Saturday, August 30, 2014

Robert Stein (1924-2014)

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(I apologize for the lateness of this post. I was away on vacation for a while and not doing much writing. So I am coming belatedly to this sad event.)

Last month, Robert Stein, author of the blog Connecting the Dots and guest contributor here at The Reaction, died at the age of 90. Bob led an amazing life as an editor, publisher, media critic, and journalism teacher. (Go to his site and have a look at the wonderful photo album his family posted, including photos of Bob with celebrities and politicians, as well as more domestic moments.) My own relationship with Bob was limited to e-mails and our joint interest in political blogging, but even in our limited interaction over the years I could tell he was a warm, kind, generous, extremely intelligent, and truly remarkable man.

He was blogging up until the end of March, and the last guest post of his here was one that meant a great deal to me, "The View from 90." You see, unlike so many of those who write about politics, Bob was not full of vitriol. He had some strong views, and he expressed them, but he was not out to cause harm, not out to score political points, and in many of his posts what came through most clearly, and most elegantly, was his desire to share his experiences with us, his readers, experiences from a long life well lived, having seen and having learned so much, having acquired a perspective – and, indeed, the wisdom – that far exceeds the morass of our day-to-day political arena. And as one of his readers, and as an acquaintance, I did learn a great deal from him, and there was just so much to admire in what he had to say about the world around him, and about the incredible things he had done and seen.

I wish I could pick out 20 or 30 or 50 or 100 posts of his that you should read, and you should go have a look through his archives, but I'll single out one more, which also appeared here, "A Life in Black and White," about race in America, from July of last year. What struck me then, and what lingers still when I think about Bob, is the hope for a better future that shines so brightly through everything he was ever writing about, that gave his writing so much life and that seemed to define his outlook on the world. (Another great post that stood out for me was "A Day That Lives in Infamy and Me," from last December, about World War II.)

As he wrote at the end of "The View from 90": "As I blew out a blast furnace of birthday candles on this weekend of ominous headlines, I was silently repeating Dr. Pangloss' mantra, that with a little courage – and some luck – we may all soon be living again in "the best of all possible worlds."

I hope so, Bob. I really hope so. Rest in peace.


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Friday, August 29, 2014

Obama's cautious pragmatism is the best approach for dealing with Syria and ISIS

By Michael J.W. Stickings

There's a lot of talk today, the Friday before a long weekend, about President Obama's remark that "we don't have a strategy yet" regarding ISIS and the deteriorating situation in Syria and Iraq. The remark has identified as a "gaffe" by the press, Republicans jumped all over it (because they'll do or say anything to score political points at the president's expense), and the White House has gone into damage-control mode (because of course).

Now, to be sure, it was an inartful way of explaining the situation. The president was clearly talking about what to do about ISIS, not broadly about the region, but that hardly came across clearly. But it makes sense not to know quite what to do at this point. It's easy to be an armchair militarist like John McCain or Bill Kristol, much harder to the one who has to make the tough decisions, decisions that will result in significant loss of life, particularly when there are no clear answers to a problem that in and of itself is difficult to understand. How far do you go in dealing militarily with ISIS? Do you put troops on the ground? Do you rely solely on airstrikes, or on airstrikes with support for allies on the ground? But, then, who are those allies? ISIS is at war with Bashar al-Assad's Syrian regime, but that regime is hardly an American ally. Does the U.S. really want to get into yet another protracted war in Iraq, one with no clear outcomes? And what would airstrikes against ISIS accomplish anyway, particularly without clear allies on the ground?

And so on, and so on.

At a time like this, as most times, caution is a virtue, and President Obama's cautiousness, which very much defines who he is and how he governs, stands in stark, pragmatic contrast to the "bomb bomb bomb" recklessness of Republicans. Besides, it's not like the president has been soft on America's enemies -- just consider the extra-judicial drone war that he has been waging against various threats throughout the Middle East. Indeed, as Peter Beinart writes at The Atlantic, and I think he's right on this, President Obama is both a hawk and a dove, or neither, or somewhere in between: 

So was Obama more dovish than Clinton or more hawkish? The answer is both. On the one hand, Obama has shown a deep reluctance to use military force to try to solve Middle Eastern problems that don't directly threaten American lives. He's proved more open to a diplomatic compromise over Iran's nuclear program than many on Capitol Hill because he’s more reticent about going to war with Tehran. He's been reluctant to arm Syria's rebels or bomb Basher al-Assad because he doesn't want to get sucked into that country's civil war. After initially giving David Petraeus and company the yellow light to pursue an expanded counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan, he's wound down America's ground war against the Taliban. Even on Libya, he proved more reluctant to intervene than the leaders of Britain and France.

On the other hand, he's proven ferocious about using military force to kill suspected terrorists. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, he's basically adopted the policy Joe Biden proposed at the start of his administration: Don't focus on fighting the Taliban on the ground, since they don't really threaten the United States. Just bomb the hell out al-Qaeda from the air. Compared with George W. Bush, he's dramatically expanded drone strikes, even though they're unilateral, legally dubious, and morally disturbing. And, as promised, he sent special forces to kill Osama bin Laden without Pakistan's permission, even though his vice president and secretary of defense feared the risks were too high. When it comes to the Middle East, in other words, Obama is neither a dove nor a hawk. He's a fierce minimalist.

A minimalist. A cautious pragmatist, I'd say. And therein lies his strategy for dealing with the region, with ISIS, and with other such problems facing the United States, and indeed his strategy for dealing with pretty much everything. It's not good enough for Republicans, but, then, nothing he does is ever good enough for Republicans. And it's not really good enough for the media either, because it's not a clear, simplistic strategy, or, rather, not a clear, simplistic worldview. In contrast to the "bomb first, think later, if ever" approach preferred by McCain, Kristol, and their ilk, as well as to the "America as global hegemon" worldview espoused by Kristol and his neocon ilk and embraced by the likes of Dick Cheney, President Obama's approach is really the only approach that makes sense, and that could actually produce positive, lasting results, given the crazy state of the world today, given the challenges the country faces, given the complexities of the problems in places like Iraq and Syria.

No, you don't get that rush of bloodlust that comes with, and underpins, right-wing militarism, and you don't get that sense of purity that comes with pacifism and/or isolationism, nor the perceived, and self-deceiving, moral clarity that comes with any sort of absolutism, but what you do get is a chance of achieving some sort of success in a world where, given the choices available and outcomes likely, success is awfully hard to come by.

Maybe President Obama's "minimalism" won't work in this case, but it's far more preferable than the alternatives, because at least it recognizes that there are no easy solutions and that missteps could lead to catastrophe. As occasionally frustrating as his cautious pragmatism may be, he knows what he's doing, even when the words don't come out as artfully as desired.

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Progressive Music Classics: "This Funeral is for the Wrong Corpse" by The Mekons

By Marc McDonald 

(Ed. note: Here's another installment of Marc's ongoing series. For the full series, check out his site. -- MJWS)

Welcome to another edition of Progressive Music Classics, a salute to left-leaning music that champions the cause of working-class people around the world.

The narrative of the Rich & Powerful and the corporate media was simple back in the day. When the Soviet Union died, we were told, socialism died. End of story.

In 1991, it was clearly time to bury Das Kapital in the landfill and embrace capitalism. The End of History, as Francis Fukuyama put it, was upon us.

However, a strange thing happened along the way to socialism's funeral.

First of all, decades of unregulated, brutal, dog-eat-dog "free" markets led to a spectacular growing divide between the classes. The Top One Percent saw its fortunes (and political influence) soar. The Middle Class pretty much died. And the poor grew vastly in number.

Once again, a lot of people started asking the question, "Is capitalism really the best system we can come up with?"

And the ideas of Karl Marx once again began to be debated. In fact, one of the surprise bestsellers of this year was Capital in the Twenty-First Century by French economist Thomas Piketty. It was an eye-opening book that basically served to update Marx's observations with current data.

Amazingly, for a relatively dry academic book, Capital soared to the top of the bestseller lists. Even the The Financial Times (hardly a lefty newspaper) had kind words to say about Piketty's book and admitted that he had raised important points.

It's clear that Piketty hit a nerve and raised important points about the failures of unregulated capitalism.

But wait a minute: haven't we already been through this whole debate before? Didn't socialism die back in 1991? Weren't we told that capitalism was the only way forward?

Well, actually no.

As the British band The Mekons pointed out in their classic 1991 song, what was buried with the Soviet Union wasn't the real deal anyway. As The Mekons put it: "This Funeral is For the Wrong Corpse." 

They're queuing up to dance on Socialism's grave,
This is my testimony,
a dinosaur's confession,
but how can something really be dead,
when it hasn't even happened?

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A huge step forward for Obamacare: Pennsylvania's Republican governor embraces Medicaid expansion

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Greg Sargent reports:

In another sign that the politics of Obamacare continue to shift, the Medicaid expansion is now all but certain to come to another big state whose Republican governor had previously resisted it: Pennsylvania.

The federal government has approved Pennsylvania Governor Tom Corbett's application for the state's own version of the Medicaid expansion, without a handful of the conditions Corbett had hoped to impose, Dem sources tell me.

Corbett just announced that he will accept the expansion that has been offered, perhaps with some last-minute changes — expanding coverage and subsidies to as many as half a million people.

As a Republican, Corbett either opposed Obamacare on principle (however ignorant) or had to pretend to oppose it, or at least thought he did. So even though Pennsylvania is mostly a blue state, it's an extremely positive sign that he has come around.

Yes, the politics of Obamacare continue to shift, as it entrenches itself as the law of the land and proves to be a success. Democrats demand its implementation and overall the electorate is either embracing it or softening, and clearly Corbett realized that he could no longer oppose Medicaid expansion. It's shameless political calculation, no doubt, but it's telling that the calculation is that the pro-Obamacare position is the more desirable one. Don't expect this to happen in hardened red states, at least not anytime soon, but slowly and surely Obamacare is succeeding.

And just take a look at that figure. We're talking about health care coverage expansion to hundreds of thousands of people. That alone is significant, as these are people who need Medicaid and obviously cannot pay for health care otherwise. But what's also significant, let us not forget, is that we're talking not just about Medicaid recipients, but about citizens, about voters, which is what most of them are. And voters will have their voices heard, and those who were against them -- namely, Republicans -- will ultimately face their electoral wrath.

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Thursday, August 28, 2014

Chuck Todd realizes there are "too many crazy white guys" in the Republican Party

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Actually, it's a party controlled and dominated by crazy white guys, to take nothing away from the craziness of the non-whites and/or non-guys, and it's not just on reproductive rights, which was the specific issue Todd was initially referencing, but on pretty much everything. But credit him at least for going there:

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Wednesday, August 27, 2014

The conundrum of memory

By Capt. Fogg

Sometimes I get to wondering, sometimes I get confused about what our conservative brethren are trying to tell us. I was reminded recently that my former Republican congressman Tom Rooney (R-FL), amongst others, vociferously  threatened to impeach the president for having provided air traffic control for the UN incursions into Libya; for having exceeded his constitutional authority by arming Syrian rebels. Rep. Walter Jones (R-NC) back in June of 2013, threatened to impeach President Obama if any U.S. troops are killed in Syria. Is there a relationship between rhetorical amplitude and political passion and the shortness of its half-life?

I ask because currently the same party is chastising him for not having gone into Syria thus allowing ISIS a breeding ground. We need those airstrikes -- why didn't he make those airstrikes? We need airstrikes, says John McCain, in his time-worn tradition of  damning Obama if he does or if he doesn't. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) wants to commit ground troops. This is all "due to our total inaction. And it's going to be one of the more shameful chapters in American history," says John McCain.

Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-NH) said on Face the Nation that the president's limited foreign policy is no longer acceptable on. I have no idea whether that refers to the nearly a hundred airstrikes the Obama administration has unilaterally launched into Northern Iraq to help the hopelessly rickety and incompetent government Republicans bragged about setting up not long ago, but we can be assured of at least one thing: Republicans will damn him for doing it and damn him for not stepping in earlier back when they were trying to impeach him for it.

(Cross-posted at Human Voices.)

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I have seen the future

Or the selfie of the future, that is.

By Capt. Fogg

Selfie of the day, selfies of the week -- we can hardly breathe with the effort of working selfie into every page, every story, every moment of news.

6 uses of the word in a 15 second news spot and it's hardly unique. They're trending on Twitter and I effort to litter every page with SELFIES!

How did we ever get along without that word in those dull, crepuscular days without hashtags when only birds would tweet and that picture you took of yourself was a picture you took of yourself? No, selfie is here to stay and there is a future to come when old men in tattered backwards hats sit on park benches sharing shaky-handed selfies and blowing farts through their boxers, belts around ankles and tweeting about efforting their bowel movements. Tattooed nonagenarians with Titanium hip replacements and gold-rimmed bifocal Google Glass, sharing selfies.

I have seen the future. Androgynous naked teens, covered in genetically engineered cat fur, brains wired together by the web, trending. They hide in the trees, laughing and taking selfies for their friends on the moon.

(Cross posted at Human Voices.)

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Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Matt Damon does the stupid ALS ice bucket challenge, but in a good way

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Basically, I think the ALS ice bucket challenge is fucking stupid. I'm all for fighting this awful disease, but surely there are better ways to raise awareness, and, what's more, it pretty clear that many, and probably at this point most, of the people doing it are only doing it because it's gone viral and trendy, not because they have any idea about, let alone actually care about, what it's actually all about. And then there is, to me, the problem that lies at the heart of the matter: this whole challenge involves wasting clean water at a time when clean water is in short supply and drought is wreaking havoc. Not those dumping cold water over themselves seem to give a shit, but I think it's important that we do.

And so it was refreshing to see Matt Damon, whom I generally admire a lot for his activism, find a suitable alternative (see video below):

"It posed kind of a problem for me, not only because there's a drought here in California," Damon explained in the video, uploaded to the organization's YouTube channel. "But because I co-founded, and we envision the day when everybody has access to a clean drink of water -- and there are about 800 million people in the world who don't -- and so dumping a clean bucket of water on my head seemed a little crazy."

The actor -- who nominated George Clooney, Bono and NFL quarterback Tom Brady to do the challenge next -- said swapping clean H2O from the faucet for toilet water seemed fitting for the causes near and dear to his heart, as about 2.4 billion people across the globe still lack access to clean sanitation systems. Toilet water in westernized nations, Damon added, is still cleaner than the drinking water in many underserved communities in developing countries. 

Does this mean I'll now do this myself? No, it just means I'll applaud those celebrities who do. Even if I continue to think this whole thing is ridiculous, at least in its viral, trendy form.

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Why John Eligon's New York Times profile of Mike Brown isn't as bad as many people think

By Michael J.W. Stickings

I certainly understand why so many people are upset about certain aspects of John Eligon's article on Mike Brown in the Times, specifically the use of the phrase "no angel" and, well, basically all of this:

Michael Brown, 18, due to be buried on Monday, was no angel, with public records and interviews with friends and family revealing both problems and promise in his young life. Shortly before his encounter with Officer Wilson, the police say he was caught on a security camera stealing a box of cigars, pushing the clerk of a convenience store into a display case. He lived in a community that had rough patches, and he dabbled in drugs and alcohol. He had taken to rapping in recent months, producing lyrics that were by turns contemplative and vulgar. He got into at least one scuffle with a neighbor. 

And initially I was upset about it as well. Because, honestly, what does any of this have to do with this young man's murder at the hands of the police of Ferguson, Missouri?

Absolutely nothing.

And yet, I think there's been a good deal of over-reaction to this article, understandable, perhaps, in such a highly-charged atmosphere. Because, really, the article is a comprehensive profile of Brown, not some hit job on Fox News. And if you're going to write an honest profile of who this young man was, you can't leave out some parts of who he was, or what he did, just because they don't make him out to be a saint.

And, further, just because he wasn't a saint doesn't mean what happened to him was just -- and wasn't murder. What the police did was wrong no matter who the victim was. The victim just happened to be Mike Brown.

Read more »

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Monday, August 25, 2014

Booker T. & the M.G.s - "Green Onions"

By Richard K. Barry

"Green Onions" arrived in 1962. It's a classic R&B instrumental hit by Booker T. & the M.G.s - of course. It has to be one of the most obvious 12 bar blues in the history of that configuration, with a signature Hammond organ riff thrown in. As sometimes happens, it was originally the B-side of another tune called "Behave Yourself" but was reissued as an A-side when it was clear it would catch on. And then there was an album called Green Onions.

As AllMusic correctly points out, the song has been a part of oldies radio play forever and of many a set list for bar bands over the years. 

And the Wiki adds this:
In the 1960s, as members of the house band of Stax Records, [Booker T. & the M.G.s] played on hundreds of recordings by artists such as Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Bill Withers, Sam & Dave, Carla and Rufus Thomas and Johnnie Taylor. As originators of the unique Stax sound, the group was one of the most prolific, respected, and imitated of their era. By the mid-1960s, bands on both sides of the Atlantic were trying to sound like Booker T. & the M.G.'s.

Many people will also know that two early members of the group, Steve Cropper and Donald "Duck" Dunn, were a part of the backup band in the 1980 hit feature film The Blues Brothers.

Got the tune stuck in my head tonight for some reason. 

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Rand Paul is wrong about himself, Democrats, the Republican Party, and 2016

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Rand Paul, riding a wave of egomaniacal hubris given his current position at or near the top of national Republican politics, thinks that Democrats are scared of him:

"I think the American public is coming more and more to where I am and that those people, like Hillary Clinton, who — she fought her own war, 'Hillary's war,' you know?" Paul said in an interview that aired Sunday on NBC's "Meet the Press."

"And I think that's what scares the Democrats the most — is that in a general election, were I to run, there's going to be a lot of independents and even some Democrats who say, ‘You know what? We are tired of war. We're worried that Hillary Clinton will get us involved in another Middle Eastern war because she's so gung-ho.’"

Uh, no, not so much. There are some progressives to the left of the Clintonian Democratic center who don't much care for Hillary, and who certainly object to the warmongering aspects of the Democratic foreign policy elite, but in the end they wouldn't abandon her and the party (even if they voted for a progressive alternative in the primaries). Furthermore, while Americans are, by and large, tired of -- and generally opposed to -- the sorts of military misadventures that Bush and Cheney led the country into, isolationism (or at least non-interventionism) as represented by Paul just doesn't have the level of public support he apparently thinks it does. Besides, Hillary, like Obama, isn't "gung-ho." If you want "gung-ho," just look at Paul's own party, and therein lie the deeper problems for him.

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The disgraceful Mr. Blair

By Michael J.W. Stickings

Remember when then-Prime Minister Tony Blair had more credibility over the Iraq War than Bush, Cheney, and the various warmongering American neocons given his supposedly deep-rooted moral convictions in support of freedom and democracy? For them it was about oil and power and dreams of American global hegemony, for him it was about something more essential, or so we were led to believe, something nobler.

Well, it was a thin veneer, but it was there. But there it is no longer:

Tony Blair gave Kazakhstan's autocratic president advice on how to manage his image after the slaughter of unarmed civilians protesting against his regime.

In a letter to Nursultan Nazarbayev, obtained by The Telegraph, Mr Blair told the Kazakh president that the deaths of 14 protesters "tragic though they were, should not obscure the enormous progress" his country had made.

Mr Blair, who is paid millions of pounds a year to give advice to Mr Nazarbayev, goes on to suggest key passages to insert into a speech the president was giving at the University of Cambridge, to defend the action.

Mr Blair is paid through his private consultancy, Tony Blair Associates (TBA), which he set up after leaving Downing Street in 2007. TBA is understood to deploy a number of consultants in key ministries in Kazakhstan.

Human rights activists accuse Mr Blair of acting "disgracefully" in bolstering Mr Nazarbayev's credibility on the world stage in return for millions of pounds. 

Actually, we all should accuse him of it. Because what he's doing -- following in Henry Kissinger's footsteps in making shitloads of money helping to prop up tyrants and rogues -- is truly disgraceful.

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