Sarah Vowell in Seattle

October 17, 2008

On Monday at Town Hall Sarah Vowell read from her recent book “Wordy Shipmates.”  I attended the reading but had not read any of her books.  There are four previous books.  “Assassination Vacation” was probably the most popular.  It was on on the overstock table at Elliot Bay which means that the publisher expected a lot of sales and carries a vague hint of disappointment.

Sarah Vowell, as you probably know, early in her career worked with David Sedaris on Ira Glass’s show “This American Life,” and still occasionally does a piece for the radio show.  I find her little autobiographical pieces side-splittingly funny and her books have been highly recommended to me but have just never made it to the top of my reading list.

For all her public speaking and television and radio appearances, she is quite shy and reserved in public, at least on this stop of her book tour.  Nonetheless her reading and discussion afterwards was very enjoyable and made me bump her new book to the top of my reading list.

I’ve just started but can already recommend the book as a very engaging and unique look at American colonial history.  The breadth and originality of her associations with early writings and historical events is almost mesmerizing.  Pop culture, contemporary events and Puritanical doctrine seem to somehow blend in a way that enriches the reader’s understanding of all of them.

One of the things that has struck me is how two threads of the colonist’s doctrine have been unwoven from that fabric, one has been largely abandoned and the other used to justify things far from the minds of the Puritans.

The Puritans advocated a rich inner life of learning, reading, appreciation of history, science and literature (mostly Biblical).  They were creatures of the Age of Reason and avid writers, committed to the exchange of ideas.  They saw the colonies as a refuge from hostilities between nations.

This developed into our founding fathers’ abhorrence of “entangling liaisons” with other nations.  This prioritization of scholarly learning and the development of our understanding of science and literature does not seem to have taken a firm grip on today’s society.  Nor does the notion that in the interest of fostering this enrichment we ought to avoid becoming entangled with other countries.

The other thread was probably thought of at the time as a benign Christian notion.  I guess it still is but it has lost some of its “benign” luster.  Sarah Vowell’s book discusses the Massachusetts Bay colony, which was founded by Puritans faithful to England, people full of doubt and second thoughts about leaving.  They were fleeing persecution but searching for a Godly justification for the trip.

The official seal of the colony, brought over from England, has on it an Indian and the words “Come over and help us.”  A person glancing at the official documents of the day might get the impression that the trip was motivated by a heathen’s call for help.  Things certainly didn’t work out that way.

This call for help has echoed down the course of American history and heard at opportune times by our leaders.   It was heard by William McKinley who sent gunboats to Manila to Christianize Filipinos.  The ardor of this vision was not abated by the discovery shortly after arrival that the Philippines had been Catholic for two hundred years.  John Kennedy heard the same plea from the Vietnamese (at least from the ones at the south end of the country) and sent aircraft carriers to “help freedom defend itself.”  George W. Bush and Dick Cheney heard the same pleas.  Bush heard the people of Iraq crying to him for freedom and Cheney knew that we would be greeted as liberators.   Sarah Vowell reminds us that we have been hearing this for a long time.

Palin Could Fill in at the Debate

September 24, 2008

McCain has suspended the campaign without any warning whatsoever virtually on the eve of his debate on foreign policy. Here is a good opportunity for him to show up the nay sayers. Sarah Palin isn’t busy. Why not let her fill in at the debate Friday?

After all she has lived closer to Russia than Obama and has now met with world leaders.

This could put a lot of voter angst to rest. The last vice president who was notoriously obscure was Millard Fillmore, who ran with Zachary Taylor. Fillmore was thought to add to the ticket by counterbalancing Taylor’s status as a slave owning military man but no one knew much about him. To the surprise and dismay of many Fillmore became president after just one year and presided over his party’s (Whig) slide into factionalism and eventual obscurity.

Sarah Palin stepping into the debate would show her readiness for succession to the presidency and could be just what the ticket needs to regain momentum. Here is her chance to walk her talk and serve the democracy as well, by showing us what is behind all the assurances about readiness.

U.S. and Iraqi Polls

July 17, 2008

Today the New York Times published an article that seems to say that Iraqis do not favor U.S. troop withdrawal. Toward the end you read that there was an extremely limited sampling of opinions. The Times just published a more scientific poll that says the Iraquis want a withdrawal of U.S. troops by a 2 to 1 margin. This article also fails to mention that the Iraqi parliament, as well as Prime Minister al-Maliki, are calling for withdrawal. (The linked Christian Science Monitor article says that talks are on-going.) By all authority I have been able to find there has been ardent support for withdrawal among Iraqis since at least 2006 and strong support prior to that.

American polls are interesting. A strong majority has favored withdrawal for a long time. Bush’s handling of the invasion and occupation has for some time been viewed disfavorably by a clear majority. Almost 40% of Americans do not understand that McCain is against a timetable for withdrawal. Despite most people disfavoring his approach to the war, most Americans see McCain as the better commander in chief. Early polls on the two candidates are somewhat confusing.


July 16, 2008

I just read that a group out of the University of Texas recently petitioned the Organizatin of American States to condemn the wall between the U.S. and Mexico. It of course has already been condemned by Mexico and most of Latin America. While the wall can’t help but deter immigration, it’s overall utility is debatable. No one believes that the petition to the OAS will affect the building of the wall. Human rights considerations, and international law and opinion have not played a significant role in determining U.S. policy recently.

Our wall is to be 2000 miles long, as long as the low estimates of the length of the Great Wall of China. (Some estimate the other wall to be three times this length.)

Whatever your position is with respect to the wall, people agree that it is certainly symbolic of our era. It is a metaphor, a symbol, which for many replaces the Statue of Liberty. The welcoming beacon of freedom is replaced in the minds of many people with the blank expanse of the wall, like an extended palm signaling “halt.” For many people outside the United States our country is seen, not as a sanctuary, and champion, for the oppressed, but as a garrison, walled like a Medieval city-state.

Looking back, Bill Clinton’s euphoric descriptions of globalization (one of his favorite terms) seem naive and distant. The purpose of bridging cultures and identifying common interest has been replaced by phrases like “If you are not for us, you are against us,” “bring ’em on,” “we are on a crusade,” and the like. We have turned a blind eye to international opinion, like the balnk stare of the wall.

We have not just invested in walling our country, but in creating a honeycomb of walls within it. Political forces have converted the world’s melting pot into a fragmented society in which cultural identity is preserved in part for defensive purposes. We are becoming a society of gated communities which look out at others with distrust and fear.

Our government has a growing list of citizens identified a suspected terrorists. The number of people on the list has apparently passed one million. That’s about 5 for each thousand adults. If you go to BellSquare on a busy day, there should be maybe ten or twenty “suspected terrorists” among your fellow shoppers. We have built walls around airports, public buildings and public gathering places, access permitted by guards only after inspection.

These walls of course are not just metaphorical. We have by far the biggest prison population in the world. More people are in prison than there are in Phoenix, Arizona. A staggering number of our fellow citizens have been through the criminal justice system in one way or another.  Prison construction and management has been privatized to a large degree and has become a booming industry. It could become a college major in some schools like hotel and motel management.

These are the costs of security, as we see it. The cry of “security!” seems to be in the ascendancy. It’s good though to keep it in context.

A Little Like a Bee in a Jar

July 15, 2008

The Bush administration fancies itself a bold initiator of action. Here’s a bold move that was swept under the rug. After getting into office and terminating the anti-terror chair as a cabinet position, the Bush administration defied the nay sayers and gave $43 million to the Taliban. Here’s an old article about that, from the Nation. This indeed was a bold policy move, part of the administration’s marginalization of Clinton’s priorities. Sometimes the administration seemed to be motivated more by anti-Clinton sentiment than forethought.

Osama Bin Laden and Nostradamus

July 8, 2008

Remember ten years ago? When the price of gas was $11 a barrel? That was one of the things that ticked Osama Bin Laden off. (He of course was in the minority of people who supported the invasion of Iraq, as it would eliminate a sworn enemy, Sadam, destabilize the region and inspire opposition to the U.S. As we know, according to our National Intelligence Estimate these things have come to pass.)

But before the invasion the price of gas irked Bin Laden. When asked what the price should be he responded $144 per barrel. It seems that even this ambition has been realized, as the price is now at Bin Laden’s prescribed level.

Bush on Iraq civil war: what?

July 8, 2008

When Bush was asked whether we are in the middle of a civil war instead of fighting terror, his response I found baffling. He seems to say that terrorists are behind the civil war but what does that mean in terms of foreign policy? We will intercede in civil wars instigated by terrorists? I believe I’ve read quite a bit about how this civil war could have been averted with any sort of coherent post-Sadam strategy. In any case doesn’t this policy more or less deprive us of initiative and leave us reacting to terrorists?

Why not Negotiate with Iran?

July 7, 2008

It amazes me how the administration can start beating drums of invasion and people start marching. There is no documented nuclear weapons program in Iran according to both the U.N. and our National Intelligence Estimate. The weapons program has been abandoned since 2003. What concern there is relates to the use of nuclear energy and the possibility that the program could be converted to a weapons program.

This concern would be avoided Iran’s nuclear enrichment program was not under Iran’s exclusive control. Former US Ambassador to the United Nations Thomas Pickering has proposed that this enrichment program be conducted by and international consortium that included Iran and Iran’s U.N. ambassador has said that Iran is open to discussing this approach. Apparently Iran has proposed something like this at the U.N. Why isn’t the news about this avenue of resolution?

Pundits and Advisers, Bill Krystol and Charlie Black

June 24, 2008

Today and yesterday a couple of statements by political gurus struck me as both repugnant and reflective of the brutal calculations that make up national politics.  Fist Sunday morning Bill Krystol said that, if Obama is ahead, Bush is more likely to invade Iran.  This among other things would be an :”October surprise” of the sort that could cause major voting shifts.  Krystol suggested that if McCain is ahead Bush might go from office quietly, confident that McCain would attack upon taking office.

The facile way these words tumbled off his tongue (and dribbled down his chin) shocked me.  He was talking about a decision that would cost hundred of thousands, perhaps millions, of lives.  A cloud of mystery remains on the question of why an attack in violation of international law is necessary.  The  2007 National Intelligence Estimate of course said that Iran had discontinued objectionable nuclear activity. making this talk disturbingly similar to the talk in 2003.

Today Charlie Black a very prominent adviser to McCain apologized for saying the assassination of former Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto was an “unfortunate event” that had “helped” Mr. McCain’s presidential bid.  And that a terrorist attack on U.S. soil would be a big advantage to McCain.  It is probably just me but I find it unsettling to see how life is ground through political calculations.

This is not a Republican methodology; it’s a bipartisan approach.

Obama’s Advisers Supported the Iraq War

June 23, 2008

Obama announced last week his foreign policy group. Its members are identified here. This group certainly does nothing by its membership to suggest change of any sort. I’m sure that the group was composed with an eye to appearing solid on national security. But goodness what a bunch of retreads.

The interesting and intellectual group that assisted early in the campaign are all gone and replaced by people — at least those on record — who supported the war that Obama has so famously criticized. Hillary Clinton’s support of the war wa probably more conditional than that of these advisers. Given the adamance of Susan Rice and Tim Roemer about invading Iraq, I wonder whether they’d like to bomb Iran if given the chance.