Saturday, November 14, 2015

How to Defeat Terrorism

We need to try something different. America has waged a full scale war in South Asia for thirty years.  We've waged a sort of Cold War against Islam for decades longer, going all the way back to Mossadegh and Iran. 

All we've managed to do is inflame the situation. Europe has struggled with Islamic extremists for centuries, and while things were quiet for a long time, the beginning of the twentieth century saw Europe interfere yet again in Middle Eastern affairs, igniting old passions and angers.

Thirty years of war (going back to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan) has done nothing but make more rabid dogs. That's a failed policy. This is not a war against people, it's a war against an ideology -- the ideology of jihad -- and every time we've bombed a country, we created more enemies as we've attempted to wipe out that ideology.

One reason President Obama has been correctly circumspect about mentioning Islam in discussing terrorism isn't that he's afraid to call it that, but that by linking it to the religion and not to the morons committing these crimes, he gives our enemy comfort. 

The comfort of having his words slipped into a recruiting video to prove that "America is at war with Islam". A fine recruiting tool, to be sure. ISIS and Al Qaeda appeal to people who are looking for a scapegoat for their problems, and by isolating Islam as a cause of terror (it's not), we give the poor and tormented in South Asia something to vent their frustrations on. 

(It's the same schematic that the Tea Party uses here, I should point out, just not to such an extreme degree. That's a post for a different, more political day.)

All we've done with our "war on terror" is give potential members reasons to hate us, to join their organizations. We in the west have consistently installed dictators and tyrants over them and while those installations have helped tamp down the some of the international violence, it hasn't stopped the anger, only inflamed it. It's like clamping down a lid on a pressure cooker: you'll stop the steam from parboiling your hand over the pot, but eventually, the pressure will release in an explosion and destroy your hand. 

When we've decided to take out one of those tyrants we've installed, it's the people we claim to want to protect that have suffered the most. A hundred thousand Iraqis died in our wars against Saddam, and that's ignoring the collateral damage of the Iran-Iraq war that we probably ignited by weakening Saddam in the Nineties, too. Or the Kurds we abandoned back then. 

I want to be clear, the West is not the main problem here, but we exacerbate the very real problems of starvation and poverty and joblessness and the concomitant hopelessness all that implies.

It's no coincidence that since President Obama's "apology tour" early on in his administration that there have been no organized terror attacks in the United States. That's not to say that terrorists aren't licking their chops thinking about killing Americans, to be sure, but I'm betting it's been really hard to recruit suicidal terrorists to attack us, Obama is just that popular even in the Middle East and South Asia. 

The takeaway, in my view, is that America and the west must disengage from the region and let things settle themselves down, or we're going to end up in a world war, if accidentally. Already we've had frightening incidents that could easily have triggered nuclear annihilation. 

So how to defeat terrorism? Better minds than mine...yes, there are some...have tossed this problem around and come up with nothing. I'm afraid I've done little better. I can imagine a framework that solution might take, however.

1) Economics -- This facet is the easiest one: stop buying crude oil from the Middle East. We've had thirty years of warnings to prepare for this, from skyrocketing gas prices to global warming's effects. It's about time we made a commitment to stop using fossil fuels, but particularly oil. 

This might seem counterintuitive: if people are poor, buying oil can only help them. Well, no. That enriches the status quo, which means it enriches those who are at the top of the economic chain in the Middle East, like the emirs and kings, at the expense of the people. To give the people freedom, we have to defund those who would take that freedom. Note that this would also directly hurt ISIS, who have taken crude oil fields across Iraq. 

But notice something: global warming also directly impacts the people in the region in another way: the troubles in Syria began with a drought in Syria, which forced farmers to abandon their farms and migrate to the cities where they might try to find gainful employment.

But those jobs were non-existent as the economic meltdown of the late Bush administration worked its way through the global economy. 

We need to establish economies across the region that don't rely on the resources of the rich, but on the labor of the poor. Trade with the governments of the region is counterproductive. Trade with the people of South Asia is imperative. 

Trade what? What can replace oil?

Frankly, anything can. Remember, facet one of this discussion is to stop using oil: no oil, no oil economy, no reinforcing the status quo. 

2) The Marshall Plan -- After World War II, and despite the war's far heavier toll on the West, the United States in its capacity as the last man standing extended an olive branch not only to our allies, but to our enemies. We would commit to help them rebuild

Why? We learned the lessons of the interregnum of the two world wars: letting problems fester only made them worse, not go away. 

We do owe it to the people of South Asia, we in the West. We created artificial borders that ignored tribes, rivalries, nationalities and ethnicities in an attempt to be expedient. Literally. The divisions were drawn with a ruler on a map. We reinforced those arbitrary borders with force and armaments, and interfered in internal matters when those matters threatened our interests.

Imagine if the cops taped off your house and prevented you from using the bathroom, then stormed your part of the house if you took a piss in a flower pot. That's what we're doing in the Middle East. 

Some would call this appeasement. Some would call this a waste of resources. I would argue that the trillions the United States alone has spent in the last fifteen years to "defeat terrorism" was a waste of resources and that we have to find a better way. A few billion versus tens of trillions sounds like a bargain to me, even if the outcome might end up being the same (it won't.)

To me, this Marshall Plan redux would involve helping the Middle East and South Asia rebuild their infrastructure. It would bring permanent water to drought-stricken areas. It would rebuild roads that we've bombed to hell and back. It would build better schools and hospitals and it would all be done by paying the local residents to do the work and administer the projects. We'd provide resources. They'd get the credit for the accomplishments. 

And yes, we'd rebuild mosques, too. We have to. 

3) Diplomacy -- To sum this up, we need to get the fuck out of the way. The West has spent the last decade dictating policy to the Middle East and South Asia: you will do this, you won't do that, you'll take this and like it, we'll take that and you'll be quiet. 

What I see happening is a Middle East summit comprised of everyone: the nation-states, the sects of Islam (including the radical Islamists in some capacity), the South Asian states like Uzbekistan and Kyrgyzstan, the Turks, the Russians, the Chinese and the West. 

Obviously, we won't just hold one meeting and be done with it. This will take time and energy and focus. It will require reaching out even as we kill terrorists, or finding intermediaries to understand the problems that we can solve with diplomacy and those we'll just have to let them sort out on their own. We can't settle the Shi'a/Sunni divide, for one thing, but if we can persuade the Muslim people that we'll accept any settlement between them that keeps everyone in the region safer, they'll sort it out.

After all, Northern Ireland seems to be working its Troubles out, and surely they've been more peaceful now than twenty years ago. 

Eventually, these disparate talks can be built upon, bringing factions together in the same room, then bringing the agreements made in those rooms to bigger rooms and higher levels. 

If the West gets out of the way and makes the Middle Eastern nations enforce these agreements -- and frankly, without oil and the commitment to rebuilding, why the hell would we even be there anymore? -- they'll eventually work things out. We may not agree with their solutions, but the point is, we won't have to, as we do now.

4) Stealth -- Let's face facts: we're going to have to cripple ISIS and Al Qaeda (again). We don't have to commit to waging a regional war to do so. We have the tools and ability to decapitate the leadership. As we saw with Al Qaeda last decade, that at the very least buys us time. Time can buy us the space to implement the rest of this plan. It lowers the heat under the pressure cooker of recruitment. It buys us the eyeballs and attention span of the people we want to stop from joining these organizations.  

Clearly, this means an unconventional war fought under the radar. We have national policies that prevent us from interfering in the internal affairs of other nations, but those were state matters, and this is a criminal enterprise. And besides, since when has the United States paid anything but lip service to any international agreement? If we're going to break one, let's at least break the right ones, and not the Geneva Convention.

5) A Thicker Skin -- This applies to the West more than to the Middle East and South Asia.

Americans and Europeans are going to die. There is no way to prevent that. Whether we declare all out war and our soldiers die by the thousands or we fight this fight the way I outline above, and citizens and soldiers die by the dozens, we're going to have deaths. My argument is that there will be far fewer casualties for a far shorter period of time.

We're going to have to mature a bit and shrug them off. A little. We're going to have to put aside the bloodthirst for revenge and retribution and work to understand that these deaths are martyrs for a greater cause: the safety and security of all citizens of our nations. 

We can rattle sabres, to be sure, just as we did after 9/11 (and failed to defeat even the enemy that attacked us, much less protect ourselves from future threats), but remember that on 9/11, we even had the "Arab Street" on our side. And lost it in our monumental hubris. We had the opportunity to exhibit dignity and grace and would have prevented hundreds of thousands of enlistments against us. 

Today, the day after the Paris attacks, even Iran has expressed condolences and condemned the attacks, as they too are in the fight against ISIS in Iraq. It's a glimmer of hope. We can take them up on that gesture. 

The other facet of that "thicker skin" is the more troubling one: we have to present a unified front on this project. In America, that will be next to impossible and we may have to cede leadership here to China and Russia. The old dictum that politics ends at the border was thrown out the window by the yahoos of the Tea Party and any attempt to implement this program will have to shut them up somehow. They'll need to develop a thicker skin and stop betraying our national interests. That's the only way we can be effective in this construct.

I think this five step program may be the only way to defeat an ideology. A good parallel in American history is the Mob. We didn't beat the Mob on the battlefield, we beat them by starving them of them of members, by giving immigrants better jobs, and better education, by assimilating them into our culture and providing the opportunities to attain the benefits of that culture to them, and finding ways of tying up the resources of the Mob so they could no longer wage an asymmetric war. 

After all, it took an accountant to put Capone in jail and effectively end his reign of terror. We won't defeat ISIS or Al Qaeda in the desert, we'll finally defeat them when we get the people in the region to stop joining them. Suicide bombers and jihadists have a very short shelf life, so the organizations are always desperate for new members.

It took decades, and even today, we still have mobs and gangs and violence, but only to the extent that we can now treat them as criminal organizations and not an armed resistance. We'll always have ISIS and Al Qaeda and Hezbollah and Hamas or something like them because there will always be underinformed people who are easily manipulated by charismatic leaders and simplistic solutions. This project will make it harder for them to be effective. 

Sunday, November 01, 2015

Innocent as Children

My Mets are losing the World Series.

I'm OK with that. Truth is,  I've watched about three innings of the Series in total. I may have watched nine all playoffs long.

Which is actually more than I watched all season.

That doesn't mean I don't have an emotional attachment to them. I do, and want them to sweep the next three games and take the trophy out from under KC's feet. They can do it. The one thing this team has demonstrated over the season is the ability to turn adversity into wins (see: Wilmer Flores) and there's no reason to think that a team that should be up three games to one can't win three in a row, particularly one that has ben as streaky as the Mets season suggests.

That I know all that is a testament to my loyalty to the team. That said, it saddens me what sports has become in this country, and I think it's a large part of the underlying troubles we endure right now.

For instance, the reason I'm a wishy-washy fan when it comes to watching my team on the TeeVee. For not the first time in my life, I can't, and not because I'm superstitious or some such, but for a more prosaic cause.

The Mets network isn't carried on DISH and I'm more loyal to people who do right by me than I am to people who present a product and tell me to take it or leave it (In order not to sidetrack this discussion, let me just say that DISH has worked hard in the thirty years or so that I've been with them to keep me as customer, keeping my costs down while putting together programming and service to suit my needs).

SNY is not carried by DISH -- neither is MSG or YES, for that matter, which prevents me from following nearly every other local sports team on a regular basis except football, ironically the most socialist of all sports -- so the only games I can watch are the ones on networks or on the local broadcast outlet, WPIX. Those number maybe a dozen or so.

They were, but the Mets decided to abandon whatever percentage of Mets fans have DISH when DISH didn't buckle into their somewhat outrageous demands. Profit, before product.

The first time the Mets abandoned a significant portion of their fan base, that time was a lot harder to swallow. The team decided to take nearly all games off over-the-air broadcasts and put them on cable TV (first on Cablevision's SportsChannel, which morphed into FoxSports NY, and then ultimately to SNY, the Mets-owned outlet).

The team banked on fan loyalty to carry it through these, and they were pretty much spot on in this. As more and more cable subscribers signed on (that's another story, the roll out of cable in NYC), the team grew a larger fan base.

All the while, every month, nibbling away at the combined pocketbooks of their fans, even when the season was over. Profit, over product.

I wrote all that to personalize the rest of this post, which is really about the business of sports.

I could bore you with statistics and numbers about the growth and mutation of sports from entertainment to a large and wildly profitable business, but let me put it on a human scale for you.

When I was a kid, watching the Mets on a 19" black and white Philco, the average ballplayer made less than the average union worker. He had to take a job to feed his family until training camp opened up, usually blue collar since college sports was what it should be, a sidelight to getting an education, so most players if they wanted a major league career refused to forfeit four years of their prime for a degree.

If he was smart and good looking, maybe he quarterbacked the local team, he could get a white collar job in a bank or a brokerage, entertaining clients. Only the really big stars, the Willie Mayses or the Joe Namaths, made enough from endorsement contracts to tide them over between seasons, or could command a contract big enough to allow them to focus on their careers and not on survival after the season.

And God forbid you have a career ending injury, altho that happened all too frequently. You had no education, no job prospects (because, really, how many jobs require you to hit a 0-2 curve ball?) and an aching body. It's no wonder that, even today, all professional sports unions have to provide charitable help for their forebears, forty years after the explosion of money in sports.

Today? Even a slightly-better-than average player (say, Daniel Murphy, since he's on my mind, who has an average WAR over 162 games...I'll get to the statistics thing in a bit....of 2.27, meaning he'll give you almost three wins more than the average second baseman. A great player can give you ten or more extra wins) can command tens of millions of dollars a year.

The average player doesn't need to work a second job. He has healthcare through his union or his team, is vested in a pension based on his salary after a certain number of years playing (and is partially vested starting on day one of his contract).

None of this is to begrudge large money contracts. I'd rather a millionaire kid who busted his ass and forsook his youth take a few million than let some rich trust fund kid who happened to cobble together enough money from his inheritance or the markets take it.

Indeed, that's the point. The contracts are indicative of precisely how much money there is to be made in sports, if you can afford to take the risk (and once you reach a certain threshold, the risk is zero).

Case in point: my Mets. Concurrent with the launch of the SNY Network, the Mets also built an entirely new stadium, primarily with private funds (there were some municipal funds that targeted renovating the surrounding neighborhood and that's an entirely different story).

The owners, the Wilpons, were also friends with one Bernie Madoff, who suggested many years ago that they invest their money with him. Presumably, an awful lot of that loot was tied up into the stadium and cable channel deals. The Wilpons made money with Madoff, to be sure, so much so that, if not for an arbiter who took a very lenient view to their cause, they likely would be bankrupt today, forced to sell the team and channel.

As it is, they spent an awful lot of the last decade on a very tight team budget, what with building up reserves for the new stadium, the new channel (they lost all that guaranteed income from FoxSports, as well as a lot of fans who had to wait until SNY was carried on their provider), then building a reserve in anticipation of the Madoff decision.

In practically terms, this meant the on-field product suffered, since baseball is a business, not a sport, and athletes expect to be paid, and paid well. They aren't doing it for the love of the game anymore than the Wilpons are giving away a product for free.

The short story, then, is the team sucked, the fans hated it and Citifield, a really beautiful ballpark, was basically empty for five seasons. Money was being lost hand over fist. Attempts to make changes that involved as little expenditure as possible (moving in outfield fences, twice, making the park's best quality, a pitcher's park, one of its worst) were made, but they didn't help. It was a dismal place to be.

Once the favorable decision was handed down -- $75 million instead of $162 million -- things seemed to ease up, and spending commenced. That was in February of this year. Not coincidentally, the Mets made the World Series that same season, even if it was not smooth sailing the entire way.

In 1964, the entirety of MLB made $21 million dollars in television revenues nationally, all teams, including local TV deals. . The average player's salary of $15,000 (adjust to 2002 dollars, respectively, $123 million and $85,000). In 2001, the last year for which figures can be compiled, the national TV revenue jumps to an eye-popping $1 billion (average salary, $2.4 million). Note that, because teams are all privately held, we can't even put together a total television revenue figure anymore. That's just the national contract for FOX and ESPN (among others).

We can't even estimate what the local contracts paid out, but someone has tried and calculated a few billion dollars more annually, making the entire revenue package for baseball upwards of $8 billion dollars (including tickets, merchandising and other sources). Using those same estimates, as recently as 1995, baseball took in about $2 billion in real dollars ($1.4 billion unadjusted). That's about a 7% return every year for twenty years in real dollars.

Staggering. It also explains the rise over the past two decades of the statistical analysis of games and players. I mentioned WAR earlier, or Wins Above Replacement. What this measures is the amount a player contributes to the wins his team gets each year. I don't want to get too technical so let's make this brief.

The average wins a team has each year is 81 (there's 162 game schedule and for every win, there has to be a loss, so the league average is 81-81. It has to be). That hypothetical average .500 team is populated with precisely average players, then. If you replace that hypothetical average player (who hits .250, by the way; again, the league average) with any other player, how many wins does that player contribute to the team (or deducts, as the case maybe. Again, for every above average player, there must be a below average player).

So a player with a positive WAR helps your team be better. Daniel Murphy helps slightly more than the hypothetical average player over the course of a season, giving you 1.6% better team. To put that into perspective, a team with 95 wins, which usually means its playoff bound, is about 60% better than average. He helps. Just not that much.

Back when players worked as grave diggers in the off-season and families owned baseball teams and precious little else, teams could afford to assess players by the seats of their pants. There was a lot of scouting, talk about "five tool players" (run, throw, hit for average, hit for power, and field), and whether a guy had a "good attitude" (e.g. he could be counted on to make curfew). There was some statistical analysis -- batting average, ERA, slugging and fielding percentages -- but they were rudimentary and fairly unreliable for decision making.

Back in the late 1970s, just after the introduction of free agency, and just as sports was becoming a billion dollar business in America and the world and computers were becoming something more than a defense contractor's wet dream, a group of statisticians and mathematicians decided that baseball needed an upgrade. Forming the Society of Baseball Research and led by Bill James, sabermetrics was born.

The goal was simple: to try and understand why some teams win, and some teams lose. What factors play into this? Was there a way to codify differences in the outlying circumstances for a particular player that would allow a manager to assess a player objectively (apply the scientific method to baseball, in other words)?

This could only have been accomplished with computers, of course. The massive amounts of data involved make this physically impossible, even with a good calculator.

Naturally, as the science evolved, it started to attract interest from ball clubs desperate to field a winning team.

Because winning teams attract money. Just ask the Yankees or Dodgers.

Titles are nice, but money is nicer. That really could be the motto of all sports nowadays. But look what happens: once you start to codify precisely how to maximize the utility of your roster of players, you put yourself into a mindset of maximizing the utility of your entire investment.

Sports becomes less game and more business. It becomes less about raising a trophy over your head and more about raising your dividend.

And that sucks the joy out of anything. Just ask anyone who works a job. Or runs a small business.

Once you introduce serious money into an industry, you start to attract serious businessmen. It's like farming: once a businessman realizes that your family farm is underutilized and could make a lot more money, he'll make an offer to buy you out.

If you sell, the farm will stop growing potatoes, and start growing soybeans. Or worse, if it's in a valuable location, it'll start sprouting condos and mini-malls. It doesn't really matter if those potatoes were the best in the business, or if you fed an awful lot of families who needed the food. It only matters how many dollars could be combed out of your furrows.

The same construct happens with sports teams, which aren't so much "teams" anymore as attractions for the mini-mall that a ballfield has become.

Sports is not alone in this, to be sure. Everything has a price tag on it now, right down to the local news broadcast, which increasingly is filled with promotional pieces for the latest premiere from the flagship film company that owns the station, or whatnot.

But sports holds a particular place in the hearts of Americans. Baseball, especially. After all...and I quote:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds of us of all that once was good and it could be again. 
Which is why it still hurts to see my Mets losing, even tho they lost me years ago. In the end, I see Wilmer Flores crying at second base and I think back to Bud Harrelson and how much heart he played with. And I see Noah Syndergaard throwing a hundred mile fastball at someone and channeling Nolan Ryan. And I see Jacob de Grom with his wild hair, and Michael Conforto and Steven Matz, and look back to Tom Seaver and Ed Kranepool and John Matlack, heroes of my childhood.

I'm reminded as I watch that this team that I follow has a history with me, and that history was a bigger part of my life than it should have been (even if I was thrilled when a Mets scout once told the adult me I could have been a big leaguer). Sports plays on that nostalgia, baseball more than others. It's long been promoted as a multigenerational game -- a dad tossing a ball with his daughter, a little boy biting into a hot dog at his first ballgame, grandsons and granddaughters arguing statistics with grandpa.

And we'll gladly fork over hundreds or thousands of dollars a year without even thinking about it, for it is money that we have and peace that we lack.

For me, baseball was about the only thing my dad and I shared a passion for. That was an innocent time, a better place. A part of me that was once good.

But never can be again, and I'm having a hard time reconciling myself to that.

Lets Go Mets!

Friday, October 09, 2015

The Fiasco That Is Republicanism

Yesterday's stunning news...stunning in the same manner that getting hit by a clown car is stunning...that the GOP can't even get a candidate to stand for the House Speakership speaks volumes to a terrifying prospect.

A one-party America.

Look, it's clear the GOP is falling apart much like a poorly-built Canestoga wagon careening down a Rocky Mountain pass, but the prospects of the nation after it crashes into the rock slide in the river valley are troubling.

First, let's look at the likely scenario of the Tea Party or some form of it wresting control of the Republicans away. This is a small faction of America, roughly 25%, that lives in an insular bubble. It's well funded by con artists and Kochsniffers who have forgotten how hard it is to be an American.

You could, rightly I think, make the argument that the wealthy in America are no longer American as much as they are transnational, which is not as "Caitlyn Jenner sexy" as that sounds. While the bulk of their corporate and investment empires are firmly planted in American soil, their money vacations in the Cayman Islands and winters in Gstaad, and works in China and Southeast Asia to maximize it's exploitative potential.

They *say* they're American, but the truth is, that nationality will only last as long as it's profitable. After all, when Rupert Murdoch wanted to tame the entertainment frontier of China, he took a Chinese bride...after he became a naturalized US citizen.

These are the people who control the Teabaggers: wealthy corporatist Americans who believed that, through Murdoch's FOX networks and other propaganda outlets, as well as dismantling any worker protections like unions and government labor boards, they could extend the American corporate empire by a few decades until China and India became ripe for exploitation. Now that they have, you'll begin to notice signs of American decay.

This is because the construct that the Teabaggers have craved, a belief that somehow the private sector's patriarchal and patrician "bad dad" attitude is what makes America great -- that somehow individual greed adds up to social responsibility -- is being slipped out from under that small but vocal and violent crowd.

Destroying the party most closely aligned with that construct along with it.

Moderate Republicans, if any still exist, have long been pariahs in their own party, but you'll notice more and more that small voice of relative reason seeping through. Just yesterday, in the midst of the maelstrom of madness, Speaker-Apparent Kevin McCarthy said something very telling:
Asked if the House is governable, he says, “I don’t know. Sometimes you have to hit rock bottom.”
The rock slide in the river valley, in other words.

The historical perspective on this is ironic: the Republican party was a splinter faction from the Whigs in the 1850s, when moderate Republicans decided the Whigs had become too batshit crazy even for them. Republicans were for modernizing the nation.

Now the circle has turned. Moderate Republicans are in danger of extinction, leaving the Whigs back in charge. Karma, I suppose, but when you sell your soul to the Devil, he collects when its convenient for him.

The prospects of a Teabagger-owned and operated Republican party means there are very few compromise positions that can be had, and that makes governance next to impossible, at least for the foreseeable future. We've already seen something on the order of twenty years of mismanagement and mislegislation on the part of Congress, ever since Newt Gingrich passed his Contract on America components, an early Koch brothers paean America.

It's starting to look like the American people are about full of the nonsense, tho, and that may be a good thing. What may not be a good thing is that the conservative wing of the country played the long game of chess, and set traps and pitfalls that will be very hard to overcome: gerrymandering, wresting control of local and state legislatures to pass laws sympathetic to a fascistic hegemony of conservative oversight of the minutiae of local politics, all but guaranteeing a competitive advantage for any Republican candidate in nearly every district in enough states to ensure a voting bloc in Congress.

See, it doesn't really matter what the majority of Americans want or even vote for. So long as the manipulation of process, including violating the right to "one American, one vote", can be allowed to stand by the Five Horseman of the SCOTUS, America will not be American again.

We'll have what is effectively one political party, and a faction. And one political party...and here, I have to remind you how much I dislike Republicans...cannot govern effectively. Democrats need an opposition party, lest the country fall into a hive mind. Conflict generates ideas.

Too much conflict stifles them, however. RINOs need to step up and reclaim their party.

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Day of Atonement

Today marks Yom Kippur, the most sacred day of the Jewish calendar, the Day of Atonement. It is, for want of a better metaphor, a day of soul-cleansing, when a Jew is supposed to make up for any slights and insults committed against his neighbors by asking their forgiveness.

This is a good tradition to have, and it appears in nearly every major religion. Catholics have monthly confessions, Protestants believe in prayer at night to ask God's forgiveness...Christianity could take a page from Judaism here...Islam has the tawbah, and in fact discourages public confession of sin, altho it does permit the sinner to recompense the offended. Buddhism is unusual in that it is the offended that initiates the act of forgiveness to allow the offender to atone for it.

In all circumstances, atonement requires humility. It requires letting go of one's exceptionalism, if only for a moment, and acknowledging that one is as mortal as anyone else and prone to mistakes, then asking forgiveness for those mistakes. One puts one's soul in another's hands. There are few experiences more equalizing in the human condition than an apology.

As it is Yom Kippur, I want to focus on the Jewish tradition because there's a lesson to be learned here. The faith calls for making the body uncomfortable on Yom Kippur: no food, no bathing, no (leather) shoes -- altho I'm not sure how they view sneakers -- no perfumes or lotions, no sex.

By making the body uncomfortable, the thinking is, the soul becomes uncomfortable, too. The pain one has caused others then registers viscerally in this discomfort. The only way to ease the soul is to unburden it, to cleanse the soul.

I think it's time for America to come to this concept. I think a national day of atonement, both among the citizens as well as across borders, is in order.

America is an exceptional nation, this has long been believed here and in many ways, we are. We have abundant natural resources, safe borders, plentiful land, beautiful landscapes, mostly moderate weather, and have been a beacon of freedom to people around the world.

We are also an exceptionally evil nation. We lord it over everyone else that our way is the best way, the one true way, like Scientologists in a subway stall. Our culture, both the good but more importantly the bad, has infused itself globally -- to the point where more Iranians know who is running for President than Americans. When we can, we position troops to enforce our ideas of power.

Force is not power, by the way. Force is a display of weakness, of acknowledging that you do not have control of a situation. Children use force. Adults use power. If you don't believe me, try not doing your job for a week or so. Your boss isn't going to call in the Seventh Fleet.

For a brief shining moment in world history, we were literally the last nation on earth: Europe was rebuilding from World War II, Russia and China were emerging from internal revolts, Japan was scorched earth, India was a third world nation...only America had an economy poised to take advantage of the post-war expansion and rebuilding.

You know the old saw about being born on third base, thinking you hit a triple? While that's not entirely true of America, it's not that far from true. But for an ocean, we would easily have been England or France. And given that Germany had made such advances in rocket technology as it had, we were maybe a year out from being England.

But for the pairing of a great war and a Great Depression, we would have lingered in recession for nearly a decade longer. Public works were great programs (and we could use those about now, too) but it was the ramp up for war that kicked the economy into gear.

But for our natural resources, we would have had trouble keeping up with our needs.

We were able to exert power across the globe because other nations needed our goods, our products, our services, our resources. We were, quite literally, the Wal-Mart of the world, where you could buy anything, and we forced a lot of other outlets off the page for a while. When that started to dry up, we started throwing our weight around the world.

We're a lucky country, maybe even a blessed country in that we have such bounties, but that's no reason to believe we are somehow divinity. Yet, all too frequently, we act that way. We need a dose, a large dose, of humility.

Look at our Presidential candidates, for instance: how many of them have said "God told me to run"?

Indeed, one, Scott Walker, compared himself to Jesus, saying that he was called to lead by dropping out of the race.

He died for your sins, Ben Carson.

Is it not the height of arrogance to claim that a higher power sought you and only you out and spoke to you and only you about the state of the union? Wouldn't we rather have a President who listened to the people and not the voices inside his own head?

Yet, this is the face we wish to present to the world: the last humble man to sit in the Oval Office was Jimmy Carter -- and saying he's humble is by comparison to the others only. We revel in egoism. We bathe in it. And then when that President does anything to even slightly acknowledge that other nations might be in the same league as America, at least a loud cacophonous portion of us bang empty oil drums and rattle cans with stones about "selling us out".

This is why we have troops in nearly every nation on the planet, enforcing our imperial economic hegemony. We lead not by influence, but by force.

There are 7.5 billion people on this planet of which American make up about 4%. We have to live with these people, too. What we do affects them, and what they do certainly affects us, else why is there a refugee crisis from Syria? From Mexico and Central America? Why does our stock market get crushed anytime China's catches a cold?

America likes to think of itself as the CEO of Planet Earth, Inc. Maybe it's time we picked up a bucket and mop and saw things from the other side.

Friday, August 07, 2015

Adios, Jon Stewart

I'm going to miss Jon Stewart. That final speech (NSFW version) was a valedictory to carry on the torch of enlightenment, something those of us in Blogtopia (© Skippy) must keep burning. We will never be the concentrated force for all that is good and right in the world that he was (and still might be) but for sure, we can in our own ways make a difference.

It's been a tough twelve months for those of us on the left who take great pleasure in ignoring the false narrative of the corporate conservative mainstream media like FOX, and CNN, CBS, et al. We've lost Colbert. We've lost Stewart. We lost Letterman, even if he was light on politics.

And we're losing MSNBC to a madman who somehow believes imitating a network with a dying audience is going to improve his ratings.

Short term? Maybe, but long term, you want us liberals -- no, you NEED us liberals.

Thank god for Larry Wilmore, Bill Maher & John Oliver,  Free Speech TV and LinkTV (both of which stream for free on your computer. Thom Hartman, Amy Goodman, Stephanie Miller, Bill Press...that's a really great line up of progressive voices, beacons in the wilderness all).

And there are rumors...

Back to Stewart. I first noticed The Daily Show when Craig Kilborn was the host. In fact, if you search the outtakes of his tenure there, you'll find my shining face being interviewed by him (ended up in the dining bay, sadly, altho my daughter splashed across the screen).

I've been a fan ever since. I liked the idea of getting my news in an entertaining fashion. What I didn't expect, what I could not have expected, was to be informed as much as I have been. I will miss that. I will miss watching stories that the other "news" outlets had missed completely.

And Jon had his causes, and he worked hard to bring them to the forefront of the American conscience: the Zadroga Bill springs to mind, as does the VA hospital scandal. He was a liberal, but he held Democratic feet to the fire when it was appropriate (see: the VA hospital scandal). His sense of fair play never got in the way of a good story because his stories WERE about fair play.

And I think that's what I will miss most about Stewart: in a sea of bullshit, a cesspool of manufactured crises and FIRETRUCK! warnings, his show was a half hour (OK, eventually an hour, between Colbert and now Wilmore) where you could clamber onto terra firma and laugh at the ridiculousness of it all. "Restore Sanity," indeed!

This is the torch you and I and everyone else we read and comment with must pick up, dust off, and run to the finish line.

In a world where a blowhard egoist can lead presidential polling for one of the two major parties, we have to stand by, prepared to make fun of his pizza-eating habits and to deconstruct his personality, demolishing his ego and its defenses brick by prick. Why? Because it's just fucking insane.

In a world where there is an huge disconnect between morality and morals, we have to stand guard against the invasion of morals into morality -- that is, to ensure that rational thought is held in the highest regard over the emotional gut punch of fear and hatred. Comedy, laughter, can do that.

And in a world where it's way too easy to take yourself too importantly, there's Arby's.

Adios, Jon. You leave us, but you've not left us. Thanks for the laughs.