow them to run faster or longer or to be quicker or lither or stronger or whatever.

Yes, of course, the really good athletes expend a tremendous amount of time and energy and effort to exploit those gifts –training, competing, depriving themselves of sleep, obsessing over every detail, living and eating and breathing their particular sport. Which is something to appreciate, for sure. Michael Jordan wasn’t Michael Jordan just because he had boatloads of natural ability; Michael Jordan was Michael Jordan because he worked harder than everybody else, was more dedicated than everybody else, and was more willing to sacrifice whatever had to be sacrificed than everybody else. Without that hard work and dedication, Michael Jordan would’ve been, like, the greatest ball player your local Y had ever seen; with that hard work and dedication, he was a guy with an NCAA championship, an Olympic gold medal and … holy crap!six NBA titles. I totally get that; I even admire it.

Still, it amazes me how often athletes don’t get it. As in, don’t appreciate that they’ve got gifts no one else has. Case in point:

… Joe “McRunner” D’Amico proved hundreds of naysayers wrong Sunday, by completing the Los Angeles marathon in a personal best time after eating nothing but McDonald’s fast food for a month.

The Palatine [Illinois] dad’s time of 2 hours, 36 minutes and 13 seconds was 41 seconds faster than his previous record, and good enough for 29th place overall in the 26.2 mile race.

The 36-year-old munched 23 hamburgers, 24 chicken snack wraps, 63 cookies, three filet-o-fishes, 91 hotcakes and an Aberdeen Angus burger among the 99 McDonald’s meals he ate in the 30 days leading up to the race. His only deviation from the McDonald’s menu was tap water, an occasional runner’s gel supplement and a daily multivitamin.

Let me explain something to the uninitiated: If you can run a marathon in two hours and thirty-six minutes, you’re not human. Not like the rest of us are human, with human limitations. If you’re a seriously sub-three-hour marathoner, you have no idea what it’s like for the rest of us mere mortals to train for and run a race like that. None. You might as well be a different species. And most likely, you don’t even realize it.

So, the thing is, the story here isn’t that a guy ate crappy food for a month and ran a marathon; the story is a guy has these unbelievable (a weaker man might say unfair) genetic gifts that essentially mean he could’ve eaten anything and still run a freaking two hour and thirty-six minute marathon. It’s not the McDonald’s hamburgers that’re the story here; it’s the guy’s metabolism and genetic make up that enable him to burn fuel in a ridiculously efficient manner and enable him to force his body to do, like, otherworldly things. Like run a two hour and thirty-six minute marathon.

Envious? Hell yes I’m envious. I’ve had to kick my own ass so hard just to get across the finish line that it kind of makes me sick to think he could run a marathon in that kind of time; and the fact that he did it while eating junk food – delicious, delicious junk food – makes me even sicker.

But here’s my question: Other than showing off, what was the guy trying to accomplish? Yes, I know, he raised a lot of money for Ronald McDonald House Charities. But you know what? He could’ve raised money without eating junk food. Thousands of marathon runners raise money for charity; my wife and I did. Twice.

So, the junk food was what – a publicity stunt?

Or, was he trying to say it’s okay to eat really crappy food? Because if he was, he’s just dead wrong: The rest of us – the actual mortal human population – can’t and shouldn’t eat that kind of crap; not every day for a month, not even for a week. It’d kill the rest of us. Or just make us bloated, tired and sick feeling – like Morgan Spurlock in Super Size Me.

Of course, I guarantee you that D’Amico’s success will inspire all sorts of folks to eat more fast food and think they can get away with it. Which, frankly, really sucks, because next to none of us has the kind of metabolism or genetic gifts a guy like D’Amico has. So, D’Amico will go on living in this otherworldly place where people run sub-three-hour marathons, and he’ll go on eating whatever he wants to eat. But the people who are “inspired” by him … they won’t be living in that place. They’ll just get fatter and more out of shape and they’ll more than likely never run a 10-K, let alone an insanely fast marathon.

So, um, nice goin’, Mr. D’Amico.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Further Proof of That Long Arc of the Moral Universe Thing …

Funny how things happen. Just last week we got a letter from the pastor of our local Catholic Church (I know the man and he’s a genuinely good guy – albeit a White Sox fan, but there’s no accounting for taste), in which he observed that “[t]he extreme divisions that have been the hallmark of American politics in the last few years seem also to have crept into church life, so that differences are often debated with anger and disrespect …” and that “many people have stopped coming to Mass and participating in the life of the church because of such issues.” He went on to invite former churchgoers in the community to contact him or his staff to discuss whatever concerns they may have, saying “we miss you and we care about you.”

Now it may be coincidental or it may be because he just saw us a few of months ago at my mother’s funeral and realized we hadn’t been there for awhile; but either way, his correspondence was undoubtedly a sincere attempt to reach out to disaffected Catholics in the parish. And as an attempt at fence-mending, it wasn’t bad. But as I’ve mentioned before, the Catholic Church and I don’t really see eye-to-eye anymore, except for that bit about its and my unbending opposition to the death penalty; so my immediate reaction to the pastor’s invitation to hash things out was along the lines of: Be careful what you wish for, my friend.

Because I’m not altogether sure he’d want to hear the particular litany of complaints (see what I did there?) that I happen to have, not the least of which revolves around the efforts then-Cardinal Ratzinger – now Pope Benedict XVI – to get Pres. George W. Bush reelected in 2004. That the Catholic Church – once the foremost practitioner of torture in the world; more recently, a frequent target of brutal torture by dictatorial thugs in South and Central America – would support a man who not only started an illegal war in Iraq but also openly embraced torture and expressed no regret about it was simply beyond the pale. With due respect to the genuinely decent people who practice the faith in good conscience (and we’ve got our share of priests and nuns in my family, so I mean that quite sincerely), that was pretty much the tipping point for me.

But my purpose isn’t to proselytize against the Catholic church but to point out that as all these things are running through my head – as I’m imagining the letter I might write to the pastor explaining how I felt and how, respectfully, I can’t come back – a fellow Chicagoan, Frank Chow, writes a blog post in which he demonstrates that even in the Catholic church the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice:

It's icky, but not oh so icky as it once was.

Political Wire:

American Catholics Supportive of Gay Marriage

In the latest poll showing increasing support for gay marriage, the Public Religion Research Institute finds 43% of Catholics in favor of allowing gay and lesbian people to marry, 31% in favor of civil unions, and 22% who said there should be no legal recognition of a gay relationship.

Key finding: 39% of Catholics approve of the church's treatment of the issue of homosexuality, and 56% of Catholics believe that homosexual sex is not a sin.

This is promising and a sign that times and people are evolving in their thought of teh gay. Maybe the U.S. will give up discrimination for Lent...

I am Frank Chow and I approved this message

As an aside, check out Frank’s blog – there’s lots of messages I approve over there. Or, as we used to say in my old neighborhood: Over by there.

But so here’s the thing: This is pretty astounding. Despite having a very conservative Pope (a Pope who, as Cardinal back during the 2004 presidential election in America, “pleaded with the Vatican to pressure the bishops to step up their activism againstgay marriage”), a plurality of American Catholics support equal marriage rights for gays and lesbians, and a huge majority – 74% in fact – favor legal recognition for committed gay and lesbian relationships, with only 22% opposed.

I mean no disrespect to my friends and relatives who still adhere to Catholicism, but I never would have expected results like that. The phrase “pleasantly surprised” doesn’t quite cover it.

I’m not about to go back to church anytime soon, but this proves a universal and uplifting truth: That people are often better and smarter than their leaders, and that no leader and no institution can suppress the moral evolution of their people.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Death of Legend: RIP Pinetop Perkins, 1913 – 2011

Tremendously sad news:

The last member of an influential era of blues music has died. Pianist Pinetop Perkins was 97 years old when he suffered cardiac arrest at his home in Austin, Texas. He was one of the oldest performers of the Delta blues, and the oldest person to receive a Grammy award, just this past February.

From the biography on Perkins’ official website:

Pinetop Perkins [was] one of the last great Mississippi bluesmen still performing. He began playing blues in the late 1920s, and is widely regarded as one of the best – and certainly most enduring – blues pianists. He has forged a style that has influenced three generations of piano players, and continues to be the yardstick by which great blues pianists are measured.

Born Willie Perkins in Belzoni, Mississippi in 1913, Pinetop started out playing guitar and piano at house parties and honky-tonks, but dropped the guitar in the 1940s after sustaining a serious injury in his left arm. He worked primarily in the Mississippi Delta throughout the 1930s and ‘40s, spending three years with Sonny Boy Williamson on the King Biscuit Time radio show on KFFA in Helena, Arkansas. Pinetop also toured extensively with slide guitar player Robert Nighthawk and backed him on an early Chess session. After briefly working with B.B. King in Memphis, Perkins barnstormed the South with Earl Hooker during the early ‘50s. The pair completed a session for Sam Phillips’ famous Sun Records in 1953. It was at this session that he recorded his version of “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie,” a song originally written and recorded by pianist Clarence “Pinetop” Smith – the influential blues pianist who had died from a gunshot wound at age 24 in 1929. Although referred to as “Pinetop” when he played on King Biscuit in the 40s, it was his sensational version of this song that secured his lifelong nickname.

If you came of age in the Chicago area in the 1970s, there’s a good chance you knew who Pinetop Perkins was: He was part of that legendary blues scene that included the great Muddy Waters – a Chicago icon if ever there was one; a guy so influential the Rolling Stones took their name from one of his songs – along with other giants like Hound Dog Taylor, Howlin’ Wolf and Willie Dixon. These are the guys who essentially invented rock ’n roll – not Elvis Presley or Buddy Holly, and not even Chuck Berry, although he was obviously an early innovator.

No, as Muddy Waters said: The blues had a baby and they named it rock ’n roll.

It was guys like Muddy Waters and Pinetop Perkins who left the Delta, came to Chicago, plugged in their guitars and turned it up – and thus taught the world to rock. Without those great Chicago blues artists, there would’ve been no Eric Clapton or Rolling Stones – not to mention John Mayall’s Bluesbreakers, which spawned Cream, Fleetwood Mac (yes, few people today remember, but Fleetwood Mac began as a Chicago blues outfit), and the Yardbirds, which, in turn spawned the Jeff Beck Group (of which Rod Stewart was an original member), and, ultimately … (shudder) Led Zeppelin. (Don’t get me started on Led Zeppelin.) So, basically, other than the Beatles, almost all other rock ’n roll of the 1960s and 1970s owes its very existence to Chicago blues.

And the thing is: If you were a teenager in Chicago in the 1970s, you knew this. This is what gave us pride in our city – not the godawful Cubs, or the more or less equally godawful White Sox, and not the Bears, who were a mere shadow of their former greatness; and certainly not the city’s politics or its long sad history of racial segregation and divisiveness. It was the music of Chicago that changed the damn world.

Unfortunately, Pinetop was pretty much the last of that group, and now that he’s gone, the music world will never be the same.

So, really, all you can do is let the music do the talking.

Here’s Pinetop playing with Muddy Waters:

And here’s Pinetop and his band playing “Whiskey-Headed Woman”:

Good God, that’s freaking awesome. You will be missed, Mr. Perkins. The world owes you.

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.

Monday, March 21, 2011

How Liberals Debate War

If you’re a fan of David Rees, author of the brilliant comic series Get Your War On (and if you’re not, why not?!), you may recall the quirky posts he wrote some time ago on the various “Golden Ages” of Josh Marshall’s Talking Points Memo. Funny stuff, and, I think, well-intended.

But now Mr. Rees may want to declare another Golden Age of TPM, because once again Mr. Marshall shows us liberals how to have a debate without eating one another alive. The subject: Military intervention in Libya. His position: He’s against it. His tone: Eminently reasonable.

Let’s back up. Yesterday Mr. Marshall wrote a piece called “Just a Bad, Bad Idea,” in which he laid out what I think is the most cogent argument against the Libya No Fly Zone and the related military strikes authorized by the United Nations and carried out with the United States in the lead role. I should point out, in the interests of full disclosure, that I am increasingly coming to the opposite viewpoint – that we had to act to stop Gaddafi before he slaughtered thousands of innocents (or, better put: continued to slaughter thousands of innocents) – but I’m hardly gung ho about it. Anyway, in yesterday’s piece Mr. Marshall focused on what he sees as “the three biggest problems” with our current North African adventure:

First, insurrections like these by poorly organized rebel forces depend hugely on momentum and the perceived weakness of the leader. Not long ago Qaddafi’s authority appeared to be crumbling. … By this weekend, without massive outside intervention, it’s pretty clear Qaddafi had already won.

A week ago a relatively limited intervention probably could have sealed the rebels’ victory, preventing a reeling Qaddafi from fully mobilizing his heavy armaments. But where do we expect to get from this now? It's not clear to me how the best case scenario can be anything more than our maintaining a safe haven in Benghazi for the people who were about to be crushed because they’d participated in a failed rebellion. So Qaddafi reclaims his rule over all of Libya except this one city which has no government or apparent hope of anything better than permanent limbo. Where do we go with that?

Second, it’s difficult for me to distinguish this from an armed insurrection against a corrupt autocrat that looked to be winning and then lost. That sort of thing happens a lot. Only in very specific circumstances is there any logic for us to intervene in a situation like that. … This is ugly and it’s brutal but a lot of people getting killed in a failed rebellion isn’t genocide. …And unlike situations where violence can destabilize the larger region, in this case our presence seems more likely to destabilize the larger region.

Finally, the talk of exit strategies is always a bit off the mark in these situations. … The better question is this: can you maintain the initiative in getting to your goal. In this case, we go in and then we’re stuck. …

It looks more like once we’ve closed down Qaddafi’s air forces we’ve basically taken custody of what is already a failed rebellion. We’ve accepted responsibility for protecting them. Once we recognize that, the logic of the situation will lead us to arming our new charges, helping them get out of the jam they’re in.

All of which is, as I say, cogent enough – except that as to the second point, Mr. Marshall is wrong to suggest that the only legitimate reason to intervene in a conflict of this nature (other than for purposes of national defense, which is simply not implicated here) is to prevent genocide. The United Nations has the authority to demand that the government of any member nation stop slaughtering its citizens, even if there is not ethnic animus behind the slaughter (which is what genocide means); and U.N. has the authority to back that up with military force, if it becomes absolutely necessary – and, of course, if the Security Council approves it. See U.N. Resolution 1970 (Feb. 26, 2011), calling for an immediate cease fire in Libya; and U.N. Resolution 1973 (March 17, 2011), authorizing the use of force to impose the No Fly Zone.

In fact, one major problem I have with Mr. Marshall’s analysis – and the arguments mounted by quite a few critics of the Libyan intervention – is that it assumes this is an American military action rather than a United Nations action in which the United States is participating under 22 U.S. C. § 287d. (My friend John Whitehouse – @existentialfish on Twitter – posted excellent discussions of the legal basis for U.S. military involvement here, here and here.) Moreover, as U.N. Resolution 1973 states, one of the critical factors the U.N. Security Council considered in deciding whether to impose the No Fly Zone was the March 12, 2011 decision by the Council of the Arab League calling for it. So this is hardly a situation where the United States is acting alone – nor is it a situation where the United States is, on its own, “tak[ing] custody of what is already a failed rebellion,” to use Mr. Marshall’s words.

But my purpose here isn’t to pick nits with Mr. Marshall. Rather, my purpose is to praise Mr. Marshall for showing how real liberals debate issues like the current military intervention in Libya. Because today – the day after posting what is, as I say, as cogent an argument against U.S. involvement in Libya as I’ve seen anywhere – Mr. Marshall posted a lengthy e-mail response he received from a U.S. government official (expressing the writer’s own personal views, not the government’s) in favor of U.S. intervention in Libya:

The Arab world is in a state of remarkable transformation. But you would be wrong to look at these as individual transformations, individual revolutions, within individual nation-states. … Rather, Libya today occupies a position at the heart of what has been a regional phenomenon, an Arab Spring if you like, that has been defined by a remarkable feeling of solidarity across the Arab world.

By responding favorably to the rebels, and indeed the Arab League’s pleas for military intervention, we are helping to speed Qadhafi’s departure. It isn’t a sure bet, but it’s certainly a far better one than doing nothing. Another successful dictator toppled can encourage the democracy movement to continue, which I believe is in the interests of the region and the world, not to mention our own.

Furthermore, by intervening on the side of the rebels in Benghazi, we are in effect tangibly allying ourselves with the cause of the protesters for the first time since these protests started. And this, too, is in our interests, as there is currently a great deal of anger towards the United States for our past realpolitik-driven friendships with certain of these autocrats. Supporting the transformation in Libya can go a long way towards erasing some of that resentment.

What if we had ignored the rebels’ pleas for our assistance? What if we had stood by and done nothing? As you say Qadhafi probably would have prevailed, and the payback likely would have been terrible, for the people in Benghazi and elsewhere. Democracy would have failed in Libya, and stalled elsewhere.

All of which would have been covered exhaustively on Al Jazeera, of course. Under the overall narrative that the United States, after launching a $1.5 trillion invasion of Iraq, ignored the suffering of the people of Libya despite the region’s urgent requests for assistance. That we let the democracy movement die in Libya, that we betrayed the Arab people and showed that we do not really care about democracy after all, only about our narrow economic interests. Seriously, people on the street were already using these lines with me last week, even before the going got really bad for the rebels.

The damage to our standing in the region would have been enormous and long-lasting, of that I have no doubt. And this most certainly would not have been in our interests.

Of course, I’ve already tipped my hand and so you already know that my sympathies lie with these comments more so than with Mr. Marshall’s (which is not to say I discount Mr. Marshall’s concerns about getting mired in another foreign entanglement – not by any means). But notice how neither Mr. Marshall nor his opponent attacks the other, calls the other un-American or unpatriotic. There’s no kicking of hippies’ shins here, nor was the term “baby killer” invoked; there’s just an honest discussion about an extremely difficult situation.

And I think that’s because as prone as we liberals are to snipe and in-fight, we really do respect the very idea of dissent, debate and honest disagreement. Especially over the most difficult issues we face, like the decision whether to launch Tomahawk missiles and drop bombs on another country. We don’t view our country the way we view a football team – to be blindly supported and rooted for, even when it loses the damn Rose Bowl 45-to-9 … But I digress. Instead, we actually appreciate the enormous weight of the decisions the country faces, and we recognize that our leaders, Republicans and Democrats alike, don’t always make the right decisions.

So while I tend to support the intervention in Libya – for now – I will always appreciate the fact that we on the left don’t blindly cheer for every military action our country takes.

(By the way, a special tip of the hat to David Pleasant (@dpleasant on Twitter), who alerted me to both posts on TPM.)

© 2011 David P. von Ebers. All rights reserved.