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This Train of Thought Makes All Stops

Archive for March, 2009

An Even Happier St. Patty’s Day

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

On this day, a day that all of America takes on the green of Ireland, we have a little present for our Irish brethren across the sea– we’re goign to teach you a bit about real football. President Obama has just named Dan Rooney– yes, that Dan Rooney, owner of the Pittsburgh Steelers– as the Ambassador of the United States to Ireland. Not only do you get a prince, you get one who knows the difference between soccer and football!

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Posted in American History, American Politics, European Union, Obama Cabinet | 2 Comments »

Happy St. Patrick’s Day

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

Erin go bragh! Erin go braghless! Really, whichever makes Erin more comfortable is fine with me.

Posted in Blog Business | 1 Comment »

Where Are the Wizards?

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

It has been said that the line between magic and technology is located where the common person can look at a system and have no idea of not just how it functions, but why it functions. I cannot build an internal combustion engine (hell, I can barely change a spark plug), but I can look at one and figure out how it works, at least in broad strokes. Looking at a circuit board, however, isn’t going to provide and spark in my brain that will tell me how the computer I’m writing this on works, how my 46″ big screen is showing Handy Manny at this moment, or how I can talk to someone in Peru or Vietnam by dialing 13 digits into the phone the board may have come from. It is complex beyond my ability to ascertain, and I must simply rely upon it to work, to reply upon others to provide the networks upon which it draws, and to build be a new one when this one fails. Before it was retired in April of 2008, Air Force pilots had to rely upon their computers to make constant adjustments to the flight surfaces of their Stealth Fighters to keep the unaerodynamic Nighthawks in the air. Think about that– is there a higher presumed expert on the science and craft of flying than a trained US Air Force pilot? Even their skills and expertise could not keep an F-117 in the air; they had to rely upon a system with more expertise than they could ever hold. The trust inherent in relying upon these gadgets and systems of gadgets is awesome when you consider it, especially in those cases when even the “experts” are outside of their capacity in understanding and manipulating them, as in the Air Force example.

But is that trust warranted?

Much like my laptop and the Internet (series of tubes…?) themselves, our financial system is complex beyond simple understanding, even by the “experts”. The derivative nightmares that have crashed our economy were not the product of a bunch of execs sitting in a room trying to come up with a better way to make money but rather the end product of extraordinarily complex mathematical formulae that redefined risk in a way so out of keeping with realistic definitions of the concept as to have made these bundled junk loans look like an asset worthy of investment. Take those instruments and throw them into a milieu that sees incredibly complex markets interacting with complex personal decisions and trending, with overseas financial and security needs and philosophies, with complex logistical realities mandated by our “just in time” systems of inventory management amongst a host of other complexities and intangibles. Once you’ve done that, take a look at some of our experts on that overarching economic system– say Alan Greenspan, Paul Krugman, Larry Summers, Zhou Xiaochuan, and Daniel McFadden– and understand that they have wildly divergent opinions of not only how to fix the system but in fact on how the system works and exists at all.

This is a system so complex that, although we rely on it for fundamentals such as food delivery, power generation and medical care, nobody does completely– can completely– understand it. We are assured by many “experts” that they have a handle on this thing, that they can tame and manipulate it to our universal benefit, that they can shield us from its temper tantrums and benefit us from its soaring successes… they think.

The same is true of so many systems in the world in which we live– can the President be expected to understand and process the self-interests of the many nations on the planet when they are all just guessing at their own self-interests? And if we can not hold that expectation, then are we prepared to accept that judgements made on war and peace are made in a manner that must ultimately be accepted as uniformed?

We are at a point in our societal evolution where our artificial systems have merged with natural systems with ultimately unpredictable and uncontrollable outcomes becoming more the norm; it has long been a favored chestnut of science fiction writers, but the reality is truly emerging now into the public consciousness as a result of the financial crisis. What the implication of that will be for the future remains to be seen, but we cannot get to that point until we accept the concept that experts on these systems are not wizards and that while they can make educated guesses, they cannot speak with the authority that an expert on civil engineering can speak on bridge construction; to take anything they say as a firm prediction of probability may be a stretch; taking them as gospel is insanity.

It seems we have extended and expanded our reality right back to the point of trial and error. Welcome to the Nineteenth Century, circa 2009.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, Economy, education, Mathematics | 3 Comments »

We’re Losing Our Minds

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 17, 2009

Nothing can mess up a marriage like money problems; hell even Billy Joel has popularized that concept in Scenes From an Italian Restaurant. When money becomes an issue, everything else goes on the table– bitterness, greed, jealousy and the real killer, irrationality.

In the marriage between our government and the American people, money has become an issue, and irrationality is raising its head above the swirling currents of anger, frustration, and fear.

Take, for instance, this week’s explosion of craziness over the A.I.G. bonus payments. Yes, on the surface it is maddening– the American taxpayers are floating A.I.G. and they’re busy shipping TARP money overseas or handing it out in bonus checks to the idiots who were the engineers and mechanics of the train wreck that A.I.G has become. While many families struggle through layoffs and while houses are being taken by the banks at rates never before seen, the rich are getting richer; anybody can understand the anger that would generate. The problem is that we’re getting lost in that anger and risk doing serious, lasting damage to our nation as a result of it.

In today’s New York Times, Andrew Ross Sorkin charts a personally dangerous course in his Dealbook column under the headline The Case for Paying Out Bonuses at A.I.G. There’s a case for paying out these bonuses? Really? The man must be insane and be courting a Rushdie-esque fatwa called down upon his head by Imam John Q. Public. In this environment who could ever support dishing out more money to the boobs at A.I.G.?

A very prescient man, that’s who.

The contract is the fundamental building block upon which American business is founded. No matter how onerous a deal may turn out to be in hindsight, a contract is a contract and must be honored short of bankruptcy. Yes, you can always ask the other party to renegotiate a contract for the mutual good, but you can not simply walk away from the provisions of a contract because one party just doesn’t like it anymore– at least not without a lawsuit that will see the walker getting nailed for doing so and ordered to perform. Without that surety, there is no such thing as a credit market– a loan or credit agreement is a contract, of course, assuring the lender that the borrower will repay the loan with interest or else forfeit some valuable property in lieu of cash payment. The contract is as close to a sacred concept as exists in the profane world of business and economics. It’s preservation is paramount to our very existence, and one of the key roles of government is providing the tools in the form of the legal system to enforce and ensure contracts.

And now, out of anger, we’re demanding that the government set a precedent that will hopelessly erode the sanctity of the contract because, well, we’re damned angry and have a right to be. The bonuses that are the object of so much ire right now weren’t concocted last week as a boondoggle to enrich a few financiers; they were the result of employment contracts signed before the wheels came off of the economy between A.I.G. and its employees. Whether or not those employees deserve the bonuses in light of all that’s happened, whether or not we want taxpayer money funding those bonuses, whether or not we’re out of our minds with anger, these bonus payouts are mandated by valid contracts that have to be honored simply because they are valid contracts. To have no less an entity than the Federal Government try to abrogate these contracts because the American taxpayer is angry… well, that’s not an avenue any sane person would seek to go down, is it? The slippery slope is an old argument, but precedent is also one of the underpinnings of our society. If the government can step in and simply toss out the provisions of a series of valid contracts because the Congress doesn’t like them, what is the point of the entire system?

The counterargument most offered by bloggers and commentators to this line of thought– that simply tossing out valid contracts is rank idiocy that will be killed by the Courts as it should be– is that A.I.G. is now largely owned by the taxpayers anyway and would have gone bankrupt had the government not stepped in… and bankruptcy is the ultimate voider of contracts. All well and good, save one tiny flaw– that damnable phrase, “would have”. Yes, the government stepped in and the American taxpayer got the bill… to prevent A.I.G. from going into bankruptcy. We stopped A.I.G. from going bankrupt and collapsing because their existence, as twisted as this might seem, is integral at this point to the economic recovery. When we made that choice– to prevent A.I.G. from going bankrupt by, essentially, buying the company, we bought not only its assets but its liabilities and commitments, as well. We are now a party to the employment contracts that mandate these “retention bonuses”, and as a responsible party that is interested more in the overall health and resurgence of our national economy rather than the sideshow BS of the A.I.G. bonus flap, we must hold back our bile and sign the damned checks. To not do so is unthinkable and, should this hit the courts some day, illegal. You don’t have to have stayed in a Holiday Inn Express last night to see that, even if like me you hate the concept of paying out this money.

Ditto the ire over A.I.G. taking bailout money and paying it to European and Asian banks rather than keeping it here int he States. A.I.G. owed debts to those institutions and needed to satisfy them under contractual obligation. We cannot give A.I.G. money with which to save itself and thus prop up our economy and then tell them that they can’t use it to satisfy their liabilities– what else would we be giving it to them for but to kill bad debts and satisfy other liabilities so that it may continue to function as a business entity?

Now, that doesn’t mean that we can’t ask for the money back, that we can’t publicly hammer the employees getting these bonuses in an attempt to shame them into not accepting them… but if they say no and want the money owed them, then it’s up to us to perform up to the terms of the contract.

There are no popular solutions to a financial crisis as deep as the one we’re in– the issues are too complex for the average person, myself included, to understand every intricacy and every interconnection. Moves that make sense may be counter-intuitive, and certainly may be the cause of immediate anger from the population. What me must use as our guide in determining sentiment is a baseline fundamental of common sense– do we want to live with contracts providing no surety? Do we want our employers to unilaterally change our contracts? Do we enjoy seeing products on the shelves of our stores, being able to borrow to buy a home or a car or a boat? Do we want to be sure that when we contract out a job that he job will be done? Of course to all of those, so, too, of course to paying out the bonuses contracted for. We cannot have one without the other.

Money can break up a marriage, but the one between our government and ourselves must be saved. We all need to take a deep breath, accept that there will be things that must be done that might not feel great up front but that must be done, noentheless, to get everyone back safe in their beds at the end of this long, dark day.

Posted in American Politics, Corporate Shenanigans, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Tagged: , , , , , , | 1 Comment »

Blackjacks and Backfires and Bears, Oh My!

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 15, 2009

OK, I give. I’ve gotten at least fifteen requests for my take on yesterday’s AP story about the Russians talking about using airbases in Venezuela & Cuba for bomber stopovers, so here goes.

Let’s start by saying that I’m not impressed, and I don’t think you should be, either.

Non-stealthy strategic bombers as a vector for global war are about as relevant as horse cavalry, so I think we can immediately dismiss this conjectured move having any military import; the TU-95 Bear, the most frequent visitor from the Russian Long Range Aviation stable to our shores, is a propellor plane of 1950s design that has been updated over the years. As a long range maritime patrol plane in an environment where there is no fighter coverage I suppose it could be considered a threat to shipping; flying out of Cuba and Venezuela that would never be the case. The Backfire is more of a carrier killer (at least it was in 1984) than it is a strategic bomber, and the Blackjack is a B-1 knockoff with more mechanical problems than the latest offerings from Detroit. The biggest threat in having them making brief stopovers and visits in Cuba & Venezuela is posed by the chance that they might fall out of the sky and crash onto a fishing boat working the canyons for tuna.

So, if we dispose of the notion of these aircraft and their basing arrangements posing a military threat, we’re left with the concept of them posing a PR risk. That’s certainly a more realistic assessment, but not one I’m ready to buy into, at least as far as an American audience goes. A news story like the one we’re hearing today is going to make the broadcast and the papers, true; the problem is that it’s the high water mark for this kind of thing. The next step is one that we’ve seen oh so many times– pictures of a pair of F-15s or -16s sitting, one on each wing, on a turboprop Bear that has wandered too close to the US shoreline. It almost looks like a gag– an ultramodern US fighter juxtaposed with some WWII looking piece of junk with a big Russian emblem emblazoned on it; if I’m Vlad Putin I really don’t want that image flashed too many times to emphasize just how archaic and technologically backwards my nation is as compared to the Americans. Want a really good laugh? Let a Bear trail its toes in close to the Virginia Capes or the Carolinas and we can see what it looks like when one of the F-22s stationed at Langley AFB in Virginia Beach  flies formation with Tupolev’s best idea of 1954. Again, not an image I’m courting if I’m Putin.

I hardly think that many Americans would be either impressed or overly distressed by a visit fromt he Occasional Bear or even Blackjack; indeed these visits aren’t something newly renewed, despite what the press would have you believe; indeed since 2006 we’ve been seeing frequent Bear fly-bys, especially around Alaska with the occasional trip downt he East Coast. No big deal– we see the lumbering Bear on radar at a range of hundreds of miles, shoot off a couple of fighters for what amounts to a slightly enhanced training mission, the pilots wave to each other or if the Russians are feeling frisky offer up a serving of pressed ham, and everyone goes home.

Would Americans, though, be concerned about the appearance of Russians operating from thie side of the Atalantic again? That’s a bit trickier question that was posed at RotoJunkie by a frequent poster, but again I’m not in the market on this one.  I think that the ridiculousness of the imagery above is going to allay any concern and make anyone attempting to use it for political advantage look a bit silly. Talk about China setting up shipping ports in Baja California and Peru and there’s cause to be concerned; Russia occassionally landing obsolete bombers in the farcical Venezuela or Cuba? Set threat level to “marshmallow”. We aren’t even talking about permanent basing rights and the Russians establishing infrastructure in Venezuela and Cuba; even that wouldn’t be particularly threatening, but it would be worth noting as it would show long term Russian commitment. Occasional landing rights, though? Not too much to hang anyone’s hat on there. If that’s how Putin is planning to test the Obama Admin then the Oval Office should be sending the Kremlin several dozen roses.

So, if there’s no military threat and no tangible PR/moral victory to be had from the American people, then why bother with this bit of nonsense? In my sight the target audiences are the Russian, Venezuelan and Cuban working classes, all of whom have been growing quite restive of late. The Russian economy is in tatters; the promise of an end to the concept of peasantry was never realized and now the people are starting to see that it never will be under the current system. The modern traditional authoritarian response to a large underclass that is unhappy with a situation at home with no easy answer is easy– appeal to nationalism. We’ve seen Mr. Putin play this card several times even before the economic collapse– the cyber attacks on Estonia over the removal of a Soviet war memorial, the war in Georgia, showdowns with the Ukraine over Gazprom pipelines that were cast in the Russian press as Ukrainian ingratitude and attempted theft; this is simply a continuation in that pattern. The men of Soviet Long Range Aviation were the sex symbols of the Soviet Era– they ate the best food, they made the most money, they lived the most glamorous of military lifestyles. They were the ones who took all of the indignities inflicted upon the Soviet Union and flew them right back to the American shores, threatening the running dog imperialists every hour of every day with the might of the Worker’s Paradise. Putin and Medvedev first announcing a resumption of Bear patrols late in 2008 and now having their military drop this silliness about occasionally landing in Cuba & Venezuela is just attempting to stir that old nationalist pride at patrolling American shores to distract the Russian people from their daily woes.

The same is even more true in Venezuela, where the economy is in ruins beyond even the damage caused by the Chavez Regime. With oil prices less that a third of their previous high, the redistribution of wealth that Chavez had purported to deliver has become even more a redistribution of misery; his political future is bleak if he can’t do something to shore up his regime and distract his people Enlisting the Russians in his “great cause” of resisting the United States is tailor made both to do that and elevate the imnprtance of the Venezuelan nation in the eyes of the Venezuelan people whose favor he has lost. Raul Castro, too, needs a prop for his regime; even as he tries to chart a course less belligerent than his brother’s, Castro could certainly use a reminder to the Cuban people of a time when tons of money flowed across the Ataltntic into Cuban society fromt he Soviet Union and the false promise that it could return even as he moves to court the American Administration to remove the blocks between America and Cuba.

In the end, this theater of the absurd is actually recorded in Russian and Spanish with only the subtitles set in American English. Something tells me that it won’t be playing to rave reveiws in any language; the problems of the Russian, Venezuelan and to a somewhat lesser extent the Cuban governments face are growing beyond the potential for the distraction of the circus to calm the populace. All the creaky planes in the Russian arsenal are not going to change that.

Posted in Foreign Affairs, Latin America, Russia | Leave a Comment »

He Said What?

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 14, 2009

Because, if you’re like me, you’ve always wondered.

Come on, Eileen

Poor old Johnny Ray, sounded sad upon the radio;
Broke a million hearts in mono.
Oh our mothers cried, sang along, who can blame them?

You’ve grown (You’re grown up)
So grown. (So grown up.)
Now I must say more than ever.

(Come on, Eileen.)
Toora, loora, toora loorye aye.
We gonna sing just like our fathers.

Come on, Eileen,
Oh I swear (well he means) at this moment
You mean ev’rything.
You in that dress,
my thoughts, I confess,
verge on dirty.
Ah, Come on Eileen.

Come On, Eileen.

These people round here
Wear beaten down eyes sunk in a smoke dried face
So resigned what their fate is,
But not us (no never),
no, not us (no never),
we are far too young and clever.

(Remember)

Toora, loora, toora, loorye, aye.
Eileen, I’ll hum this tune forever.

Come on, Eileen,
Oh I swear (well he means)
Ah come on let’s
take off everything,
that pretty red dress, Eileen (Tell him yes)
Ah come on let’s, ah come on, Eileen,
Pleassse …

Come On, Eileen, Tooloorye aye
Come On, Eileen, Tooloorye, aye, toora.

Now you’re all grown (toora), Now you (toora) have shown (toora),
Oh! Eileen.
Said, you’ve (You) grown (toora) (it’s strange that our feelings have grown),
so grown (toora) (about how you feel)!

Now (toora) I (toora) must (toora) say (toora) more (toora) than ever,
things round here will change.

I said, Toora (toora), loora, toora (toora), loorye (toora), aye (toora, toora, toora).

Come on, Eileen,
oh I swear (well he means) at this moment.
You mean ev’rything.
You in that dress,
my thoughts (I confess)
verge on the dirty.

Ah, come on, Eileen.

Come on, Eileen,
oh I swear (well he means) at this moment.
You mean ev’rything.
You in that dress,
Oh, my thoughts (I confess)
verge on the dirty.

Come on, Eileen,
oh, ho, ho, (well he means) oh, ho, ho …

Posted in Cultural Phenomena, Music | Leave a Comment »

Blood On the Walls

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 13, 2009

I’m teaching this morning and don’t have the time to write this up– I’ll get to it this afternoon– but just in case you didn’t see Jon Stewart destroy Jim Cramer’s career last night, here’s the feed. The most brutal– dare I say best given that it was conducted by a comedian– interview I have ever seen. Jon, it may be time to drop the “fake news” thing and fill a void that is in very bad need of filling in our society. On the other hand, Jonathan Swift-style satire translated to the 2009 US vernacular probably looks a lot like what Jon Stewart does…

Posted in Corporate Shenanigans, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | 2 Comments »

Today’s Lesson In Irony: The Unfortunate Resting Place(s) of Oliver Plunkett

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 12, 2009

Saint Oliver Plunkett was the last Catholic martyr to find his martyrdom on England’s shores, taken from his Church in Ireland in 1679 and then brought to London for trial in 1680. Plunkett was not indicted by a grand jury on charges of Popishness and Promoting the Roman Faith, but a second jury, headed by a friend of the Crown’s, was far more accommodating. After what could best be described as a kangaroo trial, Archbishop Plunkett received some disheartening news– not only was he to be executed, he was to be hanged, drawn, and quartered for the Crown’s amusement.

This was not, as they say, ideal news. His sentence translated to being hanged but cut down after 10 minutes or so of agony, dragged to a large block upon which he would be tied down, revived with icy water, and forced to watch as first his testicles and then penis were cut off and tossed on a brazier to burn before his eyes. Following that delight, his abdomen was sliced open and his intestines reeled out onto a rolling pin looking device with little spiky bits… and then tossed upon said brazier to be burnt before his eyes. Things improved slightly, if terminally, next with his head being lopped off, followed posthumously by his body being divided into four part and taken for display about the shire.

And then irony intruded.

You would think after a day like that people would be willing to let well enough alone with the poor departed (no pun intended…) Plunkett. You, of course, would be wrong. After a couple of years, Plunkett’s parts would be dug up from their resting place and taken on the road, first to a Benedictine Abbey in Germany for reburial, although his head would continue on to Rome with a tour stop in Armagh before finally coming to, uhm, rest in St. Peter’s Drogheda. The “uhm” signifies that to this day Plunkett’s head is on display in the Shrine of Oliver Plunkett  at St. Peter’s, just in case you ever find yourself in Drogheda, Ireland on a dank afternoon with no plans.

The real irony, though, is where much of the rest of the beheaded, benighted Plunkett was eventually laid to rest… Downside Abbey in England. Yes, Downside, as in, “There may be some downside in not giving the Crown what it wants, Archbishop”.

At least he was made a Saint, I guess.

Posted in History | Leave a Comment »

Sometimes There’s Never a Right Time

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 12, 2009

I had an interesting email exchange the other day with a friend who just returned from his second tour as the commander of first an infantry platoon and then an infantry company in the Afghan Theater of the war. We were discussing the resurgence of the Taliban, their improving tactics and the general difficulty of fighting in Afghanistan when the quality of our own troops came up.

As a commander, he is quite satisfied with the quality of men and women that he commands in the field; morale is showing some frays over the issue of multiple combat tours that always seem to get extended just when people start to believe they’re about to go home, but that’s been true of America’s wars for a century. While on the topic of morale, I broached the third rail of personnel issues for the Army, especially– soldiers who are gay.

Don’t ask, don’t tell has become a punchline in the military and the popular culture both. Only fools believe that gay and lesbian personnel aren’t a part of every company, every ship’s crew, every squadron; simple math tells you that the demographic distribution of gay Americans mandates that gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines are members of every sizable unit of our Armed Forces. More commonly known amongst military personnel as “Ask, Don’t Tell” for the way the program is actually administered, the policy has been exposed to the hypocrisy that lies at its foundation over the past several years of war, which have seen dismissals from the service under the Don’t Ask rubric decline from the pre-war years– when the military needs specialists who happen to be gay, it seems, they don’t quite pursue their dismissal with the vigor that they do in peacetime.

My friend is sympathetic to the overall cause of openly integrating the force, but he falls back on a common refrain amongst even progressive military thinkers on the topic– you don’t do anything that might cause upheaval within the ranks during time of war. On the surface, that is a seemingly eminently logical point. Wartime is not the time for social engineering, it is a time for boosting morale and getting maximum performance from the troops. Anything that distracts from that goal is an unwelcome distraction, indeed. Why dispose of a policy that, if flawed, has kept something of a lid on the entire situation for fifteen years now?

The liberal knee jerk response is “Because it’s the right thing to do”, of course, and in a vacuum they are right– we know that segregation and bigotry is a fool’s errand as witnessed by the racial segregation our own nation experienced between the Civil War and Civil Rights. Outside of that vacuum, though, that argument isn’t nearly as compelling– even Abraham Lincoln dispatched with a cherished founding stone of our nation, the writ of habeas corpus, due the the exigencies of the Civil War itself, so “because it’s the right thing to do” doesn’t carry as much weight during this time of war due to precedent.

That dismissal, though, is countered to an extent by the excesses of the current war that have found protective coloration in precisely the habeas corpus argument; Guantanamo, “enhanced interrogation techniques”, extraordinary rendition, denial of lawyers and “new” interpretations of the Geneva Convention as it relates to the definition of “prisoners of war” are all beneficiaries of the Bush Administration’s willingness to relax not only our Constitution but also our uncodified standards of conduct. We were collectively complicit in that relaxation, of course– it is far too easy to wash our own hands of culpability and assign the blame to an unpopular President while forgetting that he was elected by the people to represent us and that, truthfully, many of us were so outraged and so angry in the time following 9-11 that even though we may have talked about how much we hated what Bush was doing we went ahead and re-elected him with an even larger share of the vote. American Democracy has eroded as a concept due to the excesses of the Bush Administration, but we can at least stop it from eroding to the point of football, where all ills are blamed on the quarterback even if the fault lies with the coaching staff or the defensive line. Yes, I am amongst those who spoke out against the Bush policies as did many people, who worked or gave money for Kerry and Obama, who worked to elect progressive Congressmen and other elected officials, but I am also an American and that is the overarching reality of all of our lives– we are part of a collective, part of a nation, and we must see reflected in our own eyes its flaws as well as its benefices if we are to be honest with ourselves.

So too, then, must we recognize that there will never be a right time to deny rights, dignity, responsibilities and privileges shared by most Americans to any subset of Americans based on parochial beliefs or even what some might see as demonstrable facts. We are one people in blame as we are one people in right, and as one people it is beyond our honest ability to deny rights ostensibly shared by all to the few. Amongst those responsibilities and privileges is the ability to serve our country in uniform if one so chooses, a right and privilege currently denied any homosexual who chooses to live as themselves rather than in the closet. Yes, allowing openly gay members to serve in the military may cause some minor disruptions in the force structure, but we already have a much larger issue of integration to inform us as to what we can expect– the largely seamless integration of African American soldiers into “regular” units of the military during the Truman Administration. Naysayers predicted catastrophe as a result of unit integration– remember, this was a time when legal integration was still very much a reality in the American South, so making the military much less ready to accept black troops than it is to accept gay troops today. The predictions of mutinies, readiness level declines and other dire events never came to pass, of course, and assuming that they would today over integration of openly gay soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines is rendered even sillier given that history.

The military command structure itself has implicitly said this by reducing the number of dismissals for homosexuality during the war. The generals & admirals have spoken– dismissing gay troops would cause a greater force disruption than leaving them in place in many cases, as witnessed by the hesitance over the last four years in particular to make a dismissal cases against homosexuals, especially those serving in the technical, intelligence, and language sectors of the military where these men and women serve not only with honor but hold skills and talents integral to the successful waging of the current war.

There will never be a right time to integrate and accept openly gay troops into the force structure– there will always be a compelling argument made by those whom the layman is afraid to challenge on military grounds. The military, however, while being the ultimate guarantor of our safety is also the servant of the people of this nation, not the other way around. Those people must accept that there will never be a right time to deny basic rights to their peers; it is that peer relationship, that we are all Americans under the Constitution, that easily trumps any social, racial, or biological subset we may belong to with the exceptions for cause that are codified under the law (denying felons the vote, preventing the mentally insane judged a hazard to others from owning firearms, and the narrow like).

If a man or woman is willing to protect, defend, and honor their fellow Americans then we are not, as those Americans, too, in a position to deny them. To do so is to redefine the meaning of America in a direction which we have travelled too far and too easily these past seven years. It is time to reclaim our identity, and to do that we must accept that identity is a broad one that embraces all with a birthright to it.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, History, Human Rights, Social Justice, Warfare | Tagged: , , , , , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Quote of the Day, March 10 2009

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

“When women are depressed, they eat or go shopping. Men invade another country. It’s a whole different way of thinking.” –Elayne Boosler

Posted in Quote of the Day | Leave a Comment »

Shopping and Death on Long Island

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

I have friends, most of them female, sitting shiva in houses across Long Island. They’re losing an old friend, and I feel

The Temple of Shoppig on the Island

The Temple of Shopping on the Island

for them. While they adorn themselves in black designer outfits and pin rended bracelets to their breasts in mourning their husbands are trying to look sad and support them… but they’re all really sneaking downstairs to the family room, smoking cigars and toasting the departure with good whiskey when they say they need to pee.

The object of so much depression is the victim of the recession, not cancer or too much cholesterol. As the recession deepens it has become apparent that even the most sacred of cows is not immune from the abattoir’s knives, and, if you live or ever have lived somewhere between Montauk and Paramus you may have heard the bellowing and bleating coming from the stall in which Fortunoff’s has been dispatched, the dearly departed friend that has called the congregation to mourn together.

How to explain Fortunoff’s to those who haven’t  resided in the NYC Metro area…? OK, imagine a gigantic brownish concrete cube sitting along a road that can only be described as Dante’s Suburban Circle of Hell, then fill its parking lots with Mercedes, with BMWs, with Jaguars and most importantly of all with Cadillacs, lots and lots of Cadillacs, more Cadillacs than you’d see even in Fort Lauderdale around early bird dinner special time in mid-February.

Within the cube, cryptically referred to as “The Source” by its marketing team and by the come-latelies who have only known it as the flagship of “The Source” mall instead of as the stand-alone temple to Long Island taste it was for so many years, are enough high end baubles and textiles to make Martha Stewart not only need to change her foundation garments but to replace them with fine damask panties sewn from materials in the drapery department. Diamond rings available for $5,000 in Manhattan were consumed here like potato chips despite their $8,000 price tags;  sets of china destined to be eaten upon once a year and to otherwise reside in the future dusty basements of affluent newlywed shared floorspace with $3700 espresso machines. If time is money, the watches offered within the tens of yards long display cases cost too much to be bothered with keeping it– anyone who could afford them could surely afford to buy more time when needed.

The floors were packed with ladies, more in Yves St. Laurent or Gucci than in Dolce & Gabbana, ogling multi-carat emeralds, checking the time before their lunch reservation on their Cartier watches. For a store that doesn’t sell clothing but only housewares & jewlery the fashion parade was astounding. On the rare occasion that a man wearing a wedding ring was seen walking the broad aisles alone in any months other than November or December, you could be sure that he had recently been busted with either his secretary or his wife’s best friend; the number of zeroes on the price tag for the bracelet in his sweaty palms was a dead give away as to which.

All that being said, Fortunoff’s was an institution; whether it was so in the tradition of Dix Hills and Bedlam or in the tradition of Harrods is a fairly debated point. It followed the trajectory of New York and ultimately Long Island consumerism– when it started early in the century it was a Mom & Pop cookware store in Brooklyn that grew up and moved to the Island with its clientele (ever wonder how Lynbrook got its name? Reverse the syllables and you have your answer…). With the comfort and affluence that came with suburban life, Fortunoff’s became the much tonier forerunner to the Linens’n’Things that fill the market for housewares today– you wouldn’t dare to think of buying your draperies, your dishes, your bathroom tchotskies anywhere else for fear that Myrna might find a Macy’s label on something when she was rifling your linen closet while ostensibly using the powder room during a fondue party. With the Long Island boom of the Sixties, Seventies, Eighties and Nineties it became an excuse not to trudge all the way into the Diamond District of the city to buy extraordinarily expensive jewelry, completing the nightmare existence of Fortunoff’s for Long Island’s salary men. In time it came to be the arbiter of social standing– if you didn’t keep your wedding registry at Fortunoff’s it denoted you as someone whose friends couldn’t afford the finer things for sale on Long Island, the kiss of social death and surely the wrong way to start off in married life amongst the doyennes of Garden City or the Five Towns. It simply wouldn’t do, it just wouldn’t do at all.

Now, as Long Island’s unbridled economic consumerism seems as far away as the booms that the Concorde used to shed over its beaches, Fortunoff’s long run as the hub of that consumerism has come to an end, leavign a void to be occupied but never filled by Costco, by Macy’s, by Kay Jewelers down the road at the mall. Fortunoff’s is no more, and if you think I’m overstating the case, you should have seen the obituary given Fortunoff’s by last Sunday’s New York Times Long Island Section, complete with lofty quotes from the mourners beset by woe at the loss of their dear friend.

If Fortunoff’s was a temple to greed, excess, and AMEX Gold Cards during its lifetime, though, it was a 100,000 square foot torture chamber for the unlucky kids dragged from their peaceful WiffleBall and ATARI existences to serve at the altar. As one of the victims of sporadic Saturday trips to the Westbury flagship store, I have but one good memory amongst the pain of debates about draperies on the third floor and the endless circling of the kitchen department on the first– for some reason, one never adequately explained or even hinted at, there was an authentic Japanese pachinko machine set smack in the middle of a sea of Royal Doulton and fine Limoges China. Playing with its silver balls, watching them bounce through the pins, was the one thing that provided solace to the souls of the children called there to witness the acquisitive orgy taking place before the gaze of the twin gods Cuisinart and Patek Phillipe… and, in an exercise in cruelty that was the epitome of Fortunoffs to the nine year old boy, they put the god damned thing in the middle of an acre of breakable, wildly expensive dishes. That little boy wearing a CHIPS t-shirt, ToughSkins jeans, tube socks and Pony sneakers still cries out from within the man– Damn you, Fortunoff’s, damn you to liquidation!

Still, though, the passing of any chapter into history, no matter how cherished nor how silly, deserves respect. To those who will miss Fortunoffs, to my parents and the parents and grandparents of my friends, to my brother and sister-in-law, to the legions of little old ladies who struggle daily under the weight of the jewelry they bought there in better times… wanna head a bit down Old Country Road to Ben’s and toast the old girl with a Doctor Brown’s Black Cherry and a half sour from the relish plate, maybe a pastrami on rye? That much I can do for a store and an era in retailing the likes of which we will likely never see again.

Posted in American History, Cultural Phenomena, Economy | Leave a Comment »

Skivvies and Soundwaves

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 10, 2009

Sometimes the greatest crises start in the silliest ways.

Earlier this week, in what on the surface sounds like a navalized version of the Keystone Kops, Chinese fishing boats and coastal patrol boats surrounded and harassed an unarmed American ocean surveillance ship, the USNS Impeccable, waving large Chinese flags and taunting the crew while generally making life uncomfortable for the much larger ship. When Chinese seamen tried to snag the long sonar cables that Impeccable was towing, the American crew turned high pressure fire hoses on the Chinese… who promptly stripped to their underwear and continued taunting until the American ship departed the area.

It all sounds very juvenile, a slightly higher stakes game of penis waving on the high seas. In reality, it was the largest incident in a week-long series of events that portend major problems for US-PRC relations as Chinese Premier Hu Jintao prepares for his initial meeting with President Obama in two weeks.

USNS Impeccable is, without question, an interesting ship. Operated by the US Military Sealift Command, Impeccable is an “ocean surveillance” ship, whose stated mission is oceanographic research and investigation. It is, of course, in actuality a major intelligence platform, part of the Surveillance Towed Array Sensor System (SURTASS) system tasked to gather intelligence on and keep track of enemy submarine forces. Impeccable carries the most sophisticated and sensitive sonar arrays in the American inventory, capable of locating and tracking submarines at ranges of hundreds of miles under the right circumstances and also making recordings which can be enhanced and downloaded to the fleet and by which our submarines and surface combatants can positively identify enemy subs. Given that Impeccable was operating in international waters off of China’s new submarine base at Hainan Island, its mission was clearly tracking the new generation of Chinese subs stationed there.

To understand the Chinese sensitivity to spying on its submarines it is necessary to look back at the 1995-’96 Taiwan Straits Crisis. The Chinese, in the run-ups to the 1996 Taiwanese elections, decided to flex their muscles to dissuade Taiwanese voters for voting for a pro-independence government by conducting a series of “missile tests” that overflew Taiwan and several live fire exercise in the Taiwan Strait. Responding to the Chinese provocations, President Clinton ordered Navy Carrier Battle Groups (CBGs) into the area, with USS Nimitz transiting the Strait in December of 1995 and then again in March 1996 with the USS Kitty Hawk battlegroup. The Chinese got the message—if American CBGs could operate in the Strait, they could destroy China’s economic and military heart, which exists along the Chinese Pacific Coast. This changed China’s entire military development program, causing them to see the Taiwan Strait as the key to their national sovereignty. As it is realistically very difficult to challenge America’s CBGs from the surface or air, China turned to the third attack venue—undersea—to stop America from threatening the Chinese littoral again.

China has spent extraordinary amounts of money over the past decade in developing its attack submarine forces in the hope that swarms of Chinese subs could make entering the restricted waters of the Taiwan Strait too risky for the American carriers, standing them off to the fuel limits of their embarked air wings and thus greatly complicating American participation in any future PRC-Taiwan crisis. The quality of the newer Chinese nuclear subs, however, is extremely questionable—the Chinese are not, to be polite, particularly good at naval development and have suffered many problems in their undersea programs. Their boats are quite noisy, the kiss of death for a sub, and their seaworthiness has not been demonstrated to be adequate for extended operations on a regular schedule. There is a school of thought, however, that suggests the newer Chinese boats coming on line have been relieved of those problems, hence the extreme interest of the United States in learning all that we can about them. Are the boats capable? The Chinese certainly want us to believe so whether they are or not, and they certainly don’t want us to learn enough to make a decision either way.

Enter Impeccable, Chinese sailors in the skivvies, and two incidents earlier in the week in which Chinese military aircraft buzzed American ships and in which a Chinese destroyer cut in front of the bow of a US ship and you have the beginnings of a Chinese power play.

China has long maintained that its economic and security interests are not limited to the twelve mile international waters boundary acknowledged by all nations and they have attempted to exercise that claim on many occasions, the most famous of which was when a Chinese J-8 fighter rammed and forced down a US Navy EP3 surveillance aircraft at… wait for it… Hainan Island in April of 2001, causing a several week long crisis that saw the Chinese first downing the aircraft and then engaging in that most Chinese action, disassembling it to steal its technology.

The Chinese were trying to do something very similar with Impeccable when they got doused with the fire hoses—they were using their boat hooks to try and snag and steal the sonar towed array cables being pulled by the ship while at the same time trying to exercise their claim on waters far beyond those they are entitled to.

Given the timing, with the first meeting between Hu and Obama on the near horizon, it is easy to imagine what the Chinese are up to. With America in financial crisis and with its military distracted by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, China is trying to upset the balance of power quickly before America under Obama can regain its footing. It’s hard to blame them—they are in no position to directly challenge an America that can respond at full strength, so why not challenge America while it is still weakened from the misadventures of the previous Admin and under financial pressure that China can make worse? In some ways this is very much like the Soviet provocations that accompanied the beginning of the Kennedy Administration; the question now is whether or not Obama will respond from strength, sending Impeccable and its sister ships back to the waters off of Hainan with a military escort or whether he is too constrained by China’s economic position to do so.

Undoubtedly Hu will come to the meeting with demands that the United States back off in the East Pacific, Yellow and South China Seas or else China will have to consider economic actions detrimental to the United States. The gravity of those threats will be easily determined—if they are made publicly or are allowed to leak very quickly, then China will be placing its prestige and power on the line by directly challenging America, signaling that they think they have a seriously strong hand. If they are made quietly and without fanfare, then they are merely a test of America’s resolve. China has traditionally been hesitant to engage in open confrontation, preferring the subtle maneuver to the exercise of main force. This will be an interesting exercise in power for both sides. Expect to see China take steps on the economic front in the coming ten days, perhaps a Chinese professor giving a “major interview” questioning the continued wisdom of helping the US economy or perhaps a signal from China’s Central Bank that it is considering dumping US Treasuries, to ratchet up the pressure on Obama.

We all know the ancient Chinese curse about living in interesting times. It will be a major test of Obama’s capacity to lead in seeing if he can make China’s life equally interesting.

Posted in China, Economy, Foreign Affairs, Intelligence (and lack thereof), Submarines, Warfare | 2 Comments »

Quote of the Day March 3, 2009

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 3, 2009

“Love sees sharply, Hatred sees even more sharp, but Jealousy sees the sharpest for it is love and hate at the same time.”  — Arab Proverb

Posted in Quote of the Day | Tagged: , , , , | Leave a Comment »

Spy vs. Spy in Guinea-Bissau

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 3, 2009

One of the best features of the old Mad Magazine was the brilliant Spy vs. Spy comic strip. For those who don’t recall it or weren’t Maddicts like I was as a pre-teen, two beak faced spies, one all in white, one all in black, would spend the panels of the strip plotting heinous, Roadrunner vs. Coyote type traps for one another, usually involving a surprise bomb or someone popping out of some strange place to blast the other’s head off. It was great stuff as a kid and it’s actually still pretty funny if you find them on line. When a Spy vs. Spy strip comes to life, however, it isn’t quite as much fun.

Guinea-Bissau is a tiny, poverty ridden nation at the extreme western margin of the African continent, prominent for little besides being little. A former Portugese colony, Guinea-Bissau became an independent nation in 1974 and has seen little go right before or since. Its people are well fed by the Atlantic Ocean so it is not subject to the starvation that besets so much of Africa, but it has no oil, no manufacturing base and a geography that doesn’t lend itself to much valuable enterprise.

Except one. Drug smuggling.

The Bolango Archipelago sits immediately offshore Guinea-Bissau’s western beaches and is rife with tiny, isolated desert islands, making it an outstanding base of operations for South American drug cartels seeking to move product across the Atlantic and into Europe. It is estimated that 800 kilos of cocaine pass through the archipelago each week, worth billions of dollars and making drug transshipment by far the nation’s leading economic sector. The drugs are are transported to Guinea-Bissau by aircraft flying from the East Coast of South America or are shipped via freighter and dropped offshore, where they are collected by smugglers from the archipelago who repackage them into transit packs and send them to Europe via established smuggling routes. The government has long been a partner of the South American cartels, with longtime strongman-President João Bernardo "Nino" Vieira profiting mightily from the trade.

Vieira’s complicity in the drug trade was recently a major issue in Parliamentary elections in Guinea-Bissau, which featured uncomfortable questions for the President and the first stirrings of an overthrow since Viera retook power in 2005 after having been deposed himself in a coup several years earlier. Deciding that action must be taken to quiet the anti-Viera, ani-Cartel forces in the country, Viera apparently ordered the assassination of the Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Sunday night, having General Batiste Tagme na Waie blown to the proverbial smithereens by a bomb placed in his car. Upon learning of the unanticipated and widespread distribution of their General, the military seems to have taken exception to Mr. Vieira’s policies and responded by shooting him in both knees and removing with a pair of scissors the parts of the body that men are often most fond of before shooting him in the head.

It was a bad weekend to be a leader in Guinea-Bissau. They all seemed to go to pieces.

The interesting thing about all of this is the manner by which General Waie was removed from the scene. West Africa, sadly, is no stranger to assassinations and killings; they seemingly happen constantly and almost always the same way– by shooting. In fact, nobody I’ve seen interviewed on the topic can seem to recall the last time a bomb was used to kill a West African leader.

Portions of South America do, however, see many killings by way of explosives wired into people’s cars, especially in Colombia, Ecuador, and Bolivia. That raises an uncomfortable possibility, that the assassination of General Waie was either facilitated or carried out by Cartel operatives moving to ensure their continued de facto control of GUinea-Bissau by Vieira’s narco-friendly regime. In other words, they were protecting their own.

Far looking geopolitical thinkers recognize that Africa will be one of the major locations of interest as this century unfolds, with China and India looking for space to grow, with natural resources abundant but poorly exploited, with a population that largely continues to struggle far below the standards of the rest of the world and thus potentially easy to manipulate or otherwise control. The forces of Islamization are snaking further west and south as Iran and Saudi Arabia become major players in sub-Saharan Africa. The United States under the Bush Administration considered improving relations with sub-Saharan Africa to be a major foreign policy objective, a policy which will be continued under the Obama Admin. In its waning days the Soviet Union turned its gaze on Africa, as well, and in a novel way– by sending legions of Russian Orthodox missionaries into the countryside to convert the populace to their faith and establish an affinity where no natural one had existed, a tactic which has been revived by the Putin-Medvedyev cadre. Is it then possible that we’ve all been ignoring a major non-governmental player in Western Africa, and one that not only is actively seeking power but that has already effectively taken ownership of an entire nation? If, as now seems obvious, the South American drug cartels have taken control of the nation of Guinea-Bissau one has to wonder what else they are controlling in Africa and other corners of the world not often gazed upon by the West.

In this Spy vs. Spy scenario, we’re going to need more colors than just black and white.

Posted in Africa, Foreign Affairs | Tagged: , , , , , , , | 3 Comments »

The Man of Steele Bends

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 3, 2009

I just have to do a quick followup to yesterday’s story on Rush Limbaugh, the new face of the Republican Party. Apparently Mike Steele, the latest Chairman of the RNC, decided to take back what was supposedly his and fired on Maximum Leader Rush Limbaugh… with  predictable results.

While Rush was bloviating at the CPAC podium on Saturday night, The Man of Steele was sitting down with D.L. Hughley on his odd news-entertainment hybrid on CNN. Maybe Steele thought nobody was watching (not a terrible assumption, given the venue), but as it turns out at least a few folks had tuned in.

During the segment on Hughley’s show, the Man of Steele put on his RNC cape and leotard and let loose a mighty blast– he called Rush Limbaugh “ugly”, “incendiary”, and the big one, “an entertainer”. Memo to Mr. Steele– when you fill the role of a figure head, you do not call the eminence gris an entertainer or similarly minimize his role. It turns what was gris into a tres vive rouge.

A wise man once said that you don’t tug on Superman’s cape, you don’t spit into the wind, you don’t pull the mask off the old Lone Ranger and you don’t mess around with, uhm, Rush. Well, let’s toss that out the window since we now see that when the Man of Steele messed around with Rush that Rush had no problem tugging on his cape, wedgying his leotard and otherwise stuffing him back in the phone booth. You see, Rush, when challenged, tends to do what every bully does– he gets louder and louder until he drowns out the offender and gets his way. If you are the parent of a toddler, you recognize the tactic. As it turns out, the temper tantrum is an extremely effective tool of rule when you run the Republican Party.

Limbaugh has come back with his Kryptonite blaster blazing, effectively calling Steele a gutless wonder. From Mr. Limbaugh’s radio show yesterday:

“Mr. Steele, your spokesman sounds like the RNC wants ’em to fail, to me. You’re opposing ’em. You say the American people are growing weary of it, getting suspicious of it. But it’s not just Pelosi’s spending. It’s Obama’s. Where are your guts? Why can’t you tie Obama to these policies? They’re his! Where are your guts? (interruption) Strangely, they don’t want me doing the dirty work because when I go out there and, quote, unquote, do the dirty work, they try to cut me off at the knees for doing so. The point is, when you read that statement from Alex Conant, they’re opposed to the Obama agenda, too, they’re just too gutless to say so, and they get frightened when they hear the words, “I want Obama to fail.” “Oh, no, no, no, we can’t be associated with that.” “

Ouch. In one shot, Mr. Limbaugh, who moments earlier on the show said it was crazy that people think he is running the RNC for if he was he’d quit over the sad sack shape it was in, not only contradicts himself with that quote and demonstrates that he is actually running the Party and setting its message but also calls out the Man of Steele as a coward and too stupid to get out a very basic message– the the Republican Party wants Barack Obama to fail and for the national crisis to worsen.

What response dis this draw from the Man of Steele? Surely as the elected Chair of the RNC he would stand up for himself, put the “entertainer” in his place, assert his leadership and prove that the RNC, which has been accused of drifting for four years now with no sense of direction or overriding purpose, with the leadership it so clearly needs and wants. He is, after all, the Man of Steele, no? His response, via Ben Smith’s blog…

“My intent was not to go after Rush – I have enormous respect for Rush Limbaugh,” Steele said in a telephone interview. “I was maybe a little bit inarticulate. … There was no attempt on my part to diminish his voice or his leadership.” …

“I went back at that tape and I realized words that I said weren’t what I was thinking,” Steele said. “It was one of those things where I thinking I was saying one thing, and it came out differently.  What I was trying to say was a lot of people … want to make Rush the scapegoat, the bogeyman, and he’s not. I’m not going to engage these guys and sit back and provide them the popcorn for a fight between me and Rush Limbaugh,” Steele added. “No such thing is going to happen. … I wasn’t trying to slam him or anything.”

…or not. The Man of Steele bent in the howling wind issuing forth from the Maximum Leader’s mouth just as Congressman Gingrey and so many other have done before him. The fact is that Rush Limbaugh is running the RNC and that nobody is willing to challenge his overwhelming authority, not the Republicans in the House, not the Republicans in the Senate, not the Republican Governor’s Association… and certainly not the RNC Chairman.

Posted in American Politics, Cultural Phenomena | 3 Comments »

Rushing to the Forefront

Posted by Bob Kohm on March 2, 2009

Speaker of the GOP Rush Limbaugh

Speaker of the GOP Rush Limbaugh

All hail Rush Limbaugh, the intellectual leader of the New Right.

Did you just feel that vibration coming up from the earth, through the seat of your pants? It was Mike Huckabee, Newt Gingrich and the rest of the 2012 GOP hopefuls quaking.

Yesterday morning Rahm Emmanuel provided a glimpse into the political strategy of the White House on Face the Nation when he acknowledged Limbaugh as being the face of and controlling influence behind the national conservative community. Limbaugh himself must be delighted with the Presidential imprimatur that comes with that acknowledgment as are many in the rank and file of Limbaugh’s listeners– the way to Limbaugh’s heart is clearly through his ego, as even a casual observer must note. Not so happy are the thinking members of the Republican Party and certainly the leadership of the Party; being labelled the intellectual acolyte of Limbaugh is not only gauling to them, it is also politically dangerous.

As the self proclaimed high priest of the “I Pray Obama Fails” clique, Limbaugh has set himself at a goal that is counter to what should always be the first cause of all Americans no matter their philosophy or political bent– the prosperity and well being of our nation and our people. That is the glue that holds our nation together as a cohesive unit, that desire for what is best for our country; it is, literally, the unifying concept that defines us as a nation. To come out and say in so public a manner as Limbaugh has that you hope our President fails and thus our nation’s situation and peril grow worse– that’s an unfortunate tack to be sailing. Today our nation faces its greatest financial challenge since the Depression, as we’ve all had ingrained into ourselves by the constant drumbeat of financial failure and fraud; Americans are losing their jobs at a horrifying pace, they’re losing their homes, they’re losing their children’s educational future. Our economy contracted almost seven percent in a quarter and our personal debt loads ever increase as lenders jack our credit card rates to stratospheric levels even while we are denied credit for cars, homes and emergency repairs– imagine for a second what it would be like for you, personally, if you suddenly needed to buy a new heating and cooling system tomorrow, or if you needed to do a major sewer repair costing thousands of dollars.

For political gain, Rush Limbaugh effectively is hoping that the situation grows even worse, that your pain increases, that the money now being spent is wasted to no effect.  What better time for President Obama to acknowledge his intellectual leadership of the Republican Party?

The GOP has fed the talk radio beast since the early 1990s and has enjoyed some extraordinary benefits from its advent and growth; it fueled the “Contract With America” programs of the Gingrich Congress, it promoted the culture wars ethos of the Religious Right, it weighed in, some might say decisively, on the 2000 vote recounts and battles that saw its favored son, George W. Bush, installed in the Presidency against the will of the majority of voters and then re-elected to a second term largely on the wings of a smear campaign against his opponent’s Vietnam War record. As a tactical weapon, Republican Talk Radio has been extraordinarily useful, and no organ of Republican Talk Radio has played louder or more consistently that Limbaugh, who now professes a desire for our President to fail in ending a crisis and for our national and personal peril to deepen.

It has often been said that an untrained person with a handgun is a greater danger to himself than he is to his assailant as the most likely outcome of a confrontation is that his gun will be taken and used against him. Rush Limbaugh is now that gun, and Rahm Emmanuel has grabbed it and pointed it very steadily at the GOP.

By making Limbaugh the public’s perception of the thinking of the GOP  Emmanuel has taken a group and philosophy that represents a large if shrinking portion of America’s voters and turned it into the preserve of fringe lunatics, praying for the failure of our nation and the increased power of our enemies and rivals. My brother, an Assistant District Attorney and trial lawyer, once taught me an important lesson about public perception– the one thing that nobody wants to be thought of as is “silly”. When in front of a jury, the one thing you want to impart is that in order to find for the defendant you must accept something that is “silly” and thus become silly yourself. That lesson is tailored to this situation; Emmanuel has pointed out how silly Limbaugh’s stance is while at the same time making it representative of the GOP; in order to support the GOP you too must be silly. It’s a deceptively powerful tactic.

The GOP has even further imperiled itself in this by its actions of a few weeks ago, when Georgia Republican Congressman Phil Gingrey was forced to apologize to Rush Limbaugh for daring to opine that it was easier for Limbaugh and Sean Hannity to talk about opposing the president than it was for a Congressman to actually do it. The pageant of shame that Gingrey was forced to play his very public role in was astounding– an elected Congressman being forced to publicly kiss the ring of a popular entertainer was horrifying to John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, but they also saw the necessity of doing it for Gingrey. In that vision, they saw their control of the GOP slip away and Rush Limbaugh’s role pass from cheerleader to Quarterback. That Obama and Emmanuel saw it as well and would eventually emphasize it was fait accompli.

As Rush Limbaugh, the Speaker of the GOP, calls for lockstep, unwavering opposition to a very popular President and what has rapidly become a surprisingly popular Congress and then takes it a step beyond in publicly calling for the failure of our nation’s policies and the deepening of our national pain there is no force in the RNC or GOP at large who can seemingly oppose him. The dog has taken control of the master as talk radio, with all its fuming opprobrium, displaces the hand on the dial that created and for so long controlled it.

The tactical move by Obama & Emmanuel is underlain by a strategic understanding of the situation in general that the GOP never did achieve; does anyone else recall the claims by many in the Conservative Media during 2007 and 2008 that the Kossacks and NetRoots would undermine the Democrats and the “weak” Obama in particular and draw them so far to the left that they would become unpalatable to mainstream America? Clearly the blogosphere and the New Media as embodied by HuffPo and TPM are the belated but extremely modern response to Republican Talk Radio, and surely the Daily Kos crowd has tried to stake a claim to running the ship it is supposed to be crewing. A funny thing happened on the way to that mutiny, however; Obama was elected on a moderate platform and appointed a bipartisan Cabinet that emphasized effectiveness and intellect over philosophical purity, much to the chagrin of the NetRoots. That disappointment should terrify the RNC as a repeat of their mistakes is not evidently coming for their rivals.

At this point no matter whom the GOP nominates in 2012 Mr. Obama will be running against Rush Limbaugh, not Mike Huckabee, Mark Sanford, Mitt Romney or Sarah Palin.  Of course, that might not make much of a difference as the eventual nominee will need the pre-approval of the GOP’s new maximum leader, Rush Limbaugh. All hail.

Posted in American Politics, CongressCritters, Cultural Phenomena, Obama Positions | 3 Comments »

 
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