Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Celebrating secession while rewriting history

We're moving into the 150-year anniversary of the Civil War with all sorts of interesting stuff. Earlier this month, I posted about the Disunion series of ongoing articles, diary entries and other contemporary accounts, and historical assessments the New York Times has started to run. It's fascinating, it really is.

But it's also another opportunity for the right-wing, particularly in the South, to try to rewrite history. Oh, the South will be celebrating the war alright, but in their eyes - at least among many white southerners - it's become a kind of Tea Party struggle for small government and states' rights. Slavery? Oh, that was just a minor detail, too insignificant to really mention.

From the New York Times:
...as the 150th anniversary of the four-year conflict gets under way, some groups in the old Confederacy are planning at least a certain amount of hoopla, chiefly around the glory days of secession, when 11 states declared their sovereignty under a banner of states’ rights and broke from the union.

The events include a “secession ball” in the former slave port of Charleston (“a joyous night of music, dancing, food and drink,” says the invitation), which will be replicated on a smaller scale in other cities. A parade is being planned in Montgomery, Ala., along with a mock swearing-in of Jefferson Davis as president of the Confederacy.

In addition, the Sons of Confederate Veterans and some of its local chapters are preparing various television commercials that they hope to show next year. “All we wanted was to be left alone to govern ourselves,” says one ad from the group’s Georgia Division. ...

“We in the South, who have been kicked around for an awfully long time and are accused of being racist, we would just like the truth to be known,” said Michael Givens, commander-in-chief of the Sons, explaining the reason for the television ads. While there were many causes of the war, he said, “our people were only fighting to protect themselves from an invasion and for their independence.”

Incredible, isn't it? In reality, the Civil War was all about slavery. As author James W. Loewen points out, the North went to war to preserve the Union, not to end slavery, although their motivation gradually changed. But the South seceded entirely because of slavery.

In order for slavery to survive, it didn't just need to remain legal in the South, but to expand. Older slave states increasingly depended on the economics of breeding and selling slaves to newer slave-holding areas, especially as the soil in older areas became depleted. The election of Abraham Lincoln caused such a reaction in the South not so much because they expected slavery in their states to be prohibited, but because they feared that new slave states wouldn't be created in the expanding West.

As a side note, the latest post in that Disunion series I mentioned, this one talking about Harriet Tubman, includes a paragraph about the disgusting economics behind selling slaves. Slave-owners liked to pretend that slavery was best for the slaves themselves (hopelessly incapable of running their own lives, you know), but it's really hard to believe how far self-deception can go sometimes.
Although it lay on the border between North and South and had few large plantations, the part of Maryland east of the Chesapeake Bay was an especially hazardous place to be a slave. Soil depletion and economic stagnation had left many local planters with more field hands than they needed – as well as chronically short of cash. By the mid-19th century, the Eastern Shore had become known as one of the nation’s principal “breeder” regions, where slaves were frequently sold to slave traders, speculators who sent them south to the burgeoning cotton and sugar plantations of the Gulf Coast. As a child, Tubman had seen two of her own sisters sold away, and heard her parents’ anguished tales of others taken before her birth. Four of her remaining siblings had escaped, three of them helped by their sister Harriet. Only Rachel had remained.

Confederate leaders were open about this at the time, and contemporary accounts made it absolutely clear that secession was all about slavery. It's only afterward that their justification changed to "states' rights" (which, you'll remember, was still being used to support segregation in the 20th Century). Yeah, the poor South was just defending itself in the War of Northern Aggression (even though it was the South that attacked the North to begin the war).

The passion that the Civil War still evokes was evident earlier this year when Gov. Bob McDonnell of Virginia designated April as Confederate History Month — without mentioning slavery. After a national outcry, he apologized and changed his proclamation to condemn slavery and spell out that slavery had led to war.

The proclamation was urged on him by the Sons of Confederate Veterans, which asserts that the Confederacy was a crusade for small government and states’ rights. The sesquicentennial, which coincides now with the rise of the Tea Party movement, is providing a new chance for adherents to promote that view.

From the Sons of Confederate Veterans website:
The citizen-soldiers who fought for the Confederacy personified the best qualities of America. The preservation of liberty and freedom was the motivating factor in the South's decision to fight the Second American Revolution.

Slavery? No, who could ever believe that slavery had anything to do with the war? It was entirely about the "preservation of liberty and freedom." How ironic is that?

And they're not the only organization pushing that view. The Texas State Board of Education, for example, has been very busy rewriting history (as well as economics and science). Here's an excerpt from an interesting article about that:
For generations, apologists for the Confederacy have claimed that secession was really about the tariff, or states’ rights, or something else -- anything other than preserving the right of some human beings to own, buy and sell other human beings.

That being the case, the education of schoolchildren in my state should include a reading of the Cornerstone Speech made by Alexander Stephens, the vice-president of the Confederacy, on March 21, 1861. With remarkable candor, Stephens pointed out that whereas the United States was founded on the idea, enshrined in Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, that "all men are created equal," the new Confederacy was founded on the opposite conception:
The prevailing ideas entertained by [Thomas Jefferson] and most of the leading statesmen at the time of the formation of the old constitution, were that the enslavement of the African was in violation of the laws of nature; that it was wrong in principle, socially, morally, and politically ... Those ideas, however, were fundamentally wrong. They rested upon the assumption of the equality of races. This was an error. It was a sandy foundation, and the government built upon it fell when the "storm came and the wind blew."

Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea; its foundations are laid, its corner-stone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery subordination to the superior race is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.

But now, with the Tea Party movement - filled with ignorant, and often quite bigoted, white conservatives - the Civil War gets a makeover. Now it's all about the long struggle for small government and states' rights.

Slavery? Oh, come now! How could you think that had anything to do with it? It's probably that Muslim Kenyan in the White House who's forcing that interpretation on all of us "real Americans." Well, you really can't trust those people, can you?

More Bug


OK, I know I told you about Bug just the other day. But this is seriously funny stuff.

I promise, no more Bug for awhile.

Monday, November 29, 2010

Ingrid Pitt

I've never been a fan of horror movies, and I don't think I'd ever heard the name of Ingrid Pitt, who died last week at the age of 73. But according to her obituary in the Telegraph, she really had quite a life.
She was born Ingoushka Petrov on November 21 1937 in Poland, interrupting attempts by her father, a Prussian engineer, and Polish-Jewish mother to escape from Nazi Germany to Britain. Her parents were on a train to leave the country when Ingrid Pitt's mother went into labour, forcing them to get off and seek medical help. Unable to escape afterwards, they were eventually rounded up by the Germans in 1943, when Ingrid and her mother were separated from her father and interned at the Stutthof concentration camp.

In 1945, with the Red Army closing in, the Nazis marched survivors towards Germany; but when Allied aircraft strafed the roads, Ingrid and her mother managed to escape into a snowbound forest. By the time they were found by the American Red Cross, the war had been over for several weeks without their realising it.

Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Ingrid spent three months in hospital and was not expected to recover. But she survived to be reunited with her elderly father in Berlin. ...

In the early 1960s Ingrid Pitt joined the Berliner Ensemble,... But the political climate in East Germany was not to her liking; neither did her outspoken criticism of communist officials impress the government there.

Her dissent brought her to the attention of the Volkspolizei and she determined to flee Berlin on the night of her planned stage debut, diving into (and nearly drowning in) the river Spree, which runs through the city. In a romantic twist, she was rescued by Laud Pitt, a handsome lieutenant in the US Army, whom she later married.

(photo taken from the Manchester Morgue)

She does look familiar, and I think that's from her role in the Clint Eastwood film, Where Eagles Dare. But apparently, I missed something:
Considered Britain's "Queen of Horror", chiefly on account of her impressive fangs and equally formidable embonpoint, Ingrid Pitt loomed large in a bold and brazen era of erotically-charged vampire pictures in the 1970s....

Her screen career had taken off after she played a supporting role in the Second World War action adventure Where Eagles Dare (1968). Her good looks and eastern European accent commended her to Hammer studio executives, who cast her as the seductive vampire Carmilla in the The Vampire Lovers (1970).

The film called for nude scenes, earning Ingrid Pitt the accolade of "the most beautiful ghoul in the world". Its blend of horror and sex did well at the box office and Ingrid Pitt was quickly cast as another buxom bloodsucker, opposite Christopher Lee in The House That Dripped Blood (1970).

Later, she became a writer, and even wrote her autobiography in 1999. Here's one brief excerpt (there are others, too, at her official website):
The guards gave their dogs a bit of slack to help the lazy 'Yids' to get a move on. Huge black shapes jostled and pushed at me. I was too terrified even to whimper. My hand was welded to my mother's but it didn't seem to help. I wanted to run away somewhere, anywhere. For a moment I was out of the crowding figures and in the glaring light - and that was even worse. The shouting and crying was horrendous. Everyone was running, stumbling. A number of times I would have fallen and been ground into mincemeat underfoot if it hadn't been for my mother's strong hand. I was crying now and, in my fear, trying to sit down. My mother knew something I didn't and wasn't allowing me to give way to my terror. And I wasn't her only concern. My father's head was bleeding again and in spite of his determination to keep on his feet it was touch and go whether he would make it to wherever we were headed. A couple of times we found ourselves on the outside of the bustling crowd. Even I knew it wasn't a good place to be. There were men in daunting black uniforms with sticks and dogs with sharp teeth.

She had a remarkable life, wouldn't you agree?

The 9 Circles of Scientific Hell


This is a very clever post from Neuroskeptic, describing the nine circles of scientific hell (with appropriate apologies to Dante). Here's the explanation of each level:
First Circle: Limbo
"The uppermost circle is not a place of punishment, so much as regret. Those who have committed no scientific sins as such, but who turned a blind eye to it, and encouraged it by their awarding of grants and publications, spend eternity on top of this barren mountain, watching the carnage below and reflecting on how they are partially responsible..."

Second Circle: Overselling
"This circle is reserved for those who exaggerated the importantance of their work in order to get grants or write better papers. Sinners are trapped in a huge pit, neck-deep in horrible sludge. Each sinner is provided with the single rung of a ladder, labelled 'The Way Out - Scientists Crack Problem of Second Circle of Hell"

Third Circle: Post-Hoc Storytelling
"Sinners condemned to this circle must constantly dodge the attacks of demons armed with bows and arrows, firing more or less at random. Every time someone is hit in some part of their body, the demon proceeds to explain at enormous length how they were aiming for that exact spot all along."
Fourth Circle: P-Value Fishing
"Those who tried every statistical test in the book until they got a p value less than 0.05 find themselves here, an enormous lake of murky water. Sinners sit on boats and must fish for their food. Fortunately, they have a huge selection of different fishing rods and nets (brandnames include Bayes, Student, Spearman and many more). Unfortunately, only one in 20 fish are edible, so they are constantly hungry."

Fifth Circle: Creative Use of Outliers
"Those who 'cleaned up' their results by excluding inconvenient data-points are condemned here. Demons pluck out their hairs one by one, every time explaining that they are better off without that hair because there was something wrong with it."

Sixth Circle: Plagiarism
"This circle is entirely empty because as soon as a sinner arrives, a winged demon carries them to another circle and forces them to suffer the punishment meted out to the people there. After their 3 year "post" is up, they are carried to another circle, and so on..."

Seventh Circle: Non-Publication of Data
"Here sinners are chained to burning chairs in front of desks covered with broken typewriters. Only if they can write an article describing their predicament, will they be set free. Each desk has a file-drawer stuffed full of these, but the drawers are locked.

Eighth Circle: Partial Publication of Data
"At any one time exactly half of the sinners here are chased around by demons prodding them with spears. The demons choose who to chase at random after ensuring that the groups are matched for age, gender, height and weight. Howling desert winds blow a constant torrent of articles announcing the success of a new program to enhance participation in physical exercise - but with no mention of the side effects."

Ninth Circle: Inventing Data
"Here Satan himself lies trapped forever in a block of solid ice alongside the worst sinners of all. Frozen in front of their eyes is a paper explaining very convincingly that water cannot freeze in the environmental conditions of this part of Hell. Unfortunately, the data were made up."

Don't believe in Hell? No problem. Me, neither. But these are still sins.

PS. My compliments to Neuroskeptic. (Nice picture, too.)


Incidentally, here's a fascinating article in the New York Times about the diplomatic cables recently released by WikiLeaks. Or, if you'd rather read the cables themselves - and have time to browse a quarter of a million diplomatic messages - they're here.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Just because it works...

This comic really struck me, because, like all great political cartoons, it shows the essence of the situation. Republicans are fuming because this goes against their ideology. It doesn't matter if it worked or not, they believe what they believe.

And likewise, it doesn't matter that everything they pushed during the Bush years turned out disastrously, either. What are you going to believe, the evidence or what you really, really want to believe? Republicans are firmly on the side of faith-based thinking. That's why they haven't changed their positions one iota since then.

Slashing taxes on the rich didn't pay for itself any more than the war in Iraq did. The wealthy didn't invest their windfall in jobs for Americans. What they did invest went overseas. At home, it created record-breaking deficits and bubbles in real-estate and arcane financial instruments, leading to the worst economic collapse since the Great Depression.

But Republicans still have their faith in trickle-down economics. Evidence means nothing to them. Just because something works - or doesn't work - that's no reason for them to change their minds, right? After all, they can't be wrong. They believe!

Democrats are different. Despite all the idiotic propaganda from the right about Barack Obama being a "socialist," he's actually a moderate pragmatist (as Republicans know quite well). Assuming office when the economy was spiraling ever downward, with no bottom in sight, Obama simply couldn't afford to let our domestic auto industry collapse - and take other industries down with it. America couldn't afford it.

This had nothing to do with ideology, nothing at all. President Obama had to throw a lifeline to one of our biggest industries - just as we already had to the banking sector - in order to keep our economy from complete collapse. And it worked. The downward spiral stopped in its tracks, and if unemployment is still way too high (since the stimulus package turned out to be too small), at least we avoided another Great Depression. And General Motors reorganized successfully, issuing stock to pay back the American taxpayers.

You couldn't have asked for better than this. But Republicans are fuming. Their faith may be completely misguided, but it's still strong. They're like the Taliban in that way.


Obviously, I'm a big fan of political cartoons and comics (not comic books, though). But for every cartoon like Savage Chickens that fits neatly into the narrow columns of this blog, there are many which don't. Dilbert had a great comic today, for example, and so did Pearls Before Swine, which has quickly become one of my very favorite strips. But they just don't fit in my space here.

So normally, I just chuckle and move on. I've already got far more topics to blog about than I have time to blog. But today, I thought I'd link to some of my favorites in a couple of great comic strips I follow. After all, that's how I discovered them.

Calamities of Nature is one of them. In addition to the comic shown above, check out this one. Or how about this and this, which I showed you in April. Great, huh? OK, I suspect that this strip might not be to everyone's taste. I think it's great, but I understand that tastes differ. But I've recently stumbled across a comic that you've got to like.


In just a short time, I've become a huge fan of Bug. In fact, I had a hard time deciding just which comics to highlight here. I had to go with spot the immigrant, but after that, I had a terrible time narrowing down my selections to just three.

But if you want to laugh, check out the guy who assumes the best, burglar beatdown, and lifestyles of the rich & famous. You may have different favorites, but in the short time I've been reading the strip, I think these four are mine.

So, if anyone's reading this, what are your favorite comic strips? What, don't you have a sense of humor? How do you stay sane?

Saturday, November 27, 2010

A brave man

Leonid G. Parfyonov is a brave man. From the New York Times:
A well-known television personality on Thursday used the occasion of an awards ceremony to deliver a blistering critique of Russian television, saying its journalists had bent so completely to the will of the government that they were “not journalists at all but bureaucrats, following the logic of service and submission.”

Journalists in Russia have been attacked and even murdered for saying such things. We tend to take freedom of the press for granted here in America, but journalism is a dangerous profession in much of the world. (That fact makes right-wing claims of persecution here - because, although they can freely say whatever they want, they might be criticized for it - laughable, doesn't it?)

Mr. Parfyonov was accepting the first annual Vladislav Listyev television award, which comes with a prize of one million rubles, or about $32,000. Video of the speech, which could be found on Channel One’s Web site, was viewed many thousands of times on Friday, particularly in media circles. A prominent blogger, Rustam Adagamov, called it “an epitaph for modern Russian television.”

Mr. Parfyonov sketched out the recent history of Russian broadcasting, starting with Mr. Putin’s ousting of media moguls whose channels were critical of the government and the demand for national unity that came in the wake of terrorist attacks. Journalists in Russia saw their work shearing into two categories: suitable for television, or not suitable for television. While newspaper reporters can still occasionally confront Mr. Putin with uncomfortable questions, television newscasters “guess the authorities’ goals and aims, their moods, their friends and enemies,” when tackling delicate subjects, he said.

“I have no right to blame any one of my colleagues, since I am not a fighter and I do not expect heroic deeds from others, but it is necessary to call things by their names,” he said. As media independence drains away, Russians are increasingly contemptuous of journalism in general and shrug their shoulders when journalists are beaten for their work, he said.

“People do not understand that journalists take risks because of their audience,” he said. “They do not attack journalists because they wrote something, or said something, or filmed something, but because people read it, or heard it, or saw it.”

That "demand for national unity" in the wake of terrorist attacks sounds very familiar, doesn't it? But unlike in Russia, where the government forced this on their people, we Americans voluntarily censored ourselves, while eagerly supporting the worst excesses of Bush administration.

Even our media censored themselves, not because of what the government would do to them, but because they feared losing income if they didn't jump on the bandwagon. Remember when Bill Maher was taken off the air for making the point that the 9/11 hijackers weren't, whatever else they were, cowards? The Bush administration didn't do that. They didn't have to.

Please give

More Tom Delay

Re. this post (Tom Delay's nickname in the House was, of course, "The Hammer").


Whatever you believe, most of the world disagrees with you. When it comes to religion, everything is a minority position. There's no consensus in religion like there is in science, because there's no way to show that any belief is false (or true).

In general, believers find it easy to dismiss all other beliefs - "how can people be so gullible?" - while clinging desperately to their own. But other people believe for the same reasons you do, even though they might believe something entirely different.

Well, like you, they've been taught since infancy that their belief was correct. They've been surrounded by their particular culture, their family believes it, their friends believe it, so all this makes it very easy to believe in what, after all, they really, really want to believe.

Chances are, that describes you, too. But it's always easy to see where other people are wrong, isn't it? It's always easy to see how other people gullibly believe what they've been taught, how other people believe in obvious foolishness, how ridiculous it is for other people to "believe in their heart" that their beliefs are true. But then, you don't have an emotional investment in their religion.

An internet acquaintance claims that, as a young adult, he objectively investigated all the major religions of the world and determined by logic and reason that only one really made any sense. Surprise, surprise, that religion turned out to be the one he was raised in. What a coincidence, huh? (And no, it wasn't Christianity.)

I don't understand any of it, and I never have. It's all seemed like gullibility to me. But if you do believe, ask yourself why you've picked that particular religion. Why aren't you a Muslim or a Hindu? Why don't you worship Zeus, Thor, or Quetzalcoatl? If the circumstances of your birth had been slightly different, you probably would. And you'd be just as firm in your belief as you are now.

Friday, November 26, 2010

Mr. Deity and the Goodie-Two-Shoes

There's much more at the Mr. Deity website (this is, after all, in the middle of season four).

Just say no

Eating the Irish

Here's an interesting column in the New York Times by Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman. I don't know about you, but I haven't paid much attention to Ireland's economic troubles. Well, our own economic problems here in America absorb most of my attention, with just occasional glances around the rest of the world.

I guess I just assumed that Ireland had gotten into trouble when this economic collapse depressed government revenues and made an existing deficit hard to manage. But according to Krugman, that's not exactly what happened:
The Irish story began with a genuine economic miracle. But eventually this gave way to a speculative frenzy driven by runaway banks and real estate developers, all in a cozy relationship with leading politicians. The frenzy was financed with huge borrowing on the part of Irish banks, largely from banks in other European nations.

Then the bubble burst, and those banks faced huge losses. You might have expected those who lent money to the banks to share in the losses. After all, they were consenting adults, and if they failed to understand the risks they were taking that was nobody’s fault but their own. But, no, the Irish government stepped in to guarantee the banks’ debt, turning private losses into public obligations.

Before the bank bust, Ireland had little public debt. But with taxpayers suddenly on the hook for gigantic bank losses, even as revenues plunged, the nation’s creditworthiness was put in doubt. So Ireland tried to reassure the markets with a harsh program of spending cuts.

Step back for a minute and think about that. These debts were incurred, not to pay for public programs, but by private wheeler-dealers seeking nothing but their own profit. Yet ordinary Irish citizens are now bearing the burden of those debts.

Or to be more accurate, they’re bearing a burden much larger than the debt — because those spending cuts have caused a severe recession so that in addition to taking on the banks’ debts, the Irish are suffering from plunging incomes and high unemployment.

Krugman goes on to point out that austerity measures are just making the problem worse, since cutting back on spending is the worst thing you can do during an economic collapse. But I already knew that. I was just struck by how Ireland got into this mess in the first place.

Keep in mind that Ireland is a small country. Ireland's GDP is only about $227 billion, which is less than that of DetroitAmerica's GDP is more than $14 trillion - more than 63 times as big. America had to "bail out" our banking industry because we had no choice. Its collapse would have taken down the entire world. But Ireland could have let the people who made these risky bets pay the price, don't you think?

Admittedly, any shock when the world was already reeling would have made things worse, but I have to wonder what Ireland's government was thinking. Unfortunately, modern capitalism seems to be win-win for the moneyed classes. If things go well, they keep the profits. If things go badly, everyone else loses.

This is particularly the case with modern finance. Bankers made millions packaging up bad debts to sell to other people. They received multimillion dollar bonuses for making the sales, and it didn't matter that it was all a house of cards, because someone else was taking on the risk. (We were, as it turned out.)

We Americans, with the biggest economy in the world, couldn't have let our banking system just collapse. That would have been cutting off our nose to spite our face. But now we're paying the price, while the wealthy are enjoying boom times again. (And yet, they're still clamoring for more tax cuts. That really takes gall, doesn't it?)

Well, it was our mistake to cut back on bank regulation. It was our mistake to encourage a bubble by cutting taxes on the wealthy in the first place. Our mistakes - primarily in electing the Bush administration and its allies in Congress (and I don't absolve the Democrats who went along with it) - let this happen when it could have been avoided.

But Ireland, as small as it is, could have let their banks collapse, don't you think? Or, rather, they could have let them go into bankruptcy, let them reorganize while letting their debtors pay the usual price of all risky bets that go south. After all, that's the risk you always take when you lend money or buy stock.

Bailouts are rarely fair, but sometimes they must be done. I'm not one of those tea-baggers who complain because the people they elected collapsed the economy, and then object to the desperate measures necessary to keep the whole system from melting down. But if I were an Irish citizen, I wouldn't be too happy, I think.

But maybe there's more to this than I know. Since I'm not an Irish citizen (although I have considerable Irish ancestry), I haven't been paying close attention to their situation.

Missed this one

Rats! I missed this one yesterday, but it's too good to ignore.

Note that I picked this up from About.com's Political Cartoons of the Week, because I don't see it at Mike Luckovich's own website at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

Dead Certain

Plan to read George W. Bush's memoirs, Decision Points?  No, me, neither. I had more than enough of him in the eight tragic years he was president. It got so I could neither see his image nor hear his voice without wanting to vomit. After all, we'll be generations recovering from the Bush presidency (and that's only if we don't dive right back into such insanity in 2012).

But here's an entertaining review of the book in the New Yorker. Some excerpts:
Here is a prediction: “Decision Points” will not endure. Its prose aims for tough-minded simplicity but keeps landing on simpleminded sententiousness. Though Bush credits no collaborator, his memoirs read as if they were written by an admiring sidekick who is familiar with every story Bush ever told but never got to know the President well enough to convey his inner life. Very few of its four hundred and ninety-three pages are not self-serving.

What’s remarkable about “Decision Points” is how frequently and casually it leaves out facts, large and small, whose absence draws more attention than their inclusion would have. In his account of the 2000 election, Bush neglects to mention that he lost the popular vote. He refers to the firing, in 2002, of his top economic adviser, Lawrence Lindsey, but not to the fact that it came immediately after Lindsey violated the Administration’s optimistic line by saying that the Iraq war could cost as much as two hundred billion dollars. In a brief recounting of one of the central scandals of his Presidency, the Administration’s outing of the intelligence officer Valerie Plame, Bush doesn’t acknowledge that two senior White House aides, Karl Rove and Lewis (Scooter) Libby, alerted half a dozen reporters to her identity.

Even the story of Bush’s admission to Harvard Business School, in early 1973, is an occasion for historical revision. ... The steady drip of these elisions and falsifications suggests a deeper necessity than the ordinary touch-ups of personal history.

There are hardly any decision points at all. The path to each decision is so short and irresistible, more like an electric pulse than like a weighing of options, that the reader is hard-pressed to explain what happened. Suddenly, it’s over, and there’s no looking back. The decision to go to war “was an accretion,” Richard Haass, the director of policy-planning at the State Department until the invasion of Iraq, told me. “A decision was not made—a decision happened, and you can’t say when or how.”
In Bush’s telling, the non-decision decision is a constant feature of his Presidential policymaking. On September 11th, when Bush finally reached a secure communications center and held a National Security Council meeting by videoconference, he opened by saying, “We are at war against terror.” It was a fateful description of the new reality, creating the likelihood of an overreaction. No other analyses are even considered in “Decision Points.” ...

Here is another feature of the non-decision: once his own belief became known to him, Bush immediately caricatured opposing views and impugned the motives of those who held them. If there was an honest and legitimate argument on the other side, then the President would have to defend his non-decision, taking it out of the redoubt of personal belief and into the messy empirical realm of contingency and uncertainty. So critics of his stem-cell ban are dismissed as scientists eager for more government cash, or advocacy groups looking to “raise large amounts of money,” or Democrats who saw “a political winner.”

Bush ends “Decision Points” with the sanguine thought that history’s verdict on his Presidency will come only after his death. During his years in office, two wars turned into needless disasters, and the freedom agenda created such deep cynicism around the world that the word itself was spoiled. In America, the gap between the rich few and the vast majority widened dramatically, contributing to a historic financial crisis and an ongoing recession; the poisoning of the atmosphere continued unabated; and the Constitution had less and less say over the exercise of executive power. Whatever the judgments of historians, these will remain foregone conclusions.

You know? I don't think the author of this review, George Packer, really liked Bush's book. :)

The best of times, the worst of times

Mike Thompson's commentary:
Based on recent news stories, America has morphed into a Charles Dickens novel. The unemployed asking for more gruel are being soundly rebuffed by Mr. Bumble, a.k.a. Congressional Republicans, who are blocking an extension of unemployment benefits and doing the bidding of the wealthy workhouse board of directors feasting in splendor upstairs.

Meanwhile, the richest 2% of Americans, doing their best Ebenezer Scrooge impersonations, are fighting to keep their massive Bush-era tax cuts and ruminating about prisons and workhouses for everyone else. Many of those still fortunate enough to have jobs are every bit as cowed as Scrooge’s overworked and stressed-out employee Bob Cratchit and are told to feel fortunate just to have a candle with which to warm their hands. Those who’ve lost their jobs are forced to rely on the assistance of relatives ala Nicholas Nickleby.

Even the titles of some of Dickens’ works could describe conditions in contemporary America: “Hard Times” and “Bleak House.” Since 1980, as Timothy Noah pointed out recently on Slate.com, worker productivity has increased by 20% percent, yet 80% of all the increase in income went to the richest 1% of Americans. This didn’t just happen; it happened as a result of tax and trade policies that concentrated wealth in the hands of the few, while millions saw their jobs outsourced and homes repossessed in a contemporary “Tale of Two Cities.”

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Dragon Age: Origins sale

Well, this sure looks good. Dragon Age: Origins - Ultimate Edition is on sale at Impulse for only $24.97.  This is download-only (no box or printed manual), but as it includes the original game, the Awakening expansion pack, and nine "content packs," it's supposedly a $114 value. (Impulse normally sells it for $49.95.)

I haven't had time to play games lately, but I might have to get this. I've been wanting to play it - I've always assumed I'd play it, eventually - and now might be the time.

But if this doesn't appeal to you - or if you've already got the game - I might point out that GOG.com has picked up a number of great older games lately, including Baldur's Gate and Baldur's Gate 2 ($9.99 each). They're both classics that every gamer should be familiar with.

Well, GOG.com is just full of classic games, all cheap and all set up to run on modern systems. I already own most of them, including the two Baldur's Gate games, but I swear I'm tempted to buy them again.

As I say, I haven't had much time to play games, but my yard work is done for the year, and with winter coming on, I might be able to make time,... assuming I can tear myself away from this blog occasionally.  :)


(graphic found here)

From the New York Times:
Tom DeLay, one of the most powerful and divisive Republican lawmakers ever to come out of Texas, was convicted Wednesday of money-laundering charges in a state trial, five years after his indictment here forced him to resign as majority leader in the House of Representatives.

After 19 hours of deliberation, a jury of six men and six women decided that Mr. DeLay was guilty of conspiring with two associates in 2002 to circumvent a state law against corporate contributions to political campaigns. He was convicted of one charge of money laundering and one charge of conspiracy to commit money laundering. ...

He faces between 5 and 99 years in prison, though the judge may choose probation.

Woo, hoo! Guilty! It couldn't happen to a more deserving person. OK, Delay is still a powerful politician, especially in Texas. He may well face only probation. And he's going to appeal, so who knows if even that will stick.

Also, the damage is done. These illegal donations helped Republicans take control of the Texas House. Thus, they were able to control redistricting in the state, which has meant more Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives ever since. None of that is undone by this ruling.

But this is still great news for those of us who still believe in the rule of law.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mo has a point, but I look at it a little differently. Thanksgiving is a day to look on the bright side. Yeah, we have a lot of problems, but we have a lot of reasons to feel thankful, too.

I'm thankful that I can express myself here. Nobody may be listening - heck, few people ever read this blog - but at least I can say what I think. Blogger makes it very easy (not to mention free) to write a blog, and the internet connects it to the world.

And I'm thankful that I can criticize religion, politicians, the government - even the President of the United States. Speaking of which, I'm thankful that Barack Obama is president. Yes, I'm disappointed in his... strange passivity, his refusal to boldly lead our country. He's certainly not perfect. But then, who is?

And can you imagine what a mess we'd be in today if we'd elected John McCain and Caribou Barbie? Say what you like, Obama stopped the economic collapse in its tracks. His stimulus wasn't big enough to grow our economy, but it did stabilize it. Saving the domestic auto industry kept unemployment from being even worse, and will likely pay for itself, too. And although the health care reform bill was far too conservative - too Republican, in fact - we did get critically needed reforms.

And think of what we didn't get. We didn't get two more right-wing fanatics on the Supreme Court. We didn't invade any more innocent countries. We've stopped torturing prisoners of war. (I can hardly believe I even have to say that! How we've fallen as a nation!) We've stopped hobbling the Environmental Protection Agency. We've stopped gagging scientists and doctors. If things aren't perfect these days, they still could have been far, far worse.

I complain a lot about the stupidity, the ignorance, the gullibility, the superstition, the apathy, the bigotry, and the cowardice of the American people, but the fact is, there are a lot of admirable people here, too. There are hard-working activists, clear-minded voters, dedicated officials, intelligent scientists and other professionals, and plenty of brave citizens trying to do what's right. Racial bigotry is far less than when I was a kid, atheists are no longer invisible, and support for gay rights is growing by leaps and bounds. Again, we're not perfect, but it could be worse, much worse.

And I'm thankful for humor. You've got to laugh, even when things look bleak. Maybe especially when things look bleak. We can't give up, we really can't. We must keep fighting, and humor really helps with that.

I've got plenty of things to be thankful for, and plenty of people to thank (no gods, though - it's human beings who create the good in our world). I don't discuss personal matters in this blog - not really - but don't think I'm not thankful for my family, living and dead. And my friends, some of whom, in this day of the internet, I've never met. And, well, plenty else.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone!

Mad as Hell! - the game show

I don't think I like this game show.

The top ten daily consequences of having evolved

Here's a great article in the Smithsonian about "The Top Ten Daily Consequences of Having Evolved" (rather than being planned by an intelligent designer):
Natural selection acts by winnowing the individuals of each generation, sometimes clumsily, as old parts and genes are co-opted for new roles. As a result, all species inhabit bodies imperfect for the lives they live. Our own bodies are worse off than most simply because of the many differences between the wilderness in which we evolved and the modern world in which we live. We feel the consequences every day.

Wonder why we can't consciously stop hiccuping? Or why wisdom teeth give us so much trouble? "Evolution has no foresight, no sense of where its work will go." There was no intelligent designer, no planning, not even a direction or a goal to evolution. (I must say that the above graphic, ubiquitous as it is, tends to give the wrong impression about that.)

Optimal designs could have resulted from either evolution or an intelligent designer (except, of course, that there's abundant evidence for the former and none for the latter). However, poor designs, suboptimal designs, can only be explained by evolution. Human beings - like all life on Earth - weren't planned. We evolved, step by step, from earlier creatures, so we carry a lot of baggage around with us.

This is a great article - short, informative, and hugely entertaining. It only scratches the surface of this topic, but for a layman, it's perfect. Check it out.
I have not even mentioned male nipples. I have said nothing of the blind spot in our eyes. Nor of the muscles some of use to wiggle our ears. We are full of the accumulated baggage of our idiosyncratic histories. The body is built on an old form, out of parts that once did very different things. So take a moment to pause and sit on your coccyx, the bone that was once a tail. Roll your ankles, each of which once connected a front leg to a paw. Revel not in who you are but who you were. It is, after all, amazing what evolution has made out of bits and pieces.

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Ireland then and now

Here's an interesting article by Jonathan Chait in the New Republic comparing right-wing views of Ireland before their recent fiscal crisis, when it was considered a free market utopia, to afterward, when the blame is placed everywhere else.
It was not long ago that Ireland was every American conservative's beau ideal of a European state. Low taxes, low regulation, it was the perfect case study in the success of free market policies. ...

Sadly, the Irish fiscal crisis has prompted a quick realization that Ireland was not actually the free market state we thought it was. Indeed, it turns out to represent Obama-ism run amok.

It's really pretty funny, and Chait includes all sorts of quotes, pre- and post-crisis, backing it up. Unfortunately, as far as I can tell, political pundits never have to be right.

And most of us never learn from experience, either. Indeed, we'd rather revise history than learn from it.

Glenn Beck's lies about George Soros

I posted Jon Stewart's hilarious take on this last week (I strongly urge you to watch both videos), but as laughably crazy as Glenn Beck can be, his slanders of George Soros are really pretty frightening, too.

For a serious look at the same Glenn Beck show, check out Hendrik Hertzberg's commentary in the New Yorker. Here's an excerpt:
Call us oversensitive, but when our efforts are shanghaied like a nineteenth-century sailor and forced to work as a deckhand aboard a ship of lies, we can’t help getting our hackles up. You don’t have to be a professional semiotician to see that the Glenn Beck promo is intended to leave the impression that George Soros, the hedge-fund investor and funder of anti-totalitarian and liberal causes, is an anti-Semite; that he was somehow complicit in the Holocaust; and that he is an enemy of Israel. These are lies—lies told by innuendo, but lies all the same. The promo’s shard of truth is that “The World According to Soros” was indeed published in The New Yorker. Its author was Connie Bruck. (“Bruc” is a Fox flub, not a Fox fib.) The quotes from it, though accurately transcribed, are made to function as lies by being placed in an utterly mendacious context. Bruck’s article is the “source” of these smears only in the sense that the brooks of the Catskills are the “source” of New York City’s sewage.

George Soros, born in Budapest in 1930, spent his boyhood hiding in plain sight from the Nazis and their local nationalist-Fascist surrogates. He survived, despite some frighteningly close calls, because his father disguised the family’s Jewishness with forged documents and fake identities. As a teen-ager, Soros witnessed the early years of Communist dictatorship. He immigrated alone to England, studied at the London School of Economics, and discovered that he had a feel for financial markets. In 1956, he took a job on Wall Street. (In New York, he was joined by his parents, who had become refugees after Soviet tanks crushed the Hungarian Revolution.) He made himself wealthy; he currently ranks as No. 35 on the Forbes list of the richest people in the world. Soros made and makes his billions in the amoral world of stock and currency speculation; he gives them away in a quite different spirit, but with the same eye for leverage. He provided crucial support to civil-society movements throughout the Soviet bloc. He probably did more than any other private citizen in the West to nudge European Communism into history’s dustbin. While his pro-democracy initiatives continue (Burma is a current area of focus), he has lately added a large domestic component, including funding for liberal policy institutes and advocacy groups. And he spent millions in support of the Presidential candidacies of John Kerry and Barack Obama.

Apart from the forged documents and fake identities (and, of course, the support for Democrats), viewers of Fox News learned none of this from Beck.

I recommend that you read the whole thing (it's only a single page). This was a vicious, ugly attack - based entirely on lies - by Glenn Beck and the rest of Fox "News." Every time I think these people have reached the absolute bottom, they sink lower still. Where will it stop?

The really bizarre thing is that Soros' efforts to promote democracy and capitalism in Eastern Europe - in opposition to Communist dictatorships - is presented as an evil attempt to control the world, with America his next "target." What, is the right-wing defending Communism now? Of course, none of this is explained to Fox viewers.
Relying on his audience’s naïveté, Beck never mentions that all these uniformly peaceful “revolutions” were against Communist or post-Communist dictatorships. (As for the coups in the Balkans, there have been none to engineer.) The falsehoods quickly spin out into pathology; the next day, Beck is accusing Soros of plotting a Weimar-like inflation—“$11.43 for an ear of corn! One ear!”—in order to “reap obscene profits” and “bring America to her knees.” But enough. Too much of this can be hazardous to your health.

Sadly, not a tiny fraction of the people who avidly watch Fox will ever read this New Yorker column - or anything else that will dent their faith in lunatics like Beck. Fox is far and away the most popular cable "news network," making bucket-loads of money for these people.

And money talks, doesn't it?  I fear for my country.

Enhanced humor

Funny how that works, isn't it? Did we have half as many people upset that America was torturing prisoners of war?

I'm very much afraid we Americans have become a timid little people.

Flying snakes

Flying snakes! What next?

Here's an excerpt from Monday's Washington Post article:
Most animals that glide do so with fixed wings or a wing-like part. But not the "flying snakes" of Southeast Asia, India and southern China - at least five members of the genus Chrysopelea.

As video of the reptiles show, they undulate from side to side, in almost an air-slithering, to create an aerodynamic system. It allows them to travel from the top of the biggest trees in the region (almost 200 feet high) to a spot about 780 feet away from the tree's trunk.

(Video of an Asian flying snake taking to the air.)

"Basically . . .they become one long wing," said John Socha, the Virginia Tech researcher who has traveled extensively in Asia to study the snakes and to film them.

Neat, isn't it?

Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Symphony of Science

I posted one of these earlier this month, but there's a whole series in this "Symphony of Science" (this one is the seventh, I believe).

Check out the Symphony of Science website, where you can find all of the videos, plus the lyrics and other information about the project. Here, for example, are the lyrics to the above video clip:
Bertrand Russell:
When you are studying any matter
Or considering any philosophy
Ask yourself only: what are the facts,
And what is the truth that the facts bear out

Carl Sagan:
Science is more than a body of knowledge
It's a way of thinking
A way of skeptically interrogating the universe

If we are not able to ask skeptical questions
To be skeptical of those in authority
Then we're up for grabs

Michael Shermer:
In all of science we're looking for a balance
between data and theory

Sam Harris:
You don't have to delude yourself
With Iron Age fairy tales

Carolyn Porco:
The same spiritual fulfillment
That people find in religion
Can be found in science
By coming to know, if you will, the mind of God

Lawrence Krauss:
The real world, as it actually is,
Is not evil, it's remarkable
And the way to understand the physical world
is to use science

Richard Dawkins:
There is a new wave of reason
Sweeping across America, Britain, Europe, Australia
South America, the Middle East and Africa
There is a new wave of reason
Where superstition had a firm hold

Phil Plait:
Teach a man to reason
And he'll think for a lifetime

Cosmology brings us face to face with the deepest mysteries
With questions that were once treated only
in religion and myth

The desire to be connected with the cosmos
Reflects a profound reality
But we are connected; not in the trivial ways
That Astrology promises, but in the deepest ways

Richard Feynman:
I can't believe the special stories that have been made up
About our relationship to the universe at large
Look at what's out there; it isn't in proportion

Never let yourself be diverted
By what you wish to believe
But look only and surely
At what are the facts

James Randi:
Enjoy the fantasy, the fun, the stories
But make sure that there's a clear sharp line
Drawn on the floor
To do otherwise is to embrace madness

Dancing with the... stars?


Check out the rest of the comic here.

More pumpkin pie, please!

Just in time for Thanksgiving, there's this study of scents that turn men on (it's interesting what scientists are researching these days, isn't it?), which finds that the smell of pumpkin pie works best. Vanilla and the smell of strawberry-rhubarb pie works pretty well, too.

However, you ladies probably don't need to worry too much about any of this:
"Every odor we tested aroused the participants," said Hirsch. ... "Nothing turns a man off."

Monday, November 22, 2010

Oops! How embarrassing!

How TPM got started

You do read Talking Points Memo, don't you? If you have any interest at all in politics, you need to read TPM. They do a great job - informative and entertaining.

Anyway, I meant to post this earlier in the month, but there's an interesting article in the Atlantic about how TPM got started. Here's an excerpt:
Over the years, I've become increasingly convinced that when all is said and done, the significant aspect of my journalism career won't be anything I've written, but the fact that I was present at the creation of Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall's pioneering blog. ...

The 2000 election--or more precisely, the recount--was a very Josh-friendly event in that it presented a scenario that, on one level, involved all sort of complicated, byzantine rules and procedures that needed figuring out, which was always a fascination and a strong point for him, and on another level offered clear and outrageous examples of conservative bamboozlement and liberal-establishment witlessness, which was another thing that got him going. Looking back, I can see that TPM was destined to start here.

One day, after a morning of working the phones, Josh came out of his office looking as though he'd imbibed more than his usual liter-age of Pepsi One. He was on fire about some travesty of media coverage related to the recount (looking back at his first post--to read it verité-style, click here and scroll to bottom--it must have been about Ted Olson). I remember him pausing and asking Nick and me, "Dude, do you guys think it would be weird if I did a thing like Kaus is doing?" This was in reference to Kausfiles, which had begun the year before. Nick and I shrugged and said that it wouldn't be weird at all. Then, when Josh disappeared back into his office to create what would become Talking Points Memo, Nick and I decided that actually, yes, it would be sort of weird, because who but a fool would write for no money?

I still don't understand how TPM makes any money, but they've got a growing staff, so it must work somehow. And as I say, they do a great job. This isn't just a typical blog. They're journalists. And in many ways, they completely embarrass the mainstream media in their intelligent, professional approach to political news.

If you have any interest at all in politics, this is a website you need to follow.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

The partisan game

What will Republicans risk in order to make Barack Obama look bad? How far are they willing to go? Is there any point at which common sense might kick in, causing Republicans to hesitate at sabotaging America, as a friend of mine puts it, just to make Obama's position more difficult?

How about nuclear armageddon? Should Republicans risk that, just for political advantage? After all, the first START treaty was proposed by Ronald Reagan, who's still revered in the GOP. (Yes, I know that Reagan would be far too "moderate" for today's Republican Party.) It was signed five months before the breakup of the Soviet Union, at which point it became even more critical, as a way to keep nuclear weapons out of the hands of terrorists.

START 1 expired in December last year, but the new START treaty was signed by President Obama and Russian president Dmitry Medvedev this past April. The U.S. Senate has already held 18 hearings on the treaty, and Obama worked with Republican negotiators to make sure their concerns were met. Now Republicans want to delay a vote on the treaty, as a way of weakening the president and keeping him from a foreign policy victory. But this is a serious, serious issue - too serious for partisan political games, wouldn't you think?

Here's how Ed Stein puts it:
Once upon a time, the United States and Russia negotiated arms reduction treaties that reduced the threat of nuclear war and helped build a growing trust between the two old Cold War adversaries. Presidents negotiated the terms and Congresses ratified the treaties by the 2/3 majority needed, and all was well. That was then. It has been a year since the last weapons treaty with Russia expired, and with it the regime of verification and inspection that made the thing work. Relations with Russia became increasingly increasingly strained during the Bush years, and one of Obama’s foreign policy objectives was to restore that relationship. President Obama has negotiated a new treaty, called New Start, which calls for steep reductions in warheads and missiles, and a verification system similar to that of the old Start treaty. The White House had counted on at least a dozen Republicans to vote for the new treaty, and discussions with the chief Republican Senate negotiator, Jon Kyl, seemed to indicate that passage was imminent. Then Kyl blindisded the White House, refusing, despite dozens of meetings in which all of his concerns evidently were met, to recommend voting for it. Republican support evaporated, leaving an important treaty in limbo.

We’ve seen this game played repeatedly as Republicans have decided to oppose anything that Obama wants. That is, after all, how they won the election. In the new politics of total obstruction, reducing nuclear stockpiles, restoring relations with Russia, re-engaging an essential partner in the campaign against nuclear proliferation, and making America and our allies safer in the process is, apparently, less important that handing Obama a foreign policy defeat.

And now, the U.S. intelligence community is telling Congress that we'll have to shift spy satellites away from Iraq and Afghanistan to try to cover Russia again, if the treaty remains in limbo.
The treaty, which was signed in April, would restore on-site inspections of Russian nuclear missile silos, bombers and submarines that have stopped since the old START expired in December. The new treaty also bars the Russians from interfering with or jamming spy satellites and restricts where various nuclear weapons can be located.

Of course, this isn't the only place where Republicans are putting partisan political advantage above the needs of our nation. They're desperately trying to keep our economy in a hole for precisely that reason, too.

Having shut off any chance at additional stimulus spending (supposedly out of concern for the deficit, although they have no qualms about hugely increasing the deficit to give tax cuts to the wealthy), they're even attacking the federal reserve as it tries to find some way of boosting our economy.

Here's Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman:
What do the government of China, the government of Germany and the Republican Party have in common? They’re all trying to bully the Federal Reserve into calling off its efforts to create jobs. And the motives of all three are highly suspect. ...

It’s no mystery why China and Germany are on the warpath against the Fed. Both nations are accustomed to running huge trade surpluses. But for some countries to run trade surpluses, others must run trade deficits — and, for years, that has meant us. The Fed’s expansionary policies, however, have the side effect of somewhat weakening the dollar, making U.S. goods more competitive, and paving the way for a smaller U.S. deficit. And the Chinese and Germans don’t want to see that happen.

For the Chinese government, by the way, attacking the Fed has the additional benefit of shifting attention away from its own currency manipulation, which keeps China’s currency artificially weak — precisely the sin China falsely accuses America of committing.

But why are Republicans joining in this attack?

Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues seem stunned to find themselves in the cross hairs. They thought they were acting in the spirit of none other than Milton Friedman, who blamed the Fed for not acting more forcefully during the Great Depression — and who, in 1998, called on the Bank of Japan to “buy government bonds on the open market,” exactly what the Fed is now doing. ...

So what’s really motivating the G.O.P. attack on the Fed? Mr. Bernanke and his colleagues were clearly caught by surprise, but the budget expert Stan Collender predicted it all. Back in August, he warned Mr. Bernanke that “with Republican policy makers seeing economic hardship as the path to election glory,” they would be “opposed to any actions taken by the Federal Reserve that would make the economy better.” In short, their real fear is not that Fed actions will be harmful, it is that they might succeed.

Rex Nutting at MarketWatch makes much the same point:
The Republican Party's leaders, from Rush Limbaugh and Sarah Palin all the way down to Mitch McConnell and John Boehner, escalated their Cold War against the Fed this week, with a not-too-subtle threat to put a tight leash on the Fed's independent economic policy making.

Incredibly, the Republicans are worried that the Fed is putting too much emphasis on attacking unemployment! With the official jobless rate at 9.6% and the underemployment rate at 17%, apparently the Fed has just been too vigilant. These Republicans would like to rewrite the Fed's charter so it doesn't pay any attention to economic growth at all.

Foreign leaders from China and Germany also blasted the Fed's latest moves to keep the U.S. economy growing by buying $600 billion in long-term Treasurys.

While many of the critiques of our central bankers are legitimate and serious disagreements about how effective the policies will be, or what the long-term unintended consequences of them might be, or who'll be the winners and who'll be the losers, much of criticism of the Fed is purely political. It's based on short-term self interest.

China, Germany and the Republican Party each believe they'll be stronger if the American economy is weaker. (They are wrong, but they believe it anyway.) Of course they want the Fed to fail.

Republicans are joining with foreign governments in an attempt to keep America weak. Amazing, isn't it? But it's not personal, of course (or maybe it is personal - personal ambition). They just want to make sure that Obama fails, whatever it does to our country.

Republicans are already willing to risk our nation's economy and our nation's security. So you have to wonder how they'd greet another successful terrorist attack on American soil. Would they be gleeful, seeing just another way to attack Barack Obama? Or would they worry that America might rally around our president, just as we did after 9/11?

Either way, it's hard to imagine that the good of our country would figure into their response at all. Clearly, that's... inconsequential, compared to their political ambitions.

I could be wrong, but every time I think that the Republicans can't possibly go much lower, they continue to surprise me.

Our options in Afghanistan

Oh, we've got options in Afghanistan, just no good options. It's too late for that. And that's all our fault.

We had plenty of good options before we started the war - and the war, with even less justification, in Iraq. After all, we were attacked by a mere handful of religious fanatics on 9/11. The whole point was to provoke an overreaction.

But Osama bin Laden knew his enemy. The Bush White House viewed the attacks as a political gift. They were just as eager as bin Laden to spread fear (Republicans still are), and they were just as willing to overreact as bin Laden was eager to encourage it. Well, that's the best way to accomplish your goals, giving your enemy what he wants, isn't it?

A smart, courageous America would have refused the trap. We would have viewed 9/11 as a criminal act (which it was) and enlisted the rest of the world, who were eager to help during that initial outpouring of sympathy and support, into tracking down the other criminals responsible. True, Afghanistan wasn't willing to hand over bin Laden, not at first, but we had a lot of good options then.

We could have maintained our honor and our reputation. We could have held onto our moral leadership. We could have kept thousands of young Americans - and hundreds of thousands of Afghan and Iraqi civilians - alive and uninjured. And maybe we wouldn't have destroyed our own economy or, nearly, our own military in a foolish adventure with no clear exit strategy.

But no, George W. Bush wanted to prance around in a flight suit, playing "Commander-in-Chief," rather than acting as our constitutional president. Republicans, who inevitably love war as long as they don't have to fight it themselves, wanted to watch as our lovely bombs exploded amongst enemies (any enemies, they're not particular). Right-wing ideologues wanted to push through their political extremism, with "a time of war" being their excuse. And the rich wanted deficit spending and tax cuts.

We had good options back then, but we consistently chose the bad ones. Well, as I say, bin Laden knew his enemy. The whole nation was "roaring Patriotism at the top of its voice," as Ralph Waldo Emerson once warned America, and almost no one was courageous enough to stand up against the mob. We chose the bad options - the worst of options, in fact - and we consistently continued to do so for years.

Now, Osama bin Laden is still at large, respected more than ever, heading up an al Qaeda which has become the worldwide symbol of resistance to America. George W. Bush got re-elected as planned, and now he's out of office, peddling his memoirs and attempting to rewrite history. Republicans are capitalizing politically on the bad economy they caused, the huge deficits they created, and the endless wars they started. So everyone is happy, huh?

But in Afghanistan, America is left with no good options. That's our fault - in a democracy, we the people pretty much get what we deserve - but no one wants to blame himself, right? Well, there's always Barack Obama to blame. Luckily, we have no long-term memory at all, so two years might as well be prehistory, for all we know.

These days, there are many issues where we still have good options. We don't seem to be taking them, but they do exist. If we suddenly wised up (I don't expect it), we'd still be able to do some good. And I have strong opinions about most of those issues. But I don't have any idea what we should do about Afghanistan. We're long past the point where we have any good options there.

As with our current economy, we're paying the price of poor decisions made years ago. (Yes, there is a price to be paid for our poor decisions, and much as you'd prefer to push it off onto your children and grandchildren, much of it inevitably comes due in our lifetimes. But don't worry, your children and grandchildren will also be paying for them, and paying dearly, too.)

I don't see any good options when it comes to Afghanistan, none at all. At this point, our options are all bad. This is our fault. In particular, this is the fault of Republicans who supported George W. Bush and of Democrats who timidly went along with it. And it's especially the fault of people who couldn't be bothered with their civic duty at all. But in a democracy, we make decisions collectively, so this is our collective fault.

Of course, we'll almost certainly blame someone else, won't we? We left Barack Obama with no good options, but he'll certainly be blamed for the bad ones, whatever he does. I'm not going to suggest anything in this post, because I see no good answer to this mess now. Maybe if I had a time machine...

But no, forget the fantasy. This is the real world. In the real world, we must live with our mistakes. In the real world, no one rescues us from our own idiocy. In the real world, we can only do the best we can, and when we screw up this badly, vow to do better in the future (that, at least, shouldn't be hard).