Monday, May 12, 2008

More miserable punditry

First column: America's Forgotten Hostages. My goodness, Columbian drug-running terrorists are holding Americans hostage! The Bush administration should do something! And that something is: cave into the demands of the terrorists! Tim Padgett goes for what he sees as middle ground, saying that we can just cut the sentences of some high-level prisoners rather than releasing them entirely. If I may quote one brief exerpt,

The U.S. has designated the FARC a terrorist group and can't negotiate with it.

Hey Tim, has it ever occurred to you that there might be a reason for this policy? That if we reward FARC more for kidnapping people rather than guiding them to safety, we encourage more kidnappings? He doesn't even acknowledge the reason, let alone debate it. Thus the hostages are 'forgotten', yet another Bush administration failure. A failure to reward terrorists.

Second column: How the South Won (This) Civil War

By line: "Southernism is taking over our national dialogue. Maybe it's time for the North to secede from the Union."

Oh boy.

This thought, which has been recurring to me regularly over the years as I've watched the Southernization of our national politics at the hands of the GOP and its evangelical base, surfaced again when I read a New York Times story today. The article was about an "American Idol" contestant—apparently quite talented—who was eliminated after she sang the title song from "Jesus Christ Superstar." When it debuted 38 years ago, the rock opera was considered controversial for its rather arch portrayal of a doubt-wracked, very human Jesus, but the music was so good and the lyrics so clever that it quickly became a huge hit. In the delicate balance of forces that have always defined American tastes—nativism and yahooism versus eagerness for the new and openness to innovation—art, or at least high craft, it seemed, had triumphed. But our national common denominator of taste is so altered today that the blasphemous dimension of "Jesus Christ Superstar" now trumps the artistic part. And somehow, no one is surprised. Our reaction is more like, "Why would she risk singing a song like that?"

Here's the NYT article in question. You'll notice that as evidence it cites "Online chat boards devoted to 'American Idol'". Now that's powerful stuff! I'm convinced that legions of teenage girls based their decision on a controversy that started when their parents were infants and/or not even born!

Can he dig himself deeper? Michael Hirsh says "You bet!"

Anatol Lieven, in his 2005 book "America Right or Wrong: An Anatomy of American Nationalism," describes how the "radical nationalism" that has so dominated the nation's discourse since 9/11 traces its origins to the demographic makeup and mores of the South and much of the West and Southern Midwest—in other words, what we know today as Red State America. This region was heavily settled by Scots-Irish immigrants—the same ethnic mix King James I sent to Northern Ireland to clear out the native Celtic Catholics. After succeeding at that, they then settled the American Frontier, suffering Indian raids and fighting for their lives every step of the way. And the Southern frontiersmen never got over their hatred of the East Coast elites and a belief in the morality and nobility of defying them. The outcome was that a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores. Traditionally, it has been balanced by a more diplomatic, communitarian Yankee sensibility from the Northeast and upper Midwest. But that latter sensibility has been losing ground in population numbers—and cultural weight.

Savage. Yessir, when I think of Topeka or Salt Lake City, the first word that comes to mind is "savage".

Hirsh goes on to say that "we have become an intolerant nation", which strikes me as very odd in a year where Obama is the favorite to become president, and when over my short lifetime gays in popular culture went from incredibly rare to utterly commonplace.

The kicker is a postscript written after publication:

Author's Note: When I wrote this column last week, I used some careless language to describe certain tendencies in Southern and frontier thinking. When I wrote that after the settlement of the South and frontier by Scots-Irish immigrants, "a substantial portion of the new nation developed, over many generations, a rather savage, unsophisticated set of mores," I didn't mean to say that these tendencies described any particular ethnic group today, or that such mores are representative in general of the thinking of people in the South or West, only that they had emerged historically among some subsections of the population as part of the Jacksonian warrior culture in those regions

Michael Hirsh isn't some upstart who slipped up. He's a man of journalistic accomplishment, an editor no less, who should know the value and importance of linguical precision. "I didn't mean to say", and then he says what he blatantly meant to say given the context of the article. What a maroon.

Final column: War's Shopping Cart. This one just boggles the mind.

An Associated Press article on the report, however, offered a caveat: "Not all the companies invested in by lawmakers are typical defense contractors. Corporations such as PepsiCo, IBM, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson have at one point received defense-related contracts."

But the Associated Press is wrong. The fact is that corporations such as PepsiCo, IBM, Microsoft and Johnson & Johnson are, indeed, typical defense contractors. To suggest that such firms, and tens of thousands like them, only receive defense-related contracts at the odd, aberrant moment is specious at best.

At this point in the article I was very interested. It went against the impression that everything is run by Haliburton, and instead posits the reality that all sorts of companies do business with the military. Can that really shock anyone?

In 1961, Dwight D. Eisenhower, in his famous farewell address as president, warned of the "acquisition of unwarranted influence" by what he called the "military-industrial complex" in the United States. Today, however, the "large arms industry" of Eisenhower's day is only part of a complex equation. Civilian firms such as PepsiCo and IBM form the backbone of what more accurately can be described as a "military-corporate complex." These businesses allow the Pentagon to function, to make war and to carry out foreign occupations.


While the well-known giant arms makers -- Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Northrop Grumman and General Dynamics -- remain the largest contractors, they are dwarfed by the sheer number of fellow contractors from all imaginable economic sectors.

Exactly. Eisenhower's concern was that arms makers could use their political clout to push for military spending and wars in order to boost their profit margins. Now that the spending is spread across companies that have no particular need to lobby for war (ie. Pepsi) and for whom the military is only one of many customers.

In reality, whether we like it or not, whether we care or not, we're all participating in it. When we buy Crest toothpaste (Procter & Gamble) or Oscar Mayer hot dogs (Kraft) or a PlayStation 3 (Sony), the fact is we are supporting an increasingly civilian-oriented military economy and an increasingly militarized civilian economy.

...wait, what?

As such, ever more U.S. companies are going to war, and, even if ever fewer Americans are interested in volunteering for military service, it's increasingly true that, by the flow of our dollars, ever more of us are going to war with them.

Huh? Is he saying what I think he's saying?

You might think, of course, that there's nothing wrong with the military buying Pepsi. "What's the problem?" you ask. Soldiers have to drink something, just like the rest of us, so why not Pepsi's self-described "bold, robust, effervescent magic cola"? The same goes for hot dogs and toothpaste.

Yeah that's what I think, and Nick Turse better have a hell of a punchline to convince me otherwise.

This isn't about a bottle of Pepsi or Krispy Kreme Doughnuts or a Sara Lee cake. It isn't about which hot dogs the troops eat or which computers they use -- be it for launching missiles or reading e-mail. This isn't even about boycotting one brand or company or conglomerate in hopes of slowing down the war effort. If you began that, in our militarized economy, you'd eventually be left naked, starving and possessionless.

Wait, wait, wait. Boycotting a company in the hopes of slowing the war effort?! Is this a concern for more than a very small number of highly motivated doves?

On their own, each of these brands, companies or conglomerates appear minor indeed. But together, the effect is stunning: Nearly every product in your pantry, every appliance in your home, every bit of high-tech home entertainment equipment, even your morning newspaper (the Tribune Co., which owns the Los Angeles Times, was a minor Pentagon contractor in 2006 too) is now directly or indirectly tied to the Pentagon through the company that produces it.

By this point it's clear: the Pentagon and military are the enemy and anyone doing business with them is tainted.

It's high time we at least recognize that PepsiCo, IBM, Microsoft, and Johnson & Johnson and just about every other corporate giant (and thousands upon thousands of flyweights of the business world) are benefiting not only from our purchases of cola, computers, software and bandages but from our tax dollars, via the Pentagon. We all know what the Pentagon's doing abroad, and what that's meant for Iraqis.

"What that's meant for Iraqis"? You mean liberating them from Saddam Hussein and attempting to protect them from terrorists? No of course he doesn't mean that. I'm not even asking him to mean that. I am asking that he write a column in the Los Angeles Times, a major daily paper read by millions, in which he doesn't assume that the average reader regularly engages in anti-military boycotts, and doesn't assume the average reader sees the Iraqi war as inherently evil.

Napoleon supposedly said, "An army marches on its stomach." Over the years of occupation to come, and for the next invasion too, remember that, whatever land it occupies, the Pentagon marches on a stomach filled with Cap'n Crunch, Rice-A-Roni and Diet Pepsi Vanilla -- and, ever increasingly, you're marching with it too.

I can imagine Nick typing that out with a sense of triumph. Take THAT, corporate overlords! I have spoken truth to your power! Meanwhile I'm guessing 90% of US voters are either still confused over what he's talking about since they aren't up to date on far-left ideology, or (like me) are laughing at him.

It would be one thing to write this in Mother Jones or the American Prospect, but the LA Times? Even granting that the readership would be slightly to the left of average in America, that doesn't excuse such an enormous overreach. People who are in, say, the 75th percentile to the left in America aren't going to be on board with seeing something insidious about companies selling basic goods to the military. Nick should have understood the audience and crafted something more palatable to the average joe who might want troops out of Baghdad, but doesn't take issue with companies who make life easier for the troops while they're 'over there'.

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