Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Tales From The Crapt

The idea that James Cameron has found Jesus' ossuary, while perhaps an interesting idea, instantly triggers the whiff of hype and bullshit. Naturally, as a godless heathen atheist, I just figured, "oh well, another publicity stunt". Nothing to see there. I forget sometimes how seriously religious (as opposed to merely spiritual) people will take even the smallest challenges to their dogma; the catechists waste no time in getting up in arms.

English theologian Justin Thacker puts it simply:

This is not a story that casts doubt on the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ - there are simply too many problems with the evidence presented - but it is a story about the nature of theological truth claims.

These truths are self-involving narratives. In contrast to most archaeological or historical discoveries, whether Jesus actually rose from the dead or not is an event that one cannot take a dispassionate view on. If he did not rise bodily then, to paraphrase St Paul, the Christian faith is utterly pointless. If he did rise bodily, then this vindicates all that he said, and demands that we acknowledge his Lordship over us.

A neutral stance over the bodily resurrection of Christ is not a fair-minded, rational approach; it is a mark of intellectual and personal cowardice. It is for precisely this reason that Richard Dawkins gets so irate. Even he realises that orthodox Christianity is not something one can be anodyne about.

I couldn't agree more, and that is the main reason why I have such impatience with people and politicians who try to straddle the ontological fence; either you believe it or you don't. And while there's certainly plenty of room for people to respectfully disagree -- and even room for agnostics and atheists to have respect for certain aspects of the traditions, cultures, histories, etc. -- there's not much point in trying to reconcile the two primary positions. So if Cameron's mission is to either debunk or confirm, then he had better pack a lunch, because millions of people have archived the names and dates for thousands of years. One Discovery Channel doc isn't going to change anyone's mind.

Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Springtime For Cheney

The suicide bombing at Bagram this morning capped off an extremely interesting week for the normally secretive Big Time. For now, his trusty ward Fredo seems to have taken the week off, while the eminence grise trots about the Pacific Rim, irritating and frustrating young and old alike. It's been quite a show, when you put it all together, as Cheney consistently insists that Britain's drawdown in Iraq -- and concomitant buildup in Afghanistan -- is proof of success. That no one in the American media sees fit to challenge him directly on such an incredible re-interpretation of facts and common sense tells us everything we need to know about how we got to this point.

And mere hours after putting the arm on an increasingly encircled Pervez Musharraf, the Bagram bombing, for which a reason for Cheney to even be at the base in the first place has yet to be plausibly conjured. Conventional wisdom might say that it's so he can get a "first-hand" view, even though, as with Iraq photo-ops, the safe zone is never breached. So for pure reconnaissance purposes, it's obviously better to just let people do their jobs and file their observations periodically. Everything changes when the boss comes by to look over your shoulder.

But the boss also has to have excuses from time to time to justify his excesses and harebrained schemes, his ploys and pretexts. And so it is here -- he shook down Musharraf, who can't reasonably be expected to do much of anything at this point -- the border is a sieve, and both the Pakistani army and the Waziristan civilian areas have sustained too many casualties to push the issue of border incursions and counter-insurgency ops. Musharraf sits on a seething anti-American population of 150 million, his army and intelligence have been in cahoots with Taliban and al Qaeda ringleaders since before 9/11, and Karzai is powerless to ensure security on his side of the border.

But Cheney went anyway, so that he could be seen leaning on Musharraf, who cannot afford to be seen as too compliant, but can also not afford to have a frustrated American public demand drone raids in those border areas. Cheney is a lot of things, but he is certainly not so dumb as not to know that he was very publicly picking a political scab.

So now I'm wondering which sorts of conspiracy theories might arise in the wake of the bombing. Did the ISI give their counterparts across the border a last-second heads-up that a bigwig was going to pass through? Would a deliberate, concerted effort at Bagram necessarily be targeted at a particular person, or is it more valuable to their cause to simply keep ruffling feathers, while showing their own people that they can still poke, that they're not "on the run" anymore? Remember that bin Laden (remember him?) stated a primary goal as inciting us to over-react and over-commit in the Middle East, expending lives and capital and leveraging a disproportionate cost from us. How's that gone so far? And that's not even taking into account this afternoon's Dow dump, and the subsequent panic selling at every major exchange around the world.

Then you have the almost-too-incredible-to-be-believed revelation that our foreign-policy geniuses have basically found a way to triple-cross ourselves, sans lubricant.

To undermine Iran, which is predominantly Shiite, the Bush Administration has decided, in effect, to reconfigure its priorities in the Middle East. In Lebanon, the Administration has coöperated with Saudi Arabia’s government, which is Sunni, in clandestine operations that are intended to weaken Hezbollah, the Shiite organization that is backed by Iran. The U.S. has also taken part in clandestine operations aimed at Iran and its ally Syria. A by-product of these activities has been the bolstering of Sunni extremist groups that espouse a militant vision of Islam and are hostile to America and sympathetic to Al Qaeda.

One contradictory aspect of the new strategy is that, in Iraq, most of the insurgent violence directed at the American military has come from Sunni forces, and not from Shiites. But, from the Administration’s perspective, the most profound—and unintended—strategic consequence of the Iraq war is the empowerment of Iran.


Some of the core tactics of the redirection are not public, however. The clandestine operations have been kept secret, in some cases, by leaving the execution or the funding to the Saudis, or by finding other ways to work around the normal congressional appropriations process, current and former officials close to the Administration said.

A senior member of the House Appropriations Committee told me that he had heard about the new strategy, but felt that he and his colleagues had not been adequately briefed. “We haven’t got any of this,” he said. “We ask for anything going on, and they say there’s nothing. And when we ask specific questions they say, ‘We’re going to get back to you.’ It’s so frustrating.”

The key players behind the redirection are Vice-President Dick Cheney, the deputy national-security adviser Elliott Abrams, the departing Ambassador to Iraq (and nominee for United Nations Ambassador), Zalmay Khalilzad, and Prince Bandar bin Sultan, the Saudi national-security adviser. While Rice has been deeply involved in shaping the public policy, former and current officials said that the clandestine side has been guided by Cheney.

It is not unreasonable in principle to decide that containing Shiism, given its minority demographic across the entirety of Islam, is in the U.S. strategic interest -- if we had made such a decision three years ago. But we have expended many lives, untold billions of dollars, and just about all our wolf cards ensuring that Iraq's new parliamentary government was anchored with a Shi'a power bloc, one led by a nationalist cleric commanding a large militia. How precisely do they plan to start asking for a do-over from all that? It is simply too late.

So instead, they've decided to build another story on their little house of cards. They are allowing themselves to be played by the Saudis at the very least. How else do you figure that any rational person would suppose that working with the country whence 15 of the 19 9/11 hijackers came, to fund radical fundamentalist militia groups from the sect responsible for the most American casualties in Iraq thus far, would somehow be a good idea? Hell, it barely qualifies as an idea, good or bad. We're essentially re-empowering the Salafis and Wahhabis who attacked us in the first place. If this does not demonstrate conclusively that we have no idea what the fuck we are doing there, I seriously don't know what will.

And, like practically every major bad idea that has sprung forth from the diseased forehead of this administration, the wellspring of these cockamamie schemes has been Cheney's office. Working in secret, so much so that even the full list of staff is unavailable to the public (which, you know, pays their fucking salaries and all), completely unaccountable, with a clear-cut strategy not only to accentuate the "unitary executive" theory, but to establish Cheney's OVP as a rump fourth branch of government, answerable only to one man, who may have been goaded just a little further down his private (inflicted on the rest of the world in policy) road to ruin this morning.

The Beck Stops Here

How is it exactly that clowns like this, or Nancy Grace -- carnies who make Tweety Matthews look like Theodore Roosevelt in comparison -- stay on the air? Are there really people so completely empty-headed that they don't know better, yet instead of just vegetating in front of Supernanny, they try to "edify" themselves with shit like this, or the Falafel Factor?

Christ. How many "little Limbaughs" do these morons need, anyway? And while we're at it, extra props to the "Headline" "News" "Network" for keeping it on the air, some sort of affirmative-action program for the mentally challenged, I guess. They're engaged in a race to the bottom with their parent network CNN, and should overtake Fox just in time to help with the ritual smearing of the Democratic nominee next year.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Sins Of The Fathers

Far be it from me to find it anything but amusing to watch Republicans eat their young, but I think the continued Mormon-baiting of Mitt Romney is getting out of hand:

While Mitt Romney condemns polygamy and its prior practice by his Mormon church, the Republican presidential candidate's great-grandfather had five wives and at least one of his great-great grandfathers had 12.

Polygamy was not just a historical footnote, but a prominent element in the family tree of the former Massachusetts governor now seeking to become the first Mormon president.

Romney, who seems to be nothing more or less than your generic moderate pro-business Republican, has to be figuring that he bought himself a real pig in a poke here. He may not have banked on most of America being somewhat unfamiliar with Mormonism, and thus apprehensive.

But hit pieces like this little polygamy number do nobody any favors. Romney, like every mainstream Mormon, has decried the practice, which continues primarily in a couple of heavily inbred enclaves, most famously along the Utah-Arizona border, but also in British Columbia.

The argument over polygamy frequently gets falsely entangled with the gay marriage argument, but they are profoundly different. Polygamy, as practiced by the current FLDS members, is a serious social problem on many levels, from corrupt church leaders monopolizing property and business ownership in the towns, to the grifting of the state welfare system. Not to mention the inbreeding, child rape, coerced marriages, and hundreds of displaced teenaged boys, thrown out of their homes and towns because they are viewed as competition for child brides by the old perverts running the towns. The two issues are in no way comparable, and any idiot who brings up polygamy as a response to the notion of legalizing gay marriage should instantly be branded an intellectual charlatan.

How far one wishes to take this depends on one's agenda. If Mitt Romney is responsible for the FLDS, then Comb-Over Tony Scalia is responsible for Opus Dei (which he is actually a member of) and other secretive Catholic organizations. And everyone is South Carolina owes Al Sharpton an apology for keeping Strom Thuromond in office for roughly 74 years. (Actually, South Carolina owes the entire country an apology for that.)

Genealogists have found that civil rights activist the Rev. Al Sharpton is a descendent [sic] of a slave owned by relatives of the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, a newspaper reported Sunday.


According to the newspaper, the genealogists found documents establishing that Sharpton's great-grandfather, Coleman Sharpton, was a slave owned by Julia Thurmond, whose grandfather was Strom Thurmond's great-great-grandfather. Coleman Sharpton was later freed.

I'm certainly not sticking up for Romney as a candidate -- he needs to start getting his story straight, for better or worse, on where he stands on issues. Even a lightly moistened finger to the wind should tell him that the "repeal Roe v. Wade tomorrow" crowd, while intensely committed (oy), do not represent any sort of serious real-world constituency. Just take a stand and stick with it, pal.

No, it's not Romney's political stances that prompt one to come to his defense, but I think these cheap personal smears add nothing to any serious debate. Mormonism is indeed a cult. So are Catholicism, Hinduism, and all the rest. There are manifestly silly and ridiculous things to be found in the backstories of all of them, as well as the ugly episodes of racial and sectarian bloodshed. The only difference between a "cult" and an "organized religion" is money, power, longevity, the way that the difference between a "language" and a "dialect" is an army.

The very first sentence of the AP article -- indeed, the first thirteen words -- should have been enough. That tells you what Mitt Romney's position on the practice of polygamy is. He's been married for 37 years to the same woman, and is running against two multiply-married men. That's about all we need to know about that subject.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Get The Flock Out

As expected, the dearth of reliable wingnut puppets has the evangelicals huddling strategically, despite the best kneepad-laden feints of Saints Johnny and Rudy. I guess we can take it as a given that they also don't yet trust the inevitability viability of an Ave Maria Domino's Buttery Crust Brownback preznitency. It remains unclear whether that's more of a commentary on Brownback himself, or the American public starting to get wise to their grift, which just by the law of averages has to happen eventually, you'd think.

A group of influential Christian conservatives and their allies emerged from a private meeting at a Florida resort this month dissatisfied with the Republican presidential field and uncertain where to turn.

The event was a meeting of the Council for National Policy, a secretive club whose few hundred members include James Dobson of Focus on the Family, the Rev. Jerry Falwell of Liberty University and Grover Norquist of Americans for Tax Reform. Although little known outside the conservative movement, the council has become a pivotal stop for Republican presidential primary hopefuls, including George W. Bush in 1999, when he was governor or Texas.

I always love how these euphemistically-titled clubs of empowered assholes pronounce themselves to be operating in the national interest -- and then meet and plan secretly. There's not even the pretense of actual debate, just a mission of pushing an agenda, whether we like it or not. I figure if God had wanted me to let a dickhead like James Dobson push me around, he'd have made me one of the unquestioning plankton clogging his stadium-churches. I hear there's a lot of tail to be had if a guy can pull off a seersucker suit, so there's that.

"Right now there is still a vacuum among conservative Republicans," said Gary Bauer, a Christian conservative who was a Republican primary candidate in 2000. Conservatives, he said, "want a more provable conservative who also is demonstrating that they can put together the resources necessary to prevail." He declined to comment on the Amelia Island meeting.

A spokesman for Brownback said he would not comment on the senator's presentation to the council, citing its rules about strict confidentiality. Several others who attended his speech said he received heavy applause for his emphasis on restricting abortion and amending the Constitution to ban same-sex marriage.

But others objected to his support for a temporary worker program for immigrants, and several faulted Brownback for touching only briefly on the threat of Islamic terrorists, an increasingly central focus of the council and many social conservative groups since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

Norquist, a member of the Council for National Policy, said he remained open to any of the three candidates who spoke to the group or, for that matter, to Romney. He argued that with the right promises, any of the four could redeem themselves in the eyes of the conservative movement despite their past records, just as some high school students take abstinence pledges after having had sex.

"It's called secondary virginity," he said. "It is a big movement in high school and also available for politicians."

I agree with Grover on the benefits of secondary virginity. It gives them all another chance to go fuck themselves.

For Your Consideration

I don't normally post too many pictures of hot chicks, and frankly, I think that's a damned shame. Plus, I need to decompress (not to mention shower vigorously) a bit after reading up on people (and I use that term loosely) such as Pat Dullard Dollard, and I assume you do too.

So to commemorate Oscar® night, enjoy a nice photo of Penelope Cruz (who's not exactly on my "to do" list, but still fairly hot) and her even hotter sister, courtesy of Hollywood Tuna:

¡Viva las chicas!

Agents Of Fortune, Part 3: Tortured Logic

So we've taken a look at the real-world issues being both reflected and perhaps inspired by the torture-porn agitprop of 24, and the clear-cut emotional problems informing both the oeuvre and the political statements of people like Joel Surnow and Pat (Young Americans) Dollard. Let's recap:

Surnow has willfully evaded criticism even from Army generals on the portrayal of the utility of "coercive interrogation", and even posits that he disagrees with professionals who have evaluated such things firsthand. He knows better, apparently, because he's tight with Rush Limbaugh, gets quoted by John Yoo and Michael Chertoff, and is ingratiating himself rather quickly with the neoclown shitterati. Good luck with all that, Chief; the reviews thus far of Surnow's lame conservatard knock-off of The Daily Show have been uniformly withering, even from fellow neoclowns.

Dollard, while not (yet) having the rightard pedigree, because even they blanch for a second at welcoming drug-addled porn monkeys to the tribe (except, of course, in the case of Fred Barnes), has certainly outdone Surnow in the "creepy sociopath" department. Whether it's sticking up a pharmacy and doing lines of coke on the side of an armored troop carrier (in Iraq, with American troops), making a film of himself smoking crank and ass-fucking his roommate's girlfriend (with the roommate himself doing the play-by-play), or turning his Iraq odyssey into a snuff-film montage (featuring lovely scenes such as a marine holding a stick with an Iraqi's head impaled on it) explicitly designed (in Dollard's own words) to desensitize Americans to the horrors of war, there is at least no mistaking whatsoever just what Dollard is all about.

See, when I read about people like that, especially at this stage of the game, when even staunch conservatives have given up on Fredo's Folly, I draw a certain conclusion about what these individuals' psychological motivations might be, that they express and project their issues in such a fashion.

Our good friend DoughBob Load Pants™, always looking for the elusive edge on the rhetorical bowling ball, draws an entirely different conclusion to the now-infamous New Yorker profile on 24 creator and Oxycontin Limbaugh BFF Joel Surnow.

THE NEW YORKER reported this week that the dean of West Point took it upon himself to help put an end to abusive — i.e. torturous — interrogation techniques. He and some of his leading interrogation experts and instructors flew to La-La Land to talk to the producers of Fox's hit show, "24." Army Brig. Gen. Patrick Finnegan told the show's creative team that his students were learning terrible lessons about the utility of brutal violence in interrogations. "The kids see it," Finnegan complained to the article's author, "and say, 'If torture is wrong, what about 24?' "

It didn't take long for the predictable mockery to start. "This controversy is perhaps the most off-the-wall example of the 'power of television' we've ever heard," chortled the editors of Broadcasting & Cable.

Ah, they "chortled", did they? The dean of the pre-eminent military academy of the United States comes to a Hollywood set, with professional associates who have first-hand knowledge of what they speak, to sit down with the writers and producers of an inexplicably popular TV show, to brief them specifically on how seriously they feel members of the armed forces are taking their breathless exhortations to extract information by any means necessary -- and the PR arm of the network owners "chortled"? Well, of course they did. Guess General Killjoy was talking out his uniform then. I, for one, am chastened by such "chortling". I think we all needed a hearty guffaw.

But of course, Jonah's real point is almost never in the logline. It becomes clear very quickly that the hilarious twist in his (to put it charitably) argument is that this is all just another example of librul hypocrisy. I know, I know. You rub your eyes, reread that, and say, "What the hell?". I sympathize.

This is a bit of a reversal from the pre-9/11 kulturkampf. Complaints about the coarsening of the culture used to come mostly from the right. Bob Dole even staked much of his 1996 presidential bid on the promise to eradicate the "nightmares of depravity" parading across the nation's screens.

In response to such criticism, Hollywood liberals threw up clouds of rhetorical fog. One retort was that movies and TV shows can't really influence people all that much. This strikes me as a bizarre position for an industry that makes so much money from advertising and product placements and whose self-described artists see themselves as "raising awareness" about everything from AIDS to the snail darter.

Another response — favored by former Motion Picture Assn. of America President Jack Valenti — was populist dudgeon. "Who are you to tell America what's good for them?" they'd squeal, making fun of the prudes and scolds. We saw some of this after Janet Jackson's "wardrobe malfunction." "You've never seen a breast before?" they'd titter.

Pretty slick, huh? Because Dole and his fellow pecksniffs tried to rope the Cletus vote with their "fambly valyews" trope, warning ominously of the dire onslaught of nudity, sex, and naughty, naughty language back in the innocent Clenis era, it is hypocritical for people to say "what the fuck" when Keifer Sutherland breaks some asshole's fingers to get him to talk, or some swarthy villain breaks out the Makita. During the "family hour", mind you. Oh, won't someone please think of the children?

I actually appreciate the existence of doofuses like DoughBob; he makes our jobs so much easier. He iterates quite clearly that a transgression on decency is a transgression on decency, across the board. Thus we can show arthroscopic cameras chasing bullet patterns, and hear graphic, excruciating detail of various bodily fluids splattered all over crime scenes on the eighty-four current CSI franchises, but the world comes apart when our impressionable chilluns catch a quarter-second glimpse of a side-shot of Janet Jackson's titty.

Or more specifically, her nipple. This is what is so arbitrarily moronic about our network broadcast code. You can show big bouncing titties, as scantily clad as you like (and believe me, I like). You can show nipples, as long as they're male nipples, which may appeal to the censorious prudes, but not me. But you cannot show the identical protuberance on a woman's chest, not even for a split second, or all hell breaks loose and Congress actually shows up to work to grandstand for six weeks. You can show Dennis Hastert with his shirt off (shudder), but not Heidi Klum, even though Hastert's tits are bigger. Great priorities.

Anyway, Pantload continues to muck up the issue with his "hypocritical libruls suddenly loves them some censorship" bullshit:

Yet the most effective response from Hollywood was to raise the specter of censorship. "Censorship" is arguably the second-most-powerful scare word in the nation today, after "racism."

But the joke's on all of us because we're all in favor of censorship; we just get clever about what we call censorship. For example, unless you think profanity, violence and hard-core sex should be legal on broadcast television during the after-school time slot, you're for censorship. We're also all for criticizing bad behavior, bad language and the rest.

Actually, despite how extensive my previous two posts are on Surnow and Dollard and their respective artistic contributions, it never even occurred to me to utter the C word, nor even to suggest boycotting such ugly drivel. I still naïvely believe that knowledge is power, that the more people know about these thugs and what they're putting out there, the more they'll come to resent it.

The odds are against that, of course; it's always easier to incrementally desenstitize people to awful things than it is to rouse them to meaningful action. I always refer to the behavioral doctrine that people will only change their habits when they understand that the cost of not changing is greater than the cost of changing. That holds true here as well, unfortunately. But I have seen no liberal blogger advocating either censorship or boycott, just facts. Silly us; if we were neoclown authoritarians, calling for such things would come as naturally as Jonah going for thirds at the Hometown Buffet.

Here's one thing Goldberg is actually spot-on about -- but again, because he's got the wrong end of the stick in the 24 debate to begin with, it's a whole 'nother discussion:

But because we don't want to think of ourselves as scolds or censors, we make ourselves feel better by calling our positions "common sense."

The problem is that the definition of "common sense" is a moving target. What was once verboten is now commonplace and vice versa.

For example, Marc Cherry, the creator of ABC's "Desperate Housewives," told an interesting story to a gathering of TV critics recently. Cherry had screened a scene for a network censor in which the character played by Eva Longoria beds her 17-year-old gardener. Afterward, she enjoys a post-coital cigarette. Cherry said the censor asked, " 'Does she have to smoke?' And I went, 'So you're good with the statutory rape thing?' "

And the answer is "yes." Hollywood is good with the statutory rape thing. But it's not good with the smoking thing. And yet if I were to criticize Hollywood for the statutory rape thing, the Hollywood crowd would whine about how I'm a prude, a scold and, ultimately, a censorious enemy of free expression. If I were to complain about the cigarette? They'd say "good for you."

I agree that this is utterly stupid, that censors are more up in arms about smoking than about predatory milfs. But again, it's a matter of degrees, and a 17-year-old is not even statutory rape in every state.

And that is still an argument about the very arbitrary nature of broadcast censorship. I've seen and read many moviemakers talk about how they deliberately loaded their first cuts with extra material that they knew would be deemed offensive, to use as bargaining chips with the censors to keep in other things that the filmmakers knew would be offensive also, but seen as comparatively less so. The South Park movie, an underrated classic, is a prime example of this; Trey Parker and Matt Stone hit every talk show relating how the censors actually ended up letting them keep quite a few bits (including Saddam Hussein's penis) in the film that they had assumed would have no chance.

Again, none of it matters. While not as dyed-in-the-wool authoritarian as some of his more strident colleagues, DoughBob is above all a herd animal, an easily led ruminant who cares no more about the overall issues of censorship than he cares about changing his underwear regularly. It's just another hobby horse, lame right from the gate, with which Our Hero can once again joust at the imaginary libruls under his bed, while the constitution of his beloved country gets rendered meaningless, and the real authoritarian goofballs compete to become the worshipful chroniclers of madness.

Agents Of Fortune, Part 2: Meet The Crazy Focker

Continuing our mini-profile on neoclown propagandists, say hello to Pat Dollard, and revel in his mystic wisdom:

Eventually, I learned the joys of killing. But I’m skipping ahead of myself. I landed for my first stint in Iraq in November 2004 armed with a video camera instead of a weapon.

Dullard Dollard never does describe the thrill-kill he alludes to in his initial sentence. But there are plenty of choice quotes which add "depth" and "character" to what sort of person we are reading here, when we're not jumping over to spank it to the latest Kelly Hu shoot (not that there's anything wrong with that, dammit).

In my former life I was Oscar-winning director Steven Soderbergh’s agent and manager. I co-owned a prosperous talent management firm, Relativity Management, lived in a four-story mansion, and somehow success­fully stumbled (often drunk and stoned) through the whorehouse called Hollywood. I was an indoctrinated hardcore liberal. If you think I’m a spoiled dick and you hate me, then we’re on the right track. But having a child 10 years ago changed my thinking. It gave me a certain respect for capitalism and even corporate America.

When I bought a new Hummer H2 back in 2002, I ordered a custom license plate that read U.S. WINS. I got it because I believed in the message. I wanted people to have a reaction to the plate, usually negative, and then examine their thinking. Would it be so bad to win this war? Plus, I knew it would fucking piss everyone in the city off because it was Los Angeles.

I could give two fucks about WMDs. There were much more important reasons to topple Saddam—terrorism being one of them. The root causes of terrorism are the lack of capitalism, the lack of democracy, and the lack of modern education. What has stood in the way of those things has primarily been the regimes of Iraq, Iran, and Syria. We just got one of them out of the way.

Jesus, Soderbergh must be proud of his previous association with this thug. What sort of person was cheering for war in 2002? Am I out of line in assuming Dullard Dollard is just a stereotypical, over-compensating Hollywood douchebag with more money than sense, coked to the gills and thinking a life-change as a mindless, jingoistic provocateur is some sort of step up from being an agent? It's the same fucking thing! These fools can't even get their mid-life crises right.

The plus is that Dollard can actually write, and he vividly captures the grueling conditions under which the IED patrols operate under as they troll the gauntlet of Baghdad alleys in their cramped, vulnerable "pigs". Even on missions where everyone returns unscathed, it's dangerous, nasty work under the worst of conditions, and whatever they're getting paid, it's not enough.

However, just as Dollard oversimplifies a geopolitical situation that was dealt with cynically and incompetently, so does he seem to relish the hellish violence the soldiers are put through. The civilians, he clearly couldn't care less; they are simply woggy totems to affirm Dollard's self-styled superiority.

The fear of random explosions was perfectly relentless. We all imagined things like being covered in diesel, burning, screaming from shrapnel sticking out of our eyes. The fact that I often sat over the fuel tank and one of the corporals referred to me as “the cooked chicken” only further fried my brain. I thought of my dick. I thought about the types of rounds and shrapnel that could pierce the pig’s skin. I cataloged every bolt and bullet in my vicinity just to understand what would pierce my body should bad luck and ballistics conspire against me. These are the thoughts of the average marine’s and this civilian’s mind when out on the roads of Iraq. This was a war with no lulls; it just kept going and, therefore, eating at the mind. As one anonymous marine put it, “When I get home I’m going to be just like a dog who was locked in a small cage and constantly stabbed with a sharp stick.” There are a lot of guys who will come back feeling the same way, and they might never change.

That he is somehow unable to square that plaintive quote with his earlier "we gotta win this Risk game, man" exhortations gives you an idea of what's going on here. For once, here's a cheerleader who is manifestly not the usual member of the 82nd Chairborne; Dollard indeed actually went, and can't wait to go back. Which itself is an insight into the mental processes and motives here.

My soon-to-be fourth ex-wife and I are in a legal battle over visitation rights for our daughter. I know I can’t take care of my kid; I’m going back to Ramadi as soon as possible. It’s terrifying to go there. There’s a 10 percent chance you’re going to die, there’s a 30 percent chance you’re going to be wounded, and there’s a 100 percent chance that hot metal will go flying near your body.


Getting at the root of terror is clear: topple these regimes and then bring democracy, capitalism, and education to the Islamic world. Let them have the hot wife [or, you know, the hot fourth ex-wife -- ed.], the Bimmer, and kids to live for. America has to lift them up, not because we are a country of great guys, but to keep them from growing into lost killer boys with the U.S. in their sights.

If you want to export "democracy, capitalism, and education to the Islamic world", then you do those things. We have done the opposite; the substantial educated class of Iraqis has long fled the country -- those that weren't smithereened or power-drilled to death by their neighbors, or perforated at a checkpoint by someone felt he was "just like a dog who was locked in a small cage and constantly stabbed with a sharp stick".

The biggest, most relentless lie about this war is not about the WMDs, or Saddam being in cahoots with Osama, or the drone planes that were forty-five minutes from visiting death on Wichita. The most persistent lie is the idea that we're being fed too much "bad news". That is utter nonsense. We have been insulated, protected from the worst news. We get solemn daily updates to the body counts, interspersed with celebrity ass-sniffing and mindless pæans to The Greatest Generation Ever To Walk The Face Of The Planet, aka the network anchors' parents. (They project their daddy issues too, just as people like Surnow and Dollard are compelled, albeit in a more innocuous fashion.) We get very little besides the latest nugget from the embed in the Green Zone, and we deliberately get absolutely no scenes whatsoever of death, of carnage, of blood and violence. We don't get things like this in the corporate media at all, period.

Feb. 12:

We were asked to send the next of kin to whom the remains of my nephew, killed on Monday in a horrific explosion downtown, can be handed over. The young men of the family, as was customary, rose to go.

NO! cried his mother. Isnt my son enough?? Must we lose more of our youth?? You know there are unknowns who wait at the Morgue to either kill or kidnap the men who dare reach its doors. I will go.

So we went, his mum, his other aunt and I.

I was praying all the way there.

I never thought a day would come when it was the women of the family, who would be safer on the roads. All the men are potential terrorists it seems, and are therefore to be cut down on sight. This is the logic of today, is it not? To kill evil before it even has a chance to take root.

When we got there, we were given his remains. And remains they were. From the waist down was all they could give us. We identified him by the cell phone in his pants pocket. If you want the rest, you will just have to look for yourselves. We dont know what he looks like.

Now begins a horror that surpasses anything I could have possibly envisioned . We were led away, and before long a foul stench clogged my nose and I retched. With no more warning we came to a clearing that was probably an inside garden at one time; all round it were patios and rooms with large-pane windows to catch the evening breeze Baghdad is renowned for. But now it had become a slaughterhouse, only instead of cattle, all around were human bodies. On this side; complete bodies; on that side halves; and EVERYWHERE body parts.

We were asked what we were looking for, upper half replied my companion, for I was rendered speechless. Over there. We looked for our boys broken body between tens of other boys remains; with our bare hands sifting them and turning them.

We found him millennia later, took both parts home, and began the mourning ceremony.

Okay? That's what this war is, at the end of the day. While poseur cock-jockeys like Joel Surnow and Pat Dullard Dollard get their hate on, and do everything they can to both prime a sedate American populace with jingoistic fury, and desensitize them to the concomitant misery such exploits inevitably cause, mothers sift through gardens of pure death, piles of pieces of human beings, looking for what's left of their children. That is never going to bring about democracy-whiskey-sexy, no matter how much Joel Surnow hearts Rush Limbaugh.

But it's just amazingly troubling that such a clearly over-the-top piece of pulp like 24 could become the template -- inadvertently or not -- for perpetuating one of the most needless cycles of carnage, in an era already overpopulated with such nightmarish things.

The common thread between people such as Surnow and Dollard is their voiced feelings of displacement, anger, and inchoate contrarianism, not unlike your average eight-year-old acting out.

Roger Director, a television producer and longtime friend, said that he “loves” Surnow. But, he went on, “He feels looked down upon by the world, and that kind of emotional dynamic underpins a lot of things. It’s kind of ‘Joel against the world.’ It’s as if he feels, I had to fight and claw for everything I got. It’s a tough world, and no one’s looking out for you.” As a result, Director said, “Joel’s not sentimental. He has a hard-hearted thing.”

Surnow’s parents were F.D.R. Democrats. He recalled, “It was just assumed, especially in the Jewish community”—to which his family belonged. “But when you grow up you start to challenge your parents’ assumptions. ‘Am I Jewish? Am I a Democrat?’ ” Many of his peers at the University of California at Berkeley, where he attended college, were liberals or radicals. “They were all socialists and Marxists, but living off their family money,” he recalled. “It seemed to me there was some obvious hypocrisy here. It was absurd.” Although he wasn’t consciously political, he said, “I felt like I wasn’t like these people.” In 1985, he divorced his wife, a medical student, who was Jewish, and with whom he has two daughters. (His relationships with them are strained.) Four years later, he remarried. His wife, who used to work in film development, is Catholic; they have three daughters, whom they send to Catholic schools. He likes to bring his girls to the set and rushes home for his wife’s pork-chop dinners. “I got to know who I was and who I wasn’t,” he said. “I wasn’t the perfect Jewish kid who is married, with a Jewish family.” Instead, he said, “I decided I like Catholics. They’re so grounded. I sort of reoriented myself.”


During three decades as a journeyman screenwriter, Surnow grew increasingly conservative. He “hated welfare,” which he saw as government handouts. Liberal courts also angered him. He loved Ronald Reagan’s “strength” and disdained Jimmy Carter’s “belief that people would be nice to us just because we were humane. That never works.” He said of Reagan, “I can hardly think of him without breaking into tears. I just felt Ronald Reagan was the father that this country needed. . . . He made me feel good that I was in his family.”

Surnow said that he found the Clinton years obnoxious. “Hollywood under Clinton—it was like he was their guy,” he said. “He was the yuppie, baby-boomer narcissist that all of Hollywood related to.” During those years, Surnow recalled, he had countless arguments with liberal colleagues, some of whom stopped speaking to him. “My feeling is that the liberals’ ideas are wrong,” he said. “But they think I’m evil.” Last year, he contributed two thousand dollars to the losing campaign of Pennsylvania’s hard-line Republican senator Rick Santorum, because he “liked his position on immigration.” His favorite bumper sticker, he said, is “Except for Ending Slavery, Fascism, Nazism & Communism, War Has Never Solved Anything.”

Although he is a supporter of President Bush—he told me that “America is in its glory days”—Surnow is critical of the way the war in Iraq has been conducted. An “isolationist” with “no faith in nation-building,” he thinks that “we could have been out of this thing three years ago.” After deposing Saddam Hussein, he argued, America should have “just handed it to the Baathists and . . . put in some other monster who’s going to keep these people in line but who’s not going to be aggressive to us.” In his view, America “is sort of the parent of the world, so we have to be stern but fair to people who are rebellious to us. We don’t spoil them. That’s not to say you abuse them, either. But you have to know who the adult in the room is.”

I'm trying to think of how he could be any more condescending and patronizing without actually lapsing into racial epithets. While I agree with the basic premise that, human nature and the nation-state paradigm being what it is at this point in history, there is going to be either a hegemon, or competing hegemons. That happens to be the most efficient way of mobilizing force and capital for expansion, and as such, if someone has to be the big dog, it should be us, parochial as it sounds. That doesn't mean we need to be dicks about it.

What's most troubling about Surnow's discursive thesis, aside from its twee (and perhaps offensive to the other 95% of the planet) "parent" analogy, is that he enjoys it. He gets off on it. He's still trying to get back at all those rich asshole classmates who took limos to the prom and fucked cheerleaders who would never give Surnow the time of day, while he had to wait for Dad to come home from slinging carpet in Compton to see if they would have to move or not.

I despise entitled trust-fund assholes also, but somehow I manage to keep it from circumscribing my entire world-view (except, you know, the class warfare part we were talking about in a recent post. But even a small 2-3% redistributive tax would be an acceptable start there. It would also help inculcate something of a work ethic among the upper crust parasites, which seems to be part of Surnow's beef with them.).

And while Dollard may not have the conservatard connections that Surnow has cultivated, according to Jeff Wells, he does have even more issues, and pretty scary ones at that:

[Dollard's] time self-embedded in Iraq has become Young Americans, the trailer of which plays like Jackass goes to War, and includes footage of a Marine raising a severed Iraqi head to the camera to a thrashing soundtrack of "If you don't like it you can suck my dick!"

Dollard is profiled in the March Vanity Fair - the longest profile in the magazine's history - and when asked about the footage he laughs: "The true savagery in this war is being committed by the American left on the minds of the young men and women serving over there by repeatedly telling them that their cause is lost. My goal is to de-sensitize young people to violence." He calls liberals "nihilistic."

Tony Snow describes Dollard as a "true believer," while a 17-year old high school student writes that "the clips I've seen of Young Americans are an inspiration and its time someone tells the truth. Thanks for putting your life on the line for the better of the country."

But there's much more to Dollard. He's also a meth addict, an alcoholic and serial user and abuser of weaker hearts and minds. He screens for Vanity Fair's Evan Wright a documentary he'd just finished called Three Days, starring himself; a young Latino named Josiah Dollard whom he met in rehab and took in (initially, supposedly, to help remain sober and later to help score drugs), who is variously described as his "lieutenant," "houseboy" and "bitch"; and the love of Josiah's life, a former girlfriend whom Wright identifies only as "Sunshine" who unfortunately chanced to visit their house. The film's scenes of degradation, humiliation and boundary defiance make it sound like a madman's Salo. Or perhaps Paul Bernardo brought up short.

The face of a girl with long black hair fills the screen. Sunshine. Though she is of legal age, she speaks in a child's voice, plaintive and quavering, as Dollard, still offscreen, barks at her, "What's your job on the team?" She giggles. "To sexually satisfy you and clean the house."

Dollard enters the frame, totally nude, a decrepit satyr. A montage ensues of him performing various sex acts with her, intercut with close-ups of the girl smoking a glass pipe. There is unintended comedy: while Dollard is having sex with her on the couch, it catches fire, and the two fail to notice until flames engulf their feet. There is intended comedy: Dollard performs anal sex with her while simultaneously talking on the phone with an agent at William Morris.

In the film, Josiah, who serves as cameraman, does not have sex with Sunshine.... His most significant on-screen presence is to lean close to her and offer encouragements: "What's his name? Say Pat. You're fucking a rich man with accomplishments, not a fucking loser."


The film fades to black. Jim Morrison comes across the loudspeakers singing "The End." Dollard narrates in the background about immortality, death, and the horrors he witnessed in Iraq. It cuts to Dollard readying to make his money shot on Sunshine."


He turns to Josiah, speaking excitedly. "You love this girl, Josiah. But you know what? You wandered off into a room by yourself to fucking jerk off to a tape of her fucking somebody else. That's who we are. That's who people are! They're scumbags!"

"This is so fucked up," Josiah shouts, "but I like it."

"Exactly, dude!" Dollard claps his hands, like a teacher whose pupil is about to achieve satori. "That's what I told you! That's the whole point to everything around here, with this whole thing, all of it, beyond! It's what everything in my life is about. It's about finding all those truths and those fucking experiences that other people just don't get."

Josiah seems paralyzed, staring at the screen, his huge eyes unblinking. "This is so fucked up," he repeats.

"That's what we do here," Dollard says, pounding the editing table. "We take everything to its furthest limits. We go out. We get in cars. We fucking kill people."

Radar Online has still more on this goofball [emphases mine]:

For the past two years, Dollard's been working on a film called Young Americans, a music video-style documentary explicitly intended to glorify U.S. troops and the violence they deploy in battle. "The message of my movie is simple: If you're a young person in America, the coolest, fucking most badass and most noble thing you can be today is a combat Marine," he tells Evan Wright. "My goal is to de-sensitize young people to violence. I want kids to watch my film and understand that brutality is the fucking appropriate response to a brutal enemy." Hence the footage of a mosque being destroyed and a Marine hoisting a severed Iraqi head before the camera.

Though now beloved by such archconservatives as Ann Coulter and Roger Ailes, who hold him up as an example of liberal Hollywood degeneracy made good, Dollard's political conversion didn't exactly bring about a change in his personal habits. While in Iraq, reports Wright, Dollard robbed a pharmacy at gunpoint, bringing back liquid Valium to share with the troops in "his" unit. He later invited the same unit to snort lines of coke off an armored vehicle. (Dollard tells Radar he's now attending AA and has been sober since September 11, 2006.)

After returning from his first trip to Iraq, Dollard's behavior grew more erratic. According to Wright, Dollard had his roommate, a convicted felon and sometime meth abuser, film him having sex with the man's girlfriend, then considered sending the video to Sheila Nevins, head of HBO's documentary division. Later in the piece, he asks Wright to buy him guns and a ticket to Kuwait, talks about starting an "anti-jihadi action cell," and even registers the domain name "If I could, I'd kill jihadis with my bare hands," he tells Wright.

Not surprisingly, several of the people Wright interviewed express the opinion that Dollard is, clinically speaking, out of his fucking gourd. But Dollard disagrees. "I have often asked myself the question, 'Am I a psychopath?'" he says. "But it just doesn't add up. I can be one of the sanest people I know."

Yeah, he's really got ya there. I mean, when a guy can't go on a crank bender and film himself fucking his roomie's girlfriend in the ass, or hold up a pharmacy and do lines off an armored vehicle in the middle of a combat zone, what the fuck has this world come to? People are just so judgmental.

As much these weirdos try to characterize themselves as some mystic breed of heroic contrarians, sticking it to the fag pussies who've watered down Hollywood, man, the truth seems more sinister. Their public manifestos bespeak quite clearly a jumble of projected insecurities, revenge fantasies, daddy issues, and in the case of Dollard, a borderline psychopath with a serious substance abuse problem. When people are watching the vicarious torture-porn of 24, or the thrill-kill montage of Young Americans, they're only seeing one side of some creepy fuckers. And maybe they view it with some distance as warped but harmless escapism, or perhaps such things affirm their own projected neuroses.

And some propagandists prefer to be less in-your-face, more sotto voce about the matter, clouding the issues (whether deliberately or ineptly) when possible. The next post will take a look at such a porous yellow fellow.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Meet The New Intel, Same As The Old Intel

I think we're all just a bit surprised at the revelation that nobody really knows much at all about Iran's nascent nucular program. Maybe we can kidnap some of their scientists and torture it out of them. It's what Jack Bauer would do.

Despite growing international concern about Iran's nuclear program and its regional ambitions, most U.S. intelligence shared with the U.N. nuclear watchdog agency has proved inaccurate and none has led to significant discoveries inside Iran, diplomats here said.

The officials said the CIA and other Western spy services have provided sensitive information to the Vienna-based International Atomic Energy Agency at least since 2002, when Iran's long-secret nuclear program was exposed. But none of the tips about supposed secret weapons sites provided clear evidence that the Islamic Republic is developing illicit weapons.

"Since 2002, pretty much all the intelligence that's come to us has proved to be wrong," said a senior diplomat at the IAEA. Another official here described the agency's intelligence stream as "very cold now (because) so little panned out."

The reliability of U.S. information and assessments on Iran is increasingly at issue as the Bush administration confronts the emerging regional power on multiple fronts: its expanding nuclear effort, its alleged support for insurgents inside Iraq and its backing of Middle East militant groups.

Well, I think I've heard enough. It's time to let ol' Texas Hold 'em -- whose most famous decision in his pre-political career was to trade Sammy Sosa for a sack of magic beans -- work his special brand of negotiamatin' skillz on those U.N. diplopussies. That's worked out superbly with the two current wars. Good things come in threes, right?

Of course, they have a much steeper hill to climb to make this sale, but fortunately for them, shame is certainly no obstacle. We could flip a coin to see if the casus belli will be either suspect materials possibly maybe indicated by doctored satellite imagery, or a provoked and/or trumped up Tonkin-style incident. Either way, the inconvenient "facts" presented by "diplomats" -- who have never served in combat, nor even jerked off to a 24 torture scene -- mean nothing.

Agents Of Fortune

Beyond the Staples Center you can see America with its tired, poor, avenging disgrace,
Peaceful, loving youth against the brutality of plastic existence.
Pushing little children with their fully automatics,
They like to push the weak around. -- System of a Down, Deer Dance

I recall that when the 24 series began, it sounded like a moderately interesting gimmick, but one I would not have been able to keep up with. The very nature of its premise essentially requires the viewer to watch every episode in sequence, or lose the narrative.

Or so I had assumed.

This notion was tested in the second season, when my work schedule and other commitments actually allowed for such a weekly "guilty pleasure", as it were. Fine, let's give it a shot, we thought. By about, oh, the sixth episode, it was clear that even on a limbic thrill-seeker level, this was simply too ridiculous, contrived, implausible, etc., not to mention belabored with endless commercial breaks. But that was just far enough in to where the viewer may have enough "commitment" (ugh) to sorta wanna see how it resolves. So we trudged on through a few more eps, as they say in the biz. It's not like there was anything else on.

Suffice to say that it never got any better, and we basically said "fuck it" about halfway through. That's the other real problem with the premise -- twenty-four episodes is an awful lot, which means there's going to be a lot of fat that would ordinarily have been trimmed. Even marquee series such as The Sopranos or The Shield, with only 13 episodes per season, have at least one or two subplots that could just as easily been changed or tossed. In recent memory, only The Wire seems to be as close to a perfect model of narrative economy as imaginable -- there is no excess, no throwaway lines or performances, no wasted motion whatsoever. It is as seamless and flawless as episodic television can aspire to.

My point is that I had come to think of 24 as merely a dopey, gimmicky show that should have jumped the proverbial shark a couple seasons ago. Then again, I assumed that of other cinema verité warhorses such as Survivor and American Idol, the former of which especially seemed destined for the glue factory some time ago. But that was all clearly wishful thinking; there are some cultural things, particularly music, that I am pretty good at sussing early in the game, but I don't have a fucking clue about mainstream pop culture. I don't have the patience for it, any of it, and book-ending the whole sordid process with repetitive, indistinguishable smash-cut commercials doesn't help. (No, I don't own a TiVo, yet.)

So I had written off this ever-more ridiculous exercise in adrenaline as something that Steven Seagal would probably have done just fine at twenty years ago. Whatever, just not my thing. But apparently, not only is the series stronger than ever, but its more contemporary political and operational proclivities, and those of its creator, Joel Surnow, are coming more to the forefront than when I sat through it several years ago.

Each season of “24,” which has been airing on Fox since 2001, depicts a single, panic-laced day in which Jack Bauer—a heroic C.T.U. agent, played by Kiefer Sutherland—must unravel and undermine a conspiracy that imperils the nation. Terrorists are poised to set off nuclear bombs or bioweapons, or in some other way annihilate entire cities. The twisting story line forces Bauer and his colleagues to make a series of grim choices that pit liberty against security. Frequently, the dilemma is stark: a resistant suspect can either be accorded due process—allowing a terrorist plot to proceed—or be tortured in pursuit of a lead. Bauer invariably chooses coercion. With unnerving efficiency, suspects are beaten, suffocated, electrocuted, drugged, assaulted with knives, or more exotically abused; almost without fail, these suspects divulge critical secrets.

The show’s appeal, however, lies less in its violence than in its giddily literal rendering of a classic thriller trope: the “ticking time bomb” plot. Each hour-long episode represents an hour in the life of the characters, and every minute that passes onscreen brings the United States a minute closer to doomsday. (Surnow came up with this concept, which he calls the show’s “trick.”) As many as half a dozen interlocking stories unfold simultaneously—frequently on a split screen—and a digital clock appears before and after every commercial break, marking each second with an ominous clang. The result is a riveting sensation of narrative velocity.

Bob Cochran, who created the show with Surnow, admitted, “Most terrorism experts will tell you that the ‘ticking time bomb’ situation never occurs in real life, or very rarely. But on our show it happens every week.” According to Darius Rejali, a professor of political science at Reed College and the author of the forthcoming book “Torture and Democracy,” the conceit of the ticking time bomb first appeared in Jean Lartéguy’s 1960 novel “Les Centurions,” written during the brutal French occupation of Algeria. The book’s hero, after beating a female Arab dissident into submission, uncovers an imminent plot to explode bombs all over Algeria and must race against the clock to stop it. Rejali, who has examined the available records of the conflict, told me that the story has no basis in fact. In his view, the story line of “Les Centurions” provided French liberals a more palatable rationale for torture than the racist explanations supplied by others (such as the notion that the Algerians, inherently simpleminded, understood only brute force). Lartéguy’s scenario exploited an insecurity shared by many liberal societies—that their enlightened legal systems had made them vulnerable to security threats.

It would -- and should, believe me -- be easy to dismiss all this as just the projected ravings of a closet-case hack, just mindless adrenalized fun that had no real-world analogue. That would be nice, but then again, we are talking about a guy who threw Rush Limbaugh a party and gave him a custom smoking jacket. I'm not sure if this was before or after Limbaugh went Teh Big Funny at Michael J. Fox's expense, but it really doesn't matter -- the show itself may be having real-world repercussions:

Although reports of abuses by U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan and at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, have angered much of the world, the response of Americans has been more tepid. [U.S. Army Brigadier General Patrick] Finnegan attributes the fact that “we are generally more comfortable and more accepting of this,” in part, to the popularity of “24,” which has a weekly audience of fifteen million viewers, and has reached millions more through DVD sales. The third expert at the meeting was Tony Lagouranis, a former Army interrogator in the war in Iraq. He told the show’s staff that DVDs of shows such as “24” circulate widely among soldiers stationed in Iraq. Lagouranis said to me, “People watch the shows, and then walk into the interrogation booths and do the same things they’ve just seen.” He recalled that some men he had worked with in Iraq watched a television program in which a suspect was forced to hear tortured screams from a neighboring cell; the men later tried to persuade their Iraqi translator to act the part of a torture “victim,” in a similar intimidation ploy. Lagouranis intervened: such scenarios constitute psychological torture.

“In Iraq, I never saw pain produce intelligence,” Lagouranis told me. “I worked with someone who used waterboarding”—an interrogation method involving the repeated near-drowning of a suspect. “I used severe hypothermia, dogs, and sleep deprivation. I saw suspects after soldiers had gone into their homes and broken their bones, or made them sit on a Humvee’s hot exhaust pipes until they got third-degree burns. Nothing happened.” Some people, he said, “gave confessions. But they just told us what we already knew. It never opened up a stream of new information.” If anything, he said, “physical pain can strengthen the resolve to clam up.”

Anyone who's done even a modest amount of reading on the subject (and, to be fair, it's not exactly light or commonly available reading) understands that simple fact -- virtually every interrogation profesional willing to go on record attests to the fact that torture almost never works. Almost as important is that the "ticking time bomb" scenario is exceedingly rare.

But we are a nation that watched Jeff Goldblum hook up to an alien spaceship computer with a fucking Macintosh in Independence Day -- verisimilitude has never been on the short list for these sorts of movies and shows. Yet it is profoundly disturbing that, according to the U.S. Army, interrogators are using this show to get their game face on, and set about dehumanizing people until they give up information that we think they may possess.

More than ever, the idea that individuals in a terrorist cell are privy to any more than the bare minimum of operational info and planning runs contrary to everything that has been learned about 4GW (and now, 5GW) warfare. There's no need to let the minions know anything, and the ringleaders are never going to let themselves get within range of capture.

But this is all easily forgotten in the swift jump-cut frisson ginned up by the pulpy narratives in the show. Perhaps individual Americans are indeed wise enough to discern reality from fiction; or perhaps we are systematically being further desensitized to the things we are actually doing, to the deeds rough men commit in the night in our name.

And if some people make some money and political points hitting what could be perceived as an ideological vacuum, there's another incentive for these vicarious sadists.

[to be continued]

Spot The Theocracy

Take this quick quiz, courtesy of The Globalist, and inspired by Flathead Friedman, of all people. See how well you do. For comparison, I knew which each country was after the first two statements, so how hard could it be? But it might be instructive to many Americans, who are being goaded into another stupid war by people who do not have our -- or anyone's, really, other than themselves and their insulated clans -- interests at heart.

It's not nearly as important or newsworthy as the disposition of Anna Nicole Smith's corpse, or Britney Spears' tonsorial decisions, but it'd be interesting to see how people would react to it if they actually took two minutes and read it.

King Corn

There's much to be gleaned from Bush's recent photo-op at an ethanol processing plant, replete with his usual sidesplitting makes-Larry-the-Cable-Guy-seem-funny attempts at hilarity.

In the Novozymes laboratory, Bush moved from room to room to hear the process of how enzymes can be found, selected and converted. A man showed Bush a bottle of liquid in a glass bottle.

"Senator, don't drink this!" Bush hollered over his shoulder to Burr.

"I quit drinking in `86," Bush added. He would mention the date twice more in his tour through what is, essentially, a giant fermentation operation with the faint aroma of a brewery.

In a room of two-gallon containers holding liquid the color of amber beer, Bush picked up a jar of straw to show off to the crush of journalists tagging along.

"Straw!" he proclaimed. Cameras clicked and whirred.

"Someday, you're going to be using this in your car," he said.

He picked up another jar. "Spruce chips!" He picked up yet another vessel, this one containing clear ethanol, and took another sniff.

Actually, it's difficult to get the true flavor and rhythm of the whole sorry mess without reading the entire transcript.

We're here at Novozymes, which is a company that makes enzymes. We're going to talk to Thomas, who is the President and Plant Manager, about what they do here, and why it's relevant. Before we get there, I do want to say something about Steen Riisgaard. He's the President and CEO, Steen. He flew over from Denmark. I can't thank you enough for coming. I appreciate you being here. It's interesting, isn't it, when you're able to sit in North Carolina and talk about a Danish company that is investing to not only help us become less dependent on oil, but equally importantly is investing capital, which enables citizens from the United States to find good work.

I toured around the facility, and I asked people at the facility how long they had been working here. And a lot of people have been here 20-plus years. So for those people who are worried about free trade, I want you to remember that if this country were to wall ourselves off from the world, we would miss opportunities to find markets for our products, and at the same time miss opportunities for citizens who work at a facility like this to find good work. It's in our interests that we have free and fair trade.

As Bush reiterates about, oh, fifteen thousand times throughout the speech, this is technology that requires very highly trained and specialized people. People with skills. People who read, and even understand the complexities of free international trade, without requiring the "see Dick run" set-up from Harvard there.

He doesn't need to explain the Globalization 101 bullet points to the people who are utilizing Danish capital to bugger compensatory loans from the taxpayers; he needs to explain it to the tens of thousands of auto and tech workers who are having their jobs outsourced to Mexico and India, what exactly it is they're supposed to do now. Can they all make ethanol, or is there enough demand (and subsidized loans) to go around?

So we're making pretty good progress. But if you really want to reduce the amount of oil that you consume, you got to reduce the amount of gasoline you use. In other words, if you say, we want to reduce our dependence on oil, what you really got to do is change gasoline usage in the United States. And there's a couple of exciting things that are taking place -- one is new battery technologies. We're spending money at the federal level -- and by the way, there's a lot of private sector money going into alternative sources of energy. And some day you're going to be able to get in your car, particularly if you're a big-city person, and drive 40 miles on a battery. It's coming. And by the way, the car doesn't have to look like a golf cart. (Laughter.) It could be a pickup truck. (Laughter.)

And that technology is around the corner. And if we're able to drive the first 40 miles, or, say, 20 miles, on gasoline [sic] there's a lot of big-city folks that will never have to use a drop of gasoline on a daily basis. They'll be driving via electricity. These are lithium-ion batteries, technology -- so when you hear that term, you just got to know there's a lot of folks and a lot of money aiming hard to get this to the market as quickly as possible. Why? Because we've set a goal for the United States to be less dependent on oil.

Secondly -- and this is what we're here to talk about today -- is ethanol. It says that the new developments in ethanol -- in other words, fuel derived from corn -- can be diversified. Here's the problem: Right now we're consuming about 7 billion gallons of ethanol a year made from corn. And it's a pretty standard process. People here at this facility have developed the enzymes necessary to break the corn down in an efficient way so that we can use ethanol derived from corn.

The problem is we got a lot of hog growers around the United States and a lot of them here in North Carolina who are beginning to feel the pinch as a result of high corn prices. A lot of the cattle people around the United States -- I have got a few of them in my home state of Texas -- they're worried about high corn prices affecting their making a livelihood. In other words, the demand for corn, because of agricultural use, and now energy use, is causing corn prices to go up. I bet you the Agriculture Commissioner is hearing from folks.

And so how do -- the question then is, how do you achieve your goal of less dependence on oil without breaking your farmers -- without breaking your hog raisers -- corn farmers happen to like it, but I'm talking about the -- (laughter) -- people dependent on corn.

And here's how: You develop new technologies that will enable you to make ethanol from wood chips, or stalk grass, or agricultural waste. And that's what we're here to talk about: Is it possible, and if it is possible, how close are we to achieving the technological breakthroughs that I believe are possible so that our -- so that we're changing our habits.

There's a choice here to be made, and I'm sure most of us have little doubt as to the direction it will take. As Fredo himself alludes, albeit almost approvingly, the ethanol push will open up secondary markets, allowing agri-giants -- already on the dole in one way or another -- to maximize their grift with price gouging.

The main thing to keep in mind is that, ethanol or no, gas prices are never coming back down. Any substitutes will merely be positioned into the same price-point niche. The market has already been tested, and the envelope is constantly being pushed to find out just how much we'll pay.

And the soothing mouth noises regarding "clean coal" are nice and all, but considering there was a big push to build more old-tech coal plants that would be grandfathered in before the regulations were changed, you have to wonder what the actual demand will be, and who will be willing to step up and meet it. One thing's for sure, nobody is going to do it without some financial incentive -- from you 'n' me, naturally. These people don't do anything on their own dime, which is really the ultimate form of risk management.

So, there's the choice that will probably happen -- allow the giants already in place in the energy industry to diversify and partner with commodities producers, on the taxpayers' backs, in the guise of innovation and entrepreneurship. If what we're looking for is merely a lateral shift from being pwned by the oil lobby to the ethanol lobby, then fine. But the bottom line is that, even at current consumption patterns, corn ethanol simply does not have a sustainable EROEI, though Brazil apparently has had better luck with sugarcane ethanol.

The alternative would be to rethink the way things are currently laid out, modes of distribution and transportation. It would require seriously rethinking how cities should expand. If we understand that simply re-arranging our energy sources to accommodate our current (and increasing) level of gluttony is not sustainable long-term (or even medium-term), then we should realize that it is axiomatic that consumption modes and patterns have to be re-thought in conjunction with source diversification. The first place to start is with food distribution; instead of enormous, centralized production facilities distributing thousands of miles in all directions (and in the process, becoming sources of toxic pollution, speaking of hog farmers), you move to decentralized regional hubs. Of course that also decentralizes the political power of such entities.

And yeah, some of us might have to give up our ridiculous suburban assault vehicles, driven either by unskilled milfs or their overcompensating husbands. It's disturbing to even speculate on the root of such destructive gimme-gimme trends, but they're clearly there, and they cannot go on indefinitely. And there's no upside for the people who conserve on basic principle (that is, they are conservative when it comes to energy usage and waste in general) to continue subsidizing the sheer waste, and the attendant externalities, of these fuck-you-mobiles, destroying the topsoil in the low-EROEI process of converting corn into ethanol. But you want your "20-10 plan", there ya go; chances are results would exceed estimates. The trick is whether we're more concerned with giving the Lee Raymonds of the world a soft cushion to park their jowly asses on, and granting insecure jerkoffs carte blanche to project their anxieties on the rest of us, than in truly dealing with the actual problems at hand.

Even the geopolitical realities need to be thought out, and they don't even seem to have been considered. Say ethanol works (well enough for the time being, at least), and we make enough of a dent in our energy dependence and even our consumption patterns to allow us to extricate ourselves from the Middle East. What then? Well, assuming globalization continues apace, you simply have ascendant powers China and India, economies burgeoning, with no real incentive to follow suit. You have Russia more openly aligning with Iran, to put the squeeze on Europe and obstruct China and India if nothing else. You have a market vacuum in the petrocracies, particularly Saudi Arabia and Nigeria, both with large, young, radicalized fundamentalist populations. You allow for another regional hegemon, which would be fine if in the cause of self-determination, but is more likely to mean simply a different big dog in the area.

Beyond that is more Great Game speculation, but the main point is that those things have to be thought through as well, and there's absolutely zero reason to believe that the current gang has done so.

Friday, February 23, 2007

The Tuck Rule

Get knocked up by a pretty-boy quarterback, and your show gets un-cancelled.

Welcome To Cheneyville

Okay, seriously, is anyone really surprised at this?

The percentage of poor Americans who are living in severe poverty has reached a 32-year high, millions of working Americans are falling closer to the poverty line and the gulf between the nation's "haves" and "have-nots" continues to widen.

A McClatchy News Service analysis of the 2005 census figures, the latest available, found that nearly 16 million Americans are living in deep or severe poverty. A family of four with two children and an annual income of less than $9,903 -- half the federal poverty line -- was considered severely poor in 2005. So were individuals who made less than $5,080 a year.

The McClatchy analysis found that the number of severely poor Americans grew by 26 percent from 2000 to 2005. That's much faster than the overall poverty population grew in the same period.

No doubt a generation of smug post-Reagan TV twits has conditioned many people -- even otherwise self-described liberals -- to make reflexive assumptions about poor people. They're either stupid, lazy, or both, practically by definition. (As if Paris Hilton and most of the Bush clan were not also both of those things, and demonstrably so.) In America, even poor people are fat and have color TVs. That sort of thing.

And of course poverty is a relative thing, in that in other countries, poverty is quite literally a life-threatening condition, with a greater immediacy of danger to the people living in it. (And yes, Robert Mugabe's thuggish despotism is and should be held directly responsible for the inexcusable misery of his people and the squandering of one of Africa's few decent post-colonial economies. And, um, someone else bears responsibility for one-third of Iraqis now having to eke their way through brutish and foreshortened lives by scavenging in garbage dumps. This is what the administration meat puppets consider successmanship. Good for them. At least we know exactly where they stand.)

But this is not only a symptom of the lower two (or even three) quintiles of American society slipping further and further down, but of the increasingly serious income disparity. Even as more and more people are forced to figure out how to support a family of four on less than $10K per year, the precious few at the very top accumulate more and still more.

Americans, proud of what we presume to be a classless society, tend to dismiss even the appearance of "class warfare". This is ridiculous, because it presumes that we have any say in the matter, and that it hasn't already been happening. We have been trained somehow to shy away from picking on predatory capitalism (as opposed to genuine capitalism), while we look askance at the consistent, continuous transfer of wealth upstream.

When our government's priorities are skewed far more in favor of helping the WalMart Walton family, already billionaires many times over, save $32.7 billion more in the next decade, than to help the poorest of the poor from freezing to death in the winter, or giving them a fuckin' sack of groceries once or twice a month, then we might as well be done for.

It is absolutely unconscionable that we can find money in the budget for the most ridiculous shit, for bridges to nowhere, and museums to nothing, but we can't help little old ladies from freezing or having to survive on cat food. That's where the rot of a nation's soul takes hold, when we fight exponentially harder for swag-bellied plutocrats and useless heiresses than for our own neighbors -- or even ourselves. And we disenfranchise ourselves with our distractions, and our apathy and cynicism, until it's us having to choose between health care and food.

Ordure In The Court

I hate these fucking people, all of them, especially this grandstanding goofball. These dickheads have been cluttering the "news" channels for two fucking weeks now. If I wanted to watch this shit I'd lobotomize myself with a knitting needle and squat down in front of an Entertainment Tonight marathon.

More importantly, this asshole does not need his own TV show -- obviously there are already too many idiot judges adjudicating moron defendants, if the sheer volume of commercials are any indication. What he needs is a psychiatric evaluation, what his jurisdiction needs is a refund, and what the court system apparently needs is an enema.

Monday, February 19, 2007

By Their Fruits

It somehow figures that I would have to stumble across this gem in the bowels of J.M. Coetzee's outstanding review of Norman Mailer's new book, but I find it strangely analogous to the current breed of lapdog demagoguery.

Of the aspects of Hitler's Vienna period on which the historically minded novelist might build, I mention three. First, despite at times being hungry and even desperate, Hitler disdained manual labor. Second, he hated Vienna. Third, in this phase of his life he can legitimately be called an artist and intellectual, albeit an undistinguished one.

Hitler disdained manual labor because he thought it incompatible with his status—a tenuous status, considering his defective education and the fact that his parents were born peasants— as a member of the lower middle class. His hostility to socialism grew out of a well-founded anxiety about being sucked into a lumpen(ragged) proletariat of workless rural migrants streaming to the capital from all quarters of the empire.

He disliked Vienna because in Vienna for the first time he was made to realize that, as an ethnic German, he belonged to a minority—albeit a powerful one—in a multiethnic state. On the streets he had to rub shoulders with, and even compete with, people who spoke unintelligible languages, dressed differently, smelled strange: Slovenians, Czechs, Slovaks, Magyars, Jews. A xenophobia that was at first suspicious and defensive, a provincial youth's mistrust of foreigners, hardened to become intolerant, aggressive, and finally genocidal.

Hitler may not have been much of an artist (he always had trouble with the human figure—a telling weakness), but there is no denying that, at least in his early years, he was an intellectual of sorts. He read incessantly (though only what he liked), he was interested in ideas (though only in ideas that fitted his preconceptions) and believed in their power, he involved himself in the arts (though his tastes were unshakably provincial and prematurely conservative).


All in all, the adventures of Adolf Hitler in the realm of ideas provide a cautionary tale against letting an impressionable young person loose to pursue his or her education in a state of total freedom. For seven years Hitler lived in a great European city in a time of ferment from which emerged some of the most exciting, most revolutionary thought of the new century. With an unerring eye he picked out not the best but the worst of the ideas around him. Because he was never a student, with lectures to attend and reading lists to follow and fellow students to argue with and assignments to complete and examinations to sit, the half-baked ideas he made his own were never properly challenged. The people he associated with were as ill-educated, volatile, and undisciplined as himself. No one in his circle had the intellectual command to put his chosen authorities in their place as what they were: disreputable and even comical mountebanks. [emphasis mine]

Normally a society can tolerate, even look benignly upon, a layer of autodidacts and cranks on the fringes of its intellectual institutions. What is singular about the career of Hitler is that through a confluence of events in which luck played some part, he was able not only to spread his nonsensical philosophy among his German countrymen but to put it into practice across Europe, with consequences known to all.

Sound like anyone you know? Cherry-picked affirmations, hopelessly cobbled together to be squinted at by the intellectually (and physically) lazy, the sort of people who can swim in a fountain of all sorts of wondrous ideas to explore and compare, and merely come up with the shiniest penny, the cheapest form of philosophizing. That these cluttered bozos run the country, even from the shadows and armpits of its infrastructure and institutions, would cause alarm in any other civilized country, but cannot muster much more than a nod of scant recognition here.

I assume it will take some sort of catalyzing event to grant the remaining sentient beings the will and organization to once and for all rid ourselves of the likes of Jonah Goldberg and Dinesh D'Souza, people who make one wish that Gutenberg had thought better about his invention. Not being able to imagine the specifics of such an event does not mitigate its importance, the vitality of casting sloppy thinkers and shitty writers such as those two, and the rest of the wingnut welfare industry (and that's precisely what it is) into the pit of permanent unemployment.

When useless assholes like Billy Kristol and Rich Lowry -- as well as their "centrist" enablers like Bobo Brooks and Civility Broder -- are cleaning my gutters and washing my cars, then the universe will be set aright. Till then, they're not much better in terms of intellectual probity than the inbred paper-hanger who combed Vienna's back benches in search of dark self-actualization, instead of seeing what was laid right out before him for exactly what it was.

Coalition Of The Billing

Although I have covered the issue before, including fairly recently, comments from another recent post made me want to read up a bit more about what I feel is one of the more pernicious and under-reported trends in the American military -- private contracting, particularly Blackwater, which has capitalized quite well on the money and political connections of its founder, Erik Prince.

Well, Erik Prince, the head of Blackwater, and other Blackwater executives are major bankrollers of the President, of Tom DeLay, of Santorum. They really were -- when those guys were running Congress, Amy, Blackwater had just a revolving door there. They were really welcomed in as heroes. Senator John Warner, the former head of the Senate Armed Services Committee, called them “our silent partner in the global war on terror.” Erik Prince’s sister, Betsy DeVos, is married to Dick Devos, who recently lost the gubernatorial race in Michigan.

But also, Amy, this is a family, the Prince family, that really was one of the primary funders. It was Amway and Dick DeVos in the 1990s, and it was Edgar Prince and his network -- Erik Prince's father -- that really created James Dobson, Focus on the Family -- they gave them the seed money to start it -- Gary Bauer, who was one of the original signers to the Project for a New American Century, a major anti-choice leader in this country, former presidential candidate, founder of the Family Research Council. He credits Edgar Prince, Erik’s father, with giving him the money to start the Family Research Council. We’re talking about people who were at the forefront of the rightwing Christian revolution in this country that really is gaining steam, despite recent electoral defeats.

And what’s really frightening is that you have a man in Erik Prince, who is a neo-crusader, a Christian supremacist, who has been given over a half a billion dollars in federal contracts, and that's not to mention his black contracts, his secret contracts, his contracts with foreign friendly governments like Jordan. This is a man who espouses Christian supremacy, and he has been given, essentially, allowed to create a private army to defend Christendom around the world against secularists and Muslims and others, and has really been brought into the fold. He refers to Blackwater as the sort of FedEx of the Pentagon. He says if you really want a package to get somewhere, do you go with the postal service or do you go with FedEx? This is how these people view themselves. And it embodies everything that President Eisenhower prophesied would happen with the rise of an unchecked military-industrial complex. You have it all in Blackwater.

Get all that? The Prince family, already heirs to a billion-dollar auto-parts buyout, are hooked up with the Amway money of the longtime conservatard DeVos family. Talk about your wingnut pedigrees.

And Prince complements his Christofascist upbringing with what appears to be an extremely efficient and competent operational model:

Slavko Ilic circles the grappling forms, darting in to shout encouragement or correct a technique. He's an extra-large martial arts expert. He sports a shaved head, chiseled arms and the look of a man who does not back down.

"Again!" Ilic barks. "Do it again!"

Getting it right in class now could be the difference between life and death later. Graduates are, most likely, headed to the messy battlefields of the war on terrorism - a fitful conflict with no front lines.

These men are not soldiers, at least not anymore. All have military experience, but in order to join a new breed of warriors - private security contractors - they must pass this eight-week, $20,000 course.

Ilic also holds black belts in four martial arts, according to the article. Seems like he'd be ideal training Special Forces teams in the U.S. Army, rather than for some shadowy private militia owned by a certifiable nut.

Only the authorized get past the gate. A buzz-cut guard sees to that, a handgun strapped to his thigh. Inside, a winding road leads to the heart of the 7,000-acre compound - a bigger spread than any military base in South Hampton Roads.

Heavy equipment scurries to and fro, moving mountains of dirt. Over here, a 6,000-foot runway is taking shape for an air wing coming up from Florida. Over there, a 1-acre hangar will shelter the company's state-of-the-art blimp project.

Just past a 15-acre lake is the new nerve center: a 65,000-square-foot headquarters with 300 rooms. Opened this spring, it is the largest building in Camden County. Machine-gun barrels serve as handles on the heavy front doors. A receptionist sits behind a desk fashioned from armor plating.

These guys are not screwing around. State-of-the-art facilities, equipment, and instructors, and a hands-off policy from the civil authorities -- indeed, the secrecy and authority of Prince's organization appears to be tacitly endorsed by the local civic leaders and the federal legislators Blackwater contracts with.

Contractors and soldiers also can get in each other's way. There have been episodes of friendly fire and missions that don't mesh.

Another point of tension: The military talent drain. Hefty paychecks available at companies like Blackwater are luring some of the best and brightest away from the service while creating friction with those still in uniform.

Issues like these have prompted a number of politicians to push for greater regulation of the private military industry. They want established standards and better oversight.

The spotlight fell on Blackwater in March, when Vice Chairman Cofer Black announced at a conference in Jordan that his company was ready to provide peacekeeping brigades to foreign governments and international bodies. News accounts of his speech raised the specter of a private army for rent to the highest bidder. The company insists Black never said any such thing.

It was hardly Blackwater's first time on the front page. Its contractors have shown up repeatedly in war zone photographs - a muscular wall of men in mirrored sunglasses, bristling with firepower, guarding VIPs. Those images helped make Blackwater an icon for its industry.

Then there was Fallujah, which put the company's name on everyone's TV screen - and changed the course of the war. After four Blackwater contractors were killed there, Marines were ordered to pound the city - a shift in strategy that fanned the flames of insurgency across Iraq.

Cofer Black is a goddamned creep; I just felt it was important to mention that. But more critically, as shown above, not only have there been instances where the mercenaries' mission has conflicted with an operation being performed by the actual armed forces of the United States. Worse yet, Fallujah was besieged, pounded flat, and turned into a ghetto of retinal scans and forced labor, in no small part as a response to the Blackwater casualties. Thousands of innocent people have died so a select few could make some money and live the life of adventure and danger that they believe is their entitlement.

And Erik Prince and friends have capitalized on all this with a ruthless precision that makes them all the more dangerous.

Peter Singer (who also coined the phrase which titles this post) wrote a comprehensive overview of the overall situation for the Columbia Journal of Transnational Law several years ago. (And believe me, if you're not reading the CJTL, you are missing out on one hell of a swimsuit issue.) One excerpt stood out to me in particular:

Being service-orientated businesses that operate on the global level and often have small infrastructures, PMFs [privatized military firms] have the ability to transform in order to circumvent legislation or escape prosecution. That is, there are specific firm tactics that have allowed PMFs to defeat local state regulation through recreating or relocating themselves. If the local government proves inhospitable or begins to target their contracting, PMFs can shift their bases of operation to more amenable areas. For example, at the time that South African legislation began to focus on his firm in the late 1990s, Eben Barlow, the founder of Executive Outcomes, expressed that he was not all that concerned. “Three other African countries have offered us a home and a big European group has even proposed buying us out.”

Another escape option is for firms simply to take on a new corporate structure or name whenever they are legally challenged. The Lifeguard firm, operating in Sierra Leone, was considered by many to be a spin-off from Executive Outcomes, which eventually closed in South Africa. Lifeguard was made up of many of Executive Outcomes’ former employees, maintained some of its old corporate ties, and operated in its former contract zones. Similarly, the Capricorn Air firm was re-registered as Ibis Air in Angola and South Africa and later was reported to have shifted to Malta. The result is not only that national legislation is a difficult long-term solution, but also that attempts to eliminate the firms tend only to drive them and their clients further underground, away from public oversight.

The second problem with national regulation results from the often extraterritorial nature of possible enforcement. The real risk of gross misbehavior by PMFs is not during their operations in sound states like the United States, but rather the contracts they have in weak or failing states. The inherent problem is that local authorities in such areas often have neither the power nor the wherewithal to challenge these firms. For example, the weak central government of Sierra Leone could not control its own capital, let alone monitor and punish the actions of an outside military firm.

There's a lot there that has been borne out in the results, at least what little that has actually leaked to the corporate media. Corroborated allegations of private security personnel (specifically from Blackwater, Titan, and CACI) having active involvement in what could euphemistically be described as "coercive interrogation" techniques, such as those we all saw from Abu Ghraib -- at least, the photos we children were actually permitted to see.

But the name Executive Outcomes also rang a bell, and here's why:

On 25 November, Sir Mark Thatcher faces a daunting appearance in a South African court on charges that he helped fund a military coup in the West African state of Equatorial Guinea. If found guilty he could face 15 years in a South African prison.

The Money Programme has travelled to Africa to investigate the full story of the attempted coup and the men who led it. What was Sir Mark's role, and how much did he really know?

Sir Mark's business career has long attracted controversy, and rumours have persisted about the true source of his money.

After a series of controversial business deals in Europe, the Middle East, the Far East and the USA, in 1995 he settled in Cape Town.

It was here that he met another British expat, former SAS officer Simon Mann, and this was the friendship which would lead to his current predicament.

Mr Mann had extensive military experience, and drew on it to set up a private security company called Executive Outcomes. Last year he was presented with a potentially lucrative business opportunity.

It should be pointed out that Obiang is a scumbag's scumbag, a vicious little thug whose brutality seems almost designed to make, say, Mobutu Sese Seko look like a pussy in comparison. The world be none the poorer if Obiang were toppled and summarily staked to an anthill, reputedly Obiang's preferred method of dealing with political opponents.

But obviously that's not the point; there is no indication that opposition leader Severo Moto would be any better than Obiang, nor can any comparative good be obtained from allowing a bunch of corporate Hessians to prop Moto into place, ostensibly for the good of Equatorial Guinea. It's a criminally negligent dodge, especially since that country, given Nigeria's increasing instability, is becoming more and more of a West African oil asset for us.

And if anything, it also increases the capacity for exploitation of these corrupt petrocracies -- American tankers merely show up at the offshore platforms, located dozens of miles out in the ocean, fill up, and return to Houston. Not even the pretense of helping with the ancillary economies that would ordinarily spring up in such locales -- restaurants, resorts, and the like. It's a sweet little racket, one that definitionally disenfranchises most Equatorial Guineans. So Executive Outcomes' little corporate protection racket, in conjunction with such operations, is one that is designed to protect the thug-of-the-week from his own people.

That sounds decidedly un-Christian to these heathen ears, but I lost that tune many years ago.

Here's more on the specific functions (and crimes) of these companies:

As the U.S. military wages the war on terrorism, it is increasingly relying on for-profit companies like Blackwater to do work normally performed by soldiers. Defense contractors now do more than simply build airplanes -- they maintain those planes on the battlefield and even fly them in some of the world's most troubled conflict zones. Private military companies supply bodyguards for the president of Afghanistan, construct detention camps to hold suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, and pilot armed reconnaissance planes and helicopter gunships to eradicate coca crops in Colombia. They operate the intelligence and communications systems at the U.S. Northern Command in Colorado, which is responsible for coordinating a response to any attack on the United States. And licensed by the State Department, they are contracting with foreign governments, training soldiers and reorganizing militaries in Nigeria, Bulgaria, Taiwan, and Equatorial Guinea.


The United States has a history of dispatching private military companies to handle the dirtiest foreign assignments. The Pentagon quietly hired for-profit firms to train Vietnamese troops before America officially entered the war, and the CIA secretly used private companies to transport weapons to the Nicaraguan contras during the 1980s after Congress had cut off aid. But as the Bush administration replaces record numbers of soldiers with contractors, it creates more opportunities for private firms to carry out clandestine operations banned by Congress or unpopular with the public. "We can see some merit in using an outside contractor," Charles Snyder, deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, recently told reporters, "because then we're not using U.S. uniforms and bodies."

Like the Clinton administration, the Bush administration is relying heavily on private military companies to wage the war on drugs in South America. Federal law bans U.S. soldiers from participating in Colombia's war against left-wing rebels and from training army units with ties to right-wing paramilitaries infamous for torture and political killings. There are no such restrictions on for-profit companies, though, and since the late 1990s, the United States has paid private military companies an estimated $1.2 billion, both to eradicate coca crops and to help the Colombian army put down rebels who use the drug trade to finance their insurgency.

The largest beneficiary of this privatized war has been DynCorp, which is helping Colombia's national police destroy coca crops with aerial defoliants. But according to experts familiar with the war, the company's role goes well beyond spraying fields. DynCorp employees "are engaged in combatant roles, fighting in counterinsurgency operations against the Colombian rebel groups," says Peter Singer, a foreign-policy fellow at the Brookings Institution and author of Corporate Warriors. "Indeed, the DynCorp personnel have a local reputation for being both arrogant and far too willing to get ‘wet,' going out on frequent combat missions and engaging in firefights." DynCorp has not responded to the allegation.

Relying on DynCorp and other private military companies has enabled Washington to circumvent Congress and avoid attention. "If the narcotraffickers shot American soldiers down, you could see the headlines: ‘U.S. Troops Killed in Colombia,'" says Myles Frechette, the U.S. ambassador to Colombia during the Clinton administration. By contrast, the 1992 assassination of three DynCorp employees, whose helicopter was shot down during an anti-drug mission in Peru, merited exactly 113 words in the New York Times. (In February, when another air-craft crashed during a drug operation in Colombia, three employees of Northrop Grumman were taken hostage.)

Private military companies also played an unheralded role in the Balkans. After the breakup of the former Yugoslavia, the United Nations placed an embargo on providing military assistance to either Serbia or Croatia. Some in the State Department, however, wanted to counter the dominance of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic by strengthening Croatian president Franjo Tudjman, a self-proclaimed Aryan supremacist. Private military companies once again provided the answer. In 1994, the State Department issued a license to MPRI to provide military training to the Croatian army. "It allowed the United States to exert a good deal of political heft while reserving its official stance of not being involved," says Avant, the international-affairs expert at George Washington University.

MPRI insists that it provided no combat training to Croatian troops, saying it merely instructed the country's military in how to operate in a Western-style democracy under civilian control. But according to independent reports, the company taught basic infantry tactics to Croatian soldiers and explained how to coordinate assaults. In August 1995, after the training ended, the Croatian army launched Operation Storm, a U.S.-style military operation designed to take back the disputed Krajina region from the Serbs. The four-day assault was a bloody episode of ethnic cleansing. Croatian graduates of MPRI's training carried out summary executions and indiscriminately shelled civilians, leaving hundreds dead and more than 150,000 homeless. Afterward, the Croatians expressed their gratitude for MPRI's help. "They lecture us on tactics and big war operations," one officer told The Observer of London, "which is why we needed them for Operation Storm."

Such incidents point to the greatest danger underlying the increasing push to privatize war. Soldiers who disobey orders or violate standards of conduct can be court-martialed and incarcerated; their supervisors can be reassigned or forced to retire. Private companies, by contrast, are able to operate in almost complete secrecy, with little accountability to civilian or military authorities. Consider the case of two DynCorp employees who exposed a sex-trafficking scandal in Bosnia, where the company was assisting the American military with peacekeeping operations during the late 1990s. According to court documents, DynCorp employees bought and sold local Bosnian girls, some as young as 13, for use as sex slaves, often confiscating the passports of victims so they couldn't escape. The men were not subjected to local or U.S. criminal charges; DynCorp simply whisked them home -- and fired the two whistleblowers.

The lack of accountability could have grave consequences in battle. The Pentagon has become so dependent on private military companies that it literally cannot wage war without them. Troops already rely on for-profit contractors to maintain 28 percent of all weapons systems, and the Bush administration wants to increase that figure to 50 percent. In most cases, private military companies can legally withdraw their employees if faced with danger in a combat zone -- an escape clause that worries many military officials. If contractors flee when the shooting starts, it could sever supply lines, ground aircraft, and leave soldiers to run complex weapons systems they no longer have the skill or know-how to keep in working order. "There are some weapons systems that the U.S. military forces do not have the capability to do their own maintenance on," concedes David Young, a deputy commander at the Defense Contract Management Agency. "When you take these weapons systems into a combat zone, is contract support still reliable, especially if you are facing weapons of mass destruction? It's a source of worry when you're talking about chemical or biological weapons."

Where to begin? These companies operate with almost total impunity, extra-nationally, supra-nationally, with no accountability or even modest oversight. As the article points out, there's nothing to stop a few bastards from making some money and getting some strange on the side by selling Balkan teenagers, or maybe doing a midnight run of some of that Colombian dope they're supposed to be eradicating. How do you think it gets here in the first place, on the back of Juan Valdez' trusty mule, or a Miami Vice speedboat, or something along that line? Or is it more likely the connected creeps and motherfuckers who operate in the shadows, at high profit and minimal exposure?

That 43 lbs of heroin was found on board the Lear Jet owned by Wally Hilliard, the owner of [Mohammed] Atta’s flight school, just three weeks after Atta enrolled – the biggest seizure ever in Central Florida – was just bad luck. That Hilliard was not charged shows how specious the claims for conspiracy truly are.

That Hilliard’s plane had made 30-round trips to Venezuela with the same passengers who always paid cash, that the plane had been supplied by a pair of drug smugglers who had also outfitted CIA drug runner Barry Seal, and that 9/11 commissioner Richard ben-Veniste had been Seal’s attorney before Seal’s murder, shows nothing but the lengths to which conspiracists will go to draw sinister conclusions.

This does not mean that Blackwater or DynCorp had any specific involvement with Wally Hilliard or Barry Seal, only to point out that, given the lack of transparency and accountability, it's very easy for such illicit activities to take place practically unnoticed.

And with someone like Erik Prince, a scion of what could charitably be characterized as the moneyed christian supremacist movement that flourishes in various corners of the vaunted heartland, the possibilities range from the merely unseemly to the downright scary.

The drive by the Christian right to take control of military chaplaincies, which now sees radical Christians holding roughly 50 percent of chaplaincy appointments in the armed services and service academies, is part of a much larger effort to politicize the military and law enforcement. This effort signals the final and perhaps most deadly stage in the long campaign by the radical Christian right to dismantle America’s open society and build a theocratic state. A successful politicization of the military would signal the end of our democracy.

During the past two years I traveled across the country to research and write the book “American Fascists: The Christian Right and the War on America.” I repeatedly listened to radical preachers attack as corrupt and godless most American institutions, from federal agencies that provide housing and social welfare to public schools and the media. But there were two institutions that never came under attack—the military and law enforcement. While these preachers had no interest in communicating with local leaders of other faiths, or those in the community who did not subscribe to their call for a radical Christian state, they assiduously courted and flattered the military and police. They held special services and appreciation days for all four branches of the armed services and for various law enforcement agencies. They encouraged their young men and women to enlist or to join the police or state troopers. They sought out sympathetic military and police officials to attend church events where these officials were lauded and feted for their Christian probity and patriotism. They painted the war in Iraq not as an occupation but as an apocalyptic battle by Christians against Islam, a religion they regularly branded as “satanic.” All this befits a movement whose final aesthetic is violence. It also befits a movement that, in the end, would need the military and police forces to seize power in American society.

One of the arguments used to assuage our fears that the mass movement being built by the Christian right is fascist at its core is that it has not yet created a Praetorian Guard, referring to the paramilitary force that defied legal constraints, made violence part of the political discourse and eventually plunged ancient Rome into tyranny and despotism. A paramilitary force that operates outside the law, one that sows fear among potential opponents and is capable of physically silencing those branded by their leaders as traitors, is a vital instrument in the hands of despotic movements. Communist and fascist movements during the last century each built paramilitary forces that operated beyond the reach of the law.

This is where a guy like Prince comes in and establishes a presence. Prince himself has averred that Blackwater's true mission has been to provide the best facilities and training for specialized security ops, without all the pesky carrying costs (such as health care). But that is disingenuous, given the role of Prince's own family in endorsing and supporting some of the most radical Christianist culture-warrior organizations in the country.

This is the downside of all the cost-cutting in the military budget over the past decade or so -- private contractors become ever more plentiful, frequently performing jobs that armed forces personnel are no longer even trained to do. Meanwhile, the institutionalized neutrality insisted upon (in at least a pro forma manner) becomes circumvented by the growing power and influence of these private organizations with their own explicit agenda.

What happens if a heathen American populace decides on an electoral course not to Erik Prince's liking? This is not some ramshackle compound of racist yahoos in Buttfuck, Idaho, this is a military-grade establishment a short drive from the nation's capital.

“Contracting out security to groups like Blackwater undermines our constitutional democracy,” said Michael Ratner, the president of the Center for Constitutional Rights. “Their actions may not be subject to constitutional limitations that apply to both federal and state officials and employees—including First Amendment and Fourth Amendment rights to be free from illegal searches and seizures. Unlike police officers they are not trained in protecting constitutional rights and unlike police officers or the military they have no system of accountability whether within their organization or outside it. These kind of paramilitary groups bring to mind Nazi Party brownshirts, functioning as an extrajudicial enforcement mechanism that can and does operate outside the law. The use of these paramilitary groups is an extremely dangerous threat to our rights."

The politicization of the military, the fostering of the belief that violence must be used to further a peculiar ideology rather than defend a democracy, was on display recently when Air Force and Army generals and colonels, filmed in uniform at the Pentagon, appeared in a promotional video distributed by the Christian Embassy, a radical Washington-based organization dedicated to building a “Christian America.”

Maybe the individual rent-a-thugs who work for Erik Prince share his ideology, maybe they don't. Is there even a remote question that that is not a chance worth taking? Maybe we should ask the folks in New Orleans about that one. I'm sure Geraldo Rivera's looking into it.