Sunday, July 09, 2006

Back in the Mix

A couple of friends who blog regularly have been teasing me about how long it's been since I entered anything in my own blog. Yeah, I suck ... but I'm awful cute.

Looking back at my painfully infrequent blog entries from last year, I'm struck by 1) the fact that there aren't very many of them and 2) the ones that are there are pretty good. This suggests nothing so much as my life-long fusion of talent with indiscipline. And as I'm in my entre' years (now that's a coinage! - if the passages of youth were our "salad days" then these our our entre' years) I suppose it's time to get back to work and produce something - presuming I'm capable of it - of merit, or at least of interest. And so once again, I blog.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Bad Luck and Bad Analysis

I was reflecting earlier this week on the heartening Democratic victories in Virginia and New Jersey, and the attendant assumption in both the high and low end media markets about George Bush's current "free fall." Suddenly George is a loser - a burden on the candidates he campaigns for - a washed up lame duck. That's what the polls tell us, and the talking heads for the moment agree. But what bothers me about this line of analysis (which has very little analytic about it, after all) is that I don't see what's different now about George W that didn't hold before the 2004 election. To whit:

Iraq's a disaster - we knew that then.

The White House lied to get us into the war - we knew that then.

Major environmental issues like global warming, deforestation, and declining biodiversity are being ignored - we knew that then.

The availability of affordable health care in this country is approaching crisis stage - we knew that then.

Our country is in greater need of an energy policy than it has been in years, and the White House's only plan is to let oil companies wrack up huge profits - we knew that then.

The federal budget is a mess - we knew that then.

The President's social security plan is a no-starter - we knew that then.

George surrounds himself with cronies who are either incompetent or self-serving - we knew that then.

*******************

I could go on for some time in this vein, but my point is that none of the many legitimate reasons that George Bush should be regarded as a menace and a failure are new. In point of fact, many of the aspects of his Presidency that are held in contempt were on display before November of last year.

The one significant event since November 2004 that wasn't in the mix already, was, as we know, Hurricane Katrina, and while Bush's pitiful response certainly did him a lot of damage - the unfortunate "You're doing a heck of job, Brownie" remark will rank with the Mission Accomplished speech as low points of a truly pathetic career - it's odd to me just how much damage the Katrina fallout has done to this administration. You can hold Bush in contempt, as I do, and still think that hurricanes (and corrupt or incompetent local governments) are largely outside of Presidential control. So what's the deal? Did we simply hit that most trendy of historical inflections - a tipping point.

It seems to me that George has recently had a sudden run of bad luck that has for the moment exposed his other, more deeply seated, inadequacies of ability and character. But although I've always been immune to his charms, I recognize that in the past large numbers of American have found him likable and admirable. I've never understood that, so I have to confess that I find his current dip in popularity equally irrational. George's luck will change in the next three years. Democrats who are sitting around passively enjoying the administration's current disintegration are wasting a valuable moment when they could be formulating a populist set of programs that the middle and working classes could identify with on issues like health care and the environment. But the Democrats never fail to waste an opportunity, any more than they fail to coddle a special interest group. The 2006 elections are for the moment the Dems to lose - and it would surprise me if they don't find a way to lose them.

Wednesday, October 19, 2005

Perl Gets Popped

John Updike's sassy review in last week's Sunday Times of New Art City, Jed Perl's massive (some might say bloated) history of mid-century American Art, is itself a mini-clinic in damnation with faint praise. By treating Perl as a talented minor-leaguer with amusing stylistic quirks, Updike good-naturedly reduces Perl to the level of a windy amateur. Perhaps the most devasting passage in the review - especially lethal for being delivered so lightly - is this one:

While one would not mistake Perl's hip, allusion-rich prose for hot air, it does, in its schematizing ease and eager phrasemaking, attain a warm-air status. As warm air will, it can induce a certain grogginess. "If oil paint was tradition, collage was revolution, but of course the kind of painting that was done on 10th Street was very much related to the revolution of Cubist collage, and so the connection between painting and collage was complicated, part of the loopy history of modern art": a sentence like this leads us perilously close to nowhere. Complication goes without saying; we wait for the illuminating generalization. The words "existential" and "empirical" remain hazy, as much as Perl loves and uses them. The verb "existentialize" doesn't exist in my dictionary, and I groped to attach meanings to such nuanced variations of the concept as "in their wackily existentialist way" and the report that some Buckminster Fuller domes were sent out "into the world in a pure, almost existentialized form." Almost existentialized - an unlucky near miss!


One can guess why Perl wheeled out portentious philosophical terms to tart up what sounds like it was meant to be essentially a popular history book - he'd been reading too much Arthur Danto, and was thoroughly cowed by the Columbia professor's mean way with a phenomenological reference!

Sunday, October 16, 2005

Planet of the Year

I was climbing in New Paltz yesterday, and as we were approaching the cliffs west of the city my friend Mark and I were forced to make a long detour around the badly flooded Wallkill river. Along the banks of the once insignificant current pumpkin fields had been turned into bogs, the big orange globes half-sunken in the water and muck.

In light of all the recent bad weather, I'm going to make a very bold prediction here: Time Magazine's "Person of the Year" cover will be awarded to "The Wrathful Earth." This would not be the first instance in which Time anthropomorphized our planet: in 1988 "The Endangered Earth" was Time's most newsworthy "person." But in the wake of Katrina and the much more horrifying earthquake in Kashmir, I am thinking that the newsweekly's editors will have trouble coming up with a more notable individual. Our planet is fragile and volatile, and we insist in packing more and more people onto its surface without upgrading our infrastructure or improving our responses to the disequilibrium we are inflicting on the earth. The results are unsurprising.

I was struck by the point made by the physicist Russell Seitz (of all people), in an odd and fascinating editorial in the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, about what I can only call the social ecology of Central Asia. Writing about the dramatic topography and drastic natural history of the region , Seitz notes that

[...t]he Indian subcontinent has been thrusting into the heart of Asia since the days of the dinosaurs, raising some of the highest mountains like the bow wave of a dreadnaught and garlanding them with metamorphic treasures like the sapphires of Kashmir and the rubies and lapis lazuli of Hunza and Badakhshan.

This tectonic beauty comes at a high human cost. Last December, the far edge of the Indian Plate popped open a 1,000-kilometer split in the Andaman seabed, raising the tsunami in which 300,000 perished. Now the same great plate's 60-mile-deep keel has surged forward, nudging peaks like K-2 and Nanga Parbat a little higher, and knocking the ground out from under everyone from Kabul to Kashmir.

Until I came across Seitz's piece I hadn't linked in my mind the geology of the Kashmir earthquake to the even greater disaster of the Indean Ocean tsunami, or considered what the geopolitical implication might be of having the world's most combustible societies riding at the rim of its most volatile tectonic plate.



Saturday, October 15, 2005

Indochina Redux

Today's New York Times carries a dismaying article by James Risen and David Sanger about what are apparently ongoing clashes between Syrian and American forces on the Western border of Iraq. The sources are current or former administration and military officials who, of course, refuse to be identified. There is a good deal of fascinating and appalling information in the piece and one passage in particular jumped out at me:

Increasingly, officials say, Syria is to the Iraq war what Cambodia was in the Vietnam War: a sanctuary for fighters, money and supplies to flow over the border and, ultimately, a place for a shadow struggle.
Perhaps a better analogy than Cambodia - which the US Airforce during the Vietnam War subjected to a strategic bombing campaign of apocalyptic proportion - would be the American incursions into Laos at the same time. The shadow war in Laos 30-some years ago - very much like what appears to now be happening on the Iraq-Syria border - was a low intensity conflict fought by Special Operations forces that initially made cross-border raids and ultimately set up full-scale combat bases inside a country with which we were nominally at peace. The purpose of this lethal "sideshow" was to stop the flow of troops and arms from North to South Vietnam, a goal at which it miserably failed, although the American covert war arguably had the effect of driving Laos into the control of its own Pathet Lao communist guerrillas. One can only wonder if the US military in Iraq is exploiting local ethnic minorities in its fight against Islamic insurgent in just the same way our country manipulated (and then, naturally, abandonned) the Hmong tribes people on the Vietnamese-Laotian border decades ago.

Since the article reports a firefight between Syrian and American forces that sources say happened in "the summer" one wonders why the Times took so long to publish this account (were the reporters having trouble getting adequate verification?) Whatever the reason for the delay, one thing that the article does make obvious is that the Bush administration has no coherent policy for dealing with Syria or mitigating Syria's influence in Iraq:
American officials say Mr. Bush has not yet signed off on a specific strategy and has no current plan to try to oust Mr. Assad, partly for fear of who might take over.
This is more of the same from Bush crew - military action is taken without any clear view of what the endgame is or how to achieve either tactical or strategic goals. The one notable change in their thinking is that it seems to have dawned on them that you can't simply eliminate unpleasant governments - in this instance Bashar al-Assad's junta in Damascus - without having some practical plan for who or what will replace them.

Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Flavors of Governance

Something interesting went on - or failed to go on - in what we might as well call the public discourse over the last week few weeks

It became clear early in the proceedings that the hearings on the nomination of John Roberts for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court were going to be conducted on an fairly restrained and intellectual level. The hearings were a fine example of republican democracy (little "r", little "d") in action, despite premature and self-defeating attempts by progressive special interest groups to paint Roberts as an radical ideologue who (for example) wouldn't hesitate to defend the bombing of abortion clinics. As it turned out, Roberts proved to be a dismayingly difficult target to attack - by the end of his confirmation he was almost universally acknowledged as a brilliant jurist and a charming witness, with a dazzingly knowledge of case law. (It should be noted that it was just these qualities which so distinguished Roberts from that ultimate right wing token appointment, Clarence Thomas, whose utter intellectual unfitness for a seat on the High Court should easily have disqualified him at the time of his nomination, setting aside his notorious personal failings). The best effort I came across to tar Roberts with the brush of his previously stated opinions as an Executive branch attorney in the Reagan administration was the trenchant analysis provided by veteran civil rights lawyer William L. Taylor in the New York Review of Books. But Roberts, of course, elegantly parried these accusations by insisting that he was merely acting as an effective advocate within a conservative administration, and by explicitly distancing himself from the judicial philosophy, such as it is, of Justices Scalia and Thomas.

As it turned out, the progressive opponents of Roberts had small grounds for complaint where the hearings were concerned: Chairman Arlen Specter allowed for the the thorough but "dignified" questioning he had promised, and Democrats Patrick Leahy, Chuck Schumer, Russ Feingold, and Ted Kennedy got to grill the nominee at length on any number of points of law and judicial practice. Whatever legitimate frustration the Democrats may feel about Roberts's failures to elaborate his opinions about specific issues likely to be heard by the Court, the overall philosophy that Roberts set forth - one of respect for precedent and legislative intent - could hardly be objectionable. Which is not to say that a vocal minority of senators failed to object - as we all now know every Democratic senator who is regarded as a serious presidential contender - Kerry, Clinton, Biden, and Bayh - all voted against the nomination. Russ Feingold was the distinguished exception to what was widely viewed as a crass collective submission to Democratic special interest group pressure - and its worth noting that Feingold was also the only one of these potential party standard bearers who opposed the Iraq war from the start. It's nice to see independence where independence is due.

In any case, it was precisely the "modesty" (modesty in the judicial sense) of Roberts views that made his nomination so plausible, and his responses to the opposing senators so comforting to those of us willing to be comforted: Roberts was in effect promising that he would NOT be a judicial activist for the Right, that he would not go about overturning Congresionally defined entitlements, that he would not make a policy of narrowing the scope of well-established civil liberties.

All this was judicial modesty was especially intriguing coming intermixed, as it did, with the widespread criticism leveled at government at ALL levels (but especially at the Federal government) in the wake of Katrina. It is just that lack of activism, that restrained approach to the business of government so lauded in Justice Roberts, that has earned the Bush administration so much criticism. Why weren't they prepared for Katrina? Why hadn't they spent more money on levees? Why weren't troops rushed more quickly to a domestic "battlefront" (I can recall a time not so long ago when the use of Federal troops in domestic situations was routinely denounced by libertarians of both the Left and the Right as a significant potential threat to the Republic - if anyone prominent has made urged this position during the Katrina post mortem, I haven't heard it.)

There's really very little contradiction here from a hardened leftist's point of view: progressives want the Federal courts to be restrained when reviewing both the scope of individual rights and the ability of the government to limit those rights; they want the similar restraint by the Federal courts when judges are asked to curtail Congress's prerogatives for creating new social programs and entitlements. Those same progressives want the Executive to be pro-active when pursuing infrastructure or spending programs that are intended to help large numbers of people, especially the poor and the underprivileged. People invariably like government when it advances their causes.

There has been a great deal of commentary about how Katrina and its aftermath reflect ed on the Bush administration's claims to competence. Indeed, it was on the basis of John Roberts's obvious competence that his nomination sailed through a Senate that events had made mindful of the public's perfectly reasonable hunger for well-qualified, dedicated public servants - as opposed to the cronies and image makers that the current President has so routinely inflicted on us. This hunger is what the White House negligiently overlooked when nominating Harriet Miers, and it's her blatant inexperience and Bush-toady resume that are making people suspicious on all wavelengths of the political spectrum. But there's a broader argument to be joined here. Competence is a fine thing, and I will take a brave stand in its favor, but what seems to be missing from the current debates and discussion I've heard is a more sweeping analysis of what the role of government - all branches of government - might legitimately play in our lives.

Preamble

This blog is meant to function as my ongoing review of politics and culture from an analytic and engaged viewpoint. "Analytic" refers to my intention to treat skeptically the prevalent interpretations of current events and the arts. When I say I want to approach issues skeptically, I mean that I want to avoid buying into rote answers or arguments provided by the Right or the Left without first working through the reasoning those positions involve - "skepticism" implies looking closely at the facts at hand, and at the reasons used to advance one or another interpretation of those facts. "Engaged" refers to my hope that I will never spend much time rumaging around in news stories or Web sites without proposing some positive (or even negative) course of action, an agenda that the events or narratives I'm mulling over should imply. Most stories worth telling demand a sequel, a sequel in which the readers may very well participate.

I hope to post with reasonable regularity: therefore this blog appears with the caveatthat anything I write here will be as much conjecture and rumination as well-thought-through assertion. This is not to avoid taking responsibility for what I've posted - rather, it's merely to note that I expect to be wrong on a regular basis. In the Blogosphere silence is the only true sin.

This blog is also, incidentally, a way of promoting my website, the eponymous RichardRyan.com. I hope that RichardRyan.com will (unlike this blog) remain relatively free of rhetoric: it's intended as a guide for understanding and navigating the Web, that increasingly chaotic and noxious smog of data. It will mostly be a "list" site: a site on which I will categorize, rank, and perhaps comment briefly on various online resources. I've found the increasing data "density" of the Web to be both stimulating and frustrating: I hope my own investigations provide some value and direction to the users of RichardRyan.com.