On sports

At some point or another, every real sports’ fan has used some variation of “we” when talking about the defeat or success of their team.  Then someone else will say, with full snark, “oh, ‘we’?  How many home runs did you hit?  All you did was sit on the couch and drink beer.”    That is often followed with “Get out of my apartment”, at least if you happen to be  me (and, I have to emphasize this, the conversation takes place in my apartment, because otherwise that’s an empty retort).

It is my least-favorite argument, and you can hear it from both fans and non-fans.   It is true that never once did I play a down for the Bears or hit a seeing-eye single for the Sox or pass the puck on the tape to set up a Kane one-timer, but really, that doesn’t matter.  And it doesn’t matter because of the very nature of fandom itself.

Sports as exercise, as camaraderie, as a thing to do makes perfect sense.  But fandom doesn’t.  You have no relation to the players, you are cheering on millionaires making money for billionaires (or, in the college game, supporting the NCAA, which is arguably worse).   You have no control over whether the coach is a moron who doesn’t take the ball first in overtime, or if the team signs good players, or if they want to move to another city.   On a more immediate level, nothing you do can change the outcome of any game or any pitch or any pass.   It doesn’t make any sense.

And that’s the point: rooting for a team in an inherently irrational thing to do.   In terms of investment-to-reward, it is one of the dumbest things you can do.  And, because of that, it is so important and fundamentally human.  You don’t get anything out of it other than the thrill that comes from seeing something beautiful.

I estimated last night that I have spent 5% of my waking life watching sports, and I am guessing that is a low estimate.  And there are so many times when I wonder why I bother.  Why do we do this to ourselves?  Why have I suffered through so many awful Bears teams and Sox teams that are almost, but not quite, good enough (and now look to be entering a long stretch of bad baseball)?   What do we get out of this?

And then last night happens.   The deafening roar as the victory was ripped away from defeat.  The wordless white-noise thrill as my table of friends and a bar full of strangers and a city rose up as one voice, high-fiving and hugging and acting as if we had been friends forever and were making vows never to part.   All the pain and misplaced suffering and outsized sadness melted away, and you realize, this is worth it.

But the pain is part of it, too.  If there are any Boston fans reading, I don’t know this exact pain, because it is yours, but know that the Bruins played like vikings.   We’ve all had losses, and those are important, and not just because they make the wins better.  Because they are something you share.   And that’s the whole goddamn point.

I don’t have time to look it up, but someone once said that it is good that art has no inherent value, that poetry doesn’t bring food to the table.  In that philosophical sense, neither does being a fan.  And that’s why it is great.  And unlike art, it rips screams from your throat and elicits a group feeling that is alien in anything else we do.

So, being a fan is inherently irrational, and it only makes sense if it is something to do as a group.  On a basic economic level pro teams wouldn’t exist without fans, but it is more than that.   They exist because we want them to, and maybe need them to.  They exist so that I could be with my dad and brothers when the White Sox finally made that last out in the World Series.  So that I can talk to a friend about watching Michael Jordan in his prime.  So that we can lose ourselves in a flurry of improbable goals.   So no, I’ll never contribute to a team winning anything, other than at softball, but that doesn’t diminish my role.  I know they players won.   But I’ll continue to say “we won the Cup”, because: why let an ugly truth render nil this beautiful absurdity?

Traitor Says Other Traitor is Bigger Traitor

Ellsberg tries to clear his name

I’m joking of course- Ellsberg is a hero, and Snowden…well, he isn’t helping his case by “revealing” that sometimes one country gathers information from another even if they aren’t engaged in war.

It is an interesting question, though.  Ellsberg revealed the lies that were told to enmesh us in a dirty and pointless war.  Snowden revealed, or at least confirmed, what was being done to us, with our assumed consent.   Ellsberg uncovered and brought to sunshine a pack of viscous lies.  Snowden’s leaks make it impossible to lie to ourselves.

Both force us to decide what we want to do, but I think Snowden’s is more important because we have to decide what we want to be: are we OK with the possibility of overwhelming intrusion in the name of security?   Does that change us from a people who practices self-governance to one that is governed?   Are we far past the point where that question even matters?   Or does tacit, even electoral consent to the NSA collecting metadata mean that we have taken back the burden of control?

I think in the long run the Snowden leaks will end up being more interesting, politically.  Most people reading this blog might scoff at that, because they at the very least assumed all of this, or knew it based on other earlier leaks and stories.  But I don’t think most people really thought much about it.  Snowden is forcing us to do so- and if we don’t, that is also a choice.   These leaks, whether they come from Snowden the brave hero who risked it all or Snowden the ChiComSymp, are a chance for us to decide what we want our relationship to be with the security forces who protect us.   I don’t know what we’ll choose, or even what is right- but I think this confirms this era, the mix of technology and the counter-terrorism mindset, will be looked back on as a watershed for who we are as a country.


(caveat: it is a mark of narcissism to think that you live in the most important times- every generation thinks it’s the last.  I don’t think this is the most important era in American history, but it is a pretty damn interesting one, anyway.  It beats the hell out of the 90s)

The supernatural uselessness of Maureen Dowd

Lord love a duck- this one’s a doozy.   If you want to know the utter inanity of not just Maureen Dowd, cinnamon-haired High Priestess of Pablum, but the whole horse-racing, context-eschewing, inside-baseball Beltway media, this column could serve as something of an Ur-text.

WASHINGTON — NOT only is President Obama leading from behind, now he’s leading from behind Bill Clinton.

Leading from behind is a clever phrase and an interesting leadership strategy- subtly pushing other people to accomplish what you would like to happen- but it sounds pusillanimous and makes funny ledes, so fuck it.

After dithering for two years over what to do about the slaughter in Syria, the president was finally shoved into action by the past and perhaps future occupant of his bedroom.

Not office, of course.  This is a MoDo column, so a boring piece of psuedo-titillation that is sure to elicit aghast chuckles from cocktail-swilling doyens is a must.  Bedroom.  That’s where sex happens!  I was literally stunned she didn’t shoehorn a timely and relevant Lewinsky joke in this paragraph.  (“Bill may have had a cigar or two, but our vacillating President has to let Michelle tell him if he can have his mentholated Virginia Slims.”)

Clinton told John McCain during a private Q. and A. on Tuesday in New York that Obama should be more forceful on Syria and should not rationalize with opinion polls that reflect Americans’ reluctance to tangle in foreign crises. McCain has been banging the gong on a no-fly zone in Syria for some time.

Yeah, just banging about.  So hell, we should listen to him.  When has McCain steered us wrong in the Middle East?

The oddity of Obama’s being taken to the leadership woodshed by the Democrat who preceded him and the Republican who failed to pre-empt him was not lost on anyone. When Obama appointed Clinton “the Secretary of ’Splaining Stuff,” he didn’t think Bill would be ’splaining how lame Barry was.

Lame!  Not rushing into a complicated and brutal civil war in riven with historical and sectarian entanglements.   Ugh.  Just so lame.  Come on, Barry.   But anyway, this is just the lead-in.  I’m sure she’s going to talk to some experts about the Alawite power-structure or something.

As Maggie Haberman reported in Politico, Clinton said at the McCain Institute for International Leadership that the public elects presidents and lawmakers to “look around the corner and see down the road” and “to win,” not to follow polls.

Or she’ll quote Politico. 

When the man who polled where to take his summer vacation and whether to tell the truth about his affair with Monica Lewinsky tells you you’re a captive of polls, you’d better listen up.

Because…he has credibility on the subject?

Citing his own experiences in Kosovo and Bosnia, Clinton said that if you blamed a poll for a lack of action, “you’d look like a total wuss.” He added that “when people are telling you ‘no’ in these situations, very often what they’re doing is flashing a giant yellow light” of caution.

Not “looking like a total wuss” is not a reason to go to war.  Although, as history shows, it is often the main reason.  So let’s say not a “good reason”.  But that is the whole kit and caboodle, as I’ll talk about at the end.

According to Haberman, Clinton, who apologized for failing to intervene in the Rwandan genocide, continued: “If you refuse to act and you cause a calamity, the one thing you cannot say when all the eggs have been broken is that ‘Oh my God, two years ago there was a poll that said 80 percent of you were against it.’ Right? You’d look like a total fool. So you really have to in the end trust the American people, tell them what you’re doing, and hope to God you can sell it.”

Bosnia and Rwanda were probably my formative international politics experiences.   I was always into foreign affairs, but had the feeling that brutality and this kind of slaughter happened only in black-and-white.  So it was shattering, and I never forgave Clinton for his delayed action in Bosnia or his negative actions in Rwanda.  But now, after Iraq, after Afghanistan, I really don’t know what I would tell my teenage self.   But even if my teenage self was right, and I still think he maybe was, not acting in one scenario isn’t a reason to act in another.   It is that kind of blanket, ahistoric, and lazy analysis that leads to disaster.

That is the problem for Obama: selling it. The silver-tongued campaigner has turned out to be a leaden salesman in the Oval Office. On issues from drones to gun control to taxes to Syria, the president likes to cite public opinion polls to justify his action or inaction. He seems incapable of getting in front of issues and shaping public and Congressional opinion with a strong selling job.

Yeah, how come he can’t shape the opinion of a Congress dedicated to destroying him?  Louie Gohmert and Paul Broun are prominent voices in Congress.   There was maybe more the President could have done with public opinion, but there is no electoral loss for the huge majority of the GOP to obstruct everything (most Dems are also in safe seats, but that isn’t germane to Dowd’s point).

After the whistle was blown on the National Security Agency’s No Call Left Behind program, the president said he would welcome an ex post facto debate. But now that polls indicate that the overwhelming American attitude is “Spy on me,” Obama has dropped the subject.

Too bad. We’ll see what Americans have to say when someone in the mold of Dick Cheney or Bob Haldeman gets his hands on all that personal data; the West Wing has been known to drive its occupants nuts.

I do agree with this.   Point, Maureen Dowd!

On Syria, the administration now says it will begin supplying rebels with small arms and ammunition, a gesture that friends and foes alike say is too little, too late. The Times’s Peter Baker reported on Saturday that Obama himself said it wouldn’t change anything but would maybe buy time.

Time not to rush into anything.  I can’t speak for certain on the merits of the plan, and can’t speak at all for what should be done in Syria, if anything.  I don’t envy the decision-makers.   But time isn’t a terrible thing, either.

And as the White House announced this pittance of a policy on Thursday evening, the president was nowhere to be seen. He let his deputy national security adviser, Ben Rhodes, be the face of the Syria plan, while he spent time at an LGBT Pride Month celebration, a Father’s Day luncheon and a reception for the W.N.B.A. championship Indiana Fever basketball team.

There’s a lot to unpack here.  One constant annoyance is that people will always criticize the President for the ceremonial things that are an inescapable part of the office.  “Oh, why is George Bush meeting with the Yankees when there was an earthquake in Peru?”   The President wears a lot of hats, and is constantly on the move.  One trait all President’s share is compartmentalization.  I guarantee that as Syria discussions were happening he wasn’t rushing it along to meet the Fever.  “Hurry up,” is something I promise you he never said, “I have a Fever to catch!”

On “Morning Joe” on Friday, Zbigniew Brzezinski, the Carter national security adviser, dismissed the president’s response to Syria as “propaganda,” noting the ambiguous nature of the red line that President Assad had crossed, killing 150 people with chemical weapons after nearly 93,000 had died in the civil war.

I don’t know the context of “propaganda”, because I didn’t watch “Morning Joe”, because I honestly would rather die, but actually doing something, even something small, is the opposite of “propaganda”.  I do think the broader point about why people dying from chemical warfare is somehow worse than being lined up in a dingy cell and being shot in the head, or bombed from above, or being tortured by sadistic thugs in pay of an actively cruel government, is an interesting one.    That sure would make an interesting column.  I’m sure that’s going to start soon, right?   Or will it just be Brezezinski frowning on the face of the announcement.

“It all seems to me rather sporadic, chaotic, unstructured, undirected,” he said. “I think we need a serious policy review with the top people involved, not just an announcement by the deputy head o, f the N.S.C.”

I don’t work in Washington, nor am I a governmentician, but I am pretty sure that these things aren’t mutually exclusive.

Especially, he added, since Syria could slide into a larger regional war that would pit America against Syria’s ally, Iran, with a huge effect on the international economy and America’s budget.

I mean, I bet they’ve talked about this.   But this is a Maureen Dowd specialty here.  If you notice, she’s kind of using Brezezinksi to say that any of this action is rash and could lead us into war with Iran, something that is possibly true, but is the exact opposite of “not going to war is totz lame!”   And it isn’t presented as an “on the other hand” scenario either.   It imagines a seamless whole.   It is actually kind of an amazing gift.

While the president was avoiding talking about what he hadn’t wanted to do in the first place, the former president was ubiquitous and uxorious, chatting about Syria and myriad other issues on MSNBC and Bloomberg TV; smiling on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek and offering his solutions for corporate America’s problems; presiding at his global initiative in Chicago; and promoting the woman he hopes will be the next president.

Maureen Dowd watches a lot of tv.

On Friday, a self-satisfied Clinton told the “Morning Joe” hosts about Syria, “It looks to me like this thing is trending in the right direction now.”

The less Obama leads, the more likely it is that history will see him as a pallid interregnum between two chaotic Clinton eras.

And here we go- this is the big one right here, Maureen in a nutshell.   She’s a columnist, so “chaotic” eras are a good thing.  Not getting involved in Syria is soooooo boring.   I can get one, maybe two columns about his lack of masculinity out of that.  Where’s the invented martial psychodrama I can mine for a column every other week?   Where are the opportunities for  hacky sex jokes?   Things like issues and facts and complexities and policy are really lame compared to straining 700 words about Oedipal issues through a well-used martini shaker.

Nature abhors a vacuum. And so does Bill Clinton.

We’ll see how it feels about American involvement in a third regional war.  I swear to mike, as long as I live I’ll never believe that the New York Times prints this garbage.

The point I was making earlier is that way, way too often “not looking like a wuss” is a bad reason to get involved in something potentially disastrous.  First of all, “don’t be a wuss” is never a sentiment used to prod something into doing something good or smart.  No one has ever said, “come on, wuss, make sure you donate a sizable portion of your tax-return to a well-vetted charity of your choice, and invest the rest in low-risk, steady-reward bonds.  Pansy.”   It’s always “if you don’t jump over Jagged Rock Gorge, you’ll never sleep with Suzy Cheerleader.”    So you know when someone offers that prod they aren’t giving you sage counsel.

The media drives things. It shapes and molds conventional wisdom.  In theory, that is a good thing.  I blog and have published because I like the idea of being part of the conversation and maybe having an impact.  I think being in the media, or opinion-writing of any kind, can be a noble calling, a high form of citizenship.   Otherwise, all decisions are made behind closed-doors without any input from the jumbled masses.   The problem is that the Mo Dowds and Politicos of the world have decided that any action is better than no action, because that doesn’t drive a narrative or open up arguments for years.   So they’ll shape it and try to pressure politicians into making something, anything happen.  And that’s our political culture right there.   The only way to do things is the Max Power way.

ACLU Interview

I mentioned in the post below the Andrew Cohen Atlantic interview with Jameel Jaffar and Brett Max Kaufman of the ACLU, but want to make sure that you are reading it.  It is a very clear and cohesive message of what citizens should not tolerate, and well as a steady-handed evisceration of people who think there is much daylight on this issue between George W. Bush and Barack Obama.    This last part, I think, is hugely important, but do read the whole thing.  (Disclosure: Brett is a good friend of mine.  I’d be interested in this anyway, but even more so when it is delivered so handsomely!)

Anything else you think is important?

In his recent speech at National Defense University, President Obama made a compelling case for the democratic necessity of bringing the nation’s wartime approach to terrorist threats to an end. That necessity applies with equal force in the context of domestic surveillance. Just as President Obama belatedly acknowledged the long-term consequences of short-sighted policies governing the use of drones and other lethal force abroad, there are creeping but grave consequences to a democracy that surrenders its liberties one phone call at a time. Nobody chooses to live in a surveillance state, but a malfunctioning democracy can produce one. Restoring constitutional dignities to their historically privileged role in our system is the best way to defend it.

Our sliding expectations

So, in a private forum, some friends of mine and I were having a discussion about Snowden, Greenwald, and privacy.  The discussion turned to whether or not court-driven limitations on the spying programs made things fine, and a very smart friend of mine, the redoubtable Itzik Basman, replied thusly.

…”fine”can’t be as narrow, I’d argue, as what’s admissible in court. That’s epiphenomenal in relation to the whole issue of privacy, the idea of which is, in significant part, space between citizen and state and lies as as a big unstated idea grounding the U.S, Constitution.

I think that is a very interesting point, and one crucial to the discussion today, especially in light of polls that show large majorities of Americans are ok with the government spying programs.   Itzik is arguing, at least as far as I can tell, that there is an expectation and a right of privacy that goes beyond what is strictly given, and indeed it is (part of) what makes us citizens rather than subjects.

But how much of it have we given up?   How many of us are on Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, have blogs, etc?    There is a slight selection bias here, as most people reading this were steered here by Twitter or Facebook or something, so we’re all pretty connected. (“No one I talk to on Twitter isn’t on Twitter” is a sentimental update on the apocryphal  “I don’t know anyone who voted for Nixon”).   But I think there is a reasonable expectation that the majority of people share things with others in, at the very least, a semi-public forum.   Everyone has a cousin that “never uses any of that”, but let’s be honest: your cousin is an outlier, and frankly, he drinks too much.   Look, someone had to say it.

So my question is: does this willingness to give up privacy in on sphere weaken that bond, that divide between citizen and state?  In an interview with Jameel Jaffar and Brett Max Kaufman of the ACLU in today’s Atlantic,  Andrew Cohen states that he doesn’t “know which America Jaffer and Kaufman are referring to when they declare that ‘no one chooses to live in a surveillance state.’ I think the American people, sadly, have chosen in countless ways to live in such a state. And I think the fact that we have done so is likely to animate the legal and political debate as this important lawsuit proceeds toward its resolution.”

I personally think that is a little unfair.  There is a difference between falling in love with new technologies and methods of communications and actively choosing to give up rights that we previously took for granted.   But if Cohen is right, and American expectations of privacy have been willingly, if not actively, diminished, does that weaken the cloak of privacy that we expect from the government?   The one that Itzik has said is beyond what courts decide?

Now, there is no way to measure this.  It is all feeling.  You could say that there was never a time when everyone wanted privacy, that there were panopticon fetishists  (yes, I know: your cousin again).    And, most importantly, I don’t think anyone ever assumes that their phone conversations should be public.  OK, everyone on the train believe that their phone conversations are a matter of public interest, but that is different than assuming that the government is listening in.

I don’t know the answer.  I know what I think, but am curious to hear other voices.   Does the rise, and easy acceptance, of social media, over-sharing, cameras everywhere, both public and private, and all that goes along with this particularly narcissistic time constitute a collective choice that our privacy doesn’t matter as much?  If so,  does that change the expectation of a barrier between government and private citizens?   And, I think most importantly, would you feel the same if al-Qaeda never existed?

The Big Story

Want to read four quick sentences that outlay a hugely disproportionate percentage of the problems the world will be facing over the next few decades?  Of course you do!

Egypt’s president has warned Ethiopia that “all options are open” in dealing with its construction of a Nile dam that threatens to leave Egypt with a dangerous water shortage.

Speaking in a live televised speech before hundreds of supporters on Monday, Mohammed Morsi said Egypt was not calling for war, but it is willing to confront any threats to its water security.

“If it loses one drop, our blood is the alternative,” he said to a raucous crowd of largely Islamist supporters that erupted into a standing ovation.

Ethiopia’s $4.2 billion hydroelectric dam, which would be Africa’s largest, challenges a colonial-era agreement that had given Egypt and Sudan the lion’s share of rights to Nile water.

So, what do we have?  The shrinking pie of natural resources compounding older dilemmas about resource distribution?  Those issues being further compounded by largely-arbitrary* colonial borders and agreements signed by people long-dead and in unjust power?   An ideologically-driven leader standing at the bloody intersection of democratic trappings and atavistic impulses leading a people unsure how to interact with the modern world?   Sure- and hey, sport: let’s add in plain old racism!

There are those who think Morsi is a clown or is dangerous or is transitory.  No one really knows what is coming next.  But as this shows, in the long run, it doesn’t matter.  Our politics are played against a background of demographics and ecology, and that background is falling apart.  The actors are spouting lines from other plays and half-remembered commercials and the audience is storming the stage with nooses and their cousin’s scripts.    That’s the world we’re rushing headlong into, where wars over water will, and have already, erupt, and to many of us it will seem overnight.

But all this has been brewing, and it is made worse by nationalism and the power of lines.  This is my water.  This is yours, chief, and don’t get greedy.  It is foolish to imagine that colonial machinations and the whims of Empire aren’t still reverberating around the our rapidly-drying history.  Egypt is just one of the coming flashpoints.   Three things, generally intertwined, that we as a species have never really learned to incorporate into our ideas of society are the implacability of nature (and that it doesn’t care about us, or anything), the weight of history, and the surge of demographics.   If we don’t want to hear more and more of these stories, we might want to learn to deal with them.

*I admit that Egypt, Ethiopia, and the Sudan have lines that are more complicated and older than colonial era, but there is still a lot of Kitchener fingerprints on the situation, and much of Africa and the Middle East was drawn in European parlors.

Don’t worry, Rand- the ACLU’s got this

Friend of the blog and my good buddy Brett Max Kaufman of the ACLU’s National Security Project has an excellent summation of what the ACLU is doing about the NSA, Prism, etc (they are also doing a lot of work on drones and extra-judicial killings).   The ACLU has a personal stake in this too, as Brett explains

The ACLU’s complaint filed today explains that the dragnet surveillance the government is carrying out under Section 215 infringes upon the ACLU’s First Amendment rights, including the twin liberties of free expression and free association. The nature of the ACLU’s work—in areas like access to reproductive services, racial discrimination, the rights of immigrants, national security, and more—means that many of the people who call the ACLU wish to keep their contact with the organization confidential. Yet if the government is collecting a vast trove of ACLU phone records—and it has reportedly been doing so for as long as seven years—many people may reasonably think twice before communicating with us.

One thing I really like is the right of free association.  Obviously- who doesn’t like that right?  But I think it is very clever of the ACLU to be using it.   We live in an age where so many meetings of any type are no longer done face-to-face.  Thinking that there could be a mole in every conversation dampens our ability to speak as political animals.  The argument that it doesn’t matter if you aren’t doing anything wrong doesn’t hold water.  For one thing, we don’t always know who decides what is right.  But on a more basic level, conversation shouldn’t be hampered by the fear of speaking correctly or the terror or being misinterpreted.

I also want to take a moment here to praise the ACLU.  For decades they’ve been a punching bag on the right, despite their firm commitment to Constitutional principles.  There are few bigger applause lines for a Republican politician than to sneer “ACLU” to a crowd.   So it must be somewhat gratifying for them to see that, suddenly, with Obama in charge, Republicans are concerned about the national security state.  The ACLU has been on this for a long time.  They filed lawsuits against George Bush, and were pilloried for it, held up (again) as traitors, commies, terrorist-lovers, un-American, etc.  Now the right has found some common cause, albeit in a cynical matter.  But I would ask them this: just remember you are late to the party.  You are welcome, but be decent enough to find a quiet corner and don’t pretend that you invited everyone, and for god’s sake, don’t insult your hosts.   They’ve been here the whole time.

Snowden Spills His Secret

Edward Snowden, the 29-yr-old responsible for one of the largest national security leaks in US history, has an auspicious name.   In Catch-22, Joseph Heller’s biting, terrifying, wildly-funny and scathing satire on the the whole nature of war, the corruptibility of man, and, most importantly, the self-defeating loops of logic man twists himself into to justify inherent barbarism in a civilized age (of which the eponymous catch is just the most famous example), the main character, Yossarian, is haunted by an unknown character named Snowden spilling his secret.

The chronology of the book jumps back and forth, but the driving action is that something snapped in Yossarian when Snowden told him his secret.  The madness of the enterprise revealed itself in full for Yossarian.   It isn’t until late in the book that we see what caused the driving action, what really was Snowden’s secret.  (and spoiler alert here, I guess, though it was published almost 50 years ago, so come on).  While on a bombing mission, Yossarian’s plane took flack, and Snowden was injured.  Yossarian went to help the moaning man, complaining of the cold, and at first saw a good-sized wound on the man’s leg, but nothing absolutely fatal.  But then Snowden’s secret was revealed.  Yossarian removed the man’s jacket, and saw that a huge piece of flack had torn through his stomach.  The jacket had been weakly holding everything in, but then it all came out: all that made Snowden, blood and organs and flesh, poured out onto the floor and onto Yossarian.   The whole inner-workings were brought to light.  Man is just flesh, and war is designed to destroy that flesh.   The whole sick nature of everything was revealed.

It isn’t really stretching the point to say that Edward Snowden did much the same thing, only a bit neater (and honestly, it makes me think the name is fake.  It is almost too perfect).   The apparatus that this amorphous war has created has been brought to light.  I think most people suspected it, but the depth is stunning.  And perhaps the most surprising part is that everything that is done is legal.  Laws were passed by elected officials that allow for the government, which has also arrogated unto itself the right to assassinate American citizens and throw people in jail for indefinite periods without a trial, can mine nearly everything you do online and on the phone.

This is raw power, and it is scary.  The thing is, there can be arguments for why the government needs this, or why it is absolutely necessary for national security.   The problem is that we never had them (and I am a little worried that now the argument is going to be more about whether Snowden is a traitor or a hero than what he helped expose).   This is poison to a country that fashions itself as a democracy and an experiment in self-governance, as Charlie Pierce would put it.

So these are the things we can now discuss, now that they have been brought kicking and screaming into the sunlight.  Should the government be able to monitor your online and telephonic presence to any extent?  If yes, how much?  Does merely drawing connections between who is calling whom without actually listening in really invade your privacy?  Who gets to decide this?  The President? (not just this one, but any.  For Dems- of whom I am one- who think it is OK because of Obama, imagine that Scotty Walker somehow becomes the next President.)

More than that, at least in my opinion, is the question of worth.  The biggest elephant in the room, that no one would touch with a ten-foot pole, and other cliches of the type that we’ve been using for 12 years to avoid the real issue, is that guaranteed safety is at best illusory and at worst an invitation to live in North Korea, only without the dumpy charisma of Dear Leader Jr.   What we have done is upended our country, and our idea of privacy, due to a major and horrifying terrorist attack.  This was completely understandable, but terrorism is also a rare thing, and something that happens, and is, at the end, not 100% avoidable.  People will always want to hurt others, and unless we want to live in a police state, one who is constantly sending troops and robots around the world to do our bidding, it won’t ever be completely solved.

The problem is we weren’t really asked.  We were taken advantage of due to our fright, and our apathy.  This was partly the product of a strange confluence: this scarring, shattering, atavistic attack was roughly coincidental with the rise of social media and the death of public reticence.   We all have given up a lot of privacy.   Hell, right now, I am imagining there are people who want to know what I am thinking about this, and hoping that my picture reveals a “mysterious charm, like Batman”.   The government in a large way is merely taking what we have given.

But now they have to ask.  Now, thanks to Snowden, every elected official will have to take a stand on what they think of this (assuming the media does their job, and that is a big assumption).   We can finally talk about what has been done in our name, for us, to us.   A country of the people and by the people can’t have it any other way.  So it is messy and horrible and a stinking bloody peak into the world right under our fragile skin, but this was a secret that needed spilling.   America’s great sin over the past decade has been to not talk about this new kind of war.   If we don’t, one day the satire of Catch-22 is going to seem like a gentle look at a softer past.

Staring with horror into the face of pure, untethered madness

So, there is this video today, via Fallows (and bmk).  It is basically a back-and-forth between Dorothy Rabinowitz, a member of the Wall Street Journal editorial board, and a softball-slinging host.   The issue of the day is European-style totalitarianism gone rampant in New York City, in the form of a bike-share program.   I really urge you to watch it.   The lunacy cannot be overstated.    Sample question: “are we too fat” (with a smirk)?  “To people outside of New York, this represents something more than just the specifics of this dreadful program” (which I remind you, is a bike-share), and how the best neighborhoods are “begrimed” by the the blue bikes.

A few other choice quotes, if you can’t watch it- and I really want you to; it is amazing: “how much have they sneaked in under our noses in the name of the environment”, with the last word being handled the same way you would carry a pound of chum.  Railing about an “ideologically-maddened traffic commissioner,”, which, maybe?   But that is an amazing collection of words.  We are also told that there are warning to watch out for bikes in every taxi, where you’ll “see a sign in your face telling you to watch out…where is the parallel warning for bikes?”  It seems to me to be a strange thing to worry about something disrupting the aesthetic beauty of cabs, but I guess art comes in all forms.  That is followed by a spirited and sneering exchange about how the bike warning will have to be in 100 languages because tourists want to use bikes, which I guess is a bad thing (and I guess tourists don’t use cabs?).

Anyway, it all leads up to this.  Rabinowitz tries to tie it in to the overwhelming paternalism of Michael Bloomberg, more on which later (and an argument to which I am sympathetic), but it veers quickly toward madness, especially when you remember he was duly elected.

“This is a serious matter.  The fact that a city is helpless before the driven personal and ideological passions of its leader, allegedly for the good the city…we can see this take many forms, and the best example is our city.”  To which the host replies, not as a question, nor as an argument, but as affirmation and summation: “and the latest instance of this is the bike-share program.”

Now, a few caveats before we dive in.

1) I am not a New Yorker.  Rabinowitz at the beginning claims to speak for most New Yorkers, I can’t judge if that is true.  My instincts are to distrust any pundit who wraps themselves in the cloak of the majority.  Their job is to persuade, not to pretend to be a funnel.  My hunch, though, is that most people approve or don’t care (with the majority there being on the latter).

2) I do think Bloomberg obviously has strongly paternalistic leanings.  Totalitarian is obviously a thing that only crazy people would say, but he manages to bring it down on himself by his style of leadership and by what animates him (though it is clear that he has always been like this, and he has been re-elected twice).

3) I really like bikes, in theory anyway, but tend to hate that segment of bikers that sees themselves as morally superior and who believe that traffic laws don’t apply.  You see this on the streets and on like the lakefront bikepaths, where jerks in spandex fly past joggers and children with both dangerous aggression and an unearned sense of ownership.   This is far from the majority of bikers, but no one seriously denies this doesn’t exist.   It combines the insularity of a sub-culture with a sense of martyred self-regard blended with adrenaline.  I agreed with the parts where she was mad at people flying through busy intersections as if the rules don’t apply to bikes.   That said, these are the people we tend to pay attention to, and not the overwhelming majority of people who love bikes for exercise, for scenery, to relax, to avoid driving, and are good, conscientious riders.

OK, with that out of the way- back to madness.  Fallows says that this reveals the id of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, and it is hard to think he is wrong.  The wildly disproportionate outrage, the sneering way Europe is brought up, the fast-and-loose attitude toward stupid bullshit like “statistics” or “numbers” or “facts”.   But I think Fallows’ indictment was too narrow- this is a prime example of the kind of manufactured outrage that is the current hallmark of the American right-wing, and the way everything, no matter how uncontroversial, can be twisted into the irritating maw of our culture wars.

And Rabinowitz wasn’t alone in this- in recent years Republicans have taken up the cry that bike riding is not just stupid, but a plot by the UN and others to steal our cars and oil and land.  Something can’t just be itself- it has to stand for something more, be a glimpse into a darkened room, an over-heard snatch of conversation between spies on a rainy bridge, a few notes of a song that you don’t know, but won’t leave your head.  This is the kind of over-heated mental atmosphere in which a terrifying amount of our politics is taking place.

But forget the really crazies, even though they make up a scary amount of people.  Even for those who don’t believe that bikes are a plot by gay Frenchmen, there is the idea that if long-hairs and Bloombergs like bikes, it must be wrong.   That is something is good for the environment, the real American thing to do is to scoff at it.  Not just to ignore it as harmless, which it, at the very worst, so obviously is, but to militate against it and twist it into an assault on values.   To take everything you don’t personally care for as an affront.  Or, more accurately, to convince yourself that is people who ride bikes also vote Democrat (sic), then bikes themselves must be a problem.

I’m not saying that this doesn’t happen on both sides, but the parallels are rough-hewn, at best.  Probably the best counter-example is NASCAR.  Most liberals don’t even want to think about it without scoffing (I personally find it incredibly dull).  It is somehow tied into Republicanism and jingoism and all its attendant illiteracy.   And you might say- but it is, and I would say, yes, but so, at its essence, is the NFL.   But the NFL is bipartisan, a nation-wide thing, so it doesn’t engender the same mental connotations among most Democrats.

(And don’t bring up guns.  They are not a parallel to bikes, which, if used wrong, can be dangerous.  Guns kill people all the time when they are used correctly).

So yeah- this video was a bitter old woman and a cynical paycheck-cashing interviewer, passing the time until death or another gig.  But it represented so much of our broken politics.   Anything even smacking of liberalism, even something as innocuous as a bike-share program, is shown not just as a waste of money, but at best as a symptom of a power-hungry mayor and America-hating elitists- with their BIKES- and at worst a fiendish UN plot to destroy America.  This is the path we’re on.



BONUS CRAZY QUOTE: “The bike lobby is an all-powerful enterprise.”