Saturday, October 30, 2004

 

Rationales for War and Closed Feedback Loops

In this election more than any until now, partisans have been reinforcing each other with "closed feedback loops"--primarily, pseudo-information shared via email. In the past six or eight weeks, one of the popular Republican "stories" has been that everything Bush ever told us about the war was "believed by the previous administration [Clinton] and voted for by Kerry." Republicans have used this to reassure each other that Bush was not deliberately misleading the public regarding the war in Iraq.

This doesn't even begin to stand up to scrutiny. As a Senior Thesis project, Devon Largio, a student at the University of Illinois at Champaign-Urbana, make a painstaking study of the incidence and timings of all of the Administration's varying rationales for war. The study is titled “Uncovering the Rationales for the War on Iraq: The Words of the Bush Administration, Congress and the Media from September 12, 2001, to October 11, 2002.” She studied all available public statements the Bush administration and selected members of Congress made pertaining to war with Iraq. She not only identified the rationales offered for going to war, but also established when they emerged and who promoted them. Largio's professor, Scott Althaus, said, “It is first-rate research, the best senior thesis I have ever seen--thoroughly documented and elaborately detailed. Her methodology is first-rate.”

RATIONALES FOR WAR CITED BY BUSH ADMINISTRATION

Primary rationales (often used):
--war on terror
--prevention of the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction
--lack of inspections
--removal of the Hussein regime ("regime change")
--Saddam Hussein is evil
--liberation of the Iraqi people (mainly used by Rumsfeld during the period when he was the most visible Administration spokesman)

Secondary rationales (frequently used)
--Imminent threat (introduced by Bush in his speech to the United Nations, then adopted by Powell, Rumsfeld, Wolfowitz, Rice, Daschle, Lott, and found in the Congressional Record)
--"because we can"
--unfinished business
--disarmament
--connection to al Qaeda
--safety of the world

Remaining rationales:
--revenge
--war for oil
--threat to the region
--for the sake of history
--preservation of peace
--threat to freedom
--the uniqueness of Iraq (i.e., special situation)
--the relevance of the U.N.
--commitment to the children
--gaining favor with the Middle East
--stimulation of the economy
--setting Iraq as an example
--because Saddam Hussein hates the U.S.
--Iraq’s violation of international law.

Only one of the primary, two of secondary, and four of remainder were ever even cited by Clinton--and he never specified exactly what our response would be (never specified invasion, full expeditionary army, or occupation). Kerry signed a letter calling for the use of force in disarming Saddam, but didn't specify what kind of force or what level.

Largio's conclusion is that the majority of rationales for the war were introduced by Bush, and most of the rest were introduced by cabinet officers or Pentagon officials. The idea that Bush was simply repeating what all U.S. government officials originally believed, and thus can't be held accountable for his actions, is disingenuous at best, and, at worst, is evidently intended to deflect the truth.

Try not to be shocked.


Friday, October 29, 2004

 

Bin Laden Speaks, the Media Jumps--the Wrong Way

So in the past two days, Osama bin Laden has appeared on Al Jazeera not once but twice, and the running-dog corporatist media has generally opined that his appearance is good for the cause of Mr. Bush on Tuesday, and not Mr. Kerry, because it "reminds the American people" that Middle Eastern terrorists are still very much with us.

This is, to put it mildly, a highly perverse interpretation of this event. On September 11th, 2001, this insane viper masterminded the attack on the World Trade Center towers; and now here we are, three years later, and this selfsame villain is lecturing us from our television sets, still free and very much at large. And this is supposed to benefit BUSH?!? Bush, who has spent more than a hundred and forty billion of our dollars, ostensibly to fight terrorism? Bush, who stood in the rubble and said we'd get bin Laden "whatever it takes"? Bush who has deeply divided our country with his handling of the aftermath of 9/11, and who has repeatedly frightened the nation with his dire warnings, his fear-mongering, his "threat levels"? Bush, who the media tells us, relentlessly, is somehow "better" for our national security than Kerry is? In what way, exactly?

The man who attacked us is still at large. That means Bush has failed at the single most basic aspect of our revenge: bringing this bastard to justice. Anyone who believes that it's good for Bush to have bin Laden wagging his finger at us from some rathole hiding place is [expletive deleted], [expletive deleted], and [expletive deleted].

Bin Laden, at this point, is George Bush's shame. Go to http://www.mediafund04.org/saudis/ .

 

Film Fans Make Bush 'Movie Villain of the Year'

LONDON (Reuters)--President Bush may see himself as defender of democracy and compassionate conservatism but British film fans have voted him "Movie Villain of the Year."

The American "Axis of Evil" fighter is wooing voters with security pledges ahead of the presidential election next week, but it was Bush's role in Michael Moore's anti-war film "Fahrenheit 9/11" that won him the villainous title.

In a poll for Total Film magazine, the U.S. leader fought off competition from such well-known baddies as atomic scientist Doctor Octopus from "Spider-Man 2" and fellow Texan Leatherface from "The Texas Chainsaw Massacre."

"The overwhelming response of our readers voting Bush top villain just goes to show how frightening people found him in Fahrenheit 9/11," Total Film's editor Matt Mueller told Reuters.

"He was absolutely terrifying in that film. The infamous scene where he's informed about the Twin Towers attack while visiting a school, and sits there absolutely paralyzed, is enough to strike fear into anyone's heart," he said.



(I swear I didn't change a word of this --MJ)


Wednesday, October 27, 2004

 

Misguided Christians

Until recently, it's been a real mystery to me that so many people can still support George Bush. Normally, I pride myself on being able to see both sides of an issue. But c'mon, what's obvious is obvious! I just don't see how a president can have a much worse record. His score on poverty and equality is zero. His score on the environment is much worse than zero. His score on fiscal responsibilty is probably the worst of any president in our history. (If you think that's just rhetoric, who was ever worse?) Transparency in government? Another zero. Accountability? Don't get me started. Foreign policy: disastrous. Really, honestly, how can a president do any worse?

And yet still, nearly half the country is ready to vote for the guy. I just don't understand it.

Who is going to vote for Bush? There are traditional Republicans who haven't been paying very close attention, who simply assume that Bush is a traditional Republican. Then there are the legions of so-called "Brainwashed Conservatives," people who have been bullied and lied to by ideologues like Rush Limbaugh and Sean Hannity for so long that they no longer really have any objectivity left. Others, I think, assume that Bush's pro-business ideology is actually good for America, that it's what keeps us strong, and that, without it, they'll be worse off; these people don't understand that economic prosperity without fairness doesn't make a whole population richer, just a few people at the top.

But the source of my puzzlement may simply be that I'm not looking at the situation the way many Bush supporters are. I think those who are really driving his "popularity," if it can be called that (I'd call it his inexplicable survival, but I digress) are misguided Christians. These are people whose loyalty to their church and religion come before their civic duty and responsibility even in the civic realm--they don't see anything wrong with introducing majoritarian religion into government, or using the Bible as a basis for laws, and so forth. These people are certainly not swayed by candidates who are Christian--if they were, Jimmy Carter, who is a far more devout Christian than George Bush will ever be, would have been a two-term President. No, what they support is Bush's Christian activism: the promise he holds out to them to break down the separation of Church and state, allow school prayer, persecute non-Christians, promulgate Christian values and defend a vision of public morality based on sin, and so on. There are many conservative "religious" talk-show hosts and "leaders" who encourage this befuddlement. But I think they're the reason Bush still stands a chance, even with a record that is obviously among the worst in history.


 

Who Are These People Calling Themselves Republicans?

My family is drenched with Republicans. Parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, brothers, cousins. My father was a high-level Gerald Ford appointee and had friends in both the Reagan and the Nixon White Houses. My grandfather, a millionaire investment banker, was a longtime GOP supporter and contributor. So was his father. Both sides of my family were wealthy by the 19th century. On both sides, I can trace numerous ancestors who came to America before the Revolutionary War; in fact, I’m directly descended from Mayflower pilgrims in not one but two lines. We don't like to claim this now, but Richard Nixon was a distant cousin. I think it's a safe guess that there were Republicans in my family pretty much as soon as there were Republicans at all.

So I'm puzzled. Just who, I wonder, are these people in Washington calling themselves Republicans?

They don't look familiar to me.

To begin with, I was always taught that Republicans were socially responsible. I have an early memory of visiting my grandparents in the 1970s during the energy crisis. I was up late (defined for most of my life as any time after 10pm) watching their giant American-made color TV, the kind that drew electricity from the wall even when it wasn't turned on. When my grandfather stopped in the doorway to say goodnight, he asked me to please unplug the TV when I was finished watching it.

I'm afraid I laughed. "Why?" I asked. The man had two large homes, belonged to four exclusive clubs, and employed a cook and several maids. Why would he care about a few cents worth of electricity?

"The governor of this state has asked every household to cut its electricty consumption by ten percent," he answered, icily. "This household has cut its electricty consumption by twenty-five percent." This is the way it always was; civic responsibility always had a very high priority, and good Republicans went above and beyond.

The "Republicans" in Washington now act like they don't know the meaning of the term responsibility.

If you're forgive my snobbery, the Republicans I knew were, well, smart. The upper-class ones were well educated, and the grass-roots kind had a hard-nosed common sense, the kind it took to run a farm or a store. Both kinds worked hard, and were decent, upright, and polite. Neither kind would mind their kids attending Sunday School together. We were the ones with both feet on the ground--Democrats were the ones with their heads in the clouds. Global warming doesn't exist? The war in Iraq isn't encouraging resistance? Alienating our allies won't end up hurting us? Current Republicans doon't seem to know how to put two and two together without getting three or five.

Honesty--a very scrupulous, uncompromising honesty--was not merely a priority, it was a given. A family friend, blameless of wrongdoing, went to jail for six months rather than betray a confidence. (He had given his word). Demagoguery was most decidedly for Democrats: "Republican" and "Rush" were not words that would have gone together, back in the day.

I was taught that the GOP was the party of fiscal responsibility. The gold standard, a balanced budget, the dubious constitutionality of the 16th Amendment, all that. A Democratic president balancing the Federal budget and a Republican presiding over a swing of $700 billion back into deficit spending? In three years?!? Unthinkable. That's the kind of performance we Republicans had to be vigilant about lest some Democrat sink to it. "Tax and spend"--always applied to Democrats—implied a clear alternative: tax just enough and don't spend any more than you absolutely must. It certainly didn’t mean: don't tax enough while throwing money around like a bank robber on vacation.

Republicans understood principles. We knew why there was separation between church and state, and how this protected religion. We were capable of grasping why it's a bad idea to torture prisoners of war--because everyone’s sons fought in our wars (my uncle came within an inch of a sniper’s bullet in Korea, as the hole in his helmet attested). And remember the "War on Hunger"? That was, to us, typical Democratic thinking. Hunger is a mere condition. Republicans would no more declare a war on "hunger" than they would declare a war on...well, "terror." We wouldn't have needed snipers in the suburbs of Washington DC to not-so-gently remind us that terror, too, is merely a condition.

It was Republicans who always said "you can't legislate morality." Of course, we were also led to infer, through a silence stoney with disapproval, that homosexuals were promiscuous and would never want to partner monogamously. And we had a libertarian streak. Amend the Constitution specifically to limit Americans' rights? You can perish that thought.

Rightly or wrongly, I was taught that America didn't start wars, it finished them. We entered our wars reluctantly, late, and only when there was no alternative. It was Kennedy and Johnson--Democrats, natch--who got us into Viet Nam. Now it's the Republicans who are getting us into pointless wars with no endgame in sight.

As far as the quintessential spoiled rich kid riding Daddy's influence to the presidency, that was JFK. Republicans from Abe to Ike were farm boys. Now, spoiled ex-alcoholic rich kid George Bush is probably the most pampered and privileged president in history.

In short, I have no idea who these people in power now think they are, or what in the world they're up to. But if they're going to keep calling themselves "Republicans," then I think they should start behaving like Republicans.

Either that, or think of a new name.



© 2004 The Quotidian Meander
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Friday, October 22, 2004

 

We Can't Call Them Flip-Flops...But They Are

It's sad that propaganda works as well as it does, and the way it does. Karl Rove, the least scrupulous man in American politics, needed a very simple label to pin on John Kerry as soon as it was clear that he had won the Democratic nomination. Following one of the cardinal rules of propaganda, he accused his opponent of doing something that his own man actually does much more often. You know: flip-flop. If you paint the other guy with the brush you yourself deserve to be tarred with, then his counter-accusations look like defensiveness and even mimickry. First heard, more often believed.

Arthur I. Blaustein helpfully lists some of Bush's actual flip-flops:

"...Kerry's positions have, in fact, been largely consistent; and...Bush, far from being the steady, conviction-driven leader of Republican imaginings, is by far the greater flip-flopper. Rove succeeded because the news media fell for his flip-flop flim-flam. How else could Bush's flip-flopping have become the best kept secret in American politics? This is remarkable, given the sheer quantity of examples. Here's a partial list of Bush flip-flops, with their presumed motivations.
So much for Bush and his 'steady leadership.' Kerry has been a model of consistency by comparison." (Arthur I. Blaustein)

Thursday, October 21, 2004

 

Matched and Doubled

The Boston Red Sox have made this the year of the comeback!

Any contribution made to the Democratic National Committee before midnight tonight will be MATCHED and thus DOUBLED up to $5,370,000 by a group of Democratic Party supporters. Contribute TODAY! Contribute NOW!

https://www.democrats.org/support/kerry.html?dsc=NETE021

Wednesday, October 20, 2004

 

If Bush Wins

There would be four good things about a Bush re-election:
1. He would have to clean up his own mess in Iraq.

2. We might get him impeached for his part in the outing of CIA agent Valerie Plame or for lying to the 9/11 Commission.

3. He'd have to raise taxes, because even Bush can't get away with successive terms of half-trillion-dollar deficits.

4. He'd stay under scrutiny--maybe. Then maybe some of the many negative facts about him and his administration that have come to light during the campaign would catch up to him. This depends on whether the corporate-owned and -influenced national media could actually be persuaded to do their jobs; not a sure thing, but possible.

Considering what an unmitigated disaster his first term has been, what might he do when he doesn't have to worry about his own re-election? He could be even worse. Hard to imagine, but possible. The four worst things about a potential Bush re-election:
1. He might appoint more Supreme Court Justices. With two unprincipled political hacks on that bench already (Scalia and Thomas), the authority and function of the Supreme Court would be further eroded.

2. He would continue to cut the heart out of all our environmental laws and protections, our social services and public expenditures, and our liberties, as he's been doing for four years now.

3. He might just continue the mess in Iraq. After all, he never makes mistakes.

4. Jeb would run in '08, and I'd have to emigrate to Canada.


Tuesday, October 19, 2004

 

Help Wanted

TrueMajority ACTION needs our help. They're trying to raise small amounts of money for the following advocacies:

Lila Lipscomb
is the Flint, Michigan mother featured in Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11" reading from the last letter her son Michael sent home from Iraq before he was killed in action there. Her story of the war's personal cost is overwhelming to the audiences she's visited, but she's short of money to continue. Help Lila share the story of why Bush's war on Iraq is terrible policy and why he must be replaced as our president.

American soldiers returning from combat in Iraq have formed Operation Truth. They have the standing to tell the story of how messed up things really are there, and made a television ad that captures the pain and senselessness of this war. Now they just need to get it on the air. Check it out at http://69.31.93.156/NotThere.mov

With $15,000, Lila can continue her speaking tour in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida. The Operation Truth vets need $50,000 more to get their ad on the air. These amounts are small compared to the numbers of people who believe in the message they're trying to get across. If you can contribute even a few dollars, please go to:

http://truemajorityaction.kintera.org/truth

Also, please do remember that you don't need to be an American citizen to contribute! Two of the most influential media moguls in the United States are not American-born. The "Reverend" Sun Myung Moon has spent more than a billion dollars influencing U.S. policy through his media operations, and the biased, partisan Fox News is owned and directed by Rupert Murdoch, an Australian archconservative. Small personal contributions made by concerned citizens of the World couldn't begin to offset those influences...but they'd help!

So go to http://truemajorityaction.kintera.org/truth now!


 

Dim Bulbs

How many Bush administration officials does it take to change a light bulb?

None. There's nothing wrong with that light bulb. There is no need to change anything. We made the right decision and nothing has happened to change our minds. People who criticize this light bulb now, just because it doesn't work anymore, supported us when we first screwed it in, and when these flip-floppers insist on saying that it is burned out, they are merely giving aid and encouragement to the Forces of Darkness.

--John Cleese (via William Gibson)


Thanks to my friend Dan for passing this along.

Monday, October 18, 2004

 

Rather vs. Bush

Dan Rather, CBS News Anchor:
1) given documents he thought were true
2) failed to thoroughly investigate the facts
3) reported documents to the American people as true to make his case
4) when challenged, launched an investigation, quickly apologized
5) substance of the bogus documents appears to have been true anyway
6) cost to the world in lives and money: zero
7) Bush camp conclusion: should be fired as CBS News Anchor

George W. Bush, President of the United States:
1) given documents he thought were true
2) failed to thoroughly investigate the facts
3) reported documents to the American people as true to make his case
4) when challenged, stonewalled an investigation, never apologized
5) substance of the bogus documents appears to have been . . . bogus
6) cost to the world in lives and money: thousands and billions
7) Bush camp conclusion: four more years!

Thanks to my friend Jim for passing this along.

Sunday, October 17, 2004

 

Alternate Universes

The Democrats in recent months have made a claim that there are "two Americas." I think that what's actually happening is that Americans are living in one of two alternative Universes.

In the Bush Universe, John Kerry is a Demon. His puffy coife hides horns, and his gaunt, pale face betrays emotional coldness. These Americans listen to Rush Limbaugh on the radio, are outraged at degenerates like Howard Stern, and watch "Sex in the City" with a sense of high moral disapproval. They watch Fox News, read The Washington Times, and frequent newsmax.com on the internet. They are largely Christian, and believe wholeheartedly that the United States is a Christian country. They think abortion is a horrendous sin. They read authors like Ann Coulter and Sean Hannity. They believe that 9/11 was a direct attack by a foreign enemy, and that military action against that enemy is wholly justified. For months now, they have traded e-mails, articles, and blog entries among themselves that in the aggregate prove to them that the Demon Kerry is unfit to lead. They think George Bush is a man of character, that he is strong on defense, that he has created 1.9 million new jobs, and that he is best suited to be Commander in Chief.

In the Kerry Universe, George Bush is a Demon. His unnaturally close-set eyes betray a simian lack of intelligence. These Americans listen to NPR on the radio, are outraged by hypocrites like Rush Limbaugh, and watch "Sex in the City" laughing at the jokes and identifying with the characters. They watch Dan Rather, read The New York Times, and frequent salon.com on the internet. They are ecumenical or of lapsed faith, and believe in freedom of religion and separation of church and state. They think abortion is a personal choice and an important aspect of population control and family planning. They read authors like Paul Krugman, Al Franken, and Molly Ivins. They believe the war in Iraq is right-wing imperialist adventurism that has nothing to do with 9/11. For months now, they have traded e-mails, articles, and blog entries among themselves that in the aggregate prove to them that the Demon Bush is a menace to American values and priciples. They think George Bush is despicable, that his record could hardly be any worse, that 2.3 million jobs have been lost during his first term, and that having any other person in the Oval Office would be preferable.

The strange thing about today's media and culture is that it is so possible for any of us to live in one of these Universes and not be "touched" by the considerations so important to the other. Another conservative friend of mine wrote to me the other day saying that whenever anyone has claimed that Bush has told lies, they are unable to cite any. To me, of course, you have to be existing in a parallel Universe to be unaware of Bush's many untruths: the secrecy and dishonesty of his administration are unprecedented. My point here is not so much which one of us is right, but that we could both be intelligent, informed members of the same society and hold such utterly opposite opinions.

If it's true that we, as a society, are more divided than ever before, it may be because we are, to a greater extent than ever, not the same society at all. Maybe we are many different ones, living in the same land under the same flag.


© 2004 by quotidianmeander.blogspot.com / all rights reserved

Saturday, October 16, 2004

 

The Cato Institute

One of my conservative friends sent me a link the other day to the Cato Institute, recommending that I take a look.

While I'm sure there are good people at Cato and that many of the beliefs it espouses are of the idealistic, exalted type, Cato's still a neocon Trojan horse if you ask me. I like how they say in the "About Us" page that they were founded by Edward H. Crane--no mention of co-founder and bankroller Charles Koch, without whom the Institute wouldn't exist. Koch is one of the prime movers in the corporatist takeover of government. He and his brother (their father was one of the original founders of the John Birch Society in 1958) own Koch Industries, one of the largest and worst polluters in the U.S. Cato is ground zero of the far-right's attempt to co-opt the Libertarian movement in order to center it on corporate libertarianism.

Incidentally (or not!), Charles Koch is one of the worst "cronies" in Bush's crony capitalism. He is a big supporter of the Bush campaign and Republican candidates and causes generally, and the Bush administration immediately served up quid pro quo after its takeover of the government in 2000--dismissing outstanding government lawsuits against Koch Industries and waiving hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, for such "business-friendly" practices as dumping benzene into groundwater and oil into the Gulf of Mexico.

And so it goes.


Friday, October 15, 2004

 

Fearmongering and the People

"We got around to the subject of war again and I said that, contrary to his attitude, I did not think that the common people are very thankful for leaders who bring them war and destruction.

"'Why, of course, the people don't want war,' Goering shrugged. 'Why would some poor slob on a farm want to risk his life in a war when the best that he can get out of it is to come back to his farm in one piece? Naturally, the common people don't want war; neither in Russia nor in England nor in America, nor for that matter in Germany. That is understood. But, after all, it is the leaders of the country who determine the policy and it is always a simple matter to drag the people along, whether it is a democracy or a fascist dictatorship or a Parliament or a Communist dictatorship.'

"'There is one difference,' I pointed out. 'In a democracy the people have some say in the matter through their elected representatives, and in the United States only Congress can declare wars.'

"'Oh, that is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.'"

The quote cited above does not appear in transcripts of the Nuremberg trials because although Hermann Goering spoke these words during the course of the proceedings, he did not offer them at his trial. His comments were made privately to Gustave Gilbert, a German-speaking intelligence officer and psychologist who was granted free access by the Allies to all the prisoners held in the Nuremberg jail. Gilbert kept a journal of his observations of the proceedings and his conversations with the prisoners, which he later published in the book Nuremberg Diary. The quote offered above was part of a conversation Gilbert held with a dejected Hermann Goering in his cell on the evening of 18 April 1946, as the trials were halted for a three-day Easter recess.

(Source: snopes.com)

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Wednesday, October 13, 2004

 

Good Question

A question that Alan Ehrenhalt, the executive editor of Governing magazine, would pose to Bush in the last debate:

"As a candidate in 2000, you argued in favor of compassionate conservatism and a restoration of decency and moderation to the national government. Those of us who voted for you took this seriously. But your personal demeanor as president has been belligerent and dismissive of virtually anyone who opposes your policies. You state flatly that anyone who is not with you is against you, and at least imply that disagreement is equivalent to disloyalty. You refuse to admit making mistakes, even when it is obvious that you made them. You all but invite attacks on the country with "bring it on" taunting that makes you sound more like a gang leader than a responsible head of state. What happened to your promise of compassion? Have you concluded that moderation and decency are not useful qualities in a president?"

Good question. If George H. W. Bush can be faulted for one blatant campaign promise that he reneged on--you remember, "Read my lips"--we should remember that George W. Bush posed as a moderate Republican the first time around. He has proven to be anything but.

I still have relatives who say to me, "I'm voting for Bush because I'm a conservative Republican." Like there's a conservative Republican in this race? Where?

Thursday, October 07, 2004

 

The Admirable Game

I used to feel that golf was not for me. First of all, it is not a sport—it is less exercise than walking, and the halt, lame, and aged can all play. It seemed unnatural. It seemed ridiculous. (What kind of great goal is hitting a little ball into a hole in the ground, missing on every stroke but the last?) I thought it was elitist, the province of rich intolerant old Republican white males and a few reclusive millionaire lesbians on the LPGA tour. It's expensive. It was boring to watch on TV. And, finally, like opera, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to enjoy it.

Well, I was wrong, that's all. Golf is wonderful.

The first reason is simple: you get to go outside. There is a photographer who did a series of landscape photographs on golf courses who thought golf courses are today’s equivalent of the formal gardens of the 18th century—a way to get out into “prepared” nature and promenade around. As such, it is truly pleasant. It’s like a walk in a very nice park but with a purpose.

As far as personal interactions go it is also surprisingly benificial. Effectively, what you have is an excuse for serious conversation without the attendant obligations or stress. That is, you can bring up serious or deep topics with your playing partners, but if there's ever a lull in the conversation or an awkward moment, you can always talk about golf. This is handy; it really makes talking much easier and much more pleasant. It’s the social equivalent of an analyst making a patient lie on a couch and stare up at the ceiling. I find it unsurprising that a great deal of business is conducted on golf courses; talking while golfing is a great way to maybe talk serious stuff, maybe not, and not feel trapped or stressed about it either way.

The golf swing is a thing of beauty. Complicated enough to remain at least intermittently a mystery even to the greatest players, it requires the same combination of concentrated, practiced attention, together with mental relaxation and spontaniety, as a perfect brushstroke by a master calligrapher. Care too much, and you will screw up; be too concerned about results, and you will not get results. Want the ball to go up? Then you must hit down on it. Muscle your swing, and the ball will fall short—but relax and swing easily, and the ball will go far. Aggression goes unrewarded. Anger never helps. It’s almost a perfectly transparent manifestation of the state of your mind and your ability to control your mind—the closest thing to meditation you can do in company. I’m convinced that golf is the #1 way in which the principles of Eastern religions enter into the actual experience of the average upper-class and upper-middle-class American male. I know of no more perfect embodiment of the principles of Zen.

It is ultimately non-competitive. No one wins, no one loses—just like in kindergarden, but without the condescension (“it's a tie! Everybody wins!” my kindergarten teacher used to say, to my even prepubescent annoyance). You play against “par”—a mythical idea of potential; against the course, which turns from friend to foe and back again like the weather does, only more quickly; and against yourself, your own moods, cognition, coordination, and past record. Any further competition is added on...contrived by the players in their desire to be competitive. Compare this to a footrace: in a footrace, somebody has to win. It’s inherent in the concept. Golf is the opposite—it’s inherently noncompetitive, and you can overlay competition on top of it if you want to.

And it’s non-sexist and non-ageist. Want your daughters to play college football? Good luck. Want to be playing playground hoops with the guys at 70? Hope you drank your milk and ate your broccoli when you were young, sport. In golf, not only can men and women both play, they can play in the same foursome. Grandparents can play with their grandchildren.

If golf is not a sport, then at least it’s the best game ever invented. Far from being stupid and useless, which I used to be convinced it was, I now think that my non-acceptance of golf was a function of immaturity. I just didn't understand. I’m not saying I understand entirely now. But I've been enlightened, at least.


© 2004 by Michael C. Johnston
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Wednesday, October 06, 2004

 

Dogfight

Like many Americans, I watched the Vice Presidential Debate last night. I'm not so much a Democrat as a spirited anti-Bushite, so I was solidly behind John Edwards, and, since he's a hotshot trial lawyer, I expected him to win.

I think he did, primarily because Vice President Cheney played faster and looser with the facts. But Cheney immediately proved himself a formidable opponent, staying on message, not losing his temper despite being obviously peeved, and countering Edwards' hardest body blows with solid counterpunches.

In the end I was left feeling exhausted and rather sick, as if I had just witnessed a dogfight.

I have never witnessed an actual dogfight, in which trained dogs bred to be ferocious go at each other in an enclosed pit surrounded by wagering fans. But when I imagine it like a novelist imagines a fictional scene, I fancy it would begin with high levels of anticipation and that the intense excitement caused by the frenzy of the dogs would be a rush; but then, as it winds down towards its gruesome end, that a feeling of digust at the savagery, the blood, and the gore, combined with the emotional letdown, would cause nausea.

Both men got throat-grips when the other had essentially no defense, as when Cheney tried to defend the progress of the war (a tough task under any circumstances, but especially in the immediate wake of Paul Bremer's criticisms), or Edwards tried to defend his record and his credentials to be President. Both men mauled the other repeatedly, directly impugning the other's veracity or intentions. I'm guessing that by a rigorous point score, the Vice President would outstrip the nominee on negativity, but viscerally that too seemed a tie.

Perhaps the clearest thing brought out by the Vice Presidential debate is how much smarter Cheney is than Bush. I kept thinking that it was a good thing for our side that Kerry didn't have to debate Cheney. Kerry might be a statesman compared to Bush, but Cheney is probably a cannier and more skillful politician than either of them. We got a good match in that sense, matching our young, strong, but inexperienced pit bull against their old, grizzled, but battle-toughened pit bull.

Still, the whole thing was a bit much. Too much snarling and bared fangs on both sides. To me, it's not a mitigating circumstance that Edwards has roughly the same amount of experience as George W. Bush did in 2000. Not only did Bush have no foriegn policy expertise in 2000, he had very little foreign policy knowledge; and not only did he have no foreign policy experience, he seemed not even to have much interest in it. However much anybody might have detested either Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon, it would have been difficult to fault the level of interest of either of those men in foreign affairs—both were passionate about the subject and, in their own ways, deeply knowledgable. Now there are aching holes in a thousand American families thanks to Bush's crude understanding of the dynamics of diplomacy. But that fact doesn't make Edwards' lack of experience any easier to excuse—more like the opposite.

But Edwards isn't running for President, he's running for Vice-President. A crucial—and needed—distinction. I voted for Edwards in the Wisconsin Democratic primary, specifically hoping to help him gain the no. 2 spot on the ticket. But I do think it's a good thing he's running for Vice President and not for President. He'll need a lot of street schooling—say, a good eight years as Kerry's VP—before he'll be ready for that.


@ 2004 by Michael C. Johnston
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Tuesday, October 05, 2004

 

Books for the Season

At this late juncture I’ve read all or most of some 40 books on the current state of crisis in the U.S. government, so I thought I'd recommend a few. First of all, the basic primer of mainstream objections to Bush, a simple and very easy-to-read summation, can be found in Bush Must Go: The Top Ten Reasons Why George Bush Doesn’t Deserve A Second Term by Bill Press. It’s the one to give to friends who you fear might be waffling but who don’t have the patience for books that are more scholarly and dense. Speaking of scholarly and dense, those sympathetic to my outlook will find Mark Crispin Miller’s Cruel and Unusual to be excellent. I find Miller much to my taste, since he’s a media analyst and is well used to decoding actual evidence (great writer, too, and unapologetically fierce). John Dean’s Worse than Watergate chronicles the secrecy of Bush and Cheney and compares them to those of his former boss Richard Nixon. British and other foreign readers unsympathetic to current U.S. policy should find Nicholas von Hoffman’s Hoax and Hendrik Hertzberg’s Politics endlessly fascinating. (Rick Hertzberg’s my man—his “Talk of the Town” pieces in The New Yorker magazine often give voice to my inarticulate frustrations.) One of the more interesting of the recent titles is Thomas Frank’s What’s the Matter with Kansas?, which analyzes how the Republicans have won the heartland despite the fact that their policies are often antithetical to the interests of its population.

The books of the era likely to become canonical are Ron Suskind’s The Price of Loyalty, Kevin Phillips’ American Dynasty, Paul Krugman’s The Great Unraveling, Craig Unger’s House of Bush, House of Saud, and of course Richard Clarke’s Against All Enemies, which everyone of any political persuasion who wants to be informed about current events simply must read. (I think it goes well with Scott Ritter’s Frontier Justice, but that’s just me.)

All Americans ought to read (or re-read, or re-re-read) the U.S. Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, Tom Paine’s Common Sense and The Rights of Man, Graham Greene’s The Quiet American, Henry David Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience, and of course George Orwell’s startlingly pertinent 1984.

Conservatives might want to check out Pat Buchanan’s latest book. I haven’t read it yet. Democrats will want to seek out Sen. Robert Byrd’s latest. I haven’t read that one yet either, though I’m eager to.

Finally, I cannot say enough about the remarkable new book from Garrison Keillor (of Lake Woebegone and “Prairie Home Companion” fame), Homegrown Democrat. It’s a moving literary masterpiece, destined, I think, to be an American classic—if America survives in its present form, of course. You can sample the first four chapters on the Prairie Home Companion website. Since it’s definitely written “in” Keillor’s well-known voice, try the audio version! A wondering, eloquent, touching, large-hearted book.


© 2004 by Michael C. Johnston
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Monday, October 04, 2004

 

Liars

Thanks to my brother, I have taken up golf in the last few years. Well, actually, "taken up" is probably overstating things; but at any rate I've learned how to enjoy flogging the pill over hill and dale, often with interesting side trips into the woods and the tall grass.

Golf is unusual in that it is scored on the honor system. Each person ultimately attests to his or her own score, even when playing in a group. What this means, of course, is that golfers are damned liars.

Oh, don’t get me wrong, I’m not talking about you. You play fair and score yourself accurately. Naturally. So do I. But you and I both know that most other golfers are blatant scoundrels when it comes to scoring.

Take one occasional golfer I’ll call Taylor, a neighbor of mine when I lived in Illinois. On his home course, there are areas that are called “restored native prairie.” These are areas that the golf course owners are returning to a native state, so as to make the course more environmentally friendly and so they don’t have to mow there. Taylor regularly hits into these areas, which are out of bounds. But prairie being prairie—in places, nearly as bald as the fairway, only a different shade of brown—there are times when the ball sits right up and mocks Taylor.

One time, he crossed the barrier, a low plastic tape stretched between stakes, but, instead of picking up his ball to drop it in-bounds, he addressed it.

“Hey, Taylor, what are you doing? That’s out of bounds.”

“Oh, screw that. I’m not going to ruin a good drive by taking an extra stroke for a drop. I can hit just fine from here.”

Which he tried to do, with the long iron that theoretically would have gotten the ball to the vicinity of the next green. Except, unfortunately, he mis-hit the ball. It traveled a few yards and came to a stop, still in the scrub.

So he hit it again. Same result.

Again.

Finally, with steady, grim, silent determination, Taylor gave up on the long iron, grabbed his sand wedge, and took a vicious full swing at the hapless ball, which was still sitting innocently out of bounds staring up at him from what looked like a good lie. The ball and a large hunk of formerly virgin prairie grassland both flew through the air. The hunk of grass landed with a thump on the fairway, and the ball dribbled a few yards farther on.

Cut to the end of the hole, when the foursome have finished putting out and are replacing the flag and clearing the green for the next group. Bob, who is scoring, asks everyone for their score.

“Seven for me,” says Tom.

“Six,” says Rick.

“Six,” chirps Taylor, a little too perkily.

Six? Taylor, you took five strokes just on that little detour of yours!”

“You expect me to score that?” says Taylor. “That was out of bounds. I’m scoring myself one for a drop.”



There are also those tremendously inconvenient USGA rules to contend with. As every weekend golfer knows, hitting into a forward hazard from the teeing ground should logically be scored by requiring a drop on the far side of the hazard at the cost of one stroke. Many golfers go ahead and play as if this were in fact the rule; it makes sense, because you’re penalized for flubbing your tee shot but are mercifully relieved of having to face the hazard again. Having to tee off again, lying two, seems too Draconian a punishment. It just seems to lack...justice.

This seems especially true in the case of the popular island green. The average hundredsomething golfer, facing an island green, even though it may be no more than a hundred yards away, will tense up all over his body, and in his soul. He will take a rigid backswing bringing into play muscles he doesn’t even know he has, and the ball will plonk into the water.

Technically, he is lying two in the tee box.

“Mulligan,” he growls, teeing up again.

But does he lay up this time?

There are not all that many natural islands on golf courses. Mostly, island greens sit there in the middle of a hectare of flatland surrounded by a ring of water that looks like a moat. It looks that way because it was carved by a bulldozer. In front of it, beside it, sometimes even beyond it, there is nice, flat, inviting, playable fairway. But does our hero lay up, in order to cheat the water, and sensibly circumvent his doom?

He does not. Of course he does not, because then he would be lying two by the time he got to the green (four by USGA rules), which would not do.

He takes his “Mully.” Plop! It finds water too.

Now he’s lying four on the tee box. On a par three.

Is that fair? Well, not to the average golfer, no, it doesn’t seem so. The sensible, logical thing at this point would seem to be to drop on the green-side of the moat and announce that he’s lying two. It seems sufficient penalty; with a rare one-putt he can do no better than par, and he will score a bogey most likely and a double in case of a three-putt, which in his state of mind by that time is a fair possibility. But the point is that there is such a thing, in the golfer’s mind, as bad being bad enough.

So, for the most part, USGA rules be damned. Golfers compromise. They compromise between their real score and a score that seems reasonable, that feels deserved.

This is cheating, of course. But only technically.


© 2004 by Michael C. Johnston
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