Mark

Your proprietor is a political progressive and a strategic pragmatist. When not bending the ear of those bending an elbow, he pursues a lively suite of interests including European and American history, historical costuming and living history, archaeology, physical cosmology, art, music from Palestrina to Portishead, and NBA basketball.

Oct 082013
 
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Republicans, as has been widely recognized, have painted themselves into a corner on funding the government and raising the debt ceiling.

They’re not going to get any of what they’re demanding. Instead, they’re going to be humiliated after having been revealed as incompetent fanatics. A Continuing Resolution will be approved, the debt ceiling will be raised, and—because, thankfully, even in what has become the Party of Crazy-Stupid there are still enough marginally reality-tethered people to understand that crashing the world economy might be a wee bit bad—the hostage (meaning, all of us, at a global scale) will not be shot.

The result will be the worst possible outcome for them: the Republican Party as a whole has crashed in the polls, and there is now a legitimate possibility that they could lose the House instead of sewing up both houses of Congress as they had hoped. That’s in the swing districts. In the safe ones, members of the Evil Semi-Lunatic Caucus risk primary challenges from the Batshit Caucus, meaning we could see more of this down the road if they do retain the House.

I said this was coming ‘way back, and I am certainly enjoying it now that it is here, despite the fact that I, like everyone else, happen to be sitting atop the powder keg over which these idiots are waving matches.

Today, though, I just want to make one brief observation, which is about True Believers and effectiveness:

They do not go together in the slightest.

Zealotry is about insistence on How The World Should Be. Typically, it is built on axioms about How The World Is. These are generally simplistic, absolutist, and without nuance. If you’re on the right, it’s Jesus the Mean-Spirited Fascist, and Obama the Kenyan Muslim Antichrist, and sociamalism causing Teh Gay and feminazism and science and other Bad Things, and the War on Christmas. Oh, and Tax Cuts Create Wonderland.

When you believe stuff like that, you are incredibly hampered in your ability to get anything done. No effective path—even one that moves things in the direction of your goals—can be charted that doesn’t involve some aspect of soft-pedaling, deferring, or deprioritizing some of your agenda in order to advance some other part of it.

Which is why we have the spectacle of the House sending a ransom note to the White House consisting of a demand that basically every hard-right wet dream that was repudiated by voters in the last Presidential election and could not possibly make its way through Congress be surrendered  before the GOP will agree to fund the government.

Because, to hell with the legislative process in the Constitution, right? What we want is The Right Thing, To Be Had By Any Means Necessary.

It’s a losing strategy, and they’re going to rue the day they decided to let Ted Cruz use them as tools for his imaginary ascent.

My point, though, isn’t so much about that as it is about the zealotry. The noisiest grief I get from friends on the left (supposedly) is rooted in exactly the same kind of black-and-white oversimplification and fanaticism. If it wasn’t single payer health care, it was Obama and the Democrats being corporate stooges and selling out to the insurance industry. If it involved the possibility of killing anybody, it was off the table as a military/diplomacy strategy…even though that’s exactly what it takes to force an enemy to stand down.

You’ve heard something like this from me before, but I’ll say it again: principles are easy. Principles, in fact, are like opinions, which are like…

Well, in any case, everybody has them, of one sort or another.

The hard part is in making something happen in reality that conforms to some degree to your principles. And very frequently, that happens at the cost of something dear.

That’s why great progressive leaders are often criticized in some quarters because of the deals they had to make in order to achieve the strides they did. FDR’s salary cap on Social Security taxation, for example. Or Gandhi’s agreement to allow India to be partitioned in order for both of the resulting parts of it to be independent. Or Brower’s deal on Glen Canyon Dam.

Those actions, painful as they are to examine, weren’t outliers or aberrations. They were the cost of progress.

You cannot solve problems if you start from the standpoint of insisting on only one acceptable outcome and one acceptable path to get there.

100% or nothing really just means “nothing” here on Planet Earth. “No compromise!” is the motto of someone throwing himself into the wood chipper of history. It ain’t heroic. It’s just dumb. It doesn’t work.

The nutjobs holding the world hostage right now won’t learn the lesson even as they go over the cliff of their own making, because they are mentally ill.

But the lesson holds both for right and left: it isn’t True Believers that make things happen in the world. It’s problem-solvers with values, heart, and creative flexibility.

At publication, the Dragon was STUFFED WITH POPCORN

Oct 022013
 
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Over the past few months, I have been cranking an awful lot of my thought and wordsmithing into the insatiable maw of Mark Zuckerberg. A vigorous discussion—okay, knock-down-drag-out brawl—with my friends whose one-size-fits-all impulsive response to all prospective actions by institutions they don’t like (e.g., military, intelligence, or corporate institutions) is NOOOOOOO simply couldn’t get their minds around why I thought putting some consequences alongside use of chemical weapons on civilians was a good idea.

All of that content went up onto Facebook, instead of here. Which means that’s where whatever eyeballs happened to point at it helped to line Zuckie’s pockets instead of giving me a little bump in Green Dragon visits.

My fault–I decided to do it that way, and as a lot of the conversation involved very long comment threads with much meandering into sinkholes, I’m not going to try to reconstruct it over here. It’s all old news now.

Anyway, the end result is that what could—and should—have been a set of pieces about why enforcing international WMD laws is important, why leverage is a necessary precursor to diplomacy, and why it was therefore completely against the cause of peace or human rights to screech that Obama should stand down and not threaten to strike Syria’s Assad for his actions…are not here.

Oh, well.

As it happens, *cough cough*, I was right. Gunboat diplomacy worked for Teddy Roosevelt, and it has now worked for Barack Obama: Vladimir Putin—the world’s poster child for Short Man Syndrome, turned up to 11—has blinked, and his puppy Assad is now going to have his chemical weapons taken away under international UN supervision.

Leaving the option for US use of force if he doesn’t on the table, in case you doubt who won the face-off.

In recent days, the President and the new President of Iran, Hassan Rouhani, have begun stating to the press that each of them wishes/hopes there is a way for the US and Iran to begin to talk about the issues that divide them—in particular, the Iranian nuclear program. A few days ago, Barack Obama had a conversation with the Iranian President: the first time that has happened since 1979.

I don’t think this is a separate development from Russia’s cave on Syria.

At all.

I think there is an absolute connection between POTUS’ having just stared down Vladimir Putin, and Iran’s new interest in diplomatic engagement.

Of course, former Iranian President Ahmoudinejad had to be replaced first. But after 30 years, it would have been the status quo for Iran to maintain radio silence.

Here’s my read:

Obama has pretty consistently been up for reconsidering the nature of US postures v/v problematic states (including Israel, Libya, Egypt, and Syria). He has led the US not to follow the established script on these countries, which has had the effect of toppling Mubarak (previously propped up) and Qaddafi (previously left alone), shaking up Israeli politics (formerly no meaningful pressure on human rights & Palestine), and preventing Russia from coming to Syria’s aid by recognizing the opposition.

If I’m Iran, I think: Well, okay, there’s only one superpower in the neighborhood.

And I also think: opportunity. When is the next time I’m going to get a US President who doesn’t reflexively follow the dictates of AIPAC? Those sanctions hurt–a LOT–and if we didn’t have them, we could have a pretty sweet economy here. So screw the bluster and the usual line: I’m gonna condemn the Holocaust in the strongest possible terms, signal willingness to deal on the nuclear program, and pick up the phone.

Remarkable things are happening in the Middle East right now. Ugly and brutal as the conflict areas may seem, many of the indicators are actually positive. The era of despotism-as-norm has stumbled, certainly, if not ended completely. Yes, it was at the hands of the military, and it’s a mess, but the toppling of Mohammed Morsi in Egypt in the name of trying to have a pluralistic state is a defiance of the radical Islamist idea of establishing theocracies in the wake of military dictators. Sizeable democratic oppositions exist in Iraq, in Egypt, in Libya and in Syria. All are a mess, of course. But the only way they could be unmessed right now would be to have terrifying torture generals like Mubarak and Assad and Saddam Hussein and Moammar Qaddafi oppressing them.

The idea of the public franchise has entered the marketplace in the Arab world in a way it had not before. The President deserves some credit for encouraging this. Yes, it faces terrible opposition from the angry, bitter fanatics who want to pull the world back to the 16th century. But it is not going meekly into a hole and accepting its fate. Not even in Iran, which is one reason this unfreezing is now possible.

The sad thing to me is that because the administration has chosen deliberate, mostly undramatic, strategic chess moves instead of either a) doing nothing about use of chemical weapons on civilians to satisfy peaceniks, or b) bombing the shit out of everything in sight to please John McCain and the neocons, he gets no credit for this. Everybody is mad because he threaded the needle instead of trying to drive the thread through the eye with their favorite hammer.

Pundits are bizarrely trying to cobble recent events into some cohesive “Obama Doctrine”, and completely missing the point, which is that a doctrine is a one-size-fits-all policy that may look great in the news, but actually leads you into nothing but trouble in reality. The world is complex. If there is an “Obama Doctrine”, it is: don’t have a doctrine. Understand the context, look at the board, and make the best moves to advance your goals and values. Don’t get caught in the trap of ideology. Instead, solve problems.

(It bears pointing out that exactly the same approach brought us health care reform. If he’d had a “single payer doctrine”, no bill would have passed and nothing at all would have changed for at least a decade.)

Given the tinderbox that is the Middle East, this is not to say everything is going to be ducky. There is no possible approach which would lead to that in the short term.

But this has been played out about as well as I can imagine it being played, not only for US interests, but for the values of peace, democracy and human rights. Well done, Mr. President.

At publication, the Dragon was DIGGIN’ IT

Pope Francis FTW!

 Posted by at 7:02 pm  Culture
Sep 272013
 
Vatican Pope

Anyone who knows me knows that I have never for even a moment given serious consideration to Christian cosmology.

Sorry: I just can’t. It’s too cruel, too bloody,  and too silly.

But I write here today to tell and celebrate the amazing tale of how Mr. Chips became Pope.

The Roman Catholic Church  was rotting from the inside for a long time. John Paul II didn’t care about corruption, nor wrongdoing on the part of his priesthood–he just wanted to expand his market. Steadily pushing the ideology and areas of attention of the institution to the right, he allowed the Church to become so corrupt and so tarnished by the combination of being in the money laundering business and having high-level officials involved in deliberate indulgence of child molesting that Benedict, who never wanted anything more than to be the Emperor guy from Star Wars, actually *bailed* within mere months after finally gaining the throne.

So now the cardinals have a choice: Put in a member of the Pederastic Order and basically flunk the whole church out of the human race for good (probably break the bank, too–which is why the Vatican Bank guys were decidedly in the opposite camp)? Put in one of the Vatican Bank technocrats who’re all about the dough, and up to their necks in money-laundering for gangsters and drug runners…when all of that is about to come to light in pending investigations?

Neither is possible, because the reason both factions got to where they are is that they were holding each other hostage. Elevate one, and the other stops circling the wagons around the other faction’s particular weakness. This worked for a long time: particular individuals kept their status and power, but the institution ended up looking like…the Roman Catholic Church of today.

In cases like these, what is a corrupt and self-interested College of Cardinals, knowing its brand is in a tailspin, to do?

DING! Light goes on.

You appoint a USEFUL IDIOT.

A Boy Scout. A happy guy who looks like Peter Sellers, with a big warm grin, who says nice things about the poor. Someone the public will love so the institution’s image gets polished, but who is too sunny and naive to play hardball with the poisonous old lizards who have been running the show. Somebody from the hinterlands who can barely find Rome on a map.

A rube. Problem solved.

So before the worst of the banking scandal breaks, the Head Lizard hands off to a Useful Idiot from the slums of Panecuabrazirgentina, or something.

And finds out he has made a dreadful mistake.

The Useful Idiot turns out to be someone with opinions. And those opinions chop directly at pretty much everything the Head Lizard has been trying to turn the institution into for more than 30 years.

Moving back towards Vatican II. Decrying overemphasis on sexual issues like abortion and homosexuality while ignoring the plight of the poor. Recognizing the essential humanity of everyone. Stating that GOD WILL LOVE ATHEISTS, fer cryin’ out loud, so long as they behave as people of conscience. Who says (shudder!) that women need a larger role in the Church, and maybe we should look at priests being able to marry. 

A guy who starts foot-washing female prisoners. Who spurns all the jewels and robes and dripping accumulations of power and wealth—the princely aspects of that medieval Prince’s office—and instead lives in a dorm with some guys, dresses simply, refuses to ride in a bulletproof box. 

A guy who appoints commissions of Decidedly Not The Right People to root out corruption…meaning, people who might actually root out corruption. Who makes it clear that he doesn’t think particularly highly of either of the factions, and instead thinks there may be something in the stuff this Jesus guy supposedly said.

What is happening to the Catholic Church right now is something like the movie “Dave”. It’s so improbable that it has happened…and yet, it is the logical conclusion of the mess they got themselves in.

Throw out the money-lenders, Francis! I’m no Catholic, but I’m for ya.

At publication, the Dragon was DIGGIN’ IT.

Jun 222013
 
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Recently, what with all the Snowden/NSA mishegas, some of my friends have run with their prejudices to climb on the ZOMG! Spooks! Everywhere! bandwagon, and have accordingly become furious with me for failing to join them (the logic for which I posted previously).

Among the characterizations cast by some of these critics has been the suggestion that the reason I do not agree with them is because (they say) I am a “centrist” (or, sometimes, a “liberal”), while they style themselves “progressives”.

O RLY?

Well, let’s take a look.

I support marriage equality and absolute civil equality for women and racial, sexual, ethnic and religious minorities; absolute abortion rights for women and birth control rights for everyone; guaranteed publicly funded universal health care; a 90% top taxation rate; the Buffett rule; a carbon tax; enforceable and stringent international climate protection rules; reassertion of Glass-Steagel; a hard cap on total corporate executive compensation at 50x the income of the lowest-paid employee; a cap on inheritance at $10 million per beneficiary; affirmative action; withdrawal from GATT and the WTO; predication of foreign aid on recipients’ meeting stringent human rights standards (and no free pass to Israel in this regard); an end to the death penalty; a livable minimum wage; rigorous consumer, workers’ rights, environmental and workplace safety regulations; immigration reform; sharp reductions in military spending (and reallocation of those funds to programs to improve the infrastructure, opportunities and quality of life of the American people); a guaranteed post-secondary education for every American who completes high school or an equivalent and wants one; universal voter registration; a paid holiday for every American on election days; overturning Citizens United; solely public funding and time limits (say, 3 months) to all political campaigns; elimination of the definition of corporations as “persons” under the law; an end to all subsidies and tax breaks to nonrenewable energy industries and agribusiness except family farms occupied and worked by the owners; re-application of the Fairness Doctrine in all televised and radio media, broadcast or not; a ban on private ownership of any firearm less than 3’ long, able to hold more than 6 rounds at a time or able to shoot more than one round in a firing; mandatory, scientifically correct sex education for all students, whether their parents want them to have it or not; legalization and taxation of marijuana; an end to the “pledge of allegiance”; a transaction tax on financial transactions such as security sales; an end to supermajority legislative requirements of all kinds and at every level; elimination of tax deductions on contributions to religious organizations; and removal of all references to “God” from US money and US elected legislatures at every level: period, full stop.

If that’s a centrist, I guess Eugene Debs and Abbie Hoffman were, too.

So okay, the characterization doesn’t hold water (duh!) But thinking about it, I got onto the larger question: what is a “progressive”, really? Is it a just a checklist of policy positions, or is it something more?

I’d say that politics isn’t a thought problem. It’s not about taking a pledge, joining a club or talking like the rest of the cool kids.

It’s about results.

It’s about what happens in the real world.

And that means that the only meaningful definition of a progressive is “one who acts to advance societal movement in the direction of fairness, justice, the common good, environmental stewardship, a robust, informed democracy, ensuring that all citizens are safe from privation and have opportunities to improve themselves, peaceful resolution of differences when possible, working, efficient, up-to-date and well-maintained public facilities and services, and personal liberty up to–but not beyond–the point at which it infringes on those of others or the common good.”

There are two moving parts in this definition. It requires not only a set of values, but also behavior in a manner intended to cause policy and society to move in the direction of those values. And here is where a deep chasm opens between me and the friends who want to characterize me as “not progressive”.

I see little evidence that these friends expend much consideration of what policies are workable, politically feasible or even actually put into place. Their politics aren’t about doing anything: they’re about taking a position. More than anything, they are about how they wish to understand themselves and to be seen as opinion holders. The politics they articulate are about their view of themselves—their chosen identities—rather than about actual intent to accomplish social change.

Unless it completely implements the ideal they claim to support, the folks I’m describing will castigate policy movement in a positive direction as weak tea, and trash those who achieved such movement as having “sold out”…up to and including accusing such policy makers of being in the pockets of the very interests the new policy reins in.

In the eyes of people who think like this, a step forward doesn’t count. Only the ideal on the wish list counts. So the significant step forward of the Affordable Care Act is, in their eyes, a “sell-out to the insurance industry” because “Obama is a corporatist puppet”—which provides them the double pleasure of  staking out a position of moral superiority to the product of the dirty, dirty world by contrasting it with the bright shiny ideas in their heads, and of casting themselves as having “higher standards” which have been disappointed by the failure of those who are in the trenches and doing the work.

Indeed, few of the folks I’m talking about have ever invested much time or energy in engaging the legislative process or participating in electoral campaigns. Adamant as they may be in their opinions they also, by and large, dismiss our public institutions and the systems we have for pursuing political change as irretrievably corrupt. To the degree they have advocated for policies, it has generally been from the sidelines in ineffectual but personally satisfying symbolic gestures like protest marches.

Their opinions are rooted firmly in convictions about “how things should be” but generally uninformed about how they are. And as such, their concept of the nature of American politics is an oversimplified cartoon in which Big Interests Own Politicians (of both major parties, because They’re All The Same) and Buy Elections, resulting in Orwellian Institutions which want to Exploit And Control Us All.

In this, they have a lot in common with the Tea Party, actually.

As someone who has actually been in that world and done stuff in the political sphere, I have a different view.

I’m here to suggest that if what you do undermines progress, you aren’t a progressive.

Trashing the character, competence or motivations or those who got you half a political loaf when you wanted a whole one isn’t progressive.

Setting the bar of acceptability at a pie-in-the-sky level and then erupting in outrage when you don’t get it isn’t progressive.

Starting with an assumption that public officials and institutions are corrupt, ill-intentioned or incompetent and seizing on every opportunity—however flimsy, however improbable—to confirm it in your mind and the minds of others is not progressive.

“Standing for principles” in a manner which makes it impossible for those principles to gain traction in the political sphere is not progressive.

Dismissing a policy maker as a walking dungheap because he hasn’t done exactly as you would like on every issue is not progressive.

The only thing such behavior does is to make progress less likely to occur. It saps voter enthusiasm on the left and undermines the openness of moderates and swing voters to seeing progressive positions as reasonable and viable.

I can also tell you that such backseat driving tempts those who do the heavy lifting which actually results in progress to chuck it all and get a job in the private sector. Policy work is hard. You may think being in Congress or a state legislature is all cocktail parties and being showered with lobbyist gifts, but it isn’t that at all, and particularly not for progressives, who don’t generally align with interests loaded with money.

We’re fighting against the odds anyway. When a policy maker who is pouring out the productive years of her life in the name of the greater good starts having to dig friendly fire out of her back, it’s not a surprise that she might want to quit and let her critics try to do better.

Unsatisfiable self-righteous outrage doesn’t do a damned thing for our country or the world. It is a self-indulgence, and one we can ill afford.

It is the antithesis of progressive. It sabotages progress.

Progressives don’t need to agree with everything an official or an advocate—or a blogger—does or says to forbear from impugning his character. They can express their desire for different policies than those under consideration without framing those working on these policies as betrayers, cowards, traitors, incompetents or criminals.

Progressives don’t have an all-or-nothing approach to politics. They understand that improvement happens one step at a time: you work for a gain, nail it down, celebrate, thank your allies and gear up for another one. That’s how history works.

Progressives don’t leap to endorse thinly-sourced conspiracy theories just because they confirm their prejudices.

You can choose to do those things, if you get some kind of satisfaction out of it, but I’ll tell you this: by no stretch of the imagination is it progressive.

Progressives help to create progress. They don’t impede it, belittle it, or undermine its exponents.

A left-wing concern troll is not a progressive.

Ralph Nader (at least, the version we’ve seen in the past 20 years) is not a progressive.

Dennis Kucinich is not a progressive.

Jane Hamsher, Cenk Uygur and Glenn Greenwald are not progressives.

They are something else. Whatever it is, it is not progressive.

 At publication, the Dragon was THINKING