Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Night of the Living Dowd - Update

Tell me, Chief, are they slow-moving?
Yeah, they're dead. They're all messed up.

Update: Thing about zombies -- they just won't quit. And this one is a truly persistent and icky specimen... so in thrall to her CDS obsessions... so deeply self-involved... so staunchly nasty... and so profoundly oblivious of her self-revelation.

As always with the Dowdster, one hardly knows where to begin the deconstruction. The whole piece is... a piece of work, as evra. I'll just call out one passage

"But I had been astonished by the overt willingness of some people who didn’t mind being quoted by name in The New York Times saying vile stuff, that a President Obama would turn the Rose Garden into a watermelon patch, that he’d have barbeques on the front lawn, that he’d make the White House the Black House.

"Actually, the elegant and disciplined Obama, who is not descended from the central African-American experience but who has nonetheless embraced it and been embraced by it, has the chance to make the White House pristine again."
She's talking about being willing to go on the record "in The New York Times saying vile stuff"!? Uh, Mo, maybe you shoulda had an editor question you about that one...

Rebutting the idea (whose was that, exactly?) that this will become "the Black House," she types -- to express that he will do nothing of the kind -- that he will make it "pristine again." Not black (or Black), but pristine...?

Please, please, please. Surely, even in these tough times, your medical plan still has provisions for psychiatric coverage, so you don't have to feel like you're throwing her out in the street. You fired Judith Miller. You fired Jayson Blair. You know how to do this.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

The Luck Child Theory of History

Can a crisis mold raw clay into something great? Would Lincoln have come to be regarded as our greatest president without the Civil War? Would Franklin Delano Roosevelt have been great without an eponymous Depression – or, even with it, without the Second World War?

Clearly, LBJ, who self-consciously sought greatness, believed that victory over some large challenge was part of the entrance exam. He wanted to be the second coming of his political idol, FDR, and did a fair job of tracing that picture on the domestic front – including his embrace of racial justice in a way that ran counter to everything for which his life had previously stood. But to be FDR II, he had to win a just war -- and not over an abstraction (poverty), but over a physical enemy (the march of communism). And the war that history provided for him was neither just nor winnable. As a result, nobody will ever place Lyndon Johnson in the top rung of the American Pantheon.

And the same, in all likelihood, applies to our next president, Barack Obama, despite his central-casting role as the emblem of America’s journey toward healing of its original sin. I suppose it’s hypothetically possible that radical jihadism will present an opportunity for an actually winnable war on his watch – but I doubt it.

On the economy, though, perhaps an LBJ-level opportunity is in the cards – but probably taking a very different form. Not that Obama has evidenced much thoughtfulness or originality on the subject of economics – nor the kind of strength and toughness needed to drive something controversial to completion, as Johnson did with the Civil Rights Act. Obama simply isn’t a leader.

But perhaps, on both policy grounds and leadership grounds, not much will actually be needed? Perhaps this looming Depression II is so significant, and our self-consciousness of it is so vivid (in large part because we went through the first one), that there’s a politically meaningful consensus that something serious has to be done. And perhaps -- and this is the big "perhaps" -- a concomitant consensus will emerge about what that something must be.

He’s definitely got one thing going for him: The world will be pulling for him. His tabula rasa-dom, his ability to serve as a universal-recipient-cum-focus-object for people’s fantasies, will stand him in good stead during a universally perceived emergency – in a way it wouldn’t have in palmier times. Even a lot of us who resent this person benefiting from the misogyny and fraud he rode to the nomination want the next President of the United States to succeed. The crapper we’ve fallen into is too dire to wish for anything else. The soul-repair of the Democratic Party will just have to wait on this. The tsunami has deferred that dream, too.

So I’m now hoping Obama serves as the stone soup for the collective, wisdom-of-crowds birthing of a new era. I don’t think he has the capacity to imagine it or deliver it himself. I don’t believe he has greatness in him, just waiting to be catalyzed by this crisis. In fact, I think he’s got certain aspects of narcissistic personality disorder, and that that cripples him as a decision-maker and even, long-term, as an inspirer.

But he might be a Luck Child, dropped by fate into our midst at the moment we need one... the moment when we most require a catalyst (or pretext) for a very different kind of greatness to emerge in us and among us.

And as the saying goes, it’s often better to be lucky than good.


Herewith a thought prompted by a few of the op-eds in today’s Times. The Cliffs Notes versions:

David Brooks – McCain is losing because of his campaign. (He didn’t move to the center.)

Paul Krugman – McCain is losing because of his campaign. (He has dwelt in trivia, when the public wants seriousness.)

Maureen Dowd –McCain is losing because of his campaign (in this case, because that campaign turned Sarah Palin into a high-spending hypocrite).

Timothy Egan – McCain is losing because of his campaign (in particular, their attacks on the “brainy cities”).

Go to other papers, magazines, websites and punditpaloozas on the tubes, and you hear varieties of the same.

Well, I beg to differ. McCain is losing because of the tsunami. This crisis hasn’t driven the American public to a more focused and conscious scrutiny of these two men and their positions. Rather, it has rendered those moot. It’s so big and so scary that people are putting the traits of the individuals aside. They’re voting Democratic, period. They’re voting Democratic in the House. They’re voting Democratic in the Senate. They’re voting Democratic in state races. And they’re voting Democratic for president.

All of this energetic parsing of McCain-did-this-wrong and Obama-did-this-brilliantly is purely meta. It’s pundits – the color commentators of our political-sports broadcasting biz – justifying their own role, privileged position and putative cleverness. These two candidates haven’t changed in any visible ways the cases they’ve been making for themselves and against their opponent over the course of the campaign – and yet their fortunes have taken a dramatic turn. Before the financial meltdown erupted, McCain’s (now supposedly risible) campaign was succeeding, against all odds, and Obama looked like a deer in the headlights. After the meltdown, McCain’s (formerly seen as jujitsu-smart) campaign is seen as doomed and desperate, and Obama is described as sober, calm and presidential. What nonsense.

Finally, since I am such a big fan of Paul Krugman, I feel obliged to clarify where I think he’s mistaken in this column. As he argues, McCain is “spectacularly unable to talk about economics as if it matters.” And since it so palpably matters now, he has been disqualified as a candidate. But the same could be said about Barack Obama. Throughout the primaries, and more or less up to this very moment, he, too, has been – to be very generous to him – at best clumsy in attempting to explain what’s going on, to capture people’s feelings about it or to suggest a path forward. It’s not any putative “seriousness” of this person, or his ideas, or his inspiring message that are being rewarded here. That’s the stuff of the man-crushes of Andrew Sullivan, Chris Matthews, Jonathan Alter, Josh Marshall, Frank Rich and their ilk. It’s a chimera. To the degree Obama has moved people, it is because he spoke to things other than their economic standing or prospects, and because he tickled emotions that are at a far remove from “seriousness.”

Those emotions might, absent the tsunami, have nonetheless produced a narrow victory – perhaps as narrow as John Kennedy’s, the campaign to which Obama is most often and credibly compared. But given the landfall of the tsunami, what's being rewarded is quite simply the “(D)” after his name on the ballot. Period. The rest is self-aggrandizing movie reviews.

Monday, October 20, 2008

Howler Alert

To: Bob Somerby
From: The Village
Re: Your influence

We expect you are proud of yourself. The dispiriting influence of your incessant howling seems to be spreading. We note for the record a violation of Rule One by a putative member of our community, one Paul Krugman (a gentleman we understand to have been recognized by others recently for work of some kind that is unrelated to the community's interests). Mr. Krugman was indecorous enough to use his membership to reference past observations by Our Dean, and compare them invidiously to previous writings of his own. That isn't done. Past observations are past. Our responsibility is to the present -- to the maintenance of an even flow of consensus through turbulent waters. Indeed, Our Dean’s remarks in question were, by definition, thoughtful and nuanced at the time, and if subsequent events have rendered them questionable... that is the work of historians, scientists and other tedious, infrequently published professionals.

Happily, this infraction took place in a venue of small importance -- a so-called "blog." Therefore we need not pursue a more forceful course of action, such as shunning. However, this is a slippery slope. We must insist, once again, that you cease your howling. Consider this a sternly worded letter.

Sunday, October 19, 2008


Obviously, Gen. Powell’s endorsement of Sen. Obama adds one more log to Sen. McCain’s political funeral pyre. And I agree that the post-partisan orthodoxy is being laid on thick.

But isn’t the most obvious motive here not policy but simple opportunism and reputation repair? I think it’s clear that Colin Powell – he of the false selling of the Iraq War, of good soldier trumping good judgment – is seeking to rewrite his own obit. He's trying to undo his Lord Jim-like failure at a moment when it really mattered. So call me cynical, but I suspect he is more concerned with what associating himself with Barack Obama can do for him than with what he can do for Barack Obama.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Bestest Award Ever - Updated

I wonder if there has ever been a Nobel Prize awarded with such an immediate and concrete impact as that for Paul Krugman today. In the midst of the current financial crisis, his influence on U.S. and global economic policy and thinking was already rising – from the flaws in the Paulson plan, to the wisdom of Gordon Brown's approach -- and that influence now seems likely to be redoubled. Usually, Nobel Prizes are retrospective and long-term in their perspective. I can’t remember one that amounted to an endorsement of a thinker in the midst of a rolling tsunami like this, with such a need for real-time decisions and so much at stake.

Bravo, and thank goodness.

Also, it’s impossible not to reflect that Krugman has not only been proven right on his long-held and frequently published (indeed, daily) analyses of economics, healthcare and public policy in general… but also that he was right from the start on the Democratic nomination decision. Maybe we can hope that President-Elect Obama will take out some tracing paper as he crafts his new Administration. Wouldn’t it be great to hear, “Whatever Paul and Hillary said… we’ll do that.”

Update: In case you were wondering... Yes, I did consider titling this post "The Nobelist Krugman of Them All," or "Please, Officer Krugman," or "Nobel Oblige"... but thought better of it.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Talkless Heads

Isn’t it remarkable, at this late date… after more than a year of candidacy, and four years in the public eye… after a primary that attracted more attention than any in our lifetime… after the eruption of issues of unprecedented urgency, scale and consequence, which are assaulting us every day – or hour… isn’t it remarkable that there continues to be no substantive case for Barack Obama’s prospective presidency?

Isn’t it remarkable that Obama’s supporters, after all this time, cannot come up with a serious argument for why he should be president, other than (a) the other guy’s awful and scary and (b) we have to throw the Republicans out (or, at best, he’ll hire better advisors)?

Isn’t it remarkable that they cannot make an even slightly persuasive case for what we can expect him actually to do as president?

Of course, when one says things like this, there is a consistent response from these people: “Do de do de do… I can’t hear you… I’ve got my fingers in my ears… La di dah di dah.” I expect their reaction to this post will be the same. “Good lord, there he goes again, beating this dead horse. This guy is a broken record, one of these dead-end obsessives.”

This reaction takes a few different forms, but they all amount to a refusal to discuss. Not that they won’t talk about those issues – many will… from the economy to nuclear proliferation to whatever. As long as we’re not talking politics. As soon as the conversation moves to the election and the Precious… inquiry and open dialogue stops. The only allowable form of discourse – and the only permissible emotional affect – is outrage at the Republicans, especially Sarah Palin.

One variant: “Oh, you just hate him.” Meaning: “You’re not rational on this subject, so we can’t talk about it.” For some, this has the subtext of: “You’re a racist!” For others, simple perplexity at how anyone can find him un-wonderful.

Another variant: “Oh, you’re just bitter that Hillary lost. You were in love with her. Get over it – after all, she did.” Meaning: “You’re not ready to come out of your room… so we can’t talk.”

And another: “Sarah Palin??? John McCain??? What is there to talk about?”

What you absolutely never hear, though is: “I am enthusiastic about the prospect of an Obama presidency because he will do X, Y or Z on the economy…” or “His healthcare proposal is based on the smartest analysis I’ve heard about how to tackle this problem – let me tell you why…” or “His ideas for how to approach a complex, globalizing economy and geopolitical arena are unique, in A, B and C ways…” or anything even remotely like that.

Press them for a single respect in which he has shown actual substantive and innovative thinking and leadership… or for a coherent policy frame that makes sense of his FISA vote, his D.C. gun control statement, his position on the death penalty, his Harry and Louse ads and on and on… and they resort to one of the responses above. It’s all horserace, all GOP-directed schadenfreude, all Palin snark, all ohmygod apocalysm about a possible McCain win, all the time.

Don’t get me wrong. Obama is going to win. The American people are going to throw these Repubums out. We are going to recreate the political conditions of 1932… whether or not we have an FDR to fill that role.

But wouldn’t you think that, given the foregone conclusion we face... and given the pressing urgency of making the right decisions about economic policy -- with material consequences for all our lives, including those of these interlocutors – wouldn’t you think that other conversations would be happening? Is it just too scary these days to think? Are we down to nothing but repeating “hope” and “change”?

Just askin’.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Sauce for the Goose

Tom Friedman is entirely right about Sarah Palin. She is not of presidential timber. She is one scary prospect. As he says, "we may be at that moment just before the tsunami hits — when the birds take flight and the insects stop chirping because their acute senses can feel what is coming before humans can. At this moment, only good governance can save us." As he says, "And please don’t tell me she will hire smart advisers. What happens when her two smartest advisers disagree?" As he says, "And please also don’t tell me she is an “energy expert.” She is an energy expert exactly the same way the king of Saudi Arabia is an energy expert — by accident of residence."

Good arguments. A Palin Administration is to be rejected, at all costs.

But... wait a sec. Who else in this play is "a total novice"? Who else will, we're reassured, "hire smart advisers"? Who else has no track record of "good governance"... or any governance? Who is a healthcare expert in the same way that, say, Jim Cooper is a healthcare expert -- by accident of party affiliation?

Well, it's academic, now -- right? No point in avoiding a Precious Administration at all costs... 'cause it's in the books. Don't worry, be hopey. Or, in the immortal words of Emily Litella, "Never mind."

Sunday, October 5, 2008

The Importance of This Election

As far as I can remember, there has never been a presidential contest in my lifetime when it was obvious going in that the winner would only serve one term. Until this one. It simply isn’t in the cards for either of these guys to succeed, given the scope and trauma of the transition through which we’re now going.

Grossly oversimplified, whatever factual basis there ever was for American hegemony and exceptionalism, it has now died. This is taking numerous forms. I’ll touch on two.

First, the political sphere – with its doppelganger, the arena of military strategy and action (“politics by other means,” and all that). The so-called Bush Doctrine (a phrase that should be the first entry in the next O.E.D. under “oxymoron”) turns out to have been neither a bold nor horrific plan to secure the Pax Americana, but rather the pathetic last gasp of all hegemonic fantasies – for this or any other nation state. It’s the swan song for the dream of military dominance in a complexly, globally distributed and integrating world.

We (the humans, that is… all of us) will be, over the next couple of centuries, struggling our way towards new, post-national forms and institutions of legitimacy, ownership, decision-making, security, self-actualization, power, environmental stewardship and so on. These forms and institutions will not be grounded in the withering nation-state – nor will they inhere in some Panglossean or dystopian parody of the nation-state (a la 1984 or Brave New World). Their ground, rather, will be the emerging, global, Internet-based and ecologically sustainable commons.

After all, nation states haven’t always existed, and aren’t preordained to exist forever. There are plenty of other imaginable and pragmatic ways for human society to be organized and operated, and those ways will emerge over time, as have the previous stages in our evolution as a species. That’s just science, and history. (Unless, of course, we’re just too unhappy to live, and decide not to… which is also a reasonable option. Nature abhors vacuums, but it doesn’t abhor extinctions.)

In other words, even if our government and the DOD were not bankrupt, even if the Iraq war had gone well, even if we’d hung Osama bin Laden high, even if Kim Jong Il had croaked (along with Hugo Chavez, Mahmoud Ahmadinhejad and Vladimir Putin) – and even if (add every single currently known military challenge the world faces to the list)… there is no way any more for this or any other country to dominate the planet by force of arms or political might. The system has become too complex. It has undergone a phase shift. It’s now a global network, and it therefore operates by the laws of networks.

In any network, information flows throughout the system, and the system treats any attempt to block those flows as an error, and routes around them. (A consciousness of the flows within holistic networks is precisely an ecological consciousness – and it helps explain why nation-states have been so ineffective at dealing with climate change and other truly planetary challenges, such as drinking water or pandemics.)

So, for instance, if something prevents my phone call from Brooklyn to Chicago from traveling the shortest path – say, an outage in Ohio – the grid simply sends it up to Canada or down to Brazil or over the Atlantic, through Europe and Russia and across the Pacific – or by some other route. Physical distance is irrelevant. The costs are effectively the same, and they are de minimus.

If there were a nuclear holocaust or a global pandemic, and all human society were wiped out… the network would still exist. It is now a part of the planet. (If we want to get a bit more big-picture about this, we could see it as an emergent form of the electro-chemical information-processing capacity of nature itself. Or not, if that’s not your bag.)

That is the basic reality in and on which we live (or don’t live) – now, and going forward. Yes, there can be traffic jams. Yes, particular places can be horror holes for periods of time. Yes, competition continues on the commons, along with sadism, misogyny, greed, the struggles of natural selection and all sorts of mishagas. But there’s no way to put the genie of a networked planet back into the bottle. And therefore there’s no way for any military power to impose its will on the world. Of course, if there were a monopoly on nuclear bombs, that might do the trick… but that horse got out of the barn decades ago. No, planetary destruction is possible, but not planetary control.

Second, the sphere of economics. As Tom Friedman points out in today’s Times, the present financial crisis is going to spark “globalization and financial integration on steroids.” We’re going to depend on the kindness and the wallets of strangers more and more, not less and less. Indeed, if the past three weeks have taught us anything, it’s that the global economy, too, has become a complex, emergent, planet-scale system (one that, yes, can be temporarily gamed).

True, the radicals of the Right have fucked up our adaptation to the reality of globalization to a faretheewell. The articles in the Times that Anglachel cites, on some of the proximate causes of the meltdown, are helpful in making that clear. And I expect we’ll now get a spate of books – analogous to the post-Iraq publishing bonanza – anatomizing this systemic failure, and assigning blame. (I mean, we need some entertainment as we huddle together for warmth, right?) But what passes for “the Left” hasn’t been any better at understanding what’s going on or prescribing what to do about it.

The truth is that the whole right-left frame is now archaic. The emotional meanings of those terms, their attendant memes – for us Democrats, roughly speaking, it’s “right” = “greedy and backward-looking” and “left” = compassionate and progressive” – probably have legs, and need now to migrate to some better ideological hosts. But the Marxist vs. capitalist frame has faded, as Industrial Capitalism has been succeeded by Post-Industrial Capitalism, and hierarchies are in the process of being succeeded by networks (or, at least, heterarchies).

But that’s another discussion. My point here is that in economics, as in the spheres of politics and the military, America’s post-WWII hegemony is over. And the citizens of an empire don’t dig it when that happens. They keep demanding that their leaders pull rabbits out of the hat of history, and they fire those leaders in rapid succession when it turns out that “magic” is just another word for “bullshit.” (Bullshit ain’t worth nothing… but it sure ain’t free.)

This is going to hit the next president – Barack Obama – from day one... and at 3 a.m. And he is not remotely adequate to it. Maybe nobody is… but he’s not near the high end of the “He might just pull us through” scale. Neither, of course, is John McCain or Joe Biden – and don’t hurt yourself laughing about Sarah Palin. And no confederacy of smarties that any of these people could assemble is going to provide actual leadership or a great gut instinct. Even with Hillary, it would have been a long shot.

Which is why this is the least important election in our lifetime.

Friday, October 3, 2008

It's the Stupid Economy

In terms of the outcome on Nov. 4, only one thing matters now.

John McCain’s “maverick” schtick doesn’t matter. Neither does his rightness or wrongness on Iraq, or the Surge, or immigration, or campaign finance, or earmarks. Nor the all-too-apparent ebbing of his faculties.

Barack Obama’s “change” and “hope” schtick doesn’t matter. Neither does his post-partisan pathology, or his appeal to the "creative class," or his narcissism. (One thing that might matter after the election is his triangulating lack of principle on universal healthcare – unless he has the sense to go with Hillary’s plan… and turn to her to make sure it actually happens. I’m not holding my breath.)

Joe Biden’s blabbermouth gaffitude doesn’t matter. And neither does Sarah Palin’s lack of knowledge about… well, anything. It’s not just that both did a decent job in tonight’s VP debate – most notably, that Palin staunched the bleeding from her humiliating Katie Couric performances. It’s because neither the VP candidates nor the presidential candidates matter any more.

Whether America is ready for an African American to be president doesn’t matter. It’ll happen, and that will be that. (Not that racism will be cured, of course. Just that this particular benchmark will be in the books.)

Even whether America is ready for a woman to be president doesn’t matter – for the opposite reason. Instead of putting that one behind us, we’re pushing it back into the cellar. (Afterward, sexism will once again become fodder for concerned tut-tutting by sober pundits on Sunday mornings and PBS evenings. We’ll be told earnestly that we really must do something about the misogyny in our society. Charlie Rose will furrow his brow over it. Our Orator in Chief will no doubt have some inspiring words to utter on the subject, as will the First Lady. All of it will now become a matter of irrelevant Village consensus… because once again, politically speaking, it doesn’t matter.)

Remarkably, I don’t even think it matters electorally what happens with the economic “rescue” plan over the next month – whether it’s the right or wrong thing to do… whether it goes far enough to protect ordinary citizens rather than fat cats… or whether it gets passed expeditiously. Those things matter a lot for the lives of Americans (and denizens of other countries as well)… but they don’t matter for the outcome on Nov. 4. People who are thinking the House Republicans will benefit from their opposition to it are mostly wrong.

The only thing that matters now is the letter “D” inside the parentheses following Barack Obama’s name on the ballot, and that of every Democratic Senatorial and Congressional candidate. To get elected dogcatcher anywhere outside the South -- and in plenty of places even there -- you're gonna need that D.

That’s because the financial tsumani has engulfed everything else, all the differences between the candidates, all the policy positions, all the metaphors, everything.

Of course, what happens after Nov. 4 will certainly matter – how it all works out for our jobs, our health, our kids and our planet. For some of us, Hillary Clinton will continue to matter… and the dream of evolving past our misogyny as a species… and the hope that at some point during the Democratic Party’s coming generation in power, we’ll get our real FDR.

With regard to all of that… it’s Nov. 4 that, sadly, doesn’t matter.