Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Double Harrumph on the WikiLeak

Washington reaction to the Afghan document dump is solidifying into "How dared they release official secrets!" combined with "Nothing new here, we knew all that."

Politicians of all stripes are embracing both harrumphs. Unblessed-by-Wikileaks media people tend to favor the latter. But behind such butt-covering responses are issues that will take time to sort out.

One of the leakees, David Leigh of The Guardian, points out that "a game-changing thing has happened. We didn't leak this material. And, actually, WikiLeaks didn't leak this material. This material was leaked by some military source who had access to industrial quantities of electronic information that you can get out and leak across the planet in seconds."

The newspapers involved did the traditional journalistic scut work of verifying authenticity of the material, scrubbing it of any obvious security hazards and trying to put it all in context.

But clearly this will not end there. The floodgates have been opened, apparently by some low-level military clerk, and soon there may be platoons of "whistle blowers" online with more data than any filter, mainstream or otherwise, can responsibly handle.

Such journalistic anarchy, no matter how trumpeted as freedom of information, will not offset the official fictions that are constantly being leaked by those in power but combine with them to raise public confusion to new levels.

Beyond the question of government secrecy is the dismissive argument that the documents reveal "nothing new." Yet, as James Fallows observes, "information that may be old news to insiders may seem a revelation to the broader public. Whether from George W. Bush or Barack Obama, presidential speeches about Afghanistan have not emphasized the mixed loyalties of the Pakistani security services, the frustrations of dealing with tribal leaders and corrupt officials, the extent of civilian casualties, and other items that, according to insiders, 'everyone' already knows."

Fading public support for the Afghan war will almost surely be further eroded by this week's headlines, as reflected in the deeper-than-ever Democratic split yesterday in funding what seems a never-ending drain on the American economy in hard times.

In all this, 21st century politics and journalism are being derailed by speed bumps never before seen on the Information Highway.

Monday, July 26, 2010

The Pentagon Papers Redux

With eerie echoes of 1971, when the leak of secret files confirmed what Americans had long suspected about the disastrous war in Vietnam, the unauthorized release of 92,000 classified documents provides a first-hand picture of its 21st century counterpart in Afghanistan and Pakistan.

Back then, the Pentagon Papers marked the beginning of the end in Southeast Asia, amid a swirl of legal battles over government secrecy and the rights of a free press to report what officials were hiding.

Now, the documents made public by WikiLeaks, according to the New York Times, provide "an unvarnished, ground-level picture of the war in Afghanistan that is in many respects more grim than the official portrayal," showing "in mosaic detail why, after the United States has spent almost $300 billion on the war in Afghanistan, the Taliban are stronger than at any time since 2001."

In Vietnam, LBJ's official fiction was that American blood and treasure there were preventing the spread of Communism in a Domino Theory, hiding the more realistic motive of avoiding a humiliating defeat, which was only delayed by Nixon duplicity for four more years.

In Afghanistan, Bush's war on terrorism, adopted and expanded by Obama, is proving even more dubious as the new documents confirm "strong suspicions that Pakistan’s military spy service has guided the Afghan insurgency with a hidden hand, even as Pakistan receives more than $1 billion a year from Washington for its help combating the militants."

The coming days will bring a howling argument over "media treason" in reporting on secret documents, just as the Pentagon Papers did four decades ago, but the simple fact back then was that telling the American people the truth helped to turn public opinion against a bad war.

Now, as then, nothing is more important than that.

Update: The White House points out that Wikileaks is "not an objective news organization" and notes that most of the memos predate the Obama presidency as National Security Adviser Gen. James Jones "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."

All this is par for the course but, in the coming days, the inescapable fact is that Afghanistan is a disaster that Richard Haass, president of the Council on Foreign Relations, sums up:

"The not succeeding and is not worth waging in this way. The time has come to scale back U.S. objectives and sharply reduce U.S. involvement on the ground. Afghanistan is claiming too many American lives, requiring too much attention, and absorbing too many resources. The sooner we accept that Afghanistan is less a problem to be fixed than a situation to be managed, the better."

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Sherrod Case: Defining Decency Down

There is no Atticus Finch or Joseph Welch in all this. On the 50th anniversary of "To Kill a Mockingbird," we are back in a time when McCarthyism played on fears to spread hatred and destroy lives of people in public life.

The President, who won an election by putting the Civil Rights era behind him, will have to revisit that time before his birth and make things right not only with Shirley Sherrod but generations of Americans who have struggled for decency not only in race relations but political discourse.

In his campaign speech after the Rev. Jeremiah Wright uproar, candidate Obama offered a vision beyond "politics that breeds division, and conflict, and cynicism," but his first year and a half in office, to his evident dismay, have been dominated by that and much more.

“We are getting used to a lot of behavior that is not good for us,” the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan wrote in 1993 in his now-famous American Scholar article, “Defining Deviancy Down,” arguing that society keeps adjusting for the amount of unacceptable conduct it can tolerate.

The Sherrod case defines not only deviancy but decency down. It takes us from Rev. Wright's inflammatory videos, which actually existed, to a distortingly edited version of the impassioned speech of a woman who has fought for social justice to make her appear prejudiced.

Such slime would have been unworthy of passing comment if it had not triggered, in this era of debate about Tea Party racism, instant overreaction not only by the NAACP but Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, who ran briefly for President on a platform of bringing "good judgment" to government.

To their credit, Secretary Vilsack and the White House are trying to make amends to Ms. Sherrod, but who will remind all involved, in the words of Joe Welch, to recall our "sense of decency at long last" and to remember the lesson of Harper Lee's novel, that to destroy innocent life is a sin?

Obama's "Death of a Salesman" Problem

With falling approval ratings, Barack Obama is getting advice from all sides on how to "save" his presidency.

In the latest round of parsing by pundits, Richard Cohen of the Washington Post concludes: "The bank bailout averted a financial crackup and the stimulus package pulled the economy back from the abyss. Along with reform of the financial industry and health care, these are considerable achievements. Only the voters disagree."

The reason? "No one is accusing Obama of being likable. He is not unlikable, but he lacks Reagan's (or Bill Clinton's) warmth."

This is straight out of the Willy Loman School of Getting Ahead in Life. The protagonist of Arthur Miller's 1949 indictment of false American values, "Death of a Salesman," assures his sons they will succeed, even though they are not matching the high grades of their cousin who is "liked but not well-liked," as they are.

What would it take for Barack Obama to become as "well-liked" as Reagan and Clinton? The answers from political "experts" are all over the lot--from changing his rhetoric to doubling the size of the space program.

But all this advice misses the point. In the eras of Reagan and Clinton, free of wars on terror and inherited economic disaster, there was time to sell their "Morning in America" and "I feel your pain" personas.

Since Obama took the oath, his has been a fingers-in-the-dike presidency from bank bailouts to stopping oil spills, exacerbated by crisis-creating at warp speed by souped-up media. (Witness the Shirley Sherrod disgrace that, in the past two days, has usurped attention from months of work by the White House and Congress on financial reform.)

"Attention must be paid," wails Willy Loman's wife about the fate of an American failure in the last century. Little did her creator dream that, in this new one, too much misdirected attention would be more of a tragedy than the lack of it.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Drowning in News

A century ago, Americans spent only a few minutes a day learning about the world beyond their own senses--"the unseen environment," as Walter Lippmann put it in his 1922 study, "Public Opinion."

Back then, he despaired of "the original dogma of democracy; that the knowledge needed for the management of human affairs comes up spontaneously from the human heart. Where we act on that theory we expose ourselves to self-deception, and to forms of persuasion that we cannot verify...we cannot rely upon intuition, conscience, or the accidents of casual opinion if we are to deal with the world beyond our reach."

Now a rising 24/7 flood of news brings the unseen crashing into their heads, but are "better-informed" Americans better equipped to make decisions in a democratic society?

If Lippmann were alive, his despair would deepen at a New York Times report on "the state of the media business these days: frantic and fatigued. Young journalists who once dreamed of trotting the globe in pursuit of a story are instead shackled to their computers, where they try to eke out a fresh thought or be first to report even the smallest nugget of news...

"Tracking how many people view articles, and then rewarding--or shaming--writers based on those results has become increasingly common in old and new media newsrooms."

Such emphasis on quantity over quality has only shortened shrunken attention spans, leaving wired Americans more stuffed with information and starved for understanding than ever before, like Strasbourg geese being force-fed not for their own nutrition but the profit motives of the feeders.

On the Times opinion page, Paul Krugman derides "the pundit delusion, the belief that the stuff of daily political reporting--who won the news cycle, who had the snappiest comeback--actually matters."

But Krugman finds no solace in "the fact that 'ephemera' don’t matter...that voters aren’t swayed by cheap tricks. Unfortunately, however, the evidence suggests that issues don’t matter either, in part because voters are often deeply ill informed."

So here we are, after a century of technological innovation, the most highly informed citizenry in history, reacting to crises with not much more understanding than cave dwellers--and much the same superstition and fear.

Friday, July 16, 2010

A Line Between Racism and Disrespect

The NAACP is pursuing its own mandate in "condemning racism within the Tea Party movement" while a Congresswoman stirs members by proclaiming, "Those who used to wear sheets are now being able to walk down the aisle and speak as a patriot because you will not speak loudly about the lack of integrity of this movement."

Garbled syntax aside, is raising racism to the top of issues presented by the Tea Party in the best interests of the first African-American president or the dangers facing American democracy now?

Barack Obama's election did not end racism in America, so it is no surprise that mouthy morons like Glenn Beck would accuse him of "a deep-seated hatred for white people" or loony Rep. Steve King would discover "a default mechanism in him that breaks down the side of race--on the side that favors the black person."

In normal times, such disgusting rhetoric would be background static, but economic anxiety has pushed fear to the forefront, just as it did during the Great Depression against FDR, who famously had to defend even his dog Fala against partisan attacks.

But the main issue now is not fringe hatred of the President's skin color but the climate of disrespect for his office that has been fostered by wall-to-wall Republican opposition in Congress, powered by persistent attacks not only on his policies but the motives behind them.

Conservative Columnist Charles Krauthammer interprets Obama's response to inherited economic chaos as a "structural alteration of the U.S. budget. The stimulus, the vast expansion of domestic spending, the creation of ruinous deficits as far as the eye can see are not easily reversed."

A sane debate over this assertion would be healthy for American democracy in this election year, but on both sides of the ideological spectrum, there are only accusations and personal attacks.

Oddly enough, David Brooks sheds light on all this in parsing the rants of actor Mel Gibson as part of a change in self-esteem in which an overwhelming majority of Americans now consider themselves "an important person," as opposed to a fraction who did sixty years ago. In Gibson's rage, Brooks notes:

"It is striking how morally righteous he is...It is striking how quickly he reverts to the vocabulary of purity and disgust. It is striking how much he believes he deserves. It is striking how much he seems to derive satisfaction from his own righteous indignation."

Gibson's self-importance, however loathsome, is at least fueled by his moviemaking success but, in this era of Baby Boomer narcissism, what entitles his Tea Party counterparts to vent so disrespectfully against the President of the United States?

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Bridal Registry for Bristol

Now that America's Sweethearts are reunited and planning to wed, they will need household gifts beyond the usual place settings and silver. Herewith a few gift suggestions for well-wishers:

*Caller ID to block incoming messages from anyone named Palin or Johnston.

*His and her DVDs of the 2005 Jane Fonda movie, "Monster-in-Law."

*Subscriptions to Time and Newsweek to class up their coffee table by covering copies of Us, People and Playgirl for the filming of their new reality show.

*Services of a new ghost writer for Bristol's paid speeches on teen-age pregnancy to finesse the fact that it can lead to fame, fortune and magazine covers.

*Personal trainers to help them memorize passages from next year's new Sarah Palin book, "America by Heart: Reflections on Faith, Family and Flag," in time for the 2012 Republican Convention.

In their statement on the news, the elder Palins said, "We pray that, as a couple, Bristol and Levi's relationship matures into one that will allow Tripp to grow up graced with two loving parents in his life."

And perhaps the greatest gift of all, a little privacy.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Century of Truth, Mark Twain to LeBron

Secrets are not what they used to be. The nation's greatest storyteller has made us wait 100 years to find out what was in his heart, but LeBron James spilled the beans on a TV special after only weeks of teasing our interest in an era when everyone from Elizabeth Edwards to Levi Johnston is sharing.

Isn't it better this way? Mark Twain's reticence recalls that memorable Jack Nicholson line in another American classic, "You can't handle the truth." But in the 21st century, we can not only handle but package and promote it in media that Mark Twain only vaguely foresaw.

Before his death in 1910, the creator of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn instructed publishers of his memoirs that "all sound and sane expressions of opinion must be left out...There may be a market for that kind of wares a century from now. There is no hurry. Wait and see.”

A hundred years later, is there ever! In a time of 24/7 exposure, his unexpurgated truths will be competing on the best-seller lists with those of Chelsea Handler, author of "My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands" and an unforgettable sequel, "Chelsea Chelsea Bang Bang."

There won't be any carnal revelations in the three volumes of unvarnished Mark Twain, but advance word from the University of California Press suggests no shortage of relevance to our times.

There is a foreshadowing of today's populist rage against Wall Street, as Twain notes dryly: “The world believes that the elder Rockefeller is worth a billion dollars. He pays taxes on two million and a half.”

Twain's opposition to intervention in Cuba and the Philippines was known in his own time, but not the angry designation of American troops overseas as "our uniformed assassins." In the days of Iraq and Afghanistan, the New York Times notes, such remarks "would probably lead the right wing to question the patriotism of this most American of American writers."

But not to worry. Those who are outraged by such old-fashioned truth-telling will have Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck and Karl Rove to comfort them with contrary views, and they won't have to wait 100 years to find out what they are.

Aren't we lucky?

Friday, July 09, 2010

Rahm's Charm Offensive

In an interview on the PBS News Hour, the President's Chief of Staff demonstrates the difference between being brainy and empathic--a problem that is becoming crucial to the White House.

On a mission to shore up Barack Obama's image as a decisive leader, Rahm Emanuel patronizes Jim Lehrer, a journalistic icon, as he tries to pin down the President's direct involvement in such issues as the Russian spy swap and the decision to sue Arizona over its punitive new immigration law.

Verbally juggling an imperceptible difference between the Chief Executive's "approval of" and "being briefed" on Justice Department decisions (to avoid saying the President ordered or signed off on the actions), Emanuel ends up, under Lehrer's persistent questioning, telling him, "I feel like I'm dealing with my children on their homework."

It's tempting to see such bad behavior as a matter of temperament or as a generational difference between Emanuel, a brash 59-year-old Boomer, and Lehrer, 76, a former Marine who, as a Dallas reporter, spent a week in 1963 covering the death of a President.

But the encounter suggests something more--the inability of the Obama White House to surmount an emotional tide of disapproval in the wake of a struggling economy, two ongoing wars and an environmental disaster that is being seen 24/7 on TV screens.

After sparring with Lehrer, Emanuel makes a plausible case for Presidential decisiveness in dealing with the financial crisis, the Detroit rescue and even McChrystal's firing, while grudgingly acknowledging public unhappiness: "It is understandable for their frustration because of their own economic conditions."

But the approval numbers and the November election polls won't be changed by such rational analysis. Barack Obama is not a Bill Clinton "I feel your pain" president but, with a Rahm Emanuel face for his Administration, he won't get very far making the case that, although things are still bad, they would have been much worse if he had not done what he did.

As he has been doing on the stump this week, the President is better off doing that himself.

Thursday, July 08, 2010

GOP Headless Horseman

Tea Party people, who adore Colonial times, are acting out another of its iconic stories, a 21st century version of a spectral beheaded figure terrorizing politicians with fear of losing theirs.

After the toppling of such a Senate stalwart as Utah's Robert Bennett, the Republican Party itself is virtually headless, with Bill Kristol and Liz Cheney swiping at Chairman Michael Steele's scalp while an unlikely coalition from Ron Paul and Ann Coulter to E. J. Dionne defends his misgivings if not his historically inaccurate maundering about Afghanistan.

Washington Irving's tale lampooned early American fear and superstition with a ghostly foreign mercenary carrying his severed head driving off the local schoolteacher Ichabod Crane, while slyly suggesting with a shattered pumpkin at the site that it was all the dirty work of a rival for the hand of the local beauty

The current GOP split, emanating from the same dread of the unknown, is turning out to be a much more complicated story about social upheaval and primal lust.

Democrats, with their tenuous grip on Congress, have the most to lose this fall but what Republicans win could resemble that shattered pumpkin, a useless new crop of lawmakers elected not to solve problems but to resist spending money on any of them.

The now departing Sen, Robert Bennett sums it up: "My biggest concern is that we are not addressing the real issues...politics is divided between the great issues and the great diversions. And we're spending all of the time arguing about the great diversions.

"We're in a global world. We have a different kind of economy...The percentage of people in the working force is shrinking. And then, when you add to all of that the entitlement programs, Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid, you end up...with a financial circumstance that is unsustainable.

"And that's what we should be focusing on, and not arguing about all of the specific mistakes that President Obama is making. Every administration makes specific mistakes that are fun to argue about, but here are the big issues going ignored."

Bennett won't be there to help Congress keeps its head next year after the Tea Party finishes its work of replacing whatever brains remain in Washington with politicians created like carved pumpkins to mesmerize voters but with nothing inside.

Saturday, July 03, 2010

Sunny President in a Clouded Country

Mixed political weather for the nation's 234th birthday: Barack Obama basks in a solar future while Tea Party members gather to shake their fists at what they see as darkening skies.

The President, in his weekly address, looks at Colorado, Arizona and Indiana, seeing "once-shuttered factories humming with new workers who are building solar panels and wind turbines, rolling up their sleeves to help America win the race for the clean energy economy."

But, in a USA Today poll, Tea Party adherents find nothing on the horizon but gathering clouds in the "firm conviction that the federal government has gotten too big and too powerful and a fear that the nation faces great peril.

"Nine in 10 are unhappy with the country's direction and see the federal debt as an ominous threat to its future. Almost as many say neither President Obama nor most members of Congress deserve re-election."

At rallies in Atlanta, San Antonio and elsewhere, glass-half-empty grumblers will observe the holiday by remembering only what the Founding Fathers did to gain independence rather than how hard they worked to make something lasting of it.

The government those disaffected now revile went on from throwing tea overboard to crafting a union that in the past century, as the President puts it, "mustered a sense of common purpose to overcome Depression and fear itself...that embraced a call to greatness and saved the world from tyranny...that turns times of trial into times of triumph."

For perspective, Tea Party followers may want to ponder a new survey of historians who now rank Barack Obama as the 15th best president ever for his "imagination, communication and intelligence."

They may also want to examine what new spectral technology has revealed about what Thomas Jefferson crossed out while writing the Declaration of Independence. Jefferson changed his designation of Americans as "subjects" with "citizens," a status that implies responsibilities as well as grievances.

As they hammered out the final draft, the Founding Fathers made many other changes, including one Jefferson regretted most, deleting a rueful expression of pain at parting from the country of their origin: "We might have been a free and great people together."

In a time of growing division, Americans would do well to recall that sentiment about human unity as they celebrate freedom.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

Capitol Hill Pest Control

John Boehner, who succeeded career exterminator Tom DeLay, is being bugged by insect metaphors.

The House Minority Leader told a reporter the Wall Street reform bill was like using a nuclear weapon to kill an ant and was stump-jumped by the White House in Wisconsin.

"He compared the financial crisis to an ant," the President told a crowd. "The same financial crisis that led to the loss of nearly eight million jobs...that cost people their homes and their lives' savings."

Meanwhile, from the other direction, GOP Congressman turned cable host Joe Scarborough says Boehner is not a busy bee, that "you can see him around town...Every Republican I talk to says John Boehner, by 5 or 6 o’clock at night, you can see him at bars. He is not a hard worker.”

If Boehner is laid back about legislating, he is a grasshopper for fund-raising, attending a daily average of 1.25 such events so far this year, while finding time between tanning sessions to sign a petition to repeal health care reform in its entirety.

At the same time, there are signs of disorder in the GOP's own hive. Boehner's sidekick Eric Cantor is creating a buzz among the WASP set, with his scurrying, according to a House colleague, to become "the first Jewish Republican something...first Jewish Republican speaker, the first Jewish Republican vice president or first Jewish Republican president.”

If all this insect behavior persists, calling back DeLay for pest control advice may not be enough. Sounds like a case for the bio-exorcist from "Beetlejuice."