Increasingly, by choice or by accident, this is the role our nation has taken, the role of those who make peaceful revolution impossible by refusing to give up the privileges and the pleasures that come from the immense profits of overseas investments. I am convinced that if we are to get on to the right side of the world revolution, we as a nation must undergo a radical revolution of values. We must rapidly begin the shift from a thing-oriented society to a person-oriented society. When machines and computers, profit motives and property rights, are considered more important than people, the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism are incapable of being conquered.

— Martin Luther King “Beyond Vietnam” (1967)

This week everybody was talking about war with Syria

Saturday, President Obama more-or-less said: “I can attack Syria if I want, but there’s no hurry, so I’ll give Congress time to agree with me.” OK, what he actually said was:

I have decided that the United States should take military action against Syrian regime targets. … Yet, while I believe I have the authority to carry out this military action without specific congressional authorization, I know that the country will be stronger if we take this course, and our actions will be even more effective.

I didn’t hear any pledge to submit to the will of Congress if it follows the example of Britain’s Parliament and doesn’t give authorization. He’s just offering media exposure to “members of Congress who want their voices to be heard”.

What will this military action accomplish? Sadly, the person who summarized it best was satirist Andy Borowitz:

Attempting to quell criticism of his proposal for a limited military mission in Syria, President Obama floated a more modest strategy today, saying that any U.S. action in Syria would have “no objective whatsoever.”

The President is not claiming he can or will topple the Assad government or capture Assad for trial at the World Criminal Court or destroy Syria’s capacity to use chemical weapons. (The chemicals are in artillery shells and could be anywhere.) The only possible point is to punish Assad’s side in the civil war, thereby sending a message to all chemical-weapon-wannabees that the United States has appointed itself the enforcer of international norms. Doing nothing, on the other hand, would cause President Obama to lose face, because his talk of a “red line” and “serious response” would appear empty.

Anytime a problem can be solved by breaking things and killing people, the military is the tool for the job. But it’s lousy at sending messages and saving face.

For once I find myself wishing Obama would follow President Reagan’s example. Reagan dispatched Marines to Lebanon, and when a truck bomb killed hundreds of them, he pulled them back out. That was a huge loss of face for the United States and its president, but sometimes your best choice is to accept that all your options are bad and move on. Like a quarterback who realizes he called the wrong third-down play for a blitzing defense, you throw the ball out of bounds and punt.

and the anniversary of the “I Have a Dream” speech

It was ironic that President Obama spoke at the rally honoring America’s greatest advocate of nonviolence, and then announced his decision to strike Syria a few days later. I agree with almost everything he said Wednesday, but what he didn’t say was striking too.

To mark the anniversary, everybody but the white supremacists struggled to claim Martin Luther King’s legacy. Bill O’Reilly invoked King, Joe Walsh invoked King … it went on all week. Everybody, it seems, knows only the content-of-their-character quote, and is willing to bend that to support whatever position they favor. I protest this dumbing-down of Dr. King’s legacy in MLK: Sanitized for Their Protection. (Joan Walsh and Matt Berman also wrote on this theme.)

Joan Walsh pointed out somebody else who gets mis-represented: another 1960s liberal, Senator Moynihan. His 1965 report The Negro Family: The Case for National Action is often cited by conservatives for its focus on out-of-wedlock births and other signs of dysfunction in black families. Walsh puts that report in the larger context of Moynihan’s career:

Around the same time, Moynihan helped write President Lyndon B. Johnson’s famous Howard University speech on race, which committed the country not merely to equality of opportunity but demanded efforts to achieve a much more controversial “equality of results.” Working for Johnson’s Labor Department, Moynihan proposed public works jobs and affirmative action measures, as well as a guaranteed national income, to lift black families, whether they were headed by one or two parents, out of poverty. Later, under Richard Nixon (a career move that sealed his reputation as a proto neoconservative), he again proposed a guaranteed family income.

Wednesday’s celebration also underlined the continuing chaos in the Republican Party. No Republican elected officials spoke at the rally and I have yet to find any claiming to have attended. A spokesman for the event claimed:

This was truly a bipartisan outreach effort. All members of congress were invited to attend and the Republican leadership was invited to speak.

But they all had scheduling conflicts. Eric Cantor is supposed to have tried to find somebody to represent the Party, but failed.

and (God help us) Miley Cyrus

Cyrus became famous as Disney’s squeaky-clean Hannah Montana, so you knew she’d have to rebel against that at some point, just as Britney Spears and Christian Aguilera rebelled against their Mickey Mouse Club origins. So that inevitable event happened at the Video Music Awards. For the historical record, the video is here.

The subsequent flurry of commentary is more noteworthy than the performance itself (which — to me at least — seemed more desperate than sexy or shocking). My favorite is the Onion’s faux-CNN “Let Me Explain Why Miley Cyrus’ VMA Performance Was Our Top Story This Morning”. There was also a discussion of slut-shaming (why isn’t Robin Thicke’s role bringing him criticism?), the rich-white-girl-exploiting-black-urban-culture angle (when is cultural cross-pollination legit and when does it cross over into blackface-minstrel territory?), and female-black-bodies-as-props-for-white-sexuality.

but I wish more people were paying attention to this

Hugo-winning science fiction author Charles Stross, who visualizes the future for a living, gave Foreign Policy magazine a glimpse of what he sees in “Spy Kids”, an article that explains why the basic assumptions of post-World-War-II organizations like the NSA and CIA are incompatible with the lived values of the next generation. Unless the security state fundamentally changes its culture, he believes, we’re due for a generation in which Edward Snowden is the norm, not the exception.

These organizations are products of the 20th-century industrial state, and they are used to running their human resources and internal security processes as if they’re still living in the days of the “job for life” culture. Potential spooks-to-be were tapped early (often while at school or university), vetted, and then given a safe sinecure along with regular monitoring to ensure they stayed on the straight-and-narrow all the way to the gold watch and pension. Because that’s how we all used to work, at least if we were civil servants or white-collar paper-pushers back in the 1950s.

… To Generation Z’s eyes, the boomers and their institutions look like parasitic aliens with incomprehensible values who make irrational demands for absolute loyalty without reciprocity. Worse, the foundational mythology and ideals of the United States will look like a bitter joke, a fun house mirror’s distorted reflection of the reality they live with from day to day.

And that raises his concluding question:

If you turn the Internet into a panopticon prison and put everyone inside it, where else are you going to be able to recruit the jailers? And how do you ensure their loyalty?

and this was interesting too

You may have heard that Arkansas State Senator Jeremy Hutchinson “shot a teacher” with a rubber bullet. Not exactly. When a local police chief heard that Hutchinson supported arming teachers against a Sandy-Hook-style school shooting, he invited Hutchinson to take part in a police school-shooting exercise with rubber bullets. The chief wanted Hutchinson to understand how hard it is for police to tell the good guys from the bad guys when everybody is shooting at each other. And sure enough, in the course of a simulation of an armed teacher shooting it out with a bad guy, Hutchinson shot the “teacher” by mistake.

To his credit, Hutchinson got the point. (The story is public because he tells it.) He still supports armed security guards at schools, but not letting teachers have guns in their classrooms.

Major Nidal Hasan, who killed 13 people and wounded 32 others in the Fort Hood shooting in 2009, was convicted by a military jury, which recommended a death sentence. A general still has to sign off before the sentence can be carried out.

In hopes of keeping the word terrorism from becoming completely meaningless, I’ll repeat something I’ve said many times before: Hasan is a military officer who attacked his own base, targeting soldiers and collaterally killing some civilians. It was treason and may well merit a death sentence under military law, but attacks against soldiers on military bases are acts of war, not terrorism.

Back in July I told you what happened to the bold claims of South Carolina’s attorney general that dead people had cast “over 900” votes in recent South Carolina elections: State police investigated the 207 cases from the most recent election, whittled the number of suspicious votes down to 4, came to no clear conclusion about those final 4, and recommended no action be taken.

Fox News gave the AG face time to make his claims, but the investigation debunking them wasn’t covered.

Well, similar story recently in Colorado: The Secretary of State identified 155 votes “possibly” cast by non-citizens. Boulder DA Stan Garnett investigated and found:

the 17 people suspected of voting illegally in the November election in Garnett’s district are citizens who were easily able to verify their status.

“Local governments and county clerks do a really good job regulating the integrity of elections, and I’ll stand by that record any day of the week,” Garnett said. “We don’t need state officials sending us on wild goose chases for political reasons.”

So once again: A big headline-grabbing story about voter fraud evaporates when somebody bothers to investigate.

He was an outstanding college quarterback: Heisman finalist and star of a national championship team. As an NFL rookie, he led his team to a series of miraculous come-from-behind wins that put him on the cover of Sports Illustrated. But his career subsequently floundered. Critics said his strong running but inaccurate passing had been a better match for the college game than the NFL. Recently he was competing to be the back-up to one of the NFL’s legendary quarterbacks, but this weekend he was released. No one is sure where his career goes from here.

Tim Tebow? No, I was talking about Vince Young, who just got cut by the Packers with very little fanfare. What a difference it makes to be white and outspoken about your Christian faith.

You know that rhetoric about big government draining the life’s blood out of the people? Well, in Tennessee it’s literally true: On this holiday weekend, police in at least a dozen counties are setting up checkpoints to look for drunk drivers. If you’re stopped and they find you suspicious, they can force you to give a blood sample. A similar law holds in Georgia.

I’m glad I live in a blue state, where we don’t tolerate the kind of big-government oppression they have in red states.

I continue to think that The League of Ordinary Gentlemen is one of the blogosphere’s best-kept secrets. In this post, Tod Kelly debunks the “pseudo-libertarian” argument that the free market will root out bigotry.

Businesses in the pre-civil-rights South that refused serve African Americans didn’t make less money for their bigotry – they made more; a restaurant owner’s primary motive for having a white’s only seating area (or entire establishment) was profit.  In those bigoted communities, allowing economically disenfranchised blacks to sit with far wealthier whites meant losing profitable customers at the expense of ones who couldn’t afford to pay as much.

and let’s end with something amusing

All the Katrinas and Sandies don’t deserve to have national disasters named after them, but climate-change deniers do. “Senator Marco Rubio is expected to pound the eastern seaboard sometime early tonight …”

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  • Irene  On September 2, 2013 at 12:35 pm

    I believe you are making the mistake of lumping all of the middle eastern countries together. And our presidents and policies. Just because Bush failed in his war, this is not that. This is a different problem. And in some ways we bear responsibility for it by dropping Napalm on the peasants in Vietnam. There we were not defending our country, as in Iraq. But we are trying to impose some kind of standards of war, strange as that is, and chemical weapons threaten us all, and our fellow living beings, our environment, and the earth itself.

  • Irene  On September 2, 2013 at 12:36 pm

    (Meaning in Iraq we weren’t defending ourselves either.)

  • Kimc  On September 7, 2013 at 12:07 am

    Why isn’t it illegal to manufacture these chemical weapons? If no one made them, no one could use them. I have heard the ones used in Syria were made in Russia. Is that true?

    • weeklysift  On September 8, 2013 at 6:09 am

      The Chemical Weapons Convention (which Syria hasn’t signed) does make it illegal. But enforcement is difficult even for countries that have signed the CWC, because the chemicals you need to make poison gases have legitimate uses. Today’s NYT has a relevant article: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/08/world/middleeast/with-the-world-watching-syria-amassed-nerve-gas.html?hp

    • weeklysift  On September 8, 2013 at 6:12 am

      Specifically about Russia: Syria appears to have gotten a lot of the know-how from ex-Soviets. Some of the building-block chemicals came from Russia, but some from places like the Netherlands. The final manufacture they seem to have done themselves.

      • Kimc  On September 8, 2013 at 9:42 pm

        Thank you for taking the trouble to answer both of those questions. It’s a shame that this deadly stuff is so easy to make. I guess that means anyone could have made it. I still suspect it was a company that stands to profit by war…..


  • By A brief meditation on white twerking | The Weekly Sift on September 16, 2013 at 11:24 am

    […] of Miley Cyrus’ controversial performance at the Video Music Award (which I gave links for two weeks ago) concerns cultural exploitation: When is it OK or not OK to steal or borrow from an ethnic culture […]

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