Saturday, February 03, 2007

Turning Words Into Action

Watching Congress tie itself up debating resolutions “disapproving” BushCheney’s escalation in Iraq is like watching someone trying to catch water in a net (thanks to Billy Bragg). Much hemming, hawing and harumphing goes on but in the end, it don’t mean nuthin’. BushCheney is bound and determined to drive the Iraq war to yet another level of disaster and all Congress can do is debate the color of the steering wheel cover.

I realize that Congressional power and authority over specific actions of the executive branch is limited and that Congress is at best a cumbersome beast but, Holy Mother of Christ! most senators and representatives are not even considering anything that would actually change the course of this war. Nope, the best they can do is a resolution that has all the restraining effect of dental floss stretched across a busy freeway.

And even that effort requires an inordinate amount of time. I mean, Congress has been in session almost 30 days, supposedly representing an electorate that no longer supports the Iraq war and what has it done in the face of BushCheney’s determined escalation. Nothing. Nothing! Just debating words that have no meaning. Meanwhile the war goes on, more Americans go to Iraq. and more people die with no end in sight.

I heard Ruth Marcus on the Diane Rehm Show on Friday opining that the resolutions are the beginning of a debate on the Iraq war that has not previously taken place in America, a debate that moves beyond specific strategies and tactics (ie, escalation or surge) to address overall policies and goals for America in that region. I want to believe that’s true. It would be a welcome change but I wonder how likely that really is. I look back at Vietnam and the “lessons” we supposedly learned from that experience and don’t see that we learned much of anything. I mean, here we are, mired in a civil war that we unleashed without much of a clue about how to proceed and largely unaware of how limited our vaunted military prowess is in such circumstances.

Perhaps America will have that discussion. Lord knows, we need it. The United States emerged from World War II as the world’s pre-eminent military and economic power and immediately went into hysterics over Communism, surrendering civil liberties and pouring massive funds into a sprawling military-industrial complex. Now that threat no longer exists, America still runs scared, surrendering even more Constitutional freedoms and throwing money into military adventures against a threat that pales in comparison to previous challenges in American history. It’s as if the 9-11 attacks simply obliterated any sense of perspective and rationality, sending America into a paroxysm of fear that has led to the blunder in Iraq. In that environment, anyone who suggests that we THINK about what we are doing is labeled “weak”, “an America hater” or “friend of the terrorists”.

Senator Feingold has introduced S.121 to redeploy all but “minimal” American forces within 180 days. Senator Obama has introduced S.433 to redefine American policy on Iraq (text not yet available). The Republicans call this “surrender” and “cut and run”. I call it sensible. Unless this nation is willing to keep pouring men and arms into Iraq indefinitely, we need to be looking for the way out. And, for me, that way out has always involved engagement with other nations in the region. We dealt with the Soviet Union and the threats it posed to America in that way and managed to keep two nations armed to the teeth with nuclear weapons from incinerating each other and the world. I think we can deal with terrorism, which is a much, much lesser threat than the Soviet Union ever was, in a far saner manner.

The 9-11 attacks were horrific and terrible. No doubt about that. And clearly, anti-American groups are more than willing to attack and kill Americans wherever possible. But these threats are manageable with good intelligence, international cooperation and limited military action to disrupt and destroy cells and their organizers. Strengthened control over nuclear and other materials, surveillance of suspect groups and counter-intelligence are all far more effective in dealing with terrorism. So too, is looking for root causes, understanding why terrorists seek to attack us. And no, it’s not because they are all crazy; they somehow think following the distorted reasoning of terrorist leaders will give meaning to their lives.

There are many ways to deal with terrorist threats. To its credit, the BushCheney administration has actually implemented some of the actions I’ve described above. But far more detrimental has been its blind militarism that has destabilized an already inflamed region and created an effective recruiting tool for anti-American terrorism. Unfortunately, BushCheney controls the Executive Branch, the action arm of American government. The Democrats control the Congress, the talking branch, and have far less direct control of American actions in the world.

But Congress is not devoid of options. Here’s what I would like to see Congress do. Clearly express its opposition to BushCheney’s escalation in Iraq. Even if Republican opposition and BushCheney’s veto stymies actual legislation, Americans will know who stands for effective policy and who wants to keep pouring American money and manpower into the Iraq meatgrinder. I think Congress should withdraw or significantly amend the Authorization to Use Military Force that it so unwisely gave to BushCheney in 2002. The past four years have clearly demonstrated that he is not fit to command such broad, sweeping power.

One last thought. Republicans constantly warn that Congress should not send “mixed messages” to our adversaries or take action that will “discourage” our troops. These warnings are merely cover for continuing failed policy. Our adversaries and our troops know that Americans have very strong doubts about the war. The Baker-Hamilton Commission correctly pointed out that America cannot continue to wage war in Iraq without the support of the American people. BushCheney may have had that support back in 2003 but he has more than squandered it. At this point, Congress’ failure to take significant action in response to Americans’ wishes is a betrayal of the public trust.


Taylor Marsh also covers much the same ground in this post. And for a lesson on a previous "surge", check out this speech. Remember how that worked out?

Thursday, February 01, 2007


Damn, girl, y'all left us too early. I'll bang some pots in your memory.

[Update: John Nichols has a fine tribute to Molly at The Nation.]

Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Itinerant Bards

Tuesday night Chris Chandler and David Roe performed in Phoenix. Never heard of them? Not surprising. Chris and David are independent singer/songwriters who blend Chris’ spoken word performance with David’s keyboards to create incisive, pungent commentary on today’s world. Traveling and living out of a Plymouth Caravan, they performed on the backyard stage at The House Studios. The evening was cold with threats of rain that never amounted to more than occasional sprinkles. Nothing dampened either the performers’ or the audience’s enthusiasm.

David’s growling vocal of Tom Wait’s Time, Time, Time opened the set, singing of workers stretched and tired from double overtime to introduce Chris’ thoughts on time’s elusive nature, how we spend our time fruitlessly seeking more time only to spend it seeking more time. Chris described hours squandered watching the videotapes of vacations that we were too busy videotaping to enjoy. Trading with vocals David, Chris warns that “time does not last,” and reminding that if we fail ‘to take time off, there will be no time left to take off”.

Next up, Chris observes that the Christian right is obsessed with genitalia and “Sex, Sex, Sex” which, he notes suggestively, has traditionally defined perversion. He exults in pollination, copulation and fertilization–all part of a natural universe that god created with a big bang. By “erring on the side of eros”, we join that universe. David accompanies these observations with a medley of Ain’t Misbehavin’, Makin’ Whoopee, Let’s Do It and You Are So Beautiful. The interplay of words and music creates a healthy and lascivious antidote to the Christian perverts who want to deny human nature.

Between songs, Chris muses about life on the road, playing Phoenix ten years ago and returning to the “same place to play for fewer people”. “But that’s all right because you’re here.” He is no less energized and we are no less enthused. In fact, we are the lucky few who see these storytellers.

David introduces a tribute to New Orleans, his home town. Tom Wait’s In the Neighborhood accompanies Chris’ words about the Lower 9th Ward which became in the days after Katrina, the “lowest of the low”, abandoned by America. David segues into Randy Newman’s Louisiana 1927 as Chris describes New Orleans as the place where the wholesomeness of America’s heartland flows into the “rough trade” of a vibrant seaport, a place where both the “wholesomeness and the whore” are forever changed by the flood. David updates Randy Newman’s lyrics to remind us that George W. Bush was every bit as indifferent in 2005 with “12 feet of water in the Lower 9" as was Calvin Coolidge in 1927. But once before a savior arose from the lowest, Chris says, and predicts that the “blue notes” of New Orleans’ suffering will give rise to another savior in the music for which the city is so rightly famed.

Hope and renewal are key elements of Chris’ storytelling. He is all too realistic about America’s failures, omissions and indifference but he also finds hope in the endurance and spirit of the people. It’s easy to be cynical and dismissive, much more difficult to see the joy and wonder that abounds in everyday life. Chris manages to walk that tightrope with insight and humor. David’s keyboards and vocals provide just the right accompaniment for this trenchant mixture. Chris stalks the stage, projecting his words with an intensity that seems to burst from him as his eyes and veins bulge. David remains behind his keyboard, a solid, steady presence whose raspy vocals seem to anchor the entire performance.

A ballad of karaoke in an Irish bar gives David an opportunity to riff through classic rock chestnuts (Stairway to Heaven, Hotel California, Piano Man, to name a few) while Chris notes that our 9th grade music tastes remain with us the rest of our life. We even dance the same as we did in 9th grade.

Chris introduces the next song by describing his working as a stagehand at the fifth anniversary 9-11 observation at the Pentagon where the building was to be bathed with 10,000 watts of light for each victim. Since the local electric grid was incapable of producing that power, he fueled a bank of generators. Later, he visited Cindy Sheehan and the Peace Camp on the Mall in Washington. He then reads two letters to David’s rendition of Jimmy Cliff’s Sitting In Limbo. The first is from a young Marine at sea on his way to Iraq. The second reports his death, a loss that the first letter makes personal to each of us.

Something in the Air is the backup for the final piece, a reminder that We, the People have power. That no matter how fruitless our efforts seem they build to a greater strength. More people have taken to the streets against the war in Iraq than were ever in the streets against Vietnam, Chris announces and yet, unlike those earlier protests, this mass protest has produced no hit songs. The songs of the Vietnam era are now co-opted into a campaign to lure Boomers into purchasing Everything. But for all the seeming futility of our current protests, Chris asserts that we CAN raise our voices in the name of change, in the name of humanity. With that final, hopeful refrain Chris lowers his voice, walks off the stage and climbs over the fence to end the performance.

Cleopache and Jimmy Severino open for Chris and David, performing "Double Fantasy" - a spoken word and musical double take of John Lennon songs and Cleopache’s poetry. Cleopache is a longtime Phoenix poet whose work reflects her urban Indian-Navajo-Apache background. Her words, set to Jimmy’s guitar, alternate between mesmerizing repetition and sudden, sharp breaks as she describes the world around her, rites of passage as a Native American woman and a writer, moving always between two worlds, each a mixture of fantasy and reality.

Painters Robert and April Anderson hosted the performance with vegan chili and cake that sustained the audience in the evening chill. April is producing Stovetop Revival, a television show that provides a humane alternative to food. Based on Tuesday’s fare, viewers will be amazed.

For more on Chris Chandler and David Roe, go here and here. For more on Cleopache, go here .

A Novel Idea

Advice for public officials:
Nobody — presidents, mayors, city managers — ever says "I could have learned from this mistake." You'll see the cops stop a car full of teenagers and there'll be some kind of altercation and the next thing the cops empty their revolvers into the car. And the chief of police will say "That's a textbook case. We handled that perfectly." And ordinary citizens say, "That can't be true."

If you never, ever acknowledge mistakes then it's not possible to learn. In the political environment, it is a huge deal to say, "Actually we should not have built the stupid damn arena" or "we shouldn't have paved the road with this kind of asphalt."

I don't know why. I acknowledge mistakes. I tend to say "I screwed up." To me it just seems absurd not to.

So simple. So true. So rare.

[Disclosure: The speaker is a professional colleague and friend.]

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

In the Alternate Universe

This might explain how BushCheney figured Iraq would be a cakewalk. Makes about as much sense as any other explanation.

[Hat tip to J-Walk]

Bring 'Em Home

Jersey Guy at Aleternate Brain has a YouTube video of Pete Seeger singing "Bring 'Em Home" in 1969 and has asked bloggers to post it. I haven't mastered photos and videos for this blogtopian* backwater, so I urge you to check it out here. You can also see Bruce Springsteen doing an updated version here.

The two versions remind me of how little we seem to have progressed in almost four decades and how far we have to go.

And while we're on the subject of war related art, check out Pierre Tristam's essay at Candide's Notebooks.

[* Yes, skippy coined that phrase! Or its root.]

Sunday, January 28, 2007

The Next Generation

They aren't all apathetic.
Since the war began nearly four years ago, many Vietnam-era antiwar activists have publicly lamented what they see as apathy among today's college students. They wonder whether the absence of a draft and a culture of pop music and reality television have distracted young people from civic responsibilities.

But among the hundreds of students on the Mall yesterday, dozens of whom drove all night to get to Washington for the protest, the prevailing sentiment was that their generation had been unfairly maligned and that the antiwar movement is growing stronger every day.

"I do think we're misrepresented as being lazy, ignorant and unaware of current events," said Sarah Searle, 19, a sophomore at the University of Virginia. "There's no huge movement going on like during Vietnam, but that doesn't mean we're apathetic.

Here in the progressive wasteland that is Phoenix, Arizona our protests against this war have always included the young along with people of all ages. Our march to John McCain's office yesterday included two young people who impressed me. A young man helped carry the flag draped coffin. He told me that his dad was a Vietnam veteran who opposes this war but can't bring himself to march against it. A young woman wearing a Vietnam veteran cap was way too young to have served. She told me the cap is for her father. He is buried at Arlington National Cemetery, a victim of Agent Orange.

If apathy, is abroad in the land, it is the public at large, not just the young.