Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Mysterious Source of Secret Power behind the Clinton Foundation

It was December, 2000. The Clintons were preparing to vacate the White House after a hugely successful eight-year stint. Mrs. Clinton had already secured a Senate seat in New York. The couple had purchased a stately home—with a $1.7 million price tag—in Chappaqua a year prior, as a means of establishing residence for Mrs. Clinton to allow her Senate run. But they had also just purchased a home in D.C. for $2.85 million, dropping $855,000 as a down payment. The big-money speech circuit was beckoning to Bill. Both had secured solid pensions through their past and imminent service in Federal and State government. Yet some years later, Hillary would claim that she and Bill were "dead broke" and in debt when they left the White House, a claim weirdly buttressed by unsupported stories throughout 2001 of the Clintons pillaging the White House for valuables at the time of their departure.

In reality, however, Bill Clinton had uncovered—some time in 1996—a stash of secret documents that included not only untouched and loaded Swiss accounts dating back to FDR's time, but also extensive details on the inner workings and dealings between the U.S. government, European governments, and a spate of international corporations and holding companies. And the Clintons had a plan, a plan to parlay this wealth and information into a powerful organization whose tentacles would reach around the world and provide the pair with more power and access than had been known to any leaders since the time of the Borgias. This was the genesis of the Clinton Foundation...

It would be great if this last paragraph was true, wouldn't it? Not only would it scream out for a Dan Brown kind of thriller, but it would go a long way towards explaining why the Clinton Foundation has become such a behemoth. But it's not true. The Clinton Foundation's beginnings are far more humble. It was conceived in 1997, then officially founded in 2001 after Bill Clinton left office as a 501(c)(3) corporation with the intent to bring various forces together throughput the world to meet the challenges of the world. A heady goal in one respect, but a relatively open one. Initially, it was funded by some of the money Bill Clinton was earning for speech-making and appearances, along with donations he was able to extract from both companies and individuals (particularly celebrities).

And there's nothing wrong with any of this, really. If people want to pay Clinton to speak, if they want to give money to a charitable org, that's their business. By all accounts, the Foundation has done many positive things. There's some disagreement on how much actual bang for the buck the Foundation achieves, and that's partly due to it's unusual structure and open-ended mission statement. Certainly, the Foundation is and has been footing the bill for the jet-set lifestyle of Bill Clinton and others. But it's far from the only charitable org that does this. People are free to assess it in this regard as they will.

As a vehicle for Bill Clinton's post-Presidency, the Foundation has served its purpose well. It has kept Bill relevant, has allowed him to mix with the rich and shameless freely, along with the major power-brokers and politicos throughout the world. With regard to raising money, the Foundation was very much like the University of Miami Hurricanes—the football team—recruitment program of the eighties and early nineties: there's no place it wouldn't go, no door it was afraid to open, no meeting it wouldn't have, if there was enough talent (dollar signs for the Foundation) involved. And again, good enough. If the monies of corporate cronies, despotic strongmen, and oligarchs could be pried away and used for good works, why shouldn't they? Bill Clinton's ability in this regard—to recruit donors as it were—was unmatched.

And while Hillary Clinton was a Senator, she kept herself apart from the Foundation officially and Bill went about his business, even as everyone with a clue knew that she represented yet another hook for the Foundation, something that was neither new nor unusual in D.C. politics. There's always been a bit the "wink-wink, nod-nod" at this kind of behavior. It's no different from spouses of politicians working as Capitol Hill lobbyists, business owners getting preferential treatment from politicians they supported, or big donors getting gigs as ambassadors and the like ("Pass the sweet and sour shrimp!").

But when Hillary Clinton became Secretary of State in 2009, even the enablers knew this necessitated some actions. Someone in that position can't afford to be seen parceling out favors to foreign interests, based on things like donations to a spouse's foundation, right? Accordingly, Bill promised to release lists of donors each year and to allow Federal ethics officers to evaluate donations to the Foundation from foreign governments (I don't actually know that any such evaluations have ever taken place, however).

In practice, however, these changes have amounted to almost nothing insofar as the Foundation has never experienced a serious setback in donations. Indeed, donations went through the roof in 2009, the year when Bill was supposedly putting the brakes on his fundraising, for the sake of appearances.

Now, with the Presidential race in full swing, people are questioning the specifics of donations during the period when Hillary was Secretary of State. Even a cursory look at the list of donors shows that a good number of them met with Hillary in an official capacity. E-mails show Foundation officers communicating with Hillary's assistant, specifically asking for then receiving access to Madame Secretary.

Yet legions of Hillary's and Bill's fanboys and the willing dupes in the media want everyone to ignore this, to pretend it didn't really happen the way it most assuredly did, or—if it did happen this way—it's just not that big of a deal, it's not unusual, it's the way things are done.

Maybe the last is true; it often is the way things are done. It's certainly the way things were done in the age of machine politics. It's likely the way things are done under throwbacks like Chris Christie. And it's often the way things are done under governments that lack democratic processes and power-limiting documents like constitutions. And to be fair, it also can be the way things are done under the latter as well, though when that's the case, there are two caveats: 1) it's never done so openly and explicitly; people have the good sense to obscure their skulduggery, and 2) when they don't and they get caught, they usually get burned down.

Herein lies the true greatness (?) of the Clintons: ultimately, they're unbelievably brazen (especially Bill). They trust their water-carriers—and Bill's charm—to defend them and are unafraid to put to the light of day what is usually carefully hidden.

Think about it for a moment. Agents of foreign governments (or multinational corporations) donate money to a family, then are granted audiences to a member of that family in power, who then provides support or favors to the foreign government. That's not even quid pro quo, it's a simple system of patronage common in monarchies and aristocracies of the past, the kind of governments that the founders of the United States were fleeing from, the kind of system they were specifically trying to prevent with the Constitution. Granted, preventing this in toto was never going to happen, but at the very least it wasn't supposed to be a systematic feature of the Federal government. But that's exactly what it became while Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State.

And again, it points to the brazenness of Bill and Hillary Clinton. People call Donald Trump a huckster—and he is—and label many other politicians in the same way. But Trump nailed the correct terminology here, with regard to the Clintons and the Foundation: grifters. It's not easy pulling off a successful long con. There's a lot of work involved, a lot of people who need to be on board, and a lot of groundwork that needs to be laid. But it's tough not to see the long con here, the foundation of the con (with the Clinton Foundation), the approach (the solicitation for donations), the build-up (the promise of access), and of course the pay-off (setting up a long term pattern of donations).

Through it all, the principals (Bill and Hillary) stand fast, deny every accusation, challenge naysayers to prove malfeasance, and continue to pump the scheme. As I said, this is hard work, and takes serious gumption. In this respect, one can only stand back and admire the game and the gamemasters.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Michter's US-1 Barrel Strength Rye Whiskey

I love American Pie (the song, not the movie), there's no getting around that. I know all the lyrics of course and have many fond memories of Promo Night at the University of Miami Rathskeller, wherein last call was immediately followed by American Pie, oftentimes with some number of partially-inebriated students putting their arms around each other in large circles and singing along loudly with the music.

But that was the eighties. And for the most part, everyone was drinking beer, Absolut, Jack Daniels, or Bacardi (provided they weren't in the restroom doing a line, or in the alley taking a toke or two). When we heard about good old boys drinking whiskey and rye, we generally didn't know too much about it, one way or the other.

So for those unfamiliar with the terminology, rye is actually a kind of whiskey (not whisky, which is the spelling for such spirits emanating from Canada, Scotland, and Japan). And whiskey references most spirits that are distilled from fermented grain mash. By and large, most big name distilleries in the United Stated produce bourbon. Bourbon is whiskey made mostly from corn (there's almost always a mix of grains used, but if over half of the grain consists of corn, it's bourbon). But whiskeys can also be made mostly with malted barley (malt whiskey), with wheat (wheat whiskey), or with rye (rye whiskey).


So, the good old boys weren't really drinking whiskey and rye (which I think many people thought was the name of a mixed drink). They were drinking whiskey and whiskey, or more probably bourbon and rye. And that's still a fine time, still a reason to be hanging out at a dry levee singing "this will be the day that I die"...

Anyway, in general I drink single malt scotch, red wine, or beer (none to excess, of course). I had mostly given up on mixed drinks, aside from the occasional Bloody Mary. But a recent dinner out at a Wynwood eatery with some friends opened a door for me in this regard. The restaurant was R House. Sitting at the bar there, I opted for one of their signature cocktails: a Russell's Reserve Old Fashioned. The drink was served with either bourbon or rye, but knowing a bit of mixologist history, I opted for the rye (Manhattans and Old Fashions are properly made with rye). And it was quite good. Quite.

So I started to have Old Fashioneds now and again when I was out. But I soon encountered some problems. Not every bar or restaurant stocks rye whiskey. Worse still, not everyone stocks bitters. So I thought I'd add a bottle to my home bar, thus allowing me to make my own from time to time. After spending a good hour looking at the various ryes at Total Wine, I finally opted for this one, Michter's US-1 Barrel Strength Rye:

If it looks a little low, well that's because I've been drinking it.

Now, if I was reviewing a scotch here, I'd go into detail about it's specific characteristics, about things like its finish and the various flavors on its palate. The same is true if this were about a wine. But we are talking American whiskey here. And I'm buying it to make Old Fashioneds (and the occasional Manhattan). So here's the deal, short and sweet: this is an excellent rye, by my standards. It puts Kentucky bourbons (like Jack Daniels and Wild Turkey) to shame when it comes to an Old Fashioned mix. If you like a good Old Fashioned, this is the rye for you, no question about it. It's perfectly spiced, nice and dry, and mixes cleanly.

All that said, it probably behooves me to go over the proper recipe for an Old Fashioned. Here it is:
Old Fashioned 
2 oz. rye whiskey
1/2 oz. simple syrup
3 dashes aromatic bitters
1 orange (preferred) or lemon peel twist
1 large ice cube 
Directions: Add syrup and bitters to an Old Fashioned glass (a short tumbler), followed by the ice cube, then the rye. Mix with small spoon or stick, then toss in the piece of orange or lemon peel. Sip.
Instead of simple syrup, a sugar cube can be used, but then it needs to be crushed in the glass first with a splash of water, as well. If you're at a bar, you order an Old Fashioned, and the bartender goes for some Maraschino cherries, please stop them. That's not an Old Fashioned. Look around on the Net and you might find some people insisting that the drink requires a mashed cherry (and maybe even a mashed orange slice). They're wrong. And by and large, they're also British. The Old Fashioned as an American drink, made with a truly American whiskey: rye. That's the way it is.

And again, if you're looking for a good rye for your Old Fashioneds, Michter's is a fine choice, especially given the history of the distillery. Cheers!

A brief history of plagiarism

Note: I found at least 14 pieces with this same (or nearly the same) title—"A brief history of plagiarism"—on the internet. And the title itself is based on and intended to evoke Stephen Hawking's A Brief History of Time. But I'm still going to use it. So there.
To quote from Merriam-Webster, plagiarism is "the act of using another person's words or ideas without giving credit to that person." Most of us understand this, know what is plagiarism and what is not. We learned about it in school at one point or another, usually from a teacher who told us to never copy someone else's words, but rather to restate an idea or the like in our own words. And it's not enough to just change a word or two in this regard; one needs to reorganize things as well, to restructure sentences, in order to properly restate an idea without plagiarizing someone else.

The root of plagiarism, plagiarize, and plagiarist is the Latin word plagiarius, which means "kidnapper." It is, itself, derived from the Latin word plaga (plural: plagis), which referred to a net used by game hunters. The relationship is obvious: tool for catching game to kidnapper to someone who steals another's words. And it is a funny testament to how language works, how it evolves. We often wonder—or maybe even complain—about how a word or one of its derivatives changes in meaning. More often than not, it's because someone used it in a figurative or non-traditional way and that usage resonated with others. Such was likely the case here, multiple times.

The first known usage of plagiarize in reference to word-theft was, again according to Merriam-Webster, in 1621, though "plagiary" (meaning "literary thief") entered the English lexicon some decades prior, perhaps in the 1590's. And in this beginning, the issue was very much a literary one, as it was used by people like the playwright Ben Johnson, among others, to complain about his work/words being stolen. The history of plagiarism with respect to the arts is, by and large, the largest component of the history of plagiarism. It continues to this day, in novels, movies, and music.

And this all points to a problem with my "brief history": there is the history of the term and its use (and how it became a legal term, as well) and then there is the history of the action, itself (using someone else's words as one's own).

The latter obviously goes back much farther in time. For instance, a case can be made that the great poet Homer was, in fact, nothing more than a great plagiarist, that his works were nothing more than the stories told by traveling bards put down into written form with no credit given to those whom originated the tales (to be fair, a case can also be made that there was no actual historical Homer). Then there's the Bible (yes, the actual Bible) and the issue of plagiarism within, particularly with regard to the story of Noah and it's similarities to parts of the Epic of Gilgamesh. Of course one can adopt a more nuanced view and allow that both are derived from the same source: tales handed down across generations. Still, in terms of our modern understanding of what constitutes plagiarism, there may be something here, as whomever tells a tale first tends to have ownership rights of the same, and those who retell it are usually expected to acknowledge the source.

But I guess the current concerns are more about legalities and people currently in the public eye who use the words and/or ideas of others without attribution. And in this regard, the history really begins in 1710, in England, with the passage of the Statute of Anne (which followed the lapsing of the Licensing Act in 1694, something supported heavily by John Locke, interestingly enough). In short, what happened here was that publishers lost their absolute control over copyrights and the government stepped in to protect the interests of authors (yet another in the long list of firsts for the English legal system). The statute was far from perfect, however, and it's flaws became apparent across time (leading to repeal and replacement), but it was the first big step in creating a legal framework that could include the issue of plagiarism.

Let's jump forward a bit, however, and look at the issue of plagiarism in the public (politicians and journalists) arena. Here's a recent story from The Guardian that details the plagiarism woes of current political faces, including Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Stephen Harper, and Ben Carson (also Maureen Dowd). And then there is the plagiarism of noted intellectual giant Fareed Zakaria, the self-plagiarism (yes, that's a real thing) of Jonah Lehrer, along with the plagiarism of political leaders like Rand Paul, Senator John Walsh, and Vladimir Putin. I'm not going to detail the rest of these cases, but suffice it to say that there's little room for doubt in them: all are guilty of plagiarism, the use of another's words or ideas without attribution.

Yet, despite this, they all push on. Most apologized for their "terrible mistake" or "momentary lapse," and ultimately suffered very little in their professional lives for their actions. Honestly, I have to admit that Zakaria's case bugs me the most. His plagiarism incidents spanned years (probably there are more that just haven't been caught) and he should know better, though I think in his case it was just pure laziness; he didn't need the angle, he didn't need to plagiarize, because what he took wasn't all that impressive and he is a smart guy.

But I digress.

The point is that these days, plagiarism seems to be this huge thing in the moment but then quickly recedes and becomes little more than a blip on someone's public resume. And by the way, I'm not interested in hearing about speechwriters and how some of these cases fall on them; whomever gives a speech—and functionally claims it is their speech—fucking owns that speech, in every single way, from every single direction. There's no one else to blame.

As I writer, I want to do a lot of blaming in this regard. I really do. I don't care if someone copies my words or ideas, as along as they give me credit, even if they get a lot more out of the words or ideas. The point is the credit and the intellectual honesty of giving it. In this regard, I'd point to Dan Brown (whose novels I like), The Da Vinci Code, and Brown's failure to credit the authors of Holy Blood, Holy Grail a source for many of the ideas in the novel. Two of the latter's authors sued Brown and lost, and maybe they should have lost, legally speaking. But it's obvious to me—having read both books—that Brown was using Holy Blood, Holy Grail as a source, and he should have acknowledged this. If he had, I would bet there would never have been any sort of dust-up, whatsoever. And it would have been the right thing to do, regardless (I could tell a similar story using James Cameron, Avatar, and a bunch of other people).

But getting back to the politicos, the issue of harm is meaningful here: is there any when a politician lifts a good turn-of-the-phrase or a good story from another politician? Damn right there is. The harm is not only to the person who originated the phase or the story, but to the voter who is getting duped. And it's a consequence of professionalism in politics, by and large, in politicians employing the aforementioned speechwriters. This is reflected on all of the stories on the history of this kind of stuff now rapidly appearing throughout the media: these "histories" don't go back very far. Most start with Biden. A few reach a little farther back, but much.


Well, once upon a time, the best politicians were wordsmiths who excelled not only at giving speeches, but also at writing them. As the latter function has been more and more frequently contracted out to speechwriters, the incidence and likelihood of plagiarism has increased dramatically. The puppeteering in the political realm is reaching new heights, I think, and it's not just in this arena. It's also in the creation of legislation proper, wherein our elected leaders employee others to not only draft legislation, but to also read the legislation drafted by others (so they, the elected leaders, can understand it).

I'm not going to offer a solution for these larger issues here, but when it comes to plagiarism by politicians and the like (including journalists), the answer is a simple one: we need to stop accepting it. Again, we're outraged in the moment, but that moment quickly passes. To use Biden as an example, he committed plagiarism on multiple occasions, going back to his law school days. He got caught multiple times, as well, and was forced to admit to his mistakes (really, I think he should have been expelled from law school, but that's on the school, not on him). One can say "good enough, he admitted he erred and we are all human," and that's true; he gets to move on with his life. But I am of the opinion that these sorts of transgressions should represent a death knell for public service, for elected offices. Biden—like others caught plagiarizing—needn't be pilloried for the rest of his life, but neither should we, the voting public, need to suffer such a person in office.

And it's here that people truly get the government they deserve. Because there are enough people willing to gloss over these incidents simply for partisan reasons. We need to wake up. Biden's political career should have been over. There's nothing so special about him; there are more than enough qualified people who could have taken his place. Ditto for Rand Paul and the other politicians caught plagiarizing. And double ditto for the journalists who did the same; these people pursued careers wherein honesty is a prerequisite. They effed up and should, I think, have to move on to something else. And we, as citizens, should have the integrity to force their hand in this regard, by not voting for them, by not listening to them, by not reading them. The fact that we don't means we'll just keep getting more of the same.

Friday, July 15, 2016

The return of Larry Darrell

Arise! Awake! Approach the great and learn. Like the sharp edge of a razor is that path, so the wise say—hard to tread and difficult to cross.—The Upanishads, 1.3.14
Life speeds away. In a moment it's gone, all of it, from the monuments people spend their lives building to the relations they spend their lives ignoring or forgetting. We look now to the implements of modernity for all things, for work, for friendship, for recreation, for security, and for connections to the world around us. As I sit writing these words, on one of those devices—a laptop—I periodically glance at another—a cellphone—to be sure no one is trying to reach me, to be sure that I am—for the moment—unencumbered by the world around me. Yet, I could just as easily detach myself completely, could turn the latter off and discard the former for a stack of paper and a pen. But I choose not to.

Outside, the sun burns brightly on a summer's day; it's late afternoon and, surprisingly at first, there are people out and about, on foot and on bicycles, traversing local paths and filling local parks. A renaissance of outdoor activity, it would seem, non-exist a mere seven or eight days prior, especially in the humid City of Dis that is South Florida. What has changed? Very little, in the physical world. But in the virtual world, Pokémon Go hit the app market fours days ago and now occupies the top spot for downloads, both in the Google Play Store and in the Apple App Store. And it's drawn millions of gamers out into the physical world for the promise of benefits in the virtual world. Because to play, users need to physically walk around searching for wild Pokémon to capture. Tweens, teenagers, and young adults are playing, mostly. But there's no actual age limit, as many adult professionals are fully engaged, as well.

Yet, the last week or so has also seen crowds in other places, unhappy crowds congregating for very different reasons than the promise of a Bulbasaur, a Charmander, or—for the very lucky—a Pikachu. The nation's soul has been rocked once again by a series of killings: first several cases of police officers killing black suspects—I'm being generous with the word "suspect," because as far as anyone can tell, one of the men killed did absolutely nothing wrong, whatsoever—in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, then a retributive attack on police officers in Dallas by a black shooter who was "looking to kill white people," especially those wearing blue. Predictably, there have been widespread protests over the former incidents in a number of major cities, along with non-stop outrage on social media and from the talking heads on cable news. And from the not-too-distant-past, the massacre in Orlando still afflicts the conscience of the nation.

Beyond that, there is Brexit, international terrorism (last night in Nice, France over eighty people were killed in an attack by another "lone" terrorist), the continued war against ISIS, the Zika virus, corporate greed, Russian oligarchs, Chinese sweatshops, Somalia, and the United States Presidential race between a widely disliked Washington insider and a self-important, self-promoting tool whose likes strutting his stuff in the WWE.

And then there's the day to day struggle to just survive, to put food on the table, to make ends meet, which—depending on the "where" and "who"—runs the gamut from true life-or-death decisions to worrying about one's market positions.

How can someone wrap themselves up in a pointless cellphone game—there really are no winners or losers in Pokémon Go—when #BlackLivesMatter? How can one worry about these relatively limited incidents in the U.S. when thousands upon thousands are dying or becoming refugees from war-torn areas in the Middle East? When millions upon millions are suffering all over the world, when children are going to bed hungry, when so many lack access to things like clean water or healthcare? When Climate Change threatens the world-as-we-know-it and the billions who live on it?

Where are the World's priorities? Where should they be?

But "the World" is not an entity. It never has been and never will be. The collective consciousness of "the World" or of a people, of a country, of a city is myth: there are no Zeitgeists, cultural or otherwise. There are only individuals, each with their own individual point of view, their own individual concerns and needs. And by and large, the vast majority of individuals on the planet instinctively know this; even most of those who are outraged on Facebook, on Twitter, or anywhere else are predominately driven by their own selfish desires.

That's why they play Pokémon Go and Angry Birds, that's why they watch Dancing with the Stars and go to baseball games. They live for themselves (and their loved ones, sometimes) and limit their selflessness to moments when it's convenient to be selfless.

I'm sure many people reading this are probably thinking I'm being overly critical, that I'm holding people to far too high of a standard. But that's not really it; the problem is that people have unrealistic views of the world, unrealistic expectations of their own agency in this world, and use both of these things unfairly as a cudgel against others, against governments, against political parties, against all kinds of groups, against corporations, and against all of mankind in general. They imagine that their empathy—and there's nothing wrong with empathy—when coupled with their support of this cause or that cause, with their liking or retweeting of this hashtag or that hashtag, has an efficacy is does not and cannot have. And at the same time, they imagine that the above is "enough," that in doing the above, they meet some sort of requirement that confirms they are "good people," leaving them free to do what they will with the remainder of their time and their lives, be that playing games, taking selfies, watching Netflix, or thousands of other past times. Oh, and of course going to work and getting paid, taking care of themselves and their family, going shopping, and basically just living life.

And they are fooling themselves in this regard. They're not good people or better people (than someone else) by virtue of their empathy and limited support of a cause. They're not bad people or worse people, either. By and large, they're just people. We all are. An individual life is a temporally limited thing. And it can come to a quick end in a variety of ways. When it does, Karma rarely—if ever—plays a role. People like to think that this is not the case, but that's functionally a means of feeding their own egos, of imagining—again—that there's significant efficacy to their lives, with regard to the universe as a whole.

All that said, life is not a zero-sum game. Because contrary to the philosophy of Ricky Roma, we don't actually keep score in life, he who has the most stuff (or the most fame) doesn't actually win. Life is a series of moments, of feelings produced by those moments, and the only score available is wholly internalized.

Do you feel good about yourself? That's the real question to ask. Are you happy in the moment? Why? Why not?

But it seems to me that people are becoming progressively worse at introspection, of seeking fulfillment and happiness from within. That is, I think, largely due to consumerism, to the non-stop bombardment of stimuli from the world. For my generation and those who have followed, the day is filled from start to finish with stuff, with things to do, to see, to hear, to experience. Moments of relative peace and calm during the daily bustle of work and school have disappeared, have become opportunities to check Facebook, to play Pokémon Go, to tweet something insignificant, to talk about the latest episode of Game of Thrones or of Orange Is the New Black, or to buy a ridiculously over-priced coffee drink. Downtime means more of the same, or perhaps some binge-watching of one old TV series or another.

And there's an element of selectivity in all of this (when it comes to media), as well: people are becoming used to getting exactly what they want when they want it, thanks to video services like Netflix and to DVRs. Aside from the unbridled enthusiasm of waiting for the next episode of an over-hyped series or for the next big superhero movie, there are no pleasant surprises anymore, there's almost no channel-surfing, even. It wasn't all that long ago that people were talking about the over-abundance of choices on TV because of the advent of Cable. 100+ channels meant 100+ choices. That ship has sailed. The choices now—because of streaming services—number in the tens of thousands, easy.

There's always something to do or to watch, because of technology and a wide-ranging consumer economy. Always.

Kilimanjaro, from Sierra Mountaineering Club
Why bother to think, anymore? Why bother to examine oneself or ponder something as mundane as the meaning of life? Journeys of self-discovery have been replaced by binge-watching, MMOGs, Vines, and pictures of food. The wonders of the world are available in super high definition with the touch of a button; one can be amazed without ever leaving home. And when one does leave home, virtual reality is trumping actual reality now.

We are losing something important, I think. The sheltering sky is almost gone, as is the top of the world, and the cradle of civilization, as sources for deeper thinking and understanding of the world and of who we are. Living is becoming progressively easier, while Life is becoming harder.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Daenerys vs. Bran: a Game of Thrones rant

Monday morning water cooler talk is now about, by and large, Game of Thrones, the best selling series of books that has become the hugely popular made-for-HBO TV series. If you're not interested in GoT, or if you have only watched occasionally, never fear. You're not a bad person. And you're not living under a rock. As popular as GoT is, it's not Dancing with the Stars. Nor is it NCIS. Still, it has now snuck up on and surpassed The Sopranos as the most watched HBO series in a season. It has a large following, and much of this following is preoccupied with theories, with supposing what will happen next, figuring out prophecies, what symbolizes what, who is going to die, who is going to live, and who is ultimately going to end up on the Iron Throne. If you're starting to get a little lost, read no further. What follows is for people who know the show well (at the very least).

Okay, so it looks like Daenerys is headed to Westeros in the season finale, via the ships of the raping and pillaging Iron Islanders, taking with her the raping and pillaging Dothraki hordes. Oh, and also those three dragons, who enjoy picking up a random sheep or small child for the occasional snack. And why is she headed to Westeros? Why to reclaim her throne, of course. You know, the one her ancestors won with dragons and blood, then pissed away because it turned out they were incest-loving shits. Still, Daenerys is the rightful heir. Go team D!

Because it's not much of a stretch to say that Daenerys is one of the three most popular characters in the series, the other two being Jon Snow and Tyrion Lannister. Pretty much everyone seems to think these three will each ride a dragon and will, in fact, embody Daenerys' vision of the dragon that has three heads. It seems to me that this is the worst kept secret in the series; obviously both Tyrion and Jon are bastards and it's completely plausible that both carry Targaryen blood (though neither possess the immunity to fire that Daenerys possesses).

Being Team D thus means one can also be Team Tyrion and Team Snow (me, I'm Team Arya) without surrendering a thing.

The messageboards that I frequent have a number of threads devoted to Game of Thrones. The primary one—now centering on the series, since it's left the books behind—is peopled mostly by members of Team D. And frankly, the reactions to many of the things that Daenerys does are quite giddy, in a schoolgirl/fanboy sense (I've had some of these reactions too, by the way). And the talk about her is mostly of a lionizing sort, not only because she is the Mother of Dragons, but also because she is the Breaker of Chains. She is, after all, handing out a lot of just desserts.

In direct contrast to this is the general reaction to Bran Stark. You remember him, the Stark child crippled by Jamie Lannister, dragged around the North by people who keep telling him he's got to fulfill a prophecy, and forced to become one with a tree. People don't much care for Bran, to put it mildly. They especially don't care for him since he more or less caused the death of Hodor (many think Bran basically murdered Hodor, in fact). And I grok all of this; I don't much care for the Bran storyline, as it's rather boring (in the same way that Frodo and Sam's journey in The Lord of the Rings was boring as compared to Aragorn's). Still, Bran is a critical character. It's likely that he's actually Bran the Builder, in fact, that he was the founder of House Stark and the architect of The Wall (via his ability to enter the past and affect it in his visions).

While I don't like the Bran storyline so much, I don't really have it in for Bran, himself. And frankly, the criticism of Bran's actions, the blame that is being heaped on him, is really starting to piss me off, especially when it's compared to the love affair so many have with Daenerys. And as we all get ready for the season finale, wherein Daenerys is likely set to return to Westeros, let's put this all in perspective.

Daenerys has caused a lot of death and destruction. Some of it was in service to noble causes, no doubt, but some of it was just about ambition. And she personally executed all of the Dothraki Khals, not because they were bad leaders, but because she wanted the Dothraki to use in pursuit of her ambition. And again, that ambition is the naked pursuit of power, the reclamation of the Iron Throne, not because Westeros is being unjustly ruled, but because she want to rule it, plain and simple.

So she and her dragons are going to take the Dothraki to Westeros, with the help of Yara Greyjoy and her freebooters. And the crowd is going wild, because Team D! Nevermind the consequences from this move, it's all good; there's no moral or ethical issues to consider, at all. And yet, the death and destruction that Daenerys is bringing is, at the end of the day, not much different than what the White Walkers are bringing.

And against the looming threat of the Long Night and the White Walkers, there is mostly just Bran. The handful of people (and Children) who have been involved with him are getting killed off, one by one. Maybe some of that is Bran's fault. Maybe. But he's had a pretty shitty run so far on GoT. He's not had much in the way of fun, of pleasure, or even of rest. He's been crippled, he's been frozen like a popsicle, he's been assaulted by White Walkers and the walking dead, and he's been forced to commune with a tree.

Yet somehow, he's a shitball. Why? Well, I guess most of his critics will probably say that he whines too much, that he's made some mistakes, and of course that he caused the death of Hodor (that's really the big one). That's what they would say. But the truth is, I think, much simpler. And it's a truth that also explains why Daenerys can apparently do no wrong: Bran isn't cool, while Daenerys is way cool.

Daenerys is smoking hot (with her fine figure, her white hair, her semi-nude scenes, and her sex scenes), she rides dragons, and she keeps getting the best of big strong men, despite her sex, her slight stature, and her age.

Bran is a dirty, disheveled mess, a cripple, is barely avoiding death, and talks to trees.

No contest.

But none of this makes Daenerys a better person than Bran. If he is a murderer, she is a murderer a thousand times over. If he's put some others at risk to save his skin, she's done far worse to feed her ambition. And it's about to get worse. Far worse.

Saturday, June 18, 2016

Has the media become overly self-referential?

Source: Shall Not Be Questioned
In the wake of the Orlando killings and the assassination of Britsh MP Jo Cox, there's been an awful lot of talk in the media (from both pundits and columnists, alike) about labels and lists. Glenn Greenwald—ever the bastion of rationality—is whining about the media not labeling Cox's assassin a "terrorist." And after the Orlando killings, other columnists busied themselves with pieces complaining about the incident being called "the worst mass shooting/killing" in U.S. history by people in the media, or about the lists of mass killings that fail to mention Indian massacres of the 19th century, the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921, or the Rosewood Massacre of 1923.

This is what much of the 4th Estate was and is apparently concerned with: using the "right" label and compiling the "correct" list.

Lest dispense with Greenwald and his complaints, first. Newsflash, Glenn: you're a part of the media; call Cox's assassin a terrorist if that is what you think he is, if that is what you believe is the correct label. No one is stopping you. But what exactly is the consequence of other media sites not following your lead (to be sure, some are, both with regard to complaining about this like Greenwald, and with regard to not simply labeling the guy a terrorist)? I, for one, have no issue with the label. I'm not sure it's the best one, though. "Assassin" is better and more accurate, and "terrorist" can be subsumed within it (i.e., any assassination can also be a potential act of terrorism, but not the reverse).

And regardless, where exactly is Greenwald going with this complaint (aside from producing filler)? What's the benefit of convincing all other media sites to call the guy a terrorist? Hey, he's in custody and may still get charged with terrorism, but getting bent out of shape because he's just getting tagged as a murderer and an assassin? I don get it, since it's not like there's been this wave of attacks based on this guy's point of view. Maybe if there had been, I might grok Greenwald's complaint. A little. But right now? It's fairly empty-headed.

As to the issue of mass killings or mass shootings and Orlando being "the worst in U.S. history," the complaints on this are really bumming me out. I know my history and I know all about the Indian massacres of the 19th century, from Wounded Knee to Sand Creek. There's not much to say for many of these massacres; they were horrible, horrible things. Some occurred under the auspices of the U.S., State, or Territorial governments, some didn't. The largest ones, by and large, were military actions to some extent, heinous and unjustified (in my opinion) military actions, but military nonetheless. All of them deserve to be remembered and treated for what they are; as far as massacres go in U.S. history, these dominate any such list.

The Tulsa Race Riot of 192, while not military in the least, was a large scale event involving thousands of people on both "sides." At it's core, I think it best described as an incident wherein a good chunk of Tulsa's white community saw an opportunity to put the black community of the city to the torch, to display their racist points of view for all to see. As such, it has something in common with the Indian massacres (the overt racism), but it is most definitely its own thing. And given that there is no agreement on the number of deaths (estimates run a gamut from thirty to three hundred), it's tough to find a place for this incident in any list. The Rosewood Massacre is not much different, insofar as it was an action of a group of racist whites who put the all-black town of Rosewood, Florida to the torch, killing everyone whom they could in the process. Again, there is a less-than-clear death total, with it ranging from ten to over one hundred. And again, this incident belies placement on any lists, imo. It does require remembrance and acknowledgement, as a matter of course.

So what about the lists of mass shootings and killings that are all over the place, in the wake of Orlando? A simple look at these lists reveals that they are about single-shooter incidents (or in a few cases, a couple of shooters). There's no point in comparing them to Indian massacres or to massive race riots. They are different sorts of things. True enough, there is a common thread of hatred running through almost all of these things (thought the target of the hatred varies greatly), but mass murder (indeed, murder alone) of any sort tends to have that component. And note that what few of the complainers talk about is 9/11, which—as a mass killing—dwarfs all of these other events, from Wounded Knee, to Tulsa, to Orlando. The ones who do reference 9/11 explain it away as not counting because it was "foreign terrorists." For some reason, that's a valid qualifier, but no other ones—that might differentiate the massacres from the mass killings—are.

And that's really the simple line here: massacres versus mass killings. One might say it's pretty awful that we even need to make this distinction, but that can't be helped (as much as I might wish it could be). So given this plethora of horrible moments, what is the problem with a sensible division in this regard? And note too that not all incidents of mass killings (by one or two people) are absolutely known, thus the list of the same is weighted heavily towards more recent years. In contrast, the U.S. Government doesn't go around killing large numbers of Native Americans anymore, to make room room for settlers, new development, or the like. And as bad as race relations can sometimes still get, there's nothing going on approaching Tulsa or Rosewood these days (thank goodness).

The point is, not listing these events from the past—which are very different from single shooter killings, anyway you slice it—isn't an attempt to obscure the past, anymore than it's an attempt to "whitewash" that past (which is the term some dim-witted commentators are actually using). Media sites that highlight Orlando as the "worst mass shooting in U.S. history" aren't doing anything wrong, aren't being dishonest, aren't "whitewashing" the past.

But regardless, let's suppose that they were doing all of this, that past mass killings were being purposefully ignored. Who exactly would this be serving? Let's be honest: the people complaining about this are all on the Left and they have a burr under their saddle about Right-wing people being racists and homophobes. Yet in this case, the Orlando killings were predominantly of gay people at a gay nightclub, and they weren't all white. Even if they were, no one knew the racial breakdown in the beginning, but everyone (in the media) knew the killer was targeting gay people. The "whitewashing" claim just doesn't fit; it's nonsensical.

The whole angle of complaint here is thus nonsensical, insofar as there's no purpose being served that can be reasonably defended. It's an exercise is trying to subvert a tragedy in service to an unrelated agenda, and in my opinion, it's an ugly, ugly thing.

Beyond that, it also represents exactly what the Greenwald bit represents: elements of the media more concerned with navel-gazing than with what is actually going on in the world, with talking about themselves than with saying something meaningful about current events.

And maybe this is partially a consequence of the need to provide filler, to say something every minute of every day, to get those all-important viewers or clicks.

Me, I think it's mostly about just being intellectually lazy.

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

After Orlando: observations in the moment

There are at least forty-nine people who will never see their loved ones again, who will never enjoy a latte, see the latest blockbuster, spend a day shopping or at the beach, go to work, or do anything else. Why? Because they were gunned down in cold blood at a nightclub in Orlando by a man who had somehow convinced himself that killing as many gay people as he could was a good idea.

After the fact, there are plenty of people trying to climb inside this man's head (he's dead too, shot by police). He's a domestic terrorist, he's an ISIS sympathizer, he's a homophobe, he's a self-loathing homosexual, he's evil, he's mentally ill, he's all of these things and more.

Whatever else he is, he's a cold-blooded murderer, that much is certain. His actions, regardless of his motivations, were pre-meditated. He showed up at a gay nightclub in Orlando looking to deal out as much death as possible. Whether or not he thought he might escape from this alive is largely immaterial, for he certainly knew he'd likely end up dead in short order, one way or another.

And he's far from alone in this regard. Other people have made this same decision in the recent past and no doubt more will continue to do so in the future: to purposefully kill a bunch of innocent people in service to some ideology or point of view, inspired by politics, religion, bigotry, or just plain hatred.

The morning after, the day after, the week after, there is talk about "how," and "why," to be sure. But mostly this talk is limited, insofar as it goes no farther than finding reasons so people can be outraged and indignant. And there's talk about prevention, but mostly it's about gun control. And of course, there's the talk emanating from politician and their ilk, who use such tragedies to push agendas or to score political points.

What there is very little of is talk about how and why individuals manage to convince themselves that these sorts of massacres serve a purpose, are—for lack of a better way to say it—good ideas. The shooter in Orlando—one Omar Mateen—is, or rather was a thinking person. He was a son, a father, and at least at one point, a husband. He had a job, he had a family, he was seemingly a part of society. We are learning more about his past, to be sure, and there's apparently a lot of hate in that past, but hate isn't—or at least it shouldn't be—a permanent aspect of existence. Lots of people hate. All. The. Time.

Yet for some, hate becomes a critical and omnipresent aspect of their existence. How and why?

There is also the issue of goals here. Mateen is dead. What did he actually expect to accomplish? What do any of these killers, these terrorist-types, hope to accomplish when their deaths are almost a foregone conclusion? If they imagine they're helping to change things, for whom are they doing this? Because they aren't going to be around. Or perhaps they want to be remembered, they want to be famous. And that's something I just can't wrap my head around, this desire for fame or infamy.

If I go out in a blaze of glory, I'm gone. The fame I accrue is meaningless to me necessarily because I'm dead. There's no actual payoff in this regard. I won't ever know that I'm famous, that I'm remembered (and this is no less true of everyone else who is so determined to achieve fame; at the end of the day, it's a Pyrrhic victory, at best). Why isn't it enough to live life as best one can?

Yet for some, fame is critical; being known has become their chief goal in life. Again, how and why is this happening?

The modern world is a big place, full of many, many people. And as compared with the not-so-distant past, it is very, very different. I think—per the writings of Hannah Arendt—that modernity is effectively detaching many people from day to day existence, that they are losing their links to humanity. And I think these are the people who are subject to being drawn in to twisted ideologies and belief systems, that these are the people where hate festers and grows. And I think this confluence represents the key to understanding why there are people who are willing to commit mass murder, to feed their hate, to justify their ideology, and to secure their piece of history, their fame as it were.

And I'm not sure there are solutions for any of this. But if there are, we're never going to find them if our after-the-fact conversations continue to be as limited as they currently are.

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Ali and a triumvirate of icons

Yesterday, Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74 from a respiratory condition. Widely considered to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time (if not the greatest boxer, period), Ali is also one of the most widely recognized athletes, indeed one of the most widely recognized public figures, in the modern world. To call Ali an icon would be an understatement. And this is not only because of his success as a boxer, it is because of his larger-than-life personality.

When Muhammad Ali lost to Joe Frazier in March of 1971, Ali was 29 years old. When he exacted revenge on Frazier in 1974, then followed it up by beating George Foreman (the "Rumble in the Jungle") later in the year, he was 32. I was 6 and 9, respectively. I can't claim to remember much about Ali, apart from remembering that he was a boxer and a Big Deal. In an age without ESPN, without the internet, where sportstalk occurred primarily primarily between real live people in face to face situations, Muhammad Ali generally held a highly revered position: the greatest of all time. As a child, I vaguely remember the references to Ali that I heard from adults or happen to catch on TV and I partook of that reverence. I may not have known much about boxing, about life in general, but I know Ali was The Greatest.

And as I got older, this knowledge became a standard, a fact as it were. Years later, when Mike Tyson was forging his career and being widely lauded as the true successor to Ali's throne, I understood. Even as I watched Tyson demolish opponent after opponent in real time—which was not the case with Ali—I knew still that Ali would always be the greatest, for that surety was, by then, ingrained in me from childhood. I knew as a child knows; I still do. Such is the way of things.

In this regard, there are other figures in the realm of sports who occupy a similar place in my mind, a position of absolute greatness that will never be challenged, much less overcome. They are from that same period of my life, the formative years when I was aware of what was being said around me by adults, when I began to exchange ideas with other kids my own age, when I was able to fully process what I saw on TV and in newspapers.

To this day, there are three who still stand out, who will always be firmly fixed in my mind as the gods of their respective sports. The first is, of course, Ali. I am very much a fan of boxing to this day and while I have seen many great fighters, it is and will always be Ali. If someone says to me "so and so is the greatest fighter of all time," my retort begins and ends with Ali. Show me numbers, footage, or what have you, it doesn't matter.

The second, well the second is a baseball player. I honestly don't care much for baseball, but my father is a huge fan. And his team was and is the Yankees. Unsurprisingly, it's a former Yankee who is fixed in my mind here: Reggie Jackson, Mr. October. Because in those same formative years of mine, when Ali was reestablishing his dominance of the heavyweight division, Reggie Jackson was becoming Mr. October with his clutch-hitting in the playoffs, first with Oakland, then with New York. And like Ali, Jackson was a larger-than-life personality. Do I think Jackson is the greatest baseball player ever? No, of course not. But to me, he is baseball, he's the guy who walks up to the plate with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, with thousands of fans booing him mercilessly, who then drills the first pitch over the center field wall. And he always will be.

The last of the triumvirate is not a man. It's not a woman, either (though if I was to choose a fourth icon, it would most assuredly be Chris Evert). It's a horse: Secretariat. I'm not a horse-racing fan, either. I went to the track a few weeks ago and it was the first time I had been in well over a decade. It's just not my thing. But in 1973, everyone was watching the Triple Crown, or at least everyone around me was. And I watched, too. And I cheered for the horses, not really knowing much more than what I was seeing were races. But races were easy understand. And when one racer beats the tar out of everyone else, it's pretty obvious. The awe of the adults around me was obvious, too, especially after the Belmont. I get kick out of the build-up to the Triple Crown ever year, when it so obvious that the broadcasters are hoping, praying for another Secretariat. But they never get one. And in my mind, they never will.

What does all this mean in the grand scheme of things? Well, not much. Ali's passing just got me to thinking about my perception of him, how it was a product of childhood idealism, and how that perception persists to this day. So too for Jackson and Secretariat. Ali and Jackson have there foibles, to be sure (Secretariat is still a horse) and I'm not recommending either for sainthood. But this is ultimately about the simplicity of perception in a child's point of view, and the role of the same in shaping and producing our assumptions about the way things are, how things from different times compare, and how personal experiences define expectations going forward.

I wonder about my own children, in this regard. How will they see their recent past in relation to their present and future, not just with regard to sports, but with regard to all things? Who will be the iconic figures of their childhoods? Who will they consider to be The Greatest? Will any of my icons even warrant a mention?

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Trump v. Clinton

It's pointless, I think, to pretend like there are still races going on for the Republican and Democratic nominations for President. There's still a fair amount of "it's not over yet!" talk out there, but it's rooted in fantasy at this point.

Trump is going to win the nomination outright; there will be no second, third, or fourth ballot at the Republican National Convention. Neither Paul Ryan nor anyone else will swoop in at the last moment and save the Repubs from Trump. And the powers that be in the RNC are fully aware of this now. They're already starting to justify shifting their support to the man they claimed would doom the Republican Party. It's something they have to do, after all. There's more than just the Presidency at stake, come November. Supporting Trump is an absolute necessity in order to maximize support for the rest of the Republican ticket in each and every State.

On the other side, the surety of Hillary Clinton's nomination is finally an actual surety, after a mere nine years (because in 2007, Clinton was regarded as an absolute lock for the 2008 nomination). Sanders pushes on, but not so much to win as to continue to have a voice, to keep his message front and center, and perhaps to influence the platform of the national party. But Clinton will be the nominee. And in this regard, her supporters feel certain she will then be the next President of the United States. Their surety here is akin to their surety of her winning the nomination: it's founded on the assumption that Hillary Clinton is awesome and unmatched, with regard to her knowledge, her experience, and her political acumen.

To be sure, Clinton's knowledge withe regard to policy and foreign affairs dwarfs Trump's. Ditto for experience: she's been a First Lady, a U.S. Senator, and a Secretary of State. Trump's been a reality TV star and a WWE sideshow. But what about that political acumen? Trump dispatched his Republican rivals largely by being himself. That is to say by acting like an obnoxious, overbearing bore, insulting everyone without a second thought, and treating the truth like it was a foreign land. Ask a Clintonite how such a strategy will go over in a race against Clinton and they'll probably laugh it off.

They'll say Clinton is too smart to get caught up in the kind of back and forth insult-fest that has characterized much of the Republican race. They'll say Clinton is too experienced to get knocked off message by such nonsense. They'll say Clinton's team is too professional to allow a descent into the gutter.

Ten will get you twenty, supporters of Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, and Ted Cruz were singing this same song not all that long ago. And we know how they all held up to the non-stop attacks from The Donald. Don't we?

Speaking of Jeb Bush, here's an interesting thing that many people perhaps overlooked when he announced his candidacy: the man had never really won a tightly contested political contest. He was governor of Florida, true, but he ran against, well, weenie opponents in both 1998 and 2002 (no offense to Mackay and McBride). Don't get me wrong, Bush ran good campaigns, mostly because he had a lot of money and because he had access to his father's political machine, but he wasn't facing stiff competition. Especially since that competition was dumb enough to alienate minority voters in 1998. And the 2002 race was something of a walkover, given 9-11 and who was in the White House. It's also worth mentioning that in 1998, Bush basically ran unopposed for the nomination, as well. In 2002, he was the incumbent, so the nomination race was practically non-existent.

Source: The Independent
Of course...Bush lost his first run at the governorship in 1994, even though that was the year of the Republican Wave. Why did he lose? Well his opponent then was Lawton Chiles, who is to pushovers what Gary Busey is to sanity. The contest eventually turned nasty and Chiles eked out a win. As far as tight, difficult contests go, that was it for Jeb Bush: one tough race, one defeat.

What does this have to do with the price of tea in Chappaqua? Well, consider this: Clinton has been in exactly three political contests prior to this current one. She ran for Senator in New York in 2000 and defeated Rick Lazio fairly easily. But she did so primarily because of her name, her husband's political machine, and the fact that Rudy Giuliani had to withdraw from the race, due to health reasons and personal problems. Lazio stepped in late in the game and got creamed. And she basically was handed the nomination. Her reelection campaign in 2006 was a snooze-fest. The Republicans ran John Spencer, an almost unknown quantity outside of Yonkers, and he was crushed by the Clinton machine (in much the same way as McBride was crushed in Florida in 2002 by the Bush machine). In both races, Clinton out-fundraised and outspent her opponents with ease (again, not unlike Jeb Bush).

Then came the 2008 race for the Democratic nomination. We all know what happened there. Clinton had her name, she had the Clinton machine, she had experience, and she had the cash (she outspent Obama by over $20 million). The Clintonites assumed she would win with ease. And of course she lost. Let's be clear here: she lost big. The race was the costliest primary in U.S. history, and this is because Clinton went balls to the wall with her spending in an effort to fend off a challenger who was, quite simply and quite apparently, a better candidate: better at campaigning, better at connecting with people, better at giving speeches, better at debating, just better.

And I think on balance, all of this begs a question: just how good is Hillary Clinton, really? She failed her only real test (just like Jeb Bush). Now, we're supposed to believe that her skill set is just so damn impressive, no one can go toe to toe with her, especially not a loud-mouthed horse's ass like Donald Trump? Pardon me for doubting the narrative.

Hey, I don't want Trump to be President. I don't want Clinton, either. But I can't shake this feeling that Clinton's weaknesses are going to be exposed and exploited by Trump, that his constant needling and jabbing is going to get under Hillary Clinton's skin, and is going to make her come across as even less likable (let's be honest, no one really wants to sit down and have a beer with Hillary Clinton). She might even end up in the gutter with Trump, at which point the race will be over and our next President will be a reality TV star with a bad hairpiece.

God, that's a depressing thought. But only slightly less depressing is the thought that our salvation is in the hands of Hillary Clinton. Because I don't think she has the game that most are assuming that she has. She never did.

We will see.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Trump supporters, it's time for a humanity check

The other day, current chief of the CIA Richard Brennan told NBC News that he will not authorize the use of waterboarding (or other "harsh" interrogation techniques) by the CIA as long as he is in charge:
"I will not agree to carry out some of these tactics and techniques I've heard bandied about because this institution needs to endure," Brennan said... 
"Absolutely, I would not agree to having any CIA officer carrying out waterboarding again," he said.
In response to Brennan's comments, Donald Trump—on Fox and Friends—said this (per Politico):
“Well I think his comments are ridiculous," Trump said in a telephone interview Monday with "Fox & Friends." "I mean, they chop off heads and they drown people in cages with 50 in cage in big steel, heavy cages, drop ‘em right into the water, drown people and we can’t waterboard and we can’t do anything..."
"We’re playing on different fields, and we have a huge problem with ISIS, which we can’t beat. And the reason we can’t beat them is because we can’t use strong tactics, whether it’s this or other thing," he continued. "So I think his comments are ridiculous. Can you imagine these ISIS people sitting around, eating and talking about this country won’t allow waterboarding and they just chopped off 50 heads?”
Currently, waterboarding by any agency in the United States is prohibited by Executive Order 13491 (issued by President Obama on January 22, 2009). The United States Army banned waterboarding in 2006, along with a host of other "enhanced interrogation" techniques. So Brennan's statement is hardly inconsistent with current laws and rules. Obviously, however, Brennan is also saying he wouldn't authorize waterboarding even if he was told to do so by the President. Which of course makes the issue a drop dead one for Brennan: he'll quit or get fired before he'll do it, that's the implication.

Now, I'm not interested in rehashing the entire debate over "enhanced interrogation." Suffice it to say that I think the term is complete and utter bullshit; it was designed to avoid calling some things torture that absolutely are torture. I'd have a lot more respect for the people defending the use of these techniques if they just said they thought torture was sometimes justifiable (and to be fair, there are some who are willing to say that). Hanging one's hat on semantics, on legal technicalities indicates—to me—an underlining realization of one's lack of intellectual honesty.

That said, I'm equally dismissive of the people who insist "torture doesn't work" is an absolute, that it's pure truth. It's not. Torture can work; it depends on specifics, on the goal of the torture, on the parties involved, on the information being sought.

But all that aside, I think torture is just flat-out wrong. It's something that only little people, silly people would seek to legalize, people who are greedy, barbarous and cruel. And of course it's at odds with the Constitution. Those who would condone it really need to take a hard look at themselves, their world-view, and their personal ideology.

I know Trump's rhetoric, his willingness to say some things in very plain English that others dance around and avoid, appeals to many, many people. But let's take a closer look at what he's saying here. Again, Brennan's position is a firm line-in-the-sand one: he won't authorize water-boarding or other harsh techniques, period. And again, such techniques are currently prohibited, both by executive order and by US Army regulations. And Trump calls this "ridiculous." What's ridiculous? That Brennan has a firm position, with regard to the use of torture by agents of the US Government? Trump can disagree of course, but there's nothing ridiculous about Brennan's position.

Worse still, Trump offers up a completely irrelevant comparison as justification for his claim: he notes that (paraphrased) "ISIS is chopping off heads and we can't even waterboard people!" I seriously urge any Trump supporters reading this to think long and hard on what he is saying. Essentially, he's complaining that ISIS is somehow getting a free pass to commit horrible atrocities and that somehow allowing torture would even up the playing field to some degree. Trump's comments beg the question: should we also get to cut off some heads, as well? Just for fun?

ISIS isn't cutting off heads to get information; these acts are not a part of their interrogation techniques. ISIS is cutting off heads to instill terror throughout regions they control or are trying to control. They're cutting off heads for the purposes of—in their minds—fortifying that control, in much the same way that the Romans used to decimate conquered peoples ("decimate" means to destroy one tenth of a group; the Romans would put one tenth of a local population to the sword as a means of establishing their authority).

Setting aside the usefulness of such an approach, it points to the profound lack of humanity exhibited by ISIS. It makes ISIS and its supporters the scum of the Earth, in my opinion.

Yet, Trump is latching on to this lack of humanity as a basis for what should or shouldn't be allowed in the United States. And he's doing it ass-backwards: rather than pointing to the transgressions of ISIS and saying "see how horrible they are, we would never do that," he's saying "see how horrible they are, we should get to be a little bit horrible, too."

It's a revolting argument, in my opinion. It demonstrates quite clearly that Trump is neither a moral nor humane person, that others are mere objects to him, there to be used in whatever way he sees fit. And people are actually supporting this clod, actually want him to be President?

Time to look into the mirror, Trump supporters. Is what you're seeing really what you want to see? I hope not.