Friday, May 29, 2009

All the troubles in the world...

Last week I posted a rumination about war and peace; specifically, the American way of war and what seems like the relative lack of peace we have lived through over the past fifty years or so.

It all started with the Wanderer's Daughter's question:
"I can't help but feeling a tiny bit of shame at our national ethnocentricity." she said, "Read: blindness. OK, it's more than a tiny bit of shame...but I don't want to be written off as unpatriotic. I'm not. I am genuinely fond of my country. Heaven knows, I had plenty of opportunities to leave it, and I turned them all down. Here's the thing: I love my country. I do! It's a beautiful country. There are many ways in which I love my country. But, how did we get so isolated and blindered? The horror. How do we break out of this inward-gazing cycle?"
And that got me to thinking about how it seemed that my country had been at war with someone, somewhere, pretty much all of my adult life - and most of my childhood, too, since the little fracas in Southeast Asia kicked off when I was two.I didn't like the idea that I was living in, and had spent much of my life in the uniform of, some sort of warrior state, the Sparta of the Western Hemisphere. Are we the warmongers of the West? Are we so egocentric, so violent towards anyone not "like us" that the rest of the world should be afraid, be very afraid?

So I sat down to read and think about this a bit.

Here's my conclusions, for what they're worth.

To sum up; I don't think that we in the U.S. are uniquely racist, blind or bellicose. I do think we have inherited an aggressive and inward-looking mindset from the European nations that produced us, and that we are in the midst of an odd period in which the U.S. is both disproportionally physically and militarily strong but intellectually weak, having been led from rational thought through the intent of knaves and fools. We do tend to blunder about overseas, but more from ignorance and fretfulness than malice or cupidity. So I think the answer is that we suffer from some social institution failures that make our overseas adventuring possible (especially when it coincides with the needs of our elites) - but that we're not typically imperial; we're just at the apogee of one of our policy cycles.

Here's the answer in detail:

1. We are Western Europeans, and as such have fallen heir to the Western European legacy: advanced technology, political unity and aggressive self-confidence. Western Europe is perhaps the single most unique example of hypertrophic technical, social and political development - a geopolitical Perfect Storm (at least you might think of it that way if you had been an Aztec, a Penobscot, a Ceylonese, a Zulu, a Burman or an Australian aborigine...) - in human history. The inhabitants of Eurasia were specially gifted by biology and technology, to start with.

A huge concentration of domesticatable animals - and in particular, chickens and pigs, who combined to bless us with infectious lethal diseases like influenza, smallpox and cholera - and plants are found only within Eurasia. This combination enabled concentrated agriculture and husbandry, the production of excess wealth, and the early development of soldiering as a trade as well as political sophistication.

The combination of technical and social innovation produced advanced metallurgy and woodcraft, creating everything from hinges and doors to arquebuses and caravels.

Just the right amount of external political pressure - in the form of the Islamic enemies to the east who were strong enough to menace but not to conquer - and intercene squabbling among the nations of Western Europe created politically centralized, fiscally and economically adventurous, socially cohesive and technically innovative nation-states at a time when most of the rest of the world was still at the feudal level or even no more organized than bands of hunter-gatherers. And then released these clenched fists of nations on the rest of the world long before it was ready for them.

In other words, starting in the 15th Century the Old World went through the rest of the world like a dose of fucking salts. The native civilizations of the New World were overwhelmed.However, being Spanish and Portugese, the Spanish and Portugese conquerors of Central and South America wanted only to mulct their new dominions of treasure. They didn't exterminate their native subjects; in fact, a Mexican acquaintance of mine once bemoaned his country's ongoing social and political problems as going back to the uncomfortable fusion of mostly-autochthenous proles being ruled by mostly-allocthonous nobles. "You got to kill all your Indians!" he griped, "And we just fucked ours..."

The North Americans did, in fact, largely exterminate the native peoples. Instead of a hybrid civilization of native and European - mestizo - the Norteamericanos are puro Anglo, the lineal descendants of those aggro, technical and tactical hard men who swarmed ashore in 1492 and 1620...

The past three hundred and eighty-some years we've been living off the social and political capital we inherited from our European procreators. So it's not surprising that, as a nation, we are both aggressive and self-involved. The people who created America weren't interested in hearing what Asians, Africans or native Americans had to say. They were interested in taking from those people what was good for them; what was theirs was theirs and what was yours was...negotiable.

2. We are in the midst of an extreme endmember of a Great Power cycle, in which our country is disproportionately powerful and engaged in global fiddling; we don't have the perspective to see ourselves in context regarding this - it seems like we're the Global Bully and always have been. Prior to 1945 our national aggressiveness was pretty much taken up with all that native American extermination I was talking about. We fought the British (to get free of the Daddy - all kids go through that), the French (just because), the Algerians (because they were pissing us off), the Mexicans (for the same reason we killed all the native Americans - they had some land we wanted), each other (over African slaves, which most of the white people fighting didn't much like, either), the Spanish (to prove we could) and the Filipinos (because they were brown and they had some land we wanted). Pretty small potatoes, really, and when you look at what the British, French and Germans were up to at the same time, well...we weren't much of a bully.By the 20th Century, though, we were throwing our weight around pretty good in our neighborhood; the Central Americans got pretty sick of the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps by 1939, I can tell you. But it was WW2 and the resulting Cold War that really got us in the global meddling business. Suddenly the entire world was a combat zone; it was us, eyeball-to-eyeball with the godless Commies. And remember, the old European powers who had been doing all the dirty work in the Third World hustings?

Gone, baby.

No more British imperial satraps to murder a couple of hundred thousand Singhalese. Suddenly a pipsqueak popinjay in some craptacular principality a zillion miles from anywhere was a Major Diplomatic Incident. Suddenly the CIA was lurking everywhere, funding plots and plotters, assassinating dictators and generally meddling in other people's business.And when you are the global economic powerhouse and defender of the West? Your armies and navies are busy, busy...

Paul Kennedy, in his work "The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers", describes the process by which nation-states accumulate economic, political and military power, use that power to extend their geopolitical reach, eventually over-reach themselves (the term Kennedy uses is "imperial overstretch"), and then decline. Because we are in the "stretch" (or possibly in the early stages of "overstretch") we see ourselves as this colossus, bestriding the narrow world and seemingly fighting everywhere and endlessly.

But, in fact, the entire period of this "Imperial America" has been less than a human lifetime. And nowhere is there any indication that the nation trewed up in it has the moral, social, political or economic desire or will to continue this domination any sustained period of time.


3. The great imperial powers of the past profited (in the selfish sense) from something we generally lack: the social belief that they were literally superior to those they ruled. Human history until the last half of the 20th Century was pretty kind to conquerors. Attacking, overwhelming and ruling other peoples was considered the natural order of things. The conqueror was the better man, the conquered the inferior, branded by God and Nature with the forehead-L for Loser.From the earliest days of "civilization" (and by that I mean the coagulation of humans into organized social groups: farming communities, towns, cities, city-states, nations and so forth...) the "civilized" had never lacked the innate sense that they were "better"; smarter, more put-together, richer, cleaner, better-smelling than the "uncivilized".

Perhaps the oldest human conflict was between the "farmer" - the human who lived off crops and herds,who needed a fixed abode and a settled society - and the "nomad", who continued in the ancient ways of hunting, gathering and traveling. The farmer needed his "own" land, his "own" animals and plants, and was inevitably going to end up fighting the nomad, whose peregrinations in search of game and wild plants didn't respect the farmer's fields and flocks.To the farmer - and in the sense that we're ALL "farmers", that is, all of our civilizations are the lineal descendants of the first Euphrates River valley townspeople - the nomad is barely human; a wild, dirty, dangerous savage. He appears like the wolf and is hunted like the wolf.

Townspeople like dogs and cats.

But since the extermination of 99.9% of human nomads, and the explosion of written and now electronic communication that has allowed humans to get to know all variety of other human types and ways, the pose of cultural superiority has become increasingly hard to maintain. Certainly there are many people who resist the notion that their ways are not the "best". But, generally speaking, one of the few real changes in global human behavior is the cessation of casual, widely-accepted, offhand racial, social or sexual superiority.

Here's a good example.

More than one hundred years ago someone named Frank Norris wrote a story called "Moran of the Lady Letty" purporting to tell the story of coastal skulduggery in 19th Century California. The villains of the piece are the Chinese "coolies" who crew many of the vessels. The author, clearly sensible of his readership's taste, lets you know right away what you need to know about the "Chinamen": "Cowardly, superstitious rats"; "the evil glint in his slant, small eye..."; "...the yellow devils..."And women? Our heroine, Moran, enters as a self-confident ship captain and holds her own until she falls for our hero, delightfully named Wilbur. Then, in her own words: "I'm not proud and strong and independent...I'm just a woman now, dear..." There's worse to come. Moran is threatened by the eeeeevil coolie Hoang. Let's let our narrator describe the scene:
"Hoang slipped the knife from the sleeve of his blouse. For an instant the old imperiousness, the old savage pride and anger, leapt in Moran's breast - then died away forever. Only a few weeks ago, and she would have fought Hoang without hesitation and without mercy; she would have wrenched a leg from the table and brained him where he stood. But she had learned since to know what it was to be dependent; to rely for protection on someone who was stronger than she; to know her weakness; to know that she was at last a woman, and to be proud of it."
And Moran's reward for her learning, her newfound status as a Real Woman, her enlightenment to the joys of femininity?
"Instinctively she cried out "Mate- mate! Oh mate, where are you? Help me!" and Hoang's knife nailed the words within her throat."
Chinky-chinky Chinaman bad! Woman weak! White man ruler of the Earth! Got it?This sort of appalling crap was common currency in this country until well into the 1950's and 1960's. The notion that "civilized" white people were the natural masters of Chinamen, wogs, niggers, darkies of all sorts, dagoes, heatherns...well, it was just the natural way of the world. And with that way came the natural consequence: the willingness, even the eagerness, to take up the White Man's Burden. The notion of an American Empire would have seemed as natural as the British and French and Roman empires that preceded it.

But to proclaim an American Empire is to meet with loud and angry rebuttals. Outside of the C.H.U.D. wing of the Republican Party it is nearly impossible to hold this sort of opinion, support the ideal of Empire, out loud today. The old, formal, racist and imperialist rationales are almost completely discredited. The idea that a formal American "empire", where Americans physically rule over the ignorant, dusky heathen foreigners, cannot be intellectually justified by today's standards.

So by all rights, we should be a nation of interested bystanders, lending money and a patient ear when needed to our foreign friends in their difficult times, but maintaining our physical force and geopolitical influence only for our truly strategic national objectives, as decided by the People in Congress is open, informed debate? Why doesn't this happen?

Why are American troops posted so many places overseas? Why do American soldiers so often fight what, truthfully, should be other nations' civil wars and domestic uprisings? How can you make the American public - the notional "ruler" of their own country - so "isolated and blindered" as to support the prosecution of so many piddling, profitless foreign wars and police actions since 1980? Lebanon and Grenada in 1983, Panama in 1989, Kuwait in 1991, Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo in the 1990's, Iraq and Afghanistan in the Oughts?

That's the subject of our next post.

Night Shift

I'm trying to figure out whether it's better to try and get four hours sleep or just fuck it and drive on and pull the all-nighter. Safety briefing at 2:30am, traffic control in place at 3:40, drillers set up at 4:00. With luck I'll be pulling away from the site some time around noon.

And then it's home, childrearing and ending the day at Timbers v. Vancouver at 7pm.

No guts, no glory.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Field Day

I'm living a sort of good-news-bad-news joke today.The bad news is that the business picture for my business hasn't gotten any better so, as advertised, my employer has cut the staff hours down to 24 per week.Working - or not working - a three-day week pretty much sucks. Getting by on 60% of your normal income isn't a good thing, either. But there's not much I can do about it at the moment, anyway, except try and look at the good-news aspect, which is that if I am going to have to take a day off without pay, today was a good day for it. The weather is gorgeous and my little boy's "Field Day" was today, so I got to go over and play with him and his little kindergarten classmates as they raced and jumped and wriggled and were otherwise as energetic and adorable as a clowder of kittens.After Field Day I went and had a delicious leisurely lunch at the Little Red Bike Cafe, absolutely a Cool Thing in North Portland, and spent the next several hours doing household chores, making phone calls to try and reduce our spending on things like insurance, cable TV and the Internet, and re-reading Diane Gabaldon's entertaining "Outlander", as much fun now as it was when I first read it several years ago. Watched part of a truly bizarre Johnny Weismuller "Jungle Jim" movie on TCM and taped the UEFA Champions League Final - I haven't watched it in hopes of luring Brent and his current inamorata Heidi over to see it this weekend, but...go, Barca!And then sat down to post this.At some point today a friend from this blog, Charles Gittings, is going to try and drop in. He's passing through between Seattle and California, where he's getting some medical work done, and his situation got me thinking of medicine, health care and the contretemps surrounding "health care reform".I think, and have thought for some time, that the way we distribute and pay for our medicine in this country is beyond flawed. It is, quite literally, insane. The notion that sickness and injury need to somehow become profit for everyone involved except the sick or injured person, from the insurers to the doctors to the hospitals, clinics, laboratories and hospices...that's lunacy. It's like making war for profit, or making love for profit. The incentives for misbehavior are legion, and the restraints on any sort of mischief, well...Atul Gawande has a good piece up at the New Yorker that looks at this as exemplified by the little town of MacAllen, Texas. It's not pretty, and it should make you think.

The bottom line is that sick people or injured people are going to need care. And only the most over-rich communities can afford such care without some limits on the amount and the cost. So in some way that care will be rationed. At the moment we have chosen to ration care by income. If you are wealthy, you can afford care without limit. Make a living wage and hold down a decent job - and remain relatively healthy - and you can still afford a lavish regime of treatmeent for your ailments.

Become old, or sick, or unemployed...well, one hopes that Illness will be merciful and Death will be kind.That seems fundamentally unjust. Does the elderly woman dying in her broken bed in her unheated shack love her life less than the elderly woman in her soft sheets and elegant bedroom? We seem to believe so, for we have set up a system that punishes the poor and rewards the wealthy. One suspects that this is a reflection of our political system, which empowers the powerful and disenfranchises the powerless.I wish I saw a change in the future. I do not. The forces arracyed against such a change are simply too strong.Oh, and the pictures are all from the Astor School 2009 Field Day. Go, kindergartners!

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

El Baile de Abrigo de Burbuja

Holiday posting in the works. Until then, please enjoy Little Miss' antic Dance of the Bubble Wrap:
Big fun.

Friday, May 22, 2009


Twenty-six years ago this October I spent a long half hour under some sort of Caribbean bush with a man about my age. We didn't have much to say. And he couldn't chat much, anyway, being dead.

I didn't know, and never learned, who he was, or how he had come to that lonely little hole, under the roadside bush, to be killed defending his hardscrabble little island from the power and the glory of the United States of America. But there he was. Twenty-something years of diapers and lullabies, stories and tears and hugs, schoolbooks, scoldings, ideas and ideals, love and fear and hate and hope had come down to this; face-down in his scattered effluvia, eventually to be dragged away and tipped into a hole and covered up like trash.

His place at the table forever vacant, his memory slowly fading.

I'm here, today, with my wife and my children and my house safe around me. And a lot of that was because of the willingness of my people to fight - in the Revolution, against slavery, against fascism - and, yes, to die.

But I'll bet that if you could have asked him, he probably would have asked for nothing more.

And, as always:

"It seems to me that the VERY best thing for the majority of Americans would be to think of this Memorial Day not as time reserved for barbeques and softball in the park, but as the time it took a 19-year-old private to bleed out, alone amid the dying crowd in the grass before the wall at Fredricksburg.

The time it took a husband and father to convulse his way into death from typhus in the tent hospital outside Santiago de Cuba.

The time that the battalion runner, a former mill hand from Utica, New York, spent in a shell hole in the Argonne staring at the rest of his life drizzling out of his shattered legs.

The time it took for the jolting trip down the Apennines to the CCP, unfelt by the father of three because of the jagged rip in his gut wall that killed him that morning.

The time required to freeze a high school kid from Corvallis, Oregon, to the parched high ground above the Yalu River.

The time it took for the resupply bird to come for the plastic bag that contained what had been a young man from the Bronx who would never see the Walt Frazier he loved play again.

The time taken up by the last day in the life of a professional officer whose fiance' will never understand why she died in a "vehicular accident" in the middle of a street in Taji.

I've been proud to be a soldier, and don't kid myself that there will be a day when the killer ape "studies war no more". But the modern view of war as video entertainment for the masses sickens me. Every single fucking human being needs to have it driven into his or her forehead with a steel nail that every single day in every single war some person dies a stupid, meaningless death that snuffs out the world in a moment. That those empty eyes zipped inside a bag or covered by a bloody blanket were the windows to an entire universe, once.

That the price we pay for forging our national will is paid in the unlived futures of those we kill and those of us who die to make it so.

Maybe then we'd be sure of what we want to achieve before we reopen the doors of the Temple of Janus."

Where's Flaco?

In honor of working late on a sunny holiday Friday:The Mavericks always kick ass, but the version to get is the one from the CD, with Flaco Jimenez purely kicking some Tejano ass off the accordian.

Just as a by the way, did you ever consider the possibility the folks in northern Mexico are the Ten Lost Tribes of Poland? Because norteño?

Polka music. Solid fuckin' polka.

I shit you not.

Two, three, four..!!

Thursday, May 21, 2009

An Old Song

In the blossom-land Japan
Somewhere, thus an old song ran:Said a warrior to a smith,
"Hammer me a sword forthwith.
Make the blade
Light as wind on water laid;
Make it long
As wheat at harvest song,
Supple, swift
As a snake, without rift,
Full of lightnings, thousand-eyed!
Smooth as silken cloth & thin
As the web that spiders spin,
And merciless as pain & cold."

"On the hilt what shall be told?"

"On the sword's hilt, my good man,"
Said the warrior of Japan,
"Trace for me
A running lake, a flock of sheep,
And one who sings her child to sleep."Yehoash (Solomon Bloomgarden)

Watership Down 2: Judgement Day

Because when the Black Rabbit of Inle' writes your name on the're going to know the full meaning of "shock and awe".

(Note: No deep thoughts here. Just browsing Youtube over lunch and found this. The Japanese capacity to a) create incredibly detailed, gorgeous graphic images has survived from the time of the Shogunate, and b) take nearly anything, regardless of the grimness of its real-world sexual or violent content, and shove cute furry animals into it, are frikkin' wonderful, and I mean that in the "full of wonder" sense, not the "wonderful" sense. Rabbits versus camels in the desert.

Go figure. As Hazel would say: for El-ahrairah to cry.)

A House Divided

In part of her typically perceptive comment on a preceding post about the often-oxymoron that is "military intelligence", the Wanderer's Daughter asked; "Here's the thing: I love my country. I do! It's a beautiful country. There are many ways in which I love my country. But, how did we get so isolated and blindered? The horror. How do we break out of this inward-gazing cycle?"

I responded by commenting in return that she had an excellent question, and one that we should discuss.

And between then and now I came across Glenn Greenwald's most excellent discursion on the whole issue of the American way of - and, in particular, our prediliction for - war.

He sums the whole magilla up pretty succinctly here:
We never go more than a few years without some kind of a direct war, and are always waging covert and indirect ones. American presidents are inherently "war presidents."

That's why this media construct that things are different for "war presidents" -- we have to give "war presidents" greater power and leeway; demand less transparency and accept more secrecy; acquiesce to abridgments of civil liberties when "America is at war"; and allow them the right to imprison people indefinitely with no trials even beyond "war zones" -- is so manipulative and misleading. It implies that "America at war" is some sort of unusual and temporary circumstance rather than what it is: our permanent state of affairs. In perfect Orwellian fashion, our allies can easily become our enemies (Saddam Hussein, Manuel Noriega, Mujahideen precursors to Al Qaeda) and our enemies can just as easily become our allies (Iraqi Sunnis, Gadaffi), but what never changes is our status as a war-fighting nation.
This hit me like a blow to the chest. In fact, most of my adult life my country has been fighting someone. Vietnam when I was a schoolboy through high school, Grenada, Panama, Serbia, the Somali clans, Afghanistan and Iraq while I was a soldier and still, now that my own son is a schoolboy.

We seem to have no limit to our willingness to spill blood and spend treasure on war, far beyond the limits even of our Great Power rivals. Why? And is there something fundamentally different about us, us as a nation and us as a people, that creates this limitless willingness to fight?

I want to talk about this - where do you think we should start?

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Unexpected Largesse

Remember how I told you that Birthday Week was over?

Well, okay. Sorta. But yesterday morning we shared a delightful surprise left over from Birthday Week: Grandma and Grandpa Chief's box of prezzies arrived for both little peeps.We all liked the books, though I suspect I know where "The Seven Wonderful Cats" comes from, Mom...But the big successes were different for each child.Big Peeper loved his Christmassy nightcap, twirling the tassel-end around like a vaudeville villian's moustaches, and even wearing it to bed that night, as shown on TV.Little girl, however, spurned her snowboarder hat and went for the little wooden duck, to the point of insisting on taking it with her to daycare where sister-diva-rival Baby Ryan and young Bubba were to be overawed by Missy's largesse. And here she is! Looking appropriately mysterous and alluring.So thanks, Grandma and Grandpa Chief!

Monday, May 18, 2009

Balaam's Ass

My friend Ranger over at Rangeragainstwar has a couple of good posts up about the sort of idiocy that happens when you try and fight an American war in central Asia.

I read them just moments after reading this at Pat Lang's Sic Semper Tyrannis and realized that I had to steal it outright and reprint it just to point up the real problem we're dealing with; Middle Easterners and central Asians are not Americans.

They have different ways of doing things. Middle Eastern and central Asian problems - to be really solved - need Middle Eastern and central Asian solutions. To figure out a solution to a problem over there by expecting to make them into little Americans with bullets and missiles is worse than a crime, it is a mistake.

It is no different that beating a Pashtun to death hissing "Confess! Confess! We know you are a rabbit!"

Plus, frankly, I needed a funny, and this is a funny story. It's worth checking the comments over at Lang's site for more funny and pointed stories about "intelligence" services and the stuff they do.

Anyway, so here is "The Intelligence Olympics"
The Olympic Committee decided to hold a special series of games to know which was the world's best intelligence service. The most heavily weighted event which was to be a kind of treasure hunt. They all assembled in front of a woodline. In front of the teams there were several UN referees in white coveralls with blue helmets and a stack of cages in each of which there was a white rabbit.

The head UN boffin held up a rabbit and said that it would be released into the woods behind him and that after 15 minutes the first team chosen at random would go in after it. The team that came back with a live rabbit in the shortest time would win the event.

The rabbit went in. 15 minutes passed and the KGB team went in after it. They could be heard thrashing about and eventually emerged with the rabbit in 35 minutes.

The next team was the French DGSE. They came back with the rabbit in 10 minutes. (The rabbit looked strangely content).

Next was the turn of the Mossad. They were back in in 13 minutes loudly proclaiming that they were "the best."

The CIA never found the rabbit.

Finally it was the turn of the Syrian Mukhabarat (the secret police). A half hour passed, 45 minutes, then an hour. The UN people went in to find them. They went down one steep slope into the valley bottom, then up another rugged incline to the top of the ridge. From the height, they could see the three Syrians who were at the bottom standing in a sandy road. They had captured a large animal. The UN men crept down, hiding the while in the bushes until they were close enough to see and hear.

The Syrians had found a Nazarene donkey. (The kind with a cross marked in the fur of its back). One of the sergeants had a grip on the head while the other sergeant beat the beast's hindquarters with a stick.

The captain was whispering to it, "Confess, confess, we KNOW you are a rabbit..." ("I'tarif, I'tarif, na'ref annak arnab.")
And we think we're so cunning that we can hustle the East?

I'tarif, Itarif...

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Divvus Claudius

The Roman emperor Claudius is somewhat an enigmatic figure.

What we know of him comes principally from that delightfully scurrilous work "De vita Caesarum", better known as "The Twelve Caesars" by Gaius Suetonius Tranquillus.

Suetonius, as he is better known, wrote about Julius and the next eleven emperors in the early 2nd Century CE, almost a century or more after the men themselves had lived. He is said to have had access to many official records, and historical accounts contemporary to the men he wrote of, but has also been accused of delighting in backstairs gossip and never neglecting a good story even when it clashed with other, more reliable, accounts.

In Claudius' case this is fairly crucial, since the coverage of this period in the other primary source, the Annals of Tacitus, has been lost. So we're left with the Claudius of Suetonius; a pantaloon, foolish and distracted, a greedy, lustful, stupid, cowardly moron who was largely ruled by his wives (a pretty unsavory lot themselves) and his freedmen. In the absence of any first-person account of the man and his life, we are left mostly with the Suetonius' dirty-doings-in-high-life version.As Rumsfeld of Ephesus would have said; the absence of evidence is not always the evidence of absence. The problem with this National Enquirer version of the fourth Caesar is that it is often at odds with the physical accomplishments of the man, who finished the Julian conquest of Britain, commissioned several notable public works, reformed and refined the public administration and is considered purely on those grounds to have been a relatively effective ruler. His extant writing is lucid, its reasoning as sophisticated as a well-educated Roman of his class should have displayed. The portrait that emerges from the bits of the man we can find outside the histories is more than a little at odds with the idiot within them.

This paradox enabled Robert Graves, the British translator and author, the freedom to construct an entirely reconstructed Claudius for his two-volume work of historical fiction, "I, Claudius" and "Claudius the God". He limns the emperor as a survivor; cunning and intelligent, feigning his incapacity for self-defense and then for political advantage.

In his most fascinating (and historically unlikely) diversion, he imagines Claudius as a secret republican. Disgusted with the arbitrary and capricious rule of his imperial peers, he wishes to divest himself of the purple, to revive the Senate and invigorate the People of Rome, returning the state to the less placid but more energetic condition of a Republic.

Why am I thinking of some dead and gone Roman, even if that Roman is an emperor?

Perhaps it's just the hint of madness wafting around our foreign adventurism?Nah. We jumped the "What-the-fuck-batshit-crazy-idea-is-this" Great White Shark of foreign policy lunacy back when we invaded the Middle East because Osama bin Laden dared us to.Is it because we're actually debating - debating - the notion that we should be hiding things from our own public that our enemies already know (because, y'know, we, like, DID them to them) because it would be bad for us to actually see the things that our leaders ordered our soldiers to do in our name?

Or doing things like making war on people who live in countries we are "allied with" without a warrant? Or sending 30,000 new solders into a land war in central Asia without a clue what our objective is?

Nah. Shit, anyone who thought we are still the smart guy in the white hat in the Middle East had spent waaaayyyy too much time hanging out with the "Small Wars Journal" and "Abu Muquwama" crowd.

[And as a sidenote, anyone remember the guy who called himself "MSR Roadkill" (and later, "soldiernolongerinIraq") from the old Intel Dump? Smart guy, good correspondent, but the man had a...mmmm...let's call it a certain blind spot for some aspects of American history. I'm thinking of the time he termed the American colonization of the Philippines an "exercise in tutelary democracy". The conquest of the Philippines was a lot of things, but teaching Filipinos about democracy it was not. That may have happened along the way (along with a hell of a lot of death, concentration camps and waterboarding) but only in the way that a burglar helps you enjoy a nice cross-ventilation by breaking your windows out. We may end up doing the Iraqis and the Afghans a favor or two in the end, but I suspect that if you asked them, they'd gladly give that little helping hand a pass, thanks.]

Is it, as now appears apparent, that our national political leadership is, for the most part, fully bought and paid for by the medical, insurance, pharmaceutical, financial and banking industries?Hmmm. That gets closer to it.

Because the first couple of issues troubling though they are, are "foreign policy" and by definition, largely about foreigners. Americans have trouble picturing foreigners as "people", and as a result we often treat them as though they were not but something pesky and annoying, like jock itch. Americans have trouble seeing through their Yankee Doodle beer goggles at things that deal with what we do to foreigners, and so the results can be sui generis, like the dry-gulching and murder of Cheyenne women and children in "winter campaigns", the napalming of villages for the mistake of being there or the interment of innocent American citizens for the crime of being Japanese (and they were all slanty-eyed and kinda brown so they were LIKE foreigners).

But the last is a gen-u-wine red-blooded, born-on-the-Fourth-of-July kind of American problem. The figures don't lie; our nation has been getting more divided between rich and poor with the rich getting more of the riches, less secure, less provident for those of us still working for a living. Deregulation, or NONregulation, in the case of things like credit-default swaps (which the regulators didn't even understand, let alone know how to parse) has led to a bubble economy which benefited the rentier class and the financial geniuses that designed and ran the Ponzi scheme until some other fucking genius figured out that real estate doesn't just increase in value, every day, forever. While the manufacturing and agricultural jobs - people making and growing stuff - continue to flee, leaving us increasingly at the mercy of the people who drill and produce our fuel, grow our crops, make our steel and autos and televisions.

And health care?

Please! If you sat down and thought about it with both hands you couldn't come up with a system designed to produce a worse outcome in the long run that insurance and health care for profit! Think about it. Both have relatively fixed costs for the basic services. So how do you make more money if you're selling medicine (or insurance) to sick people? How does any business make money?

You sell less for more, of course. Or you sell the same, only charge more. Or you charge the same but provide less.

You wonder why your insurance company fights you for every claim? Why that hospital Motrin cost you $29.50?


And the outcry? The sullen storm of wrath of the American people? Sick of being lied to, sick of being cheated? Sick of being led by people whose only real, central belief is in their own power, power at any price?


Near the end of "Claudius the God", Graves has the aging Claudius engineer several plots to return his Rome to a republic. They all fail. Graves' point to this, which has no basis in history or what we know of the actual man's beliefs or career, is to emphasize that when a formerly free nation has accepted servitude for too long, it cannot be returned to self-rule. The people have lost not just the ability, but the desire, to play an active part in their own destinies. Politically, they are dead men walking.

Claudius himself speaks Graves' words: "by dulling the blade of tyranny, I reconciled Rome to the monarchy".

In a sense there is a "happy" ending to the story of Claudius. His empire lived prosperously for several hundred more years. It produced masterworks of art and literature, architecture and governance. As, in the end, we may be remembered for as well.

But I fear that if we cannot muster the outrage now, today, at the combination of foolishness abroad and venality and greed at home, we may walk beneath the shadow of the statue of Claudius and peep about, to find ourselves dishonorable graves.

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Whisper of the Axe

The house is quiet this Wednesday morning. The rain, which rumbled and hissed over our heads most of the night has ceased and the sky has cleared; there's even a hint of dawn over the houses across Amherst Street. I'm learning to enjoy my wife's upstairs workstation. Birdsong and light instead of the cold arachnidenous gloom. The coffee is hot, blatant in my mouth cut with the silky creaminess of the half-and-half.

I have a busy day today, finishing up work on a state highway project. And most of my week looks pretty busy as well.

But that's becoming unusual.

My business, like all businesses associated with development, construction and building, is in trouble. We're losing money, or holding our own. We're a small firm, and though we don't have the ugly overhead costs of some of the larger outfits, we also don't have the deep pockets. We're running harder to chase less work, and so are our competitors.

So I go to work now hoping to see new jobs on the schedule, hoping to see my week - shortened to four days - full to bursting with reasons for my employer to keep employing me. Fearing the emptiness of a blank week on my Outlook calendar. That fear is one reason I've been less and less motivated to post here. I'm worried, and worry is stopping my mouth with fear.

This should he a happy time. We're enjoying a beautiful spring. My little boy is learning to read and write, to play chess, growing strong and smart and loving. My little girl is a wonder; bubbling over with laughter like a ravenhaired spring of happiness whose reach lengthens every day. My wife is a lovely companion, helpmeet and partner, working, playing and loving me and her children. I look around me and I feel all bliss, like I could close my eyes and float weightless in a sea of love.

And then I cringe, feeling the cold kiss of that blade, the razor-edge of fright. What happens if business doesn't get better? What happens if my employers need to shed even more cost? Will I lose my job? Can we keep our house? What will happen to us?

My wife is a contractor - my value, as much as the salary I make, is in that I carry the insurance for the entire family - and if I lose my job we all lose our insurance. Now I read the political games the insurance companies, politicians, and pundits are playing about "health care" and my hands fist with anger. THIS is the reality of most people in America, assholes. If I lose my job, if something horrible happens to one of us, we will be devastated; we're one automobile accident away from poverty. And even if not, without insurance, how will I manage my deteriorating knees? Who will pay for Mojo's antidepressants? What about little Miss' dental work? What happens if my big Peeper falls and breaks something?

Who will want to re-hire a fiftyish geologist in an overpopulated geotechnical community, when a dozen can do what I do younger and cheaper?

Is this how the fathers of the Depression felt, looking at their children playing heedless of the ruin around them, feeling the clenching in their guts as they could only stand by helplessly hoping that the axe was whispering to another and not to them? Knowing that if - when - it struck it would cut down the children they loved as well?

There are times I can forget. Times I can join in the happy silliness of my children, or the quiet serenity of my bride, without a thought. But there are other times, and those times are increasingly insistent, when I feel the cold, crisp shiver of fear up my back, the sting of the steel, and I dread the moment that the blade of Hard Times will strike me dead.

Update 5/13 p.m.: Nasty day today. Nasty. Cold wind, driving rain. Rainy hand augering in the painful field. That, and working by myself most of the afternoon gave me way too much time to think about what I posted above.

Please don't feel like I'm buying trouble, or giving up, or curled in a fetal ball whimpering. I work for a good little company, my bosses are good engineers, terrific workers and aggressive marketers. Our overhead is low, we're very lean, and we should have a even shot at the work that's out there.

But...even the best companies don't always come in first. Even the best people don't always get the happy ending. And in this economy it doesn't take much...a missed deadline here, a slightly high proposal fee there...and then you're standing in an office with your hands tightly clenched, the intentionally bland face on the man telling you the bad news designed to defuse the frustration and anger he knows you feel.

Then the stunned drive home. The look on her face when you tell your wife what has happened. The smile papered over her tight eyes and drawn face.

Then the desperate round of fruitless applications. Bills shoved, unpaid, into a file. Slow disappearance of disposable things, slipped out in hopes that the children won't notice. Frightened glances at the shrinking bank balance.

Finally the "family talk". Coaxing a weeping child to choose what toys he can take. Holding back the tears as you touch the woodwork you lovingly crafted in her cheerful little bedroom, now echoing and empty. The truck and the boxes, the crying and the anger...the slow pull away from the curb towards an uncertain future.

One curse of an overactive imagination is the ability to see all this in excruciating detail while standing in a rainy field, under a gray lowering sky.

It may never happen. I will try like hell, I will HOPE like hell, that it never happens.

But right now my fears make it very real to me.

Monday, May 11, 2009

Canzano: If I Did It

The sidebar here at GFT looks different today, because this past weekend two things happened in Portland pro sports.

First, Portland's box (indoor) lacrosse team lost a first-round playoff game to San Jose 20-16.

And then the Lumberjax ownership announced that the game was the last that the team would ever play in Portland.


I'm sorry. I enjoyed the game, I liked the team, despite all the ridiculous bush-league nonsense (the roaring announcer, the ass-shaking "dance team") that went with the events.

But as irking as the entire debacle was, the MOST irking thing was a column that Portland sports columnist John Canzano wrote the next day.
"The LumberJax will cease operating immediately?

Wonderful. Because this city has had enough with skateboarding, riverboarding, and low-level golf and motor sports events. We deserve more than to choke in the nauseous fumes left from those trying to sell us sideshow sports as if they're main events...the sports sediment that floats around the bowl makes Portland feel, and look, like a smaller market than it really is."
I have no problem with Canzano hating the indoor lacrosse game, or the particular team. My beef with the guy is that he spent his entire column slamming the Jax, the NLL and the sport without ever mentioning his own, and his paper's, responsibility for the failure of the franchise and all the other "non-Blazer" professional sports in Portland.


I have never picked up the Oregonian sports page and seen a Jax, or a Timbers, or a AAA Beavers story on the front page above the fold. OK, there's usually one story right before their seasons open and one on opening day/night. Every so often they'll run something about a special event, like a U.S. Soccer match or a visiting team, or an all star game in PDX. But most of the time? Page four, at best, behind the Blazers, pro baseball (critical for all the Mariners fans here...), the NFL draft, NASCAR...Canzano and the O have never accepted their part in building support for local pro sports here. I'm not talking cheerleading, but, damn, man! You have a pro lacrosse team in your town! Isn't that more important sports news that what the hell happened to the Mariners in Seattle? You have a pro soccer team in your town? Shouldn't that be front page news when your NBA team isn't playing?

Canzano could have generated buzz for the Jax. He could have talked about players, trades, game strategies, the connection between the pro game, the big colleges, box lax in Canada, the OSAA and the clubs. He could have badgered the sports editors into doing more features on the club. He didn't. And then, when the team dies, instead of having the tact to shut his piehole, he vomits all over the sports page about how the NLL and the Jax were "muddled and forced" on Portland.

OJ would have been proud.

Sunday, May 10, 2009

An immunity to iocaine powder

Lots of punditry about Afghanistan and Pakistan lately. Is it the Apocalypse? What Should Be Done and Who Should Do It? How can "we" keep "them" from bringing us trouble? Should we fight them there so we don't have to fight them here?

I see this as a pretty simple deal. The real problem of Afghanistan is that any U.S. aims, regardless of what they are or how they are approached, are negated by the realities on the ground.It doesn't matter whether you want to do CT, COIN or full-blown colonialism. For any or all of the above you HAVE to have some sort of viable local social, political and military structures in place. The European colonial powers usually didn't import and entire Western government or military. They typically just knocked off the local leaders in critical positions, filled them with European viceroys and commanders-in-chief, and used the remaining local structures to rule. I understand that even by the late 19th Century there were villagers in India who saw an Englishman once a year or so. The bulk of the troops who did the Imperial policing were native. So were many of the lower civil servants.

So when you admit that "the ANA isn't up to the job", or that the Karzai government is a corrupt, incompetent kleptocracy that "rules" little more than its own offices in Kabul, you pretty much have declared that nothing but an extraordinary, budget-breaking effort will have even a hope of making Afghanistan anything but a chaotic, destroyed tribal chaos.And I would add that the notion of full-on colonialism is an exercise in imperial romanticism. The modern proliferation of automatic weaponry and cheap, simple explosives (for manufacturing bombs, mines and booby-traps) has made colonialism too expensive a proposition for the 21st Century's low-birthrate, risk-averse Western societies. It's a mug's game, which is why the Western Europeans got out of it post-WW2 and the Russians post-Soviet. If you can find a reliable local proxy, great. If not, you're shovelling water.Eventually the Afghans themselves will throw up a Baibur or a Gul Shah or a Tamurlane who will impose as much order as possible on the "country" and drag it a little further into the 21st Century, or as close as the natives of the place want to be.

But to pretend that the U.S. can do this, whether it's thru CT, COIN or magic fairy dust?

Vizzini would have two bits of advice for you: "Inconceivable!" and "Never get involved in a land war in Asia".