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The Rise of the Reader

9:20 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

The Golden Age of Journalism? Your Newspaper, Your Choice
By Tom Engelhardt

A vintage photo of a 'newsie' -- a very small boy selling newspapers from a large sack

Hard times for journalists, but times of plenty for news readers.

It was 1949.  My mother — known in the gossip columns of that era as “New York’s girl caricaturist” — was freelancing theatrical sketches to a number of New York’s newspapers and magazines, including the Brooklyn Eagle.  That paper, then more than a century old, had just a few years of life left in it.  From 1846 to 1848, its editor had been the poet Walt Whitman.  In later years, my mother used to enjoy telling a story about the Eagle editor she dealt with who, on learning that I was being sent to Walt Whitman kindergarten, responded in the classically gruff newspaper manner memorialized in movies like His Girl Friday: “Are they still naming things after that old bastard?”

In my childhood, New York City was, you might say, papered with newspapers.  The Daily News, the Daily Mirror, the Herald Tribune, the Wall Street Journal… there were perhaps nine or 10 significant ones on newsstands every day and, though that might bring to mind some golden age of journalism, it’s worth remembering that a number of them were already amalgams.  The Journal-American, for instance, had once been the Evening Journal and the American, just as the World-Telegram & Sun had been a threesome, the World, the Evening Telegram, and the Sun.  In my own household, we got the New York Times (disappointingly comic-strip-less), the New York Post (then a liberal, not a right-wing, rag that ran Pogo and Herblock’s political cartoons) and sometimes the Journal-American (Believe It or Not and The Phantom).

Then there were always the magazines: in our house, Life, the Saturday Evening Post, Look, the New Yorker — my mother worked for some of them, too — and who knows what else in a roiling mass of print.  It was a paper universe all the way to the horizon, though change and competition were in the air.  After all, the screen (the TV screen, that is) was entering the American home like gangbusters. Mine arrived in 1953 when the Post assigned my mother to draw the Army-McCarthy hearings, which — something new under the sun — were to be televised live by ABC.

Still, at least in my hometown, it seemed distinctly like a golden age of print news, if not of journalism.  Some might reserve that label for the shake-up, breakdown era of the 1960s, that moment when the New Journalism arose, an alternative press burst onto the scene, and for a brief moment in the late 1960s and early 1970s, the old journalism put its mind to uncovering massacres, revealing the worst of American war, reporting on Washington-style scandal, and taking down a president.  In the meantime, magazines like Esquire and Harper’s came to specialize in the sort of chip-on-the-shoulder, stylish voicey-ness that would, one day, become the hallmark of the online world and the age of the Internet.  (I still remember the thrill of first reading Tom Wolfe’s “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby” on the world of custom cars.  It put the vrrrooom into writing in a dazzling way.)

However, it took the arrival of the twenty-first century to turn the journalistic world of the 1950s upside down and point it toward the trash heap of history.  I’m talking about the years that shrank the screen, and put it first on your desk, then in your hand, next in your pocket, and one day soon on your eyeglasses, made it the way you connected with everyone on Earth and they — whether as friends, enemies, the curious, voyeurs, corporate sellers and buyers, or the NSA — with you.  Only then did it became apparent that, throughout the print era, all those years of paper running off presses and newsboys and newsstands, from Walt Whitman to Woodward and Bernstein, the newspaper had been misnamed.

Journalism’s amour propre had overridden a clear-eyed assessment of what exactly the paper really was.  Only then would it be fully apparent that it always should have been called the “adpaper.”  When the corporation and the “Mad Men” who worked for it spied the Internet and saw how conveniently it gathered audiences and what you could learn about their lives, preferences, and most intimate buying habits, the ways you could slice and dice demographics and sidle up to potential customers just behind the ever-present screen, the ad began to flee print for the online world.  It was then, of course, that papers (as well as magazines) — left with overworked, ever-smaller staffs, evaporating funding, and the ad-less news — began to shudder, shrink, and in some cases collapse (as they might not have done if the news had been what fled).

New York still has four dailies (Murdoch’s Post, the Daily News, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal).  However, in recent years, many two-paper towns like Denver and Seattle morphed into far shakier one-paper towns as papers like the Rocky Mountain News and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer passed out of existence (or into only digital existence).  Meanwhile, the Detroit News and Detroit Free Press went over to a three-day-a-week home delivery print edition, and the Times Picayune of New Orleans went down to a three-day-a-week schedule (before returning as a four-day Picayune and a three-day-a-week tabloid in 2013).  The Christian Science Monitor stopped publishing a weekday paper altogether.  And so it went.  In those years, newspaper advertising took a terrible hit, circulation declined, sometimes precipitously, and bankruptcies were the order of the day.

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Rebecca Solnit: The Age of Inhuman Scale

6:28 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Arctic melt pools

Rebecca Solnit on the unprecedented environmental devastation of the modern era.

It was the stuff of fantasy, of repeated failed expeditions and dreams that wouldn’t die. I’m talking about the Northwest Passage, that fabled route through Arctic waters around North America. Now, it’s reality. The first “bulk carrier,” a Danish commercial freighter with a load of coal, just traveled from Vancouver, Canada, to Finland, cutting a week off its voyage, skipping the Panama Canal, and even, according to the Finnish steel maker Ruukki Metals, for whom the coal was intended, “reducing its greenhouse gas emissions because of fuel savings.”

When dreams come true, it’s time to celebrate, no? Only in this case, under the upbeat news of the immediate moment lies a far larger nightmare. Those expeditions from the fifteenth to the twentieth centuries failed to find the Northwest Passage because Arctic sea ice made the voyage impossible. There simply was no passage. No longer. Thanks to global warming, the melting of ice — glaciers are losing an estimated 303 billion tons of the stuff annually worldwide — staggers the imagination. The Greenland ice shield is turning into runoff ever more rapidly, threatening significant sea level rise, and all of the melting in the cold north has, in turn, opened a previously nonexistent Northwest Passage, as well as a similar passage through Russia’s Arctic waters.

None of this would have happened, as the prestigious Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change pointed out in its latest report, if not for the way the burning of fossil fuels (like that coal the Nordic Orion took to Finland) has poured carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. In other words, we created that Arctic passage and made it commercially viable, thus ensuring that our world, the one we’ve known since the dawn of (human) time, will be ever less viable for our children and grandchildren. After all, the Arctic with its enormous reservoirs of fossil fuels can now begin to be opened up for exploitation like so much of the rest of the planet. And there can be no doubt about it: those previously unreachable reserves will be extracted and burned, putting yet more CO2 into the atmosphere, and anyone who tries to stop that process, as Greenpeace protestors symbolically tried to do recently at an oil rig in Arctic Russia, will be dealt with firmly as “pirates” or worse. That dream of history, of explorers from once upon a time, is now not just a reality, but part of a seemingly inexorable feedback loop of modern fossil-fuel production and planetary heating, another aspect of what Michael Klare has grimly termed the Third Carbon Age (rather than a new Age of Renewables).

If we don’t need a little perspective on ourselves and our world now, then when? Fortunately, TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit is here to offer us both that perspective and some hope for what we can do in the face of well-funded climate denialism and fossil-fuel company boosterism. Tom

Bigger Than That 
(The Difficulty of) Looking at Climate Change 
By Rebecca Solnit

Late last week, in the lobby of a particularly unglamorous downtown San Francisco building, a group of passionate but polite activists met with a bureaucrat who stepped forward to hear what they had to say about the fate of the Earth. The activists wanted to save the world. The particular part of it that might be under their control involved getting the San Francisco Retirement board to divest its half a billion dollars in fossil fuel holdings, one piece of the international divestment movement that arose a year ago.

Sometimes the fate of the Earth boils down to getting one person with modest powers to budge.

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Tom Engelhardt, Luck Was a Lady Last Week

6:36 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Now You See Him, Now You Don’t
Living in a One-Superpower World (or Edward Snowden vs. Robert Seldon Lady)
By Tom Engelhardt

Portrait of Snowden

Edward Snowden compared to CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

He came and he went: that was the joke that circulated in 1979 when 70-year-old former Vice President Nelson Rockefeller had a heart attack and died in his Manhattan townhouse in the presence of his evening-gown-clad 25-year-old assistant.  In a sense, the same might be said of retired CIA operative Robert Seldon Lady.

Recently, Lady proved a one-day wonder. After years in absentia — poof! — he reappeared out of nowhere on the border between Panama and Costa Rica, and made the news when Panamanian officials took him into custody on an Interpol warrant.  The CIA’s station chief in Milan back in 2003, he had achieved brief notoriety for overseeing a la dolce vita version of extraordinary rendition as part of Washington’s Global War on Terror.  His colleagues kidnapped Hassan Mustafa Osama Nasr, a radical Muslim cleric and terror suspect, off the streets of Milan, and rendered him via U.S. airbases in Italy and Germany to the torture chambers of Hosni Mubarak’s Egypt. Lady evidently rode shotgun on that transfer.

His Agency associates proved to be the crew that couldn’t spook straight.  They left behind such a traceable trail of five-star-hotel and restaurant bills, charges on false credit cards, and unencrypted cell phone calls that the Italian government tracked them down, identified them, and charged 23 of them, Lady included, with kidnapping.

Lady fled Italy, leaving behind a multimillion-dollar villa near Turin meant for his retirement.  (It was later confiscated and sold to make restitution payments to Nasr.)  Convicted in absentia in 2009, Lady received a nine-year sentence (later reduced to six).  He had by then essentially vanished after admitting to an Italian newspaper, “Of course it was an illegal operation. But that’s our job. We’re at war against terrorism.”

Last week, the Panamanians picked him up.  It was the real world equivalent of a magician’s trick.  He was nowhere, then suddenly in custody and in the news, and then — poof again! — he wasn’t.  Just 24 hours after the retired CIA official found himself under lock and key, he was flown out of Panama, evidently under the protection of Washington, and in mid-air, heading back to the United States, vanished a second time.

State Department spokesperson Marie Harf told reporters on July 19th, “It’s my understanding that he is in fact either en route or back in the United States.”  So there he was, possibly in mid-air heading for the homeland and, as far as we know, as far as reporting goes, nothing more.  Consider it the CIA version of a miracle.  Instead of landing, he just evaporated.

And that was that.  Not another news story here in the U.S.; no further information from government spokespeople on what happened to him, or why the administration decided to extricate him from Panama and protect him from Italian justice.  Nor, as far as I can tell, were there any further questions from the media.  When TomDispatch inquired of the State Department, all it got was this bit of stonewallese: “We understand that a U.S citizen was detained by Panamanian authorities, and that Panamanian immigration officials expelled him from Panama on July 19.  Panama’s actions are consistent with its rights to determine whether to admit or expel non-citizens from its territory.”

In other words, he came and he went.

Edward Snowden: The Opposite of a Magician’s Trick

When Lady was first detained, there was a little flurry of news stories and a little frisson of tension.  Would a retired CIA agent convicted of a serious crime involving kidnapping and torture be extradited to Italy to serve his sentence?  But that tension had no chance to build because (as anyone might have predicted) luck was a Lady that week.

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Todd Gitlin: The Tinsel Age of Journalism

6:38 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A man reads the newspaper

A look at the future of print media journalism.

After all these decades, here’s the strange thing: what I remember are his hands, not his face.  But perhaps that’s fitting for a writer.  His name was Robert Shaplen and he was a correspondent for the New Yorker.  My parents knew him and, as a boy, I idolized him.  From World War II on, he covered Asia.  He seemed to me the most adventurous man on the planet.  With him in mind, I was sure that there could be nothing better or more romantic than being a “foreign correspondent.”  (That, of course, was before I grew up and discovered that I didn’t even like to travel.)  It was a dream that stuck with me for years, along with the dream of the newspaper itself, and the habit learned in boyhood — now disappearing from much of our world — of reading the paper daily (sports section first, then front to back).

Even now, it’s an addiction I can’t shake.  When it comes to the print paper, however, I’m increasingly part of a lonely crowd.  I first realized the change was coming in the early 2000s.  Back then, I used to parachute into the Berkeley journalism school every spring to be an editor to a crew of future reporters.  Every morning, you could get free copies of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, the Financial Times, and a couple of other papers.  As a lifelong news junkie, it seemed like heaven to me.  But to my surprise, my students often didn’t take the papers at all, free or not.  One day, one of them explained that by the time she hit school, she had already checked out the New York Times and the LA Times online twice (the night before and that morning).  The actual paper was already older than Methuselah in her eyes.

Today, Todd Gitlin, who wrote a classic account of how the news (mis)reported the New Left and antiwar movements of the 1960s (The Whole World Is Watching) and how TV worked back in the 1980s (Inside Prime Time), offers a reminder that my journalistic dreams were just that.  The news, with the usual notable exceptions, was generally a tawdry affair in the service of power.  Still, can there be any question that, as the newspaper fades, we’re entering a new age of conglomerated mainstream chaos?  You only needed to check out the “coverage” of the Boston Marathon bombing aftermath — which you would have had to be blind, deaf, and dumb to miss — to know that.  What possible dreams (other than coverage nightmares) could emerge from that?

If we got what must have been the largest, most militarized manhunt in our history for two young men briefly on the run in one city, I suspect we also got the largest, most intensive, least impressive media coverage for a single event of (probably) little long-term import.  It was the sort of thing that gives the word “overkill” a bad name.  (Have we learned nothing from the over-the-top reaction to the 9/11 attacks?)  The case itself may fade, but the example of shutting down a city and flooding it with thousands of heavily up-armored police and SWAT teams won’t, nor will the flooding of it with just about every media resource that exists on the planet. There’s been nothing like it for blotting out the rest of the world (not in my memory anyway) since the O. J. Simpson car chase of 1994 — and that only lasted hours.

Where’s the romance of journalism now?  Not, certainly, in watching days of those talking heads pontificating, of terror “experts” offering their remarkably pointless expertise while next to nothing was known about the suspected bombers, of listening to an endless stream of non-news or swiftly reported errors and idiocies, or of watching vast crowds of reporters cordoned off from the hope of being close to any possible story, ducking and talking breathlessly about nothing whatsoever.

Of course, since O.J., there have been memorable moments in the development of the single 24/7 media spectacle, starting with the first Gulf War in 1990, that initial TV total war with logos, high-tech graphics, nose-cone snuff films, theme music, and retired American generals (“consultants”) mimicking sports announcers analyzing the campaign that units they might once have commanded were involved in.  During the recent manhunt, however, just about every major cable channel was on it, and the networks soon followed so that for days all of TV seemed to be nothing but a vast media gaggle in the streets of Boston.  The news itself was a bizarre potage of rumor, unnamed sources with misinformation, quarter-truths, half-truths, outright inaccuracies, and god knows what else. In an age of news staff cutbacks and dropping revenue, it’s so much cheaper, of course, to focus all your media energies on one single place and any unfolding event that will glue eyeballs. It was certainly a bizarre spectacle that still needs its chronicler.

In the meantime, Gitlin, whose latest book is Occupy Nation: The Roots, the Spirit, and the Promise of Occupy Wall Street, offers a little survey of American print journalism on the way down, without a hint of romance in sight. Tom

Is the Press Too Big to Fail?
It’s Dumb Journalism, Stupid
By Todd Gitlin

Everyone knows this story, though fewer and fewer read it on paper.  There are barely enough pages left to wrap fish.  The second paper in town has shut down.  Sometimes the daily delivers only three days a week.  Advertising long ago started fleeing to Craigslist and Internet points south.  Subscriptions are dwindling.  Online versions don’t bring in much ad revenue.  Who can avoid the obvious, if little covered question: Is the press too big to fail?  Or was it failing long before it began to falter financially?

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Bill McKibben: Climate-Change Deniers Have Done Their Job Well

6:23 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

A wildfire rages.

Photo by Kaibab National Forest

Here’s the thing about climate-change deniers: these days before they sit down to write their blog posts, they have to turn on the AC. After all, it might as well be July in New York (where I’m writing this), August in Chicago (where a century-old heat record was broken in late May), and hell at the Indy 500. Infernos have been raging from New Mexico and Colorado, where the fire season started early, to the shores of Lake Superior, where dry conditions and high temperatures led to Michigan’s third largest wildfire in its history. After a March heat wave for the record books, we now have summer in late spring, the second-named tropical storm of the season earlier than ever recorded, and significant drought conditions, especially in the South and Southwest. In the meantime, carbon dioxide (and other greenhouse gases) continue to head for the atmosphere in record quantities. And in case anyone living in a big city doesn’t know it, heat can kill.

It’s true that no single event can be pinned on climate change with absolute certainty. But anyone who doesn’t think we’re in a fierce new world of weather extremes — and as TomDispatch regular Bill McKibben has suggested, on an increasingly less hospitable planet that he calls Eaarth – is likely to learn the realities firsthand soon enough. Not so long ago, if you really wanted to notice the effects of climate change around you, you had to be an Inuit, an Aleut, or some other native of the far north where rising temperatures and melting ice were visibly changing the landscape and wrecking ways of life — or maybe an inhabitant of Kiribati. Now, it seems, we are all Inuit or Pacific islanders. And the latest polling numbers indicate that Americans are finally beginning to notice in their own lives, and in numbers that may matter.

With that in mind, we really do need a new term for the people who insist that climate change is a figment of some left-wing conspiracy or a cabal of miscreant scientists. “Denial” (or the more active “deniers”) seems an increasingly pallid designation in our new world. Consider, for instance, that in low-lying North Carolina, a leading candidate for disaster from globally rising sea levels, coastal governments and Republicans in the state legislature are taking action: they are passing resolutions against policies meant to mitigate the damage from rising waters and insisting that official state sea-level calculations be made only on the basis of “historic trends,” with no global warming input. That should really stop the waters!

In the meantime, this spring greenhouse-gas monitoring sites in the Arctic have recorded a startling first: 400 parts per million of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. It’s an ominous line to cross (and so quickly). As in the name of McKibben’s remarkable organization, 350.org, it’s well above the safety line for what this planet and many of the species on it, including us, can take in the long term, and heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere are still on the rise. All of this is going to get ever harder to “deny,” no matter what resolutions are passed or how measurements are restricted. In the meantime, the climate-change deniers, McKibben reports, are finally starting to have troubles of their own. Tom

The Planet Wreckers
Climate-Change Deniers Are On the Ropes — But So Is the Planet

By Bill McKibben

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William Astore: Hail to the Cheerleader-in-Chief!

6:19 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

F-35 jet. Photo by Rob Shenk.

Let’s start with this: according to the Pentagon, the production and acquisition costs of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 fighter jet, the military’s most expensive weapons program, have risen yet again, this time by 4.3% since 2010 to $395.6 billion. If you’re talking about the total cost of the system, including maintenance and support for the nearly 2,500 planes that will some (endlessly delayed) day be produced for the military, that has now reached an estimated $1.51 trillion, a 9% rise since 2010. All this for a plane that some experts doubt has any particular purpose in the future U.S. arsenal.

At last, however, the House of Representatives seems to have had enough of wasteful spending programs. Perhaps its members also read the recent poll that shows Americans generally support more funds for the Defense Department — until, that is, they are told just how much is spent on defense compared to other budget items. Then, 75% of them (67% of Republicans) back significant cuts, an average of 18%, in that budget to reduce the federal deficit.

Whatever the explanation, last week the Republican-dominated House finally took out the pruning shears and acted with remarkable decisiveness. They sent a bill to the Senate cutting $310 billion from the deficit over the next decade. The F-35 program went down in flames.

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Rebecca Solnit: Why the Media Loves the Violence of Protestors and Not of Banks

7:39 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This article originally appeared at TomDispatch. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

In December 2001, 110 of 112 revelers at a wedding died, thanks to a B-52 and two B-1B bombers using precision-guided weapons to essentially wipe out a village in Eastern Afghanistan (and then, in a second strike, to take out Afghans digging in the rubble). The incident got next to no attention here. It wasn’t, after all, a case of American “violence,” but a regrettable error. No one thought to suggest that the invasion of Afghanistan should be shut down because of it, nor was it discredited due to that mass killing.

It had been a mistake. As would be the case with those other weddings obliterated by U.S. air power in Iraq and Afghanistan in the years to come. As were the funerals and baby-naming rites blasted away in those later years. As have been, more recently, the more than 60 children killed by CIA drone strikes in the Pakistani tribal borderlands, the funerals hit by those same drones, and the recently documented secondary strikes — as in that December 2001 attack — on rescuers trying to pull the wounded out of the rubble.

None of this, of course, gets significant attention here. Despite the pleas of Afghan President Hamid Karzai, few here suggest shutting down U.S. and NATO air operations in that country because of violence against civilians. There are few cries of horror for the eight Afghan sheepherders, none out of their teens, one possibly as young as six, who were killed by a NATO air strike in Kapisa Province just the other day. There are no major editorials or front-page media stories calling for the U.S. and its allies to mend their violent ways or change their policies because of them. It’s certainly not popular to suggest that such acts might discredit American policy abroad.

Yet, as TomDispatch regular Rebecca Solnit points out, “violence” within and by the Occupy movement in this country — we’re talking about several sexual assaults in Occupy camps, a suicide, drug use, and a small amount of property damage, bottles thrown, and the like by outliers at Occupy demonstrations — has in certain quarters somehow been enough to discredit the movement, even in some cases to paint it as a kind of living nightmare. Such violence, minimal as it might have been, instantly discredited Occupy on the American landscape.

This, mind you, in a society in which 14,000 murders were committed in 2011, in which more than 30,000 people died in traffic accidents, in which a recent Pentagon report indicated that violent sexual crimes in the military have risen by 64% since 2006 (95% against women, even though they make up only 14% of the force’s personnel). And yet somehow, neither weapons, nor cars, nor the U.S. military is discredited by such violence.

It would, in fact, be surprising to imagine that a movement whose camps actually welcomed, housed, and fed those essentially thrown away by this society would lack problems. In truth, Occupy should have been hailed for its assault on violence at every level in this society. Nothing could be more striking in Solnit’s piece than the statistic she cites on the remarkably unnoticed drop in violence in Oakland, California, in the weeks before Occupy Oakland itself was violently assaulted by that city’s police force. Tom Read the rest of this entry →

Tom Engelhardt: The 1% Election

7:28 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

One Percent
One Percent Seal of Approval

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com. To receive TomDispatch in your inbox three times a week, click here.

Sometimes words outlive their usefulness.  Sometimes the gap between changing reality and the names we’ve given it grows so wide that they empty of all meaning or retain older meanings that only confuse us.  “Election,” “presidential election campaign,” and “democracy” all seem like obvious candidates for name-change.

I thought about this recently as President Obama hustled around my hometown, snarling New York traffic in the name of Campaign 2012.  He was, it turned out, “hosting” three back-to-back fundraising events: one at the tony Gotham Bar and Grill for 45 supporters at $35,800 a head (the menu: roasted beet salad, steak and onion rings, with apple strudel, chocolate pecan pie, and cinnamon ice cream — a meal meant to “shine a little light” on American farms); one for 30 Jewish supporters at the home of Jack Rosen, chairman of the American Jewish Congress, for at least $10,000 a pop; and one at the Sheraton Hotel, evidently for the plebes of the contribution world, that cost a mere $1,000 a head. (Maybe the menu there was rubber chicken.)

In the course of his several meals, the president pledged his support for Israel (in the face of Republican charges that he is eternally soft on the subject), talked about “taxes and the economy” to his undoubtedly under-taxed listeners, and made this stirringly meaningless but rousing comment: “No matter who we are, no matter where we come from, we’re one nation.  We’re one people. And that’s what’s at stake in this election.”

Outside his final event, Occupy Wall Street protesters saw something else at stake, dubbing him the “1% president.”  The end result from a night’s heavy lifting: $2.4 million for his election campaign and the Democratic National Committee, nowhere close to 1% of what they will need for the next year.

These were the 67th, 68th, and 69th fundraisers attended by Obama so far in 2011, or the 71st, 72nd, and 73rd.  (It depended on who was counting.) In either case, we’re talking about approximately one fundraiser every five days, a total of 6% of the events in which Obama took part in this non-election year.

Think about that.  You vote for the president to spend some part of 20% of his days raising money for his own future from the incredibly wealthy.  Or put another way, the Washington Post now estimates that if you add in the non-fundraising, election-oriented events that involve him — 63 so far in 2011 — perhaps 12% of his time is taken up with campaign efforts of one sort or another; and this is what he’s been doing 12 to 24 months before the election is scheduled to happen. Read the rest of this entry →

Tomgram: Engelhardt, Two-Faced Washington

7:04 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

Lowering America’s War Ceiling?
Imperial Psychosis on Display

By Tom Engelhardt

By now, it seems as if everybody and his brother has joined the debt-ceiling imbroglio in Washington, perhaps the strangest homespun drama of our time.  It’s as if Washington’s leading political players, aided and abetted by the media’s love of the horserace, had eaten LSD-laced brownies, then gone on stage before an audience of millions to enact a psychotic spectacle of American decline.

And yet, among the dramatis personae we’ve been watching, there are clearly missing actors.  They happen to be out of town, part of a traveling roadshow.  When it comes to their production, however, there has, of late, been little publicity, few reviewers, and only the most modest media attention.  Moreover, unlike the scenery-chewing divas in Washington, these actors have simply been going about their business as if nothing out of the ordinary were happening.

On July 25th, for instance, while John Boehner raced around the Capitol desperately pressing Republican House members for votes on a debt-ceiling bill that Harry Reid was calling dead-on-arrival in the Senate, America’s new ambassador to Afghanistan, Ryan Crocker, took his oath of office in distant Kabul.  According to the New York Times, he then gave a short speech “warning” that “Western powers needed to ‘proceed carefully’” and emphasized that when it came to the war, there would “be no rush for the exits.”

If, in Washington, people were rushing for those exits, no chance of that in Kabul almost a decade into America’s second Afghan War.  There, the air strikes, night raids, assassinations, roadside bombs, and soldier and civilian deaths, we are assured, will continue to 2014 and beyond.  In a war in which every gallon of gas used by a fuel-guzzling U.S. military costs $400 to $800 to import, time is no object and — despite the panic in Washington over debt payments — neither evidently is cost.

In Iraq, meanwhile, in year eight of America’s armed involvement, U.S. officials are still wangling to keep significant numbers of American troops stationed there beyond an agreed end-of-2011 withdrawal date.  And the State Department is preparing to hire a small army of 5,000-odd armed mercenaries (with their own mini-air force) to keep the American “mission” in that country humming along to the tune of billions of dollars.

In Libya, the American/NATO war effort, once imagined as a brief spasm of shock-‘n’-awe firepower that would oust autocrat Muammar Gaddafi in a nanosecond, is now in its fifth month with neither an end nor a serious reassessment in sight, and no mention of costs there either.  In Yemen and Somalia, the drones, CIA and military, are being sent in, and special operations forces built up, while in the region a new base is being constructed and older ones expanded in the never-ending war against al-Qaeda, its affiliates, wannabes, and any other nasties around. (At the same time, the Obama administration is leaking information that the original al-Qaeda teeters at the edge of defeat, even as it intensifies the CIA’s drone war in the Pakistani tribal borderlands.)  And further expansion of the war on terror — watch out, al-Qaeda in North Africa! — seems to be a given.

Meanwhile back in Washington — not, mind you, the Washington of the debt-ceiling crisis, but the war capital on the banks of the Potomac — national security spending still seems to be on an upward trajectory.  At $526 billion (without the costs of the Afghan and Iraq wars added in), the 2011 Pentagon budget is, as Lawrence Korb, former assistant secretary of defense under President Ronald Reagan, has written, “in real or inflation adjusted dollars… higher than at any time since World War II, including the Korean and Vietnam Wars and the height of the Reagan buildup.”  The 2012 Pentagon budget is presently slated to go even higher.

Senator John McCain recently raised the question of Pentagon spending in tight times with General Martin Dempsey, the newly nominated chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.  He asked about a plan proposed by President Obama to cut $400 billion in Pentagon funds over twelve years, as well as proposals kicking around Congress for cutting up to $800 billion over the same period.

General Dempsey replied, “I haven’t been asked to look at that number. But I have looked and we are looking at $400 billion.  Based on the difficulty of achieving the $400 billion cut, I believe achieving $800 billion would be extraordinarily difficult and very high risk.”

In little of the reporting on this was it apparent that Obama’s $400 billion in Pentagon “cuts” are not cuts at all — not unless you consider an obese person, who continues eating at the same level but reduces his dreams of ever grander future repasts, to be on a diet.  The “cuts” in the White House proposal, that is, will only be from projected future Pentagon growth rates.  Nor were the “savings” of up to one trillion dollars over a decade being projected by Senator Harry Reid as part of his deficit-reduction plan cuts either, not in the usual sense anyway.  They are expected savings based largely on the prospective winding down of America’s wars and, like so much funny money, could evaporate with the morning dew. (In his last minute deal with John Boehner, President Obama’s Pentagon “savings” have, in fact, been reduced to a provisional $350 billion over 10 years.)

So here’s a question at a moment when financial mania has Washington by the throat: How would you define the state of mind of our war-makers, who are carrying on as if trillion-dollar wars were an American birthright, as if the only sensible role for the United States was to eternally police the planet, and as if garrisoning U.S. troops, corporate mercenaries, and special operations forces in scores and scores of countries was the essence of life as it should be lived on this planet?

When I was kid, I used to be fascinated by a series of ads filled with visual absurdities, in which, for instance, five-legged cows floated through clouds.  Each ad’s tagline went something like: What’s wrong with this picture? 

So imagine two worlds, both centered in Washington.  In one, they’re heading for the exits, America’s credit rating is in danger of being downgraded, jobs are disappearing, infrastructure is eroding, homeownership levels are falling rapidly, foreclosures are sky-high, times are bad, and even the president admits that the political system designated to make things better is “dysfunctional”; in the other, the exits are there, but there’s no rush to use them, not with those global ramparts to be guarded, those wars to be fought, and a massive national security complex — larger than anything ever imagined when the U.S. still faced a nuclear-armed superpower enemy — to feed and cultivate.

Now tell me: What’s wrong with this picture?

Two worlds, two productions, one over-the-top and raising fears of bankruptcy, the other steady as she goes — and (so it seems) never the twain shall meet.  And yet look again and those two worlds will fuse before your eyes, those two Washingtons will meld into a single capital city.  Then it will be clearer that the actors at center stage and those traveling in the provinces are putting on linked parts of a single performance. The financial problems of one will turn out to be inextricably linked to the other; the lack of an effective stimulus package in the first connected to the endless series of stimulus packages — all that failed “nation-building” in the imperium — in the second.

Like some Roman god, it turns out that schizophrenic Washington has two faces, each reflecting a different aspect of American decline.  In one, everybody can spot the madness.  In the other, it’s less evident, even though untold American treasure — literally trillions of dollars communities here desperately need — has been poured into a series of wars, conflicts, and war preparations without a victory, or even a significant success on the horizon.  (Greeted as if World War II had been won, the killing of Osama bin Laden should have been a reminder of the success of the Global War on Terror for a man with few “troops” and relatively modest amounts of money who somehow managed to land Washington in a financial and military quagmire.)

One American world, one Washington, is devouring the other.  Think of this as the half-hidden psychodrama of this American moment.

Put another way, for months Americans have been focused on raising that debt ceiling, as onscreen countdown clocks ticked away to disaster.  In the process, few have asked the obvious question: Isn’t it time to lower America’s war ceiling?

Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The End of Victory Culture, runs the Nation Institute’s TomDispatch.com. His latest book is The American Way of War: How Bush’s Wars Became Obama’s (Haymarket Books).

Copyright 2011 Tom Engelhardt

Tomgram: Mike Davis, The Coming Economic Disaster

8:49 am in Uncategorized by Tom Engelhardt

This story originally appeared at TomDispatch.com

When it comes to the Murdoch scandal, where everyone’s having such a rollicking good time, it hasn’t been particularly hard for reporters, pundits, and commentators to connect a few dots, even across an ocean.  Yes, you can find actual experts claiming in print and online that what’s happening to Murdoch & Co. in England might affect the American part of his imperial media conglomerate, and that it’s even possible the whole structure of his world could be on a collision course with itself and hell.

When it comes to something larger and far less enjoyable though, like the global economy, you would be hard-pressed to find a similar connecting of the dots.  China’s economy soars on one side of the planet (though with a multitude of half-hidden problems), while that country continues to outpace all others when it comes to holding U.S. debt. On the other side of the same planet, from Greece and Ireland to Spain and Italy, Europe shudders and fears run wild.  Meanwhile, back in the U.S., the president and Congress have headed the economy merrily for the nearest cliff, while money is lacking even to keep court systems running in some parts of the country.

On all of this there is much reporting, much opining, many fears expressed, numerous teeth gnashed.  Yet even when such pieces sit near each other on the same page or follow each other on the TV news, they are, with rare exceptions, treated as if they were remarkably separate problems, remarkably separate crises.  And those long-distant days of the 1990s, when it was said everywhere that “globalization” was weaving our world into a single, vast economic mechanism, are now mere memory pieces.

And yet, what goes up…

Don’t even say it!  Call it blindness, denial, what you will, but economically speaking, dots everywhere are almost religiously not connected, and so the thought that the global system itself might fail (as systems sometimes do) never quite manages to arise.  Thank heavens, then, for Mike Davis, TomDispatch regular and author of Planet of Slums (and other books too numerous to mention), a man who has never seen a set of dots he didn’t care to connect.  So take a break from denial for the following… (To catch Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Davis discusses a possible Chinese real estate crash and other perils of the global economic system, click here, or download it to your iPod here.) Tom

*****

Crash Club
What Happens When Three Sputtering Economies Collide?

By Mike Davis

When my old gang and I were 14 or 15 years old, many centuries ago, we yearned for immortality in the fiery wreck of a bitchin’ ’40 Ford or ’57 Chevy.  Our J.K. Rowling was Henry Felsen, the ex-Marine who wrote the bestselling masterpieces Hot Rod (1950), Street Rod (1953), and Crash Club (1958).

Officially, his books — highly praised by the National Safety Council — were deterrents, meant to scare my generation straight with huge dollops of teenage gore.  In fact, he was our asphalt Homer, exalting doomed teenage heroes and inviting us to emulate their legend.

One of his books ends with an apocalyptic collision at a crossroads that more or less wipes out the entire graduating class of a small Iowa town.  We loved this passage so much that we used to read it aloud to each other.

It’s hard not to think of the great Felsen, who died in 1995, while browsing the business pages these days. There, after all, are the Tea Party Republicans, accelerator punched to the floor, grinning like demons as they approach Deadman’s Curve.  (John Boehner and David Brooks, in the back seat, are of course screaming in fear.)

The Felsen analogy seems even stronger when you leave local turf for a global view.  From the air, where those Iowa cornstalks don’t conceal the pattern of blind convergence, the world economic situation looks distinctly like a crash waiting to happen.  From three directions, the United States, the European Union, and China are blindly speeding toward the same intersection.  The question is: Will anyone survive to attend the prom?

Shaking the Three Pillars of McWorld

Let me reprise the obvious, but seldom discussed. Even if debt-limit doomsday is averted, Obama has already hocked the farm and sold the kids. With breathtaking contempt for the liberal wing of his own party, he’s offered to put the sacrosanct remnant of the New Deal safety net on the auction bloc to appease a hypothetical “center” and win reelection at any price.  (Dick Nixon, old socialist, where are you now that we need you?)

As a result, like the Phoenicians in the Bible, we’ll sacrifice our children (and their schoolteachers) to Moloch, now called Deficit.  The bloodbath in the public sector, together with an abrupt shutoff of unemployment benefits, will negatively multiply through the demand side of the economy until joblessness is in teenage digits and Lady Gaga is singing “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime?”

Lest we forget, we also live in a globalized economy where Americans are consumers of the last resort and the dollar is still the safe haven for the planet’s hoarded surplus value.  The new recession that the Republicans are engineering with such impunity will instantly put into doubt all three pillars of McWorld, each already shakier than generally imagined: American consumption, European stability, and Chinese growth.

Across the Atlantic, the European Union is demonstrating that it is exclusively a union of big banks and mega-creditors, grimly determined to make the Greeks sell off the Parthenon and the Irish emigrate to Australia.  One doesn’t have to be a Keynesian to know that, should this happen, the winds will only blow colder thereafter.  (If German jobs have so far been saved, it is only because China and the other BRICs — Brazil, Russia, and India — have been buying so many machine tools and Mercedes.)

Boardwalk Empire Times 160

China, of course, now props up the world, but the question is: For how much longer?  Officially, the People’s Republic of China is in the midst of an epochal transition from an export-based to a consumer-based economy.  The ultimate goal of which is not only to turn the average Chinese into a suburban motorist, but also to break the perverse dependency that ties that country’s growth to an American trade deficit Beijing must, in turn, finance in order to keep the Yuan from appreciating.

Unfortunately for the Chinese, and possibly the world, that country’s planned consumer boom is quickly morphing into a dangerous real-estate bubble.  China has caught the Dubai virus and now every city there with more than one million inhabitants (at least 160 at last count) aspires to brand itself with a Rem Koolhaas skyscraper or a destination mega-mall.  The result has been an orgy of over-construction.

Despite the reassuring image of omniscient Beijing mandarins in cool control of the financial system, China actually seems to be functioning more like 160 iterations of Boardwalk Empire, where big city political bosses and allied private developers are able to forge their own backdoor deals with giant state banks.

In effect, a shadow banking system has arisen with big banks moving loans off their balance sheets into phony trust companies and thus evading official caps on total lending. Last week, Moody’s Business Service reported that the Chinese banking system was concealing one-half-trillion dollars in problematic loans, mainly for municipal vanity projects.  Another rating service warned that non-performing loans could constitute as much as 30% of bank portfolios.

Real-estate speculation, meanwhile, is vacuuming up domestic savings as urban families, faced with soaring home values, rush to invest in property before they are priced out of the market.  (Sound familiar?)  According to Business Week, residential housing investment now accounts for 9% of the gross domestic product, up from only 3.4% in 2003.

So, will Chengdu become the next Orlando and China Construction Bank the next Lehman Brothers?  Odd, the credulity of so many otherwise conservative pundits, who have bought into the idea that the Chinese Communist leadership has discovered the law of perpetual motion, creating a market economy immune to business cycles or speculative manias.

If China has a hard landing, it will also break the bones of leading suppliers like Brazil, Indonesia, and Australia.  Japan, already mired in recession after triple mega-disasters, is acutely sensitive to further shocks from its principal markets.  And the Arab Spring may turn to winter if new governments cannot grow employment or contain the inflation of food prices.

As the three great economic blocs accelerate toward synchronized depression, I find that I’m no longer as thrilled as I was at 14 by the prospect of a classic Felsen ending — all tangled metal and young bodies.

Mike Davis teaches in the Creative Writing Program at the University of California, Riverside.  He is the author of Planet of Slums, among many other works.  He’s currently writing a book about employment, global warming, and urban reconstruction for Metropolitan Books.  To listen to Timothy MacBain’s latest TomCast audio interview in which Davis discusses a possible Chinese real estate crash and other perils of the global economic system, click here, or download it to your iPod here.

Copyright 2011 Mike Davis

[Note for Readers: A sample passage from Henry Felsen’s 1950 novel Hot Rod:

"The crushed pile of twisted metal that had once been My-Son-Ralph's Chevy was on its back in the ditch, its wheels up like paws of a dead dog. Two of the wheels were smashed, and two were turning slowly. Something that looked like a limp, ripped-open bag of laundry hung halfway out of a rear window. That was Marge.

"The motor of Ralph's car had been driven back through the frame of the car, and its weight had made a fatal spear of the steering column. Somewhere in the mashed tangle of metal, wood and torn upholstery was Ralph. And deeper yet in the pile of mangled steel, wedged in between jagged sheet steel on one side, and red hot metal on the other, was what had been the shapely black head and dainty face of LaVerne.

"Walt's car had spun around after being hit, and had rolled over and along the highway. It had left a trail of shattered glass, metal, and dark, motionless shapes that had been broken open like paper bags before they rolled to a stop. These had been Walt's laughing passengers. Pinned inside his wrecked car, beyond knowing that battery acid ran in his eyes, lay Walt Thomas. Somehow the lower half of his body had been twisted completely around, and hung by a shred of skin."]