Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Worth Fighting For

I submit to you, in brief, the story of Parwez Kambakhsh.

Parwez Kambakhsh is a 24-year-old Afghani student and journalist who had his death sentence commuted today. A three-judge appellate court decided that 20 years in prison was a more just punishment for his terrible crime.

And what was this terrible crime? Blasphemy. Kambakhsh distributed an article about the rights of women under Islam.

This guy was tried under the "legitimate" Afghan government. The one that, as you might recall, NATO forces are dying to prop up every day.

So I have to ask you, are you proud to support this?

Does propping up this government seem like a valuable use of American blood and treasure to you?

Don't get me wrong. I'm sure that the Taliban would have executed this kid. If Karzai's government falls, probably something even more repressive would replace it.

But this is the danger of intervening in the foreign affairs of other nations, particularly nations with vastly different cultures than our own. Every time we do it, we wind up supporting something unsavory. Every single time. The US has propped up dictators, repressive regimes and bloody terrorists in Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Angola and many, many other places over the last 50 years.

The US isn't going to change its foreign policy over Parwez Kambakhsh. But maybe it should. Maybe we should have some fucking standards for who we help, instead of constantly seeking the enemy of our enemy.

And again, if we pulled out of Afghanistan, the Taliban would take over and put a bullet in the guy's brain. But Parwez Kambakhsh is going to prison for 20 years for blasphemy, prosecuted by a government that Americans are dying to prop up. His first trial was held in secret. His family says he was tortured until he confessed.

So I ask again. Does this seem worth dying for to you?

Monday, October 13, 2008

The Smears Hit Home

Politics often make me angy. Fox News often makes me even angrier. But it's pretty rare that either makes me legitimately upset.

Then I saw this. I warn you, this is not for those with a weak stomach:



Obviously this makes me sick. It should make anyone sick. But sometime while I was watching this, a truly horrifying thought drifted through my head:

Oh my god. My dad is watching this.

It was a little like when you look at a burning building and realize someone is still inside. It's all too easy to dismiss Fox News and write off its viewers. It's a lost cause, a bastion of rednecks and fools, a discredited cesspool of hopelessly biased talk for by and for the brainwashed. "Forget it, Jake. It's Chinatown."

But three million people watch this garbage, and more to the point, my dad is one of them. And my dad is going to believe every word. There's nothing I can say or do, no way I can pull him out of the burning building. He simply does not and never will trust me, the New York Times, factcheck.org, any of it, as much as he trusts Sean Hannity.

My dad is not an inherently political creature, nor a lifelong conservative. He just started listening to O'Reilly and Hannity and all of those assholes on the radio some years back, and thought they were pretty entertaining. Opinionated and argumentative, these guys sound great to people with unsophisticated political views. Now, he watches them every night. He's utterly brainwashed.

And I wrote this off. He's in New York, so his vote doesn't really count (thanks, electoral college!), and having an argument with my dad is an excruciating experience in the best of circumstances. So what the hell. In the end, it's basically harmless, right?

But then you see something like this, and it doesn't seem harmless at all. In recent weeks we've seen McCain's rallies devolve into truly scary lynch mobs. McCain, at least, seems unnerved by the strain of hate he's seeing, but Sean Hannity apparently has no such moral compass. This goes beyond letting a crazy person* spread lies on TV. That's basically par for the Fox News course. What Hannity is doing is fostering a racially-charged fear of a man who could be the first black president of the United States. I never used to believe that Obama was going to be assassinated, but given the current tenor of McCain rallies, it seems scarily plausible. That Hannity is fomenting this stuff, letting a certifiable nutjob say on TV that Obama was "training for a radical overthrow of the government," kind of makes him a king among scumbags.

Nor are McCain's hands clean in this. Like I said, he seems somewhat horrified by what he's wrought, but make no mistake, he wrought it. Blather about Jeremiah Wright is titillating, but relatively harmless. But when no less a person than your vice-presidential candidate tells the world that your opponent has been "palling around with terrorists," you've taken things to a different level. You are making of your opponent a boogeyman, a black (no, Arab!) terrorist.

Of course, thanks to Hannity's special guest, they also believe he's a Secret Muslim.**

These things do not go away when McCain (knock on wood) loses the election. For a certain segment of America, for the three million people who watch Hannity's show, for my dad, the President will be a secret Muslim uppity black terrorist who hates America.

That someone has gone out of their way to create this alternate reality for so many Americans infuriates me. That this other America will be lurking alongside us for years terrifies me.

That my Dad will be among those masses truly depresses me.

Dad. If you are reading this - and I know, you found this blog once - I am begging you not to believe this. This is not reality.

In reality, Barack Obama was just an innocuous community organizer, guilty of nothing more than having a kind of thin resume.

In reality, Barack Obama is a Christian.

In reality, Sean Hannity is the world's biggest douchenozzle.

-S

*And make no mistake, the guy is crazy. The NYT ran a full story on Andy Martin this morning in which we learn that, among other things that:

1). He couldn't become a lawyer because the bar psychologist found in him a
"moderately severe character defect manifested by well-documented ideation with a paranoid flavor."
2). In one of his many futile political campaigns, he had a committee whose officially documented purpose was "to exterminate Jewish power."
3). He's filed so many frivolous lawsuits that he is barred from doing so in Federal court.

** Yes, the NYT gives Martin credit for beginning that delightful smear.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Of Election Year Politics

A quick, belated word on McCain's grandiose plan to buy every mortgage in America.

McCain's plan, if you haven't read much about it, is to buy mortgages for homes that have decreased in value, then reduce the principal on those mortgages to reflect the home's now lower market price. According to McCain's press release outlining the plan, which you can read here, this program would be open to any mortgage holders that:

• live in the home (primary residence only).
• can prove their creditworthiness at the time of the original loan (no falsifications and provided a down payment).
There's just one problem. Under that guideline, McCain would be buying, well, every mortgage in America. Except, you know, the subprime ones that are driving this mess.

There's precious few properties that haven't decreased in value over the last year, so everyone in their brother will want in on the plan. Honey, come quick, the government is giving us a retroactive discount on our house!

At the same time, the plan explicitly excludes subprime borrowers, who are the ones actually doing all the defaulting.

At first, I thought this was a big mistake from an economically inept candidate. Seriously, if a broke liberal arts reject like me can poke an Alaska-sized hole in your economic plan, that's pretty much the height of ineptitude, right?

But thinking about it, I'm not sure they spent one minute deciding if this was economically viable. Those conditions are actually explicitly designed to include everyone. Except those no-good, irresponsible subprime borrowers. Screw them.

It's a text book case of an election year breeding bad policy. Who cares if it works? The key is to make middle America look at their ballot like a fucking coupon. McCain might as well be lobbing $300 billion from a parade float.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Much Ado...

So, running up to tonight's debate I saw and heard a ton of speculation about how the candidates would act. Would McCain attack? Would Obama strike back? Would we be talking about the Keating Five or William Ayers? Would Sarah Palin show up with a walrus and a unicycle for comedic relief?

Well, now we know. The candidates acted... pretty much the exact same way they did in the first debate.

In fact, these answers were so rehearsed that if not for the town hall gimmick* you'd be forgiven for thinking the networks had screwed up and rerun that first debate. Hell, they repeated themselves constantly within this debate.

A couple moments stood out of course, most notably Obama's awesome "Bomb Iran" slam. There was also McCain's stunning proposal to go around buying bad mortgages. It's like he was saying, "Hey, you loved the bailout? There's more where that came from!" This could really be the last straw for fiscal conservatives. One minute McCain's complaining that Obama wants government to do too much, the next he's proposing that it be the personal savior of every subprime mortgage holder? What?

But other than that, if this debate changed your mind at all, congratulations: You have a career ahead of you as a focus group participant.


* Side bar, can we stop pretending this town hall thing is a way of connecting with "normal voters"? As ever, the questions were so vetted and conventional that Brokaw might as well have written them himself.

Monday, October 6, 2008

Not Your Father's Taliban

Pop Quiz: Who are the Taliban, where are they, and what are they up to? What's the nature of their ties to al Qaeda, Pakistan and Afghanistan?

Odds are, you got most of that question wrong. I say that, because up until a couple weeks ago, I would have gotten all of that wrong too.

The most important story today that didn't get nearly enough coverage was CNN's report that the Taliban has cut all ties with al Qaeda and begun secret Saudi-backed peace talks with the Afghani government.

Now, both sides have denied this report. Of course they've denied it. If you are holding talks in secret, odds are you don't want people to know about them.

But I'm going to cautiously assume the report is true. Couple reasons:
1). Hamid Karzai has admitted to asking for Saudi help in talking to the Taliban
2). It makes all the sense in the world for Saudi Arabia to host such talks and
3). This is not your father's Taliban.

I don't think that last fact is very widely understood in the US, where it's become fashionable to say "Taliban" and "al Qaeda" in one breath. In reality, the two are vastly different groups, and the days of them being joined at the hip are apparently over.

By its very nature, al Qaeda has always been more ambitious, more dangerous, and just plain old crazier than the Taliban. While both groups are founded on a similar radical conservative religious ideology (what the neocons like to call "Islamo-Fascism"), they have very different goals. Osama Bin Laden fancies himself the leader of a modern, international jihad. He is a holy warrior, ever searching for enemies of the faith to be cut down. Al Qaeda's grand ambition may be to enforce its view of Islam on the world, but in practice this mostly consists of pursuing a neverending series of grudges. Al Qaeda is, in short, bent entirely on the destruction of anything it deems impure.

The Taliban is a different ball of wax. The Taliban is a regional political entity. Its 0riginal goal was to establish Afghanistan as a Sharia state, following its own particularly strict theology. They were bad guys, for sure, but their concerns were both local and constructive. Unlike al Qaeda, which need only blow shit up, the Taliban had to actually run a country. They did a piss poor job of it too, I might add, in their first go around.

But like I said, things have changed. The Taliban is still run by the one-eyed mullah Mohammad Omar, but Mullah Omar has a lot in common with the Easter Bunny. That is to say, I'm not totally convinced either of them exist. Omar is almost never seen or heard from. He was not, according to the CNN report, present at the Saudi negotiations, though his representatives were sure to mention him.

At the same time, the Taliban he's (supposedly) presiding over now, bears little resemblance to the one the US ousted. "They are more educated," the Post quotes a former Taliban foreign ministry aide as saying, "and they don't punish people for having CDs or cassettes." I'm assuming this example is meant to be symbolic of an overall loosening of the Taliban's moral strictures. Because today's Taliban isn't a bunch of religious extremists, at least not entirely. It's mostly made up of people dissatisfied with Hamid Karzai's government. To that end, they've effectively set up a competing government in the southern provinces of Afghanistan. And whereas the old Taliban couldn't have managed the intricacies of Sim City, the new Taliban's apparently been quite effective. They have a ministry of finance, a justice system, you name it. Given how radically different all this sounds from the old Taliban, I think it's reasonable to wonder if Omar still has the car keys.

So what does all this mean? It means that we shouldn't be dealing with the Taliban as a group of terrorist insurgents, though they are surely utilizing terrorism as a tactic. We should be treating them like a quasi-governmental entity. We should think of them the same way we think of Fatah and Hamas. Like those groups, the Taliban uses violent methods and religious rhetoric, but its goals are largely rational, political and secular. In other words, they're things you could sit down and negotiate. Is it possible and even probable that some of these goals will be batshit and unreasonable? Sure. But by having the conversation, we'll at the very least better understand our enemy.

That's why the Governor of Pakistan's border region recently called for the US to talk with Mullah Omar and company, and why Omar himself offered to arrange a safe withdrawal for coalition troops. And it's why I believe that the Taliban is indeed negotiating with the Afghan government right now in Saudi Arabia.

Now the only question is, are we going to join in?

Probably not. That would be negotiating with terrorists, which the US, obviously, does not do.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Vice Presidential Drinking Fun

So. I'm currently watching the Vice Presidential debate. And also drinking. Because these actions go together.

This debate was expected to get huge ratings, but that was mostly because people were hoping to see Sarah Palin vomit on stage. So far she has not. God is still crossing his fingers.*

I'm assuming that tomorrow the pundits are going to give Palin tremendous credit for not vomiting on herself, pooping behind the podium, or otherwise defecating in a metaphorical manner.

But from where I am sitting Joe Biden has kicked ass. Granted, where I am sitting is on the floor of my East Coast apartment, and granted, I am a drunken, godless member of a biased media elite. I am not a hockey mom. I like neither hockey nor moms, nor America nor God.

But no matter. Biden kicked ass. He seems knowledgeable, passionate and experienced. He seemed to be answering off the cuff much of the time, albeit with a clear strategy. Biden obviously came in resolved to attack John McCain. This allowed him to stay "on message," meaning, roughly, that he neither said anything terribly embarrassing, nor attacked Sarah Palin with a knife.

But despite that scripted approach, you got a sense that Biden was at ease here. They could have asked him anything, and he surely would have had an opinion, because, well, he actually knows things. That actually knowing things is not a given in this debate pretty much says it all.

Sarah Palin does not actually know things. This was especially clear when the moderator asked her about Cheney's bizarre theory that the Vice Presidency is a branch of government unto itself. Any political junky would know what they were talking about, but Palin manifestly didn't. Biden did, because again, he actually has an interest in government. Crazy quality to expect in a a leader, I know.

Look, at this point if you're undecided you're either stupid or uninterested. Determining what such strange creatures are thinking is tough. My hope is that even their bizarre brains recognized that Palin looked like a bubblegum talking point automaton, and that Biden looked like a genuine person with genuine experience.

In hindsight, this was an event that was bound to play to Palin's strengths. Biden was making a conscious effort to direct all his attacks at McCain, not Palin, and Gwen Ifill was more interested in getting to her next question than challenging anyone with a follow-up. So Palin was allowed to stick with her rehearsed bits, ignore questions, and fake smile America into submission.

*Assuming he's not busy planning the Iraq war with George Bush.

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