Folly Writ Large

13 06 2011

I sometimes despair at the pathetic attention span so often demonstrated by my fellow Americans.

In the past few weeks, a great many important things have been happening all over the world. The government of Syria has been using increasingly brutal means of crushing dissent, lest Bashar al Assad go the way of ben Ali and Mubarak. In doing so, Assad has brought his people ever closer to the precipice of open revolt. Open revolt is already underway in Yemen, where a rebel attack on a mosque seriously injured Yemen’s embattled president. Also in Yemen, the not-very-covert US campaign to attack anything remotely resembling Al Qaeda with air strikes and drone attacks has been accelerated, in an attempt to do as much damage to Al Qaeda in Yemen before what’s left of the government there collapses. NATO is increasing the number and frequency of air strikes in Libya, trying to kill Muammar Ghaddafi without technically trying to kill him. The government of Russia is steadily returning to the old Soviet ways, even ordering several hundred leather trenchcoats reminiscent of the old NKVD uniforms. North Korean shipping has been intercepted trying to transport arms to Burma/Myanmar in violation of a couple of different UN resolutions. Mexico is sliding farther into anarchy near the US border, with drug cartels making war on the government through assassination and open conflict- some of which is spilling across the border into the US.

Here at home, various police agencies have been alienating the citizens they supposedly serve through violent raids on non-violent suspects. Even such agencies as the Department of Education have SWAT units to carry out such assaults on private citizens. Police officers all over the country assault, rape, beat, maim, and kill US citizens without significant consequences beyond a few days suspension with pay, for the most part. Every single report commissioned by the government on the status of the “war on drugs” has repeatedly demonstrated that our decades-long attempt to recreate Prohibition has had exactly the same results as the original Prohibition: a supremely profitable environment for organized crime, millions of Americans thrown into prisons for ridiculous reasons, widespread violations of civil and Constitutional rights, and hundreds of billions of dollars poured down a rat hole for no measurable gain. Drugs are more readily available, cheaper, and are of a higher quality than before the “war on drugs” got kicked off by Tricky Dick Nixon in a vain attempt to distract the public from the unpopular real war in Vietnam. Despite this abject failure, there is no end in sight to the war on drugs. The FBI has been given wider powers to spy on American citizens for any reason at all without the bother of opening a formal investigation- effectively putting the US and Russia on equal moral footing as the Hoover-era Feebs were but pale reflections of the NKVD.

These things have all largely gone unnoticed by most Americans because their attention was elsewhere. What could possibly have so thoroughly distracted the public’s miniscule attention span? A US Congressman sent pictures of his schlong to a woman not his wife. Horror of horrors! That’s just … just … utterly and completely fucking lame.

What the fuck is wrong with you people? Are you all so fat, dumb, and happy that you are willing to allow our Republic to drift slowly into authoritarianism so long as there’s something salacious on TV? Millions of Americans shed their blood over the past two hundred years or so to secure freedom for their descendants, but those descendants are too busy watching the antics of various attention whores to notice as that freedom is slowly and inexorably stolen by their own elected representatives. Our elected officials- from both parties- are gradually taking away all of our cherished liberties in their blind pursuit of money and power for themselves and their cronies, and you can’t be bothered to pay attention because American Idol is on? If the Founders were alive today, they’d die again from shame at what apathetic, easily distracted simpletons their countrymen have become.

The liberties of our country, the freedoms of our civil Constitution are worth defending at all hazards; it is our duty to defend them against all attacks. We have received them as a fair inheritance from our worthy ancestors. They purchased them for us with toil and danger and expense of treasure and blood. It will bring a mark of everlasting infamy on the present generation– enlightened as it is– if we should suffer them to be wrested from us by violence without a struggle, or to be cheated out of them by the artifices of designing men.Samuel Adams

The greatest defense our country has against government tyranny is a well-informed and educated electorate. That defense has been weakened over the past fifty or so years by generations of Americans who care more for their rights than their responsibilities as citizens. Less than half of those eligible to vote do so in any given election. Because of this, our political processes have been hijacked by a vocal minority who regularly vote. In an election with a larger voter turnout, the fanatics on either side would be marginalized by the vastly larger number of moderates from both political parties. With a smaller voter turnout, the votes of that vocal minority of utter whackjobs have a far larger proportional influence than their demographic statistics ordinarily deserve. With lunatics and madmen at either end of the political spectrum  exerting ever-greater influence on our political leaders, our national political discourse has become increasingly polarized to moronic extremes. That fanaticism in politics disgusts and repels more and more moderates, leaving the loonies at either extreme increasingly in charge of the asylum. And so the vicious cycle continues unabated.

Bad officials are elected by good citizens who do not vote. – George Jean Nathan

What can you do about it? VOTE, you lazy bastards! Vote in every election. Find a moderate in your local area and elect him or her to whichever position is up for election. If there aren’t any moderates on the ballot, find one and start a write-in campaign. Do this often enough at the local level and it will become easier to do at the state and federal level, too. The best way to drive the shrill fundamentalists out of the political process is to vote down their extremist agenda at every turn. Vote against every incumbent. Those in office are growing fat at our expense- kick the bastards out.

People often say that, in a democracy, decisions are made by a majority of the people.  Of course, that is not true.  Decisions are made by a majority of those who make themselves heard and who vote – a very different thing.Walter H. Judd

We, the People, are supposed to be running this country. That only works if we, the People, get off our ever-fattening behinds and do our duty as citizens. There’s more to citizenship than your rights and paying taxes- you also have a responsibility to serve your country by voting in elections and taking a turn as a juror. We seem to have forgotten that our rights are balanced by responsibilities. Out of sheer laziness, too many Americans have allowed the government to take over far too many of those responsibilities. Thus, we have also granted our government the responsibility to take care of our rights, and governments are demonstrably unwilling to do so if it conflicts with the pursuit of power and wealth.

Those who seek absolute power, even though they seek it to do what they regard as good, are simply demanding the right to enforce their own version of heaven on earth. And let me remind you, they are the very ones who always create the most hellish tyrannies. Absolute power does corrupt, and those who seek it must be suspect and must be opposed.Barry Goldwater

And so, our Republic dies the death of a thousand cuts. Not with a bang, nor with a whimper, but with the self-satisfied sighs of millions of indolent citizens who cannot be bothered to pay attention as their elected representatives sell their future for short-term gains.

The most important political office is that of the private citizen. – Louis Brandeis

Current status: Pissed off

Current music: I Will Follow You Into the Dark by Death Cab for Cutie

The Shores of Tripoli

7 03 2011

A most un-civil war is going on in Libya. It hasn’t been getting a great deal of press here in the States, but the rest of the world is watching.

By the way, There are somewhere on the order of two hundred different ways to spell the name of the Libyan leader, and the man has been known to use at least three different variations of the spelling himself, so I’m not gonna get into it. I’ll use the spelling I got from Al Jazeera over the weekend and stick with that. Feel free to get outraged or annoyed by my choice.

After more than four decades, a lot of the people in Libya have finally had enough of the “Brother Leader”. Most of the eastern half of the country is in open revolt, and Qaddafi’s influence appears to be mainly limited to the area immediately around Tripoli and a few partisan strongholds such as his home town of Sirte. Here’s a map:

The map belies the real picture, of course. Libya only has about six million people, and two million of them live in Tripoli. Even with that advantage, he seems to have thoroughly botched the response to the initial demonstrations last month. In the face of peaceful protests, Qaddafi sent in armed goons who had no compunction about using live munitions against their own citizens. When some of his troops refused to fire on fellow Libyans, Qaddafi reportedly had several hundred of them executed by more “loyal” troops. When he started losing control of some of his military units, he resorted to hiring mercenaries from sub-Saharan Africa. At the moment (subject to change on short notice), Qaddafi seems to have a large percentage of his core military units on his side, along with several thousand security personnel within Tripoli, an unknown number of mercenaries (many of whom seem to lack even basic military training), and the members of his home tribe, the Gaddadfa. This makes the numerical odds slightly in the rebels’ favor, offset significantly by the better training and equipment among the loyalist troops (units of which are commanded by his sons).

After managing to really piss off a significant percentage of his remaining populace, Ka-Daffy was somehow surprised when the peaceful protests turned to open revolt. The initial successes of the rebels may have been a surprise, but Qaddafi had only himself to blame. Aside from his monumentally thick-headed response to the initial protests, Qaddafi has been segregating and isolating his people for forty years to prevent any serious rivals from emerging. As an unintended consequence of his political maneuvering, the isolated segments of Libyan society finally managed to find common ground: They really hated Qaddafi’s guts, and were in no mood to accept the “Brother Leader’s” son as the new head of the government. The scattered tribes and fragmented social groups within Libya didn’t have much else to lose, either- especially after Qaddafi declared he would hunt them down house by house. Now, it’s win or die.

So far, there has been a lot of dying in Libya. Unconfirmed estimates of the death toll keep spiralling into the multiples of thousands, and Qaddafi’s remaining “loyal” military seem to be going out of their way to attack hospitals being used by the opposition. There have been documented cases of Libyan tanks firing on hospitals in rebel-held territory, and loyalist troops have been seen riding in commandeered ambulances, firing indiscriminately into crowds. Helicopter gunships and strike aircraft have also been employed against civilian populations, although these incidents are becoming less common. Qaddafi (or his advisors) might be getting leery of possible international intervention if he keeps bombing unarmed civilians, or they might just be conserving fuel and ammo in the face of arms embargoes and a huge lot of actual armed civilians to use for target practice.

A word about international intervention. A great deal of blather has been forthcoming from many quarters about the lack of a coherent international response to the de-facto civil war in Libya. Some of this blather has been coming from Libyans fighting Qaddafi, in a weird sort of mixed message Americans should be familiar with by now. The rebels are almost universally of the opinion that they do not want foreigners getting involved, followed almost immediately with plaintive queries as to why the international community is not getting involved. I heard an interview on NPR this afternoon with a man fighting Qaddafi who said firmly that Libyans did not want any foreign help, but that they would remember who did not help them. I’m pretty sure that is a textbook definition of “discontinuity of meaning”.

In reality, there is a lot the international community could do, but not a lot that the international community could do as a matter of practicality. Among the rich western nations who could waltz in a declare peace at gunpoint (and make it stick), there exists a fiction commonly referred to as “international law”. This fiction has no basis in objective reality except for the fact that those rich western nations believe it does. Confused? Don’t be.

As long as the North Americans and Europeans believe that international laws have some effect, then those international laws have an effect. That effect may be largely in preventing the Europeans and North Americans from getting mixed up in messes like Libya, but it is a real effect- whether or not other countries routinely violate those same rules when it suits them. You see, the Europeans and North Americans also violate the rules when it suits them, but they feel bad about it afterward. A lot of the populations in Europe and North America do try to make their governments at least pay lip service to international law, with varying degrees of success based upon national temperment and how bad off a given country is economically.

That brings us to a weird little episode in the Great Libyan Tragedy/Farce- the arrest and detention in Libya of six SAS troops and two junior diplomats from the UK over the weekend. I’ve never worked with the Special Air Service, but I’ve worked with some American special-forces types who have. The SAS has a well-deserved reputation for being tough, disciplined, and very, very dangerous. The only way any group of SAS troopies could get captured by Libyan security guards near Benghazi would be if the SAS were under orders not to resist. The fact that the Opposition party in Parliament has been trying to make political hay over the incident is not exactly playing fair. The Government can’t explain the actual facts in open debate, and the Loyal Opposition knows this, so they’re trying to parlay the incident into a general impression that the Government has dropped the ball in this particular foreign mess.

Speaking of foreign messes, what should the international community do about the civil war in Libya? Visibly aiding one side or the other is politically undesirable, because it sets a horrible precedent which may come back and bite the ass of the intervening country when they have internal problems. Sitting back and watching what happens, while the preferred method of statecraft throughout the last few centuries, has the disadvantage of having a ring-side seat for the odd genocide (see Rwanda and Darfur for recent examples). Furthermore, the Libyan rebels do not want a few thousand US Marines coming ashore to deal with Qaddafi for them. Even at the cost of several thousand dead young Libyans (who have next-to-no training and have been trying to overcome well-equipped regulars with enthusiasm, AK-47s, and- sometimes- sticks), I tend to agree. If Libya frees itself from Qaddafi, the Libyans deserve to do it on their terms. If they ask for help, I think we should give it to them, but I want the Libyans to win.

So, what do we do? My suggestion would be to fly in planeloads of medical supplies and ambulances to Benghazi. Those cannot possibly be construed as military aid- except by that loon Qaddafi, of course. To assuage Qaddafi fears that the aircraft are bringing in only medical supplies and ambulances, allow a Libyan government observer (strictly supervised by a squad of Marines) and someone from the International Red Cross/Crescent examine each aircraft before it lifts off. So long as only medical supplies and ambulances are being delivered, there’s no harm in this program. If Qaddafi or his flunkies don’t agree or don’t like it, warn them very thoroughly that any attempt to interfere with the delivery of humanitarian aid will result in a large-scale repeat of the US bombing of Libya in 1986. In fact, every time a plane with Libyan markings comes within three hundred kilometers of one of the aid flights, NATO should destroy a few Libyan aircraft on general principles. After a couple of iterations of this program, Qaddafi will either stop or run out of aircraft.

On the ground, in the meantime, it’s turning into a meatgrinder. Qaddafi’s troops have better training and equipment, and a lot more of it. This is bad for the rebels. Unfortunately for Qaddafi, he can’t unleash all of that military might on the rebels, because a large portion of those forces are busy keeping the lid on in Tripoli and other areas controlled by the government. Pull those troops out of Tripoli to smash the rebels in Ras Lanuf, for example, and the populace in Tripoli might overwhelm the security forces left behind. All told, dear old Muamar is in a tough spot. I think that’s a good thing.


Current status: Interested

Current music: This Is Why We Fight by the Decemberists