Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Musings on an Under-Reported Story

My father was President of one of the colleges in the State University of New York system for a decade beginning in 1968, so I spent most of my adolescence literally on a college campus: the view out my bedroom window was of a dormitory and a dining hall. Those were, needless to say, tumultuous times. So it was that one night, close to midnight, we heard a crash downstairs. When we investigated, we found that someone had thrown a rock through the dining room window. As it happened, a campus policeman had actually seen the event, and in a matter of minutes, he showed up on the doorstep with the offender in tow.

My father asked the obvious question: why? The vandal turned out to be a student, who took issue with my Dad’s position on the in loco parentis issues then current. “This,” he said, “was to show you we demand 24-hour visitation in the dorms.” “And if you hadn’t been caught, how would we have known that?” This question was met with a classic deer-caught-in-the-headlights stare, and the great message-sender was left to admit he didn’t know.

I’ve been reminded of this moment from long ago by this year’s curious uptick in Marching Season violence in Northern Ireland. I get it—something is bothering someone. But what? And why?

Of course, even knowing what’s going on in Northern Ireland over the past few weeks has been difficult from this side of the pond. I hope that it is reasonably clear that I make a fairly concerted effort to keep up with the news. So when I haven’t heard about something, there’s a pretty good chance the media haven’t seen fit to cover it. Indeed, having heard about the most recent bombing—the one on Saturday in Lurgan that injured three children—not directly from my scrutiny of various news outlets, but from a message from a student, I did a little checking. My first stop for such news is The Irish Times of Dublin: they tend to be both thorough and less given to the partisanship one finds in the Northern Irish press, either Unionist or Nationalist, or in such British media as Reuters, the BBC, or the Times, which seem capable of objective reporting on all topics but this one.

What I found there was a story likening the strategy employed in the Lurgan incident with that of one of the most horrific episodes of the Troubles, the 1998 bombing in Omagh that killed 29 people, including a number of children and a woman pregnant with twins. Specifically, the fact that “police received a warning saying the bomb was placed in one area and that it then detonated in another ‘bore similarities’ to the Omagh bombing.” According to SDLP (Social Democratic and Labour Party) representative Dolores Kelly,
A call came in to the Samaritans saying a device had been placed near the Model School, but there was no mention of what town. So police all over the north were out checking around all Model Schools when the bomb went off without further warning at Kilmaine Street, just where the police would have needed to put a cordon around the school.

This was a despicable attempt to draw police in and then set off a bomb precisely where they would have been trying to keep other people back out of danger, and that is why the children were injured by debris from the explosion.
The PSNI (Police Service of Northern Ireland) believe that the bomb was intended to target the police themselves in “an attempt to kill or injure police officers after the warning… was phoned to the Samaritans.” Under normal circumstances, I’d take this as typical police paranoia—not that they don’t often have a right to be skittish, but police in general and those in Northern Ireland in particular, do tend to see themselves as targets more often than is warranted.

In this time and place, however, police nervousness is fully comprehensible. True, the “just like Omagh” rhetoric is both over-heated and to some degree the product of prophecy-fulfillment—similar to those who would have us believe that the so-called “underwear bomber” is proof of some sort of escalation of global terrorism. That said, it hasn’t been a good few weeks to be a member of security forces in Northern Ireland.

Just looking at stories from July and August, we get this:
Police were attacked in a Belfast riot on July 2. Six officers were hurt the next night, as they “came under attack from stones, fireworks, petrol bombs, paint, masonry and, on one occasion, an axe.”

A week later, a bomb exploded on a bridge in Armagh; “Police Chief Superintendent Alisdair Robinson said the explosion was ‘a totally reckless act that could easily have led to loss of life if anybody had been driving past at the time. However I believe at this stage the real target was my officers. This was an attempt to lure police into the area to injure or kill them.’” PSNI Superintendent Pauline Shields subsequently described the attack as “‘a blatant and callous attempt’ to kill and injure police officers.”

On the 12th of July—the anniversary of Protestant William of Orange’s victory over Catholic James II at the Battle of the Boyne, and therefore the center-piece of Marching Season—some 82 police officers were reported injured (some, apparently, from a night or two earlier). According to PSNI Chief Constable Matt Baggott, “police were attacked with blast bombs, petrol bombs, bricks, stones, golf balls and other missiles. A number of people attacked police lines at close quarters with metal bars. There were also occasions when police took urgent cover as if they feared gun attacks.”

The next night, when under normal circumstances tensions would have begun to settle, there were gunshots. The night after that, petrol bombs were thrown at officers.

On July 28, the Irish Times ran a story by Gerry Moriarty which stated that the new leadership of the Continuity IRA, another splinter group founded in the aftermath of the IRA’s first provisional cease-fire in 1994, declared their own recently-deposed “old guard” insufficiently pro-active, and promised to continue to target police: “Police are legitimate targets because they are members of the British security forces.” There is, of course, much of the flavor of sour grapes about the CIRA complaints. Much as those on the left in this country couldn’t fathom how Bush/Cheney could be re-elected, or those on the right rejected the easy victory of Barack Obama, the radical republicans dismiss the Belfast Agreement of 1998, declaring:
People were corralled into voting for something they knew nothing about; there is an agreement but it can be overruled at any time by the Westminster government…. The existence of the Northern Executive is in the gift of the British government; they would take it away if it was in their interests to do so… it is now in the interests of Britain to have that junta at Stormont.
A car bomb exploded outside police headquarters in Derry, Northern Ireland’s second-largest city and far-and-away its most significant Catholic-majority municipality, on August 3. In that instance, according to follow-up reporting by George Jackson and Dan Keenan, “The 100kg bomb exploded 22 minutes after a caller using a recognised Real IRA code word said the device would explode in 45 minutes.” The Real IRA is the organization responsible for the Omagh bombing.

The following day, a bomb was found under the car of a British soldier stationed in County Down. A couple days after that, another unexploded bomb was discovered, this one under the car of a PSNI officer.

Yes, we can’t blame the PSNI in particular for being more than a little apprehensive. Two questions present themselves: 1). why haven’t we heard more about this west of the Atlantic? and 2). what is going on in the peace process in Northern Ireland that would precipitate such acts?

As for question 1, I really don’t know. Looking on the MSNBC site on Sunday for more information about the Lurgan incident, I found literally nothing but a day-old, well-buried AP release. There was everything I might want to know about Zsa Zsa Gabor’s medical status, however. (Quick, anyone under 50 [gay men in the arts excepted], who the hell is Zsa Zsa Gabor? And no, she wasn’t on “Green Acres”; that was her sister, Eva.) CNN’s site wasn’t any better.

Plug the words “Northern Ireland” and a “last 30 days” time-frame into a search at the New York Times site and you’ll find this: a single Reuters story about the bomb under the soldier's car; a generic article, well over a year old, about the IRA; a couple other off-hand references to Northern Ireland in stories that don’t actually fall within the time-frame; and a couple of stories that mention Northern Irish golfers. Oh, and on the second page, there’s a story about the death of a former Northern Irish snooker champion. Really. Durgan, which the PSNI would have us believe would have been another Omagh but for the grace of God? Not a word. The car-bomb in Derry? Nope. Worst rioting in Belfast since the Good Friday accord? Well, that’s a little before the 30-day window. Turns out there was a story by John F. Burns about that. One. Follow-up is for sissies.

I despair.

But the unwillingness or inability of professional journalists to do their damned jobs, the emphasis on the transcendently trivial at the expense of what thinking people might actually care about… that’s a rant for another day. What’s more relevant at the moment is that most damning and difficult of queries: why? Why all this violence now?

Obviously, “why now?” in terms of timing within the calendar year doesn’t take a lot of thought. It’s marching season. July 12 and the weeks immediately prior and after are especially likely to lead to problems. The Orange Order’s recent attempt to re-brand their triumphalist marches as “Orangefest” is a particularly curious phenomenon, and one which for all its media-savvy marketing has a huge potential for disaster. That the Orange Order would want to do this makes some sense; that the Tourist Board would go along boggles the mind. After all, nothing says “family fun” like planning a parade route intentionally to pass through Catholic neighborhoods with the sole intention of sparking a response, playing music louder there than elsewhere on the route, and similar manifestations of good cheer.

I don’t care what you call it, I have difficulty imagining a lot of Catholic families in Ardoyne or Armagh, regardless of their position on political issues, packing up the sammies and crisps and taking the kids on a picnic, hoping to catch a glimpse of those laugh-a-minute Orangemen. All the re-branding does is to attempt to legitimize that which has long since outlived whatever usefulness it might once have had. It would make as much sense to parade through downtown Atlanta to celebrate the anniversary of the election of Lester Maddox.

On the other hand, the Catholic community can pretty much always be counted on to rise to the bait. Moreover, while I wouldn’t impose American free speech laws on other countries (at least on those countries where there is a recognized and protected right to dissent), the one political attribution I will freely allow others to impose on me is civil libertarian. I let my membership in the ACLU lapse a few years ago when, to my mind, they went Miranda-rights crazy, but if I can support the right of Nazis to march in Skokie or of Fred Phelps to picket military funerals, then I can support the right of the Orange Order to march through Portadown. N.B. this doesn’t mean I don’t think that all of the above are assholes. In other words, what I think of Orange Order marches is what I would think of the “Ground Zero Mosque” if a). it were at Ground Zero, b). it were a mosque, and c). the Imam at the head of the Cordoba Initiative bore any resemblance to the caricaturized version presented by idiots like Newt Gingrich or Glenn Beck.

But surely this re-branding, which may have been escalated this year but wasn’t in fact a new phenomenon (the roll-out was two years ago), couldn’t account for this year's rise in violence, especially that directed specifically against police. My best guess—and it is a guess—is that the extension of the power-sharing agreement, drafted in February and implemented in April, is at the center of the unrest.

Central to those negotiations were, according to the Telegraph’s website, the demands of republicans, notably but not exclusively Sinn Féin, to devolve policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont (the site of the provincial government in Belfast). Conversely, the DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), wanted concessions about the overseeing of loyal order parades, including of course the best-known examples, those of the Orange Order.

Remember, when two Northern Irish politicians, David Trimble and John Hume, won the Nobel Peace Prize 1998, they represented the UUP (Ulster Unionist Party) and the SDLP, respectively. These were the moderates. At the extremes, and in the minority, were the DUP, under the leadership of intransigent firebrand Ian Paisley, and Sinn Féin, traditionally if perhaps erroneously described as the “political wing of the IRA.” But by the time the power-sharing agreement took shape in 2007, however, the more radical parties had both increased in power relative to the moderates, and, indeed, had mellowed somewhat. Seeing Paisley and Sinn Féin’s Martin McGuinness together, let alone hearing them express what sure sounded like a shared vision three years ago was little short of a miracle.

But now there’s some real stress. The speeches in February were very fine indeed, but from the perspective of a zealot on either side of the political divide—and let there be no doubt, there is a yawning chasm there, whatever the public faces of the principals—those two issues that led to the February compromise are very problematic indeed. We need only look at the interview with the quartet of CIRA leaders linked above to underscore this point: they speak of “betrayal” by McGuinness and Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams, and they still perceive the police as instruments of British imperialism, irrespective of to whom they may officially answer. And making concessions about Orange Order marches! That was seen, if I might use an expression ironic in its etymology, as simply beyond the Pale. Police and the marches… yes, it’s all there. Throw in McGuinness’s assertion that the Irish and UK governments are in secret negotiations with IRA dissidents, and what’s a self-respecting homicidal revolutionary to do?

Needless to say, the overwhelming majority of the Northern Irish people, regardless of religious denomination or political persuasion, just want to go about their lives. There may be less intermingling between Catholics and Protestants than there might be, but there’s more than there was. And, in general, the animosity is waning. But, alas, there are exceptions.

Still, in a strange way, this might just be good news. The people and the government are moving forward. Bomb-throwers on both sides might just be becoming irrelevant. The violence of the last few weeks could, of course, be the beginning of a new cycle of violence that extends the Troubles into the next generation. Or it might be the death rattle of a puerile and reactionary ideology whose time has long since passed, if indeed it ever existed at all. Everyone worthy of the title of Christian—Catholic, Protestant, Orthodox, or Coptic—is praying for the latter.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

With Arrogance Comes Stupidity

We have been over-run lately with stories of corporate malfeasance. Bank bonuses to the very slimebags who made it necessary to rescue the industry to begin with are actually expected to go up by as much as 15% this year. Everyone’s least-favorite corporation (this week), BP, just got hit with the largest fine in OSHA history—over $50 million—not for their casual disregard for employee welfare on the Deepwater Horizon well where 11 men died, not for the 2005 Texas City refinery explosion that killed 15 and injured nearly 200, but because after the Texas City catastrophe they couldn’t be bothered to improve safety at the plant.

A Mine Safety and Health Administration official has pretty much stated that Massey Energy is once again lying about the causes of the disaster that killed 29 miners in West Virginia. Target and Best Buy have both come under fire for taking advantage of the outrageous Citizens United Supreme Court ruling and sending pots of money to MN Forward, an ostensibly pro-business group that oh-so-curiously seems to support almost exclusively Republicans, and virulently anti-gay ones, at that. Honestly, if I boycotted every company that richly deserves it, I’d have to become a hermit.

What all these stories have in common is the signature legacy of a generation of Reaganomics and the wrong kind of libertarianism: arrogance. BP and Massey don’t care about safety because even if they have to pay the occasional fine, it’s still—in their judgment—cost-effective to cut corners. BP made $14 billion in 2009; the huge—to us—fine imposed by OSHA works out to less than a fortnight’s profits: not income, profits. Target may think its pious proclamations or support for gay rights will immunize them against a boycott, but it’s more likely that they believe, probably correctly, that consumers really have no options: where are they going to take their business, Wal-Mart?

Besides, they’re all worth gazillions. Massey Energy, far and away the smallest of the corporations mentioned by name here, had a stockholder equity of over a billion dollars in 2009. And rich people just think differently than the rest of us: they think they’re entitled, they’re actually less likely to be generous, and they are often proud of what the rest of us would call character flaws (wonderful parody of this phenomenon here).

All of which brings us to the Pillsbury Douchebag Doughboy, who is throwing his pudgy weight around, issuing a cease-and-desist order to a small Salt Lake City cookie bakery called My Dough Girl: change your name or we’ll sue you. The case has been around for several months—there’s discussion on the my dough girl vs pillsbury corporation Facebook page (not to be confused with the store’s own Facebook page) from as early as May—but the case has really gone viral in the last couple of weeks, highlighted, perhaps by a great piece on Fox News’s Shepard Smith’s video blog on Wednesday, in which he asserts that “middle fingers are in order for this big company.” (What’s this guy doing on Fox instead of a real network?)

Poor General Mills (owners of Pillsbury). This corporation, with a mere $23.3 billion in market value, is threatened by a Utah bakery with an owner and a handful of part-time employees. “Unfortunately, we needed to protect our trademarks—and we did,” sniffs the corporate minion on Pillsbury’s own Facebook site. The MSM has dutifully fallen into line behind Goliath in this battle. Note the spin in ABC’s story:
Even though it may seem as if these massive corporations are frivolously bullying relatively insignificant competitors, all companies, large or small, have to protect their trademarks at every turn, lest they lose them, said James Rittinger, an intellectual property attorney with the New York City law firm of Satterlee Stephens Burke & Burke.

“Trademark law, unlike copyright law, where you can pick and choose who you want to sue, requires the trademark holder to police its mark,” Rittinger said. “Otherwise, the mark can become weakened—diluted, in trademark parlance—or even lost.”

Large companies are often criticized for picking on mom-and-pop shops, but really they have no choice, Rittinger said.

“If they do not take action, they severely jeopardize the strength of their valuable trademarks,” he said.

Added White Plains, N.Y.-based trademark attorney Thomas Wilentz, “Anyone starting a new business or coming out with a new product has to do an extensive trademark search…. You wouldn't buy a house without doing a title search.”
Notice anything missing there? Like the fact that General Mills doesn’t have a freaking case, for example? Or the fact that Mr. Rittinger and Mr. Wilentz are full of crap? Both assume facts not in evidence, to use what may or may not be actual legal terminology (but if it’s good enough for generations of TV lawyer shows, it’s good enough for me). Tami Cromar, the owner of My Dough Girl, did indeed do the appropriate searches, but no doubt determined that since no rational person would confuse her company with Pillsbury, she was on safe legal footing. And indeed she would be in a just universe. Does this look like a just universe to you?

I’m not a lawyer, but, as was once said of me in a different context by one of my favorite professors, I know something and I can read. I understand that copyright law and trademark law work differently, and that the owner of a trademark must actively protect that mark's exclusivity. This doesn’t mean, however that Pillsbury controls every variation on the word “dough.”

A blog called The IPKat concentrates on copyrights, trademarks, patents, and similar issues. True, it’s headquartered on the other side of the Atlantic, but they seem to know whereof they speak. One of their most interesting observations really cuts to the heart of the matter: “in common American nomenclature, the Doughboy is only ever referred to with the ‘Pillsbury’ precursor.” That is, there’s some question about whether Dough Creatures of any gender are actually covered by the trademark.

IPKat continues:
Further it seems impossible to envisage a scenario where a consumer gets in their car to drive to the grocery store to pick up a can of Pillsbury croissants, drives past My Dough Girl in Salt Lake City, gets confused, stops and purchases their products instead. Economically speaking, as well, if you are in the market for a Pillsbury Doughboy product it is highly unlikely you will be stopping at a gourmet cookie shop instead.
Since, according to a Harvard Law website, “the standard [for trademark infringement] is ‘likelihood of confusion,’” IPKat’s delightfully snarky scenario would seem to apply. The Harvard site also lists the kinds of factors generally employed in such cases: “(1) the strength of the mark; (2) the proximity of the goods; (3) the similarity of the marks; (4) evidence of actual confusion; (5) the similarity of marketing channels used; (6) the degree of caution exercised by the typical purchaser; (7) the defendant's intent.” I’m not sure what is meant by “the strength of the mark,” but apart from “the proximity of the goods,” there doesn’t seem to be much of a case here.

The “marks” bear literally nothing in common. My Dough Girl may have a punning name, but Ms. Cromar says that the name actually derives from a term for World War II era pin-up girls. The cookies themselves are named for the pin-ups—Virginia, Trudy, Penelope—and the store’s logo, prominently displayed on their website, bears as much resemblance to the Pillsbury Doughboy as a picture of a cake would. There is precisely zero evidence of actual confusion, I’m guessing relatively few people order their Poppin’ Fresh products on the web or by phone or by dropping by the plant, and even the Pillsbury people don’t seem to want to try to make the case that Ms. Cromar has any intent to deceive the population. In other words, Pillsbury has no case. None. Zero. Nada. Zilch. They’d have as good a complaint against Homer Simpson for saying “Doh.”

But they’ll get their way, because it’s easier and cheaper for Ms. Cromar to capitulate than to fight against a corporation willing to waste tens if not hundreds of thousands of dollars pursuing frivolous lawsuits. General Mills and their goons know that, of course. We can but hope that someday they'll accidentally pick on someone who can fight back. And, indeed, Ms. Cromar already has a history of losing in court when she has the better case. Friday she posted this on My Dough Girl’s Facebook page:
I am a cyclist, another passion of mine. A few years ago I was hit by a car, the driver admitted to making a wrong turn and was cited. I spent 18 months recovering, his lawyers were fantastic! They won, the lawyers took all the money, I was left with medical bills, a broken heart, a broken bike, and a broken spirit.
[I’m taking on faith that she’s better at baking than at punctuation, but you get the idea.]

No one can blame her that she has apparently decided not to fight, even though the estimated costs of the rebranding run into the tens of thousands of dollars. [EDIT: according to a post by an admin at the my dough girl vs pillsbury corporation Facebook page, a settlement has been signed.] It’s a lot easier to urge others to stand up to The Man than it is to do so oneself. Not everyone can be Nelson Mandela or Václav Havel, or even Shirley Sherrod (who, it will be remembered, did in fact resign her position before coming out swinging after someone else demonstrated that she wasn’t the racist that Andrew Breitbart and the whores at Fox News portrayed her as being).

When we get right down to it, Pillsbury/General Mills is pursuing this course of action not because they have to to protect their trademark, but because they can. No sentient being could possibly confuse Pillsbury with My Dough Girl. The people at General Mills know that as well as anyone. But they just can’t help themselves. To a certain personality type, strutting around bullying the little guy is a show of manliness. To me, it’s a pretty sure sign that someone is compensating for something. [Insert vulgar anatomical reference here.]

What separates what Pillsbury is doing in this case from what other arrogant corporate Leviathans have done recently, however, is significant: there is literally no rationale for their actions. In all those other cases mentioned above, it’s possible to at least see the thinking: if we cut these safety corners, we’ll improve our bottom line; if we give ridiculous bonuses to our executives, they won’t be tempted to move to a different firm; if we throw money at political candidates, we might get a friend in high places. The rest of us might find those reasons unethical, but at least we understand them. Pillsbury, however, even if they “win,” won’t have eliminated a real threat to their trademark; they’ll simply have created a shit-storm of negative publicity. Certainly if I were a General Mills stockholder, I’d be pretty upset that management is wasting money on lawyers and generating bad press to eliminate a phantom threat rather than—hell, I don’t know—developing new products, or improving employees’ job satisfaction, or (best of all) increasing my dividends.

Boycotts seldom work. People have short attention spans, and before long they’ll start missing those crescent rolls. I doubt that I account for $20 a year worth of profit for General Mills. If I brought every one of my Facebook friends with me, and they all contributed that same amount to General Mills’s profit margin, and we all kept up the boycott for a full year, we’d cost the corporation about 6 ½ minutes’ worth of profit. On the other hand, sometimes you just do things to make yourself feel good. We’re getting low on cereal. The next box won’t be Wheaties or Cheerios.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

Alfred Hitchcock and Knowingly Knowing

Alfred Hitchcock knew what he was doing. His films terrify us for two reasons. The first is the quotidian quality of his characters and situations—there’s nothing exotic at all about the heroes of “The Man Who Knew Too Much” or “North by Northwest.” Nor did Hitch need creepy old houses or dense woods to create his worlds: a concert hall or an open field in bright sunshine will do just fine, thanks—but I defy anyone who’s seen “North by Northwest” to ever look at crop-dusters quite the same again.

Hitchcock’s other insight was just as simple: he understood that the human imagination produces horrors far more vivid than any film-maker could possibly create in a studio. The scariest moments in “The Birds” don’t come when the… erm… title characters actually attack, but rather when, seemingly innocuously at first, they begin to gather on the telephone wires. Similarly, we don’t know what’s waiting at the bottom of those stairs in “Psycho,” but we know to be afraid of it. This is why there is more horror, in any legitimate use of that term, in any of a half dozen of Hitchcock’s scariest films than in all the Dead Teenager flicks ever made put together. We are, in short, hard-wired to be afraid of the unknown. Hitchcock knew it, and used that knowledge to make great films. Alas, today’s right wing knows it, too, and they play on that fear to attempt to legitimize their own prejudices and paranoia.

It was probably sometime in the late 1980s, a decade or so after I graduated from college, that I first heard the term “knowingly know,” a term that refers to not simply the fact that one’s acquaintance is a member of some group, but that one recognizes that they are. I’ve heard the phrase most often with respect to homosexuality. Even if only 2% of the population is gay, if you know 35 people, the chances are better than even you know someone gay. If I recall correctly, there were 306 people in my high school graduating class: even at the 2% figure (certainly at the low end of estimates), the mathematical chances we were all heterosexual would be about 1 in 500 (.98 ^ 306th). Still, I didn’t know any of my classmates to be gay—a very different thing from whether they actually were or not.

In college, I had one gay friend and a couple of acquaintances—or so I thought until years later, when I learned that another of my closest college friends was in fact gay. When, at some point in the early 1990s, my friend and colleague told me that she and her partner had traveled from Iowa to Wisconsin the previous weekend to be “married” in a Quaker ceremony, it took me a little by surprise—not because I didn’t know of their relationship, or because I disapproved in the slightest: I simply hadn’t given the concept of gay marriage any thought. I am pleased to say, in retrospect, that it took me less than two seconds to move from confusion to congratulations. It was, in short, a no-brainer: of course Karen and Penny should be able to marry each other. The fact that I’d hitherto never considered the possibility said something about the time, something about the small-town world I had always inhabited, and something about my own egocentric but perhaps understandable conflation of my own lived experience and the normative.

I will, of course, never know if my reaction would have been any different had the concept of gay marriage been presented to me in the abstract, especially if I’d never “knowingly known” any gays or lesbians. And this is the essence of the “knowingly know” phenomenon: being presented with an impersonal, generic concept is a fundamentally different experience than choosing whether to endorse a policy designed to better the life experience of one’s friends.

Anyway, that college friend I didn’t know was gay until years later? I was privileged to attend his wedding—complete with two plastic grooms atop the cake—in the early summer of 1994. Now, of course, practically everyone not merely knows someone gay, but knowingly knows. And poll numbers reflect that change in cognition. A CNN poll released Wednesday shows, for the first time, that the majority of those polled said that “gays and lesbians should have a constitutional right to get married and to have their marriage recognized by law as valid.” While that’s good news from my perspective, other results from the same poll were more troubling. And that’s why this blog piece isn’t really about gay marriage at all.

What saddened me in particular was this question: “As you may know, a group of Muslims in the U.S. plan to build a mosque two blocks from the site in New York City where the World Trade Center used to stand. Do you favor or oppose this plan?” Over two-thirds of respondents, alas, opposed. True, there has been considerable fanfare about the opposition, not merely from the usual demagogues like Gingrich, Beck, and Palin, but also—chillingly—from the Anti-Defamation League, which issued what Salon.com’s Alex Pareene aptly describes as a “shameful, mealy-mouthed statement” about the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque”: touting religious freedom in one breath and then suggesting that because of “understandably strong passions and keen sensitivities surrounding the World Trade Center site,” the proposed site should be abandoned because “building an Islamic Center in the shadow of the World Trade Center will cause some victims more pain—unnecessarily—and that is not right.”

Give me a damned break. First off, this is precisely the kind of namby-pambyism that used to give liberals a bad name. Someone might get upset? That’s a reason to suddenly forget the 1st Amendment? And who, exactly, would be “cause[d] pain”? In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, President Bush, hardly a hard-core Islamophile, said this:
These acts of violence against innocents violate the fundamental tenets of the Islamic faith. And it's important for my fellow Americans to understand that. The English translation is not as eloquent as the original Arabic, but let me quote from the Koran, itself: In the long run, evil in the extreme will be the end of those who do evil. For that they rejected the signs of Allah and held them up to ridicule.

The face of terror is not the true faith of Islam. That's not what Islam is all about. Islam is peace. These terrorists don't represent peace. They represent evil and war. When we think of Islam we think of a faith that brings comfort to a billion people around the world. Billions of people find comfort and solace and peace. And that's made brothers and sisters out of every race—out of every race. America counts millions of Muslims amongst our citizens, and Muslims make an incredibly valuable contribution to our country. Muslims are doctors, lawyers, law professors, members of the military, entrepreneurs, shopkeepers, moms and dads. And they need to be treated with respect. In our anger and emotion, our fellow Americans must treat each other with respect.

Whatever may have happened later, and indeed whatever his motives may have been at the time—political calculation, geo-strategic positioning, or deeply-held personal belief—Mr. Bush, then if never else, said and did what was right, and it seems that most people listened. True, there were some isolated incidents of violence against Muslims, vandalism against mosques, and the like, but it could have been far worse than it was, and President Bush deserves credit for his calming influence.

Unfortunately, that dose of reality seems to have worn off, and there are far too many today who appear incapable of distinguishing Islam from a tiny group of radicalized adherents (if, indeed, the hijackers can be said to be Islamic at all, any more than Fred Phelps can be described as Christian). These, then, are the pain-afflicted victims cited by the ADL: people who can endure the empty chair at the dinner table or the hole in the ground where colossal buildings once stood, but not an expression of the religious freedom central to this country’s identity for well over 200 years.

But then I got to thinking about knowingly knowing. The CNN poll is national; The Wall Street Journal commissioned one last month of just New Yorkers. The headline reads: “Poll: Majority of New Yorkers Oppose Ground Zero Mosque.” If one didn’t know that the WSJ is now another Rupert Murdoch mullet-wrapper instead of the corporatist but reputable newspaper it once was, one might be tempted to stop there and conclude that the people of the area have a real aversion to the completion of the Cordoba Initiative, as the project is called.

But read a little further. Manhattanites actually approve of the construction: “support for the $100 million project appeared to be strongest in Manhattan, where 46% of poll respondents said they were in favor of it, compared to 36% who said they were opposed.” Now, I realize that there was a time gap between the WSJ and CNN polls, but surely the real difference between them is the demographic profile of those surveyed: most especially where they’re from.

Lost in the rhetoric is the fact that a major impetus for the “Ground Zero Mosque” (which isn’t a mosque per se, and which is two full city blocks from Ground Zero) is simply this: it’s needed. According to a WSJ blog by Aaron Rutkoff, “The project is driven in part by the needs of a growing Muslim population in Lower Manhattan. The nearest existing Islamic prayer space, the Tribeca Mosque, has been holding three evening prayer services on Fridays to keep up with demand.” In other words, there are a lot of Muslims in Lower Manhattan. People there know them, interact with them, in many cases are them. In other words, they knowingly know.

But, outside a couple of major cities and a smattering of other areas, how many Americans knowingly know anyone of the Islamic faith? How many folks in Murfreesboro, Tennessee, site of another backlash against Islam in general, actually have had a conversation with someone named Farooq or Mohammed or Amir?

Let’s leave aside the compelling arguments that the right’s outlandish rhetoric plays directly into the hands of radical Muslims by actually making the case that American foreign policy is indeed a “war on Islam,” when it plainly is not. Let’s also pass over the fact that dozens of Muslims died in the 9/11 attacks, that it was a Muslim man who alerted authorities to the bomb in Times Square in early May, that one of the prime movers of the Cordoba project is quoted as saying, “We decided we wanted to look at the legacy of 9/11 and do something positive,” and that she hopes “to reverse the trend of extremism and the kind of ideology that the extremists are spreading.”

Let’s just look at the numbers based on knowingly knowing, or, looked at differently, in terms of how much the respondent’s life would actually be affected by the completion or non-completion of the project:
General U.S. Population: Opposed by 39 points
New Yorkers (all five boroughs): Opposed by 21 points
Manhattanites: In favor by 10 points
If I didn’t know better, I’d say there’s a pretty clear correlation between knowingly knowing and supporting the Cordoba Initiative. Perhaps the right, erstwhile champions of local control, ought to STFU?

There will be anti-Muslim bias in some circles for a long time to come, just as there still is in some places against African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Jews, Hispanics, gays… But there is an antidote to this poison. It’s called education: not the teach-to-the-test crap advocated by many on the right (and some, truth to tell, on the left), but areas like critical thinking, argument formation, written and oral communication, multi-cultural experience. Ignorance doesn’t merely breed fear: it is the very essence of fear. Just ask Alfred Hitchcock.

This is a battle, but one that must be won. That’s why I’m still in the trenches. Unafraid.

Sunday, August 1, 2010

What If the Government Really Did Budget Like Families Do?

There was an interesting story on the HuffPo site by Johann Hari site a couple of days ago about the decision of Moody’s, the leading credit agency, to downgrade Ireland’s bond rating from Aa1 to Aa2. No, I don’t pretend to be economist enough to understand all the implications and repercussions (it would be nice if a few folks in Congress admitted similar ignorance), but the story caught my eye because of my affection for that country and because of Hari’s discussion of the implications of the Irish situation for the US:
The Republicans want to bring this vision from Ireland… to the US. They say–yes, this is rough, yes, it hurts, but it is for a necessary purpose. If we don't do it, the bond markets will downgrade our debt and we will be even worse off. Only austerity can hold off the prospect of a debt crisis.

So let's return to the truth buried in that little story on the financial pages. Ireland has been doing exactly what the Republicans urge, with a two year headstart. What are the results? Last week, a study by the International Monetary Fund nobody's idea of a left-wing pressure group—found that country’s economic collapse now “exceeds that being faced by any other advanced economy, and matches episodes of the most severe economic distress [anywhere] in post-World War Two history.”

Why? During a recession, ordinary consumers quite sensibly cut back and spend less. But if the government does the same, it means nobody is spending. This is bad enough for all the people who suffer immediately: the swelling army of the unemployed, the repossessed, the abandoned. But it turns out it makes its original goal—paying off the debt—impossible too. As the Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz explains: “If you introduce austerity measures, the amount you can raise in tax falls, and welfare payments go up—so you don't have enough money to pay your debts anyway.”
If nothing else, I rather appreciate the phrasing of Stiglitz’s “cautionary note against deficit fetishism.” Hari also argues that:
When consumer spending collapses, governments need to borrow and spend to prevent a depression—and then pay off the debt from the proceeds of growth once we have brought the good times back. It's revealing that the countries that have done this hardest and fastest—like South Korea, which spent a fortune on employing people to green the country's infrastructure -- have been the first to pull out of this recession, while the countries glugging Republican-juice have sunk deeper into the gloop.
Needless to say, Hari goes on to assert that “the choice today is between a deficit and a depression. It is immoral not to borrow and spend when it could revive the economy and prevent all these lives being written off.”

A couple things intrigue me about this. One is the manifest hypocrisy of the Republicans, who exploded the deficit with their pet projects (read: tax cuts for fat-cats) but now fret about it with deep and abiding concern. Isn’t it about time somebody called “bullshit” on this tactic? Here are the facts for the last 50 years, based on figures posted on the usgovernmentspending.com website: From 1961-69, i.e. the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, federal debt as a percentage of GDP fell from 53.04% to 35.93%, a reduction of nearly a third. The Nixon/Ford years produced little change, as the percentage dropped slightly to 34.42% in 1977. The much-maligned Carter administration further reduced the rate to 31.91% in four years. By 1993, Reagan and Bush the elder had more than doubled that number to 66.17%, all the while yammering about fiscal responsibility. Then came Bill Clinton, who lowered the rate to 56.46% by 2001. Then, guess what? Along comes Bush the Lesser and the percentage shoots up to 83.29% by 2009.

In summary, then: every Democratic president in the last 50 years except Barack Obama, who inherited an economy in free-fall, has reduced the federal debt as a function of GDP. Every Republican president since (and including) the sainted Reagan has increased that debt percentage significantly. So this isn’t at all about Republicans caring a whit (or something that rhymes with “whit”) about the deficit. It’s all about budgetary priorities. If they’d admit that, I’d still disagree, but I might be able to muster a little respect (or at least less contempt) for their position.

But the other element of the Republican talking points that catches my attention is the whole conflation of government economic policy with family finances. In these difficult times, the argument goes, everyday people are being forced to tighten their belts; the government should do the same. Let’s leave aside the fallacy of considering these two fundamentally independent concepts as if they were the same thing. Let’s pretend, in other words, that the parallels are legitimate.

What, then, would the Republican strategy mean to a household? Well, they’d spend less (or they'd say they would, which isn't quite the same thing). In the world of family budgets, it probably is a good idea to put off buying the big-screen TV or the new Jacuzzi when times are tough. You might go out to eat less often, watch Netflix instead of going to the movies, keep your house a little cooler in the winter and warmer in the summer.

But there are some expenses you just can’t forgo. If you’re looking for work, cutting off your internet service might save you a few dollars in the short term, but it will also inhibit your ability to find out about job opportunities or to apply for those that do exist. If you live several miles from your place of employment, you could save money by not driving to work, but you run the risk of losing your job. If you’re a contractor, turning off your cell phone will save you perhaps $1000 a year, but prospective customers (or your telephone service) can’t contact you, and your business losses will outpace the savings. Cutting expenditures on clothes might be an option… unless you go for an interview at a place where dressing well is a job requirement. And on and on.

Similarly, fiscal responsibility in government is a good thing. Cutting back on unnecessary spending—say, a pair of bright shiny wars that have already cost nine years, over a trillion dollars (that’s $1,000,000,000,000) and over 5,000 Americans’ lives (not to mention the tens of thousands of Iraqi, Afghani, and Pakistani civilians who have also perished in the conflict)—might be a good idea. But refusing to spend money to stimulate job growth, to provide a safety net for those put out of work through no fault of their own, to provide short-term support for an automobile industry that directly or indirectly provides literally millions of jobs: that’s the equivalent of refusing to take your flu-ridden kid to the doctor because the credit-card bills are already kind of high.

And then, of course, there’s the income side. We don’t want any more than we’ve already got. Yes, we’re having trouble paying the bills, but collecting over half a trillion dollars (an estimated $564,000,000,000) just by allowing tax cuts on people making over $200,000 a year to expire—well, that, in Republicania, is simply beyond the Pale. Imagine if households really operated the way the Republicans say the federal government should: “No, that pay cut I took a few years ago, don’t worry about taking me back to my old income; we’ll just eat less, and my friend says sending your kids to college is over-rated, anyway.”

Don’t get me wrong. There is plenty of pork in every budget, and probably a considerable amount of our old friends Waste, Fraud, and Abuse, too. Nor does either party have a monopoly on self-righteous posturing or on prioritizing re-election over the common weal. That said, even if we buy the Republican talking point analogizing from federal spending to household budgeting, their argument just doesn’t make sense.

The WikiLeaks Documents and the Eye of the Beholder

The top story of the week is—or at least should be—the release of tens of thousands of classified documents by WikiLeaks. The responses have been predictable. Supporters of the wars in Iraq and particularly in Afghanistan sniff that we learned nothing new and endangered lives in the process; it’s even been suggested that the release of the documents was in fact orchestrated by the Obama team to embarrass the Bush administration, although it escapes me exactly how discrediting a Bush policy that is being echoed by Obama serves the latter politically.

Meanwhile, opponents of the war(s) claim that we now have proof of what we’ve suspected all along: that the war in Afghanistan is not going at all well, that the Pakistani government is more of an enemy than an ally, that the US is underwriting the actions of drug lords, that there have been far more civilian casualties than previously reported. Hey, and remember that really cool scene at the end of “Charlie Wilson’s War” when the Mujahideen finally have the ability to counter Russian air power? Well, guess who those folks are now, and whom they’re using those weapons against?

The White House immediately condemned the release of the documents. On Sunday, the day the documents went up on the WikiLeaks website, National Security Advisor James Jones said in a statement that “The United States strongly condemns the disclosure of classified information by individuals and organizations which could put the lives of Americans and our partners at risk, and threaten our national security.” The next day, Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said in a press briefing that:
I think our reaction to this type of material, a breach of federal law, is always the same, and that is whenever you have the potential for names and for operations and for programs to be out there in the public domain, that it—besides being against the law—has a potential to be very harmful to those that are in our military, those that are cooperating with our military, and those that are working to keep us safe.
Not long afterward, however, the tone had changed. Michael Isikoff reports that David Lapan, deputy assistant secretary of defense for media operations, said that:
a preliminary review by a Pentagon “assessment” team had so far not identified any documents whose release could damage national security. Moreover, he said, none of the documents reviewed so far carries a classification level above “secret”—the lowest category of intelligence material in terms of sensitivity.
On Thursday, though, there was another reversal. Defense Secretary Robert Gates and Admiral Mike Mullen held a press conference. Gates warned that the incident is:
a pointed reminder that much secret information is treated as such to protect sources of information, to protect the lives of our men and women in uniform, to deny our enemies the information about our military operations, and to preserve our relationship with friends and allies…. the battlefield consequences of the release of these documents are potentially severe and dangerous for our troops, our allies and Afghan partners, and may well damage our relationships in that key part of the world.
Mullen, meanwhile, argued that WikiLeaks founder/point person Julian Assange “can say whatever he likes about the greater good he and his source are doing, but the truth is they might already have on their hands the blood of some young soldier.”

It’s really a spectacular example of the eye-of-the-beholder phenomenon. Private Bradley Manning, who may or may not have been responsible for the leak (my commentary here), is a whistle-blowing hero who brought abuses to light… or a traitor who endangered the lives of American servicemen and –women and/or those who have cooperated with American forces… or a very disturbed young man who made the whole thing up.

Assange may be correct in his assertion that there is no single event or revelation that is the most damning, but rather, as he said in a press conference part of which is posted on the website of The Guardian, “it’s war; it’s one damned thing after another.” Still, it’s difficult to justify the release of documents which give names and other identifying information about Afghanis who aided the US military: this charge was first leveled by the Times of London; alas, the article in question is now behind a pay-wall, but the coverage of The Australian is not. Whatever we may think about whether the war is good policy, or whether American soldiers have been paragons of virtue, the Taliban are not the good guys in any rational assessment of what’s going on in that part of the world. Indeed, Taliban spokesman Zabihullah Mujahid declared in an interview on the UK’s channel 4 and quoted by The Telegraph’s Robert Winnett, “If they are US spies, then we know how to punish them.”

It is reasonable to distrust a government which invokes largely if not exclusively fabricated threats to national security every time it gets embarrassed by a revelation or every time it needs a “wag the dog” moment: this was standard operating procedure in the Bush administration, and, though the practice may have waned in the Obama regime, it has by no means disappeared. That said, recklessness is recklessness, and Assange’s after-the-fact protestations—that many Afghani informants were “acting in a criminal way,” that the Obama administration knew about the release of names but “did nothing to help WikiLeaks to vet the data,” that “any risk to informants' lives was outweighed by the overall importance of publishing the information,” that, as he said in another interview, the information was “not of tactical consequence”—ring rather hollow.

Indeed, when the White House denied that Assange had contacted them, he backtracked, saying that he had done so through the New York Times; it is clear that the administration had been in contact with the Times, but not that the Times had relayed Assange's alleged offer. Department of Defense spokesman Col. David Lapan denied the allegations in a statement Friday:
It's absolutely false that WikiLeaks contacted the White House and offered to have them look through the documents…. We never had the opportunity to look at any of the documents in advance to determine anything. The documents were brought to the attention of the White House, but no copies of documents, or opportunities to review were given.
Anyone else find it interesting that this release came from the Pentagon and not the White House?

Needless to say, Fox News is claiming that the fact that Assange said that he had offered, through the Times, to give the administration the opportunity to vet the documents and the White House acknowledged that they’d talked to the Times means that the offer was made and ignored. It doesn’t. It may be that the offer was never made, whether because Assange is lying or because the Times didn’t do what he asked of them. It may be that the White House made a blanket request to stop the publication of any documents at all and Assange refused to comply. But the Obama administration certainly wouldn’t be the first to commit a sin of omission and try to cover their tracks after the fact. Someone is covering their butts here—Assange? The Times? The White House? Your guess is as good as mine.

On the other points, Afghan President Hamid Karzai said, “Whether those individuals acted legitimately or illegitimately in providing information to the NATO forces, their lives will be in danger now. Therefore we consider that extremely irresponsible and an act that one cannot overlook.”

One more point can be made here: apparently all three of the major newspapers which had advance copies of the documents—the Guardian, the New York Times and Der Spiegel—published only selected, redacted examples of the documents. They apparently had both the journalistic desire to cover the story and the common sense not to publish material that stands a good chance of getting specific people killed. Why WikiLeaks couldn’t do that, too—they claim to have vetted all the documents, after all—is a mystery.

There’s an interesting piece by Tunku Varadarajan on The Daily Beast website—we’re not talking Fox News here!—which compares Assange to Andrew Breitbart, describes him as a “fraud,” and concludes, “WikiLeaks is a brothel of self-promotion, Assange its puffed-up pimp.” I fear there’s more than a kernel of truth there.

There’s one more element to the story: there is evidence that “strongly suggests,” in the words of gawker.com, that “Manning has some sort of LGBT identity, and that the man who snitched on him exploited this to win trust.” The Telegraph declares that he is “openly homosexual,” an interesting assertion in the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” age. The Gawker article includes a screen capture photo of Manning’s Facebook page, showing such “likes and interests” as “QueerToday.com,” “Stonewall Democrats,” and “LGBT America.” These aren’t conclusive, of course, but they do suggest a little more than do his fondness for the Rachel Maddow Show and the National Center for Transgender Equality. The Telegraph also cites a status update in which Manning claimed to be “‘livid’ after being ‘lectured by ex-boyfriend.’”

And here again we are going to see a divide. There will be those who, ignoring the thousands of gay and lesbian soldiers who have served honorably for years, will perceive the unsuitability of homosexuals for military service. Conversely, there will be those who argue that had Pvt. Manning been able to talk openly to a comrade or a superior about his recently-failed relationship, he would not have reached the level of despair and agitation that precipitated his action. Moreover, they would claim, à la Gawker:
Adrian Lamo is an out bisexual, while an increasing number of clues suggest that Manning is, if not transgendered, deeply uncertain about his sexuality and/or gender. Interviews with Lamo's acquaintances and a close reading of the chat logs suggest Lamo traded on this identity to exploit Manning at his most vulnerable, as questions about his sexuality were unbearably pressing on his personal and professional lives.
While this latter scenario is plausible, the fact remains that there is much we don’t know, up to and including whether Pvt. Manning had anything to do with this. Even assuming he was responsible, his motives are at best unclear, and it’s anyone’s guess whether his sexuality is in any way related to all this.

What we’re left with, then, is even more questions than we had before. But a few things are clear: if someone gets singled out by the Taliban and killed (or worse), someone—probably more than one someone—has blood on his hands. And it’s beginning to look as if Julian Assange’s halo is slipping.