Is War With Iran Coming?

You probably saw this yesterday.

If you spent any time online yesterday, you probably saw that it became a meme. Everyone was doing mocking tweets of it, for petty grievances or incredibly specific references to their particular profession. Here’s Uproxx calling it an “incredible meme“, which, immediately, seems to be a fairly blithe and stupid and of-the-moment self-reflective response, a product of our warped media age, to the President of the United States sounding like a maddened incel about nuclear war.

Of course, it also could be self-protection, a layer of irony to shield ourselves from the horror of the day, from the fact that this half-bright toddler, made dumb and cruel by wealth, could kills hundreds of thousands, if not more, without anyone legally able to stop him. Maybe making jokes about everything perpetuates our false and woozy times as much as it protects us from it, but if we’re already in that terrible loop, it’s hard to get out.

Or maybe the reaction of Iranian Foreign Minister Javad Zarif summed it up.

He doesn’t take Trump very seriously. He sees this as bluster, the same kind that led to the North Korean “talks”, in which NK didn’t change their position at all and the US gave up its biggest bargaining chip. More likely, he understands that Trump is seen as weak after clearly kowtowing to Vladimir Putin in Helsinki, and needs to rally Republicans that are more than ready to circle the wagons for him.

I think that’s dangerous though. It is dangerous to draw parallels between North Korean bloviating and threatening Iran. For one thing, inasmuch as there is a Middle East strategy in Trump’s empty toothpaste tube of a mind, it is to side with a coalition os the rich Gulf states (minus Qatar) and Israel against Iran. There are obviously a million problems with that plan, and I think even in a moral vacuum it is ultimately unworkable, but I can at least make the case that there is a strategy (again, with the caveat that this team isn’t able to pull it off).

For another thing, as hawkish as some of his team was on North Korea, that was small beer compared to their warboy attitude toward Iran. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, the Christianist bigot, doesn’t really believe Iran has a right to exist as an independent, non-colonized state. He thinks it should be a vassal to the West and have no say in its own destiny.

General Mattis is more rational and not driven by bigotry, but he (to a large degree correctly) sees Iran as the main driver of conflict with the US in the region, particularly in Iraq. He knows that Iran is responsible for chaos and the death of US soldiers in the region. One could argue that there shouldn’t have been US soldiers in Iraq, but that doesn’t (and probably shouldn’t) matter to Mattis. His job was to fight for the US, and so his overall Middle East perception is that Iran is the enemy. He is, after all, a general, with the good and bad that brings.

And John Bolton? Do you even have to ask?

It’s not just Bolton. The entire GOP and most of the Democratic Party has seen Iran as the primary villain in the world since the moment the last primary villain, Saddam Hussein, had his statues toppled. There is actual weight behind this push to war.

It’s important to ask why. If you want, you could trace the last 40 years since the revolution and the hostage crisis, or go back to 1953 when the CIA helped overthrow the elected government and reinstitute the decadent and almost louche cruelty of the Shah’s regime.

But this is about more than just specific events. It is Great Power competition, as the US, the last vanguard of the West in the Middle East, tries to maintain its dominance of the last 150 years. US actions in Iran must be analyzed by the individual players and the truth of recent history, but they also have to be seen through the prism of colonialist appetites and the reemergence of a historic power, partly due to a reaction to said colonialism.

That’s what Zarif meant in his tweet. Iran, in one form or another, has been around since Europeans were living in huts along muddy rivers. It has continuity, and even though Europeans have dominated recently, that’s a historical blip. Trump is just fighting a rearguard war.

He’s also assuming that this is just bluster, and is playing the role of statesman, almost laughing at Trump, rolling his eyes. “Yes yes- oh, is he yelling again? Goodness, how frightening!”  I think that’s his primary goal here, taking advantage of the broken Western coalition, and showing that he is more reliable than Trump. And, thanks to Trump’s actions, that’s not a bad plan.

This is very bad. For one thing, Trump’s peak idiocy, exemplified by violating the JCPOA, strengthens the hand of Russia and China in the region, mostly the latter, and weakens any US attempt to bring a modicum of stability.

For another, it somehow makes Iran look like a reasonable power. It’s not! The regime is as cruel as the Shah as even more oppressive, corrupt to the bone, and stifling to generations of Iranians. It exports war and terror around the region. Even if you agree that Iran should, or at least absolutely will, reassert itself as a regional power, there is no way to argue that the current regime is doing so responsibly or is a force for good.

That’s not a call for violent regime change. That would be another generational disaster, would lead to ridiculous chaos and suffering, and could break the US military or force it to reinstitute the draft. But given the weight of the two countries, and Trump’s need to show strength, we could drift toward war.

Even if you think Trump is blustering in order to sound tough and repeat what he sees as his huge success with North Korea, these things can have a momentum. Given the teams in place, it is far from impossible.

In the long run, this is a common story. A fallen empire, made weak and soft and stupid, is dominated by outsiders, who eventually get weak and soft and stupid themselves. At the trough of their decline, they are led by the very worst, and have one last desperate attempt to reclaim what is “theirs”. A generation of violence and upheaval follows, and the newer empire fades into infighting and irrelevance.

In the long run, that’s a common story. Unfortunately, we don’t live in the long run. We live in the present, which has become mirrored and refracting, an endless series of impulses and truthless narratives and escapes. But no matter how many memes are made, the forces of history have a way of imposing reality. America in the 21st century is not immune to that. That we ever thought ourselves inoculated have made us impossibly sick.

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In Asking About Washington and Jefferson, Trump Stumbles Onto One Interesting Point

 

Image result for george washington statue

“Great guy. Owned slaves. Doesn’t bother me. I’m more Presidential than him”

 

I don’t think there is much more to say about Trump’s raving belligerence, his hideous instincts, and his incoherent tirade against decency yesterday. As Pierce pointed out, he was a guy who was clearly angry about having to release a second statement on whether or not Nazis and racists are bad, and stewed about it for 24 hours, then let the world know how he really felt. To say it was un-Presidential is to pretend that this guy is a real President.

But he did inadvertently stumble onto a good point, albeit from the wrong direction and with the wrong intent. He brought up a normal right-wing Confederate talking point, bringing up the fact that many of the Founding Fathers were indeed slave owners.

“Many of those people were there to protest the taking down of the statue of Robert E. Lee,” Mr. Trump said. “So this week, it is Robert E. Lee. I noticed that Stonewall Jackson is coming down.”…

“George Washington was a slave owner. Was George Washington a slave owner? So will George Washington now lose his status? …Are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? OK, good. Are we going to take down his statue, because he was a major slave owner. Now we’re going to take down his statue. So you know what? It’s fine. You’re changing history, you’re changing culture, and you had people — and I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally — but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, OK? And the press has treated them absolutely unfairly.”

Obviously, the “there were a lot of good people carrying torches alongside the Nazis and white supremacists!” line that has people talking. But the Washington/Jefferson part is really interesting. This is a common sneer among the right, an unlettered attempt at logic, and, to them, an attempt to get us to consider how much we’re “changing” history.

There are a few obvious rebuttals here. The first is the easiest, which is: we’re not changing history, you dolt, we’re just not honoring terrible people anymore. The second is related, which is: sure, we have a complicated history, but maybe we’ll draw the line at honoring people who committed treason against the United States in order to defend slavery.

That one is worth unpacking. We can point out the obvious hypocrisy in the idea that the right wing is telling us that some Founding Fathers were bad, as an excuse for maybe worse behavior by CSA leaders. When the left points that out we hate America, remember. But I think we should actually happily accept those terms.

One of the worst parts of this country, and one of the wells from which a lot of contemporary poison is drawn, is Founding Father worship. We do tend to deify these man, and the end result is really pernicious.

For one thing, it has partly led to the contemporary cult of the Presidency. After all, of all the Founding Fathers who are worshipped, most were Presidents. Franklin is really the only non-President who is deified, until Hamilton the last couple of years. Men like Patrick Henry and Thomas Paine are more known than understood, and tend to get lumped together, even though they were remarkably different men with remarkably different ideas.

And that’s sort of the point. The Fathers were a fractious bunch with a hell of a lot of competing ideas, and barely worked out a compromise to set up the government. That’s a good thing. The problem is that their ideas, and indeed their lives, have been dipped in a sort of amber. The differences are smoothed out. And they are lumped together into a sort of cult.

Really, the fact that not capitalizing “founding fathers” looks sort of weird is a tell. They are almost gods, and that is really pernicious. It is literally undemocratic, and it has infected our politics. We parse the text of the 2nd Amendment to see if it is ok for you to carry a bazooka to a Nazi rally. We ask what the Fathers would have thought of internet pornography (Franklin: Thumbs up). We try to imagine what 18th-century farmers would have done today.

That’s really antithetical to their whole project. The people who created this country believed in common law and progress. They didn’t intend for their word to be Gospel. This isn’t just an argument against “originalism”, which is an obvious intellectual fraud, but against the whole idea that we should be beholden to a bunch of flawed dudes from 240 years ago.

And so maybe we should look at our history. Maybe we should say “Oh yeah- George Washington would have been super weirded out at civil rights, and just seeing an airplane would have fucking blown his heart up. Let’s not look at them as gods. In fact, let’s examine the whole history of this country, and not pretend it was uniquely moral. Let’s not pretend that the slavery was an aberration. Let’s not pretend that we didn’t literally wiped out hundreds of nations in order to colonize the continent. Let’s not pretend that the monuments to men like Lee weren’t to honor soldiers, and not put up by Jim Crow politicians to remind blacks of their place. Let’s not pretend about anything, and maybe we can fulfill the promise inherent in our creeds.”

This obviously isn’t what Trump meant. In his mind, and the mind of his Confederate-loving Nazi-humping Lowes-shopping patio-torch-wielding white supremacist jackass buddies, Washington isn’t bad because Lee is, but rather Lee should be fine because Washington is great, and they are both great because they are both white. So why question their greatness?

But just because that isn’t what our idiot President meant doesn’t mean we shouldn’t run with this in another direction. I argued yesterday morning that maybe Trump will inadvertently help tear down the cult of the Presidency. I didn’t know he’d do it that afternoon.

Russia’s Caspian Problem: Weird News Update About the Workings of the World

Image result for caspian sea

Every day, there are millions of stories that don’t make the headlines, and don’t get written up in the papers, but that reflect the slow and grinding way the world really works. They reflect the tiny changes in policies, the historical patterns that ebb and flow but are never really absent, the way that past actions impact present decisions, and the way that political abstractions like “countries” and “borders” crash against the real world.

All of these factors are interesting, and I think especially so to Americans, a nation which is nearly unique in trying to ignore history, the ramifications of decisions, and geopolitical realities. But all that is catching up.

I bring this up due to a neat little story by Paul Goble in Jamestown’s Eurasia Daily Monitor, called “Collapse of Russian Shipping in Caspian Put’s Moscow’s Regional Strategy at Risk.” Even though shipping in the inland sea is booming, Russian ports, a key part of both its North-South and East-West regional strategies, is drying up. It’s about how the other Caspian nations are essentially colluding against Russia to starve its seaports, creating new regional alliances based on both underwater rights and the laws that govern surface territory, all hinging on the question: is the Caspian more like a lake or like an ocean?

What then is going on?  The answer can be found in the complicated politics of the Caspian region, the continuing difficulties the littoral states have in demarcating the seabed, as well as growing tensions among some of these states with Russia. And because that is the case, the decline of freight traffic at Russia’s Caspian ports in the first quarter of 2017 is even more significant than might appear at first glance.

In Soviet times, Moscow and Tehran divided the Caspian into two unequal zones, a division that even then had important implications because of the oil and natural gas reserves discovered on the seafloor as well as due to the rising trade between the Soviet Union and Iran. With the disintegration of the Soviet Union, the number of littoral states increased from two to five: Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan and Turkmenistan thus become involved in talks about delimitation and trade on the Caspian alongside the Russian Federation and Iran.

For 25 years, these five littoral states have been unable to reach an agreement on the division of the seabed, something Moscow has exploited to block many pipeline projects that would not have involved Russia. Yet, at the same time, that deadlock has led to expanded contacts between other pairs of littoral states and increased shipping between and among them—again to the exclusion of the Russian Federation (Abo.net, April 18, 2016; Natural Gas World, May 6, 2017). Now, Moscow’s policies have returned like a boomerang to limit its future role in the region.

Russia, Azerbaijan and Kazakhstan call for treating the Caspian as a lake rather than an ocean, an arrangement that would divide the seabed among the countries but leave surface commerce open to all. Whereas, Turkmenistan and Iran want it to be treated as a sea and be divided totally into five sectors. Despite suggestions at a January 2017 ministerial in Baku that the five Caspian littoral states would sign an agreement overcoming the divergence of positions (see EDM, May 8), the participating foreign ministers could not even say when such a meeting would occur this year, an indication that they remain far apart (Mfa.gov.az, Azernews.az, January 25).

This isn’t a headline story, and nor should it be. Could you imagine if you got a buzz on your phone signifying a news alert and it was this? “Russia, Turkmenistan Remain Deadlocked on Oceanographic Nomenclature!” Holy shit, you’d be furious.

But that’s a reflection of how, regardless of the way time feels right now, the world doesn’t work in headlines. People come and go, and the decisions they make are momentous, but slow patterns of geography and history grind underneath their feet, constraining and shaping their actions.

Moscow’s centuries of expansion, whether as Russia or the Soviet Union, influence its relations with its former vassal states, as well as Iran, not to mention the ethnic federal entities that actually border the Caspian (most notably restless Dagestan, whose port revenues were seen as a guarantor of some stability). Russia also has no non-arctic  oceanic sea ports; it is a continental power. That’s why it is so aggressive in the Caspian and Black seas, as a way to control the Eurasian sphere.

But its aggression can often backfire, as we see here, when its oppressive thumb led other states to pair with each other and Iran, bypassing Russia, and perhaps putting its regional goals in check. This gives more lie to the “Putin is a flawless puppet master” myth. I still think Russia will rue their cruel Middle East adventures. He just got lucky with America and Trump.

But then, what choice did Putin have, with the Caspian? He was dealing with the legacy of an empire that rushed from the colds of northern Europe to the sunbaked sea, colliding with Iran and with other ancient Muslim nations, having to bloodily hack their way through the Caucuses to get there.

The sea is what mattered to Russia, as an easier way to get across the continent. And then, after WWI, for its insane abundance of oil and natural gas. This was heightened in WWII, when Hitler diverted a good chunk of his invading army south to secure the oil fields near Baku. And certainly, after the fall of the USSR, Russia fought to hang on to it Caucus territories both to stay by the sea, and to avoid letting the rest of its hard-fought empire, which we take for cartographical permanence, from spiraling away.

These things matter. History matters. Geography matters. America, whose long racial history is catching up with it, which is seeing the impact that its centuries of continental aggression and century of global aggression have wrought, and who is slowly learning the real lessons of geography, needs to understand that. Russia does. Iran does. The butchers of the ISIS and al Qaeda do. It’s time we do, too.

Baseball History For People Who Like Baseball History

 

Image result for aj pierzynski drop third strike

This is the Zapruder film for Angels fans

 

A couple of weeks ago I was watching a White Sox game (note: I don’t know why, either) and, as it will, a third strike was dropped. The catcher easily threw out the batter/runner, as they do. Maybe this one was slightly closer than usual, or maybe it was just because the game was boring and whatever I was reading wasn’t holding my attention, but I started to wonder about the dropped third strike. It’s a strange rule, giving new and unfair life to the batter. Now, as the beneficiary of one of the oddest (and honestly, dumbest) dropped third strikes in recent memory, it shouldn’t bother me, but it did. I vowed to find out why this rule existed, and what in baseball history caused it to be there.

And then promptly forgot about it, probably by the next pitch.

However! There are people who are much better than me, and coincidentally, my great and good friend Brett Kaufman took a break from aiding and abetting terrorism and sent an article from the invaluable people at the SABR Society. It’s from last year, but it pretty timeless, in the same way baseball is. Apparently, the dropped third strike has its roots in a form of German protobaseball.

The story begins in an unexpected source: a German book of children’s games published in 1796 titled Spiele zur Uebung und Erholung des Körpers und Geistes für die Jugend, ihre Erzieher und alle Freunde Unschuldiger Jugendfreuden (“Games for the exercise and recreation and body and spirit for the youth and his educator and all friends in innocent joys of youth”) by Johann Christoph Friedrich Gutsmuths.2 Gutsmuths was an early advocate of physical education. He is best known today, outside the rarified field of baseball origins, for his promotion of gymnastics. In 1793 he published the first gymnastics textbook, Gymnastik für die Jugend (“Gymnastics for Youth”). His 1796 work extended the scope to additional games. These include a chapter Ball mit Freystäten—oder das Englische Base-ball (“Ball with Free Station—or English Base-ball”).

Gutsmuths wanted people to run, as Germans do, and to exercise, even if they couldn’t hit a loftily-tossed ball (think beer league softball). Through the literal centuries, through the wild and murky past of baseball forming in cities and towns across the nation, as different rules were enforced differently, this idea came and went, and finally stuck. It’s now part of the unquestioned canon.

That’s one of the coolest things about baseball. We know exactly when James Naismith founded basketball. The history of football is pretty understood. But baseball has all these weird quirks, these little foggy twists in time. Researchers are always finding stories about a group of Norweigan tree-fellers in Wisconsin playing a recognizable game in the 1820s, or something (that’s made up, but you know). We keep learning more about it, like it’s some ancient civilization that’s continually being dug up. It’s so cool to see how it influences even what’s happening at Guaranteed Rate Stadium.

This is Neat: Early Lake Ontario Shipwreck Discovered

 

 

Starboard side of Lady Washington. Image from Roger Pawlowski

 

A team of amateur- but still really damn good- underwater archeologists have discovered the incredibly-intact remains of an 1803 shipwreck in Lake Ontario, one of the earliest shipwrecks in the vast lake system. From their website:

Oswego, NY –  A rare 18th century built sloop, Washington (also known as Lady Washington), has been discovered in Lake Ontario off the shores of Oswego, New York by a team of shipwreck explorers.   Jim Kennard, Roger Pawlowski, and Roland Stevens located the sloop in late June utilizing high resolution side scan sonar equipment.

The sloop was enroute from Kingston, Ontario to Niagara, Ontario, Canada with a full cargo when it foundered during a gale on Lake Ontario in 1803.  The Washington is believed to be the oldest confirmed commercial sailing ship to exist in the Great Lakes.  It was the first sloop built on Lake Erie and the first to sail in both Lakes Erie and Ontario.  Sloops only existed for a limited period of time on the Great Lakes as they were replaced by schooners which had two or more masts and were much more efficient to operate.

It’s a thrilling find on a historical level. It’s also incredible to think about the enormous differences a scant 200 years can make. For settlers, in 1803, Erie and Ontario were on the edge of the West, that teeter-point between a barely-born nation that had just pushed itself away from the coast into the fearful forests and the wild lands outside. (The story was a little different for the natives, of course.) The fur trade, while declining, was still incredibly important, and a continuous link to the early days of colonization and exploitation, a direct line between the toddling American nation and the days of trappers and Jesuits.

And the Lakes were wild and fearsome beasts, capable of rising up and swallowing a ship whole, never to be seen again. It’s only in the last few decades, really, that we’ve gotten to the point where a Great Lakes shipwreck would be due to massive error, rather than the cruel and unforgiving coldness and brutality of the whipping winds and exploding waves.

But you can still see it when you walk past any of them, on a summer storm or during a winter gale. You can see the contained fury stir up into a frenzy, and from a safe and warm window you can imagine being out there, in a creaking wooden ship, eeking out a living bringing the dissected remnants of nature back to the cities in exchange for the meagerest goods of survival, and know the fear that must have gripped them when this implacable and wild land struck back. When Ontario, the smallest of the Lakes, but still terrifyingly larger than three of the original 13 states, roared up, and swallowed you whole, your bones never to wash up, lost forever, lost in the country, lost in the water, lost in a new America. You can still feel that vastness, sometimes, a chill up your spine, as you wonder what we’ve gained, and think of all that was lost doing so.

Cool Stuff if You Like Chicago, Or Labor History, Or Just Cool Old Stuff

And who doesn’t?

 

The Chicago River is very pleasant now. That…that wasn’t always the case. 

 

It’s often remarked that Chicago doesn’t make anything anymore. The city, in addition to being the “hog butcher to the world” and lumber hub between east and west, was throughout its history a major industrial city, drawing workers from around the world to its factories and warehouse, creation dotting the riverfront and radiating into the neighborhoods. Now we’re more known for finance and startups and the normal “transforming city” type businesses. And that’s fine. It’s imperfect, and even cruel, as the city’s new wealth is incredibly uneven. But to say that Chicago is not better off than it was in the 1970s and 1980s, after old man Daley did everything he could to keep Chicago from adjusting to new realities, would be a lie.

That said, there does feel like something has been lost. Into that void comes the Made In Chicago Museum, a new site exploring the things that Chicago used to make. Full disclosure: the site’s creator and collector, Andrew Clayman, is a very good friend of mine, who introduced me to my wife, and who is the best damn shortstop a softball pitcher could hope to have behind him. But I’m promoting this because it is awesome. My friends do a lot of stupid shit that I never write about. It’s a celebration of industry, both high and low, from the most useful to the most ephemeral and whimsical.

Even that stuff, though, stands out because it is long-lasting.  Clayman doesn’t just collect and take pictures of old ice skates, clocks, scales, tins, and other gee-gaws and doo-dads. He celebrates a history of manufacturing. On each page there is a history of the company tht made these items, and as much as possible, the people that worked there.

Let’s take this Ice Skater Sharpener, made by FW Planert and Sons in 1910.

Patented in 1910, this metal clamping device was used to keep an ice skate secure while its blade was sharpened. The manufacturer, F.W. Planert & Sons, was one of the “The Big 3” in the Chicago-dominated ice skate industry of the early 20th century. The other two, family rivals Nestor Johnson and Alfred Johnson, were also headquartered on the Northwest side.

Did you know that Chicago used to dominate the ice-skating industry? Or that there was rivalrous Big 3? I certainly didn’t! Throughout the piece, Clayman talks about Planert, his business, and the people that worked there. He’s dug up archival pictures from newspapers, because, throughout the life of a city, nearly everything has been covered.

One of the cooler parts is that for every manufacturing plant, he tells what is there now (in the case of Planert, it is the trendy Cotton Duck, a restaurant in the extremely hip and foodie-oriented Ukranian Village neighborhood.

It’s sort of elegiac. I’m old enough to remember when Ukranian Village felt sort of rough. It wasn’t, but comparable to the neighborhoods we usually hung out in, it had some hard edges that gave you a glimpsed hint of the city before the great transformations of the 90s and 2000s, of the hard city of Algren and Terkel. Even now, the huge gilded churches remind you that the neighborhood has a history, that it isn’t just a name, that it is where an ethnic group found comfort and solace and work in a new and confusing country.

That works has faded, and the neighborhood is entirely disconnected from the idea of being “Ukranian” in any real sense. Most residents probably barely connect it with the Ukraine, the place. It’s just a name. And that’s fine: cities change. The toil that consumed lives fades into blurry pictures and hardly-understood designations. Factories that defined whole existences become transient restaurants waiting for the next food trend to shut them down.

Into that comes Clayman’s project, which reminds us that these neighborhoods, these streets, these cities, and yes, these anachronistic and old-looking products were all created by people, who devoted some or all of their one short and difficult live to make them. It isn’t romantic; these were hard lives. But they were real lives. There is a weight on every page, a lived weight, which in its own way is a cry against the weightless nature of our new disconnected economy.