Archives for: April, 2006

Hot Rod Lincoln

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Going through some pictures the other day, I came across this one from when I was in college. I went through a motorhead phase in high school, and souped up an old 1968 Lincoln Continental that I bought from a friend after his grandfather passed away (it had been sitting in his back yard for years – the trunk was so big he used it to store firewood!). That car was my passion for many years. Part of the reason was that it was just so cool and unique. I’ve never quite understood the specialness I see people feel about themselves when they buy something they think is cool and show it off. As you can probably tell, I don’t have a problem with showing off, but I don’t get jazzed from it unless it’s something I’ve worked on myself – I have to create or alter something to feel proud of it. The other part of the reason was that it was my first semi-adult attempt to master something new. Before buying it I didn’t know much of anything about cars, but I wanted to learn, so I enjoyed the challenge.

When it was time to start college, I drove it cross-country with my friend Chris, from Rhode Island to California. I’ve done 4 other cross-country drives since then, but that first one was by far the strangest and most memorable. I don’t have time to tell that tale now, but I will try to come back to it in a future post…Anyway, I had the car for about 10 years – I finally sold it around the time I finished grad school, as I simply couldn’t afford the upkeep, and my passion for it had dissipated by then.

That car is also the reason I have a scar under my left eye. The hood had a jammed hinge, and when I removed the hood to work on it, the hinge shot up in my face and hit me so hard it knocked me flat on my back (those old solid metal hoods were heavy, so the hinges were meant for serious lifting). This happened not long after I had received some other minor injury working on it, and when I showed up at school the next day with stitches on my face, a friend commented, “that car’s going to be great when it’s done – too bad you’ll be dead by then.”

For those too young to know the reference, Hot Rod Lincoln was a hit country song (I didn’t know it myself until I started getting comments on the car).

Paying Twice To Fill Up Your Gas Tank

Cross-posted to TPMCafe

Since Bush’s proposals for dealing with the price of gas have turned out to be nothing more than gimmicks, here’s the Senate Republicans’ election year plan for dealing with high gas prices: cut $100 checks to Americans to help them pay for it.

Just a week ago the Republican House passed an energy bill laden with tax breaks for oil companies (on top of the many subsidies and tax breaks passed in previous years). They did this despite record oil industry profits (last year, Exxon Mobil posted the highest profits ever for a single company in US history). So it looks like there will be no added revenue coming into the government from the oil industry (or anywhere else) to cover the cost of these $100 checks. Which means these checks will be paid for with deficit spending. When spent by US drivers, a good portion of each of those $100 checks will end up in the coffers of the Saudis and other foreign oil producers. In all likelihood they will then use some of that money to continue buying up US Treasury bills, which finance our deficit spending.* We, our children, and our grandchildren will then – through our federal taxes – pay them interest every year on those treasury bills.

Some things in life are priceless – for everything else, there’s deficit spending.

* h/t to Martin Lobel

How Would a Patriot Act?

A while back I added a link to my blogroll for Glenn Greenwald’s blog, Unclaimed Territory. Glenn’s political blogging is second to none, and I’ve been impressed seeing him go from a total unknown six months ago to being one of the most widely read progressive bloggers (Senator Feingold even quoted his blog in the Senate last month). Part of the reason I’m so impressed is that, while the political blogosphere has become very, very crowded over the past few years, the top-tier of political blogs (in terms of popularity) hasn’t changed much, and Glenn has managed to break through into that top tier. One of the main reasons I gave up regular political blogging a while back was that it was simply too hard to get heard. But Glenn’s blog demonstrates that if your writing is consistently compelling and informative, people will pay attention, and your words can have very real influence.

Glenn has written a short and inexpensive book, How Would A Patriot Act?, and it was made available for pre-order on amazon.com yesterday. In just 24 hours it has moved to #1 on Amazon’s Top Sellers list. I’ve added a link to it in my sidebar, as I’d like to do my part in keeping it high on that list. I haven’t seen the book yet, but it sounds like it addresses the same issues as his blog. I can’t emphasize enough how important I think it will be in getting people to understand the dangers the Bush Administration presents to the long-term health of our democracy, as the mainstream media are simply not discussing the Constitutional principals that are at stake (see here, here, and here). It’s also remarkable that the press has chosen to ignore the Bush administration’s utter dishonesty in its statements concering the warrantless NSA wiretapping program, both in Bush’s public statements and in his administration’s dealings with Congress. If you know me, you know I don’t throw around these kinds of accusations lightly (one of the maddening things blogging about the Bush administration is that even though they’ve taken our politics to such an extreme, the media treats it all like a “he said, she said” debate, and moderates like me end up sounding shrill). This is not a typical Democrats vs. Republicans, left vs. right policy debate, this is about the very nature of our government. Here’s Glenn’s summary:

What I hope will be the book’s principal impact is to cast a very bright light on the fact that all of these Bush administration scandals which are always discussed in isolation — lawless detentions, secret prisons, the use of torture, illegal eavesdropping, etc. — are merely symptoms of a profound political crisis which our country faces, brought about by the fact that this administration has adopted radical theories of power whereby the President literally and expressly claims the right to act without restraint, including those imposed by law. The powers seized by this president are exactly those powers about which the founders most urgently and explicitly warned, and which they sought, first and foremost, to prevent.

A substantial portion of the book is devoted to highlighting the ways in which the administration has used rank fear-mongering and an endless exploitation of the terrorist threat to attempt to obscure and justify these abuses. Those manipulative tactics have not only enabled them to embrace these most un-American powers right out in the open, but they are also threatening to alter, perhaps irreversibly, our national character.

Perhaps most importantly, the book documents the fact that even when all other intended checks on government excesses fail — when the media, the Congress and the courts are co-opted or are otherwise neutralized — Americans always have the ability, inherent in our system of government, to put a stop to abuses and excesses, provided they choose to exercise that power. But to do so, it is necessary that it first be understood just how radical and dangerous our government has become under this administration, and making the case that we have arrived at exactly that point is the primary purpose of the book.

Demonstrating to Americans how radical and lawless this administration has become is not difficult — the undisputed facts make the case by themselves. But the national media barely discusses these issues at all, let alone highlights them. For that reason, I’ve been arguing that there is no more important objective than persuading Americans of the profound crisis our country faces as a result of this administration’s radical theories of its own power.

Digby has written a review of the book, and he emphasizes the key point that this is not a simple set of policy disputes whose importance will fade with time as so many others have. This is about the future of our government and our country:

This is an issue with which every American, regardless of party, should be concerned. The founders knew that relying on the good will of men in power is stupid and we are seeing their predictions come true before our very eyes. The modern Republican leadership may currently have a monopoly on authoritarian impulses, but they are by no means the only people in this country who could be seduced by this Republican notion of executive authority. The constitution is what protects all Americans from the dark side of human nature when it has power over others, regardless of party or political philosophy. Those of us who worry about this usurpation of the constitution and degradation of the Bill of Rights know that this is not a passing fashion that will easily be tucked back into its former shape. Once you allow powerful men to seize power it’s awfully hard to persuade their successors to give it back.

…Unless we insist upon accountability for what these people have done, I fear that the country will not be able to recover. People need to see that our system of government can not only survive such assaults on its integrity, but that justice and the rule of law will reassert themselves under responsible leadership. It must be publicly demonstrated that this doctrine of unlimited presidential authority is unacceptable and Unamerican.

Funnies

Some things to make you laugh:

Farewell, My Monkey

As you can see, I’ve moved my blog to the top of the site. The blog is the only part of my site that isn’t gathering dust, so I thought it made sense to move it up. I’m still fond of the old toppa.com home page, but it’s about 10 years old now, and it’s time to move on. It shall be forever memorialized here, with these screenshots:

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The Boys

It’s definitely time for another look at the boys. Here’s Kai at his first t-ball game a couple of weeks ago. He’s had a couple more games since then, and he’s been having a lot of fun. I’ve been enjoying going to the games too – at least partly because it forces me to sit down and relax for a couple hours!

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And here’s Eidan. He’s been crawling for a week or so now, and he’s starting to pull himself upright. Time to break out the baby gates!

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And Now For Something Completely Different: A Rational Look at Iran

Update: wow – TPMCafe put this on their home page (it’ll probably only be there for today)

Cross-posted to TPMCafe

It seems the bitterness of the debate over Iraq has stifled rational discussion on what do to about Iran’s nuclear program. Many on the right are going down the same war-mongering path that got us into Iraq: doing everything they can to pump up the direness and immediacy of the threat, and rejecting any proposal short of attack with the now very tired analogy of Chamberlain-appeasing-Hitler. Many on the left see the Bush administration’s actions so far as too similar to what it did in the run up to the Iraq invasion, leading them to reject anything it says or does as dishonest. The war in Iraq has had such a corrosive effect on our political discourse that it’s hard to find intelligent, productive analysis on Iran these days. But there is some out there, and I’ve found at least some of it. First, Steve Clemens at the Washington Note has an excellent post from back in February on why the internal dynamics of Iranian politics matters in this:

…there are numerous forces inside Iran working overtime to impede Ahmadinejad from fulfilling his ambitions — while America and Europe are doing much to empower him and give him exactly what he wants.

The question of checks-and-balances in Iran is important — whether they are theocratic or democratic institutions. We need to understand how executive authority in Iran flows — or Europe and the U.S. may, out of ignorance, empower Iran’s president while undermining other players who keep the blustery rhetoric of Ahmadinejad just that.

This fiery, anti-Israel, nuclear-obsessed President in Iran failed to get his preferred Oil Minister past the Majles-e-Shura-ye-Eslami, or Islamic Consultative Assembly three times. Finally, he had to compromise with other power centers in Iran’s government — who wanted competent manager in that post rather than one of Ahmadinejad’s retainers.

…[Quoting Nasrin Alavi] “In fact the president has less power than any of his Islamic Republic predecessors. Ayatollah Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader, has seemingly been startled enough by Ahmadinejad’s disruptive tendencies to grant the expediency council (a non-elected body headed by Rafsanjani) oversight of the presidency.”

…[Quoting Kamal Nazer Yasin] Hardliners evidently believe that confrontation with the West on the nuclear issue could help regenerate a sense of national purpose among Iranians. Political apathy has proliferated in Iran in recent years, due in large measure to the government’s inability to address pressing economic problems.

It seems that one of the highest objectives of European and American nuclear negotiators should be to pursue a diplomatic track with Iran that chokes off fuel to Ahmadinejad’s nuclear populism — and working with elements beyond his office and which appeal to Iran’s broader public would be a constructive step.

…The hardliners are facing rising opposition from a moderate faction, which appears to enjoy support from Iran’s supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei… Ahmadinejad’s pursuit of a radically conservative political agenda quickly prompted Ayatollah Khamenei to distance himself from the president’s faction. The supreme leader, apparently seeing a need for Iran to have a political counter-balance to the presidential faction, has reached out to centrists…

Given this political environment in Iran, Bush’s tack of ratching up the confrontational rhetoric strikes me as exactly the wrong thing to do, as it will only strengthen Ahmadinejad’s hand domestically. Clemon’s also points out that Bush rejected a key opportuntity to work on defusing this issue back in 2003:

[Quoting Gareth Porter] Lawrence Wilkerson, then chief of staff to secretary of state Colin Powell, said the failure to adopt a formal Iran policy in 2002-03 was the result of obstruction by a “secret cabal” of neo-conservatives in the administration, led by Vice President Dick Cheney.

“The secret cabal got what it wanted: no negotiations with Tehran,” Wilkerson wrote in an e-mail to Inter Press Service (IPS).

The Iranian negotiating offer, transmitted to the State Department in early May 2003 by the Swiss ambassador in Tehran, acknowledged that Iran would have to address US concerns about its nuclear program, although it made no specific concession in advance of the talks, according to Flynt Leverett, then the National Security Council’s senior director for Middle East Affairs.

Iran’s offer also raised the possibility of cutting off Iran’s support for Hamas and Islamic Jihad and converting Hezbollah into a purely socio-political organization, according to Leverett. That was an explicit response to Powell’s demand in late March that Iran “end its support for terrorism”.

In return, Leverett recalls, the Iranians wanted the US to address security questions, the lifting of economic sanctions and normalization of relations, including support for Iran’s integration into the global economic order.

Leverett also recalls that the Iranian offer was drafted with the blessing of all the major political players in the Iranian regime, including Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khomeini.

Realists, led by Powell and his deputy, Richard Armitage, were inclined to respond positively to the Iranian offer. Nevertheless, within a few days of its receipt, the State Department had rebuked the Swiss ambassador for having passed on the offer.

Exactly how the decision was made is not known. “As with many of these issues of national security decision-making, there are no fingerprints,” Wilkerson told IPS. “But I would guess Dick Cheney with the blessing of George W Bush.”

Clemons also suggests we emulate the Israeli approach to Iran:

Nearly everyone I spoke to in Israel who ranged in political sympathies from the Likud right to Maretz left thought that the tone of the [US] AIPAC conference had been too shrill and that Israel thought it wrong-headed and too impulsive to be engaged in saber-rattling with Iran at this stage… Israel’s national security thinkers and diplomats are on the side of logic — and it is in American national interests to hear the Israeli position…

On the question of what an attack on Iran might look like, Seymour Hersh created a lot of buzz a couple weeks ago with his New Yorker article, where he cites sources saying that the US might attack Iran’s “hardened” underground nuclear facilities with nuclear weapons. Dr. Jeffrey Lewis throws cold water on this notion, with a very detailed analysis explaining that if we wanted to take out these sites, we could do it with conventional weapons. However, he also wrote a post over a year ago where he knocks down one of the favorite talking points of the right – that the Israeli strike on Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981 significantly slowed Saddam’s nuclear program, and that we need to take this same approach with Iran. This is not only wrong, it would more likely accelerate the Iranian program:

Dan Reiter, a professor at Emory University, has written The Osiraq Myth and the Track Record of Preventive Military Attacks [PDF] arguing that “closer examination of the Osiraq attack reveals that it did not susbantially delay the Iraqi nuclear [weapons] program and may have even hastened it.”

…[Iraqi nuclear scientists] were also unanimous in dating Saddam’s pre-Gulf War effort to acquire a nuclear weapon through a clandestine uranium enrichment program to the days immediately following the Israeli attack. The effect of the attack was probably to transform a “virtual” bomb program into a very real one that may or may not have succeeded without the intervention of the Operation Desert Storm.

If Tehran is pursuing a virtual bomb, as I and others have suggested, then the military option will likely collapse diplomatic efforts, further radicalize the Iranian regime, and guarantee a crash program for the bomb.

Lastly, Richard Clarke and Steven Simon wrote a New York Times Op-Ed a few days ago laying out the chess moves that would likely follow any US military action:

Now, as in the mid-90′s, any United States bombing campaign would simply begin a multi-move, escalatory process. Iran could respond three ways. First, it could attack Persian Gulf oil facilities and tankers — as it did in the mid-1980′s — which could cause oil prices to spike above $80 dollars a barrel.

Second and more likely, Iran could use its terrorist network to strike American targets around the world, including inside the United States. Iran has forces at its command that are far superior to anything Al Qaeda was ever able to field…

Third, Iran is in a position to make our situation in Iraq far more difficult than it already is. The Badr Brigade and other Shiite militias in Iraq could launch a more deadly campaign against British and American troops…

No matter how Iran responded, the question that would face American planners would be, “What’s our next move?” How do we achieve so-called escalation dominance, the condition in which the other side fears responding because they know that the next round of American attacks would be too lethal for the regime to survive?

Bloodied by Iranian retaliation, President Bush would most likely authorize wider and more intensive bombing. Non-military Iranian government targets would probably be struck in a vain hope that the Iranian people would seize the opportunity to overthrow the government. More likely, the American war against Iran would guarantee the regime decades more of control.

So how would bombing Iran serve American interests? In over a decade of looking at the question, no one has ever been able to provide a persuasive answer. The president assures us he will seek a diplomatic solution to the Iranian crisis. And there is a role for threats of force to back up diplomacy and help concentrate the minds of our allies. But the current level of activity in the Pentagon suggests more than just standard contingency planning or tactical saber-rattling.

I don’t have a smart conclusion where I lay out all the answers – I don’t think anyone has those answers. But the path we seem to be on now – where many Bush supporters are seeking to maximize hysteria (along with a media that likes scary, simple stories) by pushing this as some sort of cartoonish OK Corral showdown – does nothing but play into Ahmadinejad’s hands, and will take us to a very dangerous place.

Goodbye, Andreas Katsulas

In researching my political post yesterday, I discovered the actor Andreas Katsulas passed away in February. He had been in some movies (I think his biggest role was the “one-armed man” in Harrison Ford’s The Fugitive), but I knew him as G’Kar on Babylon 5. He and Peter Jurasik (who played Londo) were by far the best actors on the series. Their scenes together were always masterfully performed, and the episodes that revolved around their relationship (like Dust to Dust) were among the best. I was always amazed at how much emotional range Katsulas was able to demonstrate, given all the alien headgear he had to wear as the lizard-like G’Kar. He – like Patrick Stewart on Star Trek – was one of those rare TV actors who could take dialog that would sound corny or flat if it were performed by any other actor, and made it sound great.

JMS, the creator of Babylon 5, wrote a heartfelt post about Katsulas’ passing.

A House Divided

Cross-posted at TPMCafe. The version here has been updated.

This was posted on Ain’t It Cool News back in February, but I just came across it yesterday. ABC is working on the pilot episode for a series that may air in the Fall, called “A House Divided:”

In the near-future, the unthinkable has happened. A Liberal President is back in power. How liberal? Well, he’s raised taxes to the point where Middle America has had just about enough. A small group of farmers have decided “Hell No!” They’re not paying anymore. One of these farmers, a good-natured retired Gulf War II vet, just trying to get by and raise his family, through a series of highly believable government mishaps, and the manipulations of a well-stocked Kansas militia, ends up becoming the head of this escalating conflict. As the pilot ends, Northern Kansas succeeds [sic] from the United States.

Yes, the red-blooded, patriotic farmers must save us from the evil, tax-and-spend Democrats! Hollywood liberal bias anyone? Nevermind that there are more acts of terrorism commited in the US every year by radical right extremists and hate groups than by international terrorists. It seems that 9/11 has made folks forget the Oklahoma City bombing. Hopefully the show is more careful about glorifying militia groups than this summary suggests.

I’ve got another idea for a series – it’s a little crazy and completely unbelievable, but hey, it’s just TV: a “compassionate conservative” Presidential candidate is in an election that’s so close it must be decided by the Supreme Court. In a decision relying on bizarre legal reasoning, the Court awards him the Presidency. With his allies in Congress, he then governs from the far-right, slashing taxes for the wealthy and massively increasing pork-barrel spending, leading to a staggering increase in the federal debt our children will inherit. In the wake of dramatic terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon on 9/11/01, he invades Afghanistan and topples the Taliban regime (which is now resurgent). Then he secretly decides to invade Iraq too, even though it wasn’t involved with 9/11, but publicly pretends he’s hoping diplomacy will work. Then – using intelligence known at the time to be dubious for justification – he launches the invasion. A short time later he declares victory, but with no plan to secure and rebuild the country, it turns out the war isn’t really over. The US military – ill-prepared for counter-insurgency warfare – is unable to stop an insurgency that grows out of control. Secret policies lead to the torture of Iraqi prisoners, and no one in authority is held accountable. Meanwhile, on the domestic side of the war on terror, he declares an American citizen an “enemy combatant,” locking him up in solitary confinement for three years without charge.

With a campaign that owes much of its success to good-ol’ boy hucksterism, homophobia, and fear-mongering, he narrowly wins re-election. In his second term, emblematic of widespread cronyism and the de-professionalization of many federal agencies, FEMA responds abysmally to a predicted hurricane disaster in New Orleans. Waste, fraud, and abuse become almost impossible to detect across federal agencies, due to the virtual elimination of Federal whistleblower protections, Congress’ abdication of its oversight responsibilities, and the White House’s obsession with secrecy.

And then, after all this, in the climax of the story, when it’s revealed he’s been secretly violating the law by directing the NSA to eavesdrop without warrants, and when he declares he is not bound by the new anti-torture law, nothing much happens. Only one senator condemns his actions, incisive blog posts are written, and the President’s popularity drops, but not much else comes of it.

I know some of the plot twists seem really far-fetched when you stop and think about them for a minute. But like most TV shows, the key to its success is the audience’s willingness to go along for the ride.

Big Country’s Stuart Adamson: Underrated

Stuart Adamson was the singer, lead guitarist, and primary song writer for Big Country, my favorite band. I’ve always been dazzled by his guitar work, but not being a musician myself, I was never really able to find the right words to describe what I was hearing. When I meet folks who play guitar, I always have to recommend they give a listen to Big Country, as most are not familiar with Adamson’s work, but I’ve never been able to explain exactly why he’s so good. The other day I came across Tom Kercheval’s blog – he’s an independent musician – and not only is he a Big Country fan, he listed Adamson as his primary influence, and unlike me, he’s able to explain Adamson’s talent:

…the thing that always struck me about Stuart’s playing was not so much his lead playing (although it was great) but his rhythm guitar playing, particularly the odd chord structures he came up with. To this day, he’s one of the few guitar players that gives me fits when trying to figure out what he’s playing. His use of droning, open strings when playing chords was so appealling to me, and the Scottish/Celtic sound of the playing as well. He is so underrated. Beyond belief underrated. I still think the album Steeltown is a guitar masterpiece. Listen to that one with headphones and just hear the guitar symphony that is going on on most of those songs – tons of parts interweaving with each other, creating a huge, totally unique sound. Just brilliant. Like no one else.

In regard to Steeltown, I would add that it is also a masterpiece lyrically. Unfortunately, despite a 4-star review from Rolling Stone when it came out, it went nowhere in the pop charts. I think the album was musically too intricate, and lyrically too dense, to stand a chance on pop radio. But those are the qualities that have given it staying power – more than 20 years after it’s release, the opening track Flame of the West can still send chills down my spine.

This bio piece provides a good explanation for what inspired his songwriting, and what gives it the rare quality of being deeply personal yet political at the same time:

My mum and dad also had some great friends who played folk and country music (my mum does a mean Patsy Cline) and they would come to our house after the bars were closed and people would sing through the night. This made me aware of the power of the song and how music was interwoven with the lives of the working class Scots I grew up amongst. I would watch these big rough, hard men declare their love of family and the land — emotions they would be embarrassed to admit to in conversation — in songs old and new. I realised a lot of my schooling was solely aimed at my learning to accept my place in the British class system and railed against it. I believe the measure of a man is in his actions and not his social background (maybe this is why I like the US…another disenfranchised Celt)… A lot of the darkness of the Steeltown album comes from remembering my first experiences of the prejudice of class and nationality and the obvious truths that little had changed in my adulthood. The desire to write initially grew out of just wanting to be a “real” band and then I found I was driven to communicate some of the joy and frustration of the human experience…

Those are the people I grew up amongst and I could see the beauty in such simplicity as well as the anger and beaten acceptance. I think that frustration and learned apathy is the daily bread of the great majority of people in the world and as such represents the greater part of life experience, certainly in the western world and is to me a fertile source of inspiration.

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