Friday, September 22, 2006

View from West Seattle, 9/2006. Kowinski photo. Posted by Picasa

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"80% of Republicans are just Democrats who don't know what's going on."

Robert F. Kennedy, Jr.
Seems Like Old Times

Lately I've been catching myself making references that a dwindling number of people get. Like "Mr. Tooth Decay." I gather that Mr. Tooth Decay makes something of a comeback in kid circles from time to time, but the basic reference is to beloved old Colgate toothpaste commercials that ran on Howdy Doody, and you have to be way way old to remember those.

In a recent theatre review I mentioned that the only Latin phrase I remembered from my Catholic schooling was from a cartoon in my high school Latin book, in which a police officer has pulled over a driver and asks him "Ubi ignus est?" That people wouldn't understand the Latin was part of the joke, because I thought (as the creator of the cartoon did) that the context would suggest it. However, I hadn't realized that cops pulling over speeders and asking them, "Where's the fire?" is no longer a well-known cliche. (Nothing as pathetic as an unknown cliche, is there?) The editor actually looked up the Latin, got the phrase, then asked me what it all meant--could the cop have pulled over a firetruck? I cut the joke, pronto. (That means," right away." Cowboys used to say it in...well, never mind.)

But just when I was ready to put all that ancient history behind me, I read something like this in Dan Froomkin's Washington Post blog, and damn if 1968 doesn't come back as big as life:

On the dominant issue of our time, the president is in denial. By most reliable accounts, three and a half years into the U.S. occupation, Iraq is in chaos -- if not in a state of civil war, then awfully close. But President Bush insists it's not so. He says the people he talks to assure him that the press coverage about how bad things are in Iraq is not to be trusted.

You might think that the enormous gulf between Bush's perceptions and reality on such a life-and-death topic would be, well, newsworthy. But if members of the Washington press corps consider it news at all, apparently it's old news. They report Bush's assertions about Iraq without noting that his fundamental assessment of the situation is dramatically contradicted by the reporting from their own colleagues on the ground.

I call it Iraqnam, and this is why. We've already destroyed it in order to save it, and people keep dying and getting maimed in horrible ways there, because a lot of people have forgotten 40 years.
"24" is Torture Porn

Update: A Washington Post editorial has come out strongly against the compromise torture bill that came out of Senate committee, because "In effect, the agreement means that U.S. violations of international human rights law can continue as long as Mr. Bush is president, with Congress's tacit assent. If they do, America's standing in the world will continue to suffer, as will the fight against terrorism." BooTrib is advocating that Dems make an issue of it by opposing and filibustering if necessary.

Here's how the Newsweek story I linked to in my last post on torture begins:

It’s probably not too farfetched to say that what most Americans know about torture comes from watching the TV show “24.” (There is even a Web site called The Jack Bauer Torture Report.) Jack and his comrades and enemies have at various moments on the Fox television program used electrical wires, heart defibrillators, old-fashioned bone breaking and chemical injections to wrest information from their captives. In one episode, Agent Bauer forced a terrorist to watch streaming video—staged—of his child’s execution. The terrorist talked.

The story goes on to say that, first of all, actual torture doesn't much look like what is shown on "24," and that: In recent interviews with NEWSWEEK reporters, U.S. intelligence officers say they have little—if any—evidence that useful intelligence has been obtained using techniques generally understood to be torture.

But a lot of people do believe it works. Partly because Bush and Cheney say so, and if we don't believe them, it's the same as saying that they are morons or liars or both, and war criminals to boot. Not something that anyone wants to believe of their leaders. But I believe it's also partly because of Hollywood and specifically "24."

Entertainment shows stretch reality a lot to be funny--we all understand that-- and also to create drama, but that's done with such apparent realism that we don't always realize it. But why torture? Is it the only way to advance the plot dramatically? These shows present human beings causing prolonged pain in other human beings. And people watch.

Forget for the moment that by portraying a false idea of something that goes on in the real world, "24" and shows like it are lying to people about something important, and the consequence is more suffering and more people endangered, including innocent people.

Forget even that it is often a cheap device, the easy ploy of lazy writers and directors when they want to push buttons of sensation and can't be bothered to do it with honest drama. We've got to grip the audience and we've got a story that's ten minutes short, what do we do? I know: torture somebody.

No, what I want to focus on here is the evident reason we see torture on TV, and that's because it evokes strong sensations--people may not be entirely shocked anymore, they see it so often, but it does push some buttons, and they're all about primal emotions. And in having those buttons pushed, people are entertained. They "like" to watch torture.

My question is: how is this not pornography? I'm not saying ban it, I'm just saying let's name it for what it is, and stop the pretense. Because the pretense is the prime factor in making it believable--I mean, if it's not porn fantasy, then we have to believe this is how it really works.

Real torture is immoral, and I believe that dramatizing torture in the way "24" does is gratitious violence, and I don't watch it. I happen to have met one of the writers who just got an Emmy for that show, and I don't congratulate him. He used to work on the Star Trek series, Enterprise, and during his watch as a producer, there were several instances of gratuitous torture on that show (which had a family audience, insofar as it had an audience). Which I suppose turned out to be his audition for "24."

I think "24" and its depiction of torture and violence does harm for these several reasons, and I have no respect for it. Those who watch it for porn purposes should at least be honest with themselves about it, and deal with it as fantasy. But that's not how it is played--not in a nation that goes berserk over a milisecond glimpse of a bare breast.

Bare breast bad, torture entertainment, does not compute. And then there's the morality of torture itself, defended by self-appointed professional guardians of morality, whose absolutism otherwise extends to defining cells as babies. Here's an example from Molly Ivins:

"I was interested to find that the Rev. Louis Sheldon of the Traditional Values Coalition is so in favor of torture he told McCain that the senator either supports the torture bill or he can forget about the evangelical Christian vote. I’d like to see an evangelical vote on that one. I don’t know how Sheldon defines traditional values, but deliberately inflicting terrible physical pain or stress on someone who is completely helpless strikes me as ... well, torture. And, um, wrong.."

I hope this is just an example of the Rev. Sheldon's arrogance and not the true sentiments of people who call themselves Christians. I could understand some "greater good" argument, if there was any evidence a greater good could be obtained. But to defend the morality of torture on its face, and threatening politicians who want some legal and moral constraints, passeth my understanding.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Centaurus wheel within wheel... Posted by Picasa

The Climate Crisis

Looking to the Law

There are several efforts underway to use existing law to force action on restricting greenhouse gas pollution. California is getting headlines for suing car companies, and though it's not strictly a legal matter--at least not yet--the Royal Society in England is demanding that Exxon keeps it promise to stop funding climate crisis deniers.

Meanwhile, the case against the Bush government to force them to apply Clean Air Act enforcement to greenhouse gases has gotten stronger with this brief, which places even more scientific expertise in partnership with law. In particular it counters the Bush attempt to distort the findings of scientists in a report it requested.

When the environmental movement first got into its legal and political phase, it lost a lot of its focus. Getting into that nitty-gritty is necessary of course, but this time a good deal more clarity needs to remain central, or once again the goals and the needs to be addressed can get lost in technicalites and the lifestyle of lawyers, lobbyists and pols.

UPDATE: Patrick Kennedy's summary of the Bush announcement on R&D for future technologies to address the climate crisis. His conclusion: too little, too vague, and certainly no "U-turn" in policy.

UPDATE 2: Richard Branson pledged $3 billion over ten years--corporate profits from Virgin Airlines-- to address the Climate Crisis by investing in biofuels, through President Clinton's Global Initiative. Three billion also happens to be the amount the Bush administration says it has spent on global heating associated R&D in the past six years. $3 billion represents what the US spends on the Iraq war every ten days.
The Politics of Torture

Or is it the torture of politics? I've held off commenting on the apparent conflict among Republicans in Congress over several bills that give Bush legal cover to have tortured and to keep on torturing, because I wasn't sure how real it was. Some bloggers and other commentators believe certain GOPer Senators are taking courageous stands in opposition to Bush, others suspect it's all orchestrated politics to provide some Republicans with political cover, or just to keep media attention off the really deadly conflict in Iraq.

Wednesday a House committee voted against it before they voted for it but there's still nothing certain about this except they're going to keep making noise about terrorism and torture and toughness until the election, and nothing is really going to even begin changing until the Democrats control Congress, and we get on their cases big time.

How torture plays politically is a fairly disgusting subject, especially because it should be well outside the political, beyond the pale. First of all, and most absurd of all, the argument over whether the morality of saving innocents by getting information from bad guys versus cruelty to people who may be bad but also may very well be innocent, is all so useless, because torture doesn't work in acquiring useful information, nor even in intimidation, not in the long run. The Canadian citizen captured and tortured by the U.S. who was fully exonerated as completely innocent this week by a Canadian panel, had admitted under torture that he was trained as a terrorist in Afghanistan, despite documented proof that he had never been in Afghanistan.

A federal judge has ordered officials to disclose some information about some Gitmo detainees. The International Red Cross is finally getting to interview some prisoners. Canada is planning an official protest based on this new report. Everyone in the world knows this is wrong and deeply harmful and universally degrading in every conceivable way.

And the practical downside is enormous. It makes a mockery of law. The bar has been lowered so that innocence no longer matters, and even a member of the press can be essentially imprisoned in Iraq for months, and no one knows and no one cares. That we're even talking about this is sickening and more frightening than any terrorist attack.

Apropos of nothing but this mood, this blog has attracted some hatemongering trolls and I've temporarily restricted comments until they lose interest.

UPDATE: A UN report says torture in Iraq is out of control. American occupation has brought with it torture that may exceed Saddam's. This is a completely predictable outcome of US policy and practice under Bush. When a superpower and supposed moral leader unleashes the dogs of torture, everyone feels they have permission to unleash savagery and escalate it without penalty. This is a consequence of immoral leadership. Among other tragic ramifications, we now have no moral standing to condemn the torture of Americans by others. Especially when our government apparently feels free to torture Americans, Canadians, Europeans, anybody.

UPDATE 2: The Bush House and apparently rebellious Republican Senators made a deal on pending legislature involving torture and trials for alleged terrorists, but the substance of the agreement is not clear, and the details of the legislation has apparently not yet been worked out. In other words, mostly P.R, which seemed to be the subtext of Senator Warner's statement that they'll have a deal when he sees Bush's signature on it.

Meanwhile, David Broder, Washington Post columnist and Beltway Elder, is the latest to see this revolt as a declaration of independence on the part of these Republicans, and an indication that a centrist "independent party" is forming. Broder's rhetoric is unusually brutal:

Bush was elected twice, over Democrats Al Gore and John Kerry, whose know-it-all arrogance rankled Midwesterners such as myself. The country thought Bush was a pleasant, down-to-earth guy who would not rock the boat. Instead, swayed by some inner impulse or the influence of Dick Cheney, he has proved to be lawless and reckless. He started a war he cannot finish, drove the government into debt and repeatedly defied the Constitution.

The question of what constitutes "centrism" is a matter for another day, but as a reflection of this year's 'throw the bums out' mood from an unlikely source, this column has some resonance.

As for the supposed central issue--torture, remember?--the transcript is up of Wednesday's Olbermann interview with Jack Rice, former CIA and Minnesota prosecutor. They talk about torture eliciting whatever the torturers want to hear, but go beyond that patent lunacy to the further lunacy--although I suspect it's intentional --of what's been done with some of this so-called information:

OLBERMANN: The name Abu Zubaydah seems relevant here. Zubaydah broke under—I guess the technical term is aggressive interrogation, told the interrogators about plans to booby-trap banks and ATMs, and Homeland Security says, Watch out for banks. Then he said malls, Homeland Security said, Beware of the malls. Then he said apartments, we plan to lease apartments and fill them full of explosives, and Homeland Security said, Be alert in apartment buildings. Then he said the Brooklyn Bridge, and Homeland Security says, Be careful on the Brooklyn Bridge.

The only problem was, he was making all of it up. If we torture supposed terrorists, and they make stuff up, and the government tells people the things that they made up, are we not, in essence, doing the terrorists‘ work for them? Is there not an indirect cause and effect here? Starting point is, you torture suspects into lying, and at the end, you wind up spreading information that scares Americans.

RICE: Absolutely. And the worst part, in the end, is that when there are real threats out there, there‘s something called dread fatigue. We all heard about this. Oh, my gosh, it‘s level yellow. Oh, my gosh, it‘s level orange no. And in the end, the real threats that are out there, we ignore.

Here's how the interview ended:

OLBERMANN: So what works instead of torture, or aggressive interrogation, or whatever they‘re calling it today?

RICE: In many cases, we‘re looking at a lot of things. And we‘ve used these in the States in the past, because it provides reliable information. Sometimes it‘s about personal understanding. Sometimes it‘s allowing people to talk. Sometimes it‘s trying to understand. I would sit in front of somebody and say, I don‘t understand what motivates you. Explain to me so I understand. Teach me. Sometimes it‘s about vanity. You allow them that, if it‘s useful. But what you‘re looking for is truth in the end.

I‘m not a priest. I‘m not trying to be. But what I am trying to do is get something reliable, so our policy makers, so our police, so our military can do the right thing, not the wrong thing.

OLBERMANN: So fact-check me on this, on my simplified version of this whole picture. If it‘s wrong, tell me so. The president wants torture, or a nice euphemism for torture, and all he‘ll get out of it is made-up information, revenge later against American prisoners, perhaps, and destroying any moral high ground we might still have in the world.

RICE: Yes, one other thing besides that. He gets to wrap himself in the flag and say he hates the bad people.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

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The Climate Crisis

A Plan to Stop It

In a major speech yesterday, Al Gore described a practical plan for proceeding on a realistic path to the goal of stopping the runaway greenhouse effect that imperils the future of the planet. After having successfully made the case for the reality and causes of the Climate Crisis in his movie and book, in this speech he outlined steps for action.

In its story on the speech, the Washington Post led with one creative proposal: for a "Connie Mae" federal mortgaging fund to finance carbon-neutral homebuilding--a Fannie Mae for the Climate Crisis.

Here is how columnist Donnie Fowler elsewhere summarized Gore's main action points:

First, immeditately freeze CO2 emissions and begin reductions. California has done it and so have 295 American cities.

Second, join the Kyoto Treaty. "The absence of the United States from the treaty means that 25% of the world economy is now missing. It is like filling a bucket with a large hole in the bottom ... Many American businesses that operate in other countries already have to abide by the Kyoto Treaty anyway, and unsurprisingly, they are the companies that have been most eager to adopt these new principles here at home."

Third, recognize that the answer is not found in a silver bullet but in "silver buckshot."

Two Princeton professors have identified 15 to 20 building blocks that can make a difference even if only 7 or 8 of them are used. A few of the most important building blocks are:

a. eliminate the energy it takes to make energy and to transport it
b. change our transportation infrastructure, switching to new flex fuel, plug-in, and hybrid cars
c. reduce deforestation
d. pursue renewable sources of energy -- biomass, wind, solar. building designs drawn from innovative engineering and architecture.

f. place a price on the CO2 pollution that is recognized in the marketplace -- eliminate all payroll taxes ­ including those for social security and unemployment compensation and repleace that revenue in the form of pollution taxes, ­principally on CO2. The overall level of taxation would remain exactly the same.

Gore's proposals are valuable because they combine current scientific knowledge (climate scientists have found no significant errors in Gore's movie or book) and his own hard-won political wisdom. For example, from the speech itself:

... we should start by immediately freezing CO2 emissions and then beginning sharp reductions. Merely engaging in high-minded debates about theoretical future reductions while continuing to steadily increase emissions represents a self-delusional and reckless approach. In some ways, that approach is worse than doing nothing at all, because it lulls the gullible into thinking that something is actually being done when in fact it is not. An immediate freeze has the virtue of being clear, simple, and easy to understand. It can attract support across partisan lines as a logical starting point for the more difficult work that lies ahead.

Gore goes on to say that in the 80s, he thought the "nuclear freeze" movement was naive, while he was behind a complex plan to control nuclear weapons. But the idea of a nuclear freeze caught on, he realized, and paved the way for detailed steps to be taken to reduce nuclear weapons.

Similarly, Gore has revived a proposal he says he made 14 years ago, but now sees it could have much more political resonance: end all federal payroll taxes, and replace them with taxes on pollution, principally CO2. ... instead of discouraging businesses from hiring more employees, it would discourage business from producing more pollution.

Gore also proposes some sweeping yet exciting and very possible changes, such as improvement in our antiquated system of distributing electrical energy, that would further enhance our efficiency and security. Together with homegrown energy systems, smarter application of information technology and energy efficiency, Gore makes a strong case for lessening dependence on foreign oil.

By emphasizing innovation in confronting the Climate Crisis (and I would add, in addition to these efforts to Stop It, the Fix It component--dealing with the effects of the Climate Crisis already on the way-- also will require imagination, innovation and new production) there is vast potential to revive American industry (including exports), education and community. As Gore points out, the Chinese symbol for crisis combines the symbols for danger and opportunity. We seen opportunists turn danger into political advantage; wouldn't it be refreshing if we could confront a real danger with real transformation that would benefit everyone?

As the news of Gore's speech spreads, there is this incredible report from the Independent, that sounds a little like a reprint from the Onion:

President Bush is preparing an astonishing U-turn on global warming, senior Washington sources say. After years of trying to sabotage agreements to tackle climate change he is drawing up plans to control emissions of carbon dioxide and rapidly boost the use of renewable energy sources.

I'll reserve my skepticism on the plans he is "drawing up" for further indication this is actually going to happen, but it does suggest that a sea-change is ahead in our nation's approach to the Climate Crisis.
Why You Can't Take Shampoo On the Airplane

I've seen brief references to the difficulty of creating the kind of explosion the Brit plotters were supposedly planning, that led instantly to our first Red Alert and the banning of shampoo and other liquids and gels from commercial airplanes. And certainly common sense suggests that if it was that easy, it would have been done long ago. But after all this time, I finally stumbled across a credible description of just how difficult it would be--in fact, impossible in any practical sense.

Here's how the plot was reputedly supposed to work: According to security sources, the terror suspects were planning to board up to ten civilian airliners and detonate highly volatile liquid explosives on the planes in a spectacular terrorist operation. The liquid explosives -- either TATP (Triacetone Triperoxide), DADP (diacetone diperoxide) or the less sensitive HMTD (hexamethylene triperoxide diamine) -- were reportedly to be made on board the planes by mixing sports drinks with a peroxide-based household gel and then be detonated using an MP3 player or mobile phone.

But a former British intelligence officer and military munitions expert with the spy novel name of Lt. Colonel Nigel Wylde is quoted as describing what the process would really entail: The liquids would need to be carefully distilled at freezing temperatures to extract the required chemicals, which are very difficult to obtain in the purities needed."

Once the fluids have been extracted, the process of mixing them produces significant amounts of heat and vile fumes. "The resulting liquid then needs some hours at room temperature for the white crystals that are the explosive to develop." The whole process, which can take between 12 and 36 hours, is "very dangerous, even in a lab, and can lead to premature detonation," said Lt. Col. Wylde. ...All this means the planned attack would be detected long before the queues outside the loo had grown to enormous lengths." And of course most domestic flights in the US would be long over.

Even if the explosive was somehow pre-mixed, Wylde said, it still requires a detonator, probably made from TATP, would be needed to set it off. "It is very dangerous and risky to the individual," Wylde said. "As the quantity involved would be small this would injure the would-be suicide bomber but not endanger the aircraft, thus defeating the object of bringing down an aircraft."

In other words, if this story is correct, the whole thing is exactly the farce it appears to be: even more ridiculous than the shoe bomb. Nevertheless, there we all are, shoeless and beltless, watching our toiletries be tossed, boarding airplanes without so much as a drink of water, and not much hope of being offered one. The whole point seems to be to treat us like sheep so we'll act like sheep. Especially on election day.

And it's clearly working. First of all on journalists who didn't bother to question all this in the first place.

Monday, September 18, 2006

"Two Eagles" by Robert Davidson at Posted by Picasa

The Dreaming Up Daily Quote

"So, the world happens twice--
once what we see it as;
second it legends itself
deep, the way it is."

William Stafford

Posted by Picasa
Democracy in Question

Usually I have editors to blame for my published pieces that have problems, but this time the subpar performance is almost all mine. (They cut one sentence and screwed with the paragraphs which upset the all-important rhythm, but that's it this time.) Still, you might get something out of this review of two new books, Whose Freedom? by George Lakoff and Does American Democracy Still Work? by Alan Wolfe. I recommend the Wolfe book.

If you are left aghast and amazed by politics and government today, these two books are for you. There are plenty of screeds and exposes on the details, but Boston College political scientist Alan Wolfe and UC Berkeley professor of linguistics George Lakoff concentrate on the bigger picture of what is happening and why.

This is not your grandfather’s democracy, they say; it’s not even your father’s. Most Americans over 30 -- especially liberals and moderates -- who formed their impressions of political institutions and the political dialogue before, say, 1984, are in for a rude awakening.

Continued at the San Francisco Chronicle Book Review.

Update: An article in the Washington Post today seems to support one of the central assertions of these books--it cites a study which purports to show that political ads need to engage emotions to be effective. Well, duh. I don't see that the extrapolation--emotions matter, ideas don't--necessarily follows. It's such bipolar thinking, don't you think?

Anyway, there was this interesting side-finding: It is comparatively difficult to persuade anyone to change their mind on an issue. What works much better, because it influences people at an emotional and subtle level, is to get people to focus on a different issue -- the one where the candidate is the strongest. Of course, I thought immediately of Al Gore in 2008. And it is interesting that the Wapo writer linked "emotional and subtle." Since when are emotions more subtle than ideas? Only when you conceive of ideas as yes/no, up/down bipolar positions. Or when you're so spooked by the unconscious or the preconscious that you think of anything that operates on that level as voodoo.