_____________________________________________________________________________________________________

Monday, May 1, 2017

Antipodes

 

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.

You notice things.

I spend an hour each morning on my bike.

I ride quiet low-traffic roads, mostly through residential neighborhoods.

My daily route varies, but always includes both city and rural areas.

I’m riding for exercise, fitness, and mostly just because I enjoy it. It helps me write. It gives me time to think.

I ride a minimum of 60 minutes each morning, more if conditions are good. I typically cover 12-20 miles (further on the ultra-lightweight racer, less on the heavier hybrid). If I ride in the evening too, I might cover 25 to 30 miles in a day.

You notice things.

You notice things on a bike that you don't in a car. At least I do anyway, both because of natural inclination and by dint of training.

You travel further on a bike than you can on foot. But like being on foot, you're closer to your surroundings, unenclosed, unprotected. You can feel it. You can smell it. You study the landscape, the houses, the buildings, the yards. The dogs. You say hi to people you pass. They wave back, some of them. Others just stare suspiciously and frown, it’s that kind of place.

You've got time to think, time to process what you see, while your legs push you over the tarmac and through the thick sweltering air.

And you notice things.

See, I live in Florida, a little town called Milton, in the Panhandle.

This is the Deep South.

This is old Florida.

And Milton is, well, it's a very old, very Southern, backwater town.

In this case "backwater" isn't metaphor or allegory. Well, okay, it is, but it's also the literal truth in that Milton (Once Mill Town due to a long ago vanished logging industry, also Hell-town, Jernigan's Landing, Hard Scrabble, and Scratch Ankle) is tucked into a bight of the Blackwater River, surrounded by swamps and bayous and boggy mosquito-infested wetlands, cut off by the Inland Waterway. This is the South of ancient enormous oak trees festooned with hanging Spanish moss, alligators, steam bath humidity, and Confederate flags. Now that summer is upon us, I very often have to dodge snakes, some small, some as big as a large man’s leg, some harmless and some emphatically not, sunning themselves on the warm morning pavement like leathery sausages broiling on the grill at the local Circle-K.

Go east, go west, along the Gulf Coast and the Redneck Riviera  and you'll find bright and glittering tourist towns, from Orange Beach to Panama City, full of wrinkled sun-browned retirees and happy young people on summer break, all drinking and dancing and turning boiled-crawdad red in the unrelenting sun.  There are hundreds of great restaurants, Gulf seafood places mostly, of course. Nightlife. Music. Boardwalks. Festivals. Wonderful beaches. Sailing, surfing, fishing.

Salt Life they call it.

But not Milton.

Time and the Salt Life just sort of passed this place by. It's a tidy little town. It’s the county seat, the courthouse is here and the government offices. It’s a got a certain charm, but it’s a bit crumbly around the edges, full of working poor and lower Middle Class, military retirees (mostly Navy, but a lot of Air Force types too, leavened with some Coast Guard migrated over from Mobile looking for a lower cost of living). It’s the prototypical rural South, peanuts and cotton, a bit off the highway. There's a tiny Navy base, Whiting Field, where they train helicopter pilots. Tourists don't come here because there's nothing much to do. No beach, no clubs, no boardwalk, no kitschy little shops, no casinos. The shiny little Navy ensigns have to drive to Pensacola or Mobile for entertainment. There's nothing here but cheap fast food joints, pawn shops and second hand stores, redneck dive bars, and a lot of Baptist Churches. This is the kind of place you take a vacation from, not a trip to.

You can count ten billboards for ten different accident lawyers within fifty yards, a density of ambulance-chasers unmatched anywhere else in the world.

Here, churches are like hermit crabs. Any empty building, no matter how small or how large, will eventually house one. Abandoned gas stations, a falling down barn, warehouses, former grocery stores, an old mobile-home, a large enough drain culvert, and a congregation newly molted and homeless scuttles in to try on the accommodations. Sometimes the itinerant preachers go through a dozen places until they find one that fits – like a crab proudly wearing a soup can for a hat. And religious signs sprout in profusion among the palmetto shrubs alongside the roads. There are almost as many of those as there are advertisements for lawyers.

Other places, a little town like this would be a bedroom community, but Pensacola is across the bay 30 minutes away via a highway that is perpetually in various states of demolition and while there's certainly commuting there's none of the daily mass migration to new urban developments you'd find elsewhere. There are dozens of empty buildings that once housed some kind of small business and now are empty and fit only for hermit crabs. The last real growth this place saw was back in the 70s and most of the homes date from that time – or before. The neighborhoods are old and overgrown, poverty often jumbled together with modest wealth. You routinely see huge well maintained homes on a dozen acres next door to a squalid one-bedroom shack.

And that's what I ride through each morning.

That weird Deep South Panhandle disparity.

And you notice things.

One route takes me through a neighborhood of huge houses set back from the road on large lots. Homes of the well-heeled local gentry. Doctors, lawyers, and Indian chiefs, as my mother-in-law says, recalling both the old jump-rope rhyme and the popular Hoagy Carmichael song of her childhood.

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.

The houses here are well kept with manicured lawns. In the morning as I roll past, there are always trucks and trailers identified with the logos of various lawn services parked alongside the road and the buzz of hedge trimmers and the muted roar of lawn mowers fills the air with the smell of cut green things. The houses here are new, modern, large.  You see a lot of columns and fancy gabled windows and large porches and screened-in Florida rooms. Almost all of the homes have in-ground pools in the backyards, surrounded by white picket fences and flanked by stylish patio furniture. If the owners are young there will be a late model SUV in the drive, if they’re older it’ll be a Lincoln Town Car or some other large luxury sedan.  The people here aren’t particularly rich in the grand scheme of things, most of them anyway, but they’re not poor either. They are overwhelmingly white. Many of them are doctors and lawyers. Sometimes they wave as I ride past, usually they just ignore me.

Another route takes me through a predominantly black neighborhood.

The houses here are smaller. Closer to the road – close enough to smell dinner cooking in the evenings or backyard BBQs on the weekends, almost always strong enough to make my stomach growl in hunger. Here it’s mostly modest brick homes built in the 50s and 60s. All similar floor plans set on half or quarter acre lots. The tiny single stall garages are almost all long ago converted into living space. It’s Florida, these people don’t need a garage as much as they need another bedroom. Car ports are common. Most of the places are neat and tidy, with well kept yards and small gardens. Here, people mow their own grass and if there’s a pool it’s usually an inexpensive above-ground. The cars are a few years older and there are more vehicles that double as both family transportation and work trucks. This place is firmly lower middle class, a workingman’s neighborhood. People are much more friendly here, they almost always wave or shout a greeting as I cruise past.

Sunday morning I rode sixteen miles through town and out into the rural countryside.

You notice things.

7:30 AM, in a more affluent neighborhood, a grizzled old white man sprawled in a lounger on his front porch surrounded by empty beer cans. He was shirtless and doughy and sallow and gray hair grew in patches on his chest like fungus. He wore bright pajama bottoms decorated in cartoon characters and unidentifiable stains and he was as drunk as a preacher in a whorehouse on Saturday night. He cackled at me as I rode past, mouth gaping open in intoxicated mirth so wide I could see it was empty of teeth. An older woman in a flowered robe sat on her porch across the street reading the paper and drinking coffee. A large black and white cat sat on the steps near her feet watching me with yellow eyes. The woman never looked up. Not even when the drunk shouted something unintelligible and threw an empty beer can in my general direction. It fell far short and came to rest in the middle of his manicured yard.

A half hour later in a much poorer neighborhood I passed a small house, the yard filled with weeds and the rotting hulks of old cars, the eaves sagging, the paint fading and in need of a new coat. Not a dump, just the kind place where people are too poor and too hard worked  to worry much about what the neighbors think. On the cluttered porch were two young African-American boys. Nine or ten. Both wore crisp perfectly pressed white dress shirts with ties, black pants, polished shoes. They were seated opposite each other at a small table, staring intently at a chessboard, the pieces arrayed for battle. From inside the house a woman’s voice asked if they were ready for church. One of the boys answered in the affirmative and they both waved to me. Good morning, Sir, one said. Good morning, Boys, I answered. Enjoy your game. We will, Sir, have a blessed day.

I’m not much of a religious person but I’d rather be offered a polite blessing than an empty beer can any day.

In another neighborhood, on a road I hadn’t been down before, an older brown brick house was surrounded by a chain-link fence, with a mesh gate closed across the drive. Dogs. You can always tell. So I was ready for the furious barking when it came. And I damned near lost control of my ride and crashed into the ditch howling with laughter when this tiny ball of fury came at me out of the flowers. I thought it was a lawn gnome at first. There was Chihuahua in its pedigree and something else, maybe Mexican jumping bean. The creature couldn’t have weighed more than a pound, it had a little dog shaped round head with bulging eyes glowing with the kind of kaleidoscopic madness you only get from a hundred generations of dedicated inbreeding. And it was wearing, I swear to you, a tiny pink dress. But what did it for me was the sign on the gate: Beware of Dog. I lost it. I swerved and nearly went over the handlebars. I was laughing so hard I could barely breathe in the thick air … and looked up as an older woman in curlers and a pink housecoat and giant fluffy pink slippers appeared in the drive. She grinned hugely at me and waved. I grinned and waved back. She was clearly enjoying the joke.

You notice things.

You notice the lack of things.

These neighborhoods are the middle. Poor or modest or moderately wealthy, this is the center.

These neighborhoods are all very different, but they have at least one thing in common.

There are almost no political signs.

There were plenty of signs before the election, Trump, Clinton, various others, and not always where you might expect. But by the end of November they were nearly all gone. And now I can ride for blocks through vastly diverse neighborhoods without seeing a single political sign. 

They have moved on.

Now, I don’t mean they’ve surrendered to the current situation, and I don’t mean they haven’t. What I mean is they don’t feel the need to advertise an allegiance to one side or the other of an election that’s long over.

They’ve moved on.

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.

But then there are the other places.

The edges.

The extremes.

And in those places, the signs are still up.

They want you to know they are on the winning team.

Far down a back road, unexpectedly, is this … house.  

The road is very rural. The lots are large, the houses aren’t fancy. Old ranch style mostly with Spanish influence. Large yards, many fenced in for horses – oddly I almost never see an actual horse, though one place has a whole herd of miniature donkeys.

And then you come to a wrought-iron gate.

It’s massive. Custom made. Old. Locked with a heavy chain. There’s a sign that says “East gate closed, use west gate.” Not other gate, west gate. Because it’s so far away, they have to give directions to it using the cardinal points of the compass. You ride west along the fence, past a row of huge old palm trees. The house is enormous, a vast sprawling red brick edifice. Google Earth shows that it’s shaped like a C, with two large wings off the main structure wrapped around a courtyard and an Olympic sized pool hidden from the road. The place must be nearly 10,000 square feet. There’s a huge garage and an even larger barn and what appears to be a guest house big enough for Charlie Sheen. I count at least a dozen outbuildings, maybe more, some as big as the house. The football field sized yard is shaped around century old oak trees and paved drives, there are fountains and flower beds and sculptures. There’s a large white cross prominently affixed to the central oak. Past the “west” gate are acres of what look to be vineyards gone to seed, punctuated by tall sprinkler systems that look as if they are no longer used. The place is a little seedy, as if the wealthy owners sold out to a retired Mafia hit man who just wants to die of anonymity and natural causes. The security cameras are hard to spot, but they’re there and new and professionally installed. As are the no trespassing signs.

And on the gate posts?

Brand new Trump/Pence signs.

A few miles away, I pass another place.

This place could not be more different, the complete opposite, as far removed from the mansion as if it was on the far side of the world.

The house is a shack, and that’s probably an insult to shacks. The place is literally falling down, the roof sagging and buried under sickly looking moss. The paint is not peeling only because it long ago fell off leaving behind exposed mildew speckled wood. On the eaves, the soffit boards are missing and you can see into the attic and the gray dry-rotted ends of the roof joists. Most of the shingles are gone, replaced with various patches of tin and tarps and tarpaper. A window is covered with warped and buckling plywood and the carcass of the missing frame complete with broken glass is laying in a mangled heap under the window where they dropped it (or it fell out). The yard is choked with weeds and garbage, a half dozen decaying truck engines dead beyond any resurrection short of the divine, the carcass of some unidentifiable vehicle from the previous century sunk to the top of the wheel wells into the soil, the twisted springs of at least a half dozen different mattresses, broken furniture, shattered blocks of concrete, empty paint cans, those horrible mass produced blow-plastic children’s playsets faded by the unrelenting sun to dull pink and sickly green and diseased yellow like the stiff corpses of giant dead birds, and piles of other less identifiable detritus. There’s a leaning carport packed full of random castoff trash, the kind of worthless junk that’s important to people who don’t have anything of value and never will. Places like this, they don’t have security cameras, they have dogs. Not some toy breed in a pink dress, but pit bulls or some diluted version of a Rottweiler, usually tethered in the junk with a chain and a padlock, abused, neglected, half psychotic, and you can smell the piles of dog shit from a hundred yards away.

And there, on the rotting mail box post?

Brand new Trump/Pence signs, likely the only new thing in the place.

I pass other mansions and other shacks. All with Trump signs. These are the extremes, the edges, the antipodes of society and wealth and opportunity and education here in this little town, and yet they share this strange similar viewpoint. Four months after the election. Trump/Pence. Make America Great Again.

The mind bending part here is that these people, these opposites who share Trump as their only commonality, are more than anything else terrified of each other.

The people in that giant mansion?

What does make America great again mean to those people?

I don’t have to guess, Trump himself told us in his speeches and at his rallies. The wealthy told us what makes America great to them, they do so in TV interviews with famous personalities, they never shut up about it.

They’re terrified that some black gangbanger or some white trash bottom feeder is going to kick in their door and murder their families and steal all their stuff. That’s what the wall and the gates and the security cameras are for. These people, they love the idea of a wall around America, of course they do. They voted for Trump because they’re mad, certain they’re being ripped off, held at gunpoint, paying too much in taxes, forced to support the lowlifes and the freeloaders who live just down the road.

The people in that moldering shack?

What does make America great again mean to those people?

I don’t have to guess, I watched them cheer Trump’s talking points. I read the slogans on their shirts and their social media posts.

They’re terrified some rich guy is going to come kick in their door and enslave their families and take all of their stuff. That’s what the “Protected by Smith&Wesson” window sticker and the pit bull are for. These people, they love the idea of Trump sticking it to the “elites,” of course they do. They voted for Trump because they’re mad, certain they’re being ripped off, held at gunpoint, their rights and their jobs stolen by illegal immigrants or shipped overseas by the rich sons of bitches living just up the road.

These people could not be more opposite in station, in fortune, in economic opportunity. They are the most unlikely – and impossible – of allies.

These people are almost literally terrified of each other.

And yet, there it is, the thing that binds them together, that bridges the vast, vast gap between them. Donald Trump.

You notice things.

If you look carefully.

Trump appeals to the edges, not necessarily the edges of political ideology, but the edges of society. Those who live in the mansions and those who live in the shacks. See, both the rich and the poor, they think Trump is somehow not only going to make America great again, he’s going to make America great specifically for them.

Think about that.

Think about how utterly impossible that is.

The policies and ideologies that make America great for the people who live in those mansions, well those things almost never benefit the people who live in the shacks. In fact, it’s often just the opposite when the effects of deregulation and a lack of environmental protections and the empty promises of trickle down economics become fully realized.

And the changes necessary to lift those shack dwellers permanently up out of their poverty? Education, healthcare, adequate nutrition, decent safe jobs with benefits, equality, access, opportunity, those things almost never benefit the wealthy. The wealthy and privileged have those things already as a birthright and if they were willing to share, well, we wouldn’t be having this conversation.

Trump pandered to the extremes. He continues to do so. But it’s the middle that has pragmatically moved on.

This, this right here will be Donald Trump’s Waterloo.

It is impossible to make America great for these two opposites, because what each really wants is to take from the other.

Trump will have to choose. The only way forward for him is to sacrifice either the rich or the poor.

And he cannot make that decision.

He can’t.

It’s impossible and he’s starting to realize it.

He wants to throw in with the mansions, like Reagan and Bush and his billionaire friends.

But he can’t abandon the shacks, because his ego needs their cheering more than his wallet needs the billionaires’ money, that’s what the rallies are all about. That’s why he daily contradicts himself – because he’s trying to tell each what they want to hear and those things are mutually incompatible.

And so he won’t choose. He can’t.

He’ll try to please both extremes and end up pleasing nobody.

Let this be a lesson, an opportunity, for those who would be president.

It’s not the edges that matter.

It’s the middle.

But you must take the time to notice.

Doctor, lawyer, Indian chief. Rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief.

This children's rhyme was chanted during recess almost every day that weather allowed us to play outside. I remember hearing older girls chanting as they jumped rope, but I cannot recall the first time that I was included. Jumping rope was a favorite activity because there were many paved sidewalks and play areas at the Cherokee Indian School. Those of us who attended the school were from homes without side-walks and paved roads. Some of us day students only had opportunities to jump rope on school days, while boarding students had access to paved areas even on weekends.

We jumped rope, chanted the rhyme, and laughed when we missed a jump on any one of the "occupations" named in the rhyme. We knew it was a game because we did not read about or know any women who were doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. I do not think we even thought of what it was to be a rich man, poor man, beggar man, or thief. Yet we were amused with the game because we thought it might somehow predict our future.

- Carmaleta L. Monteith
Doctors, Lawyers, Indian Chiefs: Indian Identity in the South
Cultural Diversity In the U.S. South (Anthropological Contributions to a Region in Transition)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

The Hubris of Ignorance

Have  you been following this? All these airplane crashes? And everyone is so confused. Everyone is going, Gosh, how come there are so many airplane crashes? Well, um, I gotta theory here. You remember, what was it? Like, uh, four years ago? The air traffic controllers, they went on strike? And then, um, Ronald Reagan fired ‘em? So then they just hired anyone who was hanging out at the time. And now everyone is going, Geez, how come there are so many airplane crashes? How come there are so many airplane crashes?! I dunno, maybe Walt the janitor isn’t qualified to land a Boeing 707!”
 
-- Bobcat Goldthwait

 

Maybe Walt the Janitor isn’t qualified to land a Boeing 707.

But then again, in America we’d love to believe Old Wally could maybe pull it off.

Because we Americans, we sure love the heroic myth of the common man.

Oh we do. We prefer myth over reality every time.

We love to tell ourselves that one.

It’s the myth of our country’s birth. We love that myth more than all the others combined.

We tell ourselves with great pride how a bunch of raggedy assed, untrained colonists one day rose up against tyranny.  The Minutemen were roused from their beds in the middle of the night by Paul Revere and they rallied to the Stars and Stripes. They threw all the tea into Boston harbor and sent England a stiff upraised middle finger, up yours, we ain’t paying no taxes no more.  And then a bunch of farmers grabbed up their muskets and formed themselves into a militia under good old George Washington and this army of amateurs chased the Redcoats all the way back to England without any help from anybody except for Jesus.

Because Americans are special. Exceptional.

And when they’d thrown off the yoke of tyranny, well, then a bunch of common men gathered in Philadelphia to receive the Constitution directly from God. They wrote down the sacred words and everybody signed it, especially John Hancock, and America was born.

Amen. 

That’s the myth we tell ourselves, we Americans.

We’re special. Exceptional. We pulled ourselves up by our own bootstraps and forged the Republic out of the mud with our own hands.

We’re a nation of amateurs. Bunch of Good Old Boys beat the best army on the planet. Bunch of farmers wrote the Constitution and laid down the foundation for the greatest country in the world. A government of the people, by the people, and for the people. In America, we’re not ruled over by kings. We don’t owe our allegiance to some hereditary weak-chinned inbred royalty.

No, Sir.

In America, why the people are the government and anybody can be president.

Anybody.

 

We are a nation of amateurs and damned proud of it, aren’t we?

 

That’s what this election was about.

Drain the swamp!  Throw the bums out!

That’s why we hated Hillary Clinton.

Sure. Crony capitalist. Career politician. Corruption. Business as usual. You heard it from the Right and you heard from the Left. Hell, go check out my Twitter feed, I’m still getting it full bore from both sides.

That’s why we elected Donald Trump, isn’t it?

Because he was an outsider. Because he’s not a member of the Washington elite. That’s what Trump’s supporters said. That’s what they say now. He’s not like other presidents. He’s not a politician. The normal rules don’t apply. He’s gonna do things different.

Because he’s not a politician.

That, that right there, is a very American belief.

This idea that anybody can be the president.

That’s what we tell our kids. Eat your broccoli, Sonny, and some day you might grow up to be president. 

Moreover, we Americans by and large tend to be suspicious of education and experience when it comes to government.

Anywhere else, brain surgeon, airline pilot, corporate CEO, dog trainer, we want the most experienced person we can get. But the President? Not so much. Power corrupts, right? You got to clean house every once in a while. Throw the bums out.

Except…

 

Except, in retrospect, perhaps ignorance and a suspicion of “elites” isn’t the best way to go about selecting a leader.

 

Once upon a time, I despised Jimmy Carter.

I mean, who didn’t, right?

President Jimmy Carter.  He was weak and cowardly I thought, and I certainly wasn’t the only one. Iranian revolutionaries had just overthrown the Shah, stormed the US embassy in Tehran and taken fifty-two American diplomats hostage.  And there was Carter, the hapless peanut farmer, and he wasn’t doing anything about it. We had the mightiest military in the world. Those were our people. Our embassy. Our soil, our property. A bunch of goddamned towelheads were touching our stuff, defying the United States of America.

And it just went on and on, four hundred and forty-four days.

It was infuriating.

It was embarrassing that a bunch of camel jockeys should have us – US – bent over a barrel like that.

I mean, how dare they? We were America, Goddamn it.

And Carter, well, Carter did nothing.

I was just out of high school. I worked in a restaurant then, taking classes at the local junior college. After work, over beers, the air thick with cigarette smoke, we smacked our fists on the tables and we cooks and dishwashers seethed in outrage. We hatched endless military campaigns, we mighty generals. It was simple and obvious. We’d send in an aircraft carrier, you see, and not one of those old rusty conventionally powered ones either. A nuclear warship, the very symbol of American military power, her decks bristling with fighter jets. One look – one look, by God – and those Ayatollahs would shit themselves in fear.

Oh, we would get our people back, you bet.

Eventually Carter did send in the military. Operation Eagle Claw. And it ended in horrifying failure. Eight Americans died in the desert, we lost millions in equipment. Iran mocked us from our TV screens. What a bumbling fool Carter was.

Anybody could have come up with a better plan, even a bunch of line cooks and dishwashers with no military background.

Eventually Carter lost the election, Reagan took his place, and the hostages came home.

Reagan, boy, those Iranians feared him, didn’t they? Ronald Reagan was strong, a genuine American cowboy. By God, he’d send in the fleet first thing, you bet. The minute that guy was in office, those sons of bitches let our people go rather than risk it, didn’t they?

Carter went back to his peanut farm in shame and defeat.

And me?

I joined the Navy.

And one day, many years later in the wake of 911, I was on the bridge of a cruiser as we steamed north through the Straits of Hormuz, past Iran, headed for Iraq and war. By then I was salty navy intelligence officer, an experienced war planner, with peculiar and unusual skills. It wasn’t the first time I’d been there and I had actually served with men who had been in the desert on that horrible day when Eagle Claw crashed and burned. I knew a little something of Iran, more than a little in point of fact. I knew a great deal about about the staggering complexity of the Arabian Gulf, its convoluted history and politics and the endlessly shifting powers of the region. And I knew more than a little about what it takes to stage a successful hostage rescue in hostile territory – or even an unsuccessful one. I was an expert in our capabilities (and the very, very real limits of those capabilities), in the astoundingly complicated intelligence problem spawned by a dozen impenetrable regimes (some willing allies, some less than willing, some openly hostile, some undetermined), mixed with a dozen shades of the same religion all mutually hostile, grudges going back a thousand years, the arbitrary interests of the Great Powers, the economics of oil and power and unimaginable amounts of money, the constraints and pressures of geography, and the complex ever shifting unknown and unguessable permutations of a dozen military forces, mercenaries, smugglers, pirates, and random criminal organizations mixed in with commerce from a hundred nations in unbelievable density. It was my job to know those things, and I was very, very good at it.

As we cruised past miles of Iranian coast, alert for danger, ready for action, hemmed in by the geography of the Straits, past lumbering vulnerable tankers laden with vast wealth, dogged by foreign warships, bathed in the electronic energy of hostile fire control radars, knowing we were in the crosshairs of dozens, hundreds, of shipkillers, well, let’s say I knew very, very well indeed how utterly na├»ve that 18-year-old dishwasher had been all those years ago.

There are few certainties in the Middle East, but one thing I knew for sure was that this was no place for amateurs.

It’s a funny thing though, isn’t it?

We want an amateur President, but when I sailed up that dangerous strait in 2003 on my way to Iraq, a significant percentage of Congress, both in the Senate and in the House, had been in their jobs since long before the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

Some of them are still in office.

Funny perverse, I mean.

And that Iranian Hostage Crisis? Funny thing about that too.  Carter had sent a nuclear aircraft carrier, the USS Nimitz, at that time one of the newest ships in the fleet. To this day, one of the most powerful warships in the world. Her decks had quite literally bristled with fighters. She was accompanied by USS Coral Sea, and a fleet of nuclear powered cruisers and a screen of destroyers. That fleet carried enough firepower to lay waste to a continent.  And the Iranians simply shrugged, they weren’t impressed and they certainly weren’t intimidated. Iran has been at the crossroads of war and empire since before the beginning of recorded history – a history so vast and so complex that an America barely 240 years old has nothing we can compare to it. The reasons for the Hostage Crisis were woven deeply into that history and included resentment over things most Americans still don’t know about their own past let alone Iran’s – such as the CIA-orchestrated overthrow of the Iranian government in 1953. In America, the Iranian Hostage Crisis was the birth of modern shallow mindless patriotism, of overdone flag displays and empty gestures of self-indulgent nationalism. USA! USA! In the end, the release of the hostages had very little to do with the election of Ronald Reagan and a great deal to do with the patient statesmanship of Jimmy Carter. Despite endless conspiracy theories ala Richard Nixon’s diddling the Paris Peace Accords to win his election, there is no evidence whatsoever that Reagan sent agents (supposedly William Casey and George H. W. Bush) to Paris to delay release of the hostages until he could win the election and take office. No, Iran’s decision to release the hostages was a complicated process that owed as much to the Iran-Iraq war and convoluted diplomacy via Algeria (a country most Americans couldn’t find on a map without Google and would be outraged if told they owed a debt of gratitude) as it did to American efforts.

What I’m saying here is that the situation was fantastically complicated and even to this day not all of the details are known. In point of fact, we are still arguing over the details, who owes who, who was at fault, who was involved, who was wrong, who was right, and all the infinite shades of gray in between. The Obama Administration’s release of frozen Iranian assets from that time, 30 years later, and the seething outrage it caused here in the US is a prime example – though few of the outraged could tell you where that money came from or why we ultimately paid it back. Ask those same righteous patriots about Canada’s involvement and what we owe them and before the Ben Affleck movie Argo came out, not one of them could have told you (and few can even now). The crisis was hideously complicated. It involved religion and politics and vast sums of money and power and war and ancient grievances and the wills of a dozen nations, and no mere display of strength back then, no matter how powerful or determined, would have simplified it. And in fact, every such display, every rattle of the sword, every threat of force, every waggle of dicks, only made matters worse. And Reagan? Hell, five years later Reagan was trading arms to Iran through Israel in exchange for hostages held by Hezbollah terrorists in Lebanon and funding a secret war in South America in direct violation of US law.

I watched the Iranian coast slide by, and in that moment, I knew the terrible choices President Carter must have faced and how unfair the judgement of the mob and history had been to him, the things few Americans will ever know – or care to know – or are even vaguely equipped to understand.

And why a nation run by blustering amateurs is a foolish and idiotic conceit.

 

image

The world is a dangerous and complicated place.

Almost unimaginably so.

image

And nothing is as simple or as straight forward as it seems and as the mob apparently believes.

image

Foreign nations do not kowtow to the United States.

This is not something new.

This is no weakness of Carter or Clinton or Obama – or Reagan and Bush for that matter. These nations have never bent a knee to us. From Morocco during Roosevelt’s time, to Cuba and Vietnam during Kennedy, to Libya under Reagan to Haiti and Grenada and Panama and all the nations that fill your news feed today.

It is the nature of nations, large and small, to push back – and in fact, like dogs, the smaller a nation is, likely the more fierce and furious its bark.

 

image

 

At home, we Americans face the same problems we’ve always faced, energy and resources, civil rights, race, age, religion, law and order, unrest, left and right, young and old, health care, education, infrastructure, jobs.

It’s complicated and difficult and always on the verge of failure.

 

image

This is not a world for a government run by amateurs.

As the man said, Walt the Janitor isn’t qualified to land a Boeing 707.

 

image

As we are right now finding out.

image

 

Trump was going to repeal and replace Obamacare on his first day in office.

He was going to build a wall and make Mexico pay for it.

He was going to defeat ISIS in the first 30 days.

The Iranian deal was history.

He was going to get us out of NATO.

He was going to get rid of the Import-Export Bank.

Trump spend a decade or more railing about China. Oh it was simple. It was easy. It was so clear. Currency manipulation! We have to stop it!

The mob cheered. Of course the mob cheered. Mobs despise “the elites,” the educated, the experienced, and complexity.

The simpleminded demand simple causes for complex problems.

The simpleminded demand simple solutions.

To the howling mob it’s clear, it’s us and them. We’re right and they’re wrong and there’s no problem that can’t be solved with the correct application of high explosives. The big stick. Send in the fleet, that’ll scare ‘em. And if it doesn’t, drop enough bombs, kill enough people, sooner later, you win. Right? That’s America, we punched old King George right in the nose, created democracy, and popped open a cold one.  Back then all a man needed to forge freedom from the wilderness was a good horse, a sturdy woman, and his six shooter. That’s how America beat Hitler and the Japs, that’s how Reagan beat the Soviets, you bet.

Except…

Except it turns out it’s not simple and it’s not easy and it’s anything but clear and it didn’t happen that way.

It’s right there, in the news, in your face, obvious to all but the most obtuse.

Trump spent a decade telling everybody who would listen how easy it was. And he ought to know, right? He’s a billionaire. Billionaires got money. Right? That makes him smarter than the professionals. Sure it does. Just ask him.

Except that simplistic view was wrong – as evidenced by Trump’s own words, even if he doesn’t have the moral courage to admit it. 

And being wrong on this scale has consequences.

Trump was stunned by how difficult it was to come up with a better health care plan than Obamacare.

“Nobody knew health care could be this complicated,” he lamented.

Nobody.

But the thing is, the professionals did know. The people with the most experience knew.  And they said so, over and over and over again. It was only the ignorant and the foolish and the howling mob who didn’t know. Who didn’t want to know. 

Turns out Mexico isn’t going to pay for Trump’s wall, so we’re going to pay for it. Turns out defeating ISIS is going to take a hell of a lot more than the Mother of All Bombs. Turns out the deal with Iran is far better than anybody had any right to expect and Trump isn’t going to negotiate any better deal because there isn’t one – and man, don’t you wish we had that same deal with North Korea? Turns out NATO was a good idea after all. So is the Import-Export Bank. Turns out Moscow isn’t much of a friend. Turns out the FBI isn’t much of one either.

Turns out, Trump’s ideas of how to run a government aren’t much better than that of an 18-year-old dishwasher – though it should be noted: the ignorance of youth has an excuse, the President of the United States does not.

Foreign relations, international economics, the balance of powers, the art of diplomacy, it’s complicated and difficult and nothing is as it seems to the simpleminded mob. You can’t just bomb your way to peace and prosperity. You can’t just send in an aircraft carrier.

You can’t manage foreign policy via Tweets.

image

 

“See what happens.” Literally, the foreign policy version of Come at me, Bro!

Meanwhile, the warships supposedly dispatched to show Kim Jong Un the Big Stick, well, that fleet was sailing in the opposite direction, blithely unaware that they were at the center of a threatened nuclear war.

Why?

Because the President of the United States of America has no idea whatsoever how to command the very military assets he’s threatening the rest of the world with.

And neither, apparently, does anybody else in his administration.

That’s how utterly unprepared this bunch of amateurs is.

And now they’re shoveling shit against the tide in an effort to dig their way out of it.

The bottom line is, in our effort to always be open about what we are doing we said that we were going to change the Vinson's upcoming schedule. We don't generally give out ships' schedules in advance, but I didn't want to play a game either and say we were not changing a schedule when in fact we had.”

That was Secretary of Defense James Mattis today in Saudi Arabia in a statement that is patent nonsense.

That’s what it looks like when a military man who’s used to speaking plainly tries to spin like a politician.

And he knows he’s sucking at it. He can’t help it. Because he knows that last week the Navy, for which he is personally responsible, announced the Carl Vinson strike group would divert from Australia and proceed to the western Pacific Ocean. Trump administration officials along with Trump himself were explicit about it.

And Secretary Mattis himself said on April 11th, the Vinson was “on her way up there.”

A day later, Trump himself said on Fox Business News, “We are sending an armada, very powerful.”

The danger here is even worse than most Americans imagine. It’s not that he might start a war via some belligerent ham-fisted Twitter accident, which would be bad enough, but he might start a war on purpose with no idea the status of American forces or how to deploy them in any coherent fashion. Nor does he have the focus or the intellectual curiosity necessary to find out.

And nobody else in his administration, including General James Mattis, apparently knows either.

Meanwhile, somebody in the Administration claiming to represent the US Central Command told the press,

image

This was regarding the MOAB drop in Afghanistan last week. A strike apparently conducted by the military without Presidential authorization because according to Trump he prefers the generals to handle the details.

Except shortly thereafter, CENTCOM issued an official press release saying in essence, “We have no idea who that guy is.”

image

And while the whole thing suddenly reeks of John Miller, more likely the Press got pawned by some over zealous mid-grade officer who wasn’t authorized to speak to the media.

And it’s not just the military.

A month ago, Trump fired all the US Attorneys.

Today, Attorney General Jeff Sessions says aggressive law enforcement is the administration’s priority.  He’s going to crack down on everything from illegal drugs to illegal immigration.

Except that’s impossible without the 93 US Attorney positions currently vacant via his own President’s order.

Add to that the fact that all of the Justice Department’s top divisions are currently without permanent appointees.

This disarray is evident in every department of the Trump Administration, from Defense to Education to State to the Interior.

Just like in any other profession of any difficulty, education, training, practice, experience, advice, these things matter.

There are real world consequences, terrible consequences, for ignorance on this scale.

There is no position of comparable complexity – or even approaching such complexity as the office of President – anywhere else in America that we would trust to someone so utterly lacking in qualifications as is Donald Trump.

And nothing demonstrates the sheer staggering incompetence of this bumbling oaf than threatening North Korea with a fleet that didn’t even know it was involved.

 

The Founding Fathers weren’t amateurs

 

The men who freed this country from King George and then went on to forge a new nation were intellectual elites, the educated inheritors of The Renaissance and products of the Early Modern Age. They were able to create a new government because they were experts in government, educated in war and politics and science and religion and economics and social structures and all the hundreds of other things it takes to build a nation instead of tear one down.

Unlike their foolish descendants, the Founders knew that liberty and democracy and good government take far more than shallow patriotism.

Good government takes intellect, education, experience, curiosity, and a willingness to surround leadership with expert advice and support.

More than anything, it takes the cultivation of intelligence instead of pandering to the lowest common denominator. 

Myths are important to a nation, but a firm appreciation of actual history serves a free people to far greater effect.

There is no virtue in ignorance.

And amateurs make for a lousy republic.

If you want a better nation, if you want better leaders, you have to be better citizens.

 

The doctor turned to me and asked, “Mr. Goldthwait, would you like to cut the cord?” And I said, “Isn’t there anyone more qualified?!
--
Bobcat Goldthwait

Monday, April 10, 2017

Throwing Bombs

[G]overnment is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem
-- Ronald Reagan, First Inaugural Address

Let's see…

Fifty-nine Tomahawk cruise missiles.

At approximately $1,410,000 each for the Navy TLAM variant depending on configuration.

That comes to $83,000,000 and change.

Divide that by the price of a basic model 32Gb iPhone 7, carry the 1, and you get 128,181 Republican healthcare plans…

 

What?

 

Oh, I see.

You don’t think I should be making jokes out of a US missile strike?

Fair enough.

But consider this: The Secretary of State is America’s chief diplomat, responsible for preventing war.

The Secretary of State is Rex Tillerson, the guy who up until three months ago was the CEO of ExxonMobil and who still holds billions in oil industry stock.

Last week, following a major US military strike on Syria and announcement that the US would not be seeking diplomatic solutions to either Syria or North Korea, oil prices on the global market surged up.

Potentially earning Rex Tillerson thousands, maybe millions – depending on how long this goes on.

Let that sink in.

Take all the time you need.

And then you tell me how this isn’t some sick fucking joke.

 

clip_image001

 

I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night.

Donald Trump. Became president of the United States [Friday] night. After bombing Syria.

You ever wonder why the pundits say this? He truly became president when he ordered that military strike. Oh yes, indeed, he truly became president.

Because that’s how we Americans see it, right? Commander in Chief. A man isn’t truly president until he bombs some people, until he orders the military into action, until he commands America in war. That’s what we mean when we say “became president.”

You ever ask yourself why one doesn’t “become president” by feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, or healing the sick?

I mean, in a supposed Christian nation doesn’t that seem ass-backward to you?

No?

Well, maybe it’s just me.

I guess what gets me most two days later isn’t that we bombed Syria per se. No, given the amount of war and destruction over there, nerve gas and falling bombs, shattered buildings, genocide, mass murder, what’s a few more dead kids at this point? I mean really, right?

No. It’s the hypocrisy.

Sean Hannity in September of 2013 talking about President Obama:

clip_image001[6]

He wasn’t alone in his condemnation of Obama’s action in Syria.

image

The part that really sells it for me is the subtitle: “President commits impeachable offense.”

Impeachable offense.

Impeachable.

But then that was 2013 and the president was a black liberal, so, yes, I suppose it was indeed an impeachable offense because, really, what wasn’t an impeachable offense back then, amiright?

I digress.

Sean Hannity and Alex Jones, the two sources which most often seem to shape Donald Trump’s viewpoint.

image

image

What I’m saying is stay out of Syria.

We should stay out of Syria and stay home, work on our own country.

Don’t attack Syria, that’s nothing but trouble.

No upside to attacking Syria. No, Sir. Nothing but trouble.

And besides, you have to get permission from Congress. Boy oh boy, big mistake if you don’t, Folks. Big mistake.

 

Big mistake.

 

Funny how four years changes your perspective, isn’t it?

Sean Hannity yesterday, when somebody mentioned his 2013 comment.

image

This is beyond dumb. Let me guess, you loved Obama.

That’s hilarious. And it’s not an actual answer. Why is it beyond dumb? Why is it brilliant strategy for one president and the height of arrogant folly for another? Essentially Hannity just said, it’s okay if Trump does it, but for Obama it’s an impeachable offense.

Don’t get me wrong here, it does make a difference why a president takes a certain action and the same decision can indeed be folly for one and genius for another. We’ll come back to that later. And that’s not what Hannity is saying here. Instead he calls his critic dumb without explanation.

I leave it up to you to figure out why that might be.

image

Trump strikes Syrian base. But, let’s wait and see. No impeachable offense subtitles here either. Just “analysis.”

Yes, indeed, funny how perspectives change.

 

image

In September of 2013, Paul Ryan was staunchly opposed to any action against Syria and he wasn’t shy about saying so.

About the only guy who hasn’t changed positions is Senator John McCain.

He’s just grateful we finally got to blow up some Syrians. 

He gets cranky when we’re not bombing people…

 

You again? What now?

 

I see.

Okay. Fine.

Enough snark.  People are dying, I should be serious. Fair enough.

Then let us be serious.

Here’s the thing: We do need to take action in Syria.

The world needs to take action.

This atrocity has gone on long enough.  More than long enough. The Syrian regime, backed by the Russians, has been killing its own people for as long as I can remember. As far back as when I was a junior Navy intelligence operator patrolling the Eastern Mediterranean, 30 years ago, and long before that.

So we do need to something. We’re all agreed on that.

Aren’t we?

Okay, well, maybe we’re not unanimous after all, but enough people agree on intervention that the guy in the White House, whoever he or she might be, feels pressure to do … something.

Politically, a politician in that position, be it Obama or Trump, has to do something.

Obama tried, despite the unpopularity of yet another war, despite the unwillingness of Republicans then (as opposed to Republicans now). But he made the mistake of asking Congress for permission.

Oh, it was the right thing to do, the Constitutional thing to do, asking Congress for permission.

But it was still a mistake.

Congress washed its bloody red hands of Syria. It’s not our problem they said, Syria hasn’t attacked us. Republicans were more concerned with sticking it to Obama than they were the slaughter of innocents. So they tried to tie Obama’s hands and then mocked him for his supposed inaction. And if that wasn’t enough, conservatives then tried to fence in those innocents being slaughtered in Syria, the ones who were trying to escape the horror which we allow to go unchecked, and then crowed about their supposed morality. Got to keep America safe they said.

So, in retrospect, it would be easy to say Obama didn’t do enough.

And in fact, plenty of people are saying exactly that. Such as an article yesterday in the New York Post by Michael Goodwin which details Obama’s complete and total failure to act in Syria.

[A]s measured by the loss of life and global impact, nothing compares with Obama’s failure in Syria. His refusal to lift a finger opened the door to perhaps the largest humanitarian crises since World War II.

The scope of Goodwin’s judgement is educational. As measured by the loss of life and global impact, nothing compares with Obama’s failure in Syria? Really? Nothing? Not even the failures of the guy who started a war based on false intelligence and had no plan for what happened after he ousted Saddam and which eventually gave rise to ISIS itself? What about 70 years of failed Middle Eastern foreign policy beginning with a newly minted CIA who in 1953 toppled the elected government of Iran and put the Shah on his throne and which led directly and inevitably to where we are today? It seems to me there’s enough blame to go around.

His refusal to lift a finger, says Goodwin.

Implying that Obama should have defied Congress and taken action, risking impeachment if necessary. He didn’t, and that part is on him. Right?

Except … that’s exactly what he did.

Obama did defy Congress and acted to the limits of his authority at the risk of impeachment.

In fact, the last year Barack Obama was president, his administration dropped an estimated twenty-six thousand bombs on Islamic State targets in Syria and Iraq and the CIA spent roughly a billion dollars training Syrian rebels. Which is why a lot of the wacky far Left (along with the Right) called Obama a warmonger and why they were afraid Hillary Clinton would be too and thus they refused to vote for her.  Far right Trump supporters and far left liberals alike seized on Clinton’s supposed hawkishness and declared with all due horror that if she was elected, she’d start a war in the first month of her presidency – and they called me a son of bitch right here on Stonekettle Station and on my various social media sites for suggesting Trump would be worse.

You all remember this, right?

Trump promised he’d come up with a plan for defeating ISIS. Great plan, Folks, gonna be so great.

“We are going to convene my top generals and give them a simple instruction. They will have 30 days to submit to the Oval Office a plan for soundly and quickly defeating ISIS. We have no choice.”

Sure, you remember that, right?

Now how, exactly, Trump plans on defeating the Islamic State without a war is utterly beyond me, but then he’s the guy who knows more about ISIS than the generals and I’m not.

And Trump made good on that promise.

Yes he did.

He didn’t promise to defeat ISIS in the first 30 days, he promised to convene the generals within 30 days and order them to come up with a plan.

And he did.

Or close enough.

On January 28, 2017,  eight days after assuming office, Trump signed a presidential memorandum ordering “within 30 days, a preliminary draft of the Plan to defeat ISIS shall be submitted to the president by the secretary of defense.”

And 30 days later, on February 27th, 2017, The Secretary of Defense, James Mattis, along with the nation’s “top generals” met with Trump to discuss a preliminary plan.

The next day, Trump addressed Congress,

"As promised, I directed the Department of Defense to develop a plan to demolish and destroy ISIS, a network of lawless savages that have slaughtered Muslims and Christians and men, and women and children of all faiths and all beliefs. We will work with our allies, including our friends and allies in the Muslim world, to extinguish this vile enemy from our planet."

Now, the particulars of the plan are naturally classified and nobody really knows what it is, other than Trump’s promise it’ll be great, Folks, just great. But given the primary architect is General James Mattis and the “top generals” one could reasonably assume it’ll be a military solution and not a diplomatic one.

You don’t want to call that war?

Fine by me. We called 58,000 dead American servicemen and 20 years in Vietnam a police action, so why not?

In the meantime, look around. Notice anything missing?

It’s been three days since the US fired 59 missiles at Syria.

What haven’t you seen?

The United States attacked a foreign country.

We attacked a sovereign nation without provocation.

Yes, we did.

image

That’s the President of the United States, the guy who ordered the attack.

Syria attack.

It’s right there. Those are his words.

Attack. We attacked Syria. That’s what President Donald Trump said . We attacked Syria.

Not in self defense.

Not in defense of our allies.

Not a reprisal for an attack on our nation or people.

Not a response to some transgression against our national security.

Not part of a larger international mission in support of those caught in the middle. 

Not an action sanctioned by the United Nations or a coalition forged to end the violence.

This wasn’t a single missile lobbed at a chemical weapons factory. This was an attack, a barrage of missiles fired in force at a sovereign country from US warships.

Attack.

According to international law, an attack is an act of war.

The president of the United State just admitted to an act of war … via Twitter.

Words matter.

So, it’s been three days, Citizen. What haven’t you seen?

I asked that question on Twitter and it took more than a hundred responses before somebody figured it out.

Before somebody finally realized that the President has yet to formally address the nation.

I mean, we attacked another country, don't you find it odd that the guy who gave the order hasn't explained why to the American people?

 

image

 

Oh, sure, he informed Congress via memo and gave a brief prepared public statement from the golf course at Mar-a-Lago on the night of the attack:

My fellow Americans: On Tuesday, Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad launched a horrible chemical weapons attack on innocent civilians. Using a deadly nerve agent, Assad choked out the lives of helpless men, women and children. It was a slow and brutal death for so many. Even beautiful babies were cruelly murdered in this very barbaric attack. No child of God should ever suffer such horror.

Tonight, I ordered a targeted military strike on the airfield in Syria from where the chemical attack was launched.

It is in this vital national security interest of the United States to prevent and deter the spread and use of deadly chemical weapons.

There can be no dispute that Syria used banned chemical weapons, violated its obligations under the Chemical Weapons Convention, and ignored the urging of the UN Security Council. Years of previous attempts at changing Assad's behavior have all failed, and failed very dramatically. As a result, the refugee crisis continues to deepen and the region continues to destabilize, threatening the United States and its allies.

Tonight, I call on all civilized nations to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.

We ask for God's wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed. And we hope that as long as America stands for justice, then peace and harmony will, in the end, prevail. Goodnight. And God bless America and the entire world. Thank you.

But that’s not an explanation.

It sort of sounds like an explanation, but it’s not.

Let’s take it apart:

1. Trump says there is “no dispute” Bashar al-Assad used chemical weapons on “beautiful babies” and the children of God.

Actually, while there’s little disputing chemical weapons were used, there is some questions as to its origin. It’s possible that it didn’t come from the Assad regime.

Now, the odds are pretty high Assad did indeed use nerve gas on his own people, but Trump says there’s “no dispute.”  No question.

Now, given that Donald Trump has a history of making definitive statements that later turn out to be somewhat less than evidence based, and given that he ordered an attack on a foreign nation based on this supposed non-disputed information, and given that attacking a Middle Eastern country tends to result in unexpected side effects (all bad) and increased terrorism in response – a consequence we might all have to suffer – and given that this might lead to war, don’t you think the President owes us a detailed explanation of this supposed evidence?

2.  Trump ordered a military strike. He said it was “in the vital national interest of the United States” to deter and prevent the “spread” of chemical weapons.

image

So if disabling the airfield wasn’t the objective, then what was?

Look here, I don’t disagree that it’s in our national interest to deter the spread of chemical weapons. But we’ve been down this road before – I know, I was there when we invaded Iraq to prevent the use and spread of Weapons of Mass Destruction. Remember how that turned out? So I don’t think it unreasonable to expect the President to explain to the American people how exactly firing 59 cruise missiles at a Syrian airbase that was warned in advance and essentially deserted and left undamaged and remains fully operational, how does that achieve this objective?  

Honestly, how was this attack supposed to prevent the “spread” of chemical weapons?

And since the attack appears to be a wash, what now?

No, really, what now?

I mean, isn’t it still in our vital national interest to prevent the use and spread of WMDs?

So, if the attack failed to achieve that objective, then what do we do next?

And if somehow, despite reports, the attack did achieve the objective, well, isn’t that a victory for Trump and freedom and national security and shouldn’t we know?

Again, don’t you think we as Americans are entitled to know?

3.  He called on other nations to – all “civilized” nations – to join us in seeking to end the slaughter and bloodshed in Syria, and also to end terrorism of all kinds and all types.

What’s that mean?

No, really, what does that mean?

Because it sounds an awful lot like a coalition. Like the kind we formed to invade Afghanistan and Iraq – especially when he followed it with that “may God have mercy on our souls” bit there at the end like Morgan Freeman in Deep Impact explaining how the mission to blow up the asteroid had failed and that we were all basically doomed – and given that Mad Dog Mattis is in charge of the plan, well, I think maybe some additional explanation is in order, don’t you?

I deliberately waited three days to write this, waiting to see if there was some detailed explanation forthcoming.

A Tweet or two doesn’t cut it.

Because we have been down this road, over and over and over.

You can’t drop democracy on people with a B-52.

We tried. We’ve been lobbing missiles or dropping bombs on Third World countries for 70 years now. Conservative presidents do it. Liberal Presidents do it. It’s not part of some larger long-term strategy to bring peace and freedom to the world, it might have been at one time but it sure isn’t now.   It doesn’t work. It never works. But we keep doing it. Because we have the power and we don’t know what else to do.

And it’s getting worse.

Back in Korea and Vietnam, there was this nebulous strategy of “Containment.”

We had to contain the communists, lest the dominos fall and the Marxists take over the world.

We still had this vague idea that winning meant the conflict ended. Somebody, hopefully us, won.

But with every year that passed those already ambiguous objectives became even less defined until they were literally indeterminate.

And today we fight this endless, undefined, unending Global War on Terrorism that seemingly has no plan, no defined objectives, and no end point. It’s impossible to win. We lob missiles into other countries without even caring if they hit anything, because we can, because we don’t know what else to do, and a certain segment of our population cheers this as strength.

There’s no plan.

Oh, there are short term military goals. Sure. But there’s no larger strategic vision – not even one as simplistic as “contain the commies.”

Iraq is a perfect example of this.

We, the military, we did our duty.

We did our job with distinction.

We were in Baghdad in 28 days. We won the war and they did indeed cheer us in the streets.

And then it all went to hell.

Because there was no plan for after. There was no plan for peace. There was no plan for civilization. There was no plan for nation building. And so it all fell apart. You can’t just blow up a civilization, burn it to rubble, and expect liberty and stable government to spring from the ashes. But that’s exactly what we did expect.

And now things are worse.

And as a direct result, we’re looking at another war in Syria.

 

That’s the problem with revolutionaries, you know.

 

It’s easier to punch people in the face than to compromise with somebody you hate.

You ever ask yourself why one doesn’t “become president” by feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, or healing the sick?

You ever wonder why a man only “becomes president” by commanding the military into action?

I mean, war is easy.

It’s always easier to go to war than not.

War is always easier than diplomacy.

Burning it down is easy.

Destruction is easy.

Revolution is easy.

It’s far easier to be an arsonist than an architect.

It’s what comes after that’s hard. It’s feeding the hungry, clothing the poor, healing the sick that’s the hard part. And yet, that’s the part which makes war unnecessary in the first place.

Ironic, isn’t it? Trump invoked the Christian God of his followers as justification for a military strike.

“No child of God should ever suffer such horror […] We ask for God's wisdom as we face the challenge of our very troubled world. We pray for the lives of the wounded and for the souls of those who have passed”

Ironic, isn’t it, that so many of the conservative Christians Trump is specifically addressing with those comments seem to miss that their God had to send his only begotten Son down here to teach that lesson, feed the hungry, clothe the poor, heal the sick, because that’s the hard part. War? Destruction? We didn’t need any almighty deity in the sky to teach us about that. This god Trump speaks of as justification, that god didn’t send down the Archangel Gabriel to teach the generals how to war. Any mortal could figure that out. No, it was the other part, the part that comes after, that is so difficult it supposedly took direct intervention from God.

That’s the difference between Trump and the men who founded this country.

Trump is certainly no George Washington, no Thomas Jefferson (and please, no Benedict Arnold comments).

Hell, he’s not even Ronald Reagan. But that’s who they’re comparing him to today.

All I can say about this president is he has the instincts of Ronald Reagan in many ways. He’s an emotional man, but he’s also a very smart man.
-- Senator Lindsey Graham, to reporters following the Syria strike

And that’s the whole problem.

Trump has the instinct of Reagan coupled to the emotion of a revolutionary.

That quote, the one from Reagan at the top of this piece? Government is not the solution to our problem: government is the problem. That one?

Government is the problem.

That’s Trump. That’s the people who elected him. They invoke Reagan as justification for burning down government and lobbing missiles into the Middle East.

Except that’s not what Reagan said.

Well, it is, but that’s not all he said. You see, the entire quote goes like this:

In this present crisis, government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem

In this present crisis.

Reagan was speaking to a specific problem, that is the economic malaise of his time. He was talking specifically about the economic philosophy of what would become known as Reaganomics. And while he was certainly a proponent of the traditional conservative principles of free markets and small government, he believed in good government as a fundamental foundation stone of civilization.

Reagan, whatever his flaws, wanted to be a nation builder and when he fired missiles into Libya, it was as part of a larger, well thought out strategy with specific objectives. Reagan, again whatever his flaws and agree with his methods or not, set in motion the process which led directly to the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Reagan, whatever his failings, had a powerful and cohesive vision.

Yes, unfortunately, side effects of Reagan’s strategy are many of the problems we face today in the Middle East. I’m not arguing that, or putting Reagan on a pedestal. Good or bad, what I’m saying is that Ronald Reagan was trying to build a better world for all – even if you and I might not agree with his vision, he had one.

Trump has none of Reagan’s vision and certainly none of the Founders’ intellect.

All he has is instinct.

And emotion.

Reagan fired missiles. So, Trump fires missiles and has no real understanding of why. And the proof is that he hasn’t even tried to explain his actions, because he himself doesn’t really understand why he did it or what it was supposed to accomplish.

Trump builds casinos, not nations.

And he’s largely surrounded himself with others who are similarly limited in vision and in intellect, all they have is an instinct for destruction.

It’s a council of bomb throwers.

For the Revolutionaries who forged America, war was a means to an end. And that end was a new and better nation, conceived in liberty and dedicated to the principle … well, maybe they fell a little short back then but, yeah, that. They were nation builders.

Two and half centuries later, we have become a nation of bomb throwers. Literally and figuratively.

For us, war is no longer a means to an end, it is the end. It’s what we do, endlessly.

We no longer even expect our leaders to explain why in any detail.

This is the natural end result of a mentality which believes

I think Donald Trump became President of the United States last night.

And the worst part is that Trump’s Syria attack is a metaphor for everything else.

Monday, April 3, 2017

Unpresidented



This morning's Twitter Rampage from Big Giant Leader

image

 

There was electronic surveillance of Trump and the people close to Trump.

Yes, the odds are pretty high that there was electronic surveillance of Donald Trump and the people close to him.

This is unprecedented.

Yes and no.

It is unprecedented in certain regards, we’ll get to that later, but in the manner Trump meant it, well, he’s wrong.

It’s not unprecedented.

Not at all.

In fact, this is how it’s done every day.

Remember the Patriot Act?

Remember the Protect America Act?

Remember when we as Americans decided we wanted to relax the rules regarding monitoring of American citizens because we were terrified for our national security?

Remember when we said we wanted a whole lot more monitoring? And we gave the National Security Agency a massively increased budget and basically free rein to listen in on pretty much everything?

Remember?

Sure you do. It was all wrapped in the same package with warrantless wiretaps and mass collection of phone and email data, mass monitoring of the internet, searching people’s library records. Never again. We had to be safe. Remember?

And the guy currently in charge of this process – that is to say, intelligence collection – is the president.

Which means, if Trump didn’t routinely skip out on his intel briefings and hadn’t alienated the Intelligence Community on his first day in office, well, he’d have people to explain all of this.

 

The thing is that for an Administration which denies any connections to Russia, there sure are a lot of Russians around here lately.

 

Look here: The Intelligence Community of the United States and its allies monitors our adversaries.

Surprised?

I didn’t think so.

The Intelligence Community monitors our adversaries.

They’d better, that’s their job.

Now before we go any further, a note about the terms: When I say adversaries, I don’t mean enemies, or rather not just declared enemies. I mean adversaries. This is an important definition, because you, the layman, typically thinks of intelligence collection aimed only at enemies foreign and maybe domestic. But if we waited to gather information only until after that moment when some potential threat becomes our declared enemy, well, we’d be far, far behind the curve and a lot of Americans could die.

It is the Intelligence Community’s primary job to see enemies before they become enemies.

And so the Intelligence Community monitors not only active threats, but potential threats as well. Adversaries.

Now, if you’re paying attention, then the next question is: define “threat” as you just used it.

Threats are those foreign (and sometimes domestic) political, military, criminal, economic, geographic, and religious entities that are ideologically opposed to, in conflict with, potentially in conflict with, or in competition (benign or violent) with our interests. We call those targets adversaries.

Wait just a damned minute, Jim, I hear you say. I thought intelligence dealt primarily with military stuff. What’s this bit about “geographic” or “religious” or “economic?”

Fair enough. Let’s say we were dependent on some material that we can only get from a foreign entity. Something vital that affects our entire economy, our entire way of life, our very existence as a nation in its current form. We could maybe use other stuff, but we’d have to create an entire industry to support it. We’d have to switch over. We’d have to change minds and look for new ideas and frankly, it’s just easier and cheaper to keep being dependent on this foreign produced thing.  And the same is true of our allies. 

So, don’t you want to know if the countries you get that stuff from are turning hostile to you? Or if they got a better offer for this vital product from somebody else? What if they like you, but are hostile to your allies? Or your adversaries? Because if your adversaries can’t get the resources they need, they might just might invade their neighbors in order to take it by force, and then they might suddenly become your enemy (see Japan, WWII, reasons for).

Or maybe, that stuff, comes from a friendly country, but you have to ship it through hostile territory via a vulnerable pipeline or in giant vulnerable tankers through a narrow chokepoint controlled by hostile religious fanatics (see: Oil, Iran, Arabian Gulf, Straits of Hormuz)? You should maybe know something about the geography and who controls it and what they might do, yeah?

What’s that?

Pump that stuff out of the ground in our own country?

Sure, we could do that. Except the price of that stuff is set by global supply and demand.  And the stuff isn’t the same everywhere and it’s a lot harder to get it out of the ground here than it is there. And harder translates to costs more, a lot more. But you grant a bunch of leases anyway and you dump billions into spinning up the industry. You start punching expensive holes in the ground … and your adversaries all get together and triple their output, the price of the stuff drops to near record lows. And your domestic industry starts going bankrupt. Do you continue on? Bail out the industry. Hope that our pockets are deeper than theirs? And if we can just hold on long enough, maybe they’ll go bust and we’ll own the market. I mean, how do you know? What’s that? Bomb ‘em? We can’t bomb them. Those people aren’t our enemies, they are our economic adversaries. So maybe, just maybe, the intelligence community should be gathering information on foreign economies and industrial capacity, so that our political leaders can help our economic leaders make the right choices. See?

This is the entire reason for the intelligence community's existence, that is: to provide national leaders with timely, accurate, and comprehensive information on our adversaries so that those leaders can make informed decisions.

And yes, that previous sentence includes President Trump. Or it should.

 

So, we monitor our adversaries.

 

This is not a secret.

The means, the methods, the specifics, those are highly classified.

But the fact that we monitor our adversaries isn’t a secret and we’d be utter fools not to.

Therefore, it follows that if you contact entities under surveillance, you get monitored too.

If you, as an American, contact an adversarial agency that is subject to monitoring, then you get monitored too.

Let me give you a couple of examples:

Example A: All communications into and out of a war zone (let's say Syria) might be monitored.

You, Father Joe Jesuspants, leader of The American Christian Ministry For The Salvation of Little Brown Baby War Orphans, wants to provide humanitarian aid to non-combatants caught in the conflict and maybe convert some heathens to Jesus along the way.

So, you call the Syrian government for permission to travel to Aleppo.

Naturally, your call, your email, whatever, is collected as part of normal surveillance of a hostile foreign power.

You weren’t a target. The intelligence community wasn’t looking for you. But you called a lawfully authorized target of surveillance and you were recorded as part of that process like some Regular Joe walking into a bank that was in the process of being robbed. Until they sort it out, the cops can’t tell if you’re an unlucky bystander or one of the robbers.

This is called "incidental collection" or "incidental intercept."

Now, you didn't do anything wrong (providing you actually didn't do anything wrong in accordance with American, Syrian, and international law regarding humanitarian aid to a country in a warzone). You're a known Christian relief organization. You called a foreign government asking for information. Pretty innocuous.

Example B:  International communications from inside the US to the governmental agencies of a lawfully designated foreign adversary (designated by congress and the president and subject to monitoring via Executive Order) might be monitored for the reasons noted above.

You, General Joe War-Eagle, are now a retired general and a business man.

We do business with this lawfully designated adversary. They do business with us. This is all legal and in accordance with various international laws, treaties, and free trade agreements.  The beauty of capitalism is that you can still do business with people you regard as adversaries (Ask me about that time I watched Libyan forces armed with French weapons that they bought from the French attacking French forces defending Chad. The French love doing business with people who are trying to kill them. That’s capitalism, Folks. I digress).

So, anyway, this adversary would like to sell stuff in the United States but, well, Americans don’t really trust them. So they need a native guide, they need an American representative. And there you are, Former General War-Eagle, Americans love you, you’re a hero and a patriot. So this foreign outfit offers you a lot of money to do something that’s perfectly legal. So you do. Because why not? But that means you spend a lot of time on the phone, in email, receiving electronic fund transfers, with an entity that is the target of the Intelligence Community.

Sooner or later, you’re going to end up as incidental collection.

 

And then what?

 

Is it a crime, treason, to rescue war orphans or work for a Russian oil company?

No.  Of course not.

What happens if you get picked up in incidental collection is this:  As soon as it's determined that a) you're an American (and thus would require a FISA warrant to monitor, which would require pretty specific and difficult to obtain probable cause), b) it was an incidental intercept, and c) your actions are innocent and of no national interest, then the recordings and data are immediately scrubbed.

Yes, they are.

Yes. They. Are.

I have direct experience with this process. Extensive experience with this process.

While there is always shady shit going at the senior levels (because that is the nature of politicians, preachers, and generals), the guys in the trenches are absolutely scrupulous about this. Because while the aforementioned senior folks get to retire with full pay if they get caught violating the law, the guys doing the work go to jail if they break the rules. And I've seen it happen.

So, if the incidental intercept is innocent, it’s immediately erased.

Now, while the data itself is dumped, the Intelligence Community keeps a record of the incident.

Why?

For several reasons:

One, for legality's sake – exactly as you're seeing right now with the Trump Administration. If you accuse the government of monitoring your Christian relief organization (or your big gaudy golden dick-shaped tower in Manhattan) and you decide to sue over it, well, the only way for the government to prove its actions were lawful and that it followed the rules is to keep a record of exactly what occurred.

Two, if it later turns out that your Christian relief organization is a front for running guns to Syrian loyalists in violation of US, Syrian, and international law, and some senator on a crusade decides to "investigate" why the president didn't catch this (or why, say, we didn’t get wind of a bunch of shitheads with box cutters who were planning on flying some airliners into some skyscrapers, for example), well, those records will become important (this is the kind of stuff those committees are looking at in closed door sections). Yes, we monitored a phone call between x and y, but y was an American citizen and deemed of no intelligence value and so the data from y was erased in accordance with the rules set by congress and Executive Order. See?

Three, you can’t plot a curve from one point, or even two (generally speaking). But sometimes things that appear innocent individually, aren’t when put into a larger context. In other words, you being picked up in incidental collection once is something that happens. Twice, it’s a coincidence. Three times … well, there are no coincidences in intelligence work.  Let me give you an example. There’s a protest that turns violent. You happen to be passing by just when shit gets lit on fire and the windows are broken. The police arrest you for rioting. Upon questioning, it turns out you were on your way to visit your dear old grandma and you just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So they let you go. No charges. But they keep a record. Next riot, there you are again. Crazy, officer, how these riots keep happening by Granny’s house, isn’t it? If every time there’s a riot you’re in the neighborhood, it’s not a coincidence, you’re up to something even if we can’t exactly catch you at it. That, might be enough for a warrant to look further.  Same thing with incidental collection. Every time we listen into a warzone, there you are.  Every time we listen to the Russians, there you are, there your friends are, there your business associates are. Now, even if we didn’t keep a recording of the actual words of the call (or the email) the fact that you keep contacting an adversary, might indicate something’s up even if the individual calls seem innocent. And that might be enough for a FISA warrant to dig deeper. That’s how you catch drug smugglers and mafia dons and spies.  Or not, maybe you’re calling the Russians because you do business with them and it’s all legal and aboveboard. Maybe we keep finding you in warzones because that’s what you do, you help people in warzones.  Maybe you’re at every riot because you’re an independent news photographer. But if we don’t look, we don’t know.  Spies, terrorists, criminals, they depend on us not looking.

And finally Four, the nature of intelligence collection is that it’s like one of those hoarders you read about. House crammed full of useless stuff. Most of the time, most of the information you gather is useless. Just random bits and pieces that may or may not be part of some larger whole like assembling a jigsaw puzzle in the dark when you don’t know how many pieces there are, how many you actually have, if the pieces you have actually all go the same puzzle, if some of the pieces are shared by multiple puzzles, and you have no idea what the picture on the puzzle is supposed to be and besides it’s probably in a language you don’t speak, and also the guy who made the puzzle is trying to keep you from solving it by hiding pieces and feeding you wrong pieces. Also, at the same time, all of your friends are shouting suggestions and your crazy boss is telling you what he thinks it is based on his politics and not on, you know, actual information. And if you manage to assemble a picture, well, it may turn out that you’re not interested that picture after all and you just wasted your time. That’s intelligence work in the real world. It’s hard. It’s frustrating. But sometimes that useless information becomes … useful.  Let me give you an example: Some guy in the White House nominates you for a federal job that requires congressional review and a security clearance. So you fill out the SF-86 (security clearance paperwork) and you testify before the committee and they ask you: in the last ten years have you had any contact with [insert adversary name here]. And you answer, under oath, no. No I have not. No contact. Nope. And while that might satisfy a sympathetic senator, the people tasked with checking that SF-86 are a lot more thorough. And they run something called a National Agency Check with Inquires, especially if you’re the guy applying for the job of, oh, let’s say, National Security Advisor. And that’s when it pops out of the database, wait, what’s this? You said you haven’t had contact with [insert adversary here] but we’ve got all these incidents of incidental collection. What the fuck? Now, we dumped the data so we don’t know what was said, but we damned well know you just lied your ass off to congress and on your security paperwork. Care to explain that, General War-Eagle? I mean if it was innocent, legal, aboveboard, why did you lie about it? Perhaps we should look further.

So, the point here is that if you contact adversaries of America, innocently or otherwise, the odds are high that you'll be caught up in incidental collection.

 

If you aren’t, then the Intelligence Community isn’t doing its goddamned job.

 

"@FoxNews from multiple sources: 'There was electronic surveillance of Trump, and people close to Trump. This is unprecedented.' @FBI"

These people should be monitored.

If you contact our adversaries, then you should be monitored too.

Let me repeat that: If you contact our adversaries, then you get monitored too, even if only incidentally. 

Trump is right, it is unprecedented that so many people near a presidential candidate and president elect were monitored.

Because it’s unprecedented that so many people near Trump were in contact with our adversaries.

What is unprecedented here is that so many people so close to the President of the United States have so many ties to foreign power brokers and were therefore caught up in intelligence collection.

It is unprecedented that so many people so close to Donald Trump have been in the employment of foreign agents and foreign governments and foreign adversaries.

And it is unprecedented that not a single day goes by where we don’t learn of yet another adversarial foreign connection to this administration.

Once is happenstance.

Twice is coincidence.

Three times is … well, there are no coincidences in intelligence work.

Perhaps it is innocent.

Yes, perhaps it is. That is a possibility – increasingly unlikely but still possible.

But if we don’t look, we will never know for certain.