Saturday, April 29, 2006

Things just aren't going that well for the Bush administration right now, are they?

I shouldn't read this stuff. I know it'll tick me off. But sometimes I just can't help myself.

I spent a good deal of last Sunday reading two articles about the Bush administration. I'm sure the White House isn't happy about either of them. The first, “The Iran Plans”, by Seymour M. Hersh, appears in the April 17, 2006 issue of The New Yorker. The other, available in the online edition of Vanity Fair, is “Senate Hearings on Bush, Now”, by Carl Bernstein (yeah, of Woodward and Bernstein, for those of you old enough to remember Watergate). The first article discusses an administration plan to bomb Iran in order to stop its nuclear development program. The second calls for Senate hearings to investigate the Bush administration. In light of the revelations in the first article, the plea in the second takes on more importance and immediacy.

According to Hersh’s article, the Bush administration, led by civilian leadership in the Pentagon, are determined to attack Iran and destroy its capability to carry out the enrichment of uranium. While the administration claims to be pursuing diplomatic solutions to persuade Iran to abandon its nuclear development program, Hersh’s sources say that Mr. Bush sees “saving” Iran as his “legacy” and that the administration thinks the only solution to the problem is regime change, which they believe will only come with war. Perhaps the most troubling claim is that the administration is ready and more than willing to use tactical nuclear weapons in the event such an attack is launched. Also troubling is that Hersh quotes one diplomat as saying that there are clearly those in the administration who would be “unhappy” if a diplomatic solution is actually found and that, at any rate, according to one of Hersh’s European sources, the Bush administration believes that “diplomacy is doomed to fail.”

America’s European allies are not any happier with the idea of a nuclear-capable Iran than the administration is, to be sure, but they think that bombing is a bad idea and that if the US persists in its apparent determination to bomb, it will only strengthen Iranian President Ahmadinejad rather than convincing Iranians to run him out of office. On the other hand, the Bush administration seems to believe that Ahmadinejad will only respond to threats. That is not, apparently, the view of some of the military advisors in the Pentagon who, again according to Hersh’s sources, have been trying to talk the administration at least out of considering the use of nuclear weapons. Some are said to be ready to resign rather than approve of such an action. I don’t know about you, but I find all this quite disturbing. We apparently have a president with a messiah complex, surrounded by top-level advisors - Dick Cheney his vice president, and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld leading the pack - only too ready to encourage him. The White House has been incredulous at the military reluctance to use nukes, saying that the option came from them in the first place when it is questioned.

Taking into consideration the contents of Hersh’s article, Carl Bernstein’s article calling for a Senate investigation of President Bush and his administration takes on added importance. Urging such an inquiry is certainly a serious step, but I’m sure Bernstein knows this, given his role in the Watergate affair that culminated in the resignation of President Richard Nixon. In fact, one of the things he addresses in the article is the care with which any investigation should be approached. It must not, he says, be a “fishing expedition”, but be focused on very specific issues and concerns even though, as he says, there are a lot of fish to be had.

Bernstein identifies several possible lines of inquiry that should be pursued in an investigation of the Bush White House. There are the lies Bush and his administration have told, and whether they have been used as a “matter of policy” to hide and defend the president’s and the administration’s actions. What kinds of lies does Bernstein mean? He is referring to the insistence - without any concrete proof produced - by the administration that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction in order to gain support for the war in Iraq, to statements after the fact that “nobody anticipated the breach of the levees” in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina in the face of evidence that the possibility had been reported to Bush before the hurricane made landfall, among many others. There seems to be an almost reflexive concealment by the administration of anything that it feels might reflect badly on it or that might lead to it not being able to do whatever it wishes.

Another issue that Bernstein says should be addressed is the competency of the president, the vice president, and some of his top-level appointees. More than just the competency of the president should be looked at because, as Bernstein writes in the article, there is a good deal of evidence that the policies and ideas of the administration that some see as illegal or unconstitutional come as much from Cheney as they do from Bush. While Bernstein does not come right out and say it, this goes to the question of who is really running the administration. In this regard, the observation of Colin Powell’s former chief of staff, himself a retired colonel, that it seems to him that Vice President Cheney and Defense Secretary Rumsfeld form a decision-making “cabal” outside the bureaucracy. Also worrying is Bernstein’s report that Colin Powell has been known to make statements in private that call Vice President Cheney’s emotional stability into question. Because Powell served with Cheney in the first Bush administration, he would be in a position to recognize changes in the vice president’s mental state.

A huge issue that Bernstein feels should be investigated is the way that the Bush administration has evaded responsibility for its actions, not only by lying about various issues but also by concealing their actions by claiming executive privilege in order to avoid disclosing information and by fashioning the doctrine of “unimpairment”, through which the administration claims that the president, especially in a time of war, can essentially do anything he wants to do. This harks back, as Bernstein points out, to Richard Nixon’s famous (or infamous) statement to interviewer David Frost that “when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Even conservative columnist George Will, writes Bernstein, has called that attitude as dangerous as terrorism.

Some of the practical applications of the doctrine of unimpairment are chilling. They include wiretaps without court order (one of the things that got Nixon in trouble all those years ago); the claimed authority to hold prisoners of war, even US citizens, indefinitely and without habeas corpus; and the administration’s unusual attitude toward torture and that position’s repudiation of the Geneva conventions, the provisions of which Attorney General Alberto Gonzales reportedly called “quaint” in a memo written when he was White House counsel. Of course, Mr. Bush has claimed that his administration does not condone torture. What he did not say was that it all depends on how one defines “torture”. Another manifestation of the attitude that nothing must stand in the way of what the Bush administration wants is their common tactic of painting any critic as a malcontent, a traitor, or a coward. This has been seen in the leak of Valerie Plame’s position as a CIA agent in order to discredit her husband after he wrote an article contradicting administration statements on the issue of WMDs. It was seen in the attempts to marginalize Representative John Murtha, an ex-marine, after he spoke out against the administration’s position on Iraq. It may also be working in the recent firing from the CIA of Mary McCarthy on allegations that she was one of the sources for information on a network of covert CIA prisons, published in articles that won journalist Dana Priest a Pulitzer Price recently. Not coincidentally, there have been comments by partisans of the administration that journalists who publish such articles should be tried and sent to prison for writing about such things.

The case Bernstein makes for an official investigation into the Bush administration is persuasive. That he isn’t the only one worried about the things the administration is doing only adds to his argument. There are the retired generals who have called for Donald Rumsfeld’s resignation (they, too, are being subject to a campaign of marginalization by the administration, by the way). There are the members of Bush’s own party who are beginning to question some of the administration’s actions. There are the European diplomats, cited in the Hersh article, who worry that the administration might be about to do something one called “catastrophic” in Iran, as well as the high-level US military personnel who are said to be ready to resign rather than acquiesce to the use of nuclear weapons by the administration. In light of all this, such an inquiry as Bernstein proposes in his article seems an urgent priority.

There is a lot more in these articles than I've been able to outline here. Both of them make some very good points, and whether you think you will agree with them or not I don't think you'll regret reading them.

Friday, April 21, 2006

Random thoughts...and a bit of a rant

I was going to be better about writing here. I really was.

I've been collecting little items I want to write about, writing little notes to myself about things I want to comment on or explore.

But I just haven't found the time to sit down and write. Or I haven't made the time to do so. Or by the time I'm finished with work every day (my job involves a lot of writing), I just don't want to sit down and string words together anymore for awhile.

For example, for some reason the other day I thought it might be fun to start a secret society. Don't know what spawned that thought. Might have been an ad for The DaVinci Code. They're really pushing that movie ahead of its release. But, anyway, I got to thinking about how that might be a hoot. Then, again, I've been told I have somewhat of a twisted sense of humor.

And then, when I was watching The Breakfast Club on tv the other day, it occured to me that it is an amazing thing that anyone survives high school. It's brutal. I mean, I liked school and I still threatened to quit near the end of my senior year. You see, there was this riot or street fight or whatever you want to call it the day we got out for spring break that year and they locked down the school (although way back then, that isn't what they called it) and there were police helicopters circling the school and shots were fired and the whole thing. Scared the crap out of me, and I did not want to go back.

But it isn't just that. It's the games that go on, the mental torture that anyone who doesn't fit in is subjected to. I think that whoever decided that it was a good idea to put that many bodies with all those raging hormones into such a small space and force them to stay there all day, five days a week, must have been a sadist of the first order. It creates a meanness, a ruthlessness that I think you probably don't even find on the battlefield in a war. Like I said, I liked school, or at least the process of learning. But junior high and high school were torture, mostly, because I was the two things one simply cannot be at that age - smart and overweight. The casual cruelty was almost overwhelming sometimes.

It became a much more poigniant question - how do we survive high school? - when I happened on the film Bowling for Columbine yesterday on tv. I suppose they were showing it because it was the anniversary of the massacre. Michael Moore seems to blame it on the gun culture in the United States. And that might be part of it. But I think most of what caused that, and what causes much of the violence that goes on in schools, stems right from the way some people get picked on, to the point of mental torture, in high school culture. This is not to give those boys a pass on what they did. That was not the way to handle their hostility. On the other hand, if the reports of the sort of ridicule they were subjected to are even partly correct, it isn't hard to see where the hostility came from. The huge problem, I think, is that no one ever really does anything about the bullying, about the way teenagers treat each other. It is always just passed off as "the way things are". And that's a shame, because it doesn't have to be that way.

Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Follow: Weekly Anamnesis

I don’t follow very well. Never have, probably never will. I think it’s genetic.

It hasn’t made life easy, either, not being a good follower. It’s pretty much made faithful adherence to a religion out of the question. God knows, no pun intended, that I’ve tried, but it has just never been a good fit. And it isn’t just religion. Membership in any organization tends to be a problem sooner or later. And school. Well, that is just a pain in the…well, you know. Because not following usually at least implicitly connotes leading. And leading can really cause headaches.

It all has to do with out unofficial family motto: Question Authority.

Seriously, that’s been a part of the family for at least three generations now, beginning with my grandfather way back in World War I. Grandpa Frei was in the German army (my other grandfather was on the American side, but that’s another story), and not all that pleased about it. Family legend goes that he didn’t like an order he was given one day and punched out his commanding officer. Fortunately for the family’s posterity, he somehow managed not to get a date with the firing squad. I understand it was a pretty close thing.

My father continued the tradition in yet another arena. His family, being German (although by then they had made it to the United States), were Lutheran. I don’t know if they were good Lutherans - Grandpa died before I was born and I don’t recall Grandma ever going to church - but they sent my dad to confirmation classes at the Lutheran church. Which was fine until the priest (minister? I’m not quite sure what Lutherans have) informed his class that once they had been received into the church, they were not to associate with nonbelievers any more. Well, my dad was a friendly kind of guy and that didn’t sit very well with him. The way I hear the story, Dad abruptly stood up, told the guy to go to Hell, and never went back. He attended church services very rarely after that, and not very happily. When I had my bout with authoritarian religion (and it was a doozy), he respected my space, but he tried his darnedest to reason me out of it. I think my only regret is that he passed before I came to my senses.

And then there’s me. I should know not to even try to follow. But I get these bouts of wanting to “fit in”. I’ve mostly learned my lesson by now, but its been a rough road sometimes. There was the religion thing. I’m still recovering from that. I’ve tried, from time to time, to join organizations. That has rarely worked out, either. The most successful effort was community college honor society, but that had a lot to do with the fact that I found myself in leadership positions fairly quickly. Alas, that was also where I discovered that leading can be just as much of a pain as following. That was a lesson that was only reinforced once I transferred to university to do my upper division work.

The university I attended was small, private, and very good. Most classes were small (I was in a few that had less than ten students each), and many of them were either seminars or involved a lot of small group work. My sociology of religion course was like that. Groups were not usually assigned, and after the first few weeks of class they became more or less static. The group I ended up in were all good students, but not necessarily very ambitious. Once they discovered that I always did my reading, several group members began to slack off. I would know what was going on; all they had to do was come along for the ride.

I finally got tired of that, and decided one evening when I was feeling particularly lazy that I wouldn’t do my assigned reading for the next day’s project. Well, I skimmed it, I think, but that was just me being my typical OCD-prone self. The next day in class, after we got into our groups, I just sat there. Pretty soon someone asked who had done the reading. Everyone looked at me. I said something along the lines of, “Don’t look at me. I didn’t do it.” They thought I was joking. Panic ensued when they realized that I was absolutely serious. No one else had read because they were so used to me guiding them through the projects. So we had nothing to offer when the professor called on our group. My group-mates didn’t like that very much at all. Let's just say that they were a bit irritated at me for letting them down.

And so they learned a lesson (I hope) that I had already figured out. Following is not something you want to do blindly because, more often than not, if you follow without paying attention to where you are going, you may very well end up where you don’t want to be, in circumstances that you might not find comfortable.

If you want to find out more about Weekly Anamnesis, check out

Monday, April 03, 2006


There has been some talk in the news lately about GawkerStalker, a new feature at that allows people to post sightings of celebrities in Manhattan along with maps to the locations in a very nearly real-time manner (the site says it takes something like fifteen minutes for a sighting to be put up). Apparently the whole point of the exercise is that people viewing the site can see where their favorite celebs are and, if they are close enough, try for their own sighting.

All this has created somewhat of an uproar, with some celebrities complaining that real stalkers could use the site in ways that could cause the celebs to come to harm. The management of claims that this isn't so, and that the celebs should not complain because they trade their privacy for fame. I'm not so sure how much of a threat the site really is - I think if someone is determined enough to stalk someone, star or not, they'll find a way to do it. On the other hand, I think it adds to a culture that has already taken celebrity-worship to ridiculous lengths. And, I don't think anything that could even conceivably help a stalker is really necessary. I've never even seen the point of the whole southern California "Maps of the Stars' Homes" phenomenon.

Then, again, I don't understand celebrity worship in the first place. They're just like everyone else, only better known. I'm not saying that there aren't artists whose work I really like and whose careers I follow. But it is their careers I follow, not them. And I'm not going to pretend that I don't think it is cool that I've met a famous person or two myself, and seen others differetn times and places. But those encounters were just that - kind of cool - not life-changing experiences that define my existence.

Perhaps my perspective on the whole thing has to do with having grown up in Southern California, with the famous (and infamous) pretty much all around. I went to school with kinds whose parents who were in show business; people I knew in high school had dated people in the business. The first six and a half years of my life, I lived across the road from a film director who was quite famous in his time, and whose work is still considered classic today. After we moved from that house and my grandmother moved in, he would come down and talk to her across the fence while she did yard work. My dad knew a number of actors who happened to live in our area. So, the famous and semi-famous were not exotic creatures, but neighbors. Additionally, part of my feeling about celebrity worship also likely comes from having known a few people who were (and I imagine still are) caught up in that lifestyle. I knew a girl when I was in junior high who was so fanatic about one star that she went to each weekly taping of his television show. When she wasn't there, it was all she talked about, something her whole life revolved around.

Whatever has caused it, my attitude has always been that any performer only owes the public the best performance he or she can give. Where they shop, who they date, what they do with their spare time - none of that is any of my business. Anyone or anything - such as GawkerStalker - that tries to promote the idea that these celebrities owe us any look into their private life is simply wrong-headed. I don't imagine the people who run that site would like it very much if one of us walked up to them while they were having dinner in a restaurant and demanded that they give us a formal seminar on website creation, right then and there. Because that's what they are doing - they are demanding that because someone is a performer, they are obligated to perform on demand, even when they are not receiving any compensation for it. Which is just unreasonable.

Anyway, I saw a report yesterday that George Clooney, who is on record as being fairly antagonistic toward intrusiveness into performers' private lives, has come up with a solution to the GawkerStalker problem. He has asked the celebrities themselves to flood the site with fake sightings in order to render it useless. I think it is a wonderful idea. It doesn't call for abridging anyone's free speech or for censorship of the internet. It simply takes GawkerStalker's claim that it is exercising its free speech and demonstrates that free speech is a two-way street. You go, George.

Saturday, April 01, 2006

Conspiracy Theories

First of all, I have to say that I love Jon Carroll. Carroll writes a column for the San Francisco Chronicle. He is probably the best -consistently the most interesting - columnist I’ve ever read. I want to be able to write as well as he does one day. One of the things I like so much about Carroll’s column is that even though he is published in the Datebook section of the Chron, the entertainment section, he writes about everything - the silly and the serious, the trivial and the essential.

You’ve probably figured out by now that I’m going to share a Carroll column with you all. Well, yeah. It was inevitable, I suppose, when I found myself hunting through my purse for scraps of paper to make notes on as I read the thing in the restaurant at dinner last night. That’s always a bad sign.

Carroll’s March 31 column - which I had a link to here, but which didn't work, but you can find him on the Chron's website - addresses the subjects of conspiracies, conspiracy theories, and September 11. He begins by noting that some of the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 are beginning to attract more serious attention. He mentions some other subjects that attract conspiracy theorists - the JFK assassination, UFOs, the princes in the Tower - and allows that the people who study these conspiracy theories are in it for the truth, for the most part, rather than for the notoriety of it. But he also says that most conspiracy theories are built on coincidences that cannot be proved to be any more than that. Then he floats the idea that speculation about conspiracies surrounding 9/11 are really irrelevant, although of historical interest, because there are so many real, ongoing conspiracies that affect our daily lives an that we have more of a chance of doing something about. But, he says, we go off in pursuit of these amphorous, historical conspiracy theories to avoid thinking about the real - and frightening - problems that face the world.

I have to admit that I both agree and disagree with what Carroll says in this column. I do think conspiracy theories are a way of diverting ourselves. Its kind of like watching a horror movie. We know we live in a big, bad, scary world and we occasionally need to look for even bigger, worse, and more frightening things that might or might not be true or possible in order to occupy our minds so that we won’t worry so much about the thins we know are true and real and can harm us.

I also agree that we have much more provable theories than “who really drove the planes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon” right in front of us. Carroll mentions the current culture of government secrecy, for example. We really should pay more attention to these conspiracies than we do. They affect important issues that affect millions of people in their daily lives, and if we don’t attend to them, the people perpetrating these actions are going to get away with what they are doing.

However, I do not agree that it follows, as Carroll implies, that all of this makes the question of what really happened on 9/11 irrelevant. If things were not as we have been told on 9/11, I want to know. It is something we need to know. Now, some of the conspiracy theories floating around about the events of September 11 are very big, bad, and scary. Some of them are, frankly, pretty unbelievable. I hope all of them are simply built on a bunch of coincidences that do not mean anything. Still, given some of the things that have gone on since then - passage of certain provisions of the Patriot Act, more and more government secrecy, warrantless wiretaps (didn’t anybody learn anything from the Nixon administration?), the seeming nonchalance with which certain folks in the government regard the use of torture, among others - I want to be very sure that those theories are built on nothing but coincidence.

At this point, I’m not quite sure which frightens me more - that there are enough of Carroll’s “coincidences” around for people to find enough material to float these theories in the first place, or that from what I’ve observed about how some of the people in my government appear to think and operate, it isn’t that big a stretch for some of the theories to start sounding rational.