Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Scary Stuff

In recognition of the holiday, today we note two scary things: one from the present, the other from the past
It's nice when the pundits write things I have also observed. A couple of months ago I noted that the current Republican Party was nothing like the old GOP that our fathers and grandfathers knew. Arianna Huffington opined this week that the Party had been given over to its own lunatic fringe: "..the only thing that separates the Republican National Committee and Rush Limbaugh is a prescription for OxyContin." That's frightening to me no matter WHO writes it.

We passed an anniversary this month. If you were in a class in which the question "What event brought the world closest to nuclear warfare?" arose, what would you say? The correct answer is: The Cuban Missile Crisis, which arose and was resolved in October, 1962, as I settled in to the 8th grade, 45 years ago.
During that summer, our nation's intelligence services determined (without the benefit of torture) that the Soviet Union had shipped mid-range offensive ICBMs equipped with nuclear warheads to Cuba, where they were quickly being assembled and prepared for ...what? Our analysts weren't sure just what was behind this new threat. But when it was discovered, there was no shortage of reaction favoring the unleashing of our OWN long-range missiles to the Soviet Union and eliminating it from the earth.
Our official reaction was the job of the president, John Kennedy. He had the tricky assignment, without benefit of direct communications with Moscow, of communicating BOTH that the missiles could not be allowed to stay in Cuba, AND that nuclear war was not inevitable even though our destructive capacity appeared to outgun the Soviets.
Several telegrams were exchanged, and the possibility of misinterpretation was considerable, as both sides struggled to interpret naval and air maneuvers in real time. Kennedy had to depend at one point that native Russian speakers would know the diplomatic difference between "embargo", an act of war, and "quarantine", which was slightly more benign. Finally, the Soviets withdrew, with the same intelligence units which had first warned of the threat confirming the removal of the missiles.
This event, along with the space program, make up much of today's Kennedy legend. You can see two Hollywood versions of the crisis - "Thirteen Days", made a few years ago, and the rarer "The Missiles of October" made for TV, which also shows what may have happened on the Soviet side. The actor who played Khrushchev had a terrificly-written part, given, of course, in english.
My clue as an 8th grader that this was something to pay attention to came from the fact that our history teacher, a coach who had no actual interest in history or anything else except basketball, actually took a little time to explain what was happening, something he had never done before and avoided thereafter. So it WAS scary, no question.
I don't think we are 100% sure today why the Soviets made this seemingly risky move in the first place. Kennedy was dead thirteen months later, and Khrushchev, ousted from office in 1964, later said that the missiles were just a bargaining chip to keep the US from a full scale invasion of Cuba. Hmm. I think it's more likely that the Soviets underestimated either American nerve or its intelligence gathering capacity.
In any case, we did not invade Cuba, and some of our own outdated missiles were later quietly removed from Turkey. Fidel Castro astonishingly is still alive and stands as one of the best political operators ("best" here means "effective", not "virtuous") of the 20th century. Cuba itself? It's pretty important, too - as an issue helping determine which way Florida will vote.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Wrong, Wrong, Wrong

I might make some enemies by including the following, but I was impressed with both the passion and the sentiment in a piece by a woman I don't know. Her thesis, in a column appearing in one of our local papers, was that media technology and freedom make it much easier to see our government's sins than was the case when WW II German citizens were made to face the horror of NAZI concentration camps. Ellen Taylor wrote: "Humboldt county citizens have the facts to put a picture together as lurid as the black smoke which a poor farmer watched billowing out of the stacks at Dachau."
Does anything we would hold the Bush administration responsible for approach the evil of massive genocide? No, but using 9/11 (the administration's greatest failure) as a pretext, they have done terrible things which have brought them low approval ratings (under 30%), and lead historians to group them near the bottom of all administrations since Washington. The list starts with the invasion/occupation of a sovereign country using the made-up principle of "preemptive war", but also includes illegal snooping on citizens, the politicization of the entire Executive Branch (including law enforcement), budgetary largess that permitted tax revenues to be used as a kind of "spoils system" which turned a large surplus into a huge deficit even before accounting for the war, a new unwillingness to work with countries once considered allies, and on and on.
Outside of remaining in office (assuming they have no secret plan to stay past their constitutional departure date) they don't seem to care. Following the lead of the President, the words "I'm sorry" just don't cross their lips. And the public seems as too tired to be angry. The popularity descent has been fairly slow, I think, because of certain things which have NOT taken place: a military draft, a tax increase, economic downturns, shortages of the sort common during the Second World War, or (until this year) a stand-up Congress ready to expose wrong when they find it and argue loudly when they think it's worthwhile. The president's image as "tough cowboy" is almost frozen in time as the next round of saber rattling begins, this time against Iran. A good number of the same people are there to echo the daily talking points, as stocks are bid up anticipating a big payday come the next war.
After all, why should anything change from Bush's side of things? He won't be on the ballot again, and neither will Cheney, so why care about polls when it looks like the other side may win the next election anyway? All the rest is just making speeches for big bucks and keeping the original documents out of the hands of historians for as long as possible. In the meantime, someone will compile the memoirs which are sure to be at odds with the wave of books already out there that say they were wrong, wrong, wrong.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Fighting Words

I picked up a bad habit a few months back. A newspaper in a city near where three of our children live has made their on-line edition interactive. You can send comments in about just about anything the paper prints, as long as your don't throw in vulgar insults or profanity. The audience, of course, is other on-line readers.
The bad habit is in daily going mano a mano with people who identify themselves as "Turk", "Jazzbo", "Line Doggie", "Queenmum" and others in the marketplace, or more like the coliseum of ideas. Your argument is supposed to be made in 200 words or less, which isn't usually a problem, but it CAN become time consuming. After all, you have to make sure your insults are subtle enough to pass the newspaper's on-line monitor, then you are obliged to wait and see if your artillery draws a salvo from the other side. It's just a little childish, even though people sometimes use big words to score imaginary debating points. The actual impact on hearts and minds? Probably minimal.
One thing I've noticed is that the two sides (and sometimes there are more) don't even use the same terms. It's as though different dialects are being used. But if you're in a hurry, you can tell where someone stands just by noticing certain words.
Here's the Republican lexicon: P.C., treason, terrorist, politician, pacifist, socialism, illegal alien, neverending, domination, sanction, nuclear, advanced interrogation techniques, government schools, enforcement, threat and deterrent. The favorite Republican word: "Islamofacist" turned out to be a little too awkward, so the faithful always use "appeasement", which has a nice academic/historical ring even if it's used incorrectly. It also carries the bonus benefit of generating fear, which these days is a GOP must.
The Democrats have their favorite terms, too, though I'm not as sensitive to them, being part of the more-or-less party faithful: progressive, profiteer, occupation (as in holding territory), incompetent, insurgency, neocon, undocumented worker, warmonger, fearmonger, torture, chicken hawk ( someone who's pro-war, but never served in one), collateral damage (always used sarcastically) and their favorite, unconstitutional, which is meant to be like saying "I know what your agenda (another good word) is here buddy, and it's not going to happen."
I have to agree that it's good that we no longer have duels or sword fights. Still, men (and some women) have an instinct for combat, even though it can only be verbal in nature. If that's the closest I come to wielding an actual weapon, that's OK. This, and our daily good-weather tennis.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

I Did Not Have....Torture...

I saw a bumper sticker that made me laugh recently. A beat-up sedan carried the message, "Comes the Rapture, can I have your car?"

Waaay back in high school when I was learning to take a spot on the debate team, our "coach" (we were a team, after all) told us to be sure to pay attention to the definitions of terms, warning that the wrong definitions, if agreed to, could come back to bite us later.
This turned out to be true, though it didn't dawn on me until decades later. Sad to say, it was Bill Clinton who employed the debater's trick when he said "I did not have sex with that woman, Ms. Lewinsky." Without providing an advanced birds-and-bees lesson, I think we recall just what happened and what didn't, and which side used which definition of "sex" in the process. It wasn't a great moment in the Republic's history, but there it is, and we're stuck with it.
It turns out that those taking notes at the time must have included the sharpies who now occupy the seats of power in the Bush administration. More than once they have said to us in so many words, "We don't conduct torture in the War on Terror." But they seem to want it both ways, because in the next breath they will tell you that whatever it is we do, it works and "protects" us by providing information we need.
How can they claim this virtual impossibility? Simple. They employ the debater's strategy of controlling the definitions, and since torture is seen, no surprise, as a bad thing, they define it so severely as to almost equate it with death. Anything short of this absurdly high standard? Why, it's OK, right? In fact, it's just a new jargon term we designed for exactly this purpose - advanced interrogation techniques. Torture?? Posh. Only the other side does torture, and we'd never be like them. Will the Bush folks discuss these techniques? Nope. What might be considered over the line? Oh no. How often? To how many? How many actual deaths? So sorry. It's all classified, and if we were to reveal what we do in your name, you might disagree or (horrors!) decide to flip your vote next time. So please don't ask. And if you ask in court, remember who runs the highest Court. Clue - not you. In fact, one of the men on that Court just published a book, and he's still a very angry man.
Now all this is before raising another mystery term - extraordinary rendition. It appears to involve taking prisoners to other countries. They won't talk about this either, but I'd be willing to bet that there are no sightseeing tours included. Remember, the operative statement is "We don't torture." It's certainly not "We don't know anyone who tortures." That's another debating point in favor of pain. Where and when? No comment.
Senator McCain has a claim on this issue that no one else can provide. He was a torture victim in North Vietnam, and has worked to eliminate it from this war, at least from our side. He says that it's not about what the other side does. It's about what we, the United States does as the world looks to us for its example. That's precisely what I'm afraid of.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Passing On

Maine and Nebraska - those are the two states that award their electoral votes by the congressional district instead of the whole state, in case you were still wondering from last week's entry.

Some serious stuff this week. Three recent events dealing with that big ending - death.
ACT I A popular older man from our local congregation passed on last week, I had the assignment to, well, it has to do with clothing and that's as far as I'm going. Sickness had shrunk him down pretty well, but it was still not an easy job. Luckily I had help, and we got through it OK. The funeral wasn't till today, but the crying at the service was pretty healthy, and no one felt John had been cheated in his almost eighty years. We remembered him as a friendly family guy who had conquered smoking, and remade himself as a kind of grandpa-singing cowboy.

ACT II The day after the event described above, I got another call: this one to administer a kind of last rights to a man I didn't know. He was in the ICU, with a variety of conditions closing in. With the same helper, I did my duty. The sad part was that the only person close enough to see him through to the next life was his ex-wife. That's a pretty good sign that he had fouled up in life. He died later the same day, and gets the funeral of last resort from the Navy, in which he had once served. Was he older than me? Oh, yeah, by four years.

ACT III I couldn't make my high school class' 40th reunion. It's not that I don't like them, but in this case it was just too far. I sent $7.00 for a copy of the class directory. It came a few weeks later, and I gave it a cursory look, but then noticed something. Our class salutatorian had died a year and a half ago.
This was sad on many levels. He had been a young man of great promise, and had succeeded, becoming a research scientist specializing in the cure of cancer. He and I had been pretty close, at least through high school. I had helped him with his graduation speech, while he, a numbers guy, had helped me get through a tough high school physics course. I must have played a thousand games of ping pong in his basement. I even remember offering to speak at his funeral at a time when we were both in the bloom of youth. Naturally, he felt the idea was silly.
Now he's a year plus gone, and where was I? Ignorant at the opposite part of this state, more than 2,000 miles from the Mississippi that had been but blocks away. He left a wife and three grown children. It was cancer, the same disease which had killed his father, that got him. He wasn't young, but I'm told he was at the top of his profession. So sad. He really was the best we had to offer the world. I think I'll call his widow.