The past is dead, the future is unimaginable

One quick thought about the detainee legislation now being debated in Congress: it would give the president one of the defining powers of tyrannical dictators, namely the ability to lock up anyone he wants for as long as he wants, entirely beyond the reach of the law.

I would say I’m stunned at how rapidly we’ve arrived at a point like this, but even thinking those words, I hear the voices of millions before me echoing hollowly the same dumb astonishment when their beautiful, prosperous, enlightened countries at one time or another descended into the same unthinking darkness.

Maybe it wasn’t so rapid, either. Maybe we should have been listening to Noam Chomsky all along.

Another defining power of tyrants is to suspend or nullify elections whose outcomes they don’t like. But really, when you have the first power, you don’t need the second one. Under the law now being debated, nothing, nothing would stop President Bush if he decided to, say, imprison the next Democratic presidential candidate — or any journalist willing to convey that candidate’s message to the voting public.

If he’s not willing to go quite that far, as a backup it always helps to have the largest maker of the nation’s ballot machines in your back pocket.

“Already dead” followup

The DailyKos version of my “We Are Already Dead” post garnered a handful of comments, a few of which missed my point, believing I was doing nothing more than venting despair. Obviously I wasn’t as clear as I could be, but fortunately one commenter zeroed in on the message I was trying to convey:

Like the bullshit “debate” about how much and what kind of killing makes Iraq a “civil war,” the answer to the question of how much and what kinds of totalitarianism America can embrace before it’s truly “fascist” is: it doesn’t matter.

The author provides an antidote for the despair felt by those who may believe we’re already over the edge by by posing the question: “Okay, say we are now officially a fascist state… so, what? Is that really going to change your committment to try to change things for the better?”

The fight to prevent fascism in America is over. We lost. The fight to return America from fascism begins now.

We are already dead

This car. Goeth would have bought this car. Why did I keep the car? Ten people right there. Ten people. Ten more people. This pin. Two people. This is gold. Two more people. He would have given me two for it, at least one. One more person. A person, Stern. For this. I could have gotten one more person… and I didn’t! And I… I didn’t!

Face it: we’re already at fascism. If America descends further into totalitarianism, will I feel I had done enough to prevent it, or will I be like Oskar Schindler at the end of Schindler’s List, who lamented the inadequacy of his efforts even though he did more than most?

In steeling soldiers for battle, military commanders sometimes use the time-honored psych-out of convincing the troops they’re already dead. These officers know that when soldiers believe they’re already dead, even metaphorically, it helps them shed a measure of caution that can be deadly in combat — if not to the individual, then certainly to the unit. If you’re already dead, you needn’t fear death. Sometimes this psych-out is accompanied by the assertion that one may earn back one’s life only by proving one’s valor on the battlefield and crushing the enemy.

With too few exceptions, our leaders today in politics, business, and the media are fearful soldiers who do not realize we are already dead, fighting (if they fight at all) as if they still have something to protect, as if a degree of moderation will somehow avoid total disaster. Well they don’t, and it won’t. There is no cautious route to survival through this landscape. Their half-measures will avail no one. They will end in a gulag (as some of this evil regime’s political enemies already have), broken physically by their pitiless captors and psychologically by the knowledge that, when they could have done more, they didn’t.

I fret, I vote, and I write — in blogs, to my elected representatives, in letters to the editor. But I’m polite. I don’t burden others with my politics unasked. I don’t harangue my apathetic friends and family. I don’t demand action from everyone I know. I know how busy they are with important things. Things that seem important.

Is it too late to put on the brakes? Are we still sliding down the slippery slope of this well-worn historical path or have we already sailed off the precipice into thin air? And if we’re doomed to plummet all the way to the dismal bottom of this madness, will I be able to say I did all I could? Or will I be muttering in some windowless cell, “I could have passed out flyers. I ate out too much — why didn’t I donate more? I could have called some voters. I could have knocked on doors. I could have volunteered for a campaign. I could have run for office… and I didn’t. And I… I didn’t!”

We are already dead. Might as well act like it’s not too late. We have nothing to lose, it’s all already lost. Might as well fight like hell without fear. Fight to earn back our lives.

Cross-posted at

No, Uncle Sam, I expect you to die!

New rule: no more electing men to national office who look like they could be James Bond villains.


The fifth anniversary of 9/12

Notice how, unlike every other website in the world, I had nothing about the 9/11 anniversary yesterday? That was by design. I always like to be different.

Now, though, a few words about 9/11. The first thing I remember from that day was Andrea holding out the phone to me, saying, “It’s Steve.” I’d slept in, and he called to talk to Andrea about some work-related thing. To me he said (knowing I’m from New York), “I hope you didn’t know anyone in the World Trade Center.”

I couldn’t parse his statement. At that moment, in my mind, which was still foggy from sleep, the Twin Towers still stood. “Didn’t know anyone in the World Trade Center when?”

Steve must have been surprised that I hadn’t heard the news. (Neither had Andrea, for that matter.) “The World Trade Center is gone.”

This made as little sense to me as his first statement. “Gone? What do you mean?”

“The Twin Towers collapsed. They’re gone.”

Nothing could be clearer than what he was telling me, but I still asked him to clarify two or three more times. Not until a minute later, when I turned on the news and saw smoke plumes where the Twin Towers had stood, did I really understand what Steve had been saying.

Andrea was pregnant with our first son. I told Andrea the news, slightly fearful of the effect it could have on the pregnancy. (None, thankfully.) Then of course we were obsessed all day with finding out more, like everyone else in the world.

It’s only five years later but it’s already hard to summon up exactly the feelings of dread and suspicion that descended everywhere at that time. That very night, walking Alex along a side street in Mill Valley, I saw a man sitting in a parked car in the dark. A terrorist! A few weeks later I had to drive to Santa Clara for a job interview and I took the long way (around the San Francisco Bay) rather than cross the obvious-terrorist-target Golden Gate Bridge.

American flags sprung up everywhere. I told Andrea I wanted to hang one outside of our window to show solidarity with our fellow citizens, but I never did because even in the earliest days, the flag was transforming from a symbol of national unity to one of creepy jingoism.

After the Supreme Court decision that had handed the presidency to Bush, public discourse on the subject of that bizarre election and its bizarre conclusion had shut down completely. To me and Andrea and others who viewed it as a high crime against our beloved democracy, it was a maddening time. Only in the few weeks immediately preceding 9/11 did that freeze begin to thaw. A couple of books on the subject, one by Alan Dershowitz and one by Vincent Bugliosi, had appeared on the New York Times bestseller list. We’d even gone to hear Bugliosi speak in Oakland just a day or two earlier. Of course 9/11 obliterated the national discussion of Election 2000.

In the immediate aftermath of 9/11 (when the death toll was still unclear and the exact workings of the Bush west wing were not yet known) I wrote the following. (Rereading it now, it’s depressing to be reminded that my sense of outrage was already exhausted five years ago. Just as I’ve learned about physical exhaustion from having first one child and then two, no matter how exhausted you think you are, there will be a time in the future when you’ll look back and say, “That was nothing!”)

It’s George W. Bush’s world. We just vote in it.
Just when it looked like George Bush would finally learn that political actions have consequences, he showed us again that the normal rules don’t apply to him

Bill Clinton should have been a hard act to follow. A Rhodes scholar and a professor of Constitutional law who pulled himself up from poverty and abuse to lead his country and the world through the most prosperous period in human history, his Vice President nevertheless couldn’t use his boss’s accomplishments to advance his own campaign for fear of being tarnished by the public’s distaste for Clinton’s personal weaknesses.

Instead, we got a lazy son of privilege who can’t find a grammatical sentence with two hands and a flashlight; who partied on drugs and women ’til he was embarrassingly old, deserted his military post, ran a healthy business into the ground, boasted about his mediocre school grades and about napping through his term as Texas governor, wiped out a record budget surplus at a single stroke, and alienated our international friends — and he’s enjoying the highest presidential approval ratings ever recorded.

A whole lot of Americans have been in a permanent state of astonishment regarding Bush’s residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Our jaws only dropped further when Bush audaciously populated his administration with hardliners and old Reagan-era cronies, rather than exhibiting the humility and conciliation called for by an incredibly close election (which, numerically, he lost).

Before September 11th, things were starting to look pretty good to Bush-bashers. Polls showed Bush’s mishandling of the economy was coming home to roost. Democrats were beginning to dictate the agenda. Bush’s beloved boondoggle, the missile shield, looked like it wouldn’t even survive one round of budget negotiations. Discouraged Republicans in Congress were announcing their retirement. A tasty scandal was brewing around Vice President Cheney and the possibility of oil-industry influence-peddling. Books taking the GOP and the Supreme Court to task for their roles in the aftermath of Election 2000 were bestsellers, and there were faint stirrings about Supreme Court impeachment investigations.

It looked like there was justice after all. We never doubted (some of us began to say with satisfaction) that someone so monstrously underqualified for the most powerful office in the world would reveal the depth of his ineptitude sooner or later, or that there’d be a hefty political price to pay for taking the solemn role of President of the United States so lightly, as if it were an extracurricular activity he could use on his college application.

And then terrorists attacked America, and it became George Bush’s world again. In the midst of the shock and the grief of September 11th, there was still one other sentiment on the lips of almost everyone I talked to: “…and this is the man we have to lead us through this?” Even as reviled mayor Rudolph Giuliani emerged as the man showing Bush and the world what leadership in a crisis is all about; even as Bush, in his few photo-op appearances, uttered barely a single unscripted word (except perhaps for “There’s a poster out West, it says ‘Wanted Dead or Alive’” — followed by an almost-audible round of exasperated forehead-slapping in the west wing); even amidst widespread unease about the massive retaliation Bush initially promised, the country lined up dutifully behind its president.

Which is as it should be, I suppose. Demolished buildings, 7,000 dead Americans, and murderous fanatics still at large, is serious — a lot more serious than whether the President has to backpedal on his promise not to touch Social Security funds. This is no time to be undermining the strength of the Oval Office.

And yet… my exhausted sense of outrage is crying feebly, “He’s doing it again.” He’s escaping judgment. He’s escaping even the discussion of judgment. Reagan may have been the Teflon president, to whom no accusation could stick; but Bush has gone him one better: like Keanu Reeves dodging bullets in The Matrix, nothing even touches him in the first place. History will probably forget that Bush ran the economy into the ground; it’ll record that a coordinated terrorist attack plunged the country into recession. No one’s interested now in asking Dick Cheney the tough questions about his energy policy — even though, if suspicions about oil executives dictating policy are true, it’s a gigantic abuse of the public trust. The Supreme Court didn’t murder 7,000 people in Bush v. Gore, but their figurative violence against the Constitution was comparable — and now it’s highly unlikely they’ll ever be made to answer for it.

What luck for Bush. And it may just be that sheer luck is what we need in a leader right now. That, and a certain reckless faith in the ability to coast through adversity. But unless he sheds some of his magical protective aura on the rest of us, I worry that we’ll start dropping bombs at the direction of a man who never learned that actions have consequences.

We’re number one?

Watching TSA employees at Sea-Tac airport in casual conversation with one another as they mechanically Just Follow Orders, inflicting pointless indignities on travelers, performing inane rituals that accomplish nothing useful at all, and blowing millions of tax dollars out their asses, I fume silently, meditate on the phrase “the banality of evil,” and wonder: of the things that made America great, what remains?

Individual liberty? Nope.

Commitment to justice? Nope.

Fair, democratic elections? Nope.

An effective military? Nope.

A robust economy? A level economic playing field? Nope. Nope.

Freedom of speech? Of the press? Of worship? Nope. Nope. Nope.

Oh well, at least we still have jingoism. We’re number one!

Say it ain’t so, Walt

It seems the Disney theme parks are collecting visitors’ fingerprints and being unclear about the uses to which they plan to put them.

For someone who’s sensitive to privacy issues, this news is a clear catastrophe, but to everyday folk the problem may not be so obvious. Cory Doctorow nails it when he writes,

Now that our national immune system has begun to attack us in a terrible anaphylactic spasm — indiscriminate NSA wiretaps, meaningless TSA security theater, secret aviation rules and no-fly lists, “free speech zones,” suspension of habeas corpus and all the rest — it’s absolutely irresponsible to gather this kind of information and leave it where the savage toddlers of the national security apparat might find it and wreak havoc with it.

For me, the worst part of this is that it conditions us to get used to being treated like crooks.

This news comes at a time when Andrea and I are feeling a mounting urge to visit Disneyland. Not only do we have vouchers for free search airline tickets that expire on October 31st; not only would we get to see new-family-member Pamela and celebrity-friend Eli; but we haven’t been to a Disney property in three years, which is a long time for us; and Jonah, who was one and a half then, is one up on Archer, who’s never been!

Yet Disney keeps giving us reasons to stay away. The fingerprint news comes on the heels of this:

New ABC Docudrama Blames Clinton For 9/11, Praises Bush

On September 10 and 11, ABC will air a “docudrama” called “The Path to 9/11.” It was written by Cyrus Nowrasteh, who […] is giving interviews to hard-right sites like FrontPageMag to promote the film.

ABC is owned by Disney.

What to do? Hell, we were married at Disneyworld! We were at California Adventure on opening day! (We were two of the few.) The very first thing I ever gave to Andrea was a little Thumper doll! Might as well face it: we’re Disney freaks. Stay away from Disneyland? Stay away from the “Pirates of the Caribbean” ride just when Jonah’s and Archer’s interest in pirates is peaking?

In an earlier time I might have threatened to disconnect my cable TV instead. But that trigger can only be pulled once. If I want to punish ABC and Disney for these errors in judgment — and I do — about the only good option left is to vote with my wallet and boycott the company.

Or — here’s an idea — I can write a blog post convincing a bunch of you Gentle Readers to boycott Disney yourselves… so Andrea and I can feel better about it when some latex-gloved Disney gate attendant swabs our cheeks to match the DNA on our Park Hopper passes.

Turn off, tune out, drop in

In January of last year I sent a letter to Comcast, my cable TV provider, complaining about the removal from my “premium” cable service of five premium channels. (The letter is reproduced at the end of this post.) I received an unsatisfactory reply. It was the last in a string of insults, from exorbitant monthly fees (in excess of $100) to crappy image quality full of digital compression artifacts.

Compounding my cable TV complaints was the fact that I seldom actually got to watch anything. Having two small kids and a long daily commute while both parents (try to) work full time has that effect. When I did get some time to watch TV, I worked through a gigantic TiVo backlog. The Sopranos and Shield episodes that I watched were more than a year old when I finally watched them.

Which got me thinking: if I don’t watch things until they’re stale anyway, why do I even need cable TV? All the movies I could want to see, and most of the good TV shows, get released on DVD sooner or later; and a Netflix membership costs about one-eighth the combined total of Comcast “Digital Platinum” and TiVo.

It was an obvious decision to make, but I dragged my feet for a long time. Except for a pauper year or two in college, I’d had cable TV almost continually since 1976. I’m also a considerable movie buff. Give up cable, just like that? What would I do when I feel the urge to channel-surf at 12:30am? And what about dumb little guilty pleasures like Unwrapped which, even if it is ever available on DVD, I knew would never rise to the top of my Netflix queue?

Though it took another eight months, and Andrea doubted I’d ever actually go through with it, in the end simple economics won out, and we’ve now been cable-free for almost a year. At the beginning it was hard, as with kicking any habit, but only very briefly. In a year, the only time I’ve really missed having cable was for the Superbowl. Meanwhile, thanks to Netflix, I’ve recently watched entire seasons of Deadwood, Veronica Mars, and I Dream of Jeannie; and movies such as Munich, King Kong, Wedding Crashers, MirrorMask, and much more. There’s no live sports and there’s no channel surfing; and while you might linger guiltily on the latest Emanuelle movie on Skinemax when channel-flipping, you’re not very likely to bother actually renting it. But in all other respects it’s as good as cable. Better, in a lot of ways, because there are no commercials and no wading through junk you don’t want to see.

Now that we’re off the pop-culture grid, as it were, it’s strange to see it from the outside. It’s a tinfoil-hat cliché, easily dismissed, to say that the establishment controls the populace through television. Anyone with a little media savvy can recognize TV’s propaganda and soothing pap for what they are and claim to be immune, or at least aware. But having stepped out of that stream I’m astonished at just what a blatant barrage of never-ending manipulation TV really is. Savvy or not, you can’t fully appreciate it while you’re in it. Even though I seldom watched anything but the best-quality movies and TV shows, the barrage still seeped in through the cracks: the commercials, the network “bumpers,” the pop-ups in the corners and margins of the screen, the glimpses of other programs. And while it is easy to recognize and dismiss the obvious propaganda and pap, there are a thousand more subtle ways in which your consent is being manufactured. I don’t mean to allege a vast mind-control conspiracy; it just seems to be what you get when you organize government, commerce, and mass media the way we have.

So don’t kill your TV, exactly, but do take total control of what you see on it. Cancel your cable. Keep your money. It may seem right now like you can’t live without it (“How can one insulated wire bring so much happiness?” –Homer Simpson), but if you make it to the other side I promise you’ll wonder what took you so long.

And now that I’ve written that, if we lose the fight for net neutrality, the telecoms may arrange for this blog post to disappear into /dev/null.

Here is the letter I sent to Comcast early last year.

I’m a subscriber to Comcast Digital Cable at the “Platinum” level of service, which includes all premium channels. Recently I learned that five of those channels have been removed from my lineup. They were:

  • Encore True Stories East (527)
  • Encore Action East (529)
  • More MAX East (564)
  • Showtime Extreme East (581)
  • The Movie Channel Xtra East (592)

Previously I had 49 premium movie channels, now I have 44, so this was a 10.2% reduction in service.

When I called Comcast Customer Service to complain, you tried to persuade me that this is not a reduction in service at all. Each of the removed channels, you explained, is the east coast feed of another channel whose west coast feed I still receive — the same programs, shifted by three hours.

But that argument is not valid. At this moment, for example, Encore True Stories East is showing Quiz Show, while Encore True Stories West is showing Gangs of New York. If I sat down at the TV right now and I still received both channels, I could choose to watch either one; but now I can only watch Gangs of New York. My choices are therefore fewer than before. Yes, I could choose to wait three hours and watch Quiz Show on the west coast feed, but by then I may be sleeping, or busy, or watching something else.

You also explained that the channels were removed to make room for others, such as the DIY network and WGN. But these are not premium movie channels and no one can argue they are comparable in value to the channels they supposedly replaced.

Comcast has the right to choose what channels to include in its service. But if you remove channels that I’ve been paying for, then you must also reduce the rate you charge me.

My channel lineup continues to include both the east and west coast feeds of some premium movie channels, such as HBO. But if it’s Comcast’s policy that one feed is equal to two, I’m concerned that there may be further uncompensated service reductions in the future.

Finally, I’ve just learned that the cost of Comcast’s “Platinum” service is about to go up by three dollars per month, or about 6%. Previously I was paying about $1.04 per channel for my premium movie channels. Now, between the service reduction and the rate increase, I’ll be paying $1.23, effectively an 18% increase.

I insist that Comcast restore my lost service or reduce my rates proportionately.

The more things change, the more he stays the same’s “War Room” blog today quotes Donald Rumsfeld as saying, among other things,

We are truly fortunate to have a leader of resolve at a time of war. Through all the challenges, he remains the same man who stood atop the rubble of lower Manhattan, with a bullhorn, vowing to fight back.

…which, apart from being a wackily facile thing to say, reminds me of one of my favorite Homer Simpsonisms:

I haven’t changed at all since high school, and suddenly I’m uncool?!

Bloodletter of the Law

Early 2005 wasn’t that long ago, but in terms of U.S. politics it seems like an eternity. At that time Bush was still untouchable, the GOP was still a monolith of arrogance, and the Democrats were still searching for their asses with both hands and a flashlight. Now the Democrats are taking the offensive more and more, the GOP is scattering like roaches before the light of awakening public opinion, and Bush has been revealed as a scared little bunny rabbit. But just eighteen or so months ago it was nigh impossible to imagine these things coming to pass without being called delusional (at best; more likely, a traitor).

It was at that time that I dreamed up a story that never got past the outline stage. The story began eighteen months in the future — August 2006. Considering that that’s right now, I thought this might be a nice time to publish my abandoned story outline, whose too-clever working title is, “Bloodletter of the Law.”

  • August 2006: While Bush clears brush on vacation in Crawford, numerous senior political operatives are seen coming and going. The liberal blogosphere gets jittery about the new schemes it imagines being cooked up at this summit meeting.
  • Late August: Conservative pundits on talkshows and in other media begin to float the idea of a third Bush term.
  • Democrats are predictably outraged, pointing to the constitutional limit on presidential terms and linking the third-term idea to other instances of Bush flouting inconvenient laws.
  • White House Press Secretary Scott McClellan paints the Democratic response as typically hysterical and shrill. “The President has not announced any plans to seek a third term. The White House is not responsible for the speculations that private citizens make on talk shows or elsewhere.”
  • For a few weeks, newsmagazines are full of articles about the history of the presidential term limit and minutiae of related laws. Franklin Roosevelt’s four consecutive elections are held up for inspection. A talking point emerges that, for those who believe it is necessary to “balance” or roll back the “damage” of the FDR era, three or more Bush terms would not be inappropriate.
  • Early October: Bush announces his plans to seek a third term.
  • The left goes apeshit.
  • Public sentiment is with the side not going apeshit. McClellan calmly clarifies that the Constitution only prohibits being elected to a third term, not campaigning for one. “Technically, if the President wins in 2008, the Constitution would not allow him to take office.”
  • Conservative pundits everywhere finish the thought for McClellan: if Bush wins in 2008, it would be un-American to prevent his taking office and fulfilling the expressed will of the electorate.
  • November: Bush’s announcement having emboldened Republicans and sent Democrats running for the hills, the GOP wins easy victories in the 2006 midterm elections, increasing its margin in Congress.
  • January 2007: Bush’s announcement has cleared the field of other Republican presidential hopefuls.
  • Bill Clinton announces, “I too will seek a third term.” On the left, there is much rejoicing, but not by…
  • Hillary Clinton, whose own presidential campaign is well underway. This new strife in their famously troubled marriage is dissected ad nauseam in the press.
  • A rift forms in the Democratic party between Bill supporters and Hillary supporters.
  • In an attempt to mend the fence, Bill backpedals, explaining that his so-called “run” for a third time was nothing more than a rhetorical device to counter Bush. This is seen akin to “I didn’t inhale” and “what the definition of is is.” Meanwhile, did Hillary know Bill was only kidding? Should she have? The Clintons are ruined, the Democratic party is decimated.
  • November 2008: Bush coasts to an easy electoral victory, although there are numerous reports of voting irregularities.
  • Immediately, those few states that refused to put Bush on the ballot sue to invalidate the election. The case is expedited to the Supreme Court, this time packed with even more Bush partisans…

Having written that, I find it interesting that, just a week or so ago, the news media made a big deal out of one Bush booster’s comment that Bush deserved a third term. I find it even more interesting that he turned out to be a shill