Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Happy Only Two More Days of Having to Be Nice Day!

Today, I'm going to actually do it. I'm going to finally come out of the closet...

...about my deep and enduring affinity for Christmas. For pure fun and good times value, nothing tops it. Not even Chanukah. There: I said it. I'm sorry, Mom.

But I should also qualify this: What I really mean to say is that I have a deep affinity for Christmas time and all its dazzling splendor, as opposed to the actual commemoration of the holiday itself, whose meaning only begins to make sense to me midway through my fourth Fat Tire. As offensive as this will sound to most devout Christians, it never ceases to amaze - and startle - me to think that a holiday with such religious heft hinges on the assumption that a baby-god was once born of a virgin. And we're not talking about some floozy from around the way who's known for doing everything but. This is Mary - a blessed woman, a veritable saint - not some frizzed-out hood rat from Paramus. And out of all the pristine women of Galilee, somehow she was the one who popped out a kid? That's right out of a John Carpenter movie, and it frightens me.

So there's that.

Also, nothing says CIRCUMCIZED PENISES STAY HOME quite like a midnight mass with an all-boys choir singing "Sweet Little Jesus Boy"

So then what is it about Christmas that seduces a cynical Jewish kid from Upstate New York into purchasing and erecting a Christmas tree in his living room a whole month before the big day? (And no, fence-straddlers, there is no such thing as a "Chanukah Bush," unless...never mind. Too easy and sleazy.) Because, as you can clearly see, the religious significance of one of the holiest days on the Christian calendar has about as much impact on me as Purim has on the Pope.

It's the season of Christmas that takes firm hold of my Star of David and yanks it off my neck with one quick, joyous jerk right around the first of every December - the Christmas season, with its unapologetic collision of unbridled sentimentality and decadent splendor, ceremoniously ushered in with the transformation of prosaic suburban enclaves into Santa's Workshops and wintry wonderlands.

Really, how can anyone with a fully intact human soul remain impervious to the mirth, pageantry, and all-too-tiny window of altruism that permeates the American psyche for no fewer than two weeks each and every year?

Even the most curmudgeonly of cynics must concede that the season's aura and energy inches us closer together, albeit temporarily, narrowing yawning divides between strangers and adversaries.

Go ahead - ask yourself:

Who's not going to hold the door for a mall elf?

Aren't you more likely to reconcile with an estranged co-worker during an office Christmas party, as opposed to an office birthday party?

Aren't you just a little less likely to come unhinged at the DirecTV customer support rep. after being placed on hold to "Silent Night" as opposed to Kenny G's rage-inducing "Songbird"?

And, finally, is there or is there not a greater likelihood of you letting that Camry into your lane upon discovery that the driver is wearing reindeer antlers?

For pure fun and good feelins' value, Christmastime is a perfect 10. Chanukah cannot hope to compete with the season's unstoppable colassus of warmth and happiness. Extract and isolate the secular aspects of Christmas day itself from the rest of the season's festivities, and it would alone remain an amazing, splendid magical force. Especially for children.

But like countless other little Jewish kids, I was an outsider looking in at a mystical realm of joy, happiness, and abundance. The lights were luminescent, the trees gorgeous, and the songs sung in English. I sought refuge not in the lighted menorahs or the harmonic redundancy of "Dreidel, Dreidel, Dreidel" and "Chanukah, Oh Chanukah," (Why must all Chanukah songs possess insufferably repetitive lyrics, my kid brain often wondered. Do they think I'll be convinced about the holiday's coolness by chanting the phrase "Festival of Lights" one more goddamn time?) but in the downplaying of the spirit of Christmas. Gentiles wonder how Jews can be so proficient at the arts of denial and bitterness. Easy: We start early.

Santa Claus? Who wants to be around that red, hot, drunk mess? Christmas trees? I guess they're okay - if you hate the environment. An endless panoply of presents? The embodiment of pure, egregious excess, mass consumption, and hyper-materialism. And unless Santa's workshop is in Hunan Province, those stockings just might be laced with something other than care.

And those were just the eight-year-olds talking.

Most Jewish parents find it difficult to comprehend their kids' Christmas envy. They shouldn't. Or perhaps Mom and Dad are also in deep denial:

Sweetie, why would you care about that pile of opulently-wrapped gifts - most of which conceal the newest, hottest toys of the season - beneath that majestic fir tree when you can light candles and say a prayer!

On second thought, you're absolutely right, Mom. I lost my head there for a minute. Now if you'll excuse me while I turn on the TV to watch the menorah lighting ceremony at Rockefeller Plaz - oh, wait...

...What I meant to say is I'm going to turn on the TV so that I can watch the Charlie Brown Chanukah sp - oh, wait...

And so on.

(Though, in retrospect, I do believe that the insipidly cloying tale of Rudolph could've been ramped-up a ton had the red-nosed reindeer instead been the only Jew or Muslim among his colleagues. Call him Reuben or Rachman. Just a thought.)

So for me, the Christmas season was a time of dread and isolation which was only exacerbated by being the lone Jew in Mrs. James' third-grade class.

Nevertheless, I had my suspicions about Mikey Stoneman - more commonly known back then as Messy Mikey, for the spillage of sticky matter that perpetually encompassed the area around his desk and for the permanent fudge ring that enveloped his slobbery mouth - who attempted to cast a subtle profile while partaking in all our class's Christmas festivities: Hunkered down at his desk in the back row of the classroom, Mikey devoured gingerbread men and candy canes during the class Christmas party, eagerly hung his disgraceful attempt at a hand-crafted Rudolph on the class' synthetic Christmas tree, and participated in the Secret Santa gift exchange. But there was always something amiss with Messy Mikey. First, the obvious: Stoneman. While not possessing the same cultural cache as Levi, Cohen, Abramowicz or Goldstein, for sheer Jewish-ness, you could do much worse than having Stoneman for a surname. Dr. Stoneman, Michael Stoneman, D.D.S., Mike Stoneman, PhD - yeah, it works just fine. To make matters worse, in one instance, I overheard little shiksa cutie-pie Emily Lewis ask Mikey what religion he was (she must've sniffed it out, too), and Messy responded by saying he was Christmas.

Emily: You mean Christian?
Messy: Oh. Yeah. Un-huh.
Emily: But you said Christmas.
Messy: (terrified silence)

That Mikey faked his way through the lyrics to Silent Night during music class was even more damning. And I'm sorry, but for a little Christian kid, that's just unacceptable. Hell, even I knew the lyrics to that one; it was a rare moment in which a nine-year-old boy could belt out the words "young virgin" with passion, conviction and impunity. So, of all the Christmas songs, how could a nice gentile boy who existed to annihilate gingerbread reindeer cookies not know all the lyrics to "Silent Night"? Impossible. Unless, of course, he was...JEWISH!

As Thanksgiving - with its typical absence of fun and presents - passed (From a child's perspective, Thanksgiving existed to venerate gluttony, inertia, and the banishment of everyone under the age of fourteen to an undersized foldout table in the corner of the kitchen, right beside the effusion of steaming Turkey entrails piled high in the trash) and as late-November grinded mercilessly into the holiday season, I inevitably felt that same seismic scar re-opening between my gentile classmates and me. They flooded into class each morning, their anxious eyes growing wilder by the day. They buzzed about their new lush Christmas trees or about well-apointed houses choked in labyrinthian strands of blinky lights. There was much talk about garland and tinsel and stocking stuffers, items that were as familiar to me at that moment of my life as income tax returns and Astroglide.

Mrs. James' Countdown to Santa, a homemade collage of magazine cutout Santa Clause images from back issues of Better Homes and Gardens, superimposed by a Bayer Aspirin calendar, swayed tenuously above the row of cubby holes in the back of the classroom. It just hung there, a garish, mocking reminder of my own personal countdown to jealousy and sullen introspection.

But deep inside, Christmastime was something that I exalted, yearned for, and ultimately envied with the hot intensity that no Jewish holiday could assuage. That's right. I said it. No Jewish holiday.

But what about Passover? you might ask. Well, sure: If thoughts of lamb shanks, Philistine armies, and plagues of locusts fill you with warmth and glee, then maybe it can compete. And, I'll tell you want: You enjoy gnawing on that unleavened bread and brisket; I'll be over here, helping myself to some of this action.

Okay, but what of Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish high holidays - the day of atonement? 'Nuff said.

Rosh Hashanah? The Jewish new year, sans noise makers, champagne, making out with strangers, Dick Clark, and Times Square. The shofar, or ram's horn, serves as our version of a noisemaker, though it takes years to learn how to properly blow into it (ahem...), thus rendering the object utterly useless for celebrants who actually want to, you know, have fun this year. For pseudo-Jews like me, the most gratifying aspect of Rosh Hashanah is the knowledge that the Jewish calendar exceeds that of the Christian's by almost four thousand years. (It's 5770.)

But unlike Messy Mikey, I had no latent desire to trade in my Star of David and yarmulke for a crucifix and communion wafer. I could care less about Christianity. But Christmas was another matter entirely.

In retrospect, I can't honestly recall the exact moment in my life when I finally let myself succumb to the ecstasy of the Christmas season, but I'm sure there was a cute gentile girlfriend or two along the way that helped ease me in that direction (my current fiance being the emphatic coup de grace). And as I grew older, I gradually realized that the joy and gratification of indulging in the holiday spirit far outweighed the white hot acid of Jewish guilt gnawing relentlessly at the frayed edges of my soul. As though that wouldn't have happened anyway.

But is it all a mirage? Is all the feel-good cheer the height of superficiality, or are does it leave a stronger, more enduring impression?

As with all questions that address the human condition, it probably depends.

The effects of Christmas cheer seem to work more as a drug of choice than an indelible cultural mindset. Like good weed, it's a mellow, pleasant, fleeting high that shouldn't be mistaken for our current national attitude toward charity and altruism. And so while the Christmas season has been known to help sew family grievances, increase the flow of money to the needy, and put a temporary halt to fierce and bloody military battles, the depth of its efficaciousness is limited by its ephemeral nature.

Rest assured, when Blu-Tooth Black Beemer Guy cuts me off on Ventura Blvd. doing fifty in late-July, clearing my front fender by mere inches, the spirit of the holiday season will be completely absent in my profanity-laced tirade, obscene gestures, and prayers for his imminent dismemberment.

Christmas cheer will also remain conspicuously dormant from my thoughts and wishes in February, while I wait a few extra moments to hold a door open for a woman at Target, only to have her dash past without any acknowledgement whatsoever.

And in April, when a diminutive blonde woman behind the wheel of a massive SUV lays into her horn as I wait for pedestrians to cross the street before taking my right hand turn, good tidings will go straight to hell as I whip around and flip blondie the angriest, most nauseous middle finger ever erected in the history of humankind. And in case, she misses the gesture, I will no doubt accompany and accentuate it with a merry FUCK...OFF!

Season's greetings.

To further belabor my point, could you fathom the driver of the Budweiser Clydesdale sleigh in this commercial yelling "Fuck off" upon getting sideswiped by the Coors dogsledding team? No? Exactly. And why not? Because it's fucking Christmas!

Disappointingly, and for whatever reasons, we humans simply haven't evolved to the point where we can collectively behave with unconditional decency and compassion for longer than three consecutive weeks at a time. Think of it as the holiday equivalent of Los Angeles County: Once you exceed its ill-defined boundaries, all bets for rationality, grace, and dignity are off. Drive too far south, and you're in gangland; too far east, and it's gun rack nation; too far west, and you're being devoured by Bull Sharks.

So, just as long as it's understood and accepted that everyone's going to be mean and nasty again come December 26th, we can move on and enjoy our holiday festivities for what they are.

For me, it's enough to supersede the holiday's darker inclinations - our slavishly Pavlovian drive to purchase the newest generation I-phone or X-Box whenever we hear Bing Crosby work his golden pipes, or the overwhelming sense of loneliness that can beset, harass, and plague people who are distanced or estranged from loved ones during a time of such ebullience.

Oh, but the lights!

And the presents!

And the crackling fireplaces, dangling stockings, sugar plums (never seen one, never eaten one, wouldn't know one if it were jammed down my esophagus - but SUGAR PLUMS!), festive caroling, and delusions of peace on earth.

Merry Christmastime, everyone!

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Friday, December 11, 2009

He's No Jesus

Okay, time for another quiz:

What does a president who is responsible for perpetuating two separate but simultaneous wars - one with no end in sight and another that was initially predicated on a pile of misinformation and lies - say when receiving the Nobel Peace Prize?

A.) "I realize how this must look (dry swallow), but I swear I really, really like peace (nervous laughter). Seriously - for the most part - I do."

B.) "If you think this is ironic, you should see my Franklin Mint White Power figurines."

C.) "War is like peace, except with rocket propelled grenades and tons of killing."

D.) "So yes, the instruments of war do have a role to play in preserving the peace. And yet this truth must coexist with another - that no matter how justified, war promises human tragedy. The soldier's courage and sacrifice is full of glory, expressing devotion to country, to cause and to comrades in arms."

You too, Obama? What in the hell happened to you? What happened to the kinder, gentler version of Hillary? What happened to the assurances of affordable health care, a cleaner environment, and vastly improved public education? What happened to the dovish commander-in-chief with the will, savvy, and moral compass to lead us out of two senseless wars so that we could get on with the business of rebuilding a flagging superpower? What happened to Black Jesus?

And, just in case you've forgotten, Oslo, it's the Nobel PEACE Prize. According to the Nobel Committee, it's supposed to be awarded " the person who shall have done the most or the best work for fraternity between nations, for the abolition or reduction of standing armies and for the holding and promotion of peace congresses."

It would've been a quaint gesture had the Nobel committee followed their own instructions and given the award to someone who's actually in some way responsible for bringing peace to a parcel of the world over the past year. Or, at the very least, the panel certainly could've awarded it to an individual who hasn't authorized "drone" attacks on Al Qaeda and Taliban strongholds that have been known to errantly kill innocent civilians. Or, might they have given it to someone who hasn't also authorized the outsourcing of torture to hotbeds of human rights such as Yemen, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, and Oman? There were other options.

Greg Mortenson is still building schools and promoting literacy for girls in Afghanistan.

Mir Hossein Mousavi is still inciting peaceful insurrection against Iran's oppressive dictatorial regime.

Hell, and if you wanted to add a little glitzy-glammy star power to the award, Brad Pitt is probably the most underrated actor-turned-humanitarian in the world.

Or, with the absence of Mother Theresa, there's always this option, if you wanted to fill the sexy quota for this year's honor.

Or how about this simple criterion: You cannot receive the Nobel Peace Prize if you have in any way, tangentially or not, been responsible for the death of another human being over the past year. Fair enough? No? Well...fuck.

I'm not deliberately trying kick the president when he's down; but I am definitely a stringent advocate of maintaing standards. Giving a rarefied peace award to a wartime president is just stupid, and it only serves to detract from its prestige (like The Learning Channel pandering to America's dumb gene by preempting most of its educational programming with twenty-seven different versions of "American Chopper").

Here's another quote from Obama's acceptance lecture:

"We must begin by acknowledging the hard truth that we will not eradicated violent conflict in our lifetimes. There will be times when nations - acting individually or in concert - will find the use of force not only necessary but morally justified."

Which is a powerful, if not valid, proclamation that's worthy of debate, discussion, and circumspection. But save it for a joint session of Congress, an Annapolis graduation ceremony, or even a State of the Union, because it's also a statement that's wholly inappropriate for a venue that has witnessed the pacific entreaties of Ghandi, Andrei Sakharov, Mother Theresa, Dr. King, Elie Wiesel, The Dalai Lama, and Aung San Suu Kyi.

We're slapped in the face with the realities of human frailty, indignity, and imperfection every day, but if there exists a venue for the idealistic notion of a world that averts the moral bankruptcy of violent conflict, it should be in the halls of Oslo.

Ironically, Obama even evoked a quote from King's acceptance speech from 1964: "Violence never brings permanent peace. It solves no social problem: it merely creates new and more complicated ones."

Note the absolutes in King's statement. Note also the absence of qualifiers and preconditions. In other words, note the absence of this:

Violence never brings permanent peace...unless, of course, you're extremely careful against whom you use it - like suspected terrorists, for instance. Then it's okay.

But King's actual Nobel speech offers no quarter for individuals like Obama, who choose to qualify or re-contextualize his words. For a man as morally intractable as M.L.K. Jr., there's no wiggle room; for politicians, statements such as these only offer value to the extent that they can be reinterpreted and ultimately stripped of their value.

Yet in his acceptance speech, Obama implied that King's words were anachronistic and borderline irrelevant to his current course of action:

"...But as a head of state sworn to protect and defend my nation, I cannot be guided by their examples alone. I face the world as it is, and cannot stand idle in the face of threats to the American people. For make no mistake: evil does exist in the world. A non-violent movement could not have halted Hitler's armies. Negotiations cannot convince Al Qaeda's leaders to lay down their arms..."

Oh, no: The Hitler card.

It's disappointing that an individual with the refined historical perspective of Obama compares the Al Qaeda terrorist network to Hitler's Third Reich. It's not the same, not even close.

The Third Reich was an omnipotent, destructive behemoth, steamrolling its way through Europe. The Nazis were well on their way to annexing the entire European continent until they were choked by both the U.S. and Russian armies on two separate fronts.

Al Qaeda is a web of loosely affiliated cells, operating mostly within the shadows and crevices of largely unwilling host nations. What makes Obama's comparison even more untenable is Al Qaeda's parasitic nature: It feeds on disillusion, disenfranchisement, poverty, and a tidal wave of anti-Americanism; attempts to bludgeon it with unrestrained military force or "counterinsurgency" have yielded disastrous consequences in both Iraq and Afghanistan, doing more to arouse regional anger and therefore bolster the network's ranks than any recruiting station every could.

Al Qaeda is as much a state of mind as it is a terrorist organization. It thrives on the myth and mystique of American military imperialism. Each American counterinsurgency campaign comes accompanied by another rash of civilian casualties, giving further credence to the half-twisted belief that America is indeed an imminent global threat, which only serves to stoke the ire of future operatives.

Familial, ethnic, and tribal ties are all integral to the the success and longevity of Al Qaeda, the Taliban, and other loosely affiliated terrorist networks. Ignoring their significance, as we often do, only serves to strengthen their stranglehold on Central Asia.

In his speech, Obama also notes that some wars are "just wars." And if, by "some" he means approximately two (give or take) in the past century, then he's correct.

The allied response to Germany's Third Reich, the Holocaust, and Imperial Japan in World War II was eminently just; the NATO response to Serbian genocide in 1996 was justified; putting the screws to the Sudanese government's Janjaweed death squad goons - chief culprits of the Sudanese genocide - would be morally justified. But how can one designate the interminable conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan as "just" when most Americans have no idea why we're there or what's truly at stake - or what the real consequences of inaction might be?

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

Morassistan Part I: Amateur Hour

All the good ones were already taken: Fuckedupistan, Whatthefuckistan, Ohfuckistan, We'refuckedistan, and so on. Therefore, in selecting a title for President Obama's latest no-win, no-way-out quagmire, I chose the name of a quagmire.

By the time I publish this, the president will likely have already given an earnest entreaty to the American public, outlining his administration's intentions and expectations for the invasion-turned-conflict-turned-war-turned-occupation-turned-crisis in Central Asia.

It's yet another perilous imbroglio for Obama, another toxic, stench-ridden carcass left behind by the most inept presidential administration in U.S. history that promises consequences global, historic, and possibly disastrous.

And it will likely be Obama's undoing.

That it's unfair to assess a first-term president whom, upon assuming office, was instantly saddled with a series of potentially cataclysmic conundrums - the global financial crisis, health care reform, a surge of violence in Iraq, a nuclear Iran, global warming, and Afghanistan-Pakistan - is beside the point. An individual with Obama's intelligence and perspicacity had to have realized that his decisions on these monumental issues would be fraught with indefinite outcomes, even in the most optimistic of scenarios. Or didn't he?

In addressing each of them, he's backtracked, preemptively compromised, and receded into the background, leaving lesser talents to fill the temporary progressive leadership vacuum. (Even the staunchest of Democrats have, by this stage, heard enough Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi sound bytes to wonder if their Green Party card from Nader's 2000 presidential push is a.) still valid and b.) still crammed inside that old O.P. velcro wallet, amidst the endless flotsam of a cluttered glove compartment.)

It wasn't supposed to be like this. This was our guy, a visionary with the perfect mix of thoughtfulness, guile, and geopolitical aptitude to actually fix things - a president with the intellectual wherewithal and intestinal fortitude to bolster America's moral standing and to assess crucial situations based on factual evidence and probable outcomes rather than political expediency or a love of Christ. For once.

But, as major office holders often do, Obama has become one of them, a mushy-middle talking point machine of the status quo. And like promising presidents before him, who sweep into office, crested upon a wave of idealism, optimism, and promises, Obama's ambitious agenda has been mutated by the realities of existing at the eye of every political storm in Washington, storms that L.B.J., Reagan, and Clinton used to their advantage but that men like Carter and Bush Sr. were ill-equiped to endure.

Nevertheless, in the final analysis, it is Obama and Obama alone who will be held fully accountable. For all of it.

In a more perfect world, Obama would've had more than a nanosecond to exhale following his tour de force, goosebump-producing, crush-inducing inauguration speech. Using his overwhelming popularity as a rallying point for supporters and a catalyst for a new era of progressive legislation, conservatives would've had little choice but to slink into the background (as they initially did), and Blue Dogs, with their ties to Big Oil, Big Pharma and Big Insurance, would've been forced to the left lest they face the prospect of irrelevance.

Consequently, I often wonder: What if instead of having to deal with all the defining crises of our generation from the outset, Obama had the chance to gain some political capital by first addressing less pressing issues?

Here's the first draft of your speech on the importance of fiber in a healthy diet, Mr President!

Here's your Stay in School speech, Mr. President: You're up right after Jay-Z and before the cast from "Stomp."

Don't forget your monogrammed yarmulke for the Tolerance Summit at Temple Beth Hillel, Mr. President!

Right over here, Mr. President, beside the shelter puppy and the formerly abandoned-in-a-Nike-shoe-box 3-legged kitten!

In the sage words of Billy Joel, it's just a fantasy.

Instead, with his hand forced tonight, Obama will futilely articulate his plan for the crisis of the moment. He will offer vague objectives and occasionally speak in abstractions, as a leader must when discussing an eight-year conundrum that has revealed a monumental dearth of preparation, aptitude, and follow-through on the part of highly-touted military advisors, past and present. He will not mention that it has lasted longer in duration than World War II or that it has already rung up a $300 billion tab. He won't mention the painfully obvious similarities to Vietnam or that even some of his closest advisors believe that it is a war that is un-winnable (or, even beyond that, one that's not worth winning).

He will, however, convey the following:

1. We must prevail in Afghanistan (whatever that means), lest it become a safe haven for Al Qaeda (which has long since departed); victory in Afghanistan means a safer, more secure America.

2. Part of the strategy for winning in Afghanistan will entail the training of Afghani military personnel. This will take time, commitment, and will require a shift in mindset among Afghani troops and military officials.

3. A "surge" of at least 30,000 additional U.S. troops will be necessary to engage "trouble spots" in mostly Southern Afghanistan's Helmond Province and the country's population centers.

3. Our commitment to Afghanistan will not be open-ended (no, really, we mean it this time).

4. Pakistan better stop playing grab-ass with the Taliban or else we're taking our ball and going home.

5. A series of platitudes to assure the American public that the deaths of servicemen and women will not be in vain, that the success of war is not measured in human casualties but in the triumph of freedom over tyranny (or some bullshit like that).

He'll say all of this and more. But it won't matter. He'll speak passionately, fluidly and forcefully; it won't matter. And he'll make numerous appeals that are alternately rational, intellectual, and visceral; but it won't matter. Because, in this world, there are disasters that can't be cleaned up, people that will never change, and riddles that aren't meant be solved. Afghanistan's one of them.

12/7 UPDATE: After listening to the West Point address, I turned out to be right regarding Obama's talking points, which proves only that I know how to read and retain information that other journalists (get paid to) research and write. One thing I overlooked, however, was the prospect of a timed troop withdrawal, a possibility I didn't think the president would have the gall to mention. But in his speech, Obama stated that a troop redeployment would commence, beginning in July of 2011 - a heartening announcement, to say the least.
"As commander-in-chief, I have determined that it is in our vital national interest to send an additional 30,000 U.S. troops to Afghanistan. After 18 months, our troops will begin to come home," Obama said.
12/8 UPDATE: Never mind. Apparently, that whole troop timetable withdrawal thing that Obama outlined in his address - and that The New York Times echoed in the following day's above-the-fold front page headlines - will be contingent on too many moving parts to be of much consequence. From Monday's Times:
In a flurry of coordinated television interviews, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and other top administration officials said that any troop pullout beginning in July 2011 would be slow and that Americans would only then be starting to transfer security responsibilities to Afghan forces under Mr. Obama's new plan...

..."We have strategic interests in South Asia that should not be measured in terms of finite times," said Gen. James L. Jones, the president's national security adviser, speaking on CNN's "State of the Union." "We're going to be in the region for a long time."
And now I'm really befuddled. Because, during his big West Point speech, Obama also said this:
"The absence of a timeframe for a transition would deny us any sense of urgency in working with the Afghan government."
And then this:
"This effort must be based on performance. The days of providing a blank check are over."
Which, while gratifying to hear, is evidently just more lip service being paid to the increasingly disillusioned American public. In fact, ever since Osama Bin Laden was eclipsed as America's boogyman-of-the-moment by Wall Street CEOs, the war has been devoid of any benchmarks or assessments whatsoever - which can occur in a senseless, bullshit war, er, I mean when the main objective remains mired in ambiguity and indecision. So if our occupation of Afghanistan can't be measured in terms of timetables, either (according to Jones, Gates, and Clinton), how will we ever know when we can leave? More from The Times:
During his recent inaugural address, Mr. Karzai said that Afghan forces would be able to take charge of securing Afghan cities within three years, and could take responsibility for the rest of the country within five years.
9/8 Update: Corrupt-to-the-marrow Afghan President - and former American puppet dictator - Hamid Karzai has announced that it'll take another 15-20 years for the country's military and police forces to be able to sustain themselves financially, logistically, and culturally. Defense Secretary Bob Gates agreed that it will be "some time before Afghanistan is able to sustain its security forces entirely on its own." Gates then added:
"Whether that is 15 or 20 years, we'll hope for accelerated economic development in Afghanistan."
And I'll hope for a pony who possesses a shock of silver fur through its mane and the power of song!

(Either way, neither is likely to happen and both will cost a shitload of cash. Admittedly, the pony might cost more. I still hope I get one.)

Then, on NPR's Morning Edition, after being pressed by the fearsome Steve Inskeep, the irrepressibly sanguine McChrystal finally conceded that it could take five years before Afghani forces are capable enough to handle securing their country without the U.S. military and NATO changing their diapers every ten minutes.

Five. Years. Minimum.

Why Obama insisted on announcing a hard withdrawal timetable in the first place was puzzling, unnecessary, and shockingly amateurish. Revealing his hand in such a naked way - and on such a critical issue - in front of a national audience was striking for a man who, a little over a year-and-a-half ago, emerged from a bruising primary battle with the Clinton political juggernaut, and then, six months later, elbowed his way past Republican slime machine with the wind of the world at his back.

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Friday, November 27, 2009

Now At Creaky Wheel: Hipster Pirates and The End of Thanksgiving

Two things I just learned:

1. Somali pirates officially have more Wii gear than I do (the bastards).


2. Being expected to give thanks is, like, so 2008.

(Special thanks to the lovely and talented Katie Melech for her crafts work.)

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Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Freak Show

Ladies and gentlemen, I give you your 2012 Republican nominee for President of the United States:

When Ms. Winfrey pressed Ms. Palin about why she would not mention the names of newspapers or magazines she read when Ms Couric asked her to, Ms. Palin said she found the CBS anchor's persistence "annoying." Still looking annoyed, she recalled how she left a rally "pumped up" and aglow only to pull back the curtain and discover Mr. Couric waiting with the camera and crew, or as she put it sourly, "There's the perky one again."
In other words, Katie Couric is too much woman to handle for the person who aspires to be the next leader of the free world.

Palin seems to have nicely filled the media vacuum left by the temporary absence of Bubble Boy and Octo-mom. And she will continue to be a headline grabber for as long as the American public continues to fetishize over her white-trash-wins-the-lotto rise to mediocrity. Or until a hermaphrodite has triplets after mating with itself.

But over the past several years, major newspapers like The Times have lamented the fact that they've been forced to slash staff and resources due to budgetary constraints. Yet somehow they've managed to allocate resources for covering the non-story of Sarah Palin's book release.

So why is The Times, a paper whose staple has always been hard journalism, pandering so unabashedly to the TMZ crowd?

And if she didn't have an impossibly luminescent smile, a quirky Fargo accent, and perfectly aligned cheekbones, would anyone even remember Sarah Palin's name at this point?

If 'Nanna Palin had a triple-chin, a uni-brow, runaway acne, 80's glasses, or a ba-donk-a-donk, wouldn't that just make her the ugly female version of Dan Quayle?

Remember him? No? Exactly.

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Should These Men Be in the Clink?

Andrew Jackson was instrumental in the systematic eradication of Native Americans; Harry S. Truman presided over the atomic destruction of Hiroshima and Nagasaki; Presidents Johnson and Nixon were both responsible for sending thousands of young men into the senseless meat grinder of Vietnam.

And even Barack Obama continues to advocate the Bush-imposed, CIA-sponsored drone missile program responsible for killing unknown quantities of Afghani and Pakistani civilians. From Jane Mayer's "The Predator War" in The New Yorker:
The first two C.I.A. air strikes of the Obama Administration took place on the morning of January 23rd - the President's third day in office. Within hours, it was clear that the morning's bombings, in Pakistan, had killed an estimated twenty people. In one strike, four Arabs, all likely affiliated with Al Qaeda, died. But in the second strike, a drone targeted the wrong house, hitting the residence of a pro-government tribal leader six miles outside the town of Wana, in South Waziristan. The blast killed the tribal leader's entire family , including three children, one of them five years old.
...because of the C.I.A. program's secrecy, there is no visible system of accountability in place, despite the fact that the agency has killed many civilians inside a politically fragile, nuclear-armed country with which the U.S. is not at war. Should something go wrong in the C.I.A.'s program - last month, the Air Force lost control of a drone and had to shoot it down over Afghanistan - it's unclear what the consequences would be.
Yes...we...can - kill civilians at will.

Is it still too early to label an (unofficial) Obama policy as stupid and rash? (That it was conceived by the Bush administration should've been enough evidence to give the current president and his war cabinet a looooooong pause. But no.)

No wonder why so much anti-American venom exists in areas of the world where we routinely tread. The U.S. has developed a well-earned reputation for arbitrarily imposing its will in any region in which it feels the pull of destiny - leaving an indelible footprint in the process - and often forgetting or dismissing the possibility that denizens of other foreign countries have national pride just like we do.

Imagine having your house errantly scrubbed off the planet by a drone fighter jet - an unmanned robotic flying machine, whose missles were loaded courtesy of a profit grubbing private contracting company. The flight would be piloted by a civilian in a cubicle in Langley, VA, who goes about the whole ordeal as though he's playing a fucking X-Box.
Using joysticks that resemble video-game controls, the reachback operators - who don't need conventional flight training - sit next to intelligence officers and watch, on large flat-screen monitors, a live video feed from the drone's camera. From their suburban redoubt, they can turn the plane, zoom in on the landscape below, and decide whether to lock onto a target.
So it's a tad disingenuous to feign surprise at all the global rancor that's frequently directed at U.S. And to chalk it all up to Stars and Stripes envy, as we often do, is the height of inanity - and ethnocentrism.

They're jealous of our freedom!
They're jealous of our liberty!
They're jealous of our way of life!


(In America, liberty and freedom are the verbal equivalents of the American Flag lapel pin: cheap, visceral triggers predictably overused by demagogue politicians to instantly transform nationalistic pride into fierce electoral or legislative support. These two words have been used to dupe Americans into doing everything from supporting various war policies to rejecting gay marriage and universal health care proposals. For Big Square State Americans, they've attained a kind of religious significance. But their meaning remains an abstraction to residents of the developing world, who more likely concern themselves with the more tangible concepts of peace and stability.)

The truth is, most citizens of the world would kill for our wealth; and by wealth, I mean the ability to adequately feed, clothe, and shelter themselves and their families. But as far as ways of life are concerned, I'd be willing to bet that most Afghani villagers would do fine without strip malls; cineplexes; The Real Housewives of Orange County; Healthy Choice; Hot Pockets; high fructose corn syrup; blue tooth; Blu-Ray; Going Rogue, Ford tough; trans fats; UPN; political attack ads; high-stakes standardized testing; health care rescission; pre-existing conditions; doppler radar; cable news gossip crawls; Bloomin' Onions; Crips, Bloods, and MS-13s; Nutra-Sweet; Cookie Crisp; sub-prime loans; hockey moms; Black Fridays; and exclusive interviews with Bubble Boy - providing they don't have to deal with their families being accidentally vaporized in the middle of the night by a viagra-fueled suburban dad with a receding hairline and a fancy for "Gears of War."

But back to our hypocrisy, which has achieved almost galactic dimensions. When civilian atrocities occur as a result of a foreign leader's misguided or bellicose policies, they're labeled war criminals - miscreants deserving swift and firm justice from the international community.

Slobodan Milosevic and Saddam Hussein were both depraved shitbags and deserved what they got.

But, in 2008, former Peruvian president Alberto Fujimori - a slimy, Machiavellian third-world hack of a politician - was brought up on charges of crimes against humanity for his government's ruthless campaign against the Shining Path, an oppressive extremist organization known for domestic terrorism (think Latin American Taliban - with Communists). Not surprisingly, Fujimori fled to Japan, hoping to evade criminal charges, but he was eventually extradited back to Chile and convicted of human rights abuses and corruption. He now sits in a prison cell when not performing nightly geisha shows for los hermanos of cell block C.

Now... your wildest dreams, can you imagine Bush Jr. ever idling in a prison cell? Can you ever fathom the Hague or the International Court of Justice charging him with war crimes, obstruction of justice, war of aggression, torture, intent to assassinate a foreign leader, or conspiracy to commit murder (all charges that could conceivably be levied against the former president)?

Will he ever even be investigated?

The answers to the above questions: No, no, no, and no. And that's because, when U.S. presidents engage in ruthless tactics that result in the death of innocents, it's justified as the inevitable price of war. Rarely is further explanation necessary, unless you consider "I'm the decider" to be sufficient. Naturally, the majority of the mainstream media rarely questions this claim, as they understandably have their hands full with hourly Sarah Palin "Will she or won't she?" updates.

The most recent evidence of Commander-in-Chief recklessness is the news of a 2007 bribery scandal in which key Blackwater (a private military contractor hired by both the State Department and the C.I.A. - and championed by the Bush Administration) personnel attempted to slime off hush money to Iraqi government officials in exchange for keeping quiet following a mass civilian slaughter by Blackwater storm troopers in Nisour Square, Iraq. In the end, 17 civilians were killed, including children who were murdered when at least one of the Blackwater reps hurled grenades inside a nearby school. From The New York Times:
Blackwater approved the cash payments in December 2001, the officials said, as protests over the deadly shootings in Nosour Square stoked long-simmgering anger inside Iraq about reckless practices by the security company's employees. Americans and Iraqi investigators had already concluded that the shootings were unjustified, top Iraqi officials were calling for Blackwater's ouster from the country, and company officials feared that Blackwater might be refused an operating license it would need to retain its contracts with the State Department and private clients woth hundreds of millions of dollars annually.
Now known by the West Hollywood gay rave club-esque name Xe, Blackwater was originally contracted out by the Bush Administration prior to the war in Iraq.

I'd speculate that just hearing a word as cryptically criminal as Blackwater would give a guy like Dick Cheney a massive boner (for him, at least). Blackwater! Maybe that's why the firm won an exclusive no-bid contract to further putrify Iraq with the stench of even more death and corruption. Or perhaps it was because Blackwater's former CEO, Erik Prince, started as an intern in Daddy Bush's administration. Or maybe it's that Prince had donated over $200,000 thousand to the Republican party by that point? Or that Prince is a fundamentalist Christ freak with a penchant for civilian carnage, just like Junior? It's difficult to pinpoint, really.

Blackwater was never actually affiliated with the U.S. military operation in Iraq. The firm was - and is -privately owned, which enabled it to operate free from the constraints of the naggy, sissified rules of combat by which American G.I.s must adhere.

And because Blackwater had carte blanche in Iraq for six years, the dark lords of the Bush Administration could always say, "We don't know anything about these guys: Their operation is completely independent from our jurisdiction."

Once again: Bullshit.

While the past and current presidential administrations continue to squirm away from their ties to profiteering firms like Blackwater, Haliburton, and KBL (at least publicly), citizens throughout the world forced to suffer at the hands of these immoral parasites have no choice but to associate their malicious deeds with U.S. policy.

I'm sure all of this makes me sound like an unappreciative, anti-American, communistic freedom-hater. Quite the opposite.

I've seen what this country can be: altruistic, unified, charitable, and even, at times, open-minded. We wept for the victims and families of 9/11 in '01; sent money, food, clothes, and volunteers after the disasters in Sri Lanka and then New Orleans (though far too late in the case of Katrina) in '05; ousted an inert, Republican-controlled Congress from the majority in '06; and elected an intelligent, thoughtful, black man to be our president in 2008.

America the Beautiful is also hegemonic, short-sighted, and ruthlessly self-serving. For better or worse, when our republic feels the least bit threatened, we collectively dust off the plastic CVS American Flags (made in China), flip on hi-def. cable news, turn our adversary's homeland into "Blade Runner," and tune out global outrage directed at us.

None of this is new information.

What's so galling is our leaders' refusal to ever admit even a scintilla of wrongdoing. Intoxicated by their vision of living in a world in which developing countries simultaneously resemble ours and yet submit to our every whim, they design policy around the unrealistic notion that cultures can be coerced into modernity, democracy, and...liberty.

Both Bush and Obama insist that the post-9/11 world in which we reside is a dangerous one. They're right. Genocide, civil war, and oppression abound. But living in the cross hairs of American foreign policy might be the most treacherous of all.

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Saturday, November 7, 2009

Creaky Wheel Special Report: Paas Easter Egg Kits Enable Iranians to Better Hate America

Click here to read about how Mullah Mullah sets Iranian youth on the path toward American contempt.

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Sunday, October 25, 2009

Creaky Wheel Special Reports: Naughty Lincoln and Lame-Ass Ghosts

Ah, Halloween: That most wonderful time of the year...

Click here and here to read me mocking it all.

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Sunday, October 18, 2009

A Violation of Kindergarten Fairness Part II: The First Tenet of EINKILK, A.K.A. Share Everything

For those who missed the previous post,

A. How dare you? And...

B. The following are ways in which we've all failed to live up to the tenets of the Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (EINKILK) poster from the early-1980s. For this week's EINKILK post, I will start with the tenet listed at the top of the poster:

Share Everything.

Seems easy enough, right? Too bad it goes against every imaginable aspect of human nature. That a shrill, piercing "MINE!" is one of the first words embraced by toddlers is probably not a coincidence. And that I look outside my window as I write this and see a quiet, suburban street lined with attractive homes, buffered by barriers of iron gates or stone walls - and in some cases, an impregnable combination of both - as their first line of defense against the scourge of emo teenage skateboarders, is indicative of a society that fetishizes over the concept of sole ownership.

Hilariously, one of the more opulent homes, set back amidst a phalanx of looming eucalyptus and fir trees, has a cutesy, Casper-inspired "Happy Halloween!" sign draped from its towering, perpetually locked iron gates, thus turning a generic autumnal salutation into an ominous threat.

Which begs the eternal question: How high would Jesus' impregnable wrought iron gate encompassing his estate be?

This obsession with sole ownership isn't restricted to Southern Californians and their preoccupation with material goods. I can recall, as a newspaper boy in suburban Upstate New York, having neighbors on my route with POSTED: NO TRESPASSING signs affixed to modest oak trees that loomed over perpetually muddy, postage stamp front yards. And the image of a paunchy middle-aged guy wearing the requisite stained wife-beater, brown dress socks, bermuda shorts, and plastic sandals, gaining increased satisfaction with every THUD as he hammers the nails to his NO TRESPASSING sign deeply into the pulp of said tree, was a continual source of wonder and amusement for my adolescent mind.

As we've seen throughout the past several months, our primal hoarding impulse, our pathological obsession with maintaining ownership over our stuff - no matter how shitty it is - has gone zoonotic, seamlessly pervading the health care reform debate while inhibiting any degree of substantive reform. From James Surowiecki's "Status Quo Anxiety" piece in The New Yorker,
Behavioral economists have established that we feel pain of losses more than we enjoy the pleasure of gains. So when we think about change we focus more on what we might lose rather than on what we might get. Even people who aren't all that happy with the current (health care) system, then, are still likely to feel anxious about whatever will replace it...

...After all, although people tend to feel that they own their health insurance, their entitlement is distinctly tenuous.
Macroscopically speaking, for the U.S. to even have a fighter's chance of achieving successful health care reform - and maintaining its slightly misnomered "superpower" status, for that matter - we need to collectively move away from this unwavering preoccupation with ourselves and closer towards a greater willingness to share in the sacrifices of building and maintaining a healthy, wealthy, just society. That means embracing the glimmering path towards socialism, then communism, then, ultimately, the liberal wet dream of fascist rule.

Just kidding, you nutty conservatives. Wipe the slobber off your faces.

I'm not talking about erecting mass communes and handing all our worldly possessions over to the Politburo. I'm talking about sharing. Something.

What that means, at least for the short term, is the willingness to play fair, to look out for our fellow citizens, to do what Mom said when she "asked" us to share our cookies with Tommy or Billy or Yuri or whomever that scrappy little kid was who switched schools mid-term and sometimes ate his own boogers but never had the good fortune of getting any cookies in his lunch to eat. (My mom: "I don't give a flying fig that he smells like vinegar. Give him at least two of your damn Newtons!)

When we shared our Fig Newtons with booger-eating Tommy for the first time, some of us discovered that there was great deal value in doing so. For one thing, Tommy was happier - not simply because he was inhaling processed yummy goodness but also because now he realized, consciously or not, that there was another kid in the godforsaken world of fourth grade who had his back.

Alliances are a good thing, whether they're forged with Moscow, Beijing, the house next door, or the kid at the end of the same lunch table.

And just maybe another kid sitting nearby took notice of your kindly gesture and adopted it as his own behavioral template. (Maybe tomorrow he tosses Tommy or another perpetually ignored kid a bag of Wise chips, cheese doodles, or the Holy Grail of junk food orgasms: the Hostess fruit pie.)

Believe it or not, kids commit these acts of kindness every single day. But this is hardly breaking news; it's common courtesy, kindergarten ethics. So at what point did we all become one great big pile of self-obsessed fancy-pants jack-offs?

For one thing, in a society that places a disproportionate emphasis on mass consumption and individual accomplishments and not nearly enough on the responsibility to one's community, the drive for altruism fades rapidly as we enter adulthood.

(Ah, isn't it about that time of year again - you know, when we start getting bombarded with all of those gauzy heartwarming ads in which the husband flashes his trophy MILF the keys to a brand new Lexus, which is, low and behold, waiting in the driveway wrapped in a red ribbon. Now, the wife's reaction has always fascinated me, as it ranges somewhere between a "So?" and a "You know, sweetie, this is just really thoughtful of you." Which has always seemed odd. Or maybe receiving a $50 thousand car on Jesus' b-day is really that prosaic for the super 1 percent. As an even bigger slap in the face to the already raw sensibilities of Americans struggling through an interminable recession, maybe this year an ad agency will put out a commercial wherein a B of A executive endorses a government-issued check over to Boeing, thus commencing the purchase of an upgraded private jet for his new mistress.)


...That the U.S. postures as the paragon of ethics and morality runs counter to the ways in which we actually deal with the less fortunate. In fact, the richest country on earth has:
  • 750,000 homeless
  • 131,000 homeless veterans
  • 37 million people living below the poverty line (larger than the entire population of California)
  • Approximately 45 million people without health insurance
  • 20 percent of all of its children currently receiving welfare
  • The top 1 percent of households owning 57 percent of all corporate wealth
  • An infant mortality rate that holds at 6.7 per 1,000 births (45th in the world)
  • An average life expectancy that ranks 50th in the world
  • Approximately 700,000 of its citizens file for medical bankruptcy each year. (In France, Britain, Germany, the Netherlands, Switzerland, Canada and Japan combined the number is zero.)
We need to start sharing our cookies again. Which means we - along with our leaders - need to stop bragging about how wonderful and bountiful we are and start behaving like the nation we could and should be. A nation more like...France. Again, from T.R. Reid's The Healing of America:
Whenever the French talk about health care, they invoke the concept of solidarite, the notion that all French citizens must stick solidly together to help one another in time of need. "The solidarity principle," explains Professor Rodwin, "requires mutual aid and cooperation among the sick and the well, the inactive and the active, the poor and the wealthy, and insists on financing health insurance on the basis of ability to pay, not actuarial risk."
For starters, that means a health care system that makes actual patient health its first priority, rather than a complete afterthought. Which might mean each of us paying slightly higher taxes so that everyone has a shot at living a healthy, humane existence. What's that you say? Sharing's still not your bag? Well, have no fear, because more people covered by basic health insurance means fewer people using the E.R. as their primary care provider. And guess who pays for those (even more) expensive E.R. visits?

You do.

From The Economist's "Heading for the Emergency Room":
With the truly poor, the free-riders turn up at emergency rooms. This is hugely inefficient, because pricey late interventions and operations could very often have been avoided with a much smaller investment in preventive care. Insured people and taxpayers are forced to cross-subsidies such "uncompensated" and wasteful treatments to the tune of tens of billions of dollars per year.
Granted, some people feel as though these freeloaders should be restricted from receiving any treatment at all - even in the gravest of emergencies. And they're called assholes.

Many individuals with degrading or degenerative ailments, such as diabetes or heart disease, turn to the E.R. when their condition becomes irreversibly grave because they couldn't afford regular or preventive treatments in the first place, placing even greater financial strain on an already teetering system. From a recent Times editorial:
People without insurance tend to delay seeking medical care until their diseases, like diabetes and incipient cancer, become so severe that they require emergency attention and often cannot be treated effectively. The rest of us pay for their charitable care through taxes or higher premiums on private insurance.
So you see, this really isn't just about holding hands and singing "Kumbaya." Or giving away Fig Newtons. Sharing is practical, for the short and long term.

And despite what some indignant redneck at a town hall meeting in Tuscon might scream, sharing is not a euphemism for Socialism, Communism, Fascism, or whatever-the-hell-else ism that jumps into his head - and is caught on camera - at that particular moment. It's compassion - one of the key ingredients that supposedly separates human beings from packs of ravenous jackals.

To protect ourselves from the exploiters of our future generosity, it's also high time we become more engaged on key civic issues and political races so that we can, in turn, elect public officials who hopefully won't embezzle or misallocate these new streams of benevolence.

That means steeling ourselves against the tide of red meat issues with which political campaigns so egregiously flood the media, distractions that actually impact so few people yet somehow manage to pulsate the vein on so many a forehead.

But ask yourself, which of the following issues has a greater impact on U.S. citizens? Income tax allocation or euthanasia? Affordable health care or school prayer? Having clean air to breathe and safe water to drink or David and Terrance doing the Hora?)

Yet Americans get sucked in time and again by cynical ad campaigns generated by right-wing interest groups, invoking the cataclysmic demise of "values," a word which, loosely interpreted, has come to mean the outright contempt for lifestyles that don't revolve completely around an arbitrary interpretation of strategically targeted portions of the New Testament.

And not that it matters much coming from a half-assed Jew, but with all their sanctimony, intolerance, divisiveness, hypocrisy, multi-million-dollar mega-churches, and Precious Moments Figurines, Jesus Christ would loathe these charlatans, I promise you.

And one last thing: Private health insurers have every intention of not sharing in the moral obligation of providing a necessary service for American citizens. After all, these are for-profit money machines, largely automated behemoths that are free from regulatory constraints and beholden only to their shareholders. Again, from The Healing of America:
It's revealing that, in the lingo of the U.S. health insurance industry, the money paid to doctors, hospitals, and pharmacies for treatment of insured patients is referred to as "medical loss." That is, when health insurance actually pays for somebody's health care, the industry considers it a loss.
We've been duped into believing that private insurers are the sine qua non of our health care system; in reality, they're not only completely superfluous (care to have your colonoscopy performed by Tim in underwriting? Or how about a tonsilectomy by Marcy in human resources?), but also the primary reason for the mess in which we find ourselves. A government-run single-payer plan could easily, efficiently, and humanely fill the void left by these parasites. From Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece "Sick and Wrong":
In the real world, nothing except a single-payer system makes any sense. There are currently more than 1,300 private insurers in this country, forcing doctors to fill out different forms and follow different reimbursement procedures for each and every one. This drowns medical facilities in idiotic paperwork and jacks up prices: Nearly a third of all health care costs in America are associated with wasteful administration. Fully $35o billion a year could be saved on paperwork alone if the U.S. went to a single-payer system - more than enough to pay for the whole goddamned thing, if anyone had the balls to stand up and say so.
Taibbi's last point is critical in understanding the true essence of this ongoing fiasco. Physicians, politicians, academics, journalists and bloggers have fixated on four main factors leading to the health care system's seemingly irreversible tailspin: As a nation, we overspend, overeat, and over-treat.

Then, when all is lost, we place the reform process in the hands of Capitol Hill's most pathological teat suckers, who, after years of engorging themselves with corporate money, turn around, with straight faces, to inform the public that introducing a public option would never work long-term. And why not? Because it would cripple private insurance corporations' profit margins.

I shit you not, they actually say stuff like this. From The New York Times:

Senator John Ensign, Republican of Nevada, said he feared that a government plan would prove so popular it could never be uprooted. "Does anybody believe Congress would let this public plan go away once it has a constituency?" Mr. Ensign asked. "No way. Once it's started, you will never get rid of it."

It's good to know that being under investigation by the Justice Department for a violation of ethics hasn't dampened Ensign's sense of humor. But then, we get this from Ensign's buddy, Chuck Grassley:
But Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the committee, said a government insurance plan would have inherent advantages over private insurers "Government is not a fair competitor," Mr. Grassley said. "It's a predator." He predicted that "a government plan will ultimately force private insurers out of business," reducing choices for consumers.
If a government-run public option is predatory, let me be eaten raw.

From Robert Creamer of The Huffington Post:
To compete, private insurance companies would be forced to change the way they do business. They would have to end all of those practices that American consumers have grown to hate, cut administrative costs - maybe even cut CEO pay. Of course since the CEO of Cigna makes $26 million -- 65 times the salary of the President of the United States -- he could afford several million dollars in belt-tightening.

They could compete - but they would have to change the way they compete. That's what they are fighting tooth and nail to avoid - and that's also the whole point of health care reform: to change the incentives that determine how the players in the health insurance market do business day to day.
And now, a public service announcement, courtesy of the American Foundation for Insurer's Rights.

Cue this guy's voice:

We've heard about the women and children of Darfur, subject to mass rapings and killings by Sudanese warlords; the starvation of Congolese refugees, forced from their homeland by a brutal civil war; and the women of the Middle East and Central Asia, who all too often fall victim to rigid and severe social strictures. Many endure mutilation, torture, and so-called honor killings for alleged crimes they never commit. These are all grave injustices.

But what about insurance company CEOs?

Forced to compete with the government (socialism), they too will become hopeless victims. Victims of too much competition (pussies), too much choice for consumers (come back - we were just kidding!), too much transparency (see, what had happened...), and the systemic elimination of eight-figure bonuses (worse than The Holocaust).

Sadly, many of these individuals have spent years doing little more than cashing checks. Because neither they nor their companies possess an actual skill, these out of work executives - with palms like the coating on a freshly molted wax worm - will be forced back to the mean streets of Rodeo Drive, Fifth Avenue, Madison Avenue, and Champs Elysses with little more to do than to shop for high end merchandise all day, every day, for the rest of their lives.

Thankfully, with your help, this tragedy is preventable. So, please, join with us to ensure that all insurance company CEOs can maintain their yearly bonuses - bonuses that, while greatly increasing the overall cost of healthcare, also go to pay for back alimony, exclusive country club memberships, male breast reduction, penile enlargements, and really, really fast speed boats with cool names like "Child Support, Shmiled Support," and "CUL8TR."

Remember: It's up to all of us to maintain the status quo. Thank you. God bless. And God bless America.

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Friday, October 16, 2009

Creaky Wheel Breaking News: Murrieta, CA Man Wins Nobel Prize in Physics

Click here to see what can happen when you dream big.

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Sunday, October 4, 2009

A Violation of Kindergarten Fairness Part I: An Introduction to EINKILK

Most of us have seen the poster.

The first time I caught a glimpse of it was in a Spencer's Gifts, back in the early 80s. It was displayed inside one of those aluminum-framed plastic poster flippers, sandwiched among a cluster of 80s detritus: Muppet Babies (flip), Scott Baio with feathered mullet and cut off half shirt (flip), Olivia Newton John clad in active "Let's Get Physical" headband and skin-tight Sassons (ful......ip), Sebastian Bach licking his double-necked guitar (flip), a florescent velvet-on-black rendering of Ace Frehley (flip).

But The Everything I Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten (henceforth to be referenced as EINKILK) poster wasn't as easy to dismiss. Sure, it was maudlin and perhaps a bit trite - even to my naive 13-year-old eyes. (Although back then, in my sub-articulate disapproval, I likely filed EINKILK under "gay" in my mental rolodex. Gay: the seemingly boundless category assigned by adolescents across the nation for all things effete or uncool - ironic since at the time I was probably wearing irregular Bugle Boy khakis - "pegged" at the ankles - from Marshalls and a white, cropped, acid-wash jean jacket.)

In retrospect, maybe it was the tone of the poster that startled me more than anything else.

As a non-religious Jewish kid, it jolted me away from my own "Don't fuck with me; I won't fuck with you" moral comfort zone and into the Precious Moments-bedazzled realm of Born Again Christian candy-coated preachy-ness. Still, I couldn't repudiate the poster's overarching theme: Be nice; be considerate; take it easy on yourself and others. In other words, don't be a dick.

Today, the EINKILK poster is little more than a quaint relic from a less cynical era. Though America in the 80s will be forever identified with the scourges of the Cold War, cocaine consumption, material vices, greed, Reaganomics, and Z-Cavariccis, it was also a simpler time. While repression was still in bloom, cooler-than-thou hipster irony had yet to gain enough momentum to steamroll every last fragile vestige of sincerity in the public domain.

Now, sentiments such as EINKILK get re-packaged into kitsch - Urban Outfitters T-shirts, SNL sketches, or perhaps a Zach Galiafanakis bit. In the 80s, it was occasionally okay to be unabashedly corny; now, if you're caught wearing a powder blue My Little Pony T-shirt, it's with a wink-wink and a nod-nod to your cronies - an assurance that it's all just a cute, ironic ruse.

Get it? I'm cool, so why would I ever really wear a My Little Pony shirt - because My Little Pony's corny and saccharine and for little girls who dream about having little ponies as pets. Unlike me, who dreams about slaughtering them and cooking their parts in vats of broth. Though a T-shirt depicting such would be too obvious, thus tarnishing my image as a clever modern master of dripping irony.

Those of us old enough to recall that far back know that, in the early-80s, the face value of things held more currency. Back then, hope was more than a mere campaign slogan and there was only one glossary definition of Abraham Lincoln.

Okay, that last thing was uncalled for. I apologize.

In contrast, EINKILK was conceived, I presume, without a hint of pretense, irony, or self-mockery. It's a poster that softly admonishes: These are the fundamental tenets of humanism, ones you probably should've picked up when your life still revolved around snack time, nap time, and surviving the rapacious child-eating monster holed up in your closest. And if you don't know them by now, learn. Or fuck off.

EINKILK is the manifesto for the dogma of touchy-feely righteousness. And like any dogma - be it the Old or New Testaments, The Koran, Dianetics, or How to Win Friends and Influence People- there are kernels of truth to be found amidst the heaping piles of bullshit.

So ridicule EINKILK if you choose. But if the players responsible for this nation's health care mess - fat cat insurance and pharmaceutical executives; an out-of-touch media; conniving Capitol Hill lobbyists; morally corrupt insurance underwriters, the GOP propaganda power-puke machine; the food industry; timorous Democrats; and an overfed, over-treated, out-of-shape, and under-informed populace had just followed its 12 simple tenets, most of us wouldn't have to freak out about keeping our already tenuous coverage every time we switch jobs, get laid off, or discover an oblong mole on our asses.

In subsequent posts, I will make a direction connection between the not-so-lofty standards of EINKILK and how we, as a society, have done everything possible to violate them (though I'm still struggling conjure a remotely relevant metaphor for Warm Cookies and Cold Milk are Good For You. My suggestion box is wide-open for that one.

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Saturday, October 3, 2009

Grassley: Government is a "Predator"

Say what you will about the Republicans, but they sure as hell know how to stay on message, irrespective of whether that message is quasi-rational or bordering on the maniacally insane. You see, West Virginia Senator Jay Rockefeller had a proposal this week that would've offered a fiscally responsible public option to compete with health insurance companies, which would inevitably temper their current stranglehold on the health care system.

From The New York Times:
Mr. Rockefeller said the Congressional Budget Office had estimated that a government insurance plan could slice $50 billion from the cost of Mr. Baucus's bill, originally put at $774 billion over 10 years...

..."The public plan will be optional, "Mr. Rockefeller insisted. "It will be voluntary. It will be affordable to people who are now helpless before their insurance companies."
After Rockefeller's proposal was predictably rejected by his buddies in the Senate Finance Committee, New York Senator Chuck Schumer took his own shot, issuing a similar proposal. Naturally, that went down in flames, too.
Mr. Schumer said the public option would hold down costs because it would not have to generate profits, answer to shareholders or incur marketing expenses.
It would also save over $300 billion a year in dumb-ass administrative waste, which would cover the entire cost of a public option. Oh, and in case anyone still cares, it would offer a happy medium between getting raped by an Aetna insurance adjuster and never having to worry about filing for medical bankruptcy.

Ronald Brownstein, senior writer at the National Journal, quotes economist Len Nichols, who emphasizes the need for a public option if there's to be reform of any kind - since health insurers are, you know, greedy, profiteering bastards.
Locally dominant insurers often pay providers excessive reimbursement rates to discourage them from participating in rival insurance plans. That dissuades other insurers from entering the market, which, in turn, frees the leading insurer to raise its premiums to cover the inflated reimbursements.

"The only people who lose in that," Nichols says dryly, "are the patients."
In other words, a competing public option is both ethically and fiscally responsible, insofar as it would prevent private insurers from their business-as-usual tactic of exploiting a flawed health care system. Oh, and by the way: Duh.

So then what's the problem? Well, if you haven't already heard, there's a war on. The War on Logic:
But Senator Charles E. Grassley of Iowa, the senior Republican on the committee, said a government insurance plan would have inherent advantages over private insurers. "Government is not a fair competitor," Mr. Grassley said. "It's a predator." He predicted that "a government plan will ultimately force private insurers out of business," reducing choices for consumers.
There you have it. Private health insurers do everything in their power to drop sick and needy individuals from their roles (by instituting a practice called rescission) - and get to vastly increase their premiums on a moment's whim - they've been known to hold open enrollment on the upper floors of non-retrofitted buildings so as to discourage elderly, handicapped, and chronically ill people from signing on, and government is the predator? Hello, my name is Charles Grassley, and I'm full of shit.

And just to review, Grassley's claiming that, if there is a public option to compete with private insurance companies, the private insurers will go out of business. Why ever might that be? Would it have anything to do with the fact that a public option would be cheaper, of equal or better quality, more efficient, more accessible, and waaaayyy less terrifying?

Sounds to me like private insurance companies are building an inferior product and either:

A. Need to get up off their collective asses and improve their product


B. Need to either step aside or diversify their brand (Aetna golf clubs, Kaiser Mouth Wash, Wellpoint Douche Bags, etc.)

Or how about the perfect synergy: A Blue Cross fast food franchise? Serve up fried chicken sandwiches and other thousand calorie bombs in the dining area, and then, replacing Playlands with on-site clinics, offer customers on-site bypass surgeries, amputations, and other invasive procedures resulting from obesity and diabetes. You can call it Blue Burger. Yummy.

What's odd about Grassley's point is that I've always been admonished by conservatives about how free and unfettered markets are the cornerstone of capitalism - the party's preferred economic dogma - and hence, the path toward economic salvation.

Until, that is, the losers are the ones who contribute piles and piles of money to your campaign coffers. Per Matt Taibbi's Rolling Stone piece Sick and Wrong:
Getting movement on a public option - or any other meaningful reform - will now require the support of one of the three Republicans in the group: Grassley (who has received $2,034,000 from the health sector), [Olympia] Snowe ($756,000) or [Mike] Enzi ($627,000).

This is what the prospects for real health care reform come down to - whether one of three Republicans from tiny states with no major urban populations decides, out of the goodness of his or her cash-fattened heart, to forsake forever any contributions from the health-insurance industry.
Too bad there's no opposition party in control of 3 out of the 4 branches of government to call out the GOP on its unabashed hypocrisy and corruption. Oh, wait...

Before I leave you today, and because the Democrats won't, let Wendell Potter, former head of public relations for CIGNA, remind you once again whom the real predators are:

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Stop the Inanity. by Brock Cohen is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License.
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