The Big Mo

Any American male who watches football – or baseball or basketball – knows all about it. The problem is you just cannot define it, and you cannot quantify it – it’s nothing specific. You just know it’s shifted. It’s that momentum thing – what sportscasters like to call the Big Mo. But of course sportscasters talk funny – that’s what they do as they cannot do much else (there’s a reason they call them jock-sniffs). But they are not wrong. The team that was a sorry lot of mistake-prone losers is suddenly looking good – doing the right things, being dominant. The score hasn’t changed, and it might not change, but suddenly everything is clicking for one team, and their opponents now look flat-footed and befuddled. It’s kind of like what had happened with the Democrats and Republicans over the last year or more.

 

Think about it. It wasn’t so long ago that Karl Rove was talking about the inevitable permanent Republican majority – Hugh Hewitt even wrote a book about it. Everyone knew this was going to happen, and there was a flawless plan:

 

In Rove’s alliance, the rich provide the cash, and religious conservatives provide the votes. Refuting the conventional wisdom that successful presidential candidates must lay claim to the political center, Bush has governed from the right and won re-election in 2004 with a “base-in,” rather than a “center-out,” strategy.

 

Then it all came to nothing. Somehow that team lost the momentum – their base was as fervent as ever, or even more committed, and the rich were still rich. Bush had proved you could run someone a bit dense and wholly unqualified for the presidency, a person who said embarrassingly stupid things and testily struck out at anyone who didn’t see his inherent courage, nobility and general wonderfulness. It really didn’t matter. When you have the momentum, well, anyone will do, even the strange and angry old man John McCain, and the proud to be stunningly superficial Sarah Palin. What could go wrong?

 

Well, nothing could go wrong – the base was fired up, as Obama was a socialist, a terrorist and a Muslim, and young and black and all fancy-pants smart and articulate – and the rich were still there. But the momentum was gone. Everything was clicking for the Democrats – they were the ones sinking three-point baskets one right after the other. What Republicans and Fox news said about Obama – like a defender sticking his hand in the face of the guy trying to make the impossible forty-foot jumper – didn’t seem to matter. The shot fell – all net. The Republicans still seem puzzled.

 

The Washington press corps and all the columnists and television pundits also couldn’t deal with it – and still, for the most part, cannot grasp what happened. The political talk shows still book more Republicans to Democrats by a ratio of three or four to one – the idea seems to be that Republicans are the natural leaders, the serious people, and the Democrats, as always, a sorry lot of mistake-prone losers. Well, you do not turn the Good Ship Major Meme around on a dime. People should know their roles. The Washington Generals are not supposed to beat the Harlem Globetrotters. The Cubs are not supposed to win the World Series. There’s a natural order to things. And sportscasters aren’t the only jock-sniffs.

 

But you have to pay attention to the little things. Thursday, April 23, that story of our torture program just kept rolling along. There was the op-ed by Ali Soufan – an FBI interrogator of that bad-ass terrorist Zubaydah, who seems to have actually been a minor functionary with mental problems. Soufan offers first-hand evidence of how the torture regime came to be – torture was applied to Zubaydah even though he had provided quite a bit of actionable and accurate intelligence using traditional Western interrogation techniques – winning him over and gaining his confidence. But Soufan adds an odd twist – CIA officers were in the room during the traditional interrogation tactics, and they knew he was cooperative. Those guys did not want to start torturing him and, obviously, someone higher up ordered them to do so.

 

This loops back to Judge Bybee memo’s authorization of the torture of Zubaydah that contains this:

 

The interrogation team is certain that he has additional information that he refuses to divulge. Specifically, he is withholding information regarding terrorist networks in the United States or in Saudi Arabia and information regarding plans to conduct attacks within the United States or against our interests overseas.

 

Well, duh – Soufan is proving that the CIA’s premise to Bybee was false. All the FBI interrogators and a number of CIA interrogators looking on believed Zubaydah had nothing more to tell. And Andrew Sullivan notes Bybee’s caveat:

 

We also understand that you do not have any facts in your possession contrary to the facts outlined here, and this opinion is limited to these facts. If these facts were to change, this advice would not necessarily apply.

 

Sullivan states the obvious:

 

If someone withheld information, or someone ignored that information in providing the factual basis for Bybee’s torture green light, then we have very clear proof that someone high up wanted to torture Zubaydah regardless. We also know that some have testified this was designed to prove a Saddam-Qaeda link (which did not exist).

 

To put this in plain English: We had a president determined to torture a prisoner to get false evidence on which to justify a war.

 

That wasn’t supposed to leak out. It’s more of the momentum shift. Any defense of what was done now looks flat-footed and befuddled. Oh yeah, and they also used spiders – very Orwellian. Sometime you’re playing the game and thinking you’re winning, and something changes. Everything you do looks stupid.

 

And it wasn’t always like this:

 

The West has been attacked many times before by barbarians. As someone who grew up in Southern England between London and the Channel, this was perhaps more obvious to me than to some Americans. In the countryside around my home, there were still occasional concrete constructions designed to impede Nazi tanks left rotting in the woods. My high-school playground retained its air-raid shelters (we stored our dirty books there). My great aunt was blind in one eye from a bomb blast in the blitz; my grandfather lived with a brain injury when he was a prison guard in the war and was attacked by a prison inmate during an air-raid; my mother was knocked over by the impact of a rocket at the end of the war; my parents and aunts and uncles were evacuated. Most ordinary people lived through the Blitz, a random 9/11 a week, from an army poised to invade, and turn England’s democratic heritage into a footnote in a Nazi empire.

 

As all that was happening, and as intelligence was vital, the British captured over 500 enemy spies operating in Britain and elsewhere. Most went through Camp 020, a Victorian pile crammed with interrogators. As Britain’s very survival hung in the balance, as women and children were being killed on a daily basis and London turned into rubble, Churchill nonetheless knew that embracing torture was the equivalent of surrender to the barbarism he was fighting.

 

So go to the link and read about Churchill’s head interrogator:

 

Suspects often left the interrogation cells legless with fear after an all-night grilling. An inspired amateur psychologist, Stephens used every trick, lie and bullying tactic to get what he needed; he deployed threats, drugs, drink and deceit. But he never once resorted to violence. “Figuratively,” he said, “a spy in war should be at the point of a bayonet.” But only even figuratively. As one colleague wrote: “The Commandant obtained results without recourse to assault and battery. It was the very basis of Camp 020 procedure that nobody raised a hand against a prisoner.”

 

Stephens did not eschew torture out of mercy. This was no squishy liberal: the eye was made of tin, and the rest of him out of tungsten. (Indeed, he was disappointed that only 16 spies were executed during the war.) His motives were strictly practical. “Never strike a man. It is unintelligent, for the spy will give an answer to please, an answer to escape punishment. And having given a false answer, all else depends upon the false premise.”…

 

Hell, even the Nazi Luftwaffe in wartime had higher standards. But we got Dick Cheney, as Radley Balko explains:

 

Cheney’s theory of executive power rests on the notion that only the executive can be trusted to protect national security – that the courts and the Congress are too burdened by political maneuvering, ego, and ivory tower theory to be entrusted with our safety. The irony here is that from Gitmo to Abu Ghraib to torture, the Bush administration’s utter and complete incompetence has become a more devastating counterargument to Cheney’s position than any of Bush’s critics could have conjured up themselves.

 

That’s a loss of momentum, or as Sullivan puts it:

 

It is very rare to get someone with the same stratospheric levels of arrogance and incompetence as you find in Dick Cheney. Let’s go to the tape: A war launched on false premises, a trillion dollar debt in a period of growth, a destruction of America’s moral standing, the loss of one major city (New Orleans) and the devastation of another (New York City), two horribly bungled military campaigns that have trapped his successors for decades, a political party decimated for a generation, his closest aide in jail for obstruction of justice, his own daughter and grand-child targeted by his own party as second-class citizens in the state they live in. And a war criminal. Did I miss anything?

 

Why is this man not laughed off every TV set he walks onto?

 

The reason is the notion that Republicans are the natural leaders, the serious people. Deep-seated notions take some time to shift, at least in the media. Ask Leonard Nimoy – he’ll always be Spock. Cheney will always be our Churchill – or something like that.

 

But what is this? Why it’s Shepard Smith Listening to the Fox News experts saying what was done was regrettable, but had to be done, and then pounding the table and shouting – “We are America! I don’t give a rat’s ass if it helps. We are AMERICA! We do not fucking torture!” That’s a bit of a momentum shift, and an odd clip. Perhaps Roger Ailes will have Smith gelded.

 

And then there’s the neoconservative Weekly Standard with this editorial:

 

They have endangered any American unlucky enough to find himself at the mercy of our enemies in the war on terror. They have impeded our progress in that war. More fundamentally, they traduced their mission, betrayed their fellow soldiers, and disgraced their country. Anyone up or down the chain of command who was criminally complicit should be prosecuted…

 

Okay – this is getting odd. An official proclamation by President Bush, June 26, 2003 – “I call on all governments to join with the United States and the community of law-abiding nations in prohibiting, investigating, and prosecuting all acts of torture.” Hand that man his petard.

 

But people say torture may not be good, but it works, and it isn’t really torture, because it works, or whatever. And anyone who opposes what we’ve done hates America and wants us all to die. New York magazine has the comprehensive list of just who they are (with quotes and snapshots). Duncan Black has a Deep Thought – “The United States doesn’t torture, but anyone who opposes torture is un-American.”

 

Maybe this person was un-American:

 

With each new revelation on U.S. torture in Iraq, Afghanistan and Gitmo (and who, knows, probably elsewhere), I am reminded of the chilling story of Alyssa Peterson, who I have written about numerous times in the past three years but now with especially sad relevance. Appalled when ordered to take part in interrogations that, no doubt, involved what we would call torture, she refused, then killed herself a few days later, in September 2003.

 

She had earlier been “reprimanded” for showing “empathy” for the prisoners. When the momentum was running the other way no one mentioned her.

 

Well this may help – major Republicans urging Michael Steele, the head of the Republican National Committee, to re-label Obama and the folks around him the “Democrat Socialist Party” – because it worked so well in the last election. Yep, go with the Big Mo. But everyone knows it has shifted.

 

The thing is it may have not shifted to the Democrats. David Sirota explores that here:

 

For years, the country watched its populist desire for healthcare, tax, trade and financial reform run into the reality of elite politicians handing out trillions of dollars’ worth of corporate welfare and bank bailouts as the economy collapsed. Not surprisingly, a new Rasmussen poll on attitudes toward government and corporations shows 75 percent of the country “can be classified on the populist or mainstream side of the divide” while just 14 percent “side with the political class.”

 

As if to confirm the chasm, this “political class” – consultants, politicians, lobbyists and commentators – has been denigrating populism as too overwrought to be taken seriously. Listen to a typical pundit defending AIG’s bonuses or criticizing demands for a new trade policy, and you will inevitably hear the word “populist” accompanied by the word “rage” and/or “dangerous,” followed by tributes to the status quo.

 

Maybe it shifted to the people, as they say, and he cites Georgetown University’s Michael Kazin on the elite propaganda that dismissively implies “that anger from ordinary people is emotional, coming from people who don’t understand how the economy works and are just lashing out at their social betters.” It’s a bit of a Nixon thing – but “today’s political class portrays the public’s outrage as the nation’s biggest problem, rather than what the public is justifiably outraged at.”

 

Things are just different now:

 

This is the era when “You” are Time magazine’s person of the year – an era whose information and interactivity revolution now has us looking to ourselves for direction, not officialdom’s gatekeepers. Additionally, America has lately been taught to expect results from democracy. TV viewers get to decide “American Idol” winners, Facebookers get to change their site’s bylaws, and voters get to autonomously use Obama campaign resources to win elections – and we get to do all this from outside the press clubs and smoke-filled rooms.

 

This profound rewiring of instincts and expectations is why the vilification of “populist rage” has failed as a political barbiturate, why the country still seethes, and why both parties are suddenly listening to “the people” instead of the Establishment. This is why, for instance, Republicans are staging “Tea Party” protests against federal spending and why Democrats are pushing bills to expand healthcare, reregulate Wall Street and cap executive pay – because they know the political class, however offended, can no longer stop a voter backlash.

 

So all the old stuff is now just strange:

 

Republican rallies bewail deficits the GOP manufactured, and Democrats lament deregulatory schemes they originally crafted. But no matter how hypocritical the response is, it is a response, and that represents change from decades of aloof government. It suggests a democratic renewal whereby populism – i.e., advocating what the public wants – isn’t merely one popular brand of politics, but is politics itself.

 

Now that is a change in momentum. And maybe it’s true. Even if you cannot quantify such things, you know what is happening.

 

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About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Political Momentum, Populist Outrage, Republicans in the Wilderness, Republicans Weird and Desperate, Torture, War Crimes. Bookmark the permalink.

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