Monday, December 31, 2012

End of the year close-out

Before the year closes out—with or without a deal preventing the “fiscal cliff”—I’m looking through my heap of scraps to find stories that require comment before I have to move on for 2013. I have time for the following:

Sheriff Joe
As one may or may not know, there had been some hope that the residents of Maricopa County in Arizona had had enough of Sheriff Joe, and would finally send him packing in his favorite pink underwear. Unfortunately, he was reelected by a small margin. His arch-foe, the Phoenix New Times, berated the Justice Department for failing to charge Arpaio with criminal civil rights violations which he and his deputies were clearly guilty of for many years. Arpaio also managed to make news when he announced that in the aftermath of the Newtown school massacre, he was establishing a 3,000-man armed “posse” of “volunteers.” Arpaio mentioned that his latest creation of rogue, racist thugs would target schools that happened to have mostly minority students; it is clear that this has less to do with the protecting school kids, but an excuse to intimidate and maybe even perform a little immigration “reform” on the side.  Perhaps if one of these gunslingers shoot an unarmed child, even the right-wing Yahoos will finally open their eyes; but I doubt it. 

Arpaio also happened to make news when he raided a home of a man who had previously been arrested on a misdemeanor charge of watching a cockfight. Arpaio apparently had his eye on the Latino man because he couldn’t bust him for anything else. A detective supposedly heard an “animal” on the premises, and since the man was allegedly not allowed to have any animals on the property (even wild ones), Arpaio rustled-up a “posse” to invade the man’s home. Now things get really interesting: One member of the posse was washed-up action figure Steven Seagal. Former washed-up “action heroes” of a right-wing political bent were not adverse to being associated with Arpaio. Lou Ferrigno—ex-bodybuilder and Bill Bixby’s alter ego in the “Incredible Hulk”—was recently sworn into Arpaio’s “posse” as a volunteer immigration hoodlum flexing his flabby muscles in front of frightened women and children; of course, back in the day some people thought that Ferrigno’s “acting” reflected actual mental retardation.

Anyways, the so-called “A&E” cable channel (which actually started out more about “art” than “entertainment”—and what it is now suggests how low “culture” has fallen) needed a new sheriff for Seagal to hang out with for his “reality” show Steven Seagal: Lawman, after he “resigned” as a “volunteer” deputy in the Jefferson Parish, Louisiana Sheriff’s Department, where he had the opportunity to harass Barack Obama lookalikes. Seagal didn’t actually “resign”—he hightailed out of the state to avoid charges of sexual harassment and assault. Seagal apparently hired two Russian women and an Asian woman as “assistants.” The Russian women were apparently not adverse to the job description of arousing Seagal’s rather perverse sexual needs, but the Asian woman filed charges. The victim described one of the sexual encounters thusly:

Mr. Seagal held her right foot down with his leg, and pushed her left knee up with his right hand. Mr. Seagal then forced his hand into Ms. Nguyen’s vagina. As Ms. Nguyen began sobbing, Mr. Seagal became sexually aroused and had a unique physiological reaction to sexual arousal. 

A&E—or Arpaio for that matter—did not believe that these charges warranted any adverse disruption of Seagal’s current career trajectory. Seagal neglected to mention the charges against him to Arizona authorities, explaining his departure from Louisiana by claiming that he was “on loan” to them from Jefferson Parish; it is unlikely that he would have survived this tidbit even by Sheriff Joe’s low standards. 

Meanwhile, the aforementioned raid was conducted and netted a disgruntled man and a lawsuit filed against Arpaio and Seagal. The New Times described the raid thus: 

An armored truck loaded with MCSO deputies, Seagal's producers, and cameramen smashed through the gated driveway in the front of the house, while a tank occupied by Seagal and sheriff's deputies rolled over a gate in the back.

The lawsuit says "diversionary bombs" were deployed as deputies exited the tank, and a door and a window were smashed so the MCSO could make its entrance.

Remember, we're talking about a guy who's on probation for a low-level misdemeanor, which Campos equates to "as serious as a traffic ticket."

"At least thirty" MCSO Tactical Operations Unit personnel rushed into Llovera's home in full riot gear, and arrested him without incident, the lawsuit says.

Then it was time for Llovera to sign the release to be on Seagal's television show, Lawman.

Llovera refused to sign the release, which pretty much ruined what the lawsuit calls Arpaio's urge "to subject Mr. Llovera to a very public and humiliating arrest in front of Seagal's cameras, even though he knew that Mr. Llovera had not violated any criminal statutes."

The fact that Arpaio has been repeatedly reelected suggests that the bigots who vote for him despite incidents like this really do tread a fine line between moronity and idiocy.

Selling paranoia and propaganda
Ever notice those TV, radio and Internet ads that warn you that the evil Obama is sending the country into a death spiral, but the advertiser has a secret, foolproof plan you can deploy to save yourself from Socialism-induced Armageddon?  One seller of this snake oil calls himself “Frank Bates,” and he has this “weird trick” that will help you “beat” the greedy electricity-producing corporations and the evil government which aids and abets them. For us “liberals” such statements are only true when Republicans are in charge of the government. Anyways, on Bates’ website is a video, which is mostly a simplistic narration of stick figures being scrawled by a disembodied hand. It is actually rather dull and repetitive right-wing propaganda, on and on. Eventually it gets to the “point”: Solar Energy! Wind Energy! Sounds like the kind of stuff that lefty-liberals have been pushing for years, if you ask me. 

Naturally, this information isn’t “free.” In fact, Bates doesn’t tell you anything useful until you send him money for CDs, DVDs and manuals that show you how to build your own homemade solar cells and turbine engines from parts you can buy at your local Home Depot. That’s not to say that the completed projects actually work, but then again paranoia, propaganda and conspiracy theories has always been a top seller in this country.

Social dysfunction in India
For the past two weeks the story of the brutal gang rape and subsequent death a medical student in Delhi has had the attention of the world press. The media and activists have taken the opportunity to highlight what they say is misogyny and base treatment of women in India. There is no doubt an element of truth in this, although to say that this is a common trait among all men is probably stretching reality; that women in upper castes in India are treated more “equally” than the vast majority of men, who live in poverty, in India is also true to a certain extent. As heinous as the crime is, it shouldn’t be used to ignore the depth of social dysfunction caused by India’s massive level of inequality and impoverishment that covers the whole spectrum of Indian society.

According to a story this year in the Hindustan Times, the level of poverty—always a touchy subject in a country that fosters an international image of high-tech modernity (at least to Americans)—is not precisely known, because the goal line for what constitutes poverty is always moving for arbitrary reasons, and the government has not taken on a systematic inventory or census for those who qualify for the appellation. Public begging was outlawed in Delhi, no doubt so as not to disturb the “sensitivities” of the upper castes and expose the extent of the problem of poverty. But in Delhi, private organizations estimate that 64 percent of the population lives in poverty, and in vast slums without even the most basic services, sanitary facilities or dependable water supply. As many as a quarter of the young children living in these slums are severely malnourished. One-third of children are developmentally stunted, and two-thirds suffer from nutritional anemia. Illiteracy is not surprisingly a major issue in the slums. Health care facilities are few, and local medical quacks have a steady trade. In a city of 17 million, one can well imagine the level of social dysfunction this can create. 

With social dysfunction comes crime, and a great deal of it; independent studies have shown a direct correlation between illiteracy, poverty and crime in Delhi and in other large cities in India. Crimes against women are high in Delhi, but it is only one of a category of many. While Stone Age attitudes concerning women may have played a part of the motivation of the six men arrested for the above-noted crime, inequality in India goes far beyond issues of gender, and using this crime as an excuse to ignore that, as always, only promises no solutions. 

Progressive radio no more in “progressive” Seattle
Norman Goldman’s last live radio show on Seattle’s AM 1090 Progressive Talk was last Friday. It wasn’t because he was quitting—it was because CBS Radio, starting January 2, is converting the station to a sports station, as if the two that Seattle already has isn’t enough (too much, actually). CBS apparently wants its own sports footprint in town, and who better to nudge out of the way but the allegedly low-rated “liberal” talk station. Frankly, I don’t know how radio listenership is measured; well, I do: Arbitron locally is using a “portable people meter” which is supposed to pick-up electronically what the wearer is listening to. 

However, the information the device provides is not necessarily accurate, since it can record as being listened to stations that happen to be close enough to butt-in on the signal someone is actually listening to. Another thing that I know is that nobody ever asked me what my radio listening habits are. If someone did ask me, I would say that AM 1090 receives about half of my listening attention, followed in much smaller proportion by the two sports stations and two FM stations focusing on “oldies” music. Why do I listen to “progressive” talk radio? Not just because I agree with much of what I hear, but because people actually discuss relevant issues that the mainstream corporate media tends to ignore. 

But this isn’t all “bad,” at least according to Norman. You see, “terrestrial” media is dying, and the Internet is taking over the information transmission universe. It is the same argument that states that smart phones and tablets are going to kill personal computers, and E-readers are going to kill paper bound books. I happen to think that this is all wishful thinking. According to Bookstats, 2.77 billion books and e-books were sold in 2011. Most of these are paper-bound books; although the sale of e-books doubled, they are not seen as a potential “replacement” by publishers, since the pricing structure of e-books is a huge money-loser for them. As for smart phones and tablets replacing personal computers, the former are merely good for the exchange of media, but for serious production they are next to worthless compared to your standard laptop or desktop computer. As for listening to Norman, I’m afraid to say that the radio is still the far more convenient medium in which to do so; I wouldn’t listen to him otherwise.

After January 1, there will still be talk radio in Seattle—only that it is two dedicated right-wing stations that make me nauseous  even when I have to listen for one millisecond to Limbaugh, Beck or Savage while I’m dial surfing.  

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Some odds and ends on the NFL regular season

Obviously I’m particularly not pleased how the season  concluded,  with Packers failing to secure the second seed (as if the first seed did them any good last season), but for the second straight year Aaron Rodgers finished as the top-rated quarterback, with a 108 rating.  The season had some other interesting odds and ends, although not as many as last year's passing fest.

Matthew Stafford set an NFL record with 727 pass attempts—but for all of that, only 20 TD passes.

Drew Brees threw for 5106 yards, extending his “record” as the only quarterback with multiple 5,000 yard seasons. He now has three such seasons.

Peyton Manning is, well, Peyton Manning. It should be pointed out, however, that during Denver’s 11-game winning streak, nine of those games were against teams with losing records.

Five rookie quarterbacks--Andrew Luck, Brandon Weeden, Ryan Tannehill, Robert Griffin III and Russell Wilson--threw for more than 3,000 yards. It is interesting to note that the latter two quarterbacks are "zone-read"--or "read-option" or whatever is used to define a non-standard style--and had fewer passing yards than the former three.

Andy Reid will be done in Philadelphia, and once more the belief in Michael Vick will be the cause of it. Vick had a fine season three years ago--receiving a big contract and ending Kevin Kolb's career with the Eagles. But since then he has been a bust. We've seen this story before, in Atlanta when Jim Mora Sr. was the victim/coach. Perhaps not surprisingly, there are still commentators out there who think Vick still has a future in the NFL. Not surprisingly, they say that Vick can "thrive" in the "zone-read" or "read-option" playbook. It remains to be seen if some of other "box office" stars currently playing at quarterback will have similar career trajectories.

Adrian Peterson just barely missed breaking Eric Dickerson’s NFL record for rushing yards in a season. But this has to be put in perspective; Dickerson and Peterson had the benefit of a 16-game schedule, and one is hard put to say that their seasons came close to matching O.J. Simpson’s remarkable 1973 season. That year, Simpson shattered Jim Brown’s seemingly unbreakable record, gaining 2,003 yards in a 14-game season. His average of 143.1 yards per game that year is still unmatched in NFL history; in a 16-game season, that would be 2289 yards—184 yards more that Dickerson’s total.

Luck threw for 4374 yards, besting Cam Newton’s previous rookie record by over 300 yards. The Indianapolis Colts’ 9-win improvement over last season was by far the best in the NFL. I was listening to John Clayton’s radio show on Saturday, and a Seattle fan named Dre or something came on to give his racial politics spin on the quarterback position, this time critical of Clayton’s statement that Luck probably should receive the rookie of year honors for bringing the Colts back from the abyss. The claim that Luck only won against bad teams needs a little perspective. Consider the following:

Wilson is 4-1 against teams in the playoffs; all of these wins came in Seattle, which has been a nightmare for visiting teams. But the Seahawks were 5-4 against teams that finished with losing records.

Luck is 3-2 against teams in the playoffs. But unlike Seattle, the Colts did beat the teams they were “supposed” to, despite having the worst record the previous season—8-2 against teams that finished with losing records. 

Griffin III is 2-2 against playoff teams; the Redskins were 4-2 against teams with losing records.

There is a very strong argument to be made that entering this season, Seattle was a team primed to win once they had adequate quarterback play, and there is no doubt that Wilson is a better quarterback than Tarvaris Jackson ever was or could be. Local commentators were expecting the team to make the playoffs, particularly because of their lofty expectations of Wilson. On the other hand, Indianapolis and Washington were teams that entered the season with hope rather than expectation, and few expected either team to make the playoffs in their first season with a rookie quarterback. Thus their achievements are more “impressive.”

Since Seattle will play the Redskins next week, there will obviously be interest over which of these new-fangled “zone-read” quarterbacks will remain standing.

Thursday, December 27, 2012

Cream pies not the answer to deficit problem

For those who were of that age, here is a multiple choice question: What was most likely to occur when the Three Stooges showed-up at some high society function? 

A. Erudite conversation
B. Cultural sophistication
C. Pie fight

Of course, even if you know nothing of the Three Stooges and their antics, it is not likely to be difficult to divine the correct answer. Equally true is what we’ve come to expect from the political dialogue in this country, particularly since the teabaggers took over the Republican Party. The Democratic Party has always had to compromise with its own conservative element, but the Republicans do not even have a wisp of a “moderate” element that Democrats can “work” with. Things have not changed since Mark Mardell of the BBC observed that the 2012 election was “A three-legged race with the runners struggling to go their own sweet way, while bound together by heavy chains. There will be a lot of talk of the fiscal cliff - the mutually agreed suicide pact that was meant to concentrate minds on agreement. Unless they do, the Democrats will be hit by spending cuts they don't want and the Republicans saddled with tax rises plus defense cuts that are abhorrent to them. Still chained on the edge, they seem determined to jump off the cliff, wrapped in an ugly embrace.”

You would, of course, think that the boys and girls who engaged in the previous pie fight that masqueraded as a budget deficit discussion would have learned a lesson or two. Unfortunately, the U.S. electorate saw fit to return most of the most offensive offenders (i.e. teabaggers) back to the House of Representatives, and for all practical purposes nothing much changed in the political dynamic. As before, Speaker of the House John Boehner came to an “understanding” with the president on a basic outline of a proposal, and then wilted before pressure from the anti-tax fanatics. He had hoped to smite the fanatics by removing many of them from positions of influence; unfortunately, that just made them more nasty and intransigent. 

While the president was insisting on his electoral “mandate” and polls that suggested majority support for taxing those making above the $250,000 income threshold and less violent budget cuts to social programs, Republicans have chained themselves to the philosophy of greed, privilege and indifference to the needs of the many; they have not even been able to countenance the idea of allowing the Bush era tax cuts for those making $1 million or more to sunset. Yet there is reason to believe that the Bush tax cuts were never intended to be “permanent.” George W. Bush himself should come out of his ranch closet and explain why the tax measure was given a 10-year effective life and not made a permanent tax cut. Surely he feared the potential for catastrophic budget deficits, particularly due to his foolish actions in starting two wars without the means to pay for them. 

Let’s be perfectly frank: Tax cuts are either bribes for votes—or “indirect” payments to wealthy “creditors”—but employed with a particular lack of moderation or common sense by Republicans; the actual utility of tax cuts in improving economic growth is practically nil. All the proof we need is to see little of the massive tax cuts given to the wealthy was recycled back into the economy and domestic job creation. 

And now we are faced with a situation where the president has no competent “partner” to deal with in the House. Boehner—as many of his congressional colleagues, even those who supported his attempt of a “compromise” deal with the president, have sadly observed—is completely spineless in the face of Tea Party extremism, and has completely lost face and respect in his failed attempt to show that he is someone who can be dealt with in a serious manner. Perhaps the former janitor is suffering from secret self-esteem issues that prevents him from stiffening his back. This may also explain why his two years as Speaker has produced a House that seen unmitigated incompetence, failure and sloth by its majority party.

For the Republicans, it is as it was since Obama was elected—destroy him at any cost, even if that  means the country as well. Unfortunately for them, the 2012 election demonstrated that a majority of the electorate did not blame Obama for the country’s problems, but Republicans and their mindless intransigence. Today, polls show that Obama’s approval rating far outdistances that of the Republican leadership, and most believe that Republicans are the principals standing in the way of a deal on the deficit. A majority of Americans voted to raise the tax rates of the wealthiest Americans, and now Republicans are seen more clearly as the party of the rich.

What will happen without a “deal?” Is the idea of going over the “cliff” really such a bad idea--as the BBC's Mardell suggests--or is it actually a way out of the mess? Allowing the fiscal cliff to occur would mean that with the automatic tax increases, the issue would become not tax increases but tax decreases—and who will get them. Democrats should be in a better position when the new Congress is sworn in to determine who those people should be. Of course, the cuts in government programs is also a concern, but again the Republicans stand to have the most to lose if they are seen as the enemy of the lower and middle classes by opposing the funding of needed social programs.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Even the Benghazi report’s revelation of State Department incompetence can’t stain Hillary’s “rock star” status--or will the media let it?

The Accountability Review Board—established to investigate the Benghazi attack that left the U.S. ambassador to Libya and three other Americans dead—was not equivocal about its findings: Hillary Clinton’s State Department suffered from “systematic” mismanagement, “leadership failures” and “gross security lapses.” Most people still want to blame Barack Obama and UN ambassador Susan Rice, but this almost smacks of racial bias. As a sop to Clinton’s hurt feelings after her failure to win the 2008 presidential primaries, she was allowed to run the State Department as her personal fiefdom, filling it with as many sycophants and disciples as possible. She was apparently too busy setting “records” like visiting every country on the planet, and insuring that programs that advanced her gender agenda received proper attention. 

Otherwise, Clinton’s record is a sorry mishmash of nothingness. Why did Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu slobber Clinton with praise recently in a video released by the Saban Center for Middle East Studies? Because she apparently supports the “hands-off” approach to “peace” in the Middle East.
In documents released last week, the Benghazi investigating board found that there was no delay in the administration’s response to events on the ground during and after the attack, or denied required assistance. Yet the report heavily criticized the State Department for its actions before the attack.  The department was overrun with “serious bureaucratic mismanagement” was primarily responsible for “inadequate security” at the Benghazi mission where the ambassador died of smoke inhalation after it was set afire: "Systematic failures and leadership and management deficiencies at senior levels within two bureaus of the State Department resulted in a Special Mission security posture that was inadequate for Benghazi and grossly inadequate to deal with the attack that took place." 

While the board specifically blamed the Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) and the Bureau of Near East Affairs (NEA)—both under the direction of the State Department— for an inability to reach agreement on the proper protective presence in Benghazi, it seemed loath to place blame on any one person, only suggesting “disciplinary” action for such conduct in the future.

The board admitted that the attacks were “unanticipated” in their scope and intensity. Nevertheless, it states that

Overall, the number of Bureau of Diplomatic Security (DS) security staff in Benghazi on the day of the attack and in the months and weeks leading up to it was inadequate, despite repeated requests from Special Mission Benghazi and Embassy Tripoli for additional staffing. Board members found a pervasive realization among personnel who served in Benghazi that the Special Mission was not a high priority for Washington when it came to security-related requests, especially those relating to staffing. The insufficient Special Mission security platform was at variance with the appropriate Overseas Security Policy Board (OSPB) standards with respect to perimeter and interior security. Benghazi was also severely under-resourced with regard to certain needed security equipment, although DS funded and installed in 2012 a number of physical security upgrades.

Libya—and the Middle East generally—is part of a never-ending headache for U.S. diplomacy. One ought to think that by now there is a generally understood protocol on how to insure the safety of American diplomats. The problem in Benghazi—and the rest of Libya—is that there is still no centralized authority, and the city is still little more than a lawless outpost. Another problem pointed out by the report was that there was a revolving door of personnel at the U.S. mission, and military security personnel were only present on a TDY (temporary duty) basis. This lack of a sustained presence meant that the personnel were not there long enough to fully understand and identify potential local threats. 

Although Americans were welcomed initially in Benghazi during the revolutionary phase, afterwards the security situation deteriorated, and string of “security incidents” plagued international diplomats and organizations. The Americans depended on local security, which proved to be unreliable. The attack on the U.S. compound began only minutes after a security vehicle outside the compound was “recalled” by the local ruling council—supposedly to prevent “civilian casualties.” This suggests, of course, that there was foreknowledge of the attack that was not passed on to the Americans. Yet even in the knowledge of a deteriorating security situation, the report found that  

However, in DS, NEA, and at post, there appeared to be very real confusion over who, ultimately, was responsible and empowered to make decisions based on both policy and security considerations. The DS Bureau showed a lack of proactive senior leadership with respect to Benghazi, failing to ensure that the priority security needs of a high risk, high threat post were met. At the same time, with attention in late 2011 shifting to growing crises in Egypt and Syria, the NEA Bureau’s front office showed a lack of ownership of Benghazi’s security issues, and a tendency to rely totally on DS for the latter.

What is being suggested here? Is “proactive senior leadership” referring to Clinton and her deputies? Why was it a mistake to rely on the State Department to insure that proper security was being met?

Although a full complement of five DS agents for Benghazi was initially projected, and later requested multiple times, Special Mission Benghazi achieved a level of five DS agents (not counting DoD-provided TDY Site Security Team personnel sent by Embassy Tripoli) for only 23 days between January 1-September 9, 2012. As it became clear that DS would not provide a steady complement of five TDY DS agents to Benghazi, expectations on the ground were lowered by the daunting task of gaining approvals and the reality of an ever-shifting DS personnel platform. From discussions with former Benghazi-based staff, Board members concluded that the persistence of DS leadership in Washington in refusing to provide a steady platform of four to five DS agents created a resignation on the part of post about asking for more.

While Obama (and, absurdly, Susan Rice) have taken a great deal of the heat on the Benghazi tragedy, we shouldn’t dismiss his assertion that he was not informed of the security situation confronting the Benghazi mission. The above finding suggests that the State Department decided that staffing the Benghazi mission was of a low priority, and did not take seriously the requests for additional security.

Who was ultimately responsible for this? Wasn’t it the “boss,” Hillary Clinton? Rock star Hillary has been praised to High Heaven for her “competency” and “experience.” In fact what the Benghazi report actually says is that Clinton didn’t pay attention to the minutia of her job, did not have a grasp for the delicacies of diplomacy, was completely unprepared to handle the responsibilities given her, and her inexperience in foreign affairs—which has inexplicably “enhanced” her reputation.  At same time her failures and lack of a single notable accomplishment has been deflected from her to Obama.

Clinton was scheduled to appear before a Congressional hearing on the report, but suddenly “canceled” the appointment due to a “fainting spell” that caused her to fall to the ground and hit her head, resulting in a “concussion.” Or so it is claimed. In a press release, Clinton rather meekly thanked the board for its “clear-eyed” judgments—meaning it didn’t blame her specifically, in fact her name was only mentioned once—and suggested that she would carry out its suggestions. 

This all should have been front page news, but it wasn’t. The Seattle Times hid it on the inside page in the “miscellaneous” news column. CNN barely mentioned it. Fox News took the opportunity to heap more criticism on Obama and Rice. And who comes out of this smelling like a rose instead of something foul? This story should be a major stain on Clinton’s reputation and suggest that there are serious questions about her competence. But her “rock star” status and gender politics has once more shielded her from the many failures of her tenure in office. She cannot point to a single accomplishment or initiative she can call her own that has made this a safer, more secure world. And that is the simple truth.