There are two ways to overcome a fear of death. The first way is acceptance of immortality. Whether the immortality is actual or suspected is irrelevant; it is not death we want to overcome, but the fear of it. Most often, acceptance of immortally is a result of naiveté or religious faith.
The second way is acceptance of ignorance. If we accept that we know not, if we are calm and comfortable in that rickety wagon careening over the cliff, we have overcome; it’s not truly death from which we cower, it is the possible implications and consequences of death. Of course, if our ignorance makes us panic, if we do not accept that we may not know, we’re fucked.
It comes down to: either you are certain you know what will happen, or you are ready to rock even though you don’t have a clue. These are the two types of people you want to send to war.
More than a few wars are blamed on religion. Bill Maher undoubtedly thinks that most of history’s wars are a result of religion, while he thinks the current wars are the result of a different kind of greed. We all know that Mel Gibson blamed the Jews for all the wars in the world. If you need a third person to say it, drive out to any bar, saloon or pub, 45 minutes outside of any major city and ask the first drunk you meet, "Who attacked America on September 11, 2001?" and, "Why did they do it?"
But the suggestion that religion causes war is fallacious. Human nature causes war; religion is one of the tools that makes war executable. The other tools are ignorance (already mentioned in a different form) passive coercion (in the form of trickery or argument), and active coercion (in the form of threats, a draft, and so on). If you’re going to send people to war, you don’t want to use coercion to get them there. Your best bet is to send the religious and the young.
In his award-winning book "Ender’s Game", Orson Scott Card tells of boy-genius Ender Wiggin, who is sent to war against an alien species in order to save humanity. It was his youth as much as his genius that made Ender the only candidate for the task. Years later, in an interview, Card explained his character choice: We send children to war, he said, not because they are the strongest and the best of our citizens, but because they believe themselves immortal.
The same is true for 18 and 19-year-old soldiers around the world today. Yet, acceptance of immortality does not just come with age – it comes with religion as well. A recent Vanity Fair article profiled a 37-year-old Texas Army National Guardsman whom they called "Russ Crane." One of the more poignant parts of the article was the recollection of a firefight in Afghanistan.
Amidst chaos, Crane saw a shepherd. He stood in the center of the firefight. As the man stretched his arms out, his flock came around his body and bowed their heads. Bullets passed by and the man and his sheep were calm. Crane balanced his rifle on a Humvee. Eight hundred and six meters away, a Pashtun man rose from behind a rock. A silent pink cloud of dust burst from the man’s chest as the bullet entered. At the end, no Americans were injured. The shepherd touched his sheep; they arose and followed him around the bend. Crane knew that the shepherd was a messenger from God, the reason his shot, incredible from over a half mile, was true.
Earlier, Crane expounded his belief.
"There is good and evil in the world. It gets so you yearn for a righteous fight. Personally I believe there are bad people, and God put people here to shoot those people, to let other people live peaceful lives. David was a shepherd boy who became king. The Philistines had their giant, Goliath. The Lord said to David, ‘I’m on your side. Go out and fight.’ David did. And you know, David killed Goliath as dead as Elvis Presley. He was a shepherd, a king, a follower of the Lord. But first and foremost he was a warrior. God understands that we have to have soldiers. Soldiers are part of God’s plan…I know that God has been with me actively in battle."
There’s an old joke that goes, if you get an atheist to help you move, you know you’ve got a true friend; the deed is done without expectation of divine reciprocation. Just be sure you don’t apply the same to war. Would an atheist have taken the shot at the Pashtun? Probably. Would an atheist have hit the Pashtun with the first bullet? Not a chance in what I like to call hell.
After watching a republican sit in the late Senator Ted Kennedy’s seat, after watching four Senate compatriots –Sens. Chris Dodd (Conn.), Byron Dorgan (N.D.), Ted Kaufman (Del.) and Roland Burris (Ill.) – formulate their leave from public service, after working alongside the first Democratic administration since your first two years in the US Senate you have decided to not run for re-election as a Senator from Indiana. Your decision causes me dissonance, confusion and bemusement.
I don’t get you, Evan Bayh.
Just so you know what I mean, here’s a list of other things I don’t understand: "Twilight," "American Idol," Scientology, people who like Sarah Palin without a hint of irony, cottage cheese, Tyler Perry.
Today you stood at a press conference in Indianapolis and gave reasons for your decision. "After all these years, my passion for service to my fellow citizens is undiminished, but my desire to do so by serving in Congress has waned," you stated.
You went on to say:
"Congress is not operating as it should. There is much too much partisanship and not enough progress – too much narrow ideology and not enough practical problem-solving. Even at a time of enormous national challenge, the peoples' business is not getting done.
"Two weeks ago, the senate voted down a bi-partisan commission to deal with one of the greatest threats facing our nation: our exploding deficits and debt. The measure would have passed. But seven members who endorsed the idea, actually co-sponsored the legislation, instead voted NO for short-term political reasons.
"All of this and much more has led me to believe there are better ways to serve my fellow citizens, my beloved state, and our nation than continued service in congress."
All of this sounded fine coming from beneath your well-parted hair. However, upon further reflection, none of it makes any sense. You are going to start or consult a business that will create maybe 200 jobs instead of work with the Senate to create millions? You are going to lower the debt giving up on legislation that would do so? You are going to fight partisanism by stepping out of the fight?
I get politics on a local level. I get working for a University to improve higher education in America (although our higher education system is already the best in the world.) But I don’t get trying to win a basketball game by quitting at half-time, finding another arena and forming your own league.
Your first two terms in the US Senate were red velvet cake. I get that. I get that it was easy to vote on going to war in Iraq or on the Patriot Act. I get that it was nice when the privatization of social security conveniently disappeared into the night. But now there is an administration in place that actually governs, rather than one that issues executive orders. The actual fight is now. And you’re running away like a fat kid from a veggie plate.
I don’t get it and I don’t like it.
P.S. Why does your son have a Justin Bieber haircut? And what’s with the adolescent comb-over fad?
We now know that Osama bin Laden is hiding in a cave, watching "An Inconvenient Truth," reading Noam Chomsky, sketching conspiracy theories and ordering out for fried wontons. That should narrow down the search to the designated delivery area of the Lahore-Amritsar Panda Express.
In a tape released to and reported on by Al Jazeera’s English-based website, bin Laden admonished the US (George W. Bush, actually) and developing countries for destroying Mother Earth by rejecting the Kyoto protocol, and he suggested that the world should abandon the dollar as its currency reserve.
In the recording, bin Landen says, "This is a message to the whole world about those responsible for climate change and its repercussions - whether intentionally or unintentionally - and about the action we must take."
He goes on: "George Bush junior, preceded by [the US] congress, dismissed the agreement to placate giant corporations. And they are themselves standing behind speculation, monopoly and soaring living costs. They are also behind globalization and its tragic implications. And whenever the perpetrators are found guilty, the heads of state rush to rescue them using public money."
"Speaking about climate change is not a matter of intellectual luxury - the phenomenon is an actual fact," bin Laden said in the yet to be authrnticated tape.
The last tape that we have from bin Laden was in praise of the Christmas Day underwear bomber. In fact, the majority, if not all of bin Laden’s tapes are either in praise of violence against the infidels or replete with some sort of religious undertone. Apparently, those previous attempts have been so ineffectual that he’s decided to get all Al Gore on the world. It seems as though bin Laden spent the Eid in Portland, Oregon and learned a thing or two about, not only reducing and reusing – but about recycling as well.
Not only is there no religious undertone in the latest message from bin Laden, he goes on to praise Noam Chomsky. "Noam Chomsky was correct when he compared the US policies to those of the Mafia," said bin Laden. "They are the true terrorists…"
Chomsky is, of course a "libertarian socialist" of the far left of the far left – however, he is also of Jewish descent, the child of working class Jewish refugees from Ukraine and Belarus. Sure he is in favor of Israel being split into two states – but since when do Islamic fundamentalists praise Jewish philosophers? I half-expect dogs to be driving taxis when I step outside this morning.
Where’s the rage, bin Laden? Where’s the incendiary call to action in honor of Allah?
In the tape, bin Laden links abandonment of the US dollar to "grave repercussions and huge impact." Possibly. And while such action may harm the US more than creating excuses for a right wing US administration to attack a Middle Eastern country in which they will install their own rapacious corporate regimes and freelance militant security forces, it’s hardly as frightening as threatening imminent death.
It is also hardly as inspirational as a recruiting tool. "Destroy the infidels for they have sinned against your God!" has a decidedly more urgent ring than does "Go get a good education in macro economics for the sake of the gold standard!"
Perhaps in his waning years, bin Laden is finding wisdom in the writings of John Maynard Keynes and Al Gore. I know it will be interesting to see which side Gore takes on this latest tape from bin Laden. Will he side with the environment or with America? Where does his true allegiance lie? Is bin Laden right?
An Act of God is a legal term defined by Black's Law Dictionary as, "events outside of human control, such as sudden floods or other natural disasters, for which no one can be held responsible."
I have not decided exactly by which Act of God I’d like Pat Robertson to perish. But I know an act of God, it should be. There is a great poetry to a heat-seeking missile missing its intended mark and turning back on the ship that launched it, to a hoarder dying in a fire because he cannot get out of his apartment, to a gingerbread man being eaten by a fox while crossing the river. There will be great poetry, too, when the same Acts of God – hail or wind, rain or lightening – that Pat Robertson calls God’s retribution upon those who make deals with the devil for their homosexuality or heathen ways strike down upon Robertson with quick fury.
God’s latest vengeance came, of course, in Haiti. Pat Robertson called the disaster that left over 300,000 people homeless a "blessing in disguise." The people of Haiti, continued Robertson, "They got together and swore a pact to the devil. They said we will serve you if you will get us free from the French. True story… Out of this tragedy, something good may come."
Only thing that would have made that statement better is if, after "true story," Robertson had added, "I was there."
Post-disaster, enter God. Not only are Haitians turning to God more and more to thank him following the complete devastation of their capital city, but aid is coming to the country mainly from Catholic groups.
Soledad O’Brien was in Port-au-Prince for CNN last week and spoke of Catholic groups trying to bring supplies to orphanages that were subsequently robbed for those supplies – supplies that had often not arrived yet, making the robbery in vain. O’Brien also told a story of a child handing her a bible and asking her to read from it. The page she flipped to contained a verse asking God, "Why have you forsaken me?"
(Parenthetically, I’m afraid, because I don’t have enough to say about this for a separate post, the amount of self-aggrandizement by CNN during tragedies is astounding. The network cut from Wolf Blitzer setting Soledad O’Brien up for the above story to b-roll of Anderson Cooper dramatically dropping his camcorder (his prop) to frantically find some sort of rag to wipe red paint from a little boy’s face. Meanwhile, you know Anderson is flying back to his suite at the Four Seasons in Santo Domingo every night.)
An 11-year-old girl named Anaika Saint Louis was pulled from the rubble last Thursday night, still alive. Her leg was broken. Doctors would have to amputate, but Anaika said she didn’t care. "Thank you, God, because he saved my life," she said to CNN. "If I lose my feet, I always had my life." Then she died.
These are not the words of a people who made a deal with the devil. Many of them believe, as Robertson does, that the earthquake was not a natural disaster, but was an upset voodoo god. It’s nothing unusual for people to turn to God at their lowest. When my grandmother died 14 years ago, I saw my father become more religious. A comedian out of Chicago named Dwayne Kennedy does a bit in which he explains how nobody loves Jesus more than old black women – no matter what happens in their lives, when you ask them how they are doing, they will respond, "Oh, I’m blessed."
If anyone made a deal with the devil, it’s Pat Robertson. I think he’s a witch. The only way I’ll be satisfied that he’s not a witch is if he drowns in a puddle of holy water that was knocked over by a stampede of rhinoceroses that were spooked when a slow but ominous fog crept upon them while shopping in Tribeca. He’ll be dead then, of course, but maybe, out of that tragedy, something good may come.
As the Los Angeles County freeways rise and wind into Orange County in California, the racing landscape bumps seamlessly from mountains above Malibu and Santa Clarita, over the grunge of Venice Boulevard and under the blast of Los Angeles International, around the hills and lookouts in PV, past the docks of Long Beach, the malls above Anaheim, Disneyland, itself. The traffic pulses, a slow heart, obstructed by wrecks, construction and billboards for a good time. The streets are grid-like, measured; but the houses are hasty, one-story matchstick huts, pasted with plaster and stapled with aluminum siding. Deflated Santas adorn the front yards the week after Christmas, soon to be replaced with barbeques and flags.
The houses give way, at a point, to industrial complexes: low, flat, sprawling, right-angle buildings, laid out on purposefully curvier streets to give the illusion of creativity. Just before the small numbered blocks of Newport Beach, this is a part of Costa Mesa. Off of the freeway, the streets are all unique, now, while they continue to look identical. The industrial zone is wedged in between a small airport, at which you have to walk outside before boarding your flight, and a golf course. In the middle of this zone, past JG Plastics and HD Nutrition, across from Rip Curl, sits a church called Rock Harbor.
The front of the building is designed to be welcoming. Two large garage doors are lifted to reveal large wooden (in every sense of the word; they are even aged) beams that frame the door and are frequently placed throughout the wide entry hall. Pamphlets greet those that enter. In the adjacent room, chairs are set up facing flat-screens to accommodate overflow from the main sanctuary, which is around the corner, down a narrower hallway, also encased in wooden beams.
A band plays as we enter the sanctuary. The drummer is protected by an octagon of Plexi glass. A young, light-brown haired man is sing, and the lyrics he sings are projected brightly on either side of the band. Immediately to the left of the singer is a large crucifix, made from the same wood that is ostensibly supporting the entry. There is only standing room left in the rear of the sanctuary, and when we leave, we’ll notice that even more came after.
The light-brown haired singer is, in time, replaced by a solid bald man, who you’d expect to see working a stockroom in Indiana. But here, he’s not out of place. The sanctuary supports a history of stories, rather than a history of time; not a lot has happened within these walls (if they could talk, they’d shrug), but a lot has, independently, happened to these people. The stories lend kinetic breath to the room. The bald man isn’t alone.
His lesson for the day is, at least in its underlying theme, about acceptance. Along with the parishioners, and the projections that have replaced song lyrics with bible lyrics, he reads from the New International Version (NIV) of the bible – as if he could choose any other.
Much of the lesson builds up to a comparison between two passages in the NIV: Isaiah61 and Luke 4. The bald man starts with Isaiah. The passage hits the bright, big screens:
 The Spirit of the Sovereign Lord is on me, because the Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners,  to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God…
This was one of the scrolls that was read in synagogues, even two thousand years ago, says the bald man. He jumps to Luke, reading the first part: "He went to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, and on the Sabbath day he went into the synagogue, as was his custom. And he stood up to read. The scroll of the prophet Isaiah was handed to him. Unrolling it, he found the place where it is written…"
The projection follows to Luke along with the bald man:
 "The Spirit of the Lord is on me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed,  to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor."
The bald man continues to read from Luke: "Then he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of everyone in the synagogue were fastened on him, and he began by saying to them, ‘Today this scripture is fulfilled in your hearing.’"
The bald man mentions the temerity Jesus had to claim that the scripture was fulfilled because he read it. But, again, his underlying point is what Jesus changed in his reading of the scroll. The bald man takes to his telestrator (yes) and underlines brokenhearted, he underlines blind, he circles oppressed, and he points excitedly at the final line that Jesus neglected: "and the day of vengeance of our God..."
People were appalled that Jesus would change the scripture, the bald man shouts. With his reading, no longer was there going to be vengeance on the Gentiles. No longer would the sick and weak and poor and crippled be overlooked on the streets. People, says the bald man, were appalled with the folks that Jesus hung out with.
And who would those people be today, he asks. And he answers: alcoholics, homosexuals, abortion supporters, illegal immigrants.
What he doesn’t ask is, who is Jesus today? He wants us each to be Jesus. Although, we don’t each have it in us. And so, it’s not until the drive home, back to Los Angeles County, through the breezy smog, that I realize, not only must the bald man have voted for Barack Obama, but he must, in turn, believe that Obama is the Second Coming.
He must understand that Obama hung out with the folks who appalled us – Reverend Wright, Louis Farrakhan, William Ayers – and engages with folks who appall us – Iran, North Korea – and is respectful of folks in a manner that disgusts us – bowing to the Saudi king and the Japanese Emperor. He must think that Obama doesn’t hang out with these folks because he agrees with these folks, but because he wants to understand them, to help them.
The derelict dealerships and fast food franchises on La Cienega give way to the Hills of Hollywood. I am home.
Bono wrote another op-ed piece in the New York Times today.I have yet to read it, but, to be honest, that’s immaterial because I know (we all do, don’t we?) that it’s going to suck.The star of rock begins by admitting that we are being inundated by Best Of… lists.Best of the Year.Best of the Decade.Whatever.He then decides he is going to try to be unique (operative word: try) be offering “10 ideas that might make the next 10 years more interesting, healthy or civil.”
Here is what I want from a rock star.I would like each who thinks he’s capable to come up with an updated version of Billy Joel’s “We Didn’t Start the Fire.”Whereas the original lists events, people, books, movies, and so on from the 1940’s to 1989, the new version would list the same sort of things from 1990 to 2009.These brave few rock stars can feel free to submit their versions to me and I, in my sweet tone-deaf time, will choose the best.
In anticipation of this contest, I’ve created an example of a song that is included below.Also, feel free to sing along (replacing new lyrics with old, of course) to the original Billy Joel video included immediately following this sentence.
President Barack Obama has had his theistic faith barraged from upon all angles high. The bigger problems started when his former pastor, Reverend Jeremiah Wright, was broadcast in a passionate diatribe against America. Obama fell under attack from the far left when he chose Rick Warren to speak at his inauguration. And, of course, he has been at fault in the minds of the Christian Right for everything from allegedly having his Harvard Law School paid for by a Muslim activist to accidently saying that he’d been to "57 states" in the United States. (There are 57 states in the Organization of the Islamic Conference.)
I believe most Palestinians stopped short of calling him a secret-evil-Jewish-Mossad agent, but probably not all of them.
Despite the rally cries for fear and holy war, Obama’s Christian claim is generally accepted at this point. A comprehensive look at Obama's faith in Newsweek in July 2008 explained: "The story of Obama's religious journey is a uniquely American tale. It's one of a seeker, an intellectually curious young man trying to cobble together a religious identity out of myriad influences... ‘I'm on my own faith journey and I'm searching,’ he says. ‘I leave open the possibility that I'm entirely wrong.’"
Obama’s public addresses are decidedly more secular than were his predecessor’s. He still uses the phrase, "God Bless America," to end many such addresses. But one can sense that, when combined with his other words and rhetoric, the phrase is over Obama’s lips less theological than it is ontological.
David Brooks would be one to shake his head at this suggestion. As seen in his New York Times column last week, Brooks sees in Obama a revival of "the Christian realism that undergirded cold war liberal thinking..." Obama, says Brooks, has gone to apply this cold war thinking to a different world. "His speeches at West Point and Oslo this year are pitch-perfect explications of the liberal internationalist approach. Other Democrats talk tough in a secular way, but Obama’s speeches were thoroughly theological. He talked about the ‘core struggle of human nature’ between love and evil."
It is easy to mistake the discussion of the struggle of human nature and Nobel Peace Prize speeches on good and evil as necessarily theological. For that, Brooks can be forgiven. Obama does not speak in religious undertones; his very deliberative (dithering, according to Dick Cheney) nature exudes an essence of his father’s atheism.
We should remember from where Obama came and over which paths he’s traveled when considering his words.
Back to the Newsweek article:
For company, he had books. There was Saint Augustine, the fourth-century North African bishop who wrote the West's first spiritual memoir and built the theological foundations of the Christian Church. There was Friedrich Nietzsche, the 19th-century German philosopher and father of existentialism. There was Graham Greene, the Roman Catholic Englishman whose short novels are full of compromise, ambivalence and pain. Obama meditated on these men and argued with them in his mind.
With that in mind, we can listen to his words in Oslo, knowing that the angle of his vantage is illuminated many radians beyond the standard theological spectrum.
Obama spoke his hopes, calling some war necessary and citing President John F. Kennedy’s hope that we might find a peace based on a "gradual evolution of human institutions." However, he spoke his doubts as well.
"I do not believe we have the will, the determination, the staying power to complete this work without something more," said Obama on December 9. "And that’s the continued expansion of our moral imagination; an insistence that there’s something irreducible that we all share."
The continued expansion of our moral imagination. It’s a curious phrase – and miles from theological; if anything, it is, again, atheistic. It does not suppose a categorical imperative or a greater good or word of God. It supposes that these things can, if we allow them, destroy life because life cannot exist or be interpreted in a vacuum.
As Friedrich Nietzsche writes in "Genealogy of Morals,"
To speak of just or unjust in itself is quite senseless; in itself, of course, no injury, assault, exploitation, destruction can be "unjust," since life operates essentially; that is in its basic functions, through injury, assault exploitation, destruction and simply cannot be thought of at all without this character. … A legal order thought of as sovereign and universal, not as a means in the struggle between power-complexes but as a means of preventing all struggle…would be a principle hostile to life, an agent of the dissolution and destruction of man, an attempt to assassinate the future of man, a sign of weariness, a secret path to nothingness.
The continued expansion of our moral imagination. It is Obama’s true religion. But it is a religion closer to Nietzsche than to Christianity or Islam or Judaism. It says at once that we need to realize that the ideas of right and wrong, of good and evil, of war and peace need to be flexible – and that, if we are wrong, we are more than certainly wrong together.
Recently, I made a wager, a bet, a jeu de la vie (if you will) against a good friend that President Barack Obama would win a second term. What I would have like to have bet is that he is going to win a third.
Were that to happen, my friend perished, the United States would become an Islamic-fascist dictatorship, somewhere along the Sixth Circle of Hell. So, he’d only bet on a second term.
Things look dire for my pocketbook at this point. (Without disclosing the full conditions of the bet, let’s just say, as a precautionary measure, both of us might want to start saving now for November 2012.) Barack Obama is digging himself more than a hole, it seems. When you manage to make a decision that is supported by neither Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) or Rush Limbaugh (Jack Ass-FL), let’s just say that the future of your political career is skydiving without a reserve chute.
Democrats are worried that Obama is continuing a war that has waning public support – that is to say that Democrats are worried that, if they back the troop escalation in Afghanistan, they will lose their jobs come next November.
This fear was articulated by Senator Russ Feingold (Career Appeaser-WI), who is, of course, up for re-election in 2010. "I do not support the decision to prolong and expand a risky and unsustainable strategy in the region," Senator Feingold said on Thursday. "I do not believe more American lives should be risked for a war that no longer serves our most pressing national security interests."
Meanwhile, most Republicans back the troop escalation, but are beating at the president over the July 2011 withdrawal deadline. The outrage over July 2011 is twofold: Firstly, it will give our enemies (the Taliban and al-Qaeda) a timeline by which to plan. Secondly, Obama said that he set the July 2011 withdrawal date, but has the ability to change that upon review of the situation; that’s somehow upsetting.
As Senator John McCain (the Lauren Conrad to Sarah Palin’s Heidi Montag-AZ) so confusingly put it: "You either have a winning strategy ... and then once it's succeeded, then we withdraw or, as the president said, we will have a date (for) beginning withdrawal in July 2011. Which is it? It's got to be one or the other. It's got to be the appropriate conditions, or it's got to be an arbitrary date. You can't have both."
Clearly neither side of the aisle – other than those near the Obama Administration (Hillary Clinton, Bob Gates) – are happy with Obama’s decision. And yet, Rush Limbaugh rushes in with drivel about how Obama is doing nothing but appeasing both sides.
Obama’s speech on Tuesday "was all about placating as many sides of the political spectrum as there are," Limbaugh said on his radio version of Elisabeth Hasselbeck’s retardation.
"I thought it was incoherent because his policy is coherent," said Limbaugh. "He didn't even announce a policy other than to get out of there. It's all political, the whole thing. He didn't use the word victory. He didn't talk about winning anything… Barack Obama believes our enemies have a point."
Given: Barack Obama has an ability to think more broadly than many of our previous leaders. But there is a hugely important difference between thinking someone has a point and agreeing with that point. By saying that Obama thinks al-Qaeda has a point, Limbaugh is implying that Obama looks at the attacks of 9/11 and say, "Yeah, okay. I don’t agree with it, but I understand where you’re coming from."
More accurately, Obama seeks to understand al-Qaeda in order to get them to stop because, well, what we’ve been doing for the past eight years doesn’t seem to be working.
Even the Taliban shat on Obama’s decision to send 30,000 more troops to Afghanistan, saying that the escalation in forces offers "no solution" to Afghanistan’s problems – something of an odd statement from the group that most of the world considers to be Afghanistan’s problem.
The only group to back the president (and this makes me smile) is NATO, which today pledged to provide about 7,000 additional in Afghanistan, bringing the total, more or less, up to the 40,000 additional troops recommended by General Stanley McChrystal months ago.
Unfortunately, Obama is not going to be reelected by NATO or by members of the Nobel Peace Prize committee. He is going to be elected by the same people that are presently striking fear into the hearts of congressional Democrats everywhere.
Political wisdom dictates that you do things early in your term and spend the rest of the time begging forgiveness. While his fellow Democrats may smell their impending demise, the president has a happy 35 months to recover from any missteps.
What Obama risks more than anything else is exasperating animosity in congress. His inclusive style is impressing NATO but putting pressure on the legislative branch of the government. The more bills and issues the president forces congress to face, the more likely they are to clash; and the more they clash, the more likely they are to deal with nothing at all – just like they did under President George W. Bush. Though the trail that President Obama treads can certainly be navigated, it is a trail precarious with peril.
The Underground Railroad now comes on your iPhone. Or your Google Android or your under-$30 Motorola i455, with a GPS applet. But it’s not a game in which you help Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass cross to Northern Safety beneath the floorboards and within the cupboards of abolitionists. The new smart phone app, officially called the Transborder Immigrant Tool, will help people attempting to illegally cross the Mexico-US border by directing the immigrants to "safe routes, shelter, food, water, and friendly sympathizers," says Vice magazine.
The creator of the smart phone application is named Ricardo Dominguez. He’s kinda like a tech-savvy version of Brad Pitt’s wonky-eyed character in "12 Monkeys" – only instead of creating chaos by releasing (spoiler, if you haven’t seen "12 Monkeys" and would like to) all the insane people from the asylum and all the animals from the zoo, Dominguez seems happier to create as much political disturbance as he can.
He created the organization Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT) in the 1990s and has set out to reek havoc ever since.
"Our core speculations were that we would see the emergence of three different arcs of capitalism in the 90s: digital capitalism, genetic capitalism or clone capitalism, and particle capitalism or nano-driven technology," Dominguez tells Vice magazine. "We decided we would speculate not only on the artistic aspect of these emerging capitalisms but also on how we could intervene as artist-activists into each of these areas. We developed the idea of electronic civil disobedience as a way to mediate the emergence of digital capitalism."
From there, Dominguez went to work for the University of California – San Diego, where he’s now an associate professor working on things like the Transborder Immigrant Tool.
"We looked at the Motorola i455 cell phone, which is under $30, available even cheaper on eBay, and includes a free GPS applet," says Dominguez. "We were able to crack it and create a simple compass-like navigation system. We were also able to add other information, like where to find water left by the Border Angels, where to find Quaker help centers that will wrap your feet, how far you are from the highway—things to make the application really benefit individuals who are crossing the border."
Dominguez says the app isn’t about politics; it’s about safety. "It’s not about doing away with or altering borders, but about opening new forms of communication and understanding," he concludes. While "safety" may be a reasonable…excuse for the application to exist, it’s impossible that that existence avoids being political.
Such a device is akin to a modern day Amsterdam Syringe Exchange in which the government accepted drug users were going to use drugs anyway – so why not make the use safer by offering new needles? In another context, it’s like giving condoms to high school students.
Those like Dominguez are implicitly saying (and this is a political statement, whether he admits it or not) that, as drug users use drugs regardless of the consequences, people are going to cross into the US illegally – they are going to lose themselves in the desert and capsize on homemade rafts – despite the danger. Why not at least decrease the risk of injury or death?
It’s enough to give Lou Dobbs a scorching rash. Lou’s obvious "why not" would be the same as the argument against legalizing drugs or prostitution: legalization will increase the use and may not decrease the risk.
Nevertheless, the Transborder Immigrant Tool is an interestingly overt attack on Border Patrol and Homeland Security. So overt, in fact, that, were Frederick Douglass around today, he’d have no reason to hide the means by which he escaped his destitution. He would hold up his iPhone, scroll to the next page and proclaim, "If you want to escape brutally inhumane conditions that betray all that is good within Man’s soul…there’s an app for that."
All that I saw of the recruitment process was the inside of an executive single hotel room in midtown that the bank had provided for a friend – a room so small that, not only did I sleep on the floor, but on the floor in a ball – and four to six other recruits at a pub called Maggie’s on 47th Street following their day of tutorials and handshakes and smiles. Meanwhile, I’ve been exposed to not a single aspect of the recruiting processes for any of the prominent organizations that presently find themselves on the US State Department’s Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations List.
Fortunately, when I suggest that perhaps the recruiting processes for large US banks may be very similar to the recruiting process for prominent terrorist organizations, firsthand, even empirical evidence is not necessary to prove the point.
At the base of the issue is the type of people each of these seemingly disparate entities entices: educated, medium-to-high income families, male. I don’t suppose I need to convince anyone that this is the type of person recruited by large US banks. As Michael Moore pointed out (ok, ok, but stay with me) in "Capitalism: A Love Story," Wall Street is taking more and more of the brightest minds from our universities. People that used to go into medicine or research are now becoming traders and quant guys.
The friend who lent me is floor in midtown was also a roommate in college. When he was admitted to the university’s undergraduate business school, his first sentence through the door and over our disgustingly stained carpet was, "I’m going to be rich." This is and this is by no means a negative reflection on him; perhaps the opposite. His father is a well-paid emergency room doctor (or used to be well-paid, at least, back when doctors made fair salaries), and I am almost certain that, if I were to ask my friend, he would tell me that his father advised him not to go into medicine.
Similarly, terrorist organizations pilfer some of the best and brightest from around the world. The new book "SuperFreakonomics" cites a study by economist Alan Krueger (see Alan B Krueger, "What Makes a Terrorist," Princeton University Press, 2007) in which the author studied biographical data on martyrs in Lebanon and found that they were less likely to come from a poor family and more likely to have at least a high-school education. This revelation held true for most terrorist organizations around the world. "Terrorists," concluded Krueger, "tend to be drawn from well-educated, middle-class or high-income families."
Well-educated individuals from middle-class or high-income families often join terrorist organizations or US banks because they are sold on the fundamental ideology of the organization – just different ideologies. The sell in banking is explained nicely by Drew Gilpin Faust in a recent New York Times column: At American universities, "business is now by far the most popular undergraduate major, with twice as many bachelor’s degrees awarded in this area than in any other field of study. In the era of economic constraint before us, the pressure toward vocational pursuits is likely only to intensify."
While incipient bankers are sold on the ideals of money and comfort and power and influence – one of course leading to the other – recruits of terrorist organizations are sold on essentially the same thing. Terrorism is never about death. It’s never the desire to murder. Terrorism is nothing more than a political strategy that employs tactics designed to garner power.
Certainly some of these tactics are devastating and inhumane and deadly. However, again on a fundamental level, those tactics and their repercussions aren’t that far off the tactics employed by bankers: subprime mortgages, credit default swaps, complicated derivatives, and so on – tactics that undoubtedly resulted in a national suffering comparable (that may be an understatement) to the attacks of September 11, 2001.
Looked at from one perspective, the housing crash and the subsequent fallout were nothing more than an elaborate, protracted attacked on America carried out by a large, multi-cell, to-big-to-fail terrorist organization. Then again, I don’t see any international banks listed on the US State Department’s Designated Foreign Terrorist Organizations List – so I must be wrong.
"I think this may be way too preliminary," Republican strategist Ed Rollins said on CNN after it was announced that US President Barack Obama has been awarded this year’s Nobel Peace Prize. Rollins went on to ask, "[A]t the end of the day, what has he accomplished? Who on the world stage are his allies at this point in time?"
Well, clearly the Norwegians that awarded the prize are his allies.
Until today, I know of no one that has called those on the Nobel committee a bunch of idiots, but that seems to be the resounding choice derision with Republicans this morning. The over all theme of the Republican anger is that Obama has done nothing to deserve or warrant this award. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize not because of accomplishments, but because of things that he might accomplish in the future.
"If pretty words alone could provide leadership," noted another Republican strategist named Todd Harris, "then why not just give the presidency and the Peace Prize to a Hemingway novel?"
Why not, indeed. Except that a Hemmingway novel called "The Old Man and the Sea" did when a Nobel Prize of the type dedicated to pretty words.
There is a certain weight to the mockery and outrage of the right this morning. Clearly Obama has not brokered a Palestinian-Israeli peace; he has not lessened the caches of nuclear arms in the world; he has not halted Iran’s nuclear program; he has not eased the bellicose stare of Mother Russia; he has not ended the war in Iraq; and, on top of all of this, he is presently considering heightening the war in Afghanistan.
Regardless, Obama was not awarded the prize for any of the inchoate accomplishments above. He was given the Nobel Peace Prize today for what the committee called "his extraordinary efforts to strengthen international diplomacy and cooperation between peoples."
It’s entirely possible that Obama was awarded the Nobel Prize for one of the reasons he was elected President of the United States – and for the very reason he chose to run for President of the United States – George W. Bush fucked the reputation and moral standing of the US so thoroughly, everyone, anyone, including Norwegians, was thrilled to have anything less toxic in a position known as the Most Powerful Man in the World.
Republicans say that Obama was given the award for political reasons, not for accomplishments. And that’s absolutely true. While you may want to call the Nobel Peace Prize committee idiots, they aren’t. They realize the move is political – but by making such a move, they are standing behind Obama, they are his allies. By making such a move, they bring others behind the president as well. By making such a move, they acknowledge that Obama does not want to move unilaterally forward, that he has challenged the rest of the world to help the United States end certain wars, that he realizes the way to eventual peace is not the Bush Doctrine or the Powell Doctrine, but the Obama Doctrine: a policy of thinking things through, thoroughly, no matter how loudly people scream at you to "HURRY THE FUCK UP!", before you take action.
Obama’s public speaking rhythm has always reflected this pause. As he stood at the steps of the White House, he said, "I am the Commander in Chief of a country that is responsible (long pause) for (long pause) ending a war, and working in another theater to confront a ruthless adversary that directly confronts the American people and our allies."
Long, thoughtful pauses, even though he had notes in front of him.
Something left out of those notes that I wish had not been (because this would have been a beautiful opportunity) was an announcement that Obama will heed General Stanley McChystal’s advice to send 40,000 more troops to Afghanistan. Not only would such an announcement have shut up Republicans (except those not keen on irony), it would have figuratively said, without stutter or blink, that Obama is truly committed to peace – and truly deserving of this award.