Send in the Drones

One thing I tend to think about a lot is the drone weapons that we are using to apparently negligible effect in Pakistan and Afghanistan. By “negligible” I mean that the drones seem to succeed in killing people marked for assassination, as well as some others who weren’t marked for anything except lunch, but don’t seem to have brought us any closer to winning and going home.

The idea of remote-controlled seeing-eye bombs, as opposed to the old, World War II-style drop ‘em and hope they land somewhere relevant seems like a wonderful thing, and they sure as heck beat the risks entailed by boots on the ground, though I suspect we’re learning that in the final analysis you can’t beat boots. It’s nice to think that you can strike like Zeus throwing a lightning spear from Mt. Olympus and then go home for turkey, stuffing, and a cold beer, just like it was another day at work.

What I wonder about, though, is what happens when that technology proliferates, as all technologies eventually do. We worry quite a bit about explosive dangers large and small, from the proliferation of nuclear weapons to car bombs to backpacks and suitcases stuffed with explosives. Will there someday be a point when the bad guys can also point and click their way to death and destruction? I imagine that the technology involved is sophisticated, but that never stopped anyone from figuring things out, and it’s also always possible that some nice nation will want to make a buck by selling the things to the highest bidder, at which point you don’t have to decode the technology, you just have to read the manual and figure out which button to push.

Sometimes I think I may yet live to see Patriot missiles in Times Square.

Idle Musings: And They Meant It About Baseball!

In 1925, the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, observing a transaction that was, shall we say, popularly approved of, concluded that “The common sense of the common people is a common fallacy.” Seems to me, this sentiment has an application beyond sports. At the very least, it makes a nice rejoinder to Abraham Lincoln’s, “You can fool some of the people all of the time,” etc, etc, etc. Abe wasn’t infallible; he got a few things wrong.

Avatar: The American Apology

As I’ve told you before, I don’t get to the movies very often, and less so than ever lately (I did get to take the kids to “Toy Story 3,” or as I like to think of it, “Schindler’s Toy Story”). As such, I only got around to seeing “Avatar,” late 2009′s super-movie, just now.

First thought, continually, as the rapacious mining conglomerate destroyed the planet’s wondrous ecosystem: Damn BP guys, they’re not satisfied to screw up our planet, they have to go a thousand light years away and bleep up another one.

Second thought, also continually: I saw this picture 20 years ago, only that time it was called “Dances with Wolves” and the oppressed group was the Sioux, not blue cartoon zebra-cats.

Third thought, simultaneous with the second thought: I didn’t like “Dances with Wolves” any better than I like “Avatar.” And yet, the former film was more affecting, because it starred actual people as opposed to escapees from video game cut-scenes. From “Snow White” to Jar-Jar Binks to “Avatar,” there’s just something about animating images of human beings that doesn’t quite work.

More than any aesthetic complaint, what bothered me about the picture was that we have to dress up what is essentially a story out of American history as science fiction to get anyone to pay attention. In “Avatar,” natives are moved off their land. In 1831, far more acculturated Indian groups were punted out of the South because we coveted their land. In Georgia their land was thought to hold gold, and suddenly the Cherokee, who were doing their best to assimilate, found themselves living in Oklahoma. The human toll, not just for the Cherokee but for all the relocated tribes of the time, was real, felt not in pixels but in blood. The Trail of Tears is not an event that is likely to make your standard Texas history text book, nor perhaps the massacre at Wounded Knee, but both are a real and important part of who we are as Americans, and are of a piece with other American initiatives, from sea to shining sea and from the Philippines to Iraq to, in a very different way, the lax supervision of the oil companies that led to the environmental and economic disaster in the Gulf. If there is one great lesson to American history, is that freedom can be another word for “I don’t give a damn because I don’t have to.” And yes, I’m paraphrasing Janis Joplin/Kris Kristofferson, but what the heck, it fits. Americans: we don’t think things through, letting all kinds of crazy dogmas, from Manifest Destiny to Preemptive War override our thinking.

It would help to know this, help to understand our history, but you have to know about it to get it, not have it spoon-fed to you as science-fiction pablum. And hey, let’s be honest about one other thing: the Native Americans were human beings. In our culture, they’ve been alternately been depicted as bloodthirsty savages and nature’s gentle priests. They were neither. They were just people, different at different times and different places, good and bad, warlike and peaceful, and most likely, just like the rest of us the world over, largely populated by disinterested people who just want to be left alone to live their lives in peace but hardly ever get what they want.

Oh, and they were in 3-D, though not blue or stripey or eight feet tall. I guess I should be grateful that this story of our civilization got some play, but I’d rather see that huge silver canvas lavished on the real story, one that could still make you say, “Oooh,” but also cry. And think.

Back On the Horse/The Americans

My father is once again back from the hospital, hopefully from a good long time. He still requires some extra company–I’m sitting with him right now–but now that I’m not traveling back and forth to/from a hospital an hour away, I am going to get back to the daily politiblogging. If anyone is still out there, I greatly appreciate your patience. There simply wasn’t time to give my family the hours it needed, keep up with my paying work, and do the pro bono stuff here at WR. There probably still isn’t enough time, but we work harder to do the things we love. What I love is writing, more than anything, about anything.

Yesterday at the hospital, my father was watching the news when one of his nurses came in to check on him. Noting what was on the TV, she asked, “Hey, whatever happened to that leak?”

“What happened to it?” my father asked, puzzled.

“Yeah,” she said. “They plugged it right?”

Had I been in the room at that moment, I would have been so tempted to say, “See that black stuff pooling around your ankles? Hell no, they didn’t plug it.” Alas I was not, probably a good thing since you have to be nice to the nurses, even the scary bad ones, lest they off your old man some night after you’ve gone home.

My father, who is not the happiest fellow around these days (with good reason) concluded that the nurse was probably about as informed as the average voter, and thus we are all screwed. It is to him that these continued mutterings are dedicated.

Experiencing Family Difficulties, Please Stand By

Hey, campers, if any of you are still out there. As you may recall, my father became very ill recently. He seemed to be recovered, but he has unfortunately relapsed and is back in the hospital in critical condition. I am hopeful that he will again bounce back. Until then, I’ve been spending all my time with him and getting in the odd baseball piece when I can. I intend to return to this blog on the coming days, perhaps as soon as this evening if time permits. Until then, I wanted to give you a heads up that I haven’t abandoned you or it, I’m just overwhelmed right now with other responsibilities. I appreciate your patience.

From the Comments: Corrupt Dinners

Commenter C’n’R:

Steven [is one of] of the most intellectualy dishonest political ideologues I have ever seen.

No posts about Sestak.

No posts about Romanoff.

No posts about Blago.

If these three had ties to an administration with an “R” after the names of the major players, you both would be frothing at the mouth.

Last first: Blagojevich is a bad joke that gets worse with each retelling. He’s going on trial now, there’s every likelihood he will be convicted, and that will be that. His case seems an aberrant case of arrogance and corruption and I haven’t written about it because I don’t really see it’s application to the wider debate. I haven’t written about Mark Sanford either, and for the same reason–I feel that these cases lack wider relevance, except perhaps in the area of hypocrisy, and we have no shortage of that.

As for Sestak and Romanoff, all I keep thinking about is that these kinds of negotiations have been part of American history from the beginning. Alexander Hamilton got his debt assumption plan through Congress by making an agreement with Thomas Jefferson at a 1790 dinner that the national capitol would be moved from Philadelphia to the South. The spoils system goes back to Andrew Jackson. When Salmon P. Chase seemed to be emerging as a possible 1864 rival (besides being kind of annoying), Lincoln gave him something else he really wanted–Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. How do you think Lyndon Johnson got to be Vice-President when the Kennedy’s hated him? Same thing for John Nance Garner and FDR, and perhaps it’s the way that Hillary Clinton got to be Secretary of State–they had votes to trade, and a deal was arranged. This may or may not be the way it should be, but it’s the way it is.

We have a system in which the head of state is also the head of his political party, and has a whole lot to gain by making sure his party is run in a way that supports his efforts. If the law that everyone gets so exercised about in these cases was intended to make the executive branch utterly non-political, that would be a pretty big deal, one that would reshape our entire way of doing things… and we all slept through it until now. Even if that is the intention of the law, it’s just not functional. The head of a political party can’t be prohibited from discussing the deployment of his party’s resources in an election.

The penalty for this, by the way, would be a fine and/or a year in jail. The law doesn’t quite treat its own violation as a misdemeanor, but it seems pretty close. Now, I am appalled by the meddling in these races, not because I think the meddling amounted to a bribe, but rather because I object to the administration’s siding with incumbents and not wanting to gamble on an upgrade, particularly in the Spector race.

Wake me up when someone outs a CIA operative for political gain. Until then, I will continue to criticize this administration, as I have been criticizing it, but for its legitimate failings… And one other thing. There are few arguments I dislike more than “Hey, you didn’t kick when your guy did it!” which in this case has been employed in defense or rendition–except it’s not a defense, it’s just a pollution of the discussion with accusations of hypocrisy. If I present you with a wrong, and you present me with a wrong, well, now we have a pile of two wrongs. It’s not football; the penalties don’t offset.

Stop Me Before I Torture Again!

This reminds me of the climax of “A Few Good Men.”

“Yeah, we waterboarded Khalid Sheikh Mohammed,” the former president told a business audience in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “I’d do it again to save lives.”

It occurs to me that you could substitute “killed’ for “waterboarded” and the rationale would be the same. He was a terrorist, not a soldier, and therefore not entitled to the protections of the Geneva Conventions, killing him could save lives, blah, blah, blah… I wonder if the argument about the rightness or wrongness of torture would seem any different if they had tortured him to death.

That’s hypothetical, but what isn’t is that you have a guy going around saying he committed what can reasonably be called a crime by the laws of our country. People have argued as to whether it was or it wasn’t, and we’re not going to settle that issue here, but it sure as heck seems like something that should be settled by a court once and for all. I’m sure being indicted would be a heck of an inconvenience for Bush and Cheney, but it would allow us to work out some important questions about war, terrorism, presidential powers, and evenhanded justice in the United States.

The Manhattan Project Again

Bob Herbert is one of my favorite columnists. He never fails to fill me with indignation and despair. That might not be everyone’s cup of tea, but it means he’s an effective and intelligent writer and life ain’t a musical anyway. My one fault with his latest is that just like yours truly, he goes for the ol’ Manhattan Project panacea:

Above all, I’d like to see the creation of a second Manhattan Project that would lead us in a few years to an environment in which alternative fuels are abundant, effective and affordable. We are a pathetically weak player in that game right now

And hey, it would be stimulus spending, too! But as I tried to say in the linked post above, it’s very easy to say we should get something like this together, not so easy to grapple with the limitations of science and technology. Oil is like a wonder drug–it does everything from powering your car to making plastics. No matter what tech we’re talking about, it probably isn’t as instantly gratifying as good ol’ black gold.

Security to “Bambi” in Theater 12!

Can’t find a link, but the local paper reports that a nearby multiplex is planning to put a bar in the lobby and have restaurant-quality food and drinks–beer, wine, cocktails–available for delivery to the seats. I realize the theaters are desperate to get anyone in the seats during this era of economic depression and endless crappy sequels, but this strikes me as a terrifically bad idea. People already act like brain-damaged chimps when freed by the darkness to act as they wish. Actually, chimps can’t talk, so they would be an improvement over people in this instance. As every stadium operator knows, Alcohol + Anonymity = Assholes, which is the main reason that they employ so much security. This alcohol thing may work out well at a Merchant-Ivory retrospective, but unless you look forward to people running naked down the aisles at “Avatar III” (and maybe you do), this would be yet another good reason to stay home and/or restrict yourself to sparsely attended matinees.

Like I Said…

Like I said, sometimes it just takes a little while to wrangle the bureaucracy if you’re the president. You’re a long way from the dark warrens of the Interior Department when you’re in the Oval Office:

The news conference came hours after the head of the Minerals Management Service, the agency that regulates offshore drilling, stepped down under pressure… On Thursday, Mr. Obama ordered the suspension of work on 33 exploratory wells currently being drilled in the Gulf of Mexico; a further six-month moratorium on new permits for deepwater oil and gas wells; a temporary halt to planned exploration in the Chukchi and Beaufort seas off the coast of Alaska; the cancellation of a planned August lease sale in the western Gulf of Mexico; and the cancellation of a proposed lease sale off the coast of Virginia.