Thursday, January 29, 2009

Update From the Wilderness
Marc Ambinder checks in from the RNC with a perceptive breakdown of Republican strategery during the party's first month fully out of power:

Here is the basic diagnosis of what ails the Republican Party from Dr. Mitch McConnell, the Senate minority leader. The internal organs are fine. No problem with the composition of the blood that pumps through the party's activist veins. The brain is top-notch -- Republican ideas are well considered, broadly desired, and politically feasible. The body, however, looks ragged; the accent is too...regional (Southern?). [...] The "sales job" theory is quite attractive to many Republicans because it relieves them of having to question whether Americans, at their corps [sic], are beginning to distrust what the party stands for, what the party does, who the party is. What a relief! All that's need are some cosmetics. Maybe it's Mabeline. McConnell's view is shared by many Republican current office-holders. It is not the view that Republican strategists tend to hold, and it certainly is not the view of the younger conservative intellectuals, like the Atlantic's own Ross Douthat and Reihan Salam. The massive data compiled by Gallup about party identification suggests that the party has an identity problem.

Other evidence, including exit polls from 2006 and 2008, locate this problem at a microskeletal level: it cannot deal with globalization, with a flat world, with religious diversity, with institutional decay. Since the 1960s, the GOP's DNA has dutifully replicated activist cells to inflame and attack on culture, and Democratic efforts to minimize the demands and pressure of culture haven't worked. The selection of Sarah Palin got them replicatin' again, but then reality -- in the form of a global economic crisis -- intruded, and Republicans couldn't fight their way out of a plastic bag.

I guess that Mitch McConnell, as the current embodiment of institutional Republicanism, pretty much has to say what he's saying here: admission that the product is flawed, not just the packaging, amounts to pointing a big finger at himself. This is not something that career politicians of any stripe tend to do.

But ultimately I think American parties recede into long-term minority status when their internal contradictions become too glaring for the median weak or non-partisan voter--the guy or gal who voted for Reagan, then Clinton, then Bush, then Obama--to ignore. It happened to the Democrats from the late '60s through the early '90s, when they were perceived as too willing to futz with the operations of the market in pursuit of specific outcomes but not willing enough to assert American prerogatives abroad or concede the relevance of certain moral/behavioral standards ("crime is bad").

They started to come back when, one, Bill Clinton took steps to close the gap between those two views--a more laissez-faire, business-friendly approach to economic policy, a more assertive position in foreign policy--and less crucially two, when the country began to evolve toward the liberal worldview on social issues like gay rights. Once this was resolved, the Judis/Teixeira hypothesis of a Democratic majority forged by structural and demographic factors made sense; the emergence of that majority was delayed, but not derailed, by the 2000 election shenanigans and the national derangement of 9/11 as well as the Republicans' tactical and organizational superiority in the two Bush elections.

Once the Democrats had the better candidate and organization, as well as the wind of Bush's failures at their backs, they emerged as the clear majority party last November. That this trend isn't even necessarily complete is shown by some fairly stunning Gallup data released yesterday: as of 2008, Republicans dominated (in terms of a double-digit advantage in partisan identification) in just four states--Utah, Wyoming, Idaho and Nebraska. The Democrats enjoyed a double-digit edge in 29, plus four more with a nine-point advantage. This hasn't necessarily played out in national elections--McCain won Arkansas, Kentucky and Missouri despite a strong generic Democratic advantage, owing presumably to the difference between a Kentucky Democrat and, say, a Rhode Island one--but it shows just how big a structural problem the Republicans have.

Thus, now it's the Republicans' turn to resolve their big glaring contradiction: a seemingly bottomless appetite for use of force abroad and moral compulsion at home, coupled with an absolute hands-off view toward the economy and contempt for redistributive social welfare in almost all its forms (the home mortgage deduction still seems aces with them). This mix of views helped get the country into the current mess, and offers seemingly no value in extracting us from the troubles.

The internal ferment that crested with Bill Clinton's plurality presidential wins and Barack Obama's majority win began in the 1980s with groups like the Democratic Leadership Council and the emergence of "New Democrats" like Gary Hart, Bill Bradley and Clinton himself. One can perceive the first signs of something similar amongst the Republicans, notably including the efforts of Douthat and Salam that Ambinder references; their prescription seems to involve at least a more serious engagement with economic concerns, first articulated in the "Party of Sam's Club" article I linked to years back and more comprehensively in their book Grand New Party, which I still haven't read. But those ideas haven't yet penetrated official Republican policy deliberations, such as they are.

Meanwhile, some on the right are considering it a symbolic victory that Obama's stimulus plan failed to win a single House Republican vote. But my guess is that the political optics just confirm how out of touch they remain.

Saturday, January 24, 2009

Why Everyone Over Thirty or So is F---ing Crazy
Start with our parents, who grew up with this:

It's a 15-minute short, titled "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow," which aired right after "Dr. Strangelove, Or How I Learned To Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb" on the Turner Classic Movie channel Friday night. It would be as difficult to overstate its banal absurdity as it is to give TCM sufficient credit for pairing it with Stanley Kubrick's masterpiece of nuclear paranoia. You get the sense that Kubrick, making his movie about, among other things, the persistence of human myopia even when faced with the real and immediate prospect of humanity's extinction, was responding to cultural detritus like this and suggesting that at least we should acknowledge how profoundly fucked is its unspoken premise.

The hell of it is that I'm pretty sure Reading, PA--the center of action in "Alert Today, Alive Tomorrow," demonstrating Civil Defense activities leavened with a big dollop of small-town goodness--was literally in no danger at all when this was made in the mid-to-late 1950s. It's been a long time since I studied this stuff, but my recollection is that the USSR had very few weapons capable of hitting the continental U.S. at least until the very end of that decade: they would have needed to use bombers, most of which probably would have been easily enough intercepted. Western Europe, sure; maybe a few coastal cities like Washington, New York, LA and San Francisco, centers of government and finance and culture. But Reading? Really? Granted that Reading still had a six-digit population back then, in its heyday, it's still hard to imagine it cracking the top 100 targets of a nuclear strike.

That said, a cloudburst detonation over the center of town would have killed pretty much everyone there: the film notes, in the same avuncular/matter-of-fact narrator voice that describes neighbors as "good eggs," that the hydrogen bomb blast radius was three miles, inside of which everyone is vaporized. Reading is only about ten square miles. Game over, man.

Now, by the time we thirtysomethings were growing up, both nuclear-armed superpowers had redundancy of redundancy with arsenals of MIRVs loaded onto ICBMs and SLBMs. I remember reading, I think in Common Cause magazine around 1983 (I was a weird kid; I probably took it from my grandfather's den--or, perhaps worse, he gave it to me), that the USSR had the capacity to annihilate the entire human race something like 95 times over; not to be outdone, the United States could so more than 100 times. There was a sense--at least, I remember feeling the sense--that nuclear war was inevitable. Ronald Reagan famously joked about it in a radio soundcheck in 1984, and the culture was filled with reminders of apocalypse soon.

With the advent of Gorbachev in the mid-'80s, Cold War tensions began to ease, and by the time I started college in 1991 the USSR was no more and the prospect of total nuclear war probably more remote than at any time since the world first learned of the Soviet bomb. I don't remember feeling one moment of relief that, yes, I could stop worrying about obliteration from above. But it does have to figure in somewhere. Whatever the problems of the Millenials, at least they didn't grow up with that literally over their heads.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Some Quick Thoughts on the Speech
It was fine, if not up to the level of Obama's best from the last five years: a declaration of principles that neither minimized the daunting challenges our country is facing nor our past demonstrated ability to meet them. Probably like most inaugural addresses--pretty much all of them, in fact, other than Lincoln's second, FDR's first, and Kennedy's only--it will not be much remembered. The occasion didn't require Obama's full oratorical powers; the visual reality was more than sufficient.

But I did find one note in the speech very encouraging.
The question we ask today is not whether our government is too big or too small, but whether it works - whether it helps families find jobs at a decent wage, care they can afford, a retirement that is dignified. Where the answer is yes, we intend to move forward. Where the answer is no, programs will end. And those of us who manage the public's dollars will be held to account - to spend wisely, reform bad habits, and do our business in the light of day - because only then can we restore the vital trust between a people and their government.

My contention about Obama for two years now has been that he might have presidential greatness within his grasp owing to a rare ability to stay focused on ends while remaining more or less agnostic as to means. Lincoln and Roosevelt, perhaps our greatest presidents, shared this outlook. FDR's pledge of "bold, persistent experimentation" in seeking policies to ameliorate the Great Depression stood in marked contrast to the ideological rigidity of the outgoing Hoover administration. To a lesser extent, recent and more modestly successful presidents such as Reagan and Clinton managed to overcome political orthodoxy, albeit usually under duress from a Congress controlled by the opposition.

To be sure, sometimes this pragmatic inclination did not translate as noble: consider this statement of Lincoln's as to the objective of the Civil War.
My paramount object in this struggle is to save the Union, and is not either to save or to destroy slavery. If I could save the Union without freeing any slave I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves I would do it; and if I could save it by freeing some and leaving others alone I would also do that. What I do about slavery, and the colored race, I do because I believe it helps to save the Union; and what I forbear, I forbear because I do not believe it would help to save the Union. I shall do less whenever I shall believe what I am doing hurts the cause, and I shall do more whenever I shall believe doing more will help the cause. I shall try to correct errors when shown to be errors; and I shall adopt new views so fast as they shall appear to be true views.

It is important to note that this did not alter his personal view: "I intend no modification of my oft-expressed personal wish that all men everywhere could be free." And here we see an interesting conflict between idealism and pragmatism: while the evil of slavery, the obliteration of human potential it caused, seems utterly inarguable to us today, this was not a majority view a century and a half ago. "Saving the Union" was a cause around which the public could rally; emancipation, no matter how much we might view it today as a nobler purpose, was not. Lincoln, supremely canny politician that he was, understood this, and also understood--this statement notwithstanding--that the preservation of the Union probably meant the eradication of slavery. ("I believe this government cannot permanently endure, half slave and half free.") But any argument would do if it served to advance the mission.

Obama will swing for the fences: beyond steering the economy through its current crisis, he wants to provide universal health care, take on entitlement reform, and start action to mitigate the effects of climate change. Any of those would rank as the signature accomplishment of most administrations; getting at them all in eight years, while also handling foreign policy crises and ongoing diplomacy as well as the inevitable problems that crop up at home, is ambitious within shouting distance of delusion. But as John Heilemann notes, he at least realizes that a president can't seek to accomplish great things while remaining in thrall to ideology. Inevitably, Obama will take actions that antagonize the liberal-haters on the right; just as surely, he'll disappoint the purists on the left. (Indeed, he's already done both these things.) Yet he seems to understand, as surprisingly few presidents have, that ultimately success is found not in the view of those who squawk the loudest, but in actions taken, legislation passed and lives improved.

Monday, January 19, 2009

The Last Night of the Nightmare
So let's get this out of the way up front: as you might have noticed, I haven't been writing as much about politics here lately, and it's my hope that I won't be writing as much about politics, or at least national politics, going forward. (This does look like it'll be a pretty interesting political year here in NYC, and I'm sure I'll want to opine a bit.) And it's almost pointless for me to write anything about the final night of George W. Bush's presidency or Barack Obama's pending inauguration. The former is the worst president of my lifetime, and in my view the worst and most destructive we've ever had; the latter is the first Democrat I've ever supported from the jump who even made it to the general election, let alone won. Not much suspense about what I'd say.

But I'll allow myself one quick point. Annie and I were making tomato sauce tonight and watching the Keith Olbermann show, which I've done maybe an average of once every two months the last few years: I mostly just wanted to see him do the happy dance for an hour. And, as Olbermann generally does, he went so far overboard that I found myself turned off from views I basically share--just not to that extreme. (See here, number 37. Read the whole thing, actually--it's the tits.) Olbermann closed his show with a "Special Comment" about the need to prosecute Bush administration officials who engaged in torture, and the various reasons why Obama should not be deterred by either the inevitable accusations of partisanship or the illusion of a clean slate.

That said, I disagree with his conclusion that prosecutions must go forward. 

The question of what to do about the torture policy, or any other of the seemingly endless parade of Bush scandals, is really the same question that inevitably arises through the life of a nation: how to deal with any unsavory act in our past. At the end of his monologue, Olbermann ran through a litany of old American sins and how the failure to address them led to more pain and unhappiness later on. (We'll pass over his embarrassing mischaracterization of World Wars I and II.) The thing is that you don't close the book and move on by punishing the sinners; that directly contravenes the notion that torture is our collective abomination, and one could even assert with cause that we're scapegoating Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld et al as "bad apples" just as they did the pitiable grunts Lynddie England and Charles Graner

But this is also not to say that we should attempt for collective amnesia about what we did in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay and however many other sites where Americans committed war crimes against the guilty and innocent alike. What I would wish for is a simple accounting: a clear and uninflected reading into the record of just what was done and just who did it. In exchange for this, I would indemnify everybody: no prosecutions, no sentences... other than for perjury, perhaps. 

Obama's election does not solve the problems of the country. But it does remind us that we retain some capacity for democratic self-correction--both in the immediate truth that the electorate chose the candidate furthest, in almost every way one can imagine, from the malign incompetence of the Bush years, and in the historical fact that forty years and change after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., a solid majority of the voters chose an African-American liberal to lead us. The real goal here is to move on, to ensure that we never again commit this crime as a matter of policy. My faith is that a true and complete record of what was done will accomplish this in a more effective way than the drama of crime and punishment that more committed partisans might imagine. Let us commit it to our national memory, and then commit ourselves to a higher standard. 

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Be Seeing You
It got lost this week amidst pre-inauguration hysteria, the admittedly amazing plane in the Hudson River story, and even the demise of fellow TV icon Ricardo Montalban, but I can't let the passing of actor Patrick McGoohan go unremarked-upon here.

McGoohan played Number Six in the legendary late-'60s TV show The Prisoner, which he also essentially co-created and executive-produced. McGoohan's character is a British secret agent who, after abruptly resigning his post, is abducted and brought to a community known only as The Village, on an island that seems to be off all known maps, populated by "people who know too much." He spends the duration of the series trying both to escape back to London and to resist the efforts of a rotating group of Village administrators--all known as "Number Two"--to determine why he resigned. Like many of the best television series--Twin Peaks and Arrested Development, to name two--The Prisoner ran short and burned hot: only 17 episodes were made. But its cultural influence was no less for its short duration, and it had an enormous impact on my outlook when I first saw it in late-night PBS reruns as a teenager some twenty-odd years ago. Its core theme, that every person must struggle to keep his autonomy and even his sanity in the face of ceaseless efforts to grind away both, keeps the show fresh more than forty years after it was committed to tape. Among the many subsequent shows and films influenced by The Prisoner is Battlestar Galactica, which named its first revealed Cylon character Number Six as an homage to the earlier show. (At this writing, btw, I have not seen the season 4.5 premiere of Battlestar--no spoilers, please.)

The Prisoner was as original, iconoclastic, occasionally frustrating and consistently compelling as its star. McGoohan had both Irish and American antecedents--he was born in Queens--and a unique moral perspective that I suspect annoyed the hell out of more libertine show business types. Legend has it that he was originally offered the role of James Bond when Ian Fleming's series was adapted to film, but turned it down out of distaste for the promiscuous sex and gratuitous violence of the Bond stories. He certainly didn't crave the spotlight: McGoohan's two most prominent appearances in the last 15 years of his life were as the villainous King Edward in "Braveheart"--he and Mel Gibson were close friends, and it was rumored for years that Gibson might star in a film remake of "The Prisoner--and a mid-period "Simpsons" episode in which Homer becomes a muckraking internet journalist and is sentenced to The Island, a hardly-at-all-disguised takeoff of the Village from "The Prisoner," where he meets McGoohan's Number Six (who, in the story, was exiled not for resigning from an intelligence service but for inventing the bottomless peanut bag).

With AMC set to air a mini-series reboot of "The Prisoner" later this year, here's hoping both that it lives up to the remarkably high standard McGoohan set and that it redirects some attention toward the life and career of this visionary artist.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Notes on The Long Emergency
A couple evenings ago, I finished James Howard Kunstler's The Long Emergency, a book-length musing on "the converging crises of the 21st century" (as the subtitle has it) and their possible consequences. I turned the last page while sitting on the crowded subway, listening to music on my iPhone--a fairly fitting modern milieu, I think, as Kunstler's main thesis is that as the world's supply of oil starts to run out, life as we've known it will gradually disappear as well.

He spends the first several chapters building a convincing case that the 20th century, a period when humankind enjoyed unprecedented luxury, convenience, and global connectedness (for better and for worse--but see below) will stand out as an unsustainable exception to the general rule of life being strenuous, difficult, and local, and that pretty much all of it was enabled by easy access to oil. As we've almost certainly passed global peak as far as oil production--meaning that more than half of all the oil on the planet has been pumped and consumed--things are about to get hairy. Kunstler considers and dismisses the various possible substitute fuels, from natural gas, coal, and nuclear to hydrogen, solar, and wind; while I don't have nearly enough technical knowledge to confirm or dispute his scientific arguments, the point he makes about the systemic need to build a whole new infrastructure to support an economy based on a non-oil energy source seems pretty much inarguable. (The irony, which he repeatedly points out, is that you could probably do this if you had enough oil to start with, but of course we don't.)

Kunstler goes on to discuss several other coming calamities, including climate change--evidently a more accurate label than "global warming," as it's entirely possible (he asserts) that we'll see significant cooling in some places as well--and infectious diseases. These factors will exacerbate the trauma and difficulty of dealing with "The Long Emergency," but the disappearance of oil (and the conflict and dislocation we'll endure competing for the last drops) is really the core of the book. The last couple chapters include fairly wide-ranging speculation about the types of communities and conditions we could see as the Long Emergency unfolds, with attention to conditions in different parts of the United States and entertaining discussions of cultural and economic attributes of each region. (He's not a big fan of the South, where he deems the distinguishing traits to be suburban sprawl, belligerent religiosity and a cultural glorification of violence.)

It's a very, very good read, if unavoidably a little on the depressing side. I think it works because, improbably enough, Kunstler offers an extreme scenario without coming off as an extremist. He basically rejects partisan politics--or maybe more to the point, he considers them irrelevant since both major parties subscribe to the same basic view regarding how society should function, and to the premise that, as Ari Fleischer put it, the American way of life (meaning crazed consumption of oil) is non-negotiable. Kunstler's own worldview is a bit idiosyncratic--he really, really detests the suburban pattern of development that characterized postwar America, and he equally despises big box retailers and the practices of globalism that enabled their business model, but he's also almost defensive of the invasion of Iraq, which happened a couple years before the book came out, and seems to have almost as much contempt for extremists of the left as of the right.

But rather than rejecting the whole project of civilization, he goes out of his way to argue that the gains of the last hundred years or so--"due process of law, separation of church and state, social equality, the secret ballot, and compound interest, just to name a few"--are worth preserving, and that doing so will comprise the most important work of the Long Emergency. Essentially, Kunstler seems to view modern civilization, and particularly the America that represented its fullest expression, as a good idea taken too far. Specifically, we sacrificed too much future upon the altar of the present, as the pernicious idea took hold that it's possible to get something for nothing. (A strain of Puritanism does run through the book, though maybe I enjoyed it because I somewhat share that sense.) Again, this seems inarguable to me.

Kunstler doesn't engage with the questions I find interesting and troubling: whether this future-orientation is inevitable in a representative democracy (someone always will come along to demand more for The People, right now; short-term sacrifice is rarely a winning political argument), and whether the way the last sixty-odd years have unfolded was "worth it." The average standard of living in the late industrial age, and (as his list of modern goodies suggests) the spread of Enlightenment values to a greater portion of humanity than had ever previously enjoyed them, is nothing to sneeze at; without the "fiesta" of oil consumption the first couldn't have happened, and the second probably wouldn't have.

Of course, it's also not entirely certain that the Long Emergency he's predicting for us is inevitable. Obviously, the status quo of profligate consumption isn't sustainable. But I would submit that there's a lot we can do without that we now enjoy, and that we would choose to do without, before we truly fall into the Long Emergency. In other words, the American Way of Life might prove to be at least a little negotiable. I think we humans are a more adaptable bunch than Kunstler seems ready to give us credit for... though to be fair, he does hedge a little in implying that the Long Emergency might not really be all that long--ten or twenty years.

In a work as ambitious as this, some sections obviously will be stronger than others, and there's at least a little goofy, self-contradictory conjecture. For instance, Kunstler suggests that the Pacific Northwest might have a problem with pirates originating from east Asia, where he believes the Long Emergency will be at least as severe as in the U.S. It's not clear, however, how pirates based in Japan or Korea will be able to power crafts into Puget Sound given fuel shortages, a Pacific Ocean presumably more difficult to navigate, etc. A bit of the cultural conjecture at the end seems off as well; Kunstler's editor really should have excised the section about hip-hop music: "At their worst, rap videos played on cable TV resemble the war chants of a conflict that has not yet been joined." Swingandamiss.

Those are minor flaws, though. What's finally most haunting about this book is Kunstler's theme about entropic spread: that systems break down, and that this seems to be not only a law of physics but a guiding principle of individual and collective human endeavor. Our complex modern arrangements have masked a fatal simplifying trend, and simplicity really just serves to send the grains of sand falling more quickly through the hourglass.

I'll be adding Kunstler's site to the links here in the next few days. Check out his blog--another indication that the guy is not a hermit or a scold--and I do strongly recommend the book.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

Thinking About Tomorrow
As I'm involved with a couple projects that have had me out and about in the city more than usual, it's been impossible to completely shut myself off from the hype around the Eagles-Giants playoff rubber match to be held Sunday afternoon in the Meadowlands. Pretty much the only prediction I can make with confidence is that it will be a close, entertaining game; I don't think the two teams have played anything but at least since 2005. The two game this year were as different as they could be: an up-and-down-the-field scoring fest in Philadelphia two months ago, won by the Giants in a game they controlled to a greater extent than the five-point margin of victory suggests, and a lower-scoring ground war in north Jersey one month back that the Eagles won by six while dominating for most of the day, which I wrote about at the time. The teams know each other as well as two opponents can, with multiple meetings every year, coaches and players who've been in the employ of both, and markets separated by less than 100 miles of New Jersey highway.

As a Philadelphia fan in New York, it's always a little jarring when this rivalry comes into sharp focus. Not only do I not hate the Giants, I was rooting for them all the way in last year's playoffs--there's little better way to get my support than to do battle with Dallas, Brett Favre (still on the Packers then), and the Patriots--and if they win tomorrow, I suspect I'll be doing so again next week. Maybe more to the point, there's a similarity between the fans of both cities, other than those New Yorkers whose loyalties lie with the Yankees and who thus expect to win it all every year. The common thread is fatalism tinged with self-pity--not something you'd hold up as a virtue to emulate, but there it is. Giants fans seemed sure they were going to lose at every stop on the playoff road last January, just as few Jets fans seemed much surprised when their team blew it down the stretch this past fall. (Bob Herbert's recent column in the Times about the curse upon the Jets is a classic of this form, even more entertaining for how uncharacteristic it was of the author's usual style and topical choices.) Naturally, this is a defense mechanism, the psychological equivalent of bracing for impact.

Also, it almost never works. So I especially hope I'm wrong in my gut sense that the Giants, thanks largely to the week off they enjoyed while the Eagles battled in Minnesota last Sunday, will emerge tomorrow three or four points to the good.

Tuesday, January 06, 2009

A Guess About Gupta
While my overall disdain for celebritocracy probably suggests that I should be bummed out about the prospect of CNN personality Sanjay Gupta taking the post of Surgeon General, my first reaction is that it's something of an inspired choice. Even better, it's another indication that the Obama administration might swing for the fences on health care reform. Consider:

The offer followed a two-hour Chicago meeting in November with Obama, who said that Gupta could be the highest-profile surgeon general in history and would have an expanded role in providing health policy advice, the sources said. Gupta later spoke with Tom Daschle, Obama's White House health czar and nominee for Health and Human Services secretary, and other advisers to the president-elect.

The Michigan-born son of parents who were born in India, Gupta has always been drawn to health policy. He was a White House fellow in the late 1990s, writing speeches and crafting policy for Hillary Clinton. His appointment would give the administration a prominent official of South Asian descent and a skilled television spokesman.

Certainly Gupta (about whom I know very little, and of whom I have no strong opinion) would bring the highest profile to the office of anyone who's taken that job. C. Everett Koop, the surgeon general who's probably best known in popular culture to those of us of a certain age, was a pediatrician in Philadelphia before Reagan appointed him; in fact, he performed surgery on me (for a hernia) when I was seven, making him the only public figure of national stature who's ever touched my genitals.

But I digress.

As someone very comfortable in front of the camera, Gupta could be a powerful advocate for whatever reform of health coverage Obama and Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Tom Daschle eventually champion. Further, if the proposed policy shift includes a change in emphasis from responsive to preventive care, as I think it well might, you'd really rather have a charismatic doctor championing that message than, say, Byron Dorgan.

My sense the last couple days has been that we're starting to see the steep side of Obama's learning curve as he prepares to take office. But this move strikes me as pretty clever.

Saturday, January 03, 2009

Into Gaza
I used to have two rules that bounded conversations about politics: never talk about abortion, and never talk about the Israeli-Arab conflict. Having ditched the first one a few years back, I guess it's now time to dispense with the second.

After eight days of air attacks, the Israeli Defense Forces launched a ground assault into the Gaza Strip today. Their objective is to uproot Hamas, the governing entity in Gaza that both offers a social service infrastructure and sponsors terror attacks against the Jewish state, most recently rocket firings into southern Israel during (and in repeated violation of) and after a six-month ceasefire that expired in December. Hamas has something like 20,000 men under arms, and Israel's air force evidently had done as much as it could through the air; it's also likely easier to avoid civilian casualties--the crux of the question in the court of world opinion--with a ground attack than through bombing, even precision bombing. Still, the endgame is very much in question, and there is considerable risk of another inconclusive or even counterproductive adventure along the lines of Israel's 1982 and 2006 incursions into Lebanon--both of which seemed only to demonstrate the limits of what Israel's superior conventional forces could do against a nonconventional adversary.

Though the Israelis are doing a somewhat better job this time of explaining themselves to the world than they did in 2006, there's still a decent chance that world opinion, including public opinion in the U.S., ultimately will force a halt to this action. And nobody knows exactly how the incoming Obama administration will approach the question, though there's interesting speculation both ways. Israeli elections, scheduled for February 10, add another layer of complexity to the situation; two leaders in the current unity government, defense minister (and former PM) Ehud Barak of Labor and foreign minister Tzipi Livni of Kadima, are among the leading candidates. (The third is Benjamin Netanyahu of Likud, another former prime minister and graduate of Cheltenham High School, my alma mater. We're not exactly super-proud of that one... though compared to other right-leaning morons from the area, including the fucking stupidest guy on the planet, Bibi actually looks almost good.)

What I think is missing from this discussion, though, is the odd but undeniable legacy of violence in the Middle East as a precursor to diplomatic progress. It's happened again and again and again, after instigation from both sides. (This is probably the biggest thing I took away from Righteous Victims, the history of the Zionist-Arab conflict I mentioned recently.) The Yom Kippur War of 1973, launched by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat after Israel ignored his initial attempts to initiate negotiations, directly led to the Camp David Accords that sealed peace between Israel and its most powerful Arab foe. The 1982 incursion into Lebanon was a disaster in most respects for Israel, but it did dislodge (and, arguably, moderate) the PLO and marked the last time Israel and Syria directly fought. And the First Intifada of 1987-93 pushed Israel to enter into serious negotiations with the Palestinians for the first time--setting in motion a chain of events that has led to Fatah control in much of the West Bank and its effective neutrality (or even arguably a faint pro-Israel lean) in the current conflagration.

In every case, someone in a position of authority concluded that the status quo was unacceptable and that action was necessary to break a deadlock; while it can be argued whether the progress was worth the pain, progress did come. So while it certainly can be (and is being) argued that Israel's leaders have overreacted to the rocket attacks from Gaza, or taken a brazen step informed by domestic political considerations, historical precedent suggests a decent chance of progress toward peace when this round of violence stops.

I realize how naive, not to say plain dumb, this probably sounds. To even the reasonably attentive outside observer, the Middle East conflict seems like an endless cycle of combat, an ongoing tragedy of militarized societies driven by their most extreme elements into irreconcilable battle. Compared to a generation ago, however, the progress already recorded is substantial: Israel is at peace with Egypt and Jordan, and is likely within a few years of concluding peace with Syria. Israel now recognizes the Palestinians' right to a homeland and the inescapable logic of the two-state solution; for its part, the Palestinian National Authority has recognized Israel's right to exist.

None of this is to minimize the suffering or excuse the brutality on both sides. But a glimmer of optimism within the general despair might be appropriate.